Tuesday, April 30, 2024

New Space Startup Aiming to Solve Changing Orbits

For the entire space age, going back to the late 1950s, the vast majority of satellites have been launched into space with virtually no propellants. The extent of their ability to move has been small movements with small thrusters - primarily station keeping, that is maintaining their position and orientation. 

It has often been said that once a satellite achieves its desired orbit, it's not going anywhere. That's because the energy needed to make significant changes to one's orbit is very high.

In space today, the current choices of on-orbit maneuverability are not optimal. There are conventional rocket-powered thrusters that require an extraordinary amount of propellant to move around. There are ion thrusters, which are significantly more fuel-efficient, but cannot make changes quickly. And that's really about it.

You've long heard the saying, "space is hard" and this is a shining example of that. Changing velocity, usually referred to by the more or less mathematical shorthand "delta-v," is the way orbits get changed. More than that, it's how one can get around the solar system, or from Earth orbit to a different Solar orbit.

But a new company, Portal Space Systems, emerged from stealth on Tuesday with an alternative: solar-thermal propulsion. The company's founder, Jeff Thornburg, said Portal Space will focus on mobility in orbit.

"All propulsion has historically been designed for station keeping for satellites, not maneuverability," he said in an interview. "And too many commercial and military customers are struggling with how to spend the very little delta-v they have before they end the life of their asset."

"Delta-v" is how the space industry measures the change in velocity that a spacecraft is capable of—more precisely, it is a measure of the impulse per unit of spacecraft mass. So if your spacecraft has a delta-v capability of 500 meters per second (1,120 mph), and starts at a velocity of zero, then after it burns all of its propellant it would be traveling at 500 m/s.

You know the saying that the first step is the hardest and it applies in extreme to getting around in space. 

It requires an extraordinary amount of delta-v to go from the surface of our planet into low-Earth orbit (LEO)—very nearly 10,000 m/s. This is why powerful rockets are needed to launch satellites. After reaching LEO, the relative delta-v costs to go places from there are lower, but still high. For example, it costs another 6,000 m/s to reach the surface of the Moon from LEO.

Note that most satellites are capable of 500 m/s delta-v, or less, compared to that 6,000 to get to the moon.

This is where Portal Space believes it has a solution. Thornburg says the company is developing a spacecraft built around the concept of solar thermal propulsion, which uses solar energy to heat propellant and produce thrust. Such engines have been studied for decades, but have never been developed for practical purposes. The company has not disclosed its propellant of choice, but Thornburg said it is storable on orbit, and not toxic like hydrazine. (It might be something like ammonia.)

For most of the three years since the company was founded in 2021, the small crew of just Thornburg and his cofounders Ian Vorbach and Prashaanth Ravindran, has been working on the engineering of the engines they envision. Turning the vision into hardware.  There are ~25 employees supporting Portal now, per Thornburg, and the company’s plans for growth over the next year are aggressive. 

He envisions a fleet of refuelable Supernova vehicles at medium-Earth and geostationary orbit capable of swooping down to various orbits and providing services such as propellant delivery, mobility, and observation for commercial and military satellites. His vision is to provide real-time, responsive capability for existing satellites. If one needs to make an emergency maneuver, a Supernova vehicle could be there within a couple of hours.

"If we’re going to have a true space economy, that means logistics and supply services," he said.

Developing a spacecraft with a novel propulsion system and an enormous amount of delta-v capability may sound ambitious, especially for a small startup. However, Thornburg has some credible experience, having worked in the military, for NASA, and at various space companies, including SpaceX, where he was a vice president of propulsion and a lead designer of the Raptor rocket engine.

To Thornburg's statement that a true space economy means logistics and supply services, I would add the ability to repair satellites on orbit and refuel the ones that are exhausting their maneuvering fuel. A long way of saying maintenance. 

Concept drawing of a possible Supernova spacecraft design. Image credit: Portal Space Systems

Portal Space announced Thursday that it has received $3 million in funding from the US Space Force to support development of the Supernova satellite bus. Thornburg said the company plans to launch its first satellite toward the end of 2025 or in early 2026. It will likely go to medium-Earth orbit and, at a minimum, demonstrate its large delta-v capability.
“Our DoD customers have said they have real needs that really need to get met by 2026,” Thornburg said. “So…how can we accelerate this capability that the warfighter says they want as fast as possible to meet some of the needs that they’re looking at here in the next couple of years?”

Monday, April 29, 2024

One Week From Tonight, Monday, May 6

Just a reminder that Monday May 6 at 10:34 PM Eastern, the Starliner Crew Flight Test, CFT, is scheduled. All information we can get suggests things are moving smoothly toward that test. 

The last major review was held last Thursday, April 25, and the mission passed the review

“I can say with confidence that the teams have absolutely done their due diligence,” said NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free. “There’s still a little bit of closeout work to do, but we are on track for a launch.”

That remaining work is what Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, described as “a couple standard things” for pre-launch preparations. They include replacing a valve in a liquid oxygen replenishment system at SLC-41 and performing additional analysis on a part of the parachute system that releases a cover called the forward heat shield so that the drogue and main parachutes can deploy. That additional analysis is being done “out of an abundance of caution,” he said.

A major milestone that had to happen was that Cargo Dragon CRS-30 had to undock from the ISS to return to Earth. That was originally scheduled for Friday but delayed due to weather in the areas SpaceX recovers them. Word today is that the undocking occurred Sunday. In typical ISS traffic juggling, members of the Crew-8 mission would then board their Crew Dragon spacecraft and move it from the forward port to the zenith port on the Harmony module. That movement is to free up the forward port for Starliner, which is only approved for docking to that port.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle being installed on its Atlas 5 rocket for the Crew Flight Test mission. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett 

NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will be the crew in the Starliner, and they project a good combination of not expecting everything to go flawlessly, but seeing their role as to see just how far they can push to the edges of the envelope. At one of the interviews along the way, Butch Wilmore was quoted as saying, “It’s a test pilot’s dream, if you will, everything that we’re doing from start to finish.”

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Weekend Odds and Ends

A project that has been going on for at least half of April has been my semi-annual testing of various batteries around the house. Primarily, not the stuff I use regularly, but stand by batteries for after a hurricane or other extended power outage. As usual, some of them were fine and a couple others weren't. It's a topic I've written on many times.  

The "problem child" this time around was pictured in a post from December 2015, and the battery has a label on it with the date 1/5/14 so it was nearly 2 years old in '15. That battery has been getting lower and lower in capacity for years and it's finally time to say good bye and send it off to the recycling center. A year ago that 35 Amp*Hour battery delivered 10 AH. Clearly not good, but a thought that has to be addressed is "how good does it have to be?" If I'm running things that don't take much current, and that can be used longer with the 10AH battery, why not keep it? Even or especially if it's a "backup to a backup." 

This time around, that battery hasn't been able to deliver more than 3 AH. That's approaching practically worthless. It's also just over 10 years old now, so that's yet another sign that it's past time to set it out to pasture. 

My battery farm contains three Lithium-Ion car jump starting batteries (like this but not this one) that were chosen because they have USB outputs that can charge a phone or run anything that uses USB power, and they also have 12V outputs. Next, I have that dead AGM battery, and two more sealed lead-acid batteries I recovered from my old UPS that died last October. Then there are a few Ryobi "One +" 18 V batteries primarily for the tools that take down (and put up) hurricane shutters and all, and finally a few 18650 cells that were bought as an experiment, for no particular application. 

In the decade since I bought that AGM battery, a "new hotness" has made tremendous inroads in home use, coming down steeply in price and becoming more widely available. These are Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries, usually designated LiFePO4 (or LiFePO4) and called by a handful of other names. I've had tendency to call these Life-po, with the first syllable being the word "life" and the last is pronounced "po" with a long "o". I maybe the only person on Earth using that. 

As class of batteries, LiFePO4 batteries have a substantial number of advantages over lead acid and AGM (really just another type of lead acid - adsorbed glass mat). This illustration taken from a product listing on Amazon is a good summary. The only thing lead-acid batteries might be better at is a lower starting price.

Let me be go all disclaimer. This isn't any sort of endorsement of Eco-Worthy batteries or this specific one, but it's correct to the best of my knowledge and convenient to post here. I haven't bought this or any other LiFePO4 battery. Somewhere in the last year or two, I think I heard they were a good brand, but I have nothing to base that on. 

An important point is that specification second from the bottom: Depth of Discharge (DOD). The exact number for what a lead-acid battery can discharge to depends on what kind it is; starting batteries are different from deep cycle batteries, which are different from sealed lead-acid (SLA) or AGM. Still, the best they do is to around 60% DOD - which says that 40% of the capacity is unusable. That says that if my 35AH AGM battery was really delivering 35AH, I could discharge it to 14AH (40%) using 21AH, or perhaps 17.5 AH (50%) using the same. That 30AH LiFePO4 battery would give me much more - even if I stopped using it at 90% discharged, that's 27AH. Instead of this pictured 30AH battery, I'd get the same amount of usable AH as the AGM gives with a LiFePO4 half that size.

Most (if not all) of the Life-PO batteries have a battery management system built in which I believe means none of my lead acid battery chargers will work with one. The cars still have lead acid starting batteries, so I'll keep one of those chargers around. Switching over to the new battery chemistry brings up all sorts of questions, so I'm digging for information. With pretty much 30 days to the start of what looks to be an active hurricane season, I need to get moving fast. 

Thoughts, recommendations or sick jokes are welcome from those of you familiar with these things.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

NASA Still Doesn't Understand the Orion Capsule's Heat Shield Issues

Can the Artemis SLS booster and its Orion capsule fly again. More than likely. It's just as we're approaching a year and a half after the first Artemis lunar flyby mission, NASA still doesn't understand why the heat shield on the Orion capsule had damages that the models didn't predict. 

This topic first showed up as soon as the recovered Orion capsule was inspected and was made public around March of '23. Like the Apollo capsules and really most everything except for the Shuttles and the few other vehicles using ceramic tiles, the Orion capsule uses ablative heat shielding.

"During inspections there were more variations across the heat shield than we expected," said Howard Hu, the Orion program manager for NASA. "Some of the charred material ablated away differently than what our computer models, and what our ground testing, predicted. More of this charred material was liberated during reentry than we had expected."

When an ablative shield burns away differently than the models say, that investigation is about as serious as it gets.  The Orion capsule was never in any danger, and a crew onboard would have been safe, but that's no excuse to stick with a model that may be lying.  That's too much like saying your Russian Roulette game with a revolver hadn't killed you the first time so it must be safe. Like the Russian Roulette, what happens the next time it reenters?

Amit Kshatriya, who oversees development for the Artemis missions in NASA's exploration division, said Friday that the agency is still looking for the root cause of the heat shield issue. 

Engineers have performed sub-scale heat shield tests in wind tunnels and arc jet facilities to better understand what led to the uneven charring on Artemis I. "We’re getting close to the final answer in terms of that cause," Kshatriya said.

NASA officials previously said it is unlikely they will need to make changes to the heat shield already installed on the Orion spacecraft for Artemis II, but haven't ruled it out. A redesign or modifications to the Orion heat shield on Artemis II would probably delay the mission by at least a year.

One of the possible approaches to resolving this problem is to determine if small modifications to the flight's path - how the reentry happens - could be instituted. 

On Artemis I, Orion flew a skip reentry profile, where it dipped into the atmosphere, skipped back into space, and then made a final descent into the atmosphere, sort of like a rock skipping across a pond. This profile allows Orion to make more precise splashdowns near recovery teams in the Pacific Ocean and reduces g-forces on the spacecraft and the crew riding inside. It also splits up the heat load on the spacecraft into two phases.

The Apollo capsules didn't do that. They just plunged into the atmosphere and reentered directly. There are other approaches to reentering and NASA wants to understand how the Orion heat shield would perform during all of the possible reentry trajectories for Artemis II.

There are other issues from the Artemis I mission that need to be addressed before it flies its next mission.

After its Artemis 1 flight, technicians inspect the heat shield anomalies on the Orion capsule. Image credit: NASA/Skip Williams 

Friday, April 26, 2024

Mark Your Calendars - New Glenn First Flight to be September 29

The reports have been coming in since the start of this year that this will be the year that Blue Origin's New Glenn Launches. We now have a date.  

In a presentation at a meeting of a planetary protection committee of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) in London April 24, Nick Benardini, NASA’s planetary protection officer, listed a Sept. 29 date for the launch of Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission, a pair of smallsats that will go into orbit around Mars to measure the interaction of the planet’s magnetosphere with the solar wind.

NASA selected Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket to launch ESCAPADE, awarding the company a $20 million task order through the agency’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare contract in February 2023 for the mission. The award at the time mentioned only a late 2024 launch, with the expectation that ESCAPADE would be on one of the first, if not the first, flight of the rocket.

To say this is a much anticipated and ballyhooed launch is a bit of an understatement. I've lost count of the real estimate for how far behind schedule this is, but I have a pretty good idea they were late when I first started blogging on space stories. (A quick search found a 2017 post saying New Glenn might launch by 2020)

That said, I should point out that the estimate isn't from Blue themselves, but from NASA

Among the pacing items for this mission are seven BE-4 engines, which will power New Glenn's first stage. A handful of sources inside Blue Origin believe the company is making credible progress toward a launch attempt this year.

You'll recall that Blue Origin rolled out a "Pathfinder" vehicle out to SLC-36 on Cape Canaveral SFS for testing back in February.

“Everything on the pad is real New Glenn hardware,” the company said in a Feb. 21 statement about the pathfinder vehicle. That vehicle, though, lacked BE-4 engines in its first stage, and some components of the pathfinder were not flight hardware.

The New Glenn Pathfinder, photographed in February. Image credit: Blue Origin

What do you think? I don't think I'd schedule a big trip to see it, but it's worth keeping an eye on the status. If those seven BE-4 engines run into trouble, New Glenn's not going anywhere, so especially look for news on that.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

With No Fanfare SpaceX Lands Booster #300 April 23

It just seemed to be a matter of time, considering how routine they've apparently made landing Falcon 9 first stages, but mark down that on Tuesday evening, April 23, 2024, SpaceX landed their 300th booster. As always when talking about counts of Falcon 9 boosters flown, this number includes Falcon Heavy launches, which use three of the boosters. Note the 300 does NOT include two boosters that landed successfully but were lost at sea. A Falcon Heavy center core and a Falcon 9 tipped over at sea after successful landings.

Now think about this observation: at the pace SpaceX is operating, it's entirely possible they will recover their 400th booster before the end of this year.  

The Tuesday evening mission was Starlink 6-53. It flew from SLC-40 (Space Launch Complex 40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 6:17 pm ET and delivered the satellites to a 43-degree orbital inclination. Just under two weeks ago, the new fleet leader of SpaceX boosters, B1062, flew its 20th mission. The booster for this mission isn't even halfway there. 

The Falcon 9 that made the 300th overall landing was Booster 1078, which flew for its 9th time. B1078 made a smooth landing on the droneship ‘Just Read the Instructions,’ and is now on the way back to Port Canaveral. B1078 last flew just 29 days prior to this mission.

B1078 has now launched 4 Humans, 2 telecommunication satellites (on 1 flight), 1 classified payload, and now 6 Starlink missions.

Original X post here. You can click on the video over on X and make it full screen, just not longer duration. This 24 second video is from the landing burn through a quick look at B1078 landed and standing on JRTI

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Small Space News Story Roundup 34

As always, small stories that caught my eye

JAXA's SLIM Lander Continues to Surprise 

It was a surprise when JAXA's SLIM lunar lander (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) survived its first lunar night, considering it was never designed to survive the extreme cold of the two week lunar night. Temperatures can reach minus 274 F (minus 170C).

It was also surprise when it survived its second night in mid-March, and probably a bigger surprise.

SLIM has done it again, surviving its third night and responding the night of April 23 in Japan.   

On its X feed, JAXA shared an image captured by SLIM as it was coming out of its third lunar night spent on the moon.

In the translated tweet, the Japanese space agency wrote: "Last night (the night of April 23rd), we were able to successfully communicate with #SLIM, which had started up again, and confirmed that SLIM had survived for the third time. 

"Here is a photo of the surface of the moon taken last night with the navigation camera. As this photo was taken at the earliest age of the moon so far after the overnight awakening, the moon is bright overall and the shadows are very short."


Interestingly, India's Chandrayaan 2 was used to photograph SLIM on the moon. 

While SLIM was sending back images of the lunar surface, independent researcher in India Chandra Tungathurthi was using the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter to check up on the Japanese lunar lander. He shared some of the images he captured on his X feed.

Tungathurthi wrote: "I found SLIM using the Orbital high-resolution camera onboard Chandrayaan-2. The below picture was captured on 2024.03.16 at a pixel resolution of 16cm per pixel! Because of the low elevation of the sun, you see long-drawn shadows."

NASA Confirms Dragonfly Mission to Saturn's Moon Titan 

Remember the discussion about Mars Sample Return mission essentially being on hold due to skyrocketing costs and schedule delays? 

Last October, I ran a story about a very different mission to Titan, with a vehicle inspired by the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, but massively different. "Massively" in a couple of meanings of the word. First, instead of a small helicopter, they're talking about a nuclear-powered, car-sized, eight propeller drone. Much, much larger and much heavier as well.

(Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

NASA announced April 16 that the Dragonfly mission had passed its confirmation review. Passing the review allows Dragonfly to move into full-scale development. 

The confirmation review sets a formal commitment by NASA to the cost and schedule for a mission. NASA said that it confirmed a July 2028 launch for Dragonfly and a total mission cost of $3.35 billion.

If Dragonfly launches in 2028, it should arrive at Titan in 2034. NASA is saying they'll choose the Heavy Lift vehicle to allow that six year travel time. Being a one-way trip, it makes sense the overall mission cost should be a bit lower, but that Dragonfly copter will be an obvious place where costs could grow. 

As a reminder, the Mars Sample Return mission's cost was estimated at $8 to $11 billion, with the samples being returned to Earth in the late 2030s to 2040. Given the life of other projects, Dragonfly should still be returning data in the 2040s but the first returns will come well before that.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Voyager 1 is Awake and Communicating!

This past Saturday, April 20, Voyager 1 updated ground control about its health status with a coherent message for the first time in 5 months. While she still isn't fully operational and sending science data back to Earth, Voyager 1 is now returning usable information about the health and operating status of its onboard systems. 

If you're a regular reader, you'll recall that back in November, Voyager suddenly started acting like something was seriously wrong. I likened it to the probe having had a stroke, although that's too anthropomorphic. The probe seemed to take commands and respond, it still kept its position and kept the data link back to Earth running, it's just that the replies it sent back were more like incoherent ramblings. Something about its uncle having been eaten by cannibals before the mission started. No, sorry. I made that up. 

In the months since that first post on December 12, we've gotten a few updates. The last things we heard were in mid-March, that they had run a memory "poke" and had a pretty good idea of what the problem was. 

This memory dump revealed to scientists and engineers that the "glitch" is the result of a corrupted code contained on a single chip representing around 3% of the FDS memory. The loss of this code rendered Voyager 1's science and engineering data unusable.

With a light travel time of 22-1/2 hours, it takes a couple of days to do an experiment, so it's a good practice, perhaps even more than usual, to be pretty darn sure it's going to work. The software was sent to Voyager over the Deep Space Network on Thursday, the 18th. On Saturday, several dozen scientists and engineers gathered in a conference room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or connected virtually, to wait for a new signal from Voyager 1.

“In the minutes leading up to when we were going to see a signal, you could have heard a pin drop in the room," said Linda Spilker, project scientist for NASA's two Voyager spacecraft at JPL. "It was quiet. People were looking very serious. They were looking at their computer screens. Each of the subsystem (engineers) had pages up that they were looking at, to watch as they would be populated."

And then the celebrations began.

After receiving data about the health and status of Voyager 1 for the first time in five months, members of the Voyager flight team celebrate in a conference room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on April 20. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Of course, with the Voyagers being over 22 hours away at the speed of light, and it having taken them 46 years to get that far away, nobody's going out to Voyager 1 to replace a memory chip. No single section of the memory is large enough to hold this code entirely. The team can slice it into sections and store the slices separately. There are more details, as always, which come down to essentially recreating a storage system and ensuring that will work. Redesigning the computer on the fly. As it approaches its 50th birthday in 2027. And "document, document, document" what you've done - like every space job.

One of the first references I found to this story started out with a line that I think I'll finish with. I can't find the article but it was something like, "the miracle workers at the JPL have done it again." Well done, everyone. Well done, and good luck with the work left to be done.

Monday, April 22, 2024

It's Time to Celebrate Earf Day 2024!

It's time for our annual bacchanalia of the made-up holiday they call Earth Day, my very favorite holiday to make fun of.  Yes, even more than Kwanzaa.

As befitting the environmental movement, my tribute to Earth Day is almost entirely recycled, and is almost entirely useless. Plus, it's late. The only way it could fit the environmental movement better would be if everything I said was factually wrong. Everything here is factually correct. 

I've posted on Earf Day so many times that it's hard not to be repetitive, even if I was trying not to. So nothing this time about Ira Einhorn murdering his girlfriend or the almost completely discredited book, The Population Bomb. No, wait. I just did. Rats! 

The simple truth is that virtually everything about the holiday and the environmental movement is crap. The modern green movement is simply about rich, privileged people wanting to have places to visit that they consider to be unspoiled. They want pretty, natural, wild-looking places to visit on vacations. If that means the people who are living in or near those places have to live lives that range from austere to practically unsurvivable, that's fine. 

Under that picture, it's easy to realize that the greenies care only about themselves and their enjoyments of life. Of course we should all protect the wilderness! It's theirs! That was never as clear to me as it was while reading Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger a couple of years ago. He vividly talks about people in the wilds of Africa who desperately need better ways to grow food, get water and need electricity. Instead they're kept in a life of desperation by the environmentalists.

Probably the worst example is the on that we get beat up about every day: climate change. Notice they don't mention "global warming" any more. It just change. As if the worldwide climate has always been the same. Let's start with that simple observation. They scream that the temperature has gone up since 1850! We're all going to die! Phrased a little differently, the temperature has gone up compared to the coldest period in the last 10,000 years.

That's Indonesia. How about if we reconstruct the temperature half a world away? North Atlantic instead of south Pacific; Greenland instead of Indonesia.

Those match fairly well but 1200 years ago was colder than the little ice age, while not as cold as about 8300 years ago.

Sorry. The temperature has gone up from one of the coldest periods in the last 500 million years. 

The closer you look, the worse the picture is. Borepatch ran a piece a little over a week ago about one of the more insidious things they do: they change the historical records to make the older temperatures look cooler and the newer ones look hotter. That's right; they're lying in all the official documents and have been for as long as this Con has been going on. One of the things that convinced me that skepticism was proper was the Surface Stations Project that Watts Up With That? started back in the '00s. It was a report on the official stations that create the weather record and how large percentages of them weren't sited properly; over 62% were incapable of accuracy better than 2 degrees C. Another 6% couldn't measure within 5 degrees C. They're too close to roads, too close to sources of heat like air conditioner outputs, even airport runways, and more problems. Then there was outright fraud in editing records. 

I'm old enough to remember when the fear was a coming ice age. Anything to scare you into compliance. 

And this isn't even going near things like how bad their models are. They still basically can't handle clouds properly. Virtually none of their predictions ever actually prove to be the case. Instead we get useful idiot celebrities who are too young to understand weather and climate both change (to be charitable). If a 20 or a 40 year old can't remember similar weather, it doesn't mean anything.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Do You Think This is the Only Place Where This is True?

Well, this being a weekend, the news is pretty empty, and that's a good thing because today has been long day of sit around and then rush. So I thought of something I've meant to rant on. 

This is a meme that has appeared in dozens of places. 

First off, I really don't think that's the way the comic first appeared back in '06 (according to the upper right hand corner). The obvious place to start is that the text on the blackboard is nothing like any other text in the cartoon. It's not that it's not a good cartoon, it's just that it doesn't look like a Bizarro.com. But that's not important. 

The point of the meme is obvious: if big pharma and big medicine cure you, they make a small number of sales. One visit or a dozen? It doesn't matter. If you're not going back for treatment, whether it's doctor visits, drugs, or hospitalizations, they all make more money if you're treated regularly and not cured. To use the analogy that I'm sure lots of people are thinking of: why cure a disease if they can just vaccinate you for it or sell you pills for it for the rest of your life. Better yet, what if they can sell massive quantities to governments and maybe put it in the water supply or something? Guaranted sales for decades to come!

The first time I saw this cartoon, I thought, "and you think that doesn't apply to vitamins, supplements and all the other stuff that's being aimed at you?" If you're good at your research and testing, you may find a certain supplement takes care of some symptom you're having. Without fooling yourself with the placebo effect. Congratulations. Now, do you need to take that pill For The Rest Of Your Life? Did you get the dose right and does it change as you get older? The only thing that can be said in favor of fixing issues with whole foods is that you have to buy food anyway and even expensive food might be cheaper than a lot of those vitamin, mineral and whatnot pills. 

Saturday, April 20, 2024

When Hobbies Converge or What The Heck is Meteor Scatter?

It's no secret that I'm a radio amateur (ham radio operator); I've talked about that hundreds of times over the life of the blog.  There has been a Radio Sunday series and a specific Ham Radio Series. This will go with the ham radio series. 

Something I haven't mentioned as often, but still have several times, is that one of my hobbies as far back as I can recall has been astronomy and telescopes. I haven't been active in that for a while, but there are posts here about that I found by going back and searching the blog for specific words. I've built telescopes, reflectors from grinding the mirror from a plate of glass, and refractors from things like copier lenses. Some background here, although not related to tonight's post. 

As an amateur astronomer, I've gone to places near and far where I could observe a meteor shower that was supposed to be particularly good. People who aren't in to this hobby generally aren't aware that there are regularly recurring meteor showers several times a year. If you follow meteor showers to observe the pretty light streaks the meteors leave, you quickly learn that showers are best in the early morning hours, or between midnight and first light. If the moon is close to full and bright, it can wipe out the best of showers.  The reason for the timing is that as the Earth moves in its orbit, the rotation that brings night and day rolls the planet onto some meteors, so more are seen. The meteors have to be moving faster to catch up with the planet.

Back in the 1950s, hams discovered that the trail created in the upper atmosphere by meteors burning up acted like a radio reflector, as if the ionosphere was enhanced. The effect is most beneficial to VHF stations which typically don't have regular, predictable ionospheric propagation. In the early days, this was done with Morse code, or CW as the hams typically call it (CW for Continuous Wave). Now that we're firmly in the age of computer assisted modulation modes, most people trying to bounce signals off the meteor trails are using a computer assisted mode. The most popular appears to be MSK144 (.pdf alert).

MSK stands for minimum shift keying, a form of continuous-phase frequency-shift keying (FSK) with shift equal to half the baud rate. MSK144 uses message frames of 144 bits and modulation at tone frequencies 1000 and 2000 Hz to transmit channel symbols at keying rate of 2000 baud. The resulting audio waveform can be viewed as a form of offset quadrature phase-shift keying (OQPSK) with individual pulses shaped like the first half-period of a sine wave.

Although there are other modes still used for meteor scatter, this is the dominant mode. 

So how do you operate meteor scatter? Have contacts with people hundreds to perhaps 1500 miles or more by bouncing a signal off a meteor trail?  

This is why the talk of meteor showers. This time of year has an annual shower named after the constellation it appears to radiate from, Lyra (the lyre) and called the Lyrid shower. Meteor showers don't just happen, they ordinarily happen when the Earth goes through the trail left by comet; the Lyrids are the trail of comet called C/1861 G1 (Thatcher). That's right, it's a comet that was first named in 1861, and it's a long period comet with around a 422-year orbit. It's expected to return around 2283. Thatcher is the discoverer. 

The Lyrids are predicted to peak Monday morning. Interestingly, another shower is already starting to build, coming to its peak two weeks later on May 5th. This is called the Eta Aquariids because it appears to radiate from close to the star Eta Aquarii. This shower is dust from the trail of Halley's comet. Halley's comet is another relatively long period comet although at 76 years quite a bit shorter than Thatcher's; its last close approach to the sun or perihelion was in 1986, and its next perihelion will be in 2061. I remember taking my son to the beach to see Halley's comet; he was five. I haven't asked him if he remembers that in years. 

Given the shower to provide the meteors and the software to interface to your radio to modulate and demodulate the data stream, if your antenna is directional, it makes sense to point it toward the radiant because the trails will be denser there. Most people use a 15 second transmit period followed by 15 seconds receive. The protocol is that if you're trying to contact people to your east, you transmit on the minute and half minute marks - or 0 and 30 seconds. Those are referred to as the even intervals, so they give rise to the acronym PETE: Point East Transmit Even. If you're trying to contact people to your west, you transmit on the 15 and 45 second marks. 

You'll get the best reflections where the trails are the densest, so unlike the case with other modes, you don't necessarily point your antenna at the person your contacting. It works best if you're both pointed at the radiant. Remember, the radiant is like everything else in the sky: it raises in the East and sets in the West.  The exact position in the sky of the radiant isn't extremely important, but the astronomy observing-oriented websites help you learn where the radiant is. There's a program aimed at ham use that seems helpful, called Virgo.

It's important to know that while the astronomy websites are concerned with the peak number of meteors visible per hour, and the Lyrids aren't impressive that way, the showers are perfectly usable for radio after first light and well into the morning. The things that make a shower a highlight for visual observation don't mean much to radio use. I've played at this mode only a few times, and copied signals off the meteor trails until 9 to 10 AM. 

Friday, April 19, 2024

Mars Sample Return and Space Bugs

As a followup of sorts to Monday's post on the Mars Sample Return mission and its problems, Space.com reports on an "Astrobiodefense" committee, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, and their concerns about not just the MSR, but any mission and what it could bring back to Earth. They consider the threat that ecologically-hungry Martian microbes might pose to our biosphere.

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense is a privately funded entity established in 2014, set up to evaluate the status of U.S. biodefense efforts and issues recommendations to produce meaningful change.

The only names they associate with the commission are former Democratic Congresswoman Donna Shalala and Susan Brooks, a former U.S. Attorney and Republican Congresswoman. Of course, Donna Shalala was Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton Administration. Congresswoman Brooks served parts of Indiana. 

While many debate the possibility of advanced, intelligent life elsewhere, few consider the probability of non-intelligent alien microorganisms. These life forms could exist on other planets or moons, hitchhike on spacecraft, or move through the universe in the asteroids they inhabit. 

They could also be Earth microbes that mutate or evolve in response to the stress of spaceflight, becoming more virulent, resistant, or invasive. Either would seriously threaten the public health, safety, and security of humans, animals, and plants operating in space or living on Earth," they noted.

To be honest, it was something I thought about when the samples from asteroid Bennu were returned to Earth back in September, and then it turned out the sample container wasn't as well sealed as they may have wanted. That meant if there was a bad organism in that partially sealed container, it would have been released before the sample container was opened. 

Perhaps you might remember The Andromeda Strain, a big seller book early in the career of Michael Crichton and a popular movie in the early '70s. It was the first book of his I read, around 9th or 10th grade. The source of the bug that killed off the town was a satellite that was supposed to capture potential bioweapons high in the atmosphere and hit the ground in this town. A long way of saying the idea of something like this happening has been around a while.

Shalala and Brooks state that the U.S. needs to invest in research and development of new technologies and medical countermeasures to detect, diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases in space and on Earth.

Furthermore, there is need to enhance our bio-surveillance and symptom monitoring to track and analyze space-related biological threats in real time.

“We need to strengthen our coordination and collaboration between agencies and partners, both nationally and internationally," they continue, "to share information and resources without compromising the kinds of competition that result in scientific advances and economic gains."

Early in the Andromeda Strain movie ('71), two researchers recover the capsule that brought back a bug that killed off the small town where it came to the ground. Image published at IMDB.

Let's just say the last few years have dramatically altered the general likelihood that people will want to give much power to the the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Reusability Changes Everything - the Next Chapter

In a company news update early this week, Rocket Lab announced that their first booster set to be reused is moving through the final steps of being certified for its flight, although they didn't announce a date.

Rocket Lab USA, Inc. (Nasdaq: RKLB) (“Rocket Lab” or “the Company”) today announced it is returning a previously flown Electron rocket first stage tank into the Electron production line for the first time in preparation for reflying the stage. The step is a significant milestone in Rocket Lab’s development program to make Electron the world’s first reusable small orbital launch vehicle.

If  you've been following Rocket Lab launches, you'll know that they started trying to recover boosters by catching their parachutes with a helicopter, and actually caught one, but stopped trying after a couple of more attempts. They then switched to essentially what SpaceX is doing, letting it splash into the ocean and having a nearby ship recover it. They say the previously recovered boosters have been used to develop a standardized method of refurbishing and qualifying those boosters for flight again. This booster, originally launched in January of this year.

The stage was successfully launched and recovered as part of the ‘Four of a Kind’ mission on 31 January 2024 and has already passed more acceptance tests than any other recovered Electron stage, including:

  • Tank pressurization test – a process that filled the carbon composite tank with inert gas and held it in excess of maximum operating pressure for more than 20x longer than the standard Electron flight duration;
  • Helium leak check – a stringent process that determines there are no leaks in the tank; and
  • Carbon fiber structural testing – including ultrasonic assessment and other non-destructive tests to confirm no delamination of the carbon composite tank fibers.

“This is the exciting final piece of the puzzle before Electron goes reusable,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “Our key priority in pushing this stage back into the standard production flow for the first time is to ensure our systems and qualification processes are fit for accepting pre-flown boosters at scale. If this stage successfully passes and is accepted for flight, we’ll consider opportunities for reflying it in the new year.”Rocket Lab has carried out iterative modifications across multiple recovery missions to hone the recovery process ahead of first reflight, including:

  • Ensuring Electron’s carbon composite structure survives the intense heat and forces of atmospheric reentry through innovative coatings, heat shields, and advanced reaction control systems to control the angle of reentry;
  • Refining the parachute system to ensure reliable deployment and smooth deceleration from more than 2,300 meters per second to 10 meters per second;
  • Honing the telemetry and tracking systems so the marine recovery team can locate the stage as soon as it splashes down;
  • Streamlining the process of collecting the stage from the water in less than an hour, then ensuring safe transit back to the Rocket Lab production complex; and
  • Successful launch of a previously flown Rutherford engine.

The booster immediately before recovery back in January. Image credit: Rocket Lab USA

Bear in mind that Rocket Lab's Electron is in an entirely different market than SpaceX's Falcon 9; the Electron isn't rated to one metric ton to Low Earth Orbit while the Falcon 9 is capable of over 22 metric tons to LEO. Rocket Lab is also working toward a heavier lift booster, the Neutron which is being designed from the start for reuse. I'll speculate that the reason reuse matters for Electron is that SpaceX is sucking up a lot of the market for small satellite launches with their ride sharing missions, Transporter and the new Bandwagon that just had its first flight.  They need to watch their costs.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

JPL Team Says Goodbye to Ingenuity Helicopter on Mars

The mission of Ingenuity, the wildly successful experimental helicopter sent to Mars strapped to the belly of the Perseverance rover, has long been over. It ended in January, when an accident caused the tips of one or more of its rotor blades to be broken off. At the time, it wasn't known that an entire rotor blade was broken off.

The mission has long been over, but Ingenuity is still operating, communicating back to Earth through Perseverance, widely called Percy, as it has all along. Tuesday, April 16 was different. The JPL team convened one last time on Tuesday to oversee a transmission from the little helicopter, the first robotic craft to explore an atmosphere other than Earth's. This transmission, received through the antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network, marked the final time the mission team would be working together on Ingenuity operations.

The helicopter has a new mission: to serve as a stationary testbed, collecting data that could benefit future explorers of the Red Planet. 

“With apologies to Dylan Thomas, Ingenuity will not be going gently into that good Martian night,” said Josh Anderson, Ingenuity team lead at JPL. “It is almost unbelievable that after over 1,000 Martian days on the surface, 72 flights, and one rough landing, she still has something to give. And thanks to the dedication of this amazing team, not only did Ingenuity overachieve beyond our wildest dreams, but also it may teach us new lessons in the years to come.”

Originally designed as a short-lived technology demonstration mission that would perform up to five experimental test flights over 30 days, the first aircraft on another world operated from the Martian surface for almost three years, flew more than 14 times farther than the distance expected, and logged more than two hours of total flight time.

A final software update had been sent to Percy to relay over to Ingenuity. The transmission they were there to receive was to verify that the software update succeeded and the little helicopter would be able to start its next mission. The data will stay in Ingenuity because the rover is leaving the area where the chopper is sitting, Valinor Hills, as it moves on to explore the western limb of Jezero Crater. Ingenuity's radio system was never designed to communicate back to Earth. 

With the software patch in place, Ingenuity will now wake up daily, activate its flight computers, and test the performance of its solar panel, batteries, and electronic equipment. In addition, the helicopter will take a picture of the surface with its color camera and collect temperature data from sensors placed throughout the rotorcraft. Ingenuity’s engineers and Mars scientists believe such long-term data collection could not only benefit future designers of aircraft and other vehicles for the Red Planet, but also provide a long-term perspective on Martian weather patterns and dust movement.
“Whenever humanity revisits Valinor Hills — either with a rover, a new aircraft, or future astronauts — Ingenuity will be waiting with her last gift of data, a final testament to the reason we dare mighty things,” said Ingenuity’s project manager, Teddy Tzanetos of JPL. “Thank you, Ingenuity, for inspiring a small group of people to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds at the frontiers of space.”

How much data? If a critical component on Ingenuity were to fail in the future, or if the helicopter were to lose power because of dust accumulation on its solar panel, causing data collection to stop, whatever information Ingenuity has collected will remain stored on board. The team has calculated Ingenuity’s memory could potentially hold about 20 years’ worth of daily data. What say we have a couple of astronauts go get that data by about 2040? Less than 20 years.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, right, stands near the apex of a sand ripple in an image taken by Perseverance on Feb. 24, about five weeks after the rotorcraft’s final flight. Part of one of Ingenuity’s rotor blades lies on the surface about 50 feet west of the helicopter (in the third rounded area from the left in the image). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS

Some of that Martian dust must have come out of the picture. It's bothering my eyes.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Boeing's Starliner Capsule Stacked for May Flight

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner Capsule was rolled to the launch pad today, April 16, and stacked on its Atlas V booster for its long-awaited Crewed Flight Test. 

The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center to Space Launch Complex 41 in the early morning hours April 16. The spacecraft was hoisted into place atop the Atlas 5 rocket in the Vertical Integration Facility building there later in the day.

The rollout is the latest milestone in preparations for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, which will launch no earlier than the evening of May 6. NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams will be on board, flying Starliner to the International Space Station. They will remain on the station for about eight days before boarding Starliner for a return to Earth, landing in the southwestern United States.

Launch is currently scheduled for May 6 at 10:34PM EDT. Next Spaceflight notes that this will be the first manned launch from a Cape Canaveral SFS launch pad since Apollo 7 in October 1968, and first ever launch of humans from SLC-41. (Need I point out there was no Space Force (as in SFS) in 1968?) All manned launches for the rest of the Apollo program, Skylab, the Shuttle and everybody launched from 1968 through the current crew rotation missions that resumed in 2020 have been from the Kennedy Space Center side.

As we've noted before, if the launch is delayed a day or two, the liftoff time will move earlier by about 23 minutes per day of delay (due to the Space Station's orbit).

The launch is 13 days short of exactly one year since the last flight of a Starliner, Orbital Flight Test 2, or OFT-2, on May 19, 2022.  In terms of performance, OFT-2 was light years ahead of the first flight test, in December of '19. OFT-1 was so embarrassingly bad they were lucky to get the Starliner capsule back. Boeing's Starliner, like SpaceX's Crew Dragon, was bid as a firm, fixed price contract, and the delays due to their OFT-1 failures along with the many delays since then, have cost the company a lot. I've read as much as $1 billion.

At a March 22 briefing, Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Starliner at Boeing, said the key purpose of CFT is to see how spacecraft systems perform with a crew on board. “We flew OFT-2, and that was the uncrewed mission for the Starliner vehicle, and it was very successful. Now we introduce humans.”

Most of the flight test objectives, he said, are devoted to answering “does the vehicle perform with the human in the loop as expected?” That includes various environmental systems, control interfaces and the ability of the astronauts to take manual control of the spacecraft if needed.

A successful OFT-2 would allow NASA to certify Starliner for regular crew rotation flights, currently launched by SpaceX and Roscosmos in Russia. The first crew rotation using Starliner isn't likely until 2025 with a very successful test flight. The better the flight, the earlier in '25.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner rolls out of its processing facility in the predawn hours of April 16. Image Credit: Boeing

Monday, April 15, 2024

The Situation Looks Bad For Mars Sample Return Mission

I hesitate to use the phrase that the Mars Sample Return (MSR) Mission is cancelled because the source doesn't use that exact, heavy word. Instead, it seems that whatever flies won't look like the missions proposed up to now. 

First, some necessary background. 

I've been trying to follow developments on this mission since 2021; that linked article is in May of '21 so one month short of three years ago, and has a rendering of how the mission was conceived of during MSR's planning. Then Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter started wandering and flying around on Mars, changing everyone's concepts of how a sample return mission could work. Which led the artist's concept to change to look like this.

A conceptual sketch from NASA/JPL-CalTech, showing a helicopter, Perseverance, and the ESA Mars lander on the bottom row, and the ESA's Earth Return orbiter, top row left of center, and NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle top row right.  The upper left corner picture appears to be a gibbous Earth, but Earth couldn't possibly appear that big from Mars. I'll write that off to someone at JPL-CalTech being overly artistic. 

Last September, NASA received a report from an independent review board saying that the Mars Sample Return Mission was unworkable in its current form and wasn't feasible on the schedule and costs they were working under.  They recommended the issues be studied. The studies were disclosed today, April 15th, and the agency said everything but the exact word “cancelled”, ending instead with saying they will seek “out of the box” ideas in a bid to reduce the costs and shorten the schedule for returning samples from Mars.

In an April 15 briefing, agency officials announced they would solicit proposals from NASA centers and from industry on “innovative designs” to reshape its Mars Sample Return (MSR) effort after an internal review confirmed the ballooning costs of the overall program.

That review found that the current program would cost between $8 billion and $11 billion, the same range offered by an independent assessment completed last September. To fit that into the overall planetary science budget without affecting other programs would delay the return of samples from the early 2030s to 2040.

“The bottom line is that $11 billion is too expensive and not returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably too long,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the briefing.

As we've said before, those samples to be returned (at least some of them) are on Perseverance RFN - Right Now - and the talk is to conduct an $11 billion mission that returns the samples 17 years from now? 

NASA announced starting over in opening a Request For Proposal immediately - April 16 - with the proposals due May 17. After that, NASA will offer 90 day contracts to the proposals they think the most of. They're specifically looking for alternative approaches for the overall MSR architecture or specific elements of it, like the sample retrieval lander or Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) rocket that would place the collected samples into orbit.

Bill Nelson added, “I’m expecting to get everybody in high gear and that we have the answers to this by this fall.” 

NASA seems to be trying to walk the fine line between innovative technologies and those that require a lot of development time (and money). 

“What we’re looking for is heritage,” said Nicola Fox, NASA associate administrator for science. “What we’re hoping is that we’ll be able to get back to some more traditional, tried-and-true architectures, things that do not require huge technological leaps.”

One example she gave is technology that enables a smaller, and presumably less expensive, MAV. The studies, she said, will seek proposals that could return an unspecified number of samples, and not necessarily all the roughly 30 samples that the Perseverance rover will have on board when it completes its work.

The Perseverance  rover landed on Mars in February of '21, so it's reasonable to ask how long it can survive. A plan discussed at the meeting today would have Perseverance complete its exploration of terrain outside Jezero Crater and return to the crater floor in 2028. Once there, it would go into a “quiescent state” until the sample retrieval lander arrived. 

NASA officials said at the briefing and town hall that there was no discussion of suspending or even canceling MSR, citing its high ranking in the last two planetary science decadal survey among flagship-class missions. “Returning these samples from Mars is such a huge priority for us. That is why we’re doing all of these things,” Fox said.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

As We Move Further From the Best Part of the Year

Just an idle post about what I've been up to here.

As the weeks go by, we're going toward the worst part of the year, weather-wise, as we get closer to summer. I've been saying for quite a while that we're the opposite of the rest of the US, and the northern hemisphere. Our best time of year to be outside is coming to an end; for most of the rest of you it's just getting started. 

Not that we don't go outside in the summer, it's just not as pleasant as today has been, with a morning low of 52 and afternoon high of 79. In another few months, the morning low will be 79 or more and the high in the mid 90s. To be fair, it's not all idyllically wonderful weather in the winter, either. December and January alternated nice weeks with rainy, windy ones; we've had a nice stretch since around the start of February. It wasn't a particularly cold winter, but I kept seeing the temperatures below the official averages. Nowhere near record lows, just below average.

This is our dry season, and while I probably should have done this before, I've had to do what's basically annual maintenance on our sprinkler system. I don't know if you're familiar with them; I don't even know if I'm familiar them, but I fumble around and somehow the stuff gets working. Almost all of the sprinklers are popup sprinklers that are only visible when they're running, so I need to run the system to find them all and make sure they're spraying properly. There were two sprinklers that were broken and needed to be dug up and replaced, and another handful that the grass had grown runners over, preventing the sprinkler from popping up. 

Like millions of Florida lawns, we have St. Augustine grass which grows around the yard by putting out tough runners. I'm reasonably sure that in the rest of the world, it would be considered crabgrass.  Our St. Augustine is mixed with nine million species of weeds. Some of the weeds put out tough runners, too - the runners are what keep the sprinklers from popping up.

We live in a pretty reasonable county, but there are restrictions on watering our lawns, using fertilizers, weed killers and all because they run off into the Indian River lagoon. We're allowed to water twice a week, with the schedule set by house numbers - except for testing and fixing things like I've been doing. I've set the timer to start watering by the twice a week schedule starting this coming week. 

Because of doing that work every afternoon for a bit over a week, I haven't spent as much BIC (Butt In Chair) time in front of the radio with the things I've been working on. Three weeks ago today, I posted about geomagnetic storm going on. As it turns out, pretty much every day in the last two weeks has been poor propagation here. Propagation has been strange on VHF (6m: 50-54 MHz). I'll hear stations from the southernmost portions of South America: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay - all of them with my antenna pointed north. Off the back of this beam (supposed to be 25 dB weaker off the back), they'll be almost as strong as local stations. Sometimes even stronger. 

I only recently noticed I made a really egregious mistake in that post. I showed the pad I added not just in the wrong place, but in the worst possible place, before the LNA.  Check out this comparison. 

Why is before the LNA the worst possible place?  Remember the Ham Radio Series post on Noise Figure? Any loss before the first amplifier takes away weak signals that can never be gotten back. Putting a 13 dB pad before an LNA means the noise figure can never be better than 13 dB. Which is horrifically bad for a VHF radio (and barely acceptable at the AM broadcast band).

The pad was always where it shows on the right side, after the LNA, but I brain-farted when I drew the little picture. Oh, BTW, it's currently a 10 dB pad and may stay that value. 

I mentioned the LNA I used was one I found at the Orlando hamfest for $5. It doesn't have as low a noise figure as the one I started with, but works down to below the AM broadcast band. I found a possible replacement that will upgrade this one with a better NF, made by a company called NooElec, that works from 50kHz up to 150 MHz or above the 2 meter band. As a bonus, it's even cheaper than the one I started with (and built from a kit of parts). I haven't hit the shining, candy-like "Buy" button, but still may well do that.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Burgeoning Orbital Debris Removal Industry

The topic of orbital debris removal is one of those "gifts that keep on giving" in that it never goes away. Everyone is concerned about it. I'm going to include things like the Mission Extension Vehicles that we first talked about just over four years ago, February of 2020. This wasn't orbital debris in the typical sense: boosters or parts of satellites that are just left in orbit and either reenter within days or a few years to burn up on re-entry. This was a mission to extend the life of an Intelsat communications satellite (IS-901) in Geosynchronous orbit. The concept is clearly the same.

The Intelsat (IS-901) spacecraft was launched in 2001 and was pulled from active service in December 2019 as it ran low on fuel. Operators commanded the satellite to move into a "graveyard orbit" farther out than the unique geostationary space. It is here that MEV-1 linked up with the communications satellite on Tuesday. 

Payload reports that a startup company called Astroscale had reached a major milestone on their ADRAS-J mission to find and characterize a large piece of orbital debris. 

Astroscale has hunted down its targeted space debris and is now within paparazzi distance. 

The debris removal company announced Wednesday that its ADRAS-J mission has successfully executed its debris rendezvous maneuver and is now gearing up for a proximity approach.

Rendez-who: JAXA tasked the Tokyo-based startup with inspecting a second-stage H-2A rocket that has been floating in orbit since 2009. 

To complicate the situation, this second stage isn't equipped with GPS, making the rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) more dangerous. During the rendezvous, ADRAS-J lifted its orbit several times, but is still "hundreds of kilometers" away from the H-2A second stage.

In this rendering, the ADRAS-J satellite approaches the target H-2A second stage. Image credit: Astroscale.

This mission will not deorbit the target; the ADRAS-J satellite will move in closer to get more pictures, examining the condition of the debris and learning what it will take to handle that target. They expect to complete the mission by the end of May. Ultimately, the company plans to handle orbital debris by latching onto things like this and deorbiting them. They expect to accomplish that on a followup mission - no date given.

The ADRAS-J spacecraft was selected by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency for Phase I of its Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration program. Astroscale Japan is responsible for the design, manufacture, test, launch and operations of ADRAS-J.

Friday, April 12, 2024

A Night to Keep my Eyes on the Skies

Next Spaceflight shows a Starlink launch (Group 6-49) scheduled for Friday evening at 9:40 PM EDT from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  It has been in their schedule for a while. 

What I didn't know until this evening is that this will be the 20th flight of the booster, B1062, one of the fleet leaders after the untimely wreck of B1058 back in December. This will be the first attempt at a 20th flight for any Falcon 9 booster and it'll be worthwhile watching. B1062 has flown 19 times since its first flight in November 2020, and there are currently three other boosters that have flown 19 times.

Remember when they said they hoped to fly 10 times?

When SpaceX debuted the latest version of its Falcon 9 rocket, the Falcon 9 Block 5, officials said the reusable first stage could fly 10 times with minimal refurbishment and perhaps additional flights with a more extensive overhaul. Now, SpaceX is certifying Falcon 9 boosters for 40 flights.

At the risk of being a pedantic a-hole, I think that last sentence should read, "Now, SpaceX is expecting to certify Falcon 9 boosters for 40 flights."

This particular rocket has not undergone any extended maintenance or long-term grounding. It has flown an average of once every two months since debuting three-and-a-half years ago. So the 20-flight milestone SpaceX will achieve Friday night means this rocket has doubled its original design life and, at the same time, has reached the halfway point of its extended service life.

In its career, this booster has launched eight people and 530 spacecraft, mostly Starlinks. The rocket's first two flights launched GPS navigation satellites for the US military, then it launched two commercial human spaceflight missions with Dragon crew capsules. These were the all-private Inspiration4 mission and Axiom Mission 1, the first fully commercial crew flight to the International Space Station.

Booster 1062 launch, April 29, 2022. Also a Starlink launch, noteworthy for crushing their previous record for recycle time between flights.  Image credit: Richard Angle for Teslrati.

It has been a busy month for SpaceX - 12 days into it. Assuming it launches tonight, it will be the sixth Falcon 9 launch in less than eight days. Since last Friday, launches have included three Starlink flights, the first Bandwagon satellite ride sharing launch, and the launch of a US Space Force weather satellite from Vandenberg. Falcon 9 lifts roughly 80% of all the payloads launched around the world every year.