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Monthly archives "September"

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Musk’s historic Mars announcement wows many, leaves others with questions

Elon Musk presents SpaceX's plan to make humans a multi-planet species. Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk presents SpaceX’s plan to make humans a multi-planet species. Credit: SpaceX

Industry leaders, pundits, and fans had been waiting for months in anticipation of what SpaceX CEO Elon Musk would unveil during his session at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico. When Musk finally took the stage on September 27, 2016, he was welcomed with cheering and applause on a level normally reserved for rock stars. The excitement was palpable.

Musk spoke for about an hour, sharing his vision for making humanity a multi-planet species, and what SpaceX will do to make that happen. Accompanying his speech were images, charts, renderings, and videos driving home the visionary CEO’s talking points.

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Musk teases world with images of Raptor test ahead of historic announcement

Elon Musk shared this picture of the first firing of the company's methalox-powered Raptor engine.

Elon Musk shared this picture of the first firing of the company’s methalox-powered Raptor engine. Credit: SpaceX

While much of the Western Hemisphere was still sound asleep on Sept. 26, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk conducted the first firing of the company’s Raptor engine. On the eve of what is expected to be a defining announcement from Musk as he outlines the NewSpace firm’s goals for Mars at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), the CEO shared a couple photos and provided a few insights into the engine’s capabilities.

Although short on deep details of the engine’s performance numbers, Musk did provide enough to whet observers’ appetite.

“Production Raptor goal is specific impulse of 382 seconds and thrust of 3 MN (∼310 metric tons) at 300 bar,” Musk tweeted. “Chamber pressure is almost 3X Merlin, so engine is about the same size for a given ratio.”

Read more in my full article at SpaceFlight Insider.

SpaceX narrows genesis of explosion to helium pressurization system

Members of the 45th Space Wing's Incident Management Team observe the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX's SLC-40. Credit: 45th Space Wing

Members of the 45th Space Wing’s Incident Management Team observe the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX’s SLC-40. Credit: 45th Space Wing

Faster than the blink of an eye – that’s how little time there was between the first sign of an anomaly and the loss of the Falcon 9 rocket with the AMOS-6 satellite during a pre-flight test propellant loading operation on Sept. 1, 2016. After poring over the data, SpaceX engineers have narrowed down the likely cause of the explosion to a failure in the upper stage’s helium system.

Largely silent in the days following the incident, SpaceX has provided scant information on the progress of the investigation – until now. In a release issued by the company Sept. 23, 2016, SpaceX outlined some of the findings of the Accident Investigation Team (AIT) – composed of SpaceX, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts – and on the condition of the infrastructure at Launch Complex 40 (LC-40).

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

Interesting details emerge regarding NASA’s involvement with Red Dragon

Rough mission profile of SpaceX's notional Red Dragon mission. Credit: SpaceX

Rough mission profile of SpaceX’s notional Red Dragon mission. Credit: SpaceX

In NASA’s weekly Future In-Space Operations (FISO) teleconference, Phil McAlister — NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development — discussed the agency’s involvement with SpaceX on the company’s Red Dragon mission, tentatively scheduled for May 2018.

First, a little history

SpaceX surprised the world when it announced the mission on April 27, 2016, by proposing to launch an uncrewed Dragon v2 capsule — dubbed ‘Red Dragon’ in reference to its destination — to Mars in 2018 and land the capsule on the surface of the planet. Though NASA has been successful in landing craft and rovers on the Red Planet, the heaviest has been Curiosity. However, NASA needs to be able to do more than that.

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Orbital ATK eyes early October 2016 for Antares’ return to flight

Orbital ATK's Antares in the company's Horizontal Integration Facility at Wallops Island. Photo credit: Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK’s Antares in the company’s Horizontal Integration Facility at Wallops Island. Photo credit: Orbital ATK

It’s been nearly two years since Antares has taken flight, but Orbital ATK’s launcher may soon thunder from Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-AtlanticRegional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island. The company issued a news release indicating a targeted launch window of October 9-13, 2016 for the OA-5 mission to ferry supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) via their Cygnus spacecraft.

Sidelined after a failed turbopump caused the loss of the vehicle and payload shortly after launch for the Orb-3 mission on October 28, 2014, Orbital ATK had to source a replacement engine, and perform validation tests, prior to resuming launches.

Though no one was hurt in the launch mishap, extensive damage was caused to the launch pad and it destroyed the Cygnus spacecraft and the cargo intended for the ISS. Orbital ATK already had plans to replace that version of Antares, and the launch failure was an opportunity for the company to accelerate that development.

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Key component for EM-1’s Orion spacecraft arrives at Kennedy Space Center

Technicians guide the Orion heat shield in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building after removing it from its shipping crate.

Technicians guide the Orion heat shield in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building after removing it from its shipping crate. Photo Credit: NASA

Slamming into Earth’s atmosphere at 6.8 miles per second (11 kilometers per second), Orion’s heat shield must protect the vehicle from the searing heat of reentry after its flight around the Moon. However, before it can go on its journey to our nearest neighbor, the shield had to make a much more mundane — though no less important — trip here on Earth.

The heat shield for the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) Orion vehicle arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on September 19, 2016, where it was offloaded from the agency’s Super Guppy aircraft and delivered to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building’s high bay.

The heat shield is a joint project, designed by engineers at Lockheed Martin and NASA’s Orion team, and was built at Lockheed Martin’s Denver-area manufacturing facility.

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Planetary defense is a key tenet of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission

NASA released this notional timeline for their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image Credit: NASA

NASA released this notional timeline for their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image Credit: NASA

NASA provided an update on their Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) during a series of internet-streamed events on Sept. 14, 2016, from the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Long a mission with lukewarm support in many sectors, NASA provided subject matter experts, as well as agency leaders and governmental advisors, giving them the chance to feature some mission hardware and outline the key benefits to be gained from ARM.

The early panel discussion featured Dr. John P. Holdren (Assistant to the President for Science and Technology), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Dr. Michelle Gates (NASA’s ARM Program Director). Dr. Holdren was quick to assure the current administration’s support of the program.

“I wanted to put the ARM mission in context of the President’s and NASA’s vision for expanding the human exploration of space,” Holdren said. “That vision is ambitious, it’s coherent, it’s systematic, it has four major pieces.”

First among those pieces that Holdren outlined is the intent to work with private industry in order to develop the most cost-effective mission design and hardware possible. He also noted that developing new technologies in support of a crewed mission to Mars – such as…

Read more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

Blue Origin announces orbital-class rocket

Blue Origin released this infographic to accompany the New Glenn announcement. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin released this infographic to accompany the New Glenn announcement. Credit: Blue Origin

The announcement

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, might be known for keeping a relatively low profile insofar as Blue Origin is concerned, but one cannot accuse him of not knowing how to make an entrance. In a surprise email on September 12, 2016, Bezos revealed to the world the company’s plan to build and launch its first orbital-class rocket by the end of this decade: the New Glenn.

Named after the first American to orbit Earth, John Glenn, the rocket will be the company’s entry into the reusable orbital-class rocket market, currently occupied by a single player — SpaceX. Although Blue Origin was the first commercial company to launch a rocket and crew-capable vehicle into space and recover both for later re-use, those flights were only suborbital.

Blue Origin has taken the expertise gained from the suborbital flights of their New Shepard vehicle — named after America’s first suborbital astronaut, Alan Shepard — and scaled it up just a bit. OK, perhaps more than “just a bit.” New Shepard’s booster, sans capsule, tops out at approximately 52 feet (16 meters), whereas the smaller version of New Glenn towers at 270 feet (82 meters). It would appear as if Blue Origin is bypassing the small-to-medium class of launch vehicles and going straight to a heavy/super heavy lift vehicle (HLV/SHLV) rocket, right? Read More →

Quick work by Incident Management Team likely saved OSIRIS-REx

Members of the 45th Space Wing's Incident Management Team observe the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX's SLC-40. Credit: 45th Space Wing

Members of the 45th Space Wing’s Incident Management Team observe the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX’s SLC-40. Credit: 45th Space Wing

It would seem that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was in much greater danger of being lost than had been initially disclosed. The 45th Space Wing released a recounting of events from the morning of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 loss, and the incredible efforts by the Incident Management Team to ensure the safety of area personnel and the greater public, as well as likely saving the launch of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, if not the spacecraft itself.

Though early information from news and industry sources indicated no appearance of damage or danger to the Atlas V rocket, or its payload, from the ongoing conflagration at SpaceX’s nearby SLC-40, there may very well have been significant damage to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) infrastructure that put the NASA mission at considerable risk.

According to the release, the explosion at SLC-40 damaged the water deluge system at that pad, causing it to “hemorrhage” water at a rate greater than could be replenished by the pumps. Had the pumps run dry, the motors could have burned out, rendering them inoperable. The deluge system that supplies SLC-40 also supplies ULA’s SLC-41, which is where the Atlas V rocket, carrying OSIRIS-REx, was set to launch just a week later.

The deluge system is a critical safety component for launch pad operations, and is used to dampen acoustic energy and provide cooling in order to protect pad infrastructure, and the launch vehicle, during liftoff. Had the system been unavailable, the launch would have been postponed until repairs could be effected, potentially impacting the mission had it not been able to launch during the window of favorable orbital alignment between Earth and the asteroid Bennu. Luckily, the 45th Space Wing’s Initial Response Team (IRT) was able to prevent this from happening.

More worryingly, though, is that the release indicates that the chillers providing cooling services for the spacecraft at SLC-41 (presumably OSIRIS-REx, though it’s not explicitly named in the piece) had lost all pressure, endangering the spacecraft itself. It’s not clear in the release if this failure was caused by the explosion of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, or if it was simply a coincident occurrence.

Nevertheless, these distressing events are in stark contrast to the reports that came out in the days following stating the rocket and spacecraft had passed their reviews and the countdown was progressing as scheduled. While true, those releases – by omission – painted a much rosier picture of the conditions at SLC-41 following the SpaceX incident than the 45th Space Wing’s release suggests.

In the end, the quick action by highly-trained personnel may have saved the OSIRIS-REx mission, and it’s a testament to their efforts, as well as those supporting the launches for their respective companies, that there was no loss of life or greater damage.

I highly recommend that one reads the release from the 45th Space Wing.

Blue Origin to test in-flight abort system

The New Shepard's pusher-style abort motor gets activated in this pad abort test in 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

The New Shepard’s pusher-style abort motor gets activated in this pad abort test in 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

As the New Shepard spacecraft and booster accelerate through the most aerodynamically stressful part of their launch profile, also known as “max Q,” a flight computer detects an anomaly and triggers an in-flight abort. The crew module shoots away from the stricken booster, allowing the gumdrop-shaped capsule to safely return its occupants to a safe recovery. Although notional in description, this is what Blue Origin plans to verify in an early October 2016 test flight of the company’s reusable rocket and spacecraft.

The company already performed a pad abort test, nearly four years ago, during which the abort motor fired for nearly 2 seconds and lofted the craft to an altitude of 2,307 feet (703 meters). The capsule landed under its triple-parachute canopy 1,630 feet (497 meters) away from the pad.

Unlike the traditional tower-based, towed-tractor style abort systems used during Mercury and Apollo programs – and soon on NASA’s Orion spacecraft riding atop the Space Launch System – Blue Origin’s abort motor is integrated into the crew vehicle and is a “pusher” system: it pushes the capsule from below rather than pulling it from above as with the tower systems.

Read more in my full write-up for SpaceFlight Insider.