T-4 days and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

800px-Exploration_Flight_Test-1_insigniaA few days from now the first flight of NASA’s new crewed space vehicle Orion is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral. The mission called Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) will not be a crewed test flight and is designed to test out the Orion systems and heat shield. For this mission the capsule will be carried to space on top of a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket from space launch complex 37B. Future missions will be carried to orbit by NASA Space Launch System (SLS).

Over the next week we will explore the Orion spacecraft, the goals of the test flight, the future for Orion and the SLS rocket.

Next update tomorrow we will look at the Orion spacecraft.

SpaceX unveils Falcon 9 upgrades and landing pad

Elon Musk has revealed via twitter a design change to the next Falcon 9 rocket launching a Dragon capsule towards the International Space Station on December 16th for the CRS-5 mission, this flight was delayed a week to allow NASA more time to re-evaluate the payload manifest following the Antares launch failure last month.

The upgrades will allow the rocket finer control during descent back to the second introduction this weekend, the landing barge. It became clear that SpaceX were looking into this option when they challenged the patent currently held by Blue Origin for the same technology.

Both of these changes should allow SpaceX for the first time to realize the goal of landing a first stage rocket. Once landed the stage would need to be secured for transport back to base, although the longer term plan is for SpaceX to refuel the stage and allow it to fly back to the launch pad. However at present that isn’t an option as return to pad has not been approved by the FAA.

At this point it is not know when or if the first stage will be re-flown as there would need to be a number of tests done to verify that everything is working for another flight, only time will tell.

We will be following the next launch with interest to see just what happens and hopefully usher in a new era were re-usable rockets come another step closer to reality.

Station crew returns to six

Following a picture perfect launch earlier today and successful docking this evening the station crew is back to six members after the hatches between the Soyuz and Station were opened.

Terry Virts of NASA, Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, who will spend the next six months aboard the station, greeted there fellow Expedition 42 crew members after floating through the hatch into the station.  Once on board the traditional welcome call with mission control in Russia allowed the crew to speak with friends and family.

The crew will have a busy time while at the station with 40 hours of science research per week, two spacewalks, several visiting vehicles including two Dragon’s.  For more information on the goals of the mission check out the NASA site here.

Samantha is the 216th person to visit the station.

Below are some screen grabs of the hatch opening and welcome ceremony.

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TMA-15M arrives at International Space Station #ISS

Following a four orbit, six hour journey to the International Space Station, the crew of TMA-15M Terry Virts, Anton Shkaplerov and Samantha Cristoforetti have arrived safely, a series of leak checks will now be performed before the hatches between the two vehicles can be opened and the crew can enter the station.

Below are screen grabs of the approach and docking

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Expedition 42 crew launched successfully

This afternoon Terry Virts, Anton Shkaplerov and Samantha Cristoforetti began there six hour, four orbit journey to the International Space Station.  Launched aboard the Soyuz TMA-15M liftoff occurred on time at 14:01 pm EST.  Docking and hatch opening will occur later today, we will post again following each event.

Below are some screen captures from the launch

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Humans vs Robots for Space Exploration

Last week the European Space Agency achieved an important milestone in the history of Space Exploration with the first landing on a Comet. The lander named Philae was released from it’s parent spacecraft Rosetta and seven hours later touched down in the surface. Due to some complications the spaecraft ended up bouncing and landed two additional times coming to rest in a location that resulted in it not getting nearly enough sunlight to recharge the batteries.

There is a possibility that as the Comet travels around the Sun there may be more sunlight available that would allow the lander to have enough power to start up again but there is no guarantee of that.

Since this happened there has been quite a debate about the advantages of robotic vs human exploration.

In this post we will explore the advantages and dis-advantages of each and why we believe there is an important place for each.

Robotic Missions

(A) The first and biggest advantage is the reduced overhead of providing for a human crew from Life Support, Food, Water, Waste Management, etc.

(A) Due to the lack of advanced space propulsion systems travel within our own Solar System takes a long time. Robotic missions to deeper into the Solar System handle this by designing the necessary protections and in the case of recent missions long hibernation periods.

(A) Can visit places that are either too extreme for human’s or we don’t know enough about yet to risk human visitors.

(D) Can only adapted to scenarios that have been pre-programmed and then only depending on the abilities given to the robotic mission. Take for example the Philae lander, it ended up in a location that wasn’t ideal for the vehicle and doesn’t have the capabilities to address that itself.

(D) If something breaks it may be impossible to repair it depending what capabilities where built into the spacecraft.

Human Missions

(A) Can perform a much wider range of experiments and make decisions on what to sample.

(A) Can quickly adapt to situations as they happened rather than having to communicate back to Earth and waiting for new commands. For example on the way to Mars come across a Comet or Asteroid they could adapt the mission to observe it or even visit it depending no impact to overall mission.

(A) Can make repairs and upgrades during the mission if something goes wrong which is inevitable with anything and with the advances in 3D printing new parts could be created by the crew and replaced as they are travelling.

(D) Require a lot of resources, need to have enough for the whole mission plus some contingencies for emergencies. Getting all these resources into space either from Earth or in the future from in-space mining etc will cost money and add risk for each launch needed.

(D) We know the effects weightlessness has on the body from research done so far on the ISS and other space stations. For longer duration missions we would need to ensure this is handled, and depending on the mission, and it’s length there could be different ways to handle this.

(D) If something catastrophic happens there may not be abort scenarios that would allow the crew to survive or even get back to Earth. A mission to Mars takes many months of travel when the alignment is optimal and could be significantly longer if not.

Conclusion

There are clearly advantages and dis-advantages to each, we believe that there are important places for both in the future.

Until such time as we have much faster transportation in space deep space missions are just too long for humans to do without spending vast amounts of money, therefore robotic missions are needed.

We also need manned missions to help us continue to learn about surviving in space.

Even in the future shown in Star Trek or other movies it is clear that a combination of Manned and Robotics is used for exploration.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the Human vs Robot discussion below in the comments.

Philae Lands on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

Today the European Space Agency and it’s partners around the world successfully landed the Philae spacecraft on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Philae Lander imaged from Rosetta
Philae Lander imaged from Rosetta

The Philae lander was launched on 2 March 2004 aboard ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft which has travelling billions of miles since then and has been in orbit around 67P since August this year (see previous post).

Following selection of a landing site based on the images gather by Rosetta while in orbit the lander detached at 08:35 UTC this morning and spent seven hours lowering itself to land.  Due to the distance from Earth confirmation of the different events took ~28 minutes, ESA confirmed that Philae touched down as expected and initially thought that the landing mechanism needed to secure the lander in place had been successful.

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Later it was confirmed that while the lander is on the surface the landing was softer then expected and the landing harpoons had not actually fired.  They are evaluating the options to ensure they can complete the landed part of the mission.  Due to the lack of gravity the lander will not stay in place without the harpoons attaching to the surface.

Image of Comet from Philae as it descended
Image of Comet from Philae as it descended
Image from Surface of 67P
Image from Surface of 67P

Update: ESA have reported that they have been getting intermittent communications from the lander once it was on the surface.  They have some data that could indicate that they may have bounced off the surface again and was moving, they are looking into this further to determine if this is the case.  About two hours after the first landing indications the movement of the lander stopped which means they could have landed again on the comet.

We will update this article we when have further news on the status of Philae.

AJ26 Turbo Pump most likely doomed Cygnus launch

Orbital announced today that the preliminary findings of the Accident Investigation Board (AIB) point to a Turbo pump failure in one of the two AJ26 main engines on the Antares rocket.

Because of this Orbital will no longer use the AJ26 engines and will instead accelerate the migration to a new engine on the Antares.  Due to the delay in completing the migration, and due to the design on Cygnus, Orbital will use an alternative launcher (to be announced) to fulfill Cygnus missions until such time that Antares is ready.  Orbital will assume any additional costs for using the alternate launcher .

Orbital will continue to use Wallops for the upgraded launcher once is it ready and will fulfill any remaining flights in it’s current CRS contract with the modified Antares.

The full press release can be found here.

Orbital CRS-3 Update 11/03/2014

Over the weekend, Orbital confirmed the participation of the following individuals who will serve on the Antares launch failure Accident Investigation Board (AIB), which is being led by Orbital under the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The composition of the AIB is as follows:

Chairman

  • David Steffy, Chief Engineer of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group

Members

  • David Swanson, Senior Director of Safety and Mission Assurance for Orbital’s Technical Operations organization
  • Wayne Hale, Independent Consultant and Former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager
  • David Cooper, Member of Orbital’s Independent Readiness Review Team for the company’s Launch Systems Group
  • Eric Wood, Director of Propulsion Engineering for Orbital’s Launch Systems Group
  • Tom Costello, Launch Vehicle Assessment Manager in the International Space Station Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center
  • Matt Lacey, Senior Vehicle Systems Engineer for NASA’s Launch Services Program

FAA Oversight Team

  • Michael S. Kelly, Chief Engineer, FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation
  • Marcus Ward, Mishap Response Coordinator, FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation

Antares Data Review

The AIB is initially focused on developing a “fault tree” and a timeline of the important events during the launch sequence. Due to the large amount of data available, the AIB is able to work with a rich source of information about the launch. One of the initial tasks for the AIB is to reconcile the data from multiple sources, a process that is now underway, to help create the launch sequence timeline.

Launch Site Status

Over the weekend, Orbital’s Wallops-based Antares personnel continued to identify, catalogue, secure and geolocate debris found at the launch site in order to preserve physical evidence and provide a record of the launch site following the mishap that will be useful for the AIB’s analysis and determination of what caused the Antares launch failure. The debris is being taken to a NASA facility on Wallops Island for secure and weather resistant storage.