Sunday, December 4, 2022

Not Much...

It's a pretty slow news weekend which I've got to admit beats a lot of the alternatives.  If WWIII has started, you couldn't prove it by me.  TV, electricity and internet are all working, and there are no mushroom clouds over any of the nearby, likely targets.  Likewise, it doesn't appear that the world economic collapse has happened, and the news looks pretty much like SSDD (Same Shit Different Day).  Orion is still on its slow trip back to Earth, performing another course correction engine burn today, this time changing its velocity by a blistering 1.16 mph out of a cruising speed of 3,076 mph. Tomorrow it will make its closest approach to the moon on its way back to Earth.

That means some odds and ends.  Tonight, that will be about two videos I've watched that I can't embed here, including one I can't even link to.  But they're both good so go watch if you can.  

Here's the first one and it's something you can click on this link and watch.  The program is a half hour show about ham radio produced by the University of Montana's School of Journalism.  To borrow a blurb from the webpage just below the video:

Join us as we investigate the culture of Montana Amateur Radio Operators, or "hams", as they recount their admiration for the global Amateur Radio community.  This niche hobby has produced long-lasting friendships between radio enthusiasts around the globe, and has been a pastime of choice for much of their lives.  Produced as part of a new Certificate in Documentary Film program, by students in the School of Journalism and the School of Visual & Media Arts at the University of Montana, this short film takes an in-depth look at the particular ways in which amateur radio enthusiasts remain active both locally and globally.

Sure enough, the top of the page says MT PBS on it but these appear to be reasonable kids trying to learn what that ham radio stuff is all about.  That blurb says it's Montana Amateur Radio Operators and it features a handful of hams from the state.  The journalism students let the hams talk, don't interrupt, and don't bring up any absurd tangents or woke nonsense - pretty much as I'd expect Montana kids to behave, although I freely admit to being naive about Montana kids.  Content-wise, I thought it was well put together; while some of the stuff they talk about is technical, the emphasis was on what hams do and the people in the hobby. 

The other video is a documentary on the 2007 Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, called "Good Night Oppy."  The film is 1hr 45min long and is currently available on Amazon Prime as a free (or no extra cost) video. 

It is a documentary, after all, so aside from narration by a professional (Angela Bassett) it's a story about the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the program that got them developed and to Mars, and many of the people who worked on the program are featured in it.  It's largely told by the people who actually did the things, with some well written narration to add to the story.  The two rovers were planned for 90 day missions.  Spirit had a somewhat rougher mission and lasted around five years.  Opportunity (Oppy) lasted nearly 15 years out of a three month mission.

Yeah, heartwarming, and they anthropomorphize the robots constantly but it also feels natural.  Any of you who have worked on major space projects will probably identify with it.  It's real and they keep the hard moments real.  Good Night Oppy won the #criticschoice Documentary Award for Best Science/Nature Documentary, November 13th.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Artemis I Mission Moving Into Final Days

When Artemis I lifted off on November 16th, we knew the mission was in one of the shorter, 26-28 day mission launch windows, but not exactly how long the mission would be.   As the mission has proceeded, it has become clear that the return to Earth will be December 11th, making it a 25 day long mission.   

NASA's Artemis blog has been a good source of information during the mission but as usual in this business, "no news is good news" and the mission has been rather smooth.  Today's posting, for example, reports that the Orion spacecraft has fallen under the gravitational influence of the moon again.

Orion re-entered the lunar sphere of influence at 4:45 p.m. CST Saturday, Dec. 3, making the Moon the main gravitational force acting on the spacecraft. Entry into the lunar sphere of entry occurred when the spacecraft was about 39,993 miles from the lunar surface. It will exit the lunar sphere of influence for a final time on Tuesday, Dec. 6, one day after the return powered flyby about 79 miles above the lunar surface.

[Let me say that I believe "lunar sphere of entry" probably is a wrong word and they meant to say something like sphere of influence, but I present it as blogged.]  Today's update is a result of what happened two days ago, on December 1st, when the Orion Service Module fired its main engine to break Orion out of its Near Retrograde Halo Orbit and begin the transition to return to Earth, and yesterday's course correction engine burn, to change the spacecraft’s velocity by about a whole 0.3 mph to ensure that the trajectory is correct.  Note that 0.3 mph is less than half a foot per second.  Compared to what?  A little later in that blog entry it says:

Just after 1 p.m. CST on Dec. 2, Orion was traveling 229,812 miles from Earth and 50,516 miles from the Moon, cruising at 2,512 miles per hour.

I think that means it's fair to say that speed correction is 0.3mph out of 2,512 mph.  

On flight day 17, December 2nd, Orion snapped this picture of the moon in the distance framed by the Orion craft and one of its solar panels.  NASA Photo.

Something that I hadn't seen elsewhere is reporting that Artemis is taking up enough time from NASA's Deep Space Network that it's affecting the James Webb Space Telescope as well as other missions.  NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) is the small network of 14 of the largest and most capable radio telescopes on Earth.  All of their projects beyond near Earth orbit, from the Mars rovers, probes at other planets, the Webb/JWST to Voyagers 1 and 2 can need the capabilities of the DSN.

"We were told over the summer that when the Artemis space mission launched, the Deep Space Network was going to be basically fully taken by Artemis because they needed to keep track of the spaceship," Mercedes López-Morales, an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the chair of the JWST Users Committee, told a meeting of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences' Board on Physics and Astronomy on Wednesday (Nov. 30). 

The need for nearly constant contact with Orion has crimped the abilities of the DSN.  

NASA has known Artemis would strain the Deep Space Network; the agency arranged upgrades to some antennas and added two new ones in January 2021 and March 2022 in preparation.

But communications time is still scarce. "It could be up to 80 hours — that's about three and a half days — of no contact with JWST at all," López-Morales said she was told before Artemis 1's launch.

The Webb support team uploads instructions to the telescope about once a week, so hours without the ability to communicate doesn't affect those uploads, but for astronomers to actually take advantage of the telescope, it needs to be able to beam home its data.  Since space certified memory is expensive and subject to data bits being flipped by the radiation in space, the system was designed with less storage than the scientists might like to have.  Which puts a premium on downloading the data frequently, so its computer doesn't fill up. 

Artemis missions are never going to be common; every schedule I've seen is flight rates of once per year, or less; after this mission, the manned Artemis II lunar flyby isn't until 2024.  It seems like the different users are going to have to live with the interruptions.  Maybe as Artemis flights become a bit more routine than "the first one ever," the need for constant monitoring of the probe might go away.  If Artemis missions ever get to be routine.



Friday, December 2, 2022

Another Small Space News Story Roundup

In this case, “small” describes the sizes of both the stories and the rockets.  

When I first mentioned the "One-Ton-Class Orbital Rocket Race" back in mid-August, it looked like the race could be over soon.  ABL Space had dates projected in September that it could fly from Kodiak Alaska and other companies appeared on the verge of flying as well, but we never saw a September launch by ABL or any other company.  By early October, it appeared that Firefly Aerospace had become the first to achieve orbit, but a few days later, 

...the tracking firm Seradata said it was now classifying the mission as a "launch failure," with a provisional capability loss of 90 percent due to the likely life loss for the seven satellites aboard.

ABL is still struggling to achieve their first orbital flight, after scrubbing during all launch windows in the last couple of weeks.  In that article from Spaceflight Now, dated November 22nd, they note:

ABL conducted three countdowns during a week-long launch period at the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, to try to send aloft the company’s first RS1 rocket, an orbital-class launcher designed to haul payloads of more than one ton into low Earth orbit.

They are currently waiting for the next lineup of launch windows that will become available December 7th to try again.  Eric Berger at Ars Technica's Rocket Report adds:

A November 14 launch attempt was scrubbed about 30 minutes before liftoff due to unexpected data during propellant loading on the RS1’s first stage, later found to be caused by a leaking valve in the pressurization system. A second launch attempt on November 17 was aborted at T-minus 1.8 seconds during ignition of its nine kerosene-fueled E2 first-stage engines. Another countdown on November 21 was also aborted during the engine startup sequence.

Another launch company that I've been trying to keep up with is Relativity Space and I've covered their work toward launch before.  To briefly recap, Relativity Space might best be considered an additive manufacturing company.  Their rocket bodies, engine parts and most of the vehicle's parts (85% by mass) are 3D printed (14 second time lapse record in this video).  They recently announced that their Terran-1 first and second stages have been mounted to each other; I'd say they've been stacked, but they're not vertical, so more like lying end to end.  OK, fastened end to end. 

Relativity Space photo

"The next time Terran 1 is out on the pad, it will be stacked and vertical. Upcoming milestones to track: rollout, static fire, and launch," the company said in its newsletter. The company also said it completed thrust vector control testing.

Considering how little is left in 2022, it seems almost certain the first launch will slip into '23, but it also seems like they might be fairly close to being ready,  Perhaps in January?  

Finally, remember the TROPICS mission? As I've said almost every time I've written about it, 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 about the name at least makes some sense).  

The last time I devoted much column space to the mission was when it kind of fell apart.  TROPICS was to have been a constellation of six radar satellites and two of the six were lost in June when Astra's rocket failed to achieve orbit and I was wondering if it was salvageable with 1/3 of the intended satellites missing. 

This week, NASA announced they were moving the mission to Rocket Lab's Electron rocket.  In the initial contract bidding, Rocket Lab and SpaceX also bid on the launch and Astra won the contract, with NASA saying that Rocket Lab as significantly more expensive.  Rocket Lab will launch four CubeSats for NASA on two Electron rockets, targeted for no earlier than May 1.

And speaking of names that are almost legally required to be an acronym, NASA says the contract is awarded to Rocket Lab as part of their Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare launch services contract.  They refer to this as VADR but that's begging to have the "A" in that last "and" included so that the acronym becomes VADAR.  Then they just need to come up with a fancy name that can be abbreviated as DARTH.  (Don't you correct my spelling and spoil my fun, now!)

Thursday, December 1, 2022

New Comm Satellite Becoming a Bigger Pain to Astronomers

When SpaceX first began launching their Starlink satellites, there was talk about them causing light pollution and impacting astronomers on the ground.  SpaceX responded with a handful of modifications to the next groups to go into orbit and reduced the visual brightness of their satellites.  Visual brightness, though isn't the real problem; the problem is that satellites moving across a field of view are always going to be visible.  Amateurs and ground-based scientific observatories take long, deep exposures allowing them to see very dim objects.  Any reflection of light from a satellite will be bright enough to be visible.  

Satellites interfering with astronomical observations is not a new phenomenon. “Any object in Earth orbit that reflects sun, anything with an albedo greater than zero, can possibly leave a trail in an astronomical image,” said Pat Seitzer, a professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Michigan.

On any given night, he said, hundreds of objects might pass in view of an observatory. “We’d really like no satellites,” he said, “but that battle was lost a long time ago, beginning in 1957.”

Without spending too much time and space here, I should include a link to a description of how astronomers refer to the brightness of stars, planets and things in the night sky; it's a system called visual magnitude.  Chances are you'd expect the brightest objects to have the biggest numbers; in fact, the brighter the object the smaller the number.  The sun has a magnitude of -26.7; the full  moon is -12.6 and the brightest star in the northern sky, Sirius, is -1.4.  Every change of one magnitude up or down represents a 2.5x change in brightness.  A young person with good vision, not too old (vision gets worse with age), in a place with very dark skies can see stars down to magnitude +6, maybe +6.5.  Someone with one of the common 8" telescopes (for example - probably the most common size) can see down to 14th magnitude.  The big, ground-based observatories can see down dimmer than the 20th magnitude.  The dimmest objects, imaged by long exposures in the darkest skies can see to around magnitude 30.  At 2.5x the brightness for each step of 1.0 magnitude and compared to the 6.5 naked eye limit, that's 2.2 billion times fainter.  

So while the measured data on Starlink satellites show they've dropped the peak of the distribution of brightness down to magnitude 7, that means next to zero improvement.  Mag 7 is millions of times brighter than even what the amateur down the block with an el cheapo camera can image.  They'll always be a problem to some astronomer.    

Improvement in measured brightness of the original Starlink satellites in blue outline and the first generation improvements, nicknamed VisorSat, in gray.  The shift to one magnitude dimmer is clear.  Illustration from Sky and Telescope.

All of which is to set some introduction, more accurately: reintroduction to a company and satellite we talked about before: ASTMobile and their BlueWalker 3 satellite.  SpaceX launched the BlueWalker 3 for AST in September of '22 and it has been undergoing testing.  It's now one of the 20 brightest objects in the sky.

Since BlueWalker3's launch in September, astronomers have been tracking the satellite, and their alarm was heightened following its antenna deployment last month. According to the International Astronomical Union, post-deployment measurements showed that BlueWalker 3 had an apparent visual magnitude of around 1 at its brightest, which is nearly as bright as Antares and Spica, the 15th and 16th brightest stars in the night sky.

For a few years, astronomers have been expressing concerns about megaconstellations, such as SpaceX's Starlink satellites. While these are more numerous—there are more than 3,000 Starlink satellites in orbit—they are much smaller and far less bright than the kinds of satellites AST plans to launch. Eventually, AST plans to launch a constellation of 168 large satellites to provide "substantial" global coverage, a company spokesperson said.

At magnitude 1, six full magnitudes brighter than that 7th magnitude Starlink, it's 2.5^6 or 244 times brighter than the Starlink.  But that's not the only problem and not necessarily the biggest.  BlueWalker 3 is a communications satellite aiming to connect directly to users on the ground.  That will be billions of times stronger radio signals coming down from the eventual production (which will be called BlueBird) satellites compared to the generally weak signals, near the noise floor of the universe coming out of giant receiver dishes that radio astronomers are interested in. 

The production BlueBird satellites will carry an antenna that unfolds to 4800 square feet.  The constellation of these BlueBird satellites that they're planning is nowhere near as big as the Starlink constellation but is still a respectable 243 satellites being planned

There are radio quiet zones in a few places around the US and ASTMobile has talked about respecting those, which they're obligated to do.  They've also said things about "actively working with industry experts on the latest innovations, including next-generation anti-reflective materials" to reduce brightness, but as discussed above, they could dim them until the satellites are invisible to the naked eye and still be far too bright for astronomical imaging. 

Observation of a BlueWalker 3 pass from Oukaimeden Observatory on Nov. 16 2022. The bright star lower left is Zeta Puppis.  Photo credit to: CLEOsat/Oukaimeden Observatory/IAU CPS/A.E. Kaeouach.



Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Small Space News Story Roundup

SpaceX scrubbed this morning's launch of the ispace Hakuto R M1 lunar mission at 11PM last night citing (as they regularly do) the reason as, “to allow for additional pre-flight checkouts.”  About an hour ago they announced they're standing down from tomorrow morning's launch for more check out.  As you can see at the top (newest) tweet, no new launch time has been announced.

While this sort of scrub twice in two days isn't common, I vaguely recall one within the year.  They are riding quite a wave of successful launches of the Falcon 9 and considering every launch generally comes at the end of years of work at the cost of millions of dollars, I have to respect their decision to be as careful as they need to be. Caution is definitely called for. 

This mission is actually carrying two payloads to the moon.  In addition to the ispace Hakuto R, NASA is sending a 6U size CubeSat to the Moon on this Falcon 9 launch as a secondary passenger.  Called the Lunar Flashlight mission, the briefcase-sized satellite is bound for a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, similar to the one the CAPSTONE mission entered earlier in November, and the one Artemis Orion is currently temporarily occupying. The purpose of this mission is to shine light into permanently dark areas near the lunar poles in search of water ice. 

Rocket Lab is on the verge of carrying out their first launch from the US, from the facilities they've built at Wallops Island, Virginia. The launch is currently set for No Earlier Than December 7th, next Wednesday, although no time has been given yet.  

The “Virginia Is For Launch Lovers” mission will deploy three satellites for radio frequency geospatial analytics provider HawkEye 360, with integration of those satellites to Electron taking place in the coming days at Rocket Lab’s ICF (Integration and Control Facility).  Meanwhile, NASA is continuing to make progress in certifying its Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) software required for the launch. This will be the first time an AFTS will be flown from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, representing a valuable new capability for the nation.

While “Virginia Is For Launch Lovers” will be Electron’s first launch from the U.S., Rocket Lab has already conducted 32 Electron missions from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, delivering 152 satellites to orbit for customers including NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office, DARPA, the U.S. Space Force and a range of commercial constellation operators. Electron is already the most frequently launched small orbital rocket globally and now with the capacity of the pads at Launch Complex 1 and 2 combined, Rocket Lab has more than 130 Electron launch opportunities every year.

The launch window is stated to run from December 7 - 20.  Those of you in the area of Wallops Island probably have a place you know of to watch launches; if not, the Rocket Lab Website lists a couple of places.   For the rest of us, it will be streamed online starting about T-40 minutes.  I usually just search for Rocket Lab at the top level on YouTube and watch there.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

SpaceX Does Another B7 Static Fire on Fewer Engines

Apparently after a couple of false starts yesterday that ended with no static fire, SpaceX got their stuff together today and completed another relatively long duration static fire of Booster 7.  The main difference between today and the major test they did back on November 14th is that today's test involved 11 engines instead of the 14 tested two weeks ago.  

SpaceX photo from Twitter.

Today's test was longer than the previous test, but not dramatically longer; more like 13 or 14 seconds instead of 10 seconds.  So why the decrease in the number of engines tested?  With nothing official to go by, I can only speculate and relay other peoples' speculations.  The chat on the sides of both NASA Spaceflight and Lab Padre, was talking about SpaceX testing the ability for the self-warming and expansion of the cryogenic fuel and liquid oxygen to replace the helium they've been pumping into the the tanks.  This is an approach called autogenous pressurization.  There is also talk that to adequately test autogenous pressurization takes more like 20 seconds than today's shorter test.

They use helium because it remains a gas quite a bit cooler than the fuel and oxidizer and the helium pressure helps force the liquids into the pipes that deliver it to the "active bits" that need the liquids.  Here in technological civilization, helium isn't generally a supply issue, but on Mars it's another thing that Mars civilization 1.0 (or Moon 1.0) will need to produce - or bring along - if they ever plan to leave the planet. 

While I'd seen that concept talked about before today, I assumed that the way SpaceX develops and tests their hardware meant they'd go directly to a higher number of engines.  There has been talk that the next static fire test will be all 33 engines in the Superheavy booster, but there was also talk they'd do more engines firing today, whether 22, or something else short of the full 33.  It goes without saying that they'll do whatever they think is the next most important test to do.  

Meanwhile, all we can do is wait and watch.  I expect that the first launch for an orbital attempt will be in January.  The 33 engine static test and full-up Wet Dress Rehearsal could well be in December.   The more successful today's tests were, the more likely bigger tests are coming.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Good-Bye to A Most Abnormal Normal Hurricane Season

Wednesday, November 30th is the last day of the 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Center, and with no areas considered to be likely to develop, it seems safe to be saying, "it's over" and do a little post-action summary.  Good-bye and good riddance.  Prior to the start of the season, predictions called for the season to be more active than normal.  In retrospect it was about 75% of normal, based on the Accumulated Cyclone Energy or ACE, a product of strength of the storms and the amount of time they existed.  The real oddity of the season was the distribution of storms.  

After three weak, early-season storms, the Atlantic basin produced zero named storms between July 3 and August 31. This was the first time since 1941 that the Atlantic had no named storm activity during this period. Then, a light came on. Four hurricanes formed in September, along with three more in November. This brought seasonal activity to near-normal levels.  [Bold added - SiG]

2022 ACE - Colorado State University  The black curve is the climatological normal while the light blue is this year.  This year's ACE, 95, is three-quarters of the normal value of 126.

It gets odder.  This year has been a La Nina year in the El Nino/La Nina cycles (the El Nino Southern Oscillation or ENSO) and the overall picture for a La Nina year is to be more conducive to tropical system development.  El Nino years get high level winds - wind shear - that "blows the tops off" storms that go ahead and develop in La Nina  years.  In August, the wind shear was higher than normal in the parts of the Atlantic where storms develop.  The wind shear was accompanied by drier air from the mid-latitudes, from 30 to 60 degrees north, flowing into the more southerly latitudes.  

A current emphasis of the analysis of why this season was weaker than predicted is a phenomenon called "wave-breaking," which has nothing to do with ocean waves but rather low pressure waves in the air above those mid-latitudes.  Phil Klotzbach, one of the world's foremost seasonal hurricane forecasters, put it this way.

"Wave breaking is associated with upper-level low-pressure systems that have anomalous upper-level westerlies on their southern periphery. These upper-level westerlies increase vertical wind shear. Also, mid-latitude air is typically drier than tropical air, stifling thunderstorm development and effectively choking African easterly waves."

While there's evidence wave breaking was a factor in the odd season, it's apparently not the only factor.  Needless to say, the quiet August was broken soon, on September 1st by the formation of Tropical Storm Daniel.  

Five additional storms followed in the next three weeks, with Hurricane Ian being the strongest of them. With maximum sustained winds of 150 mph at landfall along the southwestern coast of Florida, Ian is tied with five other hurricanes for the fifth strongest continental US hurricane landfall on record.

Another surprise came in November when the late-season Hurricane Nicole formed. It eventually made landfall along the southeast coast of Florida as a Category 1 hurricane.

We were affected by both Ian and Nicole here on the Space Coast; both were tropical storm force while affecting us.  In my book, hurricane seasons weaker than climatological are a feature, not a bug, and I'll take all I can get that way.  It is an interesting season, though, when things like this year's La Nina, which were expected to increase activity don't do that.  

I've often said that hurricanes are good disasters for the lazy man, so I like them. There's no need to go get in line for plywood for your shutters, canned food or bottled water or any of that.  No need for the French Toast line we see in northern snowstorms (milk, eggs and bread).   All of it is stuff you can prepare for months or years in advance. Yeah, you have to go put up the shutters and do some stuff in advance of the storm, but you sure don't need to be in line at stores. Or in line at a FEMA tractor trailer for food and water handouts afterwards.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Happy 100th, Sparky!

I only just learned that yesterday, 11/26, would have been Charles Schultz 100th birthday. Most of the comics I read online had tributes to Schultz yesterday or today.  Unfortunately, Schulz passed away in 2000 at age 77.  I saw this cartoon on - it's also on

As soon as I started looking at the cartoon, this tune started playing in my head.  While I think of it as being from the annual Halloween special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," the song's name is Linus and Lucy, by the great Vince Guaraldi Trio, and it appears in other shows.  

Yeah, I grew up on the Peanuts comic strip like many of you; it was one of my favorites.  I still have a soft spot for it.  Old strips are still available.


Saturday, November 26, 2022

Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Flies Again

Back in May, as winter was closing in on the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter, there were concerns that the components on the little helicopter wouldn't survive the cold Martian winter.   

The NASA engineers have had to take some fairly drastic steps to preserve Ingenuity's battery charge. For example, they have now commanded the helicopter's heaters to come on only when the battery's temperature falls to -40°, far colder than the previous point of 5° Fahrenheit. It is not known how many of the off-the-shelf components on the vehicle will fare without this additional heating during the cold Martian nights.

This week (November 22nd) we learned that the little helicopter survived the coldest part of winter unscathed, is flying again, and NASA had done a major software upgrade to improve its usefulness.  That upgrade was tested by taking the shortest test flight it had ever flown. 

Ingenuity's 34th flight, which took place on Tuesday (Nov. 22), lasted only 18 seconds and saw the helicopter briefly hover after takeoff above Mars' surface before landing just 16 feet (5 meters) away from its starting point. The flight, the first since Sept. 29, was the first try-out of a new software system that was beamed to Ingenuity from Earth to improve its ability to operate in the rugged terrain that its parent Perseverance rover is currently exploring.

Ingenuity has been a spectacularly successful technology demonstration but it was designed for smooth terrain and as NASA JPL has gotten more comfortable with the little flyer, they've gotten more comfortable with the idea of flying it in more complicated landscapes.  This has the effect of forcing the helicopter to find smoother landing areas.  

...The new software will use Ingenuity's downward-facing camera to detect risky objects before landing and steer Ingenuity to avoid them, allowing the chopper to use smaller airfields.

"While in flight, Ingenuity will identify the safest visible landing site," the Ingenuity team said in a statement (opens in new tab). "When preparing to land, Ingenuity will then divert over to this selected site."

It turns out the Law of Unintended Consequences works on Mars, too (as if we had any doubt).  Since the helicopter was designed to fly over flat fields, its software previously could get confused by seeing a hilly landscape underneath it. The old software would misread the elevation changes as though its own elevation was changing; assuming it was descending rather than the ground coming up at it (and vice versa).  That would lead the helicopter to "think" it was veering, which would make it actually veer while in flight in a misguided attempt to stabilize its course.  The new software will also make Ingenuity appear more confident in flight.  To whomever or whatever is watching.

Image from Ingenuity's 18 second test flight on Nov. 22.  NASA photo.

Friday, November 25, 2022

NASA's Perserverance Mars Rover Both Is and Isn't Where They Wanted

No, that's not from quantum superposition; Perseverance is where they intended it to land, Jezero crater on Mars; it's just that Jezero crater isn't turning out to be what it was expected to be.  

The Perseverance rover landed in Mars' Jezero Crater largely because of extensive evidence that the crater once hosted a lake, meaning the presence of liquid water that might once have hosted Martian life. And the landing was a success, placing the rover at the edge of a structure that appeared to be a river delta where the nearby highlands drained into the crater.

But a summary of the first year of data from the rover, published in three different papers being released today, [November 23 - SiG] suggests that Perseverance has yet to stumble across any evidence of a watery paradise. Instead, all indications are that water exposure in the areas it explored was limited, and the waters were likely to be near freezing. While this doesn't rule out that it will find lake deposits later, the environment might not have been as welcoming for life as "a lake in a crater" might have suggested.

Like all deep space probes, Perseverance can be seen as a collection of instruments that (in this case) can be driven around the Martian landscape to take samples of the environment and measure the properties of rocks and things.  The rover has "eyes", a pair of cameras on its mast, that can create stereo images with 3D information, and offer information on what wavelengths are present in the images. It also carries instruments that can be held up to rocks to determine their content and structure; even going so far as to have remote sample-handling hardware which can perform a chemical analysis of materials taken from rocks.  

Spectroscopic tools are excellent at telling us about the chemical composition of rocks, but not how the chemicals are distributed in those rocks, while there are X-ray analysis tools that offer inexact chemical information, but tell us how the chemicals it detects are located compared to the rock's visible features. Finally, the cameras on the rover's mast can help us identify how widely distributed similar-looking rocks are.

Collectively, these tools tell us that Perseverance sampled rocks from two different deposits so far. The first includes the crater floor where it landed, which is rich in iron- and magnesium-based minerals. Above that is a separate formation that appears to be volcanic rock, although we can't rule out that it was formed by rock liquified following an impact.


But the big question is whether the materials show indications that water was present. The answer there is a bit of a "yes, but..."

Perseverance on Mars, NASA/JPL photo.  I can almost hear the rover saying, "no, ossifer, I swear I didn't leave those donuts!" 

The source article dives a bit into minerals in the olivine family, making the case that olivine minerals dissolve too easily to be a good indicator to study, and that there are no strong indications that the environment there at Jezero crater is similar to what was envisioned during mission planning. 

All of this, of course, is relevant to our ability to infer things about Mars' prior habitability. But the same work also provided some more directly relevant evidence. For example, the presence of olivine also indicates that any life that was present in these deposits couldn't have been closely associated with the minerals, as the microbes would also have been unable to obtain energy from an environment that left the olivine intact.

The rover also picked up signs of organic chemicals, in the form of chemicals with one or more benzene-like rings. That description could fit some of the chemicals involved in life on Earth, but could also fit a wide variety of other materials.



Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Happy Thanksgiving 2022

It has been an uncomfortable week for a couple of reasons, but unlike our usual Thanksgiving, we'll be staying home tomorrow.  I'll probably take the day off and be generally useless, and I encourage everyone to do the same.  

Uncomfortable reason #1.  We have two "senior" cats (in human years they'd be pushing 80) and it has been a trying year with both of them.  The first was our guy cat, Mojo or just plain Moe.  He had a problem on his annual physical with blood counts being "wrong."  Nothing that blood tests for lymphoma or other cancers could reveal but it culminated a few months ago with surgery for what I think would be called periodontal disease in humans; a large lump on his lower left jaw.  Since that surgery, he has behaved more like himself than he has since the medications started last March.  

Which leads us to the acute uncomfortable reason this week with our girl cat Aurora.  She had some abnormal kidney results in her annual blood tests last March and we were told to retest her in six months.  We've been going to doctors back and forth for the two cats for weeks.  Last weekend, she started displaying labored breathing and we got her into the doctor Monday morning, spending most of the day there. They drained a lot of fluid from around her lungs.  Two weeks before, she hadn't been eating and the current guess is the steroids that were helping her appetite caused the fluid around her lungs.  Since Monday, her breathing has gotten much more normal looking.  She's being a bit more active, still eating and generally acting more normally than she has in a while.    

Uncomfortable reason #2 is me.  I wrote about the bike accident Saturday, and yesterday (day +3) it threw me a curve.  I was up at 5AM to react to Mojo yanking my chain (during some part of his long year with lots of drug experiments, he learned to get me up somewhere between 3 and 5 for breakfast).  As usual, I went back to bed and slept a few hours.  When I woke, I was so dizzy and nauseated, I could hardly get out of bed.  From normal to that dizzy in a few hours.  After sitting up for a while, no coffee, no nothing, I called my doctor's office.  The tech said, get to the ER NOW and get a CT scan.

I spent Tuesday from around noon to 4PM in the emergency room of the nearest hospital.  The good news is there is no brain bleed, no clots, no skull fractures, nothing serious.  The ER doctor said something to effect that they diagnose "concussion" once all the bad stuff has been ruled out, so I have a concussion.  They call the dizziness plain old vertigo (which I've never had in my life).  I have an epic black eye, the worst I can remember in my life, but to me that's the only thing that makes it seem like I got hit on my head hard enough to concuss. 

I'm on a common anti-dizziness pill for vertigo, meclizine, which is an old antihistamine similar to the Dramamine that's a common over-the-counter pill for sea-sickness and both are sold for travelers' motion sickness.  The meclizine reduces the dizziness but doesn't eliminate it and I'll be having a followup with my GP.  The dizziness is most noticeable with fast movements, like standing or sitting too fast, even rolling over in bed.  I have a referral to an Ear Nose and Throat guy, since vertigo typically is an inner ear problem.  I'll call my allergist and see if he thinks it's worth coming in.   

But, hey, my shiner is starting to turn green around the edges, and since I haven't been exposed to Bruce Banner or his cousin Jennifer Walters, there's pretty much a zero chance turning green means I'm turning into a Hulk and that means the shiner is healing.  Otherwise, that would be Hulk, She-Hulk and Goober-Hulk, and that's even too much for the Marvel MCU or even Disney+.

Well, enough about me and the cats.  However you spend your Thanksgiving, I wish you the best.  Take some time to be deliberately thankful - even for the troubles of life.  Yeah, being grateful for troubles sounds odd, but it sure seems in retrospect that growth occurs in response to trouble, not in response to idyllic wonderfulness.  

Thanks to the EMTs, Nurses, Doctors, LEOs, Firefighters and others who work Thanksgiving so we can have the day off.  Thanks to the military men and women who keep the barbarians from the gates and give us the chance to relax.  For now, eat, drink, and be merry. Who knows what next year brings? 

My smoked turkey from last year.  If the dizziness doesn't go away by Friday morning, it will be cooked in the oven for the first time in years. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Doing My Black Friday Post Early This Year

Part of the reason for doing it early is that I think I get around 25 emails proclaiming "Black Friday" sales prices every day, and I wouldn't be surprised if 25/day holds all the way back to November 1st.  I swear I've been seeing some kind of reference to Black Friday deals since mid-summer.  

About a week ago, I told Mrs. Graybeard that if I got one more Black Friday sales notice, I might break my computer.  

What they've done, instead of making shoppers (at least, this shopper) think that some special sales are going on, is to convince us that there's no such thing as Black Friday anymore.  As I've said before, when every day is Black Friday, no day can be Black Friday - in the usual sense of a special day that kicks off the Christmas shopping season.  It has just become another way of saying "SALE" in every retail place that pushes it. 

Black Friday was supposedly called that because it was the day where businesses turned their annual ledgers from red ink to black ink, but in the last few years it seems to have morphed into something else.  It has been reported for years that the big deals aren't necessarily really deals at all (2014 study), or that some companies raise their prices in the weeks (months?) before the day so that what would have been a normal, small discount from MSRP suddenly seems like a deal.  It's being reported (2016) that more and more people are carrying their smartphone into the stores to price check things, compare price and availability at other stores, or get coupons.  I confess: I've done it and not just this time of year. 

Once there started to be a perception that good deals came on Black Friday, it was only a matter of time until it became just another way of saying “BIG SALE!”  But shoppers like to think they're getting big deals, and there are stores that put one or two items on a massive discount to get some people to line up the night before.  Maybe they can get some buzz on the news.  Of course, now that stores are opening on Thanksgiving itself, Friday seems like it loses some drawing power.  Regardless, every year there's some incident where people get violent (2016) over something stupid.

It always pays to know what going prices are.  I've heard that generally speaking, the best time for deals is closer to Christmas, especially right before Christmas.  You'll get better prices than this week, but it's a gamble.  You're betting that the stores will be stuck with something you want and would rather discount it than not sell it.  If they sell out first you lose.  If they don't sell out but still won't or can't cut the price, again you lose.  That said, it has worked out for me in the past.  It's sort of like calling a bluff in poker. 

Retail is a rough way to make a living. I'm sure you've heard how airline reservation systems base the seat price on the apparent interest in a flight.  If you go back and check on the price of that seat every week, the system says there must be more demand for that flight and raises the price.  What if stores could measure real time demand and adjust the price.  Say you're looking for a new tool or other gadget; what if they see someone checking the web site regularly and interpret that as several people interested in that item and raised its price?  Would you be upset or offended?  What if they dropped the price to see at what level you can't resist pushing the Glistening, Candy-like, "BUY" button?  I don't have any hard evidence that anyone does that, but it seems trivial for an online store to track interest in something.  Their biggest risk is scaring away or alienating customers.

To me the Golden Rule is the willing seller/willing buyer.  If people are happy with what they paid, regardless of whether or not it really is "the best price of the year," and the seller is happy with the price they got for it, that's definition of a fair price.  I'm sure not gonna poop in someone's corn flakes by telling them they didn't get the best price ever. 


Monday, November 21, 2022

Once is Happenstance; Twice is Coincidence;

Everyone knows the quote attributed to Ian Fleming, "Once is happenstance.  Twice is coincidence.  Three times is enemy action."  In this case all three are design decisions.  

If all goes as scheduled, at 9:57 PM EST Monday night, SpaceX will launch the Eutelsat 10B geostationary communications satellite.  What's the 1-2-3?  In a rare coincidence, Eutelsat 10B will be SpaceX’s second expendable Falcon 9 launch in a row and the third Falcon launch to expend a booster this month - the first being the Falcon Heavy launch that started the month.  

The Falcon 9 user's guide has always said that there were missions from which recycling a booster wasn't possible.  Because of that, those missions are more expensive.  All of these three missions are that sort of profile.  The Falcon Heavy mission recovered the two strap-on boosters but the center core "gave its all" to achieve the desired orbit.  The other mission they refer to was the Intelsat Galaxy 31 & 32 mission last week, which said it needed to expend the booster to achieve its geostationary orbit transfer trajectory.  That appears to be the case for Eutelsat 10B as well, although Eric Ralph at Teslarati phrases it this way:

For unknown reasons, the French communications provider paid extra to get as much performance as possible out of Falcon 9, requiring SpaceX to expend the rocket’s booster instead of attempting to land and reuse it. 

Although landing the booster and reusing it is the spectacular aspect of Falcon 9 flights, gathering the most attention, there are other recoveries, too and that will be in operation for tonight's launch.  (As an aside, booster 1049 to be disposed of on this mission is the oldest block 5 booster in the system; on it's 10th flight, it's well behind the 14th flight of the current leaders.)  

We're talking, of course, about recovering the payload fairings that surround the payload satellites through the densest part of the atmosphere.  Along with the booster recoveries, SpaceX has also managed to become the first launch entity in the world to successfully recover and reuse the fairings.  

There have been 52 Falcon launches so far this year.  Of those, four were variants of the Dragon capsule that doesn't use fairings at all.  Of the 48 that flew with fairings, 40 have launched with at least one reused fairing half.  Elon Musk at one time gave a rough estimate of 10% of the cost of a new Falcon 9 being in the fairings.  Given the (approximate) cost of the Falcon 9, that means the complete fairing costs in range of 6.2 to $6.7 million.  Would you spend some money to go catch $6.2 million?  The question is how cost effectively you can do it. 

You might recall the early attempts to recover fairings were based on catching the fairings in mid-air with huge nets above boats (Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief).  Given the success to effort ratio, they eventually decided to seal everything better so the saltwater immersion isn't as threatening and fish the fairing halves out of the water.  Waterproofing instead of catching them with big nets.  

A Falcon 9 fairing half floats on the Pacific in 2018.  SpaceX Photo  

Eric Ralph's notes on distances offshore for this and other fairing recovery missions are a bit tough to understand.  One Tweet points out that Recovery ship Doug is roughly 550 nautical miles downrange, in position for tonight's launch.  A few paragraphs later he says Eutelsat is, "Aiming for a region 1015 kilometers (630 mi) downrange," says that may be a record, but in the previous paragraph about November 1st's Falcon Heavy flight says, 

Despite the booster’s disposal and record-smashing speed at main engine cut-off (MECO; 4 km/s or 8900 mph), SpaceX still managed to recover both of Falcon Heavy’s hypersonic fairing halves after they reentered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean almost 1500 kilometers (~930 mi) downrange. Eleven days later, SpaceX expended a Falcon 9 rocket to launch two Intelsat communications satellites. Once again, both fairing halves were recovered – this time around 960 kilometers (598 mi) downrange.

I guess when he says 630 miles downrange is a record, he means for something launched as a Falcon 9, while the 930 miles is for the center rocket in a Falcon Heavy.  

And with an hour to go before the launch, tonight's Eutelsat 10B launch has been scrubbed and reset for Tuesday night.  At the moment, that implies that tomorrow afternoon's 3:54 PM, CRS-26 launch to the ISS from pad 39A will be about six hours before the Eutelsat launch from SLC-40. 

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Air Force X-37B Space Plane Completes Record Mission

The US Space Force unmanned space plane known as the X-37B completed a new record mission of 908 days in orbit, landing at the Shuttle Landing Strip on Kennedy Space Center November 12 at 5:22 AM Eastern.  The previous mission duration record for an X-37B was 780 days, so this mission was a quite a bit long longer; 128 days or over four months.  908 days is almost 2-1/2 years. 

The Space Force has two X-37B orbiters and sometimes both of them are in orbit. notes about this mission:

For its sixth mission, classified as Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6), it was launched vertically while perched atop an Atlas V rocket in May 2020. The space plane has now spent roughly 10 years in orbit across all of its missions, covering approximately 1.3 billion miles (2.1 billion km).

For their part, seems to want to know what the secret space plane is doing up there, but that's not likely.  They go down this road, saying:

The United States Space Force has revealed only a few morsels of information (opens in new tab) about the experiments conducted aboard the craft during its most recent flight. These include a test by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory that successfully harvested light from the sun before beaming it back to Earth as microwaves; and the deployment of an electromagnetically steered training satellite designed by U.S. Air Force cadets. NASA also provided an experiment, called Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS-2), that researched the effects of space on different materials. 

"Successfully harvested light from the sun before beaming it back to Earth as microwaves" has been a wild dream in my line of work for at least a couple of decades.  I attended a conference where that was talked about back nearly 20 years ago, and the idea had been around at that time.  We referred to it as the "Microwave Engineers Full Employment Program" because of the massive arrays of solar cells that would be required to convert solar power to DC and massive microwave radio transmitters that would be required to turn that DC power to radio power beamed back to earth.  Huge tracts of land would be required to mount the antennas that would receive this microwave energy and huge arrays of receivers to turn it into usable electricity.  

Huge transmitter and receiver arrays are necessary both for efficiency and safety.  It's like the multi-million dollar bird incinerators made of mirrors that direct sunlight reflections to a tower that generate electricity through various thermal mechanisms.  Except if microwave power is too high, it'll be a multi-million dollar bird incinerator that cooks them in mid-air.  Same thing with people in planes.

Because it's a flexible platform on classified missions, it's an easy target for anti-US forces to verbally attack.  Both Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and Chinese military expert and commentator Song Zhongping claimed that the craft could be being used for spying or for carrying weapons of mass destruction.  They're also concerned that the craft’s ability to alter its orbit mid-flight gives it the ability to spy on other satellites or on Earth-based targets, as well as launch attacks on things in orbit. 

China also has a secret space plane, which was launched into orbit from a Long March 5B rocket on Aug. 4. 

The X-37B at Kennedy Space Center, November 12.  USSF Photo 


Saturday, November 19, 2022

No Content Night

I'm calling in sick.  Well, not calling and not sick, but that's the idea.  

For the first time in four years, I took a fall on my morning bike ride today.  My ride is on side streets and it's genuinely very light traffic on weekdays, but a bit busier on Saturdays.  A little under three miles away is an intersection that tends to be among the busier, at which I just cross straight without turning.  As usual, if there are no cars on my side of the intersection, I take the lane and stand over the bike, waiting for traffic to clear.  Two cars coming on the left, three on the right says no big deal.  I'd be crossing the street in seconds.

Being a small city, this is a polite area, and it's not uncommon to get into one of those "after you," "no, after you, I insist" exchanges like the old Goofy Gophers Looney Tunes.  So a nice woman stopped (there is no stop sign in her crossing direction, just mine) and waved me across.  Rather than waste time saying, "no, after you, I insist," and holding up the cars behind her, I gave a wave of thanks and started across.  I remember a few images out of the next couple of seconds, of something going wrong and hitting the ground.  Almost before I could mentally process what was happening, guys were getting out of their cars to check on me.  Then a city police car, then a fire truck.  The fire truck had a paramedic and someone had called an ambulance. Once they took my vitals and we had a talk the fire truck called the ambulance dispatchers to cancel that.  

It seemed like a good idea to cancel the rest of my 14 mile ride and head back home.  When I got here, I found a bunch of scrapes and small nicks.  My right eyebrow was bleeding slightly and bruising just below the eyebrow.  In the last several hours, the excess blood from my eyebrow migrated downhill on the right side of the eye, so I look like I've been punched.  It wasn't until I was home a couple of hours that I noticed I have sore ribs on the right side of my chest, too.  Those have gotten a bit more sore as the hours have gone by.  Pretty common, after all.  Second or third day tends to be the most sore.

Back tomorrow.  Most likely.  

Friday, November 18, 2022

Small Space News Roundup

As we do on other slow news days. 

It'll be hard impossible to keep track of the latest Chinese space junk to see if it's going to hit near you. The Chinese government confirmed that the upper stage of a Long March 6A rocket launched on Saturday, November 12, broke apart instead of reentering harmlessly as it was intended to.  

According to the US Space Force, the Long March 6A rocket was between 500 to 700km (310 to 435 miles) from Earth when it disintegrated into more than 50 fragments.

The 500km orbit is used by thousands of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites while the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong space station operate at slightly lower altitudes.

“As far as we know, the relevant incident will not affect the Chinese space station or the International Space Station,” Mao said, without providing any further detail.

I'm sure that it's purely coincidental that the altitude is where thousands of Starlink satellites operate.

Chinese military researchers have been urging the government to develop capabilities to destroy the Starlink satellite network, believing it could pose a threat to China’s national security, a concern that has increased significantly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

One proposed method is to generate space debris in a specific orbit, setting off a chain of collisions to bring down a large network.

Purely coincidental.  Not a test of any sort.  It's expected that the debris orbits will decay and eventually reenter the atmosphere over the next few years, but the Chinese Space Station and the ISS are both in somewhat lower orbits so the pieces descending through their altitude has to add to the risk of a space junk impact.  It's a small risk, but it seems hard to believe it's not being thought about.  

Remember the Japanese Hakuto R-M1 mission SpaceX was reported to being ready to launch this month?    In that linked article the launch date was reported as being targeted as “sometime between November 9th and 15th.”  Oops.  Fast forward two weeks.  

On the 17the, ispace, the Japanese company developing the satellite and the mission said 

TOKYO—November 17, 2022— ispace, inc., a global lunar exploration company, plans to launch its Mission 1 (M1) lunar lander, part of the HAKUTO-R lunar exploration program, on Nov. 28, 2022, at the earliest, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Founder & CEO Takeshi Hakamada announced today at a press conference in Tokyo.

Launch time is stated as 3:26 AM EST on Monday the 28th from SLC-40.  The company has big ambitions. 

M1 is considered a technology demonstration with an overall objective to validate the lander’s design and technology, as well as ispace’s business model to provide reliable lunar transportation and data services. For M1, ispace has set 10 milestones between launch and landing, and aims to achieve the success criteria established for each of these milestones. Recognizing the possibility of an anomaly during the mission, the results will be weighed and evaluated against the criteria and incorporated into future missions, supporting the company’s evolution of sustainable technology and its business models.

The accumulated data and experience from M1 will be incorporated into future designs and operations to enhance missions, beginning immediately with Mission 2, which is already in the development stage and is scheduled for 2024. As a private corporation, ispace’s business model calls for continuous, short cycles of technology development to increase capability and reliability in order to usher in an era of full-scale commercialization of the space industry. This model will incorporate knowledge from both missions into Mission 3 (M3) planned for 2025. M3 will contribute to NASA’s Artemis Program under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program with a mature lander design and operations based on data and experience acquired during the first two missions.

A US-based subsidiary, ispace technologies, is part of the team led by Draper, which was awarded a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program contract to land on the far side of the Moon by 2025.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

SpaceX Gets Contract For Second Lunar Landing

On Tuesday, during the final day of the Artemis countdown, NASA announced a contract had been reached with SpaceX for a second manned Starship landing on the moon, no sooner than 2027.  

Known as Option B, NASA has exercised a baked-in right to modify its Human Landing System (HLS) Option A contract with SpaceX – signed in April 2021 – to extract even more value from investments into the program. In addition to an uncrewed Starship Moon landing planned no earlier than (NET) 2024 and a crewed demonstration that could land two NASA astronauts on the Moon as early as 2025, NASA’s contract modification gives SpaceX the approval and resources it needs to prepare for a second crewed Starship Moon landing.

In addition to securing the ride to the lunar surface for a second Artemis crew, the $1.15 billion contract also allows NASA and SpaceX to do research and testing toward upgrades to Starship that will make it an even more capable and cost-effective Moon lander.

There are currently three Starship configurations documented, each for their specific purpose.  Refueling in space is essential and needs to be realized before these later missions can be completed.  It's mission critical for Artemis III, IV and many future programs, and SpaceX also has a contract from NASA to demonstrate refueling on orbit.  Refueling missions can't be ironed out until Starship is operational, of course. 

It's hard to grasp just how different Starship is in overview from the rest of the Artemis, Orion, and Lunar Gateway.  A visual from a video featuring renderings of accurate models by HazeGrayArt is eye-opening, if not outright eye-popping.  The Orion capsule is at upper right, approaching the Lunar Gateway (in essentially the same Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit that CAPSTONE is in now).  The Gateway is that small assembly sticking out to the right of Starship's nose.  The blue rectangular solar arrays are part of the Gateway.  Starship dwarfs everything else.

Eric Ralph at Teslarati drops some other interesting facts on this. 

While the Artemis III landing [first moon landing - SiG] will be about as barebones as possible, the Artemis IV Starship will be upgraded with the ability to transport more NASA astronauts (four instead of just two) and more cargo to the lunar surface. It’s not entirely clear, but NASA reportedly wants to land just ~180 kilograms (~400 lb) of cargo with the first crewed Starship, a vehicle likely capable of landing dozens of tons of cargo in addition to several astronauts. NASA hopes that future “sustainable” lander missions, a category that Starship’s Option B landing may or may not fall under, will transport up to one ton (~2200 lb) of cargo to and from the lunar surface.

Finally, the Artemis IV Starship will also be able to dock with NASA’s Lunar Gateway. Gateway is a small deep space station that will be located in a strange, high lunar orbit. It exists almost exclusively to give NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew capsule a destination they can both reach. The Orion capsule is almost twice as heavy as its Apollo counterpart and its European Service Module (ESM) offers less than half the performance of NASA’s retired Apollo Service Module. Combined, Orion is physically incapable of transporting itself (or astronauts) to the simpler low lunar orbits used by the Apollo Program.

Instead, NASA’s new Moon lander(s) have to pick up Orion’s slack. Starship will be responsible for picking up astronauts in a lunar near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), transporting them to low lunar orbit, and returning them to NRHO in addition to landing on the Moon, spending a week on the surface, and launching back into lunar orbit.

Until it’s modestly upgraded in the late 2020s or 2030s, Gateway will be equally underwhelming. In fact, that’s part of the reason that Starship docking with the Gateway is in any way significant. SpaceX and NASA have decades of expertise docking and berthing spacecraft with space stations. But those spacecraft are typically smaller and lighter than the stations they were joining. Even after the Gateway is fully outfitted with a range of international modules, Starship will likely weigh several times more than the tiny station, making docking even more challenging than it already is.

Starship’s Moon lander variant could also have a cabin with hundreds of cubic meters of habitable space, while the Gateway is unlikely to ever have more than a few dozen. Having a Starship docked would thus immediately make the ultra-cramped station far more livable.

The Artemis planning schedule that I posted back in March shows Artemis IV taking place in 2027.  Is that realistic?  The only things listed for 2022 (the first year in the timeline) are the first, unmanned flight of Artemis and CAPSTONE; both have been achieved.  In the case of the launch, delayed a lot but still will complete its mission in '22.  There are items in that schedule I don't have information on.  For what it's worth, I've seen a prediction by a guy who has been scary accurate in his predictions that Artemis III won't land until '27 instead of '25.  I assume that means pushing IV back another two years as well.  

As a tangential footnote, tomorrow evening at 5:27 PM EST, SpaceX will launch the CRS-26 uncrewed cargo capsule to the International Space Station.  This is the sixth flight for this Cargo Dragon capsule.  The booster will be recovered offshore.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Artemis/SLS Flies!

Many of us had doubts this day would come this soon, but this morning at 1:47 AM EST Artemis lifted off from complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center and cruised into orbit as though it was a routine mission.  As it basically should have, since the differences between this and other ABF hardware (Already Been Flown) are so small.  In fact, these four RS-25 engines on the SLS Core are all ABF hardware.  All flew on previous Space Shuttle missions.  The least-used of these four flew three prior missions; the most "experienced" flew 12 space shuttle missions.  (From a graphic here) put up a video which is a bit long at just over 11 minutes, but it's better to watch in full screen mode.  By a bit long I mean it starts about two minutes before ignition and the core stage is essentially invisible by the 5:10 mark, meaning there's about three minutes of eye candy in there.  

From the backyard here it was quite a sight.  As ignition and liftoff took place the northern horizon was so bright I had afterimages for several minutes; I even saw them when we came inside about eight minutes later.  Not as bright as sunrise, but the brightest rocket I've seen in a long time.  Correction, the brightest I've ever seen because that would have been in the Shuttle era and SLS produces more thrust than the shuttle.  We had clear views of SLS from the time it cleared the horizon until well after the solids dropped and it was starting to go behind the houses across the street to the east.  During the last Falcon 9 launch, by contrast, there were two clouds in the sky and the rocket stayed behind one after the other for all but about 10 seconds. 

I'm going to take the day to both thank and appreciate the people who actually put the ball through the hoop on this one - and those whose work just got started for the mission that's just getting started.  It was a long, difficult job for the people on the pad, the people working on the hardware, software, and everyone who touched the thing.  At the conclusion of the launch control coverage last night, Artemis Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson gave everyone thanks and encouragement for doing the long, hard jobs.  It was well-said. 

"This is your moment," she said. "We are all part of something incredibly special: The first launch of Artemis, the first step in returning our country to the moon and on to Mars. What you have done today will inspire generations to come."

I was a bit surprised to hear the commentators on saying much the same, that finally their generation has a rocket to be proud of; a way to the moon (more or less) that hasn't existed in 50 years.  

Lots of good perspective at and Ars Technica.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

CAPSTONE Achieves Lunar Orbit

CAPSTONE, the first cubesat launched toward the moon and on a nearly five month mission to explore the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) has reached the intended orbit, NASA reported Monday.   

"We received confirmation that CAPSTONE arrived in near-rectilinear halo orbit, and that is a huge, huge step for the agency," said NASA's chief of exploration systems development, Jim Free, on Sunday evening. "It just completed its first insertion burn a few minutes ago. And over the next few days they'll continue to refine its orbit, and be the first cubesat to fly and operate at the Moon."

This is an important orbit for NASA, and a special one, because it is really stable, requiring just a tiny amount of propellant to hold position. At its closest point to the Moon, this roughly week-long orbit passes within 3,000 km of the lunar surface, and at other points it is 70,000 km away. NASA plans to build a small space station, called the Lunar Gateway, here later this decade.

The Lunar Gateway that they mention is an important part of the Artemis moon missions and going back to the moon "to stay," as the program says.  Lunar Gateway is essentially a miniature version of the Space Station in the NRHO lunar orbit that will host astronauts for a day or two on the way to and from the moon.  That makes CAPSTONE a part of the Artemis program and achieving orbit before tonight's launch is some sort of poetic thing.  It was essentially the first launch of the Artemis program.  

Borrowing some content from my post on the launch (middle story of three here) back on June 28th,

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.

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). 

You might recall that CAPSTONE had some scary moments on its journey to the moon, the first a week after launch, and the second in September (second half of this post).  Thankfully, ground teams were able to save the mission both times.  CAPSTONE is small as satellites go, but large for a cubesat.  Ars Technica reports its size is referred to as a 12U cubesat, with a mass of around 50 lbs. It could fit comfortably inside a mini-refrigerator. 

The reason it took nearly five months to reach the moon is the tiny propulsion unit called Photon that lifted it to the far orbit.  

Electron is the smallest rocket to launch a payload to the Moon, and its manufacturer, Rocket Lab, stressed the capabilities of the booster and its Photon upper stage to the maximum to send CAPSTONE on its long journey to the Moon. This was Rocket Lab's first deep space mission.

To get inserted into its desired orbit required a tiny amount of thrust. 

For example, the burn executed by CAPSTONE on Sunday evening to transition into a near-rectilinear halo orbit was extremely tiny. According to Advanced Space, the vehicle burned its thruster for 16 minutes at about 0.44 Newtons, which is equivalent to the weight of about nine pieces of standard printer paper.

It might be more helpful for us Americans to say the engine had a thrust of 1.58 ounces.