SpaceX completes Crewed Dragon mission

This morning the first Crewed Dragon mission came to an end with a successful splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. The spacecraft which was launched last Saturday spent five days docked to the International Space Station during which time the crew spent time unloading and loading cargo and performing tests and inspections.

The hatches between the two vehicles were closed yesterday and autonomous departure occurred this morning complete another important test.

This mission included a number of first for SpaceX. This was their first crewed rated vehicle, their first autonomous docking, first splashdown in the Atlantic ocean.

With the successful completion of this mission, SpaceX will now refurbish the Dragon which will be used again for the inflight abort test where the eight SuperDraco engines on the capsule will fire while the rocket is at Maximum Dynamic Pressure (MaxQ) to verify the abort system. This is tentatively scheduled for June.

This then sets up Crewed Dragon for its first crewed mission which is tentatively scheduled for July this year, however that is subject to change as the data from these tests are completed and ISS schedules aligned.

Hatches Open on Crew Dragon

In another critical milestone the hatches between the International Space Station and Crewed Dragon were opened at 8:07 am EST today.

We were also treated to amazing views from inside the Dragon vehicle as the hatches were opened, the first time for a capsule docked to the station.

Over the next few days the crew will spend time unloading and loading cargo that is also being carried inside the vehicle.

Undocking and splashdown is expected in five days.

Crewed Dragon successfully Docks to ISS

Following a 27 hour journey to the International Space Station to crewed Dragon spacecraft has successfully docked to the International Docking Adapter on the station.

During the docking, a number of tests were performed to ensure the system was working as needed and once those were complete the vehicle completed the automated docking at 6:03 am EST. The soft capture which is the initial connection between the two vehicles occurred at 5:51 am EST, after that the full docking took approximately 12 minutes.

The hatches between the ISS and Dragon will be opening in a couple of hours.

SpaceX Launches Crewed Dragon

At 2:49 am EST today SpaceX launched the first of their Crewed Dragon spacecraft on a mission to the International Space Station.

As this was the first launch of the spacecraft there were no crew members onboard however the vehicle is heavily instrumented and does carry a dummy called Ripley which will allow SpaceX and NASA to monitor the loads experienced during all phases of the launch.

Dragon will now travel to the ISS for a docking tomorrow morning at approximately 6 am. Another feature of this vehicle is the ability to automatically dock with the International Docking Adapter which was launched by a Cargo Dragon in 2016.

This flight known as DM-1 is the first flight in the NASA Commercial Crew contract.

This marks another important first for SpaceX as with the cargo Dragon they are now the first private company to launch a crew rated capsule to orbit.

SpaceX launches Dragon for CRS-16 mission

At 1:16 pm EST today a Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 40 carrying a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station for there CRS-16 mission.  The Dragon capsule used for this launch was previously flown on the CRS-10 mission.

10 minutes later the Dragon capsule was delivered to orbit to begin it’s journey to the station, during this launch the first stage attempted a landing at Landing Complex 1 but wasn’t successful instead landing in the Atlantic ocean.

This was the 20th launch for SpaceX this year.

Update on the first stage booster

Soyuz MS-11 launches and docks successfully

Just over seven weeks after the MS-10 launch failed to reach space Russia resumed crewed launches today with the successful launch and docking of the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft today.

The launch lifted off at 6:31 am EST and successfully docked at 12:34 pm EST just four orbits later.  Once the leak checks are completed the hatches between the ISS and Soyuz will be opened allow the new crew members to enter the station.

Aboard the MS-11 are Russian Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA Astronaut Anne McClain, and Canadian Astronaut David Saint-Jacques.

This launch also marks the 100th of 2018 worldwide and the first to two scheduled for today.

Soyuz MS-10 aborts after launch, lands safely

What had become almost a routine process for Russia’s space program ran into an issue today when the launch of two crew members cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and astronaut Nick Hague aborted shortly after the first stage booster separation.

The two crew members were on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) and the flight was proceeding nominally until the four strap-on boosters separated.  Around the same time, a large plume of fuel could be seen escaping from the area of the vehicle.  This was followed shortly afterward by an alarm sounding, at which time the Russian Translator on the live feed started talking about booster failure and preparations for ballistic abort.

The crew landed safely around 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan and have been picked up by the search and rescue crews that were station about 90 minutes away from the landing site.  They are now on their way to Moscow and will then return to the launch site to meet with their families.

At present the impact on the ISS is unknown, Russia has announced they have set up a state commission to investigate the anomaly.  However, unless they can find an immediate cause of the issue and it can be resolved quickly it seems likely that there will be a stand-down of crewed launches using Soyuz.  This will mean that with no other vehicles available to launch crew to the ISS at present due to the delays in the US commercial crew program, and with the limited lifespan the Soyuz vehicle has on orbit that we may have to face the possibility of decrewing the ISS until such time that crewed launches can resume.

However, at present, the current crew of ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst who is currently the commander, Sergey Prokopyev and NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor have plenty of supplies available and are not scheduled to leave the station until December having arrived in June.  Unfortunately, this is close to the lifespan of the Soyuz vehicle so there may not be a lot of room to extend the mission.

10/13/2018 – Update

While the telemetry is still be analysed the leading theory at this point is that one of the first stage strap-on boosters failed to separate correctly and impacted the second stage causing the launch abort.  The sequence of events meant that the main launch abort tower had already jettisoned however the Soyuz has a second abort system built into it (which apparent very few people knew about) which kicked in to take the crew away from the failing booster.

Russia has reported that they will provide an update on the investigation by October 20th at which time we should have a better idea of what impact this will have on future launches of Soyuz.

We will update this article as further information is made available.

ULA launches NASA’s ICESat2

Early this morning United Launch Alliance successfully launched NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satelite 2 (ICESat2).

The launch was slightly delayed due to an issue with the bottle temperatures during the countdown. This issue was quickly resolved and the mission completed successfully.

This was the final launch of the venerable Delta II which has been launching since 1989 and completed 154 missions, 1 failure, and 1 partial failure.  With this launch, Delta II also achieved an important milestone of 100 consecutive launch successes.

More information on ICESat2 can be found here.

ULA launches NASA’s Solar Parker Probe

Delta IV Heavy launching

United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched NASA’s Solar Parker Probe on their Delta IV Heavy rocket.  Today was the second attempt to liftoff proceeded smoothly for an on-time lifted off at 3:31 am EDT.

The first attempt yesterday was delayed twice before a scrub was called when a new issue occurred at T-1:55m and counting with no time left in the window to try again.

Due to the extremely high energy required for this mission, the Delta IV Heavy’s capability was augmented by a powerful third stage provided by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.  This allowed the vehicle to get up to 45,000 mph by the time the Solar Parker Probe separated.

Confirmation of the 3rd stage events was delayed due to a signal dropout issue, however, the information was received at one of the ground stations and was relayed manually.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will be the first-ever mission to “touch” the Sun. The spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the Sun’s atmosphere about 4 million miles from our star’s surface.   

More details can be found here.

This was the 6th launch for ULA this year

Further delays to JWST

This week NASA announced further delays to the James Webb Space Telescope which was originally supposed to launch this year and has now been delayed to Now Earlier Than (NET) 2021.

The delays which have been caused by several factors from human error during construction/testing, design complexity and basically poor management of the project are now causing some people to rename the spacecraft the Just Wait Space Telescope.

There is no doubt that if/when the spacecraft is launched and successfully reaches its final operating orbit that it will provide amazing new images of our universe and increase our knowledge of the universe.

However, with these continual delays, there are some additional factors that need to be considered.

– JWST is designed to launch on an Ariane 5 which is due to be phased out by Arianespace sometime in 2021-22. If there are further delays to JWST then Arianespace will need to maintain the launch pad at Kourou for the launch. There have been discussions about using other rockets but the design changes needed to accommodate could delay it even further.

– The manufacturer Northrop Grumman are operating under a cost-plus contract for JWST, therefore, the taxpayer is on the hook for any additional costs which are already predicted to pass $9.6 billion dollars assuming a launch date of March 2021.

– Other missions are waiting on the data from JWST, with the abilities that JWST brings to the table there are a lot of other future missions that are being designed to utilize the data that is returned. With these delays, these missions may also be impacted both in funding and having to wait for the new data.

Once the vehicle is launched the deployment process is not a simple one and while NG and NASA have done extensive testing (some of which has led to the latest delays) there is no guarantee that it will be 100% successful once in space. The biggest concern is the fact that the massive sun shield is needed to keep the telescope operating at the correct temperature and if there are any issues during deployment, like ripping that happened during testing, then it will not be able to do that and the telescope will pretty much be useless.

Additionally, due to the width of the main mirror, it has to be folded too and then the side segments have to deploy correctly. If this process fails then the telescope will not be able to operate correctly as there will be 6 mirror segments missing.

Due to its final orbit at the Lagrangian point (L2) it is not currently possible to service the telescope, therefore if anything goes wrong there isn’t anything that can be done. At some point in the future, it may be possible to send a crew out to the L2 but that is still quite a way off.

Yes JWST is a complex spacecraft and a lot has to go correctly during testing, during launch and once in orbit. If it is all successful and the spacecraft makes it to its operating orbit then the science it returns will be amazing but until then we just have to continue to wait and hope that nothing else goes wrong.