Tag Archives: engineering

Hubble celebrates 29 years in orbit

Hubble's 29th anniversary image

Click for full image.

In celebration of the 29th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that operates the telescope has released a new image of one of the more spectacular astronomical objects in the southern hemisphere, what astronomers have dubbed the Southern Crab Nebula. I have cropped and reduced the image slightly to post it to the right.

The nebula, officially known as Hen 2-104, is located several thousand light-years from Earth in the southern hemisphere constellation of Centaurus. It appears to have two nested hourglass-shaped structures that were sculpted by a whirling pair of stars in a binary system. The duo consists of an aging red giant star and a burned-out star, a white dwarf. The red giant is shedding its outer layers. Some of this ejected material is attracted by the gravity of the companion white dwarf.

The result is that both stars are embedded in a flat disk of gas stretching between them. This belt of material constricts the outflow of gas so that it only speeds away above and below the disk. The result is an hourglass-shaped nebula.

The bubbles of gas and dust appear brightest at the edges, giving the illusion of crab leg structures. These “legs” are likely to be the places where the outflow slams into surrounding interstellar gas and dust, or possibly material which was earlier lost by the red giant star.

The outflow may only last a few thousand years, a tiny fraction of the lifetime of the system. This means that the outer structure may be just thousands of years old, but the inner hourglass must be a more recent outflow event. The red giant will ultimately collapse to become a white dwarf. After that, the surviving pair of white dwarfs will illuminate a shell of gas called a planetary nebula.

Hubble first revealed this nebula’s shape in a photograph taken in 1999.

The telescope was initially designed for a fifteen year mission. It is about to double that, assuming its last remaining gyroscopes can hold on through next year.

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Blue Origin leases old unused NASA engine test stand

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has finalized a lease agreement with NASA to refurbish and use one of its old engine test stands, sitting idle since 1998.

Under a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement, Blue Origin will upgrade and refurbish Test Stand 4670, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to support testing of their BE-3U and BE-4 rocket engines. The BE-4 engine was selected to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle – both being developed to serve the expanding civil, commercial and national security space markets.

“This test stand once helped power NASA’s first launches to the Moon, which eventually led to the emergence of an entirely new economic sector – commercial space,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. “Now, it will have a role in our ongoing commitment to facilitate growth in this sector.”

Constructed in 1965, Test Stand 4670 served as the backbone for Saturn V propulsion testing for the Apollo program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Later, it was modified to support testing of the space shuttle external tank and main engine systems. The facility has been inactive since 1998.

According to the press release, Blue Origin gets this stand essentially for cost. It will pay for the refurbishment and any costs incurred by NASA, but other than that NASA is not charging them a fee.

While I strongly support the concept of the government helping private enterprise, this deal has some aspects that concern me. Is Blue Origin going to be the only one allowed to use this test stand? If so, it appears that NASA is favoring Blue Origin over all other private companies, something it should not do. If Blue Origin’s work will make this stand useful again for everyone else, great. If instead NASA is essentially giving it its own private test stand for practically free, then not so great.

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International payloads will fly on China’s Chang’e-6 lunar sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China today announced that it is reserving space on its Chang’e-6 lunar sample return mission for international experiments.

The orbiter and lander of the Chang’e-6 mission will each reserve 10 kg for payloads, which will be selected from both domestic colleges, universities, private enterprises and foreign scientific research institutions, said Liu Jizhong, director of the China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of the CNSA, at a press conference.

I suspect that the majority of these experiments will be Chinese, but I am also sure that China will get at least one international partner.

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U.S. experiment on Beresheet might have survived crash

Scientists for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) have revealed that the small U.S. experiment on Beresheet might have survived the spacecraft’s crash onto the lunar surface.

The NASA payload, known as the Lunar Retroreflector Array (LRA), is a technology demonstration composed of eight mirrors made of quartz cube corners that are set into a dome-shaped aluminum frame. These mirrors are intended to serve as markers for other spacecraft, which can use them to orient themselves for precision landings. The entire instrument is smaller than a computer mouse and lightweight. But it’s tough, radiation-hardened and designed to be long-lived, so the LRA may not have been destroyed by Beresheet’s hard landing.

“Yes, we believe the laser reflector array would have survived the crash, although it may have separated from the main spacecraft body,” said David Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, principal investigator of the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) instrument aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft.

“Of course, we do not know the orientation of the array,” Smith, who’s also an emeritus researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told Inside Outer Space. “It could be upside down, but it has a 120-degree angle of reception, and we only need 1 of the 0.5-inch cubes for detection. But it has certainly not made it any easier.”

They are going to use LOLA to try to find LRA. If they get a reflection, that experiment will essentially be a success, despite Beresheet’s failure.

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NASA announces ISS manned launch schedule through February 2020

In announcing its planned ISS manned launch schedule through February 2020, NASA revealed a schedule that calls for one female astronaut to spend almost eleven months in orbit, a new record, but no planned commercial manned launches during that period.

The planned record-setting mission would have Christina Koch spend 328 days in space.

Koch, who arrived at the space station March 14, and now is scheduled to remain in orbit until February 2020, will set a record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman, eclipsing the record of 288 days set by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson in 2016-17. She will be part of three expeditions – 59, 60 and 61 – during her current first spaceflight. Her mission is planned to be just shy of the longest single spaceflight by a NASA astronaut – 340 days, set by former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly during his one-year mission in 2015-16.

Part of the reason that NASA will do this is to gather more data on the long-term effects of weightlessness. Much of this research is repeating and confirming what the Russians already did on Mir more than two decades ago, but with today’s more sophisticated knowledge. It is also exactly what we should be doing on ISS, from the beginning. That NASA has only started to do it now, two decades after ISS’s launch, is somewhat frustrating.

NASA is also extended Koch’s stay to give itself breathing room should the first manned flights of its commercial manned capsules, Dragon from SpaceX and Starliner from Boeing, get delayed. This schedule does not include manned missions from either, but that only illustrates the difference between NASA’s operational and test schedules. I expect that the first manned Dragon flight will occur in 2019, and that SpaceX will be able to begin manned operations before Koch returns.

Boeing is farther behind. It is unclear right now when it will do its first manned launch.

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Antares launches Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched a Cygnus freighter to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first launch in 2019. The company hopes to complete 4 launches this year.

Meanwhile the leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

4 SpaceX
4 China
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. however has widened its lead in the national rankings, 8 to 4.

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Mercury’s core is solid

By comparing computer models with data gathered during the closest orbits of the Messenger spacecraft when it was in orbit around Mercury scientists have concluded that the planet’s inner core is solid like the Earth’s, though much larger than the Earth’s relative to the planet’s size.

Genova and his team put data from MESSENGER into a sophisticated computer program that allowed them to adjust parameters and figure out what the interior composition of Mercury must be like to match the way it spins and the way the spacecraft accelerated around it. The results showed that for the best match, Mercury must have a large, solid inner core. They estimated that the solid, iron core is about 1,260 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide and makes up about half of Mercury’s entire core (about 2,440 miles, or nearly 4,000 kilometers, wide). In contrast, Earth’s solid core is about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) across, taking up a little more than a third of this planet’s entire core.

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All high resolution images from Rosetta now available

The Rosetta science team has now made available to the public all 70,000 images taken by the spacecraft’s high resolution camera.

Between 2014 and 2016, the scientific camera system OSIRIS onboard ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft captured almost 70000 images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. They not only document the most extensive and demanding comet mission to date, but also show the duck-shaped body in all its facets. In a joint project with the Department of Information and Communication at Flensburg University of Applied Sciences, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), head of the OSIRIS team, has now published all of these images. The OSIRIS Image Viewer is suited to the needs of both laymen and expert and offers quick and easy access to one of the greatest scientific treasures of recent years.

The Rosetta archive can be found here.

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SpaceX booster damaged on barge but not lost

According to an Associated Press report today, the Falcon Heavy core stage was damaged when it toppled over in heavy seas, but was not entirely lost.

The company confirmed Tuesday that the unsecured core booster toppled onto the platform over the weekend, as waves reached 8 to 10 feet. SpaceX chief Elon Musk says the engines seem OK. There’s no immediate word on how many of the booster pieces remain on board.

Musk says custom devices to secure the booster weren’t ready in time for this second flight of the Falcon Heavy.

From this report it sounds like the engine part of the stage remained on the barge. We shall see. Also, this report might explain the lack of a robot to secure the stage. The robot wasn’t ready, but rather than delay the launch for this reason they went ahead.

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Beresheet failure linked to ground command

SpaceIL’s investigation into the landing failure of its Beresheet lunar spacecraft now suggests that a ground command to reactivate a balky inertial measurement unit (IMU) might have caused the main engine to shut down.

A command intended to correct a malfunction in one of the Beresheet spacecraft’s inertial measurement unit (IMUs) led to a chain of events which turned off its main engine during landing, according to a preliminary investigation conducted by SpaceIL.

…A chain of events caused by a command sent from the SpaceIL control room turned off the spacecraft’s main engine and prevented proper engine activation, Anteby said, rendering a crash-landing on the Moon inevitable.

It is still unclear how a command to one shut down the other, but the investigation is still on going. I suspect they will pin this down to a software design issue.

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SpaceX loses Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas

SpaceX announced today that it lost the Falcon Heavy core stage in rough seas on its way back to port.

“Over the weekend, due to rough sea conditions, SpaceX’s recovery team was unable to secure the center core booster for its return trip to Port Canaveral,” SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson told FLORIDA TODAY. “As conditions worsened with eight- to ten-foot swells, the booster began to shift and ultimately was unable to remain upright.” “While we had hoped to bring the booster back intact, the safety of our team always takes precedence. We do not expect future missions to be impacted,” he said.

While SpaceX does have hardware on its drone ship designed to secure first stages – often referred to as a flat “robot” that holds them in place – it was not used for this mission, which successfully took an Arabsat satellite to orbit last Thursday. The connections between the robot and center core aren’t compatible like they would be with a standard Falcon 9 booster, but SpaceX is expected to upgrade both in the future.

This is unfortunate. At the same time, it illustrates how far ahead of its competitors SpaceX is. While others throw their first stages away, SpaceX is disappointed when it loses one.

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Seasonal frost in a gully on Mars

Frost in a gully on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped, reduced, and brightened slightly to post here, was part of the April image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). According to the titled of this release, it purports to show visible frost on what looks like an avalanche debris slope on the rim of a large crater. The frost is the bright streaks on the upper left of the slope.

I wonder. During last month’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas, there was one paper that I reported on that showed something very similar to this, and proposed that white streaks like this in a gully were actually exposed snow/ice. They proposed that the snow/ice was normally covered by dust, and the white streaks were where the dust had blown away to reveal the ice below. This in turn would then sublimate into gas, which in turn would cause the gully avalanches over time.

Below is a close-up of the white streaks on this rim.
» Read more

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Data from Cassini’s last fly-by of Titan

Based on data from Cassini’s last fly-by of Titan, scientists have been able to estimate the depth of some of that planet’s northern lakes while also finding that they were filled mostly with methane.

The depths measured were as much as 300 feet. The data also shows that the geology of one hemisphere in the north was different from the other hemisphere.

On the eastern side of Titan, there are big seas with low elevation, canyons and islands. On the western side: small lakes. And the new measurements show the lakes perched atop big hills and plateaus. The new radar measurements confirm earlier findings that the lakes are far above sea level, but they conjure a new image of landforms – like mesas or buttes – sticking hundreds of feet above the surrounding landscape, with deep liquid lakes on top.

The fact that these western lakes are small – just tens of miles across – but very deep also tells scientists something new about their geology: It’s the best evidence yet that they likely formed when the surrounding bedrock of ice and solid organics chemically dissolved and collapsed. On Earth, similar water lakes are known as karstic lakes. Occurring in in areas like Germany, Croatia and the United States, they form when water dissolves limestone bedrock.

This data also suggests, as has previous data, that Titan could very well have extensive underground cave systems. Unlike the Moon or Mars, however, these are not going to be very hospitable to colonization, considering the presence of methane and the cold temperatures.

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Video shows sudden satellite failure

Video of an Intelsat geosynchronous satellite that was having problems that suddenly worsened this week suggests the worsening was sudden and maybe catastrophic.

[N]ew data from ExoAnalytic Solutions, which has a network of 300 telescopes around the planet to track satellite movements in geostationary space, shows the situation has gotten markedly worse.

Since being alerted to the anomaly on Sunday, the company has been tracking Intelsat 29e with at least two telescopes at all time, the company’s chief executive, Doug Hendrix, told Ars. On Thursday, one of those telescopes captured the video embedded below, which shows a continued splintering of the satellite over a period of four hours. The ball of light at center is Intelsat 29e, and the streaks are background stars. First, there is a series of anomalous out-gassing events from the spacecraft, after which a persistent halo remains. As the halo dissipates, there are several pieces of debris that are continued to be tracked.

The video at the link is quite dramatic. Whether this failure was initially caused an internal failure or by an impact is presently unknown.

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The story behind the computer that made IBM, and computers

Link here. The introduction:

A short list of the most transformative products of the past century and a half would include the lightbulb, Ford’s Model T—and the IBM System/360. This mainframe series forever changed the computer industry and revolutionized how businesses and governments worked, enhancing productivity and making countless new tasks possible.

In the years leading up to its 7 April 1964 launch, however, the 360 was one of the scariest dramas in American business. It took a nearly fanatical commitment at all levels of IBM to bring forth this remarkable collection of machines and software. While the technological innovations that went into the S/360 were important, how they were created and deployed bordered on disaster. The company experienced what science policy expert Keith Pavitt called “tribal warfare”: people clashing and collaborating in a rapidly growing company with unstable, and in some instances unknown, technologies, as uncertainty and ambiguity dogged all the protagonists.

Ultimately, IBM was big and diverse enough in talent, staffing, financing, and materiel to succeed. In an almost entrepreneurial fashion, it took advantage of emerging technologies, no matter where they were located within the enterprise. In hindsight, it seemed a sloppy and ill-advised endeavor, chaotic in execution and yet brilliantly successful. We live in an age that celebrates innovation, so examining cases of how innovation is done can only illuminate our understanding of the process.

Read it all. The story is fascinating, especially in how intellectual honesty made it a success. In one case two computer managers were competing directly against each other for the lead in how the product would be developed. The man that was picked immediately asked the loser to help him build his proposal, a level of honesty that certainly made this company work in the 1960s.

The story also has one bit of real irony. The 360 was a big success because it was compatible with IBM’s previous computer line, and was designed to be compatible across the board.

In the 1980s, IBM lost its entire dominance in the personal computer field when it introduced its second generation PC, the PS/2, which was NOT compatible with their first PC line. Customers fled to independent companies making computers compatible to IBMs first PC, and this loss of business ended up killing IBM entirely.

You would have thought they would have known better.

Hat tip Thomas Biggar.

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Spanish company completes parachute drop test of reusable first stage

The new colonial movement: A Spanish company funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully completed a drop parachute test for recovering the first stage of their smallsat rocket from the ocean.

A Chinook CH-47 helicopter lifted the 15 m long 1.4 m diameter Miura 5 demonstration first stage to an altitude of 5 km then dropped it over a controlled area of the Atlantic Ocean, 6 km off the coast of Huelva in southern Spain.

During the descent, electronic systems inside the demonstrator controlled a carefully timed release of three parachutes to slow it down until its splashdown at a speed of about 10 m/s.

A team of divers recovered the demonstrator and hoisted it onto a tugboat, which returned to the port of Mazagón. The demonstrator looks to be in good shape and will now be transported to PLD Space, in Elche, for inspection and further analysis.

They next say they will develop a vertical landing system, similar to SpaceX’s.

Honestly, this seems like a waste of money and somewhat foolish. SpaceX made it very clear almost a decade ago when they tried to recover first stages out of the ocean after using parachutes to splash down softly that the salt water did too much damage to the engines and made such recovery impractical.

I can’t help asking, why is ESA spending time and money supporting engineering tests of a design that simply won’t work? They should be doing tests now of vertical landing technology, since it does work, and in fact is what they need to compete successfully.

Maybe I am being too harsh. Maybe they want to develop vertical landing technology that will work in conjunction with these parachutes, and this is merely their first step. Maybe. Based on past ESA development projects (which are often as dysfunctional as NASA’s), I think my doubts are not unreasonable.

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UAE names astronaut to fly to ISS in September

The new colonial movement: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has named the man who will fly on a Soyuz rocket in September to become that country’s first astronaut.

“The Emirati astronaut Hazzaa AlMansoori will fly for an eight-day space mission to ISS aboard a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft on 25 September 2019,” the organization said in a Twitter post late on Friday.

The UAE astronaut’s flight to the ISS is scheduled for September 25. He will spend about a week on board the ISS and will return back to the Earth with the Soyuz crew. Currently, there are two Emirati nationals prepping for the flight in the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. The other astronaut, Sultan Al Neyadi, will serve as a backup.

No background was given on this man, but we will find out more with time.

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SpaceIL to try again to land on Moon

Capitalism in space: The head of the private Israeli company SpaceIL has announced that he has found funding to build a second Beresheet lunar lander, and that they will try again.

How much funding he has gotten is not clear, but I suspect that the success his company had in getting to lunar orbit and almost landing will encourage investment capital.

Hat tip reader Andi.

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Stratolaunch flies!

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch’s giant two fuselage airplane Roc successfully launched on its first flight this morning.

It took off at 10 am Eastern, and as I write this the plane apparently is still in the air. Update: They have landed successfully, completing the first flight..

Below is video of the plane’s take off. This plane, the largest ever to fly, is quite impressive.

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SpaceX recovers Falcon Heavy fairings and will reuse them

Capitalism in space: In a tweet yesterday Elon Musk said that SpaceX had recovered both fairings from the Falcon Heavy launch and plans to reuse them later this year.

It seems that what the company has found is that catching the fairings is not necessary. Providing them parachutes and a guidance system so they land gently with the open half up, so they float literally like a boat, prevents any serious damage. The guidance system also gets them to land close enough for a quick pickup at sea.

Based on this knowledge, recovering and reusing these fairings was probably always a simple and fairly easy thing to do. No one however had had the smarts or open-mindedness to think of doing it. Moreover, from the article:

Musk told reporters last year that the fairing costs around $6 million. He said the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket comprises about 60 percent of the cost of a launch, with the upper stage responsible for 20 percent, and the fairing another 10 percent. The remaining 10 percent of the cost of a Falcon 9 mission come from charges stemming from launch operations, propellant and other processing expenses, Musk said last year.

In other words, by recovering both the first stage and the fairings, SpaceX makes their rockets about 70 percent reusable. That’s actually more reusable than the space shuttle ever was.

I must add that the section of the shuttle that was the most reusable was the section of SpaceX’s rockets that they as yet are not reusing, the upper stage. In other words, we have now tested and proven the technology for making an entire orbital rocket reusable, just never in the same vehicle. SpaceX is taking advantage of this knowledge and clearly applying it to their Super Heavy/Starship next generation rocket, which also means the likelihood of getting that to work is actually quite high and not as radical as many think.

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April 25 set for Hayabusa-2’s first observations of artificial crater

The Hayabusa-2’s science team has scheduled their first observations of the artificial crater the spacecraft made on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu for April 25.

The probe will observe the crater, which was generated during an impact experiment on April 5, from a height of 1.7 kilometers. JAXA will collate the data with photographs of the surface taken near the impact point to measure the size and location of the crater. It will also examine the dispersion of rocks and judge whether Hayabusa2 can land to take samples.

This is only their first assessment. Once they feel comfortable about getting closer, they will then plan the spacecraft’s second touchdown and sample collection, this time hopefully from within that crater.

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SpaceIL wins $1 million from X-Prize

Despite the failure of its Beresheet lunar lander to land softly on the Moon yesterday, the private company SpaceIL has been awarded a one million dollar prize by the X-Prize for its success in getting into lunar orbit and coming as close as it did to successfully landing.

“As a testament to the team’s passion and persistence, we are presenting this one million dollar Moonshot Award to the SpaceIL team at our annual Visioneering Summit in October 2019, with the hope that they will use these funds as seed money towards their education outreach or Beresheet 2.0, a second attempt to fulfill the mission,” said XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari.

The article also outlines some details about the failure. The main engine cut off during descent, and though they were able to get it restarted, the spacecraft was now too close to the surface and traveling too fast to slow it down. They are now assessing their data to figure out why the engine cut off as it did.

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Virgin Orbit gets another launch agreement

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed an agreement with the European launch services provider Exolaunch to provide launches for it appears as many as 20 smallsats.

Exolaunch, a spinoff of the Technical University of Berlin formerly called ECM-Space, has arranged launches, managed missions and integrated small satellite rideshare clusters for customers in Europe and North America. Exolaunch customers include startups, universities, scientific institutions and space agencies. In 2019, Exolaunch is under contract to send more than 60 small satellites into orbit. Forty of those satellites are scheduled to fly together on a Russian Soyuz rocket this spring or summer.

It appears that this agreement covers those 20 additional satellites, but the announcement is vague, probably because Virgin Orbit has still not completed its first launch. Until it does so, many of its launch contracts will be somewhat tentative, with its customers keeping the option to withdraw.

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SpaceX gets NASA launch contract

Capitalism in space: One week after dropping its protest for losing the bidding competition for the Lucy asteroid mission, SpaceX has been awarded by NASA the launch contract for its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, set for launch in June 2021.

The $61 million launch price is significantly lower than past NASA contracts for Falcon 9 launches. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract for the Sentinel-6A satellite in October 2017 for a November 2020 launch on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg at a total cost of $97 million. The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite will launch on a Falcon 9 in April 2021 under a contract awarded in November 2016 at a value of $112 million.

This low cost technology test mission, costing a total of $9 million, was initially going to be launch as a secondary payload. That NASA is now going to pay SpaceX for a full launch is most intriguing. It seems to me that there might be a bit of quid pro quo here. NASA wanted that protest dropped, and offered this launch to convince SpaceX to do that, as long as the launch cost was kept low. $60 million is really SpaceX’s standard price for Falcon 9 launch, using new boosters, but for NASA that is the least they’ve paid. How much more this is than what NASA would have paid to launch DART as a secondary payload is the real question.

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The second Falcon Heavy launch

I have embedded the live stream of Falcon Heavy launch below the fold. It does not go live until just before launch, which is now scheduled for 6;35 pm (Eastern).

The live stream is now live. I will post updates below, so refresh your screen to see them.

This is not a routine SpaceX launch, where we have become nonchalant about the company’s ability to vertically land a first stage. They admit getting the core stage back will be challenging. They also admit that this is essentially a countdown of three rockets, so they are going to be very conservative. If anything pops up during countdown, they will scrub and try another day.

They have launched.

The side boosters have successfully separated.

The center core stage has successfully separated.

Re-entry burns for the two side boosters has been completed.

Falcon Heavy core stage on drone ship

Re-entry burn on the core stage has been completed.

Both side boosters have landed.

The payload is in orbit.

The core stage has landed successfully on the drone ship.

Though the satellite has not yet been deployed, the rest of this mission is almost certainly going to go as planned, as it is essentially identical to a normal Falcon 9 launch. Update: payload successfully deployed!

Getting all three stages back is a notable achievement. They intend to recycle the two side cores and use them on the very next Falcon Heavy launch in June. The core stage will likely be reused as well but when has not yet been announced.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

4 SpaceX
4 China
4 Europe
3 Russia

The U.S. leads the pack 7 to 4 in the national rankings.

In the heavy lift launch race, SpaceX is by far in the lead in successful launches:

2 SpaceX
1 China
0 SLS (NASA)

I should add that I am being generous to include China’s Long March 5 in this heavy lift list. It really doesn’t qualify, but it remains the only other near competitor.
» Read more

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Rover update: April 11, 2019

Summary: Curiosity successfully drills into the clay unit. Yutu-2 continues its exploration on the far side of the Moon.

For the updates in 2018 go here. For a full list of updates before February 8, 2018, go here.

Curiosity drill hole in clay unit on slopes of Mount Sharp

Curiosity

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

The news this week from Curiosity is that the rover has successfully drilled into the ground in the clay unit valley the rover is presently exploring betweent Vera Rubin Ridge and Mount Sharp’s higher slopes.

The image to the right shows is a close-up of that drill hole.

The rover’s drill chewed easily through the rock, unlike some of the tougher targets it faced nearby on Vera Rubin Ridge. It was so soft, in fact, that the drill didn’t need to use its percussive technique, which is helpful for snagging samples from harder rock. This was the mission’s first sample obtained using only rotation of the drill bit.

Since my last rover update on February 20, 2019, they have been traveling for several weeks to get to a spot where they can do this drilling. The clay unit seems very soft, and almost mudlike, which made finding a good surface to drill somewhat challenging. Most of the terrain seemed too soft to drill into. It almost would be better to have a scoop, as the Viking landers had. Curiosity doesn’t really have this however. It needs to use its drill, which really is a more efficient way to get down deeper into the ground anyway.

The map below shows their recent travels.
» Read more

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Beresheet landing fails

Beresheet's last image

An engine problem during landing has caused Beresheet to crash onto the lunar surface.

The image on the right was the last image beamed back by the spacecraft during the landing sequence. It looks down at the lunar surface from several thousand meters.

As Netanyahu immediately noted, “If at first you don’t succeed, you try again.”

This failure definitely slows down the effort to transition from government-controlled space exploration to a free effort by the independent citizenry of all nations. It does not stop it however. There are other private lunar missions already scheduled, and of course, there is the effort by SpaceX to build its own heavy-lift rocket to make interplanetary space travel affordable for all.

The next decade will see this effort blossom. Beresheet’s failure is an example of those first baby steps, when the ability to stand is uncertain, and sometimes results in a fall. But babies turn into adults. The future is bright indeed.

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Beresheet landing telecast live streaming now

They have begun the live stream of Beresheet’s landing on the moon, with the arrival of Benjamin Netanyahu in the viewer’s gallery. It is in Hebrew, and will likely mostly involve watching people sitting at computer consoles, and then standing and cheering when the spacecraft lands.

However, I have embedded it below the fold for your viewing pleasure.

UPDATE: They are including English commentary.
» Read more

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DARPA picks three smallsat rocket companies for launch challenge

Capitalism in space: DARPA has chosen Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit, and a third unnamed company to compete for up to $10 million in prizes in its quick launch competition.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is giving $400,000 to each of three companies chosen to compete in the “DARPA Launch Challenge” to demonstrate rapid and responsive launch of small payloads. Tucson-based Vector Launch, Virgin Orbit, and a “stealth” startup will now have the opportunity to compete for prizes up to $10 million for successfully proving they can successfully launch twice in a row within a short timeframe from being provided mission parameters, DARPA told reporters here April 10.

First, I wonder why Rocket Lab was not picked. I suspect this is because it is already launching operational missions, and so does not need this developmental boost. Also, its rocket might not meet DARPA’s criteria. The launch systems of both Vector and Virgin Orbit are designed to allow them to quickly transport their rocket to any number of launch sites and go. Rocket Lab’s Electron appears to need a more established launchpad.

Second, I wonder what that third unnamed startup is. There are more than two dozen in development right now, but I can only think of one, Exos Aerospace, that has actually done any successful test flights, albeit suborbital. Whether its reusable SARGE suborbital rocket, being used to incrementally develop an orbital version, fits DARPA’s needs is not clear.

It could also very well be that DARPA has not actually chosen a third company, but has informed several that they can get that third slot, if they can achieve certain goals in a certain time frame. It could be that both DARPA and these companies would rather keep this private competition private. For the companies, they’d rather not advertise their failure to win it. For DARPA, the goal is to help, not hurt, the companies.

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