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GOES-R successfully launched on ULA Atlas V

The Atlas V 541 carrying GOES-R lifts off at 6:42pm EST. Credit: Curt Godwin

The Atlas V 541 carrying GOES-R lifts off at 6:42pm EST. Credit: Curt Godwin

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The launch window extended for an hour, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) needed every minute of it. After resolving multiple issues, the Atlas V rocketed into the black on a mission to send the most advanced weather satellite, GOES-R, into geostationary orbit.

The first issue that cropped up turned out to be a false-positive indicator on the launch vehicle. ULA’s frustrations didn’t end there, however. The Eastern Range also encountered an issue, which delayed the liftoff time to the very end of the window. Finally, under nearly perfect conditions, the Atlas V 541 with GOES-R lifted off at 6:42 p.m. EST (23:42 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The workhorse of ULAs stable of launch vehicles, the Atlas V for this mission was set up in its 541 configuration: this includes a 5-meter payload fairing, four supplemental solid rocket boosters, and a single-engined Centaur stage.

It was the fourth launch of this configuration of the Atlas V, with the most notable payload being the Mars Science Laboratory – otherwise known as Curiosity – which took to the skies in November 2011.

Much more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider

Weather appears favorable for launch of GOES-R on ULA Atlas V

The ULA Atlas V carrying GOES-R makes its way to the pad. Credit: Curt Godwin

The ULA Atlas V carrying GOES-R makes its way to the pad. Credit: Curt Godwin

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After being subjected to delays caused by weather and troublesome hardware, the next-generation GOES-R weather satellite is soon to liftoff from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41), the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), with a scheduled launch date of Saturday, November 19, 2016.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series (GOES-R) spacecraft, a collaborative project between NOAA and NASA, and based on the Lockheed Martin A2100 satellite model, will augment the current stable of three active GOES satellites and will monitor weather in the Western Hemisphere. GOES-R will be given the operational designation of GOES 16 once it reaches its orbital slot, approximately 22,300 miles (35,888 kilometers) above the equator.

GOES-R represents the fourth generation of weather monitoring satellites operated by NOAA and will eventually be joined by three more of its family, culminating with the projected launch of GOES-U in 2024.

Weather forecasters and climate scientists have been eagerly awaiting the launch of GOES-R, which promises to greatly increase the amount of weather data that can be collected from orbit. In fact, GOES-R will provide nearly real-time weather data, with a fidelity and speed unmatched by the current generation of GOES satellites.

Read much more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider

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

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.

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.

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.

Read More →

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.