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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.

ULA notches another successful mission with launch of OSIRIS-REx

An Atlas V 411 carrying NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lifts off from SLC-41. Photo credit: ULA

An Atlas V 411 carrying NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft lifts off from SLC-41. Photo credit: ULA

A practically cloudless sky provided a perfect backdrop for the launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft atop a ULA Atlas V rocket in a rare 411 configuration.

With only a single strap-on solid rocket motor to accompany the Atlas V’s main RD-180 engine, the rocket presented an unusual sight to viewers as the RD-180 had to gimbal enough to mitigate the asymmetric thrust provided by the lone solid motor, giving the rocket the appearance of “sliding” slightly as it ascended. This particular configuration of the Atlas V – the ‘411’, which designates a 4-meter payload fairing, single solid rocket motor, and a single RL10-engined Centaur stage – had only flown three times previously and is one of the rarer configurations of the reliable Atlas V family.

The on-time launch at 7:05 pm EDT on Thursday, September 8, 2016, places NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on a trajectory to rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu. This will be NASA’s first spacecraft to visit an asteroid and retrieve a sample for later return to Earth.

“We are honored to be chosen by NASA to launch this historic mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services, in a press release issued by the company after the launch. “Thank you to our NASA customer and mission partners for the outstanding teamwork and attention to detail as we successfully started OSIRIS-Rex on its seven-year journey to Bennu.”

Scientists hope to collect as much as 2 kilograms (4.41 pounds) of material from the asteroid in hopes to better understand the solar system’s early days, and to get a better understanding of what sort of materials may be exploitable for future use.

The spacecraft will rendezvous with Bennu in 2018, and begin an intensive examination of the asteroid culminating with the collection of material from the surface and return it to Earth in September 2023.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was on-hand to witness the historic launch. “Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” said Bolden in a release from the agency. “We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today.”

For its part, ULA continued its laudable track record of successful launches for NASA’s science missions. “ULA and our heritage vehicles have successfully launched NASA missions to every planet in our solar system,” said Maginnis in the company’s post-launch press release. “ULA’s commitment to mission launch is unparalleled, and we’re proud of our team for continuing our unprecedented track record of 100 percent mission success.”

ULA completes Launch Readiness Review for OSIRIS-REx

OSIRIS-REx mission artwork. Credit: ULA

OSIRIS-REx mission artwork. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance (ULA) continues to progress towards Thursday’s launch of NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft. ULA completed their Launch Readiness Review on Tuesday, September 6, and are currently working no reported issues ahead of the September 8 launch date.

The L-2 forecast currently calls for an 80 percent chance of favorable weather, with the primary concern being cumulus clouds during the nearly 2-hour launch window. Should a 24-hour delay be necessary, the following day’s forecast worsens slightly with a 70 percent chance of favorable weather, with both cumulus and anvil clouds being the primary concerns.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is NASA’s first vehicle designed to return asteroid samples to Earth. Scientists hope to collect at least 60 grams (2.11 ounces) — or as much as 2 kilograms (4.41 pounds) — of material from the asteroid 101955 Bennu, and return it to the Utah Test and Training range in September 2023.

Launching atop a ULA Atlas V rocket in the comparatively rare 411 configuration — 4-meter payload fairing, single solid rocket booster, single-engined Centaur stage —  the 1,529 kilogram (3,371 pound) explorer will conduct a variety of experiments ahead of the sample collection. Once the asteroid’s material has been secured, all science activities will cease as part of a measure to ensure the pristine material isn’t contaminated.

OSIRIS-REx is part of NASA’s highly successful New Frontiers program. Managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, New Frontiers has fielded a couple of notable missions: New Horizons and Juno.

Thursday’s launch window opens at 7:05 pm EDT and extends to 9:00 pm EDT, and will launch from SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

‘Going green’ is for more than Earth-based endeavors

Half-scale model of the GPIM spacecraft. Credit: Curt Godwin

Half-scale model of the GPIM spacecraft. Credit: Curt Godwin

When one hears about ‘going green’, their mind’s eye may conjure pictures of electric cars…or solar panels…or wind turbines. Spacecraft, though, probably aren’t in that mental slideshow. Ball Aerospace, though, is going to change that.

Via their Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), Ball Aerospace hopes to demonstrate the viability of this ‘green’ propellant when the satellite is launched in 2017 as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Rather than using highly-toxic hydrazine, GPIM will utilize the safer hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel (also known as AF-M315E) developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory.

As part of a Technology Demonstration Mission – managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL – the green propellant will be the foundation for the main propulsion system on the Ball BCP 100-based spacecraft. During the 13-month long mission, engineers will put the spacecraft through its paces –including changes in orbital inclination and altitude — in order to validate that the fuel, and supporting infrastructure, can be declared operational for future agency and commercial missions.

The Ball Aerospace GPIM spacecraft, based in the company's BCP 100 bus, is in a clean room at the Ball Aerospace facilities in Boulder, CO. Credit: Curt Godwin

The Ball Aerospace GPIM spacecraft, based on the company’s BCP 100 bus, is pictured here in a clean room at the Ball Aerospace facilities in Boulder, CO. Credit: Curt Godwin

But what does “safer” mean? While hydrazine is both highly toxic and dangerously unstable unless handled in solution, AF-M315E can be safely handled in a standard laboratory environment. This translates to less risk for those who must handle fueling the spacecraft, and should also reduce the cost in supporting such operations as ground processing can be reduced from weeks to days.

However, if the fuel is much safer but performs poorly, then what benefit would it be? The good news is that initial testing indicates that the green propellant performs 50% better per given unit volume than does hydrazine and requires significantly less power to keep the system at proper operating temperature.

If that weren’t enough, it’s also estimated that the new fuel has the initial potential to reduce launching costs by approximately $500,000. It would appear that there are no downsides to this new spacecraft propellant, though that will be clearer at the conclusion of the mission.

OPINION: NASA needs to start investing in Mars comms network

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

By practically every metric, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been an incredible success. Launched on August 12, 2005, MRO has spent more than ten years orbiting the Red Planet, both as a science-gathering platform and as a communications relay for other Mars-based assets. In its science role, it has contributed to significant findings on the planet, and returns more science information from Mars in a single day than the weekly total of all other Mars missions.

Indeed, in the time it has been active in the Martian system, MRO has transmitted more than 264 terabits (33,000 gigabytes – more than 7,000 DVDs) of data, which is more than all other interplanetary missions — past and present — combined. Not only that, but it has done so at data rates ranging from less than 500 kilobits per second (Kbps) when Mars is at its furthest from Earth (approximately 250 million miles) to 4 megabits per second (Mbps) when the two planets are a “mere” 60 million miles apart.

In its role as a communications relay satellite, MRO has no equal in the Martian system. Its 10-foot diameter high-gain antenna, combined with the 100-watt X-band radio, makes for the perfect partner to relay critical telemetry and science data from other spacecraft in-system. Beyond the obvious benefit of having a large antenna with which to communicate with Earth, being able to use MRO’s comms assets can translate to inbound spacecraft needing smaller – and less massive – comms systems of their own. This mass savings may have a significant impact on the type of science instruments included on the spacecraft, or perhaps may allow for a great fuel load, thus extending the usable life of the craft. Read More →

United Launch Alliance once again selected for a flagship NASA mission

Archive photo of a ULA Atlas V in the 541 configuration. Credit: ULA

Archive photo of a ULA Atlas V in the 541 configuration. Credit: ULA

NASA has again called upon United Launch Alliance (ULA) to provide launch services for a flagship mission to Mars. The agency announced that ULA has been awarded the contract to launch the Mars 2020 rover atop an Atlas V 541 vehicle and is aiming for liftoff in July 2020.

ULA has been instrumental in many of the agency’s missions to the Red Planet, an achievement of which the company is justifiably proud.

“We are honored that NASA has selected ULA to provide another robotic science rover to Mars on this tremendously exciting mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA’s vice president of Custom Services, in a release issued by the company. “Our launch vehicles have a rich heritage with Mars, supporting 17 successful…”

Read more in my full piece at SpaceFlight Insider.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is critical to SLS’s success

Aerojet Rocketdyne's RS-25 engine installed in a test stand at Stennis Space Center. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RS-25 engine installed in a test stand at Stennis Space Center. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

When people think of NASA’s crewed vehicles, they may assume that everything is developed and built in-house. Though that may be true for some components, the fact is that a large portion of the hardware that goes into the agency’s vehicles comes from commercial providers, like Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, and its precursor companies, has been supplying hardware for America’s space program from its earliest days through the Space Shuttle program. That trend will continue when the Space Launch System (SLS) makes its maiden flight in the latter half of 2018.

Though their iconic and dependable RS-25 and RS-68 engines represent ‘best of breed’ in first stage propulsion, the company also supplies some of the most widely-used upper stage power plants in the US launch fleet. The reliable RL10 has been in production, in some capacity, since 1959 and is still flown on both the Atlas V and Delta IV vehicles. Indeed, it was also selected to be the engine on both of SLS’s second stages – the single-engined Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) and quad-engined Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).

However, this is not the extent of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s involvement with SLS. In keeping with the mantra of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” and the desire to use as much of the legacy hardware as was practical, the Orion Crew and Service Module (CSM) will utilize a repurposed Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engine from the Space Shuttle program: the AJ10-190.

Like the RL10 family of engines, the AJ10 has a pedigree stretching back nearly 60 years and served as the main propulsion unit on the Apollo CSM. As with the engine used during Apollo, the Orion CSM variant will perform orbital maneuver and return/deorbit burns. Additionally, it can be enlisted to help save craft and crew in a number of different abort scenarios, should the need arise.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is also working on other components important for crewed missions to Mars, including solar electric propulsion (SEP), deep space habitation, and systems supporting landing and ascent operations. The company’s efforts are deeply aligned with NASA’s Journey to Mars, which was echoed by Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake in a news release issued by the company.

“As a nation of explorers, we constantly look beyond the horizon, and Mars is the most logical place for humanity to expand our knowledge of the solar system,” Drake said.

Progress on NASA’s SLS and Orion vehicles discussed at Michoud

File photo of a model of Orion atop SLS. Credit: Curt Godwin

File photo of a model of Orion atop SLS. Credit: Curt Godwin

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Before wowing onlookers with the sights and sounds related to testing an RS-25 engine, NASA sought to educate members of traditional and social media outlets about agency and industry efforts related to the Journey to Mars.

However, before the agency can begin sending ships and crew beyond Earth’s neighborhood, they must first complete the rocket and spacecraft that will enable that journey. A televised panel discussion with NASA personnel started the day with a status update of the Space Launch System (SLS), accompanied by a discussion of the challenges the agency must consider in reaching the Red Planet with a crewed mission and the efforts underway to overcome them.

Bill Hill, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, outlined the progress the agency is making with SLS.

Read more in the full article at SpaceFlight Insider.

NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne test SLS core engine

The orange glow of excited hydrogen atoms can be clearly seen at the opening of the nozzle on the RS-25 at the conclusion of the test. Photo credit: Curt Godwin

The orange glow of excited hydrogen atoms can be clearly seen at the opening of the nozzle on the RS-25 at the conclusion of the test. Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Curt Godwin

NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne recently tested an RS-25 engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in coastal Mississippi in an effort to learn more about how the engine may react to the conditions it may encounter on an actual SLS launch.

Engine 0528, a development engine, was active for 420 seconds and was throttled between 80 to 111 percent of original rated power level. Though it may seem unusual to classify levels over 100 percent, it makes more sense to do so than re-write a multitude of pre-existing documentation as refinements come along. With the original design being the 100 percent benchmark, all follow-up enhancements have been measured against that metric.

Initially, SLS is slated to have its four core RS-25 engines operate at up to 109 percent rated thrust, though future mission plans call for it to be boosted to 111 percent. This most recent test ran the engine at that higher level for nearly five seconds. When the engines were used on the Space Shuttle, they would operate at nominal levels of 104.5 percent of rated thrust, though they could peak at 109 percent in an abort scenario.

As with many tests of this type, NASA provided live coverage via their NASA TV outlet. It must be noted, though, that watching the test via broadcast pales in comparison to witnessing the raw power coming from the test stand in-person. Experiencing the test from 1,200 feet (366 meters) away, one can feel every thump and pop from the engine as it is put through its test regime. Read More →