Tag Archives: spaceflight

The long term ramifications of SpaceX’s crew Dragon on the future of the human race

Crew Dragon's parachutes deployed
Crew Dragon soon after its parachutes had deployed
during the launch abort test.

The successful unmanned launch abort test by SpaceX of its crew Dragon capsule today means that the first manned flight of American astronauts on an American rocket in an American spacecraft from American soil in almost a decade will happen in the very near future. According to Elon Musk during the press conference following the test, that manned mission should occur sometime in the second quarter of 2020.

The ramifications of this manned mission however far exceed its success in returning Americans to space on our own spacecraft. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine touched upon this larger context with his own remarks during the press conference:

We are doing this differently. NASA is going to be customer, one of many customers. I want SpaceX to have lots of customers.

Bridenstine is underlining the real significance of the entire commercial program at NASA. Unlike every previous manned space project at the space agency, NASA is not doing the building. Instead, as Bridenstine notes (and I recommended in my 2017 policy paper Capitalism in Space), it is merely a customer, buying a product built entirely by a private company. And while NASA is involving itself very closely with that construction, it is doing so only as a customer, making sure it is satisfied with the product before putting its own astronauts on it.

NASA also does not own this product. As Bridenstine also notes (and I also recommended in Capitalism in Space), SpaceX owns the product, and once operational will be free to sell seats on crew Dragon to private citizens or other nations.

This different approach also means that NASA is not dependent on one product. From the beginning its commercial crew program has insisted on having at least two companies building capsules — Dragon by SpaceX and Starliner by Boeing — so that if there is a launch failure with one, the second will provide the agency with redundancy.

Bridenstine was very clear about these points. He wants multiple manned spacecraft built by competing American capsules, both to provide the government with redundancy but also to drive innovation and lower costs.

The landing of the two outer first stages during the first Falcon Heavy launch
Two first stages land simultaneously during
first Falcon Heavy launch.

SpaceX of course is the quintessential example of how to lower costs. » Read more

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Crew Dragon unmanned launch abort a success

Crew Dragon's parachutes deployed

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully completed an unmanned launch abort test of its crew Dragon spacecraft.

Everything took place exactly as planned. The image to the right is a screen capsule shortly after the main chutes had become fully deployed. The recovery of the capsule is still ongoing, and will take a bit more than an hour. A press conference has been scheduled at 11:30 eastern, viewable on NASA-TV.

Based on what was seen, it appears that SpaceX is ready to put astronauts on this capsule. It is time to do so.

I have embedded a replay of the entire test, below the fold.
» Read more

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NASA: first manned Dragon flight could occur in March 2020

A NASA official today finally admitted that, assuming the launch abort test tomorrow goes well, that first manned Dragon flight to ISS could occur as early as March 2020.

Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s commercial crew program, told reporters Friday that the Crew Dragon capsule slated to carry Hurley and Behnken into orbit on the so-called “Demo-2” mission could be ready for for flight within a couple of months. “The vehicle will be all ready at the end of February,” Lueders said. “We’re kind of shooting for early March, right now, from a planning perspective. That would be the earliest.”

For years NASA has been reluctant to allow SpaceX to fly at the pace it wishes. Instead, NASA has consistently called for delays and further testing, almost ad infinitum. This admission by Lueders is the first by anyone at NASA that this launch can occur quickly, should tomorrow’s test flight succeed.

There are of course other considerations, such as scheduling the mission at ISS. Regardless, if tomorrow’s flight is a success there will be no justification for any long delays before the manned mission. It will be time to light that candle!

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Tadpole on Mars

Tadpole on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 7, 2019, and shows a crater on the northern fringe of Arabia Terra, one of the largest transitional regions between the Martian northern lowlands and the southern highlands. It shows a crater with an inlet canyon that makes the entire crater resemble a wiggling tadpole.

This is certainly not first tadpole-resembling crater found on Mars. See for example this press release from February 2018, showing a tadpole crater with the tail being an outlet channel. In today’s image however the channel feeds the crater.

In fact, take a look at the full image. This crater apparently occurred right at the edge of a large mesa cliff, with this impact cutting into the cliff near its bottom. The canyon might have actually existed before the impact, with the crater merely obliterating the canyon’s outlet.

If you look along that escarpment to the east you can see similar southwest-to-northeast flows. One is a canyon flowing downhill through the escarpment, probably resembling what the first canyon might have once looked like before the impact. To the east of this is another tadpole crater. This second tadpole impact however took place on top of the mesa, so the channel flows out from the crater and then down off the mesa, the reverse of the tadpole crater above.

These flow features are consistent with the nature of this transitional zone, a region with many features suggesting it was once the shoreline of an intermittent ocean. That ocean, if it had existed, is long gone, though scattered across the Martian surface are geological ghost features like these that speak of its past existence.

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SpaceX is shifting all Starship design work to Boca Chica

Capitalism in space: In a change in plans, SpaceX is no longer having two competitng Starship design teams working in both Florida and Boca Chica, and is now in the process of moving all hardware to Boca Chica.

Though the article is mostly about SpaceX’s fleet of ships, it notes this change in Starship development plans.

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Arianespace and China complete launches

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket today successfully placed two communications satellites into orbit, one for the commercial company Eutelsat and the second for India.

This was Arianespace’s first launch in 2020.

UPDATE: China’s smallsat solid rocket, Kuaizhou 1A, operated by a Chinese company dubbed GalaxySpace, also launched a commercial communications satellite today.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
1 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)

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A detailed look at Boeing’s recent aircraft problems

Link here. The article is entirely focused at reviewing only Boeing’s recent aircraft projects (Boeing 787, Boeing 747-8, Boeing KC-46A, Boeing 777X and Boeing 737 MAX), all of which appear to have had a lot of development issues.

The worst of the lot was the KC-46A, with many of the problems shared by our incompetent federal government. Initially proposed in 2001 (that is not a typo), the contract award did not occur until 2010, with delivery of the first 18 planes set for August 2017. The GAO predicted this delivery would be late, and the GAO was right.

Worse, Boeing has had cost overruns on the tanker totaling $3.4 billion above the initial fixed cost development contract of $4.9 billion (that is also not a typo).

The article also cites far too many examples of where Boeing requested waivers in order to meet schedule, even though the waiver allowed serious safety issues to linger, a behavior that reminded me strongly of NASA’s management during the shuttle program, resulting in the loss of two shuttles because the agency preferred to push its schedule rather than deal with serious engineering problems.

When you add the delays, cost overruns, and sometimes absurd mistakes that have occurred during Boeing’s development of SLS, this article is far more disturbing. It gets worse when you consider the issues that have delayed the launch of Starliner, some of which (the parachutes) should not have been an issue considering Boeing’s half century of experience.

All told, these problems portray a company that is akin to our federal government, badly managed and ripe for disaster. While the U.S. aerospace industry would take a deep hit if Boeing went under, that hit however would likely be temporary, especially considering the problems Boeing is having.

Freedom must allow bad businesses to fail so that fresh faces not bogged down by old problems can come to the fore and replace them. If Boeing collapsed I suspect a host of new companies would quickly appear, all likely more capable of producing what the nation’s aerospace industry needs. Because right now, Boeing is certainly not doing the job.

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Watching SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch abort

The launch abort test flight of SpaceX’s crew Dragon capsule remains on schedule for launch at 8 am (eastern) on Saturday, January 18, 2020.

NASA has announced that it will provide live coverage. I would assume SpaceX will as well, but there is no indication of that at the NASA announcement or at SpaceX’s website.

I will admit that though I very much would like to watch this live, it will go off at 6 am in Tucson, a bit early for this night owl writer.

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Boeing releases video of Starliner’s first orbital demo flight

Capitalism in space: Boeing has released a video showing what it was like to be on its Starliner capsule during its first orbital demo flight on December 20, 2019.

Flying alongside the uncrewed Starliner’s only official passenger — a spacesuit-clad, instrumented dummy (or anthropometric test device) named “Rosie” (after the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter), Snoopy, in plush doll form, served as the vehicle’s “zero-g indicator.” The video shows the doll floating weightless at the end of its “leash” after the Starliner entered Earth orbit.

The video is embedded below the fold. It is relatively boring, which actually is a good thing. The interior of the capsule does not seem much disturbed during each phase of the flight, from launch, separation from launch vehicle, and touchdown.
» Read more

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Spitzer SpaceTelescope shutdown in a week

After sixteen years in orbit, NASA will shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope on January 22, 2020,

The telescope is still functional in a somewhat limited manner but NASA wishes to save the annual budget of $14 million to operate it. Moreover, it will become redundant and significantly superseded once the infrared James Webb Space Telescope launches and becomes operational next year.

NASA had hoped a private organization would take over Spitzer’s operation, but apparently got no takers.

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SpaceIL gets $1 million grant for building Beresheet-2

The Israeli non-profit that built Beresheet-1 has received a $1 million grant in order to pursue building Beresheet-2.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation has provided a one million dollar grant to SpaceIL to support the “Beresheet 2” spacecraft program and advance the goal of landing an unmanned Israeli spacecraft on the Moon. “Beresheet 1”, launched on February 22, 2019, made Israel the 7th country in the world to reach the Moon’s orbit. The new Blavatnik grant will enable SpaceIL to recruit a new CEO to drive plans for “Beresheet 2” forward.

It remains unknown whether Beresheet-2 will ever get built. The money is insufficient to build a new lunar lander. Moreover, several of SpaceIL engineers have left the company and formed their own private space business, partnering with Firefly Aerospace to build their own lunar lander.

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Martian dry ice frost on glacial remains?

Frost on ridgelines and inside crater
Click for full image.

Close-up of frost

Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 30, 2019. Located just east of Hellas Basin in southern mid-latitudes, the color strip shows dry ice frost both in the crater as well as on the ridgelines to the north. As noted in the caption, written by Candy Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

When we acquired this image, it was [winter in the southern hemisphere] on Mars, but signs of spring are already starting to appear at latitudes not far from the equator. This image of Penticton Crater, taken at latitude 38 degrees south, shows streamers of seasonal carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) only remaining in places in the terrain that are still partially in the shade.

The turquoise-colored frost (enhanced color) is protected from the sun in shadowed dips in the ground while the sunlit surface nearby is already frost-free.

Note for example how the frost disappears in the southern half of the crater floor, the part exposed to sunlight.

What immediately struck me however were the underlying features. The entire northeast quadrant of the crater’s rim appears to have been breached by some sort of catastrophic flow, as if there had been a glacial lake inside the crater that at some point smashed through suddenly, wiping that part of the rim out as it ripped its way through.

To the right is a full resolution inset, indicated by the white box above, of the dry ice frost on the outside of the crater. I find myself however drawn more to the underlying features, which once again have a chaotic aspect suggesting a sudden violent event, coming from the south and moving north.

I have no idea if my visceral conclusions here have any validity. At this latitude, 38 degrees, scientists have found a lot of buried inactive glaciers of ice, so I could be right. Or not. Your guess is as good as mine.

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China completes 2nd launch in 2020

China today successfully launched a earth resource satellite plus two smallsats using its Long March 2D rocket.

Right now in 2020 only SpaceX and China have completed launches, with China leading 2-1. SpaceX however plans on launching another 60 Starlink smallsats on January 20th, which will tie them again.

I expect both to be neck and neck for the rest of the year.

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Gully on Mars

Gully in crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! If we were told that the photo on the right was taken by an airplane over some southwest desert gully, no one should be surprised if we were to accept that description entirely. The gully sure looks like a lot of drainages one can routinely see when flying over the American southwest, dry, treeless, but showing the typical dendritic pattern seen for most desert water drainages.

Of course my readers all know that this is not in the American southwest, but on Mars, in a crater located in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowland plains. The image, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on October 12, 2019.

It appears that this particular gully has been subject to repeated monitoring, since November 2015. A rough and very quick comparison of the earlier image with today’s image does not show any obvious change. This does not mean there hasn’t been any evolution, as my look was cursory, and I could easily be missing changes. Seasonal variations might also be occurring that I could be missing.

The reasons for the monitoring are of course obvious. This gully strongly suggests the flow of liquid downhill. Is that occurring today, or are we seeing the evidence of a past flow from long ago? Only some long term monitoring can tell.

There is also the possibility that we are looking at a buried glacier. The crater is located at 42 degrees north latitude, well within that mid-latitude band where scientists have located many buried Martian glaciers. If so, then the monitoring is to see if that glacier is active in any way.

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First head of Space Force to be officially sworn in

First head of Space Force, General John Raymond of the Air Force, will be officially sworn in today at the White House.

Raymond assumed the duties of the first head of the Space Force on December 20, 2019, when U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act that officially launched the new force. “The Space Force will help us deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground,” Trump said at the NDAA signing last month. Officials say the Space Force will organize, train and equip military personnel who primarily focus on space operations.

Raymond was named commander of the new United States Space Command upon its creation in August of last year. That command, which sought to better organize the U.S. military’s space assets and operations, is being phased out as personnel are transferred to the Space Force.

Not surprisingly, a twitter mob immediately formed to protest the fact that a bible, officially blessed by religious leaders at the Washington National Cathedral, will be used during the swearing in. I especially like the over-the-top outrage expressed by the childish leader of this twitter mob:

Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said Sunday’s ceremony displayed overtones of “Christian privilege” within the Defense Department. “The MRFF condemns, in as full-throated a manner as is humanly possible, the shocking and repulsive display of only the most vile, exclusivist, fundamentalist Christian supremacy, dominance, triumphalism and exceptionalism which occurred at yesterday’s ‘blessing’ at the Washington National Cathedral,” he told Military.com on Monday.

My response to Mikey-boy: You are a very bigoted, very anti-Christian, and a very hateful person. You should get a life.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it remains to be seen whether the establishment of a separate organization for handling the space-related military needs of the U.S. will do more harm than good. The idea makes sense, as the military for the past two decades has had a problem giving priority to space matters because of in-house turf wars between the various military branches, and thus the U.S. effort has stagnated somewhat.

The track record of Washington in the past half century when such things are attempted however is not good. Instead of getting more focused and accomplishing more, Washington has instead consistently grown a bloated bureaucracy that actually gets less done for more money. And in this case, it appears that might be what will happen here, as the giant budgets for the Space Force put forth by the Pentagon have suggested they are aiming to use it to build new empires rather than streamline and focus operations.

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Curiosity climbs a hill

Overview map of Curiosity's journey through sol 2643

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

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

Since my last Curiosity update on November 6, 2019, the science team has sent the rover climbing up what they call Western Butte, the butte directly to the west of Central Butte and part of the slope/escarpment that separates the clay unit from the Greenheugh Piedmont and the sulfate unit above that.

The overview map to the right gives a sense of the journey. The thick yellow line indicates its route since it climbed up from the Murray Formation onto Vera Rubin Ridge in 2017. The thick red line indicates their planned route, which they have only vaguely been following since their arrival in the clay unit.

Below the fold are two panoramas that I created from a sequence of images taken by Curiosity’s left navigation camera from the high point on Western Butte, the first looking north across the crater floor to the Gale Crater rim approximately 30 miles away and indicated by the thin yellow lines on the overview map. The second looks south, up hill towards Mount Sharp, and is indicate by the thin red lines.
» Read more

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First image of Ganymede’s north pole

Ganymede's north polar region

During Juno’s 24th close approach to Jupiter the spacecraft was able to take the first images ever of the north pole of Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system. The image to the right was processed by citizen scientist Roman Tkacenko, and shows a variety of light and dark features.

The Juno science team decided for some reason to highlight a different set of images processed by citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt, using the same data. I prefer Tkacenko’s version, because he focused in on the planet itself, making it easier to see what’s there.

In either case, however, the fuzziness of the image reminds me of planetary astronomy in my early childhood. Images like this, taken by telescopes on Earth, were the best we had of any planet beyond the Moon. Made it very hard to understand what was there, or what it meant.

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Update on Dream Chaser

Link here. According to Sierra Nevada, the company that is building this mini-shuttle cargo ship, they are on track to launch next year. They are also aggressively working on a Dream Chaser version that would be able to transport humans to space.

SNC has “never stopped working” on the crewed version of Dream Chaser, Lindsey said. While the company’s focus right now is getting the cargo version ready for its first flight on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan-Centaur rocket next year, the first crewed flight “absolutely” will take place within 5 years.

“There’s interest, not necessarily from NASA, but other customers” that Lindsey expects to grow once the cargo version is flying. SNC will offer either a “taxi model” where it supplies the crew to fly it, or a “rental car model” where the customer provides the crew. It will be up to the customer to decide.

If they can get this spacecraft operational, they will join SpaceX as a leader in the reusability market, having built a ship that can be flown repeatedly on profit-making missions. In fact, it appears that the entire private American effort to get humans into space is aggressively shifting towards full reusability. SpaceX has got the first stage solved, and is also now routinely reusing its cargo Dragon capsules. It is also working to make both the upper stage (Starship) and manned capsules (crew Dragon) reusable. Sierra Nevada is in turn working on the manned spacecraft with Dream Chaser. Similarly, Blue Origin says the first stage of its New Glenn rocket will be reusable.

Those companies and nations that ignore this development (such as the Europeans Space Agency and Russia) will find themselves left far behind. Reusablity of rockets has been proven, and it lowers the cost to get to space so radically that without it you cannot compete.

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Probe to visit 8 asteroids, not 7

Scientists developing the Lucy mission to visit seven Trojan asteroids that share an orbit with Jupiter have found an eighth satellite they will also be able to visit.

This first-ever mission to the Trojans was already going to break records by visiting seven asteroids during a single mission. Now, using data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Lucy team discovered that the first Trojan target, Eurybates, has a satellite. This discovery provides an additional object for Lucy to study.

“If I had to bet that one of our destinations had a satellite, it would have been this one,” said SwRI’s Hal Levison, principal investigator of the mission. “Eurybates is considered the largest remnant of a giant collision that occurred billions of years ago. Simulations show that asteroid collisions like the one that made Eurybates and its family often produce small satellites.”

The mission is targeting a 2021 launch date.

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First SLS core stage completed and ready for final testing

After sixteen years of development, slowed by politics and a confused management at NASA, the first core stage of NASA’s SLS rocket is finally completed and ready for shipping to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for its final full test.

The heart of NASA’s first flight-ready Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket emerged from its factory in New Orleans Wednesday morning for a barge trip to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for an eight-minute test-firing of its space shuttle-era hydrogen-fueled engines.

The 212-foot-long (64.6-meter), 27.6-foot-wide (8.4-meter) core stage of the Space Launch System rolled out of its factory at the Michoud Assembly Facility, signaling a significant, but long-delayed milestone in the SLS program’s eight-year history. Teams loaded the core stage into NASA’s Pegasus barge to be ferried on a half-day journey to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The link has a lot of cool images of the stage. You can also find more cool images and videos of the core stage’s unveiling yesterday here.

Whether this stage will pass that eight-minute test remains unknown. And if it does, it also remains unknown whether it will be ready to fly in November 2020, sending an unmanned Orion capsule around the Moon. Either way, the cost to build that SLS rocket is approaching $25 billion, a cost that only includes two flights, one unmanned.

We could have bought a lot of Falcon Heavies for that price, and be heading for the Moon right now had we done so.

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Pedestal craters in the Martian northern lowlands?

Pedestal craters on Mars?
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows a cluster of really strange mesas, craters, and pits, located in Utopia Planitia, the largest and deepest plain of Mars’ northern lowlands where an intermittent ocean might have once existed.

The image was taken on October 26, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) as part of its regular image-taking program. In this case it was dubbed a “terrain sample” image, meaning that it was not specifically requested by any researcher, but was taken because they need to use the camera regularly to maintain its temperature, and thus sometime produce images over previously untouched areas, not knowing what they will find, as part of that maintenance schedule.

In this case the terrain sampled is especially intriguing. Are the upraised depressions what are called pedestal craters, created when the impact landed on what was once an icy plain, which subsequently sublimated away to leave the crater sitting high above the surrounding flats? Maybe, but this location is at 23 degrees north latitude, and research has generally found these pedestal craters at latitudes higher than 30 degrees.

Moreover, that many of these upraised depressions are not circular suggests that their formation was not impact related.

Other mysteries: Why are all the ridgelines bright? What caused the parallel white streaks to the east and west of some mesas? And if these are impact craters, why are some distorted?

If this region was once the seabed of an intermittent ocean, this fact might explain the features. Then again, it is more likely that this lowland area was once covered in ice in the far past, when the planet’s tilt was greater and the lower latitudes were actually colder than the polar regions, and thus allowed ice to build up in those lower latitudes. We might therefore be seeing the end result of an erosion/sublimation process as that ice disappeared when Mars’ inclination shifted.

Lots of questions, and no answers.

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China releases data and images from Yutu-2 and Chang’e-3

Yutu-2 on the far side of the Moon
Click for full image.

The new colonial movement: To celebrate the completion of a year on the lunar surface, China has released the bulk of the data and images produced by the lander Chang’e-3 and the rover Yutu-2.

The link includes a nice gallery of images. I especially like the image to the right, cropped to post here. It shows Yutu-2 moving away from Chang’e-3 early in the mission. It also shows how truly colorless the Moon is. The rover proves this is a color image, but if it wasn’t in the shot you’d have no way of knowing.

And then there is that pitch black sky. I wonder what’s behind it.

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India releases Vikram failure report

India’s space agency ISRO has released its investigation report on the failure of its lunar lander Vikram on September 7, 2019 to soft land on the Moon.

The Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram lander ended up spinning over 410 degrees, deviating from a calibrated spin of 55 degrees, and making a hard landing on the moon, according to ISRO scientists. The anomaly, which occurred during the second of four phases of the landing process, was reflected in the computer systems in the mission control room, but ISRO scientists could not intervene to correct it as the lander was on autonomous mode, using data already fed into its system before the start of the powered descent.

According to the report, they are using what was learned to incorporate changes in Chandrayaan-3, their next attempt at putting a lander and rover on the Moon, presently scheduled to launch 14 to 16 months from now. That launch date, about six months later than previous reports, also seems more realistic. Initially the agency was saying it planned to launch Chandrayaan-3 in less than a year from project inception, by November 2020, a schedule that seemed rushed and ripe for mistakes.

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Webb telescope remains on schedule for March 2021 launch

Good news: According to NASA and Northrop Grumman officials, the James Webb Space Telescope remains on schedule for its March 2021 launch by an Ariane 5 rocket.

This might be the first update on Webb in years where no new delays were announced. Instead, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which will manage the telescope, is preparing to release in two weeks its first call for research proposals.

Proposals will be due May 1, with the institute making selections later in the summer. …[I]nstitute officials said they expect to receive 1,000 to 1,600 proposals, seeking some fraction of the 6,000 hours of observing time that will be available in that initial round of observations. About 300 proposals will be selected for Cycle 1, which will begin once spacecraft commissioning is complete about six months after launch.

Let us all pray that all goes well during launch and spacecraft deployment.

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SpaceX crew Dragon launch abort test delayed another week

NASA and SpaceX have delayed the launch abort test flight of the company’s crew Dragon capsule one week, to January 18, in order to allow “additional time for spacecraft processing.”

SpaceX has made it clear for the past month that their hardware is ready to go and that they could have launched by the end of December. That makes me suspect that the processing delay relates to NASA’s bureaucracy and paperwork requirements.

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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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Firefly reschedules first rocket launch for April

Capitalism in space: Due to a number of engineering issues, Firefly Aerospace has pushed back the first launch of its Alpha rocket from March to April, 2020.

In particular, figuring out the two-stage rocket’s avionics system “gave us fits,” Firefly CEO Tom Markusic told Space.com in a recent interview. That’s because the company was originally hoping to make Alpha’s flight-termination system fully autonomous, he explained.

When the vendor couldn’t qualify that advanced system in time, the vendor switched to the usual “human in the loop” system. But waiting for parts pushed back Firefly’s December 2019 launch time frame to something closer to March 2020. Firefly then chose to take a little more time for further refinements and is now aiming for April 2020 for the first launch of the 95-foot-tall (29 meters) rocket, Markusic said.

According to the article at the link, the company plans two other launches in 2020. We shall see if that pans out.

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China completes first launch of 2020

The race is on! China today successfully launched a military satellite using its Long March 3B rocket, China’s second most powerful rocket behind the Long March 5.

Right now SpaceX and China are tied with one launch in the 2020 launch race. Based on the 2020 launch estimates from both, I expect that we will see a neck-and-neck race for the most launches from each for the rest of the year.

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Tonight’s SpaceX launch

Capitalism in space: Tonight SpaceX is hoping to launch another 60 Starlink smallsats as part of its planned huge constellation aimed at providing internet access worldwide.

The launch is scheduled for 9:19 pm Eastern, with a 20 minute launch window. I have embedded the live stream below the fold if you wish to watch, beginning fifteen minutes before launch. Or you can go to SpaceX’s own website instead.

The launch has some significance. First, with this launch SpaceX will leap-frog a number of other satellite companies attempting to accomplish the same thing. Though it only began pursuing this project about two years ago, with this launch SpaceX will have the largest satellite constellation of any company in orbit.

Second, the first stage will be flying for the fourth time, a record, and all flown since September 2018, a mere sixteen months. That’s once every four months, a pace that far exceeds anything the space shuttle ever accomplished. Moreover, SpaceX intends to land it and reuse it again. The launch savings from this reuse guarantees that they will be able to undercut those other satellite companies when they begin offering services on the Starlink constellation. [Note: My readers corrected me: SpaceX has already launched a first stage four times.]

The company will also make another attempt to recover one fairing half.

UPDATE: The launch appears successful, including a successful landing of the first stage.

SpaceX right now is the leader in the 2020 launch race, as they are the only one to have completed a launch in 2020.
» Read more

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