Thursday, June 30, 2022

CRS25 (Cargo Resupply) Mission Bumped Later

SpaceX's CRS25 mission to the International Space Station was originally scheduled to be June 10th but was then delayed on the 7th by the discovery of a possible leak from one of the Cargo Dragon's Draco thrusters.  Dates moved around a bit but the last I heard was No Earlier Than (NET) July 11th. Word was released earlier in the week of a three day slip to NET July 14th.  

“The new target launch date supports ongoing Dragon spacecraft inspections as well as repair and replacement of any components that could have degraded by exposure to mono-methyl hydrazine (MMH) vapor found during testing in early June. In order to allow a more detailed off-vehicle inspection of the parachutes, the SpaceX team made the decision to replace the main parachutes on this spacecraft.

The new date also allows for launch of the uncrewed cargo mission for the earliest possible rendezvous opportunity with the International Space Station following the upcoming high-beta angle period when the sun angle with space station’s orbital plane causes problems with thermal and power generation at the microgravity laboratory in the planned docking attitude for visiting spacecraft.” – June 28th, 2022

The reason for this latest delay is the last sentence in the first quoted paragraph: the possibility that the MMH leak may have damaged one of the Cargo Dragon's parachutes.  Rather than open the capsule and inspect the parachutes, SpaceX made the decision to replace them with new parachutes and inspect those in a better way.  The delay from July 11th to the 14th to replace 'chutes isn't that much time, and taking time to inspect the 'chutes and then replace them would most likely take more time than to just replace them.  

The Cargo Dragon from mission CRS-23 arriving at ISS and just off the docking visible at left.  Photo by ESA Astronaut Thomas Pesquet.  August 30, 2021.  

This is one of six Falcon 9 launches on the manifest for July; the first will be NET next Thursday, July 7, from SLC-40 at the Cape, followed by one from Vandenberg's SLC-4E on Friday, July 8. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The JWST Team is Teasing Us

A check of the "Where is Webb" site shows that the James Webb Space Telescope hasn't been declared fully operational yet because the team is in the last stages of commissioning all of its instruments.  They are, however taking images and the people who have seen them are going gaga over them.  

Recounting his first encounter with data from Webb, [Thomas] Zurbuchen [who leads NASA's scientific programs] said he, too, was in awe of what the telescope had proven capable of. He said he almost cried when looking at the first photos taken by the new instrument.
NASA's deputy administrator, Pam Melroy, said she was blown away by the images Webb has produced so far. "What I have seen moved me, as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a human being," she said.  [EDIT: clarifications in square brackets added here - SiG]

Screen capture of "Where is Webb?" site at 8:30 PM June 29, '22. Note the temperature of the sun-facing side of the sunshield in that broad, tennis court-sized area is 122F (leftmost temperature next to the view of the JWST) while the cold, shaded side opposite at the back of the telescope is -384F, while specific instruments range from -390 to -449F.  (Absolute zero, 0 Kelvin, is -459.67F).  That shield works pretty well!

It has been six months since the Christmas Day launch of the JWST, aboard its Ariane 5 ride to its ultimate L2 point orbit over 900,000 miles from Earth.  The nerve-wracking deployment of the sunshield, the unfolding of the main telescope and meticulous alignment of the optical system are all in the rear view mirror now.  Remember the concern over the 344 single-point failures that could scuttle the mission?  All in the past.  For some of the principals on the design of the Webb, it has been two decades of work now going into its third - and the one they worked twenty years toward.  

Since the beginning of the mission, the milestones have said that the telescope will be completely commissioned and operational by July 12th.  That's two weeks from this Tuesday (yesterday as I write). 

NASA said it plans to release several images beginning at 10:30 am ET (14:30 UTC) on July 12, the result of Webb's "first light" observations. On Wednesday, space agency officials said the images and other data would include the deepest-field image of the universe ever taken—looking further into the cosmos than humans ever have before—as well as the spectrum of an atmosphere around an exoplanet. By looking in the infrared, Webb will be able to identify the fingerprints of small molecules, such as carbon dioxide and ozone, that will offer meaningful clues about the habitability of worlds around other stars.

Final words to Eric Berger of Ars Technica, starting this with a quote from Thomas Zurbuchen, mentioned in the first quote up above:

"It's really hard to not look at the universe in a new light and not just have a moment that is deeply personal," he said. "It's an emotional moment when you see nature suddenly releasing some of its secrets. and I would like you to imagine and look forward to that."

What a tease!

Unfortunately, we will have to wait nearly two full weeks to see the final products from Webb's first observations. NASA said it will not be releasing any images early, even on an embargoed basis. But we've waited 20 years for Webb to come online and offer a truly worthy successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. I suppose we can wait a little while longer.

If we must.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Small Space News Story Roundup

As I try to find something worth talking about when nothing big is going on...

The launch window for the Artemis I mission has (more or less) been announced as August 23 to September 6.  The August 22 date I mentioned was wrong.  

During a pair of news conferences last week, NASA officials declined to set a launch target for the mission. However, in an interview Tuesday with Ars, NASA's senior exploration official, Jim Free, said the agency is working toward a launch window of August 23 to September 6.

"That's the one we're targeting," Free said. "We'd be foolish not to target that right now. We made incredible progress last week."

Artemis I is an unmanned test flight which will test the Artemis/SLS system completely.  It will fly around the moon, although I haven't seen a detailed mission description.  The second flight called (imaginatively enough) Artemis II, will carry astronauts but will not land on the moon.  At the moment, that looks to be No Earlier Than (NET) 2024.  The lunar landing, Artemis III, looks to be 2025 at the best.  Considering the history of everything to this point, it's probably more like 2027.  

Rocket Lab successfully launched NASA's CAPSTONE mission (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) this morning (EDT) (video of the launch here).  This mission uses a low power upper stage that isn't a part of the regularly-launched Rocket Lab Electron that launched the satellite, and which will raise the orbit slowly over the next few months until it achieves the desired orbit around the start of November. This is the first attempt to fly an NRHO, which NASA intends to use for the Artemis Lunar Gateway, arguably making this mission the first of the Artemis program.

The orbit, formally known as a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), is significantly elongated. Its location at a precise balance point in the gravities of Earth and the Moon, offers stability for long-term missions like Gateway and requires minimal energy to maintain. CAPSTONE’s orbit also establishes a location that is an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon and beyond. The orbit will bring CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of one lunar pole on its near pass and 43,500 miles from the other pole at its peak every seven days, requiring less propulsion capability for spacecraft flying to and from the Moon’s surface than other circular orbits.

The NRHO follows an interesting concept and there are some videos worth watching about them. The topic could be a long post by itself.  The video shows how the NRHO can be derived from a Lagrange point L2 orbit, and becomes essentially stable in a lunar polar orbit.  "Essentially stable" means it requires periodic corrections but not as hard to implement as other orbits. 

This graphic, from NASA's Ames Research Center, shows the CAPSTONE satellite approaching the moon (top left), the spacecraft's elongated polar orbit around the moon (top right) and the crown-shaped path that lunar polar orbit looks like as seen from the Earth (bottom).

Finally, a short item. If all goes as planned, tomorrow afternoon at NET 5:04 PM EDT, SpaceX will perform their 27th launch of the year, in week 26 of the year.  This year, SpaceX has averaged a launch every 6.7 days.

The mission is a C-band communications satellite for Europe dubbed SES-22.  

Built by Europe’s Thales Alenia Space alongside SES-23, SES-22 was originally meant to be a spare for SES-18, 19, 20, and 21, which are being manufactured by Northrop Grumman and were scheduled to launch in pairs in H2 2022. SOme of the Northrop Grumman-built satellites, however, have suffered significant delays. Strangely, while SpaceX’s SES-18/19 launch schedule has become indeterminate, SES-20/21 are reportedly on track to launch on a ULA Atlas V rocket as early as August. As a partial result, SES recently announced that SES-20 will replace SES-22 as an on-orbit spare, freeing up SES-22 to begin operating just a month or two after launch.
It will be the first SES satellite launch in response to the US Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) C-band auction, which paid existing operators to clear a portion of the “C-band spectrum” (radio waves between 4-8 GHz) that is optimal for ground-based 5G networks.

This launch has two things going for it from my standpoint.  First, being late in the day there's usually a good cooling seabreeze, suppressing the heat of the day.  Second, the path goes slightly south of due east from the KSC, which is better viewing for me than those that go to the northeast (most Starlink launches).  

Monday, June 27, 2022

NASA's Psyche Asteroid Mission Scrubbed for the Year

I haven't mentioned the Psyche asteroid mission except in passing, but it's an interesting concept.  Formally named 16 Psyche, it's an asteroid believed to be entirely (or almost so) made of metal.  As the mission web page at Arizona State University teases,  “For the first time ever, we are exploring a world made not of rock or ice, but of metal.” From time to time, I come across speculation of someone finding an asteroid made of gold or platinum and how rich they could get.  Chances are Psyche isn't that, but might be the heavier metals found in planetary cores like iron, and nickel.  (Disclaimer: only my interpretation.)

The probe arrived at the KSC in early May for testing and integration with the Falcon Heavy that will carry it to the long transfer orbit to the asteroid.  By the middle of the month, it had become evident that something was wrong.  Not long after, the Psyche blog updated, saying 

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is nearing the final stages of preparations for launch, and the mission team is working to confirm that all hardware and software systems are operating correctly. An issue is preventing confirmation that the software controlling the spacecraft is functioning as planned. The team is working to identify and correct the issue. To allow more time for this work, the launch period is being updated to no earlier than Sept. 20, 2022, pending range availability.

In the weeks since it has emerged that the issue is with the special testbed used to connect to the spacecraft to test it thoroughly. 

On Friday, NASA put out a press release explaining that the program has cancelled its launch for calendar 2022.  The launch window would have closed on October 11th, so they were running out of time. 

Due to the late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment, NASA does not have sufficient time to complete the testing needed ahead of its remaining launch period this year, which ends on Oct. 11. The mission team needs more time to ensure that the software will function properly in flight.
“Flying to a distant metal-rich asteroid, using Mars for a gravity assist on the way there, takes incredible precision. We must get it right. Hundreds of people have put remarkable effort into Psyche during this pandemic, and the work will continue as the complex flight software is thoroughly tested and assessed,” said JPL Director Laurie Leshin. “The decision to delay the launch wasn’t easy, but it is the right one.”

The mission’s 2022 launch period, which ran from Aug. 1 through Oct. 11, would have allowed the spacecraft to arrive at the asteroid Psyche in 2026. There are possible launch periods in both 2023 and 2024, but the relative orbital positions of Psyche and Earth mean the spacecraft would not arrive at the asteroid until 2029 and 2030, respectively. The exact dates of these potential launch periods are yet to be determined.

It raises a peculiar problem for SpaceX.  They've had four Falcon Heavy launches on the manifest, potentially all for this year.  Every one of them is slipping because of problems with the payloads; the side boosters and the rest of the four Heavies are all waiting.  

“For unknown reasons, virtually every near-term Falcon Heavy payload has slipped significantly from its original launch target. Within the last few weeks, USSF-44 – meant to launch as early as June 2022 after years of delays – was “delayed indefinitely.” Delayed from Q3 2020, USSF-52 is now scheduled to launch in October 2022. ViaSat-3, once meant to launch on Falcon Heavy in 2020, is now NET September 2022. Jupiter-3, a record-breaking communications satellite that wasn’t actually confirmed to be a Falcon Heavy launch contract until a few weeks ago, recently slipped from 2021 and 2022 to early 2023.” – May 26th, 2022


Sunday, June 26, 2022

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

An important part of Artemis is late and over budget. 

It seems like it was only last year that we found out NASA spent almost a decade and a billion dollars on a mobile launch umbilical tower for Artemis.  In reality, it was two years ago in March.   

Except that the same thing is happening again right now.  Three years ago, NASA awarded a cost-plus contract to the engineering firm Bechtel for the design and construction of a second mobile launch tower that's bigger than the first one - it's a paltry six feet taller - but sufficiently different that Bechtel couldn't just copy the one that's holding Artemis today out at Pad 39B. 

When Bechtel won the contract for this mobile launcher, named ML-2, it was supposed to cost $383 million. But according to a scathing new report by NASA's inspector general, the project is already running years behind schedule, the launcher weighs too much, and the whole thing is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. The new cost estimate for the project is $960 million.

NASA's Inspector General Paul Martin puts the blame largely on Bechtel but doesn't spare NASA for their part in screwing it up as well.  The agency awarded the contract before design requirements coming from the different upper stage visible in the right side above, called the Exploration Upper Stage, were settled enough to generate requirements for the launch tower.  If you go to the little search bar in the top left corner of this page and enter "Exploration Upper Stage" without the quotes, you'll find that I've dedicated more than a little "ink" to problems with this upper stage.  

It would be a comedy of errors if it was even a little funny. 

NASA's explanation for doing this is that it had no choice but to move forward with the tower's design and construction to meet a timeline for its lunar missions. The first three flights of the Artemis Program, culminating in a human lunar lander no earlier than 2025, are to fly on the initial variant of the Space Launch System rocket (which has its own, separate mobile launch tower). However, beginning with the Artemis IV mission, NASA wants to launch lunar missions on the more powerful, upgraded version of the SLS rocket, which will require the new mobile launch tower.

Nominally, this mission is planned for 2026, but realistically it will not fly before 2027 or 2028, due to delays in the earlier Artemis flights. Nevertheless, NASA pressed for the construction of this second mobile launch tower to be ready for 2026 and asked for design work to be done on the tower before the rocket's final requirements were known. This is likely to result in additional costs, pushing the price of the second mobile launch tower above $1 billion.

That first paragraph made my head hurt, saying that NASA had no choice but to move forward when the design wasn't known.  That means they went ahead working on things that they had good reason to believe would have to be taken apart and rebuilt differently.  Building things twice (or more!) is a deliberate waste of money. 

The job has gotten so bad that NASA has removed work from Bechtel's contract, while continuing to pay them as if they were on schedule.  Earlier this year, NASA and Bechtel agreed to take the development of the umbilical cables and hoses out of the contract.  NASA will choose a different contractor for those, with intent to deliver them to Bechtel when it's time to integrate those into the tower.  

Makes me wonder if the contractor (contractors?) for the umbilicals will also be given cost-plus or if they'll be fixed price.  Nothing about the launch tower seems so new and so different from other launch towers that they need cost-plus contracts.  Cost plus should be reserved for developing things for the first time, experimental things; the times when nobody really knows how it should be designed. 

Finally, while I'd seen many rumors that NASA has declared the WDR test on Artemis done, the Artemis program blog still hasn't said that.  While poking around and trying to find a second source to confirm one way or the other, I ran into a local TV station's news broadcast saying that in a teleconference Friday, NASA declared success and set a launch date for the first, unmanned, Artemis lunar flyby mission.  The launch date is August 22nd.  Sometime this week, I'd guess Friday, they'll roll the Artemis/SLS stack back to the VAB.  There are things from the WDR that need to be repaired or otherwise resolved, and the flight-graded batteries need to be swapped out onto the vehicle.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Wake Me Up When the Crying Stops

We're going into the 36th hour of "Turbo Reeee" in the wake of Roe being returned to the states, as well as the 60th hour following the ruling in the  NYSRPA vs. New York's "may issue a permit if you make a big enough contribution" case.  I don't think I've seen one original thought expressed anywhere in any of the comments - comments that are coming at us as thick as Everglades mosquitoes.

On second thought, I've seen an original thought over at John Wilder's place in his piece, "Over 50 Thoughts About The Supreme Court’s Second Amendment Decision."  It's John's thought, though, not the self-anointed experts he gathered. 

The post by "Tad Ghostal" isn't in the least bit original, although it may well be the only proper response to the poster in the picture.  The same basic template has been done with "guns have more rights than women" and a couple of similar tropes.  The original part is John's line at the bottom.  As I told him over on his blog, I think when I was around 20 I might have paid to see an assault uterus.

Maybe I'm getting too jaded, but I've just seen these same, illogical, emotions-over-facts arguments too many times.  Every Single Time a state had voted to go shall issue, or open carry, or constitutional carry, someone drags out the "blood in the streets" argument.  Ten minutes with a search engine would show that it hasn't happened once.  

Governor Shit-For-Brains in New York even brought up the stupid, "the second amendment only applies to muskets" argument!  How many times do people have to show examples of guns that weren't muskets and were around when the 2A was written before it sinks in?  Naturally, I don't expect governor SFB to know about puckle guns or other early rapid firing, self-reloading guns that the founders would have known about (and maybe even used), but I do expect governor SFB to hire people who will look at her prepared talks and tell her when she's being an idiot.  Maybe someone who would tell her that the ruling specifically said that the amendment applies to weapons that weren't known at the time. 

As bad as that is, and I'm boring myself writing it, it pales next to the insanity over Roe.  We'll be issuing "Handmaid's Tale" outfits to all women who are capable of breeding.  Report next week.  That sort of argument.  Oh, it's not human until we decide it is.  Until then, it's a Buick.  Or a cucumber.  A tumor.  Anything other than a person.  

Nope.  Too much crap.  The only sane thing to do is ignore it if you can and ridicule it no matter what else. 

Friday, June 24, 2022

Missed in the Overnight Tests...

Starting last night and into the early morning hours (eastern time), SpaceX crossed another little milestone that needs to be crossed in the lead-up to the first orbital test flight of Starship/Super Heavy.  After rolling booster 7 (B7) to the launch area yesterday, the booster was picked up by the giant "chopsticks" (which Musk calls Mechagodzilla) and moved it onto the Orbital Launch Mount. 

A screen capture as B7 is being lowered into place.  NASA photo, used by Teslarati. They have a video of the operations that's already done as time lapse but it's 14 minutes long and can still be gone through faster. 

Moving B7 onto the OLM is being widely interpreted as the first step to serious testing of a booster with all 33 Raptor engines installed.  This must be done before any attempt at launching to orbit.

According to CEO Elon Musk, Booster 7 will start by igniting just one or a few Raptor engines. SpaceX has never ignited more than six Raptor V1 engines simultaneously and never tested more than three engines at a time on a Super Heavy booster. That plan could have easily changed, however. Either way, Super Heavy B7 will be treading significantly new ground. Even before actual static fires begin, Booster 7 will also need to complete one or more wet dress rehearsals (WDRs), a test that exactly simulates a launch but stops just before the moment of ignition.

If SpaceX attempts a full wet dress rehearsal, in which the booster would be filled with more than 3000 tons (~6.6M lb) of liquid oxygen (LOx) and liquid methane (LCH4), it would be a first for Super Heavy and just as big of a test of the orbital launch site. Booster 7 will also need to test out its autogenous pressurization, which replaces helium with hot oxygen and methane gas to pressurize the rocket’s propellant tanks.

According to the Cameron County, Texas, Road Closures website, 10AM to 10PM road closures are possible as soon as Monday with Tuesday and Wednesday as alternates.  Could they be ready to start trying cryo testing, or even go as far as a Wet Dress Rehearsal by Monday? 

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Movie Stars and Unforgettable Roles

Last week, Mrs. Graybeard and I went to see the new Top Gun:Maverick movie.  Yeah, we liked it.  Good, solid, entertaining, movie.  Minimal wokeness, a story about good people doing hard jobs the best they can and always challenging themselves to be "the best of the best."  I think you all know that.  It's not important. 

Today, I stumbled into a factoid that I couldn't resist posting. 

In any big budget movie like this, the people who are prominent on the screen are not newbies.  They're all going to have big resumes of increasingly important roles.  If you don't know particularly recognize them, that just doesn't mean much.  They're rising stars; you'll recognize them in their next movie.

Despite the minimal wokeness, movies today seem required to have (as humor columnist Dave Barry first said in the 1990s) a mandatorily diverse cast.  The fighter pilots in the movie fit that requirement, including a woman fighter pilot.  Yes, I know there have been some women driving fighters.  No, I don't know how many have been to the Top Gun school.  Furthermore, going into the climactic scenes, you can spot the characters with the most diversity points and tell yourself, "they're not killing off that one."  

The woman was actress Monica Barbaro, playing Lt. Natasha Trace, known by call sign Phoenix. 

Something happened today (which I honestly don't remember) that caused me to look up her bio on IMDB.  As expected, she has a long resume there, 34 credits covering over two screens full of roles big and small.  Expected because she has one of the biggest roles in the movie and plays it well.

Down toward the bottom of the list, in 2013, only her second year listed on IMDB, was a short called, "It's Not About the Nail."  I almost spilled my tea.  I vividly remembered watching that video back in '13 and have long thought this was one of the funniest concepts for a video I had ever seen.  I may not remember her as Phoenix in a year or two.  I think I'll always remember her in this video.


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Falling for Misinformation

I don't think anyone will be surprised if I say we're surrounded by an incredible amount of misinformation.   It seems every aspect of life has become politicized and gets used to raise emotions on one side or the other.  

I learned earlier in the afternoon that I had been suckered by one of these.  I saw this Tweet posted as truth and just believed it without questioning.  

Unlike me, one of the rare, real reporters out there (this one from Reuters) fact checked it with The Atlantic.  A spokesperson said it was fake.

“I can verify that this is not a real article from The Atlantic, and is indeed fabricated,” said Anna Bross the Senior Vice President of Communications at The Atlantic.

It would be easy to ask why such a silly story would be so easy to believe, but the answer to that is so obvious it doesn't need to be asked.  The commercial media is so completely in the tank for Biden we expect this sort of nonsense.  

Besides, it's not like the anti-Biden side didn't milk an entire five days worth of news out of the story that he fell off a bike.  My reaction to the fake story was to think it was an absurdly low bar to praise Biden for and that anyone over the age of 10 has probably internalized the "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again" idea (to borrow a line from a song I grew up with).   Besides; I'm a roadie cyclist who rides with those pedals that lock your foot to them.  While learning how to ride those I fell so often that if falling and getting back up was "heroic," I should have gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Speaking of this sort of reaction to a Tweet brings this one to mind.  

About a week ago, this caused a minor panic and I remember seeing that the Green Tip ammo had jumped in price right after the news broke.  

A couple of days later, GAT Daily did a story in a bit more depth.  It's a "Natzo fast, Guido" situation. 

The truth here is that Lake City, contractually under the control of Winchester, has been notified it will no longer sell M855/SS109 produced in excess of the military's needs to the public.  Get that?  They're being told that if they overproduce ammo made to that specification they can't sell it.  But they don't produce that - or, at least, not much of it.  The military has been phasing it out for over a decade.

The US Army started switching to the M855A1 version back in 2010.  In February 2011 it was reported M855A1 was being used more than legacy M855. The Marine Corps also started shooting it in 2010 with a purchase of 1.8 million rounds, adopting it officially in 2018, replacing its MK318.

The Military’s “need” for M855 is over.

The GAT Daily article speculates that the only M855 that Lake City may be producing is for export to allies.  

This policy is telling them they can't sell excess of something they're not even making.  It should have no impact at all.   

Now I have to admit I'm not as sure of this one being wrong as the Atlantic tweet, because this was written by one guy, the editor at GAT daily, and doesn't seem to be cross checked.  That said, it seems to be that overreaction to a news story is what's driving both of these stories.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

SpaceX Eyeing Another Launch Pad on the Kennedy Space Center

The people at SpaceX are quick to start down a road to a desired goal, be it launch facilities or the vehicles they launch.  A consequence of that is instead of analyzing for long periods to be absolutely sure they don't waste time, they end up re-doing things, and they're very fast at fixing things and moving ahead.  

NASA raised a concern recently that started making it to the top of the "are we sure we're doing this right?" stack of questions; is the Starship Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) that they're building alongside Pad 39A too close to the pad?  In particular, if a Starship should do something undesirable, like blow up on the pad or just above it, will it destroy the infrastructure they need to launch Crew Dragon spacecraft?  That would leave NASA in the position of having no way to get crews to and from the space station.  Due to these concerns, NASA and SpaceX have started considering options to handle that risk.   

There's more at stake than crew missions to the station, though.  Pad 39A is the only pad in the world that handles the Falcon Heavy, which is emerging as a premier heavy lift vehicle for NASA and the US military.  Yesterday, I mentioned the Falcon Heavy will be lifting the Lunar Gateway to its desired orbit, and I've previously posted about it being the launch vehicle for the Europa Clipper mission (2024 schedule).  Both of those are farther out in time, but there are five Falcon Heavy missions slated for the next year.  They would have started already except for payload delays holding up the missions.  

The most recent picture I can get of the OLM area at Pad 39A is in a video from NASASpaceflight (.com).  This is a screen grab of a shot that shows the launch tower on the left foreground and the six steel tubes (circled) that are the base of the OLM.  The concrete structure to the left and in front of the six tubes is the base of the Orbital Launch Integration Tower that will be built.

The new OLM will sit roughly 1000 feet (~300m) East of Pad 39A’s existing Falcon 9 launch facilities. It's also around 1600 feet (~500m) northeast of Pad 39A’s lone horizontal integration hangar.

The most direct solution would be to add the facilities to their other launch pad, SLC-40, if that could be done without taking it out of operation, and that's being studied. 

In response to NASA’s concern, NASA executive Kathy Lueders – in an interview with Reuters – says that SpaceX has begun working with the agency on plans to both “harden” Pad 39A and modify its Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) LC-40 pad to support Dragon launches. According to Reuters, however, receiving approval to put those plans into action “could take months.” Depending on how significant the facilities LC-40 would need are, there’s also a chance that SpaceX would need to complete a new FAA environmental review to construct a crew access tower.

An extreme alternative would be to lease or buy another unused pad on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Base side.  If any are available.  

In the big picture sense, these things need to be addressed but they're not urgent to the point of "drop everything else and fix this."  The Pad 39A Starship Orbital Launch Mount won't be ready to launch Starships for the next six to 12 months, depending on the progress at Boca Chica and if the first launches reveal needed changes as well.  

Monday, June 20, 2022

Artemis/SLS Had A Good Day

But despite the good day with a much improved test, Artemis/SLS is still a largely screwed up program. 

Since a Wet Dress Rehearsal is slow-paced test and prone to all sorts of delays, I wasn't here at the computer at 7:00 AM when it was scheduled to start, but as the day wore on past lunch time, I opened a tab with the NASA TV Live Feed and just listened to the audio in the background.  From then until around 4PM, the commentator would update when something big was happening.  It was easy to keep track of the test. 

The WDR went into a hold at T-29 seconds, so it certainly wasn't an unqualified success, but compared to attempts one through three back in April it was light years closer to success.  The originally-stated T zero was 2:40 PM, however that had turned into 4:28 PM by the time I had the tab open.  T minus 10 minutes had been set for 3:58 PM, to add a built in hold giving the teams an extra 20 minutes before the final 10 minutes started.  Time to go over any little issues they may have been tracking.  Key word: "little."

Problems with a hydrogen leak in the second stage began to show up in the mid-afternoon, and then a problem with the quick disconnect attachment (also liquid hydrogen) from the Launcher Umbilical Tower to the vehicle.   The 20 minute hold turned into a couple of hours as the teams did their best to modify their software to get as close to engine start as they could.  Engine start would probably have been with around 8-10 seconds left in the countdown  

The next several hours or even days will be going over data and determining whether they want to claim they achieved everything they needed to or if they start a fifth run of the WDR.  

Getting back to the concept in the very first sentence of this post, Artemis/SLS is a seriously screwed up program.  The root cause of all that is what we've talked about so many times: it's simply too expensive at $4.1 billion per launch.  That cost limits the number of launches and therefore what can be done.  Even the people in the administration who think we can make up money out of thin air and buy whatever we want blanche at printing that much.  OK, I made that last sentence up.  

Add to the cost that the rocket simply doesn't have the capacity to do what they want to do, giving rise to things like Lunar Gateway (a lunar space station) and it turns into NASA (we're looking at you, Bill Nelson) having to buy other rockets to get around having bought an overpriced, underspecified system. 

Back at the end of March, I ran a story that showed that Artemis/SLS was looking at launch rates of one per year - or less.  I pointed out that the Apollo program launched 11 missions in four years.  Artemis is looking at six missions in seven years.  The article included this graphic.

Today, we learn from Eric Berger at Ars Technica that NASA has been addressing these problems and trying to develop ways around them.  

At present NASA has its baseline plan for Artemis, which is shown below. But NASA has also developed at least two "in-guide" schedule options, which agency planners believe are achievable with anticipated budgets, the documents show. These revised schedules indicate that NASA planners do not believe the baseline plan will be achievable on time or within budget.

One of the internal schedules, labeled "cadence," prioritizes launching regularly. The other, labeled "content," prioritizes launching only when the most meaningful payloads are ready. Combined, they reveal that NASA is struggling to cram an ambitious exploration plan into a finite budget. The result is a slow-moving lunar program that, in large part, fails to deliver on the goals of the US National Space Policy.

Their revised schedule, and now extended until 2034, looks like this:

Note that Artemis III, (as NASA says) the first crewed mission to the moon, is out in 2025.  The problem with this is that NASA still doesn't have moon-rated space suits, and the two companies selected to design and make those suits don't even talk about testing prototypes until 2025

  • There are huge gaps between missions. To close one three-year gap, NASA is considering the creation of an "Artemis III.5" mission that would require the agency to procure a fourth interim upper stage and delay development of other key programs.
  • The slow progression in missions puts off development of a "base camp" on the Moon for years, with the earliest emplacement of a lunar surface habitat not coming until 2034.
  • NASA will spend the next 10 years focused on assembling a small space station in lunar orbit, rather than building up capabilities on the Moon's surface.

NASA has talked about building a permanent base camp on the moon. This included a new lunar rover, a "habitable mobility platform" that would enable crews to take trips across the Moon lasting up to 45 days, and a surface habitat for up to four crew members.  This looks to be 2034 in the second schedule.  There is no mention of Mars in this schedule. 

Notre Dame geologist, Clive Neal, a prominent scientist pushing for a lunar exploration program with a permanent base there, probably had the best observation.  "I don’t get it, I just really don’t get it," he said. "Has nobody at NASA read the space policy? It is really quite bizarre. There's nothing sustainable about the approach they're taking."  

Last words to Eric Berger of Ars Technica:

Given the near certainty that there will be more delays, the Artemis Program is probably at least 15 years from having a semi-permanent habitat on the surface of the Moon. That is just about long enough to be "never" in spaceflight terms, and it would push Mars exploration into the 2040s or 2050s.



Sunday, June 19, 2022

SpaceX Sets the Three Launches in 36 hours Milestone

As expected, SpaceX successfully completed the third Falcon 9 launch in just over 36 hours early this morning Eastern time.  Elon Musk tweeted congratulations to the Falcon 9 team for three launches in two days, but this is well under two days.  

Three flawless launches means all three boosters were successfully recovered - two landed offshore of the North and South Carolina border and one near the launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base - and all payloads were put in their proper orbits.  

In February, shortly after a NASA oversight panelist revealed that SpaceX was targeting 52 launches in 2022, CEO Elon Musk confirmed that the company’s goal was for “Falcon [to] launch about once a week” throughout the year. In October 2020, continuing a tradition of extremely ambitious SpaceX launch cadence targets, Musk had also tweeted that “a lot of improvements” would need to be made to achieve his goal of 48 launches – an average of four launches per month – in 2021. Ultimately, SpaceX fell well short of that target, but did set a new annual record of 31 launches in one year, breaking its 2020 record of 26 launches by about 20%. However, perhaps even more important than the new record was the fact that SpaceX was able to complete six launches in four weeks at the end of 2021.

When those six launches in the final four weeks of  '21 are included, going back to November 24th, of '21, SpaceX has now completed 32 Falcon 9 launches in less than seven months.  

Prior to this, the shortest time for launching three missions from their three launch pads was 67 days.  

Left to right, time exposure of B1060 lifting off from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, B1070 landing at the launch site on Vandenberg SFB, time exposure of B1061 lifting off early Sunday morning from Launch Complex 40 (SLC40) on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  Photo credits to Richard Angle at Teslarati.   

These were flights #13 for B106, #3 for B1070, and #9 for B1061.  It's worth noting that B1061 last flew on May 25th, 25 days ago. 

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Europe's New Rocket, Ariane 6, Delayed Again

Ariane 6 is comparable to the SpaceX Falcon 9 in its payload ratings to orbit so it's tempting to call it Europe's version of the F9, but the payload similarity seems to be all.  The European Space Agency (ESA) pretty much ridiculed the idea of reusability when the Ariane 6 program was starting and insulted SpaceX at every chance, so it won't be reusable.

Asked about how the Ariane 5 compares to lower-cost alternatives on the market today, such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, Stefano Bianchi, Head of ESA Launchers Development Department, responded with a question of his own. “Are you buying a Mercedes because it is cheap?”

Ranzo, sitting nearby, chimed in and referenced the India-based maker of the world’s least expensive car. As he put it, “We don’t sell a Tata.”

At another point they said SpaceX sells "bullshit" to commercial customers.  At still another they said, "What would the engine and booster factories sprinkled across Europe do if they built one rocket and then had 11 months off? The member states value the jobs too much."  

This was before they announced they were working on a demonstrator of booster recovery technologies.  Which I've never heard more news about.  

Returning to the point, during an interview this past Monday, June 13th, European Space Agency Director General Josef Aschbacher said the rocket would not fly until sometime in 2023.  It was originally slated to launch in 2020.  

As usual, the big contractor working on the big rocket doesn't attribute the delay to any one thing in particular.  They mentioned an issue with the "cryogenic connection system" had been a critical item requiring a lot of focus for development efforts and a driver of delays.  That test was recently completed, with the cryogenic system demonstrating a successful release at the correct moment.  They also mentioned a common issue (some of which Artemis/SLS is testing over the course of the next couple of days) of getting ground systems and flight software to talk with each other properly.  Delays have a way of snowballing. 

Due to development issues, other critical tests have been long-delayed as well, such as a hot-fire test of the rocket's second stage, which features a single Vinci engine. The official said he expected the second stage test to occur soon at Lampoldshausen, Germany.

Compounding all of this is that the ESA has said the 20-year service Ariane 5 is approaching end of life, which would have led to moving the demand from the older rocket to the newer Ariane 6.  Then they had a large surge in demand for launches on the new vehicle. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February led the European Space Agency to sever ties with the Russian space program for its use of the Soyuz rocket. This meant that European institutional payloads, such as the Galileo and Copernicus satellites, had to find other rides to space. (Europe's current mainstay rocket, the Ariane 5, has just five more flights left before it is retired in favor of the Ariane 6.) Instead of flying on the Russian-built Soyuz, most of these payloads are now waiting for the Ariane 6 to come online.

The second change was a blockbuster commercial order from Amazon, which purchased 18 flights of the Ariane 6 in its more powerful "64" version, with four solid-rocket boosters. Amazon needs to launch the majority of its Project Kuiper satellite Internet constellation in the next five years, so its commercial order likely has a limited lifespan — which probably can be rescinded if the Ariane 6 cannot fly frequently enough.

While nobody has officially said when the target date for the first Ariane 6 launch will be, Ars Technica reports "sources say" the working date is no earlier than April 2023.

First hot firing test of the solid rocket motor for Ariane 6 in their French Guiana test facility.  ESA/CNES photo.


Friday, June 17, 2022

SpaceX Checks off A Few Big Milestones During Today's Launch

Today's SpaceX Starlink 4-19 mission checked off a few major milestones in their books.  

  • Perhaps the most interesting is that Booster B1060 completed its 13th mission with a flawless launch and landing.  B1060 becomes the first orbital booster in the world to fly 13 missions, since nobody else is recovering and reusing boosters - at least not this big. 
  • This was the 100th reuse of a Falcon booster since the first time in March 2017.  
  • It was SpaceX’s 50th consecutive successful Falcon booster landing and Falcon 9’s 130th consecutively successful launch campaign.  The current world record for consecutive successful launches is 133, set by variants of Russia’s Soyuz/R-7 rocket, so four more successful launches moves that record to SpaceX. 

Screen capture of B1060 about 15 seconds after successfully landing on the drone ship A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG).  Taken from SpaceX's feed

Since its debut in June 2020, B1060 has supported three commercial launches (GPS III SV03, Turksat 5A, Transporter-2) and nine Starlink launches, helping to deliver around 160 metric tons (~350,000 lb) of satellites to orbit in two years. ... Starlink 4-19’s payload will be another 53 Starlink V1.5 satellites weighing around 16 tons (~35,250 lb), likely raising the total number of working Starlink satellites in orbit above 2400.

As was pointed out Tuesday, this is a busy weekend.  About 22 hours after today's launch (12:08:50 PM EDT), the action shifts west to California with a launch at 10:19 AM EDT on Saturday. 

Following Starlink 4-19, SpaceX confirmed on Thursday that another Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch a set of rideshare payloads and Germany’s SARah-1 radar satellite from Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB), California at 7:19 am PDT (14:19 UTC) on Saturday, June 18th. SpaceX won the contract to launch all three planned SARah satellites in 2013, at which point the first launch was expected to occur in 2018. The payloads are light enough that the mission’s unknown Falcon 9 booster will be able to boost back to shore and land just a thousand feet from where it lifted off after carrying them most of the way to space.

From there, the action shifts back to Cape Canaveral, this time from Launch Complex 40, their "other" launch pad.  This launch, almost exactly 14 hours later, includes one or more satellites sharing the ride but that can't be talked about; they're "black" (very secret) military/security satellites. 

Just half a day after SARah-1, a third Falcon 9 rocket could lift off from LC-40 – SpaceX’s second East Coast pad – with a single spare Globalstar-2 communications satellite and one or more secret military satellites at 12:27 am EDT (04:27 UTC) on Sunday, June 19th. Falcon 9 booster B1061 is likely assigned to the launch and was spotted on a transporter – new, expendable upper stage already installed – on June 14th, probably heading from SpaceX’s main integration hangar to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s (CCSFS) LC-40 pad.

This will mark three successive Falcon 9 launches in right around 36 hours and 16 minutes.  All of them can be watched on SpaceX's "Launches" website.  The video at that website can be opened directly in YouTube if you prefer and SpaceX's YouTube channel has a "Missions" page where previous missions can be viewed later.


Thursday, June 16, 2022

NASA's TROPICS Mission Now on Thin Ice

Pun intended.  If the pun doesn't mean much to you, we only briefly covered the mission in March of '21 (second half of that post).  As I said back then, TROPICS is the kind of name that's almost legally required to be an acronym, in this case: Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (they went with TROPICS instead of TROPSSICS).  In particular, it's intended for the observation of tropical weather systems like hurricanes and tropical storms (so I hope the lame joke at least makes some sense). 

Artist's concept of the TROPICS Cubesats in action.  NASA image.

The problem is that TROPICS was to have been a constellation of six radar satellites and two of the six were lost this week when Astra's rocket failed to achieve orbit.  Can the mission be done with 2/3 of the capability on orbit?  Assuming the other four satellites make it to orbit, which may be optimistic because all six are to be launched by Astra.  So far, they've achieved orbit twice out of nine tries.  One payload was successfully delivered to orbit, the other time they made orbit was a test flight.  

NASA says yes, the mission can still be accomplished with 2/3 of the planned satellites, in two orbits instead of the intended three. 

While we are disappointed in the loss of the two TROPICS CubeSats, the mission is part of NASA’s Earth venture program, which provides opportunities for lower-cost, higher risk missions. Despite a loss of the first two of six satellites, the TROPICS constellation will still meet its science objectives with the four remaining CubeSats distributed in two orbits.  With four satellites, TROPICS will still provide improved time-resolved observations of tropical cyclones compared to traditional observing methods.

TROPICS is an Earth venture mission - science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost missions that provide opportunity for investment in innovative Earth science to enhance our capability to better understand the current state of the Earth system and to enable continual improvement in the prediction of future changes.  

Three launch suppliers bid for this mission.  To tease the story a bit more, here are the three launch vehicles, courtesy of Twitter user SotirisG5.  L to R, Astra, Rocket Lab and SpaceX Starship.  Astra and SpaceX bid the same launch price: $8 million.  Rocket Lab's bid was "significantly higher."  (NASA's words)  NASA went with Astra.

To be fair, if NASA had chosen SpaceX, they wouldn't have lost the satellites because they wouldn't have launched.  Starship isn't yet operational - although Cubesats are so small, the mission might be in the envelope that Starship itself could handle as Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) without the Super Heavy booster.  Is it better to not be ready to launch than to launch and lose the payload?  Neither is ideal, but not losing the satellites gives you a chance to try again another day. 

Oh, by the way... Saturday marks the beginning of the fourth attempt of the Wet Dress Rehearsal for Artemis/SLS at the Kennedy Space Center.  A specific time on Saturday has not been named.  Saturday and Sunday will be taken up by preparations and verifying that all systems are working for the attempt to fuel the SLS Core vehicle tanks.  This will culminate in counting down to shortly before the engines would be started.  

Monday, June 20

7 a.m. – Live coverage of tanking operations with commentary begins

2:40 p.m. – Target test window

Coverage with live commentary throughout tanking operations will air on the media channel of NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website.

It's currently on the KSC Newsroom YouTube Channel, and all you can see is that it's night.  There are no flood lights on the vehicle. 

EDIT 061922 @1616 EDT:  Fixed last link in post which was a dead link that brought nothing up.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Headline of the Week

It only seems like it has been everywhere all week; it apparently came out yesterday.  The headline is, "World Health Organization will rename monkeypox to avoid stigma and racism."  The story is going around, and not just there on The Blaze.  

This immediately makes me think, "who feels stigmatized?"  Not to mention, "who feels it's racist against them?"  Did they ask the monkeys?  Note that I said, monkeys and not Monkees, as if they asked Micky Dolenz, the last surviving member of the band, but if they asked actual primates like chimps or gorillas or other species.  What do monkeys know about racism?  Do they even have a concept for races?  

Who comes up with this stuff? 

The article goes on to say,

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was renaming the monkeypox, as Bloomberg's Madison Muller reported. The move comes after over 30 international scientists warned on June 10 that there was an "Urgent need for a non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing nomenclature for monkeypox virus." The letter refers to the virus as MPVX.
Naming diseases “should be done with the aim to minimize the negative impact,” the spokesperson said in an email, “and avoid causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups.”

Apparently, much like there was rebellion about calling Covid-19 a China virus, or a Wuhan virus, people have been calling monkeypox an African virus.  Monkeys aren't limited to just the African continent; there are species in south and central America as well as in the Asia.  Antarctica is probably the only continent without monkey species (North America has monkey species, but they're invasive). While it's true that the current variant (also referred to as a clade) of the disease that's spreading the most in the west is from West Africa, there's a more virulent clade with a 10x higher fatality rate, and even seems to be more contagious.  It's from Central Africa.  So we can't call it an African virus if all known clades are from Africa, right?  We have to call it something else.  Right? 

Just another stupid news story in year of continuous stupid stories.  A sure sign of people who have no real problems.  

Apparently the real source of this silliness and the answer to "who comes up with this stuff?" is this letter, posted to Twitter.

Because they assume that any stock, historical photo is racist, they assume everyone else does.  Much like over 90% of the politics in our country, when one group says another is doing something it seems to always be a prudent assumption that they're just projecting what they do (or would do) in the same situation.  The answer to practically every accusation, including this one, is "project much?" 

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

A SpaceX News Tripleheader

You miss a couple of days of the regular news beat and all kinds of stuff happens.  

 Big one first:

FAA Approves the SpaceX PEA

As expected, the Federal Aviation Administration completed the Programmatic Environmental Assessment on SpaceX Boca Chica on Monday, June 13th.  Rather than granting the higher-level approval called a FONSI - Finding Of No Significant Impact - the agency granted a Mitigated FONSI.  That's one with strings attached that SpaceX must respond to before they can launch.  The full document is accessible here.  The full document (pdfs) are in the vicinity of 70MB (some files are less than 1MB). 

It's probably good to think of this as the first of several approvals they'll need to obtain, but it's also arguably the most important.  SpaceX has been working toward having Boca Chica the primary site for the atmospheric testing of Starship/Super Heavy.  Ultimately, it plans to turn this into the main launch site for the pair of vehicles into orbit, and when the experimentation is done, it will potentially be a site for the launch of commercial cargo. The booster could either return to the site or land offshore and be ferried back. 

The FAA's final environmental assessment was made significantly easier because SpaceX amended its plans to delete three major components of the launch facility. The first of these would take commercially supplied methane and eliminate some impurities to generate a fuel compatible with the company's Raptor engines. But changes to those engines have made them capable of operating with commercial-grade methane, eliminating the need for this facility.

The other major eliminations were a desalination facility and a power plant that would be needed to operate it. The water produced by it would be used to limit the spread of flaming exhaust during launch. SpaceX removed these because it remains uncertain whether a water quench will be required during launches; if it is, it will be handled with water trucked to the site.

What seems to be a significant issue with the approval is the restriction of launches and tests SpaceX can do every year.  The final PEA contains this submission from SpaceX on their pace of operations. 

Limiting themselves to five launches per year doesn't seem like much for a company that's pushing better than weekly launch cadence for the Falcon 9.  At this phase of the Starship/SuperHeavy development, though, that's probably adequate.  Even at their pace of operations.  

More on the mitigations:

Of the dozens of mitigations SpaceX will have to implement to conduct Starship launches under its new Starbase PEA, a majority appear to be normal and reasonable. Most focus on specific aspects of things already discussed, like protecting turtles (lighting, beach cleanup, education, nest scouting and monitoring, etc.), safeguarding other protected species, respecting impacted areas of historical importance; ensuring that road closures avoid certain holidays and periods to limit Starbase’s impact on local use of public parks and beaches; and other common-sense extensions of existing rules and regulations. In a few cases, SpaceX has even agreed to deploy solar-powered Starlink internet terminals to enable “enhanced satellite monitoring” of wildlife for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Peregrine Fund.
Others are oddly specific and read a bit more like local and state agencies taking advantage of their leverage to get SpaceX to manage and pay for basic infrastructure maintenance and improvement that any functional government should already be doing. The lengthy list of odd “mitigations” includes the following:
  • Quarterly beach and highway cleanups
  • Construct at least one highway wildlife crossing
  • Construct a wildlife viewing platform along Highway 4
  • Complete and maintain traffic control fencing demarcating the boundaries of TPWD land along said public highway
  • $5,000 per year to “enhance” the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) fishing “Tackle Loaner Program”
  • Prepare a history report on any events and activities of the Mexican War and Civil War that took place in all affected areas of historical importance
  • Fund the development of five signs explaining the “history and significance” of those areas
  • “[Replicate and install] the missing stars and wreaths on the Palmetto Pilings Historical Marker”

Those last four (at least) are pretty good examples of  “more like local and state agencies taking advantage of their leverage to get SpaceX” to do things “any functional government should already be doing.”

Root Cause of Cargo Dragon Scrub Found

The other big story is that troubleshooting the Draco thruster problem that forced delays onto last week's CRS25 Cargo Dragon mission (cancelled and rescheduled a few times already) has revealed the source of the problems to be ... wait for it ... valves in the highly corrosive fuel and oxidizer lines.  I'm not going to say it's exactly what Boeing encountered in Starliner that led to the launch being delayed almost a full year, but it kind of rhymes with their issues.  

There is one big difference between the issue on Starliner and CRS25's.  SpaceX has launched the Cargo and Crew versions of the Dragon many times, and tested their systems far more times than that.  Literally hundreds of thrusters have been flown on dozens of different orbital Dragon missions.  Dragon's system is undoubtedly more flight proven than Starliner's system and more likely than not the valve issue is a minor thing that should be fixed quickly. 

On June 13th, NASA distributed an update on those issues, revealing that SpaceX had narrowed down the cause of the anomalous fuel vapor readings that delayed the launch to a single “Draco thruster valve inlet joint.” Dragon spacecraft have 16 Draco maneuvering thrusters, each of which has at least two “valve inlet joints” for fuel (monomethylhydrazine or MMH) and oxidizer (dinitrogen tetroxide or NTO).

Those valves look like this (circled) on a flight-proven Draco thruster:

Photo credit to Pauline Acalin for Teslarati.

The CRS25 mission is currently set for No Earlier Than July 11th.

Finally, the smallest item in the tripleheader. According to the Launch Schedule at there will be three Falcon 9 launches in a roughly 36 hour period starting Friday the 17th at 12:08:50 PM EDT.  

As you can see the second launch is from Vandenberg SFB at 10:00 AM EDT Saturday and the final will be back at the Cape Canaveral SFB at 12:30 AM on Sunday the 19th.  While it's clearly Sunday morning, most people think of that as Saturday night.  From 12:09 PM on Friday until 12:09 Sunday morning is 36 hours.  Add another 20 minutes to get to 12:30 AM. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Where I Was, What I Was Doing

Yesterday, I mentioned that it had been a six sigma day here, a statistics geek way of saying nowhere near the normal.  In fact, it was a once in a year event that brought several once in a lifetime events with it.  Allow me to backup and explain.  

From time to time, I've written on ham radio contests, and using a major contest for your entertainment and training.  An easy example is an article in my Ham Radio Series;  #22.  I believe learning is better if you get some fun out of it.  What is there you could possibly learn?  How about training your ears to dig out a station you need to communicate with while lots of interference is going on.  It's getting out of your comfort zone, which we all know is necessary.  

While I think the biggest contest activity of the year, the American Radio Relay League Field Day, is the weekend after next (June 25 and 26) this weekend was the one that I've been the most active in for about a decade, their VHF/UHF contest.  While I could make contacts on three bands until I replaced my old antenna last January, this weekend I was limited to the six meter band.  The old antenna worked fairly well on the two meter band (it was designed for and sold as a six meter antenna) and was at least as good as a wet noodle on 432 MHz.  Correction: as good as a good wet noodle.  I have worked people within about 30 miles on 432 MHz on that antenna. 

Six meters is interesting because it gets some amount of all of the propagation modes that show up on other bands.  In times of good solar activity, it can get F and F2 layer propagation.  At other times, it can get sporadic E.  While not terribly common, tropospheric ducting is possible on 6m, which is more common at higher frequencies, even microwaves.  Bouncing signals off meteor trails is a common mode,  auroras can affect it and so on.  I've probably written most about Sporadic E propagation but the truth is it can be very difficult to know exactly how a signal gets from point A to point B.  There are combination modes, where there can be an F layer hop that instead of returning to the ground gets reflected back up by the E layer.  E layer ducting is also possible.  Multiple hops reflected from the E layer back down to the ground then back up the E layer happen.  

It's a simple fact of life that even with more data and more computing power than ever before, propagation is extremely complex, and attempts at propagation forecasts have a lot in common with weather forecasts; in particular, the experts are wrong quite often.  Consider Sporadic E (usually written Es), and we're certainly in peak season now.  An interesting site I've recently learned about is the Es Probability Index, EPI, by G3YLA in the UK.  I just screen captured this map for 0000 (midnight) Universal Time Today.  The color contours show the probability, with hotter colors, going through reds to whites, being the highest EPI values.  At the bottom left is a slider than allows you to move the predicted time backwards and forwards 12 hours.

Those white rimmed silver areas are virtually assured of densities high enough for Es.  Even this level of calculation has uncertainties, but at the most fundamental level, this is fluid dynamics and that means nonlinear partial differential equations - chaotic systems.  What that means is that from moment to moment areas of higher or lower density can happen, where they're "not supposed to be" like waves in the ocean.  The only way to really know what's happening is what I call BIC time, for Butt In Chair. 

In my opening, I said this weekend "...brought several once in a lifetime events with it."  The biggest one, the one that actually shocked me, was that while I know other guys in my area have contacted Japan on 6m, and I've fairly often seen reports of contacts with Japan (usually the US end was northwest of me) I've never heard Japan.  On Saturday night, for the first time in my life, I heard a guy in Japan, JH4UYB, calling CQ ("calling anyone for a contact").  And he answered me after my first call.  Here's a screen capture of what could be a valid contact with Japan (meticulously edited to remove my Personally Identifying Information). 

There's a problem related to the nuances of the contest exchange.  The required exchange is just our locations (given as four character grid square names), but he sent me a standard non-contest reply; the -17 (the red row is his reply) was my signal to noise ratio (SNR) at his station.  I tried for four minutes to get him to respond one more time but since he started out with a -22 dB SNR, went down to -23 and was never heard again, a momentarily dense cloud in the ionosphere might have thinned back out.  (The lowest SNR you'll see in this software is -24 dB).  Technically, as a contest contact, I got his grid square when he called CQ, and he got mine when I first called him (yellow bars on the right panel), so it actually is a valid contest contact.  It's possible he may have received my reply, "R EL98" and sent a reply that went below the noise floor the computer can't copy, but I can't know that without asking him.

The other once in a lifetime events are more mundane.  I've got confirmed contact with all of the lower 48 states, and use my time to collect grid squares.  Ordinarily, it just gives me BIC time to stay and try to hear Alaska and Hawaii.  I got around 25 new grid squares, and made duplicate contacts with another bunch that I have record of having contacted but not confirmed.  Saturday's propagation was otherwise not very remarkable.  I have holes in the map I keep of grids I've worked through parts of Georgia, North Florida, N and S Carolina and other places that are too close, so that 6m generally skips over the area.  I filled in some of those Saturday afternoon.  

Sunday morning, on the other hand, was very unusual.  It surprised me by being open to California in the morning.  I've worked California and especially southern Cal several times, but always in the evenings.  I think it was even late evening here, but certainly more like 9PM than 9AM like Sunday.  I worked a few guys in the southern half of Cali, and a couple of new grids out west but all paths were close to straight west.  The farthest north I worked was into the grid square just north of San Fransicko Bay.  Yesterday in the early evening (here) the openings shifted into the NW.  I worked Vancouver, BC, a few grid squares right around Seattle, then Portland area, up into Calgary around Banff Park, and that general area.  Those paths shut down before 8, maybe 9PM.

The big name contests are generally two day affairs, starting at 0000 UTC Saturday (so Friday evening on the eastern time zone) and ending 2359 on Sunday night (Sunday evening here).  This contest starts at 1800 UTC (2PM) on Saturday and ends at 0300 UTC Monday, or 11PM Sunday night.  I wasn't in the chair the entire time, but I did spend most of the available time in it.