October 3, 2022

SpaceX launches fleet-leading booster on 14th flight

Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Starlink 4-2 mission will launch SpaceX’s next batch of 34 Starlink internet satellites and a rideshare payload for AST SpaceMobile’s space-based cellular broadband network. Follow us on Twitter.

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A reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 booster completed its record-breaking 14th flight to space after blastoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 9:20 p.m. EDT Saturday (0120 GMT Sunday). The mission was billed as one of SpaceX’s complex launches to date, deploying 34 Starlink internet spacecraft and a testbed satellite for AST SpaceMobile’s space-based cellular broadband network into two different orbits.

The rocket’s upper stage fired its engines five times Saturday night — four burns to deploy AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite and the 34 Starlink payloads into two distinct orbits, then a final maneuver to drive the upper stage back into Earth’s atmosphere for a destructive re-entry.

The five engine firings by the Falcon 9’s upper stage were the most ever performed on a SpaceX mission, besting the previous record by one. And the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket flying Saturday night became SpaceX’s fleet leader.

The first stage, designated B1058, is a historic part of SpaceX’s rocket family. It debuted May 30, 2020, with the launch of SpaceX’s first astronaut mission on a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The booster landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean after the crew launch in 2020. It’s now flown 13 times since then, hauling a South Korean military satellite into space and launching a resupply mission to the International Space Station, two Transporter small satellite rideshare missions, and nine Starlink missions.

The launch from pad 39A Saturday night was the first of two Falcon 9s SpaceX is preparing for liftoff in quick succession. Another Falcon 9 rocket was standing on Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, a few miles to the south of Kennedy, to haul 54 Starlink satellites into orbit in the next few days.

SpaceX has dispatched two of its rocket landing platforms from Port Canaveral into the Atlantic Ocean, one for Saturday night’s launch and the other for the following Starlink mission from pad 40.

SpaceX rolled the Falcon 9 to pad 39A on Friday amid ongoing construction work to ready the seaside launch complex as a future base for SpaceX’s huge reusable Super Heavy booster and Starship rocket. Ground crews raised the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 vertical early Saturday on pad 39A, less than 12 hours before lifting the other Falcon 9 upright on pad 40.

AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite mounted on its Falcon 9 launch vehicle adapter inside a SpaceX payload processing facility at Cape Canaveral. Credit: AST SpaceMobile

The 34 Starlink satellites for Saturday night’s mission were joined by BlueWalker 3, a prototype for a planned fleet of spacecraft built and owned by Texas-based AST SpaceMobile. AST SpaceMobile’s test satellite will unfurl an antenna array in low Earth orbit covering an area of 693 square feet (about 64 square meters), larger than a typical studio apartment. AST SpaceMobile aims to launch additional spacecraft in 2023 to start building an operational network designed to link consumer cell phones via satellites.

“The launch of BlueWalker 3 is the culmination of years of effort by our engineers to let us test connecting the phone in your pocket, with no modifications to the phone, directly with one of our satellites in space,” said Abel Avellan, chairman and CEO of AST SpaceMobile, in a statement. “This revolutionary technology supports our mission to eliminate the connectivity gaps faced by more than 5 billion mobile subscribers today moving in and out of coverage, and bring cellular broadband to approximately half of the world’s population who remain unconnected. We want to close the gap between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.”

BlueWalker 3 rode into orbit in the upper position inside the Falcon 9’s payload shroud. The Falcon 9’s upper stage performed two engine burns before deploying the roughly 3,300-pound (1.5-metric ton) BlueWalker 3 satellite at an altitude of around 318 miles (513 kilometers). Separation of BlueWalker 3 occurred about 50 minutes after liftoff.

Two more engine burns by the Falcon 9 upper stage maneuvered the rocket into a slightly lower orbit for deployment of 34 Starlink satellites at around T+plus 2 hours and 4 minutes. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, said the launch Saturday night would be “one of our most complex missions.”

SpaceX confirmed separation of the Starlink satellites, and the Falcon 9’s upper stage completed its deorbit burn — the fifth firing on Saturday night’s mission — a few minutes later.

AST SpaceMobile confirmed late Saturday that its ground controllers established contact with the BlueWalker 3 satellite.

“BlueWalker 3 is going to be the largest commercially deployed communications array in low Earth orbit ever,” said Scott Wisniewski, AST SpaceMobile’s chief strategy officer. “It’s 693 square feet, and it’s designed to test our direct to cell phone cellular broadband architecture.

“We are a company founded on the desire to build cellular broadband direct from space,” Wisniewski said. “We’ve been at it since 2017. And this satellite is designed to connect directly with cell phones, regular cell phones, unmodified cell phones on the ground and we’ll be doing testing on that in the coming months.”

The BlueWalker 3’s antenna array during a ground deployment test. Credit: AST SpaceMobile

Some time in the first two months after launch, assuming BlueWalker 3 is working well, ground controllers will send the command for the spacecraft to unfurl its antenna array. The antenna consists of 148 individual sections, each with its own antenna elements, connected together with mechanical hinges, according to Wisniewski.

“The unfolding process itself is pretty straightforward,” Wisniewski said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “Basically, we’ve compressed the satellite into a cube and it opens up into two dimensions using stored energy in hinges that have packed it together. And what opens up is an array of antenna elements pointing down toward the Earth, and solar elements pointing up at the sun.

“The key with all deployments is to keep it as simple as possible and keep it as dumb as possible,” Wisniewski said. “What the James Webb Telescope did was amazing. But that level of complexity, we believe, breeds potential errors. And if you can avoid it, you do. We’ve had, over the years, many more complex designs and in the future, there’s a lot of cool ways to do this. But ultimately, just simple mechanical hinges was the best way to de-risk it.

“For us, the unfolding … is going to be a critical milestone,” Wisniewski said. “And then after that, we’ll be doing calibration, and then start to make phone calls.”

AST SpaceMobile is backed by venture capital funds and investments from Vodafone, the cell tower operator American Tower, and the Japanese mobile telecom company Rakuten. The company has agreements with Samsung, Nokia and mobile network operators like Vodafone, AT&T, and Orange to test the space-based cell network’s compatibility with existing cell phones.

“Basically, we’ve taken the top of the cell tower, and that functionality is now on our satellite,” Wisniewski said.

BlueWalker 3 will demonstrate AST SpaceMobile’s 4G and 5G technology with more than 10 mobile network operators across six continents. “Our objective is to calibrate their networks so we can connect with them,” Wisniewski said.

AST SpaceMobile isn’t alone in pursuing technology to provide cell phone connectivity using satellites. SpaceX last month announced an agreement with T-Mobile to provide direct-to-cell phone connectivity using the next generation of Starlink satellites, which are slated to begin launching in late 2023.

The large antennas on AST SpaceMobile’s satellite is required to link up with relatively small and weak antennas on consumer cell phones. The Starlink V2 satellites will also be significantly larger than the current Starlink design.

“Having a larger satellite is important to connect to the phone without difficulty because the phone is pretty weak, both in terms of antenna strength and battery power,” Wisniewski said. “We’re going to be putting up the largest communications array in low Earth orbit that’s ever been done commercially, so that’s very critical, both to connect to a phone without difficulty, and then also to have good bandwidth, good throughput to the phone. So a similar approach, but we’re the only one with broadband, and 4G and 5G.

AST SpaceMobile has invested about $85 million on the BlueWalker 3 mission.

If all goes well, the company plans to launch the first five operational satellites in late 2023, likely on another SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. AST SpaceMobile plans to eventually deploy 168 satellites.

“This is all part of our plan to build 168 satellites globally,” Wisniewski said.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket streaks into the sky over Florida’s Space Coast on Saturday night, while another Falcon 9 in the foreground waits for its opportunity to fly. Credit: SpaceX

With the giant antenna arrays on AST’s satellites, some scientists have raised concerns about potential interference on astronomy.

The Starlink spacecraft turned out to reflect more sunlight than expected, prompting complaints from astronomers and a SpaceX effort to put visors and less reflective coatings on their internet satellites. Other companies are planning similar broadband constellations. OneWeb has launched 428 internet satellites for its constellation of 648 spacecraft, Amazon is planning to launch the first of its planned fleet of 3,236 Kuiper internet satellites in the coming months, and the first testbed for a proposed Boeing constellation of internet satellites launched earlier this month.

But AST SpaceMobile’s satellites are much larger. Astronomers are eager to observe BlueWalker 3 and measure its brightness after the antenna array opens up later this year, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and an expert tracker of space launches and satellite activity.

“There’s a whole other set of constellations that are reaching the pad,” McDowell said in a recent interview. “We’re seeing this starting slow (with) Starlink, but now all these other companies are maturing their constellations. Amazon is finally going to launch its first satellite soon, I believe. We’re going to see more and more of this in the next couple of years. I think it’s going to get to the point where it’s dramatic just for people looking at the night sky, to the naked eye.”

Wisniewski said AST SpaceMobile’s constellation, at 168 satellites, will naturally have lower impact on astronomy than fleets numbering in the thousands of spacecraft.

“The good news is we only plan to put up 168 satellites, so the main supporting factor for us is we have very limited impact due to the number of satellites we’re putting up,” he said. “But ultimately, there are specialized materials and there are ways to mitigate the brightness, and that’s something that we’re actively investigating for our commercial satellites.”

ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1058.14)

PAYLOAD: 34 Starlink satellites (Starlink 4-2) and BlueWalker 3

LAUNCH SITE: LC-39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

LAUNCH DATE: Sept. 10, 2022

LAUNCH TIME: 9:20:00 p.m. EDT (0120:00 GMT)

WEATHER FORECAST: 60% chance of acceptable weather; Low risk of upper level winds; Low risk of unfavorable conditions for booster recovery

BOOSTER RECOVERY: “A Shortfall of Gravitas” drone ship east of Charleston, South Carolina

LAUNCH AZIMUTH: Northeast

TARGET ORBIT: Roughly 318 miles (513 kilometers) for BlueWalker 3; 201 miles by 207 miles (324 kilometers by 334 kilometers); 53.2 degrees inclination

LAUNCH TIMELINE:

  • T+00:00: Liftoff
  • T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
  • T+02:32: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
  • T+02:35: Stage separation
  • T+02:42: Second stage engine ignition (SES 1)
  • T+03:16: Fairing jettison
  • T+06:17: First stage entry burn ignition (three engines)
  • T+06:37: First stage entry burn cutoff
  • T+08:09: First stage landing burn ignition (one engine)
  • T+08:28: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
  • T+08:31: First stage landing
  • T+47:16: Second stage engine ignition (SES 2)
  • T+47:20: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 2)
  • T+49:51: BlueWalker 3 separation
  • T+1:07:36: Second stage engine ignition (SES 3)
  • T+1:07:38: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 3)
  • T+1:53:56: Second stage engine ignition (SES 4)
  • T+1:54:05: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 4)
  • T+2:03:49: Starlink satellite separation

MISSION STATS:

  • 175th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
  • 183rd launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
  • 14th launch of Falcon 9 booster B1058
  • 150th Falcon 9 launch from Florida’s Space Coast
  • 54th SpaceX launch from pad 39A
  • 148th launch overall from pad 39A
  • 117th flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
  • 60th Falcon 9 launch primarily dedicated to the Starlink network
  • 41st Falcon 9 launch of 2022
  • 41st launch by SpaceX in 2022
  • 39th orbital launch attempt based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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