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SSME returns as AR-22 for rapid reuse demonstration, fired ten times in ten days
Friday, 20 July 2018 19:54

Aerojet Rocketdyne successfully completed a nearly two-week long rapid-turnaround test-firing demonstration of a Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) on July 6 at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Primarily built from hardware long in storage, the parts rebuild of the reusable engine is called the AR-22 and it is being qualified for use in the Experimental Space Plane (XSP) vehicle that is being designed and built by Boeing for the U.S. military Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The XSP is intended to evaluate a launch vehicle that can be operated on a daily basis to deliver small class payloads. Boeing is developing a reusable plane as a first stage booster that will launch vertically like a rocket, using a single AR-22 engine from Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The plane can carry an expendable upper stage payload out of the atmosphere and up to speeds of Mach 10, release the payload, and then glide back to Earth and land conventionally.

Ten tests in ten days

Also known as the Phantom Express, a key capability targeted for the XSP is rapid reuse. The vehicle will be powered by a single AR-22 engine and the goal of the test series was to demonstrate that it could be hot-fired every 24 hours for ten consecutive days.

“This test campaign that we just finished, which is the firing of 10 [times] in 10 days, was a significant ‘go/no-go’ milestone for us in order for us to move forward with the program,” Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA’s Program Manager for XSP, said during a teleconference on July 10. “We needed to show that the main propulsion system, the AR-22, could in fact support rapid turn operations.”

AR-22 engine in mainstage operation during firing on July 1. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne.

“What you’ll see is that we were extremely successful. We completely destroyed previously held records of how you deal with a liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen type engine and shattered this idea that these types of engines can’t be used in a very operable and very aircraft-like way.”

The demonstration test series began with a 100-second test firing in the A-1 test stand at Stennis on June 26 and was successfully completed on July 6. “We scored a perfect ‘ten’ last week,” Jeff Haynes, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Program Manager for AR-22, said.

“We broke down the ten days into 240 hours, that’s from the start of the first test to the end of the last test and we had sixty-eight minutes to spare when we finished the last test.”

The test team worked around the clock to accomplish the objective, dodging both typical Summer thunderstorms and more organized, tropical system-like weather.

“We did have Mother Nature intervene on a couple of occasions where we had two very direct lightning strikes to the test facility,” Haynes noted. “Those resulted in some level of damage to the facility that we had to scramble and repair to stay on track to complete the test series.”

“Which we did,” he added, “and that’s really a testament of the blended test approach team that we had with NASA, the S3 (Syncom Space Services) contractor, DARPA, and Aerojet Rocketdyne all pulling together with two twelve-hour shifts round the clock 24/7 to get this done.”

AR-22 engine begins July 2nd test in A-1 test stand at Stennis. Credit: Philip Sloss for NSF/L2.

Haynes also noted that the average turnaround time between tests was about eighteen and half hours, with the shortest time being seventeen hours from one test to the next.

The primary challenge to restarting the engine so quickly following last use was drying out all the hardware. “When we test fire the engine it generates a large amount of moisture within the internal cavities of the engine and trying to run the engine again without drying that out would lead to catastrophic events,” Haynes explained.

“So when we initially looked at drying the engine, it took about seventeen hours so the team got together and did some pretty innovative concepts and ideas to get it down. One of the test series we got as low as six hours to get it completed through drying and out to inspections.”

“This vehicle due to the turnaround time, we did limited inspections,” Haynes added. “We did do some borescope [inspections], we did some torque checks on some of the turbomachinery, and we did nozzle leak checks and things like that, but we did not do the typical Shuttle profile of pulling the pumps from the engine and doing a detailed inspection in that regard.”

“We have significant instrumentation that allows us to know when we are getting into issues and we have redlines that allow us to abort in that scenario, so we felt running this up to those points would be sufficient and it was successful, so that is the approach we’re taking going forward.”

During the Space Shuttle era, the engines would typically run for around eight minutes in flight and for similar durations in ground testing; for this rapid turnaround test series, the AR-22 was fired for 100 seconds per test.

“We only need less than 20 seconds to show that the engine can run, go through steady-state and get thermally-stable,” Haynes explained. “We’re pushing it out this time to get 100 seconds to show that capability exists to go through the 10 times we need to do it to get that durability on the engine proven, as well.”

Exhaust cloud dissipating following AR-22 test on July 2. Credit: Philip Sloss for NSF/L2.

For the test-series, the engine went through a simpler throttle profile than Shuttle for the shorter tests. “We would start to 100 percent thrust and then throttle down typically to about 90 percent,” Haynes said.

“This vehicle, the Phantom Express, only required that level of performance out of this singular engine to achieve the mission profile. We were able on the last test to throttle to 80 percent, which at sea-level there are some challenges with going below that because of the way atmospheric pressure occurs on the engine.” Throttling down below 80 percent thrust at sea-level would cause damaging flow separation in the nozzle.

For XSP flights, the engine run-times will vary based on the performance needed for the payload. “Every mission, trajectory, and profile is going to be a little bit different, but generally less than half the amount of time it would run for a Shuttle ascent,” Steve Johnston, Boeing Phantom Works Launch Director, said. “So on the order of three minutes or so, in that ballpark.”

The last hot-fire test ran for an additional forty-seven seconds to demonstrate a new capability developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne that could allow engines to recover from some failure conditions rather than triggering an immediate abort and shutdown.

“We introduced a health management system that is new to this engine, it’s called Advanced Anomaly and Command and Control Center, AC3,” Haynes explained. “We actually tricked the engine into thinking it was experiencing a red-line condition, which under the Shuttle program would have been an immediate shutdown of the engine.”

“We allowed our new software to throttle down the engine automatically, assess the situation, and then do a step-wise recovery of the thrust profile in a matter of seconds to get back to the full throttle. So the engine accomplished this and we were able to keep the engine running, which for this vehicle would be an important reliability feature to have.”

Phantom Express overview

Boeing’s Phantom Works Division is the prime contractor for the Phantom Express. The glideback booster will weigh approximately 240,000 pounds when fueled. It is designed to be able to carry an expendable upper stage up to speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10.

DARPA’s requirement is for the system to be able to deliver at least 3000 pounds to orbit. “We are targeting a little bit more capability than that — our current estimate is about 5000 pounds,” Johnston noted. “Our payload performance varies depending upon what orbital inclination you’re flying, so it varies from three to five-thousand pounds depending upon what altitude and inclination you’re targeting.”

After deploying the upper stage, the booster is an unpowered glider. For lower speed deployments, it will flyback to a landing field at the launch site; for higher speed deployments that take it beyond range of a return to the launch site, it can land on runways downrange.

Artist concept of resuable XSP booster during ascent. Credit: Boeing.

The booster will fly autonomously, using Global Positioning System (GPS) for guidance and navigation. “It’s not using any of the local aircraft type recovery systems — no ILS (Instrument Landing System), no PAR (Precision Approach Radar), no localizer,” Wierzbanowski noted.

The rapid turnaround engine demonstration was a major test in Phase 2 of the program, which continues with design and construction of the booster vehicle and integration of the expendable upper stage. Phase 3 will see flight testing of the system, beginning with test flights of the booster itself, then carrying payloads.

Phase 3 is planned to include a similar rapid turnaround demonstration of the vehicle, flying it and turning it around ten times in ten days.

Fabrication of vehicle subassemblies is already underway, with tank construction going on in the Seattle, Washington, area. “This is a collaborative effort within Boeing between our defense and commercial airplanes and our enterprise technology business,” Johnston said.

“The same facility up in the Puget Sound area that developed the original technology for the 787 composite fuselage sections is currently fabricating for us our liquid oxygen tank. That liquid oxygen tank is complete through layup and cure, it’s going through inspection now.”

“The next step after that will be the development of our liquid hydrogen tank and with those two things combined we’ll have about two-thirds of the length of the vehicle fabricated,” he added. In addition, construction of the wings is going on in at Boeing facilities in St. Louis, and software is being developed at facilities in Southern California.

Johnston noted that the program is progressing towards an overall critical design review (CDR) next year: “We’ve completed some our component-level CDRs and we’re progressing into our subsystem-level critical design reviews next month in August and will be culminating with our final system-level CDR in early 2019.”

“After that we’ll enter into assembly, integration, and test of the vehicle starting in the middle of next year and we intend to conduct our first flight in 2021.”  Still to be decided by Boeing are the locations of vehicle final assembly and launch and landing operations.

AR-22 next steps

Meanwhile at Stennis, Aerojet Rocketdyne is assembling a second AR-22 engine from heritage SSME hardware.

For XSP, the decision was made to use the SSME design like other “off-the-shelf” parts. “All of the hardware that comprised this engine was previously flown hardware,” Haynes said.

“The scope of this program was not to design or augment or improve the hardware design, it is flight-proven hardware that we took from different engines and assembled it into this single engine for this test series. And that’s the approach going forward.”

Aerojet Rocketdyne technicians finishing assembly of the first AR-22 engine in late May at AR’s Stennis facility. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The one exception to using heritage hardware on the AR-22 is the engine is using new engine controller units (ECU) already developed by Honeywell for use on the Space Launch System (SLS).

“Early in the program we had to make a decision if we went with the legacy controller or the new Honeywell upgraded controller for SLS,” Haynes said. “We made that decision to go with the Honeywell new controller and we were able to acquire a loan agreement from the NASA program, SLS, to loan that to us to use for this.”

SLS is using a separate derivative of the SSME called the RS-25, which is undergoing new development to build new engines more affordably for expendable use. “SLS is using Block II hardware, so they are exclusively limited to that design configuration of the engine,” Haynes noted.

AR-22 on the aft of the vehicle – via DARPA

“This engine [AR-22] is not limited to Block II, we have the flexibility to pull in prior engine design capability and put that into the engine build for this particular engine. There’s assets available to us that SLS does not have available to them.”

“We have access to hardware to assemble a number of engines for this program, we have two planned and there’s multiple replications of that that are capable,” he added.

The SSME went through a series of upgrades through the decades that allowed it to be certified for reuse in an expanded operating range; in contrast, the AR-22 is intended to operate at the original 1970s SSME rated power level (RPL) of 375,000 pounds thrust at sea level, 470,000 pounds thrust at vacuum, referred to as 100 percent. “We have flight demonstrated capability with fleet leader experience on different components of this engine, this nozzle for example had fifty-seven starts on it, so we’re looking at the compiled engine capability,” Haynes noted.

High-level chart showing evolution of the SSME design. Credit: NASA.

“Running it at 100 percent power level or less actually gives us a lot of margin in that regard. Shuttle ran at 104 and a half [percent] and up to 109, so running at the lower power levels we’re looking at the extension of the fleet leader overhaul and repair intervals that we have on the engine right now.”

The second engine is intended to fly on the Phantom Express vehicle, with the first retained as a backup. Next year, it will go into the A-1 stand for two hot-fire acceptance tests to verify the hardware is ready for integration with the vehicle.


SpaceX to attempt five recoveries in less than two weeks as fleet activity ramps up
Thursday, 19 July 2018 18:45

Begining July 22nd, SpaceX is currently scheduled to perform three Falcon 9 droneship recoveries, a fairing recovery, and a Dragon recovery in less than two weeks. A total of five recoveries in short succession paves the way for an unprecedented amount of activity from SpaceX’s fleet of recovery vessels.

The fleet operates out of the Port of LA in California to support Vandenberg launches and Port Canaveral in Florida to support Cape launches. Dragon recoveries are also executed out of the Port of LA.

In total, the current fleet consists of one Fast Supply Vessel (FSV), four smaller crew boats, and two Autonomous Spaceport Droneships (ASDS or droneship). Additionally, a tugboat is also required to tow each ASDS.

The SpaceX fleet of vessels in Port Canaveral. Credit: Julia Bergeron

The boats are owned and operated by other companies for SpaceX – a common practice in the maritime industry.

First Stage Recoveries:

When a Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy core is unable to return to land due to the mission’s requirements, SpaceX will often position an ASDS downrange to allow for a first stage recovery. While the ASDS is the landing platform, it is not the only ship required to enable a recovery.

First of all, the droneships do not make the journey out to sea by themselves. They only operate autonomously when holding their position ahead of a landing attempt. As a result, the droneships are towed by a tug when being transported to and from the landing location.

Over the past year, the tugboat Hawk has been supporting nearly all of the Cape based missions which utilized the droneship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY). The only exception to this were the two most recent OCISLY recoveries.

The tug Rachel arrives in Port Canaveral towing OCISLY. The booster on the droneship is B1046 – the first Block 5 core. Credit: Julia Bergeron

During the TESS and Bangabandhu missions, Hawk was in Tampa Bay for maintenance. Therefore, the tug Rachel was utilized. Hawk has since finished her maintenance and is towing OCISLY for the upcoming landing attempt during the Telstar 19V mission. The launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than July 22nd.

As far as the west coast goes, the tugboat which pulls the droneship Just Read the Instructions (JRTI) has never been consistent. Furthermore, there has not been a JRTI landing since October 2017. Therefore, it is a complete mystery as to which tug will be used for the landing during the Iridium-7 mission on July 25th.

Apart from the tugboats, a crew boat is also needed to support the droneship recoveries. These vessels house the crew needed to secure the rocket post-landing. The boats also gather telemetry from the booster. The ship NRC Quest is used to support JRTI and GO Quest supports OCISLY.

For a typical mission, the droneship will leave port 3-4 days in advance of the landing attempt. The tugboat typically pulls the ASDS at approximately 6-8 knots. The crew boat is capable of traveling at a faster 8-10 knots, and thus sometimes leaves port a few hours after the droneship.

A tug tows JRTI back to port with NRC Quest accompanying after the Iridium-3 mission. Credit: Sam Sun for NSF L2

When returning from a successful landing, the crew boat will accompany the droneship back to port so that the crew can assist the booster.

The crew boats may also be used when no landing is attempted, as SpaceX will often elect to perform experimental recovery tests during expendable missions. Therefore, the vessel will be deployed to collect telemetry from the later portions of the test when the Falcon 9 is out of range from the ground-based tracking stations.

As for the droneships themselves, while OCISLY has been regularly used over the past several months, JRTI has been out of action. This has been due to SpaceX’s regular use of flight-proven boosters for Vandenberg based missions. SpaceX has elected not to refly Block 3 and Block 4 cores more than once. Consequently, the boosters have been expended on their second flight.

The Iridium-7 launch will see JRTI return to action after approximately eight months on the sidelines. The mission will feature B1048 – a new Block 5 core.

On the east coast, fleet watchers have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASoG). SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced on Twitter earlier this year that a new droneship was under construction to support Falcon Heavy missions where both side boosters require a droneship.

OCISLY in Port Canaveral. Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF L2

Additionally, having two east coast droneships would enable a faster launch cadence. Afterall, it can take over a week for OCISLY to support a single recovery attempt. Therefore, if SpaceX wants to perform two missions requiring an ASDS landing in a short period of time, another droneship would be required.

However, it is now understood that the construction of ASoG has been temporarily paused.

The pause makes sense when considering SpaceX’s 2019 manifest. Earlier this year, the company’s president Gwynne Shotwell told CNBC that next year will see a decrease in the company’s launch cadence. The slip is due to a decline in the number of large geostationary communications satellites needing a launch.

Missions to a geostationary transfer orbit make up the majority of launches requiring a droneship recovery. Therefore, it is unlikely that two east coast droneships will be needed to support Falcon 9 over the next year or two.

Furthermore, there are also no known Falcon Heavy missions which would require the side boosters to land on droneships. With this in mind, there does not appear to be a short-term need for ASoG.

That being said, it is understood that ASoG remains part of SpaceX’s long-term plans.

Dragon Recoveries:

Currently, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsules return to Earth via parachute and splash down in the Pacific Ocean. They are then hoisted aboard NRC Quest – the same crew boat used to support JRTI.

The CRS-4 Dragon prepares for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX

Next, after being unloaded at the Port of LA, Dragon is sent to SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor Texas. From there, Dragon returns to the Cape for its next mission.

To simplify the process, for the upcoming Dragon 2 missions, SpaceX will look to return the Dragon capsules off the east coast of Florida. This will allow Port Canaveral based GO Searcher to return the capsule, crew, and cargo to a location closer to the launch site.

At Cape Canaveral, SpaceX is currently constructing a new Dragon processing facility near the company’s landing zones. The new facility will eliminate the need to transport the capsule across the country after each mission.

Satellite imagery of the SpaceX landing zones and Dragon processing facility construction via Planet Labs.

However, while the preferred landing location will be off the east coast of Florida, SpaceX will still have the option of returning the capsules to the Pacific Ocean in the event that weather is not acceptable in the Atlantic.

Additionally, SpaceX is also looking into the option of landing the capsules in the Gulf of Mexico for additional flexibility. Earlier this year, the company filed for an FAA Reentry license to enable this possibility.

To support the important Crew Dragon missions, GO Searcher has been undergoing modifications. It recently returned to Port Canaveral with a large dome on its bridge – likely a new tool to aid the recovery process.

GO Searcher with her new modifications. Credit: Marek Cyzio for NSF

On top of that, a few new structures have been built on GO Searcher’s deck which may potentially be used to house Dragon’s crew post-landing.

GO Searcher has been working with NASA to refine the recovery process for crewed missions. Several training sessions with a mock Crew Dragon capsule have been held off the coast of Florida. These sessions will help ensure that GO Searcher is prepared for the first east coast Dragon landing.

Currently, the first Dragon mission to land on the east coast is not confirmed. However, the most likely candidate is the first Dragon 2 flight designated Demonstration Mission-1 (DM-1). The mission is an uncrewed test flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew program and scheduled to launch later this year.

Fairing Recoveries:

In 2018, SpaceX has significantly ramped up their efforts to recover the fairing which protects the payload during launch. To do so, SpaceX plans to capture the fairing halves in a large net attached to a vessel.

Half of a payload fairing returns to Earth via parachute. Credit: Elon Musk

For Florida launches, GO Pursuit has been deployed to support every launch featuring a fairing. However, the vessel is not equipped with a net, and therefore a full recovery is not possible. That being said, GO Pursuit can still monitor the fairing halves as they descend and lift them aboard after a soft splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

On the west coast, SpaceX has their first ship which is designed for the full recovery. The boat – named Mr. Steven – features a large net designed to catch the fairing halves. Musk describes the vessel as a “catcher’s mitt in boat form.”

Starting with the PAZ mission from Vandenberg last February, Mr. Steven has made an attempt at a catch on each west coast mission. To date, three full fairing recovery attempts have been made – all of them unsuccessful.

However, while Mr. Steven is yet to catch a fairing, SpaceX is making progress.

In recent launches, SpaceX has made noticeable improvements in the parafoil system which controls the fairing halves as they descend through the atmosphere. GO Pursuit and Mr. Steven are now regularly returning intact fairing halves to port albeit wet.

Mr. Steven at Berth 240 in the Port of LA. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF L2

To increase the odds of success in the future, Mr. Steven has been undergoing modifications at the Port of LA to allow for a net four times as large as the previous version. The construction has been taking place at Berth 240 – the same Berth which SpaceX has recently leased to build the next generation BFR rocket (Big Falcon Rocket).

So far, the modifications have progressed at a rapid pace with four new arms and a net all being assembled in a matter of days. Therefore, the new hardware is ready in time for the next Vandenberg launch on July 25th, when a Falcon 9 will launch the Iridium-7 mission.

In the meantime, Mr. Steven’s crew have been performing practice recovery operations. Data available on MarineTraffic.com showed that Mr. Steven performed what appeared to be a test run on June 28th, 2018.

Interestingly, a NOTAM was filed with the FAA for the location of Mr. Steven, potentially signaling that a fairing half may have been dropped from a helicopter as part of the test. Musk had previously stated on Twitter that fairing drop tests were going to be performed, but did not specify if Mr. Steven would be involved. However, it is known that the net construction was not completed at the time. Therefore, Mr. Steven’s crew would have had to let the fairing hit the water before collecting it.

NRC Quest was also in the vicinity of the apparent test – potentially to help monitor the results.

While Mr. Steven has performed numerous test runs in the past, this was the first to appear to have a corresponding NOTAM and the first to have NRC Quest accompanying Mr. Steven.

More recently, Mr. Steven has been conducting practice sessions with the addition of the new net. MarineTraffic data has shown Mr. Steven executing numerous tight turns and dramatic changes of speed. Additionally, a drone video has also been captured which shows Mr. Steven operating in reverse.

Brian Herbert, a Senior Dynamic Positioning Officer (SDPO) on a Well Intervention Vessel has had personal interactions with Mr. Steven and its crew before SpaceX leased the ship. NASASpaceflight.com interviewed him last February to learn more about Mr. Steven’s capabilities. He stated that “the vessel’s maneuverability, large deck size, and high rate of speed would be her best assets in a fairing recovery operation.”

Herbert also explained that Mr. Steven has three modes of control. The first mode is manual controls which can be used with “main propulsion to travel at a high rate of speed and steer like a ship.” Next, Dynamic Position (DP) mode is where “a computer system operates the thrusters and propulsion system to hold a location or make maneuvers.”

“The third method is Joystick mode, where the vessel operator (Captain or mate) uses a joystick to operate the thrusters and propulsion systems in unison – giving the vessel commands along 3 axes using the joystick controller.” It is this mode that Herbert believes is the best suited for a fairing recovery operation.

Once SpaceX has refined the fairing recovery process using Mr. Steven, the next step will be to enable recoveries on the east coast. The amount of ships needed is not yet known, as it has not been confirmed if Mr. Steven is capable of recovering both fairing halves in one mission or if two ships are needed for a full recovery.

However, it is highly unlikely that GO Pursuit is capable of being converted into a fairing recovery ship. This is due to the vessels slower top speed and smaller size relative to Mr. Steven.

If only one ship is needed for a recovery, then SpaceX would simply need to add one more ship to their fleet. If two ships are needed, SpaceX will have to add three new boats to their fleet – one on the west coast and two on the east coast.

Five recoveries in two weeks:

Between July 22nd and August 3rd, SpaceX is currently scheduled to perform five recoveries (three Falcon 9 first stages, one Dragon, and one fairing) and two fairing collection tests in less than two weeks.

Hawk prepares to depart Port Canaveral with OCISLY ahead of the Telstar 19V mission. Credit: Julia Bergeron

Wednesday morning, Hawk towed OCISLY out of Port Canaveral and began the journey down range to support the first stage landing during the Telstar 19V mission on July 22nd. GO Quest and GO Pursuit also left port a few hours later.

As usual, GO Quest will be supporting OCISLY during the first stage landing. GO Pursuit will perform additional fairing recovery testing by attempting to collect the fairing halves after they splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. As GO Pursuit is not capable of catching a fairing half like Mr. Steven, this event is not counted as a full recovery attempt.

Following the Telstar 19V mission, Hawk, OCISLY, GO Pursuit, and GO Quest will race back to port to unload the rocket hardware and prepare for their next recovery operation during the Telkom-4 (Merah Putih) mission. Telkom-4 is scheduled to launch on August 2nd, and the east coast recovery fleet will perform a nearly identical operation to the Telstar 19V mission. If the schedule holds, less than eleven days will separate Telstar 19V and Telkom-4 – making this SpaceX’s fastest turnaround of a droneship.

Mr. Steven will attempt the first fairing recovery with an enlarged net during the Iridium-7 mission. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF L2

In the meantime, SpaceX’s west coast fleet will be supporting the Iridium-7 recoveries on July 25th. During this mission, the first stage will attempt to land on JRTI which will be assisted by the crew boat NRC Quest. Additionally, Mr. Steven will attempt to recover a fairing half. This fairing recovery attempt will be the first with Mr. Steven’s larger net and the first to be executed in darkness.

Furthermore, the Iridium-7 launch will also be the first to feature both first stage and fairing recovery attempts.

Finally, following the Iridium-7 mission, NRC Quest will race back to port to prepare for the final recovery of the two week period. The Dragon capsule from the CRS-15 resupply mission will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on August 3rd. Following the splashdown, NRC Quest will lift Dragon onto her deck before returning the spacecraft to the Port of LA.


Second Falcon 9 Block 5 static fires ahead of Telstar 19V launch
Wednesday, 18 July 2018 13:00

Just over two weeks after their previous launch, SpaceX is again preparing their Falcon 9 rocket for launch, this time for the Telstar 19 Vantage mission to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The second Block 5 Falcon 9 – which includes the unflown core 1047 – conducted a Static Fire test SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral at around 5 pm Eastern on Wednesday.

The launch is currently scheduled to occur on July 22 in a four-hour window stretching from 1:50 AM to 5:50 AM Eastern. Should the current schedules hold, the launch will be the beginning of a 12-day period containing 3 Falcon 9 launches, which includes the launches of Telstar 19V, Iridium NEXT flight 7, and Telkom 4.

This 12-day period will also see an unprecedented 7-day turnaround for SLC-40, from the Telstar 19V launch on July 22 to the Telkom 4 static fire on July 29.

This 7-day turnaround is SLC-40’s estimated minimum turnaround time after its renovation following the Amos-6 on-pad conflagration in September 2016.

The static fire test is one of the most important milestones leading up to a SpaceX launch.

The static fire is a rehearsal of the launch to ensure that the rocket, launch pad systems, range, and flight controllers are ready and will perform well for the launch.

Static fire of a Falcon 9 on Launch Complex 39A. Credit: SpaceX

Before the test, pad engineers roll the vehicle – minus the payload and its fairing – onto the pad and raise it vertical. The tanks are then filled with fuel and a short burn of the 9 first stage Merlin 1D engines occurs.

After the test, SpaceX engineers and flight controllers begin reviewing the data from the test, and after a “quick look” review, announce on Twitter whether or not the test was a success.

The fuel tanks are then drained, and the vehicle rolls back into the hangar for payload integration.

The vehicle being prepared for the static fire is the second Block 5 Falcon 9 and includes the first stage core 1047.

Block 5 is the final version of the Falcon 9, intended to be rapidly and inexpensively reused. The first stage is designed to be reused once every 48 hours, with only inspections between every flight. After a booster performs ten flights, it then undergoes a more in-depth refurbishment before returning to service – and may perform up to 100 flights before retirement.

A drone captures the first launch of a Block 5 Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

Block 5 debuted on May 11, 2018 for the Bangabandhu-1 mission. The launch was a complete success, with the Bangabandhu-1 satellite being deployed into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), and the first stage landing successfully on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY).

Core 1047 will also land on OCISLY during this mission as SpaceX resumes regular first stage landings. For the past seven missions reusing a Block 3 or Block 4 first stage, SpaceX opted to expend the first stages, as they could only be flown two times.

Core 1047 was first seen on the first stage test stand at SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas on April 18, 2018, while being prepared for a long-duration static fire test.

Core 1047 on the first stage test stand at McGregor, Texas. Credit: Gary Blair for NSF/L2

After testing in McGregor was complete, 1047 was transported via road to Cape Canaveral to begin preparations for the Telstar 19 Vantage mission. These preparations included attaching the landing legs and grid fins, mating the first stage with the second, and integrating the vehicle onto the strongback.

The final preparations will include mating Telstar 19 Vantage and the payload fairing onto the vehicle after the static fire is complete.

Telstar 19 Vantage is be a geostationary communications satellite owned and operated by Telesat. It was built by Space Systems/Loral after being awarded the contract in November 2015. The satellite will have coverage across South America, North America and the northern Atlantic Ocean, with one Ka-band antenna and one Ku-band antenna.

Telstar 19V will be co-located with Telesat’s older Telstar 14R satellite.

Telstar 19 Vantage weighs approximately 5.4 metric tons, which means the first stage will be able to land on Of Course I Still Love You.

Block 5 first stage B1046 on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You. Credit: Marek Cyzio for NSF L2

After this mission, there will be around 14 Falcon 9 launches and 1 Falcon Heavy launch left this year, depending on mission delays.

The next launch will be the seventh Iridium NEXT flight for Iridium Communications. It will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base SLC-4E No Earlier Than (NET) July 25  using first stage core 1048, the third Block 5 core.


Blue Origin push New Shepard safety regime with successful ninth test
Wednesday, 18 July 2018 12:13

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket conducted its ninth test flight on Wednesday with a launch that pushed the vehicle to its limits – in order to satisfy safety parameters, whilst also carrying numerous payloads in the capsule. The launch from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas occurred at 15:11 UTC – with the test campaign now in the final leg ahead of carrying paying customers.

New Shepard is the first of a potential line of vehicles for Blue Origin. The rocket and crew capsule system is aimed at the suborbital tourism market, allowing paying customers to enjoy into a few minutes of zero-G flight prior to a parachute-assisted landing.

Claims in the media – which haven’t been verified by Blue Origin – note Jeff Bezos’s company is going to charge between $200,000 and $300,000 per ticket for the short suborbital flight.

The test campaign began in 2015, and despite the loss of the first booster, the second flight in November 2015 kick-started a successful run of test flights.

That second flight saw the New Shepard booster lofting its Crew Capsule to an altitude of 329,839 feet before returning under powered control to an upright landing – marking the first time a suborbital rocket successfully landed after a straight-up/straight-down flight.

Flight profile for Flight 9 – via Blue Origin

By the seventh test, the campaign featured a new next-generation booster – powered by its BE-3 engine – and the first flight of Crew Capsule 2.0, a spacecraft that featured real windows, measuring 2.4 x 3.6 feet.

The test flight also carried 12 payloads and even a passenger – specifically an instrumented dummy brilliantly named “Mannequin Skywalker”.

The previous test flight, the eighth overall, saw the capsule reach 351,000 feet – making this a record flight altitude for the spacecraft.

These latest tests were also designed to push the booster to its limit, which led to Blue Origin noting the potential they could lose the booster, not least during the focused testing on the escape system, centered around a solid motor firing for two seconds to fly the capsule free of a failing booster.

However, all tests – from test 2 to test 8 – have seen the booster return for a safe pinpoint landing, followed shortly after by the capsule parachuting to a landing site nearby.

The testing on Flight 9 was also without any ill effects for the booster or spacecraft in that once again focused on the safety systems.

Abort motor firing on the capsule.

“We’ll be doing a high altitude escape motor test – pushing the rocket to its limits,” noted Blue Origin ahead of the test.

How this will differentiate from the previous safety test appeared to relate to the period of flight this firing took place and the duration after the booster and capsule had parted ways.

The risk was the abort solid impinging on the booster, sending it off course ahead of its return. However, the booster came back to land without any issues.

Numerous payloads flew in the spacecraft during the test, ranging from international customers, such as Thailand’s “mu Space-1” – which includes an assortment of scientific and medical items, several textile materials they plan to use on their future space suit and apparel, and other special articles for their community partners – through to a suite of payloads from Blue Origin employees as a part of their internal “Fly My Stuff” program.

Several NASA payloads rode along, such as SFEM-2 – which was first flown on Mission 8 of New Shepard, and collected additional data on Mission 9. The experiment recorded vehicle conditions including cabin pressure, temperature, CO2, acoustic conditions, and acceleration.

While testing with New Shepard continues, work on Blue Origin’s next vehicle, the New Glenn is pressing on, albeit mainly away from the attention of the media.

With the production facility at Exploration Park all-but ready to start producing New Glenn hardware, work is also now taking place on the LC-11 and LC-36 pad facilities from which the rocket will be tested and launched from.

The latest view of Blue Origin’s Florida launch site – via L2

LC-11 will be used to test fire New Glenn engines, while LC-36 will be the launch site for the orbital rocket that is being placed to take on other vehicles in its class, such as those from SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

Blue Origin continue to take 2020 for the maiden flight of the New Glenn rocket, which like its smaller sister New Shepard, will include a booster that will return for reuse.

Although Blue Origin is yet to provide details, it is understood the company has already purchased the first landing ship for returning New Glenn boosters.

Blue Origin is also expected to eventually add an even bigger rocket to its family, the Super Heavy vehicle called New Armstrong. However, that is not expected until deep into the 2020s.


Parker Solar Probe, ULA enter final pre-launch processing marathon
Tuesday, 17 July 2018 19:32

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is in its final, home-stretch of processing prior to its scheduled launch which is now No Earlier Than (NET) 6 August 2018 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket.  The mission, which will be humanity’s first to “touch the surface of the Sun”, is preparing for encapsulation inside its payload fairing at the Astrotech processing facility in Titusville, Florida – after which it will be mated to the top of the launch vehicle.

Launch site preparations began in earnest in July and August 2017 with the arrival of the three Common Booster Cores of the Delta IV rocket that form the first stage of the Delta IV Heavy configuration.

The Delta IV cores were all assembled in Decatur, Alabama, just west of Huntsville.

After mating the three Common Booster Cores together, technicians inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at SLC-37B mated the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (a modified version of which will serve as the SLS Block 1 rocket’s second stage) to the top of the three boosters in March 2018.

Immediately thereafter, the Parker Solar Probe itself arrived in Titusville, Florida, at the Astrotech processing center on 3 April – where its final sequence of processing activities and checkouts for launch began.

Artist’s depiction of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe as it heads toward a grazing encounter with the Sun. (Credit: NASA)

For the rocket, after a month of integrated checkouts in the integration facility, United Launch Alliance engineers rolled the assembled Delta IV Heavy the short ways from its hanger to the launch mounts at SLC-37B on 16 April and erected the rocket on the pad the following day.

Unlike the other rockets currently available in the U.S. fleet, the Delta IV, especially the Heavy variant, spends by far the most amount of time on its seaside launch pad undergoing final launch preparations.

Extended, multi-month pad flows are not only common for this particular rocket offered by United Launch Alliance (ULA) but is done, in part, to assure the rocket’s functionality for critical missions – such as Parker Solar Probe, which needs to launch in a very short interplanetary launch window.

To this end, extensive testing has been undertaken by the ULA team to ensure all of the Delta IV Heavy’s systems are functioning properly and that any avoidable, last-minute surprises on launch day or during the duration of the launch window are evaded.

The testing is not entirely foolproof, with certain elements of the rocket subject to the so-called “lightbulb test” – meaning regardless of how many times they are tested, they can still break or malfunction when needed.

Nonetheless, such rigorous testing of the rocket in the months and weeks leading up to launch can root out several potential problems that can be fixed ahead of time, thus allowing the mission to launch without delay.

For ULA, part of this campaign for Parker Solar involved Wet Dress Rehearsals: a complete fueling of the Delta IV Heavy under the same conditions it will experience on launch day and a rundown of the countdown with various anomalies thrown in to test the launch team and ensure they are ready to handle any situation that might arise during an actual launch countdown.

For this particular mission, the Delta IV Heavy and ULA teams underwent two Wet Dress Rehearsals, with the first occurring on 27 June and the second following on 6 July.

Following the two Wet Dress Rehearsals, updated Eastern Range schedules seem to reflect that all went well with the tests, with no major issues discovered with the rocket ahead of final integration and launch preparations.

However, a small issue with the Parker Solar Probe at its Astrotech processing facility did present last Friday, 13 July.

Parker Solar Probe undergoes pre-launch testing. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

According to NASA, “After discovering a minor tubing leak in the ground support equipment during final processing, teams require additional time for processing NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft.  The tubing is being repaired, and the spacecraft is healthy.”

The issue is not an impact to the scheduled launch (confirmed by updated Eastern Range schedules on Monday, 16 July) largely because the tubing leak was on the ground side of the processing equipment and not on Parker Solar Probe itself.

This is good news as Parker Solar and its third stage are scheduled to be encapsulated inside the payload fairing this week ahead of transport to the launch pad for mating and integration atop the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The third stage for the Parker Solar Probe launch is a Star 48BV solid rocket motor originally developed by Thiokol Propulsion – then ATK, then Orbital ATK, and now Northrop Grumman.

The Star 48 stage takes its numerical designation from the rough diameter of the propellant casing (as measured in inches) and has been used on previous high-profile scientific missions for NASA – most notably as the third stage on the Atlas V 551 rocket that launched the New Horizons mission outward to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt in January 2006.

The Star 48 third stage fires to send the Parker Solar Probe into its correct orbit toward Venus. (Credit: NASA)

This will be the Star 48’s first use on a Delta IV Heavy.

Once the Parker Solar Probe and its Star 48 upper stage are encapsulated within the payload fairing, the entire assembly will be transported to the launch pad and lifted atop the rocket, where they will be mated and secured for liftoff.

Once that operation is complete, the United Launch Alliance team will perform their Mission Dress Rehearsal, currently scheduled for 1 August according to current Range schedules.

The Mission Dress Rehearsal is quite different from the Wet Dress Rehearsals.  In this case, the rocket will not be fueled with any propellant.

Instead, the Mission Dress Rehearsal is a final countdown practice designed to be a nominal run through the count with no simulated anomalies – the purpose of which is to allow the launch team to know what to expect going into launch.

While the Eastern Range schedule does not reveal the specific time at which this Mission Dress Rehearsal will take place, ULA sometimes aligns them for the actual targeted launch time, which in this case would result in a Mission Dress Rehearsal T0 of 04:17 EDT (08:17 UTC) on 1 August.

Depending on the mission, the launch team might also continue the Mission Dress Rehearsal past the T0 point, simulating a nominal ascent and launch all the way to payload separation.

Presently, the Parker Solar Probe mission’s interplanetary launch window to Venus opens on 31 July and closes on 19 August.

Due to its unique science orbit, the probe must be launched at a very high velocity and use the planet Venus to gradually reduce its orbit for ever-closer approaches to the Sun.  Thus, the probe must launch within the upcoming Earth-Venus alignment to permit the seven Venusian flybys required for the mission.

Prior delays to spacecraft processing slipped the launch from the opening day of its window to No Earlier Than 4 August in a 45-minute launch window that extends from 04:17 to 05:02 EDT that day.

A ULA Delta IV-Heavy rocket launches at night from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s SLC-37B. (Credit: U.S Air Force)

As far as Eastern Range scheduling goes, Parker Solar Probe has precedence on the Range due to its need to launch within the short interplanetary window between Earth and Venus.

A SpaceX mission was currently scheduled on the Range two days prior to Parker Solar Probe, with a Falcon 9 set to launch the Telkom-4 satellite from SLC-40 on 2 August about 50 and one half hours prior to Parker Solar Probe’s opening launch attempt.

However, the launch date for PSP has moved to the right two days via an announcement on Wednesday.


The only other mission on the Range within the Parker Solar Probe window is another SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with TelStar 18V, which according to a Range manifest update on Monday, 16 July is scheduled to launch NET 17 August from SLC-40 – two days before the end of the Parker Solar Probe launch window.

While neither of the SpaceX launches, right now, are impediments to the Parker Solar Probe launch, mission dates often realign and slip a few days based on previous mission actuals and overall processing timelines.

Should one of the SpaceX missions become a potential impediment to Parker Solar Probe’s launch, negotiations between SpaceX, NASA, United Launch Alliance, and the Eastern Range would have to take place to determine launch order.

The trajectory and orbit of the Parker Solar Probe and its seven encounters with Venus. (Credit: NASA)

In such a scenario, it is highly likely that SpaceX would agree to slip and move around the Parker Solar Probe mission, as Range users generally try to accommodate each other and short, mission-specific launch windows – knowing full well that there might come a day when they have to ask another provider to slip due to one of their missions having to launch within a short window.

Looking beyond the current August 2018 launch window, should something occur that precludes Parker Solar Probe from lifting off by the close of its interplanetary launch window on 19 August, NASA and United Launch Alliance will have to wait until May 2019 to launch the mission due to Earth-Venus orbital alignments.

If the August launch date holds, this will be the first Delta IV Heavy to fly in over two years.  The last Delta IV Heavy launched on 11 June 2016 from SLC-37B with Orion 9/Mentor 7 on a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

A second Delta IV Heavy is currently scheduled to launch later this year, that one also for the NRO and flying from SLC-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Following that, only five Delta IV Heavy missions remain – one per year.  All of those remaining missions are for the NRO.


Boeing finishes SLS LOX tank foam work, recovering from tube contamination issues
Monday, 16 July 2018 16:24

Prime contractor Boeing recently completed Thermal Protection System (TPS) applications on the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank for Core Stage-1 (CS-1), the first NASA Space Launch System (SLS) Core Stage. The cryogenic propellant tank was moved out of Cell N at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans on June 20, where spray-on foam insulation (SOFI) was applied to the outside of the tank.

Work on the critical engine section element was slowed earlier this year by issues with contamination of tubing, but NASA and Boeing are continuing to move forward with work on all the elements of the rocket for the first SLS launch. In April, foam applications on the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter (LVSA) were completed at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

The LOX tank is now in Area 6, where it is being prepared to be joined with the other two elements that form the upper half of the Core Stage.

CS-1 LOX tank TPS applications complete

Lying horizontally on factory ground support equipment (GSE) and transporters, the LOX tank was backed out of the building used by Boeing to apply SOFI to the stage’s two large propellant tanks. Cell N is located in Building 131 at MAF, adjacent to both the Building 110 high-bay and Building 103, the sprawling main building of the facility.

The factory transporters picked up the GSE attached to the tank, backed it out of the cell, and moved it into Area 6 of Building 103, where the next leg of work is being performed in preparation for “stacking” the tank with the other elements of the top half of the stage.

CS-1 LOX tank is backed out of Building 131, Cell N at MAF on June 20 after completion of SOFI applications. The forward end is closest to the vantage point, as the tank goes in the cell aft end first. Credit: NASA/Jude Guidry.

A system of roll rings and specialized Rotational Assembly and Transportation Tools (RATT) are attached to the propellant tanks to help apply both the SOFI for thermal protection and, before that, a coat of primer for corrosion protection. “These roll rings are three sections and it’s a neoprene [pad material] bolted up around the tank,” Steven Ernst, Boeing’s Core Stage Engineering Support Manager, said in an interview.

“They do attach, not structurally but for spacing reasons. They attach in a few places around the flange, but it’s a friction-type connection.”  The roll rings also attach to the RATTs, which can be used to move the roll rings and rotate the whole tank.

The RATTs can also be picked up by Boeing’s Manufacturing, Assembly, and Operations (MAO) Self-Propelled Modular Transporters (SPMT). Sets of two MAO SPMTs roll under and pick up each RATT. For large assemblies like an SLS Core Stage LOX tank (or larger), there are two sets that are linked together to both move and precisely position the entire assembly in tandem before setting it down again.

In Cell N, the SOFI was sprayed on top of the primer coat in two phases. First, the cylindrical barrels of the tank were covered in an automated, environmentally-controlled process where the GSE attached to the tank is rotated in front of a foam-spray gun until the barrel has the desired thickness of SOFI.

The tank RATTs are connected on both ends near each flange of the tank, which is a ring where the barrels and domes are welded together. One RATT is designated lead and the other a “follower.”

MAO SPMTs complete moving the CS-1 LOX tank into Area 6 in Building 103 on June 20. The tank is secured on both ends by white roll-rings attached to the blue RATTs. Credit: NASA/Jude Guidry.

“One is fixed,” Ernst explained. “It’s tied to the lead SPMT, that’s where the gear box is that drives the whole thing, so one is basically a slave. And how that goes is orientation specific. We do the aft end first into the [SOFI spray] cell, because we actually integrate these with the primer system and the SOFI system. So the control system for both of those cells is controlling the rotation of the RATT.”

After the barrels or “acreage” SOFI was sprayed, technicians manually sprayed the hemispheric domes on each end of the tank with a different SOFI formula suited for application in room temperature conditions. The tank will remain in the roll rings and RATTs while it is in Area 6, where the system is used to manually roll the tank to position different areas in front of a fixed work platform.

Some areas of the tank still need additional processing that requires access under the foam; besides areas under and around the roll rings, circular “sensor islands” around the barrel circumference were masked off prior to the foam sprays. The wiring runs were routed prior to foam application, leaving only access to the islands in the locations of different operational and development instrumentation sensors.

After the sensor installation is completed, some additional foam will be manually sprayed to cover or “closeout” those areas. Other areas were sprayed and then trimmed down.

Circular “sensor islands” are seen in areas around the circumference of the LOX tank acreage during the June 20 move. Those areas are being processed now in Area 6. Credit: NASA/Jude Guidry.

While the LOX tank was in Cell N the robotic system was also used to precisely machine down the foam in specific locations. “We’ll actually put a cutting head essentially on it to do some of the trimming, which becomes really critical down along the systems tunnel area,” Ernst noted.

The systems tunnel runs hundreds of feet up and down the length of the Core Stage; it will be attached in final assembly. “It’s just taking enough off to smooth it out and get it to a prescribed thickness,” Ernst explained about the trimming.

“It was a little tricky [for] the first tank, because the tanks as they are sitting here horizontally aren’t perfect, they do sag a little, deform a little bit, so there was a lot of development work going on to get the program for the robot refined to accommodate for that, but that was all part of the process,” he added.

The MAO SPMTs from Doerfer Companies Wheelift Systems Group has been used by Boeing for several years inside at MAF for positioning a variety of support equipment. “We use them a lot,” Ernst said.

“A lot of the work stands you see out and around the factory, those are moved into position using SPMTs. All the equipment, all the large pieces were designed with the intent of moving them around with SPMTs. It’s a lot safer, it’s very precise because you can position them just right.”

Ernst noted that other movers don’t have the positioning precision of the Wheelift transporters. “It can be a little bit nerve-wracking, for instance, you saw the clean room out in Area 6, that platform [to] go into the [LOX tank] aft dome,” he said. “We’ve got to bring that thing within inches of the flight hardware and that would be something you wouldn’t really want to do with a tug. So those SPMTs have that level of control to precisely locate that.”

CS-1 LOX tank “spotted” in Cell N in late March prior to the beginning of SOFI applications. Credit: NASA/Jude Guidry.

The MAO SPMTs will also be used during final assembly to horizontally position the four RS-25 engines one at a time for installation in the aft end of the stage.

More recently NASA took possession of a heavier-duty set of Wheelift SPMTs that are needed for both the more massive final assemblies and for longer, overland transportation.

LVSA foam applications completed in April, headed to Florida

At Marshall in Huntsville, the LVSA for the first SLS launch on Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) was moved from Building 4707 to Building 4649 for final outfitting in late June. The LVSA connects the top of the Core Stage to the bottom of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). At around 30 feet in length, the LVSA also provides room for the long engine nozzle extension on the ICPS upper stage.

NASA LVSA manager Keith Higginbotham said in an email that manual foam spray work on the LVSA was completed in Building 4707 on April 17. Welding of the flight article was completed last summer, when it was moved to Building 4707 for TPS applications. The weld lands were painted to complete the primer application, and then foam sprays began last year.

The LVSA for EM-1 is moved from Building 4707 to Building 4649 at Marshall on June 26. Credit: NASA/Tyler Martin.

The adapter will be outfitted with a pneumatic actuation system and a frangible joint assembly will be installed on the top of the adapter. The frangible joint will separate the top of the LVSA and Core Stage below from the bottom of the ICPS and Orion above.

Once outfitting work is complete, the LVSA will wait for a ride on NASA’s Pegasus barge from Marshall to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida later this year. Plans are for Pegasus to next arrive at Marshall with the liquid hydrogen (LH2) tank structural test article (STA) being prepped at MAF. After offloading the STA, the LVSA would then be loaded on Pegasus, along with perhaps some additional equipment that needs to be returned to MAF (such as the SPMTs).

Engine section tube contamination recovery

Integration of the CS-1 engine section remains the primary critical path for overall stage assembly and Boeing employs around-the-clock work shifts specifically for the element. The effort suffered a setback earlier in the year when it was discovered that tubing that will be installed in the element was contaminated.

Paraffin wax is used during manufacturing of the tubes to prevent crimping while they are being curved, but the supplier of the tubing failed to completely clean them prior to delivery to MAF. The problem wasn’t discovered until a quality control inspection in February.

“Some lines ended up being more susceptible to the contamination that we found and [it] was really a sizing-type thing,” Rick Navarro, Boeing’s Director of Space and Launch Operations, said during an interview. “Above a certain size of line, the paraffin wax was more in use as a part of the bending process.”

CS-1 engine section at MAF in late February, around the time the tubing contamination issue was discovered. A significant amount of work has been completed inside since then, but most of the tubing is still outside, being staged for later installation. Credit: Philip Sloss for NSF/L2.

Most of the tubing that will be installed inside the engine section has bends, and investigations found a widespread problem of tube sections that were not cleaned correctly. “It ended up being an across the board thing that we separated by system: gaseous oxygen, liquid oxygen, gaseous hydrogen, hydraulics, thrust vector control,” Navarro explained.

Navarro said that they finally decided it was prudent to re-check all the tubing. “There is a priority that was figured out: in which order and [what] specific sequence you need to get the tubes back into service,” he noted.

“And by ‘back into service’ I mean whether it was getting a new tube from Core Stage-2, or getting a tube processed off-site, re-cleaned, and sent back to use, or getting a tube inspected. So we had a complete set of priorities that said in which order we needed the tubes to come to us.”

“Some of them for instance, had to go through some higher-temperature bake out, which we’re doing in a separate Boeing facility to bake out residuals,” he added. “Typically the inconel tubes are going through that process to bake out.”

The hardware going into the engine section is densely packed and there are specific installation sequences to provide adequate access for installing them. “Amongst all of them we had a priority scheme and that’s the way we’re getting them back and installed. I don’t think we’ve had a tube shortage in weeks.”

Recovering from the problem put the engine section further behind schedule and a recent estimate put completion of CS-1 five months later than the official date of December. Given there is little margin, the implication is that the forecast date for the first SLS launch is closer to mid-2020 than the end of 2019.

Boeing is working to try to recover some of the schedule and the engine section team has recently made visible progress. Management recently challenged them to install several large components, such as the composite over-wrapped pressure vessel (COPV) helium tanks, in two weeks time.

They finished all the work with a few days to spare.  “In fact, ten percent of the total build was done in the last two weeks, just based on the amount of installations that we had,” Navarro said at the time of the interview in early July.

A composite of all three CS-1 “forward join” elements, which now have their primary TPS work complete as they near work to stack them together. From left to right, the forward skirt, LOX tank, and intertank. Credits: NASA/Jude Guidry, Philip Sloss for NSF/L2.

Elsewhere on the Building 103 floor at MAF, work continues on the other CS-1 elements. In addition to the recent LOX tank milestone, the functional checkout of the forward skirt was completed in early July and that element is ready for stacking when the rest of the elements catch up.

Installation of the avionics boxes into the intertank is complete, essentially finishing the outfitting of that element. Functional testing was set to begin after the boxes were plugged into their wiring runs.

The flight LH2 tank is waiting for its turn in the line to get SOFI applications. Currently, it is behind the LH2 STA tank, which is now in Cell N.

Additional work on the LOX tank sensor islands is currently underway in Area 6 and an internal sensor mast will also be installed while the tank remains horizontal.  After additional preparations are completed, the forward skirt, LOX tank, and intertank will be stacked vertically later this year in Building 110.

The completed “forward join” of the upper half of the rocket stage will then be moved into the final assembly area for additional work.


Static Fire test for Europe’s P120C rocket motor
Monday, 16 July 2018 14:56

The P120C rocket motor that will be involved with both the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets has been static fire tested for the first time at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. The firing occurred early on Monday morning on the BEAP test bench for solid rocket motors, operated by the French space agency CNES.

The P120C is 13.5 meters long and 3.4 meters in diameter, contains 142 tonnes of solid propellant and provides a maximum thrust of 4615 kN (in vacuum) over a burn time of 135 seconds.

“The test lasted 135 seconds simulating the complete burn time from liftoff and through the first phase of flight,” noted ESA after the test. “No anomalies were seen and the performance met expectations, though full analysis will take several months.”

It will provide the first stage for the Vega-C and the side boosters – between two and four – for the larger Ariane 6, both of which will take over from their old variants in the coming years, potentially allowing for a maiden launch in 2020.

Ariane 6 and Vega-C via ESA

While there is a commonality between the two rockets with the use of the same motor on each vehicle, the P120C also has synergy with the current P80 first stage motor on the Vega in use today.

In the run-up to the test, all the main components of the motor – such as nozzle, igniter, solid propellant, and insulated motor case – had already been tested separately.

“This static firing is designed to prove these technologies, materials and production techniques in combination and validate the behavior of the assembled motor,” noted ESA ahead of the test, adding sensors will gather about 600 measures during the static fire.

Unlike a lot of solid motor tests, this firing was conducted in a vertical position on the test stand. The test facility was modified or developed to accommodate this large motor.

While the former Shuttle and current Space Launch System (SLS) solid motors are much larger, and static fired in the horizontal position – they are assembled in segments.

Likewise, the Ariane 5 side boosters are also constructed in segments, with the casings mated during integration.

ESA note the P120C, co-developed by ArianeGroup and Avio, on behalf of their 50/50 joint venture Europropulsion, is the world’s largest monolithic carbon fiber SRM.

Its nearest rival is likely to be Northrop Grumman’s Castor 300, which is based one segment of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster design and is intended to be used as the second stage of the Omega rocket.

An Orbital ATK OmegA rocket soars into the sky over Florida on a launch in the 2020s. (Credit: Orbital ATK)

That is expected to be 12.69 meters in length, still short of P120C’s 13.5 meters.

The Ariane 6 will be an evolution via integration streamlining and innovated design changes are major elements, which will play into reducing costs.

The Ariane 6’s Vulcain 2.1 engine is built with fewer parts while holding a greater efficiency, while the improved Vinci upper stage will allow for additional orbital destinations for more flexibility via a wider reignition capability.

It will operate in two configurations: Ariane 62 is fitted with two P120C strap-on boosters while Ariane 64 has four.

While Vega-C will continue to launch from the current Vega pad at the spaceport, a new launch pad complex is being built for the Ariane 6, called ELA-4.

For a launch campaign, the core stages will be integrated and prepared horizontally in the Launcher Assembly Building, less than a mile from the launch zone. The central core is then moved to the pad and erected vertically in the mobile gantry.

There, the boosters, payloads and fairing are added, before the mobile structure allows for platforms to access the different levels on the pad. The gantry is moved shortly before launch.

Two further test stand firings will follow to qualify the solid motor before the first flight of Vega-C in 2019 and that of Ariane 6 in 2020.


Crew Dragon arrives at Cape; Space Station schedule to drive DM-1 launch date
Friday, 13 July 2018 15:05

SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon that will fly the uncrewed Demonstration Mission -1 (DM-1) as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has arrived at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, for final launch processing.  With an internal work-to launch readiness date of 31 August 2018, it is now likely that the International Space Station’s crew rotation and Visiting Vehicle schedule over the next few months will be the primary driver for the flight’s eventual launch from the Florida Spaceport.

Crew Dragon gets ready for DM-1:

The arrival of the Crew Dragon for DM-1 marks an important and major milestone in SpaceX’s preparations for what looks to be the first flight of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Moreover, it is a critical step in returning the ability to launch astronauts to the International Space Station on a craft other than the venerable and extremely reliable Russian Soyuz crew vehicle.

The ability to launch astronauts to the Station on more than one spacecraft was lost on 20 July 2011 with the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis and the retirement of NASA’s Shuttle fleet.

With that retirement, the Russian Soyuz became the sole vehicle capable of launching NASA, ESA, CSA, and JAXA astronauts to the USOS (United States Operating Segment) – of which Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency are a part – section of the Station.

Thankfully, the Soyuz has suffered no incidents in that time, as such an event would have eliminated the world’s ability to reach its international orbital laboratory.

Nonetheless, this gap in U.S. human launch capability is not the only period in the Station’s lifetime that the Soyuz has been the sole human ride to the lab.

Following the 2003 loss of Shuttle Columbia and the STS-107 crew, the Soyuz took up solo crew transportation duty to the Station until the Shuttle fleet returned to flight (STS-114) and began ferrying crewmembers to the outpost again (STS-121) in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Now, the U.S. is on the cusp of being able to launch humans into space again – and with final preparations now underway at the launch site for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon DM-1 mission, the commencement of Commercial Crew Program launches is tangible.

Having completed assembly at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, the Crew Dragon that will fly the DM-1 mission was taken to NASA’s Plum Brook Station facility in Ohio – part of NASA’s Glenn Research Center – for vacuum chamber and acoustic testing.

Based on the craft’s arrival at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on Thursday, it appears that all went well with those tests – with no major issues that would impede the continuation of processing and delivery to the launch site discovered during the critical tests that ensured the Crew Dragon could properly function in the vacuum, thermal, and acoustic conditions it will experience during launch and while in Low Earth Orbit.

With the first Crew Dragon now safely at the Cape, the next major visual milestone will be the delivery of the Falcon 9 Block 5 booster that will launch the mission.

That Falcon 9 core is B1051 as confirmed by NASA documentation and public NASA conversations over the last several months.

First Block 5 on the McGregor Test Stand on Monday – via Gary Blair for NSF/L2

Based on core sightings/observations and launch campaigns, it is believed that core B1051 is finishing up construction in Hawthorne now and will ship to McGregor, Texas, for acceptance firing in the coming weeks.


With cores B1047 and B1048 getting ready for their July roles in the Telstar 19V and Iridium NEXT-7 launches, respectively, core B1049 was the last core spotted at the McGregor test facility.  This likely indicates – as cores generally come off the assembly line and head for Texas in numerical order, that core B1050 will be next out of Hawthorne and on the test stand at McGregor soon.

Core B1051 was selected as the booster for the DM-1 flight several months ago, and its processing schedule was aligned with a work-to launch readiness date of NET (No Earlier Than) 31 August 2018.

Of note, at a press briefing prior to the launch of SpaceX’s CRS-15 Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station in late-June, International Space Station Program Manager Kirk Shireman and SpaceX’s Dragon Mission Manager, Jessica Jensen, both stated and reiterated that SpaceX’s work-to date for the DM-1 flight was 31 August.

However, Mr. Shireman made an interesting point during that briefing: that NASA was now looking at the Visiting Vehicle and crew rotation schedules aboard the International Space Station to see exactly when the upcoming demonstration flight could fit into the Station’s overall schedule.

Crew Dragon heads uphill on the Falcon 9 – via Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

To this end, it appears possible that SpaceX could in fact be internally ready to launch the DM-1 mission by or very close to its internal work-to date of 31 August but end up having to delay the flight because the International Space Station itself is not capable of receiving the Crew Dragon due to the current Visiting Vehicle schedule in September and October.

Most prominently on the U.S. side of the Station is the scheduled 10 September launch of the Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency’s (JAXA’s) HTV-7 uncrewed resupply vehicle.  

The HTV is berthed via Canadarm2 to Node-2 “Harmony’s” nadir (Earth-facing) port.  Just feet away from where the HTV will be berthed to Station is the location of the DM-1 Dragon docking port – Pressurized Mating Adaptor-2 (PMA-2) on the Forward end of Node-2 “Harmony”.  

HTV-7 is scheduled to remain at Station for 59 days based on the most-recent NASA documentation.  

The main potential complication between HTV-7 and DM-1 is the amount of crew time dedicated to berthed resupply vehicles like HTV – periods that take up a great deal of the U.S. segment crews’ time as they unload the craft, perform time-critical experiments, and reload the craft ahead of its departure.

Canadarm2 reaches and grabs the arriving HTV-7 resupply vehicle in December 2016. (Credit: NASA)

This is a complication to the uncrewed DM-1 Dragon flight because SpaceX has stated that the DM-1 vehicle will bring up some supplies to the International Space Station, thus requiring Station crew time to unload the craft and fill it back up with any materials that require a ride back to Earth in a capsule that can safely reenter Earth’s atmosphere, splash down in the ocean, and be recovered.

Complicating crew-time matters more is the upcoming Soyuz crew rotation period in early- to mid-October, during which the Station’s crew complement will be temporarily reduced to three people from six – further limiting the remaining crews’ ability to work with HTV-7 and support the DM-1 mission in that timeframe.

Looking beyond HTV-7’s departure and the October crew rotation, the next Progress resupply vehicle from Roscosmos is currently slated to launch on 31 October (UTC), followed on NET 17 November by the 10th mission of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus resupply spacecraft.  SpaceX’s own CRS-16 resupply mission is then set to follow NET 29 November.

There is also a planned November Soyuz crew rotation for the International Space Station – during which the Station’s crew will again be temporarily reduced to three people from six.

In short, these are complications.  But they are not, in and of themselves, complete impediments to launching the SpaceX DM-1 flight in September or October.

A Crew Dragon approaches the International Space Station for docking with PMA-2 on the forward end of Node-2 Harmony. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2)

Potentially threading the 14-day DM-1 uncrewed flight of Dragon to the Station between all of these events could be somewhat tricky.

But as ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman stated, this is what is currently being discussed between the ISS Program, Commercial Crew Program, and SpaceX as all three programs work to determine an exact target launch date for the DM-1 mission.


Cape Canaveral’s LC-17 demolished after decades of service
Thursday, 12 July 2018 15:17

Cape Canaveral’s LC-17 has been leveled after the demolition of its two service towers on Thursday. The pad last saw action with the retiring Delta II rocket but has a history that ranges back into the 1950s. It will become the new site for commercial operator Moon Express.
Launch Complex 17, as it was then designated, was built between August and December 1956 to accommodate tests of the Thor missile.

LC-17 in its original Thor configuration – via NSF L2

The first Thor launch occurred from LC-17B on 26 January 1957. However, it ended in failure when the rocket lost thrust and exploded on the launch pad.

A second launch in April was erroneously destroyed by range safety after a faulty console caused the RSO to believe the rocket was flying in the wrong direction.

The first successful launch occurred on 20 September, also from LC-17B.

Missile tests were made from LC-17B until 1957, after which it began to be used for orbital launches. The first orbital launch to be made from the pad occurred on 13 April 1960, when a Thor-Ablestar launched Transit 1B. The last of ten Thor-Ablestar launches from the pad occurred in May 1962, after which Delta launches from LC-17B began.

Thor-Able launch from LC-17 – via NSF L2

The first Delta launch from LC-17B was of Delta 11, carrying Telstar 1, the first commercial communications satellite. The pad was subsequently used by Delta A, B, C, E1, G and C1 rockets between 1962 and 1969. Between 1963 and 1965, six suborbital flights were also launched from LC-17B, carrying ASSET reentry vehicles to demonstrate technology for the X-20 DynaSoar spacecraft.

Three of these launches used the single-stage Thor DSV-2F, and the other three used the two-stage Thor DSV-2G, which included a Delta upper stage, however its launches are not officially listed as Delta launches. None of the six ASSET flights reached space; instead, they flew shallower atmospheric flight profiles.

Delta launches from LC-17B resumed in September 1972, when the Delta 1000-series started using LC-17B. The 2000-series began to launch from the pad in 1974, with the last Delta 2000 launch from the complex occurring in 1979. From 1983 to 1989 it was used for Delta 3000-series launches and the short-lived interim Delta 4000 series made both of its launches from LC-17B; the first on 27 August 1989 and the second on 12 June 1990.

Delta II launches from LC-17B began on 11 December 1989. On 8 January 1991 the first Delta II 7000-series launch from LC-17B orbited a NATO communications satellite. In the mid-1990s LC-17B received modifications to accommodate the Delta III rocket, and in 1997 it was redesignated Space Launch Complex 17.

That year, LC-17A saw its most dramatic launch failure during the liftoff of the first Block IIR Global Positioning Satellite, GPS IIF-1. Thirteen seconds into the flight, the rocket self-destructed following the structural failure of one of the number 2 solid rocket motor.

Over 220 tonnes of debris fell within a kilometer of the launch pad, with one piece landing in the blockhouse car park, destroying twenty vehicles.

The first Delta III launch occurred on 27 August 1998, carrying the Galaxy 10 satellite. The mission also ended in failure after the vehicle’s solid rocket motors ran out of hydraulic fluid, resulting in a loss of control and the destruction of the rocket by range safety.

The second Delta III launch in May 1999 also failed, after the second stage engine’s combustion chamber ruptured, leaving the Orion 3 communications satellite in a useless low Earth orbit. A third launch with a mock-up satellite also underperformed, reaching a lower than planned orbit. After these failures, the Delta III was retired.

Because of its modifications to accommodate the Delta III, SLC-17B became the only launch pad that could accommodate the Delta II Heavy.

LC-17 in its Delta II configuration – via NASA

The first launch of the Delta II Heavy occurred on June 10, 2003, carrying the Spirit spacecraft and rover bound for Mars.

Launches of standard 7000 series Delta IIs continued throughout the time that the Delta III and Delta II Heavy have used the pad, this included a September 2009 launch carrying the two STSS-Demo satellites for the US military.

The final launch of the Delta II from LC-17 was in September of 2011, when a Delta II 7920H-10C carried NASA’s GRAIL spacecraft.

All remaining Delta II launches were moved to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with just one more launch to go for the veteran rocket.

The most southernly pad on the Cape Canaveral range, LC-17 has been awaiting the demolition of the structures for some time. Contractors finally conducted a major part of its site clearance with the demolition of the two service towers at the pad complex on Thursday.

Moon Express is set to take up residency at the pad complex, allowing for testing of its lander capability.

The company is working within NASA’s Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) initiative, which has been fostering the growth of commercial lunar lander capabilities.

This is a good time for Moon Express to up its testing after NASA recently published a Request For Information (RFI) that will be used to gauge interest from the private/commercial space sector in building domestic lunar landers. The request points to an evolution of concept, with small-scale cargo landers being used to prove the technology before feeding into the development of human-rated vehicles.


Cygnus reboost test conducted on the ISS
Tuesday, 10 July 2018 23:25

The Northrop Grumman OA-9E Cygnus spacecraft has conducted a unique test objective on the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday. The cargo resupply vehicle provided a reboost to the Station at 4:25 pm Eastern, with a short 50 second burn of its main engine on the aft of the vehicle, raising the Station’s altitude by 295 feet. This test will pave the way for future, longer burns, removing some of the orbital stationkeeping strain from the Russian assets.

This was the first time since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011, a US spacecraft had performed a reboost of the ISS.

Although the Station is high above the heavens, there is still a very thin amount of air in the 220 mile orbit of the ISS, enough to provide a tiny amount of atmospheric drag that results – over time – in the Station losing some altitude while increasing velocity.

Reboosts of the Station’s altitude are required to counter the natural decay of the ISS’ orbit as it races around the planet.

Reboost events were commonplace during the Shuttle era, conducted via firings of the Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters on the docked orbiters, providing a thank you present to the Station that was protecting and – in later years – feeding the orbiter during her stay.

Shuttle docked to the ISS timelapse

With reboosts required every couple of months, the Russian visiting vehicles would also chip in with the occasional push, a practice that has continued to this day, in tandem with Europe’s since-retired ATV craft.

The Station also has a set of thrusters on the Zvezda module can be employed. However, they are mainly reserved for when a Visiting Vehicle can’t conduct the task, as the requirement of protecting the Station’s propellant stores is paramount.

Future Visiting Vehicles, such as the Commercial Crew vehicles, are also being evaluated for potential reboost capabilities and now a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) vehicle has shown it is capable of helping take up some of the load.

Dragon 2, Starliner and CRS2 Dream Chaser all at the ISS – via Nathan Koga for NSF L2

“We actually started engaging NASA on this topic probably the fall of last year,” noted Frank DeMauro, Vice President and General Manager of the Advanced Programs Division for Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.

The reboost was small and negligible, classed officially as a Detailed Test Objective in which Cygnus fires its main engine for just a few seconds to demonstrate its capability to perform more robust ISS orbit raising maneuvers in the future.

“We have a large engine on the back of the spacecraft that puts out a lot more thrust [than the 32 maneuvering thrusters on Cygnus], and this is the engine we use for orbit raising burns,” noted Mr. DeMauro.

The S.S. J.R. Thompson at its 10 m capture point – as the Station arm reaches out to grapple Cygnus. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2)

“So we started talking with NASA at the program office about the possibility of Cygnus providing some form of orbit raising capability using that engine.  And one of the things we decided to do earlier this year is to put this Detailed Test Objective in place and at least work through the process of seeing if we could get that approved by NASA and of course specifically the safety review panel.”

The NASA program office showed great interest in this potential capability from Cygnus, and NASA and its safety office have been moving through the process of performing the various analyses needed to ensure that using Cygnus while berthed to the Node-1 nadir port to reboost the ISS does not impart dangerous thrust loads onto the structure of the Station.

“If we’re going to be imparting thrust or forces on the ISS by thrusting our engine, [NASA] has to do work on their side, and they’ve done that,” noted Mr. DeMauro.

“As far as if it’s going forward, we expect it to go forward. We are waiting for the final sort of dot the Is and cross the Ts with the safety panel, but we don’t expect any issues closing that all out.”

Cygnus berthed to Node-1 nadir, where it will hopefully perform the first U.S. craft orbit raising of the Space Station since the Space Shuttle fleet’s retirement. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2).

One last hurdle for the Tuesday test had to be passed, namely the arrival of the Progress MS-09 craft during its record-breaking ascent to the Station.

Had the two orbit attempt suffered issues, the test would have been delayed as the Progress needed to be firmly docked to the ISS for the reboost to be carried out.

Assuming this test is declared successful on the review that will now be taking place, Northrop Grumman hopes to offer this capability to NASA on future Cygnus missions both as part of the extended CRS1 and upcoming CRS2 contracts for cargo resupply of the orbital lab.

Northrop Grumman has the option to repeat the test on the following flight of Cygnus later this year.



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