SpaceX Accomplishes Double Headed American Space Spectacular – 2 Launches and 2 Landings in 2 Days from 2 Coasts: Gallery

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 25 at 1:25 p.m. PDT (4:25 p.m. EDT) carrying ten Iridium Next mobile voice and data relay communications satellites to low Earth orbit on the Iridium-2 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – With Sunday’s successful Falcon 9 blastoff for Iridium Communications joining rocketry’s history books, Elon Musk’s SpaceX accomplished a double headed American space spectacular this weekend with 2 launches and 2 booster landings in 2 days from 2 coasts for 2 commercial customers – in a remarkably rapid turnaround feat that set a new record for minimum time between launches for SpaceX.

On Sunday, June 25 at 1:25 p.m. PDT (4:25 p.m. EDT; 2025 UTC) a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a second set of ten Iridium Next mobile voice and data relay communications satellites to low Earth orbit on the Iridium-2 mission from SLC-4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“All sats healthy and talking,” tweeted Matt Desch, Iridium Communications CEO, soon after launch and confirmation that all 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were successfully deployed from their second stage satellite dispensers. Iridium is a global leader in mobile voice and data satellite communications.

“It was a great day!”

The US West Coast Falcon 9 liftoff of the Iridium-2 mission from California on Sunday, June 25 took place barely 48 hours after the US East Coast Falcon 9 liftoff of the BulgariaSat-1 mission from Florida on Friday, June 23.

Without a doubt, Musk’s dream of rocket reusability as a here and now means to slash the high costs of launching to space and thereby broaden access to space for more players is rapidly taking shape.

Following separation of the first and second stages, the Falcon 9’s 15 story tall first stage successfully landed on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship ocean going platform stationed several hundred miles out in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, despite challenging weather conditions.

Indeed the droneships position was changed in the final minutes before launch due to the poor weather.

“Droneship repositioned due to extreme weather. Will be tight,” tweeted Musk minutes before liftoff.

The 156 foot tall booster touched down about 8 and ½ minutes after liftoff from Vandenberg AFB.

Liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 25 at 1:25 p.m. PDT (4:25 p.m. EDT) carrying ten Iridium Next mobile voice and data relay communications satellites to low Earth orbit on the Iridium-2 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: SpaceX

The launch, landing and deployment of the 10 Iridium Next satellites was all broadcast live on a SpaceX webcast.

The perfectly executed Iridium-2 and BulgariaSat-1 launch and landing duo clearly demonstrates the daunting capability of SpaceX’s privately owned and operated engineering team to pull off such a remarkable feat in nimble fashion.

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The stage was set for the unprecedented Falcon 9 launch doubleheader just a week ago when SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk tweeted out the daring space goal after all went well with the Florida Space Coast’s static hotfire test for the first in line BulgariaSat-1 flight.

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Check out the expanding gallery of Bulgariasat-1 eyepopping photos and videos from several space journalist colleagues and friends and myself.

Click back as the gallery grows !

Liftoff of used SpaceX Falcon 9 at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017 delivering BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Sunday’s Iridium 2 flight was Iridium Communications second contracted launch with SpaceX.

“This payload of 10 satellites was deployed into low-Earth orbit, approximately one hour after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg,” Iridium said in a statement.

The Mini Cooper sized Iridium NEXT satellites each weigh 1,900 pounds, totaling approximately 19,000 pounds placed into space. That is the weight of a semi tractor trailer truck!

The inaugural Iridium 1 launch with the first ten Iridium Next satellites took place successfully at the start of this year on Jan. 14, 2017.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

The new set of ten Iridium Next mobile relay satellites were delivered into a circular orbit at an altitude of 625 kilometers (388 miles) above Earth.

They were released one at a time from a pair of specially designed satellite dispensers at approximately 100 second intervals.

“Since the successful January 14, 2017 launch, Iridium NEXT satellites have already been integrated into the operational constellation and are providing service. The first eight operational Iridium NEXT satellites are already providing superior call quality and faster data speeds with increased capacity to Iridium customers. The two additional satellites from the first launch are continuing to drift to their operational orbital plane, where upon arrival they will begin providing service.”

Iridium 2 is the second of eight planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

At least 75 will be launched by SpaceX to low-Earth orbit, with 66 making up the operational constellation.

The inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT satellites in January 2017 started the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

Nine of the 81 will serve as on-orbit spares and six as ground spares.

“Now, and for approximately the next 45 days, these newly launched satellites will undergo a series of testing and validation procedures, ensuring they are ready for integration with the operational constellation,” said Iridium.

“We are thrilled with yesterday’s success. These new satellites are functioning well, and we are pressing forward with the testing process,” said Scott Smith, chief operating officer at Iridium.

“Since the last launch, the team at our Satellite Network Operations Center (SNOC) has been anxiously awaiting this new batch of satellites. There is a lot of work to do, and we are up for the challenge.”

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

BulgariaSat-1 and Iridium-2 count as the eighth and ninth SpaceX launches of 2017.

Including these two ocean platform landings, SpaceX has now successfully recovered 13 boosters; 5 by land and 8 by sea, over the past 18 months.

Both landing droneships are now headed back into their respective coastal ports.

It’s a feat straight out of science fiction but aimed at drastically slashing the cost of access to space as envisioned by Musk.

Liftoff of used SpaceX Falcon 9 at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017 delivering BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Watch this BulgariaSat-1 launch video from KSC pad 39A

Video Caption: Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 23, 2017 from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center carrying BulgariaSat-1 TV broadband satellite to geosynchronous orbit for BulgariaSat, which is Bulgaria’s 1st GeoComSat – as seen in this remote video taken at the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

BulgariaSat-1 streaks to orbit after June 23, 2017 liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
BulgariaSat-1 arcs over eastwards to Africa as it streaks to orbit after June 23, 2017 liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida- as seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
BulgariaSat-1 liftoff atop SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 23, 2017 from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as seen from Titusville, FL residential area. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
BulgariaSat-1 liftoff atop SpaceX Falcon 9 on June 23, 2017 from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as seen from Titusville, FL residential area. Credit: Ashley Carrillo
BulgariaSat-1 launches June 23, 2017 on SpaceX Falcon 9 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as seen from Titusville, FL residential area. Credit: Wesley Baskin
BulgariaSat-1 launches June 23, 2017 on SpaceX Falcon 9 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as seen from Titusville, FL residential area. Credit: Wesley Baskin
Launch 2nd recycled SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida – as seen from the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

BulgariaSat-1 Blazes to Orbit on Used SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket as Breakthrough Booster Lands 2nd Time on Oceanic Platform

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – In another breakthrough milestone aimed at slashing the high cost of rocketry, the innovators at billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched a ‘used’ rocket for only the second time in history – that blazed a path to orbit with its BulgariaSat-1 commercial television comsat payload Friday afternoon, June 23, from the Kennedy Space Center and just minutes later landed upright and intact on an oceanic platform waiting offshore in the vast currents of the Atlantic ocean.

“This is really a great day for us,” Maxim Zayakov, CEO of BulgariaSat and Bulsatcom told Universe Today during pre and post launch interview’s onsite at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Everything is seeming to be a good success so far.”

To top that, SpaceX is targeting a bicoastal weekend doubleheader of launches signaling a remarkably rapid turnaround capability. Another Falcon 9 is scheduled for blastoff on Sunday, June 25 at 1:25 p.m. PDT (4:25 p.m. EDT; 2025 UTC) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on the Iridium-2 mission, less than 48 hours apart – which would set a new launch turnaround record for SpaceX.

The picture perfect liftoff of the BulgariaSat-1 communications satellite for East European commercial broadband provider BulgariaSat began at 3:10 p.m. EDT, or 19:10 UTC, June 23, with ignition of all nine of the ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9 first stage engines on SpaceX’s seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Launch 2nd recycled SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida – as seen from the countdown clock. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

BulgariaSat is an affiliate of Bulsatcom, Bulgaria’s largest digital television provider.

“Everything went down just as we expected,” BulgariaSat CEO Zayakov told me. “Of course there was a lot of excitement. And there are a lot of excited and scared feelings [with launches].”

“At the end of the day it not only worked out just as expected with the launch but the satellite also already reported in telemetry that she is doing fine,” Zayakov elaborated.

BulgariaSat-1 is the first geostationary communications satellite orbited for the nation of Bulgaria.

“We will start using it as soon as we can, in about one and a half months.”

Liftoff of used SpaceX Falcon 9 at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017 delivering BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

The used 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying BulgariaSat-1 soared off historic pad 39A into brilliant mid-afternoon blue skies drenching the Florida Space Coast with beloved sunshine to the delight of hordes of spectators gathered from across the globe – including a Bulgarian TV crew witnessing their first launch.

History’s first ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9 booster was successfully launched by SpaceX this past March for Luxembourg based telecommunications giant SES on the SES-10 mission – likewise from pad 39A.

Some 35 minutes after blastoff, BulgariaSat-1 was successfully separated as planned from the Falcon 9 second stage and deployed to its targeted initial geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

“So now she is on her way to the orbital position. The solar arrays deployed about 30 minutes after spacecraft separation from the second stage.”

Blastoff of 2nd flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 with 1st geostationary communications for Bulgaria at 3:10 p.m. EDT on June 23, 2017, carrying BulgariaSat-1 to orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida- as seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Would you launch with Space X again?

“Yes looking to the future we would be happy to use SpaceX again in the future, certainly why not. SpaceX is definitely up there,” Zayakov replied.

BulgariaSat-1 will be located at the Bulgarian orbital position at 1.9 degrees East longitude and will provide reliable satellite communications solutions to broadcast, telecom, corporate and government customers.

How many customers will be served? I asked Zayakov.

“BulgariaSat-1 will serve about 800,000 customers in Bulgaria and about another million subscribers elsewhere in eastern Europe and the Balkans,” Zayakov elaborated.

The BulgariaSat-1 geostationary comsat will provide direct-to-home television (DTH) and data communications services to Southeastern Europe, including Serbia, the Balkans and other European regions.

You could not have asked for better weather as the recycled Falcon 9 roared to life for the second time with a paying customer and put on a long and exciting space spectacle for those lucky and fortunate enough to witness history with their own eyeballs first hand and follow along for several minutes as the rocket accelerated magnificently to orbit and arched over to the African continent in the nearly cloudless sky.

Falcon 9’s first stage for the BulgariaSat-1 mission previously supported the Iridium-1 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in January of this year.

Some two minutes and 40 seconds after liftoff the first and second stages separated.

As the second stage continued to orbit, the recycled first stage began the daunting trip back to Earth on a very high energy trajectory that tested the limits of the boosters landing capability.

“Falcon 9 will experience its highest ever reentry force and heat in today’s launch. Good chance rocket booster doesn’t make it back,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk wrote in a prelaunch tweet.

Following stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage carried out two burns, the entry burn and the landing burn using a trio of the Merlin 1D engines.

Ultimately the 15 story tall booster successfully landed on the “Of Course I Still Love You” or OCISLY droneship, stationed in the Atlantic Ocean about 400 miles (600 km) offshore and east of Cape Canaveral.

“Rocket is extra toasty and hit the deck hard (used almost all of the emergency crush core), but otherwise good,” Musk tweeted shortly after the recycled booster successfully launched and landed for its second time.

The 156 foot tall first stage may have touched down with a slight tilt.

The OCISLY droneship is expected back into Port Canaveral in a few days.

The 8,100 pounds (3,700 kilograms) BulgariaSat-1 satellite was built by SSL in Palo Alto, Calif. It has a design lifetime for a 15-year mission.

BulgariaSat-1 is equipped with 2 Ku-band FSS transponders and 30 Ku-band BSS transponders for fixed satellite services and advanced television services such as high definition television.

With BulgariaSat-1 now safely in orbit, a period of critical testing and checkout is on tap next.

“It takes about ten days to arrive and stabilize at the final orbital slot,” Zayakov stated. “Then after those 10 days it takes about another 20 to 30 days to actually do all the orbital checkouts and orbital tests required to make sure that the satellite is performing fine and that we can start using it for broadcasts.”

“So in about one and a half months we will be ready to start using BulgariaSat-1.”

“We will start using it as soon as we can!”

2 enthusiastic ‘Thumbs Up’ from Maxim Zayakov, CEO of BulgariaSat, during interview with Universe Today at KSC countdown clock following June 23, 2017 launch of BulgariaSat-1 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The BulgariaSat-1 launch had originally been slated for this past Monday, June 19 but was delayed four days to fix a valve in the payload fairing.

“Postponing launch to replace fairing pneumatic valve,” Musk tweeted last Sunday. “It is dual redundant, but not worth taking a chance.”

And everything went off without a hitch!

BulgariaSat-1 counts as the eighth SpaceX launch of 2017.

Payload fairing encapsulating BulgariaSat-1 comsat launching atop used SpaceX Falcon 9 booster at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite BulgariaSat-1 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Photo of BulgariaSat-1 undergoing launch processing. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 BulgariaSat-1 mission patch logo. Credit: SpaceX/BulgariaSat

2nd SpaceX Recycled Falcon 9 Rocket Launching 1st Bulgarian GeoComSat June 23, Plus Potential Weekend Launch ‘Doubleheader’ – Watch Live

Flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida slated for launch of BulgariaSat-1 on June 23, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – For only the second time in history, SpaceX will launch a ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9 rocket this Friday afternoon and the payload this time for this remarkable and science fictionesque milestone is the first geostationary communications satellite for the nation of Bulgaria.

Blastoff of the BulgariaSat-1 communications satellite for commercial broadband provider BulgariaSat is slated for early Friday afternoon, June 23 at 2:10 p.m. EDT, or 18:10 UTC from SpaceX’s seaside Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

BulgariaSat is an affiliate of Bulsatcom, Bulgaria’s largest digital television provider. The geostationary comsat will provide direct-to-home television (DTH) and data communications services to Southeastern Europe, including the Balkans and other European regions.

Flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for launch of BulgariaSat-1 on June 23, 2017 at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The used 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 will deliver BulgariaSat-1 to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

SpaceX conducts successful static hot fire test of Falcon 9 booster atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 15 June 2017 as seen from Space View Park, Titusville, FL. The Falcon 9 is slated to launch BulgariaSat-1on June 23, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

All systems are GO at this point!

And if all goes well there is a definite possibility of a weekend bicoastal launch double header by SpaceX – says SpaceX billionaire founder and CEO Elon. The next Falcon 9 mission is scheduled for blastoff on Sunday, June 25 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, barely 48 hours apart.

SpaceX is maintaining a blistering launch pace this year.

The Falcon 9 booster arrived just hours after launch of the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission for NASA on June 3 – as I witnessed the recycled rockets arrival at pad 39A first hand later the same day (see photos).

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 5:07 p.m. EDT on June 3, 2017, on Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX successfully launched history’s first ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9 booster this past March for Luxembourg based telecommunications giant SES on the SES-10 mission – likewise from pad 39A.

Recycled SpaceX Falcon 9 skyrockets to orbit with SES-10 telecomsat from historic Launch Complex 39A as it zooms past US Flag by the countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6:27 p.m. EDT on March 30, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The late lunchtime liftoff time for BulgariaSat-1 offers a very convenient opportunity for everyone to enjoy an eyewitness view, regardless of whether you live locally or if have the availability to take a quick trip to the Florida Space Coast.

And the current weather outlook is excellent say forecasters.

You can watch the launch live on a SpaceX dedicated webcast starting about 15 minutes prior to the opening of the launch window at 2:10 p.m. EDT, or 18:10 UTC

Watch the SpaceX broadcast live at: SpaceX.com/webcast

The recycled Falcon 9’s launch window extends for a full two hours until 4:10 p.m. EDT, June 23, or 20:10 UTC.

Fridays weather forecast is currently 90% GO for favorable conditions at launch time. That’s about as good as it gets for the notoriously fickle central Florida region.

The concern is for the Cumulus Cumulus Cloud Rule according to Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base.

In case of a scrub for any reason on Friday, June 23, the backup launch opportunity is Saturday, June 24, at 2:10 p.m. EDT, or 18:10 UTC. Likewise it extends for two hours.

Saturdays’ weather forecast also quite good, dropping only slightly to 80% GO. The concern is for the Cumulus Cumulus Cloud Rule.

Falcon 9’s first stage for the BulgariaSat-1 mission previously supported the Iridium-1 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in January of this year. Following stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage will attempt a landing on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship, which will be stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

The satellite was built by SSL in Palo Alto, Calif. It has a design lifetime for a 15-year mission.

“We selected SSL to manufacture our first satellite early on, based on its history of success and reliability,” says Maxim Zayakov, chief executive officer of Bulgaria Sat. “SSL has been an excellent partner in helping us bring this project to fruition.”

BulgariaSat-1 will be equipped with 2 Ku-band FSS transponders and 30 Ku-band BSS transponders for fixed satellite services and advanced television services such as high definition television.

Photo of BulgariaSat-1 undergoing launch processing. Credit: SpaceX

The historic pad 39A was previously used to launch NASA’s Apollo Saturn Moon rockets and Space Shuttles.

The path to launch was cleared following the successful completion of a critical static hot-fire test of the first stage last Thursday, June 15.

The hot fire test lasted about seven seconds as I witnessed from Banana River Lagoon and Rt. 1 in Titusville, which provides numerous excellent viewing locations.

SpaceX conducts successful static hot fire test of Falcon 9 booster atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 15 June 2017 as seen from Space View Park, Titusville, FL. The Falcon 9 is slated to launch BulgariaSat-1on June 23, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The BulgariaSat-1 launch had originally been slated for this past Monday, June 19 but was delayed four days to fix a valve in the payload fairing.

Payload fairing encapsulating BulgariaSat-1 comsat launching atop used SpaceX Falcon 9 booster at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s onsite BulgariaSat-1 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX launch of BulgariaSat 1, recent SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply launch to ISS, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

June 22-24: “SpaceX BulgariaSat 1 launch, SpaceX CRS-11 and CRS-10 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

SpaceX Falcon 9 BulgariaSat-1 mission patch logo. Credit: SpaceX/BulgariaSat

Elon Musk Details His Vision for a Human Civilization on Mars

Elon Musk has never been one to keep his long-term plans to himself. Beyond the development of reusable rockets, electric cars, and revolutionizing solar power, he has also been quite vocal about establishing a colony on Mars within his lifetime. The goal here is nothing less than ensuring the survival of the human race by creating a “backup location”, and calls for some serious planning and architecture.

These and other aspects of Musk’s proposed mission to Mars were outlined in an essay titled “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species“, which was published in the June 2017 issue of the journal New Space. The paper is a summary of the presentation he made at the 67th Annual Meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, which took place from September 26th–30th, 2016, in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The paper was produced by Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor at Stanford University and the Editor-in-Chief of NewSpace, and includes all the material and slides from Musk’s original presentation. Contained within are Musk’s thoughts on how the colonization of Mars could be accomplished in this century and what issues would need to be addressed.

Elon Musk revealing his Mars Plans at the 67th annual meetings of the IAC. Credit: SpaceX/IAC

These include the costs of sending people and payloads to Mars, the technical details of the rocket and vehicle that would be making the trip, and possible cost breakdowns and timelines. But of course, he also addresses the key philosophical questions – “Why go?” and “Why Mars?”

Addressing this first question is one of the most important aspects of space exploration. Remember John F. Kennedy’s iconic “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech? Far from just being a declaration of intent, this speech was a justification by the Kennedy administration for all the time, energy, and money it was committing to the Apollo program. As such, Kennedy’s speech stressed above all else why the goal was a noble undertaking.

In looking to Mars, Musk struck a similar tone, emphasizing survival and humanity’s need to expand into space. As he stated:

“I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”

As for what makes Mars the natural choice, that was a bit more of a tough sell. Granted, Mars has a lot of similarities with Earth – hence why it is often called “Earth’s Twin” – which makes it a tantalizing target for scientific research. But it also has some rather stark differences that make long-term stays on the surface seem less than appealing. So why would it be the natural choice?

Artist’s rendition of a passenger aboard the ITS looking down on Mars. Credit: SpaceX

As Musk explains, proximity has a lot to do with it. Sure, Venus is closer to Earth, getting as close as 41 million km (25,476,219 mi), compared to 56 million km (3,4796,787 mi) with Mars. But Venus’ hostile environment is well-documented, and include a super-dense atmosphere, temperatures hot enough to melt lead and sulfuric acid rain! Mercury is too hot and airless, and the Jovian moons are very far.

This leaves us with just two options for the near-future, as far as Musk is concerned. One is the Moon, which is likely to have a permanent settlement on it in the coming years. In fact, between the ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, and the Chines National Space Administration, there is no shortage of plans to build a lunar outpost, which will serve as a successor to the ISS.

But compared to Mars, it is less resource rich, has no atmosphere, and represents a major transition as far as gravity (0.165 g compared to 0.376 g) and length of day (28 days vs. 24.5 hours) are concerned. Herein lies the greatest reason to go to Mars, which is the fact that our options are limited and Mars is the most Earth-like of all the bodies that are currently accessible to us.

What’s more, Musk makes allowances for the fact that colonists could start kick-starting the terraforming process, to make it even more Earth-like over time. As he states (bold added for emphasis):

“In fact, we now believe that early Mars was a lot like Earth. In effect, if we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans. Mars is about half as far again from the Sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.

“It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth. We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.”

Naturally, no mission can be expected to happen without the all-important vehicle. To this end, Musk used the annual IAC meeting to unveil his company’s plans for the Interplanetary Transport System. An updated version of the Mars Colonial Transporter (which Musk began talking about in 2012), the ITS will consist of two main components – a reusable rocket booster and the Interplanetary Spaceship.

The process for getting to Mars with these components involves a few steps. First, the rocket booster and spaceship take off together and the spaceship is delivered into orbit. Next, while the spaceship assumes a parking orbit, the booster returns to Earth to be reloaded with the tanker craft. This vehicle is the same design as the spaceship, but contains propellant tanks instead of cargo areas.

The tanker is then launched into orbit with the booster, where it will rendezvous with the spaceship and refuel it for the journey to Mars. Overall, the propellant tanker will go up anywhere from three to five times to fill the tanks of the spacecraft while it is in orbit. Musk estimates that the turnaround time between the spacecraft launch and the booster retrieval could eventually be as low as 20 minutes.

This process (if Musk gets its way) would expand to include multiple spaceships making the journey to and from Mars every 26 months (when Mars and Earth are closest together):

“You would ultimately have upwards of 1,000 or more spaceships waiting in orbit. Hence, the Mars Colonial fleet would depart en masse. It makes sense to load the spaceships into orbit because you have got 2 years to do so, and then you can make frequent use of the booster and the tanker to get really heavy reuse out of those. With the spaceship, you get less reuse because you have to consider how long it is going to last—maybe 30 years, which might be perhaps 12–15 flights of the spaceship at most.”

In terms of the rocket’s structure, it would consist of an advanced carbon fiber exterior surrounding fuel tanks, which would rely on an autogenous pressurization system. This involves the fuel and oxygen being gasified through heat exchanges in the engine, which would then be used to pressurize the tanks. This is a much simpler system than what is currently being used for the Falcon 9 rocket.

The booster would use 42 Raptor engines arranged in concentric rings to generate thrust. With 21 engines in the outer ring, 14 in the inner ring, and seven in a center cluster, the booster would have an estimated lift-off thrust of 11,793 metric tons (13,000 tons) – 128 MegaNewtons – and a vacuum thrust of 12,714 metric tons (14,015 tons), or 138 MN. This would make it the first spacecraft where the rocket performance bar exceeds the physical size of the rocket.

As for the spacecraft, the designs calls for a pressurized section at the top with an unpressurized section beneath. The pressurized section would hold up to 100 passengers (thought Musk hopes to eventually increase that capacity to 200 people per trip), while all the luggage and cargo necessary for building the Martian colony would be kept in the unpressurized section below.

As for the crew compartments themselves, Musk was sure to illustrate how time in them would not be boring, since the transit time is a long. “Therefore, the crew compartment or the occupant compartment is set up so that you can do zero-gravity games – you can float around,” he said. “There will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, and a restaurant. It will be really fun to go. You are going to have a great time!”

The system architecture of the Interplanetary Transport System. Credit: SpaceX

Below both these sections, the liquid oxygen tank, fuel tank and spacecraft engines are located. The engines, which would be directly attached to the thrust cone at the base, would consists of an outer ring of three sea-level engines – which would generate 361 seconds of specific impulse (Isp) – and an inner cluster of six vacuum engines that would generate 382s Isp.

The exterior of the spacecraft will also be fitted with a heatshield, which will be composed of the same material that SpaceX uses on its Dragon spacecraft. This is known as a phenolic-impregnated carbon ablator (PICA), which SpaceX is on their third version of.  In total, Musk estimates that the Interplanetary Spaceship will be able to transport 450 tons of cargo to Mars, depending upon how many times the tanker can refill the craft.

And, depending on the Earth-Mars rendezvous, the transit time could be as little as 80 days one-way (figuring for a speed of 6km/s). But with time, Musk hopes to cut that down to just 30 days, which would make it possible to establish a sizable population on Mars in a relatively short amount of time. As Musk indicated, the magic number here in 1 million, meaning the number of people it would take to establish a self-sustaining colony on Mars.

He admitted that this would be a major challenge, and could as long as a century to complete:

“If you can only go every 2 years and if you have 100 people per ship, that is 10,000 trips. Therefore, at least 100 people per trip is the right order of magnitude, and we may end up expanding the crew section and ultimately taking more like 200 or more people per flight in order to reduce the cost per person. However, 10,000 flights is a lot of flights, so ultimately you would really want in the order of 1,000 ships. It would take a while to build up to 1,000 ships. How long it would take to reach that million-person threshold, from the point at which the first ship goes to Mars would probably be somewhere between 20 and 50 total Mars rendezvous—so it would take 40–100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization on Mars.”

Cutaway of the Interplanetary Spaceship. Credit: SpaceX

When the ITS is ready to launch, it will do so from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which SpaceX currently uses to conduct Falcon 9 launches from. But of course, the most daunting aspect of any colonization effort is cost. At present, and using current methods, sending upwards of 1 million people to Mars is simply not affordable.

Using Apollo-era methods as a touchstone, Musk indicated that the cost to go to Mars would be around $10 billion per person – which is derived from the fact that the program itself cost between $100 and $200 billion (adjust for inflation) and resulted in 12 astronauts setting foot on the Moon. Naturally, this is far too high for the sake of creating a self-sustaining colony with a population of 1 million.

As a result, Musk claimed that the cost of transporting people to Mars would have to be cut by a whopping 5 million percent! Musk’s desire to lower the costs associated with space launches is well-known, and is the very reason he founded SpaceX and began developing reusable technology. However, costs would need to be lowered to the point where a ticket to Mars would cost about the same as a median house – i.e. $200,000 – before any trips to Mars could happen.

Artist’s impression of the ITS in transit, with its solar arrays deployed. Credit: SpsaceX

As to how this could be done, several strategies are outlined, many of which Musk and space agencies like NASA are already actively pursuing. They include full Reusability, where all stages of a rocket and its cargo module (not just the first stage) would have to be retrievable and reusable. Refueling in Orbit is a second means, which would mean the spacecraft would not have to carry all the fuel they need with them from Earth.

On top of that, there would have to be the option for propellant Production on Mars, where the spaceship will be able to refuel at Mars to make the return trip. This concept has been explored in the past for lunar and Martian missions. And in Mars’ case, the presence of atmospheric and frozen CO², and water in both the soil and the polar ice caps, would mean that methane, oxygen and hydrogen fuel could all be manufactured.

Lastly, there is the question of which propellant would be best. As it stands, there are there basic choices when it comes – kerosene (rocket fuel), hydrogen, and methane. All of these present certain advantages and can be manufactured in-situ on Mars. But based on a cost-benefit breakdown, Musk claims that methane would be the most cost-effective propellant.

As always, Musk also raised the issue of timelines and next steps. This consisted of a rundown of SpaceX’s accomplishments over the past decade and a half, followed by an outline of what he hopes to see his company do in the coming years and decades.

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

These include the development of the first Interplanetary Spaceship in about four years time, which will be followed by suborbital test flights. He even hinted how the spacecraft could have commercial applications, being used for the rapid transportation of cargo around the world. As for the development of the booster, he indicated that this would be a relatively straightforward process since it simply involves scaling up the existing Falcon 9 booster.

Beyond that, he estimated that (assuming all goes well) a ten-year time frame would suffice for putting all the components together so that it would work for bringing people to Mars. Last, but not least, he offered some glimpses of what could be accomplished with ITS beyond Mars. As the name suggests, Musk is hoping to conduct missions to other destination in the Solar System someday.

Given the opportunities for in-situ fuel production (thanks to the abundance of water ice), the moons of both Jupiter and Saturn were mentioned as possible destination. But beyond moons like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan (all of which were mentioned), even destinations in the trans-Neptunian region of the Solar System were indicated as a possibility.

Given that Pluto also has an abundance of water ice on its surface, Musk claimed that a refueling depot could be built here to service missions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. “I would not recommend this for interstellar journeys,” he admitted, “but this basic system—provided we have filling stations along the way—means full access to the entire greater solar system.”

Artist’s impression of the ITS conducting a flyby of Jupiter. Credit: SpaceX

The publication of this paper, many months after Musk presented the details of his plan to the annual IAC meeting, has naturally generated both approval and skepticism. While there are those who would question Musk’s timelines and his ability to deliver on the proposals contained within, others see it as a crucial step in the fulfillment of Musk’s long-held desire to see the colonization of Mars happen in this century.

To Scott Hubbard, it serves as a valuable contribution to the history of space exploration, something that future generations will be able to access so they can chart the history of Mars exploration – much in the same way NASA archival materials are used to study the history of the Moon landing. As he remarked:

“In my view, publishing this paper provides not only an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning. My goal is to make New Space the forum for publication of novel exploration concepts-particularly those that suggest an entrepreneurial path for humans traveling to deep space.”

Elon Musk is no stranger to thinking big and dreaming big. And while many of his proposals in the past did not come about in the time frame he originally specified, no one can doubt that he’s delivered so far. It will be very exciting to see if he can take the company he founded 15 years ago for the sake of fostering the exploration of Mars, and use it instead to lead a colonization effort!

Update: Musk tweeted his thanks to Hubbard for the publication and has indicated that there are some “major changes to the plan coming soon.”

And be sure to check out this video of Musk’s full speech at the 67th annual meeting of the IAC, courtesy of SpaceX:

Further Reading: New Space

1st Recycled SpaceX Dragon Blasts Off for Space Station on 100th Flight from Pad 39A with Science Rich Cargo and Bonus Booster Landing: Gallery

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 5:07 p.m. EDT on June 3, 2017, on Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – After threatening stormy skies over the Florida Space Coast miraculously parted just in the nick of time, the first ever recycled SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter blasted off on the 100th flight from historic pad 39A on the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) late Saturday afternoon June 3 – bound for the International Space Station (ISS) loaded with a science rich cargo from NASA for the multinational crew.

Nearly simultaneously the first stage booster accomplished another heart stopping and stupendous ground landing back at the Cape accompanied by multiple shockingly loud sonic booms screeching out dozens of miles (km) in all directions across the space coast region.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the unmanned Dragon cargo freighter from seaside Launch Complex 39A at KSC in Florida took place during an instantaneous launch window at 5:07 p.m. EDT Saturday, June 3, after a predicted downpour held off just long enough for the SpaceX launch team to get the rocket safely off the ground.

The launch took place after a 48 hour scrub from Thursday June 1 forced by stormy weather and lightning strikes came within 10 miles of pad 39A less than 30 minutes from the planned liftoff time.

The backup crew of 40 new micestonauts are also aboard for a first of its kind osteoporosis science study – that seeks to stem the loss of bone density afflicting millions of people on Earth and astronauts crews in space by testing an experimental drug called NELL-1. The 40 originally designated mice lost their coveted slot and were swapped out Friday due to the scrub.

The 213-foot-tall (65-meter-tall) SpaceX Falcon 9 roared to life off pad 39A upon ignition of the 9 Merlin 1 D first stage engines generating 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust and successfully delivered the Dragon bolted on top to low Earth orbit on course for the space station and jam packed with three tons of essential cargo.

Loading of the densified liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants into the Falcon 9 first and second stages starting about 70 minutes prior to ignition. Everything went off without a hitch.

Final descent of the SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage landing as seen from the NASA Causeway under heavily overcast skies after Jun 3, 2017 launch from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The booster successfully soft landed upright at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) accompanied by multiple sonic booms at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, about 8 minutes after launch to the International Space Station (ISS). Note SpaceX logo lettering visible on booster skin. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dragon reached its preliminary orbit 10 minutes after launch and deployed its power generating solar arrays. It now set out on a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings to reach the space station Monday morning.

Following stage separation at 2 min 25 sec after liftoff, the first stage began a series of three burns (boostback, entry and landing) to carry out a precision propulsive ground landing back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1).

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster starts landing leg deployment moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely eight minutes after liftoff from pad 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The 156-foot-tall (47-meter-tall) first stage successfully touched down upright at LZ-1 some 8 minutes after liftoff as I witnessed from the NASA Causeway and seen in photos from myself and colleagues herein.

LZ-1 is located about 9 miles (14 kilometers) south of the starting point at pad 39A.

Descent of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage towards Landing Zone-1 at Cape Canaveral after Jun 3, 2017 launch from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Julian Leek

Thus overall SpaceX has now successfully recovered 11 boosters; 5 by land and 6 by sea, over the past 18 months – in a feat straight out of science fiction but aimed at drastically slashing the cost of access to space as envisioned by SpaceX billionaire CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Another significant milestone for this flight is that it features the first reuse of a previously launched Dragon. It previously launched on the CRS-4 resupply mission.

The recycled Dragon has undergone some refurbishments to requalify it for flight but most of the structure is intact, according to SpaceX VP for Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann.

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon is carrying almost 5,970 pounds of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex. This will support over 62 of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members.

See detailed CRS-11 cargo mission cargo below.

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with reused Dragon CRS-11 cargo craft from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. on June 3, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Dragon CRS-11 marks SpaceX’s eleventh contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

Falcon 9 streaked to orbit in spectacular fashion darting in and out of clouds for the hordes of onlookers and spectators who had gathered from around the globe to witness the spectacle of a rocket launch and booster landing first hand.

Recycled SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 cargo craft lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to Earth orbit and the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dragon is loaded with “major experiments that will look into the human body and out into the galaxy.”

The flight will deliver investigations and facilities that study neutron stars, osteoporosis, solar panels, tools for Earth-observation, and more.

The unpressurized trunk of the spacecraft also will transport 3 payloads for science and technology experiments and demonstrations.

The truck payloads include the Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA) solar panels, the Multiple User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES) facility which hosts Earth-viewing instruments and tools for Earth-observation and equipment to study neutron stars with the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) payload.

NICER is the first ever space mission to study the rapidly spinning neutron stars – the densest objects in the universe. The launch coincidentally comes nearly 50 years after they were discovered by British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell.

A second objective of NICER involves the first space test attempting to use pulsars as navigation beacons through technology called Station Explorer for X-Ray Timing and Navigation (SEXTANT).

Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA) is among the science investigations launching on the next SpaceX commercial resupply flight to the International Space Station, targeted for June 1, 2017.
Credits: Deployable Space Systems, Inc.

If all goes well, Dragon will arrive at the ISS 2 days after launch and be grappled by Expedition 52 astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer using the 57.7 foot long (17.6 meter long) Canadian-built robotic arm.

They will berth Dragon at the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

NASA TV will begin covering the Dragon rendezvous and grappling activities starting at 8:30 a.m. Monday.

Dragon CRS-11 is SpaceX’s second contracted resupply mission to launch this year for NASA.

The prior SpaceX cargo ship launched on Feb 19, 2017 on the CRS-10 mission to the space station. CRS-10 is further noteworthy as being the first SpaceX launch of a Falcon 9 from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

Overall CRS-11 marks the 100th launch from pad 39A and the sixth SpaceX launch from this pad.

SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA in 2014 and after refurbishments placed the pad back in service this year for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. To date this is the sixth SpaceX launch from this pad.

Previous launches include 11 Apollo flights, the launch of the unmanned Skylab in 1973, 82 shuttle flights and five SpaceX launches.

June 3, 2017 liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 with reused Dragon CRS-11 cargo craft from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. on June 3, 2017. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Cargo Manifest for CRS-11:

TOTAL CARGO: 5970.1 lbs. / 2708 kg

TOTAL PRESSURIZED CARGO WITH PACKAGING: 3761.1 lbs. / 1665 kg
• Science Investigations 2356.7 lbs. / 1069 kg
• Crew Supplies 533.5 lbs. / 242 kg
• Vehicle Hardware 438.7 lbs. / 199 kg
• Spacewalk Equipment 123.4 lbs. / 56 kg
• Computer Resources 59.4 lbs. / 27 kg

UNPRESSURIZED 2209.0 lbs. / 1002 kg
• Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA) 716.5 lbs. / 325 kg
• Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) 820.1 lbs. / 372 kg
• Multiple User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES) 672.4 lbs. / 305 kg

Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-11 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster starts landing leg deployment moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely eight minutes after liftoff from pad 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 with reused Dragon CRS-11 cargo craft from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. on June 3, 2017 as seen from the Countdown clock at the KSC Press Site. Credit: Jean Wright
Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-11 resupply vessel atop Falcon 9 rocket and delivering 3 tons of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Liftoff occurred 3 June 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket goes erect to launch position atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 1 Jun 2017 as seen the morning before later afternoon launch from inside from the pad perimeter. Liftoff of the CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) occurred 3 June 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

We Will Launch on Reusable Rocket After Exceptional SpaceX Performance – Inmarsat CEO Tells Universe Today

All 9 Merlin 1D first stage engines firing beautifully as SpaceX Falcon 9 arcs over down range successfully carrying Inmarsat 5F4 #I5F4 to geostationary transfer orbit at twilight after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following SpaceX’s “exceptional performance” launching an immensely powerful broadband satellite on their maiden mission for Inmarsat this week on a Falcon 9 rocket, the company CEO told Universe Today that Inmarsat was willing to conduct future launches with SpaceX – including on a “reusable rocket in the future!”

“This has obviously been an absolutely exceptional performance from SpaceX, Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce told Universe Today in a post launch interview at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday, May 15.

“They have now earned themselves an immensely loyal customer.”

SpaceX is the first and thus far only company in history to successfully recover and refly a previously flown orbit class ‘flight-proven’ liquid fueled first stage rocket – during the SES-10 launch in March 2017.

The twilight blastoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the Inmarsat-5 Flight 4 communications satellite for commercial High-Speed mobile broadband provider Inmarsat occurred at 7:21 p.m. EDT (or 23:21 UTC) on Monday evening, May 15, from SpaceX’s seaside Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“They hit the ball out of the park with this launch for us,” Inmarsat CEO Pearce told me regarding the new space company founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk.

The never before used 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully delivered the gigantic bus sized 6100 kg Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) under brilliant blue and nearly cloudless twilight skies from the Florida Space Coast. Read my launch report here.

The first stage is powered by nine Merlin 1 D engines fueled by RP-1 and liquid oxygen propellants and generating 1.7 million pounds.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying commercial Inmarsat 5 F4 broadband satellite blasts off to geostationary orbit at twilight at 7:20 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite is designed to provide high speed broad band service to government, military, maritime and aviation users and ship and airplane customers numbering in the millions to tens of millions of customers now and potentially hundreds of millions of customers in the future. It was the heaviest payload ever launched by a Falcon 9.

Pearce says he “has every confidence in SpaceX.”

Inmarsat is a leading provider of mobile satellite communications, providing global connectivity more than 35 years – on land, at sea and in the air, says the firm.

I asked CEO Pearce; What does the future hold regarding further Inmarsat launches with SpaceX?

“They [SpaceX] have now just gained and earned themselves an immensely loyal customer [from Inmarsat], CEO Pearce replied.

“We will be looking to do further launches with them.”

The 7 meter long Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite was deployed approximately 32 minutes after Monday’s launch when it will come under the command of the Boeing and Inmarsat satellite operations teams based at the Boeing facility in El Segundo.

Would you consider a used rocket, a previously flown booster?

“I’m sure we will be using a ‘reused rocket’, Pearce stated. “And we will be launching on a ‘reusable rocket’ in the future.”

“We will be looking to support them in any way we can with their new innovation programs.”

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 7:20 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida which successfully delivered Inmarsat-5 F4 broadband satellite to orbit. Credit: Julian Leek

In contrast to virtually all Falcon 9 launches in the past 18 months, no attempt was made to recover the first stage booster.

For this launch there was basically no choice but to make the first stage ‘expendable’ because Inmarsat-5 F4 is heaviest ever payload launched on a Falcon 9.

The satellites heavy weight with a launch mass of approx. 6,100 kg (13,400 lbs) means the rocket needs all its thrust to get the satellite to orbit and thus precludes the chance to land the first stage at sea or land.

Thus there are no landing legs or grid gins attached to the skin of this Falcon 9.

“This rocket that went today was not reusable. That was just a creature of its time,” Pearce elaborated.

“We will stay at the cutting edge with SpaceX!”

To date, SpaceX has successfully recovered 10 first stage boosters either by land or by sea on an ocean going platform.

Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pierce during post launch interview with Ken Kremer/Universe Today discusses SpaceX Falcon 9 launch carrying commercial Inmarsat 5 F4 broadband satellite to geostationary orbit after liftoff at 7:20 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The Inmarsat-5 F4 (I-5 F4) will become part of the firms Global Xpress network “which has been delivering seamless, high-speed broadband connectivity across the world since December 2015,” says Inmarsat.

“Once in geostationary orbit, the satellite will provide additional capacity for Global Xpress users on land, at sea and in the air.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 1 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

I-5 F4 was built by Boeing at their satellite operations facility in El Segundo, CA for Inmarsat.

The new satellite will join 3 others already in orbit.

Inmarsat has invested approximately US$1.6 billion in the Global Xpress constellation “to establish the first ever global Ka-band service from a single network operator.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying commercial Inmarsat 5 F4 broadband satellite accelerates to orbit leaving exhaust trail in its wake after twilight launch at 7:20 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Inmarsat 5 F4 counts as the sixth SpaceX launch of 2017.

And SpaceX is on an absolutely torrid launch pace. Monday’s liftoff comes just 2 weeks after the last successful SpaceX Falcon 9 liftoff on May 1 of the super secret NROL-76 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO – as I reported here.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 Inmarsat-5 F4 (I-5 F4) mission artwork. Credit: SpaceX/Inmarsat
Inmarsat-5 Flight 4 (I-5 F4) satellite undergoes prelaunch processing for liftoff on SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: Inmarsat
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying commercial Inmarsat 5 F4 broadband satellite blasts off to geostationary orbit at twilight at 7:20 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

SpaceX Blasts Biggest High Speed Communications Satellite to Orbit for Inmarsat

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying commercial Inmarsat 5 F4 broadband satellite blasts off to geostationary orbit at twilight at 7:20 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX blasted the “largest and most complicated communications satellite ever built to orbit” for London based Inmarset at twilight this evening, May 15, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center aboard an expendable Falcon 9 rocket.

In fact the Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite is so powerful that it has the potential to reach “hundreds of millions of customers” the Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pierce told Universe Today in a post launch interview at the Kennedy Space Center.

“This is the largest and most complicated [communications] satellite ever built,” Pearce explained beside NASA’s countdown clock at the KSC press site.

Blastoff of the Inmarsat-5 Flight 4 communications satellite for commercial High-Speed mobile broadband provider Inmarsat took place right on time early Monday evening, May 15 at 7:21 p.m. EDT (or 23:21 UTC) from SpaceX’s seaside Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The newly built 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully delivered the huge 6100 kg Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) under brilliant blue twilight skies from the Florida Space Coast.

“Satellite deployment success!” Inmarsat announced.

“#I5F4 has been released & is flying high on its way to geostationary orbit! Safe journey! Thanks for a great launch SpaceX!”

All 9 Merlin 1D first stage engines firing beautifully as SpaceX Falcon 9 arcs over down range successfully carrying Inmarsat 5F4 #I5F4 to geostationary transfer orbit at twilight after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Why launch such the largest and most complicated satellite ever? I asked Inmarsat CEO Pearce.

“We set a very high bar for the service offerings we want to offer for that satellite that just went up and is now on its way to in orbit testing,” Inmarsat CEO Pearce told me.

“That satellite will deliver mobile broadband for a third of the Earth at 50 megabits per second.”

“And by the end of next year those data rates will go up to over 300 megabits per second.”

“To get that kind of data speed you need very high processing powers, you need to deploy the new Ka band – which although it is still relatively unproven is looking like a very exciting new capability for space assets.”

The integrated Falcon 9/Inmarsat-5 F4 were rolled out to the KSC launch pad on Sunday to begin final preparations and were erected at the pad this morning for Monday’s liftoff.

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 7:20 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida which successfully delivered Inmarsat-5 F4 broadband satellite to orbit. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

The first stage is powered by nine Merlin 1 D engines fueled by RP-1 and liquid oxygen propellants and generating 1.7 million pounds.

The 7 meter long satellite was deployed approximately 32 minutes after launch when it will come under the command of the Boeing and Inmarsat satellite operations teams based at the Boeing facility in El Segundo.

It will now be “manoeuvred to its geostationary orbit, 35,786km (22,236 miles) above Earth, where it will deploy its solar arrays and reflectors and undergo intensive payload testing before beginning commercial service.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying commercial Inmarsat 5 F4 broadband satellite accelerates to orbit leaving exhaust trail in its wake after twilight launch at 7:20 p.m. EDT from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The Inmarsat-5 F4 (I-5 F4) will become part of the firms Global Xpress network “which has been delivering seamless, high-speed broadband connectivity across the world since December 2015,” says Inmarsat.

“Once in geostationary orbit, the satellite will provide additional capacity for Global Xpress users on land, at sea and in the air.”

I-5 F4 was built by Boeing at their satellite operations facility in El Segundo, CA for Inmarsat.

The new satellite will join 3 others already in orbit.

Inmarsat has invested approximately US$1.6 billion in the Global Xpress constellation “to establish the first ever global Ka-band service from a single network operator.”

Inmarsat 5 F4 counts as the sixth SpaceX launch of 2017.

And SpaceX is on an absolutely torrid launch pace. Monday’s liftoff comes just 2 weeks after the last successful SpaceX Falcon 9 liftoff on May 1 of the super secret NROL-76 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO – as I reported here.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Inmarsat 5 F4 broadband satellite stands raised erect poised for twilight liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 15 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Inmarsat-5 Flight 4 (I-5 F4) satellite undergoes prelaunch processing for liftoff on SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: Inmarsat
SpaceX Falcon 9 Inmarsat-5 F4 (I-5 F4) mission artwork. Credit: SpaceX/Inmarsat

Why Do Rockets Need Stages? The Quest to Build a Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO)

Single Stage To Orbit!


Now, don’t get me wrong, Science Fiction is awesome. Like almost everyone working in the field of space and astronomy, I was deeply influenced by science fiction. For me, it was Star Trek and Star Wars. I had a toy phaser that made this awesome really loud phaser sound, and I played with it non-stop until it disappeared one day. And I was sure I’d left it in the middle of my floor, like I did with all my toys, but I found it a few years later, hidden up in a closet that I couldn’t reach. And I always wondered how it got there.

Anyway, back to science fiction. For all of its inspiration, science fiction has put a few ideas into our brains which aren’t entirely helpful. You know, warp drives, artificial gravity, teleportation, and rockets that take off, fly to space, visit other planets orbiting stars, land again.

The Millennium Falcon, Firefly, and Enterprise Shuttles are all examples of single stage to orbit to orbit spacecraft, or SSTOs.

Consider the rockets that exist in reality, you know, the Atlases, Falcons and Deltas. They take off from a launch pad, fly for a bit until the fuel is used up in a stage of the rocket, then they jettison that stage and thrust with the next stage. The mighty Saturn V was so powerful that it had three stages, as it made it’s way to orbit.

Diagram of Saturn V Launch Vehicle. Credit: NASA/MSFC

As we discussed in a previous article, SpaceX is working to make the first stage, and maybe even the second stage reusable, which is a vast improvement over just letting everything burn up, but there are no rockets that actually fly to orbit and back in a single stage. In fact, using the technology we have today, it’s probably not a good idea.

Has anyone ever worked on a single stage to orbit? What technological advances will need to happen to make this work?

As I said earlier, a single stage to orbit rocket would be something like the Millennium Falcon. It carries fuel, and then uses that fuel to fly into orbit, and from world to world. Once it runs out of fuel, it gets filled up again, and then it’s off again, making the Kessel Run and avoiding Imperial Blockades.

This concept of a rocket matches our personal experience with every other vehicle we’ve ever been in. You drive your car around and refuel it, same with boats, airplanes and every other form of Earth-based transportation.

But flying into space requires the expenditure of energy that defies comprehension. Let me give you an example. A Falcon 9 rocket can lift about 22,800 kilograms into low-Earth orbit. That’s about the same as a fully loaded cement truck – which is a lot.

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying ten Iridium NEXT comsats to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The entire fueled Falcon 9 weighs just over 540,000 kg, of which more than 510,000 kgs of it are fuel, with a little extra mass for the engines, fuel tanks, etc. Imagine if you drove a car that was essentially 95% fuel.

The problem is specific impulse; the maximum amount of thrust that a specific kind of engine and fuel type can achieve. I’m not going to go into all the details, but the most efficient chemical rockets we have, fueled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen, can just barely deliver enough thrust to get you to orbit. They have a maximum specific impulse of about 450 seconds.

Because the amount of fuel it takes to launch a rocket is so high, modern rockets use a staging system. Once a stage has emptied out all its fuel, it detaches and returns to Earth so that the second stage can keep going without having to drag along the extra weight of the empty fuel tanks.

After stage separation of the Falcon 9 rocket, flames are barely visible around nozzle as the second stage engine ignites and the first stage falls back to the Earth below. Credit: SpaceX

You might be surprised to know that many modern rockets are actually capable of reaching orbit with a single stage. The problem is that they wouldn’t be able to carry any significant payload.

At the end of the day, considering the chemical rockets we have today, the multi-staged profile is the most efficient and cost-effective strategy for carrying the most payload to space for the lowest cost possible.

Has anyone tried developing SSTOs in the past? Definitely. Probably the most widely publicized was NASA’s X-33/VentureStar program, developed by Lockheed Martin in the 1990s.

The proposed X-33 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The purpose of the X-33 was to test out a range of new technologies for NASA, including composite fuel tanks, autonomous flight, and a new lifting body design.

In order to make this work, they developed a new kind of rocket engine called the “aerospike”. Unlike a regular rocket engine which provide a fixed amount of thrust, an aerospike could be throttled back like a jet engine, using less fuel at lower altitudes, where the atmosphere is thickest.

The test of twin Linear Aerospike XRS-2200 engines, originally built for the X-33 program, was performed on August 6, 2001 at NASA’s Sternis Space Center, Mississippi. The engines were fired for the planned 90 seconds and reached a planned maximum power of 85 percent. Credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Lockheed Martin was working on a 1/3rd scale prototype, but they struggled with many of the new technologies. In the end, their failure to be able to build a composite fuel tank that could contain the liquid oxygen and hydrogen forced them to abandon the project.

Even if they could get the technology working, so the X-33 was fully reusable, its ability to carry a payload would have been dramatically lower than a traditional multi-staged rocket.

In order to really achieve the dream of single stage to orbit, we need to step away from chemical rockets and move to a type of engine that can deliver thrust more efficiently.

We know that jets work more efficiently than rockets, because they only need to carry fuel. They pull oxygen in from the atmosphere, to burn the fuel. So one intriguing idea is to make a rocket that acts like a jet engine while in the atmosphere, and then acts like a rocket once it’s out in space.

And that’s the plan with the British Skylon rocket. It would take off from a regular runway, accelerate to about 6,600 km/h reaching an altitude of 26 kilometers. All this time, its SABRE engine would be pulling in oxygen from the atmosphere, combining it with hydrogen fuel.

An artist’s conception of Reaction Engines’ Skylon spacecraft. Credit: Reaction Engines

From this point, it would switch over to an internal liquid oxygen tank to provide oxidizer, and complete the flight to orbit. All the while using the same flexible SABRE engine. Once in orbit, it would release its 15-tonne payload and then return to Earth, landing on a runway like the space shuttle orbiter did. It’s a really creative idea.

Unfortunately, the development of the Skylon has taken a long time, with shrinking budgets limiting the amount of tests they’ve been able to do. If everything goes well, the first prototype might fly within a few years, so stay tuned to this story.

Another idea which has had some testing is the idea of a nuclear rocket. Unlike a chemical rocket, which burns fuel, and blasts it out the back for thrust, a nuclear rocket would carry a reactor on board. It would heat up some kind of working fuel, like liquid hydrogen, and then blast it out the back for propulsion.

The key elements of a NERVA solid-core nuclear-thermal engine. Credit: NASA

NASA did some tests a few decades ago with a nuclear thermal rocket called NERVA, and found that they could sustain high levels of thrust for very long periods of time. Their final prototype, provided continuous thrust for over 2 hours, including 28 minutes at full power.

NASA calculated that a nuclear-powered rocket would be roughly twice as efficient as a traditional chemical rocket. It would have a specific impulse of more than 950 seconds. But flying a nuclear rocket into space comes with a significant downside. Rockets explode. It’s bad when a chemical rocket explodes, but if a nuclear reactor detonated while making its way up through the atmosphere, it would rain down radioactive debris. For now, that’s considered too much of a risk; however, future interplanetary missions may very well use nuclear rockets.

There’s one more exotic fuel system that’s really exciting – metallic hydrogen. This solid form appears naturally at the heart of Jupiter, under the incredible pressure of the planet’s gravity. But earlier this year, researchers at Harvard finally created some in the lab. They used a tiny vice to squeeze hydrogen atoms with more force than the pressures at the center of the Earth.

Microscopic images of the stages in the creation of atomic molecular hydrogen: Transparent molecular hydrogen (left) at about 200 GPa, which is converted into black molecular hydrogen, and finally reflective atomic metallic hydrogen at 495 GPa. Credit: Isaac Silvera

It took an enormous amount of energy to squeeze hydrogen together that tightly, but in theory, once crafted, it should be relatively stable. And here’s the best part. When you ignite it, you get that energy back.

If used as a rocket fuel, it would provide a specific impulse of 1700 seconds. Compare that to the mere 450 from chemical rockets. A rocket powered by metallic hydrogen would easily get to orbit with a single stage, and travel efficiently to other planets.

Single Stage to Orbit rockets would be awesome. Science fiction has foretold it. That said, at the end of the day, whatever gets the most amount of payload into orbit for the lowest price is the most interesting rocket system. And right now, that’s staged rockets.

However, a bigger issue might be reliability and reusability. If you can get a single vehicle that takes off, travels to orbit and then returns to its launch pad, you can’t get anything simpler than that. No rockets to restack, no barges to navigate. You just use and reuse the same system again and again, and that’s a really exciting idea.

Right this moment, reusable staged rockets like SpaceX has the edge, but if and when the Skylon gets flying, I think we’ll have some serious competition.

Once we master metallic hydrogen, spaceflight will look very very different. Science reality will nearly match science fiction, and I’ll finally be able to fly my own personal Millennium Falcon.

SpaceX Just Re-Used a Rocket. Why This Changes Everything

SpaceX Just Re-Used a Rocket. Why This Changes Everything

On March 30, 2017, SpaceX performed a pretty routine rocket launch. The payload was a communications satellite called SES-10, owned by a company in Luxembourg. And if all goes well, the satellite will eventually make its way to a high orbit of 35,000 km (22,000 miles) and deliver broadcasting and television services to Latin America.

For all intents and purposes, this is an absolutely normal, routine, and maybe even boring event in the space industry. Another chemical rocket blasted off another communications satellite to join the thousands of satellites that have come before.

Of course, as you probably know, this wasn’t a routine launch. It was the first step in one of the most important achievements in space flight – launch reusability. This was the second time the 14-story Falcon 9 rocket had lifted off and pushed a payload into orbit. Not Falcon 9s in general, but this specific rocket was reused.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster successfully lands on droneship after blastoff on Dragon CRS-8 mission to ISS for NASA on April 8, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

In a previous life, this booster blasted off on April 8, 2016 carrying CRS-8, SpaceX’s 8th resupply mission to the International Space Station. The rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, released its payload, re-entered the atmosphere and returned to a floating robotic barge in the Atlantic Ocean called Of Course I Still Love You. That’s a reference to an amazing series of books by Iain M. Banks.

Why is this such an amazing accomplishment? What does the future hold for reusability? And who else is working on this?

Developing a rocket that could be reused has been one of the holy grails of the space industry, and yet, many considered it an engineering accomplishment that could never be achieved. Trust me, people have tried in the past.

Portions of the space shuttle were reused – the orbiter and the solid rocket boosters. And a few decades ago, NASA tried to develop the X-33 as a single stage reusable rocket, but ultimately canceled the program.

The proposed X-33 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

To reuse a rocket makes total sense. It’s not like you throw out your car when you return from a road trip. You don’t destroy your transatlantic airliner when you arrive in Europe. You check it out, do a little maintenance, refuel it, fill it with passengers and then fly it again.

According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, a brand new Falcon 9 first stage costs about $30 million. If you could perform maintenance, and then refill it with fuel, you’d bring down subsequent launches to a few hundred thousand dollars.

SpaceX is still working out what a “flight-tested” launch will cost on a reused Falcon 9 will cost, but it should turn into a significant discount on SpaceX’s already aggressive prices. If other launch providers think they’re getting undercut today, just wait until SpaceX really gets cranking with these reused rockets.

For most kinds of equipment, you want them to have been re-used many times. Cars need to be taken to the test track, airplanes are flown on many flights before passengers ever climb inside. SpaceX will have an opportunity to test out each rocket many times, figuring out where they fail, and then re-engineering those components.  This makes for more durable and safer launch hardware, which I suspect is the actual goal here – safety, not cost.

In addition to the first stage, SpaceX also re-used the satellite fairing. This is the covering that makes the payload more aerodynamic while the rocket moves through the lower atmosphere. The fairing is usually ejected and burns up on re-entry, but SpaceX has figured out how to recover that too, saving a few more million.

SpaceX’s goals are even more ambitious. In addition to the first stage booster and launch fairing, SpaceX is looking to reuse the second stage booster. This is a much more complicated challenge, because the second stage is going much faster and needs to lose a lot more velocity. In late 2014, they put their plans on hold for a second stage reuse.

SpaceX’s next big milestone will be to decrease the reuse time. From almost a year to under 24 hours.

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit: SpaceX

Sometime this year, SpaceX is expected to do the first launch of the Falcon Heavy. A launch system that looks like it’s made up of 3 Falcon-9 rockets bolted together. Since that’s basically what it is.

The center booster is a reinforced Falcon-9, with two additional Falcon-9s as strap-on boosters. Once the Falcon Heavy lifts off, the three boosters will detach and will individually land back on Earth, ready for reassembly and reuse. This system will be capable of carrying 54,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. In addition, SpaceX is hoping to take the technology one more step and have the upper stage return to Earth.

Imagine it. Three boosters and upper stage and payload fairing all returning to Earth and getting reused.

And waiting in the wings, of course, is SpaceX’s huge Interplanetary Transport System, announced by Elon Musk in September of 2016. The super-heavy lift vehicle will be capable of carrying 300,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

The Interplanetary Transport System blasting off. Credit: SpaceX

For comparison, the Apollo era Saturn V could carry 140,000 kg into low Earth orbit, so this thing will be much much bigger. But unlike the Saturn V, it’ll be capable of returning to Earth, and landing on its launch pad, ready for reuse.

SpaceX just crossed a milestone, but they’re not the only player in this field.

Perhaps the biggest competitor to SpaceX comes from another internet entrepreneur: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the 2nd richest man in the world after Bill Gates. Bezos founded his own rocket company, Blue Origin in Seattle, which had been working in relative obscurity for the last decade. But in the last few years, they demonstrated their technology for reusable rocket flight, and laid out their plans for competing with SpaceX.

The New Shepard launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin
The New Shepard rocket launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin

In April 2015, Blue Origin launched their New Shepard rocket on a suborbital trajectory. It went up to an altitude of about 100 km, and then came back down and landed on its launch pad again. It made a second flight in November 2015, a third flight in April 2016, and a fourth flight in June 2016.

That does sound exciting, but keep in mind that reaching 100 km in altitude requires vastly less energy than what the Spacex Falcon 9 requires. Suborbital and orbital are two totally milestones. The New Shepard will be used to carry paying tourists to the edge of space, where they can float around weightlessly in the vomit of the other passengers.

But Blue Origin isn’t done. In September 2016, they announced their plans for the follow-on New Glenn rocket. And this will compete head to head with SpaceX. Scheduled to launch by 2020, like, within 3 years or so, the New Glenn will be an absolute monster, capable of carrying 45,000 kilograms of cargo into low Earth orbit. This will be comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or NASA’s Space Launch System.

The New Glenn spacecraft. Credit: Blue Origin

Like the Falcon 9, the New Glenn will return to its launch pad, ready for a planned reuse of 100 flights.

A decade ago, the established United Launch Alliance – a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin – was firmly in the camp of disposable launch systems, but even they’re coming around to the competition from SpaceX. In 2014, they began an alliance with Blue Origin to develop the Vulcan rocket.

Rendering of the ULA Vulcan rocket blasting off. United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan will be more of a traditional rocket, but some of its engines will detach in mid-flight, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, deploy parachutes and be recaptured by helicopters as they’re returning to the Earth. Since the engines are the most expensive part of the rocket, this will provide some cost savings.

There’s another level of reusability that’s still in the realm of science fiction: single stage to orbit. That’s where a rocket blasts off, flies to space, returns to Earth, refuels and does it all over again. There are some companies working on this, but it’ll be the topic for another episode.

Now that SpaceX has successfully launched a first stage booster for the second time, this is going to become the new normal. The rocket companies are going to be fine tuning their designs, focusing on efficiency, reliability, and turnaround time.

These changes will bring down the costs of launching payloads to orbit. That’ll mean it’s possible to launch satellites that were too expensive in the past. New scientific platforms, communications systems, and even human flights become more reasonable and commonplace.

Of course, we still need to take everything with a grain of salt. Most of what I talked about is still under development. That said, SpaceX just reused a rocket. They took a rocket that already launched a satellite, and used it to launch another satellite.

It’s a pretty exciting time, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Now you know how I feel about this accomplishment, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you think we’re at the edge of a whole new era in space exploration, or is this more of the same? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

World’s Largest Rocket Will Be Recoverable & Reusable

When Elon Musk launched SpaceX in 2002, he did so with the intention of making reusability a central feature of his company. Designed to lower the costs associated with launches, being able to reuse boosters was also a means of making space more accessible. “If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes,” he said, “the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.”

And with last week’s successful launch of the first reusable Falcon 9 (the SES-10 Mission) Musk chose to unveil more details about his company’s next major milestone. According to Musk, the demonstration flight of the Falcon Heavy – which is scheduled to take place this summer – will involve two recovered Falcon 9 cores and the attempted recovery of the rocket’s upper-stage.

In other words, on its maiden flight, two of the three boosters sending the Falcon Heavy into orbit will be reused, and SpaceX may even try to attempt to make the first-ever recovery of a second stage. Such a feat, if successful, will signal that Musk’s dream of total reusability – where the first stage, payload fairings, and second stage of their launch vehicles are all recoverable – has come to fruition.

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX
An artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX

According to details shared at the news conference that accompanied the launch of SES-10, Musk indicated that the test flight would make use of boosters that were recovered from two successful Falcon 9 launches, and that all three would be recovered after launch. As he was quoted as saying by Stephen Clark at SpaceFlightNow:

“That will be exciting mission, one way or another. Hopefully in a good direction. The two side boosters will come back and do sort of a synchronized aerial ballet and land. Two of the side boosters will land back at the Cape. That’ll be pretty exciting to see two come in simultaneously, and the center core will land downrange on the drone ship.”

On the following day – Friday, March. 31st, 11:44 am – Musk followed this up with a tweet that indicated that the test flight could also involve something that has never before been attempted. “”Considering trying to bring upper stage back on Falcon Heavy demo flight for full reusability,” he wrote. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot.”

Such a plan is in keeping with what Musk had initially hoped for his company, which was to make all of its rockets entirely reusable. While reusable boosters were not a part of the initial designs for the Falcon Heavy, the numerous successful recoveries (on land and at sea) of the first stage of the Falcon 9 indicated that the Heavy‘s outer cores could be recovered and reused in the same way.

Chart comparing the lift capacity of major launch systems to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Credit: SpaceX

Musk also reiterated that the demo flight would be taking place this summer, and that it would be carrying something comically-inspired. “Silliest thing we can imagine!” he tweeted, in response to a question of what the cargo would be. “Secret payload of 1st Dragon flight was a giant wheel of cheese. Inspired by a friend & Monty Python.”

For those unfamiliar with what Musk was referring to “The Cheese Shop”, a classic Monty Python sketch. From this, we can safely assume that Musk has something similar in mind for the inaugural Falcon Heavy launch. Perhaps some wine and bread to go with that cheese?

The demonstration flight – which will take place on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – is already expected to be a momentous event. With the ability to lift payloads of over 64 metric tons (64,000 kg or 141,096 lbs) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Falcon Heavy will be the most powerful rocket currently in operation.

In fact, its capacity will be about twice that of the Arianespace Ariane 5 and United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rockets – which are capable of lifting 21,000 kg (46,000 lb) and 28,790 kg (63,470 lb) to LEO, respectively. However, SpaceX has indicated that the payload performance to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) would be reduced with the addition of reusable technology.

Artist’s concept of the SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launching to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

Whereas its original capacity to GTO was said to be 22,200kg (48,940 lb), full reusability on all three booster cores will reduce this to 7,000 kg (15,000 lb), while having two reusable outside cores will reduce it to approximately 14,000 kg (31,000 lb). But of course, these reductions in payloads have to be considered against significantly reduced launch costs.

For the time being, the plan is to recover all three boosters of the Falcon Heavy. This may change, depending on the success of the maiden flight, to the point where just the outer boosters are deemed reusable and the central core expendable. And depending on the success of the second stage recovery, SpaceX may begin pursuing reusability with the second stages of their Falcon 9 as well.

Musk has also indicated that at present, SpaceX will be primarily focused on the many commercial missions it has planned using the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. But if all goes according to plan, this summer will be the second time in the space of a single year that Musk’s and the aerospace company he started knocked it out of the park and silenced all those who said he was attempting the impossible.

Further Reading: SpaceFlightNow, SpaceX