Quick Takes (09-26-2016)

The Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft that needs repaired is shown being encapsulated in its fairing at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

The Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft that needs repaired is shown being encapsulated in its fairing at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

Soyuz delayed for tricky repair

Russian technicians will attempt “dangerous” repairs to a Soyuz spacecraft whose launch may be delayed until November. Engineers have traced a short circuit discovered during launch preparations to an improperly bent wire behind the seats in the spacecraft’s descent module. The repair is straightforward, but could violate safety procedures since the spacecraft has already been loaded with pressurized gases and toxic fuels that can’t easily be removed. Those repairs may delay the launch of the spacecraft, carrying a new three-person crew for the International Space Station, until the beginning of November.


SpaceX investigation points to breach in Falcon’s helium system

Credit: USLAUNCHREPORT.COM Viceo

Credit: USLAUNCHREPORT.COM Viceo

Investigators have traced the explosion that destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9 on the pad Sept. 1 to a “large breach” in the helium system in the rocket’s second stage, although the root cause of the accident remains unknown.

In a Sept. 23 update, the first released by the company in nearly three weeks, SpaceX said that an accident investigation team continues to study evidence from the explosion that took place while the rocket was being fueled for a static-fire test.

“At this stage of the investigation, preliminary review of the data and debris suggests that a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place,” the company said in a statement. What caused that breach, though, is still a mystery.

Helium is used to maintain the pressure of the liquid oxygen tank. In the June 2015 Falcon 9 failure, a strut holding a helium bottle in place within the upper stage’s liquid oxygen tank failed at below its rated strength, causing helium to leak and the tank to overpressurize and break apart.

SpaceX, though, said there was no link between that failure and this accident. “Through the fault tree and data review process, we have exonerated any connection with last year’s CRS-7 mishap,” the company said, referring to the June 2015 launch failure.

The company said an accident investigation team, which includes SpaceX personnel as well as those from NASA, the U.S. Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration, continue to examine “all plausible causes” of the accident. The failure took place quickly, SpaceX stated, with a loss of telemetry from the rocket less than a tenth of a second after the first signs of a problem.

The pad explosion, which destroyed the Falcon 9 and its Amos-6 satellite payload, also damaged “substantial areas” of the pad at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40. However, the company said that a support building at the pad and a new farm of liquid oxygen tanks were undamaged by the explosion. Tanks that store kerosene fuel were also “largely unaffected” by the blast.

While the root cause remains unknown, and thus the scope of any corrective actions, SpaceX said it remains confident it can resume Falcon 9 launches as soon as November, resuming assembly of various vehicle components as they’re cleared by the investigation.

“We will work to resume our manifest as quickly as responsible once the cause of the anomaly has been identified by the Accident Investigation Team,” the company stated. “Pending the results of the investigation, we anticipate returning to flight as early as the November timeframe.”

SpaceX also stated that the investigation is not affecting its work on NASA’s commercial crew program, noting that the investigation “will result in an even safer and more reliable vehicle for our customers and partners.”

A company official made similar comments last week. “I still know what I have in front of me for the next day, the next month,” said Abhishek Tripathi, director of certification at SpaceX, during a panel session at the AIAA Space 2016 conference in Long Beach, California, Sept. 16. “It doesn’t affect my day-to-day work while they’re working on the anomaly.”


Credit: China manned space program video still

Credit: China manned space program video still

China orbits Tiangong-2

China launched its Tiangong-2 space module Sept. 15 as a precursor for a future space station. The module, launched atop a Long March 2F, is intended to test technologies planned for a future full-scale space station. A two-person crew, launching on the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft in October, will dock with Tiangong and spend one month there. With the launch of Tiangong-2 (shown left), Chinese officials say they’re ready to start work on a space station next year. Chinese officials envision developing a station with three main modules, with the core module launching in 2018. The station, capable of accommodating up to six people, will enter service around 2022 for a 10-year life


Commercial weather deals

Two companies received the first commercial weather data contracts from NOAA Sept. 15. NOAA awarded Commercial Weather Data Pilot contracts to GeoOptics and Spire Global, with a combined value of a little more than $1 million. Under the contracts, the companies will provide GPS radio occultation data from commercial satellites to NOAA, which will assess the feasibility of using that data in weather forecasting. If successful, the contracts could lead to additional data purchases, something both industry and key members of Congress have been calling for in recent years to mitigate potential gaps in other weather forecasting data.


Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins (shown on the ISS wearing a spacesuit decorated by patients at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center) may have to vote from space if her return trip is delayed. Rubins was scheduled to return to Earth in late October, in time to vote in the Nov. 8 U.S. election. The delay in the launch of a Soyuz spacecraft may now keep her in orbit until after the election. Rubins said she prepared to vote by absentee ballot prior to her launch just in case her return was delayed.


IS-33e thruster problem

A thruster problem on a new Intelsat spacecraft will only slightly decrease its operational life. The IS-33e spacecraft, launched Aug. 24  by an Ariane 5 rocket, suffered a thruster problem as it traveled to geostationary orbit. That problem will delay its entry into service by several weeks, and will shorten its lifetime by about 18 months. Intelsat may be eligible to file an insurance claim for 10 percent loss of service, valued at about $40 million.


SES floats balloon venture

SES is getting into the balloon business. The satellite operator’s SES Government unit is commercializing a low-altitude aerostat that, flying at altitudes of just a few hundred meters, could provide images and broadband communications in a nearby area. The new product is a sign that satellite operators, facing flat or declining prices for conventional satellite services, are looking to broaden their product portfolios.


Airbus bets on high-res

A decision by Airbus Defence and Space to invest in four high-resolution imaging satellites comes with no guarantee of French government support. Airbus announced last week its plans to develop the four satellites for launch in 2020 and 2021 to provide very high resolution images and provide continuity for the existing two Pléiades satellites. Airbus will fund their development, and a French general said the French military has given the company no guarantees it will purchase images from those satellites.


Avanti gets $12 million assist

Satellite operator Avanti has won an ESA contract as it seeks a buyer or strategic investor. The London-based company said it received a $12 million investment from ESA to support efforts to provide broadband satellite services in Africa. The award comes as Avanti continues to look for outside investment or a buyer to fund construction and launch of its satellites. The company said it is discussing a potential acquisition with several prospective companies.


U.S., China to talk space debris

American and Chinese diplomats will meet later this year to discuss orbital debris and other military space issues.Frank Rose, the assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, said at the AMOS conference Sept. 22  in Hawaii that orbital debris would be among the topics of an upcoming meeting, following a “very frank discussion” between officials in May.

“It’s very clear there are new threats to the space systems and the space systems of our allies. At the same time, we need a comprehensive approach to this threat. There is no silver bullet,” Rose said. “We want to promote strategic restraint where we can. We’ve also made it very clear to China, Russia and other potential adversaries the United States will defend ourselves and our friends in outer space.” While China’s 2007 ASAT test, which created thousands of pieces of debris, remains a contentious issue between the countries, Rose said there has been recent progress in discussions to limit the growth of debris and avoid collisions.


Hyten: U.S. must prepare for space war

The nominee to become the next head of U.S. Strategic Command told senators the U.S. must be prepared to fight in space. At a confirmation hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten said that space control efforts, and a battle management command and control system, should be among the Defense Department’s top space priorities. Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he found it “deeply disturbing” China and Russia were developing systems designed to “cripple” U.S. satellites. The hearing also covered several other space issues, from problems with the next-generation GPS ground system to plans to phase out the Delta 4 launch vehicle.