Main Engine Cut Off

DARPA Selects Northrop Grumman for RSGS

Hot on the heels of MEV-1 successfully docking with its first target, the good news continues for Northrop Grumman’s Space Logistics business:

Under the agreement, DARPA will provide the robotics payload for the Space Logistics Mission Robotic Vehicle. This payload, developed and integrated by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, consists of two dexterous robotic manipulator arms, along with several tools and sensors. SpaceLogistics will provide its Mission Robotic Vehicle bus leveraging technologies developed for the industry’s first- ever satellite servicing vehicle, the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV).

The Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program has had a tumultuous path from the original award to SSL, through an unsuccessful protest by Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman), and ending with SSL dropping out for financial reasons. When SSL dropped out in January 2019, I wrote:

The telling sign here will be whether DARPA pursues a continuation of RSGS with Northrop Grumman, who lost out on the original round of agreements. Northrop Grumman may feel confident enough in their Mission Extension Vehicles and Pods that they don’t need the additional complexity of RSGS, or they may feel like the robotic arm would be a valuable boost to their work.

Turns out Northrop Grumman sees the collaboration (and the first sale of a Mission Robotic Vehicle flight) as a valuable path for their work.

With the first MEV mission in progress, a second one sold and awaiting launch, and now some activity on the Mission Robotic Vehicle front, the Space Logistics business seems to be working out so far.

ESA Data Puts 2019 Amazon Fires In Context, and It’s Good News

Pleasantly surprising data from ESA:

Attention on fires last year sparked an international demand for up-to-date information on active fires – particularly in Brazil. However, these numbers were never compared to the number of fires over a longer period of time.

Detailed in a recent paper published in Remote Sensing, scientists using data from ESA’s Fire CCI project, analysed burned areas in South America in both 2018 and 2019 – and compared the data to the 2001-18 yearly average.

According to the report, the total burned area in South America was around 70% more in 2019 compared to the same period of 2018, however only slightly more than the yearly average over the past 17 years.

There are some nice graphics in the ESA post, but this one really tells the story:

ESA Data on Amazon Fires, 2001–2019

Credit: ESA

Turns out 2018 was a good year, and 2019 was pretty close to the norm over the last two decades. Context helps.

NASA Awards Psyche Launch to SpaceX, Who Now Has Its First Mars Launch on the Books

Meant to link to this last week, but this is big news:

NASA has selected SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the agency’s Psyche mission. The Psyche mission currently is targeted to launch in July 2022 on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The total cost for NASA to launch Psyche and the secondary payloads is approximately $117 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs.

The launch of Psyche will include two secondary payloads (pending review and final selection): Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE), which will study the Martian atmosphere, and Janus, which will study binary asteroids.

At $117 million, Falcon Heavy is a hell of a deal for NASA. It’s no surprise, then, that SpaceX has been winning a lot of NASA science missions lately. Just within the last year, they’ve been selected to launch DARTPACEIXPE, and now Psyche.

The bit of info that doesn’t seem to be getting the pomp that it deserves is that, after launching in July 2022, Psyche (and obviously EscaPADE) will be doing a Mars flyby in 2023.

SpaceX officially has its first Mars launch on the books.

Huge Thanks to February Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 385 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of February. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 37 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and join the crew of supporters and producers!

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

First Look at Falcon 9 and Heavy Updates for NSSL

An FAA environmental assessment shed some light on changes that would come to SpaceX’s Falcon family if and when they’re selected as a Phase 2 launch provider: the new service tower that would be built at Pad 39A to support vertical integration of payloads, and the longer fairing that would be required for certain payloads.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy NSSL Rendering

The rendering looks a lot like the longest fairing that RUAG provides for Atlas V (and soon, Vulcan), so maybe this was done back when SpaceX was trying to work with RUAG on that. I’m not sure we know where that stands now, but in any event, the fairing will probably look similar.

Aside from an increased launch cadence, one of the main reasons for the new environmental assessment is because SpaceX is on the verge of flying polar flights from Cape Canaveral (SAOCOM-1B is scheduled for the end of March using this new trajectory).

The combination of all these updates—vertical integration at Pad 39A, longer fairings on Falcon 9 and Heavy, and the opening of the polar trajectory from Cape Canaveral—indicates my hunch was correct and Vandenberg will be used less and less by SpaceX, if at all. It sure seems like Falcon Heavy will never get a launch pad at Vandenberg.

The only kinds of launches that would likely require Vandenberg are the occasional retrograde launch carried out for NRO satellites. Otherwise, SpaceX should have the lift capacity from the east coast for anything that can fit under their new fairing and is headed for sun-synchronous orbit.

MEV-1 Docks with Intelsat 901

Northrop Grumman completed the first docking of a Mission Extension Vehicle with its target, and the photos are wonderful.

MEV-1 Approaches Intelsat 901

This docking took place in the graveyard orbit, 300 kilometers above the geostationary belt. Sounds like they have some checkouts to do with the combined stack before bringing Intelsat 901 back into the belt. Apparently the docking operations went so well that MEV-2 will be able to dock in the GEO belt without interrupting any other satellites.

I’m excited to see how Mission Extension Vehicles do in the market. I think they’ve got a viable path forward, especially given how MEVs can stack with other satellites during launch. That offsets a major mission cost, and if they can truly get 15 years of service out of a single MEV, they could make some really good money with each one.

And on the off chance that OmegA wins a piece of the National Security Space Launch program, their MEV offerings could get even more lucrative.

The Starliner Saga Continues: Boeing Skipped End-to-End Test

Great scoop from Chabeli Carrazana, writing for the Orlando Sentinel:

But speaking to the Orlando Sentinel, members of NASA’s safety advisory panel expanded on some of the testing decisions Boeing made that drew questions about whether Starliner was ready to fly.

Critically, the panel learned early this month that Boeing did not perform a full, end-to-end integrated test of Starliner in a Systems Integration Lab with ULA’s Atlas V rocket. The test typically shows how all the software systems during each component of the mission would have responded with each other through every maneuver — and it could potentially have caught the issues Boeing later experienced in the mission.

End-to-end testing is crucial in just about any project, but is especially so when that project involves mating two complex vehicles built by two (or more) different organizations.

This continues the same story I’ve been harping on with Starliner’s issues since December: Boeing is making mistakes that even to non-technical audiences sound downright stupid.

I’m sure there’s more going on behind the scenes, but it’s a problem to have so many issues that sound so basic even to the general public.

Boeing scheduled a media roundtable for later today, so we’ll see what kind of spin comes out of that.

Gerst the Politician, Gerst the Engineer

When the news broke yesterday that long-time head of human spaceflight at NASA, Bill Gerstenmaier, was joining SpaceX as a consultant, everyone got very excited…for the wrong reasons.

The collective reaction was that Gerst would be going to SpaceX to help its relationship (and to win contracts) with NASA, Congress, other parts of the government, or maybe even other governments entirely.

Other than disregarding the fact that Gerst is prohibited from a lot of that kind of work due to his history on the other side of it, that analysis is also disregarding an important bit of information: he is joining Hans Koenigsmann’s team, focused on reliability.

You don’t join Hans’ team to talk to government customers.

I’m hopeful—both personally and for his sake—that Gerst is heading to SpaceX not to be a political face for the organization or to schmooze inside the right DC circles, but rather to take things back to his roots as an engineer. I really hope his work at SpaceX looks a lot more like this than what the last few years of his work at NASA looked like.

He’s got a wealth of knowledge from the design, development, and operational cycles of Shuttle and Station. I’m sure, as the engineer he is, he’d love to pass that on to the next generation in a more hands-on way. Especially with how stuck and dull civil space policy is today.

He can play the part of the wise engineer, telling stories of the biggest wins and hardest failures of decades of human spaceflight programs which had many of each. He can ask wide-ranging questions with fresh eyes that see things the people intimately familiar with the systems will always overlook. And importantly for him, Gerst the Engineer, he can take on new problems with an exciting vision and a hell of a lot of momentum.

Beyond that, though, I still can’t shake a certain feeling. In some ways, admittedly from the outside, Gerstenmaier seems to be the antithesis of SpaceX culture—emotionally reserved (maybe even repressed), a preference for the slow-and-steady, and not necessarily prone to taking risks.

Or maybe that’s what Washington did to our beloved engineer.