Elon Musk’s firm launched 26 missions in 2020, breaking its earlier calendar-year file of 21, which was set in 2018. This 12 months’s launches included SpaceX’s 100th profitable area mission general, in addition to the 100th of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.
However the uncooked numbers inform solely a tiny portion of the story. For instance, two of SpaceX’s launches this 12 months despatched astronauts to the Worldwide Area Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon capsules — the primary orbital crewed missions to raise off from the USA since NASA grounded its area shuttle fleet in 2011.
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The primary of these groundbreaking Crew Dragon flights, a take a look at mission known as Demo-2, launched on Could 30 and carried NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the orbiting lab for a two-month keep.
“Right this moment, a brand new period in human spaceflight begins as we as soon as once more launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil on their solution to the Worldwide Area Station, our nationwide lab orbiting Earth,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated in an announcement simply after Demo-2’s launch.
“The launch of this industrial area system designed for people is an exceptional demonstration of American excellence and is a crucial step on our path to increase human exploration to the moon and Mars,” Bridenstine added.
Demo-2’s success paved the way in which for Crew-1, the primary operational astronaut mission SpaceX has flown underneath a $2.6 billion contract the corporate signed with NASA’s Industrial Crew Program in 2014. Crew-1, which lifted off on Nov. 15, took NASA’s Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the station for a six-month stint.
SpaceX additionally flew two different missions to the ISS this 12 months — uncrewed resupply flights utilizing the robotic cargo model of Dragon, which launched in March and December, respectively.
Starlink taking form
However greater than half of the 2020 missions — 14 of them, to be exact — launched in assist of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-internet venture. Every of these 14 lofted about 60 Starlink spacecraft to low Earth orbit, rising the constellation to epic (and, in lots of astronomers’ eyes, worrying) proportions.
SpaceX has now launched greater than 950 Starlink satellites to this point, and about 900 of them stay in orbit, constituting by far the biggest constellation ever assembled. For perspective: Simply 3,300 operational satellites at present zoom round Earth, and humanity has launched 10,500 spacecraft to orbit because the daybreak of the area age in 1957, in accordance with the European Area Company.
Starlink will get a lot larger nonetheless, if all goes in accordance with plan. SpaceX has secured permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Fee (FCC) to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites, and the corporate has filed paperwork for as much as 30,000 extra.
However 900 satellites is sufficient to present not less than some web protection, and SpaceX started a public beta take a look at of Starlink service in October of this 12 months. And in December, the FCC granted SpaceX almost $900 million in subsidies to convey broadband to rural areas throughout the U.S.
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All 26 of the 2020 launches employed the two-stage Falcon 9, which includes a reusable first stage. On 23 of these missions, SpaceX managed to land the primary stage safely again on Earth so it could actually fly once more sooner or later.
There have been simply two missed landing makes an attempt — in February and March, when a returning Falcon 9 booster failed to stay its touchdown at sea on certainly one of SpaceX’s two robotic “drone ships.” (Nineteen of this 12 months’s profitable touchdowns occurred on such ships, and solely 4 occurred on terra firma.)
One 2020 mission, a January take a look at of Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort system, didn’t function a touchdown try. Crew Dragon fired its escape thrusters early within the uncrewed flight and jetted away from its rocket trip, as it will within the occasion of an actual launch emergency. The Falcon 9’s first stage was destroyed shortly thereafter by aerodynamic forces, as SpaceX had anticipated.
And this touchdown success charge wasn’t SpaceX’s solely notable reusability milestone of 2020. Two of this 12 months’s flights — a Starlink launch on Nov. 24 and the Dec. 13 liftoff of a Sirius XM broadcasting satellite tv for pc — used Falcon 9 first phases that already had six missions underneath their belts.
Coming into 2020, SpaceX had by no means flown a single Falcon 9 booster seven separate instances. And the corporate simply did it twice in lower than weeks.
Musk has repeatedly stated that he based SpaceX again in 2002 primarily with one purpose in thoughts — serving to humanity colonize Mars.
The corporate took important steps in 2020 towards undertaking this bold objective. The most important and most dramatic step occurred on Dec. 9, when SpaceX launched a shiny silver car known as SN8 on a 7.8-mile-high (12.5 kilometers) take a look at flight from the corporate’s South Texas facility, close to the Gulf Coast village of Boca Chica.
SN8 (“Serial No. 8”) is the newest prototype of Starship, the spacecraft that SpaceX is creating to take folks to and from Mars, the moon and different distant locations. Just like the envisioned ultimate Starship, SN8 is fabricated from chrome steel, stands about 165 toes (50 meters) tall and is powered by SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engine.
The operational Starship could have six Raptors, Musk has stated. SN8 had solely three, however they have been highly effective sufficient to take the car far increased than any Starship prototype had ever gone earlier than. The earlier altitude file was 500 toes (150 m), achieved in the summertime of 2019 and this previous August and September by three single-engine craft — Starhopper, SN5 and SN6, respectively.
And SN8 did extra than simply fly excessive; it carried out a “stomach flop” and different advanced aerial maneuvers just like those the operational Starship will execute when coming again to Earth from area missions. The prototype additionally landed the place SpaceX needed it to, although SN8 got here in too quick and exploded. (SN8’s flight technically takes SpaceX’s 2020 launch tally to 27, however I saved it off the “official” checklist as a result of it was a take a look at involving a prototype car.)
SN8’s fiery demise didn’t dampen the keenness of Musk, who considered the primary high-altitude Starship flight as a powerful success.
“Mars, right here we come!” he tweeted shortly after the take a look at.
Starship will launch from Earth atop an enormous rocket known as Tremendous Heavy, which can sport about 30 Raptors. Like Falcon 9 first phases, Tremendous Heavy will land shortly after liftoff and be used once more, Musk has stated. (Starship will likely be highly effective sufficient to launch itself off the moon and Mars, each of which have a lot weaker gravity than Earth does.)
No Tremendous Heavy prototype has gotten off the bottom to this point. However the subsequent Starship car, SN9, ought to quickly take a leap: it moved to the pad final week.
SpaceX needs Starship to be up and operating quickly. Musk lately stated he is assured that the car will likely be flying folks to Mars by 2026, and such missions may launch as early as 2024 “if we’re fortunate.”
That timeframe would mesh properly with NASA’s present crewed moon plans, which the company is pursuing by its Artemis program. Artemis goals to land two astronauts close to the lunar south pole in 2024 and to ascertain a sustainable human presence on and across the moon by 2028.
Starship may find yourself serving to to make all of this occur. In April, NASA chosen Starship as a candidate to take its astronauts to the lunar floor, together with human landers being developed by Dynetics and a coalition led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. And in October, NASA awarded SpaceX a $53 million contract to show in-space refueling utilizing Starship, one other shiny spot within the firm’s memorable 2020.
Mike Wall is the writer of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a ebook concerning the seek for alien life. Observe him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Observe us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Fb.