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NASA preparing to launch its first asteroid sample return mission

OSIRIS-REx examines the asteroid Bennu in this artist's rendering. Credit: NASA

OSIRIS-REx examines the asteroid Bennu in this artist’s rendering. Credit: NASA

Sounding more like a dinosaur than a mission to retrieve a sample from an asteroid, OSIRIS-REx nevertheless is nearing its upcoming launch to study the asteroid Bennu and return a sample to Earth.

The 4,650 pound (2,110 kilogram) Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is scheduled to launch on September 8, 2016, aboard a relatively rare configuration of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket – the 411 (4-meter payload fairing, single solid rocket booster, single RL10 Centaur stage).

The lone solid rocket booster attached to the side of the rocket gives a decidedly asymmetric look to the vehicle, though the rocket’s main engines can more than compensate for the offset thrust. This mission will mark the fourth launch of the 411 variant, with all three previous launches completing successfully.

OSIRIS-REx must launch within the 34-day launch window beginning September 8 in order to arrive at Bennu in 2018. Once there, the spacecraft will survey its target to determine the best location from which to retrieve a sample and return it to Earth in 2023. Scientists hope to retrieve between 2 and 70 ounces of material.

“Our upcoming launch is the culmination of a tremendous amount of effort from an extremely dedicated team of scientists, engineers, technicians, finance and support personnel,” said OSIRIS-REx Project Manager Mike Donnelly at Goddard, in a release issued by NASA. “I’m incredibly proud of this team and look forward to launching the mission’s journey to Bennu and back.”

Crew access arm installed at SLC-41

The Crew Access Arm for Commerical Crew Program (CCP) being installed to the tower at Pad 41. Credit: NASA

The Crew Access Arm for Commerical Crew Program (CCP) being installed to the tower at Pad 41. Credit: NASA

Astronauts hoping to catch a ride to space on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner now have a way to board the next-generation spacecraft. The crew access arm has been installed at SLC-41, and will be the embarkation point for astronauts launching aboard the CST-100.

The 90,000 pound (40,823 kilogram) arm will stretch 50 feet (15.24 meters) from the launch tower to the spacecraft, allowing astronauts to enter the capsule via the ‘white room’. Nearly 18 months in development, the tower and access arm are some of the most visible changes to the launch complex and are evidence of the continued progress in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, in a release issued by the agency. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.” The launch tower and crew access arm are the first to be erected and installed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo program.

In an interesting bookend to the installation of the crew access arm, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are preparing for a spacewalk to attach the recently-delivered International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the orbiting outpost. The IDA will allow visiting spacecraft, such as Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s crewed Dragon, to dock/berth to the station.

Russia floats proposal to reduce their ISS staff

The International Space Station as seen in this photo from crew on the departing Atlantis on STS-132. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station as seen in this photo from crew on the departing Atlantis on STS-132. Credit: NASA

Russia has notified its space station partners of a proposal to reduce its contingent of cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS) from three to two.

Though Russia has committed to maintaining the orbiting laboratory through 2024, their national space agency, Roscosmos, has been suffering from leaner budgets as of late, though it’s unclear if the proposal to cut their on-station crew is budget-related or a shift in priorities. However, coupled with the reduction in the number of ISS resupply missions needed from the Russians, along with the assumed resumption of crewed launches from the United States in the near future negating the need for Russia to ferry US and international astronauts – both of which are significant sources of income – it’s not a stretch to see a fiscal strain being the impetus behind this proposal.

NASA is aware of the proposal, as are the other ISS partners, and will weigh it as it relates to crew safety and other operational considerations. NASA’s Kenneth Todd – International Space Station Operations Integration Manager – confirms that Russia is considering the staff draw-down, and even though it is merely a proposal at this point, the international group will work to ascertain if there’s anything they can do to assist their Russian counterparts work through their current difficulties.

NASA readies for another test of SLS’s core propulsion system

NASA conducts a static fire test of one of its RS-25 engines. Credit: NASA

NASA conducts a static fire test of one of its RS-25 engines. Credit: NASA

NASA is preparing to conduct a full-duration static test fire of one of its RS-25 engines on Thursday, August 18, four of which will comprise the propulsion system in the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. Previously known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), the uprated engine will initially provide up to 109% of its original design thrust in early iterations of SLS, with a goal of eventually being rated for 111%.

When the engines were used on the Space Shuttle, they were rated for nominal use at 104.5%, though could be throttled up to 109% in the event of an abort scenario. However, doing so ran the risk of significant degradation of engine components, perhaps to the point of making it not cost-effective to refurbish the engine. That’s not a concern with SLS, though, as the core stage will not be recovered after use.

In order to consistently run the engine at the higher performance levels, Aerojet Rocketdyne – the manufacturer of the SSME/RS-25 engine – needed to upgrade the engine controller. The now-mothballed J-2X engine, also manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, provided the perfect platform from which to develop the engine control module for the RS-25. Numerous development test firings have validated the new controller, as well as other changes to the engine, and NASA now moves forward with running the flight engines through mission-like static fire tests in preparation for the maiden launch of SLS, scheduled for the latter half of 2018.

Infographic explains why testing the RS-25 is necessary. Credit: NASA

Infographic explains why testing the RS-25 is necessary. Credit: NASA

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 opens CubeSat program to educators and nonprofits

The BisonSat is one example of a CubeSat mission launched by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative on Oct. 8, 2015. Credits: Salish Kootenai College

The BisonSat is one example of a CubeSat mission launched by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative on Oct. 8, 2015. Credit: Salish Kootenai College

NASA has opened access to the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) to accredited education institutions and nonprofit organizations in an effort to help NASA achieve its exploration goals.

In order to promote development of the small, research-focused satellites, CSLI provides CubeSat developers an inexpensive path to space. This should have the effect of advancing research in areas important to NASA’s strategic interests: science, exploration, technology development, education, and operations. Selectees will have the opportunity to get hands-on experience with flight hardware development.

Interested institutions must submit proposals by 4:30 pm EST, Nov. 22, 2016, and NASA will make selections by Feb. 17, 2017, though selection does not guarantee the satellite will be afforded a launch opportunity. NASA has selected 119 CubeSat missions to date, with 46 of them having already been launched. Historically, the agency has offered launch opportunities to 95 percent of selectees from previous announcements.

CubeSats belong to the ‘nanosatellite’ class of research spacecraft, and are sized in standardized units. One cube, or 1U, is approximately 4x4x4 inches (10x10x11 centimeters), typically have a mass of approximately 3 pounds (1.33 kilograms) per 1U cube when arranged in 1U, 2U, and 3U configurations. A larger 6U CubeSat may tip the scales at more than 26.5 pounds (12-14 kilograms), with the deployment method determining the final mass. The CubeSat Launch Initiative will support 1U, 2U, 3U, and 6U craft.

Selected CubeSats will fly as auxiliary payload on NASA launches, or will be deployed from the International Space Station (ISS), beginning in 2017 through 2020. Selectees will be responsible for funding the development of their satellite.

For more information, visit NASA’s CSLI website.

Speedy Solar Probe Plus gets green light to proceed

An artist’s rendering of the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft during one of its planned gravity assists at Venus. The spacecraft will reach speeds near 450,000 MPH at perihelion. Image credit: NASA / JHUAPL

An artist’s rendering of the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft during one of its planned gravity assists at Venus. The spacecraft will reach speeds near 450,000 MPH at perihelion. Image credit: NASA / JHUAPL

NASA’s Solar Probe Plus has passed an important design review milestone and can now proceed to assembly and integration in preparation for its scheduled summer 2018 launch date. Currently comprising only a primary structure and propulsion system, the assembly can now move forward with the installation of the remainder of the spacecraft’s systems and science instruments.

Solar Probe Plus is slated to launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy during a 20-day window that opens on July 31, 2018. Though heading to study the Sun, the center of the Solar System, the craft will need to make use of several gravity-assist maneuvers with Venus in order to reach its desired orbit.

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

Is SLS *finally* getting a proper name?

SLS is begging for a name, NASA. Will it get one?

SLS is begging for a name, NASA. Will it get one? Image credit: NASA, with my commentary added.

A couple months ago, I wrote a piece on my “catch-all” blog imploring NASA to give SLS a fitting name. As I stated there:

“While our nation’s spacefaring endeavors might only be a few decades old, surely we haven’t run out of ‘cool’ names for our rockets. Come on – this is America…WE LANDED PEOPLE ON THE MOON!!!! We can do better than calling it ‘SLS’.

NASA: Names matter. Make it happen.”

Perhaps NASA’s Administrator, Charlie Bolden, read that piece. In an interview on the July 23, 2016, edition of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, Bolden might’ve just let the proverbial cat out of the bag.

Show host Peter Sagal had been engaging Mr. Bolden in a line of conversation, eventually leading up to Sagal asking: “Charlie, I’ve got to ask you, when are we really going to Mars?”

Without missing a beat, Bolden replied [emphasis added]: “We’re going to Mars in the 2030s. So we’ve got the vehicle called – we’re going to name it but right now we call it the Space Launch System. It’s a heavy lift launch vehicle.”

So, it would appear that SLS may, indeed, be getting a name less clinical-sounding and more appropriate for the vehicle meant to carry craft, crew, and robotic explorers far beyond low earth orbit. I sincerely hope so. Good on you, Mr. Bolden. Now…let’s just hope it’s a good name.

Structural test article for SLS’s second stage arrives at NASA Marshall

ICPS structural test article being lifted from its shipping container. Photo credit: NASA

ICPS structural test article being lifted from its shipping container. Photo credit: NASA

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) has taken another step in its preparation for a projected 2018 launch with the arrival of the rocket’s upper stage Structural Test Article (STA). The United Launch Alliance (ULA)-built Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) STA arrived at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), after a short barge trip from ULA’s facility in Decatur, Alabama.

Read more in my exclusive coverage at SpaceFlight Insider.