SpaceX ‘Return to Flight’ Set For Dec. 16 with Next Gen Iridium Satellites – 3 Months After Pad Explosion

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Only three months after the catastrophic launch pad explosion of their commercial Falcon 9 rocket in Florida, SpaceX has set Dec. 16 as the date for the boosters ‘Return to Flight’ launch from California with the first batch of Iridium’s next-generation communications satellites.

Iridium Communications announced on Thursday that the first launch of a slew of its next-generation global satellite constellation, dubbed Iridium NEXT, will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 16, 2016 at 12:36 p.m. PST from SpaceX’s west coast launch pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Iridium NEXT satellites being processed for launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
Iridium NEXT satellites being processed for launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

However the launch is dependent on achieving FAA approval for the Falcon 9 launch.

All SpaceX Falcon 9 launches immediately ground to a halt following the colossal eruption of a fireball from the Falcon 9 at the launch pad that suddenly destroyed the rocket and completely consumed its $200 million Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload on Sept. 1 during a routine fueling and planned static fire engine test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The explosive anomaly resulted from a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank and subsequent ignition of the highly flammable oxygen propellant.

“This launch is contingent upon the FAA’s approval of SpaceX’s return to flight following the anomaly that occurred on September 1, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida,” Iridium said in a statement.

SpaceX quickly started an investigation to determine the cause of the anomaly that destroyed the rocket and its payload and significantly damaged the infrastructure at launch pad 40.

“The investigation has been conducted with FAA oversight. Iridium expects to be SpaceX’s first return to flight launch customer.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The goal of the privately contracted mission is to deliver the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit to inaugurate what will be a new constellation of satellites dedicated to mobile voice and data communications.

Iridium eventually plans to launch a constellation of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit.

“At least 70 of which will be launched by SpaceX,” per Iridium’s contract with SpaceX.

“We’re excited to launch the first batch of our new satellite constellation. We have remained confident in SpaceX’s ability as a launch partner throughout the Falcon 9 investigation,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer at Iridium, in a statement.

“We are grateful for their transparency and hard work to plan for their return to flight. We are looking forward to the inaugural launch of Iridium NEXT, and what will begin a new chapter in our history.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 Stage 1 arriving in California for Iridium NEXT launch - with a Rainbow! Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
SpaceX Falcon 9 Stage 1 arriving in California for Iridium NEXT launch – with a Rainbow! Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

Altogether seven Falcon 9 launches will be required to deploy the constellation of 70 Iridium NEXT satellites by early 2018, if all goes well.

The initial batch of Iridium NEXT satellites for this launch began arriving at SpaceX’s Vandenberg AFB satellite processing facility in early August 2016. They were built by Orbital ATK.

Following up on earlier statements by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk had said in a televised CNBC interview on Nov. 4 that the firm was aiming to resume launches of the booster in mid-December.

“We are looking forward to return to flight with the first Iridium NEXT launch,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX.

“Iridium has been a great partner for nearly a decade, and we appreciate their working with us to put their first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.”

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016  after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Musk said the Sept 1 explosion at pad 40 was related to some type of interaction between the liquid helium bottles , carbon composites and solidification of the liquid oxygen propellant in the SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage.

“It basically involves a combination of liquid helium, advanced carbon fiber composites, and solid oxygen, Musk elaborated to CNBC.

“Oxygen so cold that it enters the solid phase.”

The explosion took place without warning as liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants were being loaded into the second stage of the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 during a routine fueling test and engine firing test at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 launch facility at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Sept. 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

But the rocket blew up during the fueling operations and the SpaceX launch team never even got to the point of igniting the first stage engines for the static fire test.

Pad 40 is out of action until extensive repairs and testing are completed.

The Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and called into question the rockets overall reliability.

The first Falcon 9 failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during the Dragon CRS-9 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage 1 arriving at Vandenberg AFB in California in early November 2016 for Iridium NEXT launch. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage arriving at Vandenberg AFB in California in early November 2016 for Iridium NEXT launch. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

SpaceX maintains launch pads on both the US East and West coasts.

On the Florida Space Coast, SpaceX plans to initially resume launches at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA, while pad 40 is repaired and refurbished.

KSC launches could start as soon as early January 2017 with the EchoStar 23 communications satellite.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about ULA Delta 4 launch on Dec 7, GOES-R weather satellite, Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, ULA, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX AMOS-6 & CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Dec 5-7: “ULA Delta 4 Dec 7 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, SpaceX and Orbital ATK missions to the ISS, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Watch SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Almost Stick Droneship Landing, then Tip and Explode; Video

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage tips over and explodes on Pacific ocean droneship after landing leg fails to lock in place on Jan 17, 2016. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage tips over and explodes on Pacific ocean droneship after landing leg fails to lock in place on Jan 17, 2016. Credit: SpaceX
See landing video below

SpaceX came much closer to sticking the landing of their Falcon 9 rocket on a tiny droneship at sea than initially thought, as evidenced by a dramatic video of the latest attempt to recover the booster by making a soft ocean touchdown on Sunday, Jan. 17, after successfully propelling a US-European ocean surveillance satellite to low Earth orbit. Continue reading “Watch SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Almost Stick Droneship Landing, then Tip and Explode; Video”

NASA Jason-3 Sea Level Rise Reconnaissance Satellite Successfully Blasts off on SpaceX Falcon 9; Hard Landing on Barge

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen as it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, , Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen as it launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East with the Jason-3 spacecraft onboard, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Jason-3, an international mission led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will help continue U.S.-European satellite measurements of global ocean height changes. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched the NASA/NOAA/European Jason-3 sea level rise reconnaissance satellite a short while ago today, Sunday, Jan. 17, from Vandenberg Air Force Base into a polar orbit around the Earth.

The launch was a complete success with all first and second stage rocket firings and the Jason-3 deployment occurring precisely as planned and on time. Continue reading “NASA Jason-3 Sea Level Rise Reconnaissance Satellite Successfully Blasts off on SpaceX Falcon 9; Hard Landing on Barge”

SpaceX Launching NASA Jason-3 Ocean Surveillance Satellite Jan. 17; with Barge Rocket Landing – Watch Live

The joint NASA-European ocean surveillance satellite named Jason-3 is poised for blastoff from SpaceX’s California launch pad on Sunday, Jan. 17 – followed immediately by another Falcon 9 rocket recovery landing on a barge at sea.

The weather forecast is outstanding! And you can watch all the excitement live!

The primary goal is to deliver Jason-3 to low Earth orbit, where it will gather global measurements of ocean topography, or wave heights, using radar altimitry. These data provide scientists with essential information about global and regional changes in the Earth’s seas such as tracking sea level rise that threatens the resilience of coastal communities and the health of our environment. Continue reading “SpaceX Launching NASA Jason-3 Ocean Surveillance Satellite Jan. 17; with Barge Rocket Landing – Watch Live”

SpaceX Trying Ambitious 2nd Rocket Recovery Landing in 4 Weeks

SpaceX is on course to move ahead with an ambitious spaceflight agenda, trying a 2nd rocket recovery landing of their Falcon 9 booster in barely 4 weeks time and upcoming this Sunday, Jan. 17, says Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and CEO of SpaceX.

Musk confirmed that SpaceX plans to launch and subsequently land the first stage of its next Falcon 9 rocket on a “droneship” at sea in the Pacific Ocean this weekend. Continue reading “SpaceX Trying Ambitious 2nd Rocket Recovery Landing in 4 Weeks”

Aerojet-Rocketdyne Seeks to Buy United Launch Alliance for $2 Billion

America’s premier rocket launch services provider United Launch Alliance, or ULA, may be up for sale according to media reports, including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. Any such sale would result in a major shakeup of the American rocket launching business with far reaching implications.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne has apparently made a bid to buy ULA for approximately $2 Billion in cash, based on behind the scenes information gathered from unnamed sources.

ULA was formed in 2006 as a 50:50 joint venture between aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing that combined their existing expendable rocket fleet families – the Atlas V and Delta IV – under one roof.

According to Reuters, Aerojet Rocketdyne recently proffered a $2 billion cash offer to buy ULA from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne board member Warren Lichtenstein, the chairman and chief executive of Steel Partners LLC, approached ULA President Tory Bruno and senior Lockheed and Boeing executives about the bid in early August,” sources told Reuters.

ULA’s Bruno declined to comment on the story via twitter.

“Wish I could, but as a matter of policy, we don’t comment on this type of story,” Bruno tweeted in response to inquiries.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne currently is a major supplier to ULA by providing first and second stage engines for use in the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. They also manufacture the Space Shuttle Main Engines now being repurposed as the RS-25 to serve as first stage engines for NASA’s mammoth new SLS deep space rocket.

Since 2006 ULA has enjoyed phenomenal launch success with its venerable fleet of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets and also enjoyed a virtual launch monopoly with the US Government and for the nations most critical national security military payloads.

And just last week, ULA conducted its 99th launch with the successful blastoff of an Atlas V with the MUOS-4 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for the U.S. Navy.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

But the recent emergence of rival SpaceX – founded by billionaire Elon Musk – with the lower cost Falcon 9 rocket and the end of the ULA’s launch monopoly for high value military and top secret spy satellites has the potential to undermine ULA’s long term business model and profitability. In May, the US Air Force certified the SpaceX Falcon 9 for national security payload launches.

Furthermore a Congressional ban on importing the Russian-made RD-180 first stage engines that power the Atlas V rocket, that takes effect in a few years, has threatened the rockets future viability. The Atlas V dependence on Russia’s RD-180’s landed at the center of controversy after Russia invaded Crimea in the spring of 2014.

To date the Atlas V enjoys a 100 percent success rate after over 50 launches.

The Falcon 9 no longer enjoys a 100 percent success rate after the launch failure on June 28, 2015 on a critical NASA cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Atlas V will also serve as the launch vehicle for Boeing’s new ‘Starliner’ space taxi to transport astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017 – detailed in my onsite story here.

In response to the Congressional RD-180 engine ban and relentless cost pressures from SpaceX, ULA CEO Tory Bruno and ULA Vice President for Advanced Concepts and Technology George Sowers announced ULA will develop a cost effective new rocket named Vulcan using American made engines.

“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.

Vulcan - United Launch Alliance (ULA)  next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019.  Credit: ULA
Vulcan – United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

However, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are only providing funds to ULA on a quarterly basis to continue development of the Vulcan.

Vulcan’s first stage will most likely be powered by the BE-4 engine being developed by the secretive Blue Origin aerospace firm owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Interestingly, ULA is also evaluating the AR-1 liquid fueled engine being developed by Aerojet-Rocketdyne.

The final decision on which engine to use is expected sometime in 2016.

The engine choice could clearly be impacted if Aerojet-Rocketdyne buys ULA.

Aerojet-Rocketdyne has also sought to buy the rights to manufacture the Atlas V from ULA, which is currently planned to be retired several years after Vulcan is introduced.

To this writer, ULA would seem to be worth far more than $2 Billion. They own manufacturing and rocket launch facilities on both coasts and in several states.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Invites Public to ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ on InSight – Next Red Planet Lander

Sign up to send your name to Mars on InSight, NASA’s next mission to Mars launching in March 2016. Credit: NASA
Sign up link below – don’t delay![/caption]

Calling space fans worldwide: Now is your chance to participate in NASA’s human ‘Journey to Mars’ initiative and NASA’s next robotic mission to Mars – the InSight lander launching to the Red Planet next spring.

NASA invites you to ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ on a silicon microchip aboard the InSight probe slated for blastoff on March 4, 2016 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

InSight’s science goal is totally unique – to “listen to the heart of Mars to find the beat of rocky planet formation.”

The public can submit their names for inclusion on a dime-sized microchip that will travel on a variety of spacecraft voyaging to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including Mars.

“Our next step in the journey to Mars is another fantastic mission to the surface,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“By participating in this opportunity to send your name aboard InSight to the Red Planet, you’re showing that you’re part of that journey and the future of space exploration.”

In just the first 24 hours over 67,000 Mars enthusiasts have already signed up!

But time is of the essence since the deadline to submit your name is soon: Sept. 8, 2015.

How can you sign up to fly on InSight? Is there a certificate?

NASA has made it easy to sign up.

To send your name to Mars aboard InSight, click on this weblink posted online by NASA:

http://go.usa.gov/3Aj3G

And you can also print out an elegant looking ‘Boarding Pass’ that looks like this:

Boarding Pass for NASA’s InSight Mission to Mars - launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in March 2016.  Credit: NASA
Boarding Pass with frequent flyer miles for NASA’s InSight Mission to Mars – launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in March 2016. Credit: NASA

Furthermore the ‘Boarding Pass’ also comes with a listing of your “frequent flier” points accumulated by your participation in NASA’s ‘fly-your-name opportunity’ that will span multiple missions and multiple decades beyond low Earth orbit.

InSight represents the second ‘fly-your-name opportunity’ in NASA’s journey to Mars program. The uncrewed Orion EFT-1 mission launched on Dec. 5, 2014 was the first chance for space fans to collect ‘Journey to Mars’ points by sending your names to space.

The ‘Send Your Name to Mars’ campaign for Orion EFT-1 was a huge success.

Over 1.38 million people flew on the silicon chip aboard the maiden flight of Orion, the NASA capsule that will eventually transport humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

Don’t dawdle. Because after InSight, you’ll have to wait about three years until late 2018 and the blastoff of the next Orion capsule on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) for you next chance to accumulate “frequent flier” points on a ‘Journey to Mars’ mission.

Orion EM-1 will launch atop NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and NASA just conducted a key test firing on Aug. 13 of the first stage engines that will power the stack to on a mission to the Moon – detailed in my recent story here.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a stationary lander.

It will join NASA’s surface science exploration fleet currently comprising of the Curiosity and Opportunity missions which by contrast are mobile rovers.

InSight is the first mission to understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. Its purpose is to elucidate the nature of the Martian core, measure heat flow and sense for “Marsquakes.”

“It will place the first seismometer directly on the surface of Mars to measure Martian quakes and use seismic waves to learn about the planet’s interior. It also will deploy a self-hammering heat probe that will burrow deeper into the ground than any previous device on the Red Planet. These and other InSight investigations will improve our understanding about the formation and evolution of all rocky planets, including Earth,” says NASA.

NASA's InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
NASA’s InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

The countdown clock is ticking relentlessly towards liftoff in less than seven months time in March 2016.

Insight promises to ‘science the sh**’ out of the heart of Mars!

It is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program as well as several European national space agency’s and countries. Germany and France are providing InSight’s two main science instruments; The HP3 heat probe and the SEIS seismometer through the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt. or German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).

“Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system,” says Green.

InSight Boarding pass
InSight Boarding pass

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Journey to Mars Ramps Up with InSight, Key Tests Pave Path to 2016 Lander Launch

NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ is ramping up significantly with ‘InSight’ – as the agency’s next Red Planet lander has now been assembled into its flight configuration and begun a comprehensive series of rigorous and critical environmental stress tests that will pave the path to launch in 2016 on a mission to unlock the riddles of the Martian core.

The countdown clock is ticking relentlessly and in less than nine months time, NASA’s InSight Mars lander is slated to blastoff in March 2016.

InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a stationary lander. It will join NASA’s surface science exploration fleet currently comprising of the Curiosity and Opportunity missions which by contrast are mobile rovers.

But before it will even be allowed to get to the launch pad, the Red Planet explorer must first prove its mettle and show that it can operate in and survive the harsh and unforgiving rigors of the space environment via a battery of prelaunch tests. That’s an absolute requirement in order for it to successfully carry out its unprecedented mission to investigate Mars deep interior structure.

InSight’s purpose is to elucidate the nature of the Martian core, measure heat flow and sense for “Marsquakes.” These completely new research findings will radically advance our understanding of the early history of all rocky planets, including Earth and could reveal how they formed and evolved.

“Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way, making great progress on the journey to Mars,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system.”

The science deck of NASA's InSight lander is being turned over in this April 29, 2015, photo from InSight assembly and testing operations inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver.  The large circular component on the deck is the protective covering to be placed over InSight's seismometer after the seismometer is placed directly onto the Martian ground.   Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
The science deck of NASA’s InSight lander is being turned over in this April 29, 2015, photo from InSight assembly and testing operations inside a clean room at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver. The large circular component on the deck is the protective covering to be placed over InSight’s seismometer after the seismometer is placed directly onto the Martian ground. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

The launch window for InSight opens on March 4 and runs through March 30, 2016.

InSight will launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

InSight counts as NASA’s first ever interplanetary mission to launch from California.

The car sized probe will touch down near the Martian equator about six months later in the fall of 2016.

The prime contractor for InSight is Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Co and the engineering and technical team recently finished assembling the lander into its final configuration.

So now the time has begun to start the shakedown that literally involve “shaking and baking and zapping” the spacecraft to prove its ready and able to meet the March 2016 launch deadline.

During the next seven months of environmental testing at Lockheed’s Denver facility, “the lander will be exposed to extreme temperatures, vacuum conditions of nearly zero air pressure simulating interplanetary space, and a battery of other tests.”

“The assembly of InSight went very well and now it’s time to see how it performs,” said Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, in a statement.

“The environmental testing regimen is designed to wring out any issues with the spacecraft so we can resolve them while it’s here on Earth. This phase takes nearly as long as assembly, but we want to make sure we deliver a vehicle to NASA that will perform as expected in extreme environments.”

The first test involves “a thermal vacuum test in the spacecraft’s “cruise” configuration, which will be used during its seven-month journey to Mars. In the cruise configuration, the lander is stowed inside an aeroshell capsule and the spacecraft’s cruise stage – for power, communications, course corrections and other functions on the way to Mars — is fastened to the capsule.”

After the vacuum test, InSight will be subjected to a series of tests simulating the vibrations of launch, separation and deployment shock, as well as checking for electronic interference between different parts of the spacecraft and compatibility testing.

Finally, a second thermal vacuum test will expose the probe “to the temperatures and atmospheric pressures it will experience as it operates on the Martian surface.”

The $425 million InSight mission is expected to operate for about two years on the Martian surface.

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA

InSight is an international science mission and a near duplicate of NASA’s successful Phoenix Mars landing spacecraft, Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California, told Universe Today.

“InSight is essentially built from scratch, but nearly build-to-print from the Phoenix design,” Banerdt, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena , Calif, told me. The team can keep costs down by re-using the blueprints pioneered by Phoenix instead of creating an entirely new spacecraft.

3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice.  NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft design is based on the successful 2008 Phoenix lander. This mosaic shows Phoenix touchdown atop Martian ice.  Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice.  InSight carries instruments to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo/NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute
3 Footpads of Phoenix Mars Lander atop Martian Ice. NASA’s Mars InSight spacecraft design is based on the successful 2008 Phoenix lander. This mosaic shows Phoenix touchdown atop Martian ice. Phoenix thrusters blasted away Martian soil and exposed water ice. InSight carries instruments to peer deep into the Red Planet and investigate the nature and size of the mysterious Martian core. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo/NASA/JPL/UA/Max Planck Institute

It is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program as well as several European national space agency’s and countries. Germany and France are providing InSight’s two main science instruments; HP3 and SEIS through the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt. or German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).

“The seismometer (SEIS, stands for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is from France (built by CNES and IPGP) and the heat flow probe (HP3, stands for Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe) is from Germany (built by DLR),” Banerdt explained.

SEIS and HP3 are stationed on the lander deck. They will each be picked up and deployed by a robotic arm similar to that flown on Phoenix with some modifications.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Launches Revolutionary Earth Science Satellite Measuring Soil Moisture Cycle

NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, is seen after the mobile service tower was rolled back Friday, Jan. 30 at Space Launch Complex 2, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Story updated[/caption]

At dawn this morning (Jan. 31) NASA launched an advanced Earth science satellite aimed at making measurements of our planet’s surface soil moisture and freeze/thaw states from space that will revolutionize our understanding of the water, energy, and carbon cycles driving all life on Earth, aid weather forecasting and improve climate change models.

NASA’s new Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory thundered off the pad at 6:22 a.m. PST (9:22 a.m. EST) Saturday atop a two stage United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket from Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The $916 million satellite successfully separated from the rocket’s second stage some 57 minutes after the flawless liftoff and was injected into an initial 411- by 425-mile (661- by 685-kilometer) orbit. The spacecraft then deployed its solar arrays and telemetry indicated it was in excellent health.

“We’re in contact with SMAP and everything looks good right now,” NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn said.

“Deployment of the solar arrays is underway. We just couldn’t be happier.”

SMAP separated from the second stage while pointed toward the sun as seen in the video below from a rocket mounted camera:

Video Caption: A camera on the second stage of the Delta II rocket captured this footage as the SMAP spacecraft pushed itself away from the rocket to complete the delivery of the Earth-observing spacecraft to its proper orbit following Jan. 31, 2015 liftoff. Credit: NASA TV/ULA

SMAP is NASA’s 1st Earth observing satellite designed to make high resolution global observations of Earth’s vital surface soil moisture content and freeze/thaw cycle just below your feet. It will aid global forecasting and have broad applications for science and society.

SMAP’s combined radar and radiometer instruments will peer into the top 2 inches (5 centimeters) of soil, through clouds and moderate vegetation cover, day and night, to produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained from space, says NASA.

The blastoff of SMAP successfully concluded NASA’s ambitious plans to launch a record breaking total of five Earth science satellites in less than a year’s time.

“The launch of SMAP completes an ambitious 11-month period for NASA that has seen the launch of five new Earth-observing space missions to help us better understand our changing planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“Scientists and policymakers will use SMAP data to track water movement around our planet and make more informed decisions in critical areas like agriculture and water resources.”

Artist's rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).  Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s rendering of the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. The width of the region scanned on Earth’s surface during each orbit is about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

SMAP is projected to last for at least a three year primary mission.

The prior NASA Earth science instrument launched was the Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS) payload hauled to space by the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon on Jan. 10, 2015 and recently installed on the exterior of the ISS. Read my CATS installation story – here.

The three earlier NASA Earth science missions launched over the past year included ISS-RapidScat in September 2014, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, in February 2014, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carbon observatory in July 2014.

“Congratulations to the NASA Launch Services Program team, JPL and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the SMAP satellite,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“It is our honor to launch this important Earth science mission to help scientists observe and predict natural hazards, and improve our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles.”

SMAP will provide high-resolution, space-based measurements of soil moisture and its state — frozen or thawed — a new capability that will allow scientists to better predict natural hazards of extreme weather, climate change, floods and droughts, and help reduce uncertainties in our understanding of Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles, according to a NASA description.

The mission will map the entire globe every two to three days for at least three years and provide the most accurate and highest-resolution maps of soil moisture ever obtained. The spacecraft’s final circular polar orbit will be 426 miles (685 kilometers), at an inclination of 98.1 degrees. The spacecraft will orbit Earth once every 98.5 minutes and repeat the same ground track every eight days.

“All subsystems are being powered on and checked out as planned,” Kent Kellogg, the SMAP project manager, during a post-launch press conference.

“Communications, guidance and control, computers and power are all operating nominally.”

The observatory is in excellent health. Its instruments will be turned on in 11 days.

Today’s blastoff of SMAP marks ULA’s second successful launch this month as well as the second of 13 planned for 2015. ULA’s first launch of 2015 was MUOS-3 from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 20.

ULA’s next launch involves NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection. It is scheduled for launch on an Atlas V 421 booster on March 12 from Cape Canaveral. See my up close visit with MMS and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center detailed in my story – here.

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

Ken Kremer

Busy Year of 13 Launches by ULA in 2015 Begins with Blastoffs for the Navy and NASA

A busy year of 13 space launches by rocket provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) in 2015 begins with a pair of blastoffs for the US Navy and NASA tonight and next week, emanating from both the US East and West Coasts.

The hefty manifest of 13 liftoffs in 2015 comes hot on the heels of ULA’s banner year in 2014 whereby they completed every one of the firm’s 14 planned launches in 2014 with a 100% success rate.

“What ULA has accomplished in 2014, in support of our customers’ missions, is nothing short of remarkable,” said ULA CEO Tory Bruno.

“When you think about every detail – all of the science, all of the planning, all of the resources – that goes into a single launch, it is hard to believe that we successfully did it at a rate of about once a month, sometimes twice.”

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Delta II, Delta IV and the Atlas V. They are in direct competition with the Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

And ULA’s 2015 launch calendar begins tonight with a milestone launch for the US Navy that also marks the 200th launch overall of the venerable Atlas-Centaur rocket that has a renowned history dating back some 52 years to 1962 with multiple variations.

And tonight’s blastoff of the Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-3) satellite for the US Navy involves using the most powerful variant of the rocket, known as the Atlas V 551.

Liftoff of MUOS-3 is set for 7:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch window extends for 44 minutes and the weather outlook is very favorable. It will be carried live on a ULA webcast.

MUOS-3 Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: ULA
MUOS-3 Navy communications satellite and Atlas V rocket at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL for launch on Jan. 20, 2015. Credit: ULA

The second ULA launch of 2015 comes just over 1 week later on January 29, lofting NASA’s SMAP Earth observation satellite on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

MUOS is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move, according to ULA.

This is the third satellite in the MUOS series and will provide military users 10 times more communications capability over existing systems, including simultaneous voice, video and data, leveraging 3G mobile communications technology.

ULA’s second launch in 2015 thunders aloft from the US West Coast with NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP). It is the first US Earth-observing satellite designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture.

SMAP will blastoff from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg AFB at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on ULA’s Delta II rocket.

NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) will lift off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.   Credit:  NASA
NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission (SMAP) will lift off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:20 a.m. EST (6:20 a.m. PST) on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. Credit: NASA

“It goes without saying: ULA had a banner year,” Bruno said. “As we look ahead to 2015, we could not be more honored to continue supporting our nation in one of the most technologically complex, critical American needs: affordable, reliable access to space.”

ULA began operations in December 2006 with the merger of the expendable launch vehicle operations of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

ULA’s Delta IV Heavy is currently the world’s most powerful rocket and flawlessly launched NASA’s Orion capsule on Dec. 5, 2014 on its highly successful uncrewed maiden test flight on the EFT-1 mission.

Overall, the 14-mission launch manifest in 2014 included 9 national security space missions, 3 space exploration missions, including NASA’s Orion EFT-1 and 2 commercial missions.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Beyond MUOS-3 and SMAP, the launch manifest on tap for 2015 also includes additional NASA science satellites, an ISS commercial cargo resupply mission as well as more GPS satellites for military and civilian uses and top secret national security launches using the Delta II, Delta IV and the Atlas V boosters.

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) to study Earth’s magnetic reconnection is scheduled for launch on an Atlas V 421 booster on March 12 from Cape Canaveral. See my up close visit with MMS and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center detailed in my story – here.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

In March, June and September the GPS 2F-9, 2F-10 and 2F-11 navigation satellites will launch on Delta IV and Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral.

Two top secret NRO satellites are set to launch on a Delta IV and Atlas in April and August from Vandenberg.

An Air Force Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) space plane may launch as soon as May atop an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral.

The MUOS-4 liftoff is set for August on another Atlas from the Cape.

The Morelos 3 communications satellite for the Mexican Ministry of Communications and Transportation is due to launch in October from the Cape.

In November, the Atlas V will be pressed into service for the first time to launch the Orbital Sciences Cygnus Orb-4 cargo vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS) as a replacement rocket for the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket which is grounded following its catastrophic Oct. 28 explosion on the Orb-3 mission from NASA Wallops.

This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9 and docked on Jan. 12   Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by  Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo.  Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
This Cygnus launched atop Antares on Jan. 9, 2014. The next Cygnus Orb-4 will launch for the first time atop an Atlas V in Nov. 2015. Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today to observe prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. ISS astronauts will open this hatch to unload 2780 pounds of cargo. Docking mechanism hooks and latches to ISS at left. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The Orb-4 launch also marks ULA’s first launch to the ISS. It may be followed by another Cygnus launch atop an Atlas V in 2016 as Orbital works to bring the Antares back into service.

Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares doomed descent to incendiary destruction after first stage propulsion system of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

In another major milestone down the road, the Atlas V is being man rated since it was chosen to launch the Boeing CST-100 space taxi which NASA selected as one of two new commercial crew vehicles to launch US astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2017.

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

Ken Kremer