OSIRIS-REx completes storage of Bennu sample

OSIRIS-REx has now completed placing its sample from the asteroid Bennu in the Sample Return Capsule that will bring it back to Earth.

On the afternoon of Oct. 28, following the backout check, the mission team sent commands to disconnect the two mechanical parts on the TAGSAM arm that connect the sampler head to the arm. The spacecraft first cut the tube that carried the nitrogen gas that stirred up the sample through the TAGSAM head during sample collection, and then separated the collector head from the TAGSAM arm itself.

That evening, the spacecraft completed the final step of the sample stowage process –closing the SRC. To secure the capsule, the spacecraft closed the lid and then fastened two internal latches. As of late Oct. 28, the sample of Bennu is safely stored and ready for its journey to Earth.

Because they decided it was better to store the sample immediately and not risk losing it, they were unable to do the spin test that would told them how much sample they obtained. For this reason we will not know the amount until the sample capsule is opened here on Earth, after its return on September 24, ’23.

Meteor over Alaska sets off volcano sensors

A bright fireball meteor that passed over western Alaska on October 15th caused enough disturbance in the atmosphere to set off volcano sensors throughout the region.

The event, which took place on October 15, triggered six of the sensors’ alarms at a new monitoring station on the Kenai Peninsula. The sensors are built to detect low-frequency sound waves in the atmosphere during volcanic activity, but in this case they picked up waves coming from the meteor that had streaked across the sky around 360 miles away.

In a Facebook post, the USGS said the meteor also triggered an alarm at Mount Spurr—a large, active volcano that sits around 80 miles from Anchorage that last erupted in 1992. However, as other monitoring systems also picked up on the waves, “it quickly became clear that this was not activity at Mount Spur,” the post said.

It is ironic, but those sensors, designed to monitor volcano eruptions, have likely also provided scientists some worthwhile data on asteroids.

Hat tip Commander Cobra of Task Force Gryphon

Hayabusa-2’s impactor shook Ryugu

When Hayabusa-2 fired an impactor into the asteroid Ryugu in order to access subsurface material in a sample grab, it apparently shook the asteroid, shifting boulders and rocks as far as 130 feet away.

The artificial impactor disturbed boulders within a 30m radius from the center of the impact crater- providing important insight into asteroids’ resurfacing processes.

Professor ARAKAWA Masahiko (Graduate School of Science, Kobe University, Japan) and members of the Hayabusa2 mission discovered more than 200 boulders ranging from 30cm to 6m in size, which either newly appeared or moved as a result of the artificial impact crater created by Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2’s Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI) on April 5th, 2019. Some boulders were disturbed even in areas as far as 40m from the crater center. The researchers also discovered that the seismic shaking area, in which the surface boulders were shaken and moved an order of cm by the impact, extended about 30m from the crater center. Hayabusa2 recovered a surface sample at the north point of the SCI crater (TD2), and the thickness of ejecta deposits at this site were estimated to be between 1.0mm to 1.8cm using a Digital Elevation Map (DEM).

This data makes all the more important for OSIRIS-REx to get post-sample-grab images of its Nightingale site, if at all possible.

OSIRIS-REx engineers successfully place sample collector in return capsule

Stowing OSIRIS-REx's sample from Bennu
Click for full image.

OSIRIS-REx engineers have successfully placed the sample collector head holding the material captured from the asteroid Bennu in the return capsule that will bring it back to Earth.

Yesterday, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission successfully placed the spacecraft’s sample collector head into its Sample Return Capsule (SRC). The first image shows the collector head hovering over the SRC after the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) arm moved it into the proper position for capture. The second image shows the collector head secured onto the capture ring in the SRC. Both images were captured by the StowCam camera.

Today, after the head was seated into the SRC’s capture ring, the spacecraft performed a “backout check,” which commanded the TAGSAM arm to back out of the capsule. This maneuver is designed to tug on the collector head and ensure that the latches – which keep the collector head in place – are well secured. Following the test, the mission team received telemetry confirming that the head is properly secured in the SRC.

The next step will be to seal the capsule for return to Earth. However, based on the two images above, the sample is now relatively secure, as the opening where material could escape is now held face down in the capsule.

The spacecraft will head back to Earth in March ’21, with the sample capsule landing on Earth on September 24, 2023. I do not know whether it will be possible in the next six months to get new images of the Nightingale touch-and-go site, but have emailed Erin Morton, head of the communications for the science team, and asked. I will update this post when I hear back from her.

Russian astronaut: ISS crack could be result of Zvezda module’s age

A Russian astronaut just returned from ISS admitted during a press conference that the recently located crack on the 20-year-old Zvezda module that was the source of the long-term slow leak could be the result of the module’s age.

“Twenty years are actually an absolute record for all space stations now. And we see now that something is changing and something requires greater [attention]. Again, if we go back to the leak, the hull is already beginning to give cracks and scratches somewhere, that is, we see the limits [of the ISS structure’s service life],” [cosmonaut Ivan Vagner] said.

The crack has been sealed temporarily, with a more permanent seal put in place after the nearby docking port is cleared and the hatches closed and out of the way.

If Russian astronauts are noticing wear and tear in Zvezda that is bad enough to cause “cracks”, this raises some very serious issues for ISS’s future, as replacing that module on ISS will be complicated and expensive, and at this point no one has even begun planning such an replacement.

Is this the planned landing site of China’s Mars rover?

The prime landing site for China's Mars rover?

According to this Space News article, a report in the Chinese press, since revised to remove the information, had provided precise coordinates on Mars for the prime candidate landing site for China’s Tianwen-1 rover.

[I]nformation published in an article (in Chinese) in the official China Space News publication following launch in July provides a specific primary landing site. The article reported landing coordinates of 110.318 degrees east longitude and 24.748 degrees north latitude, within the southern portion of Utopia Planitia. Online versions of the article have since been edited to remove the coordinates; however, these remain published by sources citing the article.

The mosaic on the right, made up of two images taken by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) context camera (found here and here) shows this location with the white cross. The white box is the area covered by the only image taken of this area by MRO’s high resolution camera.

As these photos show, this location, in a part of Mars’ northern lowland plains dubbed Utopia Planitia, is generally smooth and flat, making for a relatively safe landing site. At the same time, it has craters and some ridges and hills that could pose issues.

That the coordinates were removed from the Chinese press story suggests that this might be the prime site, but until Tianwen-1 gets into Mars orbit and begins scouting the site with its own high resolution images, they want to reserve judgement. The spacecraft arrives in orbit in February ’21, and they presently plan to land the rover in May. That gives them three months to scout this location as well as a secondary landing site on the other side of Mars, in the Chryse Planitia northern lowlands [pdf], the same region where Viking 1 and Mars Pathfinder landed.

Once they have done this they will be able to refine the location more precisely.

SpaceX finds clogged valves in several Merlin engines

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has discovered that the problem that caused a recent launch abort of a GPS satellite was a coating that clogged valves in several newer Merlin engines.

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said teams initially weren’t able to figure out why two of nine engines triggered early-start sensors on Oct. 2, which forced computers to automatically scrub seconds before liftoff. After the engines were removed and shipped to Texas for testing, the anomaly surfaced again when sensors detected higher-than-expected engine chamber pressures.

The cause: a minuscule, almost undetectable amount of “masking lacquer,” which is used to protect engine components and surfaces during the production process. The lacquer is almost like a bright red nail polish. “We found a relief valve – a little line that goes to the relief valve – blocked in the gas generator,” Koenigsmann told reporters Wednesday. “That little red substance was blocking a relief valve that caused it to function a little bit earlier than it was supposed to.”

The gas generators are almost like little rocket engines themselves – they’re used to power a pump that then feeds propellants into the main engine chamber. But the blockage caused certain processes to begin too early.

Once the lacquer was removed the engines functioned perfectly.

The issue was also found in two engines on the new booster that was going to launch astronauts to ISS, which explains why that mission was delayed. The company is swapping out the engines, and is still targeting November 14th for that launch. In addition, NASA wants it to fly at least two missions beforehand to demonstrate the problem is fixed. One will be that GPS satellite, on November 4th. The other could be one of three different payloads on SpaceX’s busy schedule.

Rocket Lab successfully launches 10 smallsats

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully placed ten smallsats into orbit using its Electron rocket, launched from New Zealand.

This was their second successful launch for the company since their launch failure on July 4th. Their next launch should be their first from the U.S., from Wallops Island, Virginia.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

27 China
18 SpaceX
12 Russia
4 ULA
4 Europe (Arianespace)
4 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 29 to 27 in the national rankings.

Scientists finally map Philae’s full route to its final landing site on Comet 67/C-G

Philae's journey across Comet 67/C-G
Click for full resolution image.

Using archival data from Rosetta, scientists have finally been able to map out the full route and all impact points made by the lander Philae on its journey to land on the Comet 67P/C-G in November 2014.

All that was known previously was the location of the first contact, that there had been another impact following the rebound, and the location of the final landing site where Philae came to rest after two hours and where it was found towards the end of the Rosetta mission in 2016 . “Now we finally know the exact place where Philae touched down on the comet for the second time. This will allow us to fully reconstruct the lander’s trajectory and derive important scientific results from the telemetry data as well as measurements from some of the instruments operating during the landing process,” explains Jean-Baptiste Vincent from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, who was involved in the research published today.

…Analysis of the data revealed that Philae had spent almost two full minutes – not unusual in this very low gravity environment – at the second surface contact point, making at least four different surface contacts as the lander ‘ploughed’ through the rugged landscape. A particularly remarkable imprint, which became visible in the images, was made when the top of Philae sank 25 centimetres into the ice at the side of an open crevice, leaving visible traces of the sample drill and the lander’s top. The peaks in the magnetic field data resulting from the boom movement show that Philae took three seconds to make this particular ‘dent’.

This new data about this particular impact has helped the scientists determine a great deal about the comet’s make-up and density, finding that it is extremely fluffy.

The parameters of surface contact showed that this ancient, 4.5-billion-year-old mixture of ice and dust is extraordinarily soft – it is fluffier than the froth on a cappuccino, the foam in a bathtub or the whitecaps of waves meeting the coast.

They also found that the interior has many voids comprising 75% of the interior, with the “boulders” between having the density of Styrofoam.

Bringing life to the slumping lifeless slopes of Mars

Slumping slopes on Mars
Click for full image.

To me, the cool image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, helps illustrate the most significant difference between Mars and Earth, its obvious lack of life. This lack fundamentally changes the nature of erosion on the Red Planet.

On Earth life covers practically every square foot of the surface, and that life probably does more than anything to reshape the surface, and it does it far more quickly than any geological or meteorological process. For example, even if we are in the most lifeless area of the Sahara Desert, with no plant life, the dunes will still be reshaped and changed simply by the passage of any animal, whether it be a lizard, camel, or human driving a jeep.

On Mars, there is no visible life, and this lack means that any changes we see are solely geological or meteorological in nature. From a scientist’s perspective, the view is clean, all changes wrought solely by inanimate nature, without the added factor of life.

In a sense, Mars gives us a view of what geological and meteorological processes would do on Earth, if the Earth was lifeless.

Today’s image, taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on August 29, 2020, exemplifies this. Labeled “Slope Failures in Tempe Terra,” it shows the slow break-up and slumping of debris as it oh-so-slowly falls from higher terrain. The cracks developed as large chunks pulled apart as the material slide downward to the east.

This cracking took a lot of time. On Earth, during that time it would have either been obscured by plant life, or would have been distorted greatly by the traffic of animal life across its surface. Animals would have dug holes, and humans might have reshaped it to build homes and roads. On Mars, none of that happened, so the geology was free to evolve slowly, without interference, and now sits in plain view for scientists to interpret.

Such knowledge will over time strengthen our understanding of Earth geology, because it will give us a better understanding of the influences of life on that geology. Geologists will be better able to separate the influence of life and inanimate natural processes.

The overview map below helps give the wider context of those Martian inanimate natural processes, on a grand planetary scale.
» Read more

NASA and ESA ink Lunar Gateway deal

NASA yesterday announced that it has signed a deal with the European Space Agency (ESA) outlining their partnership in building the Lunar Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon.

Under this agreement, ESA will contribute habitation and refueling modules, along with enhanced lunar communications, to the Gateway. The refueling module also will include crew observation windows. In addition to providing the hardware, ESA will be responsible for operations of the Gateway elements it provides. ESA also provides two additional European Service Modules (ESMs) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. These ESMs will propel and power Orion in space on future Artemis missions and provide air and water for its crew.

For some reason NASA’s press release makes no mention of what ESA gets from the deal. From this news report:

[ESA] said it will receive “three flight opportunities for European astronauts to travel to and work on the Gateway” as part of the agreement.

I also note that there is no mention of the Artemis Accords in this agreement. As far as I can tell, right now the only ESA member who has signed on is the United Kingdom, and I am not sure of the UK’s status in the ESA considering their exit from the European Union. The two are different political deals, but exiting one might affect the other.

The Trump administration has said repeatedly that it will only partner in its lunar ambitions with countries that sign the accords. However, at this moment Congress has simply not funded those ambitions, so NASA needs partners to get things built. Moreover, Orion is a space capsule (costing about $18 billion and taking 20 years to build) that does not have a service module to provide it air and water. Europe provides that, and had only agreed to build two.

It might be that NASA has traded the accords away to get Europe’s help for both Gateway and Orion. This deal, announced now, might also be an effort by NASA (and Europe) to lobby Congress to fork up the cash.

Analyzing the evolving “small” storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere

The vortices in Jupiter's polar regions
Click for full image.

The cool image to the right is another Juno photo of Jupiter enhanced by citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt. This time Eichstädt also did some analysis of the motions and interactions of many vortices found in the northern polar regions of Jupiter. The image to the right has been cropped and reduced to post here, with the state of Arizona, about 400 by 300 miles in size, added for scale. There is more annotation in the full image.

As Eichstädt writes:

Large vortices in an atmosphere layer of a rotating planet can be roughly split into two classes, cyclonic and anticyclonic vortices.

Based on this rough classification, two interacting vortices can either be of the same or of opposite sign. Tightly interacting vortices of opposite sign tend to mutually propel each other, hence the whole pair, if they are of similar strength and size.

Tightly interacting vortex pairs of the same sign tend to merge. More distant like-signed vortex pairs may essentially repel each other. Interacting vortices tend to create filaments, some of which may split into fragments and further collapse into streets of small eddies.

He also notes that in future orbits Juno will provide closer views of this stormy region, as with the orbit the closest point shifts northward.

Initial price for Starlink: $99 per month?

According to a CNBC article today, SpaceX is now offering a beta version of its Starlink internet service to customers as the price of $99 per month, plus a $499 charge for equipment.

SpaceX is expanding the beta test of its Starlink satellite internet service, reaching out via email on Monday to people who expressed interest in signing up for the service.

Called the “Better Than Nothing Beta” test, according to multiple screenshots of the email seen by CNBC, initial Starlink service is priced at $99 a month – plus a $499 upfront cost to order the Starlink Kit. That kit includes a user terminal to connect to the satellites, a mounting tripod and a wifi router. There is also now a Starlink app listed by SpaceX on the Google Play and Apple iOS app stores.

“As you can tell from the title, we are trying to lower your initial expectations,” the emails said, signed Starlink Team. “Expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all.”

SpaceX did not confirm this story with CNBC. If it is real, the price is disappointingly high, and might very well limit Starlink’s potential. Then again, this is only the beta version. Later versions when under full operation and available to many more customers might bring that price down.

The sad story of Virgin Galactic

Link here. This so-called suborbital space tourism company, which for years has promised to fly tourists on suborbital flights to space but failed to do so, appears now to be trying to shift gears and instead make itself into a company building supersonic airplanes.

Richard Branson’s dream of a suborbital Virgin Galactic vehicle zipping passengers between distant cities at hypersonic speeds above Mach 5 (6,174 km/h, 3,836 mph) is dead. At least for now.

In August, the space tourism company he founded pivoted to a slower supersonic Mach 3 (3,704 km/h, 2,302 mph) business jet. Virgin Galactic unveiled a mission concept for an aircraft that would carry 9-19 passengers at a cruising altitude of 60,000 ft (18,288 m).

Since Branson began selling off his stock in May and became a minority owner in the company, the new management has apparently shifted its focus away from suborbital space tourism to building a supersonic airplane for commercial travel on Earth.

The problem is that there are already a lot of companies working to do this, and Virgin Galactic is in last place, even as it scrambles to find new investment capital simply to begin development.

After sixteen years, this company has so far accomplished nothing, while spending probably more than $2 billion in private capital. It now wants more, even as Richard Branson has sold off his stock at a nifty profit. (I am no stock market expert, but if I has any interest in buying stock (I do not), this would not be the stock I’d buy.)

Branson however is not entirely off the hook. His entire empire, built on transportation and tourism, is in big trouble because of the Wuhan panic. It might now all collapse, tragically crashing to Earth as did the first SpaceShipTwo several years ago.

Europa Clipper to be delayed because of SLS bottleneck

Because Boeing will be unable to provide an SLS rocket in time for the planned 2024 launch of Europa Clipper, once the probe is completed NASA will be forced to put it in storage.

The problem is that Congress has mandated that the Jupiter probe be launched on SLS, but has only funded the first two Artemis launches to the Moon. Boeing will also need at least three years to build it, meaning that even if the money from Congress appeared today, it would likely not be ready for its ’24 launch date.

In terms of rocket science, right now, Europa Clipper can launch on a commercial vehicle, like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance’s Delta-IV Heavy rocket, although the mission would then need a longer cruise time to reach its destination.

But in terms of the law, NASA’s hands are tied.

“Because of that, we’re planning to build the Europa Clipper and then put it into storage, because we’re not going to have an SLS rocket available until 2025,” Bridenstine said. “That’s the current plan. I don’t think that’s the right plan, but we’re going to follow the law.”

Though the common sense thing for Congress to do would be to release NASA from this mandate and allow the agency to pick the launch rocket, do not expect that to happen. Congress wants SLS because of all the pork it produces. They will not allow NASA to reduce its reliance on SLS one iota, if they can. Unless pressured publicly (which I think is NASA’s goal with this announcement), Congress will let Europa Clipper sit in a warehouse for years, at a cost of between $36 to $60 million per year, waiting for SLS.

SpaceX identifies problem with several engines on booster, requiring replacement

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has identified the issue with several engines on the first stage that caused a launch abort for an Air Force GPS satellite and has replaced those engines.

Since Falcon 9 B1062 suffered a rare last-second launch abort on October 2nd, SpaceX has discovered an issue with several new Merlin 1D booster engines and apparently removed affected engines from Falcon 9 booster B1062, shipped the engines to McGregor, Texas for testing, characterized the bad behavior, and implemented a fix capable of satisfying their strictest customers (NASA and the US military) in roughly three weeks.

The immediate fix appears to be replacing the engines for now as they troubleshoot the issue. They have now rescheduled the launch of the GPS satellite for November 5th.

It also appears that because the company has identified the engine issue and can spot it on any engine it uses, NASA has agreed to set a November 14th launch date for the next manned Dragon mission. They will hold a press conference tomorrow to outline the situation in more detail.

Blue Origin pinpoints problem with BE-4 engine

Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno, Blue Origin has identified and fixed the issue with the turbopumps of its new BE-4 rocket engine.

United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno said Friday that the problem was “sorted out,” and that the full-scale, flight-configured BE-4 engine is now accumulating a lot of time on the test stand. Bruno made his comments about one hour into The Space Show with David Livingston.

Bruno’s company, ULA, is buying the BE-4 engine to provide thrust for the first stage of its upcoming Vulcan-Centaur rocket. This booster may make its debut next year, although ULA is still awaiting delivery of BE-4s for the first flight. Two of these large engines—each providing about 25-percent more thrust than the RS-25s used on the Space Shuttle—will power each Vulcan rocket.

Here’s what I think happened: Blue Origin struggled to fix the problem for several years. ULA, suspecting problems, got increasingly impatient at the lack of delivery of an operational engine, and threatened to dump the BE-4 in favor of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine unless it was given a test engine to analyze. Blue Origin finally complied in July, and very quickly ULA pinpointed the problem and the solution.

While this is good news for the development of both ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets, it does not speak well for the development team at Blue Origin. Nonetheless, the engine is always the big hurdle for designing a rocket, and that hurdle has now been passed.

During Bruno’s interview he also said that ULA still intends to recover and reuse these engines when it flies its Vulcan rocket, but gave no timeline for when that might happen. Initially, and probably for several years at least, expect those engines to be expendable and tossed into the ocean with each flight.

“Flow-like” feature in the Martian lowlands


Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and brightness-enhanced to post here, was taken on July 6, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

This is an uncaptioned image, labeled by the MRO science team as a “Flow-Like Feature in Chryse Planitia,” suggesting that they themselves are not exactly sure about what we are looking at. The latitude is 19 degrees north, which is a bit too far south for finding glacial features. Moreover, the craggy look of the ground here does not suggest an eroding glacier, but of eroding bedrock.

We could be looking at a volcanic feature, but this location is very far from Mars’ volcano regions. Nonetheless, another high resolution image, taken just to the west of this photo and given the exact same label, shows similar geology, and does strongly invoke a look of corroded lava flow.

The overview map below gives the context.
» Read more

Water molecules detected on Moon

Using NASA’s SOFIA airborne telescope, scientists have detected for the first time what they think is a very small amount of actual water molecules in areas of the Moon far from the poles.

SOFIA has detected water molecules (H2O) in Clavius Crater, one of the largest craters visible from Earth, located in the Moon’s southern hemisphere. Previous observations of the Moon’s surface detected some form of hydrogen, but were unable to distinguish between water and its close chemical relative, hydroxyl (OH). Data from this location reveal water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million – roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water – trapped in a cubic meter of soil spread across the lunar surface.

This result confirms data obtained by India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter about a dozen years ago..

There are many caveats. First and foremost, there remain uncertainties about whether they have actually detected water molecules. From their paper’s abstract:

Widespread hydration was detected on the lunar surface through observations of a characteristic absorption feature at 3 µm by three independent spacecraft. Whether the hydration is molecular water (H2O) or other hydroxyl (OH) compounds is unknown and there are no established methods to distinguish the two using the 3 µm band. However, a fundamental vibration of molecular water produces a spectral signature at 6 µm that is not shared by other hydroxyl compounds. [emphasis mine]

This detection points to water for sure, but it remains very uncertain.

The amount is also very small, and is likely localized, as they also note, “within glasses or in voids between grains sheltered from the harsh lunar environment.” If there it will not be useful for future colonists.

The result is important, however, as it increases the likelihood that there is lots of water ice trapped in the permanently shadowed craters near the poles, in amounts that will be useful to future colonists.

New data: The asteroid Psyche is rusting

Using new ultraviolet data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers now believe that the high density asteroid Psyche, thought to be largely metallic, is rusting because of interaction with the solar wind.

Becker observed the asteroid at two specific points in its rotation to view both sides of Psyche completely and delineate as much as possible from observing the surface at ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths.

“We were able to identify for the first time on any asteroid what we think are iron oxide ultraviolet absorption bands,” she said. “This is an indication that oxidation is happening on the asteroid, which could be a result of the solar wind hitting the surface.”

There will be a U.S. probe to Psyche launched in ’22.

Vostochny official arrested on fraud charges

Russia this past weekend arrested another Vostochny official on charges of fraud and bribery.

The arrest was of a different individual than the one Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin fired this weekend.

Roman Bobkov, the head of the state entity operating the cosmodrome, has been placed in pre-trial detention for two months by a local court, on Saturday, and faces several charges, including fraud, abuse of office, and incitement to abuse of office and forgery. He assumed the role of director at Vostochny in March 2019.

Bobkov is accused of using bribery to entice a senior Defense Ministry inspector, Dmitry Fomintsev, to file fake reports on the commissioning of several of the spaceport’s major water-supply facilities. The fraudulent documents were allegedly drawn up to conceal Bobkov’s own misconduct during their construction, which had left them unfinished.

They estimate the cost of Bobkov’s actions to be around $6.5 million, which in rubles is about a half billion.

The level of corruption and theft that has permeated the construction of Vostochny raises great doubts about the quality of work there, building the spaceport. Expect many “glitches” when they start attempting regular launches.

Firefly gets two new launch contracts; completes testing on 1st stage

Capitalism in space: Firefly announced last week that it has signed two new launch contracts even as it has completed testing on the first stage of its Alpha rocket and has shipped it to the launch site..

One of the two launch contracts was for multiple launches. As for Alpha:

The Alpha Flight 1 Stage 1 performed a 35 second static fire, including a full suite of thrust vector control maneuvers. Subsequently, a 15 second final trim test was performed, and the stage will now ship to Firefly’s launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB).

Concurrently, the Alpha Flight 1 payload fairing successfully completed a separation test. The payload fairing separation system was designed and manufactured by Firefly. The system is operationally recyclable, allowing for multiple tests of the flight unit.

Firefly is also nearing completion of its Launch Control Center, Integration Hangar, and launch pad, including assembly of the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) at historic Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W) at VAFB. Firefly’s TEL, built by Firefly’s design and fabrication teams in Texas and California, is being integrated and will soon commence ground system activation.

They are still aiming for the first launch before the end of this year.

Russia launches new GPS-type satellite

Russia today successfully launched another one of its GPS-type Glonass satillites, using its Soyuz-2 rocket lifting off from its Plesetsk spaceport.

This was the first launch of this type of satellite in more than five years due to an inability to get parts because of U.S. sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In response, the Russian government instituted an export-replacement program aimed at providing indigenously produced electronics for the nation’s industries. The effort was complicated by the need in some cases to build entire factories virtually from scratch.

Around 2016, ISS Reshetnev, the prime developer of GLONASS satellites, began re-designing the GLONASS-K variant for the Russian-built components. It is unclear to what extent the original GLONASS-K series relied on foreign components, but the new batch of spacecraft did not come out of assembly until the end of the 2010s.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

26 China
18 SpaceX
12 Russia
4 ULA
4 Europe

The U.S. continues to lead China 28 to 26 in the national rankings.

Reviewing the development of Starship/Super Heavy

Link here. This five-part article is a detailed review of SpaceX’s development of its new completely reusable heavy-lift rocket, with Super Heavy being the first stage booster and Starship being the orbital upper stage capable of returning to Earth, landing vertically, and being reused.

From the article’s conclusion:

The Starship program is unique and one of the most ambitious in the history of rocketry. The design has now gone through at least twelve known versions and four different names!

Its first version was a single or triple-core rocket back in 2013, which has evolved into the single-core stainless steel Starship design under construction today. Even as the design’s size has fluctuated dramatically, its repertoire of missions and roles has expanded.

It started out as a rocket meant to colonize Mars but now is envisioned as an all-purpose carrier rocket to replace the Falcon 9 rocket family. It is expected to launch satellites into Earth orbit, fly people point-to-point on Earth, ferry cargo and crew to and from the Moon, in addition to its original role as a Mars colonization vehicle.

Two significant points: First, SpaceX as a company has shown itself remarkably capable of shifting design and development tracks, on a dime, if it realized there was a better way to do things. Second, the company has also smartly rethought this big rocket’s reason for existing. In the beginning they focused on Musk’s goal of getting to Mars. That concept however had few if no customers, and therefore have little chance of producing profits. Overtime the company adjusted their design goals to expand the rocket’s purposes so that its capabilities would serve as many customers as possible.

The result is a useful product that still could take people to Mars.

Rogozin shakes up Vostochny management, again

The head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, has reprimanded two and fired one high level managers running the construction of the new Vostochny spaceport in Russia’s far east.

Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin trekked out to the Amur Region in Russia’s Far East on Friday to check on how construction is proceeding at the Vostochny Cosmodrome. The answer was apparently, not real well. “Following the results of hearing reports at a production meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome, Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin reprimanded Andrei Okhlopkov, Director General of the Center for Operation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure Facilities, and Vladimir Zhuk, TsENKI Chief Engineer,” Roscosmos said in a press release.

“Prior to that, by decision of Dmitry Rogozin, Evgeny Rogoza, General Director of the Vostochny Cosmodrome Directorate, was fired,” the document said.

The article then outlines the slow pace of development at Vostochny over the last few years.

This is not the first time Russia has shaken up the Vostochny management. Early shake-ups had included arrests and prosecutions due to corruption. None have apparently succeeded in speeding up development of this giant government-run project that in many ways reminds me of NASA’s SLS/Orion project. The delays are really a feature, not a bug, as the Russian government mostly wants to be able to claim it has created jobs, and really doesn’t care too much if they actually accomplish anything.

Eventually Vostochny will become operational. I have great doubts it will ever act to make Russia once again competitive in the international launch market.

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched another sixty Starlink satellites, bringing the total in orbit to over 800.

The company also recovered the first stage, completing its third flight. The fairings were to be picked up in the ocean, rather than caught in a ship’s net, as the last launch one fairing broke the net. SpaceX engineers might have determined ocean recovery is now safer and sufficient for reuse.

This was also the company’s 100th successful launch and its 63rd successful first stage recovery.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

26 China
18 SpaceX
11 Russia
4 ULA
4 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. now leads China 28 to 26 in the national rankings.

OSIRIS-REx sample grab so successful they are losing material

The samples from Bennu
Click for full two frame gif movie.

In a briefing today and press release, the OSIRIS-REx science team announced that they estimate that they have gathered a lot of material from the asteroid Bennu, at least 100s of grams, about twice the minimum of what they hoped to get.

In fact, images of the TAGSAM sample grab equipment suggest that there are some larger rocks lodged in its opening (preventing the flap from closing), and that the small movements they have done to photograph it has caused some of the captured material to escape. The image to the right shows this. You can see floating specks and their shadows (the horizontal streaks) that have escaped. At about 9 o’clock you can see a curve in the contact between a lighter material and blackness to its outside, bending towards the center of the TAGSAM. At other exposures they can clearly see a rock there, distorting the shape and thus preventing the flap from closing properly.

Because of this, they are foregoing the spin maneuver that would have weighed the sample, as well as one engine burst that would have slowed the spacecraft’s movement away from Bennu.

This means they will not know the exact amount captured until the sample gets back to Earth. This is a gamble, but they are confident that they have gotten a lot of material. According to Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator, the sample grab-and-go “got very down” into Bennu, as much as 19 inches. He is also confident that they grabbed more than a 100 grams.

They are therefore going to as quickly as possible store the samples in the Sample Return Capsule for return to Earth, beginning on October 27. They need to do a complex series of steps to make this happen, which is why it cannot happen until then.

One more detail: In their simulations prior to the touch-and-go, they had a range of estimates of how deep the spacecraft would penetrate. According to Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx plunged into Bennu at the softest part of that range, telling them that the asteroid is probably much more loosely packed than expected.

Because they are not doing that last engine burst means that they are moving away from Bennu for good. They will not return to the asteroid. Whether they will be able to get post sample grab images of Nightingale is unknown.

Starship prototype #8 gets its nosecone

Starship prototype #8, with nosecone
Screen capture from LabPadre live stream.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has now installed the nosecone on Starship prototype #8 in advance of its first vertical hop to 50,000 feet, or more than ten miles, expected sometime in November.

Curiously, hours prior to nose installation, SpaceX apparently removed one of Starship SN8’s three Raptor engines while also revealing that a spare fourth engine was already in Boca Chica. In other words, the prototype likely has only two Raptor engines installed at the moment, meaning that SpaceX will need to install another before the company can prepare for SN8’s next major test campaign.

According to CEO Elon Musk, the plan was to static fire Starship SN8’s three Raptor engines, perform final inspections and checkouts, perform another static fire, and finally attempt the first high-attitude Starship flight test. As of October 22nd, SpaceX has seemingly completed the two steps. Nosecone freshly installed, it’s likely that SpaceX will use the second triple-Raptor static fire opportunity to test the engines while feeding propellant solely from Starship’s liquid oxygen and methane header tanks – the latter of which is located in the nose.

The removal of one engine suggests they found something in that engine they didn’t like during last week’s static fire test, though that is mere speculation on my part.

The addition of the nosecone, with its own fins, clearly changes the appearance of prototype #8, making it look truly like a rocket ship. In fact, it looks more like the rocket ship imagined by science fiction writers for decades prior to the advent of spaceflight in the 1960s. The irony is that this is the first real rocket since the V2 in World War II to have this look.

India’s Mars orbiter confirms global dust storms speeds atmosphere loss

India’s Mars orbiter Mission (MOM) has confirmed that the periodic Martian global dust storms act to accelerate the loss of the red planet’s atmosphere.

The U.S. orbiter MAVEN found the same thing during the 2018 global dust storm. Moreover, the two orbiters focused on observing different hemispheres (MOM in the morning and MAVEN in the evening), and bot got comparable results.

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