Monday, January 30, 2023

After Losing a Launch Vehicle 4 Months Ago, Blue Origin Still Mum

While I barely mentioned this incident when it happened, last September marked an in-flight failure of one of Blue Origin's New Shepard rockets, the backbone of their space tourism business.  As a result, we're approaching five months since the mishap with no explanation from Blue of what happened, how they've addressed it, and when they plan to fly again.  The New Shepard as well the that sector of their business is in limbo with no end in sight. 

The rocket's single main engine failed about one minute into the flight, at an altitude of around 9 km, as it was throttling back up after passing through the period of maximum dynamic pressure. At that point a large fire erupted in the BE-3 engine, and the New Shepard capsule's solid rocket motor-powered escape system fired as intended, pulling the capsule away from the exploding rocket. The capsule experienced high G-forces during this return but appeared to make a safe landing.

A bit surprisingly to me, Blue Origin doesn't seem to have any spare hardware, booster or capsule.  According to the source article (2nd link), at the time of the loss of this mission Blue had exactly two boosters, called numbers three and four.  Only B4 had unspecified upgrades that made it "human-rated" for spaceflight.  The capsule they referred to as RSS H.G. Wells was flying science missions on Booster 3, and the newer RSS First Step was flying crewed missions on Booster 4.  Booster 3 is the one that was destroyed in the September mishap.   

Given the fact that it is approaching five months from the incident it's possible they have spares by now.

The New Shepard and booster on mission NSS-22, about a month before the loss of the NSS-23 mission.  Blue Origin photo.

I have to admit to being a bit spoiled by how how open SpaceX is with their operations.  We get to watch launches and booster landings from every site they use, onshore or off, and on days like today, when a mission is postponed or stood down from, they tweet out a short explanation like this one:  "Now targeting tomorrow at 8:15 a.m. PT for launch of Starlink and D-Orbit’s ION SCV009 Eclectic Elena to allow additional time for pre-launch checkouts; weather is looking good for liftoff."  It appears Blue Origin doesn't have that openness in their DNA, or we wouldn't be sitting around months after the inflight problem trying to read tea leaves; or simply trying to find the tea leaves to read. 



Well, Whaddya Know

About five weeks ago, Florida Governor DeSantis  made it clear he wanted to pass Constitutional Carry in the state.  He even went so far as to call on incoming House Speaker Paul Renner, publicly making him responsible.   

He laughs and says, “well, we’ve had a majority this whole time. I’ll let Paul answer that because I’m ready. [looking over to incoming House Speaker Paul Renner] Are you going to do it?”

Paul Renner responded with a “yes.”

Let’s break down the Governor’s statement quickly. He didn’t just say he supports Constitutional Carry, he politically called out the Republican-controlled legislature for its collective failure to pass during prior sessions.

This morning brought an email from Florida Carry.  

 

In one little meeting, DeSantis demonstrated to the state that he knows that the population wants this, Stupid Party members campaign on delivering it, and once in office, the Stupid Party is the one that kills it.  He says it's time to cut the crap and do what they've promised.  He told the truth in the motto he uses frequently, "clear, concise, unambiguous" and called on the incoming speaker to be better than his predecessor.  



Friday, January 27, 2023

The Fast Part is Over Quickly

Everything associated with my surgery went about as well as could be hoped for and I was discharged from the hospital about 2PM this afternoon.  I lucked into getting two very good, very helpful nurses for my 24 hours in the hospital; the kind of people who really are helpful, considerate, smart, and appreciate it when you've prepared for the procedure and what comes after it.  Add that to the luck of being minimally affected by the anesthesia they chose and procedures they followed and I quickly got through the handful of measures of progress I needed to meet.  The whole thing left me feeling very blessed.  

In no way am I out of the woods as this is just the start of the long adaptation phase.  Some complications are more likely at 6 to 12 weeks after the surgery than this week, but it's a great start. 


All that said, it seems like it was and is kind of slow in space news.  On Thursday morning as I was preparing for that surgery, SpaceX launched the Group 5-2 Starlink satellites from SLC-40 on the Cape Canaveral SFS, and they're set to launch Group 2-6 on Sunday, Jan. 29, from Vandenberg SLC-4E at 8:47 AM PST, 11:47 EST. The East/West ping pong then returns to Florida for the Starlink Group 5-3 mission on Wednesday, February 1 at 3:02 AM EST. Three launches in one week, if the pace can be held, gets them well past 100 launches.

SpaceX has gotten to the point where if you see a Falcon 9 booster that has flown five or six times, you go, "wow - that's new one" and the oldest end of the fleet is more interesting. If you think a little more you realize they're the only company on Earth doing this now, and you know that's the future.  

Now think of what's apparently going on with Starship.  On Wednesday, Jan.25th,  Ship 24 was destacked off booster 7 and transported back to the ship yard (or "rocket garden") the next day for some minor modifications.  It's widely believed that the static firings of the B7 will be done without S24 stacked for the simple argument of "if we blow up the booster, why ruin S24?"  Once the static firings up to the full 33 engines have been done, barring damage to the Orbital Launch Mount or the surrounding infrastructure, what prevents the first Starship orbital test launch?

As always, the question is "when?"  All I can say is Cameron County notes possible road closures next Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan.31 and Feb 1.

Starship can literally change everything.  Nobody in history has had the technical chops, the drive and, frankly, the balls to go after something as world-changing as Starship.  Part of that is the convergence of the technologies, "standing on the shoulders of giants," but if Starship development goes as it looks to be going, I expect there will be memorial statues of Musk on Mars and Earth in another 50 years.  

Booster 7 and Ship 24 as morning fog rolls in from the Gulf of Mexico.



Wednesday, January 25, 2023

And... the Days Off Begin

As mentioned on Sunday, Thursday is my surgery.  I have some prepping to do for an early morning trip up there.  I expect to spend Thursday night in the hospital and come home some time Friday.  It's hard to know exactly what to expect in terms of recovery.  Your support and prayers are deeply appreciated.

So a couple of things that struck me funny in the last month or so.






Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Starship Apparently Aces Full “Flight-like” WDR

Monday's full Wet Dress Rehearsal of the B7/S24 Starship stack was apparently fully successful.  It leaves me not quite sure why they did the overpressure notice, NOTAM and MIB, but perhaps mandatorily excessive safety worries.  SpaceX put up a tweet noting the success, including some flyover footage (about 20 seconds).

This is definitely an important step in their preparations to launch, but as of this evening, there are no road closures that might indicate a major test soon posted at the Cameron County website.  I interpret that to mean speculation is even less worthwhile than usual.  The only thing mentioned there is a "Temporary & Intermittent Road Delay of State Hwy 4; January 26, 2023 from 8:00 am to 10:00 am."  I've seen this when SpaceX might transport something from one end of the facility to the other.

The full stack is the tallest rocket in history, and when fully fueled it became the heaviest rocket ever built.  Starship is about 394 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter.  The Saturn V was about 30 feet shorter than Starship.

After hours of conditioning the Starbase, Texas orbital launch site’s giant tank farm, SpaceX opened the floodgates and loaded Ship 24 and Booster 7 with up to 4860 tons (~10.7M lbs) of cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellant in about 90 minutes. Once fully loaded, the combined weight of the rocket and propellant likely exceeded 5000 tons (~11M lbs), making Starship the heaviest rocket in history. The next heaviest rockets ever built, Saturn V and N-1, weighed around 2800 tons (~6.2M lbs) fully loaded.

...

The company later confirmed that the test was a “full flight-like wet dress rehearsal,” as suspected, and noted that data gathered from it would “help verify a full launch countdown sequence, as well as the performance of Starship and the orbital pad for flight-like operations.” Parts of the test visible from unaffiliated webcasts like NASASpaceflight’s (10 minute highlight video) seemed to confirm as much. Shortly after Starship was fully loaded, for example, SpaceX activated the orbital launch mount’s fire extinguisher system, seemingly practicing the moments before the rocket would otherwise ignite its engines and take flight.

Note: the video linked in the source article (on Teslarati) was over eight hours long.  I replaced that link with the 10 minute highlight video.  

In the last year, SpaceX has slowed their pace of Starship development down from the heady days of 2020/21.  Between August of '20 and May of '21, SpaceX carried out five launches and attempted landings of prototype Starships, eventually succeeding on the fifth attempt (and not having the landed ship blow up minutes later) - and I think if the fifth attempt hadn't worked, they would have tried until they had a successful mission.  

On the fifth attempt, the Starship flew to around ~41,000 ft up, shut off its engines, flipped to horizontal for its controlled fall back to Earth, reignited its engines, flipped back to vertical, and landed in one piece.  Since then, for reasons I haven't seen discussed, they changed to a more cautious approach.  Whether that was due to nudging by the FAA, NASA or other Fed.gov pressure, or an internal realization along the lines of "Holy $%#*!!! This is over 16 million pounds of thrust!  It's the biggest rocket in history!  If this thing blows up in the worst possible way, we could lose lots of hardware and people," I have no way of knowing. 

Finally, just because it's pretty.

The title picture at Teslarati. I'm going to say SpaceX photo by one of the drones they fly around the base during tests.


Oh, and for those keeping track, Rocket Lab's first launch from Wallops Island, Virginia this evening was successful, opening the possibility of more frequent launches from the USA. They mention expecting one launch per month from Wallops Island, in addition to their New Zealand home's launches.



Monday, January 23, 2023

Vulcan Arrives at Kennedy Space Center

About eight days ago, we ran a story that United Launch Alliance had shipped their first Vulcan Centaur to the Kennedy Space Center to prepare for its maiden launch.  The cargo ship carrying it all arrived at Port Canaveral on Saturday, Jan 21 and was unloaded Sunday.  The shipment, all intended for the first flight, includes the Vulcan first stage as well as the interstage adapter and Centaur V upper stage. These were carried by truck across the cape to ULA facilities on the Cape for inspections and the start of launch preparations.  

The first stage of the Vulcan rolls out of "Rocket Ship" in the background.  ULA photo.

The booster measures 109.2 feet (33.3 meters) in length and 17.7 feet (5.4 meters) in diameter. Made of internal orthogrid aluminum construction to create a structurally stable stage, it is equipped with two BE-4 main engines, each producing approximately 550,000 pounds (2.45 mega-Newtons) of thrust to lift Vulcan out of the atmosphere on the way to orbit.

Two BE-4 engines obviously only provide 1.1 million pounds of thrust, which isn't enough for its desired mission envelopes.  With its added solid rocket boosters, the number dependent on the mission profile, the liftoff thrust can reach 3.8 million pounds.  

The interstage adapter, at right, intended to go between the booster and the Centaur V upper stage leads the Centaur V toward the ULA complex.  On the left, a payload fairing is visible, while between the Centaur and fairing the first stage is visible.  Also ULA photo.

Centaur V, with its pressure-stabilized stainless-steel tanks, is 38.5 feet (11.7 meters) in length and 17.7 feet (5.4 meters) in diameter. The cryogenic stage features two RL10C-1-1A engines, each producing 23,825 pounds (106 kilo-Newtons) of thrust to deliver the inaugural flight payloads to three different orbits: low Earth orbit, a high-energy orbit at nearly lunar distance, and an Earth escape orbit into interplanetary space.

The vehicle is expected to be fully ready for the first launch, a mission called Certification-1, intended to deliver two demonstration satellites for Amazon's Project Kuiper into low Earth orbit.  This is Amazon's approach to internet via space, like Starlink.  The mission will also place the Astrobotic Peregrine commercial lunar lander in a highly elliptical orbit more than 225,000 miles (360,000 km) above Earth to intercept the Moon, and carry a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight Payload beyond the Earth-Moon system to orbit the Sun forever.

As mentioned in the post last week, ULA doesn't guesstimate a No Earlier Than launch date, which is entirely reasonable given all the hurdles left to overcome.  Yes, Vulcan Centaur is a derivative of the Atlas V, but it's still a big collection of untested hardware.  NextSpaceflight continues to say NET February 25, and I continue to say Not Bloody Likely and stick with my reflexive call of mid-March at the earliest.  I'd be delighted to be proven wrong.  ULA has a pretty low launch cadence, but when they launch their vehicle performances have been solid.



Sunday, January 22, 2023

Catchup On Some Things

This is going to be a sketchy week around here so let me clear a couple of things I've meant to report on and then get into The Sketchy.   

  1. Monday, Jan 23, is looking like we could see the long awaited first static firing of the stacked Booster/Ship24 at SpaceX Boca Chica.  The likely road closure for the day has been accompanied by a warning about overpressure to Boca Chica Village and a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) filed by the FAA to avoid the area below 14,000 feet above the test area.  The NOTAM starts Jan. 23 at 0601 UTC (2:01 AM Local) and runs 24 hours.  Likewise a Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB) has been issued (pdf warning) for the day, mostly affecting boats offshore Starbase. 

    It sounds real.  Things could always go wrong that cancel it or it could be a more prolonged Wet Dress Rehearsal that doesn't end in firing engines.  You never know. 

  2. Tuesday, Jan 24, Rocket Lab is expecting to launch their first orbital launch from the Wallops Island, Virginia launch facility at 6:00 PM local (EST).  The mission, in keeping with their practice of coming up with clever/cutesy names for missions is Virginia is for Launch Lovers.

The Sketchy

I mentioned back at the start of the month that I have surgery coming up for a hiatal hernia repair that will include a thing called a LINX device that will be implanted.  That's scheduled for this Thursday.  I anticipate being grounded and unable to do much for at least Thursday and Friday. It's possible that can extend longer, but I'm scheduled to only spend Thursday night in the hospital.  Of course, while the chances of Bad Things are as small as can reasonably be assessed, and depending on after-surgery pains, consider this very preliminary. 

The adventures have been building for a while, and tomorrow will have an increase with a pre-surgical evaluation and probably at least a blood draw.  Probably half the day with the doctor and others.

Which brings me to the next big adventure I'm working on.  Regular readers will know I posted a lot about problems I had after Tropical Storm Ian (TS here, hurricane on the SW coast).  The storm broke elements off one antenna that I had to repair, it damaged my tower and the house bracket that helped reinforce it.  Then, when I thought it was done, I found the other antenna on the tower also got broken.  I only got my station fully operational at the start of December.  

Knowing the surgery was coming and that I'd be restricted by that in my ability to work for the heart of the best time of year to work on towers and such hardware, I came up with a workaround: a short term and a long term fix.  The short term fix is up there now, but I need to improve that a bit and that should be done before the mandatory time off.  The long term fix is to change my whole method of cranking the tower over.  

The company I bought the tower from has a solution they offer called a mounting pole, or MP-2.  This is the drawing of it they post online.  

The MP-2 is rated to crank over fully loaded towers many times bigger than.  Mine is a light duty 20' tower; this is rated to crank over fully loaded, heavy duty, 75' towers.  I have surprisingly few pictures that show the pole I use but there are two big differences between this pole and mine.  First, their pole is 13 feet long, 7-1/2' feet above ground, of 4" schedule 40 galvanized steel pipe while mine is 10 feet long, 7 feet above ground of schedule 40 aluminum pipe.  Second, their pole is designed to be mounted without concrete and instead held by four plates extending the cross sectional area of the part in the ground, digging that 13" diameter hole and filling it with wet sand, while mine is mounted in poured concrete, 2 feet square by 3' deep. 

I think my pole will work. 

Unfortunately, converting my pole to take the place of theirs is going to be quite the exercise.  There are things in the drawings they give away that I didn't understand properly, and I only know that because I asked around for opinions of how people like the MP2, pictures of the way the tower attaches and as many details as guys cared to give.  Hams, being generally helpful, voluntarily sent me pictures of the way the MP-2 works.  Both my tower and my pipe will have to be modified.  This is the essence of what I'll have to duplicate. 

The job will entail first taking down my tower and taking off all the antennas for relatively long term storage (weeks at best).  After that, I'll need to add the plate on top of the pole, the aluminum channel (if the pipe is 4" OD, that looks to be well under half, so maybe 1-1/2" channel).  Clearly, my pole can't be removed from the concrete block to work on so someone will need to attach the plate and channel while up on a ladder.  The there needs to be another piece of channel added to the tower at the right height at both top and bottom, and all that hardware you can see.  Did I mention I can't weld?  

Once the tower and pole are modified the tower will need to be lifted into place and mounted to the mounting pole.  After cranking it up and down a few times for tests, I'll need to mount the antennas and crank it up for good.  Hopefully the story will have a happy ending then.



Saturday, January 21, 2023

Ariane Subsidiary Says Reusability is Too Expensive

I've been saying for years that reusability changes everything but an article focused on a subsidiary of Ariane Group called MaiaSpace on European Spaceflight brings up the reality that all hard scientists know.  As Robert A Heinlein put it TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.  

MaiaSpace CEO Yohann Leroy described the challenges of implementing reusability in a small launch vehicle. Specifically, Leroy explained that while the company was looking at a two-thirds drop in performance when the launcher was recovered, the model would not reduce the cost of the launcher by a similar amount.

From the stories about the Falcon 9 we know that re-use is not possible on every mission and if they're pushing for every last pound they can carry to a particular orbit, they have to use the fuel that could have been used to land the booster.  For the first several missions where they were trying to recover the booster, the announcers always said the first priority of the mission was delivering the payload and recovering the booster was a bonus.  The last two Falcon Heavy missions used and discarded their core boosters, which are essentially the same as their Falcon 9 side boosters, while early development missions of the FH tried to recover the cores.  

It seems to me the essence of what Leroy is saying is that with a substantially smaller rocket, there's much less fuel margin to play with.  If you want to reuse the rocket, you need to make it bigger and devote that space to the fuel to recover it.  That, in turn, drives the cost up because TANSTAAFL.  

Despite the statement in the first quote above that they have 1/3 of the payload of the same vehicle if it's considered disposable, he goes on to say that the model would still be economically viable and even advantageous due to the flexibility that a launch vehicle which be used either as reused or expendable. Gee... just like the vehicle their rocket resembles. 

MaiaSpace Image

“By developing a reusable launcher we have two launchers for the price of one or in other words we have a launcher with two optimized operating points. The operating point of the launcher when we recover the first stage and the operating point of the launcher when we consume the first stage and that changes everything. With this double launcher, we can attack a segment of the market that is wider than if we had a single consumable launcher optimized for a single operating point. That changes everything because all other things being equal no one will be able to address a wider market, have a higher rate, and therefore lower costs more quickly because we will cover the experience curve more quickly and ultimately have a business plan much more attractive for investors.”

While MaiaSpace is a subsidiary of the ArianeGroup and says, “our objective is the objective of our parent company,” they apparently are in the process of preparing to issue or are already issuing stock for sale.  Much more detail on the business side at the European Spaceflight article.



Friday, January 20, 2023

Is SpaceX Shipping Starship Launch Pad Hardware from Florida to Texas?

In a somewhat surprising report on Teslarati, SpaceX specialist Eric Ralph reports that the company appears to be preparing to ship a huge collection of hardware – including parts of a possible launch deluge system – from Florida to Texas.  Considering that the operations at the KSC appear to be constructing a second Orbital Launch Integration Tower and preparing to expand their Starship capabilities, it's a bit surprising. 

Captured live by NASASpaceflight’s 24/7 Space Coast Live webcam, [that's the live feed whenever you go there - SiG] hardware began accumulating at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Turning Basin on January 12th. Within a few days, four midsize storage tanks, two or three large storage tanks, five high-pressure gas tanks, multiple sections of an apparent launch deluge system, and an unfinished Starship booster transport stand were all staged and ready for shipment. Save for implicit statements from reliable sources, there wasn’t an obvious guarantee that the hardware was all SpaceX’s or headed to the company’s Starbase, Texas factory and launch site.

But combined with the sheer volume of hardware and its privileged presence on NASA KSC property, the last part to arrive – the base of an unmistakable Starship (booster) transport stand – all but confirmed that the destination is Starbase. SpaceX has already shipped hardware from Florida to Starbase multiple times, including a trio of tanks sent in October 2022, which further increases the odds that everything visible is destined for Starbase.

Yesterday, Jan 19th, a barge arrived at Port Canaveral which was assumed to be preparing to load up and leave for Boca Chica.  

Screen capture of NASA Space Coast Live channel done by Gav Cornwell on Twitter.

I have to admit that I'm anxious for Starships to launch from the Kennedy Space Center for the 100% selfish reason that I want to watch them from my yard.  Especially if they achieve the kind of mission cadence that gets talked about.  Still, I'm more anxious to see them fly from anywhere and as soon as possible. If this can speed up operations at Boca Chica, I'm all for it.  

Musk famously said back in 2020 that they were trying to design a launch system that didn't require a water deluge and part of the efforts at the Orbital launch Mount have been to add some water deluge capabilities, but it's not clear to me that their system is as good as or worse than other systems.  Let's face it; as you'll know if you've watched the static fires of Starships,which are an upper stage with less than 20% of the thrust of 33 Raptor 2 engines on a booster, even that has shattered the concrete under the launch mount.  Eric Ralph goes into a little depth on this, pointing out that the system that has been installed in Florida is already far bigger than what has been done in Boca Chica.  

The design of Starship’s first Florida launch pad has already been upgraded to include a giant deluge ring embedded in the ground at the base of the mount. Unusual design aside, the structure is sized such that it’s almost certainly a high-flow deluge system capable of spraying thousands of gallons of water per second.

Twitter user @Alexphysics13 posted this picture of what he said is the water deluge system they believe is being shipped to Texas.  


If something that size, with pipe sections that look to be several feet in diameter, and that's just one part of a system, is going to be installed under the current Orbital Launch Mount, I don't think B7/S24 could fly for six months or more.   We already know their goal is to fly No Later Than March.

Could this all have more to do with Musk's references to buying additional land in the Boca Chica area, the area that was Massey's gun range, for another test facility than to modifying the existing OLM at Starbase? 



Thursday, January 19, 2023

SpaceX Quietly Announces New Business

I only found out today via SpaceNews that SpaceX quietly launched a new venture some time last month.  

Now that SpaceX has established itself as a leading provider of U.S. national security launches, it is seeking a bigger share of the defense market with a new product line called Starshield. SpaceX quietly unveiled Starshield last month offering defense and intelligence agencies custom-built spacecraft, sensors, and secure communications services leveraging SpaceX’s investment in its Starlink network of broadband satellites.

I also somehow hadn't heard that last October, the Pentagon released a national defense strategy document that talked about the challenges of the current "world order" and especially the role of China.  The pentagon calls China a “pacing challenge” that threatens to surpass the United States in defense and space technologies. To win this race, DoD intends to tap commercial innovation.

“We have in the United States by far the most resilient commercial space enterprise anywhere in the world. The Chinese know that, and we’re going to lean into that,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said Dec. 8 at an Aspen Security Forum in Washington. “We’re going to make sure we’re working closely with the commercial sector and leveraging all that commercial space capability.”

Who better to tap than the most innovative company in the launch business, the company using that launch capability to build out its Starlink constellation of internet access satellites?  Which isn't to say that there won't be competitive selection processes involved or that there aren't innovative "smart fellers" in the other companies; it's just that SpaceX has a head start.  They're at the center of the what  prompted the DoD to start this project.  It appears to be based on one important example (you guessed it): Ukraine and the role that modern technologies have played, especially the 20,000 + Starlink terminals SpaceX donated to Ukraine.

Russia’s war in Ukraine cast a powerful spotlight on the space industry, notably on the value of imaging satellites and on SpaceX’s satellite broadband service Starlink. The system — with well over 3,000 satellites in orbit and thousands more to come — demonstrated resilience against jamming and showed the strength of this kind of proliferated architecture.

“This wasn’t available before,” John Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said Dec. 14 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ukraine is the first major conflict, he noted, where commercial space technology has come into play in a significant way.

The Starlink constellations and their resilience to jamming as a commercial product, not a military system impressed assistant secretary Plumb and Heidi Shyu, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering enough to commit to the initiative aimed at private space.  “Because of the rapidly improving commercial space capabilities, a comprehensive plan for using commercial space systems in the context of classified U.S. space capabilities is needed.”

The Starshield initiative hasn't been talked about much by SpaceX which is why none of us have heard of it before.  SpaceNews reported that SpaceX’s website has coverage of Starshield so I went looking for it and it turned up at the first search I tried: https://www.spacex.com/starshield.  

Screen capture from a portion of their Starshield page.

The source article on SpaceNews is an interesting read. SpaceX isn't the only company they mention and the market is big enough that more than one will be involved.  The realization that commercial space is the future and government money is going to flow toward it is spreading.  What the DoD wants is defense technologies at the innovation rate of commercial technologies.


 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

No Final Words on Both ABL and Virgin Orbit Failures

Last Monday and Tuesday were bad days in the space industry, as you'll remember.  On Monday, Virgin Orbit's attempt to be the first launch from Europe to reach orbit failed well into the mission.  On Tuesday, ABL Space's first launch ever failed seconds after liftoff from the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska.  The investigations began immediately, and while progress has been made, neither company has said they've completed investigations and are fixing any problems that turned up.

Last week, Virgin Orbit reported that the trouble began with a second stage malfunction well after the Launcher One booster was dropped.  

“Later in the mission, at an altitude of approximately 180 km, the upper stage experienced an anomaly. This anomaly prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage,” the company stated. The company did not disclose additional details about the anomaly.

Observers had speculated that some sort of issue with the upper stage caused the failure, although issues with the telemetry displayed during the launch webcast, such as spurious data, made it difficult to narrow down the nature of the problem or its timing.

SpaceNews (previous link) brings up the fact that Virgin Orbit stated in their Twitter live feed that they had achieved orbit but then had to retract that. I don't see the point of that.  They corrected their mistake quickly, and since one of the issues they mention is difficulties with telemetry (that even I commented on), it's easy to think they had information that was misleading or completely wrong. 

Virgin has said that they believe the reason will be understood soon and have announced their Return to Flight launch would be from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the site where all five previous missions began. The rocket for that mission is going through final integration and checkout.  

I don't really understand the organizational difference between Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic, their suborbital space tourism business, but they are apparently separate companies.  Virgin Galactic announced a reorganization with intent to resume their suborbital flights in the 2nd quarter of this year. 


ABL's launch failure occurred seconds into flight, but in an update today reported they have telemetry and other clues pointing toward a fire in the RS1 launcher's avionics. 

The RS1's first stage "suffered a complete loss of power" 10.87 seconds after liftoff, ABL explained in a Twitter update on Wednesday (Jan. 18). The rocket continued to ascend for another 2.63 seconds, reaching a maximum altitude of 761 feet (232 meters) but then fell back to Earth, impacting about 60 feet (18 m) east of its launch pad.

At only 10.87 seconds into the flight the vehicle was almost completely loaded with propellant and the resulting explosions and fires did a lot of damage. 

"Approximately 95% of the vehicle total propellant mass was still onboard, creating an energetic explosion and overpressure wave that caused damage to nearby equipment and facilities," the company wrote in the update. The damaged gear included communications equipment at the pad, as well as fuel and water storage tanks.

The crash scattered debris over an area with a radius of 0.25 miles (0.40 kilometers) and sparked a fire that destroyed an ABL fabric hangar and much of the "integration equipment" it harbored, ABL wrote in the update.

Thankfully, no one was injured.  Their report goes on to say that they noted “some visual evidence of fire or smoke near the vehicle QD and the engine bay after liftoff,” where QD seems to refer to the Quick Disconnect connectors that you regularly see dropping from many launch vehicles as they start moving.  They go on to say in the few seconds before the vehicle shut down that “we saw off-nominal pressure spikes and rises in temperature in the Stage 1 aft cavity a few seconds after liftoff.”

"Shortly before power loss, a handful of sensors began dropping out sequentially," the update continues. "This evidence suggests that an unwanted fire spread to our avionics system, causing a system-wide failure."

ABL teams have already begun work on the launch facility to get it ready for the next attempt at flight, and the next launch vehicle (serial no. 2) is reported "largely complete and commissioned" for the next attempt. They add it's too soon to speculate on when the next mission will fly. 

ABL RS1 SN1, November '22.



Tuesday, January 17, 2023

More Hardware Lining Up for Testing at Starbase Boca Chica

While the Booster 7 / Starship 24 stack has been in place on the Orbital Launch Mount since last week, and was cryo-tested last Friday, it's not the only thing going on at Starbase.  It appears that Starship 25 was rolled out to the launch area and placed on the Starship test stand on the 14th.

It's not the first time that S25 has been to the test area; that was back in October.  After a pressurization proof test, multiple cryogenic proof tests, and likely a few simulated thrust tests using six hydraulic rams, she was rolled back to the shipyard on November 8.   

An interesting second thing on Saturday was that when S25 went back to the test area Musk was asked how many Starships SpaceX is looking to build this year and he replied "about five full stacks."   

Full stacks, of course, means that S25 needs a booster, and B9 has been associated with B9 in the same way as B7 and S24; everyone seems to refer to them as a pair.  Like S25, B9 has also been to the test area and proof tested before, more recently than S25.  

About two months behind Ship 25, Booster 9 rolled out of its Starbase assembly bay and headed to the launch site on December 15th, 2022. The Super Heavy prototype ultimately completed two partial cryogenic proof tests on December 21st and 29th, during which it was likely loaded with around a thousand tons of liquid nitrogen to simulate explosive liquid oxygen and methane propellant. Booster 9 then returned to Starbase’s factory on January 10th, 2023.

B9 returned to the shipyard to get its new Raptor engines installed and these are expected to be the latest version engines, not compatible with B7.  Instead of the hydraulic thrust vector control (gimballing the engines), the latest Raptors use electric TVC.  SpaceX has been testing the TVC design at their McGregor, Texas engine testing facility (that linked video has some interesting aspects to watch but only until about 1 minute 40 seconds).  The only question is if there are enough of them on hand to fully outfit B9, which probably depends on when they want to start testing B9 out at the pad.  There's only one pad out there big enough to handle B9 and that's occupied by the B7/S24 stack.  Which Elon says is likely to launch before the end of March.  I imagine that some delay between launching B7/S24 and testing B9 is inevitable.

There's a road closure from 8AM to 8PM (central time, of course) at Boca Chica, with Thursday as the backup (alternate) day, same hours.  They're getting close to the point where they could do a full Wet Dress Rehearsal - everything except firing the 33 engines. 



Monday, January 16, 2023

Solar Cycle 25 Progression Update - Jan '23

I've been posting solar cycle updates for a very long time - a casual look shows one in 2013 and that one refers to a post six months prior.  I usually try to keep them around six months apart, in attempt to keep them focused on the "big picture" rather than day to day events like minor flares or Coronal Mass Ejections.  The last one was last July, so this is as good a day as any to put one up.  

To begin with, I'll start with today's version of the same plot last July's post did, the Cycle 24/25 plot from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, and their Space Weather Prediction Center.  This plot shows the sunspot numbers and you can read numbers directly by hovering your mouse over one of the points on the chart - on the website linked there, not this graphic.  The smoothed red curve is the predicted values while the jagged points on the purple curve are measured data. 

I did a screen capture from the NOAA site showing the smoothed sunspot number for December '22 of 113.1  The smoothed Solar Flux Index (SFI - the plot directly below this one on that NOAA site) for December was 148.5.  Remember this is an average over the month; I recall days around Christmas when solar flux was in the 160s.  Furthermore, since the start of the year (notice how that sounds more impressive than "for the last two weeks?"), the SFI has been above 160.  It crossed 200 early in the month and is currently 234; today's sunspot number is 186. These values are well above the NOAA/NASA predictions.

The next plot is an update to the second plot in the July post, the one I jokingly refer to as my "ham radio autobiography" because these are smoothed sunspot plots of every solar cycle since 1976, the year I got my first ham license. 

I think a key takeaway from this graphic is that while cycle 25, the gray line at lower left ending at month 30, is somewhat better than cycle 24 (in pink) it's not what most people would call much better than the 24, and dramatically worse than 21 and 22 (a half to a third of the sunspot numbers).  It bears repeating that cycle 24 was the weakest cycle in 100 years (or more) so saying "better than cycle 24" isn't saying much. This plot is from Solen.info, linked from Space Weather News, which (I believe) is run by Suspicious0bservers from You Tube.

Finally, an update to another graphic that I posted in February of '22, the progression of this cycle vs the NOAA predictions.  This plot is from Helioforecast.space and is one that Dr. McIntosh uses.

These are busy plots but the first the key feature to note is the black zigzag line, which is the observed monthly mean sunspot number.  You'll note the peak to peak excursions of the black line don't go above the one in the middle of '22 until the last peak.  That black line is based on the the raw daily sunspot numbers shown as the light green very jiggly line and the same 'little change from last June' comment applies to those, too.  After that, note the light blue band with the dark blue line it; the band is the NOAA/NASA prediction for cycle 25.  The dark blue line is the median of the predictions in that light blue band shifted six months earlier in time.  The red lines/band are McIntosh's predictions.  The dark green line is the mean of every solar cycle since 1750.  It appears the observed cycle 25 sunspot numbers are looking to split the difference between the upper end of the NOAA/NASA predictions and the lower end of McIntosh's.  The last peak variation of the black curve looks like it's quite a bit higher than the blue band.  

Cycle 25 is looking better than the NOAA/NASA prediction but not quite as good as McIntosh's which have been lowered several times.  If you go back to that February post and compare its plot to this, you'll find this revision of McIntosh's prediction is quite a bit lower than a year ago.  Note that the solid green and red lines cross 2023 a bit under 125.  Last February's plot shows the intersection with 2023 closer to 145 for McIntosh's prediction while the average of all cycles seems the same (the scales are different enough to make it hard to tell). 

Scott McIntosh did his (quarterly? semi-annual?) visit to one of the ham radio groups, the Front Range 6 meter Group on groups.io (where he's also a member) and hosted a Zoom video talk that went about 45 minutes of new content and 20 minutes of Q&A. Scott said that he thinks signs that he looks for on the sun are pointing to the peak of this cycle coming a bit earlier than previous predictions, perhaps in late '24, and solar activity should be around what it is now for a couple of years.  So far, we've had two or three X-class solar flares out of this cycle, but none were strong or placed to cause harm.  There have been (as you'd expect) more M-class and even more C-class flares, but honestly, most of us could damage the power grid as much as a C-class flare by farting.



Sunday, January 15, 2023

Most Spectacular Falcon Heavy Launch So Far

Yesterday's scheduled launch of the USSF-64 mission was delayed early in the day when preparations apparently got behind.  It was delayed 24 hours and one minute until tonight at 5:56PM EST, but the weather was prettier, the views remarkable, and those things combined with the time of day made this the most spectacular Falcon Heavy launch we've seen so far.  Local sunset was 5:49, so seven minutes before liftoff, and a liftoff into a darker sky, maybe 15 or 30 minutes later might have led to a more vivid "space jellyfish" type of display, but it was plenty beautiful as it was.  

This video should be set up to start at 15 seconds before lift off, or 19:40 on the time scale at the bottom; the majority of the pretty stuff takes place after Booster Engine Cut Off (BECO) at T+2:29.  From here on the ground, the mission was eye candy the whole way. 

SpaceX posts this graphic describing the trajectories of the main payload and the two Falcon 9 boosters that landed back at the launch site; it's a bit distorted because it's impossible to do it to any sort of consistent scale, but it shows the main events. 

I know there's not enough room to do this, especially not to scale, but it shows the boosters flipping end over end to do their boostback burns, and it shows that burn going in the direction to slow the boosters and start them returning to the left.  Then, instead of showing them moving closer to the launch site, or even going straight down, it shows them continuing farther in direction of the payload's flight.  The landing zones should be closer to the launch pad.  And yes, I'm being too literal.

This sequence was easy to watch with our naked eyes and we could see the boostback burns.  The two boosters stopped their motion of clearly moving away from us and appeared to hang motionless in the sky.  Eventually they started to appear to be moving north from us, toward the Landing Zones on the Cape Canaveral SFS.   The entry burns were dramatic; very separated in time; the first booster to light may have burned about half of the length of its burn before the second one started, which continued after the first one shut down.  Which is how they stagger the landing time of the boosters which makes it look more dramatic - and probably has actual technical reasons, too. 

Richard Angle, whose photographs of these missions appear on Teslarati, has some excellent photos of the some of the highlights in their article.  I couldn't do them justice posting them here, so go read.  I've found that if click on one of the pictures that allows it, it will enlarge on screen.  Once they're enlarged, I can right click on the picture, select "save image as" and I get a bigger image than even the enlarged image I started with.

EDIT To Add Jan 15 @ 10:25PM EST: I've been trying to ensure when I embed a video like the one above that they play the way I intend.  I've tried it twice and it worked as I want once.  50% doesn't give me confidence.  - SiG



Saturday, January 14, 2023

Junk Science Again: This Time, Gas Stoves

There was an attempt to run the news cycle that started early this week with an attack on gas stoves.  It didn't seem to go as well as they wanted, but it could just be the early stages.  The immediate reactions, including memes and bumper sticker sayings and so on may have been more counter than they expected and it may have been exactly what they wanted; not being insiders we can never know.  

What we can know is that this is the level of so-called science that makes "climate change" seem as well-established as knowing when we drop something it'll fall.  

To begin with, this is not a new idea or a new discovery.  The article it was based on may have been a recent publication but the idea has been floated around for a while and just isn't that good.  To begin with I'm going to copy the abstract from that published article and point out some things. 

Indoor gas stove use for cooking is associated with an increased risk of current asthma among children and is prevalent in 35% of households in the United States (US). The population-level implications of gas cooking are largely unrecognized. We quantified the population attributable fraction (PAF) for gas stove use and current childhood asthma in the US. Effect sizes previously reported by meta-analyses for current asthma (Odds Ratio = 1.34, 95% Confidence Interval (CI) = 1.12–1.57) were utilized in the PAF estimations. The proportion of children (<18 years old) exposed to gas stoves was obtained from the American Housing Survey for the US, and states with available data (n = 9). We found that 12.7% (95% CI = 6.3–19.3%) of current childhood asthma in the US is attributable to gas stove use. The proportion of childhood asthma that could be theoretically prevented if gas stove use was not present (e.g., state-specific PAFs) varied by state (Illinois = 21.1%; California = 20.1%; New York = 18.8%; Massachusetts = 15.4%; Pennsylvania = 13.5%).

As always, this is based on an observation and correlation study, not a study in which every possible variable was controlled for except the one being studied and people were assigned at random to the experimental or control groups who had no way of knowing which group they were in.  That sort of test is very hard and expensive to do, as well as potentially being illegal or immoral, since you're doing something to people that you think could hurt them.  

The yellow highlighted word is very important. A meta-analysis (singular) is when a group of studies are combined to enlarge the data set.  The way this is worded implies this is a meta-analysis of a group of existing meta-analyses (plural).  That means that without extraordinary effort to ensure the studies are as identical as possible; not just that they studied the same thing but that the populations being studied were as similar as possible.  In turn, that means an increase in the chance of having some outcome could have as much to do with variations in the populations, locations, or any other uncontrolled variable as the presence of the thing they're correlating to.  They conclude, for example, " We found that 12.7% of current childhood asthma in the US is attributable to gas stove use."  In a meta-analysis of meta-analyses that's pretty much meaningless.  

When I took statistics, we were taught that a meta-analysis was typically less reliable than any one of the studies it was based on because it’s generally all but impossible to determine how well those groups compare on the countless other confounding factors.  I consider what this story is based on to be insignificant findings, regardless of their P value. I ignore those studies until the relative risk gets into the "more than twice as likely" range, that is, instead of this 1.127 risk ratio, it should be over 2.00. 

But it's even worse than that.  

About a year ago, a similar attempt to get people to dump their gas stoves was run, and was written about on Watts Up With That.  There were things in the study that really stood out as bad ways to do a study like this. 

Meanwhile, another expert told a different media outlet that the researchers had encased the kitchens in a Mylar tent to “trap and concentrate the emissions, and then measure the concentration.” No one cooks in a kitchen like that! He said it would “incorrect” to draw any health conclusions from the paper.

From Michael P. Ramirez.com 

As always when this sort of subject is talked about, there's no mention of the fact that if you have an electric stove it's very likely to be gas-powered, or even coal-powered. It's just that the gas isn't in your home, it's "far away" so it's different; they'll worry about that gas causing asthma next week. In reality, the truth is that they're just trying to get rid of natural gas power for anything anywhere.



Friday, January 13, 2023

First Vulcan Centaur Built and en Route to Florida

The first United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur has been loaded into the company's barge "RocketShip" (pictured here) and is en route to Cape Canaveral SFS.  

Short video here

The first two Blue Origin BE-4 engines to complete the first Vulcan booster stage were shipped on Halloween Monday, and the assembly has been in process in Decatur Alabama since the engines arrived.  Today's departure marks the start of a 2000 mile trip on rivers, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean before arriving at Port Canaveral.  The trip from this dock to the dock at CCSFS takes around a week.  

While the Vulcan was announced in 2015, it was in development since some time in 2014, driven by Russia's first invasion into the Ukraine in which they took Crimea.  That invasion prompted the sanctions that said US companies could no longer purchase the Russian RD-180 engines.  These are the engines ULA uses in their Atlas V launch vehicle and they were allowed to take a contract before a termination date for orders in that year.  All of the remaining Atlas Vs will use the remaining RD-180s they bought back then and the Vulcan Centaur will replace the Atlas V. 

ULA announced that it would work with Blue Origin to integrate the startup’s BE-4 engine into a new rocket booster to end its reliance on Russian engines.  More than eight years later, and more than five years after they were originally promised, the engines appear ready to go with the rest of the rocket behind it.  

It has been said that Vulcan Centaur will ultimately fully replace ULA’s existing Delta IV as well as the Atlas V rockets.  That seems like it would lead to smoother, more efficient operations at ULA, and perhaps allow them to compete more on prices against SpaceX.  

The Vulcan Centaur blog says:

Vulcan combines the best of today's Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets with the latest technology advancements to produce a single launch system that provides higher performance and greater affordability while continuing to deliver ULA's unmatched reliability and precision.

Offering unprecedented flexibility, the single-core Vulcan can deliver payloads from low Earth orbit to Pluto and beyond while making access to space more cost-effective. Vulcan also meets the challenging requirements now demanded by an expanding spectrum of missions that are essential to the nation's defense.

Vulcan leverages existing infrastructure, including manufacturing and assembly at our sophisticated production facility in Decatur. ULA has invested heavily in the factory with new automated tooling solutions, welding equipment upgrades, robotic assembly lines for fabrication, and other upgrades for maximum efficiency.

The new rocket can be built in less than half the time as its predecessors and launched at a much higher tempo. More than 70 Vulcan launches are currently on the manifest, including 38 launches to deploy a majority of Amazon's Project Kuiper to provide fast, affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities around the world; approximately 20 to 30 missions as the U.S. Space Force's No. 1 offeror in the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 procurement; and the orbital delivery of Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser reusable spaceplane on cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station.

This inaugural mission, known as Certification-1, will deliver two Kuiper prototype broadband satellites into low Earth orbit, send the Astrobotic Peregrine commercial lunar lander to reach the Moon, and carry a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight Payload into deep space.

They don't mention a NET (No Earlier Than) launch date, although NextSpaceflight declares it to be NET February 25.  That linked page is all ULA launches and it seems far too optimistic;  it has 15 Vulcan Centaur launches before the end of the year, and I've seen no indications they have the hardware to build that many.  FWIW, I think this first launch won't be until mid-March at the earliest and they'll be lucky to get four Vulcan launches this year.

Can't tell them apart without a scorecard? This should help.



Thursday, January 12, 2023

Small Space News Roundup

An odd consequence of Virgin Orbit's failure to achieve orbit on Monday is that the mission was expected to be the first orbital launch from Europe.  There is sort of a race to achieve that milestone and other companies are approaching ready to claim that milestone.  

There are two companies that appear to be in the running to be first.  First, the German company Rocket Factory Augsburg or RFA, which announced an arrangement on Wednesday that its debut launch will take place from SaxaVord Spaceport, which is located on the Shetland Islands - the northernmost point in the United Kingdom. The press release summarizes:

The commercial Spaceport in Shetland is ideally located for RFA to launch payloads at high cadence into polar, sun-synchronous orbits. Existing logistics and infrastructure, launch readiness, as well as rapid implementation and matching mentality were key factors why RFA chose to partner with SaxaVord. With the multi-year partnership, which includes investments in the double-digit million pound range, RFA is securing its first flight launch site in order to be able to provide its services individually and flexibly to customer requirements.

The launch pad and launch stool were fully completed by the end of 2022. The RFA launch pad is therefore the first for vertical orbital rocket launches in the UK and mainland Europe. In the future, the launch pad will not only be used for orbital launches, but for testing and qualification of the RFA ONE core stages. These tests are expected to begin in mid-2023. The first launch will then be into a 500 km high sun-synchronous orbit.

In addition to the stage testing starting by mid-year, the company says the debut launch of its RFA One vehicle could occur by the end of '23.

You've got to love the looks of the SaxaVord spaceport. 


The second big contender might be a surprise.  Norway is a contender with Isar Aerospace, which has an agreement to launch from the Andøya Spaceport in Norway, NRK reports.  Andøya , or the "Andøy municipality" is rougher-looking terrain than the SaxaVord spaceport but has been in development and claims they'll be able to support launches by the end of this year.  


Finally, moving across the globe to China, a company called CAS which is jointly owned by the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences, released a proposed line of rocket designs they refer to as "Powered Arrow" which appeared on the Twitter feed of China 'N Asia Spaceflight.  CAS has successfully reached orbit with a solid-fueled rocket called ZK-1A, so they have more credibility than companies that have never made orbit, but the lineup was a bit jarring.

In a move reminiscent of another Chinese company earlier in the year, OrienSpace, it looks very derivative of American launchers.  Left to right, they look like (skip the first, which is their ZK-1A) a miniature versions of an Atlas V, an Antares, a Falcon 9, a Falcon Heavy, skip the second to last, and at the far right that looks like a New Shepard capsule.  A picture of solid models also Tweeted by China 'N Asia Spaceflight gives a better perspective on sizes and strong similarities for a few of those. 



Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Business As Usual

It's getting to be that.  A few days ago, Elon Musk tweeted that for the first time all four launch pads that SpaceX can use had vehicles on them: SLC-40 and LC-39A at Cape Canaveral SFS, LC-4E at Vandenberg SFS on the opposite coast of the US, and the Boca Chica's Orbital Launch Mount in Texas.  

But gosh: that's so old!  That's 1:36 AM on Wednesday!  (Central Time, I think - it's from Teslarati, not me) 

On LC-39A, the Falcon Heavy was being tested and readied for static fire later in the day; launch is set to be No Earlier Than Saturday, Jan. 14 at 5:55 PM EST.  SLC-40 was holding the One Web 16 batch of satellites and SLC-4E was preparing for the Starlink 2-4 mission - delayed by weather until Sunday, Jan. 15th at 8:18 AM PST (11:18 EST).  SLC-40's One Web 16 mission launched Jan. 9th at 11:50 PM, so "a few" hours before that tweet.  That meant all four pads were briefly not carrying rockets.  

That's OK, though, because now SLC-40 is being readied for its next mission, GPS III-6, next Wednesday, Jan. 18th at 7:00 AM EST, so now they're back to Business As Usual.  

The other thing he mentioned in that Tweet was the return to Earth of the Cargo Dragon launched in November, CRS-26; that also went without a hitch. 

Wednesday's static fire test of the full 27 engines on the Falcon 9 core and two side boosters.  SpaceX photo

Before I go, I have to show this Tweet from a local news service called Talk of Titusville.  This is kind of "life around here" in a nutshell.  "Oh, it's just a top secret payload.  Don't mind us." 

That blue circle with white arrow shows it actually is a video of this fairing containing the Top Secret payload for Saturday's USSF-67 launch.  You can watch it here (self-starting video that comes up a bit loud).  It just drives down that road for a minute.