Tag Archives: engineering

China launches another Earth observation satellite

The new colonial movement: China yesterday successfully launched a military surveillance satellite using its Long March 2D rocket, its second launch in three days.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

15 China
10 SpaceX
7 Russia
3 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 16 to 15 in the national rankings.

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Midnight repost: “We stand for freedom.”

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: This essay, portions of which was adapted from the fourth chapter of Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, was posted originally on May 25, 2011, the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s speech to Congress where he committed the nation to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

It seems fitting to repost on July 4th, Independence Day.

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Kennedy's speech

“We stand for freedom.”

Fifty years ago today, John Kennedy stood before Congress and the nation and declared that the United States was going to the Moon. Amazingly, though this is by far the most remembered speech Kennedy ever gave, very few people remember why he gave the speech, and what he was actually trying to achieve by making it.

Above all, going to the Moon and exploring space was not his primary goal.
» Read more

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Rocket Lab launch failure

Electron 34 seconds from launch

UPDATE: Mere seconds after I uploaded the post below, Rocket Lab announced that something had gone wrong late in the launch, resulting in the loss of all seven satellites.

This failure is the company’s second since their first test launch attempt. It will certainly prevent them from their goal this year of monthly launches.

The failure also changes the launch standings below. Rocket Lab is no longer among the leaders, and the U.S. leads China 16 to 14.

The original post:
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Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully completed the thirteenth launch of its Electron rocket, placing seven smallsats into orbit.

The picture above, captured from their live feed 34 seconds before launch, is most amusing because of the white sheep and black cattle grazing in the foreground.

This launch, three weeks after their previous launch, was their fastest turn-around so far. They made no attempt this time to recover the first stage, but noted that they plan to do so on their seventeenth launch, four launches from now.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

14 China
10 SpaceX
7 Russia
3 ULA
3 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 17 to 14 in the national rankings.

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A hanging crater on Mars

Hanging crater
Click for full image.

Overview

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 1, 2020, and shows a truly intriguing crater that they dub a “Crater Hanging on Mesa Wall.”

Located in Deuteronilus Mensae, a chaos region of mesas and cross-crossing canyons in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands, the crater literally overhangs the edge of this canyon’s cliff. The overview map to the right, with this location indicated by the red box, illustrates what this region’s geology is like.

The most likely explanation is that the impact occurred prior to the creation of the canyon, and when the canyon eroded, the material in and of this crater was more resistant, probably because the impact had packed it together to increase its density.

At the same time, the features inside both craters in the photo, as well as below them on the floor of the canyon, suggest the presence of buried glaciers, something not unlikely at the 45 degree north latitude where this crater sits.

So, here’s a guess at the geological history. First we had the impact, then during the eons of glacial ebb and flow on Mars due to wide swings in the planet’s obliquity (its rotational tilt), the canyon was cut, with that erosion leaving the crater sitting high above the canyon floor below it.

One more curious detail: The material in the canyon seems asymmetric, suggesting that the crater actually dips down toward the canyon, as if it as a unit has tilted to the east as the canyon was worn out below it.

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New storm outbreak on Jupiter

Clyde's Spot
Click for full image.

A new storm, dubbed Clyde’s spot after its discoverer, developed suddenly in late May on Jupiter, and has been imaged by Juno during its most recent close fly-by of the gas giant planet.

The image to the right, cropped to post here, focuses in on this spot. It is the feature in the center of the full image, with the Great Red Spot to the upper left.

The new feature was discovered by amateur astronomer Clyde Foster of Centurion, South Africa. Early on the morning of May 31, 2020, while imaging Jupiter with his telescope, Foster noticed a new spot, which appeared bright as seen through a filter sensitive to wavelengths of light where methane gas in Jupiter’s atmosphere has strong absorption. The spot was not visible in images captured just hours earlier by astronomers in Australia.

On June 2, 2020, just two days after Clyde Foster’s observations, Juno performed its 27th close flyby of Jupiter. The spacecraft can only image a relatively thin slice of Jupiter’s cloud tops during each pass. Although Juno would not be travelling directly over the outbreak, the track was close enough that the mission team determined the spacecraft would obtain a detailed view of the new feature, which has been informally dubbed “Clyde’s Spot.”

The feature is a plume of cloud material erupting above the upper cloud layers of the Jovian atmosphere. These powerful convective “outbreaks” occasionally erupt in this latitude band, known as the South Temperate Belt

The coolest thing about this is that the storm was spotted by an amateur, using a ground-based telescope, within hours of its inception.

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LightSail-2 extends mission

Capitalism in space: The Planetary Society’s satellite designed to test the use of a light sail in orbit, LightSail-2, has now begun an extended mission one year after launch.

It appears that they have successfully used the light sail to delay the decay of the satellite’s orbit, as well as change that orbit slightly. The extension will thus allow them to get a better and more exact understanding of the sail’s capabilities, information NASA will use in its own solar sail demonstration mission, NEA Scout, a cubesat that will use a solar sail to fly to an asteroid.

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United Kingdom partnership buys bankrupt OneWeb

Capitalism in space? A partnership between the UK government and an Indian company operating in the UK has purchased the bankrupt satellite company OneWeb for $1 billion.

The decision for the U.K. government to purchase OneWeb came with few details about when satellite launches will resume and exactly what the OneWeb satellites will now be used for and even who will have access to them once launched.

The overall deal is worth $1 billion USD, with the U.K. government and Bharti Enterprises Ltd. (an Indian-based company with an operational arm in the U.K.) each committing $500 million USD to the acquisition deal.

The buy-out is expected to close by the end of the year and will represent a 90% overall stake in OneWeb, with the organization’s original investors maintaining a 10% share according to reports from Bloomberg News.

The Johnson government has indicated it wishes to use the OneWeb constellation, still incomplete, as some sort of navigational tool, like GPS. The problem is that the satellites were not designed for this, but for providing internet service.

The article provides a good overview of the questions raised by this government decision. It is hard to figure how this purchase makes sense for the UK government. The impact however on one of OneWeb’s launch providers, Russia, could be very negative. OneWeb was going use a lot of Soyuz rockets to get its satellites off the ground, and had become practically the only commercial customer Russia still has. It is unclear what will happen now with that contract deal.

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Arianespace delays Vega launch seven more weeks

Arianespace announced yesterday that it has pushed back its first Vega rocket launch since the spring of 2019 (when the rocket failed) for seven more weeks, until August 17, 2020.

They had been trying to get the rocket off the ground this past week, but had been forced to scub several times because of high winds. They claim this long new delay is to wait until the weather improves, which really doesn’t make sense. Eric Berger at Ars Technica did some digging to find that other scheduling issues, including the odious lock down rules because of the Wuhan panic, were the really reason for the additional seven week delay. They have to recharge the batteries on the rocket, but don’t have time to do it before another launch is set to occur.

This process appears to involve customer representatives flying into French Guiana to perform this task, and there is a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in the non-European part of France that borders Brazil.

Finally, Arianespace also has a commercial satellite launch mission upcoming on its larger Ariane 5 rocket, and this VA253 flight has been scheduled for July 28. Because there is a minimum of a two-week turnaround time between launches at the spaceport in French Guiana, there was not time to reset the Vega rocket and its payloads before this mission.

With these rules and launch limitations, Arianespace is going to have increasing problems competing with the newer launch companies, all of whom are aiming, like SpaceX, to have almost instantaneous launch turn-arounds.

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Defense Department cancels small rocket contract awards

The Department of Defense yesterday withdrew the small contracts it had given to six small rocket companies on June 16 using funds allocated to help companies impacted by the Wuhan flu panic lock downs.

According to multiple industry sources, the selection of the six companies drew widespread criticism because it was unclear how these suppliers were selected over others. When contracts are awarded without an open competition, DoD by law has to file a “Justification & Approval” document explaining why an award was sole-sourced. No J&A documents were filed in this case.

This certainly appears fishy, as there are far more than six startups trying to capture market share in the smallsat launch market. Defense could now allow companies to competitively bid on this money, estimated to be about $115 million total, but it is unclear whether it will.

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Blue Origin delivers its first BE-4 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this week delivered its first BE-4 rocket engine to ULA, for use in ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

This engine is still a test article and is not yet flight-worthy.

“The engine delivered is the first pathfinder engine to be mated with the Vulcan Centaur and will support ULA’s testing,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told SpaceNews. “We are planning on delivering the second engine in July.” A pathfinder is a development engine. Blue Origin has not said when a flight-qualified engine will be delivered.

…ULA set a 2021 target to fly its first Vulcan Centaur mission and needs two production-quality engines to build the launch vehicle for that mission. Flying Vulcan Centaur in 2021 is an imperative for ULA as it tries to win one of two contracts that the U.S. Space Force will award this summer to launch dozens of national security satellites between 2022 and 2027.

According to sources, frustration has been mounting at ULA as the company’s future is tied to the success of Vulcan Centaur and there is no room for error when it comes to the main engine.

I empathize with ULA’s frustration. The pace of development at Blue Origin has seemed incredibly slow in the past two years. They had begun static fire tests in 2018, and then — beginning with ULA’s decision to buy the BE-4 for Vulcan in May 2018 — for more than a year there was no news. It wasn’t until August 2019 that they announced completion of the first full power test. Even then, it took another whole year before they got to this point now, where they were willing to deliver a first test engine to ULA.

Building a new rocket engine is not simple, so these delays could be entirely reasonable. At the same time, the company’s overall pace in accomplishing anything has been glacial. For example, in the past three years it has repeatedly not delivered on its promises to start flying humans on its New Shepard suborbital capsule. Four months ago, in their most recent promise, they said they would need three more unmanned test flights of New Shepard before they’d put humans on it, and that all those flights (including the manned one) would occur this year. Yet nothing has happened since.

While I truly want Blue Origin to succeed, one must cast a cold eye on what is really happening. If they wish to really compete with SpaceX they have got to pick up their pace.

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Midnight repost: Behind the Black

In celebration of the tenth anniversary the Behind the Black, I will each evening at midnight this month repost an earlier essay or article posted on the website sometime during the past ten years. Since I have posted more than 22,000 times since I started this website in July of 2010, I have plenty of good stuff to choose from. The thirty reposts over the next month will highlight some of the best.

We begin with what is really the only Easter Egg on Behind the Black, as it has sat as a unheralded link dubbed only Behind the Black on the main page since the website’s beginning. That link takes you to the following essay, excerpted and adapted from the final afterword in the paperback edition of my book about the Hubble Space Telescope, The Universe in a Mirror.

It explains much about my goals in all that I write.
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Behind the Black

At the end of the last spacewalk during this last servicing mission to Hubble, astronaut John Grunsfeld took a few moments to reflect on Hubble’s importance. This was Grunsfeld’s third spaceflight and eighth spacewalk to Hubble, and no one had been more passionate or dedicated in his effort to get all of Hubble’s repairs and upgrades completed.

“As Arthur C. Clarke says,” Grunsfeld said, “the only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.”

For most of human history, the range of each person’s experience was of a distant and unreachable horizon. This untouchable horizon defined “the limits of the possible.” No matter how far an individual traveled, there was always a forever receding horizon line of unknown territory tantalizingly out of reach before him.
» Read more

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Two wedding cakes on Mars

Tall wedding cake on Mars
Click for full image.

It it time for two cool Martian images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Though both show features that are similar and likely had some comparable geological origins, they are located in two very different places on Mars and thus also had very different histories.

What makes them fun is how much both resemble classic tall wedding cakes, though the second has unfortunately fallen down and is no longer eatable.

The first, cropped on the right to post here, was taken on May 18, 2020, and is described by the science team as a “Tall Layered Mesa in Crater in Deuteronilus Mensae.” Deuteronilus Mensae is in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands, and being in the high mid-latitudes (42 degrees north) shows a lot of evidence of buried and eroded glaciers. Many of these glaciers are found inside craters.

What caused this layered mesa however to form is beyond me. It is taller than the crater in which it sits, as well as the surrounding terrain. A glacier would settle into the lowest regions, and would not last if exposed above the rim like this is. Its height suggests that the surrounding terrain was once much higher, and has been eroded away. Yet if so, why does this mesa also sit inside a depression?

The second “wedding cake” is even more intriguing, though less baffling.
» Read more

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Firefly honors the man who saved it from bankruptcy

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace yesterday found a very unusual and entertaining way to celebrate the 43rth birthday of Max Polykov, the investor who purchased the company during bankruptcy proceedings and then rehired everyone so that the company could come back from the dead.

They decided to use one of their rocket engines to light the candles on his birthday cake. I have embedded the video of this effort below the fold. It is very clear that everyone at Firefly is immensely and sincerely grateful to Polykov for saving their company, which right now is among the leaders in the race to be one of the new rocket companies to meet the needs of the burgeoning new satellite industry.
» Read more

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Boeing’s Starliner aces parachute test

Capitalism in space: Boeing last week successfully completed a Starliner parachute test designed to simulate the return of a capsule after a launch abort.

This is good news for the capsule and Boeing, but I am a bit puzzled why this test, to be followed by a second similar test, was done. These parachutes were supposedly tested thoroughly already, proven, and ready for use for manned missions. Part of that proof was an earlier launch abort test as well as Boeing’s unmanned orbital demo flight that failed to dock with ISS. Both returned to Earth safely using these parachutes. I wonder if during those latter flights they found issues with the parachutes that needed smoothing out by even more tests.

Either way, this success improves the chances that Starliner will finally fly manned early next year, giving the U.S. two different operational manned capsules for getting humans into space.

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SpaceX’s reusable first stages and their dramatic impact on the bottom line

This article by Eric Berger at Ars Technica outlining the status of SpaceX’s fleet of reusable first stages contained this incredible fact:

On May 11, 2018, the company launched the first of its new “Block 5” version of its Falcon 9 rocket. This new version of the first stage incorporated all of the company’s previous performance upgrades to the Falcon 9 rocket while also maximizing its reuse. It worked—SpaceX has now flown two different Falcon 9 cores five times, and it may fly a first stage for the sixth time later this summer.

The success of the Block 5 rocket means that SpaceX has had to devote less time and resources to building Falcon 9 first stages. Since May 2018, it has launched 31 times on a Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket—while using just 10 cores. Put another way, reuse has saved SpaceX the cost of 189 Merlin rocket engines, dozens of fuel tanks, and many complex avionics systems. [emphasis mine]

That is a lot of cost savings, which the company is not only using to cut its prices but also to reduce the cost of its Starlink launches. It appears SpaceX wants those launches, as much as possible, to use reused boosters in order to lower the overall cost of getting that internet constellation into orbit. This in turn will make it possible for them to charge less for the service, once they begin offering it.

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Russia to consider building reusable stages for Angara

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency that controls that nation’s entire aerospace industry, is “considering” the idea of developing reusable rocket stages for future iterations of its new Angara rocket.

“On June 30, changes were made to the state contract on the ‘Amur’ experimental design work that envisaged upgrading and further developing this series,” the statement says. In particular, the changes envisage developing the Angara-A5M as the upgraded version of the Angara-A5 rocket and the conceptual design of the Angara-A5V increased lifting capacity vehicle (with the oxygen-hydrogen third stage).

“Also, an option will be considered to develop the Angara-A5VM carrier rocket with reusable stages,” Roscosmos specified.

I’ll believe it when I see it. For now almost twenty years the Russians have been very good at issuing bold press releases promising wonderful new rockets, spaceships, and projects, only to have none of these rockets, spaceships, or projects ever actually happen.

That they are even considering reusable first stages however does show the power of competition and freedom. They never would have if SpaceX hadn’t come along and cut costs with this idea and thus take their entire market share from them. Now they have to find a way to compete in order to get some of that business back..

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Starship prototype #5 passes cryogenic test

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s fifth Starship prototype #5 last night successfully completed a cryogenic test of its tanks, setting the stage for its first vertical test flight.

SpaceX’s Starship SN5 prototype performed a cryogenic proof test at the launch provider’s Boca Chica, Texas facility on Tuesday evening. The test marked a rapid recovery for SpaceX – managing to return to testing a month after the previous vehicle exploded on the pad.

The cryogenic proof is when the vehicle’s propellant tanks are filled with liquid nitrogen and pressurized to flight pressures. Then, hydraulic pistons (otherwise known as a thrust simulator) press against the base of the vehicle to mimic the force of a Raptor engine. The proof test will ensure that Starship SN5 is structurally sound ahead of testing with liquid oxygen and methane. Unlike oxygen and methane, nitrogen is inert and will not combust if something were to go wrong.

The article at the link gives a nice overview of the test program, and what is to come next.

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Perseverance launch delayed to July 30, 2020

Not good: Because of an issue with the Atlas 5 rocket, NASA and ULA have decided to delay again the launch of the next Mars rover Perseverance from July 22nd to July 30th.

“Due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations, NASA and United Launch Alliance have moved the first launch attempt of the Mars 2020 mission to no earlier than July 30,” NASA said. “A liquid oxygen sensor line presented off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate.”

ULA performed the Wet Dress Rehearsal on June 22. The exercise involved rolling the Perseverance rover’s Atlas 5 launcher out of its vertical integration hangar to Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad, then loading the rocket with kerosene, liquid hydrogen, and liquid oxygen propellants. The launch team practiced countdown procedures, testing the Atlas 5’s systems before halting the pre-launch sequence seconds before ignition of the rocket’s RD-180 main engine.

Their official launch window extends to August 11th, though they could still launch as late as August 15th and get to their landing site in Jezero Crater on Mars.

This is the third delay. The first involved a faulty crane and the second contamination issues in the rover’s clean room. Now an issue with an oxygen sensor. Let us hope their are no more, and that the weather then cooperates. It they don’t launch by August 15th the launch will then be postponed for two whole years.

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SpaceX successfully launches GPS satellite for Space Force

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched its first satellite for the Space Force, a GPS satellite.

It also successfully landed the first stage, which was on its first flight. This was also the 88th flight of the Falcon 9 since its inception in 2010, which now makes it the rocket with the most launches of any U.S. operational rocket, bypassing ULA’s Atlas 5, and doing it in about half the time.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

13 China
10 SpaceX
7 Russia
3 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 16 to 13 in the national rankings.

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NASA awards Northrop Grumman contract for more SLS solid rocket boosters

NASA today awarded Northrop Grumman a $49.5 million contract to begin work on twelve more SLS solid rocket boosters, enough for six more SLS flights.

Under this letter contract, with a potential value of $49.5 million, NASA will provide initial funding and authorization to Northrop Grumman to order long-lead items to support building the twin boosters for the next six SLS flights. Northrop Grumman will be able to make purchases as the details of the full contract are finalized within the next year. The full Boosters Production and Operations Contract is expected to support booster production and operations for SLS flights 4-9. The period of performance for the letter contract is 150 days; the definitized contract will extend through Dec. 31, 2030.

I especially like the headline Doug Messier used today in his post of NASA’s press release of this award at Parabolic Arc: “NASA Sinks More Money into SLS.” An apt description, since the odds of this program continuing to 2030 as described is quite low. The cost is too high, and other more capable and less expensive rockets will be available in the next few years, making SLS the equivalent of the buggy whip. Any money NASA spends on it now is essentially cash the agency is wasting.

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A minor rill on the Moon

Kathleen, a rill on the Moon
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image above, reduced to post here, is a colorized digital terrain model produced from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) data. On top of the original mosaic of photos the LRO science team has overlaid the elevation data obtained by LRO’s laser altimeter. It shows a tadpole shaped pit dubbed Kathleen, with its tail trailing off to the southeast. As they note:

Kathleen is a pyroclastic vent with a sinuous rille (colloquially known as Rima Mozart [Not IAU confirmed]) that extends from the southeast end of the vent. Rilles are large channels formed by sustained channelized lava flows. This vent is a great location to investigate ancient volcanism on the Moon.

The elevation data reveals one interesting feature: The lowest part of the vent pit is not at its western end, where one would think at first glance, based on the general dip that produced the rill flowing to the east. That the lowest point is at the widest section of the pit instead suggests that this pit no longer looks as it did when it was venting. In the almost four billion years since it is thought all volcanic activity here ceased, there has been plenty of time for the slow erosion processes on the Moon, caused by radiation, micrometeorites, and the solar wind, to partly fill this pit and round out its cliff walls.

The two overview maps below provide some context.
» Read more

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Russia to lower launch price of new Angara rocket

Capitalism in space: According to its 2019 financial report, the Russian manufacturer of that country’s new Angara rocket intends by 2024 to lower launch price from about $100 million to about $57 million.

The high cost price of the latest Angara carrier rocket before the start of its serial production is due to the need for the Khrunichev Space Center to work at two sites, the press office of the State Space Corporation Roscosmos told TASS on Monday. “Before the production process is fully moved to the site of the Polyot company in Omsk, the Khrunichev Space Center has to work at two production sites, which creates additional overhead costs,” a Roscosmos spokesman said.

As part of its trials, the Angara rocket is being produced singly instead of serially, he said. “After the serial full-cycle production is launched, the item’s cost price will decrease,” the spokesman said.

Essentially they are claiming that the cost will drop once they start full production.

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Yutu-2 travels 62 feet during 19th lunar day

According to the official Chinese press, Yutu-2 traveled another 62 feet during its 19th lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

I did not get that number from the article, which was written to imply falsely that the rover’s total travel distance since landing (463 meters) was what it did during this single lunar day. To get the real travel distance I took the total from the previously reported total travel distance and figured the difference.

If you want to be educated to the absolutely useless nature of a state-run press, put both links above in separate tabs and compare. You will discover that other than some very minor changes, the new news story is essentially a cut-and-paste of the previous. Which by the way is a cut-and-paste of the last few reports. They don’t even bother to make believe (like the leftist American mainstream media) that they are giving us some information. They simply don’t.

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NASA tests SLS backup tank to failure

In preparation for the only planned full scale static fire engine test of the core first stage of the SLS rocket, NASA engineers have successfully completed a tank test to failure on a back-up oxygen tank.

The tank was filled with water to simulate the oxygen, and cracked as expected at the predicted pressure and at the predicted weld. A short 11-second video of the moment of failure test is embedded below the fold.

This test illustrates the methods by which NASA works. Unlike SpaceX, which is doing similar tests at the very beginning of its Starship design stage to best improve their design, NASA does this testing at the very end of construction, to prove that what they have built will work. The former method in the long run is less risky and faster, as SpaceX quickly finds out what works and doesn’t and builds accordingly.

The latter method is more risky because it depends on complex computer models, which can always be wrong. It also is more expensive in that it requires NASA to build its rockets with large margins of error, just in case those models are wrong. Finally, it appears to take longer to build, because of those required large margins of error. Your rocket or spaceship needs almost to be “gold-plated” to make sure it will work, when completed, since you really can’t test it in the design phase and build it more efficiently based on those tests.
» Read more

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Sierra Nevada starts installing thermal tiles on Tenacity

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada has received and started to install the thermal protection tiles for its first Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle, dubbed Tenacity.

The Thermal Protection System (TPS) tiles are one of the major hardware components used on Dream Chaser and cover nearly the entire craft to protect it from the heat of the sun and the plasma regime during atmospheric reentry. The tiles can withstand the scorching heat of 1,650°C (3,000°F) and prevent the vehicle from being destroyed during reentry.

Dream Chaser has approximately 2,000 TPS tile compared to the 24,000 tiles used on the Space Shuttle. Dream Chaser is about 1/4 the size of a Shuttle Orbiter. The tiles on Dream Chaser utilize a room temperature vulcanizing (RTV) silicone to keep the tiles bonded to the vehicle at all times. The silicone can withstand high temperatures, making it ideal for use. Each of the tiles is tested by a mechanism that pulls on each one, helping avoid issues of the tiles falling off, which happened early in the Space Shuttle Program.

The company notes that the vehicle remains on schedule for a 2021 launch on a ULA Vulcan rocket.

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UK to bid for purchase of bankrupt OneWeb

Capitalism in space? The United Kingdom appears about to bid $500 million to purchase the bankrupt satellite communications company OneWeb, apparently in an effort to use its satellites as a quick form of GPS-type satellites.

Among the uses being claimed for OneWeb’s technology is that it could be an alternative Galileo, the GPS satellite constellation built by the EU. Britain was kicked out of the project as a result of Brexit. Some have speculated OneWeb might be used as a cheaper alternative.

However, while acquiring such a satellite network would be a coup, industry sources are divided on whether the satellites could be easily retrofitted to perform a role as GPS. GPS technology is also owned by the US, and Washington has been against its allies building rival systems. “The system was built as a communications network,” says one source, questioning how easily it could be changed to GPS.

The article also notes that three Chinese companies are also considering bidding. All these foreign bids (especially the Chinese ones) however face U.S. government review, which will I expect almost certainly reject the Chinese bids.

The deadline for bids is tonight, so we shall find out soon.

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Privately-built Japanese smallsat successfully tests new technology

Capitalism in space: A privately-built Japanese smallsat has successfully tested seven new technologies on a six-month long mission that was launched in January on Japan’s newest low-cost Epsilon rocket.

For the first time, the Japanese space agency turned over development of one of its satellites to a startup. Axelspace Co. developed RAPIS-1 for the agency is a short time period, going from design to launch in only about two years, the agency said. The satellite bus features a standardized interface that made attaching instruments and equipment easier. The mission equipment and bus were independently designed to prevent failures of the former from affecting the latter, JAXA said.

The article at the link provides details about the technologies tested, all of which increase significantly the capabilities of smallsats to replace standard larger and heavier satellites.

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Axiom hires European company to help build private ISS module

Capitalism in space: Axiom has hired the European company Thales Alenia, to build the habitation module of its commercial space station that will initially attach to ISS.

Axiom’s station modules will form a new section of ISS that will be able to operate independently, so that when ISS is decommissioned it can detach and remain operational in space.

That Axiom did not choose either Boeing (which I think built most of NASA’s ISS modules) or Northrop Grumman (which has been pushing an upgraded version of its Cygnus capsule as future station modules) is intriguing. I suspect with Boeing cost was the major reason, as Boeing’s modules are generally far too expensive. There also might be questions about that company’s quality control.

Why Northrop Grumman lost out however is unclear. Its Cygnus design is relatively inexpensive, and has clearly demonstrated that it works very reliably. obvious. Thales Alenia makes that Cygnus module for Northrop Grumman, so why buy it from the U.S. company when you can get it from the builder. (Thanks to reader Doug Booker for pointing out this obvious fact, one I had forgotten.)

Either way, this contract award gets us one step closer to truly private operations in space. Eventually competing private stations such as Axiom’s will replace government stations like ISS. That will in turn certainly lower costs and and increase innovation, which in turn will accelerate the development of the engineering required to build practical interplanetary spaceships.

This of course assumes we remain a free nation. Right now I have strong doubts.

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Perseverance launch delayed two days

NASA and ULA have agreed to delay the launch of the new Mars rover Perseverance two days, from July 20th to July 22nd, because of “a contamination concern.”

NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance was scheduled to launch toward the Red Planet on July 20 from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But a problem cropped up as engineers worked to encapsulate the rover in the nosecone of its Atlas V rocket, which was built by United Launch Alliance.

“NASA and United Launch Alliance are now targeting Wednesday, July 22, for launch of the Mars 2020 mission due to a processing delay encountered during encapsulation activities of the spacecraft,” NASA officials said in an update. “Additional time was needed to resolve a contamination concern in the ground support lines in NASA’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).”

This contamination likely relates to their effort to keep the rover free from Earth biology.

The official launch window closes on August 11th, though they can still launch as late as August 15th and get to their targeted landing site in Jezero Crater on Mars.

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