Sunday, March 31, 2024

Happy Easter!!

It's Easter, Resurrection Sunday, and as I do regularly, I look at what I've posted for the major holidays in the past, and often modify them quite a bit.  Not wholesale tear it up and start over, but some extensive additions and deletions.  

Looking for the Living One in a Cemetery

Luke 24: 1-12 New Living Translation

24 But very early on Sunday morning[a] the women went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. So they went in, but they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus. As they stood there puzzled, two men suddenly appeared to them, clothed in dazzling robes.

The women were terrified and bowed with their faces to the ground. Then the men asked, “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man[b] must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.”

Then they remembered that he had said this. So they rushed back from the tomb to tell his eleven disciples—and everyone else—what had happened. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several other women who told the apostles what had happened. 11 But the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it. 12 However, Peter jumped up and ran to the tomb to look. Stooping, he peered in and saw the empty linen wrappings; then he went home again, wondering what had happened.

Coming from my background, becoming an evangelical Christian was a large change.  I had studied biochemistry and microbiology in college through my third year before life imposed some detours, eventually getting my degree and starting my career as an engineer late in life (over 30).  I had been an amateur astronomer, so between them I was deeply marinated in the standard model of Cosmology as well as conventional biological evolutionary theory.  Frankly, I wasn't giving it much thought any longer, but my wife had re-affirmed her faith (she had first accepted Christ as child) and I was having all of my mental models disrupted.  She had started a subscription to Bibical Archaeology Review and the constant refrain from archaeologists, not religiously motivated, along the lines of "we thought this was old Jewish folklore, but here it is" got me thinking "if that's true, maybe there's more that's true."  Strobel's The Case for Christ, played a role in filling in the gaps in my historical knowledge. 

I went forward for Baptism in an evangelical church and an important part of that change was because the pastor had a similar background to mine, at least in the biochemistry/microbiology. He was a pharmacist and director of the pharmacy department in one of the local hospitals. He quickly became one of our closest friends in the worst time of our lives - Mrs. Graybeard's cancer in 1997. It's a long story, but in the last couple of years that church's elders dumped him. As the story came out, we found a new church - a nearby Southern Baptist church. Our pastor started going to another similar church, but closer to his home. He passed away a couple of weeks ago.

Easter is the most important day in Christianity and far more important than Christmas because of the resurrection.  Everyone has a birthday, but history only records one resurrection.  The resurrection is essential to Christianity; without it there simply is no reason for Christianity to exist.  Since virtually everyone, including honest atheists, agrees Jesus was a real man in history (I've always found it amazing that Jesus' existence is better attested in ancient sources than that of Julius Caesar - but no one claims Julius Caesar was not a real person) and died on the cross, the question becomes whether or not it can be verified that Christ was seen after the resurrection by someone other than the closest circle of disciples. Strobel says:

Did anyone see Jesus alive again? I have identified at least eight ancient sources, both inside and outside the New Testament, that in my view confirm the apostles’ conviction that they encountered the resurrected Christ. Repeatedly, these sources stood strong when I tried to discredit them. 

Could these encounters have been hallucinations? No way, experts told me. Hallucinations occur in individual brains, like dreams, yet, according to the Bible, Jesus appeared to groups of people on three different occasions – including 500 at once!

In the end, after I had thoroughly investigated the matter, I reached an unexpected conclusion: it would actually take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a follower of Jesus.

I still think a great summary is "Five Confounding Facts About Jesus' Resurrection" a 2016 post at Donald Sensing's Sense of Events (who doesn't seem to have posted since April of '22 but has left his archives up).  He has done several excellent posts on the subject, including Jesus and History and links to articles put together by working scientists, "On what basis would a scientist accept the Resurrection?" and "Is Belief in the Resurrection Unscientific?

Enjoy your day.  Enjoy your families. As usual there's a pork butt going in to the smoker, this time after starting cooking in the 3AM timeframe.  Pulled pork tonight. 


Saturday, March 30, 2024

We're Having an Ambitious SpaceX Saturday

If things go as scheduled, we should get three Falcon 9 missions tonight, spread over just a few hours. 

As I write, we've already had the first launch, the European Eutelsat 36D, a communications satellite bound for a geostationary orbit. That was at 5:52 PM local time. There were thin high clouds but as the Falcon 9 got behind those clouds it was going into the final moments of the first stage's burn and the thin clouds were enough to mask our view of MECO and stage separation.

Eutelsat 36D, built by Airbus, will be replacing Eutelsat 36B at 36° East where it will provide over 1100 broadcast channels and other connectivity across Africa, Russia, and Europe. The satellite features 70 Ku-band transponders to enable constant data flow to the ground. The satellite is expected to have an operational lifetime of 15 years.

The schedule lists two more launches for the day (Eastern US time), making three launches this evening. A second mission from SLC-40 of Starlink group 6-45 was originally scheduled for 9:02 but has been moved to 9:30 PM ET, or 3 hours 38 minutes after that first launch. Finally, the last launch of the day is another group of Starlink satellites, Group 7-18, this time from Vandenberg SFB at 10:30 PM ET, 7:30 Pacific. Three launches in 4 hours 38 minutes. Each of those launches has schedule slop of at least an hour, so while this focuses on the scheduled time, we won't know until all three are launched. 

An interesting aside to this schedule is that today is the anniversary of the first time SpaceX launched and landed a used Falcon 9 booster. March 30, 2017; seven years ago.

I watched the first launch on's YouTube feed, and one of the guys there voiced the thought I regularly have: we're saying things that a few years ago no one would have thought would be said. For example, that booster was flying its 12th mission (I think - can't find a real reference) and it seemed sooty for a rocket with only 11 previous flights. Even a couple of years ago, when 10 flights was the announced goal, did you ever think you'd say something like that? Did you think you'd ever see a rocket with 5 or 6 missions and say, "look at how clean that is; it looks like a new rocket?"

Friday, March 29, 2024

A Commercial Space Story I Haven't Been Covering

I've been remiss in providing details on the Varda orbital experiments that recently concluded with a successful recovery of their payload that - much like OSIRIS-REx's samples - parachuted into the Utah desert in February. It's an important milestone and mission.

This story has been going on, quietly and in the background, for years. Varda Space launched their small satellite on the Falcon 9 Transporter-8 rideshare mission on June 12, 2023. They had actually thought they could return their payload by mid July of '23, but had to wait for government approval - which is what delayed them until this past February. 

Considering the time it takes to design a mission, design and build the satellite and acquire a ride into space, you'd think the FAA had time to think about this mission and clear the reentry, but they were apparently afraid. You see, the Varda W-1 capsule was autonomously manufacturing complex pharmaceutical molecules that are hard to create on Earth because of gravity. Doing the manufacturing in space should allow chemicals like this to be manufactured efficiently and at lower costs than on the ground.

In a July 24 interview, Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda, said the company was still working with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation for a reentry license for the spacecraft. That office, best known for licensing commercial launches, is also responsible for overseeing reentries by commercial spacecraft.

A key issue, he said, is that Varda is the first to seek a reentry license under new FAA regulations known as Part 450. Those regulations were enacted by the FAA more than two years ago to streamline the launch and reentry licensing process.

“I think a lot of the collaborations that we’ve had with the FAA have been trailblazing, and we recognize that, given we’re the first, we set the standard for what future Part 450 reentry looks like,” he said. Varda started discussions with the FAA in early 2021, shortly after the company’s founding.

They received the license in early February and performed the re-entry and recovery on February 21. By March 20, the company revealed that everything worked and released a preprint paper (pdf alert) of their results.

The W-1 mission sought to test the feasibility of making therapeutics in space, testing Varda's hardware off Earth for the first time. During its time in orbit, the W-1 capsule successfully crystalized the metastable Form III of the antiviral drug ritonavir, which then survived its return to Earth. The space-processed ritonavir has since been analyzed, and per an X post by Varda Space cofounder Delian Asparouhov, "[t]hem space drugs cooked real good."

While pharmaceuticals have been processed in microgravity on parabolic flights and the International Space Station, Varda Space's method aims to be more efficient and cost-effective, using uncrewed capsules that serve dual purposes as a mini-factory and a reentry vehicle.

I bet when more Fed Bois read that line starting with, "Them space drugs..." they might want to have Varda followed a little more closely. Wish I was kidding.

Varda Space's manufacturing capsule is examined by recovery personnel as it sits on the desert floor of the Utah Test and Training Range on Feb. 21, 2024. (Image credit: Varda Space/John Kraus)

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Small Space News Story Roundup 32

As always, small stories I found interesting. 

Japan's SLIM Lunar Lander Wakes Up Again 

For the second time, Japan's first lunar lander SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) has awakened from the cold lunar night and "phoned home."  

Mission team members announced the news via X on Wednesday (March 27), in a post that also featured a photo newly snapped by the lander's navigation camera.

Yes, that's the first photo after SLIM contacted ground controllers and was shot when they established contact, not weeks ago. While I'm not sure of this I think the time tag of 11:28 PM on March 27 is the time in Japan of the Tweet, since that's the time tag I got at X, and it's the same one as shown at the original story (link above). I don't think we're in the same time zone but has a similar screen capture from X and they posted hours before I did. 

JAXA scientists added that most of the functions that survived the first lunar night survived this one as well.

Today's Delta IV Heavy launch was scrubbed, rescheduled for Friday

ULA scrubbed today's launch attempt after a couple of delays moved the 1:40 PM EDT liftoff until well after 2:00 PM. The final scrub occurred just after t-4:00 minutes "... due to an issue with a liquid pump failure on the gaseous nitrogen pipeline which provides pneumatic pressure to the launch vehicle systems..." 

The current liftoff time is set for 1:37 PM Friday, March 28. The chance of acceptable weather goes up from today's 30% to 60%.

 JPL Team optimistic they can get Voyager 1 working again

Speaking at a March 20 meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Solar and Space Physics, Joseph Westlake, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, said it appeared possible to fix the computer problem on the nearly 50-year-old spacecraft that has disrupted operations since last November.

Westlake went on to say:

“It’s a part failure on one of the memories and they’re looking for a way to move a couple hundred words of software from one region to another in the flight computer.”

In the 8 bit computer that was built from discrete circuits that Voyager 1 is running, a word is 2 bytes or 16 bits. While the Intel 8008, the first single-chip 8-bit microprocessor was available at the time Voyager was being built and readied for launch, I'm going to assume that it wouldn't have met the environmental requirements for launch into deep space.  That, or the designers weren't convinced the 8008 was as good as "the way we've always built processors." Out of Earth's magnetic shield, Voyager's components are subjected to around the clock bombardment with all sorts of radiation out there.  This is one of the places where higher levels of integration and smaller transistor sizes have drawbacks. In this case, the drawback is making modern parts more susceptible to having a logic state changed by things like a single neutron going through the chip.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Thursday - the Last Delta IV Heavy Leaves the CCSFS

As we reported last week, Thursday is planned to be the last Delta IV Heavy flight, the NROL-70 mission of the Delta IV Heavy version of the old Delta family. Liftoff is set for 1:40 PM EDT, the start of a four hour launch window. The 45th Weather Squadron of the US Space force gives a 30% chance of acceptable weather (pdf alert) as a cold front clears the Space Coast tomorrow earlier in the day. The specific weather concerns are the launch pad winds and clouds. It goes on to say that if there's a 24 hour hold, that climbs to a 60% chance of acceptable weather.  

The last Delta IV Heavy launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in 2022, NROL-91.  Image credit ULA.

The Delta IV Heavy got famous for setting itself on fire as it lifts off, earning the title of the Heavy Metal Rocket or Most Metal Rocket. You can see the charred colors on the three boosters in the picture above; the main core and liquid-fueled strap on boosters on either side. More importantly, the Delta IV Heavy was America's most powerful launch vehicle for almost a decade, and a cornerstone for the US military's space program for more than twice that time. This is the last flight of a legend.

"This is such an amazing piece of technology, 23 stories tall, a half-million gallons of propellant and a quarter-million pounds of thrust, and the most metal of all rockets, setting itself on fire before it goes to space," said Tory Bruno, ULA's president and CEO. "Retiring it is (key to) the future, moving to Vulcan, a less expensive higher-performance rocket. But it’s still sad.”

This isn't just the last launch of the Delta IV Heavy configuration, it's the final flight for the entire, historic Delta rocket family—the 389th rocket with the Delta name—since 1960. But those earlier rockets share virtually nothing in common with the Delta IV, which debuted in 2002. Until the Delta IV, the Deltas all had a history going back to the Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles of the Cold War era. The Delta IV was was a clean-sheet design, initially conceived by McDonnell Douglas, and acquired by Boeing when they bought the competitor in 1997. When Boeing merged with Lockheed Martin to create United Launch Alliance, Delta IV and Atlas V became the ULA vehicles.

The problem with the Delta IV family has nothing to do with its capabilities or reliability; it's the cost. At one time, launches on the D IV Heavy were $400M. The high prices kind of opened the door to SpaceX - the only real competitor to ULA - and drove ULA to develop the Vulcan which will replace both the Delta IV and Atlas V families; another name with a history back to the Cold War. 

"Delta IV Heavy is three rockets bolted together," Bruno said. "With a single core Vulcan, we’re able to collapse that cost (of Delta IV Heavy) by 70 percent and make that mission a lot more practical."

Everything about the mission profile that can be deduced points to NROL-70 being a radio reconnaissance satellite, according to the Ars Technica profile on this mission. The obvious question to the author was if being the last mission before the move to a vehicle that costs 70% less was a problem. 

When asked why not wait for a cheaper ride on Vulcan, Scolese said, "We had the spacecraft ready to go, and we had a rocket that we trust, so it made sense to continue on with this. Something has to be last and we’re proud to be on that vehicle, and we have a lot of confidence in the system."

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Like NASA's CLPS, But For Asteroid Apophis

That's a side note to an interesting story on about the company ExLabs that's planning a mission to Apophis in 2028, before it's closest approach to Earth in April, 2029.   

ExLabs (which might be the worst name for a company because of this reference) isn't really their name. Their formal name is Exploration Labs. What I don't know is if they call themselves ExLabs or if it's something the SpaceNews author came up with. 

During the mission, ExLabs intends to deposit three cubesats in Apophis’ orbit. The flight also is designed to validate systems and software for future campaigns to capture and move near-Earth asteroids into stable orbits for resource acquisition.

“We’re creating a unique partnership to enable a new style of lower-cost missions in collaboration with government and commercial partners,” ExLabs CEO Matthew Schmidgall told SpaceNews.

The company is developing vehicles to host payloads from partner companies, plus robotics to capture and transport space objects - things like Apophis or smaller bodies -  to new locations. The first one is called the Space Exploration and Resource Vehicle, or SERV, and it's ExLabs’ spacecraft to host payloads with a mass as high as 30 metric tons in its fully stacked configuration. Their Arachne Platform is designed to capture and transport noncooperative objects, like orbital debris removal. 

All interesting but burying the lede, which is that NASA hosted a workshop last month to start discussions about options for low-cost missions to Apophis, much like the CLPS program.  Find startups and other innovative companies, give them some seed money for fixed price contracts to come up with missions and the hardware to achieve the mission.  

All of that is puzzling given that they've been saying for years that once OSIRIS-REx completed its mission to asteroid Bennu, it would be sent on to Apophis, and that's exactly how it happened back last September when the samples were dropped off on Earth, changing the mission's name to OSIRIS-APEX. The article about the NASA workshop talks about a NASA mission called Janus that would have sent the spacecraft on flybys of binary asteroids. Janus, part of the agency’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, was to launch as a secondary payload on the Psyche asteroid mission in 2022, but when that mission was delayed a year that second mission couldn't be flown. As a result, a couple of small satellites built for the Janus mission are just sitting around. Perhaps they could be modified for an Apophis mission. 

Render of Exploration Labs' Arachne, a spacecraft designed for large debris capture. On the left end of Arachne, under the American flag, it says EX - perhaps that's what they call themselves.  Credit: Exploration Labs

Monday, March 25, 2024

Intuitive Machines Says Goodbye to Odie

I guess we can call it official now.  Intuitive Machines has announced that their lander Odysseus - which they quickly nicknamed Odie - has failed to awaken after the frigid lunar night and declared an end to the mission.  

"Intuitive Machines started listening for Odie's wake-up signal on March 20, when we projected enough sunlight would potentially charge the lander's power system and turn on its radio," the Houston-based company said in a post on X on Saturday (March 23).

"As of March 23rd at 1030 A.M. Central Standard Time, flight controllers decided their projections were correct, and Odie's power system would not complete another call home. This confirms that Odie has permanently faded after cementing its legacy into history as the first commercial lunar lander to land on the moon," Intuitive Machines added in another Saturday post.

The probe landed on the moon February 22nd, and it was obvious from the start that things weren't ideal but it took another couple of days before it was understood what happened.  As Ars Technica put it, "that moment when you land on the Moon, break a leg, and are about to topple over."   

Odysseus took this selfie while passing over the near side of the Moon, after lunar orbit insertion on February 21.  Image credit: Intuitive Machines  

As an aside, I can't tell you how many naysayers I've read saying that since Odie tipped over, we shouldn't consider it a successful landing on the moon. Since virtually every payload that could radio back to Earth did, which means every paying customer was satisfied, I think it's making a bigger deal out of falling over than it deserves to be.

The Payload news site has an interesting story about an aspect of this mission that hasn't been talked about much.  Intuitive Machines' value has jumped dramatically.  

Intuitive Machines reported $4.5M of cash on hand at the end of 2023, but that balance ballooned to $54.6M by March 1 when an institutional investor exercised their stock warrants after the company’s soft-but-toppled-over lunar landing in February.

The company’s current cash balance is its largest since SPAC’ing last year, providing much-needed short-term breathing room.

They go on to report that the company reported their annual revenue of $79.5M in 2023 as it ticked off milestones for its three NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) lander contracts and began recognizing revenue from its OMES III NASA engineering contract. The company’s Q1 sales will be bolstered by a near-total IM-1 lunar landing success, as it was able to transmit data from almost all payloads aboard. 

It was desperately needed as they burned through $75M of cash last year.

IM has two more of its NASA CLPS contracts (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) ahead of it.  The second lander mission, IM-2, has been penciled in toward the end of this year, and another for next year.  The CLPS contracts are generally fixed price and small amounts compared to NASA's own programs, which ends up being good for NASA but tough on the contractors. The contractor bears all the risk. We can probably expect them to do a bunch of changes to IM-2, both design and procedures, because of the "lessons learned" during IM-1 and the mission may slip out later because of that.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

These days when the space news feeds go away are trying. 

The CME that was expected to hit early on the 25th (that is, as I'm typing now) actually hit about 12 hours early, 1437 UTC, or 9:37 ET.  The K index shot up to 8 in the 1500 to 1800 chart.  As reported it:

CME IMPACT SPARKS SEVERE GEOMAGNETIC STORM: Arriving hours earlier than expected, a CME struck Earth's magnetic field on March 24th at 1437 UT. The impact opened a crack in our planet's magnetosphere and sparked a severe G4-class geomagnetic storm--the strongest since Sept. 2017. 

The storm has been subsiding since then, with the K index down to 4 at the 0000 UT update for March 25 - as you can see in their plot. The conditions on the radio have been disrupted.  In the 1900 hour (UTC - 3PM ET), as the storm started to settle there was a ton of activity on the VHF 6 meter band, with strong signals from as far south as the Falkland Islands, but they gradually went away over the course of the next few hours and by 2200 UT, I could watch chunks of the band for long periods and not see signs of one signal. 

Speaking of that, my station modification to allow monitoring more of the 6m band all of the time that I've posted about a few times is currently working much better.  I had talked about the problem back on the 10th and then added an important update last Sunday.  In that second post, I mentioned a work around with a very lucky find at the Orlando hamfest: a $5 used amplifier to replace the $55 kit I built (and that sells for $88 as a ready-to-use module).  I added one more thing to this, an attenuator (which everyone calls a pad).  I just didn't know exactly what value pad to use, so I got this set and experimented a bit. The pad goes between the output of the SDR Switch and the 2-way splitter. Judging by watching the broadband noise in the software display of the 50.0 to 50.4 MHz portion, 13 dB is a good value, but I should probably look at 16 a bit more and compare on different days. 

This clip from the block diagram I've published shows the 13 dB pad in the red highlight box.

The problem I was trying to fix with the new LNA was that while the mod was great in that 50.0 to 50.4 MHz frequency range, it ruined my station at lower frequencies.  It has been said that "engineering is the art of compromise" because there are rarely ideal solutions that work everywhere for everything.  If there were, there would be no need to design things - everyone would build the same circuits. This amplifier has a higher NF than the original one, which might hurt 6m performance, but it completely fixes the radio's HF coverage. 

As, usual it's not completely "Done done," but it's working well enough to try more things.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

We're Having an Equinox Geomagnetic Storm

Well, not exactly the equinox, that was the night of the 19th, but it's still pretty close to the equinox and the day/night terminator line (the gray line) is close to due north/south. In other words, close enough.

What appears to have started it is that at this the time of year we get what are called "equinox cracks" in the Earth's magnetic field. Researchers have long known that during a few weeks either side of the equinoxes fissures form in Earth’s magnetosphere. Solar wind can pour through the gaps. At best, they produce bright aurora displays. The solar wind flowing through those cracks appears to be what's behind the current G2 class geomagnetic storm. 

This morning (UTC - it was around 0130 UT or 9:30 PM eastern on the 22nd), the sun produced an X1 class solar flare from two different sunspot groups. AR3614 and 3615 exploded in tandem, directing their fire straight at Earth.  The coronal mass ejection from that flare is supposed to reach Earth in early hours of Monday, the 25th (again, early morning UTC, so Sunday evening on the East coast).  AR3614 is the top (Northern) group.

Flares that occur in pairs like this are not unheard of but are not as common as those from a single sunspot group. 

Researchers have long known that widely-spaced sunspots can explode in tandem. They're called "sympathetic solar flares." (.pdf alert) Occasionally, magnetic loops in the sun's corona fasten themselves to distant pairs of sunspots, allowing explosive instabilities to travel from one to the other. This has apparently happened to AR3614 and AR3615.

Those with tons of experience watching videos of sympathetic solar flares like this say this one wasn't as good as some they've seen, but "close enough."

While the current Aurora forecasts don't indicate they'll become visible in the lower 48 states, the K index is approaching 6 and that makes me think those in the northernmost states might get to see one; and remember that the CME is forecast to reach Earth Sunday night to Monday morning. Ignoring the equinox cracks for the moment, for the auroras to be seen from the lower 48, the dip in magnetic latitude in the middle of the country has a dramatic effect on the K index and magnetic storm levels needed to make them visible. 

G is the geomagnetic storm level (currently 2) and the K index is currently 5.7.  I'd expect areas between the green and yellow curves should be able to see the Aurora. 

Friday, March 22, 2024

The On Again - Off Again First Flight is On Again

The First launch we reported about on Wednesday went as scheduled, as the CRS-30 mission lifted off Thursday at 4:55 PM ET (8-1/2 minute video) verifying the updates to SLC-40 for unmanned flights. The Cargo Dragon is on its way to the ISS as I write.

Another first that has been on and off for a couple of years is the first crewed launch of Boeing's Starliner capsule, and that one is apparently on again. While the schedule isn't necessarily solid, it could be as early as May 1.

At a series of briefings March 22, NASA and Boeing officials said preparations for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission are proceeding well, with a launch scheduled for no earlier than May 1. That schedule is driven by the ISS manifest of visiting vehicles, which earlier this month delayed the mission from late April.

That mission will send NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to the station, where they will spend about eight days before returning to land in the southwestern United States. The flight will take place nearly two years after a second uncrewed flight test, OFT-2, that also docked with the station.

If you're like me, you're probably thinking, "wait... what year was SpaceX's equivalent first manned flight?" It was 2020; May 30, to be precise. With a bit of luck, Boeing won't need to delay this crewed flight to be more than four years after the competition. The competition that all the smart people knew would fail and Boeing would save the day. 

Boeing and SpaceX were both tasked by NASA in 2014 to create new commercial crew vehicles, with billions of dollars of funding. (Boeing received $4.2 billion while SpaceX received $2.6 billion in those deals.) SpaceX Crew Dragon's first astronaut flight flew in 2020. In the four years since, the company has sent 11 missions to ISS: Eight long-duration professional astronaut missions led by NASA, and three short-duration excursions paid by Axiom Space with a range of people on board.

Boeing did a second Orbital Test Flight that SpaceX didn't need to do because their first OFT went so badly, they were lucky to get the capsule back to inspect. While searching for dates of this Flight Test I ran into projections that they'd be where they are now by a series of "No Earlier Than" dates in every year since then.

Commander for the mission, Butch Wilmore, talked about the flight in a way that indicates he's looking forward to it.

“It’s a test pilot’s dream, if you will, everything that we’re doing from start to finish,” said Wilmore at another briefing.

His partner on the flight, Suni Williams, agreed.

One of the people who has waited the longest for CFT is Williams, who was named by NASA in 2015 to a “cadre” of astronauts who would train for the first commercial crew missions. “It’s been a little bit of a timeline” to get to this point just before launch, she said at the briefing, but agreed with Wilmore that flying this mission is a “test pilot’s dream” for her. “I don’t think I would really want to be in any other place right now.”

What was that Heinlein quote about test pilots?  Something about jumping out of a window if you gave them rubber soles and bet they could make it? 

Boeing workers preparing to fuel the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for its CFT mission launching as soon as May 1. Credit: Boeing

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Small Space News Story Roundup 31

As usual, small stories I found interesting.

Starship could upend the small launch vehicle market

I think Rocket Lab with Neutron, Relativity Space with Terran R and the other small launch companies are seeing it and doing their best to not get destroyed, but Starship with its ability to launch over 100 tons to Low Earth Orbit has the potential to really shake up that market.    

“Starship for sure will disrupt further the launch business and the space business in general,” said Marino Fragnito, senior vice president and head of the Vega business unit at Arianespace, during a panel at the Satellite 2024 conference March 20. “One scenario is that [SpaceX Chief Executive Elon] Musk could really monopolize everything.”
Later in the panel, though, he suggested one way Starship could be used to disrupt the smallsat launch markets by pairing the rocket with orbital transfer vehicles, or OTVs. “With Starship, OTVs can become the best option for smallsats,” he said. If Starship is able to achieve the very low per-kilogram launch prices proposed for it, “then it will be difficult for small launch vehicles.”

That certainly seems to be a possibility, but an interesting counter to that view was put forward by Stella Guillen, chief commercial officer of Isar Aerospace, a German company developing the Spectrum small launch vehicle. 

“Starship will open up opportunities for satellites to grow the same way that they shrunk when there was more capacity for smallsats. The industry may shift to launching larger satellites.” 

It's an interesting vision - when Cubesats go down from thousands of dollars to launch to maybe tens of dollars, an alternative is to add more functions. Do more with your payload than the bare minimum. If they get bigger, well, hey, there's room!  

Hard to say, though.  Certainly Moore's law is dead and semiconductors have stopped their exponential growth, but bigger, older chip geometries have advantages; things like being more resistant to the effects of radiation particles (Single Event Upsets).

Astronomers calling for a radio silent zone on the far side of the moon.

It's not uncommon to have radio quiet zones around radio observatories on Earth, like the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory, or for the groups building the observatories to seek out quieter locations because of their small populations.  Ultimately, though, they can't enforce the quiet zones on transmitters far away that end up being heard due to the vagaries of radio signal propagation. 

One of the potential uses for the moon is to use the far side for astronomy.  The moon will act like a giant block to potentially interfering signals. Now it turns out there's a growing international call to establish a radio quiet zone on the far side

A first-of-its-kind international symposium is being held this week, turning up the volume to mull over the prospect of protecting real estate on the moon's far side exclusively for dedicated scientific purposes. Despite the moon being surrounding by a vacuum, there's an air of urgency to the meeting. 

Held under the auspices of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), the first IAA Moon Farside Protection Symposium is taking place March 21-22 in Turin, Italy. The goal of the gathering is to set off a wake-up call that engages the global scientific, political, and industrial community to be aware of a growing list of concerns.

It's a fact that the Earth is embedded in a fog of electromagnetic noise that extends into space and radiates outward. Of course it gets weaker as it radiates away, but radio telescopes are extremely sensitive. Imagine building the largest radio telescope in history, partially made possible because of the moon's gravity being 1/6 of Earth's, and having it ruined by radio signals generated by other groups on the moon. 

The IAA established a permanent committee devoted to the moon's far side in December of 2021, chaired by Claudio Maccone of the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (National Institute for Astrophysics) as technical director. The IAA contends that the moon's far side is a region of paramount scientific interest as it provides an environment free from the electromagnetic pollution typical on Earth.

Some of the branches of science that would greatly benefit from operating on the farside, Maccone explains, are cosmology, astrobiology, planetary defense, as well as the search for other intelligent life that might populate the heavens.

It's an interesting article that goes over the issues and goals.  

Efforts like Breakthrough Listen could employ the radio silence of the moon's far side to scan the universe for signs of intelligent life. (Image credit: Breakthrough Listen/Danielle Futselaar)

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Coming Up In the Next Week - A First and A Last

To me, this is a notable week because of that. First launches might be a little less ready than last ones, so maybe that'll slip a day or two, but we should still see both before the end of the month. 

The First is the first launch of a Dragon capsule from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral SFS.  This uses the upgrades to the pad that will allow SpaceX to launch cargo and crewed missions from more than just Pad-39A, which has been the case up to now.  We've been talking about them adding the Crew Access Arm to SLC-40 for over a year, and they actually completed adding the arm back in November. This was previously mentioned as the first mission it would support.

This mission is called CRS-30 and it's scheduled for Thursday, March 21 at 4:55 PM ET. SpaceX notes this is the sixth flight for this booster, and the fourth flight for this Dragon spacecraft. Like all of these launches, it gets more coverage than a routine Starlink mission. A live webcast of this mission will begin on X @SpaceX about 20 minutes prior to liftoff and a handful of channels on YouTube will provide coverage as well.

Screen capture from SpaceX's coverage, showing the CRS-30 Dragon capsule.  Image credit to SpaceX. 

The Last launch will be the last United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy from Cape Canaveral.  That's currently set for No Earlier Than (NET) Thursday March 28, from launch complex 37 or SLC-37.  No time is currently given, but that's not surprising.  The launch is for the National Reconnaissance Office, NRO, and the mission is called NROL-70.

The last Delta IV launch from Vandenberg SFB was September 24, 2022 and you may remember that SpaceX was then granted a contract for that complex (called SLC-6).  The same process may be in motion for SLC-37 here on the Cape, as we reported in February

The Delta is one of the oldest families of rockets in the world, originally designed in the crazy early days of the "space race" after the first Sputnik launch shocked the US. Rockets bearing the Delta name began launching in 1960, and this launch appears to be ending the line - unless someone uses the name for a new vehicle. The last count I'm aware of would make this the 389th mission bearing the Delta name.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

SpaceX Planning Rapid Return to Starship IFT-4

Possibly by early May, or about eight weeks after IFT-3.  This is according to SpaceX president and CEO Gwynne Shotwell, at the Satellite 2024 conference on March 19. A usable date depends on getting an FAA launch license, as always. 

Shotwell said they were still going over the data from the March 14 Integrated Flight Test, but expected to be ready to fly again soon.

“We’re still going through the data” from the flight, she said when asked about the analysis of data from the mission. “It was an incredibly successful flight. We hit exactly where we wanted to go.”

“We’ll figure out what happened on both stages,” she said, not discussing what may have gone wrong with either, “and get back to flight hopefully in about six weeks,” or early May.

The ball is in SpaceX's court while they prepare their mishap investigation, but the FAA doesn't sound too concerned. 

Speaking at the Space Capitol III event by Payload March 18, Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said he did not anticipate that investigation to turn up any major issues that could significantly delay the next launch.

“It ended in what we call a mishap, but at the end of the day we deem it a successful launch attempt,” he said, because it resulted in no injuries or property damage. “SpaceX was able to collect a great deal of data from that launch.”

He said he expected SpaceX to quickly provide a mishap investigation report, noting that after the second Starship flight the company completed that report in several weeks. “We expect the same to be the case here. We didn’t see anything major. We don’t think there’s any critical systems for safety that were implicated.”

Coleman went on to say that while they have approved individual launches up to this point, the agency wants to move to a process where the license is valid for a “portfolio of launches” rather than individual ones. That is particularly important, he added, because SpaceX is planning six to nine more Starship launches this year. 

As for her view, Gwynne Shotwell added that her focus is getting Starship operational this year. 

“I’d love to get Starship into orbit, deploying satellites, and recover both stages,” she said, “with rapid turnaround on those stages as well.”

IFT-3 launch on March 14 - pi day and SpaceX's 22nd birthday. Image credit: SpaceX

Monday, March 18, 2024

The US Wants to Grow a Lunar Economy

Ars Technica is reporting today that more than just NASA is interested in making the moon more available to industry.  

It appears to have started at NASA, which is using part of its work on Artemis to seek a lunar economy (pdf warning) that they're not the only customers for. That makes sense, because the more infrastructure that gets developed, the lower the costs can be for everyone that wants to use it.  It's as close to an "iron law" as it gets in manufacturing and production: the more you make, the lower the cost per item.  Typically, as quantity doubles, the price decreases by 25 to 35%.  

A whole host of conditions must be met for a lunar economy to thrive. There must be something there that can be sold, be it resources, a unique environment for scientific research, low-gravity manufacturing, tourism, or another source of value. Reliable transportation to the Moon must be available. And there needs to be a host of services, such as power and communications for machines and people on the lunar surface. So yeah, it's a lot.

Enter DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  DARPA has a long track record of backing and funding new technologies going back decades - they even paid for the the first Falcon 1 launch. Last year, they announced a new study, called LunA-10, to understand how best to facilitate a thriving lunar economy by 2035. The program manager for the study is Major Michael "Orbit" Nayak. You've got to be serious when your nickname is Orbit.

In December, DARPA announced that it was working with 14 different companies under LunA-10, including major space players such as Northrop Grumman and SpaceX, as well as non-space firms such as Nokia. These companies are assessing how services such as power and communications could be established on the Moon, and they're due to provide a final report by June.

While the final report is due by June, Major Navak issued a preliminary report earlier this month 

"Based on technical work and development conducted under the LunA-10 study, I have identified six hypotheses where, if revolutionary improvements in technology can be made, I assess that a direct acceleration to the fielding of a lunar economy is likely to occur," Nayak said in the paper.

Last Thursday, based on the ideas elucidated in Nayak's paper, DARPA issued a "Request for Information" for technological capabilities that could scale up lunar exploration and commerce. This federal solicitation makes for interesting reading and suggests that Nayak and DARPA have thought things through.

A Request For Information or RFI is the very preliminary first step in the government procurement process.  The RFI is published where any interested contractor can read it and respond with an equally preliminary summary of how they think they can provide the solutions the RFI is asking about.  Neither the or the respondents are committing to anything.  They aren't paying the companies for the response and aren't committing to actually paying anyone for anything.  The companies aren't committing to produce whatever they respond about nor committing to a price. 

The six areas are: 

  • Centralized heating and cooling: The moon has a day/night cycle that lasts 28 days which alternates between extremely hot and extremely cold. Could there be a centralized thermal system that provides cooling during the day and heating during the night?  Perhaps one that new industries could pay for like our electrical utilities?  
  • Lunar prospecting:  What minerals are there on the moon that are close enough to the surface to be collected and what could be done with them? 
  • Silicon wafer manufacturing: Remember Blue Origin's talk about manufacturing solar cells on the moon?  The cells they showed were small, perhaps 75mm (~3 inches) in diameter.  The emphasis here is >400 mm wafers (~15.75"). "Silicon crystal growth occurs at 1425 deg Celsius, which is approximately the temperature at which multiple ISRU pilot plants intend to operate, e.g., for carbothermal reduction of oxygen from regolith," the solicitation states.
  • Microbial biomanufacturing:  Microorganisms are involved in many critical processes here on Earth (besides making wine and cheese).  The goal is to combine local materials, such as lunar regolith, with biotechnology to create structures, industrial fuels, or lubricants.
  • Low-gravity resource extraction: There appears to be a lot of valuable minerals on the moon, but they seem to be in low concentrations.  DARPA seeks proposals on how to deal with that. 
  • A lunar GPS system. A real lunar GPS constellation is probably out of the question, but with a handful of settlements clustered in areas of high resource availability, some way of distributing time signals other than getting them from the Earth seems to be useful. 

While it's early to jump to conclusions, DARPA has the reputation, the "chops", to attract serious interest. Another thing to bear in mind is that while DARPA's budget for 2023 was $4.1 Billion; NASA's budget was more than six times that, $25.3 Billion.  Perhaps DARPA could fund some things that are harder to justify for NASA, but they're not going to make a major contribution to NASA's budget.

A map of the area near the south pole where the IM-1 lander was headed, coded for elevations: blue are lowest through greens and reds to the highest in brown and then gray at Mons Mouton, bottom left.  Areas like this with craters in perma-shadows are of interest for the resources they might harbor. Image credit, Intuitive Machines. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Got Away From Me Again

It has been a hard day to concentrate and get things done for reasons I'll get to some other time.  So some attempts to lighten the mood and miscellaneous stuff.  

I don't have anything big enough to cook that.  Or prepare it.  Or even lift it onto that table to prepare it.

An unusual way to think about inflation...

Much like The Face on Mars, there's clearly intelligence on at least one side of the image. It's just on the side interpreting what they see, not the side that created the image.

Since it's St. Patrick's Day:

and some Irish wisdom...

As for the miscellaneous, I hope nobody is trying to replicate the ham shack mod I've posted about a few times.  I've gone back to the drawing board for a way to get around the LNA problem I mentioned last week.  I can see a way around the troubles with something older and lower tech, but for the moment I've replaced it with a $5 amplifier module I lucked into finding at the Orlando Hamcation last month.  It's just that the chances someone else will find one aren't very good.  

Saturday, March 16, 2024

SpaceX Releases Some Flight Data

The post to their Launches web site is date-tagged Thursday, so probably well after the test flight, and while not complete, it does cover some things we've been talking about.  Just a couple of points out of the eight they covered. 

  • Super Heavy successfully lit several engines for its first ever landing burn before the vehicle experienced a RUD (that’s SpaceX-speak for “rapid unscheduled disassembly”). The booster’s flight concluded at approximately 462 meters in altitude and just under seven minutes into the mission. 
  • While coasting, Starship accomplished several of the flight test’s additional objectives, including the opening and closing of its payload door (aka the pez dispenser,) and initiating a propellant transfer demonstration. Starship did not attempt its planned on-orbit relight of a single Raptor engine due to vehicle roll rates during coast. Results from these demonstrations will come after postflight data review is complete.
  • The flight test’s conclusion came during entry, with the last telemetry signals received via Starlink from Starship at approximately 49 minutes into the mission. 

These confirm that both the booster and Starship itself were victims of a RUD, and the middle one confirms Starship had improper roll rates, which could have led to the heat shield tiles not facing in the right direction.  That said, they achieved more and got farther than the first two test flights. A rumor I heard was that the booster didn't have enough fuel left to land. That would probably be a simple error that should be easy to find and fix.

Eric Berger at Ars Technica does a "big picture" summary of the test, saying, “After Thursday’s flight, Starship is already the most revolutionary rocket ever built.”  It's full of good stuff and worth your time to read. In approach, it reminds me of the things that first got me to link to Casey Handmer's blog.  Those were his October '19 post that the SpaceX Starship is a Very Big Deal and his October '21 piece called Starship is Still Not Understood.

Berger talks about watching the mission Thursday and rhetorically asks, "was that sci-fi?" 

The moment of true amazement came about 45 minutes into the flight, as Starship descended an altitude of 100 km and began entering a thicker atmosphere. For a couple of minutes, we were treated to unprecedented views of atmospheric heating acting on a spacecraft. It's one thing to know about the perils of plasma and compression as a spacecraft falls back to Earth at 27,000 km/hour into thickening air. It's another thing to see it. 

He then goes on to talk about just what was involved in getting those incredible images to us.  

To accomplish this, SpaceX had to build a reusable rocket, the Falcon 9, which is capable of reflying many times. This enabled the company to launch more than 5,500 Starlink satellites and create a global network. (SpaceX operates, by a factor of 10, more satellites than any other company or country in the world). Because of this, it was able to produce unprecedented data and video of Starship's turbulent reentry. 

The journey to reach this capability has produced many of those dazzling moments. There was that first land-based landing of the Falcon 9 rocket days before Christmas in 2015. It was followed a few months later by the first landing of a booster on a drone ship. (For me, this CRS-8 booster landing on a boat felt like the first actual sci-fi thing I'd ever seen in my life). There was Starman in orbit and the dual booster landing with the first Falcon Heavy launch. And so on.

Eric spends the last handful of paragraphs presenting some truly mind-blowing details about the base-level economics of Starship. To butcher them a little too much:

Because of a relentless focus on costs and cheap building materials, such as stainless steel, SpaceX can likely build and launch a fully expendable version of Starship for about $100 million. Most of that money is in the booster, with its 33 engines. So you can probably cut manufacturing costs down to about $30 million per launch – for a mere 3 launches.  

This means that, within a year or so, SpaceX will have a rocket that costs about $30 million and lifts 100 to 150 metric tons to low-Earth orbit.

Last night we watched another Falcon 9 do its 19th flight. Divide that $100 million by 19 instead of three.

Bluntly, this is absurd.

Then he goes on to compare costs of Starship vs. other systems avialable now.

NASA's Space Launch System, for example, can lift up to 95 tons to low-Earth orbit, nearly as much cargo. But it costs $2.2 billion per launch, plus additional ground systems fees. So it's almost a factor of 100 times more expensive for less throw weight. And it can fly once per year at most.

The European Space Agency's Vega costs about the same as Starship, but carries 1.5 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. About 1/100 the payload of Starship for the same cost. 

The goal for Starship is to be rapidly reusable, and there has been the talk about flying air travelers between continents - meaning it will be reusable a few times per day.  Right now there's very likely a Starship and booster that are in line to fly next.  Probably three or four. 

Screen capture from the SpaceX coverage. Image credit: SpaceX 

Final thoughts to Eric Berger. 

We have already seen SpaceX's proficiency with the Falcon 9 rocket. Does anyone doubt we'll see double-digit Starship launches in 2025 and many dozens per year during the second half of this decade? Access to space used to be a rare commodity. What happens to our species and its commerce in space when access is not rare or expensive?

This is the future into which we got a glimpse this week.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Voyager 1 Finally Returns a Clue to How to Restore It

It was back in early December when NASA/JPL released some grim news on the status of Voyager 1, now well beyond the solar system and in interstellar space. The last update I saw was in mid-February and the condition was still grim.  Susan Dodd, Voyager Project Manager had said, "it would be the biggest miracle if we get it back. We certainly haven't given up. There are other things we can try. But this is, by far, the most serious since I’ve been project manager."  

Finally, on March 3rd, the JPL ground team received a downlink from Voyager that was different from every communication since November when the problem first surfaced.  

On March 3, the Voyager mission team saw activity from one section of the FDS that differed from the rest of the computer’s unreadable data stream. The new signal was still not in the format used by Voyager 1 when the FDS is working properly, so the team wasn’t initially sure what to make of it. But an engineer with the agency’s Deep Space Network, which operates the radio antennas that communicate with both Voyagers and other spacecraft traveling to the Moon and beyond, was able to decode the new signal and found that it contains a readout of the entire FDS memory. 

The team has suspected that a piece of corrupted memory inside the Flight Data Subsystem (FDS), one of three main computers on the spacecraft, is the most likely culprit for the interruption in normal communication. They suspect the FDS because the overall communications system seems to be working.  It's transmitting to Earth, pointing this way and essentially doing what it's supposed to, it's just that there's no usable information - no actual Flight Data - being sent back.

On March 1st, controllers sent a new command to Voyager. 

Called a “poke” by the team, the command is meant to gently prompt the FDS to try different sequences in its software package in case the issue could be resolved by going around a corrupted section.

With the one way radio travel time to Voyager 1 takes over 22-1/2 hours, the reply was received on March 3rd. 

On March 7, engineers began working to decode the data, and on March 10, they determined that it contains a memory readout.

The team is working through the memory bit by bit, comparing it to a similar download sent when things were working properly. They hope this will allow them to find the root of the problem. But going through "bit by bit" and being sure of how to fix the problem could well take weeks or months before the Voyager team can make the next step or next test. The adage that I've heard called the first law of medicine applies here, too: "first, do no harm." 

Artist’s illustration of one of the Voyager spacecraft. Credit: Caltech/NASA-JPL 

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Grading IFT-3

Not perfect.  Not an "A plus plus." Maybe an A minus or a B plus.  Merely my opinion.  As everyone knows, Starship 28 and SuperHeavy booster 10 were launched on Integrated Flight Test 3 this morning

SpaceX's third towering Starship rocket, standing some 397 feet (121 meters) tall and wider than the fuselage of a 747 jumbo jet, lifted off at 8:25 am CDT (13:25 UTC) Thursday from SpaceX's Starbase launch facility on the Texas Gulf Coast east of Brownsville. SpaceX delayed the liftoff time by nearly an hour and a half to wait for boats to clear out of restricted waters near the launch base.

Much better than IFT-2 in November, Ship 28 achieved orbital altitudes and traveled across the Indian Ocean toward the western shores of Australia, exactly as planned.  The booster didn't RUD after MECO and stage separation. S28 didn't vent oxygen onto hot engines and RUD. S28 tested transfer of liquid oxygen in zero G, tested the gross operation of the "Pez dispenser" they plan to use to deploy Starlink satellites Really Soon Now (and sooner than it seemed to be yesterday), and more, but somewhere along the way, they decided not to reignite one or more of S28's Raptor engines in orbit to reduce velocity.   

Starship and its Super Heavy booster climb off the launch pad at Starbase, Texas. Part of the Orbital Launch Mount visible at the left. That massive Mach diamond gets repeated once the booster is far enough up. Image Credit: SpaceX. 

The bad point is that they lost both halves - like both flight tests before this one.  They just achieved much more.

"Starship reached orbital velocity!" wrote Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and CEO, on his social media platform X. "Congratulations SpaceX team!!"

While the Starship and booster platforms are intended to be rapidly reusable, Booster 10 made it closer to splashdown than the previous two missions, it plunged into the Gulf of Mexico uncontrolled. It was supposed to have reignited some number of engines and softly dropped into the Gulf of Mexico. I was captivated watching the video of the grid fins gyrating and didn't look at the lower left of the video screen until after it was said the booster was lost.  At that point, one of the 33 engines showed as being on by their telemetry.  I don't know if more engines were ever on, if they were on at the right times and so on. 

My suspicion is that booster landing and recovery are going to take a while to perfect.  After all, they're the only company in the world doing it consistently and perfecting it. To every other entity in the world, a booster is garbage once it's dropped. It can be forgiven if they throw a few away getting it to work; I mean, they lost a bunch of Falcon 9s and now they're at something like 280 consecutive successful landings.

Beginning around 46 minutes after launch, Starship beamed down what might have been the most spectacular imagery from the flight. At this point in the mission, the 165-foot-long (50-meter) ship was speeding across the Indian Ocean and rapidly falling as Earth's gravity pulled it back into the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean.

Starship's flaps, there to provide aerodynamic control during the final phase of descent, folded up against the ship's main body. Then, black ceramic tiles attached to the ship started glowing orange as a sheath of plasma enveloped the vehicle. Temperatures outside Starship climbed higher than 2,500° Fahrenheit, and the ship appeared to be under control during the first moments of reentry.

This was absolutely riveting to watch. I'm not going to say nobody alive has ever seen the plasma forming on surfaces during re-entry, but I bet the number people that have seen it went up a million-fold today.

Beginning around 46 minutes after launch, Starship beamed down what might have been the most spectacular imagery from the flight. At this point in the mission, the 165-foot-long (50-meter) ship was speeding across the Indian Ocean and rapidly falling as Earth's gravity pulled it back into the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean.

Starship's flaps, there to provide aerodynamic control during the final phase of descent, folded up against the ship's main body. Then, black ceramic tiles attached to the ship started glowing orange as a sheath of plasma enveloped the vehicle. Temperatures outside Starship climbed higher than 2,500° Fahrenheit, and the ship appeared to be under control during the first moments of reentry.

This rear-facing camera, mounted inside one of the forward flaps on Starship, shows plasma building up around the underside and rear flaps during reentry over the Indian Ocean.  Image credit: SpaceX 

Not too long after pictures like this started getting interrupted and interfered with, the Starship went into a radio blackout.  Not a surprise, re-entry is known for that.  The excellent downlink of video they got was because of using their own Starlink system and antennas on the cooler side of S28.  At some point, that video went away and the onscreen telemetry stopped updating.  Around five minutes later, they announced that they had lost all telemetry from the ship; both Starlink and NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) at the same time.  They had to conclude they had lost the ship. 

What's next?  I don't think they're ready to start flying Starlink satellites in Starships or any other operational things; more test flights are definitely in the offering.  They most likely will focus on the things like the cryogenic fueling experiments, although a transfer between Starships can't happen until there's a second Starship launch pad, whether there in Boca Chica or here at the Kennedy Space Center. 

Bear in mind that Musk set the target for six Starship flights by the end of this year in a post to X.

I don't know how long this will be there, but if you didn't watch the flight and want to, SpaceX still has the video of this morning's launch here on their Launches website. It's the full 1 hour 43 minute video stream.  The lift off isn't until about 34 minutes on the timer.  The booster separation about 3 minutes later and booster loss about T+7 minutes.  Starship engine cutoff at T+8:25 and 8:35.  The really dramatic re-entry video starts around T+45 minutes.