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(7 December 2020 – NASA) NASA and Boeing have completed Starliner’s last parachute balloon drop test ending a reliability campaign that will help strengthen the spacecraft’s landing system ahead of crewed flights to and from the International Space Station.

The campaign, developed by both Boeing and NASA, used six balloon drop tests of a Starliner test article to gather supplemental performance data on the spacecraft’s parachutes and landing system. Each drop test focused on a different set of adverse conditions and used pre-flown parachutes to evaluate reusability margins for future missions.

Starliner is the first American-made orbital crew capsule to land on land. The spacecraft uses a series of parachutes and airbags that deploy at specific altitudes allowing Starliner to touch down gently in the desert of the western United States. NASA also will use the data gathered from the parachute testing to model Starliner parachute performance in different mission scenarios.

During nominal landings, Starliner uses two small parachutes to carry off the spacecraft’s forward heat shield and expose critical hardware needed for the rest of the landing system sequence. Starliner then deploys two drogue parachutes to slow and stabilize the capsule before three small pilot parachutes pull out the spacecraft’s three mains. The three main parachutes continue slowing Starliner’s descent for a safe and soft touchdown supported by the vehicle’s landing airbags.

A reused drogue parachute deploys from Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner test article during the final balloon drop parachute test above White Sands, New Mexico, on Sept. 19, 2020. The test is part of a reliability campaign that will help strengthen the spacecraft’s landing system ahead of crewed flights to and from the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. (courtesy: Boeing)

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A Boeing CST-100 Starliner test article prepares to mate with a high altitude balloon ahead of its final parachute reliability drop test at White Sands, New Mexico, on Sept. 19, 2020. (courtesy: Boeing)

“Our philosophy has always been testing the system hardware together to see how all the elements interact,” said Starliner landing system lead at Boeing Mike McCarley. “Our vehicle can’t fit in an airplane, so the only way we can lift a test article high enough to simulate an entire landing system sequence is with very a large balloon.”

For the final test, a high-altitude balloon provided by Near Space Corporation lifted the Starliner test article 35,000 feet above the New Mexico desert. Equipped with reused parachutes, Starliner’s landing system successfully executed an unlikely re-entry scenario simulating two separate faults.

Test teams first prevented one of the vehicle’s forward heat shield parachutes from deploying, but as intended, the heat shield separated successfully without impacting the rest of the landing sequence events.

The test team then prevented one of Starliner’s drogue parachutes from deploying requiring the Starliner test article to ride roughly 10,000 feet under a single drogue parachute that had already been flown twice. Starliner’s three main parachutes performed within the needed limits based on the scenario, despite the higher loads and having been flown four previous times. These additional data points will be used to further validate parachute performance models.

“Parachute systems are inherently complex,” McCarley said. “These are chaotic events by nature. You could do the same test over and over again and see slightly different results. That’s why consistency in data collection is so important.”

Boeing will further improve its main parachute margins by reinforcing and increasing the strength of certain suspension lines within each canopy. These lines are held taut during early stages of deployment and perform a reefing function that allows Starliner’s mains to inflate in stages to manage loading on the spacecraft and the parachutes.

“By increasing the strength of their material and attachment points, we are improving system reliability with only minor adjustments,” said Dan Niedermaier, Starliner’s flight test manager. “As our landing system continues to execute successfully, Boeing is committed to developing the safest orbital crew capsule possible and this supplemental testing is helping us achieve that goal.”

Boeing and NASA will continue collecting data on Starliner’s parachutes through the spacecraft’s second Orbital Flight Test ahead of crewed flights beginning in 2021, but the test phase utilizing high-altitude balloons is now complete.

“This last balloon drop is bittersweet for many of us,” Niedermaier said. “It marks the end of a valuable test series that took hundreds of people working very hard to execute. We couldn’t be more pleased with the results and grateful to our NASA customer for partnering with us on this campaign.”

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is working with the American aerospace industry as companies develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and to the space station. Commercial transportation to and from the station will provide expanded utility, additional research time and broader opportunities for discovery on the orbital outpost.

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Ground-breaking South Australian space mission lead by SmartSatCRC

Ground breaking South Australian space mission lead by SmartSatCRC

(19 January 2021 – SmartSat) South Australia is embarking on a bold mission with industry, lead by SmartSat, to design and build a satellite to deliver space-derived services to the state.

(courtesy: SmartSat)

The South Australian Government’s SASAT1 Space Services Mission will send the locally manufactured 6U small satellite to low Earth orbit and employ an Internet of Things (IoT) data collection service along with a hyperspectral electro-optical payload for Earth observation.

The IoT and Earth observation data will improve the delivery of state services with candidate applications in emergency services, environment and mining.

Set to accelerate the state’s space economy, the SASAT1 Space Services Mission will also strengthen the competitiveness of South Australian businesses in the small-satellite supply chain and pave the way for external investment and future growth in Australia and abroad.

SmartSat will lead the mission and application prototyping, with Adelaide-based satellite manufacturing company Inovor Technologies designing and building the satellite and South Australian space company Myriota contracted for IoT space services.

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Gilmour Space begins main engine tests ahead of its first commercial Eris rocket launch in 2022

Gilmour Space begins main engine tests ahead of its first

(20 January 2021 – Gilmour Space) Australian rocket company, Gilmour Space Technologies, has ushered in the New Year with a successful hotfire of the world’s largest single-port hybrid rocket engine.

(courtesy: Gilmour Space)

“We achieved a record 91 kilonewtons (or 9 tonnes-force) of thrust in the initial verification test of our main engine,” said Adam Gilmour, CEO and co-founder of Gilmour Space, a Queensland-based company that is developing a three-stage rocket capable of launching small satellites into low earth orbits.

“This is the engine that will be powering the first and second stages of our Eris orbital vehicle as it launches into space,” he explained. “I’m happy to report that all systems performed very well during this 10-second test. Our team will be going through the results and conducting longer duration and higher thrust tests in the weeks ahead.”

A leading space company in Australia, Gilmour Space continues to demonstrate key sovereign space and industry capabilities as it prepares to launch its first commercial payloads from Australian companies Space Machines Company and Fireball International.

“We are delighted by this successful hotfire test, which demonstrates Gilmour’s progress towards a successful orbital launch next year,” said Rajat Kulshrestha, co-founder and CEO of Space Machines Company. “Together with Space Machines Company, important sovereign launch and in-space transport capabilities for Australia are becoming a reality.”

“Many of our Eris launch vehicle components have completed development testing, and the first flight articles are on the manufacturing floor ready for assembly,” said Mr Gilmour. “2021 is going to be the year we build our rocket.”

About Gilmour Space Technologies

Gilmour Space Technologies is a world leading hybrid rocket company based in Queensland, Australia, that is developing a new breed of lower-cost, reliable and dedicated rockets that will launch small satellites into low earth orbits from 2022.

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NASA CubeSat to demonstrate water-fueled moves in space

NASA CubeSat to demonstrate water fueled moves in space

(19 January 2021 – NASA Ames) A NASA CubeSat will launch into low-Earth orbit to demonstrate a new type of propulsion system.

Carrying a pint of liquid water as fuel, the system will split the water into hydrogen and oxygen in space and burn them in a tiny rocket engine for thrust.

NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator, or PTD, series of missions demonstrates novel CubeSat technologies in low-Earth orbit, providing significant enhancements to the performance of these small and effective spacecraft. The first mission of the series, PTD-1, is slated to launch this month aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the Transporter-1 mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Illustration of Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator-1 spacecraft, demonstrating a water-based propulsion system in low-Earth orbit. (courtesy: NASA)

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This Hydros hardware unit is a water-based propulsion system, sized for CubeSats. The system uses electricity to produce gas propellants – hydrogen and oxygen – from liquid water and burns these gases in a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. This technology will be demonstrated in space during NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator-1 mission. Hydros was developed by Tethers Unlimited, Inc., in Bothell, Washington. (courtesy: Tethers Unlimited Inc./Mason Freedman)

“We have a driving need for small spacecraft propulsion systems,” said David Mayer, PTD-1 project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “The need is for many reasons: to reach a destination, maintain orbit, maneuver around other objects in space, or hasten de-orbit, helping spacecraft at end-of-life, to be good stewards of an increasingly cluttered space environment.”

This addresses a major concern, as spacecraft can become orbital debris at the end of their missions. The longer defunct spacecraft stay in orbit, the greater chance of spacecraft-to-spacecraft collision, creating more debris.

Water as Fuel

The choice of fuel used in spacecraft propulsion systems can come with serious safety precautions. Traditional, high-performance fuels pose risks, including toxicity, flammability, and volatility. The use of such rocket fuels for in-space propulsion systems require extensive safety measures, and this drives up mission cost.

“To make these propulsion systems feasible for CubeSats, good propulsive performance needs to be balanced by safety,” said Mayer. “PTD-1 will meet this need with the first demonstration of a water-based electrolysis spacecraft propulsion system in space.”

PTD-1’s propulsion system will produce gas propellants – a mix of hydrogen and oxygen – from water, only when activated in orbit. The system applies an electric current through water to chemically separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases, in a process called electrolysis. The CubeSat’s solar arrays harness energy from the Sun to supply the electric power needed to operate the miniature electrolysis system.

These gases are more energetic fuels than water; burning hydrogen and oxygen gas in a rocket nozzle generates more thrust than using “unsplit” liquid water as propellant. This strikes a better balance between performance and safety for spacecraft propulsion, meaning CubeSats will get more bang for the buck.

“What’s new is that this system uses water as the fuel in an energetic way, with an inherently safe system,” said Mayer. “This mission will show that we can use water electrolysis in a rocket engine in space – that’s pretty cool.”

Water is an inexpensive “green” resource for propulsion, non-toxic and stable. Green propellants like water are easier to handle, cheaper to obtain, and safer to integrate into spacecraft.

“We are disallowed from using high-performance propulsion systems in CubeSats because of the nature of how we launch these missions, namely by being attached to other spacecraft,” said Mayer.

Most CubeSats and other small spacecraft launch to space as secondary payloads, often riding to space alongside larger and more expensive payloads. The use of traditional “high-performance” rocket fuels for CubeSat propulsion systems are avoided because the onboard presence of such fuels would increase mission risk to other payloads and the launch vehicle. The inability to use these fuels limits performance for small spacecraft propulsion systems.

“Water is the safest rocket fuel I know of,” said Mayer.

A Low-Cost, Effective Propulsion System

The PTD-1 spacecraft is a 6-unit CubeSat, comparable in size to a shoebox. Its flight demonstration, lasting four to six months, will verify propulsion performance through programmed changes in spacecraft velocity and altitude executed by the water-fueled thrusters. The mission will show that this safe, low-cost, high-performance propulsion system works in space and will pave the way for operational small spacecraft missions.

Flight qualification and demonstration of this technology increases small spacecraft mobility and capability for use in future science and exploration missions. This technology could be applied in future deep-space missions using water resources found off Earth such as from comets or the Moon and Mars.

The propulsion system, named Hydros, was developed by Tethers Unlimited, Inc., in Bothell, Washington. This technology was initially developed under a NASA Small Business Innovation Research contract and then matured under a NASA Tipping Point partnership. The PTD spacecraft bus was developed by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., in Irvine, California. Tyvak is also performing payload integration and operations for the PTD-1 mission.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the PTD series. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland collaborates as the payload lead on the PTD-1 mission. The mission launches as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites 35, funded by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division of Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. The PTD mission is managed and funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology program within the NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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