Dream Chaser Mini-Shuttle to Fly ISS Resupply Missions on ULA Atlas V

Artist’s concept of the Sierra Nevada Corporation Dream Chaser spacecraft launching atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in the 552 configuration on cargo missions to the International Space Station. Credit: ULA

The first two missions of the unmanned Dream Chaser mini-shuttle carrying critical cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA will fly on the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket and start as soon as 2020, announced Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and United Launch Alliance (ULA).

“We have selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to launch our first two Dream Chaser® spacecraft cargo missions,” said SNC of Sparks, Nevada.

Dream Chaser will launch atop the commercial Atlas V in its most powerful configuration, dubbed Atlas V 552, with five strap on solid rocket motors and a dual engine Centaur upper stage while protectively tucked inside a five meter diameter payload fairing – with wings folded.

Blast off of Dream Chaser loaded with over 5500 kilograms of cargo mass for the space station crews will take place from ULA’s seaside Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft docks at the International Space Station.
Credits: Sierra Nevada Corporation

The unique lifting body design enables runway landings for Dream Chaser, similar to the NASA’s Space Shuttle at the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The ULA Atlas V enjoys a 100% success rate. It has also been chosen by Boeing to ferry crews on piloted missions of their CST-100 Starliner astronaut space taxi to the ISS and back. The Centaur upper stage will be equipped with two RL-10 engines for both Dream Chaser and Starliner flights.

“SNC recognizes the proven reliability of the Atlas V rocket and its availability and schedule performance makes it the right choice for the first two flights of the Dream Chaser,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems business area, in a statement.

“Humbled and honored by your trust in us,” tweeted ULA CEO Tory Bruno following the announcement.

Liftoff of the maiden pair of Dream Chaser cargo missions to the ISS are expected in 2020 and 2021 under the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract with NASA.

Rendering of Launch of SNC’s Dream Chaser Cargo System Aboard an Atlas V Rocket. Credit: SNC

“ULA is pleased to partner with Sierra Nevada Corporation to launch its Dream Chaser cargo system to the International Space Station in less than three years,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Human and Commercial Systems.

“We recognize the importance of on time and reliable transportation of crew and cargo to Station and are honored the Atlas V was selected to continue to launch cargo resupply missions for NASA.”

By utilizing the most powerful variant of ULA’s Atlas V, Dream Chaser will be capable of transporting over 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds) of pressurized and unpressurized cargo mass – including science experiments, research gear, spare part, crew supplies, food, water, clothing and more per ISS mission.

“In addition, a significant amount of cargo, almost 2,000 kilograms is directly returned from the ISS to a gentle runway landing at a pinpoint location,” according to SNC.

“Dream Chaser’s all non-toxic systems design allows personnel to simply walk up to the vehicle after landing, providing immediate access to time-critical science as soon as the wheels stop.”

“ULA is an important player in the market and we appreciate their history and continued contributions to space flights and are pleased to support the aerospace community in Colorado and Alabama,” added Sirangelo.

Under the NASA CRS-2 contract awarded in 2016, Dream Chaser becomes the third ISS resupply provider, joining the current ISS commercial cargo vehicle providers, namely the Cygnus from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia and the cargo Dragon from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California.

NASA decided to plus up the number of ISS commercial cargo providers from two to three for the critical task of ensuring the regular delivery of critical science, crew supplies, provisions, spare parts and assorted gear to the multinational crews living and working aboard the massive orbiting outpost.

NASA’s CRS-2 contracts run from 2019 through 2024 and specify six cargo missions for each of the three commercial providers.

By adding a new third provider, NASA simultaneously gains the benefit of additional capability and flexibility and also spreads out the risk.

Both SpaceX and Orbital ATK suffered catastrophic launch failures during ISS resupply missions, in June 2015 and October 2014 respectively, from which both firms have recovered.

Orbital ATK and SpaceX both successfully launched ISS cargo missions this year. Indeed a trio of Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft have already launched on the Atlas V, including the OA-7 resupply mission in April 2017.

Orbital ATK’s seventh cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station -in tribute to John Glenn- launched at 11:11 a.m. EDT April 18, 2017, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX has already launched a pair of resupply missions this year on the CRS-10 and CRS-11 flights in February and June 2017.

Unlike the Cygnus which burns up on reentry and Dragon which lands via parachutes, the reusable Dream Chaser is capable of low-g reentry and runway landings. This is very beneficial for sensitive scientific experiments and allows much quicker access by researchers to time critical cargo.

1st Reused SpaceX Dragon cargo craft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:07 p.m. June 3, 2017 on CRS-11 mission carrying 3 tons of research equipment, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dream Chaser has been under development for more than 10 years. It was originally developed as a manned vehicle and a contender for NASA’s commercial crew vehicles. When SNC lost the bid to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014, the company opted to develop this unmanned variant instead.

A full scale test version of the original Dream Chaser is currently undergoing ground tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Approach and landing tests are planned for this fall.

Other current cargo providers to the ISS include the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV vessels.

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

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

Scale models of NASA’s Commercial Crew program vehicles and launchers; Boeing CST-100, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, SpaceX Dragon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser engineering test article in flight during prior captive-carry tests. Credit: NASA

Dream Chaser Spaceplane Gets ‘GO’ as NASA Awards Trio of Space Station Cargo Contracts

SNC's Dream Chaser Spacecraft and Cargo Module attached to the ISS. Credit: SNC
SNC’s Dream Chaser Spacecraft and Cargo Module attached to the ISS. Credit: SNC

A shuttle will soar again from American soil before this decade is out, following NASA’s announcement today (Jan 14) that an unmanned version of the Dream Chaser spaceplane was among the trio of US awardees winning commercial contracts to ship essential cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) starting in 2019.

In addition to the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle built by Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, Nevada, NASA decided to retain both of the current ISS commercial cargo vehicle providers, namely the Cygnus from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia and the cargo Dragon from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. Continue reading “Dream Chaser Spaceplane Gets ‘GO’ as NASA Awards Trio of Space Station Cargo Contracts”

Critical Cygnus Return to Flight Mission via Atlas V Set to Restore US Cargo Launches to ISS – Watch Live

Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft poised for blastoff  to ISS on  ULA Atlas V on Dec. 3, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 spacecraft poised for blastoff to ISS on ULA Atlas V on Dec. 3, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – In the shadow of the spanking new commercial crew access tower that our astronauts will soon ascend to restore America’s human access to space, the first ever Atlas V rocket that will launch a commercial Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) is poised for blastoff on Thursday, December 3, from the Florida Space Coast and resume the train of critically needed American cargo launches to the orbiting science laboratory.

The stakes are high for NASA and the ISS partners following a string of three cargo mission mishaps over the past year resulting from a trio of launch failures by both US and Russian rocket providers involving Orbital ATK, SpaceX and Roscosmos.

The ISS and her six person crew cannot Continue reading “Critical Cygnus Return to Flight Mission via Atlas V Set to Restore US Cargo Launches to ISS – Watch Live”

How the Air Force and SpaceX Saved Dragon from Doom

The picture perfect docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) on March 3 and the triumphant ocean splashdown last week on March 26 nearly weren’t to be – and it all goes back to a microscopic manufacturing mistake in the oxidizer tank check valves that no one noticed long before the vessel ever took flight.

Barely 11 minutes after I witnessed the spectacular March 1 blastoff of the Dragon atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, everyone’s glee suddenly turned to disbelief and gloom with the alarming news from SpaceX Mission Control that contact had been lost.

I asked SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk to explain what caused the failure and how they saved the drifting, uncontrolled Dragon capsule from doom – just in the nick of time.

Applying the space version of the Heimlich maneuver turned out to be the key. But if you can’t talk to the patient – all is lost.

dragonRight after spacecraft separation in low Earth orbit , a sudden and unexpected failure of the Dragon’s critical thrust pods had prevented three out of four from initializing and firing. The oxidizer pressure was low in three tanks. And the propulsion system is required to orient the craft for two way communication and to propel the Dragon to the orbiting lab complex.

So at first the outlook for the $133 million Dragon CRS-2 cargo resupply mission to the ISS appeared dire.

Then, SpaceX engineers and the U.S Air Force sprang into action and staged an amazing turnaround.

“The problem was a very tiny change to the check valves that serve the oxidizer tanks on Dragon.” Musk told Universe Today

“Three of the check valves were actually different from the prior check valves that had flown – in a very tiny way. Because of the tiny change they got stuck.”

Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch on March 1, 2013 to the ISS – shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch on March 1, 2013 to the ISS – shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

SpaceX engineers worked frantically to troubleshoot the thruster issues in an urgent bid to overcome the serious glitch and bring the crucial propulsion systems back on line.

“What we did was we were able to write some new software in real time and upload that to Dragon to build pressure upstream of the check valves and then released that pressure- to give it a kind of a kick,” Musk told me at a NASA media briefing.

“For the spacecraft you could call it kind of a Heimlich maneuver. Basically that got the valves unstuck and then they worked well”

“But we had difficulty communicating with the spacecraft because it was in free drift in orbit.”

“So we worked closely with the Air Force to get higher intensity, more powerful dishes to communicate with the spacecraft and upload the software to do the Heimlich pressure maneuver.”

Schematic of SpaceX Dragon. Credit: SpaceX
Schematic of SpaceX Dragon. Credit: SpaceX

Just how concerned was Musk?

“Yes, definitely it was a worrying time,” Musk elaborated.

“It was a little frightening,” Musk had said right after the March 1 launch.

Later in the briefing Musk explained that there had been a small design change to the check valves by the supplier.

“The supplier had made mistakes that we didn’t catch,” said Musk. “You would need a magnifying glass to see the difference.”

SpaceX had run the new check valves through a series of low pressurization systems tests and they worked well and didn’t get stuck. But SpaceX had failed to run the functional tests at higher pressures.

“We’ll make sure we don’t repeat that error in the future,” Musk stated.

Musk added that SpaceX will revert to the old check valves and run tests to make sure this failure doesn’t happen again.

SpaceX, along with Orbital Sciences Corp, are both partnered with NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program to replace the cargo up mass capability the US lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.

Orbital’s Antares rocket could blast off on its first test mission as early as April 17.

Of course the Dragon CRS-2 flight isn’t the first inflight space emergency, and surely won’t be the last either.

So, for some additional perspective on the history of reacting to unexpected emergencies in space on both human spaceflight and robotic science probes, Universe Today contacted noted space historian Roger Launius, of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM).

Roger provided these insights to Universe Today editor Nancy Atkinson – included here:

“There are many instances in the history of spaceflight in which the mission had difficulties that were overcome and it proved successful,” said Launius.

“Let’s start with Hubble Space Telescope which had a spherical aberration on its mirror and the first reports in 1990 were that it would be a total loss, but the engineers found workarounds that allowed it to be successful even before the December 1993 servicing mission by a shuttle crew that really turned it into a superb scientific instrument.”

“Then what about Galileo, the Jupiter probe, which had a problem with its high gain antenna. It never did fully deploy but the engineers found ways to overcome that problem with the communication system and the spacecraft turned into a stunning success.”

“If you want to feature human spaceflight let’s start with the 1999 shuttle flight with Eileen Collins as commander that had a shutdown of the SSMEs prematurely and it failed to reach its optimum orbit. It still completed virtually all of the mission requirements.”

“That says nothing about Apollo 13,… I could go on and on. In virtually every mission there has been something potentially damaging to the mission that has happened. Mostly the folks working the mission have planned for contingencies and implement them and the public rarely hears about it as it looks from the outside like a flawless operation.”

“Bottom line, the recovery of the Dragon capsule was not all that amazing. It was engineers in the space business doing what they do best,” said Launius.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus Orion, SpaceX, Antares, the Space Shuttle and more! NEAF Astronomy Forum, Suffern, NY

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule poised to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on a commercial resupply mission to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

‘Alien Spaceship’ looking Dragon set for Unveiling by SpaceX this Year!

Later this year SpaceX will unveil the design of a new and upgraded version of the firm’s Dragon spacecraft that will look like “an Alien spaceship,” said Elon Musk, the CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX, at a NASA media teleconference on Thursday, March 28.

Musk announced the SpaceX plans at the briefing to mark the successful conclusion of the latest unmanned Dragon cargo carrying flight, known as CRS-2, to the International Space Station (ISS) earlier this week with a Pacific Ocean splashdown on Tuesday, March 26.

Dubbed ‘Dragon 2’, the futuristic capsule will eventually boast the ability to propulsively land on Earth’s surfaceperhaps back at the Kennedy Space Center – instead of splashing down in the Pacific Ocean beneath a trio of parachutes.

At the moment, imagery of ‘Dragon 2’ is SpaceX Top Secret ! I asked.

How is the ‘Dragon 2’ different from the current ‘cargo Dragon’?

“It’s going to be cool,” gushes Musk.

“There are side-mounted thruster pods and quite big windows for astronauts to see out,” SpaceX founder Musk explained. “There are also landing legs that pop out at the bottom. So It looks like a real alien spaceship.”

One day, Musk hopes that an advanced Dragon will ferry humans on an interplanetary journey to the alien surface of Mars. Perhaps the lucky astronauts will even visit our Curiosity.

SpaceX Grasshopper test flight successfully demonstrates touchdown on land as a prelude to future demonstration missions to recover Falcon 9 1st stages.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Grasshopper test flight successfully demonstrates touchdown on land as a prelude to future demonstration missions to recover Falcon 9 1st stages. Credit: SpaceX

Dragon 2 will also enable a transition to maximize use of the capsule by significantly increasing the quantity of cargo hauled up to the ISS, Musk stated.

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-2 capsule blasted off on March 1 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It docked at the orbiting lab complex on March 3 and remained attached for 3 weeks until departing and returning to Earth on March 26.

Launching more mass to orbit will be a boon for the science research capability of the ISS, said NASA’s ISS Program scientist Julie Robinson. “We have over 200 investigations active.”

“The SpaceX flights are so important to our use of the International Space Station,” said Robinson.

Falcon 9 rocket is the launcher for both the cargo and human-rated Dragon spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX
Falcon 9 rocket is the launcher for both the cargo and human-rated Dragon spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

With three successful Dragon docking flights to the ISS now under his belt, Musk said his goal now is to ‘push the envelope’.

Whereas initially SpaceX’s goal was to minimize risk in order to fulfil SpaceX’s $1.6 Billion commercial contract with NASA to fly 20,000 kg of sorely needed science experiments, equipment, gear, food and supplies to the ISS with a dozen Dragon cargo capsules.

SpaceX, along with Orbital Sciences Corp, are both partnered with NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program to replace the cargo up mass capability the US lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the telecom that the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket is on schedule for a test flight from NASA Wallops in Virginia slated for mid-April.

Antares will launch the unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS. Read my launch site update and visit to Antares – here.

Simultaneously, SpaceX will also debut a more powerful version of the Dragon’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle later this year that eventually will be both recoverable and reusable – long the Holy Grail in space exploration.

The new Falcon 9 version 1.1 “will be a meaningful upgrade” said Musk. “It will have 60-70% greater thrust capability, greater redundancy and more engine to engine protection. It will be more robust.”

Falcon 9 v 1.1 will incorporate the significantly more powerful Merlin 1-D first stage engines that will increase the liftoff thrust to about 1.5 million pounds – and serve as the launch vehicle for ‘Dragon 2’.

Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch on March 1, 2013 to the ISS – shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch on March 1, 2013 to the ISS – shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. The Dragon capsule splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on March 26, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

SpaceX will also start testing the capability to recover the spent Falcon 9 first stage from the Atlantic Ocean. Thereafter SpaceX will eventually try and have the first stage fly itself back to the Cape Canaveral, Florida launch complex using the so called “Grasshopper’ version of the Falcon 9.

But Musk strongly advised that will take several test flights to demonstrate such recovery technologies.

“I really want to emphasize that we don’t expect success on the first several attempts,” Musk emphasized. “Hopefully next year, with a lot more experience and data, we should be able to return the first stage to the launch site, deploy the landing legs and do a propulsive landing on land back at the launch site.”

The overarching goal is to dramatically cut costs and increase efficiency to make space more accessible, especially in these ultra lean budget times.

SpaceX is also developing a manned version of the Dragon capsule and aims for the first crewed test flight perhaps in 2015 depending on NASA’s budget.

If all of Musk’s dreams work out, they could spark a revolutionary change in spaceflight and the exploration and exploitation of the High Frontier.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations:

April 20/21 : “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus Orion, SpaceX, Antares, the Space Shuttle and more! NEAF Astronomy Forum, Suffern, NY

April 28: “Curiosity and the Search for Life on Mars – (in 3-D)”. Plus the Space Shuttle, SpaceX, Antares, Orion and more. Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, NJ, 130 PM

Feel the Power of a Mighty Falcon 9 Blast Off Creaming Cameras

Video: Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 on CRS-2 mission on March 1, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Mike Barrett/Wired4Space.com

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be standing at the base of a launch pad when a powerful rocket ignites for the heavens?

It’s a question I get from many kids and adults.

So check out the fabulous video from my friends Mike Barrett and Jeff Seibert- and feel the power of the mighty SpaceX Falcon 9 which just rocketed to space on March 1 from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Mike and Jeff set up a series of video recorders distributed around the Falcon 9 Launch Pad – for a ‘You Are There’ experience.

Well although you’d enjoy the awesome view for a split second, the deafening sound and fury would certainly drive you mad, and then leave you dead or vegetabilized and wishing you were dead.

The cameras get creamed in seconds with mud, soot and ash.

How is this view possible?

Those of us media folks lucky enough to cover rocket launches, usually get to visit around the pad the night before to view the behemoths up close – after they are rolled out and unveiled for liftoff.

We also have the opportunity to set up what’s called “remote cameras” spaced around the pad that take exquisite images and videos from just dozens of yards (meters) away – instead of from ‘safe’ distance a few miles (km) away.

The cameras can be triggered by sound or timers to capture up close sounds and sights we humans can’t survive.

After a shaky start, the SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply capsule launched atop the Falcon 9 safely docked at the International Space Station on Sunday, March 3.

The SpaceX CRS-3 flight is slated to blast off sometime during Fall 2013

Maybe we’ll see you there !

Ken Kremer

Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch on March 1, 2013 to the ISS from Cape Canaveral, Florida.- shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building.  Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 launch on March 1, 2013 to the ISS from Cape Canaveral, Florida.- shot from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 rocket sits horizontal at pad before launch on March 1, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 rocket sits horizontal at pad before launch on March 1, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
Dave Dickinson & Ken Kremer; reporting live for Universe Today from Space Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral Florida, on the SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-2 mission - posing with Falcon 9 rocket in horizontal position at pad prior to March 1, 2013 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
Dave Dickinson & Ken Kremer; reporting live for Universe Today from Space Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral Florida, on the SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-2 mission – posing with Falcon 9 rocket in horizontal position at pad prior to March 1, 2013 liftoff. Rocket exhaust blasts out of the concrete Flame Trench at right. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

Spotting the Dragon: How to See SpaceX on Approach to the ISS This Weekend

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft may be appearing in a backyard sky near you this weekend. Scheduled to launch this Friday on March 1st at 10:10 AM Eastern Standard Time (EST)/15:10 Universal Time (UT), this will be the 3rd resupply flight for the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).  And the great news is, you may just be able to catch the spacecraft as it chases down the ISS worldwide.

The Space Shuttle and the ISS captured by the author as seen from Northern Maine shortly after undocking in June, 2007. 

Catching a satellite in low Earth orbit is an unforgettable sight. Satellites appear as moving “stars” against the background sky, shining steadily (unless they’re tumbling!) in the sunlight overhead in the dawn or dusk sky. Occasionally, you may catch a flare in brightness as a reflective panel catches the sunlight just right. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Iridium constellation of satellites can flare in this fashion.

At 109 metres in size, the ISS is the largest object ever constructed in orbit and is easily visible to the naked eye. It has an angular diameter of about 50” when directly overhead (about the visual size of Saturn plus rings near opposition). I can just make out a tiny box-like structure with binoculars when it passes overhead. If the orientation of the station and its solar panels is just right, it looks like a tiny luminous Star Wars TIE fighter as viewed through binoculars!

Dragon in the processing hangar at Cape Canaveral. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett).
Dragon in the processing hangar at Cape Canaveral. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett).

But what’s even more amazing is to watch a spacecraft rendezvous with the ISS, as diligent observers may witness this weekend. Your best bet will be to use predictions for ISS passes from your location. Heavens-Above, CALSky and Space Weather all have simple trackers for sky watchers. More advanced observers may want to use an application known as Orbitron which allows you to manually load updated Two-Line Element sets (TLEs) from Celestrak or NORAD’s Space-Track website for use in the field sans Internet connection. Note that Space-Track requires permission to access; they welcome amateur sat-spotters and educators, but they also want to assure that no “rogue entities” are accessing the site! Continue reading “Spotting the Dragon: How to See SpaceX on Approach to the ISS This Weekend”

Canadarm Ready to Ensnare Space Dragon after March 1 Blast Off

Wouldn’t you love to wake up to this gorgeous view of our home planet as a big hand waves a friendly good morning ?!

Well, having survived high speed wayward Asteroids and Meteors these past few days, the human crew circling Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is game to snatch a flying Space Dragon before too long.

NASA will dispatch astronaut fun to orbit in the form of the privately built SpaceX Dragon in a tad less than two weeks time that the crew will ensnare with that robotic hand from Canada and join to the ISS.

On March 1 at 10:10 AM EST, a Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket is slated to blast off topped by the Dragon cargo vehicle on what will be only the 2nd commercial resupply mission ever to the ISS.

The flight, dubbed CRS-2, will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying about 1,200 pounds of vital supplies and science experiments for the six man international crew living aboard the million pound orbiting outpost.

SpaceX, Dragon spacecraft stands inside a processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Teams had just installed the spacecraft's solar array fairings. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
SpaceX Dragon spacecraft stands inside processing hangar at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Teams had just installed the spacecraft’s solar array fairings. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The ISS would plummet from the sky like a flaming, exploding meteor and disintegrate without periodic and critical cargo and fueling resupply flights from the ISS partner nations.

There will be some heightened anticipation for the March 1 SpaceX launch following the premature shutdown of a 1st stage Merlin engine during the last Falcon 9 launch in 2012.

The solar powered Dragon capsule will rendezvous with the ISS a day later on March 2, when NASA astronauts Kevin Ford and Tom Marshburn will reach out with the Canadian built robotic marvel, grab the Dragon by the proverbial “tail” and attach it to the Earth-facing port of the station’s Harmony module.

The Dragon will remain docked to the ISS for about three weeks while the crew unloads all manner of supplies including food, water, clothing, spare parts and gear and new science experiments.

Then the astronauts will replace all that cargo load with numerous critical experiment samples they have stored during ongoing research activities, as well as no longer needed equipment and trash totaling about 2300 pounds, for the return trip to Earth and a Pacific Ocean splashdown set for March 25 – as things stand now.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before May 2012 blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on historic maiden private commercial launch to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before May 2012 blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on historic maiden private commercial launch to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to deliver about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS during a dozen flights over the next few years at a cost of about $1.6 Billion.

SpaceX comprises one half of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program to replace the cargo up mass capability the US lost following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.

SpaceX also won a NASA contract to develop a manned version of the Dragon capsule and aims for the first crewed test flight in about 2 to 3 years – sometime during 2015 depending on the funding available from NASA.

The US is now totally dependent on the Russians to loft American astronauts to the ISS on their Soyuz capsules for at least the next 3 to 5 years directly as a result of the shuttle shutdown.

Along with SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp also won a $1.9 Billion cargo resupply contract from NASA to deliver some 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS using the firm’s new Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule – launching 8 times from a newly constructed pad at NASA’s Wallops Island Facility in Virginia.

The maiden launch of Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus system has repeatedly been delayed – like SpaceX before them.

NASA hopes the first Antares/Cygnus demonstration test flight will now occur in March or April. However, the Antares 1st stage hot fire test scheduled for earlier this week on Feb. 13 had to be aborted at the last second due to a technical glitch caused by a low nitrogen purge pressurization.

For the SpaceX launch, NASA has invited 50 lucky social media users to apply for credentials for the March 1 launch

Watch for my upcoming SpaceX launch reports from the Kennedy Space Center and SpaceX launch facilities.

Ken Kremer

Workers lift a solar array fairing prior to installation on the company's Dragon spacecraft. The spacecraft will launch on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-2 mission. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
SpaceX technicians lift a solar array fairing prior to installation on the company’s Dragon spacecraft. The spacecraft will launch on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-2 mission. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett