Orbital Sciences Orb-3 rocket explodes after liftoff #Orb3

2014-10-28_182331Following a scrub yesterday due to a boat breaking the range safety keep out area the Orbital Sciences Orb-3 mission made another attempt today. Following a very some and uneventful countdown the Antares rocket carrying the ‘Deke Slayton’ Cygnus lifted off on time at 6:22pm EDT, unfortunately approximately 6 seconds later a catastrophic failure occurred causing the rocket to explode and come crashing back to the launchpad.

Orbital Sciences have instigated a failure investigation team which will be led by Richard Straka, Deputy General Manager of Orbital’s Launch Systems Group. The investigation team will include representatives from NASA, Orbital, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Va.

Reports on NASA TV indicate significant damage to the launch pad and fires could be seen burn over a wide area after the explosion.  All range personnel have been accounted for.

This is certainly a setback for Orbital Sciences, the Commercial Cargo program and the numerous science teams that had payloads on Cygnus, it shouldn’t have too much of an impact on future launches for the other suppliers to the station.  However until the cause of the anomaly is known and resolved we seriously doubt there will be any further Cygnus launches to the station.

We will continue to update this post as further information becomes available.

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.

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.

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.

Commercial Space – Part Five

Today we look at Blue Origin and there contribution to the CCDev/CCDev2 programs.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin are working on the New Shepherd sub-orbital craft to provide customer’s trip to the edge of space, allow a period of time of weightlessness before returning to the launch site.  Unlike Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo this will be a capsule based craft and will return using parachutes.

In the future they are will be launching the Biconic Space Vehicle for orbital operations.  This craft will use some of the components from New Shepherd as well as a re-usable first stage booster. From what I can determine neither of these have actually been built and I was not able to determine when they would be.  SpaceX recently announced that they are working on re-usable booster components to reduce costs but as yet have no date when they would even begin testing.

While Blue Origin are making progress they seem to be a long way behind some of the other players in the CCDev/CCDev2 arena and while coming later to the industry shouldn’t hurt them too much as we need more competition they will have a lot more to prove at that point to catch up.

Commercial Space – Part Four

Now we move onto the NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev/CCDev2) providers.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC)

SNC are currently working on the Dream Chaser spacecraft, designed to lift off on top a man-rated launcher with Delta-V as the current preferred booster.  The craft is designed to transport up to seven astronauts as well as cargo.  Exact weight’s are not currently available.

Artist's illustration of the Dream Chaser crew transportation vehicle docked to the ISS. Source: Sierra Nevada Space Systems 2010

The ship will dock with the space station and then glide back to a landing once the mission is complete. Due to it’s design it should be able to land at any commercial airstrip and unlike the Space Shuttle it’s reaction control system uses ethanol and therefore can be handled immediately after landing.

Dream Chaser has several other advantages over the shuttle, first it is designed to last as long as 210 days in space, where as the shuttle only allowed a couple of weeks.  Second the heat shield is made up of ablative tiles ( created by NASA ) which can be replaced in large groups and don’t need to be replaced as often.

As with the COTS program CCDev and CCDev2 are milestone driven programs, SNC have recently announced that they have achieved several of the early milestones and are working towards drop tests using Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft in 2012.

With the creation of the CCDev/CCDev2 programs the future for spaceflight is very exciting and will only result in cheaper missions for everyone.

Commercial Space – Part Two

Today we continue our look at the Commercial Space Industry and what Orbital Sciences Corporation has to offer.

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Orbital is not a new comer to the Space Launch business having been started in 1982 and completed 62 space launch missions since.  They currently offer the air launched Pegasus rocket, the ground launched Taurus and Minotaur, all of which are Solid Fuel rockets.

They are in the process of creating the Taurus II rocket which will be a combination of Solid and Liquid fueled stages and Cygnus space capsule as part of the NASA COTS program.

Orbital are due to conduct their first test launch of Taurus II early next year and barring any problems Cygnus be middle of 2012.

I have no doubt that they will be successful with the Taurus II and look forward to the benefits having multiple providers will offer NASA and commercial industry in the future.

Commercial Space – Part One cont.

This morning during the press conference for the Soyuz docking Bill Gerstenmaier NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations confirmed that SpaceX had provided them with the final Dragon Spacecraft software which will be used for orbital operations.  NASA are now reviewing the software and Bill estimated that they should be able to set an actual launch date for the next demo mission in about a month.

The reason the test has been delayed several times is because NASA, the Russian Space Agency, SpaceX and the other partners need to be 100% sure that Dragon will not pose any problems to the Space Station when it approaches.  As with any project these things can take time and it is better to delay the test and be sure everything is working as needed than rush it and end up causing bigger problems.

NASA made sure that they wouldn’t need to rush the Commercial Resupply Services (CSR) by taking up over a years worth of supplies on the last shuttle launch.

Commercial Space – Part One

Yesterday I mentioned the SpaceX Falcon Heavy as my preferred launch vehicle for the Mars Rover mission.  I have been watching with increased interested the development of the commercial launch business as companies like SpaceX, Orbital and others progress towards supplying the Space Station and offering launch capabilities to the broader industry.

SpaceX

At the moment SpaceX have made the most progress with a new rocket but they have only had a few launches so how can we say that?

If you look at what they have achieved since they started in 2002 then it is hard not to be impressed.  They started off with the Falcon 1 which has lunched 5 times so far and while the first three mission ended in failure the last two where successful and put SpaceX on the map with the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to reach orbit.

Since then the main focus has been on the creation of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon Space Capsule, again SpaceX has delivered so far, of the two Falcon 9 launches attempted so far both have been successful.  On the second SpaceX achieved another first by launching their Dragon space capsule and successfully returning to earth becoming the first commercial company to do it.

Early next year SpaceX will once again launch Dragon this time on a mission to the Space Station, this is the second test missions as part of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) program.  Once they have demonstrated the ability to successfully launch Dragon to the space station and dock they will then begin contracted deliveries to the Space Station.

Recently SpaceX have made two other announcements regarding the future of the Falcon Rockets.  First they announced the creation of the Falcon Heavy which will have the largest payload capacity of any rocket currently in use today.  Second they announced plans to start testing return to launch site abilities for the first and second stages of the rocket which if they can achieve it successfully will drastically reduce the cost of launching to space.

All in all I believe SpaceX has a great future and their success will only benefit the America Space industry and start to lower the costs of getting into space for everyone.

Tomorrow we continue with Orbital and take a look at their offering in the Commercial Space Arena.