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United Launch Alliance delays two missions due to issues with Atlas V

File photo of a ULA Atlas V 401 on the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Curt Godwin

File photo of a ULA Atlas V 401 on the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Curt Godwin

Coming only 24 hours after United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) announcement on November 2, 2016, of a one week delay of the WorldView-4 satellite launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, the company tweeted that the launch of the GOES-R satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will also be delayed:

Noting that the cause of the delay for both missions is related to minor Atlas V issues discovered during launch preparations, ULA is taking the pragmatic approach and holding the launches until the issues are resolved. Though WorldView-4 is officially only delayed by a week, it’s nearly certain ULA will delay it further should a solution not be quickly reached.

The WorldView-4 launch has seen several delays, both from equipment issues and from Mother Nature. GOES-R has also been similarly-afflicted. Hurricane Matthew delayed the weather satellite’s launch, initially scheduled for November 4, 2016, then rescheduled for November 16, and now awaiting a resolution for this latest issue before a new date can be set.

Considering both the WorldView-4 and the GOES-R missions are launching on different variants of the stalwart Atlas V — the 401 and 541, respectively — it would appear that whatever gremlin is haunting these two launches is in the core part of the vehicle.

More updates as they become available.

NASA’s GRAIL sheds light on Moon’s geology

GRAIL measured the gravity around the Orientale basin. Colors represent the measurement of gravitational acceleration in units of “gals“. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

GRAIL measured the gravity around the Orientale basin. Colors represent the measurement of gravitational acceleration in units of “gals“. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What does a 3.8 billion-year-old crater have in common with data from a pair of spacecraft that crashed into the Moon nearly four years ago? Both are helping to provide clues about the geology of Earth’s natural satellite.

Though the Moon may be Earth’s nearest neighbor in space, that doesn’t mean it has long since given up its secrets. NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) twin spacecraft orbited the Moon for nearly a year, collecting a wealth of gravitational field data, before impacting the Moon’s surface on December 17, 2012.

Researchers have been poring over the data collected from 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) above the enormous Mare Orientale impact basin, and have published two papers in the journal Science this week – one focusing on understanding the structures of large impacts, and the other detailing how Orientale formed and applying that information to create simulations accurately portraying the formation of the basin.

Of particular interest was the structure of the crater itself. With smaller impacts, “classic” bowl-shaped craters are formed. However, larger collisions create a markedly different formation – wide, flat basins, often with multiple walls or rings. It had been theorized that the rings in Orientale were remnants of the initial impact.

Read much more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider

Commercial Crew: It was never about saving money

"Going my way?" NASA's astronauts have had to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

“Going my way?” NASA’s astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride with the Russians since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011. Credit: William Neff/The Plain Dealer

The Bear knows how to play Monopoly

The last time NASA had to pony up for astronauts to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians on their venerable Soyuz spacecraft, they paid — on average — nearly $82 million per seat, for a total of six seats. That’s $490 million to get six astronauts to the ISS.

Think about that for a moment: almost half a billion dollars to ferry six people to the ISS. It would appear that our formerly communist rivals learned that capitalism can sometimes be a very profitable thing – Soyuz seats have increased 384 percent in 10 years. Having no competition allows Russia to increase prices with relative impunity.

To be fair, that amount does cover more than just taxi service to the orbiting outpost — launch services and flight training are also included in that “low, low” price. However, that’s still a heck of a lot of money to be sending to a government that may be actively operating against American institutions.

Oh, and there are those little incidents in Syria and Crimea, too. It would seem as if it’s not the best idea to rely upon “The Bear” for any longer than is necessary.

Thankfully, since 2010, NASA has been working with private companies as part of their Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, with the goal of accelerating development of commercial space capabilities and returning human launches to US soil. Read More →

Elon Musk answers questions in a surprise Reddit AMA

Artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s ship on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: SpaceX

Artist’s rendering of SpaceX’s ship on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: SpaceX

In stark contrast to questions SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk encountered following his Mars architecture announcement at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) earlier this year, the NewSpace entrepreneur entertained questions from a more informed group in a surprise Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Oct. 23, 2016.

The AMA took place in the website’s r/spacex forum and shed some light on SpaceX’s future plans. Participants were asked to refrain from asking questions about Tesla or Solar City. If fact, Musk spent little time discussing much beyond the company’s Mars-centric hardware. He did, however, talk about the company’s upcoming upgrade for the Falcon 9 rocket.

Read much more in my full piece for SpaceFlight Insider

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Alan Poindexter arrives at the ISS

Orbital ATK's S.S. Alan Poindexter, designated OA-5, arrives at the International Space Station on Sept. 23, 2016. Credit: NASA

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Alan Poindexter, designated OA-5, arrives at the International Space Station on Sept. 23, 2016. Credit: NASA

Nearly a week after its launch, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft berthed with the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, October 23, 2016, at 10:53 a.m. EDT (14:53 GMT), 250 miles (402 kilometers) above the Indian Ocean, and is attached to the nadir (Earth-facing) port on the station’s Unity module.

The S.S. Alan Poindexter, designated OA-5 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 1 (CRS-1) contract, delivered 5,300 pounds (2,400 kilograms) of cargo to the orbiting outpost and marks the third flight of the enhanced iteration of the uncrewed cargo vessel, and the first on the redesigned Antares medium-class launch vehicle.

Read more in my full piece on SpaceFlight Insider.

How much wind load did the Vehicle Assembly Building withstand during Hurricane Matthew?

The setting sun illuminating the side of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Curt Godwin

The setting sun illuminating the side of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Curt Godwin

Let me start by stating, in no uncertain terms, that I am not a structural engineer. I am also not a genius (hush, peanut gallery). I didn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. So, super smart brainiac-types, you can sheath your slide rules and programmable calculators — I know that I might not have this exactly right.

What I am, however, is a person who took some publicly-announced information, and plugged it into some formulas meant to determine wind loads on various structures. Yay, spreadsheets!

If you read my piece about how Kennedy Space Center (KSC) fared after being battered by Hurricane Matthew, then you’ll know that both KSC Center Director Bob Cabana and KSC Damage Assessment and Recovery Team Chief Bob Holl stated that Hurricane Matthew’s winds at ground level were 75 knots, and a blustery 118 knots above 100 feet (30.48 meters).

Read More →

NASA’s JPL hopes to improve nuclear batteries used on spacecraft

DOE contractor guides the removal of the cask protecting Curiosity's MMRTG. Credit: NASA

DOE contractor guides the removal of the cask protecting Curiosity’s MMRTG. Credit: NASA

Radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) have been the power source for many of the most ambitious exploration missions in NASA’s history, powering spacecraft in areas too remote, or too impractical, for solar panels to provide sufficient electricity. A new development to this power-generating workhorse may soon substantially improve the capabilities of the RTG, possibly benefiting both interplanetary missions and daily life here on Earth.

In an Oct. 13, 2016, releaseNASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) outlined the potential to increase the efficiency of the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG), and make it hardier in the process.

“NASA needs reliable long-term power systems to advance exploration of the Solar System,” said Jean-Pierre Fleurial, supervisor for the thermal energy conversion research and advancement group at JPL.

To that end, JPL engineers look to make use of a class of materials known as skutterudites. These minerals…

Read more in my full article at SpaceFlight Insider –>

Damage from Hurricane Matthew is far less than feared at Kennedy Space Center

NASA's Kennedy Space Center sustained less damage than feared. The new headquarters building fared well, as the the VAB (background). Credit: NASA

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center sustained less damage than feared. The new headquarters building fared well, as the the VAB (background). Credit: NASA

Many feared the worst for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the early morning hours of Oct. 7, 2016, as Hurricane Matthew lashed the Cape Canaveral area with wind speeds up to 135.8 mph (218.5 km/h). Though expected to make landfall as a Category 4 storm, Matthew remained offshore slightly weakened to Category 3, sparing KSC from the full fury of the Atlantic basin storm.

On Oct. 12, 2016, KSC Director Bob Cabana and Damage Assessment and Recovery Team (DART) Chief Bob Holl briefed the media about how the center fared after its brush with the storm.

Both Cabana and Holl described winds of 75 knots (86.31 mph / 138.9 km/h) at ground level, and 118 knots (135.8 mph / 218.5 km/h) above 100 feet (30.48 meters). The eye of Hurricane Matthew wobbled more than 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) offshore on its journey up the Florida coast and did not make landfall at the Cape, as was feared.

Read more in my piece for SpaceFlight Insider –>

President Obama maintains Mars as NASA’s focus

NASA's Journey to Mars was reaffirmed in an op/ed piece issued by President Obama on Oct. 11, 2016. Image credit: NASA

NASA’s Journey to Mars was reaffirmed in an op/ed piece issued by President Obama on Oct. 11, 2016. Image credit: NASA

In an opinion piece written for CNN Oct. 11, 2016, President Barack Obama reiterated his support for NASA’s Journey to Mars. Under current plans, the U.S. space agency hopes to send astronauts to the Red Planet in the next 15–20 years.

“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

Indeed, the President had initially outlined a plan for the space agency in 2010, directing NASA to build a new heavy-lift rocket, designed to carry crew to Mars in the mid-2030s. As such, today’s announcement from Obama wasn’t particularly noteworthy in its content; however, it did serve to reaffirm the President’s vision for the nation’s space program.

Read more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

Blue Origin makes a fibber out of me, and I’m OK with that

Just as the vehicle was passing through max Q - the area of greatest aerodynamic pressure - the abort command was issued. Credit: Blue Origin

Just as the vehicle was passing through max Q – the area of greatest aerodynamic pressure – the abort command was issued. Credit: Blue Origin

Is Blue Origin imbued with the spiritual DNA of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, because they sure know how to make the improbable happen. While the company was fairly certain of a successful outcome for the New Shepard spacecraft in the in-flight abort test, the prognosis for the booster was far less rosy.

“This test will probably destroy the booster,” stated company founder Jeff Bezos in an email release early in September 2016.

Really, Mr. Bezos…really?

As if in defiance of those predictions, the booster continued its flight, even after being blasted with 70,000 pounds of thrust from the abort motor and having to fly with a decidedly un-aerodynamic leading edge.

The spacecraft rapidly zipped away from the “stricken” booster, soon reaching its apogee then returning to Earth under parachute. Other than the firing of the abort motor itself and not reaching space, the decent can be described as nominal and uneventful. This was the primary goal of this test, and demonstrated the vehicle’s capability to protect craft and crew should a problem occur with the rocket.

The booster, now free of its 8,000 pound spacecraft, actually had to reduce throttle on its lone BE-3 engine so as to not over-boost and go higher than intended. At this point in the flight profile, it was no different than the four previous New Shepard missions.

With little drama, the booster landed under its own power, capping off a successful test and earning itself a place of honor in a museum.

So what’s the genesis of my consternation? Well, not only do I write for The Liftoff Report, but I also provide content for SpaceFlight Insider, and was asked to write about this test. Now, you have to understand that, though I love all things spaceflight, it’s not my career — and I would be at work when the test occurred.

However, being the clever person that I am, I pre-wrote the piece, assuming that the booster would be lost in the process. Somewhat covering my bases, I included two scenarios: booster breaks-up at altitude after abort motor fires, or the booster survives the abort but the flight computer cannot regain control authority and the booster smacks into the desert floor.

So, being the dutiful writer that I am, I signed-off on the piece, turning it over to the editors to add details and pictures at the conclusion of the test. Smart, right?

Obviously not.

Thankfully, the editors at SpaceFlight Insider were able to quickly modify the piece to match reality. With that, a hearty “Thanks!” to the staff at SFI for making the necessary corrections, and a big round of congratulations to Blue Origin.

Blue Origin may have made a fibber out of me, but I’m OK with that.