Main Engine Cut Off

T+92: Marcia Smith

Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online joins me to talk about the recent meetings of the NASA Advisory Council, the status of Commercial Crew, Space Force, and more space policy goodness.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 36 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Tyler, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Barbara, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, and eight anonymous—and 184 other supporters on Patreon.

T+91: August Q&A

The first official MECO Q&A! I answer questions from listeners about any and all things space—mostly. (PS: Start sending me your questions for September’s Q&A episode!)

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 36 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Tyler, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Barbara, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, and eight anonymous—and 183 other supporters on Patreon.

Clock is (Almost) Ticking for Opportunity

“The Sun is breaking through the haze over Perseverance Valley, and soon there will be enough sunlight present that Opportunity should be able to recharge its batteries,” said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at JPL. “When the tau level [a measure of the amount of particulate matter in the Martian sky] dips below 1.5, we will begin a period of actively attempting to communicate with the rover by sending it commands via the antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network. Assuming that we hear back from Opportunity, we will begin the process of discerning its status and bringing it back online.”

With skies clearing, mission managers are hopeful the rover will attempt to call home, but they are also prepared for an extended period of silence. “If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover,” said Callas. “At that point our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end. However, in the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun's energy, we will continue passive listening efforts for several months.”

The last tau estimate was about two weeks ago and was 2.5. The last few updates have said the tau is decreasing, so we’re probably getting close to 1.5.

General Atomics Wins Hosted Payload Contract for NASA’s MAIA

NASA has awarded a contract to General Atomics of San Diego, California, for services required to host the agency’s Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) instrument on a commercial satellite in low-Earth orbit.

Work under this firm-fixed price contract begins Aug. 31 and continues through Aug. 30, 2027. The total value of this contract is approximately $38.5 million.

Specific contract services include: integration planning; contractor ground system design, integration, testing, and readiness; MAIA instrument-spacecraft integration, test, and pre-launch processing; spacecraft and launch vehicle; launch and MAIA in-orbit checkout; and on-orbit spacecraft operations to enable instrument operations.

Yet another hosted payload for NASA, and interesting win for General Atomics. We haven’t heard much from their satellite side since they bought Surrey’s factory last November.

T+90: Andrew Jones

Andrew Jones joins me to talk all things Chinese spaceflight—exploration, policy, industry, and more.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 37 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Tyler, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Barbara, Stan, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, and eight anonymous—and 182 other supporters on Patreon.

Mark Stucky Opens Up About SpaceShipTwo Roll Problems

Doug Messier of Parabolic Arc clipped some excerpts from a New Yorker profile of Virgin Galactic’s Mark Stucky and added some context of his own.

Featured in both is some info on the April 5th test flight—the first powered flight of VSS Unity. Apparently, the pilots were preparing to shut down the engine because of the roll problems—they were never supposed to end up inverted. And the second powered flight looked even worse than that. No wonder Virgin Galactic only releases snippets of edited video, rather than posting the full flight duration video.

I’m surprised Stucky was willing, able, and/or brave enough to tell these anecdotes to anyone outside the organization. I don’t think the higher-ups are going to be too keen on that.

This vehicle continues to scare me.

Virgin Orbit Carrying Out Test Flights

The pylon is attached, and Jeff Foust of SpaceNews has some info on their test flights:

The company disclosed few details about the test flights, but flight tracking services such as Flightradar24 list three flights of the aircraft in recent days, most recently Aug. 27, taking off from the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California. The flights ranged in duration from one and a half to three and a half hours in airspace over the Mojave Desert and over the Pacific Ocean off the California coast.

SLC-41’s Common White Room

Eric Berger posted a link to an article on CollectSPACE that I hadn’t seen, indicating that ULA replaced the white room at SLC-41 with a new version:

The white room that was mounted to the arm two years ago was recently replaced to "enhance the capability" for Boeing's Starliner and to ensure "flexibility for future commercial launch partners," a ULA spokesperson told collectSPACE.

The height of what ULA now calls the "Common White Room" was increased by 4 feet (1.2 meters). For the most part, the room features the same equipment and functionality of the prior model, but some of the locations for storage and communications connections were changed to improve access based on lessons learned with the original configuration.

ULA has a well-documented love for the word “Common” in their vehicle names: Common Centaur, Common Booster Core, and Common Core Booster.

I can only assume this use of common refers to the future use of Vulcan to launch Starliner. If that’s the case, it’s a good sign about where they’re at with the design of Vulcan, that they’re ready to make hardware changes to accommodate Vulcan in the future.

NASA’s Next NextSTEP Study: Commercial Communications

Jeff Foust for SpaceNews:

Among the topics expected to be included in that NextSTEP call for proposals are “the architecture and service concepts” for such communications services, as well as specific issues regarding providing those services through a public private partnership. The synopsis specifically mentions the study of hosting NASA optical communications technology on commercial spacecraft.

Prior to the release of this synopsis, NASA had been studying a next-generation communications system that would ultimately replace the current generation of Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TRDS) spacecraft in Earth orbit, as well as support missions beyond Earth orbit. That included the possibility of partnerships with the private sector.

Great news for the likes of Audacy and others looking to build commercial alternatives to TRDSS, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first step towards a commercial communications orbiter at Mars.

One Year Since Totality

Not a day goes by that I don’t look up at the Sun or Moon and think about the 2 minutes and 40 seconds I spent in totality.

The perspective shift that comes with it hasn’t worn off yet. I look at the Sun and feel like I know what it really looks like. I look at the Moon knowing I’ve seen it in all its phases.

And I still can’t stop looking at Rick Fienberg’s photo of the corona (here’s the hi-res version)—it’s the closest thing I can find to what I saw with my own eyes.