Endless technical issues force Delta 4 Heavy launch scrubs

BUMPED and revised to include the September 30th launch abort.

Can we count the ways? For what has become a string of seemingly endless technical issues, ULA on September 29th was forced to once again scrub the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite because of a technical issue with its Delta 4 Heavy rocket and launchpad.

Apparently when they tried to move the launchpad’s mobile gantry away from the rocket they discovered “a hydraulic leak in the ground system.”

On the evening of September 30th (tonight) they tried again, only to have an abort at T-7 seconds, just as the engines were to ignite as planned.

They have been trying to get this bird off the ground now for more than a month. Here is a chronology of the launch scrubs, with all the various technical issues described.

August 26: Scrub because of “several problems,” the primary cause being a “pneumatics system issue.” This same countdown also had a long hold because of two blown fuses in a launchpad heater.

August 29: Aborted at T-3 seconds, due to “a torn diaphragm in one of three pressure regulators” in the launchpad. During the countdown they also had holds to deal with a fuel valve issue, a fuel sensor issue, and a temperature payload issue.

September 26: Scrubbed because of issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 27: Scrubbed because of a continuing issue with the launchpad “swing arm retraction system.”

September 29 (just after midnight): A lightning strike forced a scrub. This was the only scrub not caused by technical issues.

September 29 (just before midnight): Scrubbed because of a hydraulic leak in the ground system.

September 30: Aborted at T-7 seconds. Under investigation. No new launch date yet announced.

This string of seemingly minor and apparently easy-to-fix problems does not reflect well on the quality control systems at ULA. I understand that this is rocket science, and thus difficult. At the same time engineers have now been doing launches for more than a half century, and this tale of woe above is more reminiscent of the early days of rocketry in the 1960s, when you might have a dozen or more scrubs because of these kinds of technical issues. You’d think by now ULA’s launch engineers would have worked these kinks out.

From a customer perspective this list of issues is also troubling, considering that the Delta 4 Heavy costs the customer more than any other commercial rocket. Granted it can put up a lot of payload, but the Falcon Heavy can put up more, and do it for less than half the cost and far more reliably. If I was ULA’s customer I would not be very satisfied with the product I am getting, even if the launch turns out to be a complete success.

The delays are also impacting other launches. SpaceX has had to repeatedly delay the launch of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 because for scheduling reasons the ULA launch must come first.

Changes in engineering and procedures for next manned Dragon flight

SpaceX is making several engineering and operational changes involving flights of its manned Dragon capsule, based on the company’s experience during the first manned flight several months ago.

First, they are reinforcing the heat shield in one area.

After a successful test flight that ended when NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 2, the company noticed “a little more erosion than we wanted to see” in a few areas of the capsule’s heat shield, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, said during a press call this week. He said there “was nothing to be concerned with at all times. The astronauts were safe, and the vehicle was working perfectly.”

Second, they are revising the software used to determine the altitude when the capsule’s drogue parachute is released.

Koenigsmann said the company is refining how it measures the capsule’s altitude as it returns to Earth. During the August test flight, the drogue parachutes deployed at a slightly lower altitude than the company expected, but still well within safety parameters, he said.

Finally, they are going to more strictly enforce a 10-mile “keep-out zone” in the ocean where the capsule splashes down. They do not want to see another crowd of recreational boats swarming the landing zone, as happened when the capsule returned to Earth in August.

Leak on ISS located?

According to Business Insider article , engineers have finally narrowed the location of the slow leak on ISS to the Russian Zvezda module.

NASA and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, had already narrowed down the likely location of the leak to several modules on the station’s Russian side.

So astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner tested those modules by shutting the hatches between each one and using an ultrasonic leak detector to collect data through the night. The tool measures noise caused by airflow too quiet for humans to hear.

By Tuesday morning, they’d figured out that the leak is in the Zvezda Service Module, the main module on the station’s Russian side. Zvezda provides that half of the station with oxygen and drinkable water, and it’s also equipped with a machine that scrubs carbon dioxide from the air. The module contains the section’s sleeping quarters, dining room, refrigerator, freezer, and bathroom.

They don’t yet know where in the module the leak is located, but at least they know at last where to look.

This module was the second module launched to ISS, launching in 2000. Thus, the leak could not have come from any construction workers from the ground. More likely its age has resulted in something changing. This needs to be fixed, but at the moment the situation is not critical.

On the rim of Mars’ Grand Canyon

The rim of Valles Marineris
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Mars has many grand geological features that will surely attract tourists in the far future, when the planet has been successfully colonized and humans live there with the same ease that we today live in what was the New World wilderness several hundred years ago.

Of those features, none probably compare with Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the solar system. When compared to it, the Grand Canyon — at about a mile deep, about ten miles wide, and about 280 miles long — is a mere pothole, hardly noticeable. Valles Marineris averages a depth of five miles, a width of 370 miles, and a length of 1,900 miles. You could fit many Grand Canyons within it.

The photo to the right, cropped to post here, was taken on July 13, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows only a tiny section of this gigantic canyon’s rim. At this spot the depth from rim to floor is about 4.3 miles, or about 22,700 feet. In the image itself I estimate the cliff at the rim to be somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 feet high, more than the depth of the entire Grand Canyon. And that’s only this top cliff.

The three overview maps below show the context of this location within Valles Marineris.
» Read more

Big scallops in the Martian southern latitudes

Big scallops on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows an example of some large scalloped depressions in the high southern latitudes of Mars.

Taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on June 27, 2020, these scallops resemble in many ways the ice scarps that scientists have previously found at this same latitude, both to the east and west of where these scallops are located. With those scarps, the data suggests that a very pure layer of ice is visible in the cliff face, and that over time the cliff retreats northward due to sublimation of that ice.

The scallops in the photo to the right suggest the same process, though the differences raise questions. As explained by Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
» Read more

The liquids in Titan’s lakes stratify into different density layers

Using the data archive from the Cassini mission to Saturn, scientists now think that the liquids in Titan’s lakes can stratify into different density layers.

Lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan, composed of methane, ethane, and nitrogen rather than water, experience density driven stratification, forming layers similar to lakes on Earth. However, whereas lakes on Earth stratify in response to temperature, Titan’s lakes stratify solely due to the strange chemical interactions between its surface liquids and atmosphere, says a paper by Planetary Science Institute Research Scientist Jordan Steckloff.

Stratification occurs when different parts of a lake have different densities, with the less dense layer floating atop the denser layer. On Earth, lakes in temperate climates often stratify into layers in the summer as the Sun heats the surface of the lake, causing this water to expand and become less dense, forming a layer of warm water that literally floats upon the cooler water below. This density-driven stratification can occur on Titan as well; however it happens due to the amount of atmospheric nitrogen that Titan’s surface liquids can dissolve, rather than the liquids warming up and expanding.

…Because liquid methane is less dense than liquid ethane, it has been long assumed that Titan’s methane would generally float atop its liquid ethane. However, when methane’s affinity for atmospheric nitrogen is accounted for, methane can dissolve sufficient nitrogen at low temperatures to become denser than ethane.

This result has a great deal of uncertainty, mostly because of the relatively small dataset available of Titan. What it really shows is the possibility of this phenomenon. To confirm it will require some in situ measurements.

NASA & SpaceX set Oct 31st for next manned Dragon mission

Capitalism in space: NASA and SpaceX have now scheduled Oct 31st as the target launch date for the first operational manned Dragon mission to ISS, the second manned Dragon mission overall.

This new date delays the launch a week from the previous announced schedule, and was done to give some space between its launch and the launch of a manned Soyuz on October 14th and the return of a different Soyuz with the present ISS crew on October 21st.

UAE leader confirms goal to land rover on Moon by ’24

The new colonial movement: The ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has confirmed the initiation of a project to land a rover on the Moon by 2024, and have it built entirely by UAE engineers.

The Emirates Lunar Mission will be a 100 percent Emirati-built lunar rover that will land on the moon by 2024, according to a series of tweets by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the UAE Prime Minister and Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

The lunar rover has been named “Rashid” in honour of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum who ruled Dubai for 32 years from 1958 until his death in 1990 and who “sparked” the emirate’s advancement.

This is an ambitious goal, but not completely unreasonable. Their engineers were closely involved in the construction of their Hope Mars orbiter, mostly built by U.S. universities and subcontractors. That knowledge can now be applied to their own spacecraft. I also suspect that their 2016 agreement with India to invest billions there in exchange for space-related engineering assistance included technical information about India’s own lunar rover missions.

ISS air leak still unlocated

The small air leak that was found on ISS a year ago has still not been located, despite a second weekend where the crew isolated themselves in one module and closed the hatches on all other modules so that ground engineers could track any air supply changes.

At a Sept. 28 briefing about the upcoming Northrop Grumman NG-14 Cygnus cargo mission to the station, a NASA official said that the weekend isolation in the Zvezda module failed to immediately locate the source of the leak. “As of this morning, there was no clear indication of where the leak is,” said Greg Dorth, manager of the ISS Program External Integration Office at NASA. “The teams are still looking at the data and evaluating it.”

This was the second time the ISS crew confined themselves to Zvezda in an effort to track down the leak. A month earlier, the three also spent a weekend in Zvezda with the other modules sealed off in an effort to locate the leak. “After the three days, there was no indication of where the leak was coming from,” Dorth said.

This latest test, he said, featured some “slightly different configurations” in both the U.S. and Russian segments, although he did not elaborate on the differences between the two tests. In addition, Cassidy used an ultrasonic leak detector to see if the leak was coming from Zvezda itself.

These tests were possible since mid-August because there were only three people on station, allowing them to be confined to one module for a period of time. Moreover, during this time no other spacecraft have arrived or left. It is suspected that the leak is most likely coming from the connection point between two modules, and adding or removing a Soyuz, Dragon, or freighter to the station shifts its center of gravity, changing the stress points at those connections.

New study confirms liquid water under Mars’ south pole

A new study has confirmed earlier work that suggested there were liquid lakes of water under the Martian south pole.

The data appears to indicate that the bodies are “hypersaline solutions” –a brine in which high concentrations of salt are dissolved in water – which is perhaps the reason they are able to stay liquid despite the very cold conditions of Mars’s south pole.

The fact that there is a whole set of lakes suggests that they have probably formed relatively easily, and that versions of them may therefore have been present throughout the history of the planet. [emphasis mine]

There is one problem with hypothesis indicated by the highlighted words. Mars’ rotational tilt (its obliquity) shifts significantly, from 0 to 60 degrees. Right now it is tilted about 25 degrees, similar to Earth. The south pole as we see it today will have been very different at different obliquities, which means there is no way to assume these posited underground lakes would have been there.

Martian channels formed by water? by ice? by lava?

Meandering channels on Mars
Click for full image.

Many of the pictures from Mars show meandering channels, all of which suggest an erosion process related to some form of flow. For most of the last half century, since the first images of these channels were beamed back by Mariner 9 in 1972, scientists had believed that liquid water must have caused them. The accumulating recent photos from Mars now tentatively suggest that these channels might have instead been caused by glacial processes, creeping frozen water instead of liquid.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on July 17, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The channels suggest some form of flow going downhill to the northwest, but was it caused by water or ice? There is no obvious visual evidence of glaciers in this image, nor is there any such evidence that I can spot in any of the nearby high resolution images of this same region, despite the fact that at 35 degrees north latitude it is in the mid-latitude band where scientists have identified many glacial features.

The region itself is called Mareotis Fossae, an area of southwest-to-northeast trending parallel fissures and ridges, as shown in the two overview maps below.
» Read more

UAE outlines new plans in space

The new colonial movement: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) had put forth a new set of goals in its space program, including sending another astronaut to space, sending an unmanned probe to the Moon, and encouraging the development of UAE-built Earth resource smallsats.

The lunar mission is targeted to launch in 2024, and it appears they wish to build it entirely themselves, rather than subcontract American companies and universities to do the bulk of the work, as they did for the Hope Mars orbiter. It appears they believe that the training their people got from the Hope mission development will make it possible for them to proceed now on their own.

I also suspect that instead of buying a Russian Soyuz launch, they are aiming to hire an American company, either SpaceX or Boeing, to fly their next astronaut, since they have made a deal with NASA for astronaut training.

China and Russia launch a bunch of satellites

Russia today used its Soyuz-2 rocket to launch three communication satellites plus 19 commercial smallsats.

This was the first time Russia used the Soyuz-2 for these particular small communications satellites, as previously they had been launched by a variety of smaller rockets.

China in turn today used its Long March 4B to place two Earth resource satellites into orbit.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

25 China
15 SpaceX
10 Russia
4 Europe (Arianespace)

China has moved ahead of the U.S. 25 to 24 in the national rankings.

These numbers should change again in the next few days. The U.S. has had a number of scrubs and launch delays in the past few days. ULA has been repeatedly pushing back the previously delayed launch of a National Security Agency reconnaissance satellite due to a variety of problems related to its Delta 4 Heavy rocket. The launch is now set for just after midnight tonight (Monday night). [UPDATE: Launch scrubbed due to lightning and poor weather. Tentatively rescheduled for 11:58 pm (Eastern) on September 29.]

SpaceX meanwhile had to scrub a launch this morning (September 28) of another 60 Starlink satellites due to weather. No new launch date has yet been announced.

Northrop Grumman also has had to scrub tomorrow’s Antares launch of a Cygnus cargo freighter because of poor weather at Wallops Island. It is now set for the evening of October 1st.

SpaceX also has a scheduled launch tomorrow morning of a GPS satellite on its Falcon 9 rocket. This is also threatened by weather. There is also no word whether the ULA launch scrub will cause this launch to be delayed.

It WAS a coup attempt

In the past few days a number of news stories have confirmed, unequivocally, that the effort in the FBI, CIA, and Justice Department to spy on the Trump campaign before the election and then pin the false accusation of Russian collusion on Trump after his election were all an effort to dictate the results of the election, and then overturn it when Trump won.

It was an out-and-out coup attempt by these government officials, apparently aided and abetted by Obama when he was still president.

First we learn that the FBI agents working on the fake prosecution of former National Security were so worried their misconduct would be uncovered by the Trump administration that they bought liability insurance to protect themselves.
» Read more

German instrument on Chang’e-4 documents dangerous radiation levels

This result is not a surprise: A German instrument on China’s Chang’e-4 lander, located now on the Moon’s far side, has measured the radiation levels there, and found them to be much worse than found on Earth.

DLR radiation physicist Thomas Berger from the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine, who participated in the publication explains: “The radiation exposure we measured is a good indication of the radiation inside a spacesuit. The measurements give us an equivalent dose rate – the biologically weighted radiation dose per unit of time – of around 60 microsieverts per hour. For comparison, during a long-haul flight from Frankfurt to New York, the dose rate is five to 10 times lower than this. On Earth’s surface, it is some 200 times lower. In other words, a long-term stay on the Moon will expose astronauts’ bodies to high doses of radiation.”

“Human bodies are simply not made to be exposed to space radiation,” adds Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber of the Christian-Albrecht University (CAU) in Kiel, whose team developed and built the LND instrument . “On longer missions to the Moon, astronauts will have to protect themselves from it – by covering their habitat with a thick layer of lunar rock, for example. This could reduce the risk of cancer and other illnesses caused by long periods of time spent on the Moon.”

Previous instruments had only measured the cumulative radiation for the entire mission. This instrument took multiple readings lasting one, ten, or sixty minutes, which gives a more realistic measure of what an astronaut would actually experience, once there.

An ice-covered mountain on Mars?

Ice-covered mountain on Mars?
Click for full image.

Grinnell Crater in Glacier National Park in 2017

Today’s cool image, taken on July 1, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, is of a mound-like mountain on Mars that to all intents and purposes appears covered by glacial ice, some eroded, some not.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows this mound. Both the flow coming down from the mountain top down the north slope as well as the flow in the north that appears to begin in a small crater suggest glacial features.

Even more convincing are what appear to be patches of glacial ice on the southern slopes, resembling the kind of glacial patches you see everywhere in Glacial National Park. The second photo to the right, taken by me on our visit to Glacier National Park in 2017, shows similar patches hugging the mountainside at Grinnell Glacier.

This Martian mountain is located in the southern hemisphere inside Hellas Basin on its eastern interior rim. (See the overview map below, with the location of this photo the small white box south of Harmakhis Valles.) Thus, you would expect the north-facing slope to get more sunlight (and more heat) than the south-facing slopes. Yet, from this image there appears to be greater erosion on the south-facing slopes. A puzzle indeed.
» Read more

Leak hunt continues on ISS

Two stories today indicate that the search for the elusive source of the slow leak on ISS is continuing.

The problem is that the two stories appear to have no overlap, making it hard to figure out what is planned and why.

The first story describes how engineers, based on the first isolation test, now think the leak must be coming from one of two modules:

…the ones the crew didn’t test because they were inside them while monitoring the rest of the station. One is the Zvezda Service Module, which provides life support for the station’s Russian side. The other is the Poisk Mini-Research Module 2, which serves as a port for docking spaceships and a place where crew members prepare for spacewalks.

The second story, from the Russian press, does not mention this detail. All it says is that the astronauts are going to once again isolate themselves in “the Russian segment” so the rest of the station can be tested for leaks. Since the two modules in question are both in that Russian segment, it is unclear where the astronauts will be isolated, especially since Zvezda is also where the Soyuz descent capsule is docked and if sealed from astronaut access it also seals them from their lifeboat.

It could be that the plan is to do another test of the American side of the station, then do these two Russian modules after the arrival of the next manned Dragon mission in a little less than a month. Dragon can then replace Soyuz as a lifeboat, allowing a test of Zvezda.

Regardless, the leak is a slow one, and is not yet life-threatening. That the leak rate has recently increased however requires action to find and fix it.

SpaceX destroys Starship prototype #7, as planned

Capitalism in space: SpaceX last night successfully pressurized its seventh Starship prototype to failure, as planned.

The culmination of three nights and more than 20 hours of concerted effort, SpaceX was finally able to fill Starship test tank SN7.1 with several hundred tons of liquid nitrogen before dawn on September 23rd. With just an hour left in the day’s test window, SpaceX closed the tank’s vents, allowing its cryogenic contents to boil into gas and expand with no outlet. At 4:57 am CDT, SN7.1 burst, bringing its lengthy test campaign to a decisive end.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold.

With the completion of this test the way is now clear for the 60,000 foot hop of Starship prototype #8, no earlier than October 11th.
» Read more

Axiom, SpaceX, and NASA finalizing first wholly private manned mission

Capitalism in space: Axiom, SpaceX, and NASA are close to finalizing the deal for the first wholly private manned mission to ISS, tentatively set for October 2021.

One of the topics Axiom is negotiating with NASA involves how much insight the space agency will have into the private astronaut mission. While the Axiom missions will be managed by commercial companies, the AX-1 flight will fly with a reusable Crew Dragon spacecraft that will carry NASA astronauts on other missions. “There’s a certain amount of insight (NASA) would like on our flight, on a commercial flight,” [Axiom official] Suffredini said Friday. “So that is one aspect of that process. We’re using a vehicle that is going to be re-flown, and NASA will certify the re-flights because they want to do re-flights.”

Axiom and SpaceX will also have to confirm a schedule with NASA for the AX-1 mission to dock with the space station. The orbiting research complex has a busy schedule of arriving and departing crew and cargo vehicles, and managers also have slot in spacecraft dockings amid spacewalks, experiments, and other critical operations.

NASA also oversees safety of the space station with the program’s international partners.

The private companies however will in the end be responsible for the flight.

There have been rumors that the passengers on this flight will be Tom Cruise and his film director, though this is not confirmed. Also, these same arrangements will be used for the tentative 2023 private flight of the winner of a proposed reality television show dubbed Space Hero.

Blue Origin scrubs New Shepard flight today

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today scrubbed the first New Shepard flight in ten months.

From the company:

We’ve detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments. Launch is scrubbed for today. New launch target forthcoming.

Ten months since their last flight, and the power supply to the experiments has a problem the day of the launch? Sorry if I sound harsh, but that does not speak well for the company’s quality control systems.

OSIRIS-REx team confirms date for sample grab from Bennu

Nightingale landing site on Bennu
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has confirmed October 20, 2020 as the date the spacecraft will attempt a sample grab from the asteroid Bennu.

OSIRIS-REx is charged with collecting at least 2 oz. (60 grams) of Bennu’s rocky material to deliver back to Earth – the largest sample return from space since the Apollo program – and the mission developed two methods to verify that this sample collection occurred. On Oct. 22, OSIRIS-REx’s SamCam camera will capture images of the TAGSAM head to see whether it contains Bennu’s surface material. The spacecraft will also perform a spin maneuver on Oct. 24 to determine the mass of collected material. If these measures show successful collection, the decision will be made to place the sample in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) for return to Earth. If sufficient sample has not been collected from [the primary landing site] Nightingale, the spacecraft has onboard nitrogen charges for two more attempts. A TAG attempt at the back-up Osprey site would be made no earlier than January 2021.

The press release at the link provides a lot of technical and interesting details about the sample-grab-and-go attempt, expected to put the spacecraft in contact with the asteroid’s surface for no more than sixteen seconds.

The maneuver itself is quite risky, as the available smooth landing area, as shown in the image above, is only half the size the equipment was designed for, and surrounded by large boulders.

Corroding glacier in crater rim gully?

Gully in crater rim
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image to the right, rotated and cropped to post here, shows a gully flowing down the north facing rim of a 30-mile-wide crater in the southern cratered highlands. It was taken on June 30, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

To my eye the corroded ridges and pits running down the western side of this gully look like a corroded ice, as if we are looking at a glacier that the light of the Sun, which in the southern hemisphere hits this north-facing slope more directly and for longer periods of time, is causing it to sublimate away with time.

The wider shot below shows the entire rim, flowing downhill from the south to the north.
» Read more

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