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SpaceX launches Starlink rideshare mission as constellation deployment milestone nears - NASASpaceFlight.com
16 May, 2021 - 03:00am
Overall, this was the 28th Starlink mission, the 27th flight of operational Starlinks, the 15th Falcon 9 flight of the year, the fourth Starlink rideshare mission, the third time a Falcon 9 first stage will fly for an eighth time, and the third Falcon 9 flight in 11 days.
Starlink v1.0 L26 lifted off 24 years to the day, and from the same pad, as the STS-84 flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the sixth Shuttle-Mir docking mission.
Continuing the rocket reuse operations LC-39A has fostered since April 1981, Falcon 9, under the power of first stage booster B1058-8 (with the “-8” signifying the stage’s 8th flight), delivered 52 new Starlink satellites, as well as Capella Whitney 4 and Tyvak-0130, to orbit.
The Starlink constellation is set to consist of five orbital shells, with the Starlink v1.0 L26 mission continuing to build the first shell of 1,584 satellites in a 550 kilometer altitude, 53 degree inclination orbit. Deployment of this shell began on 11 November 2019 and will reach the “all satellites launched” milestone with the next mission: Starlink v1.0 L28.
Once all of the first shell Starlinks are in their correct positions within the constellation, which will take a few more months to complete, the network will provide coverage to approximately 80% of Earth’s surface.
This mission in particular deviated from most Starlink flights thus far in that it carried rideshare payloads with a reduced number of Starlink satellites to account for payload volume and mass-to-target-orbit constraints. Joining the Starlinks on this mission were Capella Whitney 4 and Tyvak-0130.
Capella Whitney 4 is part of a Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite constellation operated by Capella Space. At 112 kg, the satellite uses an X-band, 3.5 meter aperture antenna to obtain high-contrast, low-noise, high-resolution sub-0.5 meter imagery of Earth’s surface no matter the weather conditions.
Some extra frames for your enjoyment. Have I mentioned this booster has launched 7 missions in just over 10 months? Whoa. 🤯
— Stephen Marr (@spacecoast_stve) April 10, 2021
The first of the 36 planned satellites of the constellation launched in August 2020 on the Rocket Lab “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical” mission. The other two already-launched Capella satellites were part of the Transporter-1 mission earlier this year.
After a multi-hour, no holds, countdown, Falcon 9’s launch autosequence began at T-35 minutes and counting. At this time, an automated series of events unfolded to thermally condition and load the Falcon 9 first and second stages with liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene.
Loading of RP-1 kerosene on both stages began at T-35 minutes, as did liquid oxygen loading on the first stage. RP-1 fueling on the second stage was completed at the T-20 minute mark, with liquid oxygen fueling of stage two commencing four minutes later.
To prepare the nine first stage Merlin 1D engines for ignition, engine chill began at T-7 minutes — where super cold liquid oxygen is allowed to slowly bleed into the engine plumbing, cooling the engines to within an acceptable “start box”, or temperature range, for engine ignition.
At the T-2 minute mark, fueling was completed. A minute later, the Falcon 9’s onboard computers took control of the countdown, a milestone known as “startup.”
B1058-3 launches the Starlink V1.0 L13 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)
At T-3 seconds, the onboard computers commanded ignition of all nine first stage engines. At liftoff, the hold-down clamps released the Falcon 9 rocket while the transporter/erector rapidly retracted to 45 degrees to protect its systems from the blast of the rocket’s engines.
Soon after, the Falcon 9 pitched downrange, traveling northeast from the Kennedy Space Center, aligning the launch vehicle for its 53 degree inclined orbit.
The nine Merlin 1D engines on the first stage shut down at T+2 minutes 31 seconds, followed by stage separation and second stage ignition. The Falcon 9 can compensate for multiple-engines-out during first stage flight by burning the remaining engines longer than pre-flight predictions to achieve the velocity target the second stage needs to begin with in order to make orbit.
Shortly after separation, the four titanium grid fins on the first stage deployed, followed by a flip maneuver to align booster B1058 properly for reentry.
At T+3 minutes 16 seconds, payload fairing separation occurred from stage two. Similar to other missions, the set of flight-proven fairings — with the active half last supporting SiriusXM-7 and the passive half last supporting NROL-108, both in December 2020 — parachuted directly into the ocean for recovery, as SpaceX appears to have settled on this method as the most efficient option.
Once in the ocean, both halves will be recovered by the chartered recovery vessel Shelia Bordelon, which left Port Canaveral on 12 May for the mission.
B1051-9 is still onboard OCISLY while B1058-6 is being prepared for transport this morning. Let's take a look at the #SpaceXFleet and the hardware making reusibility possible with an I-Spy Port edition thread. #SpaceX #Starlink pic.twitter.com/ndgQBpJFLn
— Julia (@julia_bergeron) March 17, 2021
Meanwhile, as the payload fairings begin their return journey, the second stage continued firing its vacuum-optimized Merlin engine to bring the payload to orbit as the first stage, descended through the atmosphere, reignited three of its Merlin 1D engines to slow itself down and protect itself during reentry.
The center Merlin 1D engine then relighted one more time for the landing burn to place the booster on Of Course I Still Love You, stationed approximately 630 km northeast of the launchpad and 240 km off the coast of North Carolina.
Falcon 9 B1058-8 lands on OCISLY.
They used to call the first stage of rockets "dumb boosters". Not anymore! pic.twitter.com/Jtvwr3FCS6
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) May 15, 2021
About 20 seconds after the booster’s landing, the second stage shut down following insertion into an initial parking orbit. After coasting for 45 minutes 56 seconds, the stage reignited for a four second burn to place the stack into a 569 x 582 kilometer orbit, per pre-flight TLEs — Two-Line Elements, or orbital tracking information.
This orbit is higher than Starlink-only missions, which typically target a 260 x 280 kilometer orbit, due to the needs of the rideshare payloads.
Two minutes after the second burn is complete, Tyvak-0130 deployed, followed three and a half minutes later by Capella. At T+98 minutes 10 seconds, all 52 Starlink satellites scheduled deployment.
After landing, booster B1058-8 will be brought back to Port Canaveral, where it will continue to serve the SpaceX booster fleet. B1058 is one of five Falcon 9 boosters introduced in 2020 and first supported the Demo-2 crewed mission in May 2020, launching Dragon Endeavour and becoming the first SpaceX rocket to launch crew.
While B1052-2 and B1053-2 are both included on this list, their status as “active” can rightly be called into question as SpaceX, despite Elon Musk’s statements that Falcon Heavy side boosters are regular Falcon 9s that just need to have their nosecones replaced with interstages, has shown no interest — despite need — to convert the side boosters.
This need stems from the losses of B1056-4 and B1048-5 on the back-to-back Starlink v1.0 L4 and L5 missions in early 2020 and the more-recent loss of B1059-6 on the Starlink v1.0 L23 mission — all of which were lost during landing attempts after sending the second stage on its way to a successful orbit.
Instead of bringing the two Falcon Heavy side boosters into the general Falcon 9 fleet, SpaceX instead has pulled B1063-1 from the west coast and moved it to Florida to assist with the upcoming flight manifest. It will launch the Starlink v1.0 L28 mission no earlier than 26 May.
B1067, debuting on CRS-22 on 3 June, will aid upcoming flights as well.
Likewise, active booster B1061-2, which had been held in storage for Crew-2 for NASA, is now eligible for regular Falcon 9 manifest missions while B1062-1, which has been held in storage for the upcoming GPS III SV05 mission, will also be able to join the larger fleet after that flight launches no earlier than 17 June.
How SpaceX manages the fleet will be interesting to watch as regular missions from Vandenberg are set to resume no earlier than July with the start of Starlink polar launches from the west coast facility.
16 May, 2021 - 03:00am
Liftoff is at 6:56 p.m. EDT (2056 GMT).
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX will launch its third Falcon 9 rocket in two weeks Saturday evening (May 15), with the launcher carrying a new fleet of Starlink broadband satellites into space, and you can watch the action live online.
The private spaceflight company will launch 52 Starlink satellites on one of its workhorse rockets, a Falcon 9 dubbed B1058, along with a nanosatellite for Tyvak and a small radar satellite for Capella Space.
The frequent flier is scheduled to blast off from Pad 39A here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6:56 p.m. EDT (2056 GMT).
Saturday's flight is the 15th Falcon 9 mission for SpaceX so far in 2021 — all of which have flown on previously used boosters. The mission, called Starlink 27, is the third such mission to launch this month and follows SpaceX's latest record-setting flight that blasted off on Sunday (May 9). That flight starred one of SpaceX's fleet leaders and oldest boosters, B1051, which made its 10th launch and landing — the first in SpaceX's fleet to do so.
The company debuted a souped-up version of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket in 2018, with the intent to foster reusability. By adding some new features that would allow the booster to better withstand the stresses of launch, the company said that each Falcon 9 would be able to fly at least 10 times with minimal refurbishment in between launches, and 100 times total.
As the company aims to fill its burgeoning megaconstellation with thousands of broadband satellites, it will continue to push Falcon 9 to the limit, reserving the boosters with the most flights under their belts for its Starlink program. (SpaceX will fly its paying customers on new boosters or those that have minimal flights.)
SpaceX created its Starlink program in hopes of providing high-speed internet access to users around the world, and as a means to help fund its deep space ambitions. The service is targeted to users in rural or remote areas that have little-to-no connectivity, although anyone can use it.
To date, the company has launched more than 1,600 of the flat-paneled satellites into space. SpaceX estimated it would need at least 1,440 satellites in its initial constellation to begin to roll out commercial service. While that hasn't happened just yet, the company is working towards a commercial rollout later this year.
Before it can offer up commercial service, SpaceX has been busy putting its Starlink program through its paces as part of a now global beta-testing program called "Better than nothing beta." The company reports that more than 500,000 people have signed up for the service so far.
Prospective users can pay a small deposit sign up for the service now, via the company's website. However, it could be a few months before the actual service becomes available.
Saturday's launch marks the 119th flight overall for SpaceX's 229-foot-tall (70 meters) Falcon 9 booster. The star of the mission is one of SpaceX's flight leaders: a seven-time veteran Falcon 9 first stage, designated B1058.
This frequent flyer, adorned with NASA's iconic worm logo, made its debut in 2020 with the launch of two NASA astronauts — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Strapped inside a Crew Dragon capsule, the duo blasted off a two-month mission to the International Space Station, as part of the Demo-2 test flight.
As part of NASA's commercial crew program, their historic flight marked the return of human spaceflight from Florida's Kennedy Space Center since the end of the shuttle program in 2011. (Previously, NASA relied on Russia to transport its astronauts.)
The booster also launched a communications satellite for South Korea's military, the largest payload of small satellites ever delivered to orbit, an upgraded cargo Dragon capsule, and is now set to launch its fourth Starlink mission.
If all goes as planned, B1058 will blast off early on Saturday evening and approximately 9 minutes later, will touch down on one of SpaceX's two drone ships, named "Of Course I Still Love You." If successful, it will mark the 86th recovery of a first stage booster since the company landed its first one in December 2015.
The weather outlook looks good for Saturday's liftoff, with forecasters at the 45th Weather Squadron predicting a 70% chance of favorable launch conditions. The concerns are liftoff winds and the potential for cumulus clouds. Officials also say that sea states at the recovery zone look good.
There is a backup launch opportunity, if necessary, on Sunday (May 16), with weather conditions improving slightly.
SpaceX has already deployed its newest recovery vessel, a brightly painted pink and blue ship named Shelia Bordelon. The vessel is charged with retrieving the payload fairings after they fall back to Earth. The fairings make up a protective clamshell-like piece of hardware that protects the payload as the rocket climbs to orbit.
Once the rocket reaches a certain altitude, the fairing pieces are jettisoned and then fall back to Earth. With the help of onboard navigation software and special parachutes, the two pieces will gently land in the Atlantic ocean, where they will be scooped up by the Shelia Bordelon.
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