The Proton rocket, heavy-lift workhorse of the Russian fleet, has finally returned to flight. The mission was a commercial one, sold through International Launch Services (a joint venture of RSC Khrunichev and Lockheed Martin), and carried the Echostar 21 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The launch was fully successful, which I’m sure was a bit of a relief after the year-long grounding extended by a frustrating series of delays: first it was grounded to study concerns with the Briz-M upper stage, and then it was grounded further when contamination found in the engines revealed a much larger pattern of fraud within the engine manufacturer, Voronezh Mechanical Plant. Fallout from that included the humiliating order to turn Voronezh management over to their rival, NPO Energomash, which has been tasked with cleaning up the organization so that this does not happen again.
It’s good to see the old workhorse back in operation again. There are four more Proton flights scheduled for 2017, as it works to clear out the backlog.
Bummer of a news item, I know, but the Mars InSight lander, set to blast off in the upcoming Mars window, has been delayed. Testing last week revealed a leak in a seismometer provided by the French space agency, CNES (le Centre national d’études spatiales). The instrument has had a somewhat checkered past already, with leaks detected as far back as August and attributed to faulty welding. Engineers had performed a fix, but apparently it was not sufficient. Engineers are exploring options, but there is nothing that would be done in time to encapsulate it for launch.
As it is, the spacecraft is in California, and ULA has already begun stacking its Atlas V rocket, but the seismometer is still at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Colorado, where it was supposed to have been integrated with the spacecraft; in an effort to save time, they shipped the rest of the lander out to California with the intention of attaching the seismometer at the last possible minute. That is no longer possible, so InSight will be going back to Colorado to be put into storage while NASA decides what to do about it. The next launch opportunity is not until 2018.
It’s a blow not just to the Mars exploration program but also in many ways an extra slap to the mission proposals that lost out to InSight. I was really excited about the Titan Mare Explorer concept, but it was shelved in favor of InSight. Perhaps it will get another go the next time around.
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.
Well, the Geminids were a bust for me. Totally overcast here, and we drove out to South Dakota to visit the in-laws and guess what? Totally overcast there. In fact, it was pea-soup fog for a lot of the drive back. But hey, there’s always something else exciting in space. 😉 First off, on Friday night the weather finally cooperated in California and the most powerful Atlas to fly from Vandenberg AFB launched with its classified payload. It’s the second-heaviest Atlas V configuration, the 541. The 541 has flown twice from Cape Canaveral, but this is its first flight from the West Coast. The previous flights boosted NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2001, and another NRO payload earlier this year. The only heavier Atlas is the 551, which has only flown once, launching New Horizons directly into a solar escape trajectory from Cape Canaveral in 2006. (New Horizons will reach its primary target, Pluto, next year.) Here’s last Friday’s launch:
And just for fun, compare it to this one: New Horizons peeling out of Florida faster than any other rocket:
Last Fridays’ Atlas is still climbing rather fast for what is likely a fairly hefty payload; satellite spotting enthusiasts suspect it to be a Trumpet electronic signals intelligence spacecraft intended for a highly elliptical Molniya-style orbit. But that’s really just speculation; it’s tough to really know.
Meanwhile, early this morning Russia’s Proton rocket completed its historic 400th launch, placing the Yamal 401 commercial commsat in orbit for Gazprom Space Systems from Baikonur Cosmodrome, bound for geosynchronous orbit. It should be there by now, and will enter the commissioning phase of its mission. After a series of troubles in recent years, this is a very encouraging and positive way to round out the year for the vehicle and International Launch Services, a cooperative venture between rocket manufacturer Khrunichev and Lockheed Martin, which sells both Proton and Atlas on the international market.
Mars One is a private effort to build a human colony on Mars — let it not be said they lack ambition. 😉 Their plans include building a colony out of Dragon capsules, and getting some funding from a reality TV show. It all sounds a little far-fetched, given the staggering price tag even orbital manned spaceflight carries, but they’ve moved a step closer to reality by signing a new deal with Lockheed Martin Space Systems to build an unmanned Mars mission to launch in 2018. The plan would include an orbiter to scout out landing sites and a Phoenix-derived lander. If successful, it will put them into an extremely select group which presently only includes large, highly funded government organizations. The orbiter will carry imaging equipment and also act as a data relay for the lander; the lander will carry a novel solar array to be tested at Mars and a variety of experiments designed to demonstrate technologies required for the manned mission.
Mars One Phoenix-derived lander
Will they achieve all of their goals? I don’t know, but this is a surprisingly solid step forward. I tend to be cautiously optimistic about commercial efforts, since like all new businesses, most will inevitably fail. But we may actually be moving closer to the time when one actually manages to put people on another world.