In the wake of NASA’s supremely successful inaugural test flight of the Oriondeep space capsule on the EFT-1 mission in Dec. 2014, NASA is beefing up the critical thermal protection system (TPS) that will protect astronauts from the searing heats experienced during reentry as the human rated vehicle plunges through the Earth’s atmosphere after returning from ambitious expeditions to the Moon and beyond.
Based in part on lessons learned from EFT-1, engineers are refining Orion’s heat shield to enhance the design, ease manufacturing procedures and significantly strengthen is heat resistant capabilities for the far more challenging space environments and missions that lie ahead later this decade and planned further out in the future as part of NASA’s agency-wide ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.
This simulation by Tom Ruen shows the trajectory of 2015 TB145 across the sky, showing tracer spheres spaced at one hour intervals along its path.
Halloween fireballs, a Supermoon and now a near-Earth asteroid flyby. What a week! While 2015 TB145 won’t be visible in binoculars because of its relative faintness and glare from a nearby waning gibbous Moon, you should be able to see it in an 8-inch telescope or larger telescope without too much difficulty.
Determined amateurs might even catch it in instruments as small as 4.5 inches especially tomorrow morning when the fleeing space mountain will brighten to around magnitude +10.
For western hemisphere observers, TB145 begins the evening in Orion’s Shield not far below the Hyades Cluster looking like a magnitude +11.5 star crawling northeast through the star field. By dawn on Halloween, it will top out around magnitude +10.2 as it zips through Taurus and Auriga traveling around 3-5° per hour depending on the time you look. For most of the night, TB145 will move swiftly enough to notice its motion in real time, resembling an Earth-orbiting satellite. Closest approach occurs around 17:00 UT (noon CDT) when it pass along bottom of the Big Dipper Bowl at around 10° hour. Amazing!
My hope is that these maps will help you spot and follow this zippy, aircraft carrier-sized boulder. Three of the four maps cover most of the time between 5:00 and 11:45 UT, equivalent to midnight CDT tonight to 6:45 a.m. tomorrow morning. I used the very latest orbital elements and hand plotted the positions (a tedious exercise but worth it!) at 15-minute intervals. For convenience, when you print them out, I’d suggest using a straight edge to draw a line connecting the position dots.
As we discussed in the previous Universe Today story, parallax comes into play when viewing any nearby Solar System object. Three of the maps show the asteroid’s position from the North Central U.S. One depicts the view from the South Central U.S. from 11-11:45 UT. Parallax is minor early on from midnight to 2 or 3 a.m. but becomes more significant near closest approach. This is based on comparisons I made between latitudes 47°-32° North.
I apologize for the limited number of maps in this article but hope these and the do-it-yourself approach described in the earlier article will be enough to set you on TB145’s trail.
As always when trying to spot asteroids on the move, pick a time and camp out at that spot with your telescope five minutes before the expected arrival time. Take the time to casually memorize the star patterns, so when the interloper arrives, you’ll pick it out straightaway. Again, depending on your location both east-west and north-south of the paths charted, TB145 may arrive a couple minutes earlier or later, but once you spot it, hold on tight. You’ll be going on a most exciting ride!
We’d love to hear from you whether or not you were successful seeing it. If the weather’s uncooperative or you don’t have a telescope, Gianluca Masi’s got your back. He’ll webcast the flyby live on his Virtual Telescope site starting at 7 p.m. CDT (0:00 UT) tonight Oct. 30-31.
Now let’s see the flyby of Earth from the asteroid’s point of view, also by Tom Ruen. Enjoy!
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
“We just finished up major structural steel modifications to the ML, including work to increase the size of the rocket exhaust hole,” Eric Ernst, NASA Mobile Launch project manager, told Universe Today during an exclusive interview and inspection tour up and down the Mobile Launcher.
Construction workers are hard at work upgrading and transforming the 380-foot-tall, 10.5-million-pound steel structure into the launcher for SLS and Orion – currently slated for a maiden blastoff no later than November 2018 on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
“And now we have just started the next big effort to get ready for SLS.”
SLS and Orion are NASA’s next generation human spaceflight vehicles currently under development and aimed at propelling astronauts to deep space destinations, including the Moon and an asteroid in the 2020s and eventually a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.
The mobile launcher was originally built several years ago to accommodate NASA’s less powerful, lighter and now cancelled Ares-1 rocket. It therefore requires extensive alterations to accommodate the vastly more powerful and heavier SLS rocket.
“The ML was initially developed for Ares 1, a much smaller rocket,” Ernst explained to Universe Today.
“So the exhaust hole was much smaller.”
Whereas the Ares-1 first stage booster was based on using a single, more powerful version of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, the SLS first stage is gargantuan and will be the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.
The SLS first stage comprises two shuttle derived solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 power plants recycled from their earlier life as space shuttle main engines (SSMEs). They generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of thrust – exceeding that of NASA’s Apollo Saturn V moon landing rocket.
Therefore the original ML exhaust hole had to be gutted and nearly tripled in width.
“The exhaust hole used to be about 22 x 22 feet,” Ernst stated.
“Since the exhaust hole was much smaller, we had to deconstruct part of the tower at the base, in place. The exhaust hole had to be made much bigger to accommodate the SLS.”
Construction crews extensively reworked the exhaust hole and made it far wider to accommodate SLS compared to the smaller one engineered and already built for the much narrower Ares-1, which was planned to generate some 3.6 million pounds of thrust.
“So we had to rip out a lot of steel,” Mike Canicatti, ML Construction Manager told Universe Today.
“For the exhaust hole [at the base of the tower], lots of pieces of [existing] steel were taken out and other new pieces were added, using entirely new steel.”
“The compartment for the exhaust hole used to be about 22 x 22 feet, now it’s about 34 x 64 feet.”
In fact this involved the demolition of over 750 tons of old steel following by fabrication and installation of more than 1,000 tons of new steel. It was also reinforced due to the much heavier weight of SLS.
“It was a huge effort and structural engineers did their job. The base was disassembled and reassembled in place” – to enlarge the exhaust hole.
“So basically we gutted major portions of the base out, put in new walls and big structural girders,” Ernst elaborated.
“And we just finished up that major structural steel modification on the exhaust hole.”
Meanwhile the 380 foot-tall tower that future Orion astronauts will ascend was left in place.
“The tower portion itself did not need to be disassembled.”
The Ares rockets originally belonged to NASA’s Constellation program, whose intended goal was returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2020.
Ares-1 was slated as the booster for the Orion crew capsule. However, President Obama cancelled Constellation and NASA’s Return to the Moon soon after entering office.
Since then the Obama Administration and Congress worked together in a bipartisan manner together to fashion a new space hardware architecture and granted approval for development of the SLS heavy lift rocket to replace the Ares-1 and heavy lift Ares-5.
Sending astronauts on a ‘Journey to Mars’ is now NASA’s agency wide and overarching goal for the next few decades of human spaceflight.
But before SLS can be transported to its launch pad at Kennedy’s Space Launch Complex 39-B for the EM-1 test flight the next big construction step has to begin.
“So now we have just started the next big effort to get ready for SLS.”
This involves installation of Ground Support Equipment (GSE) and a wide range of launch support services and systems to the ML.
“The next big effort is the GSE installation contract,” Ernst told me.
“We have about 40+ ground support and facility systems to be installed on the ML. There are about 800 items to be installed, including about 300,000-plus feet of cable and several miles of piping and tubing.”
“So that’s the next big effort to get ready for SLS. It’s about a 1.5 year contract and it was just awarded to J.P. Donovan Construction Inc. of Rockledge, Florida.”
“The work just started at the end of August.”
NASA currently plans to roll the ML into the Vehicle Assembly Building in early 2017 for stacking of SLS and Orion for the EM-1 test flight.
The SLS/Orion mounted stack atop the ML will then roll out to Space Launch Complex 39B for the 2018 launch from the Kennedy Space Center.
Pad 39B is also undergoing radical renovations and upgrades, transforming it from its use for NASA’s now retired Space Shuttle program into a modernized 21st century launch pad. Watch for my upcoming story.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Dr. Sara Seager, whose research focuses on computer models of exoplanet atmospheres, interiors, and biosignatures. Her favorite projects involve the search for planets like Earth with signs of life
When it comes to space exploration it’s resoundingly clear that rock band ‘One Direction’ is headed in the right direction – To Infinity and Beyond! – with the release of their new NASA themed music video ‘Drag Me Down.’
The new single – ‘Drag Me Down’ – by the world famous boy band is out now and out of this world!
Just click on the Vevo video above and enjoy their musical tour through space exploration themed videos filmed on location at NASA facilities, including the Johnson Space Center – home to astronauts training to explore ‘Where No One Has Gone Before.’
Over 18,100,000 views so far!! Millions of eyeballs exposed to NASA activities like never before!
As you’ll see in the video (published on Aug. 20) the quartet got a first hand look at a host of NASA’s cutting edge technology and hardware like NASA’s Orion deep space crew capsule that’s destined to propelour astronauts back to deep space and explore wondrous destinations including the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet, as part of the agency’s ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative.
Motivating our young people to study and excel in math, science, engineering, technology and the arts is what it’s all about to inspire the next generation of explorers and advance all humanity to fulfilling and prosperous lives.
Harry, Niall, Louis and Liam all got suited up to check out and sit inside an Orion trainer. Next you’ll see them ‘blast off’ for space atop the Delta IV rocket from the Florida Space Coast in their music video.
But first they rollick with the astronauts T-38 training jets which are used by real-life astronauts to practice spacecraft operations at supersonic speeds up to Mach 1.6 and experience blistering accelerations of more than seven Gs!
Here we join Louis to rove around Johnson Space Center in NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle that will one day be used for awe-inspiring interplanetary journey’s to the surface of alien bodies like the moon, near-Earth asteroids and Mars!
Wouldn’t you like to join Louis!
Meanwhile Harry got to hang out with Robonaut at the Johnson Space Center during the filming of the music video.
Simultaneously the Robonauts twin brother, Robonaut 2, is hanging out in space right now with other humans. Robonaut 2 is working side-by-side with NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren and the rest of the six man crew floating aboard the International Space Station and soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) overhead.
“Going where the risks are too great for people, robots will make it so we never get ‘dragged down’!” says NASA.
“Currently living in space, @StationCDRKelly is 1 of 6 people that literally cannot be dragged down. #DragMeDown,” NASA tweeted.
And here’s Niall experiencing reduced gravity in the Partial Gravity Simulator & Space Station Mockup Bike. This simulator is where astronauts learn how to work effectively in the partial gravity of space and on the surface of other worlds
I’ve been a fan of ‘One Direction’ and now nothing will ‘hold me back’ following #DragMeDown.
And don’t forget that you can watch Commander Scott Kelly and his five international crew mates on a regular basis as they soar overhead. Just click on NASA’s Spot the Station link and plug in your location.
Here’s what the real Orion EFT-1 looked like after the mission was successfully completed and it was recovered from splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Right now NASA is building the next Orion.
If you desire to be aboard a future Orion, don’t let anything ‘Drag You Down.’
And tell Congress and the White House to ‘Support Full Funding for NASA!’ – – Because Congress has significantly slashed funding for the commercial crew capsules in the upcoming 2016 Fiscal Year budget!
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
During a 535-second test on August 13, 2015, operators ran the Space Launch System (SLS) RS-25 rocket engine through a series of tests at different power levels to collect engine performance data on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credit: NASA Story/imagery updated
See video below of full duration hot-fire test[/caption]
With today’s (Aug. 13) successful test firing of an RS-25 main stage engine for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) monster rocket currently under development, the program passed a key milestone advancing the agency on the path to propel astronauts back to deep space at the turn of the decade.
The 535 second long test firing of the RS-25 development engine was conducted on the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi – and ran for the planned full duration of nearly 9 minutes, matching the time they will fire during an actual SLS launch.
All indications are that the hot fire test apparently went off without a hitch, on first look.
“We ran the full duration and met all test objectives,” said Steve Wofford, SLS engine manager, on NASA TV following today’s’ test firing.
“There were no anomalies.” – based on the initial look.
The RS-25 is actually an upgraded version of former space shuttle main engines that were used with a 100% success rate during NASA’s three decade-long Space Shuttle program to propel the now retired shuttle orbiters to low Earth orbit. Those same engines are now being modified for use by the SLS.
“Data collected on performance of the engine at the various power levels will aid in adapting the former space shuttle engines to the new SLS vehicle mission requirements, including development of an all-new engine controller and software,” according to NASA officials .
The engine controller functions as the “brain” of the engine, which checks engine status, maintains communication between the vehicle and the engine and relays commands back and forth.
The core stage (first stage) of the SLS will be powered by four RS-25 engines and a pair of the five-segment solid rocket boosters that will generate a combined 8.4 million pounds of liftoff thrust, making it the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.
Since shuttle orbiters were equipped with three space shuttle main engines, the use of four RS-25s on the SLS represents another significant change that also required many modifications being thoroughly evaluated as well.
The SLS will be some 10 percent more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that propelled astronauts to the Moon, including Neil Armstrong, the human to walk on the Moon during Apollo 11 in July 1969.
SLS will loft astronauts in the Orion capsule on missions back to the Moon by around 2021, to an asteroid around 2025 and then beyond on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s – NASA’s overriding and agency wide goal.
Each of the RS-25’s engines generates some 500,000 pounds of thrust. They are fueled by cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. For SLS they will be operating at 109% of power, compared to a routine usage of 104.5% during the shuttle era. They measure 14 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter.
They have to withstand and survive temperature extremes ranging from -423 degrees F to more than 6000 degrees F.
This video shows the full duration hot-fire test:
NASA has 16 of the RS-25s leftover from the shuttle era and they are all being modified and upgraded for use by the SLS rocket.
Today’s test was the sixth in a series of seven to qualify the modified engines to flight status. The engine ignited at 5:01 p.m. EDT and reached the full thrust level of 512,000 pounds within about 5 seconds.
The hot gas was exhausted out of the nozzle at 13 times the speed of sound.
Since the shuttle engines were designed and built over three decades ago, they are being modified where possible with state of the art components to enhance performance, functionality and ease of operation, by prime contractor Aerojet-Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California.
One of the key objectives of today’s engine firing and the entire hot fire series was to test the performance of a brand new engine controller assembled with modern manufacturing techniques.
“Operators on the A-1 Test Stand at Stennis are conducting the test series to qualify an all-new engine controller and put the upgraded former space shuttle main engines through the rigorous temperature and pressure conditions they will experience during a SLS mission,” says NASA.
“The new controller, or “brain,” for the engine, which monitors engine status and communicates between the vehicle and the engine, relaying commands to the engine and transmitting data back to the vehicle. The controller also provides closed-loop management of the engine by regulating the thrust and fuel mixture ratio while monitoring the engine’s health and status.’
Video caption: RS-25 – The Ferrari of Rocket Engines explained. Credit: NASA
“The RS-25 is the most complicated rocket engine out there on the market, but that’s because it’s the Ferrari of rocket engines,” says Kathryn Crowe, RS-25 propulsion engineer.
“When you’re looking at designing a rocket engine, there are several different ways you can optimize it. You can optimize it through increasing its thrust, increasing the weight to thrust ratio, or increasing its overall efficiency and how it consumes your propellant. With this engine, they maximized all three.”
Engineers will now pour over the data collected from hundreds of data channels in great detail to thoroughly analyze the test results. They will incorporate any findings into future test firings of the RS-25s.
NASA says that testing of RS-25 flight engines is set to start later this fall.
“The RS-25 engine gives SLS a proven, high performance, affordable main propulsion system for deep space exploration. It is one of the most experienced large rocket engines in the world, with more than a million seconds of ground test and flight operations time.”
NASA plans to buy completely new sets of RS-25 engines from Aerojet-Rocketdyne taking full advantage of technological advances and modern manufacturing techniques as well as lessons learned from this hot fire series of engine tests.
The maiden test flight of the SLS 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. It will boost an unmanned Orion on an approximately three week long test flight beyond the Moon and back.
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.
The first SLS test flight with the uncrewed Orion is called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and will launch from Launch Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving forward, according to Dr. George Sowers, ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.
“To be successful and survive ULA needs to transform to be more of a competitive company in a competitive environment,” Dr. Sowers told Universe Today in a wide ranging interview regarding the rationale and goals of the Vulcan rocket.
Vulcan is ULA’s next generation rocket to space and slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.
Faced with the combined challenges of a completely changed business and political environment emanating powerfully from new space upstart SpaceX offering significantly reduced launch costs, and continuing uncertainty over the future supply of the Russian-made RD-180 workhorse rocket engines that power ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Sowers and ULA’s new CEO Tory Bruno were tasked with rapidly resolving these twin threats to the firms future well being – which also significantly impacts directly on America’s national security.
“Our current plan is to have the new Vulcan rocket flying by 2019,” Sowers stated.
The Vulcan launcher was created in response to the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and it will combine the best features of ULA’s existing unmanned Atlas V and Delta IV booster product lines as well as being revamped with new and innovative American-made first stage engines that will eventually be reusable.
“We at ULA were faced with how do we take our existing products and transform them into a single fleet that enables us to do the entire range of missions on just one family of rockets.”
“So that was really the genesis of what we now call the “Vulcan” rocket. So this single family will be able to do everything [from medium to heavy lift],” Sowers told me.
Another requirement is that Vulcan’s manufacturing methodology be extremely efficient, slashing costs to make it cost competitive with the Space X Falcon 9. Sowers said the launcher would sell “for less than $100 million” at the base level.
“Vulcan will be the highest-performing, most cost-efficient rocket on the market. It will open up new opportunities for the nation’s use of space,” says ULA CEO Tory Bruno.
In its initial configuration Vulcan’s first stage will be powered by a revolutionary new class of cost effective and wholly domestic engines dubbed the BE-4, produced by Blue Origin.
Further upgrades including a powerful new upper stage called ACES, will be phased in down the road as launches of ULA’s existing rocket families wind down, to alleviate any schedule slips.
“Because rocket design is hard and the rocket business is tough we are planning an overlap period between our existing rockets and the new Vulcan rocket,” Sowers explained. “That will account for any delays in development and other issues in the transition process to the new rocket.”
ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.
Development of the two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV’s) was originally funded by the U.S. Air Force to provide two independent and complimentary launch capabilities thereby offering assured access to space for America’s most critical military reconnaissance satellites gathering intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), DOD and the most senior US military and government leaders.
Since 2006, SpaceX (founded by billionaire Elon Musk) has emerged on the space scene as a potent rival offering significantly lower cost launches compared to ULA and other launch providers in the US and overseas – and captured a significant and growing share of the international launch market for its American-made Falcon rocket family.
And last year to top that all off, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of space and defense industries, threatened to “ban Washington from using Russian-made [RD-180] rocket engines [used in the Atlas V rocket], which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit.”
“ULA was formed eight years ago as a government regulated monopoly focused on US government launches. Now eight years later the environment is changing,” Sowers told me.
How did ULA respond to the commercial and political challenges and transform?
“So there are a lot of things we had to do structurally to make that transformation. One of the key ones is that when ULA was formed, the government was very concerned about having assured access to space for national security launches,” Sowers explained.
“In their mind that meant having two independent rocket systems that could essentially do the same jobs. So we have both the Atlas V and the Delta IV. But in a competitive environment you can well imagine that that requirement drives your costs significantly higher than they need to be.”
ULA actually offered three rocket families after the merger, when only one was really needed.
“So our first conclusion on how to be competitive was how do we go from supporting three rocket families – including the Delta II – off of 6 launch pads, to our ultimate aim of getting down to just 1 rocket family of off just 2 pads – one on each coast. So, that is the most cost effective structure that we could come up with and the most competitive.”
Developing a new first stage engine not subject to international tensions was another primary impetus.
“The other big objective that was always in our minds, but that became much higher priority in April 2014 when Russia decided to annex Crimea, is that the RD-180 rocket engine that became our workhorse on Atlas, now became politically untenable.”
“So the other main objective of Vulcan is to re-engine [the first stage of] our fleet with an American engine, the Blue Origin BE-4.”
The RD-180’s will be replaced with a pair of BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, the highly secretive aerospace firm founded by Jeff Bezos, billionaire founder of Amazon. The revolutionary BE-4 engines are fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and will produce about 1.1 million pounds of thrust vs. about 900,000 pounds of thrust for the RD-180, a significant enhancement in thrust.
“The Blue Origin BE-4 is the primary engine [for Vulcan]. ULA is co-investing with Blue Origin in that engine.”
Although the BE-4 is ULA’s primary choice to replace the RD-180, ULA is also investing in development of a backup engine, the AR-1 from Aerojet-Rocketdyne, in case the BE-4 faces unexpected delays.
“As I said, rocket development is hard and risky. So we have a backup plan. That is with Aerojet-Rocketdyne and their AR-1. And we are investing in that engine as well.”
More on the Vulcan, BE-4, reusability and more upcoming in part 2.
Meanwhile, the next commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 is due to blastoff this Sunday, June 28, on the Dragon CRS-7 resupply mission to the ISS.
Watch for my onsite reports from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain) Special Guest: This week we welcome Stephen Fowler, who is the Creative Director at InfoAge, the organization behind refurbishing the TIROS 1 dish and the Science History Learning Center and Museum at Camp Evans, Wall, NJ.
OSIRIS-Rex, NASA’s first ever spacecraft designed to collect and retrieve pristine samples of an asteroid for return to Earth has entered its final assembly phase.
Approximately 17 months from now, OSIRIS-REx is slated to launch in the fall of 2016 and visit asteroid Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid.
Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it “could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth,” says NASA.
The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to remotely study the 492 meter meter wide asteroid.
Eventually it will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023 for study by researchers here with all the most sophisticated science instruments available.
The precious sample would land arrive at Utah’s Test and Training Range in a sample return canister similar to the one for the Stardust spacecraft.
The OSIRIS-REx – which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer – spacecraft passed a critical decision milestone on the road to launch and has been officially authorized by NASA to transition into this next mission phase.
The decision meeting to give the go ahead for final assembly was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington on March 30 and was chaired by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, led by former astronaut John Grunsfeld who was the lead spacewalker on the final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.
“This is an exciting time for the OSIRIS-REx team,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-Rex at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in a stetement.
“After almost four years of intense design efforts, we are now proceeding with the start of flight system assembly. I am grateful for the hard work and team effort required to get us to this point.”
The transition to the next phase known as ATLO (assembly, test and launch operations) is critical for the program because it is when the spacecraft physically comes together, says Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed is building OSIRIS-Rex in their Denver assembly facility.
“ATLO is a turning point in the progress of our mission. After almost four years of intense design efforts, we are now starting flight system assembly and integration of the science instruments,” noted Lauretta.
Over the next six months, technicians will install on the spacecraft structure its many subsystems, including avionics, power, telecomm, mechanisms, thermal systems, and guidance, navigation and control, according to NASA.
“Building a spacecraft that will bring back samples from an asteroid is a unique opportunity,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in a statement.
“We can feel the momentum to launch building. We’re installing the electronics in the next few weeks and shortly after we’ll power-on the spacecraft for the first time.”
OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for launch in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket, which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and one solid rocket motor. Only three Atlas V’s have been launched in this configuration.
“In just over 500 days, we will begin our seven-year journey to Bennu and back. This is an exciting time,” said Lauretta.
The spacecraft will reach Bennu in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.
Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.
Significant progress in spacecraft assembly has already been accomplished at Lockheed’s Denver manufacturing facility.
“The spacecraft structure has been integrated with the propellant tank and propulsion system and is ready to begin system integration in the Lockheed Martin highbay,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.
“The payload suite of cameras and sensors is well into its environmental test phase and will be delivered later this summer/fall.”
OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.
OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orionwill launch atop NASA’s new SLSheavy lift booster concurrently under development.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.