USLaunchReport, a disabled veteran-run enterprise on Florida’s Space Coast, provides ground footage of launches, and they got some beautiful footage of this one. Skip ahead about four minutes to staging, where it’s up high, lit by the Sun, and the humid air near the ground is less of an obstacle to photography, and watch to the end when they start to cut in shots of the plume in the background and in the foreground you can see the impressive optical tracking system they got to use for this:
The last Block 4 Falcon 9 flew yesterday, boosting an unmanned Dragon capsule to the ISS for the CRS-15 mission (skip to about 18:50 for the launch):
Since this was the final Block 4 flight, SpaceX did not attempt to recover the booster. This was, however, its second flight; Core 1045 helped launch the TESS satellite on April 18, which is just a 72 day turnaround to its second flight, SpaceX’s fastest reflight to date.
Unpressurized cargo includes the ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) for JPL and a replacement latching end effector for the SSRMS. Pressurized cargo includes:
- Chemical Gardens (a crystal growth experiment)
- an experimental carbon fiber “factory” for the private company Made In Space (the third one flown to date)
- Crew Interactive Mobile (CIMON), a floating spherical robot trained to recognize and interact with European crewmember Alexander Gerst.
- Rodent Research 7, which will study microorganisms in the guts of a colony of “mouseonauts”
- BCAT-CS, a sediment research project
- Three Cubesats called Biarri-Squad for a multinational experiment to study potential military applications for smallsats (these will be experimenting with laser rangefinding and GPS to maintain relative position data)
- Three CubeSats from the Japanese-led multinational Birds-2 project performing a range of technology demonstrator experiments
- One of the Birds-2 CubeSats is Bhutan-1 (aka Bird BTN), the Kingdom of Bhutan’s first satellite
- Another is Bird PHL or Maya-1, the first Filipino CubeSat (not their first satellite
In their first launch of a scientific satellite for NASA, SpaceX has placed the Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Surveyor (TESS) into Earth orbit and successfully recovered the first stage. TESS is a follow-on to the massively successful Kepler space observatory. Like Kepler, it will use the transit observation method to detect exoplanets, but unlike Kepler, it will be an all-sky survey, reliant upon an unusual orbit in a 2:1 resonance with the Moon (to avoid ever coming too close to the Moon and having the orbit disrupted). The orbit is completely outside the Van Allen Belts, with a period of 13.7 days. TESS will be able to downlink to ground stations during its perigees, at a distance of 108,000 km (about three times further away than the geosynchronous ring). Although TESS has a nominal primary mission duration of two years, this orbit is expected to remain stable for decades, and the spacecraft will almost certainly be used to destruction like so many other NASA spacecraft, finding mission extension after extension until there is nothing more that it can do.
Falcon 9’s upper stage performed two burns, and then released TESS in a supersynchronous transfer orbit; the satellite itself will finish refining the orbit. The upper stage has by now disposed of itself over the Pacific Ocean, and the payload fairing conducted a water landing as part of SpaceX’s effort to reuse the fairings. (The company only has one fairing-catcher ship, Mr Steve, which is currently in California, unavailable for this mission. So far, the closest a returning fairing has gotten to Mr Steve is a few hundred yards, so there is still some refinement needed.)
A reused Dragon capsule launched by a reused Falcon 9 first stage is now en route to the ISS. The first stage was not recovered; it’s one of the older model stages, and SpaceX sacrificed it in order to conduct engineering tests during a water landing. There was no attempted fairing recovery, as the Dragon capsule does not require a fairing. But the launch was 100% successful:
Dragon is expected to rendezvous with the station on Wednesday, where it will go free-floating and be captured by the station’s SSRMS, which will pull it in to berth.
Yesterday, sixty years of spaceflights from Cape Canaveral were capped off in spectacular fashion. Because how better to celebrate the first satellite launched from Florida than with what is currently the latest?
To bookend these sixty years, here is the launch of Explorer 1 aboard a Jupiter-C rocket (essentially a modernized variant of the V-2), January 31 1958. It was a hastily assembled mission, taking the place of the Vanguard that had not yet made it to orbit.
And then here’s yesterday’s launch from the Cape, in an age where this almost starts to feel routine: a Falcon 9, with a reused first stage, blasting off to deliver GovSat-1 (aka SES 16), to provide secure communications for the government of Luxembourg and its allies, and operated by SES. The first stage performed a high velocity landing in the ocean, but as this was an experimental maneuver, the drone ship was not there to catch it; the stage survived splashdown, and will be towed to shore for engineering analysis, and then probably scrapped.
Sunday night, SpaceX launched the Zuma payload for an undisclosed customer of Northrup Grumman. It was a classified payload, presumably for the National Security Administration, as most of the other likely suspects (USAF, NRO) are not generally shy about claiming a particular payload as their own. The launch had been delayed several times, due to concerns with the payload fairing, but on Sunday, the launch appeared to go off perfectly. The broadcast followed the vehicle on camera up to stage separation, and then as they watched the first stage return to Florida, they announced fairing separation and everything else was secret. This is not unusual for classified payloads, and indeed, this isn’t even SpaceX’s first classified payload. After the launch, the SpaceTrack database (maintained by US Space Command, a branch of the USAF dedicated to tracking orbital objects for the sake of collision avoidance) added an object designated USA 280 to their catalog, which at first blush would suggest it had reached orbit.
Two-line elements for the object have yet to be posted, and amateur spotters do not yet report having captured the object in their telescopes. Northrup Grumman has said precisely bupkis about it, neither confirming nor denying that it reached orbit or didn’t. SpaceX has said the launch was “nominal” with the vehicle performing flawlessly. However, rumors have begun to swirl that the satellite may have not only failed but possibly even deorbited. The Wall Street Journal cited unnamed Congressional aides who claimed it had failed to separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage, and consequently had been deorbited into the ocean when the stage cleaned itself up. But this has yet to be independently confirmed. Other rumors suggest a power failure, or a fault in its communication system, or some sort of damage during payload fairing jettison. As yet, however, no one is saying anything, and SpaceX is pressing ahead towards a very busy schedule in 2018, which would tend to imply the vehicle performed well.
Hmmm. Very interesting….
In the meantime, while we wait for drips and drabs of data to come out of program offices, here’s the launch coverage from SpaceX:
Citation: Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?
While on the subject of Falcon rockets, the last Falcon 9 out of Vandenberg (launching the second set of Iridium NEXT satellites) caught a lot of attention for unusually perfect lighting conditions. It was a night launch, but early enough that the rocket quickly climbed into sunlight, brilliantly illuminating the vehicle’s plume against the dark of night. And the best part is — not only can you see staging, and not only can you see the point where the plume suddenly expands above the Karman Line (where the atmosphere becomes nearly insubstantial), but you can see the first stage firing its maneuvering thrusters!!! Seriously! Little poofs are clearly visible in these amazing home videos:
Certainly the best fireworks you could get at Disneyland:
There’s also this awesome time-lapse that makes the motion of the first stage more apparent:
It was even visible from Arizona. Here’s the view from a very puzzled news helicopter crew in Phoenix:
Mind you, you really should be careful if you see this while driving. It can be distracting:
Note: the first stage was actually not recovered after this mission; there was insufficient propellant left. But they practiced the maneuvers anyway before allowing the vehicle to plunge into the Pacific Ocean. The stage was making its second (and final) flight on this mission. To date, SpaceX has not used a stage three times, but I expect it’s only a matter of time before they do.
Of course, I should also include the view from the launch broadcast: