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Cosmic Girl takes LauncherOne on its first captive carry flight test
Monday, 19 November 2018 13:14

Virgin Orbit achieved another major milestone on Sunday, with LauncherOne taken on a captive carry test on Sunday. Carried under the wing of Cosmic Girl, a “flying launch pad” as described by the company, the duo enjoyed a successful first flight together, paving the way for the first launch that is set to take place in early 2019.

Cosmic Girl, a Boeing 747-400 (747-41R) series aircraft under then-registration number G-VWOW, undertook its first flight on 29 September 2001 and was delivered to Virgin Atlantic Airways on 31 October 2001.

Cosmic Girl – as she was named at the time of her delivery – spent 14 years in service with Virgin Atlantic Airways primarily servicing the company’s London to San Francisco via New York City route until 29 October 2015.

At this point, Cosmic Girl was withdrawn from service for Virgin Atlantic and flown from London Gatwick airport in the United Kingdom to San Antonio, Texas, in the United States.

The plane was officially delivered to Virgin Galactic on 12 November 2015 and re-registered as N744VG.

At Virgin Galactic’s San Antonio facility, the company completed a series of laser scans of the left side of the aircraft to acquire precise readings of the portion of the plane that will have to be modified to support the 24,947.58 kg (55,000 lb) LauncherOne rocket and its associated hardware. This was part of a process known as “maintenance D checks”.

Cosmic Girl during Virgin Orbit modifications – by Nathan Moeller – for NSF/Astro95Media

Once complete, Cosmic Girl was flown to California to undergo tests at Long Beach and Mojave. However, Sunday was the first time she flew with LauncherOne under her wing.

LauncherOne is powered by a single NewtonThree engine which will burn for about three minutes. NewtonThree has been optimized to take advantage of launching beneath an aircraft.

The second stage utilizes a single NewtonFour engine. During standard missions, NewtonFour will perform multiple burns – totalling nearly six minutes in duration.

A graphic of the LauncherOne rocket. Credit: Virgin Orbit

The payload capacity for LauncherOne is 300 kilograms when executing missions to a sun-synchronous orbit. When going to equatorial orbits, the payload capacity increases to 500 kilograms, as the vehicle can take advantage of Earth’s rotation. However, LEO missions will be the initial focus for LauncherOne.

With missions beginning in 2019, the Captive Carry test was a major milestone to remaining on track.

On Sunday, Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne conducted a test flight from Victorville, California – a test facility close both to Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach factory and to one of its operational launch sites, the Mojave Air and Space Port.

The flight lasted 80 minutes in total, during which Virgin Orbit’s flight crew assessed the take-off, landing, and low-speed handling and performance of the integrated system.

LauncherOne takes the skies with Cosmic Girl – via Virgin Orbit.

“The vehicles flew like a dream today,” said Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer (Lt. Col, US Air Force, Ret.). “Everyone on the flight crew and all of our colleagues on the ground were extremely happy with the data we saw from the instruments on-board the aircraft, in the pylon, and on the rocket itself. From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators.”

This captive carry test kick starts Virgin Orbit’s extensive test flight campaign, challenging the teams to conduct several more flights of its 747-400, some with a LauncherOne rocket attached and some without.

Future tests will focus on further proving out the robustness of the company’s modified 747, the carbon-fiber rocket itself, and the performance of the cutting-edge, lightweight avionics and flight computers onboard the rocket.

This portion of the extensive testing regime will conclude with a drop test, during which a rocket will be released from Cosmic Girl — without igniting — generating critical data about Cosmic Girl’s and the rocket’s performance as it freefalls through the atmosphere.

Captive Carry test – via Virgin Orbit

For now, Virgin Orbit can celebrate one further milestone along the path to operational flights.

CEO Dan Hart described as “a picture-perfect flight, and a major step forward in our quest to bring a new capability to small satellite launch.

“I’m extremely proud of Kelly, the flight crew, and all of our hard-working engineering and operations teams. Their professionalism really shone through today, with our rocket and our plane up in the skies on a beautiful California day. There’s still important work to do, but I know our team and our customers were all thrilled to see us taking this important step forward.”


Chinese Long March 3B launches another two Beidou satellites
Sunday, 18 November 2018 19:25

China successfully launched a new pair of navigation satellites on Sunday marking China’s 33rd launch of the year. The launch of Beidou-3M17 and Beidou-3M18 took place from the LC2 Launch Complex of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, Sichuan province, using a Long March-3B/YZ-1 (Chang Zheng-3B/YZ-1) launch vehicle. Launch time was 18:00UTC and it took over four hours to complete the mission.

Also designated Beidou-42 and Beidou-43, the MEO satellites are the Medium Earth Orbit component of the third phase of the Chinese Beidou (Compass) satellite navigation system. The satellites are part of a fleet that will expand the system to a global navigation coverage.

The satellites are using a bus that features a phased array antenna for navigation signals and a laser retroreflector, with a launch mass 1,014 kg. Spacecraft dimensions are noted to be 2.25 by 1.0 by 1.22 meters. Usually, the satellites reside in a 21,500 – 21,400 km nominal orbit at 55.5 degrees.

This was the ninth launch dedicated to the replenishment of the Beidou Navigation Satellite System in 2018. Launch activities started on January 11th with the launch of Beidou-3M7 (Beidou-26) and Beidou-3M8 (Beidou-27) satellites from the LC2 Launch Complex of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center using the Long March (Y45/Y5). The second launch took place on February 12 with the Long March (Y47/Y6) orbiting the Beidou-3M3 (Beidou-28) and Beidou-3M4 (Beidou-29) satellites also from the LC2 Launch Complex from Xichang. Beidou-3MEO9 (Beidou-30) and Beidou-3M10 (Beidou-31) were launched on March 29 using the Long March-3B/YZ-1 (Y48/Y7) from the LC2 Launch Complex, being followed by the Beidou-2I7 (Beidou-32) satellite launched on July 9 using the Long March-3A (Y27) launched from the LC2 Launch Complex.

A new pair of Beidou-3MEO satellites was launched on August 24 from the LC3 Launch Complex. The Long March-3B/YZ-1 (Y50/Y9) orbited the Beidou-3M11 (Beidou-35) and the Beidou-3M12 (Beidou-36). These were followed by the Beidou-3M13 (Beidou-37) and Beidou-3M14 (Beidou-38) satellites launched on September 19 by the Long March-3B/YZ-1 (Y51/Y10) rocket. On October 15, another Long March-3B/YZ-1 was launched from Xichang’s LC3 Launch Complex orbiting the Beidou-3M15 (Beidou-39) and Beidou-3M16 (Beidou-40) pair. Launch vehicle was (Y52/Y11).

Render of a BeiDou-3 satellite by J. Huart.

Finally, the Beidou-3 GEO-1 (Beidou-41) satellite was launched on November 1 using the Long March-3B/G2 (Y41) rocket from the LC2 Launch Complex from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

Launch activity for the Beidou Navigation Satellite System will continue on 2019 with China orbiting at least six navigation satellites.

The Beidou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) has been independently constructed, developed and operated by China taking into account the needs of the country’s national security, economic and social development. As a space infrastructure of national significance, BDS provides all-time, all-weather and high-accuracy positioning, navigation and timing services to global users.

Along with the development of the BDS service capability, related products have been widely applied in communication, marine fishery, hydrological monitoring, weather forecasting, surveying, mapping and geographic information, forest fire prevention, time synchronization for communication systems, power dispatching, disaster mitigation and relief, emergency search and rescue, and other fields.

Navigation satellite systems are public resources shared by the whole globe, and multi-system compatibility and interoperability have become a trend. China applies the principle that “BDS is developed by China, and dedicated to the world”, serving the development of the Silk Road Economic Belt, and actively pushing forward international cooperation related to BDS. As BDS joins hands with other navigation satellite systems, China will work with all other countries, regions and international organizations to promote global satellite navigation development and make BDS further serve the world and benefit mankind.

The Chinese Navigation Constellation – via beidou.gov.cn

China started to explore a path to develop a navigation satellite system suitable for its national conditions, and gradually formulated a three-step development strategy: completing the construction of BDS-1 and provide services to the whole country by the end of 2000; completing the construction of BDS-2 and provide services to the Asia-Pacific region by the end of 2012; and to complete the construction of BDS-3 and provide services worldwide around 2020 with a constellation of 27 MEOs plus 5 GEOs and the existing 3 IGSOs satellites of the regional system. CNSS would provide global navigation services, similarly to the GPS, GLONASS or Galileo systems.

The Beidou Phase III system includes the migration of its civil Beidou 1 or B1 signal from 1561.098 MHz to a frequency centered at 1575.42 MHz – the same as the GPS L1 and Galileo E1 civil signals – and its transformation from a quadrature phase shift keying (QPSK) modulation to a multiplexed binary offset carrier (MBOC) modulation similar to the future GPS L1C and Galileo’s E1.

The Phase II B1 open service signal uses QPSK modulation with 4.092 megahertz bandwidth centered at 1561.098 MHz.

The current Beidou constellation spacecraft are transmitting open and authorized signals at B2 (1207.14 MHz) and an authorized service at B3 (1268.52 MHz).

Real-time, stand-alone Beidou horizontal positioning accuracy was classed as better than 6 meters (95 percent) and with a vertical accuracy better than 10 meters (95 percent).

CNSS supports two different kinds of general services: RDSS and RNSS. In the Radio Determination Satellite Service (RDSS), the user position is computed by a ground station using the round trip time of signals exchanged via GEO satellite. The RDSS long-term feature further includes short message communication (guaranteeing backward compatibility with Beidou-1), large volume message communication, information connection, and extended coverage.

The Radio Navigation Satellite Service (RNSS) is very similar to that provided by GPS and Galileo and is designed to achieve similar performances.

The system will be dual-use, based on a civilian service that will provide an accuracy of 10 meters in the user position, 0.2 m/s on the user velocity and 50 nanoseconds in time accuracy; and the military and authorized user’s service, providing higher accuracies.

This was the tenth mission of the Long March-3B/YZ-1 (Chang Zheng-3B/YZ-1) version of the Long March-3B.
The launcher was developed from the Chang Zheng-3A. The CZ-3B features enlarged launch propellant tanks, improved computer systems, a larger 4.2 meter diameter payload fairing and the addition of four strap-on boosters on the core stage that provide additional help during the first phase of the launch.

Long March 3B – via Xinhua.

The rocket is capable of launching an 11,200 kg satellite to a low Earth orbit or a 5,100 kg cargo to a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

The CZ-3B/G2 (Enhanced Version) launch vehicle was developed from the CZ-3B, increasing the GTO capacity up to 5,500kg. The CZ-3B/E has nearly the same configurations with CZ-3B bar its enlarged core stage and boosters.

On May 14, 2007, the first flight of CZ-3B/G2 was performed successfully, accurately sending the NigcomSat-1 into pre-determined orbit. With the GTO launch capability of 5,500kg, CZ-3B/G2 is dedicated for launching heavy GEO communications satellite.

The rocket structure also combines all sub-systems together and is composed of four strap-on boosters, a first stage, a second stage, a third stage and payload fairing.

The first two stages, as well as the four strap-on boosters, use hypergolic (N2O4/UDMH) propellant while the third stage uses cryogenic (LOX/LH2) propellant. The total length of the CZ-3B is 54.838 meters, with a diameter of 3.35 meters on the core stage and 3.00 meters on the third stage.

On the first stage, the CZ-3B uses a YF-21C engine with a 2,961.6 kN thrust and a specific impulse of 2,556.5 Ns/kg. The first stage diameter is 3.35 m and the stage length is 23.272 m.

Each strap-on booster is equipped with a YF-25 engine with a 740.4 kN thrust and a specific impulse of 2,556.2 Ns/kg. The strap-on booster diameter is 2.25 m and the strap-on booster length is 15.326 m.

Long March 3B rocket – via Chinese media.

The second stage is equipped with a YF-24E (main engine – 742 kN / 2,922.57 Ns/kg; four vernier engines – 47.1 kN / 2,910.5 Ns/kg each). The second stage diameter is 3.35 m and the stage length is 12.920 m.

The third stage is equipped with a YF-75 engine developing 167.17 kN and with a specific impulse of 4,295 Ns/kg. The fairing diameter of the CZ-3B is 4.00 meters and has a length of 9.56 meters.

The Yuanzheng-1 (“Expedition-1″) uses a small thrust 6.5 kN engine burning UDMH/N2O4 with a specific impulse at 3,092 m/s. The upper stage should be able to conduct two burns, having a 6.5 hour lifetime and is capable of achieving a variety of orbits.

It will be adapted for use on the CZ-3A/B/C series mainly for direct MEO/GEO insertion missions (mostly for the navigation satellites of the Beidou GNSS).

The general mission launch sequence for the CZ-3B/G2 missions is similar to the one used for the YZ-1 missions.
The fuelling of the third stage with LOX and LH2 starts at L-7h. First and second stages, as well as the four strap-on boosters, use hypergolic propellant fuelled earlier. At L-1h 20m is the launch vehicle control system power on and function checkout followed by the telemetry system power on and function checkout.

At L-40m the fairing air-conditioning is turned-off and the air-conditioning pipe is dropped-off. Technicians also proceed with the flight program loading and check-up. The gas pipes for the first stage second and are dropped-off. The pre-cooling of the third stage engines takes place at L-20m and at L-13m takes place the third stage propellants topping.

Between L-15m and L-10m the spacecraft umbilical disconnection takes place and at L-3m the telemetry and tracking systems power is switch-over and the third stage propellant fueling pipe is disconnected.

The disconnection of the gas pipe for the third stage is disconnected at L-2m followed by the control system power switch-over at L-1m 30s. Control system, telemetry system and tracking system umbilical disconnection takes place at L-1m as well as the swinging-off of the rods. The TT&C systems start at L-30s and ignition comes at L-0s.
Eleven seconds after lift-off takes place the pitch-over maneuver. Boosters separation occurs at T+2m 21s followed at T+2m 39s by the separation between the first and second stages. Fairing jettison comes at T+3m 55s.

Separation between the second and third stage takes place at T+5m 44s, with the third stage igniting for the first time. This burn ends at T+10m 12s. The vehicle is now on a preliminary orbit until T+20m 56s when the third stage starts its second burn.

This burn will last for 3 minutes and 6 seconds, ending at T+24m 2s. After the third stage shutdown takes places at T+24m 22s an attitude adjustment before Yuanzheng-1 separation with the two satellites at T+25m 42s.

The upper stage will then execute a series of maneuvers to deliver the satellites to its orbits.

The Xichang Satellite Launch Centre is situated in the Sichuan Province, south-western China and is the country’s launch site for geosynchronous orbital launches.

The Launch Site – Google Earth

Equipped with two launch pads (LC2 and LC3), the center has a dedicated railway and highway lead directly to the launch site.

The Command and Control Centre is located seven kilometers south-west of the launch pad, providing flight and safety control during launch rehearsal and launch.

Other facilities on the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre are the Launch Control Centre, propellant fuelling systems, communications systems for launch command, telephone and data communications for users, and support equipment for meteorological monitoring and forecasting.

The first launch from Xichang took place on January 29, 1984, when the Chang Zheng-3 was launched the Shiyan Weixing (14670 1984-008A) communications satellite into orbit.

On November 19 a Long March-2D launch vehicle is scheduled to launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center carrying several satellites including China’s first first privately designed LEO (low Earth orbit) communications satellite named Jiading-1 or OKW-01, together with two earth observation and technology demonstration satellites for Saudi Arabia (SaudiSAT-5A and SaudiSAT-5B).

Also on board should be the Tianzhi-1, carrying a small cloud computing platform and four domestically made smartphones, and two satellites for National Star Aerospace.


Antares conducts Station cargo launch, no connection to continued Pegasus issues
Saturday, 17 November 2018 01:02

Northrop Grumman Innovation System’s (NGIS’s) Antares rocket has launched the NG-10 Cygnus, named the S.S. John Young, on its way to the International Space Station on Saturday morning from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia.  NGIS officials told NASASpaceflight that the mission’s Antares rocket is not affected by the company’s continued issues with their Pegasus rocket – despite a range of similar systems employed throughout the NGIS rocket family.

Liftoff of Antares occurred early Saturday morning, 17 November, at 04:01:22 EST (0901:22 UTC).

While Antares is not affected by Pegasus, Cygnus’ payload was, however, affected by last month’s crew Soyuz in-flight abort – with 11 CubeSats having to be removed from the Cygnus due to the realigned ISS vehicle launch schedule.

The NG-10 Antares and Cygnus – connection to Soyuz and Pegasus issues:

With its second and final flight of 2018 upon it, Antares lofted the S.S. John Young Cygnus up to the International Space Station with 3,268 kg (7,205 lb) of pressurized cargo and 82 kg (181 lb) of unpressurized cargo.

Launch on Saturday morning came after two weather delays from Thursday and Friday.  NGIS engineers completed final preparations for Antares’ liftoff ahead of coming “on console” at the Launch Control Center for final fueling operations.

Speaking in a one-on-one interview with NASASpaceflight’s Chris Gebhardt, Frank DeMauro, Vice President and General Manager of the Advanced Programs Division for Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, said, “On Cygnus, we’re in really good shape.  We loaded the final bits of cargo on Sunday, then we closed the hatch and did all of our final closeouts.”

Kurt Eberly, Antares Deputy Program Manager for Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, added that Antares’ final rehearsal went very well before the launcher rolled the mile down the road from its integration and checkout facility to the Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops.

Launch is scheduled for 04:01:22 EST (0901:22 UTC) at the opening of a 5-minute launch window timed to place Cygnus into the orbital phasing plane of the International Space Station at the moment its Castor 30XL solid propellant second stage cuts off and inserts Cygnus into orbit.

This was Northrop Grumman’s first launch of Antares since acquiring Orbital ATK in June of this year – and with actually be the company’s first orbital launch since the acquisition; Pegasus was originally to precede Antares in an orbital launch, but continued issues with that rocket’s fin actuator controller have taken the mission’s launch date to “TBD” status.

Given the large-scale cross utilization of avionics and systems across NGIS’s rocket fleet, NASASpaceflight asked NGIS’s Kurt Eberly if that commonality might prove troublesome for Antares.

Antares, with the S.S. John Young Cygnus tucked inside its payload fairing, stand tall on Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Virginia. (Credit: NASA)

The answer was a categorical “no.”

“There’s no sibling impact from Pegasus on this Antares launch because we don’t fly that same actuator controller unit,” noted Mr. Eberly.  “Pegasus does fly a lot of common avionics with our other vehicles, and we have a number of other programs that are flying the same avionics.  But the particular box in question is an actuator controller unit for Pegasus that controls the fin actuators.

“There’s three fin actuators on Pegasus.  And there’s a control unit that’s an electro-mechanical control box.  We do not fly that on Antares, and I’m sure that Cygnus does not either.  There are other common avionics, flight computer, navigator, battery; there’s lots of commonality and that’s, I think, one of our strengths in the launch vehicles division – that we’re able to produce this common hardware.

“We get a lot of run time on it, a lot of flight history, a lot of flight experience with it, and we’re constantly improving it, and we have a real production line going in Chandler, Arizona, that’s cranking out this hardware and software to go with it.”

While Antares is not affected by the ongoing efforts to correct the Pegasus issue, the mission’s Cygnus spacecraft and its associated payload items both inside the craft’s pressurized compartment and with its exterior CubeSats were affected relatively late in the launch processing flow by last month’s crew Soyuz in-flight abort.

CubeSat deployer and its location on the outside of the Cygnus craft. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

“We did have a late manifest change,” said Frank DeMauro.  “One of the things we can do on both the Cygnus side and the Antares side is we have the flexibility to make these swap outs.  In this case, [inside Cygnus] it was relatively straightforward. There were some cargo bags that NASA decided to fly in place of some others.”

Outside Cygnus, 11 ThinSats (CubeSats) were removed from this NG-10 flight because of the Soyuz crew abort and associated reshuffling of the world-wide Station cargo launch manifest.

The reason has to do with the fact that these ThinSats are uncontrolled after their deployment from Cygnus, and that gave NASA pause.

“NASA’s concern was that we could be putting these small satellites into basically the plane of the ISS orbit, and because the Progress 71P [has] moved into the same time frame, they just wanted to be very cautious.  So out of an abundance of caution, they elected to have us de-manifest the ThinSats from NG-10, and we’re gonna give it another go on NG-11” next year, said Mr. DeMauro.

Adding, “We’re super excited about this ThinSat program, and we’ve partnered up with Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and Virginia Space, and we’re flying all these, I think it’s 60, ThinSats that are actually designed and built by schools.  So it’s kind of a little bit of a shame. We [actually] got all that integrated. We did a fit check and a deployment test; we were ready to go.  But we understand.  The primary mission is the most important thing.  And NASA’s concern is that once we deploy [them], they may be so small that they can’t be tracked from the ground radar.”

Antares improvements:

With all things rockets, NGIS is constantly looking to improve its vehicles – even with three extremely reliable and rock-steady flights of the Antares 230 variant under their belt.

An Antares rocket launches from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic regional Spaceport to begin a Cygnus resupply mission to the Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Those three flights have all been “a little bit above nominal but right in family,” noted Kurt Eberly. “We’re really seeing very repeatable performance, no flight anomalies.”  But that doesn’t mean the processes surrounding the vehicles can’t be tweaked and enhanced as new things are understood.

“The one thing that’s kind of an improvement is we’ve actually updated our guidance on the vehicle to accommodate late changes in cargo mass.  Significant changes in cargo mass,” noted Mr. Eberly.

This is a requirement from NASA as part of the CRS2 (Commercial Resupply Services 2) contract for continued cargo missions to the ISS starting in 2019.  But NGIS opted to pull the requirement forward and introduce it as part of their CRS1 Extension contract, of which the NG-10 mission and the S.S. John Young are part.

“Basically, after we turn on the vehicle in the final countdown, we upload through manual entry the mass of the upper stage, including the payload with cargo.  And then we have basically a lookup table that we use to provide the right guidance that corresponds to the uploaded mass on day of launch.

“So that gives us a lot of flexibility.  We had to do a lot of coordination with the Range ahead of time by telling them ‘Hey, if we load it full, here’s where the trajectory could go.  If it’s light, here’s where the trajectory could go’. And we had to analyze all those cases and approve them [ahead of time].”

This is advantageous because, as Mr. Eberly notes, “as long as we’re in those bounds, we’re basically pre-approved for launch.  And that’s gonna help us not just by allowing NASA to have this late adjustment capability and flexibility, but also [because] we’re already approved by the Range for this trajectory scheme; so we don’t have to go through the usual submittals on a mission-specific basis.”

The S.S. John Young:

Given a launch on Saturday morning, Cygnus is undertaking a two phase to the International Space Station, aligning for close approach to the orbital lab for grapple on Monday morning, 19 November – just over 48 hours after launch.

Astronaut John Young pictured walking on the moon during Apollo 16 (left) and in an official crew portrait (right) for the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Program. (Credit: NASA)

Expedition 57 Flight Engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor will grapple Cygnus with the Station robotic arm, known as the SSRMS or the Space Station Remote Manipulator System).  Auñón-Chancellor will be assisted by Station Commander Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency.

Once grappled, Auñón-Chancellor will berth the S.S. John Young to Node-1 Unity’s nadir (Earth-facing) common berthing port.

Speaking to this Cygnus’ name, Frank DeMauro said, “You know of course the storied history by John Young and the astronaut corps.  He flew a multitude of spacecraft, not the least of which was the first Space Shuttle mission.

“For a lot of folks, he was a hero from Apollo, and he absolutely was.  And then for folks from a little bit younger generation he was a hero because he started the Space Shuttle era and had the courage to get into that spacecraft with Bob Crippen and fly it for the first time.

“To us, he personifies courage and support of the human spaceflight program.  I think it’s also worth mentioning that because he was the first pilot of the Space Shuttle and how that played such a major role in building the Space Station, we thought there was really great connectivity there.  So we’re really proud to name it after John Young, and we’ll work hard to do him proud.”


Russia resumes Soyuz-FG rocket, Station flights with Progress MS-10 cargo vehicle
Friday, 16 November 2018 16:58

The Russian Progress MS-10 resupply vehicle for the International Space Station has launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a mission to return the Soyuz-FG rocket variant to flight and resume Russian launches to the Station.  The Soyuz-FG is the same rocket variant that suffered an in-flight failure during the crewed Soyuz MS-10 launch last month.

Liftoff occurred on Friday, 16 November at 13:14:08 EST (1814:08 UTC) – which was 00:14:08 local time on Saturday, 17 November at Baikonur.

Progress MS-10 – Return to Station Flight Operations:

The launch campaign for the uncrewed Progress MS-10 resupply vehicle for the International Space Station represents Roscosmos’ return to ISS flight operations following last month’s crew Soyuz abort at first stage booster separation.

The in-flight abort resulted in the safe recovery of the two crewmembers, a Russian cosmonaut and a NASA astronaut, and briefly grounded the Soyuz rocket family as Roscosmos conducted a customarily quick investigation to determine root cause of the failure.

(Read about that failure and recovery here.)

A Soyuz-FG rocket launches with three crewmembers for the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Since the Soyuz crew abort last month, Roscosmos had launched two Soyuz rockets (both the 2-1b variant) while Arianespace launched a single Soyuz of the ST-B variant.

Friday marked the return of the Soyuz-FG since its October failure, and the flight was in part designed to serve as the final Soyuz return to flight verification mission prior to the resumption of crew launches on the Soyuz-FG currently planned for 3 December.

Originally, Progress MS-10 was set to launch on a different variant of the Soyuz, the 2-1a, but this was changed on 13 August 2018 when the mission was remanifested to use a Soyuz-FG launcher instead.

Soyuz-FG is actually the older of the Soyuz variants when compared to Soyuz 2.

The primary difference is that the Soyuz-FG uses an analog control system which limits its capability while the Soyuz 2 features uprated engines, improved injection systems, and digital flight control and telemetry systems that allow the rocket to be launched from a fixed platform as opposed to the Soyuz-FG which has to have its launch platform physically turned and aligned with the launch azimuth as it is incapable of performing a roll maneuver after liftoff.

Nonetheless, Soyuz-FG and Soyuz 2 are linked as the specific upgrades featured in the Soyuz-FG were originally designed for incorporation with the Soyuz 2.

When some of these Soyuz 2 improvements were ready early, Roscosmos decided to make the Soyuz-FG as an intermediate upgrade between the already-in-service Soyuz-U and the upcoming Soyuz 2.

Originally, the plan was for Soyuz-FG to have a relatively short life before all crew and cargo missions for the International Space Station were transferred to the Soyuz 2-1a.  However, failures of the Soyuz 2 – specifically with uncrewed Progress resupply ships – caused great concern within NASA as to the Soyuz 2’s reliability.

Roscosmos and NASA then entered into agreement that the Soyuz-FG rocket would remain the sole Russian carrier of crew to the ISS for as long as NASA continued to buy seats on the Soyuz.  However, as the date at which NASA will stop using the Soyuz has continued to slip with delays to Commercial Crew, the plan to keep all human launches on the Soyuz-FG changed as well.

As of writing, the switch to the Soyuz 2.1a variant instead of the Soyuz-FG for the crew-carrying Soyuz MS-series spacecraft appears set for the latter half of 2019 when a Soyuz 2.1a rocket will loft a Soyuz MS craft packed with cargo on an uncrewed test flight to the Station.  

Progress MS-10 integration, launch, and docking:

Originally, the Progress MS-10 mission was set to launch on 31 October from the Baikonur Cosmodrome; however, the flight was delayed 17 days following the crewed Soyuz launch abort last month.

With the root cause of the Soyuz-FG failure confirmed, technicians have spent time ensuring that the Soyuz-FG which will loft the Progress MS-10 will not suffer the same issue.

That work was largely completed by 6 November, when technical management at Baikonur confirmed that Progress MS-10 was ready to enter the final stages of launch preparation ahead of integration with its Soyuz rocket.

Following this decision, Progress was filled with fuel and compressed gases over the course of two days, after which the craft was moved into the spacecraft processing facility where final work ahead of encapsulation began.

This included mating the Progress to its Soyuz vehicle adapter, which in turn connects to the top of the third stage of the Soyuz-FG rocket.  After being secured to its adapter, Progress MS-10 was encapsulated inside its payload fairing and then transported by rail to the spacecraft integration facility.

Once there, Progress was connected to the top of the Soyuz-FG rocket’s third stage before the combined spacecraft/third stage was mated to the top of the second stage of the carrier rocket.

Engineers at Baikonur prepare to mate the Progress MS-10 (left) to the third stage (right) of its Soyuz-FG carrier rocket. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Assembly and integration of Soyuz and Progress MS-10 were completed on 13 November, and a launch readiness review cleared the vehicle for rollout to its Site No. 1 launch pad – which occurred on Wednesday, 14 November.

By mid-day local time at Baikonur on Friday, 16 November, all work had been completed ahead of fueling operations and a final clearance to proceed with the launch was issued.

Per the plan, the Soyuz-FG rocket lifted off from site No. 1 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, at 13:14:08 EST (1814:08 UTC) – which was 00:14:08 local time on Saturday, 17 November to begin a two-day orbital rendezvous with the Space Station.

At the time of launch, the ISS was roughly 425 km southwest of the launch pad, passing directly over the launching Soyuz and Progress MS-10 about 22 seconds after liftoff.

Assuming a nominal orbit insertion, Progress MS-10 will arrive at the International Space Station and perform an automated docking to the aft port of the Zvezda Service Module on the Russian segment at 14:30 EST (1930 UTC) on Sunday, 18 November.

Location of the International Space Station at the time of Progress MS-10’s scheduled launch today. (Credit: GoISSWatch app & GoSoftWorks)

In all, Progress MS-10 is the tenth in the new line of Progress spacecraft, the 162nd Progress mission since the program began in 1978 for resupply efforts of the Salyut 6 space station, and the 73rd Progress mission to the ISS, counting the two Progress flights that were not designated as resupply missions because they delivered modules to the Station.

Progress MS-10 (or Progress 71 as it is known to NASA) is also the 70th attempt of a Progress family vehicle to successfully reach the Station following the Progress 44 launch failure in August 2011, the Progress 59 launch mishap in April 2015, and the Progress 65 launch failure in December 2016.


SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Es’Hail-2 from 39A
Thursday, 15 November 2018 12:46

SpaceX launched Qatar’s Es’hail-2 spacecraft Thursday, using a Falcon 9 rocket to place the communications satellite into orbit. Falcon lifted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at the start of a 101-minute window that opened at 15:46 Eastern Time (20:46 UTC). Thursday’s mission used a flight-proven Falcon 9 booster, making its second mission.

Thursday’s launch marked SpaceX’s first mission for the State of Qatar. The Japanese-built Es’hail-2 satellite will be operated by the state-owned Qatar Satellite Company, also known as Es’hailSat. Falcon 9 placed the Es’hail-2 into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, with the satellite expected to then reach its final slot in geostationary orbit under its own power.

Es’hail-2 is the first dedicated Qatari satellite from launch. The Middle-Eastern state’s existing Es’hail-1 satellite was launched as a joint-venture between Es’hailSat and French telecommunications operator Eutelsat, with the Qataris buying-out their partners earlier this year. Es’hail-1, which was formerly also known as Eutelsat 25B, was deployed by a European Ariane 5ECA rocket in August 2013. Stationed at 25 degrees East, the Es’hail-1 satellite was expected to operate for at least fifteen years from launch.

The Es’hail-2 satellite will be located close to Es’hail-1, taking up station at 26 degrees East. Carrying a payload of Ka and Ku-band transponders, the spacecraft will be used for broadcasting and secure communications to Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) devices. Es’hail-2’s footprint gives it coverage of the Middle East and northern Africa.

As well as its commercial transponders, Es’hail-2 carries an amateur radio payload, AMSAT Phase 4A (AMSAT-P4A), which is being flown as a result of a partnership between Es’hailSat, the Qatar Amateur Radio Society (QARS) and Germany’s AMSAT-DL – part of the global amateur satellite radio community.

AMSAT-P4A consists of two transponders: a narrowband transponder for conventional analog communications and a second wideband transponder which will be used for digital communications including the first spaceborne Digital Amateur Television (DATV) beacon. Es’hail-2 will be the first geostationary satellite to carry an amateur radio relay.

Es’hail-2 was constructed by Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric Corporation (MELCO) and is based around the DS-2000 platform. The satellite has a mass of around 3,000 kilograms (6,600 lb) and is designed to operate for at least fifteen years. Twin solar arrays, which will be deployed on orbit, provide power to the spacecraft’s systems and transponders.

Es’hailSat selected American commercial launch provider SpaceX to place Es’hail-2 into orbit. Thursday’s launch took place from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, using a Falcon 9 rocket. Falcon 9 first flew in 2010, and will be making its sixty-third launch on Thursday.

SpaceX’s 39A HIF – photo by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

As well as serving the commercial launch market, Falcon 9 has been used to carry payloads for the US military and NASA – for the latter it has deployed both scientific satellites and cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. From next year, Falcon 9 will begin launching astronauts to the space station aboard the crew version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.

The Falcon 9 rocket is designed to be, at least in part, reusable. While most rockets discard stages and other components after they have served their purpose for a single launch – typically by allowing them to fall into designated areas of the ocean or on land – Falcon’s first stage can fly back to Earth to be refurbished for future missions.

Depending on mission requirements, the first stage can either return to a landing pad at its launch site, or if it does not have enough fuel to return a landing platform – designated an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) can be positioned along its path to receive the booster.

Thursday’s launch made use of a booster that has already flown one mission: Core 1047 was the first stage of a rocket that deployed the Telstar 19V satellite in July, making a successful touchdown aboard the ASDS, named Of Course I Still Love You, after separating from that vehicle.

Telstar 19V launch – by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

Following Thursday’s launch Core 1047 landed on Of Course I Still Love You, which departed Port Canaveral on Monday to be towed into position for the launch.

The Block 5 version of Falcon 9, which was introduced in May and is now being used for all launches, is the first that is capable of making more than two launches. Earlier boosters could only fly twice before either being retired, or simply not recovered after their second launch. However, Core 1047 can be expected to fly again with another payload in the future.

The Es’hail-2 launch was not expected to see an attempt by SpaceX to recover the rocket’s payload fairing. While recovery and re-use of the protective fairing, which encloses satellites during the early stages of launch through Earth’s atmosphere, is SpaceX’s next objective for reusability, the ships that have been supporting their testing are stationed on the West Coast so are not available for Thursday’s launch.

Es’hail-2 launched from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center. This is the same launch pad from which many of the Apollo missions – including the first manned missions to orbit and land on the Moon – began.

KSC 39A ahead of the Bangabandhu-1 launch earlier this year – via Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

Built in the 1960s, the first launch from LC-39A came in November 1967 with the maiden flight of the Saturn V rocket that would carry astronauts to the Moon. Twelve of the thirteen Saturn V launches took place from LC-39A – with only Apollo 10 flying from the backup launch pad at nearby LC-39B.

The Saturn V’s final launch in May 1973 used a modified two-stage version of the rocket to place Skylab, America’s first space station, into orbit.

With the end of the Apollo program, Launch Complex 39 became home to the Space Shuttle. LC-39A was the first pad to become operational, hosting the program’s first launch – Columbia’s STS-1 mission – in April 1981.

This was the first of eighty-two Shuttle launches from LC-39A, ending with the final Space Shuttle launch, Atlantis’ STS-135, which flew in June 2011. The rest of the Shuttle’s 135 missions were flown from LC-39B.

SpaceX and NASA agreed a twenty-year lease for the launch pad in 2014, under which SpaceX has modified the facility to accommodate their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

Unlike Saturn and the Space Shuttle, which were assembled vertically atop a mobile launch platform and then moved to the launch pad, Falcon 9 uses horizontal integration in a new hangar that SpaceX has constructed at the base of the pad’s launch ramp.

In the hours leading up to launch, Falcon is rolled out to the launch pad and raised to the vertical with the aid or a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) or Strongback – now officially cited as the “T/E” by SpaceX.

Thursday’s launch was the fifteenth that SpaceX has conducted from LC-39A – following thirteen previous Falcon 9 launches and February’s maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy. The pad was last used in May for the launch of Bangabandhu 1, with the downtime between launches being used to prepare the complex for future crewed Dragon missions.

Among other work completed this year, SpaceX has finished removing the Shuttle-era Rotating Service Structure (RSS) from the pad and installed a new crew access arm on its Fixed Service Structure (FSS).

LC-39A is one of two launch pads that SpaceX operates on Florida’s Space Coast, alongside Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A third Falcon 9 launch pad is located at Space Launch Complex 4E of California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, serving missions to higher-inclination orbits.

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket which burns RP-1 kerosene propellant oxidized by liquid oxygen. SpaceX began fuelling the rocket about 35 minutes before its planned liftoff, a few minutes after the Launch Director had verified that all necessary conditions are met to proceed with the operation.

RP-1 was loaded into both stages of the rocket, and the first stage oxidizer tanks were filled with liquid oxygen. Loading of oxidizer onto the second stage did not begin for another nineteen minutes. About seven minutes before liftoff, liquid oxygen was pumped through the first stage engines, chilling them in preparation for startup.

The arms that secure Falcon 9 to its T/E opened about four and a quarter minutes before launch. Around thirty seconds later the strongback moved slightly away from the rocket – although it only moved to its fully-retracted position as Falcon lifted off.

In the final minute of the countdown, Falcon’s propellant tanks were pressurized for flight and the rocket’s onboard computers conducted their final checks. The Launch Director gave a final “go” for launch with about forty-five seconds to go, and the first stage’s nine Merlin-1D engines roared to life at the three-second mark in the count. Lifting-off at T-0, Falcon took 32 minutes and 29 seconds to deploy Es’hail-2 into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Falcon 9 launches with Es’hail-2 from 39A – photo by Brady Kenniston.

The first major flight event came about sixty-six seconds after liftoff, when Falcon reached the area of maximum dynamic pressure, or Max-Q. This is the point at which the rocket experiences the greatest mechanical stress due to aerodynamic forces, which increase with the vehicle’s speed, but diminish as it climbs out of the denser lower regions of Earth’s atmosphere.

Falcon’s first stage – Core 1047 – powered the rocket for the first two minutes and 35 seconds of Thursday’s launch. Four seconds after cutoff the first and second stages separated. The second stage’s Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine, a version of the Merlin-1D optimized to operate in the vacuum of space, ignited seven seconds later to continue the journey towards orbit. Sixty-one seconds into the second stage’s burn, the payload fairing separated from the nose of the rocket.

While Falcon’s second stage carried on towards orbit with Es’hail-2, Core 1047 reoriented itself for its return to Earth. Deploying grid fins to guide its descent, the stage coasted to the apogee, or highest point, of its trajectory and fall back towards Earth.

Three minutes and 36 seconds after separating, the stage briefly restarted a subset of its engines to slow itself as it reenters the atmosphere, limiting heating which could cause damage. Just over a minute and a half later the booster fired again to make its landing aboard Of Course I Still Love You. Touchdown occurred eight minutes and 16 seconds after liftoff.

About nine seconds before the first stage landed, the second stage ended its first burn and entered a coast phase. Second Stage Engine Cutoff 1 (SECO-1) came at eight minutes and seven seconds mission elapsed time, with Falcon in an initial low Earth parking orbit. The subsequent coast phase lasted for eighteen minutes and twenty-seven seconds. A second burn lasting fifty-five seconds raised Es’hail-2 into geosynchronous transfer orbit, with the satellite separating five minutes after the end of the second burn.

Thursday’s launch was the first for SpaceX in over a month – the company’s last launch carried Argentina’s SAOCOM-1A satellite to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in early October. SpaceX has four further launches scheduled for 2018, with the next expected on Monday out of Vandenberg. This will carry the multi-satellite SSO-A payload.

East Coast launches planned for December will deploy Dragon’s CRS-16 resupply mission to the International Space Station and the first third-generation GPS navigation satellite for the US Air Force. Another West Coast launch will close the year, carrying ten Iridium-NEXT satellites to complete the initial deployment of the new Iridium constellation.


Indian GSLV rocket launches GSAT-29
Wednesday, 14 November 2018 06:01

India launched the third flight of its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk.III Wednesday, carrying the GSAT-29 satellite into orbit. Liftoff from the Second Launch Pad of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre occurred at 17:08 local time (11:38 UTC).

The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk.III, or GSLV Mk.III, is India’s newest and most powerful rocket. After making a suborbital demonstration launch in late 2014, the rocket made its first orbital mission last June when it deployed the GSAT-19 spacecraft.

Wednesday’s launch was designated D2, indicating that it was the rocket’s second developmental launch, however like last year’s flight its payload – GSAT-29 – is a fully operational satellite.

GSAT-29 is a high-throughput telecommunications satellite that will join the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) fleet in geostationary orbit.

The 3,423-kilogram (7,546-pound) spacecraft was built by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and is based around the I-3K platform. ISRO will also operate the satellite and conducted Wednesday’s launch that placed it into orbit.

GSAT-29 during its integration flow – via ISRO

GSAT-29 will position itself in geostationary orbit over the equator, at a longitude of 55 degrees East. The satellite’s communications payload consists of Ku and Ka-band transponders – producing four spot beams in each band with an additional steerable Ka-band beam – which will be used to serve rural and remote parts of India.

In addition to its primary mission, GSAT-29 will demonstrate new technologies that could be incorporated into future satellites. These include Q-band and V-band payloads, operating at higher frequencies that are not widely used by current satellites, and an optical communications experiment, the Optical Communications Technology Demonstrator (OCT).

GSAT-29 also carries the GEO High Resolution Camera (GHRC), a high-resolution imaging payload equipped with a telescope to photograph the Earth from high above, which will investigate the value of such systems for future geostationary missions.

GSAT-29 up close – via ISRO

GSAT-29 is designed to operate for at least ten years.

Wednesday’s launch saw ISRO take another step towards becoming self-sufficient for launching its own satellites. Its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) already provides India with reliable access to space for Earth observation and scientific missions requiring low orbits or smaller satellites, but the country’s ability to launch communications satellites to vital geostationary orbits has been constrained by the modest payload capacity and poor reliability of the Mk.I and Mk.II GSLV rockets.

Compared to the Mk.I and Mk.II, which were developed from the PSLV, the GSLV Mk.III is a completely new rocket. A three-stage vehicle, it consists of a solid-fuelled first stage comprised of two boosters attached on either side of a liquid-fuelled core, or second stage. A cryogenic third stage completes insertion of the payload into orbit.

On its maiden flight in December 2014, GSLV Mk.III successfully demonstrated its first and second stages. The launch, which included an inert third stage, boosted a prototype capsule on a suborbital test flight in support of India’s plans for future crewed space missions. Two and a half years later, in June 2017, the rocket’s next flight carried GSAT-19 to orbit.

On the GSAT-19 launch, GSLV underperformed slightly, delivering the satellite to an orbit whose apogee was about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles, 540 nautical miles) lower than had been planned – representing a shortfall in velocity of about 13 meters per second (43 feet per second). GSAT-19 was able to correct its orbit using a modified series of orbit-raising burns as it climbed to its final operational orbit. No significant impact on its service life was expected.

GSLV Mk.III launches use the Second Launch Pad (SLP) at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) in Sriharikota, a pad which it shares with PSLV and GSLV Mk.II rockets. GSLV Mk.III is integrated vertically atop a mobile launch platform, in the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Once integration is complete the rocket is rolled out to the launch pad – which took place a week ahead of Wednesday’s flight in order to give time for additional testing due to the mission’s developmental nature.

Wednesday’s launch itself lasted sixteen minutes and 43.5 seconds – beginning with ignition of the first stage at the zero-second mark in the countdown and the immediate liftoff of the vehicle. Targeting geosynchronous transfer orbit, Wednesday’s launch took GSLV East over the Bay of Bengal, on an azimuth of 107 degrees.

GSLV Mk.III’s first stage is comprised of two S200 solid rocket motors that burn hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) propellant. The first stage powered GSLV’s ascent for the first two minutes and 19.16 seconds of flight, after which the two spent motors separated from either side of the rocket.

The L110 second stage is the core of the rocket, with the first stage motors fixed to either side. For Wednesday’s launch the second stage was powered by a pair of High Thrust Vikas Engines (HTVEs), an enhanced version of the Vikas-4B engine that was used for the previous two GSLV Mk.III launches.

This was ISRO’s second launch with HTVE engines – following the use of a single engine on the second stage of a GSLV Mk.II earlier this year. The Vikas series of engines, which are license-built derivatives of the French Viking engine, burn UH-25 propellant (a mixture of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and hydrazine hydrate) oxidized by dinitrogen tetroxide.

The second stage ignited while the first stage was still burning, about 29 seconds before separation, and burned for three minutes and 25.52 seconds. About two minutes after second stage ignition GSLV’s payload fairing separated from around GSAT-29, exposing the satellite to space for the first time.

The fairing is designed to protect the satellite from Earth’s atmosphere during the early stages of ascent, while also maintaining the aerodynamic characteristics of the rocket, but is no longer needed once it reaches space. At fairing separation, GSLV was at an altitude of 116 kilometers (72 miles, 62 nautical miles).

The spent second stage was jettisoned 3.1 seconds after it shut down at the end of its burn. After a further 2.42 seconds the third stage ignited. For the GSLV Mk.III the third stage is a C25, powered by a CE20 engine. This consumes cryogenic propellant – liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen – and made a single burn lasting eleven minutes and 7.26 seconds.

At third-stage burnout, GSLV was traveling at a velocity of 10.21 kilometers (6.34 miles) per second. Fifteen seconds later GSAT-29 separated from the rocket. The target orbit for spacecraft separation is 190 by 35,975 kilometers (118 by 22,354 miles, 103 by 19,425 nautical miles) inclined at 21.5 degrees to the equator. From this initial geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), the satellite will make a series of burns with its liquid apogee motor in order to raise itself into geostationary orbit.
Wednesday’s launch was India’s fifth of 2018 and the only GSLV Mk.III launch planned this year. ISRO has announced an ambitious schedule over the next few months, with a PSLV launch later this month expected to carry the HySIS imaging satellite and a cluster of secondary payloads to orbit.

In December a GSLV Mk.II is slated to launch the GSAT-7A communications satellite, before the next GSLV Mk.III lifts off in January with the Chandrayaan-2 Lunar probe.


PGA engine tests the latest milestone for Stratolaunch
Tuesday, 13 November 2018 15:04

Stratolaunch systems continue to progress towards their first launch by completing the first hot-fire tests of the PGA engine preburner. This milestone marks the beginning of development for Stratolaunch’s in-house rockets that are planned to air launch from their massive carrier aircraft.
The tests are being conducted at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi earlier this month. The full-scale preburner has been tested up to 70 percent power so far, and will be tested further in the coming months, including increases in both duration and power levels.

Powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the engine will efficiently deliver 200,000 pounds of thrust.

By beginning development of their own in-house rocket engine, Stratolaunch continues to move towards launch operations. The full-scale preburner was designed, fabricated, assembled, and tested in less than one year. Stratolaunch called the campaign “one of the fastest engine development programs to date.”

The Stratolaunch propulsion team made additive manufacturing a priority in order to enable this rapid timeline. The preburner is manufactured using 100 percent additive processes.

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft during engine testing – via Stratolaunch

The company was founded in 2011 by the late co-founder of Microsoft Paul Allen with plans for a new air launch system. Since founding, progress has been evident in the incremental testing of the carrier aircraft on the ground. First, the aircraft was brought out of the hangar for the first time to test fuel systems. Engine testing followed, then low speed taxi tests.

As of October, the Stratolaunch aircraft has completed medium speed taxi tests as fast as 70 knots. The company has not yet announced a target date for the first test flight.

These launch architectures differ from traditional vertically launched rockets in that they are carried above the densest part of the atmosphere by a carrier aircraft, before being released to launch to space.

This lowers the cost needed to escape Earth’s atmosphere by utilizing less costly jet fuel and a reusable carrier aircraft. It also avoids many weather restrictions present in lower parts of the atmosphere and offers more flexibility for launch inclinations than fixed launch pads.

The Stratolaunch carrier aircraft is the largest aircraft in the world by wingspan and is powered by six jet engines from Boeing 747 airliners. Stratolaunch will release each launch vehicle at an altitude of 35,000 feet.

The vehicle will then pitch upwards to climb above the rest of Earth’s atmosphere while gaining enough horizontal velocity to achieve orbit. Stratolaunch is planned to operate primarily from Mojave Air and Space Port, the same spaceport as Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, but can conduct operations elsewhere to reach any orbit desired.

Initial plans called for a large carrier aircraft to air launch a heavily modified SpaceX Falcon 5 rocket. The carrier aircraft was built by Scaled Composites, known also for SpaceShipOne, the spaceplane that completed the first private crewed spaceflight, and Virgin Galactic’s White Knight Two carrier plane used to launch SpaceShipTwo spacecraft.

Render of the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft with three Northrop Grumman Pegasus rockets – via Stratolaunch

The rocket to be used for initial missions is now Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket, which has successfully completed 38 launches to date. Northrop Grumman currently launches Pegasus from a Lockheed L-1011 airliner, and now plans to launch up to three Pegasus rockets during a single flight aboard Stratolaunch’s carrier aircraft. This also means missions to multiple inclinations can be launched in a single flight.

The rocket motors for two Pegasus vehicles arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base earlier this year. Pegasus offers only 370 kg of payload to low Earth orbit, putting Pegasus in the same class as Rocket Lab’s vertically launched Electron rocket, as well as Virgin Orbit’s air-launched LauncherOne, in development.

Rendering of the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft, Pegasus rockets, Medium Launch Vehicles, and reusable spaceplane – via Stratolaunch

Starting in 2022, Stratolaunch plans to utilize their in-house Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV). The PGA powered MLV offers 3,400 kg to Low Earth Orbit. A tri-core version, the MLV Heavy, will offer up to 6,000 kg to LEO.

These vehicles would be in the small to medium lift class, outlifting Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur-C and Arianespace’s Vega launchers.

Stratolaunch is also studying the possibility of launching a reusable space plane that would initially launch cargo, followed by launching crew to orbit. This concept does not yet have an expected payload capacity or launch date.


Rocket Lab launches first operational Electron mission
Saturday, 10 November 2018 06:01

Rocket Lab has performed the first operational flight of its Electron rocket, named It’s Business Time.  The mission launched six satellites, two for Spire Global, two new additional passengers for Fleet Space Technologies via the lofting of two ‘Proxima’ satellites, one for GeoOptics Inc., and one for Irvine CubeSat STEM Program. It also launched one technology demonstrator for High Performance Space Structure Systems GmbH.  The rocket was to liftoff in June before a stand down requiring a realignment into November. The launch window opened at 03:00 UTC on Sunday morning, before launching at 03:50 UTC.

It’s Business Time countdown and flight profile:

With It’s Business Time on its seaside launch pad at the southern tip of the Māhia Peninsula on the Northern Island of New Zealand, the stage was set for the company’s first operational flight of its Electron rocket following two test flights, one in May 2017 and one earlier this year in January 2018.

At T-7 hours, Rocket Lab’s launch team went on console at the Launch Control Center to monitor the final activities ahead of liftoff.  All roads to the launch site were closed at the T-6 hour mark; this was followed by engineers lifting Electron vertical and fueling the rocket with RP-1 (rocket-grade) kerosene at T-4 hours and counting.

The launch pad was evacuated of all personnel at T-2 hours 30 minutes, and loading of Electron with Liquid Oxygen (LOX) commenced at the T-2 hour mark.  This was followed at the T-1 hour mark with the commencement of the local aviation authority advising aircraft traffic of the launch and the launch hazard areas in an effort to prevent the range from becoming fouled by air traffic ahead of an anticipated on-time lift off.

Final polling of the team and verification of the vehicle’s and ground systems’ conditions, final preparations for launch began at the T-10 minute mark, with the autosequence commencing and Electron’s onboard computers initiating the launch sequence at T-2 minutes and counting.

Ignition of the nine Rutherford engines at the base of Electron’s first stage were commanded by the rocket’s onboard computers at T-2 seconds.  All nine engines ramped up to full thrust and underwent health checks before the vehicle was released from the launch pad at T0.

Based on the computer systems and Electron’s command response capability, had the need to abort the countdown occur after engine start, an abort can be triggered as little as 0.1 seconds before liftoff – with the onboard systems reacting in enough time to prevent the release of Electron from the pad and the safe shutdown of the nine Rutherford engines.

The liftoff occurred from Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula – New Zealand’s first orbital launch site and the world’s first privately operated orbital launch site.

After lifting off, Electron pitched downrange onto an azimuth that inserted the vehicle into an 85 degree inclination orbit.  After 2 minutes 42 seconds of flight, the first stage’s nine Rutherford engines shutdown, followed three seconds later by Stage 1 separation.

View from an on-board second stage camera of the Electron “Still Testing” rocket during its successful launch in January 2018. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

The second stage, powered by a single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine, ignited at T+2 minutes 48 seconds, and the payload fairing separated shortly thereafter at T+3 minutes 6 seconds.  At T+9 minutes 12 seconds, Electron will reached orbit; its second stage shutdown three seconds later at a total Mission Elapsed Time of 9 minutes 15 seconds.

Five seconds after Stage 2 shutdown, the second stage separated from the third stage, the Curie kickstage.  At this point, Electron and its payloads were in a 500 x 250 km (310 x 155 mile) orbit inclined 85 degrees to the equator.

The Curie kickstage and five payload elements will then coast for 41 minutes 41 seconds before the kickstage ignites at T+51 minutes 1 second.  The Curie burn will last for 1 minute 6 seconds, ending at T+52 minutes 7 seconds, to circularize the orbit ahead of payload separation.

During the entirety of the launch phase, should the need to terminate the mission arise, a flight termination command can either be manually sent from the ground or automatically executed by the rocket’s onboard computers.  For Electron, a flight termination event would result in a command being sent to shut down the Rutherford engines – a flight termination option known as thrust termination.

It’s Business Time Payloads:

In all, It’s Business Time carried seven payload elements, six satellites and one technology demonstrator, to orbit on Electron’s first operational flight.  The mission itself is a rideshare between several separate entities and showcases Electron’s diverse rideshare capability on the small satellite launch market.

A LEMUR-2 satellite in orbit. (Credit: Spire Global)

According to Rocket Lab, the initially planned total payload mass for this flight was just over 40kg (88 lb), much less than the 225kg (496 lb) payload maximum and 150kg (331 lb) nominal payload mass Electron is capable of taking to a 500 km sun-sync orbit.  This allowed – during the stand down from the previous attempt to add the two Fleet satellites to the manifest.

They joined two LEMUR-2 satellites, a single satellite for GeoOptics Inc., the IRVINE01 CubeSat, and NABEO for High Performance Space Structure Systems GmbH.

The two LEMUR-2 satellites, named LEMUR-2-ZUPANSKI and LEMUR-2-CHANUSIAK, are being launched for the data and analytics company Spire Global.  Spire previously launched two LEMUR-2 satellites on the previous Electron flight, Still Testing, back in January 2018. These two new LEMUR-2 satellites will join Spire’s constellation of more than 50 nanosatellites currently in Low Earth Orbit.

LEMUR-2 satellites are used by Spire Global for Automatic Identification System (AIS) vessel tracking data to monitor ship movements over the most remote parts of the globe.  The satellites also employ GPS Radio Occultation to monitor weather. In a first for Spire Global, the two LEMUR-2 satellites launching on It’s Business Time will be the first for the company to employ Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) to enable Spire’s AirSafe aircraft tracking service.

These are the 74th and 75th LEMUR-2 satellites launched for Spire Global and the 78th and 79th overall nanosatellites to be launched for the company since their first small satellite was launched in 2013 and deployed later that year from the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station.

Joining the LEMUR-2 satellites was a single satellite for GeoOptics Inc.  The satellite was built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems in Irvine, California – the first of two collaborations from Tyvak launching on It’s Business Time.

The second is the IRVINE01 CubeSat – which Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems provided engineering support and served as the integration partner for.  IRVINE01 itself is a collaboration between 150 high school students from six Irvine schools as part of the Irvine CubeSat STEM Program and was funded by private sector donations to the Irvine Public Schools Foundation.

The Irvine CubeSat STEM Program is a collaboration between Irvine Public Schools Foundation, Irvine Unified School District, and the Tustin Unified School District to train and inspire the next generation of STEM professionals, is comprised of students from six public high schools in the City of Irvine (Beckman, Irvine, Northwood, Portola, University, and Woodbridge), and carries the objective to assemble, test, and operate a nano-satellite in Low Earth Orbit.

Through this project, students develop and practice STEM skills in technical documentation and communication, project management, hardware and software, mechanical and electrical subsystems, programming, radio and optical communications, and data analysis.  Students also gain technical skills through hands-on experience and mentorship from industry professionals as well as invaluable skills such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork.

IRVINE01 mission patch. (Credit: Irvine CubeSat STEM Program)

IRVINE01 was the first attempt to successfully launch a high school-built CubeSat in California and on the West Coast of the United States and will allow students to operate the CubeSat to position its antennae, solar panels, and camera for optimal operation as well as collect data that students can practice evaluating and share for further study.  

Specifically, IRVINE01 carries a low-resolution camera that will take pictures of Venus, stars, and other celestial objects, with the images used to calculate distances to stars and determine pointing accuracy and stability of the satellite.

The final payload element is a technology demonstrator: NABEO, a drag sail technology demonstrator designed and built by High Performance Space Structure Systems GmbH that will test the ability to passively deorbit inactive, small satellites using atmospheric drag.

The NABEO demonstrator launched on It’s Business Time will use a small sail, an ultra thin membrane, that will be tightly coiled within the spacecraft for launch and then deployed once the satellite reaches the end of its operational lifespan.

The Electron “Still Testing” rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

The reflective, ultra-thin membrane panels will unfold to a 2.5 square meters (8.2 square feet) size and will subsequently increase the spacecraft’s surface drag against atmospheric particles present at its operational altitude.

The greater drag will pull the satellite back to Earth faster than would normally occur, enabling a quicker deorbiting of the spacecraft, thereby reducing the amount of space junk in LEO.  The hope is that this type of system could be incorporated on future spacecraft to aid in the responsible use of Earth orbit by eliminating space junk when satellites reach the end of their operational lives.


SpaceX set to return to launch action amid LSP status upgrade
Friday, 09 November 2018 20:11

After several weeks without a launch, SpaceX is set to return to action next week with the static fire and launch of Es’hail 2 – a telecommunications satellite for the Qatar Satellite Company. Meanwhile, SpaceX was recently certified to fly the most valuable scientific payloads in NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP).

The last SpaceX launch was on October 6th, when a Falcon 9 successfully sent SAOCOM 1A into orbit. A several week gap between launches has been a rarity for SpaceX in 2018.

Next week’s mission – Es’hail 2 – will tie SpaceX’s 2017 record of 18 launches in a single year with four more launches still remaining in 2018 after this upcoming mission.

The Falcon 9 will place Es’hail 2 into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) – before the Mitsubishi built spacecraft utilizes its onboard thrusters to reach its final destination.

The routine pre-launch static fire test for the mission is currently scheduled for November 11th.

During the static fire test, a fully fueled Falcon 9 rocket will ignite its nine Merlin engines for a few seconds to validate that all systems on the vehicle are operating nominally.

After the static fire, SpaceX will perform a quick data review before confirming the launch date.

If all goes well, that date is expected to be November 15th with a window opening at 15:46 Eastern (20:46 UTC) and closing at 17:29 Eastern (22:29 UTC).

The Es’hail 2 mission will be SpaceX’s first from LC-39A since Bangabandhu-1 in May. Since then, the launch complex has been undergoing renovations to support NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Notably, the Crew Access Arm is clearly visible on the pad’s Fixed Service Structure (FSS).

39A CAA and 39A Transporter Erector during testing last week – via L2

Following the Es’hail 2 launch, the first stage booster will perform a landing on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) in the Atlantic Ocean.

Just four days later, SpaceX will launch Spaceflight Industries’ SSO-A mission from Vandenberg. The launch will feature dozens of small satellites for various customers with the payload adapter and mission services provided by Spaceflight.

Importantly, the first stage booster used to perform the mission is believed to be B1046.3. If so, it would make the launch the first to feature the same Falcon 9 first stage flying for the third time.

While the Falcon 9 booster is capable of landing at Landing Zone 4 during this mission, such a recovery will not be possible due to a conflict with the range.

In this case, the conflict is the Delta IV Heavy and its NROL-71 payload which are scheduled to launch from SLC-6 on November 29th.

SLC-6 is located downrange from SpaceX’s SLC-4E launch site.

While SpaceX’s launch profile is not a significant risk to SLC-6, the landing trajectory poses a greater risk to the downrange facilities.

As a result, a land landing during the SSO-A launch would only be permitted if it were to occur after the Delta IV Heavy launch.

Example of ULA and SpaceX launch pad locations – via Jack Beyer composite photo showing a Delta (II) launch and a Falcon 9 launch – via L2

Therefore, SpaceX is currently planning to recover the first stage on the droneship Just Read the Instructions (JRTI) – pending FCC approval.

The instantaneous launch window for SSO-A is at 10:32 Pacific (18:32 UTC).

After that mission, SpaceX will return to the east coast. CRS-16 – a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station – is scheduled to launch from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 4th at 13:38 Eastern (18:38 UTC).

Teams will then quickly turnaround the SLC-40 launch complex for the GPS III-1 launch on December 15th. The window for that mission opens at 9:24 Eastern (14:24 UTC).

CRS-15 launches on a Falcon 9 – via Nathan Baker for NSF/L2

A first stage recovery will not be attempted during that mission.

Finally, SpaceX will wrap up 2018 with the eighth and final Iridium NEXT launch on December 30th from Vandenberg. The instantaneous launch window for Iridium-8 is at 8:38 Pacific (16:38 UTC).

Following launch, the first stage booster – designated B1049.2 – will perform a landing on JRTI in the Pacific Ocean.

Also in December, the Falcon 9 which will launch Demonstration Mission-1 (DM-1) is expected to go vertical on LC-39A for pre-launch checkouts, according to SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell’s recent comments at the AOPA High School Aviation STEM Symposium.

DM-1 is an uncrewed test flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It will help certify SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

Currently, the DM-1 mission is tentatively scheduled to occur no earlier than January 8th, 2019, per L2 information. The exact target date is expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks.

DM-1 – the first flight of Dragon 2 – launches on a Falcon 9 – as envisioned by Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

Additionally, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft passed NASA’s standard review for visiting vehicles in late October – an important milestone ahead of the DM-1 launch.

The space agency is also gaining confidence with the Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA LSP recently certified the Falcon 9 as a Category 3 launch vehicle.

According to SpaceX, “Category 3 launch vehicles are certified to support NASA’s highest cost and most complex scientific missions.”

The LSP scorecard of vehicle category – via NASA LSP

Shotwell added, “LSP Category 3 certification is a major achievement for the Falcon 9 team and represents another key milestone in our close partnership with NASA. We are honored to have the opportunity to provide cost-effective and reliable launch services to the country’s most critical scientific payloads.”

Such certification will allow SpaceX to compete with United Launch Alliance for NASA LSP’s Category 3 missions.


Spaceflight ships 12 satellites to India for PSLV launch
Thursday, 08 November 2018 20:20

Rideshare launch provider “Spaceflight” has announced 12 of it customer satellites have been shipped out of Seattle and are heading to India’s Satish Dhawan Space Center for a launch on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket later this month. Spaceflight – also involved with an upcoming SpaceX launch this month – noted that using a variety of global launch vehicles allows them additional manifest flexibility.

The upcoming launch of the PSLV C43 mission – currently scheduled to take place on November 26-27 – will see a multitude of small satellites riding on the Indian rocket. Spaceflight confirmed to NSF that the vehicle will be flying in its CA (Core Alone) configuration.

India’s space agency, ISRO, will be launching HySIS (hyperspectral imaging satellite) on this mission, which will gaze over the country from 630 km in 55 spectral bands.

“‘Hyspex’ imaging will enable the distinct identification of objects, materials or processes on Earth by reading the spectrum for each pixel of a scene from space,” noted ISRO. “The payloads development center, Space Applications Center, Ahmedabad, designed the architecture of the chip which was made at ISRO’s electronics arm, the Semi-Conductor Laboratory, Chandigarh. The result was a detector array that could read 1000 x 66 pixels.”

HySIS will be classed as the primary payload. However, up to 30 satellites from overseas customers will be riding alone for deployment.

Spaceflight noted 12 of the satellites are under its stewardship, with the integration of most of the payloads taking place at its Seattle integration facility. The payloads are currently en route to PSLV’s launch facility at India’s Satish Dhawan Space Center.

Payloads aboard the mission include Fleet Space Technologies’ Centauri I, Harris Corporation’s HSAT, Spire’s LEMUR satellites, and BlackSky’s Global-1 microsatellite.

“In addition to securing capacity aboard the launch vehicle, Spaceflight executed the integration of most of the payloads at its Seattle integration facility. The payloads are currently en route to PSLV’s launch facility at India’s Satish Dhawan Space Center for a launch in late November,” noted Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight on Thursday.

“This is Spaceflight’s seventh launch with PSLV and following this mission, we will have sent 66 spacecraft to orbit aboard PSLV rockets. We value our partnership with such a reliable launch vehicle provider. PSLV’s routine launches enable us to provide satellite developers access to space and meet the growing demand from the smallsat industry.”

Australian Internet of Things (IoT) startup, Fleet Space Technologies, is hoping to launch two nanosatellites, Centauri I and II in the coming weeks. Both launches are under contract with Spaceflight.

Centauri render from Fleet.

Over the coming years, the Australian business will create a constellation of nanosatellites to create a scalable, global network to help connect many of the 75 billion sensors expected to dot the world over the next decade.

The nanosatellites will bring mass-scale efficiencies for industries such as agriculture, mining, and logistics by enabling businesses to gather complex, revealing data to improve operations.

The other launch will take place via a ride on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the SSO-A mission – which involves the lofting of 64 small satellites.

Spaceflight render of the SSO-A configuration

Should current schedules hold, the launch of Centauri II on the Falcon 9 will occur about a week ahead of the PSLV launch of Centauri I.

“The launch of our satellite is a huge milestone and we are thrilled to work alongside some of the world’s leading space innovators,” said Fleet Space Technologies co-founder and CEO Flavia Tata Nardini. “Spaceflight and launch vehicle providers such as PSLV, are helping to enable frequent and reliable access to space, which will be critical as we continue to build our constellation.”

Spaceflight’s involvement in both missions with different rockets from different countries was cited as part of their overall plan, utilizing numerous launch vehicles to allow for additional manifest flexibility.

Apart from the PSLV and soon the Falcon 9, Spaceflight works with Antares, Dnepr, Electron, Vega, Soyuz, and is set to be involved with Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.

The company noted that working with a range of vehicle providers increases flexibility and provides satellite developers a broad range of launch options should delays occur. Additionally, the smallsat rideshare service model helps organizations reach a desired orbit at a much lower cost than buying their own launch vehicle.

Spaceflight has negotiated the launch of more than 150 satellites on behalf of its customers and has contracts to deploy nearly 100 more through the remainder of 2018.



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