Another spectacular Delta IV fireball — but all is well

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV (in the 5,2 configuration) placed NROL-47 into orbit, a classified payload.  And it was a beautiful launch — with an unusually large hydrogen fireball at ignition, making this a particularly spectacular one to watch.  That cloud is actually normal and does no harm to the vehicle.

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So what happened on the last Falcon 9 launch?

Sunday night, SpaceX launched the Zuma payload for an undisclosed customer of Northrup Grumman.  It was a classified payload, presumably for the National Security Administration, as most of the other likely suspects (USAF, NRO) are not generally shy about claiming a particular payload as their own.  The launch had been delayed several times, due to concerns with the payload fairing, but on Sunday, the launch appeared to go off perfectly.  The broadcast followed the vehicle on camera up to stage separation, and then as they watched the first stage return to Florida, they announced fairing separation and everything else was secret.  This is not unusual for classified payloads, and indeed, this isn’t even SpaceX’s first classified payload.  After the launch, the SpaceTrack database (maintained by US Space Command, a branch of the USAF dedicated to tracking orbital objects for the sake of collision avoidance) added an object designated USA 280 to their catalog, which at first blush would suggest it had reached orbit.

But….

Two-line elements for the object have yet to be posted, and amateur spotters do not yet report having captured the object in their telescopes.  Northrup Grumman has said precisely bupkis about it, neither confirming nor denying that it reached orbit or didn’t.  SpaceX has said the launch was “nominal” with the vehicle performing flawlessly.  However, rumors have begun to swirl that the satellite may have not only failed but possibly even deorbited.  The Wall Street Journal cited unnamed Congressional aides who claimed it had failed to separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage, and consequently had been deorbited into the ocean when the stage cleaned itself up.  But this has yet to be independently confirmed.  Other rumors suggest a power failure, or a fault in its communication system, or some sort of damage during payload fairing jettison.  As yet, however, no one is saying anything, and SpaceX is pressing ahead towards a very busy schedule in 2018, which would tend to imply the vehicle performed well.

Hmmm.  Very interesting….

In the meantime, while we wait for drips and drabs of data to come out of program offices, here’s the launch coverage from SpaceX:

Citation: Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?

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Falcon 9 at sunset is a glorious sight

While on the subject of Falcon rockets, the last Falcon 9 out of Vandenberg (launching the second set of Iridium NEXT satellites) caught a lot of attention for unusually perfect lighting conditions.  It was a night launch, but early enough that the rocket quickly climbed into sunlight, brilliantly illuminating the vehicle’s plume against the dark of night.  And the best part is — not only can you see staging, and not only can you see the point where the plume suddenly expands above the Karman Line (where the atmosphere becomes nearly insubstantial), but you can see the first stage firing its maneuvering thrusters!!!  Seriously!  Little poofs are clearly visible in these amazing home videos:

Certainly the best fireworks you could get at Disneyland:

There’s also this awesome time-lapse that makes the motion of the first stage more apparent:

It was even visible from Arizona.  Here’s the view from a very puzzled news helicopter crew in Phoenix:

Mind you, you really should be careful if you see this while driving.  It can be distracting:

Note: the first stage was actually not recovered after this mission; there was insufficient propellant left.  But they practiced the maneuvers anyway before allowing the vehicle to plunge into the Pacific Ocean.  The stage was making its second (and final) flight on this mission.  To date, SpaceX has not used a stage three times, but I expect it’s only a matter of time before they do.

Of course, I should also include the view from the launch broadcast:

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This Tesla is Going to Mars(ish . . . hopefully)

It’s a new year, and this new year will see a lot of cool stuff in space — but one of those cool things will be the long-awaited first flight of the Falcon Heavy!  It’s basically three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together, with a single upper stage, and it’s what Musk ultimately wants to use to boost his Red Dragon concept to Mars.  Red Dragon is experiencing delays of its own (the abandonment of propulsive landings for the ISS crew transfer Dragon is a bit of a blow, since that’s a prerequisite for Mars landings), but the launch vehicle is almost here.  And perhaps surprisingly for such an enormous rocket, it actually already has customers lined up.  The conventional wisdom is that there’s too little need for a rocket in this class to make it commercially viable, but it appears that the Falcon 9 reusability and parts commonality may just tip the scales enough to make it viable.  For this first flight, the core stage is brand new, but the two strap-ons are recycled, having previously boosted Thaicom 8 and the ninth commercial Dragon cargo mission to the ISS.

But what of the payload?

This is the first flight of a completely new rocket, so there is no paying customer.  Typically, a new rocket will carry some type of “mass simulator” — a slab of metal, a chunk of concrete, perhaps even a tank of water to do the job of being lifted for not a lot of extra money.  But that’s too boring for SpaceX.  So Elon Musk has contributed his cherry-red 2008 Tesla Roadster as the payload.  And it’s been installed on the rocket, which gives me no end of delight due to the sheer, beautiful ridiculousness of these images, showing the Roadster mounted on a payload adapter, about to be encapsulated in a payload fairing that is ridiculously large for such a tiny payload.

If you have the opportunity to be in Florida for this, I highly recommend it.  (I doubt I’ll be able to, alas.)  If all goes well, not only will this be the biggest thing lifting from LC-39A since the end of the Shuttle program, but it will also feature the spectacular return of three core stages.  Two will return to land at Cape Canaveral, while the central core stage will continue on for a water landing aboard the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” (equipped with its autonomous welding bot, Roomba, which secures the returned stage before the barge heads back to port).  The upper stage, meanwhile, is expected to boost the Tesla roadster into a Mars-crossing Hohmann Transfer Orbit, which it may persist for billions of years.  It won’t actually reach Mars; it won’t be launching at the right time for that.  (Unless it gets delayed sufficiently; the Mars window will be opening in March, just in time for Mars InSight to launch aboard its Atlas V.)

It’s ridiculous, but oh so cool all the same.  😉  If successful, it will be the first car (well, with seats anyway) to go beyond the Moon.

Meanwhile, since then, the vehicle has been rolled to the pad for a fit check.  All went well, and it was returned to the hangar.

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Launch/Landing Recap — plus SpaceX and Electron status

I’m still way too busy to post every day, so in penance, here’s the last month worth of things going up and things coming back down! The vast majority of these are Chinese — they’ve been extremely busy lately!

On November 14, a Long March 4C blasted off out of Taiyuan, China with the Fengyun 3D weather satellite on board.

Then on November 18, the penultimate Delta II launched.  I already posted a link to a full-length video, so now here’s ULA’s traditional launch highlights video:

On November 20, a Long March 6 blasted off from Taiyuan, China with the Jilin 1 set of Earth observation microsatellites.  These are commercial satellites offering real-time video of the Earth, so I chose this launch video because although it doesn’t show very much of the launch, it does include some of the first images returned by the three spacecraft:

Four days later, China launched another rocket, a Long March 2C out of Xichang, with the Yaogan 30-02 photo reconnaissance cluster of three spacecraft:

On November 28, the Vostochny Cosmodrome finally hosted its second flight, a Soyuz 2-1b carrying the Meteor M2-1 weather satellite and a collection of smaller payloads.  Unfortunately, in another bit of bad news for the cosmodrome (and through circumstances beyond their control), the launch was a failure.  The Fregat upper stage was programmed incorrectly, leading to a failure to insert into orbit.  The spacecraft are believed to be somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

On December 2, however, the Soyuz 2-1b had a chance to redeem itself, succesfully placing the Lotos-S1 spacecraft, believed to be an electronic intelligent satellite, into orbit from Plesetsk Cosmodrome.  This was the first launch of this Soyuz variant from Plesetsk:

And then later the same day, a Long March 2D placed the Yaogan Weixing/LKW-1 Earth observation satellite into orbit from Jiuquan, China:

On December 10, China followed that up with a Long March 3B out of Xichang, placing Alcomsat 1 into orbit.  Alcomsat is a commercial geosynchronous commsat for the nation of Algeria:

And on December 12, an Ariane 5 carried the next four Galileo satellites, (spacecraft 19-22) into orbit from Kourou, French Guiana:

And the last launch on this list isn’t an orbital one: it’s another suborbital (and, technically, just barely sub-space) flight of the fully reusable New Shepherd rocket with the new version of their capsule, with super large windows:

They also, for the fist time, had a simulated passenger on board: a crash test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker.  Here’s his view:

Lastly, one more thing coming back down: the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft, following a successful six-month stay at the International Space Station, carrying Sergey Ryanzanskiy, Randy Bresnik, and Paolo Nespoli:

There were two other launches scheduled this week.  The first, Rocket Lab’s second attempt to test fly their Electron small rocket out of New Zealand, was aborted seconds after main engine start a few days ago.  Last I heard, they were trying for a launch today, but I have not yet heard if they flew.  (Which I think means they have not attempted another launch yet.)

The second is SpaceX’s latest CRS flight to the International Space Station, and the first where NASA has permitted the use of a reused first stage on the rocket.  Also, the return to flight for SLC-40 after the catastrophic loss of a Falcon 9 and Dragon there about a year ago.  They had a successful test fire, but technical concerns have delayed the launch.  It’s currently set for late Friday morning.  If they miss that launch time, however, they may have to stand down for a while.  The next crewed Soyuz is scheduled to launch on Sunday, and after that the thermal environment will be unfavorable for docking due to the sun angle.  Next attempt would likely be no earlier than Christmas Day.

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NOTGLaDOS: Electromagnetic Spectrum The Musical

This gave me enormous joy on a rather tense day.

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Just sixteen days until DOCTOR WHO!!!!

The Christmas Special “Twice Upon a Time”, Peter Capaldi’s swansong as the Doctor, is just over two weeks away now.  And the BBC has released another trailer, this one showing rather a bit more detail:

Whatever the alien menace is this time, it’s obviously got some teeth to it — what could it be?  What could be freezing time?  And what, exactly, does “freezing time” even mean in this context?

Now, we know there will be a British officer from World War I, and of course the First Doctor is appearing during the events of “The Tenth Planet”, which is set in 1986.  (Alas, that was the future at the time it first aired, back in 1966.  Today, many of those watching won’t even have been born in 1986!)  So something is causing time to merge, or slip, or otherwise get jumbled . . . what could that be?

Well, it’s apparently not the Cybermen, even though 12 just escaped them, and arguably so has 1 . . . the creatures debuted in “The Tenth Planet”.  (By the way, it’s rather clever to include 1.  Due to William Hartnell’s declining health, his part had been kept to an absolute minimum, so during that adventure, he’s often not to be seen.  Perhaps this story will explain where he went!)  Instead, the BBC has hinted something about “enchanted glass people”, who steal their victims out of frozen time.  So perhaps they use time freezing merely as a means of capture, and are not expecting to find a couple of Time Lords (or one Time Lord twice over, anyway), who are capable of maneuvering out of such a situation.

So who are the enchanted glass people?

A transparent version of the Weeping Angels?

Something like the Auditors in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, beings not properly part of this universe but annoyed by its unpredictability and striving to make it more orderly?

Kidnappers, a la the Carnival in Space, capturing specimens for their amusement?

Or something more nefarious, something seeking to remove specific individuals surgically, so as to alter the timeline?

The Vardans?  (Nah, they are the only race in history ever to be defeated by the intellectual might of the Sontarans, after all.  But they do look a bit glassy, and they have tried to mess with time before.)

And what if the glass people are working for someone else?

Hmmm…….

Christmas can’t come soon enough!

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