The state of SpaceX after 10 years of Falcon 9. Last week, SpaceX launched its 85th successful mission on the active American rocket with the most flights, the Falcon 9. If you track launches in UTC as SpaceX does, it launched—to the day—10 years after the first Falcon 9 launched (launch video & launch coverage) with an early Dragon test article. The 10-year transformation of SpaceX from a tenuously poised newcomer to an industry leader, while moving at the pace of a tech company, has been remarkable. As someone said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Here are some recent highlights:
- With this launch, 60 more satellites joined the Starlink constellation, including the hopefully-less-reflective prototype VisorSat unit (you should try to see them fly overhead). Starlink now has 400+ operational Starlink v1.x satellites, which represents the minimum required to begin testing service in higher latitudes of North America—coincidentally, they just showed up on the Seattle Internet Exchange. The next Starlink launch is coming up quick: June 12, with a third scheduled for the end of the month.
- The launch set a record with the first successful landing (on “Just Read the Instructions”) of an orbital booster for the fifth time (landing video).
- With Demo-2 off to a successful start, Musk declared Starship the company’s top priority. SN5 stands ready for testing, and then a 150m flight, once the damage from SN4’s explosion has been repaired. Meanwhile, SN6 and SN7 wait in the wings for their turn to shine (and/or explode). Musk continues to hope for a 2022 cargo mission and 2024 crewed mission to Mars.
- Also, in part due to DM-2’s success and Falcon 9’s 97.8% success rate, NASA has agreed to allow SpaceX to reuse Falcon 9 boosters and Crew Dragon capsules starting with Post-Certification Mission-2 in exchange for their extension of DM-2 to up to 119 days in orbit.
- SpaceX is developing Dragon XL for translunar cargo missions and planning a variant of Starship for lunar missions.
HALO moves forward. NASA awarded Orbital ATK, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, the contract to finish preliminary development of the Gateway’s crew Habitation And Logistics Outpost module (HALO). It will be based on Orbital’s autonomous Cygnus 3m-diameter pressurized cargo spacecraft which has completed 13 commercial resupply missions to the ISS. Cygnus itself is based on a pressure module from Thales, who is responsible for building over half of the ISS pressurized volume. HALO will support up to 4 crew for 30-60 days in cislunar orbit. Future upgrades to Gateway include ESA’s ESPRIT module and up to six more modules. The $187M contract will fund final planning, long lead-time component acquisition, and final design review before manufacturing and integration in 2021. HALO will now be integrated preflight instead of on-orbit with the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) from Maxar and is targeting a 2023 launch.
- Yet another theory about ‘Oumuamua’s origin: it’s a solid hydrogen iceberg (paper) that formed in a Giant Molecular Cloud but escaped without ending up in a star. Having a high hydrogen content would explain one mystery of the interstellar object—its unexplained acceleration without evidence of the gas and dust we associate with comets. Evaporating hydrogen has the right physical properties, given the sunlight received by the object, for the observed acceleration.
- The Earth’s north magnetic pole is wandering towards Siberia at 50–60 km/year, resulting in updates to the World Magnetic Model used by navigation systems including cell phones. Using ESA’s three Swarm satellites, researchers have mapped the magnetic fields generated by moving electrical currents in the Earth’s outer core, with “two large lobes of negative flux at the boundary between Earth’s core and mantle under Canada” primarily determining the position of the north magnetic pole (paper). The drift toward Siberia is expected to continue for at least the next few decades.
- During Cassini’s Grand Finale, before fatally plunging into Saturn (cf. tear-jerking video), it performed 22 ultra-close approaches to the ringed planet, getting as close as ~1,600 km. One experiment performed was an observation of how starlight changed when observed through the planet’s atmosphere, allowing scientists to measure the atmosphere’s density and temperature. Temperatures in the upper atmosphere peak near auroras, suggesting that auroral electric currents are the source of previously-observed mysterious atmospheric heating (paper). Related: Why explore Saturn?
- The Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile has confirmed the existence of Proxima Centauri b, a roughly Earth-sized exoplanet in Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone—the closest star to Earth, just 4 light-years away (paper). Related: An astronomer recently used 25-year-old Hubble data to support the existence of Proxima Centauri c (press release) orbiting at 1.5 AU with a period of 1,907 days.
- A guide to the June 2020 night sky.
- NASA’s Entrepreneurs Challenge has $1 million to give to US-based startups working on mass spectrometry, quantum sensors, and Physics-based machine learning.
- What does space smell like? A bouquet of hot metal, diesel fumes, and barbecue. (Or… meat, metal, raspberries, and rum.)
- Did a huge solar storm detonate deep-sea mines during the Vietnam War?
- When another Carrington-level solar storm occurs—inevitable sooner or later—power outages could last from weeks to years. The US doesn’t have a reserve of the transformers necessary to repair after such an event, as such a stockpile was deemed too costly. Substitute “ventilator” for “transformer” and it all feels uncomfortably familiar. Related: the controversy around the harm to the local economy and calls of an overblown threat ahead of Mount St. Helens’ catastrophic eruption, remembered on its 40th anniversary and seen in this helpful graph of mountain height over time.
- Missile Control Systems for Dummies 😂