All posts in “Space”

SpaceX reveals more Starlink info after launch of first 60 satellites

Last night’s successful Starlink launch was a big one for SpaceX — its heaviest payload ever, weighed down by 60 communications satellites that will eventually be part of a single constellation providing internet to the globe. That’s the plan, anyway — and the company pulled the curtain back a bit more after launch, revealing a few more details about the birds it just put in the air.

SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have been extremely tight-lipped about the Starlink satellites, only dropping a few hints here and there before the launch. We know, for instance, that each satellite weighs about 500 pounds, and are a flat-panel design that maximized the amount that can fit in each payload. The launch media kit also described a “Startracker” navigation system that would allow the satellites to locate themselves and orbital debris with precision.

At the fresh new Starlink website, however, a few new details have appeared, alongside some images that provide the clearest look yet (renders, not photographs, but still) of the satellites that will soon number thousands in our skies.

In the CG representation of how the satellites will work, you get a general sense of it:

Thousands of satellites will move along their orbits simultaneously, each beaming internet to and from the surface in a given area. It’s still not clear exactly how big an area each satellite will cover, or how much redundancy will be required. But the image gives you the general idea.

The signal comes from and goes to a set of four “phased array” radio antennas. This compact, flat type of antenna can transmit in multiple directions and frequencies without moving like you see big radar dishes do. There are costs as well, but it’s a no-brainer for satellites that need to be small and only need to transmit in one general direction — down.

There’s only a single solar array, which unfolds upwards like a map (and looks pretty much like you’d expect — hence no image here). The merits of having only one are mainly related to simplicity and cost — having two gives you more power and redundancy if one fails. But if you’re going to make a few thousand of these things and replace them every couple years, it probably doesn’t matter too much. Solar arrays are reliable standard parts now.

The krypton-powered ion thruster sounds like science fiction, but ion thrusters have actually been around for decades. They use a charge difference to shoot ions — charged molecules — out in a specific direction, imparting force in the opposite direction. Kind of like a tiny electric pea shooter that, in microgravity, pushes the person back with the momentum of the pea.

To do this it needs propellant — usually xenon, which has several (rather difficult to explain) properties that make it useful for these purposes. Krypton is the next Noble gas up the list in the table, and is similar in some ways but easier to get. Again, if you’re deploying thousands of ion engines — so far only a handful have actually flown — you want to minimize costs and exotic materials.

Lastly there is the Star Tracker and collision avoidance system. This isn’t very well explained by SpaceX, so we can only surmise based on what we see. The star tracker tells each satellite its attitude, or orientation in space — presumably by looking at the stars and comparing that with known variables like time of day on Earth and so on. This ties in with collision avoidance, which uses the government’s database of known space debris and can adjust course to avoid it.

How? The image on the Starlink site shows four discs at perpendicular orientations. This suggests they’re reaction wheels, which store kinetic energy and can be spun up or slowed down to impart that force on the craft, turning it as desired. Very clever little devices actually and quite common in satellites. These would control the attitude and the thruster would give a little impulse, and the debris is avoided. The satellite can return to normal orbit shortly thereafter.

We still don’t know a lot about the Starlink system. For instance, what do its ground stations look like? Unlike Ubiquitilink, you can’t receive a Starlink signal directly on your phone. So you’ll need a receiver, which Musk has said in the past is about the size of a pizza box. But small, large, or extra large? Where can it be mounted, and how much does it cost?

The questions of interconnection are also a mystery. Say a Starlink user wants to visit a website hosted in Croatia. Does the signal go up to Starlink, between satellites, and down to the nearest base station? Does it go down at a big interconnect point on the backbone serving that region? Does it go up and then come down 20 few miles from your house at the place where fiber connects to the local backbone? It may not matter much to ordinary users, but for big services — think Netflix — it could be very important.

And lastly, how much does it cost? SpaceX wants to make this competitive with terrestrial broadband, which is a little hard to believe considering the growth of fiber, but also not that hard to believe because of telecoms dragging their heels getting to rural areas still using DSL. Out there, Starlink might be a godsend, while in big cities it might be superfluous.

Chances are won’t know for a long time. The 60 satellites up there right now are only the very first wave, and don’t comprise anything more than a test bed for future services. Starlink will have to prove these things work as planned, and then send up several hundred more before it can offer even the most rudimentary service. Of course, that is the plan, and might even be accomplished by the end of the year. In the meantime I’ve asked SpaceX for more details and will update this post if I hear back.

From launch to launch: Peter Beck on building an orbital business from scratch

Breaking into the launch industry is no easy task, but New Zealand’s Rocket Lab has done it without missing a step. The company has just completed its third commercial launch of 2019, and is planning to increase the frequency of its launches until there’s one a week. It’s ambitious, but few things in spaceflight aren’t.

Although it has risen to prominence over the last two years at a remarkable rate, the appearance of Rocket Lab in the launch market isn’t exactly sudden. One does not engineer and test an orbital launch system in a day.

The New Zealand-based company was founded in 2006, and for years pursued smaller projects while putting together the Rutherford rocket engine, which would eventually power its Electron launch vehicle.

Far from the ambitions of the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, which covet heavy-launch capabilities to compete with ULA to bring payloads beyond Earth orbit, Rocket Lab and its Electron LV have been laser-focused on frequent and reliable access to orbit.

Utilizing 3D printed engine components that can be turned out in a single day rather than weeks, and other manufacturing efficiencies, the company has gone from producing a rocket a year to one a month, with the goal of one a week, to match or exceed its launch cadence.

Seem excessive? The years-long backlog of projects waiting to go to orbit disagrees. There’s demand to spare and the market is only growing.

Peter Beck, the company’s founder and CEO, sat down with us to talk about the process of building a launch provider from scratch, and where the company goes from here — other than up.

Devin: To start with, why don’t we talk about the recent launches? Congratulations on everything going well, by the way. Any thoughts on these most recent ones?

Peter: Thanks, it’s great to be hitting our stride. We wanted electron to be an accurate vehicle and we’re averaging within around 1.4 kilometers. When you get into what that means, at those speeds it takes 180 milliseconds to travel 1.4 km, so we’ve got the accuracy down pat.

SpaceX kicks off its space-based internet service tomorrow with 60-satellite Starlink launch

As wild as it sounds, the race is on to build a functioning space internet — and SpaceX is taking its biggest step yet with the launch of 60 (!) satellites tomorrow that will form the first wave of its Starlink constellation. It’s a hugely important and incredibly complex launch for the company — and should be well worth launching.

A Falcon 9 loaded to the gills with the flat Starlink test satellites (they’re “production design” but not final hardware) is vertical at launchpad 40 in Cape Canaveral. It has completed its static fire test and should have a window for launch tomorrow, weather permitting.

Building satellite constellations hundreds or thousands strong is seen by several major companies and investors as the next major phase of connectivity — though it will take years and billions of dollars to do so.

OneWeb, perhaps SpaceX’s biggest competitor in this area, just secured $1.25 billion in funding after launching the first six satellites in March of a planned 650. Jeff Bezos has announced that Amazon will join the fray with the proposed 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper. Ubiquitilink has a totally different approach. And plenty of others are taking on smaller segments, like lower-cost or domain-specific networks.

Needless to say it’s an exciting sector, but today’s launch is a particularly interesting one because it is so consequential for SpaceX. If this doesn’t go well, it could set Starlink’s plans back long enough to give competitors an edge.

The satellites stacked inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing. “Tight fit,” pointed out CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX hasn’t explained exactly how the 60 satellites will be distributed to their respective orbits, but founder and CEO Elon Musk did note on Twitter that there’s “no dispenser.” Of course there must be some kind of dispenser — these things aren’t going to just jump off of their own accord. They’re stuffed in there like kernels on a corncob, and likely each have a little spring that sends them out at a set velocity.

A pair of prototype satellites, Tintin-A and B, have been in orbit since early last year, and have no doubt furnished a great deal of useful information to the Starlink program. But the 60 aboard tomorrow’s launch aren’t quite final hardware. Although Musk noted that they are “production design,” COO Gwynne Shotwell has said that they are still test models.

“This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” she said at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. — they reportedly lack inter-satellite links but are otherwise functional. I’ve asked SpaceX for more information on this.

It makes sense: If you’re planning to put thousands (perhaps as many as 12,000 eventually) of satellites into orbit, you’ll need to test at scale and with production hardware.

And for those worried about the possibility of overpopulation in orbit — it’s absolutely something to consider, but many of these satellites will be flying at extremely low altitudes; at 550 kilometers up, these tiny satellites will naturally de-orbit in a handful of years. Even OneWeb’s, at 1,100 km, aren’t that high up — geosynchronous satellites are above 35,000 km. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all, but it does mean failed or abandoned satellites won’t stick around for long.

Just don’t expect to boot up your Starlink connection any time soon. It would take a minimum of 6 more launches like this one — a total of 420, a happy coincidence for Musk — to provide “minor” coverage. This would likely only be for testing as well, not commercial service. That would need 12 more launches, and dozens more to bring it to the point where it can compete with terrestrial broadband.

Even if it will take years to pull off, that is the plan. And by that time others will have spun up their operations as well. It’s an exciting time for space and for connectivity.

No launch time has been set as of this writing, so takeoff is just planned for Wednesday the 15th at present. As there’s no need to synchronize the launch with the movement of any particular celestial body, T-0 should be fairly flexible and SpaceX will likely just wait for the best weather and visibility. Delays are always a possibility, though, so don’t be surprised if this is pushed out to later in the week.

As always you’ll be able to watch the launch at the SpaceX website, but I’ll update this post with the live video link as soon as it’s available.

Jeff Bezos unveils ‘Blue Moon’ lunar lander, plans to go to the moon by 2024

Jeff Bezos is set to take humans to the moon. 

At an event in Washington on Thursday, Bezos’ spaceflight company Blue Origin unveiled Blue Moon, a lunar lander that can deliver large payloads to the moon.

According to Blue Origin, Blue Moon can land multiple metric tons of payload on the lunar surface, including infrastructure payloads that could be used to prepare for future missions. It can land anywhere on the moon, and has enough power for long missions. A larger variant of the lander, currently in development, can land an ascent vehicle which will allow the company to send humans to the moon and bring them back by 2024. 

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The year 2024 coincides with the U.S. government’s goal to bring astronauts to the moon. NASA still hasn’t publicly announced a detailed plan on how to do that, and Bezos’ announcement may be a path to a partnership. 

We’ll likely see Blue Moon in action before that date; Bezos said the company would test it with an uncrewed mission before sending humans to the moon. 

Elon Musk, whose SpaceX company also plans to take humans to the moon (though without landing) and, eventually, Mars, said on Twitter that “competition is good” but also took the opportunity to crack a joke at Blue Moon’s branding. 

Blue Origin is not the only private company to develop a lunar lander. Last month, Lockheed Martin announced plans to build a lunar lander of its own, also within the 2024 time frame. 

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Blue Origin lofts NASA and student experiments in New Shepard tomorrow morning

The 11th mission for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is slated for takeoff Tuesday morning. The craft will be carrying 38 (!) experimental payloads from NASA, students, and research organizations around the world. You’ll be able to watch the launch live tomorrow at about 6 AM Pacific time.

New Shepard, though a very different beast from the Falcon 9 and Heavy launch vehicles created by its rival SpaceX, is arguably a better platform for short-duration experiments that need to be exposed to launch stresses and microgravity. Launching satellites — that’s a job for Falcons and Deltas, or perhaps Blue Origin’s impending New Glenn, and they’re welcome to it. But researchers around the country are clamoring for spots on suborbital flights and Blue Origin is happy to provide them.

Tomorrow’s launch will be carrying several dozen, some of which will have been waiting years for their chance to board a rocket. Here are a few examples of what will be tested during the short flight:

  • Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device: As more people go into space, we have to be prepared for more and graver injuries. Lots of standard medical tools won’t work properly in microgravity, so it’s necessary to redesign and test them under those conditions. This one is about providing suction, as you might guess, which can be used for lung injuries, drawing blood, and other situations that call for negative air pressure.

This little guy will be doing microgravity test prints using metal.

  • 3D printing with metal in microgravity: Simply everyone knows we can 3D print stuff in space. But just as on Earth, you can’t always make your spare parts out of thermoplastic. Down here we use metal-based 3D printers, and this experiment aims to find out if a modified design will allow for metal printing in space as well.
  • Suborbital centrifuge: It sounds like something the Enterprise would deploy in Star Trek, but it’s just a test bed for a new type of centrifuge that could help simulate other gravities, such as that of the Moon or Mars, for purposes of experiments. They do this on the ISS already but this would make it more compact and easier to automate, saving time and space aboard any craft it flies on.

The suborbital centrifuge, looking as cool as it sounds.

  • BioChip SubOrbitalLab: The largest ever study of space-based health and the effects of microgravity on the human body was just concluded, but there’s much, much more to know. Part of that requires monitoring cells in real time — which like most things is easier to do on the surface. This lab-on-a-chip will test out a new technique for containing individual cells or masses and tracking changes to them in a microgravity environment.

It’s all made possible through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which is specifically all about putting small experiments aboard commercial spacecraft. The rest of the many gadgets and experiments awaiting launch are listed here.

The launch itself should be very similar to previous New Shepards, just like one commercial jet takeoff is like another. The booster fires up and ascends to just short of the Karman line at 100 kilometers, which (somewhat arbitrarily) marks the start of “space.”

At that point the capsule will detach and fly upwards with its own momentum, exposing the payloads within to several minutes of microgravity; after it tops out, it will descend and deploy its parachutes, after which it will drift leisurely to the ground. Meanwhile the rocket will have descended as well and made a soft landing on its deployable struts.

The launch is scheduled for 6:30 AM Pacific time — 8:30 AM Central in Texas, at Blue Origin’s launch site. You’ll be able to watch it live at the company’s site.