Space transport roundup – Feb.6.2020

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images dealing with space transport (find previous roundups here):

[Update 23:00 EST: The OneWeb satellites were successfully deployed into the target orbits: OneWeb successfully launches 34 more satellites into orbit | OneWeb

OneWeb, the global communications company with a mission to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere, today announced the successful launch of 34 satellites, aboard a Soyuz launch vehicle from the historic Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

Lift-off occurred on February 06th at 21:42 pm UTC. The OneWeb satellites separated from the rocket and were dispensed in nine batches over a period of several hours.

This launch is the second successful launch in one of the largest civilian satellite launch campaigns in history. It will help build OneWeb’s phase one constellation of 648 satellites that will deliver high-speed, low-latency global connectivity, while addressing the world’s most pressing connectivity problems.

The communications company is on schedule to provide global coverage to customers in 2021, starting with the first commercial services in the Arctic this year. This follows OneWeb both securing global priority spectrum rights and successfully launching its first batch of satellites in 2019.

OneWeb’s network will provide a unique combination of high data throughput, low latency, true global coverage and a range of user terminals for multiple markets including maritime, aviation, government and enterprise.

Update 19:06 EST: The Soyuz launch of the OneWeb satellites reached orbit successfully this afternoon (US Eastern time). The Fregat-M upper stage is currently carrying out a series of burns that will culminate in the release of the satellites starting at around 20:30 this evening.:

Although the launch is on a Russian rocket from the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the launch is considered an Arianespace operation due to the collaboration with the Euro-Russian Starsem company. Starsem also launches Soyuz rockets from the Arianespace facility in Kourou, French Guiana.

More about the launch and OneWeb:

*** Transport from space to East Russia took place today as well with the return of a Soyuz capsule from the ISS with NASA astronaut Christina Koch, European astronaut Luca Parmitano, and Aleksandr Skvortsov. Koch set “a record for the longest single spaceflight in history by a woman”.


** Three rocket launches coming up soon:

34 OneWeb satellites mounted on deployer for launch on Soyuz rocket. Credits: OneWeb

** The previously launched Cygnus cargo vehicle left the ISS last week:  

**  Astra rocket company comes out of stealth mode as first orbital launch attempt approaches: A Small-Rocket Maker Is Running a Different Kind of Space Race – Bloomberg

Alongside its rocket test building, Astra has been assembling a 250,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that Kemp says will be able to churn out hundreds of rockets a year. “Our strategy is to always focus on the bottom line,” he says. “Nothing is sacred. We’re able to profitably deliver payloads at $2.5 million per launch, and our intent is to continue to lower that price and increase the performance of our system.”

See the timeline of the company’s milestones here.

** Rocket Lab successfully launches first Electron mission of 2020:

In addition to the successful placement of the NRO satellite into orbit, additional progress was made towards the goal of recovering and reusing the Electron first stage:

The re-entry test for ‘Birds of a Feather’ is the second time Rocket Lab has guided an Electron first stage booster down to sea-level, following on from the first successful re-entry test conducted on the ‘Running Out of Fingers’ mission in December 2019. Once again, initial analysis shows the stage made it back to sea-level intact following a guided descent, proving that Electron can withstand the immense heat and forces generated on re-entry.

To guide the stage to a planned splashdown, Electron’s first stage was equipped with on-board guidance and navigation hardware, including S-band telemetry and onboard flight computer systems. The stage was also equipped with a reaction control system to orient the booster 180-degrees for its descent and keep it dynamically stable for the re-entry.


** Virgin Orbit nears first flight of the LauncherOne rocket:

** Virgin Galactic‘s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft returns to Mojave. The WK2 will to take  SpaceShipTwo Unity to Spaceport America in New Mexico where the SS2 will do some test flights before starting operational flights with paying customers

Here’s a video of the WK2 activities at Mojave via

Virgin Galactic’s White Knight 2 mothership does 3 low approaches, 2 touch and go landings and then lands at Mojave Spaceport. Complete with tower audio so you can hear the pilots! With the return of White Knight 2, there will be for a brief time a total of 4 rocket launching planes at MHV, Northrop’s Stargazer, Stratolaunch’s Roc, Virgin Galactic’s White Knight 2, and Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl. If you like this video consider supporting me on Patreon for behind the scenes content, downloads, and more.

** Progress on construction of the Ariane 6 launch complex:   Ariane 6 launch complex at Europe’s Spaceport – ESA

Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana is gearing up for the arrival of Ariane 6, Europe’s next-generation launch vehicle. This aerial view taken in January 2020 shows the main elements of the new launch complex.

The 8200 tonne 90 metre-high mobile gantry will house Ariane 6 before launch. First in July then again in December 2019, the gantry was rolled along its rails to its prelaunch position over the launch pad. Platforms inside the gantry will allow engineers access to the rocket for integration and maintenance. The mobile gantry is retracted before launch.

Ariane 6 launch complex under construction at the Arianespace spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Credits: ESA

** Update on Firefly Aerospace from CEO Tom Markusic: A Conversation with Dr. Tom Markusic, CEO, Firefly Aerospace – SatMagazine

Firefly is currently completing qualification of the Alpha first stage, our final milestone before the flight vehicle will be prepared for launch. We are looking forward to sharing progress updates as we continue the qualification process, including video of the full mission duty of the Alpha first stage, which starts 2020 on the test stand undergoing final checkouts before hotfire testing begins. Our Vandenberg team is making excellent progress on the launch site and we will be sharing updates as they move into wet dress rehearsals at the launch facility. The first Alpha launch will take place in 2020 from SLC-2W at VAFB.

** Skyrora demos a rocket engine that burns a high-grade fuel made from waste plastics

The fuel called “Ecosene” provides a greener alternative to kerosene. Ecosene produces up to 45% less greenhouse emissions than normal kerosene. The fuel goes through a two step process which transforms the previously landfill waste in to useable fuel to help place earth observation satellites in to orbit to monitor the United Nations sustainability development goals.

** Update on PLD Space of Spain: PLD Space books first suborbital flight, nears resolution of engine setback –

Spanish launch startup PLD Space says [it has] secured a second customer for the maiden flight of its Miura 1 reusable suborbital rocket while tackling development issues that prevented the mission from occurring last year.

Pablo Gallego Sanmiguel, PLD Space’s senior vice president of sales and customers, said Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida will fly four student- and faculty-built experiments on Muira 1. Those payloads take the remaining commercial space on the mission, which will also fly two microgravity experiments for the Bremen, Germany-based Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity, also known as ZARM. Half the rocket’s payload space will carry sensors to study its first flight. 

PLD Space planned to launch Miura 1 in 2019, but delayed the rocket’s debut after a “series of test firing anomalies” during engine development, Gallego Sanmiguel said by email. 

** Mid-flight refueling of a spaceplane via another spaceplane to get the first one to orbit: Suborbital refueling: a path not taken – The Space Review

** An overview of options for getting your smallsat into orbit: Rocket Launch Trends Roaring into the 2020s –

It’s never been easier to launch satellites into space, and things are only getting better for satellite operators. A multitude of launch vehicles and orbits are available to satellite missions ranging from Kickstarter-funded garage efforts to serious commercial endeavours. Today, we’re recapping some of the most important launch trends of the last decade and reflecting on how they’ll evolve in the 2020s.

A discussion of higher priced direct versus the lower priced indirect route to orbit : Rocket Lab points out that not all rideshare rocket launches are created equal | TechCrunch

** The International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC) posts the latest developments and news on space elevators: February 2020 Edition of the ISEC Newsletter

See also this report presented at the IAC 2019 last fall about using space elevators as the key nodes in an interplanetary transportation network: Today’s Space Elevator: Space Elevator Matures into the Galactic Harbour, Peter Swan, Michael Fitzgerald – ISEC (pdf)

The purposes of Earth’s Space Elevators are to 1) deliver cargo to the Enterprises assembling along the geosynchronous belt near the Space Elevator’s GEO Regions; and 2) support interplanetary flights from the APEX Regions; to the Moon, to Mars, and elsewhere.

Since the interplanetary flights from the Apex will use the latent ΔV, (derived from Earth’s rotation – transformed into radial speed at departure from the Apex); Space Elevators are established around the Solar System as part of the Galactic Harbour transportation network. Elevators operate near the Moon, on Mars, on key asteroids within the asteroids belt and elsewhere. We see immense cargo craft moving from Elevator to Elevator bringing supplies and equipment; and returning with raw materials for processing in one of the several GEO regions and later to Earth. This is the third dimension of trade, commerce, transportation, and humankind.

** SpaceX:

** NASA awards contract to SpaceX for launch of the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission in December 2022: NASA Awards Launch Services Contract for Earth Science Mission | NASA

NASA has selected SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the agency’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission.

The total cost for NASA to launch PACE is approximately $80.4 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs. The PACE mission currently is targeted to launch in December 2022 on a Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The PACE mission represents the nation’s next great investment in understanding and protecting our home planet. The mission will provide global ocean color, cloud, and aerosol data that will provide unprecedented insights into oceanographic and atmospheric responses to Earth’s changing climate. PACE will help scientists investigate the diversity of organisms fueling marine food webs and the U.S. economy, and deliver advanced data products to reduce uncertainties in global climate models and improve our interdisciplinary understanding of the Earth system.

**** SpaceX releases Rideshare Payload Users Guide (pdf). The Smallsat Rideshare Program provides payload space for small satellites on Falcon 9 launches. The a primary payload, typically a batch of the company’s Starlink satellites.

The prices are exceptionally low for smallsats, e.g. $1M for a 200kg satellite to sun synchronous polar orbit. The Rideshare website provides an interactive guide to estimating the cost for a smallsat mission. Reservations can also be made online.

The goal is to provide routine access to space.The launch opportunities will take place at regular intervals:

SSO missions approximately every 4 months.

So if a payload is delayed, it can ride on a subsequent launch.

If your payload is delayed, apply 100% of monies paid toward cost of rebooking on a future mission, subject to a 10% rebooking fee.

Artist’s rendering of the moment of fairing separation for a Rideshare Falcon 9 mission. The smallsat deployment structure has several smallsats attached. Credits: SpaceX

**** Total number of Falcon 9 launches will surpass 100 by end of this year if there are no major failures: SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket expected to reach major launch milestone in 2020 – Teslarati

Hours after SpaceX launched its 240th new Starlink satellite into orbit, Elon Musk took to Twitter to cryptically reveal that the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket could “reach triple digits this year” if everything goes according to plan.

Designed and built by SpaceX in the late 2000s, the Falcon 9 rocket launched for the first time in June 2010. Developed for the unfathomably low price of $300 million from clean-sheet design to first orbital launch, the original single-core Falcon 9 rocket – known as V1.0 – was about 48m (160 ft) tall, weighed 333 metric tons (735,000 lb) fully fueled, and was capable of launching almost 10.5 metric tons (23,000 lb) into low Earth orbit (LEO). Famously, when provided with Falcon 9’s basic specifications and characteristics, an independent NASA study estimated that the rocket’s development would have cost the agency anywhere from $1.7 billion to $4 billion to design and build.

**** Falcon 9 booster for the latest Starlink mission returns from the sea. The booster landed harder than usual but the legs absorbed the impact just fine.

Here is a view of the booster’s return from USLaunchReport:

B1051 is still in excellent shape. The landing legs did their job. Appears to be approx. 5ft lower than normal. Incredible when you think of the force the landing legs must absorb.

**** Starship

****** An overview of the Starship/Super Heavy Booster project presented by Gerald Black at the Mars Society conference held last October:

****** First SN-1 Starship test flight could happen in a couple of months: SpaceX requests permission to fly new Starship rocket on 12-mile-high test flight – The Verge

SpaceX is already planning the next big test flight of its future Starship rocket out of southern Texas. As early as mid-March, the company is hoping to fly a test version of the vehicle to a super high altitude and then land it upright on solid ground, proving the rocket can be reused and potentially touch down on other worlds.

The upcoming test is detailed in new paperwork SpaceX filed with the Federal Communications Commission, which provides licensing to aerospace companies that are hoping to fly their vehicles to space. Specifically, the FCC allocates which radio frequencies companies can use to communicate with their vehicles during flight.

SpaceX notes in its filing that it wants special authority to communicate with its Starship rocket while the vehicle flies to an altitude of 12.4 miles or 20 kilometers — nearly halfway to the edge of space. Starship would take off from SpaceX’s test facility at Boca Chica, Texas, and the company would attempt to land the vehicle near the launch site using the rocket’s Raptor engines. SpaceX also plans to send data of the vehicle’s trajectory to both the Air Force and NASA.

****** To achieve a SN-1 flight so soon, activities are ramping up at Boca Chica Beach. New tanks are being assembled, the stainless steel bands for the main fuselage of the SN-1 Starship are being produced and stacked, several new structures have gone up to protect manufacturing from the elements, the last of the private residents near the site are being bought out to make it less hazardous to carry out tests and launch activities, and new workers are being hired.

See also: SpaceX ramps Starship hiring as Elon Musk talks Texas rocket factory’s “awesome” progress – Teslarati

Here are a series of videos via NASASpaceflight YouTube showing the feverish activities of the past week:

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Test Tank 2 Aftermath – Jan.29.2020

Following what is understood to be a successful test of Starship Test Tank 2, the remains of the tank await removal from the Boca Chica launch site. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Removing the remains of Starship Test Tank 2 – Jan.29.2020

SpaceX engineers entered the launch pad area to begin removing the remains of the Starship Test Tank (2). Meanwhile, new SN1 rings and new construction continues to be on show in Boca Chica. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – New Starship Header Tank – Launch Site Repairs – Jan.29.2020

While the dismantling of the Test Tank takes place, along with launch mount repairs, a new Starship SN1 Header Tank was spotted in the assembly building. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Launch Site cleared for SN1 – Starship Fins Appearance – Jan.31.2020

ork on clearing the Boca Chica Starship launch pad is continuing with Test Tank 2 dismantling – including a surprise appearance from two Starship Fins (likely Mk1) – clearing the way for SN1. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF. Edited by Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer).

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN1 Ring Stacking – Huge Windbreak Construction – Feb.1.2020

Signs Starship SN1 is undergoing ring stacking observed at Boca Chica as SpaceX build a very tall assembly/windbreak facility and clear the launch pad of test hardware. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF, with additional photos from NSF’s Nomadd.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN1 Rings Mass Production – Feb.3.2020

A large number of monolithic steel rings are being produced at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility, ready to become part of the stack for the SN1 Starship. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN1 Welding – Launch Site Preps – Feb.4.2020

With Starship SN1 literally months away from a potential launch, SpaceX workers have been busy welding steel rings together and preparing the launch site for her arrival. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

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