News from Space: Space Launch Systems Good to Go!

SLS_goNASA’s Space Launch System, the US’s first exploration-class spacecraft since the Space Shuttle, is a central component in the agency’s plan to restore its ability to independently launch missions into space. An after a thorough review of cost and engineering issues, NASA managers formally approved the mammoth rocket past the whiteboard formulation stage and moved it into full-scale development.

As the world’s most powerful rocket ever built and is intended to take astronauts farther beyond Earth into deep space than ever before possible. This includes the first-ever manned mission to Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and perhaps other planets and moons throughout the Solar System as well. The first SLS mission should lift off no later than 2018, sending the Orion capsule around the Moon, with asteroid and Mars-bound missions following after 2030 or 2032.

Space_Shuttle_Atlantis_launchNASA began the SLS’s design process back in 2011. Back then, the stated goal was to try and re-use as many Space Shuttle components and get back into deep space as quickly and as cost effectively as possible. But now that the formulation stage has been completed, and focus has shifted to actually developing and fabricating the launch system’s millions of constituent components, what kind of missions the SLS will be capable of has become much clearer.

At a press briefing that took place at their Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, Aug. 27th, NASA officials shared  details about the maiden test launch. Known as EM-1, the launch is targeted for November 2018 and will involve the SLS  carrying an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a journey lasting roughly three weeks that will take it beyond the Moon to a distant retrograde orbit.

Orion_with_ATV_SMPreviously NASA had been targeting Dec. 2017 for the inaugural launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But the new Nov. 2018 target date has resulted from the rigorous assessment of the technical, cost and scheduling issues. The decision to move forward with the SLS comes after a wide ranging review of the technical risks, costs, schedules and timing known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C).

As Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process, said at the briefing:

After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment. Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program. We are making excellent progress on SLS designed for missions beyond low Earth orbit. We owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right.

spaceX-falcon9The SLS involved in the test flight will be configured to its 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version. By comparison, the Saturn V — which took NASA astronauts to the Moon — had a max Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) payload capacity of 118 metric tons, but it has long since been retired. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is a much smaller and cheaper rocket than the SLS, will be able to put 55 metric tons into LEO.

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, there aren’t really any heavy lift launchers in operation. Ariane 5, produced by commercial spacecraft manufacturer Arianespace, can only do 21 metric tons to LEO, while the Delta IV (United Launch Alliance) can do 29 metric tons to LEO. In short, NASA’s Space Launch System should be by far the most powerful operational rocket when it arrives in 2017-2018.

CST_Main_Header2-process-sc938x350-t1386173951SpaceX could decide to scale-up the Falcon Heavy, but the rocket’s main purpose is to compete with United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, which currently own the incredibly lucrative heavy lift market. A payload capacity of 55 tons is more than enough for that purpose. A capacity of 150 tons is only for rockets that are intended to aim at targets that are much farther than geostationary orbit — such as the Moon, Mars or Europa.

The SLS’s primary payload will be the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), though it will undoubtedly be used to send other large spacecraft into deep space. The Orion capsule is what NASA will use to land astronauts on the Moon, captured asteroids, Mars, and any other manned missions throughout the Solar System. The first manned Orion launch, to a captured asteroid in lunar orbit, is scheduled to occur in 2021.

mars_roverCombined with SpaceX’s crewed Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100, and a slew of crowd-funded projects to place boots on Mars and Europa in the next few decades, things are looking up for human space exploration!

Source: universetoday.com, extremetech.com

News from Space: Latest Tests and New Players

Apollo11_earthIn the new age of space travel and exploration, commercial space companies are not only boasting immense growth and innovation, but are reaching out to fill niche markets as well. In addition to launchers that can send orbiters and payloads into space, there are also new breeds of commercial satellites, new engines, and a slew of other concepts that promise to make the industry more promising and cost effective.

A case in point is the small satellite launch company Firefly Space Systems, which recently unveiled its planned Alpha launcher. Aimed at the small satellite launch market, it’s designed to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO) and Sun-synchronous orbits for broadband communication using an unconventional aerospike engine, it is also the first orbital launcher to use methane as fuel.

firefly-alphaThe Firefly Alpha is a specialized design to launch light satellites at low cost into low Earth Designed to carry payloads of up to 400 kg (880 lb), the Alpha features carbon composite construction and uses the same basic design for both of its two stages to keep down costs and simplify assembly. Methane was chosen because it’s cheap, plentiful, clean-burning and (unlike more conventional fuels) self-pressurizing, so it doesn’t require a second pressurization system.

But the really interesting thing about the two-stage rocket assembly is that the base of the engine is ringed with rocket burners rather than the usual cluster of rocket engines. That’s because, while the second stage uses conventional rocket engines, the first stage uses a more exotic plug-cluster aerospike engine that puts out some 400.3 kN (or 40,800 kg/90,000 lb)  of thrust.

firefly-alpha-4Aerospike engines have been under development since the 1960s, but until now they’ve never gotten past the design phase. The idea behind them is that rockets with conventional bell-shaped nozzles are extremely efficient, but only at a particular altitude. Since rockets are generally used to make things go up, this means that an engine that works best at sea level will become less and less efficient as it rises.

The plug aerospike is basically a bell-shaped rocket nozzle that’s been cut in half, then stretched to form a ring with the half-nozzle forming the profile of a plug. This means that the open side of the rocket engine is replaced with the air around it. As the rocket fires, the air pressure keeps the hot gases confined on that side, and as the craft rises, the change in air pressure alters the shape of the “nozzle;” keeping the engine working efficiently.

firefly-alpha-2The result of this arrangement is a lighter rocket engine that works well across a range of altitudes. Because the second stage operates in a near vacuum, it uses conventional rocket nozzles. As Firefly CEO Thomas Markusic put it:

What used to cost hundreds of millions of dollars is rapidly becoming available in the single digit millions. We are offering small satellite customers the launch they need for a fraction of that, around US$8 or 9 million – the lowest cost in the world. It’s far cheaper than the alternatives, without the headaches of a multi manifest launch.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has been making headlines with its latest rounds of launches and tests. About a week ago, the company successfully launched six ORBCOMM advanced telecommunications satellites into orbit to upgrade the speed and capacity of their existing data relay network. The launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida had been delayed or scrubbed several times since the original launch date in May due to varying problems.

spacex_rocketHowever, the launch went off without a hitch on Monday, July 14th, and ORBCOMM reports that all six satellites have been successfully deployed in orbit. SpaceX also used this launch opportunity to try and test the reusability of the Falcon 9′s first stage and its landing system while splashing down in the ocean. However, the booster did not survive the splashdown.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted about the event, saying that the:

Rocket booster reentry, landing burn & leg deploy were good, but lost hull integrity right after splashdown (aka kaboom)… Detailed review of rocket telemetry needed to tell if due to initial splashdown or subsequent tip over and body slam.

SpaceX wanted to test the “flyback” ability to the rocket, slowing down the descent of the rocket with thrusters and deploying the landing legs for future launches so the first stage can be re-used. These tests have the booster “landing” in the ocean. The previous test of the landing system was successful, but the choppy seas destroyed the stage and prevented recovery. Today’s “kaboom” makes recovery of even pieces of this booster unlikely.

sceenshot-falcon9-580x281This is certainly not good news for a company who’s proposal for a reusable rocket system promises to cut costs exponentially and make a whole range of things possible. However, the company is extremely close to making this a full-fledged reality. The take-off, descent, and landing have all been done successfully; but at present, recovery still remains elusive.

But such is the nature of space flight. What begins with conceptions, planning, research and development inevitably ends with trial and error. And much like with the Mercury and Apollo program, those involved have to keep on trying until they get it right. Speaking of which, today marks the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11 reaching the Moon. You can keep track of the updates that recreate the mission in “real-time” over @ReliveApollo11.

As of the writing of this article, the Lunar module is beginning it’s descent to the Moon’s surface. Stay tuned for the historic spacewalk!

apollo11_descent

Sources: universetoday.com, gizmag.com

Forty-Fifth Anniversary of Apollo 11

Apollo11_launch1Today, July 20th, marks the 45th anniversary of the first step being taken on the Moon. And even though the coming decades may involve astronauts setting foot on Mars or a nearby asteroid, the Moon landing will forever remain one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. And the many speeches, footage and images associated with the mission remain firmly rooted in public consciousness.

Born during the closing months of the Eisenhower administration as a follow-up to Project Mercury – which successfully put astronauts into orbit – Project Apollo was conceived when spaceflight was still very much in its infancy. However, it was under President Kennedy that the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade truly began.

kennedy_moonspeechAnd though some within NASA were already doing some preliminary planning for a manned mission to the Moon in the late 1950s, there was no hardware that could see the mission fly, no rockets large enough to launch a manned spacecraft all the way to the Moon, and no provisions for managing a program of that magnitude. The men and women who brought the lunar landing to fruition were forced to invent almost everything as they went along.

And in the nine years between President Kennedy promising America the Moon and Neil Armstrong’s small step, NASA developed an unprecedented amount of technology and know-how that continues to shape the way NASA and other space agencies plan and implement missions today. These include the Saturn V multistage rockets, which are currently being refurbished for a manned mission to Mars by 2030.

Apollo_11Launching on from Cape Kennedy on the morning of July 16th, 1969, the mission sent Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin into an initial Earth-orbit. Then, just two hours and 44 minutes after launch, another engines burn put Apollo 11 into a translunar orbit. Four days later, the Lunar Module touched down and the three men – with Armstrong in the lead – stepped onto the Lunar surface.

And for those looking to participate in the anniversary, there are several ways you can participate. On Twitter, @ReliveApollo11 from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is reliving the highlights from Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in “real time”. Also, @NASAHistory is tweeting images and events from the mission, and journalist Amy Shira Teitel (@astVintageSpace) is tweeting pictures, facts and quotes from the mission, again in “real time”.

apollo11_flag2At 7:39 p.m. PDT (10:39 p.m. EDT), when Armstrong opened began the first spacewalk on the Moon, NASA TV will replay the restored footage of Armstrong and Aldrin’s historic steps on the lunar surface. On Monday, July 21 at 7 a.m. PDT (10 a.m. EDT) NASA TV will be broadcasting live from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they will be renaming the center’s Operations and Checkout Building in honor of Armstrong, who passed away in 2012.

The renaming ceremony will include NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Kennedy Center Director Robert Cabana, Apollo 11′s Collins, Aldrin and astronaut Jim Lovell, who was the mission’s back-up commander. International Space Station NASA astronauts Wiseman and Steve Swanson, who is the current station commander, also will take part in the ceremony from their orbiting laboratory 260 miles above Earth.

Apollo_11_bootprintOn Thursday, July 24 at 3 p.m. PDT (6 p.m. EDT), which is the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11′s return to Earth, the agency will host a panel discussion – called NASA’s Next Giant Leap – from Comic-Con International in San Diego. Moderated by actor Seth Green, the panel includes Aldrin, NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, JPL systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke.

In addition to Aldrin recounting his experiences, Fincke and the other NASA staff are slated to talk about the new Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System rocket – both of which will carry humans on America’s next great adventure in space – and what the future holds for space exploration. These will no doubt include talk of the planned missions to an asteroid, Mars, and quite possibly the construction of a settlement on the Moon.

apollo11_flag1The NASA.gov website will host features, videos, and historic images and audio clips that highlight the Apollo 11 anniversary, as well as the future of human spaceflight. You can find it all by clicking here. And if you don’t have NASA TV on your cable or satellite feeds, you can catch it all online here. Plenty has been happening already, marking the anniversary of the launch and recapturing the mission in “real-time”.

Forty five years later, and Apollo 11 still holds a special place in our collective hears, minds, and culture. One can only hope that the next generation of astronauts prove as equal to the task as those who made the Moon Landing were. And I’m sure that when they do make history, Neil Armstrong (may he rest in peace) will be watching approvingly.

And be sure to check out this video from Spacecraft Films, showing the entire Apollo 11 mission in 100 seconds:


Sources: universetoday.com, motherboard.vice.com, nasa.gov, spacecraftfilms.com

News from Space: The Orion MPCV gets a Manned Mission

Orion_arraysIt’s known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and it represents NASA’s plans for a next-generation exploration craft. This plan calls for the Orion to be launched aboard the next-generation Space Launch System, a larger, souped-up version of the Saturn V’s that took the Apollo teams into space and men like Neil Armstrong to the Moon.

The first flight, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), will be targeted to send an unpiloted Orion spacecraft to a point more than 70,000 km (40,000 miles) beyond the Moon. This mission will serve as a forerunner to NASA’s new Asteroid Redirect Initiative – a mission to capture an asteroid and tow it closer to Earth – which was recently approved by the Obama Administration.

orion_arrays1But in a recent decision to upgrade the future prospects of the Orion, the EM-1 flight will now serve as an elaborate harbinger to NASA’s likewise enhanced EM-2 mission. This flight would involve sending a crew of astronauts for up close investigation of the small Near Earth Asteroid that would be relocated to the Moon’s vicinity. Until recently, NASA’s plan had been to launch the first crewed Orion atop the 2nd SLS rocket to a high orbit around the moon on the EM-2 mission.

However, the enhanced EM-1 flight would involve launching an unmanned Orion, fully integrated with the SLS, to an orbit near the moon where an asteroid could be moved to as early as 2021. This upgrade would also allow for an exceptionally more vigorous test of all the flight systems for both the Orion and SLS before risking a flight with humans aboard.

orion_arrays2It would also be much more technically challenging, as a slew of additional thruster firings would be conducted to test the engines ability to change orbital parameters, and the Orion would also be outfitted with sensors to collect a wide variety of measurements to evaluate its operation in the harsh space environment. And lastly, the mission’s duration would also be extended from the original 10 to a full 25 days.

Brandi Dean, NASA Johnson Space Center spokeswoman, explained the mission package in a recent interview with Universe Today:

The EM-1 mission with include approximately nine days outbound, three to six days in deep retrograde orbit and nine days back. EM-1 will have a compliment of both operational flight instrumentation and development flight instrumentation. This instrumentation suite gives us the ability to measure many attributes of system functionality and performance, including thermal, stress, displacement, acceleration, pressure and radiation.

The EM-1 flight has many years of planning and development ahead and further revisions prior to the 2017 liftoff are likely. “Final flight test objectives and the exact set of instrumentation required to meet those objectives is currently under development,” explained Dean.

orion_spacecenterThe SLS launcher will be the most powerful and capable rocket ever built by humans – exceeding the liftoff thrust of even the Saturn V, the very rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts into space and put Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the Moon. Since NASA is in a hurry to reprise its role as a leader in space, both the Orion and the SLS are under active and accelerating development by NASA and its industrial partners.

As already stated by NASA spokespeople, the 1st Orion capsule is slated to blast off on the unpiloted EFT-1 test flight in September 2014 atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. This mission will be what is known as a “two orbit” test flight that will take the unmanned Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to an altitude of 5800 km (3,600 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

After the 2021 missions to the Moon, NASA will be looking farther abroad, seeking to mount manned missions to Mars, and maybe beyond…

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of NASA testing out the parachutes on the Orion space vehicle. The event was captured live on Google+ on July 24th from the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, and the following is the highlight of the event – the Orion being dropped from a plane!:

NASA Engine Will Take Us To The Moon (And Beyond)

NASA_Moon1For almost a year now, NASA has been discussing plans which will eventually culminate in a return to the Moon. Initially, such plans were kept under wraps just in case NASA found itself in a budget environment that did not favor renewed space exploration. But since the 2012 election, and the re-election of President Obama, NASA publicly announced its plans, confident that the budget voted on in 2010 (which included lucrative funding for them) would continue.

And now, NASA has been unveiling the tools that will take us there and beyond in the coming years. Far from simply shooting for the Moon for the first time in decades, NASA’s plans also include manned missions to Mars, and exploratory missions which will take it out to Jupiter and the outer Solar System. And since they are thinking big, its clear some budget-friendly and powerful tools will be needed for the job.

jx-2rocketAbove, we have the latest. It’s called the JX-2, a liquid-fuel cryogenic rocket engine is the modernized version of the J-2, the engine that NASA used in the late-’60s and early-’70s to thrust humans beyond low Earth orbit. With the conclusion of the Apollo program, these babies fell into disuse. But with the upgrades made to these new versions, NASA hopes to send people back to the Moon, and a few places beyond.

Of course, there are other noted improvements in NASA’s arsenal that will also come into play. For starters, the J-2 was part of the general assembly of the Saturn V rocket, the mainstay of the space agency’s fleet at the time. In the years to come, NASA will be deploying its new Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

NASA_marsThe SLS is NASA’s next-generation rocket, a larger, souped-up version of the Saturn V’s that took the Apollo teams into space and men like Neil Armstrong to the Moon. According to NASA spokesmen, the SLS rocket will “incorporate technological investments” and “proven hardware” from previous space exploration programs.” Essentially, this means that projects which have been shelved and retired have been updated and incorporated to create a rocket that can do the job of sending men into deep space again.

The Orion MPCV, on the other hand, is the module that will sit atop the SLS, carrying its crew compliment and delivering them to their destination once the rocket has put them into space and disassembled itself. Announced back in September of 2011, the SLS and MPCV constitute the largest and most powerful space rocket system ever built by a space agency.

No date has been given as to when the SLS and MPCV will be sent into space, courtesy of the new JX-2 rocket engine. But NASA claims there will be a launch sometime next year. As for the Moon, well, we’re waiting on that too, but it’s clear that with Mars slated for 2030, a manned mission to the Moon is sure to happen before this decade is out.

In the meantime, check out the infographic on the new rocket system below, and keep your eyes on the skies! We’re going back, and this time, we mean to stay!

nasa-spaceship-mpcv-orion-capsule-comparison-apollo-shuttle-infographic-110525b-02

Sources: IO9.com, (2), Space.com