Tag: DARPA

Virginia Rocket Launch Site is About to Grow With the Most Successful Startup Since SpaceX

Article by Christian Davenport                                   October 2, 2020                                (washingtonpost.com)

• Over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, down past Chincoteague toward the southern tip of the Eastern Shore, sits an isolated spit of shoreline near a wildlife refuge. Wallops Island, Virginia is home to one of the most unusual and little known rocket launch sites in the country.

• Wallops Island contained a naval air station during World War II. In the late 1950s, with the dawn of the Space Age, the air station morphed into the Wallops Flight Facility, serving as a test site for the Mercury space program. The facility has now reinvented itself yet again as a modern commercial space industry rocket hub launching national security missions for Rocket Lab, and is soon to launch missions to the International Space Station for Northrop Grumman. The Wallops facility is poised to become the second busiest launch site in the country, behind Cape Canaveral, which itself is on track to launch 39 rockets into orbit this year.

• Over the last 25 years, the state of Virginia has pumped $250M into the ‘Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’. In addition, NASA has made $15.7M in upgrades to the site, including a mission operations control center, which opened in 2018. The state also contributed $15M to repair a launch pad after an Antares rocket exploded in 2014.

• Perhaps the most successful space upstart since Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Rocket Lab first considered Cape Canaveral. But Wallops was the winner because it had a facility nearby where the company could process its payloads, get the satellites ready for launch and then mate them to a rocket quickly. “The whole facility is designed for rapid launch,” said Rocket Lab CEO, Peter Beck. “And that’s a real requirement out there right now from our national security and national defense forces, to have an ability to respond to threats quickly.”

• At 60 feet tall, Rocket Lab’s ‘Electron’ rocket may be about a quarter of the size of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. But the company hopes it will be a workhorse, launching once a month from Wallops, in flights that should be visible up and down the Mid-Atlantic. The Electron rocket has already had 14 successful launches to orbit from its launch site in New Zealand, earning a reputation for quick turnaround in an industry where getting rockets ready to fly was once a months-long endeavor. The Pentagon and NASA have taken notice.

• NASA has hired Rocket Lab to launch a small satellite to the Moon in 2021 to gather data about the thin lunar atmosphere, as a precursor for human missions. Instead of launching large, expensive satellites that stay in orbit for years and are targets for potential adversaries, the Pentagon is interested in putting up swarms of smaller, inexpensive satellites that could be easily replaced. Both NASA and DARPA are looking at Rocket Lab’s Wallops facility as a launch base having the desired short turnaround time between launches.

• While the number of launches at Wallops now is relatively low, the cadence could grow dramatically, especially as Rocket Lab gets going. And Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations for the US Space Force, has made it clear the department wants to rely heavily on the private sector. “We have developed a significant amount of partnerships in the national security space business,” said General Raymond during a recent event. “We share some of those partners. We share an industrial base.”

• Wallops wants to capitalize on the growth says Dale Nash, CEO and executive director of Virginia Space. “[W]e can get a few more launchpads close together in here.” “We’re urbanizing.” “One launch a month will not be a big deal.” “Once a week, once we get going, won’t be a big deal either. … We have the capability to grow to 50 or 60 launches a year.”

• Richard Branson has also gotten into the small rocket business with ‘Virgin Orbit’ that would launch a small rocket by dropping it from the wing of a 747 airplane. But while the space industry has made strides, there are still more failures than successes, especially in the early attempts to build small rockets. Rocket Lab has been the unlikely success story. Founded by Peter Beck in 2006, it today has a significant backlog of launches.

• Initially, Beck said, the company planned to ditch its rockets in the ocean, as had been the practice for decades. But like SpaceX, Rocket Lab intends to recover its first stages so they can be reused for future flights for greater efficiency. But instead of flying the boosters back to land and then firing the engines to slow it down, as SpaceX does, Rocket Lab is going to have its booster deploy a parachute to slow it down as it falls back through the atmosphere. Then it would have a helicopter retrieve it with a grappling hook.

• In addition to the NASA moon mission, Beck has long been intrigued with Venus, and planned to send a probe there to look for signs of life. The Venus mission, tentatively scheduled for 2023, would be largely self-funded and launch most likely from New Zealand. “If you can prove that there is life on Venus, then it’s fair to assume that life is not unique but likely prolific throughout the universe,” tweeted Beck.

 

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, down past Chincoteague toward the southern

                           Peter Beck

tip of the Eastern Shore, sits an isolated spit of shoreline, near a wildlife refuge, that is home to one of the most unusual, and little known, rocket launch sites in the country.

Born as a Navy air station during World War II, it has launched more than 16,000 rockets, most of them small sounding vehicles used for scientific research. But the Wallops Flight Facility, which at the dawn of the Space Age played a role as a test site for the Mercury program, is about to reinvent itself at a time when the commercial space industry is booming and spreading beyond the confines of Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

After the Federal Aviation Administration last month granted Rocket Lab, a commercial launch company, a license to fly its small Electron rocket from the facility, Wallops could soon see a significant increase in launches as the company joins Northrop Grumman in launching from this remote site. While Rocket Lab is largely focused on national security missions, Northrop Grumman launches its Antares rocket to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station on cargo resupply missions at a rate of about two a year, including a picture-perfect launch from the Virginia coast Friday at 9:16 p.m. Northrop also launches its Minotaur rocket from Wallops.

            Dale Nash

Rocket Lab wants to launch to orbit as frequently as once a month from Wallops, which would make the facility the

                Wallops Island, Virginia

second busiest launch site in the country, behind Cape Canaveral, which is on track to fly 39 rockets to orbit this year.

Hoping to give birth to another rocket hub on the Eastern Seaboard, the state of Virginia has over the last 25 years pumped some $250 million into what it calls the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, most of that coming in the last decade, said Dale Nash, the agency’s CEO and executive director of Virginia Space. NASA has also made some significant upgrades to the site, including a $15.7 million mission operations control center, which opened in 2018.

The state also contributed to the $15 million it took to repair a launchpad after an Antares rocket exploded in 2014.

The efforts paid off when Rocket Lab, perhaps the most successful space upstart since Elon Musk’s SpaceX, announced last year it would launch its Electron rocket from here. Once NASA signs off on the company’s autonomous flight abort system, it should be cleared to launch, with a mission coming potentially before the end of the year.

Initially, Rocket Lab looked at Cape Canaveral, of course. But there are already a lot of big companies stationed there — Boeing, the United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is renovating a pad there while building a massive manufacturing facility nearby. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“We ran a competitive process,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s chief executive, said in an interview. In the end, Wallops was the winner because it had a facility nearby where the company could process its payloads, get the satellites ready for launch and then mate them to a rocket quickly.

“The whole facility is designed for rapid launch,” Beck said. “And that’s a real requirement out there right now from our national security and national defense forces, to have an ability to respond to threats quickly.”

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DARPA Awards $14M to Develop Nuclear Rocket Engine for US Military

Article by Luke Dormehl                                    October 2, 2020                                (yahoo.com)

• The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Gryphon Technologies $14 million to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for the US military rockets (similar to the one pictured above). The High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system will be used to enable the military to carry out missions in cislunar space, or the area between the Earth and the orbit of the Moon.

• “A successfully demonstrated NTP system will provide a leap ahead in space-propulsion capability, allowing agile and rapid transit over vast distances as compared to present propulsion approaches,” said Tabitha Dodson, Gryphon’s chief engineer. In an NTP system, a nuclear reactor heats a propellant, like hydrogen, to extreme temperatures. It then expels it via a nozzle to create thrust. This method could be significantly more efficient than current chemical rockets, with a ‘thrust-to-weight ratio’ reportedly 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion.

• The CEO of Gryphon, P.J. Braden, said in a statement. “We are proud to support DRACO and the development and demonstration of NTP, a significant technological advancement in efforts to achieve cislunar space awareness.” The NTP system development is part of DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program.

• Between this, the rise of Space Force, NASA commissioning private companies to retrieve space resources, and the continued work of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, space exploration is about as fast-moving and full of promise as it’s been in many years.

[Editor’s Note]  The Pentagon’s deep state infested Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency named its advanced propulsion development program “DRACO”? That is a bit on the nose, isn’t it?

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Gryphon Technologies $14 million to develop a nuclear thermal propulsion system for the U.S. military. Part of DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program, the High-Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) system will be used to enable the military to carry out missions in cislunar space, meaning the area between the Earth and the orbit of the moon.

“A successfully demonstrated NTP system will provide a leap ahead in space-propulsion capability, allowing agile and rapid transit over vast distances as compared to present propulsion approaches,” Tabitha Dodson, Gryphon’s chief engineer on the support team and a national expert in NTP systems, said in a statement.

The militarization of space, this time largely involving the United States and China, has been in the news in recent years in a way that it hasn’t since the decades-old Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviets. The idea of using Nuclear Thermal Propulsion to power spacecraft is that a nuclear reactor utilized to heat a propellant like hydrogen to extreme temperatures, prior to expelling it via a nozzle in order to create thrust, could be significantly more efficient than current chemical rockets. It would also have a thrust-to-weight ratio that is reportedly 10,000 times greater than electric propulsion.

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Space Force Doesn’t Want to Send a Human to Do a Robot’s Job

Article by Nathan Strout                                 September 29, 2020                                 (c4isrnet.com)

• While Space Force officials have tried to keep the focus on what their personnel will do on the ground to support the nation’s space assets, this hasn’t dampened public speculation as to when Space Force will they send humans into orbit. A recent recruiting ad seemingly implied its members would literally be going to space.

• But for anyone joining the Space Force to be an astronaut, Maj. Gen. John Shaw has some bad news. “I think it will happen,” Shaw said on September 29th, “But I think it’s a long way off.” Shaw serves as both commander of Space Force’s Space Operations Command and for the U.S. Space Command’s Combined Force Space Component Command. Shaw sees two big reasons why it’s not likely to happen soon: “First, space isn’t really all that habitable for humans.” “And the second is, we’re getting darned good at this robotics thing in space.”

• “You know, the best robots that humans have ever created are probably satellites — either ones that explore other planets or operated within our own Earth/moon system,” said Shaw. “GPS satellites might be among those …and we’re only getting better with machine learning and artificial intelligence. We’re going to have an awful lot of automated and autonomous systems operating in Earth and lunar orbit and solar orbit in the days and years to come doing national security space activity.”

• The Space Force and the US Air Force are investing in robotic capabilities that preclude the need for humans in space. Most notable is the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Spacecraft (RSGS) program being run by DARPA (illustrated above). With RSGS, DARPA wants to develop a robotic arm that can be placed on a free flying spacecraft which can navigate up to satellites to conduct repairs, orbital adjustments, or even install new payloads. DARPA hopes to launch a robotically enhanced vehicle into orbit in late 2022, where SpaceLogistics will provide the spacecraft and DARPA will provide the robotic arm.

• The Air Force Research Laboratory is building ROBOpilot, a robot that can fly planes, completely replacing the need for human pilots. It can press pedals to activate brakes, pull on the yoke to steer, adjust the throttle, and even read the dashboard instruments to see where it is and where it’s going.

• The secretive X-37b space plane is an unmanned vehicle is currently able to take off, carry host experiments into orbit, deploy satellites, and return to earth without humans on board.

• But Shaw believes that it’s inevitable. “At some point, yes, we will be putting humans into space,” said Shaw. “They may be operating command centers somewhere in the lunar environment or someplace else that are continuing to operate an architecture that is largely perhaps autonomous.”

• In July, the Sierra Nevada Corporation announced it had received a study contract for such autonomous orbital outposts in low Earth orbit. Missions will include hosting payloads, supporting space assembly and manufacturing, microgravity experimentation, logistics, training, testing and evaluations. SpaceNews confirmed that two other companies – Nanoracks and Arkisys – have also received study contracts.

• While these orbital outposts will be unmanned for now, a Defense Innovation Unit spokesperson said that it would be interested in securing a “human rating” for future outposts. So even if humans on orbit are not part of the military’s immediate plans, it remains a tantalizing possibility. “At some point that will happen. I just don’t know when,” said Shaw. “And it’s anybody’s guess to pick the year when that happens.”

 

                  Maj. Gen. John Shaw

Since it was established in Dec. 2019 — and probably even before that — one question has plagued the U.S. Space Force: when will they send humans into orbit?

While Space Force officials have tried to keep the focus on what their personnel will do on the ground to support the nation’s space assets, they’ve done little to dampen speculation. The Space Force probably didn’t help itself when it released a recruiting ad earlier this year that seemingly implied its members would literally be going to space.

But for anyone joining the Space Force to be an astronaut, Maj. Gen. John Shaw has some potentially bad news.

“I think it will happen,” said Shaw during the AFWERX Engage Space event Sept. 29. “But I think it’s a long way off.”

Shaw would know. He’s been a key member of the lean staff standing up both the Space Force and U.S. Space Command, serving simultaneously as commander of the former’s Space Operations Command and the latter’s Combined Force Space Component Command. While Shaw sees humans in orbit as part of the military’s plans somewhere down the line, there are two big reasons why it’s not likely to happen soon:
“First, space isn’t really all that habitable for humans. We’ve learned that since our early space days,” he explained. “And the second is, we’re getting darned good at this robotics thing in space.”

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