SpaceShipTwo Glides, SpaceX Scrubs, Delta IV & 3 Other Launches Pending

SpaceShipTwo Unity on the runway after its seventh glide flight. (Credit; Virgin Galactic)

A busy day in space, so let’s get right to it:

SpaceShipTwo Flies: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity performed its seven glide flight this morning in Mojave. The flight appeared to go as planned based on what I could see from the ground and Virgin Galactic’s tweets; the space plane landed and rolled to a stop on runway 30. The pilots were Mark Stucky and Michael Masucci.

This is the seventh glide flight for Unity and the 37th glide test for the SpaceShipTwo program. Its predecessor, Enterprise, flew 30 glide and three powered flights before it broke up during its fourth powered flight on Oct. 31, 2014.

Virgin Galactic officials have said today’s test should be the final glide flight for Unity. If all went well, the next test will be powered.

UPDATE: Virgin Galactic has posted a description of today’s flight here.

SpaceX Scrubs: SpaceX scrubbed a static fire of the Falcon Heavy booster for the second time in as many days at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The company planned a 12- to 15-second firing of the 27 first stage engines of the heavy-lift rocket. No reason has been given for the scrub. Reports indicate that a third attempt is set for Friday. If the same schedule is maintained, the six-hour test window will open at 1 p.m. EST.

Delta IV Launch Set: United Launch Alliance is planning to launch a Delta IV booster with the NROL 47 reconnaissance satellite from Vandenberg this afternoon. The original launch time was set for 1 p.m. PST, but ULA says it is working a technical issue that will delay the launch until later. No new time as been set yet. The launch was scrubbed on Wednesday due to high winds.

Webcast available at  www.ulalaunch.com and  www.youtube.com/unitedlaunchalliance

UPDATE: Liftoff is now planned for 1:55 p.m. PST. Webcast commentary will start at 1:30 p.m. PST.
UPDATE 2: Liftoff now at 2:05 p.m. PST.

Chinese & Indian Launches Scheduled: A Chinese Long March 3B rocket will launch two Beidou navigation satellites at approximately 2300 GMT (6 p.m. EST) today. The flight will be conducted from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

India’s PSLV booster will launch the Cartosat 2F remote sensing satellite from Satish Dhawan Space Center on Friday at 0358 GMT (10:58 p.m. EST on Thursday, Jan. 11). It will be the first PSLV launch since August when a failure of the payload shroud to separate doomed an IRNSS-1H navigation satellite to a fiery destruction.

A Long March 2D rocket is set to launch an unidentified satellite from Jiuquan on Saturday at approximately 0710 GMT (2:10 a.m. EST). This will be China’s third launch of the new year.

SpaceX Launches Zuma But Satellite Fate Unknown; Falcon Heavy Rolled Out for Static Fire

Falcon 9 first stage launches Zuma spacecraft (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

SpaceX launched a secret U.S. military satellite code named Zuma into space on Sunday evening. The company successfully landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 back at Cape Canaveral.

However, exactly what happened to the mysterious satellite remains a mystery nearly 24 hours after the launch. SpaceX says an analysis of data indicate the Falcon 9’s second stage performed nominally.

However, there are unconfirmed rumors that the satellite was lost. Rumors include the spacecraft being dead on orbit after separation from Falcon 9’s second stage, or re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere still attached to the stage.

Northrop Grumman, which built the spacecraft, is not commenting on the flight. The identity of the government agency the spacecraft was built for is not known. So, nobody from the government has confirmed whether the launch succeeded or not.

Meanwhile, SpaceX rolled out the first Falcon Heavy booster to Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center today. The company plans to conduct a brief static test of the rocket’s 27 first-stage engines for the first time. The rocket is set to make its maiden flight later this month from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Some Rocket Launches to Watch in 2018

The world’s most powerful booster is set to make a flight test sometime in January. If all goes well, 27 first stage engines will power the new booster off Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The three first stage cores will peel off and land for later reuse while the second stage continues into space.

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Missions to Moon, Mars, Mercury & More Set for 2018

This artist’s concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft passing by Earth. (Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona)

Updated with SpaceX’s Red Tesla launch.

An international fleet of spacecraft will be launched in 2018 to explore the Moon, Mars, Mercury and the Sun. Two sample-return spacecraft will enter orbit around asteroids while a third spacecraft will be launched to search for asteroids that contain water that can be mined.

NASA will also launch its next exoplanet hunting spacecraft in March. And the space agency will ring in 2019 with the first ever flyby of a Kuiper Belt object.

And, oh yes, Elon Musk is launching his car in the direction of Mars.
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Falcon Heavy Goes Vertical on Pad-39A for First Time

The rocket is undergoing a fit check on the launch pad. A brief static fire of the first stage’s 27 engines will follow in January prior to the maiden flight set for later in the month.

Falcon Heavy will be capable of lifting 63,800 kg (140,655 lb) to low Earth orbit, 26,700 kg (58,863 lb) to geosynchronous transfer orbit and 16,800 kg (37,038 lb) to Mars. That will make it the most powerful booster in the world.

The payload for the maiden flight will be a Red Tesla Roadster.

Future Looks (Mostly) Bright for Space Industry in DC


The Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference is being held in Colorado through today. I wasn’t able to attend this year, but the following folks are there tweeting away:

  • Jeff Foust‏ @jeff_foust
  • Rand Simberg‏ @Rand_Simberg
  • Colorado Space News‏ @CO_Space_News
  • Laura Seward Forczyk @LauraForczyk

Below are updates based upon their tweets on what is happening in Washington, DC, from talks by officials from the FAA, NASA, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
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Falcon Heavy Debut Slips to January

Artist’s conception of a Falcon Heavy launch. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX has slipped the maiden flight of its Falcon Heavy booster to January. The rocket, whose first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 cores with 27 engines, will lift off from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  The flight will be preceded by a hold-down test on the launch pad in which all 27 first stage engines will be fired.

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Clock is Ticking on NASA Human Deep Space Program

Lamar Smith

It seems that nothing so becomes a politician’s public life like the announcement that he or she is leaving it.

George Washington’s decision in 1796 to not seek a third term as president is widely hailed as the ultimate example of a small-r republican virtue of restraint the general demonstrated throughout his public life. Americans trusted Washington with power because they knew he would exercise it wisely and, that when the time came, he would walk away. Voluntarily.

In an age when many kings claimed a hereditary right to rule for life with absolute authority, relinquishing power was an astounding act. But Washington, a master of exits in war and peace, knew it was time to go. In so doing, he set a two-term precedent for the presidency that would stand for 144 years.

More recently, we’ve seen another result of what happens when politicians decide they’ve had enough: candor. Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) both launched fiery broadsides at the current occupant of Washington’s old office — and a member of their own party, no less — upon announcing they would not seek re-election next year.

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SpaceX Loses Rocket Engine During Qualification Test

Merlin 1D test firing (Credit: SpaceX)

Some news out of the SpaceX engine test center in McGregor, Texas.

SpaceX is investigating why one of its rocket engines exploded during a test fire earlier this week at the company’s facility in Texas, the company confirmed Wednesday.

The explosion of the Merlin engine occurred Sunday during what the company called a “qualification test.” No one was injured, but now the company founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk once again has to figure out what went wrong with its hardware, as it suspends engine testing during the investigation.

The company said Tuesday in response to questions that it is “now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause” of the explosion. “SpaceX is committed to our current manifest, and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence.”

SpaceX has conducted 16 successful launches of the Falcon 9 this year. There are five more flights on the manifest for the rest of 2017.

Remaining SpaceX Launches for 2017

11/15/17: Falcon 9 — Zuma — KSC
12/04/17: Falcon 9 — CRS-13 — CCAFS
December 22: Falcon 9 — Iridum Next 31-40 — Vandenberg
December: Falcon 9 — Hispasat 30W-6 — CCAFS
December: Falcon Heavy Demo Flight — KSC

SpaceX Aims for Late December Launch of Falcon Heavy

Artist’s conception of a Falcon Heavy launch. (Credit: SpaceX)

It looks like Elon Musk is not letting the holidays get in the way of the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy booster, even though it is already running about five years behind its original schedule:

SpaceX is understood to be targeting mid-December for the Static Fire of Falcon Heavy followed by a late-December, No Earlier Than 29 December, launch of the heavy lift rocket.

SpaceX schedules a lot of NET (no earlier than) launch dates. They usually slip. We’ll see if the same thing happens here.

SpaceX Receives Additional $40.8 Million from Air Force to Develop Raptor Engine

Raptor engine hot fire. (Credit SpaceX)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded an additional $40.8 million to SpaceX for the development of its Raptor rocket engine.

The funding, awarded under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, involves the extension of a $33.7 million contract originally awarded in January. SpaceX agreed to spend $67.3 million under the jointly funded program under the original contract.

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Operation Zuma: SpaceX to Launch Mystery Payload

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. (Credit: NASA Television)

Federal regulatory filings indicate SpaceX plans to launch a mysterious payload as early as Nov. 10 in a previously-undisclosed mission.

It is unusual for such a mission to remain secret so close to launch, and there has been no public claim of ownership for the payload — codenamed Zuma — from any government or commercial institution.

SpaceX did not respond to questions on the mission Saturday, but an application submitted by the launch company to the Federal Communications Commission says the flight will use a Falcon 9 booster launched from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The existence of the mission was first reported on NASASpaceflight.com Saturday, but the FCC filings are public record….

Two filings concern the secretive launch next month, one for the Falcon 9’s liftoff and climb into orbit from Florida’s Space Coast, and another for the first stage booster’s planned return to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for refurbishment and reuse.

SpaceX has successfully launched Falcon 9 a total of 15 times in 2017. Spaceflightnow.com’s launch schedule shows that SpaceX has five more flights scheduled for this year, not including the Zuma mission. Below is the schedule with the Zuma flight included.

Remaining SpaceX Launches for 2017

10/30/17: Falcon 9 — Koreasat 5A — KSC
11/10/17: Falcon 9 — Zuma — KSC
Late November: Falcon 9 — Iridum Next 31-40 — Vandenberg
11/28/17: Falcon 9 — CRS-13 — CCAFS
4th Quarter: Falcon 9 — Hispasat 30W-6 — CCAFS
Late 2017: Falcon Heavy Demo Flight — KSC