Make or break time for NASA’s big bet on commercial space transportation is at last in view. NASA has announced Feb. 7, 2012 as the launch target date for the first attempt by SpaceX to dock the firms Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), pending final safety reviews.
The Feb. 7 flight will be the second of the so-called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flights to be conducted by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, under a contact with NASA.
Several months ago SpaceX had requested that the objectives of the next two COTS flights, known as COTS 2 and COTS 3, be merged into one very ambitious flight and allow the Dragon vehicle to actually dock at the ISS instead of only accomplishing a rendezvous test on the next flight and waiting until the third COTS flight to carry out the final docking attempt.
The Dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about one week and astronauts will unload the cargo. Then the spacecraft will depart, re-enter the Earth atmosphere splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
“The cargo is hundreds of pounds of astronaut provisions,” SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham told Universe Today.
“SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory.”
Since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle following the final fight with orbiter Atlantis in July 2011 on the STS-135 mission, the US has had absolutely zero capability to launch either supplies or human crews to the massive orbiting complex, which is composed primarily of US components.
In a NASA statement, Gerstenmaier added, “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it and are prepared for unexpected challenges. As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”
SpaceX lofted the COTS 1 flight a year ago on Dec. 8, 2010 and became the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from Earth orbit. SpaceX assembled both the Falcon 9 booster rocket and the Dragon cargo vessel from US built components.
The new demonstration flight is now dubbed COTS 2/3. The objectives include Dragon safely demonstrating all COTS 2 operations in the vicinity of the ISS by conducting check out procedures and a series of rendezvous operations at a distance of approximately two miles and the ability to abort if necessary.
The European ATV and Japanese HTV cargo vessels carried out a similar series of tests during their respective first flights.
After accomplishing all the rendezvous tasks, Dragon will then receive approval to begin the COTS 3 activities, gradually approaching the ISS from below to within a few meters.
Specially trained astronauts working in the Cupola will then reach out and grapple Dragon with the Station’s robotic arm and then maneuver it carefully into place onto the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node. The operations are expected to take several hours.
If successful, the Feb. 7 SpaceX demonstration flight will become the first commercial mission to visit the ISS and vindicate the advocates of commercial space transportation who contend that allowing private companies to compete for contracts to provide cargo delivery services to the ISS will result in dramatically reduced costs and risks and increased efficiencies.
The new commercial paradigm would also thereby allow NASA to focus more of its scarce funds on research activities to come up with the next breakthroughs enabling bolder missions to deep space.
If the flight fails, then the future of the ISS could be in serious jeopardy in the medium to long term because there would not be sufficient alternative launch cargo capacity to maintain the research and living requirements for a full crew complement of six residents aboard the orbiting laboratory.
Feb. 7 represents nothing less than ‘High Stakes on the High Frontier’.
NASA is all about bold objectives in space exploration in both the manned and robotic arenas – and that’s perfectly represented by the agencies huge gamble with the commercial cargo and commercial crew initiatives.
The United States Air Force’s second flight of the X-37B – is headed into extra innings. Known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) this robotic mini space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Mar. 5, 2011. Although the U.S. Air Force has kept mum regarding details about the space plane’s mission – it has announced that the OTV-2 has exceeded its endurance limit of 270 days on orbit as of the end of November.
The OTV is launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket. The space plane is protected within a fairing until it reaches orbit. After separation, the diminutive shuttle begins its mission.
OTV mission USA-226, as it is officially known, is by all accounts going smoothly and the spacecraft is reported to be in good health. The U.S. Air Force has not announced when OTV-2 will be directed to land.
The fact that the space plane will continue to orbit beyond what its stated limits are highlights that the OTV has greater capabilities than what was officially announced. The first OTV flight launched in April of 2011 and landed 224 days later at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is undoubtedly being more judicious with fuel stores on board the robotic spacecraft, allowing for a longer duration flight.
Much like NASA’s retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the OTV has a payload bay that allows for payloads and experiments to be conducted on-orbit. What payloads the U.S. Air Force has had on either mission – remains a secret.
Boeing has announced that the X-37B could be modified to conduct crewed missions to and from orbit. Tentatively named the X-37C, this spacecraft would be roughly twice the size of its unmanned cousin. If this variant goes into service it would be used to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).
The X-37B has become a bit controversial of late. Members of the Chinese press have stated that the space plane raises concerns of an arms race in space. Xinhua News Agency and China Daily have expressed concern that the OTVs could be used to deliver weapons to orbit. The Pentagon has flatly denied these allegations. The clandestine nature of these flights have led to a wide variety of theories as to what the OTVs have been used to ferry to orbit.
For a birds-eye view of where it all started, watch the cool close-up launch video, below taken from within the Atlas pad security fence.
Indeed the launch precision was so good that mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadsena, Calif., have announced they postponed the first of six planned course correction burns for the agency’s newest Mars rover by at least a month. The firing had been planned for some two weeks after liftoff.
Curiosity is merrily sailing on a 254 day and 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) interplanetary flight from the Earth to Mars that will culminate on August 6, 2012 with a dramatic first-of-its-kind precision rocket powered touchdown inside Gale Crater.
“This was among the most accurate interplanetary injections ever,” said Louis D’Amario of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. He is the mission design and navigation manager for the Mars Science Laboratory.
Video Caption: View from inside the Pad 41 Security Fence at Cape Canaveral. Shot by a Canon 7D still camera during the launch of the Atlas V rocket carrying the MSL Curiosity rover to Mars. Thanks to a sound trigger my camera started firing at three frames per second from just after main engine ignition up until the exhaust plume finally envelops the camera and deadens all sound around it. The frames have been slowed down quite a bit for dramatic effect. Enjoy seeing what it is like for us media personnel who set out our remote cameras for launches at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Chase Clark/shuttlephotos.com
As of midday Friday, Dec. 2, the spacecraft had already traveled 10.8 million miles (17.3 million kilometers) and is moving at 7,500 mph (12,000 kilometers per hour) relative to Earth and at 73,800 mph (118,700 kilometers per hour) relative to the sun.
An interesting fact is that engineers deliberately planned the spacecraft’s initial trajectory to miss Mars by about 35,000 miles (56,400 kilometers) so that the Centaur upper stage does not hit Mars by accident. Both Centaur and Curiosity are currently following the same trajectory through the vast void of space and the actual trajectory puts them on course to miss Mars by about 38,000 miles (61,200 kilometers).
The Centaur has not been thoroughly cleaned of earthly microbes in the same way as Curiosity – and therefore cannot be permitted to impact the Martian surface and potentially contaminate the very studies Curiosity seeks to carry out in searching for the “Signs of Life”.
For the 8.5 month voyage to Mars, Curiosity and the rocket powered descent stage are tucked inside an aeroshell and are attached to the huge solar powered cruise stage.
The cruise stage is rotating at 2.05 rounds per minutes and is continuously generating electric power – currently about 800 watts – from the gleaming solar arrays. It also houses eight miniature hydrazine fueled thrusters. The propellant is stored inside titanium tanks.
The historic voyage of the largest and most sophisticated Martian rover ever built by humans seeks to determine if Mars ever offered conditions favorable for the genesis of microbial life.
Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking to detect the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.
The car sized robot is equipped with a drill and scoop at the end of its 7 ft long robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into two distinct analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.
NASA’s Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover is speeding away from Earth on a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars following a gorgeous liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 10:02 a.m. EST on Nov. 26.
Enjoy the gallery of Curiosity launch images collected here from the Universe Today team and local photographers as well as NASA and United Launch Alliance.
“We are very excited about sending the world’s most advanced scientific laboratory to Mars,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “MSL will tell us critical things we need to know about Mars, and while it advances science, we’ll be working on the capabilities for a human mission to the Red Planet and to other destinations where we’ve never been.”
The mission will pioneer a first of its kind precision landing technology and a sky- crane touchdown to deliver the car sized rover to the foothills of a towering and layered mountain inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012.
Curiosity is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments that are seeking the signs of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it.
The robot is equipped with a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover.
The 1 ton Curiosity rover sports a science payload that’s 15 times heavier than NASA’s previous set of rovers – Spirit and Opportunity – which landed on Mars in 2004. Some of the tools are the first of their kind on Mars, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking the elemental composition of rocks from a distance, and an X-ray diffraction instrument for definitive identification of minerals in powdered samples.
Launch Video – Credit: Matthew Travis/Spacearium
Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
Atop a towering inferno of sparkling flames and billowing ash, Humankinds millennial long quest to ascertain “Are We Alone ?” soared skywards today (Nov. 26) with a sophisticated spaceship named ‘Curiosity’ – NASA’s newest, biggest and most up to date robotic surveyor that’s specifically tasked to hunt for the ‘Ingredients of Life’ on Mars, the most ‘Earth-like’ planet in our Solar System.
Curiosity’s noble goal is to meticulously gather and sift through samples of Martian soil and rocks in pursuit of the tell-tale signatures of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based building blocks of life as we know it – as well as clays and sulfate minerals that may preserve evidence of habitats and environments that could support the genesis of Martian microbial life forms, past or present.
The Atlas V booster carrying Curiosity to the Red Planet vaulted off the launch pad on 2 million pounds of thrust and put on a spectacular sky show for the throngs of spectators who journeyed to the Kennedy Space Center from across the globe, crowded around the Florida Space Coast’s beaches, waterways and roadways and came to witness firsthand the liftoff of the $2.5 Billion Curiosity Mars Science Lab (MSL) rover.
The car sized Curiosity rover is the most ambitious, important and far reaching science probe ever sent to the Red Planet – and the likes of which we have never seen or attempted before.
“Science fiction is now science fact,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters at the post launch briefing for reporters at KSC. “We’re flying to Mars. We’ll get it on the ground… and see what we find.”
“’Ecstatic’ – in a word, NASA is Ecstatic. We have started a new Era in the Exploration of Mars with this mission – technologically and scientifically. MSL is enormous, the equivalent of 3 missions frankly.”
“We’re exactly where we want to be, moving fast and cruising to Mars.”
NASA is utilizing an unprecedented, rocket powered precision descent system to guide Curiosity to a pinpoint touch down inside the Gale Crater landing site, with all six wheels deployed.
Gale Crater is 154 km (96 mi) wide. It is dominated by layered terrain and an enormous mountain rising some 5 km (3 mi) above the crater floor which exhibits exposures of minerals that may have preserved evidence of ancient or extant Martian life.
“I hope we have more work than the scientists can actually handle. I expect them all to be overrun with data that they’ve never seen before.”
“The first images from the bottom of Gale Crater should be stunning. The public will see vistas we’ve never seen before. It will be like sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” said McCuistion.
The 197 ft tall Atlas booster’s powerful liquid and solid fueled engines ignited precisely on time with a flash and thunderous roar that grew more intense as the expanding plume of smoke and fire trailed behind the rapidly ascending rockets tail.
The Atlas rockets first stage is comprised of twin Russian built RD-180 liquid fueled engines and four US built solid rocket motors.
The engines powered the accelerating climb to space and propelled the booster away from the US East Coast as it majestically arced over in between broken layers of clouds. The four solids jettisoned 1 minute and 55 seconds later. The liquid fueled core continued firing until its propellants were expended and dropped away at T plus four and one half minutes.
The hydrogen fueled Centaur second stage successfully fired twice and placed the probe on an Earth escape trajectory at 22,500 MPH.
The Atlas V initially lofted the spacecraft into Earth orbit and then, with a second burst from the Centaur, pushed it out of Earth orbit into a 352-million-mile (567-million-kilometer) journey to Mars.
MSL spacecraft separation of the solar powered cruise stage stack from the Centaur upper stage occurred at T plus 44 minutes and was beautifully captured on a live NASA TV streaming video feed.
“Our spacecraft is in excellent health and it’s on its way to Mars,” said Pete Theisinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California at the briefing. “I want to thank the launch team, United Launch Alliance, NASA’s Launch Services Program and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for their help getting MSL into space.”
“The launch vehicle has given us a first rate injection into our trajectory and we’re in cruise mode. The spacecraft is in communication, thermally stable and power positive.”
“I’m very happy.”
“Our first trajectory correction maneuver will be in about two weeks,” Theisinger added.
“We’ll do instrument checkouts in the next several weeks and continue with thorough preparations for the landing on Mars and operations on the surface.”
Curiosity is a 900 kg (2000 pound) behemoth. She measures 3 meters (10 ft) in length and is nearly twice the size and five times as heavy as Spirit and Opportunity, NASA’s prior set of twin Martian robots.
NASA was only given enough money to build 1 rover this time.
“We are ready to go for landing on the surface of Mars, and we couldn’t be happier,” said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory Project Scientist from the California Institute of Technology at the briefing. “I think this mission will be a great one. It is an important next step in NASA’s overall goal to address the issue of life in the universe.”
Curiosity is equipped with a powerful 75 kilogram (165 pounds) array of 10 state-of-the-art science instruments weighing 15 times more than its predecessor’s science payloads.
A drill and scoop located at the end of the robotic arm will gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside the rover. A laser will zap rocks to determine elemental composition.
“We are not a life detection mission.”
“It is important to distinguish that as an intermediate mission between the Mars Exploration Rovers, which was the search for water, and future missions, which may undertake life detection.”
“Our mission is about looking for ancient habitable environments – a time on Mars which is very different from the conditions on Mars today.”
“The promise of Mars Science Laboratory, assuming that all things behave nominally, is we can deliver to you a history of formerly, potentially habitable environments on Mars,” Grotzinger said at the briefing. “But the expectation that we’re going to find organic carbon, that’s the hope of Mars Science Laboratory. It’s a long shot, but we’re going to try.”
Today’s liftoff was the culmination of about 10 years of efforts by the more than 250 science team members and the diligent work of thousands more researchers, engineers and technicians spread around numerous locations across the United States and NASA’s international partners including Canada, Germany, Russia, Spain and France.
“Scientists chose the site they wanted to go to for the first time in history, because of the precision engineering landing system. We are going to the very best place we could find, exactly where we want to go.”
“I can’t wait to get on the ground,” said Grotzinger.
Complete Coverage of Curiosity – NASA’s Next Mars Rover launched 26 Nov. 2011
Read continuing features about Curiosity by Ken Kremer starting here:
And it won’t open up again until a few minutes after she blasts off for the Red Planet in just a little more than 3 weeks from now on Nov. 25, 2011 – the day after Thanksgiving celebrations in America.
The two halves of the payload fairing serve to protect NASA’s next Mars rover during the thunderous ascent through Earth’s atmosphere atop the powerful Atlas V booster rocket that will propel her on a fantastic voyage of hundreds of millions of miles through interplanetary space.
Spacecraft technicians working inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida have now sealed Curiosity and her aeroshell inside the payload fairing shroud. The fairing insulates the car sized robot from the intense impact of aerodynamic pressure and heating during ascent. At just the right moment it will peal open and be jettisoned like excess baggage after the rocket punches through the discernable atmosphere.
The next trip Curiosity takes will be a few miles to the Launch Pad at Space Launch Complex 41 at adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. She will be gingerly loaded onto a truck for a sojourn in the dead of night.
“Curiosity will be placed onto the payload transporter on Tuesday and goes to Complex 41 on Wednesday, Nov. 2,” KSC spokesman George Diller told Universe Today. “The logo was applied to the fairing this weekend.”
At Pad 41, the payload will then be hoisted atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and be bolted to the Centaur upper stage.
Installation of Curiosity’s MMRTG (Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) power source is one of the very last jobs and occurs at the pad just in the very final days before liftoff for Mars.
The MMRTG will be installed through a small porthole in the payload fairing and the aeroshell (see photo below).
The plutonium dioxide based power source has more than 40 years of heritage in interplanetary exploration and will significantly enhance the driving range, scientific capability and working lifetime of the six wheeled rover compared to the solar powered rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
After a 10 month voyage, Curiosity is due to land at Gale Crater in August 2012 using the revolutionary sky crane powered descent vehicle for the first time on Mars.
Curiosity has 10 science instruments to search for evidence about whether Mars has had environments favorable for microbial life, including chemical ingredients for life. The unique rover will use a laser to look inside rocks and release the gasses so that its spectrometer can analyze and send the data back to Earth.
Phobos-Grunt, Earth’s other mission to Mars courtesy of Russia is due to blast off first from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on November 9, 2011.