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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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Seattle space leaders link up with lawmakers

Aerojet tour
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash, get a tour of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s campus in Redmond, Wash., from the facility’s general manager, Ken Young. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

REDMOND, Wash. — One of Congress’ leading Democrats, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, met with leaders of the Seattle area’s space community today to make a pitch for his “Make It in America” campaign. They pitched back with an idea of their own: “Test It in Washington State.”

The Puget Sound region is quickly becoming known as a hub for space ventures such as Blue Origin, founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos; and Stratolaunch Systems, created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. SpaceXSpaceflight Industries and LeoStella have a growing presence here as well.

Predating them all is Aerojet Rocketdyne, which traces its lineage in Redmond back to the 1960s and has built thrusters for a wide spectrum of NASA spacecraft — including the Mars Insight lander that’s due to touch down on the Red Planet next month.

Washington state’s space industry currently generates $1.8 billion worth of economic activity annually, according to a recently published report. But during today’s session at Aerojet’s Redmond facility, headlined by Hoyer as well as Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., several attendees noted that Washington is lagging behind other states such as California, Texas and Florida in one big area.

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Rocket engine scores a ’10’ in test for space plane

AR-22 engine firing
Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-22 rocket engine fires during a test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. (NASA / DARPA Photo)

A rocket engine built from spare space shuttle parts — and the team behind the engine — passed a grueling 10-day, 10-firing test that sets the stage for Boeing’s Phantom Express military space plane.

“We scored a perfect 10 last week,” Jeff Haynes, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s program manager for the AR-22 engine, told reporters today during a teleconference.

The hydrogen-fueled AR-22 is largely based on the RS-25 engine that was used on the space shuttle and will be used on NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System. “We’ve upgraded the ‘brain’ for this derivative mission,” using an advanced controller, Haynes said.

Aerojet, Boeing and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, set up the 240-hour test between June 26 and July 6 to see whether the AR-22 could be turned around rapidly enough for a 100-second, full-throttle firing every day. The bottom line? It can.

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Aerojet engine wins a place on Vulcan rocket

Aerojet RL10 rocket engine
Aerojet Rocketdyne has successfully tested a full-scale, 3-D-printed thrust chamber assembly for its workhorse RL10 rocket engine. (Aerojet Rocketdyne Photo)

United Launch Alliance has chosen Aerojet Rocketdyne over Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture to provide the upper-stage rocket engine for its next-generation Vulcan launch vehicle.

But the suspense continues in the bigger contest to provide the more powerful first-stage engines.

Aerojet’s RL10 engine had been considered the favorite to power ULA’s Vulcan Centaur upper stage, which is to be used when the Vulcan makes its debut in 2020.

For more than 50 years, the hydrogen-fueled RL10 has been a mainstay of the Centaur, which came into play most recently last weekend when it powered NASA’s Mars InSight lander out of Earth orbit.

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Dormant thrusters on Voyager work after 37 years

Voyager probe
An artist’s conception shows the Voyager spacecraft pointing its antenna back toward Earth. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

Imagine you had a car sitting in storage since 1980, and suddenly you needed to start it up. Now imagine that it revs up like a charm as soon as you turn the key.

That’s the scenario NASA is using as a comparison for this week’s startup of a thruster system that’s been sitting dormant on the Voyager 1 probe for 37 years.

One important difference: Voyager’s key had to be turned by remote control from a distance of 13.1 billion miles.

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Aerojet engineers win accolades from NASA

Erica Raine with Silver Snoopy
Aerojet engineer Erica Raine shows off her Silver Snoopy pin. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

REDMOND, Wash. — One of NASA’s most celebrated awards was handed out today, but it didn’t go to an astronaut. Instead, it was an astronaut who was doing the handing out.

The Silver Snoopy Award winner was the one holding a fussy 18-month-old toddler.

Erica Raine, an engineer at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond facility, received the Snoopy pin for work above and beyond the call to duty, resulting in the fabrication, testing delivery of eight auxiliary rocket engines for the service module on NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle. Raine was the lead engineer for the project.

The engines will be put to use on the Orion program’s uncrewed EM-1 test flight, which is due to launch in 2019 and travel beyond the moon and back.

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How the ion drive will blaze a trail to asteroid

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An artist’s concept shows a space probe powered by ion thrusters. (Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne)

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s next-generation ion thrusters could well make their debut in space during NASA’s robotic mission to grab a piece of an asteroid and bring it back to lunar orbit in the 2020s.

Earlier this week, NASA announced that Aerojet’s operation in Redmond, Wash., would be getting in on a 36-month, $67 milllion contract to develop a high-power electric propulsion system for future spacecraft. Today, NASA officials explained what the system would be used for.

“Basically, we’re building a whole new drive train for deep-space exploration,” Bryan Smith, director of NASA’s Space Flight Systems Directorate at Glenn Research Center in Ohio, told reporters.

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Aerojet wins $67M NASA contract for ion drive

Image: Hall thruster
A prototype 13-kilowatt Hall thruster fires during testing at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. The prototype demonstrated the technology readiness needed for industry to continue the development of high-power solar electric propulsion into a flight-ready system. (Credit: NASA)

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s operation in Redmond, Wash., has won a $67 million contract from NASA to design and develop an advanced electric propulsion system that could power future trips to an asteroid and Mars.

The goal of the 36-month project is to deliver an integrated system that could improve fuel efficiency by a factor of 10 over today’s chemical rocket propulsion systems, and double the thrust capability of current electric propulsion systems.

The work could set the stage for a deep-space demonstration mission by 2020, Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said today in a news release announcing the contract award.

“Development of this technology will advance our future in-space transportation capability for a variety of NASA deep-space human and robotic exploration missions, as well as private commercial space missions,” he said.

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ULA’s chief sizes up the rocket engine race

Image: Tory Bruno
United Launch Alliance’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno, talks with students during the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – United Launch Alliance’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno, is facing a 2019 deadline from Congress to come up with a made-in-the-USA replacement for the Russian-built rocket engines currently used on ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 launch vehicle. But he doesn’t sound worried. He’s got a Plan A, and a Plan B.

“We’re in that great position of having the two to choose from,” Bruno told GeekWire this week here at the 32nd Space Symposium.

Plan A is a rocket engine that’s being built by Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and headquartered in Kent, Wash. Nineteen months ago, Bezos and Bruno announced a deal to support the development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, fueled by liquid natural gas, for ULA’s next-generation Vulcan semi-reusable rocket.

Bruno said Bezos is putting up the “lion’s share” of the money for the effort, and in February, the U.S. Air Force provided an additional $46.6 million boost.

But then there’s Plan B: Aerojet Rocketdyne – which is based in Sacramento, Calif., but has a facility in Redmond, Wash. – is getting $115 million from the Air Force to develop a kerosene-fueled engine called the AR-1 that could serve as an alternative for ULA’s rockets.

United Launch Alliance, a Colorado-based joint venture involving the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, will soon have to pick which plan to go with. It’s not a decision Bruno takes lightly.

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