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Blue Origin gets set for launch with COVID-19 in mind

Update for 6:45 a.m. PT Sept. 25: Blue Origin called off the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship for the second day in a row. “We are working to verify a fix on a technical issue and taking an extra look before we fly,” the company said today in a tweet.

The previous day’s postponement was due to a “potential issue with the power supply to the experiments,” Blue Origin tweeted at the time. Cloudy weather at the Texas launch site posed an additional snag, because the precision landing test required clear weather to gather usable data.

We’ll update this report when a new launch date is set.

Previously: After a nine-month gap, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to send its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed flight to space and back to test a precision landing system for NASA.

And that’s not the only new experiment for Blue Origin’s five-year-old New Shepard flight test program: This 13th test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Blue Origin said in an emailed statement. “We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations. All mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers and surrounding communities.”

Liftoff will take place at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. The countdown, launch and roughly 10-minute flight will be streamed via BlueOrigin.com starting at T-minus-30 minutes. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is due to provide a special update during the webcast.

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Cosmic Space

NASA lays out $28B plan for Artemis moon landing

In a newly published report, NASA goes into depth about how it plans to send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, at an estimated cost of nearly $28 billion between now and then.

It’s not yet clear whether Congress will go along with the timetable and the ticket price laid out for the Artemis moon program. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said budget deliberations over the next few months could tell the tale.

A key indicator will be how much money is approved in the current fiscal year to support work on the landing system designed to get astronauts to the moon.

NASA wants $3.2 billion in fiscal 2021 for development efforts involving SpaceX as well as rival teams led by Dynetics and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. In contrast, House appropriators set aside $600 million.

Bridenstine said he hoped the figure would be bumped up to the requested $3.2 billion, during negotiations that could go on for a couple of months amid a continuing resolution.

“If we can have that done before Christmas, we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing,” he told reporters during a teleconference.

But if the $3.2 billion isn’t available by March, “it becomes increasingly more difficult” to meet the 2024 schedule, Bridenstine said.

2024 looms large because if President Donald Trump is re-elected, the first moon landing would come before the end of his second term.

Trump wasn’t mentioned specifically in Bridenstine’s remarks or in NASA’s report. But the space agency chief (and former congressman) said targeting 2024 would minimize “the political risk” of having the moon program trimmed back — as was the case, for example, when the Obama administration canceled the Bush administration’s multibillion-dollar Constellation moon program in 2010.

“2024 is an aggressive timeline,” Bridenstine acknowledged. “Is it possible? Yes. Does everything have to go right? Yes.”

The $28 billion cited in today’s report includes proposed expenditures between now and the end of 2024 on the landing system as well as other elements of the Artemis program, including development of NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule, the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, ground systems and new spacesuits, plus robotic precursor missions. Building the landing system accounts for $16.2 billion — more than half of the total budgeted cost.

NASA is due to select which industry teams will go forward with landing system development sometime around next February or March, said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. She said it’s still too early to determine how many teams would be picked for the next phase of funding.

Another milestone is due to come up sometime in the next few weeks, when NASA conducts a “green run” test of the Space Launch System’s core stage. A successful test would mark a big step toward the first SLS launch, which is due to send an uncrewed Orion capsule beyond lunar orbit and back next year as part of the Artemis 1 mission.

Artemis 2 is scheduled to send four astronauts on a 10-day-long trip around the moon in 2023. That would set the stage for the landing system’s lunar debut on the crucial Artemis 3 mission a year later.

Bridenstine said the crew for Artemis 3 would typically be selected two years before launch, but added that he’d prefer to have the astronauts named “earlier rather than later.”

Going south?

When the moon program was unveiled last year, Vice President Mike Pence highlighted the lunar south pole as the destination for the first landings. That region is of particular interest because it’s thought that permanently shadowed craters contain vast reservoirs of ice that could be converted into drinkable water, breathable air and rocket fuel.

Jeff Bezos is among those who have talked up the idea of building a permanent base in one of the moon’s polar regions.

Last week, Bridenstine stirred up a bit of a tempest with his remarks at an online meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. One of the attendees asked the NASA chief what he thought about sending astronauts to the moon’s equatorial regions, including the Apollo landing sites. In response, Bridenstine said the idea had some merit.

“There could be scientific discoveries there and, of course, just the inspiration of going back to an original Apollo site would be pretty amazing as well,” Bridenstine said.

His remarks were interpreted in some quarters as backtracking on plans for a south polar landing, perhaps because it’d be more challenging than an equatorial landing. But when he was asked to elaborate today, Bridenstine said he was merely acknowledging that “going to a historic site would be pretty cool.”

“Right now, we have no plans for Artemis 3 to go anywhere other than the south pole,” he said.

Going through the Gateway?

Another point of contention has to do with the Gateway, the moon-orbiting outpost that NASA and its partners plan to build during the 2020s. The plan released today makes it clear that the first pieces of the Gateway are expected to be in place by 2024 — but that the commercial landing systems won’t be required to use it as a stopping-off point for Artemis 3.

SpaceX, for example, envisions its Starship super-rocket to serve as a transport as well as a lander that could carry astronauts to the lunar surface without necessarily docking at the Gateway. Bridenstine said it’d be up to the teams designing the landing system to specify what role the Gateway may (or may not) play for the initial landing.

However, Bridenstine emphasized that the Gateway would be required for the moon missions that follow the Artemis program’s initial phase.

“We’ve got two efforts,” he said. “One is to get to the moon by 2024, and then to be sustainable by the end of the decade. And I think the Gateway is essential to that sustainable effort, so that we can have human landing systems that are reusable, that are serviceable.”

NASA sees a sustainable moon base as a key part of the preparations for more ambitious missions to Mars. Bridenstine also said there was merit in learning more about the moon, and using it as a base for high-resolution astronomical observations. “We could actually increase more rapidly our discovery of exoplanets around other stars, using simple optics on the surface of the moon,” he said.

Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have their own visions for creating a sustainable presence on the moon — which led one reporter to ask whether private ventures might be asked to put more of their own money into moonshots if NASA’s budget falls short.

Bridenstine said that was a “wonderful point.”

“A big reason that the 2024 moon landing is possible is because companies have been thinking about this, and they have been making their own plans and investing their own resources. So, the idea that with a public-private partnership, the companies themselves could actually step up to the plate in a bigger way … that is something that needs to be considered,” he said.

If the money from Congress doesn’t materialize, would private ventures go ahead with moon landings using their own resources?

“I’ll leave it to them to make that determination,” Bridenstine said.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin says it’ll ‘soon’ test lunar landing tech

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong famously had to dodge a boulder-strewn crater just seconds before the first moon landing in 1969 — but for future lunar touchdowns, NASA expects robotic eyes to see such missions to safe landings.

And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is helping to make it so.

Today NASA talked up a precision landing system known as SPLICE (which stands for Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution). The system makes use of an onboard camera, laser sensors and computerized firepower to identify and avoid hazards such as craters and boulders.

NASA says three of SPLICE’s four main subsystems — the terrain relative navigation system, a navigation Doppler lidar system and the descent and landing computer — will be tested during an upcoming flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship. The fourth component, a hazard detection lidar system, still has to go through ground testing.

In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said technologies such as SPLICE “can provide spacecraft with the ‘eyes’ and analytical capability” for making safe landings. Blue Origin answered with a tweet of its own:

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GeekWire

Blue Origin’s team hits lunar lander milestone

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says the aerospace team that it’s leading has completed its first “gated milestone” in a NASA-funded effort to develop a lunar lander for crewed missions.

The milestone — known as the system requirement review, or SRR — involves specifying the baseline requirements for the missions, the space vehicles and the landing system’s ground segment.

“The design proceeded to the NASA Certification Baseline Review, followed by the lower-level element SRRs and the preliminary design phase,” Blue Origin reported today in a news release.

Blue Origin leads what it calls a “National Team” in the first phase of the NASA’s Human Landing System development process. While Blue Origin is working on the system’s descent module, Lockheed Martin is responsible for the ascent module, Northrop Grumman is in charge of the transfer module that would get the lander into low lunar orbit, and Draper is working on the system’s avionics.

SpaceX and Dynetics are working on parallel efforts, and next year, NASA is due to select one or two teams to move on to the next phase of development. For this first phase, the Blue Origin-led team is receiving $579 million from NASA, while SpaceX is in line for $135 million and the Dynetics team is getting $253 million. The money is disbursed as each team reaches milestones like the one reported today.

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GeekWire

First Mode gets in on Psyche mission to asteroid

Seattle-based First Mode has been awarded a $1.8 million subcontract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build flight hardware for NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is due to conduct the first-ever up-close study of a metal-rich asteroid.

Under the terms of the firm, fixed-price contract, First Mode is to deliver a deployable aperture cover that will shield Psyche’s Deep Space Optical Communications system, or DSOC, from contamination and debris during launch. The contract calls for the hardware to be delivered in early 2021.

Psyche is set for launch in 2022, and after a years-long cruise that includes a Mars flyby in 2023, it’s scheduled to arrive at the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt in early 2026.

This won’t be the first visit to an asteroid, but it will be the first visit to an asteroid that’s primarily made of nickel and iron rather than rubble, rock or ice. Scientists say the 140-mile-wide hunk of metal could be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was stripped of its rocky mantle early in the solar system’s history.

In addition to studying the asteroid Psyche, the spacecraft will test laser-based communications with Earth from deep space. The DSOC system’s aperture cover is designed to open early in the mission to kick off the technology demonstration.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin team hands NASA a lunar lander mock-up

An all-star space industry team led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has assembled a mock-up of its proposed lunar lander right where it’ll do the most good, in a training area at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

The full-scale engineering module showcases Blue Origin’s Blue Moon descent element, which Bezos unveiled last year; as well as the ascent element designed by Lockheed Martin. It stands more than 40 feet tall in Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, alongside mock-ups of the space shuttle, space station modules and next-generation space capsules.

Members of the industry team — from Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin as well as Northrop Grumman and Draper — will collaborate with NASA engineers and astronauts to test out the lander’s usability and make any necessary tweaks in preparation for crewed lunar landings that could begin as early as 2024. The tweaks could address such details as the size of the hatch, the placement of the windows and the arrangement of the controls.

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GeekWire

NASA astronauts splash down in SpaceX Dragon capsule

The first mission to send NASA astronauts into orbit on a commercially owned spaceship came back down to Earth today with the splashdown of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Mike Heiman, a lead member of SpaceX’s operations team, told astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

The splashdown closed out a 64-day mission to the International Space Station, aimed at testing the first SpaceX Dragon to carry crew. The reusable spacecraft, which put 27.1 million miles on its orbital odometer, was dubbed Endeavour as a tribute to earlier spaceships.

In May, Endeavour’s launch atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made history, and today’s return to Earth did as well: It was the first time since 1975 that a crewed NASA spacecraft returned to Earth at sea, and the first-ever space landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The splashdown marked the completion of the first mission to launch astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since NASA’s final space shuttle flight in 2011.

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GeekWire

Astronauts dodge hurricane for Dragon homecoming

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule pulled away from the International Space Station today to begin the homeward flight for NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, even as Hurricane Isaias headed for Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Fortunately, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is heading for waters off Florida’s other coast.

Dragon Endeavour undocked from the station at 7:35 p.m. ET (4:35 p.m. PT), on track for a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Fla., at 2:48 p.m. ET (11:48 a.m. PT) Sunday. The alternate landing site is closer to Panama City, Fla.

Both sites should be far away from Isaias’ expected track along the United States’ Atlantic seaboard, and the timetable could be adjusted if the weather forecast changes. NASA and SpaceX had made plans for seven potential splashdown targets, but due to Isaias’ strength, NASA concentrated on the westernmost sites.

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GeekWire

Perseverance rover begins trek to seek life on Mars

With the fiery flash of a rocket launch, NASA’s Perseverance rover headed out today for what’s expected to be a decade-long campaign to store up and bring back Martian samples that may hold evidence of alien life.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:50 a.m. ET (4:50 a.m. PT), sending the rover into space for a seven-month cruise to Mars.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the area surrounding the launch pad was restricted, but hundreds of thousands of people watched the liftoff via streaming video. And as if the pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge, in the minutes before launch, a magnitude-4.2 earthquake rattled through NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the rover mission is managed.

Mission managers said the complications had no effect on the countdown.

“This is all about perseverance,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the buildup to liftoff. “Going to Mars is all about persevering in general. Doing it now is more persevering than ever before.”

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GeekWire

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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