Thursday, March 31, 2022

A New Player Arrives at Starbase Boca Chica

Early this morning before sunrise, SpaceX transported Booster 7 to their orbital launch facility, at least temporarily being placed where we get a unique view of the facility.  The booster was in place by 7:40AM CDT as the sun was leaving the frame on the Nerdle Cam.  (This screen capture is clearly much later)

That's Booster 4 on the left (with an apparently damaged grid fin or fin rotating mechanism) and B7 in line (visually) with SN20 in the middle of the frame. 

The first order of tests is going to be an attempt to torture the booster with the type of loads that it's going to see in use and verify it survives and can work.  The emphasis here is a massive mechanical device affectionately known as the ‘can crusher.’ Made up of two large steel structures, that structural test stand’s primary purpose is, to some degree, to attempt to crush Starship test tanks and Super Heavy prototypes. The bottom half of the can crusher was transported to the pad area a week ago Wednesday, March 23.  

The Can Crusher bottom on the way to the orbital launch pad area.  Photo by BocaChicaGal for 

The major reason for the switch from B4 to B7 is that the Raptor V1.5 engines on B4 have been obsoleted, and the new Raptor V2 engines require a rebuild of the bottom third of the booster.  B7 is the first booster designed to use the new engines – and will carry 33 of them, instead of the 29 older Raptors B4 accommodated.  

On top of major design simplifications that should slash the cost of manufacturing, Raptor V2’s maximum thrust was boosted from about 185 tons to 230+ tons (~410,000-510,000 lbf). Combined with more engines, Super Heavy Booster 7 could theoretically produce around 7600 tons (~16.7M lbf) of thrust at liftoff, while Booster 4 – which never fired even one of its 29 Raptor V1.5 engines – could have produced about 5400 tons (~11.9M lbf). That 40% increase in max thrust likely necessitated a similarly strengthened thrust section, involving a large number of mostly invisible design changes.

Those changes now need to be qualified and it appears that SpaceX may use B7 – an entire Super Heavy booster that could one day fly – to verify their performance instead of a cheaper, more disposable test tank. The first part of that testing will likely involve simulating the thrust of at least 13 of Booster 7’s engines. The test stand’s ‘cap’ could also be installed on top of Booster 7 once it arrives at the pad, possibly allowing SpaceX to simulate both the thrust of all 33 engines and the stress caused by acceleration during launch, reentry, and landing. Finally, SpaceX has begun installing a custom fixture and plumbing that will allow all of that structural testing to occur while Super Heavy is loaded with liquid nitrogen (LN2) or oxygen (LOx), adding another layer of stress.

Starship Super Heavy will have ~16.7 Million pounds of thrust?  More than twice that of the Apollo Saturn V's 7.5 million lb.s?  I want to see that.

There are road closures scheduled for tomorrow with secondary days of Monday and Tuesday.  I don't know the status of Ship 24 which has been rumored to be paired with B7, even perhaps for the first orbital flight, but S24 will be using Raptor V2 engines as well and needs to begin testing, too.  We don't know if they intend to move other things or start testing B7, but these are becoming interesting times at Boca Chica again.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

SpaceX Announced End of Production of Crew Dragon Capsules

In Reuters piece dated Monday, reporter Joey Roulette reported that in an interview with SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell, she told him that they are completing the manufacturing of a fleet of four Crew Dragon capsules, which will fill their known needs.

"We are finishing our final (capsule), but we still are manufacturing components, because we'll be refurbishing," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Reuters, confirming the plan to end Crew Dragon manufacturing.

She added that SpaceX would retain the capability to build more capsules if a need arises in the future, but contended that "fleet management is key."

Since Crew Dragon is reusable and NASA agrees to flying reused capsules for their missions, it's believed that a fleet of four is enough.  Their ultimate goal is to use Starship in place of the Crew Dragon. 

Left to right, Crew Dragon, Cargo Dragon CRS-21, and Crew Dragon from the Demo-2 mission.  SpaceX photos.

Crew Dragon has flown five manned missions since the first operational flight in May of 2020, when it flew its first pair of NASA astronauts and became the U.S.'s primary ride for getting humans to and from the International Space Station in place of the Russian Soyuz.  Since the disruptions caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Crew Dragon has jumped from primary ride, to only ride to and from ISS, until Boeing Starliner gets certified to fly, and that doesn't appear close to happening. 

After each flight, the capsules undergo refurbishment at SpaceX facilities in Florida, which the company calls "Dragonland."

"There's lifetime cycle issues, where once you start using it the third, fourth, fifth time, you start finding different things," said retired NASA astronaut and former SpaceX executive Garrett Reisman, who now consults for the company on human spaceflight matters.

"SpaceX is really good about identifying these issues quickly and then acting quickly to fix them," Reisman added, pointing to an investigation in 2021 in which SpaceX discovered and fixed within months a toilet leak aboard a Crew Dragon capsule that had flown humans twice.

Shotwell didn't specifically address Cargo Dragon 2 production.  Eric Ralph at Teslarati picks up that loose end. 

As of today, SpaceX only has two operational Cargo Dragon 2 capsules in its uncrewed fleet – both of which have already flown twice. Following a recent contract extension, SpaceX is scheduled to complete at least 11 more ISS cargo deliveries and recoveries by 2027 and while it’s possible that the company is confident enough to gamble that two Dragon 2 capsules can complete all 15 CRS2 resupply missions, a SpaceX engineer confirmed that at least one more Cargo Dragon is scheduled to debut in 2022. With three Dragons, that would at least give SpaceX the ability to confidently fulfill its CRS2 obligations even if one capsule is damaged or lost.

Stopping and restarting production can be a difficult proposition, but Gwynne Shotwell says they'll take on that burden if needed.  They'll need to be in continuous production of some set of parts, I'm sure.  Whatever wears out faster or needs replacement more frequently will keep some production line going. 

More than anything, the move to halt the production of Crew Dragon capsules seems to mean SpaceX is anxious to get as much of their talent working on Starship as they can.  Starship has the potential to revolutionize everything about space travel.  I ran a couple of stories based on Casey Handmer's blog post on how Starship is a really big thing that not everybody understands yet.  Even so, Eric Ralph blew my mind with this paragraph.

Crew Dragon is currently used to launch four astronauts at a time. A single crewed Starship could have a habitable volume greater than the entire International Space Station and carry 40 astronauts into orbit inside it in a single launch. Cargo Dragon typically delivers about three tons (~6600 lb) of cargo to the ISS. A Cargo Starship could deliver dozens of tons in one go – more cargo space than NASA would know what to do with after decades sent under the tyranny of razor-thin mass margins.

A Starship docking to the ISS would almost be backwards.  More cargo capability and more crew on the resupply ship than on the ship being serviced.  



Tuesday, March 29, 2022

NASA Releases Artemis Schedule - Less Than One Mission Per Year

In an article on Teslarati explaining that new HLS contract award we talked about last Wednesday, space correspondent Eric Ralph links to Loren Grush, space correspondent at The Verge on Twitter.  Ms. Grush said, "NASA's going to give us at least a year off between some flights" and presented this graphic of the Artemis program schedule. 

While the footnote at the lower left says the images of launches in 2025 and 2027 don't mean they occur in those calendar years, the first crewed lunar landing, Artemis III, would need to slip in the wrong direction and Artemis IV move forward for there not to be a one year gap between those missions.  

This shows eight Artemis missions to the moon, including the unmanned Artemis I scheduled for this summer, all spread into nine years.  The first Saturn V launch isn't a 1:1 comparison to the Artemis I mission, but that was in 1966.  The last Apollo mission, 17, was in  1972, six years later.  There were Earth orbiting, lunar orbiting and lunar landing Apollo missions.  The landing missions: 11, 12, and 14-17, or six lunar landing missions, were all between July 1969 and December 1972 or 3-1/2 years.  In addition to those six lunar landing missions, there were five others (I'm including Apollo 13 here, since it didn't land) for a total of 11 missions carrying three astronauts.  The first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, was in October of 1968 while the last was December 1972.  Four years.  Artemis is looking at six missions in seven years. 

Eric Ralph notices something a little different in that NASA graphic.  Take a look at 2027. Notice there's no reference to a lander, SpaceX or other, just a hab (habitat?) delivered to the Gateway?  After the 2025 SpaceX HLS landing on the moon, the next reference to a lander is 2028: three years.   That would be like Apollo landing Apollo 11 in July 1969 but waiting for Apollo 12 until 1972.  The graphic doesn't specifically say there will be a SpaceX lander in 2028, but that's the most rational place to put the new contract's landing system.

The question of why the launch cadence is so low gets back to something we talked about years ago: the SLS Exploration Upper Stage or EUS.  It's needed for the heavier things that NASA wants to put in lunar orbit, like the lunar gateway and that just-mentioned hab, but it isn't going to be ready to fly until 2027.  In 2018, the SLS version with the EUS, Block 1B, was expected to debut as early as 2024.  NASA now says Block 1B will debut no earlier than 2027.  Put another way, four years after the last "expected to debut date", the date has slipped three years.  I suppose that's progress of some sort.  After four years, they're still not saying "we'll be done in four years" - they're saying "we'll be done in three." 

The current NASA graphic of SLS versions.  The Block 1 SLS currently on the pad doesn't have the Exploration Upper Stage. 

Eric Ralph's article on Teslarati has some interesting perspectives in it.  The wild card; in fact, the wildest card in space exploration is Starship and Super Heavy.  If they meet even most of their goals for that system, I wouldn't be even a tiny bit surprised for SpaceX to be putting their own missions on the moon at rates that put Artemis to shame.  I could certainly see Jared Isaacman buying a trip to the moon like this year's Polaris Dawn.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Biden Budget Proposes Big Boost for Artemis and SLS

The White House released the budget requests for FY 2023 and it includes an 8% increase for NASA, with a major emphasis on funding the Artemis moon-landing program. 

President Joe Biden on Monday released his budget request for the coming fiscal year, and NASA is a big winner. The administration is asking Congress to fund $25.9 billion for the space agency in 2023, an increase of nearly $2 billion over the $24 billion the agency received for fiscal year 2022.

The budget request for NASA includes a healthy increase for the Artemis Program, which seeks to carry out a series of human landings on the Moon later this decade. Notably, funding for a "Human Landing System" would increase from $1.2 billion for the current fiscal year to $1.5 billion, allowing for a second provider to begin work. Additionally, funding for lunar spacesuits would increase from $100 million to $276 million. NASA would also receive substantial funding—$48 million—to begin developing human exploration campaigns for the Moon and beyond.

All of this new funding in the proposed budget comes in addition to the billions that NASA has been spending annually to develop the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. Overall funding for Artemis, therefore, would increase from $6.8 billion in fiscal year 2022 to $7.5 billion in the coming fiscal year, which begins October 1, 2022.

That last citation ($6.8 to $7.5 billion) is a healthy 10% increase for the program.  Last year, in their first budget submission, the Biden White House announced their support for Artemis with a special message by Jen "Chucky" Psaki, but no real details.  Most importantly, they didn't announce new dates for the significant milestones of the program, although it was clear they couldn't make the announced dates when they limited NASA's budget to 1/4 of what they said they needed to make those dates.  

The current schedule for the first three Artemis missions calls for the launch of Artemis 1, an unmanned lunar flyby, this summer; Artemis 2, a crewed lunar flyby, in 2024; and Artemis 3, the landing of two astronauts on the Moon, in 2025.  Last year, that manned landing was listed as '24, not '25. 

With NASA getting the budget they asked for, should congress be holding them to producing results, or are results always out of their hands?  SLS would seem to be an argument that NASA can't be held responsible for results.  

Jim Free, NASA's associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, was asked about Congress and whether NASA could commit to landing humans on the Moon by 2025 if the agency received the full budget request this year and in follow-on years.

Free gave an ideal bureaucrat's answer; he didn't answer it at all, simply saying, "we're working on it,"

"I can tell you that every day we are working to get Artemis 1 off, Artemis 2 in 2024, and Artemis 3 in 2025," Free responded. "I'm not sure what commitment looks like to you, but I can tell you that a lot of people come to work every day that are working to get to 2025."

SLS on Pad 39B being prepared for Friday's Wet Dress Rehearsal.  NASA photo.

There are other interesting aspects to this budget.  Briefly, the Europa Clipper has gone over budget and is being funded through the overrun, at the cost of cutting funding to other programs.  The manned side is funding a search for another provider of the Human Landing System, as we talked about last week.  Plus, NASA requested more than twice the current funding level for their program to encourage private space stations like these.  The space agency is currently working with four different contractors on various proposals to have these private space stations either ready to go or already in orbit by the late 2020s.


Sunday, March 27, 2022

Resolving Some Technical Difficulties

I have some computer issues to deal with, so I've got nothing else. 

This is a Windows 10 computer and I'm perpetually annoyed enough with 10 that I've felt no urges to upgrade to 11.  Pay them to torture me?  Is it gambling that 11 will annoy me more, or is it a mortal lock certainty it's going to annoy me more?

I try to remember to backup the drives on this computer weekly onto a local backup hard drive, a Western Digital "My Cloud" Network Attached Storage (NAS) which is within arm's reach, not to somebody else's computer (AKA - 'the cloud').  Windows 10 kept the completely serviceable Windows 7 backup and restore utility, so I've been running that for around five years.  It doesn't take long, and today it barfed for the first time ever.  It gave me an error message, "Backup encountered a problem while backing up file D:\Misc\. Error:(STATUS_WAIT_2 (0x80070002))," which told me absolutely nothing except that something went wrong.  Where I'd expect it to tell me which file failed, I see no filename, just a period (dot).  When I went to look at the D:\Misc directory to see if I could figure out what file it had trouble with, the entire directory was gone off this computer. 

The longer version of that story is that there are actually two backups on the My Cloud drive, one that I did by just copying every directory and every file from this computer to the network backup drive, and a totally different backup that Windoze creates on the backup drive.  The ones I copied are completely readable, while the Windows backup is compressed in some way into one giant file to save space.  The drawback to Windows' backup is that the backup isn't readable by humans.  That meant I couldn't check it to see if the D:\Misc directory was there in today's backup at all.  I looked at the backup I created and the D:\Misc directory was there, but the most recent files on there were from December of 2020. 

I could copy that directory from the My Cloud over to this computer, but it wouldn't be up to date.  How different was the one in the Windows backup?  For the first time ever, I tried to use the restore part of the Backup and Restore tools.  I was able to use the backup that Windows created last weekend to restore that directory.  The files are pretty much the same dates as my old backup except for the latest ten, which are dated from January of  '21 up to last weekend and not 12/20.  I typically run the backup routine weekly on Sunday, but it moves a day or so either way.

Why did Windoze Backup screw up my hard drive and how can I keep it from doing it again?  I have no idea.  So now I'm trying to understand it.

From the Podcast Macabre.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

A Ham Radio Series 32 - Some Antenna News and Rambling

The big thing I want to mention is something that I think some people will want to take advantage of.  I've written about antenna analysis programs before, including posting some data I've derived with the one I use, EZNEC by Roy Lewallen, W7EL.  Last year, Roy announced he was going to retire this year and that he was going to do one, last, big update to EZNEC and post it on the web site as a free download.  

He didn't quite make the first of the year, which (ISTRC) was his goal, but it's there for the free download, along with a lot of his collected wisdom from over the years.  There are manuals and other links there - everything except actual customer support.  The nice thing about a program like EZNEC that has been around for a long time is that there are tons of experienced people out there and using your favorite search engine to look for specific questions can help.  I'm by no means an expert but I can usually get reasonably believable results.  

While I have several plots of EZNEC outputs linked to in that first paragraph, I thought I'd show you the essentials of working with it.  These are all separate live windows on your screen and I grabbed three I'd use among the most.  The antenna is a design for a 5 element, loop fed yagi for six meters that I had been thinking of building until I decided to buy a different design that I talked about around the first week of the year.

The design of the antenna is the lower left window called "Wires" - although they don't have to be wires.  Look at the fifth column from the right edge, called diameter, where you can see all of these are big enough to be tubes.  You simply enter the locations of the start and end of the wire.  The upper right window is the model that has been entered and if you look at the middle option of the bottom box on that window, you'll see an "Add Conn Wires" option.  This allows you to draw the wires onto the diagram with your mouse, left button to start a wire, right to end it.  You'll see two short wires connecting the ends of elements 2 and 3, pointed perpendicular to every other wire - I added those this way.  I haven't tried drawing an antenna from scratch that way.  

There are tons of antenna files that can be downloaded to start with from various places online, and it comes with some samples, too.  Say you want to put up a dipole.  All you need to do is find a file of a dipole and change the dimensions to suit what you're putting up.  I think it came with some dipole files.

As I've said many times, all of my antenna projects begin with the phrase, "when it cools off," because I just don't want to work outside all day for at least half the year.  We have maybe a month left, possibly as much as two months, and I'm working to complete things I wanted to try.  I can work on some projects year 'round because they're entirely indoors.  I tend to think of them as winter projects, too, in case they make me to do a lot of work outside.  

To that end, I've been playing with another version of what I've done to my vertical antenna before, which is to add a matching circuit that will allow it to be used on the 160m ham band.  To accomplish that, I need to get the antenna under 3:1 SWR across the band and then the radio's built-in tuner will match that.  

The vertical itself is sold as an 80/40 dual band antenna and I currently use it on those and 30m.  The trick I did in that old post worked, but it only had a bandwidth of about 50 kHz, on a band that's 200 kHz wide and it wasn't really tunable.  I've been playing with analyzing alternate ways to match the impedance of the antenna and while I have improved on that performance, it's not there, yet.  I haven't built the circuit to compare reality to theory but the analysis shows it should be under 3:1 for around 150 or 160 kHz.   

As I said last year, I know if I called this post “Putting the Cushcraft MA8040V on 160 Meters,” I'd get a whole different bunch of readers.  Maybe five or ten new readers.    



Friday, March 25, 2022

Firefly Ready To Try Again

Last September, when Firefly last appeared here, it was after their first attempt at making orbit ended in a Flight Termination Event - loss of the vehicle and failure of the mission.  Thanks to a heads up from Ars Technica's Rocket Report, we learn that Firefly will make its second attempt to reach orbit with its Alpha rocket in May, having received government approval to resume launch operations.  The company recently completed a $75 million round of fundraising along with some reorganization, all of which resulted in approval from the to resume operations. 

The government halted Firefly's launch operations at Vandenberg in late 2021, saying Ukrainian software entrepreneur Max Polyakov's venture must sell his 50 percent stake in Firefly. The divestiture came late last month, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine. Separately, Firefly also closed a $75 million fundraising round led by AE Industrial Partners, which Markusic said means that the company's broader growth plan is "fully funded." This is good news for Firefly as it seeks to get Alpha flying regularly and to develop its Blue Ghost lunar lander.

Their first attempt at orbit was from Vandenberg Space Force Base and they will resume operations there.  CEO Tom Markusic says the company “worked methodically and cooperatively with the government” to both complete the divestment, as well as to add “security protocols” at the company.  After these changes, Markusic said the company now has “full access to our facilities to go back and launch” from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Firefly will next transport its second Alpha rocket from its headquarters near Austin, Texas, to California, and aims to launch as soon as it can.

They feel that they understand and addressed the issue that cost the first mission, so they're ready to go try again.  

The first Firefly Alpha, first stage, prior to shipment to Vandenberg in '21.  Firefly Aerospace photo.  


Wednesday, March 23, 2022

A Couple of Space News Items

News to keep an eye on while waiting to find out if the FAA issues their environmental approvals for Starbase Boca Chica.  At least they haven't already delayed it.  It seems like a lot of milestones need to be completed by Monday, the 28th, but we'll see. 

I need to remind you all of something.  The Human Landing System contract that SpaceX won went through an arduous bidding process in which a group of companies were downselected into four to provide a deeper proposal, which SpaceX won.  Which somehow led Blue Origin to sue NASA.  Twice.  

Today brought a story down that trail.  Late this afternoon, 4:41PM EDT (I think Twitter puts things in our time zone) SpaceX's corporate account Tweeted this, with an embedded NASA Artemis program message with a link to a press release

The press release talks about restarting a contract to produce more lunar landers, not necessarily Starships built by other contractors (which is common in the defense industry).

To bring a second entrant to market for the development of a lunar lander in parallel with SpaceX, NASA will issue a draft solicitation in the coming weeks. This upcoming activity will lay out requirements for a future development and demonstration lunar landing capability to take astronauts between orbit and the surface of the Moon. This effort is meant to maximize NASA’s support for competition and provides redundancy in services to help ensure NASA’s ability to transport astronauts to the lunar surface.  

Did you notice the mention in NASA's tweet about Artemis III?  I'm reading that to mean that NASA is committed to the Starship HLS (Human Landing System) through Artemis II, today's contract is to get SpaceX through Artemis III and the new "draft solicitation" for what they want is for more of the Artemis program and follow-on work on the moon.  

And "oh, by the way," after the successful roll out to pad 39B, the SLS mission appointed to launch the first unmanned Artemis test mission has been proceeding smoothly toward the Wet Dress Rehearsal.  The Artemis blog says:

... teams have connected numerous ground support equipment elements to the rocket and spacecraft, including electrical, fuel environmental control system ducts, and cryogenic propellant lines. Teams successfully powered up all elements of the integrated system at the pad for the first time on March 21 in preparation for the wet dress rehearsal test planned for April 1-3.

April first is one week from Friday, so blink twice and it will be here. 

On Monday, Elon Musk tweeted an important message for people watching Starbase operations.  

First Starship orbital flight will be with Raptor 2 engines, as they are much more capable & reliable. 230 ton or ~500k lb thrust at sea level.

We’ll have 39 flightworthy engines built by next month, then another month to integrate, so hopefully May for orbital flight test.

Because of the differences between the connections to Raptor 2 engines vs. the Raptor 1 that Starship SN20 and Booster 4 were built to handle, this means they will not be doing an orbital mission.  It probably means their service life is either over already or close to it.  B4 and S20 have been used for an uncounted number of tests, were stacked yet again last weekend for some more ground support equipment tests, and de-stacked again.  They will be on display at the "museum" where other prototypes rest, or maybe a "real" museum.

Musk also explicitly confirmed that they would be replaced with a new ship/booster pair in a later tweet.  For weeks now, the chatter on the Lab Padre channels have been that the first orbital flight will be Booster 7 and Ship 24.  

Unfortunately, I'm forced to think that a May launch is "Elon Standard Time" and that probably means June or July. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

ULA's Vulcan Schedule Slips Out - “Late '22?”

This afternoon, the news broke that as Blue Origin goes through the "last mile" of delivering the first two flight-ready BE-4 Methalox (Methane-Oxygen) engines for ULA's new Vulcan booster, the VP of Blue Origin's Engines group announced he's leaving the company.   Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told employees of the departure of John Vilja, the senior vice president of Blue Engines in a Corporate email.  

ULA CEO Tory Bruno (l) and Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos pose with a miniature model of the BE-4.  Win McNamee/Getty Images from 2014.  

The last "will deliver by" date that I have for these engines is "by the end of 2021."  Eric Berger from Ars Technica re-Tweeted this bit of humor for interpreting the dates they talk about for those of us following.  As the dates get more specific, the truth is closer to the announced date, but none of them should be taken literally.

Sources familiar with Vilja's work confirmed that he was a good manager and engineer who helped get the BE-4 rocket engine program back on track. As Ars reported last August, before Vilja's arrival, the numerous challenges faced by the engineers and technicians working to build and test BE-4 development engines included being "hardware poor."

During his tenure, Vilja hired Linda Cova to serve as his deputy. She will now lead, at least on an interim basis, the Engines team at Blue Origin. Cova came to the company in 2021 after working on various propulsion programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne for 35 years. Among her duties, she led the development of the AR1 engine, which lost out to the BE-4 engine in a competition held by United Launch Alliance for its new Vulcan rocket.

I won't bore you with a dissertation on the promised engine delivery dates.  I'll side with Michel van Baal here and say the chances Vulcan will fly in late 2022 strike me as "slim and none" but that's only based on their track record of not making promised deliveries.  The current guesstimated dates are first two engines are shipped to acceptance testing in May, two more in "reasonably short order" (I love that precision), and the first two flight engines to ULA in "June or July."  According to van Baal, that should mean August or September.

ULA really needs those engines to fly their Vulcan; not using them would probably mean massive redesign of the system.  The same issues with Roscosmos that are affecting everyone else should be dumping missions in ULA's laps, too.  The US prohibits the Russian-made engines that Atlas V flew on, limiting the life of that booster and eliminating the ability to take on an urgent task like OneWeb's.  The US military is eager to move its missions to vehicles made in the United States.  At present, the only game in town that the US Space Force has for medium- and heavy-lift is the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets built by SpaceX, with their American-made Merlin engines.



Monday, March 21, 2022

OneWeb Has a Ride Into Space

Not even three weeks ago, March 4, we heard that Russia's Roscosmos had halted launches for hire, stranding satellite Internet provider OneWeb with a Soyuz load of satellites in Russia and no reliable way to launch them.  

This morning, OneWeb announced a contract with SpaceX  to launch their satellites, stepping into the gap lefty by Roscosmos.  Terms of the contract haven't been released, but those probably aren't the details we want.  I may be speaking for myself, but I want to know how many launches and where they're launching from.  They say the first launch will be this year, so it's all about how fast they can prepare a payload of satellites and how fast SpaceX can respond.  

Relating to this, although I don't know if the announcement is the reason, there's this Twitter exchange that Elon Musk was part of:

With one company lifting 65 to 70% of the world's payloads into orbit, it's pretty safe to say that's the only company in the world that's likely to have some spare capacity to dedicate to an emergency like this one.  There was talk back at the start of the month that OneWeb would probably have to arrange a deal with SpaceX so the deal isn't completely out of nowhere, but remember that the two companies are competitors in the satellite ISP world.  SpaceX Starlink launches are on the company's dime, and while it's one of the ways they test their most heavily flown boosters, a little extra revenue never hurt anyone.  They're still on pace for one launch per week this year, and I'll speculate that SpaceX might add some launches for OneWeb, or replace some Starlink launches with OneWeb, or both. 

OneWeb, though, still isn't out of the woods.  The relationship between Russian and Western spaceflight programs has effectively been cut off.  That means all 6 or 7 of OneWeb’s remaining Soyuz launch contracts, each of which the company had already paid more than $50 million for, are gone.  Though the company's technicians were able to leave the country, Russia effectively seized OneWeb’s remaining Soyuz rockets and its 13th batch of operational satellites.  

That left OneWeb in an unsurprisingly precarious situation. Having already gone bankrupt once, a major delay could be financially catastrophic for the company. Normally, procuring half a dozen near-term launch contracts at the last second would be virtually impossible. Indeed, ignoring a certain US company, no other launch provider on Earth could even theoretically find or build enough capacity to launch the last third of OneWeb’s constellation without at least a one or two-year delay. Luckily for OneWeb, SpaceX does exist.

It bears mentioning that OneWeb isn't alone in being left hanging by Roscosmos.  There are satellites for the European Union as well.  The EU is in a bind because there are no more Ariane 5 cores and Ariane 6 isn't really up to production numbers, yet.  That means some of those programs may be coming to SpaceX as well.  Eric Berger from Ars Technica and on Twitter as @SciSpaceGuy notes:

Notable: Important space officials in Germany say the best course for Europe, in the near term, would be to move six stranded Galileo satellites, which had been due to fly on Soyuz, to three Falcon 9 rockets.

You can almost hear the French complaining to Germany about those missions going to SpaceX but not having anything to launch them on is a pretty hard limit. 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Some Words About Last Night

I ended last night's post on SpaceX achieving yet another reuse record with a photo that caught a Falcon 9 seconds after lift off, while the booster from the mission a week before was being moved from the recovery drone onto the truck for transport to where it will be inspected and prepared for it's next flight.  I said, "in my mind, the way it ought to be."  This is not so much about the launch cadence of once a week, which is the only place in the world trying for that.  It's about the reuse of the hardware. 

I've only worked on the design of a few satellites, and really only one I can talk about by name and mission, back between about 1990 and 1996.  As a receiver and PLL synthesizer designer, I worked on those parts of satellites.  I believe the things I'm going to talk about apply to rockets and their hardware, both electronic and mechanical, but I never worked on a launch vehicle.  

Those who aren't familiar with the design world probably don't know this, but the price of the parts you buy depends on the conditions the parts are rated to work under.  The cheapest electronic parts are the plain commercial grade parts; they're rated for a narrow temperature range, from 0 to 50C, or 32 to 122F.  These are what are used in consumer devices of all kinds including inside the passenger compartments of cars.  There are three more stringent selection grades and each grade is more expensive than the one before: industrial (often -40 to +80C), Military (-55 to 125C) and then Space rated, or Class S.  There are others for really severe environments, but these are the main ranges.

Everyone who works on space hardware knows that the requirements always specify the most expensive parts made.  Class S parts are generally screened and tested to the same temperatures as military, unless there are requirements for that specific mission that go beyond those, and are also rated for their ability to survive radiation in space.  
It's important to say that there could be no difference between the silicon that makes up two parts, one commercial and one class S.  They can be made side by side on a wafer and one gets more tests and documentation than the other.  It's the difference in testing to guarantee the performance that raises the price.  That's why I think it's fair to lump things like engine turbopumps and processors; they're both the best parts because of the things done to guarantee they are.

To me, a very reasonable question goes something like "these are the best parts in the world and we throw them out after one use?"  We invoke these requirements to ensure that these very expensive satellites (or manned capsules), being lifted into orbit by even more expensive boosters, all perform their mission.  Most transistors or more complex circuits will run virtually forever, if you run them a bit below their absolute maximum ratings, but we throw these out after a few minutes of use?  Remember, Voyager has been running since 1977 - and those are probably 1973 vintage parts which ran for hundreds of hours in ground testing.   

We throw these out because "old space" never seriously asked the question of how much more work they would have to do in order to recover a booster, or how much capability they throw away on every mission.  They never really seriously contemplated "how can we do this?" because they never seriously thought there was a need to reuse boosters.  Congress was apparently happy to keep paying them whatever they billed for any launch vehicle - look no farther than SLS.  A week ago, I opined,
I've long thought that the way SpaceX developed the technology was brilliant.  I could see from the way ULA CEO Tory Bruno talked that he thought it would cost way too much money to develop and he just saw the costs entirely differently.  SpaceX seemed to think that they sent up a Falcon 9 for hire and when the booster separated, it had just been thrown out.  It's now "free" as if they picked it out of a trash pile to experiment on.  They can tell the engines to turn on for a very minimal amount of extra cost, and guide it to where it could land.  As long as the primary mission of launching a customer's satellite was accomplished, and every launch coverage has stressed that was their crucial part, everything after MECO was teaching them more than if they dropped the booster in the ocean.  True, the recovery drones were an expense and there were others, but those costs get amortized out over many recoveries - well over 100 at this time.
There's a Netflix documentary coming on the return of manned spaceflight to the US through SpaceX Crew Dragon and the story of getting there. There's a line in the trailer about how SpaceX changed the industry.  I would say they didn't simply change the industry; they changed everything.  The rest of the industry just hasn't learned that, yet.

Which raises the real question that if they can do 12 launches on one booster, how many more before it becomes too expensive to refurbish for reuse?  20?  Who knows?  Don Rumsfeld's quote about having known unknowns and unknown unknowns comes to mind. Last summer, Elon Musk was openly talking about boosters being launched 20 or 30 times, maybe up to 100 times, with periodic maintenance like commercial airliners get.  It's the dawn of a new age - the one promised to us 60 years ago.

B1051 after her 10th flight and arrival at Port Canaveral, two flights ago.  Richard Angle photo for Teslarati.



Saturday, March 19, 2022

Falcon 9 Sets New Reuse Record

As mentioned in the lead up to last night's launch, the Starlink mission appeared completely routine like every other Starlink launch except for one thing.  The booster, numbered B1051, was flying its 12th flight.  It was only last May, 10 months ago, that the same booster recorded its 10th flight and became the first orbital-class rocket in history to be reused 10 times.  You will probably recall that for the first few years they were successfully landing and reusing boosters that 10 flights was a goal.  Only a few months earlier in March, Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's VP of Build and Flight Reliability, said that they'd continue to inspect and keep an eye on the boosters after the 10th flight, adding, "don't think 10 is a magic number."  

The other thing worth noting is that this is the 11th Falcon 9 launch of the year in the 11th week of the year.  To my surprise, they report Starlink 4-12 was also the heaviest payload ever launched by a Falcon 9, weighing in around 16.25 metric tons or ~35,800 pounds.  I thought this load of Starlink satellites would weigh what the others weigh.  

The mission went without any announced hitches and B1051 successfully landed on Just Read The Instructions about 8-1/2 minutes after launch.  Unfortunately, they apparently lost a flood light on the deck of JRTI making it impossible to see the booster standing there.  It was the night of the full moon, though and the approach to landing offered a very bright and useful view of the drone ship seconds before landing. 

SpaceX's convention is to add a dashed number onto the booster number indicating its next flight.  That makes this B1051-13.  

Since no other company offering orbital launch services is reusing their boosters, the record of 12 successful missions will stand until the other experienced vehicles in their fleet achieve it.  Boosters B1058 and B1060 each have 11 flights and are presumably going to be going for #12 soon. 

I missed watching the launch.  It had rained with nearby lightning for a while last night, and I took the bet they wouldn't be able to complete preparations for last night's Falcon 9 launch in time and went to bed early.  Plus, if they had completed preparations, I'd bet we wouldn't have seen it due to clouds.  This morning, my YouTube feed said that they had launched and everything went well - except the launch was at 12:48 instead of 11:24, so I probably would have gone to bed before the launch anyway.

In my mind, the way it ought to be; a Falcon 9 launch in the distance while in the foreground, the booster from the launch a few days before is being transferred to the transporter truck to bring it back for refurbishment.  Although the image has a website name on it, I'm unable to find the image there.  I got it from the Twitter account of Michael Seeley taken and posted on March 3.

Friday, March 18, 2022

The JWST is Working, "Performed Better Than the Models Said it Should"

The James Webb Space Telescope continues to go through it's process of getting readied to start its mission, and the good news continues to roll in.  According to the "Where is Webb?" NASA site, they're still weeks away from going operational, but are well into turning the 18 different reflecting telescopes into one telescope that adds the apertures of all 18 of those mirrors together for all of the instruments aboard.  Right now, that's only true for the one camera they're using.

Screen capture from Where is Webb earlier this evening.

In the last couple of days, the Webb team gave the results of the first fine phasing adjustment of the instrument.  The quote in the title is from one of the project leaders.  I previewed a few videos of the results, but I like the official one best.

On Wednesday, as part of the news release on this milestone, NASA provided a photograph from the JWST.  At  one point in the preparations for launch, someone said there were 344 single-point failures between launch, deployment to the L2 point, and being ready for operation.  It's looking good but we don't know how many, if any, of those 344 are left. 

This is the end result after all of their alignments and is said to have the best resolution and lowest diffraction ever in a telescope this far into the infrared.   They refer to it as a Deep Field photo, similar to the Hubble Deep Field photo, one of the most famous photographs the space telescope ever captured.  As you look around the field of the photo, like near the diffraction spike at around 10 o'clock, or just above the faint 3 o'clock spike most of the way to the right edge, all of those elongated streaks you see are galaxies.  Probably the fuzzy blobs are galaxies as well, although some could be double stars.  This field is all in infrared light, far beyond the reddest reds people can see, but the intensities were put through a red filter because someone liked the look. 


Thursday, March 17, 2022

SLS On the Way to the Pad

It's really a major milestone that the Artemis 1 mission SLS has begun its move to the launch pad this evening.  Yeah, it wasn't at 5PM EDT as advertised, slipping until 6PM, but in the big picture of the whole Artemis program, it's an important step.  Every major step from here on is more important. 

As you can see by the time in the upper left, five minutes after first motion (possibly a few more - they may have started a few minutes before 6PM), the crawler transporter wasn't fully out of the Vehicle Assembly Building, but the booster was far enough out of the building to catch some sunlight.  

The crawler can only move around 1mph when fully loaded like this, and it's about 5 miles from the VAB to pad 39B, so it won't be completing its journey until after 11PM tonight.  Add to that time that it can't go 1 mph all the time, especially not during the climb up the inclined ramp at the pad.  The NASA Spaceflight commentators are saying the official number for the time to complete the task, as determined by the crawler transferring the full weight of the mobile launcher tower onto the supports at the pad, is for it to take 11 hours.  That will be early tomorrow morning.  If it's before 5AM Eastern on 3/18, the live video coverage is here.

The Wet Dress Rehearsal is No Earlier Than (NET) April 1st.  The actual first test launch is NET "June" (no date specified).  

For anyone intending to watch tomorrow night's Falcon 9 launch, either on the YouTube feed, or outside live, SpaceX is saying the launch time has been backed out to 11:24PM EDT tomorrow night from the 9:30PM time I reported yesterday. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A Little Space News Roundup

Say this after me - something I wasn't sure I'd ever say - tomorrow, the first SLS Artemis mission vehicle, called the Artemis I stack, will roll out from the VAB to the launch complex.  This is according to the NASA Artemis mission page.  This is in preparation for the first wet dress rehearsal which will take place on April 1.  (I'm not making this up.) 

NASA’s new Moon rocket stands poised inside Kennedy Space Center’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building ahead of its first journey to the launch pad. Comprised of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, and sitting on its mobile launcher, the Artemis I Moon-bound rocket is ready to roll March 17 to Launch Complex 39B for its wet dress rehearsal test targeted to begin on April 1st.

A WDR is loading the vehicle with its cryogenic fuel and oxidizer, and going through the complete countdown cycle but without starting the engines. 

SpaceX is going for a dozen. 

SpaceX is keeping up its tempo of one Falcon 9 launch per week this year, with a launch this Friday night from SLC-40 on the Kennedy Space Center.  NET 9:30 p.m. EDT Friday night, which makes it 0130 UTC on Saturday. 

The last few launches have been on trajectories to the SE, down near and east of the Bahamas with the recovery drone barge on the NE side of the Bahamas.  This launch will be going to the NE as most Starlink launches have gone.  Being almost due south of the launch complex, the SE trajectory is a lot better for watching from my side yard.  (Except for when the last one went in front of the sun on my line of sight) 

The lead-in for this couple of paragraphs is that an "oh, by the way" note on Teslarati, obtained from another source.  This will be the first attempt to launch a Falcon 9 booster on its 12th mission.  Remember when ten flights was the aspirational goal?  The new goal for the number of launches hasn't been announced that I know of, but they're going to keep testing the fleet until issues show up.

According to Next Spaceflight, Falcon 9 B1051 will support the mission, becoming the first SpaceX booster of any kind to attempt its 12th orbital-class launch before midnight on Friday, March 18th. 

It turns out Pi Day has another special meaning that I wished I'd known of on Monday.  Monday was the 20th birthday of SpaceX.  

Watch that video.  As the timer says, it's one minute and 38 seconds of highlight reel.

Astra's latest orbital launch attempt from Kodiak Alaska was a success with the payload confirmed to be delivered properly and responding to its controllers.  Congratulations to them on the success.  

I don't have a link handy but have read that regarding that failed February launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force station they quickly found the cause for that failure.  The failure involved the mechanisms that controlled releasing the payload fairings in flight.  It was one of those cases where the instructions for wiring the mechanism were followed to the letter, and the inspectors verified they were followed, but the instructions were wrong.  Anyone who has done product development has seen something similar to that.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

A Surprising Unanimous Bill Passed Out of the Senate

Surprising or even shocking, the Senate today unanimously passed a bill to end Daylight Savings Time, making the last transition to ever occur in 2023.  As I understand it, next fall we'll go back on standard time, and will then go back to DST in March of '23 and never change again.  

The Senate approved the measure, called the Sunshine Protection Act, unanimously by voice vote. The House of Representatives, which has held a committee hearing on the matter, must still pass the bill before it can go to President Joe Biden to sign.

The White House has not said whether Biden supports it. A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to say if she supports the measure but said she was reviewing it closely.

Senator Marco Rubio, one of the bill's sponsors, said supporters agreed the change would not take place until November 2023 after input from airlines and broadcasters.

Naturally, since the bill came out of the Senate, it will have to go over to the house to be passed (or killed) over there.  Should it be modified in the house (my guess is Nancy can't let it just go without personalizing it), it will have to go to a reconciliation committee and endure more "process." 

Senator Rubio had a couple of good lines about this.  He said, 

"I know this is not the most important issue confronting America, but it's one of those issues where there's a lot of agreement," Rubio said. "If we can get this passed, we don't have to do this stupidity anymore.  Pardon the pun, but this is an idea whose time has come."

Senator Rubio is one of the bill's sponsors and one of our Florida senators.  I know I've talked about this several times, but Florida passed a law back in '18 saying we would stay on DST permanently and never change clocks again, but couldn't actually do so without the granting us that permission.  I've heard Senator Rubio say that the only power states have is to stay on standard time.  Which seems to imply staying on DST is somehow wrong.  I don't have to add that IANAL but this certainly doesn't seem to be a legitimate Federal power to me.   

Since 2015, 30 states have introduced legislation to end the twice-yearly changing of clocks, with some states proposing to do it only if neighboring states do the same. A 2019 poll found 71% of Americans prefer to no longer switch their clocks twice a year. The only controversy seems to be if states prefer to stay on standard time year round or stay on DST all year, and if they had asked me (hah!), that's the only change I'd think of, but to paraphrase Rubio, this is one of those issues with wide support and it should pass.  

Yeah, you'll have groups in each state that want the opposite times.  That's inevitable.  In Florida it appears the main tourist industry reps want to stay on DST (which is why the law was passed in '18) while some other groups want the other way.  The inevitable physics of the situation is that states get different variations of their amount of sunlight because that varies with latitude.  That change in sunlight hours with the seasons is caused by the 23.5 degree inclination of Earth's orbit.  Here in the southernmost reaches of the US, (I'm not in the tropics - none of Florida is) we have less variation.  On the summer solstice, our day is just short of 14 hours long - 13:55:30.  On the winter solstice it's 3 hours 34 minutes shorter, 10:21:43. (source)  In Minneapolis, MN, the longest day lengthens to 15:36:48 - just over two hours longer, and the shortest day shortens down to 8:46:12, virtually seven hours shorter than their longest day.  Nothing can be done about that.  All DST does is change what we call those hours.

This graphic is from Scott Yates, founder of the website called #LockTheClock, and when I checked to see if the site was still there, see that he's running for congress in Colorado with this a key part of his platform. 

A couple of days ago, maybe "DST Monday" Mrs. Graybeard and I were talking about DST.  I honestly don't remember life before changing the clocks.  I'm pretty sure DST came to the state in my life, but I just don't remember what sunrise and sunset times were like all year without it.  The only thing I can think of (prodding myself) was when they did a "double DST" moving clocks forward two hours, during the '70s OPEC oil crisis.  I'm pretty sure of that.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Missed Pi Day

I've pretty much missed it.  Most of my readers will see this on 3-15, not 3-14.  Plus, to be honest, I don't tend to do posts for Pi Day.  Searching on the phrase only turns up two.  Of the two, my warped sense of humor tends to prefer this one:

Which doesn't mention pi at all.  

So let's go somewhere else.  As a rule, I try not to post about things I know virtually nothing about but tonight I'll make an exception.  

The subject is the world of the Raspberry Pi single board computer (SBC).  Yes, I have one, a Raspberry Pi 2.  That was (relatively speaking) the New Hotness when I was retiring and I was thinking seriously of putting all of my ham shack's Windows software into Linux and using the Pi 2.  Today, if you look at their hardware page, you'll find options from a $4 Pi Pico microcontroller to a $10 bare bones, Pi Zero SBC, all the way up to a $100 full Pi computer built into a keyboard, with a mouse and Wall Wart-type power supply.  Most of their hardware is sold by other sources that experimenters will know.

Which you should buy depends on your budget and what you'd use it for.  The Raspberry Pi concept is to be a desktop computer, running on a distribution of Linux.  It's also really being pushed as way to "learn to code" for kids and others farther along in life.  It's capable of doing most anything a desktop can do, although the Arduino seems to be the microcontroller that's most preferred.  I see far more projects based on the Arduino than the Pi. 

I've used my Pi 2 with my 3D printer, running an open source SW package to help with some infrequent tasks, but what I find interesting is using it with ham radio.  I need to look into this more because it's over 6 years since I spent a couple of months trying to find Linux alternatives for some Windows software.  It's very possible there's new software out there.  A friend does a lot of activity centered on his Pi (don't recall which model) and one of his main resources is YouTuber KM4ACK, Jason Oleham.  Jason's channel has dozens of videos on various things you can do with your Pi as well as things you can't do without either a Pi or another computer.  I recommend watching the 10 minute video Raspberry Pi Ham Radio | Where to Start to get an idea of what he and the channel are about.  

So there.  Pi day without reference to the famous number.  Hope yours was fun. 

Sunday, March 13, 2022

China Unveils Smaller Copy of Starship and Superheavy

I have to start this by saying I wish I had more than one source for this, the weekly Teslarati email I get contains some information on the Chinese developing a copy of SpaceX's Starship for Low Earth Orbit flights.   They quote China's Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) but don't include any references I can link to.  They do include, though, a graphic showing the vehicle and a flight outline.  

If you're familiar with Starship from their test flights last year, the flight profile will look very familiar.  This graphic apparently originated at a February '22 meeting in which it was presented as a fully-reusable human-rated rocket that would replace the country's existing crew launch vehicles - at least for LEO.  Fueled, like SpaceX's next-generation rocket, by methane and oxygen (methalox), it's hard to look at the vehicle's upper stage and not think of it as a Starship copy.

We've known since 2019 that the Chinese have been experimenting with grid fins similar to the ones SpaceX uses on both Falcon 9 and the Superheavy booster.  There are many reports of other aerospace agencies attempting to build off the Falcon 9 concepts and achieve reusability.  While there are many claims that others are copying SpaceX, this Starship concept looks to remove all doubt.  

Note the similarity in the flight path, especially the right half of that graphic. The Second Stage clone would use the same profile SpaceX has developed, with two flaps on each side of the second stage at the front and back of the lander.  The lander will descend while decelerating in a horizontal position, and then flip to vertical at the very end of descent to perform a propulsive landing. 

The system seems to be smaller than Starship and that seems like it has to help them.  I think some of the difficulties SpaceX has with the system is partly from how big it is.  

Three main differences between Starship follow. First, China wants the rocket to be able to launch about 20 tons to LEO, while Starship is aiming for 100-150+ tons to the same orbit. Second, the booster appears to be a visually identical copy not of SpaceX's Super Heavy - but of Blue Origin's New Glenn first stage. Finally, instead of an ultra-high-performance engine like SpaceX's Raptor, China's next-gen crew launch vehicle would use a simpler gas generator engine cycle - less efficient but much easier to design, build, and make reliable.

The author of the email piece, Eric Ralph, had a positive take on the Chinese copying SpaceX.  I have to admit I'd never thought of it this way.  He talks about how ULA, Arianespace and Roscosmos have just puttered around paying lip service to reuse but doing essentially nothing to develop it, and while China has been slow, they seem to be actually doing something.

[...]The half-hearted stumbling about of formerly great launch providers makes China's strategy of observing what has worked and copying successful designs (or at least copying a company with a strong record of success) look like a stroke of brilliance. While the speed of the country's efforts to develop reusable rockets has left plenty to be desired, at least its space agencies, design bureaus, and startups are actually trying to seriously respond to and learn from SpaceX's successes.

I've long thought that the way SpaceX developed the technology was brilliant.  I could see from the way ULA CEO Tory Bruno talked that he thought it would cost way too much money to develop and he just saw the costs entirely differently.  SpaceX seemed to think that they sent up a Falcon 9 for hire and when the booster separated, it had just been thrown out.  It's now "free" as if they picked it out of a trash pile to experiment on.  They can tell the engines to turn on for a very minimal amount of extra cost, and guide it to where it could land.  As long as the primary mission of launching a customer's satellite was accomplished, and every launch coverage has stressed that was their crucial part, everything after MECO was teaching them more than if they dropped the booster in the ocean.  True, the recovery drones were an expense and I'm sure there were others, but those costs get amortized out over many recoveries - well over 100 at this time.

Chinese Long March 2 grid fins in 2019.  CASC Photo.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

No, Russia Is Not Threatening to Leave an Astronaut on the ISS

Just to be clear, I've seen this story in a dozen places, like yesterday on ZeroHedge, and while there are many sources it's not worth looking them all up.  It all stems back to the cascade of tweets from Dmitry Rogozin at Roscosmos, that we talked about most of the first week of the month (Friday 3/4).  This week, the threats have centered on "abandoning" astronaut Mark Vande Hei currently on the station. Vande Hei is scheduled to return to Earth in a Soyuz capsule at the end of this month, landing in Kazakhstan.  NASA officials are expected to be there to greet him and bring him back to the United States.  This is all pretty routine.

Eric Berger at Ars Technica has done a bit more research and digs out an important detail:

The source of this "news" appears to be a video published more than a week ago by a Kremlin-aligned publication, RIA Novosti. Roscosmos TV provided footage for the video, but in sharing it acknowledged that the video was a "joke." Now, this is an exceptionally poor joke given the tensions on Earth, but it is important to understand that sharing a video a week ago does not mean Russia is threatening to leave Vande Hei behind. Nothing has changed since the video was posted.

The first link is a Twitter thread from Katya Pavlushchenko, dated March 5th, which is worth looking at, including the video from RIA Novosti.  The second link is in Russian, so I'll take their word that it said the whole thing was a lame joke.  Granted it might make Rogin look good to his home audience. 

As we've been discussing here all along, NASA has said "Operations have not changed at all," and will probably end up talking about it in a previously scheduled press conference on Monday March 14th at 2PM EDT.  That conference is to discuss some spacewalks aimed at improving the ISS that are set for Tuesday 3/15 and the following Wednesday 3/26.   

All of that is not to say that everything is just completely peachy keen with Roscosmos.  

Space News, for example, tallied up 16 commercial launches that had been scheduled to fly on the Russian Soyuz rocket during the next two years. These payloads are now stranded, affecting customers ranging from the private company OneWeb, to the European Commission, to the government of Sweden. And the joint Europe-Russia probe scheduled to launch to Mars this year, ExoMars, will be delayed for years and may very well be canceled, sources say.  

As we're half a month into the war in Ukraine, it's impossible to call where this goes.  I don't think anyone can realistically call what Putin is going to do about this.  Yes, it's income for the country and it may be viewed with national pride by Russians.  It could be, however, that if Putin decides to end Russian participation in the International Space Station it makes him look even stronger to some people and is good politics for him personally.

The important point is that the Mark Vande Hei isn't going to be abandoned on the ISS with no way down, and the ISS isn't going to de-orbit.  We went into the re-boosting issue in the first week.  There's currently a Crew Dragon spacecraft docked to the ISS, and while there are more astronauts on the ISS than it could handle, I bet that if they asked any of the Crew-3 astronauts if they'd wait on the station longer and give up their seat for Vande Hei's ride home, all of that could be worked out.  I know SpaceX has just been awarded contracts for more three more crewed NASA missions to the ISS since Boeing's Starliner is still incapable of flight.  The next manned mission for NASA is Crew-4, currently set for no earlier than (NET) 15 April and the crews typically will switch out with a brief period together on the ISS.  Before that, however, SpaceX will also carry the first totally commercial crew to the station for Axiom, NET March 30 at 2:46PM EDT.  

It wouldn't surprise me if SpaceX built another Crew Dragon faster than almost anyone would expect and offers a custom ride to get Mark Vande Hei down.    

The Russian Nauka module last July, just before docking with ISS - and then knocking it off it's desired orbital attitude.