Russia and China Are Working on Space and Counterspace Weapons

Every year, the Department of National Intelligence (DNI) releases its Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. This annual report contains the intelligence community’s assessment of potential threats to US national security and makes recommendations accordingly. In recent years, these threats have included the development and proliferation of weapons, regional wars, economic trends, terrorism, cyberterrorism, etc.

This year’s assessment, which was released on February 8th, 2018, was certainly a mixed bag of warnings. Among the many potential threats to national security, the authors emphasized the many recent developments taking place in space. According to their assessment, the expansion of the global space industry, growing cooperation between the private and public sector, and the growth of various states in space, could constitute a threat to US national security.

Naturally, the two chief actors that are singled out were China and Russia. As they indicate, these countries will be leading the pack in the coming years when it comes to expanding space-based reconnaissance, communications and navigation systems. This will not only enable their abilities (and those of their allies) when it comes to space-based research, but will have military applications as well.

The second flight of the Long March 5 lifting off from Wenchang on July 2nd, 2017. Credit: CNS

As they state in the section of the report titled “Space and Counhttps://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/2018-ATA—Unclassified-SSCI.pdfterspace“:

“Continued global space industry expansion will further extend space-enabled capabilities and space situational awareness to nation-state, nonstate, and commercial space actors in the coming years, enabled by the increased availability of technology, private-sector investment, and growing international partnerships for shared production and operation… All actors will increasingly have access to space-derived information services, such as imagery, weather, communications, and positioning, navigation, and timing for intelligence, military, scientific, or business purposes.”

A key aspect of this development is outlined in the section titled “Emerging and Disruptive Technology,” which addresses everything from the development of AI and internet technologies to additive manufacturing and advanced materials. In short, it not just the development of new rockets and spacecraft that are at issue here, but the benefits brought about by cheaper and lighter materials, more rapid information sharing and production.

“Emerging technology and new applications of existing technology will also allow our adversaries to more readily develop weapon systems that can strike farther, faster, and harder and challenge the United States in all warfare domains, including space,” they write.

Artist’s illustration of China’s 8-ton Tiangong-1 space station, which is expected to fall to Earth in late 2017. Credit: CMSE

Specifically, anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are addressed as the major threat. Such technologies, according to the report, have the potential to reduce US and allied military effectiveness by disrupting global communications, navigation and coordination between nations and armies. These technologies could be destructive, in the form of anti-satellite missiles, but also nondestructive – i.e. electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices. As they indicate:

“We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against US and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems. Military reforms in both countries in the past few years indicate an increased focus on establishing operational forces designed to integrate attacks against space systems and services with military operations in other domains.”

The authors further anticipate that Russian and Chinese destructive ASAT technology could reach operational capacity within a few years time. To this end, they cite recent changes in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which include the formation of military units that have training in counter-space operations and the development of ground-launched ASAT missiles.

While they are not certain about Russia’s capability to wage ASAT warfare, they venture that similar developments are taking place. Another area of focus is the development of directed-energy weapons for the purpose of blinding or damaging space-based optical sensors. This technology is similar to what the US investigated decades ago for the sake of strategic missile defense – aka. the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

An artist’s concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. Credit: USAF

While these weapons would not be used to blow up satellites in the conventional sense, they would be capable of blinding or damaging sensitive space-based optical sensors. On top of that, the report cites how Russia and China continue to conduct on-orbit activities and launching satellites that are deemed “experimental”. A good example of this was a recent proposal made by researchers from the Information and Navigation College at China’s Air Force Engineering University.

The study which detailed their findings called for the deployment of a high-powered pulsed ablative laser that could be used to break up space junk. While the authors admit that such technology can have peaceful applications – ranging from satellite inspection, refueling and repair – they could also be used against other spacecraft. While the United States has been researching the technology for decades, China and Russia’s growing presence in space threatens to tilt this balance of power.

Moreover, there are the loopholes in the existing legal framework – as outlined in the Outer Space Treaty – which the authors believe China and Russia are intent on exploiting:

“Russia and China continue to publicly and diplomatically promote international agreements on the nonweaponization of space and “no first placement” of weapons in space. However, many classes of weapons would not be addressed by such proposals, allowing them to continue their pursuit of space warfare capabilities while publicly maintaining that space must be a peaceful domain.”

Artist’s impression of a laser removing orbital debris, based on NASA pictures. Credit: Fulvio314/NASA/Wikipedia Commons

For example, the Outer Space Treaty bars signatories from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, on the Moon, on any other celestial body, or in outer space in general. By definition, this referred to nuclear devices, but does not extend to conventional weapons in orbit. This leaves room for antisatellite platforms or other conventional space-based weapons that could constitute a major threat.

Beyond China and Russia, the report also indicates that Iran’s growing capabilities in rocketry and missile technology could pose a threat down the road. As with the American and Russian space programs, developments in space rocketry and ICBMs are seen as being complimentary to each other:

“Iran’s ballistic missile programs give it the potential to hold targets at risk across the region, and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field an ICBM. Progress on Iran’s space program, such as the launch of the Simorgh SLV in July 2017, could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles use similar technologies.”

All told, the report makes some rather predictable assessments. Given China and Russia’s growing power in space, it is only natural that the DNI would see this as a potential threat. However, that does not mean that one should assume an alarmist attitude. When it comes to assessing threats, points are awarded for considering every contingency. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that assessment and realization are two very different things.

Remember Sputnik? The lesson there was clear. Don’t panic!

Further Reading: DNI

Finally! SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Does its Static Fire Test. Actual Flight Should Be “In A Week Or So”

The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image: SpaceX

The long-awaited Static Fire of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket has been declared a success by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. After this successful test, the first launch of the Falcon Heavy is imminent, with Musk saying in a Tweet, “Falcon Heavy hold-down firing this morning was good. Generated quite a thunderhead of steam. Launching in a week or so.”

This is a significant milestone for the Falcon Heavy, considering that SpaceX initially thought the Heavy’s first flight would be in 2013. The first launch for the Falcon Heavy has always seemed to be tantalizingly out of reach. If space enthusiasts could’ve willed the thing into space, it would’ve launched years ago. But that’s not how it goes.

The Falcon Heavy generated an enormous amount of steam when it fired all 27 of its engines. Image: SpaceX
The Falcon Heavy generated an enormous amount of steam when it fired all 27 of its engines. Image: SpaceX

Developing rockets like the Falcon Heavy is not a simple matter. Even Musk himself admitted this when he said in July, “At first it sounds real easy: you just stick two first stages on as strap-on boosters. But then everything changes. All the loads change; aerodynamics totally change. You’ve tripled the vibration and acoustics.” So it’s not really a surprise that the Falcon Heavy’s development has seen multiple delays.

After first being announced in 2011, the rocket’s first flight was set for 2013. That date came and went, then in 2015 rocket failures postponed the flight. Failures postponed SpaceX again in 2016. New target dates were set for late 2016, then early 2017, then late 2017. But with this successful test, long-suffering space fans can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and their collective sigh will last about as long as the static fire: only a few seconds.

The Falcon Heavy has a total of 27 individual rocket engines, and all 27 of them were fired in this test, though the Heavy never left the launch pad. For those who don’t know, the Falcon Heavy is based on SpaceX’s successful Falcon 9 rocket, a nine-engine machine that made SpaceX the first commercial space company to visit the International Space Station, when the Falcon 9 delivered SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the ISS in 2012. Since then, the Falcon has a track record of delivering cargo to the ISS and launching satellites into orbit.

The Heavy is like a Falcon 9 with two more 9-engine boosters strapped on. It will be the most powerful rocket in operation, by a large margin. (It won’t be the most powerful rocket in history though. That title still belongs to the Saturn V rocket, last launched in 1973.)

SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with KoreaSat-5A comsat from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, on 30 Oct 2017. The Falcon 9 has one core of 9 Merlin engines. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The Falcon Heavy will create 5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off, and will be able to carry about 140,000 lbs, which is about three times what the Falcon can carry. The Falcon’s engine core is reusable, and returns itself to Earth after detaching from the second stage. The Falcon Heavy will do the same, with all three cores returning to Earth for reuse. The two outer cores will return to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, and the center core will land on a drone ship in the Atlantic. This is part of the genius behind the SpaceX designs: reusable components keep the cost down.

An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy has 3 engine cores, each one containing 9 Merlin engines. Image: SpaceX
An artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy has 3 engine cores, each one containing 9 Merlin engines. Image: SpaceX

We aren’t exactly sure when the first launch of the Falcon Heavy will be, and its first launch may be a very short flight. It’s possible that it may only get a few feet off the launch pad. At a conference in July, Musk said, “I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

We know a few things about the eventual first launch and flight of the Falcon. There won’t be any scientific or commercial payload on-board. Rather, Musk intends to put his own personal Tesla roadster on-board as payload. If successful, it will be the first car to go on a trip around the Sun. (I call Shotgun!) It’s kind of silly to use a rocket to send a car around the Sun, but it will generate publicity. Not only for SpaceX, but for Tesla too.

If the launch is successful, the Falcon Heavy will be open for business. SpaceX already has some customers lined up for the Falcon Heavy, with a Saudi Arabian communications satellite first in line. After that, its second commercial mission will place several satellites in orbit. The US Air Force will be watching these launches closely, with an eye to using the Falcon Heavy for their own purposes.

But the real strength of the Falcon Heavy is not blasting cars on frivolous trips around the Sun, or placing communications satellites in orbit. Its destination is deep space.

Originally, SpaceX planned to use the Falcon Heavy to send people to Mars in a Dragon capsule. They’ve cancelled that idea, but the Heavy still has the capability to send rovers or other cargo to Mars and beyond. Who knows what uses it will be put to, once it has a track record of success.

We’re all eager to see the successful launch of the Falcon heavy, but while we wait for it, we can enjoy this animation from SpaceX.

S.S Gene Cernan Honoring Last Moonwalker Arrives at International Space Station Carrying Tons of Research Gear and Supplies

The Canadarm2 robotic arm is seen grappling the Orbital ATK S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus resupply ship on Nov. 14, 2017 for berthing to the the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

The S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus spacecraft named in honor of the Apollo 17 lunar landing commander and launched by Orbital ATK from the eastern shore of Virgina at breakfast time Sunday, Nov. 12, arrived at the International Space Station early Tuesday morning, Nov 14, carrying over 3.7 tons of research equipment and supplies for the six person resident crew.

Soon thereafter at 5:04 a.m., Expedition 53 Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency) assisted by NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik successfully captured Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo freighter using the International Space Station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadarm2 robotic arm.

The station was orbiting 260 statute miles over the South Indian Ocean at the moment Nespoli grappled the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus spacecraft with the Canadian-built robotic arm.

Nespoli and Bresnik were working at a robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed Cupola module that offers astronauts the most expansive view outside to snare Cygnus with the robotic arms end effector.

The Cygnus cargo freighter – named after the last man to walk on the Moon – reached its preliminary orbit nine minutes after blasting off early Sunday atop the upgraded 230 version of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The flawless liftoff of the two stage Antares rocket took place shortly after sunrise Sunday at 7:19 a.m. EST, Nov. 12, rocket from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

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

Sunday’s spectacular Antares launch delighted spectators – but came a day late due to a last moment scrub on the originally planned Veteran’s Day liftoff, Saturday, Nov. 11, when a completely reckless pilot flew below radar into restricted airspace just 5 miles away from the launch pad – forcing a sudden and unexpected halt to the countdown under absolutely perfect weather conditions.

After a carefully choreographed series of intricate thruster firings to raise its orbit over the next two days, the Cygnus spacecraft on the OA-8 resupply mission for NASA arrived in the vicinity of the orbiting research laboratory.

With Cygnus firmly in the grip of the robots hand, ground controllers at NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, maneuvered the arm towards the exterior hull and berth the cargo ship at the Earth-facing port of the stations Unity module.

1st stage capture was completed at 7:08 a. EST Nov 14.

After driving in the second stage gang of bolts, hard mate and capture were completed at 7:15 a.m.

The station was flying 252 miles over the North Pacific in orbital night at the time of berthing.

The Cygnus spacecraft dubbed OA-8 is Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station under the unmanned Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program to stock the station with supplies on a continuing and reliable basis.

NASA TV provided live coverage of the rendezvous and grappling.

Including Cygnus there are now five visiting vehicle spaceships parked at the space station including also the Russian Progress 67 and 68 resupply ships and the Russian Soyuz MS-05 and MS-06 crew ships.

International Space Station Configuration. Five spaceships are parked at the space station including the Orbital ATK Cygnus after Nov. 14, 2017 arrival, the Progress 67 and 68 resupply ships and the Soyuz MS-05 and MS-06 crew ships. Credit: NASA

Cygnus will remain at the space station until Dec. 4, when the spacecraft will depart the station and deploy several CubeSats before its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere as it disposes of several tons of trash.

On this flight, the Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft is jam packed with its heaviest cargo load to date!

Altogether over 7,400 pounds of science and research, crew supplies and vehicle hardware launched to the orbital laboratory and its crew of six for investigations that will occur during Expeditions 53 and 54.

The S.S. Gene Cernan manifest includes equipment and samples for dozens of scientific investigations including those that will study communication and navigation, microbiology, animal biology and plant biology. The ISS science program supports over 300 ongoing research investigations.

Among the experiments flying aboard Cygnus are the coli AntiMicrobial Satellite (EcAMSat) mission, which will investigate the effect of microgravity on the antibiotic resistance of E. coli, the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) project, which will study high-speed optical transmission of data and small spacecraft proximity operations, the Rodent Research 6 habitat for mousetronauts who will fly on a future SpaceX cargo Dragon.

Cernan was commander of Apollo 17, NASA’s last lunar landing mission and passed away in January at age 82. He set records for both lunar surface extravehicular activities and the longest time in lunar orbit on Apollo 10 and Apollo 17.

The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission are: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt (left). They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt used an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken during October 1972 at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Under the Commercial Resupply Services-1 (CRS-1) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 66,000 pounds (30,000 kilograms) of cargo to the space station. OA-8 is the eighth of these missions.

The Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft is Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station under the unmanned Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program to stock the station with supplies on a continuing basis.

Beginning in 2019, the company will carry out a minimum of six cargo missions under NASA’s CRS-2 contract using a more advanced version of Cygnus.

Watch for Ken’s continuing Antares/Cygnus mission and launch reporting from on site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA during the launch campaign.

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

Ken Kremer

Launch of Apollo17, NASA’s final lunar landing mission, on December 7, 1972, as seen from the KSC press site. Credit: Mark and Tom Usciak

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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 15, 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

Portrait of NASA astronaut Gene Cernan and floral wreath displayed during the Jan. 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring his life as the last Man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The next Orbital ATK Cygnus supply ship was christened the SS John Glenn in honor of Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts as it stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station successfully launched at 7:19 a.m. EST on an Antares rocket from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the Cygnus OA-8 resupply spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sunset launchpad view of Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus OA-8 resupply spaceship the evening before blastoff to the International Space Station on Nov. 11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s Next-Generation Spaceplane Passes Free Flight Test

It’s called the Dream Chaser, a reusable spaceplane that will one day transport cargo and crews to the International Space Station. For the past ten years, the Sierra Nevada Corporation and NASA have been developing and testing this next-generation space vehicle. When it is ready, this vehicle will not only provide a more cost-effective way of servicing the ISS, it will also help restore domestic launch capability to the United States.

On Saturday, November 11th, the Dream Chaser passed an important milestone by conducting a successful free flight test. This took place at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and verified the spaceplane’s ability to glide and land autonomously. This, in addition to verifying several key avionic and flight systems, is a strong indication that the spaceplane will be capable of conducting runs to and from Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) in the near future.

This test involved the spaceplane being lifted to an altitude of 3,780 meters (12,400 feet) and then let go to glide freely. It then deployed its landing gears and touched down on the Edwards Air Force Base runway before coming to a full stop. This runway, it should be noted, is very similar to the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility runway that the Dream Chaser will land on once it is operational.

This flight test validated the performance of the Dream Chaser during what is arguably the most critical part of a mission – the approach and landing phase – which will be the final phase of future flights from the ISS. The ability to conduct automated landings is central to the spaceplane’s reusability, which operates in much the same way as the now-retired Space Shuttle did.

This process entails the craft being launched into orbit aboard a rocket (Atlas V or Ariane 5), maneuvering under its own power while in orbit so that it can dock with the ISS (or other orbiting facilities), and then re-entering the atmosphere and returning to a landing strip. As Mark Sirangelo, the corporate vice president of SNC’s Space System business area, said in a company press release:

“The Dream Chaser flight test demonstrated excellent performance of the spacecraft’s aerodynamic design and the data shows that we are firmly on the path for safe, reliable orbital flight.”

The flight test also helped advance the vehicle as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and prepare it for service under Commercial Resupply Services 2 program. These programs consist of NASA working closely with private aerospace companies to develop new spacecraft and launch systems that will be capable of carrying crews to locations in LEO and to the ISS.

Front-end view of the Dream Chaser spaceplane. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

This approach and landing test expands on the phase one flight test, which took place back in October of 2013. For this free-flight test, the vehicle was released from a “skycrane” helicopter and flew a short flight, touching down less than a minute later. Just prior to landing, the left main landing gear failed to deploy resulting in a crash landing. However, the vehicle and its crew compartment were left intact.

For the second flight test, SNC and NASA incorporated orbital vehicle avionics and flight software for the first time. The trajectory also included specific program test inputs which, together with the added software, provided validations for orbital vehicle operations. Over the coming days and weeks, SNC and NASA will be evaluating all the data obtained during the flight, which includes the Dream Chaser aerodynamic and integrated system performance.

The data that SNC gathers from this test campaign will help inform the final design of the cargo Dream Chaser, which will be capable of transporting crews of six astronauts to the ISS. As Fatih Ozmen, the CEO of SNC, exclaimed:

“I’m so proud of the Dream Chaser team for their continued excellence. This spacecraft is the future and has the ability to change the way humans interact with space, and I couldn’t be happier with SNC’s dedicated team and the results of the test.”

If all goes well, SNC and NASA are hoping to begin conducting cargo deliveries by 2019. By 2024, it is hoped that a total of six cargo delivery missions will take place. No indications have been given as to when the crewed variant could start bringing astronauts to the ISS. But once that is possible, NASA will no longer be forced to rely on Roscosmos and their fleet of Soyuz rockets to send astronauts into space.

Be sure to check out this video of the Dream Chaster Cargo System, courtesy of Sierra Nevada Corporation:

Further Reading: NASA, Sierra Nevada

Musk’s Era of Routinely Re-flown Rockets (ala SpaceX) a ‘Major Sea Change Getting Closer Every Day’ Says SES CTO Halliwell: SES-11 Launch Gallery

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017 carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 HDTV commercial comsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL- as seen from the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Elon Musk’s extraordinary vision of an era when re-flown rockets are offered as a ‘routine service’ rather than the exception is a ‘major sea change getting closer’ to fruition with each passing day thanks to SpaceX, said SES CTO Martin Halliwell in an exclusive interview with Universe Today, following the stunning sunset blastoff of the SES-11 UHDTV commercial satellite on another ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9 booster that also re-landed – thus completing another remarkable round of rocket recovery and recycling or ‘launch, land and relaunch!’

“As I’ve said before, I think in a couple years time you won’t even consider whether it’s a preflown rocket or a new rocket or a second time rocket,” SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell told Universe Today in a one-on-one post launch interview.

“It will just be a flight and you will buy a service to get to orbit – and that will be that!”

“It’s a major sea change,” Halliwell explained. “That’s absolutely true.”

“We’re getting closer to that every day. It’s exactly where we are going. There is no doubt about it.”

The private SES-11/EchoStar 105 communications satellite mission soared to space with an on time liftoff of the recycled SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at dinnertime Wednesday Oct. 11 at 6:53 p.m. EDT from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017 carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 HDTV commercial comsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL- as seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

“The launch was fantastic,” Halliwell gushed. “Everything went perfectly. The countdown went perfectly, no hiccups, no drama, nothing whatsoever. So we were good to go!”

Plus its saving SES “months of time” and thereby “tens of millions of dollars of real money” to fly with a used booster rather than having their expensive satellite sit and languish uselessly on the ground.

SES-11/EchoStar 105 launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 on 11 Oct 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

SES-11 is primarily intended to significantly upgrade SES capabilities to transmit Ultra High Definition (UHD) TV signals or 4 K vs. standard HDTV – thereby pulling in more revenue streams.

SES made rocket history jointly with SpaceX earlier this year when they became the first company ever to agree to fly a payload on a recycled liquid fueled rocket that SpaceX’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk dubs ‘flight-proven’.

And Halliwell, as SES Chief Technology Officer, was instrumental in partnering with SpaceX CEO Musk to take a big leap make that happen.

The maiden ‘used’ Falcon 9 lifted off successfully with the SES-10 satellite and delivered the comsat to geostationary orbit on March 30, 2017 – in a monumental space achievement.

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017 carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 HDTV commercial comsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL- as seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

“This was our second reflown mission with SpaceX for SES-11. And we had a lot of discussion about it.”

“The more that we looked at it and the transparency we’ve gotten from SpaceX, working together with them we were convinced of the ‘flight worthiness’ of the Falcon 9 vehicle,” Halliwell told me.

SpaceX successfully delivered the 5.7 ton EchoStar 105/SES-11 joint mission satellite for SES and EchoStar to geostationary transfer orbit some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the equator.

SES-11/EchoStar 105 launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 on 11 Oct 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

EchoStar 105/SES-11 is a high-powered hybrid Ku and C-band communications satellite launching as a dual-mission satellite for US-based operator EchoStar and Luxembourg-based operator SES.

How exactly does Halliwell and SES assess whether its worth taking a gamble on a ‘flight-proven’ booster to ensure it meets the high standards expected and really is robust and reliable and not end in disaster? How did the booster fare after the first reflown mission for SES-10?

Halliwell explained that SES employs a team of engineers embedded with SpaceX.

“We have US citizens who work embedded with SpaceX,” Halliwell replied. “They can understand and filter and react to that data they are exposed to and see what’s going on. And then determine if we are good to go or not.”

Why did SES decide on using a pre-flown booster?

“We sat down with SpaceX to see how the launch manifest and scheduling looks and asked whats the best way we can get SES-11 to orbit? Do we wait for new equipment or does SpaceX have preflown equipment that you can make available to us after refurbishment?”

“It came out that the fastest way we can get to orbit is by using a refurbished preflown vehicle. So we said OK we will go down that path. And that’s why we are here today.”

Did it save time or money for SES to go with a used booster?

“It saved us a few months. So we concentrated on the preflown booster after making that decision. For sure if we had chosen to use a new booster our SES-11 launch would have been somewhat later compared to launching today.”

So it turns out that SES got a faster trip to orbit for SES-11 and that in turn quickly translates into real money generated instead of more money wasted with a satellite parked somewhere in a storage shed for half a year of more. The actual savings on a launch was not that big.

“The average launch delay we have right now is about 7 months,” Halliwell explained.

“So we have the spacecraft already built and its ready, and ready to ship [to the launch site]. And then – we just wait! Until we have launch vehicle availability.”

“So think about it. I spent all my money on my spacecraft and most of my money on my launch vehicle. Plus a whole chunk of insurance money is already gone.”

“So I’m sitting there for 7 months. It’s just cash out and a very expensive wait!”

How much money does waiting around on the ground with a fully ready to launch spacecraft cost?

“That works out to tens of millions of dollars lost due to delays,” he replied. “Its real money. A ton of money!”

“Revenue we are not making. And paying for the money you spent. It’s gone !”

So with SES-11 now safely in orbit it will soon be generating revenue to recoup all the investments thus far accrued.

Is the era of reliable rocket reusability coming even sooner than some had expected?

“I think so certainly for SpaceX,” Halliwell responded.

“The other companies are all now running behind. You look towards Ariane with the reusable Prometheus and being cheaper – but there is a ways to go there. You look at Blue Origin and they are making progress. But they are not there yet.”

“Will Vulcan do this? I think everybody will consider this, and try to figure out the pros and cons of this and try to figure out an industrial model and a financial model, etc, etc.”

“Whether they go down that reusability path or not depends on whether it suits their business plan.”

“SpaceX has certainly taken a very, very difficult road. But they have come through it very well.”

Is SpaceX actually saving money? The company sunk huge sums of its own money amounting into the hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the reusability technology.

The advertised cost of a SpaceX launch is about $61 million.

Elon Musk routinely promotes the reusability technology as a means to drastically reduce space launch costs.

Thus SES CEO Karim Michel Sabbagh is looking for a reduction to about half that advertised price, in the neighborhood of $30 million.

To date Musk has only offered a marginal reduction to the contact price, citing the high development costs.

Musk has even joked that he should charge more for a reliable ‘flight-proven’ booster.

Halliwell says the real benefit thus far is the earlier launch date. SpaceX has a huge backlog of over 50 contracted launches that only grew longer following a pair of rocket explosions that forced launch delays while the firm investigated root causes.

What does Halliwell think is realistic regarding pricing and achieving the $30 million target?

“I’d love to see that,” Halliwell told me. “But I don’t think we’ll see that $30 million any time soon. Maybe it will stabilize in the mid $50 millions or $60 millions somewhere. I think that’s realistic.”

“I think we have to see how people like SpaceX work on their industrial/financial model.”

“To be honest, I think SpaceX themselves is trying to figure out where the pricing should be. How much is it really costing them? How much is the refurb costing them? How much are their ops costing?”

To date SpaceX has accomplished 18 successful landings of a recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster by land and by sea.

The first stage stands 156 feet tall.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster leaning atop OCISLY droneship upon which it landed after 23 June launch from KSC floats into Port Canaveral, FL, on 29 June 2017, hauled by tugboat as seen from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this SES-11 launch video:

Video caption: Reused Falcon 9 Launches SES-11 Into Sunset (Remote Cameras). Credit: Jeff Seibert

Stay tuned. More upcoming.

Sunset blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017 carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 HD TV commercial comsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL- as seen from the famous countdown clock. This launch counts as third reflight of a liquid fueled orbit class rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX 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

SES-11/EchoStar 105 launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 on 11 Oct 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

SpaceX Dragon Splashes Down in Pacific with 2 Tons of NASA Space Station Science

The SpaceX Dragon (far right) begins its departure from the International Space Station after being released from the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm on Sept. 17, 2017. Credit: NASA TV

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Concluding a month long stay at the International Space Station (ISS) a SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter loaded with some two tons of NASA research samples, hardware and micestonauts returned home to make a successful splashdown in the Pacific on Sunday, Sept. 17.

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply ship successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at approximately 10:14 a.m. EDT, 7:14 a.m. PDT, 1414 GMT Sunday, southwest of Long Beach, California, under a trio of main parachutes.

The parachute assisted splashdown marked the end of the company’s twelfth contracted cargo resupply mission to the orbiting outpost for NASA.

The capsule returned with more than 3,800 pounds (1,700 kg) of cargo and research and 20 live mice.

“Good splashdown of Dragon confirmed, completing its 12th mission to and from the @Space_Station,” SpaceX confirmed via twitter.

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 spacecraft begins its departure from the International Space Station after being released from the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm on Sept. 17, 2017. Credit: NASA TV

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Dragon CRS-12 to orbit took place from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 14 at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

After a two day orbital chase Dragon had been berthed at the station since arriving on Aug. 16.

SpaceX launched 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. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Dragon’s departure began early Sunday morning when Expedition 53 Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency) and ISS Commander Randy Bresnik of NASA released the Dragon spacecraft from the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm at 4:40 a.m. EDT, 1:40 a.m. PDT, 840 GMT.

The departure events were carried live on NASA TV. There was no live broadcast of the Pacific Ocean landing.

Working from a robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed Cupola module Nespoli and Bresnik used the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadian-built robotic arm to detach Dragon from the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module and release it into space.

“We would like to give a big thanks to all the operational teams around the world that keep our presence in space possible – to the scientists and engineers that provide the outstanding research and equipment that we have in space, to NASA and all the space agencies that contribute to the space station. And to SpaceX for giving us this outstanding vehicle,” Nespoli radioed.

Dragon then backed away slowly via a trio of thruster firings.

“The three departure burns to move Dragon away from the @Space_Station are complete,” SpaceX confirmed.

The departure of the SpaceX Dragon Sunday morning, Sept. 17, 2017 leaves three spaceships parked at the space station including the Progress 67 resupply ship and the Soyuz MS-05 and MS-06 crew ships. Credit: NASA

The final de-orbit burn took place as planned around 9 a.m. EDT some four and a half hours after leaving the station and setting Dragon up for the scorching reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Dragon’s de-orbit burn is complete and trunk has been jettisoned. Pacific Ocean splashdown in ~30 minutes,” said SpaceX.

All the drogue and main parachutes deployed as planned during the descent to Earth.

“Dragon’s three main parachutes have been deployed.”

SpaceX commercial naval ships were on standby to retrieve the spacecraft from the ocean and sail it back to port in Long Beach, California.

Some time critical research specimens will be removed immediately for return to NASA. The remainder will be transported back with Dragon to SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, for final post flight processing and handover to NASA.

“A variety of technological and biological studies are returning in Dragon. NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the non-profit organization that manages research aboard the U.S. national laboratory portion of the space station, will receive time-sensitive samples and begin working with researchers to process and distribute them within 48 hours,” said NASA in a statement.

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

SpaceX holds a NASA commercial resupply services (CRS) contract that includes up to 20 missions under the original CRS-1 contract.

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel 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 when it launched Aug. 14 from KSC pad 39A.

20 mice were also onboard and were returned alive on the round trip flight.

This mission supported dozens of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members – including NASA’s space endurance record breaking astronaut Peggy Whitson.

The Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation (CREAM) instrument from the University of Maryland, College Park involves placing a balloon-borne instrument aboard the International Space Station to measure the charges of cosmic rays over a period of three years. CREAM will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility. Existing CREAM hardware used for balloon flights. Credit: NASA

Whitson returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule earlier this month following a 10 month mission and carried out research included in the samples returned by Dragon CRS-12.

Visiting vehicle configuration at the International Space Station (ISS) after arrival of the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft on Sept. 12, 2017. Credit: NASA

Here’s a NASA science summary:

The Lung Tissue experiment used the microgravity environment of space to test strategies for growing new lung tissue. The ultimate goal of this investigation is to produce bioengineered human lung tissue that can be used as a predictive model of human responses allowing for the study of lung development, lung physiology or disease pathology.

Samples from the CASIS PCG 7 study used the orbiting laboratory’s microgravity environment to grow larger versions of an important protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International, researchers will look to take advantage of the station’s microgravity environment which allows protein crystals to grow larger and in more perfect shapes than earth-grown crystals, allowing them to be better analyzed on Earth. Defining the exact shape and morphology of LRRK2 would help scientists to better understand the pathology of Parkinson’s and aid in the development of therapies against this target.

Mice from NASA’s Rodent Research-9 study also will return live to Earth for additional study. The investigation combined three studies into one mission, with two looking at how microgravity affects blood vessels in the brain and in the eyes and the third looking at cartilage loss in hip and knee joints. For humans on Earth, research related to limited mobility and degrading joints can help scientists understand how arthritis develops, and a better understanding of the visual impairments experienced by astronauts can help identify causes and treatments for eye disorders.

The next SpaceX Dragon is due to blastoff around December from KSC.

An Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship is slated to launch in November from NASA Wallops in Virginia.

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

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
The Soyuz MS-06 rocket blasts off with the Expedition 53-54 crew towards the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 (Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time). Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Russian-American Trio Blasts Off and Boards International Space Station After Fast Track Trajectory

The Soyuz MS-06 rocket blasts off with the Expedition 53-54 crew towards the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 (Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time). Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Barely a week and a half after the thrilling conclusion to the record breaking space endurance mission by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, a new Russian-American trio blasted off for the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Soyuz capsule and boarded safely early this morning Wednesday, Sept. 13, after arriving as planned on a fast track orbital trajectory.

NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Joe Acaba and Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos launched aboard the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan overnight at 5:17 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, (2127 GMT), or 3:17 a.m. Baikonur time Wednesday, Sept. 13, on the Expedition 53 mission.

Following the flawless launch and achieving orbit the three man crew executed a perfect four orbit, six hour rendezvous and arrived at the orbiting laboratory complex at 10:55 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Sept. 12, (or Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time) where they will carry out a jam packed schedule of scientific research in a wide array of fields.

The entire launch sequence aboard the Soyuz rocket performed flawlessly and delivered the Soyuz capsule to its targeted preliminary orbit eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff followed by the opening of the vehicles pair of life giving solar arrays and communications antennas.

The whole event from launch to docking was broadcast live on NASA TV.

Soyuz reached the ISS after a rapid series of orbit raising maneuvers over four orbits and six hours to successfully complete all the rendezvous and docking procedures to attach to the station at the Russian Poisk module.

“Contact! We have mechanical contact,” radioed Misurkin.

The Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos is seen on the right approaching the International Space Station on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. The spacecraft docked to the station at 10:55 p.m. EDT. Credits: NASA Television

After conducting leak and safety checks the new trio opened the hatches between the Soyuz spacecraft and station at 1:08 a.m. EDT this morning, Sept. 13 and floated into the million pound orbiting outpost.

The arrival of Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin restores the station’s multinational habitation to a full complement of six astronaut and cosmonaut crewmembers.

They join Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik of NASA and Flight Engineers Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency).

The station had been temporarily reduced to a staff of three for 10 days following the departure of the Expedition 52 crew including record setting Whitson, NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and veteran cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos.

This is the rookie flight for Vande Hei, the second for Misurkin and the third for Acaba. They will remain aboard the station for a planned five month long ISS expedition continuing into early 2018.

Vande Hei was selected as an astronaut in 2009. Misurkin previously flew to the station on the Expedition 35/36 increments in 2013. Acaba was selected as an astronaut in 2004. He flew on space shuttle mission STS 119 and conducted two spacewalks – as well as on the Expedition 31/32 increments in 2012 and has logged a total of 138 days in space.

Originally the Soyuz MS-06 was only to fly with a two person crew – Vande Hei and Misurkin after the Russians decided to reduce their cosmonaut crew from three to two to save money.

Acaba was added to the crew only in March of this year when NASA and Roscosmos brokered an agreement to fill the empty seat with a NASA astronaut, under an arrangement worked out for 5 astronauts seats on Soyuz through a procurement by Boeing, as compensation for an unrelated matter.

The Russian cosmonaut crew cutback enabled Whitson’s mission extension by three months and also proved to be a boon for NASA and science research. It enabled the US/partner USOS crew complement to be enlarged from three to four full time astronauts much earlier than expected.

This allowed NASA to about double the weekly time devoted to research aboard station – a feat not expected to happen until America’s commercial crew vehicles, namely Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon – finally begin inaugural launches next year from the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2018.

With Acaba and Vande Hei now on orbit joining Bresnik and Nespoli, the USOS crew stands at four and will continue.

The six crewmembers will carry out research supporting more than 250 experiments in astrophysics, biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science.

“During Expedition 53, researchers will study the cosmic ray particles, demonstrate the benefits of manufacturing fiber optic filaments in microgravity, investigate targeted therapies to improve muscle atrophy and explore the abilities of a new drug to accelerate bone repair,” says NASA.

Among the key investigations involves research on cosmic ray particles reaching Earth using ISS-CREAM, examining effects on the musculoskeletal system and exploring targeted therapies for slowing or reversal of muscle atrophy with Rodent Research 6 (RR-6), demonstrating the benefits of manufacturing fiber optic filaments in a microgravity environment with the Optical Fiber Production in Microgravity (Made in Space Fiber Optics) hardware, and working on drugs and materials for accelerating bone repair with the Synthetic Bone experiment to develop more effective treatments for patients with osteoporosis.

Expedition 53 Flight Engineers Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA and Soyuz Commander Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 (Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time), and arrived at the International Space Station at 10:55 p.m. to begin their 5.5-month mission aboard the station. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Bresnik, Ryazanskiy and Nespoli are scheduled to remain aboard the station until December. Whereas Vande Hei, Acaba and Misurkin are slated to return in February 2018.

Watch this cool Roscosmos video showing rollout of the Soyuz rocket to the Baikonur launch pad and erection in advance of launch. Credit: Roscosmos

Meanwhile one of the first tasks of the new trio will be to assist with the departure of the SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 spacecraft upcoming this Sunday, Sept 17.

Dragon will be detached from the Harmony module using the stations Canadian-built robotic arm on Sunday and released for a splashdown and retrieval in the Pacific Ocean Sunday morning. It is carrying some hardware items as well as scores of science samples.

SpaceX launched 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. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

NASA TV will cover the release activities beginning Sunday at 4:30 a.m. EDT.

Visiting vehicle configuration at the International Space Station (ISS) after arrival of the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft on Sept. 12, 2017. Credit: NASA

Watch for Ken’s onsite 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.

The space station’s Expedition 53 crew members are (from left) Joe Acaba, Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Commander Randy Bresnik and Paolo Nespoli. Credit: NASA
Expedition 53 Crew Insignia

NASA’s Peggy Whitson Safely Returns Home in Soyuz from Record Breaking Stay in Space

The Soyuz MS-04 vehicle is pictured the moment it touches down with the Expedition 52 crew inside comprising NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fisher and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos on Sept. 3, 2017, Kazakhstan time. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA’s Peggy Whitson, America’s most experienced astronaut, returned to Earth safely and smiling Sunday morning on the steppes of Kazakhstan, concluding her record-breaking stay in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS) along with Soyuz crewmates Jack Fischer of NASA and Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos.

The multinational trio touched down softly on Earth inside their Soyuz MS-04 descent capsule on Saturday evening, Sept. 2 at 9:21 p.m. EDT (shortly after sunrise 7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sept. 3), some 90 miles southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan.

Whitson wrapped up a 288-day extended mission in obviously good health that began in November 2016, spanning 122.2 million miles and 4,623 orbits of Earth – completing her third long-duration stay on the orbiting science outpost spanning Expeditions 50, 51 and 52.

“A flawless descent and landing,” said NASA commentator Rob Navias during the live NASA TV coverage of the return of the ISS Expedition 52 crew Saturday afternoon and evening US time.

“The crew is back on Earth safe and sound.”

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin of Roscosmos, and NASA astronaut Jack Fischer undergo routine initial medical checks after returning from their mission aboard the International Space Station at 9:21 p.m. EDT Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 (7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sunday, Sept. 3), landing southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. Credits: NASA TV

She has now accrued a total of 665 days in space – more than any American astronaut – over the course of her illustrious career during which she set multiple U.S. space records spanning a total of three spaceflights.

Whitson’s 665 total accumulated days in space places her eighth on the all-time space endurance list – just 8 days behind her Russian crewmate and Soyuz Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin who now ranks 7th on the all-time list with 673 days in space on his five flights. She has exceeded the endurance record of her next closest NASA competitor by 131 days – namely NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.

The remarkable 57-year-old Ph.D biochemist by training has spent nearly 2 years of her entire life in space and she holds several other prestigious records as well – including more accumulated time in space than any other woman and the longest single spaceflight by a women – 288 days!

During this mission Whitson became the first woman to serve twice as space station commander. Indeed in 2008 Whitson became the first woman ever to command the space station during her prior stay on Expedition 16 a decade ago. Her second stint as station commander this mission began earlier this year on April 9.

Whitson also holds the record for the most spacewalks and the most time spent spacewalking by a female astronaut. Altogether she has accumulated 60 hours and 21 minutes of EVA time over ten spacewalks -ranking her third most experienced in the world.

Notably Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin ranks fourth in spacewalking experience. Only Russia’s Anatoly Solovyev and NASA’s Michael Lopez-Alegria have more spacewalking time to their credit.

NASA’s Jack Fischer completed his rookie spaceflight accumulating 136 days in space aboard the ISS.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson is pictured May 12, 2017, during the 200th spacewalk at the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Whitson originally launched to the ISS on Nov 17, 2016 aboard the Russian Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as part of the three person Expedition 50 crew including flight engineers Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency).

Her flight was unexpectedly extended in flight after the Russian government decided to cut back on the number of space station crew cosmonauts this year from three to two to save money. Thus a return seat became available on this Soyuz MS-04 return flight after NASA negotiated an extension with Rosmoscos in April enabling Whitson to remain on board the orbiting outpost an additional three months beyond her than planned June return home.

Whitson’s mission extension proved to be a boon for NASA and science research enabling the US/partner USOS crew complement to be enlarged from three to four full time astronauts much earlier than expected. This allowed NASA to about double the weekly time devoted to research aboard station – a feat not expected to happen until America’s commercial crew vehicles, namely Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon – finally begin inaugural launches next year from the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2018.

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson after safe return to Earth on Sept. 2, 2017 ET. Credit: NASA

Descending dramatically while hanging below a single gigantic orange-and-white parachute the scorched Russian Soyuz vehicle fired its braking rockets just moments before touchdown in Kazakhstan to cushion the crew for a gentle landing under beautifully sunny skies.

A live NASA TV video feed captured the thrilling descent for over 14 minutes after the main parachute deployed all the way to the ground under clear blue sunny Sunday morning weather conditions and comfortably local Kazakh temperatures of 77 degrees F.

“Everything today went in perfect fashion from the undocking, to the deorbit burn to landing,” said Navias. “It went by the book with no issues.”

“We saw a spectacular 14 minute long live video of the Soyuz descent and landing.”

The Soyuz MS-04 carrying NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer and Fyodor Yurchikin of Roscosmos back to Earth from the International Space Station touched down at at 9:21 p.m. EDT Saturday, Sept. 2 (7:21 a.m. Kazakhstan time, Sunday, Sept. 3), southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. Credits: NASA TV

Russian search and recovery forces quickly arrived via a cluster of MI-8 helicopters after the soft landing to begin their normal procedures to extract the three Expedition 52 crew members from their cramped Soyuz descent module.

Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin in the center seat was hauled out first, followed by Fischer in the left side seat and lastly Whitson in the right seat. All 3 were placed on reclining seats sitting side by side and appeared quite well, conversing and speaking via satellite phones.

A group of Russian and US medical teams were on hand to check the astronauts and cosmonauts health and help the crewmates begin readapting to the tug of Earth’s gravity they have not experienced after many months of weightlessness in space.

Whitson’s final planned news conference from space with the media to sum up her experiences this past Wednesday had to be cancelled due to the catastrophic flooding events from Hurricane Harvey impacting Houston and elsewhere in Texas – including Mission Control which was forced to close multiple days.

The crews had bid their final farewells earlier and closed the hatches between the Soyuz and station at 2:40 p.m. EDT Saturday.

After conducting final spacecraft systems checks the trio unhooked the latches and undocked from the International Space Station at 5:58 p.m. EDT to begin their voyage home through the scorching heats of reentry in the Earth’s atmosphere that reached over 2500 degrees F (1400 degrees C) on the outside.

“While living and working aboard the world’s only orbiting laboratory, Whitson and Fischer contributed to hundreds of experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science, welcomed several cargo spacecraft delivering tons of supplies and research experiments, and conducted a combined six spacewalks to perform maintenance and upgrades to the station,” said NASA.

“Among their scientific exploits, Whitson and Fischer supported research into the physical changes to astronaut’s eyes caused by prolonged exposure to a microgravity environment. They also conducted a new lung tissue study that explored how stem cells work in the unique microgravity environment of the space station, which may pave the way for future stem cell research in space.”

“Additional research included an antibody investigation that could increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs for cancer treatment, and the study of plant physiology and growth in space using an advanced plant habitat. NASA also attached the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass Investigation (ISS CREAM) on the outside of the space station in August, which is now observing cosmic rays coming from across the galaxy.”

Astronaut Peggy Whitson signs her autograph near an Expedition 50 mission patch attached to the inside the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

ISS Expedition 53 began at the moment of undocking from the space station, now under the command of veteran NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik since the official change of command ceremony on Friday.

Along with his crewmates Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos and Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency), the three-person crew will operate the station for the next 10 days until the imminent arrival of three new crew members.

The station will get back to a full complement of six crewmembers after the upcoming Sept. 12 launch and fast track 4 orbit 6 hour docking of NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba of NASA and Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos aboard the next Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft departing from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile the next launch from the Kennedy Space Center is slated for this Thursday, Sept.7 is the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the USAF X-37B OTV-5 military mini-shuttle to low Earth orbit -detailed here.

Peggy Whitson set the record on Sept. 2, 2017, for most cumulative days living and working in space by a NASA astronaut at 665 days. Credit: NASA
Expedition 52 Flight Engineer Peggy Whitson of NASA, Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Flight Engineer Jack Fischer of NASA float through the Harmony module of the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and 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

Soyuz has split into 3 modules 139.8 km above Earth. Crew parachutes to landing inside Descent Module at 9:22 pm ET Sept. 2, 2017. Credit: NASA
Expedition 52 crew returns to Earth Sept. 2, 2017. Credit: NASA
Peggy Whitson @AstroPeggy is 3rd place all-time for cumulative spacewalk time with 10 spacewalks totaling 60 hours, 21 minutes. Credit: NASA

Elon Musk Reveals New SpaceX Spacesuit

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk made public the first official photo of the commercial space company’s spacesuit design with a post on Instagram today. He indicated he’ll have more details soon and said this first ‘reveal’ isn’t just a prototype design; it’s a real, working spacesuit.

“Worth noting that this actually works (not a mockup)” Musk said. “Already tested to double vacuum pressure.”

The person inside the suit – in what looks to be a computer generated photo – looks much like Musk himself, although the face is rather hard to make out.

Following the design of many previous spacesuits, it comes in white. Musk said in designing the suit, it was “incredibly hard to balance esthetics and function. Easy to do either separately.”

There has been some discussion on social media about the orientation of the flag, as it appears to many to be “backward.” However, this follows US military custom of flags on uniforms, positioned on the right shoulder in this same orientation, with stars facing forward. This gives the effect of the flag “flying in the breeze” as the person in the uniform/spacesuit moves forward.

These are the spacesuits that will be worn by the astronauts who make the first flights on the Dragon Capsule to the International Space Station as part of the commercial crew program. The target for the first humans aboard Dragon is next year, mid-2018.

If you are looking for a spacesuit that has a little more pop of color — as well as a heart-felt mission — NASA also held a special news conference from the International Space Station today revealing a colorful new spacesuit created by children around the world who are suffering from cancer.

The Space Suit Art Project is a collaboration between NASA, spacesuit maker ILC Dover and children in hospitals around the world. This suit, called Unity, is the third in a series of suits. The suits are made of colorful patches made by young cancer patients, giving the kids an opportunity to be part of a lasting and out-of-this-world project.

Astronaut Jack Fischer donned the special (non-functioning) spacesuit and said it was tricky to get into, just like a real spacesuit. But this suit, Fischer said, “gives you the honor to represent the bravest kids in the world, who put it together.” Fischer’s daughter Bethany, is a cancer survivor.

Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Spaceship

Think of the ease. With a simple command of “Make it so” humans travelled from one star to the next in less time than for drinking a cup of coffee. At least that’s what happens in the time-restricted domain of television. In reality it’s not so easy. Nor does Rachel Armstrong misrepresent this point in her book of essays within “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship“; a book that brings some fundamental reality to star travel.

Yes, many people want to travel to other stars. We’re not ready for that. We’re still just planning on getting outside Earth’s protective atmosphere (again). Yet making preparations and doing judicious planning is the aim of this book. Wisely though, this book isn’t technical. It has no mention of specific impulse calculations or ion shields. Rather, this book takes a very liberal view of space travel and ponders deep questions such as whether the cosmos is an ecosystem.

Does our species have an appropriate culture for space travel? What exactly is a human? These concerns get raised in some very thought provoking sections. And given that the editor is an architect and one who apparently considers the emotional qualities of a structure as much as functional qualities, then this book’s presentation tends to be a little more on the philosophical side of things.

In particular, it looks at the benefits of living entities. For instance it notes that humans live in symbiotic relationships with a host of internal and external organisms. Most have already gone into space either within people who have traveled in space or possibly upon probes sent to other planets. So we aren’t the only species that’s traveled beyond Earth. But which beings are sufficient and necessary to keep humans alive for the generations needed to travel to another star? That question and many answers come up often.

As well, the essays get into bigger questions such as: What is life? Could the vessel be an organic construct? How might today’s humans evolve to tomorrow’s star travelers? Should humans travel in space and promote/continue panspermia? Yes, these questions and many more are raised in the essays collected within this book. And true to form for any book considering star travel, there aren’t any strict answers. There are however lots of ideas and concepts to better prepare humans.

Much of this book seems to center around the authors’ involvement with the Persephone project of Icarus Interstellar. Yet there’s very little description of either. However, the book does have wonderful descriptions of Biitschli experiments, explanations of living walls and critiques of theatrical productions.

There are a few fictional passages and some poetry. The long list of references indicates a broad knowledge of the technical issues, though the focus is on humanity and the living aspect. This focus flows through the essays, but having a collection of many authors makes for a disjointed flow. The writing styles are unique, the viewpoints are particular and the emphasis specialized for each. One common viewpoint does keep arising though. That is, we are already on a living spaceship; the Earth. Earth gives a unique platform for assessing the ability to travel to other stars. The essays state that it is or at least was a veritable, closed self-sustaining life support system. And, as seems to be the norm these days, the essays acknowledge that solutions for space travel would be just as good for people remaining behind upon Earth or travelling to the Moon or to Mars and so on. This care and concern for living organism keeps the book grounded, so to speak.

The all-encompassing-solution-finder may be a strength or a weakness to Rachel Armstrong’s collection within the book “Star Ark – A Living Self-Sustaining Spaceship”. As the book’s essays describe, humans have an incredible ability to think and act in abstract fashion. Just envisioning an attempt to send sentient beings to another star demonstrates this. But will we be able to enact this idea and what form might a star vessel take? Reading of this is easy. Will taking the necessary steps be just as easy?

The book is available here through Springer.
Learn more about the author, Rachel Armstrong, here.