A Family Of Stars Torn Apart

The stunning, shaped clouds of gas in the Orion Nebula make it beautiful, but also make it difficult to see inside of. This image of the Orion Nebula was captured by the Hubble Telescope. Image: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (STScI/ESA) and The Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

It sometimes doesn’t take much to tear a family apart. A Christmas dinner gone wrong can do that. But for a family of stars to be torn apart, something really huge has to happen.

The dramatic break-up of a family of stars played itself out in the Orion Nebula, about 600 years ago. The Orion Nebula is one of the most studied objects in our galaxy. It’s an active star forming region, where much of the star birth is concealed behind clouds of dust. Advances in infrared and radio astronomy have allowed us to peer into the Nebula, and to watch a stellar drama unfolding.

This three-frame illustration shows how a grouping of stars can break apart, flinging the members into space. Panel 1: members of a multiple-star system orbiting each other. Panel 2: two of the stars move closer together in their orbits. Panel 3: the closely orbiting stars eventually either merge or form a tight binary. This event releases enough gravitational energy to propel all of the stars in the system outward, as shown in the third panel.
Credits: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levy (STScI)

Over the last few decades, observations showed the two of the stars in our young family travelling off in different directions. In fact, they were travelling in opposite directions, and moving at very high speeds. Much higher than stars normally travel at. What caused it?

Astronomers were able to piece the story together by re-tracing the positions of both stars back 540 years. All those centuries ago, around the same time that it was dawning on humanity that Earth revolved around the Sun instead of the other way around, both of the speeding stars were in the same location. This suggested that the two were part of a star system that had broken up for some reason. But their combined energy didn’t add up.

Now, the Hubble has provided another clue to the whole story, by spotting a third runaway star. They traced the third star’s path back 540 years and found that it originated in the same location as the others. That location? An area near the center of the Orion Nebula called the Kleinmann-Low Nebula.

This composite image of the Kleinmann-Low Nebula, part of the Orion Nebula complex, is composed of several pointings of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in optical and near-infrared light. Infrared light allows to peer through the dust of the nebula and to see the stars therein. The revealed stars are shown with a bright red colour in the image. With this image, showing the central region of the Orion Nebula, scientists were looking for rogue planets and brown dwarfs. As side-effect they found a fast-moving runaway star. By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57169218

The team behind these new results, led by Kevin Luhman of Penn State University, will release their findings in the March 20, 2017 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“The new Hubble observations provide very strong evidence that the three stars were ejected from a multiple-star system,” said Luhman. “Astronomers had previously found a few other examples of fast-moving stars that trace back to multiple-star systems, and therefore were likely ejected. But these three stars are the youngest examples of such ejected stars. They’re probably only a few hundred thousand years old. In fact, based on infrared images, the stars are still young enough to have disks of material leftover from their formation.”

Young stars have a disk of gas and dust around them called a protoplanetary disk. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The Orion Nebula could be surrounded by additional fledging stars that were ejected from it in the past and are now streaming away into space.” – Lead Researcher Kevin Luhman, Penn State University.

The three stars are travelling about 30 times faster than most of the Nebula’s other stellar inhabitants. Theory has predicted the phenomenon of these breakups in regions where newborn stars are crowded together. These gravitational back-and-forths are inevitable. “But we haven’t observed many examples, especially in very young clusters,” Luhman said. “The Orion Nebula could be surrounded by additional fledging stars that were ejected from it in the past and are now streaming away into space.”

The key to this mystery is the recently discovered third star. But this star, the so-called “source x”, was discovered by accident. Luhman is part of a team using the Hubble to hunt for free-floating planets in the Orion Nebula. A comparison of Hubble infrared images from 2015 with images from 1998 showed that source x had changed its position. This indicated that the star was moving at a speed of about 130,000 miles per hour.

The image by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a grouping of young stars, called the Trapezium Cluster (center). The box just above the Trapezium Cluster outlines the location of the three stars. A close-up of the stars is top right. The birthplace of the multi-star system is marked “initial position.” Two of the stars — labeled BN, and “I,” for source I — were discovered decades ago. Source I is embedded in thick dust and cannot be seen. The third star, “x,” for source x, was recently discovered to have moved noticeably between 1998 and 2015, as shown in the inset image at bottom right.
Credits: NASA, ESA, K. Luhman (Penn State University), and M. Robberto (STScI)

Luhmann then re-traced source x’s path and it led to the same position as the other 3 runaway stars 540 years ago: the Kleinmann-Low Nebula.

According to Luhmann, the three stars were most likely ejected from their system due to gravitational fluctuations that should be common in a high-population area of newly-born stars. Two of the stars can come very close together, either forming a tight binary system or even merging. That throws the gravitational parameters of the system out of whack, and other stars can be ejected. The ejection of those stars can also cause fingers of matter to flow out of the system.

As we get more powerful telescopes operating in the infrared, we should be able to clarify exactly what happens in areas of intense star formation like the Orion Nebula and its embedded Kleinmann-Low Nebula. The James Webb Space Telescope should advance our understanding greatly. If that’s the case, then not only will the details of star birth and formation become much clearer, but so will the break up of young families of stars.

NASA Studies Whether to Add Crew to 1st SLS Megarocket Moon Launch in 2019

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will be the most powerful rocket in the world and, with the agency’s Orion spacecraft, will launch America into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond Earth’s orbit. Their first integrated mission is planned as uncrewed, but NASA now is assessing the feasibility of adding crew. Credits: NASA/MSFC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – At the request of the new Trump Administration, NASA has initiated a month long study to determine the feasibility of converting the first integrated unmanned launch of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion capsule into a crewed mission that would propel two astronauts to the Moon and back by 2019 – 50 years after the first human lunar landing.

Top NASA officials outlined the details of the study at a hastily arranged media teleconference briefing on Friday, Feb 24. It will examine the feasibility of what it would take to add a crew of 2 astronauts to significantly modified maiden SLS/Orion mission hardware and whether a launch could be accomplished technically and safely by the end of 2019.

On Feb. 15, Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he had asked Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, to start detailed studies of what it would take to host astronauts inside the Orion capsule on what the agency calls Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1.

Gerstenmaier, joined by Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development in Washington, at the briefing said a team was quickly assembled and the study is already underway.

They expect the study to be completed in early spring, possibly by late March and it will focus on assessing the possibilities – but not making a conclusion on whether to actually implement changes to the current uncrewed EM-1 flight profile targeted for blastoff later in 2018.

“I want to stress to you this is a feasibility study. So when we get done with this we won’t come out with a hard recommendation, one way or the other,” Gerstenmaier stated.

“We’re going to talk about essentially the advantages and disadvantages of adding crew to EM-1.”

“We were given this task a week ago, appointed a team and have held one telecon.”

“Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket,” said Gerstenmaier.

“This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”

Artist concept of the SLS Block 1 configuration on the Mobile Launcher at KSC. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Gerstenmaier further stipulated that the study should focus on determining if a crewed EM-1 could liftoff by the end of 2019. The study team includes one astronaut.

If a change resulted in a maiden SLS/Orion launch date stretching beyond 2019 it has little value – and NASA is best to stick to the current EM-1 flight plan.

The first SLS/Orion crewed flight is slated for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) launching in 2021.

“I felt that if we went much beyond 2019, then we might as well fly EM-2 and actually do the plan we’re on,” Gerstenmaier said.

NASA’s current plans call for the unmanned blastoff of Orion EM-1 on the SLS-1 rocket later next year on its first test flight on a 3 week long mission to a distant lunar retrograde orbit. It is slated to occur roughly in the September to November timeframe from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

Lightfoot initially revealed the study in a speech to the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference in Washington, D.C. and an agency wide memo circulated to NASA employees on Feb. 15 – as I reported here.

The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To launch astronauts, Orion EM-1 would require very significant upgrades since it will not have the life support systems, display panels, abort systems and more needed to safely support humans on board.

“We know there are certain systems that needed to be added to EM-1 to add crew,” Gerstenmaier elaborated. “So we have a good, crisp list of all the things we would physically have to change from a hardware standpoint.

In fact since EM-1 assembly is already well underway, some hardware already installed would have to be pulled out in order to allow access behind to add the life support hardware and other systems, Hill explained.

The EM-1 pressure shell arrived last February as I witnessed and reported here.

Thus adding crew at this latter date in the manufacturing cycle is no easy task and would absolutely require additional time and additional funding to the NASA budget – which as everyone knows is difficult in these tough fiscal times.

“Then we asked the team to take a look at what additional tests would be needed to add crew, what the additional risk would be, and then we also wanted the teams to talk about the benefits of having crew on the first flight,” Gerstenmaier explained.

“It’s going to take a significant amount of money, and money that will be required fairly quickly to implement what we need to do,” Hill stated. “So it’s a question of how we refine the funding levels and the phasing of the funding for the next three years and see where it comes out.”

Hill also stated that NASA would maintain the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage for the first flight, and not switch to the more advanced and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) planned for first use on EM-2.

Furthermore NASA would move up the AA-2 ascent abort test for Orion to take place before crewed EM-1 mission.

Components of the SLS-1 rocket are being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and elsewhere around the country by numerous suppliers.

Michoud is building the huge fuel liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen SLS core stage fuel tank, derived from the Space Shuttle External Tank (ET) – as I detailed here.

The liquid hydrogen tank qualification test article for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally after final welding was completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in July 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Gerstenmaier noted that Michoud did suffer some damage during the recent tornado strike which will necessitate several months worth of repairs.

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen – even more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket of the 1960s and 1970s.

For SLS-1 the mammoth booster will launch in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.

If NASA can pull off a 2019 EM-1 human launch it will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 – NASA’s first lunar landing mission manned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, along with Michael Collins.

If crew are added to EM-1 it would essentially adopt the mission profile currently planned for Orion EM-2.

“If the agency decides to put crew on the first flight, the mission profile for Exploration Mission-2 would likely replace it, which is an approximately eight-day mission with a multi-translunar injection with a free return trajectory,” said NASA. It would be similar to Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

NASA is developing SLS and Orion for sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.

They are but the first hardware elements required to carry out such an ambitious initiative.

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

NASA To Study Launching Astronauts on 1st SLS/Orion Flight

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – In a potentially major change in direction for NASA’s human spaceflight architecture, the agency is officially studying the possibility of adding a crew of astronauts to the first flight of the Orion deep space crew capsule and the heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket currently in development, announced Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.

Lightfoot made the announcement in a speech to the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference in Washington, D.C. as well as an agency wide memo circulated to NASA employees on Wednesday, Feb. 15.

The move, if implemented, for the first joint SLS/Orion flight on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) would advance the date for sending American astronauts back to the Moon by several years – from the next decade into this decade.

Lightfoot has directed Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, to start detailed studies of what it would take to host astronauts inside the Orion EM-1 crew capsule.

“I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion,” Lightfoot said.

NASA’s current plans call for the unmanned blastoff of Orion EM-1 on the SLS-1 rocket later next year on the first test flight – roughly in the September to November timeframe from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.

“The study will examine the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space,” NASA officials added in a statement.

But because of all the extra work required to upgrade a host of systems for both Orion and SLS for humans ahead of schedule, liftoff of that inaugural mission would have to slip by at least a year or more.

“I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date” Lighfoot elaborated.

“That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Kennedy Space Center.

Components of the SLS-1 rocket are being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and elsewhere around the country by numerous suppliers.

Welding is nearly complete on the liquid hydrogen tank will provide the fuel for the first flight of NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, with the Orion spacecraft in 2018. The tank has now completed welding on the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

Now it might actually include humans.

Details to follow.

An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

The liquid hydrogen tank qualification test article for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally after final welding was completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in July 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Tears of the Hunter: Our Guide to the 2016 Orionid Meteor Shower

Orionid

The month of October is upon us this coming weekend, and with it, one of the better annual meteor showers is once again active: the Orionids.

In 2016, the Orionid meteors are expected to peak on October 22nd at 2:00 UT (10:00 PM U.S. Eastern Time on October 21st) , favoring Europe and Africa in the early morning hours. The shower is active for a one month period from October 2nd to November 2nd, and can vary with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 10-70 meteors per hour. This year, the Orionids are expected to produce a maximum ideal ZHR of 15-25 meteors per hour. The radiant of the Orionids is located near right ascension 6 hours 24 minutes, declination 15 degrees north at the time of the peak. The radiant is in the constellation of Orion very near its juncture with Gemini and Taurus.

A gallery of Fall meteor shower radiants, including the October Orionids. Image credit: Stellarium
A gallery of Fall meteor shower radiants, including the October Orionids. Image credit: Stellarium

The Moon is at a 55% illuminated, waning gibbous phase at the peak of the Orionids, making 2016 an unfavorable year for this shower, though that shouldn’t stop you from trying. It’s true that the Moon is only 19 degrees east of the radiant in the adjacent constellation Gemini at its peak on the key morning of October 22, though it’ll move farther on through the last week of October.

In previous recent years, the Orionids produced a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 20 (2014) and a ZHR of 30 (2013).

The Orionid meteors strike the Earth at a moderately fast velocity of 66 km/s, and the shower tends to produce a relatively high ratio of fireballs with an r value of = 2.5. The source of the Orionids is none other than renowned comet 1/P Halley. Halley last paid the inner solar system a visit in early 1986, and will once again reach perihelion on July 28, 2061. Let’s see, by then I’ll be…

The orientation of the Earth's shadow vs, the zenith positions of the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Orionid meteors at the expected peak of the shower on October 22nd. Image adapted from Orbitron
The orientation of the Earth’s shadow vs the zenith positions of the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Orionid meteors at the expected during the peak of the shower on October 22nd. Image adapted from Orbitron.

Unlike most meteor showers, the Orionids display a very unpredictable maximum – many sources decline to put a precise date on the shower’s expected maximum at all. On some years, the Orionids barely top 10 per hour at their maximum, while on others they display a broad but defined peak. One 1982 study out of Czechoslovakia suggested a twin peak for this shower after looking at activity from 1944 to 1950. All good reasons to be vigilant for Orionids throughout the coming month of October.

And check out this brilliant meteor that lit up the skies over the southern UK this past weekend:

‘Tis the season for cometary dust particles to light up the night sky. Trace the path of a suspect meteor to the club of Orion, and you’ve likely sighted an Orionid meteor. But other showers showers are active in October, including:

The Draconids: Peaking around October 8th, these are debris shed by Comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner. The Draconids are prone to great outbursts, such as the 2011 and 2012 meteor storm, but are expected to yield a paltry ZHR of 10 in 2016.

The Taurids: Late October into early November is Taurid fireball season, peaking with a ZHR of 5 around October 10th (the Southern Taurids) and November 12th (the Northern Taurids).
The Camelopardalids: Another wildcard shower prone to periodic outbursts. 2016 is expected to be an off year for this shower, with a ZHR of 10 topping out on October 5.

And farther afield, we’ve got the Leonids (November 17th) the Geminids (December 14th) and the Ursids (December 22nd) to close out 2016.

A 2015 Orionid captured by a NASA All-Sky camera atop Mt. Lemmon, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.
A 2015 Orionid captured by a NASA All-Sky camera atop Mt. Lemmon, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.

Observing a meteor shower like the Orionids is as simple as finding a dark site with a clear horizon, laying back and watching via good old Mark-1 eyeball. Blocking that gibbous Moon behind a building or hill will also increase your chances of catching an Orionid. Expect rates to pick up toward dawn, as the Earth turns forward and plows headlong into the meteor stream.

You can make a count of what you see and report it to the International Meteor Organization which keeps regular tabs of meteor activity.
Photographing Orionids this year might be problematic, owing to the proximity of the bright Moon, though not impossible. Again, aiming at a wide quadrant of the sky opposite to the Moon might just nab a bright Orionid meteor in profile. We like to just set our camera’s intervalometer to take a sequence of 30” exposures of the sky, and let it do the work while we’re observing visually. Nearly every meteor we’ve caught photographically turned up in later review, a testament to the limits of visual observing.

Clear skies, good luck, and send those Orionid images in the Universe Today’s Flickr forum.

NASA Welds Together 1st SLS Hydrogen Test Tank for America’s Moon/Mars Rocket – Flight Unit in Progress

The first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, on NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine on July 22, 2016 after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

MICHOUD ASSEMBLY FACILITY, NEW ORLEANS, LA – NASA has just finished welding together the very first fuel tank for America’s humongous Space Launch System (SLS) deep space rocket currently under development – and Universe Today had an exclusive up close look at the liquid hydrogen (LH2) test tank shortly after its birth as well as the first flight tank, during a tour of NASA’s New Orleans rocket manufacturing facility on Friday, July 22, shortly after completion of the milestone assembly operation.

“We have just finished welding the first liquid hydrogen qualification tank article …. and are in the middle of production welding of the first liquid hydrogen flight hardware tank [for SLS-1] in the big Vertical Assembly Center welder!” explained Patrick Whipps, NASA SLS Stages Element Manager, in an exclusive hardware tour and interview with Universe Today on July 22, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans.

“We are literally putting the SLS rocket hardware together here at last. All five elements to put the SLS stages together [at Michoud].”

This first fully welded SLS liquid hydrogen tank is known as a ‘qualification test article’ and it was assembled using basically the same components and processing procedures as an actual flight tank, says Whipps.

“We just completed the liquid hydrogen qualification tank article and lifted it out of the welding machine and put it into some cradles. We will put it into a newly designed straddle carrier article next week to transport it around safely and reliably for further work.”

And welding of the liquid hydrogen flight tank is moving along well.

“We will be complete with all SLS core stage flight tank welding in the VAC by the end of September,” added Jackie Nesselroad, SLS Boeing manager at Michoud. “It’s coming up very quickly!”

“The welding of the forward dome to barrel 1 on the liquid hydrogen flight tank is complete. And we are doing phased array ultrasonic testing right now!”

SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen and one day soon will propel NASA astronauts in the agency’s Orion crew capsule on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars – venturing further out than humans ever have before!

The LH2 ‘qualification test article’ was welded together using the world’s largest welder – known as the Vertical Assembly Center, or VAC, at Michoud.

And it’s a giant! – measuring approximately 130-feet in length and 27.6 feet (8.4 m) in diameter.

See my exclusive up close photos herein documenting the newly completed tank as the first media to visit the first SLS tank. I saw the big tank shortly after it was carefully lifted out of the welder and placed horizontally on a storage cradle on Michoud’s factory floor.

The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The newly assembled first liquid hydrogen tank, also called the qualification test article, for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket lies horizontally beside the Vertical Assembly Center robotic weld machine (blue) on July 22, 2016. It was lifted out of the welder (top) after final welding was just completed at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Finishing its assembly after years of meticulous planning and hard work paves the path to enabling the maiden test launch of the SLS heavy lifter in the fall of 2018 from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

The qual test article is the immediate precursor to the actual first LH2 flight tank now being welded.

“We will finish welding the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen flight tanks by September,” Whipps told Universe Today.

Up close view of the dome of the newly assembled first ever liquid hydrogen test tank for NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket on July 22, 2016  after it was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Sensors will be attached to both ends for upcoming structural loads and proof testing.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of the dome of the newly assembled first ever liquid hydrogen test tank for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket on July 22, 2016 after it was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Sensors will be attached to both ends for upcoming structural loads and proof testing. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Technicians assembled the LH2 tank by feeding the individual metallic components into NASA’s gigantic “Welding Wonder” machine – as its affectionately known – at Michoud, thus creating a rigid 13 story tall structure.

The welding work was just completed this past week on the massive silver colored structure. It was removed from the VAC welder and placed horizontally on a cradle.

I watched along as the team was also already hard at work fabricating SLS’s first liquid hydrogen flight article tank in the VAC, right beside the qualification tank resting on the floor.

Welding of the other big fuel tank, the liquid oxygen (LOX) qualification and flight article tanks will follow quickly inside the impressive ‘Welding Wonder’ machine, Nesselroad explained.

The LH2 and LOX tanks sit on top of one another inside the SLS outer skin.

The SLS core stage – or first stage – is mostly comprised of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen cryogenic fuel storage tanks which store the rocket propellants at super chilled temperatures. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.

To prove that the new welding machines would work as designed, NASA opted “for a 3 stage assembly philosophy,” Whipps explained.

Engineers first “welded confidence articles for each of the tank sections” to prove out the welding techniques “and establish a learning curve for the team and test out the software and new weld tools. We learned a lot from the weld confidence articles!”

“On the heels of that followed the qualification weld articles” for tank loads testing.

“The qualification articles are as ‘flight-like’ as we can get them! With the expectation that there are still some tweaks coming.”

“And finally that leads into our flight hardware production welding and manufacturing the actual flight unit tanks for launches.”

“All the confidence articles and the LH2 qualification article are complete!”

What’s the next step for the LH2 tank?

The test article tank will be outfitted with special sensors and simulators attached to each end to record reams of important engineering data, thereby extending it to about 185 feet in length.

Thereafter it will loaded onto the Pegasus barge and shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for structural loads testing on one of two new test stands currently under construction for the tanks. The tests are done to prove that the tanks can withstand the extreme stresses of spaceflight and safely carry our astronauts to space.

“We are manufacturing the simulators for each of the SLS elements now for destructive tests – for shipment to Marshall. It will test all the stress modes, and finally to failure to see the process margins.”

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

The SLS core stage builds on heritage from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and is based on the shuttle’s External Tank (ET). All 135 ET flight units were built at Michoud during the thirty year long shuttle program by Lockheed Martin.

“We saved billions of dollars and years of development effort vs. starting from a clean sheet of paper design, by taking aspects of the shuttle … and created an External Tank type generic structure – with the forward avionics on top and the complex engine section with 4 engines (vs. 3 for shuttle) on the bottom,” Whipps elaborated.

“This is truly an engineering marvel like the External Tank was – with its strength that it had and carrying the weight that it did. If you made our ET the equivalent of a Coke can, our thickness was about 1/5 of a coke can.”

“It’s a tremendous engineering job. But the ullage pressures in the LOX and LH2 tanks are significantly more and the systems running down the side of the SLS tank are much more sophisticated. Its all significantly more complex with the feed lines than what we did for the ET. But we brought forward the aspects and designs that let us save time and money and we knew were effective and reliable.”

The Vertical Weld Center tool used to fabricate barrel segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks via vertical friction stir welding operations at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Vertical Weld Center tool used to fabricate barrel segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks via vertical friction stir welding operations at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SLS core stage is comprised of five major structures: the forward skirt, the liquid oxygen tank (LOX), the intertank, the liquid hydrogen tank (LH2) and the engine section.

The LH2 and LOX tanks feed the cryogenic propellants into the first stage engine propulsion section which is powered by a quartet of RS-25 engines – modified space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) – and a pair of enhanced five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) also derived from the shuttles four segment boosters.

The tanks are assembled by joining previously manufactured dome, ring and barrel components together in the Vertical Assembly Center by a process known as friction stir welding. The rings connect and provide stiffness between the domes and barrels.

The LH2 tank is the largest major part of the SLS core stage. It holds 537,000 gallons of super chilled liquid hydrogen. It is comprised of 5 barrels, 2 domes, and 2 rings.

The LOX tank holds 196,000 pounds of liquid oxygen. It is assembled from 2 barrels, 2 domes, and 2 rings and measures over 50 feet long.

The material of construction of the tanks has changed compared to the ET.

“The tanks are constructed of a material called the Aluminum 2219 alloy,” said Whipps. “It’s a ubiquosly used aerospace alloy with some copper but no lithium, unlike the shuttle superlightweight ET tanks that used Aluminum 2195. The 2219 has been a success story for the welding. This alloy is heavier but does not affect our payload potential.”

“The intertanks are the only non welded structure. They are bolted together and we are manufacturing them also. It’s much heavier and thicker.”

Overall, the SLS core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall and sports a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m).

NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Center is the world’s largest robotic weld tool. The domes and barrels are assembled from smaller panels and piece parts using other dedicated robotic welding machines at Michoud.

The total weight of the whole core stage empty is 188,000 pounds and 2.3 million pounds when fully loaded with propellant. The empty ET weighed some 55,000 pounds.

Considering that the entire Shuttle ET was 154-feet long, the 130-foot long LH2 tank alone isn’t much smaller and gives perspective on just how big it really is as the largest rocket fuel tank ever built.

“So far all the parts of the SLS rocket are coming along well.”

“The Michoud SLS workforce totals about 1000 to 1500 people between NASA and the contractors.”

Every fuel tank welded together from now on after this series of confidence and qualification LOX and LH2 tanks will be actual flight article tanks for SLS launches.

“There are no plans to weld another qualification tank after this,” Nesselroad confirmed to me.

What’s ahead for the SLS-2 core stage?

“We start building the second SLS flight tanks in October of this year – 2016!” Nesselroad stated.

The world’s largest welder was specifically designed to manufacture the core stage of the world’s most powerful rocket – NASA’s SLS.

The Vertical Assembly Center welder was officially opened for business at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was personally on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the base of the huge VAC welder.

The state-of-the-art welding giant stands 170 feet tall and 78 feet wide. It complements the world-class welding toolkit being used to assemble various pieces of the SLS core stage including the domes, rings and barrels that have been previously manufactured.

The Gore Weld Tool (foreground) and  Circumferential Dome Weld Tool (background) Center tool used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks via vertical friction stir welding operations at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Gore Weld Tool (foreground) and Circumferential Dome Weld Tool (background) used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks via vertical friction stir welding operations at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds – more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket.

Although the SLS-1 flight in 2018 will be uncrewed, NASA plans to launch astronauts on the SLS-2/EM-2 mission slated for the 2021 to 2023 timeframe.

The exact launch dates fully depend on the budget NASA receives from Congress and who is elected President in the November 2016 election – and whether they maintain or modify NASA’s objectives.

“If we can keep our focus and keep delivering, and deliver to the schedules, the budgets and the promise of what we’ve got, I think we’ve got a very capable vision that actually moves the nation very far forward in moving human presence into space,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, during the post QM-2 SRB test media briefing in Utah last month.

“This is a very capable system. It’s not built for just one or two flights. It is actually built for multiple decades of use that will enable us to eventually allow humans to go to Mars in the 2030s.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SLS and Orion crew vehicle, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Juno at Jupiter, Orbital ATK Antares & Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

July 27-28: “ULA Atlas V NRO Spysat launch July 28, SpaceX launch to ISS on CRS-9, SLS, Orion, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy NRO spy satellite, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Graphic shows all the dome, barrel, ring and engine components used to assemble the five major structures of the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in Block 1 configuration. Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows all the dome, barrel, ring and engine components used to assemble the five major structures of the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) in Block 1 configuration. Credits: NASA/MSFC
At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Patrick Whipps/NASA SLS Stages Element Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss details of SLS manufacture by the Circumferential Dome Weld Tool used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Patrick Whipps/NASA SLS Stages Element Manager and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss details of SLS manufacture by the Circumferential Dome Weld Tool used to fabricate dome segments for the SLS liquid hydrogen and oxygen core stage tanks. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC

NASA Completes Awesome Test Firing of World’s Most Powerful Booster for Human Mission to Mars – Gallery

Ignition of the qualification motor (QM-2) booster during test firing for NASA’s Space Launch System as seen on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System's (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah.  Credit: Julian Leek
Ignition of the qualification motor (QM-2) booster during test firing for NASA’s Space Launch System as seen on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System’s (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Credit: Julian Leek

The world’s most powerful booster that will one day propel NASA astronauts on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon and Mars was successfully ignited this morning, June 28, during an awesome ground test firing on a remote mountainside in Utah, that qualifies it for an inaugural blastoff in late 2018.

The two-minute-long, full-duration static test for NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket involved firing the new five-segment solid rocket booster for its second and final qualification ground test as it sat restrained in a horizontal configuration at Orbital ATK’s test facilities at a desert site in Promontory, Utah.

The purpose was to provide NASA and prime contractor Orbital ATK with critical data on 82 qualification objectives. Engineers will use the data gathered by more than 530 instrumentation channels on the booster to certify the booster for flight.

The 154-foot-long (47-meter) booster was fired up on the test stand by the Orbital ATK operations team at 11:05 a.m. EDT (9:05 a.m. MT) for what is called the Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test.

“We have ignition of NASA’s Space Launch System motor powering us on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA commentator Kim Henry at ignition!

A gigantic plume of black smoke and intense yellow fire erupted at ignition spewing a withering cloud of ash into the Utah air and barren mountainside while consuming propellant at a rate of 5.5 tons per second.

It also sent out a shock wave reverberating back to excited company, NASA and media spectators witnessing the event from about a mile away as well as to another 10,000 or so space enthusiasts and members of the general public gathered to watch from about 2 miles away.

Ignition of the qualification motor (QM-2) booster during test firing for NASA’s Space Launch System as seen on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System's (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah.  Credit: Julian Leek
Ignition of the qualification motor (QM-2) booster during test firing for NASA’s Space Launch System as seen on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion System’s (SLS) test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Credit: Julian Leek

“What an absolutely amazing day today for all of us here to witness this test firing. And it’s not just a test firing. It’s really a qualification motor test firing that says this design is ready to go fly and ready to go do the mission which it’s designed to go do,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, during the post QM-2 test media briefing today.

Thrilled spectators witness the Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test firing on June 28, 2016 at Orbital ATK test facilities in Promontory, Utah.  Credit: Jean Leek
Thrilled spectators witness the Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test firing on June 28, 2016 at Orbital ATK test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Credit: Jean Leek

The critically important test marks a major milestone clearing the path to the first SLS launch that could happen as soon as September 2018, noted Gerstenmaier

“The team did a tremendous professional job to get all this ready for the firing. We will get over 500 channels of data on this rocket. They will pour over the data to ensure it will perform exactly the way we intended it to at these cold conditions.”

Qualification motor (QM-2) booster fires up erupting massive smoke cloud during test of NASA’s Space Launch System on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK test facilities in Promontory, Utah.  Credit: Dawn Taylor
Qualification motor (QM-2) booster fires up erupting massive smoke cloud during test of NASA’s Space Launch System on Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Credit: Dawn Taylor

The QM-2 booster had been pre-chilled for several weeks inside a huge test storage shed to conduct this so called ‘cold motor test’ at approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit (5 C) – corresponding to the colder end of its accepted propellant temperature range.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with lift off using two of the five segment solid rocket motors and four RS-25 engines to power the maiden launch of SLS and NASA’s Orion deep space manned spacecraft in late 2018.

The SLS boosters are derived from the four segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) originally delevoped for NASA’s space shuttle program and used for 3 decades.

“This final qualification test of the booster system shows real progress in the development of the Space Launch System,” said NASA associate administrator Gerstenmaier.

“Seeing this test today, and experiencing the sound and feel of approximately 3.6 million pounds of thrust, helps us appreciate the progress we’re making to advance human exploration and open new frontiers for science and technology missions in deep space.”

Despite being cooled to 41 F (5 C) for the cold motor test the flames emitted by the 12-foot-diameter (3.6-meter) booster are actually hot enough at some 6000 degrees Fahrenheit to boil steel.

The internal pressure reaches about 900 psi.

NASA's Space Launch System Solid Rocket Booster infographic
NASA’s Space Launch System Solid Rocket Booster infographic

The first ground test called QM-1 was conducted at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, at the upper end of the operating range, in March 2015 as I reported earlier here.

This second ground test firing took place about 1 hour later than originally planned due to a technical issue with the ground sequencing computer control system.

The next time one of these solid rocket boosters fire will be for the combined SLS-1/Orion EM-1 test flight in late 2018.

Each booster generates approximately 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Overall they will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed for the rocket and Orion spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, says NASA.

“It was awesome to say the least,” space photographer and friend Julian Leek who witnessed the test first hand told Universe Today.

“Massive fire power released over the Utah mountains. There was about a five second delay before you could hear the sound – that really got everyone’s attention!”

“It was absolutely magnificent,” space photographer friend Dawn Taylor told me. “Can’t wait to see it at the Cape when it goes vertical.”

To date Orbital ATK has cast 3 of the 10 booster segments required for the 2018 launch, said Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Propulsion Systems Division in Promontory, Utah.

I asked Precourt about the production timing for the remaining segments.

“All of the segments will be delivered to NASA at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida by next fall,” Precourt replied during the media briefing.

“They will be produced at a rate of roughly one a month. We also have to build the nozzles up and so forth.”

When will booster stacking begin inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at KSC?

Booster shipments start shipping from Utah this fall. Booster stacking in the VAB starts in the spring of 2018,” Alex Priskos, manager of the NASA SLS Boosters Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, told me.

Furthermore a preliminary look at the data indicates that all went well.

“What an outstanding test. After a look at some very preliminary data everything looks great so far,” Priskos said at the briefing. “We’re going to be digging into the data a lot more as we go forward.”

The five-segment Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test booster for NASA's SLS just prior to full duration firing at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
The spent five-segment Qualification Motor-2 (QM-2) test booster for NASA’s SLS soon after the full duration firing at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

Meanwhile the buildup of US flight hardware continues at NASA and contractor centers around the US, as well as the Orion service module from ESA.

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.

In February 2016 the welded skeletal backbone for the Orion EM-1 mission arrived at the Kennedy Space Center for outfitting with all the systems and subsystems necessary for flight.

The core stage fuel tank holding the cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellants is being welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, LA.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Although the SLS-1 flight in 2018 will be uncrewed, NASA plans to launch astronauts on the SLS-2/EM-2 mission slated for the 2021 to 2023 timeframe.

It all depends on the budget NASA receives from Congress and who is elected President in the election in November 2016.

“If we can keep our focus and keep delivering, and deliver to the schedules, the budgets and the promise of what we’ve got, I think we’ve got a very capable vision that actually moves the nation very far forward in moving human presence into space,” Gerstenmaier explained at the briefing.

“This is a very capable system. It’s not built for just one or two flights. It is actually built for multiple decades of use that will enable us to eventually allow humans to go to Mars in the 2030s.

One forerunner to the Mars mission could be a habitation module around the Moon perhaps five years from now.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An Orbital ATK technician inspects hardware and instrumentation on a full-scale, test version booster for NASA's new rocket, the Space Launch System. The booster is being cooled to approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit ahead of its second qualification ground test June 28 at Orbital ATK's test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Testing at the thermal extremes experienced by the booster on the launch pad is important to understanding the effects of temperature on the performance of how the propellant burns.   Credits: Orbital ATK
An Orbital ATK technician inspects hardware and instrumentation on a full-scale, test version booster for NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System. The booster is being cooled to approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit ahead of its second qualification ground test June 28 at Orbital ATK’s test facilities in Promontory, Utah. Testing at the thermal extremes experienced by the booster on the launch pad is important to understanding the effects of temperature on the performance of how the propellant burns. Credits: Orbital ATK
The second and final qualification motor (QM-2) test for the Space Launch System’s booster is seen, Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory, Utah. During the Space Launch System flight the boosters will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, the first step on NASA’s Journey to Mars. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The second and final qualification motor (QM-2) test for the Space Launch System’s booster is seen, Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems test facilities in Promontory, Utah. During the Space Launch System flight the boosters will provide more than 75 percent of the thrust needed to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth, the first step on NASA’s Journey to Mars. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Mountainside test location for the Qualification motor-2 (QM-2) test of the 5-segment solid rocket motor designed for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Mountainside test location for the Qualification motor-2 (QM-2) test of the 5-segment solid rocket motor designed for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
The five-segment Qualification motor-2 (QM-2) test booster for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) being readied for full duration firing at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016.  Credit: NASA
The five-segment Qualification motor-2 (QM-2) test booster for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) being readied for full duration firing at Orbital ATK test facility in Promontory, Utah, on June 28, 2016. Credit: NASA

Orbital ATK Proposes Man-Tended Lunar-Orbit Outpost by 2020 for Link Up with NASA’s Orion

Artist rendering of Orbital ATK concept for an initial lunar habitat outpost, as it would appear with NASA’s Orion spacecraft in 2021. Credit: Orbital ATK
Artist rendering of Orbital ATK concept for an initial lunar habitat outpost, as it would appear with NASA’s Orion spacecraft in 2021. Credit: Orbital ATK

Orbital ATK has unveiled a practical new proposal to build a near term man-tended outpost in lunar orbit that could launch by 2020 and be operational in time for a lunar link-up with NASA’s Orion crew module during its maiden mission, when American astronauts finally return to the Moon’s vicinity in 2021 – thus advancing America’s next giant leap in human exploration of deep space.

The intrepid offer by Orbital could be carried out rather quickly because it utilizes an evolved version of the company’s already proven commercial Cygnus space station resupply freighter as “the building block … in cislunar space,” said Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Vice President for Human Spaceflight Systems, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today. See an artist concept in the lead image.

“Our Cygnus spacecraft is the building block to become a vehicle for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” Orbital ATK’s Frank DeMauro told Universe Today.

“We are all about supporting NASA’s Mission to Mars. We feel that getting experience in cislunar space is critical to the buildup of the capabilities to go to Mars.”

NASA’s agency wide goal is to send astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s – and expeditions to cislunar space in the 2020s serve as the vital ‘proving ground’ to fully develop, test out and validate the robustness of crucial technologies upon which the astronauts lives will depend on later Red Planet missions lasting some 2 to 3 years.

Orbital ATK’s lunar-orbit outpost proposal was announced at an official hearing of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space on Wednesday, May 18, by former NASA Astronaut and Orbital ATK President of the Space Systems Group, Frank Culbertson.

“A lunar-orbit habitat will extend America’s leadership in space to the cislunar domain,” said Orbital ATK President of the Space Systems Group, Frank Culbertson.

“A robust program to build, launch and operate this initial outpost would be built on NASA’s and our international partners’ experience gained in long-duration human space flight on the International Space Station and would make use of the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion deep-space transportation system.”

The idea is to assemble an initial crew-tended habitat with pressurized work and living volume for the astronauts based on a Cygnus derived vehicle, and have it pre-positioned and functioning in lunar-orbit by 2020.

As envisioned by Orbital ATK, the habitat would be visited during NASA’s first manned mission of SLS and Orion to the Moon known as Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2).

The three week long EM-2 lunar test flight could launch as early as August 2021 – if sufficient funding is available.

The goals of EM-2 and following missions could be significantly broadened via docking with a lunar outpost. And Orion mission durations could be extended to 60 days.

NASA hopes to achieve a launch cadence for Orion/SLS of perhaps once per year.

Therefore autonomy and crew tended capability has to be built in to the lunar habitat right from the start – since crew visits would account for only a fraction of its time but enable vastly expanded science and exploration capabilities.

The initial lunar habitat envisioned by Orbital ATK would be comprised of two upgraded Cygnus pressurized vehicles – provisionally dubbed as Exploration Augmentation Modules (EAM). They would be attached to a multi-port docking module very similar in concept and design to the docking Nodes already flying in orbit as integral components of the ISS.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The lunar Cygnus vehicles would be upgraded from the enhanced cargo ships currently being manufactured and launched to the ISS.

“There are additional capabilities that we can put into the Cygnus module. We can make them longer and bigger so they can carry more logistics and carry more science,” DeMauro elaborated.

A variety of supplementary subsystems would also need to be enhanced.

“We looked at what systems we would need to modify to make it a long term habitation module. Since we would not be docked to the ISS, we would need our own Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) out at lunar orbit to support the crew.”

“The service module would also need to be improved due to the high radiation environment and the longer time.”

“We also need to look at the thermal protection subsystem, radiation protection subsystem and power subsystems to support the vehicle for many years as opposed to the short time spent at the ISS. More power is also needed to support more science. We also need a propulsion system to get to the Moon and maintain the vehicle.”

“All that work is getting looked at now – to determine what we need to modify and upgrade and how we would do all that work,” DaMauro told me.

The habitat components would be launched to the Moon on a commercial launch vehicle.

High on the list of candidate launchers would be the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket which recently already successfully delivered two Cygnus cargo ships to the ISS in Dec. 2015 and March 2016.

Other potential boosters include the ULA Delta IV and even ESA’s Ariane V as a way to potentially include international participation.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being prepared for the upcoming Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the commander of the STS-107 mission. On that flight, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. The Cygnus launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The habitat components could be manufactured and launched about three years after getting a ‘Go Ahead’ contract from NASA.

Orbital ATK already has an established production line flowing to manufacture a steady stream of Cygnus cargo freighters to fulfill their NASA commercial resupply contract with NASA for the ISS – accumulating know how and cost reduction efficiencies.

“Since many aspects of operations in deep space are as yet untested, confidence must be developed through repeated flights to, and relatively long-duration missions in, cislunar space,” says Culbertson.

“Orbital ATK continues to operate our Cygnus cargo logistics vehicle as a flagship product, so we are ready to quickly and affordably implement an initial Cygnus-derived habitat in cislunar space within three years of a go-ahead.”

Over time, the outpost could be expanded with additional habitat and research modules delivered by Orion/SLS, commercial or international rockets. Perhaps even Bigelow expandable commercial modules could be added later.

Cygnus is suitable for wide ranging science experiments and gear. It could also launch cubesats – like the current Cygnus berthed at the ISS is equipped with a cubesat deployer.

Potential lunar landers developed by international partners could dock at the cislunar habitats open docking ports in between surface science forays.

“We are doing science now on Cygnus and we would expect to carry along science experiments on the new Cygnus vehicle. The vehicle is very attractive to science experiments,” DeMauro explained.

“There really is no limit to what the outpost could become.”

“What we put out is very exciting,” DeMauro noted.

“As a company we are looking forward to working in this arena. Our suggested plans are in line with where NASA wants to go. And we think we are the right company to play a big part in that!”

By incorporating commercial companies and leveraging the considerable technology development lessons learned from Cygnus, NASA should realize significant cost savings in implementing its human exploration strategy. Although Orbital ATK is not divulging a cost estimate for the lunar habitat at this time, the cost savings from a commercial partner should be considerable. And the 3 year time frame to launch is very attractive.

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet. Cygnus derived modules and/or other augmenting hardware components will be required to carry out any round trip human missions to the Martian surface.

NASA is now building the next Orion capsule at the Kennedy Space Center. It will launch unpiloted atop the first SLS rocket in late 2018 on the EM-1 mission.

Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s Orion EM-1 Crew Module Passes Critical Pressure Tests

Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
Lockheed Martin engineers and technicians prepare the Orion pressure vessel for a series of tests inside the proof pressure cell in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The next Orion crew module in line to launch to space on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) has passed a critical series of proof pressure tests which confirm the effectiveness of the welds holding the spacecraft structure together.

Any leaks occurring in flight could threaten the astronauts lives.

Engineers and technicians conducted the pressure tests on the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel, which was welded together at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and then shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida just 3 months ago.

The pressure vessel is the structural backbone for the vehicles that will launch American astronauts to deep space destinations.

“This is the first mission where the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large Space Launch System rocket. Orion is the vehicle that’s going to take astronauts to deep space,” NASA Orion program manager Scott Wilson told Universe Today.

“The tests confirmed that the weld points of the underlying structure will contain and protect astronauts during the launch, in-space, re-entry and landing phases on the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), when the spacecraft performs its first uncrewed test flight atop the Space Launch System rocket,” according to a NASA statement.

After flying to KSC on Feb 1, 2016 inside NASA’s unique Super Guppy aircraft, this “new and improved” Orion EM-1 pressure vessel was moved to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building for final assembly by prime contractor Lockheed Martin into a flight worthy vehicle.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Since then, technicians have worked to meticulously attach hundreds of strain gauges to the interior and exterior surfaces of the vehicle to prepare for the pressure tests.

The strain gauges provide real time data to the analysts monitoring the changes during the pressurization.

Orion was moved to a test stand inside the proof pressure cell high bay and locked inside behind large doors.

Lockheed Martin engineers then incrementally increased the pressure in the proof testing cell in a series of steps over two days. They carefully monitored the results along the way and how the spacecraft reacted to the stresses induced by the pressure increases.

The maximum pressure reached was 1.25 times normal atmospheric pressure – which exceeds the maximum pressure it is expected to encounter on orbit.

“We are very pleased with the performance of the spacecraft during proof pressure testing,” said Scott Wilson, NASA manager of production operations for the Orion Program.

“The successful completion of this test represents another major step forward in our march toward completing the EM-1 spacecraft, and ultimately, our crewed missions to deep space.”

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

With the pressure testing satisfactorily completed, technicians will move Orion back to birdcage assembly stand for the “intricate work of attaching hundreds of brackets to the vessel’s exterior to hold the tubing for the vehicle’s hydraulics and other systems.”

To prepare for launch in 2018, engineers and technicians from NASA and prime contractor Lockheed Martin will spend the next two years meticulously installing all the systems amounting to over 100,000 components and gear required for flight.

This particular ‘Lunar Orion’ crew module is intended for blastoff to the Moon in 2018 on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) atop the agency’s mammoth new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, simultaneously under development. The pressurized crew module serves as the living quarters for the astronauts comprising up to four crew members.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

EM-1 itself is a ‘proving ground’ mission that will fly an unmanned Orion thousands of miles beyond the Moon, further than any human capable vehicle, and back to Earth, over the course of a three-week mission.

The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.

Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Kennedy’s Modernized Spaceport Passes Key Review Supporting SLS/Orion Launches

This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.  Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center
This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Modernization of NASA’s launch infrastructure facilities at the Kennedy Space Center supporting the new SLS/Orion architecture required to send astronauts on a Journey to Mars in the 2030s, has passed a comprehensive series of key hardware reviews, NASA announced, paving the path towards full scale development and the inaugural liftoff by late 2018.

The facilities and ground support systems that will process NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and next generation Orion manned deep space capsule at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida successfully completed a painstaking review of the plans by top agency managers and an independent team of aerospace experts.

SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen. It will propel astronauts in the Orion capsule on deep space missions, first back to the Moon by around 2021, then to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond to the Red Planet in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal.

The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO) group within NASA is responsible for processing SLS and Orion.

“Over the course of a few months, engineers and experts across the agency reviewed hundreds of documents as part of a comprehensive assessment” said NASA.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Among the GSDO ground support facilities evaluated in the launch infrastructure review are the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the rocket components are stacked, the mobile launcher used to roll out SLS/Orion to Launch Pad 39B atop a modified crawler transporter and the Multi-Payload Processing Facility that will fuel the Orion spacecraft with propellants prior to stacking atop the rocket.

In December, GSDO completed a critical design review (CDR) of the facilities and ground support systems plans.

Then in January, a Standing Review Board comprising a team of aerospace experts completed an independent assessment of program readiness.

The Standing Review Board “confirmed the program is on track to complete the engineering design and development process on budget and on schedule.”

“NASA is developing and modernizing the ground systems at Kennedy to safely integrate Orion with SLS, move the vehicle to the pad, and successfully launch it into space,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“Modernizing the ground systems for our journey to Mars also ensures long-term sustainability and affordability to meet future needs of the multi-use spaceport.”

Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft  for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Fabrication, installation and testing of Kennedy’s ground systems can now proceed.

“The team is working hard and we are making remarkable progress transforming our facilities,” said Mike Bolger, GSDO Program Manager. “As we are preparing for NASA’s journey to Mars, the outstanding team at the Kennedy Space Center is ensuring that we will be ready to receive SLS and Orion flight hardware and process the vehicle for the first flight in 2018.”

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile the welded skeletal backbone for the Orion EM-1 mission recently arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1 for outfitting with all the systems and subsystems necessary for flight.

Furthermore, earlier this month on March 10, NASA engineers conducted a successful test firing of the first of the RS-25 rocket engines destined to power the core stage of the SLS stage rocket. The 500 second long hot fire test of engine No. 2059 was carried out on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

SLS-1 will boost the unmanned Orion EM-1 capsule from KSC launch pad 39B on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop  Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Obama Administration Proposes Smaller 2017 NASA Budget of $19 Billion with Big Exploration Cuts

NASA releases budget request for Fiscal Year 2017. Credit: NASA
NASA releases budget request for Fiscal Year 2017. Credit: NASA

The Obama Administration has announced its new Federal budget and is proposing to cut NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget to $19 billion by carving away significant funding for deep space exploration, whereas the overall US Federal budget actually increases to over $4.1 trillion.

This 2017 budget request amounts to almost $300 million less than the recently enacted NASA budget for 2016 and specifically stipulates deep funding cuts for deep space exploration programs involving both humans and robots, during President Obama’s final year in office.

The 2017 budget proposal would slash funding to the very programs designed to expand the frontiers of human knowledge and aimed at propelling humans outward to the Red Planet and robots to a Jovian moon that might be conducive to the formation of life.

Absent sufficient and reliable funding to keep NASA’s exploration endeavors on track, further launch delays are almost certainly inevitable – thereby fraying American leadership in space and science.

The administration is specifying big funding cuts to the ongoing development of NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and the state of the art Orion deep space crew capsule. They are the essential first ingredients to carry out NASA’s ambitious plans to send astronauts on deep space ‘Journey to Mars’ expeditions during the 2030s.

The overall Exploration Systems Development account for human deep space missions would be slashed about 18 percent from the 2016 funding level; from $4.0 Billion to only $3.3 Billion, or nearly $700 million.

SLS alone is reduced the most by $700 million from $2.0 billion to $1,31 billion, or a whopping 35 percent loss. Orion is reduced from $1.27 billion to $1.12 billion for a loss of some $150 million.

Make no mistake. These programs are already starved for funding and the Obama administration tried to force similar cuts to these programs in 2016, until Congress intervened.

Likewise, the Obama administration is proposing a draconian cut to the proposed robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that would surely delay the launch by at least another half a decade or more – to the late 2020s.

The Europa mission budget proposal is cut to only $49 million and the launch is postponed until the late 2020s. The mission received $175 million in funding in 2016 – amounting to a 72 percent reduction.

Furthermore there is no funding for a proposed lander and the launch vehicle changes from SLS to a far less powerful EELV – causing a year’s long increased travel time.

In order to maintain an SLS launch in approximately 2022, NASA would require a budget of about $150 million in 2017, said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, during a Feb. 9 teleconference with reporters.

Why is Europa worth exploring? Because Europa likely possesses a subsurface ocean of water and is a prime target in the search for life!

Overall, NASA’s hugely successful Planetary Sciences division suffers a huge and nearly 10 percent cut of $141 million to $1.51 billion – despite undeniably groundbreaking scientific successes this past year at Pluto, Ceres, Mars and more!

Altogether NASA would receive $19.025 billion in FY 2017. This totals $260 million less than the $19.285 billion appropriated in FY 2016, and thus corresponds to a reduction of 1.5 percent.

By contrast, the overall US Federal Budget will increase nearly 5 percent to approximately $4.1 trillion. Simple math demonstrates that NASA is clearly not a high priority for the administration. NASA’s share of the Federal budget comes in at less than half a cent on the dollar.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal was announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a televised ‘State of NASA’ address at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia on Feb. 9.

Bolden did not dwell at all on the significant funding reductions for exploration.

“We are hitting our benchmarks with new exploration systems like the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion Crew Vehicle. A new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around our vision, timetable and plan for sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.”

And he outlined some milestones ahead.

“We’ll continue to make great progress on the Space Launch System – SLS–rocket and we’re preparing for a second series of engine tests,” said Bolden.

“At the Kennedy Space Center, our teams will outfit Orion’s crew module with the spacecraft’s heat-shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and subsystems like electrical power storage, cabin pressure control and flight software –to name just a few.”

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

NASA plans to launch the first combined SLS/Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in November 2018.

Indeed the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center last week to completely install all the systems required for flight.

NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launch date for the first crewed flight on EM-2 was targeted for 2021. But EM-2 is likely to slip to the right to 2023, due to insufficient funding.

Lack of funding will also force NASA to delay development of the far more capable and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to propel Orion on deep space missions. It will now not be available for the SLS/EM-2 launch as hoped.

The proposed huge budget cuts to SLS, Orion and Europa are certain to arose the ire of multiple members of Congress and space interest groups, who just successfully fought to increase NASA’s FY 2016 budget for these same programs in the recently passed 2016 omnibus spending bill.

“This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, in a statement in response to the president’s budget proposal.

“President Obama’s FY17 budget proposal shrinks our deep space exploration programs by more than $800 million. And the administration once more proposes cuts of more than $100 million to the Planetary Science accounts, which have previously funded missions like this past year’s Pluto flyby.”

“This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible. This is not the proposal of an administration that is serious about maintaining America’s leadership in space.”

A "true color" image of the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
A “true color” image of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

“The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration … had hoped the request would reflect the priorities laid out for NASA in the FY16 Omnibus, for which there was broad support,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, in a statement.

“Unfortunately this was not the case. The Coalition is disappointed with the proposed reduction in funding below the FY16 Omnibus for NASA’s exploration programs. We are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs.”

“This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions, and would have detrimental impacts on cornerstone, game-changing programs such as the super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion spacecraft – the first spacecraft designed to reach multiple destinations in the human exploration of deep space.”

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was maintained at planned levels to keep it on track for launch in 2018.

All 18 primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully installed on the backplane structure by technicians using a robotic arm (center) inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
All 18 primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully installed on the backplane structure by technicians using a robotic arm (center) inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

On Dec. 18, 2015, the US Congress passed and the president signed the 2016 omnibus spending bill which funds the US government through the remainder of the 2016 Fiscal Year.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounted to nearly $19.3 Billion. That was an outstanding result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier in 2015.

The 2016 budget represented an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.

Under the proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2017, the fictional exploits of ‘The Martian’ will never become reality.

And the hunt for extraterrestrial life on the icy moons of the outer solar system is postponed yet again.

Scene from ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney contemplating magnificent panoramic vista while stranded alone on Mars.    Credits: 20th Century Fox
Scene from ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney contemplating magnificent panoramic vista while stranded alone on Mars. Credits: 20th Century Fox

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015.   The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).  This mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
This global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo