For both space and terrestrial mmWave applications, new hybrid designs enable maximum use of bandwidth while maintaining high isolation.
When it comes to mmWave systems, science can only progress as far as compatible hardware will allow. This portion of the electromagnetic spectrum will unlock enormous potential for design engineers with the promise of vastly superior data speeds, capacity, and quality, all at low latency. However, the lack of high-performance components in the higher mmWave bands (50 GHz – 500 GHz) is limiting the ability to take full advantage of these frequencies.
NASA, for one, has invested a lot of energy in trying to solve the issue. One focus has been on developing a new generation of mmWave circulators suitable for use in NASA instrumentation.
Circulators are primarily used in transmit-receive systems such as point-to-point radio and radar. They allow a transmitter and receiver to share a common antenna while simultaneously isolating the transmitter and receiver from each other. Thus, a high-power signal from a transmitter does not damage a sensitive receiver. The greater the isolation, the better.
However, at the higher mmWave frequencies, the state-of-the-art Y-junction circulator is effective only within a very narrow bandwidth. Using a Y-junction circulator can place a severe bandwidth limitation on the entire system.
In response to this challenge, Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I and Phase II contracts were recently awarded by NASA to spur the development of a circulator with significantly higher bandwidth. This effort is paying dividends as a new circulator technology has recently been developed.
This new type of circulator, dubbed the “hybrid circulator”, can theoretically cover entire waveguide bands with relatively low insertion loss and more than 20 dB of isolation. The hybrid circulator will enable designers to push greater volumes of data through systems operating in the upper regions of the mmWave spectrum.
Stretching the limits
The hybrid circulator is being developed by Micro Harmonics Corporation of Fincastle, VA (www.MicroHarmonics.com). Their initial prototypes were designed to cover the 150-190 GHz band in WR-5 and were assembled and tested in early 2021. The measured insertion loss was less than 2.2 dB and the isolation was greater than 20 dB across the entire 150-190 GHz band.
For comparison, a state-of-the-art Y-junction circulator operating at 160 GHz has a 20 dB bandwidth near 3 GHz and a slightly higher insertion loss than the hybrid. The bandwidth of the hybrid circulator is thus an order of magnitude greater than that of the Y-junction.
The new hybrid circulator gives microwave engineers the option of specifying one component that can operate over multiple bands, making instrument architecture much easier. The hybrid circulators are quickly finding application. NASA’s Cloud Radar System group—based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California—is currently exploring their use in weather radars.
JPL utilizes circulators in their high-altitude aircraft and high-throughput satellite communication systems for measuring cloud properties and upper atmospheric constituents. Some of these systems operate in the G-band (167-175 GHz) with development also planned at frequencies near 240 GHz and beyond. Y-junction circulators are not manufactured at these frequencies due to the extreme sensitivity of the center frequency to small variations in the dimensions of the ferrite core. But the hybrid circulator can easily reach the WR-2.8 band 260-400 GHz and possibly beyond.
Many industries have a need for wideband circulators at other mmWave frequencies: airport radar, telecommunications satellites, and high-speed point-to-point data links. Defense applications include bio-agent detection, battlefield radar, and nighttime imaging. Commercial applications include 5G (and higher) cellular technology, smart cities, connected vehicles, and other IoT applications.
In radar applications, larger bandwidth makes it easier to discern a target in a given sweep. But for any application, wider bandwidths allow for more data that can be supported since the data rate is directly proportional to the amount of bandwidth around the carrier frequency.
Another problem facing system designers is that few vendors offer standard stock circulators operating in mmWave frequencies. This forces microwave designers to seek custom solutions with narrow bandwidths and long lead times.
However, the development of the hybrid circulator will alter the landscape and open up new possibilities. In its partnership with NASA, Micro Harmonics plans to develop a full line of hybrid circulators operating in every standard waveguide band from 50-250 GHz over the course of the next two years. Beyond that, they plan to extend coverage to 400 GHz. These will not be custom solutions but rather off-the-shelf components. This is a case where science is driven by hardware availability.
Overcoming bandwidth limitations in circulator performance
The Y-junction has been the dominant circulator technology for more than 50 years. The Y-junction circulator comprises a magnetically biased ferrite core located at the convergence of three waveguides. But the hybrid circulator achieves the circulator function in an entirely different way which overcomes the inherent bandwidth limitations in the Y-junction.
Micro Harmonics’ patent-pending design combines an orthomode transducer (OMT) with a Faraday rotator. Both the OMT and Faraday rotator are inherently broadband devices. When properly configured, these components interact to create the circulator function over full rectangular waveguide bandwidths.
The final frontier
While opening up mmWave bands for terrestrial applications, hybrid circulators also possess characteristics that qualify them for deep space. Improvements in amplifier technology are allowing higher and higher transmit power levels. But when high-power signals are used in a vacuum, such as seen in space, the problem of “multipaction” can arise.
Multipaction is a phenomenon where charged particles are accelerated by high-power RF signals and strike a conducting surface with high kinetic energy. At low energies, the charged particles are absorbed on the surface. But if the energy is sufficient, additional charged particles are liberated from the surface and an avalanche in the number of particles can occur. Multiple high energy impacts can damage the conductor surfaces and can cause permanent damage to the system.
The designers at Micro Harmonics are using sophisticated simulation tools to determine the power levels at which multipaction may become an issue in the hybrid circulator. To date, the simulations indicate that the multipaction phenomenon may occur in the WR-5 hybrid circulator at power levels exceeding 30 kW. This is far more power than is currently available from sources in the WR-5 band including high-power TWT amplifiers.
As the industry obtains greater access to discrete components like hybrid circulators that can perform in the higher mmWave bands, design opportunities arise for microwave applications approaching the Terahertz range. The sky is becoming the limit.
U.S. commercial space company Momentus, that also plans to offer transportation and other in-space infrastructure services, announced that it has received a favorable determination from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of its application for payload review in support of the company’s inaugural flight of the Vigoride orbital transfer vehicle on the upcoming SpaceX Transporter-5 mission targeted for launch this month.
The FAA favorable determination marks Momentus’ final regulatory milestone needed to support its inaugural mission. The Company recently received a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and license updates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These licenses enable Momentus to use radio frequencies to communicate with the Vigoride spacecraft and to use the onboard cameras, respectively.
The decisions by these U.S. government agencies – which in some cases involved a review by other U.S. government departments and agencies, including the Defense Department – reflect the Company’s progress addressing previous national security concerns and commitment to implementation of its National Security Agreement with the U.S. government.
“We welcome these decisions by the relevant U.S. government agencies that clear the way for Momentus to conduct its inaugural launch of the Vigoride spacecraft,” said Momentus Chief Executive Officer John Rood. “Our team remains focused on completing the late-stage preparation of the spacecraft and looks forward to seeing Vigoride in orbit soon.”
During the inaugural mission, Momentus plans to take customer payloads to orbit and generate a small amount of revenue. However, the mission’s primary goals are to test Vigoride in orbit, learn from any issues that are encountered, and incorporate lessons learned into future Vigoride vehicles.
Future human space exploration requires a safe living environment for astronauts. That is why a robust structural health monitoring (SHM) process is imperative to ensure equipment safety, particularly for the inflatable habitat structures that are the most cost-efficient solution to the astronauts’ living space needs. A novel approach is moving away from conventional SHM testing methods in favor of using sensors embedded in the flexible structural restraint webbing layers. The sensors can collect data on stress, strain, creep, and impacts of micro meteorites throughout the inflatable habitat’s lifecycle. The embedded fiber optic sensors were woven into VECTRAN webbing and then later integrated into an inflatable test article that was tested at NASA Johnson Space Center for potential use in future inflatable habitat structures for NASA Lunar Gateway and Mars missions.
New approach sought for structural health monitoring in space
In 2007, Bally Ribbon Mills (BRM) began working with Luna Innovations, Inc., an American developer and manufacturer of fiber-optics- and terahertz-based technology products for aerospace. Luna’s NASA contact had suggested the partnership to provide a demonstration sample that could show the capabilities of Luna’s technology, which focuses on integrating high-definition fiber optic sensors (HD-FOS) into a three-dimensional woven carbon structure used in composites. The project was undertaken as part of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, a competitive awards-based research and development program that helps small businesses explore their technological potential and provides the incentive to profit from its commercialization.
The project aimed to demonstrate the integration of optical fiber sensing technology into composites to monitor the vacuum assisted resin transfer molding (VARTM) process. The team designed a composite cantilever beam with three-dimensional carbon fiber reinforcement that was fabricated with embedded optical sensing fibers. Bally Ribbon Mills wove the carbon fiber preform with warp, fill, and Z-axis reinforcing fiber. During the preform weaving process, BRM added optical fiber bobbins to the weaving loom and determined the necessary processes to integrate fiber optic strain sensors into the weave.
BRM successfully wove the material and passed it along to Luna. Fast-forward 15 years, and Luna came back to collaborate with BRM on a NASA multi-phase grant award examining whether the embedded sensor technology could survive all the required manufacturing processes for use in inflatable habitat structures being developed for upcoming space missions. During this phase, the focus is on integrating fiber optic sensors into Vectran webbing for inflatable space habitat SHM. The approach uses sensors to capture data throughout an object’s lifecycle.
The data collected from “smart webbing” could be used for many applications:
-Optimizing process control by using data to increase quality, efficiency, and effectiveness. -Centralizing reporting by characterizing operational norms and preventing false alarms, as well as gaining the ability to access information from anywhere.
While the space habitat SHM application focuses on strain measurement, examples of the kind of data that might be measured include:
-Strain o Wear and tear, fatigue, aging, structural health, safety -Temperature o Material joints, process control, safety -Intrusion detection, process control, safety -Vessel Pressure -Flow rate, quality (contamination, transmitted material formulation), volumes
For the space habitat SHM application, the long-term goal was to be able to measure stress, strain, and temperature, as well as pinpoint the location of important events. For example, if a micro meteorite hits the shell fabric and causes a point source stress, scientists could know where it hit and be able to gauge the potential for failure.
During this project, BRM integrated Luna fiber optic sensors into Vectran webbing. The BRM materials served as woven optical carriers, which are critical in applications that experience high strain. Carriers add reinforcement to fiber optic sensors and prevent high strain from being transferred directly to the fiber. Sensors are woven into the carrier and then embedded into a material. The carriers serve as component parts in the eventual construction of assemblies that capture and transmit information to a downstream computing technology. The weaving technology enables the measurement and conversion of information to knowledge and/or action.
The resulting benefits include the ability to take corrective action based on improved monitoring capability; the actuation of human/machine involvement; the transformation of connected objects; and ultimately the fuller automation of manufacturing processes, and the integration of non- destructive inspection tools.
Overcoming webbing manufacturing process challenges
Manufacturing webbing with embedded sensors comes with two main challenges. The first is ensuring the sensor is not damaged during the weaving process. A loom’s primary machine motion manipulates the warp and weft yarns in an alternating pattern and exerts high tension and abrasion forces on the yarn. The sensor must also survive the same motions. BRM minimized the effects of the weaving processes on the sensor by placing it in a specific location within the weave structure where the sensor’s interaction with adjacent yarns is lessened. The sensor is constructed of a fiber optic glass core with a protective polymer coating. This fiber is relatively brittle and will be damaged when conforming to a tight radius. The allowable radius varies based on the diameter of the core fiber optic material, but the benchmark is ½-inch radius. Therefore, during the weaving process BRM had to minimize bending radii of the sensor to prevent damage.
The second challenge is to ensure that the weave design is precise enough to place sensor ingresses and egresses in the proper locations within the surface of the weave structure. Weaving is a process with many variables and only moderate controls; it is not possible to achieve metal machine tolerances. This means there is always a bit of trial and error when dealing with the integration of a sensor in a specific location. In this case, the BRM team wove start-up samples based on a benchtop analysis of weave design, checked the samples after weaving, and then made adjustments to ensure accurate compliance with sensor location specifications.
Testing the sensor for continuity
Luna Innovations tested the fiber optic sensors woven into the flexible structural restraint layer webbings on an inflatable test article with a diameter of 0.61 meters (2 feet) fabricated from Vectran, a manufactured filament fiber with a liquid-crystal polymer chemistry. Experiments successfully demonstrated creep sensing, pressure sensing, and detection of damage location and magnitude. For example, the Luna team performed tests simulating micro meteoroid and orbital debris damage on panels of instrumented webbings, which demonstrated successful detection of the event and location.
A one-third scale, 2.74 meter diameter (9 feet) inflatable with embedded structural health sensors was used for creep and burst testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. A habitat containing the smart webbing was inflated and measurements are being recorded at regular intervals for a total period of about 2 months. Measuring the long-term creep of the habitat system is important to the safety and viability of the inflatable habitat program. All materials, when exposed to stress over time, will creep or elongate. Vectran itself resists creep, but it is difficult to calculate the actual amount of creep in the habitat system because of the wide variety of materials and different layers being used in its construction.
NASA is performing the testing to validate the bench-top engineering and design of the habitat’s structural components.
While the goal is to complete the project by 2023, the need to orchestrate raw material supply, component procurement, manufacturing, assembly, testing, test-facilities scheduling, and funding means that timing predictions are definitely subject to change. Based on previous success with the prior phases and benchmarks, BRM is currently contracted to produce the next set of “sensorized” webbing.
“BRM’s work in developing the manufacturing processes necessary to integrate fiber optic strain sensors into the fabric weave was key to our success and is helping to move the technology into the future,” says Matthew Davis, Luna’s R&D Director, Lightwave Division. “We rely on their skills and are excited about working in partnership with them to extend the innovative approach into other SHM applications.” One example is a Navy Phase II SBIR effort in which Luna and BRM are integrating fiber into the harness a fighter pilot might wear.
As Davis explains, “Webbing textiles are critical to many personnel safety systems in U.S. Navy aircraft, but there are currently no viable non-destructive techniques to detect when the load strength has degraded to an unsafe level. With BRM’s assistance, we are integrating this technology, which enables accurate assessment of the load capabilities for nylon, polyester, and Kevlar structures during their service life.”
Structural health monitoring is critical for the future
Ensuring the safety of long duration human habitation in space or on other planets will depend on structural health monitoring. The new sensor-based technique for monitoring the health of the flexible soft goods restraints on inflatable living structures shows great promise. If the embedded sensing technology proves to be successful, it could be included in future space mission habitation structures, including the Lunar Gateway or Mars missions.
1. Embedded Fiber Optic SHM Sensors for Inflatable Space Habitats, by Osgar John Ohanian III,1 Matthew A. Davis, Luna Innovations Incorporated, Blacksburg, VA, 24060,USA; Jeffrey Valania, Benjamin Sorensen, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, CO,USA; Megan Dixon, Matthew Morgan, ILC Dover, Frederica, DE, USA; Douglas A. Litteken, NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, USA 2. The SBIR and STTR Programs, https://www.sbir.gov/about, retrieved 3/7/22.
The German Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw) has recently awarded a contract to Atos and OHB DC to supply the “Space Situational Awareness Center Expansion Stage 1” (Weltraumlagezentrum, WRLageZ, Ausbaustufe 1) to the German Federal Armed Forces. This system, located in Uedem, will enable the German Armed Forces to monitor the situation in space and protect critical German infrastructure in orbit.
The system will be based on GMV’s state-of-the-art COTS software for Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) as the core processing infrastructure. This includes the most relevant SST capabilities and functionalities: object cataloging, sensor tasking, collision avoidance, re-entry prediction, fragmentation detection and characterization, SST data simulation, SST data pre-processing, visualization, and more.
On top of GMV’s software, OHB DC will add an operational layer, providing interoperability to the system. Additionally, Atos will integrate the various software and hardware components into the solution, creating interfaces with external sensors and ensuring the operational performance of the overall system.
With this new project, GMV strengthens its position as European industrial leader in Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST). It also reinforces GMV’s footprint in Germany, following the awarding of two relevant contracts in 2021 by the German Space Agency at DLR for the German Space Situational Awareness Center (GSSAC), also located in Uedem. The purpose of these contracts is to implement advanced SST data processing algorithms (BaSSTDa) for the development of the future EU SST catalog (under German responsibility) and for maintaining and upgrading the GSSAC Mission System (GMS).
Both German and Spanish branches of GMV will be involved in the activity, collaborating with teams located in Munich, Darmstadt, and Madrid. All in all, over 70 GMV engineers currently work at GMV on SSA/SST activities in 7 European countries, making it the largest SSA/SST industry and team in Europe. GMV works intensively in this field for the EU SST (in Spain, France, Germany, Romania, and Poland), for ESA (in addition to the previous list, in the UK and Portugal), as well as in the commercial sector (providing collision avoidance services to more than 10 operators and more than 80 satellites through its focusoc operations center) and in the military domain (including this new activity).
HeroX, the open marketplace for crowdsourced solutions, announced the winners of the “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload, the Sequel” Challenge. The Challenge sought designs for miniature payload prototypes that could be sent to the Moon to help fill gaps in lunar knowledge.
he first “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload Challenge” launched on April 9, 2020. Fourteen teams were recognized and rewarded for their innovative approaches to miniature payload development. These fourteen teams were invited to participate in the sequel challenge, which launched on October 15, 2020. From among those fourteen teams, four finalist teams were selected who then relied on crowdsourcing to recruit new team members and fill any resource gaps they might have. Two of these expanded teams completed the next step of the challenge and were each awarded up to $225,000 that was used to develop their proposals into functioning, flight-ready payloads. In addition, a third team was awarded $65,000 to develop their proposal. Two years later, these teams have completed their hardware development and testing, and could one day see their payloads operate on the Moon.
The first, second and third place teams will now receive $100,000, $25,000, and $15,000, respectively, in prize money from HeroX, but all three finalist teams are also being evaluated by NASA for potential accommodation on a future flight to the Moon.
First place winner, Sunslicer – Miniaturized XRAY Spectrometer by Team Sun Slicer
Team SunSlicer is a collection of space and space science enthusiasts with founding members Phillip Jobson, Garrett Jernigan, John Doty and Brian Silverman. Garrett, John and Brian are MIT alumni that have co-developed cubesats for educational purposes. Brian Silverman built and mentored the 3-man software team which included Vadim Gerasimov (Scientist, Google Software Engineer and co-developer of the original TETRIS Game) who performed the invaluable heavy lifting for the payload firmware implementation, BLDC motor controller and user interface development. Phil Jobson led the SunSlicer project and was responsible for all aspects of the payload project management, hardware development, implementation, procurement and testing.
SunSlicer is an innovative, miniature, low power, versatile, TRL7 flight ready XRAY spectrometer with custom packaging and thermal design to adapt it for a harsh, miniature rover-deployed lunar environment. A key feature of SunSlicer is the lunar dust mitigation concept that utilizes a rotary shutter/filter wheel and wiper system that is driven by an extremely compact custom motor implementation and geartrain. SunSlicer has many impactful mission possibilities for the Artemis program in both identifying lunar resource potential and characterizing the lunar environment including prospecting for rock forming elements leveraging solar flares, measuring flare producing solar active regions to high angular accuracy and monitoring background XRAY radiation.
Second place winner, Puli Lunar Water Snooper by Puli Space Technologies
The Puli Lunar Water Snooper is a neutron spectrometer that detects hydrogen atoms in lunar regolith. Hydrogen concentrations indicate whether water and other hydrogen bearing volatiles are present. Since these neutrons are generated by cosmic rays, hydrogen can be detected several meters below the surface. A low-cost, simple, and extremely lightweight solution for this capability is critical for future robotic explorations on the Moon.
Puli Space Technologies is also helping explore the rough lunar terrains & harsh lunar environment with an experienced team of engineers and scientists passionate about the Moon http://pulispace.com
Third place winner, µRAD, A Micro-Scale Lunar Radiation Detector by Christian Haughwout and Thomas (Joey) Murphy
µRAD is proposed by a two-person team composed of Christian Haughwout and Thomas (Joey) Murphy. Christian and Joey are graduate students at MIT pursuing PhDs in space systems engineering in the department of aeronautics and astronautics.
Radiation is one of the greatest threats to extended human habitation in space. Shielding from and mitigating the effects of this radiation for the Artemis program will require detailed surveys of the radiation environment at the lunar pole. Currently existing devices capable of making the required measurements are too large and too expensive for widespread deployment on Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) rovers and landers.
Therefore, Team µRAD’s payload is a miniaturized radiation measuring instrument with many of the same features as the radiation assessment detector (RAD) on the Curiosity rover, but whose size, weight, and power (SWaP) are compatible with smaller exploration vehicles.
Space company Rocket Lab failed May 3 in its first bid to catch and recover a launched rocket by a helicopter in midair off New Zealand, but said the attempt provided valuable data that will feed its effort to make the rocket model reusable.
Long Beach, California-headquartered Rocket Lab’s two-stage Electron booster lifted off at 10:49 am local time May 3 from Pad A at the company’s Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula, on the east central coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Dubbed “There And Back Again,” the commercial rideshare mission successfully put 34 small payloads in low Earth orbit for Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight, and Unseenlabs. It was the 26th Electron launch for Rocket Lab, which was founded in 2006 by New Zealand entrepreneur Peter Beck.
A secondary objective of the mission was to test the ability to capture the Electron’s 56,000-pound-thrust first stage in midair after it had separated from the upper rocket and payloads. The test is part of Rocket Lab’s three-year-old effort to make the Electron a reusable small launch vehicle, which would lower launch costs for customers. The company has previously recovered Electron first stages from the ocean on three missions; submersion in sea water requires much rework before a stage can be reused.
To date, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in the only reliable reusable booster.
Rocket Lab acquired a former Bristow Group twin-engine, medium-lift Sikorsky S-92A for the recovery mission and conducted tests with dummy targets. The S-92A, tail number ZK-HEV, was registered in March to Advanced Flight, a helicopter charter and management company based in the Auckland suburb of Onehunga. It is the only S-92 listed on New Zealand’s aircraft registry.
On May 3, the first stage separated from the rocket about 2 minutes 30 seconds after launch and descended toward the South Pacific on a parachute. The S-92 crew intercepted the roughly 2,870-pound spent first stage about 150 nautical miles (about 280 kilometers) offshore at 6,500 feet (about 1,980 meters) and then captured the parachute with a longline hook. (The S-92 is certified to carry a 8,000-pound external load.)
But the captured stage exhibited flying characteristics different from what they had experienced in tests. About 30 seconds after capture, the pilots released the stage to descend to the ocean. In a live Rocket Lab webcast of the operation, a crowd in the launch control facility could be heard cheering at the capture, then shortly thereafter collectively groaning.
A recovery ship positioned below the descent path of the booster retrieved it from the water.
The capture itself was a key milestone, company officials said, stressing before the launch that the recovery test would produce valuable data regardless of its outcome.
“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Beck, who is the company’s CEO. “A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly.” He said Rocket Lab will “assess the stage and determine what changes we might want to make to the system and procedures for the next helicopter catch and eventual re-flight.”
The attempt revives a proven technique for recovering important assets in midair by helicopter.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force used Sikorsky CH-3 Sea King helicopters to retrieve target and reconnaissance drones. It also has used fixed-wing aircraft to retrieve payloads from secret reconnaissance satellites. The U.S. Army used Sikorsky CH-37 Mojaves to retrieve ballistic missile warheads and rocket nose cones after suborbital test flights.
The United Launch Alliance has proposed a midair retrieval system for the first-stage Blue Origin BE-4 engines on its new Vulcan heavy-lift rocket. Several years ago, the U.K. helicopter operator PDG Aviation Services partnered with Airborne Systems and Lockheed Martin on a mid-air retrieval demonstration test program at West Freugh, Scotland on behalf of the U.K. Space Agency. In the past, NASA has contracted with Erickson to support its 3rd Generation Mid-Air Retrieval Project for recovering descending spacecraft components.
Rocket Lab deploying 34 satellites to orbit Monday, May 2. Rocket Lab has now deployed a total of 146 satellites to orbit with the Electron launch vehicle.
The mission also saw Rocket Lab complete a mid-air capture of the Electron booster with a helicopter for the first time. After launching to space, Electron’s first stage returned to Earth under a parachute. At 6,500 ft, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter rendezvoused with the returning stage and used a hook on a long line to capture the parachute line. The mid-air capture is a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites. After the catch, the helicopter pilot detected different load characteristics than previously experienced in testing and offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown. partially pulled off the feat Tuesday as it pushes to make its small Electron rockets reusable. So, after briefly catching the spent rocket, a helicopter crew released it and it dropped into the Pacific Ocean. There it was recovered by a waiting boat. The recovery vessel will transport the stage back to the production complex for analysis and assessment for re-flight as planned.
The mid-air capture comes after successful recovery operations from Rocket Lab’s 16th, 20th, and 22nd missions, which saw Electron’s first stage execute a controlled ocean splashdown before being returned to Rocket Lab’s production complex. Like those missions, a reaction control system re-oriented the first stage to an ideal angle for re-entry during the “There And Back Again” mission, enabling the stage to survive the incredible heat and pressure during its descent back to Earth. A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometers of descent. “There And Back Again” is the first time a helicopter catch attempt was introduced to recovery operations and today’s mission will inform future helicopter captures.
“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly, so I am incredibly proud of the stellar efforts of our Recovery Team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first catch a success. From here we’ll assess the stage and determine what changes we might want to make to the system and procedures for the next helicopter catch and eventual re-flight.”
The “There And Back Again” mission launched from Pad A at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 10:49 am NZST, 3 May 2022, deploying satellites for Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight, and Unseenlabs. The mission brings the total number of satellites launched by Rocket Lab to 146. Among the payloads deployed were satellites designed to monitor light pollution, demonstrate space junk removal technologies, improve power restraints in small satellites, validate technology for sustainable satellite systems that can avoid collisions with untrackable space objects, enable internet from space, and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation.
The flight model of the Scatterometer Antenna Subsystem (SAS) of the MetOp Second Generation meteorological satellites has been officially delivered after four months of extensive testing at the Airbus facility in Madrid. It will now be transferred to Airbus in Friedrichshafen, Germany, where it will be integrated into the satellite along with the other instruments.
The SAS protoflight model underwent a lengthy test campaign where it was subjected to the extreme conditions that it will encounter during launch and in-orbit operation. These tests included: antenna deployment, thermal cycling, mechanical vibrations and acoustic environment.
“It is for us a very important milestone as it is a three-antenna system with a very complex in-orbit deployment,” said Luis Guerra, Head of Airbus Space Systems Spain. “The MetOp-SG SAT-B meteorological satellites will rely on two key instruments with major contribution from Airbus in Spain to carry out their mission: the Scatterometer (SCA) with the Antenna Subsystem (SAS) and the Ice Cloud Imager (ICI).”
The SCA with its major subsystem SAS is one of five instruments on board MetOp-SG SAT-B and will provide double the resolution of the first generation MetOp satellites. It will measure wind speed and direction over the ocean surface, to help monitor scale phenomena such as ocean winds and continental ice sheets, and check land surface soil moisture – a key driver of water and heat fluxes between the ground and the atmosphere. It is expected to cover 99% of the Earth’s surface within a period of 2 days and with a resolution of 25 kilometers.
Data provided by scatterometers has been used for over 30 years, since ERS-1 and 2, for weather and wave forecasting. More recently, with MetOp satellites, it has been used to study unusual weather phenomena such as El Niño, the long-term effects of deforestation and changes in sea-ice masses around the poles, all of which play a central role in monitoring climate change.
The MetOp-SG SAT-B series of satellites focuses on the use of microwave sensors that will provide: enhanced infrared, microwave and radio occultation temperature and humidity soundings; polar atmospheric motion vectors extracted from optical images; new precipitation and cloud measurements from images in the optical, submillimeter and microwave spectra; and high-resolution measurements of ocean surface wind vector and soil moisture extracted from scatterometer observations. These data will help improve numerical weather prediction – the backbone of our daily weather forecasts – regionally and globally. The first launch of the MetOp-SG mission is scheduled for 2024.
Airbus Defence and Space has announced the acquisition of DSI Datensicherheit, a German-based company that provides cryptography and communication systems for Space, Airborne and Naval & Ground that is certified by the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI). The acquisition follows a longstanding partnership between the two companies. DSI DS will be fully owned by the Airbus Defence and Space GmbH and operate under a new name, Aerospace Data Security GmbH. This will further strengthen Airbus’ cryptography capabilities and enhance the development of end-to-end secured systems.
“Cryptography is a key aspect for building secure systems. This acquisition will strengthen our cybersecurity capacities and enable us to create significant value for our customers,” said Andreas Lindenthal, head of Airbus Space Systems Germany. “Cyber-protection is critically important for any system supporting critical infrastructure. Space based systems are no exception. Airbus and DSI DS have a history of partnering on important products and we are excited to continue our success with the start of Aerospace Data Security GmbH’.”
For as long as humans have looked up at the sky, they have longed to go into space and explore. But getting people into space sustainably and at scale has been a difficult challenge to meet. However, with recent developments from the private sector, is it too much to hope that a new era of privatized utilization of space is upon us?
A bit before noon on April 8, a rocket bearing four astronauts blasted off into clear skies from a launchpad at Kennedy Space Center for a 22-hour flight to the International Space Station. There, the crew spent eight days performing life-science experiments and technology demonstrations in the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit before returning with a splashdown off the Florida coast.
In 2021 the world saw 143 successful orbital and suborbital launches (13 carrying humans) and those numbers are expected to be surpassed this year, so the recent flight might seem commonplace. That is, if your idea of commonplace includes riding more than a million pounds of thrust to a place with a million-plus bits of space debris shooting by you at many times the speed of a bullet.
The mission in fact was not commonplace. Its 1.7-million-pound-thrust (7,562 kN) Falcon 9 rocket, 220,500-pound-thrust (981 kN) second stage and Dragon crew capsule were built, launched and operated by Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company, SpaceX. The mission was commissioned by Axiom Space, a private, Houston-based human spaceflight services company.
Dubbed Ax-1, the mission was “the first completely private one to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Axiom co-founder and president/CEO, Michael Suffredini. “There have been individuals that have flown on government flights, but never a completely private flight.”
That achievement marks a key milestone in the U.S.’s decades-long, start-and-stop campaign to develop a commercial space sector. Not only would a robust sector bolster America’s economy and sustain its role as a manufacturing, research, and technological leader, advocates maintain. They say it would free NASA from supporting and managing routine activities in low Earth orbit (LEO) to focus on more intense exploration of the moon, Mars and other targets in our solar system and beyond.
NASA has been working toward that milestone since at least 2005. Late that year, then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin charged a new project office’s staff with “stimulating commercial enterprise in space by asking American entrepreneurs to provide innovative, cost-effective commercial cargo and crew transportation services to the space station.”
The efforts have paid off, despite periodic funding shortfalls from Congress, political shifts, and technical problems with companies’ launch vehicles. NASA signed contracts in 2008 with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to deliver cargo and supplies to the ISS ($1.6 billion to SpaceX for 12 9/Cargo Dragon flights and $1.9 billion to Orbital Sciences for eight Antares/Cygnus flights through 2016). Within a few years, the commercial sector was off and running.
SpaceX has led growth of the commercial space sector, lowering launch costs by perfecting reusable spacecraft. The Falcon 9 that lofted the Ax-1 mission had flown four launches before it lifted off from Kennedy’s historic Pad 39A (the site of Apollo 11’s 1969 liftoff). After separating from the second stage, the Falcon 9 flew back to Florida, then parachuted onto one of SpaceX’s recovery ships in the Atlantic. In carrying Axiom’s astronauts to the ISS, the Crew Dragon capsule dubbed Endeavour made its third flight, and its second to the 357-foot-long (109-meter-long), 21-plus-year-old station.
SpaceX also continually improves its spacecraft. When the company launches a Falcon 9 with a payload of its Starlink broadband Internet satellites, “we’ll push new changes” into the rocket, said William Gerstenmaier, SpaceX vice president for build and flight reliability. “We’ll push new hardware. We’ll push the limits of the rocket. We’re actually changing some of thrust characteristics of the rocket to get more performance out of it.
“That gives us information that helps inform the crew missions, so we actually know where the margins are,” Gerstenmaier said. “We can actually have a safer vehicle for crew missions.”
By 2019, the U.S. space economy accounted for $194.4 billion of market value in goods and services and $125.9 billion (0.6%) of real gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The bureau said the industry generated $42.4 billion of private industry compensation and 354,000 private sector jobs.
Space Capital is a seed-stage venture capital firm that itself invests in the space economy and shares analysis of the sector through its online Space Investment Quarterly. Managing Partner Chad Anderson started tracking and analyzing the sector in 2012, focusing on unique space companies that have raised external equity capital. Over the last 10 years, Anderson said, $252.9 billion of equity has been invested in 1,694 companies in the space economy.
Last year alone, venture capitalists invested $17.1 billion in 328 space companies, according to the firm. That topped the previous annual record investment of $9.1 billion in 2020. Those investment levels were spurred in part by near-zero interest rates in the U.S., which are ending.
The commercial sector has gone in that short time from a handful of companies developing launch services under government contracts, others providing satellite communication services and some firms selling space imagery, to a substantial ecosystem.
“It’s not just launch and re-entry anymore,” said Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Karina Drees, who previously led California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. “It’s an entire ecosystem — launch and re-entry, infrastructure, satellite operators and manufacturers, professional services companies, on-orbit companies,” and universities and research institutions with a much larger interest in the space industry. A leading voice for the commercial spaceflight industry, the federation’s 90 members employ more than 75,000 people across the U.S.
The sector is maturing, Kevin O’Connell said. A former director of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce, he was a principal architect of outreach to U.S. private space companies to facilitate innovation and encourage increased market growth and viability.
“We’re making a transition right now,” said O’Connell, who runs the consulting firm Space Economy Rising. “We’re now starting to recognize that space is one of the platforms, if not the platform, through which we’re going to really drive many of the innovations that we both need and expect in the next couple of decades. When folks talk about agricultural technology, health tech and education tech, space is going to be a big part of a lot of those things.”
NASA’s strategy for developing the commercial LEO economy evolved from the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to have three components: cargo transportation, crew transportation, and destinations to which cargo and crews would be flown.
“Cargo you had to start first,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Division for Space Operations. “Mike Griffin, who started the COTS program, would frequently say, ‘You’ve got to walk before you can run,’ so cargo was likely to be the first thing,” since it has fewer safety requirements than crewed missions.
Commercial Cargo began with initial SpaceX and Orbital Sciences contracts. A second phase saw more contracts awarded to SpaceX and Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman) and privately held Sierra Nevada Corp. The last spun off its space operations last year into wholly owned Sierra Space in part to develop the Dream Chaser, a space plane designed to fly a 1.5 g re-entry, for the ISS resupply mission. Dream Chaser is designed to carry up to 12,000 pounds (5,443 kilograms) of cargo in a single trip. Its target is to fly to the ISS next year.
After Cargo, the second component was Commercial Crew, under which NASA in September 2014 selected Boeing and SpaceX to carry U.S. crews to and from the ISS. Boeing proposed doing so with its CST-100 Starliner launched by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V. It is still pursuing NASA certification for the spacecraft, with a second uncrewed flight test slated for May.
Lastly, there is the Commercial LEO Destinations component. On Dec. 2, 2021, NASA said it had signed three contracts to develop commercial LEO station designs to meet government and private-sector needs:
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which received about $130 million, has partnered with Sierra Space to develop Orbital Reef, a scalable “mixed-use space business park” projected to start operating late this decade to provide essential infrastructure for all types of human spaceflight activity. Other teammates include Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering, and Arizona State University. On April 5, Orbital Reef said it had completed its station’s systems requirements review, which the company said was intended to verify that the station’s specifications are a stable baseline for meeting mission and market requirements and support proceeding with development.
Houston-based Nanoracks LLC received about $160 million. It is collaborating with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin on Starlab. Targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight, Starlab would be a continuously crewed commercial station dedicated to advancing research and fostering commercial industrial activity. Designed for four astronauts, Starlab’s flexible design would host the George Washington Carver Science Park and its main operational departments — a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area.
Northrop Grumman received $125.6 million to develop its design for a modular, commercial station supported by the ISS resupply Cygnus spacecraft. It would provide a base module for extended capabilities, including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond initial design. Northrop Grumman’s team includes Dynetics, with other partners to be announced.
In February 2020, NASA had awarded Axiom a $140 million, firm-fixed price contract to provide at least one habitable commercial module to be attached to the ISS. Axiom was founded in 2016 to build a commercial space station.
In addition to providing private-sector opportunities in low Earth orbit, commercial stations would ensure the U.S.’s ability to maintain a continuous presence there after the ISS is retired.
With commercial cargo and crew operations well-defined and established and commercial stations coming online later this decade, McAlister said, “that entire LEO industry becomes driven by commercial and business and personal needs as opposed to the government needs.”
The FAA licensed Axiom to conduct the mission, as it has done all commercial space operations in the U.S since 1995. But the FAA did not certify the Falcon 9 for the Dragon capsule; it is not authorized to certify spacecraft. (Neither did NASA certify the mission’s vehicle, although it has certified Falcon 9 and Dragon to carry U.S. astronauts.)
The FAA’s safety role in commercial space operations lies in protecting the safety of the public on the ground and others using the U.S.’s national airspace. In addition to issuing commercial space licenses, that agency verifies that human-rated launch or re-entry vehicles are operated as intended and performs safety inspections. It also regulates spaceflight crew qualifications and training, and licenses launch and re-entry sites in U.S. jurisdiction.
But it cannot regulate the safety of individuals on board a commercial spaceflight. Congress prohibited it from doing that in 2004 and has extended that ban three times. It currently expires in October 2023. That ban’s purpose was “to ensure that the industry has an ample ‘learning period’ to develop,” according to the FAA.
The ban includes an exception under which the FAA can enact regulations governing the design or operation of a launch vehicle that are intended to protect the health and safety of crew and spaceflight participants “if a death, serious injury, or near-catastrophe occurs.” Short of that, development of health and safety regulations for commercial space operations is left to the voluntary efforts of industry members through standards development organizations like ASTM, which has a committee (F47) working on that subject.
In December 2020, the FAA published a new section of regulations, Part 450, to streamline commercial space launch and re-entry licensing requirements. Part 450 is performance-based, “providing a regulatory requirement but allowing industry the opportunity to determine how they will meet that requirement,” the FAA said.
The Axiom Ax-1 crewmembers are Pilot Larry Connor of the U.S. and Mission Specialists Eytan Stibbe of Israel and Mark Pathy of Canada. Each is a billionaire who paid $55 million to fly to the station and conduct research there. “They’re not up there to paste their noses on the window,” Axiom’s Suffredini said. “They really are up there to do meaningful research.”
The crew’s commander is Axiom’s vice president of business development, Michael López-Alegría, a retired NASA astronaut and a veteran of space shuttle and ISS flights.
Flights like Axiom’s Ax-1 mission give NASA officials the opportunity to learn how to work with commercial enterprises in a way that allows them to meet their business goals while still satisfying government requirements. McAlister said the Axiom mission looked the same as other crewed SpaceX ISS launches — same rocket, same capsule, same trajectory. “But behind the scenes, it was very different.”
NASA’s involvement was limited and focused on ensuring that ISS safety and operational requirements were met when the Dragon was within about 125 miles (200 kilometers) — the “integrated operations” range — and while the Axiom astronauts were on the station. The rest of the mission was managed by Axiom, which was responsible for the safety of its crewmembers during launch, ascent, return to Earth and recovery.
“We have worked really hard with the Axiom team and ISS in order to ensure that we’re meeting the requirements, guidelines and policies on the NASA side but still allowing Axiom to meet their visions and goals for their company and their business plans,” Angela Hart, program manager of NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Program. “It’s been a real interesting activity. I think we’ve come to great processes, plans and solutions on a lot of different challenges that we had as we were pulling this together.
“We’re going to continue to learn more and be able to do this better and faster,” Hart said, “and possibly even offer different and more opportunities as we move forward and learn how to work in this commercial arena.”