SpaceX successfully deployed 60 more Starlink internet satellites in orbit Saturday, continuing a record launch cadence while engineers assess a concern with Falcon 9 rocket engines that has delayed other missions, including the next crew flight to the International Space Station.
The 60 Starlink satellites blasted off from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 11:31:34 a.m. EDT (1531:34 GMT) Saturday. The mission was delayed from Thursday to allow time for engineers to assess a problem with a camera on the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage.
Nine kerosene-fueled Merlin 1D engines powered the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) launcher into the sky on a trajectory northeast from Cape Canaveral.
The rocket’s first stage shut down its engines and separated two-and-a-half minutes into the mission, beginning a controlled descent to a pinpoint landing on a floating platform parked some 400 miles (630 kilometers) northeast of the launch site.
The landing concluded the third trip to space and back for the reusable Falcon 9 booster — designated B1060 — and the touchdown occurred moments before the rocket’s upper stage delivered the 60 Starlink satellites into a preliminary parking orbit.
SpaceX did not try to catch the Falcon 9’s two-piece payload fairing as they fell back to Earth under parachutes. A nose cone structure damaged a net on one of SpaceX’s fairing recovery vessels on the company’s most recent launch Oct. 18.
Instead, SpaceX dispatched one of the boats from its fleet to retrieve the fairing structures from the Atlantic Ocean for inspections, refurbishment, and potential use on a future flight.
After coasting across the Atlantic Ocean, Europe and the Middle East, the Falcon 9’s upper stage briefly reignited its single engine at T+plus 44 minutes to inject the Starlink satellites into a near-circular orbit at an altitude of roughly 170 miles (275 kilometers) with an inclination of 53 degrees to the equator.
All 60 satellites, which were flat-packed on top of the Falcon 9 rocket for launch, separated from the upper stage at 12:34 p.m. EDT (1634 GMT). A live video feed from the rocket showed the flat-panel satellites receding from view as they flew south of Tasmania.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 11:31am EDT (1531 GMT) with 60 more Starlink internet satellites, darting through clouds in an autumn sky on the way to orbit.
The satellites, built by SpaceX in Redmond, Washington, were expected to unfurl power-generating solar arrays and prime their krypton ion thrusters to begin raising their orbits to an operational altitude of 341 miles (550 kilometers), where they will join more than 800 other Starlink relay stations to beam broadband internet signals across most of the populated world.
SpaceX plans to operate an initial block of around 1,500 Starlink satellites in orbits 341 miles above Earth. The company, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission to eventually field a fleet of up to 12,000 small Starlink broadband stations operating in Ku-band, Ka-band, and V-band frequencies.
There are also preliminary plans for an even larger fleet of 30,000 additional Starlink satellites, but a network of that size has not been authorized by the FCC.
SpaceX says the Starlink network — designed for low-latency internet service — is still in its early stages, and engineers continue testing the system to collect latency data and speed tests. In a filing with the FCC dated Oct. 13, SpaceX said it has started beta testing of the Starlink network in multiple U.S. states, and is providing internet connectivity to previously unserved students in rural areas.
On Sept. 28, the Washington Military Department announced it was using the Starlink internet service as emergency responders and residents in Malden, Washington, recover from a wildfire that destroyed much of the town.
Earlier this month, Washington government officials said the Hoh Tribe was starting to use the Starlink service. SpaceX said it recently installed Starlink ground terminals on an administrative building and about 20 private homes on the Hoh Tribe Reservation.
A catalog of Starlink satellites maintained by Jonathan McDowell, a widely-respected astronomer who tracks global spaceflight activity, indicated that 53 of the Starlink satellites have been deorbited since their launch, primarily test models that launched last year. Two other satellites have failed and another 20 appear have stopped maneuvering, leaving around 820 spacecraft presumably operational, according to McDowell.
Since Oct. 6, SpaceX has shot 180 Starlink satellites into orbit on three dedicated Falcon 9 rocket missions. That’s more satellites than in the entire constellation operated by Planet, which owns the second-biggest fleet of spacecraft in orbit.
As of this week, Planet had around 150 active SkySat and Dove Earth-imaging satellites in its fleet, a company spokesperson said.
SpaceX continues Starlink launches while engine issue delays other missions
The launch of three Starlink missions on Falcon 9 rockets this month occurred as SpaceX delayed other launches to study an issue with Merlin engines that aborted a Falcon 9 countdown Oct. 2 with a U.S. military GPS navigation satellite.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, tweeted after the abort that the countdown was stopped at T-minus 2 seconds after an “unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator,” referring to equipment used on the rocket’s nine Merlin first stage main engines. The gas generators on the Merlin 1D engines drives the engines’ turbopumps.
NASA announced Oct. 10 that the launch from the Kennedy Space Center of SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon flight to the International Space Station would be delayed from Oct. 31 until early to mid-November to allow time for engineers to study and resolve the engine issue.
Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs, tweeted Oct. 21 that the space agency and SpaceX were making “a lot of good progress … on engine testing to better understand the unexpected behavior observed during a recent non-NASA launch.”
It’s too early to report findings at this point, as SpaceX continues testing to validate what’s believed to be the most credible cause,” Lueders tweeted.
She wrote that SpaceX is replacing one engine on the Falcon 9 rocket assigned to the Crew Dragon mission — known as Crew-1 — and one engine on the Falcon 9 booster designated for launch of a U.S.-European oceanography satellite next month from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
The engines being replaced displayed behavior during their ground testing that was similar to the “early-start behavior” noted during the aborted GPS launch Oct. 2., Lueders wrote.
The launch of the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich oceanography satellite remains scheduled for Nov. 10 from California, Lueders said.
“We are also still working towards a mid-November launch for Crew-1,” she added. “We will want a few days between Sentinel-6 and Crew-1 to complete data reviews and check performance. Most importantly, we will fly all our missions when we are ready.”
The Crew-1 mission will launch four astronauts to begin a six-month expedition on the International Space Station. It follows a two-man Crew Dragon test flight that launched May 30 and concluded with a successful return to Earth on Aug. 2, the first orbital flight of astronauts to launch from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.
In a press briefing Oct. 16, a NASA manager said engineers from NASA, the U.S. Space Force, and SpaceX are jointly investigating the engine problem that surfaced during the Oct. 2 countdown.
“I can tell you an incredible amount of data has been looked at, to include members from our commercial crew program which also has an upcoming Falcon flight,” said Tim Dunn, NASA’s launch director for the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich mission.
In addition to testing at the launch base at Cape Canaveral, SpaceX removed engines from the Falcon 9 rocket for the GPS mission and returned them to the company’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, for detailed testing and reviews.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Dunn said. “There’s going to be some hardware implications as we move forward, depending on the engines installed on various rockets. The GPS mission obviously is affected. The NASA Crew-1 mission is affected. On Sentinel-6, we are looking at the engines that are on our first stage. We are going to work through what we need to do, but as of today, we have a path forward that allows us to do whatever necessary rework may be required and still maintain that Nov. 10 launch date.”
China said Thursday its latest lunar probe has finished taking samples of the moon’s surface and sealed them within the spacecraft for return to Earth, the first time such a mission has been attempted by any country in more than 40 years.
The Chang’e 5, the third Chinese probe to land on the moon, is the latest in a series of increasingly ambitious missions for Beijing’s space program, which also has a probe en route to Mars carrying a robot rover.
The Chang’e 5 touched down Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the moon’s near side, on a mission to return lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since 1976.
The probe “has completed sampling on the moon, and the samples have been sealed within the spacecraft,” the China National Space Administration said in a statement.
Plans call for the upper stage of the probe known as the ascender to be launched back into lunar orbit to transfer the samples to a capsule for return to Earth. The timing of its return was not immediately clear and the lander can last up to one moon day, or 14 Earth days, before falling temperatures would make it inoperable.
Chang’e is equipped to both scoop samples from the surface and drill two metres to retrieve materials that could provide clues into the history of the moon, Earth other planets and space features.
WATCH | An animation shows how Chang’e 5 was to land on the moon and collect samples:
China says the lander-ascender of its Chang’e-5 probe separated from the orbiter-returner and landed on the moon to collect samples, as this animated video shows. 1:03
While retrieving samples is its main task, the lander is also equipped to extensively photograph the area surrounding its landing site, map conditions below the surface with ground-penetrating radar and analyze the lunar soil for minerals and water content.
Chang’e 5’s return module is supposed to touch down around the middle of December on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where China’s crewed Shenzhou spacecraft have made their returns since China first put a person in space in 2003, becoming only the third country do so after Russia and the United States.
Chang’e 5 has revived talk of China one day sending a crewed mission to the moon and possibly building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects.
China also launched Its first temporary orbiting laboratory in 2011 and a second in 2016. Plans call for a permanent space station after 2022, possibly to be serviced by a reusable space plane.
While China is boosting co-operation with the European Space Agency and others, interactions with NASA are severely limited by concerns over the secretive nature and close military links of the Chinese program.
The US space agency NASA awarded contracts to four companies on Thursday to collect lunar samples for $1 to $15,000, rock-bottom prices that are intended to set a precedent for future exploitation of space resources by the private sector.
“I think it’s kind of amazing that we can buy lunar regolith from four companies for a total of $25,001,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Division.
The contracts are with Lunar Outpost of Golden, Colorado for $1; ispace Japan of Tokyo for $5,000; ispace Europe of Luxembourg for $5,000; and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California for $15,000.
The companies plan to carry out the collection during already scheduled unmanned missions to the Moon in 2022 and 2023.
The firms are to collect a small amount of lunar soil known as regolith from the Moon and to provide imagery to NASA of the collection and the collected material.
Ownership of the lunar soil will then be transferred to NASA and it will become the “sole property of NASA for the agency’s use under the Artemis program.”
Under the Artemis program, NASA plans to land a man and a woman on the Moon by 2024 and lay the groundwork for sustainable exploration and an eventual mission to Mars.
“The precedent is a very important part of what we’re doing today,” said Mike Gold, NASA’s acting associate administrator for international and interagency relations.
“We think it’s very important to establish the precedent that the private sector entities can extract, can take these resources but NASA can purchase and utilize them to fuel not only NASA’s activities, but a whole new dynamic era of public and private development and exploration on the Moon,” Gold said.
“We must learn to generate our own water, air and even fuel,” he said. “Living off the land will enable ambitious exploration activities that will result in awe inspiring science and unprecedented discoveries.”
Any lessons learned on the Moon would be crucial to an eventual mission to Mars.
“Human mission to Mars will be even more demanding and challenging than our lunar operations, which is why it’s so critical to learn from our experiences on the Moon and apply those lessons to Mars,” Gold said.
“We want to demonstrate explicitly that you can extract, you can utilize resources, and that we will be conducting those activities in full compliance with the Outer Space Treaty,” he said. “That’s the precedent that’s important. It’s important for America to lead, not just in technology, but in policy.”
The United States is seeking to establish a precedent because there is currently no international consensus on property rights in space and China and Russia have not reached an understanding with the United States on the subject.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is vague but it deems outer space to be “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
Experts believe that a large, explosive sound and fireball reported over Ontario and New York state Wednesday afternoon was likely caused by a meteor.
Denise Eighteen, a Port Dover resident, says she was driving towards Dover on Radical Road when she saw the light in the sky.
“I saw this huge fireball coming out of the sky, it was massive,” she said in a phone interview on Thursday. “It must have been going towards the lake because the tail was growing, and it was flaming.”
People in other areas, including Mississauga and Hamilton, also reported seeing the fireball.In Onondaga County, N.Y., there were reports of a large explosive sound being heard from above, Syracuse.com reported.
Eighteen said her husband, who was also in the vehicle with her, just caught the end of it and thought it might have been a blade flying off of a wind turbine.
“It was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life, it was just breathtaking,” she said. “It was some sort of cool event in my life, it was special. I need to keep it in my mind’s eye for as long as I can.”
The Eighteen posted about the sighting in a Facebook group and received several messages from others saying they also spotted it around the county.
York University physics and astronomy professor Paul Delaney told 680 News the fireball was likely a meteor.
Delaney said the meteor would likely have to be fairly large in order to be seen in the sky midday. As a meteor enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it heats up, causing the air around it to glow.
Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society told Syracuse.com the large boom heard was likely caused by a sonic boom from the meteor. A sonic boom occurs when the meteor flies through the atmosphere, said Lunsford.
Lunsford said it’s uncommon to see a meteor in broad daylight, stating most rocks burn up while still high in the atmosphere.
“This must be a big one,” he said. “It has to be a pretty large size chunk of rock to survive.”
Delaney told 680 News there’s no risk of the meteorite causing a fire on the ground because it’s cooled off by the time it lands.
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