- SpaceX on June 3 launched its eighth batch of internet-beaming Starlink satellites into orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
- On Tuesday, the rocket company released a new video showing the rocket deploying its clamshell-like fairing, or nose cone, while travelling at about 8,150 mph.
- The video shows two fairing halves flying apart and the rocket’s upper or second stage propelling a stack of 60 Starlink spacecraft toward orbit.
- SpaceX is learning to use boats to recover and later reuse its carbon-fibre fairing halves, each of which costs about $US3 million to build. It’s also working on a potentially revolutionary new rocket system called Starship.
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SpaceX on June 3 launched a batch of 60 internet-beaming Starlink satellites into orbit, helping the rocket company work toward establishing a space-based internet service possibly by the year’s end.
Some 480 of the desk-size satellites have been launched, though SpaceX needs about 800 to start serving customers, according to Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s chief operating officer and president. The high-stakes project may one day be worth up to $US50 billion annually, founder Elon Musk has said.
The latest Starlink mission shot to space aboard a 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket. It was the company’s eighth such Starlink launch, so it was by most appearances similar to the others.
However, this time SpaceX released a video taken from inside the Falcon 9’s payload bay during launch. A camera attached to one of two clamshell-like halves of its fairing, or nose cone, recorded the clip as the parts separated in space.
“Starlink fairing deploy sequence,” SpaceX tweeted on Tuesday evening.
The video lasts all of 10 seconds, but the footage is nonetheless stunning; such views, typically kept secret by other companies, offer a rare look into the workings of a rocket launch.
What SpaceX’s new fairing-deployment video shows
The video starts by showing the illuminated interior of Falcon 9’s uppermost payload section.
In the space between the two fairings sits a stack of five dozen Starlink satellites. Along with their deployment mechanisms, the payload weighs about 18 tons, roughly the mass of a school bus.
In an instant, the fairings fly apart to reveal the darkness of space some 60 miles above Earth while the rocket travels at nearly 11 times the speed of sound.
The Starlink stack then goes out of view as the rocket’s second or upper stage propels the payload toward orbit. (The lower or first-stage booster dropped off earlier in the launch, later landing on a boat for recovery and reuse.)
As the two fairing halves fall back to Earth, they drop through the rocket’s exhaust plume. A few sparks fly from the heat of the second stage’s engine, and the video ends.
In addition, during a live broadcast of the Starlink launch, SpaceX showed another unprecedented view: the latch-like mechanism by which a stack of Starlink spacecraft is deployed from its rocket ride.
Not the first fairing-deployment video
The new fairing video is the second one released by SpaceX.
The first, posted on Twitter by SpaceX on July 3, 2019, shows the payload section of a much more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket as it launched the Space Test Program-2 mission led by the US Department of Defence. The flight was essentially a rideshare of numerous military test satellites (though 152 capsules of human cremains also made it board).
The video is longer, showing nearly a full minute of footage as the fairings separate and careen back to Earth. Sparks fly and gases glow from the friction caused by the fairing ploughing through the atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour.
“View from the fairing during the STP-2 mission; when the fairing returns to Earth, friction heats up particles in the atmosphere, which appear bright blue in the video,” SpaceX tweeted about the clip with its release.
At the end, a parafoil deploys from the carbon-fibre fairing – each of which costs about $US3 million, according to Musk – so SpaceX could try to recover it to reuse on a future space mission. The parafoil helps the fairing glide down to the ocean, where a high-speed SpaceX boat with a giant net can attempt to capture it.
So far, the company has caught three fairing halves with a netted boat, according to SpaceXFleet.com, though it has recovered many more that landed and floated on the ocean.
SpaceX spent years perfecting its fairings, as evidenced by a video recorded in May 2013.
That clip shows the company testing its design in a giant vacuum chamber at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Cleveland, Ohio. SpaceX engineers recorded the experiment at a very high frame rate to see how the fairing’s deployment performed in great detail, so the playback is in slow-motion.
On September 29, 2013, a few months after this test, SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 rocket payload to orbit.
Though SpaceX has invested greatly in Falcon 9 – to the point that it can reuse about 80% of its parts and recover tens of millions of dollars’ worth of hardware – it’s not enough for Musk, the company’s CEO and chief designer.
Musk wants to reduce the cost of access to space more than thousandfold in hopes of returning to the moon and sending 1 million people to Mars to inhabit the red planet.
To that end, SpaceX is designing a fully reusable, roughly 39-story launch system called Starship. Over the weekend, just a week after SpaceX rocketed its first humans to space, Musk reportedly told the company’s thousands of employees to consider work on Starship “the top SpaceX priority” going forward.
The vehicle is being built and tested in Boca Chica, a remote area at the southern tip of Texas. A fourth full-scale spaceship prototype exploded during a test firing on May 29, but Musk has said he expects perhaps 20 such experimental vehicles before one flies to orbit and attempts to land back on Earth.
Do you have a story or inside information to share about the spaceflight industry? Send Dave Mosher an email at [email protected] or a Twitter direct message at @davemosher. More secure communication options are listed here.
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