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.
Apparently, with sufficiently powerful optics and a bit of planning, the answer is “yes”. Astronomers are now unofficially competing to see who can spot it the farthest away. 😉 Admittedly, they’re really seeing the Falcon upper stage more than anything else (it’s big and covered in reflective white paint after all), and currently the record stands at 2.5 million kilometers:
This was taken yesterday with a 0.8 meter reflecting telescope at Celado Astronomical Observatory in Italy, and the bragging rights go to Riccardo Furgoni and Giancarlo Favero. The apparent magnitude of Starman was about 19.3, so there is definitely equipment that could still spot it. And that actually makes this a very useful thing to be doing — tracking the Falcon upper stage and the Tesla Roadster is fantastic practice for tracking potentially hazardous asteroids. It is, after all, on exactly the sort of Earth-crossing orbit we ought to be worrying about.
Yesterday, Elon Musk tweeted that the aphelion of the Tesla would put it out into th asteroid belt, but it seems that may not be quite right. After the initial enthusiasm was over, planetary scientists who study near Earth objects did a bit of work with the final velocity figures released by SpaceX and it turns out the final orbit is actually closer to what SpaceX had originally predicted: a bit past Mars. The aphelion will be about 158 million miles from the Sun, and it should reach that distance on or around November 19.
This is still far enough that it will still eventually be perturbed by Jupiter, but not as quickly as if it were reaching the asteroid belt. According to Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University in Belfast, the Falcon upper stage and Tesla payload will likely remain in its current orbit for thousands of years (he did a quick estimate that suggested 10,000 years), but after that the orbit will begin to elongate due to gravitational perturbations. (Other affects will also be at play, but are harder to predict — the solar wind can impart a force on objects, and solar radiation ablating away material can also significantly affect a small body’s path over long timescales.) “Most near-Earth asteroids end by solar vaporization or ejection from the solar system by Jupiter. Near Earth Cars should be the same.”
With luck and fair weather (the latter being a rather tricky thing given Florida’s climate), the Falcon Heavy will blast off from KSC’s LC-39A somewhere between 1:30 PM and 4:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. It should be spectacular — no matter how it goes. (Elon Musk is downplaying it by giving it just 50/50 odds of success.)
And to help get us all in the mood, SpaceX has released an updated animation, showing the actual flight profile (core stage landing at sea, rather than returning to Florida), and depicting the Tesla “mass simulator” that is acting as the payload, with the top down, and an astronaut dummy named Starman riding in the driver’s seat.
Note: the dummy only appears in some of the images I’ve seen on the Internet from the Tesla’s encapsulation. So I am not 100% sure it still got to go along. This animation seems to imply the pictures with him on board are the final ones, though:
The Falcon Heavy at pad LC39A lit all twenty-seven of its engines for about ten seconds this morning, in what SpaceX declared a successful static fire test. This is the most thrust Pad A has experienced since 2011, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis made the final flight of the Space Shuttle program. (It’s also considerably less thrust than Shuttle, but only one other American rocket has ever hit that level — and it also flew from LC39: the Saturn V.) This is also the most engines that any American orbital rocket has ever attempted to use simultaneously. The only other rocket to have used so many engines was the N-1 (which had thirty on the first stage), and it had a very disappointing (and expensive) record — four attempts, all catastrophic failures. But today’s test demonstrates one thing the Soviets were never able to do with N-1: perform an all-up static test fire, forcing them to test the combined performance of all engines only in flight, an exceedingly expensive and dangerous way to go about it.
Now SpaceX is looking ahead towards launch, possibly as soon as next week pending engineering analysis of the data collected today. If all goes well, there will be a Tesla Roadster on a Mars-crossing heliocentric orbit by early February. 😉
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?