Last September NASA released a request for proposals (RFP) for a second record of contracts to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) through 2024. The proposals were due by November 14 with the awards expected in May this year. At the time of the RFP both Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) and SpaceX were flying cargo missions to ISS, however in October the third flight of Orbital’s manifest suffered a catastrophic failure resulting in the lost of the vehicle and reducing NASA to a single supplier for most of this year. This has caused NASA to have to change what is flown on SpaceX missions to compensate for the lose.
With CRS2 it is expected that both Orbital and SpaceX supplied bids however they were not the only ones with Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada indicating they have submitted bids.
There are definite advantages to increasing the field of suppliers to the ISS not least of which is the ability to better handle accidents during launch. Another advantage is beyond NASA and ISS as each new supplier brings competition to the market and longer team should help reduce costs for other customers. This will become increasingly important and we look beyond ISS (link). Depending on the supplier there will be other advantages too, if Sierra or Boeing are selected then there will be additional down mass from ISS something only SpaceX is able to offer today.
However there clearly are dis-advantages to having new suppliers too. Any new supplier would have to be certified to bring supplies to ISS, this will incur additional costs for NASA and the supplier. Also we don’t know when the other suppliers will be ready to supply the station, while the contracts are being awarded this May and are not due to start until 2018 they would still need to show progress to ensure NASA has the continue supply line they need.
There is also the concern that four of the five suppliers are launching their vehicles using Russian made RD-180/181 rocket engines, which with the political climate at the moment could prove to be a problem longer term. We know that United Launch Alliance (ULA) who will be providing launch services for three suppliers are planning to move away from the RD-180 engine, however this is not going to happen until at least 2019 and would require certification before actual launches could be performed, which ULA’s Tory Bruno has said could take until 2022-23, so almost the end of the CRS2 contract.
Developing an American engine by 2019, cert in 2022-23, is an aggressive schedule. The existing law leaves us no flexibility
Last Sunday at 3:05pm the SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully completed it’s CRS-3 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) with a splashdown in the Pacific ocean.
Launched on April 18th aboard a Falcon 9 rocket the Dragon spacecraft, carrying nearly 5,000 lbs of supplies and payloads including two in the un-pressurized trunk, the craft was deployed to orbit following the successful launch. On April 20th the craft was captured by the station’s robot arm and berthed allowing access to the cargo. On Sunday the craft was unberthed from the station carrying 3,500 lbs or cargo. After successfully backing away from the station, later in the day the craft was commanded executed de-orbit burn which concluded with the splashdown.
This was the longest orbital mission so far for Dragon at 29 days, 23 hours and 40 minutes.
On Tuesday the spacecraft arrived at the Port of Long Beach in Southern California where time-sensitive cargo was off-loaded and handed over to NASA, the spacecraft will now travel to the test facility in McGregor, Texas where the rest of the cargo will be off-loaded and handed over to NASA.
On Wednesday it was reported that during the landing there was some water seepage into the spacecraft after the landing, however it doesn’t appear that this caused any issues with the experiments on board. However due to this event NASA will require resulting from an investigation by SpaceX and any changes needed to avoid this happening again before the next Dragon flight will be approved.
Aerojet Rocketdyne to provide upper-stage propulsion for RELS
Aerojet Rocketdyne announced on Monday they had received a contract to supply six RL10C-1 engines, with an option for six additional engines. These engines will by used by the third stage of the revolutionary air-launch system being build by Stratolaunch Systems Corporation (SSC).
The three stage rocket being developed will be dropped from a carrier aircraft when it reaches the desired altitude, once released the rocket will begin it’s power flight into orbit.
The Government Accountability Office report on the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft indicates that NASA has masked the true cost of being the pair by neglecting to say what the system will cost to build for each flight.
So far there are only two missions slated for the combined vehicle and the estimated cost through 2021 is $22 billion.
While I believe NASA needs to have a crewed vehicle for deep space missions it would be interesting to see what SpaceX or another commercial company could create for $22 billion.
New Cameras to Probe Planets beyond our Solar System
Two new camera’s designed to image Jupiter class planets orbiting other stars and their atmospheres have been brought online. The European Southern Observatories Very Large Telescope camera Sphere saw first light on May 4, and the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) at the Gemini South Observatory has reported back on data gathered from it’s first light.
Japanese researchers announced the discovery of a site of planet formation around a young star in the Lupus Constellation in the southern sky, it’s name is Latin for wolf.
The researchers found a proto-planetary disk around the star HD142527 and the dust appears to be concentrated in the upper part of the ring. The observations where made using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA).
This week Elon Musk received the Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Award during the 22rd annual International Space Development Conference, after receiving the aware he talked further about the progress that SpaceX was making towards a permanent base on Mars and also more on the re-usable rocket tests.
The FAA have issued regulations establishing requirements for crew and space flight participants involved in private human space flight. The new rules maintain the FAA’s commitment to protect the safety of the public.
NASA and ATK moved a step closer to the 2017 launch of the first SLS this week with the completion of a significant structural test of the booster’s main attachment mechanism. The article tested was a major load-bearing structure known as the skirt.
The Mars Opportunity Rover has returned this Martian Vista from the ridge line of Endeavour Crater
NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover spent several months exploring portions of Murray Ridge. Since reaching the local high point on the ridge line from which this panorama was taken, the rover has proceeded southward to reach an exposure of aluminum-rich clay detected from orbit.
Construction has begun on the new Mars lander Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) is scheduled to launch March 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. This will be the first interplanetary mission ever to launch from California. The mission will provide NASA with information toward their goal of sending a human mission to Mars in the 2030s.
Meet Quaoar, the Planetoid Beyond Pluto
Most people know of Pluto which for a long time was the 9th planet before being demoted, however there are many more objects beyond the last planet Neptune that many may not be aware off.
The following article introduces one of those objects a planetoid in the outer edges of our solar system called Quaoar. Discovered in 2002 it heralded a new age in Astronomy, this and a few other worlds being discovered caused the International Astronomical Union to form a new classification system for planets, planetoids and dwarf planets.
SpaceX launch of Orbcomm Satellites targeted for June 11th
SpaceX has re-aligned the next launch to No Earlier Than (NET) June 11th. The delay were caused by a Helium leak in the first stage that was found during fueling for the Static Fire Test.
This leak was a different location to a leak that delayed the CRS-3 mission, although further details were not available it seems likely that it was around the Composite Overwrap Pressure Vessels (COPV) which are used to pressurize the vehicle.
It is not clear yet if the issue has been repaired but SpaceX are working towards this date and a new Static Fire will be performed at some point before then.
The Planetary Society responds to coverage of ISS statements by Russia
The Planetary Societies Blogger Casey Dreier posted this week a response to all the coverage of the ISS suitation since Russia made statements regarding the status of the station.
Firstly there were two issues in the statements, one relating to the RD-180 engines which has been covered previously and the second relating to the station.
In summary the current operation plan for the station runs until 2020, NASA with the approval of the White House proposed to extend this until 2024, however as of yet none of the other partners had actually signed onto this new plan. However it was originally thought that Russia were interested in the extension however since the tensions over Ukraine that no longer seems to be be case.
However given that there are over six years left in the current operational plan there is nothing to say the situation won’t change again.
Space station’s Sphere’s use Google smartphone tech
The free-flying Spheres modules on the International Space Station will now be aided by Google’s Project Tango to assist the crew in mundane tasks. Project Tango is a smartphone project by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group which tracks the 3D motion of the device and create a 3D model of the environment around it.
The Spheres modules short for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites has been tested on the station since 2003 and with this latest upgrade will be able to perform more functions.
The Spheres project was originally inspired by Star Wars.
SpaceX DragonFly test vehicle revealed
In further SpaceX news this week details of the DragonFly test vehicle became available. The vehicle will be tested at SpaceX’s McGregor facility and consists of a 7 ton Dragon capsule equipped with eight SuperDraco thrusters, an integrated trunk and up to four landing legs. The vehicle will be put through a series propulsive landing tests to validate the design and to enable future Dragon vehicles to perform a land based landing.
One of the Aerojet AJ-26 main engines for the Antares rocket suffered extensive damage during a test firing at the Stennis Space Center this week. Before the engine’s can be used for an actual launch they are test fired to verify everything is working correctly.
At present it is not known if this failure will have any impact on the June 10th launch of an Antares carrying the Cygnus spacecraft on it’s next visit to the ISS.
WISE approved for asteroid survey
NASA announced this week that the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft will be taken out of hibernation to start a three year mission to search for Near Earth Objects. While the primary instruments on the vehicle required frozen hydrogen to operate which ran out in 2011 the other instruments do not and these will be used for the new mission named NEOWISE. The science team will be contacting the vehicle in September to begin operations again.
Dream Chaser Captive Carry Test
This week the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser spacecraft completed a two hour captive carry test over Edwards Airforce base. This was the first time that a fully operation version of the vehicle had flown and gave engineers the chance to review all systems before a series of approach and landing tests will be performed. Initial tests will be fully automated before crewed tests are performed.
The Dream Chaser vehicle is one of three competing for the chance to launch US crews to the International Space Station. Personally I hope there is a way to fund all three vehicles to give the US unprecedented access to space for the future.
Gaia spacecraft at launch site
The European Galaxy Explorer spacecraft Gaia has arrived in French Guiana to begin three months of flight preparations before a November launch aboard a Soyuz Rocket. Once launched the vehicle will be placed a million miles from Earth and will use dual telescopes to map the precise locations of stars. For more information on the vehicle and missions check out it’s page here.
Hubble Time-lapse Movie
This week Astronomers released a movie showing 13 years of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope of super-heated gas 5,000 light years long. The gas is being ejected from a super-massive black hole for more information and to see the movie check out the press release here.
Starbirth as seen by ALMA
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have released the image below showing material streaming away from a newborn star. For more information on the observations check out the full article here.
Curiosity Movie of Mars Moons
This week NASA released a video capture by the Mars Curiosity Rover of the Mars moons Phobos passing in front of Deimos. This is the first time any vehicle on the surface of Mars has captured one of the moons passing in front of the other. For information and to see the movie check out the article here.
Another successful Russian Spacewalk concludes
Once again Russian Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Alexander Misurkin ventured outside the International Space Station for a spacewalk. Unlike the walk last week that broke the record for longest by a Russian team this walked came in just short of 6 hours. The pair were able to successfully complete the objectives set out for them including one that didn’t look possible during to misalignment of the parts.
The spacewalk was the 173rd in support of space station assembly and maintenance, the eighth of Yurchikhin’s career and the third for Misurkin.
Spitzer Space Telescope celebrates ten anniversary
The Infrared Space Telescope was launched into space ten years ago this week, the fourth of the four Great Observatories launched by NASA it continues to show us the dark side of the cosmos with it’s infrared vision. For more information on it’s mission and to see the images it has returned check out the mission page here.
Fermi Space Telescope enters extended mission
Meanwhile the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope celebrated it’s five year in space by entering into an extended mission to perform a deeper study of the high-energy cosmos. The vehicle has already provided Astronomers with a detailed potrait of gaint black holes in distance galaxies and even details of thunderstorms on Earth. For more information on Fermi check out it’s mission page here.
And Finally The Astronaut Class of 2013 met with the media this week for the final time before they embark on their two year training program. Check out the release here including video’s and interviews with the eight.