Firefly Aerospace conducted a 300-second qualification firing of the Alpha rocket’s complete second stage in April at the company’s test site in Central Texas. Credit: Firefly Aerospace
Firefly Aerospace is asking academic institutions, startup companies and the public to submit ideas for payloads to launch, free of charge, on the inaugural orbital flight of the company’s Alpha rocket next year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The Texas-based launch company said the initiative to host academic and educational payloads on the first Alpha launch will promote education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math disciplines.
“We’re calling the flight opportunity the Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission, or DREAM payload,” said Tom Markusic, CEO of Firefly. “We encourage educational institutions, startup space enterprises, or any other institution that has big space dreams to visit Firefly.com and tell us about your DREAM space payload.”
Groups interested in Firefly’s offer can read the company’s terms in this document.
Officials did not say how much mass and volume will be allotted to the educational payloads.
Firefly said the DREAM payloads will ride into orbit with an unspecified commercial payload. The identity of the primary payload for the inaugural flight of Firefly’s Alpha launcher has not been disclosed.
The two-stage Alpha rocket being developed by Firefly is designed to loft up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) into a low-altitude orbit. The Alpha is one of many privately-developed small satellite launchers new to the market, and the kerosene-fueled rocket will initially launch from Space Launch Complex 2-West at Vandenberg, a military base around 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles.
Rocket Lab’s Electron, which is already operational, Virgin Orbit’s air-dropped LauncherOne, and Vector Launch’s Vector-R rocket are among Firefly’s competitors in the dedicated small satellite launch market.
Artist’s concept of Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle. Credit: Firefly
“‘Making Space for Everyone’ has been an essential part of Firefly’s vision and dream since the day we began,” Markusic said in a statement. “I’m proud to announce today that we’re following through on that commitment by opening a competition, to literally everyone, for the use of the excess capacity of our first Alpha launch.”
“All ideas are welcome – from a child’s drawing, to a university science experiment, to a startup company CubeSat – so we encourage everyone to propose their idea for a DREAM payload to Firefly for consideration,” Markusic said.
Firefly intended to take over the SLC-2W launch pad at the end of last year. The last Delta 2 rocket launch from SLC-2W occurred last September.
But delays in the handover of the pad from United Launch Alliance to Firefly have kept ground crews from outfitting the ground infrastructure for the Alpha rocket.
Les Kovacs, Firefly’s vice president of business development, said at an industry conference earlier this month that the first Alpha launch is scheduled for no earlier than the first quarter of 2020.
“We’ve been working tirelessly for the past few years to develop Alpha, a game-changing small satellite launch vehicle,” Markusic said. “And finally our first launch is within sight.”
Both stages of the 95-foot-tall (29-meter) Alpha rocket will burn a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen. Four Reaver engines on the first stage will generate more than 165,000 pounds of thrust at maximum power, and a Lightning engine on the second stage will produce more than 15,000 pounds of thrust.
In March, Firefly began hotfire testing of the integrated turbopump-fed first stage Reaver engine at a test site in Briggs, Texas. Engineers conducted a 300-second qualification firing of a full Alpha second stage — with a Lightning engine — at the Briggs test site in April.
Firefly Aerospace was previously named Firefly Space Systems before entering bankruptcy. The renamed company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2017 under new ownership.
Noosphere Ventures, a Menlo Park, California-based firm led by managing partner Max Polyakov, now funds Firefly’s rocket development program. Markusic told Spaceflight Now earlier this year that Firefly is fully funded, with Noosphere’s backing, through the initial launches of the company’s Alpha rocket.
Firefly’s other projects beyond the Alpha launcher include the Beta rocket, which will be made up of three Alpha first stage cores combined together to haul heavier payloads into orbit. Firefly also has ambitions for a robotic lunar lander, a space tug powered by electric thrusters, and a reusable spaceplane.
Firefly announced in February that its second launch site would be located at the disused Complex 20 launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Live coverage of SpaceX’s preparations for the launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket from launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with the U.S. Air Force’s STP-2 mission. Text updates will appear automatically below.
The BlackSky Global 3 Earth-imaging satellite is the largest of seven spacecraft slated to launch on Rocket Lab’s sixth mission. Credit: Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab’s next launch from New Zealand is set for no earlier than June 27 with a bundle of spacecraft including a commercial Earth-observing microsatellite for BlackSky, two CubeSats for U.S. Special Operations Command, a pair of tiny prototype data relay nodes for Swarm Technologies, a student-built payload from Australia, and a satellite whose identity and owner remain a secret.
The rideshare mission was arranged by Spaceflight, a Seattle-based company that specializes in aggregating small satellites and booking a shared flight with a launch provider.
The seventh launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron booster is scheduled for a two-hour window June 27 opening at 0430 GMT (12:30 a.m. EDT; 4:30 p.m. New Zealand time), the launch company announced Monday. Rocket Lab says it has launch opportunities available through July 10.
Seven satellites will ride the 55-foot-tall (17-meter) Electron rocket into orbit roughly 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth. It will be Rocket Lab’s third mission of 2019 as officials aim to ramp up to a cadence of about one launch per month by the end of the year.
The rocket will take off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1, a privately-operated facility on Mahia Peninsula, located on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
“We’re looking forward to not only our inaugural flight with Rocket Lab, but a long term partnership to increase access to space via frequent launches,” said Curt Blake, CEO of Spaceflight. “Having the Electron in our arsenal of small launch vehicles provides our customers with a low-cost, flexible option to get on orbit.”
The mission is nicknamed “Make it Rain” in a nod to the damp climate of Seattle, the home of Spaceflight, and at Rocket Lab’s launch site in New Zealand.
The biggest payload on the next Electron launch is the BlackSky Global 3 Earth-imaging satellite — with a launch weight of approximately 123 pounds (56 kilograms) — set to join BlackSky’s first two commercial surveillance craft already in orbit after launches last year.
BlackSky is a business unit of Spaceflight Industries, which is also the parent company of Spaceflight, the rideshare launch broker.
Like the two BlackSky Global satellites currently in space, BlackSky’s third satellite will be capable of capturing up to 1,000 color images per day, with a resolution of about 3 feet (1 meter).
Last year, Spaceflight Industries announced a joint venture with Thales Alenia Space — named LeoStella — to build the next 20 BlackSky satellites in Tukwila, Washington, following the initial block of four smallsats that includes the BlackSky Global 3 spacecraft launching later this month.
BlackSky says its fleet of satellites will enable frequent revisits over the same location to help analysts identify changes over short time cycles. The company expects to have eight satellites in orbit by the end of the year, and aims to eventually field a constellation of up to 60 Earth-imaging spacecraft deployed.
One major customer for BlackSky could be the U.S. government. The National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the government’s spy satellite fleet, announced three study contracts earlier this month with BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet to assess the usefulness of commercial imagery for U.S. intelligence agencies.
The payload fairing for Rocket Lab’s seventh mission, nicknamed “Make it Rain” in a nod to the high volume of rainfall in Seattle, where Spaceflight is headquartered, as well in New Zealand where Launch Complex 1 is located. Credit: Rocket Lab
The June 27 launch will also deliver two Prometheus CubeSats to low Earth orbit for U.S. Special Operations Command. The Prometheus smallsats launching later this month are the latest in a series of CubeSats designed to test low-cost, easy-to-use communications relay technologies that could be used by special operations forces on combat missions.
According to information previously released by the military, the Prometheus spacecraft demonstrate the transmission of audio, video and data files from portable, low-profile, remotely-located field units to deployable ground station terminals using over-the-horizon satellite communications.
Two SpaceBEE CubeSats from Swarm Technologies, each weighing less than 2 pounds (1 kilogram), will also be aboard the next Electron launch. The “BEE” in SpaceBEE stands for Basic Electronic Element.
Swarm is developing a low-data-rate satellite communications fleet the company says could be used by connected cars, remote environmental sensors, industrial farming operations, transportation, smart meters, and for text messaging in rural areas outside the range of terrestrial networks.
Swarm’s first four SpaceBEEs launched in January 2018 aboard an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle without approval from the Federal Communications Commission. After an investigation into the unlicensed launch — a first for the U.S. commercial satellite industry — the FCC fined Swarm $900,000 but allowed the launch of three more satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket in December.
The FCC raised concerns that the first four SpaceBEEs, each about the size of a sandwich, were too small to be reliably tracked by the military, which maintains a public catalog of objects in orbit. Like the satellites launching this month, the SpaceBEEs shot into orbit in December used a larger design based on a one-unit, or 1U, CubeSat standard.
The Electron rocket, with its nine Rutherford first stage engines visible here, is being prepared for launch from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula, located on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Credit: Rocket Lab
The ACRUX 1 CubeSat developed by the Melbourne Space Program, a non-profit educational organization affiliated with the University of Melbourne in Australia, is also launching on the Electron rocket. Built by engineering students, ACRUX 1’s primary mission is education.
Australia’s first amateur satellite, Australis-OSCAR 5, was also built by students in Melbourne. Launched in 1970, it was the first amateur satellite designed and assembled outside North America.
“Since then, Australia’s satellite-related space capabilities have been stymied by outdated policies and regulation, hindering growth of the nation’s space industry and support of its incredible local talent,” members of the Melbourne Space Program wrote in an update on the organization’s website.
“In light of these challenges and obstacles, the Melbourne Space Program considers the design and build of ACRUX 1, as well as the successful securing of an international launch and related licenses, as significant accomplishments in themselves,” team members wrote on the group’s website.
The student engineers who developed the ACRUX 1 CubeSat say they will consider the mission fully successful if they receive a “ping” signal from the spacecraft in orbit.
“Receiving that ping from ACRUX 1 may seem like a modest mission goal, but the truth is far from it,” the team wrote. “That ping would mean ACRUX-1 has not only turned on in space, but has also communicated data back to us at our ground station in Greater Melbourne. In other words, it demonstrates that the satellite system built by our engineers actually works in space.”
A seventh satellite will ride to space on the “Make it Rain” mission, but Spaceflight and Rocket Lab have not revealed its identity or owner.
Artist’s concept of an Ariane 64 rocket, the Ariane 6 configuration with four strap-on solid rocket boosters. Credit: ArianeGroup
Viasat has modified an existing contract with Arianespace to launch one of the company’s next-generation broadband Internet satellites on Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, rather than on-board an Ariane 5 launcher, officials announced Monday.
The agreement makes Viasat the first commercial company to commit to launch on the Ariane 64, the more powerful variant of the Ariane 6 rocket with four strap-on solid rocket boosters.
California-based Viasat is developed a new fleet of satellites to beam broadband Internet signals around the world from operating posts in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.
The three new ViaSat 3 satellites are being built by Boeing, and Viasat has booked their launches with Arianespace, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
Viasat originally signed a contract with Arianespace in 2016 to launch one of the ViaSat 3 satellites on an Ariane 5 ECA rocket. The Ariane 6 rocket, which is scheduled for its first launch from French Guiana in 2020, will debut the new Vinci upper stage engine that can be reignited in space on missions lasting several hours, unlike the Ariane 5’s one-and-done cryogenic upper stage.
The new upper stage engine will allow the Ariane 6 rocket to place the ViaSat 3 payload into a “high-energy” geostationary transfer orbit closer to the spacecraft’s final operating location, allowing for a shorter transit using the satellite’s own propulsion system, and a faster entry into service, Viasat officials said.
The ViaSat 3 launch will use the Ariane 64 variant of the new European launcher, which is being designed and built by ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus Defense and Space and Safran, with the support of European Space Agency funding. The Ariane 64, or A64, will be capable of carrying more than 25,350 pounds (11.5 metric tons) of cargo to geostationary transfer orbit, roughly 15 percent more than the Ariane 5’s capacity to the same orbit.
“We have a long-standing partnership with Arianespace, and trust their A64 launcher will allow Viasat to meet key business objectives, which include bringing high-speed, high-quality broadband connectivity to end-users, worldwide,” said Dave Ryan, president of space and commercial networks at Viasat, in a statement. “The A64 vehicle is a highly competitive launcher, and incorporates key features to ensure a more cost-effective, dependable ViaSat-3 spacecraft launch.”
The Ariane 6 will also come in a lighter variant, known as the Ariane 62, with two solid rocket boosters clustered around the launcher’s hydrogen-fueled core stage.
“We were honored that Viasat initially chose Arianespace for one of its ViaSat 3 launches, and has now evolved the program, enabling them to be the first commercial launch customer to commit to fly on our powerful Ariane 64 launcher,” said Stephane Israel, Arianespace’s CEO. “By moving to the A64 vehicle, we are confident we will demonstrate next-generation market adaptability — one that responds better to customer needs.”
The three ViaSat 3 satellites will cover the globe with Ka-band broadband service, with each spacecraft designed to provide 1 terabit per second of network capacity, according to Viasat.
The first of the new satellites will cover the Americas, followed by a second craft over Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and a third node over the Asia-Pacific region.
Viasat has not assigned specific satellites to the company’s roster of launch vehicles from Arianespace, SpaceX and ULA.
After signing the first ViaSat 3 launch contract with Arianespace in 2016, Viasat announced deals with ULA and SpaceX last year to send the other two ViaSat 3 spacecraft aloft on Atlas 5 and Falcon Heavy rockets from Cape Canaveral.
Viasat’s satellites currently in space provide Internet service over North America, the Caribbean and along trans-Atlantic airline routes. The company’s network will become global with the launch of the next three satellites.
In March, Arianespace announced that OneWeb — another competitor in the satellite broadband market — will be the customer on the Ariane 6’s inaugural launch in 2020. OneWeb is expected to launch around 30 small satellites into low Earth orbit on the first Ariane 6 mission, which will fly in the smaller Ariane 62 configuration.
Arianespace has also signed up the French government to launch an optical spy satellite on an Ariane 62 rocket, and ESA has a contract, on behalf of the European Commission, to launch four Galileo navigation satellites on a pair of Ariane 62 rockets.
Eutelsat, the Paris-based commercial communications satellite operator, also signed a multi-launch agreement with Arianespace last year, including provisions for an unspecified number of future Ariane 6 flights.
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These photos show the June 12 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with three Earth-observing satellites for Canada’s Radarsat Constellation Mission.
The 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg at 7:17 a.m. PDT (10:17 a.m. EDT; 1417 GMT). Eight minutes later, the Falcon 9’s first stage returned to Vandenberg for a propulsive touchdown at Landing Zone 4 around a quarter-mile from the launch pad.
Вывоз РКН «Протон-М» с обсерваторией «Спектр РГ» на стартовый комплекс - YouTube
A rocket-transporting railroad car ferried a Proton booster to its launch pad Friday at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for final checkouts and testing before the vehicle’s scheduled June 21 liftoff with the Russian-German Spektr-RG X-ray telescope.
The Proton rocket began the trip to the Complex 81 launch pad Friday at around 6:30 a.m. local time in Kazakhstan. After pulling up to the pad, a hydraulic lift raised the rocket vertical, and ground crews moved a mobile gantry around the launcher to provide access for workers to complete inspections, testing and closeouts before next week’s launch.
Liftoff is scheduled for 1217:14 GMT (8:17:14 a.m. EDT; 5:17:14 p.m. Baikonur time) on June 21 to send the Spektr-RG astronomy observatory toward the L2 Lagrange point, a gravitationally neutral point about a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from the night side of Earth.
Proton rockets are usually rolled out to the launch pad a few days before liftoff, but ground teams transferred the Proton launcher with Spektr-RG to the pad a week before liftoff. According to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, workers will complete checks on the spacecraft, the Proton booster, and the rocket’s Block DM upper stage, and carry out “comprehensive tests” on the control system of the launch vehicle.
Ground teams will also inspect ground equipment at the launch pad before next Friday’s launch, Roscosmos said in a statement.
The launch of Spektr-RG will mark the first flight of a Block DM upper stage with a Proton rocket since September 2015. Recent Proton missions have typically launched with the newer-design Breeze M upper stage to place their payloads into high-altitude orbits.
The three-stage Proton booster features a six-engine first stage producing 2.5 million pounds of thrust, and a four-engine second stage that generates 540,000 pounds of thrust. The Proton’s third stage is powered by a single main engine delivering 131,000 pounds of thrust.
The reignitable Block DM upper stage will separate from the Proton’s third stage less than 10 minutes after liftoff, followed by two burns of the Block DM main engine before deployment of the 5,980-pound (2,712.5-kilogram) Spektr-RG spacecraft two hours into the mission.
All of the engines on the Proton booster and the Block DM upper stage consume a toxic mixture of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants.
After arriving at its distant observing post, Spektr-RG will begin a six-and-a-half-year mission surveying the sky with twin X-ray telescopes.
Spektr-RG is a joint project between Roscosmos and DLR, the Russian and German space agencies. The mission will conduct an all-sky X-ray survey, observing galaxies and large-scale galactic clusters to help astronomers examine the role of dark energy and dark matter in the evolution of the universe.
The primary instrument on Spektr-RG is the German-built wide-field eROSITA X-ray telescope, which scientists say will observe more than 3 million active black holes at the centers of galaxies, and approximately 100,000 clusters of galaxies in the distant universe.
A second X-ray telescope on Spektr-RG, developed by a Russian science team, will be sensitive to higher-energy X-rays than eROSITA. The Russian telescope, named ART-XC, will fly with X-ray mirror modules fabricated at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Officials from the Russian and German space agencies signed an agreement to collaborate on the Spektr-RG mission in 2009. Spektr-RG is the biggest Russian space science mission to launch since 2011.
More photos of the Proton rocket’s rollout Friday are posted below.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (foreground) and Doug Hurley (background) train in a Crew Dragon simulator for their flight to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX/NASA
Bigelow Space Operations says it will charge $52 million per seat to send private astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Crew Dragon ferry ships, and has already paid “substantial sums” to SpaceX for up to four dedicated crew missions to the orbiting research complex.
The announcement came in a statement June 7 by Robert Bigelow, the wealthy founder of Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace and Bigelow Space Operations, hours after NASA unveiled plans to use the International Space Station to commercialize low Earth orbit for human spaceflight.
Bigelow said his company made the initial payments to SpaceX in September 2018.
These (four) launches are dedicated flights each carrying up to four people for a duration of one to possibly two months on the ISS,” Bigelow wrote.
One of the tenets of NASA’s plan is to open up the space station for private astronauts, along with an initiative to make a docking port on the station available for a commercial module. Under the new space agency policy, the space station could host up to two visits by commercial astronauts per year, each with multiple passengers on-board.
Depending on how many seats are filled on the commercial crew vehicles, the space station could accommodate a “dozen or so private astronauts, potentially, per year,” said Robyn Gatens, deputy director of the space station program at NASA Headquarters, during last week’s announcement in New York.
The Crew Dragon and Starliner commercial crew capsules in development by SpaceX and Boeing can each carry up to seven astronauts per flight. For missions dedicated to NASA, four astronauts will ride on the spaceships to and from the station, along with cargo.
The International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos
In his written statement, Bigelow did not say when the dedicated flights for private astronauts might blast off, or if Bigelow has secured commitments from customers to fly to the station.
“BSO is excited about NASA’s announcements last Friday,” Bigelow wrote. “BSO has demonstrated its sincerity and commitment to moving forward on NASA’s commercialization plans for the ISS through the execution of last September’s launch contracts.
“BSO intends to thoroughly digest all of the information that was dispersed last week so that all opportunities and obligations to properly conduct the flights and activities of new astronauts to the ISS can be responsibly performed,” Bigelow wrote.
Bigelow established Bigelow Space Operations in 2018 to oversee commercial space stations developed by sister company Bigelow Aerospace, which he founded in 1999 to design and fabricate expandable modules to form pressurized habitats in space.
The initial cost of a commercial astronaut trip to the International Space Station will be approximately $52 million per person, according to Bigelow.
“The next big question is when is this all going to happen? Once the SpaceX rocket and capsule are certified by NASA to fly people to the ISS, then this program can begin,” Bigelow wrote.
“As you might imagine, as they say ‘the devil is in the details,’ and there are many,” Bigelow wrote. “But we are excited and optimistic that all of this can come together successfully, and BSO has skin in the game.”
NASA said June 7 that, in addition to transportation costs, the space agency will charge around $35,000 a day per astronaut to use the space station’s life support, communications, power and other systems. It was not clear whether Bigelow’s price of $52 million included the accommodation costs on the station, or only the transportation services.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft backs away from the International Space Station after undocking March 8 at the end of a six-day unpiloted demonstration mission. Credit: SpaceX
Despite recent delays, NASA still expects at least one of the commercial crew capsules to fly astronauts to the space station by the end of the year, then begin regular crew rotation missions in 2020.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule completed its first unpiloted test flight to the station in March, but the spacecraft was destroyed in a test accident on the ground in April as engineers prepared it for an abort test that was scheduled for this summer.
Teams will ready the second space-rated Crew Dragon vehicle, which was previously assigned to carry astronauts to the station, for the high-altitude abort test. The third Crew Dragon off SpaceX’s assembly line in Hawthorne, California, will now be used for the next test flight to the space station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on-board.
The target launch dates for the abort test and astronaut flight, which will lift off from Florida aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, are under review.
Meanwhile, Boeing is readying its first Starliner test flight for liftoff from Cape Canaveral as soon as mid-August aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The unpiloted mission will dock with the space station and return to Earth for a parachute-assisted landing in the Western United States.
If that mission goes well, Boeing could launch a second Starliner test flight with astronauts as soon as November.
Both crew capsules are being developed and flown with NASA funding. The space agency has multibillion-dollar contracts with SpaceX and Boeing covering the design, development and demonstration of each spacecraft, plus six crew rotation missions by each contractor through the early 2020s.
The debut of the Crew Dragon and Starliner will end NASA’s sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew ferry ships for astronaut transportation to the space station.
Under recent contracts with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, NASA is paying more than $80 million per seat for a round-trip flight on a Soyuz spacecraft. NASA says its average cost for a flight on the Crew Dragon and Starliner vehicles is around $58 million.
Bigelow’s published price quote suggests a private astronaut trip will cost a bit less than a NASA astronaut flight.
Boeing has an agreement with Space Adventures to fly private astronauts on Starliner missions to the space station. Space Adventures arranged the first space tourist flight in 2001 with U.S. businessman Dennis Tito, who spent nearly eight days in space on a trip to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
“We’re pleased to see NASA’s announcement today, and applaud NASA’s efforts in consulting industry to inform NASA’s strategy and policy. Space Adventures is delighted to have been a key contributor to NASA in that process,” the company said in a statement June 7.
Space Adventures most recently arranged for a space tourist mission in 2009 with Canadian artist and entrepreneur Guy Laliberté. The company said last week it is currently able to book flights to the station on Soyuz or Starliner missions.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket emerges from a shroud of fog seconds after liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Credit: SpaceX
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket fired through a dense shroud of coastal fog and climbed into orbit Wednesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, deploying a trio of radar observation satellites to begin a $900 million mission surveying the Arctic, maritime waters, forests and farmland for the Canadian government.
The Radarsat Constellation Mission, made up of three identical Earth-observing satellites, is led by the Canadian Space Agency, and is one of the most expensive missions in the history of the country’s space program.
The three Radarsat satellites lifted off from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg at 7:17:10 a.m. PDT (10:17:10 a.m. EDT; 1417:10 GMT). Seconds later, the Falcon 9 emerged from a thick blanket of fog as seen from a distant mountaintop tracking camera that provided live views of the rocket’s ascent.
Nine kerosene-fueled Merlin main engines propelled the rocket into the sky with 1.7 million pounds of thrust. But viewing opportunities for spectators, photographers and VIPs gathered at Vandenberg for the launch were thwarted by the dense fog layer hanging over the spaceport on California’s Central Coast.
After turning toward the south over the Pacific Ocean, the Falcon 9’s first stage pushed the rocket into the upper atmosphere, then shut down around 2 minutes, 13 seconds, into the mission. The booster separated and reignited a subset of its engines to reverse course and return to Vandenberg.
The 15-story first stage booster touched down at Landing Zone 4, just a quarter-mile (400 meters) from its launch pad, around eight minutes after liftoff. It was the 41st time SpaceX has successfully landed one of its rocket boosters, and the second rocket return to Vandenberg.
The first stage that launched Wednesday previously flew on a mission from Florida on March 2 to loft SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule on its first unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station.
The first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lands at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Wednesday. Credit: SpaceX
Meanwhile, the Falcon 9’s second stage continued firing its single Merlin engine until eight-and-a-half minutes into the mission. The upper stage shut down, coasted over Antarctica and the Indian Ocean, then briefly reignited its Merlin engine to place the Radarsat satellites into a nearly circular orbit inclined 97.8 degrees to the equator.
A specially-designed dispenser made by Ruag Space in Sweden engaged a unique tilt mechanism to position the Radarsat satellites for separation from the launcher. The spacecraft, each weighing about 3,150 pounds (1,430 kilograms), deployed from the rocket one-at-a-time.
A camera on-board the rocket showed the satellites floating into space, and the final spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9 at 8:19 a.m. PDT (11:19 a.m. EDT; 1519 GMT).
U.S. military tracking data indicated the satellites were flying at an altitude between 361 and 373 miles (581 and 601 kilometers), and Canadian officials said ground teams received initial status signals from all three of the Radarsat spacecraft, confirming their health after Wednesday’s successful launch.
The satellites will extend their flat panel radar antennas, each with an area of about 100 square feet (9.5 square meters), within the first couple of days of the mission, according to MDA, the prime contractor for the Radarsat Constellation Mission. The radars will be powered on for the first time 10 or 11 days after launch, MDA officials said, to begin functional checks and take the first test images.
The full commissioning and calibration campaign will take three to six months, then the Canadian Space Agency will declare the RCM satellites operational and ready for regular observations, officials said.
One of the Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites separates from the Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX
More than 125 Canadian companies from seven provinces helped develop and build the three new Radarsat satellites. Canada’s new fleet of Earth-observing spacecraft follows Radarsat 1 and Radarsat 2 — launched in 1995 and 2007 — and are designed to continue operations of the country’s flagship satellite system through at least 2026.
“It’s extremely important for Canada,” said Mike Greenley, group president of MDA, in a pre-launch interview with Spaceflight Now.
The RCM project is costing the Canadian government roughly $900 million (1.2 billion Canadian dollars), including the development of the satellites, the launch, and seven years of planned operations, according to Steve Iris, the RSM mission manager at the Canadian Space Agency.
That makes RCM one of the most costly Canadian-led space missions in history, and one of the most expensive payloads ever launched by SpaceX.
Each RCM satellite carries a C-band radar instrument, with a deployable antenna array, transmitters and receivers.
Unlike optical cameras, radars can see through clouds and make observations day and night. The radar instruments emit signals and measure the waves reflected off Earth’s surface, yielding information about structures, ships, forests, ice, and crops.
“Earth observation is critical, and radar-based Earth observation gives Canada excellent capabiltiy to deal with the sovereignty and security of Canadians,” Greenley said.
A dozen Canadian government agencies, including the military, use Radarsat data. That broad use is expected continue with RCM.
The three Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites during launch preparations at Vandenberg. Credit: MDA/Canadian Space Agency
“In addition to our resource-based economy requiring monitoring of our forests, mining, energy, and agricultural industries, our northern latitudes that are sensitive to climate change gain from space-based radar systems that can observe the Earth day and night in any weather conditions,” said Magdalena Wierus, a project management engineer on the Radarsat Constellation Mission at the Canadian Space Agency.
Most of Canada’s long coastline is located in remote regions of the Arctic, away from terrestrial observation posts.
“We have a large part of the northern part of Canada that has a low-density population, and there’s not a lot of infrastructure there to do monitoring, and that’s where there is the most impact from climate change, especially on the permafrost,” Iris said in a pre-launch press conference. “So with the constellation mission, we’ll be able to monitor that region every day, and monitor subtle changes like ground deformation due to permafrost melting. We’ll be able to do that four times a day, which is a big advantage compared to what we do now.”
When observing in spotlight mode, each of the three RCM satellites has a best resolution of 1 meter (3.3 feet) in azimuth, and 3 meters (9.8 feet) in range. That is comparable to Radarsat 2’s imaging power.
But with three satellites, RCM can cover more territory.
“It’s a three-satellite mission, each orbiting the Earth, evenly spaced, every 96 minutes at an altitude of approximately 600 kilometers (373 miles),” Wierus said. “One of the main improvements of the constellation is that together they’re able to ensure an exact revisit of a point on the Earth every four days, compared to Radarsat 2, which had an exact revisit of every 24 days.
“Now, why is this important? It’s because we can use these images to measure changes in ground movement, for example, which can help us understand what’s happening on the Earth better,” she said. “The RCM has the capacity to image any given location on 90 percent of the Earth’s surface daily, but will be primarily imaging Canadian territory.”
Artist’s concept of the Radarsat Constellation Mission in orbit, with their radar antennas deployed. Credit: MDA
Along with maritime surveillance and environmental monitoring, the RCM satellites will track the movement of icebergs and the retreat and growth of glaciers and ice sheets. The observation satellites will also monitor natural disasters, such as floods, and detect water pollution.
“The main request of government users was to have daily coverage of the Canadian land mass and maritime approaches, including images of the Arctic four times a day,” Wierus said. “RCM is able to cover all of the regions of Canada within a 24-hour period, which was not possible with Radarsat 2.”
Wierus said the Canadian Space Agency is examining ways to distribute data collected by the Radarsat Constellation Mission outside the Canadian government, allowing international scientists, corporations and the public to access RCM’s imagery.
Besides the radar imaging sensor, each RCM spacecraft hosts a radio receiver to collect identification messages transmitted by maritime vessels.
“Overlaid on top of the radar images this can help pinpoint ships that may be in trouble, or rogue ships that do not want to be found,” Wierus said.
According to Greenley, MDA is supporting the Canadian government in the development of an open data access policy for RCM. Radarsat 2, which is still operational, is a commercial satellite that was partially funded by the Canadian government, with additional private sector investment from MDA, now part of Maxar.
MDA owns Radarsat 2, while the Canadian government owns the RCM satellites.
The Canadian government says it expects to use approximately 250,000 RCM images per year, more than the government’s demand for imagery from previous Radarsat missions.
Wednesday’s launch was the seventh SpaceX mission of the year, and the company’s second from Vandenberg in 2019. SpaceX teams on Florida’s Space Coast are readying a triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket for the company’s next launch, set for no earlier than June 24 at 11:30 p.m. EDT (0330 GMT on June 25).
The Falcon Heavy will take off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Another Falcon 9 launch from neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is scheduled for no earlier than July 21 to loft SpaceX’s next Dragon resupply mission to the space station.
Follow the key events of the Falcon 9 rocket’s ascent to orbit with three Earth observation satellites for Canada’s Radarsat Constellation Mission.
The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket will lift off Wednesday at 7:17 a.m. PDT (10:17 a.m. EDT; 1417 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Falcon 9’s first stage booster, which previously completed a launch and landing in March, will return for a propulsive touchdown at Vandenberg around eight minutes later.
Data source: SpaceX
After the rocket’s nine Merlin 1D engines pass an automated health check, the Falcon 9 is released from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
The Falcon 9 rocket reaches Max Q, the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure. The first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines produce about 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
The Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines shut down.
T+0:02:17: Stage 1 Separation
The Falcon 9’s first stage separates from the second stage moments after MECO.
T+0:02:24: Stage 2 Ignition
The second stage Merlin 1D vacuum engine ignites for an approximately 6-minute burn to inject the Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites into a parking orbit.
T+0:02:48: Fairing Jettison
The 5.2-meter (17.1-foot) diameter payload fairing jettisons once the Falcon 9 rocket ascends through the dense lower atmosphere. The 43-foot-tall fairing is made of two clamshell-like halves composed of carbon fiber with an aluminum honeycomb core. The fairing halves will deploy parafoils for a controlled descent into the Pacific Ocean.
T+0:03:18: Stage 1 Boost-back Burn Complete
A subset of the Falcon 9’s engines ignited to help the rocket reverse course and target a landing on Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
T+0:06:04: Stage 1 Entry Burn
A subset of the first stage’s Merlin 1D engines ignite for an entry burn to slow down for landing. A final landing burn will occur just before touchdown.
T+0:07:53: Stage 1 Landing
The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage booster touches down on Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
T+0:08:28: SECO 1
The Merlin 1D vacuum engine turns off after placing the Radarsat satellites in a temporary parking orbit, beginning at 42-minute coast in space.
T+0:50:08: Stage 2 Restart
The Falcon 9’s second stage engine ignites again for a 4-second burn to circularize its orbit.
T+0:50:12: SECO 2
The Merlin 1D vacuum engine shuts down after reaching a target orbit about 373 miles (600 kilometers) high with an inclination of 97.7 degrees.
T+0:54:43: RCM 1 Separation
The first of the 3,152-pound (1,430-kilogram) Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites separates from a specially-designed dispenser on the Falcon 9’s upper stage produced by Ruag Space.
T+0:58:24: RCM 2 Separation
The second of the Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites deploys from the Falcon 9 rocket.
T+1:02:13: RCM 3 Separation
The last of the three Radarsat Constellation Mission satellites deploys from the Falcon 9 rocket.