Newly discovered Starliner issues delay launch again

NASA and Boeing revealed today that two newly discovered design issues involving Starliner’s parachutes and the tape used to protect the capsule’s wiring has forced it to cancel the planned June launch, with no firm new launch date scheduled.

The parachute issue involves the parachute cords, specifically the “soft link joints” that connect those lines to the capsule.

[Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Starliner VP] told reporters fabric links that join the parachutes to the lines of the spacecraft, called soft link joints, need to be replaced and possibly recertified to withstand heavier loads and stresses to ensure crew safety. “They were tested recently because of a discovery that we found during the review process where we believed that the data was recorded incorrectly,” Nappi said. “We tested (the soft links), and sure enough, they did fail at the lower limit.” [emphasis mine]

The tape — which has been found to be far more flammable than expected — is difficult to fix.

The second problem found last week is more extensive since the tape used to protect Starliner’s wiring harnesses from nicks or abrasions runs for hundreds of feet through several of the spacecraft’s internal systems. “There is a lot of tape on the wire harnesses,” Nappi said. “We’re looking at solutions that would provide for potentially another type of wrapping over the existing tape in the most vulnerable areas that reduces the risk of a fire hazard.”

That both of these issues were not fixed in development is beyond astonishing and speaks so badly of Boeing’s engineering and management that it is difficult to find words. In fact, for Boeing to use tape that could cause a fire now, more than a half century after the Apollo 1 capsule fire, suggests a level of incompetence that makes one wonder why anyone would ever fly on any of its spacecraft or airplanes. This is certainly not the company that built the 747.

Officials indicated that they might be able fix this issues fast enough that a fall launch could occur, but made no promises.

For Boeing, this new delay only worsens its bottom line. It built Starliner on a fixed-price contract, so every delay and issue must be paid for by it, not NASA. Meanwhile, the delays mean that SpaceX is getting flight contracts to ISS from NASA, contracts that Boeing would have gotten had Starliner been ready as planned. Worse, ISS is now looking at a 2028 retirement. If Boeing doesn’t get Starliner operational soon, there might not even be any contracts for it to win.

I have embedded the full press conference below for those who wish to watch NASA and Boeing officials blather about how they really haven’t done anything stupid here. Really, you have got to believe them!
» Read more

Viasat completes merger with Inmarsat

After two years dealing with regulatory delays, Viasat has finally completed its purchase of Inmarsat, producing a single company that has 8,000 employees and a fleet of nineteen operating satellites.

The key quote from the link however is this:

Their merger announcement sparked additional consolidation plans as operators look to bolster their defenses amid a growing competitive threat from Starlink in the satellite broadband market. Eutelsat announced plans to buy OneWeb in November 2022 and hopes to complete its merger this summer. SES and Intelsat confirmed March 29 they were in talks about merging, although they have not provided a meaningful update since then.

In other words, the older geosynchronous satellite companies are consolidating because of the competition posed by SpaceX’s Starlink system, which also suggests these companies have never competed very aggressively against each other to cut costs. Now that someone new (SpaceX) has arrived doing that, they find their only option is to merge. Apparently the corporate culture in each separate company finds cutting costs difficult. Merger appears to be their only avenue for doing so.

I wonder what will happen to these old satellite companies when (or if) Amazon finally begins launching and operating its own Kuiper constellation, in direct competition with SpaceX. Unless they finally begin to offer a competitive product at a competitive price, I expect after consolidation we will begin to see bankruptcies.

Sierra Space powers up its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle for the first time

Sierra Space yesterday announced that it has successfully run electricity for the first time through its first Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, dubbed Tenacity.

The press release is remarkably lacking in detailed information, or graphics. This quote is really the only hard facts mentioned:

Sierra Space simulated the power that will be generated from Dream Chaser’s solar arrays once on orbit. Test engineers plugged that power into Dream Chaser and began turning on systems. Sierra Space exercised flight computers, base processors and low-voltage distribution units.

Tenacity has been under construction since 2016, when the company won its NASA contract to build it. That’s seven years to build a single spacecraft, and yet all they have done so far is feed electricity through it for the first time. In that time period SpaceX not only built multiple prototypes of Starship and Superheavy, it has flown multiple test flights.

Is money an issue? The actual contract amount NASA gave Sierra Space to build Tenacity has never been published, though NASA has said the total awarded for all the cargo missions to be flown by SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Space equaled $14 billion. Since these fixed price contracts also require the companies also commit some of their own funds, or obtain outside financing, it is possible that Sierra Space has had money issues slowing development.

Regardless, Dream Chaser was first supposed to fly in 2020. It is now three years late, with no clear indication that a launch will come anytime soon. In many way, Sierra Space is beginning to remind me of Blue Origin, endlessly issuing promises but never delivering.

Russia delays launch of its Luna-25 mission one month to August

Click for interactive map.

Russia today announced that it is delaying the July launch of its Luna-25 mission to August.

No reason for the delay was revealed. The mission itself has been under development for almost a quarter century, with numerous delays. It will be the first lunar probe by Russia since the 1970s.

The lunar mission will be launched atop a Soyuz-2.1b carrier rocket with a Fregat booster from the Vostochny space center in the Russian Far East. Under the lunar project, the Luna-25 automatic station will be launched for studies in the area of the lunar south pole. The lander is set to touch down in the area of the Boguslawsky crater.

The green dot on the map shows this crater, with the white cross the Moon’s south pole. The other two missions are also targeting launches this summer, with Chandrayaan-3 set for a July launch and Nova-C in late September.

Spain becomes 25th nation to sign Artemis Accords

In a ceremony yesterday in Spain, that country became the 25th nation to sign the Artemis Accords, a bi-lateral agreement with the United States that was designed during the Trump administration to act as a work around to the limitations to private enterprise in space created by the Outer Space Treaty.

The full list of signatories so far: Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Czech Republic, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, the Ukraine, and the United States.

This alliance gives the United States a great deal of leverage in establishing legal policy, if it is used as originally intended. It however at present remains unclear if the Biden administration intends to do so, considering its general hostility to the private sector and freedom.

SpaceX launches another 52 Starlink satellites

SpaceX tonight successfully launched another 52 Starlink satellites, using its Falcon 9 rocket lifting off from Vandenberg in California.

The first stage completed its fourteenth flight, landing successfully on a drone ship in the Pacific. The fairing halves completed their fifth and seventh flights respectively.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

36 SpaceX
20 China
8 Russia
5 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 41 to 20 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 41 to 36. SpaceX alone is now tied with the rest of the world combined 36 to 36, but trails the entire world including American companies 36 to 41.

AX-2 commercial passenger flight to ISS splashes down safely

Axiom’s second commercial passenger flight to ISS, dubbed AX-2, successfully splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico a little after 11 pm (Eastern) tonight after spending eight days in space.

Recovery efforts of the Freedom capsule are still underway by SpaceX crews. It is necessary again to emphasize that this is a private mission, launched by a private company in a privately owned capsule for a private company and private passengers. The only government involvement was when the capsule was docked to ISS and the crew was on the station.

SpaceX confirms Starship prototype to fly on next Superheavy test flight

SpaceX has confirmed that it will use Starship prototype #25 to fly on top of Superheavy prototype #9 on the next orbital test flight.

Starship #25 does not include a lot of the upgrades that have been installed on later Starship prototypes, but by using it SpaceX tells us its focus on that next orbital test flight will be to test Superheavy. Using this less capable Starship gets it used and out of the way so that the kinks in Superheavy can more quickly be worked out.

It also means SpaceX’s prime focus on that second flight will not be reaching orbit, though the company will try nonetheless.

The article at the link also notes that this next orbital test cannot take place any sooner than August, based simply on engineering requirements.

Ship 25 is now at the launch site and awaiting a six-engine static fire test, with Elon Musk noting the pad modifications should be complete in a month, ahead of another month of testing before the next test flight.

This gives the FAA two full months to approve the launch license. I predict however that come August, that launch license will still not be approved, and we will still have no clear idea of when that approval will come. Nor should we be surprised if approval does not come before the end of this year.

Chinese launch yesterday set record for number of humans in space

The launch yesterday of three Chinese astronauts to that country’s Tiangong-3 space station established a new record, seventeen, for the number of humans in space.

The launch of the next crew to China’s Tiangong space station late Monday (U.S. time) added three astronauts to the population of humans in space, which reached a record number of 17 people in orbit — six Chinese citizens, five Americans, three Russians, two Saudis, and one Emirati astronaut.

The arrival of Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng, Zhu Yangzhu, and Gai Haichao in space following their launch atop a Long March rocket broke the previous record of 14 people in orbit at one time.

Meanwhile, the four-person crew of the commercial AX-2 mission to ISS, has undocked from ISS, with SpaceX’s Freedom capsule expected to splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico at 11:09 pm (Eastern) tonight.

China sends a new crew to its Tiangong-3 space station

Using its Long March 2F rocket, China today (May 30th in China) sent a new three-man crew to its Tiangong-3 space station for a five month mission.

The launch was from the Juiquan spaceport in the interior of China, so both the four side strap-on boosters as well as the core stage crashed somewhere in China. No word of any damage or injuries.

The Shenzhou capsule is expected to dock with the station about six hours after launch. The old crew’s stay will overlap with this new crew for a short time before returning to Earth.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

35 SpaceX
20 China
8 Russia
5 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise still leads China 40 to 20 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 40 to 36. SpaceX alone now trials the rest of the world combined 35 to 36, but trails the entire world including American companies 35 to 41.

China unveils next Shenzhou launch date and crew to its space station

China today revealed the next three-man crew to occupy its Tiangong-3 space station, with a planned launch in a Shenzhou crew capsule targeting May 30, 2023, Chinese time.

Because of time differences, that launch will occur tonight at 6:28 pm tonight, Pacific time. The rocket will be a Long March 2F taking off from China’s western interior Jiuquan spaceport. The rocket’s lower stages will therefore crash somewhere in China.

The crew will remain on board the station for five months, and with one astronaut the first Chinese to fly in space four times.

India’s space agency ISRO launches GPS-type satellite

India’s space agency ISRO today successfully used its GSLV rocket to place the first of a new constellation of that country’s second generation GPS-type satellites into geosynchronous orbit, lifting off from its Sriharikota east coast spaceport.

This was India’s fourth successful launch in 2023, matching its entire total last year. It appears that country has finally recovered from its panic during COVID.

The leader board for the 2023 launch race remains the same:

35 SpaceX
19 China
8 Russia
5 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise still leads China 40 to 19 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 40 to 35. SpaceX alone is now tied with the rest of the world combined 35 to 35, but trails the entire world including American companies 35 to 40.

How 500 horses get to Mackinac Island each spring

An evening pause: As noted at this website:

The island was America’s second national park (after Yellowstone National Park) for 20 years and has been the state of Michigan’s first state park. The island has had a ban on automobiles since the earliest days and still has the only highway in the nation where cars are banned.

Apparently, during the winter the horses are taken to the mainland for their benefit, and then returned in the spring in preparation for the summer tourism season. As this is the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, the start of the summer season, this seems most appropriate for tonight.

Hat tip Wayne DeVette.

Northrop Grumman wins $45.6 million contract to launch Space Force weather smallsat

Northrop Grumman has won $45.6 million contract from the Space Force to launch a weather smallsat, using its Minotaur-4 rocket that was formerly a military ICBM.

The weather satellite, built by General Atomics, is part of an effort by the military to stop building its big expensive and continuously delayed weather satellites and instead buy the services from the private sector. This three year demonstration mission will prove whether General Atomics’ weather satellite can do the job. The Space Force has also contracted with Orion Space Systems to test its own weather satellite in orbit.

For Northrop Grumman, this contract helps keep its launch business alive while it awaits a new American engine for its Antares rocket, replacing the Russian engines it has previously depended on.

Satellite fuel company Orbit Fab signs Impulse to build part of its fuel depot

The satellite fuel company Orbit Fab, which is offering a way for satellites to get refueled on a regular basis based on a firm price schedule, has selected the orbital tug company Impulse to build part of its fuel depot in advance of a demonstration refueling mission for the Space Force.

The Space Force last year awarded Orion Space Solutions a $50 million contract for the Tetra-5 experiment. Three satellites will be stationed in geostationary orbit (GEO) where Impulse Space’s Mira orbital service vehicle will serve as a hosting platform for Orbit Fab’s fuel depot. “This demonstration will pave the way for future commercial orbital refueling services, as well as additional collaborative opportunities and missions between Orbit Fab and Impulse Space,” said Barry Matsumori, chief operating officer of Impulse Space.

The Tetra-5 satellites and the fuel depot will use Orbit Fab’s refueling port known as RAFTI, or Rapidly Attachable Fuel Transfer Interface. Impulse Space will provide hosting services such as power, communications, attitude control and propulsion for the fuel depot. The Tetra spacecraft will rendezvous and dock with the depot.

If successful, this mission will prove the viability of this refueling system, and encourage other satellite manufacturers to include RAFTI on their satellites.

NASA’s corrupt safety panel doubts Starliner is ready for its first manned flight in July

The head of NASA’s safety panel — which over the years has consistently missed the big safety issues while whining about things that did not matter — expressed strong doubts yesterday on whether Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule is ready for its first manned flight in July.

Speaking at a May 25 public meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Patricia Sanders, chair of the committee, expressed skepticism that NASA and Boeing will be able to close known issues with Starliner in time for a launch currently scheduled for as soon as July 21.

“There remains a long line of NASA processes still ahead to determine launch readiness” for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, the first crewed flight of the spacecraft with two NASA astronauts on board. “That should not be flown until safety risks can either be mitigated or accepted, eyes wide open, with an appropriately compelling technical rationale.”

This panel hasn’t the faintest idea what it is talking about, and should be ignored. It appears that NASA and Boeing are presently reviewing the capsule’s parachute system. Sanders however raised other issues which actually appear more designed to simply slow or even prevent the capsule’s launch.

The panel did the same thing during the development of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule, making irrelevant claims about paperwork and the safety of the company’s Falcon 9 fueling procedures that were ridiculous. Meanwhile, it has ignored much more fundamental numerous safety issues with NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule, such as the agency’s plan to fly it manned using its capsule environmental system for the first time.

It is very possible that there remain serious safety issues with Starliner. I simply note that I would not rely on NASA’s safety panel to provide me an honest or educated appraisal of the situation.

Vulcan launchpad static fire engine test aborted

ULA engineers were forced yesterday to abort their first attempt to complete a launchpad static fire engine test of the first stage of the company’s new Vulcan rocket due to an issue with “the booster’s ignition system.”

[D]uring the countdown at Launch Complex 41 Thursday afternoon, ULA teams “observed a delayed response from the booster engine ignition system,” the company said in a statement. The issue meant that countdown procedures ahead of the ignition of two Blue Origin-built BE-4 engines at the business end of the company’s new rocket had to be halted.

The roughly 200-foot rocket will have to be rolled back into ULA’s nearly 300-foot protective Vertical Integration Facility for technicians to assess the booster’s ignition system.

It will obviously be necessary to attempt this static fire test again before attaching the rocket’s solid-fueled side boosters, which suggests the launch’s tentative target date in June is likely threatened.

These kinds of issues are not unexpected prior to a rocket’s first launch. ULA however is now paying for the three-plus year delay imposed on it by Blue Origin’s delays in delivering the BE-4 engines used in that first stage. These pre-launch tests had been planned for 2020, not 2023. Let us hope that ULA engineers don’t rush these tests now, because of those Blue Origin delays.

Ispace publishes results of its investigation into Hakuto-R1 lunar landing failure

Hakuto-R1 impact site, before and after
Before and after images of Hakuto-RI, taken by Lunar Reconnaissance
Orbiter (LRO). Click for original blink image.

Ispace today published the results of its investigation into the failure of its Hakuto-R1 lunar landed to touch down on the moon successfully, stating that the cause was a software error which thought the spacecraft was closer to the ground than it was.

At the end of the planned landing sequence, it approached the lunar surface at a speed of less than 1 m/s. The operation was confirmed to have been in accordance with expectations until about 1:43 a.m., which was the scheduled landing time.

During the period of descent, an unexpected behavior occurred with the lander’s altitude measurement. While the lander estimated its own altitude to be zero, or on the lunar surface, it was later determined to be at an altitude of approximately 5 kms above the lunar surface. After reaching the scheduled landing time, the lander continued to descend at a low speed until the propulsion system ran out of fuel. At that time, the controlled descent of the lander ceased, and it is believed to have free-fallen to the Moon’s surface.

The company believes the software got confused when the spacecraft crossed over the rim of Atlas Crater.

The resulting crash produced the debris seen by LRO to the right.

Virgin Galactic completes first manned suborbital flight in two years

Virgin Galactic yesterday completed its first manned suborbital flight since July 2021, carrying six employees to about fifty miles altitude for about five minutes.

Virgin Galactic’s “mothership” aircraft, VMS Eve, took off from the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico at 11:15 a.m. Eastern. The takeoff occurred more than an hour behind a schedule provided by the company the day before, but the company did not disclose the reason for the delay.

Virgin Galactic released VSS Unity at 12:23 p.m. Eastern. The spaceplane appeared to perform a nominal burn of its hybrid rocket engine before descending to a runway landing back at Spaceport America nearly 15 minutes later. Virgin Galactic said the vehicle reached a peak altitude of 87.2 kilometers — above the 50-mile altitude used by U.S. government agencies for awarding astronaut wings, but below the 100-kilometer Kármán line — and top speed of Mach 2.94.

The company did not live stream the event, in sharp contrast to the heavy coverage it always provided when Richard Branson was in charge. It now says it soon begin regularly passenger flights.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts two more NASA hurricane monitoring satellites into orbit

Rocket Lab today successfully used its Electron rocket to place the last two of NASA’s four-satellite Tropics hurricane monitoring constellation into orbit.

The first launch occurred about two and a half weeks ago, on May 7, 2023. Both launches were originally contracted to Astra, but when that company discontinued operations of its Rocket-3 rocket, NASA turned to Rocket Lab.

The leaders in the 2023 launch race:

34 SpaceX
19 China
7 Russia
5 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 39 to 19 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 39 to 33. SpaceX by itself now trails the entire world, including American companies, 34 to 38.

Note that at this moment SpaceX and Rocket Lab are the only American companies that have launched. The established rocket companies, ULA and Northrop Grumman, have launches planned but none as yet, while two American companies have ceased operations, Astra (supposedly temporarily) and Virgin Orbit (permanently).

American freedom resulted in the competition in rocketry which has lowered costs but taken business from the established companies. Freedom has also caused the death of two companies, because the success that freedom brings also carries risks. Failure can happen, but the sum total of achievement is always greater than when competition is squelched.

South Korea successfully launches its Nuri rocket for the second time

The new colonial movement: South Korea today successfully launched its home-built Nuri rocket for the second time, lifting off from a coastal South Korean spaceport and carrying eight smallsats.

This was South Korea’s first launch this year. The leaders in the 2023 launch race remain the same:

34 SpaceX
19 China
7 Russia
4 Rocket Lab

The U.S. still leads China 38 to 19 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 38 to 33. SpaceX by itself now trails the entire world, including American companies, 34 to 37.

Hat tip to BtB’s stringer Jay for reminding me of this launch.

Nova Scotia spaceport gets another launch contract

Maritime Launch Services, which is building a spaceport in Nova Scotia and hopes to offer its own rocket services to put satellites in orbit, has obtained what it claims could be a $1 billion contract with an unnamed European orbital tug company.

The only two European orbital tug companies that closely fit the description provided by Maritime officials are D-Orbit or Exolaunch. The latter had had a contract with Virgin Orbit to launch as many as 20 of its satellites. Coming less than one day after Virgin Orbit’s assets were sold off, this announcement suggests Exolaunch has replaced Virgin Orbit with this deal.

Unlike other spaceports, Maritime isn’t merely providing a launch site for rocket companies. Instead the company will also launch smallsats itself, using either Ukraine’s Cyclone-4M rocket or a British-made startup rocket dubbed Skyrora.

Relativity and Impulse are now targeting ’26 launch window for 1st private mission to Mars

According to officials from the two companies, Relativity and Impulse have now delayed the launch date of their joint private unmanned lander to Mars from the ’24 launch window to the ’26 launch window.

The companies have also shared few technical details about the lander, but noted they plan to leverage designs and technologies developed for NASA’s InSight Mars lander, such as its heat shield. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Brost said. “Doing a clean-sheet design of a lander is an insane, monumental engineering feat.”

Relativity is tasked with launching the probe, using its Terran-R rocket, which is under development and has its first launch scheduled in 2026. Impulse, which is building the lander, is at this point simply trying to develop its first small rocket engine. It appears therefore that this proposed Mars lander is designed mostly to make NASA willing to consider it when it starts hiring private companies to land probes on Mars. Its chances of launching in ’26 is quite small.

Spaceport startup launches small amateur rockets from ship

A company dubbed The Spaceport Company on May 22, 2023 launched two small amateur rockets from a ship in the Gulf of Mexico in order to demonstrate the logistics of such launches in advance of developing a floating launchpad.

The Spaceport Company, based in northern Virginia, launched on Monday 4-inch and 6-inch diameter rockets from a vessel about 30 miles south of Gulfport, Miss. The one-year-old company wanted to demonstrate its operations and logistics, which included getting approval from federal regulators, before developing larger floating platforms that would send satellites into orbit.

These offshore launches, as small as they were, were the first such ocean launches in U.S. history.

It appears that the company wants to offer an alternative launch option that might avoid the problems created by regulators in the UK that destroyed Virgin Orbit.

Launch of Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser now scheduled for six month window opening in August

After years of delays, Sierra Space’s first Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle, dubbed Tenacity, is now scheduled for launch during the six month mission to ISS of a crew scheduled for launch in August.

Dream Chaser’s first flight on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is expected while Crew-7 is aboard and two of those crew members, NASA’s Jasmin Moghbeli and JAXA’s Satoshi Furukawa, recently trained on it. JAXA and NASA formally announced Furukawa’s assignment to Crew-7 today. Furukawa, Moghbeli, ESA’s Andreas Mogensen and a Russian cosmonaut whose assignment has not been officially announced yet, are expected to launch in mid-August for a 6-month stay on the ISS.

The exact launch date within that mission has not yet been determined. It will largely depend scheduling, fitting it in with other launches to the station, assuming Tenacity’s construction is finished in time. That construction began in 2015, and has taken three to four years longer than first announced.

Bankrupt Virgin Orbit is dead, its assets purchased by a variety of different companies

After failing to find a single buyer for the whole company, Virgin Orbit is now officially dead as a company, its assets broken up during bankruptcy proceedings and purchased by several different companies.

Rocket Lab paid $16.1 million for Virgin Orbit’s main manufacturing facility in California, which it intends to use for developing its larger Neutron rocket. Stratolaunch paid $17 million for the company’s 747 airplane and related equipment. Launcher, a former rocket startup that is now owned by the space station startup Vast, paid $2.7 for the company’s test site in Mojave, California, which it plans to use for static fire engine tests of a rocket engine it is developing for sale to others. A liquidation company purchased other assets, while the various LauncherOne rockets under construction remain unsold.

It is essential the reasons for this failure are made very clear. The destruction of this company occurred because regulators in the United Kingdom prevented it from launching from within the UK for almost half a year, during which it could not perform other launches elsewhere and therefore earn revenue. It then ran very low on cash, and when the UK launch failed in January, the company no longer had the resources to weather to time necessary to complete the investigation, fix the problem that caused the failure, and resume launches.

For other rocket startups, it is very important to consider this story before committing to launching in the UK. where you will face major bureaucratic obstacles from its government. Until there is evidence that something has changed, it might be better to consider other launch sites.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spots Hakuto-R1 impact debris on Moon

Hakuto-R1 impact site, before and after
Click for original blink image.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), scientists have spotted what they think is the impact debris produced when Ispace’s private lunar lander Hakuto-R1 crashed on the Moon on April 25, 2023.

To the right are two LRO images, the first at the top taken prior to Hakuto-R1’s landing attempt. The second at the bottom was acquired by LRO on April 26, 2023, the day after that attempt. The lettered arrows indicate four spots where the scientists identified changes between the two pictures. From the caption:

Arrow A points to a prominent surface change with higher reflectance in the upper left and lower reflectance in the lower right (opposite of nearby surface rocks along the right side of the frame). Arrows B-D point to other changes around the impact site.

According to the LRO science team, these changes suggest different pieces of debris, though it will take more analysis and more images under different lighting conditions to determine more precisely what they have found.

The presence however of four pieces strongly suggests that Hakuto-R1 hit the ground hard enough to break apart. Based on the initial data received during landing, it was thought the spacecraft had touched down softly but then was damaged by some unforeseen obstacle on the ground, such as a large boulder. The LRO image suggests instead that it did not touch down softly at all.

Air Force awards Ursa Major rocket engine development contact

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has awarded the rocket engine startup Ursa Major a contract to develop two different rocket engines.

Under the contract, the Colorado-based firm will build and test a prototype of its new Draper engine for hypersonics, and further develop its 200,000-pound thrust Arroway engine for space launch.

…Under the AFRL contract, for which neither the lab or company provided a value, Ursa Major will also build a dedicated test stand for Draper and plans to hotfire the engine within 12 months.

Arroway, on the other hand, is a reusable liquid oxygen and methane staged combustion engine for medium and heavy launch vehicles. Ursa Major first announced development the 200,000-pound thrust engine last August, explaining that when clustered together, Arroway engines could replace the Russian-made RD-180 and RD-181, which are no longer available to US launch firms.

According to Ursa Major’s press release, the AFRL contract will allow further development of Arroway with a hotfire expected in 2025.

Ursa Major already has several contracts for its smaller Hadley engine, from the rocket startups Phantom, Vector, Astra, and the Air Force, and has built more than a hundred so far. The Arroway meanwhile is being developed as an American replacement for the Russian engines used by Northrop Grumman in its Antares rocket.

All in all, it appears Ursa Major is becoming a major challenger to Aerojet Rocketdyne, which in recent years had a lock on most government contracts for rocket engines. That lock resulted in very expensive engines that took years to build. The government (and others) are now finding someone else to provide this service at a better cost and far more quickly. We shall see whether Aerojet Rocketdyne responds to this competition properly, or goes the way of the horse carriage.

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