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Launch of Russia's Fastest Space Cargo Mission Yet Aborted in Final Minute

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The Soyuz rocket carrying the uncrewed Progress 68 cargo ship is seen just one minute before Russia’s Roscosmos space agency aborted a launch attempt from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 12, 2017. One of two umbilical towers (left) had already retracted as planned.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos aborted the launch of its fastest cargo mission to the International Space Station yet today (Oct. 12) due to “reasons yet to be analyzed,” a NASA spokesperson said.

A Russian-built Soyuz rocket was scheduled to launch the uncrewed Progress 68 cargo ship to the space station at 5:32 a.m. EDT (0932 GMT) from Site 31 at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but Roscosmos called off the flight in the countdown’s final minute. Progress 68 is packed with nearly 3 tons of food, fuel and supplies for the space station. The next launch attempt could occur no earlier than Saturday (Oct. 14) if the reason for today’s abort can be solved by then, NASA officials said.

“For reasons yet to be analyzed by the Russian Federal Space Agency, the launch of the Progress 68 cargo craft planned for this morning at 4:32 a.m. Central Time was scrubbed in the last minute,” NASA spokesperson Rob Navias said from Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “The engine ignition never occurred on the Soyuz booster.” [The Space Station’s Robotic Cargo Ship Fleet in Pictures]

Credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com Contributor

Progress 68 was scheduled to launch on a 3.5-hour flight to the space station to test a new rendezvous technique to fly supplies (and eventually crews) to the orbiting laboratory faster. Progress cargo vehicles and Russia’s Soyuz crew capsules initially took two days to reach the space station and orbited the Earth 34 times. In 2013, Russia began flying 6-hour missions that orbited Earth just four times before arriving at the station. Progress 68 was scheduled to orbit Earth only two times before arriving at the station.

But with today’s launch abort, a rarity for Russia’s typically dependable workhorse Soyuz rocket and Progress vehicle, the launch will occur no earlier than Saturday and take two days to reach the International Space Station due to the orbital mechanics involved, Navias said. [How Russia’s Progress Cargo Ships Work (Infographic)]

“That will mean a 34-orbit rendezvous,” Navias said. “Not a two-orbit rendezvous, but a two-day rendezvous with a docking next Monday [Oct. 16].”

Assuming the cause of today’s launch abort is identified and fixed, a Saturday launch for Progress 68 would be scheduled for 4:46 a.m. EDT (0846 GMT), Navias said.

In the meantime, Russian engineers will continue to study what went wrong with today’s launch attempt.

“No reason for the launch delay has yet been given,” Navias said shortly after the launch was scrubbed.

The countdown for today’s launch using a Soyuz 2.1a rocket went smoothly straight up to that last minute, he added.

“The Soyuz 2.1a booster on Site 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was fully fueled for launch and the countdown proceeded with no issues throughout the course of the early morning hours,” Navias said. “The countdown reached the final minute.”

At that time, the first of two umbilical towers retracted as planned from the Soyuz rocket, but the second of the two towers did not, Navias said. The second tower retraction is a typical indicator of the start of a Soyuz booster’s launch sequence, he added.

The Russian space agency’s uncrewed Progress spacecraft are similar in appearance to the agency’s crewed Soyuz spacecraft, but carry propellant for the space station in place of the crew capsule on the Soyuz. Progress vehicles are designed to fly themselves to the station and dock autonomously, but can be remotely controlled by cosmonauts on the station if needed.

Space.com will update this story as more information on the cause of today’s launch abort is available. 

Email Tariq Malik at tmalik@space.com or follow him @tariqjmalik and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Martian Missive: 'Others Will Follow' Film Explores Last Message from Mars

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A new sci-fi short explores the message that the (fictional) last human to survive a Mars mission sends back to Earth.

As shown in a short sci-fi video, “Others Will Follow” (uploaded to Vimeo), a spacecraft arriving at the Red Planet catastrophically breaks apart. Viewers don’t see what happens to the rest of the crew, but presumably they have died. This leaves behind one astronaut, who was inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969 to fly into space.

“Fate has ordained that the men and women who went to Mars in peace will stay on Mars to rest in peace,” an unnamed television host says in the video, echoing the words of a never-broadcast speech by President Richard Nixon that was written in case the Apollo 11 crew never made it back to Earth. [6 Private Deep Space Habitat Concepts That May Pave the Way to Mars]

The stranded astronaut is alone on Mars and unable to send any messages to Earth, because he is out of range. But then he comes across a solution; we won’t spoil the ending for you, but let’s just say it’s both hopeful and chilling.

“As I was writing the short, I was thinking about how NASA had parked its spaceships in museums in the decades since the contingency speech was written. Most humans alive today didn’t exist the last time humanity left low Earth orbit, and my generation is without a moon shot,” filmmaker Andrew Finch, who made the short, wrote in an email to Space.com.

“I wanted to make something that would outline the importance of human spaceflight by imagining a brute-force mission to Mars in the early 2000s that, despite disastrous circumstances, still manages to pass the torch of inspiration,” he added.

Human missions to Mars were popularized, in part, by the 2015 Hollywood movie “The Martian,” which coincidentally also portrayed an astronaut left behind alone on the Red Planet. In that case, however, the crew abandoned the astronaut because the others assumed he had died. As “The Martian” shows, the stranded explorer, Mark Watney, was very much alive — and had several ideas for staying alive until a rescue mission came.

NASA has not yet sent humans to Mars, of course, but the agency has said it plans to do so in the 2030s. Other groups and individuals — such as Russia, China, Mars One and Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX — have also outlined plans to bring humans to the Red Planet.

Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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NASA Satellites Captured Rapid Intensification of 4 Recent Hurricanes

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NASA satellites captured views of Hurricane Maria, Irma, Harvey and Jose as they rapidly intensified and barreled toward the Caribbean islands and the United States. 

Rapid intensification occurs when hurricanes strengthen in a short period of time, making it the “hardest aspect of a storm to forecast,” according to a statement from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. 

Specifically, when a hurricane’s maximum sustained winds increase at least 35 mph (56 km/h) in 24 hours, the storm is considered to have rapidly intensified. For example, Hurricane Maria developed from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 18 hours, NASA officials said in the statement.

Not only is this type of storm harder to predict, but it is also considered to be the “most critical to people’s lives,” as there is a greater risk of damage caused by storm surges, floods and extreme winds, NASA officials said. Also, populations have limited time to prepare and evacuate, because these storms can grow so quickly, according to the statement

NASA satellites monitored four rapidly intensifying hurricanes during the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, and data from those satellites may help weather researchers better predict the destructive power of some of the deadliest storms.

Credit: NASA

“Rapidly intensifying storms typically occur up to twice in a hurricane season,” NASA officials said in the statement. “But in 2017, we have seen four storms rapidly intensify and scientists attribute this to warmer ocean waters and favorable winds.”  

Hurricanes Maria, Irma, Harvey and Jose were all categorized as major hurricanes — but only Harvey, Irma and Maria made landfall. One of the reasons these storms were so dangerous was because they rapidly intensified before moving inland. (Jose stayed offshore near the eastern United States, but still brought tropical storm force winds to Barbuda before changing course.)

“In the past few decades, forecasting errors for tracking hurricanes have decreased,” according to a video from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “While intensity forecast errors have shown recent improvement, significant errors can still occur because of rapidly intensifying storms.”

Using NASA satellites, however, scientists can closely monitor hurricanes for signs of rapid intensification, including water temperature and wind patterns. 

Generally, there needs to be low vertical wind shear — winds that don’t change too much with altitude — and ocean temperatures need to be 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for a hurricane to rapidly intensify. Another key indicator is a symmetrical, deep ring of precipitation surrounding the eye of the storm, according to the NASA video

However, the video also notes that these clues are not always a clear indication of rapid intensification, proving just how complex it can be to predict. Rather, there are also many small-scale processes that can influence the rate at which hurricanes grow and develop. 

“Satellites such as NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement Mission can observe precipitation inside all of these storms and help scientists better understand how these processes come together to intensify hurricanes,” according to the video. 

Follow Samantha Mathewson @Sam_Ashley13. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Blue Origin Conducts First Test of BE-4 Engine

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A Blue Origin BE-4 engine during its first hotfire test.

ATLANTA — Blue Origin announced Oct. 19 that it conducted the first successful test of its BE-4 engine, a major milestone for both the company’s launch vehicle plans as well as for United Launch Alliance.

Blue Origin, in a tweet, said its first hotfire test of the BE-4 engine was a success. The company included a six-second video, taken from several angles, of the engine firing on a test stand, but provided no other information, including the date, duration or thrust level of the test. A Blue Origin spokesperson said the company was not releasing additional information about the test at this time.

“First hotfire of our BE-4 engine is a success,” tweeted company founder Jeff Bezos. “Huge kudos to the whole @BlueOrigin team for this important step!”

The BE-4 is an engine that uses liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas propellants and is capable of generating 550,000 pounds-force of thrust. The engine was developed in-house at Blue Origin primarily with its own funding, with some support from ULA.

Blue Origin plans to use the BE-4 on its New Glenn vehicle that the company announced last year. The first stage of the rocket will use seven BE-4 engines, with the second stage using a single BE-4. That rocket will be able to place up to 45 tons into low Earth orbit and 13 tons into geostationary transfer orbit.

The BE-4 is also under consideration by ULA for its next-generation Vulcan rocket. ULA is considering both the BE-4 and the AR1, a liquid oxygen and kerosene engine under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne, but has indicated that its preference is for the BE-4.

In an April interview, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said that it was waiting for the outcome of an initial series of hotfire tests before formally selecting the BE-4. “The economic factors are largely in place now and the thing that is outstanding is the technical risk,” he said then. “That’s why we keep talking about the engine firing.”

ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye said the company congratulated Blue Origin on the successful test, but gave no indication of when ULA might make a decision on the engine for Vulcan.

“Congratulations to the entire Blue Origin team on the successful hotfire of a full-scale BE-4 engine,” she said in an Oct. 19 email. “This is a tremendous accomplishment in the development of a new engine.”

At the time of the April interview, Blue Origin was expected to begin BE-4 engine tests in the coming weeks. However, in May the company reported it lost a set of powerpack hardware, a key component of the engine, during a test. At the time the company said it would be back in testing “soon” but offered few updates prior to the announcement of this test.

An independent assessment, conducted by NASA personnel and briefed to congressional staffers in June, concluded that the BE-4 retained a development lead of as much as two years over the AR1 despite the mishap. That briefing took place around the same time Blue Origin announced it will construct a factory in Huntsville, Alabama, to build BE-4 engines for both its own vehicles and for ULA, if it does select the BE-4 for Vulcan.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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