On the 11th of May 2018, at 20:14 UTC the first ever block 5 Falcon 9 rocket launched Bangabandhu 1 into geosynchronous transfer orbit. Launched from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, the F9-55 (launch designation) was delayed after an automatic abort on May 10th, 1 minute before liftoff. Bangabandhu 1, a Thales Alenia Space Spacebus 4000B2 series satellite is Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite.
The block 5 has been long awaited by SpaceX fans, with many images in the news, and plenty of hints on Twitter. SpaceX has been incrementally improving and upgrading the Falcon 9 v1.2 booster design since it’s first launch in December 2015. Designed to be much easier to refurbish, with potentially 10 reuses in each booster. Previous block designs have only been able to be reused once before being decommissioned.
The Block 5 incorporates higher thrust Merlin 1D engines that have turboprop modifications that were requested by NASA. These modifications are to accommodate future potential crew launches. Another big change was mentioned in the livestream, where the pressurisation method in the second stage has been improved. After the AMOS 6 Falcon 9 explosion, the new version allows for faster, later and denser, chilled kerosene fuel loading. It also has new landing legs that can be retracted without being removed like previous Falcon 9’s. There are other changes, but they have been featured in previous designs.
The first stage had designation B1046. It burned for 2 minutes and 31 seconds, before separating ro perform reentry burns. It opened its new landing legs and landed on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, 630km downrange in the ocean. The second stage burned for 5 minutes and 43 seconds to reach parking orbit at T+8 minutes and 19 seconds. It then restarted ar T+27 minutes and 38 seconds for a 59 second long second burn that accelerated the craft to GTO.
In the 31 attempts, 25 Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy booster have been successfully recovered. Four of the landings have been on “Just Read The Instructions” off the coast of California. 10 on land at Cape Canaveral from LZ1 with another one on LZ2. 10 have landed on the autonomous drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You off the Florida coast. Nineteen individual first stages have been recovered, eleven have flown twice, with five of those ether expended or lost during their second flights. All the recovered stages have been v1.2 Falcon 9’s.
On April 25th, 2018, at 17:57 UTC a Russian Rokot/Briz KM rocket launched from Site 133, pad 3 from Plesetsk Cosmodrome. Aboard was Sentinel 3B, an Earth observing satellite, part of Europe’s Copernicus environmental monitoring network. This marks the final commercial Rokot Launch, and the final Eurokot mission. There are some more Rockot launches planned for the Russian government though, after which it is reportedly that the repurposed missile launch system will be retired.
Sentinel 3B is a Thales Alenia Space Prima Bus satellite, designed to measure ocean temperatures, colour, surface height and the thickness of sea ice. While it is over land it can measure the height of rivers and lakes, monitor wildfires, provide maps of land use and monitor vegetation. The satellite has been designed for many uses. Created for the European Space Agency, the satellite will join Sentinel 3A in orbit to symmetrically monitor the Earth. The data will be primarily fed into the Copernicus Environmental Monitoring Service, where the applications can be developed from to use the data.
The satellite carries many payloads to track the huge amount of data it is recording, these include:
OLCI (Ocean and Land Colour Instrument)
SLSTR (Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer)
SRAL (Synthetic Aperture Radar Altimeter)
MWR (Microwave Radiometer)
LRR (Laser Retroreflector)
GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System)
Thales Alenia Space was the prime contractor, responsible for constructing the spacecraft and the SRAL instrument, as well as contributing to the supply of the SLSTR instrument. Many European companies were involved in supplying the SLSTR instrument, including SELEX Galileo, RAL (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory), Jena-Optronik, Thales Alenia Space, ABSL and ESA-ESTEC. EADS CASA Espacio was contracted to provide the MWR instrument. CNES was contracted to provide the DORIS instrument.
On April 2nd, 2018 at 20:30 UTC a Falcon 9 took off from Launch complex 40 at Cape Canaveral AFB. Aboard was a refurbished Dragon capsule with CRS-14, a resupply for the ISS. This was the 14th of up to 20 CRS missions contracted with NASA, with new Crew Dragon variants soon to be used. The capsule safely reached the ISS and was docked 20 minutes earlier than planned. The cost of the mission was reported to be around $2 billion, and comes under a contract between NASA and SpaceX.
The Dragon capsule carried 2,630kg of cargo to the International Space Station, including supplies and research equipment. it has 1070 kg of science equipment, 344 kg of supplies for the crew, 148 kg of vehicle hardware, 49 kg of advanced computer equipment and 99 kg of spacewalking gear. Aboard there are a number of experiments, such as a new satellite designed to test methods of removing space debris. There are also frozen sperm cell samples, a selection of polymers and other materials, all experiments to test what happens to different items when exposed to space and microgravity.
Designated F9-53, the Falcon 9 used booster B1039.2, which previously boosted the CRS-12 mission in August 2017, where it returned to landing zone 1. As is customary, the first stage was left “sooty” from it’s first flight. It powered for 2 minutes and 41 seconds before falling back to earth. For the sixth time in the last 7 Falcon 9 launches, the first stage was purposefully expended, even though it carried landing legs and steering grid fins. As with other expenatures, the rocket went through the re-entry landing sequence, but just didn’t have anything to land on and ended up in the sea. It was the 11th flight of a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage, five of which have been purposefully expended during the second flight, only 3 first stages remain that can be reflown.
The second stage completed its burn at 9 minutes and 11 seconds after takeoff, to insert Dragon into a Low Earth Orbit inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator. The Dragon 10.2 is a refurbished spacecraft capsule that first flew during the CRS-8 mission in April 2016. CRS-14 was the third launch of a previously flown Dragon capsule. This was also the first time that both the Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 were refurbished versions on the same rocket. The docking process was carried out for around 20 minutes, and at 10:40 UTC Kanai detached the lab’s robotic arm to hook the free-flying Dragon capsule. At around 12:00 UTC Houston and Canada took control of the robotic arm and maneuvered it to the Harmony capsule of the ISS. It will be unpacked in a very slow process over a number of months.
At 14:13 UTC on March 30th 2018, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 from foggy Vandenberg Air Force Base. Although designated F9-52 this was the 51st Falcon 9 launch. Using a v1.2 variant booster, the rocket delivered 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit. This was the fifth of eight planned Iridium NEXT missions.
From Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 4 East, the first stage of the rocket lasted 2 minutes 34 seconds, separating a few seconds after. The second engine fired for 6 minutes 23 seconds. This part of the webcast was purposefully cut short due to a NOAA remote sensing licensing requirements. This is an issue with SpaceX not having the right licence to broadcast images from certain parts of space. This burn placed the rocket in a roughly 180 x 625 km parking orbit. The Thales Alenia Space satellite then deployed an hour after launch, after a second brief 11 second burn. This put the satellites into a 625km x 86.6 deg orbit.
The rocket used another “Fairing 2.0”, which is slightly larger than usual, but equipped with recovery systems. These systems include thrusters, a guidance system, and a parafoil. The ship, named Mr Steven has a large net to capture the halves of the fairing. Again, the ship failed to catch one of the fairings, due to a parachute system issue. In a tweet by Elon Musk, it was reported that the GPS guided parafoil twisted so the fairing impacted the water at high speed. He also said that SpaceX are doing helicopter drop tests to fix the issue.
Five of the six previously used Falcon 9 vehicles have been fully expended, this was the tenth flight of a previously-flown Falcon 9 first stage. Four of these ten have been purposely expended during their second flight. The first stage (B1041.2) was previously flown during the Iridium NEXT 3 launch on October 9th, 2017. It performed the 2 minute 34 second boost, and performed what SpaceX call a “simulated landing” into the ocean. SpaceX appear to be only launching a reused stages for one reflight, with the soon to launch “block 5” likely to be reused multiple times. Currently the company only have 4 first stages that might be flown, with one allocated for the upcoming CRS-14 dragon resupply mission.
On February 1st, 1958 at 03:48 UTC (January 31st at 22:48 EST), the first Juno booster launched Explorer 1 into Low Earth Orbit. It was the first satellite to be successfully launched by the United States, and the third ever, after Sputnik 1 and 2 in 1957. Launched from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s (ABMA) Cape Canaveral Missile Annex in Florida, now known as Launch Complex 26. The launch played a pivotal part in the discovery of the Van Allen Belt, Explorer 1 was the start of the Explorer series, a set of over 80 scientific satellites. Although sometimes looked over in the history of space, it guided the US space program to what it eventually became.
In 1954 The US Navy and US Army had a joint project known as Project Orbiter, aiming to get a satellite into orbit during 1957. It was going to be launched on a Redstone missile, but the Eisenhower administration rejected the idea in 1955 in favour of the Navy’s project Vanguard. Vanguard was an attempt to use a more civilian styled booster, rather than repurposed missiles. It failed fairly spectacularly in 1957 when the Vanguard TV3 exploded on the launchpad on live TV, less than a month after the launch of Sputnik 2. This deepened American public dismay at the space race. This lead to the army getting a shot at being the first american object in space.
In somewhat of a mad dash to get Explorer 1 ready, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency had been creating reentry vehicles for ballistic missiles, but kept up hope of getting something into orbit. At the same time Physicist James Van Allen of Iowa State University, was making the primary scientific instrument payload for the mission. As well this, JPL director William H. Pickering was providing the satellite itself. Along with Wernher Von Braun, who had the skills to create the launch system. After the Vanguard failure, the JPL-ABMA group was given permission to use a Jupiter-C reentry test vehicle (renamed Juno) and adapt it to launch the satellite. The Jupiter IRBM reentry nose cone had already been flight tested, speeding up the process. It took the team a total of 84 days to modify the rocket and build Explorer 1.
The satellite itself, designed and built by graduate students at California Institute of Technology’s JPL under the direction of William H. Pickering was the second satellite to carry a mission payload (Sputnik 2 being the first). Shaped much like a rocket itself, it only weighed 13.37kg (30.8lb) of which 8.3kg (18.3lb) was the instrumentation. The instrumentation sat at the front of the satellite, with the rear being a small rocket motor acting as the fourth stage, this section didn’t detach. The data was transmitted to the ground by two antennas of differing types. A 60 milliwatt transmitter fed dipole antenna with two fiberglass slot antennas in the body of the satellite, operating at 108.3MHz, and four flexible whips acting as a turnstile antenna, fed by a 10 milliwatt transmitter operating at 108.00MHz.
As there was a limited timeframe, with limited space available, and a requirement for low weight, the instrumentation was designed to be simple, and highly reliable. An Iowa Cosmic Ray instrument was used. It used germanium and silicon transistors in the electronics. 29 transistors were used in the Explorer 1 payload instrumentation, with others being used in the Army’s micrometeorite amplifier. The power was provided by mercury chemical batteries, what weighed roughly 40% of the total payload weight. The outside of the instrumentation section was sandblasted stainless steel with white and black stripes. There were many potential colour schemes, which is why there are articles models and photographs showing different configurations. The final scheme was decided by studies of shadow-sunlight intervals based on firing time, trajectory, orbit and inclination. The stripes are often also seen on many of the early Wernher Von Braun Rockets.
The instrument was meant to have a tape recorder on board, but was not modeled in time to be put onto the spacecraft. This meant that all the data received was real-time and from the on board antennas. Plus as there were no downrange tracking stations, they could only pick up signals while the satellite was over them. This meant that they could not get a recording from the entire earth. It also meant that when the rocket went up, and dipped over the horizon, they had no idea whether it got into orbit. Half an hour after the launch Albert Hibbs, Explorers System designer from JPL, who was responsible for orbit calculations walked into the room and declared there was a 95% chance the satellite was in orbit. In response, the Major snapped: “Don’t give me any of this probability crap, Hibbs. Is the thing up there or not?”.
The instrument was the baby of one of Van Allens graduate students, George Ludwig. When he heard the payload was going into the Explorer 1 (and not the Vanguard) he packed up his family and set off for JPL to work with the engineers there. He has a good oral history section on this link, talking about designing some of the first electronics in space. He was there watching the rocket launch and waiting for results. From the Navy’s Vanguard Microlock receiving station they watched the telemetry that reported the health of the cosmic-ray package. The first 300 seconds were very hopeful, with a quick rise in counting rates followed by a drop to a constant 10-20 counts per second, as expected. The calculations told them when they should hear from the satellite again, but 12 minutes after the expected time, nothing showed up but eventually, after pure silence, Explorer 1 finally reported home.
Once in orbit, Explorer 1 transmitted data for 105 days. The satellite was reported to be successful in its first month of operation. From the scientist point of view, the lack of data meant the results were difficult to conclude. The data was also different to the expectations, it was recording less meteoric dust than expected and varying amounts of cosmic radiation, and sometimes silent above 600 miles. This was figured out on Explorer 3 when they realised the counters were being saturated by too much radiation. Leading to the discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belt. Although they described the belt as “death lurking 70 miles up” it actually deflects high energy particles away from earth, meaning life can be sustained on earth. The satellite batteries powered the high-powered transmitter for 31 days, and after 105 days it sent it’s last transmission on May 23rd 1958. It still remained in orbit for 12 years, reentering the atmosphere over the pacific ocean on March 31st after 58,000 orbits.
At 17:10 UTC on the 9th of March 2018, Arianespace launched its second rocket of the year from Guiana Space Center at Kourou. Designated VS18, the Soyuz rocket launched four O3b Satellites into orbit more than 3 years after the last O3b launch. Controlled by a Russian ground crew from the Soyuz Launch Complex (ELS) near Sinnamary, there was a 33 minute delay to the start because of bad weather. The Soyuz used was a Soyuz 2-1b/Fregat placing the satellite in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO).
A somewhat complex launch, the first ascent lasted 9 minutes and 23 seconds placing the launcher in a sub orbital trajectory. After separation the Fregat performed a 4 minute burn to reach 160 x 205 km x 5.16 deg parking orbit. Coasting for 8 minutes, the Fregat performed its second burn for 8 minutes and 36 seconds to enter a 190 x 7,869 km x 3.88 deg transfer orbit. Then after a coast of 1 hour and 21 minutes to the apogee, the Fregat fired for its third and final time for 5 minutes and 6 seconds, to enter its 7,830 km x 0.04 deg insertion orbit.
After the third burn, the satellites were release two at a time, with opposite satellites released at the same time. The first were released 2 hours into launch, and the second set 22 minutes later after a short firing of the Altitude Control System. The rocket then performed 2 more burns to lower its orbit to 200 km below the O3b release point. This was a disposable orbit, intended so that it will not interfere with working satellites.
The Ka band satellites are the fourth set of O3b to be sent up, making the total constellation 16. Arianespace intend to launch the next set of four in 2019. “The new Ka-band satellites will join the existing O3b constellation to deliver high-speed connectivity to people and businesses in the growing mobility, fixed data and government markets,” Arianespace officials said in a statement. It was reported that the launch was a success, and the Luxembourg based satellite operator SES Networks now have control of the O3b’s.
The second launch of the year, Arianespace delayed the launch from the original March 6th launch date. This was postponed to conduct extra checks, likely inspired by the partial failure of the Ariane V earlier this year. On January 25th the company lost contact with the upper stage of the rocket. The 3 satellites on board did reach orbit despite the anomaly, but Arianespace have been quiet on the condition of them.
At 20:45 UTC on the 6th of February 2018 the long awaited Falcon Heavy soared up into the sky. Watching the livestream, there was something slightly different. Instead of the usual single commentator, they had four. Behind them, hundreds of SpaceX employees cheering all the way through the launch, with bigger cheers at each milestone. It was definitely long anticipated, and I even felt the impact at university. Students were going round making sure people knew that tonight was the night that the Falcon Heavy was launching. The stream didn’t disappoint space lovers, and I highly recommend watching it on the SpaceX Youtube page.
So what actually happened, why was this flight so important? The demo mission was the first firing of the full Falcon Heavy configuration. Although all the rockets had been previously fired and tested at SpaceX’s rocket test facility in McGregor, TX. Consisting of “Block 2” variant side boosters (B1023.2 and B1025.2) and a “Block 3” variant core stage (B1033.1). Both the boosters had been flown before and refurbished in Hawthorne, CA. B1023.2 was flown May 27th, 2016 for Thaicom 8 launch, landing on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. B1025.2 flew on July 18th, 2016 for the CRS-9 mission, landing at Landing Zone (now landing zone 1). It is noted that future Falcon Heavies will likely use the “Block 5” variant. Elon Musk Claims that the development of the Falcon Heavy project has cost $500 million to get to this stage.
At 20:45 UTC, the Falcon Heavy lifted off of pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre. It weighed roughly 1,400 tonnes and was 70m tall. with 2,128 pounds of thrust, the triple barreled rocket lifted off the pad with its 27 Merlin 1D engines (9 on each booster). At the time of writing it is the largest and most powerful operational rocket in use today by a factor of 2. Elon Musk gave the launch a 50-50 chance of success, but it continued through almost all of the milestones. Through Max-Q, release of boosters, and release of the main engine. The second stage performed 3 burns during the 6 hour mission to accelerate the cargo to into a heliocentric orbit. The orbit ranges from earth orbit to beyond mars (0.99 x 1.71AU). The concept of this burn was to demonstrate long coasts between the second and third burns. This ability is needed for some DoD EELV Heavy class missions, a market that SpaceX wants to compete in.
Usually on these types of initial flights they put some sort of simulated weight in the fairing (the bit that holds the payload on top) usually a block of concrete. Elon Musk being Elon saw this as a marketing opportunity, and instead used his personal 2008 cherry red Roadster, weighing in at 1,250kg. In the driver’s seat sat a full scale human mannequin named “Starman”, wearing a SpaceX branded pressure spacesuit. The person who timed the release of the fairing showing the Tesla against the backdrop of the earth, to the music of “Life of Mars” by David Bowie, deserves a medal. Although perfectly timed, it is sometimes incorrectly attributed as “Starman” by Bowie, which would make more sense when you think about it. On the dashboard of the car is the immortal words of “don’t panic”, a tribute to A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that was a clever addition. There is a livestream of the first 5 hours of Starmans trip, at which time it probably lost signal, or ran out of battery. There has been mixed reviews of this stunt. Some call it art, whereas others call it “space littering”. Some commentators such as Burnie Burns on the Roosterteeth Podcast simply don’t like the use of space for marketing purposes. Scientists at Purdue University called it “the dirtiest man-made object ever to be sent to space” due to its use driving in Los Angeles.
For me personally the most impressive part of the entire video was near to the end. SpaceX have had some famous problems with the landing of their reusable rockets, but during this mission they planned to land all three. The best shot of the entire livestream was the two boosters coming down at the same time, with the Cape in shot. Both boosters opening their landing legs, and coming down to land on Landing Zone 1 and 2. It was a truly epic sight, and from an engineers point of view, very impressive. The second pad was installed for these Falcon Heavy missions, and the boosters worked just as planned. The core was a slightly different story. It attempted to land on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. It completed its boost-back and reentry burn, but for the three-engine landing burn, two engines failed to ignite. The core ended up in the Atlantic. Smoothly brushed over, this was not mentioned on the Livestream, and not until a few hours later on Twitter. Even so, the things that did land correctly were impressive.
There has been a huge amount of excitement and skepticism about the Falcon Heavy. Some have heralded it the way Elon Musk wants to get to Mars, others just love the idea that the car will be out there for “billions of years”. Although very impressive, the Falcon heavy is really designed to be a beefier version of the Falcon 9, and will probably do the same job. SpaceX are aiming in the coming years to get more contracts from the Department of Defence, and aim to get more up into space at the same time. The Falcon Heavy is all about making it cheaper for big payloads to get to space. Although it has the capability to get to Mars, and carry people, Musk has said that there are bigger plans in the pipeline for those jobs. As for the car, according to chemist William Carroll, solar and cosmic radiation will break down most of the car within a year, leaving just the aluminium frame and maybe some glass that isn’t shattered by meteorites.
This is a big moment for SpaceX, and the space community, and shows that there are big things coming in the sector. There are big launches aimed from the big companies this year, and new rockets being unveiled in the near future. SpaceX may have just started a new space race. For all the excessive marketing that Elon Musk does, SpaceX have definitely got their marketing message right.