Cargo Dragon clear to fly CRS-17; delay to 4 May likely

Hans Koenigsmann of SpaceX answers questions on the Crew Dragon test, during the CRS-17 press conference, 2 May 2019. (Credit: NASA TV)

SpaceX is moving forward with its flight of Cargo Dragon mission CRS-17, with a first launch window at 3 May 2019 at 071133 UT – though due to the weather around Cape Canaveral, the flight is likely to be delayed to 4 May 2019 0648 UT, or failing that, possibly the week of 13 May. While little has changed from the Cargo Dragon perspective, the recent energetic deconstruction of the larger, newer Crew Dragon capsule has attracted additional attention to the routine cargo launch.

Continue reading “Cargo Dragon clear to fly CRS-17; delay to 4 May likely”

New Shepard completes NS-11 mission

The sky over Van Horn, Texas teemed with rocket exhaust after the 11th mission of the New Shepard suborbital rocket, 2 May 2019.

Launch occurred at 1332 UT. Capsule H. G. Wells separated from the New Shepard rocket at 74 km and continued to an apogee of about 105.5 km, 245 seconds into flight. The entire flight, including successful rocket landing and parachute descent of Wells, took a little more than ten minutes.

The reusable system continues to demonstrate its reliability; the individual rocket booster used today has flown five times, the capsule four times. Blue Origin is now touting commercial passengers as a concrete reality by the end of this year. But crew has not yet flown on the New Shepard. Instead, NS-11 carried 38 scientific experiments and art demonstrations, including at least one high school mission, several from MIT, and a headline medical payload that improves on previous research flown on New Shepard.

Video: Cygnus NG-11 launch draws crowds

The Visitor’s Center grounds at Wallops Flight Facility, 17 April 2019. Credit: Fargo Orbit

Last week’s Cygnus NG-11 launch was a technical landmark, and also a crowdpleaser. Spectators flocked to the rare afternoon launch, enjoying the clear, sunny weather, which provided a perfect view of the Antares 230 rocket and the fairing holding its fresh-packed Cygnus cargo module.

For now, it’s still a unique experience, but soon orbital launches will be a more regular feature at a greater number of spaceports. Considering the FAA’s moves to to type-certify rockets and not the exact launch sites they use, along with the various new ranges in the Desert Southwest that aim to prove the inland spaceport model, the idea that a rocket can launch from the Midwest is no longer so far-fetched.

As more satellites launch from more places, the day may soon come when, like trains and planes before them, rocket launches will draw only the dedicated spectator. Until then, there will be the roar of the crowd along with the roar of the engines.

NASA’s safety experts recommend new spacesuit

The NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel met in Huntsville, Alabama 25 April 2019. The panel’s regular meetings address operational safety in NASA activities. While the panel is investigating the recent mishap with the SpaceX Crew Dragon test, most notably the experts took a stand on NASA’s aging spacesuit fleet.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant-General and former astronaut Susan Helms delivered the panel’s blunt assessment: “The view of this panel is that in spite of the heroic effort, the current suit is now outside of its design life, and we are growing increasingly concerned about the risk posture that NASA has adopted with the current suit.”

The practical limits of using a small number of forty year old spacesuits came to a head with the recent soft-abort of a widely-anticipated spacewalk including both Anne McClain and Christina Koch. McClain volunteered to sit the mission out after determining that the assigned large-size spacesuit from the previous spacewalk was too large for effective work.

The present US spacesuits were built starting in 1978 for the Space Shuttle. As a result, many of the original parts were made by companies that no longer exist. Refurbishing the suits as they rotate off of the International Space Station is increasingly complicated and costly. And though the suit does get the job done, it is an intricate piece of machinery that poses logistical challenges even when spacewalks are planned weeks in advance.

The suit’s countless detachable pieces are intended to provide a custom fit to the astronaut, but this also means that extra effort is needed to reassemble if the mission or crew changes. And despite the Hollywood vision of jumping into a spacesuit in an emergency, it’s not possible for an astronaut to put the US suit on alone and in a rush (the Russian Orlan-MKS suit is closer to this ideal).

NASA’s official plans had been to continue use of the suits through 2028 – though this was before efforts to accelerate lunar exploration changed the entire outlook at the agency. The present suits are bulky and heavy, suitable mainly for use in orbit, and would not last long on the dusty surface of the Moon or Mars.

Minnesota Space Grant begins new online lecture series [Update]

The Minnesota Space Grant Consortium (MnSGC) held a “TEDx”-style online event 19 April 2019. The talks, from Tonnis ter Veldhuis (Macalester College), Richard Barker (University of Wisconsin), and James Flaten (University of Minnesota), discussed a unique way to make outer space accessible to the public and students in K-12 and university – from using high-power model rockets to inspire physics learning, flying plants on the ISS and developing new web interfaces to engage students and citizen-scientists in the search for better genes, to running astronaut training in the hallway using shopvac hovercrafts and cold gas thrusters!

The talks were the first in a series planned by MnSGC over the next few semesters and will feature speakers from each of 8 midwestern states. The full video will eventually appear at the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium website.

Telecon capture from Short Talks event
(Credit: James Flaten/Minnesota Space Grant Consortium)

UPDATE – 3 May: The lecture series has been uploaded to YouTube. A higher-quality version of the hovercraft lecture is available here.

Cygnus arrives at ISS

Cygnus NG-11 was captured by Canadarm2 by Anne McClain and David Saint-Jacques at 0928 UT. Anne McClain welcomed aboard the SS Roger Chaffee with a note to the family of the spacecraft’s namesake astronaut. “Please know that every day we remember his sacrifice and that we will continue to honor his legacy by pursuing his passion for exploration.”

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.

Stratolaunch takes to the skies

A test flight of the Stratolaunch platform took off from Mojave Spaceport today, putting the space startup one step closer to delivering a unique pathway for satellites to reach orbit.

Flight tracking data from FlightAware is not yet publicly available at this time, but made it out to Mojave to collect video.

Stratolaunch is among the quieter of the recent space startups, so its launch today came as a pleasant surprise. Clouds have hung over the firm’s future following the death of founder Paul Allen and its cancellation of its own second stage rocket platform.

What Stratolaunch offers now is not strictly new – it’s the same Pegasus 30XL rocket that can be fired off by Northrop Grumman itself off its aging L1011. However, the platform was designed to accommodate larger rockets, which still provides an interesting opportunity for other firms to make a match. Stratolaunch’s niche right now is in having the world’s largest vehicle dedicated to skipping the first stage of a rocket, which can multiply the effectiveness of platforms that are otherwise unremarkable.

Outfits like Virgin Orbit offer essentially the same concept, but unlike Stratolaunch, which offers just the first stage, Virgin Orbit handles the full stack with its own 747 air stage and LauncherOne orbital rocket. Whether the business locus will continue to be “buying a launch” from a service provider, or if a diversified market of piecemeal services will arise, depends entirely upon the willingness of aviation first stage firms like Stratolaunch to open their platform to a broader range of launch options — and for other rocket companies to make a serious effort to solve air-launch problems.

Falcon Heavy launches Arabsat-6A

Falcon Heavy’s first commercial launch occurred at Kennedy Space Center, 11 April 2019 at 2235 UTC. SpaceX delivered Arabsat-6A to geostationary transfer orbit shortly thereafter at about 2309 UTC. The 3520 kg communications satellite, built for the Arabsat organization around the Lockheed LM2100 bus, will serve the Middle East and Africa from 30.5° E. The new spacecraft will replace the older Arabsat-5A.

SpaceX recovered all three of the first-stage boosters, including the core booster, which was not recovered during Falcon Heavy’s only other launch – the dramatic “Starman” mission – a test launch which, in the absence of a third party customer, instead launched a Tesla Roadster helmed by a spacesuited mannequin deep into interplanetary space.

Now that Falcon Heavy is operational, its future appears bright, as the heavy-lift rocket has been cited as an off-the-shelf fallback option for the United States’ ambitious schedule for crewed lunar missions, as the oft-delayed Space Launch System (SLS) program struggles through its test phase.

Beresheet leaves its mark on the Moon

Israeli PM Netanyahu speaks briefly with SpaceIL officials following the Beresheet crash-landing. (Credit: SpaceIL)

SpaceIL engineers looked on in concern as the Beresheet spacecraft’s main engine unintentionally shut down during the critical landing phase of its mission, in the moments after 1919 UT 11 April 2019.

SpaceIL valiantly attempted to reset the spacecraft control systems. However, by the designated landing time the spacecraft did not check in. While Israel became the fourth country to land on the Moon, rather than pictures of the surface, there is at least an artificial crater in the Sea of Serenity.