Photos shows NASA’s newly-assembled megarocket, which is taller than the Statue of Liberty and its most powerful launch vehicle built since the 1960s

A picture of the Space Launch System core module placed between the two booster rockets, assembled on Friday June 12.
The core module of the Space Launch System placed between the two booster rockets.

  • NASA assembled its first Space Launch System rocket on Friday.
  • The rocket is the first of NASA’s new generation of heavy launchers.
  • The assembly is an important step in NASA’s plan to put humans back on the moon by 2024.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

NASA has released new photos of its newly-assembled Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, its most powerful launch vehicle built since the 1960s.

The rocket was assembled on Friday at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

The launcher will be the first SLS rocket, a new type of rocket designed to bring astronauts to the moon – and eventually to Mars, the BBC reported.

NASA aims to launch the rocket by November 2021, one of a series of missions aimed to send humans back to the moon for the first time since 1972.

This photo shows the 212-foot core module of the rocket, which was placed in between the smaller booster rockets:

And this timelapse shows the 188,000-pound core stage being lifted after assembly, ready to be added to the boosters:

The first version of the SLS rocket is called Block 1. Once assembled, the rocket would weigh about 8.8 million pounds, and stand 363 feet tall. That’s bigger than the Statue of Liberty, which is 305 feet tall with its pedestal.

The powerful launcher is able to carry almost 60,000 pounds to orbit. That’s enough to carry the Orion space capsule, which will be used to bring astronauts to space in future missions.

Before it is fully assembled, the core module needs to be topped by an adapter, and the space capsule needs to be lowered onto the rocket to top it off.

An infographic showing the stages of construction of the SLS rocket, culminating in the addition of the Orion spacecraft.
The assembly of the core module to the rocket boosters marks the end of the second stage of the rocket’s assembly.

The rocket should carry humans to the moon by 2024

NASA aims to launch the rocket on its first flight as early as October 2021. The rocket’s maiden flight is the first of three missions NASA has planned to bring humans back to the moon.

If the missions succeed, the first man in over 50 years, and the first-ever woman, could return to the Earth’s satellite by 2024.

This first mission will be unmanned because it aims to test the rocket’s ability to bring the capsule to the moon and back, as Insider previously reported.

jessica and koch
NASA astronaut Christina Koch (left) poses with fellow Expedition 61 Flight Engineer Jessica Meir on October 12, 2019.

The core module is flanked by two powerful rocket boosters

The twin boosters on either side of the rocket’s core module – pictured below before the core module was lowered between them – can produce 3.6 million pounds of thrust in just two minutes to lift the rocket into space.

Twin rocket boosters for NASA's Space Launch System rocket
Twin rocket boosters for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, pictured here after assembly.

The core stage itself has powerful engines, producing about 2 million pounds of thrust.

After a failed first attempt, the core modules’ engines were successfully fired for around eight minutes on May 18, clearing the way for the rocket’s assembly.

The engines will provide the power to make the Orion space capsule travel at a speed of 24,500 miles per hour, the speed needed to send it to the moon.

NASA plans to use SLS launchers to go to Mars

SLS rockets are NASA’s modern equivalent to the Saturn V launchers, which were used in the Apollo missions.

Saturn V launchers have not been of as much use in the past 20 years, during which astronauts have been going to the International Space Station, the BBC reported. But the moon is about 1,000 times farther from Earth, so a more powerful launcher is needed.

NASA has big ambitions for the SLS rocket. It is designed to be flexible and adaptable, and could be used to send missions to Mars, Saturn, or Jupiter.

evolution of SLS rockets, as defined by Mars
An infographic shows the next steps for the SLS rocket, with plans to give it capacity to go to Mars.

The next version of the rocket, Block 2, will be designed to carry more than 101,400 pounds of payload.

It will be the “workhorse vehicle” for sending cargo to the Moon, Mars, and other deep-space destinations, according to NASA.

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Winning bid for a seat on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin spacecraft goes for $28 million

jeff bezos inside new shepard crew capsule
Jeff Bezos inside a New Shepard Crew Capsule mockup.

  • The first tourist on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft will pay $28 million for the trip to the edge of space.
  • The company began taking bids last month for a seat on the spacecraft in its first crewed trip set for July 20.
  • The winner of the auction will fly on the spacecraft with Jeff Bezos and his brother for 11 minutes.

The winning bid for a seat on Blue Origin’s first-ever space tourism flight came in at an eye-popping $28 million during a Saturday live auction.

The winner will be joining Blue Origin’s founder Jeff Bezos on the New Shepard spacecraft for an 11-minute trip to the edge of space scheduled to blast off on July 20. The name of the winner shelling out the $28 million will be released in coming weeks, the company said.

Bezos announced on Monday he would be aboard the New Shepard’s first flight with a full human crew that will include his brother, Mark Bezos. The Amazon founder has said he intends to spend more time focusing on Blue Origin after he steps down as Amazon CEO later this year.

Bidding on Saturday opened at $4.8 million and quickly shot up to $28 million. Blue Origin opened the auction for a seat on the inaugural crewed New Shepard flight on May 5 and more than 7,000 people from 159 countries registered, the company said on Saturday. Some of those bidders will be contacted about taking a seat on future space flights, the company said.

The money raised from the auction will go towards Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, which the company says will contribute towards the development of life in space and inspire future generations to pursue careers in science.

In order to qualify for the “Astronaut Experience,” participants must meet a series of requirements set forth by Blue Origin, including the ability to deal with heights, walk on uneven surfaces, and handle up to three times the individual’s weight. The participant will fill out a long series of waivers, as well as complete a special Blue Origin training program.

Bezos and the rest of the crew will float around the cabin of the spacecraft for just three minutes before strapping in again for the descent back to the ground.

Blue Origin, founded in 2000, plans to use this launch system to carry tourists up to the edge of space. New Shepard’s goal is simple: Give paying customers the ride of their lives. Passengers will get a few minutes of stunning views out of the largest windows of any spaceship in the world.

The company has yet to release any ticket prices or specifics related to its plans for full capacity space tourism. But, Virgin Galactic – Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company – has sold tickets for about $250,000 to about 600 passengers. Bezos has said in the past that tickets to ride on Blue Origin’s New Shepard tourism rocket will have competitive prices with the other space-tourism company.

An initial video announcing the space tickets has footage of Bezos visiting the New Shepard capsule after the company’s latest test flight earlier in April.

“Guys, how exciting is this – come on!” Bezos said in the video, labeled “It’s time.”

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Virgin Galactic soars 20% after a successful test flight of its VSS Unity spaceship

virgin galactic spaceshiptwo sst vss unity first spaceflight 50 miles
SpaceShipTwo, or VSS Unity, rockets toward the edge of space on December 13, 2018. Virgin Galactic

  • Virgin Galactic shares rose 20% in pre-market trading following a successful Saturday test flight.
  • Social media chatter took off, with Redditors saying the company’s shares would “go to the moon.”
  • Shares have largely declined this year after reaching an all-time highs in February.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Virgin Galactic shares jumped 20% early on Monday after the company conducted a successful test flight of the VSS unity spaceship over the weekend.

The VSS Unity took off from Spaceport America, New Mexico, with a three-person crew Saturday. Once it reached a speed of Mach 3, the mothership VMS Eve, released it, and the VSS Unity reached space at an altitude of 55.45 miles before returning to the spaceport, the company said in a Saturday press release.

“Today’s flight showcased the inherent elegance and safety of our spaceflight system, while marking a major step forward for both Virgin Galactic and human spaceflight in New Mexico,” Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer Michael Colglazier said in the statement, adding that the company is making “the dream of private space travel a reality.”

Social media chatter around the commercial space-flight company took off following the flight. Virgin Galactic was the top stock in conversation among Reddit retail traders Monday with the flight being the most talked about subject, according to data from Hype Equity, which tracks pages like Wall Street Bets.

Across the Reddit forum, known for its role in the GameStop frenzy earlier this year, retail traders cheered.

“The space bullrun is here baby,” one said, with an added rocketship emoji.

“To the moon,” the common rallying cry among Wall Street Bets users pushing their favorites stocks, was used frequently following Saturday’s flight.

Read more: The SPAC bubble is going to pop – and it’s going to be embarrassing

Prior to the flight, traders had been expressing mixed views. Some questioned whether the test run would actually happen, in light of past delays and failed attempts.

The company’s rocket failed to reach outer space in December, and then in February, it delayed a test flight because of electromagnetic interference.

Following the review of all test data and inspection of the spaceship and mothership, the company said it plans to proceed with the next flight test milestone.

Shares of the Las Cruces, New Mexico-based space tourism company, which went public in October 2019 with a SPAC, have largely declined this year after the failed test flight and after the company’s founder, Richard Branson, and its chairman Chamath Palihapitiya, sold their stakes in the business.

Retail traders on platforms such as Wall Street Bets drove the stock price to all-time highs in January and February, as it became a favorite on the subreddit amid high short-seller interest. Shares reached an all-time high of $52.41 in February, but gave back those gains in the following months, closing at $21.07 on May 21.

In pre-market trading Monday morning, shares traded about 20% higher at around $25.

In the Saturday press release, the company said the flight “gives Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronaut customers a glimpse of what lies ahead.”

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SpaceX’s Starship rocket is set to splash-land into the ocean near Hawaii in its first flight around the Earth, FCC filings show

spacex starship sn15 landing success happy elon musk
Starship SN15 and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • The first orbital test of SpaceX’s Starship is set to launch from Texas and splash down off the coast of Hawaii.
  • The trip around the Earth is scheduled to take around 90 minutes, FCC filings showed.
  • The Starship rocket will launch on the Super Heavy booster, which will carry it into orbit, SpaceX’s filings said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

SpaceX is planning for its first Starship rocket orbital test flight to launch from Texas and splash down off the coast of Hawaii, according to the company’s filing to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday.

Over the past year, SpaceX has launched five prototypes of its Starship rocket into the skies. The first four burst into flames on landing, but the fifth test flight, with Starship serial No. 15, or SN15, proved successful. This allowed SpaceX to move to the next step of Elon Musk’s goal to reach Mars.

The company’s FCC filings said the test flight, comprised of the Starship rocket and a Super Heavy booster, would blast off from SpaceX’s launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas. It did not give a projected launch date. The plan is for the booster to separate from the rocket nearly three minutes into the flight, and return to land roughly 20 miles from shore of the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, the Starship rocket is set to continue into orbit, the filing said. SpaceX plans for it to travel almost all the way around the Earth before plummeting back into the atmosphere, and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean around 62 miles off the northwest coast of Kauai, one of the Hawaiian Islands.

The orbital test flight should last around 90 minutes, the filing said.

Read more: SpaceX may want to launch 42,000 internet satellites – about 5 times more spacecraft than humanity has ever flown

The five prototypes the aerospace company has already launched were the upper stage of a two-part rocket system for Starship. Now that the 16-story upper stage is able to reach high altitude smoothly, SpaceX will add on a 23-story booster called Super Heavy.

The Super Heavy booster will try to heave the nearly 400 feet tall spaceship towards orbit.

SpaceX’s ultimate goal is for the Starship to carry humans into low-Earth orbit, to the moon, and to Mars, then return to Earth to repeat the journey again. In April, NASA awarded SpaceX an exclusive contract to land the first humans on the moon since 1972.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Somewhere on Earth, it could rain rocket parts this weekend as a runaway Chinese spacecraft breaks up in the atmosphere

tianhe module launch china space station Long March 5B Y2 rocket
The Long March 5B Y2 rocket, carrying the core module of China’s space station takes off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Center in Hainan province, China, on April 29.

Sometime this weekend, somewhere on Earth, it’s probably going to rain rocket parts.

That’s because a 22.5-ton cylinder is hurtling around the planet uncontrolled, losing altitude with each lap. It’s the body of China’s Long March 5B rocket, which launched the first module of the country’s new space station last week.

The rocket body is expected to fall to Earth sometime this weekend, most likely on Saturday. That’s according to projections from the US Space Force, Russia’s space agency, and the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research firm that receives US funding.

At this point, it is impossible to accurately estimate where the rocket stage will fall. Projections show it entering the atmosphere in a roughly 20-hour window. During that period, the rocket stage will circle Earth several times.

The spacecraft’s orbit takes it over a vast swath of the planet – from Los Angeles to New York to southern Europe to Beijing, down through most of Australia, Africa, and South America. Mostly, though, it will fly over oceans and uninhabited land.

“Its trajectory covers much of the populated world. So if you can’t control where it reenters [the atmosphere], then there’s a real danger it will reenter someplace with people underneath it,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider.

aerospace corporation chart of long march 5b rocket stage reentry
The possible reentry points of the Long March 5B rocket’s core stage. The blue and white lines capture the uncertainty in the model – the range of places where the rocket could fall.

As the rocket stage falls through Earth’s atmosphere, friction will heat the surrounding air to roughly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The rocket will likely fall apart in this heat, and parts of it may burn up, but other pieces may survive.

Experts estimate that more than 5 metric tons – 11,000 pounds – of rocket parts will rain down somewhere on Earth. That might include fuel tanks, thrusters, large parts of the rocket’s engines, and bits of metal and insulation.

Most likely, all that debris will land in the ocean.

“The risk that there will be some damage or that it would hit someone is pretty small – not negligible, it could happen – but the risk that it will hit you is incredibly tiny. And so I would not lose one second of sleep over this on a personal-threat basis,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer who tracks objects orbiting Earth, told CNN.

Still, this is an “unusual situation,” Logsdon said, and China might have some explaining to do.

‘China owes the international community an explanation’

GettyImages 1313957056
The Long March 5B rocket at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 23.

Normally, after a launch, rockets push themselves into the atmosphere and fall back to Earth over remote ocean areas like the South Pacific – a process called “controlled reentry.”

China’s older rockets follow this practice. But two days after the Long March 5B launched, observers on Earth realized that its upper stage was circling the planet and slowly losing altitude. Unlike most modern rocket stages, it had fallen into an unstable orbit. Experts aren’t sure whether this was an accident or simply how the rocket was designed. Chinese authorities have not offered an explanation.

“Rockets get launched all the time, and very seldom is there concern about reentry,” Logsdon said. “So yeah, I’m a little confused as to why this is happening. Is it just willful disregard of the international guidelines? Or because it’s a new vehicle it wasn’t properly designed so it could do a controlled reentry? Whatever. It’s unfortunate that it puts a lot of people at risk.”

This rocket has launched once before, with the same outcome. China first launched the Long March 5B in May 2020, in a test that put a spaceship prototype into orbit. That rocket’s core stage also fell to Earth uncontrolled six days after launch. It reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron. Some local reports indicated that bits of the rocket fell in Côte d’Ivoire.

Experts can only estimate how much of the rocket body will slam into the Earth. A rule of thumb is that 20% to 40% of a large object’s mass will survive its fall through the atmosphere. In this case, that means 5 to 9 metric tons would reach the ground.

“This stage and its predecessor last May are the sixth- and seventh-largest objects to ever reenter,” Ted Muelhaupt, who oversees the Aerospace Corporation’s space-debris analysis, told Insider.

“The probability that a piece of space debris will land on a city or a densely populated area is usually relatively small,” he added. “But note that this reentry will occur between 41.5 degrees north and 41.5 degrees south latitudes, where the vast bulk of the world’s population lives.”

spacex starship explosion debris
Pieces of debris scattered near Boca Chica, Texas, after the explosion of an uncrewed prototype of SpaceX’s Starship rocket in March.

If any rocket parts land on people or their property, China could be on the hook for the damage. Under the 1972 Space Liability Convention treaty, the launching nation is liable for its rockets and any damage they cause.

“I hesitate to use the word irresponsible,” Logsdon said. “I would like a clearer understanding from the Chinese side of why this is happening.”

But he added, “I think at a minimum, China owes the international community an explanation.”

China plans to launch 2 more of these rockets to build its space station

Long March 5B China Tianhe space station
People watch the Long March 5B rocket lifting off on April 29.

China’s plans to build its space station involve 11 launches by the end of 2022, two of which would use Long March 5B rockets. The vehicle is designed to put space-station modules into orbit, according to Andrew Jones, a journalist covering Chinese space programs.

It’s not clear how China’s space agencies will dispose of the next two Long March 5B rocket bodies. Designing a rocket stage so that it makes a controlled reentry after launch can be more expensive, according to Muelhaupt – it may require significantly altering the design or even cutting how much cargo the rocket can carry.

“Nevertheless, this is a best practice and is rapidly becoming a global norm,” he said.

Logsdon is hopeful that international pressure could influence China’s launch plans.

“One would hope that if indeed there is, as predicted, pieces that survive reentry, that there would be changes made in the Long March 5B for the next two launches,” he said. “We’ll see.”

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A European astronaut says the risk of the uncontrolled Chinese rocket hitting a home is like getting hit by lightning – and if it did, people would only get a few hours’ warning

Long March 5B China Tianhe space station
People watch a Long March 5B rocket lift off from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan, southern China.

  • An uncontrolled Chinese rocket is heading toward Earth, and nobody knows where the debris could land.
  • A European astronaut told Insider it is unlikely they will fall on inhabited areas.
  • But if they did, authorities would only have “very few hours” to warn people, he said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It is highly unlikely that debris from the uncontrolled Chinese rocket that’s falling back to Earth will hit inhabited areas, an official from the European Space Agency told Insider on Friday.

But if the rocket were to fall near an inhabited area, authorities would have only “very few hours” to give people warning, Thomas Reiter, an astronaut and the interagency coordinator for the ESA told Insider on Friday.

A large section of a rocket launched by China on April 29 is currently orbiting the Earth and falling toward the atmosphere. But because the rocket is not controlled, it is not clear where or when it will reenter the atmosphere.

Experts currently believe the rocket could land anywhere within 40 degrees of latitude north of south of the Equator.

“A large part is covered by oceans. Another large part is covered by desert,” Reiter said.

He said that for this reason, “we can say that the risk that something hits inhabited area is comparable to a person getting hit by a lightning.”

However, he said, because it won’t be clear where the rocket will land until the last moment, “unfortunately it’s very difficult to give warning to those areas, if it would, for example, fall down inhabited areas.”

“The pre-warning would be within very few hours, probably even less,” Reiter said.

Reiter said most of the rocket is likely to burn up in the atmosphere, where the temperatures upon reentry are more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, Reiter told Insider.

But he said it is likely that some parts of the rocket are built with materials that can sustain these high temperatures, the likelihood that those parts of the rocket could hit Earth is “very high,” Reiter said.

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday the majority of the rocket was likely to burn up upon reentry into the atmosphere, and that there was a “very low probability of causing harm to aviation activities and the ground.”

Reiter said: “The risk to hit any inhabited areas should be kept as close to zero as possible.”

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Elon Musk said SpaceX wants to blast its Starship rocket into the sky again soon, after the last prototype landed without exploding

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • Elon Musk said SpaceX “might try to refly SN15 soon,” after a Starship prototype’s Wednesday landing.
  • SpaceX has launched five Starships in five months. The latest version is the only one to not explode.
  • It takes SpaceX one step closer to creating a fully reusable rocket that can fly to orbit and back.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Elon Musk on Friday said his aerospace company SpaceX may attempt another blast off of its fifth Starship rocket soon, following its successful landing on Wednesday.

Starship serial No. 15, or SN15, lifted off from SpaceX’s launch facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, and flew to high altitude, before plunging back down to Earth and landing smoothly back on the landing pad.

Musk wants to do this again with the same rocket prototype “soon,” he said in a Twitter reply to an article by Teslarati about the successful test flight.

It’s taken SpaceX five months to get the rocket landing right. The first Starship test flight was in December, the second happened in February, the third and fourth both lifted off in March, and the most recent launch was on Wednesday.

The latest version of the mega-spaceship was the only version to not explode, taking SpaceX closer to adding another reusable launch vehicle to its collection. The previous four Starship prototypes burst into flames either during or shortly after landing.

These prototypes are the upper stage of a two-part system. SpaceX want to add on a Super Heavy booster, which will fire the rocket towards orbit, the moon and eventually Mars. The idea is that Starship will return to Earth so the mission can be repeated again and again.

starship moon human landing system
Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry NASA astronauts to the Moon’s surface during the Artemis mission.

A final version of the 16-story tall Starship rocket is set to land the first humans on the moon since 1972 under an exclusive contract with NASA. The spaceship will send two astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.

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The Chinese rocket speeding back to Earth is so unpredictable it could land almost anywhere. One guess is around Turkmenistan late on May 8.

Experts say anywhere in the shaded area could be the re-entry point for a piece of China’s Long March 5B rocket. Turkmenistan – one possible landing area – is marked with an arrow.

  • The US military and others are tracking a Chinese rocket piece due to re-enter the atmosphere soon.
  • Experts have highlighted a huge swathe of the planet where the rocket could come down.
  • Some say it will re-enter over Turkmenistan Sunday, but estimates differ by thousands of miles.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Experts are tracking a large section of a Chinese rocket which is due to re-enter the atmosphere in the next two days or so.

As the impact gets closer, calculations about the time and location of the debris re-entry are likely to improve. Until then, estimates will “continue to vary wildly,” according to the US military.

It is very difficult to predict where the rocket will land because it is thought to be making its descent in an uncontrolled way.

Space-Track, a website run by the 18th Space Control Squadron, a branch of the US military that tracks space debris, said in a tweet on Friday that the rocket will reenter around 11:13 PM UTC, or 7:13 PM ET, on Saturday.

According to the coordinates given in the tweet, the rocket would fall over Turkmenistan.

These estimates will “continue to vary wildly,” Space-Track said, until it becomes clear when exactly the rocket will reach the atmosphere.

On Thursday, it predicted the rocket would land in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

That is because the rocket currently hurtling around the Earth on an orbit at about 18,000 mph, as it lowers towards the Earth at around 0.3 mph, Harvard Astronomer Jonathan McDowell said in a tweet.

That means if the estimates of when the rocket would reach the atmosphere are off by even a half an hour, the rocket could be almost on the other side of the Earth.

As of early Friday, the margin of error for Space-Track’s estimate was at least 18 hours either way.

Another body tracking the rocket, the Aerospace Corporation, a not-for profit-company that receives US funding, predicted on Thursday that the rocket would reenter the atmosphere on May 9 at 3:43 AM UTC, which is Sunday, at 11:43 PM, ET time.

The rocket could hit the atmosphere anywhere along the yellow lines in the map above at that time, they say.

So far, the only certainty is that the rocket would re-enter the atmosphere within a latitude of 41.5 degrees north and south of the equator, which covers an area as far north as New York City, and as far south as New Zealand.

The “exact entry point of the rocket into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be pinpointed until within hours of its reentry,” US Space Command, a branch of the US military that is tracking the object, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Space-Track Twitter page said it would publish estimates daily.

The object that is being tracked is the core module of a Long March 5B rocket that was launched by China on April 29.

Common practice is for these types of objects to fall back to Earth without reaching orbit, which makes it easier to predict where they will fall, Aerospace Corporation said in a blog post.

But the core module of the Chinese rocket reached orbit, and is now circling the Earth on an elliptical pattern, slowly being pulled closer and closer to the atmosphere, Aerospace Corporation said.

The object, which is thought to be around 22 tons, should mostly disintegrate upon reentry, but experts are concerned that some debris could survive and reach the surface of the Earth.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that because of the design of the rocket, the vast majority of the devices will be burnt up and there is “a very low probability” of its re-entry causing harm.

Chinese authorities plan to release information about the timing of the rocket’s re-entry in “a timely manner,” he said, according to the Associated Press .

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SpaceX is dominating orbit with its Starlink satellites, making the risk of space traffic collision a serious hazard, industry experts say

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • SpaceX Starlink satellites have taken over the lower Earth orbit, experts told Insider.
  • There are apparently 1,300 Starlink satellites in lower orbit and 300 from other entities.
  • “We’re not at the end of the world yet but it’s a serious situation,” another space researcher said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

SpaceX is rapidly deploying its Starlink internet network across the globe with rocket launches happening on a monthly basis.

By rapidly adding to the number of satellites in orbit, space industry experts believe Elon Musk’s space company is heightening the risk of collisions between space objects, generating an abundance of debris.

SpaceX’s Starlink has blasted around 1,300 satellites into orbit and plans for a megaconstellation of up to 42,000 spacecraft in mid-2027.

In October, Starlink launched its Better Than Nothing Beta test across the northern US for $99 a month, plus $499 for the kit. It now operates in more than six countries and has more than 10,000 users worldwide.

Starlink has previously said its satellites can avoid collisions using an ion drive, which allows it to dodge other objects in orbit. But if the satellites’ communications or operations fail in orbit, they become hazards to space traffic.

In the lower part of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Starlink satellites “are completely dominating the space object population,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Insider on Tuesday.

He said there are around 300 other satellites in the lower LEO, including the International Space Station, in comparison to the 1,300 Starlink satellites.

“There’s a point at which they are so many of them manoeuvering all the time that it’s a hazard to traffic” in space, McDowell said, adding that the hazard can result in a massive collision, creating junk.

Each satellite travels at 18,000 miles per hour and all of them are going in different directions, according to McDowell. If they smash into each other, it sends hypersonic shockwaves through the satellites and reduces them into thousands of pieces of shrapnel which then make a shell around the Earth, he said.

This becomes a threat to other space users and an obstruction for astronomers observing the skies.

McDowell calculated in November that 2.5% of Starlink satellites may have failed in orbit. This may not sound bad in the grand scheme of things. But if this issue persists, SpaceX’s entire planned constellation may produce more than 1,000 dead satellites.

10,000 satellites are due to launch in the next decade

John Auburn, managing director of Astroscale UK, an orbital debris removal firm headquartered in Tokyo, said in a press briefing on March 17 that more than 10,000 satellites are scheduled to be launched in the next 10 years.

McDowell said satellite companies may have some “nasty surprises” if they get this amount of satellites in orbit. He said firms should stop launching satellites when the amount hits 1,000 and monitor them for a while to see if any problems crop up, such as design flaws.

There could be a “complete catastrophe” on the horizon, McDowell said.

But its not all bad news. Daniel Oltrogge, director at the Center for Space Standards and Innovation, told Insider it’s beneficial that Starlink satellites are in the lower LEO because they can be removed more quickly if they fail.

Oltrogge said the space junk issue isn’t a blame game. Any user of space, including governments, and commercial and civil companies, have all contributed to this picture of space debris today, he said.

There are many problems to tackle, said Oltrogge, including satellite operators complying with guidelines that help minimize collision risks, improving space situational awareness and spacecraft design, and exchanging more data between satellite companies.

But if we don’t address the space junk crisis at a global level, rather than at an operator one, “we risk missing how the environment is degrading,” according to Oltrogge.

“We’re not at the end of the world yet,” Oltrogge said. “But it’s a serious situation that warrants scrutiny.”

Why SpaceX is one of the top satellite launchers

Compared to other private commercial satellite companies, SpaceX comes top trumps. Since May 2019, there’s been a staggering 23 Starlink launches via SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

McDowell believes the company’s acceleration may be down to its CEO. “Elon doesn’t have to answer to many people, he can make decisions effectively, he doesn’t have to diver around and get permission,” he said.

On top of this, he has his own rockets to launch the satellites into orbit, McDowell said. This saves him time and money as he doesn’t have to negotiate another launch contract. The fact that the rockets are reusable – the last Falcon 9 booster on Wednesday’s mission was used six times – also makes it cheap for SpaceX to launch satellites.

“That’s an advantage the other companies don’t have,” said McDowell.

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An apparent meteor shower over the Pacific Northwest was actually burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – take a look

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • Debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was streaking across the skies above Seattle and Portland on Thursday.
  • Astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted that it would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.
  • The space junk was from Starlink’s 20th mission at the start of May, he said.
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The bright lights hurtling across the sky in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday were made by burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket falling back to Earth.

People in Seattle and Portland started posting videos online of what they initially thought was a meteor shower.

The National Weather Service Seattle later posted on Twitter that the bright objects were debris from one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets “that did not successfully have a deorbit burn.”

A “deorbit burn” is when a rocket flips tail-first and fires its engines, to allow it to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, according to NASA.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University, posted on Twitter that the objects streaking across the Pacific Northwest were the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket that was launched on March 4. The debris was re-entering the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, he said.

The falling debris is “unlikely to be major,” he tweeted, and “would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.”

McDowell said in a separate tweet that this is the 14th piece of space junk weighing over one tonne that had come back down to Earth since January 1.

SpaceX regularly launches rockets from sites in California, Florida and Texas.

The rocket launch on March 4, from which McDowell said the debris came from, blasted 60 satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s 20th Starlink mission. It was SpaceX’s sixth Starlink launch of 2021.

The satellites were adding to a rapidly expanding constellation of satellites beaming the internet down to Earth. Currently, there are around 1,300 Starlink satellites in orbit, and the company wants to eventually launch up to 42,000.

Here are some of the scenes that people in the Pacific NW witnessed on Thursday:

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