Astra Sets Launch Date for TROPICS

Astra Space Inc. is targeting no earlier than June 12, pending issuance of a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, for the first launch of NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS), a constellation of six CubeSats. Two CubeSats, each about the size of a loaf of bread, will launch aboard Astra’s Rocket 3.3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

TROPICS will study tropical cyclones like hurricanes, some of the most powerful and destructive weather events on Earth, by measuring storm characteristics with a sensor about the size of a coffee cup. The miniaturized microwave radiometer detects the thermal radiation naturally emitted by the oxygen and water vapor in the air. TROPICS has the potential to provide near-hourly observations of a storm’s precipitation, temperature, and humidity. This data can help scientists increase understanding of the processes driving rapid changes in storm structure and intensity, which will improve weather forecasting models.

Astra will launch the other four TROPICS CubeSats in two separate launches later this summer.

The TROPICS team is led by Principal Investigator Dr. William Blackwell at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several universities and commercial partners. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will manage the launch service.

Stay connected with the mission on social media, and let people know you’re following it on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram by tagging these accounts:

Twitter: @NASA, @NASAEarth, @NASA_LSP, @Astra
Facebook:  NASA, NASA Earth, NASA LSP
Instagram:  @NASA, @AstraSpace

NASA to Launch Small Satellites on Next SpaceX Cargo Mission

Middle schoolers are sending their science fair project to space, one of five CubeSats on a ride-share on a Commercial Resupply Services, CRS-25. The CapSat-1 team are three 7th-grade students from the Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Middle schoolers are sending their science fair project to space, one of five CubeSats on a ride-share on the 25th Commercial Resupply Services, CRS-25. The CapSat-1 team are three 7th-grade students from the Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Photo credit: Weiss School

NASA’s Launch Services Program is preparing to send five CubeSats to the International Space Station as part of the ELaNa 45 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) mission aboard SpaceX’s 25th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-25) mission for NASA. Liftoff is scheduled for June 7 from Launch Complex 39A at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The small satellites were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, which provides low-cost access to space for U.S. educational institutions, NASA centers, and others to develop and demonstrate novel technologies in space and to inspire and grow the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists.

The CubeSats were developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; The Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida; and the University of South Alabama in Mobile. The CubeSats will be deployed from the space station.

NASA has selected over 200 CubeSat missions from more than 100 unique organizations representing 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico through the CubeSat Launch Initiative since 2010. To date, 134 CubeSat missions have launched into space through ELaNa rideshare opportunities.

NASA’s Psyche Spacecraft Arrives at Kennedy

NASA's Psyche spacecraft arrives at Kennedy Space Center's Launch and Landing Facility in Florida.
Preparations are underway to offload NASA’s Psyche spacecraft from the C-17 aircraft it arrived aboard at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch and Landing Facility in Florida on April 29, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The Psyche spacecraft completed its journey from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. First, it traveled to March Air Reserve Base, about 55 miles southeast of JPL, before flying cross-country aboard a C-17 aircraft to the Launch and Landing Facility (formerly the Shuttle Landing Facility) where crews offloaded the spacecraft. Over the next three months, the spacecraft will undergo additional preparations before launching aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on Aug. 1.

The Psyche spacecraft will use solar-electric propulsion to travel approximately 1.5 billion miles (2.4 billion kilometers) to rendezvous with its namesake asteroid in 2026. This will make it the first spacecraft to use Hall-effect thrusters beyond the orbit of the Moon. This thruster technology traps electrons in a magnetic field and uses them to ionize onboard propellant, expending much less propellant than equivalent chemical rockets. Psyche also carries three scientific instruments: an imager, magnetometer, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

The unique, metal-rich Psyche asteroid may be part of the core of a planetesimal, a building block of rocky planets in our solar system. Learning more about the asteroid could tell us more about how our own planet formed and help answer fundamental questions about Earth’s own metal core and the formation of our solar system.

The launch of Psyche will include two secondary payloads, NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technical demonstration, which is attached to the spacecraft as a separate experiment and the Janus spacecraft. DSOC will perform the agency’s first demonstration of optical communications beyond the Earth-Moon system, and will use lasers to send data at a higher rate than typical spacecraft radio communications. Janus is two small spacecraft that will study two different binary asteroids (two asteroids that orbit each other) to understand the formation and evolution of these objects.

The Psyche mission is led by Arizona State University. JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, is responsible for mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and testing, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis. NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP), based at Kennedy, is managing the launch. Psyche will be the 14th mission in the agency’s Discovery program and LSP’s 100th primary mission. Numerous international, university, and commercial partners are part of the Psyche team.

For more information check out the mission website.

Axiom Mission 1 Launch Readiness Review, Prelaunch News Conference set for April 7

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft aboard is seen on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A during a brief static fire test ahead of Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1), Wednesday, April 6, 2022, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft aboard is seen on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A during a brief static fire test ahead of Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1), Wednesday, April 6, 2022, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ax-1 mission is the first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Mission managers with NASA, Axiom, and SpaceX will participate in a Launch Readiness Review for Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) on Thursday, April 7. The first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station, Ax-1 is scheduled to launch no earlier than 11:17 a.m. EDT on Friday, April 8.

The results of the review will be discussed during a prelaunch news conference targeted for 3 p.m. EDT on April 7, or one hour after the review ends. NASA will provide a livestream of the news conference at: https://www.nasa.gov/live.

Participants include:

  • Dana Weigel, International Space Station Deputy Program Manager, NASA
  • Angela Hart, Commercial LEO Program Manager, NASA
  • Michael Suffredini, President and CEO, Axiom Space
  • Derek Hassmann, Operations Director, Axiom Space
  • Benjamin Reed, Senior Director, Human Spaceflight Programs, SpaceX
  • Launch Weather Officer, 45th Weather Squadron, U.S. Space Force

Ax-1 crew members Commander Michael López-Alegría of Spain and the United States, Pilot Larry Connor of the United States, and Mission Specialists Eytan Stibbe of Israel and Mark Pathy of Canada will travel to the space station on the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour spacecraft after launching on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

During the 10-day mission, the crew will spend eight days aboard the International Space Station conducting scientific research, outreach, and commercial activities.

Weather officials with the 45th Weather Squadron are predicting an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions for launch, with the primary concern being the thick cloud layer rule. Teams also are monitoring the down range weather for the flight path of the Crew Dragon.

Follow the link for more information about the mission’s briefings, events, and broadcast schedule.

For more information about NASA’s low-Earth orbit commercialization activities, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/leo-economy/.

NASA, Boeing Prepare to Replace Starliner Service Modules Ahead of Upcoming Orbital Flight Test-2

Starliner technicians work on the Orbital Flight Test-2 spacecraft in the high bay of Boeing's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 13, 2022.
Starliner technicians work on the Orbital Flight Test-2 spacecraft in the high bay of Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 13, 2022.

NASA and Boeing continue making progress toward the agency’s upcoming Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Teams recently completed offloading fuel from the OFT-2 spacecraft inside Starliner’s production factory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in preparation for separating and replacing the current service module (SM2) from the crew module.

“The Starliner team and successful completion of the spacecraft’s development phase are critical to sustaining International Space Station operations through 2030,” said Steve Stich, manager, NASA Commercial Crew Program. “The team’s dedication to developing effective remedies and corrective action after our first OFT-2 launch attempt demonstrates their continued commitment to safely flying NASA crews for years to come.”

In December, Boeing decided to move up service modules currently in production for its upcoming uncrewed and crewed flight tests. The service module originally planned for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) is now being used for OFT-2, and the service module originally planned for Starliner’s first post-certification mission, Starliner-1, now will  be used for CFT.

With fuel offload complete, the spacecraft was moved out of the hazardous processing area and into the production factory high bay.

“Because this is not an operation that we normally perform, our team took the time to fully coordinate and assess the proper spacecraft and ground support equipment configurations, and then execute to plan to ensure the safety of our team,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program.

Once separated in the coming weeks from the OFT-2 crew module, SM2 will be sent to NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico for additional testing related to the issue affecting the spacecraft’s oxidizer isolation valves.

The investigation into the valve issue continues to substantiate that the most probable cause is interaction of moisture with nitrogen tetroxide that permeates through the Teflon seal in the valve, leading to corrosion. Testing continues to fully understand how this occurrence affects the valves in various environments.

Tests include environmental seal evaluation and exposing valves, in a controlled setting, to temperatures and conditions similar to those the spacecraft experienced prior to the planned launch of OFT-2. The results of these tests will help in the ongoing development of remediation efforts to prevent similar issues on future service modules.

For example, the team designed a purging system that will be integrated into the spacecraft to protect the valves from potential exposure to moisture at the factory, launch complex, and launch pad.

Progress also continues with production of the new service module (SM4) that will go onto the OFT-2 crew module. That service module was recently moved from the low bay production area to the factory’s hazardous processing area for high pressure leak testing. Remaining tasks before mating this service module with the OFT-2 crew module include acceptance testing, final wire harness mating, installation of solar array panels, and final closeouts.

NASA and Boeing continue to work toward an opening in United Launch Alliance’s launch window availability in May for OFT-2. An actual launch date will be determined closer to spacecraft readiness, and with consideration of Eastern Range and International Space Station availability. Potential launch windows for CFT are under review and will be determined after a safe and successful OFT-2.

More details about the mission and NASA’s commercial crew program can be found by following the commercial crew blog, @commercial_crew and commercial crew on Facebook.

NASA Satellites Launch Aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne

Cornell University students work with the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), a CubeSat that is part of NASA's 29th ELaNa mission.
Cornell University students work with the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), a CubeSat that is part of NASA’s 29th ELaNa mission. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket detached from the company’s CosmicGirl aircraft at approximately 5:53 p.m. EST (2:53 p.m. PST) on Jan. 13, 2022,  launching NASA’s 29th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission and the 13th CubeSat in the TechEdSat series. This launch, also known as STP-27VPB, lifted off at approximately 4:39 p.m. EST (1:39 p.m. PST) from Mojave Air and Space Port, California.

Cornell’s Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), the 29th ELaNa mission, will launch two small research satellites known as CubeSats to low-Earth orbit to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous at a low cost. PAN is the first CubeSat mission to attempt docking between two CubeSats and will represent one of the most advanced autonomous CubeSat systems that has flown to date.

CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites, built to standard units, or “U,”  of 4 inches cubed. Often included as secondary payloads, CubeSats can be 1U, 2U, 3U, or 6U in size, typically weighing less than 3 pounds per unit and designed to carry out unique tasks once deployed into low-Earth orbit.

The PAN CubeSats, each measuring approximately 8 inches x 12 inches, feature a cold gas propulsion system, reaction wheel-based attitude control, and GPS navigation. A few months after launch, the satellites will match each other’s orbits and rendezvous to demonstrate future capabilities for on-orbit assembly.

The nanosatellites will use carrier-differential GPS to autonomously conduct rendezvous and docking operations. This method allows position measurement accurate to within several centimeters. If successful, the technology demonstrated by PAN will reduce the mass and complexity associated with traditional rendezvous and docking systems.

PAN was selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and assigned to this mission by the agency’s Launch Services Program (LSP) based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. CSLI enables the launch of CubeSat projects designed, built, and operated by students, teachers, faculty, NASA centers, and nonprofit organizations. Managed by LSP, ELaNa missions provide a deployment opportunity or ride-share launches to space for the selected CubeSats.

The TechEdSat-13 team prepares the spacecraft for flight at Virgin Orbit’s payload processing facility in Long Beach, California. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit

TechEdSat-13, from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, is a 3U nanosatellite that carries a unique artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) module featuring the first orbital flight of a neuromorphic processor. This processor, the Intel Loihi, permits fast and efficient execution of AI/ML algorithms through a unique architecture that, in some ways, mimics the human brain.

In addition, there is a unique exo-atmospheric brake that will help rapidly de-orbit this and future nanosatellites. With this exo-brake technology, TechEdSat-13 will help address the accumulation and efficient disposal of orbital debris. This effort also helps to set the stage for autonomous navigation for nanosatellites to drop from orbit and reach their planned destination on Earth.

The TechEdSat flight series involves university interns and early career aerospace professionals. TechEdSat-13 was funded by various research groups within NASA, and the neuromorphic processor was provided by the Air Force Research Laboratory  Information Directorate.

NASA Tests Landing Pad Materials For Future Lunar Missions

Hot fire tests examined the suitability of the materials that could be used in the construction of landing pads on the lunar surface for large landers—materials like sintered basalt rock pavers, carbon fiber blankets, and carbon fiber blankets filled with a lunar regolith simulant.
Hot fire tests examined the suitability of the materials that could be used in the construction of landing pads on the lunar surface for large landers—materials like sintered basalt rock pavers, carbon fiber blankets, and carbon fiber blankets filled with a lunar regolith simulant. Photo Credit NASA.
Hot fire tests examined the suitability of the materials that could be used in the construction of landing pads on the lunar surface for large landers.
Hot fire tests examined the suitability of the materials that could be used in the construction of landing pads on the lunar surface for large landers. Photo credit: NASA

NASA’s Large Vehicle Landing Surface Interaction project team is working to develop a landing pad concept for the Moon that could one day be constructed directly on the lunar surface. Researchers from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida who are working on improving plume surface interaction models traveled to the Mojave Desert in California to conduct materials testing with Masten Space Systems late last year. Using hot gas from a rocket engine, they conducted a series of hot fire tests on samples of various materials similar to those found on the surface of the Moon. These tests examined the suitability of the materials that could be used in the construction of landing pads on the lunar surface for large landers—materials like sintered basalt rock pavers, carbon fiber blankets, and carbon fiber blankets filled with a lunar regolith simulant. Data from the hot fire testing will be used to design landing pad concepts for future NASA and commercial human lunar missions.

Hot fire tests examined the suitability of the materials that could be used in the construction of landing pads on the lunar surface for large landers.
Hot fire tests examined the suitability of the materials that could be used in the construction of landing pads on the lunar surface for large landers. Photo credit: NASA

In addition to hot fire test data, the team is developing models to better understand how a lander can affect the lunar surface. This data will allow NASA to identify safe locations for large landers and help enable the agency’s Artemis missions. NASA’s Large Vehicle Landing Surface Interaction project is a public-private partnership with SpaceX under the 2019 Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity.

Launch Date Set for NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration

NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will launch aboard the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Space Test Program Satellite-6 (STPSat-6) spacecraft, targeted for Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket from Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The LCRD technology demonstration is a step towards making operational laser, or optical, communications a reality. As space missions generate and collect more data, higher bandwidth communications technologies are needed to send it all back home. Laser communications will significantly benefit missions by increasing bandwidth 10 to 100 times more than radio frequency systems.

LCRD will implement various laser experiments to test the technology’s functionality and capabilities. Technology demonstrations like LCRD will enable the use of laser communications systems for future missions as NASA works to establish a robust presence on the Moon and prepares for crewed missions to Mars.

STPSat-6 is part of the third Space Test Program, or STP-3. To learn more about STP-3, visit: www.ulalaunch.com.

To stay updated about LCRD and laser communications, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/lasercomms.

NASA, Boeing Update Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 Status

Starliner
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to be flown on Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is seen in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 12, 2021. Part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, OFT-2 is a critical developmental milestone on the company’s path to fly crew missions for NASA. Photo credit: Boeing

Editor’s note: This blog was updated Oct. 8 to reflect that the team is working toward launch opportunities in the first half of 2022 for Orbital Flight Test-2.

The NASA, Boeing team continues to make progress on the investigation of the oxidizer isolation valve issue on the Starliner service module propulsion system that was discovered ahead of the planned uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission to the International Space Station in August.

“I am proud of the work our integrated teams are doing,” said Steve Stich, manager of the Commercial Crew Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “This is a complex issue involving hazardous commodities and intricate areas of the spacecraft that are not easily accessed. It has taken a methodical approach and sound engineering to effectively examine.”

Boeing has demonstrated success in valve functionality using localized heating and electrical charging techniques. Troubleshooting on the pad, at the launch complex, and inside the Starliner production factory at Kennedy Space Center has resulted in movement of all but one of the original stuck valves. That valve has not been moved intentionally to preserve forensics for direct root cause analysis.

Most items on the fault tree have been dispositioned by the team including causes related to avionics, flight software and wiring. Boeing has identified a most probable cause related to oxidizer and moisture interactions, and although some verification work remains underway, our confidence is high enough that we are commencing corrective and preventive actions. Additional spacecraft and component testing will be conducted in the coming weeks to further explore contributing factors and necessary system remediation before flight.

Boeing completed a partial disassembly of three of the affected Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control (OMAC) thruster valves last month and plans to remove three valves from the OFT-2 spacecraft in the coming weeks for further inspection. The team also is evaluating additional testing to repeat the initial valve failures.

Boeing has identified several paths forward depending on the outcome of the testing to ultimately resolve the issue and prevent it from happening on future flights. These options could range from minor refurbishment of the current service module components to using another service module already in production. Each option is dependent on data points the team expects to collect in the coming weeks including a timeline for safely proceeding back to the launch pad.

“Safety of the Starliner spacecraft, our employees, and our crew members is this team’s number one priority,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Starliner program. “We are taking the appropriate amount of time to work through the process now to set this system up for success on OFT-2 and all future Starliner missions.”

Potential launch windows for OFT-2 continue to be assessed by NASA, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, and the Eastern Range. The team currently is working toward opportunities in the first half of 2022 pending hardware readiness, the rocket manifest, and space station availability.

Orion Spacecraft Goes ‘Shields Up’ for Artemis I

The four ogive fairings for the Orion Artemis I mission are installed on the launch abort system assembly inside the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 20, 2021.
The four ogive fairings for the Orion Artemis I mission are installed on the launch abort system assembly inside the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 20, 2021. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Teams at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are putting the final touches on the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I mission by connecting the ogive fairings for the launch abort system (LAS) assembly.  Pronounced oh-jive, the ogive fairings consist of four protective panels, and their installation will complete the LAS assembly.

Technicians and engineers from the center’s Exploration Ground Systems and contractor Jacobs recently finished attaching the launch abort tower to the top of the Orion crew module. They then began lifting and mating the lightweight fairings, which will shield the crew module from the severe vibrations and sounds it will experience during launch. One of the fairing panels has a hatch to allow access to the crew module before launch.

During Artemis missions, the 44-foot-tall LAS will detach from the spacecraft when it is no longer needed, shortly after launching on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, to lighten the journey to the Moon. Although the abort motors will not be active on the uncrewed Artemis I flight test, the system is intended to protect astronauts on future missions if a problem arises during launch or ascent by pulling the spacecraft away from a failing rocket.

Once LAS installation is complete, the spacecraft will leave the Launch Abort System Facility and continue on its path to the pad, making its way to the spaceport’s Vehicle Assembly Building to be integrated with the SLS rocket ahead of the launch.