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Monthly archives "August"

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USAF AFSPC-6 / ULA Delta IV mission update

The USAF's AFSPC-6 payload is raised to be mated with a ULA Delta IV rocket. Credit: ULA

The USAF’s AFSPC-6 payload is raised to be mated with a ULA Delta IV rocket. Credit: ULA

Everything is progressing towards the scheduled launch of the United States Air Force’s AFSPC-6 mission atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV on Friday, August 19, 2016. Set to lift off from SLC-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in a 4-hour window beginning at 12:00 am, the dual Orbital ATK-built satellite payload is already encapsulated in a 4-meter diameter fairing, and will be delivered to a near-geosynchronous orbit.

The L-4 weather forecast currently indicates a 20% chance of violating weather launch constraint criteria, with the primary concern being cumulus clouds. Should a 24-hour delay be necessary, the following day’s forecast is essentially identical.

Check back with The Liftoff Report for updates.

NASA readies for another test of SLS’s core propulsion system

NASA conducts a static fire test of one of its RS-25 engines. Credit: NASA

NASA conducts a static fire test of one of its RS-25 engines. Credit: NASA

NASA is preparing to conduct a full-duration static test fire of one of its RS-25 engines on Thursday, August 18, four of which will comprise the propulsion system in the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. Previously known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), the uprated engine will initially provide up to 109% of its original design thrust in early iterations of SLS, with a goal of eventually being rated for 111%.

When the engines were used on the Space Shuttle, they were rated for nominal use at 104.5%, though could be throttled up to 109% in the event of an abort scenario. However, doing so ran the risk of significant degradation of engine components, perhaps to the point of making it not cost-effective to refurbish the engine. That’s not a concern with SLS, though, as the core stage will not be recovered after use.

In order to consistently run the engine at the higher performance levels, Aerojet Rocketdyne – the manufacturer of the SSME/RS-25 engine – needed to upgrade the engine controller. The now-mothballed J-2X engine, also manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, provided the perfect platform from which to develop the engine control module for the RS-25. Numerous development test firings have validated the new controller, as well as other changes to the engine, and NASA now moves forward with running the flight engines through mission-like static fire tests in preparation for the maiden launch of SLS, scheduled for the latter half of 2018.

Infographic explains why testing the RS-25 is necessary. Credit: NASA

Infographic explains why testing the RS-25 is necessary. Credit: NASA

SpaceX sticks the landing. Again.

Falcon 9 booster on the deck of the 'Of Course I Still Love You' after completing its part of launching the JCSAT-16 satellite.

Falcon 9 booster on the deck of the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ after completing its part of launching the JCSAT-16 satellite. Credit: SpaceX

In what is becoming an increasingly expected occurrence, SpaceX has successfully recovered the first stage of one of their Falcon 9 rockets. The company still considers the landing attempts to be ‘experimental’, and they do still encounter the occasional failure, but it’s undeniable that their accuracy is greatly improved.

As with several past landing attempts at sea, the video feed from the automated drone ship cut just as the stage approached the deck of the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’. While waiting for video confirmation of the stage’s fate, the official SpaceX Twitter account tweeted that the stage had, indeed, landed. This was quickly confirmed on the video feed, which showed the booster sitting nearly dead-center of the circular landing zone painted on the deck of the ship.

While many people are interested in the launch and landing attempts, the primary mission – the deployment of the JCSAT-16 satellite – was still underway at the time of the booster recovery. After a pause during the second stage’s coast phase, the hosted feed continued when the upper stage’s engine was re-ignited in order to place the satellite on the intended geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), followed by the subsequent deployment of the satellite. All appeared to go well, and SpaceX can count this as another successful mission, both in its primary and secondary goals.

Though the company has recovered several boosters – some at sea and some returning to land – they have yet to re-fly any of the recovered vehicles. But that may soon change. SpaceX has recently been testing the booster recovered from the JCSAT-14 mission at their McGregor, TX testing facility in an effort to better understand the condition a booster may be in after such a high-energy flight profile.

There have been no shortage of customers interested in having their payload fly on one of the recovered boosters, with an executive from the large satellite operator SES stating that they would be keen to be the first company to do so. There have been reports that SpaceX has found a customer for this historic launch, though there has been no independent confirmation from the company about who that may be.

More news as it becomes available.

NASA selects six companies to develop deep space habitation prototypes

Conceptual image of a deep space habitation module. Credit: NASA

Conceptual image of a deep space habitation module. Credit: NASA

NASA recently announced they have selected six companies to develop ground prototypes of deep space habitation modules as part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’. Though NASA has been making steady progress on their heavy-lift rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – and the Orion spacecraft, a lengthy interplanetary journey will require a dedicated habitation module.

To that end, NASA has partnered with Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems, and NanoRacks to develop prototypes and concepts of habitation modules suitable for such a journey. The companies will have approximately 24 months to produce a prototype and/or a concept study.

“NASA is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the Journey to Mars, and we’re utilizing the innovation, skill and knowledge of both the government and private sectors,” said Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems in a press release issued by the agency. “The next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion. We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth.”

Developing ground prototypes is crucial in understanding how the habitats will integrate into an overall crewed system. Both physical and virtual models will be used to test and plan the layouts of the modules. It’s better to work through hundreds, or thousands, of iterations on the ground than to find out something doesn’t work once it’s on orbit.

Expedition 47 astronauts and cosmonauts gather for a group photo inside BEAM. Credit: Tim Peake/ESA/NASA

Expedition 47 astronauts and cosmonauts gather for a group photo inside BEAM. Credit: Tim Peake/ESA/NASA

One of the companies, Bigelow Aerospace, currently has a test module attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Their Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was launched to the ISS aboard the SpaceX CRS-8 mission on April 8, 2016, and subsequently attached to the orbiting outpost eight days later. After some initial hitches, BEAM was eventually fully expanded and pressurized. Though not nominally inhabited, astronauts will occasionally enter BEAM to recover test data to send back to Bigelow.

Bigelow expects to field their XBASE (Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement) module for the NextSTEP initiative. The 330 cubic meter habitat is based on the company’s B-330 spacecraft, though modified to attach to the ISS as a “visiting vehicle”. By comparison, BEAM is 16 cubic meters in volume.

Orbital ATK also hopes to leverage its experience with ISS operations. Based off the company’s cargo resupply ship, Orbital ATK looks to develop a solution derived from their Cygnus spacecraft. The enlarged module would operate in cislunar space, maturing the design and systems, while the company develops a Mars-focused roadmap.

You can read more about this initiative on NASA’s site, including the proposed designs from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and NanoRacks.

Concept of Lockheed Martin's NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Concept of Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP-2 habitat with Orion. Credit: Lockheed Martin

SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission update

Official SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

Official SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

The countdown for the launch of the JCSAT-16 satellite, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, continues to progress towards a projected T-0 of 1:26am EDT (5:26am UTC) on August 14, 2016. Currently, weather stands at 80% ‘GO’, with the primary concerns for violating weather constraints being cumulus and thick clouds. Should a 24-hour delay be necessary, weather favorability drops to 70% ‘GO’ with the same primary concerns.

Though the primary mission is the launch of the JCSAT-16 satellite, many – if not more – people are interested in the mission’s secondary mission: the landing and recovery of the Falcon 9’s first stage. Due to the satellite’s orbital parameters, the landing attempt will be on the automated drone ship Of Course I Still Love You rather than back on land. While rocket watchers are less enthusiastic about the offshore landing, residents near KSC/CCAFS are likely pleased with prospect of not having their slumber interrupted by the triple sonic boom of the returning stage.

As has been the case as of late, SpaceX will carry both a hosted and a technical feed for the launch. Check back with The Liftoff Report for the latest news and information.

Which will be the first company to mine an asteroid…and will it be legal?

Artist's depiction of a DSI spacecraft harvesting resources from the surface of an asteroid. Credit: DSI

Artist’s depiction of a DSI spacecraft harvesting resources from the surface of an asteroid. Credit: DSI

In what many believe to be one of the next logical steps in broadening space as a commercial market, Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced its plan to send the world’s first commercial mining spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid. To that end, the company’s Prospector-1 spacecraft is slated to launch before the close of the decade and will rendezvous with, and explore, one of the many asteroids inhabiting our planetary neighborhood.

Intelligent enough to operate without guidance from DSI’s mission control, the small spacecraft will be capable of analyzing the composition of the asteroid, via both visual light and infrared imaging, in order to determine the target’s water content. Water is a critical resource for off-Earth ventures, and finding a relatively easy source from which to extract it is an essential goal of DSI.

Read MUCH more in my full piece on SpaceFlight Insider.

Beauty in controlled explosions

Animation of footage from NASA's HiDyRS-X camera. Footage grabbed from official NASA video.

Animation of footage from NASA’s HiDyRS-X camera. Footage grabbed from official NASA video.

A few days ago, NASA released a video of their successful solid rocket booster test – dubbed QM-2 – showcasing the capabilities of their new High Dynamic Range Stereo X (HiDyRS-X) camera.

Normally, a camera’s exposure settings are configured to get detail in either the brightest areas, or in the darker areas, of a subject. This would force one to decide between capturing valuable visual data in one area, while effectively ignoring visual data in another. Or setting up redundant equipment, with each composed to capture different types of detail. Neither situation is optimal, and can lead to costly equipment deployments.

HiDyRS-X, though, can capture both simultaneously. The three-minute video clearly shows detail in the booster’s blindingly bright exhaust plume, while still decently exposing the aft end of the booster itself – something that would normally be difficult, if not impossible, to do with a single device. HiDyRS-X is able to capture both bright and dark areas concurrently, and combine them into a single high dynamic range (HDR) video. The results are quite incredible.

NASA was not the only one to release unconventional footage of their hardware in action. SpaceX produced a montage video, replete with a suitably techno soundtrack, of some slow-motion shots of their Falcon 9 rocket in various stages of its flight, and landing, profile.

Both videos are outstanding, and show the power and beauty in some of mankind’s powerful creations.

Close-up of the aft end of the Falcon 9's first stage, with a single Merlin 1D under power, as it comes in for a landing. Credit: SpaceX

Close-up of the aft end of the Falcon 9’s first stage, with a single Merlin 1D under power, as it comes in for a landing. Credit: SpaceX

Lockheed Martin signs contract with NASA to launch ‘SkyFire’ CubeSat

Artist's depiction of SkyFire in lunar proximity. Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

Artist’s depiction of SkyFire in lunar proximity. Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin has signed a contract with NASA to launch and deploy its 6U SkyFire CubeSat on the agency’s maiden launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2018 in an effort to increase our understanding of Earth’s closest neighbor.

Though destinations beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) are normally the domain of much larger spacecraft, SkyFire will launch as a secondary payload on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and take advantage of the larger vehicle’s ability to ferry the smaller CubeSat to lunar vicinity.

SkyFire’s lunar flyby will pioneer brand new infrared technology, enabling scientists to fill strategic gaps in lunar knowledge that have implications for future human space exploration,” said John Ringelberg…

Read the full story in my post at SpaceFlight Insider.

NASA opens CubeSat program to educators and nonprofits

The BisonSat is one example of a CubeSat mission launched by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative on Oct. 8, 2015. Credits: Salish Kootenai College

The BisonSat is one example of a CubeSat mission launched by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative on Oct. 8, 2015. Credit: Salish Kootenai College

NASA has opened access to the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) to accredited education institutions and nonprofit organizations in an effort to help NASA achieve its exploration goals.

In order to promote development of the small, research-focused satellites, CSLI provides CubeSat developers an inexpensive path to space. This should have the effect of advancing research in areas important to NASA’s strategic interests: science, exploration, technology development, education, and operations. Selectees will have the opportunity to get hands-on experience with flight hardware development.

Interested institutions must submit proposals by 4:30 pm EST, Nov. 22, 2016, and NASA will make selections by Feb. 17, 2017, though selection does not guarantee the satellite will be afforded a launch opportunity. NASA has selected 119 CubeSat missions to date, with 46 of them having already been launched. Historically, the agency has offered launch opportunities to 95 percent of selectees from previous announcements.

CubeSats belong to the ‘nanosatellite’ class of research spacecraft, and are sized in standardized units. One cube, or 1U, is approximately 4x4x4 inches (10x10x11 centimeters), typically have a mass of approximately 3 pounds (1.33 kilograms) per 1U cube when arranged in 1U, 2U, and 3U configurations. A larger 6U CubeSat may tip the scales at more than 26.5 pounds (12-14 kilograms), with the deployment method determining the final mass. The CubeSat Launch Initiative will support 1U, 2U, 3U, and 6U craft.

Selected CubeSats will fly as auxiliary payload on NASA launches, or will be deployed from the International Space Station (ISS), beginning in 2017 through 2020. Selectees will be responsible for funding the development of their satellite.

For more information, visit NASA’s CSLI website.

Aerojet Rocketdyne awarded contract for Dream Chaser’s power system

Aerojet Rocketdyne has been awarded the contract to build the power distribution system for Dream Chaser. Artist's rendering, credit: SNC

Aerojet Rocketdyne has been awarded the contract to build the power distribution system for Dream Chaser. Artist’s rendering, credit: SNC

Aerojet Rocketdyne has been selected to supply the electrical power distribution system for Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser spacecraft. The company will be responsible for designing, developing, manufacturing, and testing the system, followed by integration into the reusable spacecraft’s power network.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne is honored to supply a critical power management system for a spacecraft that will deliver supplies to astronauts living and working onboard the space station,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake in a news release. “We have been instrumental in efficiently and effectively managing power on the station for decades. We look forward to building upon that experience with Sierra Nevada Corporation, and developing future power systems for use on commercial missions, as well as NASA exploration programs and in-space transportation.”

Read much more in my full write-up at SpaceFlight Insider.