SpaceX launches first Falcon Heavy

In a major milestone for the company, SpaceX successfully launched their Falcon Heavy rocket today.

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The Falcon Heavy was first proposed in 2011 just after the first flights of Falcon 9 had been completed, however, it has taken seven years for the rocket to go from the drawing board to flight.  During that time SpaceX has made a number of significant improvements to the Falcon 9 that have made some of the flights that were originally planned for Heavy possible on Falcon 9.  The final iteration Block 5 is due to start flying later this year which could improve performance even more, however, at present we don’t have details to specify by how much.

Now that Falcon Heavy is operation SpaceX has the most powerful currently active rocket in the world with 5.1 million pounds of thrust.  This version flew with the older Block 3 setup, future variants could be even more powerful.

Due to the design of the Falcon Heavy and SpaceX’s ability to land their core stages we had the privilege of watching two landings today.  The two side booster separated from the rocket at 2:33 minutes into the flight and returned to the Landing Zones at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  The center core continued to power the flight until 3:09 minutes before separating from the upper stage and attempting a landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship “Of Course I Still Love You”. At present we don’t have a status on the center core, we will update the article once we hear more news from SpaceX.
UPDATE – It is looking increasingly likely that the center core didn’t survive the landing, we will post an official statement from SpaceX once we have it.

In another first for SpaceX, the upper stage will coast for six hours before performing a third burn which will send the payload on a hyperbolic orbit towards Mars.  To enable SpaceX to win contracts for launches directly to Geostationary Orbits, they need to demonstrate the ability to restart the stage once it has traveled through the Van Allen Belts that surround the planet.

For this launch Elon Musk has placed his Ruby Red Roadster on top of the upper stage, aboard the car is a dummy wearing a SpaceX spacesuit.

Starman in Red Roadster

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Elon confirmed that the 2nd burn of the upper stage was successful, we will find out in approximately 5 hours if the 3rd was too.

This was the 3rd launch for 2018 and because two cores landed successfully the 4th landing **

This was the 49th launch since Falcon 9 started flying and 25th landing.

** The GovSat1 launch didn't land on the ASDS, however, the core did survive and we are counting that as a successful landing.

SpaceX begin’s 2018 with successful Zuma launch

Following on from a record-setting year SpaceX got an early start to 2018 with the successful launch of the secret Zuma payload.  The launch occurred at 8:00 pm EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Launch Complex (LC) 40 following a smooth countdown.

The launch which was originally scheduled for November last year was delayed due to an issue found while testing payload fair separation data for another customer.  Details of the payload are secret and the broadcast we cut off after the successful landing of the first stage back at CCAFS Landing Zone 1.

We may not get any further updates on the success of the mission, if anything is posted we will update this post.

Update (1/8) – We are hearing rumors that the Satellite may have failed after reaching orbit. No official response yet and no clue if this was an issue during launch or after deployment. We will update the story when we have more information.

Update (1/9) – Due to the secrecy of this mission it is difficult to get true information but multiple sources have said that the Satellite did indeed fail, the two most likely candidates are that it never deployed from the 2nd stage or that it did deploy but didn’t function correctly.

SpaceX released the following statement regarding the launch which indicates that the Falcon 9 performed as expected.

The following statement is from Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX:

“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.

“Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.”

We will continue to monitor the situation and update if more information becomes available.

SpaceX completes Iriduim-3 launch

This morning SpaceX completed the third of their Iridium Next launches delivery another ten satellites to orbit.

As with the previous Iridium launches the rocket lifted off from SpaceX’s Vandenburg launch site at 8:37 am EDT.  Once in orbit, the ten satellites were delivered to their destinations successfully.  After separation, the first stage of the rocket landed back on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship “Just Read The Instructions”.

This was the 14th launch for SpaceX in 2017 and 42nd overall for the Falcon 9.  This was the 11th landing this year with a total of 17 to date.

 

SpaceX launches OTV-5

SpaceX completed another important milestone with the successful launch of the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 5 (OTV-5) today. Despite the weather showing only a 50% chance that it would cooperate SpaceX was able to lift off at 10:00 am EDT.

Due to the secrecy of the launch, SpaceX only showed the launch until stage separation and the landing of the stage.

This was SpaceX’s 13th launch of 2017 and 10th landing.

We are not sure at this time if there will be further updates from SpaceX or USAF on the status of the X-37B, if they are posted we will update the article.

SpaceX launches CRS-12 mission

SpaceX resumed their 2017 launch campaign today with the successful launch of the Dragon vehicle for the CRS-12 mission to the International Space Station.  As with previous CRS launches the first stage returned to land at Landing Zone 1.

This launch comes after a month break to allow the 45th Space Wing to perform maintenance needed around Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Base.

This was SpaceX’s 11th launch this year and 8th landing.

SpaceX launches Intelsat 35e

This evening SpaceX completed it third launch in twelve days as it successfully delivered the Intelsat 35e satellite to orbit. The expendable Falcon 9 launched at 7:37 pm EDT and successfully delivered the payload to its Geostationary Transfer Orbit.

The launch was originally scheduled for the 2nd but was delayed due to a GNC criteria issue with just 10 seconds left in the countdown, the next attempt on the 3rd was also aborted at 10 seconds resulting in SpaceX taking the 4th to review the rocket and pad systems before attempting again today.

This was the tenth launch in 2017 for SpaceX, who at this point have launched more than any other country.

Due to range maintenance in Florida, there will be no more launches in July but you can be sure that SpaceX will be busy during that time as they are still actively working on fixing LC-40 and there is also a possibility that the Crew Access Arm may be installed on Pad-39A.

The next SpaceX launch is currently scheduled for August 10th with the CRS-12 Cargo Mission.

SpaceX launches Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite

SpaceX continued its busy launch campaign today with the successful delivery to orbit of the Inmarsat-5 F4 communications satellite.

The payload was originally planned to be launched using the companies Falcon Heavy Rocket due to the weight of the satellite. However, with the upgrades to the Falcon 9 over the years it is was powerful enough to perform the launch in expendable mode.

To date this is the heaviest payload SpaceX has ever launched, this meant that SpaceX didn’t attempt a landing instead letting the first stage splash down in the Atlantic Ocean after separation. SpaceX has another launch planned for June 1st to deliver another Dragon vehicle to the International Space Station.

SpaceX vs NASA progress since 2010

In 2010 Senator Richard Shelby made the following statement

“This request represents nothing more than a commercially-led, faith-based space program.  Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station much less carry humans to or from space safely.

“These providers have yet to live up to the promises they have already made to the taxpayer.  Not a single rocket or ounce of cargo has been launched since we met last year.  Instead of requiring accountability from these companies, the President’s budget proposes to reward these failed commercial providers with an additional bailout.

Full text here

While it was true at the time that no cargo had been launched by any of the competitors in the program, to say that SpaceX was a “failed provider that needed an additional bailout” seemed a little harsh. As we will see in the article things have changed quite a bit since then for SpaceX and for comparison in the same time frame we will see the lack of progress for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

SpaceX

Started in 2002 by Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation known as SpaceX was created to lower the cost of access to space. The first rocket that was developed was the Falcon 1 which had a single Merlin engine, SpaceX attempted five launches of the Falcon 1 the first three of which failed. All their future hopes rested on the fourth launch which was successful and delivered their first payload to orbit, also making Falcon the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to do so.

In 2006 SpaceX was awarded a NASA Commercial Orbital Transporation Service (COTS) contract which allowed them to develop the Falcon 9 rocket which is the vehicle they current use for all launches. Four years later SpaceX launched their first Falcon 9 rocket which carried the new Dragon cargo capsule to orbit for a brief mission that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean two orbits later, making SpaceX the first commercial company to successfully launch, orbit and return a cargo vehicle. Two years later they followed that launch with their first COTS demo mission to the International Space Station and soon after became the first and at present only commercial company capable of delivering cargo to and returning cargo from the station.

SpaceX didn’t stop with just NASA contracts, they so far launched XX commercial missions for various companies and has many more orders in their manifest.

Since that initial launch in 2010 SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket three times to what is currently in use today the Falcon 9 (v1.2) or Full Thrust version which is capable of carrying 22,800kg to Low Earth Orbit or 8,300kg to Geo-Transfer Orbit. SpaceX has also pursued a goal of making the Falcon 9 (and any future rockets) re-usable a goal which was achieved for the first time in March 2017.  There are two more upgrades planned for the Falcon 9 both of which are due in 2017, the changes should allow faster turn-around times for the reusability of the rocket and also address issues found with cracking in the Merlin engines.

In August 2012 SpaceX was awarded a second NASA contract this time to develop a crewed version of their Dragon capsule to allow NASA astronauts to be transported to/from the ISS.  They are still developing the crew version with a demonstration mission planned for late 2017.

Things haven’t been smooth sailing however in 2015 they suffer the first failure of their Falcon 9 vehicle when a strut broke during launch which caused the second stage to be destroyed, this resulted in the loss of a Dragon capsule carrying cargo to the ISS.  In 2016 during a static fire test, the rocket exploded on the launch pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle, its payload and significant damage to the launch pad.

Elon said after the successful SES-10 launch in March that so far SpaceX had spent about $1 billion dollars in the development of Falcon 9.  Some of that money came from NASA, some from the commercial launches and some from SpaceX themselves.

SLS/Orion

To put what SpaceX has achieved into perspective I thought it would be useful to compare what NASA has achieved in the same seven years since Senator Shelby made that statement.

The Space Launch System (SLS) started life as the Constellation program in 2005, the program was to consist of two launch vehicles Ares 1 and 5 as well as a crew capsule Orion.  This program launched a single Ares 1 rocket in October 2009 before it was canceled.  In 2010 under the direction of President Obama, the SLS program was launched utilizing the Orion capsule and a successor to the Ares 5 design.

Rather than develop a completely new system SLS was to be designed to utilize the RS-25 engines that flew on the Space Shuttle (STS) and upgraded versions of the Solid Rocket Booster that also launched STS. Unlike STS neither the engines or SRB’s are to be recovered after launch making SLS a completely expendable rocket.

Since 2010 NASA has spent approximately $18 billion dollars developing SLS and Orion and so far has only launched Orion once using a United Launch Alliance Delta Heavy rocket.  In addition, estimates show that each individual launch could cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.

The current plan is for NASA to launch the first SLS rocket in 2018 on an uncrewed test, this schedule could be impacted however due to damage at NASA Michoud facility following a tornado.

While the first launch will prove the design of the SLS SRB’s, main stage and Orion capsule it will not allow a test of the complete system as it will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) 2nd stage which is only going to be flown once.  The Exploration Upper Stage which will be used for subsequent launches is bigger than the ICPS, this will require that NASA makes changes to the mobile launch platform after one launch.

Recently NASA started an investigation into the possibility of adding a crew to the first mission, the results of this have not yet been published but could add additional delays.

Summary

In summary, since Senator Shelby made that statement SpaceX has launched 32 times include ten missions to the ISS, they have a large manifest of missions and have upgrades and new vehicles in development. Included in those missions is a plan to send the new Dragon spacecraft to orbit the Moon and also to land on Mars.

In contrast, NASA’s SLS system has cost approximately 18 times as much and so far only the Orion capsule has been launched. The first actual launch is still at least a year away and even then will not be the complete SLS system.  Until this year it could have been argued that SLS had different destinations in mind, however with SpaceX’s announcements of Red Dragon and more recently their Crew Dragon mission around the Moon this isn’t even a valid argument.

 

SpaceX makes history with SES-10 launch

Today SpaceX once again made history with the first launch of a previously flown first stage booster. The Falcon 9 lifted off at 6:27 pm EDT today with the SES-10 payload.

The booster was previously used for the SpaceX CRS-8 mission on 8th April 2016, the booster was the first to successfully land on an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). Following a comprehensive review of the booster, SpaceX was confident that it was ready for a second mission which it completed today with the successful launch and landing this time back on the ASDS “Of Course I Still Love You”.

During a press briefing after the successful mission, Elon Musk revealed that the payload fairing had been successfully recovered to making yet another milestone in the march towards rapid reusability.

The SES-10 payload was successfully deployed to orbit 32 minutes after liftoff making this the fourth successful mission of 2017.

SpaceX launches EchoStar 23

After several delays originally for the static fire test and then the weather SpaceX successfully completed its third launch of 2017 this morning with the delivery of the EchoStar 23 payload to orbit.  Liftoff occurred at 02:00 with the ignition of the nine Merlin 1D engines that propelled the towards orbit.  35 minutes later confirmation of payload separation was posted by SpaceX.

Due to the weight and destination of the payload there was no attempt to land the rocket either on land or the ASDS.

The full launch video from SpaceX is below, liftoff occurred at 12:00 minutes in.