The successful launch of 60 new Starlink satellites means SpaceX now operates more commercial satellites than any other company in the world. It’s a major milestone for the Elon Musk-led company, which still needs to show it’s capable of responsibly managing its burgeoning megaconsellation.
Deployment of the 60 Starlink satellites was confirmed earlier today in a SpaceX tweet. The satellites were delivered to an orbit of 290 kilometers (180 miles) by a Falcon 9 rocket, which departed Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 9:19 p.m. ET on Monday, January 6.
This marks the third mass deployment of Starlink satellites, the previous two occurring in May and November of last year. Once operational, the satellite constellation will deliver broadband internet to paying customers around the globe.
The satellites will now be evaluated to make sure they’re all functioning properly. Once SpaceX completes this checkout, the mini-sats will engage their onboard ion thrusters and move to their intended orbits some 550 kilometers (342 miles) above the Earth’s surface—a process that takes anywhere from one to four months. During the early stages of this roll-out, the satellites are clustered closely together, making them visible from the Earth’s surface.
Less than 15 minutes after the launch, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket landed successfully on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship positioned in the Atlantic ocean. The faring recovery vessel, Ms. Tree, failed to recover the faring, according to Space.
This latest launch brings the total number of Starlink satellites to 182, though the actual figure may be closer to 172, as SpaceNews reports:
It’s not clear if all 182 Starlink satellites will be part of the constellation SpaceX expects to begin service with later this year. Some 10 satellites from SpaceX’s May 2019 Starlink launch never reached their final operational orbit, according to a Jan. 2 report from Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks satellite movements.
SpaceX said in July that three Starlink satellites had failed shortly after launch, and that another two healthy satellites would be intentionally deorbited as practice. The company did not respond to a SpaceNews inquiry Jan. 6 as to why 10 satellites have not reached their target orbit instead of five.
This quibbling aside, SpaceX can now call itself the world’s largest commercial satellite operator, surpassing California-based Planet Labs and its fleet of 150 Earth-surveying satellites.
This represents the tip of the iceberg, however, as SpaceX is seeking to create a megaconstellation of 42,000 individual satellites. The private company expects to deploy around 1,440 new Starlink satellites by the end of 2020, which will require at least two launches per month. This rapid launch tempo is made possible by virtue of SpaceX being able leverage its normally scheduled commercial launches, filling the extra cargo space with Starlink satellites.
These satellite launches have stirred controversy among astronomers, who complain that the Starlink roll-outs and the ensuing satellite trains are interfering with astronomical observations. Back in November of last year, for example, astronomers at a Chilean observatory released a photo of the satellite train passing directly overhead.
SpaceX has downplayed these concerns, saying the effect is only temporary and that once the satellites reach their intended orbit, “the satellites become significantly less visible from the ground,” as the company noted in its Starlink press kit.
That may be the case, but given the expected rate of two to three launches per month for the foreseeable future and the length of time required for these satellites to ascend to their service orbits, it seems these deployments are set to become a regular fixture of the night sky.
Because of these complaints, SpaceX is actively trying to reduce the albedo, or reflectivity, of its Starlink satellites. To that end, one of the satellites launched yesterday was painted black with an “experimental darkening treatment,” according to SpaceX. The company will now monitor this lone dark-sat to see how well the idea works. As to whether these low-albedo satellites will alleviate astronomical disruptions remains to be seen.
There’s also the threat of accumulating space junk to consider. Starlink satellites are being placed along orbits that will see them fall naturally into the atmosphere in around 25 years, which abides by guidelines proposed—but not enforced—by NASA and other space agencies.
As more objects are tossed into low Earth orbit, however, the risk of debris-creating collisions increases. SpaceX wants to build a megaconstellation consisting of tens of thousands of satellites, and rival companies, including OneWeb, Telsat, and Amazon, have similar aspirations to create large-scale megaconstellations. Managing these space-based assets—which could number into the hundreds of thousands before we know it—will get increasingly precarious (for reference, there are over 5,000 satellites currently in orbit around Earth, which includes the latest batch of Starlink satellites).
The construction of space-based infrastructures appears to be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean this futuristic development should unfold without foresight, regulations, and safety in mind. It’s time for governments, space agencies, scientists, and other stakeholders to establish sensible and enforceable rules, while holding these private companies accountable for their actions.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket landed on the droneship 45 minutes after launch; it actually landed less than 15 minutes after. We regret the error and thank commenter Agamemnerd for pointing it out.
Australia must commit to carbon cuts to keep green energy advantage -Fortescue’s Forrest
Australia risks losing its advantage in the green energy revolution if its leaders don’t promptly commit to cutting carbon emissions by 2050, the country’s richest man, Fortescue Metals Group founder Andrew Forrest said on Monday.
Forrest, who grew Fortescue from a minnow to rival the world’s biggest mining giants in less than two decades, has spearheaded his company’s global green energy drive, signing deals from Brazil to Indonesia to Democratic Republic of Congo.
The company aims to build a 250 megawatt hydrogen electrolyser at Bell Bay in Tasmania — 25 times the size of the biggest existing electrolysers in the world — for less than A$1 billion ($740 million), Forrest said, putting a price on the project for the first time.
Fortescue is ready to make a final investment decision this year, as promised, but is waiting for support from the state government before going ahead with the project.
While Forrest told Reuters that Australia is the best place to realise his green vision, the country’s failure to commit to a policy to cut emissions is risking that advantage.
“I would say 2050 neutrality is a certainty for Australia. If we support it by COP26 the dividend flow to regional Australia will be substantial. If we don’t support it by COP26, the future will remain uncertain,” Forrest said, referring to the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow at the end of October.
“The renewable energy, green hydrogen, green ammonia, green electricity industry is very, very mobile,” he said.
“It is where the will is strongest – they will be the first to be developed.”
Australia’s energy policy is again in the spotlight as Prime Minister Scott Morrison prepares to attend the conference, where global leaders will meet to set further climate goals to follow on from the landmark 2015 Paris accord.
But Morrison is short on updated climate ambitions to bring to the table given his reliance on the junior partner in Australia’s coalition government which said it would not be rushed into a decision on whether to support a target of net zero emissions by 2050.
The Nationals who represent coal and farming heartlands worry that stronger emissions targets will cost jobs. Coal is the country’s second biggest export earner.
But Forrest, speaking to Reuters from London, said that rural Australians were set to be the biggest winners in the move to green energy – if agreements are made in time.
“I have demonstrated investment into the regions despite the fact Australia is dragging the chain,” Forrest told Reuters.
Fortescue is investigating the potential to convert top Australian fertiliser maker Incitec Pivot’s Brisbane ammonia plant to use green hydrogen as a feedstock instead of natural gas, with an on-site electrolysis plant that will produce up to 50,000 tonnes of hydrogen a year.
The plant’s future had been under threat due to soaring gas prices, however setting up a green hydrogen production site to feed the existing plant could save 400 jobs and create many more, Forrest said.
At the same time, the product from the plant will be cheaper for local farmers.
“So farmers in Australia long into the future can plan for the next season, or even for the next generation … knowing that fertilisers are coming from a hydrogen molecule that is infinite,” Forrest said.
(Reporting by Melanie Burton and Sonali Paul; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)
Russian filmmakers back on Earth after shoot aboard space station – World News – Castanet.net
A Soyuz space capsule carrying a cosmonaut and two Russian filmmakers has landed after a 3 1/2-hour trip from the International Space Station.
The capsule, descending under a red-and-white striped parachute after entering Earth’s atmosphere, landed upright in the steppes of Kazakhstan on schedule Sunday with Oleg Novitskiy, Yulia Peresild and Klim Shipenko aboard.
Actress Peresild and film director Shipenko rocketed to the space station on Oct. 5 for a 12-day stint to film segments of a movie titled “Challenge,” in which a surgeon played by Peresild rushes to the space station to save a crew member who needs an urgent operation in orbit. Novitskiy, who spent more than six months aboard the space station, is to star as the ailing cosmonaut in the movie.
After the landing, which sent plumes of dust flying high in the air, ground crews extracted the three space flyers from the capsule and placed them in seats set up nearby as they adjusted to the pull of gravity. They were then taken to a medical tent for examination.
All appeared healthy and cheerful. Peresild smiled and held a large bouquet of white flowers as journalists clustered around her. But she said she also felt a touch of melancholy.
“I’m feeling a bit sad today. It seemed that 12 days would be a lot, but I did not want to leave when everything was over,” Peresild said on state TV.
The transfer to the medical tent was delayed for about 10 minutes while crews filmed several takes of Peresild and Novitskiy in their seats, which are to be included in the movie. More scenes remain to be shot on Earth for the film whose release date is uncertain.
Seven astronauts remain aboard the space station: Russia’s Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov; Americans Mark Vande Hei, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur; Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency; and Japan’s Aki Hoshide.
$10bn James Webb Space Telescope unpacked in Kourou – BBC News
Engineers have unboxed the James Webb Space Telescope in French Guiana and will now prepare it for launch.
The $10bn successor to the Hubble observatory arrived at Europe’s Kourou spaceport five days ago after being shipped from the US.
It’s now been relieved of its transport container and raised into the vertical to allow preflight checks to begin.
JWST is one of the grand scientific projects of the 21st Century and will ride to orbit on 18 December.
An Ariane-5 rocket will throw the telescope out to an observing position about 1.5 million km from Earth.
From there, it will look deeper into the cosmos – and thus further back in time – than is possible with Hubble.
It will do this with a much bigger mirror (6.5m in diameter versus 2.4m) and instruments that are tuned to the infrared.
Scientists hope this set-up can detect the light from the very first population of stars in the Universe to switch on more than 13.5 billion years ago.
JWST is a joint venture between the US (Nasa), European (Esa) and Canadian space agencies (CSA).
It’s taken more than three decades from the original conception to get to this point.
Final assembly and testing was completed in August at the Northrop Grumman factory in Redondo Beach, California, after which the telescope was made ready for a 16-day, 2,500km journey by sea to French Guiana, a trip that took the observatory through the Panama Canal.
Teams at Europe’s spaceport will first inspect JWST to confirm no damage was picked up in transit. The telescope will then be fuelled and mated to the Ariane 5.
Recent weeks have seen cargo planes arrive in French Guiana with the tools and support equipment needed to work on Webb over the coming weeks.
A key milestone in the preparations comes this Friday when another Ariane-5 is due to launch two communications satellites from Kourou. This has to take place to free up the launch table on which Webb’s rocket will be integrated.
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