The first in a new line of powerful dual-band satellites for Inmarsat’s communications network linking ships, airplanes, and other mobile customers successfully launched Wednesday aboard a Japanese H-2A rocket.
The satellite, named Inmarsat 6 F1 or I6 F1, rode the most powerful variant of the H-2A rocket, built and operated by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The H-2A was fitted with four strap-on solid rocket boosters clustered around the rocket’s core stage, which was powered by a hydrogen-fueled cryogenic engine.
Liftoff from Tanegashima Space Center, on an island in southwestern Japan, occurred at 10:32 a.m. EST (1532 GMT) Wednesday, or 12:32 a.m. Japan Standard Time on Thursday.
The 174-foot-tall (53-meter) H-2A rocket climbed off the launch pad with 2.5 million pounds of thrust, and headed east over the Pacific Ocean. The H-2A shed its four solid rocket boosters, payload fairing, and cryogenic core stage in the first seven minutes of the flight.
An upper stage fired its hydrogen-fueled engine twice before releasing the spacecraft in orbit.
Liftoff of Japan’s 45th H-2A rocket with Inmarsat 6 F1, a powerful dual-band communications satellite to provide mobile connectivity for ships, airplanes, and global shipments. https://t.co/dH5FmkdAGg pic.twitter.com/bJMFVEij5B
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) December 22, 2021
The Inmarsat 6 F1 satellite weighed about 5,470 kilograms — about 12,059 pounds — at launch. Airbus manufactured the spacecraft for Inmarsat, a London-based space company that specializes in providing mobile communications services for ships, airplanes, and other users on-the-go.
The satellite is the first of two new-generation mobile communications satellites procured by Inmarsat from Airbus. A second satellite, I6 F2, is under construction and slated to launch on a SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral next year.
The H-2A rocket launched the I6 F1 satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit on the way to a position on geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.
The satellite will use electric thrusters to maneuver into a circular orbit over the next few months, ultimately settling into position high above a fixed location in the Indian Ocean. That will give I6 F1’s communications payload access to markets in Asia, Africa, and Australia.
The spacecraft carries dual Ka-band and L-band payloads. It has 20 steerable Ka-band beams to provide broadband connectivity to airplane passengers and ships at sea, along with an umbrella-like L-band reflector that will open to a diameter of 30 feet (9 meters) in space.
The L-band payload is tailored for lower-bandwidth applications, such as maritime search and rescue, ship and asset tracking, and supply chain management. Inmarsat’s most recent fleet of L-band communications satellites was the Inmarsat 4 series launched between 2005 and 2013, and the two Inmarsat 6 satellites will replace them.
The Inmarsat 5 satellites, providing Ka-band connectivity through the company’s Global Xpress service, launched between 2013 and 2019.
“This spacecraft is the first hybrid spacecraft of its kind,” said Edwina Paisley, senior director of spacecraft programs at Inmarsat. “It’s both Ka-band and L-band. It’s the most complex and technically advanced spacecraft (we’ve) ever launched.”
After deploying from the H-2A rocket about 26 minutes into the mission, the I6 F1 spacecraft will unfurl solar arrays to begin charging its batteries. The L-band reflector is scheduled to open up Dec. 27.
Then the satellite will start raising its orbit using the electric propulsion system, which is lighter and more efficient than conventional liquid-fueled maneuvering rockets.
“That means we have maximized the payload on-board in order to put as much hardware into the spacecraft as possible,” Paisley said in a pre-launch press conference. “And that means we had to use a very efficient, but low-mass propulsion system, which is the electric orbit raising.”
The two Inmarsat 6 satellites will extend Inmarsat’s L-band services, used around the world in maritime operations, until around 2040. Inmarsat is planning to launch additional Ka-band satellites in the next few years, including two Ka-band instruments on satellites in a high-inclination orbit to extend broadband coverage over the Arctic.
“Today, Inmarsat began the next phase of its world leading technology roadmap thanks to the launch of I6 F1, the first of seven we have planned in the coming three years,” said Rajeev Suri, Inmarsat’s CEO, in a statement.
The new Inmarsat satellites, beginning with I6 F1, are crucial for the company’s plans to maintain its market position as constellations of low Earth orbit satellites, like SpaceX’s Starlink fleet and OneWeb’s network, begin operational service to provide broadband internet connectivity.
Starlink and OneWeb’s business strategies include serving consumers on land, in the air, and at sea.
Inmarsat was established in 1979 to develop a network of satellites to provide a communications lifeline for maritime safety and distress messages. The maritime safety mission is still part of Inmarsat’s network, but the company has evolved to provide a broader menu of communications services.
“Inmarsat is constantly investing in new spacecraft to add to our fleet, and this is a continued investment in ensuring that we have the capability to continue our services, and even anticipating additional services in the future, because we need to think about what people are going to be using and doing with this type of mobile communications well into the 2040s,” Paisley said.
Webb reaches orbital destination a million miles from Earth
The James Webb Space Telescope slipped into orbit around a point in space nearly a million miles from Earth Monday where it can capture light from the first stars and galaxies to form in the aftermath of the Big Bang.
As planned, the European Ariane 5 rocket that launched Webb on Christmas Day put the telescope on a trajectory that required only a slight push to reach the intended orbit around Lagrange Point 2, one of five where the pull of sun and Earth interact to form stable or nearly stable gravitational zones.
The push came in the form of a 4-minute 57-second thruster firing at 2 p.m. EST — 30 days after launch at a distance of 907,530 miles from Earth — that increased Webb’s velocity by a mere 3.6 mph, just enough to ease it into a six-month orbit around L2.
“Webb, welcome home!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a blog post. “Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work ensuring Webb’s safe arrival at L2 today. We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!”
Spacecraft at or near L2 orbit the sun in lockstep with Earth and can remain on station with a minimum amount of rocket fuel, allowing a longer operational lifetime than might otherwise be possible.
An orbit around L2 also will allow Webb to observe the universe while keeping its tennis court-size sunshade broadside to Earth’s star and the telescope’s optics and instruments on the cold side.
As of Monday, Webb’s mirror had cooled down to minus 347 Fahrenheit, well on the way toward a goal of nearly 390 degrees below zero. That’s what is required for Webb to register the exceedingly faint infrared light from the first stars and galaxies.
For the rest of its operational life, Webb will circle L2 at distances between 155,000 and 517,000 miles, taking six months to complete one orbit. Because the orbit around L2 is not perfectly stable, small thruster firings will be carried out every three weeks or so to maintain the telescope’s trajectory.
“Congrats to the team!” tweeted NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen. “@NASAWebb is now in its new stable home in space & one step closer to helping us #UnfoldTheUniverse.”
Before launch, engineers said Webb likely would have enough propellant to operate for five to 10 years. But thanks to the precision of its Ariane 5 launch and two near-perfect trajectory correction burns carried out later, it now appears Webb could remain operational for many years beyond that.
In any case, with the L2 orbit insertion burn behind then, scientists and engineers will focus on aligning Webb’s secondary mirror and the 18 hexagonal segments making up its 21.3-foot-wide primary mirror to achieve the required razor-sharp focus.
Each mirror segment is equipped with seven actuators, six of which can make microscopic changes in a segment’s orientation and one that can push or pull as required to slightly change a mirror’s shape.
As it now stands, the 18 unaligned segments would produce 18 out-of-focus images of the same star. But over the next few months, the positions of each segment will be adjusted in tiny increments, one at a time, to move reflected starlight to the center of the telescope’s optical axis.
Once all 18 light beams are precisely merged, or “stacked,” Webb will effectively be in focus, clearing the way for instrument calibration. The first science images from the fully commissioned telescope are expected this summer.
Watch live: Cargo Dragon capsule ready to depart space station
SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft, closing out a month-long mission, is scheduled to undock from the International Space Station Sunday after a two-delay in its departure to wait for better weather in the capsule’s recovery zone off the coast of Florida.
The gumdrop-shaped cargo freighter will undock from the station’s Harmony module at 10:40 a.m. EDT (1540 GMT) Sunday. A series of departure maneuvers using the ship’s Draco thrusters will guide Dragon away from the complex, setting up for a deorbit burn at 3:18 p.m. EDT (2018 GMT) Monday to allow the spacecraft to drop out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere.
Splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, is scheduled for around 4:05 p.m. EDT (2105 GMT) Monday. Four main parachutes will slow the capsule before reaching the ocean, where a SpaceX recovery vessel will be in position to raise the Dragon spacecraft from the sea.
Time-sensitive cargo, such as biological research samples, will be flown back to Kennedy Space Center by helicopter, where NASA researchers will receive and catalog the materials for analysis and distribution to scientists around the world.
The undocking and splashdown will complete SpaceX’s 24th resupply mission to the space station since 2012 under the umbrella of two multibillion-dollar commercial contracts with NASA.
The Dragon spacecraft is packed with more than 4,900 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of cargo, including a spacesuit coming back to Earth for refurbishment after supporting spacewalks outside the space station.
The mission launched Dec. 21 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The Dragon cargo freighter docked with the space station Dec. 22, and astronauts began unpacking science experiments, holiday gifts and food, spare parts and other supplies.
The cargo delivery last month hauled 6,590 pounds (2,989 kilograms) of supplies and experiments, including packaging, to the space station’s seven-person crew.
The Dragon cargo ship delivered four experimental CubeSats to the station from teams at Kennedy Space Center, Aerospace Corp., Utah State University, and Georgia Tech. The CubeSats will be robotically deployed outside the complex later this year.
The scientific experiments launched on the SpaceX cargo freighter included an investigation from Merck Research Labs studying monoclonal antibodies. The research focus of that experiment is on analyzing the structure and behavior of a monoclonal antibody used in a drug aimed at treating cancers.
Another experiment is assessing the loss of immune protection in astronauts flying in space.
Proctor & Gamble and NASA have partnered in another experiment to test the performance of a new fully degradable detergent named Tide Infinity, a product specifically designed for use in space.
Astronauts on the space station currently wear an item of clothing several times, then discard the garment. But crews flying to the moon and Mars won’t have the same supply chain of cargo missions to support them.
NASA says Tide plans to use the new cleaning detergent to “advance sustainable, low-resource-use laundry solutions on Earth.”
Another research investigation will test manufacturing methods for superalloys in space. Alloys, materials made up of a metal and at least one other chemical element, could be produced in microgravity with fewer defects and better mechanical properties, according to NASA.
“These superior materials could improve the performance of turbine engines in industries such as aerospace and power generation on Earth,” NASA said.
With its 32-day stay at the station over, the astronauts on the research outpost replaced the cargo delivered by Dragon with materials tagged for return to Earth.
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Astra fires up rocket for first time at Cape Canaveral
Astra, a company seeking to carve out a segment of the growing small satellite launch market, test-fired its two-stage rocket at Cape Canaveral on Saturday in preparation for an upcoming demonstration flight for NASA.
The engine test-firing, called a static fire test, occurred on launch pad 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station as Astra prepares to deliver four small CubeSat nano-satellites into orbit under contract to NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program.
The rocket’s five Delphin engines, burning kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants, fired for less than 10 seconds at 11:40 a.m. EST (1640 GMT) Saturday on pad 46.
The static fire test sent an exhaust plume away from the rocket that was visible from public viewing locations several miles away. A low rumble was also heard from the beaches south of Cape Canaveral.
Astra confirmed the static fire test in a tweet Sunday afternoon. Chris Kemp, Astra’s founder and CEO, tweeted that the company will announce the target launch date and time for the mission after receiving a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The static fire test was expected to be a prerequisite for Astra receiving an FAA launch license.
Astra’s rocket is small in size compared to other launch vehicles that regularly fly from Cape Canaveral. The launcher, called Rocket 3.3 or LV0008, stands just 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall, more than five times shorter than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and about the same height as the Falcon 9’s payload compartment.
The commercially-developed launch vehicle, in its existing configuration, is designed to carry a payload of around 110 pounds (50 kilograms) into a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) polar orbit, according to Kemp. Astra’s rocket is sized to offer dedicated rides to orbit for small commercial, military, and research satellites.
Astra launched its first successful mission to low Earth orbit in November from Kodiak Island, Alaska, on a test flight sponsored by the U.S. Space Force, following three previous launch attempts that faltered during the climb into orbit.
Founded in 2016, Astra aims to eventually conduct daily launches with small satellites at relatively low cost, targeting a smallsat launch market cramped with competitors such as Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Firefly Aerospace, each of which has begun flying small launch vehicles. Numerous other companies are months or years away from debuting their smallsat launchers.
Four CubeSats are set to ride the rocket into orbit on a mission arranged by NASA.
The mission is part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services, or VCLS, program, which awarded Astra a $3.9 million contract last year for a commercial CubeSat launch. Scott Higginbotham, head of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative at Kennedy Space Center, says the agency is the sole customer for the upcoming Astra launch.
The Venture Class Launch Services program is aimed at giving emerging small satellite launch companies some business, while helping NASA officials familiarize themselves with the nascent industry.
NASA previously awarded VCLS demonstration missions to Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, which completed their first launches for the U.S. space agency in 2018 and 2021. The U.S. military has awarded similar demonstration launch contracts to Astra and other companies.
Higginbotham said the VCLS mission gives NASA insight into companies’ management and technical teams, procedures and processes, and their hardware designs.
“That’s going to allow us to be a better consumer going forward if they stay in business, and can offer their services to us later on,” Higginbotham said. “We’ll already have been introduced and have done a deep dive, of sorts, into those companies to understand what makes them tick, and that’s that’s of tremendous value to us.”
The VCLS demo missions are also a stepping stone toward certification of the new smallsat launchers to carry more expensive NASA satellites into orbit. The certification isn’t required for the demo missions themselves.
“NASA has other missions that require a little bit more reliability from the launch vehicle, a little more certainty, and a little more launch vehicle insight,” Higginbotham said.
A team of fewer than a dozen technicians and engineers set up Astra’s rocket on pad 46 earlier this month. Astra’s launch control team remained behind at the company’s headquarters in Alameda, California, where managers remotely control the rocket’s countdown.
A fueling test, or wet dress rehearsal, was accomplished earlier in January before Saturday’s static fire.
NASA assigned four nano-missions to the Astra demonstration launch through the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative program.
One of the CubeSats was developed by the University of California, Berkeley. Named QubeSat, the small spacecraft will test a tiny gyroscope, a device used to help determine the orientation of satellites in space.
Data from INCA will “contribute to understanding the radiation environment that satellites encounter, and to the understanding of neutron air showers, which pose a radiation hazard to occupants of high-altitude aircraft such as airliners,” according to the student team that developed the mission.
The BAMA 1 mission, developed at the University of Alabama, will demonstrate a drag sail device designed to help old satellites and space junk drop out of orbit. The drag sail will encounter air molecules from the rarefied atmosphere at the satellite’s altitude, slowing its velocity enough to fall back to Earth.
The final payload is a CubeSat named R5-S1 from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA says the mission’s objectives including demonstrating quick CubeSat development and testing technologies useful for in-space inspection, which could make human spaceflight safer and more efficient.
Another CubeSat mission from UC-Berkeley originally selected by NASA for the Astra demonstration launch wasn’t ready in time for integration with the rocket in December, according to Jasmine Hopkins, a NASA spokesperson at Kennedy Space Center.
The CubeSat Radio Interferometry Experiment, or CURIE, mission, consists of two identical three-unit CubeSats, each the size of a shoebox, with radio antennas to detect emissions from solar activity, such as solar flares and coronal mass eruptions.
NASA will assign the CURIE satellites to another launch, Hopkins said.
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