Progress MS-09 launched to the ISS today and docked with the station just two revolutions later. This is the fastest ever ascent to the station. (It is not the fastest ever ascent to a target in Earth orbit; I believe that record may still be held by Gemini 11, which performed a direct ascent to its Agena target just 94 minutes into the flight. But is definitely the fastest to the ISS.)
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:
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
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).
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.)
It was three years ago that Virgin Galactic lost a vehicle and pilot in a tragic mishap caused by human error and poor human factors engineering. But the defects have been changed so that the same mistake cannot be made again, and after an incremental test campaign with the newer version of SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, they were able to light the engine for the first time:
It was only a thirty second burn, but it went off flawlessly, and it puts them a step closer to operational flights!
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.