Moon slips out of reach despite Vulcan success

Blue Origin finally entered the orbital space industry on 8 January 2024, powering the first stage of the ULA Vulcan Centaur rocket with its twin BE-4 engines. The methane-fuelled design is the highest thrust rocket engine now in service, just a hair over the SpaceX Raptor 2.

Vulcan Centaur launching from Cape Canaveral, 8 Jan 2024 (ULA)

The remarkable success of the ULA Vulcan on its first launch was quickly overshadowed by the failure of Peregrine-1 to deploy its solar array. When Astrobotic engineers attempted to recover the lander, they discovered its propulsion system was suffering from an uncontrollable propellant leak, dooming the mission, and delaying a much-anticipated US return to the moon.

On 9 January, NASA announced that the Artemis II circumlunar mission will fly no earlier than September 2025. Even though no landing is planned, there have still been engineering challenges with the Orion crew vehicle.

Gravity-1 launching from Dongfang, 11 Jan 2024 (Weibo)

The Orienspace Gravity-1 also made its maiden voyage this week, lifting the first three Yunyao 1 weather satellites into orbit. Gravity-1 is a two-stage solid rocket capable of 6500 kg to LEO. It launched from a ship in the Dongfang Spaceport, a maritime launch area in the Yellow Sea.

B-1 Lancer crashes during icy Ellsworth AFB landing

A 28th BW Lancer at Andersen AFB, Guam, in 2022 (USAF)

A B-1 Lancer attempting to land in freezing fog crashed the evening of 4 Jan 2024 near Ellsworth AFB. Four crew ejected and had non-life-threatening injuries.

The supersonic, swept-wing B-1 is more complex to fly than other aircraft types, and requires specialized training. It was retired from nuclear duties in 2007, but still falls under the Air Force Global Strike Command.

KRCA weather was Mist or Freezing Fog with low clouds 3 and 4 January 2024. (weather.gov)

At 1012 MST on 5 Jan 2024, Denver Center issued a TFR prohibiting flight operations from Ground to 3000 AGL (or about 6275 MSL) within 3 nmi of the north end of the runway at KRCA. The Air Force is in charge of the response operation.

Starship fails better, lost before orbit

Starship-Superheavy explodes over the Gulf of Mexico, 18 Nov 2023, Credit to the independent news website NASASpaceflight.com
Explosion over the Gulf of Mexico during Starship Test Flight 2, 18 November 2023 (Source)

It’s back to the drawing board for SpaceX, which suffered another loss-of-payload minutes after its Starship mission stage separated from its Superheavy booster on 18 Nov 2023. The US Federal Aviation Administration had approved a second test flight for SpaceX Starship from its launch site on the south Texas coast, after a disastrous first test pelted the launch area with blasted concrete and beach sand, then ended barely within the control of the range safety officer.

By media accounts, the Texas launchpad was not visibly damaged, and all 33 engines on Superheavy ignited and remained stable. Stage separation with a new “hot staging” method succeeded; this is a key goal that made this test notably more successful than the last. Superheavy did not land as planned, instead exploding in the air soon after stage separation. Starship continued to fly, and may even have crossed the McDowell line, but contact was lost at around 90km altitude when Starship also exploded.

The new SpaceX rocket is the tallest and heaviest rocket ever launched. In a less impressive display of vertical integration, the official SpaceX livestream was exclusively hosted on sister firm Twitter, which no longer provides open access to its video feeds. SpaceX video was not immediately available from other sources. The launch was also monitored by independent photographers.

Starship blasts Texas coast, more abort modes needed

Starship-Superheavy tumbles out of control instead of into orbit on 20 April 2023. (SpaceX)

SpaceX often experiences detonation instead of transportation. It’s one of the company’s main strengths that it has been able to survive despite massive setbacks.

But there’s an obvious issue concerning the abort systems on Starship itself. When Starship carries expensive payloads and people, it will need to be able to escape the stack in a situation like this. There’s a very good chance that if Starship second stage had been able to separate from the stack in a timely manner, at least one of the stages could have landed safely and independently. Instead, the operators blew up the whole stack.

While that does tick off one of the boxes on the pathway to final flight certification – characterizing the rocket’s blast wave and debris pattern in a near-worst case scenario – There’s another matter that highlights one of the weaknesses of the way SpaceX does its launches – with limited abort capacity based on landing zone availability.

Superheavy liftoff at Boca Chica, 20 Apr 2023 1433 UT (SpaceX)

SpaceX has all of 5 or 6 places in the world to land its rockets at any given time these days, the solutions being “next to the origin launchpad” and “on a prepositioned boat”. But if for whatever reason the rocket is in the wrong spot in the landing phase, and can’t reach any landing zone, then the stage is a loss.

Starship is a much bigger deal – the largest rocket ever built, 10 times more powerful than the Falcon 9, with both the Superheavy booster and its Starship upper stage needing vertical landing sites. It would be justifiable to pay 10 times as much attention to landing sites, to allow recovery of at least the payload despite a variety of failure modes. For example, the Space Shuttle had a number of launch phase abort options that were never used, but always planned for.

Superheavy needs a specially built pad, but Starship could probably land at a broader number of pre-existing heliports in a real pinch. At some point, SpaceX will need to start retrofitting or building additional landing zones across the Gulf Coast, just to have a more reasonable number of abort sites.

Now, these options would have made no difference to the mission on the 20th, where the failure was in the interstage process, and Starship never pulled off of the stack. That calls up a separate safety matter entirely: What is Starship’s abort plan for human crew when there’s no main engines and the stack is upside down and twisting?

Monticello nuclear plant leak took five months to make the news

A wastewater leak at the Monticello nuclear plant is headline news in the StarTribune on 16 March 2023, but from a reporter’s perspective, perhaps the larger issue is that the issue has been unfolding for five months or more, without a serious effort to brief the public.

Improving the media response time for incidents like this an open problem. The nuclear factor especially serves to decrease the amount of information shared with the public.

Fission power is relatively clean in many respects, but it comes with downsides like these. Tritium in the water is not great. It is a manageable problem, but it shouldn’t happen with properly designed reactors, if for no other reason than Tritium has economic value as a useful beta emitter for things like glowsticks and wristwatches. It’s also potentially a fusion reactor fuel – and the Fargo Orbit will have more on that topic to share later this month.

F-16s shoot down balloon near Michigan

TFR 3/4885, active on 12 Feb 2023 (Fargo Orbit / OpenStreetMap)

On 12 Feb 2023, NORAD issued a TFR over Lake Michigan, roughly between Marinette, Wisconsin and Traverse City, Michigan. The order expired at 1730Z, or 11:30am local time.

Reports indicate that an F-16 shot down yet another balloon, this time over the Great Lakes. Yesterday’s incident in Montana was a false alarm.

Fresh Montana scare turns back rural air service flight

The US Air Force issued Temporary Flight Restrictions near Havre, Montana on 12 Feb 2023, until 0020Z.

TFR 3_4763, active on 12 Feb 2023 near Havre, Montana. (Fargo Orbit / OpenStreetMap)

The region was near and overlapped with the pre-existing Hays MOA. Military Operations Areas are airspaces where military aircraft conduct various testing and training operations. At the same time, a US Air Force KC-135 was in the area.

The region included KHVR, the regional airport in Havre, which had been expecting Cape Air Flight 110 out of Billings at about dusk on Saturday afternoon. As a result of the flight restrictions, the flight returned to Billings. The plane had been in the air for about 24 minutes, and was roughly halfway to Havre, before it turned back.

Cape Air 110 Flight Path, 12 Feb 2023 (Fargo Orbit / FlightAware)

Cape Air holds Essential Air Service contracts for several Montana communities and uses the Tecnam Traveller, a two-engine propeller craft that seats 9. The unpressurized plane typically operates at FL100 and most flights last less than an hour. It is usually operated by a single pilot. Among other things, that pilot would not want to run into a KC-135, or anything else being refuelled, while descending over the Bearpaw Mountains.

Traditionally if the MOA is active, that information is provided to the pilot at a pre-flight briefing, indicating that the Air Force’s operations Saturday night were either extremely urgent and/or not communicated to the FAA in the usual manner. An unidentified object flying between ground level and FL340 is not likely to be a weather-type balloon, unless the balloon is taking off or landing.

A diplomatic row entirely up in the air

F-22 fighters screaming after Chinese spy gizmos is the stuff of James Bond movies – yet it happened over Montana this week. Canada and the US are complaining about a monitoring balloon the Middle Kingdom recently floated over North America, prompting public concern as it was spotted by skywatchers and storm chasers in western Canada, then across the central US from Montana to Missouri and on to points southeast.

As Chinese observation platforms are not totally unprecedented in American skies, this is not a Sputnik moment by itself, though it’s ill-timed at best. Tensions with China have been raised recently over a range of issues, and just last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists edged The Doomsday Clock 10 seconds closer to Midnight.

The device appears to be solar powered, with a significant amount of line control and levelling equipment to stabilize the observation platform. Save for the giant balloon hoisting it up, it looks somewhat like a scale model of the International Space Station – or, more aptly, like a Google Loon. Loon made huge strides in stationkeeping free-flying balloons in hopes they could replace cell towers, but their position could only be reliable for hours, maybe days, at best. The number of natural disasters where the tech was really useful were too uncommon to keep the system in commercial use.

Stratospheric balloons are also commonly used in weather research. However, there’s two main organizations that use these balloons – weather offices that have a budget, and universities that don’t. In the latter case, they want to get their equipment back so badly, there is always a chase afoot for the balloon on the ground, tracking APRS feeds and mapping its location in real time, right up to landing.

See also: Wyoming balloon reaches 28 km

Though spies in the sky might be worrisome, there is some precedent for adversarial overflight. In 2020 and 2021 the US and Russia withdrew (China never participated) from the Treaty on Open Skies, which was one of the hallmark agreements for post-Cold War de-escalation. The agreement promoted security stability by allowing member states to observe each others’ defence capabilities. The idea was that by keeping more military details in plain sight, there would be less need for all parties to overspend and overdeploy military equipment against unknown threats.

On the other hand, the balloon does pose a more mundane risk: it’s a hazard to navigation. Though since the demise of Concorde, commercial jets aren’t typically seen above FL450, for safety’s sake, Class A controlled airspace still extends to FL600, which is about the altitude where the Chinese balloon has been spotted. Flying in Class A airspace without ATC clearance, a radar transponder, and/or ADSB is an easy way to lose your pilot’s licence.

Orion proves crew can orbit Moon

Earth and the Moon visible from Artemis I shortly before lunar orbit insertion, 21 Nov 2022 (NASA TV)

A spacecraft with breathable air and crew seats is orbiting the Moon for the first time since 1972.

Around 1241 UT 16 Nov 2022, zipping along as low as 130 km over the far side of the Moon, NASA’s Orion capsule burned its AJ10 onboard engine to leave its sun-centred transfer orbit and begin circling the Moon.

For the remainder of its roughly two weeks near the Moon, the capsule will complete its checkouts at a fairly high altitude in a retrograde flight path.

Orion’s last mission was a launch abort test in 2019. It’s one of three space capsules used by NASA, including Crew Dragon and Starliner. Of these, only Orion will be travelling to the Moon for NASA.

The Artemis I mission is intended to prove that all flight hardware is ready to send astronauts looping around the Moon (Artemis II, 2023 or 2024). Afterward, a further mission would land humans to the Moon, (Artemis III, as early as 2025).

Duluth Airshow Roars Over North Shore

4 Vans RV-3 (Vanguard Squadron) powered by ethanol fuel at KDLH 17 Jul 2022.

The two-day Duluth Airshow brought aviation to life for hundreds braving the hot, humid weather. The Fargo Orbit was there Sunday, 17 July 2022.

[Further details to follow]

Ground displays

Air displays