Special Skinsuits Could Help Astronauts Avoid Back Pain When Their Spines Expand In Space

The microgravity in space causes a number of problems for astronauts, including bone density loss and muscle atrophy. But there’s another problem: weightlessness allows astronauts’ spines to expand, making them taller. The height gain is permanent while they’re in space, and causes back pain.

A new SkinSuit being tested in a study at King’s College in London may bring some relief. The study has not been published yet.

The constant 24 hour microgravity that astronauts live with in space is different from the natural 24 hour cycle that humans go through on Earth. Down here, the spine goes through a natural cycle associated with sleep.

Sleeping in a supine position allows the discs in the spine to expand with fluid. When we wake up in the morning, we’re at our tallest. As we go about our day, gravity compresses the spinal discs and we lose about 1.5 cm (0.6 inches) in height. Then we sleep again, and the spine expands again. But in space, astronauts spines have been known to grow up to 7 cm. (2.75 in.)

Study leader David A. Green explains it: “On Earth your spine is compressed by gravity as you’re on your feet, then you go to bed at night and your spine unloads – it’s a normal cyclic process.”

In microgravity, the spine of an astronaut is never compressed by gravity, and stays unloaded. The resulting expansion causes pain. As Green says, “In space there’s no gravitational loading. Thus the discs in your spine may continue to swell, the natural curves of the spine may be reduced and the supporting ligaments and muscles — no longer required to resist gravity – may become loose and weak.”

The SkinSuit being developed by the Space Medicine Office of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and the King’s College in London is based on work done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It’s a spandex-based garment that simulates gravity by squeezing the body from the shoulders to the feet.

ESA astronauts have tested the SkinSuit both in weightless parabolic flights, and on-board the ISS. Image: CNES/Novespace, 2014

The Skinsuits were tested on-board the International Space Station by ESA astronauts Andreas Mogensen and Thomas Pesquet. But they could only be worn for a short period of time. “The first concepts were really uncomfortable, providing some 80% equivalent gravity loading, and so could only be worn for a couple of hours,” said researcher Philip Carvil.

Back on Earth, the researchers worked on the suit to improve it. They used a waterbed half-filled with water rich in magnesium salts. This re-created the microgravity that astronauts face in space. The researchers were inspired by the Dead Sea, where the high salt content allows swimmers to float on the surface.

“During our longer trials we’ve seen similar increases in stature to those experienced in orbit, which suggests it is a valid representation of microgravity in terms of the effects on the spine,” explains researcher Philip Carvil.

The SkinSuit has evolved through several designs to make it more wearable, comfortable, and effective. Image: Kings College London/Philip Carvill

Studies using students as test subjects have helped with the development of the SkinSuit. After lying on the microgravity-simulating waterbed both with and without the SkinSuit, subjects were scanned with MRI’s to test the SkinSuit’s effectiveness. The suit has gone through several design revisions to make it more comfortable, wearable, and effective. It’s now up to the Mark VI design.

“The Mark VI Skinsuit is extremely comfortable, to the point where it can be worn unobtrusively for long periods of normal activity or while sleeping,” say Carvil. “The Mk VI provides around 20% loading – slightly more than lunar gravity, which is enough to bring back forces similar to those that the spine is used to having.”

“The results have yet to be published, but it does look like the Mk VI Skinsuit is effective in mitigating spine lengthening,” says Philip. “In addition we’re learning more about the fundamental physiological processes involved, and the importance of reloading the spine for everyone.”

SpaceX Performs an Experimental High Retrothrust and Survives a Water Landing

SpaceX’s most recent rocket launch saw the Falcon 9 perform a high retro-thrust over water, with no drone ship in sight. SpaceX never intended to reuse this rocket, and they haven’t said exactly why.

This launch was conducted on January 31st, and the payload was a communications satellite called GovSat-1. It’s a public-private partnership, and GovSat-1 is a heavy satellite which was placed into a particularly high orbit. It will be used by the government of Luxembourg, and by a private European company called SES. It’ll provide secure communications and surveillance for the military, and it has anti-jamming features to help it resist attack.

A high orbit and a heavy payload means that the Falcon 9 that launched it might not have had enough fuel for its customary drone landing. But other Falcon 9s have launched payloads this high and landed on droneships for reuse. So what gives?

According to SpaceX, they never planned to land and reuse this one. They didn’t exactly say why they did it this way, but it’s been speculated that this one was an older iteration of the Falcon 9 known as the Block3. This is the second time SpaceX flew a Block 3 iteration without trying to reuse it. The first time they launched one without reusing it, it carried 10 Iridium satellites into low-Earth orbit.

The Falcon 9 is flying in Block 4 configuration now, with Block 5 coming in the near future. SpaceX says that the Falcon 9 Block 5 will improve the performance and the reusability of the rocket in the future. They’ve also stated that the Block 5 will be the final configuration. Maybe they let this one land in the ocean because it’s just not needed anymore.

SpaceX’s reusable rocketry technology is their primary development. The main booster of their Falcon 9 can be reconditioned and used again and again, keeping costs down. After lift-off, and after the primary stage is released, the main-stage booster lands on a SpaceX drone ship, where it is secured and delivered to shore to be reused.

In this case, SpaceX wanted to test a high retro-thrust landing. The test consisted of three separate burns performed over water, rather than on a drone ship, to avoid damaging the ship. The rocket itself wasn’t expected to survive, but did. Or it partly survived, anyway. As Elon Musk confirmed in his tweet:

The retro-thrust rockets on SpaceX rockets like the Falcon 9 allow the rocket to land softly. They thrust in the opposite direction the rocket is landing, and cushion the Falcon 9’s landing on the droneship.

With the successful static test of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy last week, a first launch for the Heavy is in sight. Testing high retro-thrust landings could be related to the upcoming first launch, even though, as Elon Musk said, merely getting the Falcon Heavy off the pad and back would constitute a successful first flight. But that’s just a guess.

The Falcon Heavy is designed to be reusable, just like its little brother, the Falcon 9. Reusability is key to SpaceX and is the whole reason Musk started the company: to make spaceflight more affordable, and to help humanity travel beyond the Moon.

SpaceX plans to tow this Falcon 9 back to shore and see if it can be salvaged. But after being dunked in salt water, any meaningful salvage seems unlikely. Who knows. Maybe Elon Musk will use it for flame-thrower target practice.

But the fate of this single rocket isn’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. What’s important is that SpaceX is still testing designs, and still pushing the boundaries of lower-cost spaceflight.

With that in mind, here’s hoping the whiz kids at SpaceX can destroy a few more rockets. After all, it’s all in the name of science.

Microbes May Help Astronauts Turn Human Waste Into Food

Researchers at Penn State University are developing a way to use microbes to turn human waste into food on long space voyages. Image: Yuri Gorby, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Geoscience researchers at Penn State University are finally figuring out what organic farmers have always known: digestive waste can help produce food. But whereas farmers here on Earth can let microbes in the soil turn waste into fertilizer, which can then be used to grow food crops, the Penn State researchers have to take a different route. They are trying to figure out how to let microbes turn waste directly into food.

There are many difficulties with long-duration space missions, or with lengthy missions to other worlds like Mars. One of the most challenging difficulties is how to take enough food. Food for a crew of astronauts on a 6-month voyage to Mars, and enough for a return trip, weighs a lot. And all that weight has to be lifted into space by expensive rockets.

SpaceX's reusable rockets are bringing down the cost of launching things into space, but the cost is still prohibitive. Any weight savings contribute to a missions feasibility, including a reduction in food supplies for long space journeys. In this image, a SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017.  Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX’s reusable rockets are bringing down the cost of launching things into space, but the cost is still prohibitive. Any weight savings contribute to a missions feasibility, including a reduction in food supplies for long space journeys. In this image, a SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Carrying enough food for a long voyage in space is problematic. Up until now, the solution for providing that food has been focused on growing it in hydroponic chambers and greenhouses. But that also takes lots of space, water, and energy. And time. It’s not really a solution.

“It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences

What the researchers at Penn State, led by Professor of Geosciences Christopher House, are trying to develop, is a method of turning waste directly into an edible, nutritious substance. Their aim is to cut out the middle man, as it were. And in this case, the middle men are plants themselves, like tomatoes, potatoes, or other fruits and vegetables.

We've always assumed that astronauts working on Mars would feed themselves by growing Earthly crops in simulated Earth conditions. But that requires a lot of energy, space, and materials. It may not be necessary. An artist's illustration of a greenhouse on Mars. Image Credit: SAIC
We’ve always assumed that astronauts working on Mars would feed themselves by growing Earthly crops in simulated Earth conditions. But that requires a lot of energy, space, and materials. It may not be necessary. An artist’s illustration of a greenhouse on Mars. Image Credit: SAIC

“We envisioned and tested the concept of simultaneously treating astronauts’ waste with microbes while producing a biomass that is edible either directly or indirectly depending on safety concerns,” said Christopher House, professor of geosciences, Penn State. “It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.'”

The Penn State team propose to use specific microorganisms to turn waste directly into edible biomass. And they’re making progress.

At the heart of their work are things called microbial reactors. Microbial reactors are basically vessels designed to maximize surface area for microbes to populate. These types of reactors are used to treat sewage here on Earth, but not to produce an edible biomass.

“It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo.'” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences

To test their ideas, the researchers constructed a cylindrical vessel four feet long by four inches in diameter. Inside it, they allowed select microorganisms to come into contact with human waste in controlled conditions. The process was anaerobic, and similar to what happens inside the human digestive tract. What they found was promising.

“Anaerobic digestion is something we use frequently on Earth for treating waste,” said House. “It’s an efficient way of getting mass treated and recycled. What was novel about our work was taking the nutrients out of that stream and intentionally putting them into a microbial reactor to grow food.”

One thing the team discovered is that the process readily produces methane. Methane is highly flammable, so very dangerous on a space mission, but it has other desirable properties when used in food production. It turns out that methane can be used to grow another microbe, called Methylococcus capsulatus. Methylococcus capsulatus is used as an animal food. Their conclusion is that the process could produce a nutritious food for astronauts that is 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats.

“We used materials from the commercial aquarium industry but adapted them for methane production.” – Christopher House, Penn State Professor of Geosciences

The process isn’t simple. The anaerobic process involved can produce pathogens very dangerous to people. To prevent that, the team studied ways to grow microbes in either an alkaline environment or a high-heat environment. After raising the system pH to 11, they found a strain of the bacteria Halomonas desiderata that thrived. Halomonas desiderata is 15 percent protein and 7 percent fats. They also cranked the system up to a pathogen-killing 158 degrees Fahrenheit, and found that the edible Thermus aquaticus grew, which is 61 percent protein and 16 percent fats.

Conventional waste treatment plants, like this one in England, take several days to treat waste. The anerobic system tested by the Penn State team treated waste in as little as 13 hours. Image: Nick Allen, CC BY-SA 4.0

Their system is based on modern aquarium systems, where microbes live on the surface of a filter film. The microbes take solid waste from the stream and convert it to fatty acids. Then, those fatty acids are converted to methane by other microbes on the same surface.

Speed is a factor in this system. Existing waste management treatment typically takes several days. The team’s system removed 49 to 59 percent of solids in 13 hours.

This system won’t be in space any time soon. The tests were conducted on individual components, as proof of feasibility. A complete system that functioned together still has to be built. “Each component is quite robust and fast and breaks down waste quickly,” said House. “That’s why this might have potential for future space flight. It’s faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.”

The team’s paper was published here, in the journal Life Sciences In Space Research.

SpaceX Resuming Launches from Damaged Pad 40 on Dec. 4 with Station Resupply Flight for NASA; Covert Zuma Remains on Hold

SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 was the last International Space Station resupply mission to lift off successfully from pad 40 on July 18, 2016, prior to the Cape Canaveral, FL, launch pad explosion with the Amos-6 payload that heavily damaged the pad and infrastructure on Sept. 1, 2016. Cargo launches for NASA will resume with Dragon CRS-13 in December 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – After postponing last week’s liftoff of the covert ‘Zuma’ spy satellite due to last minute concerns about the reliability of the payload fairing encapsulating it while poised for liftoff at KSC pad 39, SpaceX is set to at last resume launches from their previously damaged and now repaired Cape Canaveral pad 40 with a cargo resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) on Dec 4.

NASA and SpaceX have jointly decided to move forward with the Dragon CRS-13 cargo blastoff apparently because the mission does not involve use of the problematical payload fairing that halted last weeks planned Falcon 9 launch with the rocket and the mysterious Zuma payload.

Zuma was ready and waiting at pad 39A for the GO to launch that never came.

Then after a series of daily delays SpaceX ultimately announced a ‘stand down’ for super secret Zuma at pad 39A on Friday, Nov. 17, for the foreseeable future.

SpaceX engineers also had to deal with the after effects of a fire that broke out on a Merlin engine test stand during preparations for a hot fire test that resulted from a leak during a ‘LOX drop’ that halted testing of the Block 5 version of the Merlin 1D.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff of clandestine Zuma spysat to low earth orbit for a classified US government customer is postponed indefinitely from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, from last targeted launch date of 17 Nov 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Since SpaceX’s gumdrop shaped Dragon cargo freighter launches as a stand alone aerodynamically shielded spacecraft atop the Falcon 9, it does not require additional protection from atmospheric forces and friction housed inside a nose cone during ascent to orbit unlike satellites with many unprotected exposed surfaces, critical hardware and delicate instruments.

Thus Dragon is deemed good to go since there currently appear to be no other unresolved technical issues with the Falcon 9 rocket.

“NASA commercial cargo provider SpaceX is targeting its 13th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station for no earlier than 2:53 p.m. EST Monday, Dec. 4,” NASA announced on the agency blog and social media accounts.

The Dec. 4 launch date for Dragon CRS-13 was announced by NASA’s space station manager Dan Hartman during the Orbital ATK Antares/Cygnus launch campaign that culminated with a successful blastoff last Sunday, Nov 12 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

But the targeted Dec 4 liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, was cast in doubt after SpaceX disclosed the payload fairing issue related launch delay on Friday.

Since last week SpaceX engineers have been busy taking the time to carefully scrutinize all the pertinent fairing data before proceeding with the top secret Zuma launch.

“We have decided to stand down and take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer,” said SpaceX spokesman John Taylor last Friday.

Covert Zuma spysat is encapsulated inside the nose cose at the top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in this up-close view from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, taken on Nov. 17, 2017. An unresolved issue with the nose cone caused indefinite launch postponement. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

All of SpaceX’s launches this year from Florida’s Spaceport have taken place from NASA’s historic Launch Complex-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Pad 39A became SpaceX’s only operational Florida Space Coast launch pad following a catastrophic launch pad accident last year on Sept. 1, 2016 that took place during a routine fueling test that suddenly ended in a devastating explosion and fire that completely consumed the Falcon 9 rocket and Amos-6 payload and heavily damaged the pad and support infrastructure.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Since the Amos-6 accident workers raced to finish refurbishments to NASA’s long dormant pad 39A to transform into operational status and successfully launched a dozen missions this year.

Simultaneously additional crews have been hard at work to repair damaged pad 40 so that flights can resume there as soon as possible for the bulk of NASA, commercial and military contracted missions.

Meanwhile SpaceX wants to upgrade pad 39A to launch the Falcon Heavy and crewed Dragon flight. But those launches cant take place until pad 40 resumes operational status.

The Dragon CRS-13 mission was recently announced as the maiden mission for the reopening of pad 40.

Altogether Dragon CRS-13 will count as the fourth SpaceX Dragon liftoff of 2017.

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-13 vessel will carry about 3 tons of science and supplies to the orbiting outpost and stay about 4 weeks.

It will be a reused Dragon that previously flew on the CRS-6 mission.

“The Dragon [CRS-13] spacecraft will spend about a month attached to the space station,” NASA said.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket goes erect to launch position atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 1 Jun 2017 as seen the morning before later afternoon launch from inside from the pad perimeter. Liftoff of the CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) slated for 1 June 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The prior Dragon CRS-12 resupply ship launched from pad 39A on Aug. 14, 2017 from KSC pad 39A and carried more than 6,400 pounds ( 2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex.

Dragon CRS-9 was the last ISS resupply mission to launch from pad 40 on July 18, 2016.

The recently arrived Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship is expected to depart the station from the Earth facing Unity node on Dec. 3 to make way for Dragon’s berthing at the Harmony node.

Orbital ATK Antares rocket blasts off from the ‘On-Ramp’ to the International Space Station on Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 cargo spacecraft from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX CRS-13, Zuma and KoreaSat-5A & Orbital ATK OA-8 Cygnus and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship and solar panels atop Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 prior to blastoff to the ISS on July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Clandestine Zuma SpySat’s SpaceX Liftoff Postponed Indefinitely to Resolve Payload Fairing Issue

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff of clandestine Zuma spysat to low earth orbit for a classified US government customer is postponed indefinitely from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, from last targeted launch date of 17 Nov 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Liftoff of the clandestine spy satellite codenamed ‘Zuma’ on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has been postponed indefinitely to resolve a lingering issue with the testing of a payload fairing for another customer.

SpaceX announced today, Friday, Nov 17, that they will ‘stand down’ to allow engineers the additional time needed to carefully scrutinize all the pertinent data before proceeding with the top secret Zuma launch.

“We have decided to stand down and take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer,” said SpaceX spokesman John Taylor.

The super secret ‘Zuma’ spysat is a complete mystery and it has not been claimed by any U.S. government entity – not even the elusive NRO spy agency ! The NRO does claim ownership of a vast fleet of covert and hugely capable orbiting surveillance assets supporting US national security.

Zuma’s goals are veiled in virtually complete darkness. And as far as the taxpaying public is concerned its ownerless.

Originally scheduled for Wednesday evening at 8 p.m. EST Nov 15, the Zuma launch from the Florida Space Coast had already been postponed twice this week before today’s decision to called it off indefinitely.

Covert Zuma spysat is encapsulated inside the nose cose at the top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in this up-close view from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, taken on Nov. 17, 2017. An unresolved issue with the nose cone caused indefinite launch postponement. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The initial 24 hour delay to Thursday was to deal with unspecified ‘mission assurance’ issues.

The second days delay to Friday was pinned more specifically on the payload fairing or nose cone.

SpaceX has also had to deal with an engine testing problem that caused a fire on a test stand while preparing to hot fire a Block 5 Merlin 1D engine at their Texas facility on Nov. 4. It is not known if this was part of the ‘mission assurance’ issues.

No new targeted launch date has been announced.

“Though we have preserved the range opportunity for tomorrow, we will take the time we need to complete the data review and will then confirm a new launch date,” Taylor stated.

SpaceX had been planning an ambitious launch campaign of 4 or more launches by the end of this year – including the maiden launch of the triple barreled Falcon Heavy. That seems very unlikely now.

Just exactly what the fairing problem is has not been disclosed. Its also not known if the two delays are related or not.

The fairing is jettisoned three minutes after liftoff. Any failure to deploy would result in a total loss of the mission.

The first stage landing legs attached to the side of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster are seen up close on Nov, 17, 2017 as the rocket awaits blastoff with the unclaimed Zuma surveillance satellite from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Zuma was to roar off seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a lengthy two hour launch window that extended from 8 to 10 p.m. each targeted day this week.

The Eastern range had been reserved by SpaceX for a potential Saturday launch opportunity as well.

However all mention of the Zuma launch has now been deleted from the website of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, FL.

Up close view of the nose cone encapsulating the covert Zuma payload atop SpaceX Falcon 9 at KSC pad 39A. Credit: Julian Leek

Forecast weather conditions in central Florida were near perfect over the past few days and spectators would have witnessed a dazzling sky show as the two stage 229-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) Falcon 9 soared to orbit.

One of the few tidbits we can confirm is that the launch contract was arranged as a commercial enterprise under the auspices of Northrop Grumman Corporation – as a means to significantly slash launch costs for whatever U.S government entity is responsible for Zuma.

That goal is completely in line with SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s entire company-wide goal in developing the Falcon and Dragon family of rockets and spaceships.

“The U.S. Government assigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission,” Lon Rains, Northrop Grumman Director of Communications, told Universe Today.

“We have procured the Falcon 9 launch service from SpaceX.”

But the launch was only publicly announced 1 month ago in mid October and it suddenly appeared on the SpaceX launch manifest after an FAA launch license was granted.

We don’t know anything about the ‘Zuma’ payloads characteristics and vital statistics – despite the seemingly endless leaks streaming out of Washington these days.

“The Zuma payload is a restricted payload,” Rains told me.

“Northrop Grumman is proud to be a part of the Zuma launch,” Rains added. “This event represents a cost effective approach to space access for government missions.”

The only clue to its goals to be revealed is the intended orbit.

“It will be launched into Low Earth Orbit,” Rains informed me.

Low Earth Orbit extends to roughly 1200 miles altitude and includes the ISS orbit for example at approx. 250 miles.

“As a company, Northrop Grumman realizes this is a monumental responsibility and we have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma.”

Base of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket being used to launch the covert Zuma payload at KSC pad 39A. Credit: Julian Leek

On Friday evening the rocket was lowered to the horizontal position on the transporter erector on pad 39A. It will be rolled back to the processing hangar outside the perimeter fence for further engineering evaluation.

Whenever the launch is rescheduled SpaceX will attempt to recover the 16 story tall first stage booster with a soft landing on the ground back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. So expect some extremely loud sonic booms to rock the space coast region about eight minutes after liftoff.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX Zuma, KoreaSat-5A & SES-11, ULA NROL-52 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

Covert Zuma spysat is encapsulated inside the nose cose at the top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in this up-close view from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, taken on Nov. 16, 2017. Launch reset to Nov. 17, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 stands erect topped with super secret Zuma spysat claimed by no US government entity on Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, poised for liftoff on 16 Nov 2017. As seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
Zuma satellite mission patch. Credit: SpaceX/Northrop Grumman

Ownerless Super Secret Zuma Spysat Set for Dark Veiled Dark Night SpaceX Blastoff and Land Landing Nov. 16: Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 stands erect topped with super secret Zuma spysat claimed by no US government entity on Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, poised for liftoff on 16 Nov 2017. As seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The super secret ‘Zuma’ spysat mission claimed by no U.S. government entity – not even the elusive NRO spy agency ! – and whose goals are veiled in virtually complete darkness– is poised for a dark of night blastoff on a SpaceX Falcon rocket Thursday evening, Nov. 16, from the Florida Space Coast. Update: Delayed to Friday 8 PM

An unclassified aspect of the mission codenamed ‘Zuma’ is that SpaceX will also attempt to recover the 16 story tall first stage booster with a soft landing on the ground back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. So expect some extremely loud sonic booms to rock the space coast region about eight minutes after liftoff.

Zuma is a total mystery, to the delight of the spymasters.

One of the very few tidbits of information we can absolutely confirm (and not deny) is that the clandestine and ownerless ‘Zuma’ Spysat is now targeted for a nighttime launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a lengthy 2 hour window.

We can also confirm that the launch contract was arranged as a commercial enterprise under the auspices of Northrop Grumman Corporation – as a means to significantly slash launch costs for whatever U.S government entity is responsible for Zuma.

That goal is completely in line with SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s entire company-wide goal in developing the Falcon and Dragon family of rockets and spaceships.

“The U.S. Government assigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission,” Lon Rains, Northrop Grumman Director of Communications, told Universe Today.

“We have procured the Falcon 9 launch service from SpaceX.”

The launch window at pad 39A opens at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT). It extends for two full hours until 10 p.m. EST (0300 GMT).

We can further confirm that the launch was postponed a day to Thursday from the originally slated Wednesday night target – ostensibly to deal with last minute ‘mission assurance issues to insure the rocket and payload are ready for a launch upon which SpaceX’s reputation is on the line for future high value national security payloads of the most critical importance to the US governments Defense and Spy agencies

“SpaceX is now targeting Thursday, Nov. 16 for launch of the Zuma mission,” said SpaceX spokesman John Taylor.

“Both Falcon 9 and the payload remain healthy; teams will use the extra day to conduct some additional mission assurance work in advance of launch.”

Covert Zuma spysat is encapsulated inside the nose cose at the top of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in this up-close view from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, taken on Nov. 16, 2017. Launch reset to Nov. 17, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

You can watch the launch live on a SpaceX dedicated webcast starting about 10 minutes prior to the 8 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT) liftoff time.

Watch the SpaceX broadcast live at: SpaceX.com/webcast

The launch window for the newly built booster extends for two hours until it closes at 10 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT).

The weather outlook is rather favorable along the Florida Space Coast with a 90% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base.

The primary concerns on Nov. 16 are only for the Cumulous Cloud Rule.

The odds get even high at greater than 90% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day Nov 17.

The launch window remains the same on Nov 17 at 8 to 10 p.m.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster deploys quartet of landing legs moments before precision propulsive ground touchdown at Landing Zone 1 on Canaveral Air Force Station barely nine minutes after liftoff from Launch Complex 39A on 3 June 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the Dragon CRS-11 resupply mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Furthermore the two stage 229-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) Falcon 9 rocket was raised to vertical launch position later today Wednesday afternoon Nov. 15 – so everything seems to be in place for a Thursday evening launch attempt.

The first stage landing legs attached to the side of the Falcon 9 booster are seen up close as the rocket awaits blastoff with the unclaimed Zuma surveillance satellite from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, set for liftoff on Nov. 17, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

However we don’t know anything about the ‘Zuma’ payloads characteristics and vital statistics – despite the seemingly endless leaks streaming out of Washington these days.

“The Zuma payload is a restricted payload,” Rains told me.

So quite naturally we’re all curious for any nugget of information from which we might draw some reasonable conclusions based on the scientific method of analysis.

The little bits we do know is that the launch services for the ownerless government payload are being procured by Northrop Grumman Corporation under a commercial contract with a stated goal to find a develop a “cost effective approach”

“Northrop Grumman is proud to be a part of the Zuma launch,” Rains added.

“This event represents a cost effective approach to space access for government missions.”

One juicy tidbit we do know is that it is intended for launch to low Earth orbit (LEO).

“It will be launched into Low Earth Orbit,” Rains informed me.

Low Earth Orbit extends upwards to roughly 1200 miles altitude and includes the ISS orbit for example at approx. 250 miles.

“As a company, Northrop Grumman realizes this is a monumental responsibility and we have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma.”

In addition to launch services Northrop Grumman Corporation may have manufactured the Zuma payload – although that’s not even known.

SpaceX Falcon 9 stands erect at sunrise with KoreaSat5A DTH TV commercial comsat atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, poised for Halloween eve liftoff on 30 Oct 2017. As seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

SpaceX has successfully launched a pair of diverse national security payloads this year already with identified customers. Namely the NROL-76 surveillance satellite for the NRO on May 1, 2017 and the OTV-5 military spaceplane for the USAF on Sept. 7.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying classified NROL-76 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office successfully launches shortly after sunrise from Launch Complex 39A on 1 May 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 1st stage accomplished successful ground landing at the Cape nine minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The long launch window should significantly increase the chance of launching Zuma and removing any errant or intentional boaters and flyers from the restricted airspace around the launch pads.

That’s increasingly important these days given that a pair of critical NASA science mission this week and in the past 3 days were scrubbed near T Zero on both US East and West coast launch pads in Virginia for the Orbital ATK Antares rocket and in California for the ULA Delta II rocket.

‘Homeless’ government satellites not even claimed by the NRO are rather rare.

A recent example is Clio, an unclaimed mission from Lockheed Martin.

Clio launched at night on a ULA Atlas V on September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

Mysterious CLIO payload shrouded beneath 4-meter-diameter payload fairing in this up close view of the top of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket prior to launch from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX Zuma, KoreaSat-5A & SES-11, ULA NROL-52 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch on Nov 16, 2017, upcoming Falcon Heavy and CRS-13 resupply launches, NASA missions, ULA Atlas & Delta launches, SpySats and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Nov 17: “SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch, ULA Atlas NRO NROL-52 spysat launch, SpaceX SES-11, CRS-13 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

USAF X-37B military spaceplane blasts off with picturesque water reflections at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 UTC) Sept. 7, 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Zuma satellite mission patch. Credit: SpaceX/Northrop Grumman
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the CLIO mission for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company launched at 8:10 p.m. EDT September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Despite Merlin Engine Testing Anomaly SpaceX Forges Ahead With Ambitious Year End Launch Schedule Commencing Nov. 15

A Falcon 9 Merlin 1D engine during hot fire engine test firing on a test stand in McGregor, Texas in this February 2012 file photo. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Despite suffering a significant engine testing “anomaly” and fire during test protocols with a Merlin engine that powers both stages of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the Elon Musk founded company is forging ahead with an ambitious year end launch schedule that commences this week with blastoff of the secretive Zuma mission on Wednesday evening, Nov. 15. Clearly Musk & Co. feel it is safe to proceed.

While preparing to conduct a test firing of the most advanced Merlin engine of the type that will launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as next year, something sparked the outbreak of a fire in a test bay earlier this month on a SpaceX engine test stand at their rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas, SpaceX spokesman John Taylor confirmed to Universe Today.

The resulting fire in a McGregor, Texas test bay apparently did not involve an engine explosion as technicians were getting ready to conduct an actual hot fire test. The fire may have occurred as a result of a leak while setting the Merlin engine up on a test stand during pre-test procudures. Details have not been released.

“We do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor told Universe Today.

“SpaceX is committed to our current manifest.”

Since the fire involved the most advanced Block 5 version of the Merlin rather than the currently used Block 4 version, SpaceX engineers and management decided they can safely and responsibly move forward with the upcoming jam packed schedule of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, while simultaneously continuing the anomaly investigation.

2017 has been a banner year thus far for SpaceX involving 16 missions to date that ties a ULA record established in 2009.

The most recent launch took place of Oct. 30 delivering KoreaSat-5A to its intended orbit – along with a magnificent soft landing and recovery of the first stage booster on an oceangoing platform that floated ‘back in town’ days later.

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with KoreaSat-5A commercial telecomsat atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, on Halloween eve 30 Oct 2017. As seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The fire took place on Nov. 4, as first reported by the Washington Post on Nov. 9.

“On November 4, SpaceX experienced an anomaly during a Qualification test set up of a Merlin engine at our rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas,” SpaceX spokesman Taylor told me.

With a slew of critical launches looming starting tomorrow, Nov. 15, SpaceX had to decide quickly whether to pause or move ahead with their final planned launches of 2017 – numbering at least 4 or more and possibly including the long-awaited and long-delayed mammoth Falcon Heavy. It utilizes 27 Merlin 1D engines in the first stage cores.

SpaceX has decided to move ‘Full Speed Ahead’ – after an initial review of the fire incident which is still ongoing.

Seemingly, the fire happened during the set up period for the Merlin engine before the actual qualification engine test had begun. A leak may have occurred around the test stand and caused the fire to brake out.

Although 2017 has been a great year, SpaceX has suffered two catastrophic rocket accidents in 2015 and 2016 as a result of unrelated failures traced to the second stage which slowed down the launch pace as engineers raced to identify and rectify the root causes.

Engineers were conducting a pre-test operation when the test bay fire broke out. It may take a few weeks or more to repair the test stand and resume hot fire testing.

SpaceX has notified customers such as NASA, the FAA and the USAF about the incident – for which SpaceX plans a Dragon cargo resupply mission to the ISS launching as soon as Dec. 4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

“We are now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause.”

Fortunately there were no injuries to any personal.

“No one was injured and all safety protocols were followed during the time of this incident,” Taylor explained.

The Merlin engine about to be tested involved the most advanced type known as the Block 5 version that will be used to propel astronauts to orbit inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon.

Up close look as technicians quickly work to detach all 4 landing legs from the recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 Koreasat-5A booster on Nov. 3, 2017 after it sailed into Port Canaveral the day before. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The Falcon 9 is currently powered by 9 Merlin 1D engines of the Block 4 version.

Altogether they generate a combined 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

SpaceX can continue launches with the less advanced Merlin 1D version because testing of Block 4 is still happening.

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with KoreaSat-5A commercial telecomsat atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, on Halloween eve 30 Oct 2017. As seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Meanwhile launch preparations are in full swing for Wednesday’s nighttime blastoff of the mysterious Zuma mission for the U.S. government at 8 p.m. EST on Nov. 15 from pad 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX Falcon 9 stands erect at sunrise with KoreaSat5A DTH TV commercial comsat atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, poised for Halloween eve liftoff on 30 Oct 2017. As seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX Zuma, KoreaSat-5A & SES-11, ULA NROL-52 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch on Nov 15, 2017, upcoming Falcon Heavy and CRS-13 resupply launches, NASA missions, ULA Atlas & Delta launches, SpySats and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Nov 14, 16: “SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch, ULA Atlas NRO NROL-52 spysat launch, SpaceX SES-11, CRS-13 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster is hoisted off OCISLY droneship after being towed through the channel of Port Canaveral, FL on Nov. 2. It successfully launched KoreaSat-5A telecomsat to orbit on Oct. 30, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Building Electronics That Can Work on Venus

The weather on Venus is like something out of Dante’s Inferno. The average surface temperature – 737 K (462 °C; 864 °F) – is hot enough to melt lead and the atmospheric pressure is 92 times that of Earth’s at sea level (9.2 MPa). For this reason, very few robotic missions have ever made it to the surface of Venus, and those that have did not last long – ranging from about 20 minutes to just over two hours.

Hence why NASA, with an eye to future missions, is looking to create robotic missions and components that can survive inside Venus’ atmosphere for prolonged periods of time. These include the next-generation electronics that researchers from NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC) recently unveiled. These electronics would allow a lander to explore Venus surface for weeks, months, or even years.

In the past, landers developed by the Soviets and NASA to explore Venus – as part of the Venera and Mariner programs, respectively – relied on standard electronics, which were based on silicon semiconductors. These are simply not capable of operating in the temperature and pressure conditions that exist on the surface of Venus, and therefore required that they have protective casings and cooling systems.

Naturally, it was only a matter of time before these protections failed and the probes stopped transmitting. The record was achieved by the Soviets with their Venera 13 probe, which transmitted for 127 minutes between its descent and landing. Looking ahead, NASA and other space agencies want to develop probes that can gather as much information as they can on Venus’s atmosphere, surface, and geological history before they time out.

To do this, a team from NASA’s GRC has been working to develop electronics that rely on silcon carbide (SiC) semiconductors, which would be capable of operating at or above Venus’ temperatures. Recently, the team conducted a demonstration using the world’s first moderately-complex SiC-based microcircuits, which consisted of tens or more transistors in the form of core digital logic circuits and analog operation amplifiers.

These circuits, which would be used throughout the electronic systems of a future mission, were able to operate for up to 4000 hours at temperatures of 500 °C (932 °F) – effectively demonstrated that they could survive in Venus-like conditions for prolonged periods. These tests took place in the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER), which simulated Venus’ surface conditions, including both the extreme temperature and high pressure.

Back in April of 2016, the GRC team tested a SiC 12-transistor ring oscillator using the GEER for a period of 521 hours (21.7 days). During the test, they raised they subjected the circuits to temperatures of up to 460 °C (860 °F), atmospheric pressures of 9.3 MPa and supercritical levels of CO² (and other trace gases). Throughout the entire process, the SiC oscillator showed good stability and kept functioning.

SiC high-temperature electronics before and after testing in Venus surface conditions (rugged operation for extended durations). Credits: Marvin Smith/David Spry/NASA GRC

This test was ended after 21 days due to scheduling reasons, and could have gone on much longer. Nevertheless, the duration constituted a significant world record, being orders of magnitude longer than any other demonstration or mission that has been conducted. Similar tests have shown that ring oscillator circuits can survive for thousands of hours at temperatures of 500 °C (932 °F) in Earth-air ambient conditions.

Such electronics constitute a major shift for NASA and space exploration, and would enable missions that were previously impossible. NASA’s Science Mission Direction (SMD) plans to incorporate SiC electronics on their Long-Life In-situ Solar System Explorer (LLISSE). A prototype is currently being developed for this low-cost concept, which would provide basic, but highly valuable scientific measures from the surface of Venus for months or longer.

Other plans to build a survivable Venus explorer include the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), a “steampunk rover” concept that relies on analog components rather than complex electronic systems. Whereas this concepts seeks to do away with electronics entirely to ensure a Venus mission could operate indefinitely, the new SiC electronics would allow more complex rovers to continue operating in extreme conditions.

Beyond Venus, this new technology could also lead to new classes of probes capable of exploring within gas giants – i.e. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – where temperature and pressure conditions have been prohibitive in the past. But a probe that relies on a hardened shell and SiC electronic circuits could very well penetrate deep into the interior of these planets and reveal startling new things about their atmospheres and magnetic fields.

AREE is a clockwork rover inspired by mechanical computers. A JPL team is studying how this kind of rover could explore extreme environments, like the surface of Venus. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The surface of Mercury could also be accessible to rovers and landers using this new technology – even the day-side, where temperatures reach a high of 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F). Here on Earth, there are plenty of extreme environments that could now be explored with the help of SiC circuits. For example, drones equipped with SiC electronics could monitor deep-sea oil drilling or explore deep into the Earth’s interior.

There are also commercial applications involving aeronautical engines and industrial processors, where extreme heat or pressure traditionally made electronic monitoring impossible. Now such systems could be made “smart”, where they are capable of monitoring themselves instead of relying on operators or human oversight.

With extreme circuits and (someday) extreme materials, just about any environment could be explored. Maybe even the interior of a star!

Further Reading: NASA

Busy Space Coast December Ahead as SpaceX Reactivates Damaged Cape Launch Pad, Aims for Year End Maiden Falcon Heavy Blastoff

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy has 3 engine cores, each one containing 9 Merlin engines. Image: SpaceX
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A very busy and momentous December is ahead for SpaceX workers on Florida’s Space Coast as the company plans to reactivate the firms heavily damaged pad 40 at Cape Canaveral for a NASA resupply mission liftoff in early December while simultaneously aiming for a Year End maiden launch of the oft delayed Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s historic pad 39A.

NASA and SpaceX announced that the next SpaceX commercial cargo resupply services mission to the International Space Station (ISS) will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida in December.

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit: SpaceX

The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the SpaceX Dragon CRS-13 cargo freighter to the orbiting outpost for NASA will be the first this year from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida. It could come as soon as Dec. 4

Pad 40 was severely damaged on Sept. 1, 2016 during a catastrophic launch pad explosion of the Falcon 9 during a fueling test that concurrently completely consumed the Israeli AMOS-6 communications satellite bolted on top of the second stage during the planned static hot fire test.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Since Sept. 2016, all SpaceX launches from Florida have taken place from NASA’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) on the Kennedy Space Center.

The first Falcon 9 launch from pad 39A took place this year in Feb. 2017. And all hot fire tests have been conducted minus the expensive payload on top to keep them safe in case of a repeat explosion.

A successful restoration of pad 40 for launch services is one of the critical prerequisites that must be achieved before paving the path to the inaugural blastoff of SpaceX’s triple barreled Falcon Heavy booster from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Blastoff of SpaceX Dragon CRS12 on its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

So if all goes well, SpaceX will have two operational launch pads at Florida’s Spaceport- one at KSC and one at the Cape. They also have a pad in California at Vandenberg AFB.

Thus SpaceX could ramp up their already impressive 2017 launch pace of 16 rocket launches so far through the end of October.

Indeed SpaceX plans another 4 or 5 launches over the final two months of this year.

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX
An artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX

SpaceX is targeting late December for liftoff of the mammoth Falcon Heavy on its debut flight – to achieve CEO Elon Musk’s stated goal of launching Falcon Heavy in 2017.

The Falcon Heavy launch could come around Dec. 29, sources say.

But the late December Falcon Heavy launch date is dependent on placing pad 40 back in service with a fully successful NASA cargo mission, finishing upgrades to pad 39A for the Heavy as well as completing the rocket integration of three Falcon 9 cores and launch pad preparations.

Furthermore, SpaceX engineers must carry out a successful static fire test of the Falcon Heavy sporting a total of 27 Merlin 1 D engines – 9 engines apiece from each of the three Falcon 9 cores.

Both of the Falcon 9 side cores will be outfitted with nose cones on top in place of a payload and they have been spotted by myself and others being processed inside the huge processing hanger just outside the pad 39A perimeter fence at the bottom of the ramp.

Both of the side cores are also recycled boosters that will be launched for the second time each.

SpaceX originally hoped to launch Falcon Heavy in 2013, said Musk. But he also said the task was way more challenging then originally believed during a KSC post launch press conference in March 2017 following the first reuse of a liquid fueled booster during the SES-10 mission for SES that launch from pad 39A.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk and SES CTO Martin Halliwell exuberantly shake hands of congratulation following the successful delivery of SES-10 TV comsat to orbit using the first reflown and flight proven booster in world history at the March 30, 2017 post launch media briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Former Space Shuttle and Apollo Saturn Launch Pad 39A was only reactivated this year by SpaceX for Falcon 9 launches.

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with KoreaSat-5A commercial telecomsat atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, on Halloween eve 30 Oct 2017. As seen from the crawlerway. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

SpaceX most recently launched the KoreaSat-5A telecomsat on Oct. 30 from pad 39A.

Plus the first stage booster was successfully recovered after a soft landing on a platform at sea and the booster floated ‘back in town’ last Thursday – as I witnessed and reported here.

Recovered SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch is towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL atop OCISLY droneship to flocks of birds and onlookers as Atlantic Ocean waves crash onshore at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The uncrewed Dragon cargo spacecraft launch on the CRS-13 mission is also a recycled Dragon. It previously was flown on SpaceX’s sixth commercial resupply mission to station for NASA.

Rocket recycling is a feat straight out of science fiction. It’s the key part of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk oft stated goal of drastically slashing the high cost of access to space.

Chart comparing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX

The next SpaceX launch is set for Nov. 15 with the mysterious Zuma payload for a US government customer. It will be the last from pad 39A before the Falcon Heavy.

An Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship is slated to launch on November 11 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 set to deliver JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SpaceX Booster is Back in Town, Legs Quickly Detached: Photo/Video Gallery

Recovered SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch is towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL atop OCISLY droneship to flocks of birds and onlookers as Atlantic Ocean waves crash onshore at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

PORT CANAVERAL/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – ‘The SpaceX boosters back in town! The boosters back in town!’ paraphrasing the popular lyrics of the hit single from Irish hard rock band Thin Lizzy – its what comes to mind with the speedy cadence of ‘launch, land and relaunch’ firmly established by CEO Elon Musk’s hard rocking crew of mostly youthful rocket scientists and engineers.

Barely three days after successfully launching the commercial KoreaSat-5A telecomsat on Monday Oct 30, the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster that did the heavy lifting to orbit generating 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust – arrived back in town Thursday, Nov. 2 or more specifically back into Port Canaveral, Florida.

“Guess who’s back in town?” – the song continues – well its the Falcon 9 that reached the edge of space on Halloween Eve while traveling several thousand miles per hour, flipped around like a witches broom and carried out a pinpoint propulsive and upright touchdown of what amounts to a stick on a board in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Just amazing!

Floating atop the football field sized platform upon which it soft landed 8.5 minutes after the two stage Falcon 9 lifted off at 3:34 p.m. EDT (1934 GMT) from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 16 story tall booster arrived back into the mouth of Port Canaveral late Thursday at sunset – as witnessed up close by myself and several space journalist colleagues.

Check out our expanding photo and video gallery compiled here of the boosters arrival into Port on the OCISLY droneship. The gallery is growing so check back again for more up close looks of the ocean arrival, sailing and docking.

Used SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch sails into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Furthermore the four landing legs that made the landing sequence possible – have already been quickly detached by workers this afternoon, as shown here with additional incredible up close imagery.

Up close look as technicians quickly work to detach all 4 landing legs from the recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 Koreasat-5A booster on Nov. 3, 2017 after it sailed into Port Canaveral the day before. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
Up close look as technicians quickly work to detach all 4 landing legs from the recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 Koreasat-5A booster on Nov. 3, 2017 after it sailed into Port Canaveral the day before. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Plus also featured are lots of imagery of the booster sailing through the narrow channel of Port Canaveral – often past seemingly oblivious spectators and pleasure craft who have no idea what they are seeing. As well as imagery of work crews processing the booster for the eventual return back onto base.

Recovered SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch is towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL atop OCISLY droneship to flocks of birds and onlookers as Atlantic Ocean waves crash onshore at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The 156 foot-tall first stage atop OCISLY was towed from the Atlantic Ocean landing zone located several hundred miles off shore of the Florida’s East coast back into Port Canaveral by a tugboat named “Hawk.”

The Hawk was accompanied by a small naval flotilla of commercial vessels SpaceX leased for the occasion.

Entering the mouth of Port Canaveral channel at sunset Nov. 2, 2017, a tugboat tows the recovered SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch atop OCISLY droneship. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

In fact with each booster return the SpaceX technicians are progressing faster and faster carrying out the booster processing involving safing, cap and line attachment, leg removal, and lowering the booster for horizontal placement on a specially outfitted lengthy multi-wheeled trailer for hauling back to SpaceX hangar facilities on the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Entering the mouth of Port Canaveral channel at sunset Nov. 2, 2017, a tugboat tows the recovered SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch atop OCISLY droneship. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

After arriving in port, and sailing through the channel for about 45 minutes the SpaceX flotilla carefully and methodically edged the droneship closer to shore and docked the vessel last night – and the crews got a well deserved rest as the booster basked in the maritime glow producing beautiful water reflection vistas.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Koreasat-5A launch stands tall and rests at night on droneship after Port Canaveral arrival Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The team wasted no time this morning. At the crack of dawn they began the task of attaching a hoisting cap to the top of the first stage.

Shortly after 9 a.m. EDT they craned the booster off OCISLY and onto a restraining pedestal platform on land.

The techs were working fast and making mincemeat of the booster.

They detached the four insect like legs one after another in an operation that looked a lot like a well thought out dissection.

One at a fime over a period about roughly two hour the workers methodically unbolted and detached the legs in 2 pieces. First they they slung a harness around the upper strut and removed it with a small crane. Then they did the same with the lower foot pad.

Altogether the land leg amputation operation took about 2.5 hours.

The now legless Falcon 9 stands erect. It will soon be lowered and placed horizontally for transport back to the base.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster is hoisted off OCISLY droneship after being towed through the channel of Port Canaveral, FL on Nov. 2. It successfully launched KoreaSat-5A telecomsat to orbit on Oct. 30, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

It has been barely two weeks after the last dogeship landed booster arrived back into port in mid-October for the SES-11 launch on October 11 and sunrise port arrival on October 15.

OCISLY which stands for “Of Course I Still Love You” left Port Canaveral several days ahead of the planned Oct. 30 launch and was prepositioned in the Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles (km) off the US East coast, awaiting the boosters approach and pinpoint propulsive soft landing.

The booster was outfitted with four grid fins and four landing legs to accomplish the pinpoint touchdown on the barge at sea.

Watch this video of the SpaceX booster return to Port Canaveral, FL, from the KoreaSat-5 mission:

Video caption: The booster from the KoreaSat-5 mission returns to Port Canaveral, FL, on the SpaceX drone ship ‘Of Course I Still Love You” on Nov. 2, 2017 after a successful landing at sea. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Video caption: After launching from the Kennedy Space LC-39A the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage landed on the OCISLY droneship offshore. It was towed back to Port Canaveral to be refurbished and used again in a later launch. Credit: Julian Leek

To date SpaceX has accomplished 19 successful landings of a recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster by land and by sea.

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with KoreaSat-5A commercial telecomsat atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, on Halloween eve 30 Oct 2017. As seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX KoreaSat-5A & SES-11, ULA NROL-52 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

Flight proven SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch is towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL amidst a flock of birds encircling OCISLY droneship at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
Entering the mouth of Port Canaveral channel at sunset Nov. 2, 2017, a tugboat tows the recovered SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch atop OCISLY droneship. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX used booster from Koreasat-5A launch sails through Port Canaveral atop OCISLY droneship at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
Fisherman enjoys serene sunset as SpaceX used booster from Koreasat-5A launch sails through Port Canaveral atop OCISLY droneship on Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
Flight proven SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch sails into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor
Used SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch sails into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek
Flight proven SpaceX first stage booster from KoreaSat-5A launch sails into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL at sunset Nov. 2, 2017. Credit: Julia Bergeron