Elon Musk Teases ‘Unexpected’ Updates to SpaceX ITS Rocket

Elon Musk is working on something big. Almost a year since he unveiled SpaceX’s plans for an Interplanetary Transport System, the CEO is gearing up to speak again at the International Astronautical Congress later this week. But the speech, where Musk will provide an update on his plans to make humans a multiplanetary species, may contain some surprises.

“Major improvements & some unexpected applications to be unveiled on Friday at IAC 2017 in Australia,” Musk said on his Twitter page.

Quite what those applications are remains to be seen, but Musk’s last appearance at the IAC set the bar high. When it was unveiled at last year’s conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, the ITS shocked followers. The system consisted of a rocket booster, a spaceship, a tanker, and a propellant plant, all aimed at moving beyond Earth-based rocket launches.

“Once you have all of those four elements, you can actually go anywhere in the solar system by planet hopping or moon hopping,” he said at the conference. “So by establishing a propellant depot in the asteroid belt or on one of the moons of Jupiter you can make flights from Mars to Jupiter no problem.”

SpaceX also shared a video last year of how the system would work in practice, which sees a spacecraft travel to Mars at a speed of 62,634 miles per hour:

The ITS is part of a multi-year timeline that starts with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket landings. From there, the company plans a manned mission in a Dragon 2 capsule, with an optimistic deadline of May 2018. If all goes to plan, a manned mission to Mars could take place as soon as 2026.

The 68th annual IAC conference, scheduled to be held in Adelaide, is expected to break last year’s record as the biggest ever meetup as followers clamour to hear more about SpaceX’s plans for the future. Musk has said before that his speech would cover updates to the system.

“I’m thinking probably the upcoming IAC in Adelaide might be a good opportunity to do an updated version of the Mars architecture,” Musk said at June’s ISS R&D conference in Washington, D.C. “It’s evolved quite a bit since that last talk.”

In terms of what those updates may look like, Musk hinted at the ISS event that affordability is key to making the project work in the long term, and this area has formed the basis of the team’s focus.

“If we downsize the Mars vehicle, make it capable of doing Earth-orbit activity as well as Mars activity, maybe we could pay for it by using it for Earth-orbit activity,” he said. “That’s one of the key elements of the new architecture. I think this one has a shot at being real, on the economic front.”

Photos via SpaceX

SpaceX gears up for a busy autumn

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX, which has already had a busy year so far, is looking to expand upon its success with a packed launch manifest for the remainder of 2017. Photo Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — October and November are lining up to be busy months for SpaceX. If everything goes according to plan, the NewSpace firm is poised to launch (and land) three Falcon 9 rockets, and it also hopes to carry out the first launch of a “Falcon Heavy” in November. These efforts promise a challenging autumn for Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial space company.

October 2 – SES 11 / EchoStar 105

The first hurdle SpaceX must jump is launching another previously flown Falcon 9 on a flight from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. This flight is slated to hoist a satellite for one of SpaceX’s regular customers – SES. The Luxembourg-based company already agreed to become the first company to fly a payload on a “flight-proven” first stage, which took place on March 30 this year.

The October 2 payload, known as SES-11 or EchoStar 105, is a communications satellite serving North America, including Mexico, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. EchoStar will be leasing Ku-band services in the satellite’s coverage area, while SES will operate the satellite in the C- and Ka-bands. Situated in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) over 105° West Longitude, the 11,904-pound (5,400-kilogram) satellite replaces a previous SES spacecraft, AMC-15, which has flown in the same orbit since 2004. It also provides backup C-band coverage for AMC-18, which launched in 2006.

To date, SpaceX has not released information about which launch the first stage of this flight was previously used on.

SpaceX, which has already had a busy year so far, is looking to expand upon its success with a packed launch manifest for the remainder of 2017. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX, which has already had a busy year so far, is looking to expand upon its success with a packed launch manifest for the remainder of 2017. Photo Credit: SpaceX

October 4 – Iridium NEXT 3/4

SpaceX’s next commercial flight comes barely two days later on October 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6:06 a.m. PDT (9:06 a.m. EDT / 1:06 p.m. UTC). On that flight, Falcon 9 takes up the next ten satellites for the Iridium NEXT constellation. This flight also marks Falcon 9’s third launch for Iridium.

The Iridium 3 flight brings the total number of SpaceX-launched satellites in the constellation up to 30. A total of 66 out of 81 spacecraft are required in low-Earth orbit (LEO) for an operational constellation. The plan is to build an additional 15 satellites, with nine serving as on-orbit spares and another six kept on the ground to be launched if or as needed.

Each Iridium satellite will stay cross-linked to four others, two in the same orbital plane, and one in each adjacent plane. This setup allows traffic to be handed off between spacecraft and ensure a continuous connection.

The satellites’ positions in LEO – 476 miles (780 km) at an inclination of 86.4° – allow the constellation to provide coverage over most of the world more quickly than spacecraft in GEO. These attributes improve service for Iridium’s U.S. Government customers, which include NASA, USAF, FAA, and NOAA.

The constellation serves as an “infrastructure” system capable of supporting hosted payloads for government and scientific organizations.

October 14 – KoreaSat 5A

SpaceX’s third October customer is KT Sat, a Korean satellite communications company. KT Sat’s payload, KoreaSat 5A, is a Ku-band satellite capable of providing communication services from East Africa and Central Asia to southern India, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Guam, Korea, and Japan. The 7,716-pound (3,500-kilogram) satellite will be placed in GEO at 113° East Longitude. It will provide services ranging from broadband internet to broadcasting services and maritime communications.

KoreaSat 5A will lift off from KSC’s LC-39A.

November – Falcon Heavy Test Flight

In the midst of this hectic launch schedule, SpaceX is also planning for its next big leap in commercial space launch: the first flight of its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. This massive rocket comprises three Falcon 9 first stages, powered by a total of 27 Merlin engines, and an upper stage powered by a single vacuum-rated Merlin engine.

Elon Musk has downplayed the likelihood of a successful flight, likely owing to the complexity of the vehicle. In addition to the number of engines involved, SpaceX has set the bar for itself even higher, as they plan to return the first stages for Falcon Heavy safely to Earth as well. Perhaps as a way to set expectations, Musk recently posted a “blooper reel” of SpaceX’s various Falcon 9 landing mishaps before getting them right. To date, SpaceX has returned and landed a Falcon 9’s first stage seven times on land and at sea.

So far, SpaceX has static-tested all three first stages designated for Falcon Heavy.

If proven successful, Falcon Heavy will become the biggest kid on the block, with the ability to send 140,660 pounds (63,800 kg) to low-Earth orbit (LEO) compared to the Delta IV Heavys 62,540 pounds (28,370 kg). The only thing close to that capacity is NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the Block 1 model of which is designed to carry up to 154,323 pounds (70,000 kg) to LEO. SLS’ first flight, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), is scheduled to fly NASA’s Orion spacecraft around the Moon sometime in early 2019.

SpaceX also was approached to fly two private citizens around the Moon in late 2018. Assuming a successful flight of Falcon Heavy in November, SpaceX’s ambitious flight will still face challenges, including testing of the Dragon spacecraft’s crew capability, demonstrating the functionality of their spacesuit, maintaining life-support system over lunar-mission durations, and completing its existing Commercial Crew tasks for NASA. If SpaceX accomplishes all the work it set out for itself this autumn, the reward will be more hard work.


Tagged: EchoStar 105 Falcon 9 Falcon Heavy Iridium-3 KoreaSat 5A Lead Stories SES-11

Bart Leahy

Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy’s diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.

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SpaceX launches Pentagon’s secretive autonomous space drone

WASHINGTON – In the Pentagon’s vast arsenal there is little quite like it: a super-secret space drone that looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle, but orbits the Earth for months, even years, at a time. Doing what? The Air Force won’t say.

On the tarmac, the X-37B, as it is called, looks tiny, standing not much taller than a person. Its wingspan measures less than 15 feet, and it weighs in at just 11,000 pounds. But over the course of six flights, it has proved to be a rugged little robotic spacecraft, spending a total of nearly six years, probing the hard environment of the high frontier.

On Sept. 7, after a successful morning launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the X-37B headed yet again to the vital real estate known as low Earth orbit, home to the International Space Station and all sorts of military and commercial satellites. The mission is slated to last 270 days, but the Air Force warned in a statement that “the actual duration depends on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility.”

In other words, there’s no telling how long the thing will be up there.

There’s also no telling what the spaceplane will be doing.

On a fact sheet, the Air Force says that, “the primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.”

On this flight, the Air Force will say only that the mission is to carry small satellites, “demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies.” The service also said it would test experimental electronics in a weightless environment.

But at a time when space is becoming a contested environment, having an orbiting spaceplane with the potential to keep a lookout on weather or the enemy or satellites, all while testing new technologies, could be highly beneficial.

The mission is also significant because it marked the first time SpaceX has been chosen to launch for the Air Force – a coup for the California firm started in 2002 by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

The launch took place as the Pentagon sounds the alarm about the importance of defending the ultimate high ground should war break out in space. More recently, the House has even pushed for the creation of a separate “Space Corps” within the Air Force designed to focus exclusively on the beyond.

The provision, included in the House’s version of the defense spending bill, comes amid concerns that Russia and China are quickly eroding the advantage that the United States has held in orbit for years.

“Space has become so critical to the way we fight and win wars, it can no longer be subordinate,” U.S. Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said at an event this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Space Corps would focus on “space domination,” he said, with a dedicated leadership and resources that would allow it to move more nimbly than the Pentagon bureaucracy.

“The Air Force is about as fast a herd of turtles as far as space is concerned,” he said. “What Russia and China are doing is startling.”

The X-37B was launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX also successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a landing pad on the Cape – a bit of rocket artistry that Musk and others have said could help dramatically lower the cost of space travel. By now the feat is becoming routine for the company, which plans to reuse its boosters instead of throwing them away after each launch, as had been the traditional practice.

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SpaceX Swipes Boeing’s Military Space Shuttle Business | Business Markets and Stocks News

The scoreboard this month reads Boeing (NYSE: BA) — 5: SpaceX — 1.* So why is SpaceX grinning, and Boeing is groaning?

On Sept. 7, Boeing’s X-37B military “drone” space shuttle lifted off from Cape Canaveral on its fifth mission for the U.S. Air Force. (What mission would that be, you ask? Top Secret). But for the first time ever, Boeing — which built the X-37B — didn’t have a hand in actually launching the spacecraft it built.

This could be the beginning of a bad trend for Boeing.

Meet the X-37 robotic space shuttle. Boeing built it — and Boeing just lost a chance to launch it. Image source: NASA.

Winning before beginning (to compete)

You see, in all previous launches, X-37B had lifted off aboard Atlas 5 launchers operated by Boeing and its partner in United Launch Systems, Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT). For this month’s launch, however, the U.S. Air Force awarded the X-37B launch contract to SpaceX.

Now, that news in and of itself isn’t a total shock. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance have been butting heads for several months now — ever since the Air Force certified SpaceX to launch payloads for it, in fact. In one notable clash, in May 2016, SpaceX bid against the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture for the right to launch a GPS satellite for the Air Force. SpaceX bid $82.7 million, or “40% less” than the best price the Air Force had hoped to extract from ULA — and won the contract. Chances are, if both SpaceX and ULA had entered similar bids to launch X-37B, the result would have been the same.

What was really curious about this contract, though, is that ULA apparently wasn’t offered a chance to compete at all. In a published statement, United Launch Alliance asserted that “ULA did not have the opportunity to bid for the Air Force’s fifth X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mission.” 

Now, when asked by Reuters, the Air Force declined to confirm Boeing’s story that the Air Force awarded the contract to SpaceX without soliciting other bids. But assuming the story is true, that would mean that SpaceX did not really “beat” ULA in winning this contract. Given that ULA and SpaceX are the only two space launch companies certified to launch national security missions, and given that ULA was not allowed to bid, the X-37B contract would have gone to SpaceX by default.

What it means for Boeing (and Lockheed Martin)

The big question is “why?” According to the Air Force, the main reason it has certified both SpaceX and ULA to launch USAF payloads is to ensure the service has “flexible and responsive launch options” to choose from when launching its satellites. (A secondary objective, almost certainly, is to lower its launch costs by forcing SpaceX and ULA to compete on price). But if that’s what the Air Force wants to accomplish, then why would it not invite ULA to bid for the X-37B contract?

Was it because the Air Force already knows that ULA cannot compete with SpaceX on price? Or does the answer perhaps lie in ULA’s creative use of the phrase “did not have the opportunity?” Parsed one way, what ULA might really have been saying was that it didn’t have the opportunity — i.e. ability — to match SpaceX’s prices, and so decided not to bid at all.

Either way, as more than one dozen Air Force space launch contracts, come up for bid between now and 2019, the outlook doesn’t look good for Boeing and Lockheed. Whether the Air Force is rejecting the possibility of ULA being able to compete with SpaceX out of hand, or whether ULA is recusing itself, either way, it looks like a lot of money could slip through ULA’s fingers — and into SpaceX’s pocket instead.

*By the way, following its successful launch of X-37B this month, SpaceX successfully relanded its Falcon 9 launcher back at Cape Canaveral — its 16th such successful landing of a used rocket. So the scorecard for landing reusable rockets now stands at SpaceX — 16: Boeing and Lockheed Martin — 0.

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