Wednesday, August 24, 2016

New website

The was the original blog or Orbital Velocity. It now exists for archive purposes. To view the brand new Orbital Velocity website, visit!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

First commercial space station to launch in only four years

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow Aerospace partnered with the United Launch Alliance to launch their 330-cubic-meter expandable space habitat—the B330—using ULA's Atlas V rocket in the 2019-2020 time frame.

“We could not be more pleased than to partner with Bigelow Aerospace and reserve a launch slot on our manifest for this revolutionary mission,” Tory Bruno, ULA president and CEO, said in a news release. “This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology. And it enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space. We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space.”

The announcement is a first-of-its-kind partnership of two commercial space companies—one a launch provider and the other a space habitat company—working to develop human infrastructure in low-Earth orbit without the aid of any government. That isn't to say that the companies don't want to do business with governments.

The B330 is designed to be a completely self-contained space station. But, according to Robert Bigelow, the CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, he would like to see one attached to the International Space Station.

"We are trying to acquire permission from NASA to be able to locate a B330 on [the ISS]," Bigelow said, "If we're able to do that and have [a B330] be there, we are asking, also, that we be given consideration to be able to commercialize time and volume."

Image Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
Bigelow said this would be no different than having a 30-story building and trying to lease a number of floors. He continued the analogy by stating that maybe NASA could be an anchor tenant to this first B330 at the International Space Station.

This module, if attached to ISS, would increase the station's volume by 30 percent. The craft will support research in microgravity including, but not limited to, scientific missions and manufacturing processes. Bigelow also hopes that the module, and other free-flying versions of it, will support space tourism and be able to be used on missions that go beyond LEO to the Moon or Mars.

Transportation to these modules, be it at ISS or elsewhere, will be done by NASA's current crop of commercial crew providers. Bigelow believes that there is enough of a market to support four commercial transportation companies. He cited Boeing's CST-100, SpaceX's Crew Dragon, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser and Blue Origin's yet-to-be-unveiled orbital spacecraft.

The B330 is currently being developed. The companies will work together to develop the business construct, commercial product offerings and marketing plans. Only when the spacecraft design is proven and a market shown to exist will additional habitats be deployed in other locations.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

SpaceX: launching, landing and berthing into history

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches the CRS-8 Dragon to the International Space Station. The
first stage of the booster would land on an ocean-going platform only nine minutes
later. Photo Credit: SpaceX
Over the last few days, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket, delivered a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station and, as a bonus, successfully landed the first stage of the booster on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean. It's safe to say that this was one of the best weeks in the NewSpace company's history.

On April 8 at 4:43 p.m. EST (20:43 GMT), the Falcon 9 rocket soared into the late afternoon skies at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It carried the CRS-8 Dragon capsule—the first to launch since the ill-fated CRS-7 mission. It was a textbook launch.

A little over two minutes into flight, the booster's first stage had finished it's job and detached from the second stage, which fired and continued on to orbit. Then, the rocket did something the company has been trying for a while now: it turned around and slowed itself for a soft touchdown on an ocean-going platform.

The Of Course I Still Love You Automated Spaceport Droneship carried the first stage
back to Cape Canaveral on Sunday, April 10. Photo Credit: SpaceX
This was the fifth attempt at landing on an Automated Spaceport Drone Ship. All the others failed in some way (although one attempt only failed because a landing leg didn't lock into place). This flight, however, succeeded. It was a long time coming for SpaceX, as they had been testing and refining this process for the better part of two years now—not including the Grasshopper tests in Texas.

The atmosphere at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, was electric. This was the second time one of their first stage boosters was successfully recovered—the first at sea.

SpaceX has said they need to be able to land on both solid ground and the drone ships because of the high energy launch requirements on some payloads, such as those heading to geostationary transfer orbit or escape velocity.

Elon Musk, the company's founder said the firm hopes to re-certify and reuse the booster on a flight as early as June.

As if that accomplishment wasn't enough, SpaceX still had a mission to complete: sending the Dragon cargo ship to the space station. Right about the time of the first stage landing, the second stage had made it to orbit and released the space freighter.

Dragon approaches the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Tim Peake / NASA
Over the next two days, Dragon caught up with the space station. Finally, early Sunday morning, the capsule conducted its final approach to the orbiting laboratory.

Capture by the space station’s robotic Canadarm2 took place at 7:23 a.m. EDT (11:23 GMT) April 10 about 250 miles (402 kilometers) above the Pacific Ocean just west of Hawaii. Controlling the arm was Expedition 47 Flight Engineer and European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake. He, along with NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, monitored the approaching vessel from the Cupola window.

“It looks like we caught a Dragon,” Peake said after capture.

Dragon, upper left, is berthed to the orbiting laboratory. Cygnus is seen on the lower
right attached to the Unity Module. This is the first time two commercial vehicles were
at the station at the same time. Photo Credit: NASA TV
Then, over the next two hours, ground teams controlled the arm to move Dragon from its capture point just 33 feet (10 meters) below the station to the Earth facing port of the Harmony module.

The command to automatically drive four bolts in the Common Berthing Mechanism connecting Dragon and Harmony was given at about 8:55 a.m. CDT (13:55 GMT). The stations computer rejected the command at first, but upon trying a second time, it accepted and the spacecraft was officially berthed to the ISS at 8:57 a.m. CDT (13:57 GMT)—some 40 feet (12 meters) from the OA-6 Cygnus cargo ship attached to the Unity module. This marked the first time two commercial vehicles were at the station at the same time.

The arrival of Dragon also marked only the second time in space station program history that six vehicles were docked or berthed to the outpost. The last time was in 2011 when Space Shuttle Discovery was docked with the complex on mission STS-133—that orbiter’s final flight. That was also the only time all of the originally planned government-owned vehicles (Space Shuttle, Soyuz, Progress, Japanese HTV, and the European Space Agency’s ATV) were at the station at the same time. 

This is the eighth Dragon to visit the space station. It is also the 84th uncrewed cargo ship and 170th overall mission to reach the orbiting laboratory. 

The hatch between the cargo ship and space station will be opened early Monday morning. In the next three weeks, Dragon’s 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms) of food, supplies, and experiments will be unloaded and dispersed throughout ISS. Additionally, the vessel will be reloaded with trash and unneeded equipment to be returned to Earth. 

On April 16, CRS-8’s most notable cargo, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module will be robotically removed from the unpressurized trunk of the spacecraft and attached to the aft port of the Tranquility module. It will be expanded sometime in late May. 

Dragon is expected to remain attached to the space station until May 1 of this year (2016).

Video courtesy of NASA TV

Monday, April 4, 2016

Experimental feature: Liquid crystals in space

Microscopic detail of liquid crystal islands tethered like necklaces when an external
electric field is applied near the very thin film surface. Caption and Image Credit:
Liquid Crystal Physics Group / University of Colorado Boulder
The crew aboard the International Space Station perform hundreds of experiments each year in nearly all fields of science. There is so much that goes un-reported in mainstream news. Because of this, Orbital Velocity makes an attempt to feature some of these studies.

OASIS: Observation and Analysis of Smectic Islands In Space

Since liquid crystals are used in display screens on TVs, clocks and laptops, scientists want to understand how microgravity affects these crystals' ability to appear as both a liquid and a solid.

Liquid crystals flow like a liquid, but contain molecules that are arranged in a specific pattern—like a crystal. In addition to being used in LCDs, they form in naturally occurring things, such as soap bubbles. The OASIS experiment looks at these bubbles
Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra works to install the OASIS experiment in the
Microgravity Science Glovebox. Photo Credit: NASA

When you look at bubble, you usually see iridescent colors on its surface. This layer of color—liquid crystals—has a thickness that varies and changes when water flows back and forth over the surface. It is the thicker place on the bubble that scientists are looking at. They look like islands and are referred to as smectic islands.

On ISS, the experiment will produce these smectic islands on bubbles. The thickness could be as thin as 6 nanometers. For comparison, the thickness of human hair is 60,000 nanometers.

In normal gravity, when the islands become larger, they slide to the bottom of the bubble and "layer" up. But that doesn't happen in space.
A detailed look at the OASIS Experiment Module. Image Credit: NASA

This is the first experiment of its kind done in microgravity. Investigators hope to use the information found to make better displays in space—potentially using the technology as a heads-up display in spacesuit helmets.

By better understanding the physics behind these liquid crystals, improvements can be made on Earth-bound LCD screens. Such improvements include improved color contrasts and response times.

This experiment was sent to ISS on April 14, 2015 aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. Crews conduct the study inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox, which is located inside the U.S. Destiny laboratory. The study is being lead by the University of Colorado Boulder.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Progress heads for the International Space Station

Progress MS-2 lifts off the pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 
Photo Credit: NASA TV
A Soyuz rocket lofted a Russian cargo ship with 5,300 pounds of fuel, water and supplies bound for the International Space Station.

The craft, dubbed Progress MS-2, lifted off the pad at 10:44 p.m. local Kazakhstan time (16:23 GMT) at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Nearly nine minutes later, the spacecraft was in orbit gearing up for a two-day trek to the orbiting laboratory.

The capsule will automatically dock with the rear port of the Zvezda service module around 1:01 p.m. CST (18:01 GMT) on April 2. It is packed with 5,346 pounds of fuel, air, water and equipment to support the Expedition 47 crew.

Progress MS-2 will join two crewed Soyuz vehicles and another Progress attached to the Russian Orbital Segment of the ISS. Additionally, an Orbital ATK Cygnus recently berthed on the U.S. Segment. 

To make room for the new spacecraft, Progress M-29M was loaded with trash and undocked on Wednesday. It will remain in orbit until April 8 when it will be commanded to de-orbit over the South Pacific Ocean.

This is the second cargo ship in as many weeks to arrive at the orbiting outpost. The next cargo ship, a SpaceX Dragon, will launch on April 8 and berth with the ISS on April 10.

Video courtesy of NASA TV

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

China's first space station falls silent

An artist's rendition of Tiangong 1, left, being visited by a Shenzhou. Three of these
spacecraft visited the space station over the course of two years. Image Credit: China
National Space Administration
China has officially shut down the country's first space station, Tiangong 1, according to a story by the Xinhua News Agency.

It was reported last week that the China National Space Administration terminated the Tiangong 1 data service after an extended operating period of two and a half years.

Tiangong 1, which means "heavenly palace 1," was lofted into space by China's Long March 2F/G rocket in September 2011. It was designed as a test article to support the rendezvous and docking of crewed and autonomous spacecraft, as well as house crews for an extended period.

It only had one docking port, so it could not be serviced by cargo ships. The station saw three vehiclesone autonomous and two creweddock with the module over two years. The last crew left in the summer of 2013, and it has remained unoccupied since.

The decommissioned laboratory remains safely in its designated orbit, but it will eventually succumb to the effects of atmospheric drag and burn up once it falls low enough.

The station has helped Chinese scientists understand the construction and management of a space laboratory and paved the way for the next version, Tiangong 2.

Tiangong 2 is scheduled to launch in the third quarter of this year. It will sport two docking ports in order to be serviced in orbit. The first crewed mission to the outpost will be Shenzhou 11, which will carry two taikonauts (Chinese astronauts).

A new cargo ship, dubbed Tianzhou, will launch and automatically dock to the new outpost in early 2017.

Both Tiangong 1 and 2 aim to help China develop the required skills and technology needed to build a 60-ton multi-module space station by the early 2020s.

Video courtesy of Space Animation

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Cygnus arrives at, berthed to International Space Station

The S.S. Rick Husband approaches the capture position below the International Space
Station. Photo Credit: NASA
After three days of travel to the International Space Station, the fifth Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft to visit the outpost was captured and berthed to the station early Saturday morning, March 26, delivering 7,756 pounds (3,518 kilograms) of food, supplies, and experiments.

Once the spacecraft was about 33 feet (10 meters) below the station, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, the commander of the orbiting laboratory, took control of the space station’s robotic arm to move in and grab the free-flying Cygnus. Capture took place at 5:51 a.m. CDT (10:51 GMT) when the cargo freighter and ISS were about 250 miles (402 kilometers) over the south Indian Ocean.

“We’re really honored to bring aboard the S.S. Rick Husband to the International Space Station,” said Kopra. “It recognizes a personal hero of so many of us and this will be the first Cygnus honoree who was directly involved with the construction of this great station.”

Tim Kopra and Tim Peake work in the Cupola module to grab the free-flying Cygnus
from space. Photo Credit: NASA
After capture, ground teams spent the next two hours maneuvering the spacecraft to just below the Unity module of the orbiting lab. Once Cygnus was only inches away from the Earth-facing Common Berthing Mechanism, fine-tuning of the alignment began.

Getting the spacecraft below the CBM into the Ready To Latch position took a little longer than usual. Ground teams told the crew that because the robotic arm was fully stretched out, the procedure had to take place a little slower.

During final RTL alignments, the space station’s ground track took it away from video downlink. This caused the operators on the ground controlling the robotic arm to pause for about 30 minutes.

About an hour behind the timeline, berthing finally took place at 9:52 a.m. CDT (14:52 GMT) while the station was flying over the Pacific Ocean just west of Mexico.

The hatch between the station and Cygnus was opened the next day on Sunday. The crew will now begin the long process of unloading the thousands of pounds of cargo on board the spacecraft.

File photo of the Previous Cygnus berthed. This photo was taken during a space walk
earlier in the year. Photo Credit: NASA
“As we accomplish our fifth Cygnus berthing to the ISS, we celebrate the completion of a primary mission objective for OA-6,” said Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group via a company-issued release. “Our flexible Cygnus spacecraft has a lot of work left to do. Following its stay at the ISS, and for the first time, we will undertake three experiments [on board] the unmanned spacecraft.”

The vehicle is expected to remain attached to ISS for about two months (55 days) before being loaded with trash and unberthed on May 20. After departing the vicinity of the outpost, Cygnus will remain in orbit for eight more days to conduct the Saffire experiment.

Saffire will help scientists and engineers understand how fires spread in large areas on certain materials.

Cygnus was the first of three planned cargo ship arrivals in the next two weeks. A new Russian Progress spacecraft will launch on March 31 and is scheduled to dock on April 2. Then a SpaceX Dragon will fly atop a “full thrust” Falcon 9 on April 8, before being berthed to the Harmony module on April 10.

Together, some 12 tons (10.8 metric tons) of cargo will be delivered in arguably the busiest time in the space station program’s history.

Video courtesy of NASA TV
Time lapse by Trent Faust

Read more work by Derek Richardson and others at Spaceflight Insider.