2018 Was Busy Year for Suborbital Flight Tests

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 2 of 2

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.

The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.

A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.

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KSC Continues Transformation to Multi-User Spaceport

Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)
Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)

By Frank Ochoa-Gonzales
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

The year 2014 proved to be of the banner variety for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Kennedy’s diverse new identity on full display as NASA prepares America for its next journey into deep space.

In the quest to transform Kennedy in to the world’s eminent multi-user spaceport, employees have helped prepare, launch and recover Orion; establish, ready and process research and cargo bound for the International Space Station and partner with Boeing and SpaceX to develop human-rated spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS by 2017.

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Morpheus Completes Free Flight at Kennedy Space Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — A free-flight test of the Morpheus prototype lander was conducted December 15 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida. The 97-second test began at 4:11 p.m. EST with the Morpheus lander lifting off from the ground over a flame trench and ascending more than 800 feet.

Utilizing the autonomous landing and hazard avoidance technology (ALHAT) sensors, the vehicle pitched into a 30-degree glide slope and surveyed the hazard field to determine safe landing sites. Morpheus then flew forward and downward, covering approximately 1,300 feet before descending to a landing at the ALHAT-targeted safe site.

Project Morpheus tests NASA’s ALHAT and an engine that runs on liquid oxygen and methane, which are green propellants. These new capabilities could be used in future efforts to deliver cargo to planetary surfaces. Morpheus and ALHAT are examples of the partnerships that exist within the agency.

For more information on Morpheus, visit: http://morpheuslander.jsc.nasa.gov

Watch Morpheus Vehicle Fly

Video Caption: Morpheus Bravo vehicle executed a successful tether test on August 7, 2013 at Johnson Space Center. The combined Morpheus/JPL team met all test objectives including engine ignition, ascent, a 3 meter lateral translation over simulated Mars soil provided by JPL to help them with a plume study, 40 seconds of hover at the apex, and a slant descent to “landing” using free flight guidance. The entire flight duration was ~80 seconds. All though the Mars soil simulant is not typical for Morpheus test fires, it sure made for a spectacular show!

Hardware Failure Likely Doomed Morpheus Vehicle

The Morpheus vehicle after it crashed and exploded. (Credit: NASA)

From the Project Morpheus blog:

The root cause is still under investigation,  but what we do know is that at the start of  ascent we lost data from the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that supplies navigation updates to the flight computer.  Without this measurement the vehicle is blind and does not know which way it is pointing or accelerating.  Since this data is needed to maintain stable flight, the vehicle could not determine which way was up and began to tumble and  impacted the ground about 50 feet from the launch site.  No one was injured, no property was damaged besides the vehicle and we have been able to recover significant data, which will give us greater insight into the source of the problem.

We have said it before and will continue to say, this is why we test.  We have already learned a lot from this test and will continue to learn as we recover data and evaluate the hardware.   No test article should be too precious to lose.  A spare vehicle was planned from the start and is just a few months away from completion.  The basic development approach is to quickly build, test and redesign the hardware to achieve many design cycles and maturity before building flight articles.