The first stage of an Antares rocket conducts a “hot fire” test at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia on February 22. (credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.)
A successful “hot fire” test Friday night is expected to clear the way for the first launch, in just over a month, of a new medium-class launch vehicle. Orbital Sciences Corporation fired the two AJ26 engines in the first stage of an Antares rocket Friday evening, holding the stage down on the pad at the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia. The test, which lasted for 29 seconds, confirmed that the engines and the other systems in the rocket’s first stage worked as planned.
“Our initial assessment of the test data shows that we were successful in achieving each of the primary objectives we had hoped to accomplish going into the test,” said Antares program manager Mike Pinkston in a statement released by the company after the test.
More analysis of the data collected in the test is planned for the coming days, but assuming there are no problems, the company will proceed with rolling out the first full Antares rocket for launch in about six weeks, or early April. That launch will carry an instrumented test payload designed to simulate a Cygnus cargo spacecraft. If that is successful, Orbital will launch the first Cygnus mission to the International Space Station, likely in the middle of the year. That flight would be the final milestone in Orbital’s award from NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, closing out that program.
The other company that developed a launch vehicle and spacecraft under COTS, SpaceX, closed out its award when a Falcon 9 launched a Dragon spacecraft to the ISS last May. SpaceX followed that with the first mission under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract in October. The second CRS mission by SpaceX is slated for launch the morning of March 1 from Cape Canaveral.
The IEEE Aerospace Conference is taking place next month in Big Sky, Montana. If you look closely at the conference schedule on Sunday, March 3, you’ll see this session at 9:50 pm (!): “8.0105 Feasibility Analysis for a Manned Mars Free Return Mission in 2018″. The speaker listed is none other than Dennis Tito, with several co-authors: John Carrico, Grant Anderson, Michael Loucks, Taber MacCallum, Thomas Squire, Jonathan Clark. MacCallum and Clark are slated to join Tito at the February 27th Inspiration Mars Foundation press conference in Washington.
This publication obtained a copy of the paper Tito et al. plan to present at the conference, discussing a crewed free-return Mars mission that would fly by Mars, but not go into orbit around the planet or land on it. This 501-day mission would launch in January 2018, using a modified SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on a Falcon Heavy rocket. According to the paper, existing environmental control and life support system (ECLSS) technologies would allow such a spacecraft to support two people for the mission, although in Spartan condition. “Crew comfort is limited to survival needs only. For example, sponge baths are acceptable, with no need for showers,” the paper states.
NASA would also have a role in this mission in terms of supporting key ECLSS and thermal protection system technology development, although the paper makes clear this would be a private-sector effort. (The paper’s co-authors include NASA Ames director Pete Worden.) The paper makes no attempt to estimate the cost of the mission, beyond concluding that it “would be significantly less than previous estimates for manned Mars missions” and be financed privately. The paper adds that if they miss this favorable 2018 opportunity, the next chance to take advantage of this favorable trajectory would be in 2031.
The Inspiration Mars Foundation, a newly formed nonprofit organization led by American space traveler and entrepreneur Dennis Tito, invites you to attend a press conference detailing its plans to take advantage of a unique window of opportunity to launch an historic journey to Mars and back in 501 days, starting in January 2018. This “Mission for America” will generate new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration. It is intended to encourage all Americans to believe again, in doing the hard things that make our nation great, while inspiring youth through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and motivation.
Besides Tito, the press conference will feature Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, the CEO/CTO and president/chairwoman, respectively, of Paragon Space Development Corporation (the two also were part of the original Biosphere 2 crew). Also at the press conference will be Jonathan Clark, an expert in space medicine.
That lineup of speakers, and the language in the media advisory, have led some to speculate that Inspiration Mars is planning a human mission to Mars, although the advisory makes no explicit mention of that. “Dennis Tito To Announce Private Human Mars Mission” is the headline at NASA Watch, while Wired News reports “Space Tourist to Announce Daring Manned Mars Voyage for 2018″. The “unique window of opportunity” the advisory refers to may be a reference to the 2018 Mars launch window, which is particularly favorable (NASA had planned to use it for a Mars lander and rover mission in cooperation with ESA before terminating those plans a year ago in favor of what became a 2020 Mars rover based on Curiosity.) Paragon, meanwhile, is known for its expertise in life support systems, while Clark has worked with private ventures, including the Red Bull Stratos high-altitude jump last year.
However, at first blush there would be a lot of obstacles to a human Mars mission like what Inspiration Mars appears to be proposing. There’s obviously the cost, which would run in the billions of dollars (10? 20? 50?). Tito, the first self-funded private space traveler, is a wealthy man, but not that wealthy: his estimated net worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He certainly has a network of contacts that could bring in additional money, but enough to mount a human mission?
There’s also the technical issues of putting together a spacecraft that can handle a 500-day mission to Mars and back without the steady stream of resupply lights bringing up propellant and spare parts, as is the case today with the International Space Station. A 500-day mission would also set human spaceflight endurance records and raise medical issues (something Dr. Clark would be very knowledgable about). And getting it done by 2018? Keep in mind NASA slipped a Mars rover that is, to first order, a copy of Curiosity to 2020 because it didn’t have the time and budget to get it ready for the more favorable 2018 opportunity.
What if, though, Inspiration Mars is planning not a crewed mission to Mars, but instead an inhabited one? That is to say, instead of sending people to Mars, they’re instead planning to send plants and/or animals on a mission there? Such a mission could be a critical pathfinder for a later human mission, by governments or private organizations, and could, as the advisory stated, offer “new knowledge, experience and momentum for the next great era of space exploration.” It’s also something that would be far more affordable and easier to complete in time for a 2018 launch without having to solve a lot of technical and medical issues associated with crewed mission.
What could that non-human biological payload be? One possibility is that it may be some kind of Martian greenhouse, a project that has been proposed in the past. And, four years ago, Paragon announced plans to develop a lunar greenhouse that would be flown to the Moon on a lander developed by Odyssey Moon, a Google Lunar X PRIZE competitor that has since merged with another team, SpaceIL, last November. This might be something similar, and the favorable 2018 launch window would make it easier to send either a lander or an orbiter with the ability to return to the Earth. The press conference attendees given no hint at any technical details, like who would build the spacecraft and who will launch it. However, SpaceX has been working on a “Red Dragon” Mars mission concept using its Dragon spacecraft that might work here. And, interesting enough, Elon Musk started SpaceX when he encountered problems finding an affordable launch of a pet project of his: a small Martian greenhouse.
Of course, perhaps Tito and his team are indeed planning a human Mars mission, and have found the right combination of funding and technology to make it possible in five years. But simply sending life to Mars would be fascinating enough.
Orbital Sciences Corporation plans to perform a hot fire test of the first stage of its new Antares rocket as soon as next Tuesday, a key milestone before the rocket’s first launch next month. Speaking at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington on Wednesday, Frank Culbertson, executive vice president and general manager for advanced programs at Orbital, said the company had just completed some fueling tests of the Antares first stage on the pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia. “We will do our first hot fire next Tuesday,” he said.
A successful static hot fire test would clear the way for Orbital to perform an initial demonstration launch of the full Antares rocket. That launch would take place about month later (“maybe five weeks later,” Culbertson said), carrying an instrument mass simulator of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft. That would be followed about three months later with the first full Cygnus mission to the ISS, a demonstration flight that would wrap up Orbital’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA. That mission would carry about 800 kilograms of cargo to the station, in addition to demonstrating its ability to safely rendezvous and berth with the station. The first of eight cargo missions to the station under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract would follow three to four months after the COTS demo flight. That schedule is similar to what the company posted in January, when it said it expected the COTS demo flight would take place in May or June and the first CRS mission in the third quarter.
The two companies with International Space Station commercial cargo delivery contracts, Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX, are at different stages in their efforts to carry out those contracts, with SpaceX having already completed one of its twelve contracted missions while Orbital continues to prepare for the first launches of its Antares launch vehicle and Cygnus spacecraft. Both companies, though, will be active over the next several months.
SpaceX is preparing for its second Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission, CRS-2, now planned for March 1. “I don’t see anything that would keep that from happening,” NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini said at a press conference last week in Houston about upcoming ISS activities. The Dragon will berth with the station two days later, ISS flight director Tony Ceccacci said at the same press conference, and is currently scheduled to remain at the station until April 2.
The CRS-2 launch was originally scheduled for January, but was delayed by the investigation into the failure of an engine on the first stage of the Falcon 9 that launched the CRS-1 Dragon mission in October. Last month SpaceX officials said the investigation into the engine shutdown was wrapping up, but few additional details regarding the cause of the problem have been released.
Suffredini said the investigation was not “completely closed” but sounded confident that the problem was resolved. “It was hard to find a specific smoking gun to point to, but a number of things were believed to be contributors that have been looked at,” he said, without going into much detail about those contributing factors. One factor, he suggested, might have been the large amount of testing done on the engine prior to launch. The engines on the CRS-2 mission have been limited to acceptance testing, he said.
Another issue with the CRS-1 flight was the loss of power to a freezer carrying biological samples on the spacecraft upon splashdown. Suffredini said that none of the samples were compromised by the loss of freezer power. He said SpaceX was working to limit water intrusion into those systems. “The fix that was necessary was to a better job of sealing up the boxes,” he said. Those components will be sealed up better for CRS-2, with an “ultimate” redesign planned for CRS-3.
While SpaceX makes fixes to its launch vehicle and spacecraft, Orbital is making slow progress towards demonstrating its systems. Orbital earlier this week released an updated test schedule for the Antares and Cygnus, starting with a hot fire test on the pad now planned for February. A test flight of the Antares, carrying a “heavily instrumented mass simulator” in place of a Cygnus spacecraft, is slated for March, four to six weeks after the hot fire test. The full Antares/Cygnus COTS demo mission to the ISS would follow in April and May, and the first of eight CRS missions in the third quarter.
Those scheduled have been slipping, in part because of delays in getting the Antares launch site at Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) completed, but Suffredini sounded confident those launches would take place close to the current schedule. “That’s going very well,” he said of the current Antares pad tests. “Many things have come together with getting the pad ready and the vehicle ready to go fly. They’ve overcome a number of hurdles, so the schedule’s started to stabilize on that system.”
Deep Space Industries (DSI) will formally announce their asteroid mining plans at a press event at 10 am PST (1 pm EST) Tuesday in Santa Monica, California, an event that will be webcast live. The DSI team does include some familiar names for those who have followed past space entrepreneurial efforts, including Rick Tumlinson, chairman of DSI; and David Gump, who is CEO. The company’s team also features Geoffrey Notkin, star of the TV show “Meteorite Men”, although his role with the company isn’t specified.
DSI plans to follow a path similar to Planetary Resources, with a fleet of small spacecraft to prospect asteroids. FireFlies, weighing 25 kilograms, will launch starting in 2015 on two- to six-month missions to study asteroids, while 32-kilogram DragonFly spacecraft will launch starting in 2016 on two- to four-year missions to return samples weighing up to twice as much as the spacecraft itself.
Those sample return missions will be followed by full-scale resource extraction efforts. DSI says it has a “patent-pending technology” called the MicroGravity Foundry, a 3-D printer that can convert raw asteroid (presumably metallic) material into complex metal parts. The company is also interested in extracting volatile materials from asteroids to use as propellant—a key focus of Planetary Resources as well—and has an NDA with an unspecified “aerospace company” to discuss how to potentially work together to use such propellants to refuel communications satellites. (A problem here is that while some asteroids are rich in water ice and similar volatiles, many satellites use hydrazine in their maneuvering thrusters.)
While the press release goes into great detail about their long-term plans for missions and the various resources that can be obtained from asteroids, they say virtually nothing about the company’s finances. The company doesn’t disclose how much money it has raised or who its investors are. (By contrast, Planetary Resources emphasized at its announcement the A-list investors it has, including Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, although it didn’t disclose how much they raised.) DSI does state in its release that it “is looking for customers and sponsors who want to be a part of creating this new space economy,” and mentions it’s open to the idea of corporate sponsorships for individual FireFly missions.
If DSI is serious about starting to launch spacecraft in 2015, it presumably has already laid significant groundwork, including establishing facilities, hiring engineers and other staff, and making at least initial contacts with launch services providers, details missing from its press release. How much progress they’ve made in those areas that they’re willing to reveal, particularly at the press conference later today, will make it clear how serious a competitor they are to Planetary Resources. Both companies, though, face the challenges of making progress in a field—asteroid mining—that still seems like science fiction.
Last week NASA hosted a news briefing allowing the agency and the four companies that have Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev-2) and/or Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) funded awards to provide updates on their efforts. Much of the media attention from the briefing focused on news that the companies are planning test flights of their vehicles with non-NASA crews, which was actually not a new development. There were not any major news coming out of the briefing, but a number of smaller, more incremental developments by the companies and NASA alike.
The company, which did not receive (nor did it submit a proposal for) a CCiCap award, said it is in discussions with NASA to extend its current CCDev-2 award on an unfunded basis to allow it continue progress on its vehicle, leaving open the possibility of reentering the program at a later date.
Blue Origin highlighted its work on a new liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen engine, designated the BE-3. That engine is capable of generating 100,000 pounds-force (445,000 newtons) of thrust. Tests of the engine are planned for mid-February at NASA Stennis.
The company indicated it has completed its first three milestones of its CCiCap award on schedule, and remains on track to mature its CST-100 spacecraft design through a critical design review.
SNC is working towards its final milestone of its CCDev-2 award, an uncrewed glide test of a Dream Chaser engineering test article. That flight is planned for later this quarter at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The company is ramping up staffing on the program, with plans to add up to 100 people over the course of 2013.
SpaceX has completed the first four milestones of its CCiCap award, including a ground systems and ascent preliminary design review last month.
The company’s plans for 2013 include a pad abort test at KSC in December, where the Dragon’s abort system will be flown directly off the pad. An inflight test of the system, where the Dragon escapes from its Falcon 9 rocket during ascent, is planned for April 2014.
The company has also wrapped up its investigation into a shutdown of a Falcon 9 engine during an October launch of a Dragon spacecraft to the ISS. The root cause of the failure has been identified and reported to NASA, and more details will be released publicly in the near future.
The agency is already starting plans for the next phase of the program, with a request for information due out soon and a formal request for proposals out in the fall. NASA would like to award contracts—more than one—by May 2014.
Funding remains an issue, and NASa officials acknowledged the uncertainty that remains with the program. They added, though, that they’re gaining better understanding of the overall costs to develop these systems every month.
A stealthy company developing small satellites has reportedly raised $10.1 million from one of the few venture capital firms that has shown an interest in the space industry. CrunchBase, a technology company database run by technology news site TechCrunch, noted late Friday that Cosmogia received $10.1 million from Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) last month. The only citation for this funding is “DFJ Report” and no other information on the investment, including the valuation of the company, is given. There has been no announcement of the investment by either DFJ or Cosmogia.
We’re developing systems to provide universal access to information about the changing Earth, its environment, and its people. We are a team of aerospace engineers, computer scientists, physicists, economists and analysts that develop and utilize aerospace technology and computer science for applications that range from deforestation monitoring to land use to food security.
That “aerospace technology” appears to be in the form, at least in part, of smallsats. Cosmogia holds commercial remote sensing licenses from NOAA for four satellites, designated Dove-1 through -4. Dove-1 will “undertake a short-duration experimental mission” in a circular orbit at the space station’s inclination. Dove-2 will perform a similar mission in an elliptical, 64.9-degree orbit. Dove-3 and Dove-4 will operate in more traditional sun-synchronous orbits commonly used by remote sensing satellites; these, too, will be experimental, but not “short-duration.”
Filings with the FCC offer more details about the company’s first two spacecraft. Dove-1 is manifested as a secondary payload on the first Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares (née Taurus II) launch, now planned for early this year. The spacecraft is a “3U” cubesat, 10 x 10 x 33 centimeters in size and weighing six kilograms. According to an orbital debris assessment report filed with the FCC, the spacecraft will reenter less than two weeks after launch.
The spacecraft’s mission, according to a separate FCC filing, “is a technology demonstration to: a) test the basic capabilities of the low-cost bus built from non-space, Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) components; b) show that a bus constrained to the 3U cubesat form factor can host a small payload; and c) demonstrate the ability to design, produce and operate satellites on short schedules and low cost. Dove 1 will do this by transmitting health and payload data to the ground.”
Dove-2 is similar, although it is launching as a secondary payload on a Soyuz rocket later this year carrying a Bion-M biomedical research spacecraft. It is designed to stay in orbit for up to half a year according to its FCC orbital debris report, although another FCC filing about the mission states that the mission duration will be two years in order to test the spacecraft’s power system.
All this suggests that Cosmogia is some kind of commercial remote sensing company that seeks to leverage the growing capabilities of cubesat-class spacecraft to provide imagery, likely trading away high resolution in favor of improved temporal resolution by operating a constellation of such spacecraft. That makes it similar to Skybox Imaging, which is developing its own small satellites for launch starting later this year. Cosmogia, based on its career fair description, may be focused more on environmental and related applications than Skybox, though.
Kate Winslet at the reception following the dedication of the Virgin Galactic terminal building at Spaceport America in October 2011. Despite her presence there, and one tabloid’s claims, she’s not going to space. (credit: J. Foust)
Over the last several years there’s been a minor cottage industry of rumors regarding celebrities who may or may not be going into space as tourists. Sometimes, sure enough, the rumors are true: after months of whispers about her potential interest in a spaceflight, Space Adventures announced in October that singer Sarah Brightman had signed up for a flight to the ISS, most likely in 2015. (Although more recently some Russian officials have raised doubts regarding whether she’ll actually fly.) For every one that does turn out to be true, though, there are many more that turn out to be false.
A case in point: on Friday, the UK tabloid The Sun reported exclusively that actress Kate Winslet has received a free ticket on a Virgin Galactic flight as a wedding present. The report seemed to make some sense: her new husband, Ned Rockandroll, works at Virgin Galactic and is the nephew to Sir Richard Branson. (Winslet accompanied Rocknroll to the dedication of Virgin Galactic’s terminal building at Spaceport America in New Mexico in October 2011.) And, The Sun claimed, the gift was also an expression for appreciation after Winslet helped save Branson’s mother from a fire at Branson’s Necker Island vacation home last year.
There’s just one problem with that nicely tied together story: it’s not true. While many other media outlets more or less repeated the claims in The Sun’s report verbatim, one paragon of journalism decided to check it out: E! Online, the web site of the E! cable television network. A spokesperson for Winslet told E! that the report wasn’t true and had been “invented a while ago” but repackaged, in effect, to tie it into the wedding. Another rumor bites the dust, but have patience: soon enough, some other celebrity will be linked, correctly or not, to space tourism…
Sunday night, SpaceX released a statement and videos of that third Grasshopper flight, the highest to date. According to SpaceX, Grasshopper—a Falcon 9 first stage with a single Merlin 1D engine and landing legs—flew to an altitude of 40 meters, landing successfully 29 seconds after liftoff. The previous two Grasshopper flights were much shorter and lower: its first flight flew 1.8 meters high and lasted just a few seconds, while its second, last month, flew to 5.4 meters.
The timing of the announcement was interesting: SpaceX posted the video Sunday evening, and a statement about the flight arrived in my inbox at 10 pm EST. SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk also publicized it in a series of tweets that evening, including one where he noted that the vehicle carried a “6 ft cowboy” (well, a mannequin of one) who had “no problemo” with the flight.
To provide a little perspective on the size of Grasshopper, we added a 6 ft cowboy to the rocket http://t.co/3NMYJqmd
Grasshopper is part of a effort by the company to develop a reusable Falcon 9, and SpaceX said in a statement that “successively more sophisticated flights [are] expected over the next several months.” As for when that will lead to a reusable version of a Falcon 9, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell gave few clues when asked about it at a luncheon speech in Washington earlier this month. “I don’t want to guess when it’ll be ready for market, but there’s definitely no question that we want it to work,” she said.