A crazy week at SpaceX: Two human spaceflights, Starship static fire, and more Starlink satellites
A number of key events happened at SpaceX this week, back to back. Starting with the return of NASA astronauts from the ISS to launching another mission to the ISS, a new design of Starlink consumer terminal, a successful 6 engine static fire test of Starship, and a new set of 53 Starlink satellites were launched to join their family in low-earth orbit.
SpaceX started human spaceflight back in May of 2020 and in the last 18 months, they have already completed five crewed launches to orbit. Four of them were for NASA and one of them was a private spaceflight mission called Inspiration4. Achieving this milestone is a significant one because the U.S. had no access to space for their astronauts since 2011 and they had to rely on Russian spacecraft to send humans to space.
But now with SpaceX, they can access the low-earth orbit at a much better frequency that too at a reduced cost than before. This low cost of space travel is enabled by the reusability of the Falcon 9 rocket and the reusability of the Dragon spacecraft that carries astronauts.
It's important to note that Dragon is the most advanced spacecraft ever built, it is fully autonomous with state of the art emergency escape systems and has a huge space for astronauts to move around during their almost 24-hour journey from lift-off to reaching the International Space Station (ISS).
In addition to the human spaceflight, SpaceX also had updates this week on two of the most ambitious projects of all time that they are pursuing, Starlink and Starship. Starlink is the low-earth-orbit satellite constellation for providing high-speed broadband internet to anywhere on Earth. And Starship is the next generation of fully and rapidly reusable rockets that SpaceX is building for sending cargo and humans to space, to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Crew-2 return from the ISS after 6 months:
Crew-2 was the third human spaceflight for NASA and SpaceX after Demo-2 and Crew-1. It was launched in April 2021 with four astronauts on board the Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. The astronauts spent almost 6 months in the orbiting laboratory doing science experiments to better understand the nature of reality.
The Dragon spacecraft used in the mission was previously flown during the Demo-2 mission and is named ‘Endeavour.’ It spent 63 days in space during its first mission and now did 199 days during the Crew-2 mission, making it the first U.S. spacecraft to reach this milestone.
On the 8th of November, Dragon separated from the ISS and started its return journey to Earth with Crew-2 astronauts. Following the departure, Dragon performed a fly around manoeuvre that allowed Crew-2 astronauts to take pictures of the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS).
In the process, we also got amazing photos and videos of the Dragon flying around in space. Soon after the spacecraft performed four departure burns to move away from the space station.
Subsequently, it performed a deorbit burn which put it in the Earth’s atmosphere, from where it came down like a shooting star at extreme temperatures and deployed parachutes a couple of miles above the surface of Earth before splashing down in the ocean. With that, astronauts have returned home safely.
Crew-3 launched to the ISS:
Just days after Crew-2 returned home, the Crew-3 mission was launched. It also consists of four astronauts flying on Dragon to the orbiting laboratory in space.
Falcon 9 launched on the 10th of November late at night, and just a little under 24 hours, the spacecraft docked with the ISS, beginning the long stay for astronauts in low-earth orbit. This particular Dragon spacecraft is named ‘Endurance.’
Minutes after the launch the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket turned back and completed flawless landing on the remote droneship in the ocean. The duration of this mission is also six months and the astronauts will conduct scientific research in areas such as health technologies, material science, and plant science.
Notably, this mission takes the tally of the total number of people that have ever been to space beyond 600. This is just the beginning of a new era in human spaceflight. We will see more and more people exploring space in the coming years and decades.
New design of Starlink user terminal:
The next exciting news from SpaceX this week was about Starlink. They updated their website with a new design of the Starlink user terminal having a rectangular-shaped satellite dish instead of the previous circular one. This one is a smaller and lighter version.
As of today, SpaceX launched 2000 Starlink satellites in low-earth orbit and they have enabled broadband internet service in 19 countries. The service is still in the beta phase and is being tested by more than 100,000 customers across the globe.
The cost for the consumer hardware is the same everywhere, irrespective of economic or geographic differences. There is an upfront cost of USD 499 and a subsequent monthly payment of USD 99 for the service.
Elon Musk in the past has mentioned that SpaceX is already providing this service at a huge discount as it costs much more to manufacture the satellites/consumer hardware and launch them to orbit along with building ground stations and managing the entire operations.
So this new design looks like an attempt in reducing the cost of manufacturing and hopefully it will be passed on to new customers. This will also enable the company to expand its customer base from hundreds of thousands to millions.
Starlink can create immense value for people in remote areas, who do not have any access to the internet by enabling access to information and thus to better healthcare and education and much more.
First 6-engine static fire test of Starship:
Starship is the next generation of rockets that SpaceX is building that will be fully and rapidly reusable unlike Falcon 9 or any other rocket built in the history of humanity. It is a two-stage rocket, the first stage is called Superheavy booster and the second stage or the upper stage is called Starship.
The first stage (Superheavy) will have anywhere between 33 to 36 Raptor engines and the second stage (Starship) will have 6 to 9 Raptor engines. Raptor is the new engine developed by SpaceX in record time and it has two variants like Merlin engines on Falcon 9. One version is the sea-level engines that are required for taking off from the Earth’s surface and the second version is vacuum engines that are fired up in space.
As of now, we have seen the second stage (Starship) do a few test flights of about 10km along with landing on the landing zone. But we have not yet seen the first stage (Superheavy) fly. The first time Superheavy will fly will be the first time SpaceX will be attempting to do an orbital flight of Starship. And these vacuum Raptor engines are being tested for orbital flight.
In preparation for this first orbital flight, SpaceX had stacked up both stages back in August as a test. And to further those efforts, on the 12th of November, they test-fired all 6 engines on the first stage (Starship) of the rocket. Three of them are sea-level Raptors and the other three are vacuum Raptor engines. The static fire test seems to have done well.
We now wait for 33 Raptor engines on the Superheavy booster to do its own static fire test only to be followed by the first orbital flight of Starship. The timeline of this launch is also conditioned upon approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
These are exciting times, and the efforts that SpaceX is making in pushing the boundaries of science and humanity are one of a kind. If nothing more, it is incredibly exciting to see these events unfold in real-time. These are early days of humanity preparing themselves to be a multi-planet species and thus passing the great filter.
Falcon 9 launch carrying 53 Starlink satellites:
As if all these events back to back were not enough for a week, there was another SpaceX launch on the 13th of November. This one was a Starlink launch where Falcon 9 carried 53 Starlink satellites to low-earth orbit, taking the total number of Starlinks launched to date to 2000.
As more and more satellites are launched and as more ground stations are built the Starlink service keeps enhancing. SpaceX regularly launches Starlink missions to expand their constellation but this particular launch happened after a gap of almost two months.
The Falcon 9 first stage booster supporting this mission previously launched a total of eight different missions including human spaceflight. As usual, SpaceX did recover the first stage booster by landing on a remote droneship named ‘Just Read the Instructions’ in the Atlantic Ocean.
This week truly has been extraordinary at SpaceX but it is not very uncommon. SpaceX is known for doing things fast and efficiently. We did not see too much activity in the last two months in terms of new rocket launches. That can probably be due to the team’s focus on astronaut missions and the preparation for Starship’s first orbital test flight. A part of the reason for not much activity is also the challenges in the global supply chain and especially the shortage of semiconductor chips which are essential in every aspect of what SpaceX does.
Starlink has also been expanding service rapidly across the globe and it can be a fundamental catalyst of improving the lives of millions of people with no or unreliable access to the internet. Internet access should be made a fundamental right of humanity. And as I mentioned in my last week’s blog post, Starlink is coming to India and this upgrade to the consumer hardware is a step in the direction of making it accessible to millions of people.
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