Archive for the ‘Rocket Lab’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA announced a new class of 6 flight directors for human spaceflight at Johnson Space Center.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) performed a pad abort test of their launch escape tower for future crewed spaceflights.

Launch towers at Launch Complex 17 at Cape Canaveral were demolished last week. These launch towers were built for the now retired Delta II rocket. Instead, Moon Express will use the site.

Launch industry newcomer Rocket Lab plans to open a second launch site somewhere in the USA.

James Morhard has been nominated to the open position of NASA deputy administrator.

Astronaut Dan Burbank has retired from NASA.

In Orbit

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has entered a hibernation mode as it nears the end of its long mission.

There were three orbital rocket launches since my last post on July 1st:

Operations have been busy on the International Space Station. The Dragon resupply ship that launched at the end of June arrived at ISS on July 2nd. Then the above mentioned Progress resupply arrived.

On Sunday morning, the latest Cygnus cargo spacecraft departed the ISS packed full of trash. Before it left, it performed a demonstration maneuver to reboost the ISS.

Upcoming notable launches include a SpaceX launch from Florida on July 20th and a SpaceX launch from California on July 22nd. Still no firm launch date on the rescheduled Rocket Lab launch.

Around the Solar System

Still no update from NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been socked in by a dust storm on Mars.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Russia will stop building the Proton rocket.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been officially delayed to 2021.

Virgin Orbit has been granted an FAA launch license for its first launch from California.

In Orbit

There were two orbital rocket launches during the last week. On June 27th, China launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying two satellites into orbit. On July 29th, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida, carrying a Dragon cargo craft scheduled for arrival at ISS on Monday morning.

Meanwhile, Rocket Lab was not able to launch last week and has delayed their first commercial flight.

Around the Solar System

Out at Mars, there were no updates on the dust storm of the status of the dormant rover Opportunity.

After weeks of a slow approach, Japan’s probe Hayabusa-2 has arrived at asteroid Ryugu, with gorgeous views of the never before explored rock.

Astronomers have new evidence that the interstellar visitor ‘Omuamua was actually a comet, not an asteroid.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will take advantage on an open seat in an upcoming Soyuz flight to ISS and fly their first homegrown astronaut into orbit.

The US Air Force has awarded a contract to SpaceX to launch a DOD satellite on a Falcon Heavy in 2020.

Last week the President of the United States signed Space Policy Directive 3, which establishes a formal National Space Traffic Management Policy.

In Orbit

There were no orbital rocket launches or major mission events at the International Space Station last week. However, the NanoRacks Remove Debris (or RemDeb) satellite was deployed from the ISS. This satellite will demonstrate techniques for reducing orbital debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The ISS crew continues to be busy with maintenance and science as always. Here’s a selection of some of their most interesting photos posted to Twitter last week.

In upcoming launches, Rocket Lab will attempt to launch their next Electron rocket on Tuesday (New Zealand time) and SpaceX will launch their next Dragon resupply to ISS next Friday.

Around the Solar System

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 continues to get closer to its destination, asteroid Ryugu. Some more detailed images of the unexplored rock were downlinked last week.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been slowly lowering its orbit around asteroid Ceres to get new unprecedented views of the dwarf planet.

The large dust storm on the surface of Mars continues, with no contact from the rover Opportunity. Rover Curiosity continues to operate in Gale Crater, sending back this recent dusty “selfie.”

Data from Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft, which orbits Venus, has returned some interesting results about the variability of the planet’s day-night cycle.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Peggy Whitson, the American astronaut with the most day’s in space, has retired from NASA.

Orbital ATK is no officially a division of Northrop Grumman.

An interesting Pew Research Center poll was getting some media coverage last week, after it showed that the American public’s priorities for NASA do not line up with its official priorities (at least when you measure “priorities” by funding levels).

Check out the trailer for the upcoming film First Man.

The new NASA Johnson Space Center director, Mark Geyer, now has a twitter account.

The soccer ball used to kickoff the 2018 FIFA World Cup was previously flown to the ISS.

In Orbit

There were four orbital rocket launches since my last post on June 5th:

  • June 5 – China launched a Long March 3A rocket carrying a weather satellite.
  • June 6 – Russia launched a Soyuz rocket carrying three new crew members to the ISS.
  • June 12 – Japan launched an HII-A rocket carrying a reconnaissance satellite.
  • June 16 – Russian launched a Soyuz rocket carrying a GLONASS navigation satellite.

In upcoming launches, Rocket Lab will launch its first commercial flight from New Zealand on June 23rd.

The Soyuz crew arrived at the ISS a couple of days after launch, bringing the onboard crew to six withSergey Prokopyev, Serena Auñón-Chancellor, and Alex Gerst now onboard.

Astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold completed a nearly 7-hour spacewalk at the ISS last Thursday, in order to complete maintenance activities and install new cameras.

Around the Solar System

A major dust storm on Mars has caused NASA to lose contact with the solar-powered Mars rover Opportunity. The rover is in low power mode waiting out the storm. Mission controllers are waiting for sufficient battery charge to allow the rover to restore communications.

Fortunately, the nuclear powered rover Curiosity can keep on roaming through the dust storm. It captured this image of the hazy sky from Gale Crater.

Scientists with the Curiosity mission published two new papers detailing discoveries related to season methane concentrations in the atmosphere and ancient organic molecules in rock samples.

An extension to NASA’s Juno mission, currently in orbit of Jupiter, has been approved.

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft is now close enough to asteroid Ryugu that it has been able to image the small rock.

Out There

Astronomers have made observation of a “tidal event” in which a star is seen falling into a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Dr. Stephen Hawking died on March 14th, at age 76. The New York Times published a thorough review of his life and accomplishments.

NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot is retiring.

The startup rocket company Rocket Lab plans to launch their first commercial flight this spring. The rocket will be named It’s Business Time which follows in the naming tradition of their first two test rockets: It’s a Test and Still Testing.

Speaking of small rocket startups, Firefly Aerospace used the popular South by Southwest conference to publicly demonstrate an engine test (video below). The engine would power the upper stage of their planned Firefly Alpha rocket.

If you like rocket engine tests, then watch this new video of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, posted by Jeff Bezos last week.

The US federal government passed a new funding bill for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2018 last week. The large omnibus bill includes $20.7 for NASA. If you’d like a comparison of NASA’s budget over the years, check out this Wikipdia page.

In Orbit

Over the past two weeks there have been only two orbital rocket launches. The first was a Chinese Long March 2D rocket carrying an Earth-observing satellite. The second was a Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying 3 crew members on their way to the International Space Station.

Oleg Artemyev, Drew Feustel, and Ricky Arnold docked to the ISS successfully this past Friday, two days after launch. They join Anton Shkaplerov, Norishige Kanai, and Scott Tingle for the ongoing Expedition 55 mission.

Swarm Technologies launched four very small satellites in January without license from the FCC. In fact, the FCC had specifically asked them not to launch because they were too small to track. Now Swarm may not be able to receive future licenses.

Around the Solar System

Mission managers on the New Horizons project have chosen the name Ultima Thule for the small Kuiper Belt object which will be visited by the probe next year. The name would not become official until the International Astronomical Union (IAU) can weigh in.

Recent observations from the Dawn spacecraft reveal that the surface of the asteroid Ceres is dynamic, with changing amounts of visible ice and other materials.

The Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, will likely run out of fuel this year.

Out There

A couple of interesting new exoplanet systems were announced recently:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Some recent crew assignment changes for the ISS have been receiving a lot of press, including the replacement of Jeanette Epps with Serena Aunon-Chancellor for a launch this summer. NASA has not provided specific details on the reason for the change.

As of Saturday morning, the US federal government has no official funding and must shutdown many services. This shutdown affects NASA and its field centers. The specific impacts to NASA operations will become more clear if the shutdown extends into the work week on Monday morning. In the meantime, NASA will press forward with the ISS spacewalk on Tuesday.

There was a lot of talk last week about an update on the schedule for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has slipped according to a report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). There was also a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the same topic.. The reports outline a few issues that the commercial providers – SpaceX and Boeing – both need to work through before their rockets and capsules can be certified to flight NASA astronauts to the ISS. Both companies answered questions at a congressional hearing following the report on Wednesday.

SpaceX still has not conducted a static fire of the Falcon Heavy rocket on Pad 39A. They are expected to try again this coming week with a potential launch before the end of the month.

In Orbit

The following rocket launches occurred last week:

Out There

A detailed study of Fast Radio Burst (FRB) 121102, one of the few repeating signals, has yielded a new hypothesis that these highly energetic events are caused by massive black holes.

NASA has demonstrated the concept of deep space navigation using neutron stars with the NICER payload onboard the ISS.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic conducted their first glide flight of SpaceShipTwo since last August.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has been attempting to conduct a static fire test ahead of launch, but has scrubbed three days in a row. It has been rescheduled for Monday.

In Orbit

Launches this past week included:

In the case of the SpaceX launch, there have been many reports from reliable journalists over the past week that the classified Zuma payload perhaps did not reach orbit. However, no official statement has yet been forthcoming.

Upcoming launches of interest include a ULA Atlas V from Florida on Jan 19, the next Rocket Lab Electron launch attempt on Jan 20, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy test flight (possibly on Jan 25?).

On the ISS, the 13th SpaceX Dragon mission ended successfully with release and splashdown. SpaceX ships are currently retrieving the capsule to return its science samples.

2017 in Review

The year of 2017 will be remembered by most of my readers for reasons totally unrelated to spaceflight. It was a tumultuous year with political turmoil, social strife, acts of violence, and devastating natural disasters. Unfortunately, it is these negative stories that tend to embed themselves in our memories as we witness the arc of history unfold. Even when we zoom out to a wide angle view of decades or centuries, it is violence and conflict we remember. What were the biggest events of the 20th century? Wars, economic collapse, threats of annihilation, and social strife. I don’t have to remind you though, as a space fan, that most of the world shares at least one bright memory of the difficult last century: Apollo 11.

In a similar way, I’m hoping that through all the difficult times we face as a society in the 21st century, that spaceflight can be one of those bright spots that is a source of optimism and hope (although, surely not the only source). As Bill Nye is fond of saying “space brings out the best in us.” Spaceflight is an outlet for positive creative energy. Spaceflight applies technology in new ways, often leading to new inventions and sometimes entire industries. Spaceflight allows us to conduct important research that applies directly to the interests and concerns of everyone on Earth – from medical studies onboard the ISS to weather and climate satellites to space telescopes looking out for Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

Spaceflight is a bipartisan endeavor universally loved by young and old alike because it taps into something innate in us. Whether it’s the love of exploration and discovery or just the appeal of astronauts as wholesome hometown heroes, space has always been an easy sell to the public. Very few other uses of time and money are as generally noncontroversial (although we like to argue over specifics). There was a chance for space to get swallowed up in the political turmoil in Washington, DC this past year. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, the space industry had another great year with very few setbacks.

Some readers may take issue with that statement and want to argue that it was not a great year for space. After all, NASA still has no confirmed administrator, XCOR went out of business, several programs slipped their launch dates (JWST, SLS, Orion), and Cassini ended its mission at Saturn (leaving us with a dearth of outer solar system probes). But if we look at those space programs or missions that are active and flying, we see lots of success in 2017 with few failures. The loss of Cassini should probably be spun as a positive story anyway – the planned retirement of a historic program of exploration – 13 years in Saturn orbit.

Other than the few things I listed above, the only other major setbacks of 2017 would be the five complete launch failures shown below (there were one or two other partial failures). Both Japan and New Zealand (Rocket Lab) lost rockets on their maiden launch. India, China, and Russia all lost one rocket each. The two remaining major space powers – ESA and USA – did not have any launch failures.

Country Vehicle Payload Maiden launch?
Japan SS-520 nanosat Yes
New Zealand Electron none Yes
China Long March 5 Comm sat No
India PSLV Nav sat No
Russia Soyuz Various No

2017 actually had the lowest launch success rate since 2011 and yet overall it felt like a very successful year (launch success was about 93% instead of the usual 95%). A few things contribute to this being a good year for rockets. First of course, is that 2 of the failures were test launches. If you remove them from the accounting, we are back at 95%. The second big reason is that none of the other failures led to an interruption in logistical support for the ISS. From 2014 to 2016, ISS operations lost four uncrewed logistical support rockets. After a string that bad, the last 13 months of successful flights (ten missions in all) feels positively blissful.

The third, and maybe most important reason this was a great year for rockets, was that SpaceX had no failures this year. In 2015 they lost an ISS resupply mission on ascent. In 2016 their year was cut short at 8 missions when a rocket blew up on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. The backlog of customers was looming for a long 6 months while SpaceX worked on recovering from that latest failure. Then, last January they returned to flight with a launch for Iridium and haven’t let up since. Their accomplishments include: no launch failures, a record 18 launches, a record 15 first stage recoveries, and first reuse of a first stage. The other American providers, ULA and Orbital ATK, also had good years with 8 and 3 successful launches each with no failures.

As long as we get to space with chemically propelled rockets, everything hinges on how well our rockets are flying. We can’t really do a retrospective on the year without looking at these numbers. This has always been true, but what is particularly poignant from 2017 are those 18 launches from SpaceX. That’s fully 20% of all launches. Not only that, but they flew a lot of important missions. In 2017 alone they launched four times to the ISS and at least twice for the US military. In 2018 they plan to launch several times for NASA, including to the ISS as well as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). At this point, it’s pretty clear that when SpaceX has a good year, the space industry has a good year.

In addition to the 10 successful cargo launches to the ISS this year, there were also 4 flawless crew launches to keep the record of 17 straight years of crewed operations going. NASA stepped up to 4 full-time USOS crew (which includes Japanese, Canadian, and European flyers), enabling even more research. NASA is now in full utilization mode of the ISS. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted each year – from physical science to medicine to biology to botany to astronomy – and each SpaceX Dragon brings up more externally mounted autonomous payloads such as last year’s aerosol monitoring payload (SAGE III) and a neutron star telescope (NICER), among others. The ISS has become an important platform for efficiently deploying small satellites, with dozens launched from the Japanese robotic arm last year.

The ISS looks well positioned for the future, with a healthy manifest of crew and payloads coming up as well as the exciting prospect of even larger crews, once Boeing and SpaceX successfully demonstrate flight of their new crew transportation systems. In the meantime, important maintenance has been ongoing to ensure that ISS can operate well into the 2020s. Early in the year a Japanese cargo vehicle, an HTV, brought up a new set of lithium ion batteries, the first in a series of battery replacements over the next few years that will keep the solar power flowing. The batteries were replaced in a series of 3 spacewalks last January. Ultimately, ISS astronauts would complete 10 successful spacewalks last year with no major issues.

The year in ISS was underscored by Peggy Whitson’s amazing flight. At 57 years old, Whitson now holds the record for most days in space of any American astronaut in history (665) as well as an impressive 60 hours of EVA time that puts her number 3 all time behind Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria. Peggy’s 289 day mission was almost entirely unprecedented. Not only was Whitson praised as a “space ninja” by her crew mates for her work onboard the ISS, but even made a wide impression outside of NASA and received a Woman of the Year award from Glamour Magazine. The crews aboard the ISS continue to bring the wonder of spaceflight home to us through their social media engagement and excellent educational outreach events. If you aren’t checking this link for the latest pictures from space every morning, you are missing out on a little bit of daily wonder.

The ISS is of course not the only game in town. NASA has very active planetary science and astronomy programs, not to mention similar missions from ESA, JAXA, and other agencies. 2017 saw no new launches of solar system probes (that’s right, zero) but many active missions made progress and the only “failure” being the end of Cassini. Mars is incredibly active with 8 missions. Two NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are providing a wealth of insights into the wet history of Mars. The most exciting discoveries from those robots are likely yet to come. Two asteroid sample return missions, OSIRIS-Rex from NASA and Hayabusa 2 from JAXA, remain in interplanetary cruise phase. New Horizons is on its way to visit a Kuiper Belt Object next year, Juno remains in orbit at Jupiter, and Dawn continues to explore the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Some of these missions we heard big news from this year, such as Cassini’s analysis of the ocean plumes from icy Enceladus. We also gained a new understanding of the winds and storms of Jupiter from Juno. Not to mention the absolutely stunning images we have been treated to from JunoCam.

But overall, space exploration, especially planetary exploration, is a long game. Spacecraft take years to reach their targets and then spend sometimes months or years (at least for orbiters and rovers) slowly collecting the data they need to learn something new from our mysterious solar system neighbors. So there were no splashy launches or touchdowns in 2017. Instead, the hard work from years past continued to pay off with well built spacecraft going about their daily business. 2017 was a great year in this respect. Years like this lay the foundation for big discoveries to come; it’s just that we have to wait a bit for the papers to be published. The only real downer this year is probably that Curiosity’s drill is still out of commission.

There is of course, a lot more to cover. Spaceflight is a big industry that goes far beyond just the ISS or big planetary exploration missions. New Space, for instance, had a lot of interesting updates this year. In addition to Rocket Lab making their first launch attempt, Blue Origin demonstrated further progress on their New Shepard vehicle as well as their BE-4 engine, Virgin Orbit moved a few steps closer to their first test launch with several engine tests, and Sierra Nevada conducted their first free glide flight in several years.

Then there’s astronomy. So much is happening in astronomy these days that it deserves a lengthy retrospective all its own. Here are some highlights of last year in a quick paragraph. Many interesting exoplanets were discovered, such as the fascinating Trappist-1 system with three potentially habitable planets. But Ross 128b is my favorite potentially habitable planet, because it is less than 11 light years from Earth. Let’s go! Other exciting developments in astronomy included more neutron star collisions discovered via gravitational waves and also the fascinating cigar shaped something known as ‘Omuamua which flew through our solar system from somewhere this past October (more to come on this we hope).

As we look to the future, we can see that there is a lot to learn. The ISS has years of science to conduct – managers are furiously looking for more ways to maximize timelines and target the most likely breakthroughs. Meanwhile there are dozens of worlds here at home in our solar system yet to explore, not just with probes already launched but many to come (launches to Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in 2018). And most intriguing of all, there are thousands upon thousands of worlds to explore out there, beyond our own star.

The more we look, the more we find. And the more we find, the more questions we think to ask. This is the optimistic and worldview expanding impact of science. We are losing the explorers of the last century – Apollo legends Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, and John Young all passed away in their 80s in the past year. But it’s hard not to see the vast opportunity available to the current generation of explorers in this century. Perhaps some day we will look back at this time period as a changing of the guard. It is hard to say without the benefit of hindsight. If nothing else, for those of us that are inspired by scientific discovery and exploration, 2017 showed us that spaceflight can be – and probably always will be – a candle in the dark.

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Blue Origin conducted their first New Shepard test flight in over a year. Video below.

Rocket Lab has postponed their Electron test launch to next year.

The President of the United States signed a new space policy initiative.

The USPS will be releasing a stamp featuring an image of astronaut Sally Ride.

In Orbit

Three orbital rocket launches this week:

  • Dec 12 – An ESA Ariane 5 rocket carrying four Galileo navigation satellites
  • Dec 15 – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon freighter to the ISS (the first launch from pad 40 since the accident last year)
  • Dec 17 – A Soyuz rocket carrying the next crew of three to the ISS: Anton Shkaplerov, Scott tingle, and Norishige Kanai

ISS operations have been very busy! The Dragon cargo arrived this morning with no issues. But before this weekend’s launches, three astronauts left ISS and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere safely. Expedition 53 has come to a close with Randy Bresnik, Paolo Nespoli, and Sergey Ryazansky coming home.

Out There

NASA announced that the Kepler Space Telescope had discovered an 8th planet in the Kepler-90 system, making it tied with our own solar system for most known planets.

Astronomers with Breakthrough Listen are pointing their radio telescope at the interstellar rock ‘Oumuamua in the off-chance it is emitting alien signals.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The United Arab Emirates has begun looking for astronaut candidates for their space program.

In Orbit

It’s been a quiet week: no orbital launches since my last post, although several were planned. Here’s the packed schedule coming up*:

  • Dec 10 – Chinese launch of a communications satellite for Algeria (this occurred successfully this morning)
  • Dec 11 – Rocket Lab test launch in New Zealand
  • Dec 12 – SpaceX launch to ISS
  • Dec 12 – ESA nav sat launch from French Guiana
  • Dec 17 – Three astronauts launch to ISS from Kazakhstan

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft departed the ISS last week.

Cygnus will remain in orbit until December 18th, giving it enough time to deploy a payload of cubesats.

Speaking of cubesats, a JPL-built cubesat was deployed from the ISS to prove that valuable astronomy can be done in a small orbital package.

The astronauts on the ISS have been taking some incredible pictures of the fires in Southern California:

Around the Solar System

Spring is coming to the northern hemisphere on Mars and Opportunity has survived another winter – nearly 14 years after landing.

The New Horizons spacecraft completed a course correction burn as it continues on its way to Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69.

Out There

Astronomers have confirmed an exoplanet system containing K2-18b and K2-18c, both large potentailly habitable rocky worlds orbiting a red dwarf star. Phil Plait has an interesting observation about what this news means for our perspective about our own solar system.

*Best references for upcoming launches are LaunchLibrary.net or 2017 in Spaceflight on Wikipedia