Tag Archives: SpaceX

Can you still see Starman?

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.


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The Tesla’s Orbit, Refined: Not Quite So Far

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.”

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Falcon Heavy Flies Tomorrow (Cross Your Fingers!)

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:

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Falcon Heavy roars to life!

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.  😉

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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.


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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This Tesla is Going to Mars(ish . . . hopefully)

It’s a new year, and this new year will see a lot of cool stuff in space — but one of those cool things will be the long-awaited first flight of the Falcon Heavy!  It’s basically three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together, with a single upper stage, and it’s what Musk ultimately wants to use to boost his Red Dragon concept to Mars.  Red Dragon is experiencing delays of its own (the abandonment of propulsive landings for the ISS crew transfer Dragon is a bit of a blow, since that’s a prerequisite for Mars landings), but the launch vehicle is almost here.  And perhaps surprisingly for such an enormous rocket, it actually already has customers lined up.  The conventional wisdom is that there’s too little need for a rocket in this class to make it commercially viable, but it appears that the Falcon 9 reusability and parts commonality may just tip the scales enough to make it viable.  For this first flight, the core stage is brand new, but the two strap-ons are recycled, having previously boosted Thaicom 8 and the ninth commercial Dragon cargo mission to the ISS.

But what of the payload?

This is the first flight of a completely new rocket, so there is no paying customer.  Typically, a new rocket will carry some type of “mass simulator” — a slab of metal, a chunk of concrete, perhaps even a tank of water to do the job of being lifted for not a lot of extra money.  But that’s too boring for SpaceX.  So Elon Musk has contributed his cherry-red 2008 Tesla Roadster as the payload.  And it’s been installed on the rocket, which gives me no end of delight due to the sheer, beautiful ridiculousness of these images, showing the Roadster mounted on a payload adapter, about to be encapsulated in a payload fairing that is ridiculously large for such a tiny payload.

If you have the opportunity to be in Florida for this, I highly recommend it.  (I doubt I’ll be able to, alas.)  If all goes well, not only will this be the biggest thing lifting from LC-39A since the end of the Shuttle program, but it will also feature the spectacular return of three core stages.  Two will return to land at Cape Canaveral, while the central core stage will continue on for a water landing aboard the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” (equipped with its autonomous welding bot, Roomba, which secures the returned stage before the barge heads back to port).  The upper stage, meanwhile, is expected to boost the Tesla roadster into a Mars-crossing Hohmann Transfer Orbit, which it may persist for billions of years.  It won’t actually reach Mars; it won’t be launching at the right time for that.  (Unless it gets delayed sufficiently; the Mars window will be opening in March, just in time for Mars InSight to launch aboard its Atlas V.)

It’s ridiculous, but oh so cool all the same.  😉  If successful, it will be the first car (well, with seats anyway) to go beyond the Moon.

Meanwhile, since then, the vehicle has been rolled to the pad for a fit check.  All went well, and it was returned to the hangar.

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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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