MICHOUD ASSEMBLY FACILITY, NEW ORLEANS, LA - NASA has just finished welding together the very first fuel tank for America’s humongous Space Launch System (SLS) deep space rocket currently under development - and Universe Today had an exclusive up close look at the liquid hydrogen (LH2) test tank shortly after its birth as well as the first flight tank, during a tour of NASA’s New Orleans rocket manufacturing facility on Friday, July 22, shortly after completion of the milestone assembly operation.
“We have just finished welding the first liquid hydrogen qualification tank article …. and are in the middle of production welding of the first liquid hydrogen flight hardware tank [for SLS-1] in the big Vertical Assembly Center welder!” explained Patrick Whipps, NASA SLS Stages Element Manager, in an exclusive hardware tour and interview with Universe Today on July 22, 2016 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans.
“We are literally putting the SLS rocket hardware together here at last. All five elements to put the SLS stages together [at Michoud].”
This first fully welded SLS liquid hydrogen tank is known as a ‘qualification test article’ and it was assembled using basically the same components and processing procedures as an actual flight tank, says Whipps.
“We just completed the liquid hydrogen qualification tank article and lifted it out of the welding machine and put it into some cradles. We will put it into a newly designed straddle carrier article next week to transport it around safely and reliably for further work.”
And welding of the liquid hydrogen flight tank is moving along well.
"We will be complete with all SLS core stage flight tank welding in the VAC by the end of September,” added Jackie Nesselroad, SLS Boeing manager at Michoud. “It’s coming up very quickly!”
“The welding of the forward dome to barrel 1 on the liquid hydrogen flight tank is complete. And we are doing phased array ultrasonic testing right now!"
SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen and one day soon will propel NASA astronauts in the agency’s Orion crew capsule on exciting missions of exploration to deep space destinations including the Moon, Asteroids and Mars - venturing further out than humans ever have before!
The LH2 ‘qualification test article’ was welded together using the world’s largest welder - known as the Vertical Assembly Center, or VAC, at Michoud.
And it’s a giant! - measuring approximately 130-feet in length and 27.6 feet (8.4 m) in diameter.
See my exclusive up close photos herein documenting the newly completed tank as the first media to visit the first SLS tank. I saw the big tank shortly after it was carefully lifted out of the welder and placed horizontally on a storage cradle on Michoud’s factory floor.
Finishing its assembly after years of meticulous planning and hard work paves the path to enabling the maiden test launch of the SLS heavy lifter in the fall of 2018 from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
The qual test article is the immediate precursor to the actual first LH2 flight tank now being welded.
"We will finish welding the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen flight tanks by September,” Whipps told Universe Today.
Technicians assembled the LH2 tank by feeding the individual metallic components into NASA’s gigantic “Welding Wonder” machine - as its affectionately known - at Michoud, thus creating a rigid 13 story tall structure.
The welding work was just completed this past week on the massive silver colored structure. It was removed from the VAC welder and placed horizontally on a cradle.
I watched along as the team was also already hard at work fabricating SLS’s first liquid hydrogen flight article tank in the VAC, right beside the qualification tank resting on the floor.
Welding of the other big fuel tank, the liquid oxygen (LOX) qualification and flight article tanks will follow quickly inside the impressive ‘Welding Wonder’ machine, Nesselroad explained.
The LH2 and LOX tanks sit on top of one another inside the SLS outer skin.
The SLS core stage - or first stage - is mostly comprised of the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen cryogenic fuel storage tanks which store the rocket propellants at super chilled temperatures. Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage.
To prove that the new welding machines would work as designed, NASA opted “for a 3 stage assembly philosophy,” Whipps explained.
Engineers first “welded confidence articles for each of the tank sections” to prove out the welding techniques “and establish a learning curve for the team and test out the software and new weld tools. We learned a lot from the weld confidence articles!”
“On the heels of that followed the qualification weld articles” for tank loads testing.
“The qualification articles are as ‘flight-like’ as we can get them! With the expectation that there are still some tweaks coming.”
“And finally that leads into our flight hardware production welding and manufacturing the actual flight unit tanks for launches.”
“All the confidence articles and the LH2 qualification article are complete!”
What’s the next step for the LH2 tank?
The test article tank will be outfitted with special sensors and simulators attached to each end to record reams of important engineering data, thereby extending it to about 185 feet in length.
Thereafter it will loaded onto the Pegasus barge and shipped to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for structural loads testing on one of two new test stands currently under construction for the tanks. The tests are done to prove that the tanks can withstand the extreme stresses of spaceflight and safely carry our astronauts to space.
“We are manufacturing the simulators for each of the SLS elements now for destructive tests - for shipment to Marshall. It will test all the stress modes, and finally to failure to see the process margins.”
The SLS core stage builds on heritage from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program and is based on the shuttle’s External Tank (ET). All 135 ET flight units were built at Michoud during the thirty year long shuttle program by Lockheed Martin.
“We saved billions of dollars and years of development effort vs. starting from a clean sheet of paper design, by taking aspects of the shuttle … and created an External Tank type generic structure - with the forward avionics on top and the complex engine section with 4 engines (vs. 3 for shuttle) on the bottom,” Whipps elaborated.
“This is truly an engineering marvel like the External Tank was - with its strength that it had and carrying the weight that it did. If you made our ET the equivalent of a Coke can, our thickness was about 1/5 of a coke can.”
“It’s a tremendous engineering job. But the ullage pressures in the LOX and LH2 tanks are significantly more and the systems running down the side of the SLS tank are much more sophisticated. Its all significantly more complex with the feed lines than what we did for the ET. But we brought forward the aspects and designs that let us save time and money and we knew were effective and reliable.”
The SLS core stage is comprised of five major structures: the forward skirt, the liquid oxygen tank (LOX), the intertank, the liquid hydrogen tank (LH2) and the engine section.
The LH2 and LOX tanks feed the cryogenic propellants into the first stage engine propulsion section which is powered by a quartet of RS-25 engines - modified space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) - and a pair of enhanced five segment solid rocket boosters (SRBs) also derived from the shuttles four segment boosters.
The tanks are assembled by joining previously manufactured dome, ring and barrel components together in the Vertical Assembly Center by a process known as friction stir welding. The rings connect and provide stiffness between the domes and barrels.
The LH2 tank is the largest major part of the SLS core stage. It holds 537,000 gallons of super chilled liquid hydrogen. It is comprised of 5 barrels, 2 domes, and 2 rings.
The LOX tank holds 196,000 pounds of liquid oxygen. It is assembled from 2 barrels, 2 domes, and 2 rings and measures over 50 feet long.
The material of construction of the tanks has changed compared to the ET.
“The tanks are constructed of a material called the Aluminum 2219 alloy,” said Whipps. “It’s a ubiquosly used aerospace alloy with some copper but no lithium, unlike the shuttle superlightweight ET tanks that used Aluminum 2195. The 2219 has been a success story for the welding. This alloy is heavier but does not affect our payload potential.”
“The intertanks are the only non welded structure. They are bolted together and we are manufacturing them also. It’s much heavier and thicker.”
Overall, the SLS core stage towers over 212 feet (64.6 meters) tall and sports a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 m).
NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Center is the world’s largest robotic weld tool. The domes and barrels are assembled from smaller panels and piece parts using other dedicated robotic welding machines at Michoud.
The total weight of the whole core stage empty is 188,000 pounds and 2.3 million pounds when fully loaded with propellant. The empty ET weighed some 55,000 pounds.
Considering that the entire Shuttle ET was 154-feet long, the 130-foot long LH2 tank alone isn’t much smaller and gives perspective on just how big it really is as the largest rocket fuel tank ever built.
“So far all the parts of the SLS rocket are coming along well.”
“The Michoud SLS workforce totals about 1000 to 1500 people between NASA and the contractors.”
Every fuel tank welded together from now on after this series of confidence and qualification LOX and LH2 tanks will be actual flight article tanks for SLS launches.
“There are no plans to weld another qualification tank after this,” Nesselroad confirmed to me.
What’s ahead for the SLS-2 core stage?
“We start building the second SLS flight tanks in October of this year - 2016!” Nesselroad stated.
The world’s largest welder was specifically designed to manufacture the core stage of the world’s most powerful rocket - NASA's SLS.
The Vertical Assembly Center welder was officially opened for business at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was personally on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the base of the huge VAC welder.
The state-of-the-art welding giant stands 170 feet tall and 78 feet wide. It complements the world-class welding toolkit being used to assemble various pieces of the SLS core stage including the domes, rings and barrels that have been previously manufactured.
The maiden test flight of the SLS/Orion is targeted for no later than November 2018 and will be configured in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds - more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket.
Although the SLS-1 flight in 2018 will be uncrewed, NASA plans to launch astronauts on the SLS-2/EM-2 mission slated for the 2021 to 2023 timeframe.
The exact launch dates fully depend on the budget NASA receives from Congress and who is elected President in the November 2016 election - and whether they maintain or modify NASA’s objectives.
“If we can keep our focus and keep delivering, and deliver to the schedules, the budgets and the promise of what we’ve got, I think we’ve got a very capable vision that actually moves the nation very far forward in moving human presence into space,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, during the post QM-2 SRB test media briefing in Utah last month.
“This is a very capable system. It’s not built for just one or two flights. It is actually built for multiple decades of use that will enable us to eventually allow humans to go to Mars in the 2030s.”
Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about SLS and Orion crew vehicle, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Juno at Jupiter, Orbital ATK Antares & Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:
July 27-28: “ULA Atlas V NRO Spysat launch July 28, SpaceX launch to ISS on CRS-9, SLS, Orion, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy NRO spy satellite, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings
When Hubble first observed the atmospheric conditions of an extrasolar planet in 2000, it opened up that entire field of study. Now, Hubble has conducted the first preliminary study of the atmospheres of Earth-sized, relatively nearby worlds and found “indications that increase the chances of habitability on two exoplanets,” say the researchers.
The planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, were discovered earlier this year and are approximately 40 light-years away. At the time of their discovery, it was unknown if the worlds were gas planets or rocky worlds, but Hubble’s most recent observations suggest that both planets have compact atmospheres, similar to those of rocky planets such as Earth, Venus, and Mars instead of thick, puffy atmospheres, similar to that of the gas planets like Jupiter.
“Now we can say that these planets are rocky. Now the question is, what kind of atmosphere do they have?” said Julien de Wit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led a team of scientists to observe the planets in near-infrared light using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. “The plausible scenarios include something like Venus, with high, thick clouds and an atmosphere dominated by carbon dioxide, or an Earth-like atmosphere dominated by nitrogen and oxygen, or even something like Mars with a depleted atmosphere. The next step is to try to disentangle all these possible scenarios that exist for these terrestrial planets.”
The exoplanets were originally discovered by the TRAPPIST telescope at ESO’s La Silla observatory in Chile, which, like the Kepler telescope, looks for planetary transits (TRAPPIST stands for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) observing dips in a star’s light from planets passing in front of it from Earth’s point of view.
The star, TRAPPIST-1, is an ultracool dwarf star and is very small and dim. TRAPPIST-1b completes an orbit around the star in just 1.5 days and TRAPPIST-1c in 2.4 days, and the planets are between 20 and 100 times closer to their star than the Earth is to the sun. Both are tidally locked, where one side of these worlds might be hellish and uninhabitable, but conditions might permit a limited region of habitability on the other side. And because of the star’s faintness, researchers think that TRAPPIST-1c may be within the star’s habitable zone, where moderate temperatures could allow for liquid water to pool.
“A rocky surface is a great start for a habitable planet, but any life on the TRAPPIST-1 planets is likely to have a much harder time than life on Earth,” said Joanna Barstow, an astrophysicist at University College London, who was not involved with the research. “Of course, our ideas of habitability are very narrow because we only have one planet to look at so far, and life might well surprise us by flourishing in what we think of as unlikely conditions.”
The researchers used spectroscopy to decode the light and reveal clues to the chemical makeup of the planets’ atmospheres. While the content of the atmospheres is unknown and are scheduled for more observations, the low concentration of hydrogen and helium has scientists excited about the implications.
The team realized a rare double transit was going to take place, when the two planets would almost simultaneously pass in front of their star, but they only knew two weeks in advance. They took a chance, and taking advantage of Hubble’s ability to do observations on short notice, they wrote up a proposal in a day.
“We thought, maybe we could see if people at Hubble would give us time to do this observation, so we wrote the proposal in less than 24 hours, sent it out, and it was reviewed immediately,” de Wit said. “Now for the first time we have spectroscopic observations of a double transit, which allows us to get insight on the atmosphere of both planets at the same time.”
Using Hubble, the team recorded a combined transmission spectrum of TRAPPIST-1b and c, meaning that as first one planet then the other crossed in front of the star, they were able to measure the changes in wavelength as the amount of starlight dipped with each transit.
“The data turned out to be pristine, absolutely perfect, and the observations were the best that we could have expected,” de Wit says. “The force was certainly with us.”
“These initial Hubble observations are a promising first step in learning more about these nearby worlds, whether they could be rocky like Earth, and whether they could sustain life,” says Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is an exciting time for NASA and exoplanet research.”
The asteroid that punched an “eye” in the Moon is about 10 times more massive than originally thought. Researchers say a protoplanet-sized body slammed into the Moon about 3.8 billion years ago, creating the area called Imbrium Basin that forms the right eye of the so-called “Man in the Moon.” Additionally, this large body also indicates that protoplanet-sized asteroids may have been common in the early solar system, putting the “heavy” into the Late Heavy Bombardment.
“We show that Imbrium was likely formed by an absolutely enormous object, large enough to be classified as a protoplanet,” said Pete Schultz from Brown University. “This is the first estimate for the Imbrium impactor’s size that is based largely on the geological features we see on the Moon.”
The Imbrium Basin is easily seen when the Moon is full, as a dark patch in the Moon’s northwestern quadrant. It is about 750 miles across, and a closer look shows the basin is surrounded by grooves and gashes that radiate out from the center of the basin, plus a second set of grooves with a different alignment that have puzzled astronomers for decades.
To re-enact the impact, Schultz used the Vertical Gun Range at the NASA Ames Research Center to conduct hypervelocity impact experiments. This facility has a 14-foot cannon that fires small projectiles at up to 25,750 km/hr (16,000 miles per hour), and high-speed cameras record the ballistic dynamics. During his experiments, Schultz noticed that in addition to the usual crater ejecta from the impact, the impactors themselves – if large enough -- had a tendency to break apart when they first made contact with the surface. Then these chunks would continue to travel at a high speeds, skimming along and plowing across the surface, creating grooves and gouges.
The results showed the second set of grooves were likely formed by these large chunks of the impactor that sheared off on initial contact with the surface.
“The key point is that the grooves made by these chunks aren’t radial to the crater,” Schultz said in a press release. “They come from the region of first contact. We see the same thing in our experiments that we see on the Moon — grooves pointing up-range, rather than the crater.”
The second set of groove trajectories could be used to estimate the impactor’s size. Schultz worked with David Crawford of the Sandia National Laboratories to generate computer models of the physics of various sizes of impactors, and they were able to estimate the impactor that created Imbrium Basin to be more than 250 km (150 miles) across, which is two times larger in diameter and 10 times more massive than previous estimates. This puts the impactor in the range of being the size of a protoplanet.
“That’s actually a low-end estimate,” Schultz said. “It’s possible that it could have been as large as 300 kilometers.”
Previous estimates, Schultz said, were based solely on computer models and yielded a size estimate of only about 50 miles in diameter.
Schultz and his colleagues also used the same methods to estimate the sizes of impactors related to several other basins on the Moon, for example, the Moscoviense and Orientale basins on the Moon’s far side, which yielded impactor sizes of 100 and 110 kilometers across respectively, larger than some previous estimates.
Combining these new estimates with the fact that there are even larger impact basins on the Moon and other planets, Schultz concluded that protoplanet-sized asteroids may have been common in the early solar system, and he called them the “lost giants” of the Late Heavy Bombardment, a period of intense comet and asteroid bombardment thought to have pummeled the Moon and all the planets including the Earth about 4 to 3.8 billion years ago.
“The Moon still holds clues that can affect our interpretation of the entire solar system,” he said. “Its scarred face can tell us quite a lot about what was happening in our neighborhood 3.8 billion years ago.”
For decades, Canada has made significant contributions to the field of space exploration. These include the development of sophisticated robotics, optics, participation in important research, and sending astronauts into space as part of NASA missions. And who can forget Chris Hadfield, Mr. "Space Oddity" himself? In addition to being the first Canadian to command the ISS, he is also known worldwide as the man who made space exploration fun and accessible through social media.
And in recent statement, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has announced that it is looking for new recruits to become the next generation of Canadian astronauts. With two positions available, they are looking for applicants who embody the best qualities of astronauts, which includes a background in science and technology, exceptional physical fitness, and a desire to advance the cause of space exploration.
Over the course of the past few decades, the Canadian Space Agency has established a reputation for the development of space-related technologies. In 1962, Canada deployed the Alouette satellite, which made it the third nation - after the US and USSR - to design and build its own artificial Earth satellite. And in 1972, Canada became the first country to deploy a domestic communications satellite, known as Anik 1 A1.
Perhaps the best-known example of Canada's achievements comes in the field of robotics, and goes by the name of the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (aka. "the Canadarm"). This robotic arm was introduced in 1981, and quickly became a regular feature within the Space Shuttle Program.
"Canadarm is the best-known example of the key role of Canada’s space exploration program," said Maya Eyssen, a spokeperson for the CSA, via email. "Our robotic contribution to the shuttle program secured a mission spot for our nation’s first astronaut to fly to space –Marc Garneau. It also paved the way for Canada’s participation in the International Space Station."
It's successor, the Canadarm2, was mounted on the International Space Station in 2001, and has since been augmented with the addition of the Dextre robotic hand - also of Canadian design and manufacture. This arm, like its predecessor, has become a mainstay of operations aboard the ISS.
"Over the past 15 years, Canadarm2 has played a critical role in assembling and maintaining the Station," said Eyssen. "It was used on almost every Station assembly mission. Canadarm2 and Dextre are used to capture commercial space ships, unload their cargo and operate with millimeter precision in space. They are both featured on our $5 bank notes. The technology behind these robots also benefits those on earth through technological spin-offs used for neurosurgery, pediatric surgery and breast-cancer detection."
In terms of optics, the CSA is renowned for the creation of the Advanced Space Vision System (SVS) used aboard the ISS. This computer-vision system uses regular 2D cameras located in the Space Shuttle Bay, on the Canadarm, or on the hull of the ISS itself - along with cooperative targets - to calculate the 3D position of objects around of the station.
But arguably, Canada's most enduring contribution to space exploration have come in the form of its astronauts. Long before Hadfield was garnering attention with his rousing rendition of David Bowie's "Space Oddity", or performing "Is Someone Singing (ISS)" with The Barenaked Ladies and The Wexford Gleeks choir (via a video connection from the ISS), Canadians were venturing into space as part of several NASA missions.
Consider Marc Garneau, a retired military officer and engineer who became the first Canadian astronaut to go into space, taking part in three flights aboard NASA Space shuttles in 1984, 1996 and 2000. Garneau also served as the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2006 before retiring for active service and beginning a career in politics.
And how about Roberta Bondar? As Canada's first female astronaut, she had the additional honor of designated as the Payload Specialist for the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission (IML-1) in 1992. Bondar also flew on the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery during Mission STS-42 in 1992, during which she performed experiments in the Spacelab.
And then there's Robert Thirsk, an engineer and physician who holds the Canadian records for the longest space flight (187 days 20 hours) and the most time spent in space (204 days 18 hours). All three individuals embodied the unique combination of academic proficiency, advanced training, personal achievement, and dedication that make up an astronaut.
And just like Hadfield, Bonard, Garneau and Thirsk have all retired on gone on to have distinguished careers as chancellors of academic institutions, politicians, philanthropists, noted authors and keynote speakers. All told, eight Canadians astronauts have taken part in sixteen space missions and been deeply involved in research and experiments conducted aboard the ISS.
Alas, every generation has to retire sooner or later. And having made their contributions and moved onto other paths, the CSA is looking for two particularly bright, young, highly-motivated and highly-skilled people to step up and take their place.
The recruitment campaign was announced this past Sunday, July 17th, by the Honourable Navdeep Bains - the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Those who are selected will be based at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will provide support for space missions in progress, and prepare for future missions.
Canadian astronauts also periodically return to Canada to participate in various activities and encourage young Canadians to pursue an education in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As Eyssen explained, the goals of the recruitment drive is to maintain the best traditions of the Canadian space program as we move into the 21st century:
"The recruitment of new astronauts will allow Canada to maintain a robust astronaut corps and be ready to play a meaningful role in future human exploration initiatives. Canada is currently entitled to two long-duration astronaut flights to the ISS between now and 2024. The first one, scheduled for November 2018, will see David Saint-Jacqueslaunch to space for a six-month mission aboard the ISS. The second flight will launch before 2024. As nations work together to chart the next major international space exploration missions, our continued role in the ISS will ensure that Canada is well-positioned to be a trusted partner in humanity’s next steps in space.
"Canada is seeking astronauts to advance critical science and research aboard the International Space Station and pave the way for human missions beyond the Station. Our international partners are exploring options beyond the ISS. This new generation of astronauts will be part of Canada’s next chapter of space exploration. That may include future deep-space exploration missions."
The recruitment drive will be open from June 17th to August 15th, 2016, and the selected candidates are expected to be announced by next summer. This next class of Canadian astronaut candidates will start their training in August 2017 at the Johnson Space Center. The details can be found at the Canadian Space Agency's website, and all potential applicants are advised to read the campaign information kit before applying.
Alongside their efforts to find the next generation of astronauts, the Canadian government's 2016 annual budget has also provided the CSA with up to $379 million dollars over the next eight years to extend Canada's participation in the International Space Station on through to 2024. Gotta' keep reaching for those stars, eh?
Since 2000, Elon Musk been moving forward with his vision of a fleet of reusable rockets, ones that will restore domestic launch capability to the US and drastically reduce the cost of space launches. The largest rocket in this fleet is the Falcon Heavy, a variant of the Falcon 9 that uses the same rocket core, with two additional boosters that derived from the Falcon 9 first stage. When it lifts off later this year, it will be the most operational powerful rocket in the world.
More than that, SpaceX intends to make all three components of the rocket fully recoverable. This in turn will mean mean that the company is going to need some additional landing pads to recover them all. As such, the company recently announced that it is seeking federal permission to create second and third landing zones for their incoming rockets on Florida's Space Coast.
The announcement came on Monday, July 18th, during a press conference at their facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. As they were quoted as saying by the Orlando Sentinel:
“SpaceX expects to fly Falcon Heavy for the first time later this year. We are also seeking regulatory approval to build two additional landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We hope to recover all three Falcon Heavy rockets, though initially we may attempt drone ship landings [at sea].”
At present, SpaceX relies on both drone ships and their landing site at Cape Canaveral to recover rocket boosters after they return to Earth. Which option they have used depended on how high and how far downrange the rockets traveled. But with this latest announcement, they are seeking to recover all three boosters used in a single Falcon Heavy launch, which could prove to be essential down the road.
Since December, SpaceX has managed to successfully recover five Falcon 9 rockets, both at sea and on land. In fact, the announcement of their intentions to expand their landing facilities on Monday came shortly after a spent Falcon 9 returned to the company's landing site, shortly after deploying over 2268 kg (5000 lbs) of cargo into space during a nighttime launch.
But the planned launch of the Falcon Heavy - Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 1, which is scheduled to take place this coming December - is expected to break new ground. For one, it will give the private aerospace company the ability to lift over 54 metric tons (119,000 lbs) into orbit, more the twice the payload of a Delta IV Heavy - the highest capacity rocket in service at the moment.
Foremost among these are Elon Musk's plans to colonize Mars. These efforts will begin in April or May of 2018 with the launch of the Dragon 2capsule (known as the "Red Dragon") using a Falcon Heavy. As part of an agreement with NASA to gain more information on Mars landings, the Red Dragon will send a payload to Mars that has yet to be specified.
Beyond that, the details are a bit sketchy; but Musk has indicated that he is committed to mounting a crewed mission to Mars by 2024. And if all goes well with Demo Flight 1, SpaceX expects to follow it up with Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 2 in March of 2017. This launch will see the Falcon Heavy being tested as part of the U.S. Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) certification process.
The rocket will also be carrying some important payloads, such as The Planetary Society's LightSail 2. This 32 square-meter (344 square-foot) craft, which consists of four ultra-thin Mylar sails, will pick up where its predecessor (the LightSail 1, which was deployed in June 2015) left off - demonstrating the viability of solar sail spacecraft.
The Falcon Heavy boasts three Falcon 9 engine cores, each of which is made up of 9 Merlin rocket engines. Together, these engines generate more than 2.27 million kg (5 million pounds) of thrust at liftoff, which is the equivalent of approximately eighteen 747 aircraft. Its lift capacity is also equivalent to the weight of a fully loaded 737 jetliner, complete with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel.
The Saturn V rocket - the workhorse of the Apollo Program, and which made its last flight in 1973 - is only American rocket able to deliver more payload into orbit. This is not surprising, seeing as how the Falcon Heavy was specifically designed for a new era of space exploration, one that will see humans return to the Moon, go to Mars, and eventually explore the outer Solar System.
Fingers crossed that everything works out and the Falcon Heavy proves equal to the enterprise. The year of 2024 is coming fast and many of us are eager to see boots being put to red soil! And be sure to enjoy this animation of the Falcon Heavy in flight:
Jupiter’s iconic Great Red Spot is a huge cyclonic storm big enough to swallow the Earth. But it’s been getting smaller over time, while other storms have been growing. What does the future hold for this Jupiterricane?
Thinking of taking a vacation this summer? Maybe you want to distract yourself with a bit of light science fiction fun. How about a deadly alien life form harbored within our solar system? That's what Nick Kanas presents in his scientific novel "The Caloris Network." Being placed not too far into the future, this novel lets the reader enjoy a believable taste of first contact that's hopefully just as good as the contact from their first summer kiss.
A pleasant novel has an intriguing plot that's embellished with the interaction of fun characters. Sometimes it will also carry a somber undertone ringing in the background. So unravels the novel "Caloris Network." The main character, Sam, is an astrobiologist fresh from looking at multicellular life on Europa. At home, her family suffers serious health concerns but she's continuing with her efforts. Her research takes her to Mercury where something is raising the concern of the spacefaring military. Her fellow crew members involve a possible Martian secessionist, a cranky commander and a love triangle. All this is pretty typical fare.
Next up you may think there'd be the traditional English speaking alien biped threatening the very existence of the human race. But not this time. Instead Kanas identifies the protagonist as a silicate based lifeform on Mercury. No legs for walking and no lips for speaking. Further, this is the proverbial first contact between the human race and a living, thinking organism from another world. Will it be confrontational? As usual. Will it involve death rays? Kind of. Will it force the reader to ponder how to interact for the first time with an alien? Certainly! This is the best part of the book in that it places the reader not so far into the future so as to make the story readily believable. Being barely over a hundred years away, the reader can connect with the technological advances for an expedition on Mercury, for living on Mars and for the poor environmental state of Earth. With the simple lives of the expedition's crew, the constrained space travel and the understated alien, Kanas has written a novel that would be fun for that long car ride or a day on the beach.
As a bonus, the author includes a chapter at the end of the book that discusses some of the science presented. It has details on what we've discovered of Mercury, particularly with regard to what a human visitor might encounter if standing on its surface; the temperature from searing heat to mind numbing cold, a Sun that changes direction in the sky and effects of a molten interior.
For even more fun when you're at the beach, there's an inclusion of how to define life. For instance, "Does it need to move?" "What do we mean by reproduction?" "How do we test for the ability to think?" and most entertaining of all, "How do we communicate with it when we can't even communicate with dolphins yet?" These and other ideas in the novel may keep you up late discussing our very existence while watching the embers of the cottage campfire settle to a deep dark red.
Certainly something on Europa, Titan and Venus awaits people. Maybe it's alien life. Maybe the life prefers to exist without humans coming to explore. Maybe they will be exactly as what Nick Kanas writes in his scientific novel "The Caloris Network". With your imagination, take this novel's plot as believable and see where it takes you. And maybe by reading this on your vacation, you may think that you've waited long enough and it's time to go find out.
July 20. Sound like a familiar date? If you guessed that's when we first set foot on the Moon 47 years ago, way to go! But it's also the 40th anniversary of Viking 1 lander, the first American probe to successfully land on Mars.
The Russians got there first on December 2, 1971 when their Mars 3 probe touched down in the Mare Sirenum region. But transmissions stopped just 14.5 seconds later, only enough time for the crippled lander to send a partial and garbled photo that unfortunately showed no identifiable features.
Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976 in Chryse Planitia, a smooth, circular plain in Mars' northern equatorial region and operated for six years, far beyond the original 90 day mission. Its twin, Viking 2, landed about 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away in the vast northern plain called Utopia Planitia several weeks later on September 3. Both were packaged inside orbiters that took pictures of the landing sites before dispatching the probes.
Viking 1 was originally slated to land on July 4th to commemorate the 200th year of the founding of the United States. Some of you may remember the bicentennial celebrations underway at the time. Earlier photos taken by Mariner 9helped mission controllers pick what they thought was a safe landing site, but when the Viking 1 orbiter arrived and took a closer look, NASA deemed it too bouldery for a safe landing, so they delayed the the probe's arrival until a safer site could be chosen. Hence the July 20th touchdown date.
My recollection at the time was that that particular date was picked to coincide with the first lunar landing.
I'll never forget the first photo transmitted from the surface. I had started working at the News Gazette in Champaign, Ill. earlier that year in the photo department. On July 20 I joined the wire editor, a kindly. older gent named Raleigh, at the AP Photofax machine and watched the black and white image creep line-by-line from the machine. Still damp with ink, I lifted the sodden sheet into my hands, totally absorbed. Two things stood out: how incredibly sharp the picture was and ALL THOSE ROCKS! Mars looked so different from the Moon.
One day later, Viking 1 returned the first color photo from the surface and continued to operate, taking photos and doing science for 2,307 days until November 11, 1982, a record not broken until May 2010 by NASA's Opportunity rover. It would have continued humming along for who knows how much longer were it not for a faulty command sent by mission control that resulted in a permanent loss of contact.
Viking 2 soldiered on until its batteries failed on April 11, 1980. Both landers characterized the Martian weather and radiation environment, scooped up soil samples and measured their elemental composition and send back lots of photos including the first Martian panoramas.
Each lander carried three instruments designed to look for chemical or biological signs of living or once-living organisms. Soil samples scooped up by the landers' sample arms were delivered to three experiments in hopes of detecting organic compounds and gases either consumed or released by potential microbes when they were treated with nutrient solutions. The results from both landers were similar: neither suite of experiments found any organic (carbon-containing) compounds nor any definitive signs of Mars bugs.
Not that there wasn't some excitement. The Labeled Release experiment (LC) actually did give positive results. A nutrient solution was added to a sample of Martian soil. If it contained microbes, they would take in the nutrients and release gases. Great gobs of gas were quickly released! As if the putative Martian microbes only needed a jigger of NASA's chicken soup to find their strength. But the complete absence of organics in the soil made scientists doubtful that life was the cause. Instead it was thought that some inorganic chemical reaction must be behind the release. Negative results from the other two experiments reinforced their pessimism.
Fast forward to 2008 when the Phoenix lander detected strongly oxidizing perchlorates originating from the interaction of strong ultraviolet light from the Sun with soils on the planet's surface. Since Mars lacks an ozone layer, perchlorates may not only be common but also responsible for destroying much of Mars' erstwhile organic bounty. Other scientists have reexamined the Viking LC data in recent years and concluded just the opposite, that the gas release points to life.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggjD3i7efKU A fun, "period" movie about the Viking Mission to Mars
Seems to me it's high time we should send a new suite of experiments designed to find life. Then again, maybe we won't have to. The Mars 202o Mission will cache Martian rocks for later pickup, so we can bring pieces of Mars back to Earth and perform experiments to our heart's content.
Looking for a way to commemorate the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the Moon? Here are a few different ways look back on this historic event and take advantage of advances in technology or new data.
Below is a video that uses data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its amazing suite of cameras, offering a side-by-side view of Apollo 11's descent, comparing footage originally shot from the Eagle lunar module's window with views created from reconstructed LRO imagery. This is a fun way to re-live the landing -- 1202 alarms and all -- while seeing high definition views of the lunar surface.
The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC has a special way to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary. They have posted online high-resolution 3-D scans of the command moduleColumbia, the spacecraft that carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. This very detailed model allows you to explore the entire spacecraft's interior, which, if you've ever visited the Air & Space museum and seen Columbia in person, you probably know is a tremendous 'upgrade,' since you can only see a portion of the interior through couple of small hatches and windows. The Smithsonian is also making the data files of the model available for download so it can be 3-D printed or viewed with virtual-reality goggles. Find all the details here.
Here's a remastered version of the original mission video as aired in July 1969 depicting the Apollo 11 astronauts conducting several tasks during the moonwalk (EVA) operations on the surface of the moon, which lasted approximately 2.5 hours.
If you're pressed for time, here's a quick look at the entire Apollo 11 mission, all in just 100 seconds from Spacecraft Films:
Here's a very cool detailed look at the Apollo 11 launch in ultra-slow motion, with narration:
“Good capture confirmed after a two day rendezvous,” said Houston Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, as Dragon was approximately 30 feet (10 meters) away from the station.
“We’ve captured us a Dragon,” radioed Williams.
“Congratulations to the entire team that put this thing together, launched it, and successfully rendezvoused it to the International Space Station. We look forward to the work that it brings.”
The events unfolded live on a NASA TV webcast for all to follow along.
Furthermore, today’s dramatic Dragon arrival coincides with a renowned day in the annuls of space history. Today coincides with the 40th anniversary of humanity’s first successful touchdown on the surface of Mars by NASA’s Viking 1 lander on July 20, 1976. It paved the way for many future missions.
And Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to land on another celestial body - the Moon - on July 20, 1969 during NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.
Williams was working from a robotics work station in the station’s domed cupola. Rubins was Williams backup. She just arrived at the station on July 9 for a minimum 4 month stay, after launching to orbit on a Russian Soyuz on July 6 with two additional crew mates.
Ground controllers then used the robotic arm to maneuver the Dragon cargo spacecraft closer to its berthing port on the Earth facing side of the Harmony module, located at the front of the station.
Some three hours after the successful grappling, Dragon was joined to the station and bolted into place for initial berthing on the Harmony module at 10:03 a.m. EDT as the station flew about 252 statute miles over the California and Oregon border.
Controllers then activated four gangs of four bolts in the common berthing mechanism (CBM) to complete the second stage capture of the latching and berthing of Dragon to the station with a total of 16 bolts to ensure a snug connection, safety and no pressure leaks.
Crew members Williams and Rubins along with Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi are now working to install power and data cables from the station to Dragon. They plan to open the hatch tomorrow after pressurizing the vestibule in the forward bulkhead between the station and Dragon.
Dragon reached the station after a carefully choreographed orbital chase and series of multiple thruster firings to propel the cargo ship from its preliminary post launch orbit up to the massive million pound science outpost with six resident crew members from the US, Russia and Japan.
Among the 5000 pounds of equipment on board is the first of two identical docking adapters essential for enabling station dockings next year by NASA’s new commercial astronaut taxis. This mission is all about supporting NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ by humans in the 2030s.
Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in its upgraded, full thrust version and the Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship took place barely 48 hours ago at 12:45 a.m. EDT Monday, July 18, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Dragon reached its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after launch and then deployed a pair of solar arrays.
SpaceX also successfully executed a spellbinding ground landing of the Falcon 9 first stage back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1, located a few miles south of launch pad 40.
The dramatic ground landing of the 156 foot tall Falcon 9 first stage at LZ -1 took place about 9 minutes after liftoff. It marks only the second time a spent orbit class booster has touched down intact and upright on land.
Among the wealth of over 3900 pounds (1790 kg) of research investigations loaded on board Dragon is an off the shelf instrument designed to perform the first-ever DNA sequencing in space and the first international docking adapter (IDA) that is absolutely essential for docking of the SpaceX and Boeing built human spaceflight taxis that will ferry our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in some 18 months.
Other science experiments on board include OsteoOmics to test if magnetic levitation can accurately simulate microgravity to study different types of bone cells and contribute to treatments for diseases like osteoporosis, a Phase Change Heat Exchanger to test temperature control technology in space, the Heart Cells experiments that will culture heart cells on the station to study how microgravity changes the human heart, new and more efficient three-dimensional solar cells, and new marine vessel tracking hardware known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that will aid in locating and identifying commercial ships across the globe.
The ring shaped IDA-2 unit is stowed in the Dragon’s unpressurized truck section. It weighs 1029 lbs (467 kg), measures about 42 inches tall and sports an inside diameter of 63 inches in diameter - so astronauts and cargo can easily float through. The outer diameter measures about 94 inches.
“Outfitted with a host of sensors and systems, the adapter is built so spacecraft systems can automatically perform all the steps of rendezvous and dock with the station without input from the astronauts. Manual backup systems will be in place on the spacecraft to allow the crew to take over steering duties, if needed,” says NASA.
"It's a passive system which means it doesn’t take any action by the crew to allow docking to happen and I think that's really the key," said David Clemen Boeing's director of Development/Modifications for the space station.
“Spacecraft flying to the station will use the sensors on the IDA to track to and help the spacecraft's navigation system steer the spacecraft to a safe docking without astronaut involvement.”
CRS-9 counts as the company’s ninth scheduled flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the International Space Station (ISS).
The CRS-9 mission is for the crews of Expeditions 48 and 49 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.
Dragon will remain at the station until its scheduled departure on Aug. 29 when it will return critical science research back to Earth via a parachute assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.
Watch for Ken’s continuing CRS-9 mission coverage where he reported onsite direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.