Category Archives: Space

More ICESat-2/Delta II Videos!

Here’s some more fun for ya: ULA has posted their traditional punchy launch highlight video, showcasing the launch day prep work as well as the liftoff itself:

And here’s a longer look at ICESat-2, departing the upper stage, plus the announcement of ULA’s contribution of a static display Delta II for the KSC rocket garden:

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The End of an Era: Delta II Flies Into The Sunrise

ICESat2 was launched by the final Delta II rocket out of Vandenberg AFB this morning:

This is the end of the Thor era.

The Thor rocket first flew in 1957, as an intermediate range ballistic missile.  It made its first orbital launch in 1959, placing Discoverer 2 into orbit.  (Discoverer 1 was lost during an earlier Thor launch attempt.)  Despite its origin as a missile, it soon became a workhorse launch vehicle called Delta.  For the military, it launched reconnaissance payloads (including the first Corona satellites), the Transit satellite navigation constellation (the first satnav, predecessor to GPS),  and as Thor, continued to perform missile tests including the “Operation Fishbowl” series of high altitude nuclear detonations.  For civilian operators including NASA and NOAA, it launched the TIROS weather satellites, Pioneers 5-9, and early commsats such as Echo 1A.  In the mid-60s it launched the Syncom satellites, the first geosynchronous commsats.  It placed Landsats into orbit, and the first GOES satellites, bringing the world its first 24-7 full-disk imagery from geostationary orbit.  In the 80s, it launched the Solar Max satellite that would later be captured and repaired by a Space Shuttle crew.  In the same decade, the design was licensed to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan, which built it into the N-1 and then H-1 rockets, launching out of Tanegashima Space Center.  (Today, they have retired these rockets in favor of all-domestic designs.)  But the launch rate went down dramatically, as both the USAF and NASA had invested considerably in the Space Shuttle as a new means of putting payloads into space.  Delta would be retired, surviving only in foreign launches. Delta stopped production, as did Titan 34 and Atlas-Centaur.

But the Space Shuttle wasn’t turning around its launches as fast as intended, and the loss of Challenger and her crew in 1986 was a crushing blow to this concept.  The US government now wanted to minimize the use of human crews for payloads that didn’t really benefit from them.  In response, McDonnell-Douglas revived the Thor for a new rocket type: Delta II.  It became a very reliable workhorse, placing most of the GPS constellation in orbit as well as many NASA earth-observation spacecraft.  (GEOTAIL, one of its earlier payloads, is still in operation today.)  It lauched the majority of NASA’s missions to the red planet: Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, Mars Odyssey, both Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), and Mars Phoenix Lander.  It launched many of NASA’s space telescopes (Spitzer, Swift, GLAST, Kepler, Wise), the sample return missions Stardust and Genesis, asteroid explorers (NEAR-Shoemaker, Deep Impact, and the massively successful Dawn that’s still orbiting Ceres today), the MESSENGER probe to Mercury, and a whole host of Earth orbiting spacecraft for NASA, NOAA, and the military.  Delta II has worked hard and reliably, and it will be missed even as other rockets take up its burdens.  Delta III was also Thor-legacy, but it retired when Delta IV came along.  (Delta IV is a Delta in name only, not wearing the classic blue livery due to its liquid hydrogen fuel, while the old Thor-heritage rockets all ran on kerosene.  And it, too, is likely to retire soon.)  The Japanese Thor-based designs have also retired.

In addition to closing out a long and venerable chapter in the history of rocketry, today’s launch gave the Delta II a rare and enviable record: 100 successful flights in a row.  Out of 156 launch attempts, 154 were complete successes, and only one was a complete failure.  Granted, that was a pretty spectacular failure…..

No more Delta IIs are expected to be purchased, but Boeing plans to assemble the remaining spare parts to create a near-complete rocket for static display at the KSC visitor center, hopefully with the shark’s tooth livery that it wore for GPS flights:

 

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The air is clearing over Perseverance Valley – but what of Opportunity?

MER-B “Opportunity”, the little rover that could, obliterating all expectations for its longevity and roving for nearly 15 years on the surface of Mars….

The rover went silent back in June as one of Mars’ notorious planetwide dust storms kicked up.  Not all of the planet was equally affected, but the spot where Opportunity is trucking around, nicknamed Perseverance Valley for how damn tough this bot has proven to be, was severely affected.  It would be nearly as dark as night even in the middle of the day during the worst of the storm.  Even a nuclear-powered rover like Curiosity would struggle to be useful in those conditions (it was, ironically, much less dusty in Gale Crater), but for a solar-powered rover, such darkness is disastrous.  Opportunity likely completely depleted its batteries.  The good news is that it’s summer in Perseverance Valley, and the dust storm acted like a thermal blanket; the rover should have stayed warm enough that its batteries will not have frozen, as likely killed the Spirit rover when it got stuck in a position where it could not receive adequate sunlight over the long winter.  The bad news is . . . the rover’s been showing serious signs of age already, and it could be partially buried under dust now.  It’s hard to say what condition it’s in.

Still, the storm has been abating.  Soon, the tau (a measure of particulates in the atmosphere) is expected to drop below 1.5, at which point there should be enough light to charge the batteries up.  It is designed to recover from a complete power loss, and once it has sufficient power in its batteries, it should be able to phone home.  And to improve the odds some more, NASA is also sending regular “are you there?” signals to it, while listening for any signals via both the Deep Space Network and the orbiting assets such as Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, and ESA’s Mars Express, all of which are designed to act as relays for any compatible lander on the surface of Mars.

But NASA cannot afford to listen forever.  Once the tau drops below 1.5, a clock will start to tick.  They will continue actively pinging the rover for 45 days.  After that, a passive listening campaign will continue for another 90 days, in hopes that the upcoming dust devil season may clean off any accumulated dust on the solar panels.  But if Opportunity does not respond by the end of that campaign, they may have to finally close the door on this astonishingly successful mission.

So cross your fingers that Oppy calls home!  😉

https://mars.nasa.gov/news/8364/martian-skies-clearing-over-opportunity-rover/

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The ISS had a leak! And it’s not a micrometeoroid after all….

You may have already heard that the ISS experienced a pressure loss over the weekend.  It was so mild that controllers didn’t think it was worth waking the crew; they just told them in the morning and had them go hunt down the source.  Alexander Gerst found it, in the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft’s orbital module.  He then put his finger over the hole, a solution which controllers drily said would not be a good long-term solution, so the Russian crewmembers patched it up with some epoxy and cloth tape.  It’s fortunate that the hole was in the Soyuz orbital module; that’s essentially a disposable portion of the ISS, there only until Soyuz MS-09 returns with its crew.  The orbital module itself could be sealed off after separation if there was concern about the Soyuz crew, as it is normally jettisoned prior to reentry.  But none of that appears to be necessary; the patch is holding fine.

Initially, this was believed to be a micrometeoroid impact, but the plot has now thickened.  As you can see in this picture, the hole is very neat, and next to it is a series of score marks as if a drill bumped along the painted surface inside the orbital module.

Clearly, this hole was made by a human being.  Dmitry Rogozin, the controversial director of Roscosmos, has stated that no theories are being ruled out, and that it could have happened on the ground or in space, intentionally or by accident.  But industry experts appear to be leaning towards human error on the ground.  RSC Energia, the spacecraft’s manufacturer, has launched a comprehensive inspection of all of the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft currently in production.  Some sources are also reporting that Energia has found the technician responsible, and industry speculation is that it was an accidental error that the technician attempted to repair with a sealant that eventually dried out and failed on orbit; Russian aerospace does have a blame-centric approach to errors, which does not tend to encourage people to report on their own mistakes.

https://spaceflightnow.com/2018/09/04/russians-investigate-cause-of-soyuz-leak-focus-on-human-error/

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Virgin Galactic edges closer to space

VSS Unity has completed another powered test flight, edging a bit closer to the Karman Line.  On today’s test flight out of Mojave Air & Space Port, they fired their engine for 42 seconds and the coasted to an apogee of 170,800 feet/32.3 miles/52 kilometers.  This is a little over halfway to the official demarkation of space, and puts them one step closer to taking paying customers on suborbital spaceflight.

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Two launches, 14 spacecraft: Falcon 9 and Ariane 5 fly

There were two launches in the early hours today: a Falcon 9 out of Vandenberg AFB and an Ariane V out of Kourou, French Guiana.

The Falcon 9 delivered 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.  The first stage landed on the barge Just Read The Instructions.  The ship Mr Steven attempted to catch one of the two payload fairing sections, but again was unsuccessful, with relatively high wind shear believed to be a contributing factor.  All ten spacecraft were deployed properly and appear to be healthy.  Unfortunately for those of us viewing at home, the notorious sea fog of Southern California rolled in before liftoff.  But the rocketcam views were all great at least!

 

Then Ariane 5 departed from Kourou, carrying the next four elements of the Galileo satellite navigation constellation to orbit.  When complete, Galileo will supplement GPS and GLONASS, and also provide a domestic navigation capability for users in the European Union in the event access to GPS or GLONASS is no longer available.  This was the final flight of the Ariane 5 ES configuration, with a hypergolic upper stage.  The Ariane ECA configuration, which is popular with commercial customers, uses a cryogenic upper stage that can only be relit once in orbit; this makes it suitable for large commsats and duplex launches, but not for more complex multi-payload launches such as this one, which requires multiple restarts.  Ariane 5 will not perform any further Galileo launches; the next launches are expected in 2020 and will use the Ariane 6.  The weather on the coast of French Guiana was unusually clear, so this one has some wonderful ascent ground photography.

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Falcon 9 raises the bar: heaviest commercial commsat ever launched

SpaceX just set a record by boosting Telstar 19 VANTAGE, which at 15,600 pounds is the heaviest commercial commsat ever launched — and they also recovered the booster.  This was possible because of two things: first, the Block 5 vehicle (“Falcon 9 Full Thrust”) has significantly improved performance, and second, SpaceX was able to negotiate with its customers to give them a better deal on the launch if they will accept needing to carry more propellant of their own to finish raising the orbit for geosynchronous transfer.  This contributed to Telstar 19’s mass; it carries an unusually large propellant load.

The previous record for commercial commsat mass at payload separation was held by TerraStar 1, at 15,234 pounds, launched by an Ariane V nine years ago.

Telstar 19 VANTAGE will have Ku- and Ka-band beams servicing customers over a huge footprint, including Western Europe, Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, much of Canada (including some high priority customers in remote parts of Nunavut), the eastern US, the Caribbean, and much of South America.

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