Kennedy’s Modernized Spaceport Passes Key Review Supporting SLS/Orion Launches

This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.  Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center
This artist concept depicts the Space Launch System rocket rolling out of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will launch the agency’s Orion spacecraft into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. Credits: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Modernization of NASA’s launch infrastructure facilities at the Kennedy Space Center supporting the new SLS/Orion architecture required to send astronauts on a Journey to Mars in the 2030s, has passed a comprehensive series of key hardware reviews, NASA announced, paving the path towards full scale development and the inaugural liftoff by late 2018.

The facilities and ground support systems that will process NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and next generation Orion manned deep space capsule at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida successfully completed a painstaking review of the plans by top agency managers and an independent team of aerospace experts.

SLS will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen. It will propel astronauts in the Orion capsule on deep space missions, first back to the Moon by around 2021, then to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond to the Red Planet in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal.

The Ground Systems Development and Operations Program (GSDO) group within NASA is responsible for processing SLS and Orion.

“Over the course of a few months, engineers and experts across the agency reviewed hundreds of documents as part of a comprehensive assessment” said NASA.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Among the GSDO ground support facilities evaluated in the launch infrastructure review are the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the rocket components are stacked, the mobile launcher used to roll out SLS/Orion to Launch Pad 39B atop a modified crawler transporter and the Multi-Payload Processing Facility that will fuel the Orion spacecraft with propellants prior to stacking atop the rocket.

In December, GSDO completed a critical design review (CDR) of the facilities and ground support systems plans.

Then in January, a Standing Review Board comprising a team of aerospace experts completed an independent assessment of program readiness.

The Standing Review Board “confirmed the program is on track to complete the engineering design and development process on budget and on schedule.”

“NASA is developing and modernizing the ground systems at Kennedy to safely integrate Orion with SLS, move the vehicle to the pad, and successfully launch it into space,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“Modernizing the ground systems for our journey to Mars also ensures long-term sustainability and affordability to meet future needs of the multi-use spaceport.”

Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft  for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Floor level view of the Mobile Launcher and enlarged exhaust hole with 380 foot-tall launch tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft for launches from Space Launch Complex 39B the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Fabrication, installation and testing of Kennedy’s ground systems can now proceed.

“The team is working hard and we are making remarkable progress transforming our facilities,” said Mike Bolger, GSDO Program Manager. “As we are preparing for NASA’s journey to Mars, the outstanding team at the Kennedy Space Center is ensuring that we will be ready to receive SLS and Orion flight hardware and process the vehicle for the first flight in 2018.”

The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) version with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile the welded skeletal backbone for the Orion EM-1 mission recently arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 1 for outfitting with all the systems and subsystems necessary for flight.

Furthermore, earlier this month on March 10, NASA engineers conducted a successful test firing of the first of the RS-25 rocket engines destined to power the core stage of the SLS stage rocket. The 500 second long hot fire test of engine No. 2059 was carried out on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

SLS-1 will boost the unmanned Orion EM-1 capsule from KSC launch pad 39B on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.

View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop  Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of NASA’s future SLS/Orion launch pad at Space Launch Complex 39B from atop Mobile Launcher at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Former Space Shuttle launch pad 39B is now undergoing renovations and upgrades to prepare for SLS/Orion flights starting in 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA plans to gradually upgrade the SLS to achieve an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), enabling the more distant missions even farther into our solar system.

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

Ken Kremer

Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.   The ML will support NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking up from beneath the enlarged exhaust hole of the Mobile Launcher to the 380 foot-tall tower astronauts will ascend as their gateway for missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars. The ML will support NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft during Exploration Mission-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Inflatable Space Habitat To Be Tested On The ISS

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be launched onboard a SpaceX Dragon on Friday April 8th for a 2-year mission. Astronauts will test the module during that time. Image Bigelow Aerospace.

Space habitats have long been an object of fascination for thinkers, dreamers, and engineers. Science fiction is littered with space habitats, whether in books or movies. And their designs have ranged from titanic, uber-engineered types to fanciful, organic types.

Bigelow Aerospace is one company that is focused on creating affordable, practical space habitats. Inflatability is the name of the game for Bigelow, and now, one of their habitat modules is going to be tested on the ISS for a 2-year period. The BEAM, or Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, will be launched aboard a SpaceX Dragon on Friday April 8th, for a 2-day journey to the ISS.

The BEAM travels as an 8 foot bundle, but once it’s attached to the ISS, and inflated by astronauts, it will be large enough to hold a car. However, astronauts won’t be living inside it; rather, the BEAM will be tested for 2 years to see how it holds up. The objectives for this 2 year mission include:

  • Demonstrating launch and deployment, as well as folding and packing techniques.
  • Determining radiation protection capability.
  • Demonstrating design performance such as thermal, structural, mechanical durability, long-term leak performance, etc.
  • Increasing Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of expandable habitat technology
The BEAM with human figure for scale. Image: Bigelow Aerospace.
The BEAM with human figure for scale. Image: Bigelow Aerospace.

“The International Space Station is a uniquely suited test bed to demonstrate innovative exploration technologies like the BEAM,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability. Using the station’s resources, we’ll learn how humans can work effectively with this technology in space, as we continue to advance our understanding in all aspects for long-duration spaceflight aboard the orbiting laboratory.”

The obvious risk to an inflatable space habitat is puncturing; not only from meteoroids, but from the growing population of space junk that inhabits Earth’s orbit.  But BEAM is designed with this hazard in mind. It’s a thick-walled design, made from multiple layers of fabric similar to Kevlar. As far as space junk goes, BEAM should be impenetrable.

The BEAM is just a test module. It will hold only monitoring equipment, and will be entered by astronauts retrieving data and performing inspections. Bigelow Aerospace’s design for a usable habitat is the B330, a module large enough for 6 occupants, with a projected lifespan of 20 years. Test results from BEAM’s 2 years in space will help refine the design of the B330.

After its 2 years are up, BEAM will be released from the ISS and will be destroyed when it enters Earth’s atmosphere.

Jupiter Just Got Nailed By Something

Austrian amateur astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer recorded these brief flash of light at Jupiter's limb on March 17, 2016. It was confirmed by another amateur video observation made by John McKeon of Ireland. Credit: Gerrit Kernbauer
Austrian amateur astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer recorded these brief flash of light at Jupiter’s limb on March 17, 2016. It was confirmed by another amateur video observation made by John McKeon of Ireland. Credit: Gerrit Kernbauer

Jupiter may be the biggest planet, but it sure seems to get picked on. On March 17, amateur astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer of Mödling, Austria, a small town just south of Vienna, was filming Jupiter through his 7.8-inch (200mm) telescope. 10 days later he returned to process the videos and discovered a bright flash of light at Jupiter’s limb.


Possible asteroid or comet impact on Jupiter on March 17

“I was observing and filming Jupiter with my Skywatcher Newton 200 telescope, writes Kernbauer. “The seeing was not the best, so I hesitated to process the videos. Nevertheless, 10 days later I looked through the videos and I found this strange light spot that appeared for less than one second on the edge of the planetary disc. Thinking back to Shoemaker-Levy 9, my only explanation for this is an asteroid or comet that enters Jupiter’s high atmosphere and burned up/explode very fast.”

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up into many fragments (upper left photo) which later slammed into Jupiter's southern hemisphere one after another to create a string of dark blotches in July 1994. Credit: NASA/ESA
Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke up into many fragments (upper left photo) which later slammed into Jupiter’s southern hemisphere one after another to create a string of dark blotches in July 1994. Credit: NASA/ESA

The flash certainly looks genuine, plus we know this has happened at Jupiter before. Kernbauer mentions the first-ever confirmed reported comet impact that occurred in July 1994. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, shattered to pieces from strong tidal forces when it passed extremely close to the planet in 1992, returned two years later to collide with Jupiter — one fragment at a time.  21 separate fragments pelted the planet, leaving big, dark blotches in the cloud tops easily seen in small telescopes at the time.


Video of possible Jupiter impact flash by John McKeon on March 17, 2016

Not long after Kernbauer got the word out, a second video came to light taken by John McKeon from near Dublin, Ireland using his 11-inch (28 cm) telescope. And get this. Both videos were taken in the same time frame, making it likely they captured a genuine impact.

With the advent of cheap video cameras, amateurs have kept a close eye on the planet, hoping to catch sight of more impacts. Two factors make Jupiter a great place to look for asteroid / comet collisions. First, the planet’s strong gravitational influence is able to draw in more comets and asteroids than smaller planets. Second, its powerful gravity causes small objects to accelerate faster, increasing their impact energy.

According to Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait: “On average (and ignoring orbital velocity), an object will hit Jupiter with roughly five times the velocity it hits Earth, so the impact energy is 25 times as high.” Simply put, it doesn’t take something very big to create a big, bright bang when it slams into Jove’s atmosphere.

It wasn’t long before the next whacking. 15 years to be exact.

This impact spot, discovered in 2009 by Anthony Wesley, was also visible in amateur telescopes. Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Hammel (Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.), and the Jupiter Impact Team
This impact spot, discovered in 2009 by Anthony Wesley, was also visible in amateur telescopes. Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Hammel (Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.), and the Jupiter Impact Team

On July 19, 2009, Australian amateur Anthony Wesley was the first to record a brand new dark scar near Jupiter’s south pole using a low-light video camera on his telescope. Although no one saw or filmed the impact itself, there was no question that the brand new spot was evidence of the aftermath: NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility at Mauna Kea picked up a bright spot at the location in infrared light.


Jupiter impact event recorded by Christopher Go on June 3, 2010

Once we started looking closely, the impacts kept coming. Wesley hit a second home run on June 3, 2010 with video of an impact flash, later confirmed on a second video made by Christopher Go. This was quickly followed by another flash filmed by Japanese amateur astronomer Masayuki Tachikawa on August 20, 2010.


Jupiter impact flash on August 20, 2010 by Masayuki Tachikawa

Prior to this month’s event, amateur Dan Petersen visually observed a impact flash lasting 1-2 seconds in his 12-inch (30.5 cm) scope on September 10, 2012, which was also confirmed on webcam by George Hall.

Keep ’em comin’!

Japan’s Black Hole Telescope Is In Trouble

An artist's drawing of Japan's Hitomi observatory. Image Credit: JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has lost contact with its X-ray Astronomy Satellite Hitomi (ASTRO-H.) Hitomi was launched on February 17th, for a 3-year mission to study black holes. But now that mission appears to be in jeopardy.

Hitomi is a collaboration between JAXA and NASA. Its mission was to investigate how galaxy clusters were formed and influenced by dark matter and dark energy, and to understand how super-massive black holes form and evolve at the center of galaxies. Hitomi was also to “unearth the physical laws governing extreme conditions in neutron stars and black holes,” according to JAXA.

Japan has managed two very short communications with Hitomi, but they were very brief, and JAXA has not been able to determine the nature of the problem. Now, JSpOC, the US Joint Space Operations Center, say they have detected debris in the vicinity of Hitomi, and in a press release this morning (March 29th), JAXA says “it is estimated that Hitomi separated to five pieces at about 10:42 a.m.”

Hitomi was going to be an important contribution to the fleet of space telescopes used by astrophysicists and cosmologists. It has a cutting edge instrument called the X-ray micro-calorimeter, which would have observed X-rays from space with the greatest sensitivity of any instrument so far. If all that is lost, it will be quite a blow.

There’s no definitive word yet on what exactly has happened to Hitomi. Japan is using ground stations in different parts of the world to try to communicate with their observatory. It’s important to note that there is no agreement that the craft has broken apart. The press releases are translations from Japanese to English, so the exact meaning of “separated to five pieces” is unclear.

It’s possible that there was a small explosion of some sort, and that some debris from that explosion is in the vicinity of Hitomi. It’s also possible that JAXA will re-establish communications with the craft as time goes on.

Other observatories have suffered serious problems, and have eventually been brought back under control and completed their missions. The ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) suffered serious problems at the beginning of its mission in 1995, entering emergency mode 3 times before all contact was lost. Eventually, SOHO was brought under control, and what was supposed to be a 2-year mission has lasted 20.

Universe Today will be following this story to see if Hitomi can be made operational. For readers wanting to know more about Hitomi’s mission, read JAXA’s excellent Hitomi press kit.

Teasing the Galactic Ghoul, Past and Present

Launch. It’s the part of spaceflight that is always the most fraught with peril, as your precious and delicate scientific package is encapsulated on top of tons of explosives, the fuze is lit, and the whole package hurls spaceward.

As noted by Bob King earlier last week on Universe Today, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter underwent just such an ordeal on March 14th, as it broke the surly bonds atop a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and headed towards the Red Planet with the Schiaparelli Lander affixed snug to its side. The spacecraft may have very nearly suffered a disaster that would’ve left it literally dead in space.

Don’t worry; the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is OK and safely in a heliocentric orbit now, en route for an orbital insertion around the Red Planet on October 19th, 2016. But our robotic ambassadors haven’t always been so lucky.

The Road to the Red Planet

Launching for Mars is a complex odyssey. Unlike U.S. Mars missions such as MAVEN and Curiosity, which typically launch atop an Atlas V rocket and head directly into solar orbit after launch, Russian Proton rocket launches initially enter a looping elliptical orbit around the Earth, and require a series of successive engine burns to raise the payload’s orbit for a final injection headed to Mars.

All was well as the upper stages did their job, four burns were performed, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter phoned home indicating it was in good health afterwards.

It’s what happened next that gave planners a start, and is still the source of a minor controversy.

While Russian sources tracked the Briz-M upper stage and say it worked as planned, observatories based in the southern hemisphere imaged the departure of ExoMars noted about half a dozen fragments following it. Having done its job, the Briz-M stage was to execute a maneuver after separation, placing it into a ‘graveyard’ solar orbit. Not only would this clear ExoMars on its trajectory, but the Red Planet itself.

Anatoly Zak notes in a recent article for Popular Mechanics online that the Briz-M upper stage isn’t subjected to strict sterilization measures, though its unclear if it too will reach Mars.

Solar orbit is littered with discarded boosters and spacecraft, going all the way back to the first mission to fly past the Moon and image the lunar farside, the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 in 1959. Some of these even come back on occasion to revisit the Earth as temporary moonlets, such as the Apollo 12 booster in 2002 and the Chang’e-2 booster in 2013.

And there is nothing more that the fabled ‘Galactic Ghoul’ loves than tasty Mars-bound spacecraft. Though the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is in its expected trajectory to Mars as planned, it seems that the the Briz-M upper stage may have exploded seconds after spacecraft separation.

Image credit:
Encapsulation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Shiaperelli atop the Briz-M upper stage. Image credit: ESA/B. Bethge

The incident is eerily similar to the fate that befell the Phobos-Grunt sample return mission. Also launched from Baikonur, the spacecraft was stranded in Earth orbit after its Fregat upper stage failed to do its job. Phobos-Grunt reentered on January 15th, 2012 just over two months after launch, taking its container of Planetary Society-funded tardigrades scheduled to make the round trip to Mars permanently to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean instead.

The Mars 96 mission also failed to leave Earth orbit, and reentered over South America on November 16th, 1996 with a radioactive payload meant for power surface penetrators bound for the Red Planet.

The Russians haven’t had good luck with Mars landers, though they fared better landing on Venus with their Venera program… and had at least one spare Venusian Death Probe crash on Earth and fight the Six Million Dollar Man back in the 1970’s TV show, to boot.

The U.S. has actually had pretty good luck on Mars, having only lost the Mars Polar Lander for seven successful landing attempts. If successful later this year, Schiaparelli will be a first landing on Mars for any other space agency other than NASA.

Image credit:
The first image from the surface of Mars? The only picture returned from Russia’s Mars 3 spacecraft, which fell silent 14 seconds after touchdown. Image credit: The Soviet Academy of Sciences.

And you’ll be able to explore Mars for yourself shortly, as opposition season for the Red Planet is right around the corner. Opposition for 2016 occurs on May 22nd, and we’re in for a cycle of favorable oppositions leading up to one in 2018 that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic 2003 opposition.

Space is hard, but the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter seems to be made of still harder stuff, the likes of which no explosion in space can kill.

Onward to Mars!

Cygnus Commercial Space Freighter Arrives at Space Station with 3.5 Tons of Supplies

Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT.  Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following a perfectly executed three day orbital rendezvous, NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra successfully reached out with the International Space Station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, grabbed hold and captured Orbital ATK’s commercial Cygnus cargo freighter at 6:51 a.m. EDT, this morning, Saturday, March 26, 2016.

The ISS and Cygnus were soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) over the Indian Ocean at the time of capture following the cargo crafts blastoff atop a two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V at 11:05 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

Robotics officers on the ground in Houston working with the station crew high above then maneuvered Cygnus – holding over 3.5 tons of critical cargo supplies and science – into position for final installation and berthing to the orbiting laboratory’s Earth-facing port on the Unity module a few hours later. It was finally bolted fully into place at approximately 10:52 a.m. EDT.

Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV

This Cygnus is named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.

The crew plans to open the hatch to the SS Rick Husband tomorrow morning on Easter Sunday, March 26.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 space freighter is loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware for the orbital laboratory in support of over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

A computer overlay with engineering data provides video of the Canadarm2 robotic arm maneuvering to capture the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 space freighter on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 651 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV
A computer overlay with engineering data provides video of the Canadarm2 robotic arm maneuvering to capture the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 space freighter on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 651 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV

All of Cygnus maneuvers were “executed to perfection for a flawless approach and rendezvous” after the three day trip from Florida to the ISS, as the vehicle closed in to within a few meters for grappling, said NASA commentator Rob Navius.

NASA TV showed spectacular HD views of Cygnus and its UltraFlex solar arrays – deployed 2 hours after launch – from station and robotic arm cameras during the final approach operation, as flight controllers closely monitored all spacecraft systems.

“The crew is ready for Cygnus approach to the capture point,” radioed Kopra.

“Station you are go for capture,” Mission Control radioed back.

Cygnus was placed into free drift mode before capture to prevent any accidental perturbations in the final seconds.

From his robotics work station in the Cupola, Kopra then put the arm in motion by about 6:40 a.m. EDT, during the final phase of the final approach. He extended the 57 foot long (19 meter long) arm to reach out and grab the aft end of Cygnus cargo craft at its grappling pin by closing the snares on the end effector.

ESA astronaut Tim Peake served as backup for arm operations while NASA astronaut Jeff Williams monitored Cygnus systems.

The SS Rick Husband was rock steady during its capture as the station was flying over South Africa and the Indian Ocean.

“Capture confirmed,” reported Navius just moments before the video downlink was temporarily lost as the station communications moved between satellites.

“Excellent work gentleman. Much appreciated. Made that look easy,” radioed Jeremy Hansen, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut from Houston mission control.

“We’d also like to say we are really honored to bring aboard the SS Rick Husband to the International Space Station,” radioed Kopra. “He was a personal hero to many of us. This will be the first Cygnus honoree who was directly involved with the construction of this great station.”

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It took about 9 minutes to complete the approach from the 30 meter distant hold point to the final capture point where the SS Rick Husband Cygnus arrived at about 6:37 am EDT. NASA TV showed the grapple fixture gradually coming into view.

Cygnus approached precisely within the center of the approach corridor, said Peake, during continuing updates as the ship moved closer to the targeted berthing port. It was perfectly aligned for its capture point.

Cygnus grapple fixture is located at the bottom end of the vehicles service module, beside the thruster.

Kopra and Peake are spending their 103rd day on the station today. While Williams arrived just 8 days ago.

All burns to get to the initial rendezvous point in the keep out sphere 250 meters away were “right on the money. Every burn has been on course and on target, said NASA JSC commentator Navius in Houston, as Cygnus soared some 400 km over the Pacific.

“Everything has gone off without a hitch. A rock solid approach.”

Flight controllers in Houston and Orbital ATK’s Dulles control headquarters then gave the go ahead to resume moving and approach closer to the 30 meter hold point.

The actual berthing operation took place about an hour later than expected to double check that everything was precisely aligned and communications were fully established.

Controllers used the arm to move Cygnus in for capture. They commanded four gangs of four bolts to latch Cygnus to the common berthing mechanism (CBM) on the internally positioned Unity modules nadir or Earth-facing port.

The first and second stage captures were successfully completed by 10:52 a.m. EDT this morning, marking the official hard mating of Cygnus and the station.

When the ISS Expedition 47 crew members open the hatch, they will be greeted with a sign noting the spacecraft was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the STS-107 mission commander.

Orbital ATK #Cygnus mated to Unity module at 10:52 a.m.  EDT (2:52 p.m. UTC). Graphic shows location of five spacecraft at station now.  Credit: NASA
Orbital ATK #Cygnus mated to Unity module at 10:52 a.m. EDT (2:52 p.m. UTC). Graphic shows location of five spacecraft at station now. Credit: NASA

The SS Rick Husband Cygnus is actually at the vanguard of a “constellation” of three resupply ships arriving at the station over a three week period of three weekends.

Next comes the Russian Progress 63 which will dock at Russia’s Zvezda module next weekend after launching this Thursday from site 31 at Kaszakhstan carrying another three tons of supplies.

Following Progress is the SpaceX Return To Flight (RTF) mission dubbed SpaceX CRS-8.

It is slated to launch on April 8 and arrive at the ISS on April 10 for berthing to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module – at the end of the station where NASA space shuttles formerly docked. It carries another 3.5 tons of supplies.

So altogether the trio of international cargo ships will supply over 12 tons of station supplies in rapid succession over the next 3 weeks.

This choreography will set up America’s Cygnus and Dragon resupply craft to simultaneously be present and reside attached at adjacent ports on the ISS for the first time in history.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016.  The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Plans currently call for Cygnus to stay at station for approximately two months until May 20th, when it will be unbolted and unberthed for eventual deorbiting and reentry.

But first it will stay on orbit for about another eight days, said Orbital ATK’s Cygnus program manager Frank DeMauro in an interview with Universe Today.

After unberthing, Cygnus will be used to conduct several experiments including the Saffire-1 experiment, it will deploy nanosats from an externally mounted carrier, and the REBR experiment will monitor the burn-up of Cygnus during the fiery reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, said DeMauro.

Orbital ATK’s attention then shifts to the next Cygnus launch on the Return to Flight, or RTF, mission of the firms Antares rocket from NASA Wallops on the eastern shore of Virginia.

OA-6 is only the second Cygnus to be launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, following the OA-4 mission last December.

The CRS-6/OA-6 flight is also the second flight of the enhanced Cygnus variant, that is over 1 meter longer and sports 50% more volume capability.

Thus it is capable of carrying a much heavier payload of some 3500 kg (7700 lbs) vs. a maximum of 2300 kg (5070 lbs) for the standard version.

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and continuing mission reports.

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

Ken Kremer

Video caption: Mobius video camera placed at Florida launch pad captures blastoff up close of Orbital ATK OA-6 (CRS-6) mission riding to orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016 at 11:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Atlas V Engine Anomaly Forces Thrust Makeup During Cygnus Launch, Next Flight Delayed

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the OA-6 mission lifted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The first stage is powered by RD-180 engines that shut down 6 seconds early for an undetermined reason. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – This week’s Atlas V rocket launch of a Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS) apparently experienced a first stage engine anomaly during the climb to space that required a longer firing of the boosters upper stage engine so the payload could successfully achieve the required orbit.

The stunningly beautiful nighttime blastoff of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V from the Florida space coast on Tuesday, March 22, was not quite as flawless as initially thought and marred by the early engine shutdown which has now forced a postponement of the next planned Atlas V launch as company engineers painstakingly evaluate the data.

“The Centaur [upper stage] burned for longer than planned,” Lyn Chassagne, spokesperson for rocket maker ULA, told Universe Today.

“The ULA engineering team is reviewing the data to determine the root cause of the occurrence.”

The Centaur RL10C-1 powerplant had to make up for a thrust and velocity deficiency resulting from a 6 second shorter than planned firing of the Atlas V’s first stage RD-180 engines.

Indeed the Centaur had to fire for a minute longer than planned to inject Cygnus into its target orbit.

“The first stage cut-off occurred approximately 6 seconds early, however the Centaur was able to burn an additional approximately 60 seconds longer and achieve mission success, delivering Cygnus to its required orbit.”

“The team is evaluating the occurrence as part of the standard post-flight data analysis. Following successful spacecraft separation, Centaur performed a disposal burn,” Chessagne elaborated.

The two stage ULA Atlas V lifted off on time at 11:05 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, under a picturesque moonlit sky carrying an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS.

Following a 21-minute ascent, the S.S. Rick Husband Cygnus spacecraft was successfully deployed into its intended orbit approximately 144 miles above the Earth, inclined at 51.6 degrees to the equator, Orbital ATK confirmed in a statement.

The Russian-made RD AMROSS RD-180 engines power the Atlas V first stage and the dual nozzle powerplants have been completely reliable in 62 Atlas launches to date.

The RD-180s were supposed to fire for 255.5 seconds, or just over 4 minutes. But instead they shut down prematurely resulting in decreased velocity that had to be supplemented by the Centaur RL10C-1 to get to the intended orbit need to reach the orbiting outpost.

The liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine was planned to fire for 818 seconds or about 13.6 minutes. The single engine produces 22,900 lbf of thrust.

The cause of the first stage engine shortfall has not been announced. ULA has launched a thorough investigation to determine root cause as to whether for example it’s the RD-180 engine itself, a faulty sensor, fuel related, ground support equipment or a myriad of some other rocket components or issues.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016.  The first stage is powered by RD-180 engines that shut down 6 seconds early for an undetermined reason. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Although the Atlas V did successfully launch and deploy the commercial Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 spacecraft into the required orbit, the Centaur was pressed into extra duty in real time to propel the payload.

The Atlas V first and second stages are preprogrammed to swiftly react to a wide range of anomalous situations to account for the unexpected. The rocket and launch teams conduct countless simulations to react to off nominal situations.

“The Atlas V’s robust system design, software and vehicle margins enabled the successful outcome for this mission,” Chassagne said.

“As with all launches, we will continue to focus on mission success and work to meet our customer’s needs.”

At the post launch media briefing, ULA program manager for NASA missions Vern Thorp, said that “ in a little over 20 minutes we went from liftoff to delivering Cygnus into exactly the orbit that it wanted to be in. This was our second successful cargo mission [for Orbital ATK] since December.”

“We were targeting a 230 kilometer circular orbit and we came very close to that as we normally do, just a fraction of a kilometer off. Well within the normal dispersions.”
“We nailed it. We got Cygnus where it wants to go.”

Asked about the Centaur he said that the prelaunch predictions are based on preliminary trajectories and can vary depending on the actual conditions at launch.

“What I do know is that Centaur nailed the orbit. Like every mission, we’re going to do a very, very detailed post-flight review. We always do and we always have done that. That’s to make sure that everything performed properly. From everything we’ve seen so far, the mission was pretty nominal.”

Now as a result of the post-flight review into the engine anomaly and velocity shortfall, the next launch of the “Atlas V carrying the MUOS-5 mission for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force has been delayed to no earlier than May 12,” Chassagne added.

ULA needs to “further review the data anomaly experienced during the OA-6 mission.”

“The delay will allow additional time to review the data and to confirm readiness for the MUOS-5 mission.”

The Atlas V/MUOS-5 mission will lift off from the same pad at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, whenever a launch target date is announced by ULA.

ULA Atlas V rockets to orbit with Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
ULA Atlas V rockets to orbit with Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

Meanwhile the Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 spacecraft continues chasing down the ISS for a planned arrival early Saturday morning, March 26.

The spacecraft will arrive at the station on Saturday, March 26. At that time Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra of NASA and Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) will grapple Cygnus, using the space station’s robotic arm, at approximately 6:40 a.m.

NASA TV coverage of rendezvous and grapple will begin at 5:30 a.m.

The Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 payload of more than 16,000 pounds (7200 kg) weighed in as the heaviest payload to launch on an Atlas V to date.

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Cygnus has been named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Cygnus launch reports.

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

Ken Kremer

Orbital ATK CRS-6 launch vehicle with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft bolted to the top of the Atlas V rocket is poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK CRS-6 launch vehicle with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft bolted to the top of the Atlas V rocket is poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

See Historic Comet BA14 Up Close In These New Radar Images

These radar images of comet P/2016 BA14 were taken on March 23, 2016, by scientists using an antenna of NASA's Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. At the time, the comet was about 2.2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR
These radar images of comet P/2016 BA14 were taken on March 23, 2016, by scientists using an antenna of NASA’s Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. At the time, the comet was about 2.2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

On March 22, Comet P/2016 BA14 (Pan-STARRS) flew just 2.2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) from Earth, making it the third closest comet ever recorded. The last time a comet appeared on our doorstep was in 1770, when Lexell’s Comet breezed by at about half that distance. Through a telescope, comet BA14 looked (and still looks) like a faint star, though time exposures reveal a short, weak tail. With an excellent map and large amateur telescope you might still find it making a bead across the Big Dipper and constellation Bootes tonight through the weekend.


Flyby Comet Imaged by Radar

While normal telescopes show few details, NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California’s Mojave Desert pinged P/2016 BA14 with radar over three nights during closest approach and created a series of crisp, detailed images from the returning echoes. They show a bigger comet than expected — about 3,000 feet (one kilometer) across —  and resolve features as small as 26 feet (8 meters) across.

“The radar images show that the comet has an irregular shape: looks like a brick on one side and a pear on the other,” said Shantanu Naidu, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We can see quite a few signatures related to topographic features such as large flat regions, small concavities and ridges on the surface of the nucleus.”

I honestly thought we’d see a more irregular shape assuming that astronomers were correct in thinking that BA14 broke off from its parent 252P/LINEAR though it’s possible it happened so long ago that the “damage” has been repaired by vaporizing ice softening its contours.

Comets are as dark as charcoal but appear light only because the sun illuminates them against the blackness of outer space. I shone a flashlight on a charcoal briquette (left) to simulate comet lighting. The same charcoal when viewed in normal light appears black. Credit: Bob King
Comets are as dark as charcoal but appear light only because the sun illuminates them against the blackness of outer space. I shone a flashlight on a charcoal briquette (left) to simulate comet lighting. The same charcoal when viewed in normal light appears black. Credit: Bob King

Radar also shows that the comet is rotating on its axis once every 35 to 40 hours. While radar eyes focused on BA14, Vishnu Reddy, of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona, used the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii to examine the comet in infrared light. He discovered its dark surface reflects less than 3% of the sunlight that falls on it. The infrared data is expected to yield clues of the comet’s composition as well.

Illustration of Comet 67P/C-G brought down to Earth in the city of Los Angeles, Calif. Compare to the same image (below) as viewed in space. Credit: ESA and anosmicovni
Illustration of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko brought down to Earth in the city of Los Angeles, Calif. Not only can we appreciate its size but also its truly dark surface.  Credit: ESA and anosmicovni

Comets are exceptionally dark objects often compared to the appearance of a fresh asphalt road or parking lot. They appear bright in photos because seen against the blackness of space, they’re still reflective enough to stand out. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, still the apple of the orbiter Rosetta’s eye, is similarly dark, reflecting about 4% of sunlight.

What makes comets so dark even though they composed primarily of ice? Astronomers believe a comet grows a dark ‘skin’ both from accumulated dust and irradiation of its pristine ices by cosmic rays. Cosmic rays loosen oxygen atoms from water ice, freeing them to combine with simple carbon molecules present on comets to form larger, more complex and darker compounds resembling tars and crude oil. Dust settles on a comet’s surface after it’s set free from ice that vaporizes in sunlight.

Comet 67P/C-G photographed from a distance of just 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) on March 19, 2016 by Rosetta's Navcam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.
What a view! Comet 67P/C-G photographed from a distance of just 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) on March 19, 2016 by Rosetta’s Navcam. The largest boulder to the right is Cheops, which stands about 82 feet (25 meters) high. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

I live in Minnesota, where our annual State Fair features every kind of deep-fried food you can imagine: deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried fruit, deep-fried bacon and even deep-fried Smores. Just now, I can’t shake the thought that comets are just another deep-fried confection made of pristine, 4.5-billion-year-old ice toasted by eons of sunlight and cosmic bombardment.