Blue Origin Launches New Shepard

Blue Origin completed the first test flight of there New Shepard rocket yesterday, the New Shepard rocket uses their BE-3 engine which recently completed testing.  The rocket is design to be fully re-usable, unfortunately they were not able to recover the main stage this time due to a hydraulic issue after the crew capsule was released.

The New Shepard system is design to carry six crew members on a sub-orbital flight and return to earth by parachute.  The main stage of the rocket is designed to release the capsule and then propulsively return to the launch pad, below is a quote from Blue Origin’s press release regarding the status of this and future flights.

In fact, if New Shepard had been a traditional expendable vehicle, this would have been a flawless first test flight. Of course one of our goals is reusability, and unfortunately we didn’t get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent. Fortunately, we’ve already been in work for some time on an improved hydraulic system. Also, assembly of propulsion module serial numbers 2 and 3 is already underway – we’ll be ready to fly again soon.

– Jeff Bezos

As was previous announced by United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin they are also working on a more powerful rocket engine called the BE-4 which will be used by the new Vulcan rocket from ULA.

In related news Blue Origin also revamped there Web Site providing a lot more details on the New Shepard System and allow an opportunity to reserve tickets for future flights.


Below is a video of the test

Progress 59 (M-27M) Failure

While the Progress 59 (M-27M) spacecraft is still in orbit, Russian Mission Control have declared that it cannot be recovered, they have tried repeatedly to send commands to the vehicle in an attempt to control the rapid spinning but as several reports have stated they have had no luck. In addition orbital tracking shows at least 44 different objects where the Progress vehicle is supposed to be, while they don’t know exactly what these are it doesn’t bode well for the spacecraft or mission.

As we started previously there is no immediate impact to the International Space Station crew either from the vehicle or the lost cargo. However combined with the lost of Orbital’s Cygnus last year it does present challenges for the future depending on how long it takes them to determine the root cause of the failure and deal with any changes needed to address that. At present there are four vehicles available that provide Cargo to the station Russia’s Progress, Japan’s HTV, Orbital ATK’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon.  Due to the accident the next Cygnus is currently scheduled to launch in November on an Atlas V.  An investigation will now have to be performed to determine what happened with the Progress and determine what needs to be done to address that, therefore it is difficult to determine when the next flight will be.  HTV is currently scheduled to fly once a year with the next flight in August which leaves Dragon to perform the bulk of the re-supply at present.  The next flight is scheduled for June with at least two more later this year.  It seems likely that the manifests for these missions could be changed to ensure essential supply levels are maintained on the station. UPDATE – Russian Mission Control have released some initial data indicating an issue was spotted 1.5 seconds before separation from Soyuz launcher.

Will Progress failure have Impact on ISS re-supply

With what potentially looks like a loss of mission for Progress M-27M questions will once again arise as to the impact on re-supply to the International Space Station.

At present the mission hasn’t been declared lost however the longer the vehicle spins out of control the more likely it is that they will not be able to recover it.  The next attempt will not be until 8pm CDT today 4/28/2015 at which point the vehicle would have been out of control for 15+ hours.

Typically the lost of one cargo vehicle doesn’t have an immediate impact on the operations of the station as they keep approximately 5-6 months of contingency supplies on-board.  The biggest impact typically relates to any science that was carried on the vehicle, most will most likely be replaced in future missions but any on-going experiments that needed the supplies could be impacted more severely.

However this isn’t the first cargo mission to be lost recently, last October the Cygnus spacecraft was destroyed on liftoff and it’s almost 5000 lbs of supplies were lost.  With the supplies potential lose today there could be a bigger impact.  In addition the Progress vehicle is currently the only one available that can supplement the station re-boost ability and was carrying fuel for that purpose.  In addition the last of Europe’s ATV re-supply mission has already been completed.

The chart below shows the current consumables available on the station after SpaceX CRS-6 delivery.

ISS Consumables Chart from an April 9, 2015 NASA presentation
ISS Consumables Chart from an April 9, 2015 NASA presentation

The longer term impact will depend on how long it takes to determine the cause of today’s failure and what needs to be done to address it.  At present it seems likely that future Progress launches will be delayed while they investigate.  As are result there are currently only two vehicles available for cargo re-supply, SpaceX’s Dragon and Japan’s HTV.



Progress 59 Out of Control

Following the successful launch yesterday morning mission control has not been able to regain control of the progress M-27M vehicle which at one point was seen spinning out of control on the third pass of ground stations.

Mission control have informed the station that there will be no docking attempt on Thursday which was the backup plan after the six hour attempt wasn’t possible.  They are assessing the situation and will continue to attempt to regain control of the vehicle.

Update – Mission control have tried several times to re-establish control of the vehicle without success, a tweet this morning indicates that the vehicle may have exploded.

Video of the spin below, we will update the article as more news comes in.

Progress 59 Launches

Russia launched the next Progress re-supply vehicle to the International Space Station early this morning the launch and deploy to orbit was successful, however the Progress M-27M spacecraft suffered a glitch once in orbit resulting in mission control deciding to use the two day flight plan instead of the six hour which had become common practice.

Below is video of the launch, we will publish another article following docking and hatch opening.

SpaceX launches TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat satellite

2015-04-27-130427-350x300SpaceX has completed their 5th launch of the year with the delivery of the TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat satellite to orbit.

The launch was delayed several weeks to allow SpaceX time to investigate issues they found with Helium bottles back at the factory and to allow the CRS-6 mission to take off on time.  With this launch SpaceX once again broke there turn-around record with just 13 days between launches.

Due to the weight of the satellite and it’s destination orbit SpaceX flew the Falcon 9 without the landing hardware to lower the weight of the vehicle.  The next launch that will attempt a landing will be the CRS-7 mission in June.

This is the first satellite launched for Turkmenistan.

Here is a video of the launch

Dragon Berthed to ISS

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft successfully arrived at the International Space Station this morning completing a two day journey which started with the picture perfect launch on Tuesday.

ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti controlled the ISS robotic arm and captured of Dragon at 6:55 am EDT.

Mission control then manoveured the spacecraft to the Berthing which was completed at 9:29 am EDT, leak checks will now be performed before opening on the hatch tomorrow.

Below are images of the capture and berthing from NASA TV.

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SpaceX Landing Attempt

For the second time SpaceX attempted to land a Falcon 9 first stage on the Autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) named “Just Read the Instructions”.

For this attempt the rocket got very close but didn’t survive the attempt, the first time the rocket tipped over just before landing causing it to fall over the side. According to early information from Elon Musk today the second attempt was closer, it is believed the rocket did actually land but then tipped over. We will know more once the ASDS arrives back in port.

Today I wanted to look closer at what SpaceX has already achieved with these attempts and previous soft landings and what this means for the future attempts back to land.

Lets consider what the first stage was doing just minutes before it attempted to land. From liftoff the 141 foot tall stage accelerated to 3.4 kilometers per second before detaching from the second stage. It then turned around, and fired its engines to return back to the ASDS, after the boost back it then had to turn around again for re-entry through the atmosphere. During the re-entry the engines are fired again to control the speed of descent to minimize heating. The legs and fins were then deployed and the engines fired again to bring it down towards the ASDS.

Precision Landing – While the rockets didn’t survive either attempt, the fact that they were that close to the ASDS in itself is a big achievement.

Learning lessons – With each attempt they are getting more and more data to help them perfect the process. They will analyze the data from this attempt and from that see what changes are needed before trying again.

Moving closer to Dragon 2 landings – The initial version of Dragon 2 will be using parachute landings on water the long term goal is to use propulsive landings. While the Dragon 2 will have different engines and is a smaller vehicle SpaceX will learn the right amount of fuel etc to be able to safely land.

As the vine below shows SpaceX were very close yesterday and it looks very possible that they will have at least one successful landing this year if not more.  The more flights they have the more attempts they can make.

SpaceX CRS-6 mission lifts off

SpaceX completed it’s fourth launch of 2015 with the liftoff of the CRS-6 Dragon capsule towards the International Space Station.  SpaceX confirmed that after separation from the second stage the Dragon spacecraft successfully deployed it’s Solar Array’s and is now heading towards the International Space Station.  It is scheduled to arrive at approximately 7:00 a.m. EDT on April 17.

Originally planned for 10th April the launch was delayed to allow SpaceX time to ensure the Helium tanks on their flight vehicles were okay after an issue was found back in the factory.  An attempt to liftoff yesterday was scrubbed just before liftoff due to lightning near the launch pad.

The Dragon spacecraft is carrying 4387 pounds of equipment to the station including Planetary Resources Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft, the original was destroyed when the Orbital CRS launch failed.  For more details on what Dragon is carrying check out NASA fact sheet here.

SpaceX again attempted to land the Falcon 9 first stage on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), update from Elon Musk shows they again made it to the ship but didn’t land successfully.

Another update from Elon shows that the first stage did actually land on the barge but then tipped over, images included.  They will have video when the drone ship gets back to port.

Another update has been provided by SpaceX, captured by the chase plane just before landing looks like the first stage leaned over significantly before landing.

In related SpaceX news, last week they rolled out a modified version of the Falcon 9 at Vandenberg which will be used for the In-flight abort test for Dragon 2 later this year.  As the rocket’s payload will not be going into orbit for this test it only has three Merlin 1D engines instead of the typical nine.  The actual test is scheduled for no earlier then (NET) July this year but could be subject to change depending on other missions.

Below are images from the launch today

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Will ULA’s Vulcan bring down SpaceX

Almost as soon as United Launch Alliance’s Tory Bruno announced the new Vulcan rocket system did articles start to appear stating that it “would bring down SpaceX”.   One from CNN also incorrectly stated that SpaceX aborted the landing of the first stage yesterday.

While that may be the goal of ULA it is way too soon to be making such bold statements.

First as stated yesterday the upgrades will be rolled out in multiple steps starting in 2019 assuming that everything goes as planned with Blue Origin’s development of the BE-4 engine.  Even then ULA will have to demonstrate that the rocket is as reliable as there current Atlas V or Delta IV before they can move the government launches to the platform, in previous statements Tory himself said certification could take several years.  That doesn’t take into account any re-certification that may be needed when the new upper stage is rolled out.

Second their re-usability plan is for the engines only which will be captured in mid-air and then lowered to a barge and returned to base.  While this has been done before it still relies on the weather co-operating and the time needed to return the engines to the factory/hanger for inspection, re-firing and re-integration with another first stage core.   At present SpaceX have the same challenges with the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) system, but longer term returning to the launch site looks to be more beneficial, only time will tell on that.

Third four-six years is a long time and SpaceX will have plenty of time to improve their offerings, both in relation to payload capacity with Falcon Heavy and on-time launch something they have struggled with so far.

So will Vulcan bring down SpaceX?  It seems very unlikely that on its own the new rocket system will bring them down, it will all depend on how SpaceX performed before Vulcan comes online and how they adapt to the competition that it will bring.