Good News: a SpaceX Cargo Resupply is Off to the Space Station. Bad News: Failed Hydraulics in the Grid Fins Caused the First Stage Booster to Crash Into the Ocean

It’s been a busy time for Elon Musk and SpaceX, lately. Earlier this week, the company launched 64 satellites (and a art project known as the Orbital Reflector) in what was the largest rideshare mission in history. The mission was also historic because it involved a booster making its third successful landing. And this was after Musk released more details about his proposed BFR, henceforth known as the “Starship

And earlier today (Wednesday Dec. 5th), SpaceX launched its sixteenth Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-16) to the International Space Station (ISS). While the deployment of the Dragon spacecraft was successful, the first stage booster did not make it back to the landing pad. After suffering from an apparent malfunction in one of its grid fins, the booster fell into the sea – but remained intact and will be retrieved.

Continue reading “Good News: a SpaceX Cargo Resupply is Off to the Space Station. Bad News: Failed Hydraulics in the Grid Fins Caused the First Stage Booster to Crash Into the Ocean”

SpaceX Uses a Thrice-Launched Booster to Send 64 Satellites Into Space.

Earlier today (Monday, Dec. 3rd), private aerospace giant SpaceX launched its Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission. The launch took place from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Aboard the rocket were 64 spacecraft, consisting of microsatellites, cubesates, technology demonstrators and educational research endeavors.

This mission was a milestones for a number of reasons. For Spaceflight Industries, which arranged for the cargo to be delivered to a Sun-Synchronous Low Earth Orbit (SSO), it was the largest single rideshare to be launched from US soil. For SpaceX, it was the third time that the rocket’s first stage booster had been launched and retrieved, bringing us ever closer to the day when Elon Musk’s vision of completely reusable rockets becomes a reality.

Continue reading “SpaceX Uses a Thrice-Launched Booster to Send 64 Satellites Into Space.”

Name Change Alert! SpaceX’s BFR is Now Just Called “Starship”

In September of 2016, Musk treated the world to an early sneak-peak at his proposed super-heavy launch vehicle. Previously known as the Mars Colonial Transporter, the renamed Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) was the centerpiece to Musk’s long-term vision of conducting commercial trips to orbit, to the Moon, and even to Mars. Since that time, the mission architecture and even the name of the system have changed a few times.

For example, in September of 2017 – during a presentation titled “Making Life Interplanetary” – Musk presented the world with an updated design of launch system, which had been renamed the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and the Big Falcon Spacecraft (BFS). And just recently, Musk announced the system will henceforth be known as the “Starship”, and its rocket the “Super Heavy“.

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SpaceX to Launch 64 Satellites, Including Orbital Reflector

orbital Reflector
An artist’s impression of Orbital Reflector unfurled in space. Credit: Orbital Reflector/Nevada Museum of Art

UPDATE – SpaceX has now set a firm date and time for the Spaceflight SSO-A launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base for Monday, December 3nd at 18:31 Universal Time (UT).

A unique smallsat mission promises to be the latest satellite “brighter than a Full Moon!” in the night sky… or not.

The Mission: We’re talking about Orbital Reflector, conceived by Trevor Paglen and fielded by the Nevada Museum of Arts. Dubbed as the “first art exhibit in space,” the $1.3 million dollar project seeks to put a smallsat payload with a deployable reflector in low Earth orbit. Continue reading “SpaceX to Launch 64 Satellites, Including Orbital Reflector”

SpaceX Gives More Details on how their Starlink Internet Service Will Work. Less Satellites, Lower Orbit, Shorter Transmission times, Shorter Lifespans

For years, Elon Musk has talked about his plans to provide broadband internet access to the world using a constellation of satellites. Known as Starlink, this constellation was originally going to of nearly 12,000 low-cost satellites providing a terabit internet service. The first batch of these satellites is scheduled to launch in June of 2019, with the full constellation being deployed by the mid-2020s.

While the bare bones of this plan have been public knowledge for some time, Musk and the company he founded to reinvigorate space exploration have been somewhat scant on the details. But thanks to a simulation created by Prof. Mark Handley of University College London, the world may finally get an idea of what Starlink might look like.

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SpaceX is going to build a mini-BFR to launch on a Falcon 9

In September of 2016, Elon Musk unveiled his vision for a super-heavy launch vehicle, which would be SpaceX’s most ambitious project to date. Known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s plan of conducting space tourism with flights into orbit and to the Moon. It is also intrinsic to his vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars.

Ever since, the astronomical and aerospace community has been paying close attention to any updates provided by Musk on the BFR’s development. In his latest update, which was made via Twitter, Musk indicated that his company will be building a small, winged version of the massive spaceship component – the Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) – which will be launch-tested using a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket.

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Musk Gives an Update on When a Mars Colony Could be Built

Elon Musk is well-known for his ability to create a media sensation. Scarcely a week goes by that the founder of SpaceX and Tesla doesn’t have an announcement or update to make – often via his social media outlet of choice, twitter. And as a major figure in the NewSpace industry, anything he says is guaranteed to elicit reactions (both critical and hopeful) from the space community and general public.

Just last week (on Monday, Sept. 17th), he revealed new information about the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR)  and who its first passenger would be when it conducts its first lunar mission (which is planned for 2023). And on Friday (Sept. 21st), Musk shared some updated plans on when a SpaceX Martian colony could be established. According to the tweet he posted, his company could build a base on Mars (Mars Base Alpha) as early as 2028.

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Elon Musk Reveals who the First Lunar Tourist Will Be

Ever since Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family back in September of 2016, the general public and space community has been eagerly awaiting updates on its progress.  Known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s plan of conducting space tourism with flights into orbit and to the Moon. It is also intrinsic to his vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars.

Already this year, Musk announced that the BFR could be ready to make orbital launches by 2020 and showed the Main Body Tool that would build the BFR. And on Monday, September 17th – during a press conference at SpaceX headquarters in California – Musk announced who the first passenger aboard the BFR will be as it conducts its first lunar mission – the Japanese fashion innovator and globally recognized art curator, Yusaku Maezawa.

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Come Vote and Turn this SpaceX LEGO Set into a Reality

LEGO SpaceX Set

Remember the really cool Saturn V rocket set released by LEGO last year? Want to help set the direction for the next space-related LEGO set that should get built? Well then, check out SpaceX: The Ultimate Collection.

This is a proposed LEGO set designed by Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche (co-designer of the Saturn V set), consisting of three separate modules:

Block 5 Variant Falcon 9

For starters, you’ll get a Block 5 variant of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with its 9 Merlin engines, black interstage and titanium gridfins. The legs actually move up and down and lock in place for that rapid landing and easy reusablity. It also comes with a detachable upper stage with a variety of cargos. You can put a communications satellite into the detachable fairing, or a Dragon 2 capsule that’s ready to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere with its heat shield. 371 bricks

Falcon 9 Block 5. Credit Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche
Falcon 9 Block 5. Credit Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche
Dragon 2 Capsule. Credit Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche
Dragon 2 Capsule. Credit Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche


Falcon Heavy

Then there’s a completely separate Falcon Heavy with its three detachable cores, each of which has its own landing legs. It has a detachable second stage with its Merlin Vacuum Engines and fuel tanks. At the top there’s a payload fairing, and inside that – this is the best part – there’s a tiny Tesla Roadster as a payload, so you can fly your car to space, just like Elon Musk. 453 bricks

Falcon Heavy
Falcon Heavy
Tesla Roadster and Starman. Credit Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche
Tesla Roadster and Starman. Credit Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche


Transporter/Erector/Launcher

And last but not least, the set comes with a SpaceX Transporter/Erector/Launcher that can hold and display either the Falcon 9 or the Falcon Heavy. You can clamp in either rocket and then raise or lower it, ready for launch. 759 bricks

Falcon Heavy on the Transporter. Credit Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche
Falcon Heavy on the Transporter. Credit Matthew Nolan and Valerie Roche

If LEGO does decide to build this awesome set, it’ll consist of 1,583 pieces, and measure 64 cm high when fully constructed at 1:110 scale.

Now, I know you’re wondering where you can buy one of these, but you can’t. Instead, you’ve got to help convince LEGO that this is a set that they should consider putting into production at LEGO Ideas. At the time that I’m writing this article, they’ve gotten 3440 supporters to join the campaign. Because of all the support, LEGO has extended their campaign twice, and now they’ve got 589 days left to reach the 10,000 supporters.

So go, help make this happen.

Oh, and maybe we can convince LEGO to add a Drone ship for landings, Mr. Steven to catch fairings, and maybe a BFR while they’re at it.

Musk Says that SpaceX will use a Giant Party Balloon to Bring an Upper Stage Back. Wait, what?

When Elon Musk of SpaceX tweets something interesting, it generates a wave of excitement. So when he tweeted recently that SpaceX might be working on a way to retrieve upper stages of their rockets, it set off a chain of intrigued responses.

SpaceX has been retrieving and reusing their lower stages for some time now, and it’s lowered the cost of launching payloads into space. But this is the first hint that they may try to do the same with upper stages.

Twitter responders wanted to know exactly what SpaceX has in mind, and what a “giant party balloon” might be. Musk hasn’t elaborated yet, but one of his Twitter followers had something interesting to add.

Quinn Kupec, a student at the University of Maryland’s James Clark School of Engineering tweeted to Musk:

Universe Today contacted Mr. Kupec to see if he could help us understand what Musk may have been getting at. But first, a little background.

An “ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator” is a bit of a mouthful. The ballistic coefficient measures how well a vehicle can overcome air resistance in flight. A high ballistic coefficient means a re-entry vehicle would not lose velocity quickly, and would reach Earth at high speeds. An ultra low ballistic entry coefficient decelerator would lose speed quickly, meaning that a vehicle would be travelling at low, subsonic speeds before reaching the ground.

To recover an upper stage booster, low speeds are desirable, since they generate less heat. But according to Kupec, there’s another problem that must be overcome.

“What happens when these things slow down to landing velocities? If your center of gravity is offset significantly behind your center of drag, as would be the case with a returning upper stage, it can get unstable. If the center of gravity of the re-entry vehicle is too high, it can become inverted, which is obviously not desirable.”

So the trick is to lower the speed of the re-entry vehicle to the point where the heat generated by reentry isn’t damaging the booster, and to do it without causing the vehicle to invert or otherwise become unstable. This isn’t a problem for the main stage boosters that SpaceX now routinely recovers; they have their own retro-rockets to guide their descent and landing. But for the upper stage boosters, which reach orbital velocities, it’s an obstacle that has to be overcome.

“My research is specifically focused on how high you can push the center of gravity and still maintain the proper flight configuration,” said Kupec.

But what about the “giant party balloon” that Musk tweeted about?

Musk could be referring, in colorful terms, to what’s called a ballute. The word is a combination of the words balloon and parachute. They were invented in the 1950’s by Goodyear Aerospace. They can arrest the descent of entry vehicles and provide stability during the descent.

“…the balloon would have to be 120 ft. in diameter, and made of a high-temperature fabric…” – Professor Dave Akin, University of Maryland

Universe Today contacted Professor Dave Akin of the University of Maryland for some insight into Musk’s tweet. Professor Akin has been working on reentry systems for over 2 decades.

In an e-mail exchange, Professor Akin told us, “There have been concepts proposed for deploying a large balloon on a cable that is towed behind you on entry. The balloon lowers your ballistic coefficient, which means you decelerate higher in the atmosphere and the heat load is less.” So the key is to scrub your speed before you get closer to Earth, where the atmosphere is thicker and generates more heat.

But according to Professor Akin, this won’t necessarily be easy to do. “To get the two orders of magnitude reduction in ballistic coefficient that Elon has been talking about the balloon would have to be 120 ft. in diameter, and made of a high-temperature fabric, so it’s not going to be all that easy.”

But Musk’s track record shows he doesn’t shy away from things that aren’t easy.

Retrieving upper rocket stages isn’t all about lowering launch costs, it’s also about space junk. The European Space Agency estimates that there are over 29,000 pieces of space junk orbiting Earth, and some of that junk is spent upper stage boosters. There have been some collisions and accidents already, with some satellites being pushed into different orbits. In 2009, the Iridium 33 communications satellite and the defunct Russian Cosmos 2251 communications satellite collided with each other, destroying both. If SpaceX can develop a way to retrieve its upper stage boosters, that means less space junk, and fewer potential collisions.

There’s a clear precedent for using balloons to manage reentry. With people like Professor Akin and Quinn Kupec working on it, SpaceX won’t have to reinvent the wheel. But they’ll still have a lot of work to do.

Musk tweeted one other thing shortly after his “giant party balloon” tweet:

No word yet on what that might mean.

Elon Musk’s “giant party balloon” tweet: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/985655249745592320
Quinn Kupec’s tweet: https://twitter.com/QuinnKupec/status/985736260827471872