Thursday, September 12, 2019

Blue Origin continuing work on New Glenn launch complex, support facilities

Work on Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch complex – LC-36 – is well underway. Recent aerial imagery of Cape Canaveral from NOAA shows how far Blue has come on the launch complex. Meanwhile, the company is also working on an engine factory in Alabama, and a first stage refurbishment facility near Kennedy Space Center.

LC-36 – from Atlas-Centaur to New Glenn

LC-36 was originally constructed to launch the Atlas-Centaur – with its revolutionary liquid hydrogen-powered upper stage. The complex hosted its first launch on May 18, 1962. Due to the Atlas-Centaur’s increasing flight rate – and low reliability early on – a second pad – LC-36B –  was built near the existing LC-36A.

Throughout the 1990s, the complex was modified to launch the Atlas I, II, and III rockets. LC-36B hosted the complex’s final launch – the final Atlas III – on February 3, 2005. The site was deactivated, and Atlas launches moved a few miles north to SLC-41.

In 2007, the service structures at LC-36 were demolished to eliminate the risk of the aging towers unintentionally collapsing.  When the complex was transferred to Space Florida in 2010, it was made available for companies to lease.

Moon Express briefly used the site in 2015 to test their lunar landing vehicles – after previously working at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).

Later in 2015, Blue Origin leased the complex to host their in-development New Glenn launch vehicle. The company also leased the adjacent LC-11 for use as a test site for their methane-powered BE-4 engines – seven of which will power New Glenn’s first stage.

Blue began renovating the site by demolishing many existing facilities – including the launch pads themselves. The company stated that much of the concrete from the old pads would be recycled into new roadways at the complex.

Unlike many launch companies at Cape Canaveral, Blue Origin has decided to build their own, clean-sheet launch pad for New Glenn.

Like many of their projects, Blue has been quiet about the pad’s construction progress. Its location – far away from any public viewing areas – has also contributed to the lack of updates.

However, NOAA recently undertook a post-Hurricane Dorian aerial imagery campaign of the eastern Florida coast – which included much of Cape Canaveral. During the campaign, NOAA captured a high-resolution view of LC-36 – showing how far the complex has come in its construction.

Notably, the imagery revealed that Blue has started foundation work for the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at the complex. The HIF will be used to integrate and process New Glenn rockets before they are rolled out to the pad.

Features around the launch pad itself are beginning to take shape. The foundation of the service structure is visible, along with those of the lightning mast and water tower. The tank farms – which store the propellants used by New Glenn – are also in the process of being installed.

For reference, the launch pad proper is being built on the site of the former LC-36A, while the HIF is being built just southwest of where LC-36B was located.

To the immediate north of LC-36, Blue is building a BE-4 test stand at LC-11. The stand will use the same liquid methane and liquid oxygen (LOX) systems as the launch complex.

Renders released by Blue Origin suggest that the stand will have two bays – meaning they can work on two engines at once.

New factories and support facilities

New Glenn vehicles will be built inside Blue’s dedicated factory at Exploration Park, near Kennedy Space Center. The factory was completed in 2017 and was outfitted with machinery to assemble most of the major elements of New Glenn. These include the stage tanks, fairing halves, and payload adapters – but not the engines. Officials from Blue Origin have confirmed that parts of the first New Glenn are currently being built inside the factory.

Work has started on a New Glenn refurbishment facility next door to the factory at Exploration Park. Few details have been released, but it is known that the new building will be used to refurbish and test recovered New Glenn first stages. According to Blue, each first stage will be rated for at least 25 flights.

The BE-4 engine will not only be used on New Glenn, but also ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Early BE-4 engines are being built at Blue’s headquarters in Kent, Washington, and tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas facility.

In order to meet the coming demand for the BE-4, Blue has begun construction of a $200 million factory in Huntsville, Alabama. The company broke ground in January of this year and has progressed quickly with its construction.

Once BE-4 engines are completed in the new factory, they will be tested on a historic test stand at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The stand, named Building 4670, was formerly used to test the first stage of the Saturn V, the Space Shuttle’s External Tank, and the RD-180 engine – used on the Atlas III and V.

The stand will also be used to test the new hydrogen-powered BE-3U engine, a vacuum-optimized variant of New Shepard’s BE-3 main engine. Two BE-3U engines will be used on the second stage of New Glenn.

Currently, Blue Origin is aiming for a 2021 maiden launch of New Glenn from LC-36.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Humanity is the means by which evolution has determined to achieve its end

"Humanity is the means by which evolution has determined to achieve its end...
Not to act in building civilizations beyond this planet is quite literally to go against the very demand of the universe. If we are resolved to participate in this effort, we must be willing to get very close to the evolutionary tension throbbing within us, and boldly act in accordance with it."
- Steven Wolfe, 'Space Settlement: The Journey Inward', Ad Astra, January - March 2004

Monday, September 2, 2019

NASA checks SpaceX’s potential Starship landing sites on Mars, with water in mind

NASA is helping SpaceX get a fix on potential landing sites on Mars for its Starship super-spaceship, with an emphasis on Arcadia Planitia and Amazonis Planitia, regions where deposits of water ice may be found.

Another focus of NASA’s reconnaissance campaign in Phlegra Montes, a mountainous area just west of Arcadia Planitia in Mars’ northern hemisphere.

Pictures of the candidate sites were captured from orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in June and July, and included in last month’s roundup of MRO imagery.

Science writer Robert Zimmerman brought the Arcadia-Amazonis sites to light last week on his Behind the Black blog, and dubbed them Site 1, Site 2, Site 3, Site 4 and Site 5. Sites 2 and 3 are a stereo pair of images. The other three sites on Zimmerman’s list have stereo pairs as well.

Zimmerman said that his contact at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory declined to discuss the images due to a non-disclosure agreement, and that SpaceX hasn’t responded to his request for comment. (Comment is scarce this weekend due to Labor Day, but we’ll add anything we hear from JPL or SpaceX to this report.)

Arcadia Planitia has been on SpaceX’s list of potential Mars landing areas for at least two years. SpaceX’s principal Mars development engineer, Paul Wooster, told NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group what the company was looking for during a virtual meeting conducted a year and a half ago. Here’s an excerpt from NASA’s summary of the discussion:

“SpaceX’s current landing site candidates for Mars were shown, having been chosen to provide access to near-surface ice, few landing site hazards (such as large rocks), and enough space for potentially growing a sizeable outpost. The ice sites are in high mid-latitudes and the search for lower latitude candidates, which are preferred, continues. Previously, MEPAG had been told that SpaceX could transport for-fee payloads to the Mars surface.”

Wooster told the MEPAG meeting that there’d probably be capacity for secondary payloads on what’s now known as the Starship spacecraft, but that the details would have to wait until the launcher capabilities were “firmly established.”

Zimmerman noted that there’s strong evidence for the presence of buried glaciers, known as lobate debris aprons, in the region that was imaged by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In a  presentation given at a NASA workshop in 2015, researchers called Arcadia Planitia “one of the few regions where abundant shallow ice is present at relatively low latitude.”

The targeted locations are relatively flat, and the climate is relatively mild. And for what it’s worth, if that’s where SpaceX is planning to build a settlement, there’s a potential attraction for scientists and tourists not far away: Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system.

Like Arcadia, Phlegra Montes is thought to hold significant stores of water ice in buried glaciers, but the terrain is more rugged.

It’s too early to say whether SpaceX’s first Mars-bound Starship will head for the Arcadia-Amazonis region or for Phlegra Montes. But the fact that NASA is taking a closer look on SpaceX’s behalf suggests those places are definitely in the running.

When will that first Mars mission take off? SpaceX put a prototype for its Starship spacecraft, known as Starhopper, to its highest-flying test just last week, and if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has his way, Starships could begin flying to the Red Planet by the mid-2020s — at first with cargo, and then with people.

Musk is promising to say more about Starship during an update on Sept. 28, which is the 11th anniversary of SpaceX’s first fully successful orbital launch. So stay tuned.


Sunday, August 25, 2019

Starhopper Update

Starhopper will attempt its 200m flight on Monday around 4pm - 4:15pm local time (5pm - 5:15pm EDT)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Nuclear Propulsion Could Be 'Game-Changer' for Space Exploration, NASA Chief Says

And the tech could power asteroid-deflecting lasers as well.

Humanity's next giant leap could be enabled by next-gen nuclear tech, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

During the sixth meeting of the National Space Council (NSC) today (Aug. 20), the NASA chief lauded the potential of nuclear thermal propulsion, which would harness the heat thrown off by fission reactions to accelerate propellants such as hydrogen to tremendous speeds. 

Spacecraft powered by such engines could conceivably reach Mars in just three to four months — about half the time of the fastest possible trip in a vehicle with traditional chemical propulsion, said NSC panelist Rex Geveden, the president and CEO of BWX Technologies Inc. 

And that's a big deal for NASA, which is working to get astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

"That is absolutely a game-changer for what NASA is trying to achieve," Bridenstine said. "That gives us an opportunity to really protect life, when we talk about the radiation dose when we travel between Earth and Mars."

That dose increases, of course, the longer astronauts spend in deep space, away from the protective bubble of Earth's magnetosphere. And recent research suggests that the radiation dose accumulated by Mars-bound astronauts could damage their brains, affecting their moods as well as their ability to learn and remember.

Bridenstine also stressed the utility of nuclear thermal propulsion for applications closer to home. For example, the increased power could potentially allow Earth-orbiting craft to steer out of the line of fire of anti-satellite weapons, he said.

Such weapons are being developed by both China and Russia, Joseph Maguire, the U.S. acting Director of National Intelligence, said during the NSC meeting today. 

"Both countries view the capability to attack space systems and services as part of their broader efforts to deter or defeat an adversary in combat," Maguire said. "In short, the threat to U.S. and allied space systems continues to grow unabated." 

In the national-security realm, Geveden said that small fission reactors could also provide off-grid power for forward and remote military bases.

“You certainly can imagine using a compact, high-temperature gas reactor to power a directed-energy weapon, for example," Geveden said. "[The U.S. is] using diesel fuel now, but that's not sustainable over a sustained battle."

This reference to high-powered lasers caught Bridenstine's attention. He asked Geveden if such tech could be used to deflect an incoming asteroid and to deorbit space junk. The potential is definitely there in both cases, Geveden replied.

Bridenstine then turned to Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the NSC. "I think, Mr. Vice President, there's an amazing opportunity here that the United States of America should take advantage of," Bridenstine said.

The nation may already be on that path. In May, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that allocates $22.3 billion to NASA — including $125 million to develop nuclear thermal propulsion tech. Congress also provided $100 million for the same purpose in fiscal year 2019.

Nuclear thermal propulsion is not to be confused with radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) tech. RTGs convert the heat generated by the radioactive decay of plutonium into electricity, which then powers spacecraft instruments and other gear. NASA has been using RTGs for decades; they've powered some of the agency's most famous planetary explorers, including the twin Voyager probes, the Cassini Saturn spacecraft and the Curiosity Mars rover. 

Other nuclear tech could aid exploration in the future as well. For example, researchers are developing a small fusion reactor that could power crewed outposts on the moon and Mars. This "Kilopower reactor" could be ready for a flight demonstration in 2022 if NASA so desires, project team members said recently.

The NSC helps steer the nation's space policy. President Donald Trump reinstated the council in 2017; it had last been active in the early 1990s.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

How many Earth-like planets are around sun-like stars?

A new study provides the most accurate estimate of the frequency that planets that are similar to Earth in size and in distance from their host star occur around stars similar to our Sun. Knowing the rate that these potentially habitable planets occur will be important for designing future astronomical missions to characterize nearby rocky planets around sun-like stars that could support life. A paper describing the model appears August 14, 2019 in The Astronomical Journal.

Thousands of planets have been discovered by NASA's Kepler space telescope. Kepler, which was launched in 2009 and retired by NASA in 2018 when it exhausted its fuel supply, observed hundreds of thousands of stars and identified planets outside of our solar system—exoplanets—by documenting transit events. Transits events occur when a planet's orbit passes between its star and the telescope, blocking some of the star's light so that it appears to dim. By measuring the amount of dimming and the duration between transits and using information about the star's properties astronomers characterize the size of the planet and the distance between the planet and its host star.

"Kepler discovered planets with a wide variety of sizes, compositions and orbits," said Eric B. Ford, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and one of the leaders of the research team. "We want to use those discoveries to improve our understanding of planet formation and to plan future missions to search for planets that might be habitable. However, simply counting exoplanets of a given size or orbital distance is misleading, since it's much harder to find small planets far from their star than to find large planets close to their star."

To overcome that hurdle, the researchers designed a new method to infer the occurrence rate of planets across a wide range of sizes and orbital distances. The new model simulates 'universes' of stars and planets and then 'observes' these simulated universes to determine how many of the planets would have been discovered by Kepler in each `universe.'

"We used the final catalog of planets identified by Kepler and improved star properties from the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft to build our simulations," said Danley Hsu, a graduate student at Penn State and the first author of the paper. "By comparing the results to the planets cataloged by Kepler, we characterized the rate of planets per star and how that depends on planet size and orbital distance. Our novel approach allowed the team to account for several effects that have not been included in previous studies."

The results of this study are particularly relevant for planning future space missions to characterize potentially Earth-like planets. While the Kepler mission discovered thousands of small planets, most are so far away that it is difficult for astronomers to learn details about their composition and atmospheres.

"Scientists are particularly interested in searching for biomarkers—molecules indicative of life—in the atmospheres of roughly Earth-size planets that orbit in the 'habitable-zone' of Sun-like stars," said Ford. "The habitable zone is a range of orbital distances at which the planets could support liquid water on their surfaces. Searching for evidence of life on Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars will require a large new space mission."

How large that mission needs to be will depend on the abundance of Earth-size planets. NASA and the National Academies of Science are currently exploring mission concepts that differ substantially in size and their capabilities. If Earth-size planets are rare, then the nearest Earth-like planets are farther away and a large, ambitious mission will be required to search for evidence of life on potentially Earth-like planets. On the other hand, if Earth-size planets are common, then there will be Earth-size exoplanets orbiting stars that are close to the sun and a relatively small observatory may be able to study their atmospheres.

"While most of the stars that Kepler observed are typically thousands of light years away from the Sun, Kepler observed a large enough sample of stars that we can perform a rigorous statistical analysis to estimate of the rate of Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of nearby sun-like stars." said Hsu.

Based on their simulations, the researchers estimate that planets very close to Earth in size, from three-quarters to one-and-a-half times the size of earth, with orbital periods ranging from 237 to 500 days, occur around approximately one in four stars. Importantly, their model quantifies the uncertainty in that estimate. They recommend that future planet-finding missions plan for a true rate that ranges from as low about one planet for every 33 stars to as high as nearly one planet for every two stars.

"Knowing how often we should expect to find planets of a given size and orbital period is extremely helpful for optimize surveys for exoplanets and the design of upcoming space missions to maximize their chance of success," said Ford. "Penn State is a leader in brining state-of-the-art statistical and computational methods to the analysis of astronomical observations to address these sorts of questions. Our Institute for CyberScience (ICS) and Center for Astrostatistics (CASt) provide infrastructure and support that makes these types of projects possible."

The Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State includes faculty and students who are involved in the full spectrum of extrasolar planet research. A Penn State team built the Habitable Zone Planet Finder, an instrument to search for low-mass planets around cool stars, which recently began science operations at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, of which Penn State is a founding partner. A second Penn State-built spectrograph is in being tested before it begins a complementary survey to discover and measure the masses of low-mass planets around sun-like stars. This study makes predictions for what such planet surveys will find and will help provide context for interpreting their results.

In addition to Ford and Hsu, the research team includes Darin Ragozzine and Keir Ashby at Brigham Young University. The research was supported by NASA; the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF); and the Eberly College of Science, the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds, and the Center for Astrostatistics at Penn State. Advanced computing resources and services were provided by the Penn State Institute for CyberScience, including the NSF funded CyberLAMP cluster.