SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is a well known private manufacturer of spacecrafts and service provider of space transport in America. With its headquarters in Hawthorne, California, this company was founded by Elon Musk in the year 2002 with the aim of minimizing the expenses of space transportation. Another objective of Musk, also the founder of Tesla Motors, was to start this company to promote the chances of Mars colonization.
Ever since, its formation, the company has exhibited launches of several successful space launch vehicles and rockets. Falcon launch vehicle series and Dragon spacecraft series are the most popular developments of this aerospace company. Using the latest technologies and innovative approach, the company is coming forward with amazing SpaceX designs for a series of spacecrafts in 2018 and the coming years.
History: Much before its actual foundation in 2002, in 2001, Elon Musk came up with a project to land a mini experimental greenhouse on Mars to grow plants. However, unable to find affordable rockets from NASA, he returned empty handed and this is where he realized the need to build his own affordable rockets for this project. After doing all the monetary calculations about the raw materials, he started up with the smallest orbital rocket.
It was then in 2002 that Musk got assistance from Tim Mueller, a rocket engineer to create the planned rocket for the soon to be named company SpaceX. Finally, the company was founded and had a staff strength of about only 160 in 2006. Ever since, the company has grown tremendously and had more than 6,000 employees by the end of 2017. The company had officially had over 40 space launches by the year 2012 and many more SpaceX designs were lined up to be launched in future.
Objectives: Musk initiated this aerospace company with an aim to reduce the cost of accessing space with unique spacecrafts and launch pads. However, the company kept changing the main objective time to time. For instance, in 2013, the aim was to make a rapidly reusable launch system. Later, in 2014, the aim was to develop heavy lift products for the space.
In the year 2011, during an interview, Musk revealed the company’s goal to send humans to the surface of Mars in a span of 10 to 20 years. Later in 2013, SpaceX actually used the Mars Colonial Transporter descriptor to fund the development project and also to build rocket engines, space capsules and launch vehicle systems for humans to travel to Mars and back to Earth.
Achievements: Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has achieved many new milestones in the world of space technology ever since its foundation. The list of SpaceX’s achievements starts with the launch of first privately funded rocket - Falcon 1 Flight 4 - running on liquid fuel in September , 2008. The launch of Falcon 9 Flight 2 was the first successful launch in orbit to recover a spacecraft by the first privately funded aerospace company.
Later in May 2012, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Flight 3 got all the limelight for being a spacecraft travelling to the International Space Station by the first ever private funded company. Falcon 9 Flight 7, on the other hand, was the company’s first attempt to send a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, while Falcon 9 Flight 20 was the company’s first orbital rocket’s experience on land. Falcon 9 Flight 23 achieved the milestone of landing on an ocean platform, while Falcon 9 Flight 35 was the first time when SpaceX reflighted a commercial cargo spacecraft.
Obstacles: Every successful journey is marked with a set of obstacles too and this holds true in case of SpaceX’s journey of achievements. Time and again, the developers at this well known company faced setbacks. For instance, in 2013, the famous Dragon spacecraft was found with some issues in its thrusters, when in orbit. Inspite of several attempts by the experts, the spacecraft was unable to control itself in a proper way, and as a result, landed on the International Space Station one day after its expected arrival.
In the year 2015, within 2 minutes of Dragon capsule launch on Falcon 9, loss of helium pressure was detected and the spacecraft exploded in its second stage. In the year 2016, a similar explosion of Falcon 9 took place right there during an operation to fill propellant. With this explosion, the company lost its $200 million valued Spacecom Amos-6 communications satellite.
1. Headquarters & Manufacturing Unit: Currently, the headquarters of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are located in Hawthorne, California in a three story huge building built by Northrop Corporation. This large facility was built to house together the office space of SpaceX along with its vehicle factory and mission control units. Due to its size, this headquarter is counted amongst the biggest aerospace headquarters in the whole US.
In fact, this particular facility also houses campuses of various satellite building companies like Raytheon, the well known Jet Propulsion Lab of NASA, BAE Systems, AECOM and Northrop Grumman. It is here at these headquarters, where the experts from SpaceX develop not just spacecrafts but rocket engines, rocket stages and principal avionics.
2. Development & Test Facility: On the other hand, all the rocket development and test facility of the company is done in McGregor, Texas. It is here that all the rocket engines created by the company are tested on their rocket test stands. Even flight testing is conducted here for Falcon 9 launch vehicles.
Over the years, the company has improved this development and test facility that was once bought by Beal Aerospace. Later, in 2011, SpaceX revealed its plan to upgrade this facility in order to make it apt for the launch testing of a VTVL rocket.
Spacecraft & Hardware for Flights: At the moment, the company founded by Musk is engaged in manufacturing two main classes of rocket engines including Merlin engines capable of running on kerosene fuel and Draco or SuperDraco Vernier Thrusters capable of running on hypergolic fuel. Merlin engines comprise of two main vehicles for space launches including the Falcon 9 and the bulky Falcon Heavy. On the other hand, the company is also manufacturing Dragon and Dragon 2 spacecrafts as part of its latest developments for spacecraft and flight hardware.
Company’s Aerospace Engines and Systems:
1. Rocket Engines:
Ever since its foundation in 2002, SpaceX has brought forward three generations of rocket engines including Merlin and Kestrel, both for propulsion of launch vehicles and Draco Control Thrusters. The entire Falcon launch vehicle family depends on Merlin for a proper execution of planned missions. The other one is the LOX/RP-1 pressure fed rocket engine called Kestrel, which is used as RCS or reaction control system thrusters for the Dragon spacecrafts.
On the other hand, with an aim to use monomethyl hydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer, Dracos are brilliant hypergolic liquid propelled rocket engines developed by SpaceXa. Draco thrusters are also developed in a more powerful version called SuperDraco engines. Then, there is the latest Raptor engines designed to work on methane fuelled combustion cycles.
2. Falcon Launch Vehicles:
The company’s entire fleet of spacecrafts and launch vehicles is incomplete without the mention of its popular Falcon launch vehicles. It was since 2010, that all the major missions from SpaceX have been conducted on Falcon 9. It is a medium lift vehicle capable of carrying up to 22,800 kilograms of weight to the earth’s orbit. As per a data received in 2017, Falcon 9 has made about 30 missions with success including two failures.
SpaceX also developed Falcon 1 as a small rocket that was capable of depositing hundreds of kilograms in the lower earth orbit. It was an early testing launch vehicle developed by the company before several other concepts clicked. Between 2006 and 2009, Falcon 1 made about five attempts, but it was only during the 4th attempt when it could finally reach the orbit.
Now, the emphasis is on developing the super heavy version of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle by the name called Falcon Heavy. This one will be a heavy lift launch vehicle to carry upto 24,681 kilograms in the earth’s orbit.
3. Dragon Capsules:
This American aerospace company also planned to enter a commercial space program in 2005 and Dragon Capsule was part of it only. The first Dragon capsule was designed to carry upto seven astronauts or carrying cargo in the orbit and even beyond in the space. Later, the company also used this same capsule to demonstrate cargo resupply and crew transportation to the space.
In 2017, the company launched Dragon 2 in a test flight to the ISS or International Space Station. Now, in 2018, the aim of the company is to launch a crewed Dragon 2 with US astronauts to the ISS. Apart from this, the company has separate plans for its Mars mission that seems to comprise of Red Dragon, which will be a low cost trans Martian injection vehicle to be developed by 2022.
4. Interplanetary Transport System:
As part of its plan to develop a super heavy lift launch vehicle, Space Exploration Technologies Corp.is developing an ITS launch vehicle. This vehicle is expected to feature a fully booster stage and will be a complete integrated second stage spacecraft capable of conducting interplanetary space missions.
Raptor too was part of this interplanetary transport system that was first unveiled in 2009. However, later in 2012, Musk revealed the company’s new methodology for propulsion by developing LOX or methane based engines both for the main as well as upper stages. Moreover, in an interview, Musk expressed his interest in developing something for travelling to Mars for human colonization by the year 2025. This is not all. He aims high and believes that by 2035, countless rockets will fly to Mars to take people up there for human colonization.
5. Reusable Launch System:
Up next in the most talked about SpaceX designs comes the reusable launch system that was first announced in 2011. Its designing phase got over in 2012 with the low speed concept of landing technology. F9R Dev or Falcon 9 Reusable Developed Vehicles and Grasshopper that demonstrated vertical takeoffs and landings were the company’s experimental reusable rockets.
In 2013, the company started testing with the booster atmospheric return technology and the testing went on until 2016. Finally, SpaceX achieved a successful method of reusing the first stage of its primary rocket, Falcon 9 with propulsive vertical landings on proper solid surfaces. Now, the aim is to make modifications to set the sea as the target for the reusable returning first stage vehicles.
Launching Facilities: At the moment, SpaceX has three operating orbital launch facilities, including one at Vandenberg, the second one at Cape Canaveral and the third one at Kennedy Space Center. Moreover, the company has recently announced its plans to start a launch site at Brownsville, Texas. The officials at the company also strongly believe that they look forward for a great launch business for each of these sites in the future.
All the launchings of payloads in the polar orbits are done by the company’s Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E). The same site is also capable of launching the latest Falcon Heavy and the ever popular Falcon 9. However, the site is not yet able to launch any vehicle to lower orbits.
2. Cape Canaveral:
Almost all the Falcon 9 launches to low Earth and the main geostationary orbits are done from the Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Moreover, the formerly referred as Launch Complex 13 or the now renamed as Landing Zone 1 is used for the first stage booster landings of Falcon 9.
3. Kennedy Space Center:
Since 2013, Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A or (LC39A) has been in the developing phase by the company. Moreover, later when NASA expressed its wish to choose SpaceX as its new commercial partner, it was then that Musk thought to shift a majority of launches like crew missions and commercial cargo for NASA to this developing site. Building up a new hanger somewhere around this site is also one of the key plans for the future revealed by the company.
Finally, in 2014, the officials from Space Exploration Technologies Corp. announced the company’s plan to build a special site at Brownsville, Texas for launching only commercial spacecrafts. In 2014, itself, the company began working on this new facility and expected to finish with the first launches from it by the end of 2018.
Satellite Prototyping: In the year 2015, the company proudly announced that it will soon enter the business of satellite production and internet business for global satellites. SpaceX’s own satellite factory will be built in Seattle, Washington and will hire about 60 talented engineers to work on the innovative SpaceX designs. Later in 2016, this aerospace company further acquired 740sq.mt of creative space in Irvine, California to work majorly on all means of communications with satellites.
Research & Development: By and large, we have acquainted you with all things about spacecraft and flight hardware as well as test and development facilities of this prestigious space travel company. Coming to the research and development methodology and facility, the company puts immense focus on developing reusable launch vehicles, network of global telecommunications and an interplanetary transport system.
During GPU Technology Conference held in 2015, the company revealed its own computational fluid dynamics or CFD software designed to enhance the simulation capability for evaluating the combustion designs of rocket engines. Continuous research and development through the latest space technologies are conducted at different sites of the company.
Various Successful Launch Contracts: Time and again NASA has given appealing contracts to SpaceX for developing space technology to resupply to the ISS or International Space Station. Apart from this, the company founded by Musk has been certified for the US military space launches of EELV payloads or Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle category payloads.
Moreover, in 2013, this company was given a commercial launch mission of launching about 23 missions in a span of 4 years. Last year in 2017, the company revealed that the company has a list of 60 missions on its manifest costing to over $7B in the contract. Besides, the following were a list of contracts given to this company excelling in space technology.
1. NASA Contracts:
a. COTS: SpaceX got a COTS or Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract from NASA in 2006 to put up an example of how cargo can be delivered to the ISS. The contract fetched the company about $278 million that was wisely invested in developing the famous Falcon 9 spacecraft. Later COTS Demo Flight 1 and Flight 2 were launched in 2010 and 2012 respectively and SpaceX became the first ever private company to not just launch but orbit and even recover a spacecraft with success.
b. Commercial Cargo: Between 2008 and 2016, NASA gave a series of contracts called CRS or Commercial Resupply Services to this company. 12 missions to resupply ISS were planned under this contract and all these missions fetched the company a whopping $1.6 billion. Later the second phase of the similar contract was proposed in 2014.
c. Commercial Crew: CCDev or the Commercial Crew Development Program was launched with an aim to design spacecrafts with commercial operation to transport astronauts to the ISS. Although, the company was unable to win the agreement in the first round, the tables turned in the second round and the company fetchedv the contract worth $75 million to invest in developing a launch escape system and progress in designing a spacecraft for crew transportation.
2. Commercial Contracts: In the year 2010, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. was contracted by SES SA, to launch a telecommunication satellite SES-8 and it successfully launched it in 2013. In fact, it was the company’s debut launch in a geostationary comsat. In 2010 itself, the company won the biggest commercial launch contract worth $492 million for launching Iridium satellites through its Falcon 9 launch vehicles.
3. Defence Contracts: United States Air Force awarded this company with an IDIQ contract or Indefinite Delivery and Indefinite Quantity contract for its RSS or Responsive Small Spacelift services in 2005. In 2008, NASA gave an IDIQ contract to the same company worth $1billion. Later in 2012, the company proudly revealed its first two contracts for launches with the United States Department of Defense. Year after year, the company managed to bag notable launch contracts from United States Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center for missions like Space Test Program 2 or STP-2 and Deep Space Climate Observatory or DSCOVR.
Zuma Mission: Recently, SpaceX launched a military satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on January 7th, 2018. Secretly referred to as the Zuma, this mission was expected to launch Zuma spacecraft from a two stage rocket Falcon 9 to enhance maximum reliability and reduce the cost for satellite transport.
However, later failing to receive any latest reports from its Strategic Command that is capable of monitoring over 23,000 satellites in space, speculations are high that Zuma mission was a failure. Moreover, experts believe that somewhere in the middle, the spacecraft got lost and crashed into the sea. Although, nothing has been officially revealed by Musk or NASA, rumors say that the spacecraft had a malfunctioning in its latter stages and finally crashed.
On the other hand, the company’s officials revealed that Zuma mission was a partial success because at least it successfully landed the first stage of the rocket for reuse in a launch in the future. The spokesperson was revealed that it is speculated that somehow the Zuma was not able to separate itself completely from the second stage.
Iridium-4 NEXT Mission: Last year on December 22nd, 2017, SpaceX successfully ended with its Iridium-4 NEXT Mission by deploying ten new Iridium-NEXT communication satellites. This was considered as the fourth group of such communication satellites in Iridium-NEXT constellation stationed at the low Earth orbit. Built in partnership with Thales Alenia Space and Orbital ATK, the Iridium-NEXT satellites were first deployed between 1997 and 2002.
Falcon 9 rocket was used for this mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base situated in California. A proper backup was prepared beforehand but everything went well and the launch was conducted with a success. A total of 81 such payloads will be tested by the Iridium and Thales Alenia Space Company and 75 out of them will be finally launched by Musk’s company by mid of 2018. In the recent mission held in 2017, only 10 were launched. The remaining satellites will be launched on eight other Falcon 9 launch vehicles.
During this mission, the launch vehicle was not fitted with any landing legs but was ideally supported with grid fins. This indicated that the company aimed to attempt to further guide a stage for a controlled ocean landing. The same technique was used earlier in many Falcon 9 missions for test landings. Moreover, it is speculated that this Iridium-4 NEXT Mission was another attempt by the company to recover the fairing for a rocket payload.
BFR & Mission to Mars: With an aim to make life multiplanetary, Musk initiated the Mission to Mars. Musk aimed to update a SpaceX design under its latest BFR spacecraft as a medium to serve different planets. BFR that is actually an acronym for Big Falcon Rocket mainly comprises of a 31 engine rocket with a capability of carrying about 100 people or even more to the space. This will be a reusable economical feasible vehicle to enhance the chances of Mars colonization.
If everything goes well, this updated spacecraft design will be able to cater to the orbits of Earth as well as Mars. It is expected to be designed with a single system comprising just one ship and one booster. With such a fantastic design, it might even replace the famous Falcon 9, Dragon and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.
On the other hand, as part of the Mission to Mars, Musk aims to send the first cargo in 2022. The main goal of this highly anticipated mission will be to confirm the presence of water resources and detect potential hazards of mining, placing power and installing life supporting infrastructure on Mars. After that, the second mission will be to send both a crew and a cargo in 2024 to build a propellant depot as well as to make preparations for crew flights in the future. Ultimately, if everything goes well as planned, Elon Musk hopes to start a civilization and a living city up there on planet Mars.
According to the information revealed by SpaceX officials, BFR will be made to enter the atmosphere of mars at a high speed of 7.5km per second, which will gradually decelerate. Perhaps, this is the reason that the head shield of BFR has been designed with a material capable withstanding multiple entries. In order to generate funds for this BFR mission to Mars, the company might even redirect resources from Dragon, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles.
Moreover, the company also aims to use BFR for an earth to earth transportation and not to restrict itself for multiplanetary transportation. In just about half an hour , most of the long distance journeys across the earth will be conducted using BFR rocket. However, the journey in this rocket will be a great matter of affordability for those who will be interested.
Upcoming Missions & Future Prospects:
1. Falcon Heavy Rocket Launch with Tesla Roadster on Mars:
Up next as part of the upcoming space missions of the company, Musk is going to send his own personal Tesla Roadster battery operated car aboard a Falcon Heavy Rocket to planet Mars. Yes, SpaceX’s new super heavy spacecraft Falcon Heavy will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to land a Tesla Roadster on Mars in the first quarter of 2018.
Elon Musk himself revealed that the debut flight of Falcon Heavy will carry his own company’s Tesla Motors vehicle to the Martian orbit. For those of you who are not aware about what Tesla Roadster is all about, let is inform that it the latest and the quickest car of the world capable of accelerating with a record setting of accelerating from 0 to 60mph in just 1.9 seconds. Designed to perform effortlessly on a set of batteries, this car features an elegant removable glass roof for a convertible driving experience.
Moreover, this will be no ordinary Tesla Roadster but Musk’s own car and many believe that chances are high that the rocket carrying this 4 seater sports car may even blow up in the middle. However, if the launch goes successfully, it will turn out to be the first car to land on any other planet like Mars and will be seen as a great piece of achievement for the entire human civilization living on planet Earth.
2. Citizen Landing on Moon Aboard Dragon 2 Spacecraft:
Next big mission drafted by Musk, the man behind SpaceX or Space Exploration Technologies Corporation is to send two private citizens around the moon aboard the company’s Dragon 2 capsule in the year 2018 itself. Moreover, the company has already chosen those two citizens to be sent to moon for this mission.
It is going to be the first human trip to deep space in the last 45 years and at the same time it is speculated to be launched by the same old Apollo programme launching pad that was used in 1969 for first time human landing on Moon. If everything goes as planned, then this will turn out to be the first record breaking mission to send a human life this far in the solar system in the fastest way.
The main aim of this mission is to carve out a stepping stone for human transport to planet Mars in the coming decade. What he ultimately wishes is to make a colony of live people on the red planet. With this aim in mind, he has already embarked upon a mission that is expected to finalize by 2020. Furthermore, not just Musk but the current US President Donald Trump too has expressed his wish to send human beings up there to Mars by 2030 and setting this as goal, NASA has charted out a two decade plan to send human beings to Mars.
3. Four Rocket Launches in February 2018:
Although everyone has been waiting with bated breath for the launch of Falcon Heavy that has got delayed for some reason, the company has something else on its mind. According to a the latest inside leaks from the company, SpaceX is aiming to launch three or may be four space missions in February 2018. For this, two geostationary communication satellites have already been parked at Cape Canaveral Facility in Florida and the third one is presumed to be stationed on the West Coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base.
GovSat-1 or SES-16 –NET weighing about 4000kg is going to launch in the orbit in late January on a Falcon 9 space vehicle. Second one in the row of these expected launched from the company will be PAZ commercial imagine satellite developed to provide high resolution images of Earth from a low polar orbit of about 500km. This mission is expected to be launched on a Falcon 9 booster on February 10th, 2018.
Then, there are rumors for satellites to be launched in a Starlink constellation in February 2018. More details regarding Starlink and PAZ to carry Microsat 2A and 2B test satellites are still to be fetched by the officials. However, we speculate these launched to mark the debut launching from the company’s Western landing pad also known as the SLC-4 West.
Finally, lined up for a grand space launch in mid- February 2018 is the Hispasat 30W-6(1F) commercial communication satellite weighing approximately 6000kg. This will be conducted aboard a new Falcon 9 spacecraft. The aim here will be to place the first stage of this satellite in a geostationary transfer orbit, while the booster will then head for a landing at sea after accomplishing its complete task. If everything goes well as planned, this will be the first new booster to expand the company’s list of achievements in 2018.
Calendar for SpaceX Launches and Missions:
1. Musk aims to launch the company’s very first unmanned private mission to mars in May 2018.
2. Up next in 2020, SpaceX will schedule for the second unmanned mission to the red planet, Mars.
3. In 2024, the company aims to launch its very first manned mission to Mars in its innovative ITS or Interplanetary Transport System Project.
4. Lastly, the much awaited Falcon Heavy Rocket will be launched at a still to be decided date in future.
Stay tuned to get the latest updates about the ongoing and upcoming missions and launches of SpaceX.