Tag Archives: Falcon 9

Sixty Years of Spaceflight — Explorer 1 to GovSat 1

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.

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So what happened on the last Falcon 9 launch?

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.

But….

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?

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Falcon 9 at sunset is a glorious sight

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:

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Launch/Landing Recap — plus SpaceX and Electron status

I’m still way too busy to post every day, so in penance, here’s the last month worth of things going up and things coming back down! The vast majority of these are Chinese — they’ve been extremely busy lately!

On November 14, a Long March 4C blasted off out of Taiyuan, China with the Fengyun 3D weather satellite on board.

Then on November 18, the penultimate Delta II launched.  I already posted a link to a full-length video, so now here’s ULA’s traditional launch highlights video:

On November 20, a Long March 6 blasted off from Taiyuan, China with the Jilin 1 set of Earth observation microsatellites.  These are commercial satellites offering real-time video of the Earth, so I chose this launch video because although it doesn’t show very much of the launch, it does include some of the first images returned by the three spacecraft:

Four days later, China launched another rocket, a Long March 2C out of Xichang, with the Yaogan 30-02 photo reconnaissance cluster of three spacecraft:

On November 28, the Vostochny Cosmodrome finally hosted its second flight, a Soyuz 2-1b carrying the Meteor M2-1 weather satellite and a collection of smaller payloads.  Unfortunately, in another bit of bad news for the cosmodrome (and through circumstances beyond their control), the launch was a failure.  The Fregat upper stage was programmed incorrectly, leading to a failure to insert into orbit.  The spacecraft are believed to be somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

On December 2, however, the Soyuz 2-1b had a chance to redeem itself, succesfully placing the Lotos-S1 spacecraft, believed to be an electronic intelligent satellite, into orbit from Plesetsk Cosmodrome.  This was the first launch of this Soyuz variant from Plesetsk:

And then later the same day, a Long March 2D placed the Yaogan Weixing/LKW-1 Earth observation satellite into orbit from Jiuquan, China:

On December 10, China followed that up with a Long March 3B out of Xichang, placing Alcomsat 1 into orbit.  Alcomsat is a commercial geosynchronous commsat for the nation of Algeria:

And on December 12, an Ariane 5 carried the next four Galileo satellites, (spacecraft 19-22) into orbit from Kourou, French Guiana:

And the last launch on this list isn’t an orbital one: it’s another suborbital (and, technically, just barely sub-space) flight of the fully reusable New Shepherd rocket with the new version of their capsule, with super large windows:

They also, for the fist time, had a simulated passenger on board: a crash test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker.  Here’s his view:

Lastly, one more thing coming back down: the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft, following a successful six-month stay at the International Space Station, carrying Sergey Ryanzanskiy, Randy Bresnik, and Paolo Nespoli:

There were two other launches scheduled this week.  The first, Rocket Lab’s second attempt to test fly their Electron small rocket out of New Zealand, was aborted seconds after main engine start a few days ago.  Last I heard, they were trying for a launch today, but I have not yet heard if they flew.  (Which I think means they have not attempted another launch yet.)

The second is SpaceX’s latest CRS flight to the International Space Station, and the first where NASA has permitted the use of a reused first stage on the rocket.  Also, the return to flight for SLC-40 after the catastrophic loss of a Falcon 9 and Dragon there about a year ago.  They had a successful test fire, but technical concerns have delayed the launch.  It’s currently set for late Friday morning.  If they miss that launch time, however, they may have to stand down for a while.  The next crewed Soyuz is scheduled to launch on Sunday, and after that the thermal environment will be unfavorable for docking due to the sun angle.  Next attempt would likely be no earlier than Christmas Day.

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ISS Status Update: Cargo Craft Coming and Going

The ISS is going into another busy period with upcoming cargo ship movements.  First off, the latest Cygnus spacecraft, SS Gene Cernan, was unberthed and released to fly on its own.  SS Gene Cernan now moves into the second part of its mission: deploying nanosatellites, conducting another fire test (Saffire-III, the third and final in the series), and then deorbiting itself safely over the ocean.

The next bit of news is SpaceX preparing for their next flight to the ISS.  This will mark the return to flight of LC-40, the Cape Canaveral launchpad that was badly damaged in a Falcon 9/Dragon mishap last year.  Liftoff is currently scheduled for December 12, and their traditional pre-flight test fire was conducted yesterday, reinaugurating LC-40’s flame trench (skip ahead two minutes for the fire):

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Launch, Launch, GRAY LAUNCH!

I’ve been offline due to a heavy workload at the office, but I have time to catch up a bit with launch videos!

On October 30, Koreasat 5A launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket out of Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A:

The next day, an Orbital ATK Minotaur C launched from Vandenberg AFB in California to place six SkySat satellites and four Doves into orbit.  Minotaur C represents the return to flight for Taurus, whose name was changed to Minotaur C to make a break from the bad luck that had plagued Taurus:

And then on November 5, a Long March 3B out of Xichang, China placed the next two Beidou spacecraft into orbit.  Beidou, when complete, will compete with the GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo constellations for satellite navigation.

On November 7 (in South America; it would’ve been November 8 in Europe), a Vega rocket from Arianespace placed the Mohammed VI-A observation satellite into orbit for the nation of Morocco, flying out of Kourou, French Guiana:

And lastly, after a one-day scrub due to an errant private airplane straying into the launch zone minutes before liftoff, the latest Cygnus cargo ship is on its way to the ISS.  Launched by an Orbital ATK Antares rocket out of Wallops Island, Virginia, this placed the OA-8 Cygnus “SS Gene Cernan” onto its path to intercept the ISS in a couple of days:

(PS. I’m from Minnesota.  So yes, it is Launch, Launch, Gray Launch.  And always will be.  😛 )

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SpaceX has reused another booster!

A Falcon 9 rocket successfully placed the SES-11/EchoStar 105 spacecraft onto geosynchronous transfer orbit, and recovered the first stage after an exceptionally hot reentry from this high-energy trajectory.  This was their third flight of a reused stage.

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