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Space Roundup: Q1 2017

March 31, 2017

 After the first quarter of 2017, the space industry appears on an upswing after some losses, possibly extending from incidences several years ago.

NASA has continued to shape its plans for sending people to Mars in the 2030s, the status presented to the NASA Advisory Council late this March.  It has terminated the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  Also this March, President Trump signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act into law in which he will soon reactivate a White House National Space Council asking Vice President Pence to lead it. 

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as  SpaceX  headquartered in Hawthorne, California, successfully passed a static fire test of a “recycled” Falcon 9 rocket, setting the stage for the company’s first launch of a reusable Falcon 9 booster, which previously flew in April 2016.  Then on March 30, 2017, 6:27 p.m. EDT, the rocket lifted off to put a SES-10 communications satellite into orbit, the main booster returning to touch down on its landing pad in the Atlantic for its second at-sea return.  The use of a recycled rocket marks a milestone for the commercial space industry and SpaceX, who have waited 15 years for this event claiming a cut in costs by about 30 percent, ushering in an era for less expensive spaceflight.

Since its first dramatic right-side-up landing in December 2015, SpaceX has accumulated nine successful Falcon 9 landings both at land and sea, utilizing a drone ship for the sea landings.  This January 2017 included a landing in the Pacific Ocean on a drone ship named "Just Read The Instructions" 1, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  However, this success followed an incident at Cape Canaveral in September 2016 where the Falcon 9 exploded into a fireball on the launch pad during a routine fueling procedureThis halted all operations for three months.  Back in June 2015, the Falcon 9 suffered a mid-air explosion approximately two-minutes after lift-off destroying 4,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station.  After its recent success, however, SpaceX plans to launch every two weeks from either Florida or California to catch up on its $10 billion of contracts to deliver cargo into low-Earth orbit.  For the immediate future, SpaceX will launch a cargo mission for NASA in May 2017, continuing the reusability theme. 


SpaceX Launches First Recycled Rocket on March 30, 2017


Virgin Galactic’s new VSS Unity spaceplane made a successful free flight in December 2016, the company’s first free flight test since a fatal accident in October 2014.  It reached a speed of 456 mph during its descent, which is 0.6 the speed of sound, but will need to break the sound barrier by igniting its rocket engine to reach the edge of space.  The tragedy of October 2014 occurred during powered flight and the incident was attributed to pilot error.  Virgin Galactic, headquartered in Long Beach, California, promises more glide tests before returning to powered flight and intends to eventually carry space tourists for the price of $250,000 each.  Virgin Galactic is a subsidiary to a British multinational corporation called Virgin Group and includes a commercial airline (Virgin Atlantic), cell phones (Virgin Mobile), travel business (Virgin Hotels), international radio station (Virgin Radio), and retail and record stores (Virgin Megastores).  Its annual revenue for 2016 was over $24 billion (19.5 billion British Pounds).

Orbital ATK announced on March 30, 2017 that it successfully concluded 17 years of mission support for NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite which is now decommissioned under NASA’s direction.  The Earth Observing-1 satellite delivered thousands of high quality images providing valuable data that included scenes from the World Trade Center attacks, flooding in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, and volcanic eruptions.  The quality images were the result of cutting edge instrument technology that performed flawlessly and exceeded mission expectations. Orbital ATK was formed in 2015 from a merger between Orbital Sciences Corporation and Alliant Techsystems.  Orbital ATK designs and builds space, defense, and aviation-related systems to customers around the world both as a prime contractor and merchant supplier.  Before the merger, Orbital Sciences was an American company specializing in the design, manufacture, and launch of small-to-medium class rockets for commercial and military use, headquartered in Dulles, Virginia.  The fifth launch of its Antares rocket with refurbished Russian-built engines in October 2014 resulted in failure when the rocket blew apart on the launch pad destroying 5,000 lbs of supplies to the International Space Station, and the Cygnus spacecraft, a loss of 200 million dollars.

The private spaceflight company Blue Origin, headquartered in Kent, Washington and led by billionaire Jeff Bezos who formerly founded Amazon.com, has recently released new images of the interior of its New Shepard Capsule which the company says will be used to send paying customers on brief trips into space.  The first human test flights are intended toward the end of 2017 with the first customer flights taking place in 2018.  The flights are considered suborbital, which are not quite high enough to loop around the planet, and will last 11 minutes.  Blue Origin has launched the same New Shepard rocket booster five times over the past 1-1/2 years during suborbital test flights.  Besides its tourism function, the New Shepard vehicle can also serve as a microgravity laboratory.

Its future plans are to perfect the New Shepard technology and apply it to its New Glenn orbital boosters, a rocket larger than the Falcon 9, and fly itself back to an oceangoing platform much like SpaceX’s drone ship, launching at Cape Canaveral by 2020.

The James Webb Space Telescope, also known as Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), is scheduled to launch in October 2018, and considered the successor to NASA’s iconic Hubble Space Telescope.  Whereas the Hubble Space Telescope had a 2.4 meter mirror, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will have a larger segmented 6.5 meter primary mirror and will be positioned at the Earth-Sun Lagrangian point L2 2, approximately 930,000 miles beyond Earth.  The JWST is the  largest space telescope in the world and took over 20 years to construct.  Its purpose concerns four major areas: first light in the universe, assembly of galaxies in the early universe, birth of stars and protoplanetary systems, and planets (including the origins of life). 

NASA continues to develop the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever, intended to send astronauts to Mars.  The booster with four engines, and two boosters on the side, are expendable (not reusable) and are launched once every year or two and therefore considered costly.  It is not predictable at this point if NASA will be yielding entirely to private commercial space for future space needs.


          1.  SpaceX’s robot-like drone ship operating in the Pacific Ocean was named “Just Read The Instructions” in honor of legendary sci-fi author Iain
            M. Banks from his novel ‘Player of Games’.  Another drone ship in the Atlantic was also named from this novel, “Of Course I Still Love You”, for
            launches from Cape Canaveral.

         2.  The James Webb Space Telescope will not orbit the Earth like the Hubble Space Telescope.  It will actually orbit the Sun at what is called the
           second Lagrange point or L2.  A Lagrange point is a location in space where the combined gravitational forces of two large bodies, such
           as Earth and Sun, equal the centrifugal force felt by a smaller third body.  Putting a spacecraft at a Lagrange point allows it to stay in a
           fixed position, or "parked", with minimal course correction.