Countdowns and Testing – Commercial Space steps up a gear

by Chris Bergin

Several commercial space companies are in the midst of critical testing and launch preparations. While the increase in activity is aimed at successfully achieving differing mission objectives, the overall drive is one based on private companies becoming the new gate keepers of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), freeing NASA to set sail for deep space destinations.

Commercial Space on the Rise:

Commercial space companies are starting to heal the wound left behind by the premature end of the Space Shuttle Program (SSP).

Despite the rise of companies such as SpaceX – well before Atlantis touched her wheels down on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) for the final time – the public perception of an American space program that had all-but come to a close still exists even today.

Tagged as a transition, the painful reality of the Shuttle fleet’s retirement was almost immediately evident via vast empty spaces in car lots at facilities around the nation, as thousands of talented engineers were repaid for their years of dedication with pink slips and patronizing youtube videos.

SLS LaunchHowever, the long-term goal of the transition is something that should be celebrated, as political direction to refocus NASA on Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) objectives allows for the Agency’s limited resources to – on paper at least – begin the opening steps in the latest drive to finally send humans to Mars.

Although NASA’s exploration path will forever be at the mercy of lawmakers backing their plans with realistic and stable long-term funding, the redirection of what is a small part of the Agency’s near-term budget – towards the commercial space sector – is beginning to reinvigorate both America’s space flight capability and the public’s imagination.

Often cited as “handing over the keys to Low Earth Orbit (LEO)”, NASA is deeply involved in providing funding and expertise to drive both new and old space companies into providing domestic cargo and crew capabilities to the International Space Station (ISS).

Dragon at the ISS, via huge unreleased L2 photo collectionSpaceX – the rock star of the commercial space arena – has already successfully lofted their Dragon spacecraft on three cargo runs to the orbital outpost, in turn providing a much-needed downmass capability that had been lost since the end of the Shuttle Program.

While their next launch is a commercial satellite mission, SpaceX will be debuting their upgraded Falcon 9 v.1.1 rocket, sporting its new Merlin 1D main engines, along with other improvements.

The beefed up Falcon 9 is currently preparing for its Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) at its Vandenberg launch site, which should take place this coming week. The launch date will likely be firmed up after that event, although launch is still expected to take place in September.

The mission, to loft the CAScade, Smallsat and IOnospheric Polar Explorer (CASSIOPE) – a made-in-Canada small satellite from the Canadian Space Agency – into orbit, will be the first of a salvo of satellite missions for the Californian company, ahead of the new Falcon 9’s task of sending the fourth Dragon (CRS-3/SpX-3) to the ISS.

The new rocket is also a key element for SpaceX’s fully reusable launch system ambitions, with specific testing involving the “Grasshopper” proving to be highly promising.

While SpaceX already have an army of fans, another commercial vehicle is doing its part in recapturing the public’s affections.

Also out on the West Coast, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser ETA (Engineering Test Article) has been busily put through its paces at the Dryden Flight Research Center (DFRC), culminating in last week’s Captive Carry test, the second time the ETA has been “flown”.

Dream Chaser Captive CarryDuring the two-hour test, an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter flew the ETA – different to the chopper used during its first captive carry test at its home base in Colorado – a distance of three miles over a dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base at a maximum altitude of approximately 12,400 feet.

The trip closely followed the projected flight path it will fly during future approach and landing tests at Dryden, with the first landing test already scheduled for as early as September 7.

That drop test – known as the approach-and-landing free-flight test – will see the “baby orbiter” enjoy seconds of free-flight after release, with an uncrewed return towards the lake bed, prior to a level glide, and landing.

In preparation for that event, Dream Chaser’s flight computer, along with its guidance, navigation and control systems were tested during the captive carry test. The landing gear and nose skid also were deployed.

Meanwhile, a busy September for commercial space will not be exclusively conducted on the West Coast, with Orbital ready to send their first Cygnus spacecraft on a trip to the ISS.

Antares Launch video L2 engineering videoThe second launch of Orbital’s Antares rocket is set to head uphill from their Wallops base on September 17.

The launch date was decided after meetings between Orbital and NASA, required due to the Visiting Vehicle planning for the Space Station. The COTS Demonstration Mission – known as ORB-D – is targeting a launch time of 11:16 am local, the opening of a 15-minute launch window.

Following launch, Cygnus’ first venture into space will be controlled by Orbital at MCC-Dulles. For this debut trip to the Station, five to six days of demos will take place during the period of far field phasing. Future missions will only require a standard three days prior to arriving at the ISS.

Cygnus heading to KOSThe Orbital team will work closely with Mission Control in Houston, as the vehicle enters the gate of the ISS’ neighborhood, known as the “Keep Out Sphere (KOS)”.

Once inside the KOS, Cygnus will demonstrate that it can hold and retreat, prior to receiving the go – via polling – to proceed.

Cygnus will continue to edge towards the capture point, mirroring Dragon’s arrival at the Station, prior to the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) reaching out to grapple Cygnus, ahead of being berthed on the Station.

Should Antares and Cygnus pass their COTS objectives, Orbital will then make preparations for the opening CRS mission, known as ORB-1.

Per Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) information provided to L2, Cygnus will fly again, possibly by the end of the year, targeting a berthing window ranging from December 11 to January 10, 2014.

As a result, SpaceX’s CRS-3 Dragon has seen its next mission to the ISS moved to next year, with a berthing window ranging from January 17, 2014 through February 16.

(Images: L2 Content, NASA, SpaceX, Orbital. NSF and L2 are providing full transition level coverage, available no where else on the internet, from Orion and SLS to ISS and CRS/CCP, to European and Russian vehicles.

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