Wednesday, January 31, 2024

NASA's Europa Clipper Now Fully Assembled

As Europa Clipper has wound its way through the difficult processes of the design of the mission, design of the space probe itself, selection of the ride to space and so on, we've talked briefly about the mission at various steps along the way.  Today at, I find a link to an important update from NASA and the JPL  Europa Clipper has had all of its instruments integrated into the spacecraft.  

With less than nine months remaining in the countdown to launch, NASA’s Europa Clipper mission has passed a major milestone: Its science instruments have been added to the massive spacecraft, which is being assembled at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

The mission was originally intended to be launched by the SLS, using its Exploration Upper Stage.  When you refer to a part of SLS, it's pretty much always true to add "has been delayed" and the EUS has never flown.  I'm not sure any hardware has actually been built.  By 2019 NASA had asked the White House to get congress to move Europa Clipper to a Falcon Heavy to save a lot of money - a special law had been passed by congress mandating the mission be flown by SLS so it had to be addressed that way.  The complete mission on a Falcon Heavy would cost NASA less than two of the four RS-25 first stage engines of the SLS.  

The White House points out that a private sector rocket, such as the Falcon Heavy, could get the Europa mission to the Jovian moon it's targeting although the mission would take longer.  The trade off is that the Falcon Heavy would save NASA $700 Million, which could be used on other priorities, and moving the mission off the SLS would save one of those rockets for the Artemis moon missions.  When you combine the savings of launch cost for the Europa probe with having an "extra" SLS booster available, the savings climb to $1.5 Billion. 

Next Spaceflight shows a currently scheduled launch date of October 10 at 11:51 AM EST for the Europa Clipper mission. 

[T]he spacecraft will head to Jupiter’s ice-encased moon Europa, where a salty ocean beneath the frozen surface may hold conditions suitable for life. Europa Clipper won’t be landing; rather, after arriving at the Jupiter system in 2030, the spacecraft will orbit Jupiter for four years, performing 49 flybys of Europa and using its powerful suite of nine science instruments to investigate the moon’s potential as a habitable environment.

It doesn't say what month in 2030 the Clipper arrives at Europa, but let's just say six years to get there.

NASA’s Europa Clipper, with all of its instruments installed, is visible in the clean room of High Bay 1 at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Jan. 19. The tent around the spacecraft was erected to support electromagnetic testing.  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Both the article and the NASA Europa mission article  have lots of interesting overview-level descriptions of the instruments.  They're largely the same because the author largely excerpted the NASA article.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Small Space News Story Roundup 28

A couple of stories that caught my eye on an otherwise slow day

SpaceX Launches Cygnus Cargo Module to the ISS

I'm probably the only one alive who called this the Strange Bedfellows mission, or the Odd Couple, but the mission should be called "another routine SpaceX launch" so far.  

Just after noon, 12:07 PM EST, SpaceX launched the Cygnus CG-20 cargo mission to the ISS, carrying 4000 pounds of cargo.  All 19 prior launches of the Cygnus modules have been launched by Northrop Grumman atop their Antares 230 rocket.  Due to the Antares' use of parts from Russia and the Ukraine, NG had to accelerate their dropping of the Antares 230 and attempt to speed development of the replacement Antares 330.  In August of '22, Northrop Grumman signed a deal with SpaceX to launch three of their Cygnus cargo spacecraft.  They're hoping to have the Antares 330 ready to fly by the end of this year. 

The video is pretty routine until the reentry burn of the Falcon 9 heading back to the cape to land near the launch pad the flight originated from, just after the 8:00 mark in the red timer bar you can select.  After that engine burn ends, you'll get views of the booster you've probably never seen before and a beautiful view of the booster landing.

This was the 10th flight for this booster which previously launched Crew-5, GPS III Space Vehicle 06, Inmarsat I6-F2, CRS-28, Intelsat G-37, and four Starlink missions.  

The Cygnus module is scheduled to arrive at the ISS early Thursday morning (4:20 AM EST).  

Our view wasn't great, since the trajectory was toward the NE, which is away from us.  As a general rule winter is the best time to watch launches because all of the various neighbors' trees have lost, or most, of their leaves.  Launches to the SE, like Sunday night's Starlink 6-38 mission, or south for a polar orbit, are the most visible for us. 

NASA's Lucy Probe to Fire Its Main Engine 

The Lucy probe to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter was launched in October of '21 on a 12 year mission to study the two groups of Trojan asteroids, one ahead of and the other trailing behind the planet in its orbit around the sun. 

On January 31st, Lucy will fire its main engines for the first time since it was launched. This will be followed by a second, larger maneuver, which NASA says is currently set for Saturday (Feb. 3).

The NASA blog page goes on to say:

Combined, these two maneuvers are designed to change the velocity of the spacecraft by around 2,000 mph (approximately 900 meters per second) and will consume roughly half of the spacecraft’s onboard fuel. Each of the prior spacecraft maneuvers have changed the spacecraft’s velocity by less than 10 mph (only a few meters per second) and were small enough to be carried out by the spacecraft’s less powerful thrusters.

This series of engine firings will change Lucy's trajectory to approach Earth for a flyby gravity assist, which will finally get Lucy to Jupiter's L4 Trojan asteroids.

In this image from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Southwest Research Institute, the broad red dashes show the trajectory to date.  It turns to solid red line at Wednesday's and Saturday's engine firings, loops down closer to the sun than Earth's orbit (in blue), and gets the gravity assist from Earth this coming December '24.  From there, a line of shorter red dashes show the path to the L4 Trojans.  With the first encounters in August and September of '27 and others out to November of '28.  

Judging by the complex flight path we've seen before, after Lucy leaves the L4 Trojans, it will fly by Earth for another gravity assist (based on three years to get to the L4 group, that'll be in 2031) and leave to arrive at the L5 Trojans in about another three years after that.  

Monday, January 29, 2024

Surprise! SLIM is Awake!!

Nine days after its topsy-turvy landing on the moon, Japan's SLIM probe suddenly woke up and started talking back to Earth yesterday.   

SLIM phoned home on Sunday (Jan. 28) and engineers quickly resumed operations, JAXA officials wrote in a statement on X...

"We immediately started scientific observations with MBC, and have successfully obtained first light," read the JAXA statement, with "first light" referring to the first use of an instrument to take images. MBC, the Multi-Band Camera, is designed to scour the lunar surface for the composition of olivine through analyzing the light signatures, or spectra, of reflected sunlight, according to the Planetary Society

Olivine could be a clue to early solar system formation of rocky worlds like our own. The mineral is one of the main parts of the Earth's mantle, and also tends to be concentrated in lunar locations "where the crust is relatively thin," states a 2010 paper in the journal Nature that includes JAXA participation. One of those zones is the moon's south pole, where NASA, Japan and a coalition of other nations under the U.S.-led Artemis Accords plan to send astronauts later in the 2020s.

SLIM's landed in Shioli Crater, a zone filled with old impact rubble within the Mare Nectaris or Sea of Nectar.  The crater is roughly 200 miles south of Mare Tranquillitatis or the Sea of Tranquility - which is where the Apollo 11's first human landing took place in 1969

SLIM sent back photos of its landing zone on Sunday and JAXA is now "sorting out rocks of interest, assigning a nickname to each of them, with intent of communicating their relative sizes smoothly by the names," officials added in an English-language press release.

For reasons known only to the mission planners, they've chosen to name these rocks after dog breeds they estimate as being similar in size to that rock. 

Even better science might be possible soon: "Preparation is underway to promptly conduct 10-band high-resolution spectroscopic observations, once the solar illumination condition improves and SLIM recovers by the power generated by the solar array," the press release added.

JAXA doesn't know how long SLIM will continue to work.  Suddenly waking up must mean that the sun has started to shine on SLIM's solar panels, somehow.  It's not clear to me how much is being illuminated in the pictures of SLIM upside down on the moon, but I wasn't really expecting it to wake up at all.  All we know is that it can't work if the sun can't hit those solar panels.  

How many days until sunset?  Poking around with a NASA interactive photo display of the moon, it looks to me like SLIM can't have more than two more days of sunshine; by January 31 the sun will set.  Recall from earlier stories that SLIM was not designed to survive the two week long, brutally cold, lunar night, much like India's Chandrayaan 3.  They held out hope Chandrayaan would survive the night and start working when the sun rose.  We can hope the same for SLIM.

Comment Bleg or Reader Poll

A couple of days ago, I added a replacement for the silver spot price widget that had gone inactive, this one from different precious metals dealer, Apmex.  Right below my "note on comments," 2nd item down in the right column.

I've since noticed that while it always stays visible on this computer, where I pretty much stay logged into Gmail and the blog all the time, it isn't always visible on my wife's computer but is visible sometimes.  Unpredictably.  

I'd like to ask if other people are seeing the spot prices or not, to decide if it stays or if I look for a new one.  If it's more than a few folks that can't see it, I guess it needs to be replaced.  If she's the only one that can't see it, maybe it stays.  I think she has privacy set as high as she can on Duck Duck Go, so maybe that's the reason.  I suppose that means if you're likewise configured for as much security as you can get and don't see or can see it, I'd like to know that.

If you don't know, which means you've never seen it, it's not supposed to be an empty white screen in a blue frame.  It's supposed to look like this:

I'd swear that at some point in the past I saw a way to do polls on the blog but don't see it now.  Just leave a comment and I'll keep an eye on it for a few days.  


EDIT 01/29/24 0705 PM to Add:  the first 13 remarks were 12:1 not working properly vs. working properly.  I'll save you the effort to comment: the box is now gone and I'm looking for another way. 



Sunday, January 28, 2024

About Last Sunday

A week ago,  I left the cryptic message about being blindsided by the day.  About it being a “busy day that got the better of me.  It didn't help that something I was hoping would happen showed up much later than would have been convenient.  I promise I'll get to that story.”  

I didn’t end that with “I'll get to that story someday,” but I should have.  Today is that someday.  This is all ham radio related, and in the narrow specialty of contacting (working) distant places on VHF frequencies.  In particular, the 6 meter ham band.  If you’re not interested, I expect to be back at regular topics tomorrow.

Last weekend was the third ARRL VHF contest: (June, September and January). My overall impression is that's the order from the best to worst of the three in terms of what I've heard, but I went ahead and started operating when the contest started at 2PM EST.  It wasn't open for long periods, and it was mostly to a very small area in New England, but it wasn't completely dead.  I worked a few stations in the locator grid squares called FN42, 43 and 44.  As the day went on, it shifted to the west like FN10 or 20 and EM19.  I worked a couple of grids that I worked before but haven't confirmed.  And then the band shut down and I heard nothing/nobody except for a handful north and south of us.  Basically from the Florida/Georgia line down to Miami.

Compared to Saturday, Sunday was very slow and there were many times I was honestly concerned my radio or station was seriously substandard.  Until it wasn't.  I went in to play on the radio around 1:30, after church and lunch, and for hours heard nothing but that same handful of guys spread north and south of me.  I'd get one 15 second interval where it would show someone somewhere north along the eastern seaboard; maybe Pennsylvania or Delaware, nearer or farther, but not long enough to identify whom to call let alone have a contact, yet I'd regularly hear one of the locals calling or working someone else out of state.  Suddenly, in the evening, it opened to Texas then Mexico and finally New Zealand. 

I started hearing the Florida side of the Florida to New Zealand exchanges, which has happened a few times before, and I suddenly started hearing the guys in New Zealand.  It was 0045 UTC or 7:45 PM EST when I started calling one of the New Zealand stations.  It took a minute of calling before he answered me, but after that, it was as close to ideal as contacts get.  I sent a signal report (15 seconds transmit), he sent my signal report (15 second listening) then another 15 seconds each to thank each other and my first New Zealand contact on 50.313 MHz FT8 was complete.  

But the night wasn’t over.  About a half hour later, 0113 UTC, I copied another guy from NZ calling CQ (“calling anyone”) and called him back.  Got him on my first call, and again, a minute later he was in my logbook.  This guy belongs to a 6m group I follow on and we’ve actually swapped emails.  That means he’s as close to being someone I actually know as there is in New Zealand.  Within 24 hours, he had confirmed the contact, using the American Radio Relay League’s online electronic QSL system called Logbook of The World.  (QSL is the ham Q-signal for confirmation of contact) 

That was around the time I came out to put up the blog post, but the fun continued on Monday (local time).  In a similar way, the band was dead virtually all day, until almost the exact same times.  Since I already had two NZ contacts, I was looking for other countries in the south Pacific showing up on 6m.  Monday night, I worked Australia.  Twice.  

Solar-terrestrial conditions were similar both days.  The 10.7cm solar flux was in the 180s and 190s, and the geomagnetic field K index was almost at minor storm levels and decreasing.  I’ve had good luck under those conditions.   

The conditions degraded over the next couple of days, so there were no more encounters like that.  There’s a line about flying an airplane that goes something like, “hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.”  Substitute “excitement” for terror, and that’s hunting for those rare contacts on the radio.  After something like this, it might be possible to explain how the signals got from here to there but predicting it is another story.  I try to keep myself ready to go back to the radio room when the solar flux is above 170 and preferably when the K index is coming down from levels we ordinarily tend to avoid.  This is still the quiet time for 6m.  It will become more active as we get into spring.  This time of year in the southern hemisphere is like mid July here when conditions are better.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

The Strange Bedfellows Cargo Mission to Fly Tuesday

Tuesday, January 30, will be the first ever flight of a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo capsule on a SpaceX Falcon 9.  The mission, called NG-20 is set for NET Tuesday, January 30, at 12:07 PM EST.

You'll probably remember that we've talked about this before, and the earliest post appears to be August of '22, so almost 1-1/2 years, saying Northrop Grumman contracted with SpaceX for three launches.  The issue was that the Antares rocket normally used to launch Cygnus was becoming non-procurable and the successor version of Antares wouldn't be available in time.  I won't repeat all the details in that article, but it explains the details of what forced them to rely on SpaceX while they wait for the next version of the Antares rocket being built for Northrop Grumman by yet another competitor, Firefly Aerospace.  

As we've talked about before, it didn't seem that this would be seamless and a Cygnus would just mount on top of a Falcon 9 like the Cargo Dragon capsule does.  Modifications were required. 

During a pre-flight teleconference on Friday (Jan. 26), William Gerstenmaier, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX, said that the Falcon 9's payload fairing, the shell that surrounds and protects a spacecraft during ascent while atop a rocket, had to be modified to add a hatch measuring 5 feet by 4 feet (1.5m by 1.2m). The hatch gives ground crews the ability to add extra "late-load" cargo before launch including special treats like ice cream for the astronauts aboard the space station, Gerstenmaier said.

Gerstenmaier added that the complication of addition of the hatch contributed to the decision to delay the launch one day to Jan. 30. That's because the area inside that hatch must be environmentally controlled, since any contamination on Cygnus's docking hardware could affect how well it berths at the ISS.

"So that's a pretty intense activity," Gerstenmaier said. "This will be the first time we've done that. It's taken a lot of modifications on our part to get this hardware ready to go fly."

Gee, it was so complicated it delayed the launch ONE day?  All so the ISS crew could get "special treats like ice cream."  I'm kidding.  I suspect changing upper end of the F9's upper stage was more involved and Gerstenmaier is talking about a minor part of the changes.  

A Northrop Grumman Cygnus freighter spacecraft in between two halves of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket payload fairing. (Image credit: NASA/Kennedy Space Center) 

Our weather is looking pretty close to perfect for a launch at noon on Tuesday.   Booster 1077 will be flying for the 10th time and will return to the Cape to land.  Those Return To Launch Site (RTLS) landings usually add some neat sights and sometimes even neat sounds.  

Friday, January 26, 2024

America's Worst Week in Spaceflight - An Annual Repost

It's an oddity of US Space travel that every mission that ended in loss of crew and vehicle occurred during one calendar week, although those accidents span 36 years. That week is January 27th through February 1st; while the years run from 1967 through 2003.  

January 27, 1967 was the hellish demise of Apollo 1 and her crew, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White, during a pad test, not a flight.  In that article, Ars Technica interviews key men associated with the mission.  In the intervening years, I've heard speculation that we never would have made it to the moon without something to shake out a bit of the NASA management idiocy, but that may just be people logically justifying their opinions.  Like this quote from Chris Kraft, one of the giants of NASA in the '60s. 

There was plenty of blame to go around—for North American [built the Apollo capsule - SiG], for flight control in Houston, for technicians at Cape Canaveral, for Washington DC and its political pressure on the schedule and its increasingly bureaucratic approach to spaceflight. The reality is that the spacecraft was not flyable. It had too many faults. Had the Apollo 1 fire not occurred, it’s likely that additional problems would have delayed the launch.

“Unless the fire had happened, I think it’s very doubtful that we would have ever landed on the Moon,” Kraft said. “And I know damned well we wouldn’t have gotten there during the 1960s. There were just too many things wrong. Too many management problems, too many people problems, and too many hardware problems across the whole program.” 

The next big disaster was January 28, - the next day on the calendar, but in 1986, 19 years later.  Space Shuttle Challenger was lost a mere 73 seconds into mission 51-L as a flaw in the starboard solid rocket booster allowed a secondary flame to burn through supports and cause the external tank to explode.  It was the kind of cold day that we haven't had here in some years.  It has been reported that it was between 20 and 26 around the area on the morning of the launch and ice had been reported on the launch tower as well as the external tank.  O-rings that were used to seal the segments of the stackable solid rocket boosters were too cold to seal.  Launch wasn't until nearly noon and it had warmed somewhat, but the shuttle had never been launched at temperatures below 40 before that mission.  Richard Feynman famously demonstrated that cold was likely the cause during the televised Rogers Commission meetings, dropping a section of O ring compressed by a C-clamp into his iced water to demonstrate that it had lost its resilience at that temperature.  The vehicle would have been colder than that iced water.    

As important and memorable as that moment was, engineers such as Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, the makers of the boosters, fought managers for at least the full day before the launch, with managers eventually overruling the engineers.  Feynman had been told about the cold temperature issues with the O-rings by several people, and local rumors were that he would go to some of the bars just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center and talk with workers about what they saw.  The simple example with the O-ring and glass of iced water was vivid and brought the issue home to millions. 

There's plenty of evidence that the crew of Challenger survived the explosion.  The crew cabin was specifically designed to be used as an escape pod, but after most of the design work, NASA decided to drop the other requirements to save weight.  The recovered cabin had clear evidence of activity: oxygen bottles being turned on, switches that require a few steps to activate being flipped.  It's doubtful they survived the impact with the ocean and some believe they passed out due to hypoxia before that.  We'll honestly never know.

Finally, at the end of this worst week, Shuttle Columbia, the oldest surviving shuttle flying as mission STS-107, broke up on re-entry 17 years later on February 1, 2003 scattering wreckage over the central southern tier of the country with most debris along the Texas/Louisiana line.  As details emerged about the flight, it turns out that Columbia and everyone on board had been sentenced to death at launch - they just didn't know it.  A chunk of foam had broken off the external tank during liftoff and hit the left wing's carbon composite leading edge, punching a hole in it.  There was no way a shuttle could reenter without exposing that wing to conditions that would destroy it.  They were either going to die on reentry or sit up there and run out of food, water and air.  During reentry, hot plasma worked its way into that hole, through the structure of the wing, burning through piece after piece, sensor after sensor, until the wing tore off the shuttle and tore the vehicle apart.  Local lore on this one is that the original foam recipe was changed due to environmental regulations, causing them to switch to a foam that didn't adhere to the tank or stand up to abuse as well.  

In 2014, Ars Technica did a deep dive article on possible ways that Columbia's crew could have been saved.  They republished that on February 1, 2023, the anniversary of the disaster.  It's interesting speculation, very detailed, compiled by a man who claims to have been a junior system administrator for Boeing in Houston, working in Mission Control that day.  

Like many of you, I remember them all.  I was a 13 year-old kid midway through 7th grade in Miami when Apollo 1 burned.  By the time of Challenger, I was a 32 year old working on commercial satellite TV receivers here near the KSC and watched Challenger live via the satellite TV, instead of going outside to watch it as I always did.  Mrs. Graybeard had just begun working on the unmanned side on the Cape, next door to the facility that refurbished the Shuttles SRBs between flights, and was outside watching the launch.  Columbia happened when it was feeling routine again.  Mom had fallen and was in the hospital; we were preparing to go down to South Florida to visit and I was watching the TV waiting to hear the double sonic booms shake the house as they always did. They never came.

The failure reports and investigations of all three of these disasters center on the same things: the problems with NASA's way of doing things.  They tended to rely on "well, it worked last time" when dealing with dangerous situations, or leaned too much toward, "schedule is king" all as a way of gambling that someone else would be the one blamed for delaying a mission.  Spaceflight is inherently very risky, so some risk taking is inevitable, but NASA had taken stupid risks too often.  People playing Russian Roulette can say, "well, it worked last time," but having worked doesn't change the odds of losing.



Thursday, January 25, 2024

It's Official - Mars Ingenuity's Mission is Over

It has been officially announced that Ingenuity helicopter will not fly again.  The money quote to start with seems like it should go to Eric Berger at Ars Technica, since he led with the story before NASA said anything.

Something has gone wrong with NASA's Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of Mars. Although the US space agency has not made any public announcements yet, a source told Ars that the plucky flying vehicle had an accident on its last flight and broke one of its blades. It will not fly anymore. (Shortly after this article was published, NASA confirmed the end of Ingenuity's mission).

To quote from that link to NASA JPL, 

NASA’s history-making Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has ended its mission at the Red Planet after surpassing expectations and making dozens more flights than planned. While the helicopter remains upright and in communication with ground controllers, imagery of its Jan. 18 flight sent to Earth this week indicates one or more of its rotor blades sustained damage during landing and it is no longer capable of flight.

We all commented that the vehicle intended for five flights was on its 72nd flight when this mishap took place, but we may have all glossed over the reality that Mars is a hostile environment and that applies to composite rotor blades as much as to everything else.  Temperatures run from frigid to sorta-almost warm and those are coupled with higher levels of radiation than here on Earth, and dust storms. 

[Ingenuity] has spent more than two hours—128.3 minutes, to be precise—flying through the thin Martian air. Over that time, it flew 11 miles, or 17 km, performing invaluable scouting and scientific investigations. It has been a huge win for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the greatest spaceflight stories of this decade.

It's a tribute to the Ingenuity team that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson thought it was appropriate to release a statement. 

“The historic journey of Ingenuity, the first aircraft on another planet, has come to end,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “That remarkable helicopter flew higher and farther than we ever imagined and helped NASA do what we do best – make the impossible, possible. Through missions like Ingenuity, NASA is paving the way for future flight in our solar system and smarter, safer human exploration to Mars and beyond.”

After its 72nd flight on Jan. 18, 2024, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter captured this color image showing the shadow of one of its rotor blades, which was damaged during touchdown. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

NASA has put together a couple of videos, one saying Thanks Ingenuity, and the second (which started after that one) about the legacy of the program. If you remember the video documentary on the 2007 Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, "Good Night Oppy" (mentioned in the second story here) it reminds me of that concept.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

NASA Finally Opens the OSIRIS-REx Sample Container

Remember this?  I almost didn't.   Back on September 24, the return capsule from the OSIRIS-REx satellite landed in the Utah desert, carrying samples from Asteroid Bennu.  As soon as four days later, they announced they had opened the satellite and started recovering the samples.

Except that they didn't.  The story emerged later that there was more material in the sample container, but they couldn't get to it because there were a two screws that were stuck and couldn't be removed.  The samples they obtained were from the outside of that sample container.  Two fasteners out of 35.

Pause for a moment so everyone who has ever tried to take literally anything apart to work on can silently think, "there's always at least one fastener that gives you hell."  It's always the last the one because you end up leaving it for last.  

On January 10, NASA technicians finally got those fasteners out.  

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx curation engineer, Neftali Hernandez, attaches one of the tools developed to help remove two final fasteners that prohibited complete disassembly of the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head that holds the remainder of material collected from asteroid Bennu. (Image credit: NASA with the warning that I ran it in my photo editor to make it bigger than the image on and it improved the exposure)

With the fasteners finally removed, the astromaterials curation team at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston will proceed with disassembling the TAGSAM head to access the remaining asteroid material. This material includes dust and rocks of up to about 0.4 inches (one cm) in size. The final mass of the sample will be determined in the coming weeks.

NASA plans to release a catalog of all the Bennu samples later this year, which will enable scientists and institutions worldwide to submit requests for research or display, opening up new avenues of scientific exploration.

Looks like a custom tool produced for this job.  Again, it's not like fasteners being stuck is an unusual problem. 

The probe formerly known as OSIRIS-REx continued its mission after jettisoning the TAGSAM container.  We've covered this before, but the satellite changed its course to embark on a five-year journey to study the asteroid Apophis as it approaches our planet for a close flyby April 13,2029.  OSIRIS-REx has been renamed OSIRIS-APEX for that mission.  

Apophis is named after the ancient Egyptian god of chaos, and for those not familiar with the story, there's a very healthy mythology that has grown up around the idea that Apophis is going to hit Earth in 2029.  NASA says that after very high resolution observations of the asteroid on its last pass by Earth in 2021, the confidence is very high that it won't hit Earth.  Apophis’ orbit will bring it within 20,000 miles of Earth’s surface.  That's closer to Earth than the satellites in the geosynchronous orbit but above everything in lower orbits, which is the majority.  Appropriately for an asteroid named after the god of chaos, true believers say, "of course, that's what they would want you to believe."   

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

A Message From Japan's SLIM

OK, that was harsh.  Sorry about that.  For those who have no idea what this is, see the IMDB listing.

The news today though is that Japan's SLIM ("Smart Lander for Investigating Moon") is pretty much acting the part of the guy being put on the cart of dead bodies.  It's "not dead, yet" and "I think I'll go for a walk!"

All we knew Friday was that something had gone very wrong in SLIM's landing, and the situation looked extremely bleak.  Maybe not as bad as the Peregrine lander that burned up on reentry and dropped ashes into the Pacific, but it sure seemed to be headed for an early end. 

That was all we knew until Monday morning (Jan. 21 in Japan time) when JAXA gave us an update.  The lander has not been declared dead, and the team is working toward a possible recovery.  

When SLIM's battery power dipped to 12% capacity on the lunar surface, the lander powered down intentionally "to avoid being unable to restart for a recovery operation due to over-discharge," team members explained early Monday via the mission's account on X.

"According to the telemetry data, SLIM's solar cells are facing west. So if sunlight begins to shine on the lunar surface from the west, there is a possibility of generating power, and we are preparing for recovery. #SLIM can operate with power only from the solar cells," the team said in a separate X post on Monday.

Back on Friday, before SLIM shut down, the lander successfully transmitted technical data and imagery collected during Friday's descent and landing back to JAXA.   

JAXA has promised more information in another update conference.   

We should learn much more at the end of the week, when SLIM's handlers plan to offer another status update and provide an overview of the data analyses that have been performed to date, team members said.

Monday, January 22, 2024

You Can Stop Holding Your Breath - Ingenuity Talked Back

NASA lost contact with the Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars on Friday the 19th.  In a Tweet in the evening of the 20th (Saturday), they announced they had made contact with the little helicopter again. It's just that the story didn't show up until today.

As you can see, the JPL said they programmed the Perseverance rover to perform long-duration listening sessions to help pinpoint Ingenuity's signal.  Ingenuity communicates back to Earth by using the rover's radio system, which is picked up by the Deep Space Network, like just about everything beyond Earth's orbit in deep space.  We can be sure that any system that weighs more than a few grams wouldn't have been put on Ingenuity, which was intended as an experiment to determine if it was even possible to fly such a vehicle in the thin Martian atmosphere.

That's actually pretty much all we know. Whatever it was that caused the communications drop wasn't so serious that the little helicopter is disabled.  The glitch is over and I expect more flights to resume.  After they go over the data a few more times to ensure it doesn't look like they damaged Ingenuity, and that the glitch wasn't something they programmed wrong.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

It Happened Again

It was a busy day that got the better of me.  It didn't help that something I was hoping would happen showed up much later than would have been convenient.  I promise I'll get to that story. 

On these days that get away from me, I usually try to put up something light. Funny is even better.  This idea has been cooking on the back burner in my brain - the background processor - for a few days.  Nowadays, the "serious weightlifter" guys use these things called kettlebells instead of hand weights or what we used to call dumbbells.  

The idea of using copied web pages from two big online stores seemed like a natural, so you know I'm not making this up. 

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Mars Ingenuity Helicopter Has Lost Communications

In a post to X, NASA JPL reported that contact with the Ingenuity helicopter has been lost.  The tweet linked to a JPL project page with a more complete story.  More is a relative word.  They apparently still don't know many details they think they can pass on.

On Jan. 18, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter executed its 72nd flight at the Red Planet. The flight was designed as a quick pop-up vertical flight to check out the helicopter’s systems, following an unplanned early landing during its previous flight. Data Ingenuity sent to the Perseverance rover (which acts as a relay between the helicopter and Earth) during the flight indicates it successfully climbed to its assigned maximum altitude of 40 feet (12 meters). During its planned descent, communications between the helicopter and rover terminated early, prior to touchdown. The Ingenuity team is analyzing available data and considering next steps to reestablish communications with the helicopter.

Ingenuity has been flying near Perseverance and helping ground controllers plan its route through the Jezero crater it has been exploring.  JPL says it is out of line-of-sight to Ingenuity, which probably would help but couldn't hurt the radio link, depending on the frequencies they use.  The rover should be able to drive over toward the expected location of the helicopter and take pictures, which might be the most helpful thing it could do. 

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was captured by the Perseverance rover’s Mastcam-Z on April 16, not long after the little helicopter'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

Friday, January 19, 2024

Japan's SLIM Lander Has Landed, But It's Looking Dire

For those wondering if the Japan's SLIM lander (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) landed on the moon, it successfully made a soft landing but the situation is bad - if it's not completely over with.  I watched an English translation of coverage during touchdown, and it appeared to be going successfully but once it touched down, they shut up.  That's not a good sign. 

This screen capture of the channel I was watching is from a few minutes after it showed having landed in the graphic at the upper right.  Not the uppermost right, but the two panels that show altitude on their vertical axis and have two pictures of the SLIM in the middle of the bottom with white areas indicating the lunar surface environment.  The image's time tag is 10:23 AM EST or 1523 UTC, and the source article says landing was about 10:20 - which seems about right.  The channel went silent and I switched to an official JAXA channel that I hadn't seen at first.  They eventually gave a press conference about two hours later. 

The image of the SLIM ship in that upper right graphic shows the lander in the wrong orientation.  Slim had a unique approach to its landing (less than 2 minute video here) in which it was to contact the surface on two protruding legs and roll over onto another two legs as well.  If that picture in the screen capture is based on position telemetry, something kept it from flopping over onto the third and fourth legs.  Perhaps that's the root cause of their problem. 

The issue was explained as the solar panel system not charging the lander's batteries.  One of the people explaining things in the press conference explained  that the spacecraft appeared to have landed within the planned 300 meters of its target in the Shioli Crater in the Mare Nectaris (Sea of Nectar) but that it might have landed in an orientation that wasn't allowing the solar panels to get sunlight.  The angle of the sun to the surface changes over time, both in a lunar day (four Earth weeks) and in a lunar year (12 lunar days), which he interpreted to mean that the probe may suddenly start responding at some time.  That said, like India's Chandrayaan 3,  SLIM was intended to work for two weeks and didn't include heaters to ensure it could make it through the two weeks of lunar night.

SLIM also carried two tiny rovers — a little hopper called LEV-1 and a ball-shaped craft known as LEV-2. ("LEV" is short for "Lunar Excursion Vehicle.") These little robots were designed to deploy from the SLIM mothership, gather some data of their own and snap photos.

The data indicate that both LEV-1 and LEV-2 deployed as planned, JAXA officials said today. And LEV-1 is known to be working, adding to the mission's achievements.

It's a mixed situation.  The batteries only have so much charge and we have no idea if they can get the solar charging system working in time.  In the positive column, Japan becomes the fifth nation to land on the moon (this is a JAXA mission, their equivalent of NASA, so not a private company's mission like Peregrine).  The micro-rovers are operational and can probably complete at least some parts of their missions.  All we can do is watch.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Those Artemis Delays May Be Too Optimistic

Back on Tuesday the 9th, there was a story that NASA had formally announced that both Artemis 2 and 3 - a lunar flyby and the first actual Artemis lunar landing mission -  would be delayed.  Artemis 2 was moved from "late this year" to September of '25 while Artemis 3 was moved from "late in '25" to September of '26.  In both cases, preface the date with "No Earlier Than." 

Both schedule slips may be excessively optimistic.  

At a hearing on Wednesday, according to a report on the Payload website

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, asked a government auditor and NASA’s acting inspector general whether they thought the new plan to delay Artemis II and III was realistic.

The answer was no, especially for the Artemis III mission to put human boots on the lunar surface.

The area of concern appears to be the one year between Artemis 2 and 3, and the concern is that it won't be enough time to implement any corrective actions to anything that may come up in the flyby mission.  A quick look at a calendar seems to verify that.  Artemis 1 was 13 months ago (the mission ended Dec. 11, '22), and they're saying that it will take them another year and a half to understand everything that was considered a problem in that first mission, modify everything that needs to be addressed, and be ready to launch by September of '25.  What if Artemis 2 uncovers more or more severe deficiencies, and they have one year to resolve them instead of 2-1/2 years?  

Then there's the matter of the cost of the Artemis missions.  The General Accounting Office (GAO) recommended NASA come up with an "official" cost estimate back in 2019, but they never published an answer.  In March of '22, NASA's inspector general said the operational costs alone for a single Artemis launch—for just the rocket, Orion spacecraft, and ground systems—will total $4.1 billion.  A problem is that the number keeps creeping up while everyone insists it's already unsustainably high and defying the people imagining it getting lower over time.  

Artemis 1 on Pad39B, August of '22, during one of its trips to the pad and then back to shelter before its late November launch.  NASA Photo

While he has no authority in NASA at all, former Administrator Michael Griffin also spoke to congress on Wednesday, and while he said things that I like; things that seem objectively true, he also said some things that are so far from truth as to be easily dismissed.  Let me start out with the money quote that I like.  Well, most of it.  

“I will be direct," Griffin said. "In my judgment, the Artemis Program is excessively complex, unrealistically priced, compromises crew safety, poses very high mission risk of completion, and is highly unlikely to be completed in a timely manner even if successful.”

Since he's been out of the agency for a long time, it's hard to say that he represents current thoughts - except that we've heard similar things from Jim Free arguing that NASA needs to get rid of commercial space and just go with cost plus contracts.  And that's what Griffin is arguing for.  Because having SpaceX launch astronauts and cargo (along with Northrop Grumman) to the ISS has been so disappointing.  Gee, Mr. Griffin, did you happen to watch the AX-3 mission today?  What exactly was wrong about that?

Griffin points out these problems and then says the answer is to go with Yet Another Version of the SLS, which has never met one schedule or one cost bid.  He wants 

  • Two launches of the Space Launch System Block II rocket
  • A Centaur III upper stage
  • An Orion spacecraft
  • A two-stage, storable-propellant lunar lander

Which is pretty much the Constellation Program that Griffin helped create in 2005 and 2006.  

The spacecraft (Orion) is the same, and the rocket (SLS Block II instead of Ares V) is similar. The proposed lunar lander looks somewhat like the Altair lunar lander. He is trying to put the band back together, relying on Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman to get astronauts back to the Moon in a quick and efficient manner.

I can see no reason to put any trust in the contractors that have screwed the pooch so badly with SLS and Artemis.  It's all fucked up so let's have the same companies start over and it'll be all wonderful.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Former SpaceX Engineer Disrupting the Industry Again

To those familiar with the history of SpaceX and the development of the Falcon rockets, whether from the book or other sources, one name will be closest to being thought of as the Father of the Merlin engines, Tom Mueller.  As much as SpaceX and the Merlin have revolutionized space travel and pushed every other launch provider into "copy or die" mode, Mueller doesn't get the recognition he deserves.  

Mueller left the company some years ago and has quietly been positioning a new company to disrupt the space industry again.  The company is Impulse Space and the product is an orbital transfer stage called Helios.  An orbital transfer stage is often referred to as a "tug" - as in tugboat - and they're in fairly wide usage.  Rocket Lab, for example, has their version, called Photon, which is essentially a strap on module for a payload that slowly and gradually accelerates the payload until it can make the desired trajectory.  There are others from various companies such as D-Orbit, Momentus, Launcher, Spaceflight Inc., and several others, generally designed for satellites with a mass of a few dozen to a few hundred kilograms.  What has been missing is a tug for larger payloads capable of carrying them to higher orbits or escape velocity. 

That's the market segment Helios is aimed at. 

With a diameter of just under 5 meters, Helios is sized to fit within a Falcon 9 fairing. According to Impulse Space founder and chief executive Tom Mueller, the basic idea is to allow the low-cost Falcon 9 rocket to launch large satellites directly into geostationary space.

"We're basically adding a third stage to a medium launch vehicle," he said. "It's basically doing most of what a Falcon Heavy will do for much less money, and without throwing away a core."

Artist's concept of the Helios upper stage.  Impulse Space image. 

Despite the mention of the Falcon 9 fairing, Mueller says they're aiming the upper stage to be usable on a variety of vehicles.  For example, Helios is intended to propel up to 4 tons launched on a Falcon 9 or 5 tons on Relativity's Terran R vehicle directly into geostationary orbit.

This seems to be a potent offer to groups with a large payload to put in orbit.  

At present, for medium and large satellites, there are two ways to reach geostationary orbit directly. A customer can buy a launch on a Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket, which is fairly expensive, likely about double the cost of a single Falcon 9 launch. Or a satellite can launch on a medium-lift vehicle and go into a transfer orbit to geostationary space, necessitating a robust on-board propulsion system, up to $5 million in Xenon or other propellant, and six to eight months of lost revenue during the ride up.  "We're offering to get there in a day, for a much lower cost than either of those," Mueller said.

In keeping with a group led by the "Father of the Merlin Engine," the Helios upper stage will be powered by an engine more akin to the SpaceX Raptor or smaller Blue Engine BE-3 engines in being a methane/oxygen based system.  While much lower in thrust than the Raptors...

Helios will be powered by one of the most robust in-space engines ever built, named Deneb. It is on par with the venerable RL-10 engine manufactured by Aerojet and will have a thrust of 15,000 pounds (67 kN), and be powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane. The fuel choice is partly a nod to the reusable future of spaceflight that Impulse Space hopes to tap into. "SpaceX needs 1,000 [metric] tons to refuel Starship," he said. "Just give us a sip. We'll take our 14 tons, and we'll be glad to pay for it. And we can continue to reuse these."

No, the Helios isn't flying now nor will it fly this year, but they're targeting launch in 2026.  Impulse Space, though, has put a smaller prototype of the concept in orbit already, last year.  

... Designated Mira, the spacecraft has performed well on its debut mission LEO Express 1. After it deployed a few small satellites, Impulse has been putting Mira's propulsion system through its paces. This vehicle will compete with other spacecraft to provide last-mile services for small satellites, and it has also given Impulse confidence in its plans for Helios.

Image credit:  Impulse Space

Final words to Eric Berger at Ars Technica in the source article:

Now operating with about 90 employees, Mueller intends for Impulse to build upon the success of SpaceX. That launch company is well on its way to solving the problem of low-cost access to space with the Falcon 9 rocket now, and Starship in the near future. Impulse Space seeks to join other commercial space companies leveraging that capability by building spacecraft that can do new, interesting, and sustainable things in space.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

SpaceX Rolls Axiom 3 Stack to Pad 39A

SpaceX rolled the Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon capsule to Pad39A this morning.  Factor in to that milestone that we were under steady rains starting Monday afternoon for around 40 hours.  The good part about that was that the rain cleared out late this afternoon and the forecast has consistently shown much better conditions at launch time than the last few days. 

The launch is still scheduled for Wednesday evening at 5:11 PM EST local time.  The US Space Force 45th Weather Squadron is saying the chances for acceptable weather are 95% (pdf warning). 

The Axiom capsule on the booster at Pad39A, with the crew access arm in place.  SpaceX Tweeted this picture at 11:12 AM, so all we know is it was taken before then.  If you look at the top of the frame, you can see mist around the top of the Starship launch tower in the background.  Might be rain or the low clouds. 

Axiom Space's other two missions to the ISS launched in April 2022 and May 2023, respectively. López-Alegría commanded the first one, and record-setting former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson led the second. (NASA requires that private crewed missions to the orbiting lab be commanded by a former agency astronaut.)

Axiom Space isn't just about organizing crewed flights to the ISS. A few years from now, the company plans to start launching its own modules to the orbiting lab. This hardware will eventually detach, forming a free-flying private space station in low Earth orbit.

The Dragon spacecraft supporting this mission previously flew Crew-4 and Peggy Whitson's Ax-2 mission to and from the space station. Following stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage will return to the cape and land on Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Next Up: Axiom 3 Mission to Send Crew of 4 to the ISS

On Sunday night at 8:52PM local (EST) SpaceX launched the Starlink 6-37 mission, putting another 23 of the latest version satellites in orbit and starting their checkout.  We've been watching for the next "big event" launch, a manned launch, and the current schedule says Wednesday evening at 5:11 PM EST, at least a half hour before sunset.  The launch is the third flight for Axiom Space, and will carry a four man crew, all European, for a scheduled 14 day mission to the ISS to conduct experiments.  

The quartet includes Ax-3 mission commander and former NASA astronaut Michael "LA" López-Alegría, mission specialist Walter Villadei, who also flew aboard Virgin Galactic's Galactic 01 suborbital spaceflight as VIRTUTE 1 mission commander last summer, Turkey's soon-to-be first astronaut, Alper Gezeravcı and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut reserve member Marcus Wandt.
Axiom Space is constructing its own habitation module to berth to the ISS, which it plans to build out and eventually detach to become its own private space station. Throughout development, crews from each of the company's commercially-funded missions to the ISS work, in part, toward helping Axiom reach that goal.

You might wonder how Michael López-Alegría could be both a former NASA astronaut and the Commander of an "all-European" crew.  LA is a dual citizen of Spain (his country of birth) and the USA.  He has over 40 years of aviation and space experience with the U.S. Navy and NASA in a variety of roles, including Naval Aviator, engineering test pilot, NASA astronaut, and commander of the International Space Station (ISS).

López-Alegría is currently the chief astronaut for Axiom Space and commanded the crew of Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1), the first fully private mission to the ISS in human history. He is a five-time astronaut, having flown on Ax-1, space shuttle missions STS-73, STS-92, and STS- 113, and Soyuz TMA-9 to and from the ISS, where he served as commander of Expedition 14. He holds NASA records for the most extravehicular activities (EVA) or “space walks” (10) and cumulative EVA time (67 hours, 40 minutes). He was elected to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame as a 2020 inductee.

As always, this group of astronauts have very impressive sounding biographies.  Available to read at both Axiom's page and quoted largely at Space.Com

After Wednesday, the next manned launch is going to be the next crew rotation for ISS, called Crew-8, which Next Spaceflight is simply labeling as NET February.  After that, currently NET April, is the Polaris Dawn mission we've been talking about - the first private spacewalking mission.  In the hour long video of the SpaceX All Hands meeting I mentioned, Musk talks about substantial progress on the space suits and some changes to the Crew Dragon to increase performance in the critical task of opening a ship, losing all the air, and resealing properly after that.  Yes it has been done before.  Doing it wrong kills everyone on board.

A pretty Crew Dragon shot of the capsule used for  the Inspiration 4 mission in mid-September of '21.  SpaceX photo.  

Sunday, January 14, 2024

SpaceX Explains Why The Second Flight Test was Lost

Back during the Nov. 18 launch of Starship integrated flight test 2, we saw the booster explode after stage separation and then heard or read that the Starship itself also was lost just about at the end of its burn to reach its suborbital trajectory to the Pacific.  There were reports that the autonomous flight termination system was activated, but no explanation of why in the nearly two months since.  

That lack of explanation was fixed by Elon Musk at a State of the Company All Hands meeting on Jan.12 and posted to social media.  

At a recent event at SpaceX’s Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas, video of which SpaceX posted on social media Jan. 12, Musk said the failure was linked to venting liquid oxygen propellant near the end of the burn. That venting, he said, was needed only because the vehicle was not carrying any payload.

“Flight 2 actually almost made it to orbit,” he said. “If it had a payload, it would have made it to orbit because the reason that it actually didn’t quite make it to orbit was we vented the liquid oxygen, and the liquid oxygen ultimately led to a fire and an explosion.”

I've seen the hour-long talk is there as a video on YouTube but naturally can't find it right now to link to, but that link to X looks to be the same video and you probably won't get inundated with commercials.

Returning to the story, Musk went on to say, “I think we’ve got a really good shot of reaching orbit with Flight 3.”  Flight 3 is projected for February, dependent (as always) on a launch license from the FAA.

“We want to get to orbit and we want to do an in-space engine burn from the header tank” at the top of the vehicle, he said. Doing so would “prove that we can reliably deorbit.”

The flight would also test transferring propellant from that header tank to the main propellant tank, a demonstration that is part of a NASA Tipping Point award as a milestone towards transferring propellant from one Starship vehicle to another. The first ship-to-ship propellant transfer test is planned, he said, “hopefully by the end of this year, but certainly by next year.”

Musk said SpaceX will test the “Pez dispenser” payload door that will be used on later flights to deploy the full-sized Starlink V2 satellites, significant larger than the V2 mini satellites currently being launched on Falcon 9. “We do hope to do this by the end of this year,” he said of launching Starlink V2 satellites.

Starship and SuperHeavy lifting of for IFT 2 on November 18th.  Credit: Trevor Mahlmann for SpaceNews

Let me add a short update on the Peregrine mission. SpaceNews is reporting today that Peregrine's trajectory is being affected by the leakage of fuel that ruined the mission. 

“Our analysis efforts have been challenging due to the propellant leak, which have been adding uncertainty to predictions of the vehicle’s trajectory,” the company said in a statement. “Our latest assessment now shows the spacecraft is on a path towards Earth, where it will likely burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Independent analysts JPL Horizons, using available tracking data, estimate a reentry over the Great Barrier Reef late on January 18 - in the vicinity of 2230 to 2300 UTC or 5:30 to 6:00 PM US EST Thursday.  The variation in the leakage may put more uncertainty in that time than usual, although it appears the leakage has become less variable as the amount leaking has gone down.  “The propellant leak has slowed considerably to a point where it is no longer the teams’ top priority,” Astrobotic said in its Jan. 13 update. They didn't specifically address whether they know if the craft will be out of propellant before it burns up on reentry.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

It's Antenna Season!

It's a long running cliché of mine that all of my antenna projects begin with the words, "when it cools off..."  Well, it's antenna season! 

The truth this year is I don't have anything I've been planning to do for months or a new antenna to add, so it's just a matter of doing regular checks, any maintenance, or things that I figure would be good to look at.  Except for a totally unplanned, unanticipated bit of fix that had appeared about two weeks ago.  

I have two beam antennas on my small (20 foot tall) tower.  For those who care and don't already know, there's a small HF Log Periodic Dipole Array (LPDA) from a company called Tennadyne, (an older model of theirs called a T6) mounted at 20' above ground, and a VHF (6 meter) yagi from a company called Directive Systems & Engineering (their model DSEJX5-50) mounted above it by not quite five feet.  

About two weeks ago, I glanced up and noticed that the driven element of the 6m yagi had suddenly tilted quite a bit.  We've been having crappy weather this winter, and it's possible that one of the days with 40mph wind gusts did it, but the fact that nothing else had moved made me think that perhaps it was just that an unusually fat bird decided to land on it.  Or a normal weight but bigger than average bird tried to perch on it and it was just more load than it could take.  While it's a bit difficult to see accurately from the ground, this is what it looked like:

Look at the top antenna, toward the right, and you'll see "one of these things is not like all the others."  There's a loop of wire to its right, that'll tell you it's the driven element.  Compare it to the one just to the right of that loop of wire and you can see the end of the driven element is very different from the one to its right.

So "all ya gotta do" (among the most terrifying phrases in all of engineering) is crank over the tower, reposition that element and crank the tower back up.  Easy peasy, right?  Long time readers might recall that through the end of '22 (after Tropical Storm (here) Ian) and all the way to last June, I had to rebuild my method of anchoring my tower.  Instead of bolting it to the eaves of the house, as I had since the 1990s, I designed and built a system using aluminum channel stock, bars and stainless steel hardware.  Some background here, which links to a bigger set of pictures here.  

Something I never did through that was test out cranking over the tower. Another thing I meant to do but didn't (summer is way, way past the end of antenna work season) was replace some galvanized fasteners I used with stainless hardware.  I even bought the hardware but never got around to replacing the old fasteners. 

That became today's job.  It was in the mid-60s, cloudy with mild breezes all day, really good weather for being out doing this stuff.  The tower mounting hardware came apart easily; instead of removing two lag bolts holding the outside half of a split, pressure-treated 2x4 to free the tower, I had to take two nuts off two separate 3/8" u-bolts.  Everything else went like the last times I cranked the tower over to work on stuff.

While getting the driven element rotated and spaced properly to the elements in front of and behind it was tedious, along with making sure everything else appeared to be aligned properly, it didn't take as long as it felt like.  Probably an hour.  The whole job took from around 2 to 5 PM, including replacing the galvanized hardware and dragging all the tools out of and back into their places in the shop.  The final antenna came out like this (now pointed about 20 degrees off vertically at the ground).

There are two pieces of metal visible below and behind the one I was working on curving downward the farther to the left you can see; those are parts of the T6 log periodic.

The ease with which it all worked left me feeling optimistic that I can continue to handle this for a good long time, barring those accidents and other nasty things that can happen.  The most useful thing I could do to improve my station would to replace the tower with something taller.  That's probably in the "too expensive" category, but sometimes we luck into things.  Another aluminum tower or some other way of getting the 6m yagi from 25' to closer to 50' would be the most dramatic improvement I can get.  I'm also entertaining thoughts of exploring higher VHF/UHF and beyond bands.  That might well require a second tower - or a way to temporarily put up antennas when I have some use for them. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Small Space News Story Roundup 27

A handful of interesting stories that are on the small side, as we often do.  

The First New Glenn is on the Pad

As you might expect, it seems to be a full-sized mock-up, and gets almost two full minutes of coverage in NASA Spaceflight's "This Week in Spaceflight" video.  

Full-sized mock-ups are useful for testing all of things that will handle and interface with the flight-rated hardware when it's built, and during the couple of minutes of video, they show both first and second stages of the vehicle, both prominently labeled "NOT FOR FLIGHT", as well as the strongback lifting tower that moves the vehicle from horizontal on a truck to vertical on the pad.  The test vehicle (which isn't stacked yet - just the first stage so far) might be useful for cryogenic tests, although that would be more to test the ground hardware than flight.  The flight hardware has to be tested, too. 

Screen capture from the NSF video showing the second stage of the New Glenn hardware test vehicle.  Note the "Credit Blue Origin" note in the lower right corner of the video.

Astrobotic Gets the Other Payloads Working on the Peregrine

In the waning hours of the Peregrine lander's life, Astrobotic says it has successfully turned on and communicated with many of the 20 payloads onboard the lander.

Not all of those payloads are designed to generate data and downlink it to Earth, so the exact number isn't very important, but NASA said it was using two instruments on the satellite called LETS and NSS to measure the radiation environment in cislunar space.  LETS is the Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer while NSS is the Neutron Spectrometer System.  The joint observations “provide complementary insights into the galactic cosmic ray activity and space weather resulting from solar activity.” There are two other spectrometer systems on the satellite that are powered up but aren't mentioned as being used. 

A NASA technology demonstration payload, the Navigation Dopplar Lidar, is also powered up and generating data. Other payloads that are active and generating data include the IRIS lunar rover from Carnegie Mellon University, the COLMENA micro-rovers from Mexico’s space agency AEM, the M-42 radiation detector from German aerospace center DLR and Astrobotic’s own Optical Precision Autonomous Landing sensor.

A tenth payload, the Lunar Dream Time Capsule from Japan’s Astroscale and Pocari Sweat, is powered up but does not generate data. The other payloads on Peregrine are passive.

Self-Eating Rocket Engine Passes Test

An interesting little side story in the world of unconventional boosters is the self-eating or autophage engines that are solid rocket engines designed to literally burn away the booster as its working.  Instead of reusing a booster, there's nothing left to dump and reuse.  

One of my favorite stories in the life of the blog is that I posted my first article about these back in 2018 about a group in Scotland working on them.  About six weeks after I posted that, I got a comment from the principal investigator, Patrick Harkness, saying he stumbled across the article and joined in the comments adding some information.

These engines were first proposed and patented in 1938. However, it took until 2018 before his group designed and fired one in a controlled manner for the first time.  It comes to light in this week's Rocket Report that a group in Scotland test fired a prototype, dubbed Ouroborous-3, at the MachLab facility at Machrihanish Airbase in Scotland.  The engine generated 100 newtons of thrust.  And they posted this interesting little video.  Be sure to watch to the end, as they all say. 

100 Newtons, or about 22.5 pounds force, isn't much and it doesn't look particularly useful. That said, the researchers are implying it's possible that a suborbital flight using this kind of engine could take place as early as 2027.