Space transport roundup – June.30.2020

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images dealing with space transport (find previous roundups here):

** SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully sends USAF GPS satellite into orbit. First stage booster on first flight lands safely on ocean platform. This was the first time SpaceX was allowed by the USAF to return and recover the booster when launching a military payload.

The fairings were recovered from the water:

See also:

Find more about other SpaceX activities below.

** Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity glides back to Spaceport America for second time, setting the stage for the first powered flights from the New Mexico facility. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Completes Second Flight from Spaceport America – Virgin Galactic

AS CRUCES, N.M. June 25, 2020 -Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE) (“Virgin Galactic” or “the Company”) today announced the successful completion of the second SpaceShipTwo test flight from Spaceport America. This flight follows the completion of the first test flight from the Company’s commercial headquarters in New Mexico on May 1, 2020, and marks another important milestone as the team progresses toward the launch of Virgin Galactic’s commercial service.

On SpaceShipTwo Unity’s flight deck were Mark ‘Forger’ Stucky and Michael ‘Sooch’ Masucci. Both pilots are commercial astronauts, having each previously flown Unity into space on different flights. Piloting the Company’s carrier aircraft, VMS Eve, were Nicola Pecile and CJ Sturckow.

This glide flight, flown at higher speeds, allowed the team to continue to evaluate systems and vehicle performance in advance of future rocket-powered space flights from the Company’s new operating base in New Mexico. Flying VSS Unity in glide configuration at higher speeds enables certain vehicle systems to operate close to the environment seen during phases of rocket boost on a spaceflight. The spaceship achieved a glide speed of Mach 0.85 after being released from the mothership VMS Eve at an altitude of 51,000 ft. Unity completed multiple test-points before touching back down smoothly for a runway landing at Spaceport America.

Forger and Sooch performed a series of maneuvers with Unity designed to gather data about performance and handling qualities while flying at higher speeds. This data will be verified against similar maneuvers that were performed in the previous glide flight to enhance aerodynamic modelling.

Pending the completion of an extensive data review of this flight, the team will start preparing for the next stage of our flight test program – powered spaceflights from Spaceport America. In addition to the data review, we have several steps to complete, including final modifications to the spaceship customer cabin and detailed inspections of the vehicle and systems.

See also: Virgin Galactic completes second successful glide test at Spaceport America – Spaceport America

** Virgin Galactic may fly NASA astronauts in addition to space tourists: Virgin Galactic is ‘excited’ about the opportunity to fly NASA astronauts – CNBC

Virgin Galactic is steadily moving closer to flying customers to the edge of space for the first time but the space tourism company is looking forward to the growing opportunity to fly NASA personnel as well. 

“I’m really excited about this one because for a long time NASA has been thinking about using suborbital vehicles, the ones that we’ve got, to train their astronauts and other NASA employees like researchers to go into space,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told CNBC’s Morgan Brennan on “Squawk Alley.”

FAA approval for commercial suborbital spaceflights could be coming soon:: Virgin Galactic expects to receive key FAA license within next two spaceflights – CNBC

** Boeing tests parachutes for Starliner crew vehicle:Boeing: Starliner Parachutes Perform Under Pressure – Boeing

This latest balloon drop, conducted high above White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, demonstrates Starliner’s parachutes continue to perform well even under dynamic abort conditions and a simulated failure. Boeing and NASA jointly developed the conditions for this test as part of a comprehensive test campaign to demonstrate Starliner parachute performance across the range of deployment conditions.

Teams wanted to be sure that if an abort were to occur early into launch, certain parachutes in Starliner’s landing sequence would inflate correctly despite needing to deploy in significantly different flight conditions than those seen with normal landings.

“Parachutes like clean air flow,” said Jim Harder, Boeing’s flight conductor. “They inflate predictably under a wide range of conditions, but in certain ascent aborts, you are deploying these parachutes into more unsteady air where proper inflation becomes less predictable. We wanted to test the inflation characteristics at low dynamic pressure so we can be completely confident in the system we developed.”

See also Boeing gives Starliner crew capsule’s parachutes a workout in drop test –

**** Blue Origin delivers a BE-4 engine to ULA. BE-4 engines will power the first stage booster on the company’s new Vulcan rocket. This is a “pathfinder”, which means it will be used for ground testing but not for flight. Blue Origin delivers the first BE-4 engine to United Launch Alliance –

** A problem with Atlas V launcher causes delay in launch of Perseverance Mars rover. Current “no-earlier-than” date for liftoff is July 30th. The window for launching to Mars closes around mid-August. So the margin for further delay is decreasing. If the rover is not launched by mid-August, it will have to wait over two years before the next opportunity to takeoff for the Red Planet.

A technical issue with the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket that will send NASA’s $2.4 billion Perseverance rover toward Mars has pushed the mission’s launch date back to no earlier than July 30, nearly two weeks into a month-long window for the rover to head to the Red Planet, or else face a two-year delay.

NASA confirmed the launch delay to no sooner than July 30 in a statement Tuesday.

“Due to launch vehicle processing delays in preparation for spacecraft mate operations, NASA and United Launch Alliance have moved the first launch attempt of the Mars 2020 mission to no earlier than July 30,” NASA said. “A liquid oxygen sensor line presented off-nominal data during the Wet Dress Rehearsal, and additional time is needed for the team to inspect and evaluate.”

** Sierra Nevada begins bonding thermal protection tiles to the Dream Chaser spaceplane.

TPS tiles protect the vehicle from re-entry heat. Around 2,000 of these tiles will protect Dream Chaser from temperatures that could reach upwards of 3,000°F on entry, while keeping the vehicle itself at only 350°F. The white tiles reject more heat from the sun while on-orbit, which helps to keep the components within Dream Chaser cooler. In comparison, more than 24,000 tiles were used on NASA’s space shuttles orbiters. Dream Chaser is about 30 feet long, or about ¼ the total length of the space shuttles.

In order to keep the tiles on Dream Chaser, our engineers are using room temperature vulcanizing (RTV) silicone. RTV silicone is able to withstand high temperatures, making it perfect for bonding the tiles. Each tile is tested by using a mechanism that pulls on them, which ensures the bond is sufficient.

SNC engineers have been able to update our TPS tiles from what was used during NASA’s shuttle program with more innovation, better technology and utilizing lessons learned.   We use more modern manufacturing techniques to increase strength and reduce cost. Another difference between the tiles is Dream Chaser tiles are about 10 inches by 10 inches, while those on the shuttle were six inches by six inches.  Dream Chaser is also smaller in size, which also means less tiles to replace in general.

Dream Chaser tiles are stronger and lighter weight than those used during the shuttle program and meet all Micro-Meteroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) requirements to ensure safe entry, descent and runway landings for crewed or cargo missions.

** An air-breathing rocket engine is in development at Mountain Aerospace Research Solutions. The project is described in: The rocket motor of the future “breathes” air like a jet engine | Ars Technica

A rocket normally carries all the oxidizer needed to burn its fuel. So the rocket engine(s) must accelerate the mass of both the rocket’s structure, engines, payload, etc and also the fuel + oxidizer. This results in getting only a few percent of the total mass at liftoff into orbit.  If during the ascent through the atmosphere the rocket could use external oxygen from the air instead of from onboard tanks, this could allow for putting far more payload mass into orbit.

Reaction Engines has been developing the SABRESynergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine” for over two decades to do just this. The SABRE propulsion system uses an elaborate precooler to cool down the air that is heated up as the vehicle flies faster and faster through the atmosphere. The precooler “Rapidly cools the incoming air (1,000 °C to ambient) enabling SABRE to operate at higher speeds than existing engines”. During takeoff and once the SABRE is out of the atmosphere, the SABRE operates with onboard liquid oxygen like a conventional rocket. The company believes the SABRE will enable a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) fully reusable vehicle.

Mountain Aerospace, a small startup company based in Montana, claims the FenriS engine is a new and unique design for an air-breathing rocket. The details of the design have not been revealed but the company has given a general description and released a video of the first static test firing. It appears that as fuel is pumped into the combustion volume, air is sucked in and the two are ignited. For the first test, the plume was  a big mess but they say it demonstrated the basic functions of the design.  It’s certainly an accomplishment if one’s first prototype rocket engine doesn’t blow up. Presumably, further tuning and design refinements can produce a more impressive plume.

While a ground test is a good start, they still must overcome a number of fundamental hurdles to development of an orbital capable system. For one, the system must deal with the problem that the SABRE’s precooler solves – the super hot incoming air.  Combustion is more efficient if the air mixes with fuel at low temp. Another major challenge for airbreathing space vehicles designs is handling the heat build-up on the structure. The vehicle must spend more time in the atmosphere than a conventional rocket, which gets out of the thick atmosphere as soon as possible, while gaining speed. The friction with the air raises the temperature on the skin of the vehicle. Thermal protection adds weight and undermines at least some of the gains from using atmospheric oxygen.

These two videos show the static test and give some information about the company and the Fenris design.

** The Planetary Society’s LightSail-2 remains in orbit, using sunlight pressure to fight drag from the very thin but non-negligible atmosphere that it flies through:  LightSail 2: Celebrating One Year in Space – Planetary Society

Join Bill Nye and members of the LightSail 2 mission team as they mark the end of the primary mission and the beginning of extended operations after one year in orbit. Panelists include:
-Bill Nye, Chief Executive Officer of The Planetary Society
-Jennifer Vaughn, Chief Operating Officer of The Planetary Society
-Bruce Betts, LightSail Program Manager and Chief Scientist of The Planetary Society
-Dave Spencer, LightSail 2 Project Manager and NASA/JPL Mission System Manager for Mars Sample Return

** Firefly aiming for first launch of orbital Alpha rocket in mid-October: Firefly Aerospace is connecting the dots to fly above smallsat launch challenges – Connectivity Business

Jason Rainbow: A test stand fire in January set Firefly back a bit and then, of course, COVID-19 started taking its toll. Where are you with plans to launch the first Alpha rocket?

Tom Markusic: The plan is now mid-October this year, which does represent a couple of months slip from earlier. The fire we had didn’t put us back very far, actually, there was no damage to the test stand, and we’d gotten most of the test data we wanted out of this stage anyway. It was perhaps a month and we had another month/month and a half related to COVID. Overall, I think we’ve been very fortunate in both incidents that we weren’t set back for a longer duration.


As a tribute to Max Polyakov, who rescued  Firefly from liquidation, the company lit up birthday cake candles in the best way rocketeers know how to do:  Firefly Aerospace uses rocket engine to light birthday candles in epic cake video –

Let’s light that candle! The folks at Firefly Aerospace took a brief break from rocket development recently to fire up an engine in honor of co-founder Max Polyakov, who turned 43 years old Tuesday (June 30).

The Lightning upper stage engine, in true celebratory form, was used to light candles on a large birthday cake as high-speed cameras rolled, according to a new video. (The other planned use for the engine will be to help launch small satellites to orbit cheaply, using Firefly’s Alpha rocket.)

** Briefs:


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** SpaceX:

**** The Starlink 9 mission set to launch  last week with 57 Starlink satellites and 2 Blacksky imaging satellites was postponed due to an undisclosed technical issue. (There were rumors of a small pressure drop in a propellant line to one of the booster engines.) The launch of the GPS satellite described above became the top priority. The current target launch date for Starlink 9 is July 8th. SpaceX postpones Starlink launch – Spaceflight Now.

Meanwhile, work continues on development of a ground system for the Starlink Internet system that would be affordable for consumers: One of SpaceX’s most ambitious projects remains on the ground, for now – CNBC

Starlink’s major terrestrial hurdle, Musk acknowledges, is the antenna that will get users online — the internet analog of the TV parabolic dish. Starlink’s low-flying satellites zoom across the sky in about five minutes, and antennas will need to keep up. SpaceX’s design has to balance technological sophistication with mass-market affordability.

The company plans to use “phased array antennas,” which can direct the machine’s focus electronically rather than physically spinning it around. The technique simplifies the device mechanically, but comes at a high price. Farrar estimates that the gadget could cost more than $1,000, although Musk is targeting a price tag of under $300. In March, the FCC authorized SpaceX to distribute one million antennas, and SpaceX board members recently tested the devices (which reportedly resemble “UFOs on a stick”), but the company has not yet announced the retail version. 

**** Despite the Starlink 9 delay, SpaceX launch rate is on a tear despite lockdowns, etc : Even amid a pandemic, SpaceX is launching more than ever | Ars Technica

“The successful GPS III SV03 launch and recovery serves as another step in our journey with industry partners to create innovative, flexible, and affordable services to meet NSSL mission objectives and propel US dominance in space,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, Launch Enterprise director.

Tuesday afternoon’s launch puts the company on pace for 22 missions in this calendar year, which would break the company’s previous record of 21 launches set in 2018. What seems more remarkable about this pace is that it has occurred amid a global pandemic that has slowed operations in many other countries.

For example, SpaceX’s 11 launches match the total so far this year by Russia, Europe, and Japan combined. Globally, the company ranks second only to China’s state enterprise, which has attempted 15 orbital launches in 2020, two of which have been failures.

**** The Crew Dragon docked to the ISS is performing well. After nearly a month in space, NASA seems really happy with Crew Dragon | Ars Technica

Before this flight of Dragonship Endeavour, one of the biggest questions from engineers at NASA and SpaceX concerned the durability of the spacecraft. The first Crew Dragon spacecraft launched on an uncrewed test flight in 2019 and spent less than a week attached to the space station. NASA hoped this Dragon could last a few months in space.

In particular, the engineers were not sure how quickly Endeavour’s solar panels would degrade and accordingly produce less power. Therefore, since the spacecraft docked to the station, it has been powered up once a week to test power output from the solar panels.

So far, said the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Steve Stich, the panels are producing more power than expected. “The vehicle is doing extremely well as we put it through its paces,” Stich said Wednesday during a news conference. NASA had hoped Endeavour could stay docked to the space station for as long as 114 days, and Dragon should easily be able to meet that threshold.

**** Reuse of 1st stage boosters now required for sustaining SpaceX operations: For SpaceX, Falcon 9 reuse is now essential | Ars Technica

To complete all of these missions will require the company to continue to successfully return its first stages, push beyond five flights per booster, and possibly further reduce the turnaround time between missions. So far, the company’s record for the time required to check and re-certify a Falcon 9 first stage for flight is 63 days.

The bottom line is that today’s launch of a Falcon 9 rocket is an essential mission for the US Air Force. But for SpaceX, getting the new core back on the Just Read the Instructions droneship will be just as important to flying out a lengthy manifest in 2020. Reuse is no longer experimental; it’s on the critical path.

See also:

****  SpaceX’s Abandoned Plans – Final Episode (for now!)Scott Manley

The final batch of projects which SpaceX announced development of but later abandoned in favour of other goals. As technology was developed some plans were realised to be beyond what was possible in the timescale, or more cost effective solutions were discovered, or the benefits weren’t going to deliver an advantage to the overall business.

**** Starship

****** Starship prototype SN5 takes center stage at Boca Chica. The test vehicle was rolled to the pad area and mounted on the launch structure last week. On Tuesday evening through Wednesday morning, cryogenic pressure tests with liquid nitrogen appeared to go well: Starship SN5 completes successful cryogenic proof, commencing test campaign –

****** Elon hints he will continue his series of annual updates on the Starship program with a presentation this September: SpaceX Starship event expected this September, says Elon Musk – Teslarati

****** Latest animated illustration of the launch pad facility at Boca Chica: SpaceX Starship Launch Pad Update / June 24th, 2020Alex Rex

This short video shows a virtual flight over the Starship Facility in Boca Chica, TX on June 24th, 2020. It is kept as simple as possible with major focus on BUILDINGS, JIGS and STARSHIP-Parts. For other design projects, please visit my webpage:

****** June 26: SpaceX Boca Chica – New downcomer arrives, thrust section spotted, and SN5 testing preps – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

A new downcomer and thrust section were spotted today for a future Starship prototype. Meanwhile, work at the pad continues to prepare Starship SN5 for testing. Video and Pictures from Mary (@bocachicagal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer).

****** June 29:  SpaceX Boca Chica – Super Heavy and Future Starships line up ahead of SN5 test preps – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

Another epic sunrise marked the start of another day of work on SN5, future Starships and the Super Heavy launch site. SN5 is set for proof testing as early as Tuesday. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist).

****** Julye 2: SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN5 Preps for Raptor and Tracking Station Action – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

The Thrust Simulator is removed from the launch mount as SN5 is readied to receive a Raptor Engine and progress to the next phase in testing. A new nosecone is moved outside and the tracking station tracks Falcon 9 Stage 2 and GPSIII-3 shortly after launch. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer)

** Webcast rocket reports:

**** Starship updates with SN7 explosion & SN5 news, Starlink test terminals, Mars Perseverance RoverMarcus House

Another action-packed week of space news. Starship updates with the SN7 explosion being a key topic of the week. SN5 updates continue with it rolling to the launch site. We’ve finally seen some Starlink test terminals (hopefully we’ll have access to these more broadly soon to trail the service). Rounding out all of that space goodness, NASA remains confident that the Mars Perseverance rover mission will launch on schedule, so we are eagerly awaiting that launch, now less than a month away.

**** SpaceX Starship Updates – Countdown To Mars: Perseverance’s Last Days On EarthWhat about it!?

In this Episode, we will take another good look at the new SpaceX Super Heavy & Starship launch pad under construction in Boca Chica right now. We wil also take a look at a new Launch Control building, Starship SN7’s test to destruction, SN5’s roll out to the SpaceX Launch facility in Boca Chica and the Boston Dynamics Spot called Zeus, checking for hazards. Last but not least, we will take a look at the ongoing preparations for NASA’s and ULA’s launch of the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance towards the red planet.


=== The Art of C. Sergent Lindsey ===

Grainger Tomato” by C. Sergent Lindsey printed on a throw pillow. Available at Fine Art America.