Space Sunday: budgets and splashdowns

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot believes the Lunar Orbit platform-Gateway (LOP-G, formerly the Deep Space Gateway) could be build and operating by 2024 at a cost of around US $3 billion. Really? Credit; NASA

NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget has had its first public airing, and while not anywhere near finalised, it does first set-out the agency’s table under the Trump administration, and further cement some of the foundations on which that table will be built.

The top line is that for FY 2019 (starting October 2018), NASA should be allocated US $19.9 billion; roughly $370 million above the Obama 2017 budget (which is actually still being used under emergency measures, the FY 2018 budget still yet to be approved), and could be as high as $800 million more than the allocated FY 2018 budget. Some have taken this as a sign that the Trump Administration intends to back-up its noise making around US space activities with some hard spending. However, it’s important to note the FY 2019 request is seen as being the last real-term increase in NASA budget until at least 2024; from 2020 through 2023, it is expected that the agency’s budget will be locked at US $19.6 billion per year.

NASA FY 2019 budget request and forecast 2020-2023. Credit: NASA

Bullet-points from the budget include:

  • Low-Earth Orbit and ISS: confirmation that the Administration wants to phase-out the International Space Station by 2025, in favour of developing a sustained commercial presence in low-Earth orbit. NASA is expected to provide some $900 million through to 2023 to help companies develop their own orbital facilities – or possibly transition the ISS to commercial use (how this would be done, given the international nature of a number of the ISS modules, is unclear).
  • Lunar Aspirations: confirmation of the re-direct for NASA to aim for a return to the Moon and drop human Mars missions from its plans, with a specific emphasis on the agency establishing the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (as the Deep Space Gateway is now being called). Although a NASA project, this is now likely to be driven forward on something of a public / private partnership basis.
  • Earth Sciences: a renewed attempt to end the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO), the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite. All four were cut from NASA’s 2018 budget by the Trump Administration, but currently continue to receive funding as a result of the failure thus far to get that budget approved.
  • Planetary Sciences: this gets a boost of some US $400 million over 2017, but its unclear where the money is to be allocated; little mention is made of new missions, and the budget language suggests most of the additional $400 million will be allocated to  lunar precursor missions, and thus limited in effective scope.
    • Mars science is effectively frozen at the current level of missions, up to and including the InSight Lander due for launch in May, and the Mars 2020 rover. Only the potential sample return mission to follow Mars 2020 gets seed money.
    • Missions like Europa Clipper gain a lot of words, but no clearer idea on how they are to be achieved.
  • Astrophysics: contains the biggest shock item – cancellation of WFIRST, the Wide Field Infra-Red Survey Telescope (which I previewed here). This has already caused consternation in the science community, is liable to be one of the more strongly fought against recommendations. The White House rationale for the cancellation is that WFIRST “overlaps” the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and that “good” science can be conducted with “cheaper” missions. This latter point is particularly ironic given WFIRST, despite a small increase in projected cost, is still one of the most cost-effective NASA deep space missions thanks to its use of available elements.
  • Education: the axing of NASA’s Office of Education, again a repeat of a cut from the FY2018 budget – and one rejected by Congress. OOE accounts for less than 0.5% of NASA’s budget, but plays a significant role in generating interest among US school and college students in pursuing careers in science, technology and engineering.

Initial response to the budget has been mixed. Many are applauding the idea of shifting human activities in low-Earth orbit to a commercial footing – something the Trump administration would like to accelerated through a “streamlining” of policy and regulatory requirements. Advocates of the ISS are less pleased however.

While not approved, it had been expected that ISS operations would be extended through to 2028; a new Russian-built power module, NEM-1, due for launch in 2019/2020 would certainly help with this – and a unilateral decision by the United Station on the ISS might cause some international upset, as well as the domestic kick-back already being heard. Even before the ISS cut was confirmed, Republican law makers were lining up in support of the station. They’ve been joined by Democrats as well.

“The proposal would end support for the International Space Station in 2025 and make deep cuts to popular education and science programmes,” U.S. Senator. Bill Nelson (D-Fla) said. “Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense.”

With opinions sharply split of the matter of the future of the ISS, LOP-G offering potentially limited benefit in terms of human operations on the Moon, upset over NASA’s science efforts having to effectively foot the bill for LOP-G, NASA’s FY 2019 budget could be in for as bumpy a ride through Congress as the FY 2018 budget…

SpaceX +1 For Certification; almost +1 for Recovery Attempt

The NASA budget proposal published on February 14th also revealed that the current variant of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has gained “Category 2” launch certification from NASA, clearing the way for the vehicle to start launching science missions on behalf of the agency. The first of these is scheduled to be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), currently slated for launch in April 2018.

On February 22nd, the latest Falcon 9 mission lifted-off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base at 14:17 UT, carrying the Spanish Earth-observing Paz satellite and two prototype SpaceX microsats, referred to as Tintin A and Tintin B. Paz will observe Earth in radar wavelengths from a 514 km (319 mi) perch in quasi-polar orbit, gathering data for the Spanish government and other customers over the course of a 5.5 year mission. It will be able to generate images with up to 25 cm (10 in) resolution, day and night and regardless of the meteorological conditions.

The two SpaceX satellite-internet prototypes, originally dubbed Microsat-2a and Microsat-2b, are meant to gather data in advance of deploying and operating a satellite constellation designed to provide a global, low-cost internet service. Called Starlink, the system was first announced by SpaceX chief Elon Musk in 2015, and will eventually comprise thousands of the little satellites when it opens for business in 2020.

The first stage of the launch vehicle had first flown in August 2017, when it helped deliver Taiwan’s Formosat-5 satellite to low-Earth orbit. However, no attempt was made to recover the stage this time around – the ninth such stage to make a second journey into space. Instead, SpaceX’s efforts were focused on trying to recover one of the vehicle’s two payload fairings.

A Falcon 9 / Falcon Heavy payload fairing rolls of the SpaceX production line at a cost of US $3 million. Two such fairings are used per launch. Credit: SpaceX

As I’ve previously noted, the payload fairings enclose the rocket’s cargo during its ascent through the atmosphere. Normally, they are simply jettisoned on reaching low-Earth orbit, and allowed to burn-up in the upper atmosphere.   However, they are actually extremely expensive and complex vehicle elements. The SpaceX units, used by both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, measure 13.1 m in length and 5.2 m in diameter (43 ft by 17ft), weigh just under a tonne each, and are made of carbon composite material at a cost of US $3 million each – so that’s effectively $6 million per launch being thrown away. If they could be recovered and refurbished, it could allow SpaceX to knock an estimated $5 million off the cost of a launch.

After separating from the Falcon’s upper stage, one of the two payload fairings – which had been equipped with small gas thrusters – re-oriented itself for a slow re-entry into the upper atmosphere, which also gradually slowed it to around eight times the speed of sound (roughly 10,000 km/h). At this point, a parafoil was deployed, effectively turning the fairing into a monster hang glider and further slowing its descent over the Pacific Ocean.

Sea trials: the 62 m (205 ft) long Mr. Steven, leased by SpaceX and converted to “catch” payload fairings in the huge net suspended over the stern deck. Credit: Teslarati / SpaceX / Sea Tran

Waiting for it on that Ocean was Mr. Steven, a “high-speed passenger boat” launched in 2015, and capable of a sustained top speed of 32 knots (37 mph / 59 km/h). The theory is that at this speed, the vessel should be able to sprint along beneath the fairing’s descent trajectory, matching its course and velocity during the final part of the decent, and then “catch” it is a huge net strung between four ungainly arms added to the vessel’s large, flat stern deck.

As it turned out, things didn’t quite come together as hoped. Mr. Steven was unable to maintain position relative to the returning fairing, which actually splashed down in the ocean a couple of hundred metres from the ship. However, it did so so gently, it exhibited little initial visual signs of damage, and Mr. Steven was able to come alongside and recover it.

The payload fairing as seen from Mr. Steven, February 22nd, 2018, a few minutes after the unexpected splashdown. Credit: Teslarati / SpaceX.

“Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water. Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent,” Musk tweeted shortly afterwards.

The next attempt at a fairing recovery could come at the end of March, 2018, with the launch of the next batch of 10 Iridium communications satellites from Vandenberg.

Mr Steven brings the recovered Falcon 9 payload fairing back to port, February 22nd, 2018. Credit: Teslarati / SpaceX

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