Tag Archives: engineering

Mars’ seasonally vanishing carbon dioxide polar cap

Buzzell dunes, March 19, 2019
Click for full image.

Since the onset of the Martian spring in the northern hemisphere back in March of this year, scientists have been busy using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to monitor the expected sublimation and disappearance of the cap of dry ice that falls as snow to become a winter layer mantling both the more permanent icecap of water 7,000 feet deep as well as the giant dune sand seas that surround that northern icecap.

The image on the right was first posted here on Behind the Black on June 6, 2019 as part of a long article describing that northern polar icecap and its annual evolution. It shows a set of dunes that Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, who requested the image, has dubbed “Buzzell.” When that picture was taken in March, the frozen dry ice layer of translucent carbon dioxide still coated the dunes. The image’s darkness is because the Sun has just begun to rise above the horizon at this very high latitude location (84 degrees). The circular feature is likely a buried ancient crater, with the streaks indicating the prevailing wind direction blowing both sand and frost about.

On August 9, 2019 I provided an update on this monitoring, when new images of this same location were downloaded from MRO in April and June. MRO has now taken a new image of Buzzell, on October 2, 2019. Below the fold are all these images so that you can see the sublimation and disappearance of that dry ice layer over time.
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SpaceX successfully launches 60 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched 60 more satellites in its Starlink internet satellites, while also reusing for the first time a Falcon first stage for a fourth time, reusing a fairing for the first time. The first stage successfully completed a barge landing. No word on whether they were able to recover the fairings.

I have embedded the replay of the live stream below the fold. They now have proved the capability of recovering and reusing 70% of their rocket.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

22 China
17 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. now leads China 23 to 22 in the national rankings.
» Read more

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Bennu & Ryugu: Two very old and strange asteroids

Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx
Bennu’s equatorial ridge. Click for full image.

This week the science team operating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at the asteroid Bennu hosted a joint conference in Tucson, Arizona, with the scientists operating the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft at the asteroid Ryugu. Both gave up-to-date reports on the science so far obtained, as well as outlined upcoming events. I was fortunate enough to attend.

First an overview. Both Bennu and Ryugu are near earth asteroids, with Bennu having an orbit that might even have it hit the Earth in the last quarter of 2100s. Both are very dark, and are rubble piles. Both were thought to be of the carbonaceous chondrite family of asteroids, sometimes referred to as C-type asteroids. This family, making up about 75% of all asteroids, includes a bewildering collection of subtypes (B-types, F-types, G-types, CI, CM, CV, CH, CB, etc), all of which were initially thought to hold a lot of carbon. We now know that only a few of these categories, the CI and CM for example, are carbon rich.

Even so, we actually know very little about these types of asteroids. They are very fragile, so that any that reach the Earth’s surface are not a good selection of what exists. About 90% of the material gets destroyed in the atmosphere, with the remnant generally coming from the innermost core or more robust nodules. We therefore have a biased and limited sample.

It is therefore not surprising that the scientists are finding that neither Bennu nor Ryugu resembles anything else they have ever seen. Both have aspects that resemble certain types of carbonaceous chondrite asteroids, but neither provides a very good fit for anything.
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New InSight image of mole shows collapse of hole

View of InSight drill hole
Click for full movie.

The InSight science image has lifted the lander’s rover arm off the drill hole and taken a new series of images in an effort to discover what caused the mole to pop out during its most recent drilling effort.

The image to the right, cropped to post here, was the first in a short movie made from all the images taken over the course of a day. The sequence shows the change in shadows, which helps define the situation in the hole.

This image however I think tells all. It shows that the walls of the hole have collapsed all around the mole, widening it further. It also shows that, once the mole popped out to lean sideways against the left wall, much of that material then fell into the hole, refilling it. These facts are very evident when today’s image is compared with this image from October, taken prior to the most recent drilling effort. The hole has become much wider, there is more material inside it, and the mole is now much farther out.

All these facts bode ill for the mole ever succeeding in drilling down the planned fifteen or so feet to insert a heat probe into the interior of Mars in order to take the first ever measure of the planet’s interior.

An overall assessment of this NASA mission is not very positive. The contribution from its international partners is especially bad. The mission was launched two years late because the French effort to build the seismometer failed. NASA had to subsequently give the job to JPL to get it done. Now the heat sensor is a failure, because the German-built mole has failed to get the heat sensor where it needs to be.

The seismometer and heat sensor were InSight’s only science instruments. This means that we will likely only get results from one.

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More detail on pad abort test parachute issue

At a press telecon yesterday Boeing outlined in more detail the cause of the failure of one main parachute to deploy during its November 4 Starliner pad abort test.

In a call with reporters, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial crew at Boeing, said an investigation after the Nov. 4 test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico led the company to conclude that a “lack of secure connection” between a pilot parachute and the main parachute prevented that main parachute, one of three, from deploying.

The pilot parachute is designed to deploy first, and pull out the main parachute. However, Mulholland said that hardware inspections and photographs taken during “closeout” of the vehicle prior to the test showed that a pin that links the pilot and main parachutes was not inserted properly.

“It’s very difficult, when you’re connecting that, to verify visually that it’s secured properly,” he said, in part because that portion of the parachute system is enclosed in a “protective sheath” intended to limit abrasion but which also makes it difficult to visually confirm the pin is in place. “In this particular case that pin wasn’t through the loop, but it wasn’t discovered in initial visual inspections because of that protective sheath.”

Mulholland said Boeing is modifying assembly procedures through what he called “fairly easy steps,” such as pull tests, to ensure those pins are properly installed. Technicians have already confirmed that the same parachute linkages are properly installed on the three parachutes on the Starliner that will launch in December on an orbital flight test to the International Space Station. [emphasis mine]

That a hardware inspection and photos taken before launch revealed this issue and resulted in nothing being done should rise serious questions at Boeing about its quality control processes. Based on the press telecon, however, it does not appear that Boeing is asking those questions. From a different report:

[John Mulholland, Boeing’s Starliner program manager] praised the rigging team, saying “even before we got eyes on the hardware, that team on their own initiative (was) reviewing the close-out photos and the processes, and they identified the potential issue that was subsequently validated by hardware inspection.”

“Most importantly, they raised their hand and and let us know what they believe the problem was,” he said. “It’s really a testament to the transparency of that team. The speak-up culture that we have, that is what we need on this program.”

While it is good that the rigging team was willing to speak up afterward, it is very bad that their procedures allowed the launch to go forward. The company says it has now changed its rigging procedures, but I don’t sense any effort on Boeing’s part to find out why its so-called “speak-up culture” failed to have these engineers speak-up, before launch.

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New video of Starliner pad abort test

Boeing has released a new video of the Starliner pad abort test on November 4th, showing the full flight.

I have embedded the footage below the fold. The one aspect of this test that I have as yet not seen any explanation for is the red cloud to the left of the capsule’s touch down spot. It surely looks like the kind of smoke one sees from the release of certain toxic fuels. It was also something that the live stream video focused on, suggesting the possibility that its existence was important and needed to be recorded for engineering reasons.

Regardless, the fact that any onboard astronauts would have been safely returned to Earth, based on this test, should mean Boeing’s abort system is functioning properly. They note that they have pinpointed the reason one parachute did not deploy (“attributed to the lack of a secure connection between the pilot chute and one of the main chutes”), a problem that is probably quite simple to fix. Hopefully that one failure will not cause any significant delays in their future flights, including the first manned flight next year.
» Read more

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White House: Cost for each SLS launch is $2 billion

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OPM), the cost for each SLS launch is now estimated to equal $2 billion.

This is the first time anyone in the executive branch has put a number to the SLS per launch cost. NASA has always refused to give a number, for good reason, since this price compares so horribly with even the most expensive private rocket (generally more than $200 million for the biggest members of the Delta rocket family). The Falcon Heavy costs about $100 million, so that to get the same mass into orbit would require two launches, but that would still be only $200 million, one tenth the cost.

The article then notes how this cost is affecting the Europa Clipper mission, which has three launch options, with SLS mandated by Congress.

The powerful SLS booster offers the quickest ride for the six-ton spacecraft to Jupiter, less than three years. But for mission planners, there are multiple concerns about this rocket beyond just its extraordinary cost. There is the looming threat that the program may eventually be canceled (due to its cost and the emergence of significantly lower cost, privately built rockets). NASA’s human exploration program also has priority on using the SLS rocket, so if there are manufacturing issues, a science mission might be pushed aside. Finally, there is the possibility of further developmental delays—significant ground testing of SLS has yet to begin.

Another option is United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has an excellent safety record and has launched several high-profile missions for NASA. However, this rocket requires multiple gravity assists to push the Clipper into a Jupiter orbit, including a Venus flyby. This heating would add additional thermal constraints to the mission, and scientists would prefer to avoid this if at all possible.

A final possibility is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, with a kick stage. This booster would take a little more than twice as long as the SLS rocket to get the Clipper payload to Jupiter, but it does not require a Venus flyby and therefore avoids those thermal issues. With a track record of three successful flights, the Falcon Heavy also avoids some of the development and manufacturing concerns raised by SLS vehicle. Finally, it offers the lowest cost of the three options.

The fact that Congress is requiring the use of SLS for a cost of $2 billion, a rocket that might not even be ready in time, when Europa Clipper could be launched on two other already operational rockets at about a tenth of the cost illustrates well the overall corruption and incompetence that permeates Congress. They really aren’t interested in the interests of the nation. They’d rather distribute money to big contractors and local interests, even if it costs the taxpayer billions and risks the mission’s success.

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Virgin Orbit gets $9.5 million from UK space agency

The space agency of the United Kingdom yesterday awarded $9.5 million to the smallsat rocket company Virgin Orbit

ccording to the statement, the funds will be used “to develop launch operations support systems and manufacture them in the U.K.” in addition to conducting “mission planning, and to further ready the facility for satellite launches from Cornwall”.

This award is part of a larger funding package of $26 million (£20 million) from Cornwall Council and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, while Virgin Orbit have also said they will contribute about $3.2 million (£2.5 million) to the Spaceport Cornwall project. The hope is that Cornwall could become a hub for European launches to space in the future.

Essentially this is an effort by the UK to bring Virgin Orbit’s launches to Cornwall spaceport. Why Virgin Orbit has got this money is puzzling however. Launched from a 747 which can take off from almost all airports, Virgin Orbit doesn’t necessarily need to launch from a spaceport. That fact is probably why the company got this “pay-off”, using somewhat more blunt words.

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Sightseeing Central Butte on Mars

Central Butte in foothills of Mt Sharp

Overview showing perspective of panorama

Curiosity has now roved to the very foot of Central Butte, where it has been taking close-up and panorama images of the butte and its geological layers. The panorama above was created from three Curiosity navigation images taken on Sol 2577 (November 6, 2019), here, here, and here.

The overview on the right, based on Curiosity’s position about ten sols ago slightly farther from the butte, still indicates roughly with the yellow lines the area photographed in this panorama. The dotted red line indicates Curiosity’s initial planned route.

Following that route Curiosity will eventually climb up onto the plateau beyond this butte, approaching that higher terrain farther to the west. Once they do, however, they will no longer have access to the geological layers below the surface. Central Butte gives them a window into those layers, which is why they are going to spend some time at this location, first by taking a few sols looking at the butte at this point, then circling around to study its back side.

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NASA rejects Blue Origin’s proposed SLS upper stage

After considering an alternative bid by Blue Origin to build a less expensive upper stage for NASA’s SLS rocket, replacing the stage that Boeing is building, NASA has decided to reject that bid and stick with Boeing.

NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. In the document, signed by various agency officials including the acting director for human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, NASA says Blue Origin’s “alternate” stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket’s core stage with Blue Origin’s upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building’s door, resulting in “modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays.” Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine’s higher stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design.

The article notes that there were also significant political reasons as well that pushed NASA to favor Boeing.

The article also states that SLS’s cost per launch will be about $2 billion. Though I think that number is probably low because it does not include any of the $25 billion spent for development, it does compare badly with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch.

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NASA to fly more year-plus missions to ISS

Leaving Earth: In an effort to shift the research focus on ISS toward learning how to do interplanetary missions, NASA wants to fly more year-plus missions to the station.

Crewmembers usually spend about six months aboard the ISS before coming back down to Earth. But that’s far shorter than a Mars mission would be; the trip to the Red Planet takes eight to nine months one way with current propulsion technology. So, NASA wants more data about the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the physiological and psychological health of astronauts. (The ISS isn’t a perfect Mars analog in this respect, of course; it resides within Earth’s protective magnetosphere and is therefore exposed to less-damaging radiation than a Mars-bound craft would be.)

To date, the agency has launched just one yearlong ISS mission, sending Scott Kelly to live on the orbiting lab from March 2015 to March 2016. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko took part in this flight as well, spending 342 days in space, just like Kelly. NASA has also extended two other astronauts’ ISS stays into the “Mars transit” range: Peggy Whitson racked up 289 days of continuous flight in 2016 and 2017, and Christina Koch, who arrived on the orbiting lab in March, is now scheduled to come down in February 2020.

But these three data points aren’t enough, said [Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the ISS Program],. “What we’re saying now is we want to really bump that up a notch and add 10 more subjects to that U.S. database,” she said.

The ISS Program has approved that plan, which NASA can start implementing once a private astronaut taxi is up and running, Robinson added.

NASA should have been doing this from the beginning, The Russians have always wanted to do longer missions, and have been frustrated by NASA’s resistance. That the agency is now pushing to focus ISS research on learning how to do interplanetary travel is wonderful news. It means that we will finally be using ISS properly.

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Boeing proposes manned lunar lander that bypasses Gateway

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced its bid to build a manned lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program, with its lander launched to go directly to the Moon rather than stopping at the proposed Lunar Gateway lunar space station.

The company said its “Fewest Steps to the Moon” proposal, submitted for NASA’s Human Landing Services program, minimized the number of launches and other “mission critical events” needed to get astronauts to the surface of the moon. “Using the lift capability of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1B, we have developed a ‘Fewest Steps to the Moon’ approach that minimizes mission complexity, while offering the safest and most direct path to the lunar surface,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president for space and launch at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said in a company statement.

The two-stage launched would launch on the enhanced Block 1B version of the rocket, which uses the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), and go into lunar orbit. It would either rendezvous with the lunar Gateway or directly with an Orion spacecraft, where astronauts would board it for a trip to the lunar surface. The lander is designed to be launched as a single unit, rather than in separate modules that would be aggregated at the Gateway. The lander also doesn’t require a separate transfer stage to maneuver from a near-rectilinear halo orbit to low lunar orbit, as some other designs have proposed.

This approach, the company said in a statement, reduces the number of mission critical events, such as launches and dockings, to as few as five. Alternative approaches, Boeing claims, require 11 or more such events. [emphasis mine]

Boeing is essentially proposing a plan that makes Gateway unnecessary, a bidding ploy that very well might work with the Trump administration, which has already reduced Gateway’s initial construction to speed up its attempt to get to the Moon by 2024.

More important, Boeing’s proposal makes it very clear how unnecessary Gateway is, and how that boondoggle actually slows down our effort to return to the Moon. This is great news, for several reasons. First it shows that Boeing, one of the old big contractors that historically has depended on government dollars, is now publicly stating that it is not in favor of Gateway. This in turn makes it more politically acceptable for politicians to take this position. Expect more public advocacy against building Gateway.

Second, it shows that Boeing is trying to sell SLS. It wants Congress to appropriate more launches, and by showing Congress a cheaper way to use it the company is hoping legislators will buy into their proposal. SLS might be an exceedingly expensive rocket, but Gateway only makes it worse. Boeing is showing the world that there is a better and cheaper way to do things.

This also suggests that Boeing is recognizing the competition coming from SpaceX and others that might kill SLS, and is now trying to make SLS more competitive. While I am not a fan of SLS, if this proposal indicates an effort by Boeing is finally to make SLS more efficient and affordable I can only celebrate. The rocket has capabilities that are unique, and if its cost can be reduced in any way that can only benefit the U.S. effort to compete in the exploration and settlement of the solar system.

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TESS completes 1st survey of southern sky

The TESS science team today released its first full panorama of the southern sky, revealing everything the space telescope has imaged since launch in one image.

The glow of the Milky Way — our galaxy seen edgewise — arcs across a sea of stars in a new mosaic of the southern sky produced from a year of observations by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Constructed from 208 TESS images taken during the mission’s first year of science operations, completed on July 18, the southern panorama reveals both the beauty of the cosmic landscape and the reach of TESS’s cameras. “Analysis of TESS data focuses on individual stars and planets one at a time, but I wanted to step back and highlight everything at once, really emphasizing the spectacular view TESS gives us of the entire sky,” said Ethan Kruse, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow who assembled the mosaic at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Within this scene, TESS has discovered 29 exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, and more than 1,000 candidate planets astronomers are now investigating.

A reduced version of this image wouldn’t show anyone its beauty or significance. I have embedded below the fold the short video at the link which shows it quite nicely. The video also summarized the mission quite well.
» Read more

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China uses Long March 3B to launch GPS-type satellite

China yesterday successfully launched another Beidou GPS-type satellite, using its Long March 3B rocket.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

22 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 ULA
4 India

China has now tied the U.S. 22 each in the national rankings, surging in launches to come from behind in the last few weeks. This is not surprising, in that China tends to concentrate its launches in the fall.

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Boeing & NASA declare pad abort test a success

According to the NASA press release for yesterday pad abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, the test was a success even though one of three main parachutes did not deploy successfully.

A pitcharound maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing as it neared its peak altitude of approximately 4,500 feet. Two of three Starliner’s main parachutes deployed just under half a minute into the test, and the service module separated from the crew module a few seconds later. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety. After one minute, the heat shield was released and airbags inflated, and the Starliner eased to the ground beneath its parachutes.

All reports say that this parachute issue will not effect the December 17 planned launch of the first unmanned orbital flight to ISS.

I find NASA’s reaction to this anomaly fascinating. Previously the agency repeatedly made a very big deal about the slightest anomaly by both Boeing and SpaceX on any test or procedure. While the agency’s response to these problems could have been reasonably justified, the caution it sometimes exhibited, often causing significant delays that might have been avoidable, was somewhat disturbing, especially when contrasted with the agency’s willingness to accept far more serious issues in connection with SLS and Orion.

Now however, the agency has no problem with the failure of one parachute to deploy during this test. While I actually agree with this response, the contrast is interesting and suggests to me that politics and deadlines (with the Russian Soyuz contract running out) are finally exerting some influence over NASA’s safety people. I suspect it has been made clear to them that unless something really seriously goes wrong, as long as the tests would have resulted in living astronauts, the safety bureaucrats had better not stand in the way of progress.

If so, this is very good news. It means that, assuming nothing really goes wrong with the remaining tests, the first manned missions are finally going to occur next year, relatively early in the year.

Posted at the Hayabusa-2/OSIRIS-REx asteroid conference in Tucson this week.

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Interstellar space, as seen by both Voyager spacecraft

Today a suite of new science papers were published outlining what scientists learned when Voyager 2 joined Voyager 1 in interstellar space last November.

The Sun’s heliosphere is like a ship sailing through interstellar space. Both the heliosphere and interstellar space are filled with plasma, a gas that has had some of its atoms stripped of their electrons. The plasma inside the heliosphere is hot and sparse, while the plasma in interstellar space is colder and denser. The space between stars also contains cosmic rays, or particles accelerated by exploding stars. Voyager 1 discovered that the heliosphere protects Earth and the other planets from more than 70% of that radiation.

The data also shows that Voyager 2, which exited the heliosphere somewhat perpendicular to its direction of travel, is still in the transitional zone between the heliosphere and interstellar space. Voyager 1 exited out the head of the heliosphere, so its transitional zone was compressed and shorter.

The real achievement of these results however is that they were obtainable at all. For both spacecraft to be functioning so well after forty years in space, and able to get their data back to Earth from distances more than 11 billion miles, is a true testament to the grand engineering that went into their design and construction.

They built well in the mid-twentieth century.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 complete 11th day on Moon

After successfully completing their eleventh lunar day on the far side of the Moon, Chinese engineers have put both Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 back into dormant mode for the long lunar night.

Yutu-2 traveled another 28 meters during this eleventh lunar day. It is now about 218 meters to the west of Chang’e-4.

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SpaceX successfully completes 13 parachute drop tests of Crew Dragon

Capitalism in space: SpaceX in two weeks has apparently completed a strong of thirteen successful parachute drop tests of its Crew Dragon capsule.

SpaceX says it successfully completed thirteen consecutive tests of Crew Dragon’s new Mk3 parachutes, all of which were completed in less than two weeks. This essentially blows Bridenstine’s expectations out of the water, as SpaceX has surpassed his predicted 10 tests and done so barely three weeks into the tentative 12-week window he set. SpaceX now has plenty of time to either continue testing Crew Dragon’s parachutes or refocus its efforts on other equally important qualification challenges.

Prior to those thirteen consecutive successes, SpaceX suffered two failures during single-parachute Mk3 testing. The first two development tests of the Mk 3 design used loads much higher than the parachutes would ever see in operation in an effort to better understand overall design margins and system performance. After a period of rapid iteration with parachute provider Airborne Systems, the faults responsible for those two stress-test failures were resolved and subsequent drop tests confirmed that Mk3’s suspension lines – the numerous lines connecting the parachute to Crew Dragon – are far stronger than those on Mk2.

Bridenstine had mentioned in a tweet that SpaceX was planning ten drop tests, so the company has now exceeded those plans.

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Boeing completes Starliner pad abort test

Embedded below the fold is the video of today’s Starliner pad abort test, cued up to just before launch. While the capsule landed safely, it appears that one of it’s parachutes deploy improperly. If so, this probably means Boeing will not be able to launch the unmanned demo flight to ISS on December 17.

No one during the podcast mentioned this fact, so it could mean that they considered the landing a success regardless. It is even possible that they planned it with only two chutes. Or it could be the corporate culture at Boeing, similar to the culture in the Soviet Union, to avoid mentioning non-obvious problems to the public in order to make believe all is well. We will have to wait and see.

UPDATE: More information here on the failure of one chute:

Video of the test appeared to show all three chutes deploy, but only two remained attached to Starliner – a significant issue that will have to be investigated and evaluated.

Hat tip to reader Col. Beausabre for the link to the video.
» Read more

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China launches remote sensing satellite

Using its Long March 4B rocket China today successfully launched a remote sensing Earth resources satellite.

They also once again tested grid fins on the first stage, comparable to the ones on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for controlling the landing zone of that first stage.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

21 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 ULA
4 India

The U.S. now leads China 22 to 21 in the national rankings..

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How to watch Boeing’s Starliner pad abort

Link here.

It is presently scheduled for 9 am (Eastern) on November 4, with a three hour window. The live stream on NASA television will go up about ten minutes before. Anyone watching should be prepared for long waits of nothing happening, followed by a very quick event over in mere minutes.

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Cygnus successfully launched by Antares

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman today successfully launched its Cygnus unmanned cargo freighter to ISS, using its Antares rocket.

This was only the third launch for Northrop Grumman this year, which matches its total last year and has been its typical count for the past decade and a half. Previously that number was mostly Pegasus launches. Now it is the Antares/Cygnus launches to ISS, as Pegasus has lost most of its business.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

20 China
17 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 ULA
4 India

The U.S. now leads China 22 to 20 in the national rankings.

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Upcoming schedule of Boeing & SpaceX manned capsule tests

The next two months are going to be a busy time for both Boeing and SpaceX as they attempt to complete the last tests necessary to their respectively Starliner and Crew Dragon capsules before they each launch a manned mission to ISS.

Below is that schedule as of today:

November 4: Boeing will do a Starliner pad abort test, to be live streamed.
November 6: SpaceX will do a final static fire test of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort engines.
November-December: SpaceX will do a series of parachute drop tests of Crew Dragon
December 17: Boeing will launch Starliner unmanned in a demo mission to ISS.
December (third week): SpaceX will complete a launch abort test of Crew Dragon

The article at the first link above provides a lot of detail about both companies’ abort tests.

Assuming these tests all go as planned, both companies will then have completed all engineering tests required prior to their first manned missions. As far as I can tell, the only thing standing in their way at that point will be filling out the voluminous paperwork that NASA is demanding from them.

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Russia ships three more engines to U.S. for ULA’s rockets

Russia announced yesterday that it has delivered three more RD-180 engines to ULA for use in its Atlas 5 rocket.

The article notes that this contract, as well as the contract with Northrop Grumman to make RD-181 engines for the Antares rocket, both end in December 2019. While ULA has said it plans to replace the Russia engine with Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine (still under development), it is not clear what Northrop Grumman will do.

In both cases, Russia has delivered enough engines to cover launches for the next few years. This will give Blue Origin time to complete development of the BE-4. As for Antares, the lack of its Russian engine, combined with its inability to obtain any customers other than NASA, could spell the end of that rocket once Northrop Grumman has used up its engine stockpile.

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Turkey negotiating with Russia to train its future astronauts

Turkey might not have yet established its space program, nor have any announced intention of sending anyone into space, but it is presently negotiating with Russia to send any of its future astronauts to Russia for training.

Turkey has confirmed its intention to send astronauts to Russia for training, as follows from a report uploaded to the website of the Russian space corporation Roscosmos on Thursday following a working meeting between Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin and Turkey’s Ambassador to Russia Mehmet Samsar.

“The Turkish side confirmed its original plans for having its astronauts trained in the Star City,” the news release runs. “In the conversation topical issues concerning mutually beneficial cooperation in space were discussed. The two sides noted the great potential and importance of this theme in relations between the two countries,” the news release adds.

Earlier, the Roscosmos CEO said a Turkish astronaut might go to the International Space Station in 2021-2023.

Roscosmos right now is the only place in the world that has an established program for training astronauts, and it is clearly trying to make itself the go-to place for this service. This in turn gives Russia a big advantage in any worldwide competition for flying tourists or international governmental astronauts. If Turkey for example needs to choose between buying astronaut tickets on SpaceX or Roscosmos, it will lean toward Roscosmos because that was where its astronauts were trained.

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Virgin Galactic stock drops 25% since IPO on Monday

Capitalism in space: While this article focuses more on jabs taken by the head of British Airways against Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, it contains one tidbit of real note:

Shares in Virgin Galactic have fallen by more than a quarter since it went public at the start of the week, wiping more than $600m (£464m) off its value.

On Monday, the initial offering price for stock in Virgin Galactic was $12.93. At the moment it is trading in the mid-$9 dollar range, with the low earlier today of $9.09. Overall the stock lost about 25% of its value in a week, indicating properly that its value had been inflated by Branson and his partners in that initial offering.

But then, inflating the value of Virgin Galactic has been Richard Branson’s mode of operation since 2004 when he founded the company. I continue to wish the company success, but have become exceedingly skeptical about it.

And to change my mind the company is going to have to finally actually accomplish something, rather than make empty promises that never come true.

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MarCO cubesats almost failed just before InSight landing

According to a report by one of its engineers, contact was lost with the two MarCo cubesats just prior to InSight’s landing on Mars, and was recovered just in time.

The team spent all day looking at the fault tree to fix the issue, Klesh recalled. “At 6:05 a.m. [California time] the next morning, MarCO-B shows up just on time,” apparently recovering automatically from an attitude-control issue, Klesh said. He proudly told mission managers at 6:30 a.m. that both cubesats were ready to go.

But then, “45 minutes later,” he said, “MarCO-A disappeared.”

At that point, it was too late to make any changes. JPL had already sent its last commands to InSight and MarCO through NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) of telescopes that communicate with spacecraft far out in the solar system. So the engineers could only watch and wait. “We didn’t know what was going to happen [during landing] in a few hours’ time,” Klesh said.

Luckily for the team, MarCO-A (and its twin) both popped into communications at 12:14 p.m. and succeeded in relaying data from the InSight touchdown, sending back valuable information about the dangerous entry, descent and landing phase to NASA engineers to plan for future missions.

They have traced the issue of MarCo-A’s disappearance to being blinded by the light from Mars, thus confusing its star tracker. That both spacecraft auto-recovered when contact with Earth was lost however is I think a fine testament to their design.

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Update on Starship Mk1 assembly

Link here. It appears its launch pad has been assembled at Boca Chica and the spacecraft has been moved and placed on it.

It also appears that they are aiming for the first tests no earlier than November.

The newest videos at the link are worth a glance, though somewhat tedious as with each they view a worksite from a distance where not much appears to happen quickly. The last however shows the ship being moved and lifted and placed on the launch pad.

I cannot deny a certain skepticism when I look at this first iteration of Starship. The hull especially fills me with trepidation, since it is made up of many welded riveted together plates that do not create a smooth surface. I wonder how this surface will respond to returning from orbit at near orbital speeds.

UPDATE: I mistakenly referred to the plates initially as “riveted”. They are welded together, as correctly noted by one of my readers, and I have corrected the post accordingly.

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Orion capsule has no room for Moon rocks

Good enough for government work! It appears that the Orion capsule that NASA and Lockheed Martin have been building since 2004 — for a total cost of a mere $18 billion — with the express purpose of sending American astronauts on missions to the Moon and beyond, has been designed without any capability for bringing lunar samples back to Earth.

The article at the link is mostly a dive into NASA’s make-believe plans about what will happen on the proposed 2024 lunar landing being pushed by Trump, a mission as yet unfunded by Congress and dependent on a NASA rocket, SLS, that has yet to launch and is years behind schedule. Buried however at the very end of article however was this bombshell:

One of the limitations on returning samples is the Orion spacecraft, which will carry astronauts back from lunar orbit to Earth. Chavers said the Orion spacecraft does not have any designated space for a box of sample rocks taken from the lunar surface. “We just don’t know what the capability will be,” Chavers said of bringing rocks back to Earth inside Orion.

I hadn’t read this article in detail because of its nature, essentially a NASA puff piece pushing the agency’s fantasies. Hat tip to reader Scott M. for pointing it out.

If this absurd design failure doesn’t illustrate the incompetence of our modern NASA and its big contractors, I don’t know what does. I cannot imagine how it is possible for anyone involved in this project to leave out this tiny detail. What point is there to built a spaceship for returning astronauts from planetary missions if you don’t include the capacity to return samples? None.

In fact, this omission is further proof that the goal of Artemis (SLS, Orion, Gateway) is merely to suck money from the taxpayer, without really accomplishing anything. It is also further evidence of my previous conclusion, that NASA’S entire Orion concept is a lie.

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Webb telescope faces more schedule risks, engineering issues

Even as NASA touts the final assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope, its program director noted in a presentation that the telescope is still facing several engineering issues that could cause further launch delays.

They presently are targeting a March 2021 launch on an Ariane 5 rocket (ten years behind schedule). Their schedule cushion (the extra time built into their schedule in case they have problems) however has shrunk from nine months to only two. Worse, there remain several lingering unsolved engineering problems.

One such problem is with an electronics unit called a command telemetry processor that malfunctioned during environmental testing. Robinson said engineers had problems duplicating the problem to determine the root cause and plan to replace the unit, along with a traveling wave tube amplifier used in the spacecraft’s communications system that also failed during testing.

NASA has also been working with launch provider Arianespace about concerns that residual pressure within the payload fairing at the time of fairing separation could “over-stress” the sunshield membranes. Tests on recent Ariane 5 launches confirmed that there was a higher residual pressure than the sunshield was designed for. Vents in the fairing are being redesigned to address this, Robinson said, and will be tested on Ariane 5 launches in early 2020.

However, those smaller problems, along with bigger issues like fastener problems with the sunshield found during environmental testing last year, have eroded the margin built into the revised schedule for the mission.

Unmentioned in the article is the fact that Arianespace is planning to retire the Ariane 5 when its Ariane 6 starts launching next year. Right now they have agreed to maintain their Ariane 5 launch facilities through March 2021 to allow Webb’s launch, but further delays could cause significant problems, including fixing the fairing issue mentioned above. At a certain point Arianespace will no longer be willing to hold onto Ariane 5 for just this one launch.

Also unmentioned in the article is the status of Webb’s budget, which has grown from a proposed $500 million cost to almost $10 billion. I suspect that if they can meet their March 2021 launch date that total will not grow much. Any further delays however will once again cause it to balloon.

(I originally listed the proposed cost of Webb above as $1 billion, but that number is wrong. See the comments below).

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