Richard Branson Launches Vox Space to Compete with Elon Musk

In Brief

Virgin Orbit has established a new subsidiary known as Vox Space. The company is set to go head to head with the likes of SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance for commercial satellite launch contracts.

Branson’s Big Bet

Earlier this year, Richard Branson’s empire got a little bit bigger with the establishment of Virgin Orbit, a business dedicated to launching satellites commercially. Now, that company has spawned a firm known as Vox Space that is set to compete for US military contracts.

Virgin Orbit already uses a modified Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl to launch small satellites. The company is also testing a rocket known as LauncherOne that will provide a different method of sending satellites into orbit.

However, Vox Space is being set up as a separate entity in the hopes of conforming to the strict security requirements associated with work carried out for the US government.

Currently, there are only two outfits whose rockets are approved by officials for the purposes of military contracts. They are Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is a collaborative venture operated by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

It may not be easy for Vox Space to gain a foothold in the commercial space industry. It’s clear that the government has a good relationship with SpaceX; the US Air Force has invested millions in the company’s Raptor engine, for instance. Meanwhile, ULA receives over a billion dollars in funding from the Department of Defense.

Given this level of competition, Vox Space will have to offer up a compelling alternative to SpaceX and ULA in order to keep up. The company’s atypical methodology might do just that.

Into Orbit

Vox Space won’t be developing new technology to carry out its launches, instead opting to use LauncherOne.

Unlike the techniques used by SpaceX and ULA, LauncherOne doesn’t carry out typical vertical launches from a stationary pad. Instead, rockets are attached to conventional planes, and launch while the vessel is in flight.

There is one major drawback to Vox Space’s method: it’s only capable of carrying a payload that weighs up to 400 pounds. For comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can transport up to 50,000 pounds of hardware to a low-Earth orbit, and up to 18,300 pounds to a more distant orbit.

It may well be that the company is planning to specialize on launching smaller satellites. If it can perform this service at a lower cost thanks to its methods, it may well be able to take a slice of SpaceX and ULA’s business.

SpaceX’s massive Falcon Heavy rocket aims for December 29 inaugural launch

Based on information released by NASASpaceflight.com, a highly reliable source of insider details, SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy rocket could roll out to the LC-39A launch pad before the end of November, less than a month away. While the first roll-out (or two) will be dedicated solely to “Wet Dress Rehearsals” (WDR), this will be the first time the iconic vehicle makes it to the pad, and will be a historic event regardless of what follows.

No earlier than (NET) “late-November”, the first WDR will see Falcon Heavy go through the usual motions of propellant loading while also conducting an array of systems checks and validations to verify that things are proceeding as expected. This first test will not culminate in any sort of hot-fire, and is more intended to verify that the massive rocket is playing well with the modifications made to the launch pad and the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) that carries it from the integration facilities to the pad. If major issues come up, they will be dealt with and followed by a second identical WDR. If there are no issues with the first WDR, the second rehearsal could smoothly morph into the first static fire of the integrated vehicle.

As Chris Gebhardt of NSF discusses in some detail, the first Falcon Heavy static fire(s) conducted at LC-39A will be of groundbreaking importance, as SpaceX is currently unable to test fully-integrated Falcon Heavy vehicles at its McGregor, Texas facilities due to the rocket’s sheer power. A lot, thus, rests on these first static fires, currently scheduled to begin around December 15th.

Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 could one day enable circumlunar space tourism. (SpaceX)

Given the distinctly experimental nature of Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch, specific dates are best taken as general placemarkers, and the actual dates of the first flow depend entirely upon the tests that precede each subsequent step. Nevertheless, the dates provided by NASASpaceflight point to Falcon Heavy’s first static fire on December 15th, followed two weeks later by a tentative launch date of December 29th.

Staying focused on Mars: Is Falcon Heavy necessary?

Even an uncertain launch date of that specificity is still a historic event for Falcon Heavy, long lampooned and straw-manned as an example of SpaceX’s silly pie-in-the-sky claims and Elon Musk’s oversimplification of complex engineering tasks. There is a grain of truth to such contentions, but they tend to miss the point by huge margins. The actual market for mid-level heavy-lift launch vehicles like Falcon Heavy is quite simply too small to be a major motivator for a commercial launch company like SpaceX. One must remember that SpaceX was not founded to be a run-of-the-mill launch provider. The company’s goal, as has been reiterated ad infinitum, is “enabling human life on Mars”, something that has explicitly prefaced every single job posting on the company’s website for more than half a decade.

For a time, it appeared that Falcon Heavy might eventually be used to enable SpaceX’s Red Dragon program, intended to field-test the technologies needed for month-long cruises in deep space and landing large payloads on Mars. However, the program was cancelled earlier this year, in favor of what Musk called “vastly bigger ships”. Indeed, updated Mars plans unveiled on September 29th showed that SpaceX was forging ahead with an updated BFR and BFS, and hopes to fly its first missions to Mars in 2022.

SpaceX’s massive BFR, intended to create and support a human colony on Mars, is visualized taking to the sky. Experience from operating Falcon Heavy will likely benefit BFR once it eventually begins hot-fire testing. (SpaceX)

Falcon Heavy will admittedly become the most powerful operational launch vehicle when it first lifts off in approximately two months, and it will likely retain that title well into 2020, when NASA’s Space Launch System may conduct its first launch. However, regardless of the impressive technological accomplishments it will embody, Falcon Heavy simply is not powerful or affordable enough to ever realistically enable a sustained human presence on Mars. SpaceX does have a small number of customers actively waiting with payloads for Falcon Heavy – its second mission is currently penciled in for June 2018 – and it is reasonable to assume that some or all of those missions will be completed simply out of due diligence. SpaceX may also be motivated to continue the Falcon Heavy program as a possible entrant in a recently-announced USAF competition meant to partially fund the development of multiple US-built heavy-lift launch vehicles.

More simply still, experience derived from igniting and simultaneously operating Falcon Heavy’s 27 Merlin 1D rocket engines will to some extent benefit BFR’s development and operations, as the conceptual vehicle is currently expected to host 31 Raptor engines on its first stage.

Whether Falcon Heavy is to remain a development or production priority for SpaceX after its first several launches is unclear, but the vehicle’s inaugural launch and all subsequent launches are bound to be spectacles to behold. The company’s second Florida-based launch pad, intended to support two simultaneous landings of Falcon Heavy’s side boosters, appears to be nearly complete. At LC-39A, the facility’s TEL already sports major visible modifications necessary for it to operate with Falcon Heavy. All three of the first Heavy’s first stage cores have already completed hot-fire testings in Texas and are now located at Cape Canaveral, awaiting their first integrated tests later this month. Delays to the December 29th launch date are probable, but the various components needed for Falcon Heavy’s first launch have truly come together, and the vehicle’s launch is now simply a matter of “when”. Place your bets!

SpaceX’s massive Falcon Heavy rocket aims for December 29 inaugural launch


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Mysterious debris washed ashore in Outer Banks could be part of historic SpaceX rocket | Local News

HATTERAS VILLAGE, N.C.

Debris found washed ashore last month was what it looked like: part of a SpaceX rocket that possibly made history.

Outer Banks photographer Erin Everlee and neighbors found the piece, about 15 feet long, lying on the beach and reported it to the National Park Service.

It appeared to be a fairing or protective nose cone that’s jettisoned after a rocket leaves the atmosphere.

Officials with Cape Hatteras National Seashore contacted the Air Force and NASA to find out who it belonged to. SpaceX officials saw reports of the debris on Facebook and confirmed the fairing belonged to them, said Boone Vandzura, chief ranger for the seashore.

SpaceX did not say which craft the debris came from and referred queries to the park service.

The company gave Vandzura the choice of disposing it or waiting for them to get rid of it.

He was concerned about possibly destroying proprietary equipment, but was assured it was not something that needed to be kept secret from competitors.

“We’re trying to be neighborly,” Vandzura said. “We wanted to be sure there was nothing of value left on it.”

One piece of a rocket that came ashore in South Carolina ended up in a museum, according to a news report.

Everlee said she believes the Hatteras Village piece came from the March launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Storms off the coast this year created heavy surf on the Outer Banks that left behind unusual items, including a bagged body believed to be from a burial at sea.

The California-based private space exploration company has the goal of enabling people to live on other planets, according to its website.

SpaceX rockets carry supplies to the International Space Station and have launch stations in Florida, Texas and California. Next year, the company is set to carry a crew to the space station.

The Falcon 9 was the first orbital rocket to return and launch a second time, a milestone for SpaceX, according to a news release from the company.

“It means you can fly and refly an orbital class booster, which is the most expensive part of the rocket,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said. “This is going to be, ultimately, a huge revolution in spaceflight.”

SpaceX Testifies: First Prototype Satellite Coming This Year

A Falcon 9 rocket launches the SES 10 satellite on March 30, 2017. Photo: SpaceX.

A Falcon 9 rocket launches the SES 10 satellite on March 30, 2017. Photo: SpaceX.

SpaceX is on track to begin launching its broadband constellation as early as 2019, and aims to have the full system on orbit by 2024. In an Oct. 25 testimony delivered to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, SpaceX Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs Patricia Cooper reaffirmed the company’s plans to launch the first prototype of its Low Earth Orbit (LEO) broadband constellation before the end of the year and an additional prototype in the early months of 2018.

Cooper also stated that SpaceX expects to begin offering commercial services with as few as 800 satellites on orbit. When fully deployed, the constellation — dubbed “Starlink,” as a recent trademark filing revealed — will comprise 4,425 Ku- and Ka-band satellites operating in 83 planes. In her testimony, Cooper referred to an additional constellation of 7,500 V-band satellites that will fly even closer to Earth than the Starlink system, in Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO).

“In the future, these satellites will provide additional broadband capacity to the SpaceX system and further reduce latency where populations are heavily concentrated,” Cooper said. “By combining the umbrella coverage of the LEO Constellation with the more intensive coverage from the VLEO Constellation, the SpaceX system will be able to provide high volume broadband capacity over a wide area.”

SpaceX did not provide dates on when it plans to begin launching the secondary constellation.

Cooper emphasized that Starlink will primarily deliver broadband directly to end-users, “particularly individual houses and small businesses,” which will be able to connect to the constellation via user terminals sold by SpaceX. Cooper described the flat-panel terminals as “roughly the size of a laptop,” and noted they will use phased-array antenna beams to track the satellites as they cross the LEO arc. Once deployed, the constellation will be able to provide broadband service at speeds comparable to fiber.

(Cooper’s testimony begins at 13:50.)

According to an application submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year, SpaceX has already begun testing its Starlink communications links at its corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and will continue tests through to April 2018.

With Starlink, SpaceX hopes to address the “digital divide” that persists across the United States (and globally). Currently, more than 34 million Americans lack access to 25 mpbs broadband service. This disparity is even more salient in rural areas: according to the FCC, almost 40 percent of Americans living in rural areas lack access to “advanced telecommunications capability,” compared to 4 percent of Americans near larger cities. Americans have also long lamented the increasingly monopolistic state of the terrestrial broadband industry, as more than 62 percent of citizens have just one broadband provider available in their region.

During her testimony, Cooper urged the FCC to include satellite systems in the second phase of its Connect America Fund, which will support almost $2 billion in funding to expand broadband infrastructure across the U.S. As it stands, no satellite systems are allowed to participate because they currently do not meet the FCC’s criteria for high speed and — more notably — low latency. SpaceX, however, as well as other companies such as OneWeb, are hoping to change this paradigm with the more advanced capabilities of their Non-Geostationary Earth Orbit (NGSO) constellations.

“This creates a false presumption that all satellite technologies are now and forever unsuitable for consumer broadband,” Cooper argued. “Conflating NGSO systems and traditional geostationary systems would be the same as the FCC prohibiting fiber systems from bidding because dial-up is not fast enough: just because both systems are hard wired does not mean that they are equivalent.”

Cooper also highlighted SpaceX’s belief that systems with more efficient spectrum use should be “rewarded.” According to her testimony, operators investing in more advanced technologies should not be forced to carry an asymmetrical burden when it comes to spectrum sharing. “The Committee should ensure that their rules do not unduly burden more flexible, adaptable systems with the responsibility of spectrum sharing with other less sophisticated systems,” she said.

One of SpaceX’s advantages over some of its competitors in the satellite broadband market is its vertically oriented business model. Currently, the company manufactures more than 70 percent of the value of its Falcon 9 rocket in-house, including the first and second stage propulsion systems, fuel tanks, payload fairings and avionics. Similarly, SpaceX intends to manufacture the majority of each spacecraft without outside investment, Cooper said. This, combined with SpaceX’s low-cost launch capabilities, will allow the company to overcome the “challenges that have stymied past generations that have considered LEO communications constellations,” Cooper said.

SpaceX: Progress ongoing at Boca Chica site, second antenna added

SpaceX has finished installing a second ground station antenna at its future Boca Chica spaceport for the purpose of tracking Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station beginning in 2018.

Crew Dragon is the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s seven-seat spacecraft designed to carry humans to the ISS and other destinations. A SpaceX spokesman said the antennas will also be used to track flights from Boca Chica once they’re underway.

The company acquired the 86-ton antennas from NASA’s KennedySpaceCenter at Cape Canaveral and transported them to Boca Chica via semitrailer. The first antenna was installed this summer.

The Boca Chica site broke ground in September 2014. Later, 310,000 cubic yards of soil were trucked in over a period of months to stabilize the area. No concrete has been poured other than the antenna bases and no structures have been erected, though the STARGATE Technology Park, a public-private partnership between the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and SpaceX, is under construction across State Hwy. 4. No date has been set for the first launch from Boca Chica.

The company said it has completed 16 launches so far in 2017, including Monday’s launch of a Korean commercial communications satellite from KennedySpaceCenter.

“While SpaceX’s launch cadence has never been higher, and even as our teams have worked to modernize and improve our other launch complexes, we have continued to make progress on building the first-ever orbital commercial spaceport in South Texas,” said the spokesman.

Meanwhile, the company is at work developing its Interplanetary Transportation System, nicknamed “BFR,” which SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk plans to use to transport humans to Mars for the purposes of colonization. BFR, which stands for “Big F— Rocket,” would feature 31 main engines propelling a spacecraft capable of carrying about 100 people.

Musk gave an update of his Mars plans at a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress on Sept. 29 in Australia, during which he said the company plans to launch its first non-crewed flights to Mars by 2022. If all goes well, the first crewed flights to Mars would take place in 2024, he said.

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

A more complete version of this story is on www.myBrownsvilleHerald.com