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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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Universe Today

Elon Musk updates his vision for SpaceX’s Starship

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has laid out a scenario for space travel that calls for his company’s Starship launch system to take on its first orbital test flight as soon as January.

Starship could go through “a dozen launches next year, maybe more,” and be ready to send valuable payloads to the moon, Mars and even the solar system’s outer planets by 2023, Musk said today during an online meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy.

But he advised against sending anything too valuable on the first flight to Mars. “I would recommend putting the lower-cost scientific mission stuff on the first mission,” he said, half-jokingly.

The National Academies presentation followed up on big-picture talks that Musk delivered in 2016 (when Starship was known as the Interplanetary Transport System), 2017 (when it was known as the BFR or “Big Frickin’ Rocket”) and 2018 (when Musk settled on “Starship”).

Musk’s basic concept is the same: Starship and its giant Super Heavy booster would be a one-size-fits-all system that could be used for point-to-point suborbital travel, orbital space missions and all manner of trips beyond Earth orbit, including moon landings. It’d be capable of lofting more than 100 tons to low Earth orbit (three times as much as the space shuttle), and sending 100 people at a time to Mars.

This week’s presentation provided some new details.

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Universe Today

NASA’s first Artemis moon landing slips to 2025

NASA has pushed back the timetable for landing astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than a half-century from 2024 to no earlier than 2025.

Blue Origin’s unsuccessful legal challenge to a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract awarded to SpaceX was one of the factors behind the delay in the Artemis moon program, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a Nov. 9 teleconference.

Nelson also pointed to Congress’ previous decisions not to fund the lander program as fully as NASA wanted, plus delays forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that “the Trump administration target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility.”

“After having taken a good look under the hood these past six months, it’s clear to me that the agency will need to make serious changes for the long-term success of the program,” he told reporters.

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GeekWire

A win for SpaceX: Blue Origin loses lunar lander lawsuit

A federal judge today rejected Blue Origin’s challenge to a $2.9 billion contract that NASA awarded to SpaceX for building the lunar lander destined to carry astronauts to the moon.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space venture had argued that NASA gave overly wide leeway to SpaceX in advance of the contract award in April — but Judge Richard Hertling of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims rejected Blue Origin’s arguments. His opinion was sealed, pending a Nov. 18 conference to discuss which details needed to be redacted for competitive reasons.

In a statement, NASA said that it would resume work with SpaceX under the terms of the contract “as soon as possible.”

Bezos tweeted that today’s ruling was “not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract.”

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GeekWire

Elon Musk jokes about Jeff Bezos’ rocket envy

In the latest chapter of a long-running space spat, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took aim at his billionaire rival Jeff Bezos today with a barrage of double entendres that were delivered from the stage at this week’s Code Conference.

The jests he shared with journalist Kara Swisher, host of the Beverly Hills event, focused on the phallic shape of the New Shepard suborbital rocket ship built by Blue Origin, Bezos’ space venture.

“It could be a different shape, potentially,” Musk noted.

“Could you explain from a technological point of view why it’s that shape?” Swisher asked.

“If you are only doing suborbital, then your rocket can be shorter, yes,” Musk joked.

More seriously, Musk said Bezos and Blue Origin should spend less time contesting NASA’s $2.9 billion award to SpaceX for a Starship lunar lander and more time getting the company’s New Glenn rocket to orbit. New Glenn’s first launch is currently scheduled for late 2022.

“You can’t sue your way to the moon, no matter how good your lawyers are,” he said. When Swisher asked whether Musk ever talked with Bezos about the dispute, he said, “Not verbally … just subtweets.”

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GeekWire

Space Force awards $87.5 million for rocket development

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command today announced awards totaling $87.5 million to support prototype commercial projects relating to next-generation rocket testing and enhancements to make upper stages more resilient.

The awards were made under the aegis of the National Security Space Launch program using the Space Development Corps’ Space Enterprise Consortium, which facilitates engagement involving the Pentagon space community, industry and academia.

The awards include:

  • $24.35 million to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture for cryogenic fluid management on the New Glenn rocket’s second stage.
  • $24.35 million to Rocket Lab to develop the Neutron rocket’s upper stage.
  • $14.47 million to SpaceX for rapid throttling and restart testing of the Raptor rocket engine, which is destined for use on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, liquid methane specification development and testing; and combustion stability analysis and testing.
  • $24.35 million to United Launch Alliance for uplink command and control for the Centaur V upper stage, which will be used with ULA’s Vulcan rocket.
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GeekWire

Court filings shed light on lunar lander fight

Redacted versions of documents relating to Blue Origin’s federal lawsuit against the federal government and SpaceX lay out further details about the dispute over a multibillion-dollar NASA lunar lander contract, but the details that are left out are arguably just as intriguing.

Today the U.S. Court of Federal Appeals released the 59-page text of the Blue Origin-led industry consortium’s complaint, which was filed in August. The court also shared redacted responses from SpaceX.

The filings focus on NASA’s April decision to award SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop its Starship super-rocket as the landing system for the Artemis program’s first crewed trip to the lunar surface, planned for as early as 2024.

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GeekWire

Citizen spacefliers splash down, ending charity mission

The first non-governmental flight to orbit ended with a splash — and with the safe return of the Inspiration4 mission’s billionaire commander and his three crewmates.

Shift4 Payment’s 38-year-old founder and CEO, Jared Isaacman, paid what’s thought to be a price of more than $100 million for the three-day flight. The mission began on Sept. 15 with a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch and ended at 7:06 p.m. ET (4:06 p.m. PT) today with the splashdown of SpaceX’s reusable Crew Dragon capsule in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Inspiration4’s main goal is to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition to paying for the flight, Isaacman committed to donating $100 million. Another $60 million was raised by the time the Crew Dragon came back to Earth — and soon after the splashdown, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk pushed the total past $210 million. “Count me in for $50M,” Musk wrote in a tweet.

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GeekWire

‘All-civilian’ crew shares art, music and views from orbit

On the eve of their scheduled return from orbit, four amateur spacefliers brought the world up to date on their activities — an out-of-this-world routine that focused on raising money for charity and gazing out the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule’s cupola window.

Inspiration4 crew member Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin data engineer who hails from Everett, Wash., even strummed a serenade on a custom-made ukulele.

“I can play a little for you,” he said over a space-to-Earth video link. “You can turn your volume down if you wish, but I’ll give it a shot.”

Sembroski’s music sounded just fine; nevertheless, he followed up the performance with a promise. “It’s still before coffee, so it’ll get better as the day goes on,” he said.

The ukulele, like many of the other items that the foursome brought with them for their Sept. 15 launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, will be sold off to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Supporting St. Jude’s mission to treat childhood cancer is the philanthropic goal behind the Inspiration4 mission, as conceived by Jared Isaacman, Shift4 Payments’ billionaire founder and CEO. Isaacman, an amateur pilot who created his own private fleet of fighter jets, is paying the multimillion-dollar cost of the mission and serves as its commander.

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GeekWire

‘All-civilian’ orbital flight ushers in a new space age

Are they space tourists? Citizen spacefliers? All-civilian astronauts? Whatever you call them, the four teammates who are due to go into orbit today in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule require creating a new category.

“I know there’s controversy over what you should be called,” retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly told the foursome today in a tweet. “But when you strap into a rocket and launch into orbit, you can call yourself anything you want: astronot, astronut, astronaut — whatever.”

There’s Jared Isaacman, the billiionaire CEO of Shift4 Payments, who’s paying for the launch and is the mission commander … Hayley Arceneaux, the 29-year-old cancer survivor who’s due to become the youngest American to go into space … Sian Proctor, the professor and artist who’ll back up Isaacman as America’s first Black space pilot.

And then there’s Chris Sembroski, a former Air Force missile technician and Lockheed Martin engineer from Everett, Wash. Sembroski got his chance to train for the mission and climb onboard the Dragon when an old college buddy of his won a charity sweepstakes — and then gave the reservation to him.

“I think that just really puts me in a very special spot, where not only do I feel very lucky to be here, but I have a huge responsibility to pay that forward,” Sembroski said during a pre-launch briefing.

Liftoff atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is set for 8:05 p.m. ET (5:05 p.m. PT) from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. But although the three-day Inspiration4 mission starts out from a NASA-owned facility, the space agency has minimal involvement.

This will be the first non-governmental crewed flight to orbit, and the first crewed SpaceX flight to pass up going to the International Space Station. Instead, the foursome will go into an orbit higher than the space station — higher than humans have flown since the space shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope.