Monday, December 03, 2018

Canadians in Space, Exploring the Asteroids and Launching Small-Sats on a Reusable Falcon 9

          By Chuck Black

Photo c/o Toronto Star.
We live in a twilight period between a post cold-war space race dominated by government space agencies, expensive science projects and covert military considerations and the beginning of what could just possibly be a new, lower cost "commercial" space age.

As always, Canada is busy performing its designated "utility player" role.

Today's contributions included:
  • Supplying two small satellites, from Cambridge ON based exactEarth and Vancouver BC based Helios Wire, for the NASA Small-Sat Express mission.
All three missions either successfully launched from Earth or achieved major milestones today. Here's what we know so far.

Inside the John H. Chapman Space Centre in Longueuil PQ, retired astronaut Robert Thirsk spent the morning providing a running commentary on the launch of Expedition 58/59, which included NASA astronaut Anne C. McClain, Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut David Saint-Jacques, to a crowd of nervous CSA staff and guests.

According to the December 3rd,  2018 National Post article, "Anxious crowd watches on at Canadian Space Agency as David Saint-Jacques successfully blasts into space," it was only:
...after the spacecraft safely entered orbit about nine minutes later, drawing the first applause from an audience watching a live NASA feed, that Thirsk admitted to some pre-launch jitters about the Canadian astronaut’s mission. 
It was the first manned launch since a rocket failure  forced a Soyuz capsule carrying two astronauts to abort and make an emergency landing in October. Russia briefly suspended launches to investigate before giving the mission the all-clear Nov. 1st.
As outlined in the article, today's mission was watched across Canada at multiple public locations by both the worried and the curious.

The concern wasn't restricted to Canada. As outlined in the December 3rd, 2018 post, "Liftoff! Russia Launches 1st Crewed Soyuz Rocket to Space Station Since Dramatic Abort," its been a challenging few months for the ISS:
After a perfect launch on June 6th, a tiny air leak on their Soyuz spacecraft was discovered in late August. 
Although it never posed a threat to the astronauts on board and was quickly plugged, the implications for astronaut safety were troubling, and an investigation was launched. (The leak is in a part of the Soyuz module that does not survive re-entry and it will not interfere with the crew's journey home.)
The Expedition 58/59 crew docked with the ISS after a six hour transit and are expected to remain on-board the station for the next six and a half months. The single use Soyuz rockets used to launch manned ISS missions have been in use since 1966 and are the most frequently used launch vehicle in the world.

But while the US currently uses the Soyuz to access the ISS and has done so since 2011 (when the US space shuttle program wound down), it is expected that newer, lower cost US spacecraft developed through the NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCD) program will soon allow access to space from US soil.

The era of the Russian Soyuz will soon end.

The NASA OSIRIS-REx mission has finally arrived at its destination and will soon begin a series of experiments designed to seek clues to the early solar system.

As outlined in the December 3rd, 2018 New York Times post, "NASA’s Osiris-Rex Arrives at Asteroid Bennu After a Two-Year Journey," the spacecraft pulled alongside the asteroid Bennu on Monday.

Bennu, also known as 101955 Bennu is a "carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group" discovered by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project in 1999, according to Wikipedia.

It's theorized that the carbonaceous material originally came from dying stars such as red giants and supernovae, which combined to become Bennu approximately 4.5 billion years ago during the early formation of the Solar System. Study of the materials collected by the mission will provide clues to the early composition of the solar system.

As outlined on the CSA webpage focused on the OSIRIS-REx mission, a Canadian-made instrument called the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) will map the asteroid so that scientists can pick a spot where a probe will take the samples to return to Earth.

The OLA was built by the Planetary Exploration Instrumentation Laboratory at York University. Dr. Michael Daly is the OLA instrument scientist for the mission.

The OSIRIS-REx was launched by a single-use Atlas V rocket on September 8th, 2016 from the Cape Canaveral Launch complex in Cape Canaveral FL. The mission is expected to conclude in September, 2023 with the planned landing in Utah of the collected asteroid samples.

A human-rated version of the Atlas V was selected by NASA in late 2014 to launch the first Boeing CST-100 space capsule to the ISS sometime next year.

A Falcon 9 rocket built by Hawthorne CA based SpaceX and exclusively dedicated to small satellites, has successfully lifted off from Vandenburg Air Force Base into low Earth orbit with its payload of 64 small-sats.

As outlined in the December 3rd, 2018 Space News post, "SpaceX launches all-smallsat Falcon 9 mission," the Space Flight SSO-A Smallsat Express Mission launch was:
...procured by smallsat (Seattle WA based) rideshare company Spaceflight Industries, (and) was the first time SpaceX reused the same first-stage booster for three missions. 
The rocket booster previously launched Bangladesh’s Bangabandhu-1 satellite in May and the Merah Putih (formerly Telkom-4) satellite in August for Telkom Indonesia.
Eight minutes after the successful launch, SpaceX landed the 1st stage booster on the drone ship "Just Read the Instructions" in the Pacific Ocean. The rocket is expected to be reused again at some future date.
The launch is the largest single rideshare mission from a US based launch vehicle — carrying spacecraft for 34 organizations from 17 countries —  but is not the first, nor the largest launch of smallsats on a single mission. 
In February 2017 India’s space agency ISRO launched 104 satellites on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle — 88 of them for U.S. company Planet. Six months later a Russian Soyuz rocket launched 73 satellites, though a few of them were unresponsive after launch.
Although SpaceX didn't release the full launch manifest for the mission and didn't webcast the deployment of the satellites after its second stage reached orbit (citing an absence of ground stations in view from the rocket to beam down video), small satellites from Vancouver BC based Helios Wire and Cambridge ON based exactEarth LLP were included with the mission.

The expectation is that several military small-sat were also included on the manifest, which accounts for the lack of confirmation and suggests that military secrecy is one of those things that never change in space, or elsewhere.

A human-rated version of the reusable Falcon 9, using a SpaceX Dragon capsule, will begin launching astronauts to the ISS sometime next year.

As for the Canadian satellites included with the mission, according to the November 16th, 2018 Helios Wire press release, "Helios Wire Satellite Scheduled to Launch on Spaceflight's SSO-A Smallsat Express Mission," the Helios Wire Pathfinder II satellite "is the first satellite in a constellation of up to 28 smallsats that will provide global IoT coverage."

The exactEarth Vesta satellite is a 3U (4kg) technology demonstration satellite that will test a “new two-way VHF data exchange system (VDES) payload for the exactEarth advanced maritime satellite constellation” according to its Guildford UK based builder Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), a subsidiary of Ottobrunn, Germany based Airbus Defence and Space.

As outlined in the December 3rd, 2018 Space Daily post, "KazSTSat and VESTA due to lift-off on Spaceflight's SSO-A SmallSat Express Mission," SSTL also built KazSTSat "a small Earth observation satellite jointly developed by SSTL and JV Ghalam LLP, a joint venture between JSC "National Company Kazakhstan Garysh Sapary" (KGS) and Airbus," which launched on the same mission as VESTA and Pathfinder II.

Welcome to the future.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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