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Monthly archives "August"

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‘Going green’ is for more than Earth-based endeavors

Half-scale model of the GPIM spacecraft. Credit: Curt Godwin

Half-scale model of the GPIM spacecraft. Credit: Curt Godwin

When one hears about ‘going green’, their mind’s eye may conjure pictures of electric cars…or solar panels…or wind turbines. Spacecraft, though, probably aren’t in that mental slideshow. Ball Aerospace, though, is going to change that.

Via their Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), Ball Aerospace hopes to demonstrate the viability of this ‘green’ propellant when the satellite is launched in 2017 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Rather than using highly-toxic hydrazine, GPIM will utilize the safer hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel (also known as AF-M315E) developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory.

As part of a Technology Demonstration Mission – managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL – the green propellant will be the foundation for the main propulsion system on the Ball BCP 100-based spacecraft. During the 13-month long mission, engineers will put the spacecraft through its paces –including changes in orbital inclination and altitude — in order to validate that the fuel, and supporting infrastructure, can be declared operational for future agency and commercial missions.

The Ball Aerospace GPIM spacecraft, based in the company's BCP 100 bus, is in a clean room at the Ball Aerospace facilities in Boulder, CO. Credit: Curt Godwin

The Ball Aerospace GPIM spacecraft, based on the company’s BCP 100 bus, is pictured here in a clean room at the Ball Aerospace facilities in Boulder, CO. Credit: Curt Godwin

But what does “safer” mean? While hydrazine is both highly toxic and dangerously unstable unless handled in solution, AF-M315E can be safely handled in a standard laboratory environment. This translates to less risk for those who must handle fueling the spacecraft, and should also reduce the cost in supporting such operations as ground processing can be reduced from weeks to days.

However, if the fuel is much safer but performs poorly, then what benefit would it be? The good news is that initial testing indicates that the green propellant performs 50% better per given unit volume than does hydrazine and requires significantly less power to keep the system at proper operating temperature.

If that weren’t enough, it’s also estimated that the new fuel has the initial potential to reduce launching costs by approximately $500,000. It would appear that there are no downsides to this new spacecraft propellant, though that will be clearer at the conclusion of the mission.

OPINION: NASA needs to start investing in Mars comms network

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

By practically every metric, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been an incredible success. Launched on August 12, 2005, MRO has spent more than ten years orbiting the Red Planet, both as a science-gathering platform and as a communications relay for other Mars-based assets. In its science role, it has contributed to significant findings on the planet, and returns more science information from Mars in a single day than the weekly total of all other Mars missions.

Indeed, in the time it has been active in the Martian system, MRO has transmitted more than 264 terabits (33,000 gigabytes – more than 7,000 DVDs) of data, which is more than all other interplanetary missions — past and present — combined. Not only that, but it has done so at data rates ranging from less than 500 kilobits per second (Kbps) when Mars is at its furthest from Earth (approximately 250 million miles) to 4 megabits per second (Mbps) when the two planets are a “mere” 60 million miles apart.

In its role as a communications relay satellite, MRO has no equal in the Martian system. Its 10-foot diameter high-gain antenna, combined with the 100-watt X-band radio, makes for the perfect partner to relay critical telemetry and science data from other spacecraft in-system. Beyond the obvious benefit of having a large antenna with which to communicate with Earth, being able to use MRO’s comms assets can translate to inbound spacecraft needing smaller – and less massive – comms systems of their own. This mass savings may have a significant impact on the type of science instruments included on the spacecraft, or perhaps may allow for a great fuel load, thus extending the usable life of the craft. Read More →

United Launch Alliance once again selected for a flagship NASA mission

Archive photo of a ULA Atlas V in the 541 configuration. Credit: ULA

Archive photo of a ULA Atlas V in the 541 configuration. Credit: ULA

NASA has again called upon United Launch Alliance (ULA) to provide launch services for a flagship mission to Mars. The agency announced that ULA has been awarded the contract to launch the Mars 2020 rover atop an Atlas V 541 vehicle and is aiming for liftoff in July 2020.

ULA has been instrumental in many of the agency’s missions to the Red Planet, an achievement of which the company is justifiably proud.

“We are honored that NASA has selected ULA to provide another robotic science rover to Mars on this tremendously exciting mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA’s vice president of Custom Services, in a release issued by the company. “Our launch vehicles have a rich heritage with Mars, supporting 17 successful…”

Read more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

OPINION: It’s time to restart the nuclear thermal rocket program

File footage of the Phoebus 1B reactor in operation during a test in February 1967. Credit: NASA

File footage of the Phoebus 1B reactor in operation during a test in February 1967. Credit: NASA

Though it sounds like some far-fetched contrivance from the mind of a science fiction writer, nuclear thermal rockets (NTRs) are a very real – and incredibly efficient – means of propulsion under consideration for human missions to Mars. Not only are they real, but they have already been designed and tested…albeit more than 40 years ago.

Unfortunately, amidst a downturn in public support for nuclear-related programs of any sort in the early 1970s, the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) program was cancelled in 1972 and never resumed.

However, with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) marching towards its uncrewed maiden launch in 2018, and the agency’s goal of sending a crewed mission to Mars some time in the 2030s, there has been a renewed interest in propulsion systems that may help to get craft and crew to the Red Planet more efficiently, and more quickly, than traditional chemical propulsion systems.

NASA’s Tony Kim thinks that nuclear thermal rockets answer the program’s needs, and he’s ready to get started. Kim, the project manager for nuclear propulsion at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the strongest supporters for nuclear propulsion within the agency and was recently on-hand at an event at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility to discuss the program. Read More →

Aerojet Rocketdyne is critical to SLS’s success

Aerojet Rocketdyne's RS-25 engine installed in a test stand at Stennis Space Center. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RS-25 engine installed in a test stand at Stennis Space Center. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

When people think of NASA’s crewed vehicles, they may assume that everything is developed and built in-house. Though that may be true for some components, the fact is that a large portion of the hardware that goes into the agency’s vehicles comes from commercial providers, like Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, and its precursor companies, has been supplying hardware for America’s space program from its earliest days through the Space Shuttle program. That trend will continue when the Space Launch System (SLS) makes its maiden flight in the latter half of 2018.

Though their iconic and dependable RS-25 and RS-68 engines represent ‘best of breed’ in first stage propulsion, the company also supplies some of the most widely-used upper stage power plants in the US launch fleet. The reliable RL10 has been in production, in some capacity, since 1959 and is still flown on both the Atlas V and Delta IV vehicles. Indeed, it was also selected to be the engine on both of SLS’s second stages – the single-engined Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) and quad-engined Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).

However, this is not the extent of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s involvement with SLS. In keeping with the mantra of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” and the desire to use as much of the legacy hardware as was practical, the Orion Crew and Service Module (CSM) will utilize a repurposed Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engine from the Space Shuttle program: the AJ10-190.

Like the RL10 family of engines, the AJ10 has a pedigree stretching back nearly 60 years and served as the main propulsion unit on the Apollo CSM. As with the engine used during Apollo, the Orion CSM variant will perform orbital maneuver and return/deorbit burns. Additionally, it can be enlisted to help save craft and crew in a number of different abort scenarios, should the need arise.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is also working on other components important for crewed missions to Mars, including solar electric propulsion (SEP), deep space habitation, and systems supporting landing and ascent operations. The company’s efforts are deeply aligned with NASA’s Journey to Mars, which was echoed by Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake in a news release issued by the company.

“As a nation of explorers, we constantly look beyond the horizon, and Mars is the most logical place for humanity to expand our knowledge of the solar system,” Drake said.

Progress on NASA’s SLS and Orion vehicles discussed at Michoud

File photo of a model of Orion atop SLS. Credit: Curt Godwin

File photo of a model of Orion atop SLS. Credit: Curt Godwin

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Before wowing onlookers with the sights and sounds related to testing an RS-25 engine, NASA sought to educate members of traditional and social media outlets about agency and industry efforts related to the Journey to Mars.

However, before the agency can begin sending ships and crew beyond Earth’s neighborhood, they must first complete the rocket and spacecraft that will enable that journey. A televised panel discussion with NASA personnel started the day with a status update of the Space Launch System (SLS), accompanied by a discussion of the challenges the agency must consider in reaching the Red Planet with a crewed mission and the efforts underway to overcome them.

Bill Hill, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, outlined the progress the agency is making with SLS.

Read more in the full article at SpaceFlight Insider.

NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne test SLS core engine

The orange glow of excited hydrogen atoms can be clearly seen at the opening of the nozzle on the RS-25 at the conclusion of the test. Photo credit: Curt Godwin

The orange glow of excited hydrogen atoms can be clearly seen at the opening of the nozzle on the RS-25 at the conclusion of the test. Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Curt Godwin

NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne recently tested an RS-25 engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in coastal Mississippi in an effort to learn more about how the engine may react to the conditions it may encounter on an actual SLS launch.

Engine 0528, a development engine, was active for 420 seconds and was throttled between 80 to 111 percent of original rated power level. Though it may seem unusual to classify levels over 100 percent, it makes more sense to do so than re-write a multitude of pre-existing documentation as refinements come along. With the original design being the 100 percent benchmark, all follow-up enhancements have been measured against that metric.

Initially, SLS is slated to have its four core RS-25 engines operate at up to 109 percent rated thrust, though future mission plans call for it to be boosted to 111 percent. This most recent test ran the engine at that higher level for nearly five seconds. When the engines were used on the Space Shuttle, they would operate at nominal levels of 104.5 percent of rated thrust, though they could peak at 109 percent in an abort scenario.

As with many tests of this type, NASA provided live coverage via their NASA TV outlet. It must be noted, though, that watching the test via broadcast pales in comparison to witnessing the raw power coming from the test stand in-person. Experiencing the test from 1,200 feet (366 meters) away, one can feel every thump and pop from the engine as it is put through its test regime. Read More →

NASA preparing to launch its first asteroid sample return mission

OSIRIS-REx examines the asteroid Bennu in this artist's rendering. Credit: NASA

OSIRIS-REx examines the asteroid Bennu in this artist’s rendering. Credit: NASA

Sounding more like a dinosaur than a mission to retrieve a sample from an asteroid, OSIRIS-REx nevertheless is nearing its upcoming launch to study the asteroid Bennu and return a sample to Earth.

The 4,650 pound (2,110 kilogram) Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is scheduled to launch on September 8, 2016, aboard a relatively rare configuration of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket – the 411 (4-meter payload fairing, single solid rocket booster, single RL10 Centaur stage).

The lone solid rocket booster attached to the side of the rocket gives a decidedly asymmetric look to the vehicle, though the rocket’s main engines can more than compensate for the offset thrust. This mission will mark the fourth launch of the 411 variant, with all three previous launches completing successfully.

OSIRIS-REx must launch within the 34-day launch window beginning September 8 in order to arrive at Bennu in 2018. Once there, the spacecraft will survey its target to determine the best location from which to retrieve a sample and return it to Earth in 2023. Scientists hope to retrieve between 2 and 70 ounces of material.

“Our upcoming launch is the culmination of a tremendous amount of effort from an extremely dedicated team of scientists, engineers, technicians, finance and support personnel,” said OSIRIS-REx Project Manager Mike Donnelly at Goddard, in a release issued by NASA. “I’m incredibly proud of this team and look forward to launching the mission’s journey to Bennu and back.”

Crew access arm installed at SLC-41

The Crew Access Arm for Commerical Crew Program (CCP) being installed to the tower at Pad 41. Credit: NASA

The Crew Access Arm for Commerical Crew Program (CCP) being installed to the tower at Pad 41. Credit: NASA

Astronauts hoping to catch a ride to space on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner now have a way to board the next-generation spacecraft. The crew access arm has been installed at SLC-41, and will be the embarkation point for astronauts launching aboard the CST-100.

The 90,000 pound (40,823 kilogram) arm will stretch 50 feet (15.24 meters) from the launch tower to the spacecraft, allowing astronauts to enter the capsule via the ‘white room’. Nearly 18 months in development, the tower and access arm are some of the most visible changes to the launch complex and are evidence of the continued progress in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, in a release issued by the agency. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.” The launch tower and crew access arm are the first to be erected and installed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo program.

In an interesting bookend to the installation of the crew access arm, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are preparing for a spacewalk to attach the recently-delivered International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the orbiting outpost. The IDA will allow visiting spacecraft, such as Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s crewed Dragon, to dock/berth to the station.

Russia floats proposal to reduce their ISS staff

The International Space Station as seen in this photo from crew on the departing Atlantis on STS-132. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station as seen in this photo from crew on the departing Atlantis on STS-132. Credit: NASA

Russia has notified its space station partners of a proposal to reduce its contingent of cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) from three to two.

Though Russia has committed to maintaining the orbiting laboratory through 2024, their national space agency, Roscosmos, has been suffering from leaner budgets as of late, though it’s unclear if the proposal to cut their on-station crew is budget-related or a shift in priorities. However, coupled with the reduction in the number of ISS resupply missions needed from the Russians, along with the assumed resumption of crewed launches from the United States in the near future negating the need for Russia to ferry US and international astronauts – both of which are significant sources of income – it’s not a stretch to see a fiscal strain being the impetus behind this proposal.

NASA is aware of the proposal, as are the other ISS partners, and will weigh it as it relates to crew safety and other operational considerations. NASA’s Kenneth Todd – International Space Station Operations Integration Manager – confirms that Russia is considering the staff draw-down, and even though it is merely a proposal at this point, the international group will work to ascertain if there’s anything they can do to assist their Russian counterparts work through their current difficulties.