Frontier Status Report

Frontier Status Report #87

Frontier Status Report #87

March 13, 1998

Dale M. Gray

A quiet week on the frontier with steady gains in technical systems, public awareness and legislation. The Space Commercialization Bill has passed Senate Commerce Committee and now is up for vote by the full US Senate.

Highlights of the week of March 13 include:

  • Successful drop test of the X-38 prototype
  • The Advanced X-Ray Astrophysics Facility completed
  • Asteroid 1997 XF11 Near Earth orbit defined.
  • Mars Pathfinder declared dead


The Shuttle Columbia is in the Orbiter Processing Facility bay 3 being prepared for STS-90 Neurolab mission. The forward and aft compartment closeouts are in process. The orbiter will be transferred on Monday to the Vehicle Assembly building to be united with the external tank and solid rocket boosters. Launch is scheduled to be launched on April 16 (NASA).


While Andy Thomas continues to work on his science experiments, the Russian contingent of the station have been working on the stations air conditioner. The unit has not been operational since December. The Shuttle that brought up Thomas also brought up new parts for the air conditioner. The crew has been dependent on the dehumidifier in the Soyuz vehicle and the Vozdukh CO2 remover (NASA).

Thomas is currently working on the Biotechnology System Co-Culture (COCULT) experiment. A problem with air bubbles in the rotating chamber has been resolved and the experiment now delivers the correct amount of oxygen to two different 3-dimensional tissue cultures (NASA).


Despite rumors of delays and cost over-runs, the International Space Station continues to lumber toward launch. Whether the first US element will be launched in early July or mid-September - the result of delays in the unrelated X-ray telescope, the first elements are now nearing completion. More serious are the delays to the Russian Service module which appears to be 2 months behind its revised schedule and the US lab module which is currently 1.5 months behind schedule. While exact figures are difficult to obtain, the station may be as much as $3.6 - $3.9 billion over budget, bringing the US contribution to the station to $21.3 billion (AP; Flatoday).

Work on Node 1 continues at the KSC Space Station Processing Facility. The element is now midway through the Cargo Element Integrated Test. It is being prepared for an interim weight and center of gravity measure prior to being placed in the Shuttle payload transportation canister for a two week leak check. Following the text the node will be removed for the remaining portions of the Cargo Element Integrated Test (NASA pr).


The cause of the failed Japanese H-2 rocket launched on Feb 21 has been identified. The second stage LE-5A engine shut down prematurely on its second firing, leaving the Communications and Broadcasting Engineering Test Satellite (COMETS) in a problematic elliptical orbit. The shut down occurred after exhaust gasses broke through the top of the engine nozzle. The exhaust path, either a pinhole or a crack, was determined to be the result of a manufacturing flaw and not a design flaw. The nozzle was manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 1995 (SN).

Beginning March 12, NASDA will begin a series of maneuvers to raise the apogee of the stranded COMETS satellite. The satellite has to be moved to avoid collision with the expended second stage of the H-2 that delivered it to orbit. It is hoped that the craft can be raised to a safer and more stable orbit with an apogee of 17,700 kilometers (SN).


After a problem with the B-52 carrier aircraft grounded the first landing test of the X-38 crew return vehicle, the lifting body was successfully dropped on Thurs, March 12. The design, capable of carrying up to 7 people back from space, makes use of the lifting body concept developed in the 1960s and the X-24A program of the mid 1970s. In a modern improvement, the craft utilizes a large parafoil to steer the craft and control the landing. The unmanned prototype was released from the B-52 at 11:30 am EST above the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, CA. The release was at an altitude of 23,000 ft. The parafoil deployed a few seconds after the craft was released. Nine minutes later, the craft glided to a landing on skids on the dry lakebed below. Future tests will drop the craft from as high as 50,000 ft to allow extra time prior to parafoil deployment. In 2000 an unpiloted space test vehicle will be deployed from the Shuttle to test the reentry and landing system. The X-38 is hoped to be operational as a crew lifeboat for the International Space Station beginning in 2003 (NASA pr; LS).


NASA announced that AXAF was completed March 4 by TRW with the installation of the twin solar panels. The observatory is 45 ft long with a solar wing span of 64 ft. The 5 ton orbital observatory will be launched in December on STS-93. Testing of the fully integrated spacecraft began on March 7. Among the tests was an acoustic test that simulates the sound pressures that occur within the Shuttles cargo bay (NASA pr).


On March 10, NASAs Pathfinder team made one final effort to contact the Pathfinder lander using a 34 meter Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, CA. No signal has been detected from the main transmitter of the lander since Sept 27, 1997. The craft was operational for 83 days or 3 times its design lifetime. Attempts to contact the lander began at 10 am PST and concluded almost 3.5 hours later. Mission Manager Richard Cook stated This is sort of the end of the end. This is an actual good-bye The $266 million mission returned 16,000 photos from the lander and 500 photos from the rover during its 300 ft trek across the rocky Martian plain. Avid followers of the mission utilizing the Internet set a record number of hits when the photos became available on-line following the Fourth of July landing (NASA; AP).


On Mar 11, the International Astronomical Union issued an alert that Asteroid 1997 XF11 will pass within 26,000 miles of Earth in Oct 2028. Brian G. Marsden made the calculations based upon a recent series of observations. The mile-wide rock carries the kinetic energy equivalent of thousands of atomic bombs. While the news of the asteroid was carried on front pages of newspapers, astronomers at JPL found a series of 8 year old Palomar telescope photographs that show the asteroid. This allowed a more accurate computation of its orbit. On the basis of this new information, the asteroid will probably pass about 600,000 miles from Earth - three times further than the Moon. In 2002, the asteroid will pass within 6 million miles of Earth which will allow astronomers a better chance to study its orbit (AP; Flatoday).


Boeing has conducted the first hot-firing of the Delta III upper stage at the Plum Brook Spacecraft Propulsion Research Facility at Sandusky, Ohio. The 60 second burn was conducted in a vacuum chamber where conditions were designed to closely mimic flight conditions. The RL10B-2 engine performed as expected. The first firing on Mar 6 was followed by a second firing on Mar 11 as part of a 6-8 week series of tests. The Delta III will be able to place 8,400 pounds into geosynchronous transfer orbit - twice that of the Delta II. The first launch of a Delta III is slated for June 22 of this year from Cape Canaveral Air Station (LS; AW&ST).


While Nevada worried about potential hazards and the US waffled on authorizing reentry of reusable spacecraft, Kistler Aerospace has moved its test development program to Woomera, 500 km north of Adelaide in South Australia. The reusable vehicle, designated the K-1, will utilize fuels similar to those used in jets. By making space access more like the aviation industry, the company hopes to launch a large number of small satellites while greatly reducing costs. The Australian government made the tests possible by granting an environmental clearance for the Washington state-based company (SpaceCast).


While no orbital rockets were launched during this week, two smaller rockets were launched late last week. Sweden launched its 2nd Nike-Orion sounding rocket from the Swedish Space Corp Esrange rocket range as part of its Non-Local Thermodynamic Equilibrium mission. The same day, NASA launched a Black Brant 11 rocket from Wollops Flight Facility. The rocket carried a USAF payload (LS).



The Hong Kong-based owner of Asiasat 3 has chosen an ILS Proton to launch a replacement. Asiasat 3 was lost from a second stage failure during launch late last year. The company is using $200 million in insurance to obtain an identical replacement satellite from Hughes and to procure launch services from ILS in the fall of 1999. The new satellite will be designated Asiasat 3C (SpaceCast).


Globalstar LP

Changes in its planned market has caused Globalstar LP to shift plans for allocating resource on its 56 satellite constellation. Previous market studies underestimated mobile telephone services demand while overestimating the market for fixed telecommunication services. The first 4 satellites of the Globalstar network were launched by a Delta rocket launched last month from Cape Canaveral (SN).


By the time Globalstar becomes operational early next year, Iridium has announced that it will be finalizing plans for its second generation of satellites. Motorola, Iridium's prime investor will spend several hundred million dollars developing and producing the new generation of satellites (SN).


The Philippines has recently agreed to open the country to global mobile personal communications by satellite (GMPCS). The move will allow systems such as Iridium to operate in the Philippines subject to only existing rules and regulations. Inmarsat, which has the only operational GMPCS system has experienced problems in some countries with high licensing fees for terminals. These vary from $2,000 in Saudi Arabia to $12,000 in Ethiopia (SN).



The Student Nitric Oxide Explorer (SNOE) satellite which was launched on a Pegasus XL rocket on Feb 25 is being checked out in orbit. The craft is in a 540 x 580 km orbit inclined at 97.75 degrees. The craft will study how solar soft X-radiation changes the density of nitric oxide in the lower thermosphere and will also study how auroral activity produces additional nitric oxide above the poles. The craft carries an ultraviolet spectrometer , a two-channel auroral photometer, and a five-channel solar soft X-ray photometer (USRA pr).


Courtesy J. Ray, and R. Baalke


  • Mar 14 - Soyuz-U, Progress-240 resupply ship to Mir, Baikonur.
  • Mar 16 - Atlas 2, AC-132, UHF-F8 military comsat, Cape Canaveral.
  • Mar 19 - Pegasus XL, TRACE, Vandenberg AFB.
  • Mar 20 - Ariane 4, Flight 107, Spot-4, Kourou, French Guiana.
  • Mar 20 - Long March 2C/SD, Iridium (2 comsats), Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, China.
  • Mar 23 - Delta 2, Flight 255, Iridium (5 sats), SLC-2, Vandenberg AFB.
  • Early April - Krunichev Proton (Block DM), Iridium (7 comsats), Baikonur, Kazakstan.
  • April - Pegasus XL, ORBCOMM-2 (8 sats), Wollops Flight Facility, VA.
  • Apr 16 - Shuttle Columbia, STS-90, Neurolab, pad 39B KSC.


The population of space remains at the baseline of 3 - all on board the Mir space station. The Mir crews include 2 Russians and one Australian-born astronaut. This marks the completion of 3110 days of continuous human presence in space since the reoccupation of Mir on Sept 8, 1989. Only 108 days remain until the scheduled launch of the first element of the International Space Station.

Index for Frontier Status Report 1998

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