Space Sunday: capsules, moles and underground water

Lift-off: the SpaceX Crew Dragon DM1 rises from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Centre at 07:29 UT on March 2nd, 2019. Credit: Craig Vander Galien

The last time America had a capability to launch humans into space from US soil was back when the space shuttle – more formally the Space Transportation System – was still flying. However, the last shuttle flight was concluded on July 21st, 2011, when the shuttle Atlantis, with a career spanning 25 years and 33 flights into space that clocked-up 306 days, 14 hours, 12 minutes, 43 seconds in orbit, touched down at the shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida.

At that time, it was expected there would be just a four-year pause between the end of STS-135, the 135th shuttle flight, and the inception of a new generation of human-rated launch systems: the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, the SpaceX Crew Dragon and NASA’s own Orion system. However, development of these vehicles has been such that almost double that amount of time has passed.

But on Saturday, March 2nd, 2019, the United States did take a major step in it trek to resume a home-grown capability to launch people into space, with the successful first orbital launch of Crew Dragon.

Crew Dragon is a human-rated, reusable capsule system developed from the highly successful SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule currently used to fly supplies and equipment to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Officially designated Crew Dragon 2, it is designed to launch atop the Falcon 9 Block 5 launcher, and will operate alongside the Cargo Dragon 2, as the backbone of SpaceX’s involvement in ISS support activities. In addition, there are plans in hand to use Crew Dragon in commercial flights to the planned Bigelow Commercial Space Station, should that come to pass.

The Crew Dragon DM-1 vehicle, designated C201 and its service module, sitting within the SpaceX Horizontal Integration Facility at Kennedy Space Centre’s Launch Complex 39A, awaiting mating to its launch vehicle, December 18th, 2018. Credit: SpaceX / NASA

Once operational. it will be capable of flying up to seven crew into space, although for ISS flights, Crew Dragon will likely fly with a maximum of four crew, as NASA would like to use the added payload mass and volume ability to carry pressurised cargo to / from the ISS. Also, NASA initially do not want to use the Crew Dragon’s Super Draco motors for anything else but a propulsive assist right before final touchdown, otherwise relying on parachutes for the majority of the descent post-mission, limiting the all-up mass the capsule can bring back.

The “high-tech” zero-gee indicator installed aboard the Dragon vehicle: a plushy toy resembling the Earth, which would float free when the vehicle reached free-fall in orbit. Credit: Elon Musk

For the first orbital flight of the system – referred to as demonstration flight 1 (DM1), the Dragon 2 launched without a human crew – although it does carry an instrumented mannequin named “Ripley” after the iconic character played by Sigourney Weaver in the Alien(s) film franchise. Also on board is a small payload from NASA which the vehicle will deliver to the ISS, and a “high-tech” zero-gee indicator intended to show people watching the launch live stream the moment the vehicle achieved orbit.

Lift-off occurred precisely on time at 07:29 GMT – there was no extended window, so a failure to meet the launch time would have seen the flight postponed until March 5th, 2019. The first stage carried the vehicle through the denser part of the atmosphere, rapidly accelerating it.

Just over 2 minutes following launch, the nine first stage Merlin engines shut down, allowing the stage to separate. This continued to cost upwards as the single, vacuum-adjusted Merlin on the second stage fired, pushing it and the attached Crew Dragon on up towards orbit.

Reaching the termination point of its flight, the Falcon’s first stage carried out a series of manoeuvres that allowed it to re-ignite three of its motors in what is referred to as the “burn back” manoeuvres, designed to orient the stage for re-entry into the denser part of the atmosphere and cushion it through that re-entry phase.

These manoeuvres are a common part of Falcon 9 flights when the first stage is to be recovered post-flight. Such was the case here when, some 10 minutes after launch, the first stage made a successful landing on the SpaceX Autonomous Drone Landing Ship Of Course I Still Love You. Minutes later, the motor on the Falcon’s upper stage shut down, and the Crew Dragon separated from the stage.

Left: the Falcon 1st stage on Of Course I Still Love You, post landing. Right: a slim crescent against the blackness on the left of the image marks where Crew Dragon has separated from the Falcon’s second stage. Credit: SpaceX

Once in orbit, the Crew Dragon tested its Draco thrusters and opened its nose cone to reveal the forward docking port as it commenced a gentle “chase” to catch the ISS, gradually raising its altitude in the process.

Docking with the station began at 10:51 GMT on Sunday, March 3rd, more than 400 km (248 mi) above the Earth’s surface north of New Zealand, 27 hours after launch. The spacecraft made an initial “soft capture” with the docking port on the station’s Harmony module, the docking mechanisms then pulled Dragon into a firm “hard capture” with the station about 10 minutes later.

The Crew Dragon approaches the International Docking Adapter on one of the airlocks at the Harmony module of the ISS, March 3rd, 2019. Note the open nose cone and exposed docking port Credit: NASA.

Prior to docking the Crew Dragon closed to a distance of 150m from the station before halting its forward motion and then backing away again to 180m, testing its ability to move away from the station in the event of a problem. Once docked, a further series of checks were performed to “safe” the vehicle, prior to the hatches between it and the ISS being opened at 13:30 GMT. As a further precaution, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Canadian David Saint-Jacques wore gas masks to guard against any internal leaks of gas in the capsule when they first entered. After they had carried out atmospheric readings, NASA astronaut Anne McClain joined Saint-Jacques in starting to unload more than 180 kg of cargo included in the flight.

During the unloading, Saint-Jacques knocked the “high-tech” zero gee plushy, sending it carooming around the capsule, prompting mission control to observe, “Can you tell we’re in microgravity?”

The “zero-g indicator” gets a bump from CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques that sends it tumbling around the Crew Dragon. Credit: NASA / SpaceX

The Dragon will remain docked with the ISS through until Friday, March  8th, after which it will depart for a return to Earth, bringing a small amount of cargo with it. The capsule should splash down in the Atlantic Ocean at around 13:45 GMT that day, after a parachute descent through the atmosphere.

If all goes according to plan, the capsule used in this test (C201), will make a second uncrewed flight in June 2019, when it will be used to conduct an in-flight abort test, using its Draco motors to push it free of its Falcon 9 launcher to simulate what would happen in the event of a real booster malfunction. Following that flight, and assuming there are no further issues, the second demonstration flight (DM2) should take place in July 2019, when NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, both veterans of the space shuttle, will fly to the ISS aboard Crew Dragon C203, where they will remain for 2 weeks before making a return to Earth.

Assuming that flight (Demonstration Mission 2) is successful, Crew Dragon should then be cleared to start flying crews to and from the ISS at the end of 2019.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: capsules, moles and underground water”

Weddings, aliens and tales new and old

Seanchai Library

It’s time to highlight another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home at Holly Kai Park, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, March 3rd, 13:30: Tea Time with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

Following his retirement from active investigations, Sherlock Holmes moved to the Sussex Downs in order to keep bees. However, the gentility of his retirement takes a turn after an encounter with one Mary Russell, a 15-year-old orphan from the United States who moved to England to live with her Aunt.

Somewhat precocious, Mary Russell is also gifted with wit and intellect, and without anything being planned, the two form a new partnership, Holmes teaching Russell his trade craft and assisting her in solving crimes, their adventures charted by American writer, Laurie R. King.

For six years the two work together, until 1921, when they deal with the case of A Monstrous Regiment of Women. At the end of that adventure, Holmes and Mary are wed – but the matter was only given passing mention in the story.

With The Marriage of Mary Russell, here recounted in voice Savanah Blindside, Da5id Abbot, Kayden OConnell, and Caledonia Skytower, Laurie King revisits the nuptials between the two in a short story that also helps to fill some of the blanks around the relationship between Russell and Holmes.

A Tea Time Special Vote

In March and April, Seanchai Library will be presenting Sherlock Holmes Greatest Hits for the Sunday Tea Time at Baker Street sessions. BUT – which four stories should they present? A short list of 10 of the adventures completed by Holmes and Watson has been drawn up, but Seanchai fans and supporters have the power to select the final four. Just visit Sherlock’s Greatest Hits, read the synopses of the short listed ten stories and place your vote for your preferred stories in the list. The final four will be selected from those receiving the most votes.

Monday, March 4th 19:00: The World Of Ptavvs

Gyro Muggins returns to Larry Niven’s Known Universe to read the first novel Niven ever set within it  – given it was actually he first full-length novel. Within it, he lays many of the seeds, human and alien that would come to define that universe, its characteristics, traits and races.

A reflective statue is found at the bottom of one of Earth’s oceans, having lain there for 1.5 billion years. Humanity’s experiments with time manipulation lead to the conclusion the “statue” is actually an alien caught within a “time slowing” field.

Larry Greenberg, a telepath with highly developed and honed abilities is asked to participate in an attempt to make contact with the alien. This involves Greenberg and the “statue” being places within a single time slowing field, the effect of which is to nullify the one shrouding the alien.

The the new field in operation, Greenberg finds himself in the company of Kzanol, a member of a race called the Thrint. Powerfully telepathic, the Thrint once rules the galaxy pure through their mental powers and the ability to bend the minds of others to their own will. However, in the time that Kzanol has been trapped the result of a malfunction aboard his ship which forced him to abandon it and fall to Earth protected by the stasis field of his space suit, the Thrint were facing a revolt by all the races they had enslaved.

As a result of this, the Thrint had determined to wipe out every race in the galaxy using a thought amplifier. Now, his own mind mixed with that of Kzanol, Greenberg sets out with the alien with the aim of using the weapon to enslave every mind in the solar system…

Tuesday, March 5th 19:00: The Storyteller’s Path

An original story presented by Caledonia Skytower, together with poems by W.B. Yeats, time permitting.

Wednesday, March 6th 19:00: Selections from Wind on the Willows

With Faerie Maven-Pralou.

Thursday, March 7th

19:00: Beyond the Veil

A story from Ancient Ireland. With Shandon Loring. (Also in Kitely

21:00: Seanchai Late Night

Contemporary science fiction and fantasy with Finn Zeddmore.

A trip to Green Acres in Second Life

Green Acres; Inara Pey, March 2019, on FlickrGreen Acres – click and image for full size

Green Acres is the name given to a Homestead region designed by Alsatian Kidd with assistance from Iniquity Constantine that presents a slice of rural Americana in a very photogenic setting.

The region is roughly divided into two parts: rugged uplands running roughly diagonally across the land from the north-west to the south-east, that presents an arc of cliffs to the low-lying lands forming the rest of the setting.

Green Acres; Inara Pey, March 2019, on FlickrGreen Acres

The landing point sits on a low-lying table of grass eastwards of the hill, close to Cory Edo’s Yara Treehouse design, which is imaginatively built back into the stepped face of the rocky hills, water dropping in a sheet to one side, feeding  a pool at its feet where ducks swim, the water tumbling over a further small drop to meander away around the foot of the hills and through a narrow grassy gap between them.

This gap is shared by a path that winds along the stream’s bank, inviting visitors to follow. Beyond the cleft, the two part company, the stream continuing to hug the foot of the hills before it joins with a small river. By contrast, path branches before this confluence is reached, one arm linked to a snuggle spot nestled in the arms of the hills, reached via a little wooden bridge, the other running northwards over grassland. This path will eventually lead visitors to a lighthouse standing on a low promontory of rock and bracketed between a small beach nestled into a cove on one side and the estuary of the river on the other.

Green Acres; Inara Pey, March 2019, on FlickrGreen Acres

The estuary is home to a small fishing wharf, while the river is spanned by a broad girder bridge, providing the way to reach the ranch that occupies rest of the region. The lands here are open to exploration, but visitors are asked to respect the privacy of the owners and not stray into the ranch house itself.

This house sits above the rest of the ranchlands on a low table of grass and rock that offers an excellent vantage point for keeping an eye on things, the house sharing the hill with grapes growing on the vine. Below them, the land presents fields and livestock grazing, with cattle, sheep and horses occupying the fields adjacent to a large barn. Close by, an orchard offers apple trees ripe for harvesting, while more rutted tracks offer a route around the ranch outbuildings.

Green Acres; Inara Pey, March 2019, on FlickrGreen Acres

Beyond the ranch, the land closes back towards the hills, a large pool of water both fed by another waterfall and feeding the little river offering room for geese to swim and visitors to relax in a waiting kayak.

One of the things I like about Green Acres is the lie of the land potentially – and subject to respect and care – is one of those places ideal for exploring on horseback if you have a wearable / rideable horse. The trails around the region are ideal to follow, and the open grasslands offer plenty of room for grazing while appreciating the landscape from the saddle. But even if you don’t have a horse, the region offer a pleasant walk with plenty of opportunities for photography and for sitting and relaxing scattered around. There’s the kayak mentioned above, for example, a cosy little place on the beach, a picnic blanket spread on the grass, and the tree house near the landing point, to name but a few.

Green Acres; Inara Pey, March 2019, on FlickrGreen Acres

With deer, bear, raccoons and foxes also to be found, birds overhead and a gentle sound scape to surround you while exploring, Green Acres is another  delight of a region to visit.

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