SpaceX launches first Starlink rideshare mission with Planet Labs

As SpaceX continues to roll through its 2020 launch campaign, the company launched another batch… The post SpaceX launches first Starlink rideshare mission with Planet Labs appeared first on

SpaceX launches first Starlink rideshare mission with Planet Labs

As SpaceX continues to roll through its 2020 launch campaign, the company launched another batch of Starlink internet satellites to low Earth orbit, along with 3 small satellites provided by Planet Labs Inc. The mission launched on a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Saturday morning at 5:21 am Eastern time (09:21 UTC).

(Lead photo by Julia Bergeron for NSF)

Saturday’s mission, known as Starlink V1.0 L8, was the ninth orbital launch of the year for SpaceX to date, and the 87th flight of the two-stage Falcon 9 since its maiden launch in June 2010. This was also the 42nd orbital launch attempt made by any launch provider in 2020.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket launched Saturday’s mission is core B1059.3. This designation originates from SpaceX’s internal booster naming/numbering scheme, with B1059 being the 59th Falcon 9/Heavy booster core built by the company at their headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and the “.3” signifying that the booster had been configured for its third flight.

Falcon core B1059 launches the 19th Dragon cargo resupply mission to the ISS – credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

B1059 previously launched the CRS-19 and CRS-20 Dragon cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station in December 2019 and March 2020, respectively. During both missions, the booster performed a successful propulsive landing at SpaceX’s Landing Zone-1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. B1059 landed on the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” during the Starlink V1.0 L8 mission.

This mission was the first for SpaceX’s SmallSat Rideshare Mission program, which aims to provide a flexible, low-cost method of transporting multiple small satellites to an assortment of destinations in low Earth orbit using Falcon 9 launch vehicles. SpaceX announced the creation of the program in August 2019, and allowed small satellite operators to begin manifesting their spacecraft to launch on dedicated rideshare flights or select Starlink missions.

Since the announcement, companies such as Planet Labs, Exolaunch, and Momentus Space have signed contracts with SpaceX to launch on rideshare missions. The first fully-dedicated SmallSat Rideshare Mission program flight is currently scheduled to launch no earlier than December from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

In total, 61 satellites flew on Saturday’s mission: 58 SpaceX-built Starlink internet satellites and 3 SkySat Earth observation spacecraft, which are owned and operated by Planet Labs of San Francisco, California.

The Starlink V1.0 L8 mission was the eighth operational launch of Starlink satellites to date, with a total of 480 spacecraft launched as part of the initial deployment phase of SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation. This first phase will see 1,584 Starlink satellites launched over multiple missions, with additional deployment phases and satellite launches to follow.

Thanks in part to the rapid growth of the operational V1.0 constellation, SpaceX will begin private beta testing of the Starlink internet service in select areas around the globe later this summer, with public beta testing set to begin soon after. Updates on beta testing will be provided on the company’s website.

Each Starlink satellite features a flat-panel design with multiple high-throughput phased array antennas, a single solar panel for on-orbit power generation, and a star tracker navigation system. A single Krypton-fueled Hall-effect thruster is equipped for in-space propulsion, and is used for orbit raising maneuvers and deorbit burns.

Artistic render of a Starlink satellite using a visor to block incoming sunlight while on orbit – Credit: SpaceX

As was the case with a single Starlink satellite on the V1.0 L7 mission (launched on June 4), all Starlink satellites that will launch on the V1.0 L8 mission – and subsequent missions going forward – will also feature a sun shade or visor, which will assist in blocking sunlight from reflecting off of the majority of the spacecraft body while in orbit and reducing its overall albedo/intrinsic brightness as observed from the ground. These visors will deploy shortly after spacecraft separation during Saturday’s launch.

Each operational Starlink satellite weighs in at approximately 260 kilograms (573 pounds) at launch.

The SkySat satellites are built by Maxar Technologies, and are designed to capture high resolution panochromatic and multispectral images of Earth via the use of a 3.6 meter focal length Cassegrain telescope and three 5.5 megapixel CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) imaging detectors on each spacecraft, thereby enabling an image resolution of less than 50 centimeters. The SkySats are also outfitted with a modular propulsion system utilizing “green propellants”, which are intended to be less toxic and more efficient when used for in-space maneuvers.

Artist’s impression of the SkySat satellite fleet in orbit – credit: Maxar

Fifteen Planet SkySat satellites have been launched to date, with the first two spacecraft serving as prototypes. Both were launched in November 2013 and July 2014 as secondary payloads on Dnepr and Soyuz rockets, respectively. The other thirteen operational satellites have been launched to 500 kilometer (310.6 mile) sun-synchronous orbits, having flown on ISRO’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), Arianespace’s Vega, Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur-C, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 over a four-year period.

SpaceX has launched many satellites for Planet over the years, with multiple Dove nanosatellites flying on Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon spacecraft, and two other SkySat spacecraft (SkySats 14 and 15) having launched on the SSO-A mission in December 2018.

SpaceX launched three SkySat spacecraft (SkySats 16, 17, and 18) on the Starlink V1.0 L8 mission, with another three satellites (SkySats 19, 20, and 21) flying on another Starlink mission later in the year. These six satellites will complement the existing SkySat fleet in sun-synchronous orbit and offer more targeted coverage in key geographic regions.

Each operational SkySat spacecraft weighs around 110 kilograms (242.5 pounds) at liftoff. When combined with the mass of the 58 Starlink satellites that will fly on Saturday’s mission, the total launch mass rounds up to 15,410 kilograms (33,973 pounds).

The three SkySat satellites were mounted on top of the Starlink payload during the V1.0 L8 mission, with a custom adapter provided by Planet Labs housing the trio until spacecraft separation.

The Starlink V1.0 L8 mission launched 5:21 am Eastern time Saturday (09:21 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A backup launch opportunity is available on Sunday at 4:59 am Eastern (08:59 UTC) in the event of a delay or scrub.

This mission goes into the books as the 37th Falcon 9 launch from SLC-40, and the 99th total launch from the site since its debut in June 1965, which saw the maiden flight of the Titan IIIC launch vehicle take place.

Unlike all previous SpaceX missions to date, the company has elected to forego a pre-flight static fire attempt on the pad with Falcon core B1059.3 for this mission. A static fire acts as a readiness test before launch, as the first stage engines are ignited and fired for a short duration in order to obtain performance data and verify that the engines will perform nominally during flight.

The Falcon 9 rocket and its 61 satellites were lifted to the vertical position at SLC-40 on Friday afternoon, just over 12 hours before the scheduled launch time.

The countdown will officially commenced at the T-38 minute mark, when the launch director will poll the mission teams to proceed into propellant loading operations. When the “go” is given, chilled RP-1 fuel flowed into both stages of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle at 35 minutes to liftoff, along with liquid oxygen (LOX) loading into the first stage. LOX loading onto Falcon 9’s second stage started at T-16 minutes.

At T-7 minutes prior to liftoff, the liquid oxygen pre-valves on the nine Merlin-1D first stage engines opened, thereby allowing LOX to flow through the engine plumbing and condition the turbopumps for ignition. This process is known as “engine chilling”, and is used to prevent thermal shock that could damage the motors upon startup.

At the T-1 minute mark, the Falcon 9’s onboard flight computers ran through final checks of the vehicle’s systems and finalize tank pressurization before flight. The launch director gave a final “go” for launch at T-45 seconds.

The nine Merlin-1D engines on the first stage ignited at T-3 seconds, with liftoff taking place at T-0 following a quick final check by the onboard computers to verify that all systems were operating nominally.

After lifting off from SLC-40, Falcon 9 pitched downrange as it accelerated towards orbital velocity. At around a minute and 12 seconds into the flight, the vehicle passed through the region of maximum aerodynamic pressure, or “Max-Q”. During this portion of flight, the mechanical stresses on the rocket and payload are at their highest.

Planned mission profile for a Falcon 9 launch and droneship landing – credit: SpaceX

The nine Merlin-1D engines on Falcon 9’s first stage continued to burn until around T+2 minutes and 32 seconds, at which point they all shut down simultaneously in an event known as MECO, or Main Engine Cutoff. Stage separation occurred shortly afterward, with second stage Merlin Vacuum engine ignition taking place at the T+2 minute 43 second mark. Upon engine startup, the second stage continued to carry all 61 satellites to a low Earth orbit, with an inclination of 53 degrees.

The 5-meter payload fairing housed the payloads during the initial phases of launch deployed at approximately 3 minutes and 11 seconds into the flight. Both halves of the fairing descended back to Earth to be recovered by GO Ms. Tree and GO Ms. Chief, SpaceX’s fairing recovery vessel duo.

The two halves of the payload fairing that will fly on the Starlink V1.0 L8 mission have flown once before on separate missions, with one half flying on the JCSAT-18/Kacific 1 mission in December 2019, and the other having launched on the Starlink V1.0 L2 mission in January 2020. During both missions, the fairing halves were recovered after performing a soft splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

While Falcon 9’s second stage and the 61 satellites continue to press onward to orbit, Falcon core B1059.3 returned to Earth to conduct a propulsive landing on the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You”, stationed approximately 630 kilometers (391.4 miles) downrange from the launch site.

The first stage performed an entry burn at around 7 minutes into the flight, in order to slow its descent and refine its trajectory to the droneship. The final landing burn completed at the T+8 minute 42 second mark, with B1059.3 touching down softly on the deck of OCISLY under the power from a single Merlin-1D engine.

The Merlin Vaccum engine on Falcon 9’s second stage shut down at 8 minutes and 53 seconds into the flight, in an event known as SECO, or Second Engine Cutoff. This was the only second stage engine burn of the mission.

Payload deployment began at around the T+12 minute 34 second mark, when the SkySat-18 spacecraft separating from its payload adapter. Subsequent SkySat deployment events occurred at 30 second intervals.

At approximately 26 minutes into the mission, the 58 Starlink satellites deployed. This marked the completion of the launch phase of the mission.

At this point, SpaceX will begin conducting data reviews of each Starlink satellite to ensure that all systems are working as intended before proceeding to orbit raising operations. Any satellites that are unable to raise their orbits will be left in the initial deployment orbit, so as to quickly deorbit and decrease the risk of a collision.

The Starlink V1.0 L8 mission was the second launch for SpaceX in June 2020, with two more missions scheduled to follow shortly afterward. The ninth operational Starlink mission (which will also feature two BlackSky Earth observation satellites provided by Spaceflight, Inc.) is currently set to launch on a Falcon 9 no earlier than June 22 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, while another Falcon 9 will launch the third GPS Block III spacecraft to a medium Earth orbit no earlier than June 30 from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral.

In the long-term, SpaceX plans to launch the Anasis-II spacecraft for the South Korean military to orbit no earlier than July. The launch will take place from Launch Complex 39A at KSC.

SpaceX aims to launch at least 24 operational Starlink missions before the end of 2020.

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Rocket Lab recycles for 12th Electron, continues work on future plans

After a several week stand-down due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Rocket Lab is preparing… The post Rocket Lab recycles for 12th Electron, continues work on future plans appeared first on

Rocket Lab recycles for 12th Electron, continues work on future plans

After a several week stand-down due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Rocket Lab is preparing to launch its 12th Electron mission to date—a rideshare mission with payloads from NASA, the NRO, and the University of New South Wales. Following a weather scrub earlier in the week, the mission is now set to launch from Rocket Lab’s Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand on Saturday (local time – 04:44 UTC).

The launch window extends until 24 June UTC, with daily launch opportunities within the same several hour-long windows.

This mission is named “Don’t Stop Me Now,” according to Rocket Lab, “in recognition of Rocket Lab board member and avid Queen fan Scott Smith, who recently passed away.”

Payload Overview

Once in orbit, Electron will deploy five payloads: ANDESITE, the M2 Pathfinder, and three satellites belonging to the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

Electron Flight 12 UPDATES
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  • ANDESITE (which stands for Ad-Hoc Network Demonstration for Extended Satellite-Based Inquiry and Other Team Endeavors) was developed by Boston University.

    The satellite itself will deploy eight “pico-satellites” designed to resolve current densities at varying spatial resolutions in the near-Earth magnetosphere using measurements from Anisotropic Resistance Magnetometers, and relay information back to the central satellite. It is flying as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites, or ELaNa program.

    M2 Pathfinder is a collaboration between the University of New South Wales and the Australian Government. The mission will test communications architecture and other technologies, including the ability of an onboard software-based radio to operate and reconfigure while in orbit.


    On May 7, Rocket Lab successfully conducted a wet dress rehearsal ahead of launch. During this process, the rocket is filled with fuel, simulating a normal countdown right up until engine ignition.

    The countdown will begin at T-6 hours when the road to the launch complex is closed. During the next few hours, Electron will be loaded with rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1), and liquid oxygen. At T-2 hours, marine zones around the launch complex will be closed, and the airspace surrounding the area will also be restricted at T-30 minutes.

    At T-18 minutes, the Launch Director will conduct a go/no go poll of all launch operators in order to continue the countdown. Passing 2 minutes before launch, the team will hand off control of the countdown to Electron’s onboard computers.

    At T-2 seconds, the nine Rutherford engines on Electron’s first stage will ignite and reach full thrust, a process that occurs almost instantly due to their electric-driven turbopumps.

    Electron will liftoff and begin pitching downrange. After 2 minutes and 36 seconds of powered flight, the Rutherford engines on the first stage will shutdown. Shortly after, the first and second stages will separate, followed by ignition of the upper stage Rutherford engine. Fairing separation will occur 3 minutes and 12 seconds into flight.

    At 6 minutes 31 seconds into flight, Electron’s second stage will perform its unique “hot swap” staging, where spent batteries used for the vacuum-optimized Rutherford’s turbopump are jettisoned.

    Electron will reach its initial parking orbit, at T+8:52, and the second stage will shut off. 10 seconds later, the kick stage will separate.

    At T+51:34, the Curie engine on the kick stage will ignite, followed by shutdown at 1 minute and 36 seconds later.

    Finally, at around one hour after liftoff, all payloads will be deployed from the kick stage, ending the mission.

    Updates on Recovery

    During the previous Electron mission, the first stage experienced another successful reentry test. The rocket survived re-entry, or what Rocket Lab calls “the wall,” and successfully followed a nominal trajectory including a controlled roll for stability. Following this outcome, Rocket Lab began low altitude drop tests in mid-February in order to begin testing prototype parachutes, the last part of the system required for recovery of an Electron first stage. 

    Several weeks later, the company successfully completed a mid-air recovery test.

    For the time being, however, Rocket Lab is putting a pause on controlled reentry tests. The first stage for “Don’t Stop Me Now” is not equipped with any recovery hardware. According to CEO Peter Beck, the company is aiming for a full recovery on Electron’s 17th flight.

    Upcoming Missions 

    Rocket Lab opened their second launch pad, LC-2, in December 2019, and the Electron rocket assigned to the first mission from this launch site has arrived. The rocket was raised vertical on the pad, and multiple tests have been performed, including a “hot ignition test” of the first stage’s nine Rutherford engines. This mission is slated to launch sometime in quarter 3 of this year.

    The payload of the next Electron mission from LC-1 is currently unknown, but Rocket Lab recently conducted a hot-fire test of the second stage for that mission. 

    After that, also from LC-1, the company will fly a dedicated mission for a synthetic aperture radar satellite built by Capella Space scheduled for sometime this summer.

    The company is aiming for 12 launches this year, doubling its record of 6 from 2019.

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