South Dakota aviation loses two to blizzard

Approximate flight path of N6483B, lost 10 Oct 2019. Search and rescue operations are covering 85 km of the James River valley. (FAA / SkyVector / The Fargo Orbit)

Civil Air Patrol and the US Air Force continue to search for the pilot of a missing Cessna 172, N6483B, lost en route to Oakes, North Dakota after departure from Aberdeen Regional Airport at about 10 October 2019 0315 UT, just before a blizzard began to cross the plains. Weather and crop cover has hampered the response effort.

Also in the wake of the weather, a servicemember assigned to Ellsworth Air Force Base was found dead near their off-base residence, 14 October 2019.

United States Space Command resumes

Space Command ceremony, 29 Aug 2019
(Credit: WH.gov)

The United States Space Command, which first operated 1985-2002, resumed 29 Aug 2019. President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of Defense Esper joined Gen. John “Jay” Raymond and CMSgt. Roger Towberman in a brief ceremony at the Rose Garden of the White House, about 2020 UT.

After a brief speech from the President, the Defense Secretary signed an order establishing the United States Space Command. Raymond presented the President with a commemorative plaque, and Towberman unfurled the new flag for the Unified Combatant Command.

United States Space Command is presently headquartered with its major component, Air Force Space Command, at Peterson AFB, Colorado. Midwest locations that will participate in the new command include Offutt AFB, Nebraska and Cavalier AFS, North Dakota.

GPS glitch grounds airliners

Outage regions for the Global Positioning System, 8 June 2019. (Credit: FAA)

Passenger airline flights were affected Saturday and Sunday 8 and 9 June 2019, due to an expected minor signal outage, plus a glitch with a particular type of GPS receiver. The affected planes were mostly Bombardier CRJ-200 and CRJ-700s, but also included CRJ-900s, as well as Boeing 737 and 767s.

Reports on Airliners.net indicate particular concerns with GPS receivers supplied by Rockwell Collins. In case the airplane’s barometer were to fail, the onboard GPS receiver must be able to track altitude accurately enough to maintain normal operations in the Class A airspace above FL180. This requires a GPS vertical accuracy within 500 feet (152 meters), and that the GPS constellation be in fairly good alignment – which, every now and then, just doesn’t happen.

That’s what occurred this weekend over a region over the Great Lakes and extending out over much of North Dakota and Manitoba, such that certain areas can expect, in theory, up to 40 minutes of signal loss on Sunday. The FAA estimated still further regions in the US could be affected by the outage. As affected planes wait for a technical fix, they are flying below 18000 feet, or simply being replaced by unaffected aircraft.

Airliners with the strictest requirements for their their GPS accuracy had to rely on alternative navigation modes when operating in the red region. (Credit: FAA)

In addition to highlighting the performance of one supplier’s GPS solution in an edge case, the incident also serves to highlight an increasing dependence on GPS for airline operations. Aviators have expressed concern about the trend of airports turning off their ILS, VOR, and NDB navigation systems. Many of these decisions assume that GPS will always be available, which may well be more than 98% correct. It’s the last 2% that may lead to unexpected problems.

Howell dissertation on EVA communications [Updated]

Space Journalist Elizabeth Howell defends a dissertation in Space Studies at the University of North Dakota, 30 May 2019. The topic of the presentation is “Can You Hear Me, Major Tom? Open Issues In Extra-Vehicular Activity Communications”

Howell, who was recently elected President of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada, presented this doctoral dissertation on evaluating leadership through communications style, a human factors problem in Aerospace Science.

The presentation focused on two researched hypotheses: 1. Do large groups correct human operational errors better than small groups? 2. Does one leadership style correct errors better than another?

Howell performed a literature review to evaluate the first hypothesis. A keyword-selected pool of 107 published studies was reduced to 31 with a 10-question evaluation method, and then just two using an additional question, which together only underscored a known issue, that the English-language literature on aerospace human factors does not include extensive information on error handling and leadership in large groups. The hypothesis could not be evaluated, as more research is needed – more relevant studies that are done on, for example, 50-member Antarctic research stations, than three-member isolation teams. Being focused on the issues of a spacecraft crew, Howell’s concept is that further studies on groups of 6 to 13 people, similar to the largest Shuttle-ISS missions, is most appropriate.

Direct data from University of North Dakota research was used to evaluate the second hypothesis against rubrics obtained from the literature, particularly a set of 11 universal human values and 3 leadership styles. Audio recordings of simulated spacewalks (extravehicular activity or EVA) performed during two ILMAH missions – the simulated Mars habitat operated by the University. Howell lead an effort to transcribe and qualitatively evaluate the data against established sets of human values, to determine the leadership style of each member of the mission. However, for a number of reasons, in particular the 5-person sample size, the study results may not necessarily be significant. It was also found that while one style of leadership was the most effective in resolving errors, it also found that individuals no not rigidly adhere to the leadership types. However, this method could be applied to existing transcripts of space missions, including Apollo, and further research may refine its applicability to a wider range of historical or cultural contexts.

As with all science, it is work that never quite seems finished. However, some promising questions Howell has received from NASA Goddard may indicate that similar strategies may be applied to NASA’s archives of human spaceflight communications in the future.

NG-11 mission will stretch Cygnus capabilities

The clear skies over the Chesapeake will continue, with an expected launch of a Cygnus spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Wallops Island planned at 2046 UT 17 April 2016.

Fully loaded, the Cygnus NG-11 “SS Roger Chaffee” will carry 3100 kg to the space station, including 600 kg of special late-loaded cargo. Late-load capability means that live animals and perishable goods can now be placed aboard the rocket just hours, not days, before launch. A new launchpad facility and modified service crane allows the Cygnus-Antares rocket assembly to be lifted vertical, checked out for preflight tests, then lowered again. Once horizontal, a Mississippi-built “pop-top” added to the fairing is removed, allowing quick access to the interior of the Cygnus spacecraft.

Among other things, this allows the first ever rodent launch on Cygnus – forty C57BL/6J mice will fly to the space station to participate in the TARBIS immunology study.

This launch also marks a milestone for space business. A private enterprise – FOMS, Inc. – will use the microgravity environment on the International Space Station to make up to 100 km of fluoride-based UV-IR wideband optical fibre for later sale on Earth, with a potential market value of “millions of dollars” – alongside a scientific version of the same payload.

There’s also a small piece of fabric with a touch of North Dakota going into space with Cygnus: A material sample flying on the MISSE-11 experiment will advance the development of SPIcDER (PaperNewScientist report), a Carbon Nanotube-based electrostatic dust removal system being developed by UND grad Dr. Kavya Manyapu. Manyapu confirmed the launch date at a recent lecture in Grand Forks.

Cygnus NG-11 will be the first mission for Cygnus that will remain in orbit for an extended period after it undocks, perhaps 7 months or more, which will stress test the spacecraft and operator NGIS, which intends to manage the NG-11 mission even during and after the launch of Cygnus NG-12. With a planned unberthing in July, that puts the end of the NG-11 mission some time in early 2020.