Tag Archives: NASA

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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Beautiful ground footage of the CRS-15 launch

USLaunchReport, a disabled veteran-run enterprise on Florida’s Space Coast, provides ground footage of launches, and they got some beautiful footage of this one.  Skip ahead about four minutes to staging, where it’s up high, lit by the Sun, and the humid air near the ground is less of an obstacle to photography, and watch to the end when they start to cut in shots of the plume in the background and in the foreground you can see the impressive optical tracking system they got to use for this:

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Final Block 4 Falcon 9 Flies with Dragon

The last Block 4 Falcon 9 flew yesterday, boosting an unmanned Dragon capsule to the ISS for the CRS-15 mission (skip to about 18:50 for the launch):

Since this was the final Block 4 flight, SpaceX did not attempt to recover the booster.  This was, however, its second flight; Core 1045 helped launch the TESS satellite on April 18, which is just a 72 day turnaround to its second flight, SpaceX’s fastest reflight to date.

Unpressurized cargo includes the ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) for JPL and a replacement latching end effector for the SSRMS.  Pressurized cargo includes:

  • Chemical Gardens (a crystal growth experiment)
  • an experimental carbon fiber “factory” for the private company Made In Space (the third one flown to date)
  • Crew Interactive Mobile (CIMON), a floating spherical robot trained to recognize and interact with European crewmember Alexander Gerst.
  • Rodent Research 7, which will study microorganisms in the guts of a colony of “mouseonauts”
  • BCAT-CS, a sediment research project
  • Three Cubesats called Biarri-Squad for a multinational experiment to study potential military applications for smallsats (these will be experimenting with laser rangefinding and GPS to maintain relative position data)
  • Three CubeSats from the Japanese-led multinational Birds-2 project performing a range of technology demonstrator experiments
    • One of the Birds-2 CubeSats is Bhutan-1 (aka Bird BTN), the Kingdom of Bhutan’s first satellite
    • Another is Bird PHL or Maya-1, the first Filipino CubeSat (not their first satellite

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Spectacular launch footage on Soyuz MS-09 launch

It’s been positively ages since I’ve last posted, but here’s something to get me to come back out: an absolutely stunning video of the Soyuz MS-09 launch.  Soyuz launches are always fun, trying to spot things like the Korolev Cross, but this one’s extra special, because it’s got some brand new rocketcam images taken from the exterior of the Soyuz spacecraft during ascent.  You get to see launch events that previously have been invisible to the public.  Around 3:30, watch for the launch shroud falling away; from there on out, the footage is entirely Soyuz exterior.  Around 9:40, watch for the upper stage drifting away, firing a cold gas thruster to ensure a safe separation.  The quality isn’t spectacular, but it’s a view we’ve not been allowed to see before.  Crew on board are Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos, Soyuz commander and spaceflight rookie), flight engineer Alexander Gerst (ESA), and flight surgeon Serena Auñón-Chancellor (NASA, also a spaceflight rookie).

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SpaceX has launched a space telescope!

In their first launch of a scientific satellite for NASA, SpaceX has placed the Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Surveyor (TESS) into Earth orbit and successfully recovered the first stage.  TESS is a follow-on to the massively successful Kepler space observatory.  Like Kepler, it will use the transit observation method to detect exoplanets, but unlike Kepler, it will be an all-sky survey, reliant upon an unusual orbit in a 2:1 resonance with the Moon (to avoid ever coming too close to the Moon and having the orbit disrupted).  The orbit is completely outside the Van Allen Belts, with a period of 13.7 days.  TESS will be able to downlink to ground stations during its perigees, at a distance of 108,000 km (about three times further away than the geosynchronous ring).  Although TESS has a nominal primary mission duration of two years, this orbit is expected to remain stable for decades, and the spacecraft will almost certainly be used to destruction like so many other NASA spacecraft, finding mission extension after extension until there is nothing more that it can do.

Falcon 9’s upper stage performed two burns, and then released TESS in a supersynchronous transfer orbit; the satellite itself will finish refining the orbit.  The upper stage has by now disposed of itself over the Pacific Ocean, and the payload fairing conducted a water landing as part of SpaceX’s effort to reuse the fairings.  (The company only has one fairing-catcher ship, Mr Steve, which is currently in California, unavailable for this mission.  So far, the closest a returning fairing has gotten to Mr Steve is a few hundred yards, so there is still some refinement needed.)

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The Dragon Flies Again: CRS-14 Launches to the ISS

A reused Dragon capsule launched by a reused Falcon 9 first stage is now en route to the ISS.  The first stage was not recovered; it’s one of the older model stages, and SpaceX sacrificed it in order to conduct engineering tests during a water landing.  There was no attempted fairing recovery, as the Dragon capsule does not require a fairing.  But the launch was 100% successful:

Dragon is expected to rendezvous with the station on Wednesday, where it will go free-floating and be captured by the station’s SSRMS, which will pull it in to berth.

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