Astronauts Safely Back inside US Space Station Segment after False Ammonia Leak Alarm

Nearly twelve hours after the threat of a leak of toxic ammonia forced the crew into a middle of the night evacuation from the US side of the International Space Station this morning (Jan. 14) and a hatch closure, top level managers from the partner space agencies gave the all clear and allowed the astronauts and cosmonauts to reopen access to the American portion of the orbiting outpost.

The six person crew hailing from the US, Italy and Russia were allowed to open the sealed hatch to the U.S. segment later this afternoon after it was determined that the ammonia leak was quite fortunately a false alarm.

No ammonia leak was actually detected. But the crew and mission control had to shut down some non essential station systems on the US segment in the interim.

All the Expedition 42 crew members were safe and in good health and never in danger, reported NASA.

The station crews and mission control teams must constantly be prepared and train for the unexpected and how to deal with potential emergencies, such as today’s threat of a serious chemical leak.

After a thorough review of the situation by the International Space Station mission management team, the crew were given the OK by flight controllers to head back.

They returned inside at 3:05 p.m. EST. Taking no chances, they wore protective masks and sampled the cabin atmosphere and reported no indications of any ammonia.

Fears that a leak had been detected resulted from the sounding of an alarm at around 4 a.m. EST.

The alarm forced Expedition 42 station commander Barry Wilmore and Flight Engineer Terry Virts of NASA and Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency to don protective gas masks and move quickly into the Russian segment, sealing the hatch behind them to the US segment.

Inside the Russian segment, they joined the remainder of Expedition 42, namely cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov from Russia, also living and working aboard the ISS and rounding out the crew of four men and two women.

he International Space Station as seen by the departing STS-134 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour in May 2011. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station as seen by the departing STS-134 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour in May 2011. US segment on top in this view. Credit: NASA

“The alarm is part of the environmental systems software on the station designed to monitor the cabin’s atmosphere. At the same time, the station’s protection software shut down one of two redundant cooling loops (Thermal Control System Loop B),” NASA said in an update.

Ammonia is a toxic substance used as a coolant in the stations complex cooling system that is an essential requirement to continued operation of the station.

Ammonia is a gas at room temperature that is extremely dangerous to inhale or when it comes in contact with skin, eyes and internal organs.

Precautions must be taken if a leak is feared in a confined space such as the ISS. It has about the same habitable volume as a four bedroom house.

As a professional chemist, I’ve worked frequently with ammonia in research and development labs and manufacturing plants and know the dangers firsthand. It can cause severe burns and irritations and worse.

There have been prior ammonia leaks aboard the ISS facility that forced a partial evacuation similar to today’s incident.

The ISS has been continuously occupied by humans for 15 years.

In the case of a life threatening emergency, the crew can rapidly abandon the station aboard the two docked Russian Soyuz capsules. They hold three persons each and serve as lifeboats.

Fortunately, the perceived ammonia leak this morning was not real and apparently was caused by a false alarm.

“This morning’s alarm is suspected to have been caused by a transient error message in one of the station’s computer relay systems, called a multiplexer-demultiplexer. A subsequent action to turn that relay box off and back on cleared the error message and the relay box is reported by flight controllers to be in good operating condition,” according to a NASA statement.

“Meanwhile, flight controllers are continuing to analyze data in an effort to determine what triggered the alarm that set today’s actions in motion.”

“Work to reactivate cooling loop B on the station will continue throughout the night and into the day Thursday. The crew members are expected to resume a normal complement of research activities on Thursday as well.”

The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV
This view shows the US side of the ISS that was evacuated today, Jan. 14, 2015, by the crew due to possible ammonia leak. The SpaceX CRS-5 Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV

The evacuation came just two days after a commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter successfully rendezvoused and berthed at the station on Monday, Jan. 12.

The crew had just opened the hatch to Dragon and begun unloading the goodies stored aboard.

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

Ken Kremer

ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos
ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos

Ammonia Leak Alarm on the ISS Forces Evacuation of US Side, Crew Safe

Breaking News: A possible ammonia leak aboard the US side of the International Space Station (ISS) has forced a partial evacuation of the entire crew to the Russian side earlier this morning, Wednesday, Jan. 14.

All six crew members from the US, Italy and Russia are safe and in good shape at this time, says NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Hatches between the US and Russian segments were sealed shut, pending further analysis.

Read my late day update – here.

Mission controllers are in the process of assessing whether it’s a real leak or a false alarm due to a faulty sensor or a computer problem. It’s not completely clear at this time.

The latest indications at 11 a.m. EST, Jan. 14, are that it may be a false alarm, says NASA.

“The security of a crew was guaranteed thanks to correct actions of the cosmonauts, astronauts and the crew of the Mission control centres in Moscow and Houston. Further plan of actions in the US modules must be prepared in Houston,” according to Roscosmos.

“For now NASA colleagues are analyzing situation”, – noted the head of Russian Mission Control Centre Maxim Matushin

Ammonia is a toxic substance used as a coolant in the stations complex cooling system that is an essential requirement to continued operation of the station.

There have been prior ammonia leaks aboard the ISS facility.

NASA announced that an alarm sounded in the US segment at about 4 a.m. EST. indicating a possible ammonia leak. As a result, all six Expedition 42 astronauts and cosmonauts evacuated the US segment.

“Flight controllers in Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston saw an increase in pressure in the station’s water loop for thermal control system B then later saw a cabin pressure increase that could be indicative of an ammonia leak in the worst case scenario,” according to a NASA announcement.

Therefore as a precaution after the alarm sounded earlier today, the crew was directed to isolate themselves in the Russian segment this morning while teams are evaluating the situation. The crew powered down non-essential equipment in the U.S. segment of the station according to established procedures, said NASA.

“In an exchange at 7:02 a.m. with Expedition 42 Commander Barry Wilmore of NASA, spacecraft communicator James Kelly said flight controllers were analyzing their data but said it is not yet known if the alarm was actually triggered by a leak or whether the situation was caused by a faulty sensor or by a problem in a computer relay box that sends data and commands to various systems on the station.”

The evacuation comes just two days after a commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter successfully rendezvoused and berthed at the station on Monday, Jan. 11.

The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV
This view shows the US side of the ISS that was evacuated today, Jan. 14, 2015, by the crew due to possible ammonia leak. The SpaceX CRS-5 Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV

The ISS has been continuously occupied by humans for 15 years.

The current six person crew includes astronauts and cosmonauts from three nations; America, Russia and Italy including four men and two women serving aboard the massive orbiting lab complex.

They comprise Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Terry Virts from NASA, Samantha Cristoforetti from the European Space Agency (ESA) and cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev, Yelena Serova, and Anton Shkaplerov from Russia.

ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos
ISS Expedition 42. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos

In the case of a life threatening emergency, the crew can rapidly abandon the station aboard the two docked Russian Soyuz capsules. They hold three persons each.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Dragon Captured at Station Loaded with Critical Supplies and Science

The commercial SpaceX cargo Dragon, loaded with over 2.6 tons of critically needed supplies and science experiments, was captured by the crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Jan. 12) while soaring over the Mediterranean Sea.

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-5 cargo vessel arrived at the station following a flawless two day orbital pursuit and spectacular nighttime blastoff atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 on Jan. 10 at 4:47 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Note: This breaking news story is being updated. Check back frequently for updates.

Dragon was successfully berthed and bolted into place a few hours later at 8:54 a.m. EST.

Working at the robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed cupola, Expedition 42 Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore of NASA, with the assistance of Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti of the European Space Agency, successfully captured the Dragon spacecraft with the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm at 5:54 a.m. EST.

Wilmore grappled Dragon with the station’s 57-foot-long (17-meter-long) robotic arm at 5:54 a.m. EST, about 18 minutes ahead of schedule, in an operation shown live on NASA TV, back-dropped by breathtaking views of “our beautiful Earth” passing by some 260 miles (410 kilometers) below.

Among the goodies aboard are belated Christmas presents for the crew. The Falcon 9 and Dragon were originally scheduled to liftoff in December and arrive in time for the Christmas festivities.

The cargo freighter flew beneath the station to arrive at the capture point 32 feet (10 meters) away. Dragon’s thrusters were disabled at the time of grappling.

Robotics officers at Houston Mission Control then began remotely maneuvering the arm to berth Dragon at the Earth-facing port on the station’s Harmony module starting at 7:45 a.m. EST.

Dragon is being attached via the common berthing mechanism (CBM) using four gangs of four bolts apiece to accomplish a hard mate to Harmony. The overall grappling and berthing process requires a few hours.

Dragon was successfully berthed and bolted into place at 8:54 a.m. EST and its now part of the space station.

The crew will conduct leak pressure checks, remove the docking mechanism and open the hatch later today or tomorrow.

#Dragon is about 90 feet from #ISS, closing in on its capture point.  Credit: NASA TV
#Dragon is about 90 feet from #ISS, closing in on its capture point. Credit: NASA TV

CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth operational resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Overall this is the sixth Dragon to arrive at the ISS.

The ISS cannot function without regular deliveries of fresh cargo by station partners from Earth.

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft is loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing, and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

Among the payloads is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a remote-sensing laser instrument to measure clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates and aerosols in the atmosphere that directly impact the global climate.

CATS is loaded aboard the unpressurized trunk of Dragon.

Also loaded onboard are 17 student experiments known collectively as the “Yankee Clipper” mission. The experiments are sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which oversees the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) in partnership with NanoRacks LLC.

The launch marked the first US commercial resupply launch since the catastrophic destruction of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS which exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.

The US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX until Cygnus flights are resumed, hopefully by late 2015, on an alternate rocket, the Atlas V.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station.   Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station. Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

Dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about four weeks until Feb. 10.

SpaceX also had a secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 booster’s first stage via an unprecedented precision guided landing on an ocean-going “drone.”

The history making attempt at recovering the Falcon 9 first stage was a first of its kind experiment to accomplish a pinpoint soft landing of a rocket onto a tiny platform in the middle of a vast ocean using a rocket assisted descent.

In my opinion the experiment was “a very good first step towards the bold company goal of recovery and re-usability in the future” as I wrote in my post launch report here at Universe Today.

Listen to my live radio interview with BBC 5LIVE conducted Saturday night, discussing SpaceX’s first attempt to land and return their Falcon-9 booster.

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

Ken Kremer

The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV
The SpaceX Dragon is attached to the Harmony module. Credit: NASA TV

Huge Rocket Recovery Strides Accomplished, SpaceX Drone Ship Back in Port

“Huge strides towards [rocket] reusability” were achieved, says SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, following Saturday morning’s (Jan. 10) flawless launch of his firm’s Falcon 9 rocket on a critical resupply mission to the space station for NASA, which also had a secondary objective of recovering the booster’s first stage via an unprecedented precision-guided landing on an ocean-going “drone.”

Despite making a “hard landing” on the vessel dubbed the “autonomous spaceport drone ship,” the 14 story tall Falcon 9 first stage did make it to the drone ship, positioned some 200 miles offshore of the Florida-Carolina coast, northeast of the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket broke into pieces upon hitting the barge.

“Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho,” Musk tweeted soon after the launch and recovery attempt.

The drone ship, along with pieces of the rocket, was towed back to the Port of Jacksonville, FL, this afternoon, Sunday, Jan. 11. Photos captured by locals, and posted today on Reddit, NASASpaceflight and Spaceflight Now, showed the ship was intact with some damage, as reported by Musk.

The SpaceX ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ being towed into the Port of Jacksonville, Fla, on 11 Jan 2015 with possible pieces of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage under tarps.
The SpaceX “autonomous spaceport drone ship” being towed into the Port of Jacksonville, FL, on 11 Jan 2015 with possible pieces of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage under tarps. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

The goal of the commercial Falcon 9 rocket was to launch the SpaceX Dragon CRS-5 cargo vessel on a mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS). It lit up the night skies all around the Florida Space Coast following a flawless liftoff at 4:47 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

After a two day chase, Dragon will reach the ISS at about 6:12 a.m. EST on Monday, Jan. 12. NASA TV live coverage starts at 4:30 a.m. EST.

The history-making attempt at recovering the Falcon 9 first stage was a first of its kind experiment to accomplish a pinpoint soft landing of a rocket onto a tiny platform in the middle of a vast ocean using a rocket assisted descent.

“Am super proud of my crew for making huge strides towards reusability on this mission. You guys rock!” Musk declared in a later tweet.

Whereas virtually every other news outlet declared the landing attempt a “failure” in the headline, my assessment as a scientist is the complete opposite – and that the experiment was “a very good first step towards the bold company goal of recovery and re-usability in the future” as I wrote in my post launch report here at Universe Today.

Listen to my live radio interview with BBC 5LIVE conducted Saturday night, discussing SpaceX’s first attempt to land and return their Falcon 9 booster.

This was a daring experiment involving re-lighting one of the first stage Merlin 1D engines three times to act as a retro rocket to slow the stage’s descent and aim for the drone ship.

The drone ship measures only 300 feet by 170 feet. That’s tiny compared to the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX achieved virtually all of their objectives in the daunting feat except for a soft landing on the drone ship.

The grid fins and trio of Merlin propulsive burns succeeded in slowing the booster from hypersonic velocity to subsonic.

The first stage was planned to make the soft landing by extending four landing legs to a width of about 70 feet to achieve an upright landing on the platform.

One of the possible outcomes of today. Falcon 9 sits on the barge, ready to go back home. Image Credit: Reddit user zlsa (zlsa.github.io) CC-BY-SA.
Artist’s concept view of Falcon 9 on the barge, ready to go back home. Image Credit: Reddit user zlsa (zlsa.github.io) CC-BY-SA.

The hard landing apparently was caused by a lack of hydraulic fluid in the final stages of the landing

“Grid fins worked extremely well from hypersonic velocity to subsonic, but ran out of hydraulic fluid right before landing,” Musk tweeted.

No one has ever tried such a landing attempt before in the ocean says SpaceX. The company has conducted numerous successful soft landing tests on land, and several soft touchdowns on the ocean’s surface. But never before on a barge in the ocean.

So they will learn and move forward to the next experimental landing, that could come as early as February.

“Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month.”

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 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 prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Musk’s daring vision is to recover, refurbish, and reuse the first stage and dramatically reduce the high cost of access to space by introducing airline like operational concepts.

It remains to be seen whether his vision of reusing rockets can be made economical. Most of the space shuttle systems were reused, except for the huge external fuel tanks, but it was not a cheap proposition.

So this ocean recovery attempt is a critical first step towards that long term effort.

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft is loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing, and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

Photo of returning SpaceX ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ shows possible damage to onboard gear and possibly a few rocket parts under tarps.  Credit: Reddit
Photo of returning SpaceX “autonomous spaceport drone ship” shows possible damage to onboard gear and possibly a few rocket parts under tarps. Credit: Reddit

The launch marked the first US commercial resupply launch since the catastrophic destruction of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS which exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.

The US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX until Cygnus flights are resumed, hopefully by late 2015 on an alternate rocket, the Atlas V.

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

A SpaceX Falcon 9 Grasshopper reusable rocket undergoing testing. Credit: SpaceX
A SpaceX Falcon 9 Grasshopper reusable rocket undergoing testing.
Credit: SpaceX
A Falcon 9 Grasshopper conducting VTVL testing. Credit: SpaceX
A Falcon 9 Grasshopper conducting VTVL testing. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Successfully Launches Cargo Ship to Station and Hard Lands Rocket on “Drone Ship”

SpaceX successfully launched their commercial Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship on a critical mission for NASA bound for the space station this morning, Jan. 10, while simultaneously accomplishing a hard landing of the boosters first stage on an ocean-floating “drone ship” platform in a very good first step towards the bold company goal of recovery and re-usability in the future.

The spectacular night time launch of the private SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lit up the skies all around the Florida Space Coast and beyond following a flawless on time liftoff at 4:47 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The nine Merlin 1D engines of the 208 foot-tall Falcon 9 generated 1.3 million pounds of liftoff thrust as the rocket climbed to orbit on the first SpaceX launch of 2015.

The Dragon CRS-5 mission is on its way to a Monday-morning rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS).

It is loaded with more than two tons of supplies and NASA science investigations for the six person crew aboard the massive orbiting outpost.

A secondary goal of SpaceX was to conduct a history-making attempt at recovering the 14 story tall Falcon 9 first stage via a precision landing on an ocean-going landing platform known as the “autonomous spaceport drone ship.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk quickly tweeted that good progress was made, and as expected, more work needs to be done.

This was an experiment involving re-lighting one of the first stage Merlin engines three times to act as a retro rocket to slow the stages descent and aim for the drone ship.

“Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho,” Musk tweeted soon after the launch and recovery attempt.

“Ship itself is fine. Some of the support equipment on the deck will need to be replaced…”

“Didn’t get good landing/impact video. Pitch dark and foggy. Will piece it together from telemetry and … actual pieces.”

Musk’s daring vision is to recover, refurbish and reuse the first stage and dramatically reduce the high cost of access to space, by introducing airline like operational concepts.

The ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ was positioned some 200 to 250 miles offshore of the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean along the rockets flight path, flying along the US Northeast coast to match that of the ISS.

The autonomous spaceport drone ship measure only 300 by 100 feet, with wings that extend its width to 170 feet. That’s tiny compared to the Atlantic Ocean.

Therefore the SpaceX team was successful in accomplishing a rocket assisted descent and pinpoint landing in the middle of a vast ocean, albeit not as slow as hoped.

No one has ever tried such a landing attempt before in the ocean says SpaceX. The company has conducted numerous successful soft landing tests on land. And several soft touchdowns on the ocean’s surface. But never before on a barge in the ocean.

So they will learn and move forward to the next experimental landing.

SpaceX rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station.   Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
SpaceX rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann

CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

“We are delighted to kick off 2015 with our first commercial cargo launch of the year,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement.

“Thanks to our private sector partners, we’ve returned space station resupply launches to U.S. soil and are poised to do the same with the transport of our astronauts in the very near future.”

“Today’s launch not only resupplies the station, but also delivers important science experiments and increases the station’s unique capabilities as a platform for Earth science with delivery of the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System, or CATS instrument. I congratulate the SpaceX and NASA teams who have made today’s success possible. We look forward to extending our efforts in commercial space to include commercial crew by 2017 and to more significant milestones this year on our journey to Mars.”

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft is loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing, and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

The launch marked the first US commercial resupply launch since the catastrophic destruction of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.

The US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX until Cygnus flights are resumed hopefully by late 2015 on an alternate rocket, the Atlas V.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Launch and Historic Landing Attempt Reset to Jan. 10

The oft delayed launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the CRS-5 cargo resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) has been reset to Saturday, Jan. 10.

Liftoff is currently targeted for 4:47 a.m. EST Saturday, Jan. 10, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida following a postponement from Friday, Jan. 9.

The launch was unexpectedly scrubbed with one minute, 21 seconds left on the countdown clock for technical reasons earlier this week just prior to the targeted blastoff time of 6:20 a.m. EST on Tuesday, Jan. 6.

A thrust vector control actuator for the Falcon 9’s second stage failed to perform as expected, resulting in a launch abort, said NASA.

NASA and SpaceX decided to take another day to fully evaluate the issue and ensure a launch success.

The launch will be the first Falcon 9 liftoff for 2015.

The overnight launch should put on a spectacular sky show for spectators along the Florida space coast.

There is only an instantaneous launch window available, meaning that the blastoff must proceed at that exact instant. Any delays due to technical issues or weather would force a scrub until at least Tuesday, Jan. 13.

SpaceX drone ship sailing at sea to hold position awaiting Falcon 9 rocket landing.  Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX
SpaceX drone ship sailing at sea to hold position awaiting Falcon 9 rocket landing. Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX

Overall, CRS-5 is the company’s fifth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station.

In additional to being a critical cargo mission required to keep the space station stocked with provisions for the crew and research experiments, the mission features a history making attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

The rocket recovery and landing attempt is a key step towards carrying out SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s bold vision of rocket reusability.

Towards that end, SpaceX dispatched the “autonomous spaceport drone ship” sailing at sea towards a point where Musk hopes it will serve as an ocean going landing platform for the precision landing of his firm’s Falcon 9 rocket after it concludes its launch phase to the ISS.

Testing operation of Falcon 9 hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) launching on next Falcon 9 flight, CRS-5.   Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
Testing operation of Falcon 9 hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) launching on next Falcon 9 flight, CRS-5. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

The “autonomous spaceport drone ship” departed the port of Jacksonville, FL, on Saturday, Jan. 3, heading to a point somewhere around 200 to 250 miles or so off the US East coast in a northeasterly direction coinciding with the flight path of the rocket.

However, the absolute overriding goal of the mission is to safely deliver NASA’s contracted cargo to the ISS, emphasized Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance, SpaceX, at a media briefing on Jan. 5 at the Kennedy Space Center.

Landing on the off-shore barge is just a secondary objective of SpaceX, not NASA, he repeated several times.

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft is loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing, and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops - Will Refly on SpaceX CRS 5.   Science experiments from these students representing 18 school communities across  America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS and which were lost when the rocket exploded uexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  The students pose here with SSEP program director Dr. Jeff Goldstein prior to Antares launch. The experiments will be re-flown aboard SpaceX CRS-5.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops – Experiments Will Refly on SpaceX CRS 5. Science experiments from these students, representing 18 school communities across America, were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS and which were lost when the rocket exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). The students pose here with SSEP program director Dr. Jeff Goldstein prior to Antares’ launch. The experiments will be re-flown aboard SpaceX CRS-5. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Among the payloads is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a remote-sensing laser instrument to measure clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates and aerosols in the atmosphere.

Also loaded onboard are 17 student experiments known collectively as the “Yankee Clipper” mission. The experiments are sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education which oversees the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) in partnership with NanoRacks LLC.

They had been selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS, but were all lost when the rocket exploded unexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.

The experiments have been reconstituted to fly on the CRS-5 mission.

The US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX until Cygnus flights are resumed hopefully by late 2015 on an alternate rocket, the Atlas V.

CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

The weather forecast stands at 80% GO for favorable conditions at launch time.

NASA Television live launch coverage begins at 3:30 a.m. EST on Jan. 10 at: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/

SpaceX also will webcast the launch at: http://www.spacex.com/webcast/

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

Ken Kremer

New countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center displays SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission and recent Orion ocean recovery at the Press Site viewing area on Dec. 18, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
New countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center displays SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission and recent Orion ocean recovery at the Press Site viewing area on Dec. 18, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Student Scientists Get Second Chance to Fly Experiments to ISS Aboard Falcon 9 After Antares Loss

Student Space Flight teams at NASA Wallops – Will Refly on SpaceX CRS 5
Science experiments from these students representing 18 school communities across America were selected to fly aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-3 spacecraft bound for the ISS and which were lost when the rocket exploded uexpectedly after launch from NASA Wallops, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). The students pose here with SSEP program director Dr. Jeff Goldstein prior to Antares launch. The experiments will be re-flown aboard SpaceX CRS-5. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com[/caption]

When it comes to science and space exploration, you have to get accustomed to a mix of success and failure.

If you’re wise you learn from failure and turn adversity around into a future success.

Such is the case for the resilient student scientists who learned a hard lesson of life at a young age when the space science experiments they poured their hearts and souls into for the chance of a lifetime to launch research investigations aboard the Antares rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on the Orb-3 mission, incomprehensibly exploded in flames before their eyes on Oct. 28, 2014.

Those student researchers from across America are being given a second chance and will have their reconstituted experiments re-flown on the impending SpaceX CRS-5 mission launch, thanks to the tireless efforts of NASA, NanoRacks, CASIS, SpaceX and the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) which runs the program.

The SpaceX CRS-5 launch to the ISS on the Falcon 9 rocket planned for this morning, Jan. 6, was scrubbed with a minute to go for technical reasons and has been reset to no earlier than Jan. 9.

SSEP Director Dr. Jeff Goldstein shows a NanoRacks Mix-Stix tube used by the student investigations on the NanoRacks/Student Spaceflight Experiments Program -Yankee Clipper mission during presentation at NASA Wallops prior to Oct. 28 Antares launch failure.  17 of 18 experiments will re-fly on SpaceX CRS-5 launch.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
SSEP Director Dr. Jeff Goldstein shows a NanoRacks Mix-Stix tube used by the student investigations on the NanoRacks/Student Spaceflight Experiments Program -Yankee Clipper mission during presentation at NASA Wallops prior to Oct. 28 Antares launch failure. 17 of 18 experiments will re-fly on SpaceX CRS-5 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The experiments are known collectively as the ‘Yankee Clipper’ mission.

Antares Orb-3 was destroyed shortly after the exhilarating blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia shore.

Everything aboard the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and ‘the SS Deke Slayton’ Cygnus cargo freighter was lost, including all the NASA supplies and research as well as the student investigations.

First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
First stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket appears to explode moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“The student program represents 18 experiments flying as the Yankee Clipper,” said Dr. Jeff Goldstein, in an interview with Universe Today at NASA Wallops prior to the Antares launch. Goldstein is director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which oversees SSEP in partnership with NanoRacks LLC.

“Altogether 8 communities sent delegations. 41 student researchers were at NASA Wallops for the launch and SSEP media briefing.”

“The 18 experiments flying as the SSEP Yankee Clipper payload reflect the 18 communities participating in Mission 6 to ISS.”

“The communities represent grade 5 to 16 schools from all across America including Washington, DC; Kalamazoo, MI; Berkeley Heights and Ocean City, NJ; Colleton County and North Charleston, SC, and Knox County and Somerville, TN.”

Goldstein explains that within days of the launch failure, efforts were in progress to re-fly the experiments.

“Failure happens in science and what we do in the face of that failure defines who we are,” said Goldstein, “NASA and NanoRacks moved mountains to get us on the next launch, SpaceX CRS-5. We faced an insanely tight turnaround, but all the student teams stepped up to the plate.”

Even the NASA Administrator Charles Bolden lauded the students efforts and perseverance!

“I try to teach students, when I speak to them, not to be afraid of failure. An elementary school student once told me, when I asked for a definition of success, that ‘success is taking failure and turning it inside out.’ It is important that we rebound, learn from these events and try again — and that’s a great lesson for students,” said NASA Administrator Bolden.

“I am delighted that most of the students will get to see their investigations re-flown on the SpaceX mission. Perseverance is a critical skill in science and the space business.”

Virtually all of the experiments have been reconstituted to fly on the CRS-5 mission, also known as SpaceX-5.

“17 of the 18 student experiments lost on Orb-3 on October 28 are re-flying on SpaceX-5. These experiments comprise the reconstituted Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Yankee Clipper II payload for SSEP Mission 6 to ISS,” noted Goldstein.

“This shows the resilience of the federal-private partnership in commercial space, and of the commitment by our next generation of scientists and engineers.”

The wide range of experiments include microgravity investigations on how fluids act and form into crystals in the absence of gravity crystal growth, mosquito larvae development, milk expiration, baby bloodsuckers, development of Chrysanthemum and soybean seeds and Chia plants, effect of yeast cell division and implications for human cancer cells, and an examination of hydroponics.

Student experiments are aboard. Bearing the CRS-5 Dragon cargo craft within its nose, the Falcon 9 v1.1 stands patiently to execute the United States’ first mission of 2015. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace
Student experiments are aboard. Bearing the CRS-5 Dragon cargo craft within its nose, the Falcon 9 v1.1 stands patiently to execute the United States’ first mission of 2015. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

That dark day in October witnessed by the students, Goldstein, myself as a fellow scientist, and others is something we will never forget. We all chose to learn from the failure and move forward to greater accomplishments.

Don’t surrender to failure. And don’t give in to the ‘Do Nothing – Can’t Do’ crowd so prevalent today.

Remember what President Kennedy said during his address at Rice University on September 12, 1962:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

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

Ken Kremer

NanoRacks Mix-Stix, which are used by the student investigations on the NanoRacks/National Center for Earth and Space Science Education -Yankee Clipper.   Credit: Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NanoRacks Mix-Stix, which are used by the student investigations on the NanoRacks/National Center for Earth and Space Science Education -Yankee Clipper. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Drone Ship at Sea Preparing for Bold SpaceX Rocket Recovery Landing Attempt

Aiming to one day radically change the future of the rocket business, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has a bold vision unlike any other in a historic attempt to recover and reuse rockets set for Jan. 6 with the goal of dramatically reducing the enormous costs of launching anything into space.

Towards the bold vision of rocket reusability, SpaceX dispatched the “autonomous spaceport drone ship” sailing at sea towards a point where Musk hopes it will serve as an ocean going landing platform for the first stage of his firm’s Falcon 9 rocket after it concludes its launch phase to the International Space Station (ISS).

“Drone spaceport ship heads to its hold position in the Atlantic to prepare for a rocket landing,” tweeted Musk today (Jan. 5) along with a photo of the drone ship underway (see above).

The history making and daring experimental landing is planned to take place in connection with the Tuesday, Jan. 6, liftoff of the Falcon 9 booster and Dragon cargo freighter bound for the ISS on a critical resupply mission for NASA.

No one has ever tried such a landing attempt before in the ocean says SpaceX. The company has conducted numerous successful soft landing tests on land. And several soft touchdowns on the ocean’s surface. But never before on a barge in the ocean.

The “autonomous spaceport drone ship” departed the port of Jacksonville, FL, on Saturday, heading to a point somewhere around 200 to 250 miles or so off the US East coast in a northeasterly direction coinciding with the flight path of the rocket.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket will attempt precison landing on this autonomous spaceport drone ship soon after launch set for Dec. 19, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket will attempt precision landing on this autonomous spaceport drone ship soon after launch set for January 6, 2015, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-5 mission is slated to blast off at 6:20 am EST, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Falcon 9 and Dragon have gone vertical in advance of the 6:20am ET launch on Jan. 6, 2015. Credit: SpaceX.
Falcon 9 and Dragon have gone vertical in advance of the 6:20 am ET launch on Jan. 6, 2015. Credit: SpaceX.

The absolute overriding goal of the mission is to safely deliver NASA’s contracted payload to the ISS, emphasized Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance, SpaceX, at a media briefing today (Jan. 5) at the Kennedy Space Center. Landing on the off shore barge is just a secondary objective of SpaceX, not NASA, he repeated several times.

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft is loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing, and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

Koenigsmann estimated the odds of success at the landing attempt at about 50% at best according to an estimate from Musk himself.

“It’s an experiment. There’s a certain likelihood that this will not work out right, that something will go wrong.”

The two stage Falcon 9 and Dragon stands 207.8 feet (63.3 meters) tall and is 12 feet in diameter. The first stage is powered by nine Merlin 1D engines that generate 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level and rises to 1.5 million pounds of thrust as the Falcon 9 climbs out of the atmosphere, according to a SpaceX fact sheet.

The first stage Merlins will fire for three minutes until the planned engine shutdown and main engine cutoff known as MECO, said Koenigsmann.

The rocket will be in space at an altitude of over 100 miles zooming upwards at 1300 m/s (nearly 1 mi/s).

Then, a single Merlin 1D will be commanded to re-fire for three separate times to stabilize and lower the rocket during the barge landing attempt.

Four hypersonic grid fins had been added to the first stage and placed in an X-wing configuration. They will be deployed only during the reentry attempt and will be used to roll, pitch, and yaw the rocket in concert with gamboling of the engines.

It will take about nine minutes from launch until the first stage reaches the barge, said Koenigsmann. That’s about the same time it takes for Dragon to reach orbit.

He added that, depending on the internet connectivity, SpaceX may or may not know the outcome in real time.

Testing operation of Falcon 9 hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) launching on next Falcon 9 flight, CRS-5.   Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
Testing operation of Falcon 9 hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) launching on next Falcon 9 flight, CRS-5. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

Here’s a description from SpaceX:

“To help stabilize the stage and to reduce its speed, SpaceX relights the engines for a series of three burns. The first burn—the boostback burn—adjusts the impact point of the vehicle and is followed by the supersonic retro propulsion burn that, along with the drag of the atmosphere, slows the vehicle’s speed from 1300 m/s to about 250 m/s. The final burn is the landing burn, during which the legs deploy and the vehicle’s speed is further.”

“To complicate matters further, the landing site is limited in size and not entirely stationary. The autonomous spaceport drone ship is 300 by 100 feet, with wings that extend its width to 170 feet. While that may sound huge at first, to a Falcon 9 first stage coming from space, it seems very small. The legspan of the Falcon 9 first stage is about 70 feet and while the ship is equipped with powerful thrusters to help it stay in place, it is not actually anchored, so finding the bullseye becomes particularly tricky. During previous attempts, we could only expect a landing accuracy of within 10km. For this attempt, we’re targeting a landing accuracy of within 10 meters.”

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk, briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, prior to a previous SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-5 marks the company’s fifth resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the station during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016 under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

The cargo delivery is the entire point of the CRS-5 mission.

The official CRS-5 Mission Patch
The official CRS-5 Mission Patch

The weather odds have improved to 70% GO from 60% GO reported Major Perry Sweat, 45th Weather Squadron rep, USAF, at the briefing today at the Kennedy Space Center.

Following the catastrophic failure of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter on Oct. 28 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Antares launches are on hold.

Therefore the US supply train to the ISS is now wholly dependent on SpaceX.

NASA Television live launch coverage begins at 5 a.m. EST on Jan. 6 at: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/

SpaceX also will webcast the launch at: http://www.spacex.com/webcast/

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

Ken Kremer

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Rocket Issues force SpaceX and NASA to Postpone Falcon 9 Rocket Launch to January 2015

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Due to technical problems encountered during a hot fire test of the first stage engines this week with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the planned Dec. 19 launch of the commercial rocket and NASA contracted Dragon cargo freighter to the International Space Station (ISS) on a critical resupply mission has been postponed a few weeks into the new year to Jan. 6 at the earliest “out of an abundance of caution,” SpaceX officials told Universe Today.

Prior to every launch, SpaceX performs an internally required full countdown dress rehearsal and hot fire test of the first stage propulsion systems.

The hot fire test attempted on Tuesday “did not run for its full duration” of about three seconds, SpaceX spokesman John Taylor confirmed to me.

Therefore SpaceX and NASA managers decided to postpone the launch in order to run another static fire test.

“We are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch,” Taylor said.

In light of the catastrophic failure of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter, everything must be done to ensure a launch success.

Due to the large amount of work required to test and analyze all rocket systems and the impending Christmas holidays, the earliest opportunity to launch is Jan. 6.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket will attempt precison landing on this autonomous spaceport drone ship soon after launch set for Dec. 19, 2014 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket will attempt precision landing on this autonomous spaceport drone ship soon after launch now reset for Jan. 6, 2015, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon cargo freighter had been slated to liftoff on its next unmanned cargo run dubbed CRS-5 to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Here is the full update from SpaceX.

“While the recent static fire test accomplished nearly all of our goals, the test did not run the full duration. The data suggests we could push forward without a second attempt, but out of an abundance of caution, we are opting to execute a second static fire test prior to launch.”

“Given the extra time needed for data review and testing, coupled with the limited launch date availability due to the holidays and other restrictions, our earliest launch opportunity is now Jan. 6 with Jan. 7 as a backup.

New countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center displays SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission and recent Orion ocean recovery at the Press Site viewing area on Dec. 18, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
New countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center displays SpaceX Falcon 9 CRS-5 mission and recent Orion ocean recovery at the Press Site viewing area on Dec. 18, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“The ISS orbits through a high beta angle period a few times a year. This is where the angle between the ISS orbital plane and the sun is high, resulting in the ISS’ being in almost constant sunlight for a 10 day period.

“During this time, there are thermal and operational constraints that prohibit Dragon from being allowed to berth with the ISS. This high beta period runs from 12/28/14-1/7/15”

“Note that for a launch on 1/6 , Dragon berths on 1/8.”

“Both Falcon 9 and Dragon remain in good health, and our teams are looking forward to launch just after the New Year.”

Watch for Ken’s ongoing SpaceX launch coverage from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center.

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

Ken Kremer