Sunday, June 30, 2024

Looks Like A Bad Week to Hang Around Chinese Launch Sites

A Chinese commercial launch provider called Space Pioneer had an accident unlike any I've heard of. A rocket undergoing a static firing on a test stand broke free and launched itself before crashing to the ground near the test facility in Gongyi country, Henan province, on Sunday, June 30 local time. A video from the Telegraph, the UK News service, captures it with English text on screen.  

Space Pioneer was conducting its test as a buildup to an orbital launch of the Tianlong-3, which is benchmarked against the SpaceX Falcon 9, in the coming months. The company announced earlier this month that it has secured $207 million in new funding.

Shanghai-based digital newspaper The Paper reported Henan officials as saying there were no casualties reported. 

Space Pioneer issued its own statement later saying there was a structural failure at the connection between the rocket body and the test bench. They add that once the flight control software realized the vehicle was airborne, it shut off the engines, but that's not apparent watching the video. It seems to fly with a full flame tail for 15 seconds before the appearance of the flames appear to change, a long time under the circumstances. There looks to be a full 25 seconds before it loses enough velocity to start falling back to Earth. 

No casualties? Or no pieces big enough to recognize as once having been people?

It has been a bad few days to be around China's launch facilities. Eight days before, June 22, this crash of a hypergolic propellant vehicle apparently unfolded. (That's a YouTube "short" video and they don't import into this editor well) China 'N Asia Spaceflight has a smaller version on X.

A Long March 2C rocket lifted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center at 3:00 a.m. Eastern (0700 UTC) June 22, sending the Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) mission satellite into orbit. 

The launch was declared successful by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) a short time after liftoff. 

A video posted on Chinese social media site Sina Weibo appears to show a rocket booster falling on a populated area with people running for cover.

The booster fell to Earth near Guiding County, Qiandongnan Prefecture in Guizhou province, according to another post. An airspace closure notice for the mission established a temporary danger area containing Guiding County, Guizhou.

SpaceNews goes on to report that comments to the video included some saying it was due to "a failed recovery of SpaceX’s Starship" while others said it was an American conspiracy. Get a clue, commenters, Starship flies on methalox - methane and oxygen. Those don't look like that video. 

The Long March 2C uses a toxic, hypergolic (explodes on contact) mix of nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH). The reddish-orange gas or smoke from the booster could be indicative of nitrogen tetroxide, while a yellowish color could be caused by hydrazine fuel mixing with air. The trail of the rocket in that short video looks far more like nitrogen tetroxide than the Starship's fuel.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

My "Little Ham Radio Backstory" Conclusion

When I started that piece, two weeks ago today, I had a simple conclusion I was going toward, but I kept wondering how many people understood the language we speak in the corner of the ham radio I world I'm talking about. Not just a word or two, like paper chaser, or grid square, but enough to follow what I'm saying. 

Here's where I'm going.

A few months ago we had propagation or band openings that I honestly didn't expect. In much of March and April, I'd get guys in South America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay for example, stronger than locals - very high signal to noise ratios - and all of them (including the very strong local guy) off the back of my beam. That means in principle, they'd be 25 dB stronger if I was pointing the antenna toward them, which would turn their 25 to 30 dB SNR to 50 to 55 dB (except the software can't measure that high an SNR). 

Even better, those openings lasted a good long time. I'd hear those south American station for maybe an hour. One of my best catches in the period was a guy on the Falkland Islands off the SE tip of South America. I spent the better part of a half hour calling him to get a contact before he answered, and he was easy to copy for an hour.

March through April aren't considered months that have very good propagation so this was outstanding. The sporadic E (Es) propagation we expect to liven things up typically picks up as April turns to May and then Es is very good by the start of June and through July. 

There's a website and utility called PSKReporter that I can use to show everything my station heard within some time period, from 15 minutes up to 24 hours. I made a comparison plot to show a friend two days, April 29 and May 1st. Each and every red drop (think upside down drop) is a different station. These plots were made around 8 or 9AM and represent a few hours out of the previous day; the purpose was to show the day to day variation of what was phenomenal coverage.

If you study the two you see interesting things like Monday had the Caribbean from Haiti through the Lesser Antilles, but Wednesday had none of that bunch. Conversely, Wednesday had western US states including Colorado, possibly Nebraska and over to Arizona and California, as well as several heard in Mexico and Guatemala while Monday didn't. So while they don't match exactly, they're similar in an overall sense. They don't match but they rhyme.

Considering I only expected things to get better, that's pretty mind-boggling. Only it didn't get better - it took a nose dive.

I use a different website to tell me what everyone else is hearing, a site in Spain called DXMaps. A plot from June 2nd can help me explain. 

What I want to draw your attention to is that mess of red lines in the NE US. Someone came up with the term "Red blob" and it's pretty descriptive. Every one of the little boxes with call signs represent people reporting hearing or contacting the other end of the red line (and some of the red lines don't have those boxes, but you need to look really zoomed in to see that). In that blob area, the red report lines are so dense you can't even see the map underneath the lines. But notice that the lines don't cross into Florida, except for one guy reporting (or being reported by) a few stations in Texas.

For virtually all of June and the last week or two of May, I'd see a display like this on DXMaps and hear nothing in the blob or even from the overall direction of the blob. The vast majority of the time I'd hear or copy nothing except for one or two guys in peninsular Florida. Maybe within 50 to 100 miles, but rarely beyond the state line with Georgia or Alabama

Another thing that happens is that I'll finally copy someone from up in the blob area, or at least well beyond Florida and I'll copy one or two of their 15 second transmissions, meaning the opening was around 45 seconds long. With the FT8 mode, each side sends two 15 second transmissions and they're an exchange of information. That means the shortest possible contact is 60 seconds - once you both know you're there, so it's really closer to needing 90 seconds of opening than 60. More is always better.

Earlier this week, I had the station on earlier than usual (before noon) and I noticed the red contact traces were extending into Florida. I took that as a clue that maybe it would be better in the morning than the afternoon, and so far that has worked. In March and April, the band didn't really get open until 3PM or later, my time. For a while that seemed to be moving later in the day, now it seems to be moving earlier.

Putting all this together, this is supposed to be the best time of the year and it's the worst best time I can remember. It's the peak of the solar cycle, and while it's not a particularly good cycle, it's better than the last one. Most people think the peak of the solar cycle should be good for propagation, but that isn't the case for this year. I don't know what to expect going forward. 

Friday, June 28, 2024

"SpaceX will destroy the ISS"

To me, this is probably the Most Annoying Clickbaits on YouTube. Not because it's this one video with one guy pushing it, but a few posters keep posting things like this on how SpaceX is Going to Destroy the International Space Station.

I haven't bothered to look at any of those to see if they get the story right because any click is a reward for posting crap like that. The story is much simpler. Like it or not, the Space Station is showing signs of old age (like that Russian module leaking). NASA has projected it won't last beyond 2030. That means like it or not, the ISS is coming down one way or another. NASA looked at the options and went with a very reasonable option. Contract for what they're calling the US Deorbit Vehicle, and pick a winning bidder with what they judge to have the best chance of safely bringing the station back to Earth, presumably in a very remote part of some ocean.

NASA awarded the contract to SpaceX this week; $843 million to design and build the USDV.  

This spacecraft will dock to the International Space Station in 2029 and ensure the station makes a controlled reentry through Earth's atmosphere before reentering in 2030. The bids were submitted last year and the contract just announced on June 26. 

"Selecting a US Deorbit Vehicle for the International Space Station will help NASA and its international partners ensure a safe and responsible transition in low Earth orbit at the end of station operations," said Ken Bowersox, NASA's associate administrator for Space Operations, in a statement. "This decision also supports NASA’s plans for future commercial destinations and allows for the continued use of space near Earth."

NASA has been working to help initiate a commercial economy in low Earth orbit and has been supporting the few companies working to establish private space stations - presumably with contracts. The concept is that they would contract with these companies to accommodate NASA astronauts as well as astronauts from other countries and space tourists. The goal is to have these private stations operational by 2030 when the ISS will be decommissioned. Having a deadline for ISS availability is expected to help investors decide if they want to invest in these companies.

So how does one decommission the ISS, a behemoth approximately the size of an American football field, with a mass of nearly 1 million pounds (450 metric tons)?

The space agency considered alternatives to splashing the station down into a remote area of an ocean. One option involved moving the station into a stable parking orbit at 40,000 km above Earth, above geostationary orbit. However, the agency said this would require 3,900 m/s of delta-V, compared to the approximately 47 m/s of delta-V needed to deorbit the station. In terms of propellant, NASA estimated moving to a higher orbit would require 900 metric tons, or the equivalent of 150 to 250 cargo supply vehicles.

NASA also considered partially disassembling the station before its reentry but found this would be much more complex and risky than a controlled deorbit that kept the complex intact.

(No mention of considering crashing the station in a place where a million pounds of trash wouldn't be out of place, like San Fransicko or Lost Angeles.)

We don't know what SpaceX proposed but we can make some guesses. Since this is a mission that requires the DV to fire when it needs to for how long it needs to apply thrust, no more or no less, it needs to be what they call a "Category 3" rocket; that is, rockets that have a robust launch history. This immediately implies a Falcon 9. A Falcon 9 is a launch vehicle, though, not something with a robust history of operating in space. That implies something based on the Dragon space craft - probably Cargo Dragon rather than Crew - both of which are developing a good track record of mission success. 

Another option is the "Dragon XL" spacecraft, which SpaceX is designing to supply NASA's Lunar Gateway station near the Moon. This vehicle could conceivably have the propulsive capability to deorbit the station, and, critically, it is being designed to have the capability to remain docked to a space station for 12 months or longer, similar to the requirement for the deorbit vehicle. Therefore, this seems like the most probable choice.

An interesting footnote to this discussion is that NASA originally offered the bidding in two phases: the design phase was "Cost-plus" and the development phase was firm fixed-price. SpaceX chose to do the entire contract as firm fixed-price, and while NASA and Bill Nelson were discussing it as a $1.5 billion job, SpaceX bid that $834 million, saving 44% of what they estimated. 

Image credit: NASA

Thursday, June 27, 2024

ULA to Launch Vulcan Cert-2 Flight with no Payload

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to read that United Launch Alliance (ULA) is going to launch the second flight of their Vulcan launch vehicle without a payload in an attempt to complete their certification mission requirements for the US Space Force. 

The second flight of Vulcan, the Cert-2 mission, had been reserved for Sierra Space's Dream Chaser spacecraft for the last five years, and in light of what appeared to be Dream Chaser's successful test campaign this winter and spring at NASA's Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Sandusky, Ohio, I had been expecting Dream Chaser to be ready for an early fall launch. 

There's still a lot of work for Sierra Space to do to prepare the Dream Chaser spaceplane for launch. Sierra Space's chief executive, Tom Vice, recently told ULA that the Dream Chaser spaceplane will not be ready to fly by September, when ULA will have the next Vulcan rocket ready to go.

Tory Bruno, ULA's CEO, announced the change in flight plan for the second Vulcan rocket in a conference call with reporters.

“Timing is everything," Bruno said. "We waited as long as possible on Dream Chaser because we really, really wanted to fly them. It’s a very exciting mission.”

Instead, this is going to be a “Certification at our own expense” for ULA. Since no other payloads farther down the schedule are ready, the mission will carry a "dummy satellite" more commonly called dead weight. Ironically, that load was originally developed for the Cert-1 mission out of concern that its main payload, Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander, wouldn't be ready; the same situation going on here.

For the Cert-2 flight, Vulcan will fly in the same configuration as the successful Cert-1 mission, with two strap-on solid rocket boosters alongside Vulcan's two BE-4 engines from Blue Origin. Vulcan's upper stage, the Centaur V will then carry the load the rest of the way to Low Earth Orbit. 

"We'll do some maneuvers with the upper stage just to fully characterize the limits of what Centaur V can do," Bruno said. Future Vulcan missions will require the Centaur V upper stage to fly in space for six or more hours to place national security payloads directly into geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

The Centaur V is based on the Centaur upper stage that flies on ULA's soon-to-be-retired Atlas V rocket, but it has larger propellant tanks and a second engine. ULA engineers will use the Centaur V demonstrations on the Cert-2 mission to measure how much super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants boil off in space. Ultimately, this data will help ULA determine Centaur V's endurance in orbit.

In essence, this is a learning exercise for ULA at their expense instead of one paid for by the customer's payload. From their standpoint, Space Force simply needs to see that ULA can repeat the success of the first Vulcan launch. Once Certification is granted, they could conceivably put a military payload on the third Vulcan flight before the end of the year. 

The Space Force is eager for Vulcan to become available for a backlog of 25 military launches it awarded to ULA beginning in 2020, when the first Vulcan flight was scheduled to happen in 2021. Instead, Vulcan didn't fly until this year, and there is urgency for ULA to complete the second Vulcan certification flight, known as Cert-2, as soon as possible.

Vulcan Centaur's Cert-1 flight lifts off on January 8, 2024 from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Image credit: United Launch Alliance. 

At the end of the conference, Bruno gave a small update on their plans to reuse the BE-4 engines from each Vulcan flight. 

ULA is taking a dual-pronged approach with the engine reuse program. One line of work involves designing the detachable aft end of the Vulcan booster, which will separate from the rest of the rocket, reenter the atmosphere, and deploy a parachute for capture in mid-air. Bruno said the architecture for the separating engine pod recently passed a preliminary design review, a relatively early stage of development. For context, ULA completed the preliminary design review for the basic version of the Vulcan rocket in 2016, nearly eight years before it finally launched.
The other effort related to engine reuse is the development of an inflatable heat shield, with the help of NASA, to protect the Vulcan booster engines during reentry back into the atmosphere. ULA and NASA tested a half-scale model of the inflatable heat shield on a reentry in 2022 and are now working on a larger version.

Bruno added, "I know it’s not quite as photogenic as a propulsive first stage that flies back and lands," as SpaceX does and Blue Origin still plans to do with New Glenn.



Wednesday, June 26, 2024

China's Chang'e-6 Returns Lunar Far Side Samples

China's Chang'e-6 capsule that landed on the far side of the moon after its May 3 launch returned its samples to Earth yesterday, completing its 53 day mission.  

The roughly 300-kilogram Chang’e-6 reentry capsule separated from the mission service module 5,000 kilometers away from Earth. The capsule then skipped off the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean at 1:41 a.m. Eastern (0541 UTC) June 25 to decelerate, before making a final descent.

The reentry capsule—containing around 2 kilograms of lunar material drilled and scooped from Apollo crater on the far side of the moon—landed in the grasslands of Siziwang Banner, Inner Mongolia at around 2:07 a.m. Teams recovered the capsule shortly after.

China is justly proud that this is the first mission in human history to return samples from the far side, and from a practical standpoint, it required too much infrastructure to have been done back in the '60s - it was too different from the single goal of Apollo. It was a five spacecraft effort. 

The mission was supported by the Queqiao-2 lunar relay satellite launched in March. Chang’e-6 then launched on a Long March 5 rocket from Wenchang spaceport May 3. The four-spacecraft stack entered lunar orbit just under five days later. 

Its lander-ascent vehicle combination landed at 41.6385°S, 206.0148°E in Apollo crater within the vast and scientifically intriguing South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin June 1. 

Long Xiao, a Planetary geoscientist for China University of Geosciences in Wuhan said in an interview after the landing, “I am excited about the future research scientists will conduct on these samples, which will provide valuable insights for addressing many significant lunar science questions. This is a major event for scientists worldwide.” 

“The Moon’s geological features are highly uneven. The far side of the moon differs significantly from the near side,” says Long. “The far side, affected by the South Pole-Aitken basin impact and lacking extensive maria regions, suggests that its geological evolution process is different from that of the near side.” 

The South Pole-Aitken (or SPA) basin is a gigantic impact crater, one of the largest and oldest impact features in the solar system. The impact which caused the basin is thought to have excavated material from the moon’s interior. 

A topographic view of the SPA. From SciTech Daily 2018 

China has already planned several additional lunar missions, including Chang’e-7 in 2026, and the more serious sounding Chang’e-8 in-situ resource utilization and technology test mission around 2028. 

In addition, they plan a manned lunar landing by 2030 and what they're referring to as the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) after that. Super heavy-lift launches in the early 2030s will construct ILRS. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Small Space News Story Roundup 38

A different kind of assortment tonight. After the first short story.

Ariane 6 seems to be on track for July 9th first flight

Following a successful Wet Dress Rehearsal on June 20th, European Space Agency officials are saying the much delayed launch appears to be within reach. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced during a June 25 press conference that the rehearsal was a "full success." After years-long delays, ESA is confident that their Ariane 6 rocket, deemed the future of Europe's ability to launch satellites into Earth orbit, will finally get off the ground. ESA and French launch provider Arianespace, which commercially manages the rocket, are preparing for a launch on July 9. The three-hour window opens at 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT).

"Of course, we're still analyzing the data — it might take a few days still. But all we have up to now says that our baby Ariane 6 is working perfectly," said Lucia Linares, head of strategy and institutional launches at ESA.

Like every new vehicle I can think of lately, this won't be a flight lifting dead weight; it will be carrying actual payloads including nine cubesats. The upper stage (called Vinci) will also carry four non-orbital experiments, including an experiment called SIDLOC that will test a system for rapidly locating satellites and two capsules that will drop from orbit into the Pacific in order to test if they can re-enter Earth's atmosphere successfully. 

The sunspot behind that epic May 10 geomagnetic storm is back

The sunspot that caused the May 10 storm, among the 20 strongest on record (second story down) that brought aurora displays down to low magnetic latitudes like New Caledonia (MLAT = -26.4°) and Puerto Rico (MLAT = 27.2°) is back

THAT POTENT OLD SUNSPOT IS BACK: Old sunspot AR3664, which caused the May 10th superstorm, has returned. This is its 3rd trip across the solar disk. Per tradition, it has been re-numbered 3 times: Originally AR3664, then AR3697, now AR3723. X-flares are possible as it once again turns to face Earth.

The sunspot group formerly known as AR3664, then AR3697, and now known as AR3723 is highlighted in white. Credit: SDO/HMI

The ability to create strong flares comes from the magnetic configuration of the group, and this photo doesn't show that detail. There have been no X-class flares since this group reappeared, but it did through an M9.36 class flare, just below X1 (if the numbering were continuous, M10.0 = X1.0, so M9.36 was close to X class) on Sunday, June 23, at 1300 UTC, or 9:00 AM EDT.  

A fun interview with Sir Peter Beck of Rocket Lab 

Just last Friday, we did a piece congratulating Rocket Lab on their 50th launch. Yesterday, Eric Berger at Ars Technica released a summary of an interview he did with Beck earlier in the month. I don't want to try to summarize it here, but just leave a landmark to go read the whole thing. 

Chances are that nobody has interviewed Beck as often as Eric Berger has because of how long Berger has been the space correspondent for Ars. Consequently, while it's just about all quotes from both of them, there's also some familiarity there between them. He calls it "Sir Peter Beck Unplugged" and I get that feeling.  

I will pull one of my favorite little pieces that I saw in it:

I remember running around Silicon Valley trying to raise $5 million at a time. Everybody would look at Virgin Orbit and say, "Well, how are you competing with Richard Branson?" For all intents and purposes, he had infinite capital. We have a saying here at Rocket Lab that we have no money, so we have to think. We've never been in a position to outspend our competitors. We just have to out-think them. We have to be lean and mean. If I had to boil it down to one succinct thing you could put in an article, I would say it's being ruthlessly efficient and not making mistakes.

Did you get that? "..we have no money, so we have to think" I love that quote. 

Oh, as you might expect, Sir Peter Beck calls Eric Berger "Eric". Eric Berger calls him "Pete."



Monday, June 24, 2024

First Falcon Heavy Mission of '24 on Tuesday

Tuesday afternoon, we'll get the first Falcon Heavy mission of 2024. The launch window opens Tuesday evening at 5:16 PM EDT from Launch Complex 39A on the Kennedy Space Center, with a window open to 7:31 PM and a backup window at the same times Wednesday.

The gotcha here is that it's summer thunderstorm season here on the coast and there's only a 30% chance of acceptable weather for both the 25th and 26th. SpaceX just posted to X (at 3:58 PM EDT), "Teams completed the launch readiness review, and we are targeting Tuesday, June 25 for Falcon Heavy’s launch of @NASA's GOES-U mission from pad 39A in Florida."

I took advantage of the NASA Spaceflight 24/7 camera on the KSC to grab this shot of the vehicle having just rolled over to the launch pad to be readied for flight. The right end of the rocket is the cargo fairing and the satellite is in there, fueled and ready to go.

GOES-U is a weather satellite, intended to provide advanced imagery and atmospheric measurements of Earth’s weather, oceans, and environment, as well as real-time mapping of total lightning activity, improved monitoring of solar activity and space weather. 

This mission will the first flights for all three sections of the Falcon Heavy. The core, booster 1087 will be expended, however the side boosters, B1086 and B1072 will return to the launch site Landing Zones 1 and 2.  

The launch trajectory appears to be almost due east, so not particularly good for anyone along the coast. Better for us south of the KSC than if it was headed NE; not as good as if it was headed SE or south. Vice versa for those living north of the Cape. 

Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Next Impossible Rocket Engine or the Most Important Ever?

Do you remember the electromagnetic or EM drive from the 20-teens (which was first conceptualized in 2001)? While most engines that seem to defy common laws of physics tend to fall away when measured carefully, the EM drive actually delivered thrust when thoroughly tested. Among the groups studying it, the Chinese Academy of Sciences built a model and verified that at an input power of 2.5kW, their EmDrive thruster provided 720mN of thrust.  (720 milliNewtons isn't much thrust, about 2.5 ounces in the imperial system, but perhaps it could be further optimized).  

Later tests showed that the engine wasn't doing any new kind of physics and the idea faded away. The big selling idea was that it didn't use exhaust in an action/reaction system like conventional engines.

The goal of the engine is, of course, to get rid of the requirement for fuel to expel. All rockets require that action/reaction momentum transfer to work, and eject something, whether hot gasses in the case of virtually every rocket you see, or atomic-sized particles in ion engines. Even the fusion engines that seem to be the grail a large sector is pushing toward need to bring massive amounts of hydrogen (deuterium or tritium) to fuse and eject. 

The topic has come up again with the emergence of a new company called Exodus Technologies co-founded by Charles Buhler, who helped establish the Electrostatics and Surface Physics Laboratory at the Kennedy Space Center. The company claims to have found a way to manipulate electrostatic fields to produce an asymmetry - more force in a required direction. Not milliNewtons, like the EM drive, but more electrostatic repulsion than the weight of the engine. That is, more than the force of gravity. It can lift itself. 

Image from a talk in which Dr. Buhler presented his findings at a recent Alternative Propulsion Energy Conference (APEC).

We could be talking about hours to the moon instead of days, or days to Mars instead of months. That would totally revolutionize space travel. From the Exodus Technologies website:

Like chemical rockets, Exodus propulsion devices create momentum for a spacecraft's motion. However, Exodus' platform uses the interaction of electrostatic fields to harness the momentum found in electricity rather than in a chemical reaction.

The process of generating the Exodus Effect(TM) is repeatable, predictable, published and well-understood. After being released from a 2-year national security hold, the first patent describing the Exodus Effect(TM) has finally been issued by the USPTO. Both acceleration and thrust (Newtons) are quantifiable and supported by 3rd-party validations. These facts are what separate Exodus from the pack.

The key breakthrough appears to be creating asymmetrical fields by using an asymmetrical array of capacitors and high voltage.

Of the couple of videos I watched on the subject this seemed best to me:

Similarly, of the couple of articles I used in preparing this piece, I think this one from the Debrief was the best.

The way I look at this, in light of the EM drive, is that this is the first step, but as Richard Feynman once said, in science, “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” There needs to be lots of review of this. I don't know how, but the most likely case is they missed something and it's wrong. Is it possible there's an aspect to electromagnetics that nobody has thought of or perhaps just never noticed before? Absolutely. This is where the saying that science is self-correcting comes from. Get more people looking at what they did, more groups building and testing things and either verify it or show where it's wrong. 

Also from the Debrief article, the summary to APEC.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Guess Who's Delayed Again?

Right. Starliner with Butch and Suni. It was only Tuesday that they delayed it again, until this coming Tuesday, the 25th. This time they didn't specify a date, saying only "in July."

Not long after last night's post, Ars Technica posted the headline, "NASA indefinitely delays return of Starliner to review propulsion data." 

Which pretty much says it all. 

The announcement followed two days of long meetings to review the readiness of the spacecraft, developed by Boeing, to fly NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to Earth. According to sources, these meetings included high-level participation from senior leaders at the agency, including Associate Administrator Jim Free.

It seems pretty clear that the people at this meeting weren't comfortable with all the contingencies that Butch and Suni might encounter during a return flight to Earth, including safely undocking from the space station, maneuvering away, performing a de-orbit burn, separating the crew capsule from the service module, and then flying through the planet's atmosphere before landing under parachutes in a New Mexico desert. 

This is despite repeatedly saying Starliner is cleared to come home "in case of an emergency." Which makes me wonder what are the percentage odds of surviving they're talking about here? When they say "emergency" does that mean the ISS has been hit by a large chunk of space junk (or space rock) and is going to crash and burn? Would that mean the chances of surviving if they stay on the ISS are pretty much zero, but the chance of surviving reentry on Starliner are simply just greater than zero? Like 2%? 25%? Or do they mean the odds of the Starliner surviving aren't the 99.9 % they'd prefer (pure speculation here) but with some luck and some test pilot skills, they should be fine?  

Either way, Eric Berger at Ars points out something I didn't know. 

[T]his vehicle is only rated for a 45-day stay at the space station, and that clock began ticking on June 6. 

Note they say "rated for" not scheduled. I count that to be July 25th. 

Friday, June 21, 2024

Rocket Lab Joins the Elite Club - in First Place!

Rocket Lab had a momentous launch on Thursday afternoon (UTC and EDT) from their launch complex on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, successfully launching five satellites for France-based internet of things (IOT) company, KinĂ©is. The launch was at 6:13 a.m. NZST on Friday, June 21 (that was Thursday, June 20 at 2:13 p.m. US EDT, or 1813 UTC on June 20).

The big deal is that this was the 50th successful launch for Rocket Lab's Electron, a number that puts them in elite company. Furthermore, they are the fastest ever to achieve that milestone, just seven years after the vehicle’s debut in May 2017 and months ahead of the time it took SpaceX. 

A graph of commercially-developed, orbital-class rockets and how quickly they reached or approached 50 launches. Image credit: Rocket Lab

Prior to Electron’s 50th launch, Sir Peter Beck, the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, said he and his team are immensely proud of reaching this milestone in the time that they did.

“Out of all the commercially developed rockets in the world, Electron reaching 50, we did it in the fastest amount of time. So, we scaled faster to 50 than anybody else, faster than the Falcon 9, faster than Pegasus, faster than anything else commercially,” Beck said. “And that’s a really hard thing to do because whether it’s a giant rocket or a little rocket, the scaling element is the same and it’s super, super hard.”

Congratulatory tweet about the launch. Dark at 6:13 AM? Don't forget it's the second day of winter there.

It's worth noting that when Peter Beck started down the road to this moment, there not only was no company called Rocket Lab, there was no launch industry, and very little space industry at all in New Zealand. Rocket Lab essentially started the entire space industry in the country. While they've become a multinational corporation and started launching from Virginia, they still do most of their launches from their original launch complex on the Mahia peninsula. 

The Electron is a small rocket, and while they're launching regularly for a group of customers including U.S. agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office and the U.S. Space Force as well as preparing for a planetary mission to Mars with Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket as the ride to space, they're also working hard on development of their bigger, booster, Neutron.  

Congratulations to Sir Beck and the entire team at Rocket Lab. 

Thursday, June 20, 2024

It's the Summer Solstice

As I started typing this we passed the exact minute of this years summer solstice, 4:51PM EDT. It's now officially summer, and today is the longest day of the year. I sometimes wonder if anyone has ever measured that with the extremely accurate clocks we have these days. There's always some wobble to the Earth such that times can move around with days milliseconds longer or shorter than predicted. Today is supposed to be 1.2175 milliseconds shorter than 24 hours. 

The sunrise/sunset app I have on my phone (really old - I think it's not supported anymore) says sunrise this morning was in the minute it calls 6:26 AM. The earliest sunrise of the year was called 6:25 AM and the phone app said sunrise was 6:25 from June 1 until yesterday. Sunrises will get later every morning from here until the new year. Sunset, meanwhile is 8:22 and doesn't reach the latest sunset of the year, 8:23, until June 27 and stays there until July 5th. After that, sunsets get earlier until around the end of November. 

You were expecting symmetry?

It's there, but not what you expect. Sunrise and sunset don't both smoothly get earlier and later reaching their min/max on the solstice. Earliest sunrise is before the solstice, latest sunset is after. In the summer. In the winter, the earliest sunset is before the solstice, late November/early December and latest sunrise is after it - the first week of January. That seems like mirror image symmetry. 

I went looking through the blog history searching for articles on this and found that I haven't written about the summer solstice before, but have written about the winter solstice a few times. It's probably at least partly because I greatly prefer our winter over our summer, so I look forward to the winter solstice more. Back when Mrs. Graybeard and I used to ride our bikes together a standard line was about being tired of summer by the time we got to the first day.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

FAA Ends Public Comment on Starship Expansion on Cape

As part of approval for SpaceX adding a second Starship launch complex on the Kennedy Space Center, the FAA has been soliciting comments from everyone. The results are to be considered in preparing the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Payload Space carries the story.  

Frankly, the comments surprised me because I've never met people who feel this way. It seems those who commented think the average two launches in a week of a Falcon 9 are too loud and too much to bear. They're afraid of destruction from the sounds and are worried the much bigger Starship/SuperHeavy will be far worse.

“Every time that there is a Falcon 9 launch, depending on where the wind is coming from, you can hear a fairly potent rattling of windows,” said Pablo Deleon, a resident of Cape Canaveral.

As they see it, the noise complaints can’t be solved with earplugs and quiet hours. Many commenters voiced concerns about infrastructural damage that could come with the added launch frequency.

“We need to come up with a mitigation plan to where we don’t destroy our beloved structures in the area in the name of progress in space exploration,” said Brad Whitmore, a resident of Cocoa Village, 20 miles from the launch site.

The first comment about fairly potent window rattling is something I view as a feature, not a bug, but I'm also around 30 to 35 miles from the launch pads and we enjoy the launch rumble. It figures to be louder as you get closer to the pad. We have noticed that when the weather conditions and trajectory are just right for a "really good" rumble, our patio doors will shake enough to rattle. Mrs. Graybeard put a toothpick between them and silenced it.

At least one other commenter said that the EIS the FAA approved for Boca Chica was bad and doesn't want to see anything like that here. 

“In Boca Chica, the FAA has taken the position that deluge waste water from Starship craft is indistinguishable from stormwater… and this is in direct contradiction of the Clean Water Act,” said Eric Roesch, a frequent watcher of federal approvals in the oil and gas industry.

Let's see: SuperHeavy burns methane with oxygen - both are liquidized for better handling - and it's about as simple a chemical equation to balance as you'll ever find.

CH4 + 2 O2 → CO2 + 2 H2O

Methane and oxygen burn to produce carbon dioxide (plant food) and water (also good for plants). What else is in the waste water? Maybe bits of dirt that were under the launch pad? Maybe flakes of paint? That should be all there is, so what's in there that's so much worse than stormwater runoff that I'm missing?

A particularly pretty photo of an evening Falcon 9 launch, January 2023. Image credit: Trevor Mahlmann

The few quotes acknowledged, my perspective is entirely different. There's a handful of places in the world where you can watch rockets launch from your yard. I've been blessed enough to watch a couple of launches from the Cape itself with the required pass to get there. After the first minute, it doesn't look extremely different than from my yard. Of all the places in the world where you can watch them, we're the only place with a launch rate well over 100 in a year. China might be close, but they drop boosters on populated areas and we don't. 

The Cape has been America's primary launch facility since the start of the space program, and the creation of NASA. I moved here in the early years of the space shuttle program and every place I worked, people would go outside to watch a shuttle launch, spending a few minutes watching until the SRBs were dropped instead of taking a regular break time. 

I consider it practically a privilege to live here. They seem to consider it an annoyance.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Starliner is Getting Unnerving

I was going to say Starliner is starting to get on my nerves, but it's already living there. It's starting to seriously creep me out. 

NASA and Boeing have delayed Starliner's return to Earth yet again. Originally set to have returned by now, the 18th, it was delayed four days to Saturday the 22nd and now has been delayed to next Tuesday, the 25th, "to review all available data about the performance of the Starliner spacecraft before clearing the vehicle to return to Earth." 

During a news conference on Tuesday, the program manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, Steve Stich, said the four-day delay in the spacecraft's return would "give our team a little bit more time to look at the data, do some analysis, and make sure we're really ready to come home." 

They've been working around two hardware issues throughout the mission and really since before launch. The big one was the helium leak that started while on the launch pad and delayed the launch, yet again. Then, during the trip to the Space Station, another five helium leaks were detected. Followed by the failure of five of the vehicle's 28 reaction-control system thrusters as Starliner approached the station. 

Since then, engineers from NASA and Boeing have been studying these two problems. They took an important step toward better understanding both on Saturday, June 15, when Starliner was powered up for a thruster test.

During this test, engineers found that helium leak rates inside Starliner's Service Module were lower than the last time the vehicle was powered on. Although the precise cause of the leak is not fully understood—it is possibly due to a seal in the flange between the thruster and manifold—the lower leak rate gave engineers confidence they could manage the loss of helium. Even before this decrease in the leak, Starliner had large reserves of helium, officials said.

Maybe it's just me, but when I hear the helium leak rates were lower than the last time the vehicle was powered, I wonder if the rates will be higher than that previous rate the next time they turn it on. That is, getting worse with time instead of better. A corollary of Murphy's Law I've seen many times is "problems that go away by themselves come back by themselves." Remember Murphy's Law is one of the few laws of nature NOT documented by physicists that's as rock solid and unbreakable as the laws of physics are. 

The object of this mission is to certify the Starliner to go into regular crew rotations, and getting that certification doesn't seem be a foregone conclusion.  

The first opportunity for Boeing to fly one of these operational missions is early 2025, likely in February or March. NASA will soon need to decide whether to give this slot to Starliner or SpaceX's Dragon vehicle for the Crew-10 mission—NASA's 10th operational flight on Dragon.

That mission is being referred to as Starliner-1 now, but the question there of "do we assign the known, respected, Dragon or this new Starliner?" isn't looking like a lock for Starliner. If Dragon gets that mission, it probably pushes Starliner back six months until August or September. 

"We haven't looked too much ahead to Starliner-1," he said. "We've got to go address the helium leaks. We're not gonna go fly another mission like this with the helium leaks, and we've got to go understand what the rendezvous profile is doing that's causing the thrusters to have low thrust, and then be deselected by the flight control team."

Although Starliner's first crewed flight has challenged NASA and Boeing, Stich said the process has not been frustrating. “I would not characterize it as frustration," he said Tuesday. "I would characterize it as learning.”

Starliner arriving at the ISS on Thursday, June 6, soon to be two weeks ago. Image credit NASA TV.

Monday, June 17, 2024

The Sun's Magnetic Field is Flipping

Perhaps you've heard about it with some anxious comments that the sun's magnetic field is undergoing a reversal. These magnetic field reversals occur near the peak of every solar cycle, and have happened approximately every 11 years for all of human history and all of Earth's history. 

Dr. Scott McIntosh, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) was given a hint by a mentor when he started studying the sun there. For years, it was known there were spots on the sun that were bright in the Extreme Ultra Violet spectrum. His mentor, Dr. Gurman, said to find and track those spots, adding, "you might find something interesting." That led to the best prediction of this solar cycle that was published before cycle 25 really got started. His predictions for our current cycle were based on the prediction for the magnetic field (Hale cycle) flipping sooner than it really did which is why he predicted it being stronger than it has been. He's rather interested in predicting when this cycle is going to end and the beginning of cycle 26 is going to be seen.

The pattern, analyzed over the preceding cycles looks like this:

Screen capture from one of his regular videos for the Front Range 6 Meter Group on groups. io

The alternating patterns of colors converging toward the middle, then changing to the opposite color is as prominent as can be. (Call whichever color you like magnetic north or south). When both the red and blue diagonal lines converge at the equator, that's the Termination Event for the cycle. The red and blue areas are plotted with the year on the horizontal axis and latitude on the sun on the vertical. The solar equator, latitude zero, is the middle line. The other two horizontal lines are +/- 60 degrees. The complete cycle, called the Hale Cycle is two sunspot cycles, or averaging 22 years. 

The green plot above the magnetic plot is the smoothed sunspot number and the date goes from 1945 on the left to 2025 on the right. The second green curve from the left is cycle 19, the most active cycle ever observed. The second from the right is the previous cycle, 24, the weakest in a hundred years.

There's a lot that can be learned just from this one screen capture from Scott's March presentation. Note in particular that the dashed lines between termination events are not equally spaced. Cycle 23 (2nd from the right) is wider - longer - than 24 and much longer than 22 that preceded it. The second lowest cycle, the one right after cycle 19 (third from left) lasts longer than the one after it. These convergences toward the equator are mirrored in the sunspot distribution. As the cycle starts, the spots are higher up on the disk, and as it progresses, they show up progressively lower in latitude.

(Image credit: Future)

Another thing you might conclude from the image is that the field doesn't just suddenly flip. Those sloped lines are years long. In fact, looking at the red and blue lines, it's probably better to not think of it as flipping, but as constantly changing.

To those trying to scare you about this, at roughly 11 years per flip it's not a short term effect, but in the big picture it happens regularly often enough so that with a modicum of luck we all get to live through several of these field flips.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

In Honor of Father's Day

And prove positive (yet again!) that I often don't think that when I'm putting a piece together on Saturday night the next day is a Named Day. 

Just a couple of father's day facts.  Every time I've seen stats on this, as far back as I can recall, they say Mother's Day is the busiest phone day of the year:

"Each Mother’s Day, there are about 122 million phone calls made, according to Florida Blue, an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association."
Likewise, every time I've looked, Father's Day has the most collect calls of the year:
The tradition of making collect calls on Father’s Day can be attributed to the desire to connect with loved ones despite the distance. People often make these calls when they are unable to travel to be with their fathers, whether due to work commitments, financial limitations, or geographical barriers. By reaching out in this manner, individuals can bridge the physical gap and convey their affection and appreciation.

So my message is simple: I hope you enjoyed your day.  Whether you had a barbecue or not; did some shooting or fishing or not. Or Absolutely Nothing. 

There's an old joke that goes something like "act my age? I've never been this age, how am I supposed to know how to act?" I have a similar issue with Father's day. I'm a grandfather, so do I call my son to wish him a Happy Father's Day, or does he call me?

And if your kids still make collect calls, I hope you paid for the call. 



Saturday, June 15, 2024

A Little Ham Radio Backstory

Since the only space-related stories I can come across today aren't really "news" in the "man bites dog" or unexpected sense, but more routine and even expected stories like Starliner's stay on the ISS is being extended again from Tuesday, June 18 to Saturday June 22, I thought I'd relay a little story of my ham radio related stuff.  

If you're not interested in ham radio geekdom, have a nice day and check back tomorrow. 

Those of you who are also hams have probably figured out by now (possibly by my saying it) that I'm kind of a "wallpaper chaser" - going after honestly nearly-meaningless accomplishments like working all the US states, or the DX Century Club (DXCC), which is confirmed contacts with 100 countries. Any one of those certificates, with $5 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. With the exception that it's not the paper itself I'm pursuing, it's the accomplishment itself. I don't have a lot of that wallpaper in the radio room, but one of the first few posts (post #6) on the blog was about what I called my Lifetime Achievement Award in Ham Radio, 5BDXCC, short for Five Band DXCC. 

This November, nearly 14 years later, I've another three bands up to 8BDXCC and I'm more than halfway to my ninth band.  Why 14 years? A combination of things including not having made up my mind to chase it.

The ninth band where I'm currently around 60% of the way to DXCC is the VHF band at 50 MHz, called 6 meters, which used to be just below VHF TV channel 2 in the PD days (Pre-Digital TV). In terms of the other most common paper that people chase on 6, WAS (or Worked All States), I have all states confirmed except for Alaska, and they're the hardest state to get from Florida. With every Florida station I've spoken with, Hawaii or Alaska are the last ones they ever get to complete WAS. (I posted the story of how I got Hawaii last November)

There's another piece of paper that is unique to 6m named for the guy who was the first person to define and achieve it, Fred Fish. It's the Fred Fish Memorial Award, or FFMA, and depends on something non-hams won't know. The world is divided into what are called Maidenhead Grids, that are 1 degree in latitude by 2 degrees in longitude. That means the US is divided into a lot of these grid squares, and to achieve the FFMA requires confirmed contacts with all of the grid squares in the lower 48 contiguous states. There are 488 of these grid squares. Some of them are in big states but have very little population, some of them have very, very little dry land.

When I started playing on 6m, I was dimly aware of the FFMA, and got a paper map like this from Icom at a hamfest. I put 1 and 1 together and started checking off the grid squares that I worked. I never gave a thought to chasing the FFMA, but within a fairly short time, patterns started to emerge in what I worked. 

If you look at the protruding land on Florida's east coast, Cape Canaveral, you'll see the number 98. To the left of that, in the Gulf south of Louisiana, you'll see the much larger font EL. Those are put together, with letters first, and called grid EL98. That's where I live, but fairly close to the dividing line with EL97. I started making marks on this paper map to keep track of activity: a single mark meant Worked, and a second mark was added when it was Confirmed. Within a short time of doing this, I started to see a large arc. At the north, it was around where the large red squares marked EM and FM touched EN and FN respectively. To the west, it tended to arc south from around Indiana into Texas. Slowly and gradually more of the grid squares filled in, affected by (1) radio propagation distances and (2) population density. No matter how good the propagation, if nobody lives or travels there, you're not going to get a contact.

This past fall, I watched a video by a ham in Arizona on how he decided to pursue the FFMA and went from having around 100 grid squares to the full 488 in "under 1500 days" - just over four years. His way of approaching the task was very much like the way I think of doing things, and before I knew it, I was gathering information and starting down the road. I had an advantage starting over him - he had 100 grids confirmed. I had a little over 200 confirmed, like maybe 225, but his station was better than mine to start with and he did some additional improvements I'm not likely to be able to do.

Well, it seems that I've used up a lot of space without once getting to the story I wanted to tell tonight, about the reality of the propagation we're getting as we go into the peak years of this solar cycle. I've noted several people saying they think it's the worst spring through June they can recall. It seems that way to me as well.

Stay tuned for a part 2.

Friday, June 14, 2024

US Space Force Opens a New Round of Bidding for Launch Contracts

By itself, it's not really headline news that the US Space Force is announcing another round of launch contracts is open to be bid on. Yeah, it's not constant stuff that they do every day, but it's still done fairly often. The news here is the contractors being considered.  In particular, Blue Origin and their still never-flown New Glenn. 

The US Space Force announced Thursday that Blue Origin will compete with United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for at least 30 military launch contracts over the next five years. These launch contracts have a combined value of up to $5.6 billion.

This is the first of two major contract decisions the Space Force will make this year as the military seeks to foster more competition among its roster of launch providers, and reduce its reliance on just one or two companies.

For over a decade after the formation of United Launch Alliance from Boeing and Lockheed Martin, ULA was the pentagon's sole launch provider. In 2018, SpaceX started launching military payloads for the military. 

The approach for this new round of contracts, known as NSSL Phase 3, is different from the way the military previously bought launch services. Instead of grouping all national security launches into one monolithic contract, the Space Force is dividing them into two classifications: Lane 1 and Lane 2. 

The concept is that Lane 1 is smaller payloads to LEO. These launches will include smaller tech demos, experiments, and launches for the military’s new constellation of missile tracking and data relay satellites. While small satellites, this could eventually include hundreds or thousands of spacecraft managed by the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency. Lane 2 is for bigger payloads.

This fall, the Space Force will award up to three contracts for Lane 2, which covers the government's most sensitive national security satellites, which require "complex security and integration requirements." These are often large, heavy spacecraft weighing many tons and sometimes needing to go to orbits thousands of miles from Earth. The Space Force will require Lane 2 contractors to go through a more extensive certification process than required in Lane 1.

“Today marks the beginning of this innovative, dual-lane approach to launch service acquisition, whereby Lane 1 serves our commercial-like missions that can accept more risk and Lane 2 provides our traditional, full mission assurance for the most stressing heavy-lift launches of our most risk-averse missions," said Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

The bidders also had to substantiate their plan to launch the rocket they proposed to use for Lane 1 missions by December 15 of this year. The selections are the two you'd expect - SpaceX Falcon Heavy (and Falcon 9 where it can lift the payload), along with ULA's new Vulcan - plus Blue Origin's New Glenn. The Vulcan has flown successfully once and may have its Cert-2 (certification) flight "No Earlier Than" this September. New Glenn has never flown but Blue Origin has also listed its first flight, which I'm assuming is their Cert-1 mission, as NET September. 

“As we anticipated, the pool of awardees is small this year because many companies are still maturing their launch capabilities,” said Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, program executive officer for the Space Force's assured access to space division. “Our strategy accounted for this by allowing on-ramp opportunities every year, and we expect increasing competition and diversity as new providers and systems complete development."

The Space Force plans to open up the first on-ramp opportunity for Lane 1 as soon as the end of this year. Companies with medium-lift rockets in earlier stages of development, such as Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Firefly Aerospace, and Stoke Space, will have the chance to join ULA, SpaceX, and Blue Origin in the Lane 1 pool at that time. The structure of the NSSL Phase 3 contracts allow the Pentagon to take advantage of emerging launch capabilities as soon as they become available, according to Calvelli.

First New Glenn on the pad at Launch Complex 36 for testing earlier this year. Image credit: Blue Origin.

I was a bit confused by the language of saying Lane 1 was for smaller, LEO satellites and other small payloads, then putting Falcon Heavy, Vulcan and New Glenn in Lane 1 when they clearly seem to be the ones necessary for Lane 2, but perhaps that means they become Lane 2 when it becomes real, and can also do Lane 1 missions, but Lane 1 contractors can't do Lane 2. Or something. 

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Ed Stone - 50 Years Leading Voyager 1 & 2 - RIP

Ed Stone, who served as the project scientist for NASA's groundbreaking Voyager missions from 1972 to 2022, died on Sunday (June 9) at the age of 88

"Ed Stone was a trailblazer who dared mighty things in space. He was a dear friend to all who knew him, and a cherished mentor to me personally," Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in NASA's obituary for Stone, which the agency posted on Tuesday (June 11). 

"Ed took humanity on a planetary tour of our solar system and beyond, sending NASA where no spacecraft had gone before," Fox added. "His legacy has left a tremendous and profound impact on NASA, the scientific community, and the world. My condolences to his family and everyone who loved him. Thank you, Ed, for everything."

I've written a lot on the Voyagers over the years, and remember watching on TV when they both launched. I think of the Voyagers as probably the most significant thing humanity has ever done - certainly in the top couple of things. Yes, bigger than leaving some footprints on the moon and then giving it up to live in Low Earth Orbit. In a way, Apollo was before its time, but it was a wonderful thing to watch, too. It's just that the people fighting Apollo seemed to have the main message of, "why are you spending money on that when you could be spending it on me?" (Or spending it on us, or on our pet project?) 

The Voyagers are approaching the 50th year of their missions and as we experienced from last November until just a few weeks ago in May, they're requiring more regular attention. Honestly, it's nearly a miracle they're still usable to the extent they are as they approach year 47 in space, but both probes are still returning data. 

Voyager 1 is currently more than 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers) from home, and its twin is about 13 billion miles (21 billion km) into the void. That's about 162 and 136 Earth-sun distances (or astronomical units), respectively.

Still, it's sobering to realize that with 47 years in space, the farther probe, Voyager 1 is currently 22 hours, 37 minutes and change away at light speed. I'll call it 22-1/2 light hours away. The nearest stars are just over four light years away. Assuming it's even going in the right direction, it'll take Voyager 1 almost 77,000 years to get to the Alpha/Proxima Centauri star system. 

That's why some sort of "warp drive" or other totally new propulsion system has to be developed to make expanding beyond the solar system remotely feasible. 

If you're inclined to read it, here's a link to NASA's obituary for Ed Stone.

Ed Stone in the foreground at a press conference for the PBS special, "The Farthest" released in 2017. Rahoul Ghose, PBS photo.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

What NASA Wants and Expects from Starship Testing

Eric Berger at Ars Technica speculates that few people if any were happier with Starship's flight test IFT-4 last week than a NASA engineer named Catherine Koerner. 

In remarks after the spaceflight, Koerner praised the "incredible" video of the Starship rocket and its Super Heavy booster returning to Earth, with each making a soft landing. "That was very promising, and a very, very successful engineering test," she added, speaking at a meeting of the Space Studies Board.

A former flight director, Koerner now manages development of the "exploration systems" that will support the Artemis missions for NASA—a hugely influential position within the space agency. This includes the Space Launch System rocket, NASA's Orion spacecraft, spacesuits, and the Starship vehicle that will land on the Moon.

That's a lot to be overseeing, and it's not all going spectacularly smoothly. There are many reasons to be concerned with the announced date of September 2026 for the Artemis III mission that will land on the moon. While IFT-4 demonstrated a lot of progress there is still much to do to ensure a successful moon landing. Much of that has little or nothing to do with SpaceX and Starship.

Depending on where they work and how high up the "org tree" they are, engineers can spend as much - or more - time contingency planning as they do designing. As part of trying to make those plans, NASA and SpaceX have raised the the possibility of modifying the Artemis III mission. Instead of landing on the Moon, a crew would launch in the Orion spacecraft and rendezvous with Starship in low-Earth orbit. This would essentially be a repeat of the Apollo 9 mission, buying down risk by carrying out some of the essential parts of the Artemis III mission, making fewer "first time we ever try this" aspects for the landing mission.

Officially, NASA maintains that the agency will fly a crewed lunar landing, the Artemis III mission, in September 2026. But almost no one in the space community regards that launch date as more than aspirational. Some of my best sources have put the most likely range of dates for such a mission from 2028 to 2032. A modified Artemis III mission, in low-Earth orbit, would therefore bridge a gap between Artemis II and an eventual landing.

NASA hasn't announced any final plans and there is much to wait on. What's the status on Orion's heat shield issues? Part of the waiting is to see how Artemis II progresses and what happens with Starship and spacesuit development

During her remarks, Koerner was also asked what SpaceX's next major milestone is and when it would need to be completed for NASA to remain on track for a lunar landing in 2026. "Their next big milestone test, from a contract perspective, is the cryogenic transfer test," she said. "That is going to be early next year."

Some details about the Starship propellant transfer test. Image credit: NASA

This timeline is consistent with what NASA's Human Landing System program manager, Lisa Watson-Morgan recently told Ars. It provides a useful benchmark to evaluate Starship's progress in NASA's eyes. The "prop transfer demo" is a fairly complex mission that involves the launch of a "Starship target" from the Starbase facility in South Texas. Then a second vehicle, the "Starship chaser," will launch and meet the target in orbit and rendezvous. The chaser will then transfer a quantity of propellant to the target spaceship.

The test will entail a lot of technology, including docking mechanisms, navigation sensors, quick disconnects, and more. If SpaceX completes this test during the first quarter of 2025, NASA will at least theoretically have a path forward to a crewed lunar landing in 2026.

There has been a flurry of reports the next test flight will be in July, but I haven't seen a date mentioned. July 6th would a month after the last test flight and that's three weeks before the end of the month so it doesn't take much delay to make it two months after IFT-4. Since the booster landed on target 12 miles off the Boca Chica beach, the booster for IFT-5 will be expected to work better than that, and yes, it sounds like they intend to catch the booster with the mechazilla arms. Booster 12 has been in Mega Bay 1 since January, and is awaiting static fire.  

Don't forget that one engine on the booster failed before it cleared the tower and another blew up  during its landing burn before settling onto the Gulf waters. That's being looked into, too.

The ship is a different matter. While Ship 29 was nothing short of astonishing, surviving part of a flap being burned off, it landed "several km" from its target. Ship 30 has to address those issues starting with, "let's not melt this time."

Because of these issues, Ship 30 is already getting its heat shield tiles and underlying blankets removed and eventually replaced. The underlying blankets would be replaced by a new ablative material that may have debuted on Ship 29. As stated by Elon Musk, the tiles are getting upgraded to a newer, much stronger design. Even though Ship 29 completed the flip and burn maneuver, it was a couple of kilometers off target due to the flap damage. 

Starship 29 and Super Heavy B11 before last Thursday's (June 6) IFT-4. Image credit to Elon Musk at X