Category Archives: space

Astronauts land safely after Soyuz launch fails at 20 miles up

A fault in a Soyuz rocket booster has resulted in an aborted crew mission to the International Space Station, but fortunately no loss of life. The astronauts in the capsule, Nick Hague (U.S.) and Alexey Ovchinin (Russia) successfully detached upon recognizing the fault and made a safe, if bumpy, landing nearly 250 miles east of the launch site in Kazakhstan. This high-profile failure could bolster demand for U.S.-built crewed spacecraft.

The launch proceeded normally for the first minute and a half, but at that point, when the first and second stages were meant to detach, there was an unspecified fault, possibly a failure of the first stage and its fuel tanks to detach. The astronauts recognized this issue and immediately initiated the emergency escape system.

Hague and Ovchinin in the capsule before the fault occurred.

The Soyuz capsule detached from the rocket and began a “ballistic descent” (read: falling), arrested by a parachute before landing approximately 34 minutes after the fault. Right now that’s about as much detail on the actual event as has been released by Roscosmos and NASA. Press conferences have been mainly about being thankful that the crew is okay, assuring people that they’ll get to the bottom of this and kicking the can down the road on everything else.

Although it will likely take weeks before we know exactly what happened, the repercussions for this failure are immediate. The crew on the ISS will not be reinforced, and as there are only 3 up there right now with a single Soyuz capsule with which to return to Earth, there’s a chance they’ll have to leave the ISS empty for a short time.

The current crew was scheduled to return in December, but NASA has said that the Soyuz is safe to take until January 4, so there’s a bit of leeway. That’s not to say they can necessarily put together another launch before then, but if the residents there need to stay a bit longer to safely park the station, as it were, they have a bit of extra time to do so.

The Soyuz booster and capsule have been an extremely reliable system for shuttling crew to and from the ISS, and no Soyuz fault has ever led to loss of life, although there have been a few issues recently with DOA satellites and of course the recent hole found in one just in August.

This was perhaps the closest a Soyuz has come to a life-threatening failure, and as such any Soyuz-based launches will be grounded until further notice. To be clear, this was a failure with the Soyuz-FG rocket, which is slated for replacement, not with the capsule or newer rocket of the same name.

SpaceX and Boeing have been competing to create and certify their own crew capsules, which were scheduled for testing some time next year — but while the Soyuz issues may nominally increase the demand for these U.S.-built alternatives, the testing process can’t be rushed.

That said, grounding the Soyuz (if only for crewed flights) and conducting a full-scale fault investigation is no small matter, and if we’re not flying astronauts up to the ISS in one of them, we’re not doing it at all. So there is at least an incentive to perform testing of the new crew capsules in a timely manner and keep to as short a timeframe as is reasonable.

You can watch the launch as it played out here:

SPACE Administration would streamline federal oversight of commercial launches

As part of an ongoing effort to improve the regulatory conditions weathered by companies doing business in space, the Commerce Department has proposed to unify several offices under a new banner: the Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise Administration.

The Trump administration offered hints, but few hard details, on how it aims to streamline federal oversight of space in a statement issued this week. Space Policy Directive 1 had to do with pursuing missions to the moon and Mars, and Directive 2 is more about housekeeping.

Part of that housekeeping directs Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross Jr to “transmit a plan to create a ‘one-stop shop’ within the Department of Commerce for administering and regulating commercial space flight activities,” and he seems to have been eager to comply.

“At my department alone, there are six bureaus involved in the space industry. A unified departmental office for business needs will enable better coordination of space-related activities,” Ross wrote. “When companies seek guidance on launching satellites, the Space Administration will be able to address an array of space activities, including remote sensing, economic development, data-purchase policies, GPS, spectrum policy, trade promotion, standards and technology and space-traffic management.”

Some of these changes have been talked about for a while, so this shouldn’t come as a shock to the offices affected. In fact, they may be pleased to hear it. Space regulation is a mire of interdepartmental memos and red tape, and U.S. leadership in the launch and satellite industry has arguably been in spite of it, not because of it.

Unifying a few offices is a start, but it will take more than administrative shuffling to clear out the regulatory cobwebs. This new administration alone will need to be permanently established by Congress, funded, and oversight assigned. And the work of synchronizing, deduplicating, and otherwise improving our space policy across all the various branches of government will be the work of many years, not a season.

SpaceX rocket will make a pit stop 305 miles up to deploy NASA satellites before moving on

Tuesday is the planned launch for a SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying two payloads to orbit — and this launch will be an especially interesting one. A set of five communications satellites for Iridium need to get to almost 500 miles up, but a NASA mission has to pop out at the 300 mile mark. What to do? Just make a pit stop, it turns out.

Now, of course it’s not a literal stop — the thing will be going thousands of miles per hour. But from the reference frame of the rocket itself, it’s not too different from pulling over to let a friend out before hitting the gas again and rolling on to the next destination.

What will happen is this: The rocket’s first stage will take it up out of the atmosphere, then separate and hopefully land safely. The second stage will then ignite to take its payload up to orbit. Usually at this point it’ll burn until it reaches the altitude and attitude required, then deploy the payload. But in this case it has a bit more work to do.

When the rocket has reached 305 miles up, it will dip its nose 30 degrees down and roll a bit to put NASA’s twin GRACE-FO satellites in position. One has to point toward Earth, the other toward space. Once in position, the separation system will send the two birds out, one in each direction, at a speed of about a foot per second.

The one on the Earth side will be put into a slightly slower and lower orbit than the one on the space side, and after they’ve spread out to a distance of 137 miles, the lower satellite will boost itself upwards and synchronize with the other.

That will take a few days, but just 10 minutes after it sends the GRACE-FOs on their way, the Falcon-9 will resume its journey, reigniting the second stage engine and bringing the Iridium NEXT satellites to about 485 miles up. There the engine will cut off again and the rest of the payload will be delivered.

So what are these high-maintenance satellites that have to have their own special deployments?

The Iridium NEXT satellites are the latest in a series of deployments commissioned by the space-based communications company; they’re five of a planned 75 that will replace its old constellation and provide worldwide coverage. The last launch, in late March, went off without a hitch. This is the only launch with just five birds to deploy; the previous and pending launches all had 10 satellites each.

GRACE-FO is a “follow-on” mission (hence the FO) to GRACE, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, and a collaboration with the German Research Centre for Geosciences. GRACE launched in 2002, and for 15 years it monitored the presence and changes in the fresh water on (and below) the Earth’s surface. This has been hugely beneficial for climate scientists and others, and the follow-on will continue where the original left off.

The original mission worked by detecting tiny changes in the difference between the two satellites as they passed over various features — these tiny changes indicate how mass is distributed below them and can be used to measure the presence of water. GRACE-FO adds a laser ranging system that may improve the precision of this process by an order of magnitude.

Interestingly, the actual rocket that will be doing this complicated maneuver is the same one that launched the ill-fated Zuma satellite in January. That payload apparently failed to deploy itself properly after separating from the second stage, though because it was a classified mission no one has publicly stated exactly what went wrong — except to confirm that SpaceX wasn’t to blame.

The launch will take place at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 12:47 tomorrow afternoon Pacific time. If it’s aborted, there’s another chance on Wednesday. Keep an eye out for the link to the live stream of this unique launch!

Lost In Space is coming back for a second season

Netflix today announced that it will release a second season of Lost In Space, the big-budget sci-fi program that debuted in April.

The series is a revamp of the original show from the 1960s. Season One, which included 10 episodes, follows the Robinson family on their journey from Earth to Alpha Centauri. Along the way, they stumble across extraterrestrial life and a wide array of life-or-death situations.

Many of the elements from the original show have been reimagined, not least of which being the role of Mr. Smith going to Parker Posey, who plays the delightfully wicked villain.

We reviewed the show on the Original Content podcast in this episode, and struggled to find any meaningful flaws.

Check out the latest featurette for Star Wars: A Solo Story

On May 25, the latest installment of the Star Wars theatrical franchise will drop in theaters.

Shooting Star Wars: A Solo Story hasn’t been all roses, with Ron Howard stepping in to take over for directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller and reshooting many scenes. But the show must go on!

Yesterday, Lucasfilm released a featurette with interviews from the cast and crew talking about the making of the film and Han Solo as a character.

The featurette also includes some new footage beyond what we’ve seen in the trailers, such as Han fighting alongside Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), alongside previously teased scenes like the train heist on Vandor and the scene where Han Solo wins the Millenium Falcon from Lando (Donald Glover).

Central to the featurette, and the film in general, is that the story takes place in a type of world we haven’t seen yet on Star Wars, where the galaxy is completely under the control of the Empire, Howard reminds us. These circumstances push Han Solo, already a free spirit, to become the character we’ve come to know and love.

Check out the featurette below:

EarthNow promises real-time views of the whole planet from a new satellite constellation

A new space imaging startup called EarthNow aims to provide not just pictures of the planet on demand, but real-time video anywhere a client desires. Its ambition is matched only by its pedigree: Bill Gates, Intellectual Ventures, Airbus, Softbank, and OneWeb founder Greg Wyler are all backing the play.

Its promise is a constellation of satellites that will provide video of anywhere on Earth with latency of about a second. You won’t have to wait for a satellite to come into range, or worry about leaving range; at least one will be able to view any area at any given time, so they can pass of the monitoring task to the next satellite over if necessary.

Initially aimed at “high value enterprise and government customers,” EarthNow lists things like storm monitoring, illegal fishing vessels (or even pirates), forest fires, whale tracking, watching conflicts in real time, and more. Space imaging is turning into quite a crowded field — if all these constellations actually launch, anyway.

The company is in the earliest stages right now, having just been spun out from years of work by founder and CEO Russell Hannigan at Intellectual Ventures under the Invention Science Fund. Early enough, in fact, that there’s no real timeline for prototyping or testing. But it’s not just pie in the sky.

Wyler’s OneWeb connection means EarthNow will be built on a massively upgraded version of that company’s satellite platform. Details are few and far between, but the press release promises that “Each satellite is equipped with an unprecedented amount of onboard processing power, including more CPU cores than all other commercial satellites combined.”

Presumably a large portion of that will be video processing and compression hardware, since they’ll want to minimize bandwidth and latency but don’t want to skimp on quality. Efficiency is important, too; satellites have extremely limited power, so running multiple off-the-shelf GPUs with standard compression methods probably isn’t a good idea. Real-time, continuous video from orbit (as opposed to near-real-time stills or clips) is as much a software problem as it is hardware.

Machine learning also figures, of course: the company plans to do onboard analysis of the imagery, though to what extent isn’t clear. It really makes more sense to me to do this on the ground, but perhaps a first pass by the satellite’s hardware will help move things along.

Airbus will do its part by actually producing the satellites, in Toulouse and Florida. The release doesn’t say how many will be built, but full (and presumably redundant) Earth coverage means dozens at the least. But if they’re mass manufactured standard goods, that should keep the price down, relatively speaking anyway.

No word on the actual amount raised by the company in January, but with the stature of the investors and the high costs involved in the industry, I can’t imagine it’s less than a few tens of millions.

Hannigan himself calls EarthNow “ambitious and unprecedented,” which could be taken as an admission of great risk, but it’s clear that the company has powerful partners and plenty of expertise; Intellectual Ventures doesn’t tend to spin something off unless it’s got something special going. Expect more specifics as the company grows, but I doubt we’ll see anything more than renders for a year or so.

SpaceX to build its massive BFR in Los Angeles

The mayor of Los Angeles confirmed earlier reports that SpaceX will build its largest rocket, the BFR, at the Port of Los Angeles. The company intends to build a manufacturing facility on an 18-acre site at Berth 240 and use waterways to transport the massive rocket. SpaceX says the BFR is simply too big to be transported by roads.

Announced last September SpaceX intends for the reusable BFR to eventually replace its Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy rockets. It could eventually ferry humanity to Mars or used for point-to-point transportation on Earth.

“As announced today by Mayor Garcetti, the Port will play an increasingly important role in our mission to help make humanity multi-planetary as SpaceX begins production development of BFR — our next generation rocket and spaceship system capable of carrying crew and cargo to the Moon, Mars and beyond.” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and COO, said in a statement.

SpaceX has used the port for its west coast recovery operations since 2012. There were widespread reports that the company was looking to drastically expand its operations at the location. This announcement confirms those reports.

The Los Angeles Harbor Commission must now approve the facility. If given the green light, SpaceX says it has the potential of employing 700 people.

Xprize is relaunching its Moon challenge without Google, but they need a new sponsor

The deadline for Google’s Lunar Xprize passed just days ago without a winner, but the lengthy 10-year competition to send a robot to the Moon’s surface had known for months that none of the five teams were ready for launch by the extended deadline of March 31, 2018. As a result, back in January, Google announced it was taking its $30 million in prize money back, leaving the exciting challenge with a bit of an anticlimactic end.

Xprize is back however, announcing today that the show will go on without a cash award or Google support, though they’re looking for a new sponsor to step in and float the prize for the Xprize.

“We are extraordinarily grateful to Google for funding the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE between September 2007 and March 31st, 2018. While that competition is now over, there are at least five teams with launch contracts that hope to land on the Lunar surface in the next two years,” said Xprize founder Peter H. Diamandis, M.D. in a statement. “Because of this tremendous progress, and near-term potential, XPRIZE is now looking for our next visionary Title Sponsor who wants to put their logo on these teams and on the lunar surface.”

The big focus of the whole scenario was to give private companies a chance and major incentive to join the host of government orgs that had landed a craft on the Moon. Xprize says that Google’s pledge and support eventually netted the teams involved as much as $300 million in investment to fund the missions.

Though Google Lunar Xprize stretched on through many deadline extensions only to end without a winner, with this new launch competition, the organization hopes they can capture the public’s imagination once again while hopefully soon also capturing the support of a mega-donor to put their name on the competition.

“At this point, we don’t want to give up on these teams, these teams are going to make it,” Diamandis said.

 

NASA grants Lockheed Martin $248M contract to develop a quieter supersonic jet

The Concorde was a generation ago, yet its legend persists — and the dream of supersonic flight may be returning. NASA and Lockheed Martin are taking concrete steps toward the creation of jets that travel faster than the speed of sound but are “about as loud as a car door closing.”

NASA announced today that it has awarded Lockheed a juicy $247.5 contract to produce a single “X-plane,” or experimental plane, meeting certain requirements by the end of 2021. The company created a preliminary design under a previous contract.

Much of the engineering is up to Lockheed, of course, but in the end the single-pilot craft will travel at some 940 MPH at high altitude — 55,000 feet — and produce around 75 perceived decibels (compared with the Concorde’s 90) at ground level.

Of course it will be louder up close — you can’t run engines and split the air at that speed without making a racket, and this thing is using a fighter jet engine. A big problem with supersonic flight was that the sonic boom made it too loud to fly over populated areas. (The Concorde had more problems than that, but the boom was part of it.)

But there’s been a great deal of research (dramatic NASA video here) into improving the aerodynamics of a supersonic craft and carefully designing every contour to control the inevitable pressure waves it creates. This new plane will be the first to test many of those principles.

Once the craft is delivered at the end of 2021, assuming everything plays out according to schedule, NASA will start flight tests and collect community responses. Presumably that means asking if they heard anything unusual that day.

That data will be passed on to regulators as support for new rules on supersonic flight — which could in turn give the aerospace industry the green light to develop practical applications.

As you can see there’s a long way to go before a quiet supersonic jet is even built and tested, but the work is underway.

SpaceX launch will bring science and supplies to ISS and return with a glitchy Robonaut

Update: Launch and deployment successful!

SpaceX is set to launch its 14th resupply mission to the International Space Station, sending up a lightly used Dragon capsule filled with goodies at 1:30 PST. In addition to the delivery, this Dragon will also take back some cargo: the malfunctioning Robonaut 2, which apparently bricked itself sometime during the last few months.

This will be the second flight for this Dragon capsule, which last visited the station two years ago on CRS-8; the Falcon 9 rocket it’s launching atop of is also being reused today for CRS-14. This will be the latter’s final flight, though: it’s not being recovered.

You can watch the launch live right here:

Inside are the usual food and other necessities, along with some interesting experiments. The Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor will watch thunderstorms for interesting electric phenomena like sprites and elves, gigantic jets and blue glimpses. Yes, those are real electric phenomena.

“Elve”

In-space fabrication will be getting an update with a brand new HP 3D printer made for microgravity, but also an experiment in sintering-based additive manufacturing.

The challenge of microgravity also extends to biology, and a metabolic tracking project will look into how it affects various medicines. Another experiment looks at ways of delivering nutrients to plants that are used to having gravity help out.

The Dragon capsule will stay attached to the ISS for about a month while things are loaded and unloaded, including the ailing Robonaut 2. This experimental robot platform has been up there for years, but recently developed some kind of fault — perhaps an electrical short, speculated a NASA scientist at a press conference Sunday.

The team in space doesn’t seem to have the tools or time to figure it out, so Robonaut 2 is heading home to be fixed by its terrestrial maintenance workers. It should fly back up in a year or so, and in the meantime the denizens of the station will enjoy a little extra space.

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