SpaceX launched 105 small satellites from Cape Canaveral on the company’s third Transporter rideshare mission Thursday, deploying payloads for commercial remote sensing companies, communications and data relay startups, and foreign governments.
Eight-and-a-half minutes after launch, the rocket’s first stage booster made a return to the Florida spaceport, nailing a propulsive landing at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station accompanied by a crackling double sonic boom.
The successful launch was SpaceX’s second Falcon 9 rocket flight this year.
The mission began with a fiery blastoff from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral at 10:25:39 a.m. EST (1525:39 GMT) Thursday. Nine Merlin 1D engines, combining to generate 1.7 million pounds of thrust, powered the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher into a crystal clear sky.
Heading downrange to the south-southeast, the rocket surpassed the speed of sound and then shed its first stage section nearly two-and-a-half minutes into the flight. An upper stage engine took over the flight as the booster stage pulsed cold gas nitrogen-fed thrusters to flip around and fire three of its Merlin powerplants to reverse course and return to Cape Canaveral.
Thanks to clear skies, the aerobatic flip maneuver and boost-back burn were spectacularly visible to observers on the ground. The rocket’s dueling exhaust plumes created a cloud of vapor high up in the mid-morning sky.
The upper stage continued into orbit with a six-minute burn of its Merlin engine, flying a course parallel to Florida’s east coast, then over Cuba and the Caribbean Sea. The rocket jettisoned its clamshell-like payload fairing during the orbit insertion burn, while the first stage arced to an apogee, or high point, of about 87 miles (141 kilometers) before beginning its descent back to Earth.
An entry burn helped slow the booster’s plunge, and finally a single engine lit for a final braking maneuver as the rocket unfurled its landing gear to settle for a helicopter-like precision vertical touchdown at Landing Zone 1, around 9 miles (13 kilometers) south of the mission’s liftoff location.
The landing capped the 10th trip to space for SpaceX Booster No. 1058, which debuted in May 2020 with the company’s first flight with astronauts — NASA’s Crew Dragon Demo-2 test flight — to the International Space Station.
The upper stage shut off its engine just as the booster stage landed, beginning a coast halfway around the world, soaring over Antarctica and then heading northbound over the Indian Ocean.
A brief two-second restart of the upper stage engine placed the rocket at the correct altitude and inclination for deployment of the mission’s 105 payloads. The mission started separating its payloads at an altitude of 333 miles (536 kilometers) in a polar orbit.
The half-hour deployment sequence included separation of 99 individual satellites from the Falcon 9’s payload stack. Another six satellites were mounted to a carrier spacecraft that will release its passengers later.
The mission Thursday, known as Transporter 3, followed SpaceX’s first two Transporter rideshare flights in 2022.
SpaceX announced its small satellite rideshare launch service in 2019. SpaceX intends to launch as many as four dedicated ridehsare flights on Falcon 9 rockets this year, doubling the rate of Transporter launches from about one every six months to one every three-to-four months.
There’s high demand for the rideshare launch service. Several SpaceX customers have said the price for a slot on a Transporter mission is unmatched in the launch industry.
On its website, SpaceX says it charges customers as little as $1 million to launch a payload of 440 pounds (200 kilograms) on a dedicated rideshare flight to sun-synchronous orbit. The price is enabled by cost reductions from reusing Falcon 9 rocket hardware.
Companies like Berlin-based Exolaunch, the Italian launch broker D-Orbit, and Spaceflight in Seattle reserved ports on the Transporter 3 payload stack, then divided that capacity among multiple small satellite customers.
D-Orbit had its own satellite carrier mounted on the Transporter 3 payload stack. The company’s ION SCV004 vehicle separated from the Falcon 9 rocket to later release its own satellite passengers.
The payloads on-board the Transporter 3 mission ranged from smaller than a soda can to the size of a washing machine.
The biggest of the group was the Ukrainian Sich 2-1 satellite, a 375-pound (170-kilogram) government-funded Earth-imaging spacecraft delayed for years by political and economic turmoil in Ukraine, largely driven by the country’s conflict with Russia.
The Sich 2-1 satellite, also named Sich 2-30, was built by the Ukrainian company Yuzhnoye. It hosts a medium-resolution imaging payload to take pictures of Earth’s surface in visible and near-infrared wavelengths, collecting data useful in urban planning, crop management, and environmental monitoring.
Radar remote sensing satellites were also part of the Transporter 3 payload package.
Two satellites reach for Finland’s ICEYE and the U.S. company Capella were stowed inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload shroud. Both companies are building out fleets of small satellites using radar beams to regularly map the world’s land masses, oceans, and ice sheets.
Radar imaging doesn’t provide as much color or detail as optical remote sensing, but radar satellites come with the benefit of being sensitive day or night, and in all weather conditions.
Images from ICEYE and Capella are sharp enough for analysts to pick out ships, buildings, and other features on Earth’s surface smaller than 1 meter (3 feet) in size.
ICEYE’s two new satellites joined 13 others already in the company’s constellation. Each satellite weighs about 187 pounds (85 kilograms), and carries a radar antenna that will unfold once it’s in orbit.
Capella, a competitor to ICEYE, also added two satellites to its fleet with the Transporter 3 mission. The new additions, each about 220 pounds (100 kilograms) at launch, join five satellites already in Capella’s commercial fleet providing radar imagery to the U.S. military and other customers.
Another radar remote sensing company, Umbra, also had a satellite on-board the Transporter 3 mission. Umbra’s second satellite follows a first spacecraft launched on Transporter 2 last year.
Like the ICEYE and Capella satellites, the 143-pound (65-kilogram) Umbra satellite will unfurl a radar antenna after separating from the Falcon 9 rocket. Umbra is also building out a fleet of satellites, which it says will be capable of capturing the highest-resolution radar images of any commercial constellation at just 6 inches (15 centimeters).
Falcon 9 landing confirmed!
Accompanied by sonic booms, the 15-story booster, designated B1058 in SpaceX’s fleet, has completed its 10th trip to space and back since debuting in May 2020 on the company’s first astronaut mission.https://t.co/XoYMSnB4Ln pic.twitter.com/EXWcFYVby8
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) January 13, 2022
The Transporter 3 mission also hauled 44 small SuperDove optical imaging satellites into orbit for Planet, which owns the industry’s largest fleet of Earth observation spacecraft. The San Francisco-based company said before the launch it would have more than 240 satellites in orbit with the new flock of SuperDoves that took off Thursday.
The SuperDove satellites are about the size of a shoebox, and they form the backbone of Planet’s constellation mapping all of Earth’s land masses every day. “This unprecedented capability provides our customers with daily data about Earth resources and global events,” the company said in an update posted on its website.”
The Transporter 3 mission was the first for Planet and SpaceX under a new multi-launch agreement signed last year, cinching SpaceX’s position as Planet’s “go-to launch provider” through the end of 2025.
Other satellites on the Transporter 3 launch included eight “Tevel” CubeSats built by students in Israel. Led by the Herzliya Science Center, the Tevel satellites will support amateur radio communications in low Earth orbit.
There were five small CubeSats on the mission for Spire Global, which operates a constellation of smallsats collecting weather and ship tracking data. Four CubeSats were on-board for Kepler Communications, a Canadian company deploying a data relay satellite network.
Three MDASat nanosatellites from South Africa also launched on the Transporter 3 mission. They are part of a nearly $2 million government-backed project to detect, locate, and track maritime traffic near South African coastal zones.
Other companies with satellites on the Transporter 3 mission included Sen, a British firm launching its first CubeSat spacecraft in a planned fleet to provide high-definition video of Earth. There was also a CubeSat from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, which intends to use a color-sensitive hyperspectral imager to monitor oceans.
Lunasonde, a company based in Tucson, Arizona, launched the first satellite in its planned Gossamer constellation designed for subsurface imaging, with the ability to help locate underground water, mineral deposits, and other resources.
SpaceX’s Transporter 3 launch also carried a small satellite from the French startup UnSeenLabs, which is in the maritime surveillance business. A CubeSat from Dubai launched to help officials monitor and manage the city’s electricity and water networks,
A CubeSat named NuX 1, owned by NuSpace in Singapore, will demonstrate data relay technologies and a lower-power Hall effect thruster. A CubeSat from Taiwan, named IRIS A, has a similar communications tech demo purpose.
Another spacecraft deployed from the Falcon 9 rocket is the ION SCV004 CubeSat carrier, owned by the Italian company D-orbit, which itself will release six nanosatellites after separating from the rocket. The payloads on D-Orbit’s carrier include four CubeSats from the Polish company SatRevolution and the VZLUSat 2 technology demonstration satellite from the Czech Aerospace Research Center.
A CubeSat payload from the University of Southern California, named Dodona, was also be packed onto D-Orbit’s ION satellite carrier.
The Dodona satellite carries instrumentation and software for Lockheed Martin’s La Jument mission, which will help spacecraft designers mature artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.
The instruments on-board include optical and infrared cameras, a soft-defined payload to demonstrate on-orbit cyber threat detection capabilities, and an app to allow the satellite’s computer to automatically enhance the quality of an image, Lockheed Martin said.
The smallest satellites launched on the Transporter 3 mission were so-called PocketQubes, tiny satellites that weigh between 1 and 2 pounds.
According to a tally of the payloads provided by SpaceX and mission customers, there were 21 PocketQubes on the Transporter 3 launch for customers in Spain, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Nepal, and the United States.
Their missions range from education and training of future engineers, to technology testing, communications, and remote sensing.
Some of satellites assigned to the Transporter 3 launch were pulled off the mission after a Sherpa space tug, supplied by the rideshare launch broker Spaceflight, suffered a propellant leak during pre-flight processing at Cape Canaveral in December.
The Sherpa tug was removed from the Transporter 3 payload stack, and the satellites it was supposed to deploy will be reassigned to other missions, Spaceflight said.
One of the affected CubeSats, VZLUSat 2 from the Czech Republic, was able to be reconfigured for a ride on the D-Orbit deployer on the same Transporter 3 launch.
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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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