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How SpaceX launched satellites on a Falcon 9 into orbit

Several years ago a company called Spaceflight had a crazy plan. In the words of CEO Curt Blake, the plan was, "Let's buy a hawk!"

Not like the bird of prey. Like the big SpaceX rocket, which, like its name bird, crashes back to Earth after the conquest. If you can buy the full capacity of such a large porter, you can explore the city's largest and most elegant bar: they truly hope that people come to your party and also that they pay their own tabs.

It was a bit naïve, Blake admits. But aerospace had a job to do, and a Falcon 9 seemed the way to go. Spaceflight is a start-up broker who, like a travel agent, takes care of the details of the launch for satellite makers. The company wanted ̵

1; as needed – to launch many small satellites. At this time around 2015, there were not many other options. Russia had invaded the Crimea and made missions more difficult from there. India, which now holds the record for most single-launched satellites, had not yet taken any "secondary payloads" or a large old rocket vehicle. And smaller missiles, like Rocket Labs Electron, shimmered only in the eyes of their parents.

Prior to signing the contract with SpaceX, Spaceflight had already brought a number of customers into the series, whose final list included universities, artists and commercial traders, observers and the military. Soon after, SpaceX agreed to let the company fill one of its rockets with rockets. Normally a Falcon could stow a few small cars next to a more impressive passenger as secondary payloads, but they themselves were never the stars of the show. However, this was the case on the SmallSat Express.

It was on Spaceflight to protect all these payloads on the journey and put them safely in orbit. And after three years of subcontracting, they have made it: After some delays launched on the morning of December 3, a Falcon 9, which had already been twice in space, from the Air Force base Vandenberg.

But that was not always the case. Space travel had come up with a complicated mechanism that looks like a huge steampunk binoculars to protect and then trigger its satellites. When SpaceX engineers saw it for the first time, they gave it a catchy name: Frankenstack.

Frankenstack could bring forth children. According to consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology, 336 smallsats were launched in 2017, six times as many as in 2012. Another consulting firm, Frost and Sullivan, predicts that more than 11,000 small satellites will launch between 2018 and 2030. The inflated costs and timelines of most space projects, these satellites can be built quickly and inexpensively and can be easily upgraded once their hardware and software are mature. They're also pretty sturdy for satellite standards – in that you can divide the functions into a constellation instead of putting all your eggs in an exquisite basket. That's one reason why the military is interested in them. As satellites become cheaper in every respect, space (and space data) will become more accessible not only to the government but also to students.

The small satellites of the future will have some options: small, tailor-made and therefore more expensive rides; a big ride with bigger satellites; or clown-carring on big fire pipes. The clown-car approach, of which the SmallSat Express is an example, is fraught with complications. You need to coordinate the schedules, use everyone without smashup, and then identify and track all those floating boxes. But sending so many sats on a landing is like killing 64 birds with one stone.

Before the SmallSat Express was able to leave the station, Spaceflight had to prove it could do it all. Let's start by filling in the seats, which was not easy at first. "SpaceX – they had some problems at the beginning," says Blake. (Read: two explosions.) "And that slowed sales a bit, I have to say." But SpaceX's launch cad went back to normal without blowing, and eventually 64 satellites from 34 operators were on the SmallSat Express.

To accommodate all passengers, Spaceflight needed to build "upper and lower free-flying aircraft" to hold most satellites and then send them into space. On Tuesday, when the cargo went into orbit, the free fliers flew away and soon satellites like Tie Fighters glided off the top. Others stumbled out of the lower freighter, while some in the second stage of the rocket flew off a payload carrier. Delivering all – every five minutes or so – took hours, with customers "Mines out!" Updates for the evening.

The Spaceflight team conducted thousands of simulations to see if the satellite shootings would not lead to collisions. They showed their work both the FCC and the Air Force. This work seems to have been good: Nobody shouted that the satellite has collapsed into another one. As soon as all payloads were out, the death-free leaflets sprouted sails from behind and invaded the atmosphere.

But the complexity did not end with the mission. All payload operators had to find, identify and contact their satellites. It's not that easy at all, really not and definitely not when more than 60 satellites other than your own are broadcast from the same location. Imagine, you try to follow and find out the names of everyone who gets off the bus at the last stop. Before the start, T.S. Kelso, who runs the orbital analysis site CelesTrak, expressed concern. "It remains unclear how prepared we are to locate passengers from the time of the SSO-A launch." tweeted . "I'm still very worried." Later he quoted another start of 31 objects, of which only 18 objects had been identified in three and a half days.

Regulators and before the Combined Space Operations Center, "says Blake, referring to the relevant part of the Air Force. "We wanted to get feedback. We did everything we could think of. "On the same day that Kelso tweeted, the Air Force Squadron subtweet who was responsible for tracking, seemed to alert his call:" We are working closely with all O together / Os [owners and operators] to get the objects moving as fast as possible Thanks to all the O / Os for their collaboration, transparency and support for #spaceflightsafety. "

This process looks like this: Spaceflight provides customers with initial data about their orbit that you are trying to contact the satellite, while driving over a ground station. They pass the information about the orbit and ID of their satellite to Spaceflight, and Spaceflight forwards that word to the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC). The center analyzes this data along with its own data to try to identify individual satellites. "The object-claiming process is somewhat informal," says Pekka Laurila, co-founder of ICEYE, an imaging company that has launched a satellite aboard the SmallSat Express. It's a conversation with CSpOC, where Spaceflight's customers conclude that certain data points represent their offspring and share their data to back up their allegations. "Ultimately, it's clear that all parties have claimed their satellites," he says. "It can easily take several days or weeks."

Others agree: It's not easy. "If you've been dropped off with a whole range of satellites, you can not know where your satellite is for weeks," says Dan Ceperley, CEO of LeoLabs, a private company tracking space objects. "It can take a long time to find out who is who and where you are going." Even if CSpOC knows the orbits of 64 new satellites, it does not necessarily know which one is.

It worked fast for some companies. HawkEye 360, which launched three satellites to detect radio transmissions from Earth, captured its satellites until dinners in its offices in the DC area.

The satellite company Planet has about 120 "Dove" satellites Pictures of the Earth, has already dealt with big flock launches: From India, 88 of their aircraft with a total of 104 satellites started for a flight. "Normally we make contact with all satellites in the first orbits," says Mike Safyan, Vice President of Launch. In fact, Planet had contacted SmallSat Express before going to bed with its five satellites.

Planet was the "primary payload" here – even with these egalitarian launches, of course, there are classes – and thus earned the honor of placing art on the outside of the rocket. "We went with a tribute to the arcade game Space Invaders of 19459012," says Safyan. The payloads of the planet are drawn like pixelated conquerors. "It's a little funny," explains Safyan, "Planet has the largest satellite fleet." (We understand it, but does Planet remember that the goal of this game is to destroy the invaders?)

A less The invasive company, Audacy, launched its first satellite on the SmallSat Express to test its communications technology. On Thursday, Audacy still tried to identify and contact his satellite to separate him from the many others nearby. "Since the placement of our ground station only allows us four passes per day, this should take several days," said CEO Ralph Ewig on Tuesday. "An essential part of our mission to build and launch our own nanosatellite was to understand the barriers to our customers' communication." Some of these were delays in identification and pingback.

Eve was confident before the introduction, but prudent. If something goes wrong during takeoff or deployment, only a few satellites are usually damaged. That's not nothing, but it's what space insurance is for.

So far so good. Since Tuesday night, a Twitter appeal has been called by satellite operators: " Here! " " Here! " " Here! " Still, it will take time for CSpOC and some Owners of the satellites to clarify things. And as thousands of other satellites launch, orbiting satellites and firing manifestos, what I own and what you own becomes even more complicated. In space, it's true: no one can hear you screaming. But it's important that the earth hears at least one satellite scream, jump back and find out who's where and what's doing.

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