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SpaceX’s first crewed spacecraft successfully docks with the International Space Station

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ‘Endeavor’ successfully docked with the International Space Station as planned on Sunday morning, marking another key milestone during this historic Commercial Crew demonstration mission it’s conducting with NASA. On board Crew Dragon were NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the test pilots selected to be the first ever humans to fly on board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and the first people ever to make the trip to orbit aboard a spacecraft built by a private company.

The docking process was handled completely autonomously by Crew Dragon itself, which is designed by SpaceX to operate on autopilot from the moment of launch throughout the course of the entire mission. The spacecraft is able to dock with a newer automated international docking adapter installed on the ISS, unlike the original cargo version of Dragon, which required manual capture by the robotic Canadarm 2 controlled by astronauts on the station. The updated cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon are designed to work with the new automated system.

Hurley and Behnken launched at 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) on Saturday, taking off from Cape Canaveral in Florida as planned. It was the second launch attempt for this mission, after weather caused a delay last Wednesday. This mission is NASA and SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Demo-2, which is the second demonstration mission of the full flight and return of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, one of two vehicles commissioned by NASA from commercial partners to provide transportation serves for astronauts to and from the Space Station.

Crossing this milestone means that essentially the first half of the mission has been completed successfully – so far, SpaceX has demonstrated that the launch process works as designed, as does manual control (the astronauts took over and ran two tests of that system), and automated docking.

The ISS hatch opened at 12:37 PM EDT, and the Dragon hatch opened at 1:02 PM EDT, at which point Behnken and Hurley were welcomed onboard the ISS by the existing crew, which includes two U.S. and one Russian astronaut. Hurley and Behnken will now perform standard ISS crew activities, including conducing experiments and research, during the next several weeks before they climb back into Crew Dragon for the final portion of Demo-2 – the trip back to Earth.

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Watch live as SpaceX’s first astronaut-carrying spacecraft docks with the International Space Station

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Today at around 10:30 AM EDT (7:30 AM PDT), SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will dock with the International Space Station, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. The two have been in flight on orbit since launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida yesterday at 3:22 PM EDT, a historic launch that made SpaceX the first private space company to fly people to orbit.

You can watch the livestream above to see the approach and docking maneuver, as well as the transfer process once the hatch opens and Hurley and Behnken make the short trip over from their spacecraft to the ISS. The astronauts will then serve on board the orbital lab for a shortened tour of duty, but taking part in all the activities a regular ISS rotation astronaut would do, before eventually heading home to Earth back aboard Crew Dragon in a few weeks.

This milestone mission is the first crewed flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which will certify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for regular operational missions carrying astronauts from the agency and its partners to and from the Space Station .

Ahead of the docking, the astronauts will be conducting manual tests of the spacecraft’s control system, their second test after an initial trial yesterday shortly after launch. Crew Dragon is designed to fly and dock entirely on its own, but part of this mission is ensuring that the manual controls work as designed in case astronauts ever need to make use of them in an emergency.

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SpaceX’s astronaut launch marks the dawn of the commercial human spaceflight industry

SpaceX on Saturday launched two NASA astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the accomplishment is a tremendous one for both the company and the U.S. space agency. At a fundamental level, it means that the U.S. will have continued access to the International Space Station, without having to rely on continuing to buy tickets aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do so. But it also means the beginning of a new era for the commercial space industry – one in which private companies and individual buying tickets for passenger trips to space is a consistent and active reality.

With this mission, SpaceX will complete the final step required by NASA to human-rate its Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, which means that it can begin operationally transporting people from Earth essentially as soon as this mission concludes (Crew Dragon still has to rendezvous with the space station tomorrow, and make its way back to Earth with astronauts on board in a few weeks). Already, SpaceX has signed an agreement with Space Adventures, a private space tourism booking company that has previously worked with Roscosmos on sending private astronauts to orbit.

SpaceX wants to start sending up paying tourists on orbital flights (without any ISS stops) starting as early as next year aboard Crew Dragon. The capsule actually supports up to seven passengers per flight, though only four seats will ever be used for official NASA crew delivery missions for the space station. SpaceX hasn’t released pricing on private trips aboard the aircraft, but you can bet they’ll be expensive since a Falcon 9 launch (without a human rated capsule) costs around $60 million, and so even dividing that by seven works out to a high price of entry.

So this isn’t the beginning of the era of accessible private spaceflight, but SpaceX is the first private company to actually put people into space, despite a lot of talk and preparatory work by competitors like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. And just like in the private launch business, crossing the gulf between having a private company that talks about doing something, and a company that actually does it, will absolutely transform the space industry all over again.

Here’s how.

Tourism

SpaceX is gearing up to launch tourists as early as next year, as mentioned, and while those tourists will have to be deep-pocketed, as eight everything that SpaceX does, the goal is to continue to find ways to make more aspects of the launch system reusable and reduce costs of launch in order to bring prices down.

Even without driving down costs, SpaceX will have a market, however niche, and one that hasn’t yet really had any inventory to satisfy demand. Space Adventures has flown a few individuals by buying tickets on Soyuz launches, but that hasn’t really been a consistent or sustainable source of commercial human spaceflight, and SpaceX’s system will likely have active support and participation from NASA.

That’s an entirely new revenue stream for SpaceX to add to its commercial cargo launches, along with its eventual launch of commercial internet service via Starlink. It’s hard to say yet what kind of impact that will actually have on their bottom line, but it could be big enough to have an impact – especially if they can figure out creative ways to defray costs over successive years, since each cut will likely considerably expand their small addressable audience.

SpaceX’s impact on the launch business was to effectively create a market for small satellites and more affordable orbital payloads that simply didn’t make any economic sense with larger existing launch craft, most of which were bankrolled almost entirely by and for defence and NASA use. Similarly, it’s hard to predict what the space tourism market will look like in five years, now that a company is actually offering it and flying a human-rated private spacecraft that can make it happen.

Research

Private spacefarers won’t all be tourists – in fact, it could make a lot more financial sense for the majority of passengers to and from orbit to be private scientists and researchers. Basically, imagine a NASA astronaut, but working for a private company rather than a publicly-funded agency.

Astronauts are essentially multidisciplinary scientists, and the bulk of their job is conducing experiments on the ISS. NASA is very eager to expand commercial use of the ISS, and also to eventually replace the aging space station with a private one of which they’re just one of multiple customers. Already, the ISS hosts commercial experiments and cargo, but if companies and institutions can now also send their own researchers as well, that may change considerably how much interest their is in doing work on orbit, especially in areas like biotech where the advantages of low gravity can produce results not possible on Earth.

Cost is a gain a significant limiting factor here, since the price per seat will be – no pun intended – astronomical. But for big pharma and other large companies who already spend a considerable amount on R&D it might actually be within reach. Especially in industries like additive manufacturing, where orbit is an area of immense interest, private space-based labs with actual rotating staff might not be that farfetched an idea.

Marketing & Entertainment

Commercial human spaceflight might actually be a great opportunity to make actual commercials – brands trying to outdo each other by shooting the first promo in space definitely seems like a likely outcome for a Superbowl spot. It’s probably not anyone’s priority just now, given the ongoing global pandemic, but companies have already discussed the potential of marketing partnerships as a key driver of real revenue, including lunar lander startup ispace, which has signed a number of brand partners to fund the build and flight of its hardware.

Single person rides to orbit are definitely within budget for the most extreme marketing efforts out there, and especially early on, there should be plenty of return on that investment just because of how audacious and unique the move is. The novelty will likely wear off, but access to space will remain rarified enough for the forseeable future that it could still be part of more than a few marketing campaigns.

As for entertainment, we’ve already seen the first evidence of interest there – Tom Cruise is working on a project to be filmed at least in part in space, apparently on board the International Space Station. SpaceX is said to be involved in those talks, and it would make a lot of sense for the company to consider a Crew Dragon flight with film crew and actors on board for both shooting, and for transportation to ‘on location’ shoots on the ISS.

Cruise probably isn’t the only one to consider the impact of a space-based motion picture project, and you can bet at least one reality show producer somewhere is already pitching ‘The Bachelor’ in space. Again, it’s not going to be within budget for every new sci-fi project that spins up, but it’s within blockbuster budget range, and that’s another market that grew by 100% just by virtue of the fact that it didn’t exist as a possibility before today.

Novel industry

It’s hard to fully appreciate what kind of impact this will have, because SpaceX has literally taken something that previously wasn’t possible, and made it available – at costs that, while high, aren’t so high as to be absurd. As with every other such expansion, it will likely create new and innovative opportunities that haven’t even been conceived, especially once the economics and availability of flights, etc. are clarified. GPS, another great space-based innovation, formed the bedrock of an industry that changed just about every aspect of human life – private commercial spaceflight could do the same.

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NASA astronauts successfully pilot SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft manually for the first time

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley took over manual control of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on Saturday, shortly after the vehicle’s historic first launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Crew Dragon is designed to fly entirely autonomous throughout the full duration of its missions, including automated docking, de-orbit and landing procedures, but it has manual control systems in case anything should go wrong and the astronauts have to take over. This test is the first time the manual controls have been used in space, and is a key part of certifying Crew Dragon for regularly operational human flight.

Astronaut Bob Behnken and Hurley removed their fashionable SpaceX space suits just before Hurley completed the manual maneuvers, which is also part of the plan. They’re able to go without the suits in the pressurized cabin during its transit to the ISS, only needing to put them back on for space station docking, and the interior of Crew Dragon actually provides them a fair amount of room to move around in. This also makes it easier for them to operate the spacecraft controls.

The manual maneuver testing including Hurley going through the process of using the spacecraft’s touchscreen controls to put the capsule into what’s called LVLH (local vertical local horizontal ) attitude, using Earth as a reference navigation point. That basically means putting Dragon in the same orientation as an airplane flying over Earth, with the planet located ‘underneath’ the Dragon as it flies. The test involves notifying the flight computer to not take over as Hurley conducts the maneuvers, but doesn’t involve actually finalizing the control orders by sending them to the flight computer, since it will be the one actually completing the automated flight and docking process.

Hurley will conduct two tests during the mission, the one he just did called a “far-field” flight test because it’s far away from the ISS, and one called the “near-field” test which will be conducted when they’re closer to the station.

You can actually try out the manual control system that Behnken and Hurley used yourself – no spaceship required. All you need is a browser, and this ISS Docking Simulator created and released by SpaceX. It’s a bit tricky, but not as hard as you might think thanks to an intuitive control interface design.

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SpaceX makes history with successful first human space launch

SpaceX made history today, flying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch, titled ‘Demo-2’, is for the final demonstration mission in the human rating process of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, meaning that once this mission is complete, the launch vehicle will finally be certified for operational use for regular transportation of people to space. This was the second attempt, after an initial launch try last Wednesday was scrubbed due to weather conditions.

This is the first time ever that humans have been aboard a SpaceX vehicle as it launched. To date, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have succeeded in delivering multiple cargo payloads to orbit, but Behnken and Hurley are the first people to make the trip with the private spaceflight company.

SpaceX also successfully landed its first stage booster from the Falcon 9 used today – which means it will recover the first private spacecraft booster that has ever delivered human astronauts to space.

NASA created the Commercial Crew space program to spur the development of private launch vehicles that would also be able to serve commercial customers in addition to the agency, in order to defray the cost of launch overall. Both SpaceX and Boeing ended up placing winning bids on the Commercial Crew contracts, and have subsequently developed human launch systems, though SpaceX is the first to actually fly people on their vehicle after Boeing encountered some unexpected issues in their last uncrewed demonstration flight.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley bump fists to celebrate their history-making launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

It’s been multiple decades since a human took off from U.S. soil on a brand new launch vehicle, and this is also the first time anyone has flown to space from an American launch site since the Space Shuttle program was officially retired in 2011. Returning U.S. spaceflight capabilities also means NASA won’t have to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos and its Soyuz spacecraft exclusively to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) – could save more than $30 million per astronaut per trip as a result.

Today’s launch kicks off a multi-week mission for Behnken and Hurley, which next involves a rendezvous with the ISS around 19 hours from now. Crew Dragon will first take around 30 minutes to perform a manual control test, wherein Behnken and Hurley will take over and fly the spacecraft themselves. This isn’t what would normally happen on a normal Crew Dragon mission, since the spacecraft is designed to make the trip to ISS on its own operating entirely in an automated manner.

After that manual control test, Crew Dragon will once again take over and then fly the remainder of the way to the ISS, where it’ll dock itself with an entry hatch on the station. From there, Behnken and Hurley will transfer over to the station, where they’re set to stay for a period of between six and sixteen weeks, depending on NASA’s determination of how long the mission should last. This is somewhat dependent on staffing requirements on board the ISS, since currently there’s only one U.S. astronaut there in an operational capacity, and Hurley and Behnken will be tasked with assisting with experiments and maintenance on the station.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – MAY 30: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches into space with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (R) and Doug Hurley aboard the rocket from the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The inaugural flight is the first manned mission since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 to be launched into space from the United States. (Photo by Saul Martinez/Getty Images)

Once it’s determined when they’re coming back, they’ll climb back aboard the Crew Dragon, seal it up and then detach from the station. This return part of the program is also designed to be fully automated, with the spacecraft preforming the necessary boost-back engine firing to control its re-entry and descent. Once in atmosphere, it’ll release its parachutes to slow the fall back to Earth, and coast to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean, where SpaceX crews will recover the capsule and provide the astronauts their ride back to dry land.

SpaceX plans to begin flying astronauts to the ISS for fully, regular operational missions later this year if all goes well, and it has also signed agreements to begin offering berths to paying passengers for Crew Dragon space tourist trips (likely with an extremely high price tag) as early as next year.

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Watch live as SpaceX launches its first ever spacecraft with people on board

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SpaceX is once again preparing to make history – the private spaceflight company is set to launch its Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission in collaboration with NASA today. This is the second time they’ve prepared to launch this mission, after an attempt on Wednesday last week was scrubbed due to bad weather. Today’s attempt is set for 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) and preparations, along with the launch itself, will be streamed above starting at 11 AM EDT (8 AM PDT).

The launch will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and once again weather is a concern for today’s launch window. SpaceX and NASA have an instantaneous launch window today, which means they only have the one shot to take off – if the weather isn’t cooperating at 3:22 PM EDT, they’ll have to re-attempt the launch again, with the next possible window set for tomorrow, Sunday May 31.

This is the first time ever that SpaceX will be launching humans aboard one of its spacecraft – NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have the honor of being those first passengers. The mission itself is actually technically still a test, the final demonstration mission in the multi-year development of Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s first human-rated spacecraft. This launch will serve as the proof that Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket that carries it, is ready for human-rating, after which it will be ready for regular operational service, flying U.S. and allied astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit.

That will mean the U.S. once again has domestic human launch capabilities, something it hasn’t been able to claim since it ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011. That’s a big deal for a number of reasons, but primarily because it means that NASA won’t rely on buying berths on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the ISS, which will help it save money and ultimately control its own access to Earth’s orbital lab.

If successful, SpaceX will be the first of NASA’s two Commercial Crew partners to achieve this milestone. The other, Boeing, is still in the process of working out the kinks of its CST-100 Starliner human crew capsule, which encountered errors during its first uncrewed demonstration mission, resulting in the need to run that launch again sometime later this year, and then, depending on how that goes, fly its first human flight hopefully in 2021. SpaceX, meanwhile, is set to begin operational missions with Crew Dragon later this year, if all goes well with Demo-2.

Provided the launch occurs today, Behnken and Hurley will then spend 19 hours on orbit as they make their way to rendezvous with the Space Station for docking. They’ll then staff the station for a period of between a few weeks and a few months, depending on NASA’s decision regarding their ultimate mission length. That will involve helping with station maintenance and conducting experiments, and then they’ll re-enter Crew Dragon and make the trip back to Earth for an Atlantic Ocean splashdown and recovery once their time at the station is over.

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As wildfire season approaches, AI could pinpoint risky regions using satellite imagery

The U.S. has suffered from devastating wildfires over the last few years as global temperatures rise and weather patterns change, making the otherwise natural phenomenon especially unpredictable and severe. To help out, Stanford researchers have found a way to track and predict dry, at-risk areas using machine learning and satellite imagery.

Currently the way forests and scrublands are tested for susceptibility to wildfires is by manually collecting branches and foliage and testing their water content. It’s accurate and reliable, but obviously also quite labor intensive and difficult to scale.

Fortunately, other sources of data have recently become available. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel and Landsat satellites have amassed a trove of imagery of the Earth’s surface that, when carefully analyzed, could provide a secondary source for assessing wildfire risk — and one no one has to risk getting splinters for.

This isn’t the first attempt to make this kind of observation from orbital imagery, but previous efforts relied heavily on visual measurements that are “extremely site-specific,” meaning the analysis method differs greatly depending on the location. No splinters, but still hard to scale. The advance leveraged by the Stanford team is the Sentinel satellites’ “synthetic aperture radar,” which can pierce the forest canopy and image the surface below.

“One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allows the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said senior author of the paper, Stanford ecoydrologist Alexandra Konings, in a news release.

The team fed this new imagery, collected regularly since 2016, to a machine learning model along with the manual measurements made by the U.S. Forest Service. This lets the model “learn” what particular features of the imagery correlate with the ground-truth measurements.

They then tested the resulting AI agent (the term is employed loosely) by having it make predictions based on old data for which they already knew the answers. It was accurate, but most so in scrublands, one of the most common biomes of the American west and also one of the most susceptible to wildfires.

You can see the results of the project in this interactive map showing the model’s prediction of dryness at different periods all over the western part of the country. That’s not so much for firefighters as a validation of the approach — but the same model, given up to date data, can make predictions about the upcoming wildfire season that could help the authorities make more informed decisions about controlled burns, danger areas and safety warnings.

The researchers’ work was published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

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SpaceX gets FAA permission to fly its Starship spacecraft prototype

SpaceX has received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly suborbital missions with its Starship prototype spacecraft, paving the way for test flights at its Boca Chica, Texas site. SpaceX has been hard at work readying its latest Starship prototype for low-altitude, short-duration, controlled flight tests, and conducted another static engine fire test of the fourth iteration of its in-development spacecraft earlier today.

Officially, the FAA has granted SpaceX permission to conduct what it terms “reusable launch vehicle” missions, which essentially means that the Starship prototype is now cleared to take off from and land back at the launch site SpaceX operates in Boca Chica. The Elon Musk-led space company has already conducted similar tests, but previously used its “Starhopper” early prototype, which was smaller than the planned production Starship, and much more rudimentary in design. It was basically used to prove out the capabilities of the Raptor engine that SpaceX will use to propel Starship, and only for a short hop test using one of those engines.

Since that flight last year, SpaceX has developed multiple iterations of a full-scale prototype of Starship, but thus far they haven’t gotten back to the point where they’re actively flying any of those. In fact, multiple iterations of the Starship prototype have succumbed during pressure testing — though SN4, the version currently being prepared for a test flight, has passed not only pressure tests, but also static test fires of its lone Raptor engine.

The plan now is to fly this one for a short “hop” flight similar to the one conducted by Starhopper, with a maximum altitude of around 500 feet. Should that prove successful, the next version will be loaded with more Raptor engines, and attempt a high-altitude test launch. SpaceX is quickly building a newer version of Starship in succession even as it proceeds with testing the completed prototypes, in order to hopefully shorten the total time span of its development.

There’s something of a clock that SpaceX is working against: It was one of three companies that received a contract award from NASA to develop and build a human lander for the agency’s Artemis program to return to the Moon. NASA aims to make that return trip happen by 2024, and while the contract doesn’t necessarily require that each provider have a lander ready in that time frame, it’s definitely a goal, if only for bragging rights among the three contract awardees.

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NASA and SpaceX confirm SpaceX’s first ever astronaut launch is a ‘go’

NASA and SpaceX are closer than ever to a moment both have been preparing for since the beginning of the Commercial Crew program in 2010. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon spacecraft are now set to fly with NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken onboard, making a trip to the International Space Station, and both the agency and SpaceX announced today that they have officially passed the final flight readiness review, meaning everything is now a ‘go’ for launch.

According to NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Leuders during a press conference on Monday, everything went well with all pre-launch flight checks thus far, including a full-length static test fire of the Falcon 9’s engines, and a dress rehearsal of all launch preparation including strapping Hurley and Behnken into the rocket.

The only remaining major hurdle for SpaceX and NASA now is the weather, which is currently only looking around 40% favorable for a launch attempt on schedule for Wednesday, May 27 at 4:33 PM EDT, though during today’s press conference officials noted it is actually trending upwards as of today.

SpaceX and NASA will be paying close attention to the weather between now and Wednesday, and since this is a highly sensitive mission with actual astronauts on board the spacecraft, you can bet that they’ll err on the side of caution for scrubbing the launch if weather isn’t looking good. That said, they do have a backup opportunity of May 30 in case they need to make use of that, as well as another window on May 31.

Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance at SpaceX, noted that there were “no showstoppers” during the static test fire on Friday, and also commented that seeing the actual astronauts climb aboard the Crew Dragon during the dry dress rehearsal really drove home the seriousness and impact of this moment. It will mark the first ever human spaceflight for SpaceX, and the first time astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Koenigsmann went through the schedule for launch day, which include Behnken and Hurley getting ready and suited up around 4 hours before, be drive over in the custom Tesla Model X astronaut transit vehicle at around 3 hours prior, and get into the capsule at around 2.5 hours before launch time. The rest from there is somewhat similar to other Falcon 9 launches, he said, with the exception of the escape system arming at 45 minutes prior to launch, and the arm retracting 10 minutes later, at which point the automated launch system takes over just like it does for other Falcon 9 flights.

Post-launch, Behnken and Hurley will spend 19 hours on orbit, with orbit-raising burns and also a manual flight test (the rest of the time Crew Dragon should be under fully automated control) for around 30 minutes just prior to docking. Then, it’ll dock and open the hatch around 2 hours later.

The departure schedule for Behnken and Hurley to leave the ISS is in flux – NASA will provide that date, sometime between 6 weeks and 16 weeks from launch. The astronauts will then back into Dragon, suit up, undock from the station, and land in the Atlantic around two hours later for recovery.

This is the culmination of many years’ work, and will be the first human flight for the Commercial Crew program. If all goes well, SpaceX could then begin flying astronauts during regular operational missions for ferrying astronauts to and from the Space Station as early as later this year.

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Virgin Orbit’s first orbital test flight cut short after rocket released from carrier aircraft

On Monday, Virgin Orbit attempted the first full flight of its orbital payload launch system, which includes a modified Boeing 747 called ‘Cosmic Girl’ that acts as a carrier aircraft for its air-launched rocket LauncherOne. While Virgin Orbit has flown Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne previously for different tests and demonstrations, this was the first end-to-end system test. Unfortunately, that test ended much earlier than planned – just shortly after the LauncherOne rocket was released from Cosmic Girl.

Cosmic Girl took off just before 12 PM PT (3 PM ET) from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. The aircraft was piloted by Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, along with her co-pilot Todd Ericson. The aircraft then flew to its target release point, where LauncherOne did manage a “clean release” from the carrier craft as planned at around 12:50 PM PT (3:50 PM ET), but Virgin noted just a few minutes later that the mission was subsequently “terminated.”

While the Cosmic Girl crew and all other employees are confirmed safe by the company, this is likely to be a disappointing test. Still, Virgin Orbit’s CEO Dan Hart and VP Will Pomerantz cautioned that many first test missions for new launch systems don’t go quite as planned – which is why you test, after all.

The full planned flight map today for Virgin One’s orbital test.

The company will still likely be able to collect a lot of valuable data from this mission, which should provide insight into what went wrong. Once the company addresses the problems, it’s likely to set another attempt, and that might not be as far away as you might expect because Virgin has been very active on its launch vehicle pipeline and has backup craft nearly ready to fly.

“After being released from the carrier aircraft, the LauncherOne rocket successfully lighted its booster engine on cue — the first time the company had attempted an in-air ignition,” Virgin Orbit said via a spokesperson about today’s mission. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight, and the mission safely terminated. The carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl and all of its crew landed safely at Mojave Air and Space Port, concluding the mission.”

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