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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Autonomous spaceport drone ship. Thrusters repurposed from deep sea oil rigs hold position within 3m even in a storm. pic.twitter.com/wJFOnGdt9w
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.
Today at 4pm EDT from Kennedy Space Center NASA announced the winners of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts.
And the winners are:
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.
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.
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.
Update 1:27 pm EDT – Elon Musk tweeted updates on re-entry of first stage
We are back with our weekly blog, and what an interesting week it has been.
SpaceX announce suit against ULA Block Buy
On Friday 4/25, SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk announced that SpaceX had filed a suit protesting the bulk buy of Rocket Core’s from ULA. SpaceX made several arguments against the block buy, including the fact that each launch was four times more expensive than then equivalent SpaceX rocket, the fact that ULA’s main engine’s were sourced from Russia.
“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Elon Musk. “Yet, this is what the Air Force’s arrangement with ULA does, despite the fact that there are domestic alternatives available that do not rely on components from countries that pose a national security risk.”
Elon stated also that they just want the chance to compete in a fair competition, at the end of the day if they compete and lose then they would except this decision.
SpaceX confirm successful soft landing of CRS-3 first Stage
During the above Press Conference Elon Musk also announced that they had confirmed successful soft landing of the first stage from the CRS-3 launch. However due to the rough seas in the area the rocket didn’t survive long in the water.
On Tuesday this week 4/29 SpaceX posted video from the first stage, unfortunately it is badly damaged and they are asking for assistance in cleaning it up further. Several images have been posted that show the stage as it approaches the water.
This week SpaceX also completed another test of there F9R test rocket to 1000m, these tests bring closer the day when re-usable rockets will be viable.
ATK & Orbital announce merger
This week Orbital Sciences Corporation and ATK announced that they were merging to form Orbital ATK Inc. As part of the process ATK will split off the Outdoor Sports business into a separate entity and the Aerospace & Defense business will be merged with Orbital.
Classed as a merger of equal’s the new company valued at approximately $5 billion will be lead by current Orbital President and CEO Mr. David W. Thompson, with ATK’s President Mr. Blake E. Larson will become COO.
The transaction is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister suggests US Astronauts use Trampoline to get to ISS
Due to the sanctions that been placed on several key members of the Russian government following the events in the Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister proposed an alternate solution to America’s dependency on Soyuz to get to ISS.
“I propose that the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline,” he said.
In response to this SpaceX’s Elon Musk tweeted the following
Unfortunately he then followed up with another tweet.
So we will have to wait until the end of this month to see the Crewed version of Dragon.
Length of ExoPlanet Day measured for the first time
Astronmers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have determined the rotation rate of an exoplanet. Beta Pictoris b has been found to have a day that lasts only eight hours, much faster than any planet in our solar system. The equator is travelling at almost 100,000 kph.
Morpheus Lander completes another Free Flight Test
This week the Morpheus Lander completed it’s 12th free flight test as KSC, for the first time the test vehicle used the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) to divert to a safe landing spot instead of the previously programmed landing spot..
High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment attached to ISS
Once of the science experiments that was transported in the trunk of the Dragon last week was removed on Wednesday and attached to the space station. The HDEV experiment will beam back live pictures from the station, and contains four HD camera’s which are housed in a enclosed, pressurized, temperate controlled housing. While on station the effect of the space environment on these camera’s will be monitored.
This week Boeing released several new images showcasing the interior of there CST-100 Commercial Crew vehicle. The CST-100 is competing with Dragon, and DreamChaser to become the vehicle of choice for crewed missions to the ISS.
Bigelow Aerospace reveals full scale model of BA330
As part of the CST-100 unveil Bigelow Aerospace also unveiled a full scale model of their BA-330 inflatable module which they aim to launch by 2016. Because the module is inflatable four of these modules would provide more space than currently available on the International Space Station and would require significantly less launches to complete.
NASA Selects new Flight Directors
This week NASA announced the selection of three new Flight Directors to lead Mission Control. The directors will manage the International Space Station (ISS) operations and are Amit Kshatriya, Jeffery Radigan and Zebulon Scoville.
British Astronaut Tim Peake launches meal competition
British Astronaut Tim Peake who will be launching to the International Space Station next year has launched a competition in the UK for school children to create a meal that will fly with him to the station.
The winner will work with Celebrity Chef Heston Blumenthal to develop the idea further.
Well after a four month break I am pleased to say the blog is back and will be updated regularly. The reason for the long hiatus was due to a busy Christmas session quickly followed by the birth of my third daughter Annabella in January.
Today’s post will focus on last weeks launch, capture and berthing of the SpaceX Dragon capsule on it’s CRS-3 mission, but first a little history on why this is important.
As most of you will probably remember on 21st July 2011 Shuttle Atlantis touched down for the final flight of the Shuttle program leaving the USA with no domestic ability to launch cargo or crew to the International Space Station. Today the picture has changed but the USA still has no domestic ability to reach the station with crew, however following the successful completion of the demonstration missions by SpaceX and Orbital under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program the USA does now have cargo capacity to and from the station. Before this week’s flight SpaceX has previously completed two missions under the Commercial Resupply Service Contract (CRS) known as SpX-1 and SpX-2, and Orbital have so far completed one known as Orbital-1.
With the introduction of the Dragon spacecraft the USA again has the ability to return significant amounts of cargo from the station, an ability unique to Dragon as the only other vehicle that can return to earth the Soyuz has limited cargo capacity being design primarily as a crew transport..
So why was this mission important? Since the last mission SpX-2 SpaceX have made a number of significant changes both to the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft and despite several delays the launch this week was very successful.
Falcon 9 Upgrade
The Falcon 9 rocket for the first time flew with landing legs, these have been added to allow SpaceX to move a step closer to it’s goal of having a fully re-usable spacecraft in the future. The landing legs not only allow the craft to land they also provide stabilization during the decent. SpaceX has previously returned a first stage however during the final step the engines cut out before the roll rate was too high to allow the fuel to flow to the engines. As Elon Musk CEO and CTO of SpaceX states to the right they will continue to perform ocean landings with the first stage until they can proof full control of the first stage, at which point return to launch pad is the goal.
This is the fifth Dragon mission so far, the first two under the COTS program and the rest under the CRS program. From the outside this spacecraft looks similar to the previously launched spacecraft however it has undergone a number of significant upgrades including upgraded avionics, redesigned cargo racks to supply more power to cargo, additional freezers to carry more critical science payloads and the ability to provide power to un-pressurized cargo carried in the trunk section.
Originally scheduled for December 2013 the SpX-3 mission has been delayed a number of times due to various conflicts and changes. Once all of these conflicts and changes were resolved a new launch date was planned for April 14th, however that was aborted approximately one hour before liftoff due to a Helium leak on the Falcon 9. SpaceX resolved this and the launch was re-scheduled to Friday April 18th.
The weather forecast for the launch was only showing a 40% chance that they would be able to launch however SpaceX continued ahead with the countdown and were able to liftoff on time as the weather improved throughout the afternoon. Following the final pole of the mission team the spacecraft entered the final minutes of the count down and lifted off at precisely 19:25:22 UTC as expected.
The nine Merlin 1D engines roared to live lifting the rocket from the pad towards it’s LEO destination. Three minutes after liftoff the first stage had completed it’s initial task and separated to allow the second stage Merlin 1D Vacuum engine to take over and propel Dragon the rest of the way to orbit. Unlike all the other rockets in use today the first stage still had tasks to perform including a deceleration burn that slow it down enough to perform a controlled re-entry, after this the landing legs deploy and the spacecraft again fires it’s engines to allow a controlled decent.
Initial reports from Elon Musk indicate that the spacecraft successfully returned to the Atlantic ocean with almost 0 role rate.
Due to high sea’s in the landing area we are not currently sure how much if any of the first stage was actually recovered by the ships that were waiting nearby however this is a promising step towards lowering the cost of launching spacecraft.
Meanwhile in space the second stage completed it’s mission and nine minutes after launch the Dragon spacecraft was successfully deployed in orbit. Several minutes later we watched as the Solar Array’s successfully deployed and the spacecraft began it’s journey towards the International Space Station. During the press conference after the launch Elon Musk did state that they had an issue with one of the Dragon thrust chambers but that had since been resolved.
Eighteen hours after launch the spacecraft approached the ISS and was successfully captured and berthed to the station.
Below are a number of images I capture from the live stream provided by SpaceX during the launch, capture and berth of the Dragon.
Following on from the Cygnus berthing to the space station this morning SpaceX successfully launched its modified Falcon 9 rocket this afternoon in the process achieving several firsts for the company.
The launch which came exactly five years after their first successful Falcon 1 launch was the first from their Vandenburg launch pad, the first of the longer v1.1 rocket, the first to use the Merlin 1D engines, the first to have a satellite fairing and the first Falcon 9 not dedicated to Dragon.
The rocket carried six satellite’s to orbit and from initial reports all were successfully deployed as expected and the rocket performed exceptionally well.
In addition to the above firsts, SpaceX were also hoping to re-ignite three of the first stage engine’s as it descended back to earth to slow the impact of the stage as it lands in the Pacific Ocean. If successful the plan is to retrieve the stage and potentially use it again for another mission. These are early steps in SpaceX’s plan to have fully re-usable rockets in the future.
With the successful completion of this launch SpaceX will now be ramping up the launch rate to meet the large launch manifest pending, with several more this year and starting in 2014 almost one a month through end of 2015 already booked.
The following images were captured from the SpaceX Web Cast and show the rocket during countdown, launch and after first stage separation.
Cygnus Successfully Launched With the exception of one issue with the fuel system that caused a slight delay in the launch time Orbital successfully launched there Antares Rocket with the Cygnus spacecraft. The Cygnus is currently on route to the International Space Station and once a number of demonstration steps have been completed successfully is due to berth with the station tomorrow.
Once the vehicle has been unloaded the ISS crew will load items that are no longer needed, after about 30 days at the station it will unberth. Unlike the Dragon spacecraft the Cygnus cannot return back to earth but instead burns up during re-entry.
Latest reports show the the spacecraft has successfully fired it’s main engine’s to alter it’s course to the station, a number of the tests are performed close to the station to verify that the approach and capture can be aborted if needed. Once all the tests are passed NASA and Orbital will have a final go-no-go poll before the craft enters the keep out zone around the station so that it can be captured by the crew using the station arm.
SpaceX Static Fire Test Update
The first static fire test of the new Falcon 9 v1.1 showed up some anomalies, due to this SpaceX attempted another test this week which was successful. However due to the delay’s caused by needing the second test launch of the new version has been delayed until 9/29 to accommodate ICBM tests at the launch site.
Atlas 5 launch successful
A secure communications satellite was launched from the cape this week by an Atlas 5 for the U.S. Air Force. This was the first of two large launches on the same day on the U.S. East Coast, the second was the Orbital launch of Cygnus seven hours later.
Next Station Crew Soyuz Integrated
The Soyuz TMA-10M vehicle was integrated with it’s Launcher this week in preparations for the launch of Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins of NASA, Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov and Flight Engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy, both with Russia’s Federal Space Agency on 9/26. The next major milestone in this preparations will be roll out to the launch pad expected on Monday 9/23.
Deep Impact Update
Following a month of attempts to re-establish contact with the now silent spacecraft NASA to announced that the mission is over. Engineer’s suspect that the vehicle lost stabilization control and was no longer pointing it’s Solar Array’s at the sun causing the battery’s to run out. The vehicle was tremendous successful having completed all of it’s primary mission objects as well as returning approximately 500,000 images of different space objects.
Space Alien Claim
This week a scientist if Britain claimed to have evidence of Alien Life taken from sample obtained from the upper atmosphere. The story got quite a lot of traction on some new media however was very quickly debunked. The same scientist has made similar claims in the past and each time has proven to be wrong because there has never been scientific evidence to back up his claims.
Life on Mars Update
Hope’s of finding life on Mars faded a little this week when a study by the Mars Curiosity Rover detected only trace amounts of Methane in the atmosphere. Of course if Mars One or other’s get there way this will change in the next couple of decades as human’s will visit the planet and bring with them microbes and other forms of life.
India Mars Mission spacecraft revealed The week India unveiled it’s first Mars Spacecraft expected to launch later in late October or early November. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced that the vehicle will have five scientific instruments on-board designed to conduct various experiments while orbiting the planet. The vehicle is expected to arrive at the planet in September 2014 following a 9 month cruise.
Boeing Tests CST-100 Thrusters
This week Boeing announced that it has completed a series of tests of the thrusters that will be used on the CST-100 Spacecraft when in orbit. In combination with Aerojet Rocketdyne the thruster manufacturer the tests assessed how the thrusters performed in different scenarios as would be expected in space operations. This is a significant step forward in the design of the spacecraft which is designed to talk crew into LEO.
Chinese Space Station final days
The Chinese Space Agency announced that their first Space Station Tiangong was entering it’s final month’s of operation before a fiery re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. Tiangong hosted two different crews during it’s lifetime and brought the Chinese one step closer to having a permanent presence in space.
While not related to Space I wanted to share the news from Elon Musk that Tesla are currently looking for Engineer’s to work on autonomous driving option for the Tesla Model S car. According to Elon they plan to use 360 deg flush mounted camera’s and radar which will require lost of image processing capabilities. Anyone interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org, the team will report directly to Elon.