SpaceX to launch Starlink rideshare mission as constellation deployment milestone nears

SpaceX is set to launch its third Starlink mission in just 11 days on the… The post SpaceX to launch Starlink rideshare mission as constellation deployment milestone nears appeared first on NASASpaceFlight.com.

SpaceX to launch Starlink rideshare mission as constellation deployment milestone nears

SpaceX is set to launch its third Starlink mission in just 11 days on the v1.0 L26 flight. The mission will bring the total number of operational Starlink v1.0 satellites launched to near 1,567 – just shy of the 1,584 needed to declare all of the first shell of Starlinks launched.

The mission, with 52 Starlink satellites and two rideshare payloads (Capella Whitney 4 and Tyvak-0130), is scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, 15 May at 18:54 EDT / 22:54 UTC.

Overall, this will be the 28th Starlink mission, the 27th flight of operational Starlinks, the 15th Falcon 9 flight of the year, the fourth Starlink rideshare mission, the third time a Falcon 9 first stage will fly for an eighth time, and the third Falcon 9 flight in 11 days.

It will also mark the first launch from the Eastern Range since the 45th Space Wing was renamed Space Launch Delta 45 on 11 May. The change was in accordance with new U.S. Space Force naming conventions as the newest branch of the U.S. armed services activates the Space Systems Command. 

A similar event occurred at Vandenberg, where the 30th Space Wing was renamed Space Launch Delta 30. At the same event, Vandenberg Air Force Base was renamed Vandenberg Space Force Base. 

If launched Saturday, Starlink v1.0 L26 will liftoff 24 years to the day, and from the same pad, as the STS-84 flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the sixth Shuttle-Mir docking mission.

Continuing the rocket reuse operations LC-39A has fostered since April 1981, Falcon 9, under the power of first stage booster B1058-8 (with the “-8” signifying the stage’s 8th flight), will deliver 52 new Starlink satellites, as well as Capella Whitney 4 and Tyvak-0130, to orbit.

Starlink is SpaceX’s low Earth orbit internet constellation aimed at delivering fast, affordable, and low latency service where internet is currently unavailable or expensive.

The Starlink constellation is set to consist of five orbital shells, with the Starlink v1.0 L26 mission continuing to build the first shell of 1,584 satellites in a 550 kilometer altitude, 53 degree inclination orbit. Deployment of this shell began on 11 November 2019 and will reach the “all satellites launched” milestone with the next mission: Starlink v1.0 L28.

Once all of the first shell Starlinks are in their correct positions within the constellation, which will take a few more months to complete, the network will provide coverage to approximately 80% of Earth’s surface.

This mission in particular will deviate from most Starlink flights thus far in that it will carry rideshare payloads with a reduced number of Starlink satellites to account for payload volume and mass-to-target-orbit constraints. Joining the Starlinks on this mission are Capella Whitney 4 and Tyvak-0130.

Capella Whitney 4 is part of a Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite constellation operated by Capella Space. At 112 kg, the satellite uses an X-band, 3.5 meter aperture antenna to obtain high-contrast, low-noise, high-resolution sub-0.5 meter imagery of Earth’s surface no matter the weather conditions.

The first of the 36 planned satellites of the constellation launched in August 2020 on the Rocket Lab “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical” mission. The other two already-launched Capella satellites were part of the Transporter-1 mission earlier this year.

Tyvak-0130, an optical spectrum astronomy observation satellite, is built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

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  • Launch

    After a multi-hour, no holds, countdown, Falcon 9’s launch autosequence will begin at T-35 minutes and counting. At this time, an automated series of events will unfold to thermally condition and load the Falcon 9 first and second stages with liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene.

    Loading of RP-1 kerosene on both stages begins at T-35 minutes, as does liquid oxygen loading on the first stage. RP-1 fueling on the second stage is completed at the T-20 minute mark, with liquid oxygen fueling of stage two commencing four minutes later.

    To prepare the nine first stage Merlin 1D engines for ignition, engine chill begins at T-7 minutes — where super cold liquid oxygen is allowed to slowly bleed into the engine plumbing, cooling the engines to within an acceptable “start box”, or temperature range, for engine ignition.

    At the T-2 minute mark, fueling is completed. A minute later, the Falcon 9’s onboard computers take control of the countdown, a milestone known as “startup.”

    B1058-3 launches the Starlink V1.0 L13 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

    At T-3 seconds, the onboard computers command ignition of all nine first stage engines. At liftoff, the hold-down clamps release the Falcon 9 rocket while the transporter/erector rapidly retracts to 45 degrees to protect its systems from the blast of the rocket’s engines.

    Soon after, the Falcon 9 pitches downrange, traveling northeast from the Kennedy Space Center, aligning the launch vehicle for its 53 degree inclined orbit.

    Assuming a nominal flight performance, the nine Merlin 1D engines on the first stage will shut down at T+2 minutes 31 seconds, followed by stage separation and second stage ignition. The Falcon 9 can compensate for multiple-engines-out during first stage flight by burning the remaining engines longer than pre-flight predictions to achieve the velocity target the second stage needs to begin with in order to make orbit.

    Shortly after separation, the four titanium grid fins on the first stage will deploy, followed by a flip maneuver to align booster B1058 properly for reentry.

    At T+3 minutes 16 seconds, payload fairing separation will occur from stage two. Similar to other missions, the set of flight-proven fairings — with the active half last supporting SiriusXM-7 and the passive half last supporting NROL-108, both in December 2020 — will parachute directly into the ocean for recovery, as SpaceX appears to have settled on this method as the most efficient option.

    Once in the ocean, both halves will be recovered by the chartered recovery vessel Shelia Bordelon, which left Port Canaveral on 12 May for the mission.

    Meanwhile, as the payload fairings begin their return journey, the second stage will continue firing its vacuum-optimized Merlin engine to bring the payload to orbit as the first stage, descending through the atmosphere, reignites three of its Merlin 1D engines to slow itself down and protect itself during reentry.

    The center Merlin 1D engine will then relight one more time for the landing burn to place the booster on Of Course I Still Love You, stationed approximately 630 km northeast of the launchpad and 240 km off the coast of North Carolina.

    About 20 seconds after the booster’s scheduled landing, the second stage will shut down following insertion into an initial parking orbit. After coasting for 45 minutes 56 seconds, the stage will reignite for a four second burn to place the stack into a 569 x 582 kilometer orbit, per pre-flight TLEs — Two-Line Elements, or orbital tracking information.

    This orbit is higher than Starlink-only missions, which typically target a 260 x 280 kilometer orbit, due to the needs of the rideshare payloads.

    Two minutes after the second burn is complete, Tyvak-0130 will deploy, followed three and a half minutes later by Capella. At T+98 minutes 10 seconds, all 52 Starlink satellites will deploy.

    SpaceX booster fleet update

    After landing, booster B1058-8 will be brought back to Port Canaveral, where it will continue to serve the SpaceX booster fleet. B1058 is one of five Falcon 9 boosters introduced in 2020 and and becoming the first SpaceX rocket to launch crew.

    List of active boosters:

    Booster Debut Flight Most-recent Flight
    1049-9 Telstar 18V – 10 September 2018 Starlink v1.0 L25 – 4 May 2021
    1051-10 Demo 1 – 2 March 2019 Starlink v1.0 L27 – 9 May 2021
    1052-2 Arabsat 6A – 11 April 2019 STP-2 – 25 June 2019
    1053-2 Arabsat 6A – 11 April 2019 STP-2 – 25 June 2019
    1058-7 Demo 2 – 30 May 2020 Starlink v1.0 L23 – 7 April 2021
    1060-7 GPS III SV03 – 30 June 2020 Starlink v1.0 L24 – 29 April 2021
    1061-2 Crew 1 – 16 November 2020 Crew 2 – 23 April 2021
    1062 GPS III SV04 – 5 November 2020 GPS III SV04 – 5 November 2020
    1063 Sentinel 6A – 21 November 2020 Sentinel 6A – 21 November 2020

    While B1052-2 and B1053-2 are both included on this list, their status as “active” can rightly be called into question as SpaceX, despite Elon Musk’s statements that Falcon Heavy side boosters are regular Falcon 9s that just need to have their nosecones replaced with interstages, has shown no interest — despite need — to convert the side boosters.

    This need stems from the losses of B1056-4 and B1048-5 on the back-to-back Starlink v1.0 L4 and L5 missions in early 2020 and the more-recent loss of B1059-6 on the Starlink v1.0 L23 mission — all of which were lost during landing attempts after sending the second stage on its way to a successful orbit.

    Instead of bringing the two Falcon Heavy side boosters into the general Falcon 9 fleet, SpaceX instead has pulled B1063-1 from the west coast and moved it to Florida to assist with the upcoming flight manifest. It will launch the Starlink v1.0 L28 mission no earlier than 26 May.

    B1067, debuting on CRS-22 on 3 June, will aid upcoming flights as well.

    Likewise, active booster B1061-2, which had been held in storage for Crew-2 for NASA, is now eligible for regular Falcon 9 manifest missions while B1062-1, which has been held in storage for the upcoming GPS III SV05 mission, will also be able to join the larger fleet after that flight launches no earlier than 17 June.

    How SpaceX manages the fleet will be interesting to watch as regular missions from Vandenberg are set to resume no earlier than July with the start of Starlink polar launches from the west coast facility.

    (Lead image: Falcon 9 B1058 leaves Earth for the 7th time. Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF)

    The post SpaceX to launch Starlink rideshare mission as constellation deployment milestone nears appeared first on NASASpaceFlight.com.

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    Rocket Lab suffers failure on Electron’s 20th mission

    Rocket Lab conducted its twentieth launch of an Electron rocket, named “Running Out of Toes,”… The post Rocket Lab suffers failure on Electron’s 20th mission appeared first on NASASpaceFlight.com.

    Rocket Lab suffers failure on Electron’s 20th mission

    Rocket Lab conducted its twentieth launch of an Electron rocket, named “Running Out of Toes,” carrying two Earth-observation satellites for BlackSky’s global monitoring constellation. The mission also included an attempt to recover an Electron first stage for the second time after a soft splashdown in the Māhia Recovery Zone in the Pacific Ocean.

    This fligh was the first of four dedicated missions scheduled for this year for BlackSky, a real-time geospatial intelligence and global monitoring services company, working in tandem with Spaceflight Inc providing mission management and payload integration services. Liftoff occurred at 11:11 UTC from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1A on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand after just over an hour of delays due to upper level winds.

    The mission appeared nominal during first stage flight. However, shortly after stage separation, the second stage briefly ignited and then shut down almost immediately. The stage and payloads were well short of orbital velocity at this point in the mission.

    Electron Recovery

    This mission was the first Electron launch to sport reused components. Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab, said that the Electron booster for this mission would be reusing the propellant press systems from the “Return to Sender” mission, which were recovered and requalified before integration for “Running Out of Toes.”

    In a call with reporters, Beck said that the condition of the first Electron booster recovered last year “was remarkable,” further elaborating that they’ve introduced multiple upgrades to the booster for this second attempt, including upgraded thermal protection systems in high-temperature areas.

    Electron’s first stage being recovered after the “Return to Sender” mission in November 2020 – via Rocket Lab

    The external skin of the stage “looked like new” according to Beck, retiring an initial concern about the rocket’s potential for reuse. The most challenging aspect of mission assurance for booster reuse is the vehicle’s avionics, which would ideally be protected from saltwater intrusion by mid-air recovery instead of a splashdown.

    Electron Flight 20 UPDATES
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  • The “Running Out of Toes” mission would only attempt a post-splashdown recovery, as the company incrementally approaches operational mid-air recoveries on future missions.

    “Really what we’re trying to do here is get into a bit of a cadence with our reusability missions and work through some logistics.”

    The second recovery mission would further prove the effectiveness of Electron’s reaction control and parachute systems by hopefully repeating the success of the first recovery. It sports a strengthened thermal protection system with an upgraded heat shield using stainless steel to protect the nine Rutherford engines. It also introduces ORCA (Ocean Recovery Capture Apparatus), a strongback especially designed for Electron recovery operations in the Pacific Ocean.

    Just like the “Return to Sender” mission, Electron’s first stage would continue to coast to its apogee (highest altitude) just after stage separation. During the coast period, the booster reorients itself to prepare for re-entry using its onboard reaction control systems (RCS).

    Diagram showing the mission profile for “Running Out of Toes” – via Rocket Lab

    The first stage reorients so that the engine section faces towards the direction of travel, allowing reentry heating to be absorbed by the heat shield. This evolved heat shield will allow the booster to survive heats up to 2400°C while travelling about eight times the speed of sound.

    As Electron slows down and decelerates to less than Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), a drogue parachute deploys to slow the booster and allow the stage to stabilize as it descends. It’s followed by the deployment of the large main parachute to slow down the stage even further for a soft-water landing, followed by recovery using ORCA.

    The success of the recovery operations would give the teams a boost of confidence to standardize Electron’s first stages, enabling boosters to be swapped if the manifest changes, which will provide further flexibility to the customers. Beck is confident in Rocket Lab’s reusability progress, saying, “We are kind of more bullish on this than ever before. I mean, there is just nothing like getting a rocket back and putting it in the factory.”

    “Production continues to improve but, ultimately, if we can get the stage back [we can] top it off with propellant and charge the batteries” to go launch again, which will support an increased cadence for Electron.

    Payload

    This was the second mission for BlackSky with Rocket Lab in 2021, after a single BlackSky satellite was one of the payloads on the successful “They Go Up So Fast” mission in March.

    The five dedicated BlackSky missions scheduled for this year are crucial for an accelerated deployment of the constellation of Gen-2, high-revisit, high-resolution imaging satellites.

    The two BlackSky satellites undergoing pre-launch processing – via Rocket Lab

    In 2023, BlackSky expects to begin deploying the recently announced Gen-3 satellites, which are intended to have 50 cm resolution and short-wave infrared (SWIR) for low light and night-time imaging capabilities, ultimately moving towards the completion of its projected 30-spacecraft constellation in a sun-synchronous orbit.

    “BlackSky is expanding and scaling through a regular cadence of launches so we can consistently increase capacity to deliver first-to-know insights for our customers,” said Brian E. O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky. “Our established practice of rapid deployments and advanced commissioning process ensures customers can trust and rely on our network for access to real-time global intelligence.”

    With the expansion of their constellation, it will strengthen its ability to offer timely and relevant information on the services they provide, especially the company’s geospatial intelligence solutions, which deliver analytics and insights for multiple government agencies and supply chains.

    Mission and Launch Timeline

    The integrated teams of Rocket Lab and Spaceflight Inc completed mission integration on 5 May, followed by a successful Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) of Electron — a routine procedure before missions where the launch team takes the rocket, ground systems, and themselves through an entire countdown up to but not including engine ignition. This includes fully fueling the rocket with RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen.

    For launch operations, the countdown began at T-4 hours, 06:00 UTC on 15 May when the road to the launch site was closed and the Electron rocket was raised vertical at Launch Complex 1A. Shortly after, teams started the fueling process.

    At T-2 hours 30 minutes, teams evacuated the area via helicopter. Safety zones became active for designated marine space at T-2 hours to launch, with airspace closures following at T-30 minutes.

    An initial launch target of 10:08 UTC was delayed due to high upper level winds above the launch site. The countdown was recycled for another target at 11:11 UTC as winds decreased.

    Eighteen minutes before launch, a Go/No-Go poll was conducted to begin the launch auto sequence, where the Electron’s on-board computers take over the countdown.

    Two seconds before liftoff, the nine Rutherford engines on Electron’s first stage ignited and reached full thrust almost instantly due to their electric-driven pumps.

    The “Running Out of Toes” mission will also mark the 200th Rutherford rocket engine to fly to space – via Rocket Lab

    The Electron rocket then lifted off the pad, performing a pitch and roll maneuver to place itself onto the correct heading to reach the mission’s intended 50 degree inclination orbit.

    At two minutes and 30 seconds into the flight, all nine Rutherford engines shut down and Electron’s first stage separated with the help of pneumatic pushers. This was to be followed seconds later by the ignition of the vacuum optimized Rutherford engine on Electron’s second stage.

    Live video from cameras on board the second stage appeared to show an on time ignition. However, those same cameras showed the engine shut down almost immediately afterwards, suggesting an abort shortly after staging.

    Electron’s first stage would coast up to its apogee and begin to reorient for reentry ahead of its expected soft water landing and recovery. It is likely, though not confirmed, that stage one recovery efforts should not be affected by the failure during stage two flight.

    The payload fairings, which protect the satellite from aerodynamic forces and heating during flight through the dense lower atmosphere, were to then separate and expose the payload to the vacuum of space just prior to three minutes into the flight.

    At eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, the second stage engine was to shut down as the vehicle entered a preliminary orbit. The kick stage carrying the two satellites would then separate and begin a long coast phase.

    After a 50 minute long coast phase, the kick stage would ignite its engine for a two minute and 43 second burn to finalize the orbit for payload deployment.

    The two BlackSky satellites would have been deployed one hour after liftoff. The kick stage would then have performed a deorbit maneuver, bringing the mission to a close.

    Future Recovery Milestones and Launches from the US

    Building on the progress of two recovery missions, Beck says that Rocket Lab will conduct a third splashdown recovery mission before the end of the year. It will feature a “block upgrade” to Electron, including an “improved decelerator.” The upgrades will focus solely on enabling recovery, with no vehicle performance upgrades.

    Beck says Rocket Lab will continue splashdowns until “they are ready to go” with mid-air recovery using a helicopter. Once mid-air recovery operations begin, post-splashdown recovery will remain a contingency plan in the event that a catch attempt fails.

    Speaking about Rocket Lab’s upcoming Neutron rocket, Beck says that the teams will learn from reverse engineering Electron for recovery and that the lessons learned will be applied to the reusability of Neutron. Beck says that Rocket Lab plans to build one Neutron rocket a year and operate a fleet of four boosters, thanks to reusability. This will enable the company to achieve a high launch cadence and a lower launch cost.

    Beck also talked about Rocket Lab’s progress to begin launches from Launch Complex 2 in Virginia. He said that Rocket Lab is still working to have an autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) certified before it can begin launches the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

    Beck said this is “taking a lot longer than we all expected, but keeping an eye on the longer-term prize (of AFTS at Wallops’ range).” 

    An autonomous flight termination system (AFTS), as the name suggests, is a GPS-guided system designed to destroy the rocket automatically if it veers off trajectory during its flight. Rocket Lab is one of only two companies to fly with the autonomous system, with the other being SpaceX.

    AFTS is crucial to increasing the launch frequency since it reduces the turnaround time between missions and provides greater schedule control by eliminating reliance on ground assets and human flight termination operators.

    (Lead photo via Rocket Lab)

    The post Rocket Lab suffers failure on Electron’s 20th mission appeared first on NASASpaceFlight.com.

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