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Aerojet is working years ahead on NASA’s moon missions

REDMOND, Wash. — When NASA’s Space Launch System rocket sends an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond the moon and back for the Artemis 1 mission, the trip will put rocket components built in Redmond to their sternest test.

But at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond facility, where hardware for Artemis 1 was built years ago, engineers are already working years ahead. “We have delivered Artemis 1 and 2, and we’re just finishing up Artemis 3 right now so that acceptance testing will finish this summer,” said Erica Raine, the Aerojet program manager who’s overseeing work on the Orion capsule in Redmond.

And she’s just talking about the reaction control thrusters for Artemis 3’s Orion crew module — the vehicle that’s destined to transport astronauts to the moon by as early as 2025. Some of the components currently being assembled in Redmond are destined to become part of the Artemis 5 moon mission, set for 2028.

Aerojet’s production schedule goes to show how long it takes to put together the millions of pieces for the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule that are due for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 29.

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Lockheed Martin kills plan for acquiring Aerojet

Lockheed Martin says it’s terminating its agreement to acquire Aerojet Rocketdyne, less than a month after the Federal Trade Commission filed suit to block the $4.4 billion deal.

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FTC blocks Lockheed Martin’s $4.4B deal with Aerojet

The Federal Trade Commission has filed a lawsuit to block Lockheed Martin’s $4.4 billion acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne, saying that the deal would “give Lockheed the ability to cut off other defense contractors from the critical components they need to build competing missiles.”

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NASA begins mission to try pushing away an asteroid

A space probe the size of a school bus is on its way to smash into an asteroid the size of Egypt’s Great Pyramid, directed by thruster systems built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

This is no “Armageddon,” and there’s no need for Bruce Willis to ride to the rescue. But the experiment is expected to help scientists figure out how to divert a dangerous asteroid heading for Earth should the need arise. That’s one giant leap for planetary defense — and for Aerojet Rocketdyne, whose made-in-Redmond thrusters have been used on dozens of space missions.

“We’ve been to every planet in the solar system,” said Joseph Cassady, Aerojet’s executive director for space. “But this is the first time we’ve ever done something that’s really truly planned as a defense against threats to life on Earth. The test we’re going to do here is really the first step in getting ourselves ready as a species to react and respond if we ever are threatened in that way.”

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART, got off to a showy start with tonight’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Liftoff occurred at 10:21 p.m. PT, at the end of a smooth countdown.

Minutes after launch, the rocket’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster and proceeded to orbit, while the booster flew itself back to an at-sea landing on a drone ship stationed in the Pacific. Within an hour after launch, the second stage deployed the DART spacecraft and sent it on its way.

Tonight’s launch marked the first leg of a 10-month journey to a double-asteroid system that’ll be nearly 7 million miles away from Earth at the time of the encounter. The larger asteroid, called Didymos, is about half a mile wide — but that’s not DART’s target. Instead, Aerojet’s thrusters will guide the spacecraft to hit the smaller asteroid, known as Dimorphos.

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How the pandemic changed the protocol for Mars

Veteran spacecraft engineer Chris Voorhees has witnessed six Mars landings in the course of his career, and he’s playing a role in the next one as president of a Seattle-based engineering firm called First Mode.

But even though First Mode has been helping NASA ensure that its Perseverance rover will get to the surface of Mars safely on Feb. 18, Voorhees will experience it in the same way millions of others around the world will: from home, watching a live stream via YouTube.

At least he’ll be munching on the traditional good-luck peanuts. “I feel weird if I don’t do it,” Voorhees said.

This Mars mission is already weird enough — and not just because it would be the first mission to store up samples for eventual return to Earth, and the first to try flying a mini-helicopter over Mars.

Because of the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, the hundreds of scientists and engineers behind the Perseverance rover mission have had to work almost exclusively from home. On the big day, only a minimal crew of ground controllers will be on duty at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Mallory Lefland, a JPL veteran who’s now a senior systems engineer at First Mode, will be there as part of the mission’s team for entry, descent and landing, or EDL.

“Most people won’t be on lab, working their shift, until 24 hours before landing,” she said last week during a mission preview hosted by Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Whether they’re working at JPL or working from home, the people in charge of the $2.7 billion mission will serve mostly as spectators during the final minutes of the rover’s seven-month, 300 million-mile journey to Mars.

The capsule containing the rover will be on its own as it goes through a sequence known as the “seven minutes of terror.” Because of the finite speed of light, it takes more than 11 minutes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth. That means the rover will have finished its landing sequence before the team at JPL even knows it started.

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Lockheed Martin acquires Aerojet in $4.4 billion deal

Lockheed Martin has struck a deal to acquire Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings in an all-cash transaction valued at $4.4 billion, the two companies announced today.

The agreement marks the latest combination of space industry heavyweights, following Northrop Grumman’s $7.8 billion acquisition of Orbital ATK in 2017.

It also marks a change of ownership for Aerojet’s space propulsion facility in Redmond, Wash., one of the Seattle area’s longest-running space ventures.

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NASA forges new partnerships for space tech

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s operation in Redmond, Wash., are among 17 companies that have struck deals with NASA to develop new technologies for space missions.

The 20 collaborative projects are part of a program managed by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The selected projects will be governed by unfunded Space Act Agreements. No funds will be exchanged, but the companies will gain access to NASA expertise and testing services that carry an estimated value of $15.5 million.

“Space technology development doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Jim Reuter, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, said today in a news release. “Whether companies are pursuing space ventures of their own or maturing cutting-edge systems to one day offer a new service to NASA, the agency is dedicated to helping bring new capabilities to market for our mutual benefit.”

Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin will partner with NASA on two projects. One involves the development of a space robot operating system that will rely on open-source software and provide greater autonomy while reducing operating costs and improving interoperability with other space systems. NASA’s Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center will work with Blue Origin on this project.

The second project aims to improve rocket engine designs by incorporating metal-based additive manufacturing techniques. The 3-D printing project is aimed at optimizing weight, energy efficiency and manufacturability while minimizing production cost. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will be Blue Origin’s partner on this project.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond operation will partner with Goddard Space Flight Center to develop a new hybrid propellant of “green” ionic liquid and conventional hydrazine for small spacecraft. Such a propellant would be less toxic than conventional propellants. The project will build on work that was done by NASA, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Aerojet and other partners for the Green Propellant Infusion Mission.

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OSIRIS-REx touches down to grab bits of an asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe reached the climax of its seven-year round trip to deep space today and briefly touched down on a near-Earth asteroid, propelled by thrusters made in the Seattle area.

Scientists and engineers at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area in Colorado received word at 4:12 p.m. MT (3:12 p.m. PT) that the touch-and-go maneuver at asteroid Bennu was successful, sparking cheers and fist-shaking. The maneuver was aimed at collecting samples of dust and gravel on the asteroid’s surface.

Mission team members wore masks and tried to observe social distancing as a COVID-19 safety measure, but some hugged nevertheless.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

All 28 of the rocket engines on the van-sized OSIRIS-REx probe were built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and provided to Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s main contractor.

“The sample collection portion of the mission requires our engines to perform with extremely high precision, with no room for error,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO and president, Eileen Drake, said in a pre-touchdown news release.

Fred Wilson, the head of business development for space systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne Redmond, said there was “a lot of excitement” at the Seattle-area facility when the crucial maneuver took place.

“These engines that we built roughly six years ago and shipped off … they’re doing their job out there,” Wilson told me after the encounter.

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Mars mission puts working from home to the ultimate test

The launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover marks the start of a seven-month-long journey involving tens of millions of miles of travel — but it also marks the end of an eight-year-long journey involving millions of miles of travel on the part of scientists and engineers across the country.

And perhaps the biggest marvel is that, in the end, most of them got the rover and its scientific instruments ready for launch while working from home.

Working from home has been a tough thing to manage for many of the businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions. It’s been tough for NASA as well.

“Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder,” Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a pre-launch briefing.

Fortunately, NASA and its partners could draw upon decades’ worth of experience in remote operations. “When the pandemic came along, it didn’t make that much difference in the way I operate, because I was already used to working remotely with JPL,” said the University of Washington’s Tim Elam, who’s part of the science team for the rover’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

Once the rover is on its way, working remotely will become even more routine. “Pasadena is about the same distance away from Mars that Seattle is,” Elam joked.

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Aerojet signs up to build hardware for moon trips

Aerojet - Lockheed Martin signing
Lockheed Martin’s Mike Hawes and Scott Jones sign copies of a contract for Orion rocket hardware, after Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Ken Young and Cheryl Rehm take their turn. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

REDMOND, Wash. — Representatives of Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin put their signatures on a contract for up to $170 million worth of rocket hardware that’ll be installed on Orion spacecraft heading to the moon — with dozens of employees who’ll actually build that hardware watching the proceedings.

“These are the things you’re going to be talking to your grandchildren about,” Cheryl Rehm, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s senior director of Redmond programs, told company employees here at today’s signing ceremony.

The ceremony highlighted Redmond’s role in NASA’s Artemis moon landings.

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