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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passes by Ultima Thule located in the Kuiper Belt. Image Credit: JHAPL / NASA

Using the latest images of Ultima Thule returned by the New Horizons spacecraft, mission scientists created an animation depicting the Kuiper Belt Object’s (KBO) rotation during the last hours before the probe’s closest approach at 12:33 am EST on Jan. 1, 2019.

Several of the distant images used to create the movie were sent back to Earth between January 12 and 14, following approximately a week when the spacecraft was unable to communicate due to having been in solar conjunction.

“Movie” of the propeller-like motion of Ultima Thule produced by the New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

Also included in the animation are two of the highest resolution photos sent back immediately following the flyby.

All raw images used to create the animation have been posted on New Horizons‘ LORRI web page.

The movie captures Ultima Thule’s rotation over seven hours from 3 pm EST on December 31, 2018 to 12:01 am EST on January 1. During that time, New Horizons traveled from a distance of 310,000 miles (500,000 km) to just 17,100 miles (28,000 km) as it sped toward its target.

Viewers can see Ultima Thule growing larger as the spacecraft closed in on it during the seven hours covered in the animation.

To enhance the details on Ultima Thule’s surface, mission scientists sharpened the raw images returned by the spacecraft. They created two separate animation movies of the object’s rotation, one at the images’ actual scale, beginning with a resolution of 1.5 miles (2.5 km) per pixel in the first frame and ending with a resolution of 0.08 miles (0.14 km) in the last frame, and a second one that keeps Ultima Thule the same size throughout, correcting for the decreasing distance to increase visible detail as the spacecraft drew closer.

The seven-hour time lapse movie depicts slightly less than half a rotation by Ultima Thule, which spins on its axis around every 16 hours.

Studying the enhanced image will help scientists identify the KBO’s actual shape and provide insights into its origin four billion years ago.

Mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, announced the publication of an abstract for his presentation on Ultima Thule at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference (LPSC) in The Woodlands, Texas, from March 18-22.

A total of 40 abstracts detailing flyby findings will be presented at the conference even though just one percent of the data collected by the spacecraft has been returned.

Photo from mission headquarters taken after it was confirmed that New Horizons had completed a successful flyby. Photo Credit: Henry Throop & Ed Whitman

Key points in Stern’s presentation include the facts that Ultima Thule is a contact binary that formed from a gentle merger of two objects several billion years ago; that Ultima Thule has no rings, moons, or atmosphere; that the KBO is red with little color variation between its two lobes; and that its surface reflectivity and markings vary, with the brightest region being the “neck” holding the two lobes together.

Currently, the spacecraft is conducting distant observations of several KBOs and also studying the gas, dust, and radiation in its Kuiper Belt environment. In March, it will look from afar at one of the alternate flyby targets found with Hubble in 2014. Even though that KBO, known as 2014 PN70, will never appear larger than a dot in New Horizons images, the probe’s observations from a distance are expected to reveal its shape, rotation period, surface properties, and any orbiting moons.

The sharpest, closest flyby images will be sent back via NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) some time in February. While return of all Ultima Thule flyby data will take 20 months, by late next month, mission scientists expect to have more stereo images, which will shed light on Ultima Thule’s geology, color, shape, and composition, Stern noted.

The New Horizons team plans to propose a second extended mission to travel further into the Kuiper Belt starting in late 2021. Engineering data returned after the flyby indicates less fuel was used for the Ultima Thule flyby than expected, leaving more available for an extended mission.

The post Animation shows Ultima Thule rotating as New Horizons approached appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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A Delta IV Heavy launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6 with the NROL-71 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Photo Credit: Ashly Cullumber

LOMPOC, Calif. — After several scrubbed attempts, United Launch Alliance was finally able to launch its Delta IV Heavy rocket with the secretive NROL-71 payload.

Lifting off at 11:10 a.m. PST (19:10 GMT) Jan. 19, 2019, from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6 in California, the triple-core Delta IV Heavy began its ascent and southward trajectory toward orbit. Because this was a classified mission on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office, the exact orbital parameters for the payload were not publicly released.

This was the 132nd mission conducted by ULA since the company’s formation in December 2006 and the 11th flight for the massive 236-foot (72-meter) tall Delta IV Heavy since its maiden flight in December 2004.

“Congratulations to our team and mission partners for successfully delivering this critical asset to support national security missions,” Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs, said in a ULA press release. “Thank you to the entire team for their perseverance, ongoing dedication and focus on 100 percent mission success.”

ULA’s next mission is expected to launch the WGS-10 mission for the U.S. Air Force atop a Delta IV Medium rocket in March 2019 from Cape Canaveral.

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The post Gallery: NROL-71 mission finally gets underway appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Archive photo of New Shepard rocket. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

After a 2018 postponement, Blue Origin is targeting a new date to send the company’s third New Shepard rocket on its fourth flight — one with a wide range of experiments supported by NASA. 

Blue Origin said it had fixed a ground structure problem and the rocket and weather are ready to support a flight above the company’s West Texas launch site. NS-10 could leave the pad at 9 a.m. CST (10 a.m. EST / 15:00 GMT).

A Graphic of a flight profile for a typical New Shepard mission. This one was for the ninth flight of the vehicle system in July 2018. Image Credit: Blue Origin

If things go as planned the launch will mark the 10th for New Shepard. This particular flight is being flown under NASA’s Flight Opportunities program and, despite the U.S. government being partially shutdown, is moving forward.

While NS-10 is sponsored under a NASA initiative, the payloads it will carry do not entirely come from the U.S. space agency itself. In fact, just one of them originated from a NASA center.

The University of Florida, University of Central Florida, Purdue University have submitted and been approved to have their payloads launched on a suborbital trajectory on the NS-10 mission.

These experiments will study means to develop more environmentally sound rocket fuels (Purdue), how dust behaves after surface contact on voyages to the Moon, Mars and other far-flung destinations (UCF) as well as means to use technology designed for the International Space Station so that it can be repurposed for suborbital flights, enabling biological research from this easier-to-reach destination.

Universities aren’t the only organizations that are eagerly anticipating Monday’s planned flight. Working with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Cryogenics Laboratory, Carthage College Space Sciences Program is seeking to field a study into ways to utilize sound waves to determine fuel levels.

File Photo Credit: Blue Origin

Meanwhile Controlled Dynamics Inc. is eyeing a means to create a buffer between a launch vehicle and the payload. Given the massive amount of vibrations caused by the unbridled fury of rocket thundering off the pad and the need to accurately monitor fuel levels in a microgravity environment, these experiments could provide critical services for NASA.

The U.S. space agency and other dedicated science organizations are also using the NS-10 mission to conduct research of their own. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is looking to test a new way to keep electronics systems chilled inside the cramped conditions within a spacecraft.

The flight of NS-10 will not be the first rodeo for one of Blue Origin’s customers. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab has had one of their payloads fly on Dec. 12, 2017, with APL’s JANUS platform.

For this go around APL is hoping to gain a better grasp naturally occurring electromagnetic fields in and around New Shepard.

While it might not be an orbital mission, sending payloads up 60 miles (97 kilometers) into space on a suborbital trajectory allows experiments to get a taste of microgravity and shortly thereafter be back in the hands of researchers for analysis.

New Shepard Flight History: Missions 1-9 - YouTube

Video courtesy of Blue Origin

The post Blue Origin targeting Monday for NS-10 flight appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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A rendering of what LC-16 could look like when Relativity Space modifies it for its rockets. Image Credit: Relativity Space

Relativity Space, an autonomous rocket factory pioneering a new, speedy process of building and launching rockets, has received approval from the U.S. Air Force to use Cape Canaveral‘s historic Launch Complex 16 for the construction of its own launch facilities.

Founded in 2015 and based in Los Angeles, the company seeks to build 3D-printed rockets to deploy constellations of satellites and to eventually conduct 3D rocket printing from the surface of Mars.

“We are accelerating the design process by removing barriers between the digital and physical worlds,” the company states on its website.

In addition to the construction of 3D rockets in days rather than weeks or months, Relativity Space seeks to build its own, proprietary 3D printer, make use of robotic automation, use intelligent hardware and software, and create the first tooling-free, evolvable factory.

Its new rocket, the Terran 1, is expected to be made up of less than 1,000 parts, in contrast to standard rockets, which have as many as 100,000 parts, the company notes on its website.

On January 17, Relativity Space announced it has been granted a Statement of Capability by the 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Air Force approving construction of its own launch facility at Cape Canaveral’s LC-16, which was used by the Apollo Moon missions, NASA’s Gemini program, and launches of both Titan and Pershing missiles.

It is the first venture-backed company to be granted an agreement for use of the LC-16 launch site. The agreement, which allows Relativity Space on-site vehicle integration and payload processing, includes an option of an exclusive 20-year extension.

Use of LC-16 allows the company to forego the time and expense of constructing its own launchpad from scratch, which would take approximately four years.

Relativity Space already has an infrastructure use contract with the US government, giving it exclusive access to the NASA Stennis Space Center E4 test complex, and a NASA ACO test award.

SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin already have operational launch sites at Cape Canaveral. In addition to being one of the few major launch sites still available at Cape Canaveral, LC-16 has the capability of supporting Terran 1 and payload expansions Relativity Space plans for the future.

To prepare for its planned first orbital launch in late 2020, the company has recruited leadership personnel from various spaceflight companies, who together have taken part in more than 158 Cape Canaveral launches.

“We are honored to win this significant support from the U.S. Air Force and join a select group of private space companies in conducting launches at Cape Canaveral,” said Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity Space. “Having the rare path toward an exclusive-use agreement at LC-16 ensures our satellite customers will have access to far more schedule certainty, and enables us to execute more frequent launches.”

“With LC-16’s historic and operational legacy of rocket launches and the experienced team we’ve built, we look forward to working with The 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Air Force to develop a modern launch facility that supports Terran 1 launch operations,” said Chris Newton, Principal Launch Engineer at Relativity Space.

“We were impressed with Relativity’s seasoned team and its innovative approach to space technology and we look forward to working with them as they continue the process to launch the Terran 1 vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” said Thomas Eye, Director of Plans and Programs for the 45th Space Wing of the U.S. Air Force.

The company’s engine, Aeon 1, uses oxygen and methane, the easiest fuel for future astronauts to construct on the surface of Mars, as propellants.

Like other commercial spaceflight companies, Relativity Space plans on launching both commercial and government  payloads. Its new agreement with the US government is the latest in a series of public-private spaceflight partnerships.

In addition to having far fewer parts than standard rockets, Terran 1 will make use of intelligent robotics and autonomous 3D manufacturing technology. Capable of constructing rockets in less than 60 days, Relativity Space uses a simple supply chain and can deploy and resupply satellites in far less time than any other company.

“We are the second company committed to making humanity multi-planetary — and we hope to inspire hundreds more,” the company said in the mission section of its website.

Everything Evolves - Vimeo

The post Company that will print 3D rockets approved to use Cape Canaveral launch facility appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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United Launch Alliance successfully carried out its first flight of 2019 with the launch of the classified NROL-71 mission on Saturday, Jan. 19. Archive Photo Credit: Mike Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

LOMPOC, Calif. — United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully completed its first flight of 2019. Today’s launch utilized the largest rocket in the Colorado-based company’s arsenal to send a classified payload into space. In doing so the company finally managed to move past a saga of delays.

ULA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket had been selected to send the classified NROL-71 payload to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) at 11:10 a.m. PST (2:10 p.m. EST) on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2018. The flight had been slated to get underway five minutes earlier but was pushed back to allow the team to complete final items before entering terminal count. That tiny adjustment marked the final slip for the oft-delayed mission.

NROL-71 had been slated to get underway on Sept. 26, Dec. 7, 8, 18, 19, 20 and 30 (in 2018). On Jan. 5, 2019 ULA stated that the launch date was “under review.”

“We understand that this is a high-priority mission for the nation’s warfighters and we take our commitment to safety and mission assurance seriously,”Gary Wentz, vice president of Government and Commercial programs said via a ULA-issued statement.

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket rests at Vandenberg’s SLC-6 with the NROL-71 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Photo Credit: Hunter Kilpatrick / SpaceFlight Insider

NROL-71 was ULA’s twenty-eighth flight for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the thirty-eighth launch of a Delta IV rocket (today’s flight marked only the eleventh use of the rocket in its “Heavy” configuration). The Delta IV first took to the skies on Nov. 20 of 2002.

The NRO is the U.S. government’s agency in charge of designing, building, launching and maintaining the U.S. fleet of intelligence satellites. Formed in 1961 the existence of the NRO was a tightly kept secret. Until 1973, the NRO’s very existence wasn’t public knowledge (and even then it was revealed by accident). It was declassified in September of 1992. Now the NRO has its own Facebook page. NROL-71 is the agency’s 52nd known payload that has been launched since 1996.

Mission logo for NROL-71. Image Credit: United Launch Alliance

Due to NROL-71’s classified nature, little is known about what was actually launched today, but it is believed to be an electro-optical imaging reconnaissance satellite, operating from an elliptical polar orbit of roughly 160 by 620 miles (260 by 1,000 kilometers).

The NROL-71 mission marked the first flight of the 233-foot (71-meter) Heavy variant of the Delta IV rocket from Vandenberg in more than five years. The vehicle consists of three Common Booster Cores (CBCs), a 16 foot (5-meter) diameter payload fairing and a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage. Each of the CBCs is powered by an RS-68A, manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The rocket’s second stage is propelled by an RL-10 engine.

Each RS-68A engine provided an estimated 702,000 pounds of thrust during the initial phase of the flight. After staging, an RL10B-2 granted some 24,750 pounds of thrust to send the Delta IV Heavy’s upper stage with the payload into orbit.

An old foe appeared to be raising its head shortly before the opening of today’s launch window – high winds. As ULA’s CEO and President Tory Bruno noted in tweets prior to liftoff: “Wind is creeping up. Everybody think calm thoughts.” As things improved, Bruno appeared more optimistic – something that paid off later on in the day: “Board is green, wind is high but better.”

At 90 seconds prior to launch a ULA commentator stated something that the launch team had waited a long time to hear – that all key elements were ready to support the flight. Once the final minute and a half had elapsed, flames flickered up from the base of the rocket heralding the start of today’s flight.

Once the rocket lifted off the pad, it began a short vertical rise before pitching over on a southward trajectory out over the Pacific Ocean. It reached Mach 1—the speed of sound—about a minute and a half after liftoff.

Around this point in the mission the Delta IV Heavy was burning about 5,000 lbs (2,268 kilograms) of fuel per second.

Four minutes and 10 seconds after it had taken flight, the two side-mounted CBCs depleted their fuel and fell away. Nearly two minutes later, the center core finished its part of the mission and separated from the upper stage, which activated its lone engine about at 5 minutes, 55 seconds after launch for a burn that was slated to last about 12 minutes and six seconds.

Because this is a classified mission, ULA coverage of the launch concluded at payload fairing separation, which occurred 6 minutes, 6 seconds after leaving the pad. 

ULA’s next planned flight is a launch of another Delta IV, this one in its Medium+ (5,4) configuration. Its payload will be the tenth Wideband Global SATCOM spacecraft for the U.S. Air Force. At present, that mission is scheduled to launch on March 13, 2019 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37B in Florida.

The post NROL-71 kicks off ULA’s 2019 launch manifest appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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The structural test article for the Space Launch System’s liquid hydrogen tank is loaded onto Test Stand 4693 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Photo Credit: Tyler Martin / NASA

Even though much of the U.S. space agency is currently furloughed due to the ongoing partial U.S. government shutdown, some work is still being done on many of NASA’s most important programs, including the Space Launch System, which is set to fly as early as 2020.

According to the U.S. space agency, the largest piece of structural test hardware for the SLS — the 149-foot (45-meter) tall liquid hydrogen tank for the core stage — was loaded onto the 215-foot (66-meter) tall Test Stand 4693 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, on Jan. 14, 2019.

“The liquid hydrogen tank test article is structurally identical to the flight version of the tank that will comprise two-thirds of the core stage and hold 537,000 gallons of supercooled liquid hydrogen at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit,” a NASA news release reads.

The full core stage of SLS, which includes a liquid oxygen tank, will measure 212 feet (65 meters) tall and have a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 meters). Together they will feed four RS-25 engines at the base of the rocket to produce 1.6 million pounds (7,440 kilonewtons) of thrust.

Combine that with two five-segment solid rocket boosters, the SLS is expected to have a total liftoff thrust of about 8.8 million pounds (39,400 kilonewtons).

NASA said dozens of hydraulic cylinders in Test Stand 4693 will “push and pull the tank,” to subject it to stresses the core stage is expected to see during launch.

As of right now, the first test flight — the uncrewed Exploration Mission 1 — is expected sometime in mid-2020. It will see an Orion spacecraft fly around the moon before coming back to Earth for a splashdown in the Ocean.

Photo Credit: Tyler Martin / NASA

The post SLS liquid hydrogen tank test article placed on test stand appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 is prepared for flight on STS-125 aboard Atlantis in the summer of 2009. Photo Credit: Amanda Diller / NASA

The Wide Field Camera 3  (WFC3) on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has resumed science operations after spending a week and two days in a safety mode that suspended its activities.

When camera software detected voltage levels beyond normal range on Jan. 8, 2019, WFC3 immediately entered a safety mode that suspended all operations. In efforts to repair the problem, NASA scientists found voltage levels to be normal, meaning telemetry circuits were releasing erroneous data regarding voltage. They also discovered other errors in engineering data in the same telemetry circuits, confirming the problem was with telemetry and not power supply.

Scientists and technicians reset the telemetry circuits and all related software, and tests following this work produced accurate data on the camera’s engineering. After additional calibration and testing for up to 72 hours, as well as study of data collected before and after the reset, they returned WFC3 to operations mode on Jan. 15.

Two days later, just after noon on, Jan. 17, WFC3 resumed science observations.

Installed on Hubble in May of 2009 during the last shuttle servicing mission (carried out by Atlantis on its only trip to the telescope), WFC3 has captured more than 240,000 images in near infrared, optical light and near ultraviolet light over nearly 10 years, generating over 2,000 peer-reviewed science papers. It has higher resolution and a larger field of view than the instrument it replaced, the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2).

The ongoing partial U.S. government shutdown that began on Dec. 22, 2018, did not impact the repair process as Hubble and other satellite operations are exempt from any furloughs or funding stoppages.

WFC3 is the most used of all Hubble instruments. Scientists hope their analysis of the data collected before and after the reset will provide answers as to what caused the telemetry errors.

Launched in 1990 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, Hubble had a predicted lifespan of 15 years, it is is now in its 29th year of operations.

The post Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 resumes operations appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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The Seismic Explorations for Interior Structure, SEIS, as seen on Jan. 6, 2019. Photo Credit: Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight Mars lander has been busy getting its suite of instruments prepared for regular use to explore the interior of the Red Planet.

The spacecraft, which landed in Elysium Planitia on Nov. 26, 2018, recently deployed and leveled its seismometer to study “marsquakes.” A second instrument, the heat flow probe, is waiting for its turn to make a similar trek from the deck of the lander to the surface in the coming weeks.

Due to the ongoing partial U.S. government shutdown, which began on Dec. 22, 2018, formal updates on the mission’s progress have been scarce. However, spacecraft operations have continued as normal thanks in part to the operations budget being previously allocated before the shutdown.

Despite few formal updates, the mission’s website has remained online and been updated periodically. Additionally, the mission’s official Twitter account has remained active.

SEIS being deployed on the surface of Mars in December 2018. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Jan. 6, a GIF was posted on the mission’s Twitter feed showing Seismic Explorations for Interior Structure (SEIS) leveling itself as it prepares to record its first measurements.

A second GIF was posted on Jan. 7 from raw images acquired on Jan. 3. It showed the power and data tether leading out to SEIS releasing its slack to rest directly on the surface rather than being flexed above the surface as seen during the instrument’s initial deployment.

Soon, a large domed solar and wind cover, which is currently sitting on the deck of InSight, is planned to be placed on top of the main SEIS instrument to shield it from the elements. SEIS itself was deployed onto the surface on Dec. 19, 2018.

The other main instrument awaiting deployment onto the surface is the heat flow probe (HP3), which aims to “take the temperature of Mars” by measuring the residual heat being emitted from the planet’s interior.

InSight deploys SEIS, the Seismic Explorations for Interior Structure, onto the surface of Mars on December 19, 2018. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists suspect that Mars has a differentiated interior similar to Earth and other terrestrial bodies in the solar system. By measuring the amount of heat radiated from the planet’s core, scientists hope to learn if the core is still molten or partially molten and whether Earth and Mars share similar formation histories.

It is hoped that the HP3 measurements will help scientists refine models that predict how terrestrial (or rocky) planetary bodies are expected to form while refining our understanding of Earth’s interior as well.

Unlike the Curiosity or Opportunity rovers that move across the surface, InSight is a stationary lander. Once its instruments are deployed, it will record measurements at the same location during its two-year prime mission.

While more detailed updates from NASA are not expected until the end of the government shutdown, the deployment of SEIS and the probable deployment of HP3 in the coming weeks appear to generally be on schedule.

An illustration of NASA’s InSight Mars lander fully deployed for studying the deep interior of Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The post InSight lander deploys seismometer on Mars appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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The CRS-16 Dragon departs the International Space Station. Photo Credit: David Saint-Jacques / CSA

After spending just over a month attached to the International Space Station, SpaceX’s CRS-16 Dragon spacecraft departed the outpost and returned to Earth.

Loaded with more than 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) of equipment and experiments for a return to Earth, Dragon was unberthed from the Harmony module at around 3 p.m. EST (20:00 GMT) Jan. 13, 2019. Several hours later, after it was maneuvered via the robotic Canadarm2 to a spot some 33 feet (10 meters) below the Destiny module, NASA astronaut and Expedition 58 Flight Engineer Anne McClain commanded the arm to release the vehicle.

The CRS-16 Dragon as seen attached to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module. Photo Credit: NASA

The official release time was 6:33 p.m. EST (23:33 GMT). Once the arm backed away from Dragon, three departure burns of the course of about 10 minutes were performed to push the spacecraft safely away from the space station.

“Nothing in spaceflight is routine,” McClain said. “Every day that we live and work on orbit, every time we launch satellites, cargo or humans beyond our atmosphere, we are working at the very limit of human capabilities.”

McClain, one of three Expedition 58 crew members, said each mission and feat, like the CRS-16 mission, is an example of humankind’s desire and tendency to explore.

“Congratulations to all the teams who have made the SpaceX 16 mission possible,” McClain said. “Godspeed and bon voyage to Dragon.”

The CRS-16 mission used the same capsule that was used for the CRS-10 mission in early 2017. It was also the fifth reuse of any Dragon capsule.

SpaceX launched the CRS-16 mission on Dec. 5, 2018. Photo Credit: Scott Schilke / SpaceFlight Insider

CRS-16 launched to the ISS atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 5, 2018. After spending several days catching up with the outpost, it rendezvoused and was berthed to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module on Dec. 8.

There, its 5,600 pound (2,500 kilograms) of science and crew supplies was unloaded and dispersed throughout the ISS.

It was initially planned for Dragon to leave the outpost on Jan. 10. However, inclement weather at the splashdown site in the Pacific Ocean warranted a delay.

Following its departure, the CRS-16 Dragon continued to orbit Earth several more times before it was commanded to perform a deorbit burn at about 11:20 p.m. EST (04:20 GMT Jan. 14). Using its Draco thrusters for about seven minutes, the spacecraft slowed itself down enough to dip into the thicker part of Earth’s atmosphere.

After the deorbit burn, the trunk section of Dragon separated from the capsule. Only the capsule with its protective heat shield is designed to survive re-entry.

File photo of a previous Dragon capsule descending toward the Pacific Ocean. Photo Credit: SpaceX

After re-entry, a series of parachutes deployed, culminating in three main chutes, to slow the Dragon capsule down for a soft splashdown in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Baja California.

Once safe in the water, recovery teams are expected to work to place Dragon onto the deck of a recovery ship before transporting it back to the Port of Los Angeles. Time sensitive cargo will then be unloaded and transported a nearby NASA facility.

Meanwhile, the capsule will then be prepared for delivery to SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, where the remaining cargo will be offloaded and transported to NASA facilities.

Pending ongoing schedule uncertainties mainly stemming from the ongoing partial U.S. government shutdown, the next SpaceX space station mission is expected to be the first unpiloted test flight of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

This Demo-1 mission is currently looking at launching to the space station in early February for a two-week stay at the outpost to prove out ground systems and test out orbit, docking and landing operations.

Once this flight is completed, an in-flight abort test is planned before the Demo-2 mission takes to the skies with two U.S. astronauts, currently planned for summer 2019.

SpaceX CRS-16: Dragon departure from the ISS - YouTube

Video courtesy of SciNews

The post SpaceX completes 16th Dragon mission to ISS appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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Birds take to the skies in front of Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. Photo Credit: Charles Twine / SpaceFlight Insider

The locations where rockets are tested at or lift off from are usually in the middle of nowhere. Within these swamps and deserts live a wide assortment of creatures that you have to contend with if you’re going to be in the space business.

One of my first personal experiences with “space critters” was relatively mild. When I interned at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in 2007, I came to work at 9 a.m. – on one particular day someone else checked in a little earlier.

“Pamela Possum” rests inside a trash can outside of the Kennedy Space Center Press Site in the summer of 2007. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Dubbed “Pamela Possum” one of the marsupials had curled into a trash can by the NBC building and given birth. Wildlife management came in and gently relocated her and her brood to a more appropriate location where she could raise her family.

In terms of my encounters with the animals located within the 219 square miles (570 km2) that the Center rests on – things wouldn’t always be so warm and fuzzy.

During the TCDT (Terminal Countdown Demonstration Tests) for the crew of STS-118, the astronauts were going over how to drive the M113 vehicle that would whisk them away from a dangerous situation at either LC-39A or B.

We had been there a long time (it felt like hours) when nature, of a different sort, called out to me. 

I asked my NASA nursemaid, Manny Virata, if it’d be okay for me to sneak into the bushes for a minute. KSC is covered in pine trees, shrubs and palmettos and he told me to go ahead.

Making sure I wasn’t visible I crept behind some palmettos. A few moments later two adorable piglets emerged from the brush.

As a Florida native, I knew what was following them and proceeded to retreat as quickly as I could. Sure enough, a deep grunt let me know that mom was following her kids. I counted myself fortunate as I managed to get away without a scratch. If memory serves, Manny had a laugh at my expense when I relayed what had happened.

What goes around comes around. Preparing for Endeavour (the orbiter that was used on STS-118) to return meant frequent trips to and from the Shuttle Landing Facility, something Manny opted to forego, choosing to stay at the SLF.

A gopher tortoise steps out from its burrow at KSC’s press site. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Manny had brought lettuce to feed the gopher tortoises (a species that has been deemed “threatened” in Florida). At first, Manny had only one of the slow-moving vegetarians to feed. When I came back from another run, he had a couple more, and on my next run there were even more.

I don’t know how the scenario ended, however, I always imagined that the public affairs officer’s position had been overrun and he was forced to pound sand out of there as fast as he could all the while being (slowly) chased by the hissing armored reptiles.

For a time (I’m not sure if it still lives there) one of the tortoises resided in front of the press site and would occasionally wander around.

Speaking of reptiles, I don’t recall if this next event took place when I was interning with NASA or during my time volunteering with the space agency. All things considered, I think Manny got off easy.

A photographer had lost his cell phone when he was setting up remote cameras prior to a shuttle launch. I was given the task of driving to the various spots where the phone could be and, using a NASA-issued phone, call his number in an effort to hear the telltale ring. There was no joy at the first site (we would eventually find the phone at our third stop) so we moved on.

Thinking that the phone might have lost power, I searched for it near one of the tiny creeks that crisscross the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge where Kennedy Space Center is located. It wasn’t. However an alligator, measuring about six feet in length – was (my friends swear that the gator increases in size every time I retell this story).

I did an immediate about face and pointed the photographer in the direction of the SUV. “Did you find it?” He asked. “No, but if it’s there you’re going to have to buy a new one.”

No harm, no foul. However, this was something that wouldn’t always be the case. After the umpteenth scrub of another (uncrewed) mission our team headed back to wherever they were staying. It was night and we were all tired. One of our team had a deer jump out in front of him. He wasn’t able to stop in time, unfortunately striking and killing the deer.

While driving back to his hotel after a launch attempt had scrubbed, a photographer’s car was struck by a deer causing severe damage to his vehicle. Photo Credit: Jared Haworth / We Report Space

While the photographer was stressed to the max (rightfully so) about his car, the people who came to help didn’t appear to have picked up on the strain the situation had placed him under. Instead? They offered suggestions as to how the venison from his “kill” could be collected. Under the circumstances, I doubt I would have been able to maintain my composure – let alone my sense of humor.

In a post he made on social media the following day, the photographer summed up his frustration at the never-ending string of delays when he said: “I’m out of clothes and I’m out of cars – this rocket needs to launch.”

Most launch sites are located in locations far from population centers. Photo Credit: Sean Costello / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA, and its family of contractors, have also had their share of animal encounters. One of my favorite stories comes from the remote deserts of Utah. Northrop Grumman’s Charlie Precourt was driving us out to the test site for the five-segment solid rocket booster that is being developed for use on NASA’s Space Launch System. He began telling us about the most dangerous species of animal known to man – free range cows.

“We were sitting in the control room and the clock was ticking. All of a sudden, we saw this cow, they’re roaming all around out here. It was up on this hill above the test site.” Precourt said with a slight smile. “We were all trying to figure out what we were going to do next and then things got worse.”

I wondered, how things could get worse considering that the company was about to make one very large hamburger.

“The cow fell down the hill near the test stand. The…I mean the entire test team fell completely silent. I don’t think an abort has ever been called on account of an injured cow, but that was what it was looking at.”

I asked him how the situation played out.

“The poor thing got up, kinda looked around and wandered off. We tested on time and, besides the cow incident it was a rather uneventful test.”

“Notes on the Run” is meant as a retelling of some of my experiences chasing rockets over the course of the past 14-or-so years. It’s also meant as a guide for those considering to do the same. Hang on to your dreams, keep your nose to the grindstone and watch where you’re stepping.

When you are walking around Cape Canaveral or Kennedy Space Center you should make sure you watch where you step. Photo Credit: Sean Costello / SpaceFlight Insider

The post Notes on the Run: Where the wild things are appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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