Russia and China Are Working on Space and Counterspace Weapons

Every year, the Department of National Intelligence (DNI) releases its Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. This annual report contains the intelligence community’s assessment of potential threats to US national security and makes recommendations accordingly. In recent years, these threats have included the development and proliferation of weapons, regional wars, economic trends, terrorism, cyberterrorism, etc.

This year’s assessment, which was released on February 8th, 2018, was certainly a mixed bag of warnings. Among the many potential threats to national security, the authors emphasized the many recent developments taking place in space. According to their assessment, the expansion of the global space industry, growing cooperation between the private and public sector, and the growth of various states in space, could constitute a threat to US national security.

Naturally, the two chief actors that are singled out were China and Russia. As they indicate, these countries will be leading the pack in the coming years when it comes to expanding space-based reconnaissance, communications and navigation systems. This will not only enable their abilities (and those of their allies) when it comes to space-based research, but will have military applications as well.

The second flight of the Long March 5 lifting off from Wenchang on July 2nd, 2017. Credit: CNS

As they state in the section of the report titled “Space and Counhttps://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/2018-ATA—Unclassified-SSCI.pdfterspace“:

“Continued global space industry expansion will further extend space-enabled capabilities and space situational awareness to nation-state, nonstate, and commercial space actors in the coming years, enabled by the increased availability of technology, private-sector investment, and growing international partnerships for shared production and operation… All actors will increasingly have access to space-derived information services, such as imagery, weather, communications, and positioning, navigation, and timing for intelligence, military, scientific, or business purposes.”

A key aspect of this development is outlined in the section titled “Emerging and Disruptive Technology,” which addresses everything from the development of AI and internet technologies to additive manufacturing and advanced materials. In short, it not just the development of new rockets and spacecraft that are at issue here, but the benefits brought about by cheaper and lighter materials, more rapid information sharing and production.

“Emerging technology and new applications of existing technology will also allow our adversaries to more readily develop weapon systems that can strike farther, faster, and harder and challenge the United States in all warfare domains, including space,” they write.

Artist’s illustration of China’s 8-ton Tiangong-1 space station, which is expected to fall to Earth in late 2017. Credit: CMSE

Specifically, anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are addressed as the major threat. Such technologies, according to the report, have the potential to reduce US and allied military effectiveness by disrupting global communications, navigation and coordination between nations and armies. These technologies could be destructive, in the form of anti-satellite missiles, but also nondestructive – i.e. electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices. As they indicate:

“We assess that, if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against US and allied satellites as necessary to offset any perceived US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems. Military reforms in both countries in the past few years indicate an increased focus on establishing operational forces designed to integrate attacks against space systems and services with military operations in other domains.”

The authors further anticipate that Russian and Chinese destructive ASAT technology could reach operational capacity within a few years time. To this end, they cite recent changes in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which include the formation of military units that have training in counter-space operations and the development of ground-launched ASAT missiles.

While they are not certain about Russia’s capability to wage ASAT warfare, they venture that similar developments are taking place. Another area of focus is the development of directed-energy weapons for the purpose of blinding or damaging space-based optical sensors. This technology is similar to what the US investigated decades ago for the sake of strategic missile defense – aka. the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

An artist’s concept of a Space Laser Satellite Defense System. Credit: USAF

While these weapons would not be used to blow up satellites in the conventional sense, they would be capable of blinding or damaging sensitive space-based optical sensors. On top of that, the report cites how Russia and China continue to conduct on-orbit activities and launching satellites that are deemed “experimental”. A good example of this was a recent proposal made by researchers from the Information and Navigation College at China’s Air Force Engineering University.

The study which detailed their findings called for the deployment of a high-powered pulsed ablative laser that could be used to break up space junk. While the authors admit that such technology can have peaceful applications – ranging from satellite inspection, refueling and repair – they could also be used against other spacecraft. While the United States has been researching the technology for decades, China and Russia’s growing presence in space threatens to tilt this balance of power.

Moreover, there are the loopholes in the existing legal framework – as outlined in the Outer Space Treaty – which the authors believe China and Russia are intent on exploiting:

“Russia and China continue to publicly and diplomatically promote international agreements on the nonweaponization of space and “no first placement” of weapons in space. However, many classes of weapons would not be addressed by such proposals, allowing them to continue their pursuit of space warfare capabilities while publicly maintaining that space must be a peaceful domain.”

Artist’s impression of a laser removing orbital debris, based on NASA pictures. Credit: Fulvio314/NASA/Wikipedia Commons

For example, the Outer Space Treaty bars signatories from placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, on the Moon, on any other celestial body, or in outer space in general. By definition, this referred to nuclear devices, but does not extend to conventional weapons in orbit. This leaves room for antisatellite platforms or other conventional space-based weapons that could constitute a major threat.

Beyond China and Russia, the report also indicates that Iran’s growing capabilities in rocketry and missile technology could pose a threat down the road. As with the American and Russian space programs, developments in space rocketry and ICBMs are seen as being complimentary to each other:

“Iran’s ballistic missile programs give it the potential to hold targets at risk across the region, and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Tehran’s desire to deter the United States might drive it to field an ICBM. Progress on Iran’s space program, such as the launch of the Simorgh SLV in July 2017, could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles use similar technologies.”

All told, the report makes some rather predictable assessments. Given China and Russia’s growing power in space, it is only natural that the DNI would see this as a potential threat. However, that does not mean that one should assume an alarmist attitude. When it comes to assessing threats, points are awarded for considering every contingency. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that assessment and realization are two very different things.

Remember Sputnik? The lesson there was clear. Don’t panic!

Further Reading: DNI

Weekly Space Hangout – January 27, 2017: Kimberly Cartier & Exoplanet WASP 103b

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )

Kimberly Cartier is a PhD candidate in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the Pennsylvania State University where her primary research interest is extra-solar planets. Kimberly focuses on communication, public speaking, teaching, and public outreach, and is a regular contributor to the Weekly Space Hangout.

Kimberly is the lead author on a recent paper in which the atmospheric characteristics of exoplanet WASP 103b are analysed. (https://arxiv.org/pdf/1611.09272v1.pdf) Please join us today as Kimberly discusses their findings.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)
Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)

Their stories this week:
Using AI to study supernovae

We finally made metallic hydrogen!

Quality control problems with Russian rockets

A new test for life on other planets

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page

Why Does Siberia Get All the Cool Meteors?


Children ice skating in Khakassia, Russia react to the fall of a bright fireball two nights ago on Dec.6

In 1908 it was Tunguska event, a meteorite exploded in mid-air, flattening 770 square miles of forest. 39 years later in 1947, 70 tons of iron meteorites pummeled the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, leaving more than 30 craters. Then a day before Valentine’s Day in 2013, hundreds of dashcams recorded the fiery and explosive entry of the Chelyabinsk meteoroid, which created a shock wave strong enough to blow out thousands of glass windows and litter the snowy fields and lakes with countless fusion-crusted space rocks.


Documentary footage from 1947 of the Sikhote-Alin fall and how a team of scientists trekked into the wilderness to find the craters and meteorite fragments

Now on Dec. 6, another fireball blazed across Siberian skies, briefly illuminated the land like a sunny day before breaking apart with a boom over the town of Sayanogorsk. Given its brilliance and the explosions heard, there’s a fair chance that meteorites may have landed on the ground. Hopefully, a team will attempt a search soon. As long as it doesn’t snow too soon after a fall, black stones and the holes they make in snow are relatively easy to spot.

This photo shows trees felled from a powerful aerial meteorite explosion. It was taken during Leonid Kulik's 1929 expedition to the Tunguska impact event in Siberia in 1908. Credit: Kulik Expedition
This photo shows trees felled from a powerful aerial meteorite explosion. It was taken during Leonid Kulik’s 1929 expedition to the Tunguska impact event in Siberia in 1908. Credit: Kulik Expedition

OK, maybe Siberia doesn’t get ALL the cool fireballs and meteorites, but it’s done well in the past century or so. Given the dimensions of the region — it covers 10% of the Earth’s surface and 57% of Russia — I suppose it’s inevitable that over so vast an area, regular fireball sightings and occasional monster meteorite falls would be the norm. For comparison, the United States covers only 1.9% of the Earth. So there’s at least a partial answer. Siberia’s just big.

A naturally sculpted iron-nickel meteorite recovered from the Sikhote-Alin meteorite fall in February 1947. The dimpling or "thumb-printing" occurs when softer minerals are melted and sloughed away as the meteorite is heated by the atmosphere while plunging to Earth. Credit: Svend Buhl
A naturally sculpted iron-nickel meteorite recovered from the Sikhote-Alin meteorite fall in February 1947. The dimpling or “thumb-printing” occurs when softer minerals are melted and sloughed away as the meteorite is heated by the atmosphere while plunging to Earth. Credit: Svend Buhl

Every day about 100 tons of meteoroids, which are fragments of dust and gravel from comets and asteroids, enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Much of it gets singed into fine dust, but the tougher stuff — mostly rocky, asteroid material — occasionally makes it to the ground as meteorites. Every day then our planet gains about a blue whale’s weight in cosmic debris. We’re practically swimming in the stuff!

Meteors are pieces of comet and asteroid debris that strike the atmosphere and burn up in a flash. Credit: Jimmy Westlake A brilliant Perseid meteor streaks along the Summer Milky Way as seen from Cinder Hills Overlook at Sunset Crater National Monument—12 August 2016 2:40 AM (0940 UT). It left a glowing ion trail that lasted about 30 seconds. The camera caught a twisting smoke trail that drifted southward over the course of several minutes.
Meteors are pieces of comet and asteroid debris that strike the atmosphere and burn up in a flash. Here, a brilliant Perseid meteor streaks along the Summer Milky Way this past August.  Credit: Jeremy Perez

Most of this mass is in the form of dust but a study done in 1996 and published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society further broke down that number. In the 10 gram (weight of a paperclip or stick of gum) to 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) size range, 6,400 to 16,000 lbs. (2900-7300 kilograms) of meteorites strike the Earth each year. Yet because the Earth is so vast and largely uninhabited, appearances to the contrary, only about 10 are witnessed falls later recovered by enterprising hunters.


A couple more videos of the Dec. 6, 2016 fireball over Khakassia and Sayanogorsk, Russia

Meteorites fall in a pattern from smallest first to biggest last to form what astronomers call a strewnfield, an elongated stretch of ground several miles long shaped something like an almond. If you can identify the meteor’s ground track, the land over which it streaked, that’s where to start your search for potential meteorites.

Meteorites indeed fall everywhere and have for as long as Earth’s been rolling around the sun. So why couldn’t just one fall in my neighborhood or on the way to work? Maybe if I moved to Siberia …

The New Vostochny Cosmodrome Brings Launches Back To Russian Soil

The successful launch of a Soyuz 2.1a rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome on April 27th was the first launch from Russia's new spaceport. Image: Roscosmos

Russia’s new Vostochny Cosmodrome launched its first rocket on Wednesday, April 27th, carrying three new satellites into orbit. After an initial 24-hour launch delay due to a computer-initiated abort, a Soyuz-2.1a lifted off from its pad at 10:01 am EDT. Every successful space launch is important in its own way, but this one even more so because of the importance of this new cosmodrome to Russia.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 threw that country into chaos. The formal dissolution of the USSR on December 26th, 1991, created a lot of financial and political turmoil. The Soviet space program was a victim of that chaos, and with the USSR’s main cosmodrome now located on foreign territory, at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, things were uncertain.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has been renting the Baikonur cosmodrome for $115 million annually. But this dependence on a foreign launch site has been a thorn in the side of Russia for decades. Russia is a fiercely independent and proud nation, so it surprised no one when construction of a new spaceport was announced. In 2010, Vladimir Putin emphasized the importance of the new facility, saying “The creation of a new space center … is one of modern Russia’s biggest and most ambitious projects.”

The new facility, called the Vostochny Cosmodrome, will eventually be home to multiple launch pads, though only one is functional for now. It’s located at 51 degrees north, whereas the Baikonur site is located at 46 degrees North. Though further north, it will still be able to launch almost the same payloads as Baikonur.

Russia has other spaceports on its own territory. The Svobodny Cosmodrome is also located in Russia’s far east, and at the same 51 degrees north as Vostochny. But Svobodny was originally an ICBM launch site, and couldn’t handle the launching of crewed missions. All crewed missions had to be launched from Baikonur. Russia has another cosmodrome, the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, where satellites can be launched into geostationary orbit.

The site for the new Vostochny Cosmodrome (Vostochny means ‘eastern’ in Russian) was chosen for a few reasons. The site is serviced by both highway and rail, and is remote enough that launch paths won’t interfere with any built up areas. It’s also located several hundred kilometres from the Pacific Ocean, to avoid complications that proximity to an ocean can cause, yet close enough that spent stages can be jettisoned and will fall harmlessly into the ocean.

The Vostochny Cosmodrome is located in Russia's far east. Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 3.0
The Vostochny Cosmodrome is located in Russia’s far east. Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 3.0

Vostochny is about the same size as the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral. Vostochny covers 551.5 square kilometers, while the Kennedy facility covers 583 square kilometers. The new cosmodrome will eventually house over 400 separate facilities, including engineering and transport infrastructure.

The Vostochny Cosmodrome project has suffered some setbacks. Parts of the assembly complex for the Soyuz 2 rocket were built too small, which delayed the planned initial launch set for December 2015. There’ve been accusations of corruption, and even a worker’s strike in the Spring of 2015 over unpaid wages.

These and other problems led Valdimir Putin to release a statement saying he was taking personal control of the project. Since then, Putin has kept a close eye on the Vostochny project. In response to the recent 24 hour launch delay of the cosmodrome’s inaugural launch, Putin criticized Roscosmos for the delay, and for all of the glitches and failures in the Russian space program recently.

But, ever the politician, Putin also tempered his remarks, saying “Despite all its failings, Russia remains the world leader in the number of space launches.” “But the fact that we’re encountering a large number of failures is bad. There must be a timely and professional reaction,” he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a personal interest in the Vostochny Cosmodrome. In October 2015 he visited the site. Image: Roscosmos/Kremlin CC BY 4.0
Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a personal interest in the Vostochny Cosmodrome. In October 2015 he visited the site. Image: Roscosmos/Kremlin CC BY 4.0

As for Vostochny itself, it will allow Russia to conduct much more of its space launches on its own soil. By 2020, Vostochny will conduct 45% of Russia’s space launches. Baikonur will still be used, but much more sparingly. It currently is responsible for 65% of Russian launches, but that will drop to 11%. The Plesetsk Cosmodrome will account for the other 44%.

As for the inaugural launch, it went flawlessly after its initial 24 hour technical delay. The three satellites it carried into orbit will fulfill several different functions. Together, they will study the Earth’s upper atmosphere, observe gamma-ray bursts, and test new electronics modules for use in space. They will also carry high-resolution cameras for remote sensing and scientific work, test communication systems with ground stations, and will develop control algorithms for use with nano-satellites.

NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX to Launch 1st Commercial Crew Ships to Space Station in 2017

After a hiatus of six long years, US astronauts will finally launch to space in a revolutionary new pair of private crew capsules under development by Boeing and SpaceX, starting in 2017, that will end our sole source reliance on the Russians for launching our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Two years from now, crews will start flying to space aboard the first US commercial spaceships, launching atop US rockets from US soil, said officials from Boeing, SpaceX, and NASA at a joint news conference on Monday, Jan. 26. The human rated spaceships – also known as “space taxis” – are being designed and manufactured under the auspices of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

A two person mixed crew of NASA astronauts and company test pilots will fly on the first test flights going to the space station in 2017.

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, underway since 2010, has been to develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective spaceships that will ferry astronauts to and from the massive orbiting lab complex.

“It’s an incredible testament to American ingenuity and know-how, and an extraordinary validation of the vision we laid out just a few years ago as we prepared for the long-planned retirement of the space shuttle,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden during the briefing at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Bolden is a four time veteran space shuttle astronaut.

“This work is part of a vital strategy to equip our nation with the technologies for the future and inspire a new generation of explorers to take the next giant leap for America.”

NASA's Stephanie Schierholz introduces the panel of Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa, seated, left, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing's John Elbon, SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke.  Credit:  NASA TV
NASA’s Stephanie Schierholz introduces the panel of Johnson Space Center Director Dr. Ellen Ochoa, seated, left, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders, Boeing’s John Elbon, SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell, and NASA astronaut Mike Fincke at Jan. 26 commercial crew new conference. Credit: NASA TV

“We have been working overtime to get Americans back to space from US soil and end US reliance on Russia,” Bolden added. “My job is to ensure we get Americans back to space as soon as possible and safely.”

“We have been in-sourcing space jobs back to the US.”

“To do this we need for Congress to approve full funding for the Commercial Crew Program!”

“This and the ISS are a springboard to going beyond Earth. All this we are doing will enable us to get Humans to Mars!”

However – severe budget cuts by Congress forced NASA into a two year delay in the first commercial crew flights from 2015 to 2017 – and also forced NASA to pay hundreds of millions of more dollars to the Russians for crews seats instead of employing American aerospace workers.

On Sept. 16, 2014, Administrator Bolden announced that Boeing and SpaceX had won the high stakes and history making NASA competition to build the first ever private “space taxis” to launch American and partner astronauts to the ISS and restore America’s capability to launch our crews from American soil for the first time since 2011.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

During the Sept. 16 briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, Bolden announced at that time that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to Boeing to build the manned CST-100 and to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2.

Boeing was awarded the larger share of the crew vehicle contract valued at $4.2 Billion while SpaceX was awarded a lesser amount valued at $2.6 Billion.

For extensive further details about Boeing’s CST-100 manned capsule, be sure to read my exclusive 2 part interview with Chris Ferguson, NASA’s final shuttle commander and now Boeing’s Commercial Crew Director: here and here.

And read about my visit to the full scale CST-100 mockup at its manufacturing facility at KSC – here and here.

B8SsB9UCQAElkbJ.jpg large

But the awards were briefly put on hold when the third bidder, Sierra Nevada Corp, protested the decision and thereby prevented NASA from discussing the awards until the issue was resolved by the General Accounting Office (GAO) earlier this month in favor of NASA.

Everyone involved is now free to speak about the awards and how they were decided.

Each company must successfully achieve a set of 10 vehicle and program milestones agreed to with NASA, as well as meeting strict certification and safety standards.

“There are launch pads out there already being upgraded and there is hardware already being delivered,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of the Kennedy Space Center-based Commercial Crew Program.

“Both companies have already accomplished their first milestones.”

Every American astronaut has been totally reliant on the Russians and their three person Soyuz capsules for seats to launch to the ISS since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program in July 2011 following the final blastoff of orbiter Atlantis on the STS-135 mission.

Under the latest crew flight deal signed with Roscosmos [the Russian Federal Space Agency], each astronaut seat costs over $70 million.

“I don’t ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017, hopefully,” said Bolden.

Under NASA’s commercial crew contracts, the average cost to fly US astronauts on the Dragon and CST-100 is $58 million vs. over $70 million on the Russian Soyuz.

At the briefing, Bolden indicated he was hopeful Congress would be more supportive of the program in the coming 2016 budget cycle than in the past that has already resulted in a 2 year delay in the first flights.

“Congress has started to understand the critical importance of commercial crew and cargo. They’ve seen, as a result of the performance of our providers, that this is not a hoax, it’s not a myth, it’s not a dream,” said Bolden.

“It’s something that’s really happening. I am optimistic that the Congress will accept the President’s proposal for commercial crew for 2016.”

The first unmanned test flights of the SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 could take place by late 2016 or early 2017 respectively. Manned flights to the ISS would follow soon thereafter by the spring and summer of 2017.

Asked at the Jan. 26 briefing if he would fly aboard the private space ships, Administrator Bolden said:

“Yes. I can tell you that I would hop in a Dragon or a CST-100 in a heartbeat.”

Hatch opening to Boeing’s commercial CST-100 crew transporter.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Hatch opening to Boeing’s commercial CST-100 crew transporter. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Boeing’s plans for the CST-100 involve conducting a pad abort test in February 2017, followed by an uncrewed orbital flight test in April 2017, and then a crewed flight with a Boeing test pilot and a NASA astronaut in July 2017, as outlined at the briefing by John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Space Exploration division.

“It’s a very exciting time with alot in development on the ISS, SLS, and Commercial Crew. Never before in the history of human spaceflight has there been so much going on all at once,” said John Elbon. “NASA’s exploring places we didn’t even know existed 100 years ago.”

“We are building the CST-100 structural test article.”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014, for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s plans for the Dragon V2 were outlined by Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX.

“The Dragon V2 builds on the cargo Dragon. First up is a pad abort in about a month [at Cape Canaveral], then an in-flight abort test later this year [at Vandenberg to finish up development work from the prior CCiCAP phase],” said Shotwell.

“An uncrewed flight test is planned for late 2016 followed by a crewed flight test in early 2017.”

“We understand the incredible responsibility we’ve been given to carry crew. We should fly over 50 Falcon 9’s before crewed flight.”

Both the Boeing CST 100 and SpaceX Dragon V2 will launch from the Florida Space Coast, home to all US astronaut flights since the dawn of the space age.

The Boeing CST-100 will launch atop a human rated United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

The SpaceX Dragon will launch atop a human rated Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from neighboring Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape.

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

Ken Kremer

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 “Space Taxi” will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014, at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A look through the open hatch of the Dragon V2 reveals the layout and interior of the seven-crew capacity spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
A look through the open hatch of the Dragon V2 reveals the layout and interior of the seven-crew capacity spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis

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

Court Injunction Blocks Russian Engine Purchase by ULA for US National Security – Win for SpaceX Yields Uncertainty

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload poised for launch at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in March 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

A US Federal Court has now issued a preliminary injunction that blocks the purchase and importation of Russian rocket engines by United Launch Alliance (ULA) for its Atlas V rocket used in National Security launches for the US Air Force after a filing by SpaceX. But what are the implications?

The US Federal Court of Federal Claims order was issued late Wednesday, April 30, by US Judge Susan G. Braden of the US Court of Federal Claims. The court order is in response to a protest filed by SpaceX against ULA and the US Air Force relating to the uncontested $11 Billion “block buy” launch contract purchase in December of 36 rocket cores for US National Security launches and is also related to US sanctions imposed after Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine and seizing and annexing the Crimea.

The temporary injunction marks a big win for SpaceX but immediately throws future National Security spy satellite and NASA science launches into uncertainty and potential disarray as I reported previously – here and here.

As I posted here last Friday, April 25, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk declared his firms intent to file suit against ULA and the Air Force on Monday, April 28 to break the launch monopoly.

Judge Braden’s injunction followed barely two days later.

Musk said the recent ‘block buy’ launch contract was unfair in blocking SpaceX from competing for launches of surveillance satellites, would cost taxpayers billions of extra dollars in coming years and should be recompetited.

“The national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole source, uncompeted basis,” Musk said at the April 25 briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014

ULA quickly vowed today that they will respond to resolve the injunction and further stated that “This opportunistic action by SpaceX … ignores the potential implications to our National Security.”

Federal Judge Braden’s order specifically states the following; “The preliminary injunction prohibits the United States Air Force and United Launch Alliance, from making any purchases from or payment of money to NPO Energomash or any entity, whether governmental, corporate or individual, that is subject to the control of Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin.”

“IT IS SO ORDERED,” wrote Braden.

The engines at the heart of the Federal preliminary injunction are the RD-180 liquid fueled engines which power ULA’s Atlas V rocket and are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash – which is majority state owned by the Russian Federation and subject to the control of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, who is specifically named on the US economic sanctions target list.

In response, Rogozin said that sanctions could “boomerang” against the US space program. He said that perhaps NASA should “deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Thanks to the utter folly of US politicians in shutting down the Space Shuttle program before a replacement crew vehicle was available and repeatedly slashing NASA’s commercial crew budget, American astronauts are now 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for rides to the ISS and back for several more years ahead.

NASA has NO immediate alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz – period.

The rocket engine injunction is just the latest fallout impacting a vast swath of US space programs from National Defense to NASA stemming from the dangerously escalating crisis between Ukraine and the Russian Federation in the worst confrontation with the West since the Cold War era.

In response to the worsening Ukraine crisis, Western nations have instituted waves of increasingly harsh economic sanctions against Russia and several key members of the Russian government.

Judge Braden’s injunction stands until she receives clarification otherwise from US government entities that the engine purchase is not covered by the Federal government santions.

The order remains in effect “unless and until the court receives the opinion of the United States Department of the Treasury, and the United States Department of Commerce and United States Department of State, that any such purchases or payments will not directly or indirectly contravene Executive Order 13,661.”

ULA issued a swift statement today – received by Universe Today – from ULA’s general counsel Kevin G. MacCary, in response to Judge Braden’s preliminary injunction.

“ULA is deeply concerned with this ruling and we will work closely with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction expeditiously. In the meantime, ULA will continue to demonstrate our commitment to our National Security on the launch pad by assuring the safe delivery of the missions we are honored to support.”

“SpaceX’s attempt to disrupt a national security launch contract so long after the award ignores the potential implications to our National Security and our nation’s ability to put Americans on board the International Space Station.”

The Atlas V rocket, powered by the Russian made RD-180 engines, will also be used as the launch vehicle by two of the three companies vying for the next round of commercial crew contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.

“This opportunistic action by SpaceX appears to be an attempt to circumvent the requirements imposed on those who seek to meet the challenging launch needs of the nation and to avoid having to follow the rules, regulations and standards expected of a company entrusted to support our nation’s most sensitive missions,” said ULA.

ULA is a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, formed in 2006. It has conducted 81 consecutive launches with 100% mission success – including many NASA science and mission probes like Orion EFT-1, Curiosity, MAVEN, TDRS and more.

Judge Braden furthermore made clear that her order did not include prior RD-180 engine purchases.

“The scope of this preliminary injunction does not extend to any purchase orders that have been placed or moneys paid to NPO Energomash prior to the date of this
Order [April 30, 2014].”

ULA has a two year contingency supply of the RD-180’s and blueprints to begin production, if needed.

However in the event of a cutoff by Russia or US court injuncions, it would take ULA at least three to five years to start and certify RD-180 engine production somewhere in the US, a ULA spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral.

This possibly leaves a 1 to 3 year gap with no Atlas V 1st stage engine supply.

SpaceX claims they can fill part of the launch gap. But their Falcon rockets are not yet certified for National Security launches.

“So far we are most of the way through the certification process. And so far there have been zero changes to the rocket. Mostly it’s just been a paperwork exercise.”

“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Musk during the April 25 press briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for my continuing articles as the Ukraine crisis escalates and court orders fly – with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA’s Curiosity rover launches to Mars atop Atlas V rocket on Nov. 26, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlas V 1st stage is powered by Russian made RD-180 engines.
Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

U.S. Should Send Astronauts To Space Station By Trampoline: Russian Official

Facing sanctions from the United States government, a high-ranking Russian official took to Twitter today (April 29) to express his frustration, warning that NASA has few options should Soyuz flights to the International Space Station cease.

“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” wrote Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, in a Russian-language tweet highlighted by NBC News.

The jibe points to the fact that only the Russians can bring crews up to the space station right now. Rogozin also linked to a story in Russian RT where he is quoted as saying (if Google Translate is correct) that the Americans will see a “boomerang” of sanctions laid upon Russian officials.

On April 2, as part of a larger policy of the Obama administration, NASA announced it would cease most connections with Russia except for those essential ones related to the International Space Station. NASA administrator Charles Bolden has repeatedly said that things are normal with the Russians when it comes to the station.

Structure arms for Soyuz TMA-11M (the launching vehicle for Expedition 38) raise into place in this long-exposure photograph taken in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Structure arms for Soyuz TMA-11M (the launching vehicle for Expedition 38) raise into place in this long-exposure photograph taken in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The United States is dependent on the Russian Soyuz to bring astronauts to the space station. The U.S. method of transportation ceased in 2011 after the space shuttle retired, and commercial spacecraft — though being developed — are not expected to be ready until about 2017.

That said, one of the developers of these spacecraft — SpaceX CEO Elon Musk — wrote on Twitter that the public will soon see the unveiling of the human-rated Dragon spacecraft that the company has been working on with contract money from NASA. (The other funded spacecraft proposals are Boeing’s CST-100 and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser).

The Russian situation is expected to weigh heavily on NASA budget discussions for fiscal 2014 and 2015 as agency officials try to make their case that commercial funding should be sustained, or even increased, for Americans to be able to launch from their own soil again quickly.

Echoes of Chelyabinsk: Another Fireball Explodes Over Russia

Why does Russia seem to get so many bright meteors? Well at 6.6 million square miles it’s by far the largest country in the world plus, with dashboard-mounted cameras being so commonplace (partly to help combat insurance fraud) statistically it just makes sense that Russians would end up seeing more meteors, and then be able to share the experience with the rest of the world!

This is exactly what happened early this morning, April 19 (local time), when a bright fireball flashed in the skies over Murmansk, located on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia near the border of Finland. Luckily not nearly as large or powerful as the Chelyabinsk meteor event from February 2013, no sound or air blast from this fireball has been reported and nobody was injured. Details on the object aren’t yet known… it could be a meteor (most likely) or it could be re-entering space debris. The video above, some of which was captured by Alexandr Nesterov from his dashcam, shows the object dramatically lighting up the early morning sky.

One Russian astronomer suggests this bolide may have been part of the debris that results in the Lyrid meteor shower, which peaks on April 22-23. (Source: NBC)

Source: RT.com