SpaceX launches 24 satellites (along with 152 dead people)

The most powerful rocket in the world can now say it has a night launch under its belt. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy completed its third successful launch at 2:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as part of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 launch, in what Elon Musk called the “most difficult launch” his company has ever undertaken.

As part of the launch, SpaceX successfully landed two of the rocket’s first-stage boosters, which touched down at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The center booster didn’t fare so well after it crashed into the ocean as it attempted to land on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.

SpaceX obtained another first when the Heavy’s nose cone was captured in SpaceX’s netted boat, Ms. Tree. This was the first successful net of the cone since 2017 when the company first attempted the feat. The successful capture means that SpaceX has the option of reusing the structure instead of rebuilding another, and with each costing a cool $6 million, it will be a vast money-saver for the company. SpaceX has said that they will attempt to try out one of the used fairings on a Falcon 9 later this year.

Tuesday’s launch was made even more complicated by the fact that in order to be successful, many of the 24 satellites on board had to be injected into three different orbits to accomplish their missions. This required the rocket’s second-stage booster to fire on four separate occasions, with the final firing three and a half hours after the launch.

Among the satellites included one with the cremated remains of 152 corpses. The ashes are being lifted into orbit by Celestis Memorial Spaceflights, which charged upwards of $5,000 per gram, which Celestis refers to as “participants.” Among the remains are those of James Doohan, more popularly known as Scotty on the original Star Trek series.

Also aboard the flight, and probably more useful to humanity, were several scientific satellites.

NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock is a toaster oven-sized instrument which will test a new way for spacecraft to navigate in deep space. The technology could make GPS-like navigation possible for missions to the Moon and Mars. With all of the hardware NASA has successfully gotten to the Red Planet, the clock could help eliminate communication issues. The test system has been a project of the agency for two decades and was created to help spacecraft and the home planet navigate and communicate with little input.

“Every single spacecraft exploring deep space today relies on navigation that’s performed back here at Earth to tell it where it is and, much more importantly, where it’s going,” Jill Seubert, a deep-space navigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said during a news conference held on June 10. “We have to navigate from Earth because the clocks onboard spacecraft are really not good at accurately measuring time, but if we can change that, we can revolutionize the way that we can navigate deep space.”

The Green Propellant Infusion Mission will test a new propulsion system that runs on a high-performance and non-toxic spacecraft fuel. The low-toxicity propellant could help propel constellations of small satellites in and beyond low-Earth orbit. The new fuel is a hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel/oxidizer mix called AF-M315E and will serve as an alternative to hydrazine, a highly toxic compound used in rocket fuel to power satellites and spacecraft.

It also boasts a higher density than hydrazine, meaning more of it can be stored in containers of the same volume. In addition, it delivers a higher specific impulse, or thrust delivered per given quantity of fuel, and has a lower freezing point, requiring less spacecraft power to maintain its temperature. The fuel has been in the works for years and is nearly 50 percent more efficient than current propellants.

LightSail2 is the Planetary Society’s citizen-funded craft which aims to become the first spacecraft in Earth orbit propelled solely by sunlight. During launch LightSail 2 was enclosed within Prox-1, a small satellite built by Georgia Tech students. Prox-1 is scheduled to deploy LightSail 2 on 2 July 2019.

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