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SpaceX preps for first of four ‘Transporter’ rideshare launches this year

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A Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for liftoff on SpaceX’s Transporter 3 rideshare mission. Credit: SpaceX

With its small satellite launch business booming, SpaceX is set to double its cadence of dedicated rideshare missions this year, beginning with the liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket Thursday from Cape Canaveral with 105 spacecraft for customers in 20 countries.

A 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket is awaiting launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 10:25:39 a.m. EST (1525:39 GMT) Thursday.

SpaceX has a 29-minute launch window Thursday, and forecasters predict a 70% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff. The primary weather concerns are associated with cloudiness that could violate the U.S. Space Force’s range weather constraints.

The Falcon 9 will be powered by a reusable first stage flown on nine prior missions, beginning with SpaceX’s first launch to carry astronauts — NASA’s Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission — in May 2020. For its 10th launch, the booster will head southeast Cape Canaveral, then turn south to fly parallel to the east coast of Florida, taking aim on a polar, sun-synchronous orbit.

The cylindrical booster stage, scarred with dark exhaust residue from its nine previous launches and landings, will shut down its nine Merlin engines at T+plus 2 minutes, 19 seconds. A “boost-back” burn using three of the rocket’s engines will zero out the first stage’s supersonic downrange velocity, allowing it to reverse course and return to Cape Canaveral for landing about eight-and-a-half minutes after launch.

Four landing legs will extend from the base of the rocket as it descends toward Landing Zone 1, one of SpaceX’s two rocket landing pads at the military launch station.

SpaceX typically lands Falcon 9 boosters on drone ships on missions carrying heavy cargo into space, or flights hauling payloads to high-altitude orbits.

On launches with lighter payloads, the booster has enough of a propellant reserve to turn itself around using a boost-back burn just after stage separation. That will be the case for the launch Thursday.

SpaceX’s upper stage, meanwhile, will fire its single Merlin engine for six minutes to reach a parking orbit as it flies over the Florida Straits, Cuba, and the Caribbean Sea. After coasting over Antarctica, the second stage will reignite its engine for a brief two-second firing at T+plus 55 minutes to reach the mission’s planned orbit to begin a 28-minute sequence of satellite deployments.

The first of the mission’s satellite payloads will separate from a carrier pod more than 59 minutes into the mission. The last of the payloads will be released at T+plus 1 hour, 27 minutes.

The launch of SpaceX’s third “Transporter” rideshare mission Thursday follows two similar multi-payload flights arranged by SpaceX last year.

The first mission, Transporter 1, deployed 143 small satellites in January 2021. The Transporter 2 launch in June carried 88 small spacecraft, but exceeded the weight of the payloads launched on Transporter 1.

A team from Exolaunch, a German small satellite rideshare integrator and broker, poses with some of the small satellites set for takeoff on SpaceX’s Transporter 3 mission. Credit: Exolaunch

The Transporter 3 mission also marks the fourth launch from Cape Canaveral since August 2020 to fly on a southern trajectory and target a polar orbit. Before 2020, the most recent polar orbit launch from Florida’s Space Coast was in 1969.

Most U.S. launchers flying on polar orbit missions have typically departed from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, which offers southerly flight paths over the Pacific Ocean. Launches toward polar orbits from Cape Canaveral require “dog-leg” maneuvers, or turns, to avoid flying over South Florida.

SpaceX announced its small satellite rideshare launch service in 2019. After the first two Transporter missions in 2021, 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 has its own satellite carrier mounted on the Transporter 3 payload stack. The company’s ION SCV004 vehicle will separate from the Falcon 9 rocket to later release its own satellite passengers.

The payloads on-board the Transporter 3 mission range from smaller than a soda can to the size washing machine.

The biggest of the group is 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 are also part of the Transporter 3 payload package.

Two satellites reach for Finland’s ICEYE and the U.S. company Capella are 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 join 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, is also adding two satellites to its fleet with the Transporter 3 mission. The new additions, each about 220 pounds (100 kilograms) at launch, will join five satellites already in Capella’s commercial fleet providing radar imagery to the U.S. military and other customers.

Another rdar remote sensing company, Umbra, also has 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).

An engineer works with some of the PocketQubes set to fly on the Transporter 3 mission. Credit: Alba Orbital

The Transporter 3 mission is also hauling 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 it will have more than 240 satellites in orbit with the new flock of SuperDoves taking 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 is 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 include 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 are five small CubeSats on the mission for Spire Global, which operates a constellation of smallsats collecting weather and ship tracking data. Four CubeSats are on-board for Kepler Communications, a Canadian company deploying a data relay satellite network.

Three MDASat nanosatellites from South Africa will also launch 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 include Sen, a British firm launching its first CubeSat spacecraft in a planned fleet to provide high-definition video of Earth. There’s 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, is launching 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 is also carrying a small satellite from the French startup UnSeenLabs, which is in the maritime surveillance business. A CubeSat from Dubai will launch 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 to be 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, will 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 buttoned up for launch on the Transporter 3 mission are 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 are 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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Weather delays set up SpaceX for two weekend launches from Cape Canaveral

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A Falcon 9 rocket stands on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Friday evening with Italy’s CSG 2 radar satellite. Credit: SpaceX

A blanket of thick clouds over Cape Canaveral Friday forced SpaceX to delay liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket and an Italian radar remote sensing satellite until Saturday, setting up Florida’s Space Coast for launches on back to back days this weekend, with another SpaceX flight already booked on the range for Sunday.

SpaceX’s planned launch of Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed radar surveillance satellite was originally scheduled Thursday, but rain showers, low visibility, and thick clouds caused officials to call off the launch attempt before loading propellants into the Falcon 9 rocket.

Conditions at Cape Canaveral improved Friday, but a blanket of thick clouds remained in place over the spaceport. SpaceX scrubbed the launch with fewer than 10 minutes left in the countdown.

SpaceX will try again at 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT) Saturday. The Falcon 9 rocket will fly south from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad over the Atlantic Ocean, tracking parallel to Florida’s east coast, then over the Straits of Florida, Cuba, and the Caribbean Sea to place the Italian radar imaging satellite into a polar orbit.

The reusable first stage booster, flying for the third time, will return to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral for a propulsive touchdown.

Meanwhile, SpaceX technicians a few miles to the north of pad 40 at Kennedy Space Center prepared late Friday to roll another Falcon 9 rocket out to pad 39A. That rocket is scheduled to take off at 2:39 p.m. EST (1939 GMT) Sunday with another batch of 49 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink internet network.

A backup launch opportunity is available for the Starlink mission at 5:56 p.m. EST (2256 GMT) Sunday).

The target launch times are separated by 20 hours, 28 minutes, which would mark the shortest span between two orbital departures from Florida’s Space Coast since 1967.

As with all rocket launches, SpaceX will only pull off the feat if weather and technology cooperate.

There’s an 80% chance of good weather Saturday evening for SpaceX’s rescheduled launch of an Italian COSMO-SkyMed radar satellite, with a moderate risk of unfavorable winds aloft, according to the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

For Sunday’s mission, forecasters expect a 90% chance of acceptable launch weather on the Space Coast. There’s a moderate risk of out-of-limits wind and sea conditions downrange at the booster’s offshore landing zone near the Bahamas.

The primary weather concern Saturday evening is ground winds, which are forecast to be gusting from the northwest to near 25 mph following the arrival of a strong cold front, causing temperatures to drop to around 45 degrees Fahrenheit by launch time.

On Sunday, the only slight weather issue is with cumulus clouds, which could contribute to a lightning risk as the Falcon 9 climbs through the atmosphere.

SpaceX is slated to follow the launches this weekend with another Falcon 9 flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Wednesday, Feb. 2. The Falcon 9 rocket set for launch from California will carry a classified payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

SpaceX has already launched three Falcon 9 missions since the start of the year, and is on pace to complete six Falcon 9 launches in less than four weeks, assuming the next three flights occur as scheduled.

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Live coverage: SpaceX counting down to launch of Italian radar satellite

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Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. The mission will launch a radar remote sensing satellite for Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation constellation. Follow us on Twitter.

SFN Live



SpaceX Webcast

SpaceX is set to launch an Italian radar remote sensing satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket Thursday from Cape Canaveral. The Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch at 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT), weather permitting, and the first stage booster will return to Florida’s Space Coast eight minutes later for landing.

The mission will deploy a COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation, or CSG, radar surveillance satellite into a polar orbit for the Italian Space Agency and the Italian Ministry of Defense. There’s a 60% chance of good weather for launch at Cape Canaveral Thursday evening. The primary concerns are with ground winds and cumulus clouds.

The Falcon 9 rocket will be powered by a first stage booster modified from two previous missions as a side booster on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Both halves of the rocket’s payload shroud have flown to space three times on prior Falcon 9 missions.

Our live coverage will be available on this page beginning at 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT).

The COSMO-SkyMed satellites provide regular day-and-night radar imaging of locations around the world for the civilian and military users. The Italian government oversees the radar constellation, which consists of four first-generation satellites now beyond their operating lifetimes, and the first in a new generation of COSMO-SkyMed spacecraft that launched in December 2019 on a Russian Soyuz rocket from French Guiana.

The radar imaging constellation gathers data for use by the Italian military, which employs the imagery to track maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea. Civilian applications include disaster response, agriculture monitoring, and climate change research.

This mission will mark the fifth launch from Cape Canaveral this year, following three SpaceX flights and a United Launch Alliance mission earlier this month.

Read our mission preview story for details.

ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1052.3)

PAYLOAD: COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation FM2

LAUNCH SITE: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

LAUNCH DATE: Jan. 27, 2022

LAUNCH TIME: 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT)

LAUNCH WINDOW: Instantaneous

WEATHER FORECAST: 60% probability of acceptable weather

BOOSTER RECOVERY: Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

LAUNCH AZIMUTH: South-southeast, then south

TARGET ORBIT: Approximately 384 miles (619 kilometers), 97.9 degrees inclination

LAUNCH TIMELINE:

  • T+00:00: Liftoff
  • T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
  • T+02:15: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
  • T+02:19: Stage separation
  • T+02:27: Second stage engine ignition
  • T+02:32: Boost-back burn begins (three engines)
  • T+03:20: Boost-back burn ends
  • T+03:45: Fairing jettison
  • T+06:11: First stage entry burn begins (three engines)
  • T+06:32: First stage entry burn ends
  • T+07:22: First stage landing burn begins
  • T+07:26: First stage landing
  • T+08:44: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
  • T+56:01: Second stage engine restart
  • T+56:04: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 2)
  • T+1:00:05: COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation FM2 separation

MISSION STATS:

  • 138th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
  • 146th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
  • 3rd launch of Falcon 9 booster B1052
  • 122nd Falcon 9 launch from Florida’s Space Coast
  • 79th Falcon 9 launch from pad 40
  • 134th launch overall from pad 40
  • 82nd flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
  • 80th Thales Alenia Space-built satellite launched by SpaceX
  • 1st SpaceX mission for Italian Space Agency
  • 4th Falcon 9 launch of 2022
  • 4th launch by SpaceX in 2022
  • 5th orbital launch based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022

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SpaceX gives converted Falcon Heavy side booster new life

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with a booster stage converted from two previous Falcon Heavy missions, rolls through NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 8 toward its launch pad. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

A converted SpaceX side booster that flew on two Falcon Heavy missions in 2019 will launch again Thursday as the first stage of a single-stick Falcon 9 rocket set to lift off from Cape Canaveral with an Italian radar imaging satellite.

Liftoff is set for 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT) Thursday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida with a COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation radar surveillance satellite for the Italian government.

The first stage booster assigned to the Falcon 9 mission mission is designated B1052 in SpaceX’s fleet. Tracking booster assignments for SpaceX launches has become a pastime for space enthusiasts. But with SpaceX’s rocket reuse program becoming more routine, the first stage used on most Falcon flights has become an afterthought, unless it’s setting a new record.

But the booster awaiting launch Thursday is noteworthy. The 15-story-tall rocket stage was previously fitted with an aerodynamic nose cone and attachment fixtures when it flew as a side booster mounted to the side of a Falcon Heavy core stage on two missions in 2019.

SpaceX created the Falcon Heavy by connecting three modified Falcon 9 booster stages together, tripling the rocket’s total power at liftoff. Each Falcon booster generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust from its nine Merlin engines, giving the Falcon Heavy more than 5 million pounds of thrust, more than any other launch vehicle currently in operation.

A Falcon Heavy rocket, with B1052 as a side booster, launched April 12, 2019, with the Arabsat 6A communications satellite. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

The Falcon Heavy rocket has flown three times, most recently with the Arabsat 6A communications satellite in April 2019 and the U.S. military’s Space Test Program-2 rideshare mission in June 2019. Both missions flew with Booster No. 1052 as a strap-on rocket stage.

The STP-2 mission flew with the same pair of side boosters as Arabsat 6A. On both missions, the side boosters fired more than two minutes during the climb into space, then returned to SpaceX’s rocket recovery zones at Cape Canaveral for nearly simultaneous landings.

SpaceX attempted to recover the Falcon Heavy core stages on both missions aboard a downrange landing platform in the Atlantic Ocean. But both cores were lost, as was the center stage on the first Falcon Heavy demonstration launch in February 2018.

The first Falcon Heavy rocket launched with a pair of side boosters that previously flew as the first stages on Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX modified the boosters for the Falcon Heavy mission, and they landed back at Cape Canaveral and never flew again.

SpaceX officials have said Falcon Heavy side boosters and Falcon 9 first stages are interchangeable, but Falcon Heavy core stages carry additional structural stiffeners to support the load of two side-mounted boosters. That makes each center core specifically built for the Falcon Heavy.

The launch Thursday with Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed radar satellite will be the first time SpaceX has flown a rocket converted in the other direction, from a Falcon Heavy to a Falcon 9. SpaceX’s ground team removed the former side booster’s nose cone and other unique hardware for its new role in the Falcon 9 fleet.

Two reusable rocket boosters, including B1052, land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket with the Arabsat 6A satellite April 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by James Rainier)

Photographers at the Kennedy Space Center’s press site first spotted the converted Falcon first stage Dec. 8 as it passed through the spaceport from SpaceX’s rocket processing hangar on the way to one of the company’s seaside launch pads.

The sighting of the booster’s serial number — the No. 52 is painted in small print on the side of the airframe — suggested SpaceX had modified the former Falcon Heavy side booster for use as a Falcon 9 first stage.

But it wasn’t clear which mission would use the booster until SpaceX confirmed the assignment of B1052 to the COSMO-SkyMed satellite’s launch in a posting to the company’s website Thursday, just hours before the scheduled liftoff time.

Like its previous two flights, the booster will fire for more than two minutes before shutting down its Merlin engines and flipping around to fly back to Cape Canaveral. Touchdown on Landing Zone 1, located about 6 miles (9 kilometers) south of the Complex 40 launch pad, is expected nearly eight minutes after liftoff.

The Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage — brand new as it is for all Falcon missions — will direct the COSMO-SkyMed satellite along a southerly trajectory parallel to Florida’s east coast, targeting an orbit that takes the spacecraft over Earth’s poles.

It will be SpaceX’s second launch into polar orbit from Cape Canaveral this month, following a corridor that was unused from 1969 until 2020. Most polar orbit launches from the United States take off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, which offers a clear range over the Pacific Ocean to the south, without requiring a rocket to perform a steering maneuver after liftoff to fly around land masses.

SpaceX Booster No. 1052 rolls through NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the way to its launch pad Dec. 8. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

The official launch weather forecast for Thursday evening calls for a 60% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The primary weather concerns are with ground winds and cumulus clouds.

The COSMO-SkyMed continues a busy month at Cape Canaveral, which has already hosted four rocket launches since Jan. 6, including three by SpaceX. Another SpaceX launch is scheduled Saturday from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, when a Falcon 9 rocket is set to deliver another batch of Starlink internet satellites into orbit.

SpaceX will continue its rapid-fire launch cadence Feb. 2 with a Falcon 9 mission from Vandenberg for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

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