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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.

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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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

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

NASA’s SLS booster takes a chill before static test

An Orbital ATK technician checks the temperature of the five-segment SLS booster. Photo Credit: Orbital ATK

An Orbital ATK technician checks the temperature of the five-segment SLS booster. Photo Credit: Orbital ATK

On June 28, 2016, the test area at Orbital ATK’s facility in Promontory, Utah, promises to get very hot… but not before the world’s largest human-rated solid rocket booster (SRB) takes a more than month-long chill-down. Engineers have begun cooling the five-segment solid rocket motor down to nearly 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.44 degrees Celsius) in preparation for the second – and final – qualification ground test for the Space Launch System (SLS) booster.

You can read much more in my write-up at SpaceFlight Insider.