SpaceX loses CRS-7 mission to ISS

CRS7-logoThis morning SpaceX launched their latest mission to the International Space Station, unfortunately during the first stage flight the rocket exploded causing lost of Falcon, Dragon and the cargo it was carrying

 

Among the cargo that Dragon was carrying was the first of two International Docking Adapters for the station which will be used by Boeing and SpaceX to dock their crewed vehicles in the future.  They were also flying the Meteor experiment which was originally launched on the fated Orb-3 mission last year but lost when the rocket exploded.  For further details of the cargo manifest check out this pdf file.

Below are screen grabs of the launch captured from the Webcast

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SpaceX Landing Attempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will ULA’s Vulcan bring down SpaceX

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

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

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

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

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

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

SpaceX Dual Satellite Launch

SpaceX hit another milestone this week with their first Dual Satellite launch, following a smooth countdown the Falcon 9’s engines roared to life for an on-time launch on the first attempt. The first stage completed its job and the Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine took over to deploy the vehicle to its initial orbit. After a coast phase the MVac fired up again for a one minute burn before the two satellites were deployed.

Unlike recently launches of Falcon 9 SpaceX did not attempt to salvage the first stage due to the weight of the payload.

The next SpaceX launch is scheduled for later this month.

Below is the launch video.

SpaceX launches DSCOVR spacecraft

Following a three day delay due to a faulty radar and uncooperative weather SpaceX successfully launched the long delayed Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this week.  This was the first deep space mission for SpaceX and the Falcon 9 with the DSCOVR spacecraft travelling to the Sun-Earth Lagrangian Point 1.  Due to severe weather at the landing site SpaceX didn’t send out the Drone Ship and instead did a soft landing in the Ocean.  Data from the attempt was encouraging and the changes to the spacecraft since the last attempt showed that it should have landed successfully.

Instruments

The Plasma-Magnetometer (PlasMag) measures solar wind for space weather predictions. It has 3 instruments:

  • Magnetometer measures magnetic field.
  • Faraday cup measures positively charged particles.
  • Electrostatic analyzer measures electrons.

300px-Deep_Space_Climate_Observatory_spacecraft_diagramNational Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR) measures irradiance of the sunlit face of the Earth. This data is to be used to study changes in Earth’s radiation budget caused by natural and human activities.

The radiometer measures in four channels:

  • For total radiation in ultraviolet, visible and infrared in range of 0.2-100 µm.
  • For reflected solar radiation in ultraviolet, visible and near infrared in range of 0.2-4 µm.
  • For reflected solar radition in infrared in range of 0.7-4 µm.
  • For calibration purposes in range of 0.3-1 µm.

The Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) takes images of the sunlit side of Earth for various Earth sciences purposes, in 10 different channels from ultraviolet to near infrared.

See the launch here

Musk Releases images of attempted BargeX landing

Elon Musk released several images of the Falcon 9 first stage as it attempted to land on the floating landing platform in the Atlantic Ocean.  As was previously reported the attempt was close but ultimately failed, these images show just how close the vehicle was to landing on the Barge and according to Elon the Fins that helped control the decent ran out of fuel too early causing the rocket engines to attempt to compensate for the change.

The next test which could be as soon as 29th of Jan will carry additional fuel for the Fins.

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Is US Manned Space Program falling behind?

Since the Space Shuttle completed it’s last flight the US has had to rely on Russia to launch manned missions to the International Space Station, and this will continue for at least two more years.

There are currently two countries with the ability to launch manned missions Russia and China, there are five others US, ESA, India, Iran and Japan working on programs.

India recently launched their Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk III vehicle, the most powerful so far, which carried the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) vehicle which is the first stage of their manned program.

The status of the other programs is unknown at this point with the plans calling for delivery in the 2020’s.

So what does this mean for the US Manned program?

At present there are four active programs for Orbital Manned Spaceflight in the US those are Boeing’s CST-100, NASA’s Orion, SNC’s Dream Chaser and SpaceX’s Dragon V2. Of these three are being funded by NASA and the four has previously been funded and is currently disputing the award to the other competitors.

Before we decide if the US is falling behind lets take a look at each program.

Boeing’s CST-100
The CST-100 like the Dragon V2 and Orion spacecraft is based on a capsule design which will return to Earth and land under parachutes.

The CST-100 will be launched on an Atlas V rocket supplied by ULA.

NASA’s Orion
Orion is designed to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), while it could operate in LEO there really isn’t much point as the commercial companies will have this ability before Orion’s next flight.  The first test flight of Orion was completed successfully earlier this month.

The Orion spacecraft will be launched on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket which is due to debut in 2018.

SNC’s Dream Chaser
Unlike the other’s Dream Chaser is a lifting body spacecraft designed to land automatically on conventional runways.

Dream Chaser will be launched by an Atlas V but a smaller version is also being designed that could launch on Stratolaunch.

SpaceX’s Dragon V2
The Dragon V2 spacecraft is the crewed version of the currently operating Dragon spacecraft that has supplied the space station five times. This vehicle will include the ability to automatically dock with the station and will use a propulsive landing to allow it to precisely control where it lands.

Dragon V2 will be launched on the Falcon 9 v1.1 as the current Dragon does.

Conclusion

Far from falling behind the rest of the world we truly believe that the US is in a far stronger position for the future. Having four active manned programs three of which are commercially owed will help to keep costs lower and will ensure that the US has access to space even if one system suffers a failure.

SpaceX unveils Falcon 9 upgrades and landing pad

Elon Musk has revealed via twitter a design change to the next Falcon 9 rocket launching a Dragon capsule towards the International Space Station on December 16th for the CRS-5 mission, this flight was delayed a week to allow NASA more time to re-evaluate the payload manifest following the Antares launch failure last month.

The upgrades will allow the rocket finer control during descent back to the second introduction this weekend, the landing barge. It became clear that SpaceX were looking into this option when they challenged the patent currently held by Blue Origin for the same technology.

Both of these changes should allow SpaceX for the first time to realize the goal of landing a first stage rocket. Once landed the stage would need to be secured for transport back to base, although the longer term plan is for SpaceX to refuel the stage and allow it to fly back to the launch pad. However at present that isn’t an option as return to pad has not been approved by the FAA.

At this point it is not know when or if the first stage will be re-flown as there would need to be a number of tests done to verify that everything is working for another flight, only time will tell.

We will be following the next launch with interest to see just what happens and hopefully usher in a new era were re-usable rockets come another step closer to reality.

CCtCap awards announced

launch-02_0
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.

SpaceX Launches Six Orbcomm Satellites

Fourth time is a charm for SpaceX as they finally launch six Orbcomm OG2 satellites to orbit.  This morning’s launch which was delayed slightly to resolve a ground system issue lifted off at 11:15 am EDT when the nine Merlin 1D engine’s on the first stage roared to life.  Ten minutes later the second stage completed it’s planned burn leaving the craft in it’s intended orbit.

SpaceX webcast the launch up to the point where the second stage finished firing, separation of the satellites will occur later once the spacecraft reaches the desired drop off locations.

Update 12:04 pm EDT – Marc Eisenberg CEO of Orbcomm tweeted that all six satellites were successfully deployed.

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Update 1:27 pm EDT – Elon Musk tweeted updates on re-entry of first stage

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Below are some screen captures of the launch.

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