Quick Takes (11-07-2016)

Credit: NASA TV

Credit: NASA TV

Orbital ATK will launch its next Cygnus mission on an Atlas 5 rather than its own Antares rocket. Instead of launching from Wallops Island, Virginia, the OA-7 Cygnus mission will instead launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in spring 2017. Orbital ATK said the change of plans was motivated by a desire to maximize the cargo Cygnus carries to the International Space Station and ensure the mission stays on schedule

Frank DeMauro, vice president of human space systems in Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group. said the switch is a one-time arrangement, with future Cygnus launches returning to the Antares.

Launching on an Atlas, DeMauro said, allows the Cygnus to carry more than 300 kilograms of additional cargo versus using an Antares. The OA-7 mission will be able to accommodate more than 3,500 kilograms of cargo in its pressurized module, as well as an external cubesat deployer from NanoRacks, bringing its total capacity to about 3,600 kilograms.

DeMauro said there were no issues with the upgraded version of the Antares that launched for the first time Oct. 17 on the OA-5 Cygnus mission. However, moving the launch to the Atlas does give the company’s workforce “margin flexibility” to prepare for the next launch, which now is likely to take place in the middle of 2017. “It is fair to say that the Atlas will have a higher probability of supporting that mission in the spring, even though we do believe Antares would have done that,” he said.

DeMauro said Orbital ATK’s Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA gives the company flexibility to switch launch vehicles for Cygnus missions. He declined, though, to discuss any increased costs to Orbital ATK by switching launch vehicles or if NASA will pay more for this mission as a result, citing proprietary company financial information.

“We are still working to finalize the details of this change,” he said. “While we expect it to go forward, we’re still working through the final details.”

China’s inaugural launch of its Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket was a success. The rocket lifted off Nov. 3from the Wenchang Space Launch Center at 8:43 a.m. Eastern morning, more than two and a half hours later than originally planned because of unspecified technical issues.

The rocket, capable of placing up to 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit, is the largest ever developed by China.

On its first launch, the Long March 5 carried a technology demonstration satellite, Shijian-17, which the rocket placed into geostationary transfer orbit.

ariane-6The European Space Agency’s ruling council on Nov. 3 gave what should be the final endorsement needed to free up development funds for the next-generation Ariane 6 launch after a compromise on work shares between Italy and Germany.

The decision, which makes certain that both Germany and Italy will have production lines for the Ariane 6 solid-fueled strap-on booster segments — which also serve as the first stage of Europe’s Vega C rocket in development — was unanimously adopted by the 12 nations participating in the Ariane 6 program.

With this decision, there should be nothing standing in the way of approval by ESA’s Industrial Policy Committee, the last step before Airbus Safran Launchers, the company managing Ariane 6, receives a check from ESA for about 1.7 billion euros ($1.9 billion). That decision is expected Nov. 8.

“I am very happy about this decision, which required a double two-thirds majority of the participating states,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of launchers.


Flying over the pumpkin-carved likenesses of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, this winning entry depicts a giant meteor hitting Earth before Election Day. The annual contest is held by a group of engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: Aaron Yazzie, via Twitter

Clinton or Trump? The pumpkin carvers of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory voted for meteors and ninjas.

JPL’s Engineering Sections 352 and 355 — that’s spacraft mechnical engineering and instrument mechanical engineering, repectively — held their sixth annual pumpkin carving contest with elaborate displays featuring movement, lights, sounds, and special effects.

The winning entry for Section 352 was a little political humor, casting a vote for “Giant Meteor 2016” to hit the Earth before Election Day.

Meanwhile, the winning pumpkin of Section 355 was attacked by a ninja version of Starshade, NASA’s concept for a flower-shaped external occulter that would make it easier for space telescopes to detect exoplanets by blocking the light of their host stars.

Other popular pumpkins included one to showcase scientific samples taken from Mars (or in this case, candy); a musical carousel; the Leonardo Helicopter, a concept for a Mars exploration vehicle; and a pumpkin that celebrated the 80th anniversary of JPL’s founding, which – appropriately enough – fell on Halloween.

JPL spokesman Andrew Good said about 25 people took part in this year’s contest. They designed the pumpkins in their off hours, and on the day of the event had only one hour to carve or assemble their displays, he said.

A SpaceX customer says the company has found the root cause of the Falcon 9 pad explosion. Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce told investors Nov. 3 SpaceX should be able to return to flight in December. SpaceX said last monthit was making progress in the investigation, narrowing down the likely cause to a ruptured helium tank, but stopped short of saying it had found the root cause. Inmarsat has three satellites it plans to launch with SpaceX, and Pearce said the company was keeping its options open for shifting one of those satellites to another provider because of delays. SpaceX’s Elon Musk, speaking on CNBC Nov. 4, said he’s aiming for a mid-December launch. “I think we’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem,” Musk said.

NASA is looking into any link between thruster problems on its Juno orbiter and a commercial spacecraft. The head of NASA’s planetary science division said last week that the thruster on Juno, currently orbiting Jupiter, is in the “same family” as one that malfunctioned on the Intelsat 33e satellite shortly after launch in August. NASA postponed a maneuver to lower Juno’s orbit using that engine in October because of valve problems, and that maneuver has not been rescheduled. Juno can perform its planned science in its current orbit, but lowering its orbit would allow it to gather more data in a given period of time.

A U.S. Navy communications satellite has finally reached geosynchronous orbit, months behind schedule. The Navy  said Nov. 3 the the Mobile User Objective System 5 satellite, launched in June, is now in an operational orbit and will begin testing. The satellite’s main propulsion system failed after launch, leaving the spacecraft in a transfer orbit until a series of burns by other thrusters moved it into GEO. MUOS-5 is in a more-inclined orbit than originally planned, but the Navy said the spacecraft will be able to carry out its mission there.