A Falcon 9 v1.1 carrying the SES-8 satellite lifts off from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday, December 3, 2013. (credit: SpaceX)
Yes, the third time’s the charm. That old saying got used in plenty of headlines and stories last night, after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Tuesday evening and placed its payload, the SES-8 communications satellite for European company SES, into its planned geosynchronous transfer orbit. That launch came after technical issues scrubbed launch attempts on two days last week, Monday and Thursday.
This time around, the countdown for the launch went smoothly, and the rocket lifted off right at the beginning of the launch window. Thirty-three minutes later, after a critical second burn of the Falcon 9′s upper stage, the rocket deployed SES-8 into its planned geosynchronous transfer orbit. Those following the launch had to rely on social media, including SpaceX’s Twitter account, for the news since the company ended its webcast when the video link with the rocket was lost after the end of the second stage’s first burn. (A delay of several minutes by SpaceX relaying the news of the successful deployment did cause a bit of nervousness, but it all ended well.)
Both SpaceX and SES were understandably pleased with the launch. “The successful insertion of the SES-8 satellite confirms the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle delivers to the industry’s highest performance standards,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a statement issued after the launch. “We appreciate SES’s early confidence in SpaceX and look forward to launching additional SES satellites in the years to come.”
“SES’s maiden launch on board a Falcon 9 rocket is yet another example of our company’s spirit of innovation and advancement of the commercial space industry,” SES president and CEO Romain Bausch said in a statement by his company. The release adds that SES has contracts for three more launches with SpaceX, although only one, in 2015, currently appears on SpaceX’s own launch manifest.
Up next for SpaceX is another launch of a commercial geosynchronous orbit communications satellite: Thaicom 6 for Thaicom. That launch is currently scheduled for December 20, but it’s possible the delay in launching SES-8 could push that launch into January.
SpaceX officials, including CEO Elon Musk, said the last-second abort was triggered automatically when the thrust of the first stage engines didn’t ramp up as planned. SpaceX recycled the count to try again at the end of the launch window, 6:44 pm EST (2344 GMT), but scrubbed with just under a minute left in the countdown. Mission managers decided they did not have enough time to review the information from the earlier abort to clear the launch, and decided to call it a day (even though the customer for the launch, SES, had given permission to extend the launch window by 20 minutes.)
SpaceX, as of midday Friday, has not announced a new launch date for the mission, its first to launch a commercial satellite to geosynchronous orbit. At the time of the scrub, Musk tweeted that they would “bring the rocket down” (that is, lower it from the pad and bring it back into the hangar) for engine inspections.
We called manual abort. Better to be paranoid and wrong. Bringing rocket down to borescope engines …
One publication, Via Satellite magazine (which was reporting from the launch), tweeted after the scrub that the launch was rescheduled for Saturday, but didn’t provide a source for the information; there has been no confirmation of that date from other sources:
Update 11/30 10 am EST: While there was some discussion on Friday that a Saturday evening launch was still possible, SpaceX said early Saturday that the next launch attempt would take place no earlier than Monday evening. An explanation from Elon Musk:
Rocket engines are healthy, but cleaning turbopump gas generators will take another day. Aiming for Mon eve launch.
Mars One, the Dutch organization that has proposed sending humans to Mars on commercially-funded one-way trips, announced yesterday that it will be holding a press conference in Washington on December 10 to make an announcement “regarding the first private robotic mission to Mars.” That announcement will be made jointly with Lockheed Martin and “Surrey Satellite Systems Limited” (an apparent reference to Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., a British company best known as a leading developer of small satellites.) Mars One will also use the press conference to “share new information on its public involvement activities leading up to this mission.”
The idea of Mars One doing a robotic Mars mission as some kind of precursor to its later human missions is not new. The Mars One architecture calls for a 2016 “demonstration mission” that would land on Mars to perform a “proof of concept for some of the technologies that are important for a human mission.” Mars One also proposes sending a communications relay orbiter in that same launch window.
In an interview during the Humans To Mars (H2M) Summit in Washington in May, Mars One founder Bas Lansdorp said that Mars One had been in discussions with Lockheed about the mission. “We can do a mission with a copy of hardware that has already been used,” he said, suggesting as one possibility the landing platform used for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, which landed on Mars in January 2004. “We’re getting in contact with Lockheed. We’re doing that, but it’s still preliminary discussions that are going on.” At that time, he said, the use of such hardware was a backup to doing a mission with hardware closer to what they want to use for later crewed missions, which make use of capsules derived from SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Lansdorp said in May they were in discussions about using SpaceX hardware for that 2016 mission, but had no contract in place with them yet.
Beyond the technical challenges of mounting a mission in about two years—the launch window opens in early 2016—is how much such a mission would cost, and Mars One would fund it. The least expensive (and successful) recent Mars lander mission was NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander, which cost $386 million including launch. It made significant use of hardware built for a 2001 Mars lander mission that was cancelled after the Mars Polar Lander failure, lowering its cost. (The British Beagle 2 lander, which hitched a ride to Mars on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter mission, cost about £50 million (US$80 million), but crashed.) As the Google Lunar X PRIZE teams have demonstrated, raising even tens of millions of dollars for a lunar lander mission is difficult; raising significantly more for a Mars mission, on a very tight schedule, will be even more demanding.
The 28 satellites of Flock 1, the first constellation of remote sensing satellites built by Planet Labs. The satellites will be launched on a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station in mid-December. (credit: Planet Labs)
A Dnepr rocket launched Thursday from a Russian missile base carrying a payload of more than 30 small satellites. Included in that launch were Planet Labs’s Dove 3 and Dove 4 smallsats, spacecraft based on the CubeSat form factor, about 30 centimeters long by 10 by 10 centimeters. (The launch also carried the first satellite for another commercial remote sensing company: SkySat-1 for Skybox Imaging.)
“We contacted Dove 3 on the first pass,” Planet Labs co-founder and CEO Will Marshall said in a telephone interview Monday. Dove 4 hasn’t been deployed yet: it was launched inside another satellite, Unisat 5, and is slated to be ejected in the next few weeks, he said.
The two spacecraft have more “specific performance,” or capability per kilogram, than the Dove 1 and 2 satellites launched in April, he said. The two new satellites feature upgraded attitude control system for improved pointing, improved radios for faster data rates, upgraded hard drive space on the spacecraft, and an “in house build” of the spacecraft’s telescope. “The most magical thing about what we have here is we have so much capability per unit mass,” he said. “In terms of capability per unit mass, we’re way, way out there” compared to other, larger remote sensing satellites.
Planet Labs is now focusing on an even bigger launch: its first full-fledged constellation of satellites, dubbed “Flock 1.” The company has completed 28 satellites, all similar to Dove 3 and 4, and delivered them to the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia earlier this month. Those satellites will be loaded into an Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus spacecraft that will be launched on an Antares rocket to the International Space Station in December.
Once at the ISS, the spacecraft will be deployed similar to launches of CubeSats from the station last week. The timing of the satellites has yet to be scheduled, Marshall said, but would likely be some time in January. The deployment of the satellites would also be phased to evenly distribute the satellites to provide global coverage, he said, although those details have also yet to be worked out.
A successful launch would mean that, counting the four Dove satellites, Planet Labs will have launched 32 satellites in less than a year. “We built these at an unprecedented rate,” Marshall said. “We now have more satellites built in this lab than we have employees.”
A successful deployment would give the company the largest remote sensing constellation in the world, and the potential benefits of access to frequently updated imagery from those satellites has attracted customer interest, he said. “We’ve had tremendous interest,” he said, declining to go into specific details about who has signed on. “We have quite a number of customers, and our investors are very pleased right now.”
Falcon 9 on the pad shortly before the final hold that scrubbed Monday’s launch.
The first launch of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a payload to geosynchronous orbit will have to wait until Thanksgiving, after a series of relatively minor glitches kept the rocket on the ground during Monday evening’s launch window.
SpaceX had hoped to launch the SES-8 satellite for European satellite operator SES during a 66-minute launch window that opened at 5:37 pm EST (2237 GMT) from Cape Canaveral. However, the countdown was held at T-13 minutes for some time to check a valve on the first stage of the rocket, with the launch rescheduled for 5:54 pm EST. However, the countdown was stopped at T-6:11 in the countdown because of an issue around the time the first stage was switching to internal power. SpaceX later said they needed to adjust a telemetry limit on a power supply, and rescheduled the launch for 6:30 pm EST, near the end of the window.
The countdown resumed and made it to T-3:40 before another hold was called because of a pressurization issue with the first stage liquid oxygen system. “We observed unexpected readings with the first stage liquid oxygen system so we decided to investigate,” the company said in a brief statement after the scrub. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also weighed in via Twitter about the scrub:
Saw pressure fluctuations on Falcon boost stage liquid oxygen tank. Want to be super careful, so pushing launch to Thurs.
With no chance to correct the problem before the launch window closed, SpaceX scrubbed the launch for the night and rescheduled it for 5:38 pm EST (2238 GMT) Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. (Weather forecasts were less promising for Tuesday and Wednesday, and there was also the difficulty of closing airspace for the launch during two busy pre-holiday travel days.)
Mission patch for Monday’s scheduled launch of the SES-8 satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket.
There’s a certain degree of confidence that one comes to expect from SpaceX as they discuss their upcoming launches and future plans, and understandably so: they consider themselves the upstart launch vehicle company that is disrupting an existing industry. And you expect any company to be confident in its own products or services. Sometimes, though, SpaceX’s customers can be even more enthusiastic than the company itself.
“We’re extremely excited to be here. We’re extremely excited to be the first commercial customer on SpaceX,” said Martin Halliwell, chief technology officer of SES, the European satellite operator whose SES-8 satellite is scheduled to be launched at 5:37 pm EST (2237 GMT) Monday on a Falcon 9 v1.1 from Cape Canaveral. Halliwell, talking to reporters Sunday afternoon on a conference call, spoke highly of SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket even though SES will be the first to have one of its satellites launched into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) by that rocket.
“The entry of SpaceX into the commercial market is a gamechanger,” he said during the half-hour call. He believes SpaceX, with its low-cost launches, will reshape the commercial launch industry, which today is dominated by a few companies, including Arianespace, International Launch Services, and Sea Launch. “It’s really going to shake the industry to its roots,” he said.
Halliwell is not concerned about what happened on the previous Falcon 9 v1.1 launch nearly two months ago. On that launch, after the Falcon 9′s upper stage successfully deployed its satellite payloads, SpaceX attempted to restart the upper stage, but failed. The company had offered few details about the incident, but SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said last month that it was wrapping up the investigation, and indicated then that they did not consider the problem a major issue.
A few days ago the company offered some more details: the liquid fuel used for the igniter for the second stage engine froze before the scheduled engine restart, apparently because it was close to the liquid oxygen propellant lines. “We’ve added a lot of insulation to those lines to make sure the cold oxygen doesn’t impinge on those lines,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said during a brief appearance on the call. (He was, he explained, taking his kids on a trip to Disney World Sunday afternoon.) “We believe that will address the restart issue.”
Halliwell sounded convinced as well. “We worked extremely closely with the SpaceX people,” he said. “We’re very, very confident. We understand exactly what the issue was… and we are pretty confident all the risk from that particular element has been retired. We’re ready to go with the launch.”
The proof will come 27 minutes after launch, when the second stage is restarted after an 18-minute coast. If successful, the Falcon 9 will place the 3,138-kilogram SES-8 satellite into an unusual “supersynchronous” transfer orbit, with an apogee of 80,000 kilometers, well above the geosynchronous orbit belt of about 36,000 kilometers. Shotwell said SpaceX worked closely with SES to develop this orbit; a similar one, with an even slightly higher apogee, will be used on its next launch, of the Thaicom 6 satellite next month.
Halliwell said such supersynchronous transfer orbits aren’t unusual for SES. “It allows us to reduce our fuel usage to decrease the inclination” using the spacecraft’s own engine post-deployment, he said. “It allows us to maximize our on-orbit stationkeeping fuel and lifetime for the remainder of the mission.”
Halliwell said this was not the first time SES has been involved in a new (commercially speaking, at least) launch system: SES was the first commercial customer of the Proton rocket in the mid-1990s, a vehicle that now has become one of the major commercial launch systems in the world. “We understand the impact that this is going to have on the commercial spaceflight world,” he said. “I would say—and it’s not really an understatement—that the entire commercial spaceflight world is looking tomorrow to see the success of this flight. It’s going to change the industry.”
On Friday, Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic found yet another way to get into the news. Friday morning, Branson announced that his commercial space company would accept payment in the form of bitcoins, a cryptocurrency that has attracted increasing attention in recent months as its value has skyrocketed. A single bitcoin is worth more than $800 as of midday Sunday, according to the bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, and reached $900 earlier in the week; just a month ago, a bitcoin traded for $200. In a blog post, Branson said one customer, an unnamed flight attendant in Hawaii, already paid for her Virgin Galactic ticket in bitcoins.
Of course, in many respects this news is primarily fluff, designed to ride the growing interest in bitcoin. We don’t know, for example, who this Hawaiian flight attendant is, why she decided to pay in bitcoin, or even she paid the full $250,000 ticket price in equivalent bitcoins or a smaller deposit amount. Branson, in an interview, said Virgin Galactic immediately converted the bitcoins into conventional currency, rather than holding onto the bitcoins. In essence, the bitcoins were more commodity than currency, as if someone elected to pay for a ticket using gold bullion—but paying in gold would be less interesting, or hype-worthy, than paying in bitcoin.
What’s more interesting about the announcement is how it was made. While Virgin published a blog post, Branson made the announcement first in a live interview Friday morning on CNBC TV (see video above). That choice is not surprising, and not because CNBC is a major business television network: CNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, which two weeks earlier announced an “exclusive partnership” with Virgin to cover the first commercial SpaceShipTwo flight next year. “NBC News’ award-winning Peacock Productions will chronicle the journey across a myriad of NBCUniversal brands and platforms including MSNBC, CNBC, SYFY, The Weather Channel and NBCNews.com,” the companies said in the statement, with a primetime special the night before the flight, which will be shown on NBC’s “Today” show.
For Virgin, that partnership is likely a good deal. Virgin gets access to a major television network, with plenty of opportunities to tell its story to a diverse group of audiences. And NBCUniversal likely expects to get a lot of attention and viewers—and advertisers—for the behind-the-scenes coverage it will apparently have exclusive access to. (The release makes no mention of any money, bitcoin or otherwise, changing hands between the two companies.)
One wonders, though, how beneficial it will be for other media, the general public, and even Virgin itself in the long term. NBC won’t have an exclusive on the first flight itself, entertainment trade publication Variety reported, but “would have direct access to a feed of footage inside the ship during its run and would be able to talk to Branson and his children while they are in the vehicle.” However, knowing that they’ll not have the same access as NBCUniversal, will other media outlets devote as much attention to Virgin Galactic as it ramps up to its first flight as they might have otherwise? Will NBC feel as free to scrutinize Virgin Galactic’s efforts, including its delays and concerns about its hybrid rocket engine, as it would be without its partnership with the company?
We can see, perhaps, a microcosm of that in the Virgin Galactic bitcoin announcement. CNBC got the exclusive, and while Virgin published a blog post with much of the same details shortly thereafter, it lacked the opportunity to ask questions about the announcement. The media coverage that followed had a “me-too” feel to it, largely regurgitating the announcement and details from the CNBC interview without adding much additional detail. To be fair, it’s not clear that, even without the Virgin-NBC deal, the media would have covered this relatively minor announcement much differently.
What’s clear is that, for better or for worse, media relations in the commercial space sector are different than those for government-run programs, where there’s a greater expectation of a level playing field. (Of course, that hasn’t always been the case, an example being the deal the early NASA astronauts had with Life magazine.) Companies can play favorites if they feel it’s in their best interests. However, there’s always the danger of a backlash if they go too far in that direction.
Illustration of the Inspiration Mars Vehicle Stack, the spacecraft that would take two people on a Mars flyby mission. It makes use of a modified Cygnus spacecraft as the habitat module and a Orion spacecraft with enhanced heat shield to return the crew to Earth. (credit: Inspiration Mars)
The Inspiration Mars Foundation is releasing today a 60-day report on its Mars mission architecture, tied to testimony that Tito plans to give at a hearing of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee on commercial space. The report lays out the “baseline architecture” for the proposed mission, which would launch in late December of 2017 or early January 2018 on a 501-day mission to fly past Mars and return to Earth.
The architecture makes use of a mix of commercial and government vehicles and spacecraft. First, a Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket, flying on its first mission, would place into orbit the “Vehicle Stack”, consisting of a modified Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital Sciences Corporation that would serve as the crew habitat and a “Earth Reentry Pod,” an Orion spacecraft with an upgraded heat shield that can handle the high-speed reentry when the crew returns to Earth. That Vehicle Stack would be launched with a Dual Use Upper Stage (DUUS) that has been proposed for development to enhance the SLS’s performance. Once in orbit, a commercial crew vehicle would launch and dock with the Vehicle Stack, transferring over the two-person crew, then depart. The DUUS then ignites its engines to place the Vehicle Stack on its Mars flyby trajectory. Upon return to Earth, the crew boards the Earth Reentry Pod and undocks from the Vehicle Stack for reentry and splashdown.
Accomplishing this mission would require accelerating development of some key systems, like the DUUS, and developing new ones, like the Cygnus-based habitat module, in a short timeframe: the launch window for this opportunity opens on Christmas Eve of 2017 and closes less than two weeks later, on January 4, 2018. It also means that systems under development today, like the SLS and commercial crew vehicles, have to remain on schedule; already, the timeline for commercial crew vehicles have slipped from 2015 to 2017 because of funding shortfalls. The DUUS is not expected to be available until 2023, according to a NASA document published in April; the Inspiration Mars report says that “extensive discussions” with NASA and Boeing led them to conclude the DUUS could be accelerated to be ready to support this mission.
The report pitches this mission as a public-private partnership that would benefit NASA at least as much as it does Inspiration Mars. “For America, this is our last chance to be first, and even the very movement of planets seems to be saying ‘Go,’” the report states, referring to the favorable trajectory that makes this mission possible at the beginning of 2018 but not again for 15 more years. “The Inspiration Mars spacecraft has to be on its way to Mars in the first days of 2018, if this mission is to happen at all. And if it does not happen, then where does that leave human space exploration by the United States?”
Having NASA support the mission, the report argues, accelerates the agency’s own long-term plans for human Mars missions. “It will not be any easier, or any cheaper, to do in 20 years what can be done in five,” the report states. “By doing it now, moreover, we expand the range of what can be achieved and learned in the 2020’s and 2030’s.”
One area the report doesn’t go into detail about is the cost of the mission. It does acknowledge that the partnership with NASA would require some additional federal spending: “perhaps several hundred million dollars,” it states, a sum it equates with the total expense of moving the Space Shuttle orbiters to museums. It would, though, seek to redirect current NASA spending on programs like SLS and Orion to support the mission: the unit cost of a single SLS, for example, has been estimated by NASA at $500–600 million alone. “More than any new federal funding for this mission – some might be needed, but not much – what NASA would require to carry out its part of the work is the freedom to direct existing funds to the enterprise,” the report argues. “This is a freedom that Congress can grant and the President can assure, as John F. Kennedy did to clear the bureaucratic path for Apollo.” And something he will likely be asking Congress to support today.
Cutaway illustration of a BA 330-DS module included in the Bigelow Aerospace report to NASA. The company proposes to use this module to support commercial activities in cislunar space in partnership with NASA. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)
A report prepared by Bigelow Aerospace for NASA concludes that the commercial approach that the space agency used successfully for developing commercial cargo transportation to the International Space Station should also be applied to developing transportation beyond Earth orbit, including in the vicinity of, and to the surface of, the Moon.
The report, prepared under a Space Act Agreement between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace announced earlier this year, is being formally released today at a press conference in Washington. It recommends that NASA pursue a partnership with industry to develop beyond-LEO transportation systems, given NASA’s constrained budgets and the record of success by NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop launch vehicles and spacecraft to supply the ISS.
“America is facing a fiscal crisis of unprecedented proportions making the likelihood of increased funds for human space exploration highly unlikely,” states an advance copy of the report provided by the company. “Therefore, the only viable option for the U.S. to reach cislunar space is to leverage the efficiencies, innovations, and investments of commercial enterprises.”
The report specifically advocates an approach modeled on the COTS program, where NASA used funded Space Act Agreements (SAAs) to support the development of cargo transportation systems by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences. That led to service contracts with those two companies to transport cargo to and from the station. NASA is following a similar approach with its commercial crew program, using funded SAAs to support development of crewed systems, which it plans to follow up with contracts to complete development and certification of those systems and initial purchases of flights.
That approach, the Bigelow report argues, can allow NASA and the private sector to work together on exploration and commercialization of cislunar space, including the establishment of a lunar base, something NASA is not currently planning to develop for the foreseeable future. “Over the next ten years, it is very possible that if NASA can soon adopt some of the suggestions within this report in combination with current steps underway by NASA and the private commercial sector, a permanent, semi-commercial lunar base is achievable and for substantially less money than people would imagine.”
Much of the report is devoted to demonstrating that the capabilities to enable those plans will exist within the next few years, if not already today. The report examines some of the launch vehicles and spacecraft that could support cislunar development, ranging from NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft to vehicles under development in the private sector and by other nations. “By 2017–2018, all of the destinations within our immediate neighborhood including low lunar orbit will again be accessible to humans,” the report concludes. “The physical craft that have been under development (some for more than a decade) will be ready to execute any of these missions.”
That suite of spacecraft includes Bigelow’s own vehicles. The report states that the company’s first two BA 330 expandable habitats, modules with an internal volume of 330 cubic meters once deployed in orbit, will be ready for launch by the end of 2016. Bigelow Aerospace is also working on a version called the BA 330-DS for missions beyond Earth orbit; this will be very similar to the basic BA 330 but with improved rad-hardened avionics and additional shielding, as well as a larger inventory of spare parts for deep space missions. A modified BA 330-DS would be capable of landing on a planetary body, like the surface of the Moon. The report also outlines additional hardware, including tugs and power modules, that could be used in conjunction with the BA 330-DS modules to support missions beyond LEO.
The report also makes the case for innovations beyond technology and contracting mechanisms. The Bigelow report argues that, for private companies to be involved in any joint venture with NASA in cislunar development, they must have property rights on the Moon or other bodies that are not available today under existing space law structures, a controversial subject in space policy. Companies “must known they will be able to (1) enjoy the fruits of their labor relative to activities conducted on the Moon or other celestial bodies, and (2) own the property that they have surveyed, developed, and are realistically able to utilize,” the report states. And, in a point emphasized in the report in bold, italic, and underlined type: “Without property rights, any plan to engage the private sector in long-term beyond LEO activities will ultimately fail.”
With a property rights system in place on the Moon, both NASA and industry would benefit, the report concludes. “By leveraging a property rights regime private sector facilities could be developed on the Moon which NASA could subsequently take advantage of for a wide variety of astronautics and scientific activities. What the Agency could never afford to do alone could become financially possible due to the husbanding of private and public sector investments and resources.”
The US Weekly article includes the claim that Lady Gaga “has to do a month of vocal training because of the atmosphere,” an odd statement since the cabin of SpaceShipTwo will be pressurized, presumably at least to levels found in commercial jetliners. The overall article has been widely re-reported, with little additional information; one exception is E! Online, which reports that the Zero G Colony event will be a “high-concept ground event music festival” that includes “futuristic attractions.” (Nothing is said about the logistics of holding a music festival at the remote spaceport, particularly during the winter, when it can be quite chilly in the New Mexican desert; in addition, the acoustics inside the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space hangar are, based on personal experience, lousy.)
There’s been no official announcement from Virgin Galactic or other participants in the reported flight, beyond a cryptic tweet from Lady Gaga herself: