Friday, June 30, 2023

Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Phones Home

NASA's JPL team controlling the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter reported today that they successfully received an update from the rover on June 28; 63 days from the last contact.  I'd imagine it was somewhat nerve-wracking that the last contact was before the 52nd flight of the little helicopter, so no one on Earth knew if the flight was successful.  It's pretty clear that loss of contact was expected and the controllers knew they would be out of contact with Ingenuity for a while.

The 52nd flight of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is now in the official mission logbook as a success. The flight took place back on April 26, but mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California lost contact with the helicopter as it descended toward the surface for landing.

The Ingenuity team expected the communications dropout because a hill stood between the helicopter’s landing location and the Perseverance rover’s position, blocking communication between the two. The rover acts as a radio relay between the helicopter and mission controllers at JPL. In anticipation of this loss of communications, the Ingenuity team had already developed re-contact plans for when the rover would drive back within range. Contact was re-established June 28 when Perseverance crested the hill and could see Ingenuity again.

The goal of that 52nd flight was to reposition Ingenuity in a place that Perseverance was driving toward with the expectation that once the rover established radio contact with the helicopter, communications would become more routine.  It was a trip to a spot about 1200 feet away, taking 139 seconds to fly that far.

Back when I last talked about Ingenuity being out of contact for six days, I was under the impression that the little helicopter was expected to not be out of contact much longer and absolutely not to be out of contact 10 times longer than that six days.  I'll take the blame for not understanding that was going to be the norm for the expedition.  

“The portion of Jezero Crater the rover and helicopter are currently exploring has a lot of rugged terrain, which makes communications dropouts more likely,” said JPL’s Josh Anderson, the Ingenuity team lead. “The team’s goal is to keep Ingenuity ahead of Perseverance, which occasionally involves temporarily pushing beyond communication limits. We’re excited to be back in communications range with Ingenuity and receive confirmation of Flight 52.”

They're so excited to be back in communication with Ingenuity that the first thing they mention is that Flight 53 might be within days.  The target is what appears to be a good place to land to the west of the current location.  The team plans to perform another westward flight from that interim location to a different base of operations near a rocky outcrop the Perseverance team is interested in exploring. 

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was captured by the Perseverance rover’s Mastcam-Z on April 16, not long after the rotorcraft’s 50th flight. The helicopter would soon fall silent for 63 days due to hilly terrain that interrupted communications between the rover and aircraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS



Thursday, June 29, 2023

Virgin Galactic Aces First Commercial Flight

Virgin Galactic's first commercial launch lifted off from New Mexico's Spaceport America at 10:30 a.m. ET (1430 GMT) this morning.  As a reminder, the mission is in an air-dropped space plane, VMS Unity, that flies to suborbital space after being dropped by the airplane carrying it, VMS Eve.  Unlike the Virgin Orbit carrier, a Boeing 747, VMS Eve is a Burt Rutan-designed airplane built by Scaled Composites, with a dual fuselage that carries the Unity under the center wing.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle VSS Unity, separated from its VMS Eve mothership aircraft at about 11:29 a.m. Eastern above cloudy skies in southern New Mexico. The vehicles took off from Spaceport America at 10:30 a.m. Eastern.

Unity, flying a mission designated Galactic 01, fired its hybrid rocket motor for approximately 60 seconds. It reached a peak altitude of 85.1 kilometers before gliding to a runway landing at the spaceport at 11:43 a.m. Eastern. [52.9 km - SiG]

The Galactic 01 mission was a research flight for the Italian Air Force and Italy’s National Research Council.  The Italian Air Force called the mission Virtute 1, so you may see that name for the flight as well.  

[The mission] carried Col. Walter Villadei and Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi of the Italian Air Force and Pantaleone Carlucci of Italy’s National Research Council. The three planned to conduct 13 experiments during the mission, ranging from biomedical data collection to microgravity studies of fluid mechanics and combustion.

In a press conference after the flight, the three Italians said they were pleased with the flight. “It was much better than expected,” Villadei, who commanded Virtute 1, said. He noted the crew was able to carry out all their planned experiments.

VSS Unity was flown by Mike Masucci, making his fourth spaceflight, along with Nicola Pecile, a former Italian Air Force pilot who now works for Virgin and was on his first spaceflight.

As the infomercials say, "but wait!  There's more!"  In addition to those five, there was a sixth person on board.  Colin Bennett, a Virgin Galactic astronaut trainer who had previously flown on VSS Unity in 2021, was also on board.  His role was to monitor the research environment during the flight and “do a holistic evaluation of the research mission so that we can continually improve on the experience,” according to Sirisha Bandla, VP of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, in a preflight interview yesterday.

Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei (with microphone) speaks at Spaceport America after his Galactic 01 suborbital spaceflight. Image Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust 

This is expected to be just the beginning.  The next mission is scheduled for NET August, a time interval largely dedicating to inspecting Unity at a very fine level of detail.  Virgin Galactic says that hundreds of people have booked a ride aboard the ship at a price (most recently) of $450,000 per seat.  They expect to conduct flights once per month after August and are developing a next generation "Delta Class" vehicle that will be able to fly weekly.  

After the Delta vehicles come online, which is slated to begin happening in 2026, Virgin Galactic could potentially carry customers to space every day, from a variety of sites around the globe. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Centaur Has to Go Back to the Shop

When I was a kid, almost everyone knew that when the TV wasn't working the bad news was when the repair tech couldn't fix it and would have to say, "the set has to go back to shop."  Just like that, the TV was going away and no one knew when it would be back.  No TV!   

Today we learned the Centaur upper stage for the first Vulcan Centaur test flight has to go back to the shop.  In the last update on the Vulcan's failure investigation two weeks ago, it wasn't clear that they were going to do this, but they made the decision to do the same fix to this Centaur as they're doing to newly made ones.  I honestly don't know why they didn't just say this would be the case two weeks ago.  

In a statement, ULA described the work needed on the Centaur V upper stage as “minor reinforcement at the top of the forward dome,” or the uppermost section of the liquid hydrogen tank. The changes will add strength to the tank, which contains super-flammable fuel chilled to minus 423° Fahrenheit (minus 253° Celsius).

Since it's impossible to tell by looking at a picture whether that Centaur stage on the right is going up or down, I should tell you the pic was taken back in February when it was on the way up.   ULA Photo

The failure analysis after the March explosion of the Centaur test article showed that was ultimately caused by a liquid hydrogen leak on the forward bulkhead of the Centaur V upper stage.  That hydrogen found an ignition source and that's all it took. 

“The super thin, high performance steel skin needs to be a little thicker near the top of the dome,” tweeted Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive. The steel walls of the Centaur upper stage’s pressure-stabilized propellant tanks are as thin as 0.02 inches, or half a millimeter, in some places.

It's not impossible that this Cert-1 flight could take place before the end of this year, but the two flights required to certify Vulcan Centaur for US Military National Security payloads will extend well into '24.  The Vulcan booster or first stage has passed all of its qualification tests, with the successful Flight Readiness Firing earlier in the month.  The payloads for this flight, Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander and a pair of test satellites for Amazon's Kuiper constellation are also ready and waiting for launch.  Ironically, the Centaur that's getting modified here is the oldest part of the design, or at least has the longest history.  This Centaur V is a larger, updated, twin-engine version of the Centaurs that have flown on 268 missions since 1962. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

SpaceX Moves One Step Closer to IFT2

Granted, I don't know how many steps there are before the second Integrated Flight Test, after the April 20th 1st test, but five days after last Wednesday's cryo testing, yesterday was an important milestone: a six engine, six second static firing of Ship 25.  Endless video loop here.  What appears to be moments before the start is here. (Six seconds is a SWAG - SiG)

Today, Ars Technica gave a bit of rundown on a few of the “well over a thousand” changes Elon Musk claims have been made to the Starship and Super Heavy itself as well as the Orbital Launch Mount or OLM.  We talked about one of the biggest changes, staging differently last week as well.  

SpaceX is adding an extension to the top of the Super Heavy booster with vents to allow super-hot gas from the upper stage engines to safely flow out of the rocket’s structure “and not just blow itself up,” Musk said. “This is the most risky thing, I think, for the next flight.”

Probably the next big change in this area is changing from the mechanical thrust vector control (TVC) of the older Raptors on the IFT1 to all of the Raptors on Booster 9 having the electrically driven TVC.  They've also added stronger shielding around each of B9’s 33 Raptor engines to protect them from explosions of nearby engines, a measure intended to reduce the chance of cascading failures. 

For the Starship’s second test flight, SpaceX teams are modifying manifolds on the Raptor engines that direct hot methane-rich gas toward each engine’s combustion chamber for mixing with oxygen-rich gas. The previous design was susceptible to leaks, where the hot gas could seep through bolt holes used to attach the manifold to the engine. Engineers will introduce an improved manifold design and add more torque to bolts to address the concern about leakage of super-heated gas.

Then there's the ground infrastructure, what Musk calls Stage Zero.  If you've watched any of the update videos, you've seen them adding many rebar cages for poured concreted deep under the OLM.  In addition, they've poured nearly 1,000 cubic meters of concrete underneath the launch pad’s pedestal, and over the steel-reinforcing cages.  

SpaceX will install two thick steel plates on top of the new layer of reinforced concrete, with channels routed through them to allow water to flow through and shoot out the top.

“Think of it like a gigantic upside-down shower head,” Musk said. “It’s basically going to blast water upwards while the rocket is over the pad to counteract the massive amount of heat from the booster.”

These few changes clearly aren't even 10% of the changes to the system if it's really over a thousand of them.  The big ones concern really understanding the rocket; “resolve the unknowns” that remain, many of which can’t be fixed until engineers gather data from an actual launch.  Reality brings that nagging reminder that they need to go through the process of getting FAA approval of their Flight Termination System again, since it took longer than expected to destroy the vehicle during the first IFT. The "longer than expected" time to work wasn't an issue since the vehicle was 24 miles above the Gulf of Mexico  and nowhere near a populated area.  That might not matter to the FAA at all. 

Musk acknowledged Saturday that it may not be up to SpaceX when the next Starship test launch happens. “There are a lot of variables here that are outside of our control.”

Monday, June 26, 2023

ESA's Euclid Telescope to Launch Saturday

This Saturday morning, July 1, at 11:11 ET or 1511 UTC, the European Space Agency's Euclid space telescope will take a ride to orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral SFS.  

I've only just barely touched on the Euclid telescope, once back in October of '22.  Euclid is headed for the L2 LaGrange Point (graphic of the LaGrange points), where the James Webb Space Telescope is deployed and a growing number of satellites seem to use.  It was originally scheduled to ride a Soyuz 2.1 rocket, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine when the ESA cancelled the contract.  The selection of SpaceX over the ESA's own Ariane 6 is due to the issues they're having with that booster. 

On October 20th, European Space Agency (ESA) director Josef Aschbacher announced that the ESA will contract with SpaceX to launch two important science probes, the Euclid telescope and Hera, a multi-spacecraft mission to a near-Earth asteroid, after all domestic alternatives fell through. The move was due to delays in qualifying the Ariane 6 booster.  

Euclid is a small near-infrared space telescope that has been in development since the early 20-teens.  It is to be launched to the same Earth-Sun Lagrange point as the James Webb Space Telescope, L2.  The Webb is a much broader spectrum instrument from near infrared out to far infrared wavelengths, so they're not competitors; more like extra capability out at L2 for the near-infrared spectrum.  

The other mission, Hera, is considerably more ambitious.  Hera’s mission is to orbit around the near-Earth asteroid Didymos and study the impact crater on its smaller partner, Dimorphos, created by the DART mission. Hera has a short, 17-day launch window in October of 2024.

This will be the 2nd furthest mission SpaceX has initially launched, behind only the DART mission back in November of '21, which was sent 11 million km to intercept the asteroid moon Dimorphos.  By the launch of Hera in another 16 months, we'll find out how that distance compares.

The ESA's mission website offers this, that I'll use for the closing words. 

Euclid is designed to explore the evolution of the dark Universe. It will make a 3D-map of the Universe (with time as the third dimension) by observing billions of galaxies out to 10 billion light-years, across more than a third of the sky.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Again, I Got Nothing

Let the day get away from me and don't even see any news to go with, so some filler as I usually do.  

Judging by the car, this isn't very old.  Maybe late 60s. 

And this one is widely quoted as true and real.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

SpaceX Changing the way Starship Stages

In a rare Saturday news item, Elon Musk today confirmed that the next test flight of the Starship/Super Heavy combination would use a different staging method than they've been designing for.  

In an online discussion with Bloomberg journalist Ashlee Vance on Twitter, the social media company Musk owns, he said that SpaceX had recently decided to switch to a “hot-staging” approach where the Starship upper stage will ignite its engines while still attached to the Super Heavy booster.

“We made sort of a late-breaking change that’s really quite significant to the way that stage separation works,” Musk said, describing the switch to hot staging. “There’s a meaningful payload-to-orbit advantage with hot-staging that is conservatively about a 10% increase.”

While I can't think of a launch vehicle I've watched that uses the technique, Space News points out that Russian launch vehicles have been using this approach "for decades."  I'll take that to mean that it might be in use on other vehicles around the world as well.  Instead of the way we see it done routinely: cut off booster engines, drop the booster, start the upper stage, this will start the second stage while the first stage is still attached.  They can save a few seconds of flying without having thrust, but I've never timed one. 

That makes me wonder how that can be done and still keep the first stage reusable. 

Musk said that, for Starship, most of the 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster would be turned off, but a few still firing, when the engines on the Starship upper stage are ignited. Doing so, he said, avoids the loss of thrust during traditional stage separation, where the lower stage shuts down first.

Doing so requires some modifications to the Super Heavy booster. Musk said SpaceX is working on an extension to the top of the booster “that is almost all vents” to allow the exhaust from the upper stage to escape while still attached to the booster. SpaceX will also add shielding to the top of the booster to protect it from the exhaust. 

Musk also acknowledged this might be the riskiest change for the next launch - now generally referred to as around the start of August (Elon Standard Time).  We've seen Booster 9 (B9) before but the top of the booster didn't look any different than other boosters seen so far.

Besides the stage separation, Musk said they've made a “tremendous number” of other changes to the vehicle, “well over a thousand.”  We've heard of many changes to the Orbital Launch Mount itself, the water deluge system and its "steel sandwich" construction, as well as actual tons of concrete.  He pointed out that the engines are different but not in the kind of detail I'd like to see; which would have something like a count of how many of which version are flying, and the more descriptive the better.  He referred to the booster flown in April as using a “hodgepodge” of engines, but there's no more detail on the engines on B9.   

Starship on the first Integrated Flight Test, April 20th.  SpaceX photo. 


Friday, June 23, 2023

In Prep for the Last Delta IV Launch

In the aftermath of this Thursday morning's launch of the second to last Delta IV Heavy, we learn via Spaceflight Now that ULA has shut down the Delta manufacturing facility in Decatur, Alabama.  The final Delta IV was shipped to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in early May on their dedicated transport vessel the R/S RocketShip.  This photo is tagged as having been taken on May 11, 2023 at 11:37AM. 

United Launch Alliance delivered the main components of the final Delta 4-Heavy rocket to Cape Canaveral in May for launch in early 2024 on the classified NROL70 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. Two of the three Delta 4-Heavy boosters are seen here. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now.

“We’ve completed all the Delta hardware there in Decatur,” Wentz said in an interview Tuesday with Spaceflight Now. “We’re in the process of transitioning the factory to support higher rate production of the Vulcan hardware. [Note: that's Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president for government and commercial programs - SiG]

“That was a huge accomplishment for the Decatur team to be able to complete the last Delta 4, get it shipped down to the Cape, and now it’s in the hands of our launch ops team,” Wentz said. “As soon as we launch L-68, we’ve already started doing some of the horizontal processing of L-70, and our plan is to prep it to support the customer’s launch next year.”

As we've talked about before, the Delta IV's missions will be moved to the new Vulcan Centaur.  With the last Atlas V coming within the next few years, it will mean the end of both the Delta and Atlas families, two of the most storied rockets in history.  Rockets bearing the Delta name began launching in 1960, and 388 Delta rockets have flown to date, including Thursday morning's Delta IV Heavy with its NROL68 payload. 

ULA says the Vulcan rocket is less expensive than the Atlas and Delta rockets, and it uses engines built in the United States, replacing the Russian engines that power the Atlas 5 rocket. The Delta 4 rocket also uses all U.S.-made engines, but it is more expensive than the Atlas 5. In its most powerful configuration, the Vulcan Centaur will outlift the Delta 4-Heavy, without needing to use three first stage boosters to do the job.

While it looks like the Vulcan won't be able to launch its two certification flights before the end of the year, ULA has more than 70 Vulcan missions in its backlog, primarily for National Security payloads and Amazon’s Kuiper broadband network, the planned rival to SpaceX’s Starlink internet constellation.  They just can't launch any of those National Security missions until their Cert-1 and Cert-2 missions are accepted - it has no bearing on Kuiper launches. 

They need more throughput for Vulcan rockets and that's what to become of the Decatur plant.

...In response to the deep backlog, ULA is expanding the footprint of its 1.6 million-square-foot factory in Alabama, which was originally built by Boeing for the Delta 4 program, before ULA shifted Atlas rocket production there from Colorado. The factory is now transitioning to focus fully on Vulcan.

“For a while, obviously, we had Delta 4 and Atlas flowing through that factory,” Wentz said. “The most significant and obvious parts are in the final assembly area for Delta 4, which coincidentally, we’ve been processing Vulcans through. So Vulcan final assembly will flow right in there, and we’ll be able to increase our rate in that area.”

The last remnant of the Delta 4 program at the Alabama factory is the third and final upper stage ULA is building for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket to carry astronauts back to the moon. That upper stage is derived from the Delta 4-Heavy design, and will power the Artemis 3 mission into space in a few years. Then NASA will switch to a more powerful upper stage for future SLS moon rockets. [the Exploration Upper Stage - SiG]

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Updating the Hurricane Season Forecasts

Back in the March/April time frame, the major institutions that produce hurricane season forecasts released their initial forecasts, most of them calling for a mild season.  While Weatherbell Analytics is a company that I think tends to get forecasts right, they're a subscription service and pricing seems to be aimed more at the companies who need an accurate forecast to stay in business than it is aimed at interested people in the general public.  Still, their chief forecaster, Joe Bastardi - who's also an author whose book I've bought - issued his preliminary forecast, too, and published it in a place where I could read and download it.  

Bottom line, Joe seemed most concerned with the red "Above Normal" area off the east coast of the US and especially that area from the NC coast up through Massachusetts.  He said he was concerned that the above-normal sea surface temperatures that are being seen in the Atlantic might lead to storms that form rapidly and come onshore with minimal preparation time.  When I look at a graphic like this, my interpretation is that anything that doesn't say Above or Below normal is probably looking at a plain old normal forecast.

Most forecasts were expecting this to be relatively quiet year.  They seemed to nod to the developing El Nino half of the Southern Oscillation cycle, which tends to keep Atlantic storms from organizing or strengthening.  Not all, but the "consensus of the science" was not a very active season.  The Barcelona Supercomputing Center and Colorado State University post this summary chart at, which is a bit busy but understandable with a bit of explanation.  (There is much more information at that link and many ways to look at this data)

The horizontal scale contains the names of the various organizations making predictions.  The color code at the top explains, for example, the light green is a University's prediction, the light blue is a Government agency's and the fabulous pink is a private entity's prediction.  The distinction between long lines, shorter lines and dots show if the prediction includes a (wider or narrower) range or a single number.  The horizontal dashed lines are the low, normal and high numbers of storms.

For example, kind of in the middle horizontally is a group of three blue bars; left to right those are NOAA, SMN (I don't know who that is) and the UK Meteorology Office.  NOAA, for example seems to be predicting 5-9 storms, SMN is predicting 3-7 and the UK Met is predicting 8-14.  The yellow dot on the Y-axis, at 7, is the average prediction.  In this version of the plot these are the numbers of only hurricanes, not named storms.  Weatherbell, by the way, over on the far right, was predicting 5-7. 

As mentioned the other day, the season is off to a quick start, with TS Brett and Tropical Depression #4 currently active (the A storm was much earlier in the year - I think it was well out of the season, months ago).  Bret and #4 are MDR storms, which usually doesn't become active until late July or August.  The University of Arizona Department of Hydrologic and Atmospheric Sciences, the leftmost green bar, came out with their June update, and it's a doozy, joining the UK Met Office and Skyfora in calling for an extremely active 2023. (It's already in this graphic).  For the record, the UA has one of the better seasonal forecasting track records.

So what does this all mean? To be honest, I'm trying to understand it all, too, but it looks like the unusually high sea surface temperatures are overriding the tendency of the El Nino to suppress the Atlantic Hurricanes.  The El Nino charts on Watts Up With That don't show this to be particularly strong but we're also early into the El Nino phase of this ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation).  It looks like the deciding factor is going to be the relative strength of the effects of the El Nino versus the over 3 standard deviations high sea surface temperatures. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Starship 25 Resumes Testing

After the brief testing of Ship 25 last week, SpaceX went back into their construction and repair mode, with road closures being cancelled through the end of last week, then cancelling both Monday and Tuesday this week.  

The county website said today still wasn't cancelled when I checked in mid-morning, but the roads weren't closed and it looked pretty much like any other day.  I went back later and saw that they appeared to have closed the roads and were working toward a spin prime test in which propellants are loaded, the ignition sequence is started but with no sparks to ignite the fuel.  That test was conducted at 3:24 PM (and around 38 seconds) their time (Central time zone) and appeared to go without issue.  

A loop of the test that's not quite dramatic to look at can be found at NASASpaceflight's Chris Bergin on Twitter.  If you'd prefer not to go to Twitter, here's the NSF video of the day's coverage. 

The video is 2:15:56 long and you want to set the timing slider close to, but not past 1:33:05.  Or you can click here and it will take you to an obligatory commercial and then start a few seconds before the test, which the commentators will all talk about as soon as they realize it's starting.  The Twitter-linked video is on endless loop.  This one will require you loop it yourself. 

I should mention that last night's Delta IV Heavy launch was scrubbed due to "an issue with a ground systems pneumatic valve" and is currently set for tomorrow (Thursday) morning at 3:25 AM ET, or 0725 UTC.  At 3:19 AM ET, SpaceX will launch another load of Starlink satellites (Group 5-7) from Vandenberg SFB.  The separation of 6 minutes guarantees that both missions will be flying and the videos streaming simultaneously. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The 2nd to Last Delta Prepared to Fly

Wednesday morning at 0729 UTC, or 3:29 AM ET, the 2nd to the last Delta IV is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, SLC-37B.  The final launch of a Delta IV is expected to launch NET January 2024 from the same pad.  In commemoration of the penultimate mission, someone provided this art deco-reminiscent poster for the mission, a launch for the National Reconnaissance Office payload NROL68.

ULA has produced a video to assist in visualizing the mission.  Mission coverage should be here at 0709 UTC. 

The Delta family, of course, is among the first orbital rocket systems developed in the US in the aftermath of the country being stunned by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957.  The Delta, in turn, drew on the design of one the first ballistic missiles, the U.S. Air Force’s intermediate-range ballistic missile called Thor.  It was designed and operated for decades by Boeing.  Delta's first successful launch was NASA’s Echo 1A satellite on Aug. 12, 1960.  

It's probably hard for people under 50 to understand how much those early days changed our lives.  Suddenly, there were weather satellites like TIROS and GEOS beaming down pictures of things only some people could visualize.  Then there were communications satellites, the first Telstar (which inspired its own top 40 hit) and Intelsat launches, and suddenly TV pictures would include the phrase, “Live, via satellite!”

Over the following decades, the family was continually given more capacity to orbit, culminating in the current Delta IV family of medium-to-heavy launch vehicles which became operational in 2002.  The Delta IV Heavy consists of 3 core boosters.  The hydrogen-fueled rocket produces 2.1 million lbs of thrust at liftoff, which can launch up to 62,540 lbs to low Earth orbit.  

There appears to be no talk of a successor Delta V (or 5) meaning all future heavy lift missions that ULA will carry will need to be a Vulcan Centaur.   

Ya gotta love the NRO.  The mission banner for this one looks like this:

Epic imagery with the dragon and (what I think is) a glowing dragon's egg.  The latin phrase nusquam celare translates as nowhere to hide.


Monday, June 19, 2023

Small Space News Story Roundup 11

Wherein tonight's subtitle should be "two space-related and one miscellaneous."  

Virgin Galactic Sets Date for First Commercial SpaceShipTwo Flight

Virgin Galactic announced on June 15 that it plans to conduct the first commercial flight of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle in late June on a mission for the Italian Air Force. 

Virgin said its “Galactic 01” mission will take place between June 27 and June 30 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. That will carry three people from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy under a contract Virgin Galactic signed with the Italian Air Force in 2019.

Virgin Galactic, of course, is the "other one" of the Virgin companies started by Sir Richard Branson, the one that has done some manned suborbital flights with its two-pilot, six-passenger VSS Unity spacecraft (photo here) that looks more like a jet aircraft than Blue Origin's more rocket-like New Shepard.  

That will be followed by Galactic 02 in early August. It will be the first to carry individuals who signed up for space tourism flights with the company, paying up to $450,000 per seat. Virgin Galactic says it will conduct SpaceShipTwo flights on a monthly basis thereafter.

Meanwhile, Back at the Not Completely Gone Virgin Orbit  

Back at the selling off of Virgin Orbit's assets, not everything was sold.  We learned on Friday that Firefly Aerospace has agreed to buy the rest of the company's assets in the form of the remaining inventory at two company production facilities. 

In June 15 filings with the federal bankruptcy court in Delaware overseeing Virgin Orbit’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, representatives of the companies said that Firefly agreed to buy the assets that has not been sold at auction in May for $3.8 million.

The assets, designated Segment 5 in bankruptcy proceedings, are the inventory at Virgin Orbit’s two facilities in Long Beach, California. That includes engines and other components built or in production for the LauncherOne vehicles that Virgin Orbit manufactured there. It also includes two engines in storage at a Virgin Orbit test site in Mojave, California.

The events and their timing between the May 22 finalization (covered at the first link in this section) and the final sale aren't completely clear.  It appears Firefly had bid on everything, had the bid rejected and then additional negotiations took place.  It's also not completely clear quite what Firefly was interested in buying considering other things we know about what they're working on. 

“Firefly strategically bid and purchased the Virgin Orbit inventory for the significant cost savings on common off-the-shelf components that we use in our product lines, and the benefit of eliminated supply chain lead-times associated with critical flight components,” Firefly Aerospace said in a statement late June 16. “Firefly will not be utilizing all of the inventory and plans to provide additional information to parties who may be interested in purchasing.”

Virgin Orbit's main production facility, with several LauncherOne vehicles being built, in an undated photo.  We have no reason to think that everything here was just bought by Firefly Aerospace, but some things in these thousands of square feet very likely were bought.  Image credit: Virgin Orbit

Things I Don't Like the Looks of 

As the hurricane season was getting started, there was consensus that with an El Nino starting that conditions would tend to work to give us a relatively easy season.  The counter to that is that surface temperatures in the Atlantic are high and that gooses storm formation.

Today we got Tropical Storm Bret.  A storm in this area, called a Cape Verde storm (after the islands off the right side of this plot), is rare this time of the year and much more common in the August through September time frame. 

I couldn't tell you how many plots I've followed over the years that looked like this one, but the majority of those were August/September not June.  The Central Florida Hurricane Center website that I've been following for years says, "this ties for the earliest named storm in the MDR with 2017's Bret (Which also formed June 19th)." (MDR = Main Development Region - SiG)

As always, the question is when and where does it turn to the north or northeast.  Likewise as always, all we can do is keep an eye out and be ready to start putting up shutters and taking down antennas. 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Rocket Lab Launches First HASTE Mission

Remember the talk about Rocket Lab using a suborbital version of their Electron as a hypersonics test vehicle?  They conducted the first mission last night from Wallops Island, Virginia.

The vehicle, called Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron (HASTE), lifted off from Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, at 9:24 p.m. Eastern. Rocket Lab declared the launch a success in a statement nearly an hour and a half after liftoff.

“100% mission success from tonight’s launch,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, tweeted after the flight. “A perfect flight of the nation’s newest hypersonic test platform HASTE.”

As might be expected in a DOD-related test mission like this, the company didn't disclose anything about the payload or other details about the flight. The company didn't announce the launch in advance, although listed it, presumably from FAA sources, such as the Notices To Airmen (NOTAM). 

They did post this photograph of the rocket's trail later on in the Twitter thread mentioned above.  

The Tweet points out that the apparent dogleg change in trajectory is real. 

Rocket Lab plans to launch HASTE exclusively from Wallops. 

“Wallops, at its core, is a test and research range perfectly suited for these sorts of missions,” David Pierce, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said in a post-launch statement.

Rocket Lab isn't saying how many HASTE missions to expect.  That might be classified and it might simply be unknown - it's a new service, after all.  SpaceNews notes: "in a May 9 earnings call, Rocket Lab projected 15 Electron launches overall in 2023, a figure that includes both orbital and HASTE missions."  This is the sixth Electron launch this year. 


Saturday, June 17, 2023

The Ham Radio Series 39 - My Station

In last weekend's update on the tower work, commenter Fladave posted

Being the curious type, might I ask what goodies are in the shack -Might you write a short article perhaps ? Wondering what radios your running, and so forth

One of the disadvantages of sitting on my side of the screen is that while I don’t remember everything I’ve posted about, it’s pretty sure that I remember more than anybody else.  I’ve never done a real thorough description of the shack, and since weekends tend to be slow news, this is as good a time as any.

My station actually has four transceivers in it; practically, only one is on at a time.  My main station rig, that I operate almost exclusively is an Icom IC-7610.  The ‘7610 is the successor to their very successful IC-7600 that held that spot for the 10 years before I switched to the ‘7610, and very, very strangely, is the second IC-7610 I’ve owned.  As I explained in my New Year's '23 post : 

I won the grand prize from a ham radio contest.  The ironic part was that it was the same exact model I bought with the insurance payout from our lightning strike, two years before, so I replaced that two year old radio with a brand new version of the same model.  Of course, since it's my "lucky radio" nothing I do with it will ever fail, nothing will ever be wrong or go bad, right?

The ‘7610 is a fairly high end station, so why that radio?  I spent over 20 years as a designer on various radio systems, and while I think it’s true that “Software Defined Radio” has taken on some of the air of being a magical, wonderful, thing as Artificial Intelligence has in that domain, the SDR has some attributes that definitely improve receiver performance.

Radio hobbyists have long been taught that “sensitivity and selectivity” are what they should look for, but in pretty much the entire radio hobby, and especially in ham radio, you need to add in consideration of dynamic range or strong-signal handling.  Dynamic range, is often described in terms of IMD or intermodulation distortion, or the Output 3rd order Intercept Point (OIP3).  IMD is a function of linearity in the signal chain.  That is, when you amplify, switch or handle an RF signal in any way, you don’t want to add distortion of any kind.  Signals can be made bigger in amplifiers, or smaller in filters or in a gain-control system, but you never want to add signals, which comes from distortion or nonlinearity.  There’s only one component in a receiver that’s intentionally nonlinear and that’s a mixer which is actually an analog multiplier – and most analog (not SDR) radios have more than one; two or three mixers are the norm.  If you have no nonlinearity, you get no IMD.  

The IC-7610 is a band sampling radio; that means the spectrum is filtered into bands for the receiver (there are two receivers and two such circuits in the box) and each of those bands is converted to digital format in a high-speed Analog to Digital converter.  The incoming signal goes through no mixers, only one amplifier and to get high linearity out of an amplifier all you have to do is make sure to run it with a high enough current to ensure that the signals it’s handling are small in comparison to the bias conditions.   Once the signals are in the digital domain, they’re mathematically perfect, meaning demodulation and any audio processing is done with pure numbers.  You’re not going to hear two high-power stations creating gobbledygook on a frequency they’re not using because of IMD.

Icom marketing literature source. 

All that said, why the IC-7610 instead of another of the many radios with a similar approach?  Part of it is general familiarity with Icom and their way of doing things.  Like I said, the ‘7610 in 2020 replaced the ‘7600 from 10 years before and in the 20 years before 2010 there were other Icom radios.  I’ve also had a couple of Kenwood radios, Heathkits and classic radios from Collins.  I spent the most time comparing the ‘7610 to the Flex Radio 6400, and as I recall it now, I thought the Flex was comparable but to get it set up equivalently to the IC-7610 would cost quite a bit more.  

The other radios?  On the operating desk next to the ‘7610 is a mid ‘00s-era Icom IC-7000, which covers HF, 6m, 2m, and 70cm – all modes on all bands.  It is not as good a receiver, especially on HF, but it’s only in the worst conditions that it becomes an issue.  Both radios interface to the computer over a serial port so that the software I run my station with (Ham Radio Deluxe) can control both, and I can run the digital modes that have become so popular, based on WSJT-X: FT8, FT4, and many more.  When I set the station up, my idea was to make switching from the ‘7610 to the ‘7000 to be as simple as possible so I could get access to the VHF/UHF bands.  I switch one cable, change the address of the radio HRD controls so I can switch from 6m to 2m in under a minute.  

Those digital modes require a digital interface from the computer, and while the ‘7610 can interface to the computer with a USB cable to create the audio tones those modes need, the ‘7000 requires an external modem.  I use a Signalink USB and swap the cable to/from the radio.  With a ‘7610 by itself, that complication goes away and the Signalink is not needed.

On the shelves near the station, I have a 1960s vintage Collins KWM-2.  While it was a dream radio to me decades ago, it’s kind of a “Sunday Drive” radio.  It’s a nice radio, it does everything an SSB radio needs to do (it doesn’t have a narrow, CW filter).  It’s just that the newer radios have operating conveniences and features that run rings around the older radios like that (often called boatanchors, although this one isn’t particularly heavy).  Sitting here, I don’t recall the last time I had it on, which probably means it’s time to carefully cycle power to it. 

A high point in life was meeting the Project Engineer on the KWM-2; a fellow by the name of Ed Andrade.  He was a friend of a friend, a nearby neighbor over on the beach side.  Both of them have unfortunately passed away since.  

Sitting on the table top closer to the ‘7610 is an Icom IC-703 a backpacker’s, low-power (QRP) rig.  I wrote about this back when I found it at the local hamfest.  The '703 isn't currently in production, but I consider it a good SHTF radio, and it frequently gets mentioned in places like Arfcom.  It covers the HF ham bands from 1.8 to 30 MHz and the 50 MHz or 6 meter band.  On a 12V battery, like my emergency backup hurricane battery, it will deliver 10W output, which is a pretty decent level.  Like the KWM-2, I couldn’t tell you the last time I used it. 

That’s the indoors.  Outside I have three antennas which cover 3.5 to 55 MHz (HF and 6m).  The 80/40/30 antenna is actually only designed for 80 and 40, a Cushcraft MA8040 vertical, but adding a simple little L-network to the coax gets it on 30m without messing up the other bands (or, at least, not messing them up too badly). 

This raises the question of how to go about connecting three antennas to four radios.  I use two four position Alpha Delta switches (their Delta 4B).  One selects the antenna and the other selects the radio it goes to.  Both switches are fully manual, and while the computer or the ‘7610 could drive a switch with some sort of control link, these don’t have a computer interface.  That's on my "one of these days" list.

The radio select switch at the bottom has a port that’s pretty much a spare at this point, labeled IC-7000 V/U (VHF/UHF).  It has a coax jumper on it that I connect to test equipment like my NanoVNA for antenna testing, but the IC-703 or anything that I want to connect to an outside antenna can go there.

Friday, June 16, 2023

NASA Official Praises Cost-Plus Contracts

Somewhat weirdly, NASA official Jim Free appeared before a meeting of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board in Washington, DC last week and praised cost-plus contracts, saying the fixed cost contracts that bought NASA the SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Starship variant called the Human Landing System do the agency "no good."  To be completely even-handed, while the successes of the Crew and Cargo Dragons are without question, neither Starship, its HLS variant or the Boeing Starliner have successfully flown and all were contracted as fixed price contracts.

Free specifically went after SpaceX, saying their delays in getting the HLS flying are probably going to push the 2025 Artemis III mission out.  Before the HLS variant can fly, SpaceX has to do much more than just reach orbit.  They're on contract to develop fueling on orbit and the Starship goals are completely dependent on that milestone.  

"That’s a lot of launches to get those missions done," Free said. "They have a significant number of launches to go, and that, of course, gives me concern about the December of 2025 date" for Artemis III. "With the difficulties that SpaceX has had, I think that’s really concerning,” Free added. "You can think about that slipping probably into ’26."

Seriously?  Back last November, I noted that I've seen a prediction by a guy who has been scary accurate in his predictions saying that Artemis III won't launch until '27 instead of '25. Eric Berger at Ars Technica has better sources than I do and says, a more realistic date "for Artemis III is probably 2028-ish."  

Oddly, Free also questioned the value of the contract mechanism that NASA used to hire SpaceX and its Starship lander. "The fact is, if they’re not flying on the time they’ve said, it does us no good to have a firm, fixed-price contract other than we’re not paying more," he said. 

What Free isn't acknowledging in any way is that the entire Artemis and SLS programs were written as cost-plus contracts and they reached orbit for the first time five years late and billions over budget.  There isn't one aspect of the Artemis/SLS program that was on time, let alone early, nor has any aspect been under budget.  There's no correlation between being cost-plus and getting the hardware done on time.  If anything, it goes better with fixed price contracts. 

For example, I've beaten this dead horse many times. 

These are six of the 18 RS-25 or Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) NASA has for Artemis. Keep in mind one of sarcastic lines about the SLS is that it doesn't stand for Space Launch System, it stands for the Shuttles' Leftover Shit.  Designed for reuse on the Shuttles, these leftovers will be used once and discarded in the deep Atlantic. 

I've been reading and reporting about cost overruns on these 1970s-vintage engines for years now.  In May of 2020, I found out that the first stage engines would cost $146 million per engine, so nearly $600 million ($584 m) for just the four engines of the booster core.  Engines that will litter the floor of the Atlantic after one use.  I've said many times, the RS-25 engines are rated at 512,000 pounds of thrust and that's not a level that nobody else can provide.  Both Blue Origin's BE-4 engines and SpaceX's Raptor 2 (and the newer Raptor 3) are in the same class.  Blue Origin sells the BE-4 for less than $20 million.  The Raptor's design price point is under $1 million (I read $500,000 once). 

Note that SLS couldn't just decide to switch to either BE-4 or Raptors; those are methane/lox engines while the vehicle itself is based on liquid hydrogen and oxygen so the entire vehicle would have to be redesigned.  

As a veteran of the defense and space industry purchasing paradigm, I've been around cost-plus and fixed cost contracts.  The only place where I think cost-plus makes sense is when you're developing technology nobody has ever done before.  That's more like Starship than SLS.  No company has ever attacked the scale problem that SpaceX has attacked with Starship.  For example, NASA reportedly wants to land just ~180 kilograms (~400 lb) of cargo with the first crewed HLS.  That's less than 2/10 of a metric ton.  Starship is probably going to be capable of landing dozens of tons of cargo in addition to several astronauts.  

In contrast, SLS isn't as powerful as the Saturn V, leading to the Gateway, the NRHO, and the indirect flight path to the moon.  They had RS-25 engines in storage they could just use.  The Solid Rocket Boosters on SLS are direct descendants of the Shuttle program's SRBs - they have an extra segment to deliver a little (20%?) more power.  They made the core diameter of the SLS the same diameter as the Shuttle program's version.  It's a large amount of design reuse, and a fixed cost contract makes more sense to me.  

Berger questioned one of Jim Free's colleagues at NASA and got a good quote:

"I can't give him a pass on the fixed-price comment," one of these officials said of Free. "On cost-plus contracts, the hardware is always late, and you pay more. On fixed-price contracts, it's only late. So yeah, his comment was technically accurate but totally tone-deaf. What really makes me worried is that I think it shows where the heart of the agency is."

My view is that cost-plus contracts do a couple of things that make them fit in NASA's and every agency's purchasing paradigm.  First, they funnel money to lots of congressional districts which is good for attracting votes.  Second, that money in turn can get funneled back to those congress critters (or senators - let's be complete).  It's like when politicians funnel money to unions and the unions funnel portions back to the politicians.

Last words to Eric Berger at Ars Technica.  Good article if you're into this stuff.

NASA's approach toward commercial contracts really only gained momentum during the administration of Jim Bridenstine, who championed the idea of the space agency being one of many customers, and buying services rather than committing to long-term cost-plus contracts. But he left in early 2021, before Free's arrival. Now, Free is saying that fixed-price contracts may not have much value for NASA.

Is the old guard about to exact its revenge on new space?


Thursday, June 15, 2023

Ariane 5 on Indefinite Hold

The final flight of the European Space Agency's Heavy Lift Ariane 5 was to be Friday, June 16th.  Most of you will read this on Friday.  It has been postponed while an issue is being investigated that surfaced in the final stages of preparation.

"It has come to light that there is a risk to the redundancy of a critical function on the Ariane 5. Consistent with safety requirements, Arianespace has decided to postpone the rollout of the #VA261 launch vehicle. Analyses are underway to determine a new launch date," Arianespace, the France-based company that operates the Ariane 5, said via Twitter today (June 15). (VA261 is the name Arianespace gave to this mission.)

To most readers, I'm going to hazard a guess that the best known Ariane 5 mission was launching the James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas morning, 2021.  Another Ariane 5 launched the ESA's Juice mission just a couple of months ago in April.  

In a short briefing this afternoon, Arianespace representatives said the concerns centered on three pyrotechnical transmission lines that are associated with the Ariane 5's solid rocket boosters. Engineers will examine the issue before Arianespace announces a new target date, a milestone that's expected in late June.

The mission is carrying two satellites: The Heinrich-Hertz-Satellit is a German spacecraft designed to research and test new communications technologies and scenarios, while the Syracuse 4B is also a communications satellite, but one that will be operated by the French military.  The latter is said to be "totally protected against the most extreme jamming methods" to enable deployed French units to stay connected at all times.  

The Ariane 5 was first launched in 1996, and has completed over 100 launches.  Its successor the Ariane 6, is expected to debut before the end of this year.  

The Ariane 5 and Juice payload integrated and ready to roll out to the launch pad, last April 8th.  ESA photo. 


Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Testing at Starbase Resumes - Plus Vulcan Update

There were postings about road closures this week that eventually narrowed down until today, with the County website saying road closure in effect from 12 noon to midnight tonight.  Around 2PM ET, I flipped a browser tab to Lab Padre to find the road had closed by 12:10 PM and the pad area was clear by 12:40 PM.  NASASpaceflight speculated that there would be a Spin Prime test of ship 25 but they were the only place I saw mention that.  Instead, it appeared to be a test of some of the new infrastructure in the launch area.  They simply fueled ship 25 and then let it depressurize itself, but it tested new "stage zero" hardware. 

This is pretty much the end of the test and the start of allowing the ship to depressurize.  Ship 25 has had some testing already, but since SpaceX has pretty much said Booster 9 and Ship 25 take the next orbital test flight, it makes sense to start getting ready with the hardware that's next.  There's no such thing as too soon to start testing what can be tested.  

I've been following the repair/redesign work at the Orbital Launch Mount as best as I can, and it's moving at an impressive speed.  That link in the previous paragraph includes a 20 second video from SpaceX of testing their water deluge system by firing a Raptor at it.  It's tough to see exactly what's going on, but it looks like the system handles one engine with no issues.  I know both the size of the deluge system and the number of engines increase dramatically when it's time to launch, but I guess we'll see that verified one step at a time.  

United Launch Alliance is saying their test last week was successful and that the failure investigation of the Centaur upper stage is complete.   

In replies on Twitter Tuesday, Bruno provided the first public confirmation that the United Launch Alliance's investigation into the Centaur failure is complete. Although the report is not public, it appears that the hydrogen tank failed during a pressure test at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

"The super thin, high performance steel skin needs to be a little thicker near the top of the dome," Bruno said, adding, "Working corrective action and retest."

This seems to push the first Cert-1 flight of Vulcan Centaur back toward the end of the year at best and pushing it into '24 wouldn't be a surprise.  The new upper stage needs to be built, tested, certified, and built into flight hardware.  That's all non-trivial.  There need to be two Cert flights and we're absolutely not getting both in calendar '23. 

In 2020, Space Force awarded a contract to ULA and to SpaceX to launch national security payloads.  Just like how Boeing was awarded more pay per flight of Starliner than SpaceX was awarded for Crew Dragon flights to the ISS, ULA was awarded 60 percent of the launches, and SpaceX got 40 percent. In addition, ULA gets paid more per launch than SpaceX gets.  In rough numbers, SpaceX gets $90 million/launch while ULA gets $105 million/launch - $15 million more than SpaceX. 

Which makes it noteworthy that Space Systems Command said it recently assigned a dozen Phase 2 missions to the two launch companies at a 50-50 split rather than a 60-40 split.  They're starting to get concerned about Vulcan not being available yet.  

Additionally, just last week, a US Government Accountability Office report (pdf warning) mentioned that delays were causing military officials working on the Phase 2 launch program to consider their options. "In the event that Vulcan is unavailable for future missions, program officials stated that the Phase 2 contract allows for the ability to reassign missions to the other provider," the report states.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Night Off

It's an awkward term but I had an emergency root canal today and I'm more than a bit sore. 

"Emergency" implies zero notice and life threatening, but neither of those is the case.  I snapped off one of my bottom front teeth having lunch on Sunday so I've known about needing this since then.  I had a similar thing happen once before; no pain, no bleeding, just "that doesn't feel right" and spitting out the part of that tooth above the gum line.  Kinda the opposite of CW's "Your Morning Toothless Smile" on Daily Timewaster in every way possible, not just no lower front teeth instead of no upper front teeth.

My dentist uses one of those CEREC systems for CNC carving a crown out of a porcelain piece and it's a one day visit, but it was three hours of constantly being carved, ground, having some gum tissue burned away with a laser and stuff I don't know about.  Out of that, I had a few minutes to sit around idly twice. 

First he had to ensure the root area was cleaned out of nerve and blood vessel tissue, cleaned out with what machinists would recognize as reamers - but about 1 mm in diameter and manually twisted like a twist drill.  Next step is to put a metal pin in the hole and build up a mass around it that the crown will sit on.  One of the short periods to sit by myself was while that material cured.  He then sprayed the area of both the lower and upper teeth with a powder that has better optical properties than our teeth, took laser profiles of the area and then finally modeled the crown in a 3D CAD/CAM program until he was happy with all the details.  Once that's done, he sends the file to a small, water-cooled, CNC mill which carves a porcelain crown with diamond cutting tools, a process that took a bit under five minutes.  Once the rough size was confirmed, they treated the porcelain with a glaze-like compound that brings it to the proper hardness after being fired in a kiln for 15 minutes.  Finally, the fine details of the fit change and it's back to grinding the built up area the crown mounts on.  With all this technology, the procedure is done in one visit, as opposed to sending off an impression to get the crown made and wearing a temporary crown for a week or two.

Getting it done in one day doesn't make it any more pleasant, though, and I'm a hurtin' puppy tonight.  Too many moments felt like this classic Far Side cartoon from some time in the last century - early 1980s, I think.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Today's Second Falcon 9 Launch Sets New Records

With today's two Falcon 9 launches, SpaceX set another record.  

The first launch was from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral SFS at 3:10 AM ET this morning, 0710 UTC.  The second was from SLC-4E at Vandenberg SFB at 5:35 PM ET this afternoon, 2135 UTC.  That's 14 hours and 25 minutes later and a continent apart.

The milestone was the landing of that second booster, on its ninth flight, and the 200th successful landing of a Falcon 9 booster.   

Screen capture from the SpaceX video.  

Or you can watch this video and slide the timer until you're close to 5 or 10 seconds before the time in the picture,

I think this is noteworthy in light of the talk at the end of May about 200 successful launches, and SpaceX doubling the number of consecutive successful launches of both the American Delta family and Russian Soyuz-U.  The 200th successful booster recovery means twice as many successful recoveries as those other rockets have just launched without one single recovery among them.  Much like how every launch of a Falcon 9 is a new record for consecutive launches, every booster landing is a new record for that.  

In both cases, there's pretty much nobody vying for those records. 

Sunday, June 11, 2023

SpaceX Dragon Capsules Set Some New Records

Back on May 25, 2012, the first SpaceX cargo Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully rendezvous with and dock with the ISS. The records have just kept coming.  

There were 14 Dragon 1 capsules used until 2020, when they were replaced by the current Dragon 2 version.  The current cargo Dragon mission, CRS-28 set some new records pointed out in short piece on Teslarati.  

CRS-28 marked the 38th time a Dragon spacecraft visited the orbiting outpost, beating the record held by the Space Shuttle. SpaceX is currently the only U.S.-based company making regular visits to the ISS, with resupply missions and crewed missions for NASA. Later this year, they will also be launching 3 Cygnus resupply vehicles owned by Northrup Grumman, which is retiring its rocket, the Antares 230+.

The Dragon capsule that's flying the CRS-28 mission is number C208 and is on its 4th flight to the ISS. 

In addition

  • this was the 20th flight using a previously-flown Dragon capsule. 
  • on June 6, CRS-28's first full day in space, the Dragon 2 fleet's cumulative time in space surpassed the Space Shuttle fleet's time with 1,324 total days in orbit! 

I think when most of us think of reuse, we think of the Falcon 9 booster and (eventually) all of Starship. That's certainly part of the picture.  The booster on this mission, B1077, was on its 5th flight, including previously sending the Crew-5 mission to the ISS. After stage separation, the first stage successfully landed on the drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas to be prepared for its next mission.  Reusing the capsules is a big impact, too.  

Reusability changes everything.

CRS-28 launch on Monday, June 5.  SpaceX photo.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

A Little Update

Since it's a slow news day in the space news I've been following, I thought I'd post an update to some work on my tower fix I last talked about in early April.  A few of you left comments about the bare U-bolts on the pipe not being secure enough.  I got the idea that the heart of the issue is the contact area of the bolt on the 4" schedule 40 pipe is simply a very thin line – infinitely thin in principle – and the fix would be spreading that load over a larger contact area.  Reinforcing the pipe is another option and remains available.

Over the course of the next few weeks after that post, I struggled to envision some sort of thing that could go in between them, eventually settling on cutting a sliver of a cylinder.  I looked at U-bolts that came with things to spread the load, and eventually thought of a chunk of aluminum that would go between the U-bolt and the pipe, about a quarter inch thick and at least a half inch wide.  The place where that U-bolt went would be milled out the width of the bolt – half inch.  Ideally, the stainless U-bolt would tighten down into the aluminum, creating (crushing) a groove the bolt sits in and really spreading out the contact. 

I don’t think that my CAD drawing is any easier to understand than this image of the part after machining the two big channels and as it’s ready to come off the mill.  

The load spreading portion of the part is the semicircular arch that starts just in from both the bottom left and right corners of the piece.  You can see it’s very thin at the bottom and much thicker in the top middle (about 3/10 inch).  Looking down you can see a large aluminum (almost) semicircle; that’s leftover (scrap) and the bottom of the arch surrounds and presses onto the schedule 40 pipe (4-1/2 inch actual diameter).  There’s another arch cutaway above the one the U-bolt presses onto.  That one is the one the U-bolt sits in.  The clamping force extends over that arch that clamps onto the pipe.  

You can see that there’s an opening in the top of the part there, the top of the U-bolt sticks out there, and on both sides of the channel you can see what are 1/2” holes drilled through, top to bottom.  That’s because my original idea of how to mill the part was to stand it up in the milling vise and mill it left to right, raising and lowering the cutter to cut out the shape of the channel and the half inch holes removed a lot of what had to go.  I gave up on that idea after a lot of simulations and attempts to get tool paths that would do that.  After that I milled it in the position you see it, lower the cutter into the work on the right end of the semicircle, cut the semicircle counterclockwise, lift the cutter out of the work and move (at high speed) back to where it started and repeat the cut a little deeper.

It took longer to figure out how to machine it than to decide what it would look like or how it would work.  Along the way, the name morphed from the U-Bolt Load Spreader to the U-Bolt Thingy then to just plain Thingy or the UBT.  

This is a photo of the Thingy in place, with the U-bolt tightened down (but not torqued to spec.)

For scale, the U-bolt itself is half-inch diameter and the channel it’s sitting is just a bit deeper than that (about .050 in.)  The “wall” on the right is the channel stock used for the arms.  The other channel stock is on the left side, well out of picture.  The really big round thing is the 4 inch pipe.

Looked at from 90 degrees to the right, the channel and UBT look like this:

The slot in the top of the channel and the bolt sticking beyond the UBT are very obvious; so are the half inch holes that were drilled (the second UBT doesn't have those holes).  The holes look like they're a perfect place to attract mud dauber wasps, so I filled those with caulk.  

When I started to work on the tower to install these, it became obvious that the tower had been driven from vertical by some wind episode we had.  Part of the installation then became to temporarily clamp the tower to the old house bracket to pull it vertical, like my temporary fix described in that April update, then to torque down the bolts before taking the clamp off. We haven't had particularly intense winds in the two weeks since this was added, but the tower has remained vertical.