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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Space In the News by Mark Daymont

Advances in Commercial Space

Antares rocket moves to the launch pad.

Some significant steps are being made in the effort for private companies (as in not government agencies like NASA) this week. Let's start with the imminent launch of the Antares rocket. While the attention lately has been on the obvious success of SpaceX and their Dragon capsule and Falcon rocket,  they'll soon have some competition. The Antares rocket is built by Orbital Sciences, the company which has made successful small satellite launches with the Pegasus winged rocket which is carried aloft by a large jetliner, then released and launched into low orbit. They also have made launches with the Minotaur, a small satellite delivery system based on surplus military missiles. Now, the company is pinning high hopes on the Antares, a larger rocket launched in conventional manner. 

Antares being lifted to upright position on the pad. Both Antares pics by NASA.

Unlike SpaceX's use of a pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Orbital Science team has built their test launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia on the Atlantic Coast. They are using Pad 0A, which is owned by the newly created Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority which has named their part of the Wallops Island facility, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Wallops Island is famous for its use  of launching sounding rockets and small satellites into the upper atmosphere and low orbit since the early 1960's. Now, OS plans to launch the Antares into low Earth Orbit in their bid to become the second company able to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Eventually they want to launch satellites weighing up to six tons into Earth orbit. You can read all about the upcoming launch, scheduled for April 17-18, at SpaceFlight Now's website:


Artist creation of Boeing CST-100 capsule on Atlas V rocket. Credit: Boeing.

Hurray for Boeing! They have just recently completed the Preliminary Design Review for mating their CST-100 space capsule to the Atlas V rocket. The adapter ring will connect the wider bottom of the crew capsule's service module with the obviously narrower upper stage of the Atlas rocket.  Although just an artists view at the moment, the picture above looks so real we can easily foresee what we'll be looking at when the first test missions launch in 2017 (hopefully earlier). It's looking like Boeing may become the first commercial provider to launch not just cargo, but astronauts to the ISS. 

Spaceship 2 in a test glide releasing nitrogen gas. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

We're getting much closer to the power-up tests for the new winged spaceship that will haul paying customers into sub-orbital spaceflight. Virgin Galactic has been drop-gliding its new spacecraft recently, and recent tests have been fully fueled although the rocket motor was not ignited. Rumors say the test may come as early as this month.

You can read more about SpaceShip 2, and Boeing's progress at the website for Parabolic Arc:

50 Years Ago: Testing the Apollo Capsule

Artist concept art of the Apollo CM in re-entry mode.

On April 4, 1963, NASA was busy smacking the test version of the Apollo command module into a water tank. Engineers had plenty of data on how the Mercury single-occupant capsule reacted upon splashdown, but the upcoming Gemini flights (2-person capsule) and Apollo missions (3-person capsule) would need lots of data to ensure the safety of the astronauts.

Model of CM atop the Service Module (SM).

There were two types of impact testing to be done. Of course, the first was a water landing test, as the planned return to Earth was expected to land astronauts in the ocean. Engineers also had to plan for a possible landing on the cold hard ground. The scenario considered that in case of a launch abort, the escape tower would pull the capsule from the service module (SM) and open the parachutes. because of unpredictable wind situations, the capsule could possibly drift back over the land and smack the crew into the ground.

The CM is released from the tower.

In both cases of ground and water impact tests,  picture above shows the testing procedure. High-speed cameras would film the capsule releasing from a tower (to simulate the drop velocity) against a backdrop of squares (not sure if they are painted or tiles). The squares help the engineers plot movement and impact speeds.

Recent: Orion capsule mockup in water test tank.

Recently, NASA has been developing the Orion capsule which will launch atop the giant SLS rocket (Space Launch System). The SLS is being designed as NASA's heavy-lift rocket to take heavy or large payloads into orbit or to send astronauts on missions farther from the Earth. NASA still performs drop tests to measure the durability of the craft and how well it will protect our space explorers.

In the picture above, Orion makes quite a splash. These days, motion sensors are placed on the surface points and interior structure to record stress of impact at all points. It's sort of like motion capture used by the film industry. BTW, Blogger's new method of inserting images leaves a bit to be desired. I just couldn't get the splash picture to center properly. Honestly, I tried. Grrrr. 
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