Space transport roundup – Aug.7.2020

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

** A big week for SpaceX.  On Sunday the Crew Dragon returned safely to earth.  On Tuesday the SN5 Starship Prototype flew up and down at Boca Chica Beach, Texas. And early Friday morning, a Falcon 9 launched 57 Starlink and 2 Blacksky earth observation satellites to low earth orbit. The F9 booster landed successfully as well.

**** SN5 Starship Prototype took a short hop up to 150 meters and back down for a successful landing. Following several aborted attempts over the previous few days, the SN5 fired its Raptor engine and lifted off amid a huge cloud of smoke and debris. It rose up above the dusty turmoil and hung in the air briefly before slowly descending and disappearing into the umber cloud. Observers waited anxiously for the air to clear to see if the vehicle, which is basically just the propellant tanks section of a Starship,  was still standing. Sure enough, it had landed on six stubby legs that had folded out from inside the metal skirt.

Starship SN5 Hop

Here is a small sample of videos taken by an array of SpaceX and privately owned cameras trained on the SN5:

  • SpaceX:

Under the roar of Raptor, Starship SN5 took flight during a successful 150m test hop at Boca Chica. Mary (@BocaChicaGal) had several cameras filming this historic event, with editing by Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer).

** NASASpaceflight – YouTube


**** The first Crew Dragon mission with astronauts on board ends with a splashdown in the calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Demonstration Mission 2 (DM-2) went nearly flawlessly from beginning to end.

  • DM-2 highlights from launch to landing:

  • The DM-2 astronauts give their accounts of the mission:

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley discuss their SpaceX Demo-2 mission, 62-day stay on the International Space Station and successful return inside their Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour on Tuesday, Aug. 4. The duo splashed down at 2:48 p.m. EDT Aug. 2 in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Florida, following launch from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Pad 39A at 3:22 p.m. May 30. They arrived at the station’s Harmony port, their spacecraft docking at 10:16 a.m. May 31. This was SpaceX’s final test flight and is providing data on performance of the Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon spacecraft and ground systems, as well as in-orbit, docking, splashdown, and recovery operations.


Find more on SpaceX activities below…

** Russian Proton rocket launches two tele-comm satellites for the Ekspress satellite network.

The Express-80 and Express-103 communications satellites have been successfully launched by the launcher Proton from the Cosmodrome of Baikonour in Kazaksthan.

The satellites are the result of the partnership between the Russian company ISS Reshetnev, providing the H1000 platforms and Thales Alenia Space, a Thales (67%) and Leonardo (33%) joint venture, providing the payloads.

** China Long March-2D rocket launches Gaofen-9 remote sensing satellite.

** Astra scrubs launch attempt from Kodiak Island, Alaska. There was no webcast of Thursday’s attempted launch but there were updates via Astra (@Astra) / Twitter.  Just before ignition was to happen, the water deluge system “lost pressure”. The water floods the pad area below the rocket to reduce the acoustic energy of the exhaust.

“We are going to stand down to fix the issue.”  They said, “Rocket is in excellent shape, we will try again tomorrow.”

Astra’s described their launch plans here: Rocket 3.1 And Astra’s Path To Orbit | Astra.

Rocket 3.1 will launch from Astra’s Kodiak Launch Site (pad LP-3B at Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska (PSCA) on Kodiak Island). We are proud to partner with the team at PSCA and are grateful for their support.

Our launch window is from August 2-7, 7:00 – 9:00pm Pacific Time (PT) each day. We are aiming for August 2, subject to weather constraints and final launch preparations being completed.

This is a demonstration mission, and therefore Rocket 3.1 will not have a payload. We did not feel it was appropriate to risk a customer satellite for our first orbital launch attempt. That said, if Rocket 3.1 does make it to orbit, the vehicle will send an electronic signal that simulates the deployment of a satellite.

So Friday will be their last chance in this launch window. They suffered scrubs earlier this week as well:

Astra’s mantra is rapid iteration. Build, test, learn and repeat. We’re changing the way space is done by accepting slightly more risk in order to learn more quickly. We can afford to experiment because our rockets are far less expensive than the industry average. We aren’t afraid of failure; in fact, as long as we learn from it, failure is valuable and ultimately built into the plan.

It’s rare that a new launch vehicle accomplishes all of its objectives with its first flight, and the past few months in the launch industry have once again proven just how hard getting to space can be, even for mature vehicles. That said, we believe that we can achieve orbit within 3 flights, and our goal for Rocket 3.1 is to learn enough to set us on that path.

** Rocket Lab to resume Electron launches after finding cause of the failure in July mission: Rocket Lab to Resume Electron Launches in August | Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab today announced that it has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to resume launches this month after identifying an anomalous electrical connection as the cause of an in-flight failure on July 4, 2020. With corrective measures underway, the next Electron launch has been scheduled for August from Launch Complex 1.

Over the past month, Rocket Lab has collaborated on an investigation with the support of the FAA, the primary federal licensing body for commercial space launch activity. Rocket Lab’s Accident Investigation Board (AIB) worked through an extensive fault tree analysis to examine all potential causes for the anomaly that took place late into Rocket Lab’s 13th launch.

On July 4, 2020, the Electron launch vehicle successfully lifted-off from Launch Complex 1 and proceeded through a nominal first stage engine burn, Stage 1-2 separation, Stage 2 ignition, and fairing jettison as planned. Several minutes into the second stage burn, the engine performed a safe shutdown resulting in a failure to reach orbit. Due to the controlled way the engine shut down, Rocket Lab continued to receive telemetry from the vehicle, providing engineers with extensive data to conduct a robust investigation into the issue.

After reviewing more than 25,000 channels of data and carrying out extensive testing, Rocket Lab’s AIB was able to confidently narrow the issue down to a single anomalous electrical connection. This connection was intermittently secure through flight, creating increasing resistance that caused heating and thermal expansion in the electrical component. This caused the surrounding potting compounds to liquefy, leading to the disconnection of the electrical system and subsequent engine shutdown. The issue evaded pre-flight detection as the electrical connection remained secure during standard environmental acceptance testing including vibration, thermal vacuum, and thermal cycle tests.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, said the issue had never been observed before across the company’s previous 12 Electron launches. “The issue occurred under incredibly specific and unique circumstances, causing the connection to fail in a way that we wouldn’t detect with standard testing. Our team has now reliably replicated the issue in test and identified that it can be mitigated through additional testing and procedures.”

** More from Virgin Orbit about the LauncherOne failure on the first attempt to go to orbit: Wrapping Up Our First Launch Demo, and Looking Ahead to Launch Demo-2 | Virgin Orbit

Soon, we were able to identify the cause of the failure that ended our first Launch Demo: a breach in the high-pressure line carrying cryogenic Liquid Oxygen (LOX) to our first stage combustion chamber due to a component failure. Without a supply of oxidizer, that engine soon stopped providing thrust, ending our powered flight and ultimately the test itself.

In the business of launch vehicles, finding the direct cause of any failure of any flight is incredibly important, but certainly not sufficient. In order to truly get to the root of the issue, it is important to ask why after why after why. If the answer to the first why is “because the high-pressure LOX line failed,” then the second why must be “why did it fail?” That in turn must be followed by more whys — including “why didn’t we anticipate this failure,” “why wasn’t this failure observed in our earlier testing,” and more. To all of these, you must add in a healthy dose of “what else could have happened,” “what would this failure have looked like if it occurred at a different point in the mission,” and hundreds more questions. Creating a robust fault tree or fishbone diagram is important, especially for those visual learners.

** Autodesk makes video about Firefly and their use of their software: Firefly Aerospace: Inside the New Space Race – Autodesk

** Episode T+167: Phillip Hargrove, NASA Launch Services Program – Main Engine Cut Off

Phillip Hargrove, a Launch Vehicle Trajectory Analyst at NASA joins me to talk about NASA’s Launch Services Program. We discuss how LSP interacts with mission teams like Mars 2020 Perseverance, launch providers like United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, and what kind of work they tackle in their unique role tying it all together.

** Watch ULA Atlas V launch of Perseverance rover from onboard cameras: Video: Rocketcams show Mars-bound rover’s ride into space – Spaceflight Now

** Check out Blue Origin‘s ship for landing New Glenn boosters: Blue Origin LPV – Kyle Montgomery Photo

** Sierra Nevada Corp puts several posts on Twitter about their propulsion research:

** PLD Space of Spain gave an update at the SmallSat Conference:

** Skyrora to launch suborbital rocket from Iceland:

** Another tour of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo interior:

** The latest report from VG: Virgin Galactic earnings for Q2 2020 – CNBC.

Virgin Galactic provided a significant update to its development timeline, saying its next test spaceflight will occur “this fall,” with just two test pilots on board. Then the company will fly a second time, with four “mission specialists” inside the spacecraft’s cabin. If both test flights succeed, Virgin Galactic expects to fly Branson in early 2021, which would mark the beginning of its commercial service.

** Briefs:


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** SpaceX:

**** The  Starlink launch came after several scrubs since June due to weather and technical issues.

The Falcon 9’s first stage booster was on its fifth flight. It previously launched two Starlink missions, the crew-less Crew Demo-1 mission, and the RADARSAT Constellation Mission. The fairing halves were not caught in the nets on the recovery boats. No word yet on whether they were retrieved from the water.

**** Starship

Following the SN5 hop described above,  Elon Musk made some comments on Twitter regarding what comes next:

  • V1.1 legs will be ~60% longer. V2.0 legs will be much wider & taller — like Falcon, but capable of landing on unimproved surfaces & auto-leveling.
  • Next steps?
    • We’ll do several short hops to smooth out launch process, then go high altitude with body flaps
  • When will there be a hop followed by a re-flight?
    • Soon

As seen in the videos below, there has been continuous activity in the assembly area at Boca Chica:

  • SN6 prototype has been sitting in the Mid-Bay hangar for a few weeks. A common assumption is that it is a backup for SN5 and probably won’t fly.
  • SN7 was a subscale engineering model used to pressure test structural designs and welding techniques.
  • SN8 is under construction and appears to be made of the more advanced steel alloys that will be used in the operational Starships.
  • Several nosecones have been built. Some appear to be just for testing the assembly methods but others look like they are flight capable.

**** The SN5 viewed from space:

****** Aug. 1: SpaceX Boca Chica – New Thrust Puck Delivered – Crews Work Towards 150m Hop – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

Preparations for SN5’s 150m hop attempt are in full swing, meanwhile work at the launch and build sites has resumed following SN5’s successful static fire test and a series of severe storms. Mary spots a forward dome section that could be part of the next test tank (SN7.1) and also catches delivery of a new Thrust Puck. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer).

****** Aug 3: SpaceX Boca Chica – As SN5 prepares to hop – new fins arrive – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

Starship SN5 spent Monday preparing to conduct her 150 meter hop test (scrubbed). At the same time, hardware for future Starships included the arrival of new fins. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer).

****** Aug.5: SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN8 enters Stacking Operations – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

****** Aug.6: SpaceX Boca Chica – High Bay moves to Level 3 – Test Tank SN7.1 preps – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

As the Super Heavy High Bay moved into Level 3 assembly at SpaceX Boca Chica, the Starship SN7.1 Test Tank (made from 304L Steel) is waiting for aft dome/skirt mate. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer).

**** Other Starship and space transport reports:

**** Aug.5: SpaceX Starship 150m launch success – SN5 150 meter hop and landing – Marcus House

**** Aug.5: SpaceX’s Shiny Stainless Steel Starship Prototype Takes Flight For The First Time – Scott Manley

After many iterations, and some spectacular accidents we finally got to see a StarShip tank and thrust section take flight for a 150m hop, demonstrating flight control systems using only a single raptor engine. This is a very visible step on the long road to developing Starship and Superheavy into a fully operational, fully reusable launch vehicle.


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

SpaceX Delivers the Goods” by C. Sergent Lindsey printed on phone cover. Available at Fine Art America.