Tag Archives: engineering

Software issues threaten Orion/SLS schedule

Despite having more than a decade to develop the software for SLS and Orion, NASA now faces the possibility that the rocket’s first test flight in 2018 might be delayed because that software is not ready.

Specifically, a NASA advisory board has revealed that Orion’s flight software is behind schedule and might not be ready in time. This, combined with schedule problems for the capsule’s service module, being built by the European Space Agency, threatens the 2018 launch date.

First images from Pathfinder-1 test smallsat released

The competition heats up: Spaceflight Industries today released the first images taken from its Pathfinder-1 test smallsat.

As I noted when Pathfinder-1 was successfully launched, the success of this private mission is significant. They are demonstrating that a very tiny and inexpensive satellite can do things that in the past required big and expensive satellites.

Chinese astronauts to return to Earth this week

The competition heats up: After spending a month in orbit in their country’s second orbiting space station module, two Chinese astronauts are expected to return to Earth this week.

The article provides a lot of details about China’s upcoming space station plans. For example, this will likely be the last manned mission to the Tiangong-2 module. It will be used next year to test the docking of an unmanned freighter, but the next manned mission will be to the core unit of their full-sized space station, now set to launch in 2018 on a Long March 5 rocket, which successfully completed its first test launch two weeks ago.

The Fact and Fiction of the NASA EmDrive Paper Leak

A NASA paper outlining work that appears to substantiate the EmDrive concept that involves the production of a thrust in a way that violates the laws of physics was leaked last week, and this story tries to figure out what has been learned.

To me, the key is this paragraph:

In essence, the NASA EmDrive in the paper consists of a closed copper cone, the inside of which is being bombarded with microwaves. To test the EmDrive, the researchers powered it with 40, 60, and 80 watts and found that it generated up to 58, 128, and 119 micronewtons of thrust, respectively. Given that this “anomaly” was still observed by White and his colleagues after accounting for error, this suggests that the results of the experiment show an EmDrive is indeed possible.

Based on these results, the researchers estimated that their contraption would be capable of generating approximately 1.2 millinewtons of thrust per kilowatt were they to scale up the power input. To put this in perspective, the Hall thruster—one of the most powerful in development and powered by ejecting plasma—generates about 60 millinewtons of thrust per kilowatt. [emphasis mine]

Interestingly , the article did not comment on how little thrust this EmDrive test produced. This tiny amount, however, to me suggests strongly that what they are measuring is some outside force acting on the drive that they have missed that would invalidate all the theories listed in the article. And even if the thrust drive does prove a new component of fundamental physics, as suggested in the article, the system simply doesn’t appear to produce enough thrust to make it practical.

Mars rover update: November 14, 2016

Curiosity

Curiosity looking south, Sol 1516

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my last update on November 3rd, Curiosity has reached the region of sand dunes and has started to pick its way through it. The panorama above was created using images from the rover’s left navigation camera, taken on Sol 1516. It looks south, with Mount Sharp rising on the left.

That same day Curiosity also used its mast camera to zoom in on the canyon gap in the center of the panorama. The first image below is the wider mast camera shot, with the an outline showing the even closer zoom-in below that.
» Read more

Oxo Crater on Ceres

Oxo Crater on Ceres

Cool image time! The Dawn image at the right, cropped to show here, was taken on April 19, 2016. It shows the crater Oxo on Ceres and is especially intriguing because it not provides high resolution imagery of the crater’s bright rim, the second brightest feature on Ceres, it also shows how the southeastern part of the crater’s rim has literally slide down into the crater, leaving behind a gaping rombus-shaped pit.

The slumping, combined with the bright material on the rim, is more evidence that at some point in the past Ceres was geologically active.

NASA considers alternatives to Orion

The competition heats up: Faced with long delays and an ungodly budget, NASA is now considering alternatives to replace the Orion capsule.

NASA has initiated a process that raises questions about the future of its Orion spacecraft. So far, this procedural effort has flown largely under the radar, because it came in the form of a subtle Request for Information (RFI) that nominally seeks to extend NASA’s contract to acquire future Orion vehicles after Exploration Mission-2, which likely will fly sometime between 2021 and 2023.

Nevertheless, three sources familiar with the RFI, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told Ars there is more to the request than a simple extension for Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin. Perhaps most radically, the RFI may even open the way for a competitor, such as Boeing or SpaceX, to substitute its own upgraded capsule for Orion in the mid-2020s.

The article also has this juicy quote:

The new RFI states that Lockheed will continue with development of Orion through a second uncrewed flight set for late 2018 and Exploration Mission-2, the first crewed mission, as early as 2021. However, once this “base vehicle” configuration is established, the RFI signals NASA’s intent to find a less expensive path forward. “This RFI serves as an examination of the market, which is an initial step in pursuing any of the available acquisition strategies, including the exercising of existing options,” the document states.

The end of SLS and Orion is beginning.

Europe and Airbus Safran ink deal to build Ariane 6

The competition heats up: The European Space Agency and the joint partnership of Airbus and Safran have signed their deal for the development of Europe’s next rocket, Ariane 6, that will replace Ariane 5 and is aimed at competing more effectively against SpaceX in the world’s launch market.

Russians to put first centrifuge on ISS

Russia today announced that they are developing and plan to launch the first small centrifuge ever to fly in space.

The centrifuge would be installed on an inflatable module that Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems, which specializes in studying the medical problems of space travel, is building, and would be used to study the effects of artificial gravity in weightlessness.

Unfortunately, the announcement doesn’t tell us much more than this. Based on previous such announcements from Russia, I would not be surprised if this project never flies.

Using the X-37B as a space ambulance?

Researchers have proposed using the Air Force’s X-37B as an ambulance in space.

Halberg said that an effective astronaut taxi should, among other things, be able to stay at the ISS for two years or more at a stretch; be capable of getting people back to Earth rapidly, within three hours or so; impose minimal G-loads on occupants; have the ability to land close to a hospital; and allow patients to lie in a supine position. These requirements all point to a space plane rather than a capsule, Halberg said — meaning SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, which are scheduled to start flying NASA astronauts to and from the ISS within the next year or two, wouldn’t make the grade as ambulances.

Another private crew-carrying vehicle that’s currently in development, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser space plane, is an intriguing option that bears further investigation, Robinson and Halberg said. But their initial concept study focused on the robotic X-37B, chiefly because the 29-foot-long (8.8 meters) military space plane has already racked up millions of miles in orbit, while Dream Chaser has yet to launch.

Makes sense, though once Dream Chaser is flying it will have the potential to provide the same service with far greater capabilities.

Orion faces more delays

Faced with looming schedule problems for Europe’s effort to build the service module for the Orion capsule, NASA has created a working group to attack the problem.

The European Service Module (ESM) element of Orion has been classed as a major schedule driver for the program for some time. The Service Module for Orion was originally going to be an all-American system, under the control of Lockheed Martin. However, a deal back in 2012 resulted in an alliance with the European Space Agency (ESA) to utilize hardware associated with its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

The deal made sense. NASA’s goal of international collaboration is deemed to be an essential formula for spreading the costs and increasing the viability of NASA’s exploration goals, building on the success of the partnerships that built the International Space Station. Also, the ATV is proven technology, having already proved its worth via a string of successful resupply missions to the orbital outpost.

However, the challenge of combining the technology into what is essentially an American vehicle has resulted in schedule pressures.

Let me once again point out that Orion was first proposed by President George Bush in 2004. Its first official flight, with service module, is now scheduled for 2018. That means it took NASA 14 years to build and launch a unmanned single complete capsule, assuming they can get the service module built in time. That it took that long to build this is shameful. That there is even the slightest possibility that 14 years won’t be enough time to build the service module is downright disgusting, and is another illustration of the complete failure of the federal government.

Note that the previous unmanned Orion test flight in 2014 really doesn’t count. That capsule was a engineering test capsule, designed to test the capsule’s heat shield, even though NASA had already decided before the flight to abandon that heat shield design. In other words, it was a complete waste of money.

Musk predicts mid-December return to flight

In a cable news interview today, Elon Musk reiterated recent reports that SpaceX expects to resume launches by the middle of December.

That the head of Inmarsat, one of SpaceX’s satellite customers, has confirmed this plan and appears to have no problem with it, suggests to me that SpaceX is on solid ground and that they have pinpointed a solution to the launchpad explosion that will not require any major re-engineering.

Vector teams up with private company for low-cost launch tracking capability

The competition heats up: The new smallsat rocket company Vector Space Systems has signed a deal with Atlas Space Operations, a private company focused on providing low-cost launch and satellite tracking capabilities.

As early as 2018, Vector Space Systems will be able to provide a space-to-ground communication network from the Galactic Sky division to its customers through ATLAS LINKS™ – the world’s first mobile, rapidly deployable, and electronically steered array RF ground system that is revolutionizing the space industry. Designed for communications with both low-earth orbit and deep space missions, and capable of rapid deployment anywhere on the globe – ATLAS LINKS™ arrays will enable Vector Space Systems to simultaneously track signals over multiple frequencies, effectively eliminating high civil engineering costs associated with the installation of other systems that require expensive antennae and pedestals. Satellite ground architecture and data services will support Vector Space Systems’ launch operations from the ground and in-orbit, transforming satellite telemetry tracking and command systems (TT&C) and ground operations for space startups.

In other words, Atlas is in direct competition with the antenna network of NASA’s Deep Space Network, and is designed to be cheaper and more flexible.

Luxembourg invests $28 million into asteroid mining company

The competition heats up: In its continuing effort to make money from space, the government of Luxembourg has invested $28 million in the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

As part of the deal, Planetary Resources is establishing a European headquarters in Luxembourg that will conduct research and development activities. Georges Schmit, a member of the Space Resources advisory board to the Government of Luxembourg, wil join Planetary’s board. “We plan to launch the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission by 2020 and look forward to collaborating with our European partner in this pivotal new industry,” said Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources chief executive.

As with Luxembourg’s other deals, the investment has required the company to shift many of its operations from the U.S. to Luxembourg.

Midland spaceport approved as Dream Chaser landing site

The spaceport in Midland, Texas has been approved as a potential landing site for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle.

Midland is pushing to have Sierra Nevada make it the company’s main landing site for the spacecraft. So far, that decision however has not been made.

Atlas 5 to launch Cygnus in March

NASA has ordered Orbital ATK to use ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket for its next Cygnus cargo run to ISS in order to maximize the cargo that the capsule can deliver.

A Cygnus reached the station last month with over 5,000 pounds of supplies after launching atop Orbital ATK’s own Antares rocket. It was the first such flight for the booster in two years, a lull instigated by the 2014 explosion of an Antares and Orbital ATK’s decision to replace the main engines with a different design. But the more-powerful Atlas 5 rocket can launch over 7,700 pounds of provisions inside a Cygnus, and the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday night that NASA has pushed Orbital ATK to buy another Atlas 5 for its greater lift capacity and reliability record.

Sources told Spaceflight Now that the Atlas 5 would launch the OA-7 mission in March and that Orbital ATK was working with Kennedy Space Center to book facility time to process the Cygnus.
It was not immediately clear if NASA or Orbital ATK would pay for the extra costs associated with the Atlas 5 rocket.

This decision by NASA to favor Atlas 5 here over Antares illustrates some of the commercial weaknesses of Antares. Orbital ATK’s decision to launch the rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia had some political advantages, putting their launch facilities in the state and congressional district of legislators whose approval they were soliciting. The decision, however, limited the cargo capacity of the rocket because of the site’s higher latitude. This might also help explain why Orbital ATK has as yet failed to find any other customers for Antares, besides NASA.

I also wonder whether some political pressure from other legislators who favor ULA also helped influence this decision. The political game is brutal these days in Washington and almost nothing connected to the federal government is done anymore without some crony and corrupt political maneuvers in the background.

MRO color images of Schiaparelli crash site

Schiaparelli crash site

The image above, cropped from a wider image released today by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team, shows the Schiaparelli impact sites in color and in very high resolution. There are also high resolution images of the heat shield and parachute/back shell. As they note in describing the above image,

Where the lander module struck the ground, dark radial patterns that extend from a dark spot are interpreted as “ejecta,” or material thrown outward from the impact, which may have excavated a shallow crater. From the earlier image, it was not clear whether the relatively bright pixels and clusters of pixels scattered around the lander module’s impact site are fragments of the module or image noise. Now it is clear that at least the four brightest spots near the impact are not noise. These bright spots are in the same location in the two images and have a white color, unusual for this region of Mars. The module may have broken up at impact, and some fragments might have been thrown outward like impact ejecta.

In other words, the lander crashed hard when it hit the ground, throwing pieces and ground material everywhere.

SpaceX may lose a customer payload

Because of the launch delays at SpaceX, Inmarsat is considering finding another rocket company to launch its fourth Global Xpress satellite.

Inmarsat is worried that even after SpaceX resumes launches with the Falcon booster, it may not be able to make up lost time to assure its satellite is placed on orbit as scheduled. Alternatives the London-based company is considering include flying the spacecraft on the European Ariane 5 rocket, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Atlas V, or the Russian Proton booster. Mr. Pearce said Inmarsat could stick with SpaceX if it can get an earlier launch slot.

This is all part of the competitive game. Inmarsat needs to get its satellite in orbit in order to better compete in the communications market, and the delays at SpaceX because of the September 1 launchpad explosion are not helping. This announcement puts pressure on SpaceX to move them to the front of the line or else lose the launch. It also increases their chances of finding an alternative should SpaceX not be able to do that.

Virgin Galactic releases Unity test flight program

In a change from the company’s past policy, which made many promises but never revealed their upcoming schedule in any detail, Virgin Galactic today released their planned test schedule for their new Unity spacecraft.

This test will be the first of a sequence of glide test flights. These flights will cumulatively allow us to test and prove the performance of the vehicle in a variety of conditions: both heavy (e.g. simulating the full weight of a load of fuel, oxidizer, and people) and light (with empty tanks) and in between, at a variety of flight path angles and airspeeds, and so forth. This testing of the “corners of the box” is designed to demonstrate how VSS Unity will perform as it returns from space, after the feather system is retracted and the vehicle becomes a glider and lands on the runway like an airplane. In addition, this phase of flight will also demonstrate and test our abort modes – which culminate in a safe glide back to the runway.

Our team of flight test experts has developed a set of requirements for each planned test flight as well as detailing exactly what we need to test in order to be ready to proceed to the next phase of rocket powered flights. We will fly as many flights as we need to in order to achieve all these objectives.

The schedule, quite properly, does not include any dates. In the past the company and Richard Branson, would make many grand promises about when their test program would be completed without providing any details of what they planned to do during that test program. This time, Branson is quiet, they have announced no schedule dates, but have provided good information about the test program itself. This is a very good change.

Atlas 5 Vandenberg launch delayed again

The ULA Atlas 5 launch of a commercial satellite at Vandenberg that has been delayed repeatedly for numerous reasons, some (wildfires) completely unrelated to the rocket, has been delayed again for five days because of “booster issues”.

The news reports do not say what these issues are.

China’s smallsat rocket scheduled for first launch in December

The competition heats up: Even as they prepare for the first launch of their largest rocket tomorrow, China today also announced that the first test launch of its low cost smallsat rocket, Kuaizhou-1, as now been scheduled for December.

Kuaizhou (speedy vessel) is a low-cost solid-fuelled carrier rocket with high reliability and short preparation period. It was designed to launch low-orbit satellites weighing under 300 kg. The rocket is launched via a mobile launch vehicle and will primarily launch satellites to monitor natural disasters and provide disaster-relief information.

Though this is obviously being touted as a competitor in the new smallsat launch industry, the military advantages of this kind of ballistic missile cannot be ignored. Essentially what China has here is an ICBM that can be launched from a moving vehicle, which means tracking it will be very difficult.

China’s new big rocket set for launch Thursday

The competition heats up: The first launch of China’s new big rocket, Long March 5, is now scheduled for Thursday morning at 10 universal time, 5:30 am Eastern.

The Long March 5 is comparable to the most powerful active rockets in the world such as the Delta-IV Heavy, Atlas V and Ariane 5, and will launch the technology experiment satellite Shijian-17 high into to geosynchronous. At more than 800 tonnes, 53 metres in height and with a 5 metre diameter core, the Long March 5 has been designed to launch the 20-tonne modules of China’s planned space station into low Earth orbit, starting with the core module in 2018.

The countdown and fueling have begun.

Curiosity finds a meteorite

The Curiosity science team have identified and now analyzed a nickel-iron meteorite that Curiosity spotted on October 27.

Scientists of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project, which operates the rover, first noticed the odd-looking rock in images taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) at at a site the rover reached by an Oct. 27 drive. “The dark, smooth and lustrous aspect of this target, and its sort of spherical shape attracted the attention of some MSL scientists when we received the Mastcam images at the new location,” said ChemCam team member Pierre-Yves Meslin, at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), of France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Toulouse, France.

ChemCam found iron, nickel and phosphorus, plus lesser ingredients, in concentrations still being determined through analysis of the spectrum of light produced from dozens of laser pulses at nine spots on the object. The enrichment in both nickel and phosphorus at some of the same points suggests the presence of an iron-nickel-phosphide mineral that is rare except in iron-nickel meteorites, Meslin said.

The find is not unprecedented but it is interesting nonetheless.

Mars rover update: November 3, 2016

Curiosity

Post updated: See last paragraph in Curiosity section.

Curiosity location 1507

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

After spending almost a month on the flats south of Murray Buttes, during which the rover drilled another hole, in the past week Curiosity has finally resumed its journey south toward the slopes of Mount Sharp and the sand dune area that it must cross to get there.

Unfortunately, NASA has decided to change how it shows the rover’s progress, and these changes seem to me to be a clever and careful effort to make it more difficult for the public to make educated guesses about where the rover might be heading in the very near future. The image to the right is the cropped inset showing the rover’s recent travels that is part of a new a larger image that puts this inset in the context of the rover’s entire journey. This has replaced the wider orbital mosaic that they used to provide (see for example my September 27, 2016 rover update) that gave a very good view of the entire terrain surrounding the rover from which a reasonable estimate of its future path could be guessed.
» Read more

China company to launch suborbital tourists by 2020

The competition heats up: A Chinese company has announced that it is building a reusable suborbital spaceship to fly suborbital tourists by 2020.

Han Qingping, president of ChinaRocket Co Ltd in Beijing, said the company first will develop a 10-metric-ton reusable spacecraft and use it to ferry three to five travelers to a height of 80 km for a new perspective on the mother planet and experience weightlessness. That is the upper part of the mesosphere, higher than jets and balloons can travel, but just below the height where satellites fly.

No prices were given. “By 2025, a 100-ton reusable spacecraft will be produced to send up to 20 passengers to an orbit as high as 140 km above the ground,” he said. That’s into the thermosphere, and is high enough to be considered space. “Furthermore, we will begin to use the 100-ton vehicle to perform intercontinental scheduled flight and long commercial spaceflight around 2030.”

The proposal is audacious, especially its promised launch date of the suborbital craft in 2020 and an orbital craft in 2025. Nonetheless, the announcement illustrates the direction that rocketry appears to be heading, reusable vehicles capable of frequent reuse at less cost.

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