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.

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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.

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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 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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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

Elon Musk Just Shared an Image of the Main Body Tool for Building the BFR. That Thing is F’ing Big!

In September of 2016, Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family. Known then as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – now know as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) – this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars someday. Since that time, the space community has eagerly waited for any news on how the preparations for this rocket are going.

Musk further inflamed people’s anticipation by recently announcing that the BFR would be ready to conduct orbital flights by as early as 2020. While admittedly an optimistic deadline, Musk indicated that his company was building the presently building the ship. And according to a recent post on Musk’s Instagram account, a key component (the main body tool) for making the BFR interplanetary spaceship has just been completed.

It is important to note, however, that what is being shown here is not actually a part of the rocket. As Ryan Whitwam of Extreme Tech noted, what we are seeing in the post is a tool “that SpaceX will use to fabricate the rocket from carbon fiber composite materials that are lighter than traditional materials. Flexible resin sheets of carbon fiber will be layered on the tool and then heated to cure them. After heating, you’re left with a solid section of rocket fuselage. It’s essentially a carbon fiber jig.”

Nevertheless, from the size of the tool itself, one gets a pretty clear idea of how large the final rocket will be. SpaceX chose to illustrate the scale of the tool by placing a Tesla next to it for scale. For some additional perspective, consider the cherry Tesla Roadster (driven by Starman) SpaceX launched with the Falcon Heavy‘s maiden flight.

Whereas the payload capsule was barely large enough to house it, this car looks like it could fit inside any rocket turned out by this tool easily, and with plenty of room to spare. And while cars are not exactly the BFR’s intended payload, it is good to know that it will be no slouch in that department!

When completed, the BFR will be the largest and most powerful rocket in the SpaceX rocket family. According to the company’s own specifications, it will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter and will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb).

And as Musk indicated during an interview with Jonathon Nolan at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, it will even outpace the rockets that won the Space Race for the US:

“This a very big booster and ship. The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”

Once completed, Musk hopes to see the BFR performing service missions to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), the International Space Station, to the Moon, and – of course – to Mars. In addition to sending colonists there as early as the next decade, Musk has also expressed interest in using the BFR to conduct space tourism – flying passengers in luxury accommodations to the Red Planet and back.

In the end, it is clear that Musk and the company he founded for the purpose of reigniting space exploration are determined to make all of this happen. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how far and how fast they progress.

Further Reading: Instagram, SpaceX, Extreme Tech

Wow, Elon Musk Just Deleted the Facebook Pages for SpaceX and Tesla

And Liftoff for Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX

About a week ago, it was revealed that the roughly 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested by Cambridge Analytica. This private data firm, which worked with Donald Trump’s election team and the Brexit campaign, reportedly used this data build a software program that could predict and influence voter choices. Since that time, Facebook stock has taken a serious hit, investigations have been mounted, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself has come under fire.

In addition, this revelation has led many Facebook users to reconsider their privacy settings or cancel their accounts. One such person is Elon Musk. In a move that could prove rather harmful for the social media giant, Musk recently responded to the news by deleting the official Facebook pages for Tesla and SpaceX. And in a rather ironic twist, the announcement came via another social media giant – Elon Musk’s twitter account.

It all began after Musk responded to a tweet posted by Brian Acton, the famed programmer and entrepreneur who co-founded WhatsApp and is the founder of Signal (an encrypted communications app). In what was clearly an act of jest, he responded to Acton’s statement (“It is time”) and use of the trending hashtag (#deletefacebook), by inquiring “What’s Facebook?”

Naturally, no one was buying it, given that SpaceX and Facebook – and their respective CEOs) – have a rather colorful history of business relations. These include the failed launch that took place in September of 2016, where a Falcon 9 carrying a Israeli telecommunications satellite (which would have also been used by Facebook) exploded on the launch pad.

In response to the news, Zuckerberg posted a statement on Facebook that placed the blame for the failed launch squarely on Musk’s company:

“As I’m here in Africa, I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”

This old grudge was also raised on Twitter amidst the discussion about Facebook’s data breach, with a user reminding everyone about the incident. Musk brushed this aside, tweeting, “Yeah, my fault for being an idiot. We did give them a free launch to make up for it and I think they had some insurance.”

This led to a challenge being issued to Musk, where users wrote him and urged him to delete his company’s accounts. In what was arguably an attempt to keep the joke going, Musk responded by indicating that he didn’t know these accounts existed. He did, however, also promise to remove the accounts forthwith.

And it appears that Musk was true to his word. While SpaceX and Tesla still have Facebook pages and show up in searches, the official accounts appear to be gone. Musk chose to maintain the company’s official Instagram account though, and used the opportunity to once again stress that he had little use for Facebook:

“Instagram’s probably ok imo, so long as it stays fairly independent. I don’t use FB & never have, so don’t think I’m some kind of martyr or my companies are taking a huge blow. Also, we don’t advertise or pay for endorsements, so … don’t care.”

Well, martyr or not, Musk appears to have put his money where his mouth is. And of course, his twitter feed is still going strong and there is no indication he plans on turning that off anytime soon! And whether this was intended as as slight to Zuckerberg or a sincere expression of indifference, it is likely that Musk’s move could prompt more users to delete their accounts.

But of course, the social media giant will survive. And given Zuckerberg‘s and Musk‘s competing visions to provide global broadband internet access using satellites, its a certainty that the two entrepreneurs are not done with each other!

Further Reading: Futurism, Twitter