Blue Origin’s In-flight Escape Test


No, it’s not the New Shepard, but a Little Joe. Picture courtesy of NASA.

It’s not every day that you see a rocket come apart in mid-air, fire coming from each part, and then have both parts come back to Earth, safely. But that’s just what Blue Origin did today during their in-flight escape test of the New Shepard rocket and capsule. When the smoke and dust cleared, the New Shepard booster was standing on the pad again, just as it had done four times before.

And of course the capsule parachuted safely nearby. While Blue Origin hasn’t really released any new information, the video narrator might have mentioned the booster had gone past 248,000 feet (75.5 km or nearly 47 miles) to apogee, before coming back. Honestly, that may be all you wish to know, and you can go see this morning’s test right here:

Don’t let the 1 hour and 1 minute video deter you. There was a combined hold/count reset of about 30 minutes. But if you want to go straight to the action go to the 50 minute mark and enjoy the show.

However, for you space-history buffs, Blue Origin mentions the Little Joe II rocket test NASA conducted in January 1966. You can see a short bit of the test’s footage at the 3:18 mark in the video. It’s relevant to Blue Origin in that the test was also an in-flight rocket test crucial for making sure the Apollo escape system worked. I actually wrote about the Little Joe II test back in January this year for the Space Foundation’s “Space Watch,” linking the test to other rocket escape systems, including Russian ones. You can read about the history here: Testing the Lifeboat.

One other bit of trivia about Little Joe. Unless you’re a craps fan, you may not know the name is related to a specific thrown dice configuration in the game of craps. Specifically, each dice must show a two. If you put both of those two dice together, then that’s what the bottom of the Little Joe rocket looked like with nozzles in place in the original drawings for it. You can read a bit about it at the Boeing history site (it was originally build by North American Aviation): Another story about why it was called Little Joe is on a NASA site, here: Something to do with the success of rolling a “Little Joe” being related the way the rocket was built.


Another “Space Watch” article…


“Ride ’em cowboy”–a bit of encouragement Pete Conrad gives to Richard Gordon while straddling the spacecraft. Image from NASA.

While I’ve been lying low content-wise on the site here, I’ve been staying pretty busy at work. One of the many fun things I get to do is to look up historic events leading up to the Apollo moon missions, and then write a little bit about the event for the Space Foundation’s “Space Watch” monthly newsletter.

In this particular “Space Watch” article, titled Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service,” I try to describe the activities of two brave astronauts during a Gemini mission fifty years ago. What they did gives the category of “space operations” an entirely different meaning, and shows just what kind of interesting and courageous explorers they were.

While many NASA fans seem to attribute the administration’s achievements to the idea of NASA itself, I’ve always felt it was the people within, such as Gordon and Conrad in this story, who really moved the agency forward toward the lunar missions and subsequent successes. This is not to downplay the mission controllers, engineers, and others who all played their part. Indeed, it’s the team, the people, who figure out how to overcome challenges, and then move ahead. But the astronauts in particular put their lives on the line during space missions. Whether it’s NASA, or in the future, one particular company or other that starts regular manned flights to space, the professionals called astronauts will still be the ones trading the ability to “fly” in space with the possibility of real, deathly, consequences.

With these thoughts in mind, I hope you enjoy Gordon’s Orbital Garbage Disposal and Rocket Herding Service.”

SmallSat 2016


SDL sure knows how to treat their guests. They hosted a social “Luau” dinner on the first night there. I made sure I ran every night, to work off the extra calories…

This last week my company sent me to do some hob-nobbing and research work at Space Dynamics Laboratory’s Small Satellite (SmallSat) conference for 2016. It’s an annual event the company hosts, going on thirty years now.

For those who don’t know what a small satellite is, there are a few different definitions, but let’s just say the satellite probably should be 500 kg (1100 lbs) or less. Some might even say 100 kg (220 lbs) or less. And because we work in a field of engineers and scientists, there are sub-categories of small satellites, such as nano, mini, micro–you get the idea. If you can’t measure it and categorize it, you can’t obsess about it, right? You’ve probably seen a small satellite and not known it if you’ve been following Planet’s or Terra Bella’s activities. Cubesats fall under the smallsat definition.

So small satellites are the focus of SmallSat. Entrepreneurs, government organizations, universities, and various companies from varying backgrounds get together to show what they can do, have done, and will do with the small satellite platforms. Technical sessions are running pretty much from 0800 to 1800, with people presenting, ideally, in 15 minute presentations. So people like me, research analysts, show up, hoovering up whatever data and information we can find about this industry. Blogs and space-centric news organizations show up for their stories. And there’s a lot for everyone to talk about. I won’t get into specifics, as that is what my ‘real-life’ job is for. If you want to find out that information, you’ll have to go to the Space Foundation’s Space Report Online.

I’ve been to this event twice before, both of those times as an employee of SDL. The difference between those times and the conference this year is striking, particularly the level of energy and activities going on in the small satellite community. Both were very high this year. The support industries for small satellites seemed quite excited about field products for small satellites, and seem to think there’s going to be a lot of growth in this field. The small satellite builders, both new and old, seem to be receiving lots of orders and interest for their products. Operations services indicated growth in telemetry and data requirements. The activities, services, and experiments conducted by, and proposed for, small satellites, seems to be limited only by the imagination (and limited launch opportunities–hopefully that’s fixed soon).

To my eyes, there appears to be a lot of opportunity here. There are those that moan we’ve seen this before, and that we’re in a bubble. But the circumstances propelling the interest and growth in small satellites are different–very different. And if it’s a bubble, is that really a bad thing? Even with the collapse of the internet bubble, I think things are better today overall than they were at the height of that bubble. And we’re not in a bubble yet. But it will happen eventually, as “irrational exuberance” takes hold in this industry too.

If I were in my twenties today, and interested in space, I’d be working hard on concepts to get my own start-up going, or working in a start-up to get the needed experience, and eventually move on. None of this going to NASA or the USAF for space operations nonsense. Those organizations have very focused missions, but as I’ve noted before, small satellites seem to bring out the imagination and healthy risk-taking of motivated individuals.

But as it is, I’m having tremendous fun learning from the very energized small satellite sector, chewing on the information, and writing about it. I’m thankful SmallSat exists to bring not just national, but international focus and energy together, to learn more, and for conference participants to strut their stuff. If you’re motivated enough, try to get a paper or two in.


Your Comrade Through Space History


Take a walk through history. Image from Roscosmos.

A friend of mine passed along this link today: Before you click on it, you should have some time on your hands. This is an animated walk through history, thanks to Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency. It’s a very dynamic and cool way to present some of the more important historic bits in space history.

Initially, there’s a Russian space history focus. But as the little space traveller goes along, more international missions get discovered. Really, that site is all this short blurb of a post is about, but maybe it will help make the mid-week bearable for some of you.

If you are Russian, learning Russian, or have Russian friends, you can go directly to: Either site is pretty nifty, maybe proving that it doesn’t matter the language–space is just fun.

P.S.: Don’t forget to move the mouse around on the initial load screen. The spacewalking cosmonaut is more than a pretty picture.

Deployment Diversity


The Orbital ATK Cygnus, just snatched up for docking with the ISS by the station’s Canadarm2. Image from NASA.

Sometime in the past few days, new objects showed up in the satellite tracking database published by This is nothing new. is supposed to do this every day. It’s their job: tracking and identifying objects orbiting the Earth, primarily for the United States Department of Defense, and as an ancillary service to the public and commercial organizations.

However, what was different about these objects was when and how they were deployed in orbit. Space-Track gave numbers to the objects associating them with the launch of a ULA rocket with an Orbital ATK Cygnus International Space Station (ISS) resupply capsule that occurred in March 2016. These objects showed up in late June, after the Cygnus capsule had departed from the ISS. Orbital ATK noted that five cubesats would be deployed before the Cygnus re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Space-Track identified the objects as cubesats belonging to Spire Global.

As near as I can tell, this is the first time this sort of satellite deployment has happened. What basically happened was the cubesats hitched a ride up on the Cygnus to dock with the ISS. Then stayed aboard the Cygnus while it was docked with the ISS for three months or so until the Cygnus left the ISS. Once Cygnus left, the cubesats were deployed in the desired orbit. Initially, this doesn’t sound much different from cubesats deploying from a deployer during a rocket’s ascent to orbit. That kind of rideshare has been occurring for some time now. And it might not sound much different from cubesats deploying from the ISS, which is on track this year to deploy even more cubesats than in 2015.

But there are some possible differences that makes this kind of post-ISS deployment desirable. What immediately comes to mind is deploying the cubesats that way gives the owners more flexibility in what low Earth orbit (LEO) the satellites can be placed in. Depending on whether the Cygnus has power left over after it’s ascent to the ISS, the orbital inclination (the angle of an orbit as it goes across the Earth’s equator) might be different than that of the ISS. There’s also the possibility of using a Cygnus-like dedicated cubesat deployer to deploy more than five cubesats. Imagine an entire constellation, maybe 50 or more cubesats belonging to one company, being deployed this way.

A bigger, dedicated deployment spacecraft is not too far from reality. SpaceX keeps pushing back the launch of Formosat 5, which unfortunately, is also tied with Sherpa. A Falcon 9 will be conducting a launch of the two spacecraft sometime during the third quarter of 2016…unless they postpone it again. Formosat 5 isn’t that interesting. It’s an optical Earth observation satellite, one of many orbiting the Earth. Sherpa, however, is more interesting.

Sherpa has been called a space tug. Sherpa is designed, by the folks at Spaceflight Services, to deploy cubesats. A LOT of cubesats. When it launches with Formosat 5, it will eventually deploy 87 cubesats. A Dnepr cluster mission launched in 2014, which deployed the most types of small satellites so far, 37 (don’t let their advertised number of 33 fool you–there was s a satellite that deployed more satellites on board the Dnepr), doesn’t even approach half of Sherpa’s projected deployments. Of course Sherpa needs to be launched first.

There seem to be many different ideas for how to place small satellites in orbit. The weight and size standards set for cubesats in particular, seem to be encouraging people to be creative. The post-ISS Cygnus deployments and Sherpa tug both seem to indicate that no matter which way is offered, there is someone willing to fund a cubesat.

Spire Global, in the case of the Cygnus deployments, has been busy populating low Earth orbits with their own imagery/Earth observation constellation, which might be called Lemur. They’ve also had a few cubesats deployed from the ISS Nanoracks CubeSat Deployment system this last May.