Category Archives: Space

Exclusive: Check Out These Incredible Photos Taken Last Week of the Massive Stratolaunch Space Plane

Photographer Chris McGreevy Captures Gold in Photos at Mojave Air & Space Port.

Aviation spotter and photographer Christopher McGreevy has been shooting photos of unique and interesting aircraft, “Since I was a kiddo” he told TheAviationist.com last week in an exclusive interview over Facebook messenger.

But what he captured on Friday, August 10, 2018 outside the Mojave Air & Space Port is truly remarkable.

Shooting with his Canon EOS 7D Mark II and a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary Lens from outside the fence at the Mojave Air & Space Port (also known as the Civilian Aerospace Test Center) located in Mojave, California, McGreevy shot these photos around 2:00 PM local time on Friday.

Detail of three of the six engines on Stratolaunch along with its control surfaces. (All photos: Christopher McGreevy)

McGreevy’s photos show the enormous Stratolaunch aircraft built by Stratolaunch Systems of Seattle, Washington. The Stratolaunch, when it flies some time later this year or in early 2019, will become the largest aircraft to ever fly as measured by wingspan. Its wings measure a titanic 385 feet (117 meters). The gigantic aircraft weighs a staggering 1,200,000 pounds at take-off with its payload. That is a total of 600 tons. The Stratolaunch is built to air launch spaceplanes like Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL, the Dream Chaser and Black Ice experimental spacecraft prior to their orbital flights.

These shots are incredibly unique since Chris McGreevy told TheAviationist.com that there was, “Not a soul out there.” He was the only photographer in the area when the aircraft was outside on this day. The gigantic aircraft is most frequently housed in a massive hangar at the Mojave Air & Space Port.

Stratolaunch uses a unique round entry door as shown in this photo.

McGreevy is a frequent visitor to the facility. “Mojave is usually my own little playground unless a known Spaceship 2 launch is happening. Nobody really shoots out there because it’s a pretty slow airport. I go pretty often to see the Orbital L-1011 and 747 retirement flights to the boneyard.”

“I have a few spots there that I like to shoot from,” McGreevy told TheAviationist.com in a late-night interview on Friday. “I use my 4X4 truck to drive around the filed I the dirt, [it] offers some different views of the field.”

The Stratolaunch hangar is of equally massive proportions to the aircraft itself.

The McGreevy photos from Friday offer a unique perspective on the massive size and unique design of this flying leviathan. Because they were shot from a distance but with good composition and cropping, these photos offer an accurate sense of the enormous size of the Stratolaunch aircraft. McGreevy shows fascinating details such as close-ups of the aircraft’s six engines and the round crew entry hatch. A large towing tug and maintenance scaffolding under the aircraft also lend an accurate sense of scale and size to the photos. There also seems to be some engine mount maintenance going on since one of the photos shows some aircraft surface missing from the upper portion of the engine mounts at the wing.

Photographer Christopher McGreevy shot this spectacular wide shot of the Stratolaunch giving a graphic sense of its massive size.

One particularly interesting shot from the McGreevy collection is the photo of the L-39 Albatross single engine trainer jet with civilian registration N139WS taxiing in front of the Stratolaunch. This L-39 is registered to Ozark Management Inc, of Jefferson City, Missouri, a privately held aviation firm with only about 5-6 employees according to open source information and is operated by the National Test Pilot School L-39C. It’s not clear if the aircrew of the L-39 is related to the Stratolaunch company or not. The aircraft adds a great sense of scale to the backdrop of the Stratolaunch, since the photo shows just 1/4 of the monster plane.

This Aero L-39 jet trainer in the foreground lends some sense of size and scale to the Stratolaunch.

Following the high-speed taxi tests of the Stratolaunch earlier this year in late February things have seemingly been quiet about the Stratolaunch but it is likely these sensational photos from Christopher McGreevy may reignite the excitement and conversation about this truly historic and remarkable aviation project.

Thanks for Photographer and Aviation Enthusiast Christopher McGreevy for his generous use of his excellent photos for TheAviationist.com and to the Facebook group “Palmdale AF Plant 42 (PMD) and BJ’s Corner”.

Photographer Chris McGreevy who shot the remarkable Stratolaunch photos.

Report: Meteor Made 2.1 Kiloton Explosion Over Air Force Space Command Base Thule, Greenland.

Where is Space Force When You Need Them? Scientists Tweet Incident; Air Force is Quiet.

A curious and credible Tweet from the Director of the Nuclear Information Project for the Federation of American Scientists, Hans Kristensen, on August 1, 2018 at 5:14 PM Washington D.C. time claimed that a, “Meteor explodes with 2.1 kilotons force 43 km above missile early warning radar at Thule Air Base.”

The Tweet apparently originated from Twitter user “Rocket Ron”, a “Space Explorer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory”. The original Tweet read, “A fireball was detected over Greenland on July 25, 2018 by US Government sensors at an altitude of 43.3 km. The energy from the explosion is estimated to be 2.1 kilotons.” Rocket Ron’s Tweet hit in the afternoon on Jul. 31.

The incident is fascinating for a long list of reasons, not the least of which is how the Air Force integrates the use of social media reporting (and non-reporting) into their official flow of information. As of this writing, no reporting about any such event appears on the public news website of the 12th Space Warning Squadron based at Thule, the 21st Space Wing, or the Wing’s 821st Air Base Group that operates and maintains Thule Air Base in support of missile warning, space surveillance and satellite command and control operations missions.

An early warning radar installation in Thule, Greenland. (Photo: USAF)

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory did provide a Tweet with a screenshot of data showing record of an object of unspecified size traveling at (!) 24.4 Kilometers per second (about 54,000 MPH or Mach 74) at 76.9 degrees’ north latitude, 69.0 degrees’ west longitude on July 25, 2018 at 11:55 PM. That latitude and longitude does check out as almost directly over Thule, Greenland.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory showed the object’s reentry on their database. (Photo: JPL via Twitter)

When you look at NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Program database for objects entering the atmosphere you see that, “The data indicate that small asteroids struck Earth’s atmosphere – resulting in what astronomers call a bolide (a fireball, or bright meteor) – on 556 separate occasions in a 20-year period. Almost all asteroids of this size disintegrate in the atmosphere and are usually harmless.” That is a rate of one asteroid, or “bolide”, every 13 days over the 20-year study according to a 2014 article by Deborah Byrd for Science Wire as published on EarthSky.org.

But there are exceptions.

You may recall the sensational YouTube and social media videos of the very large Chelyabinsk meteor that struck the earth on Feb. 15, 2013. Luckily it entered the earth’s atmosphere at a shallow trajectory and largely disintegrated. Had it entered at a more perpendicular angle, it would have struck the earth with significantly greater force. Scientists report that Chelyabinsk was the largest meteor to hit the earth in the modern recording period, over 60-feet (20 meters) in diameter. Over 7,000 buildings were damaged and 1,500 people injured from the incident.

What is perhaps most haunting about the Chelyabinsk Meteor and, perhaps we may learn, this most recent Thule, Greenland incident, is that there was no warning (at least, not publicly). No satellites in orbit detected the Chelyabinsk Meteor, no early warning system knew it was coming according to scientists. Because the radiant or origin of the Chelyabinsk Meteor was out of the sun, it was difficult to detect in advance. It arrived with total surprise.

Northern Russia seems to be a magnet for titanic meteor strikes. The fabled Tunguska Event of 1908 was a meteor that struck in the Kraznoyarsk Krai region of Siberia. It flattened over 770 square miles of Siberian taiga forest but, curiously, seems to have left no crater, suggesting it likely disintegrated entirely about 6 miles above the earth. The massive damage done to the taiga forest was from the shockwave of the object entering the atmosphere prior to disintegration. While this recent Thule, Greenland event is very large at 2.1 kilotons (2,100 tons of TNT) of force for the explosion, the Tunguska Event is estimated to have been as large as 15 megatons (15 million tons of TNT).

It will be interesting to see how (and if) popular news media and the official defense news outlets process this recent Thule, Greenland incident. But while we wait to see how the media responds as the Twitter dust settles from the incident, it’s worth at least a minor exhale knowing this is another big object that missed hitting the earth in a different location at a different angle and potentially with a different outcome.

Top image:  Meteor Shower (credit: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock)

 

Why the New U.S. Space Force Isn’t as Whacky as The Internet Suggests

Space May Be the “Final Frontier” Of a New Global Conflict Among Superpowers.

U.S. President Donald Trump launched a thousand memes when he announced the creation of a new military branch, a “U.S. Space Force” during a meeting of the National Space Council at the White House on Monday, June 18, 2018. The President told reporters that the new U.S. Space Force would become the sixth branch of the military to exist alongside but separately from the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.

While President Trump’s announcement was received with humor and cynicism across social media, the formation of a U.S. military space force separate from and in addition to the existing five military branches is a credible and potentially overdue evolution for the U.S. military.

Since the first satellite, Sputnik 1, was placed in orbit by the former Soviet Union on October 4, 1957 over 8,000 objects have been launched into space. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists in a 2017 report, there were 1,738 operational satellites orbiting the earth at various altitudes broken into four categories; Low Earth Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit, Elliptical and Geosynchronous. Of those satellites, 159 are registered as “military” while an additional 150 are “government”. There are over 470 civilian satellites in orbit that provide everything from weather reconnaissance to communications.

Any disruption in vital space capabilities such as the six different national GPS constellations in orbit would have vast security and economic implications and present a significant vulnerability. Currently the U.S., Japan, Russia, China, the E.U. and India have GPS satellite constellations in orbit. These satellite constellations provide both vital commercial and military services ranging from civilian air transport to banking.

GPS jamming and denial is one example of potential threats in the outer space battle space. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Since the Army launched the first successful U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958 it is as if the United States has built a new colony in space with limited or no provision for security. This has created a significant and expanding vulnerability given our increasing reliance on space-based assets both commercial and military.

Since the late 1950’s the responsibility for space defense operations, including reconnaissance and signals intelligence, missile defense, treaty compliance verification and other defense oriented space operations has largely been on the U.S. Air Force. But as the Air Force confronts its own challenges with pilot shortages and fiscal concerns attendant to an increasingly complex and evolving mission, asking them to secure outer space in addition to inner space would necessitate a massive expansion in both budget and capabilities.

The current U.S. government space agency, NASA, is now operating on about the same budget as they had in 1960, with consistent declines in NASA funding since its peak in 1966 when NASA accounted for nearly 5% of the U.S. federal budget. Today NASA uses less than 1% of the federal budget as reliance on private commercial and military space operations has expanded. Despite this drastic reduction in government spending in space set against the backdrop of expanding reliance on space assets there remains no exclusive force to secure the outer space theater of operations.

Historically, the precedent for the formation of a U.S. Space Force is analogous to how the U.S. Air Force was started. Formed after WWII as a result of the 1947 National Security Act, the Air Force was previously a part of the U.S. Army. But as reliance on air power expanded, the missions became more complex and other nations developed an increasing level of commensurate air power the necessity for a separate force dedicated to air power became significant. It’s also important to acknowledge that despite the formation of a dedicated sir force separate from other branches, the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard each retained their own indigenous air component exclusive to themselves. It’s likely the evolution of the U.S. Space Force will have a similar relationship with the other forces.

In the current battlespace, countries like China have developed anti-satellite weapons that could threaten international and U.S. space assets. In January 2007, the Chinese conducted an anti-satellite weapons test that successfully destroyed one of their own target satellites in orbit. The U.S. and Russia has demonstrated a similar capability as early as the 1980’s.

Since the first flight of the secretive X-37B on April 22, 2010, there have been many theories about what the role of the spacecraft may be. The first is that the X-37B is a space-based weapons platform: the spacecraft is pre-deployed into orbit armed with some type of weaponized re-entry vehicle that could be released over or near a specific target. It may also be a weapons delivery vehicle deployed in defense of space-based commercial assets such as the GPS satellite constellation. Although this theory is debunked by most analysts since, most likely, the platform is just a test bed for deploying satellites and servicing them robotically in space or a new intelligence gathering asset, the project itself reaffirms the interest of the U.S. military for space.

While the social media space received the announcement of a new U.S. Space Force with pointed humor and cynicism the reality is that a dedicated U.S. Space Force is likely overdue. There is an expanding need for a dedicated security asset in this rapidly expanding and largely unsecured environment. Hopefully this new U.S. Space Force can address that evolving need.

Top image: composition created with Wiki/U.S. Air Force photos

Falcon Heavy is Not Only a Revolution in Space Travel, But Also in Aerospace Media

The World Was in Awe of The Space X Falcon Heavy Launch, And with Good Reason.

Like many social media users, you may not have known about the Space X Falcon Heavy launch before it happened on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, from Cape Canaveral. But in the hour before the launch millions of people who were not aware of the launch that day, and maybe even the entire program, were suddenly glued to their device screens as video of the launch preparation, the stunning launch itself and then the science-fiction like recovery of the boosters reached them via social media.

While Falcon Heavy represents a significant revolution in space technology it represents an even larger shift in media, and that shift was nothing short of spectacular.

Falcon Heavy greets the dawn of a new space age from Cape Canaveral. (Photo: SpaceX)

The last time an Apollo mission took off from Cape Canaveral was over 45 years ago, and the last NASA space shuttle launch was nearly 7 years ago. That means there were many young viewers of Falcon Heavy who had never seen anything like this in their lives. And for older people who lived during the Apollo and more recent space shuttle program, this is what it felt like for your chest to swell with pride and your eyes to bulge in amazement at the space program.

Falcon Heavy is currently the largest lift capacity rocket on earth, with a staggering 70.3-ton payload lift capacity. That is the equivalent of hurling five and half loaded school busses into orbit and shattering the sound barrier in a little over one minute. At launch the spacecraft developed five million pounds, or 2,500 tons, of thrust.

Thundering off the launch pad to bring space travel back into the mainstream, Falcon Heavy launches from Cape Canaveral. (Photo: SpaceX)

It is possible the Falcon Heavy Launch may have been seen by more people over more media than perhaps any other space mission including the Apollo moon landings. Access to media, internet technology and other evolutions that happened since Apollo and even the shuttle program made it easier for the world to see Falcon Heavy fly. The commercial origins of Falcon Heavy may cross political boundaries more gracefully than a state-sponsored space program largely originating from national and even military agendas. Space X Falcon Heavy is a human endeavor that belongs to all of the planet, not just one nation.

Another part of the media revolution associated with Space X Falcon Heavy was many people’s first exposure to a new voice of space exploration reporting, journalist Loren Grush. Grush comes from a family of two NASA engineers. She has written and prepared video technical features for Fox and ABC News networks, Popular Science, Digital Trends and The New York Times. Like her predecessor from the Apollo mission television coverage, Walter Cronkite, Grush expresses a genuine reverence for the wonder of space technology and has the ability to connect with and share her knowledge and enthusiasm with audiences in an evolving media. She is a relevant and credible voice to report on the modern space program. Millions of people around the world met Loren Grush for the first time during her interview with Space X entrepreneur Elon Musk prior to the launch, and her commentary on the program. As Space X Falcon Heavy progresses, we will hear more from Loren Grush and reporters like her.

The emergence of reporter Loren Grush as a new media voice for the space program heralds the arrival of a new generation of space journalist for new media contrasting personalities like Walter Cronkite from the NASA/Apollo era. (Photo: Loren Grush/Youtube/CBS News)

Another brilliant surprise for viewers of the Space X Falcon Heavy Launch was seeing the recovery of the twin boosters back at Cape Canaveral. Like something from a cheesy 1950’s “Mission to Mars” sci-fi matinee the boosters levitated downward as they seemed to defy physics. Their braking rockets fired and their tripod landing gear extended in a stunning synchronized landing as no less than four sonic booms from their re-entry thundered over the cape. Most viewers had never seen anything like this.

But revolutions in media and space technology notwithstanding, the Space X Falcon Heavy launch was nothing short of stunning. In an era of social media laced with cynicism, criticism and negativity the Falcon Heavy launch was as bright a spot as the two-hundred fifty-foot-long beacon of space fire that erupted from her boosters at launch.

Despite some low-key criticism of the commercial feel of tossing a Tesla car into space with live video streaming and the relatively minor bauble of losing the main booster during its recovery at sea, this was a stunning debut for the Falcon Heavy to the world.

The Tesla Roadster shot in the space has also got an Interplanetary ID. (SpaceX)

The Blackbird NASA Used For Validating The SR-71 Linear Aerospike Experiment Configuration

The iconic SR-71 was used by NASA to undertake a series of experiments. To carry out some of these testing activities the Blackbird was installed an interesting pod.

According to official records, NASA has operated a fleet of seven Blackbirds:

YF-12A (60-6935) – December 1969 to November 1979
YF-12A (60-6936) – March 1970 to June 1971
SR-71A/YF-12C (61-7951/“06937”) – July 1971 to December 1978
SR-71A (61-7971/NASA 832) – January 1995 to June 1996
SR-71A (61-7967) – August 1995 to January 1996
SR-71B (61-7956/NASA 831) – July 1991 to October 1997
SR-71A (61-7980/NASA 844) – September 1992 to October 1999

The last SR-71 flight was made on Oct. 9, 1999, at the Edwards AFB air show. The aircraft used was NASA 844 that flew to 80,100 feet and Mach 3.21 in the very last flight of any Blackbird. Actually, the aircraft was also scheduled to make a flight the following day, but a fuel leak grounded the aircraft and prevented it from flying again. The NASA SR-71s were then put in flyable storage, where they remained until 2002. Then, they were sent to museums.

Throughout their career at NASA, Blackbirds have served as test beds for a series of high-speed and high-altitude research programs:

“As research platforms, the aircraft can cruise at Mach 3 for more than one hour. For thermal experiments, this can produce heat soak temperatures of over 600 degrees Fahrenheit (F). This operating environment makes these aircraft excellent platforms to carry out research and experiments in a variety of areas — aerodynamics, propulsion, structures, thermal protection materials, high-speed and high-temperature instrumentation, atmospheric studies, and sonic boom characterization,” says NASA Dryden’s Blackbird website.

“The SR-71 was used in a program to study ways of reducing sonic booms or over pressures that are heard on the ground, much like sharp thunderclaps, when an aircraft exceeds the speed of sound. Data from this Sonic Boom Mitigation Study could eventually lead to aircraft designs that would reduce the “peak” overpressures of sonic booms and minimize the startling affect they produce on the ground.”

This close-up, head-on view of NASA’s SR-71A Blackbird in flight shows the aircraft with an experimental test fixture mounted on the back of the airplane. (1999 NASA /Photo Jim Ross)

Among the major experiments flown with the NASA SR-71s, there was a laser air data collection system that used laser light, instead of air pressure measured by pitot tubes and vanes extending into the airstream, to determine airspeed, angle of attack, vertical speed, and other attitude reference data.

Another project involved a Dryden’s SR-71 as a platform to film with an ultraviolet video camera, celestial objects in wavelenghts that are blocked to ground-based astronomers. Moreover, the SR-71 was also a testbed in the development of Motorola’s IRIDIUM commercial satellite-based, instant wireless personal communications network, acting as a surrogate satellite for transmitters and receivers on the ground.

Between 1997 and 1998, one NASA Blackbird was used for the Linear Aerospike Rocket Engine, or LASRE Experiment, whose goal was to provide data to validate the computational predictive tools used to foresee the aerodynamic performance of future single-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicles (SSTO RLVs).

SR-71 #844 taking off for a LASRE experiment. (NASA)

As part of the LASRE experiment, the Blackbird completed seven initial research flights from Edwards. The first two flights were used to determine the aerodynamic characteristics of the LASRE apparatus (pod) on the back of the SR-71 whereas five later flights focused on the experiment itself.

The LASRE experiment itself was a 20-percent-scale, half-span model of a lifting body shape (X-33) without the fins. It was rotated 90 degrees and equipped with eight thrust cells of an aerospike engine and was mounted on a housing known as the “canoe,” which contained the gaseous hydrogen, helium, and instrumentation gear. The model, engine, and canoe together were called a “pod.” The experiment focused on determining how a reusable launch vehicle’s engine flume would affect the aerodynamics of its lifting-body shape at specific altitudes and speeds. The interaction of the aerodynamic flow with the engine plume could create drag; design refinements looked at minimizing this interaction. The entire pod was 41 feet in length and weighed 14,300 pounds.

Two test flights were used to cycle gaseous helium and liquid nitrogen through the experiment to check its plumbing system for leaks and to test engine operational characteristics. During the other three flights, liquid oxygen was cycled through the engine. Two engine hot-firings were also completed on the ground. A final hot-fire test flight was canceled because of liquid oxygen leaks in the test apparatus.

The experimental pod was mounted on NASA’s SR-71 #844. Lockheed Martin may use the information gained from the LASRE and X-33 Advanced Technology Demonstrator Projects to develop a potential future reusable launch vehicle.

This is a rear/side view of the Linear Aerospike SR Experiment (LASRE) pod on NASA SR-71, tail number 844. This photo was taken during the fit-check of the pod on Feb. 15, 1996, at Lockheed Martin Skunkworks in Palmdale, California. (NASA)

NASA and Lockheed Martin were partners in the X-33 program through a cooperative agreement but the program was cancelled in 2001.

A rendering of the X-33 concept (NASA)

Throughout its career, the high-altitude SR-71s, involved in test flights as well as operative missions, have probably contributed to fuel UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) conspiracy theories. For instance, according to CIA high-altitude testing of the then new and secret U-2 led to an increase in reports of UFOs:

“According to later estimates from CIA officials who worked on the U-2 project and the OXCART (SR-71, or Blackbird) project, over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s through the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States. This led the Air Force to make misleading and deceptive statements to the public in order to allay public fears and to protect an extraordinarily sensitive national security project. While perhaps justified, this deception added fuel to the later conspiracy theories and the coverup controversy of the 1970s. The percentage of what the Air Force considered unexplained UFO sightings fell to 5.9 percent in 1955 and to 4 percent in 1956.”

Flash forward to 2017, we can’t but notice that, among the theories surrounding the footage of an unidentified flying object (UFO) filmed by an F/A-18F Super Hornet in 2004, there is also the one that the weird “capsule-shaped” object might have been some sort of secret aerial vehicle during a test mission rather than an alien spacecraft…. And it would not be the first time.