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EDITOR’S NOTE: Blue Origin’s live webcast will be available on this page.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster on its launch pad in West Texas. Credit: Blue Origin

A team of engineers in West Texas is preparing Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard booster for launch Wednesday on an uncrewed test flight aimed at demonstrating a key safety feature for space tourists and scientists riding on future rockets soaring to the edge of space.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, plans to webcast Wednesday’s test flight, which is set for takeoff at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT; 9 a.m. CDT) from the company’s sprawling test site north of Van Horn, Texas, around 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of El Paso.

Wednesday’s flight will be the ninth by a New Shepard rocket, and the third using Blue Origin’s most recent model of the single-stage vehicle, which debuted in December and made its second launch and landing in April.

The reusable New Shepard booster is designed to take off from a launch pad, climb to the internationally-recognized boundary of space at an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers), and land nearby with rocket thrust and aerobrakes.

A crew capsule mounted on top of the New Shepard rocket will carry experiments and a dummy nicknamed “Mannequin Skywalker” to simulate the experience passengers will see on future flights. On a standard mission, the craft separates from the rocket after engine cutoff and lands with the aid of parachutes.

On Wednesday’s flight, Blue Origin says it will push the New Shepard rocket to its limits with a high-altitude escape motor test. If successful, the demonstration is expected to move the company a step closer to flying people — first its own employees, then paying passengers — on trips to space lasting several minutes, offering the experience of weightlessness and spectacular views.

Blue Origin officials said in April the New Shepard could fly with people for the first time by the end of this year, followed by commercial riders. But the company has not set a firm timetable for the start of crewed test flights, or the launch of commercial services directed at the space tourism and suborbital research markets.

Blue Origin has not started selling tickets for seats on commercial New Shepard flights, but Reuters reported last week the flight opportunities are expected to sell for between $200,000 and $300,000. Blue Origin responded to the report, saying the company has not set ticket prices, and does not plan to sell rides until some time after New Shepard makes its first test flight with humans on-board.

In a brief statement announcing Wednesday’s flight, Blue Origin offered no further details on the objectives or the technical parameters for the planned high-altitude escape motor test. Blue Origin accomplished a low-altitude abort test with a previous version of the New Shepard vehicle in October 2016, proving the capsule’s solid-fueled abort motor could get passengers away from a catastrophic in-flight failure.

Experiments hitching a ride on the test flight Wednesday include a privately-developed in-cabin WiFi transmitter, and a package of NASA sensors to measure cabin pressure, temperature, carbon dioxide levels, acoustic conditions, and acceleration inside the crew capsule. There are also science experiments from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Purdue University, and Otto von Guericke University and Olympiaspace in Germany.

Other items aboard the flight include a NASA-funded vibration damping system to allow for more precise experiments in microgravity, an assortment of scientific, medical and textile materials from the Thai startup mu Space, and an allotment of mementos and other items provided by Blue Origin employees.

Blue Origin is developing a much bigger rocket, called New Glenn, as an orbital launcher. The New Glenn could launch on its maiden flight from Cape Canaveral by the end of 2020.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Live coverage of SpaceX’s preparations for the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad with the Telstar 19 VANTAGE communications satellite. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket preparing for a static fire test at Cape Canaveral. Credit: Steven Young/Spaceflight Now

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First hot firing of P120C motor for Vega-C and Ariane 6 - YouTube

European engineers test-fired the world’s most powerful single-segment solid rocket booster Monday in French Guiana, clearing a major development hurdle for the Vega-C and Ariane 6 launchers set for debuts in 2019 and 2020.

Mounted on a test stand over a flame trench carved out of bedrock at the European-run spaceport in South America, the P120C rocket motor fired at around 1200 GMT (8 a.m. EDT; 9 a.m. French Guiana time) Monday after bad weather delayed the test from last week.

The rocket motor consumed its supply of more than 300,000 pounds (142 metric tons) of solid propellant in 135 seconds, generating around 800,000 pounds of thrust at full power in a sea level atmosphere.

Engineers used the test-firing to collect about 600 points of data on the rocket motor’s thrust, internal pressure, temperatures, and other performance metrics. The results from Monday’s hotfire test will help designers confirm the rocket’s performance matches expectations.

Burning a pre-packed rubber-like solid propellant mixture called HTPB, the P120C will be used as the first stage of Europe’s new Vega-C rocket set to enter service late next year. The Vega-C is an upgraded, higher-performing version of the Vega launch vehicle, which has logged 11 straight successful flights since its debut in February 2012.

Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, scheduled for a maiden test flight in July 2020, will fly with two or four P120C rocket motors as strap-on boosters, allowing engineers to adjust the launcher’s lift capability depending on the weight and destination of its payload.

The P120C solid rocket motor ignites Monday on a test stand in French Guiana. Credit: ESA/CNES – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon

The P120C motor is derived from the Vega rocket’s P80 first stage motor, itself an evolution from the strap-on boosters used on Europe’s heavyweight Ariane 5 rocket. The P120C’s carbon fiber casing is manufactured by Avio in Colleferro, Italy, near Rome, and its nozzle is produced at Ariane Group’s Le Haillan site near Bordeaux, France.

Ariane Group is a 50-50 joint venture between Airbus and Safran, and the principal owner of the launch services company Arianespace.

The major components were shipped to French Guiana, and the developmental motor fired Monday was assembled and filled with solid propellant at a fueling plant at the Guiana Space Center, then rolled out to the test stand on rails last month.

“The success of the P120C static firing test is a key milestone on the Vega-C and Ariane 6 development programs in view of the launchers’ maiden flights schedule for 2019 and 2020, respectively,” said Giulio Ranzo, Avio’s chief executive.

In a statement, Ranzo called the test-firing “a great technological achievement for its unique performance, the result of radical innovation combined with over 30 years of experience in solid propulsion through cooperation between Avio and Ariane Group.”

The P120C development motor was transferred to its test stand in French Guiana in June. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – JM Guillon

The P120C rocket motor measures 44 feet (13.5 meters) tall and 11 feet (3.4 meters) in diameter. It contains nearly twice the propellant carried by the P80 rocket motor, and provides an increase in thrust of roughly 50 percent over the currently-flying P80.

By comparison, the Ariane 5 rocket’s twin strap-on solid-fueled boosters each produce around 1.2 million pounds of thrust at sea level, more than the P120C. But the Ariane 5’s boosters come in three pieces, or segments, and are more expensive to manufacture.

Two qualification test-firings of the P120C rocket motor are planned at the end of this year and in 2019 before the inaugural flight of the Vega-C rocket.

The Vega-C will be the first vehicle to incorporate the P120C solid rocket motor. The uprated version of Europe’s Vega launcher will be able to loft up to 4,850 pounds (2.2 metric tons) to a 435-mile-high (700-kilometer) polar orbit, an improvement over the Vega’s current lift capability of around 3,300 pounds (1.5 metric tons) to the same orbit.

Officials intend for a launch of the upgraded Vega-C rocket to cost no more than the baseline Vega booster, which has achieved success in luring contracts for launching small Earth observation satellites. Arianespace is also eyeing the rideshare launch market for future Vega flights.

The Vega-C will also debut an enlarged second stage motor, called the Zefiro 40, which was successfully test-fired in Sardinia for the first time in March.

Artist’s illustration of the Ariane 6 (left) and Vega-C (right) launch vehicles. Credit: ESA – D. Ducros

Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket will use two or four P120C boosters mounted around the launcher’s hydrogen-fueled core stage. A test version of the Ariane 6’s Vulcain 2.1 main engine, based on the Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2 powerplant, completed its first hotfire demonstration on a test stand in Germany in January.

The development of both rockets is funded in public-private partnerships between the European Space Agency and industry, primarily Ariane Group and Avio, the the objective to provide Europe with an independent strategic launch capability, while attracting continued commercial launch business for Arianespace.

With the projected launch rates of the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets, Avio says it will produce up to 35 P120C motor casings per year at its Colleferro manufacturing facility. European officials say the shared solid motor production line will help bring down Ariane 6 and Vega-C launch costs as Arianespace faces stiff competition from private launch companies like SpaceX.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Artist’s concept of a rocket lifting off from the U.K.’s first vertical orbital launch site in northern Scotland. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Two companies — U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and British start-up Orbex — seeking to carve out a share of the burgeoning small satellite launch market plan to fly their rockets from a remote site on the northern shore of Scotland, British government and industry officials announced Monday.

Both rocket developers received millions of dollars Monday in British government grants to advance their launcher technology, a day after U.K. officials announced the selection of a site in Sutherland on Scotland’s north coast for the nation’s first vertical orbital launch base.

The proposed launch facility would be built on A’Mhoine Peninsula, a sparsely-populated stretch of land overlooking the sea. The first launch from Sutherland could happen in the early 2020s.

The U.K. Space Agency has committed £2.5 million ($3.3 million) to go toward development of the Sutherland launch site, officials announced Sunday. The funding will go to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish government’s economic development agency for Sutherland and surrounding regions.

“As a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs, we want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites as part of our industrial strategy,” said U.K. Business Secretary Greg Clark in a statement. “The U.K.’s thriving space industry, research community and aerospace supply chain put the U.K. in a leading position to develop both vertical and horizontal launch sites.”

The British government also announced Sunday the availability of £2 million ($2.7 million) in funding to boost development of horizontal spaceports across the U.K. Sites in Cornwall in southwest England, Glasgow in Scotland, and Snowdonia in Wales are under consideration by government and industry officials for use as horizontal spaceports, which could host takeoffs and landings of spaceplanes and aircraft carrying air-launched rockets planned by companies like Virgin Orbit.

British government officials said the development of a U.K. spaceport would give the nation’s industry broader access to the space market. British companies, such as SSTL in England and Clyde Space in Scotland, are already counted among the global leaders in constructing small satellites.

“This will build on our global reputation for manufacturing small satellites and help the whole country capitalize on the huge potential of the commercial space age,” Clark said in a statement.

UK Spaceflight Programme - YouTube

Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the Sutherland launch site could create hundreds of new jobs.

Lockheed Martin and Orbex, a UK-based company development a small satellite booster, have announced their intention to launch from Sutherland. Lockheed Martin will receive £23.5 million ($31.1 million) and Orbex will get £5.5 million ($7.3 million) from the U.K. Space Agency to advance work on their launcher programs.

The British government, Lockheed Martin and Orbex made their announcements at the Farnborough International Airshow.

Lockheed Martin is reportedly interested in launching a variant of Rocket Lab’s Electron booster from the Sutherland site. The U.S. aerospace contractor is a strategic investor in Rocket Lab, which already operates an orbital spaceport in New Zealand, and is planning to develop a U.S. launch pad.

“The countdown to the first orbital rocket launch from U.K. soil has officially begun,” said Patrick Wood, Lockheed Martin’s U.K. country executive for space, in a written statement. “The U.K. Government has stated its desire to grow the U.K.’s space sector to ten percent of the global space economy by 2030. We are proud to be selected to help them achieve this goal. This initiative will not only spark advancements in science and innovation, it will create new opportunities for current and future U.K.-based suppliers to become part of the next space age.”

Lockheed Martin said in a statement it will provide “strategic support and guidance” to the Scottish government in developing the Sutherland launch site.

The U.K. Space Agency awarded two separate funding grants to Lockheed Martin, one to help pay for the company’s efforts to aid the construction of the spaceport in Scotland, and another for the development of a Small Launch Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle — or SL-OMV — in Reading, England.

The orbital maneuvering vehicle, to be built for Lockheed Martin by Moog, will be a restartable upper stage capable of delivering up to six satellites to different orbits. Lockheed Martin said it plan to conduct a “pathfinder” launch in partnership with Orbital Micro Systems, a Colorado-based company which aims to deploy a constellation of miniature commercial weather satellites.

“This historic ‘pathfinder’ launch for the U.K. will also demonstrate the tremendous potential small satellites and CubeSats have across a wide range of commercial and government data collection applications,” Wood said. “We believe, as the U.K. Space Agency does, that this effort will help bring the U.K. to the forefront of the rapidly-growing, global small satellite market and support the U.K.’s maturing space supply chain.”

The U.K.’s first vertical orbital launch site will be developed in northern Scotland. Credit: Google Maps/Spaceflight Now

Orbex’s £5.5 million ($7.3 million) grant from the U.K. Space Agency is part of a £30 million ($40 million) funding round announced by the company Monday.

The funding for Orbex comes from a mix of public and private sources, including the U.K. Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the European Commission Horizon 2020 program, private investors, and two of Europe’s largest venture capital funds: Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds.

Orbex plans to share the Sutherland launch site with Lockheed Martin, potentially using two separate launch pads at the spaceport.

“We’re delighted to have been selected after a highly competitive and detailed process,” said Chris Larmour, CEO of London-based Orbex. “Orbex is one of the very few private spaceflight companies with credible practical experience in the development of launch vehicles and rocket engines. With the support of this grant from the U.K. Space Agency, we will soon be launching small satellites into orbit from British soil and helping to transform the U.K. into an important hub for commercial space launch operations.”

Orbex has kept its planned micro-launcher, named Prime, under wraps until recently.

“With our collective experience, we have developed a low-mass, low-carbon, high-performance 21st century orbital launch vehicle, designed specifically to support the needs of the rapidly growing smallsat industry,” Larmour said in a statement. “There is a significant launch backlog for small satellites globally and Orbex is primed to give industry and science a cost-effective, reliable and responsive route into space, directly from Europe.”

The Prime launch vehicle will be capable of carrying up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) into low Earth orbit, according to Orbex. The company, which has subsidiaries in Denmark and Germany, says the Prime rocket will be fully designed, built and launched in Europe.

Rocket Lab’s Electron booster, which Lockheed Martin is eyeing to capture a piece of the small satellite launch market, has a comparable lift capacity. It can put a payload of up to 330 pounds into a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit.

Many technical details of the Prime vehicle have not been released by Orbex, but the company says it will burn a renewable bio-propane fuel that cuts carbon emissions by 90 percent compared to conventional hydrocarbon fuels. The Prime micro-launcher will carry “an innovative new low mass recovery and re-flight system” to make its components reusable, according to Orbex.

Artist’s illustration of Orbex’s Prime micro-launcher lifting off from Scotland. Credit: Orbex/Anders Bøggild

“Prime launchers are up to 30 percent lighter and 20 percent more efficient than any other vehicle in the small launcher category, packing more power per cubic liter than many heavy launchers,” Orbex said in a press release. “The Prime vehicle will launch satellites to altitudes up to 1,250 kilometers (776 miles), inserting them into sun-synchronous or polar orbits.”

Launch vehicles taking off from Scotland’s coast in Sutherland will fly to the north, taking routes over the Norwegian Sea between Iceland and Svalbard to ensure debris does not fall on populated areas.

Officials say the Sutherland spaceport is well-positioned to allow rockets to place small satellites into north-south orbits that fly over Earth’s poles. Such orbits are commonly used by Earth-observing satellites and low-latency communications stations, including mega-constellations of commercial satellites currently on the drawing board.

In a separate agreement signed Monday, California-based Virgin Orbit revealed plans to base some missions of its air-dropped LauncherOne satellite booster from from Cornwall Airport Newquay — also named Spaceport Cornwall — in southwest England by 2021.

Founded by Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, Virgin Orbit plans to stage the first test flight of the LauncherOne vehicle from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California later this year. The LauncherOne rocket will be dropped from under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet over the ocean, then fire into orbit.

The British government says it has set aside additional money to bolster development of domestic space launch capabilities.

There remain open questions on how UK regulatory agencies will oversee launch operations in Britain, and how export restrictions will affect rocket launches in Britain using U.S. technology.

“In general this is good news – (the) U.K. actually making decisions and moving things forward, but this has been talked about for best part of a decade,” Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert and lecturer in international relations at the University of Leicester, wrote in a Twitter post.

Bowen wrote that the few million dollars committed by the U.K. Space Agency to British vertical and horizontal spaceports  suggests the government “is not rushing to develop spaceports. It’s betting on private sector investment.”

He added later Monday that the U.K. Space Agency’s direct funding grants to entice Lockheed Martin and Orbex to use the Sutherland launch base is “positive news.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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The Cygnus supply ship flies away from the International Space Station after release from Canadarm 2 on Sunday. Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

Closing out 52 days at the International Space Station, an automated Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo craft left the research outpost Sunday to climb into a higher orbit for deployment of six CubeSats and further engineering experiments, before de-orbiting over Pacific Ocean later this month.

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst, at the controls of the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm, send the command to release the Cygnus spacecraft a few hours after the supply ship was removed from a berthing port on the station’s Harmony module.

Snares on the robot arm’s hand opened and released the Cygnus spacecraft at 8:37 a.m. EDT (1237 GMT) Sunday, while the space station soared 253 miles (407 kilometers) over southeastern Colombia.

The Cygnus supply ship completed a departure burn moments later, and cameras aboard the station showed the visiting cargo freighter — now loaded with trash — flying away from the research complex, backdropped with brilliant views of planet Earth.

“It was really cool watching Cygnus depart,” astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor radioed from the space station. “(It’s) almost a little surreal to watch a cargo vehicle like that depart the station, and to see it from a distance. And just think, this was a normal day at the office.”

The Cygnus spacecraft was released from the space station’s robot arm at 8:37 a.m. EDT (1237 GMT). A SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule is seen attached to the station, where it has been parked since arriving July 2. Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

The flight plan called for the Cygnus spacecraft to climb into a higher orbit later Sunday, setting the stage for the release of six CubeSats for Spire Global and Aerospace Corp. The six CubeSats, each around the size of a shoebox, will deploy in pairs from a NanoRacks carrier module mounted on the Cygnus spacecraft over the course of several hours late Sunday and early Monday.

The CubeSats include four “Lemur-2” payloads for San Francisco-based Spire Global, which builds and operates a fleet of nanosatellites surveying Earth’s atmosphere and tracking maritime traffic. The Aerospace Corp.’s AeroCube 12A and 12B spacecraft will also be released to demonstrate new star-tracker imaging sensors, a variety of nanotechnology payloads, advanced solar cells, and an electric propulsion system on one of the two satellites.

The launch and deployment of the Lemur-2 and AeroCube nanosatellites was arranged through Houston-based NanoRacks, which provided the CubeSat carrier module on the Cygnus spacecraft.

Following the CubeSat deployments, ground controllers at Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus control center in Dulles, Virginia, will put the spacecraft through additional testing over the next two weeks, then uplink commands for the supply ship to fire its engine and drop out of orbit July 30.

The station crew packed around 6,600 pounds (3,000 kilograms) of trash into the Cygnus spacecraft’s Italian-built cargo compartment for disposal during the ship’s destructive re-entry late this month.

The Cygnus spacecraft arrived at the station May 24 — three days after launching on an Antares rocket from Virginia — and delivered 7,205 pounds (3,268 kilograms) provisions, experiments and other hardware. Astronauts unloaded the cargo and replaced it with garbage tagged for disposal.

The items carried to the station by the Cygnus spacecraft included NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory, a quantum physics experiment to explore the nature of ultra-cold matter, probing the behavior of atoms chilled to extreme temperatures colder than the vacuum of space.

The Cygnus spacecraft, named the S.S. J.R. Thompson after a former NASA deputy administrator and Orbital ATK executive, also delivered nine other CubeSats that were transferred into the station for deployment through the Japanese airlock.

Another first for the Cygnus cargo mission was a test of the supply ship’s reboost capability Tuesday. The Cygnus cargo freighter became the first U.S. spacecraft to raise the station’s altitude since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011.

The Cygnus only raised the station’s altitude by around 295 feet (90 meters) during a 50-second firing of the ship’s main engine, but future maneuvers could employ longer burns for more significant reboosts.

Russian Progress cargo freighters, and the propulsion system on the space station’s Russian Zvezda service module, have conducted nearly all of the research lab’s orbital maneuvers since the end of the space shuttle program, with the exception of a few reboosts by the European Space Agency’s now-retired Automated Transfer Vehicle. Russian mission controllers typically plan several reboost maneuvers per year to counteract the effects of atmospheric drag, which gradually pulls the space station closer to Earth.

NASA plans to use future Cygnus missions for additional orbit-raising burns. There are no plans to use SpaceX’s Dragon capsules for reboosts because the Cygnus propulsion system is better-suited for the job, according to Kirk Shireman, NASA’s space station program manager.

The Cygnus spacecraft received a new corporate owner while berthed at the International Space Station, thanks to Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK in June.

NASA has multibillion-dollar contracts with Northrop Grumman and SpaceX for station resupply flights. The Cygnus mission concluding this month is the ninth operational cargo mission conducted by Northrop Grumman under a contract valued at $2.89 billion, according to the NASA’s inspector general.

Northrop Grumman’s next Cygnus mission to the space station is scheduled for liftoff in November, again aboard an Antares booster launched from Wallops Island, Virginia.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Live coverage of Northrop Grumman’s ninth operational Cygnus resupply flight to the International Space Station. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.

NASA Live: Official Stream of NASA TV - YouTube

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The Crew Dragon spacecraft slated to fly on SpaceX’s first commercial crew orbital test flight, without astronauts on-board, arrived at Cape Canaveral this week. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon spacecraft, a capsule designed to eventually carry astronauts on treks to the International Space Station, has arrived at Cape Canaveral to begin preparations for launch on an unpiloted test flight later this year.

But a target launch date for the uncrewed demonstration mission remains undecided, as officials assess the readiness of the Crew Dragon capsule, its unpressurized service module, or trunk section, its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, and the space station’s availability to receive the spacecraft.

The most recent date officially communicated by NASA and SpaceX targets liftoff of the Crew Dragon’s unpiloted test flight, called Demo-1, in August. But that’s not going to happen, with the earliest possible launch date for Demo-1 now expected some time in the fall, according to multiple officials and internal documentation reviewed by Spaceflight Now.

Another test flight, using a second space-worthy Crew Dragon spaceship, is expected in early 2019. A more definitive target date has not been released by SpaceX or NASA, and a SpaceX spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry requesting a fresh schedule for the Crew Dragon demo flights.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft assigned to the Demo-1 mission arrived at Cape Canaveral after completing testing at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio in recent weeks. Inside the giant NASA-owned test chamber –the largest of its kind in the world — engineers subjected the capsule to the extremely cold, airless environment of space to ensure it could withstand the conditions.

The testing apparently went well, and ground crews at Cape Canaveral will spend the next few months outfitting the capsule with sensors, parachutes, propellant and other gear needed for the test flight.

NASA astronauts Eric Boe (left) and Bob Behnken (right) inspect a Crew Dragon spacecraft earlier this year. Credit: SpaceX

Janet Kavandi, a former astronaut and current director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, which oversees the Plum Brook Station facility, said Monday that SpaceX had finished up reverberant acoustic and thermal vacuum testing, and the Crew Dragon capsule had departed Ohio.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft was manufactured at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, before going to Plum Brook for environmental testing, and finally shipping to Florida’s Space Coast for launch preparations.

Production of the Falcon 9 rocket slated to launch the Demo-1 mission is nearing completion in Hawthorne. The launcher is based on SpaceX’s upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5 configuration, which made its first successful flight in May, but the vehicle assigned to Demo-1 will debut redesigned upper stage helium pressurant tanks, pressure vessels which include technical fixes to address the likely cause of a Falcon 9 rocket explosion on the launch pad in Florida in 2016.

Fitting the Crew Dragon’s Demo-1 mission and the first orbital test flight of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, built by Boeing, NASA’s other commercial crew transportation provider Boeing, into the space station’s manifest of visiting crew and cargo vehicles will also help determine when they will launch, according to Kirk Shireman, NASA’s space station program manger.

Shireman said June 28 that new target dates for the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner rest flights would be “forthcoming very soon.”

“In the end, on the space station, we have Progress vehicles, we have Soyuz vehicles, we have spacewalks,” Shireman said. “It has to fit in amongst all those things. We just have to sit down all together, agree when the vehicles are going to be ready, when the certification is ready, and when it fits in the program plan. And that’s the work that’s still in front of us.”

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Shireman said. “Many of the moving parts are not in the purview of any one individual, so it’s really all of us getting togther and agreeing when are all those parts going to fit together and create the opportunity (to fly).”

The Crew Dragon spacecraft pictured at NASA’s Plum Brook Station test facility. Credit: SpaceX

A report released by the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday suggested further delays are expected in the certification of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

NASA is funding the two commercial crew spacecraft to end its reliance on Russian Soyuz crew ferry vehicles for flights to the space station.

In 2014, NASA agreed to a $4.2 billion contract with Boeing and a $2.6 billion deal with SpaceX to develop, build and fly the companies’ CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships. At that time, NASA and its two commercial crew contractors expected to have the new vehicles certified for regular crew rotation missions to and from the International Space Station by the end of 2017.

But technical hurdles and several redesigns of the the spacecraft have delayed Boeing and SpaceX’s first orbital test flights until later this year, and astronauts will not fly on the commercially-developed capsules until demonstration flights in early 2019. Then will come extensive reviews of the test flights’ results before NASA certifies the vehicles to carry long-duration crews between Earth and the space station.

While Boeing and SpaceX’s most recent public projections indicate they will complete the certification process in January and February 2019, respectively, NASA’s own schedule analysis suggests that milestone will likely come nearly a year later.

“In April 2018, the program’s schedule risk analysis found there was zero percent chance that either contractor would achieve its current proposed certification milestone,” the GAO wrote in its report. “The analysis’s average certification date was December 2019 for Boeing and January 2020 for SpaceX.”

NASA and Boeing have agreed to potentially use the CST-100 Starliner’s crewed test flight, which originally was supposed to launch with a Boeing test pilot and a NASA astronaut, to carry a passenger who would stay aboard the space station for a long-duration months-long stay.

The Russian space agency — Roscosmos — and NASA have agreed to extend the length of upcoming space station expeditions to more than six months. That will allow NASA’s contract for astronauts seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to cover crew returns through at least January 2020, several months later than originally planned.

These measures are aimed at reducing the risk of a gap in U.S. crew access to the space station, a major topic addressed in the GAO’s report earlier this week.

NASA has decided not to purchase additional Soyuz seats from the Russian government, and officials say there is a three-year lead time required to build new Soyuz spacecraft, eliminating any chance for the U.S. space agency to buy more seats for astronauts launching in 2020.

Once the Boeing and SpaceX crew craft are flying, NASA and Roscosmos plan to put one of their crew members on each U.S. and Russian crew launch to the space station. That means U.S. astronauts will continue launching on Soyuz missions, but NASA will provide the same opportunity for Russian cosmonauts on U.S. vehicles in an in-kind arrangement, ending NASA’s payments to Russia.

In the worst-case scenario, neither company will be ready to begin crew rotation services to the space station until August 2020, according to NASA’s schedule analysis.

Echoing concerns raised by Congress and NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, the GAO said NASA “lacks a consistent approach to assess key safety metrics” on the commercial crew vehicles. Safety officials are concerned neither company will meet NASA’s contractual requirement of a 1-in-270 probability of losing a crew on a CST-100 Starliner or Crew Dragon mission.

NASA officials have said the primary driver behind the difficulty of meeting the 1-in-270 loss of crew, or LOC, requirement stems from hazards posed by space junk, which could collide with the capsules in orbit. Engineers are reviewing options, such as in-orbit inspections of the vehicle’s heat shields, to mitigate the risk.

The GAO’s report also outlined several additional “top risks” facing each commercial crew capsule during development.

SpaceX’s top risks include the safety of the Falcon 9 rocket’s new helium composite overwrapped pressure vessels, which will launch for the first time on the Demo-1 mission, and cracking discovered in the turbines of Falcon 9 rocket engines. The new-generation Falcon 9 Block 5 design includes changes to address the cracking risk.

NASA is also also considering whether to approve SpaceX’s plan to load liquid propellants into the Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts already strapped in to their seats on top of the launcher.

For Boeing, the top risks include concerns with the CST-100 Starliner’s abort system, parachutes, and the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket it will ride into orbit.

“Boeing is addressing a risk that its abort system, which it needs for human spaceflight certification, may not meet the program’s requirement to have sufficient control of the vehicle through an abort,” the GAO wrote in its report. “In some abort scenarios, Boeing has found that the spacecraft may tumble, which could pose a threat to the crew’s safety.”

Wind tunnel testing and data gather during an upcoming pad abort test will confirm the effectiveness of the abort system, the GAO said.

There is also a concern that the forward heat shield, which will jettison from the CST-100 Starliner on descent, may re-contact the spacecraft after separation and damage its parachute system. NASA and Boeing are still assessing whether that possibility is acceptable, the GAO said.

Boeing’s commercial crew missions will land with the aid of parachutes and airbags at one of several possible desert locations in the Western United States. The CST-100 Starliner’s early landings are likely to target White Sands, New Mexico.

Crew Dragon capsules will come back to Earth with parachute-assisted splashdowns at sea. SpaceX has shelved earlier plans to use the Crew Dragon’s rocket thrusters for propulsive, precise touchdowns on land.

NASA’s commercial crew managers may have insufficient data from Boeing’s launch contractor, ULA, to determine if the Atlas 5 rocket is susceptible to “cracking that could lead to catastrophic failures,” the GAO wrote in its report. NASA is also concerned its engineers may not have access to data on the Atlas 5’s RD-180 main engine. The information is restricted by agreements between the U.S. and Russian governments, the government watchdog said.

With the departure of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule earlier this month, NASA’s Plum Brook Station is preparing to host new spacecraft for testing.

“On the space side, we’re really getting a lot of use out of those test chambers out there,” Kavandi said Monday at the American Insitute for Aeronautics and Astronautics Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Next up for Plum Brook Station will be a series of ground tests on the launch abort system for NASA’s Orion crew capsule, a vehicle intended for missions to the moon and other deep space destinations. The combined crew and service modules for the next Orion spacecraft, scheduled for a long-delayed unpiloted test flight around the moon in 2020, will also be put through acoustic and thermal vacuum testing at Plum Brook Station.

Other commercial space companies, such as Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, plan to use the Plum Brook Station facility for testing.

“Of course, everyone is trying to launch at about the same timeframe,” Kavandi said. “Everyone is trying to shoot for the 2020, 2021, 2022 timeframe. There’s a big push to get out there and get tested, so we’re doing our best to fit everyone in.”

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A Delta 2 rocket is revealed at Complex 17B before a launch in February 2007 with NASA’s THEMIS mission, consisting of five identical satellites designed to study Earth’s auroras. Complex 17A is in the foreground. Credit: NASA/George Shelton

The U.S. Air Force plans Thursday to demolish towers once used to assemble Delta 2 rockets at Cape Canaveral for missions to Mars, four dozen flights to deploy the GPS navigation network, and numerous other launches with scientific, commercial and military payloads.

The demolition is planned around 7 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) Thursday at the Complex 17 launch pad, where twin mobile gantries and fixed towers will be toppled by explosives.

Located near the southern perimeter of the sprawling Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Complex 17 is one of the Florida spaceport’s oldest launch pads, where 325 Thor and Delta boosters departed on missile tests and satellite deliveries from 1957 through 2011.

But the Delta 2 rocket which once launched from Complex 17 is nearing retirement. The Delta 2 last flew from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 10, 2011, with a pair of science probes to study the moon’s gravity field, and just one more Delta 2 launcher is left to fly in September from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Built more than six decades ago at the dawn of Space Age, the twin launch pads at Complex 17 — known as pads 17A and 17B — hosted the launch of 48 Global Positioning Navigation satellites, propelling the space-based network from a military-only program to an everyday public utility.

NASA’s first three Mars rovers — Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity — all departed from Complex 17 on Delta 2 rockets, along with MESSENGER mission which became the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt, the planet-hunting Kepler observatory, several weather satellites, and dozens of commercial and military communications spacecraft.

Construction of Complex 17 began in April 1956 for the Thor ballistic missile program. The first Thor launch from pad 17B occurred in January 1957, followed the debut launch from pad 17A in August of the same year.

Delta rockets based on the Thor missile designed started launching from Complex 17 in the 1960s, and management of the facility transferred between the Air Force and NASA several times over the following decades.

The final Delta 2 launch from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 17 carried NASA’s twin GRAIL probes toward the moon. Credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph and Don Knight

Meanwhile, the builders of the Delta rocket family changed names through multiple corporate mergers and acquisitions, beginning with the Douglas Aircraft Company, then succeeded by McDonnell Douglas, Boeing and United Launch Alliance, formed in 2006 by the marriage of Boeing and Lockheed Martin rocket programs.

Workers raised the height of the twin mobile towers at Complex 17 in the 1980s for the Delta 2 rocket, a workhorse launcher that has accomplished 154 missions since its maiden flight from Complex 17 on Valentine’s Day 1989. The Delta 2 has logged 152 successful missions in that time.

One of the Delta 2 failures in January 1997 littered Complex 17 with huge chunks of flaming debris after the rocket exploded 13 seconds after liftoff, destroying cars and office trailers near the launch pad’s blockhouse bunker, where more than 70 launch controllers escaped uninjured.

The launch towers sustained only light damage during the Delta 2 explosion, and flights from Complex 17 resumed four months later following repairs and an investigation into the accident. When the Delta 2 returned to service, members of the launch team moved to a control center farther from the launch pad.

Three liftoffs of Delta 3 rockets, a hybrid between the Delta 2 and the Delta 4 launchers, also occurred at pad 17B from 1998 through 2000.

Engineers have fond memories of launches at Complex 17, where 110 Delta 2 rockets left Earth until the facility was deactivated.

“Growing up on Delta 2, it was mostly a fairly confined team of a couple hundred folks down at Complex 17, a smaller team out west (at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California),” said Tim Dunn, a NASA launch director who served on the Delta 2 launch team at Boeing in the late 1990s before joining the space agency.

Dunn’s first mission as launch director was the last Delta 2 flight from Cape Canaveral in 2011.

“That one was very special,” he told Spaceflight Now in an interview.

NASA launch director Tim Dunn (lower right) oversees the countdown before the final Delta 2 launch from Cape Canaveral in September 2011. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Dunn worked on the Air Force’s Titan 4 rocket before moving to the Delta 2, a less expensive vehicle that could carry to space a fraction of the Titan 4’s lift capacity, but which ended up flying more often, and for more years.

“I went to the Delta 2, and it was a little smaller,” Dunn recalled in an interview with Spaceflight Now on the Delta 2’s coming retirement. “You could get your hands around the systems, and you could walk the tower a lot more easily, and the team that you were working with was kind of an order of magnitude smaller, so that made it feel more like family. That’s one of the things that I’ll miss.

“When you grow up and you invest so many years in a particular rocket, you really feel like you know it inside and out,” he said.

Since the final Delta 2 flight from Florida, crews have secured and removed ground equipment from Complex 17, ensured the area was clear of hazardous materials, and demolished the blockhouse in 2013.

NASA took control of Complex 17 after the Air Force launched its last Delta 2 mission from pad 17A in 2009, and the space agency kept launch pad 17B operational long enough to dispatch the GRAIL lunar probes to the moon in 2011.

A Delta 2 rocket stands inside the mobile gantry in August 2009 before the final launch from Complex 17A. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Dunn said NASA and the Air Force completed their “closeout” of Complex 17 in 2016. Then attention turned to demolishing the launch pad’s towers, which the Air Force put off due to funding shortages.

The mobile towers at each Complex 17 launch pad provided protection of Delta 2 rockets and their payloads from the Florida weather, and gave workers access to the vehicle during assembly and launch preparations. The gantries were retracted away from the rocket during Delta 2 countdowns.

The fixed towers provided umbilical connections to Delta 2 rockets before liftoff.

Moon Express, a private firm developing a commercial lunar lander, has leased facilities from the Air Force at Complex 17 and neighboring Complex 18 for testing of its spacecraft. But the company does not need the Delta 2-era launch pad towers.

In a tweet Wednesday, Moon Express chief executive and co-founder Bob Richards said future testing of the company’s lunar lander will take place at Complex 18.

“Personally, I love the towers and find them inspiring. The demo of the towers was pre-ordained when we licensed LC-17 & 18 from the USAF due to safety & other factors that require them to come down,” Richards wrote. “Our test activities will be taking place at LC-18.”

A mission board at Complex 17 pictured during preparations for the final Delta 2 launch from Cape Canaveral in 2011, carrying NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft toward the moon. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

“For more than half a century, the twin towers of SLC-17 stood tall on the horizon of the Cape Canaveral Spaceport,” said Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida, a state agency charged with attracting aerospace businesses to Florida. “Together, they’ve hosted more than 300 launches and often marked the direction in which launch viewers would turn to witness history in the making.

“Tomorrow, those towers will be demolished,” DiBello said in a statement Wednesday. “That detonation will symbolize the ongoing renaissance and evolution of the Cape Canaveral Spaceport as we continue to transition further into the planet’s primary hub for commercial space activity. We look forward to making even more history with the latest tenant, Moon Express, and our other partners in building the bold new future of the commercial space marketplace.”

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Пуск РН «Союз-2.1а» с ТГК «Прогресс МС-09» - YouTube

Russia’s Progress MS-09 cargo craft made a 3-hour, 40-minute trip from a launch pad in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station on Monday, setting a record for the quickest journey to the orbiting research laboratory.

The achievement could set the stage for less-than-four-hour rendezvous profiles for future station crews riding on Soyuz capsules. Russian engineers wanted to first test the approach with the automated Progress cargo spacecraft.

The Progress MS-09 supply ship, loaded with nearly three tons of cargo, fuel and water, lifted off aboard a Soyuz-2.1a rocket at 2151:34 GMT (5:51:34 p.m. EDT) Monday from the Complex 31 launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz launcher released the Progress spacecraft in orbit less than nine minutes later. After unfurling its solar arrays and navigation antennas, the Progress kicked off a series of thruster firings to match its orbit with that of the International Space Station, gliding to a radar-guided link-up with the station’s Pirs docking compartment at 0131 GMT Tuesday (9:31 p.m. EDT Monday).

Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Sergey Prokopyev opened hatches to the Progress supply carrier to begin unpacking the cargo inside its pressurized cabin. Fuel, water and fresh air supplies delivered by the Progress will be transferred into the station’s own tanks.

Here’s a view of the docking shared by Artemyev on his Twitter account.

We looked forward to the #ProgressMS09 cargo spacecraft! @roscosmos engineers dispatched the Progress spacecraft on the fastest-ever rendezvous with the @Space_Station – just 3 hours 40 minutes after launch! pic.twitter.com/nasovj3nYK

— Oleg Artemyev (@OlegMKS) July 10, 2018

The Progress spacecraft is scheduled to remain at the station until January, when it will undock and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere to dispose of trash.

Read our full story on Monday’s cargo delivery for details on the mission. More photos of the launch and docking are posted below, plus two pictures shared by Artemyev after hatch opening.

Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Roscosmos Credit: Oleg Artemyev/Roscosmos Credit: Oleg Artemyev/Roscosmos

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