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Rocket Lab returns to service with “flawless” launch for U.S. military

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Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle lifts off at 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT; 6 p.m. local time) Thursday from Zealand. Credit: Rocket Lab

Resuming launches after a mission failure two months ago, Rocket Lab successfully placed a small U.S. military research and development satellite into orbit Thursday following a fiery liftoff from New Zealand on a flight that was originally supposed to launch from the company’s new pad in Virginia.

The 59-foot-tall (18-meter) Electron rocket ignited its nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines and climbed away from Launch Complex 1 on the North Island of New Zealand at 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) Thursday.

Liftoff from Rocket Lab’s privately-owned launch base on Mahia Peninsula occurred at 6 p.m. local time, just after sunset.

Heading east from Mahia, the rocket’s first stage burned its nine engines for about two-and-a-half minutes, followed by a six-minute firing of the second stage engine to reach a preliminary parking orbit.

A kick stage deployed from the the Electron rocket’s second stage to begin a coast across the Pacific Ocean, Central America, and the Caribbean Sea before igniting its Curie engine reach a circular orbit about 372 miles (600 kilometers) above Earth at an inclination of 37 degrees to the equator.

Rocket Lab, a California-based company founded in New Zealand, confirmed a good deployment of the U.S. military’s small experimental Monolith spacecraft about 52 minutes after liftoff.

“Payload deployed, flawless launch and mission by the team!” tweeted Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO.

The mission was the 21st flight of a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle since 2017, and the eighth to carry a payload for a U.S. military or intelligence agency customer.

It was also the first Rocket Lab mission since May 15, when an Electron rocket failed before reaching orbit with two commercial BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites.

Rocket Lab’s internal investigation, with oversight from the Federal Aviation Administration, concluded the failure was caused by a problem with the igniter system on the Electron launcher’s second stage engine.

“This induced a corruption of signals within the engine computer that caused the Rutherford engine’s thrust vector control (TVC) to deviate outside nominal parameters and resulted in the engine computer commanding zero pump speed, shutting down the engine,” Rocket Lab said in a statement earlier this month.

Live video from beamed down from the rocket May 15 showed the second stage’s kerosene-fueled Rutherford engine igniting and immediately begin to tumble about three minutes into the flight. The engine shut down prematurely after firing for a few seconds, well short of a planned six-minute burn.

The rocket and its two BlackSky payloads fell into the Pacific Ocean downrange from the launch site in New Zealand.

Rocket Lab said the igniter problem “resulted from a previously undetectable failure mode within the ignition system that occurs under a unique set of environmental pressures and conditions.”

The company said engineers found no evidence of the problem during pre-flight testing, which included more than 400 seconds of burn time for the same engine. But Rocket Lab said it was able to replicate the issue after the flight, and teams “implemented redundancies in the ignition system to prevent any future reoccurrence, including modifications to the igniter’s design and manufacture.”

The May 15 mission was the third time an Electron rocket failed to reach orbit on 20 attempts since 2017.

Engineers traced the cause of an Electron second stage failure in July 2020 to a faulty electrical connector, which detached in flight and led to an early engine shutdown, dooming seven small commercial satellites.

Rocket Lab said it implemented improved testing to better screen for bad connectors, and the company successfully launched its next Electron mission less than two months later.

Rocket Lab racked up six straight successful Electron missions before the launch failure May 15. The company’s first orbital launch attempt in 2017 failed to reach orbit due to a ground system failure that caused safety teams to send a flight termination command to the rocket.

The small launch company says it is ready to resume a busy flight cadence through the rest of the year. Rocket Lab is close to beginning launches from two new pads — one in Virginia and another adjacent to its existing launch complex in New Zealand — to accommodate a more rapid flight rate.

Thursday’s mission, designated STP-27RM, was originally supposed to launch from Rocket Lab’s new pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, located at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. But delays in NASA’s certification of the Electron rocket’s new autonomous flight safety system have kept Rocket Lab from beginning service from the Virginia launch base.

In June, officials at Wallops said they hope to complete certification of the new autonomous flight safety system by the end of the year, enabling the first Rocket Lab launch from U.S. soil. With the launch of the military’s Monolith mission moved from Virginia to New Zealand, Rocket Lab’s first flight from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops will likely launch NASA’s CAPSTONE CubeSat payload to the moon.

The CAPSTONE mission is scheduled for launch late this year, according to NASA and Rocket Lab.

The Space Test Program, which helps manage development of the military’s experimental satellites, procured the launch of the Monolith satellite with the Rocket Systems Launch Program, part of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

Other partners on the mission include the Defense Innovation Unit and the Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, a program that books rides to orbit for small military satellites on emerging commercial small satellite launchers.

The Monolith satellite, built by the non-profit Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University, will demonstrate the use of a deployable sensor that is relatively large in mass compared to the mass of the spacecraft itself, according to the Space and Missile Systems Center.

The deployment of the sensor will change the satellite’s dynamic properties, testing the spacecraft’s ability to maintain stable attitude control, military officials said.

When the military announced the Monolith mission in 2019, officials said the satellite’s sensor package is aimed at space weather monitoring.

Data from the Monolith mission will help engineers design future small satellites to host deployable sensors, such as weather monitoring instruments. The Space Force said that will help reduce the cost, complexity, and development timelines of future missions.

“The satellite will also provide a platform to test future space protection capabilities,” the Space Force said.

Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the Electron rocket’s first stage booster on Thursday’s mission. The company has retrieved two Electron boosters from the Pacific Ocean as engineers move toward reusing the rocket’s first stage, an innovation Rocket Lab says will allow for a faster launch rate and lower costs.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is sized to deliver small satellites to orbit, providing a dedicated ride for spacecraft that would otherwise have to fly as a lower-priority payload on a larger launch vehicle.

The Electron rocket can deliver a payload of up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms) to a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit, about 1% of the lift capability of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher. Rocket Lab sells dedicated Electron missions for as little as $7 million.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Source: https://spaceflightnow.com/2021/07/29/rocket-lab-returns-to-service-with-flawless-launch-for-u-s-military/

Aerospace

NASA picks landing site for VIPER lunar rover

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WASHINGTON — NASA has selected a crater near the south pole of the moon as the landing site for a robotic rover to search for water ice that could be a resource for future human expeditions.

NASA announced Sept. 20 that its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission will land near the western edge of Nobile Crater, near the lunar south pole. VIPER is scheduled to arrive there in late 2023, delivered by Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander on a mission arranged through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

Nobile was one of four finalists that emerged from a selection process that originally considered about 15 different regions, agency officials said in a call with reporters. Nobile “maximizes science return and flexibility to help ensure mission success once VIPER is on the moon,” said Lori Glaze, planetary science director at NASA Headquarters.

The project considered several factors when choosing the landing site. The site needed to have good visibility of the Earth, which will be low on the horizon at the south pole, to enable direct-to-Earth communications, as well as good illumination for the solar-powered rover. The site also needed what Anthony Colaprete, lead project scientist for VIPER at the Ames Research Center, called “trafficable terrain” that the rover could navigate, avoiding steep slopes. Finally, scientists wanted a location that had a variety of terrains that might harbor water ice at or just below the surface.

Nobile met all those criteria, he said, from a high elevation that offered good visibility of the Earth to ridgelines that are in sunlight for all but about 50 hours of the two-week lunar night. Those “safe havens” would allow the rover to survive on battery power. In contrast to those illuminated safe havens are permanently shadowed regions in the crater, some 500 to 800 meters across, that the rover can visit to look for water ice deposits.

VIPER is equipped with a suite of instruments, including a drill designed to probe up to a meter below the surface, to detect and quantify water ice. That analysis is of both scientific interest as well as for supporting future human missions that could use the ice for life support and propellant.

NASA picked the VIPER landing site two years in advance because of the intense planning needed to maximize the mission, which will last about 100 Earth days. Colaprete said the project has already developed a “baseline traverse” for the rover running about 25 kilometers with 12 locations it will study in detail.

“The time that we have with a solar-powered rover is limited because of the natural seasons of the polar regions of the moon,” said Daniel Andrews, VIPER project manager. “This entire region will fall into darkness after four months or so. We have a finite amount of time to get this mission done, so we really want to optimize where we go and how we go about doing it.”

Scientists, though, acknowledge that they’ll have to make changes on the fly during the mission based on what the rover finds. “The science team won’t always have days or weeks to think on the data that comes in,” said Darlene Lim, VIPER deputy lead project scientist. “Instead, the science team will have to react and make decisions that enhance the mission on a much faster minute-to-hour timescale.”

NASA is pressing ahead with the selection of the landing site, and the VIPER mission overall, despite having another mission in development that would appear to be able to assist. The Lunar Trailblazer orbiter is designed to map the distribution of ice on the lunar surface at a resolution of 100 meters per pixel, far better than the best estimates of water ice distribution currently available. The spacecraft is scheduled to be ready for launch in late 2022 but won’t fly until early 2025 as part of a NASA rideshare mission whose primarily payload is the IMAP space science spacecraft.

At the briefing, officials said that they didn’t need to fly Lunar Trailblazer first to ensure success for VIPER. “The data that we have are very good at helping us identify those high-probability sites where we might find ice,” said Glaze. “I think we have absolutely sufficient knowledge to fly the VIPER mission right now.”

The lunar science community has been pushing to move up the launch of Lunar Trailblazer, including a recommendation to that effect at a meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group earlier this month. Glaze, though, said NASA had no plans to accelerate its launch. “At this time, the most reliable launch for Lunar Trailblazer remains on IMAP,” she said. “That will be after the VIPER mission.”

Glaze and others described VIPER as a “ground truthing” mission to see exact what forms ice is in at the south pole of the moon. “We know there’s water ice there, and we know some of it is at the surface and some is below the surface,” Colaprete said. “Exactly where and how much, and how it’s distributed between the surface and subsurface, is a large unknown.” VIPER, he added, will also look for ice in locations where scientists don’t think water ice exists as a test of their hypotheses.

“If we find there’s no water in any place we look,” he added, “that is a fundamental discovery and we will be scratching our heads and rewriting textbooks again.”


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Source: https://spacenews.com/nasa-picks-landing-site-for-viper-lunar-rover/

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NASA picks landing site for VIPER lunar rover

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WASHINGTON — NASA has selected a crater near the south pole of the moon as the landing site for a robotic rover to search for water ice that could be a resource for future human expeditions.

NASA announced Sept. 20 that its Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission will land near the western edge of Nobile Crater, near the lunar south pole. VIPER is scheduled to arrive there in late 2023, delivered by Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander on a mission arranged through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

Nobile was one of four finalists that emerged from a selection process that originally considered about 15 different regions, agency officials said in a call with reporters. Nobile “maximizes science return and flexibility to help ensure mission success once VIPER is on the moon,” said Lori Glaze, planetary science director at NASA Headquarters.

The project considered several factors when choosing the landing site. The site needed to have good visibility of the Earth, which will be low on the horizon at the south pole, to enable direct-to-Earth communications, as well as good illumination for the solar-powered rover. The site also needed what Anthony Colaprete, lead project scientist for VIPER at the Ames Research Center, called “trafficable terrain” that the rover could navigate, avoiding steep slopes. Finally, scientists wanted a location that had a variety of terrains that might harbor water ice at or just below the surface.

Nobile met all those criteria, he said, from a high elevation that offered good visibility of the Earth to ridgelines that are in sunlight for all but about 50 hours of the two-week lunar night. Those “safe havens” would allow the rover to survive on battery power. In contrast to those illuminated safe havens are permanently shadowed regions in the crater, some 500 to 800 meters across, that the rover can visit to look for water ice deposits.

VIPER is equipped with a suite of instruments, including a drill designed to probe up to a meter below the surface, to detect and quantify water ice. That analysis is of both scientific interest as well as for supporting future human missions that could use the ice for life support and propellant.

NASA picked the VIPER landing site two years in advance because of the intense planning needed to maximize the mission, which will last about 100 Earth days. Colaprete said the project has already developed a “baseline traverse” for the rover running about 25 kilometers with 12 locations it will study in detail.

“The time that we have with a solar-powered rover is limited because of the natural seasons of the polar regions of the moon,” said Daniel Andrews, VIPER project manager. “This entire region will fall into darkness after four months or so. We have a finite amount of time to get this mission done, so we really want to optimize where we go and how we go about doing it.”

Scientists, though, acknowledge that they’ll have to make changes on the fly during the mission based on what the rover finds. “The science team won’t always have days or weeks to think on the data that comes in,” said Darlene Lim, VIPER deputy lead project scientist. “Instead, the science team will have to react and make decisions that enhance the mission on a much faster minute-to-hour timescale.”

NASA is pressing ahead with the selection of the landing site, and the VIPER mission overall, despite having another mission in development that would appear to be able to assist. The Lunar Trailblazer orbiter is designed to map the distribution of ice on the lunar surface at a resolution of 100 meters per pixel, far better than the best estimates of water ice distribution currently available. The spacecraft is scheduled to be ready for launch in late 2022 but won’t fly until early 2025 as part of a NASA rideshare mission whose primarily payload is the IMAP space science spacecraft.

At the briefing, officials said that they didn’t need to fly Lunar Trailblazer first to ensure success for VIPER. “The data that we have are very good at helping us identify those high-probability sites where we might find ice,” said Glaze. “I think we have absolutely sufficient knowledge to fly the VIPER mission right now.”

The lunar science community has been pushing to move up the launch of Lunar Trailblazer, including a recommendation to that effect at a meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group earlier this month. Glaze, though, said NASA had no plans to accelerate its launch. “At this time, the most reliable launch for Lunar Trailblazer remains on IMAP,” she said. “That will be after the VIPER mission.”

Glaze and others described VIPER as a “ground truthing” mission to see exact what forms ice is in at the south pole of the moon. “We know there’s water ice there, and we know some of it is at the surface and some is below the surface,” Colaprete said. “Exactly where and how much, and how it’s distributed between the surface and subsurface, is a large unknown.” VIPER, he added, will also look for ice in locations where scientists don’t think water ice exists as a test of their hypotheses.

“If we find there’s no water in any place we look,” he added, “that is a fundamental discovery and we will be scratching our heads and rewriting textbooks again.”


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Source: https://spacenews.com/nasa-picks-landing-site-for-viper-lunar-rover/

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Space Force to brief industry on its future architecture for space-based missile warning

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The Space Warfighting Analysis Center will brief industry representatives Oct. 27 on the results of its first “force design” study focused on space-based missile warning and missile tracking

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond said a new Space Force office called Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC) will brief industry representatives Oct. 27 on the results of its first “force design” study focused on space-based missile warning and missile tracking.

Raymond spoke Sept. 20 during a joint new conference with Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference.

According to an announcement posted on SAM.GOV the SWAC will be hosting a “business fair for the purpose of providing industry partners insight and rationale to the force design processes and model-based systems engineering currently being employed in the context of missile warning/missile tracking mission areas.”

The business fair “is for the sole purpose of disseminating information to industry and is unrelated to any ongoing or planned acquisitions,” the announcement said. Companies can submit a request to participate. 

The force design is the blueprint that could drive future Space Force investments. It lays out, for example, how the Space Force will deploy satellites and ground systems to deliver space-based services and ensure these capabilities can be provided even when under attack.

Raymond directed the establishment of the SWAC to conduct analysis, modeling, wargaming, and experimentation to map out operational concepts and force design guidance for the service.

The group was tasked to “determine what our architecture in space should look like,” Raymond said. “That work is really moving along well.” 

The SWAC analysis will be reviewed by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff so it can inform requirements documents that are needed to get funding approved. Raymond said Kendall’s proposed reorganization of the Department of the Air Force’s procurement office will help advance the acquisition of these future systems. 

“This will be the first time we’ll take that design and put it out there,” said Raymond. The intent is to get feedback from the industry.

Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of  the Space Force headquarters staff, said in July at a Mitchell Institute’s Space Power Forum that the analysis from the SWAC “will help us understand what’s affordable.”


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Source: https://spacenews.com/space-force-to-brief-industry-on-its-future-architecture-for-space-based-missile-warning/

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Kendall: If China can’t beat the U.S. in the air it will try in space

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“We are in a national, strategic, long-term competition with a strategic adversary,” Kendall said.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in a keynote speech Sept. 20 warned that China’s rapid advances in nuclear and conventional weapons will challenge the United States both in the air and space domains.

“While America is still the dominant military power on the planet today, we are being more effectively challenged militarily than at any other time in our history,” he said at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. 

“We are in a national, strategic, long-term competition with a strategic adversary,” Kendall said.

China’s advances in military and space technologies and the implications for U.S. national security was the dominant theme in Kendall’s address to a large audience of active-duty service members, government civilians and defense contractors. 

He said China’s military modernization is focused on long-range precision-guided munitions, hypersonic missiles, space and cyber weapons.

“I have had the opportunity to catch up on the intelligence about China’s modernization programs. If anything, China has accelerated its pace of modernization,” Kendall said.

There is “strong evidence” that China is pursuing silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellite-guided munitions to strike targets on Earth and in space, he said. Some of that intelligence was revealed through open sources but Kendall also has received classified briefings. 

During a briefing with reporters on Monday, Kendall described these revelations as “the most disturbing developments in nuclear proliferation I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

With regard to space weapons, he suggested China could pursue a global strike capability using space to deliver weapons, a concept modeled after the Soviet-era “fractional orbital bombardment system” conceived for the Cold War. The Soviets envisioned launching nuclear warheads into low Earth orbit and then directing them back down to targets on the ground. 

Kendall said he had no specific knowledge that the Chinese are pursuing this but said “it could be possible” and suggested this idea would be attractive to the Chinese because the fractional orbital system is hard to detect by early-warning satellites. 

He noted that he came of age in the Cold War and that history can repeat itself.

To stay ahead of China, the United States is going to have to “respond with a sense of urgency, but we also have to take the time necessary to make smart choices about our future and our investments,” he said. 


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Source: https://spacenews.com/kendall-if-china-cant-beat-the-u-s-in-the-air-it-will-try-in-space/

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