Quick Takes (10-24-2016)

NRO via Twitter

NRO via Twitter

Elon Musk doesn’t believe sabotage is a likely cause of September’s pad explosion, but still worries about it. Musk, speaking at the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Virginia, Oct. 13, said the leading cause of the failure is the formation of solid oxygen in carbon overwrap helium tanks in the rocket’s second stage. Outside experts believe that explanation is in line with the available evidence about the Sept. 1 explosion and the characteristics of such tanks. Musk added, in comments relayed from one attendee, that the accident can be replicated if someone shoots the tank. “We don’t think that is likely this time around, but we are definitely going to have to take precautions against that in the future,” Musk reportedly said.

Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to fly its first reused Dragon capsule next year. A company official speaking at the ISPCS conference  in New Mexico the same day Musk was in Chantilly said that SpaceX’s SpX-11 cargo mission to the space station, scheduled for launch in early 2017, will be the first mission to use a previously flown capsule. Dragon was designed to be reusable, but SpaceX’s contract with NASA originally called for a new spacecraft for each mission. SpaceX will use the next-generation Dragon 2 spacecraft for cargo missions on the follow-on CRS-2 contract, including using propulsive landings rather than splashdowns.


Mike Moses. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Mike Moses. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Mike Moses is the new president of Virgin Galactic. Moses joined the company in 2011 as vice president of operations after a NASA career that included serving as the launch manager for the final 12 shuttle missions. Moses, in a speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS), said the company expects to begin glide flight tests of its latest SpaceShipTwo vehicle in a month or two, after a single successful captive carry test flight in September.


Blue Origin said October’s abort test keeps it on track to start flying people by the end of 2017. Company president Rob Meyerson said Oct. 13 at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight that the Oct. 5 abort test will allow the company to start flying its New Shepard suborbital vehicle with “test astronauts” on board by the end of 2017, with commercial missions starting in 2018. The crew capsule and propulsion module used on that test will be retired, and Meyerson said that tests with new hardware should resume within a few months.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, says he’s focused on providing the infrastructure of space for future entrepreneurs. Bezos, speaking at a conference Oct. 20 organized by Vanity Fair magazine, said he wants to develop low-cost access to space that other companies can use to develop businesses, in much the same way he was able to build Amazon.com on top of both shipping networks and the Internet. Bezos has made similar comments in the past about low-cost spaceflight being a goal for Blue Origin. In Thursday’s talk, though, he was also critical of cubesats, saying “there’s not that much interesting” about them given their small size.


NRO via Twitter

NRO via Twitter

DARPA has turned over operations of a space-tracking telescope to the Air Force. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency formally handed over operations of the Space Surveillance Telescope in New Mexico to Air Force Space Command Oct. 18, after DARPA completed several years of development and testing. The observatory can track objects out to the geostationary belt far better than existing telescopes, and is also used to discover and track asteroids. The Air Force plans to move the telescope to Australia under an agreement signed with the Australian government in 2013.


The  International Astronautical Federation needs to diversify its membership and its finances, says Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of the French space agency CNES who took over as IAF president at the beginning of October. Le Gall said he is considering a “high-impact webcast” for next year’s International Astronautical Congress in Australia, similar to the widely viewed speech by Elon Musk at this year’s conference in Mexico. At the same time, he said he wants to ensure there is still value for people to attend the conference in person, putting an additional emphasis on discussion and networking.


The International Space Station has a full six-person crew again after a Soyuz spacecraft carrying three new crew members docked with ISS Oct. 21. The Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft docked with the station’s Poisk module at 5:52 a.m. Eastern, just over two days after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The Soyuz brought to the station NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko, who can be seen above in blue flight suits talking with friends and family at the Moscow Mission Control Center a few hours after docking.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA


Recovery from Hurricane  Matthew has pushed back the launch of a weather satellite to mid-November. NOAA said the Atlas 5 launch of the GOES-R satellite, previously scheduled for Nov. 4, is now planned for no earlier than Nov. 16. NOAA cited ongoing work at Cape Canaveral to repair damage from Hurricane Matthew earlier this month. United Launch Alliance said Tuesday its facilities at the Cape sustained “minor to moderate” damage from the storm, but added no flight hardware was damaged.


European Mars lander feared lost

ESA Artist's concept

ESA Artist’s concept

Images from a NASA Mars orbiter suggest the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli spacecraft crashed when attempting to land Oct. 19.

The images from a camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, released by ESA Oct. 21, show two new features in an image of the Martian surface taken a day after the landing not seen in an image taken five months earlier. One, a white spot, is thought to be Schiaparelli’s parachute.

A second, larger dark spot may be the crash site of the spacecraft itself. “Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between two and four kilometers, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 kilometers per hour,” ESA said. “It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.”

Controllers lost contact with Schiaparelli about 50 seconds before the scheduled landing. Efforts to restore contact failed. ESA said it’s continuing to analyze telemetry from the lander in order to determine exactly what happened, but believes its thrusters shut down early.

Despite the apparent failed landing, ESA Director General Jan Woerner praised the overall ExoMars mission, which includes the Trace Gas Orbiter than entered Mars orbit at the same time as the landing. In blog post, he calculated that ExoMars was 96 percent successful based on the orbiter’s success and the data Schiaparelli returned. “All in all, a very positive result,” he wrote.


Credit: ULA

Credit: ULA

Here’s what Boeing’s CST-100 will look like atop its ULA Atlas 5 launcher

Boeing and United Launch Alliance unveiled an updated design of Boeing’s CST-100 crew spacecraft on an Atlas 5. The revised configuration makes use of an “aeroskirt” below the capsule to improve the vehicle’s aerodynamics characteristics during launch. Aerodynamic loads on the rocket during ascent was one factor in a delay in the CST-100 development and test schedule earlier this year.

Boeing has delayed its schedule of commercial crew test flights by six months. The company said a number of production and development issues led to the delays, pushing back an uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner from December 2017 to June 2018 and a crewed test fight from February to August 2018. Boeing believes the first operational “post-certification” mission can take place in December 2018. The delays could put more pressure on NASA to purchase additional Soyuz seats should Boeing and SpaceX, the other commercial crew provider, suffer additional delays.