Touch Tomorrow festival

Yesterday we visited Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) for the Touch Tomorrow festival, there were lots of activities for the kids to do and some fun exhibits for everyone to learn about advances in robotics. The event sponsored by NASA was an opportunity for people to learn about the Space Launch System (SLS), visit a Moon Landscape and see various robots competing in the NASA Sample Return Robot Centennial Challenge, check out this video of the event. NASA setup a number of stamp stations around the campus and kids could win a prize if they collected 4 or more stamps.

There were various exhibits setup around the campus of WPI and in various buildings, as we walked around the site there were opportunities to learn by building or creating various items including Dome Structures made of Gum Drops and Toothpicks, Paper airplanes, Slime, etc. There were a number of different robotic technologies on display some created by WPI staff and students others created by NASA. A fall size model of Curiosity was on display in the main courtyard, it was amazing to see just how big it is and brought home to me just how challenging it was to land on the surface of mars.

The highlight of the day for me was getting the opportunity to hear Astronaut Captain Stephen G. Bowen, veteran of three spaceflights on the shuttle and seven spacewalks. Stephen showed two video’s during his talk from STS-132 and STS-133 as well as talked about his work on the space station. During the talk he told us that during one of his spacewalks Houston told him to hold for a moment as they needed to assess something, he knew it would take a while before they got back to him so had time to just look down at the Earth below. At one point he showed a picture with four astronauts two who were holding coffee pouches which had Yesterday’s Coffee and Today’s Coffee written on them, he then went on to explain how they recycle ALL the water on the station which draw a number of Eww’s from the crowd. During the video’s we got to see the lighter side of the work the Astronauts do as they played games on the station/shuttle and enjoyed meals together. The question is did they ever find all those skittles that were floating around?

After his talk Stephen answered several questions from the crowd, including how did it feel to launch on the shuttle, he wasn’t really able to describe it except to say that you feel a lot of pressure as you go up, almost three G’s and then are suddenly weightless. However he did say the only way to really understand it was to experiencing it yourself.

This week we have a lot of news

This week we have a lot of news related to Space, enjoy.
SpaceX Rocket Test
This week SpaceX CEO tweeted that they had tested fired their most powerful Rocket yet, with 1.3m lbs.
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Here is a copy of the image, looking forward to seeing this vehicle in flight.
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Boeing Marching on with CCiCap milestones
This week Boeing announced that it has completed another two milestones under their CCiCap agreement with NASA.  These two milestone bring the reality of Human Space flight for US closer with the completion of the wind tunnel tests on a scale model of the combined CST-100 and Atlas V rocket that will launch it.  The second milestone related to the propellant plumbing changes needed to support the two engine Centaur stage that will be used, all previous Atlas V flights have used a single engine Centaur.
Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX are all competing to bring Manned Space Flights to the International Space Station and LEO back to US soil.
In related news Sierra Nevada announced this week they they have successfully started the main testing for the Hybrid Rocket motor that will be used on the DreamChaser vehicle.
3D Printing in Space
There have been a number of exciting announcements about 3D printing recently, NASA announced they were funding a 3D food printer with the first focus on pizza.  This week NASA and Made in Space, Inc announced an agreement to fly a 3D printer to the space station next year to being testing the production of items.
3D printing techniques offer a number of opportunities to improve the cost of manufacturing and reduce the payload required.  Deep Space Industries and The Mars Foundation plan to use materials found in space to supply 3D printers that would allow in-situ manufacturing of parts, these could be used to build structures or even spacecraft and wouldn’t have the same restrains that we have on earth to do Payload mass limits on rockets.
ATV-4 (Albert Einstein) Launched
Following the successful launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket the next ESA Automated Transfer Vehicle is currently on it’s way to the ISS.  Following a 10 day journey to the station it will dock and the cargo transfers will begin.  The ATV is the largest cargo vehicle available to the ISS with a capacity three times that of Progress and twice of the Dragon, included in the vehicle is fuel, air and water as well as the cargo.
Kepler keeps giving
While the Kepler spacecraft may not be able to continue it’s science mission (they haven’t given up on it yet and are planning ways to compensate for the recent failure), the science data that has already been received from the vehicle will keep scientist busy for years to come as they confirm the planet candidates.  <<ADD KEPLER STATS HERE>>
ARKYD Kickstarter Update
As of writing the Planetary Resources ARKYD Kickstarter project has raised more than $750,000 of the $1,000,000 needed to fund the project.  With more than 20 days remaining it is looking increasingly likely that they will exceed the required amount.  For the latest updates on the campaign check out the Kickstarter page here.
Curiosity Mars Rover Update
During this weeks Rover update teleconference NASA announced that the second drill investigation was complete and they were now heading towards Mount Sharp.  When asked how long it would take to arrive they stated that it would depend on what they found on the way and if it was worth stopping to investigate.   It could take as much as a year to arrive at Mount Sharp.  The Rover’s power supply is good for many years to come therefore they are going to take there time and do the science as they find the need.  Full details of the announcement including additional pictures are available here.
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Orion Update
After venting my frustration with the SLS/Orion program last week I thought it was only right to pass on the news that the Orion Capsule had completed stress tests this week that replicate the stresses that would be experienced during an actual mission.  The fixes they made to the designed after the cracks appeared before worked successfully and the vehicle passed all the tests.
And Finally
Today my family and I will be heading to Worchester to visit WPI for the Touch Tomorrow festival, this will be an opportunity for us to meet a NASA Astronaut and see some of the latest developments in Robotics.

Soyuz launch, ARKYD Kickstarter, Astronaut Abby

Welcome to my new weekly blog on all things Space, this week we take a look at the latest Soyuz launch to the International Space Station, the ARKYD Kickstarter project and Astronaut Abby a 15 year old with an amazing vision for STEM and Space.

Soyuz Launch

On Tuesday this week Karen Nyberg, Fyodor Yurchikhin, Luca Parmitano launched about there Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft from Kazakhstan on an accelerated six hour journey to the space station.  This is the second time a Soyuz has used the express rendezvous to the station which cuts down the time spent in the Soyuz from two days.  They join current station crew members Chris CassidyAlexander Misurkin, and Pavel Vinogradov to complete the Expedition 36 crew.

The crew have a very busy increment coming up with a number of visiting vehicles and five space walks as well as the hundreds of science experiments that are performed each day.

ARKYD Kickstarter

On Wednesday this week Planetary Resources announced the launch of there ARKYD: A Space Telescope for Everyone Kickstarter project.  The goal of the project is to raise $1,000,000 to provide a Space Telescope for citizen science, as of writing they had already raised $600,000+ with 6000+ backers.  There are multiple sponsorship levels available from $25 for a photo from the spacecraft or yourself with the Earth in the background to $10,000 for a very neat package (check out the page).

I have signed on to this project at the $65 level and would encourage anyone who has dreamed of being involved in space to get involved.

Astronaut Abby

And finally this week we meet Astronaut Abby who has just completed an amazing trip to Russia and Kazakhstan to watch the Soyuz launch.  She recently raised $35,000 through the RocketHub CrowdFunding site to “Inspire Future Generations”, she will be using the money raised to provide classroom visits and share her vision to be the first Astronaut on Mars.

In addition she has been selected to be Astronaut Luca Parmitano’s Earth Liason while he is on the space station.  Abby will be communicating regularly with Luca and will be posting updates about his adventure.  When asked Luca said that he selected Abby for her passion for space and reaching her dream and that one day he would be training her to be an Astronaut.

And Finally

This week I wanted to vent my frustration about the SLS/Orion project at NASA, here we have a new rocket system that current estimates say will cost in excess of $41B for four launches by 2025 for the 70 metric tonne version, the 130 metric tonne version isn’t expected to be ready until 2030.  Next year SpaceX is expected to launch the Falcon Heavy which will cost significantly less money and will be capable of launching 53 metric tonnes, it seems very likely that by 2025 SpaceX could have greater launch capacity then SLS will have.

In addition the Orion Space capsule which has already had structure problems during pressure testing only has a four person crew capacity which while being one more than Soyuz and other current space capsules is three less than the planned Dragon Crew Capsule, the Dreamchaser vehicle or the Boeing CST-100.  The first planned uncrewed launch for the capsule will be next year and the first crewed mission isn’t expected until 2021.  Again by this time one or more of the capsules mentioned above will have already launched multiple crews to the ISS and I know SpaceX have plans to go beyond LEO with Dragon.

It seems at this point it would be more logically to invest some of the $41B in SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing to improve their vehicles and the rest of the money in Planetary Science to go explore the Europa or Titan.

Liftoff of Falcon 9 with Dragon

This morning SpaceX successfully launched their latest Falcon 9 witth Dragon towards the international space station.  Following an aborted launch on Saturday that was traced back to a faulty value on engine 5 SpaceX successfully fixed, validated and prepared for launch this morning.

After the 9 minute ride to orbit which was performed flawlessly by Falcon 9 the Dragon spacecraft was successfully separated and deployed it’s Solar Array’s.  This was the first of many new systems on Dragon which will be tested during this mission.  During the press conference after launch NASA and SpaceX confirmed that Dragon has also performed it’s first burn procedure successfully as it starts it journey to catch up with the space station.

Over the next few days they have a lot more work to complete including the critical opening of the bay door that contains the probes and capture device used by the station’s robotic arm to grapple Dragon when it is close enough to the station.  Once Dragon arrives at the station on Thursday it will perform a number of procedures under the COTS Demo 2 mission plan to confirm that it can operate successfully near the station without cause danger to the station or it’s crew.  Upon successful completion of these objectives and with approval from NASA Dragon will then proceed to the COTS Demo 3 objectives which include berthing at the station.

The next few days are going to be very exciting for the Commercial Cargo program at NASA but incredible nerve racking as SpaceX execute all the tests needed for a successful mission.

3 Weeks and Counting to SpaceX Launch

In just over three weeks SpaceX is scheduled to launch their second and hopefully last COTS demo mission.  Today we are going to take a look in detail at the Dragon spacecraft and what a successful mission will mean for SpaceX and the US space industry in general.

Dragon

Designed and built by SpaceX the Dragon space capsule which has already flown one successful mission, upon completion of that mission SpaceX were the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft and successfully return it to earth.  While the initial missions for Dragon are for cargo, the craft has been designed from the beginning to allow crewed missions too.

The Dragon space capsule has a launch cargo capacity of 6,000 kg in cargo version and can support up to 7 crew in the crew version.  The payload capacity is split between pressurized and unpressurized as shown in the image on the right.  Once the craft reaches orbit the solar panels will deploy from the unpressurized section ( the blue area at the bottom ) and provide power to the craft.

Recently NASA performed a crew equipment interface test (CEIT), this allowed NASA astronaut Megan McArthur to work inside the pressurized part of the craft as part of her training for a future mission to the station.  SpaceX also completed their own Wet Dress rehearsal where the fully configured Falcon 9 with the Dragon capsule were taken out to the Launch pad, erected into launch position and fully fueled before the countdown proceeded to T-5 seconds.

Assuming there are no problems found during the Flight Readiness review on April 16th then SpaceX are scheduled to be launching on April 30th, once in orbit Dragon will complete a series of tests as it approaches the station culminating in a capture and docking.  For this mission Dragon is scheduled to stay at the station for around 30 days as the crew unload cargo and then place items due to be returned to earth.  Unlike the other cargo vehicles that visit the station Dragon will actually return all the way to earth initial in the pacific ocean, with plans to use the thrusters in the future to land back on land.

While the last demo flight for Dragon was well over a year ago now, SpaceX have not been sitting around doing nothing, they have had a lot of work to do to make sure Dragon operates correctly when approaching the Space Station and ensuring a save and successful mission.

In addition to that they have been very busy working on the crew version including testing the unique crew escape system which will be built into the side of the vehicle and will for the first time allow escape all the way to orbit, and can be used for powered landing on earth or other destinations.  SpaceX recently completed their first NASA Crew trail where 7 crew entered the vehicle and strapped in as they would for launch, as the pictures below show there is plenty of room inside.

I believe the future both for SpaceX and the US Launch industry looks very bright.  In additional to all these activities the company is also working on their Falcon Heavy launcher, working towards fully reusable launch vehicles, have a large manifest of launches already booked and have been profitable.  In addition Elon Musk recently said that he believes eventually they will be able to launch people to Mars for $500,000.

In the meantime all eyes will be on Kennedy Space Center for the rest of this month as SpaceX enter the final countdown towards their launch.

The information in this article is the personal opinion of the author and any future statements are based on information that is freely available on the internet.

Copyright Notices: All the images used in this article are the property of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and are also available on there website www.spacex.com.

More Delays

Last year Russia suffered from the lose of a Progress vehicle that resulted in several delays to manned launches and the possibility of having to de-man the Space Station which has been constantly occupied since November 2000. Thankfully they were able to resolve the problems and the station returned to a full crew before the end of the year. unfortunately that wasn’t the end of the problems as this year during vehicle certification one of the Soyuz vehicles used for manned launches was damaged beyond repair and again manned missions have been delayed. The delay this time is not as serious as another vehicle was almost complete.

Too add to this ESA announced today that the next Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) has been delayed to allow more time to ensure the mission will succeed.  At the present time they haven’t announced a new launch date but will have to ensure it doesn’t conflict with the other launches to the station.

With the US still reliant on Russia, Japan and ESA to launch cargo and crew to the station these delays show just how important it is that US companies quickly complete there work to bring US launch capabilities online. SpaceX are the closes to achieving this with a success Wet Dress Rehearsal yesterday for there COTS demo launch scheduled for April 20th.

Orbital are moving forward but announced that they are having problems completing there launch pad and will have to delay first launch of Antares.

Stratolaunch Systems

Today we return to our commercial space series as we look at a new player to the field.

Paul G. Allen and Burt Rutan announced yesterday that they were once again partnering to revolutionize the space launch industry.  Their last adventure led to the Ansari X Prize winning SpaceShipOne craft which achieved three sub-orbital flights to win the prize in 2004 and is the pre-cursor to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

The Stratolaunch System (SLS) will consist of four primary elements: a carrier aircraft, a multi-stage booster, a mating and integration system, and an orbital payload.  Initially the payloads will be unmanned but longer term after the system has been proven manned missions will also be included.  To achieve this SLS will be a partnership between Scaled Composites (carrier aircraft), SpaceX (multi-stage booster) and Dynetics (mating and integration system).

The carrier aircraft will be a much larger version of the WhiteKnightTwo craft used by Virgin with a wing-span of 385 feet and be powered by six 747 engines.  The craft will weight more than 1.2 million pounds, require a 12,000 foot runaway of takeoff and landing and will be the biggest aircraft ever built.

The multi-stage booster will be derived from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

The mating and integration system (MIS) will have the capacity to carrier up to 500,000 pounds.  As well as providing the interface point to the Booster.

Unfortunately the system will not be ready much before 2016 but again the future looks bright for the US launch industry in the future.  With the backing of Paul G. Allen there is little doubt that they will succeed.

More details are available on there web site including animations of the SLS.

 

 

 

 

 

Falling Behind

China are on the verge of surpassing the US for second place in the number of spacecraft launched in a single year.  Last year we were tied for second place and so far this year have one more mission than China but with no more planned US launches this year and at least one more for China could be tied again or risk losing out to them.

And the picture looks bleak until the commercial launchers come online.  SpaceX and Orbital are still in the testing phase and while both plan to be online with cargo flights next year to ISS there is no guarantee that this will happen.  The next demo flight for SpaceX has been delayed a number of times so far while SpaceX and NASA make sure everything is in place for the mission.  While we can understand the need to ensure the spacecraft will not pose a threat to the station it also makes us more reliant on Russia until these craft are up and running.

The crew situation is even worse, until SLS or Commercial Crew are online which at the moment looks to be 3-4 years away we are completely dependent on Russia to get to ISS and in the mean time China and making huge progress on there crew missions.  With the successful completion of the Shenzhou 8 mission which included two dockings to the Tiangong 1 space station, they are now planning a crewed mission to the station and have already selected the crew.

As I said a couple of weeks ago after the new NASA budget was announced we are cutting funding for commercial space and therefore risk falling further behind.  Having to pay Russia $63m per seat to get to the space station that we spend billions of dollars building is short sighted and the continued under-spending on commercial space is not going to rectify this any time soon.

NASA Budget

This week the new Budget was signed into law and NASA’s funding for the Commercial Crew development has been slashed.  So what does this mean for the future?

As we are currently looking at Commercial Space and the different teams who are involved it seems appropriate to review this further and see what real impact this has.

The final budget for Commercial Crew has come out at $406 million which is less then half the original $850 million requested.  The Senate and House appropriations committees passed legislation calling for commercial crew funding levels of $500 million and $312 million, respectively.  A conference committee between lawmakers agreed to a compromise budget at $406 million.

This has serious implications for the Commercial Crew Development program, NASA currently has four companies working towards milestones each which has specific financial rewards associated with them.  While the money for the current set of milestones is already secure the reduce budget does have implications for future milestones.  Either NASA will have to reduce the number of companies they are working with or slow down the pace of development.  Neither of these options is ideal as it results in the US and NASA not having a crew capability for longer.

Given that NASA are currently paying $63 million per flight to the space station and have at least 4 crew per year launching by 2015 NASA would have spent between $1 billion and $2 billion getting crew there.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden cautioned legislators that reducing the funding would likely add another 2 years to the program meaning that at the current rate another $500 million to $1 billion will be spent on Soyuz flights.

Several of the companies that are currently working towards Commercial Crew have stated that they can launch for less than the $63 million so this new budget makes no sense for the future of US access to space or the goal of reducing costs.

Personally I hope that none of the companies will stop the work they have begun on Commercial Crew and will step up and show the government that they can reduce the cost of access to space and once again give the US the access to space that it has given up at the present time.

 

 

Commercial Space – Part Six

Today we continue our look at Commercial Space with Boeing and there contribution to the CCDev/CCDev2 programs.

Boeing

Working with Bigelow the CST-100 will provide crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station.   The CST-100 was first announced by Robert Bigelow in June 2010, just last month NASA announced that Boeing had signed an agreement to use one of the Shuttle OPF buildings as there construction site for the CST modules.

Drawing on their expertise with the Apollo, Space Shuttle and ISS they have quickly demonstrated that they can deliver on the design and with the recent funding from NASA have several milestones that have to be achieved as they work towards being operational by 2015.  Clearly the partnership with Bigelow will benefit both companies;  as Boeing will have a second destination for CST and Bigelow will have a supplier for their stations.

Boeing have recently been conducting drop tests  of their test module to evaluate the design of the airbag cushioning system that will be deployed just before landing.  So far Boeing are the only company to use this design and will be interested to see how different the landing will be to some of the other modules.  I think overall SpaceX’s design seems to offer the best solution for landing but only time will tell as they continue to test and actual use the systems.

Boeing has designed CST to be compatible with Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 9 with Atlas V being the initial launch vehicle during testing.

At present there is no set date for when orbital testing will be performed.