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From The Editors Science

SpaceX’s  Satellite Broadband Plan Gets FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Nod

Elon Musk’s intended foray into yet another business frontier got a major thrust on Wednesday when Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai gave his nod of approval to SpaceX’s plan of providing broadband services using space technologies.

Pai urged his fellow commissioners to give their consent to the California-based space company’s application, highlighting the space internet technology’s potential to provide broadband services to rural America and remote parts of the country.

The four FCC commissioners who will be considering the application are Mignon Clyburn (Dem.), Michael O’Reilly (Rep.), Brendan Carr (Reo.) and Jessica Rosenworcel (Dem.).

“To bridge America’s digital divide, we’ll have to use innovative technologies,” Pai said. “Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach. And it can offer more competition where terrestrial internet access is already available.”

Should the application get the majority votes it requires from Pai’s four fellow commissioners, SpaceX will become the fourth company after OneWeb, Telesat Canada and Space Norway to get the FCC approval for broadband satellite services out of a total of twelve applications that the agency has received until now.

“Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans. If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies,” Pai said in a Wednesday statement.

With Pai in favor of the plan and two Republican commissioners most likely to give their nods as well, it appears that Musk is well on his way to realizing his space-broadband dreams.

And, with Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel saying that the move would “multiply the number of satellites in the skies, creating extraordinary new opportunities,” a unanimous decision in favor of the project seems like a foregone conclusion.

“The FCC should move quickly to facilitate these new services while underscoring our commitment to space safety,” Rosenworcel said.

If all goes as anticipated, SpaceX will deploy an array of 4,425 satellites to meet its broadband venture requirements.

It must be mentioned that OneWeb and Telesat Canada have FCC approval for 720 and 117 LEO satellites respectively, while Space Norway has the agency’s go-ahead for two highly elliptical arctic-focused satellites.

Pai’s words of encouragement comes at the most opportune time, at least as far as SpaceX is concerned, as the company prepares to launch its first set of prototype satellites named Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b together with Spanish company Hisdesat’s radar-imaging satellite PAZ atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California  on February 17.

After their launch, 511 kilometers above the earth, both the SpaceX demo satellites Microsat 2a and 2b will ultimately reach an altitude of 1,125 kilometers where they will do the groundwork, or should we say spacework, for the constellation of 4,425 satellites that Musk’s company proposes to launch by 2025.

Telesat Canada and Kepler Communications, also a Canadian company, are slightly ahead in the race in so far as demo satellites are concerned, both having launched prototypes in January.

While Telesat deployed its 168-kilogram smallsat with the help of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, Kepler launched its smaller Cubesat atop a Chinese Long March 11 carrier rocket.

OneWeb, on the other hand, will launch its first ten operational satellites in May this year, bypassing demo launches altogether. The Arlington, Virginia-based company is looking to reach out to world broadband consumers with 500-Mbps connectivity as early as 2019, at least a year or two ahead of Telesat and SpaceX.

According to OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, the company should have its next-gen constellation in place by 2021, ready to provide five times as much speed to consumers at 2.5 Gbps.

While testifying before Congress alongside Wyler in October last year, SpaceX Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs Patricia Cooper said that the company will follow up its demo satellite deployments with operational satellite launches in 2019.

She said that the company was looking forward to providing some level of broadband service by 2020-21, by which time it would have some 800 operational satellites in low orbit around the planet.

Telesat, which currently operates 15 geostationary telecommunications satellites, has not yet decided on a manufacturer for its 117-strong satellite constellation.

The Canadian company, however, expects to begin its launches sometime in 2020 and be ready to start its service in 2021.

Like Telesat, Kepler has also not finalized a manufacturer for its 140-satellite constellation although the company is preparing to launch its second CubeSat prototype called ‘Case,’ later this year.

However, with its focus on providing low-data to Internet-of-Things devices, Kepler is not being looked at as much of a competitor to OneWeb, Telesat or SpaceX.

Kepler’s main competition comes from fellow Canadian company Helios Wire and Australia-based Adeline, with both companies looking to launch Internet of Things-focused satellites this year.

Meanwhile, Musk’s cherry-red Tesla roadster and its dummy pilot Starman, launched into space atop a Falcon Heavy rocket earlier this month, is drifting farther and farther away from earth as telescopes continue to track the car in space.

According to calculations by Czech and Canadian researchers, the car and its passenger have a good chance of continuing to remain in space for tens of millions of years before crashing back into Earth or Venus, reports BBC.

While the researchers give the car a 6% probability of crashing into earth, it has a 2.5% chance of colliding with Venus and little or no chance of hitting either the Sun or Mars in the next million years or so.

Here’s what Hanno Rein (Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, Canada), Daniel Tamayo (postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Planetary Sciences (CPS) and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics – CITA) and David Vokrouhlicky (professor at the Astronomical Institute, Charles University, Prague) said about in their analysis:

“On February 6th, 2018 SpaceX launched a Tesla Roadster on a Mars crossing orbit. We perform N-body simulations to determine the fate of the object over the next several million years, under the relevant perturbations acting on the orbit. The orbital evolution is initially dominated by close encounters with the Earth. The first close encounter with the Earth will occur in 2091. The repeated encounters lead to a random walk that eventually causes close encounters with other terrestrial planets and the Sun. Long-term integrations become highly sensitive to the initial conditions after several such close encounters. By running a large ensemble of simulations with slightly perturbed initial conditions, we estimate the probability of a collision with Earth and Venus over the next one million years to be 6% and 2.5%, respectively. We estimate the dynamical lifetime of the Tesla to be a few tens of millions of years.”

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From The Editors Science

SpaceX’s “ZUMA” Mission A Disaster? Top Secret Govt. Satellite Is Presumed Lost

SpaceX’s first launch of the year may not have been the success one thought it was. While the first stage of the brand new Falcon 9 rocket returned safely to Earth, the top-secret payload “Zuma,” probably worth billions, apparently did not make it to its intended orbit.

According to plans, the 2nd stage was supposed to detach from the prized payload and fall back toward Earth to disintegrate on re-entry, while Zuma continued on its hush-hush mission.

However, if reports are to be believed, Zuma may have failed to detach from the second stage and got dragged back with it, to burn up together as they re-entered the earth’s atmosphere.

Ars Technica’s spaceflight journalist Eric Berger wrote that “on Monday, Ars began to hear discussion from sources that the mysterious Zuma spacecraft—the purpose of which was never specified, nor which US military or spy agency had backed it—may not have survived. According to one source, the payload fell back to Earth along with the spent upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.”

It must be mentioned that Northrop Grumman, the makers of Zuma, was commissioned by an undisclosed U.S. Govt agency to select a contractor for the launch and it gave the nod to SpaceX, which one can say now, with the benefit of hindsight, was not the right decision.

Northrop’s Vice President for Strategic Communications Tim Paynter refused to discuss the matter, citing the classified nature of the mission. “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions,” he said.

A Monday afternoon query about the mission’s fate elicited a similar response from a SpaceX spokesperson. “We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.”

The news that the Zuma mission may have ended up in disaster was first tweeted by Peter B. de Selding, a spaceflight reporter for Space Intel Report, whose sources said that the satellite “may be dead in orbit.”

“Zuma satellite from @northropgrumman may be dead in orbit after separation from @SpaceX Falcon 9, sources say. Info blackout renders any conclusion – launcher issue? Satellite-only issue? — impossible to draw,” read Selding’s post.

https://twitter.com/pbdes/status/950473623483101186

This is the second billion-dollar-plus payload SpaceX has lost in a span of sixteen months, having previously lost a Facebook communications satellite along with a Falcon 9 rocket, atop which it was sitting, to an explosion during a static fire-test prior to the intended launch, in September 2016.

This is likely to cause a massive dent in the company’s reputation, which in turn could result in loss of lucrative business to its competition, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture – unless the loss was a result of a “satellite-only issue,” in which case SpaceX will stand absolved of the responsibility for the misfortune.

While the 23-minute SpaceX webcast did cover the Sunday night liftoff, the fairings deployment, and the incident-free first-stage return amid cheers and applause from SpaceX employees at Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, the webcast did not confirm payload separation from the second stage – as it normally does with commercial launches. It was to be expected, though, what with all the secrecy behind the mission.

Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor also reported the “presumed” loss saying that Zuma “failed to reach orbit.”

“An expensive, highly classified U.S. spy satellite is presumed to be a total loss after it failed to reach orbit atop a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket on Sunday, according to industry and government officials,” wrote Pasztor.

Originally scheduled for a November launch, the mission was delayed by SpaceX in order to study data from an earlier payload-fairing test the company had executed for another client.

The term payload fairing refers the nose cone of a rocket, the purpose of which is to protect the payload from the impact of dynamic pressure and aerodynamic heating during launch through an atmosphere, as Wikipedia explains.

SpaceX has carried sensitive payloads for Uncle Sam in the past as well, including the National Reconnaissance Office in May 2017 and the U.S. Air Force spacecraft X-37B later in the year.

According to Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell, space situational awareness service Space-Track cataloged Zuma, which effectively means that the payload did make it to orbit.

Navy Captain Brook DeWalt, on the other hand, told Bloomberg that the military division has “nothing to add to the satellite catalog at this time.”

With Northrop and SpaceX not very forthcoming on the matter, no conclusion can be arrived at in so far as what really happened with Zuma is concerned.

Here are astronomer McDowell’s tweeted analyses of probable scenarios.

If Zuma was (is) really a spy satellite, as several reports suggest, then the rumor of the mission ending in disaster could well be a government-orchestrated move in order to divert attention from the satellite’s real mission.

Anything is possible!

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From The Editors Science

SpaceX Launches Top Secret Government Satellite “Zuma” Into Orbit

After a record 18 launches last year, SpaceX made its first successful spaceflight of 2018 Sunday night from its SLC-40 launch facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida, instead of its other facility at the Kennedy Space Center, which is being prepared for the company’s first Falcon Heavy launch sometime later this month.

The Falcon 9 lifted off with its secret cargo “Zuma,” successfully launching the U.S. Government satellite/spacecraft into low orbit on a classified mission. SpaceX has carried sensitive payloads for Uncle Sam in the past as well, including the National Reconnaissance Office in May 2017 and the U.S. Air Force spacecraft X-37B later in the year.

Also, Elon Musk’s company made yet another picture-perfect recovery of the Falcon 9 booster as it returned to landing pad LZ-1 after putting Zuma into its intended orbit. It was the 21st successful recovery of the first-stage and the ninth on LZ-1, the remaining 12 having touched down on “autonomous spaceport droneships” in the ocean.

SpaceX is the proud owner of two of these unmanned ocean crafts named “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions.”

These repossessions of the re-usable first-stage boosters are part of the company’s cost-cutting efforts. So far, SpaceX has re-flown five of the recovered Falcon 9 rockets as well as two unmanned Dragon capsules on resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The rocket used for Sunday night’s Zuma mission, by the way, was a brand new Falcon 9.

Watch the Zuma launch here.

With the Zuma launch out of the way, SpaceX can now focus on the launch one of the most powerful rockets in recent history, the Falcon Heavy, planned for later this month.

Capable of generating three times the thrust of a Falcon 9, made possible by 27 Merlin engines – nine to each core – the 229-foot-tall science and technology marvel will be able to carry payloads of up to 63,800 kg into low orbit.

It is all set to become the most powerful in-service rocket, bypassing Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher, which, for now, is the world’s most powerful launch vehicle with a lift-off thrust of 2.9 million pounds from its core engine and two boosters.

However, maximum payload capability can only be achieved if the company decides not to recover the first-stage boosters, which, basically, eats up the rocket’s propellant reserves, thereby reducing its lifting capacity.

With SpaceX already decided on recovering all three first-stage boosters, needless to say, Falcon Heavy will not be carrying the maximum payload when it lifts off later this month.

Even when the boosters are not recovered, maximum payload launch into low Earth orbit will require a velocity boost from Earth’s rotation. For that to happen, the rocket will have to be launched to the east from Florida’s Space Coast.

“When Falcon Heavy lifts off in 2018, it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lb)—a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel—Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy at one-third the cost,” claims SpaceX on its website.

Falcon Heavy’s two side-boosters, recovered and refurbished from 2016’s Falcon 9 missions, will separate and return to land at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in quick succession, if not simultaneously, while the new center core will detach and land on SpaceX’s droneship in the Atlantic.

If Elon Musk has not been pulling our legs, we will get to see an “unusual” payload this time around – a red Tesla Roadster.

In a December 22 Instagram post, Musk had uploaded the image of the red car alongside a message captioned “A Red Car for the Red Planet.”

This is what the message said:

“Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.

The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”

The mighty Merlins of the Falcon Heavy are expected to give the Roadster enough thrust for it to beat Earth’s gravity, allowing it to go into a heliocentric orbit, about the same distance as between Mars and the sun.

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From The Editors Science

Falcon Heavy Stood Upright for the First Time on Historic Launch Pad 39A for Pre-Flight Tests

On December 28, SpaceX moved another step closer to its first Falcon Heavy launch, due sometime in January 2018. The 3-booster rocket stood vertical, for the first time, at the famous launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, for pre-launch tests.

Several lucky spectators who happened to be in the vicinity of the KSC launch pad, whether by design or coincidence, actually got to see the raising of the 70-meter-tall rocket – a historic first for the triple-booster space vehicle.

Capable of generating three times the thrust of a Falcon 9, made possible by 27 Merlin engines – nine to each core – the 229-foot-tall science and technology marvel will be able to carry payloads of up to 63,800 kg into low orbit.

It is all set to become the most powerful in-service rocket, bypassing Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher, which, for now, is the world’s most powerful launch vehicle with a lift-off thrust of 2.9 million pounds from its core engine and two boosters.

However, maximum payload capability can only be achieved if the company decides not to recover the first-stage boosters, which, basically, eats up the rockets propellant reserves, thereby reducing the rocket’s lifting capacity.

With SpaceX already decided on recovering all three first-stage boosters, needless to say, Falcon Heavy will not be carrying the maximum payload when it lifts off next month.

Even when the boosters are not recovered, maximum payload launch into low Earth orbit will require a velocity boost from Earth’s rotation. For that to happen, the rocket will have to be launched to the east from Florida’s Space Coast.

“When Falcon Heavy lifts off in 2018, it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lb)—a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel—Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy at one-third the cost,” claims SpaceX on its website.

Falcon Heavy’s two side-boosters, recovered and refurbished from 2016’s Falcon 9 missions, will separate and return to land at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in quick succession, if not simultaneously, while the new center core will detach and land on SpaceX’s droneship in the Atlantic.

Here’s what Elon Musk tweeted after the successful December 22 launch of Falcon 9 – the 18th and last launch for SpaceX in 2017.

If Elon Musk has not been pulling our legs, we will get to see an “unusual” payload this time around – a red Tesla Roadster.

In a December 22 Instagram post, Musk had uploaded the image of the red car alongside a message captioned “A Red Car for the Red Planet.”

This is what the message said:

“Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.
The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BdA94kVgQhU/

The mighty Merlins of the Falcon Heavy are expected to give the Roadster enough thrust for it to beat Earth’s gravity, allowing it to go into a heliocentric orbit, about the same distance as between Mars and the sun.

Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A owes its historic significance to the fact that it was the launch pad used for NASA’s Apollo and Space Shuttle missions as well as other NASA launches until it was decommissioned after the July 2011 launch of the space agency’s Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis – the final flight of the Shuttle program.

Yes, it’s the same launch pad from where the Saturn V rocket lifted off on its historic 1969 manned mission to the moon.

Leased by SpaceX and active since early this year for Falcon 9 launches, the iconic pad was modified to support Dragon 2 and Falcon Heavy launches, as well.

Barring the stationary fire test of all 27 first stage engines – which will happen in January before the launch – SpaceX engineers carried out fit checks and other tests before the rocket was lowered down back to a horizontal position.

While SpaceX has not yet released a target date, company officials do confirm that a January launch is certainly on the cards, not long after the hold-down firing of the multiple engines.

Below, you can see the Falcon Heavy being set up at launch pad 39A in a time-lapse video “Spaceflight Now” posted on Twitter.

SpaceX has had a superlative 2017 with 18 launches to its credit, more than any other private-sector spaceflight company in the world.

Also, the December 15 recovery of the Falcon 9 booster made it the 20th successful first-stage retrieval for the spaceflight company, with 14 recoveries this year alone.

The first-stage of Falcon 9 that returned after the spectacular evening launch on December 22 could also have been retrieved but was intentionally allowed to plunge into the ocean.

With the busy launch schedule of 2018, it may well turn out to be as good a year, if not better.

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From The Editors Science

SpaceX Launches Last Falcon 9 Rocket of 2017: A Dazzling Light Show in the California Sky

Is it a UFO? A North Korean Nuclear Missile?

No, it’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket streaking across the South California sky!

Many southern Californians were left wondering as to what really blazed through the darkening sky Friday evening, until a media advisory from the LA Fire Department AND a Twitter post from none other than the LA Mayor Eric Garcetti himself, allayed their worst fears of UFOs and North Korean nuclear attacks.

“Media Advisory; 5:40PM; VANDENBERG AIR FORCE

BASE; https://goo.gl/maps/wxzcqrqvDEy; INFORMATION ONLY: MYSTERIOUS LIGHT IN THE SKY IS REPORTED TO BE AS A RESULT OF VANDENBURG AIR FORCE BASE LAUNCHING ROCKET TO PUT SATELLITE INTO SPACE. NO FURTHER DETAILS.;TONY HANDY”

SpaceX launched its 18th and last rocket of the year on Friday (Dec. 22), successfully putting a payload of 10 Iridium Next communications satellites into their target orbits.

The Falcon 9 lifted off at 5:27 pm PT (8:00 pm ET/0127 GMT) from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, north of Los Angeles, into a darkening evening sky about 30 minutes after sunset.

However, it was the spectacular views in the California sky, fear-evoking for many, that made more news than the actual launch itself. Well, enough has already been written and said about Elon Musk’s forays into space, a resounding success for each of the eighteen launches this year – and many more expected in 2018.

The rocket was seen throughout southern California and even as far away as Arizona, streaking across the evening sky, leaving in its wake a spectacularly ethereal white plume of expelled gases.

Those who knew about the launch were thoroughly wowed by this awe-inspiring experience.

However, many in nearby La La land, including several Hollywood celebrities, who were not aware of the launch, found themselves in a quandary about the identity of the giant white sperm-like streak passing through the sky, leading many to speculate about UFOs and North Korean nuclear missiles.

And, Elon Musk only added to all of it by jokingly tweeting about a “Nuclear alien UFO from North Korea”

Here are the worried and confused tweets:

Photographer and visual storyteller Apu Gomes saw what he thought was a “weird light in the sky in Los Angeles” but soon came to know from the “LAFD advisory that the “mysterious light in the sky” was from a rocket launch.”

Emmy and Golden Globe awards nominee and HBO’s “Westworld” star, Evan Rachel Wood, certainly didn’t know what she had just seen in the sky.

Actor/Rapper Jaden Smith was as confused as Wood

Singer, songwriter, actress Demi Lovato has a conspiracy theory and is “calling bullshit on SpaceX’s excuse. That shit’s a UFO and there’s been others that have been seen that are just like it!!”

Professional skater and actor Tony Hawk wanted to know what he had seen in the skies above San Diego. “Does anyone know what we just saw in the skies above San Diego?”

Rapper, singer, songwriter William Adams – better known as will.i.am – asked, “What is that in the Los Angeles sky?”

Coming back to the launch, the Falcon 9 used for Friday’s Iridium Next satellite-launch mission is the same rocket that carried Iridium satellites in June, as well, with the first stage landing on a floating deck in the Pacific Ocean, while this time around, the booster was allowed to plunge into the sea.

According to Elon Musk, this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of spectacle, what with the 3-first-stage-booster Falcon Heavy rocket, with three times the thrust of the current Falcon 9, scheduled for several launches in 2018.

Instead of one, we’ll get to see two boosters returning to back to base, while a third core will land on a drone ship.

Here are pictures of the Falcon Heavy, Musk posted on social media.

In what will be another first for SpaceX, Musk announced Friday, via an Instagram post, that future test flights of new rockets will carry a Tesla Roadster car, instead of the usual “concrete or steel blocks,” which he called boring. “A Red Car for the Red Planet,” he said – an indication of his seriousness about future Mars missions.

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From The Editors Science

SpaceX Creates New Record by Launching Used Dragon atop Used Falcon

SpaceX created history on Friday (Dec 15) when it launched its recycled Dragon spacecraft, carrying a 4,800-pound resupply payload for the International Space Station (ISS), atop its previously used Falcon 9 rocket, taking the company another step closer, and a big one at that, to its goal of achieving total re-usability.

Originally scheduled for a Dec 12 launch, the two-stage Falcon 9 lifted off at 10:36 am EST, on Friday, from SpaceX’s newly refurbished SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida for NASA’s CRS-13 resupply mission to the ISS.

Two and a half minutes (approx) into the flight, the first stage booster detached for its journey back to Earth, while the second stage Dragon continued on its NASA mission to the ISS.

In less than eight minutes after lift-off, the first stage Falcon 9 booster made a picture-perfect controlled landing on LZ-1 at the Cape Canaveral Base for retrieval and potential reuse for a third mission.

The second stage Dragon is expected to reach the ISS on Sunday, where the robotic arm of the ISS will grab it for docking and berthing.

The Dragon was previously used back in April 2015 for one of NASA’s missions to the orbiting space station, whereas the Falcon 9 first stage booster was used for the agency’s CRS-11 mission, in June 2017, to launch a different Dragon toward the International Space Station.

SpaceX's Dragon cargo ship filled with NASA supplies separates from its Falcon 9 rocket upper stage after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2017. It is the Dragon's second delivery trip to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV
SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship filled with NASA supplies separates from its Falcon 9 rocket upper stage after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2017. It is the Dragon’s second delivery trip to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA TV

Not in the history of all its launches has Space X used a previously-flown spacecraft on a previously-flown rocket. It is also the first time, ever, that Elon Musk’s spaceflight company has used a recycled rocket for a NASA mission

The space agency gave its nod to the use of a pre-flown rocket for its CRS-13 supply mission to the ISS, only after extensive reviews of the risks involved, NASA officials confirmed.

“We’re very comfortable that the risk posture on this vehicle is not significantly greater than [on] a new booster,” NASA’s ISS program manager Kirk Shireman said in a pre-launch briefing on Dec 11, a day before the originally scheduled launch, which was aborted for additional “ground system checks” and further checks of the second stage fuel system. “We think of it as equivalent risk.”

SpaceX has had a superlative 2017 with 17 launches to its credit and a potential 18th launch scheduled for December 22 – more than any other private-sector spaceflight company in the world.

Also, Friday’s recovery of the Falcon 9 booster makes it the 20th successful first stage recovery for SpaceX, with 14 booster retrievals this year alone.

The first ever successful launch and safe return and retrieval of the booster, after mission accomplished, happened for SpaceX in December 2015.

The most significant and triumphant aspect of the mission for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and his team was the safe return and retrieval of the booster, which had never happened before for SpaceX – although Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin had successfully achieved the feat (of safe return and retrieval) earlier with its “New Shepard” mission.

After that momentous day, SpaceX achieved six successful launches and booster retrievals until the company suffered a major setback in September 2016, when a Falcon 9 rocket together with its payload exploded, forcing the company to schedule a re-launch for January 2017.

Of course, an inquiry into the disaster was initiated and SpaceX investigators were able to narrow down the cause to a malfunction of one of three helium tanks inside the rocket’s second-stage liquid oxygen tank, as was reported by Associated Press (AP).

“SpaceX announced this month that investigators concluded the accident involved a failure of one of three helium tanks inside the rocket’s second-stage liquid oxygen tank,” AP had reported then.

However, true to their promise of a re-launch in January 2017, Elon Musk and the SpaceX team achieved their seventh successful launch and booster retrieval on January 14, 2017, the first in a series of 17 successful launches this year, with one more scheduled for December 22.

It must be mentioned that Friday’s launch (CRS-13) was the13th of a 20-mission contract that SpaceX has signed with NASA for $1.6 billion.

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From The Editors Technology

Elon Musk Gets His Tunnel-Boring Machine at SpaceX

Elon Musk CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX recently launched yet another startup: the Boring Company.

Elon Musk has been teasing his tunneling project since he first tweeted the idea when he was stuck in Los Angeles traffic.

On Thursday, an all-white tunnel-boring machine appeared outside SpaceX’s Hawthorne headquarters. Sections of a tunnel-boring machine are being worked on in a parking lot along Crenshaw Blvd. across the street. SpaceX employee posted a picture on Instagram, which was later removed from his account.

.

Elon Musk at TED Conference, 2017 – gave the first look at the underground tunnels his new company, The Boring Company, is shooting to develop in the future.

Musk said that they plan to go down to about 50 feet into that hole in the parking lot before starting to dig horizontally in order not to disrupt any gas or sewage line. There, they will be able to experiment with new digging technologies build on the current boring machine.

The cars will remain on a platform called a car “skate” in the tunnel, which will take it through at up to 130 miles per hour. Musk says he’s shooting to have many layers of tunnels.

“There’s no real limit to how many levels of tunnels you can have,” he said. “The deepest mines are much deeper than the tallest buildings are tall.”

“We have a pet snail named Gary,” he said. “Gary is capable of currently going 14 times faster than a tunnel boring machine. We want to beat Gary. He’s not a patient little fellow, that will be a victory. Victory will be beating the snail.”

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From The Editors Science

SpaceX to Take Two Paying Passengers on a Trip Around the Moon – NASA Commends and Cautions

Elon Musk, founder, and CEO of SpaceX announced Monday that the company plans to take two paying private citizens on a trip around the moon, tentatively by the end of 2018. The launch vehicle will be the Falcon Heavy rocket while the Dragon crew capsule will host the passengers.

Although NASA commended the announcement, it also reminded SpaceX of its main obligation towards NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and bring astronauts serving at the station back to Earth, specifically the United States.

“NASA commends its industry partners for reaching higher,” NASA officials wrote in a statement. “We will work closely with SpaceX to ensure it safely meets the contractual obligations to return the launch of astronauts to U.S. soil and continue to successfully deliver supplies to the International Space Station.”

“NASA always has first priority,” Musk said putting NASA worries to rest. “So if NASA decides to have the first mission of this nature be a NASA mission, then of course NASA would take priority.”

If SpaceX does manage to achieve the private Moon trip in 2018, it would do well to coincide it with the 50th anniversary of NASA’s historic Apollo 8 manned flight to the moon in December 1968.

SpaceX CEO Musk poses by the Dragon V2 spacecraft after it was unveiled in Hawthorne
SpaceX CEO Musk poses by the Dragon V2 spacecraft after it was unveiled in Hawthorne.

All that Musk revealed in regards to the identity of the two paying space passengers is that they are known to each other and were “nobody from Hollywood.” He did admit, though, that the tourists had made a substantial deposit for the said trip and would be undergoing “extensive training” before they embark on the first private trip around our natural satellite.

According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to be launched for a test flight by summer this year, has “5 million pounds of liftoff thrust” making it “the most powerful vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket.” The thrust is two times that of the next largest launch vehicle available today and two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V.

“Most importantly, we would like to thank NASA, without whom this would not be possible. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which provided most of the funding for Dragon 2 development, is a key enabler for this mission. In addition, this will make use of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was developed with internal SpaceX funding. Falcon Heavy is due to launch its first test flight this summer and, once successful, will be the most powerful vehicle to reach orbit after the Saturn V moon rocket. At 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, Falcon Heavy is two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V and more than double the thrust of the next largest launch vehicle currently flying,” said the SpaceX statement about the passenger mission.

SpaceX is currently under contract with NASA to carry out an average of four missions to the ISS in a year; three being cargo missions while one will carry crew.

Elon Musk thinks that one or two private passenger missions in a year are foreseeable and estimated that revenue from such trips has the potential to contribute between 10 and 20 percent of the company’s earnings.

The SpaceX and Tesla billionaire also said that after the required communications upgrade, the Dragon crew capsule, being developed for NASA’s manned missions, will be ideal for the passenger program.

The intended launch will, however, require the necessary licensing by the Federal Aviation Administration.

SpaceX, it must be mentioned, is not the only company developing passenger spaceflight services for profit. It joins Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (an offshoot of his UK-based Virgin Group), among others, working toward making private commercial flights to space a reality of the near future.

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From The Editors Science

Eighth Feather in Elon Musk’s ‘Launch and Retrieval’ Cap

In about fourteen months SpaceX has accomplished eight successful ‘launch and retrieval’ of its Falcon9 rockets, three of them landing back on terra firma, with the first ever daytime return of the space vehicle witnessed on February 19, 2017.

However, the journey to the eighth winner, which started in December 2015, was not all smooth sailing for Elon Musk and SpaceX.

In September 2016, a Falcon9 rocket exploded at the company’s Launch Complex 40 at the Cape. The blast destroyed both rocket and payload including heavy damage to the pad, rendering it out of commission – hence, the decision to launch the ninth mission from the iconic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, now, in use by SpaceX under a property agreement with NASA.

A couple of technical glitches caused the scheduled launch on February 18, to be aborted and rescheduled for the next day. Reportedly, one of them was an issue with the steering in the upper segment of the rocket.

Carrying the Dragon Capsule containing 5500 pounds of supplies and equipment for astronauts at the NASA International Space Center (ISS), the Falcon9 lifted off from the historic pad 39A at 9.39 a.m. EST (2.39 p.m. GMT) Sunday, watched by Elon Musk and his SpaceX team.

This happens to be the tenth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station (CRS-10) undertaken by SpaceX for NASA.

In about ten minutes post-launch the first stage returned safely to “Landing Zone 1,” a SpaceX booster retrieval facility, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex, built in February 2015 on land leased from the United States Air Force.

Elon Musk celebrates:

Baby came back

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Before its return, Falcon9 successfully launched the Dragon payload into orbit expected to be retrieved by the robotic arm of the ISS when the capsule reaches it on Wednesday with essential supplies.

NASA celebrates:

According to a NASA report, the contents of the Dragon capsule are:
“Major experiments that will look into a range of scientific disciplines from human health to atmospheric conditions on Earth.”

“Astronauts Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) and Shane Kimbrough of NASA will use the space station’s robotic arm to capture Dragon when it arrives at the station. Live coverage of the rendezvous and capture will begin at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22 on NASA TV and the agency’s website, with installation coverage set to begin at 8:30 a.m.” – NASA.

This was the first ever launch by SpaceX from launch pad 39A which was decommissioned in 2011 after hosting the last lift-off of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis. The site, built for the Apollo missions and later modified for NASA’a space shuttle program, is resplendent in history, and Sunday’s launch has just added to its glorious past.

SpaceX leased 39A from NASA under a property agreement in 2014 and modified it to support its Falcon9 Dragon and future Falcon Heavy programs. The main focus of the refurbishment work was on the ground propellant systems which had to be upgraded to future missions’ specifications.

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From The Editors Science

Preparations for SpaceX’s Second Falcon 9 Launch of the Year Underway

Live updates of the Falcon 9’s hectic pre-flight preparations are continuing to come in as I write this. On Friday, a Falcon 9 rocket was rolled out of the SpaceX hangar and transported to the Kennedy Space Center’s historic launch pad 39A on a brand new transporter-erector. It is now standing upright on the pad awaiting a stationary fire test scheduled for Saturday.

The launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center owes its historic significance to the fact that it was the launch pad for NASA’s Apollo and Space Shuttle missions and was used for a number NASA launches in the past. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch will be the first since July 8, 2011, when the space agency’s Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis lifted off from the pad for the final flight of the Shuttle program.

2016 proved to be a fairly good year for SpaceX in that it won its first ever commercial contracts to launch payloads into low orbit. Many would disagree, though, considering the pre-launch explosion in September last year when a Falcon 9 rocket together with its payload exploded at the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. However, Space X redeemed itself with a successful launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, delivery of payload, and booster retrieval as recently as January 14, 2017.

Well, good or bad, 2016 is history and looking forward it seems that 2017 promises to be the biggest year, ever, since it was founded back in June 2002. It might well be the deciding factor for the future of SpaceX in particular and space exploration in general.

Space X started the year on a positive note with the successful launch of a Falcon 9 rocket, as mentioned earlier. Falcon 9 nine lifted off carrying a payload of 10 Iridium satellites, delivered the payload into orbit, and SpaceX retrieved the booster for repeat launches, all done with high levels of success. This must have been a huge relief for the SpaceX supremo, Elon Musk who had been under tremendous pressure after the Cape Canaveral pre-launch disaster.


Reportedly, SpaceX has planned over thirty scheduled launches for this year. Two missions will be for the United States government, five for NASA, and the remaining will be commercial launches for customers including Falcon Heavy Launches for the United States Air Force and Intelsat, Luxemburg. The number of launches is likely to increase with the SpaceX customer base being expected to expand globally.

The upgraded and latest version ‘Falcon 9 Block 5’ with the fully re-usable 1st stage will take over from the older versions.

Another huge addition to the SpaceX launch-résumé is reported to be manned missions – the Dragon2 orbital test flight and NASA’s ISS (International Space Station) mission.

With launches planned for 2018, it would be a giant leap for SpaceX and Elon Musk with the promise of a great future in manned missions and Elon Musk’s long-term Mars plans. If all goes well the first manned mission to the red planet will become a distinct possibility in just over a decade. Also, from a commercial perspective, limitless opportunities can open up for SpaceX with the success of these initial test flights and missions.