Boeing’s Starliner capsule returns to hangar for valve troubleshooting

Ground teams at Cape Canaveral wheeled Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule and a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket back inside their assembly hangar Thursday for further troubleshooting of misbehaving valves inside the Starliner propulsion system.

Without a quick fix, technicians will have to remove the spacecraft from the Atlas 5 rocket for more extensive work, potentially delaying the unpiloted Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 mission to the International Space Station by months.

ULA has already taken measures to protect for the possibility that the Starliner’s Atlas 5 rocket might have to be disassembled to allow the company to move on to other missions on its launch schedule. Before rolling the Atlas 5 back into the hangar, ULA drained the first stage’s fuel tank of kerosene.

Standing on a mobile launch platform, the 172-foot-tall (52.4-meter) rocket moved off its launch mount on pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and back into ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility late Thursday morning.

With the Atlas 5 and Starliner back in the VIF, workers planned to install access platforms and begin another round of troubleshooting in a bid to find the reason propulsion valves inside the spacecraft appear to be in unexpected positions.

The valve issue caused Boeing to order a scrub during a launch attempt Tuesday. Additional checks ruled out a number of potential causes, including software, Boeing said.

Engineers noticed the valves were misbehaving after a lightning storm that passed over the launch pad Monday. Boeing said the severe weather appears to be an unlikely cause for the problem, but teams inside the VIF will inspect the spacecraft’s “doghouse” propulsion pods for water or electric damage.

But not all of the doghouses are accessible in the VIF, and commands to cycle the valves while the spacecraft was on the launch pad yielded no change in the position indications.

The propulsion system valves in question are inside the Starliner’s service module, which has an array of rocket thrusters designed to propel the spacecraft away from its launcher during an in-flight emergency. Other thrusters on the service module are used for in-orbit maneuvers and spacecraft pointing control.

Boeing said in a statement one of the first steps after the spacecraft arrived back in the VIF was to power up the Starliner capsule, which takes several hours. Then engineers will send commands to cycle the valves. If that doesn’t work, teams could try to command the valves using different methods.

“We’re letting the data drive our decision-making and we will not fly until our integrated teams are comfortable and confident,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program.

The next launch opportunities for the Starliner mission are on Saturday and Sunday, but completing the Starliner inspections and testing — and resolving any potential problem on the service module — in time for a weekend launch is unlikely, sources said.

If the valve problem persists, Boeing is expected to detach the Starliner capsule from the top of the Atlas 5 rocket and return it to the company’s spacecraft factory at the nearby Kennedy Space Center.

That would put the launch schedule for the OFT-2 mission up against several other important NASA missions in the next couple of months.

A SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule is set for launch Aug. 28, and it will use the same docking port needed by the Starliner spacecraft. The Dragon spaceship will occupy the space station docking port until late September.

NASA’s Lucy asteroid science probe is scheduled for liftoff during a 23-day planetary launch period opening Oct. 16. Like the Starliner mission, Lucy will use a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket to depart Earth and head into the solar system for encounters with eight asteroids, a record number for a single mission.

Lucy can only launch when Earth is in the right position in its orbit around the sun, relative to its asteroid targets. The robotic mission has a backup launch period in October 2022, but the spacecraft has already been shipped from its Lockheed Martin factory in Colorado to Cape Canaveral to begin final launch preparations.

Another Atlas 5 launch was scheduled for liftoff in early September carrying experimental satellites for the U.S. military’s Space Test Program. That mission, designated STP-3, may have to be postponed until after the Lucy launch following the delays in getting the Starliner’s OFT-2 mission off the ground.

If it looks likely to take more than a couple of weeks to resolve the Starliner valve issue, ULA is expected to disassemble the Atlas 5 launcher and begin stacking the next Atlas 5 rocket for launch from Cape Canaveral. With little time to fit in the STP-3 mission, that will likely be the Atlas 5 rocket for the Lucy launch.

ULA also has an Atlas 5 rocket set for launch Sept. 16 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California with the Landsat 9 Earth-imaging satellite NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. The company needs about a week between Atlas 5 launches from Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral. If Landsat 9’s launch remains set for Sept. 16, that would preclude the launch of any Atlas 5 mission from Florida for a couple of weeks in mid-September.

Once the OFT-2 mission is cleared for takeoff, the Starliner spacecraft will dock with the space station, where the lab’s crew will open hatches leading to the crew capsule. The station crew members will unload several hundred pounds of cargo and inspect the capsule’s crew cabin.

A test dummy named “Rosie the Rocketeer” will occupy one of the capsule’s seats on OFT-2.

The Starliner crew capsule is launching on a do-over of the problem-plagued OFT-1 demo mission in 2019 that failed to reach the space station. Boeing and NASA blamed the botched mission on software programming errors, and managers say extra testing has resolved the software concerns ahead of this mission.

Boeing developed the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft under contract to NASA, which has similar agreements with SpaceX for that company’s Crew Dragon program. SpaceX’s capsule began flying astronauts to the space station last year, and Boeing is now more than a year behind.

Both companies have contracts with NASA for at least six commercial crew missions to the space stations. SpaceX has already launched two of its operational crew rotation flights.

Before Boeing can move on to its first crewed test flight, NASA managers want to ensure the contractor has resolved the software woes that cut short the 2019 test flight. The Starliner test flight will also prove out the spacecraft’s rendezvous and docking systems, which were unused on the 2019 mission.,50481555.html


Antares rocket ready for launch on space station resupply mission

Northrop Grumman packed last-minute cargo into a commercial Cygnus supply ship Monday on a launch pad in Virginia, putting the finishing touches on a spacecraft set for liftoff Tuesday atop an Antares rocket on a mission to the International Space Station.

The automated cargo freighter, named the “S.S. Ellison Onizuka” after one of the astronauts who died in the space shuttle Challenger accident, is loaded with 8,210 pounds (3,723 kilograms) of supplies and experiments.

The Cygnus supply ship is set to blast off from pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia, at 5:56:05 p.m. EDT (2156:05 GMT) Tuesday, the opening of a five-minute launch window to send the cargo mission in pursuit of the space station.

A 139-foot-tall (42.5-meter) Antares rocket will propel the Cygnus spacecraft into orbit. The two-stage rocket rolled out of Northrop Grumman’s Horizontal Integration Facility on Friday for the one-mile trip to pad 0A.

Ground crews raised the rocket vertical on the launch pad for checkouts over the weekend, then lowered the Antares horizontal again to begin the process of loading time-sensitive cargo into the Cygnus spacecraft.

Once a mobile clean room moved into place, technicians removed the “pop top” nose cone from the Antares rocket and opened the Cygnus hatch. The final cargo items to be loaded into the Cygnus spacecraft included biological experiments and fresh food for the space station’s seven-person crew.

By early Tuesday, the late cargo load should be complete, allowing teams to close the Cygnus hatch and re-install the upper part of the rocket’s payload fairing. The rocket is scheduled to be lifted vertical again around 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) Tuesday.

The five-hour countdown will begin shortly before 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT), beginning with power-up of the Antares flight computer and testing of the rocket’s telemetry transmitters and navigation system. Loading of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the Antares first stage will begin about an hour-and-a-half before liftoff.

There’s an 80 percent chance of good weather Tuesday for launch of the Antares rocket from Virginia Eastern Shore.

The Northrop Grumman resupply mission, named NG-16, will be the 16th cargo delivery to the space station by a Cygnus supply ship since 2013. It will be the 15th launch of an Antares rocket, which has suffered one failure on its prior 14 missions.

The first stage’s two Russian-made RD-181 main engines will roar to life 3.7 seconds before liftoff. After the engines throttle up to full power, hold-down bolts will release to allow the Antares to begin its climb into space.

The RD-181 engines will produce about 864,000 pounds of thrust to steer the rocket on a course southeast from Wallops.

At about T+plus 3 minutes, 24 seconds, the Antares will shed its liquid-fueled first stage, followed soon after by separation of the rocket’s payload fairing and interstage adapter. A solid-fueled Castor 30XL upper stage will ignite at about T+plus 4 minutes, 7 seconds, for nearly three minutes to inject the Cygnus supply ship into a preliminary orbit in pursuit of the space station. The Cygnus cargo craft is scheduled to deploy from the Antares second stage at about T+plus 8 minutes, 52 seconds.

The Cygnus will unfurl its two fan-shaped solar panels within a couple of hours after liftoff, allowing the spacecraft to start charging batteries for the day-and-a-half trip to the space station. Astronaut Megan McArthur aboard the research complex will use the Canadian-built robotic arm to capture the commercial resupply vessel around 6:10 a.m. EDT (1010 GMT) Thursday, assuming an on-time launch Tuesday.

Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket on pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Credit: NASA
NASA has multibillion-dollar contracts with Northrop Grumman, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corp. to ferry cargo to and from the space station. Northrop Grumman’s two resupply contracts covers 19 operational cargo missions through 2023.

The cargo launching aboard the Cygnus spacecraft includes a technology demonstration to look at how future space explorers could 3D-print materials out of lunar soil.

The 3D printing demonstration, developed by Redwire, will use a “lunar regolith simulant” with physical properties and chemical composition similar to that of the moon’s soil, said Howie Schulman, the project lead for the Redwire Regolith Print mission.

The simulant is a fine gray powder, which will be combined with a thermoplastic binder to create the feedstock for the 3D printing experiment.

The experiment, developed in partnership with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, will use Redwire’s commercially-operated Additive Manufacturing Facility on the space station. Redwire says it’s the first time that material designed to mimic lunar soil has been used for the 3D printing in space.

Hardware launching on the NG-16 mission for the 3D printing demonstration includes three custom-designed printing heads and three print bed surfaces, according to Redwire.

The material samples printed during the tech demo will be returned to Earth for analysis.

NASA and commercial companies are interested in 3D printing technology that could help manufacture components and infrastructure on the surface of the moon. Future lunar explorers could manufacture their own hardware instead of bringing materials from Earth, or relying on costly cargo shipments.

The NG-16 mission will also deliver spare parts for the space station’s toilet, a stowage rack for the lab’s airlock, and cooling fans for the station’s life support system.

The Cygnus spacecraft is also set to deliver a “mod kit” to configure the space station’s solar power truss for the arrival of the next pair of new roll-out solar arrays in late 2022. The first two new solar arrays were delivered to the station in June by a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule, beginning an upgrade that will expand the lab’s power generation capability for another decade of operations.

Astronauts will install the “mod kit” on the station’s huge power truss ahead of the arrival of the next two roll-out solar arrays.

Other payloads set for launch Tuesday include a biomedical research investigation looking at muscle loss in microgravity, and an experiment to test a more efficient thermal control system that could be used to dissipate heat on future spacecraft.

The Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled to remain berthed at the space station for about three months.

After departing the research complex in November, the Cygnus cargo craft will head for a destructive re-entry over the South Pacific Ocean, disposing of several tons of trash packed inside its pressurized compartment by space station astronauts.

One of the final experiments of the mission will be a test of heat shield technology using three small capsules stowed inside the Cygnus spacecraft.

When the Cygnus breaks apart during re-entry, the capsules will plunge deeper into the atmosphere protected by heat shields made of different types of materials.

Led by engineers at the University of Kentucky, the experiment will collect data from sensors embedded in each capsule’s heat shield. The measurements will be transmitted back to the science team via the Iridium satellite network.

The developers of the re-entry experiment say the data will help validate computer models used in spacecraft design.,50481555.html


Soyuz rocket rolls out to launch pad with next batch of OneWeb satellites

A Russian Soyuz rocket rolled out to a launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome Monday, moving into position for liftoff Thursday with 34 more satellites for OneWeb’s broadband internet network.

Ground teams transferred the Soyuz-2.1b rocket from its hangar, known by the Russian acronym MIK, to the Site 31 launch complex at Baikonur.

With a Fregat upper stage and 34 OneWeb satellites enclosed in its payload fairing, the Soyuz launcher rode a rail car to the launch pad at the Russian-operated spaceport in Kazakhstan. Once at the pad, the rocket was raised vertical and gantry arms rotated into position around the launcher.

Work planned over the next few days include final inspections of the launch vehicle, configuring of the first stage engine ignitor system, and removal of the thermal blanket covering the Soyuz payload fairing.

On Thursday, Russian managers are expected to give approval to load kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into the Soyuz rocket. The countdown Thursday will target liftoff at 6:23 p.m. EDT (2223 GMT).

The launch Thursday will bring OneWeb’s satellite fleet to 288 spacecraft. It will be the ninth dedicated launch for OneWeb since February 2019. All of OneWeb’s launches to date have used Russian-built Soyuz rockets under a commercial contract arrangement with Arianespace, the French launch services company.

Teams at the Baikonur Cosmodrome pose with the stack of 34 OneWeb internet satellites set for launch Thursday. Credit: Arianespace
Each OneWeb satellite is about the side of a mini-fridge. The spacecraft are built by OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus, in a factory just outside the gate of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The OneWeb satellites beam broadband internet signals to users on the ground, at sea, or in the air, providing high-speed, low-latency connectivity for consumers, large companies, and governments. OneWeb is competing with SpaceX’s Starlink network, along with planned internet constellations from other companies.

SpaceX has launched 1,740 Starlink satellites to date, enough to complete the build-out of the first of five planned orbital “shells” envisioned to complete the network, which could eventually number 12,000 spacecraft. After a break of more than two months between Starlink missions, SpaceX is expected to resume Starlink launches using Falcon 9 rockets in September.

OneWeb’s constellation needs fewer satellites to provide global internet service. The London-based operator plans to deploy 648 spacecraft through next year, including spares.

The Soyuz launches for OneWeb can take off from three different spaceports. So far, one Soyuz launch for OneWeb has launched from the Guiana Space Center in South America, two have departed from Baikonur, and five have lifted off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

The most recent launch for OneWeb on July 1 gave the company enough spacecraft to provide internet services to customers north of 50 degrees latitude.

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy in March 2020 after failing to secure enough funding to continue building and launching satellites. The reorganized company emerged from bankruptcy last year under the ownership of Bharti Global and the UK government.

OneWeb announced Aug. 12 a $300 million equity investment from Hanwha, a South Korean tech and manufacturing firm. The funding brings the total equity investment in OneWeb since November 2020 to $2.7 billion, the company said.

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket stands on its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Monday. Credit: Roscosmos
The Soyuz rocket launching Thursday will blast off with more than 900,000 pounds from 32 engine nozzles, driving the launcher toward the north from Baikonur. Within two minutes, four liquid-fueled first stage boosters will shut down and jettison, and the Soyuz core stage will switch off and separate nearly five minutes after liftoff.

Moments after the third stage engine ignites, the Soyuz willl shed its clamshell-like aerodynamic payload shroud. The third stage will deploy a Fregat upper stage on a preliminary suborbital trajectory more nine minutes into the mission, completing the role of the Soyuz rocket for the mission.

The main engine of the Fregat upper stage will ignite two times to place the 34 OneWeb satellites into a targeted polar orbit roughly 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 87.4 degrees to the equator.

Then begins a series of deployments to release the 34 OneWeb satellites from a composite dispenser, or connecting interface, made by RUAG Space in Sweden.

First, two of the 325-pound (147.5-kilogram) satellites will separate from the top of the cluster. The remaining 32 spacecraft will separate in groups of four at intervals of approximately 20 minutes, with maneuvers by the Fregat’s smaller attitude control thrusters in between to ensure the satellites did not collide.

The satellite separation events will largely occur when the Fregat is flying outside the range of ground tracking stations, so confirmation of some of the spacecraft deployment milestones will be delayed.

The last group of OneWeb satellites will release from the Fregat’s dispenser around 3 hours, 45 minutes into the mission.

The OneWeb satellites will use their on-board xenon propulsion systems to raise their altitude to enter the company’s operational constellation 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) above Earth.,50478585.html,50478549.html


China launches two radar mapping satellites

China launched a Long March 4B rocket Wednesday carrying two Tianhui radar mapping satellites into orbit more than 300 miles in altitude.

The two satellites will join a similar pair of spacecraft launched in April 2019, working in tandem to bounce radar beams off Earth’s surface to generate detailed three-dimensional global maps.

The satellite mapping system uses a technique called interferometric synthetic aperture radar to gather stereo data for 3D topographic maps. The data will be used by Chinese military and civilian agencies.

The two new Tianhui 2 satellites, known as the Tianhui 2-02 pair, took off at 6:32 p.m. EDT (2232 GMT) Wednesday from the Taiyuan launch base in northern China’s Shanxi province atop a Long March 4B rocket.

Liftoff occurred at 6:32 a.m. Thursday Beijing time, kicking off China’s 29th orbital launch attempt of the year.

The three-stage, liquid-fueled Long March 4B soared into space on southerly trajectory from Taiyuan. Chinese officials declared the mission a success, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., the top state-owned contractor for the country’s space program.

U.S. military tracking data indicated the rocket deployed the two Tianhui 2-02 satellites into a near-circular polar orbit at an average altitude of 317 miles (511 kilometers), with an inclination of 97.45 degrees to the equator.

The satellites will work in tandem, using X-band radar instruments to measure the exact distance from the spacecraft to Earth’s surface. The continuous radar observations will gather data to help Chinese analysts produce regularly-updated three-dimensional maps of the planet.

In a scientific paper, Chinese officials said the Tianhui 2 satellites are similar to the German TerraSAR X and TanDEM X radar observation satellites. The use of two satellites flying in formation yields stereo data critical to generate 3D maps.

From an orbit 300 miles above the planet, the Tianhui 2 satellites can gather imagery with a resolution of about 10 feet (3 meters), Chinese officials said.

China has launched a series of optical Tianhui 1-class optical imaging satellites with a similar 3D mapping mission. The optical satellites are sensitive to spectral differences, allowing users to determine information related to vegetation and agriculture, land use, and natural resources.

The benefit of radar is its ability to map the planet day or night, regardless of weather conditions.,50478585.html,50478549.html


AI That Can Learn Cause-and-Effect: These Neural Networks Know What They’re Doing

Neural networks can learn to solve all sorts of problems, from identifying cats in photographs to steering a self-driving car. But whether these powerful, pattern-recognizing algorithms actually understand the tasks they are performing remains an open question.

For example, a neural network tasked with keeping a self-driving car in its lane might learn to do so by watching the bushes at the side of the road, rather than learning to detect the lanes and focus on the road’s horizon.

Researchers at MIT have now shown that a certain type of neural network is able to learn the true cause-and-effect structure of the navigation task it is being trained to perform. Because these networks can understand the task directly from visual data, they should be more effective than other neural networks when navigating in a complex environment, like a location with dense trees or rapidly changing weather conditions.

In the future, this work could improve the reliability and trustworthiness of machine learning agents that are performing high-stakes tasks, like driving an autonomous vehicle on a busy highway.

Deep Learning Neural Network Navigation

MIT researchers have demonstrated that a special class of deep learning neural networks is able to learn the true cause-and-effect structure of a navigation task during training. Credit: Stock Image

“Because these machine-learning systems are able to perform reasoning in a causal way, we can know and point out how they function and make decisions. This is essential for safety-critical applications,” says co-lead author Ramin Hasani, a postdoc in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Co-authors include electrical engineering and computer science graduate student and co-lead author Charles Vorbach; CSAIL PhD student Alexander Amini; Institute of Science and Technology Austria graduate student Mathias Lechner; and senior author Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of CSAIL. The research will be presented at the 2021 Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) in December.

An attention-grabbing result

Neural networks are a method for doing machine learning in which the computer learns to complete a task through trial-and-error by analyzing many training examples. And “liquid” neural networks change their underlying equations to continuously adapt to new inputs.

The new research draws on previous work in which Hasani and others showed how a brain-inspired type of deep learning system called a Neural Circuit Policy (NCP), built by liquid neural network cells, is able to autonomously control a self-driving vehicle, with a network of only 19 control neurons.

The researchers observed that the NCPs performing a lane-keeping task kept their attention on the road’s horizon and borders when making a driving decision, the same way a human would (or should) while driving a car. Other neural networks they studied didn’t always focus on the road.

“That was a cool observation, but we didn’t quantify it. So, we wanted to find the mathematical principles of why and how these networks are able to capture the true causation of the data,” he says.

They found that, when an NCP is being trained to complete a task, the network learns to interact with the environment and account for interventions. In essence, the network recognizes if its output is being changed by a certain intervention, and then relates the cause and effect together.

During training, the network is run forward to generate an output, and then backward to correct for errors. The researchers observed that NCPs relate cause-and-effect during forward-mode and backward-mode, which enables the network to place very focused attention on the true causal structure of a task.

Hasani and his colleagues didn’t need to impose any additional constraints on the system or perform any special set up for the NCP to learn this causality.

“Causality is especially important to characterize for safety-critical applications such as flight,” says Rus. “Our work demonstrates the causality properties of Neural Circuit Policies for decision-making in flight, including flying in environments with dense obstacles such as forests and flying in formation.”

Weathering environmental changes

They tested NCPs through a series of simulations in which autonomous drones performed navigation tasks. Each drone used inputs from a single camera to navigate.

The drones were tasked with traveling to a target object, chasing a moving target, or following a series of markers in varied environments, including a redwood forest and a neighborhood. They also traveled under different weather conditions, like clear skies, heavy rain, and fog.

The researchers found that the NCPs performed as well as the other networks on simpler tasks in good weather, but outperformed them all on the more challenging tasks, such as chasing a moving object through a rainstorm.

“We observed that NCPs are the only network that pay attention to the object of interest in different environments while completing the navigation task, wherever you test it, and in different lighting or environmental conditions. This is the only system that can do this casually and actually learn the behavior we intend the system to learn,” he says.

Their results show that the use of NCPs could also enable autonomous drones to navigate successfully in environments with changing conditions, like a sunny landscape that suddenly becomes foggy.

“Once the system learns what it is actually supposed to do, it can perform well in novel scenarios and environmental conditions it has never experienced. This is a big challenge of current machine learning systems that are not causal. We believe these results are very exciting, as they show how causality can emerge from the choice of a neural network,” he says.

In the future, the researchers want to explore the use of NCPs to build larger systems. Putting thousands or millions of networks together could enable them to tackle even more complicated tasks.

Reference: “Causal Navigation by Continuous-time Neural Networks” by Charles Vorbach, Ramin Hasani, Alexander Amini, Mathias Lechner and Daniela Rus, 15 June 2021, Computer Science > Machine Learning.

This research was supported by the United States Air Force Research Laboratory, the United States Air Force Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, and the Boeing Company.,50478215.html


SpaceX test-fires rocket before space station cargo mission

On the cusp of ending a two-month SpaceX launch drought, ground crews raised a Falcon 9 rocket vertical Wednesday on its launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for an engine test-firing and final cargo loading before liftoff Saturday on a resupply flight to the International Space Station.

SpaceX rolled the Falcon 9 rocket, powered by a reused first stage booster, out of its hangar near pad 39A at Kennedy late Tuesday night. Then teams raised the launcher vertical on the seaside complex Wednesday.

The Falcon 9 rocket and its Cargo Dragon payload, standing 215 feet (65 meters) tall, ran through a practice countdown Wednesday evening. SpaceX’s launch team loaded densified, super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen into the two-stage rocket and lit its nine Merlin 1D main engines for 10 seconds at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0100 GMT Thursday) for a pre-flight test-firing.

Assuming engineers find no concerns in a post-test data review, SpaceX is expected to clear the automated cargo mission for launch at 3:37 a.m. EDT (0737 GMT) Saturday. It will be the company’s 21st Falcon 9 launch of the year, and the first since June 30, an unusually long gap between SpaceX missions, at least in recent history.

SpaceX has paused launches of its Starlink internet satellites to complete development of new laser link terminals designed to allow the spacecraft to beam broadband signals to one another in orbit. The Starlink missions made up the lion’s share of the Falcon 9 launches in the first half of the year.

The Starlink launches are scheduled to resume in September from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

With an on-time launch Saturday, the Cargo Dragon capsule, recycled from a previous cargo mission in December, is scheduled to dock with the space station at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) Sunday with several tons of supplies and experiments.

Ground teams will load time-sensitive cargo into the Dragon spacecraft ahead of Saturday morning’s launch attempt.

Besides fresh food and spare parts, the Cargo Dragon is set to deliver an array of technology demonstration, materials science, and biomedical experiments to the space station.

They include a small robotic arm from GITAI Japan Inc., a Japanese company, to demonstrate in-space tasks that could lead to development of future robots to assist astronauts on long-duration space missions. The arm will run through its demonstrations, including switch and cable operations and in-space assembly experiments, inside the commercial Bishop airlock owned Nanoracks.

Some of the tasks will be autonomous, while others will be tele-operated from Nanoracks’ facility in Houston, according to GITAI.

“This technology demonstration is to show the world that the capabilities necessary for automation in space are finally available,” said Toyotaka Kozuki, GITAI Japan’s chief technology officer, in a statement. “It provides an inexpensive and safer source of labor in space, opening the door to the true commercialization of space.”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Cargo Dragon spacecraft prep for rollout from a hangar near pad 39A. Credit: SpaceX
The mission also carries an experiment hosting package called the Faraday Research Facility. Developed by a Houston company named ProXops, the facility will be inserted by astronauts into one of the space station’s science racks.

On this flight, the facility carries an experiment from Houston Methodist Research Institute to test an implantable, remote-controlled drug delivery system. Scientists say the experiment could offer an alternative to bulky infusion pumps to help treat chronic conditions in patients on Earth.

NASA says facility also hosts two educational experiments to be performed on the space station, including one with participation from a Girl Scout troop on the ground.

There are also multiple CubeSats stowed inside the Cargo Dragon’s pressurized compartment. They will be robotically deployed outside the space station in the coming weeks and months.

The mission set for launch Saturday will be SpaceX’s 23rd commercial resupply flight to the space station since 2012, and the third to use a new generation of SpaceX Dragon cargo ships based on the company’s human-rated crew capsules.

NASA has multibillion-dollar contracts with SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada Corp. to transport cargo to and from the space station.

A launch weather forecast issued Wednesday by the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron suggests a chance of scattered rain showers along Florida’s Space Coast early Saturday.

There is a 40% probability that weather might prevent launch Saturday morning, according to the outlook. The primary concerns are with cumulus clouds that could create a risk for lightning, and precipitation along the Falcon 9 and Cargo Dragon flight path.

There is a 30% chance of weather preventing launch during a backup launch opportunity Sunday.,50478143.html


Astra aborts launch attempt in Alaska

The commercial space company Astra aborted its third orbital launch attempt from Alaska just before liftoff Friday. The company did not immediately confirm when it will try again to launch its compact two-stage launcher sized to haul small satellites into space, but another countdown could come as soon as Saturday.

The mission’s launch window opens at 5 p.m. EDT (12 p.m. Alaska time; 2100 GMT) each day. Astra has clearance to launch the mission through Sept. 11.

Astra is one of numerous private companies aiming to capture a segment of the fast-growing small satellite launch market, alongside operators like Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Firefly Aerospace, and others.

But Astra’s initial class of rockets is smaller than the launchers fielded by competitors in the small launch segment. The next iteration of Astra’s launch vehicle line, called Rocket 3.3, stands 43 feet (13 meters) tall, modest by orbital launch vehicle standards.

But it’s around 5 feet taller than the rockets Astra used for its first two orbital launch attempts last year. With stretched first stage tanks to hold more propellant, and a lighter upper stage, the new rocket configuration can carry heavier cargo into orbit, according to Astra.

Astra tried three times last year to launch its rocket into orbit, with each attempt getting closer to the goal.

The company’s first orbit-capable rocket, named Rocket 3.0, was supposed to launch in February 2020 in an effort sponsored by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to demonstrate responsive launch capability. But the mission did not get off the ground before DARPA’s deadline after a series of delays.

Astra intended to try again to launch Rocket 3.0, but the vehicle was destroyed in an accident during a wet dress rehearsal, or fueling test, at Kodiak.

Astra’s first orbital launch attempt Sept. 11, using Rocket 3.1, ended 30 seconds after takeoff when a guidance system problem caused the rocket to drift off course. In response, the rocket’s engines were commanded to shut down and the vehicle fell back to the spaceport on Kodiak Island.

On Dec. 15, Astra’s Rocket 3.2 nearly achieved enough speed to enter orbit. But the upper stage engine shut down just seconds before it was supposed to cut off, leaving the rocket just shy of orbital velocity. The vehicle re-entered the atmosphere, and most of it burned up.

Astra dispatched Rocket 3.3, known by its serial number LV0006, and fewer than a dozen employees to Kodiak earlier this month to set up the company’s mobile launch infrastructure. A control team working from Astra’s headquarters in Alameda, California, will oversee the final launch countdown.

The mission will not carry a separating payload, but instead is loaded with sensors and instruments to measure environments on-board during the climb into space. The data will help inform potential customers about the acceleration, loads, pressures, and other conditions inside the rocket’s payload compartment.

The U.S. Space Force contracted the mission with Astra through the Defense Innovation Unit.

“We are thrilled to partner with Astra on this mission and believe this showcases critical low-cost, mobile and responsive launch capability,” said Col. Carlos Quinones, director Department of Defense’s Space Test Program.

Astra says it is under contract for a second launch for the Space Force later this year.

“We’re excited to kick off a multi-launch campaign with the Space Force” said Chris Kemp, founder, chairman and CEO of Astra. “This orbital demonstration launch allows our team to verify numerous upgrades to our launch system.”,50478143.html


Firefly’s Alpha rocket explodes on inaugural test launch

The first test flight of Firefly Aerospace’s privately-developed Alpha small satellite launcher ended in a fiery failure soon after liftoff Thursday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The rocket roared away from its pad at Space Launch Complex 2-West at 6:59 p.m. PDT (9:59 p.m. EDT; 0159 GMT) and all appeared to be going well as it climbed into a clear blue sky. The first sign of possible trouble came at about T+1 minute 47 seconds when a launch controller reported Alpha was not yet supersonic, a milestone it was supposed to have reached 40 seconds prior to that. At T+2 minutes 18 seconds the controller advised “vehicle is supersonic”. Shortly there after the rocket appeared to lose control and tumble for several seconds before exploding, approximately 2 minutes 29 seconds after launch.

Firefly Aerospace confirmed the mishap in a tweet: “Alpha experienced an anomaly during first stage ascent that resulted in the loss of the vehicle. As we gather more information, additional details will be provided.”

The Firefly Aerospace Alpha launch vehicle lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Credit: Gene Blevins / LA Daily News.
It was the inaugral flight for the two-stage Alpha rocket, which is designed to loft up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) into a low-altitude orbit, or up to 1,388 pounds (630 kilograms) of payload to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous polar orbit.

The kerosene-fueled rocket is one of many privately-developed small satellite launchers new to the market. It is powered by four Reaver engines on the first stage which generate more than 165,000 pounds of thrust at maximum power, and a Lightning engine on the second stage will produces more than 15,000 pounds of thrust.

Firefly says the size of its rocket — which can carry heavier payloads than Rocket Lab’s Electron or Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne — differentiates it from other prospective launch providers in the smallsat launch market. It expects to sell a dedicated Alpha launch for $15 million per flight.

The fully-assembled Alpha launch vehicle stands around 97.6 feet (29.75 meters) tall and measures nearly 6 feet (1.8 meters) in diameter.

Firefly Aerospace, headquartered in Cedar Park, Texas, was previously named Firefly Space Systems before entering bankruptcy. The renamed company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2017 under new ownership.

Noosphere Ventures, a Menlo Park, California-based firm led by managing partner Max Polyakov, now funds Firefly’s rocket development program.

Firefly’s other projects beyond the Alpha launcher include the Beta rocket, which will use upgraded engines to haul heavier payloads into orbit. Firefly also has ambitions for a robotic lunar lander, a space tug powered by electric thrusters, and a reusable spaceplane.

In addition to its pad at Vandenberg, Firefly is also developing a second launch site would be located at the disused Complex 20 launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

For this first test flight the rocket was carrying a suite of educational, artistic, and research payloads. The company offered free launch capacity through a program Firefly calls the Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission, or DREAM.

The Alpha rocket was targeting a 186-mile-high inclined 137 degrees to the equator. The unusual orbit, called a retrograde orbit because the rocket will travel against the Earth’s rotation, required the Alpha launcher to head southwest over the Pacific Ocean on a track that would have taken it south of Hawaii.,50478099.html


Shenzhou crew departs Chinese space station, heads for Earth

China’s three-man Shenzhou 12 crew floated into their return craft and undocked from the Tiangong space station Wednesday, heading for landing in remote northwestern China to close out a three-month mission, the longest human flight to date in the country’s space program.

As the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft departed the space station, a Chinese ground teams rolled an unpiloted cargo ship to its launch pad at the Wenchang launch base on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province, for liftoff Monday on a resupply flight to the Tiangong complex.

The Shenzhou 12 crew undocked from Tiangong at 8:56 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0056 GMT Thursday) and backed away from the space station. The spacecraft performed a “radial rendezvous” test, a circumnavigation maneuver to fly the ship from a position in front of the space station to a point below the complex.

The test demonstrated an approach to a different Tiangong docking port, that will be used by future missions to link up with the space station, according to the China Manned Space Agency.

Shenzhou 12 halted its radial approach before docking, as planned, then flew away from the station as the three-man crew readied for re-entry and a parachute-assisted landing Friday.

Chinese officials have not officially announced the scheduled landing time, but Chinese authorities released an airspace warning notice for the landing zone between 1:14 a.m. and 1:44 a.m. EDT (0514-0544 GMT) Friday. The landing window opens at 1:14 p.m. Beijing time.

The return zone in Inner Mongolia region, known as Dongfeng, is a new location for Shenzhou landings. Previous Shenzhou missions parachuted into a different part of Inner Mongolia known as Siziwang Banner.

Nie Haisheng, commander of the Shenzhou 12 mission, is wrapping up his third flight into orbit. Crewmate Liu Boming is in the home stretch of his second space mission. First-time space flier Tang Hongbo rounds out the crew.

Shenzhou 12 is the seventh crewed spaceflight in China’s space program. The mission broke the record for the longest-duration Chinese human spaceflight, exceeding Shenzhou 11 mission’s 32 days in orbit in 2016.

Chinese astronaut Tang Hongbo (left), commander Nie Haisheng (center), and astronaut Liu Boming (right) inside the Tianhe core module of China’s space station. Credit: CCTV
Shenzhou 12 launched June 16 on top of a Chinese Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan space center in the Gobi Desert, a barren region in northwestern China. The craft docked with the Tiangong space station about six hours later, then the astronauts opened hatches to become the first crew to enter the new Chinese space lab.

The first element of the Tiangong space station launched in April. The Tianhe core module contains a regenerative lift support system, which produces breathing oxygen through electrolysis and recycles urine to make drinking water.

The Tianhe module also has astronaut living quarters, medical equipment, a command and control element, and an airlock and exterior handrails for spacewalks. There are three sleeping berths — one for each astronaut — and one toilet on the Tianhe core module, Chinese officials said.

The core module of the Chinese space station also has a treadmill and a stationary bicycle for astronauts to get some exercise.

A resupply spacecraft named Tianzhou 2 launched in May and docked with the Tianhe module, pre-positioning supplies and provisions to support the Shenzhou 12 crew once they arrived in June.

During their three months on Tiangong, the Shenzhou 12 astronauts completed two spacewalks July 4 and Aug. 20 totaling more than 12 hours. The astronauts also tested the space station’s robotic arm and performed science experiments, according to Chinese state media.

After the return of Shenzhou 12, Chinese officials plan to launch the Tianzhou 3 cargo ship to the Tiangong space station Monday on a Long March 7 rocket from the Wenchang space center at Hainan.

The Tianzhou 2 spacecraft, currently attached to the aft port of the Tianhe core module, is expected to soon detach and move to the forward port vacated by Shenzhou 12. Tianzhou 2 will perform in-orbit refueling tests there.

The next mission to launch to the space station after the Tianzhou cargo ship will be the next piloted Shenzhou flight, set for launch in October. The Shenzhou 13 crew mission is expected to last up to six months, breaking the Chinese spaceflight endurance record set by Shenzhou 12.,50477723.html

Space Uncategorized

All-civilian crew prepares for Saturday evening splashdown

The Inspiration4 crew members wrapped up their third and final day in orbit Saturday and set their sights on an automated plunge back to Earth, a steep descent to an evening splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral to wrap up a history-making flight.

If all goes well, the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s flight computer will fire the ship’s Draco braking rockets at 6:16 p.m. EDT, slowing the capsule enough to lower the far side of the orbit into the atmosphere for a southwest-to-northeast descent across Central America and the Florida peninsula.

Heralded by sonic booms, the capsule is expected to splash down under four large parachutes at 7:06 p.m. EDT about 30 miles northeast of the crew’s Kennedy Space Center launch site, closing out the first all-civilian privately-funded flight to orbit in space history.

Expected mission duration: 71 hours and three minutes.

Billionaire commander Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski and Hayley Arceneaux plan to remain inside their capsule until after recovery crews haul the spacecraft aboard SpaceX’s “Go Searcher” support ship.

The recovery team will “jump out, do their thing, they’ll hook up the lanyards or straps (and) pull them on (board),” said Inspiration4 mission director Scott “Kidd” Poteet, a former Air Force Thunderbirds pilot. “That’s just going to be a couple minutes by the time they get on the deck, which is the same procedures they’ve used in the past with NASA.

“They’ll slide the capsule right up against the deck and we’ll open the hatch. The first one in is the doc to do his initial assessment. I’ll be sitting right there at the door, anxious to greet them all.”

After that, all four crew members will board a helicopter for the short flight back to the Kennedy Space Center’s 3-mile-long shuttle runway for reunions and post-flight celebration.

“The priority is to make sure they’re healthy,” Poteet said. “There’s a medical assessment, they’re going to get showered up, change and prepare to jump on the helo for the flight back. I think it’s about a 25-minute flight … and the families are going to be right there to welcome them home.”

Isaacman, the CEO of a payment processing company and an accomplished jet pilot, chartered the flight as part of a personal drive to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He kicked in the first $100 million himself and set up a donations program that has pulled in $50 million to date.

Arceneaux is a childhood cancer survivor who was treated at St. Jude and is now a physician assistant at the famed research center. Proctor, a one-time astronaut finalist, educator and artist, and Sembroski, an aerospace engineer, were selected as part of an on-line contest.

All four spent six months training for the Inspiration4 flight and all four appeared to be having the time of their lives in orbit as seen in the few glimpses seen by the public during the mission. A more extensive look at the flight will be presented as part of an on-going Netflix documentary.

“They were rock stars from the very beginning,” Poteet said. “And that’s a testament to SpaceX and the training that they went through over the last six-plus months, in addition to some of the additional training that we came up with to make sure they’re fully prepared.”

Isaacman, he said, was committed to “a 100% successful mission, and thus far it has been.”

The mission began at 8:02 p.m. Wednesday when the crew’s Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and shot away from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The booster propelled the Crew Dragon capsule into a 365-mile-high orbit some 100 miles higher than the International Space Station.

During their three days in space, Isaacman and company collected medical data to chart their adaptation to weightlessness, chatted with patients at St. Jude, gave the public a televised tour of their capsule and showed off the hemispheric dome SpaceX installed to provide spectacular 360-degree views of Earth and space.

The crew also talked by radio with friends and family, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk, company president Gwynne Shotwell, actor Tom Cruise and rock star Bono of U2.

“Tom was obviously super excited, offering us a viewing of ‘Top Gun 2,’” Poteet said. “Us being aviation enthusiasts, we’re pretty excited about that one, for sure.”

While about half the people who fly in space suffer from space motion sickness during their first few days in weightlessness, the Inspiration4 crew appeared cheerful and healthy in the video clips downlinked during the mission.

“They’ve been absolute rock stars, and we couldn’t be prouder,” Poteet said.

Asked if the crew had to deal with any technical problems during the flight, he said there were a few “minor challenges” but nothing of any significance.

“For example, there was a minor waste management issue that the crew and mission control were required to troubleshoot,” he said, not adding any details. “But honestly, this did not impact the mission. … It was a huge success. To quote SpaceX, it was one of the most successful missions thus far that they’ve been able to execute. So overall, we couldn’t be happier.”

Isaacman, Proctor, Sembroski and Arceneaux became the 588th, 589th, 590th and 591st individuals to fly in space, pushing the U.S. total to 311 men and 56 women. They were the 25th through 28th people to fly in space on a purely commercial basis and the first privately funded, non-government crew to make it into orbit.,50477723.html