Buildup Of First Boeing Starliner Crew Vehicle Ramps Up at Kennedy Space Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Buildup of the first of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew spaceships is ramping up at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) – the new spacecraft manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

In less than two years time Boeing Starliners will start launching NASA astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) atop Atlas V rockets from Florida. Continue reading “Buildup Of First Boeing Starliner Crew Vehicle Ramps Up at Kennedy Space Center”

NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016

NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18, which funds the US government through the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year. Continue reading “NASA Receives Significant Budget Boost for Fiscal Year 2016”

NASA Orders First Commercial Crew Mission to Space Station from SpaceX

SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida  for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is  undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Restoring America’s ability to once again launch US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from US soil on US rockets took another significant step forward when NASA ordered the first the agency’s first commercial crew rotation mission from the Hawthorne, California based-company SpaceX. NASA and SpaceX hope that the blastoff with a crew of up to four astronauts will take place by late 2017.

The new Nov. 20 award from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) office to launch the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule follows up on an earlier commercial crew rotation mission award this past May to the Boeing Company of Houston to launch its CST-100 Starliner astronaut crew capsule to the ISS.

Since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in Continue reading “NASA Orders First Commercial Crew Mission to Space Station from SpaceX”

Congressional Slashes to NASA Commercial Crew Force Bolden to ‘Buy Russian’ rather than ‘Buy American’

In the face of drastic funding cuts by the US Congress to NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) aimed at restoring America’s indigenous launch capability to fly our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is being forced to spend another half a billion dollars for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft instead of astronaut transport ships built by American workers in American manufacturing facilities.

The end effect of significantly slashing NASA’s Fiscal 2016 commercial crew budget request by both the US Senate and the US House is to tell NASA to ‘Buy Russian’ rather than to ‘Buy American.’

The $490 million of US taxpayer dollars will pay for six astronaut seats on the Soyuz manned capsule in 2018 and 2019 – that are now required due to uncertainty over whether the pair of new crewed transporters being built by Boeing and SpaceX for NASA will actually be available in 2017 as planned.

Furthermore the average cost per seat under the new contract with Russia rises to $81.7 million compared to about $76 million for the most recent contract, an increase of about 7 percent.

In response to the Congressional CCP budget cuts, NASA Administrator Bolden sent a letter notifying Congressional lawmakers about the agency’s new contract modifications with the Russian space agency about future crewed flights to the space station.

“I am writing to inform you that NASA, once again, has modified its current contract with the Russian government to meet America’s requirements for crew transportation services. Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to the U.S. taxpayers will be approximately $490 million,” Bolden wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to the leaders of the House and Senate committees responsible for deciding NASA’s funding.

The budget situation is completely inexplicable given the relentless pressure from Congress, led be Sen. John McCain, on the Department of Defense and US aerospace firm United Launch Alliance (ULA) to stop purchasing and using the Russian-made RD-180 engines for the 100% reliable Atlas V rocket by 2019 – as a way to punish Russian’s President Vladimir Putin and his allies.

Because on the other hand, those same congressional ‘leaders’ clearly have no hesitation whatsoever in putting money into Putin’s allies pockets via the NASA commercial crew account – at the expense of jobs for American workers and while simultaneously potentially endangering the ISS as a hedge against possible Russian launch failures. Multiple Russian and American rockets have suffered launch failures over the past year.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of their privately developed CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The purpose of CCP is to end our “sole reliance” on the Russian Soyuz capsule and launch US astronauts on US rockets and spaceships from US soil by 2017.

With CCP we would continue to work cooperatively with the Russians to everyone’s benefit – but not be totally dependent on them.

Under NASA’s CCtCAP contract, the first orbital flights of the new ‘space taxis’ launching our astronauts to the International Space Station had been slated to blastoff in 2017. But that schedule was entirely dependent on NASA’s ability to pay both aerospace companies as they made progress on completing the contacted milestones absolutely critical to achieving flight status.

Bolden had already notified Congress in February that the new contract modification would become necessary if Congress failed to fully fund the CCP program to enable the 2017 flights.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s trio of shuttle orbiters in 2011, all American and ISS partner astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride on the Soyuz for flights to the ISS and back.

“Our plans to return launches to American soil make fiscal sense,” Bolden said recently. “It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.”

Instead, the Obama Administrations 2016 request for commercial crew (CCP) amounting to $1.244 Billion was dealt another blow, and slashed to only $900 million and $1.0 Billion by the Senate and House committees respectively.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

And this is just the latest in a lengthy string of cuts by Congress – which has not fully funded the Administration’s CCP funding requests, since its inception in 2010.

The budget significant budget slashes amounting to 50% or more by Congress, have already forced NASA to delay the first commercial crew flights of the private ‘space taxis’ from 2015 to 2017.

“Due to their continued reductions in the president’s funding requests for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program over the past several years, NASA was forced to extend its existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station. This contract modification is valued at about $490 million,” said NASA.

So the net effect of Congressional CCP cuts has been to prolong US sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz manned capsule at a cost to the US taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Indeed, given the crisis in Ukraine and recent Russian launch failures, one might think the Congress would eagerly embrace wanting to reduce our total dependence on the Russians for human spaceflight.

“Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned,” Bolden’s letter explains.

“This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS.”

“In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding.”

So if Congress had funded the commercial crew program, the US would have launched its first human crews on the CST-100 and crew Dragon to the ISS this year – 2015.

NASA has selected experienced astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams to work closely with The Boeing Company and SpaceX to develop their crew transportation systems and provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station.  Credits: NASA
NASA has selected experienced astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams to work closely with The Boeing Company and SpaceX to develop their crew transportation systems and provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Bolden also repeated his request to work with the leaders of Congress in the best interests of our country.

“I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry – the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX – to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.”

Currently, both Boeing and SpaceX are on track to meet the 2017 objective – but only if the CCP funds are restored.

Otherwise the contracts will have to be renegotiated and progress will be severely reduced – all at added cost. Another instance of pennywise and pound foolish.

“Our Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contractors are on track today to provide certified crew transportation systems in 2017,” says Bolden.

“Reductions from the FY 2016 request for Commercial Crew proposed in the House and Senate FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bills would result in NASA’s inability to fund several planned CCtCap milestones in FY 2016 and would likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of FY 2016.”

“If this occurs, the existing fixed-price CCtCap contracts may need to be renegotiated, likely resulting in further schedule slippage and increased cost.”

Overall, it’s just a terrible state of affairs for the future of US human spaceflight, as Congress once again places partisan politics ahead of the interests of the American people.

The fact is that the commercial crew space taxis from Boeing and SpaceX are the fastest, cheapest and most efficient pathway to get our astronaut crews to the Earth orbiting space station and back.

Common sense says we must restore our independent path to the ISS – safely and as quickly as possible.

SpaceX and Boeing are building the private crew Dragon and CST-100 spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil aboard Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets (similar to these) to the International Space Station in 2017 - depending on funding from Congress. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX and Boeing are building the private crew Dragon and CST-100 spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil aboard Falcon 9 and Atlas V rockets (similar to these) to the International Space Station in 2017 – depending on funding from Congress. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Names Four Astronauts for First Boeing, SpaceX U.S. Commercial Spaceflights

NASA today (July 9) named the first four astronauts who will fly on the first U.S. commercial spaceflights in private crew transportation vehicles being built by Boeing and SpaceX – marking a major milestone towards restoring American human launches to U.S. soil as soon as mid-2017, if all goes well.

The four astronauts chosen are all veterans of flights on NASA’s Space Shuttles and to the International Space Station (ISS); Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams. They now form the core of NASA’s commercial crew astronaut corps eligible for the maiden test flights on board the Boeing CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut capsules.

Behnken, Boe and Hurley have each launched on two shuttle missions and Williams is a veteran of two long-duration flights aboard the ISS after launching on both the shuttle and Soyuz. All four served as military test pilots prior to being selected as NASA astronauts.

The experienced quartet of space flyers will work closely with Boeing and SpaceX as they begin training and prepare to launch aboard the first ever commercial ‘space taxi’ ferry flight missions to the ISS and back – that will also end our sole source reliance on the Russian Soyuz capsule for crewed missions to low-Earth orbit and further serve to open up space exploration and transportation services to the private sector.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of the privately developed CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

“I am pleased to announce four American space pioneers have been selected to be the first astronauts to train to fly to space on commercial crew vehicles, all part of our ambitious plan to return space launches to U.S. soil, create good-paying American jobs and advance our goal of sending humans farther into the solar system than ever before,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement.

“These distinguished, veteran astronauts are blazing a new trail — a trail that will one day land them in the history books and Americans on the surface of Mars.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The selection of astronauts for rides with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) comes almost exactly four years to the day since the last American manned space launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-135 mission to the space station on July 8, 2011 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hurley was a member of the STS-135 crew and served as shuttle pilot under NASA’s last shuttle commander, Chris Ferguson, who is now Director of Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew program. Read my earlier exclusive interviews with Ferguson about the CST-100 – here and here.

Since the retirement of the shuttle orbiters, all American and ISS partner astronauts have been forced to hitch a ride on the Soyuz for flights to the ISS and back, at a current cost of over $70 million per seat.

“Our plans to return launches to American soil make fiscal sense,” Bolden elaborated. “It currently costs $76 million per astronaut to fly on a Russian spacecraft. On an American-owned spacecraft, the average cost will be $58 million per astronaut.

Behnken, Boe, Hurley and Williams are all eager to work with the Boeing and SpaceX teams to “understand their designs and operations as they finalize their Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and operational strategies in support of their crewed flight tests and certification activities as part of their contracts with NASA.”

Until June 2015, Williams held the record for longest time in space by a woman, accumulating 322 days in orbit. Behnken is currently the chief of the astronaut core and conducted six space walks at the station. Boe has spent over 28 days in space and flew on the final mission of Space Shuttle Discovery in Feb. 2011 on STS-133.

The first commercial crew flights under the CCtCAP contract could take place in 2017 with at least one member of the two person crews being a NASA astronaut – who will be “on board to verify the fully-integrated rocket and spacecraft system can launch, maneuver in orbit, and dock to the space station, as well as validate all systems perform as expected, and land safely,” according to a NASA statement.

The second crew member could be a company test pilot as the details remain to be worked out.

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

The actual launch date depends on the NASA budget allocation for the Commercial Crew Program approved by the US Congress.

Congress has never approved NASA’s full funding request for the CCP program and has again cut the program significantly in initial votes this year. So the outlook for a 2017 launch is very uncertain.

Were it not for the drastic CCP cuts we would be launching astronauts this year on the space taxis.

“Every dollar we invest in commercial crew is a dollar we invest in ourselves, rather than in the Russian economy,” Bolden emphasizes about the multifaceted benefits of the commercial crew initiative.

Under the CCtCAP contract, NASA recently ordered the agency’s first commercial crew mission from Boeing – as outlined in my story here. SpaceX will receive a similar CCtCAP mission order later this year.

At a later date, NASA will decide whether Boeing or SpaceX will launch the actual first commercial crew test flight mission to low Earth orbit.

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“This is a new and exciting era in the history of U.S. human spaceflight,” said Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a statement.

“These four individuals, like so many at NASA and the Flight Operations Directorate, have dedicated their careers to becoming experts in the field of aeronautics and furthering human space exploration. The selection of these experienced astronauts who are eligible to fly aboard the test flights for the next generation of U.S. spacecraft to the ISS and low-Earth orbit ensures that the crews will be well-prepared and thoroughly trained for their missions.”

Both the CST-100 and Crew Dragon will typically carry a crew of four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members, along with some 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. Each will also be capable of carrying up to seven crew members depending on how the capsule is configured.

The spacecraft will be capable to remaining docked at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time.

The NASA CCtCAP contracts call for a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions from each provider.

The station crew will also be enlarged to seven people that will enable a doubling of research time.
The CST-100 will be carried to low Earth orbit atop a man-rated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. It enjoys a 100% success rate.

Boeing will first conduct a pair of unmanned and manned orbital CST-100 test flights earlier in 2017 in April and July, prior to the operational commercial crew rotation mission to confirm that their capsule is ready and able and met all certification milestone requirements set by NASA.

The Crew Dragon will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It enjoyed a 100% success rate until last weeks launch on its 19th flight which ended with an explosion two minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral on June 28, 2015.

Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch  from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Umbilicals away and detaching from SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 28, 2015 that was doomed to disaster soon thereafter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX conducted a successful Pad Abort Test of the Crew Dragon on May 6, as I reported here. The goal was to test the spacecrafts abort systems that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the case of a launch emergency such as occurred during the June 28 rocket failure in flight that was bound for the ISS with the initial cargo version of the SpaceX Dragon.

SpaceX plans an unmanned orbital test flight of Crew Dragon perhaps by the end of 2016. The crewed orbital test flight would follow sometime in 2017.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Completes Successful Crew Dragon Test of Astronaut Life Saving Escape System

Soaring on the power of an octet of SuperDrago engines, SpaceX successfully completed a critical rapid fire life-saving test of their Dragon crew capsules pad abort emergency escape system that would ignite in a split second to save the astronauts lives in the unlikely event of a failure of the Falcon 9 booster rocket at the Cape Canaveral launch pad.

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon roared swiftly skywards upon ignition of the test vehicle’s integrated SuperDraco engines at 9 a.m EDT this morning, Wednesday, May 6, for the mile high test conducted from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a specially built platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

A human-sized crash test dummy was seated inside for the test exercise which ended safely with a parachute assisted Atlantic Ocean splashdown after less than two minutes. There were no astronauts aboard.

The SuperDraco engines fired for approximately six seconds and accelerated the crew Dragon “from 0 to 100 mph in 1.2 seconds. It reached a top speed of about 345 mph,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a post test briefing.

“This bodes quite well for the future of the program. I don’t want to jinx it, but this is really quite a good indication for the future of Dragon.” said Elon Musk.

“We hope to launch the first crews to the ISS within about two years, plus or minus six months.”

The side mounted escape engines mark a revolutionary change from the traditional top mounted launch escape system used previously in the Mercury, Apollo, Soyuz and Orion human spaceflight capsules. The space shuttle had no escape system beyond ejections seats used on the first four flights.

Dragon was mounted atop the finned trunk section for the test. The entire Dragon/trunk assembly was about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

The test is a critical milestone towards the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

“This is a critical step toward ensuring crew safety for government and commercial endeavors in low-Earth orbit,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“Congratulations to SpaceX on what appears to have been a successful test on the company’s road toward achieving NASA certification of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for missions to and from the International Space Station.”

Here is a video of the Pad Abort Test:

Video caption: Powered by its SuperDraco engines, the uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon flies through its paces in the Pad Abort Test from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA

After all the monomethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide hypergolic propellants were consumed, Dragon soared as planned to an altitude of about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad. At about T+21 seconds the trunk was jettisoned and the spacecraft began a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again as it arced out eastwards over the ocean.

The drogue chutes and trio of red and white main parachutes deployed as planned for a picturesque Dragon splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean about a mile offshore of its Cape Canaveral launch pad. The capsule was retrieved from the ocean by waiting recovery boats.

Today’s pad abort demonstration tested the ability of the set of eight SuperDraco engines integrated directly into the side walls of the crew Dragon to ignite simultaneously and pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second – in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

Therefore the Pad Abort Test did not include an actual Falcon 9 booster since it was focused on a checkout of the capsule’s escape capability.

Sequence of May 6, 2015 SpaceX Pad Abort Test Flight in Four Frames. Credit: NASA
Sequence of May 6, 2015 SpaceX Pad Abort Test Flight in Four Frames. Credit: NASA

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs built into the capsule around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds in under one second, to propel the astronauts safely away.

The entire test lasted less than two minutes.

The test was webcast live on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The crew Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors to measure a wide range of vehicle, engine, acceleration and abort test parameters.

The pad abort test was accomplished under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA, that will eventually lead to certification of the Dragon for crewed missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

A second Dragon flight test follows later in the year, perhaps in the summer. It will launch from a SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q) at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives.

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the ocean.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX, at a prelaunch briefing.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

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

Ken Kremer

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Key Facts and Timeline for SpaceX Crewed Dragon’s First Test Flight May 6 – Watch Live

The first critical test flight of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon that will soon launch American astronauts back to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil is now less than two days away.

The test flight – called the Pad Abort Test – is slated for the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 6, if all goes well. The key facts and a timeline of the test events are outlined herein.

The test vehicle will reach roughly a mile in altitude (5000 feet, 1500 meters) and last only about 90 seconds in duration from beginning to end.

It constitutes a crucial first test of the crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the unlikely event of a catastrophic launch pad failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX has just released new images showing the Dragon crew capsule and trunk section being moved to the launch pad and being positioned atop the launch mount on SLC-40. See above and below. Together the Dragon assembly stands about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX

A test dummy is seated inside. And SpaceX now says the dummy is not named “Buster” despite an earlier announcement from the company.

“Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters. Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being,” SpaceX said today.

So, only time will tell if that particular mission fact will ever be revealed.

You can watch the Pad Abort Test via a live webcast on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT into the afternoon.

The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

The current weather forecast predicts a 70% GO for favorable weather conditions during the lengthy test window.

Since the Pad Abort Test is specifically designed to be a development test, in order to learn crucial things about the performance of the escape system, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable.

And delays due to technical issues are a very significant possibility.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX at a May 1 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center press site. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Here’s a graphic illustrating the May 6 SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of planned events.

Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40.  Credit: SpaceX
Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40. Credit: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon will accelerate to nearly 100 mph in barely one second. The test will last less than two minutes and the ship will travel over one mile in the first 20 seconds alone.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety.

The eight SuperDraco’s will propel Dragon nearly 100 meters (328 ft) in 2 seconds, and more than half a kilometer (1/3 mi) in just over 5 seconds.

SpaceX likens the test to “an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, but instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is “ejected” away from the launch vehicle.”

Here’s a timeline of events from SpaceX:

T-0: The eight SuperDracos ignite simultaneously and reach maximum thrust, propelling the spacecraft off the pad.

T+.5s: After half a second of vertical flight, Crew Dragon pitches toward the ocean and continues its controlled burn. The SuperDraco engines throttle to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s sensors.

T+5s: The abort burn is terminated once all propellant is consumed and Dragon coasts for just over 15 seconds to its highest point about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad.

T+21s: The trunk is jettisoned and the spacecraft begins a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again.

T+25s: Small parachutes, called drogues, are deployed first during a 4-6 second window following trunk separation.

T+35s: Once the drogue parachutes stabilize the vehicle, three main parachutes deploy and further slow the spacecraft before splashdown.

T+107s: Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean about 2200 meters (1.4 mi) downrange of the launch pad.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Prepares for Crucial Crew Dragon Capsule Pad Abort Test

SpaceX is preparing for the first of two critical abort tests for the firm’s next generation human rated Dragon V2 capsule as soon as March.

The purpose of the pair of abort tests is to demonstrate a crew escape capability to save the astronauts’ lives in case of a rocket failure, starting from the launch pad and going all the way to orbit.

The SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 vehicles were selected by NASA last fall for further funding under the auspices of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) as the world’s privately developed spaceships to ferry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to launch the first manned test flights to the ISS with their respective transports in 2017.

During the Sept. 16, 2014, news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2 and to Boeing to build the manned CST-100.

The first abort test involving the pad abort test is currently slated to take place soon from the company’s launch pad on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, according to Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

“First up is a pad abort in about a month,” said Shotwell during a media briefing last week at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

SpaceX engineers have been building the pad abort test vehicle for the unmanned test for more than a year at their headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Dragon V2 builds on and significantly upgrades the technology for the initial cargo version of the Dragon which has successfully flown five operational resupply missions to the ISS.

“It took us quite a while to get there, but there’s a lot of great technology and innovations in that pad abort vehicle,” noted Shotwell.

First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014.  Credit: SpaceX.
First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014. Credit: SpaceX.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a simulated emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine can produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety, according to a SpaceX description.

Here is a SpaceX video of SuperDraco’s being hot fire tested in Texas:

Video caption: Full functionality of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco jetpacks demonstrated with hotfire test in McGregor, TX. Credit: SpaceX

For the purpose of this test, the crew Dragon will sit on top of a facsimile of the unpressurized trunk portion of the Dragon. It will not be loaded on top of a Falcon 9 rocket for the pad abort test.

The second abort test involves a high altitude abort test launching atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“An in-flight abort test [follows] later this year,” said Shotwell.

“The Integrated launch abort system is critically important to us. We think it gives incredible safety features for a full abort all the way through ascent.”

“It does also allow us the ultimate goal of fully propulsive landing.”

Both tests were originally scheduled for 2014 as part of the firm’s prior CCiCAP development phase contract with NASA, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told me in late 2013.

“Assuming all goes well, we expect to conduct [up to] two Dragon abort tests next year in 2014,” Musk explained.

Last year, NASA granted SpaceX an extension into 2015 for both tests under SpaceX’s CCiCAP milestones.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during a prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SpaceX Dragon V2 will launch atop a human rated Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral.

“We understand the incredible responsibility we’ve been given to carry crew. We should fly over 50 Falcon 9’s before crewed flight,” said Shotwell.

To accomplish the first manned test flight to the ISS by 2017, the US Congress must agree to fully fund the commercial crew program.

“To do this we need for Congress to approve full funding for the Commercial Crew Program,” Bolden said at last week’s JSC media briefing.

Severe budget cuts by Congress forced NASA into a two year delay in the first commercial crew flights to the ISS from 2015 to 2017 – and also forced NASA to pay hundreds of millions of more dollars to the Russians for crews seats aboard their Soyuz instead of employing American aerospace workers.

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

Ken Kremer

Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA
Boeing and SpaceX are building private spaceships to resume launching US astronauts from US soil to the International Space Station in 2017. Credit: NASA

NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX to Launch 1st Commercial Crew Ships to Space Station in 2017

After a hiatus of six long years, US astronauts will finally launch to space in a revolutionary new pair of private crew capsules under development by Boeing and SpaceX, starting in 2017, that will end our sole source reliance on the Russians for launching our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Two years from now, crews will start flying to space aboard the first US commercial spaceships, launching atop US rockets from US soil, said officials from Boeing, SpaceX, and NASA at a joint news conference on Monday, Jan. 26. The human rated spaceships – also known as “space taxis” – are being designed and manufactured under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

A two person mixed crew of NASA astronauts and company test pilots will fly on the first test flights going to the space station in 2017.

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, underway since 2010, has been to develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective spaceships that will ferry astronauts to and from the massive orbiting lab complex.

“It’s an incredible testament to American ingenuity and know-how, and an extraordinary validation of the vision we laid out just a few years ago as we prepared for the long-planned retirement of the space shuttle,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden during the briefing at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Bolden is a four time veteran space shuttle astronaut.

“This work is part of a vital strategy to equip our nation with the technologies for the future and inspire a new generation of explorers to take the next giant leap for America.”

NASA's Stephanie Schierholz introduces the panel of Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa, seated, left, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing's John Elbon, SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke.  Credit:  NASA TV
NASA’s Stephanie Schierholz introduces the panel of Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa, seated, left, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing’s John Elbon, SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell, and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke at Jan. 26 commercial crew new conference. Credit: NASA TV

“We have been working overtime to get Americans back to space from US soil and end US reliance on Russia,” Bolden added. “My job is to ensure we get Americans back to space as soon as possible and safely.”

“We have been in-sourcing space jobs back to the US.”

“To do this we need for Congress to approve full funding for the Commercial Crew Program!”

“This and the ISS are a springboard to going beyond Earth. All this we are doing will enable us to get Humans to Mars!”

However – severe budget cuts by Congress forced NASA into a two year delay in the first commercial crew flights from 2015 to 2017 – and also forced NASA to pay hundreds of millions of more dollars to the Russians for crews seats instead of employing American aerospace workers.

On Sept. 16, 2014, Administrator Bolden announced that Boeing and SpaceX had won the high stakes and history making NASA competition to build the first ever private “space taxis” to launch American and partner astronauts to the ISS and restore America’s capability to launch our crews from American soil for the first time since 2011.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

During the Sept. 16 briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, Bolden announced at that time that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to Boeing to build the manned CST-100 and to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2.

Boeing was awarded the larger share of the crew vehicle contract valued at $4.2 Billion while SpaceX was awarded a lesser amount valued at $2.6 Billion.

For extensive further details about Boeing’s CST-100 manned capsule, be sure to read my exclusive 2 part interview with Chris Ferguson, NASA’s final shuttle commander and now Boeing’s Commercial Crew Director: here and here.

And read about my visit to the full scale CST-100 mockup at its manufacturing facility at KSC – here and here.

B8SsB9UCQAElkbJ.jpg large

But the awards were briefly put on hold when the third bidder, Sierra Nevada Corp, protested the decision and thereby prevented NASA from discussing the awards until the issue was resolved by the General Accounting Office (GAO) earlier this month in favor of NASA.

Everyone involved is now free to speak about the awards and how they were decided.

Each company must successfully achieve a set of 10 vehicle and program milestones agreed to with NASA, as well as meeting strict certification and safety standards.

“There are launch pads out there already being upgraded and there is hardware already being delivered,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of the Kennedy Space Center-based Commercial Crew Program.

“Both companies have already accomplished their first milestones.”

Every American astronaut has been totally reliant on the Russians and their three person Soyuz capsules for seats to launch to the ISS since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in July 2011 following the final blastoff of orbiter Atlantis on the STS-135 mission.

Under the latest crew flight deal signed with Roscosmos [the Russian Federal Space Agency], each astronaut seat costs over $70 million.

“I don’t ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017, hopefully,” said Bolden.

Under NASA’s commercial crew contracts, the average cost to fly US astronauts on the Dragon and CST-100 is $58 million vs. over $70 million on the Russian Soyuz.

At the briefing, Bolden indicated he was hopeful Congress would be more supportive of the program in the coming 2016 budget cycle than in the past that has already resulted in a 2 year delay in the first flights.

“Congress has started to understand the critical importance of commercial crew and cargo. They’ve seen, as a result of the performance of our providers, that this is not a hoax, it’s not a myth, it’s not a dream,” said Bolden.

“It’s something that’s really happening. I am optimistic that the Congress will accept the President’s proposal for commercial crew for 2016.”

The first unmanned test flights of the SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 could take place by late 2016 or early 2017 respectively. Manned flights to the ISS would follow soon thereafter by the spring and summer of 2017.

Asked at the Jan. 26 briefing if he would fly aboard the private space ships, Administrator Bolden said:

“Yes. I can tell you that I would hop in a Dragon or a CST-100 in a heartbeat.”

Hatch opening to Boeing’s commercial CST-100 crew transporter.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Hatch opening to Boeing’s commercial CST-100 crew transporter. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Boeing’s plans for the CST-100 involve conducting a pad abort test in February 2017, followed by an uncrewed orbital flight test in April 2017, and then a crewed flight with a Boeing test pilot and a NASA astronaut in July 2017, as outlined at the briefing by John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Space Exploration division.

“It’s a very exciting time with alot in development on the ISS, SLS, and Commercial Crew. Never before in the history of human spaceflight has there been so much going on all at once,” said John Elbon. “NASA’s exploring places we didn’t even know existed 100 years ago.”

“We are building the CST-100 structural test article.”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014, for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s plans for the Dragon V2 were outlined by Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

“The Dragon V2 builds on the cargo Dragon. First up is a pad abort in about a month [at Cape Canaveral], then an in-flight abort test later this year [at Vandenberg to finish up development work from the prior CCiCAP phase],” said Shotwell.

“An uncrewed flight test is planned for late 2016 followed by a crewed flight test in early 2017.”

“We understand the incredible responsibility we’ve been given to carry crew. We should fly over 50 Falcon 9’s before crewed flight.”

Both the Boeing CST 100 and SpaceX Dragon V2 will launch from the Florida Space Coast, home to all US astronaut flights since the dawn of the space age.

The Boeing CST-100 will launch atop a human rated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

The SpaceX Dragon will launch atop a human rated Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from neighboring Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape.

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

Ken Kremer

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 “Space Taxi” will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014, at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A look through the open hatch of the Dragon V2 reveals the layout and interior of the seven-crew capacity spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
A look through the open hatch of the Dragon V2 reveals the layout and interior of the seven-crew capacity spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

Exoplanet-Hunting TESS Satellite to be Launched by SpaceX

A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT

The search for exoplanets is heating up, thanks to the deployment of space telescopes like Kepler and the development of new observation methods. In fact, over 1800 exoplanets have been discovered since the 1980s, with 850 discovered just last year. That’s quite the rate of progress, and Earth’s scientists have no intention of slowing down!

Hot on the heels of the Kepler mission and the ESA’s deployment of the Gaia space observatory last year, NASA is getting ready to launch TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). And to provide the launch services, NASA has turned to one of its favorite commercial space service providers – SpaceX.

The launch will take place in August 2017 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where it will be placed aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 – a heavier version of the v 1.0 developed in 2013. Although NASA has contracted SpaceX to perform multiple cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, this will be only the second time that SpaceX has assisted the agency with the launch of a science satellite.

This past September, NASA also signed a lucrative contract with SpaceX worth $2.6 billion to fly astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. As part of the Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft were selected by NASA to help restore indigenous launch capability to the US.

James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope, the space observatory scheduled for launch in 2018. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The total cost for TESS is estimated at approximately $87 million, which will include launch services, payload integration, and tracking and maintenance of the spacecraft throughout the course of its three year mission.

As for the mission itself, that has been the focus of attention for many years. Since it was deployed in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft has yielded more and more data on distant planets, many of which are Earth-like and potentially habitable. But in 2013, two of four reaction wheels on Kepler failed and the telescope has lost its ability to precisely point toward stars. Even though it is now doing a modified mission to hunt for exoplanets, NASA and exoplanet enthusiasts have been excited by the prospect of sending up another exoplanet hunter, one which is even more ideally suited to the task.

Once deployed, TESS will spend the next three years scanning the nearest and brightest stars in our galaxy, looking for possible signs of transiting exoplanets. This will involve scanning nearby stars for what is known as a “light curve”, a phenomenon where the visual brightness of a star drops slightly due to the passage of a planet between the star and its observer.

By measuring the rate at which the star dims, scientists are able to estimate the size of the planet passing in front of it. Combined with measurements the star’s radial velocity, they are also able to determine the density and physical structure of the planet. Though it has some drawbacks, such as the fact that stars rarely pass directly in front of their host stars, it remains the most effective means of observing exoplanets to date.

Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection:   radial velocity   transit   timing   direct imaging   microlensing. Image Credit: Public domain
Number of extrasolar planet discoveries on up to Sept. 2014, with colors indicating method of detection. Blue: radial velocity; Green: transit; Yellow: timing, Red: direct imaging; Orange: microlensing. Image Credit: Alderon/Wikimedia Commons

In fact, as of 2014, this method became the most widely used for determining the presence of exoplanets beyond our Solar System. Compared to other methods – such as measuring a star’s radial velocity, direct imaging, the timing method, and microlensing – more planets have been detected using the transit method than all the other methods combined.

In addition to being able to spot planets by the comparatively simple method of measuring their light curve, the transit method also makes it possible to study the atmosphere of a transiting planet. Combined with the technique of measuring the parent star’s radial velocity, scientists are also able to measure a planet’s mass, density, and physical characteristics.

With TESS, it will be possible to study the mass, size, density and orbit of exoplanets. In the course of its three-year mission, TESS will be looking specifically for Earth-like and super-Earth candidates that exist within their parent star’s habitable zone.

This information will then be passed on to Earth-based telescopes and the James Webb Space Telescope – which will be launched in 2018 by NASA with assistance from the European and Canadian Space Agencies – for detailed characterization.

The TESS Mission is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – who developed it with seed funding from Google – and is overseen by the Explorers Program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Further Reading: NASA, SpaceX