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SpaceX demonstrated a safety system that will protect astronauts in the case of any unfortunate unforeseen accidents in future Crew Dragon flights, which included the spacecraft splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, but during a post-mission press conference SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested future return trips for the human-rated spacecraft could look very different.

Musk suggested that SpaceX could eventually seek to recover the Crew Dragon capsule using ships at sea that ‘catch’ the spacecraft as it lands, rather than allowing it to splash down and recovering it from the water. SpaceX is in the process of testing a similar system to recover the fairings (large protective covers) it uses to enclose cargo during its existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

“This requires ongoing discussions with with with NASA, but I think it’d be quite quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing,” Musk said.
“Once that is really well-established, [we could attempt] to catch the catch Dragon as it’s coming in from orbit, and then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing.”

This could be a major advantage for SpaceX in terms of cost and reusability of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which it eventually hopes to be able to fly both for NASA and for other commercial clients. Still, Musk emphasized that this is a goal for considerably further out beyond Crew Dragon’s actual start of service life, since it both requires NASA’s buy-in and certification, and also requires that SpaceX actually demonstrate their ability to reliably catch the cargo fairing first. So far, it’s caught one half of one fairing, but has also had a number of failed attempts.

“We obviously need to recover [the fairing] very reliably before we we consider trying to catch the catch the Dragon,” he added. “But I think that would be also an improvement, as opposed to lightning in the water.”


TechCrunch

SpaceX and NASA are getting ready for a key test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon commercial crew spacecraft on Saturday, and this should be the last major milestone that SpaceX has to pass in terms of demonstration missions before actual crew climb aboard the spaceship for a trip to the International Space Station. Starting at 8 AM ET (5 AM PT), a launch window opens during which SpaceX will hopefully perform what’s called an “in-flight abort” test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle, to demonstrate how its safety systems would protect astronauts on board in the unlikely event of an unexpected incident during a real crew flight.

The plan for this mission is to launch the Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 — in this case, one that’s using a refurbished booster stage previously flown on three prior missions. This will be the Falcon 9’s last flight, however, as the plan includes loss of the rocket this time around instead of a controlled landing. The launch is intentionally being terminated early — just after the rocket achieves its “Max Q” point, or the moment during its flight when it’s under maximum atmospheric stress, at about 84 seconds post-liftoff.

At that point, the rocket will be about 19 kilometres (roughly 62,000 feet) above the surface of the Earth, and about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX has rigged the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system to automatically trigger at this point, which will separate the crew spacecraft from the Falcon and propel it away from the rocket very quickly in order to get it to a safe distance to protect any future passengers. After around five minutes past launch, the Dragon will deploy its parachute system, and then at around 10 minutes after it should splash down in the Atlantic Ocean between 3 and 3.5 km (roughly 2 miles) from shore.

After that, crews will recover the Dragon capsule from the ocean, and return it to Cape Canaveral, where SpaceX will study the spacecraft, including human-sized dummies acting as passengers and sensors within to monitor what happened in the cabin during the test. They’ll use this to ideally show that the abort process works as designed and will protect astronauts on board the spacecraft in case of any emergency that results in an early mission termination.

In addition to the in-flight abort system, SpaceX and NASA are also using this mission to prepare for crewed flight in a number of other ways. Today, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will crew the first piloted mission hopefully later this year, ran through a dry run of what they would experience in a live mission. They donned space suits and walked the transom that connects the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 to its launchpad support structure, as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted on Twitter.

The test will not involve any attempt to recover the rocket, as mentioned, and SpaceX Crew Mission Management Director Benji Reed said during a press conference today that they do anticipate some kind of “ignition” event with the Falcon 9’s second stage, which could possibly be large enough to be seen from the ground, he said. SpaceX crews will be on standby to recover as much as possible from the rocket wreckage, which will be useful to study, and they’ll also be on hand to minimize any potential environmental impact from the test.

This test was originally scheduled for roughly six months ago, but SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule intended for the mission was destroyed during an unexpected incident while test firing its engines. SpaceX and NASA investigated that explosion, and are now confident that they understand the cause of that incident, and have taken steps to ensure that a similar problem doesn’t happen again. The Crew Dragon being used now for Saturday’s test was originally intended to be the one used for actually flying astronauts, and another capsule is currently in development to serve that purpose.

SpaceX’s launch window for this test opens at 8 AM ET tomorrow, but spans four hours, and Reed said it could actually extend longer tomorrow if need be. NASA Commercial Crew program manager Kathy Leuders explained today that it’s crucial that not only launch conditions, but also recovery conditions, are optimal for the purposes of this test, so both will play a factor in when exactly they launch. Unlike with launches actually designed to reach a specific orbit, timing doesn’t have to be quite as on the nose, so there’s more flexibility in terms of making the decision to proceed or stand down. SpaceX has backup opportunities on both Sunday and Monday should they be required.

We’ll have a live stream and live coverage of the test starting tomorrow morning, so check back early Saturday. The stream will kick off around 15 minutes prior to the scheduled opening of the launch window, so at around 7:45 AM ET.


TechCrunch

Boeing launched its Starliner CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time on Friday morning in an uncrewed test, and while an error with the onboard mission clock meant that the Starliner didn’t reach its target orbit as intended and subsequently didn’t have enough fuel on board to actually meet up and dock with the ISS, it’s still doing as much testing as it can to complete other mission objectives. One of those objectives is landing the Starliner spacecraft, and Boeing and NASA have scheduled that landing for Sunday at 7:57 AM EST (4:57 AM PST).

The landing will take place at White Sands, New Mexico, and will involve a controlled de-orbit and descent of the Starliner capsule. The spacecraft will begin its de-orbit burn at 7:23 AM EST if all goes to plan, and NASA will begin a live broadcast of the entire landing attempt starting at 6:45 AM EST (3:45 AM PST) on Sunday morning if you want to tune in to the stream embedded below.

Boeing and NASA held a press conference today to provide updates about the mission status after the unplanned mission timer incident on Friday. Boeing SVP of Space and Launch Jim Chilton said during the conference that the team has managed to successfully run a number of its test objective with the mission despite the setback, including extending the docking system to see that it performs as expected, and testing the abort system on board the crew capsule.

The landing is another key test, and could even be more crucial to crew safety in terms of its execution. Both NASA and Boeing have said that were astronauts on board the Starliner during this mission, the mission clock timer incident that occurred would not have put them in any actual danger at any time. Problems with the automated landing sequence would be a different story, potentially – though astronauts are trained to do everything manually in case of any issues encountered while they’re actually in the spacecraft.

Should anything warrant skipping the first attempt at landing tomorrow, NASA and Boeing have a back-up landing opportunity about eight hours after the first. Tune in tomorrow to see how this spacecraft, which will still hopefully carry its first human passengers next year, does with its landing maneuvers.


TechCrunch

NASA has a new app (or web-based game, if you’re on desktop) that provides a simplified simulation of what it’s like to plan and run a commercial crew mission – meaning one of the planned varieties of mission that will actually take place aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner once they begin flying crews next year.

The app takes you through each part of the process, from spacecraft choice, to mission type, to crew selection and then to the actual launch and docking process. It’s mostly about providing some education aoudad each part of the process, rather than offering up an exhaustively realistic flight simulator – but the docking process with the International Space Station can be handled either on full automatic, or on manual mode – and manual mode is fairly challenging and fun.

NASA has included plenty of great info on both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner, and the respective rockets they will launch atop. It also included great bios for 10 actual astronauts you can select from to staff your mission. The launch assembly stage was a bit buggy when I gave it a try on my iPhone, but still workable, and it also provides key info about each element of the launch spacecraft, from boosters to crew capsules and everything in between.

The ‘Rocket Science: Ride 2 Station’ app is a free download, out now on iOS, and also available on the web.


TechCrunch

Welcome back to Max Q, our weekly look at what’s happening in space and space startup news. This week was a bit more quiet than usual coming off of the amazingly over-packed International Astronautical Congress, but there were still some big moves that promise a lot more action to come before they year’s over – particularly in the race to fly American astronauts to space on a rocket launched from American soil once again.

There’s also startup news, including how an entirely different kind of race – one to make stuff in space – could be a foundational moment that opens up entirely new areas of opportunity for entrepreneurs big and small.

1. SpaceX’s crucial parachute tests are going well

SpaceX needs to nail one key ingredient before its Crew Dragon missions can proceed apace with people on board. Actually, it has to nail quite a few, but parachutes are a crucial one, and it has been developing the parachutes that will help Crew Dragon float back safely to Earth for years not.

The third iteration is looking like the one that will be used for the first Crew Dragon missions with astronauts, and luckily, that version three system has now completed 13 successful tests in a row. That’s approaching the kind of reliability it needs to show to be used for the real thing, so this is good news for the current goal of putting astronauts on board early next year.

2. SpaceX and Boeing ready key milestone tests

SpaceX has another key test for Crew Dragon coming up as early as this week – a static fire of its capsule abort engines. This is a key test because the last one didn’t go so well. Also, Boeing will be doing their pad abort test as early as this week as well, which sets things up nicely for a busy time next year in crewed spaceflight.

3. How in-space manufacturing could prompt a space business boom

Launching stuff to space is expensive and really limits what you can do in terms of designing spacecraft and components. There’s been efforts made to reduce the costs, including SpaceX and Blue Origin pursuing reusable rocketry, but just building stuff up there instead of launching it could unlock much deeper cost savings – and new technical possibilities. (ExtraCrunch subscription required)

4. Changing the economics of satellite propulsion

Satellite propulsion has, until very recently, been almost entirely a bespoke affair, which translates to expensive and generally not accessible to startup companies who actually have to worry about stuff like burn rates. But Morpheus Space has a new “Lego-like” system for offering affordable, compact and scalable propulsion that can serve pretty much any satellite needs.

5. Dev kits for small satellites

Small satellite business is booming, and Kepler wants to make sure that developers are able to figure out what they can do with smallsats, so it’s offering a developer kit for its toaster-sized IoT communications satellites. Cooler than the Apple TV dev boxes that were on offer once upon a time.

6. Northrop Grumman launches ISS resupply mission

The ISS is getting a shipment of supplies and scientific material courtesy of a resupply cargo capsule launched by Northrop Grumman on Saturday. One thing on board is twelve containers of read wine, courtesy of startup Space Cargo Unlimited. I’ll have more info about that on Monday, so stay tuned.


TechCrunch

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California on Thursday, delivering an address alongside NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will launch aboard SpaceX’s commercial Crew Dragon capsule, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Bridenstine kicked off  with some brief remarks about the importance and priority of the crew launch mission, which he said both he and Musk are in agreement that the commercial launch of American astronauts is “the highest priority” of the various projects both his agency and SpaceX have under development.

He and Musk then went into some detail about where the program is now, and what remains to be done to get to an actual crewed flight – the first of which will be a test flight. Bridenstine’s comments essentially took 2019 off the table for this to happen, with the Administrator saying he was “very confident that in the first part of next year, we will be able to launch American astronauts on American rockets,” and that if “everything goes according to plan,” it would take place in the first quarter of 2020.

Musk noted that in order for SpaceX to have confidence in its Crew Dragon launch system’s reliability for a crewed mission, they would have to have run 10 successful drop tests using the newly developed Mark 3 parachute system for the capsule occur “in a row.” Bridenstine said that based on the current schedule, SpaceX could run as many as 10 drop tests total using the Mark 3 system between now and the end of this year.

This new Mark 3 system features much stronger lines connecting the sheets of material used in their construction, Musk said, thanks to switching to a material called ‘xylon’ away from nylon, which is three or more times stronger per the CEO. The new version also uses a new stitching pattern compared to Mark 2 for additional strength.

Both Musk and Bridenstine were keen to point out that the timelines discussed, including the 2019 target for the crewed flight that SpaceX has been working towards until now, are “not deadlines,” but are instead a “best guess” in Musk’s words, based on the current state of affairs. Said state of affairs can change quickly, and Bridenstine added that “there are still things we could learn [in testing]” that could alter the timelines later than the first part of next year.

As for Crew Dragon product, Musk said that SpaceX is ramping to a cadence of producing a new capsule around once every three or four months, a rate it hopes to achieve in order to “get in a cadence of operational flights to the space station.”

Bridenstine also addressed the tweet he posted in late September regarding SpaceX’s Starship program update (posted in full below).

“As the NASA Administrator, I have been focused on returning to realism when it comes to costs and schedules,” he said. “And a lot of our programs that not been meeting costs and schedules. And this has been developing over time. And a lot of these programs are, you know, five years old, 10 years old […] so what we’re trying to do is get back to a day where we have realistic costs and schedules, and so I was signaling, and I haven’t done it just the SpaceX, but to all of our contractors that we need more realism built into the development timelines.”

Still, Bridentstine clarified that NASA definitely supports the Starship program as well, even if it’s prioritizing Crew Dragon at the current moment. “I want people to make no mistake: NASA has an interest in seeing starship be successful,” he said, while also pointing out NASA’s recent investment in Starship via its ‘Tipping Point’ project funding.


TechCrunch

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk delivered an update about Starship, the company’s nest generation spacecraft, which is being designed for full, “rapid reusability.” Musk discussed the technology behind the design of Starship, which has evolved somewhat through testing and development after its original introduction in 2017.

Among the updates detailed, Musk articulated how Starship will be used to make humans interplanetary, including its use of in-space refilling of propellant, by docking with tanker Starships already in orbit to transfer fuel. This is necessary for the spacecraft to get enough propellant on board post-launch to make the trip to the Moon or Mars from Earth – especially since it’ll be carrying as much as 100 tons of cargo on board to deliver to these other space-based bodies.

Elon Musk

These will include supplies for building bases on planetary surfaces, as well as up to 100 passengers on long-haul planet-to-planet flights.

Those are still very long-term goals, however, and Musk also went into detail about development of the current generation of Starship prototypes, as well as the planned future Starships that will go to orbit, and carry their first passengers.

The Starship Mk1, Mk2 and the forthcoming Mk3 and Mk4 orbital testers will all feature a fin design that will orient the vehicles so they can re-enter Earth’s atmosphere flat on their ‘bellies,’ coming in horizontal to increase drag and reduce velocity before performing a sort of flip maneuver to swing past vertical and then pendulum back to vertical for touch-down. In simulation, as shown at the event, it looks like it’ll be incredible to watch, since it looks more unwieldy than the current landing process for Falcon boosters, even if it’s still just as controlled.

SpaceX Starship Mk1 29

The front fins on the Starship prototype will help orient it for re-entry, a key component of reuse.

Musk also shared a look at the design planned for Super Heavy, the booster that will be used to propel Starship to orbit. This liquid-oxygen powered rocket, which is about 1.5 times the height of the Starship itself, will have 37 Raptor engines on board (the Starship will have only six) and will also feature six landing legs and deployable grid fins for its own return trip back to Earth.

In terms of testing and development timelines, Musk said that the Starship Mk1 he presented the plan in front of at Boca Chica should have its first test flight in just one to two months. That will be a flight to a sub-orbital altitude of just under 70,000 feet. The prototype spacecraft is already equipped with the three Raptor engines it will use for that flight.

Next, Starship Mk2, which is currently being built in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at another SpaceX facility, will attempt a similar high altitude test. Musk explained that both these families will continue to compete with each other internally and build Starship prototypes and rockets simultaneously. Mk3 will begin construction at Boca Chica beginning next month, and Mk4 will follow in Florida soon after. Musk said that the next Starship test flight after the sub-orbital trip for Mk1 might be an orbital launch with the full Super Heavy booster and Mk3.

Elon Musk 1

Musk said that SpaceX will be “building both ships and boosters here [at Boca Chica] and a the Cape as fast as we can,” and that they’ve already been improving both the design and the manufacture of the sections for the spacecraft “exponentially” as a result of the competition.

The Mk1 features welded panels to make up the rings you can see in the detail photograph of the prototype below, for instance, but Mk3 and Mk4 will use full sheets of stainless steel that cover the whole diameter of the spacecraft, welded with a single weld. There was one such ring on site at the event, which indicates SpaceX is already well on its way to making this work.

This rapid prototyping will enable SpaceX to build and fly Mk2 in two months, Mk3 in three months, Mk4 in four months and so on. Musk added that either Mk3 or Mk5 will be that orbital test, and that they want to be able to get that done in less than six months. He added that eventually, crewed missions aboard Starship will take place from both Boca Chica and the Cape, and that the facilities will be focused only on producing Starships until Mk4 is complete, at which point they’ll begin developing the Super Heavy booster.

Starship Mk1 night

In total, Musk said that SpaceX will need 100 of its Raptor rocket engines between now and its first orbital flight. At its current pace, he said, SpaceX is producing one every eight days – but they should increase that output to one every two days within a few months, and are targeting production of one per day for early in Q1 2019.

Because of their aggressive construction and testing cycle, and because, Musk said, the intent is to achieve rapid reusability to the point where you could “fly the booster 20 times a day” and “fly the [starship] three or four times a day,” the company should theoretically be able to prove viability very quickly. Musk said he’s optimistic that they could be flying people on test flights of Starship as early as next year as a result.

Part of its rapid reusability comes from the heat shield design that SpaceX has devised for Starship, which includes a stainless steel finish on one half of the spacecraft, with ceramic tiles used on the bottom where the heat is most intense during re-entry. Musk said that both of these are highly resistant to the stresses of reentry and conducive to frequent reuse, without incurring tremendous cost – unlike their initial concept, which used carbon fibre in place of stainless steel.

Musk is known for suggesting timelines that don’t quite match up with reality, but Starship’s early tests haven’t been so far behind his predictions thus far.


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