Saturday, February 07, 2015

Tomorrow's SpaceX launch: a reusable rocket, science and Earth's next selfie

(See the related post on constellations of Internet service satellites).

Sunday February 8 at 6:10 EST (two minutes after sunset), a SpaceX rocket is scheduled to launch. Previous SpaceX satellites delivered payloads into low-Earth orbit, but this one is destined for the Lagrangian Point nearly 1 million miles from Earth.

At the Lagrangian point 1 (or L1), approximately one
million miles from Earth, the gravitational forces between
the sun and Earth are balanced, which provides a stable
orbit that requires fewer orbital corrections for the
spacecraft to remain in its operational location for a
longer period of time.
Source: NOAA

There are several reasons I will be watching the livestream of the launch.

SpaceX will attempt, for the second time, to recover the rocket. The first time they tried to recover a rocket they failed, but they understand the reason for the failure and hopefully will succeed this time.

The satellite, called "DSCOVR," has scientific and symbolic goals. At the Lagrangian Point, DSCOVR will remain stationary with respect to the Earth and the Sun, enabling it observe the Sun and serve as an early warning system for potentially disruptive solar flares.

Being stationary relative to the Earth will also enable DSCOVR to serve as a distant "Web cam" providing us with a feed of the entire, fully-lit Earth -- an ever changing version of the famous "Blue Marble" picture taken from Apollo 17. (Al Gore called for this space cam while Vice President and, after a long political struggle, his vision is about to be realized).

Earth's first selfie -- from Apollo 17

If SpaceX succeeds in recovering the their X9 rocket, they will refurbish and reuse it in a subsequent launch, cutting cost significantly -- and moving us a step closer to Internet access using a constellation of low-Earth orbiting satellites.

Update 2/8/2015

With a bit more than two minutes to go, the Falcon 9 launch was scrubbed -- there was an apparent problem with part of the telemetry system as well as at an Air Force radar tracking station.

They may try again tomorrow about two minutes earlier than today.

The picture below is from the launch live stream just after it was scrubbed.

Update 2/9/2015

Weather conditions are not favorable for a Monday launch and so NASA, NOAA, the U.S. Air Force and SpaceX have made the decision to postpone the launch until Tuesday, February 10 at 6:05pm ET with a backup date of Wednesday, February 11.

Update 4/14/2015

Elon Musk tweets the bad news -- SpaceX failed again to recapture a rocket after launch.

Update 4/15/2015

A Boeing-Lockheed joint venture is also working on a reusable rocket engine to compete with SpaceX and to reduce dependence on Russian rockets. That will increase the competitive pressure on SpaceX, leading them to cut costs of a potential satellite Internet offering.

Update 4/21/2015

SpaceX reports that their latest failure to retrieve a rocket failed because of a "slower than expected throttle valve response." The next attempt will be in two months. They are learning from their mistakes and rocket reuse will eventually be routine.

Here is a video of the bad landing:

Update 10/20/2015

Earth's daily selfies have begun. Here is a quote from yesterday's NASA announcement:
NASA launched a new website Monday so the world can see images of the full, sunlit side of the Earth every day. The images are taken by a NASA camera one million miles away on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force.

Once a day NASA will post at least a dozen new color images of Earth acquired from 12 to 36 hours earlier by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC). Each daily sequence of images will show the Earth as it rotates, thus revealing the whole globe over the course of a day. The new website also features an archive of EPIC images searchable by date and continent.

Update 11/27/2015

Jeff Bezos' space company, Blue Origin, has succeeded in landing a rocket for reuse. Here's a schematic of the flight:

and here is a video showing the takeoff and slow, controlled landing:

This is a bit of a publicity win over SpaceX, which has failed in attempts to safely land a rocket, but it also shows that it can be done.

We should note that Blue Origin is focused on short space tourism flights, while SpaceX is launching satellites into low-earth orbit for, among other applications, providing global Internet connectivity.

Update 11/28/2015

Elon Musk used Twitter to congratulate Jeff Bezos on the Blue Origin achievement:

Then he tweeted a reminder that you have to go a lot faster and use a lot more fuel to put a satellite into orbit, as SpaceX has done often, than to go up 100 kilometers to the arbitrary "start" of space and come back down.

He continued tweeting with one about SpaceX's short vertical takeoff and landing experiment:

And, ended with a reminder that the X15 rocket plane had also reached 100 km and returned in one piece:

Update 12/2/2015

SpaceX's next attempt at a soft landing will be on the ground at Cape Canaveral, not on a barge at sea.

Update 12/22/2015

SpaceX succeeds in launching satellites, supplying the International Space Station and vertically landing the first stage rocket.

Vertical landing, from Webcast video (below)
Video of the webcast of the entire mission (45 min.):

Update 12/28/2015

Elon Musk says building a Falcon 9 rocket costs $60 million, but the fuel for a launch to low-earth orbit costs only about $200,000. A reusable rocket must be inspected and refurbished after each flight, but Steve Poulos, a former NASA project manager who worked on the Space Shuttle, says the Falcon 9 booster rocket is much simpler than the Shuttle and estimates the cost of refurbishing a booster at about half a million dollars.

The latest SpaceX launch put 11 satellites into low-earth orbit and safely landed the booster rocket. This is good news for the prospects of low-cost, world-wide satellite Internet service.

Update 1/6/2016

On December 31, 2015, Elon Musk said "Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. No damage found, ready to fire again." Could it have been thoroughly inspected so quickly? Regardless, SpaceX says this one will not be reflown. It will be retired for display -- not sure where, but there are a number of possible locations.

In the hangar at Cape Kennedy

Closeup showing superficial damage

Update 1/11/2016

SpaceX has twice tried softly landing a rocket on a barge so that it could be reused, but they will try again on January 17th. That launch will be from Vandenberg Air Force base in California and the recovery barge will be in the Pacific Ocean. If they can do barge landings reliably, they will have more launch-site options.

X marks the spot -- just read the instructions

Update 1/15/2016

Check out this Bloomberg post on the importance of rocket reusability to SpaceX and the space industry. A couple of points from the post:
  • The SpaceX rocket that recently soft-landed on Earth had about 15 times the thrust -- it was about 15 time bigger -- than Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket that landed safely a few weeks earlier.
  • Musk's goal is a settlement on Mars, but a large reduction in launch cost will enable more scientific study of the earth, our atmosphere and the universe, enhanced national security and commercial applications like mining and space tourism.
  • SpaceX has twice failed at a soft landing on a barge at sea, but it is important that they be able to do so for safety and because there are not many landing pads. (They will try again this Sunday).
  • SpaceX has already reduced the cost of launches to low-earth orbit by about 75% -- from several hundred thousand to 60 thousand and with reusability of rockets and other components will achieve the 100x improvement that Musk has predicted.
  • The inscription on the landing barge, "Just read the instructions," is a reference honoring science fiction author Iain M. Banks, author of the novel Player of Games.
The coolest quote was from SpaceX investor and board member Steve Jurvetson, who said "Mars is great for some, but for a starter vacation, I think the moon is a much more interesting destination." He envisions flying around the moon in very low orbit -- just above the highest peaks.

The post also contains videos of the interview:

and the launch and soft landing of the Falcon 9 rocket:

Update 1/16/2016

Here is a drawing of the soft landing SpaceX hopes to pull off tomorrow. After separation, the first stage will flip around, do a couple of burns to slow down, then adjust its trajectory using fins once back in the atmosphere and do a final burn as it softly lands on the barge. They have failed twice, let's hope the third times a charm.

Update 1/18/2016

SpaceX's attempt at a soft landing at sea failed for the third time :-(. Evidently ice, not rough seas, caused the failure. Here is video of the landing and explosion:

@Elonmusk took it with humor, tweeting "Well, at least the pieces were bigger this time!". (Note that a big piece does end up on the barge -- for study and perhaps for spare parts).

Update 1/23/2016

As mentioned above, Jeff Bezos' space company, Blue Origins, succeeded in soft landing one of their New Shepard booster rockets last November. Subsequently, Elon Musk's SpaceX achieved a vertical landing of a much larger booster that had flown higher and faster, stealing some of Bezos' thunder.

Now Bezos is back in the spotlight, because Blue Origin inspected their recovered booster, replaced the expendable parts, made a significant software improvement and relaunched and again recovered it. As Bezos says Launch. Land. Repeat.

Here is a short video (1:49) showing the soft landing last November and the launch and soft landing from yesterday:

Bezos is optimistic because greater inertia will make it easier to soft-land the larger rockets he plans for putting satellites and people in orbit -- comparing the difficulty of balancing a vertical pencil on your hand to balancing a broomstick and they will start full-engine testing of their first orbital booster this year.

The competition between Musk and Bezos is terrific -- let's see if Bezos tries to land a New Shepard on a ship next.

Update 3/11/2016

Yet another cool selfie of the Earth. NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) captured an eclipse, with the shadow of the moon moving from the Indian Ocean to Indonesia and Australia and the pacific islands.

Update 4/8/2016

SpaceX succeeded in landing a Falcon 9 rocket on a barge at sea! They will be able to inspect, repair and reuse the $60 million rocket, dramatically cutting the cost of space projects, including their effort to put a constellation of Internet access satellites in orbit!

Here are pictures of the rocket landing and standing on the barge after landing:

You can see the archived Webcast of the entire mission from launch to orbit here.

Update 4/9/2014

Of Course I Still Love You, we have a Falcon 9 on board.

I am not sure how long the video with commentary (above) will remain on the SpaceX web site, but a video (46:18) of the mission without commentary -- just the radio traffic -- is archived on YouTube, below. The reentry and safe landing of the first stage rocket is shown at 35 minutes 34 seconds into the video.

Update 5/6/2016

SpaceX does it again -- lands a Falcon 9 rocket on a barge at sea for the second time! If they can do this routinely, it will dramatically cutting the cost of space projects, including their effort to put a constellation of Internet access satellites in orbit.

This landing was more difficult than the previous one because the rocket was launching a satellite into a higher orbit. That meant that it returned twice as fast -- 2 km/second rather than 1 km/second. That meant with 4 times the energy and 8 times the heat needed to decelerate it.

As shown in his before and after tweets, Elon Musk was not so sure this one would work out:

Elon Musk played it cool before the launch.

You can see the mission video, starting just before the successful landing, here.

Update 6/3/2016

Cool pictures of latest Falcon 9 soft landing:

The rocket came down at an angle, yet they were still able to land it safely:

This is the rocket entering the port. I had not understood how small the barge is compared to the size of the rocket or how large the rocket is compared to the size of a person. It's amazing that they can land something so big on such a small barge.

Update 7/11/2016

DSCOVR photographs the moon in front of the Earth.

On July 5, 2016, the moon passed between NOAA's DSCOVR satellite and Earth. NASA's EPIC camera aboard DSCOVR snapped these images over a period of about four hours. In this set, the far side of the moon, which is never seen from Earth, passes by. In the backdrop, Earth rotates, starting with the Australia and Pacific and gradually revealing Asia and Africa.

Update 814/2016

JCSAT booster after recovery

It's getting to be a bit routine -- SpaceX once again recovered a booster after soft-landing it on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean. Check out the following video (5m 37s) summarizing the launch and booster recovery. A SpaceX engineer explains the tradeoffs in a soft landing beginning around 3m 50s.

Update 1/26/2017

SpaceX expects to launch only one or two more expendable rockets. They have also proposed construction of three booster landing zones. It seems rocket recovery and reuse will become routine, making satellite Internet service significantly more affordable..

Proposed expansion of landing facility to three zones.

Update 3/30/2017

SpaceX has recovered 8 rockets after soft landings and they hope to reuse one of them for the first time today. A rocket that landed at sea last April will hopefully be successfully launched and recovered either today or Saturday.

The two and a half hour launch window opens March 30, at 6:27 p.m. EDT, or 10:27 p.m. UTC and the backup launch window opens April 1, at 6:27 p.m. EDT, or 10:27 p.m. UTC. Here is the approximate mission timeline:

The countdown, launch and deployment will be streamed online -- with the usual excellent commentary by SpaceX engineers:

Update 5/9/2017

In 2015, Boeing announced that they were working on reusable rockets (see above). There was no mention of Internet service at that time -- the goal was simply reducing reliance on Russian and SpaceX rockets. As late as October 2016, Fortune published a long article without mentioning Internet service.

The week after the Fortune article was published, Boeing's FCC application to launch a constellation of 1,396 satellites operating at an altitude of 1,200 km and to subsequently increase the constellation to the total of 2,956 satellites was announced.

The latest development is speculation that Apple may be planning to work with Boeing on satellite Internet service provision.

If so, we have three potential global Internet service providers -- SpaceX, OneWeb and Apple. I hope they all succeed, giving us some competition in the Intenet service market. That would be a boon for current Internet customers who have only one choice for their service provider (like me) as well as people without any terrestrial Internet access.

Update 6/27/2017

SpaceX is on a roll. They just launched a re-used rocket from Cape Canaveral and recaptured it and, within 48 hours, launched and recaptured a rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base. The precision of the recapture is shown in the following time-lapse video.

Sped up version of today's rocket landing on the Droneship Just Read the Instructions (guess it did)

A post shared by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on

Elon Musk hopes to reduce the turnaround time between landing a rocket on a barge and relaunching it to 24 hours! His plan for a constellation of Internet-access satellites is looking more and more feasible.

Update 10/15/2017

SpaceX launched an SES satellite into geosynchronous orbit last week using a Falcon 9 Booster that had previously been flown and refurbished. They also soft-landed and retrieved the booster.

SES CTO Martin Halliwell called this a "major sea change" and spoke of the cost and time savings in an excellent interview following the launch. Here are a couple quotes from the interview:
I think in a couple years time you won’t even consider whether it’s a pre-flown rocket or a new rocket or a second-time rocket ... It will just be a flight and you will buy a service to get to orbit – and that will be that!

Its saving SES months of time and thereby tens of millions of dollars of real money to fly with a used booster rather than having their expensive satellite sit and languish uselessly on the ground.

The average launch delay we have right now is about 7 months ... until we have launch vehicle availability ... It’s just cash out and a very expensive wait ... tens of millions of dollars lost due to delays.
SpaceX has given marginal discounts from the advertised $61 million geostationary launch price for those using refurbished (Musk jokes that they are "flight-proven") boosters, but the price will go down once the roughly $1 billion spent to develop soft-landing capability is recovered. SES CEO Karim Michel Sabbagh expects the price to drop to around $30 million eventually, but Halliwell says the real benefit thus far is the earlier launch date and he does not expect such a dramatic price reduction. In the long run, the Falcons will be phased out and the BFR price will assume reusability from the start.

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