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 18th, 2018 at 22:51 UTC a Falcon 9 took off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral AFB. Aboard was NASA’s latest research satellite TESS. A mission that cost $337 million, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is the latest in a line of space based observatories that are set to launch this decade. Launched into an arching elliptical orbit that will take the spacecraft over two thirds of the distance to the moon. The first stage of the Falcon 9 landed on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You to be refurbished and reused.
After a 5 day checkout of the spacecraft, basically a hardware check, the ground controllers will switch on the TESS cameras. TESS is designed to scan around 85% of the sky during the two year mission, with astronomers estimating as many as 20,000 new planets could be found. It plans to build on discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler telescope which was launched in 2009 to find earth like planets. TESS carries four 16.8-megapixel cameras, and will look for dips in light coming from 200,000 preselected nearby stars. The four cameras cover a square in the sky that measures 24 x 24 degrees, wide enough to fit the Orion constellation into a single camera. the cameras together study a set area of sky for 27 days before staring at the next section.
The orbit TESS is being launched into is known as P/2, and requires time and finesse to reach. TESS will slingshot by the moon at a distance of around 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers), using gravity to reshape its orbit, increasing the satellite’s orbital perigee, or low point, to the final planned altitude of around 67,000 miles. After the lunar flyby, the high point of the satellite’s elongated orbit will stretch well beyond the moon, and another thruster firing will nudge TESS into its final orbit in mid-June. Science data is planned to start in july, with the first year of the two year campaign aimed at the stars in the southern sky. TESS has been built to have enough fuel to last 20 or 30 years, assuming funding by NASA and the components on board continue to function correctly.
Each of TESS’s cameras have four custom built re-sensitive CCD sensors designed and developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. The sensors are claimed to be the most perfect CCD’s ever flown by a science mission. The lenses used by the cameras are only about 4 inches (10mm) wide, meaning it has a fairly low light collecting power compared to other space telescopes. The James Webb Space Telescope for example launching in 2020 had a 21.3ft (6.5m) primary mirror, although the satellite has cost over $8 billion to make. TESS is a bit like a finder telescope, it will lay a bedrock for future missions such as Webb and ground based observatories to make better readings. It gives a good idea of the best places to look, where the most likely exoplanets are.
TESS works by looking at a star, in this case mainly M-dwarf stars, which are cooler than our sun. They are also known as red dwarfs and make up most of the stars in our galaxy. When a planet goes in front of the star the light received by TESS “dips” and changes slightly in colour. This change in the light it receives can tell scientists alot about the size of a planet, and other things like density and velocity. They expect TESS to find between 500 and 1,000 planets that are between one and three times the size of Earth, and 20,000 planets the size of Neptune or Jupiter. The readings will give a good idea of where to focus on and ‘follow up’ on future missions. Then missions such as JWST can probe and use more complex tools to find information such as atmospheric composition, and whether they could be habitable.
The Falcon 9 used was a v1.2 with designation F9-54. It used a brand new “Block 4” first stage. The booster designated B1045 has a clear 45 written on the side in some of the close up booster images. The fist stage boosted for 2 minutes and 29 seconds, then detaching and slowing itself down. The booster landed downrange on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. The first successful drone ship landing since October 2017. A total of 24 Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy booster stages have now been recovered in 30 attempts. Four of which were on “Just Read The Instructions” off the coast of California, ten at Cape Canaveral Landing Zone 1 and 2, and nine on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” off the Florida Coast. 18 first stages have been recovered, 11 of which have flown twice, five have been lost during their second flight. B1045 was the last brand new “Block 4” Falcon 9 booster.
Peter Beck is the CEO and founder of Rocket Lab, a US/New Zealand orbital launch provider who is trying to provide access to space for small satellites. On at 19:00 UTC on April 5th he participated in a Reddit AMA on /r/space, where he answered as many questions as he could about the Electron launch vehicle and the upcoming ‘it’s business time’ launch, as well as what the future of space access looks like. It was a good AMA, he answered lots of questions, and the full post can be found here. This post is to round up some of the most common and important questions he got asked for those interested.
The most questions came with reference to SpaceX, and the way their business model compares to Rocket Lab.
SpaceX didn’t see a market – It’s known that the Falcon 1 was a similar size to the Electron and they quickly moved on from it. So people asked if SpaceX didn’t stay with it, why will it work for Rocket Lab? Peter makes the point that SpaceX retired that rocket 10 years ago, and most of Rocket Labs customers didn’t even exist then. He mentioned that Electrons manifest is fully booked for the next 2 years for dedicated flights. He also doesn’t see a slowdown in demand anytime soon.
Reusability – On the SpaceX front, they have made big inroads to reusability and the Electron is not reusable, so many asked about plans to make a reusable version. The simple answer he gave was that reusability makes sense for medium lift vehicles like the falcon 9, but it doesn’t scale well to small vehicles. So it isn’t on the radar for them at the moment.
Other Rocket Manufacturers – As there are many small rocket manufacturers popping up, and attempting to compete in this space, many wanted to know what the market is actually like for them. His comment was that not all of those manufacturers will make it, and they are currently the only dedicated small launcher that has actually made it to orbit. Others were quick to point out that other rockets of similar size do launch but nowhere near as frequently and do not have the same quality or launch frequency as the Electron.
Where else will they launch from – Currently they have a single launch site, but many wanted to know if they will branch out, to different pads of even different countries, maybe even pad-39A. He mentions that he wants to have many potential launch pads to serve many different inclinations, but Launch Complex 1 is a good start.
Going Bigger – There were lots of questions about making a bigger rocket, like an Electron Heavy. He made a point of saying they are currently only making one product really well. They have no plans to make bigger rockets, and they understand the market they are in. Rocket lab do not want to compete with SpaceX on these launches. He mentions that they can launch a huge amount of spacecraft to LEO, and going bigger only allows a 2% increase in market at the moment. That being said they will continue improving the rocket as they go along.
Using composites – As the LOX tank and other parts are made of carbon composites, there were questions about the difficulty surrounding the design and development of that. He talked about the several years developing and testing the composite tanks. The two main issues being microcracking and oxygen compatibility. They ended up with liner-less tanks with common bulkheads that have similar oxygen compatibility to aluminium but much lighter mass. All the composite manufacturing is in house. Some wanted to know how they manage to use such expensive processes, and he says that although carbon fibre is expensive, when done right you can use very little of it.
Why black – with most rockets out there being white, to help with the thermal efficiency, why did they go for black? Well the simple answer he gave was it looks better. Many engineers wanted to paint it, but the thermal experts made a special effort to make sure they could keep it black. Also, it does save some time/money/weight on paint.
It’s all about the money – The key question is, is it profitable, and when will they start making those profits? Well Peter states that they will see positive cash flow after their 5th flight. Each launch costs $4.9 million to each customer, and they get a dedicated launch, so no need to worry about rideshares where they have less control.
Adding to space junk – In the news recently, there has been lots of the junk that currently floats in space, so there were some questions on how the Electron tries to stop being just more rubbish. Peter talks about the Curie stage of the rocket that is designed to fix this issue. It puts it the second stage into an orbit that makes it deorbit quickly, and the kick stage can deorbit itself. Also most of the LEO payloads they will orbit will deorbit within 5-7 years.
Launch cadence – A few asked how often they are able to launch rockets, or at least the plans to do so. He mentioned that the current plan is to launch once a month for the next year, then once every two weeks, and then double down from there. The Launch complex 1 can support a launch every 72 hours, which is pretty impressive.
Job opportunities – As you would expect, many people asked how you get a job/internship at Rocket Lab. Peter gave a link to email a resume to, but mentioned that the bar is high, they are open to new people but they have to be passionate, and enjoy (and be good at) what they do. They are a small team trying to do big things! They care about what you do outside your formal education, what are you passionate about? what have you built, tested and broken?
Some hardcore technical answers
Each propellant had a dedicated and independent pump system rather than a single electric motor. That was due to wanting super accurate control over the oxygen fuel ratio and startup and shutdown transients.
Ignition is from an augmented spark igniter (a spark plug surrounded by a tube, what acts sort of like a blowtorch).
The engine is fully regeneratively cooled, 3D printed chamber.
The area ratios for the booster and vacuum nozzles are 14 and 100 respectively.
The steering and ullage on the upper stage is controlled by cold gas RCS and PMD.
The whole vehicle is non pyro, the decouplers are all pneumatic.
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.
At 05:33 UTC on March 6th 2018 SpaceX launched it’s 50th Falcon 9 mission. The version 1.2 Falcon 9, with a brand new “Block 4” variant booster B1044, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40. On board, inside the type 1 fairing was Spain’s Hispasat 30W-6. Weighing in at 6,092kg, being the size of a bus and being launched into geosynchronous transfer orbit, it’s the biggest challenge that the Falcon 9 has come up against.
Falcon 9 flight 50 launches tonight, carrying Hispasat for Spain. At 6 metric tons and almost the size of a city bus, it will be the largest geostationary satellite we’ve ever flown.
The First stage if the Falcon 9 fired for about 2 minutes and 35 seconds before releasing and plummeting back towards the Atlantic ocean. The initial plan was top land the “type 4” first stage on the autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love you” in the Atlantic. Landing legs and titanium steering grid fins were attached and went up with the rocket. There was already speculation, due to the large payload and the orbit attempted, whether the Falcon 9 would have enough fuel left to attempt the reentry and landing procedure. Unfortunately it was not possible to find out whether the F9-51 mission would have made a landing because the autonomous drone ship was kept in port because of high sea conditions. The rocket still went through the entire reentry and landing procedure, as mentioned on the livestream, but ended up in the Atlantic.
almost 9 minutes in, the second stage with the payload achieved a Low Earth Orbit, and “parked” until T+26 min 36s where they first crossed the equator. This second burn lasted 55 seconds to accelerate the ss/Loral-built satellite into a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit. The Hispasat 30W-6 will fire its four SPT-100 plasma thrusters to gradually raise itself to Geosynchronous Orbit positioned 30 degrees West (clue in the name). Hispasat 30W-6 is designed to provide broadband services in Europe and Northwest Africa.
This is the fourth all-expendable Falcon 9 launch in the past 5 years, and the first time a “type 4” stage has been expended on it’s first flight. Both of the stages of the F9-51 rocket were tested at SpaceX Rocket Test Facility in McGregor, TX during October/November 2017. They have been at Cape Canaveral since January 2018, and were stacked ,loaded with propellant and tested (first stage only) at the Cape at SLC 40 on February 20, 2018. The Launch was initially planned for February 25th, but was shelved by SpaceX to investigate payload fairing pressurisation issues.
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.