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SpaceX launches one of its most complex missions yet – Spaceflight Now

EDITOR’S NOTE: Liftoff for the Falcon 9 rocket took place at 9:20 p.m. EDT Saturday (01:20 GMT Sunday). It will take more than two hours to deploy all the mission payloads. Check back for a full recap once the mission is complete.

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 broadband cellular network. follow us on Twitter.

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

The rocket’s upper stage will fire its engines five times on Saturday evening – four burns to deploy AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite and the 34 Starlink payloads into two separate orbits, then a final maneuver to bring the upper stage back into the orbit. Earth’s atmosphere for a destructive return entry.

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

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

The booster landed on a drone in the Atlantic Ocean after the crew launch in 2020. It has flown 12 times since then, carrying a South Korean military satellite into space and launching a resupply mission to the Station space, two Transporter small satellite rideshare missions, and eight Starlink missions.

The launch from pad 39A on Saturday evening is the first of two Falcon 9s that SpaceX is preparing to lift off in quick succession. Another Falcon 9 rocket is being held at Space Launch Complex 40 at Space Force Station Cape Canaveral, a few miles south of Kennedy, to orbit 54 Starlink satellites as early as Sunday evening.

SpaceX sent two of its rocket landing pads from Port Canaveral into the Atlantic Ocean. Boosters flying Saturday and Sunday will target landings on each of the drones positioned a few hundred miles northeast of Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX taxied the Falcon 9 to pad 39A on Friday amid ongoing construction work to prepare the beachfront launch complex as a future home base for SpaceX’s massive Super Heavy reusable booster and Starship rocket. Ground crews lifted the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 vertically early Saturday on pad 39A, less than 12 hours before lifting another Falcon 9 vertically 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 are 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 deploy an antenna array in low Earth orbit covering an area of ​​693 square feet (about 64 square meters), larger than a typical studio. AST SpaceMobile aims to deploy additional spacecraft in 2023 to begin 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 allow us to test the connection of the phone in your pocket, without any modification to the phone, directly with one of our satellites in space,” said Abel Avellan, President and CEO. CEO of AST SpaceMobile, in a press release. “This groundbreaking technology supports our mission to eliminate the connectivity gaps experienced by the more than 5 billion mobile subscribers today in and out of coverage, and to bring cellular broadband to approximately half of the world’s population. who remains unconnected. We want to bridge the gap between the digital “haves” and “have-nots”. »

BlueWalker 3 taxis in a high position inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing. The Falcon 9 upper stage will perform two engine burns before deploying the approximately 3,300-pound (1.5 metric ton) BlueWalker 3 satellite ) at an altitude of about 318 miles (513 kilometers). Separation from BlueWalker 3 is expected approximately 50 minutes after liftoff.

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

“BlueWalker 3 is going to be the largest communications network ever deployed commercially in low Earth orbit,” said Scott Wisniewski, Chief Strategy Officer of AST SpaceMobile. “It’s 693 square feet, and it’s designed to test our direct-to-cellphone cellular broadband architecture.

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

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

Sometime during the first two months after launch, assuming BlueWalker 3 is working well, ground controllers will send the command to the spacecraft to deploy its antenna array. The antenna consists of 148 individual sections, each with its own antenna elements, linked together by mechanical hinges, according to Wisniewski.

“The unwinding process itself is quite simple,” Wisniewski said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “Basically, we’ve compressed the satellite into a cube and it opens up in two dimensions using the energy stored in the hinges that put it together. And what opens up is an array of antenna elements pointing to the Earth and solar elements pointing to the sun.

“The key to all deployments is to keep it as simple as possible and to keep it as dumb as possible,” Wisniewski said. “What the James Webb Telescope did was incredible. But that level of complexity, we believe, creates potential errors. And if you can avoid it, you do. We’ve had, over the years, many designs more complex and in the future there are many interesting ways to do this, but in the end simple mechanical hinges were the best way to reduce risk.

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

AST SpaceMobile is backed by venture capital funds and investments from Vodafone, cell tower operator American Tower and Japanese mobile telecommunications company Rakuten. The company has entered into agreements with Samsung, Nokia and mobile network operators such as Vodafone, AT&T and Orange to test the compatibility of the space cellular network with existing cell phones.

BlueWalker 3 will demonstrate AST SpaceMobile technology with more than 10 mobile network operators on six continents. “Our goal is to calibrate their networks so that we can connect with them,” Wisniewski said.

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.

“It’s all part of our plan to build 168 satellites around the world,” Wisniewski said.

ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1058.14)

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

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

RELEASE DATE: September 10, 2022

LAUNCH TIME: 21:10:10 EDT (0110:10 GMT)

WEATHER FORECAST: 60% chance of acceptable weather conditions; Low risk of high winds; Low risk of adverse conditions for booster recovery

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

LAUNCH AZIMUTH: Northeast

TARGET ORBIT: Approximately 318 miles (513 kilometers) for BlueWalker 3; 201 miles by 207 miles (324 kilometers by 334 kilometers); 53.2 degree tilt

LAUNCH TIMETABLE:

  • T+00:00: Takeoff
  • T+01:12: Maximum air pressure (Max-Q)
  • T+02:32: First stage main engine shutdown (MECO)
  • T+02:35: Floor separation
  • T+02:42: Second stage engine ignition (SES 1)
  • T+03:16: Fairing jettison
  • T+06:17: First stage inlet combustion ignition (three engines)
  • T+06:37: First floor entrance burnout shut down
  • T+08:09: First stage landing burn ignition (one engine)
  • T+08:28: Second stage motor shutdown (SECO 1)
  • T+08:31: First stage landing
  • T+47:16: Second stage engine ignition (SES 2)
  • T+47:20: Second stage motor shutdown (SECO 2)
  • T+49:51: BlueWalker 3 Separation
  • T+1:07:36: Second stage engine ignition (SES 3)
  • T+1:07:38: Second stage motor shutdown (SECO 3)
  • T+1:53:56: Second stage engine ignition (SES 4)
  • T+1:54:05: Second stage motor shutdown (SECO 4)
  • T+2:03:49: Separation of Starlink satellites

MISSION STATS:

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

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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