Category Archives: Space

The reused Falcon roars before flight, and RS-25 roars again

The first reflown Falcon 9 core is on the pad at LC-39A, and has completed a hotfire test.  Due to the test having slipped to today, launch is now targeted for Thursday.  Payload was not installed on the rocket for this test; the rocket will be brought down and back to the assembly building for attachment of SES-10 payload before being rolled back to the pad later this week.

If that was exciting, here’s another hotfire test for you, this time of an RS-25 engine in the venerable A-1 test stand, originally built to test Saturn S-II stages.  This engine design will also be making reflights, but that’s less surprising, as  the RS-25 is better known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine.  This particular test, performed late last week at Stennis, was to validate a new engine controller.  The engine used for this test was Engine No. 0528.  It has never been to space; it’s a ground test article. Although designed as the world’s first fully reusable liquid rocket engine for first stage ascent, the SLS program is expected to exhaust the entire supply of RS-25s.

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EVA-3 of Expedition 50 is complete

Today, Shane Kimbrough (USA) and Thomas Pesquet (France) ventured outside the ISS to complete the 40th spacewalk from the US segment of the International Space Station, and the 198th overall.  (Note: most of the ISS spacewalks were conducted not from Station at all but from Shuttle, which is why the total spacewalk number appears so inflated by comparison.)  Today’s activities revolved mostly around prepping PMA-3 for its upcoming move to the Harmony node, where it will become available for future commercial crew operations.  This mostly consisted of unplugging things.  They also installed a new multiplexer/demultiplexer (MDM), did some work on the external cameras, lubricated the SSRMS, and completed some inspection work.  This video covers the entire spacewalk, not just the highlights, so maybe flip around through it to find interesting bits.  😉  This includes egress; you have to go up to about 45 minutes before they’re even emerging from the airlock.  (Spacewalks are complex; it’s not like going for a casual stroll.)

 

 

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Delta IV (5,4) launches WGS-9 successfully

Delta IV pulled off another flawless launch from Cape Canaveral today, placing the Wideband Global SATCOM-9 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit.  WGS-9 is a military commsat operated by the United States Air Force but jointly procured by five other nations: Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and New Zealand.  This was not the first WGS satellite paid for by a foreign power; WGS-6 was contributed by Australia.  And ground stations have been paid for partially by partner nations, who, again, receive bandwidth in proportion to their investment.  USAF is moving towards launch of WGS-10 later this year, but that is expected to be the final element of the constellation, at least int the forseeable future.

This was the 35th flight of Delta IV, and the 108th successful Delta program launch in a row.  This flew in the 5,4 configuration — 5 meter fairing, 4 solid rocket motors.  Single-core Delta IV is expected to retire by the end of 2018, with only the Delta Heavy continuing on, alongside the Vulcan rocket that will be ULA’s next offering (intended to replace both Delta IV and Atlas V).

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H-2A places a Japanese spysat into orbit

Japan has launched their newest radar spy satellite, the Information Gathering Satellite (IGS) Radar 5, aboard the H-2A rocket from Tanegashima Space Center.  It joins an existing constellation of spy satellites which Japan began assembling in 1998 following a North Korean missile launch that flew over Japanese territory.  Officially, the IGS program supports civilian needs, such as disaster awareness, but the unspoken main goal is to keep tabs on Japan’s enemies.  This launch of course was not in response to last week’s North Korean missile tests; satellites and launch vehicles take years to plan and procure.  But I am sure Japan hopes for it to send a message all the same: we are watching.

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SpaceX launches EchoStar 23

SpaceX completed another uneventful climb to orbit out of the historic LC-39A, placing EchoStar 22 into geosychronous transfer orbit.  This was a less exciting launch than most Falcon 9 flights of late, as EchoStar 22 is very near the absolute limit of Falcon 9’s capacity.  Therefore, the landing legs and grid fins were omitted from the vehicle, as there would be no propellant left to attempt a return.  The first stage was expended with no attempt to recover.  This was also the first night launch from LC-39A in nearly eight years — the last night launch from this pad was STS-131, with the Space Shuttle Discovery, on April 10, 2010.  The first night launch from this pad was Apollo 17, on December 7, 1972.  It gives me joy to know that this will not be the last one:

Upcoming launches the remainder of March include an H-2 from Japan, a Delta IV from Cape Canaveral (was supposed to have launched, but was bumped to give Falcon 9 a second launch attempt), an Ariane V from South America, an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, and finally the groundbreaking reflight of a Falcon 9 first stage on the SES-10 launch from Cape Canaveral (currently set for March 27).  As with any launches, these dates are subject to change for technical or weather reasons.

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The Rockoon is Back

Rockoon is such an awesomely crazy word, and what it means is almost crazier still — a rocket that is launched not from the ground or an aircraft but from a balloon.  This saves the launch vehicle from having to slog through the dense lower atmosphere, and is a lot cheaper than a big jet (a la Pegasus), but has two major problems: even the largest stratospheric balloons can’t carry very much, and they have absolutely no way of steering prior to ignition.

But the cheapness aspect was very attractive to some early rocket pioneers.  Van Allen (yes, that Van Allen) spearheaded an effort to lift sounding rockets by balloon in order to increase the apogee they could reach.  Van Allen and his team launched a number of rockoons for scientific and technological purposes in the 1940s and 1950s, and then the concept slowly faded as ground-based rockets became more powerful and abundant, driven by advances in ballistic missile technology, which of course has no use for a balloon-assisted launch.

But the concept never really went away, and every now and again, you hear of a company dabbling with it.  JP Aerospace has been pursuing a particularly novel variant, where instead of an expendable stratospheric balloon, they would use a reusable wing-shaped balloon that could cycle up and down as a sort of intermediary stage.  As part of that, they have made a few rockoon flights.  Several universities have begun dabbling in them as well.  Counterintuitively, as space technology has become more accessible, the market for very small rockets has grown.  The immediate future, or at least a pretty big piece of it, seems to be full of nanosatellites, and these neither need nor can afford a big launch vehicle.  Traditionally, they’ve hitched rides on the rockets used to launch big, conventional satellites, but the burgeoning market has led to new concepts for getting these little things to orbit.  The ISS carries launchers that can spit out Cubesats, which are typically sent up as payload aboard Progress, Dragon, or Cygnus and then loaded into the launchers via the Kibo lab’s airlock.  A recent PSLV launch carried a staggering 104 satellites, 96 of which were Cubesats — tripling the record for number of simultaneously launched satellites.  And yet the market still demands more options, so lower cost launchers dedicated to the smallsat market have begun to appear.

One of the latest is Bloostar, the rather charmingly named rockoon concept from the Spanish company Zero2infinity.  It’s an outgrowth of their existing work developing balloons for relatively low-cost flights to near space (called “Bloon”).  Bloostar is a rockoon system with a unique, custom-built launch vehicle instead of the old sounding rockets of the original rockoons.  And this week, it completed its first test flight, firing the engine for just a few seconds in a test of the ignition system and the navigation and telemetry systems.  Later flights are expected to test a full-duration burn and see how high they can get it to go.  😉

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Chandrayaan-1: the Lost and Found Lunar Orbiter

This is pretty cool.  😉

On October 22, 2008, India joined the elite group of nations which have successfully sent spacecraft to orbit the Moon.  The mission was successful, conducting joint operations with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS impactor, deploying an impactor of its own to help search for lunar ice (and making India only the fourth country to place its flag upon the Moon), and providing the first definitive proof of water ice in the lunar soil.  The mission was cut short, however, when the spacecraft abruptly stopped responding to ground commands on August 29, 2009.  The cause of the failure was never determined, but it had been experiencing issues in several systems, including the star tracker that keeps its antenna aligned with Earth.

Like other deep space spacecraft, the moment it stopped transmitting it became impossible to track from Earth — the Moon is much too far away to track such small objects (in Chandrayaan-1’s case, about 1.5 meters by 1.5 meters) by radar.

Or is it?

As international governmental and private space programs grow at an astonishing rate, it has become clear that space traffic will increasingly become a problem not just in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and in the immensely valuable Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO, the province of most communications satellites) but in deep space as well.  The recent move of the MAVEN spacecraft to dodge Mars’ innermost moon, Phobos, also underscores the hazards.  So JPL conducted a study to see whether lunar spacecraft actually could be tracked from Earth. And guess what — they can!

JPL’s first target was LRO, because it’s an active spacecraft and therefore its real position is known with exquisite precision.  Having located it with ground-based radar, the team moved on to something trickier: the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft.  Lunar spacecraft are difficult, because the Moon is so lumpy that a) dead spacecraft don’t stay long unless their orbits are fairly high, and b) orbits can be difficult to predict over long timescales.  Nevertheless, they found it.  Chandrayaan-1 is dead, but not gone, and certainly not forgotten.

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