Here’s a front row seat on what it would be like to return to Earth inside a space capsule. Varda Space Industries’ small W-1 spacecraft successfully landed at the Utah Test and Training Range on February 21, 2024. A camera installed inside the cozy 90 cm- (3 ft)-wide capsule captured the entire stunning reentry sequence, from separation from the satellite bus in low Earth orbit (LEO) to the fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere, to parachute deploy, to the bouncy landing.
At the end of this 5-minute video, you’ll see a pair legs with mud-caked shoes approach to gather the parachute and retrieve the capsule. Not only is there video, but sound as well. And the sounds of reentry and landing are what grabs you!
On Wednesday, February 21st, at 01:40 p.m. PST (04:40 p.m. EST), an interesting package returned to Earth from space. This was the capsule from the W-1 mission, an orbital platform manufactured by California-based Varda Space Industries, which landed at the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). Even more interesting was the payload, which consisted of antiviral drugs grown in the microgravity environment of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The mission is part of the company’s goal to develop the infrastructure to make LEO more accessible to commercial industries.
We live in an age of renewed space exploration, colloquially known as Space Age 2.0. Unlike the previous one, this new space age is characterized by inter-agency cooperation and collaboration between space agencies and the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace). In addition to sending crews back to the Moon and onto Mars, a major objective of the current space age is the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO). That means large constellations of satellites, debris mitigation, and plenty of commercial space stations.
After a journey spanning almost two decades, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser reusable spaceplane, named Tenacity, is officially undergoing environmental testing at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility located at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in anticipation of its maiden flight to the International Space Station (ISS), currently scheduled for April 2024. The environmental testing consists of analyzing the spacecraft’s ability to withstand rigorous vibrations during launch and re-entry, along with the harsh environment of outer space, including extreme temperature changes and vacuum conditions. This testing comes after Sierra Space announced the completion of Tenacity at its facilities in Louisville, Colorado last month, along with the delivery of Sierra Space’s cargo module, Shooting Star, to the Neil Armstrong Test Facility that same month, as well.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket successfully launched and landed today at the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas, with an uncrewed science and goodwill payload onboard. This was the 24th New Shepard flight and 13th payload mission today from Launch Site One in West Texas.
This marked the first flight since September of 2022 when the uncrewed NS-23’s booster suffered an in-flight anomaly; however, the escape system jettisoned the capsule, which was able to land safely. With the success of NS-24, Blue Origin hopes to soon restart its commercial passenger flights.
The nonprofit research center’s report was released today, on the 54th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It follows up on a similar survey that was done in 2018 to mark NASA’s 60th anniversary.
The earlier survey suggested that slightly more Americans saw monitoring climate change as a top priority (63% vs 62%). This year, the rankings were reversed, with 60% putting cosmic threats at the top of their list, as opposed to 50% for climate concerns. Only 12% of the respondents said sending astronauts to explore the moon was a top priority, and 11% said sending astronauts to Mars led their list. That translates into less support than those missions had five years ago.
The survey, conducted online from May 30 to June 4, is based on responses from 10,329 randomly selected U.S. adults who are part of the research center’s online panel. The results were weighted to reflect current demographics.
Reusable launch vehicles have been a boon for the commercial space industry. By recovering and refurbishing the first stages of rockets, launch providers have dramatically reduced the cost of sending payloads and even crew to space. Beyond first-stage boosters, there are efforts to make rockets entirely reusable, from second stages to payload fairings. There are currently multiple strategies for booster recovery, including mid-air retrieval using helicopters and nets. Still, the favored method involves boosters returning to a landing pad under their own power (the boost-back and landing maneuver).
This strategy requires additional rocket propellant for the booster to land again, which comes at the expense of payload mass and performance for the ascent mission. As an alternative, researchers from the National Office Of Aerospace Studies And Research (ONERA) propose two new types of strategies that would allow boosters to return to their launch site. These are known as “glide-back” and “fly-back” architectures, both of which involve boosters with lifting surfaces (fins and wings) performing vertical takeoff and horizontal landing (VTVL) maneuvers.
United Launch Alliance (ULA) is the oldest commercial space company in the U.S., with over 150 consecutive launches to its credit. For almost two decades, the company has been providing launch services using the expendable Delta II, Delta IV, and Atlas V rockets. Faced with growing competition and political pressure, ULA began working on a new heavy-launch vehicle, the Vulcanrocket, in 2014. Once realized, this rocket will allow the ULA to remain competitive in the burgeoning NewSpace market and meet the needs of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL).
On June 7th, the first stage of the Vulcan successfully test-fired its two Blue Origin BE-4 engines at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida. The success of this test, designated Certification-1 (Cert-1), places the ULA on track to launch test its next-generation heavy-launch vehicle. Once realized, the Vulcan rocket will provide services ranging from the deployment of small satellites and payloads to reusable crewed spacecraft, like Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space capsule and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane.
While the SpaceX Crew Dragon is making regular trips to and from the International Space Station, the other vehicle NASA was planning to rely on for crew transportation keeps running into problems and delays. Boeing and NASA just announced another set of delays for the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, pushing it even further back from its proposed July launch window — which was already years behind schedule.
Problems with its parachute lines and the electrical system were identified, and the program manager isn’t sure if Starliner will even fly by the end of 2023.
The commercial space sector (aka. NewSpace) is one of the fastest-growing industries of the 21st century. In the past twenty years, what was once considered an ambitious venture or far-off prospect has become a rapidly-accelerating reality. Today, companies are conducting launches using their own rockets and spacecraft, often from their own facilities, to send everything from satellites and cargo to astronauts (commercial and professional) into space. The growing number of launch providers has also led to a dramatic increase in demand for launch-related services.
This includes retrieval operations designed to provide launch flexibility and safe retrieval. This is the purpose behind The Spaceport Company, a Virginia-based aerospace company dedicated to creating a global network of mobile, sea-based launch and landing site systems. On Monday, May 22nd, the company successfully tested its prototype platform by conducting the first-ever commercial rocket launches from U.S. water. This test demonstrated the potential for mobile sea platforms to ease congestion at on-shore launch facilities and expedite the delivery of payloads to orbit.