Thursday, January 11, 2018

SpaceX, China and Others Start 2018 With Many Bangs

          By Brian Orlotti

SpaceX has launched its first mission of 2018, the deployment of the US military’s secretive Zuma satellite.

Although there are various conflicting media reports as to whether the Zuma satellite is currently orbiting Earth or plunged through its atmosphere to a fiery demise, SpaceX has stated it was satisfied enough with the performance of the Falcon 9 to proceed with the highly anticipated first launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket at the end of this month.

SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket on the pad January 7th, 2018, just before launch. As outlined in the January 9th, 2018 Qronos16 video, "SpaceX apparently lost the classified Zuma Government Satellite it Failed to Reach Orbit,' SpaceX's latest rocket may "have launched successfully – but the mission didn't end as a win. The Zuma payload it was carrying, a mysterious classified piece of cargo for the US government believed to be a spy satellite, was lost after it failed to separate from the second stage of the rocket after the first stage of the Falcon 9 separated as planned and returned to Earth." Graphic c/o Qronos16.

Originally planned for a November 2017 launch, an undisclosed issue with the Falcon 9 rocket's fairing caused a delay of several weeks, pushing the launch date back to January 4th. Earlier this week, additional propellant loading tests and abnormally strong winds contributed to further delays.

Zuma is SpaceX's third classified launch for the US military. All that is publicly known about Zuma is that was built by Northrop Grumman and was too be placed in low-Earth orbit.

As discussed in the January 9th, 2018 The Verge post, "Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?," SpaceX has stated that the Falcon 9 rocket performed exactly as it it should’ve, declining further comment due to the classified nature of the satellite.

Meanwhile, both the January 8th, 2018 Bloomberg post, "Classified Military Satellite Goes Missing After SpaceX Launch" and the January 9th, 2018 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) post, "US Spy Satellite Believed Lost After SpaceX Mission Fails" have reported that US lawmakers and government officials have been briefed on Zuma’s demise.

However, both publications offer contradictory information from their sources as to what happened. One Bloomberg source stated that the upper stage of the Falcon 9 failed, while both WSJ and Bloomberg claim that Zuma did not separate from the rocket and plunged through the atmosphere back to Earth.

Further muddying the waters, the US Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center, which tracks and catalogues all artificial objects orbiting Earth, added a new entry for Zuma to its online catalogue while publicly stating that it has added no new entries.

The SpaceFlight Now website, which is currently tracking the 50+ rocket launches so far scheduled for 2018. Those launches include the second flight of the New Zealand based Electron small-sat launcher, the first crewed missions of both the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), the first flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the launch of Canada's Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) and a surprising number of Chinese missions. Graphic c/o Spaceflight Now.

However shrouded in mystery the Zuma story seems, it appears to have had no effect on SpaceX’s plans for its Falcon Heavy rocket.

On Jan 4th, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced via social media that the Falcon Heavy rocket will be launched by end of month. As of writing, the Falcon Heavy has been moved into launch position at Kennedy Space Centre’s storied Launch Complex 39A. This week, SpaceX will conduct various checks as well as a static fire test of the rocket’s 27 Merlin engines.

Billed by SpaceX as the most powerful rocket in the world, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated in a Jan 4th, 2018 Instagram post that, at 2,500 tons of thrust, the Falcon Heavy is equivalent to 18 Boeing 747 aircraft at full throttle.

The Falcon Heavy is crucial to restoring independent human spaceflight capability to the US as well as enabling SpaceX’s ambitious plans for human settlement of the Moon and Mars. SpaceX has already lined up a few initial customers for the Falcon Heavy, including satellite firms Arabsat and Inmarsat, as well as the US Air Force.

No concrete launch dates for these have been set, however.

The first Chinese Long March 5 rocket being rolled out for launch at Wenchang in late October 2016. As outlined in the  January 11th, 2018 post, "The surprising scale of China's space program," the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) announced on January 2nd, 2018 that it intended to mount over 40 launches in 2018, including "the Long March 5 returning to flight, the Chang'e 4 mission, and the deployment of multiple satellites." Photo c/o Su Dong/China Daily.

The Falcon Heavy has suffered from multiple delays in its development, as Elon Musk has readily admitted to the public. Last year, Musk admitted that the development of the rocket had been "way harder" than he had anticipated.

For the test flight, the Falcon Heavy will not carry a customer's payload. Instead, in a masterful bit of public relations, Elon Musk announced that it will launch his personal first-gen Tesla Roadster into "a billion year elliptic Mars orbit." The Roadster’s sound system will play David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and have a copy of Douglas Addams’ novel ‘The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’ in the glove box, along with a towel and a sign saying "Don't Panic."

After sixteen years of promising to finally open the frontier of space to all, SpaceX is now about to deliver. Brave new world.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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