Tag Archives: engineering

One Chute

Part 4 of Doug Messier’s series on commercial space history, A Niche in Time, is now available. It is entitled “One Chute” and focuses on the long and sad history of Virgin Galactic.

One new detail that Messier notes struck me:

At the time of the accident, Virgin Galactic had about 700 customers signed up to fly on SpaceShipTwo. Officials now say the number is around 650. Assuming full ships with six passengers aboard, Virgin Galactic would need 109 flights just to fly out its current manifest. The figure doesn’t include flight tests and missions filled with microgravity experiments. That’s a lot of launches to make without expecting at least one catastrophic failure, possibly involving prominent wealthy passengers.

It increasingly appears that this will be a total loss for the investors who poured money into Virgin Galactic.

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Falcon Heavy launch delayed?

In quelling a false rumor that said NASA was forcing SpaceX to change the launchpad location for its Falcon Heavy (it is not), SpaceX noted that Falcon Heavy’s first launch will occur “no earlier than the end of 2017.”

Previously they have said that they are aiming for November 2017, following the reconfiguration of the 39-A launchpad from Falcon 9 launches to Falcon Heavy launches. This statement suggests that a November launch is now considered unlikely. The reconfiguration will take 60 days, and cannot occur until SpaceX switches its Falcon 9 launches from launchpad 39-A back to launchpad 40. Since a Falcon 9 launch is presently scheduled for launchpad 39-A this Saturday, that reconfiguration cannot begin before then. Moreover, the launchpad for an October 30 Falcon 9 launch remains unnamed, suggesting that launchpad 40 might not be ready by then and therefore forcing SpaceX to use 39-A for Falcon 9. This would in turn delay the first Falcon Heavy launch to the very end of December, at the earliest.

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NASA to extend use of private module on ISS

Capitalism in space: NASA has decided to extend the life of Bigelow’s module BEAM on ISS beyond its original two year test.

NASA’s original contract with Bigelow was to keep BEAM on ISS for two years and then jettison it, but NASA has concluded that BEAM has value as a storage compartment and wants to keep it there. NASA said the new contract would overlap the originally contracted test period, for a minimum of three years, with two options to extend for one additional year. A decision on whether to jettison it at that point or continue using it will be made thereafter.

The agency said that not only would NASA use it for stowage, but Bigelow will be allowed to use it “as a test-bed for new technology demonstrations.”

Using it makes a lot more sense than jettisoning it (the typical government way). This will also allow them to study the longevity in space of an expandable module.

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SpaceX successfully completes dress rehearsal for Saturday launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully completed its standard dress rehearsal countdown, including a static firing of the Falcon 9 first stage, in anticipation of its schedule launch of a commercial communications satellite on Saturday.

The first stage will be the third reused first stage to fly into space.

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UAE announces manned spaceflight plans

The new colonial movement: The United Arab Emirates has announced their plans to establish an astronaut corps that would fly on the manned spacecraft of other nations.

The first of those astronauts would fly by the end of 2021, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE. “We have not decided on who will be flying us yet,” he said. “We do envisage that we partner up with all of the major space agencies, somehow and in some structure.”

There would be several options for the UAE to choose from, including Soyuz flights by Russia to the International Space Station and Shenzhou flights to a Chinese space station slated to be completed by the early 2020s. Other options include flights on commercial crew vehicles being developed by Boeing and SpaceX.

To me, the really exciting aspect of this is that the UAE is now a new customer looking for a means to get its people into space, which makes all those manned programs, including the American private companies, competitors for that business.

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Testing underwater interplanetary robots on the cheap

This article describing a test of an underwater robot by JPL scientists in the interior of a glacier warmed the cockles of my heart when I read this paragraph:

Klesh and Leicty’s recent expedition relied on a commercial grade submersible and a “homemade” glacial probe. The latter was built using off-the-shelf and 3-D printed parts. They did all their own wiring and programming.

NASA test projects like this are often gold-plated. I like how these scientists took a more practical approach, getting their data without spending a fortune in time and money. Moreover, they gained some engineering knowledge that can be applied practically in future probes, both here on Earth and on other planets.

Hat tip Jim Mallamace.

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World View completes first Stratollite balloon launch from Tucson spaceport

Capitalism in space: World View today successfully completed the first launch from its Tucson spaceport of one of its Stratollite high altitude balloons.

None of the stories I have found have provided any real detail about the flight, so it is unclear what they accomplished, other than to demonstrate they can launch from the spaceport.

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Sierra Nevada and German space center increase ties

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada and the German Aerospace Center have signed a new agreement increasing their partnership for using Dream Chaser in space.

The current MOU follows a 2013 Technical Understanding between the parties that initiated cooperation on space activities. This new agreement allows the two entities to establish goals and baseline objectives on future missions, scientific contributions and future space architecture for LEO, Cislunar and lunar operations, and deep space exploration.

It is clear once again that Sierra Nevada is trying to find partners who can pay to keep Dream Chaser flying as much as possible, between its cargo missions to ISS.

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China successfully launches three satellites

China today ended a long pause in launches since the failure of its Long March 5 rocket in July and placed in orbit three military satellites using a smaller rocket not used since 2004.

The use of such a rocket is most intriguing. Meanwhile, no word yet on when launches will resume on their other more up-to-date rockets, including their new and most powerful Long March 5.

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Boeing delays first manned Starliner flight

Capitalism in space: It appears that Boeing has pushed back the first manned flight of its Starliner capsule from August 2018 to early 2019.

In an interview at the conference, Ferguson said that the company’s current schedule calls for a pad abort test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the second quarter of 2018. That would be followed by an uncrewed orbital test flight of the vehicle, launched on an Atlas V, in the third quarter of 2018. “If the results of that are very favorable,” he said of the uncrewed flight test, “our crewed flight test is fourth quarter — perhaps, depending on the outcome, maybe the first quarter of the following year.”

This schedule appears to be an overall three to five month delay in their program.

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Egypt announces creation of space agency

The new colonial movement: The Egyptian government today voted to create an Egyptian space agency with the goal of encouraging the development of a home-based satellite industry.

The ruling by the Council of Ministers will now pass on to the Egyptian parliament for final agreement and made into law. Minister Abdel Ghaffar also said that Egypt intends create a satellite manufacturing centre in 2019, and then launch Egypt’s first indigenously made satellite in 2020.

This satellite is now dubbed Misr Sat 2, previously known as EgyptSat-2, and will be designed and manufactured at Space City, located in New Cairo. Space City is a one hundred acre plot of land where satellite manufacturing and other space facilities are being built. Misr Sat-2 is to be partly funded by China to the tune of U.S.$45 million after a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit held in Xiamen, China, earlier in September 2017.

This project is linked to larger aid from China, and appears to be prompted by this Chinese aid.

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Elon Musk’s economic version of SLS

Last night Elon Musk gave a speech providing an update on his vision for building an interplanetary spaceship, and in the process described at length how he intends to make such a rocket/spacecraft affordable, efficient, and profitable. His update included outlining how he hopes this rocket could even be used as a transportation vehicle on Earth. However, this was what I consider the most significant:

But most importantly came a timeline that, while aspirational – something even Mr. Musk noted – is encouraging.

Currently, SpaceX will begin full-scale construction of the first BFRs in the second quarter of 2018, with the aim to launch the first two BFR missions in the 2022 interplanetary alignment and launch window to Mars. Those first two BFR missions will be scouting missions of sorts to “confirm water resources and identify hazards and place power, mining, and life support infrastructure for future flights” on the surface. Those two missions will then be followed by four BFR missions in 2024 to the red planet.

Excitingly, two of those missions will be crew missions taking the first people to Mars, while the other two will be cargo ships bringing more equipment and supplies.

Will Musk achieve this schedule? I have doubts, but I also think he has a reasonable chance, based on his track record. More important, if he even comes close he, along with Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin with their New Glenn rocket, will demonstrate the utter absurdity of our federal government spending a further dime on SLS, Orion, or NASA’s new boondoggle, a lunar space station.

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Webb Space Telescope delayed again

NASA announced today that they are further delaying the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from October 2018 to late spring 2019.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope now is planning to launch between March and June 2019 from French Guiana, following a schedule assessment of the remaining integration and test activities. Previously Webb was targeted to launch in October 2018. “The change in launch timing is not indicative of hardware or technical performance concerns,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. “Rather, the integration of the various spacecraft elements is taking longer than expected.”

As part of an international agreement with the ESA (European Space Agency) to provide a desired launch window one year prior to launch, NASA recently performed a routine schedule assessment to ensure launch preparedness and determined a launch schedule change was necessary. The careful analysis took into account the remaining tasks that needed to be completed, the lessons learned from unique environmental testing of the telescope and science instruments at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the current performance rates of integrating the spacecraft element.

Webb’s original launch date was supposed to be 2011, making its launch now verging on a decade late. The original budget for the telescope was supposed to be $1 billion. It is now expected to cost more than $9 billion. Like SLS/Orion, this project more resembles feather-bedding, providing NASA employees and the contractors involved a steady paycheck, regardless of whether they ever get anything done. In fact, both Webb and SLS/Orion seemed designed to encourage failure. The project never gets cancelled no matter what goes wrong. Instead, more money gets poured in.

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Lockheed Martin unveils concepts for Mars ship and lander

The boondoggle lobbying continues! Lockheed Martin today unveiled its concepts for a Mars interplanetary ship, built around its Orion capsule, as well as a fully reusable Mars lander.

The timing of this announcement fits perfectly with last week’s NASA announcement of its concepts for building a lunar space station, along with this week’s announcement to study doing it with the Russians. It also times perfectly with the announcement that the first public meeting of the National Space Council will take place on October 5. And tonight Elon Musk will give an update on his own proposals for getting to Mars.

All these public relations announcements suggest to me that the Trump administration is getting close to unveiling its own future space policy, and they all suggest that this policy will be to build a space station around the Moon. My guess is that Lockheed Martin and SpaceX are vying for a piece of that pie in their announcements today.

Let me also note that Lockheed Martin’s concept above illustrates nicely what a lie Orion is and has always been. They have been touting it for years as the vehicle that will get Americans to Mars, but now admit that it can only really be a small part of a much larger interplanetary ship, and will be there mostly to be the descent capsule when astronauts want to come home. They also admit in the video at the first link that their proposal for getting to Mars is only a concept. To build it would require many billions of dollars. I wonder will it cost as much as Orion and SLS ($43 billion plus) and take as long (18 years plus) to build? If so, it is a bad purchase. We can do this faster, and for less.

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Sputnik full scale test model sells for $850K

A full scale engineering test model of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite sold at auction yesterday for $850K.

Bonhams auctioned the “beeping” replica of the now-iconic satellite, with its polished metal sphere and four protruding antennas, for $847,500 (including the premium charged to the buyer) at its New York gallery. The winning bid, placed by an unidentified buyer on the telephone, far surpassed the pre-auction estimate and the amount paid for a similar Sputnik replica sold by Bonhams for $269,000 in 2016.

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One last image from Rosetta

Rosetta's last image

Engineers reviewing the last bits of telemetry that was transmitted back to Earth by Rosetta just before it crashed on Comet 67P/C-G have discovered one last image of the comet’s surface.

That image is on the right. It is slightly blurred because of the limitations of Rosetta’s camera at this short range, and the incompleteness of the data received.

The image covers an area about a meter across, with a resolution of about two millimeters per pixel.

I imagine this surface is relatively soft, since the gravity holding the comet together is so slight. If you wanted to dig down, you would find it easy digging.

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NASA and Roscomos sign agreement to work together to build lunar orbiting station

Extending the pork: NASA and Roscosmos have signed an agreement agreeing to work together in the construction of what NASA calls a deep space gateway, a space station orbiting the Moon.

The goal here is to garner political support for getting funding to fly a third SLS/Orion mission, which would be its second manned flight. It is also to establish some long term justification for SLS/Orion, which presently has no mission and will disappear after its first manned test flight, presently scheduled for 2022. That single test flight will have taken 18 years and more than 40 billion dollars to build, an absurd timeframe and cost for a single mission that does not bode well for future SLS/Orion missions.

The Russian perspective can be found here. They claim that the station would be finished by 2024-2026, an absurd prediction based on the expected SLS launch rate of one launch every one to two years. For Russia, the hope is that they can use this project to get U.S. money, just like the big American space companies like Lockheed Martin (Orion) and Boeing (SLS).

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Parts 2 and 3 of “A Niche in Time”

The second and third parts of Doug Messier’s series on the history of aviation and space are now available:

Part 2 describes how the Hindenberg crash ended the lighter-than-air airship industry, while Part 3 describes how the Columbia accident led to the end of the space shuttle. He then compares them both, noting their similarities.

Not surprising to me, the main common thread that sustained both of these failed concepts was the desire of a government to build and fly them, regardless of their cost and practicality. Messier’s comparison between airships and airplanes highlights this well. Airplanes were cost effective and could easily be made profitable. Airships were neither. They existed because Hitler wanted them.

The same can be said for the space shuttles, and for Constellation and SLS/Orion today.

Anyway, read both articles above. They are nicely written, very informative, and provide important lessons about history that we would be wise to educate ourselves about before we attempt to make our own history in the future.

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UN announces proposed Dream Chaser international mission

Capitalism in space: The Outer Space office of the United Nations has announced an opportunity for member nations to express their interest in doing a science mission using Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser reusable spaceship.

The UN announcement states that

The purpose of this Call for Interest (CFI) is to provide a summary of the proposed mission and to solicit information from Member States interested in providing experiments, payloads, or satellites that could be flown on this mission. The CFI also has the objective of gathering information on the interested countries so that UNOOSA may better understand the demand for this type of mission.

The actual call [pdf] roughly describes a mission lasting 2 to 3 weeks and carrying about 20 experiments. This call is designed to give them a better idea of what those experiments might be, what nations wish to participate, and where the funding for the mission might come from. The actual announcement to submit experiment proposals won’t come until March 2018.

Being a UN mission, it is not surprising that it wants to focus on a variety of leftwing “Sustainable Development Goals”:
» Read more

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First meeting of National Space Council announced

A Potemkin Village: The White House has announced the date of the first public meeting of the National Space Council, set for October 5 at the Air & Space Museum.

Today, Vice President Mike Pence announced the first meeting of the National Space Council is scheduled for October 5, 2017 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The meeting, titled “Leading the Next Frontier: An Event with the National Space Council,” will include testimonials from expert witnesses who represent the sectors of the space industry: Civil Space, Commercial Space, and National Security Space.

What this announcement tells me is that this council isn’t there to discuss and set space policy, but to sell that policy to the public. And right now, I am expecting that sales job will be trying to convince us that we must use SLS/Orion mission to build a new space station orbiting the Moon by 2023. They will use the council to pitch the idea, and then Trump will make the traditional Kennedy-like speech, with lots of astronauts standing behind him, committing this nation to putting a space station around the Moon by such-and-such a date. Whoopie!

Forgive me if I sound a bit cynical. I’ve seen this show many times before. For some reason, the opening act is great, but then it fades always away into nothingness before the second act begins.

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Rocket Lab preps for 2nd flight of Electron

Capitalism in space: Smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab is preparing for the second test flight of its rocket Electron, now set for October.

The test flight will also carry four commercial nanosats.

Both Planet and Spire — two companies that operate small satellites in orbit — will have payloads on the Electron’s second test flight, dubbed “Still Testing.” The rocket will carry two of Planet’s Dove satellites, designed to image Earth, as well as two of Spire’s Lemur-2 satellites that track weather and ship traffic.

The company also states that if this second flight is successful, they might forego a third test flight and move directly to commercial operations.

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Long March 5 failure to delay Chinese lunar probes and space station

The July launch failure of China’s largest rocket, Long March 5, is going to cause delays to both its lunar and space station programs.

They have not yet finished their investigation into the failure, and are now admitting that the launch of Chang’e-5, a lunar sample return mission, will not occur this year as planned, and that the launch of their space station core module will be delayed into 2019.

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Blue Origin inks deal with satellite company to use New Glenn

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has signed a deal with the satellite company mu Space to use its as yet unbuilt New Glenn rocket to launch a satellite sometime in the next decade.

This isn’t really a contract, since I am sure that mu Space will have the option to switch to a different rocket. Nonetheless, it signals faith in Blue Origin. It also indicates that, though no price was mentioned, Blue Origin is probably providing the satellite company with a significant price break to encourage them to make the deal, thus demonstrating the growing competitiveness of today’s launch industry. This is also the third contract deal for New Glenn.

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Mangalyaan passes three years in Mars orbit

India’s Mangalyaan orbiter has passed its third anniversary operating in Mars orbit.

The spacecraft could last as long as five more years before running out of fuel. Though it has five instruments and has taken more than 700 images, its importance so far is not in the science it has done but in what it has taught Indian engineers for running future more sophisticated missions.

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Sputnik for sale!

Capitalism in space: Sputnik’s engineering test replica is going up for auction, and you can buy it!

Like the Sputnik-1 that flew into orbit on October 4, 1957, the test replica is a polished aluminum sphere 23 in (58 cm) in diameter with four spring-mounted external whip antennas. It consists of an outer shell to protect the satellite against heat and an inner pressurized shell to protect the pre-solid state electronics made up of a simple radio transmitter and a 12-V battery. The replica includes a 57-in (1,448 mm) manganese brass stand and an anti-static o-ring. All together, satellite and stand weigh about 100 lb (45 kg) and stand 78 in (1,981 mm) tall.

The Sputnik was previously part of the collection of Heinz Miller of Austria and was originally built for electromagnetic compatibility and electromagnetic interference testing. Only three of the original Sputniks remain in private hands. Of the other two, one is outside Moscow at the Energia Corporate Museum, while the other is at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The asking price for the Sputnik is US$100,000 to US$150,000.

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