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Weather forecast favorable for SpaceX launch this week

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A Falcon 9 rocket streaks into the sky over Cape Canaveral during a launch with Starlink satellites in March 2021. Credit: SpaceX

Forecasters predict a 90% chance of good weather Wednesday night at Cape Canaveral for launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a fresh group of Starlink internet satellites.

SpaceX is readying a Falcon 9 launcher for liftoff at 6:20 p.m. EST (2320 GMT) Wednesday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The two-stage launcher will place another batch of Starlink satellites into orbit a few hundred miles above Earth at an inclination of 53.2 degrees to the equator.

Mostly clear skies and mild temperatures are expected Wednesday evening, according to an outlook from the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

The forecast team says a “rather benign weather regime” will remain in place on Florida’s Space Coast through the middle of the week.

“Surface high pressure is expected to develop over the western Gulf of Mexico and will extend into the southeastern U.S.,” forecasters wrote in a launch weather forecast. “As a result, there will be light winds during the launch window and limited low-level moisture. The primary concern for a Wednesday evening launch is a few cumulus clouds with the onshore flow.”

Winds are predicted to be from the northeast at 10 to 15 mph, with a temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit for the instantaneous launch window Wednesday. Forecasters expect identical weather conditions during a backup launch opportunity Thursday evening.

SpaceX rolled out the Falcon 9 rocket for the next Starlink mission from its hangar Monday and erected it vertical on pad 40. A static fire test is planned as soon as Monday night, when SpaceX’s launch engineers will oversee the loading of kerosene and liquid oxygen into the two-stage rocket for a brief on-pad firing of the Falcon 9’s Merlin main engines.

Hold-down clamps will keep the rocket on the ground as the nine Merlin 1D engines throttle up to produce 1.7 million pounds of thrust. The test-firing will last less than 10 seconds.

The mission will use a previously-flown booster from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 inventory. But SpaceX hasn’t yet confirmed which booster is assigned to the Starlink mission, which is designated Starlink 4-3.

SpaceX also has not confirmed the number of Starlink satellites on-board the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket. The previous Starlink mission, which kicked off deployment of a new phase of the Starlink network, carried 53 satellites, all with inter-satellite laser links.

The Nov. 13 launch of the Starlink 4-1 mission was the first to go into a new “shell” some 335 miles (540 kilometers) above Earth.

Most of the Starlink satellites launched so far have deployed into a 341-mile-high (550-kilometer), 53-degree inclination orbit, the first of five orbital shells SpaceX plans to complete full deployment of the Starlink network. SpaceX finished launching satellites in that shell with a series of Starlink flights from Cape Canaveral from May 2019 through May of this year.

Since May, SpaceX has rushed to complete development of new inter-satellite laser terminals to put on all future Starlink satellites. The laser crosslinks, which have been tested on a handful of Starlink satellites on prior launches, will reduce the reliance of SpaceX’s internet network on ground stations.

The ground stations are expensive to deploy, and come with geographical — and sometimes political — constraints on where they can be positioned. Laser links will allow the Starlink satellites to pass internet traffic from spacecraft to spacecraft around the world, without needing to relay the signals to a ground station connected to a terrestrial network.

SpaceX is currently providing interim internet services through the Starlink satellites to consumers who have signed up for a beta testing program.

In September, SpaceX launched the first batch of 51 Starlink satellites into a 70-degree inclination orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base. That orbital shell will eventually contain 720 satellites at an altitude of 354 miles (570 kilometers).

Aside from the 53-degree and 70-degree orbital shells, SpaceX’s other Starlink layers will include 1,584 satellites at 335 miles (540 kilometers) and an inclination of 53.2 degrees, and 520 satellites spread into two shells at 348 miles (560 kilometers) and an inclination of 97.6 degrees.

The mission Wednesday will be the second Starlink flight to target the 53.2-degree inclination orbit, slightly offset from the 53-degree inclination planes populated during the first phase of the Starlink network deployment.

SpaceX has regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission for approximately 12,000 Starlink satellites. The company’s initial focus is on launching 4,400 satellites on a series of Falcon 9 rocket flights. SpaceX’s next-generation launcher, a giant rocket called the Starship that has not yet reached orbit, may eventually be tasked with launching hundreds of Starlink satellites on a single mission.

The launch Wednesday will be the 32nd Falcon 9 flight dedicated to hauling satellites into orbit for the Starlink program.

It will also be the 27th Falcon 9 launch overall this year, exceeding a mark of 26 Falcon 9 missions SpaceX completed in 2020.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Webb reaches orbital destination a million miles from Earth

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Artist’s illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

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.

This infographic illustrates Webb’s journey to L2. Credit: ESA

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.

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Watch live: Cargo Dragon capsule ready to depart space station

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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

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Astra’s small satellite launcher was test-fired at Cape Canaveral’s Complex 46 launch pad Saturday. Credit: Astra / John Kraus

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.

Student teams work on the INCA CubeSat set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral on Astra’s small satellite launcher. Credit: New Mexico State University

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.

Another student-developed payload on Astra’s first launch from Florida is the Ionospheric Neutron Content Analyzer, or INCA mission, from New Mexico State University. INCA’s main science instrument is a directional neutron spectrometer from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Source: Space

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