SpaceX completed another successful launch today — and the first droneship recovery of a reused booster — placing BulgariaSat1 into geosynchronous transfer orbit. It was the hottest and hardest return yet, and not quite squarely on the droneship (“Of Course I Still Love You”), but it was successful.
SpaceX isn’t quite done yet — they’re planning another launch on Sunday with the second set of ten Iridium Next satellites from Vandenberg AFB. It’s a busy launch weekend; I’ll have more rocket launch videos tomorrow. 😉
In the rocket’s first anomaly since 2009, a Long March 3B failed to deliver a commercial Chinese television commsat to the correct geosynchronous transfer orbit. The first two stages of the flight were normal, but for reasons not yet clear, the third stage did not reach the desired target orbit before releasing the payload. The payload itself, Chinasat 9A, has deployed its solar arrays and is healthy, and controllers on the ground are assessing options for salvaging its mission. Depending on how far off they are from the target orbit, it may be possible to gradually raise the orbit using its maneuvering thrusters.
This has been done with other geosynchronous commsats whose launch vehicles suffered similar anomalies, most famously the first USAF AEHF satellite. In that case, the launch vehicle performed flawlessly, but AEHF-1 was equipped with an apogee kick motor to deliver it to geosynchronous transfer orbit; this failed to ignite, stranding it in the initial parking orbit. An agonizingly slow orbit raise was performed using the tiny Hall thrusters on the spacecraft, eventually successfully raising it to the proper orbit for its mission. It is unclear at this point whether a similar salvage will be possible for Chinasat 9A, but it’s definitely worth exploring. That said, preliminary radar data suggests the spacecraft is in an orbit inclined 25.7 degrees (instead of the 0 degrees that’s intended), with an apogee of 16, 360 km and a perigee of just 193 km — skimming the atmosphere, basically, which will rob it of precious energy each time it goes around, giving very little time to begin a recovery plan (if one is even possible). It’s very likely this spacecraft is lost, unfortunately, a reminder of how difficult spaceflight still is.
However, the initial part of the launch was as beautiful as one would expect of a rocket launch, although perhaps due to the third stage anomaly, I have been unable to find a longer video:
As China advances forward its position in the international communities of spaceflight and astrophysics, it has placed the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT) “Huiyan” (Insight) into orbit aboard a Long March 4B rocket from Jiuquan Space Center in the Gobi Desert. It’s a completely new type of x-ray telescope, devised because Chinese manufacturing presently does not have the capability to build the super-flat mirror surfaces required for building a traditional reflector-style x-ray telescope. Necessity *is* the mother of invention, after all. As implied by its name, the HXMT Huiyan uses a technique called demodulation that uses much simpler detectors. Chinese scientists particularly hope to use this new instrument to study gamma ray bursts, which have become even more valuable targets now that gravity waves are detectable, as both can be caused by the same events. The international astrophysics community will be able to use HXMT Huiyan’s data in conjunction with that from other X-ray detectors, such as the venerable Chandra X-ray Observatory, NuSTAR, Swift, Fermi, INTEGRAL, HETE-2, XMM Newton, and the upcoming Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, an instrument package that will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS later this year.
Yesterday’s Progress launch went smoothly, but unfortunately the recovery of the spent boosters did not. Russian rockets have always launched over land (the sole exception being the Soyuz rockets launched from Kourou in French Guiana, in partnership with Arianespace), and this means they drop their lower stages onto land. This has caused problems before, from property damage to at least one recorded incident of a cow being killed by falling debris, but for the most part, the spent stages are manna from heaven to the scrap dealers, as they contain valuable materials like titanium. Before the scavengers are allowed to access the stages, a team hired by Roscosmos goes in and removes any salvageable electronics and other components, and it was one of those teams that suffered a tragic loss.
The stage one drop site this week has been suffering unusually dry conditions (even for this semi-arid part of the world). This is where the distinctive conical strap-on boosters impact, and it is always cleared of personnel before the flight. But on this occasion, one of the boosters, still hot so soon after burnout, started a grass fire. The fire ultimately burned 15 km of grassland before being extinguished, but two contractors with NPO Mashinostroenia were driving along the road, heading to the scene to help fight the fire, when a sudden gust of wind blew fire right across their truck. One man was killed; the other was airlifted to a hospital with burns over 45% of his body.
It’s a sobering reminder that even when everything with the vehicle appears to go exactly right, spaceflight remains a dangerous endeavor.
The Progress MS-06 spacecraft has been placed into orbit by a Soyuz 2 1-A rocket out of Baikonur Cosmodrome. It carries 2450 kg of cargo, including 705 kg of propellant, 50 kg of air, and 420 kg of water. (The ISS has a water reclamation system, but it is not able to provide 100% of the crews’ needs as yet.) Among that cargo is a set of four nanosatellites which will be hand-launched by cosmonaust during a spacewalk. Progress MS-06 will dock with the Zvezda module’s aft compartment, allowing it to transfer propellants into Zvezda’s tanks.
Progress MS-06 was originally slated to dock with Pirs, which it would then carry with it for disposal at the end of its mission, freeing a docking port for the Multipurpose Logistics Module “Nauka”, which has faced numerous delays going back years. Unfortunately, Nauka encountered more delays and is no longer scheduled to launch before 2018. Therefore, Pirs will remain at the ISS when Progress MS-06 departs. Pirs does double duty as both a docking compartment and an airlock for EVAs mounted from the Russian segment; Nauka is equipped with an airlock as well. Even if there is no Russian airlock, there is of course the Quest airlock on the US segment, but it is generally preferred to use the closest airlock to a given worksite.
The Proton rocket, heavy-lift workhorse of the Russian fleet, has finally returned to flight. The mission was a commercial one, sold through International Launch Services (a joint venture of RSC Khrunichev and Lockheed Martin), and carried the Echostar 21 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The launch was fully successful, which I’m sure was a bit of a relief after the year-long grounding extended by a frustrating series of delays: first it was grounded to study concerns with the Briz-M upper stage, and then it was grounded further when contamination found in the engines revealed a much larger pattern of fraud within the engine manufacturer, Voronezh Mechanical Plant. Fallout from that included the humiliating order to turn Voronezh management over to their rival, NPO Energomash, which has been tasked with cleaning up the organization so that this does not happen again.
It’s good to see the old workhorse back in operation again. There are four more Proton flights scheduled for 2017, as it works to clear out the backlog.
India has upgraded their GSLV rocket, and made a fully successful maiden flight of the new model, delivering GSAT 19, a geosynchronous commsat. The GSLV family has had issues, but hopefully they are now resolved. This new version is also considerably more powerful, putting it into contention with all the major geosynchronous launch providers on the commercial market. This also gives them, for the first time, the performance necessary for a crewed launch, although ISRO does not yet have any announced plans to pursue human spaceflight.