Tag Archives: commercial

Do you have video of the Falcon 9 explosion? SpaceX needs it!

In a series of tweets today Elon Musk put out a call for any videos anyone might have of last week’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

“Still working on the Falcon fireball investigation. Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” Musk wrote. “Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation. Engines were not on, and there was no apparent heat source. Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off. May come from rocket or something else,” he said.

Musk also answered questions and responded to comments from the public. When Twitter user @ashwin7002 tweeted at Musk that “there are some videos on YouTube claiming something hit the rocket. Any reality there?” Musk replied, “We have not ruled that out.”

Update on the Falcon 9 launchpad explosion investigation

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today describing the investigation into last week’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, noting especially how — despite participation by the FAA, NASA, and the Air Force — SpaceX will be entirely in charge of the investigation, in accordance with present law.

The article is clearly lobbying for a change, whereby the government would have more power in these investigations. I personally think a change would be a mistake, that the law as it is now is how it should be. It was their rocket that exploded. Their business model depends on their rockets not exploding. Thus, they have the greatest self-interest in fixing the problem. The other outside players might be helpful, but their presence can only in the long run make things more difficult and slow things down, without making anything better.

Arianespace offers to pick up SpaceX business

The competition heats up: In an effort to gain more business, Arianespace is offering to add an additional launch to its 2017 schedule for any satellite companies whose payload launch is being delayed by both SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion as well as a delay in Russian Proton launches due to its own technical issues.

In his remarks it seemed to me that the CEO of Arianespace was almost gloating.

In a Sept. 7 interview with France Info radio, Israel reiterated his confidence in what he portrayed as Arianespace’s more plodding, deliberative — and higher-cost — approach to launches when compared to SpaceX.

Arianespace does not want a reusable rocket for the moment, he said, because it’s not certain that reusability can reduce costs and maintain reliability. The Ariane 6 rocket, to operate starting in 2020, will not be reusable. The company also is wary of the Silicon Valley ethos that champions constant iteration, which he said has been a feature of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX as well. “We think that the more a launch resembles the preceding launch, the better we are for our customers because we remain in the ‘explored domain’ where everything is understood,” Israel said.

In the short run he and Arianespace might benefit by this situation, but in the long run they will face a shrinking market share if they cannot lower the price of their rockets.

Blue Origin to do New Shepard launch abort test

The competition heats up: For the next test flight of New Shepard, tentatively scheduled for early October, Blue Origin plans to test the capsule’s launch abort system, separating the capsule prematurely from its propulsion module during launch.

“We’ll be doing our in-flight escape test with the same reusable New Shepard booster that we’ve already flown four times,” Bezos wrote. “About 45 seconds after liftoff at about 16,000 feet, we’ll intentionally command escape. Redundant separation systems will sever the crew capsule from the booster at the same time we ignite the escape motor. The escape motor will vector thrust to steer the capsule to the side, out of the booster’s path. The high acceleration portion of the escape lasts less than two seconds, but by then the capsule will be hundreds of feet away and diverging quickly. It will traverse twice through transonic velocities—the most difficult control region—during the acceleration burn and subsequent deceleration. The capsule will then coast, stabilized by reaction control thrusters, until it starts descending.”

If all goes well, the capsule will make a normal descent under three drogue parachutes, and then its main parachutes, to the ground. And the booster? It may not fare so well. It was not designed to survive an in-flight escape, Bezos noted, as it will be slammed with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force and hot exhaust. At Max-Q it is not clear whether the propulsion module will survive—in some Monte Carlo simulations it does, but in others it does not.

I suspect they already have at least one new propulsion module ready to go, and plan to use it with the reused capsule in future tests.

First test captive carry flight for Unity

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic today completed its first test flight of its new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, flying it mated to WhiteKnightTwo for almost four hours.

Congratulations to Virgin Galactic! Still, it remains to be seen whether they can get this ship tested and capable of commercial flights fast enough to beat their competition, competition that did not exist when they started their business more than a decade ago.

Blue Origin to use two launchpads at Cape Canaveral

The competition heats up: Even though it is years away from flying its first orbital rocket, Blue Origin has expanded its plans at Cape Canaveral and now plans to remodel and use two different launchpads there for orbital flights.

The Kent, Wash.-based company filed a permit Sept. 6 to build and operate two orbital launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, taking up launch complexes 11 and 36. The company originally announced its plans to blast off its rockets at launch complex 36 last year at the same time revealing its decision to build a rocket manufacturing facility near Space Florida’s Exploration Park in Merritt Island. Taking up launch complex 11 (LC-11) is a new development.

This means that when the company starts testing its orbital rocket it will likely be doing it in public, from the Cape, rather than in the secretive manner in which it developed its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft out in Texas.

India’s GSLV rocket successfully launches again

The competition heats up: India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) successfully placed a commercial communications satellite in orbit today.

This is the third successful GSLV launch in a row, indicating that India’s space agency ISRO has finally worked out the kinks of their home-built upper stage and are ready to begin regular and more frequent commercial launches, in direct competition with the world’s big players in the launch industry.

Federal Dept of Ed forces school to close

We’re here to help you: Because of constant regulatory harassment by the federal Department of Education, ITT Technical Institutes, a private college-level school system that has been operating for more than 50 years providing technical vocational training, has been forced to shut down.

The actions of and sanctions from the U.S. Department of Education have forced us to cease operations of the ITT Technical Institutes, and we will not be offering our September quarter. We reached this decision only after having exhausted the exploration of alternatives, including transfer of the schools to a non-profit or public institution.

Effective today, the company has eliminated the positions of the overwhelming majority of our more than 8,000 employees. Our focus and priority with our remaining staff is on helping the tens of thousands of unexpectedly displaced students with their records and future educational options.

This action of our federal regulator to increase our surety requirement to 40 percent of our Title IV federal funding and place our schools under “Heightened Cash Monitoring Level 2,” forced us to conclude that we can no longer continue to operate our ITT Tech campuses and provide our students with the quality education they expect and deserve.

Their press release adds the following:

We have always carefully managed expenses to align with our enrollments. We had no intention prior to the receipt of the most recent sanctions of closing down despite the challenging regulatory environment that now threatens all proprietary higher education. We have also always worked tirelessly to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, and to uphold our ethic of continuous improvement. When we have received inquiries from regulators, we have always been responsive and cooperative. Despite our ongoing service to this nation’s employers, local communities and underserved students, these federal actions will result in the closure of the ITT Technical Institutes without any opportunity to pursue our right to due process.

Any business that has successfully provided services to its customers for fifty years has definitely proven its worth — except to the hardcore leftists in the Democratic Obama administration. Employing 8000 people and providing worthwhile training to thousands more, and doing it privately outside the control and power of the federal government? We can’t have that! Better to destroy it!

Update: In related news, more than 80K coal mining jobs lost during Obama’s tenure. The article also notes this important fact:

And now Hillary Clinton is running to be his successor, essentially promising a third term for Barack Obama’s vision. And what did she tell us during the primary? “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

It’s so nice to know these Democrats support unemployment and bankruptcy.

Head of Swiss Space Systems attacked

Horror: The CEO of Swiss SpaceSystems (S3) was attacked and badly injured last week in an attack that was appears to be connected to a series of threats he had reported in the last several months.

Pascal Jaussi, 40, who heads Swiss Space Systems (S3), was beaten up and set on fire by two unknown perpetrators on August 26th in a forest in the canton of Fribourg, reported the Tribune de Genève on Monday. News of the attack was not released until his condition improved, said the paper. The CEO’s life is now out of danger but he remains in a serious condition in hospital, it said.

The entrepreneur was found near his vehicle and transported to Lausanne’s CHUV hospital with burns on 25 percent of his body. According to the paper’s sources, Jaussi was forced to drive his car into a forest, where he was doused in petrol and set on fire. He managed to get himself out of the vehicle and call a friend, who alerted emergency services.

This does not sound like a random attack, but something planned by someone who was trying to make a point. In that context, the threat and attack could be related to some personal issue of Jaussi’s that we are unaware, or it could be connected to his company, which if successful will challenge many other big aerospace players.

Update on Falcon 9 explosion

NASA and SpaceX have released detailed statements about Thursday’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, summarizing what is known at the moment as well as the state of the investigation.

Not surprisingly, the failure will cause delays in SpaceX’s upcoming plans as well as force the company to shift launches to a different launchpad that will not be ready until November.

Budget constraints and technical challenges delay commercial crew

A NASA inspector general report released today cites both budget constraints imposed by Congress as well as technical challenges that will delay the first commercial manned mission to ISS until 2018.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years. OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program. Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President’s request so funding is not the issue it once was. Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today’s report.

The companies’ systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS. Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says. But it is skeptical: “Notwithstanding the contractors’ optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

The report has been written prior to yesterday’s Falcon 9 launchpad failure, which will certainly impact the schedule negatively.

Essentially, the report claims that the program was delayed initially by about two to three years because of the refusal of Congress to fund it fully. The delays to come will be instead because of the technical challenges. While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also note that government reports like this are often designed to generate more funds for the agencies involved, not find a better way to do things. If we are not diligent and hard-nosed about how we fund this program I worry that with time commercial crew will become corrupted by the government’s sloppy and inefficient way of doing things, and become as bloated as Orion and SLS. This is one of the reasons I never complained when Congress short funded the program previously, as it forced the companies involved to keep their costs down.

Falcon 9 explodes on launchpad

During a standard prelaunch static test firing today a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launchpad.

Obviously, this will put a hold on all of SpaceX’s upcoming efforts.

  • Falcon Heavy: Since the explosion was almost certainly caused by a failure in the first stage, they will have to hold off that first Falcon Heavy demo launch scheduled for this fall, since it uses three first stages strapped together.
  • Reused Falcon 9: Similarly, the first launch of a recovered Falcon 9 first stage, also set for the fall, will likely have to be delayed until they determine what went wrong today.
  • Reused Dragon: NASA had indicated that one of the cargo missions to ISS next year would reuse a previously flown Dragon. Though this explosion has nothing to do specifically with Dragon, the capsule is launched with a Falcon 9, and thus cannot fly until this investigation is over.
  • Falcon 9: SpaceX had been attempting this year to up its launch rate to more than one per month. That will now not happen.
  • Red Dragon: SpaceX has said it plans to fly a test Dragon to Mars in 2018, the next launch window. While this explosion will delay the company’s plans over the next year, I expect SpaceX will not cancel that 2018 launch. They have enough time to investigate this failure and fix the cause without missing that window.
  • Elon Musk’s Mars speech: Finally, Musk is scheduled to make a major speech on September 26 at the International Aeronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, outlining his company’s future plans to fly to Mars. He almost certainly will have to rewrite that speech.

This launchpad explosion is bad news for SpaceX but it is also very puzzling. I cannot remember the last time a rocket exploded on the launchpad during a static fire test. Failures have in recent years always occurred during the actual launch, when the rocket is flying and is thus exposed to large dynamic forces which can cause the engineering to go screwy. For a rocket to explode at the moment it ignites its engines suggests a very fundamental design fault, which seems unlikely considering the number of launches and static fires SpaceX has completed with the Falcon 9, including numerous prelaunch tests of the rocket’s first stage, both on the launchpad and at the company’s test facility in Texas prior to shipment to the launchpad.

Update: SpaceX has now said that the problem occurred near the rocket’s upper stage during fueling, prior to the actual ignition of the engines.

This news is both good and bad. The good news: It means that the failure had nothing to do with the much tested Merlin engines, which would have suggested a fundamental design flaw previously unseen. That is now clearly not the case. The bad news: The update suggests that the problem might be related to SpaceX’s high density, high pressure fueling, which by lowering the temperature of the tanks allows them to load more fuel and oxidizer. This novel approach, only introduced last year in order to give the rocket greater fuel capacity, might have a design problem that they had not anticipated.

Big scandal for Virgin Galactic’s investment partner

Virgin Galactic’s biggest investor has been caught up in a big scandal involving two of its top managers, including the arrest of one.

As noted at the link, there is no evidence that anyone at Virgin Galactic was involved in what appears to be an illegal transfer of $3.5 billion from the investment company. However, the collapse of this company, which invested $390 million for a 37% share in Virgin Galactic, could impact the space company’s future efforts.

DNA sequencing successfully done on ISS

Researchers have now confirmed that a new lightweight DNA sequencer has been successfully tested on ISS.

Using a hand-held, USB-powered sequencing device called the MinION, astronaut Kate Rubins, PhD, sequenced samples of mouse, bacteria and virus DNA. This portable sequencing technology could eventually help diagnose sick astronauts, monitor space station food, water, and environment for microbes, and identify extraterrestrial life forms.

As part of a collaboration with NASA on the Biomolecular Sequencer project, Earth-bound researchers – a bicoastal team at UCSF and Weill Cornell Medical College – analyzed the sequencing data from space and compared it to identical samples sequenced on the ground. The analysis would tell whether the journey to space and conditions aboard the space station affected the sequencing results.

…[An] analysis of the space and Earth data found comparable results. “We essentially got equivalent data, and it’s of very high quality, probably within the top 20 percent of nanopore runs that we do routinely here on Earth,” Chiu said.

The press release makes a big deal about how this new equipment will be beneficial for research in space, but I am betting that its creators are as much if not more interested in the profits they will make selling it to customers on Earth, where its portability will make a very useful and beneficial to Earth-bound patients and researchers.

Third Lunar X-prize competitor signs launch contract

The competition heats up: The Google Lunar X-prize has confirmed that a third competitor, Synergy Moon, has signed a launch contract to send its privately built and funded rover to the Moon.

The Synergy Moon mission will use a Neptune 8 rocket, built and launched by Interorbital Systems, to carry a lunar lander and at least one rover to the surface of the moon, launching from an open-ocean location off the California coast during the second half of 2017. Team Synergy Moon is one of three Google Lunar X-Prize teams now set to compete in 2017, joining SpaceIL and Moon Express. The remaining 13 teams have until December 31, 2016 for their launch agreements to be verified by X-Prize in order to proceed in the competition.

In looking at the website of the launch company, I am not impressed. I hope they succeed, but I would not put much money on this Lunar X-Prize competitor.

World record for largest 3D printed object

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has entered the Guinness record books with the successful printing of the world’s largest 3D printed object.

Made from carbon fiber and ABS thermoplastic composite materials, the new tool measures 17.5 x 5.5 x 1.5 ft (5.3 x 1.7 x 0.5 m) and weighs around 1,650 lb (748 kg). To meet the requirements of the record, the item needed to be one solid piece of 10.6 cubic ft (0.3 cubic m), which a Guinness World Records judge confirmed at a ceremony. “The recognition by Guinness World Records draws attention to the advances we’re making in large-scale additive manufacturing composites research,” says Vlastimil Kunc, leader of [Oak Ridge] team. “Using 3D printing, we could design the tool with less material and without compromising its function.”

Of course, the tool wasn’t designed just for world record glory: printable in just 30 hours, it’s an impressive time and cost saver, considering the existing metal version currently takes about three months to manufacture. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text illustrates in one sentence why there is a push toward 3D printing. It is cheaper, faster, and will eventually provide much greater flexibility.

First relaunch of Falcon 9 1st stage announced

The competition heats up: SpaceX and the Luxembourg satellite company SES today announced that the of SES 10 this fall will use one of the Falcon 9 first stages that has flown previously and been recovered. From the SES press release:

“Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX’s first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket. We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management,” said Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES. “This new agreement reached with SpaceX once again illustrates the faith we have in their technical and operational expertise. The due diligence the SpaceX team has demonstrated throughout the design and testing of the SES-10 mission launch vehicle gives us full confidence that SpaceX is capable of launching our first SES satellite dedicated to Latin America into space.”

I also like how they call the used first stage “flight-proven.” This story notes that the insurance cost for the launch weren’t raised either.

The exact date has not yet been set, but it will be in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Concrete poured for Blue Origin factory

The competition heats up: Blue Origin this week began pouring concrete for its new rocket factory in Florida.

The Florida facility will be devoted to orbital operations, involving a spacecraft currently known as “Very Big Brother.” The orbital craft could eventually be offered to NASA as a transport ship for cargo or astronauts flying to and from the International Space Station. It could take on other missions as well.

They hope to open the facility by 2018.

Dragon splashes down

The competition heats up: SpaceX’s most recently launched Dragon capsule today returned to Earth and was successfully recovered.

The Dragon is the only spacecraft flying today that can return large amounts of cargo to Earth.

Among the cargo brought back from space Friday were a dozen mice from a Japanese science experiment — the first brought home alive in a Dragon. Samples from mice euthanized as part of an experiment by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly also were on board. Results were returned from an experiment that studied the behavior of heart cells in microgravity, and from research into the composition of microbes in the human digestive system, NASA said. Findings from both could help keep astronauts healthy during deep space exploration missions.

Justin Hayward – Forever Autumn

An evening pause: This song, sung mostly by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, was written by Jeff Wayne and is performed here as part of his musical concert of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. And yes, that is Richard Burton’s voice for the narrator.

Hat tip Wayne DeVette.

As always, I am looking for more suggestions for future evening pauses from my readers. If there’s something entertaining that you think will fit, comment here (without giving the link to the piece), and I will email you!

Starliner and Orion drop tests

The competition heats up: NASA and Boeing have begun drop tests on land and water respectively of their Orion and Starliner manned capsules.

Both sets of tests are taking place at Langley. With Orion they are dropping the mockup in water to test how it will respond to a variety of circumstances. With Starliner they have finished the water drop tests and have begun drop tests on land.

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