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SpaceX

SpaceX’s spacefaring Tesla Roadster has made a full trip around the Sun

SpaceX’s spacefaring Tesla Roadster has made a full trip around the Sun

August 20, 2019


Somewhere in space, a mannequin wearing a SpaceX spacesuit and driving a cherry red original Tesla Roadster that once belonged to Elon Musk is celebrating its first trip around the Sun. The absurd “Starman” and Roadster combo was launched last year aboard the first Falcon Heavy test flight from Kennedy Space Center, and has now completed a full orbit of the Sun, based on tracking info monitored by the site whereisroadster.com (via Space.com).

The Roadster and its fake driver were selected by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk as the payload for the Falcon Heavy’s first flight in part because there was more than a decent chance that whatever was sent up on that first trip was going to end up little more than ash or fiery debris, but the launch actually went very smoothly — despite warnings to the contrary by Musk himself.

When it left Earth’s orbit, the Roadster’s radio was playing David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” set on repeat, and on-boards cameras were broadcasting via internal power (you can check out the recorded version of the live stream below to see how that went).

In case you were wondering about the Roadster’s maintenance information, it’s now out of warranty more than 21,000 times over based on miles traveled, and it’s gone far enough to have traveled the entire world 33.9 times. Take that, range anxiety.

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NASA and SpaceX practice Crew Dragon evacuation procedure with astronaut recovery vessel

NASA and SpaceX practice Crew Dragon evacuation procedure with astronaut recovery vessel

August 17, 2019

NASA and SpaceX continue their joint preparations for the eventually astronaut crew missions that SpaceX will fly for the agency, with a test of the emergency evacuation procedure for SpaceX’s GO Searcher seaborne ship. The ship is intended to be used to recover spacecraft and astronauts in an actual mission scenario, and the rehearsals this week are a key part of ensuring mission readiness before an actual crewed SpaceX mission.

Photos from the dress rehearsal, which is the first coordinated end-to-end practice run involving the full NASA and SpaceX mission teams working in concert, saw NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken don SpaceX’s fancy new crew suits and mimic a situation where they needed to be removed from the returned Crew Dragon spacecraft and taken to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from the GO Searcher by helicopter.

By all accounts, this was a successful exercise and seems to have left parties on both sides happy with the results. Check out photos released by NASA of the dry run below.

SpaceX and NASA continue to work towards a goal of launching Crew Dragon’s first actual crewed flight this year, though they’ve encountered setbacks that make that potentially impossible, including the explosion of a Crew Dragon test vehicle during a static test fire in April.

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Northrop Grumman to build its OmegA rocket at NASA’s VAB as first commercial tenant

Northrop Grumman to build its OmegA rocket at NASA’s VAB as first commercial tenant

August 16, 2019

NASA is celebrating alongside Northrop Grumman at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as the latter becomes the first commercial partner to make use of the Vehicle Assembly Building on-site at the base. The VAB, as it’s more commonly known, is a cavernous building that’s used to build and test rockets ahead of rolling them out to nearby launch pads, which was originally constructed by NASA to support the Apollo program.

Northrop Grumman will be using the VAB to build and prep its OmegA launch vehicle, a new rocket the company is building to transport intermediate and heavy payloads to orbit. It’s a fully expendable rocket, which Northrop is positioning as a lower-risk alternative to reusable models flown by competitors (cough SpaceX cough), and it’s also billed as an “affordable” option for those seeking launch services. OmegA is designed to help Northrop Grumman compete for future national security launch contracts, as well as support commercial customer missions.

NASA will also continue to use the VAB for the assembly of its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which will be supporting missions in the Artemis program and transporting the Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew craft to space, and eventually to the Moon.

Kennedy Space Center also already plays host to rocket assembly and launch facilities for both SpaceX and Blue Origin, making it a hot spot for public-private space business activity.

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SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA and Northrop Grumman bid for US national security launch contract

SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA and Northrop Grumman bid for US national security launch contract

August 12, 2019

The U.S. Air Force is looking to lock in its launch providers for national security satellite missions to take place between 2022 and 2026, and the bids for this so-called “Phase 2” procurement contract are now in. The field of competitors looking to become one of the two companies chosen is a who’s who of U.S. commercial launch providers at the moment, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA and Northrop Grumman.

Both Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin are new entrants in this particular launch contracting area, while SpaceX and ULA are existing providers that handle U.S. national security missions. SpaceX additionally has a bit of a head start, since its Falcon rockets are the only proven, certified launch vehicles included in the bids submitted, while ULA has offered up its new Vulcan Centaur, which is tailor-made for the job but not yet certified and flight-proven; the others are still seeking certification.

“SpaceX means to serve as the Air Force’s long-term provider for space launch, offering existing, certified and proven launch systems capable of carrying out the full spectrum of national security space launch missions and requirements,” said SpaceX COO and president Gwynne Shotwell in an emailed statement, regarding this new bid.

SpaceX clearly sees its Falcon launch system as a key competitive advantage, as it’s flying currently for USAF and national security missions — the company says that this represents the lowest risk for the government overall in terms of providers for this mission, and with known costs, as well.

The Air Force will make its final selection about the two winning providers in 2020.

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ULA successfully launches fifth US Air Force-protected communications satellite

ULA successfully launches fifth US Air Force-protected communications satellite

August 8, 2019

The United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint-effort commercial launch service provider set up by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, succeeded in launching a U.S. Air Force communications satellite to orbit today, the fifth in a series of launches to form a constellation. The satellite, code-named AEHF-5 (for the fifth “Advanced Extremely High Frequency” spacecraft) is already communicating with USAF on the ground, indicating full mission success.

For ULA, this is another win in an unbroken streak – it’s the 90th Atlas V launch to date, with 100% success across all those launches. The launch took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 6:13 AM ET this morning, marking the second successful launch from the Cape this week (SpaceX launched the AMOS-17 satellite earlier this week).

The Atlas V for this mission was flying in what ULA terms “551” configuration, which means that it’s equipped with five solid rocket boosters surrounding its liquid-fueled center core booster. This is the configuration that provides Atlas V with the most lift and payload capacity, which was necessary in this case because of the weight of the AEHF-5 satellite at nearly 14,000 lbs., combined with its target orbit.

Lockheed Martin built the AEHF-5 for the Air Force, and confirmed via email this afternoon that it not only achieved geostationary transfer orbit but is responding as planned to the USAF’s 4th Space Operations Squadron. The company has built all five current active AEHF satellites in operation, and is currently working on the sixth, which should launch sometime next year if all goes to plan.

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SpaceX will now offer dedicated ‘rideshare’ launches for small satellites

SpaceX will now offer dedicated ‘rideshare’ launches for small satellites 2.6 (7)

August 5, 2019

SpaceX is expanding its launch offerings with a new, more affordable and consistent option for small satellite operators looking to put lighter payloads into orbit. The new service offering is designed to work for customers who can take advantage of a “rideshare” launch, sharing space on a Falcon 9 with other small satellites being sent up.

The rideshare option will be offered on a regular, defined schedule, and SpaceX says that it’s designed for flexibility, offering customers the ability to pre-book a spot, and ensuring that if they’re ready to launch when their rideshare comes up, the rocket will indeed go up — with or without other payloads also booked that may not be ready in time.

One of the biggest issues with rideshare missions today is being reliant on the timing and readiness of the main payload customer. Typically, one or two big-ticket payloads cover most of the bill for the launch, even if there are smaller satellites also going up on the same ride. The issue is that if that large customer has to delay for any reason, the smallsat ridealongs are basically at their whims.

SpaceX’s new service is designed somewhat like rideshare programs here on Earth: Passengers who are ready get to ride, and the company looks to fill seats by offering bookings both in advance (12 or more months out) and much closer to launch time (between 12 and 6 months out) with a possibility of even tighter turnaround, though SpaceX hasn’t publicly posted pricing for that option, which means it’ll probably be costly.

As for those with plenty of notice, they get …

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SpaceX details launch and landing plans for Starship and Super Heavy in new document

SpaceX details launch and landing plans for Starship and Super Heavy in new document

August 2, 2019

SpaceX has prepared a draft environmental assessment around its plans for the new Starship and Super Heavy spacecraft launches it intends to begin, in a test capacity, very soon. Preparing and finalizing this environmental assessment is a key ingredient in actually launching both Super Heavy, the first stage for SpaceX’s forthcoming fully reusable, high-capacity launch system, and Starship, the second-stage spacecraft component of said system.

Already, SpaceX is working toward getting a prototype of Starship in the air, with planned launches coming in just “2 to 3 months,” if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk manages to meet his optimistic timeline. It recently completed an untethered “hop” low-altitude test flight of StarHopper, a sub-scale demonstration version of the Starship design meant to help it test that craft’s Raptor engine. But SpaceX must also show that it has fully considered the potential consequences that its planned launch operations will have on the surrounding environment.

Starship and Super Heavy will launch from Florida, with the current plan to build a second launch mount at its current LC-39A launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, which it leases from NASA and currently uses for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. After launching from LC-39A, the current plan is to have Starship return to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1), which is SpaceX’s current landing area for Falcon first-stage boosters at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Super Heavy would land downrange, aboard a drone barge ship, like the twin “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read The Instructions” ships that SpaceX uses now, depending on mission conditions on both its East and West coast launches.

Eventually, SpaceX hopes to also be able to build a landing zone within the existing confines of its LC-39A launch pad area, with the intent of landing Starship back …

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NASA’s newest planet-hunting satellite finds three new worlds

NASA’s newest planet-hunting satellite finds three new worlds

July 30, 2019

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, a planet-seeking satellite that launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last April, has found three new worlds that orbit a nearby dwarf star that is both smaller and cooler than our own Sun.

The newfound planets range in size and temperature, but are all bigger than Earth and with a higher temp on average — which are calculated only based on their distance from the star they orbit, and its energy output, without factoring in any atmospheric effects since it’s not yet known whether they have atmospheres at all. At the low end, there’s TOI 270 d, which has an average temp of 150 F — almost three times Earth’s own.

Both TOI 270 d, the farthest from its own system’s central star, and TOI 270 c, its nearest neighbor, are thought to be primarily gaseous and most closely resemble Neptune in our own Solar System. These aren’t really equivalent, however, as they’re much smaller, and researchers at NASA say they’re actually more likely new types of planets not seen anywhere in our own local solar backyard.

The planets overall are interesting to researchers because they are all between 1.5 and just over 2 times the size of Earth, which is actually an unusual size for planets to be when considered overall. The TOI 270 system is also pretty much perfectly positioned for study by the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope, so it presents a great opportunity for future research once that space-based observatory gets up and running in 2021.

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SpaceX launches ISS mission using twice-flown Dragon for the first time

SpaceX launches ISS mission using twice-flown Dragon for the first time

July 25, 2019

SpaceX has launched CRS-18, the 18th commercial resupply mission it has flown for NASA to deliver experiment, research and supply materials to the International Space Station. This mission’s cargo included IDA-3, the second automated docking ring set to be installed on the ISS, which will enable autonomous docking capabilities for future commercial spacecraft visiting the station with both crew and cargo on board. CRS-18 took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 6:01 PM ET (3:01 PM PT) on Thursday, after an attempt Wednesday was scrubbed due to weather.

There are around 5,000 lbs of cargo on board the Dragon launched for this mission. CRS-18 also carried a research mission into engineering organic tissue for use in 3D bioprinting from a company called Techshot, as well as experiments in tire material manufacturing from Goodyear. There’s even Nickelodeon’s signature green slime (yes, the slime you’re thinking of), which is being sent up care of the ISS U.S. National Laboratory to help astronauts educate students on how fluid operates in microgravity environments.

SpaceX previously flew the Falcon 9 first-stage rocket booster used on this mission just two months ago for the last ISS resupply mission, CRS-17. That’s a quick turnaround for one of its refurbished rockets, and another sign that it’s making good progress in its goal of achieving fully reusable launch capabilities. The Dragon cargo capsule used for this mission also flew before — twice, including for CRS-6 in April, 2015 and once again in December 2017 for CRS-13.

The landing of the Falcon 9 from CRS-18, sped up 2X.

This launch included a recovery attempt for the Falcon 9, too, and it returned and landed as planned at the company’s LZ-1 landing zone at Cape Canaveral Air Force base. The first-stage booster separated from the second-stage and Dragon …

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Is space truly within reach for startups and VC?

Is space truly within reach for startups and VC?

July 25, 2019

Elon Musk’s SpaceX managed to pull off something very few people thought it could — by disrupting one of the most fixed markets in the world with some of the most entrenched and protected players ever to benefit from government contract arrangements: rocket launches. The success of SpaceX, and promising progress from other new launch providers, including Blue Origin and Rocket Lab, have encouraged interest in space-based innovation among entrepreneurs and investors alike. But is this a true boom, or just a blip?

There’s an argument for both at once, with one type of space startup rapidly descending to Earth in terms of commercialization timelines and potential upside, and the other remaining a difficult bet to make unless you’re comfortable with long timelines before any liquidity event and a lot of upfront investment.

Cheaper, faster, lighter, better

Image via Getty Images / Andrey Suslov

There’s no question that one broad category of technology at least is a lot more addressable by early-stage companies (and by extension, traditional VC investment). The word “satellite” once described almost exclusively gigantic, extremely expensive hunks of sophisticated hardware, wherein each component would eat up the monthly burn rate of your average early-stage consumer tech venture.

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