Ares I-X Comes Together (and it is BIG)

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The Ares I-X rocket is being stacked on the Mobile Launch Platform in NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building in preparation for the rocket’s first test flight, scheduled for October 31, 2009. The “super stack 1” was mated to the forward motor segment, and the rocket — which will stand at 99 meters (327 feet) — is now more than half way assembled. Assembly is done using a massive overhead crane, specially adapted for I-X use.

For comparison, the space shuttle stands at 56.1 m (184 ft), the Saturn V rocket was 110.6 m (363 ft), and the Ares V will be 116 m (380 ft) high.

See more images of the rocket below.

The Ares I-X. Credit: NASA
The Ares I-X. Credit: NASA

According to NASA’s Ares Blog, super stack 1 is composed of the fifth segment simulator, forward skirt, forward skirt extension, frustum and interstages 1 and 2. It also includes two internal elements – the roll control system and the first stage avionics module – as well as the parachute system housed in the forward skirt extension.

The Ares I-X flight test will provide NASA an opportunity to check and prove hardware, analysis and modeling methods, and facilities and ground operations needed to develop the Ares I, which currently is NASA’s next crew launch vehicle. However, President Obama has assembled the Augustine Commission to evaluate the Ares rocket and the entire Constellation Program to determine if NASA should continue on its current path.

The test also will allow NASA to gather critical data during the ascent of the integrated stack, which will help inform the design of the Ares I rocket and the Orion crew exploration vehicle. The data will ensure the entire vehicle system is safe and fully operational before astronauts begin traveling in it to the International Space Station and moon.

Another view of the Ares I-X being assembled. Credit: NASA
Another view of the Ares I-X being assembled. Credit: NASA

Over the next month, four more super stacks with the final pieces of hardware (including the simulated crew module and launch abort system) will be mated, finishing off the stacking operations for the rocket.

Source: Ares Blog

NASA Tests Alternative Escape Pod

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While the Constellation program is undergoing design reviews, NASA conducted a successful test on an alternative abort system for the Orion spacecraft to provide options and additional data on how to best protect astronauts in the event of a problem on the launch pad or during ascent. A simulated launch of the Max Launch Abort System, or MLAS, took place Wednesday morning at 6:26 a.m. EDT at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va. The 10 meter high (33-feet) MLAS vehicle was launched to an altitude of about 1.5 km (1 mile)to simulate an emergency on the launch pad. A mock-up of the Orion crew vehicle successfully separated from the launch vehicle seven seconds into the flight and parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean. While there were some concerns about the various pieces of the MLAS possibly hitting each other, the test went without a hitch.

Meanwhile, the Ares I-X rocket is in the process of being “stacked” for a test flight later this summer.

The Ares I-X aft assembly is on its way to the Vehicle Assembly Building to be stacked on the Mobile Launcher Platform. Credit: NASA.  Click the image to see more images on the Ares I-X Twitpic page.
The Ares I-X aft assembly is on its way to the Vehicle Assembly Building to be stacked on the Mobile Launcher Platform. Credit: NASA. Click the image to see more images on the Ares I-X Twitpic page.

NASA’s first choice for the escape pod is the LAS, or Launch Abort System, which has a single solid launch abort motor in a tower mounted at the top of the launch vehicle stack of the Orion and Ares I rocket. The LAS will be capable of automatically separating the spacecraft from the rocket at a moment’s notice to make possible a safe landing.

Today’s launch was a technology demonstration, and the MLAS is not intended to be a replacement for the LAS.

Read our previous article about test of the LAS

NASA says the data from today’s MLAS pad abort test is helpful in several ways for the Constellation program. MLAS is the first demonstration of a passively-stabilized launch abort system on a vehicle in this size and weight class. It is the first attempt to acquire full-scale aero-acoustic data — the measurement of high loads on a vehicle moving through the atmosphere at high velocity — from a faired capsule in flight. The test is also the first to demonstrate full scale fairing and crew module separation and collect associated aerodynamic and orientation data.

UPDATE: Here’s the video of the launch — the first part is a preview, and the launch stuff starts about 2:00 minutes in:

Source: NASA

Engineering, Budget Problems for NASA’s New Spacecraft

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NASA has discovered a potentially dangerous problem with the first stage of the Ares 1 rocket that will launch the new Orion crew capsule to the space station and to the moon. Engineers are concerned that during the first few minutes of flight, the rocket could shake violently, possibly causing significant damage to the entire launch stack. Meanwhile, nasaspaceflight.com reports that a budget review of the Constellation program found a short term deficit of $700m that will likely delay test flights and development of the yet-to-be built rockets.

The shaking problem is called thrust oscillation, and is typical in solid rocket motors. The phenomenon is characterized by increased acceleration pulses during the latter part of first-stage flight. Depending on the amplitude of these pulses, the impact on the vehicle structure and astronauts may be quite significant.

The Associated Press reported that NASA discovered the problem in the fall of 2007, but did not discuss the problem publicly until January 18, 2008 after the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request and Keith Cowing of NASAWatch.com submitted detailed engineering questions regarding the oscillations.

In the response given to both NASAWatch and AP, NASA said they are working to understand how the thrust oscillation may impact the entire stack – the Ares first stage, upper stage and the Orion crew vehicle — and to determine how to minimize the impact. They have brought in experts from within NASA and outside industry to review the issues and to determine if lessons learned from previous launch vehicles will help solve the problems. NASA said they are studying multiple systems to identify all possible scenarios.

“This is a development project like Apollo. I hope no one was so ill-informed as to believe that we would be able to develop a system to replace the shuttle without facing any challenges in doing so,” NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said in a separate statement to the Associated press. “NASA has an excellent track record of resolving technical challenges. We’re confident we’ll solve this one as well.”

The first stage is a single, five-segment reusable solid rocket booster derived from the Space Shuttle solid rocket motors developed and produced by ATK Launch Systems.

The Ares I rocket is the core of the new space transportation system that will carry crewed missions back to the moon, and possibly on to Mars. The rocket may also use its 29-ton payload capacity to deliver resources and supplies to the International Space Station.

Concerning the problems of budget shortfalls, Ares program managers have offered a re-aligned development and test flight schedule in an attempt to protect Orion’s debut mission to the ISS in 2015.

The reason for the changes relates to additional costs associated with the challenges of Ares I’s development, creating a shortfall of funds for the financial year period 2008 to 2010.

Among numerous changes, a test flight of the Ares I originally scheduled for 2012 has been delayed by a year, while test flights with the Orion crew vehicle will possibly delayed between nine and three months. The Ares V’s lunar mission debut will now be an unmanned fly-by, according to nasaspaceflight.com.

Original New Sources: Associated Press, nasaspaceflight.com

NASA Wants Your Opinion on the Lunar Lander

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NASA’s Constellation Program has released an announcement that they are looking for people to evaluate the design of the Altair spacecraft that will land on the moon. So if you work in the science community or in a related industry, NASA wants your opinion. What they are looking for are evaluations of the current developmental concept for the Altair lander and the safety improvements that have been proposed, as well as recommendations for industry-government partnerships.

“By soliciting ideas and suggestions from industry and the science community, NASA hopes to foster a collaborative environment during this early design effort,” said Jeff Hanley, the Constellation Program manager. “Such collaboration will support the development of a safe, reliable and technologically sound vehicle for our crews.”

All you have to do is write a proposal and submit it to NASA by jumping through the various hoops found here. NASA expects to award contracts for the studies of the Altair spacecraft in the first quarter of 2008. A total of $1.5 million is available for awards. The maximum individual award amount is $350,000. The contract performance period is six months.

In NASA-speak, proposals are due “30 days from the issue date of Jan. 11.” By my calculations, that is February 10, which is a Sunday, an odd day to have a proposal due since most of NASA’s offices are closed. Maybe its a subtle hint to get your proposals in early.

The Altair spacecraft will bring four astronauts to the lunar surface, and missions are currently scheduled to begin late in the next decade. NASA plans call for establishing an outpost on the moon through their lunar missions beginning no later than 2020.

The Constellation Program, based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, manages the Altair Project for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Constellation is developing a new space transportation system that is designed to travel beyond low Earth orbit. The Constellation fleet includes the Orion crew exploration vehicle, the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles and Altair human lunar lander.

Find more information about the Constellation Program here.

Original News Source: NASA Constellation Program Press Release

Water or Land: The Orion Landing Choice

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Work is progressing on designing the new Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), the next generation of NASA spacecraft that will take humans to the International Space Station, back to the Moon, and hopefully on to Mars. But one major question about the spacecraft has yet to be answered. On returning to Earth, will the CEV splash down in water, or land on terra firma?

NASA officials discussed various aspects of development that is currently underway for the Constellation program at a media briefing on December 10. The mobile launch platform for the Ares rocket is being built, landing parachutes have been tested and the first capsule structure of the new CEV will be constructed starting in early 2008. Design requirements for the booster rockets have been completed and just ahead are final design definitions for operational capabilities such as ground procedures at Kennedy Space Center, mission control in Houston and other areas such as spacesuit design.

Additionally research on the International Space Station has begun to help prepare for long duration spaceflights such as a measurements of microbe growth, a study of the formation of kidney stones, and a nutritional study to help understand what is “normal” for the human body in space.

But questions from the media focused mainly on the yet unmade decision of whether the CEV will land in the water or on land.

NASA originally explored multiple options for landing in both water and land. After initial studies, the first assessment by NASA and the contractor for the CEV, Lockheed Martin, was that landing on land was preferred in terms of total life cycle costs for the vehicles. But now a splashdown in water seems to be favored.

“There are a couple of aspects that pop out at us,” said Jeff Hanley, Manager for the Constellation Program. “One is the safety and the risks involved in landing. Looking at the landing itself, the event of actually touching down, water comes out to be preferable as less risk. Another aspect is the performance of the Orion vehicle as it is sent to the moon. In looking at what it takes to get a pound of spacecraft to low lunar orbit in terms of the cost, every pound that you send toward the moon is precious. From an efficiency and performance point of view, carrying 1500 lbs of landing bags to the moon and back when we have a perfectly viable mode of landing in the water near a US coastal site didn’t seem like a good trade in performance. We’ve tended toward updating our point of departure concept to now be a nominal US coastal water landing.”

The Constellation program has always considered that for the first few missions, the spacecraft would land in water until the guidance system had been tested thoroughly and proven in actual landings.

But NASA is continuing to look at landing on land as a possibility for future flights. “We want to be able to land on land in a contingency and have the crew be able to get out and walk away. Ther are limitation of what you can do on land but by the time we get done really looking at what the minimal capability of landing on land and having the crew walk away, we’ll see what the design looks like, and if the design is robust enough we could return to having nominal land landings.”

One challenge for the Constellation program has been getting the CEV light enough for the Ares rockets to be able to launch it, and therefore eliminating the 1500 lb airbags for landing has its appeal.

“The predominant design philosophy for Orion and Ares 1 has been that we are designing for lunar missions,” continued Hanley. “We will service the International Space Station within that set of capabilities. From that perspective, designing a lot of mass into the spacecraft just to enable land landings has not traded out to be an effective use of our performance. That’s the major consideration in play. Right behind that are life cycle costs.”

Making the decision of land vs. water is the goal for 2008 for the Constellation program. “We’ve studied and have cost estimates for water landings against the infrastructure costs of having multiple landing sites on land and they are comparable,” said Hanley. Right now, NASA is looking at a single target landing zone off the coast of California with one or two recovery vessels.

But they are keeping their options open for a land landing. “If the Orion team is able to come in at the preliminary design review later this next year with a concept for be able to land on land that is fairly robust but not cost a lot of mass to have to hurl to the moon and back, then it becomes an operational decision,” said Hanley.

There has been much debate about what type of landing would be best. “There’s been a lot of assumptions made that landing on land is going to be better, but there are lot of people in the technical community that do not buy into that,” said Hanley. “There’s been a lot of debate surrounding whether or not land landing truly is better from a life cycle cost perspective and there isn’t a lot of quantitative data to really pull from.”

Hanley feels there are assumptions being made but not a lot of substantive date to clarify what the right answer is. So the next steps are to get the spacecraft to a detailed preliminary design and really interrogate the water vs. land issue. That includes further developing the operational concepts , such as how long does the capsule stay in the water, and what loads does the spacecraft see from landing on water and land. Those are all questions that need to be answered in order to make a final decision on the type of landing that will be used.

Stay tuned, as 2008 should be a year of decision for many details about Constellation and the CEV.

Original News Source: NASA News Audio

NASA Tests New Parachutes for Ares Spacecraft

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This has been an exciting week for NASA’s Constellation program — the missions that will bring humans back to the Moon. Earlier in the week, NASA announced plans for testing abort systems and inflatable Moon habitats.

But on Thursday, November 15 actual tests were conducted for some of the genuine hardware that will be used for the Ares launch vehicles.

Near Yuma, Arizona, engineers tested the parachutes that will bring boosters from the first stage of the massive Ares rockets back to Earth.

Certainly, parachutes and rocket booster recovery is nothing new for NASA. But this new parachute is a whopper. Spanning 150 feet across and weighing 2,000 pounds makes this the largest chute of its kind ever tested for parachutes that will carry some of the heaviest payloads ever delivered.

And the new parachute worked perfectly — if not patriotically — with its red, white and blue striped canopy. Made of Kevlar, which is stronger and lighter than the nylon chutes used for the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster recovery, these bigger and stronger parachutes can still fit into the same size canister used for the shuttle boosters but yet be lighter.

Although the Ares boosters will actually come down in the Atlantic Ocean, the tests were conducted in the desert near the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground. Additionally, the tests used only a 42,000 pound weighted tub as opposed to the 200,000 pound weight of the actual boosters. But the drop tests from 16,000 ft. from a C-17 airplane simulated the peak loads at parachute opening and measured the drag area to validate the design.

The parachute system will allow the Ares I and Ares V boosters to be recovered and then refurbished and reused for future flights. Ares I will launch the Orion vehicle, which will carry humans to the moon, while the larger Ares V will be used for the Cargo Launch Vehicle.

The boosters are scheduled to be flight tested in 2009.

Keep those tests coming!

Original News Source: NASA Press Release