Thursday, December 7, 2023

How Close We Came to Losing the OSIRIS-Rex Return Samples

Back on September 24, we all talked about the return of material from Asteroid Bennu as the sample return capsule parachuted to a landing in the Utah desert.  What we didn't know at the time (or, at least, I didn't know) was that the return capsule came perilously close to smashing into the desert floor and possibly ruining the mission.  

This was the moment Dante Lauretta had waited for nearly 20 years to see. A small robotic capsule was on the way back to Earth with rocks scooped from an asteroid, and Lauretta was eager to get his hands on the samples.

For those watching NASA's live video coverage of the OSIRIS-REx mission's return to Earth, there were hints that something was amiss. Video imagery from a NASA tracking airplane showed the capsule tumbling toward the ground at high speed, well after the point when the drogue parachute should have been visible.

Inside a nearby helicopter, Lauretta was waiting for verbal updates on the status of the capsule.

"I heard the 100,000-foot crossing, and no drogue, and the drogue chute is supposed to come out at 100,000 feet," he recalled during a presentation last month to the National Academies' Space Studies Board. "Sixty-thousand feet, no drogue. I’m like, 'Ugh, this isn’t good.'"

"We’re tumbling. We are in a subsonic regime, and we are not stabilized," Lauretta said. "There’s no drogue chute deployed here. Problem! So I was like trying to mentally prepare myself, because we’re on live TV, to get off this helicopter and deal with a crashed capsule in the desert."

Then, Lauretta heard confirmation from the Air Force that the OSIRIS-REx return capsule had unfurled its main parachute.

"I was like, 'What? How is that possible?'" he said. "So the main chute deployed. The drogue chute, as we’ve been able to reconstruct, went one second before the main. So it came out. It had to come out. It was in front of the main parachute in the canister, and it looks like there was a circuit issue."

On Tuesday, NASA provided the results of an investigation into what happened; an investigation carried out by engineers from NASA and Lockheed Martin, which built the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and sample-return vehicle.  

When the capsule passed through 100,000 feet, the system was supposed to send a command to deploy the drogue chute.  This would trigger the start of a five minute timer before the main chute would deploy.  Instead, the signal triggered the system to cut the drogue free.  Nothing deployed. All it did was cut the drogue parachute's cords attaching it to the capsule.  

At 9,000 feet, it sent the command to release the drogue chute, but with its cord already cut, the drogue went flying and the main chute deployed.  Lauretta explained:

"The first signal was supposed to fire the mortar and release the drogue," Lauretta said. "The second signal was supposed to cut the cable to release the main... It looks like the first signal cut the (cable), and then the second signal fired the mortar, so it went backwards. But it worked. We had lots of margin on that main chute. It landed safely—a beautiful pinpoint landing in the Utah desert.”

The capsule on the ground in Utah after it's incorrect parachute sequence.  Photo credit: NASA/Keegan Barber 

The investigation concluded that the mistake was created because instructions for how to connect everything used the word "main" in two different ways.  "On the signal side, 'main' meant the main parachute. In contrast, on the receiver side 'main' was used as a reference to a pyrotechnic that fires to release the parachute canister cover and deploy the drogue.  "Engineers connected the two mains, causing the parachute deployment actions to occur out of order," NASA said. 

Those of you who have been through the seemingly endless design reviews for such things, resulting in a pile of papers that outweighs the launch vehicle, know that this little detail had to have been reviewed multiple times and nobody ever thought there was anything wrong.  You were probably shaking your heads in wonder as you read this, as was I.  

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

As We Wait for Starship Flight Test 3...

Within the last 24 hours over at Starbase Boca Chica, Booster 10 was rolled from the high bay assembly area to a test pad in the Sanchez site where engines can be added - as I understand it.  The common rumor is that Booster 10 and Ship 28 will be the next combination to fly.  

An article on Ars Technica today gives the impression that NASA is adding to pressure to fly tests more often with the specific goal of seeing some trials for on-orbit refueling.  

NASA is keen on demonstrating orbital refueling technology, an advancement that could lead to propellant depots in space to feed rockets heading to distant destinations beyond Earth orbit. In 2020, NASA announced agreements with four companies—Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, and a Florida-based startup named Eta Space—to prove capabilities in the area of refueling and propellant depots using cryogenic propellants.

While they mention the October 2020 contract, they don't mention that SpaceX was first picked to work on orbital refueling over a year earlier, August 2019.   NASA announced that SpaceX and two NASA centers, the Glenn Research Center in Ohio and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, would work together on space-borne refueling systems.  

This is far from a new concept it's just that nothing has been done about developing methods to do it and fly them to verify they work.  Bobby Braun, a former chief technologist at NASA who is now dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder has said, "I’ve got a stack of studies that go from the floor to the ceiling that list the critical technologies needed for humans to become long-term explorers in deep space, and in-space refueling is always on the list." 

Among the problems that need to be solved, the one that stands out most is dealing with cryogenic fluids, which must be held hundreds of degrees below zero.  Russian supply freighters regularly refuel the International Space Station with hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, which are room-temperature rocket propellants that can be stored for years in orbit, but the more efficient cryogenic propellants have typically been used on missions measured in hours.  There's a handful of technologies needed to address the problem, such as powering coolers that work on orbit, insulating the tanks properly and more.  Simply getting it to flow where it's supposed to go without gravity is an issue.

NASA and several companies are funding efforts in this area, called cryogenic fluid management. NASA's agreements from 2020 committed more than $250 million in government funding for cryogenic fluid management tests in space. These funding agreements announced in October 2020, called "Tipping Point" awards, require substantial private funding from the companies participating in the demonstrations.

As we passed the three year anniversary of that October 2020 contract award, only SpaceX appears to have a chance to complete the tasks outlined in its $53 million "Tipping Point" award.  

This test would involve transferring super-cold propellant from one tank to another inside a Starship spacecraft. It's a precursor to future, more complex demonstrations involving two giant Starships docked together in Earth orbit. Then SpaceX will be ready to send a Starship toward the Moon for a test landing without astronauts onboard. Once that is successful, NASA will clear Starship for a crew landing on the agency's Artemis III mission, marking the astronauts' return to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.

That's easier said than done and as the saying goes, the longest, hardest journey begins with a single step. That first step could come on the next Integrated Flight Test of B10/S28. 

Lakiesha Hawkins, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Moon to Mars program office, discussed the Artemis schedule Monday with a committee from the National Academies charged with reviewing the agency's workforce, infrastructure, and technology programs.

Hawkins did not verbally address SpaceX's plans for the next Starship test flight, but one of her slides noted SpaceX is "moving quickly" toward the third Super Heavy/Starship launch and that this flight "will include a propellant transfer demonstration."

A preliminary test, according to Jimi Russell, a NASA spokesperson, will be for the Starship to transfer about 10 metric tons of liquid oxygen between tanks on the Starship.  Moving 10 metric tons of cryogenics between tanks while on orbit has never been done before. 

The ship attached to the crane is Ship 28 - possibly the next Starship set to fly.

There's no guarantee that this means the next flight will carry out this test, but the fact it's being talked about is noteworthy.  It's a major milestone in the development of Starship, in the Artemis lunar missions and absolutely essential to getting people to Mars.  It's that "one first step" starting the long journey.  Starships are capable of holding 1200 metric tons of fuel and oxygen. After sloshing 10 metric tons around one Starship, they'll need to transfer fuel to a different Starship and increase quantities.   

Back after Flight Test 2, Elon Musk tweeted that 3 could be by the end of December.  Of course that's Elon Standard Time and says nothing about FAA delays.  After derating for those two factors it pushes out.  This site says NET February, and that's probably a reasonable guess.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

India's Chandra 3 Probe Grabbed Headlines Today

And we thought the mission of India's Chandrayaan 3 was over; at least I did.  Turns out India's space agency, ISRO, had a surprise for us Monday.

In a surprise announcement made Monday, ISRO announced that it has successfully returned the propulsion module used by the spacecraft into a high orbit around Earth. This experimental phase of the mission, the agency said in a statement, tested key capabilities needed for future lunar missions, including the potential for returning lunar rocks to Earth.

The primary mission of the probe the ISRO refers to as CH-3 was to carry their Vikram lander and Pragyan rover to the moon for their first lunar landing.  That major goal was achieved on August 23rd, and while there were hopes the pair would survive the two week long lunar night, the mission was intended to last one lunar day and did.  

After the landing, the propulsion module portion of Chandra (CH-3 PM) moved to an orbit around the Moon at an altitude of 150 km. There it would carry out a mission called SHAPE a remote sensing mission to observe Earth with a separate, dedicated instrument package.

Here's where things departed from the early plans.  After a month of flying in this orbit, Indian mission operators found that the spacecraft still had a reserve of more than 100 kg of propellant, out of the original nearly 1700 kg of fuel and oxidizer. 

The engineers knew that the SHAPE mission could carry out its observations of Earth's atmosphere from a different orbit. By looking at Earth from a distance, this innovative science experiment seeks to set a benchmark for what to expect from the atmospheric signatures of exoplanets that may be capable of supporting life. So, the Indian engineers reasoned, it would be good to demonstrate the capability of their spacecraft to return to Earth orbit.

"It was decided to use the available fuel in the PM to derive additional information for future lunar missions and demonstrate the mission operation strategies for a sample return mission," the Indian space agency said Monday.

On October 9, CH-3 PM raised its lunar orbit from 150 km to 5,112 km, and four days later it burned its engine again to begin exiting lunar orbit and transitioning into Earth orbit.  It reached its perigee on November 22, at an altitude of 154,000 km (95,700 miles).  That's far beyond the geostationary orbit at 22,236 miles, over four times the distance from the surface, and not likely to threaten any operational satellites around Earth.  It's also an orbit from which the SHAPE payload can observe our atmosphere.

CH-3 PM's path from lunar orbit (greenish color) to Earth orbit (yellow).  From ISRO

Ars Technica's Eric Berger takes this as a demonstration that India has replaced Russia as the third most advanced deep-space exploration program in the world, bumping Russia down to #4. India placed a spacecraft into orbit around Mars in 2014, and its Vikram lander succeeded in December after Russia's Luna 25 spacecraft crashed into the Moon in August.  I see his point of view.

Monday, December 4, 2023

When Rockets End Production

An unexpected threat to a European Space Agency (ESA) mission called Biomass has appeared as they're closing in on a launch date according to the European Spaceflight newsletter and linked to by Ars Technica.

Two of the four tanks necessary to power the fourth stage of the final Vega flight disappeared several months ago, leaving Avio scrambling to find an alternate solution.

The Vega is kind of an odd duck among modern rockets.  Built by the Italian-based company Avio, Vega is a smallish booster, capable of little more than 2 metric tons to low-Earth orbit on a solid-fueled first stage.  The propellant tanks from the upper stage, powered by dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide fuel—went missing earlier this year.

Now, it seems that the propellant tanks have been found. However, the newsletter says, the tanks were recovered in a dismal state, crushed, alongside metal scraps in a landfill. Someone, apparently, had trashed the tanks. This is a rather big problem for Avio, as this was to be the final Vega rocket launched, and the production lines are now closed for this hardware.

This puts the Biomass mission and the ESA in a bit of deep water.  The EU has no other launch vehicles available.  Because of the issues with Vega C (example here) and the Ariane 6 being well behind in its development (despite the recent successful test), there's no way for the 1,250-kg Biomass satellite to get to orbit.  It's too heavy for Rocket Lab's Electron and the other smaller lift vehicles, but the trend is definitely against the Vega - probably part of the reasons this is set to be the final mission for the rocket. 

Vega has two big problems; the first is cost.

While the vehicle's marketer, Arianespace, does not publicly publish prices, a Vega launch costs approximately $35 million to $40 million. This was barely competitive a decade ago when the vehicle debuted. Now it's out-of-bounds with a new generation of small launch companies that offer lower prices, or the more reliable Falcon 9, which only costs about 50 percent more for much more lift capacity.

The second is reliability.  The Vega rocket has suffered two failures in its last seven launches, giving it a lifetime failure rate of 10 percent across 21 launches.

There are two options currently being discussed.  

So what will Avio do? According to European Spaceflight, officials are working on two options. The first involves using old propellant tanks that were built for qualification tests of the Avio rocket more than a decade ago. There are four such tanks, and the company could subject two of them to re-qualification tests and, if those tests go well, employ the other two tanks for the launch. Understandably, engineers have some concerns about the integrity of these tanks, which in addition to their age were never meant to fly.

Another option is to modify the upper stage that is used by the Vega C rocket. While there are some commonalities between the Vega and Vega C upper stages, there are differences, and the new AVUM+ upper stage was not intended to fly on the original Vega rocket. It remains to be seen whether the European Space Agency is willing to support the launch of its valuable satellite on such a kludged-together rocket.

Image credit: ESA–S. Corvaja, 2013

The fact that the old tanks "were never meant to fly" should not be a concern.  It's an invalid qualification test if what you're testing isn't identical to flight hardware.  

The Biomass mission, by the way, is a synthetic aperture, P-band radar intended to monitor forests around the earth to assess their health and if/how their health is changing.  If you'll pardon the expression, I've been around some radar systems in my day, and I've never heard of a P-band radar, or really a P-band anything.  One source I found said it's close to 70cm, which many hams will recognize as nearly 430 MHz (428.6 MHz), while another says 225-390 MHz.  The mission's Synthetic Aperture antenna is 12m in diameter, which sounds like it will produce a pretty narrow beam.  I can't imagine them not steering the antenna. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

It's Approaching My Favorite Time of the Year

No, not the Christmas season, although I certainly like that.  To borrow a meme from Irish and modify it a little.

That's not completely true.  It can start in December if the month is on the cool side.  While it hit 85 today, a couple of days of cooler weather is coming.  This is the time of year for outdoor projects.  All antenna projects begin with saying, "when it cools off."

On the other hand, hurricane season is over, we never got any warnings that would have made me test my new radio tower bracing system (early photo toward the bottom). Not being hurricane season is a major feature of the next six months.  

I thought the hurricane season was pretty much NBD - No Big Deal.  There were many stormy areas that the models predicted would become a tropical storm but never did.  My mental model of El Nino seasons, like this one, is that storms tend to go north earlier in their trips across the Atlantic than in La Nina years.  We saw almost every storm turn northerly and not threaten Florida. 

I have long thought that the high sea surface temperatures that all the forecasters were wringing their hands over were a result of the explosion of that underwater volcano in the Pacific back in January '22, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, which put far more water into the upper atmosphere than first estimated

NOAA makes a big deal of the numbers of the storms that formed and created some messy days for some fish and other critters.  Take a careful look at the parts of this quote I'll highlight for you:

The Atlantic basin saw 20 named storms in 2023, which ranks fourth for the most-named storms in a year since 1950. Seven storms were hurricanes and three intensified to major hurricanes. An average season has 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes. 

Oh.  So you're saying we had an average season except for a higher number of named storms.  Probably due to the higher sea surface temperatures - which is probably going to be the case for the next few years.  It has nothing to do with global warming or climate change.  It's due to "almost 40 Trillion gallons of water vapor ... injected into the upper-atmosphere" by that volcanic eruption. 

Hurricane Idalia was the only U.S. landfalling hurricane in 2023. It made landfall as a category-3 hurricane on Aug. 30 near Keaton Beach, Florida, causing storm surge inundation of 7 to 12 feet and widespread rainfall flooding in Florida and throughout the southeast. 

Tropical Storm Ophelia made landfall as a strong tropical storm with 70 mph winds on Emerald Isle, North Carolina, on Sept. 23 causing widespread heavy rainfall, gusty winds and significant river and storm surge flooding in portions of eastern North Carolina.

All that tells me it was a quiet season despite all the hand wringing over 20 names storms.  The Atlantic hurricane season gave us one category 3 hurricane and one tropical storm.  Having been through seasons where we got two category 3 hurricanes in less than one month, that sounds almost idyllic to me.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Hubble Space Telescope is Out of Service Again

I figured I should be careful about saying the HST is down.  Someone might think that meant it's no longer in orbit.  It's still in orbit, it's just not working.  Think of it like one of those phone recordings you get: "the telescope you've reached is not in service at this time.  Try again in a few months." 

NASA announced Nov. 29 that Hubble was in a safe mode because of a problem with one of its three operational gyroscopes. That gyro first triggered a safe mode Nov. 19 when it provided what NASA described as faulty readings. Spacecraft controllers restored operations of Hubble, only to see problems again Nov. 21 and 23.

Hubble has six gyroscopes, installed on the the fifth and final shuttle servicing mission in 2009. Three of the six have since malfunctioned.  Program engineers are studying the situation but have yet to provide a date by which the HST could be operating again.  They say it can run successfully with one of the three functioning gyroscopes, with some slowdown to operations.

The painful part is this isn't the first time HST has gone down.  It's not even the second time.  It's just over two years from the last time the HST went down for a prolonged period, in November of '21.  As recently as October, we covered NASA's budget problems supporting two of their three biggest and most expensive instruments, the HST and the Chandra X-Ray telescope (the other is the James Webb Space Telescope).

The root cause is that Hubble was launched in April of 1990, pretty much 33-1/2 years ago.  Things wear out, especially moving parts like those gyroscopes, and nobody that designs a subsystem for anything like that would promise it could work forever.  We're given reliability numbers of the form that there should be a specified, very high-percentage chance the instrument should last for some number of years.  Reliability engineers generally do the calculations, but the circuit designers are responsible for ensuring parts get used in ways that assure the part isn't electrically or thermally overstressed.  It's a team effort.  This gets examined many times before a design is signed off on. 

Remember Jared "Rook" Isaacman?  He was an astronaut on the Inspiration 4 mission in 2021, and is currently set to lead the Polaris Dawn completely private mission with a spacewalk sometime next year.  Isaacman tweeted simply, “Put us in coach.”

That was a reference to a study announced in September 2022 involving Isaacman, SpaceX and NASA to study the feasibility of a private mission to reboost and possibly repair Hubble using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. At the time Isaacman suggested that a Hubble mission could be the second of three planned Polaris missions. 

The other response is NASA is saying they don't intend to pay for such a mission, instead offering it as an opportunity for companies to demonstrate their satellite servicing capabilities.  They're anticipating budget cuts and are facing the hard reality that they may have to say goodbye to this old baby.   

So here we have NASA, the embodiment of "old space" saying they want it done but can't pay for it, and Jared Isaacman, a representative of "space 2.0" saying, "let me at it!"  How about if NASA handed off all of Hubble to the private sector?  Hand over repair and maintaining its orbit to SpaceX (the only craft Isaacman has flown in and realistically the most dependable), and hand over the ground control, running missions, processing downloaded data, and the rest to some universities?  It may be the only way to keep it running. 

Artist's concept of the Crew Dragon with space walking astronaut with a photo of the Hubble Space Telescope.  Image credit to Teslarati


Friday, December 1, 2023

A Flock of Pigs Just Flew Overhead

I'm sure you've heard the saying about something everyone thinks would never happen - pigs will fly.  Often said as "pigs will fly before that!"

Then why did a flock of pigs just fly overhead?  Amazon has signed a contract with SpaceX to launch their Kuiper satellites

Amazon announced Friday that it has purchased three Falcon 9 rocket launches from SpaceX beginning in mid-2025 to help deploy the retail giant's network of Kuiper Internet satellites.

In a statement, Amazon said the SpaceX launches will provide "additional capacity" to "supplement existing launch contracts to support Project Kuiper’s satellite deployment schedule."

Back in April of '22, word broke that Amazon had chosen "everybody except SpaceX" to launch "the majority" of their 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper constellation. Amazon had contracted for 68 rocket flights from United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, and Blue Origin.  Before those 68, they signed on for five Atlas V launches of the initial satellites in that eventual constellation.  The first two Kuiper prototype satellites launched Friday, October 6th on an Atlas V after being swapped to it from the continually-slipping out maiden flight of Vulcan centaur.  All I've seen is that the designers were happy with the satellites' performances. 

The root problem is that of the three vehicles Amazon has contracted, Ariane Space's Ariane 6, Blue Origin's New Glenn and ULA's Vulcan Centaur, not one has successfully flown, yet. That's aside from five more Atlas V launches.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, the world's most reliable launch vehicle, was left out of Amazon's multibillion-dollar rocket purchase. This led to a lawsuit filed in August by shareholders of a pension fund that includes Amazon stock. The suit claims Amazon, its founder Jeff Bezos, and its board of directors breached "their fiduciary duty" and failed to consider SpaceX during the launch service procurement.

Aside from the Atlas V, which Amazon will lean on to launch its first batches of satellites, none of the rockets needed to deploy the Kuiper network have flown. Production of Atlas V rockets is winding down, and there are no more of those for Amazon to buy.

As we've seen with other nominal competitors to SpaceX, like OneWeb, when push comes to shove, no other launch company in the world could make up a shortfall from delays caused by the other launch providers. SpaceX was targeting 100 Falcon 9 or Heavy launches this year, had their 89th this morning California time from Vandenberg SFB and is working for number 90 at 11:01 PM EST tonight from CCSFS.  Oh, and they're targeting one every 2.5 days on average for next year - or roughly 145 launches.  Who else even comes close to doing that?

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Are You in the Far North of the US?

If you're in the northern tier of the US, you might want to keep an eye out for possible aurora displays tonight (late on 11/30 into 12/1) and into tomorrow night (12/1 into 12/2).  According to reporting from NOAA, a cannibal CME is going to impact Earth on December 1.  As I write this it's already December 1 by Universal Time (UTC) and there's no sign of anything by the planetary K index, which is currently 0.33.  More on that later. 

A CANNIBAL CME IS COMING: NOAA models confirm that a Cannibal CME will strike our planet on Dec. 1st. Cannibal CMEs form when a fast CME sweeps up a slower CME ahead of it. The combination contains intense, tangled magnetic fields that can do a good job sparking auroras when they reach Earth. If a Cannibal CME strikes Earth on Dec. 1st, as predicted, geomagnetic storm levels could reach category G3 (Strong). Aurora alerts: SMS Text described it with a bit more detail.   

The rapid Earth-bound CME left the sun on Nov. 29 during a powerful M9.8-class solar flare eruption. But it isn't alone. The speedy plasma outburst will merge with several slower upstream CMEs that left the sun a day earlier (Nov. 28), creating a "Cannibal CME" that will likely trigger a strong geomagnetic storm akin to a Nov. 5 event that supercharged auroras and STEVE around the world.

Since I've personally farted more energy than an M9.8 class flare, I have hard time thinking of a flare that isn't X-class as "powerful," although M9.8 is only 0.2 units lower than an X1.0 flare.  I don't think of X1 flares as particularly powerful, either.

About the timing, though, NOAA also posts video created by a model that shows the progress of the CME.  I ran the video and hit the stop button at the time when it appears to hit maximum impact to Earth.  It appears to be around 12:00 UTC or 7:00 AM EST tomorrow.  The peak plasma density, though, is earlier: 7:00 UTC or 2:00 AM EST.  The west coast and western states may well be better-placed for this CME impact than farther east.

NOAA is forecasting a geomagnetic storm which could reach G3 category, classified as a "strong" storm, that could cause radio blackouts throughout the HF radio spectrum on the sunlit side of the Earth for hours at a time.  

All sites covering the possible storm point out that we had a G3 storm back on November 5th, accompanied by gorgeous aurora displays.  We don't get to see auroras this far south unless the geomagnetic storm is just below TEOTWAWKI levels, but my memory of that G3 storm will be forever linked to what I wrote about a week later, having radio contact with ("working") Hawaii on the 50 MHz band.  Which is just slightly below what used to be TV VHF channel 2 in the days before digital HDTV.  (Kids, ask your parents or grandparents)

What will this CME impact do?  We have even less data and experience to base forecasts on with space weather that we have everyday rain/sun type weather.  That said, here's the NOAA forecast.  All I can say is the closer you are to the green or red areas you are, the better your chances of seeing something.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Firefly Runs First Test of Antares Replacement Engine

I've mentioned a few times around here (like here) that Northrop Grumman's booster, called Antares, has gone obsolete and will be unable to fly anymore.  This is the rocket that carried their Cygnus cargo vessel to the ISS.  The booster went obsolete because it relied on Russian engines just like the Atlas V.  The solution is that they're going to replace the Antares with a new launch vehicle called the Antares 330, which is being developed by Firefly Aerospace. 

Yesterday, we learned that Firefly had done the first test firing of the new engine that's going to be the power behind Antares 330, the Miranda.  The Miranda is also going to power Firefly's own Medium Lift Vehicle, or MLV.  

Firefly announced Nov. 28 that it conducted the test of its Miranda engine at the company’s Texas test site. A company spokesperson said the test, performed at 65% power, was designed to validate the engine’s startup sequence.

The company plans to work its way up to a full-duration test in the coming months, running the engine for 206 seconds. Miranda uses liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, generating 230,000 pounds-force of thrust.

Firefly Aerospace's Miranda rocket engine hot fire test (Credit Firefly Aerospace) 

You probably know the kerosene propellant by the more common name of RP-1 (Rocket Propellant 1).  The combination of LOX and RP-1 is what powers the Merlin-1 engines of the Falcon 9.  In both vehicles, the engine is ignited by TEA and TEB (triethylaluminium-triethylborane) which produces the quick green flash captured in the photo above. I've seen occasional glimpses of that green flash at ignition of Falcon 9 launches.

The MLV (and Antares 330) will utilize 7 Miranda engines on the first stage and will be capable of producing 1.6 million pounds of thrust and the ability to deliver up to 10,000 kg of payload to the International Space Station on the Antares 330.

The MLV will be capable of sending up to 16,000 kg low Earth orbit as it will utilize the Miranda vacuum engine whereas the Antares 330 will use a Castor 30XL solid-fueled rocket motor for its first launches before an eventual transition to the Miranda vacuum engine.

In an interview earlier this month, Bill Weber, CEO of Firefly, said the schedule for the first MLV launch was driven by having the vehicle eligible for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase Three program in time to on-ramp to that program’s “lane one” for emerging launch vehicles. “We want to fly that mission in late ’25 so that we put ourselves in a position to qualify for the ’26 manifests in lane one,” he said. “So far, so good. We’re on track.” 

Weber went on to say:

“The incredible progress on our Miranda engines – designed, built, and tested in-house in just over a year – is another example of Firefly setting a new standard in the industry, building on the legacy of Firefly’s rapidly developed Reaver and Lightning engines, Miranda is the fastest propulsion system we’ve built and tested to date. This achievement reflects our rapid, iterative culture and our vertically integrated approach that allows us to quickly scale up the flight-proven engine architecture from our small launch vehicle, Alpha, to our Medium Launch Vehicle.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Meanwhile, At the Vulcan-Centaur Preparations

Preparations for the Christmas Eve first flight of Vulcan Centaur are underway with no apparent major obstacles, so with 26 days left it appears to have a good chance of making it.  

The Centaur V upper stage for the inaugural United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket arrived from the factory at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station launch site on Nov. 13 and was integrated atop the booster on Nov. 19. 

Centaur V being hoisted atop the inaugural Vulcan rocket. Photo by United Launch Alliance 

The first Centaur V is topping the first Vulcan booster, for a launch scheduled for 1:49AM EST on Sunday, December 24, the first of two certification missions of Vulcan Centaur before it can begin to lift national security missions.  I can't speak for everyone, but I usually think of 1:49AM on Sunday as late Saturday night.  I guess the point is this "Christmas Eve" launch isn't "The Night Before Christmas"; it's the morning of the day before the night before.  The mission, called Cert-1, is carrying Astrobotic's Peregrine lunar lander for their first attempt to land on the Moon.  

“We have worked diligently to develop this evolutionary rocket and certify the first vehicle for flight,” said Mark Peller, ULA vice president of Vulcan Development. “This next generation launch vehicle incorporates new technology at all levels, powered by American ingenuity to meet our nation’s need for expanding space missions.”

The Cert-1 Centaur V will execute three firings of its dual RL10 engines to achieve three distinctly different orbits: a low Earth orbit, a highly elliptical orbit for lunar transfer and an interplanetary solar orbit into deep space.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the assembled rocket will undergo combined testing of sub-systems and components before rolling to Space Launch Complex-41 to undergo a Wet Dress Rehearsal to practice the countdown to launch.

Monday, November 27, 2023

NASA Beginning Work on Next Gen Mars Helicopter

NASA's headline for the story is cause for pause.  On the JPL's Mars exploration web page, they say, "NASA Uses Two Worlds to Test Future Mars Helicopter Designs."  Just a bit on the provocative side. 

Provocative but burying the lede a little.  I don't need to point out that the Ingenuity helicopter has been a rousing success; originally intended to test some concepts and make five test flights, the helicopter has flown 66 times and is ready for more.  That has led to extending the concepts to other missions and Next Generation helicopters, which leads to redesigning parts and systems of a deep space helicopter. That, in turn, requires testing new design approaches and the one they talk about the most in this JPL post is enlarging the helicopters' rotors.  

For the first time in history, two planets have been home to testing future aircraft designs. On this world, a new rotor that could be used with next-generation Mars helicopters was recently tested at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, spinning at near-supersonic speeds (0.95 Mach). Meanwhile, the agency’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has achieved new altitude and airspeed records on the Red Planet in the name of experimental flight testing.

"Our next-generation Mars helicopter testing has literally had the best of both worlds," said Teddy Tzanetos, Ingenuity’s project manager and manager for the Mars Sample Recovery Helicopters. "Here on Earth, you have all the instrumentation and hands-on immediacy you could hope for while testing new aircraft components. On Mars, you have the real off-world conditions you could never truly re-create here on Earth." That includes a whisper-thin atmosphere and significantly less gravity than on Earth.

I'll embed the short (1:12) video they have on their web site, but it's probably best just to look at it with the video stopped. Unsurprisingly, when the rotors are spinning, the blades aren't visible, so you'll get the clearest view of the twin rotors with the video stopped at either the beginning or the end, right around the 1:00 minute mark.  

Testing Next-Generation Mars Helicopter Rotors: A dual rotor system for the next generation of Mars helicopters is tested in the 25-Foot Space Simulator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sept.15. Longer and stronger than those used on the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, the carbon-fiber blades reached near-supersonic speeds during testing. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The blades being tested in the video are 1.3 meters in diameter, nearly 51 inches. That's just about four inches larger than Ingenuity's rotors with greater strength and a different design. NASA thinks these blades could enable bigger, more capable Mars helicopters. The challenge is that as the blade tips approach supersonic speeds, vibration-causing turbulence can quickly get out of hand.

"We spun our blades up to 3,500 rpm, which is 750 revolutions per minute faster than the Ingenuity blades have gone," said Tyler Del Sesto, Sample Recovery Helicopter deputy test conductor at JPL. "These more efficient blades are now more than a hypothetical exercise. They are ready to fly."

At around the same time, and about 100 million miles (161 million kilometers) away, Ingenuity was being commanded to try things the Mars Helicopter team never imagined they would get to do.

During the past nine months, JPL controllers have doubled Ingenuity's max airspeed and altitude, increased their rate of vertical and horizontal acceleration, and even learned to land slower.  The helicopter was designed to touch down on the surface at a relatively quick 2.2 mph.  That was so its onboard sensors could easily confirm touchdown and shut down the rotors before it could bounce back up. A helicopter that lands more slowly could be designed with lighter landing gear. So three flights (57-59) tested landing at 25% slower speeds with no difficulties. 

The chamber the rotors have been tested in is about as famous as a thermal/vacuum test chamber can be, having tested such probes as the Surveyor lunar landers in the 1960s, Voyager and Cassini.  While it can approach the vacuum of deep space, it can't reduce gravity to test things like the landings.  That's where it's valuable to be able to test some things with Ingenuity out on the "the Fourth Rock from the sun."

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Another Weekend Taking Care of Broken Down Stuff

This time it was something I've spent weeks, if not a full month, trying to determine the optimum way to fix things.  Our cell phones.  

I know that topic will turn off some number of people, but that's what I've spent most of my time working on.  (Spare time?)

Both Mrs. Graybeard and I have been using iPhones since the iPhone 3 back in the '08-'09 time frame (as if we keep notes on this sort of thing).  The last time I replaced a phone was in June of '17, and I bought an older model, what Apple called the 6S, rather than the "latest, coolest".  That makes my phone 6-1/2 years old, and was obsolete when I bought it. We bought Mrs. Graybeard's 6S around this time of year, so it's closer to just six years old. 

In the last few months, mine has been showing signs of the battery failing, in particular the increasing charge times and the tendency for the last few percent of charge to take as long the first 80%.  I have a few chargers; the ubiquitous white cubes they sold with the phones, as well as one that will double the 1A (5W) that those provide.  It's only reasonable to charge it on that one.

Compared to Mrs. Graybeard's mine seems wonderful.  She has to leave hers on the charger almost constantly and it self-discharges exceptionally fast. She'll charge it to 100%, go to bed and in the morning it's less than 50% charged.  Mine can be charged every other day.

The first big decision is whether to replace battery or the phone.  I replaced my battery when it was three years old.  A battery is far cheaper than a phone, but the first hard to answer question is how long the old phone lasts with the new battery.  Other hard to answer questions are things like how long they'll support the obsolete hardware.

Within the last few weeks, I found a page at Apple that helps you decide which phone might be right for you.  I have no desire to go for the latest, most expensive phone, and that page reinforces the idea that the differences between them are pretty small for the price increases.  I found that with the exception of the newest model, the 15, the next three down, the 14, 13 and 12, are remarkably similar.  It didn't take me long to decide the peak of the "bang per buck" curve was probably the 13.

Screen capture. 

All three phones have three versions called the Pro Max, Pro and the baseline version.  This graphic shows the baseline versions. The main difference between them is the camera is updated in the Pro Max and Pro and both seem to have the same camera upgrade.  To me that's a "Don't Care" because I already have a good camera.

This being Black Friday weekend, I got an ad from AT&T that would offer me an iPhone 14 for $5/month if I agree to a three year contract.  That's $180 for a phone Apple says is $700.  Saturday, we went up to our local AT&T store to ask about buying that special deal as a lump sum and keeping our current pay-by-the-month setup.  The sales guy was honest enough to tell us the whole purpose of the discount price is to get you to sign a three year contract.  He said there was no way to get a phone there for a lump sum payment.

He said if we really want to do that, go buy an unlocked phone elsewhere and bring it in.  So we went home, bought them on Best Buy online and then picked them up about 90 minutes later.  After dinner, we swapped the SIM cards from old to new phones and then arm wrestled the new phones basically all evening. At one point something was telling us I had her phone number and she had mine.  A couple of rounds of resetting everything to the virgin state ended up with us swapping the SIM cards and then they acted normally; both of our phone numbers were what they've always been. Which sounds more reasonable if I don't mention we had already swapped them once and it hadn't change the numbers.  I think it may be necessary to go up to the store for a replacement SIM card, although I understand they have an electronic way of doing that - called an E-SIM.

So now we both have new iPhone 13s, same memory and all.  Everything seemed to port transparently. One less thing to worry about how to fix or replace, but which needs more study than what it replaced. 

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Europe's Ariane 6 Passes Critical Test

While we were celebrating Thanksgiving day here in the states, the European Space Agency's launch facility in Kourou, French Guiana hosted a critical test for the Ariane 6 rocket, which has been on the ropes with a series of delays.  The test was a full duration static firing of the first stage, seven minutes, keeping it on track for a first flight in 2024.

"This milestone rehearsal comes after years of designing, planning, preparing, building and hard work from some of the finest space engineers in Europe," Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), said in a statement. "We are back on track towards rescuing Europe’s autonomous access to space. Well done to all involved!"

A test article of Europe's new Ariane 6 rocket conducts a hot-fire test with its core-stage engine on Nov. 23, 2023.  ESA image credit.

Of course, the Ariane 6 is Europe's next-generation heavy-lift rocket, to replace the Ariane 5 that has been retired.  The rocket consists of a core stage, powered by a single Vulcain 2.1, as well as an upper stage that sports a smaller Vinci engine, which is being scheduled to undergo a test firing next month at the Lampoldshausen test center, part of Germany's space agency.  In addition to the Vulcain 2.1 core engine, the Ariane 6 is also outfitted with either two or four solid rocket boosters, to increase its thrust at liftoff.



Friday, November 24, 2023

I've got a lotta catching up to do

He's got at least a 15 year head start on me.  

Mick, has the head start, that is, not the turtle.  Mick, you know, gets paid to look good.  Work out, body training, voice training, you name it.  Mitch only gets paid to hand over our tax money to the Powers That Be.  Big difference. 

Spent pretty much the entire day to get our source of Thanksgiving leftovers ready for the week. 

Basically, it's the same as I've done before.  I smoked a turkey using a method I found on Serious Eats; a combination of spatchcocking the turkey together with a dry brine and then smoking in my Weber kettle grill.  Except this time, with being away for almost 12 hours yesterday, I didn't do the dry brine because the Serious Eats recipe recommends a minimum of "overnight" with the salt mixture on the skin, and says two days is better.  I just rubbed the turkey with olive oil and then put on a little seasoning.  

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Happy Thanksgiving 2023

The day kind of got away from me, but it was a "slow news day" anyway, at least in the space and tech stuff I like to talk about.  We had a SpaceX Starlink launch last night but in the interval between the first announced launch time of 11:01 PM local and when it actually went at 2:47 AM, I crashed and slept through it.  I just watched the replay this morning. 

The circumstances of the day and the short week are light years better than last year, so we'll be on the road for the day tomorrow as we have done pretty much annually.  Last year was the only time I can think of when extenuating circumstances kept us home.  It's five hours of driving but the old car is generally comfortable

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving to all.  May all of you enjoy a wonderful day with your families and friends.  Or by yourself, if that's your day.  Thanks to the EMTs, Nurses, Doctors, LEOs, Firefighters and others who work Thanksgiving so we can have the day off.  Thanks to the military men and women who keep the barbarians from the gates and give us the chance to relax.  For now, eat, drink, and be merry. Who knows what the next year brings? 

Just the thing to have for all those Black Friday deals!

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Meanwhile, On the Psyche Mission

We haven't heard much about the Psyche mission to the asteroid by the same name since its launch in early October.   As usual, not seeing headlines about a deep space mission follows the old axiom of "no news is good news" and the probe is steadily flying away from Earth.  There won't be much to say about it because the probe isn't going to reach the asteroid itself for six years.  

It's not like the crew working on the satellite goes home and into hibernation until 2029, though.  Last week, on the 14th, an interesting test of a system to experiment with communication by lasers was carried out successfully.  Psyche is currently around 10 million miles from Earth, or 40 times the average, 250,000 mile, Earth-moon distance.  This isn't difficult radio communications for the deep space network, but without the right instruments on both ends, there's no way to test it with a laser.  Laser communications tests have stopped at the moon.

The moment marked the first successful test of NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) system, a next-generation comms link that sends information not by radio waves but instead by laser light. It's part of a series of tests NASA is doing to speed up communications in deep space, on different missions.

"Achieving first light is a tremendous achievement. The ground systems successfully detected the deep space laser photons from DSOC," Abi Biswas, the system's project technologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said in an agency statement

"And we were also able to send some data, meaning we were able to exchange 'bits of light' from and to deep space," Biswas added. video here.

The test began at JPL's Table Mountain Facility in California. There, in the hills outside Los Angeles, engineers switched on an uplink beacon, a near-infrared laser pointed at Psyche. About 50 seconds later when the light reached the probe, an optical transceiver on Psyche received the laser and replied with its own laser signal back to the Mount Palomar Observatory, near San Diego. 

Just as here on the ground, we go to lasers because of they operate on higher frequencies than radios.  All electromagnetic radiation, whether what we see as light or detect as radio has the property that the bandwidth they can support goes up as the frequency goes higher.  Higher bandwidth generally means faster data transmission rates, which is their goal.  

There's a ton of things I'd like to know about this that the source doesn't say a single word about, basically related to how it works.  What frequency?  How wide is optical beam width at 10 million miles?  Does the laser illuminate all of the Earth?  In other words, what kind of pointing accuracy is needed?  Is some sort of tracking needed?    

While stumbling around on NASA's Psyche website, I found this picture of the spacecraft on some sort of carrier, apparently all folded up for some unknown reason.  The red highlighted instrument with the gold foil cap is the DSOC instrument.  Their caption says this was in a clean room on June 26, 2023, at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida so this is probably long after the testing was completed. Image credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

Since everything about an optical system's resolution, image size and in this case, how far the beam diverges over millions of miles is determined by its aperture - how big the first element is - a starting point is that gold foil cap seems to be around 12" diameter.  Let the calculations begin!  

A small update to the Starship IFT 2 data.

A YouTube channel called Astronomy live was showing off video he took from the Florida Keys over the weekend (linked in the comments on Sunday's post).  He said he was working on the video with editing software that could keep the ship centered and easier to look at.  That video was finished and released Monday afternoon, here.  While the video from the weekend was over an hour long, this one is just over three minutes long and it's easy to see some of things he laboriously pointed out, such as the remaining upper portion of the Ship 25 rotating around its long axis, are very noticeable in that video.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Doing My Annual Black Friday Post Early This Year

At the risk of being too repetitive and unoriginal, I'm sick of Black Friday already and it hasn't really gotten here yet.   Except that I've been getting email ads with Black Friday in the subject since at least July.  Maybe since June. 

Yeah, I know.  "Old man yells at cloud" for all the good it's gonna do.  

What they've done, instead of making shoppers (at least, this shopper) think that some special sales are going on, is to convince us that there's no such thing as Black Friday anymore.  As I've said before, when every day is Black Friday, no day can be Black Friday - in the usual sense of a special day that kicks off the Christmas shopping season.  It has just become another way of saying "SALE" in every retail place that pushes it. 

Black Friday was supposedly called that because it was the day where businesses turned their annual ledgers from red ink to black ink, but in the last few years it seems to have morphed into something else.  It has been reported for years that the big deals aren't necessarily really deals at all (2014 study), or that some companies raise their prices in the weeks (months?) before the day so that what would have been a normal, small discount from MSRP suddenly seems like a deal.  It's being reported (2016) that more and more people are carrying their smartphone into the stores to price check things, compare price and availability at other stores, or get coupons.  I confess: I've done it and not just this time of year.  

Once there started to be a perception that good deals came on Black Friday, it was only a matter of time until it became just another way of saying “BIG SALE!”  But shoppers like to think they're getting big deals, and there are stores that put one or two items on a massive discount to get some people to line up the night before.  Maybe they can get some buzz on the news.  Of course, now that stores are opening on Thanksgiving itself, Friday seems like it loses some drawing power.  Regardless, every year there's some incident where people get violent (2016) over something stupid.  

It always pays to know what going prices are.  I've heard that generally speaking, the best time for deals is closer to Christmas, especially right before Christmas.  You'll get better prices than this week, but it's a gamble.  You're betting that the stores will be stuck with something you want and they would rather discount it than not sell it.  If they sell out first you lose.  If they don't sell out but still won't or can't cut the price, again you lose.  That said, it has worked out for me in the past.  It's sort of like calling a bluff in poker.  

Retail is a rough way to make a living. I'm sure you've heard how airline reservation systems base the seat price on the apparent interest in a flight.  If you go back and check on the price of that seat every week, the system says there must be more demand for that flight and raises the price.  What if stores could measure real time demand and adjust the price.  Say you're looking for a new tool or other gadget; what if they see someone checking the web site regularly and interpret that as several people interested in that item and raised its price?  Would you be upset or offended?  What if they dropped the price to see at what level you can't resist pushing the Glistening, Candy-like, "BUY" button?  I don't have any hard evidence that anyone does that, but it seems trivial for an online store to track interest in something.  Their biggest risk is scaring away or alienating customers.

To me the Golden Rule is the willing seller/willing buyer.  If people are happy with what they paid, regardless of whether or not it really is "the best price of the year," and the seller is happy with the price they got for it, that's definition of a fair price.  I'm sure not gonna poop in someone's Post Toasties by telling them they didn't get the best price ever. 

Jeez, I've been using this cartoon for a long time.  It says "Joe Heller 2010" in the top left corner! 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

What Became of Starship S25?

While it's just over 36 hours since the test flight 2 launch Saturday morning as I write, and it's a weekend night which means official news is going to be few and far between.  I suspect that like many of you, I've been trying to find anything that looks to be realistic and reasonably coherent about the details of what is known about test flight 2.  

Some of what's presented here will be reposts of things I've posted before.  The first is this: among the first questions people started asking was if the new water deluge system saved the orbital launch pad.  By mid-afternoon Saturday, Elon Musk was saying they had driven out to the launch pad and there was no damage worth mentioning. Tweeted here.  Jack Beyer, Content Manager and photographer for NASA Spaceflight  tweeted essentially the same thing, adding something like, "now that's a rapidly reusable launch pad!"  

The loss of the booster after it's actual flight performance, which was insanely better than the first flight test, gets talked about a lot.  I think minimizing the booster's performance over that is mistaken.  It's important to recognize that SpaceX had never before successfully ignited all 33 Raptor engines at once on a Super Heavy booster stage.  All 33 lit and stayed lit for the entire duration, while producing the largest mach diamond ever seen (it is the largest vehicle ever launched, after all).

The interesting thing about the hot staging that I didn't see talk of until this afternoon shows up in this SpaceX video.  You can watch the three sea-level Raptors carefully, the innermost three, and see that when you can first see all three, 11 seconds on the clock, they're all pointed as far away from center as they get. By the 14 second mark they're all pointed on axis, to maximize thrust, which is no longer pointed at the top of the booster.  I created this image from video frame captures to show what I mean. 

You can clearly see the three flames are much farther apart on the left, at about 11 seconds, than on the right, which was closer to 14 seconds.  That seems intended to minimize the amount of time the engines are blasting the top of the booster.  The booster was lost several seconds after this.

Something that I've seen little mention of is analysis of just what happened to Ship 25.  A video I saw on Saturday implied that it must have been down range quite some distance, and since we had a good idea of its altitude, they had derived that it must have been in Atlantic, after having flown over the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. Astronomer Jonathon McDowell posted this to X Saturday morning ET.  A NOAA weather radar detected the debris from Ship 25 falling along its trajectory into the Atlantic.

The longitude and latitude markers along the edges of the picture allow me to pin point this location on a hurricane tracking map.  At the bottom left of the picture, there's a land area with what appears to be light rain, or possibly clutter, over its eastern side.  That land mass is Puerto Rico.

There is talk about a picture that shows the nose of Ship25 from the top down to the bottom of the first two flaps, that somehow survived whatever happened, but I haven't found that picture.  Yet.  Hopefully, SpaceX downloaded telemetry that allows them to reconstruct the story. 

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Starship's IFT-2 Went Almost as Well as it Could Have

My perspective on the test flight is that it didn't make every milestone I was watching for or cared about, but it did pretty darned well.  

To begin with, the pad improvements seemed to prevent anything bad from happening - in particular, no chunks of concrete flew up into the engines destroying some and causing a fuel leak that eventually would kill the vehicle.  

All 33 engines ignited and ran for the entire required amount of time.  Hot staging worked; the engines were cut in groups until only three remained running, Starship 25's six Raptor engines lit; first the outer ring of three vacuum raptors, and then the inner three sea level Raptors lit as Booster 9 was dropping away.

Booster 9's destruction as it dropped away strikes me as unimportant - in the short term it's a "don't care."  My example is the Falcon 9 as they were working on getting it to land successfully.  The way I understand their cost model is that once the paying customer's payload was on the way, the booster was garbage so they were going to experiment on the piece of garbage as if it was something they found on the side of a road.  If they want to just throw a booster away, they'd do what every other launch company in the world does; drop it and "fuggedaboutit."  They were going to throw this one away but they were going to play with it first.  They started to play with it and it turned out less than ideally.  Don't care.  

Look at that array of 33 engines, all of them lit and firing, all of their exhaust trails looking to be the same color.  In other views you can see the Mach diamonds in the exhaust better than this shot.  John Kraus photo from X.

As is often the case, Scott Manley on YouTube posts a video in which he has taken a preliminary dive into the behavior of the booster.  His conclusion is that the booster's engines were interrupted by the flip and burn back maneuver the booster was doing.  Picture a long, skinny tank being rotated end over end; at some point, inertia can have the fuel at the top of the tank, and unable to flow into the engines.  It helps to know that often, with stages that coast between burns while on orbit, they use thrusters of some sort, or some other power to start the stage moving.  The inertia gets the fuel to the bottom of the tank, where it needs to be.  The tanks on the Super Heavy booster still have tons of LOX and Liquid CH4 in them and the abrupt rotations might well have forced engines to run without one or both fluids.  

The moment of staging - at the bottom of the booster, you can see a triangle caused by the three engines left running.  The bright spot at the top of the booster/bottom of the ship is the hot staging taking place.  The "psychedelic color" cloud is the exhaust plume around the two.  Image credit: SpaceX.

Unfortunately, Manley doesn't have as much to say about the Starship's failure.  Starship made it into space; in videos that he goes through the data coming down from Ship25 freezes and stays at a pair of values for a while.  The speed is 24,124 km/hr or just under 15,000 mph while LEO orbital velocity is generally given in the vicinity of 17,000 mph.  Altitude was 148 km, or 91.96 miles.  Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic sell seats on tourist rides to space that don't go that high or that fast.  Starship seems to have been around 15% short of orbital velocity, but this was billed as a suborbital flight so they'd better be short of orbital velocity.  I don't know what their targets were.

Starship seems to have also undergone a spontaneous explosion.  Excuse me, it underwent a RUD, to borrow Elon's old joke everyone has been using today.  I'll start using my own redneck version of that, IDBU - It Done Blowed Up - pronounced id-boo.  Scott shows a few seconds of evidence in his video that imply something went wrong that caused Starship to consume excess LOX. 

I view the Starship anomaly more seriously than the booster not being reusable.  Of course, they weren't going to reuse this ship after this flight; it was going to belly flop in to the Pacific north of Hawaii, but I'm automatically suspicious because while there were test flights of Starships before, none of them went this high.  Is the problem something related to flying in this range?  Doesn't seem possible.

I've already seen mentions of the next test, IFT 3, being NET February '24.  Three months instead of seven?  I'm not sure the FAA could evacuate their buildings in three months if they were burning down. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Reason Flight Test 2 is so Important

Whether Starship IFT-2 flies on Saturday morning or is held another few days or a week isn't really important.  What's important is that it needs to be a successful test.  The booster needs to burn for the full required time, the hot-staging needs to work, Starship needs to achieve its intended trajectory and it needs to splash down in the Pacific as intended.  

Why?  Simply that for the HLS or Human Landing System version of Starship to work is going to take nearly 20 successful missions and that says launches have to be routine.  

In a presentation at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee Nov. 17, Lakiesha Hawkins, assistant deputy associate administrator in NASA’s Moon to Mars Program Office, said the company will have to perform Starship launches from both its current pad in Texas and one it is constructing at the Kennedy Space Center in order send a lander to the moon for Artemis 3.

SpaceX’s concept of operations for the Starship lunar lander it is developing for the Human Landing System (HLS) program requires multiple launches of the Starship/Super Heavy system. One launch will place a propellant depot into orbit, followed by multiple other launches of tanker versions of Starship, transferring methane and liquid oxygen propellants into the depot. That will be followed by the lander version of Starship, which will rendezvous with the depot and fill its tanks before going to the moon.

Much like Starship itself, there are simulations of what it takes to do the sort of operation this entails but - here's the key point - it has never been done before by anyone.  SpaceX has shown Concept Of Operations documents for the Human Landing System (HLS) program that talk about multiple launches of the Starship/Super Heavy system. One launch will place a propellant depot into orbit.  There have been reports or speculation that was the purpose for Ship 26 which had no thermal tiles or "flings" (control surfaces) - they're not needed if doesn't come back down - but S26 now appears to be obsoleted and in the "rocket garden" at Boca Chica.  Whatever that propellant depot looks like, the launch will require multiple other launches of tanker versions of Starship which transfer methane and liquid oxygen propellants into the depot. That will be followed by the HLS version of Starship, which will rendezvous with the depot and fill its tanks before going to the moon.

Again, while a large number of people can cite concerns about things like fuel evaporation and leakage on orbit, nobody has hard test data they're dropping on NASA.  

Exactly how many launches will be required has been a point of debate since Starship’s selection by NASA for the first HLS award in 2021. Neither NASA nor SpaceX have given firm numbers recently. A paper about the HLS program presented at the 2023 International Astronautical Congress by NASA, for example, mentioned only “a series of reusable tanker Starship variants” that would be launched to fill the depot before the Starship lander is launched, without giving a number.

Assistant deputy associate administrator Hawkins has said, “It’s in the high teens in the number of launches.  In order to be able to meet the schedule that is required, as well as managing boiloff and so forth of the fuel, there’s going to need to be a rapid succession of launches of fuel.” 

For additional perspective, the Government Accountability Office, in its rejection of protests by Blue Origin and Dynetics of the Starship HLS award in 2021, noted that SpaceX required 16 launches overall for a Starship lunar lander mission.  Elon Musk disagreed, calling the need for 16 launches “extremely unlikely” in an August 2021 Twitter (before it was X) post. He said a “max of 8” tanker launches should be needed to fuel the Starship lander, adding it could be as few as four.  

Between four and 20 launches?  They'd better be more like Falcon 9's cadence of one every three days than the seven months between the first flight test and this one.  Seven months delay times 20 launches isn't a nice number.  One month between each of 20 launches isn't that nice, either.

Illustration from the NASA presentation at the 2023 International Astronautical Congress linked above.