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NASA’s TESS spacecraft flies to orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Photo Credit: Scott Schilke / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Liftoff of NASA’s TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, took place on April 18, 2018 at 6:51 p.m. EDT (22:51 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40.

SpaceFlight Insider’s Visual Team covered the flight from multiple angles with still and video cameras and captured the mission’s start in extreme detail.

TESS is part of NASA’s larger exoplanet mission arc, which includes the previous Kepler Space Telescope and the long awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled to launch in 2020. TESS will be the first spacecraft to search nearly the entire sky for exoplanets.

The launch came after NASA and SpaceX had scrubbed the initial launch attempt on Monday, April 16. SpaceX cited issues with the Guidance Navigation and Control system of the Falcon 9 booster as the reason for the scrub. SpaceX believed a 48-hour timetable would give their launch team enough time to address and correct the issue, and the launch was rescheduled to the Wednesday evening 30-second window that would put TESS on its unique 2:1 resonance orbit with the Moon.

The flight got underway at 6:51 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. Photo Credit: Michael John McCabe / SpaceFlight Insider

The spacecraft’s launch atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was the company’s seventh Falcon 9 launch of 2018. It was also the last “full thrust” or Block 4 Falcon 9 that SpaceX will launch, as it now transitions to the new Block 5 Falcon 9.

Another piece of history occurred with this flight as TESS is the first NASA science mission to hitch a ride on a Falcon 9 launched from Cape Canaveral.

About 70 minutes before liftoff, under a cloudless early evening sky, SpaceX began loading rocket grade kerosene, or RP-1, into the first and second stage of the rocket. Loading of super-chilled liquid oxygen began about 35 minutes later.

TESS is designed to search for exoplanets for about two years. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

The TESS spacecraft, which is about the size of a refrigerator, waited through the countdown inside the large 5.2-meter (17.2 feet) wide fairing of the Falcon 9. The almost comical size disparity between the small spacecraft and the large fairing was a result of the changing fortunes and circumstances of years-long mission planning. During the early phases of the design for TESS, the spacecraft was expected to fit inside the much smaller payload fairing of either a Taurus or a Falcon 1e. However, from 2001 to 2011, Taurus experienced failures on three out of four of its launches. As a result, Taurus was reworked and rebranded, while the Falcon 1e was withdrawn by SpaceX, to make way for the Falcon 9, which was in development at that time. In 2014 it was announced that TESS would launch atop a Falcon 9, complete with its oversized fairing for the earlier size-restricted TESS.

Wednesday’s countdown commenced through the final minutes without incident, and at 3 seconds before liftoff the nine Merlin 1D first stage engines ignited, throttling up to full power as the Falcon 9’s onboard computers verified that all nine engines were working perfectly. When the countdown reached 0 the launch pad’s hydraulic clamp’s released the rocket, and the Falcon 9 carrying TESS thundered into the sky.

At 76 seconds into the flight, the rocket passed through max Q, the phase of maximum dynamic pressure on the vehicle. A little more than a minute later the nine engines of the first stage cutoff. At 2 minutes and 29 seconds the first stage booster separated from the second stage and began its powered descent down to the Atlantic toward a landing on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship. Five seconds later the second stage’s single Merlin Vacuum engine ignited to continue powering TESS into space.

At 3 minutes and 5 seconds into the flight, the two halves of the Falcon 9 payload fairing separated, exposing TESS to space for the first time. The two payload fairing halves began their long fall back toward a splashdown and recovery in the Atlantic Ocean. The second stage continued to burn for nearly 6 minutes, shutting down at the 8:17 mark in the flight, after placing TESS in its preliminary orbit. Three seconds after that event, far below in the Atlantic, the first stage booster made its successful landing on the drone ship.

The spacecraft and second stage coasted in the preliminary orbit for more than 32 minutes before the Merlin Vacuum engine reignited. The second stage engine burned for exactly 59 seconds, pushing TESS into its initial high elliptical orbit, ranging from 120 miles (200 kilometers) to 168,000 miles (270,000 kilometers) above Earth. Seven minutes later the 798 pound (362 kg) spacecraft was deployed from the second stage, and TESS continued on into the next phase of its mission.

In the coming weeks, TESS will conduct a set of engine burns as it travels on a series of phasing loops out toward the Moon’s orbital path, culminating in a lunar flyby and gravitational assist that will place the spacecraft on a lunar transfer orbit that will be inclined 37 degrees from the Moon’s orbital plain.

An adjustment during the transfer orbit will place TESS in its 13.7-day mission orbit about 60 days after launch. This high Earth orbit is in a 2:1 resonance orbit with the Moon. The unique orbit will keep the spacecraft in a safe thermal and radiation environment, and maximize the amount of sky TESS can image, allowing its cameras to monitor their targets continuously from a stable orbit for the duration of the mission.

“Kepler looked at a very small part of the sky, and deep,” Robert Lockwood, TESS Spacecraft Program Manager at Orbital ATK, told Spaceflight Insider. “It looked out to about 3,000 light years distance, looking to characterize how many planets have stars around them, and then are they small rocky ones or big gas planets like Jupiter, and so on. With TESS, we’re trying to survey in what’s called our solar neighborhood, within about 300 light years, which means the stars are a hundred times brighter.”

TESS will observe these brighter nearby stars for exoplanets in order to identify a list of the best targets for follow-up observations by ground-based observatories and future space telescopes. Ground-based spectroscopy can then measure planet masses, while space-based spectroscopy can characterize their atmospheres.

“If you want to look at the atmosphere of an exoplanet you’ve found,” Lockwood said, “you need a bright light behind it, a brighter star, so the light passing through the atmosphere can be looked at spectroscopically, so that you can see, first, does it have an atmosphere, and second, does it have oxygen or water or methane or other things like that.”

The primary mission of TESS is to provide an accurate and exhaustive list of those well-suited, brighter, nearer targets for further exoplanet observation. To accomplish this mission, TESS is equipped with four wide-field CCD cameras, and lens assemblies that will give each camera a 24-by-24 degree field of view. The cameras are aimed in an arrangement that stacks their field of view areas vertically, one atop the other, in a total 24-by-96 degree observation sector from the ecliptic to the celestial pole. The cameras will focus on that section of the sky for at least 27 days, before pivoting to the next of 13 observation sectors in each hemisphere, for a total of 26 sectors.

NASA’s TESS spacecraft in the cleanroom at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, prior to its April 18 flight. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

TESS will observe the southern hemisphere in its first year and the northern hemisphere in its second year, searching a total area 350 times larger than that observed by Kepler. The two-year mission will complete a survey of more than 85 percent of the sky.

Primary Investigator Dr. George Ricker was in the SpaceX Launch Control Center at Cape Canaveral throughout the countdown and launch. He will lead the spacecraft’s science mission from MIT’s Kevli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI), where the mission began as a concept study in 2006.

“The role of TESS in many ways is to serve as a bridge between Kepler and other anticipated missions,” Ricker told Spaceflight Insider. “It is especially connected to Webb and to other missions that will hopefully follow in the next few decades.”

MKI and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center partnered with Orbital ATK to provide the spacecraft. It is based on Orbital ATK’s LEOStar-2 platform, a versatile spacecraft that can accommodate various instrument interfaces and support a payload of up to 1,100 pounds (500 kg).

Astronomers predict that TESS, by surveying 200,000 of the brightest dwarf stars, will likely catalog more than 20,000 exoplanet candidates. Among these, they expect that TESS will discover more than 50 Earth-sized planets and up to 500 planets less than twice the size of Earth.

“To me, the best thing about being on a new mission is not finding the stuff that you expect to find, but finding something you didn’t expect,” Dr. Stephan Rinehart, TESS Project Scientist at NASA Goddard told Spaceflight Insider. “I very much hope that a year from now we are looking at something in the data and saying ‘what the hell is that!’  If we just get what we expect to get, it’s going to be fantastic, because it really is changing the way people approach exoplanet science in the future. If we get more than that? Even better. If we get something we don’t expect, I’ll be really excited.”

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The following photos were taken by the SpaceFlight Insider visual team.

[See image gallery at spaceflightinsider.com]

The post Gallery: TESS mission ascends atop SpaceX Falcon 9 appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Jim Bridenstine has been confirmed as the 13th NASA administrator on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Photo Credit: Scott Schilke and House.gov

Representative Jim Bridenstine, after some 15  months of waiting, has been confirmed as NASA’s 13th  Administrator. The long-delayed approval was made on Thursday, April 19. The selection of NASA’s new leader comes after much political wrangling and controversy.

With the U.S. Senate’s confirmation, Bridenstine becomes the 13th NASA Administrator, something that almost didn’t happen due to Bridenstine’s views on Climate Change and LGBT relationships. 

The last NASA Administrator, former shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden, resigned his post upon the election of Donald Trump. Since that time, the U.S. space agency has been led by Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot. Lightfoot, who has served as NASA’s interim leader since Jan. 2017, announced his retirement from the agency last month (March, 2018). Lightfoot’s retirement date is set for April 30 – making Bridenstine’s confirmation timely. 
 
“I’m very pleased to welcome Jim Bridenstine to NASA,” Lightfoot stated via a release issued by NASA. “He joins our great agency at a time when we are poised to accomplish historic milestones across the full spectrum of our work. Jim now takes the reins of this agency and its talented and dedicated workforce. I’m looking forward to him building on our great momentum and sharing our many strengths to help us make the next giants leaps on behalf of humanity. I also want express my heartfelt appreciation to the NASA team for all they accomplished during my time leading the agency.”
 
Officials within the space community also expressed optimism at what the agency might be capable of with an administrator at the helm.
 
“The Senate vote today marks the beginning of Jim’s tenure at our nation’s space agency as America prepares to return to the Moon and push further into deep space,” said Dr. Mary Lynne Dittmar, President and CEO of the Coalition via a release issued by the organization. “The Coalition looks forward to working closely with Administrator Bridenstine and his team to support NASA’s human exploration and space science programs.”
 
Bridenstine, who served Oklahoma as a congressman, was approved by a 50-49 vote. Many former NASA Administrators were confirmed by unanimous votes. Opposition to Bridenstine’s appointment was led by Florida Senator and former shuttle astronaut Bill Nelson. 
 
If not for Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who was one of those opposing Bridenstine’s approval until he buckled under pressure from Republican leadership, (according to a report appearing on Quartz) Bridenstine would likely not have been approved.
 
Bridenstine’s selection comes at a time when the agency is working to fulfill its obligations to its international partners, but to also develop the super heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, its crew-rated deep space exploration spacecraft; Orion and to empower commercial firms to handle most low-Earth orbit operations.  

“It is an honor to be confirmed by the United States Senate to serve as NASA Administrator,” Bridenstine stated via a release issued by the space agency. “I am humbled by this opportunity, and I once again thank President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for their confidence. I look forward to working with the outstanding team at NASA to achieve the President’s vision for American leadership in space.”

The post Jim Bridenstine confirmed as NASA Administrator appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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SpaceX launches the TESS spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — On a mission to search for planets outside of the Solar System, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was launched into space atop a Falcon 9 rocket on the first leg of the spacecraft’s multi-month journey to its final orbit high above Earth.

TESS is a 772-pound (350-kilogram) satellite that has a primary goal of looking for exoplanets. The washing-machine-sized spacecraft measures some 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) tall and is 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) wide. It has two solar panels that, once deployed, have a wingspan of about 12.8 feet (3.9 meters).

NASA’s TESS spacecraft before being encapsulated for launch. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

To find these exoplanets, TESS sports four wide-angle cameras and will ultimately orbit Earth in a 2:1 lunar resonance orbit, meaning for every time the Moon orbits Earth once, TESS will orbit Earth twice.

“We are thrilled TESS is on its way to help us discover worlds we have yet to imagine, worlds that could possibly be habitable, or harbor life,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in an agency news release. “With missions like the James Webb Space Telescope to help us study the details of these planets, we are ever the closer to discovering whether we are alone in the universe.”

Quiet countdown, loud launch

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 with TESS took place at 6:51 p.m. EDT (22:51 GMT) April 18, 2018, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40). This was two days later than planned as the original launch date was called off to give SpaceX time to conduct additional analysis on its guidance, navigation and control systems.

The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, which manages the Eastern Range, predicted a greater than 90 percent chance of acceptable weather conditions for the April 18 launch date.

It was a quiet countdown with fueling operations for the 230-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 starting some 70 minutes before liftoff. First was the loading of rocket grade kerosene into both stages. Then some 35 minutes later, liquid oxygen began flowing into the two stages’ tanks.

About seven minutes before liftoff, the nine first stage Merlin 1D engines began chilling before launch to prepare them for the super-cold liquid oxygen that flows through the engine feed lines.

One minute before launch, the flight computer was commanded to begin final pre-launch checks and the propellant tanks pressurized to flight pressures. Fifteen seconds later, the Falcon 9 launch director verified all was indeed go for launch.

Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

Three seconds before rising skyward, the nine first stage Merlin 1D engines ignited and throttled to full power. Only when the computer verified the engines were healthy did it command the launch mount to let go of the Falcon 9, allowing it to soar toward the black.

Liftoff was quick. In about seven seconds, the vehicle cleared the four lightning towers at SLC-40. Just over a minute later, the rocket was passing the speed of sound and reaching the moment of peak mechanical stress. The latter is known as Max Q, and occurred at a mission-elapsed-time of 1 minute, 16 seconds.

Photo Credit: Ryan Chylinski / SpaceFlight Insider

Straight as an arrow, the Falcon 9 with its tiny payload continued to climb for about 2 minutes, 29 seconds before its first stage engines cut off as planned. Just three seconds later, it separated from the second stage.

After stage separation, the second stage’s lone Merlin vacuum-optimized engine ignited to continue propelling TESS toward the target orbit. Then the payload fairing protecting the spacecraft for the first several minutes of flight was jettisoned as planned some 3 minutes, 5 seconds after launch.

While the second stage was on its way up, the first stage, a Block 4 variant, continued on a parabolic trajectory and began preparations for an autonomous landing on SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You positioned downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.

After using its thrusters to point its engines retrograde in the boosters direction of travel, the stages four aluminum grid fins deployed. These would be used to steer the vehicle as it got lower into the atmosphere.

Six minutes, 29 seconds into its flight, the first stage re-lit three of its engines to perform an entry burn. This cushioned the vehicles reentry into Earth’s atmosphere and helped fine-tune its trajectory toward the drone ship.

Then at 8 minutes, 20 seconds after leaving SLC-40, the stage successfully landed on the drone ship using a final landing burn. This was the 13th successful drone ship landing and the 24th successful booster recovery overall, including the two Falcon Heavy side-cores in February 2018.

In fact, since SpaceX’s first successful landing in December 2015, the company has failed in landing a first stage core only four times, including the failed landing of the Falcon Heavy core in February 2018.

Meanwhile in space, the primary mission of delivering TESS to orbit continued nominally. At 8 minutes, 17 seconds—around when the first stage landed on the drone ship—the second stage’s first burn cut off as planned. It and TESS were now in a parking orbit.

After a coasting in low-Earth orbit for some 35 minutes, the second stage ignited its engine again for just under a minute to place the spacecraft in its initial elliptical target orbit that had a high point of 170,000 miles (273,000 kilometer). Five minutes later, TESS was deployed. This was followed shortly thereafter by the deployment of its two solar panels.

The long road ahead for TESS

Over the next two months, TESS will perform several of its own burns using its onboard propulsion system to raise the high point of its orbit to get close enough to the Moon for a gravity assist. This flyby of the Moon will change both the high and low point of the spacecraft’s orbit, as well as its inclination relative to Earth’s equator.

After several more burns, TESS will be in a special 2:1 lunar resonance orbit of roughly 67,000 by 233,000 miles (108,000 by 375,000 kilometers) inclined 37 degrees. NASA expects this 13.7-day orbit to remain stable for several decades with very little interference from the Moon.

The flight path from its initial insertion orbit to its final 2:1 lunar resonance orbit. Image Credit: NASA

Once in its science orbit, TESS will begin a two-year mission to look for exoplanets transiting across the disc of their respective parent stars. The spacecraft is expected to scan the sky to look for both small rocky planets and large gas giants, as well as everything in between, around some 200,000 stars within about 300 light-years from Earth.

“One critical piece for the science return of TESS is the high data rate associated with its orbit,” George Ricker, TESS principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge, said in a news release. “Each time the spacecraft passes close to Earth, it will transmit full-frame images taken with the cameras. That’s one of the unique things TESS brings that was not possible before.”

According to NASA, scientists divided the sky into 26 sectors for TESS to survey. Using its cameras, the spacecraft will map 13 sectors in the Southern Hemisphere during its first year of observation and 13 in the Northern Hemisphere in its second year. Ultimately, the planet-hunting observatory will survey some 85 percent of the sky.

“The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come,” Stephen Rinehart, TESS project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a news release. “It’s the beginning of a new era of exoplanet research.”

Today’s Falcon 9 launch was the third time NASA utilized the rocket for a mission other than an International Space Station cargo run. It was SpaceX’s eighth launch of 2018 and the fifth Falcon 9 to launch from Florida this year.

SpaceX’s next flight could be the Bangladeshi-owned Bangabandhu-1 communications satellite. That launch is expected to take place no earlier than May 4, 2018, from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. It will also be the first flight of the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Liftoff of TESS - YouTube

Video courtesy of NASA

The post NASA’s planet-hunting TESS launched by SpaceX Falcon 9 appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Photo Credit: Roscosmos via SpaceFlight 101

The Russian military has expanded its fleet of communications satellites with the launch of the Blagovest 12L spacecraft on Wednesday, April 18.

The military comsat lifted off atop a Proton-M launcher at 6:12 p.m. EDT (22:12 GMT) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Due to military nature of the mission, very little information has been given about the flight as well as pre-launch preparations. It is only known that the launch was initially targeted for December 25, 2017, but problems with one of the satellite’s components forced Russia to postpone the mission several times.

On February 7, 2018, ISS Reshetnev, the satellite’s manufacturer, informed that the mission was on schedule for launch in April.

“The customer has drawn up a schedule of launches and we are following it. The satellite is ready from December for its delivery. We are preparing for the launch in April,” Nikolai Testoyedov, CEO of Reshetnev told the TASS press agency.

One month later, ISS Reshetnev announced that the satellite was delivered to Baikonur in early March of 2018.

Powered by its six RD-275M engines, the Proton-M thundered off the launch pad on Wednesday to complete a short vertical ascent after which it started heading in a northeasterly direction. The rocket’s first stage finished its job one minute and 58 seconds into the flight when it was detached from the launch vehicle.

Next, the second stage took control of the flight, powering the mission for about three and a half minutes, until its separation at T+5:27 minutes. Once the second stage detached, the third stage continued the mission for approximately four minutes, when it separated some nine minutes and 42 seconds after liftoff.

Afterward, the longest phase of the flight commenced, during which the rocket’s Briz-M upper stage is tasked with the delivery of the payload into a geostationary orbit. This part of the flight should last around nine hours.

ISS Reshetnev describes Blagovest 12L as a high-capacity telecommunications satellite which is designed to provide high-speed data transmission services. It is based on the company’s Express 2000 satellite platform, which is capable of hosting payloads of up to one metric ton. The bus offers three-axis stabilization, precise station-keeping capabilities and can combine chemical and electric propulsion systems.

Equipped with two deployable solar arrays, Blagovest 12L hosts a high-throughput payload provided by Thales Alenia Space. The spacecraft operates in the Ka-Band frequency and the Q-Band Extremely High-Frequency Range. This makes it one of the first satellites to operationally use Q-Band communications supporting higher bandwidths.

Blagovest 12L is intended to deliver high-speed internet access, communications, television and radio broadcasting services, as well as telephonic and video conferencing, for a designed lifetime of some 15 years. If everything goes as it is planned, it will offer its services from a geosynchronous orbit.

Russia intends to have an operational quartet of Blagovest satellites in orbit. The first Blagovest spacecraft, designated 11L, was launched on Aug. 17, of last year (2017). According to TASS, Russia’s Defense Ministry plans to orbit the remaining two satellites, 13L and 14L, by 2020.

The 190-foot tall (58-meter) Proton-M booster, which was utilized to deliver Blagovest 12L to orbit, measures some 13.5 feet (4.1 meters) in diameter along its second and third stages. It’s first stage has a diameter of approximately 24.3 feet (7.4 meters).

In order to deploy Blagovest 12L, the Proton-M rocket flew in a configuration that included a Briz-M upper stage, which is powered by a pump-fed gimbaled main engine. This stage is composed of a central core and an auxiliary propellant tank that is jettisoned in-flight after the depletion of the stage’s fuel. The Briz-M control system includes an onboard computer, a three-axis gyro stabilized platform, and a navigation system.

Russia’s next flight is currently scheduled for April 25, when a Rokot launcher is scheduled to lift off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, carrying the Sentinel-3B Earth-observing satellite for the European Space Agency.

The post Proton-M launches Blagovest 12L satellite for Russian Aerospace Forces appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Rocket Lab’s mission patch for “It’s Business Time.” Photo Credit: Rocket Lab

Unusual behavior in a motor controller has prompted the delay of the next flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher. During the wet dress rehearsal for the mission dubbed “It’s Business Time,” the pad operations team found the anomaly.

The company is currently reviewing data regarding the issue. The rocket, originally scheduled to lift off sometime between April 20 and May 3, 2018, has been moved to the next launch window. Rocket Lab has not said exactly when that would be and only tweeted that it would be “in a few weeks.”

“With just days between rehearsal and window opening, the call to move to the window is a conservative one made to allow the team additional time to review data,” reads a statement on Rocket Lab’s website.

Rocket Lab was founded by Peter Beck in 2006 to serve the small satellite community. It’s primary vehicle is the Electron rocket, an all-carbon-composite, two-stage launcher. At nearly 57 feet (17 meters) tall and four feet (1.2 meters) in diameter, the booster is capable of placing some 500 pounds (250 kilograms) into a 310-mile (500-kilometer) Sun-synchronous Earth orbit. The company says nearly all of the components of the Electron are manufactured in-house, including the frame, engines and avionics.

Electron is powered by a total of ten Rutherford engines. The first stage consists of a nine engine cluster of the oxygen/kerosene pump-fed engines. The second stage is propelled by a single engine optimized for operation in a vacuum. Each use unique high-performance electric propellant pumps that help reduce mass.

The company has launched two Electron rockets so far. The first flight, dubbed “It’s a Test,” completed second stage and fairing separations but was destroyed by range safety when telemetry with the vehicle was lost. The second flight, “Still Testing,” successfully deployed multiple CubeSats for Spire Global and Planet Labs. Those missions occurred in May 2017 and January 2018 respectively.

“It’s Business Time” will be Rocket Lab’s first fully commercial mission.

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Photo Credit: SpaceX

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SES delivered its SES-12 communications satellite to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 12. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is being prepped to launch the spacecraft to geosynchronous orbit.

Upon reaching orbit, SES-12 should provide direct-to-home (DTH) broadcasting, VSAT broadband satellite communications, Mobility and High Throughput Satellite (HTS) data connectivity services for the Middle East and Asia-Pacific region, including Indonesia.

SES-12 satellite. Image Credit: SES

Building on Europe’s commercial satcom network

The Airbus Space & Defence-built SES-12 satellite is based on the E3000e variant of the Eurostar platform. It is scheduled to be launched to the 95° East orbital slot, where it will replace the NSS-6 spacecraft and will be co-located with SES-8.

If everything goes as planned, SES-12 will be able to support multiple Ku-band regions from Cyprus in the West to Japan in the East, and from Russia in the North to Australia in the South.

SES-12 is designed to meet connectivity demand in the aeronautical and maritime segments in the Asia-Pacific region. It should also be able to support governments interested in rolling out connectivity programs to bridge the ‘digital divide’ and should allow telecommunication companies, mobile network operators, and internet service providers to provide more reliable cellular and broadband services. 

Together between the SES-8, SES-12 satellites, an estimated reach of some 18 million TV homes could be reached. Moreover, the spacecraft could enable pay-TV operators to provide high-quality signals in High Definition (HD) and Ultra HD. 

This new satellite is no lightweight.

SES-12 is one of the largest geostationary satellites that SES has ever procured, weighing in at an estimated 11,684 pounds (5,300 kg). This new spacecraft is carrying six wide beams and 72 high-throughput user spot beams. The satellite also has a Digital Transparent Processor (DTP), which increases the satellite’s ability to provide customized bandwidth solutions for SES customers. The  spacecraft will rely on electric propulsion for orbit raising and in-orbit maneuvers. 

Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES stated via a release that, “SES-12 was built to meet the dynamic needs of our customers across the Asia-Pacific region, and to empower them to capture massive growth opportunities in their markets. When co-located with SES-8, it will provide incremental high performance capacity and offer greater reliability and flexibility to our video and data customers.” 

Once it reaches its orbital destination, the SES-12 spacecraft will join SES’s network of seven geostationary satellites and 16 medium Earth orbit satellites in the Asia-Pacific region. SES-12 is currently scheduled to launch no earlier than May of this year (2018).

The post SES-12 arrives at Cape Canaveral for launch appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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A map projection of Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five moons, annotated with its first set of official feature names. With a diameter of about 755 miles (1,215 kilometers), the France-sized moon is one of largest known objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region of icy, rocky bodies beyond Neptune. Image Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has accepted a list of names for features on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, submitted by NASA’s New Horizons mission team. All names submitted by the mission team came from a public campaign known as “Our Pluto,” which sought nominations and votes for suggested names in an online campaign before the July 2015 Pluto flyby.

Organized jointly by the New Horizons mission, the SETI Institute, and the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, the public campaign drew more than 40,000 submissions from countries around the world. Themes chosen for naming features on Charon included fictional explorers and travelers; fictional origins and destinations; fictional vessels; and exploration authors, artists, and directors.

Many of the top-vote-getting names have been informally used by the New Horizons team since 2015 for Charon’s valleys, crevices, craters, and other geological features. Fourteen names for locations on Pluto, also selected from winners of the Our Pluto campaign, were approved by the IAU last September.

Charon is the largest of Pluto’s five moons. Because Pluto and Charon orbit a center of gravity, known as a barycenter, between them and outside of Pluto, some planetary scientists consider Pluto-Charon to be a binary system with four moons rather than a planet or dwarf planet with five moons.

Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos, the system’s four small moons, orbit the barycenter between Pluto and Charon.

A public statement by the IAU announcing its acceptance of names for features on Charon credits the New Horizons team, especially principal investigator Alan Stern and science team members Mark Showalter, Ross Beyer, Will Grundy, William McKinnon, Jeff Moore, Cathy Olkin, Paul Schenk, and Amanda Zangari for facilitating approval of these names.

“I am pleased that the features on Charon have been named with international spirit,” said Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.

She noted the selected names pay tribute to the spirit of human exploration, pioneering journeys, travelers, explorers, scientists, and mysterious destinations.

The following names were approved for features on Charon:

  • Argo Chasma is named for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts, in the epic Latin poem Argonautica, during their quest for the Golden Fleece.
  • Butler Mons honours Octavia E. Butler, the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship, and whose Xenogenesis trilogy describes humankind’s departure from Earth and subsequent return.
  • Caleuche Chasma is named for the mythological ghost ship that travels the seas around the small island of Chiloé, off the coast of Chile; according to legend, the Caleuche explores the coastline collecting the dead, who then live aboard it forever.
  • Clarke Montes honours Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prolific science fiction writer and futurist whose novels and short stories (including 2001: A Space Odyssey) were imaginative depictions of space exploration.
  • Dorothy Crater recognizes the protagonist in the series of children’s novels, by L. Frank Baum, that follows Dorothy Gale’s travels to and adventures in the magical world of Oz.
  • Kubrick Mons honours film director Stanley Kubrick, whose iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey tells the story of humanity’s evolution from tool-using hominids to space explorers and beyond.
  • Mandjet Chasma is named for one of the boats in Egyptian mythology that carried the sun god Ra (Re) across the sky each day — making it one of the earliest mythological examples of a vessel of space travel.
  • Nasreddin Crater is named for the protagonist in thousands of humorous folktales told throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and parts of Asia.
  • Nemo Crater is named for the captain of the Nautilus, the submarine in Jules Verne’s novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874).
  • Pirx Crater is named for the main character in a series of short stories by Stanislaw Lem, who travels between the Earth, Moon and Mars.
  • Revati Crater is named for the main character in the Hindu epic narrative Mahabharata — widely regarded as the first in history (circa 400 BC) to include the concept of time travel.
  • Sadko Crater recognizes the adventurer who traveled to the bottom of the sea in the medieval Russian epic Bylina.

The post IAU approves names for features on Charon appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Orbital ATK’s NGL rocket. Image Credit: Orbital ATK

Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK has announced the name of the company’s new, large-class rocket: OmegA. This new launch vehicle is meant for the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

OmegA is designed to have the capacity to send some 22,266 pounds (10,100 kilograms) to a geosynchronous transfer orbit and up to 17,196 pounds (7,800 kilograms) to a geostationary equatorial orbit. Its first and second stages utilize solid rocket motors as well as strap-on solid boosters.

“Orbital ATK is very excited to partner with the U.S. Air Force to develop OmegA, our new EELV-class launch vehicle,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group via a release issued by the company. “Our OmegA rocket provides the best combination of performance, affordability and reliability to support the full range of our customers’ mission requirements. Based on our experience of producing more than 430 launch vehicles over the last 35 years, we have the rigorous processes, operational discipline and oversight transparency that are expected by our U.S. government customers. And with the industrial resources and financial capabilities of a $5 billion revenue company, Orbital ATK is fully committed to meeting the technical and schedule requirements of this important program.”

OmegA’s first two stages will utilize solid rocket motors as well as an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine in its upper stage. Photo Credit: Orbital ATK

On top of announcing the official name of this new rocket, Orbital ATK also said it had selected Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL10C rocket engine to serve as the new launch vehicle’s upper stage engine.

“The RL10 has an extensive flight history and provides a low-risk, affordable engine with outstanding performance,” said Mike Pinkston, Deputy General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Launch Vehicles Division via a release issued by the company. “OmegA is a robust all-American launch system with its entire design based on flight-proven technologies and common components from Orbital ATK’s diversified lineup of rockets and propulsion systems.”

The naming of the rocket, as well as the selection of the RL10C engine for OmegA’s upper stage, was made at the 34th annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. If everything goes as the rockets’ producer envisions, OmegA should provide intermediate to heavy-class launch services for the U.S. Department of Defense, civil government and commercial customers. It is hoped that these flights will begin in about three years.

Whereas other launch service providers are scaling down their operations and limiting the types of launch vehicles they offer, Orbital ATK has been diversifying its portfolio.

“We currently have 10 launch vehicle product lines that are in active production and operations for our government and commercial customers, leveraging the efforts of one of the industry’s most experienced launch vehicle development and operations teams,” Pinkston said.

OmegA is slated to undergo propulsion system ground tests some time next year (2019) with the rocket’s first flight currently set to take place in 2021. Visually similar to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V series of rockets, OmegA is a new take on a classic design and is designed to leverage flight-proven systems.

“The RL10 has provided reliable upper stage propulsion for more than five decades and we look forward to continuing that legacy with Orbital ATK and its OmegA rocket,” said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake. “By selecting the RL10, Orbital ATK is able to leverage investments made by the U.S. Air Force and others to build resilient space launch capabilities for our nation.”

The RL10 uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as propellant, with some 500 of the rocket engines having flown in space to date. 

The new OmegA rocket. Image Credit: Orbital ATK

OmegA will use the RL10C-5-1 version of the engine, which is derived from the RL10C-1, which has been service for about 3.5 years. While the RL10 might trace its legacy back decades, portions of it, including the engine’s injector assembly—which is produce using additive manufacturing, or as it is more commonly known, 3-D printing—were produced by and incorporate modern systems.

“The RL10 has an extensive flight history and provides a low-risk, affordable engine with outstanding performance,” said Mike Pinkston, Deputy General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Launch Vehicles Division. “OmegA is a robust all-American launch system with its entire design based on flight-proven technologies and common components from Orbital ATK’s diversified lineup of rockets and propulsion systems.”

While the names and systems are familiar to those within the aerospace industry, the processes of their production have been undertaken using modern methods and with a fresh take on how to utilize existing hardware.

“Having our RL10 engine selected to provide upper stage propulsion for a fourth launch vehicle reflects the confidence industry places in our product,” said Space Business Unit Senior Vice President Jerry Tarnacki. “It also confirms that the steps Aerojet Rocketdyne has been taking to make our products more competitive—such as incorporating 3-D printing to reduce production costs—are being welcomed in the marketplace.”

The next steps in OmegA’s development should take place in mid-2018 when the U.S. Air Force awards Launch Services Agreements. This process includes the verification and development of OmegA’s launch sites. At present, the first EELV flights are thought to take place in 2022, with the first flights of the rocket’s heavy configuration slated to take place in 2024.

Approximately $250 million has been invested over the course of the past three years to develop OmegA. The cost has been shared between the U.S. Air Force and Orbital ATK with the company stating it plans to invest even more for the new rocket’s development and certification.

Over the course of the past 3.5 decades, Orbital ATK has constructed and delivered some 160 space and strategic launch vehicles. On average, the company produces an estimated 20 vehicles annually including the Antares, Minotaur, Pegasus as well as components, spacecraft and subsystems on other launch vehicles.

Some 500 (a number which could grow to 1,000) employees are currently working on the new rocket. This is a multi-state project being worked on in Arizona, Utah, Mississippi and Louisiana. As is the case for most U.S. launch operations, flights are planned to take place from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base located in California.

OmegA: Orbital ATK’s New Large-Class Rocket - YouTube

Video courtesy of Orbital ATK

The post The alpha of the OmegA: Orbital ATK’s new rocket gains name appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Blagovest 12L satellite on its way to Baikonur. Photo Credit: ISS Reshetnev

Russia is in the final stage of preparations to launch its Proton-M rocket with the Blagovest 12L military communications satellite. Liftoff is scheduled to take place at 6:12 p.m. EDT (22:12 GMT) April 18, 2018, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The mission was originally planned to take place on Dec. 25, 2017, but was delayed several times by Russia, which has not disclosed what was behind these reschedules.

Little is known about the launch and pre-launch preparations due to the military nature of the mission. ISS Reshetnev, the manufacturer of the Blagovest satellite, only noted that the spacecraft had been shipped to Baikonur in early March.

A file photo of a Proton-M rocket being transported to its launch pad. Photo Credit: Roscosmos

“The Blagovest No.12 satellite, accompanied by ISS Reshetnev specialists, made its journey to the cosmodrome to begin final preparations for launch,” the company wrote in a press release. “All the necessary operations and check-outs are due to begin soon.”

Blagovest 12L is described as a high-capacity telecommunications satellite and is designed to provide high-speed data transmission. It is based on the ISS Reshetnev’s Express 2000 satellite platform, which is capable of hosting payloads of up to one metric ton. The bus offers three-axis stabilization, precise station-keeping capabilities and can combine chemical and electric propulsion systems.

Equipped with two deployable solar arrays, Blagovest 12L hosts a high-throughput payload provided by Thales Alenia Space. The spacecraft operates in the Ka-Band frequency and the Q-Band Extremely High-Frequency Range. This makes it one of the first satellites to operationally use Q-Band communications supporting higher bandwidths.

Blagovest 12L is intended to deliver high-speed internet access, communications services, television and radio broadcasting, as well as telephony and video conferencing, for a designed lifetime of some 15 years. If everything goes as it is planned, it will reside in a geosynchronous orbit.

The spacecraft is one of four satellites that are slated to comprise the series planned to be operated by the Russian Aerospace Forces. The first Blagovest spacecraft, 11L, was launched on Aug. 17, 2017. According to the TASS news agency, Russia’s Defense Ministry plans orbit the remaining two satellites, 13L and 14L, by 2020.

The 190-foot tall (58-meter) Proton-M booster, which has been tapped to deliver Blagovest 12L into orbit, measures some 13.5 feet (4.1 meters) in diameter along its second and third stages. It’s first stage has a diameter of 24.3 feet (7.4 meters).

In order to deploy Blagovest 12L, the Proton-M rocket will fly in configuration that includes a Briz-M upper stage, which is powered by a pump-fed gimbaled main engine. This stage is composed of a central core and an auxiliary propellant tank that is jettisoned in-flight after the depletion of the stage’s fuel. The Briz-M control system includes an onboard computer, a three-axis gyro stabilized platform, and a navigation system.

The post Russia to launch Blagovest 12L military comsat April 18 appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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The launch of TESS atop a Falcon 9 rocket has been postponed by at least 48 hours. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Spacecraft (TESS) has been postponed by at least 48 hours, according to SpaceX. The satellite had been scheduled to launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 6:32 p.m. EDT (22:23 GMT) April 16, 2018.

“Standing down today to conduct additional GNC analysis, and teams are now working towards a targeted launch of @NASA_TESS on Wednesday, April 18,” SpaceX tweeted in a statement.

GNC stands for guidance, navigation and control. SpaceX did not say whether this postponement stems from a potential hardware failure, or if the company is just being extra vigilant. In a statement from NASA, the space agency said the TESS spacecraft is in “excellent health, and remains ready for launch.”

Should SpaceX and NASA attempt to launch TESS on Wednesday, April 18, the targeted time for liftoff is expected to be 6:51 p.m. EDT (22:51 GMT). The Falcon 9 will fly out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40.

When the mission does get underway, TESS will survey 85 percent of the sky for two years to hunt for exoplanets within about 300 light-years from Earth. After the Falcon 9’s second stage delivers the spacecraft into an elliptical orbit around Earth, the spacecraft will use onboard thrusters, and a gravity assist from the Moon, to position itself into a special 2:1 lunar resonance orbit high above Earth. This means the observatory will orbit the planet twice for every time the Moon orbits once.

The post Launch of exoplanet-hunting TESS satellite delayed to Wednesday appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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