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Photos of SN11 in flight.
Enlarge / Engine cutoff, with SN11 entering its bellyflop maneuver, on March 30, 2021.
Trevor Mahlmann

SpaceX has received permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration to launch its latest Starship prototype, SN15, and it may attempt to do so as early as Friday afternoon from South Texas.

The primary concern today is weather, as there are intermittent rain showers due to a stationary front draped over the region. However, some of the higher-resolution weather forecast models indicate that conditions could clear up later this afternoon. Perhaps rain will not matter all that much, as SpaceX has not specified the weather conditions under which it will launch Starship. One month ago, the company launched its previous prototype, SN11, into a thick bank of fog.

On Thursday, the FAA said it had approved not just the flight of SN15 to an altitude of about 10 km but the next two vehicles as well. “The FAA has authorized the next three launches of the SpaceX Starship prototype,” the federal agency said in a statement. “The agency approved multiple launches because SpaceX is making few changes to the launch vehicle and relied on the FAA’s approved methodology to calculate the risk to the public.”

SpaceX has indeed substantially changed SN15 from SN11, which explains why the company skipped ahead several numerals in its naming of these Starship prototypes. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the new prototype has “hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software & engine.”

The goal for SN15 and its immediate successors is to demonstrate the capability to fly to 10 km, or perhaps as high as 20 km in future flights, and land successfully. Musk has said the next major upgrade to the vehicle will come with SN20, which will have a heat shield designed to withstand the heating from Earth orbit, and a separation system.

This is necessary, because to reach orbit, Starship must be stacked on a large Super Heavy booster that will also attempt to land. SpaceX engineers and technicians have already built a “pathfinding” version of this Super Heavy booster and have also begun the construction of a Super Heavy rocket that will attempt a short flight.

The Starship test program remains very much in the experimental phase, so further failures are likely. Already, SpaceX has lost four full-scale Starship prototypes—SN8, SN9, SN10, and SN11—in test flights since December. Only one of these four vehicles has made a soft landing, SN10 in early March, but due to a fuel line problem, it exploded about 10 minutes after touchdown.

Successfully landing SN15 would represent a significant step forward for SpaceX and allow the Starship program to begin to turn its focus toward orbital flight attempts.

The ambitious program to build a large, fully reusable orbital launch system received a major boost from NASA earlier this month. The space agency selected a modified version of Starship to carry humans down to the surface of the Moon and back to lunar orbit as part of its Artemis Program. This contract, worth $2.89 billion, will allow SpaceX to accelerate the development of the landing system. Success with SN15’s landing would help NASA as it faces critics in Congress who have questioned the viability of selecting Starship alone for its lunar lander.

SpaceX should provide a webcast of the launch later this afternoon; we will embed it below when it goes live a few minutes before liftoff. In the meantime, NASASpaceflight and LabPadre have ongoing streams to monitor progress toward a launch attempt today.

On October 6, 1957, Russia’s Sputnik 1 made history as man’s first satellite to reach into space. Today, an estimated 6,000 satellites are making the rounds in Earth’s lower orbit, along what has become a busy satellite superhighway.

Private industry is driving a space boom. Over the next several years, companies like Amazon and SpaceX plan to launch tens of thousands of satellites.

Upcoming space missions to keep an eye out for in 2021

Canada, too, is investing more money in their own space fleet, and even some upcoming trips to the moon. In total, $9.9 million was included in last week’s federal budget for the Canadian Space Agency to start planning for the next generation of observational satellites.

That project is expected to replace the Radarsat Constellation Mission; three satellites worth over a billion dollars. Together, they track things like climate change, ice movements, precision agriculture, animal migration, natural disasters, and more. But they and others are facing an increasing threat.

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Click to play video: 'NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter successfully makes 1st flight on Red Planet'

NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter successfully makes 1st flight on Red Planet

NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter successfully makes 1st flight on Red Planet – Apr 19, 2021

On February 10, 2009, two communications satellites—the active commercial Iridium 33 and derelict Russian military Kosmos-2251—accidentally collided above Siberia. The impact released an estimated 3,500 pieces of debris into orbit. Add that to a satellite count expected to multiply to over 30,000 in the next decade and space is getting dangerously overcrowded.

“Back in the early days, there were not that many alerts,” said Michel Doyon, the manager of flight operation at the Canadian Space Agency.

The CSA currently supports over 70 satellites. Last year, it manually processed over 18,000 alerts for possible collisions.

“When the secondary object is pure debris, then there is no coordination. We will manage it. But if the other object is another satellite, then operators will work together to make sure that we don’t move in the same direction -that one goes up, one goes down, and so on.”

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READ MORE: Canadian military looking for ideas to shield satellites from ‘cyberattacks and lasers’

It’s an onerous job and one that space tech companies are eager to help manage.

Kayhan Space is one of them, offering advanced new systems to monitor and automate collision alerts – something of a traffic control service for Earth’s lower orbit.

“It takes one catastrophic accident, one collision, not only to end that mission, but also debris from that collision can make the entire orbit unusable for many, many years. So it’s a big problem. And it’s very prone to human error,” the company’s cofounder Araz Feyzi said.

Others, like Canada’s MDA, are launching new technology to assist from above.

“Using on-orbit servicing, to actively manage, inspect, repair, and refuel and extend the life of satellites, in addition to managing debris, and dealing with space junk – there’s a growing market for that, estimated in the $8 billion range,” MDA CEO Mike Greenly said.

“There will be opportunities in the future to put sensors on spacecraft to be able to see objects coming towards you, and have that programmed into the logic.”

Click to play video: 'Strange lights seen in skies over B.C., Washington and Oregon likely debris from SpaceX rocket'

Strange lights seen in skies over B.C., Washington and Oregon likely debris from SpaceX rocket

Strange lights seen in skies over B.C., Washington and Oregon likely debris from SpaceX rocket – Mar 26, 2021

And while technology can help, even tech companies recognize it’s a growing issue that will require extensive international cooperation in an increasingly chaotic atmosphere.

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“This problem is really a large problem,” said Dr. Siamak Hesar, an aerospace engineer who previously supported multiple NASA missions before co-founding Kayhan Space. “It’s not only Canada’s problem or another country’s problem, space belongs to everybody.”

“We believe that there’s a need for global collaboration on setting ground rules for space, traffic management,” added Feyzi.

Canada has been an active player in various international forums to address the issue. The most recent one was approval of the long-term sustainability guidelines by the United Nations General Assembly, where more than 80 nations agreed on guidelines for ways to responsibly use space.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

Screenshot of a presentation from China's main state-owned rocket manufacturer, CALT.
Enlarge / Screenshot of a presentation from China’s main state-owned rocket manufacturer, CALT.

This weekend, China celebrated its sixth “National Space Day” in Nanjing, a capital city in one of the country’s eastern provinces. As part of the festivities, Chinese space officials highlighted the Chang’e-5 mission’s recent return of lunar samples, some of which were on display, and announced the name of China’s first Mars rover, Zhurong, which is scheduled to land on the red planet in May.

A booth operated by China’s main state-owned rocket manufacturer, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, also spotlighted the potential for suborbital point-to-point transportation. This is a concept in which a vehicle launches from Earth, flies into suborbital space, and touches down halfway around the world in less than an hour.

The promotional video, captured and shared on the Chinese social network Weibo, shows two different concepts for achieving suborbital passenger flights about two decades from now. What is interesting about the video (which I’ve mirrored on YouTube) is that the first concept looks strikingly like SpaceX’s Starship vehicle. It shows a large vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and vertical landing.

The concept is notable not only for its appearance to Starship—the vehicle’s exterior is shiny, like the stainless steel structure of Starship, and the first and second stages are similarly seamless—but in its function as well. Although Starship has primarily been promoted as a vehicle to take humans to the Moon and Mars, SpaceX has also developed a point-to-point concept.

SpaceX first unveiled this “Earth to Earth” concept in September 2017. A video released at the time showed a suborbital flight time on Starship from New York City to Shanghai of just 39 minutes and advertised the capability of “anywhere on Earth in less than an hour.”

The second point-to-point concept in the Chinese video showed a horizontal takeoff, horizontal landing vehicle that used some sort of electromagnetic catapult.

Both of these systems are part of China’s previously announced plans to develop global point-to-point transportation by 2045. Under the country’s long-term planning goals, Chinese industry would begin delivering cargo around the globe via suborbital flight by 2035 and passengers by 2045.

This would not be the first time that the Chinese space program has drawn inspiration from SpaceX. The country tracked SpaceX from the very beginning, particularly with an interest in SpaceX’s plans to reuse rocket first stages. During the company’s very first launch in 2006, as reported in the book Liftoff, a Chinese spy boat was in the small patch of ocean where the Falcon 1 rocket’s first stage was due to reenter.

More recently, in 2019, the Chinese Long March 2C rocket tested “grid fins” like those used by the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to steer itself through the atmosphere during the reentry process. China intends to develop the Long March 8 rocket to land on a sea platform like the Falcon 9 booster did, and semi-private Chinese firms such as LinkSpace and Galactic Energy appear to be mimicking SpaceX launch technology.

It’s not clear whether China would also develop a Starship-like vehicle for interplanetary transport. For now, the country plans to develop a more conventional super heavy lifter known as the Long March 9 rocket, as well as a triple-core booster that resembles SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

In the future, what might lunar exploration look like if NASA can send multiple Starships there each year? This SpaceX rendering offers a vision of one such future.
Enlarge / In the future, what might lunar exploration look like if NASA can send multiple Starships there each year? This SpaceX rendering offers a vision of one such future.

When NASA astronauts return to the Moon in a few years, they will do so inside a lander that dwarfs that of the Apollo era. SpaceX’s Starship vehicle measures 50 meters from its nose cone to landing legs. By contrast, the cramped Lunar Module that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin down to the Moon in 1969 stood just 7 meters tall.

This is but one of many genuinely shocking aspects of NASA’s decision a week ago to award SpaceX—and only SpaceX—a contract to develop, test, and fly two missions to the lunar surface. The second flight, which will carry astronauts to the Moon, could launch as early as 2024.

NASA awarded SpaceX $2.89 billion for these two missions. But this contract would balloon in amount should NASA select SpaceX to fly recurring lunar missions later in the 2020s. And it has value to SpaceX and NASA in myriad other ways. Perhaps most significantly, with this contract NASA has bet on a bold future of exploration. Until now, the plans NASA had contemplated for human exploration in deep space all had echoes of the Apollo program. NASA talked about “sustainable” missions and plans in terms of cost, but they were sustainable in name only.

By betting on Starship, which entails a host of development risks, NASA is taking a chance on what would be a much brighter future. One in which not a handful of astronauts go to the Moon or Mars, but dozens and then hundreds. In this sense, Starship represents a radical departure for NASA and human exploration.

“If Starship meets the goals Elon Musk has set for it, Starship getting this contract is like the US government supporting the railroads in the old west here on Earth,” said Rick Tumlinson, a proponent of human settlement of the Solar System. “It is transformational to degrees no one today can understand.”

We will nonetheless try to understand some of the ways in which Starship could prove transformational.

1. Starship ahead of schedule

Ahead of NASA’s announcement on April 16, I did not expect SpaceX to receive the only, or even the largest, award from NASA this early on in the lander-development process.

About a year ago, NASA selected three different bids for a Human Landing System. Over the course of 10 months, each of the three contractors fine-tuned its design and worked with NASA engineers to explain how its lander could meet the space agency’s needs. A team led by Blue Origin submitted the most conventional design, tailored to NASA’s request for a three-stage lander. Dynetics proposed an innovative lander, with a nod toward reusability, but it was also sized to bring just a few astronauts to the lunar surface.

SpaceX, by contrast, submitted a version of its Mars vehicle as a lunar lander. For the last five years, SpaceX has largely self-funded development of Starship as the reusable upper stage of a massive rocket, Super Heavy. The vehicle is intended to take dozens of people to Mars at a time in a six-month voyage. Thus, Starship is massively oversized to take two or four astronauts down to the surface of the Moon. But of the three landers, it is the only one with a direct path toward full reuse.

Starship is also the most technically demanding of the three vehicles because of its size and aspirations. Among the biggest hurdles are learning to land Starship, both on the Moon and back on Earth. And to conduct missions to the Moon and beyond, SpaceX must develop the technology to refuel Starship with methane and liquid-oxygen fuel in low Earth orbit.

“One of the hardest engineering problems known to man is making a reusable orbital rocket,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk told me about a year ago. “It’s stupidly difficult to have a fully reusable orbital system.”

Because there are so many technological miracles needed to validate the Starship design, I felt that NASA would not fully commit to the SpaceX vehicle as a potential lander until it had flown. Perhaps launching Starship into orbit would be enough of a technology demonstration for NASA. Or maybe SpaceX would have to land one on the Moon. This perceived need to demonstrate the viability of Starship is one reason why Musk and SpaceX have built and launched Starships at such a frenetic pace in South Texas during the last year. Only by doing, the thinking went, would NASA believe in Starship.

Instead, NASA has committed to the ambitious program even before Starship has safely landed after a high-altitude flight test. In this sense, NASA’s support for Starship has come ahead of schedule.

2. SpaceX needs NASA for Mars

After seeing SpaceX launch more than 100 rockets over the last decade, what has become abundantly clear is that its engineers are now the best in the world at designing, building, and flying new and innovative rockets. The execution of the Falcon 9 program, proving out first-stage reuse, and development of the Falcon Heavy rocket attest to this.

But building great rockets is one thing. It is another thing to develop all of the other capabilities needed to ensure that humans can travel to Mars, land on the red planet, and survive there.

When it comes to in-space activities, SpaceX has leaned on NASA’s expertise for Crew Dragon as part of the commercial crew program. And with respect to the kinds of technologies needed for long-duration travel to Mars, through deep space, SpaceX has limited experience—there is very little recycling of air, water, and other consumables on a Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA, on the other hand, has been working on these problems for more than a decade with astronauts on the International Space Station.

The space agency has also been conducting studies of Moon and Mars missions for decades, said Abhi Tripathi, who worked as a systems engineer at NASA from 2000 to 2010 performing these kinds of analyses. Tripathi left NASA to work at SpaceX on the cargo and crew versions of the Dragon spacecraft until 2020, when he moved to the University of California, Berkeley.

“NASA will undoubtedly bring to bear a wealth of invaluable information, technology, and subject matter experts to help SpaceX achieve their shared goal of putting humans on Mars,” Tripathi told Ars.

NASA and SpaceX collaborating this early on Starship also helps with a host of other issues not related to transportation. A government agency will be needed to facilitate the development of nuclear-based power for the surface of Mars, for example. And any human missions to Mars will raise planetary protection questions and other international concerns. Having NASA alongside SpaceX means the US government will help address all of these issues.

Suddenly, human landings on Mars about a decade from now seems a lot more realistic.

3. NASA bets on game-changing technology

The world has never seen a vehicle like Starship before. If successful, the massive spacecraft would open up new possibilities to NASA not before available. This is because Starship could realize the long-desired goal of rapid, low-cost reuse of a launch system.

Consider the status quo. The large Space Launch System rocket under development by NASA will be able to launch 95 metric tons into low Earth orbit. NASA and its contractors, led by Boeing, will be able to build one a year. The expendable vehicle will launch one payload, at a cost about $2 billion per mission, and then drop into the ocean.

In terms of lift capacity, the vehicles are similar. Starship and Super Heavy should be able to put about 100 tons into low Earth orbit. However, SpaceX is already capable of building one Starship a month, and the plan is to reuse each booster and spacecraft dozens of times. Imagine the kind of space program NASA could have with the capacity to launch 100 tons into orbit every two weeks—instead of a single annual mission—for $2 billion a year. Seriously, pause a moment and really think about that.

In their decision to select SpaceX, NASA officials appeared to recognize this potential. “We were looking to see what industry partners could bring in terms of innovation and solutions,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, the Human Landing System program manager. The emphasis here is on innovation and new solutions to old problems.

“In picking the Starship architecture, NASA is helping enable a path toward a super heavy launch vehicle, in-space propellant storage, in-space refueling, and large up and down mass to planetary surfaces,” said Tripathi, who has examined these problems from both NASA and SpaceX’s perspective.

Put another way: if Starship is successful, NASA no longer needs to pick just one or two big things to do in space. The agency will be able to do many different things at the same time.

4. NASA funds an SLS competitor

So why is NASA funding a launch system that will directly compete with its SLS booster? That, to be clear, was not the space agency’s intent. In explaining the award during a news conference, agency officials were careful to say that SLS and the Orion spacecraft remain an essential part of the Artemis architecture. But in reality, NASA may well be putting its SLS rocket out of business.

With the Human Landing System award, NASA has put its stamp of approval on Starship and Super Heavy. The launch system will eventually go into the catalog maintained by NASA’s Launch Services Provider program, allowing other agency programs to procure the vehicle for missions. This could be a real boon for large, space-based telescopes that would find the large volume of Starship’s payload fairing useful.

“If I were an official in one of NASA’s other directorates, I would personally be dreaming up all kinds of ideas for what I can someday do with all these substantive new capabilities,” Tripathi said.

In the big picture, $2.89 billion is not a lot compared to what NASA has already invested in the SLS rocket. The space agency spends that much every year in development costs for the rocket and its associated ground systems. Because the SLS rocket is funded through cost-plus contracts to major space contractors like Boeing, there is less incentive to control costs or deliver a timely product. Predictably, the SLS vehicle is significantly over budget and now five years behind its original launch date of late 2016.

All of this has led to criticisms that SLS is a jobs program. Indeed, it provides jobs in all 50 states and supports hundreds of small businesses. And perhaps this explains why Congress has steadfastly supported SLS despite its costs and delays.

By contrast, Starship is not a jobs program. Rather, it’s a jobs-killer program from the perspective of Congress.

5. Is SpaceX too dominant?

SpaceX has enjoyed a remarkable string of NASA contract wins. Over the last decade, it has landed NASA awards to deliver cargo and crew to the International Space Station, launch the Lunar Gateway, supply this Gateway with cargo, and now deliver humans to the surface of the Moon.

The Artemis Program could also plausibly morph into the SpaceX Lunar Program. How? Under the current plan, a Super Heavy rocket would launch Starship to lunar orbit. Days later, an SLS rocket would launch crew inside an Orion spacecraft, which would dock with Starship in lunar orbit. The crew would transfer to Starship and go down to the Moon. After coming back to lunar orbit on Starship, the astronauts would board Orion and fly back to Earth.

But if Starship is safe for humans to land on the Moon, why would it not be safe for humans simply to launch from Earth on board the vehicle? This would save NASA the cost of an SLS plus Orion launch—about $3 billion per mission, combined—and a tricky rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit. This is probably the future of a truly sustainable lunar exploration program.

That’s good for NASA and for SpaceX, but what about the other spaceflight companies? Under the (much) more expensive plan using SLS and Orion, NASA is also funding a who’s who of aerospace companies: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne, United Launch Alliance, and many, many other smaller players across the United States. Starship directly supports SpaceX, its limited number of suppliers, and… whatever company ends up building spacesuits for lunar forays.

It is therefore difficult to see a SpaceX-only exploration program winning broad congressional support for Artemis. History suggests that all of the losing contractors would urge the politicians they bolster with contributions to actively oppose the program.

And what of international partners and the geopolitical implications of this? During a confirmation hearing this week before the US Senate Commerce committee, incoming NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said expanding the coalition of nations participating in the Artemis Program was one of his big goals. Increasing the space agency’s reliance on SpaceX likely would work against this.

With the low-cost, reusable Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has already badly damaged the commercial launch industries in Europe, Russia, and Japan. For the Artemis Program, Europe is contributing the Service Module for the Orion spacecraft. How would these officials react if NASA now says, “non merci” to that contribution because of SpaceX?

“The nation’s activities in deep space remain very tied up in international policy, alliances, adversaries, and security, as well as space exploration and science,” an industry source told Ars. “There are a number of foreign policy interdependencies and offsets that are managed through or impact space, generally below the surface. What does this choice signal to all of those players?”

In summary

With Starship, SpaceX has offered what appears to be the best technical solution to NASA’s stated goal of a sustainable lunar exploration program. Starship would be able to take far more people and cargo to the Moon than any other solution for NASA—and it could do the job for far less money and far more often.

Furthermore, in awarding the Human Landing System contract to SpaceX, NASA has embraced a risky yet highly rewarding technology.

But whereas NASA is a space agency, its feet remain very much grounded in the political orbit of Washington, DC’s beltway. Technically, Starship may be the best solution to NASA’s needs. But politically, would it be? Probably not. If NASA wants to go to the Moon and beyond, it must work with a multitude of contractors and countries, at least for now.

Ultimately, physics will win out. If SpaceX can make Starship work, eventually NASA’s other options for human exploration of the Solar System may come to look ridiculous by comparison. By placing an early bet on Starship last week, NASA has increased the ultimate odds of Starship’s success.

For the space agency, this is an audacious and surprising play. But the potential payoff is huge. One day it may allow us to boldly go not just back to the Moon, but far, far beyond.

NASA and Boeing work to remove the SLS rocket core stage from its test stand in Mississippi.
Enlarge / NASA and Boeing work to remove the SLS rocket core stage from its test stand in Mississippi.

Welcome to Edition 3.42 of the Rocket Report! This week we’ve got an update on Virgin Orbit, which has signed a multilaunch deal for its LauncherOne vehicle. Additionally, NASA has provided a couple of news items on the Space Launch System rocket, suggesting progress on not just the first core stage, but for those of cores for future Artemis launches.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Virgin Orbit to launch six satellites for QinetiQ. The California-based satellite-launch company said on Wednesday it has been selected by defense and security company QinetiQ and geospatial analytics company HyperSat to launch a series of six hyperspectral satellites to low Earth Orbit. The first satellite will launch no earlier than 2023 on Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket.

A six-pack of satellites … “Virgin Orbit is making good on our promise to unleash the small satellite revolution,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “It’s extremely exciting to join with our partners to deploy new capabilities and new ideas that will shape our world.” This is a nice contract win for Virgin Orbit, especially if it ultimately results in six separate launches for its rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Isar Aerospace signs deal with Airbus. The Germany-based launch company, Isar, said Airbus Defence and Space has committed to one launch, plus options, of a small Earth-observation satellite. Isar announced in an e-mail news release that this deal constitutes the first major launch contract between an established space company and a privately financed European launcher company.

Mission will launch from Norway … Founded in 2018, Isar is developing the “Spectrum” rocket, which has a capacity of about 1 ton to low Earth orbit. Airbus manufactures and operates Earth observation and communication satellite systems. “Isar Aerospace offers an innovative and attractive small launcher solution that is complementary to existing medium and large launchers in Europe,” said Philippe Pham, Airbus’ Head of Earth Observation, Navigation & Science Satellites.

Space Force to fly on used Falcon 9 in June. The US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center successfully delivered the fifth Global Positioning System (GPS) III satellite to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in early April. Built by Lockheed Martin for the military, this satellite will launch on a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket, the Space Force said in an e-mail news release.

Reuse goes from novel to ordinary … This will be the first time the US military launches a National Security Space Launch mission on a used rocket, and this really represents the final frontier in terms of the US government placing its most valuable satellites on reused boosters. This satellite will join the operational constellation of 31 GPS satellites, delivering enhanced performance and accuracy through a variety of improvements.

Amazon chooses ULA as satellite-launch partner. Amazon announced on Monday that its first Project Kuiper satellites will launch into low Earth orbit on an Atlas V rocket, Ars reports. Amazon did not say when the first launch will occur, but the company said it had contracted with United Launch Alliance for nine launches to begin building out its constellation of 3,236 satellites. A spokesman declined to say how many of the satellites each Atlas V rocket would be capable of launching.

When New Glenn? … Based upon its license with the Federal Communications Commission, Amazon must launch at least 50 percent of its proposed constellation by July 2026. News releases from Amazon and United Launch Alliance were silent on the choice of the Atlas V instead of Blue Origin’s New Glenn or ULA’s Vulcan to begin launching satellites before this deadline. “We will need multiple launch vehicles and launch partners to support our deployment schedule,” the company’s blog post states. Blue Origin is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

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China developing a 13,000-satellite megaconstellation. Although the plans remain opaque, Chinese officials are working to coordinate development of a national satellite network to deliver broadband Internet from low Earth orbit. The government is seeking to manage development of at least two networks by state-owned corporations, SpaceNews reports.

Becoming a national priority … China’s National Development and Reform Commission added “satellite internet” to a list of “new infrastructures” in April 2020. The confirmation of yet another megaconstellation increases the urgency for governments to develop protocols for managing the increased number of satellites in low Earth orbit. And for the purposes of this newsletter, it will be interesting to see what rockets China uses to launch all of its satellites. The country does not yet have a reusable vehicle. (submitted by perfectfire)

No Russians to ride on a Falcon 9 this year. NASA’s acting administrator said Tuesday he does not expect Russian cosmonauts to start launching to the International Space Station on US commercial crew vehicles until next year, Spaceflight Now reports. A proposed agreement with Russia to ensure the space station is always staffed with an international crew is awaiting US government approval. The no-funds-exchanged agreement has been in discussion by NASA and Russian space agency officials for years, but sign-off of a final deal has hit roadblocks in recent months.

Maybe early next year … Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said Tuesday that the draft version of an “implementing agreement” between NASA and Roscosmos is still being reviewed by the US State Department. “We’re waiting for the final signatures from the State Department on the implementing agreement, and then we’ll provide that draft to Roscosmos and begin negotiations,” Jurczyk said. Most likely, the first mission for a Russian will not occur until Crew-4 at the earliest. This flight is currently slated to launch during the first quarter of 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA selects Starship for lunar lander program. NASA has selected SpaceX and its Starship vehicle to serve as the lunar lander for its Artemis Program, Ars reports. About a year ago, NASA gave initial study and preliminary development contracts for Moon landers to SpaceX, Dynetics, and a team of aerospace heavyweights led by Blue Origin. As part of that initial contract, the cost of SpaceX’s bid was about half that of Dynetics and one-fourth the amount received by Blue Origin. That frugality, at least in part, led NASA to choose SpaceX as the sole provider of landing services during the down-select phase.

From South Texas to the Moon … “We looked at what’s the best value to the government,” said Kathy Lueders, chief of the human exploration program for NASA. NASA said it will award SpaceX $2.89 billion for development of the Starship vehicle and two flights. Starship is a fully reusable upper stage that will launch atop the Super Heavy rocket. SpaceX is in various states of testing and developing both of these vehicles at its facility in South Texas. Needless to say, this is a huge win for SpaceX and its ambitious Starship launch program. (submitted by cheweyallen, Ken the Bin, and Rendgrish)

Vulcan added to Launch Services Program. NASA said it has added United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan-Centaur rocket to its “Launch Services Program.” Effectively, as part of an on-ramp provision, the rocket will become eligible to bid on NASA launch contracts beginning in June 2025. Development of Vulcan-Centaur is ongoing, and while an initial flight could occur later this year, more likely it will slip into 2022.

Science, exploration, and more … To qualify for NASA’s program, launch providers must be domestic and have the capability to put at least 250 kg into 200 km orbit. After certification by NASA engineers, participants in the program then become eligible to bid on missions for NASA’s science, human exploration, and space technology directorates. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA moves SLS core stage from test stand. More than 15 months after it arrived at Stennis Space Center, the Space Launch System rocket’s core stage is finally getting ready to leave. NASA said that crews worked on Monday and Tuesday to remove the first flight core stage of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket from the B-2 Test Stand in preparation for its barge transport to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Next stop, launch site … After a series of long but ultimately successful tests that confirmed the vehicle was ready for flight, the stage now will be loaded on NASA’s Pegasus barge for transport to Kennedy, where it will be prepared for launch of the Artemis I mission. NASA officials now say that launching the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft this year will be “challenging,” but they have not yet given up hope. Realistically, a launch will occur no earlier than next February. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Work continues on future SLS core stages. This week NASA said technicians and engineers continue to make progress manufacturing additional core stages of the SLS rocket. NASA and Boeing, the prime contractor for the core stage, are in the process of conducting one of the biggest Artemis II milestones: assembling the top half of the core stage.

Three core stages at a time … In another part of Michoud Assembly Facility in southern Louisiana, work is being done to weld elements of the core stage for the Artemis III rocket, NASA said. Engineers and technicians use friction-stir welding methods to connect the panels that make up each piece of hardware together and build larger structures. NASA anticipates beginning preliminary work on the Artemis IV rocket in May. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

April 23: Falcon 9 | Crew-2 mission on used booster | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 09:49 UTC

April 25: Soyuz 2.1b | OneWeb 6 | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | 22:14 UTC

April 26: Delta IV Heavy | NROL-82 | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | 19:39 UTC

I was born a mere four months after the final Apollo astronauts brushed gray dust from their spacesuits and lifted off from the Moon. As my interest in space grew over the years, and writing about this industry became my profession, I felt a deepening sense of regret for missing that glorious moment of triumph in our shared space history. I lived with that regret for decades—right up until April 8, 2016.

Five years ago today, SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket first stage on a boat.

I was not prepared for the experience of watching a skinny, black-and-white rocket fall out of the sky, against the azure backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, and land on a small drone ship. As whitecaps crashed into the side of the boat, it seemed like a portal opening into the future. This breakthrough in rocket technology washed away any regrets I had about missing Apollo. For, in my mind, landing a Falcon 9 first stage at sea represented an essential step toward reducing the cost of getting people and payloads into space and unlocked a bright spacefaring future.

After nearly a dozen failed attempts, subsequent landings soon filled a SpaceX hangar full of used rockets. This caught some SpaceX engineers off guard. “It even surprised us that we suddenly had ten first stages or something like that,” Hans Koenigsmann, one of SpaceX’s earliest hires, said a few years afterward. “And we were like, well, we didn’t really account for that.”

Need for sea

A few months prior to this boat landing, of course, SpaceX had successfully returned a Falcon 9 first stage to its “landing zone” along the Florida coast, near its launch pad. This was a huge achievement. But landing on a drone ship is that much more difficult. When landing on the coast, only the rocket is moving. When touching down at sea, both the rocket and the drone ship are moving, and there are sea states and more to consider.

Yet the economics pretty much require landing downrange of a launch site. That’s because over the course of a launch, a rocket gradually leans from a vertical to horizontal orientation as it prepares to release its second stage on an orbital trajectory. At this point it requires tons of propellant to arrest this horizontal velocity and reverse course back to the launch site. It is much more fuel-efficient to have the rocket follow a parabolic arc and land hundreds of kilometers from the launch site.

This is borne out in the performance data. A Falcon 9 rocket that lands on a drone ship can lift about 5.5 tons to geostationary transfer orbit, compared to 3.5 tons for a rocket that lands back at the launch site. Had SpaceX not figured out how to land the Falcon 9 first stage on a drone ship, it would have eliminated about 40 percent of the rocket’s lift capability, a huge penalty that would have negated the benefit of reusing rockets.

An image of the drone ship <em>Of Course I Still Love You</em> taken in October 2020 (with people, for scale).
Enlarge / An image of the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You taken in October 2020 (with people, for scale).
Trevor Mahlmann

Nearly a decade ago, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin patented the concept of landing a rocket on a barge for this very reason. (This forced SpaceX to go to court, and its challenge against the patent eventually succeeded.) But there is a big difference in knowing something and actually doing something. Since acquiring its patent, Blue Origin has yet to launch an orbital rocket, let alone land one. Bezos has retrofitted and named a platform ship, Jacklyn, but it is unlikely to catch a rocket before 2023 at the earliest.

By contrast, since its first successful landing on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, SpaceX has safely returned 56 more Falcon 9 rockets at sea. Ocean-based landings have proven a remarkably enabling technology. Of SpaceX’s 10 orbital rocket launches in 2021, every one of them rode to orbit on a previously flown first stage. Some returned to space within four weeks of a previous launch. By landing its first Falcon 9 rocket at sea, SpaceX began a revolution in launch. No longer is reusing rockets a novelty—it’s considered an essential part of the business.

“I’m really surprised when I see new launch vehicles in development now that aren’t reusable,” Peter Beck, the founder of Rocket Lab, told me in December.

A personal journey

The dramatic landing of that first stage also launched me on something of a personal journey. I realized that SpaceX was not just a really interesting company doing interesting things in space. Rather, it was the transformative space company of my lifetime.

I began reporting more deeply on the company’s activities, trying to understand where it had come from and to more fully glean the motivations of SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk. This ultimately resulted in a book, Liftoff, on the origins of the company. One thing I took from this reporting is that, as miraculous as automated drone ship landings may seem, they’re just one in a long line of miracles that must be realized to put humans on the surface of Mars.

In the 2000s, SpaceX very nearly died on multiple occasions as a fledgling company with its Falcon 1 rocket. In the 2010s, SpaceX iterated on the Falcon 9, first winning contracts for NASA launches and commercial satellites. These missions, in turn, gave SpaceX engineers the breathing room to experiment with recovering and refurbishing used rockets. Today, thanks to this, they’re able to fly first stages rapidly and at significantly reduced costs.

CRS-8 first stage landing on April 8, 2016.

Now, with Starship, SpaceX is seeking to reuse a much larger orbital vehicle and bring back not just the first stage—in this, the Super Heavy booster is a lot like the Falcon 9 first stage—but the Starship vehicle as well. This represents a whole other challenge, as Starship will be coming back to Earth at orbital velocities, about Mach 23. And after this, SpaceX engineers will need to figure out how to refuel Starships in low Earth orbit, and then how to keep a crew alive en route to Mars, on the surface, and on the way back home. Each of these represents a huge engineering difficulty.

However, in reflecting on how far SpaceX has come in five years since that first boat landing, I am left with but a single, overriding thought. If this company could land rockets on boats in the middle of the ocean, what could it not do? And so I am now glad to have missed the Apollo era if it means I can be alive at this very moment, with an uncertain but boundless future before us.

Listing image by SpaceX

A black-and-white logo over a white-and-black logo.
Enlarge / SpaceX Starlink logo.

The Starlink broadband network will probably stick with one price instead of offering different tiers of service, SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said yesterday.

“I don’t think we’re going to do tiered pricing to consumers. We’re going to try to keep it as simple as possible and transparent as possible, so right now there are no plans to tier for consumers,” Shotwell said, according to a CNBC article. Shotwell spoke during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2021 conference.

SpaceX has been charging $99 a month for the Starlink beta service, plus $499 upfront for the user terminal/satellite dish, mounting tripod, and router. Other satellite and terrestrial broadband services typically charge different prices for different speeds, and many of them impose a data cap and charge extra fees to those who exceed the limit.

Even if SpaceX has just one price for most customers, it will probably offer a cheaper plan to people with low incomes. SpaceX is seeking an “Eligible Telecommunications Carrier” designation that would let it get reimbursement from the FCC’s Lifeline program for offering discounts on telecom service to people with low incomes. In its application, SpaceX told the FCC that it “will provide Lifeline to qualifying low-income consumers and publicize the availability of Lifeline service in a manner reasonably designed to reach those likely to qualify for the service.”

User terminal costs coming down

The one-time expense of $499 is a barrier for people on a tight budget, but it’s actually less than SpaceX pays to make the terminals. CNBC wrote:

Shotwell said SpaceX has “made great progress on reducing the cost” of the Starlink user terminal, which originally were about $3,000 each. She said the terminals now cost less than $1,500, and SpaceX “just rolled out a new version that saved about $200 off the cost.”

SpaceX expects to bring its cost per terminal down to “the few hundred-dollar range within the next year or two,” Shotwell said.

Starlink’s advertised beta speeds are 50Mbps to 150Mbps, with latency of 20 ms to 40 ms. Speeds will hit 300Mbps later this year and become available to “most of Earth” by the end of 2021, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in February.

Beta won’t end until network is reliable

Two months ago, SpaceX opened preorders for Starlink service, while limited slots in each geographic region will become available in the second half of 2021. Shotwell said SpaceX still has plenty of work to do before moving from beta to general availability, as Cablefax reported:

Starlink doesn’t have a timeline for when it will move out of the beta phase as there’s still a long way to go before its broadband service is available and capable of taking on a large customer base. “We still have a lot of work to do to make the network reliable. We still have drops, not necessarily just because of where the satellites are in the sky,” SpaceX pres/COO Gwynne Shotwell said at the Satellite 2021 LEO Digital Forum Tuesday. “We’ll keep in it until the network is reliable and great and something we’d be proud of.”

Though Starlink is already faster than the limited Internet options in many poorly served areas, SpaceX warns users to expect “brief periods of no connectivity at all” during the beta.

Musk has said that Starlink won’t be able to serve a large percentage of customers in densely populated areas, “because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough,” and Shotwell reiterated that point yesterday. While big ISPs like Comcast and AT&T provide service cost-effectively in cities, SpaceX “just cannot lay that much bandwidth in that limited area” with its low-Earth-orbit satellites, she said, according to Cablefax.

Plan to “serve every rural household”

SpaceX plans to have comprehensive coverage in the rural US, as Via Satellite wrote:

“I do know that my constellation in five years will be able to serve every rural household in the United States,” Shotwell said, providing an estimate of about 20 million rural households. “We’re doing those analyses for other countries as well. Our focus initially is the US because [customers] speak English and they’re close. If they have a problem with their dish, we can get one shipped out quickly. But, we definitely want to expand this capability beyond the US and Canada.”

SpaceX would need another government license to serve 20 million households. The company has an FCC license to deploy up to 1 million user terminals and has asked the FCC for authority to deploy up to 5 million. SpaceX also asked the FCC for permission to deploy Starlink terminals on automobiles, ships, and aircraft.

Early on Monday morning, four astronauts donned their flight suits and clambered into their Crew Dragon spacecraft, named Resilience.

But they were not coming home. Rather, NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, as well as Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, were preparing to move the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time.

Over the course of 38 minutes, the spacecraft smoothly backed away from the International Space Station’s Harmony module to a distance of 60 meters from the large laboratory. Under the power of its Draco thrusters, Resilience then reoriented itself to dock with another port on the Harmony module.

During this autonomous maneuver, Resilience moved from the module’s “forward” port to its “zenith” port. The reason for this shuffle was the anticipated arrival of another Crew Dragon mission in a few weeks—carrying four more astronauts—at the space station, as well as a cargo Dragon mission in June.

This cargo mission, the 22nd one flown by SpaceX, will be carrying large solar panels for the space station inside its trunk. This Cargo Dragon must dock to the zenith port to enable the space station’s large robotic arm to grab the panels for installation of the space station. This arm could not reach the spacecraft’s “trunk” were it docked to the forward port.

So on Monday, Resilience moved to this zenith port. This will allow the next Crew mission, slated to launch no earlier than April 22, to dock at the forward port. Then, after Resilience departs in late April, the CRS-22 cargo mission will be free to dock at the zenith port.

The Crew-1 astronauts, Shannon Walker, Vic Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Soichi Noguchi, don their spacesuits on Monday.
Enlarge / The Crew-1 astronauts, Shannon Walker, Vic Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Soichi Noguchi, don their spacesuits on Monday.

This may all be a little confusing, we admit, but the bottom line is that SpaceX Dragons are creating something of a traffic jam in orbit. NASA, of course, is very happy to have US spacecraft to supply the station with both cargo and crew.

So why were four crew members needed aboard the vehicle if the entire procedure was autonomous? For the Crew-1 mission carrying Hopkins, Glover, Walker, and Noguchi, Resilience is their ride home. So even though they never touched the flight controls, the crew needed to be inside the spacecraft in case an emergency—however unlikely—occurred and they needed to break off the maneuver and return to Earth. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

Listing image by NASA TV