Private spaceflight company Space Exploration Technologies Corporation – better known as SpaceX – achieved a number of significant milestones in 2020.
Founded in 2002 by South African-born tech billionaire Elon Musk, the company has come a long way since it first managed to fly its Falcon 1 rocket into orbit in 2008.
It has completed over 100 successful launches to date – 24 of which happened in 2020 – with missions that included delivering private and government-owned satellites into orbit, as well as carrying cargo to the International Space Station.
It has beaten industry giants like Boeing and the well-funded Blue Origin in securing private contracts for crew and cargo space flights.
The company is ultimately aiming to help make humanity multi-planetary and has set itself the ambitious goal of landing a spacecraft on Mars by 2024.
Here are several of its most notable achievements in 2020.
At the end of May 2020, SpaceX launched its first manned mission into space – the first of its kind for any private space company.
Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken boarded the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 rocket on 30 May 2020 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
They were then launched into orbit and travelled towards the International Space Station, where they docked the next day.
After spending around two months at the station, Hurley and Behnken returned safely to earth with their capsule splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico on 3 August.
The astronauts expressed satisfaction at the performance of the vehicle, and said they were perfectly comfortable saying that it is ready for the next crew once the required engineering and analysis for certification is complete.
Sure enough, on 15 November SpaceX launched its first non-test crewed flight – Crew-1 – with four astronauts on board this time around.
These four crew members – are currently docked with the ISS, where they will be stationed alongside three astronauts of the Soyuz MS-17 mission for operational duties.
Starlink beta goes live
Another ambitious goal that Musk has in his sights is to provide connectivity to the entire globe, and in particular to rural areas far away from broadband infrastructure.
To achieve this, SpaceX has launched its Starlink programme – which wants to beam satellite Internet connectivity through a constellation of thousands of small low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites launched in batches over multiple years.
These satellites orbit at an altitude of around 550km and communicate between a client’s antenna, each other, and ground base stations in order to transfer data and provide online access.
As of 25 November, SpaceX had already launched a total of 955 Starlink satellites into orbit. This equates to around 50 satellites per month since the company sent its first batch in May 2019.
SpaceX recently opened the programme to the public through a beta for select users in Canada and the northern areas of the United States.
The package is priced at $99 per month, not including the $499 upfront fee for the customer-provided equipment that links to the network.
Starlink told users to expect speeds of between 50Mbps and 150Mbps, with a latency of between 20-40ms at this point in time.
Some early users have claimed download speeds in excess of 160Mbps, with one recording over 200Mbps and a latency of 18ms.
These speeds are expected to improve as SpaceX adds more satellites to its constellation.
More than 100 successful flights
The Falcon 9 rocket launched on 24 October marked SpaceX’s 100th successful launch.
One of its key focus areas on the journey to this destination has been the use of fully and rapidly reusable rockets.
Space travel is expensive for many reasons – one of which is that the launching system is often considered an expendable component, particularly given the impracticality of retrieving rockets.
While NASA’s Space Shuttle programme attempted to provide an alternative with reusable boosters and a spacecraft, these were expensive to refurbish for reuse.
Although earlier attempts had been made at spacecraft that could take off and land vertically, SpaceX managed to develop first-stage rocket boosters which were capable of falling back to earth and landing vertically on a drone ship or on land.
Although it took numerous explosive attempts to achieve this goal, its patience has paid off and it has now landed its boosters numerous times – with the record being held by one that has been launched and landed seven times.
Musk has claimed SpaceX’s latest Falcon 9 rocket will be capable of flying 10 times without major refurbishment, or even 100 times with periodic overhauls.
Starship development speeds up
Following the success of the Crew Dragon mission, Musk sent SpaceX employees an email urging them to accelerate progress on the development of its next major spacecraft – the Starship.
This spacecraft is being developed as a reusable vehicle that will be used to travel on future missions to the Moon and Mars.
SpaceX has already rolled out several prototypes which have undergone static fire tests and performed lower altitude hops at its Boca Chica testing facility in Texas.
Most recently, prototype SN8 was launched on a flight test 12.5km into the atmosphere, before dropping down in a controlled descent to a landing spot.
All three of its Raptor engines cut off after it reached its target altitude, and the vehicle fell back to Earth in a controlled descent in a horizontal orientation.
Moments before it touched down, SpaceX opted to perform a “bell flop” manoeuvre by reigniting one of the three engines.
This caused the spacecraft to flip back into a vertical position for landing.
While it exploded upon impact with the ground, the test was labelled a success, since the team had gathered all the data it needed to proceed with development.
Fortunately, SpaceX already has SN9 – the next prototype – standing by for further tests.
What to expect in 2021
SpaceX has another exciting year planned with several launches and tests that form part of the Starlink programme and its Starship developments.
Its itinerary for the year further includes the following:
- First unmanned orbital flight of the Starship spacecraft.
- Second (Crew-2) and third (Crew-3) non-test crewed missions to the ISS.
- Paid-for space flights for space tourism companies Axiom and Space Adventures.
On the lighter side, the company is also planning to race radio-controlled cars on the Moon.
The cars – which will be created with the help of some school kids and an acclaimed McLaren designer – will be transported aboard a Falcon 9 rocket in October 2021.
They will be deployed on the Moon’s surface using the first-ever privately-built lunar lander from Houston-based Intuitive Machines.