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.
The first two launches of 2017 are complete: a Long March 3B carrying a technology demonstrator payload to geosynchronous orbit, and the first commercial Kuaizhou flight.
Long March 3B blasted off from Xichang Space Center last Thursday:
Close on the heels of that flight, a solid-prop Kuaizhou 1A rocket made its first commercial flight, launching from Jiuquan Space Center. This is the rocket’s third flight, but the first with a paying customer other than the Chinese government. Kuaizhou was developed as a low-cost rapid-response rocket that could compete favorably with the increasing range of commercial options presently on the market. The payload is a set of small commercial imaging satellites.
Falcon 9 was expected to also launch by now, but unfortunately the wild and wet weather currently soaking California has delayed the flight. The weather is not expected to clear up before they butt up against time scheduled for an Atlas V dress rehearsal, so the next launch opportunity is January 14, weather permitting. The FAA signed off on the accident investigation and gave the green light for the launch attempt a few days ago, so once the skies dry up again, they’ll be good to go.
As you may have already heard, one of the major payloads aboard the CRS-8 Dragon mission is the Bigelow Expandable Activy Module (BEAM) — an inflatable habitat delivered in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk section that will be berthed at the ISS and create its first new habitable volume since 2011’s delivery of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module aboard Endeavour. This is all that remains of the original TransHab concept, which was cancelled under the redefined “ISS Core Complete” program devised under the Bush administration. (The Bush administration had trimmed America’s ISS responsibilities in order to redirect effort to a lunar program. Alas, that did not pan out, as it required more funding than that, and Congress was not so cooperative.) Bigelow Aerospace salvaged the concept, purchasing the intellectual property and whatever hardware had been assembled from NASA, and launched two experimental inflatable spacecraft to test the engineering. But Bigelow has mostly been otherwise tight-lipped. The two experimental Genesis spacecraft remain in orbit today, and apart from signing a deal with Boeing to provide CST-100 Starliner flights to future inflatable space hotels, so far there has been little for the public to judge.
Falcon 9 first stage landing, and CRS-8 Dragon floating away from second stage after separation. The white thing in the middle of the Dragon’s “trunk” is the BEAM; the two tiny dark gray circles on it are RMS grapple fixtures to allow the SSRMS to pull it out of Dragon and mount it to the station.
That’s all changing. With the arrival of BEAM at the ISS (although installation isn’t planned for a while), Bigelow Aerospace apparently feels confident enough to start talking some more about their other plans. They’ve spoken a bit about building inflatable space hotels, with a BEAM module servicing as airlock. Today those plans got a whole lot more concrete: they’ve purchased an Atlas V in its 552 configuration (which so far has never flown; the “2” means they’ll require a two-engine Centaur upper stage, which so far no payload has required) with five solid rocket motors. The new module will be called XBASE: eXpandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement, and they’re saying it’ll launch in 2020. As befits their tight-lipped legacy, Bigelow Aerospace was a bit cagey as to the module’s destination — it could go to the ISS or it could be free-flying. Most likely, that decision is pending additional discussions with NASA, but clearly they intend to go ahead in any case, with or without NASA. For now, they have funding from NASA for a study contract to utilize one of their proposed B330 modules as XBASE; we’ll have to watch closely to see what comes of this.
In the long quest for a reusable flyback booster, Blue Origin has just made a big step forward with its New Shepard booster: they are now the first to fly a rocket past the Karman Line and into space, and then fly it back to the launch site for a precision landing on a designated pad. The New Shepard system includes a crew capsule that Blue Origins plans to market for suborbital spaceflights. Although they have beaten SpaceX to this particular milestone, SpaceX is going for a different market, as their flyback Falcon 9 first stage is much larger must return from much farther downrange. But on the other hand, Falcon 9 uses kerosene, a comparatively easy fuel, while Blue Origin uses liquid hydrogen, a fuel which few have mastered and which comes with significant density penalties. It’s an impressive achievement, and Blue Origins has rightfully earned a spot in the history books. They’ll ratchet it up a little more after they finish analyzing the flight data, because they intend to reuse this specific vehicle again. If all goes well, once they start offering these flights to the public, they expect most of their customers to be millionaires with a bucket list, and universities wanting to run experiments requiring more microgravity than ZeroG’s parabolic flights can offer, but not costing as much as the ISS.
And also, Happy Thanksgiving to all the American readers! I hope you have all had a chance to stuff yourselves properly today. 😉
Chang’e-5-T1, which is a lunar swingby mission that looks very much like a dry-run for a manned mission as it uses a return capsule based on the Shenzhou descent module (only smaller), blasted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center today. The mission profile is strongly reminiscent of the Zond lunar swingby missions of the late 1960s, where the Soviets lobbed modified Soyuz descent modules around the Moon in the run-up to a manned mission. Unfortunately, their larger rocket (necessary for the heavier crewed flight) never entered service, and the capsules found it trickier than expected to nail the double-skip reentry; only one made a survivable entry, and because it was off-target, the tracking ships transmitted a self-destruct signal to prevent capture by hostile nations. China is likely preparing to do what the USSR was trying to do, and become the second nation to send humans to the Moon.
You may have noticed there was no Chang’e 4; this is because Chang’e 4 was a backup for Chang’e 3. Since that mission achieved its objectives of landing on the Moon, the spare was not required. Chang’e 5-T1, meanwhile, is actually a test vehicle in preparation for the real Chang’e 5, which will fly in 2017 and will include a robotic lander and sample return system.
Meanwhile, hitchhiking on the rocket was the 4M spacecraft. Strapped to the Long March 3C/G2 rocket’s upper stage, the 4M spacecraft is the first commercial mission sent into deep space, built by European company LuxSpace. It will send human-readable messages on amateur radio frequencies for the duration of its mission, as the upper stage flies past the Moon and into heliocentric orbit. In addition, it carries an instrument for measuring radiation. It is not really intended as a scientific instrument, though, but rather as a curiosity to encourage amateurs and students around the world to become involved in spaceflight as the industry becomes more accessible and the projects more achievable by the amateur.
This was the first flight of the Long March 3C/G2 vehicle. I’ll post a launch video if/when one becomes available. 😉
And I’m not just talking about the formal bid protest that they’ve filed with the Government Accounting Office, fighting NASA’s award of the CCtCap contract to Boeing and SpaceX. No, I’m talking about something new.
Sierra Nevada has found a new partner in Stratolaunch, which from the beginning had wanted to launch humans via a large rocket slung under their monstrous twin-boom carrier aircraft. To that end, they initially had partnered with SpaceX, to fly a Falcon 9 rocket with perhaps a Dragon capsule on the end. But SpaceX eventually backed out, perhaps because of the difficulties of running a liquid-fuel rocket in that manner, perhaps because it distracted from their overall plan. Whatever the reason, they backed out, and Stratolaunch ended up teaming with Orbital Sciences, which already has experience with air-launch in their Pegasus rocket, and was more than happy to provide a larger solid-fuel rocket and the avionics they’d developed for Pegasus. Today, they’ve got a crewable spacecraft to add to the overall package: a scaled-down version of the Dream Chaser. I don’t know if this will ever fly, but I sure hope it does. In many ways, this seems like a more fitting way to launch a spaceplane — from runway to space and then back to runway. 😉
NASASpaceFlight.com: Dream Chaser eyes rides on under review Stratolaunch system
Well, maybe. 😉 The Urgency Network, a charity group, is organizing a very special raffle. Spend $10 or more on a charity of your choice, and get entered in a raffle for a ticket on an XCOR Aerospace flight aboard their Lynx rocketplane. Like all raffles, the more money you donate, the more chances you get to win. I wonder how much money they’ll end up making? It’s sure to get attention. 😉
Urgency Network: Ticket To Rise