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.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has just soared into the history books, making New Zealand just the eleventh nation to achieve satellite launch capability — although uniquely in the world, this was not a government operation, but a strictly private one. Arguably, Rocket Lab is even more private than SpaceX, as they do not lease a launch facility from a government agency — they own it outright, and built it all themselves. (The first purely commercial rocket, Pegasus, technically also has a privately operated launch facility, the L-1011 Tristar named “Stargazer”. But to date it has operated exclusively out of government airfields, as it’s easier for the materials handling issues that come up with a big solid-propellant rocket.) The vehicle, nicknamed “Still Testing”, was their second attempt, after an attempt last year (nicknamed “It’s A Test”) ended in a deliberate destruction due to telemetry loss during ascent. It carried three Cubesats to orbit, and the ambition is to free Cubesats from needing to piggyback along with bigger vehicles that just happen to be going to a mostly-acceptable orbital inclination, as Electron aims to be cheap enough for just a few Cubesats to pay for the mission. Time will tell if that’s achievable, but Cubesat operators such as Planet Labs (who flew a Dove imaging satellite on this mission) and Spire Global (who flew two of their Lemur communications satellites on this mission) seem confident. The launch site on Mahia Peninsula offers a very impressive range of orbital inclinations, promising to place smallsats anywhere from 31 degrees to polar orbits.
Here’s the official webcast; skip ahead to 14:50 for the exciting bits. 😉
A United Launch Alliance Delta IV (in the 5,2 configuration) placed NROL-47 into orbit, a classified payload. And it was a beautiful launch — with an unusually large hydrogen fireball at ignition, making this a particularly spectacular one to watch. That cloud is actually normal and does no harm to the vehicle.
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?