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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is deployed on the launch pad using NASA's X-ray Telescope

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is deployed on the launch pad using NASA’s X-ray Telescope

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying NASA’s Small X-ray Telescope IXPE was recently deployed on Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) ahead of a scheduled launch Thursday, Dec. 9.

The Falcon 9 is expected to take off at the start of a 90-minute window that opens at 1:00 AM EST (06:00 UTC). The only payload: a unique 330 kg (about 730 lb) spacecraft known as the Explorer X-ray Imaging (IXPE) that hopes to analyze polarization X-rays to explore black holes, nebulae and strange dead lighthouse-like stars called pulsars in unprecedented detail. The mission is also interesting due to the slight discrepancy between the size of the payload and the missile that will launch it.

As mentioned, the IXPE will weigh about a third of a ton at launch. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will weigh about 550 tons (1.2 million pounds) on liftoff, resulting in a truly unusual payload ratio of about 1:1700, or 0.06%. However, Falcon 9 still has to work very hard to get IXPE into the right orbit. This is because IXPE is designed to operate in a nearly equatorial orbit with a zero degree tilt.

The launch from Cape Canaveral, located 28.5 degrees above the true equator, involves the physical launch directly into a 0.2 degree equatorial orbit. Instead, the rocket should blast off into a parking orbit to the east, then perform what’s called a plane change or tilt once in space. Aircraft changes are notorious for often being (in terms of missile performance) one of the most expensive maneuvers one can perform in orbit. This is certainly the case for the IXPE, which will require a level change of 28.5 degrees soon after takeoff.

NASA’s DSCOVR, TESS and DART spacecraft prior to the launch of Falcon 9. (NASA)

For the Falcon 9, this means that even a small 330 kg IXPE missile is still probably about 20-30% of the maximum theoretical performance (1.5-2 tons) for this mission profile, while the missile itself is capable of wrapping around it. 15 tons (33,000 lb) in the same 600 km (373 mi) orbit that IXPE targets when no aircraft change is required. For example, for NASA Calculator With access to official performance data, Blue Origin claims that its giant New Glenn rocket — designed to launch more than 40 tons (approximately 90,000 pounds) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) — can launch only about 2 tons (about 4,500 pounds) to its planned layout. for him. IXPE. orbiting

SpaceX’s launch is no stranger to launches of small NASA spacecraft, including the nearly 700 kg (about 1,500 lb) Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) last month, but IXPE – about 10% lighter than TESS – will be the smallest dedicated payload that Launched by Falcon 9. After launch, the Falcon 9 B1061 booster will attempt to land its fifth drone over 650 kilometers (400 mi) downstream. To illustrate how changing the IXPE leads to an easy launch to 600 km, the older, less capable Falcon 9 landed just 300 km (185 mi) after launching TESS into orbit as well. At an altitude of 375,000 km (233,000 mi) – roughly the same distance between Earth and Moon.

The weather is currently 90% suitable for the launch of SpaceX’s IXPE on December 9.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is deployed on the launch pad using NASA’s X-ray Telescope

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