It’s no secret that the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) has become immensely lucrative in recent years, nor the fact that it has become intensely competitive as a result. To illustrate, one needs to look no further than the top three NewSpace companies in the world right now: SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. Between these three companies, all founded by billionaires with similar visions, a new space race has begun.
In recent months, the race has intensified as Jeff Bezos announced that he would be going to space on the inaugural flight of the New Shepard rocket. In response, Virgin Galactic founder and CEO Richard Branson announced earlier this week that he would fly aboard the VSS Unity as it makes its latest test flight. If successful, this mission – scheduled for Sunday, July 11th (weather permitting) – will see Branson become the first billionaire to go to space.
They say, “third time’s the charm.” This was largely the case today as SpaceX made their third attempt at a high altitude flight test at their launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Like the previous two attempts, this flight saw a Starship prototype (SN10) with three Raptor engines fly to an altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi), conduct a “belly-flop” descent maneuver, and then return to the launch facility.
As with the previous high-altitude tests, the SN10 successfully launched, reached its apogee, and validated the control fins and aerodynamic surfaces. But unlike the previous tests, the SN10 was able to slow down enough and keep itself upright so it could make a soft landing. While the prototype exploded a few minutes after landing (apparently from a methane leak) the flight was a complete success!
With a first successful hop test under their belts using a full-scale prototype, SpaceX is pressing ahead with the testing of the Starship. Tomorrow (on Sunday, August 30th), SpaceX will be attempting to make a second 150 meter (500 ft) hop test, this time with their sixth Starship prototype (SN6). It’s all part of a very busy weekend for SpaceX, with no less than three launches planned.
In September of 2019, SpaceX unveiled the first Starship prototype, the first of several test vehicles that would validate the design of the next-generation spacecraft that would fulfill Musk’s promise of making commercial flights to the Moon and Mars. And while there was a bit of a setback in November of 2019 after the Mk. 1 suffered a structural failure, Musk indicated that the company would be moving forward with other prototypes.
As Musk explained at the time, this would consist of the Mk. 3 prototype conducting an orbital test flight to an altitude of 100 km (62 mi) sometime in 2020. According to recent filings made with the FCC, this test could be happening as early as mid-March and will involve the vehicle launching from the company’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, and flying to an altitude of 20 km (12.6 mi) before landing.
Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule launched successfully, but a mishap prevented it from docking with the ISS. The ship is undamaged and will return and land at its designated location, according to officials. This could delay the planned crewed flight of the Starliner next summer.
The X-37B, the US Air Force’s experimental, Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has come back down to Earth after 780 days. It landed at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Oct. 27, 2019, at 3:51 a.m. after breaking its own record for time in space. The X-37B has now spent 2,865 total days in orbit.
SpaceX is getting closer to its making its next big leap with the Starship super-heavy launch system. With hover tests now complete, the public is eagerly awaiting the completion of the full-scale prototypes and for orbital testing to begin. Never one to disappoint, Elon Musk has been posting regular updates on Twitter showcasing the latest progress of the Starship Mk.1 and Mk.2.
When it comes to the future of space exploration, a number of systems will come into play. In addition to the Space Launch System (SLS) that will send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there is also the Orion capsule. This is the vehicle that will take astronauts to the Moon again as part of Project Artemis (which is currently slated for 2024) and facilitate missions to Mars by the 2030s.
In preparation, the Orion capsule is being put through its paces to show that it’s up to the challenge. This past Tuesday, July 2nd, NASA successfully conducted the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test, bringing the Orion one step closer to completion. The launch took place during the early morning hours and involved the capsule being launched from NASA’s Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral aboard a modified Peacekeeper missile.
NASA has announced that the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is ready for its first demo flight. After discussions with SpaceX, both NASA and Elon Musk’s private space company determined that it was time for Dragon to fly. The date for the flight is March 2nd.
The long-anticipated first flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon is almost here. Early in January, the Crew Dragon was rolled out of its hangar at Kennedy Space Center, and on January 24th it performed a brief static firing as part of its testing. The Crew Dragon’s inaugural flight, called Demo-1, is not far off.
Neither NASA nor SpaceX has given us a date for Demo-1, but we’re getting close.