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.)
It was three years ago that Virgin Galactic lost a vehicle and pilot in a tragic mishap caused by human error and poor human factors engineering. But the defects have been changed so that the same mistake cannot be made again, and after an incremental test campaign with the newer version of SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, they were able to light the engine for the first time:
It was only a thirty second burn, but it went off flawlessly, and it puts them a step closer to operational flights!
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.
First off, the best news: the upper stage appears to have performed its final burn on schedule! [UPDATE: final orbit is confirmed, with an aphelion extending nearly to the asteroid belt!] SpaceX is doubtless waiting for confirmation of final orbit before announcement; this is a little trickier when the object is heading into heliocentric orbit and is therefore more challenging to track. But spotters on the ground witnessed engine plumes consistent with the timing and expected ground track of the Falcon upper stage. This view was from Marana, AZ:
Less good news: while the two side cores made perfect landings back at the Cape, the central core missed the droneship. It’s unclear why at this point, but that’s definitely something that SpaceX will want to investigate. Still, recovery is gravy at this point in the program, so it’s not bad at all, and it definitely got *close* to the barge “Of Course I Still Love You”.
And then we’ll wrap up with some coolness! First, replay of the launch broadcast (skip ahead 22 minutes for the actual liftoff; skip to 25 minutes for a bit of David Bowie as we see fairing separation, revealing the mannequin “Starman” in the Tesla):
Now, the launch and landing as viewed by folks on the rooftop of the Cocoa Beach Hilton:
And I don’t know how long this next link will be good for, but Space Videos is streaming a reply of the Starman feed, showing the Tesla and its anthropomorphic occupant prior to that final burn:
Oh, and here’s a graphic showing the final orbit — nearly to the orbit of Ceres! The “Mars-crossing” target was well and truly achieved, and then some.
Did you think that Electron rocket was small? Well, rockets do come smaller, and a new record has been set for the smallest orbital-capable satellite launch vehicle in production: Japan’s SS-520-4, a souped-up variant of their SS-520 sounding rocket with a third stage. It placed a single Cubesat into orbit.
And there was another launch on January 31! In Russia, at Vostochny Cosmodrome, on a beautiful, clear winter day, a Soyuz 2 began the climb to orbit:
The Vostochny Cosmodrome was long plagued with delays and corruption, and even after finally being completed after the personal intervention of Vladimir Putin, has struggled to ramp up to where it can start actually relieving Baikonur Cosmodrome. The Angara rocket that was planned to fly from there has been plagued by its own delays, and so it was inaugurated with Soyuz 2. That inaugural flight, on April 28, 2016, successfully carried a gamma-ray space telescope dubbed Mikhailo Lomonosov, while the dropped boosters from the Soyuz fell on Russian territory and were retrieved for engineering analysis. But there were no further flights until November 28 of last year, and that one ended in an embarrassing failure: a Meteor-M weather satellite was lost because the Fregat upper stage had been programmed with a course that would have made sense from Baikonur Cosmodrome, but which left it fatally short of velocity when climbing from Vostochny, which is higher latitude.
But Vostochny this week made an important step past that with the successful launch of eleven satellites aboard a Soyuz 2 rocket with a correctly programmed Fregat upper stage. The primary payloads were Kanopus-V3 and Kanopus-V4, disaster monitoring satellites for the Russian government, and there were also 9 nanosatellites from Germany and the US. These include four more Lemurs for Spire Global, which saw two other launches on completely different vehicles over the last three weeks (including the Electron launch), four experimental inter-satellite communications satellites from the University of Berlin, and D-Star One Phoenix from German Orbital Systems (Berlin) and iSky Technology (Czechia). D-Star One Phoenix replaces the original D-Star One, which was lost aboard the last launch out of Vostochny. This illustrates one of the great advantages of nanosatellites — they are so small and relatively inexpensive that replacements can often be obtained quickly.
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.