SLS Solid Rocket Booster Fired Up On Final Qualification Test

NASA and Orbital ATK on the 28th June 2016 fired up a solid rocket booster which is tentatively scheduled to assist the launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently scheduled for late 2018.

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This was the major test for the solid rocket booster which is slated to assist the SLS on its maiden and successive missions to follow the inaugural flight which slated to launch No Later Than (NLT) by November 2018. This has also been written into the law by senators and legislators, and NASA and partners are legally obligated to meet this deadline. The first launch of SLS is expected to launch the new Orion capsule for a flyby (and possible orbits) of the Moon, and will be the first time in over 50 years that a human-rated crew capsule has left the bounds of Earth’s gravity.

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This Five Segment Solid Rocket booster was the second and final test of the booster before the flight in November 2018. The first test, QM-1, was test fired in June of 2015, and was tested for the heat extremes which the Solid Rocket Booster may encounter on the pad and flight. That test was known as a Hot Test, enabling data to be collected on how the booster would perform at higher temperatures. QM-2 was being tested with a Cold Test conditions, testing how a booster would perform being below the normal temperatures being expected to be seen on the test stand, and ultimately in flight. The booster test firing was delayed from its initial firing time due to a Ground Computer which would collect the data being at fault. However that fault was ultimately resolved and the test fire was rescheduled for the same day, about an hour later than originally scheduled.

The test successfully began at 9:05 (local), 15:05 (UTC) and began a 2 minute test of the performance of the booster in the test conditions which were set. The solid rocket motor fired just over 2 minutes as intended and was hailed as a success by both NASA and the prime contractor for the boosters for SLS, Orbital ATK. Over the coming months, the data which was collected from this test will be analysed and placed into the production models which will support the launches of the SLS. For the maiden launch of the SLS, the first of two solid rocket boosters are currently in production, with first 3 segments of the first 5 segment solid rocket booster already being produced. In late 2017 / early 2018 all segments of the booster slated to go on the maiden flight will be joined together and the building of the first flight hardware will begin ahead of testing at KSC both in the VAB and on the pad.

This is a very exciting time to be a space fan, for both for Government programs, including that of SLS Program and that of the Commercial Sector with SpaceX, Arianespace, United Launch Alliance and the dark horse of Blue Origin.

Planetary Arrival – JUNO Arrives at Jupiter

Launched on 5th August 2011, JUpiter Near-polar Orbiter (JUNO) was launched on a journey to Jupiter on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V in the 551 configuration. It was launched on a 5 year journey to seek scientific details of the Jupiter planet. JUNO’s arrival and insertion into orbit of Jupiter was a success on 4th July 2016, and is now expected to the begin the search of useful data from this area of the solar system.

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JUNO launches on board of an Atlas V 551 towards Jupiter

JUNO is a spacecraft a part of NASA’s New Frontiers mission, and was on a trajectory to Jupiter. The spacecraft will have travelled over a total distance of roughly 2.8 billion kilometres by the time it has entered orbit around Jupiter. The spacecraft has entered into a highly elliptical Polar Orbit of the planet, and at this vantage point, the spacecraft will study Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field and the planet’s polar magnetosphere.

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An artist’s rendering of the JUNO spacecraft

JUNO is only the second spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and is following in the footsteps of Galileo probe which orbited and sought data from 1995-2003. The spacecraft successfully performed its orbit insertion burn on 4th July 2016 and slowed the spacecraft enough to allow capture in a highly elliptical polar orbit. It will there verify systems and call back to Earth for controllers to do system health checks. It will then do 53-day orbits for a couple of months before performing another burn which should put JUNO in a 14-day Polar Orbit.

This is great news for NASA and the JUNO program and we wish them well on this mission!

MUOS-5 Successfully Launched by ULA’s Atlas V

United Launch Alliance has successfully launched the MUOS-5 for the US Navy, with the mission beginning with an on time launch on 24th June 2016. The launch window opened at 10:30am EDT (14:30 UTC). This mission took around 3 hours before an announcement of success was made . This is the first Atlas V mission since the near miss, but successfully executed mission deployment of the OA-6 mission sending Orbital ATK’s Cygnus to the ISS. The Atlas V launched in the 551 configuration, a 5-meter fairing, 5 solid rocket boosters and single upper-stage engine, and was the 7th time United Launch Alliance had used this configuration. The first was the launch of New Horizons back in 2006.

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The Atlas V lifts of with MUOS-5 | Photo: United Launch Alliance (2016)

This mission was poised to launch the U.S. Navy’s fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-5), which was built by Lockheed Martain. According to Gunter’s Space Page, the stated mass of the MUOS satellites are 6740 kg, and are built on the A2100M bus configuration. The MUOS constellation provides the U.S. Navy a network of orbiting satellites which are able to provide secure and communications for the troops who are in war zones and those who are a part of the mobile military forces. Before this launch, four MUOS satellites in orbit providing communications for troops, and with the filth satellite heading towards its slot in Geostationary Orbit, this satellite will provide a backup communications link for the four orbiting satellites currently at their station keeping points.

MUOS-5 however was originally scheduled for launched on May 5th 2016, but subsequently delayed to today. The delayed  was caused by a RD-180 anomaly on the mission which was ahead of this launch campaign. The previous mission, a Resupply Mission heading towards the International Space Station, booked by Orbital ATK, to ferry up the company’s Cygnus spacecraft with science and supplies for the crew at station. The OA-6 mission to the station was a near mission failure due to the shortfall of the RD-180 burn of the first stage flight of the mission, resulting in a 6 second shortfall on the burn. However the mission was saved by the Centaur Upper Stage flight computer acknowledging the shortfall and burning up to a minute longer than planned, a few seconds before fuel depletion.

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An Atlas V core booster being prepared for flight. The RD-180 is the powerhouse for the Atlas V.

After the anomaly was noted by United Launch Alliance, management stood down Atlas V from further mission until data and a fix for the issue was made. It was recognised that the anomaly came from the Atlas V’s main propulsion system, the RD-180, and the investigation found that a fuel control valve was at fault on the OA-6 mission. A fix has now been applied to the RD-180 which is set to take MUOS-5 to a Geostationary Orbit (GSO), and all RD-180 engines which the Atlas V will use in upcoming and future missions.

The following was the Mission Highlights for the MUOS-5 launch:

This mission marked Atlas V’s 63rd launch since its inaugural launch in August 2002. United Launch Alliance is also celebrating it’s 108th mission without failure, a feat which no other aerospace company has yet to reach. The next Atlas V launch is tentatively scheduled for late July carrying the NROL-61 in 421 configuration.

Vulcan Inc’s Stratolaunch – Mega Build Progressing

Vulcan Inc. has been creating the Stratolaunch for many years, with many delays which have been noticeable within the sector. Today, 20th June 2016, a progress update was posted about the current construction progress of the first Stratolaunch.

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Stratolaunch currently being constructed – Vulcan Inc.

The Executive Director and President of Vulcan Aerospace, Chuck Beames, described the craft as, “jaw-dropping when you walk into that hangar”. The hangar is located at the Mojave Air and Space Port, and the plane is currently being constructed within the 103,000 square foot hanger. However construction is behind schedule, due to design changes and the added stress of losing the rocket providers which were initially being considered for the Stratolaunch. It is understood that the initial provider was SpaceX, using a Falcon 5, later to be changed for a reengineered Falcon 9. It was later made public that SpaceX withdrew from the deal and Stratolaunch had no launcher for its business. Following the withdrawal of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences (now known as Orbital ATK) approached and agreed with Vulcan Inc. to modify their Antares launcher to fly with Stratolaunch. It was to be described as a larger version of the Pegasus launcher which is still in action today. However to this date, Orbital Sciences withdrew also from venturing their orbital rocket with Stratolauch and Vulcan Inc.

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A typical launch trajectory for Stratolaunch and Payload – Vulcan Inc.

It is currently understood publicly that no rocket has been adopted/designed to the Stratolaunch. This has yet to be addressed. However Beames has argued otherwise, “We have a business plan, a strategy that Paul has approved.” It is believed that as early as next year the big Stratolaunch could be on test flights around Mojave, with becoming part of the American launcher fleet by the end of the decade, posing that no further financial or further withdrawals from the business occurs.

Blue Origin Launches Same Rocket For The Fourth Time

Launching at 10:36AM ET (14:36PM UTC) on the 19th June 2016, Blue Origin launched for the fourth time the same rocket which had previously flown three times before. This was a demanding mission for Blue, due to the rocket itself preparing itself once again to fly above the Karman Line, and of the fail-safe testing which would be demanding for the capsule itself.

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New Shepard Before Touchdown

In addition to the launch occurring, there was another first for the launch, Blue Origin finally listened to many space fans, and likely a change of heart from the CEO Jeff Bezos, resulting in this experimental space flight being the first televised launch by the company. Watch the Full Replay of the Webcast Here. This was a big move by the company, as they have been known for their secrecy and only making news public when they felt was necessary. It was a welcomed move by many and this allowed the company to finally be more open about their aspirations and future plans.

With lift off delayed slightly than originally stated, New Shepard launched at 10:36AM ET (14:36PM UTC) heading towards the Karman Line, and beginning what would be its most demanding mission to date. Max-Q (better known as Maximum Aerodynamic Force) was met at approximately a minute within to flight and MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off) occurred at 2 minutes into Flight. A coast period to apogee then occurred. If humans were aboard this flight, they would have had around 4 minutes of weightlessness.

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Capsule Just Before Touchdown

As the capsule and the first stage returned to the ground that they just left 10 minutes before hand, both were on different objectives, but both were aiming to return both valuable data and return themselves for reflight at a later date. The first to land on this mission was the booster stage, coming in from apogee, and maxing out at the speed over 2000 mph. This booster successfully landed in the centre of the landing pad which the booster was aiming for. It is understood that this booster will fly again at a later date, however this will be after the data has been collected, and that the lessons learnt have been placed on this and future boosters. Additionally, this flight was pushing the safety boundaries of the capsule, and Blue Origin was attempting to test what would occur if one of the three parachutes failed to deploy and whether or not the capsule is capable of landing in a safe manner. From the webcast, it seems that the test was a success and the capsule was able to land. Data from this test will be fed into the data which was simulated beforehand, and will be used to support any changes which may be needed to allow the safe return of the astronauts/customers which fly on the New Shepard.