Sunday, September 25, 2016

Mars or Bust

SpaceX has released an update on the September 1 anomaly that destroyed a fueling Falcon 9 and its satellite payload.

Three weeks ago, SpaceX experienced an anomaly at our Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This resulted in the loss of one of our Falcon 9 rockets and its payload.

The Accident Investigation Team (AIT), composed of SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts, are currently scouring through approximately 3,000 channels of engineering data along with video, audio and imagery. The timeline of the event is extremely short – from first signs of an anomaly to loss of data is about 93 milliseconds or less than 1/10th of a second. The majority of debris from the incident has been recovered, photographed, labeled and catalogued, and is now in a hangar for inspection and use during the investigation.

At this stage of the investigation, preliminary review of the data and debris suggests that a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place. [Updated 09/24: At this time, the cause of the potential breach remains unknown.] All plausible causes are being tracked in an extensive fault tree and carefully investigated. Through the fault tree and data review process, we have exonerated any connection with last year’s CRS-7 mishap.

The teams have continued inspections of LC-40 and the surrounding facilities. While substantial areas of the pad systems were affected, the Falcon Support Building adjacent to the pad was unaffected, and per standard procedure was unoccupied at the time of the anomaly. The new liquid oxygen farm — e.g. the tanks and plumbing that hold our super-chilled liquid oxygen — was unaffected and remains in good working order. The RP-1 (kerosene) fuel farm was also largely unaffected. The pad’s control systems are also in relatively good condition.

SpaceX’s other facilities, from the Payload Processing Facility at the Cape, to the pad and hangar at LC-39A, are located several miles from LC-40 and were unaffected as well. Work continues at Pad 39A in preparation for bringing it online in November. The teams have been in contact with our Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center partners and neighbors and have found no evidence of debris leaving the immediate area of LC-40.

At SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, our manufacturing and production is continuing in a methodical manner, with teams continuing to build engines, tanks, and other systems as they are exonerated from the investigation. We will work to resume our manifest as quickly as responsible once the cause of the anomaly has been identified by the Accident Investigation Team. Pending the results of the investigation, we anticipate returning to flight as early as the November timeframe.

Other efforts, including the Commercial Crew Program with NASA, are continuing to progress. Getting back to flight safely and reliably is our top priority, and the data gathered from the present investigation will result in an even safer and more reliable vehicle for our customers and partners.

Elsewhere on Planet Earth, SpaceX founder Elon Musk will deliver his long-awaited Mars colonization speech on September 27 at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. All IAC presentations will be webcast on Livestream at this link. His talk, titled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species,” is scheduled for 2:30 PM EDT. SpaceX will also webcast the presentation via YouTube at this link.

Space journalist Eric Berger wrote on September 22 about Musk's talk and its implications.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Blue Skies


An illustration comparing Blue Origin New Glenn launch vehicles to other rockets. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Blue Origin.

While rival SpaceX tries to figure why its Falcon 9 went kaboom during a tanking test, Blue Origin announced yesterday its first orbital launch vehicle that could provide SpaceX customers with a viable alternative.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos wrote in an email to the company's subscribers:

Building, flying, landing, and re-flying New Shepard has taught us so much about how to design for practical, operable reusability. And New Glenn incorporates all of those learnings.

Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, New Glenn is 23 feet in diameter and lifts off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines. Burning liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, these are the same BE-4 engines that will power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.

The 2-stage New Glenn is 270 feet tall, and its second stage is powered by a single vacuum-optimized BE-4 engine. The 3-stage New Glenn is 313 feet tall. A single vacuum-optimized BE-3 engine, burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, powers its third stage. The booster and the second stage are identical in both variants.

We plan to fly New Glenn for the first time before the end of this decade from historic Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. New Glenn is designed to launch commercial satellites and to fly humans into space. The 3-stage variant — with its high specific impulse hydrogen upper stage — is capable of flying demanding beyond-LEO missions.

Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step. It won’t be the last of course. Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that’s a story for the future.

Gradatim Ferociter!

The Orlando Sentinel reported on September 7 that, in addition to Space Launch Complex 36, Blue Origin also plans to use the adjacent SLC-11.

The plan was revealed in permit applications with the St. Johns River Water Management District, which oversees permitting on that land.

The permits hint at a plan to test rockets onsite while launching from the launch pad.

Nearly one year ago, Bezos announced that the company would launch rockets from SLC 36.

In the permit, the company said it would “contstruct and operate an orbital launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's (Space Launch Complex) 11 and SLC-36.”

In the permit application, the company also referenced its efforts to recover launched vehicles, which Blue Origin has done multiple times in west Texas.

“The existing launch complex will be updated to include infrastructure to test engines, integrate launch vehicles and launch orbital vehicles as well as support systems to recover and refurbish launch vehicles,” the permit read.


Launch pads on the tip of Cape Canaveral. Click the image to view at a larger size. Image source: Google Earth.

The Blue Origin pads are near the tip of the Cape, and some of the most historic launch sites in the history of the U.S. space program.

Pad 3 was used in July 1950 to launch the first Cape rockets. The Bumpers were modified V-2s. The adjacent Pad 4 was used in 1953-1954 for the first test launches of the Redstone booster, which were eventually used in 1961 at Launch Complex 5/6 to send the first two Americans into suborbital flight.

SLC-36 was built for the venerable Atlas-Centaur that launched many of the earliest probes to the Moon, Mercury, Venus and Mars, as well as commercial communications satellites. Its last launch was in February 2005.

SLC-11 was used for some of the earliest Atlas series uncrewed flights. Perhaps the most famous was the SCORE launch in December 1958. The U.S. Army's Signal Communication by Orbiting RElay satellite played a recording by President Eisenhower, broadcasting to the world a Christmas message by short wave radio.


December 18, 1958 ... An Atlas launches the Army's SCORE satellite. Video source: Jeff Quitney YouTube Channel.

Just north on ICBM Road, past SLC-12, is the SpaceX Landing Zone 1, formerly known as Space Launch Complex 13. Two of the six Falcon 9 landings have been at LZ-1, with the other four on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Blue Origin plans to land its New Glenn boosters too, both by land and by sea. In March 2014, Blue was awarded a patent for “sea landing of space launch vehicles”, but SpaceX filed an appeal. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in March 2015 largely agreed with SpaceX, and in August 2015 Blue cancelled its patent.

SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said today in Paris that SpaceX hopes to be launching off Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A by November, along with polar orbit missions at Vandenberg AFB in southern California. This assumes, of course, that SpaceX has determined a cause for the September 1 failure.

SpaceX also acknowledged that the first Falcon Heavy launch is delayed to at least the first quarter of 2017.

The 2004 presidential commission chaired by Chairman Pete Aldridge proposed “building a robust space industry” that was the first bureaucratic step towards today's NewSpace movement:

The Commission finds that sustaining the long-term exploration of the solar system requires a robust space industry that will contribute to national economic growth, produce new products through the creation of new knowledge, and lead the world in invention and innovation. This space industry will become a national treasure.

Twelve years later, the NewSpace Race is about to begin on the tip of the Cape, returning to where it all began sixty-six years ago.

Monday, September 12, 2016

What Is A Planet?


Astronomer Mike Brown lectures at the National Air and Space Museum, March 20, 2007. Video source: Smithsonian YouTube channel.

What is a planet?

That's the question Caltech astronomer Mike Brown posed to a friend in December 1999.

Seven years earlier, Massachusetts Institute of Technology astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu proved the existence of the Kuiper Belt, a vast population of small solar system bodies beyond Neptune.

After Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, many astronomers suspected more might lie beyond, but lacked the technology to explore further.

Pluto itself was a bit of an oddball. It was much smaller than the other planets. It's smaller than Earth's moon. Pluto's eccentric orbit takes it within the orbit of Neptune for twenty years of its 248-year orbit around the Sun; the last time was 1979-1999.

In his 2010 book How I Killed Pluto, and Why It Had It Coming, Brown argues that Pluto never should have been categorized as a planet in the first place.

The definition of a “planet” has changed over the centuries.

The word “planet” derives from the ancient Greeks, who described as “wandering stars” the lights in the night sky that were not fixed, but slowly moved over time. Our word “planets” is descended from the Greek phrase for wandering stars, asteres planetai.

In the 19th Century, as the tools used by astronomers matured, many new “planets” were discovered. Brown writes about the discoveries of Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta in the years 1801-1807. They too were described as “planets.” By 1851, fifteen more of these asteroid planets had been discovered, as well as Neptune. Brown has in his collection an 1896 Rand McNally Atlas solar system map that lists Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta as planets.

By the early 20th Century, common convention had dropped these as planets. The asteroids were no longer assumed to be “planets.” No international organization or body voted to change the definition. Popular opinion simply changed. An object no longer simply had to be a “wandering star” to be a planet. Size seemed to matter.

When Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, it was bigger than the known asteroids, but it was much smaller than the other planets and had an eccentric orbit. The Kuiper Belt would remain undiscovered for another seventy years, so Pluto could not be evaluated in its context. Pluto became the ninth planet, simply because no other term seemed to fit.

The International Astronomical Union was founded in 1919. According to its web site, “Its mission is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation.”

On the naming of astronomical objects, its web site states:

Celestial nomenclature has long been a controversial topic. At its inaugural meeting in 1922 in Rome, the IAU standardized the constellation names and abbreviations. More recently IAU Committees or Working Groups have certified the names of astronomical objects and features ...

The IAU has been the arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its inception in 1919. The various IAU Working Groups normally handle this process, and their decisions primarily affect the professional astronomers. But from time to time the IAU takes decisions and makes recommendations on issues concerning astronomical matters affecting other sciences or the public. Such decisions and recommendations are not enforceable by any national or international law; rather they establish conventions that are meant to help our understanding of astronomical objects and processes. Hence, IAU recommendations should rest on well-established scientific facts and have a broad consensus in the community concerned.

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt, and subsequent discoveries of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), is perhaps one of the most fundamental and revolutionary astronomical advances of our time.

Until a few years ago, we all thought that, beyond Neptune, it was only Pluto and then interstellar space.

According to David Jewitt's web site, “There are at least 70,000 "trans-Neptunians" with diameters larger than 100 km in the radial zone extending outwards from the orbit of Neptune (at 30 AU) to 50 AU.”

An astronomical unit (AU) is the distance from the Sun to Earth, about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers. Pluto's average distance from the Sun is about 40 AU.

KBOs have orbits of various eccentricities. Many of them have highly ellipitical orbits, influenced by the gravitational pull of large objects such as Neptune. Others seem to meander on their own.

In January 2005, Brown's Caltech team discovered a KBO that the IAU eventually approved naming Eris. It was 27% more massive than Pluto, although Pluto is slightly larger by volume. Eris' average distance from the Sun is about 68 AU; right now, it's about 97 AU from the Sun.

The discovery of Eris raised once again the question, “What is a planet?”

If only size matters, Eris is more massive than Pluto, so Eris must be a planet. But what about other KBOs that may be larger than Pluto?

Many of these objects don't sweep their orbit of debris. Many planets have craters on their surface, because their gravity attracted asteroids and other objects to impact. On Earth, most impacts have been erased over the eons by weather and seismic events. On planets with little or no atmosphere, the evidence is far more evident.

KBOs have impact craters, but lots of debris still barrel about their orbits. KBOs are so small, they have relatively little gravitational pull. They don't sweep their orbit like what we think of as planets. Their surfaces are rough and craggy, not relatively smooth and round like much larger celestial objects.

Taking all this into consideration, the IAU in August 2006 chose to define a planet. Planets and other bodies “except satellites” (i.e. moons) henceforth would be defined into one of three categories — planet, dwarf planet or small solar system body.

The difference between a planet and dwarf planet is that the latter “has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.”

What do they have in common?

Both orbit around the Sun, have sufficient mass for gravity to force the body into a round shape, and are not a satellite.

If an object doesn't fall into either category ... it's a “small solar system body.”

Eris and Pluto became dwarf planets, along with KBOs Haumea (discovered in December 2004) and Makemake (discovered in March 2005). Ceres, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is the fifth dwarf planet.

The objects in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt, if not falling into the other two categories, are small solar system bodies.

Clear as mud?

Let's muddy the astronomical waters even more.

In January 2016, Caltech researchers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin announced “evidence of a real ninth planet.” The press release stated:

Caltech researchers have found evidence of a giant planet tracing a bizarre, highly elongated orbit in the outer solar system. The object, which the researchers have nicknamed Planet Nine, has a mass about 10 times that of Earth and orbits about 20 times farther from the sun on average than does Neptune (which orbits the sun at an average distance of 2.8 billion miles). In fact, it would take this new planet between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make just one full orbit around the sun.

The researchers used mathematical models to infer the planet's existence, but it's so far away that it can't be observed directly. If it exists, it's about 700 AU from the Sun.


January 20, 2016 ... Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin discuss their findings of a possible distant solar system planet. Video source: Caltech YouTube channel.

Their work was published in the February 2016 edition of The Astronomical Journal. Click here to download a PDF of the report.

In May 2016, science journalist Bruce Dorminey suggested at Forbes.com that the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could be used to search for Planet Nine. Dorminey wrote:

“If a new planet is found, JWST will be able to fully characterize it,” Stefanie Milam, JWST deputy project scientist for planetary science at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told me. “Planet 9 is predicted to be fairly large but far, so most ground based facilities [would] barely be able to detect it.”

Milam says this would include being able to detect compounds like carbon dioxide in the putative planet’s tenuous, icy atmosphere.

According to NASA's JWST web site:

Webb can observe everything in our Solar System that is further from the Sun than the Earth is. Webb's sensitivity will be most useful in studying the faint rocky and icy objects in the far outer Solar System, including the dwarf planet Pluto and other Kuiper Belt Objects. Webb's studies of these objects will test theories of how the Solar System formed. Webb will also observe the moons of the gas giant planets, comets and asteroids and the planets Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The 20th Century saw humanity launch its first telescopes above the atmosphere.


The electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays. Click to view at a larger size. Image source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Hubble Space Telescope, deployed by the Space Shuttle in 1990, is the most famous but many preceded and followed. Space telescopes may be specialized to look at certain wavelengths within the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays. Humans see only visible light, but objects may be observed at other wavelengths. Planet Nine may be too far away to reflect visible light, but if it has any warmth JWST might be able to pick it up, because it's designed specifically to capture infrared light.

The 21st Century may reveal more planets, dwarf planets, small solar system bodies and other objects beyond the Kuiper Belt. If the century began with the question, “What is a planet?” it may end with the question, “Where does the solar system end?”

In 2013, NASA tried to answer this question when Voyager 1 entered interstellar space. The probe had moved beyond the Sun's bubble of electrically charged particles, called the heliosphere. Voyager 1 passed through the heliopause, the border where the bubble ends, and encountered interstellar wind.


A September 2013 NBC News illustration depicting a definition for the end of the solar system.

But Voyager 1 has yet to reach the Oort Cloud, a theoretical cloud of icy objects that are believed to be the source of comets and other debris that occasionally enter the solar system. The Oort Cloud is considered, for now, to be the outermost region of the solar system. The small solar system body, Sedna, discovered in 2003, may be the first object detected in the Oort Cloud. Sedna never enters the Kuiper Belt. It travels in a long elliptical orbit between 76 and 1,000 AU from the Sun.

The discovery of Sedna by the Caltech team led them to look for other objects with odd orbits. Their research resulted in the January 2016 paper suggesting the existence of Planet Nine.

The question “What is a planet” led Dr. Brown and the Caltech researchers beyond Pluto and beyond the Kuiper Belt. How much farther will they go?

Will “Where does the solar system end?” finally answer the question, “What is a planet?”


UPDATE September 15, 2016The Los Angeles Times published an interview yesterday with Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin about their upcoming search for Planet Nine.

What we have is a gravitational signature of the existence of this planet. This planet, just like every other major planet in the solar system, shepherds the small bodies that surround it. And the particular way in which the orbits of this debris are arranged can only be explained by existence of a planet. So it’s a little bit like being downtown and hearing an ambulance — you know it’s there, but you haven’t seen it yet. You even know the overall direction the sounds are coming from, but you haven’t seen what color the ambulance is.

In Pluto news, NASA announced yesterday the cause of a red splotch on Pluto's largest moon Charon.

... Charon’s polar coloring comes from Pluto itself — as methane gas that escapes from Pluto’s atmosphere and becomes “trapped” by the moon’s gravity and freezes to the cold, icy surface at Charon’s pole. This is followed by chemical processing by ultraviolet light from the sun that transforms the methane into heavier hydrocarbons and eventually into reddish organic materials called tholins.


A July 14, 2015 image of Charon taken by NASA's New Horizons probe. Click the image to view at a larger size.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Going Up, Part 11



Click an image to view it at a higher resolution. All images in this article are copyright © 2016 Stephen C. Smith. Use elsewhere is permitted if credit is given to SpaceKSC.com.

It's been about six months since my last photography run outside the perimeter of Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A, where SpaceX is remodelling the pad for its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.

Given the events of September 1, the status of the pad upgrade has a new urgency.

An update issued September 2 by SpaceX stated:

Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base is in the final stages of an operational upgrade and Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center remains on schedule to be operational in November. Both pads are capable of supporting Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs.

So it seems quite timely to do a photo update for you to observe the status for yourself.

Here are links to images in earlier articles:

Going Up, Part 1 (January 31, 2015)

Going Up, Part 2 (February 24, 2015)

Going Up, Part 3 (March 29, 2015)

Going Up, Part 4 (April 27, 2015)

Going Up, Part 5 (May 26, 2015)

Going Up, Part 6 (June 27, 2015)

Going Up, Part 7 (August 9, 2015)

Going Up, Part 8 (October 16, 2015)

Going Up, Part 9 (November 8, 2015)

Going Up, Part 10 (February 29, 2016)














Saturday, September 3, 2016

SpaceX Picks Up the Pieces


Click the arrow to watch WESH-TV Channel 2 Orlando's raw feed of the SpaceX fire. The audio is largely silent. Original video source: WESH-TV Facebook page.


Click the arrow to watch WFTV-TV Channel 9 Orlando's raw feed of the SpaceX fire. Audio commentary begins at the 6:40 minute mark. Original video source: WFTV-TV Facebook page.

The smoke and flame are gone at Cape Canaveral's Pad 40.

For SpaceX, the damage from its second accident in fourteen months will linger much longer.

SpaceX now has an official web page for updates. They refer to the incident as an “anomaly.”

This statement was issued yesterday at 6:45pm EDT:

SpaceX has begun the careful and deliberate process of understanding the causes and fixes for yesterday's incident. We will continue to provide regular updates on our progress and findings, to the fullest extent we can share publicly.

We deeply regret the loss of AMOS-6, and safely and reliably returning to flight to meet the demands of our customers is our chief priority. SpaceX's business is robust, with approximately 70 missions on our manifest worth over $10 billion. In the aftermath of yesterday's events, we are grateful for the continued support and unwavering confidence that our commercial customers as well as NASA and the United States Air Force have placed in us.

Overview of the incident:

— Yesterday, at SpaceX's Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, an anomaly took place about eight minutes in advance of a scheduled test firing of a Falcon 9 rocket.

— The anomaly on the pad resulted in the loss of the vehicle.

— This was part of a standard pre-launch static fire to demonstrate the health of the vehicle prior to an eventual launch.

— At the time of the loss, the launch vehicle was vertical and in the process of being fueled for the test. At this time, the data indicates the anomaly originated around the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad. There were no injuries.

To identify the root cause of the anomaly, SpaceX began its investigation immediately after the loss, consistent with accident investigation plans prepared for such a contingency. These plans include the preservation of all possible evidence and the assembly of an Accident Investigation Team, with oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and participation by NASA, the United States Air Force and other industry experts. We are currently in the early process of reviewing approximately 3000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a time period of just 35-55 milliseconds/

As for the Launch Pad itself, our teams are now investigating the status of SLC-40. The pad clearly incurred damage, but the scope has yet to be fully determined. We will share more data as it becomes available. SpaceX currently operates 3 launch pads — 2 in Florida and 1 in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base. SpaceX's other launch sites were not affected by yesterday's events. Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base is in the final stages of an operational upgrade and Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center remains on schedule to be operational in November. Both pads are capable of supporting Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs.

Again, our number one priority is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, as well as to take all the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for future crewed missions with the Falcon 9. We will carefully and thoroughly investigate and address this issue.

Launches can't simply move from the Cape to Vandenberg. For safety, prograde orbits — those that launch with the rotation of Earth — are from the Cape. They go over the ocean in case of an “anomaly.” When SpaceX CRS-7 blew up on June 28, 2015, 2½ minutes after launch, the pieces fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Polar orbits launch from Vandenberg for the same reason. If a rocket explodes, it falls into the Pacific Ocean. Vandenberg can't be used for a prograde orbit because the rocket would have to pass over populated land.

The above statement claims that Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A will be “operational in November,” but SpaceX timelines have proven in the past to be notoriously optimistic. Some work projected for earlier this year has yet to begin. SpaceX had said they would remove the old Space Shuttle Rotating Service Structure, but it's still in place. A large yellow crane lies on the ground nearby, waiting to lift the Shuttle era's lightning mast so an overhead crane can be installed for intergrating vertical payloads on the pad when required by a customer.

SpaceX prograde orbit launches could move to KSC's Pad 39A — when operational. But it would seem prudent to identify a cause of the “anomaly” before attempting any more Falcon 9 launches.