Archive for the ‘Rockets’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

United Launch Alliance has narrowed down the anomaly in their last Atlas V flight – which resulted in an early shutdown of the main stage – to a particular valve.

Check out this 360-degree view of the SpaceX ASDS landing (best viewed on mobile for easy panning).

The next Falcon 9 launch and attempted ASDS landing on May 5th at about 1:22 AM. They are launching a Japanese commercial satellite.

The James Webb Space Telescope had the protective covers removed from its primary mirror last week. Here’s a link to the webcam at Goddard where the multi-billion dollar observatory is being assembled: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/webcam.html

The next spaceflight analog crew to spend 30 days inside a mockup spacecraft at NASA’s Johnson Space Center will start their mission tomorrow. You can follow along on Twitter:

In Orbit

The first launch of Russia’s new Vostochny spaceport took place on April 28th. Here are some great pictures via Spaceflight Now. The rocket was carrying two “technology” satellites and one gamma-ray observatory.

In other launch news, India launched a big rocket carrying one navigation satellite, to complete their domestic navigation constellation. And thirdly, ESA was finally able to launch their Sentinel-1B Earth-observing satellite, which was delayed last weekend.

Up on ISS, the Soyuz TMA-19M crew has learned that they will get about an extra two weeks in orbit, as Expedition 47 has been extended to June 18th.

In sad news, JAXA has given up their attempts to recover the stricken Hitomi x-ray observatory which has been out of contact for some weeks. They now suspect that the spacecraft spun out of control due to an attitude control malfunction and lost its solar arrays.

Tim Peake got to do a unique experiment from the ISS last week when he controlled an ESA rover on the ground via remote control.

Around the Solar System

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has discovered a small moon orbiting the distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as Makemake.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The US Senate has started putting together their version of the 2017 budget, including appropriations for NASA.

The satellite internet startup OneWeb has announced they will build a factory in Florida.

China’s unmanned research capsule, SJ-10, successfully ended last week when it landed in Mongolia under parachute.

SpaceX has moved their latest recovered Falcon 9 booster back to their hangar in Florida. Follow the link for some pictures and video.

In Orbit

The European Space Agency has been trying to launch an Earth-observing satellite, Sentinel-1B, since Friday. They have been delayed twice by weather but they hope for a successful launch later today at just after 5 PM Eastern.

ISS astronaut Tim Peake virtually ran the London marathon this morning.

Around the Solar System

The New Horizons team has officially submitted their Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM) to have the probe flyby the distant object MU69.

Beautiful pictures from Dawn’s low-altitude “mapping orbit” at Ceres give is a good idea of what’s really going on in those “bright spots” on the asteroid.

And here’s an amazing shadowless view of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Weekly Links

Obviously the huge news this week is the successful launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the return to flight of the Dragon capsule and a successful landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). See the “In Orbit” section for more details!

Down to Earth

Blue Origin achieved an impressive feat last week, flying the same suborbital New Shepard rocket for the third time since November.

Following a rocket anomaly in the launch of a Cygnus resupply craft last month the ULA Atlas V rocket is grounded.

Accomplished NASA astronaut, and current NASA science chief, John Grunsfeld, will be retiring.

Roscosmos is selling the perennially financially troubled venture Sea Launch.

In Orbit

There have been 4 orbital launches since my last blog update on March 27. Here they are in chronological order: China launched a single Beidou navigation satellite on March 29, Russia launched a Progress resupply craft from Baikonaur on March 31, China launched a microgravity science payload on April 6, and of course SpaceX launched a Dragon resupply capsule on April 8.

The flawless Falcon 9 ascent and capsule deploy was overshadowed by SpaceX achieving the impressive feat of recovering the rocket’s first stage on the ASDS, out in the Atlantic Ocean. This video says it all.

This delivery of cargo aboard Dragon will wrap up a very busy time period aboard ISS. Starting with the Soyuz undocking at the beginning of March, which brought Scott Kelly home and started Expedition 47, there have been 6 different visiting vehicle events, with Dragon being the third cargo resupply in 2 weeks.

One of the payloads aboard Dragon that everyone is excited about is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. Here is a simple infographic about BEAM (via Parabolic Arc).

Around the Solar System

Meanwhile, on Mars, NASA’s rovers are quietly doing science. Check out this panorama from Curiosity. On the other side of the planet, Opportunity has been exploring Marathon Valley and braving slopes above 30 degrees tilt in the name of science.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA’s Dawn mission was awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy.

Former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi is the new director of Glenn Research Center in Ohio.

WIRED sent a guy to spend a day at JSC learning what it’s like to be an astronaut. The short video is fun and probably fairly informative for non-space geeks.

In Orbit

Lots of launch activity in the past two weeks. Of the five total launches, I’ll get the two less interesting ones out of the way first: on March 13, a Russian Earth observation mission launched from Baikonaur and then on March 24, a Russian military mission launched from Plesetsk. Both were on Soyuz rockets.

The other three launches are much more interesting. First, on March 14 the much anticipated ExoMars mission launched on a Proton rocket from Baikonaur. The Mars exploration mission is currently safely in solar orbit on its way to an October rendezvous.

On March 18, another Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonaur, but this time carrying 3 people. Aleksey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka, and Jeff Williams had an uneventful launch, rendezvous, and docking with the ISS. Or at least, as uneventful as those sorts of things go!

Lastly, an Atlas V rocket launched from Florida on March 23 carrying a Cygnus cargo freighter. Cygnus, named the S.S. Rick Husband by Orbital ATK, arrived (also uneventfully) at ISS on Saturday morning.

Unfortunately, it sounds like Japan’s Astro-H X-ray observatory may have been lost only weeks after it launched in February.

Around the Solar System

Check out this picture of the tallest mountains on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Here’s some awesome new close-up imagery of the “bright spots” on Ceres.

Newly released analysis of New Horizons data indicates that Pluto may have had periods of high atmospheric pressure in the past, which allowed liquid nitrogen to flow in rivers on its surface.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The joint Russian-European Mars mission, ExoMars, has been prepped for launch and is on the pad in Kazakhstan. Launch is Monday, March 14.

Speaking of Mars, NASA’s delayed InSight lander has been granted a mission extension for a new launch date in 2018.

Blue Origin invited several journalists to tour their headquarters near Seattle, Washington last week. Some new details about their future spaceflight plans were revealed.

In Orbit

Two successful orbital launches this past week: a communications satellite launched by ESA from Korou and a navigation satellite launched by ISRO from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.

Next week, on March 18, three ISS astronauts will launch aboard Soyuz TMA-20M from Kazakhstan to join Expedition 47. Here’s the NASA TV schedule for the launch. NASA astronaut Jeff Williams has been active on Twitter during flight preparations, posting short “video blogs” like this one:

Meanwhile, Scott Kelly has been video blogging his return to Earth:

Be sure to always follow all of NASA’s astronauts on Twitter – but especially those in space – because they are always sharing something exciting!

Around the Solar System

A solar eclipse thrilled people in Oceania last week. For those of us who don’t live on an island in the Pacific, we can still enjoy these views from NASA’s DSCOVR satellite.

NASA’s New Horizons probe has discovered “methane snow” on Pluto’s mountain peaks.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former Space Shuttle astronaut and commander Don Williams passed away on February 23rd at 74. Read about his impressive career at CollectSpace.

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Deke Slayton departed the ISS on February 20 after a successful two-month mission.

NASA received a record number of applicants to the astronaut class of 2017.

Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut, has been named the chief pilot at World View, which aims to launch tourists to the edge of space in a balloon.

Virgin Galactic unveiled their latest spaceship, the second version of their SpaceShipTwo. They hope to start their flight test campaign soon, but no new target date for commercial flights was announced.

China has announced that they plan to launch their next space station later this year.

In Orbit

Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned safely from his 340 day mission aboard ISS. Before he left, he had a little fun with a costume his brother sent up to him:

You can see all the pictures that Scott took while onboard the ISS here (and there a lot!).

SpaceX finally had another successful launch, after several scrubs over the past week or two. On Friday, March 4th, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-9 payload launched from Florida. It was their first launch since January and second of the year. The first stage attempted a landing on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) but had a hard landing.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Two space shuttle astronauts, Brian Duffy and Scott Parazynski, were recently inducted into the astronaut hall of fame.

Apollo astronaut and moonwalker, Edgar Mitchell, died at the age of 85.

Former President George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) visited Johnson Space Center and talked to the ISS astronauts from the Mission Control Center.

All of the segments of the primary mirror to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have been assembled!

The Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected “gravitational waves”, which is what it was designed to do. This is a basically a new way to see the universe – like the first time an X-Ray observatory was put into space and returned data. Not only that, it validates parts of Einstein’s theories. Here are some brief articles from Phil Plait and Sean Carroll, who explain it well.

Check out this amazing zero-gravity music video by Ok Go, which doesn’t use any digital effects. Wow!

Curators at the Smithsonian recently did a 3D scan of the inside of the Apollo 11 Command ModuleColumbia, and found previously unknown handwritten notes on the walls.

Astronaut Kevin Ford has retired from NASA.

The new SpaceX “transporter erector” at pad 39A in Florida is pretty cool looking.

In Orbit

A number of rocket launches since my last post in late January: a Chinese rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (Beidou), a ULA Atlas V launched a GPS satellite, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (GLONASS), a ULA Delta IV launched a secret USA reconnaissance office payload, and lastly North Korea launched something.

This brings the worldwide launch cadence for the year up to 10 so far, or almost 2 per week. We are still waiting for the first SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the year, which should be before March.

Veteran cosmonauts Sergey Volkov and Yuri Malenchenko conducted a successful spacewalk on the Russian Segment of the ISS.

Around the Solar System

The European Space Agency has announced that they are no longer attempting to send commands to the lost Philae lander, which has not transmitted from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in months.

China has released some new photos of the moon from it’s Yutu rover mission (the rover died some time ago).

Weekly Links

It’s been a busy two weeks since my last news post. Among other things, my wife started her “space mission” (not a real space mission) and I won’t see her again for another 26 days. See my last post before this one for some details on what she is doing. I also travelled to Huntsville, Alabama for a work meeting at Marshall Spaceflight Center this week. Now that I am back home and it is just me and the dog, it’s time to figure out what’s been going on out there in the world of spaceflight during the second half of January.

Down to Earth

Probably the biggest news was the successful reflight of the New Shepard rocket by Blue Origin. The same booster that flew suborbital and returned safely back in November was flown again on a similar mission profile on January 22nd. Here’s their shiny video:

SpaceX had some videos too, but not as shiny as exciting. First was this hover test of the new Dragon capsule:

Second was a parachute test:

In Orbit

There were 3 launches since the SpaceX Faclon 9 launch back on January 17th. First was an Indian PSLV rocket, launched on the 20th with one of their own navigation satellites. Second, a European Ariane 5 rocket launched on the 27nd with an Intelsat communications satellite. Lastly, a Proton rocket launched from Kazakhstan earlier today with an Eutelsat communications satellite.

Meanwhile in the category of fluff pieces, someone at Gizmodo has dubbed the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft the “cutest” cargo hauler to the space station.

Aboard the ISS, the Tims are really getting into the swing of things with their Earth photography. Along with Scott Kelly, the stream of pictures on Twitter from the three of them has been quite good, including some good shots of the snow covered East Coast last weekend. Here are some of my favorites.

Oh and this was a cool thing from Scott Kelly also:

Around the Solar System

Check out this incredible picture of a Martian sand dune from the Curiosity rover:

Namib dune, Mars

Out There

Unfortunately, there may not actually be a planet orbiting in the Alpha Centauri system… or at least, the previous research that hinted at one may be wrong (but who knows, there may be one there anyway).

Fortunately, there is good news to counteract the bad: new mathematical models indicate there may be a new large planet orbiting far beyond Pluto. Astronomers are busy turning on various search campaigns to see if they can find the theoretical world.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

This week NASA finally announced the winners of the next Commercial Resupply Services contract, or CRS-2. This is the contract currently held by SpaceX and Orbital ATK to delivery cargo to the ISS. The contract was rebid for flights starting in the 2019 timeframe. NASA made the exciting decision to give the contract to all three remaining companies: SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada.

This was a good week for SpaceX, beyond just the cargo award. To get people excited, they released this video recap of their successful launch and landing last month:

Then they performed a “static fire” test of the recovered booster. The results were reportedly good with some anomalies.

And thirdly, SpaceX launched the Jason-3 satellite for NOAA on Sunday from their California launch site. The satellite reached orbit successfully, but the first stage recovery attempt – which was on a barge instead of a landing pad in this case – was close but unsuccessful. Here’s some information from NASA about the Jason-3 mission if you are interested. If you want even more, AmericaSpace has an interview with the Project Scientist.

And here’s some awesome video of the touchdown (I’ll add it as an embedded Vine below whenever it is posted there).

In Orbit

China also had a successful orbital launch today with a telecommunications satellite for Belarus. The SpaceX and Chinese launches are the first two flights of the new year.

Meanwhile, on the space station, the “Tims,” astronauts Tim Kopra and Tim Peake, went out for a spacewalk on Friday to repair one of the ISS power channels that malfunctions last November (while I was on shift, in fact). The EVA was successful in its main objective but had to be terminated early due to unexpected water accumulating in Tim Kopra’s helmet.

Around the Solar System

The European Space Agency attempted to contact the Philae lander, on comet 67P-C/G, but it is still nonresponsive. As the comet gets farther from the sun in its orbit and the light levels decrease, the chance of the little probe waking up are quickly diminishing.

The JUNO spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, has broken the “distance record” for a solar powered spacecraft, according to Spaceflight Insider.

2015 in Review – Part II

Honestly, at the beginning of 2015, I did not think the year could possibly be as interesting as 2014 when it came to the launch sector. I thought there was a possibility SpaceX would achieve some major milestones from its list of goals for the year – maybe recover a first stage, maybe launch a Falcon 9 Heavy, maybe double their flight rate – but probably only one or two of them. I never would have guessed that 2015 could have the same roller coaster ride of ups and downs of 2014, which had rocket launches, rocket explosions, and political tension. Surprisingly, not only did 2015 have me on the edge of my seat like 2014, it surprised me and almost everyone else with some crazy twists and turns.

Part II – Rockets

Let’s recap where we were at the end of 2014: SpaceX had just wrapped up a reasonably successful year with 6 flights and no failures, which was twice the number of flights they had in 2013. The debate over the RD-180 engine was still ongoing but had calmed down somewhat with a congressional budget provision for the US to start working on a homegrown replacement. In the meantime, ULA would be allowed to continue using RD-180s to a limited extent. The biggest event of course was the spectacular explosion of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on its way to the ISS. Really the story had all eyes on – and are we really surprised? – SpaceX. With Orbital Sciences grounded and ULA under heat for using imported Russian engines, SpaceX was here to save the day.

And SpaceX certainly got off to a roaring start in 2015. They launched the first rocket of the year, which certainly served to make a point, and from there on averaged one Falcon 9 launch per month through June. During two of those launches in January and April they thrilled everybody with their so close rocket landing attempts. I have to repost the videos again below because they are so awesome.

Meanwhile, while all that fun was going on, the US Air Force granted SpaceX certification for military payloads and SpaceX conducted a launchpad abort test with their Dragon V2 capsule. Things were looking pretty good for the (not so) New Space company. But then this happened during their CRS-7 launch to ISS, their 6th of the year:

Suddenly, things completely changed. Adding another layer to the story, a Russian Progress resupply flight to the ISS had also been lost in late May, after which some people had been saying “good thing we have a SpaceX flight coming up.” Not only was the future of SpaceX’s manifest and Falcon 9 rocket in question, there were serious questions about the logistics chain to the ISS. Three of the vital cargo rockets were grounded, with only the Japanese HTV unaffected.

Thankfully, one of the things the Russians are really good at is rebounding from launch failures, and they flew a successful Progress mission to ISS only a few days after the SpaceX explosion. Regardless, 3 of the last 8 unmanned flights to ISS had been lost, an unprecedented statistic.

Orbital ATK (the new name of Orbital Sciences after a merger early in the year) had already announced plans for their return to flight way back in January. Surprisingly, their strategy would be to purchase launch vehicles from their competitors to fly their Cygnus freighter while they worked on a redesign of the Antares first stage. The return to flight would be on a ULA Atlas 5 sometime late in the year. The good news for all involved is that that launch went off without a hitch (after some weather delays) in mid-December. The Cygnus freighter known as “SS Deke Slayton” is happily berthed to the ISS as I write this.

As for SpaceX, all plans for a Falcon Heavy launch, a rocket landing, or a new record flight rate, were taking backseat to the job of figuring out why their rocket had disintegrated on them. Second priority was getting a return to flight scheduled ASAP to pick up their deep manifest (which was already stacked pretty deep coming into 2015). It came out very quickly that the mishap was caused by the failure of a strut, or a structural beam, holding a high pressure helium tank in place. Unfortunately, just because you know the cause of a failure doesn’t mean you know how long it will take to sort out the problem and get back to regular launches. For the next few months it was unclear to the public outside SpaceX if they could even return to flight within the calendar year.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world kept launching rockets. ULA in particular had a pretty good year with 12 launches and no failures. Even though ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets are extremely successful and don’t really need replacing, they responded to pressures both from the government (which was saying stop using Russian engines) and SpaceX (who is threatening to change the launch industry entirely with reusability) and revealed plans for their new Vulcan rocket. The Vulcan is an ambitious new project which will take at least 5 years to complete. It will use a new American built liquid stage engine and aim to save money by recovering those engines after every launch. Their plan is kind of crazy, as it involves a helicopter. Here it is graphically:

Then in November ULA made space news headlines by not bidding on a GPS satellite contract from the DoD, essentially ceding the launch to SpaceX. ULA listed a couple of reasons they felt that it was not really worth their time to bid, including the Congressional mandate against them to not buy any more RD-180s from Russia. ULA was basically saying, we don’t have enough engines. John McCain in particular was not amused. McCain, who is strongly against the import of Russian rocket engines, feels that ULA has more than enough RD-180 engines already in stock without buying new ones from Russia. They simply need to allocate less engines for commercial and NASA launches and more to DoD payloads. The move was basically a bluff from ULA to get people talking, and it has yet to be seen if it will work.

Which brings us to the tail end of the year, with two of the biggest surprises still left. While everyone was busy talking about SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and ULA, Blue Origin came out of nowhere with a pretty spectacular flight demonstration of their New Shepard rocket. The secret launch occurred in their West Texas facility, reaching the edge of space before the capsule safely came back to Earth under parachute and the first stage touched down vertically under power.

On the face of it, it appears Blue Origin had swooped in and accomplished the first real first stage recovery after a functional rocket launch, right from under SpaceX’s nose. In reality, the technical challenge involved with Blue Origin’s feat is somewhat different than what SpaceX had been trying to do, as the below graphic illustrates. Blue Origin’s launch – while impressive – was suborbital. Meanwhile, SpaceX had been trying to bring back a first stage from a rocket that was actually putting payloads into orbit, which requires much higher velocity.

Regardless, Blue Origin is clearly the quiet dark horse in this story. They almost stole the limelight this year, at least that’s the way it looked before SpaceX stole it back just 9 days before the end of the year. Less than 6 months after their failure, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 on December 22nd, placing a fleet of Orbcomm satellites into orbit and, to everyone’s amazement, successfully landing the first stage back at “Landing Zone 1″ at Cape Canaveral.

This made the mishap back in June look like small potatoes. SpaceX had just achieved one of those three big goals for the year. While there is still a lot of work for them to do to checkout the rocket and determine how much refurbishment would be needed for reflight, this was a major step towards their goal of reuse. Not only that, but being back on flight status puts them in a great posture going into 2016 ready to fly out a big part of their deep manifest. They also likely now have the focus and resources to get that first Falcon Heavy in the air this year.

2016 looks good for Orbital ATK too – with a second Cygnus flight on an Atlas 5 coming up quickly in March and then the maiden flight of their upgraded Antares rocket in May. Overall, the year ended on a high note for the launch industry, with many space fans pretty optimistic. Given how things were looking back in the summer, this year could have turned out quite differently. Losing a Progress cargo craft, which is the only source of fuel resupply and propulsive support for ISS, is always a big deal at NASA and it spins up contingency planning. Fortunately, we ended the year with not just Russia but everyone having returned to flight. Not only do we have a solid reliable supply chain re-established to ISS, lots to look forward to from SpaceX, and resumed orbital flights from Virginia, we are also getting tantalizingly close to the first test flights of the Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 manned spacecraft.

I had my heart in my throat for a bit this year, but ended up jumping up and down and cheering with everyone else on December 22nd. It was exciting and all, but after the last two years I’m ready for less drama, and more launches. Ad astra.