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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
It just doesn’t happen every year. It was called off two years ago, and it didn’t quite take flight this year, either. The Grand Forks AFB Air Show, this time simply called “Northern Thunder”, couldn’t get away from Grand Forks’ defining feature: the wind.
Not only was it gusting to almost 20 m/s, it was coming from the wrong direction for takeoffs and landings. Even if the base had extra runways, they would never be built facing into the rather unusual direction.
Not everything at an air show is airborne, of course: Though a few announced planes didn’t quite make it to the tiedowns, this was more than offset by the surprise visit of a CC-130J Super Hercules, which drew a huge crowd despite being placed just about the farthest from the food and port-a-potties.
Not past local noon, the wind shot up violently, sending aircrew scrambling to check their lines and chalks, while visitors with loose items soon found themselves deprived. As nothing had taken to the skies, the event program turned to the occasional pull of the Shockwave, essentially a semi-truck with an afterburning jet engine stuck on the back. Loud and flashy, it kept spirits up during the lengthening wait for the return of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds to the Grand Forks skies.
By 1800 UT, there was a thick black cloud clinging to the ground around the airfield. This dirty air should have been hot and acrid with jet wash, but was instead a hazy, gritty Minnesota soil sample, carried on the raging southeast gale that turned hats and corn chip bags alike into wrathful FOD. It was time to visit the food trucks.
Vendors from all over the region were onsite; among the more impressive drives, Cookies For You brought baked cookies and frozen cake pops from Minot. Magic Bean, also from Minot, brought its black van and baristas, and Fargo’s Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine brought a unique flavour.
Overall, it was a great event for young learners, a chance to grab squeeze toys, pop can coozies, and air-themed stickers and mission patches, or to hang out of the door of a refuelling tanker, sit in the hotseat of a fighter jet, or spin around the turret of an air defence system.
For older or wiser folks, there were a few tables from institutions doing fundraisers or fly-ins, or perhaps the beer garden for those not in a rush to drive back. Stick around and you might learn something about these metal beasts, the people who flew them and knew them, or even hear an RCAF corporal waxing on about the merits of Lobster Poutine.
As the haze only grew by 1900 UT, any would-be pilots had no choice but to save their kerosene for some other time. The show previously known as “Thunder Over the Red River” will still be looking for its first aerial event since 22 May 2010. And since the one before that was in 2006, there’ll be a fair while to wait again.
Vaccines are widely available in the US and Canada for walk-in service at medical providers and pharmacies. Many areas are still operating dedicated immunization clinics. Vaccines are safe and effective, including against the omicron variant of concern. Vaccines are now available for all age groups.
As of June 2022, travel restrictions have largely ended for travellers with up-to-date vaccinations. Be ready to show proof of vaccination when crossing national borders. Canada also requires use of the ArriveCAN app or website.