Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Random Space News Odds and Ends

Emphasis on SpaceX. 

Yesterday's launch of the Mini-V2 satellites from Cape Canaveral SFS ended up being interesting in a way I hadn't known beforehand.  As a species we seem to like to notice/pay attention to Big Round Numbers.  When booster B1076 landed on A Shortfall of Gravitas, it was their 100th consecutive landing of a booster.  That turns out to be not just a Big Round Number, as this Twitter user noted, they have recovered in consecutive flights as many boosters as the justifiably famous Delta II rockets ever flew.

Launch-wise, Falcon 9 and the Falcon family have already become the most statistically reliable rockets in history. Very few rockets in history have managed 100 consecutively successful launches, let alone landings. For example, according to spaceflight reporter Alejandro Romera, the next most reliable American rocket – the McDonnell Douglas Delta II – narrowly achieved 100 consecutively successful launches before its retirement in 2018. The landing reliability of SpaceX’s Falcon rockets is thus tied with the launch reliability of the most reliable American rocket not built by SpaceX.

That's just landings.  The flagship of United Launch Alliance is arguably the Atlas V - now retired and serving out its last 19 missions.  To date, the Atlas V has had 97 successful launches, meaning successful SpaceX landings are more common than Atlas V flights.  

If you watched the SpaceX feed during the launch or the YouTube video, you may have noticed that among the very last things the announcer said was that this was their 174th landing of an orbital class booster.  Since it was the 100th consecutive, clearly they lost some between their first landing and the string of 100.  The string of 100 began almost two years ago to the day on March 4th 2021; the landing before that one (three weeks before in early February) was lost due to a previously unknown failure mode.  There was a hole in a flexible ‘skirt’ meant to keep the superheated gases out of the flight-proven booster’s engine section.   

The amount of information that SpaceX engineers have gathered about how to recover boosters, and the amount they've improved over the years is a solid case that they are so far ahead of the competition that it will take five or more years for another company to catch up.   

And just because it's pretty:

Sunset launch last night.  SpaceX photo.

Not related to any of the above.  As of Tuesday night at nearly 9PM, the next launch of the three talked about Sunday, the Starlink Group 2-7 from Vandenberg SFB looks to be Wednesday, March 1 at 11:06 AM PST, or 2:06 PM here on EST.  

The first launch in Monday's post will be the last launch of the three.  The Crew 6 mission will be Wednesday night/Thursday morning at 12:34 AM EST.  That makes the date and time run together as 3/2 1234.  Coincidence? 

Monday, February 27, 2023

NASA's SWOT Satellite is in Trouble

In a blog post last Thursday, the team checking out the joint NASA and French space agency CNES mission called SWOT, or the Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite, ran into a serious problem with perhaps the most important instrument on the satellite

The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite's main science instrument, called KARIN (Ka-band Radar Interferometer), "unexpectedly shut down" due to a problem with the high-power amplifier subsystem...


KARIN includes twin antennas working roughly 33 feet (10 meters) apart, or half the length of a tennis court. When functional, one of the antennas generates a radar pulse that reflects off the Earth, then both antennas pick up the signal.

"Once the KARIN instrument is up and running again, the mission will continue with its commissioning and calibration activities—planned March through June—to ensure data accuracy in preparation for the beginning of science operations in July 2023," NASA officials wrote.

This strikes a nerve with me as I may not have been a Master power amplifier designer (there are no ranks like that), but I have designed a few and spent pretty much my entire working life around PA designs and designers.  Almost without exception, the most expensive piece of radio hardware on a satellite radar is the transmitter.  On more than one satellite I've seen, there wasn't a redundant backup which means if the PA fails the mission is over.  It was deemed so expensive they couldn't afford a backup and would say "buh-bye" to the mission.

The SWOT satellite.  Knowing almost nothing about the satellite design, I would think those two gold-colored bars on gold-colored beams sticking out of the body of the satellite are the two radar antennas.  Image by CNES.  (I also know they have the solar panels pointed in a useless direction, but I'll give them the "they know not what they do" pass.)

Assuming this isn't a fatal error and they can find a way to restore operation to the power amplifier system, SWOT is supposed to examine 1.3 million miles (2.1 million km) of rivers, along with coastlines and millions of lakes.  Calibration and checkout is supposed to be March through June so operations haven't been slowed or stopped at this point.  

You may recall that SpaceX launched the SWOT satellite from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California last Dec. 16.  Measuring water levels is key to determining if there are effects from "global warming" and how big those effects might be.  


Sunday, February 26, 2023

SpaceX Schedules Three Launches in 13 Hours Monday

Three launches in 13 hours spread between all three operational Falcon 9 pads in the US.  

The mission getting the headlines is the first one, the Crew 6 mission at 1:45 AM Monday morning from LC-39A on the Kennedy Space center.  The manned launch is followed by Starlink Group 6-1 seven minutes short of 12 hours later at 1:38 PM from SLC-40, a few miles SSE of 39A.  The final launch of the day is another group of Starlink satellites, group 2-7, just short of an hour after group 6-1 at 2:31 PM - all of these times in EST.  That last launch is from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, SLC-4 East. 

A new aspect of the Starlink launches is the headline of the second launch at 1:38 PM.  SpaceX has posted pictures and information saying this will be the first batch of "next version" Starlink satellites, called the V2 Mini.  Their Twitter posts add, “V2 minis include key technologies—such as more powerful phased array antennas and the use of E-band for backhaul—which will allow Starlink to provide ~4x more capacity per satellite than earlier iterations.”  E-band is an imprecise designation; it covers 60 to 90 GHz.  Atmospheric attenuation (loss of signal strength) is worst at 60 GHz and drops quite a bit by 80 GHz (see chart here, for example), which ordinarily means it's a good frequency band to use for satellite-to-satellite in space, not so much for downlink to the ground.  

There's a lot of interesting details about these satellites in the source article compiled by Teslarati from SpaceX and others.   

The satellites will operate under SpaceX’s Starlink Gen2 FCC license, which currently allows the company to launch up to 7,500 of a nominal 29,998 satellites. At the same time as it continues to fill out its smaller 4,408-satellite Starlink Gen1 constellation with smaller V1.5 satellites, SpaceX has already begun launching the same smaller V1.5 satellites under the Gen2 license.

Eventually, those smaller and less capable satellites will likely be replaced with larger V2 satellites, but SpaceX appears to have decided that quickly adding suboptimal capacity is better than waiting for an optimal solution. In theory, that optimal solution is larger Starlink V2 satellites. As discussed in a previous FCC filing, SpaceX intends to operate up to three different types of Starlink satellites in its Starlink Gen2 constellation. The first variant is likely identical to the roughly 305-kilogram (~673 lb) Starlink V1.5 satellites that make up most of its Starlink Gen1 constellation.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has already built and delivered dozens of full-size Starlink V2 satellites to Starbase, Texas. Those more optimal spacecraft reportedly weigh anywhere from 1.25-2 tons (2750-4400 lb) each, offer almost 10 times more bandwidth than V1.5 satellites, and are so large and ungainly that they can only be launched by SpaceX’s next-generation Starship rocket. Starship is substantially delayed, however, so SpaceX chose to develop a third Starlink satellite variant combining many of the full-size V2 benefits into a package that can be launched by SpaceX’s existing Falcon 9 rocket.

I think the bottom line is that while these heavier V2 Mini satellites reduce the number that a Falcon 9 can lift from the 57 of the version 1.5 satellites, down to 21 of the V2 Mini satellites, those V2 Minis will add ~50% more bandwidth than the V1.5 satellites it would have otherwise launched.

Another interesting upgrade is to the Hall thrusters for maneuvering on orbit.  SpaceX has announced they're switching from krypton gas in the thrusters to argon gas.  The savings from this small change appear to be enormous.

As a result, even if every Starlink V2 satellite needs an excessive 200 kilograms of argon, fueling its next constellation of almost 30,000 V2 satellites could cost SpaceX less than fueling 4000 V1 satellites.


EDIT 2/27/23 at 9:30 AM EST TO ADD:  The milestone of three launches fell apart early Monday morning, when the countdown to launch Crew-6 went into a hold at about T-2:30 before launch.  The issue was later said to be a ground system issue, not with the Falcon 9 itself.  The mission is currently scheduled for early Thursday morning, 12:34 AM EST, about an hour earlier than this morning's attempt.


Saturday, February 25, 2023

Totally Unrelated and Completely Different

Totally unrelated to and completely different from the usual fare that I fill these columns with, that is, but well within the things I fill my time with.  

I was offered this video the other day, and unlike 99.99% of the videos that YouTube offers me, I watched with interest.  A top-ranking manufacturer of 3D printers, Prusa, put out a video on how they printed an electric guitar body and made a playable guitar.  More impressive than that, they spent over a year on the project ensuring the guitar would survive the forces it lives under, and hold its shape.  They went into the choice of components, showed where they got the ones they used and an economical way of getting the parts to make it.

Now you may be saying, "are you going to make a one of these Fender Telescaster-clone guitars?"  While I don't want to rule it out completely, chances are I'm not going to.  It's the marginal utility function - to borrow the idea from economics.  Another guitar in the collection doesn't make my family of guitars that much more useful.  If you have one guitar, another one can bring a lot of useful differences.  Adding an acoustic guitar to an electric, or vice versa, opens a wider array of kinds of music you can make.  If you have one of both kinds, a different brand and model might still add different sounds to your repertoire  When you have a few of each kind, an additional guitar of either major type just doesn't return much for the investment.

When I went shopping for my 3D printer, I wasn't quite sure I wanted one around the house. While it seemed like an obvious thing to have when you think that a large portion of all the plastic things in our houses could be printed, there's that aspect of printers that they seem to be used for trivial things.  Can you even make useful things like they sell?  Because of that, I went with a cheaper, entry-level printer although I might look for a better one now.  Dear daughter-in-law, a research biochemist, knows they exist and has friends that own printers, but when we mentioned having one was taken aback.  All of her friends print the trinkets and little decorative things that are so widespread; nothing that was a usable tool or even something as simple as a box.  She asked about things we've done and was surprised that they were all practical things, like my 2" vacuum hose adapter or my battery connector.  I told her about the Thingiverse and the thing I use the most at a couple of times every day is the electric toothbrush holder that I printed last fall.  Not a trinket or decorative thing in the mix.

Friday, February 24, 2023

ULA Announces a Launch Date for Vulcan Cert Flight

United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno announced Thursday night their planned No Earlier Than date for the first flight of Vulcan Centaur, while acknowledging that additional delays are always possible, Tory Bruno announced the date as... 

May the 4th - usually said in Blog space along with the phrase, "be with you."

Bruno said the rocket's current "pacing item" for the debut launch is some final work qualifying the BE-4 rocket engines for flight. Blue Origin delivered two flight engines to ULA last fall, however, each of these machines had only undergone a fairly brief round of tests, known as acceptance testing. After this, two virtually identical BE-4 engines were sent from Blue Origin's factory in Washington to Texas. These "qual" engines have been undergoing a much more rigorous series of tests known as qualification testing.

The idea was to push the qualification engines through their paces, and beyond their expected flight environment, to find any flaws. During this series of tests, Bruno said, the oxygen pump on one of these engines has consistently produced about 5 percent more oxygen into the engine than expected. This fell outside the bounds of nominal performance but had only been observed in this engine.

Bruno said that after considerable investigation that they've concluded it's unit to unit variation, although it has only been seen in this one engine. None of the four BE-4 engines currently on Vulcan have shown this, nor have the other engines in the qual. test process. Bruno doesn't say how many man hours went into diagnosing that, how many other pumps have been tested, or any other details, but one out of a handful being an outlier in one metric compared to the others makes me wonder how different that 5% increase is.  Are the others all closer to within 1% or closer to that 5%?  How many standard deviations?  Not that my question matters - it's their data.  They expect to resume testing soon and expect the rest of the testing to consume six weeks.

With six weeks more testing in mind, it's conceivable that the launch date for the Certification-1 mission could be moved up to into mid-April, but the NET May 4 date seems good.  The last piece I posted on the first flight for the Vulcan said an apparent "long pole for the tent" appeared to be the Astrobotic Peregrine lunar lander which has apparently still not had its engines installed.  Bruno said he always has "backup plans for his backup plans" in case the payloads won't be ready by May, but he doesn't expect to need them. 

Following this Cert.-1 mission, ULA has a Cert.-2 mission tentatively set for later this year which will lift the Sierra Space Dream Chaser spacecraft on a test flight.  It's not certain at this point that Dream Chaser will be ready, either, but Bruno wants to fly a second mission by this fall so he can complete the military's certification process.  One would assume his "backup plans for his backup plans" cover an alternative to Dream Chaser, although that isn't stated.  

If they get that military certification, they can conduct Vulcan's first national defense mission for the US Space Force before the end of '23.  ULA won the 2020 National Security Space Launch Phase 2 launch services procurement contract, specifying they would  launch 60 percent of the US Space Force's payloads in the next few years while SpaceX would launch 40%.  That 60% won't go anywhere until they achieve that military certification.  Between those Space Force launches, Amazon's Kuiper Internet satellite constellation and using up the last of their Atlas Vs, ULA plans to be getting very busy. 

"We have to ramp up," Bruno said. "Before the end of 2025 we expect to be really at a tempo, which is flying a couple of times a month, every two weeks."

25 launches/year would be unprecedented for ULA, even going back to its heydays of flying Atlas and Delta rocket variants. 

As for ULA's talk about recovering its BE-4 engines for re-use, Bruno implied that was pretty low on his priority list and not being considered for years.  

"In terms of our engine recovery, that is going to happen within a handful of years," Bruno said. "I don't want to say exactly when because it's part of the contract we have with one of our customers at this time, and we're not releasing the details of that. But it will take a couple of years to actually be reusing the engine."

Vulcan's core stage for the Cert.-1 mission being lifted into a processing facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in January.  Image credit United Launch Alliance. 


Thursday, February 23, 2023

Polaris Dawn Slipping to Summer

Since I heard of the SpaceX/Polaris Dawn mission, the date has slipped from the fourth quarter of  '22 to NET (No Earlier Than) March of '23.  Today, we learn via their Twitter account they've slipped to NET "summer" (and H/T to Space.com).  That obviously isn't very specific, but worth noting and keeping track of.  

If you've forgotten, or never heard of it, it's an ambitious mission that's very far out of the envelope that SpaceX has ever conducted a manned mission in, which makes delays seem less objectionable.  In fact, it's out of the envelope of anything NASA has flown in close to 60 years.  


The mission will try to reach the highest Earth orbit ever flown, with its furthest point, or apogee, at around 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) over the planet. The previous record of 850 miles (1,368 kilometers) was set by Gemini 11 in 1966. 


In addition to aiming for a record-breaking orbit, the Polaris Dawn crew will undertake several other groundbreaking objectives. These include performing the first extravehicular activity (EVA) for a commercial mission in which a civilian astronaut spacewalks outside a craft. This will see the first use of SpaceX's EVA spacesuit.

Does that line about a SpaceX EVA spacesuit make you go, "wha...?"  I remembered reading about SpaceX saying they'd do alternate spacesuits in the summer of '21, but I didn't remember the money quote.  

NASA had been working to develop a new EVA suit since 2007 and "With $420M spent and another $625M expected, suits won't be "ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest." 

2007 to 2025?  Eighteen years and over a billion dollars to develop a suit? Meanwhile, SpaceX's EVA suits are said to be available now, less than two years since that August of  '21 note.  Less than a year after that, NASA awarded a new contract to a couple of different companies to create new space suits for Artemis lunar missions.  Granted a moonwalker suit isn't exactly the same as the EVA suit, but well under two years to develop the EVA suit is nothing like the 18 years to develop the lunar suit.

Getting back to Polaris Dawn, there are more scientific investigations planned.  In addition to that NASA and SpaceX signed an Agreement to study the feasibility of a SpaceX and Polaris Program idea to boost the agency’s Hubble Space Telescope into a higher orbit with the Dragon spacecraft, at no cost to the government. 

As with Leader Jared Isaacman's previous Inspiration 4 mission, it's also intending to fund raise for St. Jude's Children's Hospital. 

Polaris Dawn crew during an EVA training mission.  From top right, clockwise, Jared “Rook” Isaacman, Scott “Kidd” Poteet, Sarah Gillis, and Anna Menon. Note that Isaccman and Poteet are both executives at Shift4 as well as extremely qualified pilots; Gillis and Menon are both engineers with SpaceX on the manned spaceflight side, so probably not cool enough to have nicknames like Rook or Kidd.  (Inside joke for other engineer geeks).


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Relativity Space Sets Launch Date for First Terran 1 Launch

Relativity Space today announced the first launch of their Terran 1 orbital launch vehicle, as March 8th, two weeks from the announcement.  

ORLANDO — Relativity Space announced Feb. 22 it will attempt the first launch of its Terran 1 rocket as soon as March 8 after securing a launch license and skipping a planned final test.

The company announced it received a Federal Aviation Administration launch license for its first Terran 1 mission. With the license in hand, the company says it is targeting a launch of the rocket March 8 between 1 and 4 p.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The mission has been named, "Good Luck, Have Fun," and is the first orbital test launch of the vehicle.  The Terran 1 is rated to carry 1,250 kg to Low Earth Orbit, but will not be carrying any customer payloads into orbit.  I assume that to properly test the vehicle, it will carry some sort of inert weight; possibly water.

Regular readers will recall that I've mentioned Relativity Space many times before, often in the context of the race to be the leader of the one metric ton (1000 kg) to orbit race.  The other race they're a contender in is to be the first liquid methane/liquid oxygen rocket to achieve orbit.  Methane-oxygen (or methalox) engines are widely considered to be The Next Big Thing in rocketry, but while a few of the big names have methalox engines (Starship, Vulcan and New Glenn), nobody has flown one into orbit yet.  

Tim Ellis, chief executive and co-founder of Relativity, tweeted Feb. 22 that he recalled that his mentor when starting up the company, technology entrepreneur Sam Altman, “told us we were absolutely crazy for trying to simultaneously invent a brand new manufacturing technology and an orbital rocket, which is already super hard.”

“Now we are on the launch pad almost ready to go with the world’s first 3D printed rocket,” he continued. “It’s been a truly wild ride to get to this point, and certainly way harder than I ever imagined going into it – but all the feels from me and our team as we embark on this historic launch.”

The Terran 1 has been in various levels and kinds of testing at SLC-16 since last summer, and has been back and forth between the launch pad and their assembly building several times.  The original application for their FAA launch license included a “stage one hotfire” as part of the pre-launch operations.  A spokesman told Space News that they feel they've “burned down risk” to a point where they don't believe there's anything else to learn from another hot firing of the first stage.  It's time to light those engines and let her fly.

The Terran 1 on the launch pad at LC-16.   Photo credit:  Relativity Space/Trevor Mahlmann 



Tuesday, February 21, 2023

SpaceX Teases First Orbital Starship Launch

Lifting the money quote from Teslarati:

A senior SpaceX director expects the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to grant a license for the first orbital launch of its next-generation Starship rocket in the “very near future.”

Speaking at the 2023 Space Mobility Conference, SpaceX Senior Director of National Security Space Solutions Gary Henry also indicated that Starship remains on track to launch as early as March 2023. Six weeks ago, CEO Elon Musk tweeted that SpaceX had “a real shot at [a] late February” Starship launch, adding that a “March launch attempt [appeared] highly likely.” February is now out of reach. But March may still be a viable target, according to Henry.

You've got to love the "expect some must see TV" teaser in there!

We know that the biggest hurdles to preparing for this launch have been crossed already: the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) and the 31 Engine static firing that should have been 33 engines, but was "close enough."  We've since learned that the static firing was run at about 50% thrust, and since we calculated that the thrust produced to break the current record for highest thrust ever generated by a booster would have been 64% of max, that record still stands.  

We learned today from Gary Henry that the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) wasn't damaged by that static firing, and while they're installing some additional shielding on the OLM now, and will install the water deluge system we've talked about, that'll be after the first test flight.  Adding that deluge system will take months and delay the orbital test longer than they're willing to accept.   

Check out these pictures of the OLM updates from Starship Gazer on Twitter.

The surest sign that we're getting closer to launch will be when they transport Ship 24 back to the test area and stack it on top of B7 again.  There are lots of things going on but it looks to me like they should be ready to fly by around the middle of March. 

While not part of the flow of material for the first launch, the expendable Starship prototype, SN26, was cryo tested today.  As usual, there's no specific, "we passed!" posting anywhere, but it looked pretty routine.  Nothing popped that I could determine.  That said, I didn't watch the whole several hour test.  I expect that Ship 26 will be rolled back to the Shipyard soon. FWIW, there are videos on YouTube claiming that 26 is going to be an on-orbit tanker and will not re-enter for re-use. 


Monday, February 20, 2023

“Space Tug” Launched Jan. 3 Never Worked

Back on January 3rd, SpaceX launched their first mission of the year and the sixth launch in their Transporter series of ride-sharing launches.  Carrying 114 payloads for dozens of paying customers, perhaps the most interesting aspect was that they were carrying a handful of ‘space tugs’ developed by five separate companies.  These are being developed specifically to take small satellites launched into the same orbit on this sort of ride share mission and get them to the desired orbit.

One of these was the first flight of the tug called Orbiter from a company called Launcher.  In a Feb. 16 statement, Launcher said its Orbiter SN1 vehicle malfunctioned shortly after deployment from the Falcon 9 rocket on the Transporter-6 rideshare mission Jan. 3 when it could not properly orient itself so that its solar cells could generate power.

The vehicle communicated with a ground station on its first scheduled pass after deployment while on battery power. “We also communicated with the vehicle for the duration of expected battery life,” the company said.

However, the Hawthorne, California-based company said the spacecraft could not get into the proper attitude so that its solar cells could generate power, which it blamed on “an orientation control issue caused by a fault in our GPS antenna system.” That, in turn, kept Orbiter from deploying its satellite payloads.

There were payloads from eight different customers, four that would deploy satellites, two that would remain on the Orbiter SN1 platform and two that aren't specified. 

I think that the idea of a space tug fits really well into the lower end of the launch business; smaller satellites from smaller operations that want to put something in space.  Think college students, and small businesses.  Putting a tug like Launcher's Orbiter on a low cost launch provider like the Transporter missions seems to be another way of opening up space to a wider array of users.  Sure it's going to cost more than accepting whatever orbit the Transporter mission puts the customer's satellite, because they have to pay to launch the Orbiter tug as well, but it's going to allow them to get to an orbit they otherwise couldn't. 

Launcher seems to think they fully understand what went wrong and how to ensure it doesn't go wrong next time.  They say they're updating their guidance, navigation and control software for Orbiter vehicles with a “robust” safe mode feature and incorporating an improved battery with double the capacity.  They will also add a backup spacecraft separation system.  

The company says they still plan to fly two Orbiter vehicles later this year on the SpaceX Transporter-8 and -9 missions, currently scheduled to launch in June and October.  

Orbiter SN1 completely assembled before shipment to SpaceX to integrate for the mission. Many more views of the satellite in the video linked above (second link in second paragraph). Launcher photo.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Today This Blog is 13 Years Old

Ackshually ... my very first day of blogging was February 21, 2010, which happened to be the third Sunday of the month.  Since weekends are more quiet days, and the 21st doesn't usually work out to be a Sunday, I've always marked the anniversary as the third Sunday of the month. 

(Gratuitous celebratory "no royalties required" image from DepositPhotos (dot com!))

As always, I thank you for stopping by.  This year, I've noticed that my high readership days are sometimes going over 3000 per day, and have gotten close to 5000 a couple of times.  For the last 30 days, eyeballing the numbers says between 1275 and 2425 views/day.  Blogger tells me this is post #4,461 and all time total of views is a bit over 6,383,000.

Between yesterday's post and this one, the amount of "me me me meeeee" is overwhelming, so I'm pretty confident nobody is reading down this far.  If you are, my pick for this afternoon's Daytona 500 is - no wait.  It'll be over by the time most of you see this.  

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Me Me Me Meeeee

Since the usual space beat is a bit slow, I thought I'd do an update on life in general.  So, yeah, this is going to be a me me me meeeee post, and I haven't really done one since my surgery back at the end of January.  Let me throw in an update on the rest of life that I haven't talked about since the day before Thanksgiving.  In fact, let me start there. 

While I've never been given a formal diagnosis of Benign-Paroxysmal-Positional-Vertigo, or BPPV, as Aesop and several other folks commented to that post I've assumed that's what it is.  I'm right around three months since the accident that caused it and while the day to day problems are at least an order of magnitude better, they're not quite completely gone.  There are still motions I go through or positions that I get into that cause it more than others, but none of them cause that reflexive eye twitching (nystagmus) that seems like a control loop trying to orient itself by finding horizontal and vertical.  That was pretty much gone by the time of the surgery, Jan. 26, but there's a better story about that I'll get to in a minute. 

The recovery from surgery has gone as well as I could have hoped.  I left the hospital that Friday with a handful of prescriptions, a pain concoction (a seriously revolting tasting syrup - I suspect being intentionally revolting to discourage use), two different medications for spasms in the area, and an anti-nausea drug that Mrs. Graybeard used while getting chemotherapy.  Once or twice, I tried the "use this one first" drug for esophageal spasms since I had some pains that weren't responding to anything but a heating pad, but they didn't respond to that drug either and they went away within another couple of days.  I was completely off the meds within a week of the surgery.  

Part of the advice for the hernia surgery recovery is to eat smaller meals; I quickly found that wasn't optional.  I simply couldn't eat what I was used to.  While it has gotten closer to normal, it's still not quite there, but that's fine.  An element of physical therapy for this repair is to eat; the instructions say a couple of bites every couple of hours.  The hard part there is remembering, because if I'm not hungry, I don't think about eating.

The fun story is that when I woke up from the anesthesia the afternoon of the surgery, I felt less dizzy than I thought I did the day before.  The argument for keeping you overnight is partly to ensure the anesthesia doesn't leave you dizzy and, of course, was something all the nurses wanted to ask me about.  I got some funny looks when I told them I thought I was less dizzy than before the anesthesia.  There are a couple of possible reasons for this; the more likely one is that it's my body's own weird reaction to the anesthesia.  The other is that when I was under the anesthesia, they put my head in a position like the Epley maneuver that's used to treat the BPPV and unintentionally had a positive effect on me.

I had a followup two weeks after surgery (2/9) and was expecting to get the next followup on 2/23, which is an easy date to remember, if nothing else.  Based on how I was doing at the one month followup, it was moved to 3/9.  I'm still restricted to not lifting over 20 pounds, and since I have no idea what a bad outcome of lifting things would look or feel like, I'm respecting that.  Except for carrying my wooden stepladder into this room last week to change a "dead LED" light bulb.  And maybe one or three other little things.

Meanwhile, since I hadn't been able to ride a bike since Thanksgiving, I started riding my indoor trainer right after New Year's.  I took off the two weeks between surgery and the first followup, but since now it's pretty much activity as tolerated, I went back to riding indoors the day after that (Friday the 10th).  I have always found riding indoors horrifically boring, but ignoring that, the questions center on how comfortable I can be riding outdoors.  That's probably going to be a real question in a few weeks.  My balance hasn't been an issue on the indoor trainer, but I can sense it's better now than at the start of January.  Not riding outdoors until my 3/9 checkup is probably prudent.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Weekly Small Space News Story Roundup

While I do these little summary stories once a week or so, it's rarely more than once a week, maybe it's time for a number in the title?  I wonder.

From the "I can't say I'm surprised" file:

SpaceX matches the rest of the world in tonnage to space.  In its Q4 2022 briefing, BryceTech reported that SpaceX lofted 142,330 kg into orbit during the fourth quarter of last year. China's space program was in second place, with less that half of that mass: 69,900 kg.  China, in turn was followed distantly by NASA, Roscosmos, and Arianespace. SpaceX's cumulative total, mainly Starlink satellites, nearly matched the cumulative total of all other space agencies and companies in the world.

In response to news about this, SpaceX founder Elon Musk replied that SpaceX intends to nearly triple its mass to orbit this year. "This year should average around 400 tons (400,000 kg) of useful mass to orbit per quarter," he said. Presumably this means not just an increase in the cadence of Falcon 9 launches, but also some operational Starship missions toward the end of '23 that begin to carry Starlink satellites.

Virgin Orbit updated the failure analysis of their UK mission that didn't make orbit.   This Tuesday, Virgin Orbit updated the status of their failure analysis on the mission they launched from the UK that didn't achieve orbit.  The last time I had any information on this was January 18, so a month to the day ago.  

The investigation team is utilizing a comprehensive fault tree, a very detailed timeline, and several other products to conduct the investigation in a rigorous manner. Key observations at this point in the investigation:

  • The data is indicating that from the beginning of the second stage first burn, a fuel filter within the fuel feedline had been dislodged from its normal position.
  • Additional data shows that the fuel pump that is downstream of the filter operated at a degraded efficiency level, resulting in the Newton 4 engine being starved for fuel. Performing in this anomalous manner resulted in the engine operating at a significantly higher than rated engine temperature.
  • Components downstream and in the vicinity of the abnormally hot engine eventually malfunctioned, causing the second stage thrust to terminate prematurely.
  • The early thrust termination ended the mission, and the second stage and its payloads fell back to Earth, landing in the approved safety corridor in the Atlantic Ocean.

A fuel filter.  I'd say it's the kind of part that just doesn't attract attention; ordinarily they just do what they do and nobody ever notices them.  Until they don't.

Virgin Orbit's Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl, used to carry their Launchers' upper stages beyond the densest part of the atmosphere.  Virgin Orbit photo.

The first launch of Japan's H3 heavier lift rocket was aborted (video) early on February 17th (1:37 UTC or 10:37 AM local time) shortly after main engine ignition but before liftoff.  The liquid-fueled main engines ignited but the strap-on solid rocket boosters did not.  At just over 25 hours since the malfunction, there are no more updates.

Like its predecessor from 2001, the H2-A and the H2 before that, the H3 is built by Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a private sector contractor.  For more background on the vehicle and its long trip through development see this Ars Technica article.


Thursday, February 16, 2023

Did The USAF Shoot Down a Ham Radio Balloon?

There's a story going around in the halls of radio geekdom (the SDR radio monitoring circles) that one of the unidentified objects that the Air Force shot down last week was a ham radio balloon.  It's all circumstantial evidence, but that evidence all fits and sounds believable.  

First, I need to do a little background information and introduction to the acronym salad that's inevitable here. 

Sending remotely operated or semi-autonomous balloons on otherwise random trips has become another of the hundreds or thousands of sub-hobbies in ham radio.   Large amateur radio balloons, carrying more than four pounds that are launched in the USA require FAA clearance, need a radar reflector attached, and usually continually transmit APRS telemetry before naturally popping and falling back to earth after a few hours, just like a weather balloon.  APRS in this sense is the Automatic Position Reporting Service that uses what hams refer to as packet radio to transmit a radio's location at regular intervals; because of its dependence on packet radio, you'll see that acronym translated as Automatic Packet Reporting Service.

I'm guessing that because of the FAA requirements for the larger balloons, a sub-sub-hobby got started referred to as pico balloons (literally a billionth of a balloon - but in this case, a small balloon).  These are generally the helium-filled, Mylar balloons you might get for a birthday party and carry small, solar-powered payloads that are only a few grams in weight.  These can generally be launched from anywhere without FAA approval.  What for?  Another amateur radio mode that's currently in wide use is called WSPR, for Weak Signal Propagation Reporter.  

WSPR was invented to allow stations to transmit a weak signal on recommended frequencies in any of the different amateur bands so that anyone can see at a glance if a band they're interested in is "open" to some part of the world.  The transmit power is at the discretion of the operator, so some guys will send milliwatts and others will send several watts.  The idea started as a beacon network, where stations around the world transmitted on a schedule and reported what they heard to the internet.  Similarly, one can transmit a WSPR "ping" from their station and look up what other places heard their ping.  A pico balloon can carry a small, low power transmitter and GPS receiver, with a small solar cell array, and by using the WSPR network, determine where the balloon is.  A well-designed pico balloon can drift around the world several times and its path mapped.  As you might expect there are clubs like the NIBBB, where the hams who want to do this hang out and help each other. 

Which brings us to what may be the News Story of the Year:

There is speculation that at least one of the objects shot down over Canada, Yukon by a US Air Force jet may have been amateur radio pico balloon K9YO-15 which was launched from Illinois on October 10 2022. It was on its seventh circumnavigation of the globe after being aloft for 123 days. 

What RTL-SDR reports is that this was a silver mylar 32" spherical balloon, similar to or even exactly this one from balloons.online.  The payload was a GPS module, Arduino, SI5351 clock generator used as a WSPR and APRS transmitter and a solar panel, all together weighing 16.4 grams.

The K9YO-15 balloon ceased all WSPR telemetry transmissions while flying just below Alaska since Feb 11 00:18 UTC (just before sunset in Alaska when the solar panels would stop working).

By using NOAA wind models and the last known location by Alaska, K9YO-15 was projected to have been over Yukon when the US Air Force shot down the unknown balloon object at Feb 11 20:41 UTC (3:41 PM EST / 1:41 PM Yukon time according to Canadian Defense Minister Anand). Reports put the altitude of the shot down object at approximately 40,000ft (~12000 meters), which matches the projected ~11500 meters of K9YO-15. Based on the previous days transmission times, it is suspected that if it were operational, the balloon would have begun transmitting again sometime later in the Yukon afternoon when the sun was stronger, but no transmissions have been seen.

The last reported position from K9YO-15 is indicated by the yellow triangle, with the projected path shown.  The balloon was at the black star, closest to an uninhabited Alaskan island called Hagemeister island, when this forecast path was created. 

The yellow star works out to be around the Yukon cities of Dawson City and Mayo.  The area is being searched, but nothing has been found.  It's a big area and the K9YO-15 balloon is small; if it was blown up by some sort of weapon, the debris is going to be even smaller than that 36" balloon linked to above.  Over on Twitter, @ikluft (KO6YQ) reported on this speculation, and kept monitoring for K9YO-15 for several days.  Yesterday, he tweeted that while the balloon hadn't been heard for days, that's not unexpected in the long, dark winter nights of the arctic. The NIBBB club officially lists the balloon as "missing in action."

There's a mental picture that goes with this all; a handful of ham radio pico balloons around the world getting tracked down by the most advanced militaries in the world and shot out of the sky.  Reading around shows a cost for these missions to take out a $50 ham project as between 1 and $2 million.  Burning that as dollar bills would be more useful; at least you could get warmed by the fire or make some coffee or something. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

SpaceX Sold Off Their Offshore Launch Platforms For Now

Although I'm just reading about it now, this seems to be a bit of old news.  It has to do with the two half-billion-dollar offshore oil platforms that SpaceX bought back for just $7 million in mid-'20 and renamed Phobos and Deimos, after the two moons of Mars.  Around the same mid-20 time frame, CEO Elon Musk tweeted that SpaceX was “building floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon & hypersonic travel around Earth.”  In reality, the company has done very little to Phobos or Deimos. Phobos’ deck was half-cleared in fitful bursts of work, but Deimos was left almost untouched. 

Early this week, a commenter on NASA Spaceflight.com said that the two were scheduled to leave the port in Pascagoula, Mississippi that they have been languishing in for unknown destinations.  That's when it became known that SpaceX had sold the two platforms. 

In an article from SpaceNews, we find some more interesting background information:

However, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told reporters after a presentation at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 8 that the company had sold the rigs after concluding they were not suited to serving as launch platforms.

“We bought them. We sold them. They were not the right platform,” she said. She didn’t disclose when SpaceX sold the rigs or to whom.

Shotwell said the company needed to first start launching Starship and better understand that vehicle before building offshore launch platforms. “We really need to fly this vehicle to understand it, to get to know this machine, and then we’ll figure out how we’re going to launch it.”

That last part, about needing to first start launching Starship and really get to know it before committing to a specific offshore platform with very specific modifications is almost a "well, duh!" moment, it's so very logical and reasonable.  Another addition to the list of times I think Shotwell made or is making the right call. 

Perhaps even exceeding CEO Elon Musk’s infamously lofty ambitions, Shotwell said that SpaceX has “designed Starship to be as much like aircraft operations as we possibly can get” in the hopes of enabling “dozens of launches a day, if not hundreds of launches a day.” No rocket family in history has launched more than 61 times in one calendar year, making Shotwell’s Starship cadence target hundreds or even thousands of times more ambitious than a 1980s rocket record that’s still standing four decades later.

May I point out that the historical record of 61 launches in one calendar year was set by the Soviet Union in 1980 and was tied for the first time last year by Falcon 9?   Oh, and the Russians needed to launch that R-7 rocket 64 times to get 61 successes, while Falcon 9 (including two Falcon Heavy launches) had 100% successes.  Even one launch per day would be record shattering, let alone "dozens... if not hundreds of launches a day." 

Let's not yet get into pondering whether the US Fed.gov agencies would allow that many launches.  SpaceX fought long and hard to receive approval for up to five orbital Starship launches per year from Boca Chica, Texas.  They also have approval for up to 24 Starship launches per year out of the Kennedy Space Center pad "just up the road."  24 Starship launches per year?  I can hardly wait!  I'll have to drive up closer to the pad to watch one of these.

One of the two oil platforms.  Poking around a few links, this appears to be the one called Deimos.  NASA Spaceflight.com photo by Jack Beyer. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Blue Origin Quietly Announces Major Research Success

On Friday, in a blog post that wasn't promoted by press release or Twitter announcement,  Blue Origin quietly said its "Blue Alchemist" program has made both solar cells and the wires to transmit their electricity from simulated lunar soil made to be chemically and mineralogically equivalent to lunar regolith.  The blog post opens with a photo of a working solar cell, made by their prototype hardware, and below that photo says, 

Since 2021, Blue Origin has been making solar cells and transmission wire from regolith simulants.

Making self-sustaining lunar colonies has been talked about for decades.  All of the key ingredients for solar cells are present in the rocky and dusty regolith on the surface of the Moon—silicon, iron, magnesium, aluminum, and more.  While this particular announcement doesn't talk about many details, they include a conceptual illustration that implies a machine is envisioned that could manufacture large solar panels in one continuous process, practically making a wall or paving the lunar surface around labs or colonies with solar cells. This image shows what I interpret as one of these Blue Alchemist modules seeming to produce a wall of solar cells.  Blue claims the lunar factories can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the Moon.

"Once demonstrated and implemented on the Moon, Blue Alchemist will put unlimited solar power wherever we need it."  Blue Origin image.

Solar power in, solar power generation out.  

How can it work?  Like all metal extraction from ores that many of you are familiar with, the first step is that the regolith has to be melted into flowing rock and then the molten rock has to have the elements separated out, which Blue Alchemist apparently does by changing the melt temperature while electric currents push the metals to the desired electrode to be collected, in a process called "molten regolith electrolysis."

We start by making regolith simulants that are chemically and mineralogically equivalent to lunar regolith, accounting for representative lunar variability in grain size and bulk chemistry. This ensures our starting material is as realistic as possible, and not just a mixture of lunar-relevant oxides. We have developed and qualified an efficient, scalable, and contactless process for melting and moving molten regolith that is robust to natural variations in regolith properties on the Moon.

Using regolith simulants, our reactor produces iron, silicon, and aluminum through molten regolith electrolysis, in which an electrical current separates those elements from the oxygen to which they are bound. Oxygen for propulsion and life support is a byproduct.

It seems there must be some sort of physical separation as well and each of the materials that go into making photovoltaic solar cells must be processed beyond this.  Silicon crystal growing is a mature industry and I'm sure much can be learned from veterans of that industry. They note that they purify the silicon crystals to 99.999% pure, necessary for solar cells.  Maybe even more so than on Earth, the finished solar cells need to be coated with a layer of glass to protect them from solar wind particles and other harsh aspects of the lunar environment (yes, the elements to make glass are in the regolith, too).  Their solar cells are capped with glass and have life expectancy stated as 10 years.  The result:

A working solar cell produced by their Blue Alchemist processes.  Blue Origin photo.

Blue Origin is apparently going to attempt to market the technology to NASA for use by its Artemis program to return humans to the Moon in a "sustainable" way.  One of the mission statement-like quotes we hear from NASA about Artemis "returning to the moon to stay," presumably to differentiate Artemis from the Apollo program.  This technology could absolutely help enable longer missions by improving the conditions for long stays on the moon. 

"Although our vision is technically ambitious, our technology is real now," the company said in its blog post. "Blue Origin’s goal of producing solar power using only lunar resources is aligned with NASA’s highest priority Moon-to-Mars infrastructure development objective."

An important big step toward stepping off the home planet.    

EDIT 02/14/23 10:35PM EST:  Left out the bold-faced word in the sentence about glass coating solar cells: "...need to be coated..."


Monday, February 13, 2023

Strange New Starship Appears on Test Stands

On Sunday the 12th, Starship SN26, a totally different type Starship than any we've seen before was rolled to the test area from the shipyard.   Rather than describe it, let me show you: 

Photo by (Starship Gazer), used on Teslarati. 

The big, obvious differences are that there are no heat shielding tiles and there are no flaps - the four aerodynamic surfaces on every other Starship we've seen.  An obvious conclusion is that this is a non-reusable version like we talked about back on February 1st.  No Starship has ever been built to this configuration and tested before, so doing any sort of testing before installing the tiles and aerodynamic surfaces later seems out of the question.  

Three expendable variants of Starship anticipated for NASA's Human Landing System (HLS). SpaceX image.  Reused from February 1 post for convenience.

Those of you who are familiar with the "pez dispenser" for deploying Starlink satellites will note that's not visible either, although without the flaps to orient it in my mind, I'm not sure we're looking at the side it would be visible from.  

In fact, SN26 has no discernible payload bay.  The easiest explanation in my mind is the middle option: using it as a propellant storage tank in orbit to demonstrate refueling on orbit; that's something NASA has contracted with SpaceX to develop since 2019, and is going to be an integral part of many future missions - starting with Artemis.  To further bolster that view, in October 2022, a NASA official indicated that SpaceX’s second Starship test flight would be a “Starship-to-Starship propellant transfer.”  Since the first Starship test flight is very likely to be within the next 6 weeks, preparation for the second test flight seems to be the proper thing to be doing.  

It's not possible to know with the scant information we have, but the right hand illustration in that graphic of expendable Starship variants is the Human Landing System manned version that will land on the moon for Artemis, ferrying crews from the Gateway space station orbiting the moon down to the surface and back.  SN26 could the first HLS lander.  An experiment to land it on the moon would be beyond cool, and it has been rumored in the past that SpaceX plans to test the lunar lander on their own.

Eric Ralph at Teslarati points out that there's another flap-less, heat resistant tile-less prototype Starship in process in the Boca Chica Shipyard:  SN27.  Photos of SN27 have revealed the Starlink pez dispenser, so it apparently has a different purpose than SN26. 

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Another Russian Module Leaking at ISS

Remember way back on December 14 of last year, the fuss about a Soyuz module leaking?  There was discussion of whether they would need rescue by SpaceX on a Crew Dragon capsule.  The leak was found when two cosmonauts were preparing to conduct a spacewalk, and found their Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft had begun to leak uncontrollably from its cooling system.  Russian engineers eventually declared that a micrometeorite had struck the external cooling loop of the spacecraft, and deemed it unsafe to fly home. A replacement Soyuz will be sent up to replace that one, giving a ride back for the crew being rotated back home.

Today we find out that another spacecraft, a Progress supply ship, has been leaking from it's cooling system according to a statement from Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency.  Both Roscosmos and NASA say this leak isn't a threat to the crew of seven on the ISS at the time.    

I think the second module having a leak in its cooling system probably puts the idea of both hits being micrometeorite impacts off the bottom of the probability scale.  One micrometeorite?  Sure.  Two?  What are the odds of 1?  These have to be independent events, so small probabilities become vanishingly small when they're multiplied.  That said, I know nothing about the construction of a Soyuz vs. a Progress module and how similar they might be in that aspect of design.  There are reports, though, that some preliminary data was received from the Progress vehicle that indicated a similar cooling system issue. External cameras showed flakes moving away from the Progress vehicle—frozen coolant—similar to that observed with Soyuz MS-22.

Roscosmos said Saturday the Progress incident "will have no impact on the future station program." This is likely true for Progress MS-21, at least. The spacecraft already has been packed with trash and other material to be removed from the station, and was due to leave next week, burning up in Earth's atmosphere during reentry.

However, it seems too early to make such a conclusion for future missions. A critical question is what caused the depressurization event observed Saturday.

My imprinting on the Russian way of their space efforts has been that if something works well enough, they put no more effort into designing a newer and possibly better way of doing its job.  Look at their Soyuz capsule, which has been flying since the 1960s.  It's entirely consistent to think someone might have said the cooling system on Soyuz is well-established design, let's just copy that.  

Final words to Eric Berger of Ars Technica because I like the way he puts this together.  

A few hours after the Progress depressurization Saturday there are more questions than answers, but none of this will comfort NASA as it partners with Russia to continue operating the space station. This latest Soyuz and Progress failures are just two in a long line of recent issues, including the Nauka module's misfiring thrusters in 2021, a Soyuz booster failure in 2018 that forced Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague to make an emergency return to Earth, or another leaky Soyuz vehicle.

These are the kinds of problems that one might expect from a space industry in Russia that is reliant on aging infrastructure, aging technology, and quality control issues due to inadequate budgets.

An earlier Progress module departing the ISS, not the ones mentioned in the article.  NASA photo.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Why Would Any Country Want a Balloon Now?

Today, the US apparently shot down another ... something ... over the north Alaska/Western Canada region.  What's going on?  Is this something new?  More to the point, in this era of spy satellites that can read the license plates on cars from orbit, or listen to small radios like your cell phones, why would anyone go to balloons and other low-tech things like that?  

From my perspective, the answer is a simple truism I've quoted many times: physics is a bitch.  There is nothing that a spy satellite can do that a drone or balloon or something in the atmosphere can't do better for a tiny fraction of the price.  Put another way, any instrument that could be used on a satellite can be made smaller, lighter and cheaper, while returning better quality observations if it can fly at airplane altitudes.  

It's difficult for me to put actual numbers here for a few reasons, but the trends that are important are easy to spot and describe.  Let's start with optical resolution, the ability for that telescope looking down to resolve two objects.  The distance they're apart as an angle can be calculated by the separation you want to resolve and the distance to the magnifying optic (mirror, almost without exception).  The resolution angle you want is given (in radians) by the separation you want resolve divided by the distance from the optic, 

Let's say you want to read letters 2" square from 400 miles - about the altitude of the Hubble Space Telescope's orbit. That's an angle of 2" divided the number of inches in 400 miles, or 2/25,344,000 (inches cancel) or 78.9 nanoradians (78.9*10-9 radians).  Which works out to be 0.0163 arcseconds.  

The required telescope diameter to achieve that sort of resolution is big.  Probably too big for a spy satellite.  You can calculate how big by using information like this:

Lambda is the wavelength of light, and a commonly used value here is 550 nanometers, the color of a nice blue green light.  It turns out that using the equation on the left, the size mirror to resolve two inches is 8.544 meters diameter.  That's a big telescope; 336 inches diameter.  Until fairly recently, that would have been the largest telescope in the world. 

If we reduce the height from 400 miles to balloon height, let's say 11 miles (close to that 60,000 foot level we read about last week).  That shrinks the telescope to a 9.2" aperture, taking it from among the largest in the world to something like this that hundreds or thousands of amateur astronomers own.  

Another way of saying all this is that any telescope will out perform the same size in an orbiting satellite by the ratio of their heights.  400/11 miles is 36.3636.  Divide that 336" scope derived for 400 miles by that 36.3636 and get 9.24".  

The argument for smaller telescopes is pretty strong.  Or even a fleet of smaller telescopes that can be deployed and recovered after their missions.   

A similar kind of argument can be made for radio monitoring and any system that you put up being made more sensitive by being at a lower altitude.  A commonly used relationship for calculating free space path loss uses the expression:

dB = 37 dB + 20log(f) + 20log(d)

Here, f is the frequency in MHz and d is the distance in miles.  Since we don't know a frequency, let's just pick the same for both, I'll use 1000 MHz, and calculate for 400 and 11 miles.

For 400 miles, loss is 149 dB. 
For 11 miles, loss is 118 dB.

Antenna gain is easy compared to optical, but that difference of about 30 dB more sensitive means about 1000 times more sensitive.  Again, it seems like an obvious conclusion that the lower radio can outperform anything in orbit.  The satellite might be able to compensate for that 31 dB greater losses to orbit with a bigger/better antenna, but gain like that definitely can cost.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Small Space News Story Roundup

As I frequently do, a summary of some short news stories that hit my general interest buttons.

CNBC Reports that last year was a record year for rockets launched from the US and the regulatory agency that's responsible for gumming up things coordinating those operations, the Federal Aviation Agency, is struggling with the overload.  The agency coordinated US airspace for a record-breaking 92 space missions in 2022, up 33 percent from the year prior, and it expects to top that this year.  As I'm sure you know, 61 of those 92 were SpaceX's record year, and this year they're aiming for 100 launches.  Even if SpaceX doesn't make 100, but gets close, the FAA could be looking at more than 60% more launches.

It didn't take long for the number crunchers to realize that the problem area is Florida for two big (and actually pretty obvious) reasons: there are more launches from Cape Canaveral than any other launch facility in the US and the state is also a major tourist destination with big theme parks in many places, plus hundreds of miles of beaches and other natural attractions.  Compound that with our summer thunderstorm season that delays and re-routes flights routinely as well as the couple or few times in the year that hurricanes or tropical storms shut down swaths of the state.  This led to clashes, such as when the FAA had to talk NASA out of Artemis I launch attempts around the Thanksgiving holiday. 

SpaceX launches from both Vandenberg Space Force Station in California and Cape Canaveral SFS in Florida.  Of the 31 launches that weren't SpaceX, most were also from those two facilities, with four launches from Texas, as well as one from Kodiak Alaska and two from Wallops Island, Virginia.   

(Hat tip for this story to Edition 5.25 of Rocket Report)

Do you think that Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket will be operational in a bit less than two years?  Does it matter to you that they've apparently worked the bugs out of the BE-4 engines and are building the first test vehicle?  

Regardless of what you and I might think, NASA has awarded Blue Origin a contract for a pair of Mars orbiting satellites to launch in the next closest launch window coming in the fourth quarter of 2024.  That's more like 1-3/4 years from now than two years.  The mission is another one of those names almost legally required to be a cutsie acronym; in this case, the mission is ESCAPADE, short for Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers.

ESCAPADE is slated to study the magnetosphere, the magnetic zone of the Red Planet's atmosphere, with twin craft designed by Rocket Lab. Two Mars-orbiting spacecraft will look at how the solar wind (charged particles from the sun) tore away the atmosphere over eons, thinning it considerably. 

Mission results could allow scientists to learn more about how the planet got so dry over time, as billions of years ago it appears Martian water flowed abundantly on the surface.

Yes, designed by Rocket Lab, probably better known for launching their Electron booster for small satellites.  They also advertise as building satellites on their web page.  As has been the case several times with missions we've covered, this is part of NASA's Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program; a short list of 13 companies formulated in 2022. Financial details of Thursday's contract were not released by NASA. 

Illustration of the ESCAPADE spacecraft in orbit around Mars. Image credit: Rocket Lab USA/UC Berkeley)