Tag Archives: engineering

New Horizons confirms solar wind slows at greater solar distances

The New Horizons science team today released data that confirms that, as theorized, the speed of the solar wind decreases as it travels farther from the Sun.

As the solar wind moves farther from the Sun, it encounters an increasing amount of material from interstellar space. When interstellar material is ionized, the solar wind picks up the material and, researchers theorized, slows and heats in response. SWAP [an instrument on New Horizons] has now detected and confirmed this predicted effect.

The SWAP team compared the New Horizons solar wind speed measurements from 21 to 42 astronomical units to the speeds at 1 AU from both the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) spacecraft. (One AU is equal to the distance between the Sun and Earth.) By 21 AU, it appeared that SWAP could be detecting the slowing of the solar wind in response to picking up interstellar material. However, when New Horizons traveled beyond Pluto, between 33 and 42 AU, the solar wind measured 6-7% slower than at the 1 AU distance, confirming the effect.

The data also suggests that New Horizons could exit the heliosphere and enter interstellar space as early as sometime in the 2020s.

Share

Big budget boost for ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) received its largest budget increase ever, 20%, from its 22 member nations at a high level meeting yesterday.

The meeting also included commitments to remain a partner in ISS to 2030 and increase participation in Lunar Gateway. From the press release:

With worldwide partners, Europe will take its place at the heart of space exploration going farther than we have ever gone before – we continue our commitment to the International Space Station until 2030 as well as contributing vital transportation and habitation modules for the Gateway, the first space station to orbit the Moon. ESA’s astronauts recruited in 2009 will continue to receive flight assignments until all of them have been to space for a second time, and we will also begin the process of recruiting a new class to continue European exploration in low Earth orbit and beyond. European astronauts will fly to the Moon for the first time. Member States have confirmed European support for a ground-breaking Mars Sample Return mission, in cooperation with NASA.

ESA will help develop the commercial benefits of space for innovators and governments across the Member States, boosting competitiveness in the NewSpace environment. We will develop the first fully flexible satellite systems to be integrated with 5G networks, as well as next-generation optical technology for a fibre-like ‘network in the sky’, marking a transformation in the satellite communication industry. Satellite communications will join forces with navigation to begin satnav for the Moon, while closer to home commercial companies can access funding for new applications of navigation technologies through the NAVISP programme. ESA Ministers have secured a smooth transition to the next generation of launchers: Ariane 6 and Vega-C, and have given the green light to Space Rider, ESA’s new reusable spaceship.

Isn’t competition wonderful? ESA’s budget has been stagnant for years. Then SpaceX comes along and threatens its commercial market share while generating a new political will in the U.S. to renew its own space effort, and suddenly the European nations that make up ESA decide they need to do the same.

Much of the proposed program for ESA is very likely to happen, especially the commitments to a variety of astronomical and planetary missions. The agency’s commercial effort is also likely to happen, but whether it can happen fast enough to be competitive is questionable. As a government agency ESA’s track record in its effort to compete in the launch market has not been impressive. It took them far too long to accept the idea of reuseable rockets or the need to cut their costs drastically.

Share

China launches Earth resource satellite

Using its Long March 4C rocket China yesterday successfully launched Gaofen-12, a remote sensing satellite designd to study Earth resources.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

27 China
18 Russia
11 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)

China now leads the U.S. 27 to 23 in the national rankings.

The launch schedule remains very busy, with a Rocket Lab launch set for early tomorrow and two launches to ISS (a Dragon and Progress) scheduled next week. In fact, seventeen launches are tentatively listed for launch in December, which would be once every other day. Several are unlikely, but regardless December will be a very busy month in the launch industry.

Share

Further explorations at candidate Starship Mars landing site

Beginning of Possible Glacial Unit near candidate Starship landing sites
Click for full image.

Close-up on exposed lower layer

Cool image time! Even though it appears that SpaceX has completed its first round of images of its candidate landing sites surrounding the Erebus Montes mountains in the Arcadia Planitia plains in the Martian northern lowlands, this does not mean that other planetary scientists are not asking for more images of this region, for their own scientific research.

The photograph on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was released in the early November image download from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned but dubbed “Beginning of Possible Glacial Unit,” it shows what appears at first glance to be a relatively featureless area south of Erebus Montes, out in the flat plains.

A closer look suggests otherwise. For one, the full image shows darker and lighter areas. The close-up to the right, its location indicated by the white box in the wider image above, also shows several intriguing depressions that appear to be revealing a knobby lower layer. In fact, in the full image it appears that the darker areas are areas where material has covered that knobby lower layer. Where it is bright the ground resembles the floors of these depressions, knobby and complex.

I do not know why they label this the “beginning” of a glacial unit. What I do know is that the research of this region has consistently found evidence of a lot of buried ice. To quote Donna Viola of the University of Arizona noted, “I think you could dig anywhere to get your water ice.” The knobby features to me suggest a surface that is showing signs of sublimation, where the exposed ice is slowly eroding. Think of what happens to a block of ice when you spray warm water on it. As it melts it leaves behind just these kinds of strange formations.

Overview of all MRO images at Starship candidate landing site

The red box in the map on the right shows the location of this photograph relative to the other images taken for SpaceX. The white boxes are the company’s images taken for Starship. The black boxes are the images it obtained in 2017 when it was thinking of sending a Dragon capsule to Mars.

This map does not show all images taken by MRO’s high resolution camera in this area, but the coverage is very scattered, with many gaps. Over time I suspect these gaps will be filled more quickly than other northern plain regions, because the scientists know that SpaceX has an interest in this area. That interest means there is an increased chance that a mission will fly here in the relatively near future, which in turn is going to generate more scientific interest as well.

Share

China unfolds Dutch radio antennas on lunar relay satellite

Chinese engineers have unfolded and activated the Dutch radio antennas on Queqiao, their lunar relay satellite orbiting the Moon, an action that had been delayed because the lander Chang’e-4 and rover Yutu-2 had both exceeded their nominal mission on the surface.

The Chinese satellite was previously mainly seen as a communications satellite. However, the Chinese moon mission has by now achieved its primary goals. Consequently, the Chinese have redefined the satellite to be a radio observatory. As such, the Netherlands-China Low Frequency Explorer is the first Dutch-Chinese space observatory for radio astronomy.

Marc Klein Wolt, Managing Director of the Radboud Radio Lab and leader of the Dutch team, is happy: “Our contribution to the Chinese Chang’e 4 mission has now increased tremendously. We have the opportunity to perform our observations during the fourteen-day-long night behind the moon, which is much longer than was originally the idea. The moon night is ours, now.”

If Queqiao is now dedicated to being a radio antenna full time during the lunar night, I wonder if this means the Chinese are shutting down Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2. Up to now both spacecraft have only operated during the lunar night, which suggests that was the only time they could relay data. It is possible that data relay could take place at other times, and that the lander and rover can function autonomously, but I have my doubts.

Both Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 functioned for twelve lunar nights, four times longer than planned, so shifting gears on Queqiao to do radio astronomy is not unreasonable. Unfortunately, the lack of transparency from China leaves us in the dark about the fate of Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2.

Share

Does zero gravity cause intestinal issues?

The uncertainties of science: New research simulating microgravity on Earth now suggests that zero gravity might weaken the walls of the intestines.

The barrier function of the intestinal epithelium, he added, is critical for maintaining a healthy intestine; when disrupted, it can lead to increased permeability or leakiness. This, in turn, can greatly increase the risk of infections and chronic inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, and liver disease.

McCole’s team used a rotating wall vessel — a bioreactor that maintains cells in a controlled rotation environment that simulates near weightlessness — to examine the impact of simulated microgravity on cultured intestinal epithelial cells.

Following culture for 18 days in the vessel, the team discovered intestinal epithelial cells showed delayed formation of “tight junctions,” which are junctions that connect individual epithelial cells and are necessary for maintaining impermeability. The rotating wall vessel also produces an altered pattern of tight junction assembly that is retained up to 14 days after the intestinal epithelial cells were removed from the vessel.

This is good research, but it has not proved anything, merely indicated an area of research that needs a follow-up in space. I also wonder if there has been any evidence of this phenomenon from astronauts returning from long missions. As far as I know, intestinal issues have never been mentioned as a problem post flight.

Share

Climate change protesters mob local UK spaceport council

Mob rule: A local Cornwall council meeting yesterday approved a $10 million grant for a new spaceport despite protesters screaming and yelling in the gallery and outside, forcing the meeting to end early.

After deciding not to defer a decision, councillors voted to grant £10.32m of capital funding to the spaceport by 66 to 34, with one abstention.

The gallery then erupted with chants as protesters launched paper airplanes. The chamber was then cleared of councillors and the meeting adjourned as the crowds continued to chant and shouted at councillors as they left saying things like “shame on you”. [emphasis mine]

Police were required to maintain order.

I have highlighted the vote count to note that these protesters clearly did not have that much real support. Their protests however remain a good intimidation tactic, so expect more protests if this project continues, especially because it appears the climate change crowd is beginning to behave as if any new technology is a threat. From the article it appears the protests were dominated by global warming activists from the group Extinction Rebellion. Also, “the groups Red Rebels and deathly-looking Penitents were joined by locals carrying signs and flags.”

I grant that it might not make sense for this local council to spend so much money for a spaceport, especially because they are doing it mostly for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. They are likely to find the money wasted.

The protests however are mindless and an act of bullying, and are not the way to debate this or any subject sanely.

Share

India successfully launches Earth observation satellite plus 12 cubesats

India today successfully used its PSLV rocket to launch its own Cartosat-3 Earth observation satellite plus 12 cubesats for the commercial company Planet.

This was India’s fifth launch in 2019.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

26 China
18 Russia
11 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)

China leads the U.S. 26 to 23 in the national rankings.

Share

Arianespace launches two communications satellites

Arianespace today used its Ariane 5 rocket to launch two communications satellites, one a military satellite for Egypt and another a commercial satellite for Inmarsat.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

26 China
18 Russia
11 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)

China still leads the U.S. 26 to 23 in the national rankings.

Share

More Martian pits, filled and unfilled!

Pit in Ceraunius Fossae
Click for full image.

Overview of Ceraunius Fossae

Time for what has almost become a monthly pit report from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The November image download from the spacecraft’s high resolution camera included two pit-related photographs, both very different. To the right is the first, cropped to focus on the pit and the immediate surrounding terrain. Below that is a wider overview map to provide the context.

This pit’s location is indicated by the white box at the southern end of a region dubbed Ceraunius Fossae, made of hundreds and hundreds of parallel north-south fissures extending more than seven hundred miles south of the giant volcano Alba Mons and caused when the ground was stretched from below, causing it to crack.

This surrounding terrain helps to explain the pit’s origin. First it is located in a north-south depression with a number of other less pronounced depressions. While these do not line up precisely, they still suggest that they are sinkholes where the surface material is draining downward into voids below. Normally the assumption would be the existence of a lava tube, but here the downward grade is very small. Instead, what is likely happening is that the ground is being stretched, causing cracks to form into which surface material slips downward.

The Ceraunius Fossae fractures are extensional features produced when the crust is stretched apart…. Mechanical studies indicate that a regional pattern of radiating graben and rifts is consistent with stresses caused by loading of the lithosphere by the enormous weight of the Tharsis bulge….Several generations of grabens with slightly different orientations are present in Ceraunius Fossae, indicating that stress fields have changed somewhat over time.

In addition to producing normal faults and graben, extensional stresses can produce dilatant fractures or tension cracks that can open up subsurface voids. When surface material slides into the void, a pit crater may form. Pit craters are distinguishable from impact craters in lacking raised rims and surrounding ejecta blankets. On Mars, individual pit craters can coalesce to form crater chains (catenae) or troughs with scalloped edges.

That’s what we see here. The pit is suggestive of a void below, but it is likely not going to be a long coherent underground passage but a serious of random gaps, aligned roughly along the larger crack and producing the various depressions on the surface.

Today’s second pit is of an entire different nature.
» Read more

Share

Russians launch military satellite

Using a Soyuz-2 rocket the Russians today successfully launched a classified military satellite from its spaceport in Plesetsk.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

26 China
18 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

China continues to lead the U.S. in the national rankings, 26 to 23.

These numbers will change again later today if Arianespace successfully launches two communications satellites. They have been trying to launch now for three days, but minor technical problems and weather have stymied them.

Share

“Damaged cable” causes Russians to delay Progress launch

Because of the discovery of a “damaged cable” on a Progress freighter, the Russians have delayed its launch from December 1 to December 6.

On the morning of November 25, Roskosmos announced that issues had been found during the preparations of Progress MS-13 for launch. “Problems are now resolved and the checks of onboard systems are ongoing,” the State Corporation said. “There will be a separate announcement on the launch date…” the announcement said, hinting that the planned December 1 launch window was no longer valid. Before the end of the work day in Moscow on November 25, Roskosmos posted an update announcing that the launch of Progress MS-13 had been rescheduled for December 6, 2019, at 12:34 Moscow Time, due to an issue with an onboard cable found by specialists from RKK Energia. The problem was resolved after the replacement of the cable, the company said. According to a posting on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine, specialists spent past two days trying to find a source of electric charge on the body of the spacecraft and then discovered a damaged cable in the vehicle’s instrument compartment. [emphasis mine]

Considering the drillhole found in an earlier Soyuz capsule, I cannot help wondering if this damage was intentional. The Russians never revealed if they had identified the culprit of that earlier damage, and the reports from Russia today are somewhat vague about this new damage.

This Progress launch had earlier been rescheduled from December 6 to avoid a conflict with the launch of a Dragon cargo capsule. There is no word yet on how that conflict will be mitigated now that the launch is back on that date.

Share

Home destroyed by Long March 3B 1st stage

It appears from a number of twitter-type sources coming from China that the spent first stage of the Long March 3B rocket that successfully launched two GPS-type satellites this weekend crashed onto a house, destroying it.

Video footage emerged on Chinese social media shortly after launch showing the apparent destruction of a rural building. Flames are seen within the building along with fumes from residual propellant rising from the booster wreckage.

…The first stage and four side boosters of the Long March 3B use a toxic hypergolic propellant combination of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.

There have so far been no state media reports on the incident. The footage and social media comments suggest the owners returned home following standard evacuation ahead of launch.

According to other such reports, the home-owners will be compensated, but this is not confirmed.

Regardless, because of China’s effort to increase its launch rate, launches coming from its inland spaceports are either going to develop controlled landing for the expendable stages or will cease. The damage both to their own citizens as well as the bad press these crashes garner are aspects that the Chinese government will want to avoid, with the bad press likely its greater concern.

Share

Mars Express confirms ancient glaciers in northern Martian mid-latitudes

Perspective view of Deuteronilus Mensae
Click for full image.

The European Space Agency’s orbiter Mars Express has confirmed the presence of large fractured ice sheets suggestive of buried and ancient glaciers. These ice sheets are within one region on Mars located in the mid-latitudes where many such glacial features have been found. They are also in the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands.

This landscape shows clear and widespread signs of significant, lasting erosion. As is common with fretted terrain, it contains a mix of cliffs, canyons, scarps, steep-sided and flat-topped mounds (mesa), furrows, fractured ridges and more, a selection of which can be seen dotted across the frame.

These features were created as flowing material dissected the area, cutting through the existing landscape and carving out a web of winding channels. In the case of Deuteronilus Mensae, flowing ice is the most likely culprit. Scientists believe that this terrain has experienced extensive past glacial activity across numerous martian epochs.

It is thought that glaciers slowly but surely ate away at the plains and plateaus that once covered this region, leaving only a scattering of steep, flat, isolated mounds of rock in their wake.

Smooth deposits cover the floor itself, some marked with flow patterns from material slowly moving downhill – a mix of ice and accumulated debris that came together to form and feed viscous, moving flows of mass somewhat akin to a landslide or mudflow here on Earth.

Studies of this region by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter [MRO] have shown that most of the features seen here do indeed contain high levels of water ice. Estimates place the ice content of some glacial features in the region at up to 90%. This suggests that, rather than hosting individual or occasional icy pockets and glaciers, Deuteronilus Mensae may actually represent the remnants of an old regional ice sheet. This ice sheet may once have covered the entire area, lying atop the plateaus and plains. As the martian climate changed this ice began to shift around and disappear, slowly revealing the rock beneath.

Overall, the data coming from both Mars Express and MRO increasingly suggests that there is a lot of buried glacial ice in the mid-latitudes. Mars might be a desert, but it is increasingly beginning to look like much of the planet is a desert like Antarctica, not the Sahara.

Share

Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 begin 12th lunar day

Chinese engineers have reactivated both their lunar lander, Chang’e-4, and its rover, Yutu-2, for their twelve lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

The lander woke up at 5:03 p.m. Thursday (Beijing Time), and the rover, Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2), awoke at 0:51 a.m. the same day. Both are in normal working order, according to the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration.

No word on where Yutu-2 will be sent over then next two weeks.

Posting was light during the day today because Diane and I were on a hike that I needed to do for the upcoming planned second edition of my hiking guidebook, Circuit Hikes of Southern Arizona. My boss (me) allowed me to go, since this hike was not pure pleasure, but reconnaissance for one of my books.

Share

A house in the forest

An evening pause: They call this an off-grid house, but that really isn’t true. Though he isn’t linked to either an electric or water utility, pay close attention to the amount of technology he uses to make the house and living there functional and practical.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating and educational to see some of the tricks that people will do to live as they wish.

Hat tip Cotour.

Share

Mid-latitude Martian glacier?

Glacier on Mars?
Click for full image.

Cool image time! I have posted a lot of Mars photographs in the past few months showing possible glaciers in the mid-latitudes of Mars, where scientists think they have identified a lot of such features. Today is another, but unlike many of the previous examples, this particular feature more closely resembles a typical Earth glacier than almost any I have so far posted.

Based on the image’s title, “Lineated Valley Fill in Northern Mid-Latitudes,” given by the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I suspect that it remains unproven that these are features of buried glacial ice. Thus, they use a more vague descriptive term, lineated, to avoid pre-judging what these features are.

Nonetheless, a glacier is sure what this lineated valley fill looks like. See for example the Concordia confluence of two glaciers in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan, near the world’s second highest mountain, K2. Though obviously not the same, you can see many similarities between this Martian feature and Concordia.

MRO has taken only three photographs of this particular valley, with one image useless because it was taken during a dust storm. Yet, the other good image, farther downstream in this valley, shows very similar features.

The valley itself is formed from chaos terrain, located in the transition zone between the southern cratered highlands and the flat northern lowlands where a possible intermittent ocean might have once existed. Thus, for buried ice to be here is quite possible.

Share

Unearthly pit in Martian northern icecap

Giant pit in Martian North polar icecap
Click for full image.

Cool image time! It is spring in the Martian north, and thus the Sun has risen and remains in the sky for most if not all of each day, circling the horizon. As such, it illuminates polar icecap features that are strange and weird and hard to decipher based on our expectations here on Earth.

The photograph to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a good example. It was taken on September 20, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and shows a pit in the outer regions of the polar icecap, an area where that water icecap remains relatively stable, but that is also at a low enough latitude that summer sunlight can cause some erosion and sublimation of the ice.

The bottom of the pit is the center of the bullseye, with the layered features in the surrounding walls showing the many layers inside the icecap, built up over centuries, then slowly revealed as the ice in this pit slowly sublimated away.

You can get a better sense of what you are looking at by the overview map below.
» Read more

Share

ULA backing off from reuseablity and Vulcan upgrades?

Capitalism in space: According to this Space News story today, it appears that ULA is shifting away from building a major upgrade to the upper stage of its Vulcan rocket, even as it also appears to be backing off from pushing plans to recover and reuse its first stage engines.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told SpaceNews by email that the company still plans to introduce an “advanced upper stage,” but only after Vulcan flies. Rye also declined to provide a specific timeline.

Similarly, ULA officials also refused to give a timeline for when they will begin recovering Vulcan’s first stage engines and reusing them.

Right now the company expects to launch the first iteration of Vulcan, using as Atlas 5 Centaur upper stage, sometime in 2021. It also appears that those first launches will not recover the first stage Blue Origin BE-4 engines.

In the long run, I do not see how ULA can compete. They certainly appear hesitant about introducing any new innovations or upgrades to Vulcan, which will result in an expendable rocket that costs far too much.

In fact, the arrival of this apparent timidity seems to have occurred almost to the day the company accepted a development contract for Vulcan from the Air Force. Thus, it increasingly appears that it is our federal government that is squelching the company’s creativity.

Why am I not surprised?

Share

SpaceX ‘s decision to slash prices/provide reliable launch schedule upends smallsat industry

Capitalism in space: Apparently SpaceX’s decision in August to further slash its launch prices for smallsats while also establishing a regular launch schedule is causing major shifts in that industry.

From the first link::

The revamped smallsat rideshare program, the company announced late Aug. 28, will provide launch opportunities at least once per month starting in March 2020, at a cost of $1 million for a 200-kilogram smallsat.

From the second link:

With the new SpaceX price list, the cost of reaching low Earth orbit falls so dramatically “you should select the cheapest launcher even if it does not go exactly where you need it and then use propulsion to go where you need to be,” Henri said. “From a total system cost standpoint, that will make the most sense.”

This situation is comparable to the shifts that occurred in the ship business when its technology changed from sails to engines. Sailing ships generally did not sail on a schedule. Instead, they sat at port until they filled their cargo holds, then waited for favorable weather before sailing. Customers could only wait.

Once ships were powered this all changed. Ship companies established firm schedules so customers knew exactly when their cargo would ship. This also led to a reduction in the price of shipping.

SpaceX’s ability to reuse its first stage often and quickly is now allowing them to treat the Falcon 9 rocket more like a powered ship rather than a sailing ship. Rather than only launching when they’ve filled their cargo capacity, they can afford to launch on a regular and reliable schedule, allowing customers to jump on board at their own convenience.

Share

India confirms details of Vikram’s crash on Moon

India’s government has finally officially admitted that its Vikram lunar lander crashed in September.

In a written answer to a question posed to the Department of Space in Lok Sabha, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Jitendra Singh said the “reduction in velocity” of the Vikram lander during the final phase of its descent on the moon’s surface “was more than the designed value”. As a result, Vikram “hard-landed” on the moon “within 500 metres of the designated landing site”, he said.

…“The first phase of descent was performed nominally from an altitude of 30 km to 7.4 km above the moon surface. The velocity was reduced from 1,683 m/s to 146 m/s. During the second phase of descent, the reduction in velocity was more than the designed value. Due to this deviation, the initial conditions at the start of the fine braking phase (final phase below 7.4 km altitude) were beyond the designed parameters. As a result, Vikram hard-landed within 500 m of the designated landing site,” the minister said in a written answer in the Lok Sabha.

Except for the detail that they think Vikram landed within 500 meters of its planned landing site, this answer really doesn’t tell us much new. It was very obvious during the landing that the spacecraft was traveling too fast as it began its final braking phase, and that it then descended much too fast thereafter.

In fact, the couched language and the unwillingness so far of ISRO, India’s space agency, to provide a detailed report on the failure does not reflect well on them. This kind of cutting edge engineering requires a hard kind of intellectual honesty. They have so far not shown that kind of honesty in their response to this failure.

Share

Explosion during Starship tank tests

During tests today of SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 test prototype there was a sudden explosion, damaging the spacecraft. Below is a clip from today’s live stream showing the explosion.

They had been doing a variety of tank and venting tests for the past day. (The link includes a video showing the first pressurization test yesterday.)

The Mk1 (Mark 1) was being built with an initial hoped-for schedule targeting the first orbital flights by next year. No one took that seriously, and today’s incident reinforces that skepticism. At the same time, SpaceX has routinely recovered very quickly from its engineering test failures, treating them as opportunities for improving their designs. It is for this reason that most knowledgeable observers of the company also expected any delays to that target schedule to never be very extended.

Moreover, earlier this week SpaceX revealed that it had already decided not to fly this version and proceed to their next version. A Mk2 version is being built in Florida, so in Boca Chica they will proceed to the Mk3, with the goal to get to build toward the final operational version, what Musk labeled the Mk5. Based on past SpaceX policy, however, expect them to begin commercial flights with the earlier versions as they upgrade to the Mk5.

UPDATE: It appears the explosion occurred during a maximum pressurization test, which means they now have data telling them the limits of their tank design.

Share

Sierra Nevada updates Dream Chaser status, names its cargo module

Capitalism in space: In providing a detailed update in the construction of its reusable Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, Sierra Nevada yesterday revealed that it has named the small expendable cargo module that it will be attached to its Dream Chaser “Shooting Star.”

As part of Dream Chaser’s overall design, the vehicle itself does not contain the berthing port or solar arrays needed for it to perform its mission. Instead, those elements are mounted on what had been, before today, referred to as the cargo module – an element of Dream Chaser that now has a dedicated name: Shooting Star.

The name is a nod to the fact that it is the only part of Dream Chaser that is disposable and will burn up in the atmosphere as a streaking ball of fire – just like a shooting star.

The module itself, while containing the solar arrays and main propulsion elements for orbital maneuvering, will also be capable of transporting a large amount of internal cargo to the Station. It is also the part of Dream Chaser on which external cargo can be mounted for delivery and disposal of external elements that are no longer needed for the orbital outpost.

The article provides many details about the status of Dream Chaser that are worth reading, including noting its other potential uses beyond supplying ISS with cargo.

Share

Blue Origin wins protest against Air Force

Capitalism in space: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sustained Blue Origin’s protest against the Air Force’s launch procurement rules that would have limited bidding on all launch contracts for the first half of the 2020s to only two companies.

In a “pre-award” protest, Blue Origin challenged the terms of a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force earlier this year for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which aims to award two contracts next year expected to cover 30 or more medium- and heavy-lift satellite launches the Air Force plans to conduct between 2022 and 2026.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is one of four companies that submitted bids for the contracts by the Air Force’s Aug. 1 proposal deadline. The other three companies bidding for the contracts are Northrop Grumman and incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

After submitting its bid, Blue Origin filed a formal protest with the GAO arguing that several terms of the RFP unduly restrict competition, are ambiguous, or are inconsistent with customary commercial practice.

The GAO agreed.“GAO sustained the protest, finding that the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable,” Patton said in the statement.

The Air Force’s plan here never made any sense at all. Why put a limit now on the companies that can bid on launches as far in the future as 2026? Why not instead allow all the launch companies, already certified by the Air Force, to bid when the time comes, thus increasing competition while providing the Air Force the most options?

This is good news for the entire American launch industry. It means they will all have the Air Force as a potential customer. It is also good news for the taxpayer, as the competition for business will certainly drive innovation and the lowering of launch prices.

Share

NASA expands list of companies certified to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced that it is expanding the list of companies eligible to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts from 9 to 14.

From the NASA press release:

NASA has added five American companies to the pool of vendors that will be eligible to bid on proposals to provide deliveries to the surface of the Moon through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

The additions, which increase the list of CLPS participants on contract to 14, expand NASA’s work with U.S. industry to build a strong marketplace to deliver payloads between Earth and the Moon and broaden the network of partnerships that will enable the first woman and next man to set foot on the Moon by 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

…These five companies, together with nine companies selected in November 2018, now are eligible to bid on launch and delivery services to the lunar surface. [emphasis mine]

The added companies are SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

I have highlighted the most important word in this press release, which is most interestingly buried to make it as little noticed as possible. The addition of SpaceX to this list and the mention that the program has now added the ability to for the companies to bid on launch contracts means that NASA’s goal here is to create a situation where it can replace SLS with a bidded contract to private industry that will costs far less and can launch frequently and on time, features that SLS is completely incapable of, and SpaceX can provide easily and reliably. This analysis by me is further reinforced in that Boeing, the builder of SLS, was not included in this list, even though only last week that company offered SLS to NASA in a wider array of launch configurations, for exactly this purpose.

If NASA had made this fact too obvious it might upset certain people in Congress (I’m talking to you Richard Shelby R-Alabama) who are wedded to SLS and its wasteful pork spending in their home states and districts.

The fact remains however that eventually SLS is going to go away. The Trump administration appears very wedded to its Artemis program to get back to the Moon by 2024, and it is apparently discovering that to make that landing happen the administration needs better alternatives.

Share

Sinkholes galore!

Sinkholes galore south of Olympus Mons
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photograph to the left, cropped to post here, was part of the November image dump from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows a wind-swept dusty plain trending downhill to the west that is filled with more than a hundred depressions or sinkholes.

Unlike other pit images I have posted previously, this one is not focused on one particular pit or a string of pits. Instead, what makes it interesting is the large number of pits, scattered across the terrain in a random pattern. Their random distribution suggests that they are unrelated to any specific underground feature, such as a lava tube. Instead, some aspect of the underground geology here is causing the ground to sink at random points.

Below is an overview map showing where this dusty pit-strewn plain is located, indicated by the blue cross.
» Read more

Share

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter locates crashed Chinese orbiter

Before and after images showing Longjiang-2 impact site

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has located the Chinese microsat lunar orbiter Longjiang-2, which was sent to impact the Moon in August 2019 after it completed its technology demonstration mission.

The image above shows the before and after of the location, with the satellite’s remains visible as indicated by the arrow.

Through a careful comparison of pre-existing NAC images, the LROC team was able to locate a new impact crater (16.6956°N, 159.5170°E, ±10 meters), a distance of only 328 meters from the estimated site! The crater is 4 meters by 5 meters in diameter, with the long axis oriented southwest to northeast. Based on proximity to estimated crash coordinates and the crater size, we are fairly confident that this new crater formed as a result of the Longjiang-2 impact.

The picture of the impact site might not be very impressive, but remember, this satellite only weighed about a hundred pounds. The engineering however is impressive, on all counts. First, the Chinese built a tiny cubesat that reached lunar orbit and operated there for more than a year, during which it even took a picture of the Earth. Second, the engineering team of LRO was able to find this tiny impact site for such small spacecraft in less than four months.

Share

Recent impact on Mars

Recent impact on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! While finding recent impacts on Mars is not that unusual, the image to the right, found among the November image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), was dramatic enough that I decided that more people besides planetary scientists should see it. For scale the photograph is exactly 500 meters wide.

The photograph, taken September 26, 2019, also illustrates all the typical aspects of impact craters, and how they change the landscape.

This impact took place sometime between July 17, 2012 and January 4, 2018. We know this because it wasn’t there in a low-resolution image taken by the wide angle survey camera on MRO on the first date but was there when that same camera took another picture on the second date. Below is a side-by-side comparison of that July 17, 2012 image with the high resolution 2019 image above.
» Read more

Share
1 2 3 4 266