Following a smooth countdown today United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V launched the military’s X-37B space plane. The rocket lifted off from SLC-41 and carried the space plane to orbit before deploying it, the rocket also carried a secondary payload of Cubesat’s including The Planetary Societies LightSail test. The Planetary Society is currently raising money for the next test spacecraft due to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy next year.
While most of the X-37B’s mission is secret we do have some information on what will be done during the mission
1) Continuation of NASA’s advanced materials investigation – This was flown on the International Space Station a number of times and allowed NASA to test different materials in the vacuum of space to see the impact on those materials.
2) An experimental propulsion system – This ION engine called a Hall thruster will be tested while the vehicle is on orbit.
The last X-37B mission spent 675 days in space before returning to Earth, there is no details on how long this mission will last.
We will publish another article on the LightSail later when we hear news on it’s status and progress.
Almost as soon as United Launch Alliance’s Tory Bruno announced the new Vulcan rocket system did articles start to appear stating that it “would bring down SpaceX”. One from CNN also incorrectly stated that SpaceX aborted the landing of the first stage yesterday.
While that may be the goal of ULA it is way too soon to be making such bold statements.
First as stated yesterday the upgrades will be rolled out in multiple steps starting in 2019 assuming that everything goes as planned with Blue Origin’s development of the BE-4 engine. Even then ULA will have to demonstrate that the rocket is as reliable as there current Atlas V or Delta IV before they can move the government launches to the platform, in previous statements Tory himself said certification could take several years. That doesn’t take into account any re-certification that may be needed when the new upper stage is rolled out.
Second their re-usability plan is for the engines only which will be captured in mid-air and then lowered to a barge and returned to base. While this has been done before it still relies on the weather co-operating and the time needed to return the engines to the factory/hanger for inspection, re-firing and re-integration with another first stage core. At present SpaceX have the same challenges with the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) system, but longer term returning to the launch site looks to be more beneficial, only time will tell on that.
Third four-six years is a long time and SpaceX will have plenty of time to improve their offerings, both in relation to payload capacity with Falcon Heavy and on-time launch something they have struggled with so far.
So will Vulcan bring down SpaceX? It seems very unlikely that on its own the new rocket system will bring them down, it will all depend on how SpaceX performed before Vulcan comes online and how they adapt to the competition that it will bring.
Today United Launch Alliance announced there next generation launch system named Vulcan. ULA’s Tory Bruno announced that the new launch system will be rolled out in multiple steps. The first step will be the replacement first stage, followed later by a new upper stage.
The first stage of the rocket will be powered by two Blue Origin BE-4 engines providing 1.1m lbs of thrust and can be configured with up to six solid rocket boosters to increase the total payload capacity depending on customers needs. To take full advantage of the power provided by the new engines the first stage will contain larger fuel tanks. The first flight of the new Vulcan rocket is expected in 2019 and will use the current Centaur upper stage.
The new upper stage Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) will change depending on the needs of the customer, it will use between one and four engines as well as ULA’s new Integrated Vehicle Fluids System which will allow un-limited burns and also refueling. No date has been given yet on when they expect to fly the new upper stage.
In addition Tory also announced that the Vulcan rocket’s main engines would be re-usable, the engines would detach from the stage after first stage separation and would then be captured in mid-air and returned to base for inspection and integration for another launch. Tory also announced that later this year they would be outlining a new method for buying the rockets, more details to follow.
Following a 48 hour delay due to higher than allowed upper level winds and an issue with debonding of insulation on the first stage the United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg today carrying NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite.
SMAP will provide a capability for global mapping of soil moisture and freeze/thaw state with unprecedented accuracy, resolution, and coverage. SMAP science objectives are to acquire space-based hydrosphere state measurements over a three-year period to:
Understand processes that link the terrestrial water, energy and carbon cycles
Estimate global water and energy fluxes at the land surface
Quantify net carbon flux in boreal landscapes
Enhance weather and climate forecast skill
Develop improved flood prediction and drought monitoring capabilities
For more information on the SMAP mission check out it’s main page here.
The images below were captured from the NASA Live Stream of the launch.
United Launch Alliance started it’s 2015 launch schedule with a beautiful launch from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 41 last night. The most powerful version of there Atlas V family this rocket had a single core and five solid boasters. The launch was delayed several times due to weather violations but was able to launch within the available window concluding in a successful deployment of the U.S. Navy’s third Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite.
The images below were capture from the ULA web cast.
Following a smooth countdown the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavies three main engine’s came to life today to lift the Orion capsule to orbit. 18 minutes later the upper stage completed its first firing and left the Orion capsule in the desired orbit.
Over the next two orbits Orion will follow the flight profile outlined to the right before splashing down in the pacific ocean later today. The upper stage will fire once again after the first orbit to allow Orion to move further away from Earth than any crew rate vehicle has been since the last Apollo mission.
Below are images captured from NASA TV of the launch, our next update will be later today following the completion of the test flight.
The first orbital flight of the Orion spacecraft will allow NASA and it’s contractor Lockheed Martin to verify the design of the vehicle in space itself, for this flight there will be no crew members however there will be a vast amount of instrumentation and sensors on board to provide as much data as possible during the mission.
While Orion is designed to fly on the Space Launch System (SLS) in the long term because the rocket isn’t ready to fly yet this mission will be flown using a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket.
This is the first flight into space for Orion but it isn’t the first flight, a number of drop tests have already been performed to allow the parachutes and other systems used during landing to be validated, in addition a number of tests have been performed in a large pool to verify that the vehicle can right itself should it land in the wrong orientation. Like the Apollo module used for the moon missions Orion will land on water, a number of tests have been performed to verify that the recovery ships can retrieve the module once it has landed.
The four and a half hour flight will take the Orion spacecraft on two orbits of Earth. Peak altitude will be approximately 3,600 miles. The high altitude will allow the the spacecraft to reach reentry speeds of up to 20,000 mph, which will expose the heat shield to temperatures up to around 4,000 °F, or 80% of the temperature that would be experienced upon reentry from a moon mission.
Next update tomorrow we will look at the future for Orion and SLS.
This afternoon ULA successfully launches another GPS IIF satellite aboard it’s workhorse Atlas V vehicle. This was the third launch attempt around the world within a 24 hour period following the Orbital Antares accident yesterday and the successful Soyuz launch early this morning EDT.
This was the 8th GPS IIF satellite to be launched by ULA, the first 5 abort Delta IV and the others using Atlas V.
Following a smooth countdown the Atlas V’s RD-180 engine roared to life lifting the rocket towards orbit. At the end of the live broadcast the rocket was coasting to it’s second Centaur firing destination, the satellite will be deployed once the second stage arrives at it’s drop off destination.
The following screen grabs were taken from the ULA live feed.
A lot has happened in Space or related to Space recently and the future is looking very bright.
Below is a summary of some of the recent news and upcoming events.
SpaceX and Boeing awarded CCtCap contracts – We now have two companies contracted to build manned spacecraft to deliver crew to the ISS. Currently only two other countries have the ability to do this. See my full article on the awards here.
ULA and Blue Origin announce BE-4 engine – Following pressure from various sources ULA have announced they are going to partner with Blue Origin to build the engine which will allow them to move away from the Russian RD-180 engine for Atlas. Full article include specs can be found here.
Mars Orbiters arriving soon – This Sunday NASA’s Mars Maven orbiter will be arriving at the planet and next Wednesday India’s Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft is also expected to arrive. They will join three other orbiters currently at Mars and the two active Rovers on the surface.
ESA Rosetta Lander Philae has a landing site – The European Space Agency has announced the landing site for Philae which is part of the Rosetta mission. This will be the first time a vehicle has landed on the surface of a Comet. For more information on the mission check out the excellent ESA Blog for Rosetta.
First 3D Printer heading to space – Early tomorrow morning SpaceX’s CRS-4 mission is scheduled to lift off, on board will be the first 3D printer to go into space. The possibilities this opens up for the future are immeasurable. For more information on the printer check out this page. We will be posting an update tomorrow morning following the launch of CRS-4.