International Docking Adapter successfully installed

The International Docking Adapter (IDA) that was transported to the International Space Station (ISS) in the trunk of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft was successfully installed to the end of the Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 (PMA-2) during a spacewalk today.

Astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins performed a 5 hour 58 minute spacewalk to complete the installation of the IDA, with the exception of a small issue removing the cap from one of the cable connectors the installation went very smoothly. Once the IDA was soft docked to the PMA Astronaut Takuya Onishi commanded two sets of hooks to permanently mate the IDA to the PMA thereby allowing Jeff and Kate to reconfigure the cables on the IDA to allow future visiting vehicle to dock with it.

Once the IDA work was completed they two moved on to installation of cables that will be used for the second IDA which is due to be delivered in late 2017. The crew were planning to attempt some get ahead tasks, however Jeff started to have communication issues and they decided to returned to the airlock to conclude the successful spacewalk.

This was the fourth spacewalk for Jeff, and the first for Kate.

Images captured from NASA TV of the spacewalk

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Why we need multiple providers for Space Access

It became clear again this week why it is critical that we have multiple providers to access Space.  With the Progress 59 (M-27M) failure recently the International Partners involved in the ISS have now had to rescheduled several future flights to accommodate the loss of the vehicle and allow time for the investigation into the loss to determine impact on the future.

As a result the Expedition 43 crew members Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti and Anton Shkaplerov will be spending an extra month aboard the station and Expedition 44 crew members Oleg Kononenko, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui are now expected to launch in late July almost two months late.

At present the Soyuz TMA vehicle is the only way for crewed missions to the ISS, this is set to change in 2017 when the Dragon 2 and CST-100 vehicles will begin servicing the station, assuming SpaceX and Boeing complete there contracts on time.

While some people question the choice of SpaceX and Boeing for commercial crew services, especially the price awarded to the contractors it is clear that only selecting a single option would have left us with a similar situation should that single supplier fall behind schedule or suffer a failure that grounded the vehicle.  By selecting two providers both for Cargo and Crew NASA are protecting there investment in ISS by ensuring access.  This decision has already be justified with the failure of Orbital ATK’s Orb-3 mission last October.

CCtCap is Back On

cctcapOn Oct. 9, under statutory authority available to it, NASA has decided to proceed with the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts awarded to The Boeing Company and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. notwithstanding the bid protest filed at the U.S. Government Accountability Office by Sierra Nevada Corporation. The agency recognizes that failure to provide the CCtCap transportation service as soon as possible poses risks to the International Space Station (ISS) crew, jeopardizes continued operation of the ISS, would delay meeting critical crew size requirements, and may result in the U.S. failing to perform the commitments it made in its international agreements.

These considerations compelled NASA to use its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences where contract performance remained suspended. NASA has determined that it best serves the United States to continue performance of the CCtCap contracts that will enable safe and reliable travel to and from the ISS from the United States on American spacecraft and end the nation’s sole reliance on Russia for such transportation.

CCtCap on HOLD

Due to the appeal by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) of the CCtCap awards to Boeing and SpaceX both companies have been told to stop any work until the appeal process has been completed.

SNC filed a complaint on 26th Sept 2014 with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), while full details of the complaint are not currently available the general summary appears to be related to irregularities with the selection process and the fact that their bid was $900m less than Boeing’s.  The GAO has 100 days to review and rule on the appeal, at present there is no way to know what they could decide, at the minimum they could rule there is no basis in the complaint at worse they could rule that the contracts are invalid and require the process to be done again.

So what impact does this have on the Commercial Crew program for NASA.  Depending on the GAO’s decision it could either result in a slight delay or at worse could push Commercial Crew into 2018 or beyond.  This would almost certainly mean that NASA would also have to negotiate more seats on Soyuz to cover the delay which based on the last cost increase could run at more than $80m a seat.

What if GAO rules one of the contracts is invalid?  Well that would almost certainly guarantee an appeal by whoever’s contract is invalidated which could drag out the process even further.

The Irony in all this is clearly based on the SNC/Stratolaunch System’s announcement made just yesterday SNC has no plans to abandon the Dream Chaser program and while we are sure having $3.3b would go a long way to complete this they most likely could have found funding elsewhere.

The same goes for SpaceX they clearly have plans that go well beyond just providing Dragon V2 for NASA and again the $2.6b will help realize these goals faster then if they had to fund the development themselves.

Finally Boeing did indicate that if they didn’t get the award they would be laying off workers, whether they would abandon CST-100 is really unknown as there have been indications that they might have or still might consider competing for the CRS2 Cargo contracts which was announced recently.

It seems to us that the only people who will lose out in the mess is NASA and the Taxpayer, NASA because they will potentially be reliant on Russia for longer and Taxpayer because we will have to foot the bill of the appeal process and any changes to the contracts resulting form the appeal.

 

CCtCap awards announced

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Image Credit: NASA

Today at 4pm EDT from Kennedy Space Center NASA announced the winners of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts.

And the winners are:

CST-100
Image Credit: Boeing

Boeing – The CST-100 capsule seen to the right has been awarded $4.2 billion of the money.  Over the next three years Boeing will have to complete a number of milestones below to prove that the CST-100 capsule can indeed deliver crew to the ISS.

While the CST-100, according to Boeing, can be launched on multiple rockets they have selected to use the Atlas V as the launch vehicle.

This will bring Boeing’s total under the Commercial Crew Development program to $4.77 billion.

Image Credit: SpaceX
Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX – The Dragon V2 again seen on the right has also been awarded a contract of $2.6 billion allowing NASA to have a two options for the CCtCap process.

At the time of writing SpaceX have not completed their pad or launch abort tests from the CCiCap contract, however they are scheduled to be completed in the next six months and there should be no reason that SpaceX couldn’t be ready before 2017.

This will bring SpaceX’s total under the Commercial Crew Development program $3.11 billion

Each company will have to pass five certification milestones as well as a number of others that they themselves have selected, payment will be based on the different milestones.  We will bring you news of these milestones once the information has been been made available.

Under the contracts awarded today both companies will perform one demo flight each and a maximum of six crewed missions to the station carrying four crew members each time, they also include some money towards additional studies.  With the introduction of the Dragon V2 and CST-100 NASA have also announced that the space station will move from a six member crew to seven members allow more research to be performed.

The award amounts are based on the paperwork that was submitted during the process by each company and both have to meet the same goals laid out by NASA.  Basically SpaceX will be achieving the same goals for 62% the cost that Boeing will.

In summary this is what we hoped would happen, two competitors have been selected and the next few years are going to be exciting for US manned spaceflight, we are another step closer to returning crewed flight to US soil and despite the fact that one of the competitors is still reliant on Russian engines to get into orbit that may change too as news of a partnership between ULA and Blue Origin to be announced tomorrow could see the RD-180 replaced, we will bring new of that announcement as soon as we have it.

At present we have no news on what will happen to the Dream Chaser program at SNC, when we have further information it will be made available here.

Orb2 launch delayed

The launch of the Orbital Science’s Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus Cargo Vehicle named SS Janice Voss has been delayed until tomorrow 7/13 due to severe weather at Wallops Island that delayed several steps in the processing of the rocket on the launch pad.

The launch is now scheduled for 12:52 pm EDT, for mission updates check out there status page here.

SpaceX unveils Dragon v2 – Crew Vehicle

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The Dragon V2 spacecraft

This evening Elon Musk unveiled the next version of the Dragon spacecraft designed to take crews to the International Space Station and beyond.  The crewed version of Dragon has undergone quite a transformation from the first version which was hanging above the crowd during the unveiling.  The spacecraft is much bigger then before, has SuperDraco thruster which will serve both as an Emergency Escape System should there be an issue during ride to orbit as a propulsive landing mechanism allowing the crew module to return to land at the completion of it’s mission.  The crew module can carry up to seven passengers and the interior has a very modern looking interface with touch screen technology, with critical functions being available as button’s for emergencies.

The touch screen interfaces with emergency manual button interface in the middle.
The touch screen interfaces with emergency manual button interface in the middle.

Elon also said that with the addition of the SuperDraco thrusters it is now possible for Dragon to land anywhere in the world with the accuracy of a helicopter.

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Elon Musk inside the Dragon V2 spacecraft

During the reveal Elon explained that the spacecraft still has parachutes which would be used in the case that the SuperDraco engines failed during landing.  The spacecraft has been designed to be fully re-usable and once landed should only need to be re-fueled and attached to a Falcon 9 rocket to fly again.  As part of this Elon revealed that they are now on version three of there heatshield technology which will further reduce the damage of re-entry.

Dragon V2 arriving at station with Dragon Cargo already attached
Dragon V2 arriving at station with Dragon Cargo already attached

During the animation demonstrating the abilities of Dragon V2 we saw the spacecraft docking to the station using the same mechanism that the Space Shuttle utilized.  There was also a cargo Dragon attached to the station when the new version arrived.

Elon also explained that the SuperDraco thrusters were 160 times more powerful than the Draco thrusters that are used to maneuver when in space, there are four pairs on the vehicle and each is isolated so a failure won’t cause problems for the other.  He also revealed that the thrusters were fully 3D printed.

Unfortunately there wasn’t a question and answer time during the presentation and no detailed about when the first flight will be.

Below are more images captured of the unveiling.

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Weekly Space Blog 11/16

Beyond Earth: Removing the Barriers to Deep Space Exploration round table
This week NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier moderated a panel discussion to consider the challenges facing the U.S. space exploration program.

Panelists include:
• Julie Van Kleeck, Vice President, Space Programs, Aerojet Rocketdyne
• Charlie Precourt, Vice President & General Manager, ATK Space Launch Division
• John Elbon, Vice President & General Manager, Boeing Space Exploration
• Jim Crocker, Vice President & General Manager, Civil Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company

The discussion started with talk about the current progress on various aspects of Human Exploration including the importance of the International Space Station as a proving ground for technologies that will be needed for missions into deeper space.

The discussion then turned to talking about the environment between the Earth and Mars, at present we are Earth Dependent and stuck in Low Earth Orbit, between us and Mars is a proving ground that will enable us to improve upon the technologies that are already in development. Beyond that we enter into the Earth Independent zone where we need to be able to survive without a quick escape route back to Earth. Julie Van Kleeck talked about the importance of taking small steps as we expand out to Mars, “We can’t just strap it all on a single rocket and go to Mars, we need to be sure that when we get there we can land and explore.” She went to explain that the goal was to become a space-faring race.

They then talked about the progress of the SLS/Orion systems and the various missions that are coming up for the system. The first flight of Orion is less than a year away now and progressing well, the test vehicle has now been powered on and tests have started, the heat shield is in final testing and will be shipped from Boston soon. Boeing’s John Elbon also stated that SLS is currently 5 months ahead of schedule and below budget. Current estimates show that the expected $ per pound for SLS is the same as the current CRS contracts with SpaceX and Orbital*.

During the discussion it became clear that current manufacturing techniques were definitely making a big difference in the construction of both Orion and SLS and were speeding up the process while reducing the costs.

A video of the panel is available here.

* Would need to see further data to validate this statement.

MAVEN – Next Mission to Mars
MAVEN Mission LogoNext week the NASA’s next Mars Orbiter will begin it’s ten month journey to the red planet aboard an Atlas 5 rocket, the vehicle is expected to enter orbit in late September 2014.

So what is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission and what will we learn?
The orbiter has two primary functions, firstly it will perform scientific investigations of the Martian atmosphere and it’s interactions with the Sun. Secondly it will act as another relay for the rovers currently operating on the surface of the planet, this function is currently handled by the existing orbiters Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter both of which have been in orbit for at least seven years.

What science will MAVEN do?
The spacecraft has been designed to explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. Scientists will use MAVEN data to determine the role that loss of volatile compounds—such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and water—from the Mars atmosphere to space has played through time, giving insight into the history of Mars atmosphere and climate, liquid water, and planetary habitability.

For further information on MAVEN check out the mission page here.

Station crew return safely to Earth
Following a busy four days on the International Space Station which included the arrival of three new crew members, a spacewalk and the departure of three crew members the TMA-09M spacecraft landed safely in Kazakhstan, returning Fyodor Yurchikhin, Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg to conclude their six month mission on-board the station.

Unlike previous missions where the departing crew would have landed before the next crew members launched the roles were reversed so that the Olympic Torch could be carried to the space station and returned in a timely manner.

India Mars Mission glitch
The Indian Mars Missions failed to change it’s orbit as expected this week due to a shutdown of the main engine sooner than expected. Following a review of the data mission controllers were able to perform an additional engine firing place the craft back in the correct orbit to allow it’s journey to the red planet to proceed.

Why is Commercial Crew Important?
During the Beyond Space (check name) panel discussion earlier this week one of the speakers mention that he had recently been to the Baikonur Cosmodrome to watch a Soyuz launch and commented on the fact that at present there are only two options for getting crew into space, neither of which was American.

While the main discussion at this panel was around the SLS and Orion vehicles being created by NASA I think that we need to take a different approach and consider why Commercial Crew is just as if not more important than the government owed option.

If we look at the airline, car, train industries there are multiple manufacturers of vehicles that are used to transport people, having multiple companies creates competition which has the result of lowering costs but also with the correct regulation improves safety. Take for instance the car industry the manufacturers pride themselves on the safety ratings their cars achieve.

The same would eventually apply to Commercial Crew, with more companies involved in the manufacturer and launch of crewed missions there will be more options available to both government and commercial companies to launch into orbit. As Julie Van Kleeck said during the panel discussion we need to take the steps necessary to becoming a space-faring people, this will not happen if we only have government launchers and crewed vehicles.

At present there are three clear leaders on the commercial crew field Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX each of who are operating under Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreements with NASA to build commercial crewed vehicles.

There are other companies working on crewed options including Virgin Galactic, XCor and Blue Origin most of these are currently focused on sub-orbital craft.

The future for crewed missions is looking brighter each day, especially when you consider that SpaceX has made it very clear there long term goals are to land crewed missions on Mars.

SpaceX CRS-3 to carry Spacesuits
The next SpaceX mission to the station will be utilized to carry a new Spacesuit to the station as well as return a broken suit. Originally the plan was to return the suit that Luca wore during his aborted spacewalk, however after careful troubleshooting the astronauts on the station were able to repair that suit using parts that were delivered to the station with recent cargo and crew arrivals.

At present there are four suits on the station only three are usable, the other is the one that will be returned allowing engineer’s on the ground to diagnose and resolve the problem.

At present the launch of CRS-3 is tentatively scheduled for 2/11/14, however that date may change depending on the actual launch of two other SpaceX missions scheduled for the end of this year, the next of which has just been delayed from 22nd Nov to 25th.

NASA Celebrates Successful end of COTS
This week NASA celebrated the completion of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), the program that helped fund Orbital Sciences and SpaceX in the development of the Cygnus and Dragon spacecraft was successfully concluded following a successful demonstration mission by the Cygnus spacecraft last month. Check out a video from NASA here.

NASA also announced that on Nov 19th they will be issuing a final Request for Proposals for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract. This contract is to ensure competing companies can meet NASA safety requirements for Crewed Missions and is expected to conclude with actual manned flights to the International Space Station before 2017.

Weekly Space Blog 7/6

Another busy week in space

Cassini captures picture of Saturn Moon Janus
This week Cassini returned a picture of one of Saturn’s small lumpy moon’s named Janus, the moon doesn’t have sufficient gravity to pull itself into a round shape as seen with most other moons.  For more pictures of the moon check out the web page here.

Ad Astra VF-200 Reaches important review milestone
This week Ad Astra Rocket Company announced that they had completed the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for their 200kW engine design for testing in space.  After more than a year of planning the Ad Astra Engineers and Physicists as well as NASA engineers completed the review.  The PDR incorporates the knowledge gained over several years from the VX-200 test engine as well as multiple conceptual designs carried out by Ad Astra.  This is an important step towards the flight of the VF-200 engine on the International Space Station in the future.  For further information check out the press release here.

ExoPlanet News
Three articles appeared this week regarding ExoPlanets.  The first reported the findings of a study by the University of Chicago suggests that the habitable zone of ExoPlanets can be extended by cloud behavior on the planet.  The results show that the influence of cloud cover could double the number of habitable planets found around Red Dwarf starts meaning that in our galaxy alone there could be 60+ billion planets.  For more information check out the press release here.

The second report Astronomers have uncovered the hidden identity of an ExoPlanet orbiting the star HD 97658.  Based on there observations they estimate the planet HD 97658b is between 2 and 8 times the size of Earth, while the planet itself is not new the size and mass of the planet is.  For more information check out the article here.

The third article to appear relates not to actual ExoPlanet’s but instead to their moons, the search for ExoMoons.  A team led by Dr. David Kipping at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has jumped at this challenge.  For further information check out the paper here.

World Premiere of IMAX 3D Hidden Universe
This week saw the World Premiere of the new IMAX 3D movie Hidden Universe.  Check out the official web site for more information and current locations to see it.

ARKYD Funded
Following a frantic finish including a four hour live presentation and $100,000 donation from Richard Branson the Planetary Resources team raised over $1.6m for the telescope.  They are currently planning to launch an grace period to allow those who weren’t able to contribute to still be involved.  Check out the page here.

Indian PSLV Launch
This week a Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) carrier the first of the Indian Regional Satellite Navigation System spacecraft into orbit.  Following a successful launch the spacecraft was placed into the expected transfer orbit.  The system will eventually consist of four spacecraft and will provide navigation accuracy to India to about 20 meters.

Proton Launch Failure
The Russian space program suffered a major setback this week when one of their unmanned Proton rockets failed 20 seconds into it’s mission.  The rocket launched as expected but very soon it was clear something was very wrong when the craft veered to the left and then right before breaking apart and exploding.  Future flights of the Proton have been suspending pending the outcome of a review to determine what caused the failure.

ISS Changes position for Solar Science
This week the International Space Station changed it’s position to accommodate Solar Science research being performed by European Scientists into what the solar activities mean for our planet.  Check out the full article here.

SpaceX completed two more milestones
SpaceX announced this week that they had completed two more milestones in their CCiCap plan towards manned spaceflight using the Dragon vehicle.  In the first milestone SpaceX outlined the steps they will take towards certifying there system for human spaceflight.  In the second they outlined the plan for their Pad Abort test which will demonstrate the ability for the Dragon Spacecraft to fly away from the Falcon Rocket should something go wrong during launch.  For more information check out the press release here and while you are there check out NASA new web site layout.

NASA lays out plans for Commercial Crew Test Flights
This week NASA announced their plans for the actual test flights utilizing Commercial Vehicles to the International Space Station.  These flights will include NASA astronauts onboard and result in a visit to the ISS.  The new test phase called CCtCap is expected to kick off next summer and will include at least one crewed test flight.  For further information check out the press release here.

Two new Pluto Moon names revealed
This week the two newest of Pluto’s five known moon were named Kerberos and Styx.  The names were actually placed second and third in an international competition to name the moons, however the winning entry Vulcan was vetoed by the International Astronomy Union.

Cluster detects elusive Solar Wind
The Cluster spacecraft has provided conclusive evidence of a space wind proposed 20 years ago.  Analysis of the data returned by the spacecraft showed a slow but steady wind releasing about 1kg of plasma from the plasmasphere around our planet.  For more information check out he article here.

Gemini Observatory New Optics
2013_saaa_legacy_med_945Astronomers recently got their hands on Gemini Observatory’s revolutionary new adaptive optics system, called GeMS, “and the data are truly spectacular!” says Robert Blum, Deputy Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory with funding by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

For further information check out the full article here.

Opportunity just keeps going
The Mars Rover Opportunity has reached the half way mark of it’s journey to “Solander Point.” where mission control plans for it to spend the next Martian Winter.  The rover which touched down on the red planet Jan 24, 2004 to begin a 90 sol (Martian Day) mission is rapidly approaching 10 years on the planet.

NASA readies rescue plan for Kepler
The team behind the successful Kepler mission announced this week that they will being trying to revive the spacecraft mid to late July.

And Finally
I have decided to change this section to list some of the great video(s) that I find during the week.  Enjoy

The Next-Generation Canadarn 
Karen Nyberg chat 
Next Space Station Spacewalk Brief

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.