Orion completes maiden voyage

NASA’s Orion spacecraft has completed it’s maiden voyage with a successful splashdown in the pacific ocean.  After the launch this morning a number of tests were performed during the two orbit mission, Orion was the first human rated spacecraft to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit since Apollo 17 which flew 42 years ago.

This mission allowed NASA and Lockheed Martin, the prime Orion contractor, to verify some of the following:-

  1. The heat shield, further tests will be performed once the spacecraft has been retrieve to give them a full understanding on the effects the re-entry had.
  2. How the systems coped as they traveled through the Van Allen radiation belts.
  3. How the payload fairing and launch abort system worked during liftoff.

Initial indications show that there were no critical issues during the whole mission with one minor issue after splashdown where one or more of the stabilization balloons on top of the vehicle didn’t deploy correctly.  The flight was very successful showing that the heat shield could withstand the heat of re-entry, tests after the landing will show how much of the Ablator on the shield was burned off.

Unfortunately now we will have to wait another four years before the next flight of Orion which will also be the debut of the Space Launch System rocket,

Below are some images captured from NASA TV during the mission, of the return and splashdown of Orion

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T-1 day and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

Tomorrow the first Orion mission should be under way, however the future for Orion and it’s carrier rocket Space Launch System (SLS) is not guaranteed.  The first flight for SLS is still four years away maybe sooner if they can finish the rocket faster but given the number of delays already it seems more likely that it could be delayed further.

Unfortunately before then there will be another Presidential election and there is no telling what the new President will do.  In a previous article I talked about the cost of SLS/Orion, that will fact into any decisions that a new administration makes.  The first crewed flight is not scheduled until some time in the early 2020’s, by which time we could be on a second new President.

By the first crewed launch, baring launches by other space agencies or commercial companies, it will have been almost 50 years since a crewed mission went beyond Low Earth Orbit.  There is also speculation that another test flight may be needed as the upper stage for the crewed mission will not have flown before and current flight rules require at last one test flight before a human crew is aboard.

Beyond that there are other missions that have been discussed but nothing has been finalized, proposals include a robotic mission to Europa, Mars Sample Return mission, Deep Space Habitat, etc.  For a full list of current proposals check out the Wikipedia page here.

We believe there is a place for SLS in the future of manned missions beyond Earth but are concerned with the cost so far to build SLS and Orion and whether future governments will be willing to fund it long term.

We have deliberately avoided comparing launch costs with that of SpaceX or Boeing and their commercial crew proposals for several reasons:-

  • SLS/Orion is not designed to fly to the International Space Station
  • SLS/Orion doesn’t currently have a published per launch cost making any comparisons impossible to determine.
  • SLS/Orion is designed for deep space and due to that has heavier components than on the commercial crew solutions.

The next update will be tomorrow after the launch of EFT-1

Japanese H-2A rocket lifts off carrying Hayabusa 2

This evening a Japanese H-2A rocket lifted off with the Hayabusa 2 Asteroid Sample Return mission.  Following the success of the previous Hayabusa mission this mission is designed to go one step further and return an actual sample back to Earth.

Once in orbit the second spacecraft and upper stage will coast for 90 minutes before firing again.  At 1:10am EST we received confirmation that the Hayabusa 2 probe had successfully separated from the upper stage.

An H-2A rocket has never attempted such a lengthy coast period during any of the booster’s 25 previous flights.

“In this launch of the H-2A rocket, we will execute a difficult operation called a long coast operation,” said Hitoshi Kuninaka, JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 project manager, in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “For most H-2A rocket launches, the satellite is separated about 30 minutes after the launch, but for this mission, we have a long coast operation and the H-2A rocket will do one orbit around Earth and when the rocket comes back over Japan, we will turn on the second stage engine again. We accelerate the spacecraft away from Earth and separate.”

Over the next three and half years the spacecraft will travel to Asteroid (162173) 1999 JU3, Once there it will spend one and half years surveying the asteroid before departing to return to Earth expected around December 2020.

For more on the Hayabusa 2 mission check out it’s page here.

The images below were captured from the live web stream of the launch.

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T-3 days and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

Officially known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) the vehicle was announced in May 2011.  The design of the vehicle is derived from the cancelled Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle which was to be a part of the Constellation program announced by President Bush in 2004, that program was eventually cancelled by President Obama and the new mission announced.

Cutout view of the Orion Spacecraft © NASA
Cutout view of the Orion Spacecraft © NASA

The spacecraft will be made up of two parts, the Command Module (CM), built by Lockheed Martin, where the crew will reside during flight and the Service Module (SM), supplied by the European Space Agency (ESA) and built by Airbus Defense and Space, which will provide power and propulsion.  For the EFT-1 flight the Service Module will comprise of the Delta IV upper stage and Orion will rely on batteries to provide power.

The first flight with the ESA provided Service Module is expected on Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) currently scheduled for 2018.

Orion is being designed for deep space missions which unlike missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) require a stronger heat shield during re-entry due to the increased speed as the spacecraft approaches the planet.  In addition the vehicle will need to withstand stronger doses of radiation than those visiting LEO which is still somewhat protected by Earth’s atmosphere.  The vehicle is designed along the lines of the old Apollo Command Modules but there the comparison finishes, internally it will have 50% more volume and will be 5.02 meters (16 ft 6 in) in diameter and 3.3 meters (10 ft 10 in) in length, with a mass of about 8.5 metric tons (19,000 lb).  The module is designed to support a crew of 4-6 for up to 21 days of active flight, with an orbital life of six months when combined with another module for longer missions.

Orion’s CM will use advanced technologies, including:

  • “Glass cockpit” digital control systems derived from those of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
  • An “autodock” feature, like those of Russian Progress spacecraft and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, with provision for the flight crew to take over in an emergency. Previous American spacecraft (Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle) have all required manual piloting for docking.
  • Improved waste-management facilities, with a miniature camping-style toilet and the unisex “relief tube” used on the space shuttle (whose system was based on that used on Skylab) and the International Space Station (based on the Soyuz, Salyut, and Mir systems). This eliminates the use of the much-hated plastic “Apollo bags” used by the Apollo crews.
  • A nitrogen/oxygen (N2/O2) mixed atmosphere at either sea level (101.3 kPa or 14.69 psi) or slightly reduced (55.2 to 70.3 kPa or 8.01 to 10.20 psi) pressure.
  • Much more advanced computers than on previous crewed spacecraft.
NASA has announced that it will conduct an unmanned test flight called the Exploration Flight Test-1 or EFT-1 in 2014. Image Credit: NASA.gov
Artists rendering of the Orion Spacecraft in orbit with the Delta IV upper stage. Image Credit: NASA.gov

Next update tomorrow we will look at the Goals of the test flight.

Information for this article was gather from NASA and the 
Orion wikipedia page.

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.

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.