LC-39A: Bringing the Heat Back

As part of routine preparations for the upcoming Dragon flight to the ISS, SpaceX has also passed a historic milestone: allowing the flame trench at LC-39A to taste fire again.

Ignition is around two minutes into the video.  Several things to note in this video: the extra-large Falcon 9 strongback, designed to support the Falcon Heavy, the Shuttle-era hardware still resident (particularly the Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure, although both have been stripped of most of their equipment, as well as the huge Apollo-era water tower for the sound suppression system), and the distant white shape of the SpaceX Falcon 9 assembly building at LC-39A.  Never before have rockets been assembled at LC-39A; the pad was built for the gigantic Saturn V, which was assembled in the VAB and then ponderously rolled to the pad, and then the same strategy was employed for the Space Shuttle program.  But Falcon 9 is a much simpler vehicle, and does not require such a large assembly hall as the VAB.

The Falcon 9 hotfire test concluded successfully. The vehicle will be lowered and pulled into the assembly hall for attachment of the Dragon spacecraft.  After returning to the pad with payload installed, Falcon 9 is slated to lift off February 18 on a mission to the ISS, returning LC-39A to service for the first time since 2011.  SpaceX has additional flights already manifested for LC-39A; the next will be EchoStar 23 no earlier than February 28, and SES 10 sometime in March.  The SES 10 launch will be closely watched, as it will feature the first reflown Falcon 9 core.

Just for fun reference, here’s the last flight from LC-39A:

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Commercial spaceflight makes another step forward: NanoRacks will send a new airlock to the ISS!

It’s been pretty exciting watching commercial spaceflight getting off the ground.  It’s gone slower than I’d like, but this is untested ground, after all.  Commercial utilization of the ISS has been frustratingly slow, hampered by the reduced crew size following the Bush-era reduction in the ISS plan and further hampered by the red tape involved in getting an experiment to the ISS via NASA.  That red tape is so slow in large part because NASA’s whole philosophy towards getting stuff on Station was developed during the Shuttle era, and heavily favors crew safety over other considerations.  This is completely understandable, of course, but it means experiments can wait years to fly, which makes it all but impossible to do follow-up experiments on the same grant as the first one, and effectively forces student projects to be simple, standalone experiments.

NanoRacks, a Texas company that works with NASA to fly experiments commercially aboard the ISS, has found a way to simplify this process.  Instead of each entity seeking to fly an experiment having to go through the whole process with NASA, NanoRacks takes care of all the paperwork and testing, and is able to greatly expedite it by offering experiment equipment that’s already approved by NASA and easily modified to suit a particular experiment’s needs without requiring a full recertification, and also designed to fit easily into an astronaut’s busy schedule.  They also provide nanosatellite deployment services, via a dispenser aboard the ISS that can be loaded via the Kibo lab’s airlock.

And now, they’re looking to expand those services they already offer.  With the ISS crew complement set to increase when Starliner and Dragon 2 enter service, having more ways to get customers for ISS is very much a good thing, and NanoRacks is keen to keep at the forefront of that.  They have just signed a deal with Boeing and NASA to build another airlock for the space station.   NanoRacks will build the Airlock Module, and Boeing will build its Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, which will allow it to be permanently installed on the Tranquility node (after PMA-3 is relocated in support of the Commercial Crew program).  Airlock will permit larger payloads to be deployed than can currently be serviced via Kibo’s airlock, and also free NanoRacks from reliance on a government operated module.

If all goes well, Airlock Module is expected to launch in 2019, although NanoRacks has not yet procured a launch vehicle or been assigned a position in the ISS launch manifest.

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HTV space debris experiment is a bust — better luck next time!

The Kuonotori-6, the latest H2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) to fly from Japan to the ISS, also carried a space debris experiment.  After completing its cargo delivering mission (including delivery of the first set of new batteries for the station’s main power system) and loading up with trash and an old set of batteries, it departed the ISS on January 27.  Not ones to waste a good opportunity, JAXA had equipped it to carry out additional experiments between undocking and its ultimate fiery demise.  For this mission, it carried an electrodynamic tether which, when fully unspooled, would stretch half a mile into space, to test the effectiveness of such a system in passively lowering a satellite’s orbit purely through interaction with the Earth’s ionosphere.

Unfortunately, they ran into problems during deployment.  First, one of the four bolts holding the tether’s counterweight failed to separate on the first try.  On a second attempt, telemetry indicated that the bolt finally separated, but the tether still would not deploy.  Possibly the bolt did not fully separate, or possibly there was some other problem with the mechanism; JAXA engineers will certainly be closely evaluating the telemetry before attempting the experiment again.  One thing is certain: they will not be attempting again with this spacecraft: after abandoning the tether deployment, Kuonotori-6 was deorbited last Sunday, making a self-destructive reentry over the South Pacific.

Still, Japanese engineers do not tend to give up easily, so I expect they will try again.  They’ll have additional opportunities: although HTV does not fly as often as many other ISS cargo ships, it is vital for delivery of the new batteries for the main power system.  New methods for disposal of space hardware is urgently needed; if successful, tethers like this could even be used on things like spent rocket stages, since it is a completely passive system and doesn’t weigh much.  Being able to dispose of spent hardware means it doesn’t stick around to contribute to the growing problem of space debris.

So here’s hoping they can get it working next time!

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WorldView 4, as seen by WorldView 2

DigitalGlobe, provider of the most detailed satellite imagery available on the commercial market, has completed on-orbit checkout and commissioning of their latest bird: WorldView 4.  WorldView 4 is a twin to WorldView 3, offering an unprecedented 1-foot resolution with its 3.6 foot aperture main telescope.  But since WorldView 3 is completely booked by the US military, WorldView 4 opens up this capability to the public.  In fact, it began acquiring images for paying customers on February 1, so this capability is already very real.

To commemorate the occasion, DigitalGlobe released this spectacular image, shot by WorldView 2, of SLC-3 at Vandenberg AFB right as the Atlas V rocket climbed away with WorldView 4 on board:

wv4-launch

Beautiful.  😉

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Yes, it’s true: Peter Capaldi is moving on

It’s never easy, letting a Doctor go . . . whether they’re in for a year (Eccleston), two seasons (Colin Baker), the typical three, or the marathon seven that Tom Baker had, it’s still not easy to see them go.  But!  At least we get to find out while we still have a whole new season of Capaldi ahead of us!  That makes it a bit easier.  And he’s getting a new companion, who I hope can stick around to bridge into the new Doctor and the new showrunner for Series 11.

So what do we have to look forward to, in Capaldi’s final season as “Doctor Eyebrows”, as my youngest daughter calls him?

  • the new companion, a girl named Bill
  • Bill, who is apparently a Prince fan
  • And we have two companions!  Nardole is staying on after the last Christmas special, which means we have the first male companion since Rory, and the first non-human companion (unless you stretch and count River Song) since Turlough in the early 80s.
  • the Movellans appear to be back! for the first time since “Destiny of the Daleks”, featuring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward in 1979 — if you’re not a classic Who fan, they’re beautiful androids who are completely opposed to the Daleks — and everybody else.
  • there have been rumors (sparked by a teasing remark by Peter Capaldi) that Clara is back in some form — however, Jenna Coleman says she did not record anything as Clara, and ruled out a cameo as well, so it sounds like something more oblique
  • Missy is back, however!  The latest deliciously evil incarnation of the Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis will return.
  • The Ice Warriors are also back, again written by Mark Gatiss, and apparently featuring a new type of Ice Warrior — intriguing!
  • Alas, Peter Jackson directing still appears to be a pipe dream, unless they’ve managed to really shock us all with some amazing secret shooting

So, there are some nice juicy hints in there!  What more may be waiting for us?

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Where will you be on August 21?

August 21, 2017 is the day a total solar eclipse will cross the entire contiguous United States — “from sea to shining sea”, as it were.  The path of totality enters the continent in the state of Oregon, proceeds through Idaho and Wyoming, then starts moving more southward as it passes through Nebraska, the northeast corner of Kansas and a smidgeon of southwestern Iowa, crosses Missouri and the southern tip of Illinois, then bisects Kentucky and Tennesee, straddles the North Carolina/Georgia border, then crosses South Carolina to exit into the Atlantic Ocean.  It will touch no other land, not even any islands.

So, where will you be on August 21?  There a couple of resources that can help you plan.  Xavier Jubier’s interactive Google map will give you times and percent coverage for anywhere, which can be useful if you’re not planning on traveling but still want to see the partial eclipse.  All fifty states will be able to see at least a partial eclipse (though alas, the westernmost Pacific territories, such as Guam and American Samoa, will not be able to see it), as well as all of Canada, Mexico, Central America, Bermuda, the Bahamas, the northern part of South America (down as far as northern Peru and Brazil), the north-easternmost tip of Russia, Iceland, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and part of Norway.

But if you’re hoping to see totality, you seriously need to plan it now.  Ideally, you need to have planned it about a year ago, especially if have your heart set on a hotel room, but there’s still some time, especially if you’re planning to day-trip it or are deciding which relatives to visit.  But the biggest factor (apart from accomodations) is the weather.  And how can you know where it’s not going to be cloudy?  Well, the short answer is you can’t.  But the long answer is to try and pick somewhere that is statistically likely to be sunny on August 21. Today’s APOD can help.  This map, generated from MODIS data over many years, gives the historical statistical likelihood of clouds on August 21.  Blue is better odds of clear skies; red is worse.  So in general, go west, young man, go west!

eclipseclouds_modisanderson_1080

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The exquisite poetry of exoplanets

With all that’s been going on, sometimes it’s nice to remember how beautiful the universe is. And just to prove that, here’s a video of the four large planets of the star HR 8799, gently revolving around it.  They’re big and distant — all four planets are estimated to be larger than Jupiter, and the closest-in one has a forty-year orbit.  (The most distant takes ten times longer to orbit the star.)  And there’s an extra bit of beauty here: the planets are in a resonance of 1:2:4:8.

This isn’t a real movie, in the sense of being tape-recorded.  Instead, it was constructed from eight images taken with the Keck telescope in Hawaii since 2009, with the paths of the worlds interpolated between frames to create smooth motion.  It’s not the first direct image of exoplanets, nor the first video showing their motion, but it is decidedly beautiful.

bvxrhqm-imgur

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