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Virgin Orbit celebrates third successful launch in a row

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Virgin Orbit’s 70-foot-long (21-meter) LauncherOne rocket ignites its liquid-fueled engine after release from the company’s Boeing 747 carrier aircraft. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit delivered seven small CubeSats for NASA, the U.S. military, Spire, and the Polish company SatRevolution into orbit Thursday with its air-launched rocket after release from a jumbo jet off the coast of California.

The launch marked the third successful flight in a row for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket sized to haul payloads up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) into a low-altitude orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s ground team filled the rocket, mounted on a pylon under the left wing of its Boeing 747 carrier jet, with kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants at Mojave Air and Space Port Thursday before clearing the aircraft for takeoff.

The jumbo jet departed Mojave at 1:39 p.m. PST (4:39 p.m. EST; 2039 GMT) with a crew of four on-board, then headed west before turning south to fly over the Pacific Ocean.

Pilots Eric Bippert and Mathew “Stanny” Stannard guided the 747, named “Cosmic Girl,” on a southeast heading southwest of the Channel Islands to line up with the rocket’s intended flight path.

Two Virgin Orbit launch engineers — Sarah Barnes and Bryce Schaefer — were also aboard the Cosmic Girl carrier jet to verify the LauncherOne rocket was ready for release about 210 miles (340 kilometers) west of San Diego.

After final pre-launch checks, Stannard sent the command in the cockpit to release the 57,000-pound (26-metric ton) launch vehicle at about 2:53 p.m. PST (5:53 p.m. EST; 2253 GMT). Stannard has been assigned to Virgin Orbit to train for future launches based out of the United Kingdom.

Five seconds after dropping from the 747’s left wing, the rocket ignited its NewtonThree first stage engine and began pitching up to climb into space.

Cornell University students work with the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), a CubeSat that is part of NASA’s 29th ELaNa mission. Credit: Virgin Orbit

The kerosene-fed NewtonThree engine throttled to produce more than 73,000 pounds of thrust for three minutes, before shutting down and separating, allowing the second stage’s NewtonFour engine to take over.

The rocket then jettisoned its payload fairing after soaring above the discernible atmosphere, and the second stage shut off nearly nine minutes into the flight as it reached a preliminary elliptical parking orbit.

The second stage later reignited for about four seconds, placing the rocket into a 310-mile-high orbit inclined 45 degrees to the equator. The seven CubeSats on-board the rocket deployed around 55 minutes after launch.

The satellites included four nano-spacecraft flown under a contract with the U.S. military’s Space Test Program, which designated the mission STP-27VPB.

Those payloads were Globalstar Experiment And Risk Reduction Satellite 3, or GEARRS 3, designed to test connectivity between a CubeSat and the commercial communications network operated by Globalstar. That mission is led by the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Two small satellites funded by NASA were also among the payload package booked by the military’s Space Test Program. They included TechEdSat 13, a three-unit CubeSat the size of a shoebox, from NASA’s Ames Research Center.

TechEdSat 13 hosts several experiments, including an artificial intelligence and machine learning module with a neuromorphic processor designed to execute algorithms in a way that mimics the human brain. The spacecraft also carries an “exo-brake” device that will deploy to help the satellite generate atmospheric drag, allowing TechEdSat 13 to drop out of orbit faster.

The atmospheric brake technology could be used in future small satellites to help ensure they can de-orbit after completing their missions, preventing the creation of unnecessary space junk.

The Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation, or PAN, mission consists of two CubeSats, each the size of a loaf of bread, that will attempt to dock together in orbit. It’s the first CubeSat mission to attempt an autonomous rendezvous and docking.

The project is a partnership between NASA and Cornell University. NASA, in a statement on its website, said the PAN mission is “one of the most advanced autonomous CubeSat systems that has flown to date.”

The PAN CubeSats have a cold gas propulsion system and reaction wheel attitude control devices, according to NASA. The docking experiment is expected to occur a few months after launch, with the CubeSats using GPS navigation to position themselves with an accuracy of several centimeters.

Three commercial satellites were also on Virgin Orbit’s rocket Thursday.

One of them, named ADLER 1, is a CubeSat designed to measure the space debris environment in low Earth orbit. The spacecraft hosts a short-range radar and a deployable piezoelectric array to detect and register space debris fragments, helping scientists verify models of the distribution of space junk in orbit.

The ADLER 1 mission is a partnership between Spire, a commercial satellite company, Findus Venture, and the Austrian Space Forum.

The Polish company SatRevolution had two satellites on the mission. One, named STORK 3, will join SatRevolution’s constellation of Earth-imaging nanosatellites.

The other one is named SteamSat 2, and is a partnership between SatRevolution the British space propulsion firm SteamJet. SteamSat 2 will test a water-based thruster designed to change the altitude or inclination of small satellites.

This map produced by Virgin Orbit shows the location of the new rocket release point used on Thursday’s mission. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit, founded by billionaire Richard Branson, is one of numerous companies competing in the cramped small satellite launch market. Other new launch industry entrants that have flown similarly-sized rockets include Rocket Lab, Firefly Aerospace, and Astra. Companies like Relativity and ABL Space Systems say they expect to launch their small-to-mid-size launchers for the first time this year.

The first LauncherOne mission in 2020 failed during the rocket’s first stage burn. Since then, Virgin Orbit has strung together three consecutive successes.

Thursday’s mission was the first of up to six LauncherOne satellite deployment fights planned this year. Four of the missions will be staged out of Mojave, California, and two are slated to take off from a Newquay Airport in Cornwall, England, this summer.

Virgin Orbit officials have long touted the mobility of the company’s air-launch system, giving managers flexibility on where to base missions.

That flexibility was being demonstrated on Thursday’s launch, which flew to a 45-degree inclination orbit. The orbital parameters required Virgin Orbit to shift the location of its rocket release point farther offshore from Southern California, compared to the location used on the first three LauncherOne missions.

The adjustment allowed the rocket to fly on a more easterly course than the previous LauncherOne flights, while still remaining over the ocean and avoiding flying above land. The more easterly component to the rocket’s heading was required to reach the 45-degree inclination orbit prescribed by Virgin Orbit’s customers.

Launches from the West Coast, such as missions out of Vandenberg Space Force Base northwest of Los Angeles, typically target high-inclination polar orbits. Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO, said officials originally considered staging this mission out of Guam, which is surrounded by open ocean to allow the rocket to reach the payloads’ target orbit.

But engineers moved the drop point and took advantage of excess performance Virgin Orbit discovered in the LauncherOne rocket’s earlier flights. The performance reserve allowed the rocket to use some of its extra propulsive capacity to perform a turn, or “dog-leg” maneuver, to remain over the sea on Thursday’s mission.

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First Chinese space mission of 2022 rockets into orbit

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A Chinese Long March 2D rocket lifts off with the Shiyan 13 satellite. Credit: CASC

China launched a Long March 2D rocket Monday with another classified satellite, deploying the spacecraft into a polar orbit on the first of more than 40 Chinese Long March rocket missions planned in 2022.

The Long March 2D rocket took off from the Taiyuan launch base in Shanxi province of northern China at 0435 GMT Sunday (11:35 p.m. EST Sunday), according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. or CASC.

Liftoff occurred at 10:35 a.m. Beijing time Monday.

CASC, China’s largest state-owned space industry contractor, said the Long March 2D rocket delivered the Shiyan 13 satellite into orbit. Chinese officials did not disclose details about the purpose of the mission, other than claiming Shiyan 13 will be used for space environment data collection and technology tests.

China’s series of Shiyan satellites, which began launching in 2004, have been used for technology demonstrations and experiments. Many of the Shiyan missions to date have likely had a military purpose.

The 134-foot-tall (41-meter) Long March 2D rocket that carried Shiyan 13 into orbit lifted off with more than 650,000 pounds of thrust from its hydrazine-fueled first stage engines. Heading south from Taiyuan over Chinese territory, the two-stage launcher climbed through the atmosphere accelerated to a speed of nearly 5 miles (8 kilometers) per second.

The U.S. military, which publishes orbital data online, said it tracked the Shiyan 13 satellite in an orbit between 287 miles and 309 miles (463 by 498 kilometers) at an inclination of 97.4 degrees to the equator.

Chinese officials declared the launch a success, and the U.S. military tracking data confirmed the mission reached orbit.

CASC said in a statement that the launch was the first of more than 40 missions the organization plans to perform this year. CASC builds and oversees the Long March rocket family, China’s most-flown launch vehicle.

More than 15 of the launches will use the Long March 2D rocket configuration, according to CASC. The Long March 2D is designed to carry payloads weighing up to 2,900 pounds (about 1.3 metric tons) into a polar sun-synchronous orbit.

Accomplishing 15 or more Long March 2D launches this year would set an annual record for this type of rocket.

Other major Chinese space missions scheduled for launch in 2022 include six Long March rocket flights to build and outfit China’s space station.

The station’s Tianhe core module launched last April on a heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket. China launched a Long March 7 rocket with a Tianzhou cargo ship in May to dock with the Tianhe module, delivering supplies for first three astronauts who launched to the station in June.

That crew returned to Earth in September, the same month China launched another Tianzhou cargo mission.

Three more astronauts on China’s Shenzhou 13 spacecraft launched and docked with the station’s Tianhe core module in October to begin a six-month stay, the longest China human spaceflight mission to date.

This year, China aims to launch two more large space station modules — each weighing more than 20 tons at launch — on Long March 5B rockets from the Wenchang space center on Hainan Island. The Wentian and Mengtian pressurized modules will adding living space and scientific laboratory capabilities to the Chinese space station.

Two Tianzhou cargo freighters on Long March 7 rockets and two Shenzhou crew ferry ships on Long March 2F rockets are also scheduled to launch to the Chinese space station this year.

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Live coverage: SpaceX plans prime time launch of Falcon 9 rocket Monday night

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Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch SpaceX’s next batch of 49 Starlink broadband satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

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Keeping up a rapid-fire launch cadence to begin 2022, SpaceX is gearing up to launch another Falcon 9 rocket Monday night from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with 49 Starlink internet satellites.

Liftoff from pad 39A is set for 7:26 p.m. EST Monday (0026 GMT Tuesday) to kick off a 15-minute launch sequence before deploying the 49 flat-panel Starlink satellites into orbit.

You can watch our live launch coverage on this page.

The 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket will head southeast from Kennedy Space Center to deploy the Starlink payloads into an orbit inclined 53.2 degrees to the equator. The mission will aim to release the Starlink satellites at T+plus 15 minutes, 32 seconds, into an orbit ranging in altitude between 130 miles and 210 miles (210 by 339 kilometers).

This mission, designated Starlink 4-6, is SpaceX’s third Falcon 9 launch of the year. The first stage booster, tail number B1060, will be making its 10th trip to space and back.

SpaceX’s drone ship “A Shortfall of Gravitas” is on station in the Atlantic Ocean north of the Bahamas for landing of the first stage booster.

Read our mission preview story for details.

ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1060.10)

PAYLOAD: 49 Starlink satelllites (Starlink 4-6)

LAUNCH SITE: LC-39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

LAUNCH DATE: Jan. 17, 2022

LAUNCH TIME: 7:26 p.m. EST (0026 GMT on Jan. 18)

WEATHER FORECAST: 80% probability of acceptable weather

BOOSTER RECOVERY: “A Shortfall of Gravitas” drone ship north of the Bahamas

LAUNCH AZIMUTH: Southeast

TARGET ORBIT: 210 miles by 130 miles (339 kilometers by 210 kilometers), 53.2 degrees inclination

LAUNCH TIMELINE:

  • T+00:00: Liftoff
  • T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
  • T+02:32: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
  • T+02:35: Stage separation
  • T+02:42: Second stage engine ignition
  • T+02:52: Fairing jettison
  • T+06:47: First stage entry burn ignition (three engines)
  • T+07:07: First stage entry burn cutoff
  • T+08:25: First stage landing burn ignition (one engine)
  • T+08:47: First stage landing
  • T+08:50: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
  • T+15:32: Starlink satellite separation

MISSION STATS:

  • 137th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
  • 145th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
  • 10th launch of Falcon 9 booster B1060
  • 121st Falcon 9 launch from Florida’s Space Coast
  • 137th launch overall from pad 39A
  • 43rd SpaceX launch overall from pad 39A
  • 81st flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
  • 35th dedicated Falcon 9 launch with Starlink satellites
  • 3rd Falcon 9 launch of 2022
  • 3rd launch by SpaceX in 2022
  • 3rd orbital launch based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022

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Cape Canaveral’s busy January to continue with another Starlink launch

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File photo of a Faclcon 9 rocket on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Forecasters expect brisk winds and chilly temperatures for a prime time, full moon launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with another batch of Starlink internet satellites Monday night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

There’s a 70 percent chance of good conditions for launch at 7:26 p.m. EST Monday (0026 GMT), according to a forecast issued Saturday morning by the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron. There’s a backup instantaneous launch opportunity at 9:24 p.m. EST (0224 GMT).

The mission, designated Starlink 4-6, will carry around 49 Starlink internet satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s global internet network. The Falcon 9 is expected to fly southeast from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, heading over the Atlantic Ocean just north of the Bahamas before making a slight right-hand turn to line up with the target orbital plane for deployment of the Starlink payloads.

The flight profile is expected to match that of the most recent Starlink launch Jan. 6, which was the first Starlink mission from Florida to head southeast, rather than northeast. That mission carried 49 flat-panel Starlink satellites into space. SpaceX hasn’t announced yet how many Starlink satellites are on Monday’s launch, but it’s expected to be a similar number.

Launch trajectories from Cape Canaveral have historically tracked east or northeast over the Atlantic Ocean.

But SpaceX, with approval from the Space Force’s Eastern Range, has opened new launch trajectories in recent years. Falcon 9 missions have also flown south along the Florida coastline to reach polar orbit, a destination that was inaccessible from Cape Canaveral for 50 years.

U.S. launches into polar orbit have typically departed from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, which has an open range of ocean to the south of the spaceport.

The south and southeast launch paths from Cape Canaveral require rockets to perform turns, or “dog-leg” maneuvers, using some of their performance to fly around land masses and populated areas. That reduces the number of Starlink satellites SpaceX can launch on a single mission, but the company has said it intends to use the southeast launch trajectories in winter months to improve the chances of good offshore conditions for landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage booster.

For this mission, like the last Starlink launch, SpaceX’s drone ship will be parked north of the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas. For launches to the northeast, the landing platform is positioned east of Charleston, South Carolina, a region that sees rougher seas and higher winds in the winter.

A stack of Starlink satellites awaiting encapsulation inside the payload fairing before a previous Falcon 9 launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX will surpass the 2,000-satellite mark in its Starlink program with Monday night’s launch. Roughly 200 of those satellites have failed or been decommissioned by SpaceX’s ground control team, according to a tabulation maintained by Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and respected tracker of global spaceflight activity.

The Starlink 4-6 mission will be SpaceX’s 35th dedicated launch since May 2019 for the Starlink program.

SpaceX has a long-term plan to launch as many as 42,000 Starlink satellites, according to a company filing with the International Telecommunication Union. The company’s initial focus is on deploying thousands of satellites into five orbital “shells.”

The 53.2-degree inclination shell, the target for Monday night’s launch is one of the five orbital shells at different inclination angles that SpaceX plans to fill with around 4,400 satellites to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband connectivity around the world. The first shell, at 53.0 degrees, was filled with its full complement of satellites last May.

As of last week, SpaceX said the Starlink network is now live in 25 countries and regions, serving more than 145,000 users worldwide. SpaceX builds its Starlink satellites on an assembly line in Redmond, Washington, and the company is developing and iterating its own user terminals.

SpaceX hopes to use revenue from the Starlink business unit to help fund the company’s ambitions to complete development of the heavy-lift Starship rocket, a massive fully reusable launcher designed to eventually replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

On Monday night’s mission, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to target an orbit a couple hundred miles above Earth. After flying free of the launch vehicle, the 49 Starlink satellites — each about a quarter-ton in mass — will unfurl solar panels and use ion thrusters to climb to an operational altitude of 335 miles (540 kilometers).

The forecast for Monday night calls for a mostly clear sky and gusty west winds of 20 to 25 mph. The temperature at launch times is forecast to be around 52 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rainy weather is expected along the Space Coast Sunday, but the weather system will push through the region in time for Monday evening’s launch opportunity, according to the Space Force weather team.

“Clouds will diminish through the day Monday at the spaceport, leaving gusty winds as the primary launch weather threat,” the forecaster team wrote. “On Tuesday, high pressure will settle overhead making for a chilly morning, but excellent launch weather conditions.”

The launch will continue a busy January at the Florida spaceport, with seven rocket launches scheduled on the Eastern Range. Two of the missions, both by SpaceX, are already in the books, with five more on tap before the end of the month, including Monday’s Falcon 9 flight.

A small satellite launcher developed by Astra is slated to take off as soon as next week from the Complex 46 launch pad at Cape Canaveral, carrying several CubeSats into orbit on a demonstration flight for NASA.

United Launch Alliance’s first mission of 2022 is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 21, with a pair of Space Force surveillance satellites heading to geostationary orbit.

Two more SpaceX launches are scheduled for the last week of January from each of the company’s Florida launch pads.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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