How to ‘watch’ NASA’s OSIRIS-REx snatch a sample from near-Earth asteroid Bennu

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is about to touch down on an asteroid for a smash-and-grab mission, and you can follow its progress live — kind of. The craft is scheduled to perform its collection operation this afternoon, and we’ll know within minutes if all went according to plan.

OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security — Regolith Explorer, was launched in September of 2016 and since arriving at its destination, the asteroid Bennu, has performed a delicate dance with it, entering an orbit so close it set records.

Today is the culmination of the team’s efforts, the actual “touch and go” or TAG maneuver that will see the probe briefly land on the asteroid’s surface and suck up some of its precious space dust. Just a few seconds later, once sampling is confirmed, the craft will jet upward again to escape Bennu and begin its journey home.

Image Credits: NASA

Image Credits: NASA

While there won’t be live HD video of the whole attempt, NASA will be providing both a live animation of the process, informed by OSIRIS-REx’s telemetry, and presumably any good images that are captured as it descends.

We know for certain this is both possible and very cool because Japan’s Hayabusa-2 asteroid mission did something very similar last year, but with the added complexity (and coolness) of firing a projectile into the surface to stir things up and get a more diverse sample.

NASA’s coverage starts at 2 p.m. PDT, and the touchdown event is planned to take place an hour or so later, at 3:12, if all goes according to plan. You can watch the whole thing take place in simulation at this Twitch feed, which will be updated live, but NASA TV will also have live coverage and commentary on its YouTube channel. Images may come back from the descent and collection, but they’ll be delayed (it’s hard sending lots of data over a million-mile gap) so if you want the latest, listen closely to the NASA feeds.

Lockheed picks Relativity’s 3D-printed rocket for experimental NASA mission

Relativity Space has bagged its first public government contract, and with a major defense contractor at that. The launch startup’s 3D-printed rockets are a great match for a particularly complex mission Lockheed is undertaking for NASA’s Tipping Point program.

The mission is a test of a dozen different cryogenic fluid management systems, including liquid hydrogen, which is a very difficult substance to work with indeed. The tests will take place on a single craft in orbit, which means it will be a particularly complicated one to design and accommodate.

The payload itself and its cryogenic systems will be designed and built by Lockheed and their partners at NASA, of course, but the company will need to work closely with its launch provider during development and especially in the leadup to the actual launch.

Relativity founder and CEO Tim Ellis explained that the company’s approach of 3D printing the entire rocket top to bottom is especially well suited for this.

“We’re building a custom payload fairing that has specific payload loading interfaces they need, custom fittings and adapters,” he said. “It still needs to be smooth, of course — to a lay person it will look like a normal rocket,” he added.

Every fairing (the external part of the launch vehicle covering the payload) is necessarily custom, but this one much more so. The delicacy of having a dozen cryogenic operations being loaded up and tested until moments before launch necessitates a number of modifications that, in other days, would result in a massive increase in manufacturing complexity.

“If you look at the manufacturing tools being used today, they’re not much different from the last 60 years,” Ellis explained. “It’s fixed tooling, giant machines that look impressive but only make one shape or one object that’s been designed by hand. And it’ll take 12-24 months to make it.”

Not so with Relativity.

“With our 3D printed approach we can print the entire fairing in under 30 days,” Ellis said. “It’s also software defined, so we can just change the file to change the dimensions and shape. For this particular object we have some custom features that we’re able to do more quickly and adapt. Even though the mission is three years out, there will always be last minute changes as you get closer to launch, and we can accommodate that. Otherwise you’d have to lock in the design now.”

Ellis was excited about the opportunity to publicly take on a mission with such a major contractor. These enormous companies field billions of government dollars and take part in many launches, so it’s important to be in their good books, or at least in their rolodexes. A mission like this, complex but comparatively low stakes (compared with a crewed launch or billion-dollar satellite) is a great chance for a company like Relativity to show its capabilities. (Having presold many of its launches already, there’s clearly no lack of interest in the 3D printed launch vehicles, but more is always better.)

The company will be going to space before then, though, if all continues to go according to plan. The first orbital test flight is scheduled for late 2021. “We’re actually printing the launch hardware right now, the last few weeks,” Ellis mentioned.

The NASA Tipping Point program that is funding Lockheed with an $89.7 million contract for this experiment is one intended to, as its name indicates, help tip promising technologies over the edge into commercial viability. With hundreds of millions awarded yearly for companies pursuing things like lunar hoppers and robotic arms, it’s a bit like the agency’s venture fund.

NASA loads 14 companies with $370M for ‘tipping point’ technologies

NASA has announced more than a third of a billion dollars worth of “Tipping Point” contracts awarded to over a dozen companies pursuing potentially transformative space technologies. The projects range from in-space testing of cryogenic tech to a 4G LTE network for the Moon.

The space agency is almost always accepting applications for at least one of its many grant and contract programs, and Tipping Point is directly aimed at commercial space capabilities that need a bit of a boost. According to the program description, “a technology is considered at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration will significantly mature the technology, increase the likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and bring the technology to market for both government and commercial applications.”

In this year’s awards, which take the form of multi-year contracts with multiple milestones, the focus was on two main areas: cryogenics and lunar surface tech. Note that the amounts provided are not necessarily the cost of developing the tech, but rather the sums deemed necessary to advance it to the next stage. Here’s a brief summary of each award:

Cryogenics

  • Eta Space, $27M: In-space demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen management system
  • Lockheed Martin, $89.7M: In-space demonstration of liquid hydrogen in over a dozen cryogenic applications
  • SpaceX, $53.2M: Flight demonstration transferring 10 tons of liquid oxygen between tanks in Starship
  • ULA, $86.2M: Demonstration of a smart propulsion cryogenic system on a Vulcan Centaur upper stage

Lunar surface innovation

  • Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance, $22.1M: Develop a small tech and science platform for lunar surface testing
  • Astrobotic, $5.8M: “Mature” a fast wireless charging system for use on the lunar surface
  • Intuitive Machines, $41.6M: Develop a hopper lander with a 2.2-pound payload capacity and 1.5-mile range
  • Masten Space Systems, $2.8M: Demonstrate a universal chemical heat and power source for lunar nights and craters
  • Masten Space Systems, $10M: Demonstrate precision landing an hazard avoidance on its Xogdor vehicle (Separate award under “descent and landing” heading)
  • Nokia of America, $14.1M: Deploy the first LTE network in space for lunar surface communications
  • pH Matter, $3.4M: Demonstrate a fuel cell for producing and storing energy on the lunar surface
  • Precision Compustion, $2.4M: Advance a cheap oxide fuel stack to generate power from propellants
  • Sierra Nevada, $2.4M: Demonstrate a device using solar energy to extract oxygen from lunar regolith
  • SSL Robotics, $8.7M: Develop a lighter, cheaper robotic arm for surface, orbital, and “terrestrial defense” applications
  • Teledyne Energy Systems, $2.8M: Develop a hydrogen fuel cell power system with a 10,000-hour battery life

You can read more about the proposal process and NASA’s areas of interest at the Tipping Point solicitation page.

Watch Blue Origin launch its reusable New Shepard rocket live, with a key NASA system test on board

Blue Origin is set to return to active flight today, after a hiatus of nearly a year since its last launch in December 2019. Today’s launch is a mission for the company’s New Shepard reusable sub-orbital rocket – a record-setting sixth flight for this particular rocket, which first flew and landed back in December 2017. Today’s launch includes a system design to test elements of NASA’s Deorbit, Descent and Landing Sensor technology, which will provide key automation for use in future landers for the Moon and Mars that will be able to intelligently identify and avoid potential hazards on target landing zones.

This test will include recover of both the rocket and the capsule for the New Shepard launch vehicle. The Rocket will land back at the West Texas launch and landing site with a controlled, engine-powered descent, and the capsule will descend via parachute. The capsule will contain a variety of experiments and other payloads, including postcards from Blue Origin’s nonprofit organization Club for the Future provided by children from across the country.

The launch is set to take place at 8:35 AM CDT (9:35 AM EDT/6:35 AM PDT), with the livestream above beginning at around 9:05 AM EDT (6:05 AM PDT). The stream will include a message from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Blue Origin is increasingly working closely with NASA, including on a human landing system that could be the means for getting the next human astronauts to the surface of the Moon.

NASA commissions report to show its economic impact: $64B and 312K jobs

Perhaps anticipating budget pushback from the federal government, NASA has released its first ever agency-wide economic report, documenting the agency’s impact on the nation’s jobs and cash flow. Everyone knew NASA was impactful, but now we know exactly how impactful it is, some $64 billion and over 300,000 jobs worth in FY2019.

It seems clear that the 2,670-page report is meant to show just how valuable the agency is to the country, and how it’s very much an investment in the economy and not, as some suggest, a hole we throw money into and pull science out of. The major points it makes are these:

  • NASA itself employs more than 18,000 civil servants, but 17 additional jobs in the economy are “supported” (of this later) for every full-timer at the agency, for a total of around 312,000 total jobs.
  • NASA supports almost $24 billion in labor income yearly, as well as a total economic output of $64.3 billion.
  • $6.9 billion in additional tax revenues can be attributed to the agency’s work.
  • About 22 percent of this overall effect is due to the “Moon to Mars” program, the current 10-ish year plan to return to those locations.
  • Moon to Mars programs within NASA account for only 2.4 percent of the overall employment impact, but related procurement makes up almost 20 percent of it. (In other words, the “M2M” programs are hugely weighted towards contractors.)

“Support” is interpreted broadly, though not necessarily overly so. Essentially, NASA’s direct payroll and procurement budgets are one thing, but they may lead to increased demand for goods and services in general, and increased spending by companies, consumers, and local governments. So a NASA contractor doing $5M worth of composites work also produces demand in the city it’s based in for logistics work, business services, food and other everyday needs — perhaps to the tune of twice the money actually spent by NASA.

The report goes into remarkably fine detail on the thousands of industries it supports in direct and indirect ways. For instance, on page 138 of the appendix (page 493 overall), we find that NASA supports 66 jobs in the sheet metal manufacturing world, worth about $4M in labor, adding nearly $6M in value itself, and producing a total positive economic impact of about $14M. Then there’s the 91 jobs in fabricated metal structures, the 13 in heavy gauge metal tank manufacturing, 7 in cutlery, utensil, pot and pan manufacturing… and so on, for many pages.

Sometimes these connections seem a bit tenuous. How does NASA support small arms manufacturing and produce a $4M economic impact, or support the tortilla industry to a similar degree? No doubt there’s a perfectly good explanation, but I’ve asked NASA for a bit more context on how some these numbers might be arrived at.

The final picture is simple enough, however: NASA is a huge force in our economy and one that repays its investment several times over even when you don’t account for the “value” of exploring and understanding our universe.

It’s also broken down by state, a convenient way for members of Congress to justify NASA’s budget to their constituents, should they need convincing. When some of those billions could be spent on PPE and pandemic response rather than what some may perceive as research and programs with no immediate practical benefit, it’s important to be able to show how the agency is more than just an expense.

Blue Origin targets this Thursday for New Shepard reusable rocket launch with NASA landing system test

Blue Origin just announced the timing of its next rocket launch – and it’s surprisingly soon, in just two days on Thursday, September 24. The launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle will be its 13th overall for that category of launch craft, and the 7th in a row for this particular rocket. The payload will include an even dozen commercial cargo items, including a Deorbit, Descent and Landing Sensor Demonstration done in partnership with NASA – basically a highly-precise automated landing system that will help NASA land on the Moon and eventually Mars.

That payload is unique not just because of the technology involved in the landing system, but also because it’ll actually be mounted to the exterior of the New Shephard’s booster stage, rather than in the capsule that rides atop it. This is the first time that Blue Origin has carried a payload that way, and the company expects it could pave the way for similar future missions, enabling sensing at high altitudes, and experiments made possible through use of equipment exposed to the external environment.

Other payloads on this flight will include postcards from the Blue Origin-founded nonprofit Club for the Future, which are collected by students at schools across the world. There are also additional experiments from Johsn Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, Space Lab Technologies, mu Space Corp, other NASA experiments,and more.

Blue Origin plans a second test flight for the landing technologies on board, and overall these are emanated to help de-risk use of the sensors for later operational viability.

The company has set the launch for 10 AM CDT (11 AM EDT), and it’ll take off from its launch facility in West Texas. The launch will bore broadcast live, and a stream will start 30 minutes prior to liftoff time, and include a special message from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine about the agency’s collaboration with Blue Origin. The last New Shepard launch took place last December, so it’s been nearly a year since the company has flown one of its spacecraft.

NASA to test precision automated landing system designed for the Moon and Mars on upcoming Blue Origin mission

NASA is going to be testing out a new precision landing system designed for use on the tough terrain of the Moon and Mars for the first time during an upcoming mission of Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket. The ‘Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution’ (SPLICE) system is made up of a number of lasers, an optical camera, and a computer to take all the data collected by the sensors and process it using advanced algorithms, and it works by spotting potential hazards, and adjusting landing parameters on the fly to ensure a safe touchdown.

SPLICE will get a real-world test of three of its four primary subsystems during a New Shepard mission to be flown relatively soon. The Jeff Bezos -founded company typically returns its first-stage booster to Earth after making its trip to the very edge of space, but on this test of SPLICE, NASA’s automated landing technology will be operating on board the vehicle the same way they would when approaching the surface of the Moon or Mars . The elements tested will include ‘terrain relative navigation,’ Doppler radar, and SPLICE’s descent and landing computer, while a fourth major system – lidar-based hazard detection – will be tested on future planned flights.

Currently, NASA already uses automated landing for its robotic exploration craft on the surface of other planets, including the Perseverance rover headed to Mars. But a lot of work goes into selecting a landing zone with a large area of unobstructed ground that’s free of any potential hazards in order to ensure a safe touchdown. Existing systems can make some adjustments, but they’re relatively limited in that regard.

SPLICE is designed to enable more exact landings, and ones that can deal with more nearby hazards, enabling exploration in areas that were previously considered off-limits for landers. That could greatly expand our ability to gain more knowledge and better understanding of the Moon and Mars, which is particularly important as we continue to work towards more human exploration and even potential colonization.

The lidar system mentioned above is a key new ingredient in these SPLICE tests, since we don’t actually know in great detail how well lidar will perform with the terrain on Mars and the Moon, where reflectivity could be quite different from what it is here on Earth within our own atmosphere. Still, NASA is confident it should provide much better precision than radar-based methods for surface mapping and feature detection.

NASA issues new call for lunar payload deliveries from its commercial moon lander partners

NASA wants its private commercial space company partners to make more moon deliveries on its behalf: The agency just issued another request for scientific and experimental payloads that need lunar delivery sometime in 2022, in part to help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis human lunar landing mission planned for 2024.

NASA previously established its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in order to build a stable of approved vendors for a special special type of service, namely providing lunar landers that would be able to handle last-mile delivery of special payloads to the moon. It now counts 14 companies on this list of vendors, including Astrobotic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Firefly to name a few, who are eligible to bid on contracts it creates to take specific cargo to the lunar surface.

NASA has contracted two batches of payloads under the CLPS program, which will make up four planned total launches already under contract, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One set for June 2021; Intuitive Machines IM-1 for October the same year; Masten’s Mission One for December 2022; and Astrobotic’s VIPER mission for sometime in 2023.

The list of new payloads for this round include a variety of scientific instruments, including a lunar regolith (that’s the moon equivalent of soil) adhesion testing device, X-ray imagers, a dust shield created by the interaction of electric fields and an advanced moon vacuum for returning surface samples to Earth for more testing.

NASA’s private partners on the CLPS list will now be able to submit bids to cary the new list of 10 experiments and demonstrations, with the goal of delivering said equipment by 2022. The agency expects to pick a winner for this latest award by the end of this year.

Boeing and NASA target December for second try at uncrewed orbital demonstration flight

NASA and Boeing have provided some updates around their Commercial Crew plans, which aim to get Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft certified for regular human flight. The CST-100 and Boeing’s Commercial Crew aspirations hit a snag last year with a first attempt of an uncrewed orbital flight test, which did not go to plan thanks to a couple of software errors that led to an early mission ending, and a failure to reach the International Space Station as intended.

In a blog post on Friday, NASA said that it and partner Boeing were aiming to fly the re-do of that uncrewed test no earlier than December 2020. This will involve flying the fully reusable Starliner CST-100 without anyone on board, in a live, fully automated simulation of how a launch with crew would go, including a rendezvous and docking with the ISS on orbit, and a return trip and controlled landing and capsule recovery.

During the original OFT last December, the spacecraft took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V as planned, but encountered an issue with its onboard mission timer shortly after disengaging from the launch vehicle. That caused it to misfire its thrusters and expend fuel, and a communication error meant that NASA was not able to correct the issue until it had used too much fuel to allow it to continue to the Space Station as planned. The capsule did safely return to Earth, however, and provided valuable test data on the way.

NASA and Boeing subsequently undertook a comprehensive review of Boeing’s software development program, as well as the agency’s own practices surrounding the public-private partnership, and determined a number of corrective actions. That review ended in July, and the partners have now been working to get back to a second demonstration flight.

Boeing has a lot riding on this re-do, since NASA’s other partner in the Commercial Crew program, SpaceX, is now at least a year ahead in terms of its qualification program. SpaceX recently successfully completed its first crewed demonstration mission of its Dragon spacecraft, and could launch its first operational astronaut mission to the International Space Station as early as October.

Provided OFT-2 goes as intended for Boeing, Starliner could be ferrying its first passengers for a crewed demonstration launch as early as June 2021, with plans for a first operational mission now set for December 2021. All these dates are subject to change, of course.

NASA and SpaceX target October 23 for first operational astronaut launch

NASA and SpaceX have set a specific target date for Crew-1, the first operational crewed mission for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Crew-1 will carry astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins and Soichi Noguchi to the International Space Station, and will mark the first regular service mission of the Dragon spacecraft following its certification at the conclusion of its development and testing program.

Crew Dragon’s final major milestone in that process was Demo-2, the mission launched on May 30 with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board. While Hurley and Behnken completed that mission with a successful return to Earth earlier this month, that was still technically part of the qualification process for Crew Dragon and for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, in order to certify it for human spaceflight so that it could begin regular mission operations — which kick off with Crew-1.

NASA says the late October date (it had earlier discussed a late September time frame as a possibility) is to allow for the upcoming Soyuz spacecraft traffic from Russia to the ISS, as well as the departure of the current Space Station crew at the end of their current rotation. It’s also still pending a full review of the data and qualification criteria of Crew Dragon and the Demo-2 mission, which definitely appears to have gone pretty much exactly to plan, but which still will be examined under a microscope by NASA and SpaceX staff to ensure that was indeed the case.

If this data review goes well, and Crew-1 flies in October, then Crew-2 should take place next spring, bringing up four more astronauts to relieve the Crew-1 astronauts for another tour of science and Space Station operations.