Space Sunday: SLS, Falcon and Dream Chaser

Orion’s first deep space mission, EM-1 will be an extended uncrewed flight to cislunar space, officially targeted for June 2020, but which may still make a December 2019 lift-off. Credit: NASA

NASA has provided an update on the first integrated launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft.

Planned as an uncrewed mission, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), planned as a flight to cislunar space and back, is a critical test on the road to NASA’s human deep space exploration goals, designed to verify the SLS / Orion’s capabilities in handling missions between Earth and the Moon.

The update comes after the completion of reviews of both the Space Launch System and the Orion vehicle systems – the latter of which took place on both sides of the Atlantic, given the Orion’s Service Module, which is providing the vehicle with power and propulsion, is being built by the European Space Agency. NASA initiated the reviews as a result of early studies, which raised concerns over meeting a December 2019 launch date as ambitious, leading to the agency pushing it the launch back to June 2020.

EM-1 will utilise the “Block-1” Space Launch System booster, with a 70-tonne payload capability. Credit: NASA

As a part of the update, NASA points to June 2020 still being the planned launch date, but indicates it is also working to keeping the December 2019 launch a possibility, providing no significant setbacks or issues arise, as several of the risks indicated in the earlier report have not been realised. However, even if EM-1 still achieves the 2019 launch date, the follow-up EM-2 mission, which will carry a crew into space, will still take place in 2023, rather than 2021 as originally planned, to allow additional time for the development of the SLS Block 1B launch vehicle which will be used in that mission.

As part of the recent reviews, and in order to help meet the December 2019 launch opportunity, the update indicates that a flight test of the  Orion’s launch abort system, critical to SLS operations, and must occur prior to EM-1, have been brought forward to April 2019. Known as Ascent-Abort 2, it will validate the launch abort system’s ability to land the crew safely during descent, and also help ensure that the agency can remain on track for the EM-2 crewed flight in 2023.

To build the SLS and Orion, NASA is relying on several new and advanced manufacturing techniques, including 3D printing, which is being used to fashion more than 100 parts for the Orion capsule.  In Germany, integration of the first Service Module is progressing. Recently, the 24 orientation thrusters were installed, complementing the eight larger engines that will back up the main engine, and more than 11 km of cables are being laid and connected to send the megabytes of information from the solar panels, fuel systems, engines, and air and water supplies to the module’s central computers.

With the SLS booster, welding has been completed on all the major structures for the mission and is on track to assemble them to form the largest rocket stage ever built and complete the EM-1 “green run,” an engine test that will fire up the core stage with all four RS-25 engines at the same time.

EM-1 will see a crew-capable space craft travel further from Earth than at any point in time since the dawn of the space age. Following launch, the vehicle will commence a 4-day flight to cislunar space, where it will remain in extended orbit around the Moon, before making a 4-day return to Earth.

SpaceX Looks to Falcon Heavy Launch and Operational Return of Pad 40

With NASA still looking at a potential of December 2019 for the maiden launch of the Space Launch System rocket, SpaceX is preparing for a December 2017 maiden flight of their new launch system, the Falcon Heavy. Originally scheduled for November 2017, the launch is now pencilled for December 29th, 2017 and will be one of five launches SpaceX plan to round-out the year.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy, slated for a December 29th maiden flight. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy, when operational, will be capable of hoisting a maximum payload of 63.5 to low Earth orbit, although the more usual LEO payload limit will be around 55 tonnes. It will also be capable of lobbing 14 tonnes to the Moon, 10 tonnes to Mars and even 3.5 tonnes to the outer solar system.

The maiden flight, however, will carry little more than a dummy payload, but it will hopefully include the recovery of the three Falcon 9 rockets which make up the core of the Falcon Heavy.

Two of these rockets form “strap on boosters” for the Falcon Heavy, and are jettisoned first. If all goes according to plan, these will perform automated “boost back” manoeuvres and fly themselves to safe landings.. The central booster will continue until its fuel is almost expended, then separate from the upper stage, perform its own boost back manoeuvre and return to Earth.

Eventually, SpaceX plan to make Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy fully reusable with the addition of a “fly back” upper stage as well.

Also in December, SpaceX plan to re-active their launch facilities at Launch complex 40 at Canaveral Air Force Station alongside Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. This has been out of commission sine September 1st, 2016, when a Falcon 9 booster exploded on the pad during a pre-launch test, completely destroying itself, its payload and severely damaging the pad.

Since that time, SpaceX’s east coast operations have been confined to launch complex 39A at Kennedy Space Centre, which will be used for all Falcon Heavy launches and – eventually – for the launch of the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System.

Despite Canaveral Pad 40 being out of service, SpaceX has achieved its highest cadence of launches to date in 2017, and hopes to be able to commit to an even higher rate of launches in 2018 using both pad 40 and pad 39A.

The first scheduled flight from the repaired pad 40 should be a commercial cargo resupply services mission to the International Space Station (ISS), and subject to NASA approval, might utilise a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage.

Dream Chaser Completes Glide Flight

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) successfully completed a glide test using the test article version of their Dream Chaser reusable space vehicle on November 11th.

The vehicle was carried to a height of 3,800 metres (12,500 ft) slung beneath a helicopter before being released to glide back to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California. There was no advanced announcement of the test flight, the first since Dream Chaser was turned down by NASA as a potential contender for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation programme (contracts eventually being awarded to SpaceX and Boeing).

The Dream chaser alongside NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis in 2010. Credit: NASA / SNC

For the last two years, SNC have been developing an uncrewed version of Dream Chaser to fly resupply missions to the ISS alongside SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Japan and Russia. As a result of this work, the company was granted a contract from NASA to commence flying ISS resupply missions from 2020 through 2024.

Once operational, Dream Chaser Cargo will be able to fly up to 5 tonnes of cargo to orbit both within its body and in an attached disposable cargo module. The vehicle will also be able to return several tonnes of equipment and science experiments to Earth from the ISS, making conventional runway landing on its return.

The Dream Chaser test article touches down at Edwards AFB, California, November 11th, 2017. Credit: SNC

The November 11th test, to “verify and validate the performance of the Dream Chaser in the critical final approach and landing phase of flight”, marked the final funded milestone of NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability effort, which formed part of the development process for the Commercial Crew Transportation programme. The project will now role forward purely under the auspices of preparing Dream Chaser Cargo for ISS operations.

Voyager 1’s Cosmic Symphony

Music created entirely from data beamed back from Voyager 1 will receive its world premiere on Monday, 13 November, 2017.

Produced to celebrate the 40th birthday of the spacecraft’s mission, the three-minute piece is based on information captured by the Voyager 1’s Low-Energy Charged Particle (LECP) instrument, a special telescope designed to identify protons, alpha particles, and heavier nuclei in space. Data from the instrument, representing a measurement taken every 26 days, has been transmitted to Earth since just after the mission’s launch in 1977.

Sections of these 26-day data recordings, taken when Voyager 1 approached Jupiter and then Saturn, and  when it left the solar system in 2012, have been converted into musical notes using a process called data sonification. This mapped the measurements into musical notes and then mapped them to create melody, harmony and orchestration which can be played by a conventional orchestra.

In particular, data from LECP’s cosmic ray count was used to create the main melody, played on violins for data captured before 2012, and on the flute, piccolo and glockenspiel for cosmic ray data collected after 2012. Data captured during the Jupiter and Saturn encounters was used to map music for the piano and French horn, while the transition from the heliosphere to the interstellar space was used to create changes in the orchestration and harmony, as well adding a change of key (C major to E flat major). A short extract from the piece has been released by NASA ahead of the premiere as an introductory teaser.