Monday, June 5, 2023

Mars Ingenuity - Living on Borrowed Time?

Livin' on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine
All a friend can say is "Ain't it a shame"
- "Truckin' " - The Grateful Dead, 1970

Ingenuity, the JPL's fantastic little helicopter on Mars, had a rough go of things through April into May and was feared lost for a while.  Figuratively, Ingenuity is sort like the "Sweet Jean" from the lyrics of that 50-some year old Grateful Dead song.  Well, being an inanimate object, it didn't have a rough time but its handlers at the JPL sure did.  The little helicopter didn't contact the JPL for six days in April

This was not a cause for concern at first. Since January of this year, when winter set in at Ingenuity's digs — the floor of Mars' Jezero Crater — the solar-powered chopper "had unfortunately been drifting in and out of nighttime survival mode (having enough power to avoid overnight brownouts)," Brown wrote in the update. 

This led to uncertainty in Ingenuity's daily wakeup time, which made it harder to hail the chopper and to plan out its activities. In addition, during this stretch, a rocky outcrop created a "communications shadow" between Ingenuity and its robotic partner, the Perseverance rover, which relays commands to and from the 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) rotorcraft.

Discussions about time intervals on Mars are expressed in "Sols" not days.  A Martian day isn't 24 hours but the difference is about 40 minutes longer per sol.  As a result, the Martian calendar drifts with respect to ours and the mission milestones are expressed by sol number.  

The Ingenuity blackout began on sol 755, or April 5. It finally ended on sol 761, when the mission team spotted a signal during the helicopter's expected wakeup window. A second signal at the same time on sol 762 "confirmed that the helicopter was indeed alive, which came as a welcome relief for the team," Brown wrote. 

Ingenuity had its 50th flight on the next sol, 763.  

As commanded, Ingenuity woke up and executed its 50th flight on the red planet, covering over 300 meters and setting a new altitude record of 18 m. The rover had closed to a mere 80 meters by the time the helicopter lifted off in the Martian afternoon Sun. It would be an understatement to say that the helicopter team was relieved to see the successful flight telemetry in the Sol 763 downlink the following morning.

Ingenuity flew one more time in April, Flight 51, but has not flown since then.  Flight 51 lasted for just under 137 seconds and saw the small helicopter travel for a total of 617 feet (188 m).  During the just over two minute flight, April 22, 2023 at the JPL, Ingenuity snapped this photo that shows the Perseverance rover in the top left corner area.  Just right of and below center, in a light area, is Ingenuity's own shadow.

(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In addition to the other possible things mentioned that could have kept Ingenuity from charging or communicating with Perseverance properly, the big thing is that it's still in more like spring than summer there.  As the days get longer, charging can improve, but balance that with an increasing amount of Martian dust on the solar panels.  That has taken out other probes, like Mars Insight back at the end of '22.  

"This means that, much to the chagrin of her team, we are not yet done playing this high-stakes game of hide and seek with the playful little helicopter," (Ingenuity chief engineer Travis) Brown wrote.

51 flights?  On a very experimental craft meant to fly five times?  Sounds pretty good to me.



Sunday, June 4, 2023

On This Date in Space

This morning around 8:30 ET, while having coffee and trying to gain consciousness, we heard a rumbling and quickly realized that the SpaceX launch we thought had happened earlier in the morning was delayed and that was what we were hearing.  Unfortunately, the sound doesn't get here until the rocket is far enough downrange that it's ordinarily either gone or just a tiny light in the sky.  

Today is a special day in SpaceX history, because June 4, 2010 was the first successful Falcon 9 launch making today the 13th anniversary of that milestone.  The first launch almost didn't happen this day due to an issue with the Flight Termination System that took most of their four hour launch window to resolve, but it eventually flew.  

Don't let anyone convince you that the first launch of a complex vehicle is assured.  I'm sure there was plenty of "pucker factor" to go around as they worked through their issues.  There was plenty of pressure to perform as the still-young company had a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. 

I remember doing a story on the 10 year anniversary of the Falcon, but that was the first flight of the Falcon 1.  That 10 year anniversary was September 30, 2018, so in the less than two years between September 2008 and June of 2010, SpaceX went from a booster powered by one Merlin engine to the nine of the Falcon 9.  From that itty bitty booster on the left of the family tree to the second one, the first Falcon 9.  I also did a post on the 10th anniversary of the first Falcon 9 launch three years ago today.

Today's flight was the Block 5 Falcon 9 - 2nd from the right - as they have been for a while now. 

There were supposed to be two such launches today, with the second being a Cargo Dragon, CRS28 to the ISS.  That was pushed to tomorrow due to high winds at the recovery drone ship.  It's an instantaneous launch window at 11:47 AM ET.  It's another small coincidence that the first flight 13 years ago was carrying a prototype Dragon Capsule. 



Saturday, June 3, 2023

Another SLS Story to Make Us Sick

The story entitled “A new report finds NASA has spent an obscene amount of money on SLS propulsion” was in Ars Technica last week, but like a bad night at Taco Bell, it has been sitting in my craw and making me sick since then.  I knew it was bad, but not all of how bad it is.  An independent report from NASA's Inspector General (IG), Paul Martin, (pdf warning) warns costs are so poorly controlled, it could jeopardize the entire Artemis plans to return to the Moon.

The 50-page report analyzed contracts that NASA has given to Aerojet Rocketdyne, for RS-25 main engines, and to Northrop Grumman, for solid-rocket boosters. The engines and boosters power the first stage of the Space Launch System rocket, which made a successful debut flight in November 2022. The rocket will launch astronauts for the Artemis missions to the Moon.

I'll start with RS-25 liquid engines, also referred to by their old name, Space Shuttle Main Engines or SSMEs.  I've been reading and reporting about cost overruns on these 1970s-vintage engines for years now.  In May of 2020, I found out that the first stage engines would cost $146 million per engine, so nearly $600 million ($584 m) for just the four engines of the booster core.  Engines that will litter the floor of the Atlantic after one use.  Worse, that $584 million doesn't count the solid rocket boosters, the upper stage(s) or anything else. 

In the report, IG Martin points out that through some sort of creative paperwork (moving some costs elsewhere), the claimed price for the RS-25 is closer to $100 million.  "When calculating the total cost of the new RS-25 engines, NASA and Aerojet are only including material, engineering support, and touch labor (hands-on labor effort), while project management and overhead costs are excluded."  NASA and Aerojet are trying to achieve a 30 percent cost savings by the end of this decade, bringing the cost down to $70 million each.  

As I've said many times, the RS-25 engines are rated at 512,000 pounds of thrust and that's not a level that nobody else can provide. Both Blue Origin's BE-4 engines and SpaceX's Raptor 2 (and the newer Raptor 3) are in the same class.  Blue Origin sells the BE-4 for less than $20 million.  The Raptor's design price point is under $1 million.  I understand that price is a goal and the current crop of various earlier versions were likely more than that price, but I'm fairly sure they're not close to $146 or even $100 million either.  Note that they simply can't buy the BE-4 or Raptor engines.  Those are both methane-oxygen engines while the RS-25 engines burn liquid hydrogen and lox. 

But it's not just the RS-25s; the solid rocket boosters manufactured by Northrup Grumman went up in cost as well.  From the IG report:

The most significant increase was related to Northrop Grumman’s Boosters contract, which grew from $1.8 billion to $2.5 billion under Constellation and then from $2.5 billion to $4.4 billion under Artemis. Booster-related work also increased the contract’s schedule by 5 years beyond the original December 2017 launch readiness date.

I don't have any Constellation program documents to compare, so the 39%  increase from $1.8 to $2.5 billion is kind of meaningless to me.  The 76% increase from $2.5 to $4.4 billion on Artemis, though, is stunning.  These engines are built in spare SRB body segments left over from the Space Shuttle era.  Yes, they added another segment (now five, were four).  The IG report doesn't mention buying new SRB segments. 

In comparison, the RS-25 engines were always expected to be expensive, yet Aerojet’s contract grew from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion under Constellation and then to $2.1 billion under Artemis.  With the same disclaimer about Constellation, $1.1 to $1.5 billion is 36% (about the same as the SRBs) and $1.5 to $2.1 billion on Artemis is a 40% increase (much less than the SRB increase).

The cost overruns are not without impact, and one of IG Martin's points is that the program has become so expensive that it jeopardizes the chances the return to the moon will ever happen.  Just the cost overruns for the propulsion system of the SLS rocket alone are costing NASA about as much as it will spend on developing two reusable lunar landers—SpaceX's Starship and Blue Origin's Blue Moon.  That's only a portion of all the other cost overruns in the Artemis program, from the Mobile Launch Umbilical Tower to the SLS Exploration Upper Stage.  Has anything associated with Artemis come in on time and on budget?  

The source article and IG report are worth a read if you're having a slow, rainy weekend.  It's a good overview of why government agencies and politicians shouldn't be allowed near contracts for this sort of work. 

NASA conducts a test of an RS-25 rocket engine on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis Space Center.  NASA photo.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Dream Chaser Powers On for First Time

I haven't devoted much coverage to an interesting looking little spacecraft that has appeared in the news since I first switched to spending most of my time covering space news, the Sierra Space Dream Chaser spacecraft.  Briefly, looking more like a smaller, updated Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is being positioned to fill a role that currently is shared by SpaceX and Northrup Grumman - the delivery of cargo  - and possibly crew change missions (currently only SpaceX) to the ISS.  

The Dream Chaser and its Shooting Star propulsion module.  Sierra Space image. 

Sierra Space is either an offshoot from or a renamed version of Sierra Nevada (I didn't find a specific description), a bigger name in space flight.  Back when the Commercial Crew Program was getting started, SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra Space were all selected as finalists competing for the manned spaceflight contract.  At the final down-selection to the two to return manned spaceflight to the US, the first two went forward while Blue and Sierra didn't.  Earlier this year, Sierra was contracted to deliver cargo to the ISS.  The company website describes the vehicle itself as "...a multi-mission vehicle capable of supporting a variety of LEO needs".

Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract, Dream Chaser will provide a minimum of seven cargo service missions to and from the space station.

With the help of our Shooting Star™ service module, Dream Chaser can deliver up to 5,500 kg (~12 tons) of pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the space station, including food, water, supplies, and science experiments and returns to Earth. Dream Chaser can return critical cargo at less than 1.5 g’s using a gentle runway landing.

This doesn't mean that they stopped work on the manned version of the Dream Chaser. 

Dream Chaser was originally designed as a crewed spaceplane, in part under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, capable of carrying up to seven astronauts to and from the space station and other low Earth orbit (LEO) destinations. Dream Chaser is 30 feet, or 9 meters long—roughly ¼ the total length of the space shuttle orbiters.

The crewed version of Dream Chaser is approximately 85% common to the cargo system, limiting primary changes to windows, environmental control and life support systems. In addition, an integral main propulsion system is available for abort capability and major orbital maneuvers.

Sierra Space also partnered with Blue Origin in the private space station segment, too, with the announcement of work on the Orbital Reef project, the "mixed-use business park in space." 

Comparatively speaking, then, the company's May 31 announcement that they had powered on the spaceplane for the first time is relatively small news, but small steps are important, too.  

The test comes as the company prepares to ship the first Dream Chaser, called Tenacity, to NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, the former Plum Brook Station. There, the spacecraft will go through thermal vacuum tests before shipping to Cape Canaveral for final launch preparations.

A problem that Sierra has to deal with is that they're scheduled to be the second launch on ULA's Vulcan Centaur, which currently isn't ready for prime time.  That's in addition to the much more common problems of scheduling arrivals and departures from the ISS.  It's not a bad situational overview to think they might not have their first flight before the end of '23, and might well go into '24 depending on how Vulcan goes.  (I still haven't seen an update since ULA canceled their Vulcan static fire test last Thursday).

If "Tenacity" is a way of life rather than just the name for that first Dream Chaser, they'll be fine facing the mountain of obstacles between now and what they visualize the company becoming.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Boeing's Starliner Launch Could be Off for '23

Boeing announced today (June 1) that they were standing down from the planned July 21 test flight of their Starliner capsule - the Crewed Flight Test, which would be the last test flight - to allow more thorough investigations of some issues that have been discovered as preparations for the flight have been moving forward.  

Mark Nappi, vice president and program manager for Starliner, said two spacecraft problems were discovered before Memorial Day weekend and that the company spent the holiday investigating them. After internal discussions that included Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun, the company decided to delay the test flight that would carry NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore to the International Space Station.

The problems are two things that seem like they had to have been looked at in the past, conceivably many times and it seems weird they'd show up over this past holiday weekend and not long ago.  The first, and possibly the easiest to resolve, involves the parachutes deployed for landing the capsule.  Starliner's design employs what they call "soft links" in the lines that run from the ship to its parachutes.  Boeing discovered that these were not as strong as they previously believed. 

During a normal flight, these substandard links would not be an issue. But Starliner's parachute system is designed to land a crew safely in case one of the three parachutes fails. However, due to the lower failure load limit with these soft links, if one parachute fails, it's possible the lines between the spacecraft and its remaining two parachutes would snap due to the extra strain.

While having the capsule lose all three parachutes when one got damaged or destroyed would absolutely be A Bad Thing, it seems like changing out the soft links for a stronger substitute wouldn't be a major issue.  Delay?  Sure.  But there's a limited number of those links in one area of the capsule. The second problem is more widespread and might involve major rework.  

The second issue involves P-213 glass cloth tape that is wrapped around wiring harnesses throughout the vehicle. These cables run everywhere, and Nappi said there are hundreds of feet of these wiring harnesses. The tape is intended to protect the wiring from nicks. However, during recent tests, it was discovered that under certain circumstances possible in flight, this tape is flammable.

Boeing has flown two uncrewed test flights of Starliner, the disastrous first flight in December of '19, which led to massive changes and their second test flight just over a year ago.  Since the parachute soft links will only be tested to the worst case in the event one parachute is lost, those flights tell us nothing about their performance.  In contrast, the P-213 glass cloth tape was tested in real flight conditions.  Whether or not that includes the "certain circumstances" under which the tape is flammable isn't said.  

That's a big question mark.  If the answer would be to change the tape to something else, that would entail complete disassembly of the Starliner capsule and replacing all the wiring harnesses.  My guess is that it would be faster to build another capsule from scratch than to disassemble, fix and reassemble, along with about a bazillion tests to verify they didn't break something.   

Boeing vice president Mark Nappi, and program manager for Starliner said "Safety is always our top priority, and that drives this decision" to stand down from the July 21 mission.  In my view, Boeing can't afford another screw-up, but Boeing is nothing if not old school government military/space contractor.  There are observers who think if Boeing hadn't bid on the contract that led to SpaceX's enormously successful Crew Dragon and Boeing's equally unsuccessful Starliner that the whole Commercial Crew Program wouldn't have happened.  Simply because Boeing's name added the credibility the program needed.  

Going back through my Starliner posts to find the couple of links to old posts, I see the recurring theme that Boeing needs to pay more attention safety culture as well as quality culture.  This source article on Ars Technica says much the same. 

Most likely, Starliner will see another significant delay in this test flight. These new problems are likely to ratchet up concerns from outside observers about the safety culture at Boeing. Last week, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel urged NASA to bring in independent experts to assess the viability of Starliner.

“Given the number of remaining challenges to certification of Starliner, we strongly encourage NASA to step back and take a measured look at the remaining body of work with respect to flying CFT,” Patricia Sanders, chair of the committee, said on May 25. She believes NASA should bring in an independent team, such as from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, “to take a deep look at the items on the path to closure.”


The Commercial Crew program is being funded through a fixed-price contract. Boeing received a $4.2 billion award from NASA in 2014, but due to ongoing delays—initially, Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon were supposed to fly in 2017—Boeing has already taken cumulative charges against its earnings of $900 million. Nappi said Thursday that it is too early to say if these issues will result in additional financial charges to the program.

If the program continues as a money loser for Boeing, it's conceivable that could force Boeing to abandon the Starliner, although that might involve repaying NASA some money.  It comes down to which costs them the least.   

Screen capture from NASA video of the second flight test of the Starliner, May of '22.



Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Yes, The Historic SpaceX Launch Was Historic

In case everyone hasn't heard this already, this morning's (for 3/4 of the time zones in the CONUS) SpaceX launch that was going to double the number of successful launches over the next closest rockets was successful, completely by the book and by the numbers, including landing Booster B1061 for its 14th flight and the company's 196th successful recovery of the orbital-class booster.  

It was their 8th launch for the month of May.  Richard Angle at Teslarati adds:

Coming up next for SpaceX looks to be a busy start of June, there could be up 5 Falcon 9 launches within the first 10 days of the month, however, 4 of those are scheduled to launch from Florida where the weather could play spoiler and would require a very rapid turnaround of the launch pads on the Space Coast. With SpaceX, you can never rule out such a cadence if the weather holds.

I don't have access to a detailed schedule, just's SpaceX page.  That shows only the next three launches have a No Earlier Than (NET) date and only two of three show a time.  The page shows 10 launches in June, with all but that first three saying "NET June." 

Angle also adds this note about B1061.

Currently, no Falcon 9 has flown more than 15 times but SpaceX is currently in the process of extending the 15 flight certification to 20 as they prove the reusability capabilities of the Falcon 9.

And that's not all.  They continue to totally redefine the world’s access to space.

Last night, the Ax-2 crew returned to splashdown near Panama City Beach, Florida, capping their visit to the ISS for Axiom Space.  In last Thursday's Rocket Report, Eric Berger added this historical note. 

For SpaceX, this was its 10th human space mission since the Demo-2 flight for NASA that launched in May 2020. In less than three years, the company has now put 38 people into orbit. Of these, 26 were professional astronauts from NASA and its international partners, including Russia; eight were on Axiom missions, and four on Jared Isaacman's Inspiration4 orbital free-flyer mission. Isaacman is due to make a second private flight on board Dragon, Polaris Dawn, later this year. In just three years, SpaceX has become the world's most prolific provider of orbital human spaceflight. The company now flies more people into orbit annually than the rest of the world combined.

Dragon Freedom, after splashdown last night (5/30), upper right, next to the recovery ship with a really photogenic light display on the top of the ship.  I don't believe Dragons are capable of landing on the ships so I don't really know why the lights are arranged like that - unless they're used for aircraft or maybe even the Dragon itself to help determine where to aim.  SpaceX photo via Twitter.  Just because it's a cool picture.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Wednesday Morning's SpaceX Launch is Historic

Wednesday morning's SpaceX launch from Vandenberg SFB SLC-4E is going to be historic no matter what happens to it.  The launch is a group of 52 Starlink satellites for Group 2-10.  Launch time is 0602 UTC, or 11:02 PM Tuesday evening PDT (2:02 AM on Wednesday morning EDT). 

So what's so historic about another 52 Starlink satellites?  

Eric Berger at Ars Technica has the look at it.  This launch will the 200th consecutive Falcon 9 launch since their one and only explosion on the pad on September 3, 2016.  The currently accepted record number for consecutive successful launches is 100, with two (very) different rockets achieving that number. 

It's actually a bit more complicated than that.  Eric explains:

According to Wikipedia, the Soyuz-U rocket had a streak of 112 consecutive successful launches between July 1990 and May 1996. However this period included the Cosmos 2243 launch in April 1993. This mission should more properly be classified as a failure. According to space scientist Jonathan McDowell, the control system of the rocket failed during the final phase of the Blok-I burn, and the payload was auto-destructed.

When that failure is removed from the 112, the record turns into that 100 successes. 

This happens to be the exact same number of consecutive successes by the Delta II rocket, originally designed and built by McDonnell Douglas and later flown by Boeing and United Launch Alliance. Overall the Delta II rocket launched 155 times, with two failures. Its final flight, in 2018, was the rocket's 100th consecutive successful mission.

There's a really important distinction here - in the third paragraph.  This launch will be the 200th consecutive Falcon 9 launch.  The significance here is doubling the record for the number of successful launches.  In a more pragmatic view, every launch of a Falcon 9 (and based on a similar discussion a couple of weeks ago, they're not including Falcon Heavy side boosters) has set a new record for the number of successful launches, so no matter what happens, this launch sets another record.  Either it's a new record for the consecutive number of successful launches, which just so happens to be twice the number any other launch company in the world has done or they leave that record at 199, reset the counters and start over (next launch is Saturday afternoon, a Cargo Resupply mission to the ISS). 

As a side note: I think the number of successful Falcon 9 booster recoveries is 195, so SpaceX has almost recovered or landed twice as many rockets as any other company has ever launched. 

SpaceX's "Launches" page for this mission includes the following statement:

The first stage booster supporting this mission previously launched Crew-1, Crew-2, SXM-8, CRS-23, IXPE, Transporter-4, Transporter-5, Globalstar FM15, ISI EROS C-3, and four Starlink missions. Following stage separation, the first stage will land on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship stationed in the Pacific Ocean.

Hang on... gotta take off a sock to count... I get 13 previous flights for this (unnamed) booster, so this will be its 14th flight. 

May 10's launch from SLC-4E at Vandy.  Screen capture of SpaceX video.  Vandenberg is a pretty place when it's not pea soup fog and you can actually see the place. 

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Memorial Day 2023

There are times I wonder how many more of any holiday that our republic will survive to see, but this one is the hardest to come to grips with.  Memorial Day is the day to honor those who fell fighting to preserve the republic and if it falls, that's dishonoring every one of them.  Every one of them gave themselves, their lives, their futures, for something bigger than themselves.  

It's not just the generation that saved the west in the all out war of WWII; it's all of them, from those we know of fighting in the first battles of the Revolution on April 19, 1775, (commemorated as Patriots' Day but some states shift the date to get a Monday Holiday) to those who were lost in Bumbling Biden's disastrous abandonment of Afghanistan, including those lost since then.  We include losses from training accidents as well as actual enemy action. 

For most people, Memorial Day is the semi-official Start of Summer.  It's marked by barbecues, trips out on the boat, or other outdoors activities.  Let me join the chorus of folks saying that while you're enjoying your day, take a moment to remember or think of and thank those who gave their all in service to us. The ones who don't get to mark the holiday with us.

I say that in the belief that those who made that sacrifice wouldn't hold it against us to have a little fun on their day. 

Credit to Al Goodwyn at Creators Syndicate

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Vulcan Never Completed that Test Firing

Back on the 11th, we ran a story that United Launch Alliance was going to do some extensive testing of the first Vulcan booster in preparation for its Cert-1 flight, to include tanking tests and a short static firing called a Flight Readiness Test or Firing.  The aim is to do what seems to be a wet dress rehearsal but with a short static firing, a duration of six seconds was cited in that linked ULA article. The FRF would be of the liquid-fueled (Methane/LOX) BE-4 engines but not light the solid rocket boosters, which can't really be turned off and refueled. 

The estimated date was "within a week" and that didn't happen.  It wasn't widely covered but on Thursday (the 25th) there was a channel up on YouTube with a promise it would go live at (as best I recall) 6PM EDT.  At some point well before that, maybe 5PM, I went back to that open tab in the background and it was shut down with no indication of a time to resume. A bit of searching led to this ULA page and the story. 

The fact that they had enough trouble to stand down from the test was proof that the test is worth the time and effort.  They thought all that hardware was ready and (as pretty much always) learn from their failure.  It's my understanding that they rolled the Vulcan back to their integration facility ('hangar') for some of this work - I think I saw that somewhere in the last few days.  Rolling between the two facilities isn't a big deal.  

I see no word on when they plan to try again.  One would assume they're not working Memorial Day Monday or over the weekend. 

Friday, May 26, 2023

The Same Old Mistakes With Deep Fakes and AI Images

Sometime this past Monday, a faked image of an explosion outside of the Pentagon triggered a response by high frequency traders on Wall Street that hammered Wall Street.  Or, at least, portions of it (some stock index or other) for at least portions of the day.  This is the image, as CNN tweeted it.  Note the time tag (bottom left under the video capture) says 7:32PM, so well after the image showed up and after the upset it caused was over.  For some brief period maybe someone might have thought there was an attack on the pentagon, and the US was done for. 

American Wire News reported:

“A falsified photograph of an explosion near the Pentagon spread widely on social media Monday morning, briefly sending US stocks lower in possibly the first instance of an AI-generated image moving the market,” according to Bloomberg.

“It soon spread on Twitter accounts that reach millions of followers, including the Russian state-controlled news network RT and the financial news site ZeroHedge, a participant in the social-media company’s new Twitter Blue verification system.”

All the proper pearls have been clutched over this threat from AI-generated images, sometimes called "Deep Fakes".  There's worry that, as the Council on Foreign Relations voiced,

Deep fakes, highly realistic and difficult-to-detect depictions of real people doing or saying things they never said or did, are a serious problem for democratic governments and the world order. How can they be stopped?

My bet is the Council isn't so much concerned about the pictures being edited but that they're not the ones controlling it.  The problem is that photographs have been edited to change their meaning as long as photographs have existed.  We're not talking since the advent of Photoshop, we're talking about since the mid 1800s with guys in a dark room manipulating negatives.  Take this famous pair of photos.  

This picture is of Joseph Stalin and some loyal staff; the one closest to the river was deleted by photo editing - a common fate of commissars that Stalin had no further use for.  This is when people whispered "airbrush!" instead of "Photoshop!"  

The problem with AI is that people take it too seriously.  They don't look at the output and say, "not bad, but it got this part all wrong..."  They act like it's really intelligence and not a slightly less stupid than usual computer game.  You see people all wrapped up about it and saying, "you'll never be able to believe your eyes again", or "how can we ever trust our senses again?"  I'm pretty sure I've heard that since the advent of Photoshop.  When was that?  1990?  It was an ancient belief back then.  I drop by CW at Daily Timewaster a couple of times a day, and it doesn't matter how beautiful his "smile of the morning" is or how famous she is.  There's always at least one comment along the lines of, "dude, I can tell by the pixels around her neck that's been 'shopped" - or something like that.

I did a dive into this back in 2019 that had a pretty funny video in which someone put Steve Buscemi's face on actress Jennifer Lawrence's body.  The top pick for goofy/funny today is someone did a mix of Joe Biden as Dylan Mulvaney complete with cans of Butt Light.  

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Weekly Small Space News Story Roundup 9

Rocket Lab's TROPICS Launch Was Scrubbed 

The launch of the final TROPICS satellite mission talked about last night was scrubbed due to poor weather in New Zealand, and has been rescheduled for tonight at 11:30 PM EDT.  The NASA video feed should go live at 11:15 PM EDT.

In a Similar But Unrelated Story 

Unrelated because any similarity between weather at Rocket Lab's Māhia Peninsula launch site and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station is purely coincidental.  Here on the "Space Coast" we've had a weird week of weather caused by some stalled frontal areas overhead. 

You guessed it, SpaceX's launch of the ARABSAT BADR-8 mission to a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit from SLC-40 was scrubbed on its last attempt to launch due to weather and has been moved to Friday night at 11:25 PM EDT.  There's a two hour launch window (127 minutes) unlike the virtually instantaneous windows of most SpaceX missions.  Video coverage will go live Friday night at 11:15 PM.

Virgin Galactic Aces Its (Probably) Final Test Flight 

The "Unity 25" flight this morning (May 25th) was the fifth successful test flight of their air-dropped, small-crewed, winged vehicle and Virgin Galactic's first trip to suborbital space since July 2021, when it sent up billionaire Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and several other passengers.  The apparent success opens the door to commercial operations to begin soon. 

"We think if all this goes well, we'll be ready to fly our first commercial flight in June," Mike Moses, president of spaceline missions and safety at Virgin Galactic, told in a preflight call yesterday (May 24).

That coming landmark mission, he added, is a research flight booked by the Italian Air Force.

Virgin Galactic uses a carrying aircraft, called VMS Eve, and a two-pilot, six-passenger portion that goes to space, called VSS Unity.  Unity is attached to Eve and is held there until the two reach an altitude of about 50,000 feet.  At that point, Unity drops and fires its rocket engine to reach suborbital space. 

After the flight, Virgin Galactic reported that Unity reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.94 and a peak altitude of 54.2 miles or 87.2 km.  Recall that while NASA awards astronaut wings to those who make it to 50 miles, most countries consider 100 km or 62 miles as the entry to space.  

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity snapped this selfie during its fifth crewed spaceflight, which occurred on May 25, 2023. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic via Twitter)

The "Unity 25" name of the mission comes from being the 25th time the Unity vehicle has flown including captive-carry flights that don't release the vehicle and glide flights entirely in the atmosphere.

The company is aiming to increase its launch cadence and launch more regularly.  

Virgin Galactic aims to fly roughly once per month with Eve and Unity once commercial operations begin, Mike Moses said. But the company is aiming even higher than that over the long haul: It's building a fleet of new "Delta-class" space planes designed to be capable of flying once a week.

Once those new vehicles enter service, a milestone targeted for 2026, Virgin Galactic could be flying paying customers to suborbital space every day. (A ticket to ride with the company currently costs $450,000, and hundreds of people have booked a seat to date.)

$450,000?  They didn't even go vertically 60 miles, flying a few hundred miles horizontally but at much lower altitudes costs more like 1/1000 of that.  To borrow a conclusion I posted for Richard Branson's flight in '21:

Let's face it: missions like this are not about stretching technology's limits, nor about who the first rich tourist in space is - that record was set in 2001 by Dennis Tito.  They're about lowering the threshold for ordinary folks like us.  Right now, we can fly around the planet thousands of times the distance they flew vertically today for tiny fractions of what these missions cost or what the mission Blue Origin flies in nine days auctioned their spare seat for.  When people can fly suborbital missions for what flights across the US cost today, it will be a common vacation.  

That's still years away.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Umm, No. Just No, Rocket Lab.

I've been keeping an eye out for the last TROPICS mission, currently scheduled for Thursday at 0500 UTC (12:00 AM EDT).  That's about four hours from now as I'm typing. 

Without expecting much except some gross overview of the mission - it's the last of the TROPICS missions, after all, and what hasn't been said? - I opened the article and started reading.  

"The number of hurricanes we're experiencing every year is increasing due to climate change, and the intensity of these storms is also increasing," Jane McNichol, mission manager at Rocket Lab, said during a prelaunch press conference on May 7.

I'm sorry, but both of those statements are not true.  As measured by the National Hurricane Center and other organizations responsible for such statements, neither the number of storms or their intensity as measured by the Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) metric is increasing.  To be a meaningful statement, number and intensity have to be measured over long cycles of the ocean oscillations, the multidecadal Atlantic and Pacific oscillations, El Nino Southern Oscillation cycles, and several solar activity cycles. 

The number of storms that could have been detected in the pre-satellite era was much smaller than the number detectable now - when borderline storms that live a matter of hours can be seen from orbit and add to totals. The problem that a monster hurricane went undetected because it didn't cross a shipping lane just isn't there since the satellite era began.

This is not an unusual stance.  Ryan Maue, a well-published expert on ACE with a website showing current data, includes this paragraph.  Note it's from NOAA, the bureaucracy that controls the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center.

From the NOAA GFDL website (Link) : "In summary, it is premature to conclude with high confidence that increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations from human activities have had a detectable impact on Atlantic basin hurricane activity, although increasing greenhouse gases are strongly linked to global warming... Human activities may have already caused other changes in tropical cyclone activity that are not yet detectable due to the small magnitude of these changes compared to estimated natural variability, or due to observational limitations."

Sorry, Rocket Lab.  I respect the heck out of you and the work you're doing to get the TROPICS satellites in place for this hurricane season.  I just think dragging in the pretty thoroughly debunked idea about climate change is just a bad way to look for attention.  The fact that climate change has nothing to do with the mission has no impact on its value as mission.  Speaking as someone who has lived all their life in a hurricane-impact zone, any mission that can improve forecasting is worthwhile.

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket is vertical on the pad at Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand, during a May 18, 2023, wet dress rehearsal. (Image credit: NASA/Rocket Lab)

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Virgin Orbit Appears to be Bought Out

Although it feels like it was more recent than this, Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy on April 3rd, a week short of two months ago.  And in the month or weeks before that, there had been talk about the company selling off assets.  

Today, news reports broke that three companies are to buy most of Virgin Orbit's assets.  

In a May 23 filing (pdf alert) with federal bankruptcy court in Delaware, Virgin Orbit announced that Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch, and Vast made the winning bids for separate segments of the company’s assets, including manufacturing facilities and its Boeing 747 aircraft.

  1. Rocket Lab bid $16.1 million for the lease on Virgin Orbit’s main production facility in Long Beach, California, along with machinery and equipment there. Rocket Lab has its headquarters and a production facility just a couple blocks away in Long Beach.
  2. Launcher, a launch vehicle company acquired by space station developer Vast in February, bid $2.7 million for Virgin Orbit’s lease on a test site in Mojave, California, along with machinery, equipment and inventory there. 
  3. The bankruptcy auction also accepted the $17 million “stalking horse” bid from Stratolaunch for Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 “Cosmic Girl” and related equipment. That bid, announced May 16, served as a minimum for the value of the overall auction. 

Of the three major buyers, the only one that might not be familiar to most readers is the last one:  Stratolaunch, and a quick search shows I've never mentioned them.  Stratolaunch currently operates its custom-designed Roc aircraft that it uses as a launch platform for hypersonic vehicles it is developing.  The Roc aircraft, designed by Scaled Composites, will be more familiar to the vast majority of you.  Just look at the opening picture in this article on a test flight last October.  You'll know it when you see it.

Vast, of course, was the subject of an introductory post two weeks ago.  They are developing a private space station called Haven-1 to be launched under contract by SpaceX, and are working on manned missions starting pretty much along with the launch of Haven-1.  Their Launcher division was apparently originally a rocket development company acquired by Vast in February.  Vast discontinued plans to build a launch vehicle after acquiring Launcher,  but said it would continue work on the E-2 rocket engine it had been developing for that vehicle, planning to offer it to other customers.  

There had been talk in the last couple of months about another company taking over all of Virgin Orbit and resuming operations.  Virgin said they had nine such offers but all apparently weren't adequate.  The auction results rule out any attempt to keep the company intact and bring it out of bankruptcy under new ownership. 

Virgin Orbit said in a May 23 statement that it would cease operations after completing the sale of the assets. It noted that the bankruptcy sale was the result of “a rigorous and competitive auction which maximizes value for the estate and minimizes the remaining duration of the Company’s restructuring.”

There are a couple of other assets that haven't been finalized, yet, but that are considered sold and resolved.  

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne and Cosmic Girl platform prepare for a launch at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit 

Virgin Orbit is just about officially, completely gone.  Virgin Galactic has been moving toward resuming their suborbital tourism business soon.

Monday, May 22, 2023

NASA's CAPSTONE Satellite Begins Extended Mission

I've been following and trying to keep up with NASA's CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) mission since first hearing of the mission just before the launch last June.  The story showed up today at that "NASA's tiny CAPSTONE probe snaps 1st photo of the moon, begins extended mission" and I realized I hadn't heard anything about the little cubesat since it reached its intended Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) back last November.   

The headline is that CAPSTONE snapped its first photo of the moon.  The photo is posted by  Let's be charitable and say this is a test photo so we shouldn't expect too much of it.  The reality is that millions of amateur astronomers have taken better photos of the moon from our backyards, whether by telescope or perhaps just with a telephoto lens.  Let me just post it here:

NASA's CAPSTONE cubesat, built and operated by Colorado company Advanced Space, snapped this photo of the moon on May 3, 2023. It's the first lunar image by the cubesat. (Image credit: ©Advanced Space 2023, all rights reserved)

Let's just assume photo quality wasn't really a mission goal.  The photo was part of an extended test of operation in the new orbit that's central to the new lunar missions including Artemis, the Gateway and the planned returns to the moon.  

In the NRHO, CAPSTONE gets as close as 11,000 miles (17,700 kilometers) to one lunar pole during a near pass and then as far away as 43,500 miles (70,000 km) from the other pole every seven days. The microwave-sized satellite imaged the lunar surface for the first time on May 3, as it made a close pass by the north pole.

Six days later, on May 9, CAPSTONE teamed up with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to test a new navigation method using equipment on CAPSTONE - the CAPS portion of the name - the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System.  

During the successful May 9 experiment, CAPSTONE teamed up with NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has been circling the moon since 2009. CAPSTONE beamed a signal to LRO, which bounced it back to the tiny spacecraft, where it was converted into a measurement of the distance and relative velocity between the two probes.

"The test proved the ability to collect measurements that will be utilized by CAPS software to determine the positioning of both spacecraft," NASA officials wrote in an update last week. "This capability could provide autonomous onboard navigation information for future lunar missions."

The article doesn't say much about what the rest of the mission is going to focus on, but says CAPSTONE has just begun an "enhanced mission phase" which will last around a year and will see the spacecraft continue testing its onboard technology.  

Sunday, May 21, 2023

I Never Would Have Thought I'd Write This

As background, we watched the launch of Axiom Space's Ax-2 mission this evening (5:37 PM local).  As visibility goes, it was maybe a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10.  Briefly visible, and at best it was behind high clouds that reduced visibility dramatically.  The audio was good, though.  We got a good rumble starting around MECO, as we typically get when the launch trajectory is toward the NE, which this one was.  We didn't see any of the booster return to the KSC but heard the sonic boom of the booster returning to land at on the cape. 

Figuring most people would have known about the successful launch, with the Dragon capsule (Freedom) now on its planned path to dock with the ISS on Monday, I started looking for the story that was not likely to be reported everywhere. 

That's when I found it.  A headline I never thought I'd write.  “Build-A-Bear creates fluffy 'zero-g indicator' for Axiom Space Ax-2 crew”  Wait, who built a what? 

What's a zero-g indicator?  A joke has gotten started in spaceflight.  I don't know for sure when it started but I recall seeing it for a while now.  A couple of years?  Crews will bring a little stuffed animal on board.  It's a zero-g indicator in the same way everything is.  If you hold it out at arm's length and let go of it, it doesn't fall if you're in microgravity.  Likewise, if it falls you're not in microgravity.  The other part of that sentence says this wasn't something they took off a shelf at home, they had it built for this mission.  

The product of a partnership between the custom stuffed animal retailer Build-A-Bear Workshop and Axiom Space, the space services company that organized the launch, the Axiom-2 (Ax-2) zero-g indicator is the first Build-A-Bear doll to fly into space. Named "GiGi," the fluffy toy is dressed in a miniature version of Axiom's AxEMU spacesuit, which will be worn by the next American astronauts to walk on the moon.

"Guests dream big at Build-A-Bear, and the opportunity to partner with Axiom Space as part of the Ax-2 mission and send GiGi, the furry fifth crew member, to space is a special honor that we hope inspires youth across the globe to reach for the stars, pursue adventures and follow their passion," said Sharon Price John, president and CEO at Build-A-Bear, in a statement. "With Build-A-Bear's 25-year history of creating special moments, our GiGi, wearing the next-generation spacesuit, has the wonderful opportunity to be part of history as the Ax-2 crew's zero-gravity indicator."

The CollectSpace website says the Axiom Space Bear is available for order now from the Build-A-Bear Workshop and Axiom Space websites for $42 each.

The Axiom Space Bear, a larger version of the Ax-2 zero-g indicator "GiGi," features Build-A-Bear's "Happy Hugs Teddy" wearing Axiom Space's AxEMU spacesuit. (Image credit:

Saturday, May 20, 2023

About the Last Couple of Days

Basically, I was sick.  Just not affected in anyway I'm used to being sick. 

Thursday morning, as I was getting out of bed and getting going, my nose felt sore.  When I bent over to put on my socks, I got a sharp pain in my right nostril.  The kind of sensation that makes you grab at the hurting part.   Next thing I know, I'm bleeding like a stuck pig.  Not just from the right nostril but the left, and pouring down my throat.  After 20 minutes of squeezing my nose, it was looking like it wasn't going to slow down on its own.   After an hour I was sure it wasn't going stop, so we headed up to the ER to shove a balloon up my nose.  If you haven't experienced the joy of that, let me just tell you: it hurts like a bitch.  Chances are anything they could do to make it hurt less would also hurt like a bitch for a while.

The balloon didn't work, either.  I could see the Dr. pump some water into it to put pressure on the inside of my nose, although he called it a nasal tampon.  That didn't stop the bleeding.  In his defense, it's got to be hard to see up there with blood running like that, and I think he just missed it.  The second try worked better, positioned closer the bottom of my nostril. 

After the second trial, I was able to come home and try to get by with it.  I still had what looked like clear water coming out of the left side, tinted light red from residual blood on that side.  By Friday that was stopping.

I went back today to get the balloon removed once I was well past 48 hours after getting it put up there.  Yeah, getting it taken out hurt like a bitch, too, but within a few minutes, I could breathe with both nostrils.  Getting the balloon pulled out was uncomfortable, but not as bad as the balloon squeezing inside my nose.

Last night, though I had a low fever of about 100, and the achy-all-over feelings typical of a cold.

The ER Doc who took the balloon out (not the one who put it in) told me I should go see an ear, nose, and throat surgeon.  He said it looked pretty messed up in there.

And I've got to tell you this.  Don't ever try to look up a picture of Billy Gibbons as Carrie from the Steven King book and movie.  It's a waste of time.  I just thought given how much Billy and I look like each other, it was the best way to go.

If it's Sunday afternoon the 21st as you're reading this, the Axiom Ax-2 mission to the ISS is set for 5:27 PM EDT.  Video coverage starts about 2:00 PM EDT.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Night Off

Back story some other time.  


Wednesday, May 17, 2023

It's an Old Story about a Still New Program

Artemis is too expensive.  Part of that is because the SLS rocket system is too expensive.  Yeah, old news. 

What Artemis has going for it, besides its successful uncrewed test flight last November to December, is that it has wide support in congress.  Both sides of the Uniparty back the program, currently preparing for the 2024 Artemis II mission, a lunar flyby.  The problems were addressed this week at a meeting of NASA's Advisory Committee for Human Spaceflight.

The space agency's chief official for human spaceflight in deep space, Jim Free, discussed the budget from fiscal year 2024 through fiscal year 2028. During this five-year period, the space agency will spend at least $41.5 billion on the Artemis program, when there is likely to be a single human landing at most. This includes some staggering sums for the Space Launch System rocket, $11 billion, which has already been developed for this mission.

This $11 billion is approximately the same amount of money that NASA proposes spending on not one, but two lunar landers for humans, which are arguably as complex as the SLS rocket, which has been in development since 2011. NASA did not award its first lunar lander contract until 2021. It is not clear why NASA needs to spend as much money on a flight-proven rocket as it does on the development of two large and technically challenging human landers.

I want to add a comma to the last sentence in the first paragraph quoted.  It should conclude with “This includes some staggering sums for the Space Launch System rocket, $11 billion, which has already been developed, (/--**there it is**) for this mission.”  My point is to emphasize that neither Artemis overall or the SLS itself was not developed for this mission.  It has already been developed; it shouldn't need staggering amounts of funding.  

The problem is that none of this is new.  In 2019,  Ars Technica (same website) calculated a cost per launch of $2 Billion for the SLS.  By 2022, NASA's inspector general said $4.1 billion per launch.  Doubled the cost in 3 years - on a rocket in development since 2011?

For comparison, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy can only lift about 2/3 of the payload of the SLS, but does so at $100 Million per launch.  In 2019, that cost was quoted as $150 million.  The $100 million price is from 2022.  That means two launches for the equivalent payload at $200 Million or about 5% of the price.  It's not as simple as just saying to swap over to the FH; the Orion hardware would have to be redesigned, but let's not get into the sunk cost fallacy.  All that money spent on development is gone.  The question is if we keep spending far too much on every launch or if we sink a little more money to cut launch costs.  If we could cut that $4,100 million per launch down to $300 to $500 million with new hardware costs (essentially doubling the FH cost by adding new Orion hardware), it slows the money-bleeding that SLS is set to do.     

This is all going on amidst the usual nonsense about the (imaginary) debt ceiling, going into "default" (only if they want to) forcing a balanced budget and possible economic turmoil that adds to this. The most recent Federal budget I found record of (article from 2012) was in 2009.  Federal funding these days go by concurrent resolutions (I've also read continuing resolution).  The CR process imposes its own hardships on NASA.  

NASA's budget request.  


Tuesday, May 16, 2023

SpaceX Hires Former NASA Head of Commercial Space

Yesterday morning, CNBC News started reporting that SpaceX had hired Kathy Lueders, who retired from NASA at the end of April, to help get Starship flying.  To me, the "uh-oh" in this story was that it first showed up on YouTube and I just see far too much sensationalized crap on YouTube to take seriously - it's clickbait - especially things involving Elon Musk.  I went to check the official SpaceX Twitter feed and found nothing.  After that, I went to Elon Musk's Twitter account, and again found nothing.

Kathy Lueders (pronounced "leaders") had been the head of NASA's successful Commercial Space office, the office that ran the contracts to return manned spaceflight to America and led to the contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to carry crews to the International Space Station.  NASA has an official biography here, that is revised as of the end of April.  

CNBC adds these details:

Lueders’ role will be general manager, and she will work out of the company’s “Starbase” facility in Texas, reporting directly to SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

It’s a key hire for SpaceX as the company aims to make its massive Starship rocket safe to fly people in the coming years. Lueders, a respected expert in the sector, is already familiar with the company’s human spaceflight work to date.

They also add that “SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on Lueders’ hiring.”  Similarly, reports, “CNBC learned of Lueders' new job from unnamed "people familiar with the matter." SpaceX has not publicly announced the hire.” 

It's interesting to note that she follows in the footsteps of one of her recent NASA predecessors, William Gerstenmaier, who joined SpaceX in 2020 after more than a decade as the agency’s top human spaceflight official - before passing the job to her.  Gerstenmaier is now SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability.

NASA human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders retired at the end of April 2023 after 31 years with the agency. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

My editorializing is that I haven't dug much into her record and only first heard of her in 2019.  That said, she seems to have been a solid contributor to the Commercial Crew program, maybe even the driver, that got the US out of the doldrums and returned manned launches to the US after the nine years without them.  Is she the right person for the job?  We'll find out.



Monday, May 15, 2023

Weekly Small Space News Story Roundup 8

ESA's JUICE Probe Has Deployed Its Antenna 

Remember this story from May 5th?  The European Space Agency said May 12 that controllers had successfully deployed the 16-meter-long antenna on its Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or JUICE, mission, SpaceNews reported today.  The suspected cause was a pin that was used to hold the antenna in its stowed configuration for launch had not separated as planned.  The previous meeting that talked about this was May 3, and in the May 5th post I reported:

With a couple of months of commissioning still to come, there's time to try more tricks.  The next steps include an engine burn to shake the spacecraft a little followed by a series of rotations that will turn JUICE, warming up the mount and radar, which are currently in the cold shadows.

SpaceNews reports:

While those efforts showed some signs of progress, the antenna did not deploy until controllers fired a non-explosive actuator in the jammed bracket. The shock of the firing loosened the pin enough for the antenna to unfold. Another actuator fired later to complete the antenna’s deployment.

JUICE is getting to Jupiter by a path with several gravity assists, and isn't expected to arrive for nearly eight years, 2031.  That's a full year a year after NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, slated to launch in October 2024 on a Falcon Heavy.  Six years vs. eight.  Europa Clipper has its own radar instrument, called Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) that also features deployable booms.  Tim Larson, deputy project manager for Europa Clipper at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that while their antenna has a different design, they've been following the JUICE mission closely. 

NASA Ends Lunar Flashlight Mission 

Not surprised to see this.  There have been thruster problems with the mission since the satellite was first deployed.  That link is to an update at the end of March, but SpaceNews reports NASA officially announced the decision last Friday, the 12th.   Lunar Flashlight is a cubesat that was launched in December by SpaceX, on the same mission as the ispace Hakuto-R M1 that carried the Rashid lunar lander by the United Arab Emirates. The Hakuto-R M1 mission failed to land successfully on April 25th (updated at the end of that post).   An unusual "0 for 2" on that SpaceX launch - both well out of SpaceX's control. 

A Small Company has Audacious Plans to Rescue and Repair an Old NASA Space Telescope 

Twenty years ago, NASA launched the the Spitzer Space Telescope atop a Delta II.  The Spitzer was deployed to an Earth-trailing orbit, where it drifted farther behind our planet at a rate of about 9.3 million miles a year. It was the last of NASA's four "Great Observatories" put into space from 1990 to 2003.

Like many space telescopes that observe in the infrared spectrum, Spitzer carried a tank of liquid helium to cool the sensors.  Spitzer was intended for a five year mission, so when the liquid helium ran out seven years into the mission it wasn't exactly a surprise.  The telescope continued to work but used sensors that didn't require the liquid helium; a different kind of mission.  Three years ago, 16 years into a five year mission, Spitzer began to overheat whenever it needed to point back toward Earth for communications. But the reason for overheating wasn't a fault in the space telescope hardware, it was because of that 9.3 million miles per year drift farther behind earth.  It's so far behind our orbit that it was approaching the opposite side of the sun, so that when it went to send data home, it was pointing closer to the sun than it could handle. 

This meant that operating the telescope, and having it phone home from time to time, would irreparably damage Spitzer's remaining scientific instruments.

And so in January 2020, after more than 16 years of service, the Spitzer Space Telescope was deactivated—consigned to drift in a heliocentric orbit until the Sun's fiery expansion at the end of its life a few billion years from now.

 Or was it? 

A small space technology company, Rhea Space Activity, says it has a plan to resurrect Spitzer. Last week the firm said it won a $250,000 grant from the US Space Force to continue studying a robotic rescue mission for the spacecraft, which is now about two astronomical units—or twice the distance of Earth from the Sun—away.

Satellite servicing, "rescue" in some cases, is becoming a "next big thing" with some rescues already extending the lives of satellites.  In late February of 2020 Northrup Grumman's first Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-1) docked to Intelsat 901 (IS-901) in order to provide life-extension services.  It was the first time two commercial satellites had docked in orbit and the first time that mission extension services were offered to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit.  There's a bit more description at either that link or my coverage.

But this is way, way beyond that kind of mission.  This satellite isn't in Earth orbit, it's farther from the sun than our orbit but on the other side of the sun.  As that quote two paragraphs above says, it's two AU away.  

"When it comes to robotic space servicing, this would be the most ambitious thing ever done," said Shawn Usman, an astrophysicist who is the founder and chief executive of Rhea Space Activity, in an interview with Ars. "I mean, it is literally sending a satellite to the other side of the Sun to resurrect the last Great Observatory. So I think it would be pretty ambitious, but it'd be really great if we could pull it off."

The "Spitzer Resurrector" mission would be a small spacecraft that could fit into a 1-meter-by-1-meter box and be ready to launch as soon as 2026 (!!), Usman said. It would then take about three years to cruise to the telescope, during which time the spacecraft will make observations of solar flaring.

It's an extreme mission, but this is how innovation happens.  People who dare to dream big things no one has done before. 

The Spitzer telescope "artist's conception" from before the launch, over 20 years ago. Image NASA/JPL-Caltech.

For more info, the source on Ars Technica has some neat information.