Air Force reveals plan for up to 48 launches per year from Cape Canaveral

Following the successful launch of a Delta IV rocket with the WGS-9 satellite Saturday night, Brigadier General Wayne R. Monteith and Major General David D. Thompson of the U.S. Air Force discussed the 45th Space Wing’s plan to ramp up to 48 launches per year – a feat made possible in large part due to the introduction by SpaceX of the new Autonomous Flight Termination System and the increasing and booming commercial launch market.

Breaking barriers – U.S. Air Force celebrates 70th anniversary, 67 years at CCAFS:

As part of the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and the 45th Space Wing of the Air Force initiated a series of year-long celebrations on Saturday night with the launch of a Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-9 satellite.

Lifting off into the crystal clear night sky above Central Florida, the Delta IV marked the 3,550th rocket launch from the CCAFS and the fourth flight from the Cape this year.

With four flights under its belt, the 45th Space Wing is now preparing for the remaining 31 launches on this year’s manifest – the next two of which are scheduled within three days of each other on 24 and 27 March.

The 24 March launch will see a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, flying in its 401 configuration, deliver the Cygnus OA-7 mission to the International Space Station on behalf of Orbital ATK.

Three days later, on 27 March, SpaceX is – at time of publication – planning to launch the SES-10 mission on a Falcon 9 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center – a launch which will mark the first time SpaceX reuses a flown Falcon 9 first stage.

From a dozen launches per year to 48:

In the past ten years, the CCAFS and Kennedy Space Center combined have seen anywhere from between 7 to 18 launches per year, with the lowest of those numbers coming in 2008 and the highest in 2016.

However, this year alone, the CCAFS and the 45th Space Wing of the Air Force plan to nearly double its 2016 number, with 35 total launches manifested, 28 of them being commercial missions.

As Major General David D. Thompson, Vice Commander, Air Force Special Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, stated in a post-WGS-9 launch briefing, “The commercial spaceflight market is just blooming.

The Maj. Gen. specifically noted that the 45th Space Wing is doing everything possible to reduce the amount of time it takes to reconfigure assets between launches – something that will eventually allow the Cape to increase from its already packed schedule of 35 launches this year to an eventual goal of 48 launches per year in the “next couple of years.”

Of particular note toward this goal was Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing and Director, Eastern Range, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.

Brig. Gen. Monteith specifically discussed how the 45th Space Wing has been working to increase its capabilities to support such a robust schedule.

Speaking after the Delta IV WGS-9 launch, Brig. Gen. Monteith stated, “This launch here represented the fourth launch this year.  We launched just 66 hours ago the Falcon 9.  

“We also have another launch, an Atlas, in 6 days, and then 3 days after that we have another Falcon with SES-10.  

“So we will do four launches within three weeks.  That’s just an incredible team effort.”

In many ways, the 45th Space Wing’s launch cadence increase plans are owed to SpaceX’s introduction of the new Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS).

The AFTS debuted this year from LC-39A with the Falcon 9 launch of the CRS-10 mission to the ISS for NASA.

“When we talk about breaking barriers, a good example of that here is the new Autonomous Flight Termination System.  It flew on the Falcon 9 on CRS-S10 and this last Falcon mission for Echostar that we had was the last time they plan on flying a traditional flight termination system.  

Under a traditional FTS, there is a person “in the loop”.

As the Brig. Gen. explained, “We have now gone completely autonomous with that system.  So with CRS-10 and all others with the AFTS, we’re able to reduce our operational footprint by 60% on day of launch.

“So we came down 96 people that don’t have to be sitting on console.  And the cost to the customer is cut in half.  

“We are driving out every bit of inefficiency that we have.”

Moreover, Brig. Gen. Monteith stated that this new AFTS combined with two operational SpaceX pads at Kennedy and the CCAFS will allow the company to launch two Falcon 9 rockets – one from 39A and one from SLC-40 – within 16 to 18 hours of each other.

“When pad 40 is up and operating, [it will] give us the capability of launching a Falcon from both pad 39A and pad 40 on the same day,” stated the Brig. Gen.

“Now if we did that and we had an Atlas V or a Delta IV launch, within 36 hours we could do three launches.  So that’s how we’re going to get to 48 launches a year.  It’s a great problem to have.”

In practicality, this goal of the 45th Space Wing would result in an ability to “launch consistently every single week of the year with just four weeks of downtime,” stated Brig. Gen. Monteith.

Importantly, the 45th Space Wing’s ability to handle the increasing demand for launches within a short time frame was demonstrated earlier this month.

Originally, when the WGS-9 mission was scheduled to launch on 8 March, SpaceX booked a static fire for the Echostar XXIII Falcon 9 on 7 March in a test window that extended less than 24 hours prior to the Delta IV’s planned launch.

This ability to rapidly support two different enterprises across the 45th Space Wing is a critical necessity to accommodating as many launches as the Air Force is looking at.

Moreover, this eye toward greater efficiency comes at a time when SpaceX and ULA are set to be joined by at least one new launch service provider in the coming years: Blue Origin.

“Pad 36 is being operated by Blue Origin,” notes Brig. Gen. Monteith. “They have started horizontal construction.  We hope they’ll be starting vertical construction later this year.  

“Their factory at Exploration Park is coming along, and they just signed a deal for 6 launches with OneWeb.

“So we anticipate that they will be flying in the next few years, and we will add them to our host of launch vehicle providers that will be flying here off the coast as we drive to 48 launches a year.”

The Brig. Gen. also touched on this year’s upcoming Orbital ATK use of the Cape and Pad 46 for a scheduled 15 July launch of a Minotaur 4 rocket with ORS 5.

Brig. Gen. Monteith noted that beyond the current Minotaur 4 launch, there are no other plans for Orbital ATK to use the CApe, but he did note that such further use was “not out of the realm of possibility” – noting last December’s launch of Pegasus off the L-1011 as a return of Pegasus to the 45th Space Wing’s jurisdiction for the first time in 13 years.

However, while a great deal of work has already taken place and will continue to occur to prepare the Cape for this major increase in launch cadence, the ability to meet this new maximum number of launches per year is – as always – dependent on ULA and SpaceX’s rocket fleets’ abilities to meet this new demand.

(Images: U.S. Air Force, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Chris Gebhardt for

CRS-10 Dragon completes homecoming to conclude successful ISS mission

The latest SpaceX Dragon spacecraft concluded her mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Unberthing of the CRS-10 Dragon from the orbital outpost on Sunday began the critical End Of Mission (EOM) milestones, which was marked with a successful splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.


The CRS-10 Dragon was launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 carrier rocket on a hugely important mission, marking the company’s first Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission from Pad 39A.

The previous CRS missions launched from SLC-40. However, following the loss of the Falcon 9 that was set to loft the AMOS-6 satellite, which resulted in severe damage to that pad, SpaceX pressed forward with their conversion of the historic LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), with the CRS-10 Dragon mission marking the debut SpaceX Dragon launch from the former Apollo and Shuttle pad.

The launch was a success, with Dragon pushed towards a Low Earth Orbit destination. At the same time, the Falcon 9 booster returned home for a landing at Cape Canaveral’s LZ-1.

Dragon completed her chase of the Station a few days after launch, berthed via a collaboration of robotics and humans, as  ISS Commander Shame Kimbrough and Flight Engineer Thomas Pesquet – working in the Robotic Work Station in the Cupola lab – grabbed the Dragon via the use of the End Effector on the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS).

The successful berthing marked the delivery of 2,490 kilograms, or 5,490 pounds, of cargo. This included 1,530 kilograms (3,373 lb) of pressurized cargo and 960 kg (2,116 lb) of unpressurized cargo in the Trunk.

The pressurised cargo included 732 kilograms (1,614 lb) of scientific hardware and experiments, 296 kilograms (653 lb) of provisions for the crew, 382 kilograms (842 lb) of hardware for the US segment of the station and 22 kilograms (49 lb) for the Russian segment, 11 kilograms (24 lb) of computer equipment and 10 kilograms of hardware to support extravehicular activity (EVA) at the station.

The unpressurized cargo included NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III, or SAGE III-ISS. SAGE III-ISS will monitor ozone, aerosol and trace gas levels in Earth’s stratosphere, by observing the refraction of sunlight and moonlight through the atmosphere.

It, along with the Lightning Image Sensor (LIS), or STP-H5 – were mounted externally to the space station during the berthed phase on the mission.

Aided by the Canadian robot, Dextre, the installations were followed by the reloading of numerous items for return and disposal. Dextre’s task was to install packages such as MISSE and the RRM payloads into the trunk of Dragon, which will be destroyed when the trunk is seperated during Dragon’s return to Earth.

Thousands of pounds of return items were also installed into the pressurized section of Dragon, including a long list of experiments that will be removed from Dragon once she is back on Earth.

To kick off the homecoming, the long sequence of events – that ultimately leads to Dragon safely bobbing the Pacific Ocean – start with the unberthing of Dragon from the Node 2 Nadir CBM came via the release of 16 bolts around the CBM berthing collar on the ISS side, performed in four sets of four bolts to ensure even unloading on the CBM interface.

Dragon was then pulled away from the ISS via the use of the SSRMS.

Dragon was maneuvered to the release position approximately 30 feet below the ISS. She was left in this position for the night – known as the parking position.

Sunday’s ops began with Dragon in the release position, ahead of the time for Dragon and the ISS to part ways.

Via a squeeze of the trigger on the Rotational Hand Controller (RHC) on the RWS to release the snares holding the SSRMS Latching End Effector (LEE) to the Dragon Flight Releasable Grapple Fixture (FRGF), the operation effectively “let go” of Dragon.

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This occurred at 05:11 Eastern – although the timing was subject to variation, based on communications and lighting conditions.

With the SSRMS retracted safely clear, Dragon conducted three departure burn to depart to the vicinity of the ISS, edging away from the orbital outpost, with small thruster firings to push down the R-Bar.

The larger of the three burns was conducted to send Dragon outside of the approach ellipsoid, at which point SpaceX controllers in MCC-X took full control of the mission.

Following the completion of departure burns, Dragon conducted a free-flying phase on-orbit for just under five hours, during which time she will completed a critical action – the closure of the GNC bay door, to which the FRGF is mounted – before conducting a de-orbit burn at around 10 am Eastern.

The 10 minute deorbit burn was carried out by the spacecraft’s Draco thrusters.

The umbilical between Dragon and its Trunk was disengaged, prior to the Trunk separating from the Dragon capsule. The trunk was destroyed by Entry Interface (EI), along with the payloads set for disposal.

As the spacecraft entered EI she was protected by her PICA-X heat shield – a Thermal Protection System (TPS) based on a proprietary variant of NASA’s phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA) material – designed to protect the capsule during Earth atmospheric re-entry, and is even robust to protect Dragon from the high return velocities from Lunar and Martian destinations.

Once at the required velocity and altitude, Dragon’s drogue parachutes were deployed, followed by Dragon’s main parachutes, easing the vehicle to a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California at around 10:46 am Eastern.

Three main recovery boats then arrived on station, with fast boats racing to meet the Dragon shortly after she hit the water, allowing for the recovery procedures to begin. The vehicle was powered down and then hooked up to the recovery assets.

Dragon was transported to the port of Los Angeles, prior to a trip to Texas for cargo removal.

The cargo return – otherwise known as the downmass capability – is one of Dragon’s star roles following the retirement of the Shuttle fleet. No other Visiting Vehicle to the ISS is capable of the downmass provided by Dragon.

(Images: NASA, SpaceX, and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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ULA Delta IV successfully launches WGS-9

United Launch Alliance’s first Delta IV launch of 2017 carried a Wideband Global Satcom spacecraft (WGS-9) into orbit Saturday. The lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station occurred at 20:18 local time (00:18 UTC), following a slightly delay related to the Swing Arm system at the pad.

Delta IV Launch:

Saturday’s launch will deploy the ninth satellite of the US Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation. WGS-9, which was purchased for the Air Force by a group of other nations in exchange for access to the WGS system, will join the eight satellites already in orbit which launched between 2007 and 2016.

Boeing was awarded a contract to develop the WGS system – with two satellites and an option for a third – in 2001, with the first launch scheduled for 2004. The option in the contract was converted to a firm order for a third spacecraft early in 2003.

The WGS program – named Wideband Gapfiller Satellite until 2007 – was initiated to augment the Defence Satellite Communications System (DSCS), providing new and enhanced capabilities and replacing older satellites as they reached the end of their operational lives. WGS spacecraft provide more than ten times the bandwidth of their predecessors – with a single spacecraft having greater bandwidth than the entire DSCS constellation combined. DSCS and WGS would have been replaced by the Transformational Satellite System (TSAT) constellation, however this was canceled in 2009.

Even before TSAT was canceled, the Air Force had begun to expand WGS; increasing the planned number of satellites from three to five in 2006. The Australian government agreed to finance a sixth satellite in exchange for access to the whole constellation, and this was ordered in October 2007. From the fourth satellite onwards the spacecraft have been upgraded with radio frequency (RF) bypass functionality for applications requiring extremely high bandwidth, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) deployed on reconnaissance missions.

Four further satellites, including the WGS-9 spacecraft which will launch on Saturday, were ordered between 2010 and 2012. These are designated as Block II Follow-On missions. From WGS-8 onwards, the satellites have been equipped with an upgraded digital channelizers, almost doubling the available downlink bandwidth.

Built by Boeing, WGS satellites are based on the BSS-702 platform and designed for fourteen years of service. Each spacecraft is equipped with an Aerojet Rocketdyne R-4D-15 High Performance Apogee Thruster (HiPAT) to perform insertion into geosynchronous orbit and four Xenon-Ion Propulsion System (XIPS-25) thrusters for stationkeeping.

The WGS-9 satellite carries X and Ka-band transponders. The satellite will use a phased array antenna to provide eight jam-resistant X-band beams, while ten individual antennae will provide Ka-band beams. An additional X-band payload will be used to provide Earth coverage. The satellite can support 8.088 gigahertz of bandwidth, with an expected downlink speed of up to 11 Gbps.

The first WGS satellite, USA-195 or WGS-1, launched aboard an Atlas V 421 in October 2007. The second satellite was also deployed by an Atlas, launching in April 2009.

Beginning with the third launch – in December 2009 – the Delta IV has been used for all subsequent launches, flying in the Delta IV Medium+(5,4) configuration.

This version of the Delta IV uses a single Common Booster Core first stage, four GEM-60 solid rocket motors and a five-metre Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS).

The Delta IV was developed by Boeing under the US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Boeing inherited the Delta IV design from McDonnell Douglas in a 1997 merger, having had its own EELV proposal rejected the previous year. The Delta IV first flew in November 2002, three months after Lockheed Martin’s rival design, the Atlas V, which was developed under the same program.

In 2003, following revelations that Boeing had illegally obtained tens of thousands of pages of documents from Lockheed Martin during the initial competition for EELV launch contracts, the Department of Defense (DoD) moved several launches which had been awarded to Boeing to the Atlas V and temporarily suspended Boeing from bidding for new launch contracts.

The dispute was resolved when the companies agreed to merge their launch operations, forming United Launch Alliance in December 2006 to offer Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V launches to the US Government.

Saturday’s launch was the thirty-fifth flight of the Delta IV, which has achieved thirty-three successful launches in its previous missions.

The Delta IV Medium+(5,4) configuration has only been used for WGS launches. It is one of five configurations in which the Delta IV has launched; the Medium, which had a single core, no solid rocket motors and a four-metre DCSS, was the smallest version. Used for two launches in 2003 and a third in 2006, it is now effectively retired as no launches are scheduled and no new medium-class payloads are being assigned to the Delta.

The largest configuration, the Delta IV Heavy, uses three cores and a five-metre upper stage. Three intermediate, or Medium+, configurations – the M+(4,2), M+(5,2) and M+(5,4) – are used to launch intermediate payloads. These add two solid rocket motors, a five-metre upper stage and two further solid rocket motors respectively to the single-core vehicle.

United Launch Alliance intends to retire the single-core version of the Delta IV by 2019, with the Atlas V launching all medium and intermediate-class payloads until the introduction of a new rocket, Vulcan, which will replace both the Atlas V and Delta IV.

2016-11-30-153021The Delta IV Heavy will remain flying until Vulcan has been upgraded to carry the US military’s heaviest payloads, which can currently only fly aboard the Delta. Saturday’s launch will be the second-to-last flight for the Delta IV Medium+(5,4).

The Delta IV departed from Space Launch Complex 37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). The Delta launch complex is built on the site of a pad which was used in the 1960s for early test flights supporting the Apollo program.

The original Launch Complex 37B was the site of the first orbital launch of the Saturn I rocket, SA-5, in January 1964, before five further launches with boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. After the Saturn I was retired, two Saturn IB launches were made from LC-37B, the first testing the rocket’s S-IVB stage in orbit and the second, Apollo 5, marked the first unmanned test flight of the Apollo Lunar Module.

The Saturn launch complex having been demolished in the 1970s, Delta’s launch pad at Complex 37 was constructed in preparation for the Delta IV’s maiden flight, which occurred from SLC-37B in November 2002.

Saturday’s launch began with ignition of the Delta IV’s RS-68A main engine, five seconds before the countdown reached zero. Burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the RS-68A powers the Common Booster Core (CBC) that form’s Delta’s first stage. At the zero-second mark in the countdown, the four GEM-60 solid rocket motors ignited, and the rocket – whose mission number was Delta 377 – lifted off.

Seven seconds into its flight, Delta 377 began a series of pitch, yaw and roll manoeuvres to place it on course for orbit. The rocket flew east downrange along an azimuth of 93.46 degrees, passing through the area of maximum dynamic pressure – Max-Q – 46.1 seconds after liftoff.

The solid rocket motors began to burn out 92.8 seconds after launch, with boosters three and four burning out 2.3 seconds ahead of boosters one and two. The two pairs of boosters separated eight seconds after their respective burnouts.

Three minutes and 14.6 seconds into the mission, the payload fairing separated from around the WGS-9 satellite at the nose of the rocket. By this point, the rocket cleared the lower regions of Earth’s atmosphere and the fairing was no longer needed to protect the spacecraft.

The Common Booster Core completed its burn three minutes and 56.5 seconds after liftoff. The spent stage was jettisoned 6.6 seconds later. After stage separation, the second stage – a five-metre Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) – deploy the extendible nozzle of its RL10B-2 engine ahead of ignition. The RL10B-2 ignited thirteen seconds after staging to begin its first burn.

The DCSS, which like the first stage burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, made two burns to deploy WGS-9 into its planned orbit, with a third burn after spacecraft separation to deorbit itself. The first burn was the longest, lasting fifteen minutes and 37.5 seconds, and established the rocket in an initial parking orbit. Nine minutes and 33 seconds after the first burn ends the second began, raising the apogee of Delta 377’s orbit. This burn lasted three minutes and 9.7 seconds.

Spacecraft separation occurred at 41 minutes, 45.6 seconds mission elapsed time, nine minutes and 10.3 seconds after the end of the second burn. WGS-9 was deployed into a supersynchronous transfer orbit with a perigee of 435 kilometers (270 miles, 235 nautical miles), an apogee of 44,372 kilometers (27,572 miles, 23,959 nautical miles) and an inclination of 27 degrees to the equator. From this orbit, the satellite will use its R-4D apogee motor to raise itself into geostationary orbit.

The second stage began its third and final burn twenty-nine minutes and 59 seconds after spacecraft separation.

This ten-second deorbit burn lowered its orbit’s perigee so that the stage reenters Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its first orbit.

Because of the orbit’s high apogee, the stage will take another eleven hours to complete this one revolution, while the Earth rotates underneath such that the stage will reenter over the western Pacific. ULA states that the expected impact time for any debris surviving reentry will be twelve hours, twelve minutes and 9.6 seconds mission elapsed time.

Saturday’s launch was the third of the year for United Launch Alliance, who conducted Atlas V launches in January and early March to deploy the SBIRS-GEO-3 missile-detection satellite and NROL-79 – a pair of Intruder signals intelligence satellites – respectively. ULA’s next launch is scheduled for next Saturday, with another Atlas V due to carry the SS John Glenn – Orbital ATK’s OA-7 Cygnus mission to resupply the International Space Station.

The next Delta launch is scheduled for September, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) JPSS-1 weather satellite lifting off aboard the penultimate flight of ULA’s venerable Delta II rocket. The Delta IV’s next launch will occur in October, with the NROL-47 satellite, which is expected to be a Topaz radar imaging spacecraft.

Only one further WGS satellite, WGS-10, is currently scheduled for launch. This is slated to lift off in 2019, aboard the final single-core Delta IV launch.

(Images via ULA).

Japanese H-IIA rocket launches latest IGS spy satellite

Japan’s H-IIA rocket has lofted the next in a series of new-generation radar imaging satellite for the country’s military. The launch of latest IGS-5 spacecraft lifted off on schedule at 10:20 local time (01:20 UTC) on Friday, setting sail from the first pad of the Tanegashima Space Centre’s Yoshinobu Launch Complex.

Japanese Mission:

The launch carried the fifteenth spacecraft in Japan’s Joho Shushu Eisei (JSE) series of satellites, commonly known in English as the Information Gathering Satellites or IGS. The IGS program, which is operated by Japan’s Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Centre, consists of optical and radar imaging spacecraft.

The IGS program was initiated by Japan following North Korea’s attempted launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 satellite in August 1998; a launch which overflew Japan and raised concerns about North Korea’s ability to develop a rocket capable of attacking Japan.

The satellites are constructed by Mitsubishi Electric and launched by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries using the H-IIA rocket.

The first pair of IGS satellites – one carrying an optical imaging payload and the other a radar imager – were launched together in March 2003. After another dual launch the same year ended in failure, IGS launches were postponed until the deployment of a lone optical satellite in 2006. A radar spacecraft followed in 2007, launching with a prototype second-generation optical satellite.

The constellation entered its second generation of satellite in November 2009 with the fourth IGS Optical spacecraft; another second-generation optical spacecraft followed in September 2011.

The radar element of the constellation has also entered its second generation, with spacecraft launching in December 2011 and January 2013. The 2013 launch also carried a prototype for the third-generation optical IGS spacecraft, the operational version of which was launched in March of 2015.

A further second-generation radar satellite was deployed in January in order to provide the constellation with redundancy should a satellite be lost. The need for a spare satellite arose due to the poor reliability of the first-generation radar satellites, which both failed within four years of their launches.

The latest launch carried the second third-generation spacecraft for the series. Taking advantage of systems demonstrated by 2013’s prototype mission and the 2015 mission, the Optical 5 satellite will be used to image the Earth’s surface in high resolution. The satellite is reported to have a ground resolution of approximately 40 centimeters (16 in).

For Friday’s launch – which was delayed by poor weather earlier this week – the H-IIA flew in its 202 configuration. The smallest version of the H-IIA, the 202 has been used for all of its launches since a 2009 upgrade increased its performance and rendered the now-retired intermediate 2022 and 2024 configurations obsolete.

A two-stage vehicle, the rocket consists of fully cryogenic first and second stages; fuelled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. A pair of SRB-A3 solid rocket motors provide additional thrust to the first stage during the early phases of the flight.

The rocket that performed Friday’s launch had the flight number F-33.

Departing from Pad 1 of the Yoshinobu Launch Complex, or LA-Y, at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Tanegashima Space Centre, the rocket carried its payload into a sun-synchronous orbit.

The Yoshinobu Complex consists of two pads, the first of which was built for Japan’s H-II rocket in the 1990s, with the second being constructed in the early 2000s as a backup pad for the H-IIA.

For this mission, the first pad was used by the H-IIA with the second plays host to the larger H-IIB, which is used for JAXA’s Kounotori resupply missions to the International Space Station.

The LE-7A engine which powers the first stage of the H-IIA ignited two to three seconds before liftoff.

When the countdown reached zero, the vehicle ignited its SRM-A3 solid motors to begin the climb towards orbit. Although details of the mission profile have not been published, it is likely to follow a similar flightplan to Japan’s previous launches into sun-synchronous orbits.

The solid rocket motors burned for the first 99 seconds of the flight before their thrust tailed off and they were no longer providing sufficient thrust to aid the vehicle’s ascent. Hydraulic actuators activated approximately nine seconds after the motors burned out to jettison their spent casings from the rocket.

The rocket’s payload fairing also separated during first-stage flight, likely around four to five minutes after liftoff.

The first stage’s fuel supply was depleted at around the six minute, fifty seconds mark in the flight, after which the vehicle coasted until stage separation eight seconds later. Six seconds after staging the LE-5B engine of the second stage ignited to begin its role in the launch.

Depending on mission parameters the second stage can either make a single burn with a duration of around eight minutes, or two shorter burns, to achieve the satellite’s operational sun-synchronous orbit. The single-burn profile, followed shortly be spacecraft separation, is the most likely scenario.

While there were unknowns, per the parameters of the ascent, a successful spacecraft separation was confirmed by JAXA shortly after the event occurred.

(Images via JAXA and Twitter)

Dextre praised for aiding ISS battery upgrade

Dextre, Canada’s adventurous robot on the International Space Station (ISS), has – along with his team – been recognized by the Johnson Space Center (JSC) for the work conducted during the crucial task of upgrading the batteries on the orbital outpost. Dextre’s role helped vastly reduce the workload on his human colleagues.


With an official title of the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM), Dextre rode to space in the payload bay of Shuttle Endeavour in 2008 (STS-123) and is now part of a trio of Canadian robotic assets that provide vital services to the ISS and a number of Visiting Vehicles.

The first major success for Dextre came during the HTV-2 mission, working in tandem with its compatriot the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) – or Canadarm2. The duo worked on removing payloads hosted in the Japanese vehicle’s Exposed Pallet.

The latest operation also involved the Japanese cargo vehicle, which delivered a set of new batteries to the Station.

Testing for this achievement began before the arrival of the resupply craft, ensuring the robotic transfer of battery style Orbital Replacement Units (ORUs) could be conducted, ultimately allowing for the reduction of the EVA workload on the human spacewalkers.

The goal was to allow planners to reduce the number of EVAs required to install the batteries from around six to just two spacewalks.

The checkout involved Dextre moving a spare MBSU Flight Releasable Attachment Mechanism (FRAM) to and from the Express Logistics Carrier (ELC)-2 via stops at the Enhanced ORU Temporary Platform (EOTP).

HTV-6 was launched and berthed at the ISS in December of last year, delivering 2,566.25 kg (5,657.6 lb) of internal cargo – with an additional 186 kg (410 lb) of packaging for that payload.

It also included 1,367 kg (3,014 lb) of external cargo – namely six Lithium Ion batteries and adapter plates – setting the stage for the replacement of the 12 aging Ni-H (nickel-hydrogen) batteries.

Thanks to the assistance of Dextre, the upgrading of the batteries on the Station was completed in just two – highly successful – EVAs.

The robotic work began once HTV-6 arrived at the ISS, with the Exposed Pallet (EP) extracted and placed on the Payload ORU Accommodation (POA), a grasping point for temporary payloads attached to the station’s Mobile Base System (MBS).

Dextre, controlled from the ground, then removed four of the six Ni-H2 batteries, installing three of them into three empty spaces on the EP, and another onto the SPDM’s own Enhanced ORU Temporary Platform (EOTP) storage interface.

The robot then removed three new Li-Ion batteries from the EP and installed them into the vacated Ni-H2 slots, leaving three adapter plates exposed on the EP ready to be used by the spacewalkers.

The first spacewalk – US EVA-38 – was performed by astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson, followed a week later by US EVA-39, which was also carried out by Kimbrough, this time joined by ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

Following the conclusion of the EVA, robotics work continued to install three Ni-H2 batteries into the three slots on the EP that were vacated by the removal of the adapter plates during the EVAs. The EP loaded with nine Ni-H2 batteries was then re-inserted into the cargo ship for disposal when the cargo craft completed the HTV-6 mission with a destructive re-entry.

Over the course of the days that followed the EVA, ground controllers confirmed the new batteries were performing as advertised, showing the upgrade work was a complete success.

This week, Space Systems Loral (SSL) announced that MDA US Systems, a division of MDA managed by SSL, was recognized by the Johnson Space Center for its outstanding support of a robotic upgrade to the ISS power system. The MDA team based in Houston played a critical role in planning and validating the robotic maneuvering both before and during the mission.

“Our team was honored to be recognized by NASA for its contribution to this mission,” said Rich White, senior vice president of Government Systems at SSL. “SSL and MDA have a long history of collaboration in robotics work for NASA and we continue to work together to design innovative advanced robotic augmentation and servicing systems for future missions.”

Meanwhile, there’s been little rest for the Canadian robot, as Dextre was busy with the SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon in recent days, removing payloads from the vehicle’s trunk for installation on the Station. The latest operation involved removing MISSE from ELC2 and installing it in the Dragon trunk for disposal.

The successful robotic operations conducted on the ISS are a testament to the past, such as their role on the Space Shuttle, through to the Mars landers and rovers.

The company is also working on a variety of next generation government missions, including the Restore-L mission for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which will demonstrate satellite servicing in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Dextre has played a major role in testing this technology via ISS testing.

The robotic technology will also be involved with NASA’s Discovery Mission to explore the metal asteroid called Psyche; and the Dragonfly program for NASA and DARPA, which will demonstrate on orbit satellite assembly. SSL also announced earlier this month that it was selected to partner with DARPA on the RSGS robotic servicing in Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) program.

(Images via NASA, JAXA and MDA).

SpaceX launches expendable Falcon 9 with EchoStar 23

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has conducted its third flight of the year on Thursday, following a scrub due to high winds on Tuesday. The launch carried a commercial communications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. The launch took place from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Falcon 9 Launch:

The launch carried the EchoStar XXIII satellite into orbit for EchoStar Corporation.

With a mass of around 5,500 kilograms (12,000 lb), EchoStar XXIII was the heaviest geosynchronous payload yet launched by the Falcon 9, requiring the rocket to fly in a fully-expendable configuration.

By eliminating the attempt to recover the rocket’s first stage, which has been a feature of SpaceX’s recent launches, the rocket does not need to conserve fuel for first stage landing maneuvers and also saves weight through the elimination of hardware carried to support the landing – including the landing gear and grid fins.

EchoStar XXIII was constructed by Space Systems Loral (SSL), based on the SSL-1300 bus. The satellite was originally constructed as EchoStar XIII, or CMBStar, which was intended to be used under a partnership between EchoStar and the Chinese government to provide s-band mobile video broadcasting during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The program was abandoned in April 2008, after construction was complete, when it became clear the satellite would not launch in time for the Olympics – although the reason stated for the cancellation was that performance specifications had not been met.

The EchoStar XXIII satellite was ordered in 2014, to reuse the spacecraft which had been constructed for the earlier mission. The large antenna which would have served mobile users of the EchoStar XIII satellite has been replaced with four Ku-band antennae with thirty-two transponders, while the satellite is also able to offer S-band and Ka-band communications.

The satellite has a design life of fifteen years and will begin its service life in an orbital slot at a longitude of 45 degrees West. However, it is able to operate in any of EchoStar’s eight geosynchronous slots allotted to Ku-band broadcasting satellites.

The launch took place from the historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Built in the 1960s for the Apollo program, LC-39A served as the prime launch pad for manned Lunar missions. Every Apollo mission to visit the moon, except for Apollo 10, lifted off from LC-39A atop a Saturn V rocket – the pad was also used for the Saturn V’s first two unmanned launches, Apollo 4 and Apollo 6, the Earth-orbit Apollo 9 mission, and to launch the Skylab space station aboard a modified two-stage version of the Saturn V.

Following the Skylab launch, LC-39A was converted to serve the Space Shuttle, which made its maiden flight from the pad on 12 April 1981. The Space Shuttle flew eighty-two of its 135 missions from Launch Complex 39A, with its other flights being made from Complex 39’s other pad, LC-39B.

Since the end of the Space Shuttle program a third pad has been added to the launch complex; LC-39C is located within the perimeter of pad 39B, and is designed to accommodate smaller rockets. It has not yet been used for a launch.

The final Space Shuttle launch, STS-135, occurred from LC-39A on 8 June 2011. NASA announced in 2014 that it had agreed to lease pad 39A to SpaceX for twenty years, with SpaceX converting the facility to service its Falcon 9 rocket as well as the future Falcon Heavy.

A new hangar was constructed at the base of the pad’s ramp, replacing the role of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in integrating rockets.

In contrast to Saturn and the Space Shuttle, which were stacked vertically atop a mobile platform and then rolled to the pad atop a crawler transporter vehicle, Falcon is assembled horizontally and then erected on the launch pad.

The launch of EchoStar XXIII is the second for SpaceX from the Kennedy Space Center, following the Falcon 9’s inaugural mission from the site last month.

EchoStar XXIII was the first commercial geosynchronous satellite to be launched from Kennedy since January 1986 – when Space Shuttle Columbia deployed the Satcom K1 spacecraft, with the aid of a PAM-D2 upper stage, during the last successful Shuttle mission before the loss of Challenger.

Before Challenger, commercial satellites – along with other payloads for NASA and the US military – were frequently deployed during Space Shuttle missions.

Beginning with Columbia’s STS-5 mission in 1982, a total of twenty commercial communications satellites were deployed. The Shuttle would carry the satellites into low Earth orbit, with perigee kick motors such as the Payload Assist Module (PAM) boosting them into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Although commercial satellite deployments were halted after Challenger, NASA and the military continued to fly satellites aboard the Shuttle into the 1990s.

The Space Shuttle’s final geostationary payload was NASA’s TDRS-G – later TDRS-7 – communications satellite, which Discovery deployed with the aid of an Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) in July 1995’s STS-70 mission.

The final Shuttle mission dedicated to satellite deployment was STS-93, conducted by Columbia in July 1999, which placed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory into a highly elliptic orbit – again using an IUS.

The EchoStar launch was the first from LC-39A not in support of the International Space Station since Space Shuttle Atlantis flew the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, STS-125, in May 2009.

The launch was the ninety-sixth from Launch Complex 39A, the 155th from Launch Complex 39 and the 156th overall from the Kennedy Space Center.

The mission was the thirty-first flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, which made its debut with a test launch in June 2010.

The first five launches used a configuration which has retrospectively been known as Falcon 9 v1.0, with the sixth launch onwards introducing the v1.1 configuration which stretched both the first and second stages of the rocket, rearranged the first stage engines from a square to octagonal formation and upgraded the vehicle’s engines.

The current configuration, known informally as the Falcon 9 Full Thrust or Falcon 9 v1.2, further stretched the vehicle’s second stage, introduced supercold liquid oxygen – which is denser than the liquid oxygen used previously, allowing a greater mass of oxidizer to be carried within the same tank volume – and uprated engines.

The Falcon 9 was designed with reusability in mind; where mission requirements allow, the first stage is equipped with landing gear and makes a series of engine burns to guide itself back to Earth after separation.

A major goal of the Full Thrust configuration was to increase the rocket’s performance so that an attempt to recover the first stage could be made on nearly all missions, either aboard an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) downrange, or where the mission’s performance margin is sufficient by returning to the launch site.

SpaceX has achieved in increasing level of success with recovery attempts; recovering eight first stages from thirteen attempts.

The mission did not include a landing attempt, as delivering EchoStar XXIII into geosynchronous transfer orbit required too much of the rocket’s performance. The rocket flew without the legs and grid fins used in landing attempts, with the spent first stage falling into the Atlantic Ocean once it completed its burn.

Fuelling of the Falcon 9 for the launch began seventy minutes before liftoff with loading of RP-1 propellant. A poll eight minutes beforehand verified that controllers were happy to proceed into this stage of the countdown. Oxidizer loading began forty-five minutes in advance of launch.

Most of the countdown’s visible activity occurred in the final ten minutes. At the seven-minute mark chilldown of the vehicle’s engines began. Shortly afterwards the strongback – the structure used to transport the rocket to the launch pad, erect it and to provide umbilical connections, retracted by a degree and a half as a test ahead of its full retraction as the rocket lifts off.

Final approval to launch was given by the US Air Force’s Range Control Officer (RCO) and SpaceX’s launch director at the 120-second and 90-second marks in the countdown respectively.

Three seconds before launch, the first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines ignited, with the rocket lifting off as the countdown reached zero. As Falcon began its climb away from the pad, the strongback fell away from the vehicle to its retracted position.

Falcon 9 passed through the area of maximum dynamic pressure – or Max-Q – where the vehicle experiences peak aerodynamic stress, seventy-six seconds after liftoff. The first stage burned for two minutes and forty-three seconds before cutoff, or MECO.

Four seconds after MECO the spent stage was jettisoned, with second stage ignition taking place eight seconds after stage separation. The payload fairing separated from the nose of the vehicle forty-eight seconds into the second stage burn.

To deploy EchoStar XXIII, the Falcon 9’s second stage was called upon to make two burns. The first of these lasted five minutes and 36 seconds, establishing an initial parking orbit.

Following a 17-minute, 48-second coast phase the second stage restarted its vacuum-optimised Merlin-1D engine for a sixty-second second burn. The end of this burn, at 27 minutes and 19 seconds mission elapsed time, concluded powered flight.

Spacecraft separation occurred six minutes and 41 seconds later, thirty-four minutes after liftoff.

The third mission for SpaceX in 2017, the launch followed last month’s CRS-10 Dragon mission to the International Space Station and January’s deployment of ten Iridium communications satellites.

The Iridium launch, conducted from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, marked Falcon’s return to flight after a Falcon 9 exploded on its launch pad last September during fuelling for a test firing ahead of the planned launch of the Amos 6 satellite, which was destroyed in the explosion.

*Click here for 100s of SpaceX News Articles*

The launch marks the start of a busy two weeks on Florida’s Space Coast, with a Delta IV launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station scheduled to deploy the WGS-9 communications satellite and an Atlas V slated to carry Orbital ATK’s next Cygnus spacecraft, the SS John Glenn, to the International Space Station.

The next mission for SpaceX is currently scheduled for 27 March, with another Falcon 9 from LC-39A deploying the SES-10 satellite. That launch is expected to be the first to re-fly a first stage recovered from a previous mission.

EchoStar’s next launch is expected to be conducted by International Launch Services at the end of April; a Proton-M rocket with a Briz-M upper stage will carry the EchoStar XXI satellite into orbit.

(Images via SpaceX and L2 Historical. To join L2, click here:

Chute tests for Starliner as ASAP worry about RD-180 certification

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is progressing through a series of parachute drop tests, refining the technology for returning the spacecraft back home safely. However, NASA’s safety advisory body has cited certification concerns about a major element for the spacecraft’s ride to space, specifically the RD-180 engine used by the Atlas V launch vehicle.


The traditionally media-shy spacecraft has enjoyed a boost in publicity of late, centered around the reveal associated with the spacesuit astronauts will wear during launches to the International Space Station (ISS).

The suit announcement thrust Starliner into the mainstream media, not least via a segment with comedian Stephen Colbert.

However, it’s the nuts and bolts of the Starliner that remains the focus of Boeing’s progress towards becoming one half of the Commercial Crew Program’s goal of returning domestic crew launch capability to the United States.

Starliner is behind CCP stablemate Dragon 2 in terms of milestones and schedule. However, progress on specific milestones provides positive news on being able to tick off the checklist ahead of an actual launch of American astronauts on an American spacecraft – a capability lost when Atlantis touched down at the end of her STS-135 mission in 2011.

The latest test series relates to the landing element for Starliner, with flight-sized boilerplate of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner touching down under parachutes against the backdrop of the San Andres Mountains.

The opening test was conducted at Spaceport America, a facility desperate for action after patiently waiting for years for Virgin Galatic to host space tourism flights.

During the test, the Starliner was lifted about 40,000 feet in the air, the flying altitude of a typical commercial airline flight, by a Near Space Corp. helium balloon and then released over the White Sands Missile Range, next door to Spaceport America.

Uniquely, this test wasn’t conducted via the use of a helicopter of an aircraft – as seen with other vehicles, such as the Orion spacecraft. Boeing was not able to fit the Starliner test article into the hold of a C-130 or C-17 aircraft, so they instead used a 1.3-million-cubic-foot balloon, which is able to lift the capsule to its intended altitude.

The test went well, with Starliner released from the balloon, deploying two drogue parachutes at 28,000 feet to stabilize the spacecraft, then its pilot parachutes at 12,000 feet.

The main parachutes followed at 8,000 feet above the ground prior to the jettison of the spacecraft’s base heat shield at 4,500 feet. Finally, the spacecraft successfully touched down.

“Completion of this test campaign will bring Boeing and NASA one step closer to launching astronauts on an American vehicle and bringing them home safely,” said Mark Biesack, spacecraft systems lead for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

Meanwhile, Starliner was mentioned at the latest Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting, which mentioned the parachute tests as an important milestone for the spacecraft.

“The ASAP looked carefully at the Boeing first crewed demo flight in August 2018. Many important milestones have been accomplished. Boeing had a successful parachute drop test and has more coming up,” noted the minutes from the meeting.

“The Boeing team just completed Critical Design Review (CDR) on their ascent and entry suit.”

As per usual, the ASAP referenced its current safety-related concerns, with Starliner failing to avoid the scrutiny of the traditionally conservative body.

“During the fact-finding session, there was a good discussion of heat shield testing. The Boeing team is working on improving the heat shield performance,” added the minutes.

“The ASAP also reviewed the zero fault tolerant SureSep separation ring, which has been an issue from the beginning. Boeing is making progress on getting comfortable with having a single point failure component that has a great deal of reliability built into it.”

Classed as a top risk, the ASAP cited an “issue” with Starliner’s launch vehicle of choice, the Atlas V.

This rocket is one of the most reliable vehicles in the world. However, there appears to be a problem with the paperwork side, specifically certification – based on the issue of the Atlas V main engine being a foreign piece of hardware.

The RD-180 engine is built by RD AMROSS, a U.S. joint venture of Pratt & Whitney, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, and NPO Energomash of Khimki, Russia.

Partly in responses geopolitical pressures, ULA contracted with Blue Origin for their BE-4 engine to serve ULA’s “next generation launch vehicle” which is the favored replacement engine of choice for ULA. The BE-4 is set to be the main engine for ULA’s new launch vehicle, Vulcan.

However, Starliner will initially launch with Atlas V, powered by her RD-180 main engine. As such, the certification issue is being worked on by Boeing, which is part of ULA.

“One of the top Boeing risks is the RD-180 engine certification. The engine has a long history, but it has been difficult to get detailed design information for certification,” added the ASAP minutes.

“The Boeing team is developing an approach that takes advantage of the long history of successful use, combined with information that they can obtain.”

The current schedule shows the Boe-OFT flight, which will be an uncrewed test of the Boeing CST-100 spacecraft, will occur throughout June 2018.

A roughly two-week crewed test flight of CST-100 will then occur in August 2018, ready for the start of limited operational commercial crew flights starting in late September 2018.

(Images: NASA, Roscosmos and L2. Numerous renders by L2 Artist Nathan Koga. The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*))

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SpaceX science – Dragon delivers experiments for busy science period

SpaceX’s CRS-10 resupply mission has enjoyed a smooth period following its somewhat eventful berthing to the Station last month.  In the two weeks since the cargo craft arrived at the orbital outpost, the Expedition 50 crew has unloaded all experiments and cargo from the internal and external compartments of Dragon and is now busy reloading the vehicle with experiments and equipment that will return to Earth for recovery later this month.

CRS-10 delivers multitude of experiments:

Given the unexpectedly fun start to Dragon’s time at the Station for CRS-10, which saw a flawless launch from the Kennedy Space Center followed by a rendezvous abort – the first ever for Dragon – during approach to the ISS, the Expedition 50 crew has made quick work of unloading the vehicle of all of its supplies from both inside and outside the spacecraft.

In all, this marks the start of a particularly busy science period for the ISS, with over 300 individual experiments scheduled to be conducted over the next six months.

Moreover, the vast majority of these experiments are slated to be brought to the Station over the course of the CRS-10, -11, and -12 missions (with -11 and -12 launching in April and June, respectively) from SpaceX and the Orbital ATK OA-7 mission later this month.

With the first of these supplies arriving on CRS-10, the Expedition 50 crew got right to work following the Dragon’s berthing on 23 February.

STP-H5 SpaceCube Mini:

On 26 February, the ISS crew removed the Space Test Program – Houston 5 (STP-H5) experiment package from Dragon’s external trunk using the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRSM) – more commonly known as Canada Arm 2 or the Station’s robotic arm.

On 27 February, the crew used the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM, or Dextre) to remove the Optical PAyload for Lasercom Science (OPALS) experiment from the Express Logistics Carrier 1 (ELC 1) and move it to the Enhanced ORU Temporary (EOTP) platform.

This was done to make room for STP-H5 installation on ELC 1, which was accomplished on 27 February.

Overall, STP-H5 includes numerous payloads for NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Navy: including: the Raven autonomous space navigation demonstration, Lightning Imaging Sensor, and SpaceCube Mini for NASA; the Spacecraft Structural Health Monitoring payload and the Radiation Hardened Electronic Memory Experiment for the U.S Air Force; and two Naval Research Laboratory payloads.

The U.S. Navy experiments will examine the structure, composition, and density of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere while the Air Force’s Spacecraft Structural Health Monitoring payload will examine the effects of space on fasteners and mechanical components of spacecraft.

For NASA, the SpaceCube Mini experiment is a miniaturized version of the SpaceCube 2.0 system – a hybrid computer processor that can provide a 10- to 100-fold improvement in computing power while lowering power consumption and cost.

The SpaceCube Mini experiment will remain attached to the ISS through at least September 2017 (with the goal of remaining on Station for a full year or longer), will validate the advanced onboard processing capabilities for Earth Science/atmospheric chemistry, and will increase the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of this technology from TRL 6 to TRL 8 while reducing overall programmatic risk of using such technology on future missions.

Previous versions of this experiment have already flown three times – the first aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis on the STS-125 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009, as a SpaceCube on MISSE (Materials on International Space Station Experiment) 7/8, and as a SpaceCube on STP-H4.

Running in conjunction with STP-H4, the -H5 SpaceCube Mini will validate the miniaturized version of the SpaceCube 2.0 system as well as perform real-time onboard Earth science product generation algorithms for atmospheric methane.

Earth- and Space-based applications for this technology included use on future small satellite missions to study and generate a better understanding of climate change, natural disasters, weather, land use, and ecosystem changes.


Continuing with robotic operations within Dragon’s trunk, the Expedition 50 crew removed the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE) instrument payload (IP) on 2 March and installed it onto the EOTP.

This was followed on 3 March by the removal of the SAGE Nadir Viewing Platform (NVP) from Dragon and the subsequent installation into the trunk of the OPALS experiment – which will be discarded into Earth’s atmosphere when Dragon returns to Earth later this month.

The following day, the SSRMS was commanded through a choreographed sequence that involved stowage of Dextre, with SAGE NVP firmly grasped in Dextre’s Arm 1, on the Power and Data Grapple Fixture 2 (PDGF 2) on the Mobile Base System (MBS) before the SSRMS walked itself from the Node 2 PDGF to the MBS PDGF 1.

The entire Mobile Transporter (MT) was then translated from WS6 (Workstation 6) to WS2.

On 5 March, the SPDM Dextre removed the Robotics Refueling Mission (RRM) payload from ELC4 with Arm 2 before using Arm 1 to place the SAGE NVP experiment on to ELC4.

This was then followed on 7 March by the use of Dextre to remove the SAGE IP from its temporary storage location on EOTP and install the IP onto the SAGE NVP.

SAGE III is a key part of NASA’s mission to provide crucial, long-term measurements that will help humans understand and care for Earth’s atmosphere and is part of NASA’s mission to measure the composition of the middle and lower atmosphere.

Specifically, SAGE III will measure Earth’s ozone layer along with other gases and aerosols by scanning the limb, or thin profile, of Earth’s atmosphere.

In all, SAGE III’s role is to provide global, long-term measurements of key components of the Earth’s atmosphere, the most important of which is the vertical distribution of aerosols and ozone from the upper troposphere through the stratosphere.

SAGE III also provides unique measurements of temperatures in the stratosphere and mesosphere and profiles of trace gases such as water vapor and nitrogen dioxide that play significant roles in atmospheric radiative and chemical processes.

Earth-based benefits of SAGE III include enhancement of our understanding of Earth’s atmosphere and enabling informed policy decisions regarding climate.

Of particular interest for the various science teams that study Earth’s ozone layer and the damage that has been inflicted to it by aerosoles is SAGE III’s ability to confirm just how much progress has been made in reversing ozone layer damage.

Internal experiments:

Impressively, prior to the start of robotics operations to remove the external elements of Dragon’s payload, the Expedition 50 crew completed the removal of all 1,530 kg  (3,373.1 lbs) of internal cargo and supplies within three days of the vehicle’s arrival at the Station.

As stated by the 27 February 2017 ISS daily summary report, “Crew completed unloading the Dragon vehicle on Saturday.  Instructions for loading cargo for return will be uplinked to the crew later this week.”

Of the 1,530 kg of internal cargo, 732 kg (1,613.8 lbs) comprises science experiments/hardware for 35 separate investigations sponsored by the ISS U.S. National Laboratory project.

Some of these experiments include: the Merck Microgravity Crystallization Projects (CASIS PCG-5), CASIS Stem Cell Mayo, the Effect of Macromolecular Transport On Microgravity PCG (Protein Crystal Growth), NANOBIOSYM Predictive Pathogen Mutation Study, and Rodent Research-4.

The Merck Microgravity Crystallization Projects, a CASSIS (Center for the Advancement of Science in Space) sponsored PCG experiment, aims to gather information on the impact of the microgravity environment on the structure, delivery method, and purification of KEYTRUDA (pembrolizumab), Merck’s anti-PD-1 therapy.

KEYTRUDA is a humanized monoclonal antibody that works by increasing the ability of the body’s immune system to help detect and fight tumor cells.

Meanwhile, the CASIS Stem Cell Mayo will investigate the microgravity environment of the Station to cultivate clinical-grade stem cells for therapeutic applications in humans.

Currently, there is no safe, reliable, and effective method to rapidly grow certain types of human stem cells on Earth for use in the treatment of disease, and this experiment’s results will help support clinical trials to evaluate the safety and efficacy of microgravity-expanded stem cells as well as support subsequent studies for large-scale expansion of clinical-grade stem cells for the treatment of stroke patients.

The Effect of Macromolecular Transport On Microgravity PCG will test the idea that the improved quality of microgravity-grown biological crystals – or proteins – is the result of a buoyancy free, diffusion-dominated solution environment.

Specifically, the experiment will examine if slower crystal growth rates are due to slower protein transport to the growing crystal surface as well as if the proclivity of growing crystals to incorporate protein monomers versus higher protein aggregates is due to differences in transport rates.

This project seeks to improve the understanding of fluid dynamics and reaction kinetics in microgravity to enhance models of protein crystal growth that will promote utilization of the ISS for drug discovery.

Moreover, the NANOBIOSYM Predictive Pathogen Mutation Study will explore the ability of computational algorithms to predict mutations in the genes of pathogenic bacteria grown in microgravity.

As numerous species of bacteria have evolved resistance to one or more antibiotics used to treat common infections, there is now concern that some bacteria may develop resistance to multiple antibiotics that would make infections by them difficult to eradicate.

Thus, the NANOBIOSYM Predictive Pathogen Mutation Study is a proof-of-concept experiment that will provide data regarding the evolution of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, which will be of significant value to antibiotic drug development.

Lastly, the Rodent Research-4 experiment is part of a broader effort to understand the effects of spaceflight on tissue healing.

Microgravity impairs the wound healing process and has been shown to have negative effects on skin health in astronauts.

Thus, the Rodent Research-4 experiment will attempt to identify the molecular foundations of skin wound healing that are vulnerable to spaceflight-induced stress, potentially unlocking treatment methods for the next generation of wound healing therapies.

Additionally, the experiment could yield new treatment approaches for more than 30% of the patient population that do not respond to current therapeutic options for chronic, non-healing wounds.

Rodent Research-4 will be the first time a comprehensive systems biology approach is used to understand the impact of spaceflight on wound healing.

CRS-10 – coming home:

Currently, the Expedition 50 crew is in the process of loading the CRS-10 Dragon with thousands of pounds of now unneeded cargo, supplies, and trash as well as various experiments and hardware that will be returned to Earth for recovery.

Under the current plan, the CRS-10 Dragon will be unberthed from the Station on 19 March, at which point the vehicle will begin a choreographed sequence to dispose of its trunk before reentering the atmosphere for splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean.

Presently, the next resupply mission to the ISS is Orbital ATK’S OA-7 Cygnus spacecraft, which has been named for former NASA astronaut and the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn.

OA-7 is – as of Friday, 10 March, now set to launch on 21 March aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station within a 30min launch window.

After OA-7, the next resupply flight is slated to be the CRS-11 mission from SpaceX – which is currently targeting liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on 9 April.

(Images: NASA, SpaceX, CASIS, JAXA)

SLS Upper Stage arrives at the Cape as the LETF tests its umbilicals

A major milestone in the build-up to the maiden launch of the Space Launch System has seen the arrival of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) at Cape Canaveral. Meanwhile, tests are continuing on the umbilicals that will feed this Upper Stage, ahead of joining forces when mated on the Mobile Launcher.


The upper stage – which is effectively a Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) – followed the path other DCSS’ travel, after being shipped from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) facility in Decatur, Alabama aboard the Mariner barge.

It arrived at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) on Wednesday.

It is now housed at ULA’s Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) where it will begin processing for launch at the ULA Delta Operations Center.

The eventual destination for the ICPS will be the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at KSC, in preparation for mating atop the SLS stack.

The stack will be integrated while sitting on the Mobile Launcher, which will provide the lifeblood of electrical and fluid support, along with the all-important prop loading whilst at the pad.

The key hardware between the ML and the ICPS will be the umbilicals.

A vast array of connections and devices are currently being tested at the Launch Equipment Test Facility (LETF) inside the Kennedy Space Center grounds.

Weighing in at 100,000lbs, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsive Stage Umbilical (ICPSU) will be a T-0 umbilical for SLS providing “LH2 fill/drain, LO2 fill/drain, GH2 vent, GSP, ECS, GHe (gaseous helium), HGLDS, LCS, RSCS, FSS, and GN2 to the SLS Upper Stage Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).”

Mated to the vehicle in the VAB, the ICPSU will contain a ground umbilical plate that will provide the physical attachment point to the SLS vehicle.

Access to the ground umbilical plate will only be possible in the VAB, emphasizing the importance of a good VAB flow ahead of the entire stack rolling out to Pad 39B ahead of launch.

At the termination of countdown operations, a T-0 release command will be sent to the ICPSU, initiating a swing arm-style retraction of the ICPSU out of SLS’ liftoff flight path.

This release will be part of several complex instructions between the rocket, ground systems and the ML to conduct a ballet of releases and retractions as the rocket is committed to launch.

*L2 Members click here for a video overview of all the SLS umbilicals overviewed and shown in action during launch*

The ICPSU arm itself will consist of a truss boom structure terminating 10 feet from the SLS rocket, with the remaining distance covered by five (5) draped umbilicals.

The ICPSU T-0 umbilical interface is currently baselined from that of the Delta IV rocket’s 5m second stage. Thus, the swing arm umbilical is currently designed from the profile of that used by the Delta IV rocket.

In an effort to reduce cost as much as possible and use already proven hardware, the ICPSU arm will use the GOX vent arm hinge used for Space Shuttle launch operations on LC-39B.

All latchback, shock absorbers, and work platforms from the GOX vent arm at LC-39A will be used as well.

Access the ICPSU arm itself (as opposed to the plate) will be provided via the 220-foot or 240-foot level platforms of the ML umbilical tower.

These systems are undergoing real life testing at the LETF, which is providing a test run for retractions and operations.

Currently, SLS’ first mission, Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) is an uncrewed test flight that will send Orion on a checkout flight around the Moon. The official launch date is late 2018, although this is expected to officially slip into 2019 in the next few months.

NASA managers are also conducting a politically requested study into changing the plan for EM-1 to include crew riding in Orion. That study should be complete by next month.

The ICPS will only have a short lifetime with SLS, as the program aims to move to the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).

The official plan is to move to this stage by the second or third flight of SLS, pending the outcome of the crewed EM-1 study.

When SLS moves to the EUS, a huge amount of work will be required to change the configuration of the umblicals on the ML to match the taller Block 1B SLS rocket, with its larger EUS.

This work – per the current plan – was to be conducted during the three-year gap between EM-1 and EM-2. Even if the plan changes for EM-1, a large stand down period will be required when SLS moves to the EUS.

(Images: NASA and L2 which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal – interactive with actual SLS engineers – updates on the SLS and HLV, available on no other site. Additional renders by L2 Artist Nathan Koga. The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*))

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