Weekly Space Blog 6/15

This week SpaceX sign military agreement, Chinese Astronauts, Chris Hadfield, Opportunity and Kepler keep giving, and much more.

SpaceX

This week SpaceX signed a framework agreement for potential Military launches in the future.  Under the agreement the air force will evaluate the Falcon v1.1 rocket over at least three launches as well as all the processes, procedures etc involved in create the vehicles.  Once the evaluation period is complete SpaceX may have the chance to compete for future launches.

Chinese Launch and Docking

On Tuesday this week three Chinese Astronauts successfully launched to Orbit aboard a Long March 2F rocket, once in orbit the spacecraft made it’s way to the Tiangong 1 space station arriving on Thursday.  Following a successful automated docking the three Astronauts made there way into the station to begin 15 days of work.  During their stay at the station they will perform a manual undock and redock as well as numerous scientific experiments before heading back to earth.

Opportunity News

This week the Mars Opportunity Rover team announced that they believe they have found clay minerals in a rock recently examined by the rover.  The team explained that their presence is an indication that the rock had been altered by long term exposure to water.  Although they have found indications of water since arriving on the planet they explained that this was different because it indicated a neutral pH balance where as previous examples had higher pH balances.

The Rover has been operating on Mars for 9+ years, over 35 times longer than originally designed and recently broke the US distance record on another planetary object.

Image

In this panorama, Solander Point is the near peak on the left of the horizon. It is more than a kilometre away from Opportunity’s current position and the rover would hope to arrive by August

More Kepler planet candidate announced

The Kepler team announced another 503 planet candidates this week, some which may be the right size and distance from their star to support life.

The Kepler team continue to analyze the vast amounts of data they have already received from the four+ years of operations.

The Kepler spacecraft is currently operating in a Point Rest State due to the failure of a second gyroscope that is used to stabilize the craft, and a team has been formed to determine what course of action can be taken to restore some if not all the scientific operations of the Vehicle.

Chris Hadfield announces resignation

This week Chris Hadfield announced his resignation from the Canadian Space Agency after 21 years at the agency.  Chris who recently returned from a six month mission to the space station the last part which was served as Commander, became well known for the amazing pictures that he tweeted from space.

Chris and his family have spent many years in Houston working with NASA and will be returning to his native Canada to enjoy his retirement.

Planetary Resources announce stretch goal

Planetary Resources announced via their Kickstarter ARKYD page an ambitious stretch goal for the campaign.  If they are able to raise $2 million by the 30th June they then will add ExoPlanet detection capabilities to the spacecraft.  Check out the project here.

And Finally

That’s all for this week, will be plenty more next week.

Soyuz launch, ARKYD Kickstarter, Astronaut Abby

Welcome to my new weekly blog on all things Space, this week we take a look at the latest Soyuz launch to the International Space Station, the ARKYD Kickstarter project and Astronaut Abby a 15 year old with an amazing vision for STEM and Space.

Soyuz Launch

On Tuesday this week Karen Nyberg, Fyodor Yurchikhin, Luca Parmitano launched about there Soyuz TMA-09M spacecraft from Kazakhstan on an accelerated six hour journey to the space station.  This is the second time a Soyuz has used the express rendezvous to the station which cuts down the time spent in the Soyuz from two days.  They join current station crew members Chris CassidyAlexander Misurkin, and Pavel Vinogradov to complete the Expedition 36 crew.

The crew have a very busy increment coming up with a number of visiting vehicles and five space walks as well as the hundreds of science experiments that are performed each day.

ARKYD Kickstarter

On Wednesday this week Planetary Resources announced the launch of there ARKYD: A Space Telescope for Everyone Kickstarter project.  The goal of the project is to raise $1,000,000 to provide a Space Telescope for citizen science, as of writing they had already raised $600,000+ with 6000+ backers.  There are multiple sponsorship levels available from $25 for a photo from the spacecraft or yourself with the Earth in the background to $10,000 for a very neat package (check out the page).

I have signed on to this project at the $65 level and would encourage anyone who has dreamed of being involved in space to get involved.

Astronaut Abby

And finally this week we meet Astronaut Abby who has just completed an amazing trip to Russia and Kazakhstan to watch the Soyuz launch.  She recently raised $35,000 through the RocketHub CrowdFunding site to “Inspire Future Generations”, she will be using the money raised to provide classroom visits and share her vision to be the first Astronaut on Mars.

In addition she has been selected to be Astronaut Luca Parmitano’s Earth Liason while he is on the space station.  Abby will be communicating regularly with Luca and will be posting updates about his adventure.  When asked Luca said that he selected Abby for her passion for space and reaching her dream and that one day he would be training her to be an Astronaut.

And Finally

This week I wanted to vent my frustration about the SLS/Orion project at NASA, here we have a new rocket system that current estimates say will cost in excess of $41B for four launches by 2025 for the 70 metric tonne version, the 130 metric tonne version isn’t expected to be ready until 2030.  Next year SpaceX is expected to launch the Falcon Heavy which will cost significantly less money and will be capable of launching 53 metric tonnes, it seems very likely that by 2025 SpaceX could have greater launch capacity then SLS will have.

In addition the Orion Space capsule which has already had structure problems during pressure testing only has a four person crew capacity which while being one more than Soyuz and other current space capsules is three less than the planned Dragon Crew Capsule, the Dreamchaser vehicle or the Boeing CST-100.  The first planned uncrewed launch for the capsule will be next year and the first crewed mission isn’t expected until 2021.  Again by this time one or more of the capsules mentioned above will have already launched multiple crews to the ISS and I know SpaceX have plans to go beyond LEO with Dragon.

It seems at this point it would be more logically to invest some of the $41B in SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing to improve their vehicles and the rest of the money in Planetary Science to go explore the Europa or Titan.

Liftoff of Falcon 9 with Dragon

This morning SpaceX successfully launched their latest Falcon 9 witth Dragon towards the international space station.  Following an aborted launch on Saturday that was traced back to a faulty value on engine 5 SpaceX successfully fixed, validated and prepared for launch this morning.

After the 9 minute ride to orbit which was performed flawlessly by Falcon 9 the Dragon spacecraft was successfully separated and deployed it’s Solar Array’s.  This was the first of many new systems on Dragon which will be tested during this mission.  During the press conference after launch NASA and SpaceX confirmed that Dragon has also performed it’s first burn procedure successfully as it starts it journey to catch up with the space station.

Over the next few days they have a lot more work to complete including the critical opening of the bay door that contains the probes and capture device used by the station’s robotic arm to grapple Dragon when it is close enough to the station.  Once Dragon arrives at the station on Thursday it will perform a number of procedures under the COTS Demo 2 mission plan to confirm that it can operate successfully near the station without cause danger to the station or it’s crew.  Upon successful completion of these objectives and with approval from NASA Dragon will then proceed to the COTS Demo 3 objectives which include berthing at the station.

The next few days are going to be very exciting for the Commercial Cargo program at NASA but incredible nerve racking as SpaceX execute all the tests needed for a successful mission.

3 Weeks and Counting to SpaceX Launch

In just over three weeks SpaceX is scheduled to launch their second and hopefully last COTS demo mission.  Today we are going to take a look in detail at the Dragon spacecraft and what a successful mission will mean for SpaceX and the US space industry in general.

Dragon

Designed and built by SpaceX the Dragon space capsule which has already flown one successful mission, upon completion of that mission SpaceX were the first commercial company to launch a spacecraft and successfully return it to earth.  While the initial missions for Dragon are for cargo, the craft has been designed from the beginning to allow crewed missions too.

The Dragon space capsule has a launch cargo capacity of 6,000 kg in cargo version and can support up to 7 crew in the crew version.  The payload capacity is split between pressurized and unpressurized as shown in the image on the right.  Once the craft reaches orbit the solar panels will deploy from the unpressurized section ( the blue area at the bottom ) and provide power to the craft.

Recently NASA performed a crew equipment interface test (CEIT), this allowed NASA astronaut Megan McArthur to work inside the pressurized part of the craft as part of her training for a future mission to the station.  SpaceX also completed their own Wet Dress rehearsal where the fully configured Falcon 9 with the Dragon capsule were taken out to the Launch pad, erected into launch position and fully fueled before the countdown proceeded to T-5 seconds.

Assuming there are no problems found during the Flight Readiness review on April 16th then SpaceX are scheduled to be launching on April 30th, once in orbit Dragon will complete a series of tests as it approaches the station culminating in a capture and docking.  For this mission Dragon is scheduled to stay at the station for around 30 days as the crew unload cargo and then place items due to be returned to earth.  Unlike the other cargo vehicles that visit the station Dragon will actually return all the way to earth initial in the pacific ocean, with plans to use the thrusters in the future to land back on land.

While the last demo flight for Dragon was well over a year ago now, SpaceX have not been sitting around doing nothing, they have had a lot of work to do to make sure Dragon operates correctly when approaching the Space Station and ensuring a save and successful mission.

In addition to that they have been very busy working on the crew version including testing the unique crew escape system which will be built into the side of the vehicle and will for the first time allow escape all the way to orbit, and can be used for powered landing on earth or other destinations.  SpaceX recently completed their first NASA Crew trail where 7 crew entered the vehicle and strapped in as they would for launch, as the pictures below show there is plenty of room inside.

I believe the future both for SpaceX and the US Launch industry looks very bright.  In additional to all these activities the company is also working on their Falcon Heavy launcher, working towards fully reusable launch vehicles, have a large manifest of launches already booked and have been profitable.  In addition Elon Musk recently said that he believes eventually they will be able to launch people to Mars for $500,000.

In the meantime all eyes will be on Kennedy Space Center for the rest of this month as SpaceX enter the final countdown towards their launch.

The information in this article is the personal opinion of the author and any future statements are based on information that is freely available on the internet.

Copyright Notices: All the images used in this article are the property of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and are also available on there website www.spacex.com.