Northrop Grumman has nozzle nightmare, Soyuz brushes off lightning, and updates on Crew Dragon 'anomaly' probe

Also: 53 years since NASA first soft-landed on Moon

Roundup Last week NASA finally issued an update on the SpaceX Crew Dragon anomaly while Northrop Grumman enjoyed one all of its very own.

Northrop Grumman 'successfully' complete rocket test. Bits fly off the fiery end

Northrop Grumman experienced "something strange" with the nozzle of the CASTOR 600 first stage of its upcoming OmegA rocket during a test firing last week.

Mounted horizontally in a manner to stir nostalgia in the hearts of Shuttle-huggers remembering the SRBs of the orbiters, the first test of the solid-propellant first stage seemed to go well. The rocket chewed through its fuel until just before the two-minute mark, when thrust was expected to tail off.

However, things did no go entirely to plan as the rocket's nozzle appeared to disintegrate towards the end of the burn, sending fragments flying.

Northrop Grumman played down the incident, trumpeting a successful test with only an "observation noted" in relation to bits of the nozzle, er, no longer attached to the booster.

In the ensuing press conference, former Shuttle Commander and now Northrop Grumman VP Kent Rominger explained that at the end of the test something a bit odd happened that needed looking into.

The fact that it happened at the end of the burn and the rest of the rocket held together is cause for optimism.

Northrop Grumman plans to launch the three-stage OmegA from 2021, starting with an Intermediate Configuration capable of lofting between 4,900 and 10,100 kg to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit. A Heavy Configuration will be able to lob 5,250-7,800kg to Geostationary Equatorial Orbit.

The company already launches small-class Pegasus and Minotaur rockets as well as the medium-class Antares. Adding something heftier to its lineup will allow the company to bid on lucrative government contracts. Alas, there will be no SpaceX-style reusability for OmegA. While the company boasts of the booster's Shuttle heritage, it reckons that dumping spent casings makes more economic sense than recovery and refurbishment.

As for the nozzle incident itself, Shuttle veteran Wayne Hale opined that when, in the Shuttle days, the team had a bad day, they admitted as much.

Hale's words came the day after the CASTOR 600 nozzle explosively parted ways from the first stage, and he was quick to add that his comment "could be about a lot of things". After all, SpaceX had a very bad day back in April.

About that Crew Dragon thing

More than a month since SpaceX made a big orange cloud and footage surfaced showing a test going explosively wrong, NASA posted an update on the investigation into the, er, anomaly.

The agency confirmed that the explosion occurred after the firing of the 12 service section Dracos and during the activation of the SuperDraco thrusters, intended to push the capsule away from a failing Falcon 9. Sadly, this particular capsule won't be troubling a Falcon any time soon.

SpaceX had planned to use the Crew Dragon from the successful Demo-1 mission to the ISS to demo the abort system. In light of the "anomaly", it will instead take the next Crew Dragon from the production line – originally intended for Demo-2, the first crewed mission – and use that. The capsule originally planned to make the first operational flight will instead be used for Demo-2.

As for when Demo-2 might happen, NASA took a cautious line, saying that it will "proceed with flight tests when ready". However, NASA's Commercial Crew Program manager, Kathy Lueders, told the NASA Advisory Council that the hardware for an abort test could be ready by the end of July with the crewed test potentially occurring at the end of the year if all goes well.

However, this remains dependent on the results of the investigation. In the absence of useful communication from the company, it's hard to resist rolling out the speculatoblaster and playing a game of SpaceX Cluedo: was it was the SuperDraco, on the Test Stand, with the Salt Water Contamination wot dunnit?

Farewell to Spitzer

The switch-off date for the veteran Spitzer Space Telescope has been set as 30 January 2020, when the last science data will be transmitted and the aging spacecraft commanded off.

Spitzer has lasted far longer than designed, with an initial 2.5-year mission stretching to perhaps five years before the liquid helium needed to cool its instruments ran out. However, even without the cooling, Spitzer has continued to generate useful science, nearly 16 years since launch.

Handy, because NASA's next infrared Great Observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, continues to struggle to make it out of the cleanroom and to the launchpad.

Sadly, the writing was on the wall for Spitzer in recent NASA budgets with requested funding dropping from $11m in the FY 2018 budget estimate (PDF), down to $9m in FY 2019 and ending in FY2020 with $3.5m. While trumpeting the achievements of the machine, NASA's advisors also recommended turning it off at the end of 2019 and so here we are.

Attempts to secure funding from elsewhere to keep the science rolling in have come to naught.

SCE to AUX for Soyuz?

Russia picked up the launch pace last week, sending first a Glonass-M navigation satellite into orbit aboard a Soyuz-2.1b rocket and then communications satellite into geostationary orbit atop a Proton booster.

The launch of the former, which occurred at 06:23 GMT on 27 May, was more dramatic than usual thanks to a lightning strike seconds after leaving the Plesetsk Cosmodrome pad. Rockets have been known to trigger lightning strikes when passing through thick cloud or storms. Memorably, the Saturn V of Apollo 12 was struck shortly after lift-off, and was saved by a combination of quick thinking on the part of John Aaron in mission control and the crew, with Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean flicking the all-important switch from SCE to AUX.

Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin was quick to congratulate the team on the successful launch, telling the gang: "Lightning is not an obstacle for you."

The Proton, which launched on 30 May at 1742 GMT, enjoyed a far smoother jaunt to space, carrying the Yamal 601 communications satellite into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome without any weather-based shenanigans.

NASA picks the first lunar surface payloads, 53 years since the first Surveyor landed

Three lucky commercial Moon landing service providers have been given the nod to send payloads and demonstrate technology that could be used by NASA to get humans back on the lunar surface by 2024.

Astrobotic of Pittsburgh will trouser $79.5m to fly up to 14 payloads to the nearside of the Moon by July 2021. Aiming for the same date is Intuitive Machines of Houston, who were awarded $77m to send up to five payloads to "a scientifically intriguing dark spot" on the surface. Rounding out the awards was Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey, who will pick up $97m for landing four payloads on a lava plain in September 2020.

The dates may look a little tight considering the current plan to get boots on the surface by 2024. However, it is worth remembering that NASA launched Surveyor 1 on 30 May 1966, achieving the agency's first soft landing on the Moon on 2 June. Apollo 11 would land on the lunar surface just over three years later.

There were seven Surveyor missions between 1966 and 1968, with five achieving the desired soft landing. One of the probes, Surveyor 3, was later visited by the crew of Apollo 12 in 1969, who removed pieces of the lander for analysis. ®

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