The ISS is going into another busy period with upcoming cargo ship movements. First off, the latest Cygnus spacecraft, SS Gene Cernan, was unberthed and released to fly on its own. SS Gene Cernan now moves into the second part of its mission: deploying nanosatellites, conducting another fire test (Saffire-III, the third and final in the series), and then deorbiting itself safely over the ocean.
The next bit of news is SpaceX preparing for their next flight to the ISS. This will mark the return to flight of LC-40, the Cape Canaveral launchpad that was badly damaged in a Falcon 9/Dragon mishap last year. Liftoff is currently scheduled for December 12, and their traditional pre-flight test fire was conducted yesterday, reinaugurating LC-40’s flame trench (skip ahead two minutes for the fire):
The CRS-11 Dragon mission is now underway, the first with a reflown Dragon capsule. (The heatshield is new, as of course is the unpressurized trunk section and the solar panels, as these are discarded with each flight, burning up while the pressurized module returns to the Earth.) The Falcon 9 rocket was still brand-new, but the first stage will eventually be reused; it completed the fifth successful landing at Cape Canaveral.
This was the one hundredth launch from LC-39A.
Here’s the replay of the SpaceX webcast (jump ahead 16 minutes for the launch):
United Launch Alliance has earned a reputation for some impressive video production efforts post-launch, and tomorrow, in collaboration with NASA, they’ve decided to up their game. The 360 launch videos they’ve posted before aren’t enough — this time, for the first time ever, they’re going to stream a launch live in 360. (This will also be the first 360 video of an Atlas launch; ULA’s previous 360 videos featured Delta IVs, including a Delta IV Heavy.) So grab your Oculus Rift or your smartphone cardboard VR goggle adapters or just a 360-compatible browser (psst — I use Opera) and tune in to NASA’s channel on YouTube tomorrow. The stream will start around 11AM Eastern Daylight Time.
If you don’t know what a 360 video is, it’s a video that you can pan around in over a 360 degree range while it plays. It’s pretty incredible, and makes it feel so much more alive!
If you want a taste of what it will be like, or if you just want to make sure your equipment will show it in 360, here are ULA’s past 360 videos. If it’s working, it’ll look just like a normal video — except if you click and drag, you’ll move around. If it’s not working, you’ll see it all warped and weird looking, and you should try a different browser or player.
Awesome! It came down smooth as butter. The second stage is still burning to push Dragon to orbit, where it will be meeting up with the International Space Station. I’ll post video later. 😉 For now I’m just really thrilled to see it on the barge!
Oh and second stage has now burned out, and Dragon will soon spread her wings!
The second (and possibly final, pending the Antares return to flight) launch of Cygnus aboard an Atlas V was successful yesterday evening, and Cygnus has arrived at the International Space Station. Like all Cygnus, this one was named for a deceased astronaut, in this case Rick Husband. During his career, Husband made two flights, the first one being as pilot aboard STS-96, an ISS resupply mission aboard Discovery, and the other being as commander aboard STS-107, the tragic final flight of Columbia, which broke up during its return on February 1, 2003.
As with the last flight, the greater capacity of Atlas V allowed them to stretch the Cygnus into the “Enhanced Cygnus” design. (The redesigned Antares 200 will also be able to lift the Enhanced Cygnus.) This mission is carrying 3,513 kg of payload: 1,139 kg of crew supplies (clothing, food, etc., including items for the Russian crewmembers; both American and Russian cargo providers share duties routinely), 1,108 kg of ISS gear (fresh filters, toilet parts, circuitboards, etc.), 777 kg of scientific experiments, 98 kg of computer gear, and 157 kg of US spacesuit parts. Additionally, Cygnus is carrying a unique experiment called Saffire-1 which will not be left on the station. It’s an experiment which will deliberately start a fire inside the Cygnus’ pressurized module and see how it behaves and how well various materials stand up to it. The experiment will be entirely autonomous and will only occur after the spacecraft had departed the station and is ready to deorbit.
Atlas V performed flawlessly earlier today to place Cygnus “Deke Slayton II” into orbit. (“Deke Slayton I” was the vehicle lost in the Antares launch explosion.) The 16,517 pound vehicle was the heaviest payload ever lifted by Atlas V — yet it only required the lightest configuration of the rocket. This counter-intuitive detail is because Cygnus only must climb as high as the ISS; most of Atlas’ customers are launched to much higher orbits, requiring much more energy. Cygnus thus breaks the record previously held by the MUOS military commsats, which are over 15,000 lbs but are lifted by the 551 configuration Atlas V (the largest configuration yet flown — 5 meter payload fairing and 5 strap-on boosters) to place them into geosynchronous transfer orbit, so require much more energy than this launch required.
The CRS contract that buys Dragon and Cygnus capsules to deliver cargo to the ISS will run out before we know it, so NASA is soliciting proposals for the CRS-2 contract. And while there isn’t development money in CRS-2, it’s open to anybody with a viable plan. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are both competing, of course, proposing another round of their existing vehicles, and Boeing has also submitted a proposal to use a cargo variant of CST-100 for the same job (which would have the same major advantage as Dragon, in that it would allow recoverable downmass). And Sierra Nevada is expected to propose Dream Chaser.
But now a new contender has come up with a rather innovative idea. Lockheed Martin is proposing a tug-cargo-container combination that would for the first time manage something that has been one of the major spaceflight holy grails for a long time: a ship that loiters on orbit to shuttle dumb payloads back and forth.
This vehicle would, like Cygnus and HTV, rely on a cargo container from Thales Alenia, based on the MPLM modules, called the ExoLiner. Unlike Cygnus or HTV, ExoLiner would have no propulsion or guidance; it would be more like the MPLMs, subject to the whims of the spacecraft transporting it. The other part of the system would be Jupiter, an on-orbit tug based off the bus used for the MAVEN Mars orbiter and equipped with a small remote manipulator system provided by MDA Corp, the same Canadian company that built the RMS and SSRMS.
Here’s where it gets really cool. The Jupiter-ExoLiner system would launch in a single unit. Jupiter would deliver ExoLiner to the ISS. At the end of its mission, it would depart, then loiter on orbit until a new ExoLiner is launched. It would rendezvous with the ExoLiner, still attached to its Centaur booster, and then swap its old, trash-filled ExoLiner for the new one. The Centaur would relight to dispose of itself and the old ExoLiner, while Jupiter would carry the new one to the ISS. Unclear to me is whether an orbital refueling system is needed for Jupiter, but in any case, it’s a pretty bold idea. It might not go far; Lockheed’s late entry to the CCiCap competition (an Orion-derived capsule boosted by the monstrous Liberty rocket proposed by ATK and Arianespace) didn’t get off paper. But it sure would be cool to see the tug concept realized in this manner.