Space Sunday: throwing things into space; NASA & SpaceX round-ups

A conceptual model of a SpinLaunch coastal launch facility with the vacuum accelerator exposed – the launch vehicle is located at the outer end of the black rotating arm. Credit: SpinLaunch

Up until now, the only means to get payload into space has been through chemical propulsion – rockets. And while they are not entirely efficient, they do work. However, if an American company gets its way, launching small payload into orbit could see the core part of their rocket replaced by a vacuum accelerator. Think of whirling an object around at speed on the end of a piece of string and then releasing it vertically, and you’ll get the picture.

The idea may sound bonkers, but it is precisely what US company SpinLaunch is planning to do.

They propose building a 100-metre diameter vacuum accelerator that, over the course of 90 minutes can accelerate an 11.2 tonne launch system up to a speed of Mach 5 before releasing it to travel along a launch tube and into the air. This velocity should be sufficient to propel the launch vehicle – comprising an aerodynamic aeroshell within which is placed a two-stage rocket carrying a 200 Kg payload.

The SpinLaunch payload vehicle, showing the outer dynamic shell, the two-stage rocket vehicle, and a pair of small satellites as the payload. Credit: SpinLaunch

On reaching a altitude matching that of a Falcon 9 first stage, the aeroshell would then split open, releasing the rocket to power itself and its payload on to orbit. Sound this work, it could reduce the cost of placing small payloads into space by around 80%, and allow for multiple launches from a single facility per day, if required.

To prove the idea works, SpinLaunch has constructed a one-third scale version of the accelerator, and on October 22nd, used it – operating at around 20% of rated output – to propel a 3-metre long ballistic projectile “tens of thousand of feet” into the atmosphere. According to SpinLaunch, the test was the first of 30 to take place over the next 6 months before they start work on construction on what they claim will be the first of a number of full-scale launch facilities at various points on the American coast.

That said, there are some significant technical challenges. Spinning at a maximum speed of 450 rpm, the system will subject the launcher and its payload to a peak dynamic load of 10,000 G; that’s a lot for the more sensitive part of the rocket motor to handle. More particularly, when it breaks the vacuum seal at the end of the launch tube, it will be travelling at Mach 5 – and slamming straight into the densest part of the atmosphere, again placing a massive load on it and its payload, as well as generating a lot of frictional heat as a result of its passage through the air. And that’s without considering the challenges in translating the spin of the accelerator into linear motion for the launch vehicle such that it can smoothly and successfully exit the launch tube, etc.

Even so, SpinLaunch appear to be carrying out the right amount of research – even if they are somewhat circumspect in addressing specific technical questions. As such, it will be interesting to see where things lead.

SpaceX Starship Update

With the public phase of the FAA’s Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of the Starbase facilities at Boca Chica now closed and the agency putting together its final version of the report, SpaceX has been moving ahead with site and vehicle development.

Most notably with the former has been work on erecting the framework of the new Wide Bay facility that could allow work to progress on up to four Super Heavy / Starship vehicles at a time, massively increasing the ability for the company to stack vehicles elements together. At the same time, in the current 2-vehicle High Bay, Booster 5 is nearing stack completion, and work has resumed on Starship 21.

The nose cone section of Starship 21, due to be the second orbit-capable test vehicle, is mounted onto the upper section of the vehicle. Note the thermal protection system already installed on both sections. Credit: BocaChicaGal /
Booster 5 includes significant differences to Booster 4, which is now sitting on a hard stand at the launch facilities as work continues on the launch platform there. Most notably, elements of the booster are emerging from the fabrication facilities in a completed state than was the case with Booster 4 – which even now, is still awaiting various elements of aerodynamic casing, etc., to protect various parts during its ascent and decent through the atmosphere. Similarly, Starship 21 is showing differences in construction to Starship 20, most notably in having sections fitted with their thermal protection blankets and tiles prior to being stacked together.

At the launch site, work has continued in getting the catching mechanism on the launch support tower properly rigged to the cable system and massive winches that will allow it to move up and down the tower for eventual stacking and catching operations. A short distance away, Booster 4 has started to receive the protective skirting around its base to keep the more sensitive parts of its ring of outer engines safe from the flames and heat of ignition, as well receiving the last of its 29 Raptor engines.

However, the biggest new in recent weeks came with the pre-burn and static fire test of all six Raptor motors on Starship 20. These came almost back-to-back on November 12th, with the pre-burn (a kind of clearing the rocket engines’ throats) coming first and lasting just under a second. Then, around an hour later came a 2-second firing of the vehicles’ 3 sea-level engines and the 3 vacuum rated engines.

As with the last static fire test (with just 3 motors), some of the vehicle’s thermal protection tiles were blown clear, with a good number coming off lower down the vehicle when compared to the 3-engine test. Although brief, the static fire gave a small taste of the amount of noise that will be generated when Booster 4 ignites all 29 of its motors and then sustains their thrust through an actual launch.

Whether or not this launch, which will hopefully carry Starship 20 aloft, will come before the end of the year still hangs in the balance, with a lot riding on the outcome of the FAA’s final version of their PEA.

NASA Updates

Hubble Partially Recovered

On October 25th, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) entered a “safe” mode, shutting down all science operations, the result of “multiple losses of synchronisation messages” – messages designed to coordinate how the various science instruments on HST receive and transmit data to / from the telescope’s primary computer system. While of concern, and possibly a little more frequent than initially diagnosed, the issue left Hubble in good health and engineers confident science operations could be recovered.

During the week, further tests were carried out that gave NASA the confidence to return the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) to operational status on November 7th. The coming week will see the completion of additional tests with the hope that the more sensitive instruments on the telescope can be returned to operational status.

Artemis 3 Moon Landing Now “No Earlier” Than 2025

In a move that should have surprised no-one interested in space exploration, NASA has pushed back their return to the Moon to at least 2025, citing four reasons: the disagreement with Blue Origin over the contract for the Human Landing System (HLS), delays due to COVID working restrictions in 2020, Congress “failing” to fund HLS development and the Trump Administration placing unrealistic time frames on the programme.

Of the four reasons, the last is perhaps the most accurate: you simply cannot lop 4 years off of a programme and expect it to succeed (simply so you can take the credit as theoretically still be in office), without a commensurate increase in budget to allow NASA to achieve the required goals in the reduced time frame. On the other hand, blaming Congress isn’t entirely honest. In 2019, NASA stated they need $5+ billion for HLS development – but only requested less than $2 billion – hoping they could take money from the infrastructure bill and put into HLS – which Congress refused to allow.

The Artemis 1 mission profile. Credit: NASA – click for full size

As it is, the “no earlier” statement is standard NASA parlance when they do not wish to commit to a specific data as yet, in this instance it is perhaps indicative that Artemis 3 could slip to 2026. A lot is riding on the Artemis 1 mission, which has already slipped to February 2022, being the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket critical in getting crews to the Moon. Should this first (uncrewed) flight reveal issues with either SLS or the Orion crew vehicle, then it is likely to seriously impact the entire Artemis timeline.

Similarly, while Elon Musk claims SpaceX will be able to land a crewed Starship HLS vehicle on the Moon in 2023, his time-frames tend to be over-optimistic. Also, there are some major questions around the Starship HLS that have yet to be answered; plus SpaceX are working to NASA’s crew safety requirements, not their own, which can (rightly, given crew safety is at stake) cause additional overheads on a development programme.

Crew Dragon: 4 Down, 4 Up

After uncooperative weather mixed things up, and caused delays, SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour has returned to Earth, bringing with it NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet and JAXA astronaut Aki Hoshide, who were all just a few hours short of spending 200 days aboard the space station.

Departure and splashdown took place on November 8th, with only the late-opening of one of the 4 main parachutes preventing the return from being perfectly textbook.

A remarkable shot captured by the team showing Crew Dragon Endeavour forming a bright star as it flies through re-entry high above the SpaceX Starbase at Boca Chica. In the foreground is the launch support tower for Super Heavy / Starship. Credit:

The departure left a lone US astronaut on the ISS along with two Russian cosmonauts. Mark Vende Hei arrived on the station aboard Soyuz MS-18 in April 2021. In September he and cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov, who also flew to the station on MS-18, had their stay on the station extended through until March 2022. This means that Vende Hei will take the record for the longest individual space flight by an American – 353 days.

However, on Thursday, November 11th, he was joined by NASA colleagues Raja Chari, Tom Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, who arrived at the ISS along with ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer aboard Crew Dragon Endurance as the Crew 3 mission. They had launched earlier on Thursday, November 11th (Late on Wednesday, November 10th, US time), marking the maiden flight of the third Crew Dragon vehicle to enter service. They will remain aboard the station for 6 months.

Further Push to Retire SOFIA

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the 2.5 metre telescope flown aboard a converted 747 SP aircraft has been recommended for “termination” by the committee that originally prioritised it.

The astrophysics decadal survey committee, which originally pushed for the airborne observatory in both 1990 (when it was not funded) and 2000 (when it was, although technical issues meant it did not enter service until 2014), now believe it is not worth the annual US $85 million cost of operating it and a “lack” of “scientific productivity”.

SOFIA: the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a flying observatory, capable of flying high enough to put it above the majority of atmospheric interference – but again threatened with cancellation. Credit: NASA

The “lack of productivity” references the fact that in its first 6 years, SOFIA has only generated 178 scientific papers that were cited 1,242 times, far less than other, more specialised observatories like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS); however, supporters of SOFIA note that the figures ignore the fact that in the last 12 months there has been a 59% increase in SOFIA papers, and the observatory is gaining more use in a variety of roles.

NASA has twice tried to cancel SOFIA, but in 2020 Congress provided sufficient funding for operations to through 2021 and into 2022. Currently, the House has also provided funding for the observatory until the end of 2023, although the Senate has yet to make a determination on funding.

Blue Origin Space Tourist Killed

Glen de Vries, who flew with William Shatner, Chris Boshuizen and Audrey Powers, a Blue Origin vice president on the second passenger-carrying Blue Origin New Shepard sub-orbital flight, was one of two people on a Cessna 172 aircraft that crashed in New Jersey on November 11th.

Glen De Vries aboard New Shepard NS-18 capsule prior to launch

De Vries, a biomedical entrepreneur and self-described “space nerd”, paid an undisclosed sum for the flight, and had been giving talks and presentations on his experience since his return to Earth.

At the time of his death, he had been flying with Thomas Fischer from Essex County Airport in Caldwell, N.J. Both men were well-qualified pilots – Fischer also being a flight instructor – but it is not clear who was flying the aircraft. Emergency services were alerted after the pair failed to arrive at their destination, and the wreckage of the aircraft were subsequently found  in a heavily wooded area near Hampton Township, about 64 kilometres northwest of New York City. At the time of writing, the cause of the crash remains undetermined.

We are devastated to hear of the sudden passing of Glen de Vries.  He brought so much life and energy to the entire Blue Origin team and to his fellow crewmates. His passion for aviation, his charitable work, and his dedication to his craft will long be revered and admired.

Blue Origin statement on the death of Glen de Vries