SpaceX Dragon Launch Slides to May 19

[/caption]SpaceX has announced that the upcoming launch of the firms Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft on the commercial COTS 2 mission has been postponed to a new target date of no earlier than May 19 with a backup launch date of May 22.

On May 19, the Falcon 9 rocket would lift off on its first night time launch at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Two launch opportunities had been available this week on May 7 and May 10, following the most recent slip from April 30.

SpaceX managers made the decision – in consultation with NASA – to delay the COTS 2 launch in order to complete further highly critical testing and verifications of all the flight software requirements for the Dragon spacecraft to safely and successfully carry its mission of rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station (ISS).

“SpaceX and NASA are nearing completion of the software assurance process, and SpaceX is submitting a request to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a May 19th launch target with a backup on May 22nd,” said SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Grantham.

“Thus far, no issues have been uncovered during this process, but with a mission of this complexity we want to be extremely diligent.”

May 10 was the last window of opportunity this week because of the pending May 14 blast off of a new Russian Soyuz TMA-04M capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with three fresh crew members bound for the ISS which will restore the outpost to a full crew complement of 6 human residents.

The Falcon 9 and Dragon can only be launched about every three days.

The purpose of Dragon is to carry supplies up to and back from the ISS. Dragon is a commercial spacecraft developed by SpaceX and designed to replace some of the cargo resupply functions previously conducted by NASA’s fleet of prematurely retired Space Shuttle orbiters. At this moment the US has zero capability to launch cargo or crews to the ISS.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS on 1st test flight and Station Docking in 2012. Astronauts will grapple it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

In response to the SpaceX announcement, NASA issued the following statement from from William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington:

“After additional reviews and discussions between the SpaceX and NASA teams, we are in a position to proceed toward this important launch. The teamwork provided by these teams is phenomenal. There are a few remaining open items, but we are ready to support SpaceX for its new launch date of May 19.”

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to the ISS to carry cargo back and forth for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

Dragon is loaded with nearly 1200 pounds of non-critical cargo such as food and clothing on this flight.

The COTS 2 mission has been repeatedly delayed since the originally planned target of mid-2011 when SpaceX requested that the COTS 2 and 3 flights be combined into one mission to save time. The first Dragon docking to the ISS was initially planned for the COTS 3 mission.

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the processing hanger at Pad 40 is due for liftoff on May 19, 2012 to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

Ken Kremer

Star Lab Needs Payloads!

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Star Lab, the next-generation vehicle for suborbital experiments developed by the Florida-based 4Frontiers Corporation, is well on its way toward its first successful flight — and it’s looking for payloads.

First reported on Universe Today by Jason Rhian in November of last year, Star Lab consists of stacked and subdivided cylindrical sections customized to hold scientific experiments. Contained within a rocket vehicle affixed to the wing of a Starfighters, Inc. F-104 supersonic aircraft, Star Lab will be launched during flight to attain an altitude of about 100 km, going suborbital and achieving 3 1/2 minutes of microgravity before descending.

“If Star Lab proves itself viable this could open the door to a great many scientific institutions conducting their research by using the Star Lab vehicle,” Mark Homnick, CEO of 4Frontiers Corporation, told Universe Today in November.

(Read Science On The Wings of Starfighters by Jason Rhian)

A high-purity environment within the Star Lab compartments will ensure no contamination from the outside can interfere with payloads contained within, making Star Lab suitable for both non-organic and bio-med experiments.

A scale prototype of a Star Lab payload section, molded in ABS plastic. (4Frontiers/J. Major)

Alternatively, the payload compartments can be made accessible to the external environment, allowing for atmospheric sampling.

After descent, Star Lab will splash down into the Atlantic and be retrieved by ship. Clients can expect to have their payloads returned within a 24-hour period — a quick turnaround especially essential for biological experiments.

In addition, Star Lab payloads can be accessed up to 24 hours before launch, allowing for any last-minute adjustments, minor installations or fine tuning.

Currently Star Lab is moving into its flight test phase of development, when the F-104s will go through a series of incremental tests up to and including an actual launch of the vehicle. This will determine how well it handles the stresses of flight and how to best — and most safely — perform the actual launch, slated for September 2012.

A maneuver only ever executed in military operations, Star Lab will become the first commercial vehicle to be launched from an aircraft.

(Read StarFighters, Inc. – The Supersonic Research Fleet Expands by Tammy Plotner)

Star Lab has 14 contracts signed for payloads at this time, and is right now working on a partnership with the payload-specialist company Kentucky Space to co-develop a successful market for bio-med experiments.

“We are looking for payloads… we’re real, we’re viable, and we have the best deal that I know of in respect to costs and what we provide,” Homnick said during an interview on March 15, 2012. “We’ll have the lowest cost and the highest launch rate, anywhere.”

At this point, signups with Star Lab require only a signature… no payment is required until the vehicle is proven.

“There’s even a contingency in there… we have to show with our prototypes that we are launching in the summer that they actually perform,” Homnick added. “One, they have to reach the altitude — over 80 kilometers — and two, we have to return the payloads for our prototype. And then, after all that, they would actually pay us… half up front, and half after launch.”

And if that’s not a good enough deal, the state of Florida is helping pick up some of the bill.

Under NASA’s Florida Space Grant, commercial ventures taking place in Florida are subject to a rebate program. Once a payload is launched, Space Lab customers can receive a refund from Space Florida of 1/3 of their cost.

Starting at $4,000 (after the Space Florida rebate), including integration and return costs, getting an experiment suborbital has never been so cost-effective.

“The whole concept is to make it really inexpensive and convenient to fly a lot of payloads,” Homnick said. “With ten launches a year, and up to thirteen payloads per launch, there’s a high launch rate.”

And with such convenience, Star Lab will help get the future of space research off the ground — literally.

Members of the Star Lab team during a fast taxi test at Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility. (4Frontiers Corp.)

“We’re real, we’re viable, and we have the best deal that I know of… we’ll have the lowest cost and the highest launch rate, anywhere.”

– Mark Homnick, CEO of 4Frontiers Corporation

4Frontiers will be at the Space Flight Payloads Workshop on Friday, March 23 at the Florida Solar Energy Center from 10 am to 5 pm. See more about Star Lab and what’s coming next from 4Frontiers here.

4Frontiers Corporation, the principal developer of Star Lab, was founded in 2005 in Florida, USA. 4Frontiers is an emerging space commerce company focused on developing fundamental space-related capabilities and resources essential for a long-term human presence in space. 4Frontiers will address the potential of the four most promising space frontiers: Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and asteroids.

SpaceX Test Fires SuperDraco Abort Engines Critical To Astronaut Launch Safety

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has test fired a prototype of its new SuperDraco engine that will be critical to saving the lives of astronauts flying aboard a manned Dragon spacecraft soaring to orbit in the event of an in-flight emergency.

The successful full-duration, full-thrust firing of the new SuperDraco engine prototype was completed at the company’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The SuperDraco is a key component of the launch abort system of the Dragon spacecraft that must fire in a split second to insure crew safety during launch and the entire ascent to orbit.

The Dragon spacecraft is SpaceX’s entry into NASA’s commercial crew development program – known as CCDEV2 – that seeks to develop a commercial ‘space taxi’ to launch human crews to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

The engine fired for 5 seconds during the test, which is the same length of time the engines need to burn during an actual emergency abort to safely thrust the astronauts away.

Watch the SpaceX SuperDraco Engine Test Video:

Nine months ago NASA awarded $75 million to SpaceX to design and test the Dragon’s launch abort system . The SuperDraco firing was the ninth of ten milestones that are to be completed by SpaceX by around May 2012 and that were stipulated and funded by a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

“SpaceX and all our industry partners are being extremely innovative in their approaches to developing commercial transportation capabilities,” said Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango in a NASA statement. “We are happy that our investment in SpaceX was met with success in the firing of its new engine.”

Dragon will launch atop the Falcon 9 rocket, also developed by SpaceX.

SpaceX test-fires its SuperDraco engine that will eventually power the manned Dragon spacecrafts launch escape system critical for Astronaut safety during launch to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

“Eight SuperDracos will be built into the sidewalls of the Dragon spacecraft, producing up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to quickly carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX chief executive officer and chief technology officer in a statement. “Those engines will have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.”

“Crews will have the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch because the launch abort engines are integrated into the side walls of the vehicle,” Musk said. “With eight SuperDracos, if any one engine fails the abort still can be carried out successfully.”

SuperDraco engines will power the launch escape system of SpaceX’s Dragon. Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is one of four commercial firms working to develop a new human rated spacecraft with NASA funding. The other firms vying for a commercial crew contract are Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

“SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology,” says Musk. “These engines will power a revolutionarylaunch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

The privately developed space taxi’s will eventually revive the capability to ferry American astronauts to and from the ISS that was totally lost when NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters were forcibly retired before a replacement crew vehicle was ready to launch.

Because the US Congress slashed NASA’s commercial crew development funding by more than 50% -over $400 million – the first launch of a commercial space taxi is likely to be delayed several more years to about 2017. Until that time, all American astronauts must hitch a ride to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.

This week the Russian manned space program suffered the latest in a string of failures when when technicians performing a crucial test mistakenly over pressurized and damaged the descent module of the next manned Soyuz vehicle set to fly to the ISS in late March, thereby forcing about a 45 day delay to the launch of the next manned Soyuz from Kazakhstan.

SpaceX Delays Upcoming 1st Dragon Launch to ISS

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The first test launch of a commercially built spacecraft to the International Space Station has been delayed by its builder, Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, in order to carry out additional testing to ensure that the vehicle is fully ready for the high stakes Earth orbital mission.

SpaceX and NASA had been working towards a Feb. 7 launch date of the company’s Dragon spacecraft and announced the postponement in a statement today (Jan. 16).

A new target launch date has not been set and it is not known whether the delay amounts to a few days, weeks or more. The critical test flight has already been rescheduled several times and was originally planned for 2011.

The unmanned Dragon is a privately developed cargo vessel constructed by SpaceX under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the ISS and partially replace the transport to orbit capabilities that were fully lost following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

“In preparation for the upcoming launch, SpaceX continues to conduct extensive testing and analysis, said SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham in the statement.

“We [SpaceX] believe that there are a few areas that will benefit from additional work and will optimize the safety and success of this mission.”

“We are now working with NASA to establish a new target launch date, but note that we will continue to test and review data. We will launch when the vehicle is ready,” said Grantham.

This SpaceX Dragon will launch to the ISS sometime in 2012 on COTS2/3 mission. Protective fairings are installed over folded solar arrays, at the SpaceX Cape Canaveral launch site.

Dragon’s purpose is to ship food, water, provisions, equipment and science experiments to the ISS.

The demonstration flight – dubbed COTS 2/3 – will be the premiere test flight in NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative.

The Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 booster rocket also built by SpaceX and, if all goes well, conduct the first ever rendezvous and docking of a privately built spacecraft with the 1 million pound orbiting outpost.

After closely approaching the ISS, the crew will grapple Dragon with the station’s robotic arm and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.

“We’re very excited about it,” said ISS Commander Dan Burbank in a recent televised interview from space.

An astronaut operating the ISS robotic arm will grab Dragon and position it at a berthing port at the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

Since the demonstration mission also involves many other first time milestones for the Dragon such as the first flight with integrated solar arrays and the first ISS rendezvous, extra special care and extensive preparatory activities are prudent and absolutely mandatory.

NASA’s international partners, including Russia, must be consulted and agree that all engineering and safety requirements, issues and questions related to the docking by new space vehicles such as Dragon have been fully addressed and answered.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate recently stated that the launch date depends on completing all the work necessary to ensure safety and success, “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it.”

“As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”

“A successful mission will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery to the international orbiting laboratory,” said Gerstenmaier.

SpaceX is also working on a modified version of the spacecraft, dubbed DragonRider, that could launch astronaut crews to the ISS in perhaps 3 to 5 years depending on the amount of NASA funding available, says SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk

Read Ken’s recent features about the ISS and SpaceX/Dragon here:
Dazzling Photos of the International Space Station Crossing the Moon!
Solar Powered Dragon gets Wings for Station Soar
Absolutely Spectacular Photos of Comet Lovejoy from the Space Station
NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

Solar Powered Dragon gets Wings for Station Soar

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The Dragon has grown its mighty wings

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has gotten its wings and is set to soar to the International Space Station (ISS) in about a month. NASA and SpaceX are currently targeting a liftoff on Feb. 7 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Dragon is a commercially developed unmanned cargo vessel constructed by SpaceX under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA. The Dragon spacecraft will launch atop a Falcon 9 booster rocket also built by SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies.

Dragon’s solar array panels being installed on Dragon’s trunk at the SpaceX hangar in Cape Canaveral,FL.

The Feb. 7 demonstration flight – dubbed COTS 2/3 – represents the first test of NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative.

Following the forced retirement of the Space Shuttle after Atlantis final flight in July 2011, NASA has no choice but to rely on private companies to loft virtually all of the US share of supplies and equipment to the ISS.

The Feb. 7 flight will be the first Dragon mission actually tasked to dock to the ISS and is also the first time that the Dragon will fly with deployable solar arrays. The twin arrays are the primary power source for the Dragon. They will be deployed a few minutes after launch, following Dragon separation from the Falcon 9 second stage.

The solar arrays can generate up to 5000 watts of power on a long term basis to run the sensors and communications systems, drive the heating and cooling systems and recharge the battery pack.

SpaceX designed, developed and manufactured the solar arrays in house with their own team of engineers. As with all space hardware, the arrays have been rigorously tested for hundreds of hours under the utterly harsh conditions that simulate the unforgiving environment of outer space, including thermal, vacuum, vibration, structural and electrical testing.

SpaceX engineers conducting an early solar panel test. Hundreds of flood lamps simulate the unfiltered light of the sun. Photo: Roger Gilbertson/ SpaceX

The two arrays were then shipped to Florida and have been attached to the side of the Dragon’s bottom trunk at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral launch processing facilities. They are housed behind protective shielding until commanded to deploy in flight.


Video Caption: SpaceX testing of the Dragon solar arrays. Credit: SpaceX

I’ve toured the SpaceX facilities several times and seen the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule launching on Feb. 7. The young age and enthusiasm of the employees is impressive and quite evident.

NASA recently granted SpaceX the permission to combine the next two COTS demonstration flights into one mission and dock the Dragon at the ISS if all the rendezvous practice activities in the vicinity of the ISS are completed flawlessly.

Dragon with the protective fairings installed over the folded solar arrays, at the SpaceX

The ISS crew is eagerly anticipating the arrival of Dragon, for whch they have long trained.

“We’re very excited about it,” said ISS Commander Dan Burbank in a televised interview from on board the ISS earlier this week.

The ISS crew will grapple the Dragon with the station’s robotic arm when it comes within reach and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.

“From the standpoint of a pilot it is a fun, interesting, very dynamic activity and we are very much looking forward to it,” Burbank said. “It is the start of a new era, having commercial vehicles that come to Station.”

Burbank is a US astronaut and captured stunning images of Comet Lovejoy from the ISS just before Christmas, collected here.

Read recent features about the ISS and commercial spaceflight by Ken Kremer here:
Dazzling Photos of the International Space Station Crossing the Moon!
Absolutely Spectacular Photos of Comet Lovejoy from the Space Station
NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

Jan 11: Free Lecture by Ken at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA at 8 PM for the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. Topic: Mars & Vesta in 3 D – Plus Search for Life & GRAIL

NASA Issues Report On Commercial Crew as SpaceX’s CEO Testifies About SpaceX’s Progress

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NASA has recently posted the latest update as to how the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev2) program is doing in terms of meeting milestones laid out at the program’s inception. According to the third status report that was released by NASA, CCDev2’s partners continue to meet these objectives. The space agency has worked to provide regular updates about the program’s progress.

“There is a lot happening in NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs and we want to make sure the public and our stakeholders are informed about the progress industry is making,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development. “It’s exciting to see these spaceflight concepts move forward.”

One of the primary objectives of the Commercial Crew Development program is to cut down the length of time that NASA is forced to rely on Russia for access to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Reports on the progress of commercial crew are issued on a bi-monthly basis. The reports are directed toward the primary stakeholder of this program, the U.S. taxpayer. NASA has invested both financial and technical assets in an effort to accelerate the development of commercial access to orbit.

This report came out at the same time as Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) CEO, Elon Musk, testified before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee regarding NASA’s commercial crewed program.

Elon Musk testified before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee regarding his company's efforts to provide commercial access to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX itself has been awarded $75 million under the CCDev program to develop a launch abort system, known as “DragonRider” that would enable the company’s Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts. SpaceX was awarded $1.6 billion under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS contract with NASA. Under the COTS contract, SpaceX must fly three demonstration flights as well as nine cargo delivery flights to the orbiting outpost. SpaceX is currently working to combine the second and third demonstration flights into one mission, currently scheduled to fly at the end of this year.

During Musk’s comments to the House, he highlighted his company’s efforts to make space travel more accessible.

“America’s endeavors in space are truly inspirational. I deeply believe that human spaceflight is one of the great achievements of humankind. Although NASA only sent a handful of people to the moon, it felt like we all went,” Musk said in a written statement. “We vicariously shared in the adventure and achievement. My goal, and the goal of SpaceX, is to help create the technology so that more can share in that great adventure.”

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle is currently being readied for a liftoff date later this year. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

To date, SpaceX is the only company to have demonstrated the capacity of their launch vehicle as well as a spacecraft. The company launched the first of its Dragon spacecraft atop of its Falcon 9 rocket this past December. The Dragon completed two orbits successfully before splashing down safely off the coast of California.

NASA is relying on companies like SpaceX to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities that could one day send astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). It is hoped that CCDev2 will help reduce U.S. dependence on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for access to the ISS. Allowing commercial companies to take over the responsibility of sending crews to the ISS might also allow the space agency focus on sending astronauts beyond low-Earth-orbit for the first time in four decades.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft recently arrived at the firm's hangar located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40). Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Here There Be Dragons: SpaceX’s Spacecraft Arrives at Launch Complex 40

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) welcomed a new guest to Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) on Sunday – the next Dragon spacecraft that is set to launch later this year. Members of the media were invited to a photo opportunity to chronicle the Dragon spacecraft’s arrival which had been delayed a day due to issues with travel permits.

The Dragon that arrived on Sunday is destined to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). It will be the first time that a private firm docks with the space station. The COTS Demo 2 Dragon was shipped from SpaceX’s facilities in Hawthorne, California to Cape Canaveral in Florida.

SpaceX's next Dragon spacecraft, the one set to fly to the International Space Station, was delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40 on Sunday. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 rocket, with its Dragon spacecraft payload, is currently scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s SLC-40 on Dec. 19. If all goes as it is currently planned the Dragon will maneuver along side of the orbiting laboratory where the space station’s robot Canadarm 2 will grapple the unmanned spacecraft it and dock it with the station.

“When it comes to the launch day, NASA will determine that, we’re pushing to launch on Dec. 19, but the final “go” date is set by NASA and the range,” said SpaceX’s Vice-President for Communications Bobby Block. “We are currently working to conduct a wet dress rehearsal on November 21st.”

The Dragon spacecraft that is bound for the ISS will ride this Falcon 9 rocket to orbit. The launch date is tentatively set for Dec. 19. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

SpaceX recently passed a Preliminary Draft Review (PDR) of the Dragon’s Launch Abort System (LAS). This system, which pulls astronauts and their spacecraft to safety in case of some problem with the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, is unlike other systems of its type. Normal abort systems are essentially small rockets affixed to the top of the spacecraft (which is normally on top of the rocket). Not so with SpaceX’s design, dubbed DragonRider – it will be built into the walls of the spacecraft.

The reason for the difference in the abort system’s design is twofold. First, it will drive the costs down (Dragon is being developed as a reusable spacecraft) -whereas traditional abort systems are not capable of being reused. Secondly the system could one day be used as a potential means of landing spacecraft on other terrestrial worlds, such as the planet Mars.

SpaceX has been working with NASA to get the Dragon spacecraft ready for its historic mission. This will mark the first time that many of the systems have been used on an actual mission. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

This will mark the second demonstration flight that SpaceX will have flown to accomplish the objectives laid out in the Commercial Orbital Transportations Services or COTS contract. The $1.6 billion contract is an effort to ensure that needed cargo is delivered to the station safely and in a timely fashion.

SpaceX so far has launched two of its Falcon 9 rockets – both in 2010. The first flight occurred on June 4, 2010 with the second being launched on Dec. 8, 2010. It was on this second flight that SpaceX became the first private entity to launch a spacecraft into orbit and then safely recover it after it had successfully orbited the Earth twice. Before this only nations were capable of achieving this feat.

“This is very exciting, our last launch was about a year ago, so to have a fully-operational Dragon up-and-ready to make a historic docking to the International Space Station it’s terrifically exciting.” Block said.

SpaceX is working toward expanding the role of not only the Falcon 9 rocket - but the Dragon spacecraft as well. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

SpaceX Completes Crucial Milestone Toward Launching Astronauts

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is now one more step closer to sending astronauts to orbit. The commercial space firm announced today that it has completed a successful review of the company’s launch abort system (LAS). SpaceX’s LAS, dubbed “DragonRider” is designed differently than abort systems that have been used in the past.

The first review of the system’s design and its subsequent approval by NASA represents a step toward the realization of the space agency’s current objective of having commercial companies provide access to the International Space Station (ISS) while it focuses on sending astronauts beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) for the first time in four decades.

The DragonRider launch abort system would allow astronauts to be safely pulled away from the Falcon 9 launch vehicle in the advent of an emergency. Image Credit: SpaceX

“Each milestone we complete brings the United States one step closer to once again having domestic human spaceflight capability,” said former astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is one of the two program leads who are working on SpaceX’s DragonRider program.

With the space shuttle program over and its fleet of orbiters headed to museums, the United States is paying Russia an estimated $63 million per seat on its Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX has estimated that, by comparison, flights on a man-rated version of its Dragon spacecraft would cost approximately $20 million. Despite the dramatically lower cost, SpaceX has emphatically stated that safety is one of the key drivers of its spacecraft.

NASA, who currently lacks the capacity to launch astronauts on its own, has to pay fellow space station program partner $63 million a seat on its Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX has estimated by comparison that flights on a man-rated Dragon would cost around $20 million. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

“Dragon’s integrated launch abort system provides astronauts with the ability to safely escape from the beginning of the launch until the rocket reaches orbit,” said David Giger, the other lead on the DragonRider program. “This level of protection is unprecedented in manned spaceflight history.”

SpaceX had already met three of NASA’s milestones under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) contract that the company has signed into with the U.S. space agency. With the Preliminary Design Review or PDR completed of the abort system SpaceX can now rack up another milestone that it has met.

SpaceX is currently working to see that the next flight of its Dragon spacecraft tentatively scheduled for late this year will incorporate mission objectives of both the second and third COTS demonstration flights and be allowed to dock with the International Space Station. Image Credit: SpaceX

Unlike conventional abort systems, which are essentially small, powerful rockets that are attached to the top of the spacecraft, Dragon’s LAS is actually built into the walls of the Dragon. This is not an effort just to make the spacecraft’s abort system unique – rather it is meant as a cost-cutting measure. The Dragon is intended to be reusable, as such its abort system needed to be capable of being reused on later flights as well. Traditional LAS simply do not allow for that. With every successful launch by conventional means – the LAS is lost.

SpaceX is also working to see that this system not only can save astronaut lives in the advent of an emergency – but that it can actually allow the spacecraft to conduct pinpoint landings one day. Not just on Earth – but possibly other terrestrial bodies – including Mars.

SpaceX is hopeful that if all goes well with its DragonRider system that it could one deay be developed to land future versions of the company's spacecraft on other terrestrial bodies - including the planet Mars. Image Credit: SpaceX

To date, SpaceX has launched two of its Falcon 9 launch vehicles. The first occurred on June 4 of 2010 and the second, and the first under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract took place six months later on Dec. 8. This second mission was the first to include a Dragon spacecraft, which was recovered in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California after successfully completing two orbits.

“We have accomplished these four milestones on time and budget, while this is incredibly important, it is business as usual for SpaceX,” said SpaceX’s Vice-President for Communications Bobby Block during an interview. “These are being completed under a Space Act Agreement that demonstrates the innovative and efficient nature of what can be accomplished when the commercial sector and NASA work together.”

SpaceX's Vice-President for Communications, Bobby Block, said that the fact that SpaceX has accomplished these milestones on time and budget should show what can happen when NASA and the private industry work together. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

NASA to Test New Atomic Clock

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When people think of space technologies, many think of solar panels, propulsion systems and guidance systems. One important piece of technology in spaceflight is an accurate timing device.

Many satellites and spacecraft require accurate timing signals to ensure the proper operation of scientific instruments. In the case of GPS satellites, accurate timing is essential, otherwise anything relying on GPS signals to navigate could be misdirected.

The third technology demonstration planned by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the Deep Space Atomic Clock. The DSAC team plans to develop a small, low-mass atomic clock based on mercury-ion trap technology and demonstrate it in space.

What benefits will a new atomic clock design offer NASA and other players in near-Earth orbit and the rest of our solar system?

The Deep Space Atomic Clock demonstration mission will fly and validate an atomic clock that is 10-times more accurate than today’s systems. The project will demonstrate ultra-precision timing in space as well as the benefits said timing offers.

The DSAC will fly on an Iridium spacecraft and make use of GPS signals to demonstrate precision orbit determination and confirm the clock’s performance. As mentioned previously, precise timing and navigation are critical to the performance of many aspects of deep space and near-Earth exploration missions.

The DSAC team believes the demonstration will offer enhancements and cost savings for new missions, which include:

  • Increase Data Quantity: A factor of 2 to 3 increase in navigation and radio science data quantity by allowing coherent tracking to extend over the full view period of Earth stations.
  • Improve Data Quality: Up to 10 times more accurate navigation, gravity science, and occultation science at remote solar system bodies by using one-way radiometric links.
  • Enabling New Missions: Shift towards a more flexible and extensible one-way radio navigation architecture enabling development of capable in-situ satellite navigation systems and autonomous deep space radio navigation.
  • Reduce Proposed Mission Costs: Reduce mission costs for using the Deep Space Network (DSN) through aperture sharing and one-way downlink only time.
  • Benefits to GPS: Improve clock stability of the next GPS system by 100 times.
  • One example use for the DSAC is for a future mission that is a follow-up to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). A spacecraft equipped with the DSAC could avoid reliance on two-way communications using NASA’s Deep Space Network to perform orbital determination.

    One of the benefits of avoiding said reliance on two-way communications would allow the mission to only require the DSN for one-way communication to transmit scientific data to Earth. Reducing the reliance on two-way communications would provide an additional benefit of cost savings.

    In the previous example, the DSAC team estimates an $11 million dollar reduction in network operational costs, as well as a 100% increase in the amount of usable science and navigation data that could be received.

    Overview of Deep Space Atomic Clock (DASC) mission. Image Credit: NASA

    The Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) office in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate is collaborating with the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist in sponsoring this technology demonstration.

    If successful the DSAC flight demonstration mission will bring the improved atomic clock technology to a technological readiness level that will allow it to be used in a wide variety of future space missions.

    Read our earlier articles about the other technology demonstrations planned:

    NASA To Test Solar Sail Technology
    NASA To Test Laser Communications Systems

    Source: NASA Technology Demonstration Mission Announcements

    NASA to Test New Solar Sail Technology

    [/caption]
    Solar sails, much like anti-matter and ion engines appear at first glance to only exist in science fiction. Many technologies from science fiction however, become science fact.

    In the example of solar sails, perfecting the technology would allow spacecraft to travel through our solar system using very little fuel.

    NASA has been making strides with solar sail technology. Using the NanoSail-D mission, NASA continues to gather valuable data on how well solar sails perform in space. The Planetary Society will also be testing solar sail technology with their LightSail-1 project sometime next year.

    How will NASA (and others) test solar sail technology, and develop it into a common, reliable technology?

    The second of three recently announced technology demonstrations, The Solar Sail Demonstration, will test the deployment of a solar sail in space along with testing attitude control. The solar sail will also execute a navigation sequence with mission-capable accuracy.

    In order to make science fiction into reality, NASA engineers are testing solar sails that could one day provide the propulsion for deep space missions. Spacecraft using solar sails would travel in our solar system in a similar manner to a sailboat through water, except spacecraft using solar sails would rely on sunlight instead of wind. A spacecraft propelled by a solar sail would use the sail to capture photons emitted from the Sun. Over time, the buildup of the solar photons provides enough thrust for a small spacecraft to travel in space.

    NASA’s solar sail demonstration mission will deploy and operate a sail area 7 times larger than ever flown in space. The technology used in the demonstration will be applicable to many future space missions, including use in space weather warning systems to provide timely and accurate warnings of solar flare activity. The solar sail demonstration is a collaborative effort between The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and contractor L’Garde Inc.

    NASA lists several capabilities solar sails have to offer, such as:

  • Orbital Debris: Orbital debris can be captured and removed from orbit over a period of years using the small solar-sail thrust.
  • De-orbit of spent satellites: Solar sails can be integrated into satellite payloads so that the satellite can be de-orbited at the end of its mission.
  • Station keeping: Using the low propellantless thrust of a solar sail to provide station keeping for unstable in-space locations.
  • Deep space propulsion: Payloads free of the Earth’s pull can be continuously and efficiently accelerated to the other planets, or out of the solar system, such as proposed in Project Encounter.
  • As an example, the GeoStorm project considers locating solar storm warning satellites at pseudo Lagrange points three times further from the Earth by using the solar sail to cancel some solar gravitational pull, thus increasing warning time from ~15 minutes to ~45 minutes.

    Providing a satellite with a persistent view of northern or southern latitudes, i.e., a “pole-sitter” project. This allows the observational advantages of today’s geosynchronous satellites for orbits with view angles of the northern and southern high-latitudes.

    A solar sail system, measuring 66 feet on each side was tested in 2005 in the world's largest vacuum chamber. Image Credit: NASA

    If you’d like to learn more about solar sails, Caltech has a nice “Solar Sailing 101” page at: http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~diedrich/solarsails/intro/intro.html

    Source: NASA Technology Demonstration Mission Updates