SLS delayed again and no crew on EM-1

This week NASA announced that they had completed the study requested by the Trump administration who had requested that they look into add crew to the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS).  NASA concluded that it would cost an additional $600-900 million to do this and would delay the first flight until sometime in 2020.  Due to this, the White House decided to leave the EM-1 mission as an uncrewed mission.

During the same press conference, NASA announced that the first launch of SLS would be delayed anyway due to several factors including damage sustained at the Michoud facility earlier in the year by a tornado that touched down.  The launch which has already been delayed several times was previously set for November 2018 and will now be delayed to some time in 2019.  However, at present, they haven’t determined an exact date and will be reporting back in the next couple of weeks.

During the Q&A time after it was determined that there would most likely be an impact on the EM-2 mission too as NASA needs approximately 33 months to modify the Launch Platform for the taller version of SLS due to the introduction of the Exploration Upper Stage which is approximately 40 feet taller than the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) flying on EM-1.

NASA has been developing a replacement for the Space Transport System (STS) since the 2005 NASA Authorization act and to date has only performed two launches related to the programs.  NASA started work on the Constellation program which proposed the development of two rockets Ares I and V, a crew capsule Orion and several other components.  This program ran until 2010, during which time they launched a single Ares 1 rocket.  The Ares 1 basically consisted of a Solid Rocket Booster derived from the boosters used by the space shuttle.  While this launch was successful nothing further came from the program.

In 2010 the program was canceled and morphed into the Space Launch System which proposed a single rocket capable of launching the Orion capsule beyond Low Earth Orbit.  Since then there has only been one launch related to the program in 2014 when a Delta IV Heavy rocket carried the Orion capsule to orbit for a 4-hour 24-minute mission to test the vehicle’s heat shield.  This was also a successful mission with the capsule splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

To date, NASA has spent approximately $9 billion on Constellation and another $15+ billion on SLS.  From an investment north of $24 billion dollars only having two launches equals $12 billion each.  With these additional delays more and more money is being poured into the program and while NASA recently announced plans for more missions for SLS there is no guarantee that the program won’t be canceled especially if there any further delays.

SpaceX vs NASA progress since 2010

In 2010 Senator Richard Shelby made the following statement

“This request represents nothing more than a commercially-led, faith-based space program.  Today, the commercial providers that NASA has contracted with cannot even carry the trash back from the space station much less carry humans to or from space safely.

“These providers have yet to live up to the promises they have already made to the taxpayer.  Not a single rocket or ounce of cargo has been launched since we met last year.  Instead of requiring accountability from these companies, the President’s budget proposes to reward these failed commercial providers with an additional bailout.

Full text here

While it was true at the time that no cargo had been launched by any of the competitors in the program, to say that SpaceX was a “failed provider that needed an additional bailout” seemed a little harsh. As we will see in the article things have changed quite a bit since then for SpaceX and for comparison in the same time frame we will see the lack of progress for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

SpaceX

Started in 2002 by Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation known as SpaceX was created to lower the cost of access to space. The first rocket that was developed was the Falcon 1 which had a single Merlin engine, SpaceX attempted five launches of the Falcon 1 the first three of which failed. All their future hopes rested on the fourth launch which was successful and delivered their first payload to orbit, also making Falcon the first privately funded liquid fueled rocket to do so.

In 2006 SpaceX was awarded a NASA Commercial Orbital Transporation Service (COTS) contract which allowed them to develop the Falcon 9 rocket which is the vehicle they current use for all launches. Four years later SpaceX launched their first Falcon 9 rocket which carried the new Dragon cargo capsule to orbit for a brief mission that splashed down in the Pacific Ocean two orbits later, making SpaceX the first commercial company to successfully launch, orbit and return a cargo vehicle. Two years later they followed that launch with their first COTS demo mission to the International Space Station and soon after became the first and at present only commercial company capable of delivering cargo to and returning cargo from the station.

SpaceX didn’t stop with just NASA contracts, they so far launched XX commercial missions for various companies and has many more orders in their manifest.

Since that initial launch in 2010 SpaceX has upgraded the Falcon 9 rocket three times to what is currently in use today the Falcon 9 (v1.2) or Full Thrust version which is capable of carrying 22,800kg to Low Earth Orbit or 8,300kg to Geo-Transfer Orbit. SpaceX has also pursued a goal of making the Falcon 9 (and any future rockets) re-usable a goal which was achieved for the first time in March 2017.  There are two more upgrades planned for the Falcon 9 both of which are due in 2017, the changes should allow faster turn-around times for the reusability of the rocket and also address issues found with cracking in the Merlin engines.

In August 2012 SpaceX was awarded a second NASA contract this time to develop a crewed version of their Dragon capsule to allow NASA astronauts to be transported to/from the ISS.  They are still developing the crew version with a demonstration mission planned for late 2017.

Things haven’t been smooth sailing however in 2015 they suffer the first failure of their Falcon 9 vehicle when a strut broke during launch which caused the second stage to be destroyed, this resulted in the loss of a Dragon capsule carrying cargo to the ISS.  In 2016 during a static fire test, the rocket exploded on the launch pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle, its payload and significant damage to the launch pad.

Elon said after the successful SES-10 launch in March that so far SpaceX had spent about $1 billion dollars in the development of Falcon 9.  Some of that money came from NASA, some from the commercial launches and some from SpaceX themselves.

SLS/Orion

To put what SpaceX has achieved into perspective I thought it would be useful to compare what NASA has achieved in the same seven years since Senator Shelby made that statement.

The Space Launch System (SLS) started life as the Constellation program in 2005, the program was to consist of two launch vehicles Ares 1 and 5 as well as a crew capsule Orion.  This program launched a single Ares 1 rocket in October 2009 before it was canceled.  In 2010 under the direction of President Obama, the SLS program was launched utilizing the Orion capsule and a successor to the Ares 5 design.

Rather than develop a completely new system SLS was to be designed to utilize the RS-25 engines that flew on the Space Shuttle (STS) and upgraded versions of the Solid Rocket Booster that also launched STS. Unlike STS neither the engines or SRB’s are to be recovered after launch making SLS a completely expendable rocket.

Since 2010 NASA has spent approximately $18 billion dollars developing SLS and Orion and so far has only launched Orion once using a United Launch Alliance Delta Heavy rocket.  In addition, estimates show that each individual launch could cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion.

The current plan is for NASA to launch the first SLS rocket in 2018 on an uncrewed test, this schedule could be impacted however due to damage at NASA Michoud facility following a tornado.

While the first launch will prove the design of the SLS SRB’s, main stage and Orion capsule it will not allow a test of the complete system as it will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) 2nd stage which is only going to be flown once.  The Exploration Upper Stage which will be used for subsequent launches is bigger than the ICPS, this will require that NASA makes changes to the mobile launch platform after one launch.

Recently NASA started an investigation into the possibility of adding a crew to the first mission, the results of this have not yet been published but could add additional delays.

Summary

In summary, since Senator Shelby made that statement SpaceX has launched 32 times include ten missions to the ISS, they have a large manifest of missions and have upgrades and new vehicles in development. Included in those missions is a plan to send the new Dragon spacecraft to orbit the Moon and also to land on Mars.

In contrast, NASA’s SLS system has cost approximately 18 times as much and so far only the Orion capsule has been launched. The first actual launch is still at least a year away and even then will not be the complete SLS system.  Until this year it could have been argued that SLS had different destinations in mind, however with SpaceX’s announcements of Red Dragon and more recently their Crew Dragon mission around the Moon this isn’t even a valid argument.

 

SLS takes another step forward

Booster Engine on the stand prior to test
Booster Engine on the stand prior to test

Earlier today the largest Solid Rocket Booster ever was fired up at Orbital ATK’s test facility in Promontory, UTAH. Based on the Solid Rocket Boosters that carried the Space Shuttle into orbit for 30 years this booster has been upgraded to support NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS).

While the Booster is based on the shuttle design a lot of changes have been made to reduce the cost and improve the processes for creation of the boosters.

Due to the increased weight of the SLS this booster consists of an extra segment over that used by the shuttle.  The five segment booster produces a total of 3.6m pounds of thrust and will burn 1.3m pounds of propellant during its two minutes of operation.  The SLS will use two boosters during launch.

what_is_qm-1
Overview of the QM-1 Test performed today

The segments used during today’s test have flown on many different shuttle missions, once retrieved from the ocean after a launch they return to Orbital’s factory where they are refurbished for another mission.  Due to the cost of recovering the boosters and refurbishing this will no longer be done meaning they will fall back to the Atlantic but remain there.

Below are screen grabs of the test

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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.

T-1 day and counting to NASA’s Orion EFT-1

Tomorrow the first Orion mission should be under way, however the future for Orion and it’s carrier rocket Space Launch System (SLS) is not guaranteed.  The first flight for SLS is still four years away maybe sooner if they can finish the rocket faster but given the number of delays already it seems more likely that it could be delayed further.

Unfortunately before then there will be another Presidential election and there is no telling what the new President will do.  In a previous article I talked about the cost of SLS/Orion, that will fact into any decisions that a new administration makes.  The first crewed flight is not scheduled until some time in the early 2020’s, by which time we could be on a second new President.

By the first crewed launch, baring launches by other space agencies or commercial companies, it will have been almost 50 years since a crewed mission went beyond Low Earth Orbit.  There is also speculation that another test flight may be needed as the upper stage for the crewed mission will not have flown before and current flight rules require at last one test flight before a human crew is aboard.

Beyond that there are other missions that have been discussed but nothing has been finalized, proposals include a robotic mission to Europa, Mars Sample Return mission, Deep Space Habitat, etc.  For a full list of current proposals check out the Wikipedia page here.

We believe there is a place for SLS in the future of manned missions beyond Earth but are concerned with the cost so far to build SLS and Orion and whether future governments will be willing to fund it long term.

We have deliberately avoided comparing launch costs with that of SpaceX or Boeing and their commercial crew proposals for several reasons:-

  • SLS/Orion is not designed to fly to the International Space Station
  • SLS/Orion doesn’t currently have a published per launch cost making any comparisons impossible to determine.
  • SLS/Orion is designed for deep space and due to that has heavier components than on the commercial crew solutions.

The next update will be tomorrow after the launch of EFT-1

Will SLS ever fly

Following on from my previous article I wanted to explore the possibility that the Space Launch System (SLS) may never actually fly.

While progress has been made on the SLS it will not be ready to fly when President Barack Obama leaves office and given that he cancelled the Constellation Program (CxP) when he came to office it is quite likely that whoever takes office in 2017 could look at how much has been spent on SLS and decide to cancel it too.  Thankfully we believe that the Commercial Crew program will be far enough along that it won’t be cancelled but there is no guarantee.

So what happens if SLS is cancelled?

1) The US would have spent close to $25 billion on CxP and SLS by the time it is cancelled (including Orion and Ground support work).  While elements of the work could be used on a new program it is likely that some of the money would have been wasted.

2) Depending what direction the new President decided the new launcher for NASA could be many years away.

3) NASA would be dependent on Commercial Crew or Russia to launch people to orbit, while that would be the case for International Space Station (ISS) anyway this would also apply to any other missions before an alternate is available.

What do we hope happens?

1) That SLS is cancelled, despite how much has been “invested” in the program we feel that the system is just too expensive to ever fly.  We have heard estimates that each flight could cost $2-3b but at present there just isn’t enough data to know for certain.

2) That any new direction decided would make use of the Commercial partners that are already providing services to NASA.  SpaceX have plans for Falcon Heavy which would have the largest payload capacity of any rocket currently available and they are already working on engines for a successor to that.  The three competitors in the Commercial Crew Program Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX all have vehicles that can carry as many as seven passengers to orbit.  SpaceX’s long term goals are to travel to Mars which means they will have vehicles in the future that can make the journey.

3) That whatever plan is decided on by the President is based on feedback from the citizen’s of the US, either via a Survey or by putting together a team of non government experts who could layout a course that benefits everyone, a decadal survey for manned space flight.

4) Whatever plan is adopted needs to at least have started flying within a single Presidential term so that it is much harder to cancel when the next President takes office.

The views in this article are our own, we would love to 
hear your feedback on this.

 

The true cost of getting the US back to manned flight

To date we have seen a lot of talk about the cost of the SLS program, however that isn’t the only cost that has been incurred by the US tax payer since the announcement that the Space Shuttle was to be retired. This article will look at everything that has happened since then and how much has been spent, or remains to be spent based on current budgets before the US has manned flights again.

First we will look at NASA’s progress towards manned flight, then we will look at the Commercial sector.

NASA

In early 2003 President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the Space Shuttle during his Vision for Space Exploration initiative, which also called for the development of a new launch system and manned capsule capable of launching crew to the International Space Station and beyond. The program was known as the Constellation (CxP) program and consisted of two launch vehicles Ares I and Ares V, ohe crewed capsule Orion and a lander Altair. Work on CxP progressed to the point where an Ares I rocket was launched in Oct 2009, however shortly after President Barack Obama took office the program was cancelled and instead NASA was refocused on the Space Launch System.

Total cost of CxP: $9 billion estimated in 2010

In 2010 President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation program and launched the Space Launch System (SLS) plan that called for a single launcher with different capacities from 70mt to 130mt and a human rated capsule which would allow 2-6 crew members to be travel to space.  With this new goal set NASA began working on the SLS and just this week passed the KDP-C  which takes the SLS from design phase to manufacture.  However first flight is still targeted to be somewhere between 12/2017 and 11/2018 depending if everything is ready, with only a 70% confidence of meeting that target.

We also need to take into account the cost of building the crew vehicle that will be launched on SLS, this is a key part of the goal.  There have been a number of tests performed so far on different versions of the Orion module with the first test flight using a Delta IV heavy currently scheduled for later this year 12/2014.

And finally we cannot forget that to launch this massive new rocket the ground support systems will also need to be upgraded, the VAB hasn’t been used for such a large vehicle since the last Saturn 5 launch, in addition the launch pad needs to be upgraded to handle the larger rocket.

Estimated cost of SLS: $7 billion by launch in 11/2018
Estimated cost of Orion: $10 billion
Estimated cost of Ground Systems: $3 billion

Commercial Providers

Due to NASA focus on the a large capacity system that would most likely to too costly and too late for International Space Station crew missions NASA was also tasked with out-sourcing ISS Cargo and Crew missions to commercial companies.  This has been successfully completed with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences providing multiple missions already and contracted for many more.  For crew the process is still on-going with three companies currently working under CCiCap agreements, this will soon be narrowed down to one or two companies under the new CCtCap agreements which is due to be announced any time.

Total cost of Commercial Cargo Dev for NASA: $800 million

Total allocated fund for Commercial Crew Dev (so far) for NASA: $1.2 billion based on budget requests thru 2013 budget. *

* For Commercial Crew the money is only paid out upon reaching pre-defined milestones so while this amount has been allocated not all has been paid out yet.

Summary

So in summary NASA has spent $800m helping bring Commercial cargo availability back to the US, that doesn’t include the $3.4b it has on contract with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for actual cargo which isn’t relevant for this article.

They have so far spent $1.2b helping bring Commercial crew availability back to the US and assuming there are not any significant issues with whoever is selected to move forward in CCtCap should have the capacity to launch crew in the next two years.

And finally they will have spent an estimated $16b on the Rocket, $10b on Orion and $3b on upgrades to the ground system to have there own launch capability back.  If the first SLS does finally launch in late 2017 or sometime in 2018 then NASA would have launched just three rockets in 12 or 13 years (one a commercial rocket carrying the first test Orion), at a cost of $9.6b each.  This cost doesn’t actually include the first crewed flight with SLS as we currently don’t have enough data to truly calculate the total, however some have estimated that the total cost by first crewed flight could be anywhere from $32-37b.

While we understand developing a new rocket isn’t a cheap project, it is also clear based on the numbers above the both SpaceX and Orbital were able to bring new rockets to the table Falcon 9 and Antares for far less and in much shorter time-frames.

We also have three viable Commercial Crew vehicles in development each of which has a larger crew capacity and at least two of which could be flying most likely before the first SLS ever leaves the ground.  **

The other factor that we need to consider is the 2016 Presidential Election, we already know that there will be a new president starting in 2017 and it is quite possible that whoever is elected will look at the amount of money spent on SLS and want changes made anywhere from cancelling the whole program to re-purposing it which could cause costly delays.

** Based on two being awarded CCtCap contracts, although SpaceX has already stated that they would try to continue development of Dragon V2 even if they don’t get an award as it is key to their long term goals of sending people to Mars.

The opinions in this article are my own, the information on costs is 
publicly available from multiple sources on the internet.

 

SLS Launch Date slips but not really

Today NASA announced they had completed the Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review of the new Space Launch System their heavy launch rocket.  With this milestone meet they can now proceed with the manufacturing of the actual flight hardware, while also performing reviews of the Ground Support systems and the Orion payload.

As a result of the review NASA also announced that the likely launch date for SLS would be no later than November 2018 a slip of almost nine months from the last announced date of December 2017, however during the conference call by NASA they stated that this really wasn’t a slip!!!  They also stated that they were only 70% confident of making that date or meeting the $7 billion budget that was announced.  Later in the call they stated that they may still make the December 2017 date.

During the Q&A afterwards a number of questions were asked specifically about the future of SLS after the currently manifested flights, there were no real details available beyond the EM-1 and EM-2 flights.  They did say that they would like to continue the cadence of one flight every two years.

Below is the official release from NASA on the KDP-C milestone and what happens next

NASA officials Wednesday announced they have completed a rigorous review of the Space Launch System (SLS) — the heavy-lift, exploration class rocket under development to take humans beyond Earth orbit and to Mars — and approved the program’s progression from formulation to development, something no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the agency built the space shuttle.

“We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “And we’re firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey.”

For its first flight test, SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. In its most powerful configuration, SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will enable missions even farther into our solar system, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars.

This decision comes after a thorough review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), which provides a development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS of $7.021 billion from February 2014 through the first launch and a launch readiness schedule based on an initial SLS flight no later than November 2018.

Conservative cost and schedule commitments outlined in the KDP-C align the SLS program with program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the program’s control.

“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”

“The Space Launch System Program has done exemplary work during the past three years to get us to this point,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018.”
The SLS, Orion, and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs each conduct a design review prior to each program’s respective KDP-C, and each program will establish cost and schedule commitments that account for its individual technical requirements.

“We are keeping each part of the program — the rocket, ground systems, and Orion — moving at its best possible speed toward the first integrated test launch,” said Bill Hill, director Exploration Systems Development at NASA. “We are on a solid path toward an integrated mission and making progress in all three programs every day.”

“Engineers have made significant technical progress on the rocket and have produced hardware for all elements of the SLS program,” said SLS program manager Todd May. “The team members deserve an enormous amount of credit for their dedication to building this national asset.”

The program delivered in April the first piece of flight hardware for Orion’s maiden flight, Exploration Flight Test-1 targeted for December. This stage adapter is of the same design that will be used on SLS’s first flight, Exploration Mission-1.

Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans has all major tools installed and is producing hardware, including the first pieces of flight hardware for SLS. Sixteen RS-25 engines, enough for four flights, currently are in inventory at Stennis Space Center, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where an engine is already installed and ready for testing this fall. NASA contractor ATK has conducted successful test firings of the five-segment solid rocket boosters and is preparing for the first qualification motor test.

SLS will be the world’s most capable rocket. In addition to opening new frontiers for explorers traveling aboard the Orion capsule, the SLS may also offer benefits for science missions that require its use and can’t be flown on commercial rockets.

The next phase of development for SLS is the Critical Design Review, a programmatic gate that reaffirms the agency’s confidence in the program planning and technical risk posture.

For more information about SLS, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/sls

Weekly Space Blog 6/13

Orbital ISS Launched Delayed again

The ORB-2 Cygnus cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed again due to the on-going investigation into an AJ26 engine failure last month during testing.  The Antares rocket which launches the Cygnus spacecraft uses two of the AJ26 engines on the first stage to orbit.

The new No Earlier Than (NET) date is July 1st, we will prove additional news when available on the launch date/time.

SLS design change could delay first crewed mission

NASA has decided to change the version of the second stage that will be used on the EM-2 crewed mission.  Originally slated to be the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) stage that will be used on EM-1 they have now elected to use the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) stage that was originally scheduled to debut on EM-3.  Due to this and the NASA Safety Office and Astronaut Office’s requirement that the upper stage complete at least one mission before any crew and be carried on it could mean that EM-3 becomes the first crewed mission for SLS in 2023.

An alternate option may be to add an additional flight between EM-1 and EM-2 which would be used to prove the EUS therefore allowing EM-2 to be the first crewed flight, however additional funding would be needed to achieve that.  At present there are no future details as to the overall impact of the SLS schedule with primary focus on the EM-1 flight in 2017.

Progress M-21M undocks

This week the Progress M-21M spacecraft completed it’s mission to the ISS with a successful undocking and later burn up in the atmosphere.  The cargo vehicle spent 144 days at the station having delivered almost 2,400 pounds of supplies it was then loaded with trash that was no longer needed.  European Astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted the picture below of the Progress burning up in the atmosphere to conclude it’s orbital mission.

ProgressM21M

Rosetta Update

The ESA Rosetta spacecraft completed two big burns this week as it entered the final phase of its approach to the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after almost a decade journey.  Unlike when it a spacecraft approaches a planet Rosetta will not be able to use the gravity of the comet to get into orbit but instead will need to execute a series of burns to precisely match the orbit.

It is currently approaching at a speed of 17,000 kpd (kilometers per day) and is currently less than 300,000 kilometers away. Over the next month and half it will continue to refine the orbit.

For more information in the Rosetta mission check out the page here.

Two new exo-planets found around Kapteyn

A team of Astronomers have discovered two new planets around a nearby red dwarf star Kapteyn, which is about 13 light years away in the southern constellation of Pictor.  One of the planets Kapteyn c is considered to be too cold for life because of it’s distance from the star.  However Kapteyn b is within the habitable zone and therefore could have liquid water on the surface.  The planet is estimated to be 5 times the mass of earth, and has an orbital period of 48 days.

Boeing CST-100 News

This week Boeing showcased their CST-100 spacecraft which is one of the spacecraft that is competing for the Commercial Crew contract to deliver astronauts to the ISS.

The spacecraft will be launched by an Atlas 5 rocket and once in orbit will dock to the space station to deliver up to seven people to the station.  During the return the spacecraft will utilize airbags when it lands.

Boeing also indicated that further progress on the CST-100 would depend on them getting a contract from NASA in the CCtCap process which is currently on-going.

AAA Needed on Mars for Curiosity Rover

Rover Wheel DamageThe Mars Curiosity Rover which has been roaming around on Mars for almost a year is starting show ware and tare from the journey so far.

Originally expected to take a year to get to the base of Mt. Sharp the rover is currently half way there and clearly showing signs of damage from the un-yielding rocks as it moves over the surface.

Hmm wonder what the call out charge would be for AAA to replace the wheel, sign me up for that trip.

Russia plans Biggest Rocket since 1960s

The chief of the Federal Space Agency in Russia, Oleg Ostapenko said this week, while visiting Crimea, that they would need to build a super-heavy rocket capable of lifting between 80 to 85 tons to earth orbit in order to realize it’s lunar ambitions.

100 Million Planets may Harbor Complex Life in Milky Way

Scientists from the University of Texas have released findings based on the “first plausible assessment of complex life in the universe using empirical data.”  The findings estimate that there could be as many as 100 million planets in our galaxy that may harbor some form of complex alien life.  The article also says that our galaxy is one of approximately 500 billion in the universe.

The full article can be found here.

Author Note: The estimate of galaxies in this article seems to be very high a factor of 2.5-5 times higher than most other articles or current estimates.

Trillion Dollar Market

This week Planetary Resources released a video, explaining why they believe fuel from asteroids will create a Trillion Dollar market in the future.  Currently satellite operators have to pay for total weight of the spacecraft, including any fuel needed for the life of vehicle.

Check out the video here.

Smoke detected on ISS Tuesday, crew were not in danger

This week smoke was detected on the ISS, in the Zvezda Service Module, requiring flight controllers to initiate emergency procedures to isolate the modules ventilation system while the source of the some was identified.   The crew were never in any danger and the problem was quickly determined to be a heater that was used for water reclamation.  The heater was deactivated, a fan and filter was then setup to clear the smoke.

Kepler Candidate List updated

The NASA Kepler project updated the number of Kepler candidates and confirmed planets from 3,845 to 4,254. There are now up to one hundred potentially habitable worlds in the Kepler candidates, 30 matching the conservative definition of a potentially habitable.

HEC_All_Distance

Pluto and Charon news

Pluto has often been considered a binary planet with its largest moon Charon, it now seems that they may both also share a thin atmosphere.  While it is impossible to detect the atmosphere using ground based technology the New Horizon’s spacecraft that is current racing towards Pluto will have the ability to detect it.

We will know more in 2015 after the flyby has been completed and the data is back on earth.

Check out the fall article here.

In a separate article researchers suggest that if cracks are found in the surface of Pluto that could indicate that the interior was once warm enough to sustain an underground ocean.

Check out the full article here.

Dream Chaser News

Sierra Nevada Corporation who are building the Dream Chaser spacecraft that is competing for the contract to fly astronauts to the ISS this week announced a new partnership with Craig Technologies, a Cape Canaveral based company.  The company will be responsible for the design engineering and manufacture of Dream Chaser.

The full press release can be found here.

3D Printer heading to ISS on next SpaceX mission

The 3D Printer developed by Made In Space has passed the final certification by NASA and will now be launched to the ISS on the next SpaceX mission in August.  The printer was originally planned to launch on the SpaceX 5 mission but having completed all the milestones needed ahead of schedule they will now only need to wait until then to see the printer in action.

Once on the station a series of tests will be run to verify the ability to created printed parts in a micro-gravity environment.

The full press release can be found here.

Rumor: Google and Virgin Galactic in talks

England’s Sky News has reported that Google and Virgin Galactic have been in talks for months regarding a potential investment by Google.  While no deal has been finalized it is believe to be a part of Google plans to launch a fleet of satellites to provide Internet access to the whole planet.

The full article can be found here.

SpaceX’s Orbcomm Launch delayed again

The launch of six Orbcomm satellites on a Falcon 9 has been delayed again, originally scheduled for Thursday this week after previous delays the date was changed to Sunday after a problem was found with one of the satellites.

While the problem with the satellite appears to have been resolved Orbcomm have decided to perform additional testing to verify the issue has been fully addressed.  In order to complete the analysis the June 15 launch date is no longer achievable and they are working with SpaceX to identify a new launch date.

NASA’s Maven spacecraft is 100 days away from Mars

The NASA Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft which launched last November is now 100 days away from arriving at Mars.

Check out the mission here.

Weekly Space Blog 5/23

SpaceX Dragon completes successful mission

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.

Dragon CRS-3 SplashdownLaunched 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.

Photo credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News
Photo credit: Gene Blevins/LA Daily News

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 full article can be found here.

Russia, China sign Space Exploration Agreement

Following on Russia’s announcement that they don’t extend operation of the International Space Station after 2020.   This week they have signed an Space Exploration agreement with China instead.

Even more reason for the US to move away from dependence on Russia to get into space.

The full article can be found here.

NASA Commercial Crew Program News

Each of the partners in the Commercial Crew Program made progress in the latest press release from NASA.

Boeing – Completed most in-depth evaluation of software planned to operate the CST-100 spacecraft.

SNC – Put models of it’s Dream Chaser spacecraft through rigorous wind tunnel tests to help refine the final design.

SpaceX – Conducted an integrated critical design review to demonstrate major hardware and software elements of the Dragon/Falcon 9 vehicles.

The full release can be found here.

Three private Moon Lander concepts on NASA short list

Recently NASA selected three private Moon Lander concepts for non-funded agreements as part of the agencies quest to land robotic craft on the moon.

The companies Astrobotic Technology Inc, Masten Space Systems Inc and Moon Express Inc will now proceed to the next stage of negotiations for Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative.

The full press release can be found here.

True Cost of SLS, Orion Unclear

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.

For more information check out the full article here.

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.

The full article including video can be found here.

Planet formation in the constellation of the Wolf

Dust and gas around the star HD142527, as seen by ALMA in red and respectively green.
Dust and gas around the star HD142527, as seen by ALMA in red and respectively green.

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).

The full article can be found here.

Elon Musk receives Award

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 full article can be found here.

New Regulations Govern Private Human Space Flight

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.

The full article can be found here, including a PDF of the rules.

SLS Moves One Step Closer

SLSmechanismNASA 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 full article can be found here.

 

Opportunity Rover News

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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.

Full panorama can be found here.

Construction of Insight Begins

InSightConstruction 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.

The full article including artist concepts of the object can be found here.

Boeing and Samsung to Evaluate Mobile Technology for New Spacecraft

This week Boeing and Samsung announced a collaboration on ways to incorporate the latest mobile technology into Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft.

Under the agreement they will start to identify how mobile technology can be used to improve CST-100 crew and mission operations.

Seeing how rapidly Samsung brings to market new devices it will be interesting to see how this works out and what technology is added to the CST-100.

The full press release can be found here.

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.

Casey’s full blog article can be found here.

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.

Further details and a demonstration video can be found here.

Antares AJ-26 engine fails during test

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.