Time To Build A Venus Rover

The planet Venus, as imaged by the Magellan 10 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Venus is often described as being hell itself, because of its crushing pressure, acidic atmosphere, and extremely high temperatures. Dealing with any one of these is a significant challenge when it comes to exploring Venus. Dealing with all three is extremely daunting, as the Soviet Union discovered with their Venera landers.

Actually, dealing with the sulphuric rain is not too difficult, but the heat and the pressure on the surface of Venus are huge hurdles to exploring the planet. NASA has been working on the Venus problem, trying to develop electronics that can survive long enough to do useful science. And it looks like they’re making huge progress.

Scientists at the NASA Glenn Research Centre have demonstrated electronic circuitry that should help open up the surface of Venus to exploration.

The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. Credit: NASA
The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. The Venera 13 probe lasted only 127 minutes before succumbing to Venus’s extreme surface environment. Credit: NASA

“With further technology development, such electronics could drastically improve Venus lander designs and mission concepts, enabling the first long-duration missions to the surface of Venus,” said Phil Neudeck, lead electronics engineer for this work.

With our current technology, landers can only withstand surface conditions on Venus for a few hours. You can’t do much science in a few hours, especially when weighed against the mission cost. So increasing the survivability of a Venus lander is crucial.

With a temperature of 460 degrees Celsius (860 degrees Fahrenheit), Venus is almost twice as hot as most ovens. It’s hot enough to melt lead, in fact. Not only that, but the surface pressure on Venus is about 90 times greater than Earth’s, because the atmosphere is so dense.

To protect the electronics on previous Venus landers, they have been contained inside special vessels designed to withstand the pressure and temperature. But these vessels add a lot of mass to the mission, and make sending landers to Venus a very expensive proposition. So NASA’s work on robust electronics is super important when it comes to exploring Venus.

The team at the Glenn Research Centre has developed silicon carbide semiconductor integrated circuits (Si C IC) that are extremely robust. Two of the circuits were tested inside a special chamber designed to precisely reproduce the conditions on Venus. This chamber is called the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER.)

The GEER (Glenn Extreme Environments Rig) facility can recreate the conditions of any body in our Solar System. (No, not the Sun, obviously.) Image: NASA/Glenn Research Centre
The GEER (Glenn Extreme Environments Rig) facility can recreate the conditions of any body in our Solar System. (No, not the Sun, obviously.) Image: NASA/Glenn Research Centre

GEER is a special chamber that can recreate the conditions on any body in our Solar System. It’s an 800 Litre (28 cubic foot) chamber that can simulate temperatures up to 500° C (932° F), and pressures from near-vacuum to over 90 times the surface pressure of Earth. GEER can also simulate exotic atmospheres with its precision gas-mixing capabilities. It can mix very specific quantities of gases down to parts per million accuracy. For these tests, that means the unit had to reproduce an accurate recipe of CO2, N2, SO2, HF, HCl, CO, OCS, H2S, and H2O, down to very tiny quantities. And the tests were a success.

“We demonstrated vastly longer electrical operation with chips directly exposed — no cooling and no protective chip packaging — to a high-fidelity physical and chemical reproduction of Venus’ surface atmosphere,” Neudeck said. “And both integrated circuits still worked after the end of the test.”

In fact, the two circuits not only functioned after the test was completed, but they withstood Venus-like conditions for 521 hours. That’s more than 100 times longer than previous demonstrations of electronics designed for Venus missions.

A before (top) and after (bottom) image of the electronics after being tested in Venus atmospheric conditions. Image: NASA
A before (top) and after (bottom) image of the electronics after being tested in Venus atmospheric conditions. Image: NASA

The circuits themselves were originally designed to operate in the extremely high temperatures inside aircraft engines. “This work not only enables the potential for new science in extended Venus surface and other planetary exploration, but it also has potentially significant impact for a range of Earth relevant applications, such as in aircraft engines to enable new capabilities, improve operations, and reduce emissions,” said Gary Hunter, principle investigator for Venus surface electronics development.”

The chips themselves were very simple. They weren’t prototypes of any specific electronics that would be equipped on a Venus lander. What these tests showed is that the new Silicon Carbide Integrated Circuits (Si C IC) can withstand the conditions on Venus.

A host of other challenges remains when it comes to the overall success of a Venus lander. All of the equipment that has to operate there, like sensors, drills, and atmospheric samplers, still has to survive the thermal expansion from exposure to extremely high temperature. Robust new designs will be required in many cases. But this successful test of electronics that can survive without bulky, heavy, protective enclosures is definitely a leap forward.

If you’re interested in what a Venus lander might look like, check out the Venus Sail Rover concept.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster Headed Back to Port: Launch/Landing – Photos/Videos

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 first stage after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster that successfully launched a Japanese satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) just 3 days ago and then nailed a safe middle of the night touchdown on a drone ship at sea minutes minutes later, is headed back to port and may arrive overnight or soon thereafter.

The 156 foot tall booster was spotted offshore earlier today while being towed back to her home port at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The SpaceX ASDS drone ship with the recovered Falcon 9 first stage rocket is lurking off Port Canaveral waiting to enter the port until after the cruise ships depart for safety reasons. Pictured above at 7:40 a.m.

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 soared to orbit on May 6, roaring to life with 1.5 million pounds of thrust on a mission carrying the JCSAT-14 commercial communications satellite, following an on time liftoff at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

To date SpaceX has recovered 3 Falcon 9 first stages. But this was the first one to be recovered from the much more demanding, high velocity trajectory delivering a satellite to GTO.

“First landed booster from a GTO-class mission (final spacecraft altitude will be about 36,000 km),” tweeted SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Musk was clearly ecstatic with the result, since SpaceX officials had been openly doubtful of a successful outcome with the landing.

Barely nine minutes after liftoff the Falcon 9 first stage carried out a propulsive soft landing on an ocean going platform located some 400 miles off the east coast of Florida.

The drone ship was named “Of Course I Still Love You.”

The Falcon 9 landed dead center in the bullseye.

Check out the incredible views herein from SpaceX of the Falcon 9 sailing serenely atop the “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Base of Recovered Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Base of Recovered Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

Relive the launch through these pair of videos from remote video cameras set at the SpaceX launch pad 40 facility.

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-14 on 5/6/2016 Pad 40 CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The commercial SpaceX launch lofted the JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) for SKY Perfect JSAT – a leading satellite operator in the Asia – Pacific region.

The landing counts as nother stunning success for Elon Musk’s vision of radically slashing the cost of sending rocket to space by recovering the boosters and eventually reusing them.

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage stands upright after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 first stage stands upright after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

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

Ken Kremer

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on May 6, 2016 at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on May 6, 2016 at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

U.S. Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches, Ending Monopoly

SpaceX Falcon 9 is now certified for USAF launches. SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

The U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that they have certified SpaceX to launch the nations critical and highly valuable national security satellites on the firms Falcon 9 rocket, thereby breaking the decade old launch monopoly held by launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a joint venture owned by aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force’s goal in approving the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster is aimed at drastically cutting the high cost of access to space by introducing competition in the awarding of military mission launch contacts. The prior contract involved a sole source $11 Billion “block buy” bid for 36 rocket cores from ULA in December 2013 which was legally challenged by SpaceX in April 2014, but eventually settled by SpaceX in an agreement with the USAF earlier this year.

Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), announced the long awaited decision on Tuesday, May 26.

The certification milestone came after a grueling two year review process in which the Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people to thoroughly review all aspects of the Falcon 9 booster. The review was based on three successful flights by the Falcon 9 v1.1 which first launched in late 2013.

The purpose of certification is to assure that qualified launch providers could meet the challenge of safely, securely and reliably lofting expensive U.S. national security military missions to space and into their intended orbits with full mission capability that are critical for maintaining national defense.

“The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification,” said Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, in a statement.

“And we’re also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible.”

And the competitive launch races “for award of qualified national security space launch missions” between SpaceX and ULA start very soon, within the next month says the USAF.

In June, the Air Force will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS III launch services. ULA has three GPS launches in its manifest for 2015.

Of course SpaceX was overjoyed on hearing the certification news.

“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch, said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer.

‘We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”

Until today, ULA has held a launch monopoly over military missions since the company was founded in 2006. ULA also launches many NASA science missions, but very few commercial satellites.

Thus the U.S. military and NASA provide the core of ULA’s business and the source of much of its income and profits.

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 now certified by 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

“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, in a statement.

“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”

Other military spacecraft in the future could involve vehicles such as the X-37B space plane which recently launched on an Atlas V, as well as weather satellites, signals intelligence and missile warning satellites and a range of top secret missions for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that have been routinely launched by ULA with a 100% success rate to date.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Atlas V and Delta IV families of vehicles. ULA is phasing out the Delta IV due to its high costs. Only the Delta IV Heavy will remain in service as required to launch the very heaviest satellites that cannot be accommodated by less powerful rockets.

ULA is also replacing the Atlas V with the partly reusable new Vulcan rocket, that will be phased in starting in 2019 using American-made engines from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The Atlas V uses Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s use has become highly contentious since the deadly crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014.

The ensuing threats of RD-180 engine embargoes and imposition of sanctions and counter sanctions imposed by the US and Russia have thus placed US national security at risk by being dependent on a rocket with foreign made engines whose future supply chain was uncertain.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been highly critical of the ULA dependence on the Russian RD-180 engines and issued this statement in response to the Air Force announcement.

“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition, said McCain.

“Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Overall the Air Force “invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discreet tasks, 3 certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.”

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Key Facts and Timeline for SpaceX Crewed Dragon’s First Test Flight May 6 – Watch Live

The first critical test flight of SpaceX’s crewed Dragon that will soon launch American astronauts back to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil is now less than two days away.

The test flight – called the Pad Abort Test – is slated for the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 6, if all goes well. The key facts and a timeline of the test events are outlined herein.

The test vehicle will reach roughly a mile in altitude (5000 feet, 1500 meters) and last only about 90 seconds in duration from beginning to end.

It constitutes a crucial first test of the crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in a split second in the unlikely event of a catastrophic launch pad failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

SpaceX has just released new images showing the Dragon crew capsule and trunk section being moved to the launch pad and being positioned atop the launch mount on SLC-40. See above and below. Together the Dragon assembly stands about 20 feet (5 meters) tall.

SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Pad Abort Test vehicle being transported at the Florida launch complex. Credit: SpaceX

A test dummy is seated inside. And SpaceX now says the dummy is not named “Buster” despite an earlier announcement from the company.

“Buster the Dummy already works for a great show you may have heard of called MythBusters. Our dummy prefers to remain anonymous for the time being,” SpaceX said today.

So, only time will tell if that particular mission fact will ever be revealed.

You can watch the Pad Abort Test via a live webcast on NASA TV: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT into the afternoon.

The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

The current weather forecast predicts a 70% GO for favorable weather conditions during the lengthy test window.

Since the Pad Abort Test is specifically designed to be a development test, in order to learn crucial things about the performance of the escape system, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable.

And delays due to technical issues are a very significant possibility.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX at a May 1 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center press site. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Here’s a graphic illustrating the May 6 SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of planned events.

Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40.  Credit: SpaceX
Graphic illustrates the SpaceX Pad Abort Test trajectory and sequence of events planned for May 6, 2015 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 40. Credit: SpaceX

The Crew Dragon will accelerate to nearly 100 mph in barely one second. The test will last less than two minutes and the ship will travel over one mile in the first 20 seconds alone.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety.

The eight SuperDraco’s will propel Dragon nearly 100 meters (328 ft) in 2 seconds, and more than half a kilometer (1/3 mi) in just over 5 seconds.

SpaceX likens the test to “an ejection seat for a fighter pilot, but instead of ejecting the pilot out of the spacecraft, the entire spacecraft is “ejected” away from the launch vehicle.”

Here’s a timeline of events from SpaceX:

T-0: The eight SuperDracos ignite simultaneously and reach maximum thrust, propelling the spacecraft off the pad.

T+.5s: After half a second of vertical flight, Crew Dragon pitches toward the ocean and continues its controlled burn. The SuperDraco engines throttle to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s sensors.

T+5s: The abort burn is terminated once all propellant is consumed and Dragon coasts for just over 15 seconds to its highest point about 1500 meters (.93 mi) above the launch pad.

T+21s: The trunk is jettisoned and the spacecraft begins a slow rotation with its heat shield pointed toward the ground again.

T+25s: Small parachutes, called drogues, are deployed first during a 4-6 second window following trunk separation.

T+35s: Once the drogue parachutes stabilize the vehicle, three main parachutes deploy and further slow the spacecraft before splashdown.

T+107s: Dragon splashes down in the Atlantic Ocean about 2200 meters (1.4 mi) downrange of the launch pad.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Buster the Dummy Strapped in for Mile High SpaceX Dragon Flight Test

SpaceX and NASA are just days away from a crucial test of a crew capsule escape system that will save astronauts lives in the unlikely event of a launch failure with the Falcon 9 rocket.

Buster the Dummy is already strapped into his seat aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon test vehicle for what is called the Pad Abort Test, that is currently slated for Wednesday, May 6.

The test is critical for the timely development of the human rated Dragon that NASA is counting on to restore the US capability to launch astronauts from US soil abroad US rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) as early as 2017.

Boeing was also selected by NASA to build the CST-100 spaceship to provide a second, independent crew space taxi capability to the ISS during 2017.

The May 6 pad abort test will be performed from the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch pad from a platform at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The test will not include an actual Falcon 9 booster.

First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in March 2014.  Credit: SpaceX.
First look at the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s pad abort vehicle set for flight test in May 2015. Credit: SpaceX.

The SpaceX Dragon and trunk together stand about 20 feet tall and are positioned atop the launch mount at SLC-40 for what is clearly labeled as a development test to learn how the Dragon, engines and abort system perform.

Buster will soar along inside the Dragon that will be rapidly propelled to nearly a mile high height solely under the power of eight SpaceX SuperDraco engines.

The trunk will then separate, parachutes will be deployed and the capsule will splashdown about a mile offshore from Florida in the Atlantic Ocean, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during a May 1, 2015 press briefing on the pad abort test at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The entire test will take about a minute and a half and recovery teams will retrieve Dragon from the ocean and bring it back on shore for detailed analysis.

The test will be broadcast live on NASA TV. The test window opens at 7 a.m. EDT May 6 and extends until 2:30 p.m. EDT. The webcast will start about 20 minutes prior to the opening of the window. NASA will also provide periodic updates about the test at their online Commercial Crew Blog.

SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 pad abort test flight vehicle. Credit: SpaceX

The test is designed to simulate an emergency escape abort scenario from the test stand at the launch pad in the unlikely case of booster failing at liftoff or other scenario that would threaten astronauts inside the spacecraft.

The pad abort demonstration will test the ability of a set of eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the crew Dragon to pull the vehicle away from the launch pad in a split second in a simulated emergency to save the astronauts lives in the event of a real emergency.

The SuperDraco engines are located in four jet packs around the base. Each engine produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust pounds of axial thrust, for a combined total thrust of about 120,000 pounds, to carry astronauts to safety, according to Koenigsmann.

“This is what SpaceX was basically founded for, human spaceflight,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance with SpaceX.

“The pad abort is going to show that we’ve developed a revolutionary system for the safety of the astronauts, and this test is going to show how it works. It’s our first big test on the Crew Dragon.”

SpaceX and NASA hope to refurbish and reuse the same Dragon capsule for another abort test at high altitude later this year. The timing of the in flight abort test hinges on the outcome of the pad abort test.

“No matter what happens on test day, SpaceX is going to learn a lot,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s partner manager for SpaceX. “One test is worth a thousand good analyses.”

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

Beside Buster the dummy, who is human-sized, the Dragon is outfitted with 270 sensors to measure a wide range of vehicle, engine, acceleration and abort test parameters.

“There’s a lot of instrumentation on this flight – a lot,” Koenigsmann said. “Temperature sensors on the outside, acoustic sensors, microphones. This is basically a flying instrumentation deck. At the end of the day, that’s the point of tests, to get lots of data.”

Buster will be accelerated to a force of about 4 to 4½ times the force of Earth’s gravity, noted Koenigsmann.

The pad abort test is being done under SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreement with NASA that will eventually lead to certification of the Dragon for crewed missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS.

“The point is to gather data – you don’t have to have a flawless test to be successful,” Cowart said.

The second Dragon flight test follows later in the year, perhaps in the summer. It will launch from a SpaceX pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and involves simulating an in flight emergency abort scenario during ascent at high altitude at maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q) at about T plus 1 minute, to save astronauts lives.

The pusher abort thrusters would propel the capsule and crew safely away from a failing Falcon 9 booster for a parachute assisted splashdown into the Ocean.

Koenigsmann notes that the SpaceX abort system provides for emergency escape all the way to orbit, unlike any prior escape system such as the conventional launch abort systems (LAS) mounted on top of the capsule.

“Whatever happens to Falcon 9, you will be able to pull out the astronauts and land them safely on this crew Dragon,” said Koenigsmann. “In my opinion, this will make it the safest vehicle that you can possibly fly.”

The SpaceX Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 vehicles were selected by NASA last fall for further funding under the auspices of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), as the worlds privately developed spaceships to ferry astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan to launch the first manned test flights to the ISS with their respective transports in 2017.

During the Sept. 16, 2014 news briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that contracts worth a total of $6.8 Billion were awarded to SpaceX to build the manned Dragon V2 and to Boeing to build the manned CST-100.

The next Falcon 9 launch is slated for mid-June carrying the CRS-7 Dragon cargo ship on a resupply mission for NASA to the ISS. On April 14, a flawless Falcon 9 launch boosted the SpaceX CRS-6 Dragon to the ISS.

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

There was no attempt to soft land the Falcon 9 first stage during the most recent launch on April 27. Due to the heavy weight of the TurkmenÄlem52E/MonacoSat satellite there was not enough residual fuel for a landing attempt on SpaceX’s ocean going barge.

The next landing attempt is set for the CRS-7 mission.

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

Ken Kremer

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of Mission Assurance at SpaceX during CRS-6 mission media briefing in April 2015 at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Here There Be Dragons: SpaceX’s Spacecraft Arrives at Launch Complex 40

[/caption]
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) welcomed a new guest to Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) on Sunday – the next Dragon spacecraft that is set to launch later this year. Members of the media were invited to a photo opportunity to chronicle the Dragon spacecraft’s arrival which had been delayed a day due to issues with travel permits.

The Dragon that arrived on Sunday is destined to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). It will be the first time that a private firm docks with the space station. The COTS Demo 2 Dragon was shipped from SpaceX’s facilities in Hawthorne, California to Cape Canaveral in Florida.

SpaceX's next Dragon spacecraft, the one set to fly to the International Space Station, was delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40 on Sunday. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 rocket, with its Dragon spacecraft payload, is currently scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s SLC-40 on Dec. 19. If all goes as it is currently planned the Dragon will maneuver along side of the orbiting laboratory where the space station’s robot Canadarm 2 will grapple the unmanned spacecraft it and dock it with the station.

“When it comes to the launch day, NASA will determine that, we’re pushing to launch on Dec. 19, but the final “go” date is set by NASA and the range,” said SpaceX’s Vice-President for Communications Bobby Block. “We are currently working to conduct a wet dress rehearsal on November 21st.”

The Dragon spacecraft that is bound for the ISS will ride this Falcon 9 rocket to orbit. The launch date is tentatively set for Dec. 19. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

SpaceX recently passed a Preliminary Draft Review (PDR) of the Dragon’s Launch Abort System (LAS). This system, which pulls astronauts and their spacecraft to safety in case of some problem with the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, is unlike other systems of its type. Normal abort systems are essentially small rockets affixed to the top of the spacecraft (which is normally on top of the rocket). Not so with SpaceX’s design, dubbed DragonRider – it will be built into the walls of the spacecraft.

The reason for the difference in the abort system’s design is twofold. First, it will drive the costs down (Dragon is being developed as a reusable spacecraft) -whereas traditional abort systems are not capable of being reused. Secondly the system could one day be used as a potential means of landing spacecraft on other terrestrial worlds, such as the planet Mars.

SpaceX has been working with NASA to get the Dragon spacecraft ready for its historic mission. This will mark the first time that many of the systems have been used on an actual mission. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

This will mark the second demonstration flight that SpaceX will have flown to accomplish the objectives laid out in the Commercial Orbital Transportations Services or COTS contract. The $1.6 billion contract is an effort to ensure that needed cargo is delivered to the station safely and in a timely fashion.

SpaceX so far has launched two of its Falcon 9 rockets – both in 2010. The first flight occurred on June 4, 2010 with the second being launched on Dec. 8, 2010. It was on this second flight that SpaceX became the first private entity to launch a spacecraft into orbit and then safely recover it after it had successfully orbited the Earth twice. Before this only nations were capable of achieving this feat.

“This is very exciting, our last launch was about a year ago, so to have a fully-operational Dragon up-and-ready to make a historic docking to the International Space Station it’s terrifically exciting.” Block said.

SpaceX is working toward expanding the role of not only the Falcon 9 rocket - but the Dragon spacecraft as well. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com