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SpaceX narrows genesis of explosion to helium pressurization system

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

Faster than the blink of an eye – that’s how little time there was between the first sign of an anomaly and the loss of the Falcon 9 rocket with the AMOS-6 satellite during a pre-flight test propellant loading operation on Sept. 1, 2016. After poring over the data, SpaceX engineers have narrowed down the likely cause of the explosion to a failure in the upper stage’s helium system.

Largely silent in the days following the incident, SpaceX has provided scant information on the progress of the investigation – until now. In a release issued by the company Sept. 23, 2016, SpaceX outlined some of the findings of the Accident Investigation Team (AIT) – composed of SpaceX, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts – and on the condition of the infrastructure at Launch Complex 40 (LC-40).

Read more in my full write-up at SpaceFlight Insider.

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.

Blue Origin to test in-flight abort system

The New Shepard's pusher-style abort motor gets activated in this pad abort test in 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

The New Shepard’s pusher-style abort motor gets activated in this pad abort test in 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

As the New Shepard spacecraft and booster accelerate through the most aerodynamically stressful part of their launch profile, also known as “max Q,” a flight computer detects an anomaly and triggers an in-flight abort. The crew module shoots away from the stricken booster, allowing the gumdrop-shaped capsule to safely return its occupants to a safe recovery. Although notional in description, this is what Blue Origin plans to verify in an early October 2016 test flight of the company’s reusable rocket and spacecraft.

The company already performed a pad abort test, nearly four years ago, during which the abort motor fired for nearly 2 seconds and lofted the craft to an altitude of 2,307 feet (703 meters). The capsule landed under its triple-parachute canopy 1,630 feet (497 meters) away from the pad.

Unlike the traditional tower-based, towed-tractor style abort systems used during Mercury and Apollo programs – and soon on NASA’s Orion spacecraft riding atop the Space Launch System – Blue Origin’s abort motor is integrated into the crew vehicle and is a “pusher” system: it pushes the capsule from below rather than pulling it from above as with the tower systems.

Read more in my full write-up for SpaceFlight Insider.

Aerojet Rocketdyne conducts successful test of Orion LAS jettison motor

Aerojet Rocketdyne performed a 1.5-second static fire of the jettison motor for the Orion Launch Abort System. Photo Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

Aerojet Rocketdyne performed a 1.5-second static fire of the jettison motor for the Orion Launch Abort System. Photo Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, Aerojet Rocketdyne successfully conducted a full-duration test of the solid-fueled rocket motor designed to jettison the launch abort system and separate it from the Orion spacecraft.

This 1.5-second test took place at the company’s Rancho Cordova, California, facility. It was conducted on the third development motor. The test helped provide performance data for Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin.Aerojet Rocketdyne performed a 1.5-second static fire of the jettison motor for the Orion Launch Abort System. Photo Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

“In today’s test, the jettison motor generated more than 45,000 pounds of thrust, which is roughly enough thrust to lift two school buses off the ground,” said Cheryl Rehm, Orion program manager at Aerojet Rocketdyne, in a release issued by the company. “Data from this test will be used to confirm our test objectives and ensure our readiness to begin manufacturing our qualification and production flight motors.”

Not to be confused with the abort motor that pulls the Orion crew vehicle from the launch vehicle, which would only be used in the event of an emergency, the jettison motor is a critical element of every flight.

In a nominal flight profile, the Launch Abort System (LAS) – along with the accompanying aerodynamic shell protecting Orion – will need to be detached from the spacecraft shortly after first stage separation, and it is the job of the jettison motor to accomplish this critical task. Read more in my piece for SpaceFlight Insider.

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.

Which will be the first company to mine an asteroid…and will it be legal?

Artist's depiction of a DSI spacecraft harvesting resources from the surface of an asteroid. Credit: DSI

Artist’s depiction of a DSI spacecraft harvesting resources from the surface of an asteroid. Credit: DSI

In what many believe to be one of the next logical steps in broadening space as a commercial market, Deep Space Industries (DSI) has announced its plan to send the world’s first commercial mining spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid. To that end, the company’s Prospector-1 spacecraft is slated to launch before the close of the decade and will rendezvous with, and explore, one of the many asteroids inhabiting our planetary neighborhood.

Intelligent enough to operate without guidance from DSI’s mission control, the small spacecraft will be capable of analyzing the composition of the asteroid, via both visual light and infrared imaging, in order to determine the target’s water content. Water is a critical resource for off-Earth ventures, and finding a relatively easy source from which to extract it is an essential goal of DSI.

Read MUCH more in my full piece on SpaceFlight Insider.

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

Lockheed Martin signs contract with NASA to launch ‘SkyFire’ CubeSat

Artist's depiction of SkyFire in lunar proximity. Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

Artist’s depiction of SkyFire in lunar proximity. Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin has signed a contract with NASA to launch and deploy its 6U SkyFire CubeSat on the agency’s maiden launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2018 in an effort to increase our understanding of Earth’s closest neighbor.

Though destinations beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) are normally the domain of much larger spacecraft, SkyFire will launch as a secondary payload on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and take advantage of the larger vehicle’s ability to ferry the smaller CubeSat to lunar vicinity.

SkyFire’s lunar flyby will pioneer brand new infrared technology, enabling scientists to fill strategic gaps in lunar knowledge that have implications for future human space exploration,” said John Ringelberg…

Read the full story in my post at SpaceFlight Insider.