Tag Archives: ISS

NASA leaning towards long-duration flight for 1st Dragon mission

Capitalism in space: According to one former astronaut as well as a review of photos of the training being given to the astronauts who will fly on SpaceX’s first manned Dragon flight, this Space News article thinks that NASA will make that first flight a long-duration mission.

This Dragon demo mission is officially still planned as a short mission, no more than two weeks. To extend it requires additional training, which the photos appear to show, and would thus delay its launch by as yet an unspecified time period.

The article also cites a third reason NASA is now favoring the long-duration option: The issues with Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule:

Another factor in any decision to extend Demo-2 is the status of the other commercial crew vehicle, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. That vehicle flew an uncrewed test flight in December, but software problems during the flight, including one which shortened the mission and prevented a docking with the ISS, have raised questions about whether a second uncrewed test flight will be needed. An investigation into those problems is expected by the end of this month.

Even if NASA decides a second uncrewed test flight of Starliner is not needed, a review of all of the spacecraft’s one million lines of code, and other reviews, is likely to delay a crewed test flight of the spacecraft. NASA and Boeing had previously agreed to make that test flight a long-duration mission, with NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson performing space station training in addition to that for the Starliner itself.

The delay in Boeing’s long duration mission leaves a gap in the schedule for maintaining crews on ISS. Flying Dragon long-duration would help solve that.

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Successful launch today of Cygnus freighter to ISS

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket today successfully launched it Cygnus unmanned cargo capsule on a supply mission to ISS.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first flight in 2020. The standings in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan
1 ULA
1 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 5 to 3 in the national rankings. The U.S. will likely add to that lead with the planned SpaceX launch of another 60 Starlink satellites Monday.

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NASA confirms seriousness of 2nd Starliner software issue

At a press conference today, NASA and Boeing officials confirmed the rumors that there was a second software error during Starliner’s unmanned demo mission in December that might have caused a serious failure had it not been caught on time.

[After the first software error], engineers began reviewing other critical software sequences as a precaution and discovered yet another problem. Software used to control thruster firings needed to safely jettison the Starliner’s service module just before re-entry was mis-configured, set for the wrong phase of flight.

Had the problem not been found and corrected, the cylindrical service module’s thrusters could have fired in the wrong sequence, driving it back into the crew module and possibly triggering a tumble or even damaging the ship’s protective heat shield.

While a detailed analysis was not carried out at the time, “nothing good can come from those two spacecraft bumping back into one another,” said Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for Boeing Space and Launch.

That two different software errors were not caught prior to flight has NASA demanding a complete review of Boeing’s quality control systems. And NASA here is correct. Boeing as a company appears to have fundamental quality control issues up and down the line, in all its projects. A complete review appears warranted.

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A Chernobyl fungus that thrives on radiation

Scientists have found that a Chernobyl fungus that eats radiation, turning it into food, is so successful that they have sent samples to ISS to see how it responses to space radiation.

By growing it in the International Space Station, where the radiation level is hiked compared to that on Earth, Venkateswaran and Professor Clay Wang of the University of Southern California were able to monitor mutation. When microorganisms are put under more stressful environments, they release different molecules, which could further out understanding of the fungi and how it can be used to develop radiation-blocking drugs for humans.

It is also possible that the fungus could be adapted for other uses.

Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a research scientist at NASA who is leading the experiments on the Cryptococcus neoformans fungi, believes that by extracting its radiation-absorbing power and manufacturing it in drug form, it could be used as a ‘sun block’ against toxic rays.

It would allow cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, nuclear power plant engineers and airline pilots to operate without fear of absorbing a deadly dose of rays, Venkateswaran envisaged to Scientific American magazine.

The fungi’s radiation-converting power could also be used to power electrical appliances, with it being touted as a possible biological answer to solar panels.

It appears that the fungi’s high level of melanin contributes to its ability to do this.

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ISS crew returns to Earth

Three crew members from ISS returned to Earth today in a Soyuz capsule, including American Christina Koch, who set a new longevity record of 328 for a woman.

Christina Koch launched to the International Space Station aboard the Soyuz MS-12 launch vehicle on 14 March 2019 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. At the time of launch, she was scheduled to perform a six-month mission, returning to Earth on the Soyuz MS-12 vehicle in early October 2019.

However, a variety of factors aligned to place NASA in the position of allowing one of its astronauts to remain aboard the International Space Station for close to one year. Christina was the logical choice given her background and EVA/spacewalk training. The decision, announced just one month after she began living and working aboard the Station for a few months, meant Christina would become the world-wide record holder for longest continuous time in space by a woman.

In fact, with a landing Thursday, Christina will have been in space 328 days, just 12 days shy of fellow NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s record for single-longest continuous time in space by a NASA astronaut at 340 days.

The overall longevity record still belongs to Russian Valeri Polyakov, at 438 days in 1994-1995.

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Why Bigelow passed on NASA bid for new ISS module

Capitalism in space: In an interview this week, Robert Bigelow provided his reasons for not bidding on the NASA agreement to build additional modules for ISS, won by passed on NASA bid for new ISS module, won by Axiom this week.

In a Jan. 28 interview, Robert Bigelow said his company decided not to bid on a NASA competition for access to an ISS docking port for a commercial module because the funding NASA offered for doing so was too low. NASA announced Jan. 27 it selected Axiom Space to use the port through its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program.

When NASA issued the request for proposal in June for the docking port, NASA said it projected making $561 million available for both the docking port solicitation and a separate one to support development of a free-flying commercial facility. “That was asking just too much” of the company, Bigelow said. “So we told NASA we had to bow out.”

NASA now appears willing to separate the free flyer from the program, meaning that it wishes to make more money available to both, something Bigelow says is necessary because at the moment he believes there are not enough customers outside NASA for any orbital space business to make a profit.

On this last point I think Bigelow might be wrong. I also think it will be a mistake for NASA to provide these companies too much money. Keep them on a tight lease, force them to work efficiently so that they lower costs. This will make it easier for them to charge less to outside customers, thus widening their customer base more quickly.

If NASA gives them a blank check, it will remain the only customer, as the companies will then end up spending too much building their facilities, making it impossible for any other private customer to afford using it.

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NASA picks Axiom to build three private commercial modules on ISS

Capitalism in space: NASA today picked the new space station company Axiom to build three modules to ISS, designed to operate as a private commercial operation.

The first segment launch is targeted for 2024. The three segments will include a node with multi-ports, a crew module, and a research module, and will be the “hotel” for private tourists that Axiom hopes to send to ISS two or three times per year. The entire section will also be designed to eventually separate from ISS when that station is retired and operate, with more additions, as an independent station.

This decision did not include the actual contract, only the choice of company to build this new section of ISS. Later negotiations will determine the fixed price amount that NASA will pay.

Why did NASA pick Axiom, which has not yet launched anything, and bypass Bigelow, which has launched two independent test modules and one that has been attached to ISS and working successfully now for several years? This quote explains:

Although Axiom is a relatively young company, having been formed only four years ago in 2016, there is no lack of experience within the company’s ranks.

Axiom’s Co-founder and CEO is Micheal Suffredini, who formerly worked at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) as the program manager for the International Space Station project.

The Axiom team also includes Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle three times and commanded the 14th Expedition to the ISS, as well as former shuttle commanders Brent Jett and Charles Bolden, the latter of whom served as NASA’s 12th administrator from 2009 to 2017.

Axiom is also working alongside several companies with extensive experience with the ISS program, this includes Boeing, who has made several of the modules that make up the US Segment, including Node 1 and the US Laboratory Module. Axiom is also working alongside Thales Alenia Space, Maxar Technologies and Intuitive Machines to get this project off the ground. [emphasis mine]

In other words, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is not to say that the individuals and companies listed above do not know much, but that the company’s real experience with building private modules is lacking. Boeing has built NASA’s modules, but those were for the government and were therefore costly. I have grave doubts they could do this inexpensively, though I could be wrong.

The key will be whether they aim to make their profits from their commercial customers, or use NASA (and the federal government) as their cash cow. The track record of most of Axiom’s partners suggests the latter. For example, Bigelow built and launched its BEAM module to ISS for $17 million, and got it done in three years. We don’t yet know the cost of Axiom’s modules, but their target build-time is already longer, at four to five years

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud NASA’s approach here. They are ceding ownership and construction to a private company, and allowing its work to be commercialized for profit, something that NASA routinely opposed for decades. I just worry that the company it has chosen will be not up to the task, and is not focused on making those profits.

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Airbus gets ESA as customer for its ISS commercial platform

Capitalism in space: Airbus has signed up the European Space Agency (ESA) to use its as-yet unlaunched ISS Bartolomeo module as an experimental platform.

The Bartolomeo platform – named after Christopher Columbus’ younger brother – is currently in the final stage of launch preparation at Airbus in Bremen and is scheduled for launch to the ISS in March 2020. Bartolomeo is developed on a commercial basis by Airbus using its own investment funds and will be operated in cooperation with ESA.

The platform can accommodate up to 12 different experiment modules, supplying them with power and providing data transmission to Earth. Bartolomeo is suitable for many different experiments. Due to the unique position of the platform with a direct view of Earth from 400 kilometres, Earth observation including trace gas measurements or CO2 monitoring of the atmosphere are possible, with data useful for climate protection or for use by private data service providers.

This is the European effort to duplicate the slow commercialization of ISS that is also taking place in the U.S., with more and more of the payloads and operating platforms on the station being developed, owned, and operated not by NASA but by private companies.

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Launch abort data suggests Dragon performed “flawlessly”

A preliminary review of the data gathered during SpaceX’s launch abort test on January 19, 2020 suggests the system performed “flawlessly”.

The Crew Dragon began its launch escape maneuver at 10:31:25 a.m. EST (1531:25 GMT) — initiated by a low setting of an on-board acceleration trigger — when the Falcon 9 was traveling at a velocity around 1,200 mph (536 meters per second), according to SpaceX.

Eight SuperDraco thrusters immediately pressurized and ignited as the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage engines were commanded to shut down as part of the abort sequence. The escape engines on the Crew Dragon produced nearly 130,000 pounds of thrust at full power. The SuperDracos performed flawlessly, SpaceX said, accelerating the capsule away from the top of the Falcon 9 at a peak acceleration of 3.3Gs. The SuperDracos accelerated the spacecraft from about 1,200 mph up to more than 1,500 mph (about 675 meters per second) in approximately seven seconds, according to SpaceX.

At this point it appears the only reason the first manned launch might be delayed a bit is if NASA decides to turn it into a long duration mission, requiring new training for the crew.

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Russia again delays launch of Nauka module for ISS

Russia yesterday announced that it will once again delay the launch of its Nauka module for ISS due to “additional adjustments that should be carried out due to the use of original propellant tanks.”

The TASS article did not explain what those adjustments will be, though it did outline some of the sad history of Nauka, which Russia had begun construction in 1995, a quarter of a century ago.

Earlier, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozi said the research module’s original propellant tanks, manufactured about 18 years ago, could be replaced with those from the Fregat booster. However, later it was decided to send the module to the ISS with its original tanks.

The construction of the Nauka module began in 1995. Russia initially planned to launch the Nauka lab to the ISS as a back-up of the Zarya compartment (the station’s first module that continues its flight as part of the orbital outpost) but the launch was numerously delayed. In 2013, the Nauka module was sent to the Khrunichev Space Center after metal chips were found in its fuel system.

Right now they are saying it will probably launch early in 2021, not late in 2020 as previously announced.

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Dragon returns to Earth with mice and cookies baked in space

After several months docked to ISS SpaceX’s cargo Dragon returned to Earth today, bringing back forty mice send up in December for research and some cookies that were baked in space.

Researchers want to inspect the handful of chocolate chip cookies baked by astronauts in a special Zero G oven just in time for Christmas. The oven launched to the space station in November, so astronauts could pop in pre-made cookie dough provided by DoubleTree. A spokesman for the hotel chain said five cookies were baked up there, one at a time. The company plans to share details of this first-of-its-kind experiment in the coming weeks. “We made space cookies and milk for Santa this year,” NASA astronaut Christina Koch tweeted late last month from the space station, posing with one of the individually wrapped cookies.

Scientists also are getting back 40 mice that flew up in early December, including eight genetically engineered to have twice the normal muscle mass. Some of the non-mighty mice bulked up in orbit for the muscle study; others will pack it on once they’re back in the lab.

At the moment the only way to get experiments like this back from ISS is with cargo Dragon. Hopefully that will change when Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle finally flies in the next few years.

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Astronaut treated for blood clot on ISS

In a first, an unnamed astronaut had been treated for a blood clot while on a six-month mission on ISS sometime in the last few years.

Ultrasound examinations of the astronauts’ internal jugular veins were performed at scheduled times in different positions during the mission. Results of the ultrasound performed about two months into the mission revealed a suspected obstructive left internal jugular venous thrombosis (blood clot) in one astronaut. The astronaut, guided in real time and interpreted by two independent radiologists on earth, performed a follow-up ultrasound, which confirmed the suspicion.

Since NASA had not encountered this condition in space before, multiple specialty discussions weighed the unknown risks of the clot traveling and blocking a vessel against anticoagulation therapy in microgravity. The space station pharmacy had 20 vials containing 300 mg of injectable enoxaparin (a heparin-like blood thinner), but no anticoagulation-reversal drug. The injections posed their own challenges – syringes are a limited commodity, and drawing liquids from vials is a significant challenge because of surface-tension effects.

The astronaut began treatment with the enoxaparin, initially at a higher dose that was reduced after 33 days to make it last until an oral anticoagulant (apixaban) could arrive via a supply spacecraft. Anticoagulation-reversing agents were also sent.

Although the size of the clot progressively shrank and blood flow through the affected internal jugular segment could be induced at day 47, spontaneous blood flow was still absent after 90 days of anticoagulation treatment. The astronaut took apixaban until four days before the return to Earth.

On landing, an ultrasound showed the remaining clot flattened to the vessel walls with no need for further anticoagulation. It was present for 24 hours after landing and gone 10 days later. Six months after returning to Earth, the astronaut remained asymptomatic.

What is not known is whether weightlessness caused the clot, or whether it would have occurred regardless. The former seems very possible as the astronaut had no history of such clots, and returned to normal almost immediately upon return to Earth. As noted at the link, more research is necessary, especially in anticipation of long interplanetary flights.

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Starliner lands safely after failed orbital insertion

Capitalism in space:Boeing’s Starliner capsule successfully landed today in New Mexico, returning to Earth prematurely because of its failure to reach its proper orbit after launch two days ago.

The article quotes extensively from both NASA and Boeing officials touting the many successful achievements of this flight, while trying to minimize the failure that prevented the capsule from docking with ISS properly. And that failure?

The mission elapsed timer issue that cut short Starliner’s planned eight-day mission started before the spacecraft lifted off Friday from Cape Canaveral aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, according to Chilton. “Our spacecraft needs to reach down into the Atlas 5 and figure out what time it is, where the Atlas 5 is in its mission profile, and then we set the clock based on that,” Chilton said in a press conference Saturday. “Somehow we reached in there and grabbed the wrong (number). This doesn’t look like an Atlas problem. This looks like we reached in and grabbed the wrong coefficient.”

“As a result of starting the clock at the wrong time, the spacecraft upon reaching space, she thought she was later in the mission, and, being autonomous, started to behave that way,” Chilton said. “And so it wasn’t in the orbit we expected without the burn and it wasn’t in the attitude expected and was, in fact, adjusting that attitude.”

I read this and find myself appalled. While I agree that overall the mission proved the capsule capable of launching humans to ISS (which is why NASA is considering making the next Starliner mission manned despite this failure), this failure suggests a worrisome lack of quality control at Boeing. I can’t even imagine how the Starliner software could be mis-configured to “grab the wrong number.” This explanation makes no sense, and suggests they are spinning the failure to avoid telling us what they really did wrong.

Either way, I suspect that NASA will approve a manned launch for Starliner’s next orbital flight, but will do so only after dwelling on the problem for at least six months.

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Starliner launch fails, spacecraft to return to Earth

After being successfully placed in a preliminary orbit by ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket early this morning, Boeing’s Starliner capsule failed to reach its required orbit for docking with ISS when its own rocket engines did not fire properly at the right time.

The orbit it is in is stable, and the spacecraft is undamaged. Engineers now plan to bring it back to Earth on Sunday, landing at White Sands, New Mexico.

It appears some software issue had the capsule fire its own rockets either at the wrong time or for too short a time. The spacecraft was then in the wrong orbit, and needed to use too much fuel to correct this issue, making it impossible to dock with ISS.

More information here:

However, for reasons Boeing engineers do not yet understand, Starliner’s Mission Event Timer clock malfunctioned, causing the vehicle to think it was at a different point in the mission and at a different time in its mission that it actually was.

…This resulted in Starliner’s Reaction Control System thinking the Orbit Insertion Burn was underway and executing a series of burns to keep the vehicle oriented in the insertion burn attitude; however, the Orbit Insertion Burn was not actually occurring.

When mission controllers realized the issue, they sent manual commands to Starliner to perform an Orbit Insertion Burn in a backup window that came roughly eight minutes after the planned maneuver. However, a known and brief gap in NASA satellite communications caused a further delay.

By the time Starliner was finally able to burn its engines and get into a stable orbit, it had burned 25% more propellant than anticipated.

Boeing is certainly not having a good year. First it has had to shut down production on its new 737-Max airplane due to several crashes caused by software issues. Next its SLS rocket for NASA has had endless cost overruns and delays. Now Starliner fails during its first launch.

For ULA, however, the Atlas 5 rocket performed exactly as planned, so this launch gets listed as a success. They have now completed 5 launches this year.

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Starliner launch set for Friday, December 20

Capitalism in space: The first orbital flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, remains on target for launch this coming Friday, December 20, 2019.

The launch is presently set for 6:36 am (Eastern), with a docking at ISS early the next day.

NASA will be broadcasting the launch and docking.

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Dragon launch abort test set for January 4

NASA announced on December 6 that the launch abort test of SpaceX’s crew Dragon capsule will occur no earlier than January 4.

SpaceX and NASA originally hoped to launch the test flight, called an In-Flight Abort Test, sometime this month, but an exact launch date was never released. In a statement Friday, NASA officials said the mission will now lift off no earlier than Jan. 4 from Pad 39A of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, pending launch range approval from the U.S. Air Force.

The new launch target will push the SpaceX flight beyond the year-end holidays, as well as a planned Boeing launch of its first uncrewed Starliner astronaut taxi for NASA, which is slated to launch Dec. 20.

The article does not explain why a December test was not possible. The second paragraph of the quote above however might give a hint, in that a December launch might have interfered with those Christmas/New Year holidays, and both the agency and the company might have decided it was better for all to wait an extra week or so.

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Successful Russia and Rocket Lab launches

Two launches successfully took place in the early morning hours today. First Rocket Lab launched seven small satellites into orbit, including one that will release an artificial meteor shower. During that launch they also obtained telemetry of their first stage as it fell to Earth.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck just tweeted that the Electron’s first stage performed well during today’s re-entry experiment. “Electron made it through wall! Solid telemetry all the way to sea level with a healthy stage. A massive step for recovery!!” Beck tweeted.

Russia in turn launched a Progress cargo capsule to ISS.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

27 China
19 Russia
12 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)
6 Rocket Lab

China now leads the U.S. 27 to 25 in the national rankings.

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SpaceX successfully launches cargo Dragon to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today has successfully launched a reused cargo Dragon to ISS.

This is the third flight of this Dragon capsule. They also successfully landed the first stage on their drone ship.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

27 China
18 Russia
12 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)

China leads the U.S. in the national rankings 27 to 24.

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SpaceX targets December for launch abort test, early 2020 for 1st manned Dragon mission

According to SpaceX officials, the company is aiming to perform its Dragon launch abort test before the end of this month, and then follow-up with the first manned Dragon mission to ISS in early 2020.

“We’re targeting December,” said [Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon Mission Management at SpaceX] today (Dec. 3) during a news conference discussing tomorrow’s (Dec. 4) planned launch of a robotic Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). “We’ll see if we can get there.”

SpaceX holds a multibillion-dollar NASA contract to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS using Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9. The capsule has already visited the orbiting lab once, on the landmark uncrewed Demo-1 mission this past March. If everything goes well with the [launch abort test], the company will be cleared for the first crewed mission — a test flight known as Demo-2 that will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

Demo-2 is targeted for early 2020, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said. Contracted, operational ISS flights would follow shortly thereafter.

NASA officials have repeatedly said that early 2020 is too soon because of the paperwork that SpaceX has to complete prior to launch. It could be that Musk is gently applying pressure on them here to speed up this make-work so that the real business of spaceflight can proceed.

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SpaceX to test upper stage endurance as part of Dragon launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX plans to perform a six hour orbital coast test of its Falcon 9 upper stage following the release of the Dragon cargo capsule tomorrow (scrubbed today due to high winds).

This is why the first stage will land on a drone ship rather than at Kennedy.

According to SpaceX the test is at the request of “other customers”, unnamed. The article adds this speculation:

Jensen says that the coast test will be performed for unspecified “other” customers, presumably referring to the US Air Force (USAF) and other commercial customers interested in direct-to-geostationary (GEO) launch services. Direct GEO launches require rocket upper stages to perform extremely long coasts in orbit, all while fighting the hostile vacuum environment’s temperature swings and radiation belts and attempting to prevent cryogenic propellant from boiling off or freezing solid. In simple terms, it’s incredibly difficult to build a reliable, high-performance upper stage capable of remaining fully functional after 6-12+ hours in orbit.

Although SpaceX said that the test was for “other” customers, that may well have been a cryptic way to avoid indicating that one such customer might be NASA itself. NASA is in the midst of a political battle for the Europa Clipper spacecraft’s launch contract, which is currently legally obligated to launch on NASA’s SLS rocket. Said rocket will likely cost on the order of >$2 billion per launch, meaning that simply using Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy could save no less than ~$1.5 billion. Incredibly, that means that simply using a commercial launch vehicle could save NASA enough money to fund an entire Curiosity-sized Mars rover or even a majority of the cost of building a dedicated Europa lander. Such a launch would demand every ounce of Falcon Heavy’s performance, including a very long orbital coast.

These speculations could all be true. SpaceX might merely be doing what it always does, testing new engineering upgrades during operational missions. It will then be able to sell its rocket’s enhanced capability to all these customers.

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“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.

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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.

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SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire tests

SpaceX yesterday successfully completed a static fire engine test of its Crew Dragon capsule, demonstrating that it has fixed the issues that caused the April 20th explosion during an earlier test that destroyed a capsule.

Wednesday’s test occurred just 207 days after the April anomaly, a quick turnaround time given the complexity of the systems at hand. The incident earlier this year occurred just milliseconds before the engines were to have ignited, and was eventually traced to valves leaking propellant into high-pressure helium lines.

SpaceX made numerous changes to Crew Dragon as a result of the anomaly, including the replacement of the valves with burst-discs. The company has also been performing several smaller-scale tests of the redesigned system at their test facility in McGregor, Texas. Last month, SpaceX Tweeted a video of one such test.

Wednesday’s test was the first full-scale firing of all eight of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco’s at once since the April incident.

This success clears the way for the launch abort test using this same capsule, now tentatively scheduled for mid-December.

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New video of Starliner pad abort test

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

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

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

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NASA to fly more year-plus missions to ISS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Boeing & NASA declare pad abort test a success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to watch Boeing’s Starliner pad abort

Link here.

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

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Cygnus successfully launched by Antares

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

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

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

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

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

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Crew Dragon successfully tests SuperDraco engines

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, planned for a launch abort test in December, has successfully completed a set of static fire engine tests of two of its SuperDraco launch abort engines.

They next plan a static fire test of all eight engines, followed by that launch abort flight. If all goes well with both, the only thing blocking SpaceX from launching its first manned mission early in 2020 will be the paperwork NASA is demanding they fill out prior to flight.

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Mice in space and kept in artificial gravity experience no harm to reproduction

The uncertainty of science: Male mice who spent thirty-five days on ISS but within a centrifuge that created 1 g of artificial gravity apparently experienced no damage to their ability to reproduce.

This project team developed a habitat cage unit (HCU) capable of being installed in the Centrifuge-equipped Biological Experiment Facility (CBEF) on the ISS. The mice were placed under artificial gravity or microgravity (by centrifugation). After their return to Earth, they were compared with a “ground control” raised on the ground for the same 35-day period. (Fig.1)

The joint team found that: [1] The sperm production ability and the sperm fertilizing ability of the mice returned to Earth were normal, compared to the ground control and, [2] offspring of the mice sent to outer space was healthy and there were no effects on their reproduction ability from their parents’ stay in outer space.

While this study suggests that some form of artificial gravity can possible mitigate some of the risks to reproduction in space, there are so many unknowns that it at this point it leaves more questions than it answers.

  • Would an artificial gravity less than 1 g accomplish the same thing?
  • Would no gravity cause damage? According to the study, this is not yet known.
  • What about insemination? Would it proceed with no problems in space?
  • What about female reproduction? Will artificial gravity mitigate issues for them?

I could go on. I almost wish they had done this experiment first in zero gravity, to see its effects, before proceeding to an artificial gravity environment.

Nonetheless, these results do suggest that reproduction in space will be possible, as long as an artificial gravity of some kind is provided.

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