Water or Land: The Orion Landing Choice

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Work is progressing on designing the new Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), the next generation of NASA spacecraft that will take humans to the International Space Station, back to the Moon, and hopefully on to Mars. But one major question about the spacecraft has yet to be answered. On returning to Earth, will the CEV splash down in water, or land on terra firma?

NASA officials discussed various aspects of development that is currently underway for the Constellation program at a media briefing on December 10. The mobile launch platform for the Ares rocket is being built, landing parachutes have been tested and the first capsule structure of the new CEV will be constructed starting in early 2008. Design requirements for the booster rockets have been completed and just ahead are final design definitions for operational capabilities such as ground procedures at Kennedy Space Center, mission control in Houston and other areas such as spacesuit design.

Additionally research on the International Space Station has begun to help prepare for long duration spaceflights such as a measurements of microbe growth, a study of the formation of kidney stones, and a nutritional study to help understand what is “normal” for the human body in space.

But questions from the media focused mainly on the yet unmade decision of whether the CEV will land in the water or on land.

NASA originally explored multiple options for landing in both water and land. After initial studies, the first assessment by NASA and the contractor for the CEV, Lockheed Martin, was that landing on land was preferred in terms of total life cycle costs for the vehicles. But now a splashdown in water seems to be favored.

“There are a couple of aspects that pop out at us,” said Jeff Hanley, Manager for the Constellation Program. “One is the safety and the risks involved in landing. Looking at the landing itself, the event of actually touching down, water comes out to be preferable as less risk. Another aspect is the performance of the Orion vehicle as it is sent to the moon. In looking at what it takes to get a pound of spacecraft to low lunar orbit in terms of the cost, every pound that you send toward the moon is precious. From an efficiency and performance point of view, carrying 1500 lbs of landing bags to the moon and back when we have a perfectly viable mode of landing in the water near a US coastal site didn’t seem like a good trade in performance. We’ve tended toward updating our point of departure concept to now be a nominal US coastal water landing.”

The Constellation program has always considered that for the first few missions, the spacecraft would land in water until the guidance system had been tested thoroughly and proven in actual landings.

But NASA is continuing to look at landing on land as a possibility for future flights. “We want to be able to land on land in a contingency and have the crew be able to get out and walk away. Ther are limitation of what you can do on land but by the time we get done really looking at what the minimal capability of landing on land and having the crew walk away, we’ll see what the design looks like, and if the design is robust enough we could return to having nominal land landings.”

One challenge for the Constellation program has been getting the CEV light enough for the Ares rockets to be able to launch it, and therefore eliminating the 1500 lb airbags for landing has its appeal.

“The predominant design philosophy for Orion and Ares 1 has been that we are designing for lunar missions,” continued Hanley. “We will service the International Space Station within that set of capabilities. From that perspective, designing a lot of mass into the spacecraft just to enable land landings has not traded out to be an effective use of our performance. That’s the major consideration in play. Right behind that are life cycle costs.”

Making the decision of land vs. water is the goal for 2008 for the Constellation program. “We’ve studied and have cost estimates for water landings against the infrastructure costs of having multiple landing sites on land and they are comparable,” said Hanley. Right now, NASA is looking at a single target landing zone off the coast of California with one or two recovery vessels.

But they are keeping their options open for a land landing. “If the Orion team is able to come in at the preliminary design review later this next year with a concept for be able to land on land that is fairly robust but not cost a lot of mass to have to hurl to the moon and back, then it becomes an operational decision,” said Hanley.

There has been much debate about what type of landing would be best. “There’s been a lot of assumptions made that landing on land is going to be better, but there are lot of people in the technical community that do not buy into that,” said Hanley. “There’s been a lot of debate surrounding whether or not land landing truly is better from a life cycle cost perspective and there isn’t a lot of quantitative data to really pull from.”

Hanley feels there are assumptions being made but not a lot of substantive date to clarify what the right answer is. So the next steps are to get the spacecraft to a detailed preliminary design and really interrogate the water vs. land issue. That includes further developing the operational concepts , such as how long does the capsule stay in the water, and what loads does the spacecraft see from landing on water and land. Those are all questions that need to be answered in order to make a final decision on the type of landing that will be used.

Stay tuned, as 2008 should be a year of decision for many details about Constellation and the CEV.

Original News Source: NASA News Audio

NASA is Building its Biggest Lightning Protection System

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We’ve already learned that NASA is planning to build one of the world’s largest roller coasters to help astronauts escape a disaster. Now they’ve released details about how they’re going to protect the next generation spacecraft from lightning strikes. They’ll need it. This is Florida after all, one of the most active regions for lightning in the United States.

When the space shuttle finally retires in 2010, NASA will be nearly ready to start launching the next generation Ares I launch vehicle. A single lightning strike could scramble spacecraft electronics, or injure the crew, so NASA is working on their defense system.

And for Ares, they’re going to big. In fact, when you look at the Ares I launch pad in a few years, the lightning protection system will dominate the skyline.

The lightning protection system, now under construction at Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39B consists of three towers – each of which will be 181 metres (594 feet) tall. Cables will then be strung between the steel/fibreglass towers, encasing the smaller Ares I booster in a cage of protection.

Similar, smaller systems have been used for other missions in the past. For the Apollo launchers, the protection system was built into the launch structure. Obviously this was less than ideal, since lightning strikes could still damage the rocket and electronics.

For the space shuttle, there’s a lightning mast atop the launch pad’s service structure. The system diverts lightning strikes down two wires, keeping the current away from the shuttle.

By building these towers completely apart from the launch pad, NASA hopes to minimize delays to the launch schedule.

Construction for the towers began in November, and should be complete by 2010. This will actually be a little after the first Ares I-X rocket blasts off, in April 2009.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Inflatable Lunar Habitat to Be Tested in Antarctica

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As humans prepare to return to the Moon, this time to stay, there are so many different technologies that need to be developed and tested. NASA and the NSF are testing out a new prototype for an inflatable habitat that might eventually protect humans on the Moon. And they’re testing it in the most extreme place on Earth: Antarctica.

The newly developed inflatable habitat is inflated and pressurized, giving potential astronauts their own atmosphere. Inside the tent is heated, offering up 35 square metres (384 square feet) of living space, under a 2.4-metre (8-foot) ceiling. It also has access points for electrical power.

NASA currently uses a 50-year old tent design called a Jamesway hut. Television viewers will recognize these designs in the show M*A*S*H. Although there are new approaches to this old design, they’re rigid, difficult to ship, and have limited insulation. When you’re working in Antarctica, a lack of insulation is a serious problem.

The purpose of this new design is to test out how well an inflatable habitat will work in terms of packing, transportation, set up, power consumption and damage tolerance.

When astronauts do finally return to the Moon by 2020, they’ll be setting up a permanent lunar outpost. An inflatable habitat like this could be carried on future lunar rovers, and would allow the astronauts to set up a temporary home, far away from the permanent base. This would greatly increase their range, and allow the exploration of the most interesting lunar features – not just those nearby the base.

The inflatable habitat is being developed under NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program.

Original Source: NSF News Release

NASA Tests New Parachutes for Ares Spacecraft

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This has been an exciting week for NASA’s Constellation program — the missions that will bring humans back to the Moon. Earlier in the week, NASA announced plans for testing abort systems and inflatable Moon habitats.

But on Thursday, November 15 actual tests were conducted for some of the genuine hardware that will be used for the Ares launch vehicles.

Near Yuma, Arizona, engineers tested the parachutes that will bring boosters from the first stage of the massive Ares rockets back to Earth.

Certainly, parachutes and rocket booster recovery is nothing new for NASA. But this new parachute is a whopper. Spanning 150 feet across and weighing 2,000 pounds makes this the largest chute of its kind ever tested for parachutes that will carry some of the heaviest payloads ever delivered.

And the new parachute worked perfectly — if not patriotically — with its red, white and blue striped canopy. Made of Kevlar, which is stronger and lighter than the nylon chutes used for the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster recovery, these bigger and stronger parachutes can still fit into the same size canister used for the shuttle boosters but yet be lighter.

Although the Ares boosters will actually come down in the Atlantic Ocean, the tests were conducted in the desert near the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground. Additionally, the tests used only a 42,000 pound weighted tub as opposed to the 200,000 pound weight of the actual boosters. But the drop tests from 16,000 ft. from a C-17 airplane simulated the peak loads at parachute opening and measured the drag area to validate the design.

The parachute system will allow the Ares I and Ares V boosters to be recovered and then refurbished and reused for future flights. Ares I will launch the Orion vehicle, which will carry humans to the moon, while the larger Ares V will be used for the Cargo Launch Vehicle.

The boosters are scheduled to be flight tested in 2009.

Keep those tests coming!

Original News Source: NASA Press Release

Radical New Steering Thruster Tested

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With the shuttle and station in the news these days, it’s easy to forget there’s a whole other space program in the works: Constellation. Over the next decade, we’ll go back to the Moon – this time to stay. Although it’s inspired by the Apollo program, each piece of hardware is being updated with the latest technology. This week a radical new type of engine was tested at Northrop Grumman; an engine that could help steer spacecraft in space.

Northrop Grumman, one of the contractors on the NASA Constellation Program, announced this week that they’ve tested a new rocket called the TR408.

First a little history. The original Apollo program used thrusters powered by fuels that could be stored at room temperature, but they weren’t very powerful. Furthermore, they were made with toxic chemicals that could be a risk to astronauts and workers.

The new TR408 engine is a hybrid, which can run on almost any state of oxygen and methane. It could be all gas, for example, stored at room temperature. Or it could be all liquid, similar to the liquid oxygen/hydrogen that powers the space shuttle.

The engine was tested for more that 50 separate tests, and was able to generate a steady-state specific impulse of 340 seconds. Just to give you some context, the Apollo thrusters generated a specific impulse of 290 seconds. The shuttle’s liquid hydrogen/oxygen engine gets about 450 seconds.

Although the TR408 doesn’t match up to the efficiency of liquid hydrogen/oxygen, it looks like it’ll be a great compromise for the unique requirements of space travel.

There are more advantages. The TR408 is a very simple design, consisting of only two propellant valves, and no other moving parts. Less moving parts, means less things that can break. They should also be relatively inexpensive to build.

Northrup Grumman was awarded the contract to develop the engine for NASA 16 months ago, and they’re pleased with the progress so far.

Although this engine is designed for low thrust tasks, like steering a spacecraft, more powerful versions are in the works. NASA engineers recently tested a methane/liquid oxygen rocket for 103 seconds, and XCOR Aerospace is working on a version that was tested in a vacuum chamber.

Original Source: Northrop Grumman News Release

First Look at the Orion Crew Module

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I know it seems like we’ve had the space shuttle forever, and will have it forever, but the program will actually be shut down in just a few short years. What comes next? The Constellation program will continue the US human spaceflight efforts, eventually bringing people back to the Moon. As part of the program, workers at NASA unveiled a mockup of the Orion crew module.

The lifesize Orion crew module was build by engineers at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center’s Fabrication Branch. No, this aluminum mockup won’t actually be flying. It won’t even be used for aerodynamic testing. It’s just going to help engineers figure out how to cram everything in.

As the engineers are developing the various avionics systems, instrumentation, wire harness routing, etc, they’ll want a life-size mockup of the module to test how things fit together. Eventually, you can imagine future astronauts crawling inside, and giving engineers their feedback on the placement of the instrumentation, the feel of the controls, and cushiness of the seats.

This mockup will help engineers until the first abort flight test vehicle, called “Boilerplate 1” arrives for testing. This next testing vehicle is a flying simulator that will mimic the flight characteristics of the actual vehicle. Boilerplate 1 will have the same mass, dimensions, and aerodynamic properties of the Orion capsule, so it can be tested in wind tunnels and atop rockets.

NASA is planning two pad abort, and four ascent tests of the launch abort system as early as 2008, and continuing on through 2011.

So, don’t worry, the age of the space shuttle is almost over, and the age of the Constellation program is almost here. Look out Moon, here we come.

Original Source: NASA Dryden News Release

NASA is Building the Third Tallest Roller Coaster in the World, as an Escape System

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Let’s hope that nothing ever goes wrong while astronauts are preparing to launch on their Ares 1 rocket – the new vehicle that will replace the space shuttle. But if there is a problem, and the astronauts need to escape right now, they’ll have a fun ride down – on the 3rd tallest roller coaster in the world. It’s called the Orion Emergency Egress System, but really, it’s a roller coaster, designed to get the astronauts away from the vehicle and into a protective bunker in moments.

Take a good look at the image that goes along with this story. See the bright yellow rails over on the right hand side of the image, dropping straight down from the gray platform. That’s the escape system. You’ll note it goes straight down.

The purpose of the Orion Emergency Egress System is to get astronauts and support personnel away from the Ares 1 vehicle, and into a safety bunker within 4 minutes. The solution that NASA has come up with should be perfect, carrying astronauts and workers down away from the rocket, right to the bunker’s door.

For previous launch vehicles, NASA had cables near the door to the launch vehicle. If there was a problem, people could enter a basket that slides down a cable to an area near the bunker. The problem was that it was very difficult to get incapacitated people into the basket and down to the safety of the bunker. With the new egress system, healthy workers can just put the wounded in seats and let them ride down to safety.

NASA called in the world’s roller coaster designers to help them create the system. In fact, from a height of 116 metres (380 feet), the Orion Emergency Egress System would be the third tallest roller coaster in the world, after the Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, and the Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.

Original Source: NASA News Release