Watch a replay of SpaceX’s fifth launch for Iridium

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher rocketed into orbit Friday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, climbing away from a hillside launch complex just after sunrise with 10 Iridium communications satellites.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket lifted off at 7:13:51 a.m. PDT (10:13:51 a.m. EDT; 1413:51 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg. The Falcon 9 turned toward the south, heading for a 388-mile-high (625-kilometer) polar orbit.

SpaceX confirmed the rocket placed all 10 satellites into orbit around an hour after liftoff, concluding the company’s fifth launch to deploy Iridium’s upgraded global voice, data and broadband network.

Read our Mission Status Center for details on the flight.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Space Launch System, planetary exploration get big boosts in NASA budget

NASA’s planned rocket to send humans back to the moon and the agency’s solar system exploration program were big winners in a $20.7 billion budget passed by Congress and signed by President Trump on Friday.

The NASA funding was part of a $1.3 trillion federal spending package that keeps the government running through the end of fiscal year 2018 — Sept. 30 — after multiple stopgap budgets in recent months.

Lawmakers gave NASA nearly $1.1 billion more than the space agency received in fiscal year 2017, and $1.6 billion more than the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request.

NASA’s behind-schedule Space Launch System, a multibillion-dollar rocket that has been a cornerstone of the agency’s human spaceflight program since 2011, will receive $2.15 billion in the fiscal 2018 budget. The Orion crew capsule, which will launch on top of the SLS, will get $1.35 billion.

The budget provides $350 million for construction of a second SLS mobile launch platform, a project NASA says could shorten the gap between the first and second Space Launch System flights.

Managers last year considered the benefits of constructing a second mobile launch platform, but NASA officials last month backed off the idea, citing cost concerns. Funding for a second SLS launch platform was not included in the White House’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal.

The existing SLS launch platform, originally built for NASA’s Ares 1 rocket canceled in 2010, is nearing completion at the Kennedy Space Center. Technicians will stack the Space Launch System on the platform inside the spaceport’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, then transfer the mobile rocket carrier to nearby launch pad 39B for countdown and launch operations.

NASA officials are not concerned with a slight “deflection” of the mobile launch platfrom from a perfectly vertical orientation, saying the structure is well within design tolerances.

But the platform is sized for a configuration of the Space Launch System that NASA only intends to fly once. The SLS Block 1 version, using a single-engine upper stage derived from United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 rocket, is scheduled for launch in 2020, sending an Orion capsule on an unpiloted 25-day test flight in orbit around the moon.

The modified Delta 4 upper stage, known by NASA as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, or ICPS, has already been built at ULA’s rocket plant in Decatur, Alabama, and delivered to Cape Canaveral in advance of the maiden SLS flight.

NASA hoped to launch the first SLS/Orion test flight — Exploration Mission-1 — in 2018 until last year. Delays in constructing and testing the SLS core stage, which will be powered by four space shuttle main engines, and a European-built service module for the Orion spacecraft pushed back the mission.

NASA has tapped its lead SLS contractor, Boeing, to begin work on an enlarged upper stage with four Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engines that will fly on the second SLS mission, known as Exploration Mission-2, in 2023. NASA plans for the EM-2 flight to be the first SLS/Orion mission with astronauts on-board.

The SLS version that will debut the more powerful upper stage is known as Block 1B.

Before the new budget was signed into law Friday, officials expected to raise the height of the SLS mobile launch platform to accommodate the bigger upper stage, which extends around 40 feet (13 meters) taller than the upper stage to be flown on the first SLS test launch.

The modifications to the mobile platform were expected to take around 33 months. The time required for the launch tower changes were a major factor in delaying the scheduled liftoff of the first SLS/Orion mission with crew to 2023, but there is other work to be completed before EM-2. Engineers must also finish testing of the Orion spacecraft’s life support system, crew accommodations and cockpit displays before flying people.

Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s outgoing acting administrator set to retire at the end of April, told a House subcommittee March 7 that there was insufficient money in the agency’s budget to build a second SLS platform without delaying or canceling other projects.

Responding to a question during the hearing, Lightfoot acknowledged that a second SLS mobile launch platform would be better for the program in an “ideal world.”

“I could fly humans quicker, probably in the 2022 timeframe,” with a second mobile launch platform, Lightfoot said.

If NASA designed a separate launch tower for the upgraded SLS Block 1B rocket, the second SLS flight could launch off the already-built platform with astronauts, using the same Block 1 configuration as EM-1.

In such a case, mission managers would have to change NASA’s planned SLS/Orion launch sequence and flight plans, which assume the bigger upper stage makes its inaugural flight on EM-2, giving the rocket enough power to haul a power and propulsion module toward the moon along with the Orion crew, commencing assembly of a mini-space station called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.

NASA would also bear unplanned costs to buy another ICPS rocket stage from ULA, and conduct reviews to ensure the stage is certified to launch with astronauts.

“If a mobile launcher showed up as something we were going to go build, we would not start modifying the one we’re building for EM-1,” Lightfoot said March 7. “Therefore, once we flew once on that MLP, it’s now ready to fly again. So we would go through the process of hopefully purchasing another ICPS, with the expense that comes with it and also human-rating it, so we could fly Orion with crew quicker.

“So maybe the first launch off the new MLP that we would build might be EM-3 or EM-4, but it would leave us the capability to keep flying on the MLP we’re building now, instead of going in and modifying it,” he said.

“It’s a pretty expensive proposition to build another mobile launcher and to buy another ICPS,” he said. “We had the discussion. We had the debate, and our answer came back (that) we should just stick with our plan that we’ve got.”

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel recommended last year that NASA build a second SLS mobile launch platform to forestall safety risks that could stem from a long gap between missions.

“The funds (for the second SLS mobile launch platform) also will allow flexibility for future NASA and other federal agency missions that will require heavy-lift capabilities beyond those of current launch vehicles as well as enable a sustainable Space Launch System launch cadence,” lawmakers wrote in a report accompanying the budget bill.

The SLS Block 1 and Block 1B configurations use the same basic core stage, stretching more than 20 stories tall and 27.6 feet (8.4 meters) across, with four hydrogen-fueled RS-25 main engines from the retired space shuttle fleet. Two solid rocket boosters, also based on shuttle technology, will help drive the SLS off the launch pad, combining with the four core engines to produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

The Block 1 version will be capable of sending more than 70 metric tons — about 154,000 pounds — of payload into low Earth orbit, and more than 25 metric tons — about 55,000 pounds — on a course toward the moon. With the Block 1B’s enlarged upper stage, the SLS in its crew configuration can deliver more than 105 metric tons — about 231,000 pounds — to low Earth orbit and more than 32 metric tons — about 70,000 pounds — on a trans-lunar injection trajectory, according a spokesperson from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, where the rocket program is headquartered.

When flying with only cargo, the SLS Block 1B can push more than 37 metric tons — about 81,000 pounds — toward the moon.

The most powerful rocket currently flying, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, can send up to 63.8 metric tons — roughly 140,000 pounds — of payload to low Earth orbit, assuming none of the booster’s three core stages are recovered. SpaceX has not published the Falcon Heavy’s performance on a lunar trajectory.

NASA’s space operations budget line, which funds the International Space Station and development of commercial crew ferry ships by Boeing and SpaceX, will get $4.7 billion in the fiscal 2018 budget, close to the funding level proposed by NASA and the White House.

NASA’s science programs also got a nearly $500 million funding uptick in the budget bill.

The agency’s $6.22 billion science budget includes an almost $400 million boost in funding for NASA’s planetary science division over 2017 levels. The planetary science division is charged with managing NASA’s robotic exploration of the solar system.

Two missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa get $595 million in the budget, covering development of a probe named Europa Clipper that will conduct dozens of flybys of the moon, and work on a lander that would make the first landing on Europa’s icy shell, which covers a global ocean of liquid water.

The Trump administration proposed not funding the Europa lander in its 2018 and 2019 budget requests.

NASA’s robotic exploration of Mars will receive $660 million, encompassing the Mars 2020 rover and early planning and development of a multi-spacecraft program to pick up samples from the Martian surface and return them to Earth.

In addition, the budget provides $23 million for a Mars helicopter demonstration. NASA officials expect to decide as soon as next month whether a rechargeable battery-powered flying drone could launch to Mars with the agency’s next rover mission in 2020.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said Monday that the fiscal 2018 budget’s passage will help clear one of two gates before managers can approve the Mars helicopter’s launch in 2020. The other prerequisite, he said, is a review of the drone’s technical status after a series of ground tests due to conclude soon.

The budget marks $850 million for NASA’s astrophysics division, $100 million more than in 2017.

Lawmakers provided $150 million for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, which the Trump administration proposed canceling last month.

Set for launch in the mid-2020s, WFIRST would be next in NASA’s line of big observatories in space after Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope. It was the top priority for NASA’s astrophysics program in a National Academy of Sciences decadal survey released in 2010. The agency’s policy is to follow cues from the science community encapsulated in the decadal survey reports.

Agency managers last year were wary that WFIRST could exceed its $3.2 billion cost cap, and Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science directorate, in October ordered a team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland — home of the WFIRST project office — to study how the mission could be modified to fit under the budget limit.

Officials drafting NASA’s budget request for fiscal 2019 decided WFIRST was too expensive, but the mission has enjoyed strong support from Congress.

In an apparent reference to WFIRST’s proposed termination, lawmakers wrote that they “reject the cancellation of scientific priorities recommended by the National Academy of Sciences decadal survey process.”

The budget also funds the James Webb Space Telescope set for launch next year, and continued operations of the Hubble Space Telescope and the SOFIA airborne astronomical observatory.

NASA’s Earth science division is set to receive $1.92 billion in the fiscal 2018 budget, funding a slate of climate research missions, including four marked for cancellation by the Trump White House in its 2018 and 2019 budget requests.

A fifth Earth science project that the Trump administration proposed canceling, the Radiation Budget Instrument, was terminated by NASA in January, and is not funded in the 2018 budget.

NASA’s space technology directorate will get $760 million the budget signed Friday, including $130 million for the Restore-L robotic satellite servicing demonstration, a mission the Trump White House wanted to down-scale.

NASA’s education efforts are also funded with $100 million in the 2018 budget appropriation, reversing — for now — the Trump administration’s plans to shut down the education office.

The agency’s aeronautics efforts are set to receive $685 million, a slight increase over the Trump administration’s request.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Webb telescope’s launch delayed until 2020

Blaming a slew of technical snags and “avoidable errors,” NASA officials said Tuesday that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, already years behind schedule, will be delayed to 2020, potentially pushing the mission’s development cost above an $8 billion cap mandated by Congress.

Problems encountered in recent months with the observatory’s spacecraft bus, the section that will host the mission’s expandable telescope after liftoff, prompted a review of the schedule engineers need to prepare it for liftoff.

“The project has achieved numerous successful milestones, and in fact, 100 percent of the observatory’s flight hardware is now complete,” said Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator. “However, work performance challenges that were brought to light have prompted us to take some action.

“We need to successfully integrate both halves of the observatory into the final flight configuration and complete some vital testing after an independent assessment of the remaining tasks,” Lightfoot said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “Frankly, the tasks are taking longer to complete than we expected, which will result in a new target launch window, which we now expect to be approximately May of 2020.”

NASA announced last September that JWST would miss its target launch date in October 2018, but managers still expected the observatory to be ready for liftoff between March and June of 2019. Officials on Tuesday said that was no longer possible.

All components of the observatory are in a clean room at Northrop Grumman’s satellite factory in Redondo Beach, California, where technicians will connect JWST’s spacecraft platform — still under construction — to the mission’s telescope and science module, which arrived at the contractor’s plant earlier this year following assembly at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and a cryogenic vacuum test at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The telescope and instruments have passed their standalone tests, but the team in charge of building the spacecraft has run into problems, NASA officials said. A NASA review board determined earlier this month that the mission would likely not be ready to launch until 2020.

“More time is needed to test and integrate the highly complex sunshield and spacecraft section at Northrop Grumman,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate. “That is taking longer to complete, and there are also a few mistakes that happened.”

The flagship mission will be the most ambitious astronomical observatory ever launched, building on a quarter-century of discoveries made by NASA’s famous Hubble Space Telescope. Originally proposed more than 20 years ago, the James Webb Space Telescope has been redesigned to expand its observing power and overcome numerous technical hurdles, ballooning costs from an original projection below $1 billion to more than $10 billion, a figure that includes planned launch and operations expenses, along with European and Canadian contributions.

The new observatory will be stationed nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth, using a 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) mirror and four science instruments hidden behind a thermal sunshield to peer into the distant universe, studying the turbulent aftermath of the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies and the environments of planets around other stars.

Lightfoot said NASA has invested $7.3 billion to date in the James Webb Space Telescope, named for the NASA administrator who led the agency during the Space Race of the 1960s.

NASA remains committed to the observatory, but with the launch delay to 2020, the cost to develop the mission could rise above an $8 billion limit set by lawmakers. If that happens, the mission must be reviewed and reauthorized by Congress.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is our highest priority science project within NASA’s science mission directorate,” Lightfoot said. “It’s really a tremendous feat of human engineering, and it’s going to leave a legacy of exceptional science and technical innovations for decades. It’s loaded with pioneering technology, and it’s also the largest international space science project in U.S. history.”

NASA officials did not provide a new cost estimate to finish development of the observatory. Agency leaders will submit a report to Congress by late June to inform lawmakers of the mission’s updated schedule and budget.

“The moment we have any indication that a breach will happen, both in schedule and cost, we need to inform right away,” Zurbuchen said. “The disadvantage of that kind of sudden action is that we have not fully done all our entire joint analysis of cost and schedule, and we actually, at this moment in time, don’t really fully know what the exact cost will be of the entire completed and deployment spacecraft.”

If NASA needs relatively little extra money to complete JWST, future expenditures planned for the observatory’s post-launch operations could be applied to finish assembly and testing of the spacecraft on Earth, Zurbuchen said. If the budget ends up well above NASA’s previous expectation, the impacts to the agency’s other science missions could be more severe, assuming Congress gives the green light to proceed with the observatory’s final testing and launch.

Zurbuchen and his deputy in NASA’s science mission directorate, Dennis Andrucyk, said a series of problems beset the observatory’s spacecraft module over the last year.

“There have been a couple of technical challenges … primarily in the propulsion system, we’ve had a schedule delay due to a transducer that was incorrectly powered,” Andrucyk said. “We needed to replace that. That resulted in a three-month hit. Incorrect solvent was run through prop system. As a result, we wound having to replace valves in that system, and a catalyst bed heater was accidentally overstressed (at the wrong voltage) and needed to be replaced.”

Andrucyk characterized the propulsion system issues as “avoidable errors.”

“The sunshield complications also took a toll on the schedule,” he said. “It’s a very large five-layer membrane sysstem about the size of a tennis court, and during the deploy, fold and stow operations, the amount of time that we expected to perform those activities took longer than we expected. The first deploy we expected to be two weeks. It wound up being a month, and in the fold and stow, we expected it to be about a month, and it wound up being two months. We have two additional of those deploy, fold and stow operations to go.”

Engineers discovered seven tears across five of the sunshield membranes, which will ensure the observatory’s detectors and mirrors remain protected from heat and light from the sun, keeping parts of the spacecraft as cold as minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 223 degrees Celsius. Internal coolers will chill some of the telescopes’s sensors even colder.

“Also, the sunshield tensioning system, the cables that hold the sunshield membrane into its shape, developed too much slack during the deployment, creating a snagging hazard,” Zurbuchen said. “So they had to redesign how the cables straddle certain parts of the boom so that wouldn’t happen.”

The sunshield tears have been repaired, officials said.

Once the telescope and spacecraft sections are connected, ground crews at Northrop Grumman will again deploy the sunshield, along with the telescope’s unfoldable wings and other structures, then put the entire observatory through electrical, vibration and acoustic tests. After those checks are complete, technicians will unfurl the full observatory once more before stowing it into launch configuration.

The testing is geared toward ensuring the mission’s post-launch deployments go off without a hitch.

The sunshield and mirror will fold up origami-style to fit inside the envelope of the European Ariane 5 rocket that will launch JWST from French Guiana. The Ariane 5 launcher is one of the European Space Agency’s major contributions to the mission, along with key instrument hardware.

Depending on how you count, JWST will have more than 300 deployments after it separates from from the upper stage of the Ariane 5 launcher. Counting steps in a similar way, the Curiosity Mars rover had around 70 deployments.

“Webb is really complex,” Zurbuchen said. “Extensive and rigorous testing is necessary to ensure that we have a launch, deployment and checkout that succeeds with high confidence.

“Webb will journey to an orbit about a million miles from the Earth, four times farther than the moon,” Zurbuchen said. “Simply put, we have one shot to get this right before going into space. You’ve heard this before, and it rings true for Webb, for us, really failure is not an option.”

Andrucyk said NASA Headquarters will have more oversight over JWST in the future, including direct interaction with Northrop Grumman’s president and chief operating officer. NASA will also dispatch a project manager to Northrop Grumman’s factory in Southern California on a permanent basis, along with additional NASA spacecraft integration and test experts during critical operations.

NASA will also have daily and weekly schedule reviews with Northrop Grumman, which will also revamp its management structure. Northrop Grumman is also making personnel changes and updating procedures.

Andrucyk said Tuesday at a meeting at the National Academies of Sciences that some of the recent JWST problems “were driven by poorly written procedures.”

“Northrop Grumman remains steadfast in its commitment to NASA and ensuring successful integration, launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, the world’s most advanced space telescope,” Northrop Grumman said in a statement.

An independent review board chaired by Thomas Young, a space industry veteran who served as an executive at Lockheed Martin and as mission director of NASA’s Viking Mars landers, will help the space agency confirm a new target launch date and cost figure for JWST.

NASA’s standing review board estimated the mission could be ready for launch by April 30, 2020, at a 70 percent confidence level, Andrucyk said at the National Academies of Sciences’ Space Science Week meeting Tuesday. That led the agency’s leaders to announce the mission was likely off until May 2020.

For the record, Andrucyk said, NASA’s standing review board — comprised of engineers and managers not part of the JWST program — concluded the mission could launch in January 2020 with 30 percent confidence.

“Today’s announcement that the James Webb Space Telescope launch will slip again and likely go over the $8 billion development cost cap is disappointing and unacceptable,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee.

Smith added in a statement that the delays and cost overruns “undermine confidence in NASA and its prime contractor, Northrop Grumman.”

“NASA must keep their promises to the American taxpayers,” Smith said. “Every time a mission is delayed or goes over budget, it negatively affects other science missions. This includes delays, cancellations and de-scoping of other missions. Those effects ripple out within NASA and through the entire scientific community.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is a crucial project and an investment in our future,” Smith concluded in his statement. “I expect it to be completed within the cap and launched as close to on schedule as possible so we can look forward to the incredible discoveries it will bring.”

The observatory survived a brush with cancellation by lawmakers in 2011, who proposed zeroing the mission’s budget. An independent review in 2010 found that the mission needed more money to maintain a target launch date in 2015, and NASA and Congress eventually agreed to aim for JWST’s launch in 2018, with additional funding to give managers a budget reserve to handle potential technical issues.

That funding reserve may prove insufficient, and officials admitted Tuesday that a 2018 launch was based on an optimistic schedule.

The Webb mission is set to become the most expensive robotic science mission ever launched. The observatory’s primary mirror — which collects light from astronomical sources — is nearly three times the diameter of Hubble’s, and no other observatory of JWST’s size is planned for launch until at least the 2030s.

Webb will enable “science that will look at the universe in a way we have never seen it,” Zurbuchen said.

With another announcement that Webb’s costs are rising, some worry that the mission’s budget will hamstring NASA’s ability to secure approval for future flagship-class science missions. Zurbuchen said missions like JWST have strong value, pushing frontiers in technology and scientific productivity that make future probes possible.

“One conclusion you could make is you shouldn’t do complex missions like this,” Zurbuchen said Tuesday afternoon at the National Academies of Sciences. “I will tell you that this would be a very grave and wrong assumption. At NASA, and together with our international partners, we should push the envelope.

“What we should do is not make stupid mistakes,” he said. ‘We should learn as we go, as fast as we can.”

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Launch preps advance in California for next Falcon 9 flight

SpaceX’s fifth launch of replacement spacecraft for Iridium’s global voice and data communications network is set for March 29 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a flight that Iridium hopes will signal the start of a brisk pace of West Coast missions to complete deployment of the telecom company’s initial 75-satellite constellation this summer.

All 10 satellites assigned to the March 29 launch have been bolted on their SpaceX-built mounting platform for fueling, a procedure that was expected to conclude early this week.

Each of the satellites will weigh 1,896 pounds (860 kilograms) with a full load of hydrazine maneuvering propellant. The combination of the 10 satellites, plus their two-tier dispenser module, make the Iridium missions the heaviest payloads launched by SpaceX to date.

Built in Gilbert, Arizona, by Thales Alenia Space in partnership with Orbital ATK, the latest satellites set to join the Iridium Next fleet were trucked to Vandenberg Air Force Base in pairs, then passed post-shipment checkouts before their stacking on the deployment structure.

The schedule called for technicians to load around 361 pounds (164 kilograms) of hydrazine into each of the Iridium Next satellites over the weekend. The final major steps for the spacecraft will be their encapsulation inside the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload shroud, which protects the satellites during their stay on the launch pad prior to liftoff, and during the first few minutes of flight through the dense lower atmosphere.

Meanwhile, SpaceX ground crews are preparing the Falcon 9 rocket inside the hangar at Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg. The booster launching March 29 first flew in October with the third set of Iridium Next satellites, then landed on SpaceX’s rocket recovery vessel in the Pacific Ocean for refurbishment and reuse.

After completing a hold-down firing at the launch pad, the rocket will return to the hangar for workers to connect the Falcon 9’s payload fairing and the Iridium Next satellites. The Falcon 9 will return to the launch pad, located around 1,000 feet (300 meters) from the hangar, around a day before liftoff.

The Falcon 9 will be hoisted vertical atop the launch mount for final pre-flight checks.

Launch is set for March 29 at 7:19:49 a.m. PDT (10:19:49 a.m. EDT; 1419:49 GMT). The instantaneous launch opportunity is timed to place the 10 payloads into Plane 1 of the Iridium network, which has spacecraft spread in six orbital planes, each with 11 spacecraft.

The 10 new Iridium Next satellites launching next week will join 40 others lofted by four Falcon 9 launches last year. Iridium is deploying an upgraded voice and data relay network to replace an aging satellite fleet that launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Iridium has invested $3 billion in the new-generation system, purchasing 81 satellites from an industrial partnership between Thales Alenia Space and Orbital ATK, eight Falcon 9 launches from SpaceX, and modernized ground terminals to allow the company’s more than 900,000 subscribers to connect to the network. The new satellites allow Iridium to debut voice and Internet capabilities, alongside the network’s previous telephone, messaging and tracking applications.

“Now that we are more than halfway deployed, we can really focus on the impact our next-generation of services will make on the industry,” said Iridium CEO, Matt Desch. “Testing of our exciting new L-band broadband service, Iridium Certus, has been performing well, and with every successful launch, we are closer to bringing our full suite of Iridium Next solutions to life.  With each day, we are meeting key milestones to complete our new network this year, and we can’t wait to see this fifth set arrive in space to keep up the momentum.”

Earlier this month, Iridium said 34 of the Iridium Next satellites launched last year had entered service, meaning more than half of the 66 active satellites in the company’s fleet were new members of the constellation. Three more were due to become operational by the end of March.

Besides their primary mobile communications function, the Iridium Next satellite also host instrumentation to track global air and maritime traffic.

Iridium and SpaceX have three more missions booked after next week’s launch.

Five Iridium Next satellites will share a Falcon 9 launch from California in late April with two joint U.S.-German research satellites to probe Earth’s gravity field. A launch date for that mission has not been confirmed, but filings with the Federal Communications Commission suggest the flight is scheduled for no earlier than April 28.

A launch in late April would occur around 3 p.m. PDT (6 p.m. EDT; 2200 GMT), based on the time that the Earth’s rotation begins the Vandenberg launch base under the mission’s targeted orbital plane.

Two dedicated Falcon 9 flights, each with 10 satellites on-board, will wrap up the Iridium Next launch sequence. Iridium expects the eighth and final launch in the series to occur in July, according to a company spokesperson.

Six of the 81 satellites Iridium purchased have not been booked for a launch, and will remain on Earth as ground spares for now. Iridium has not ruled out launching the final six Iridium Next satellites in the future.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Ground equipment problem slips next Falcon 9 launch to Friday

Trouble with a piece of ground equipment used for testing of the 10 Iridium communications satellites aboard the next Falcon 9 rocket launch has forced a 24-hour delay in the mission to Friday, officials said Tuesday.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base is now scheduled for 7:14 a.m. PDT (10:14 a.m. EDT; 1414 GMT) Friday.

Matt Desch, Iridium’s chief executive, said ground crews preparing the satellites for launch uncovered a problem with ground equipment that initially caused officials to expect the launch to be put off from Thursday until Saturday. A further examination of the issue led officials to declare the mission could blast off Friday.

“It turned out to be an obscure problem with communication harnesses used for testing on the ground, and have now been fixed,” Desch tweeted Tuesday night. “Stubborn problem to find; kudos to combined teams for working round the clock to resolve.”

Earlier Tuesday, Desch posted an update on Twitter saying there was a problem with one of Iridium’s 10 satellites slated to ride the Falcon 9 rocket into orbit.

He tweeted again Tuesday night saying the issue was not with one of the spacecraft, but with ground equipment used for data connectivity during pre-flight testing.

“Positive update to our satellite and launch delay,” Desch tweeted. “Just been apprised there has been a technical resolution; satellites and F9 are in great shape and ready to go! Was ground harness test cable issue – now fixed.”

“Satellites were always fine; just couldn’t talk to one,” he wrote later.

SpaceX and Iridium have a backup launch opportunity Saturday on the Western Range at Vandenberg Air Force, a spaceport on the Central Coast of California northwest of Los Angeles.

The launch will be the fifth for Iridium’s new-generation voice and data relay satellite fleet. Each previous launch has carried 10 satellites to orbit, all using SpaceX Falcon 9 boosters from Vandenberg.

The rocket launching Friday will use a previously-flown first stage that sent 10 Iridium satellites toward orbit in October 2017.

SpaceX’s launch team completed a hold-down firing of the first stage Sunday at Vandenberg. Engineers use the static fire test as a countdown rehearsal for the launch team, which oversees the loading of super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants before igniting the first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines on the pad.

After the brief firing, ground crews rolled the rocket back to the hangar near the launch facility for attachment of the 10 Iridium Next satellites inside their payload fairing, the structure that shields the spacecraft during the first few minutes of flight through the dense layers of the lower atmosphere.

Iridium has invested $3 billion in the new-generation system, purchasing 81 satellites from an industrial partnership between Thales Alenia Space and Orbital ATK, eight Falcon 9 launches from SpaceX, and modernized ground terminals to allow the company’s more than 900,000 subscribers to connect to the network. The new satellites allow Iridium to debut voice and Internet capabilities, alongside the network’s previous telephone, messaging and tracking applications.

SpaceX has another launch scheduled for Monday, April 2, from Cape Canaveral with a Dragon supply ship heading for the International Space Station. Like the Iridium launch Friday, the resupply mission will lift off aboard a reused Falcon 9 first stage.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Soyuz crew set for Wednesday launch on station flight


Engineers readied a Russian Soyuz rocket for launch Wednesday to ferry a veteran cosmonaut and two NASA shuttle fliers to the International Space Station for a five-month stay.

Soyuz commander Oleg Artemyev, flight engineer Andrew “Drew” Feustel and Richard “Ricky” Arnold are scheduled for launch aboard the Soyuz MS-08/54S spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 1:44 p.m. EDT (GMT-4; 11:44 p.m. local time).

As usual, the launching is timed to roughly coincide with the moment Earth’s rotation carries the pad into the plane of the space station’s orbit, a requirement for spacecraft attempting to rendezvous with targets moving at nearly five miles per second.

Artemyev, veteran of a 2014 stay aboard the station, is making his first flight as Soyuz commander. Feustel, a self-described “gearhead” with a doctorate in geology and a passion for car restoration, will serve as co-pilot in the Soyuz’s left seat.

“It’s just amazing,” Feustel said of the Russian vehicle. “The spacecraft is well designed, it’s got a lot of great redundant features to it … and it has some incredible capabilities. It’s beauty is in it simplicity. It’s been a thrill to learn how well engineered that vehicle is.”

But he added that learning to handle the Soyuz systems while training in a second language was no small challenge. He credited the Russian training team in Star City near Moscow with getting him up to speed.

“If you can take a geologist and put him in the left seat and teach him how to fly a spacecraft, I think that’s a great feat!” he said. “It’s been challenging, but I’m happy to say I think we’ve made it out on the other side of training in a very positive way, and we’ll be well prepared to launch into space.”

If all goes well, Artemyev, strapped into the Soyuz command module’s center seat, flanked on the left by Feustel and on the right by Arnold, will monitor an automated approach to the space station, moving in for docking at the lab’s upper Poisk module at 3:41 p.m. Friday.

Arnold, like Feustel a shuttle veteran, said he was excited by a chance to fly aboard a Soyuz, although the spacecraft is not known for its creature comforts.

“I’m a pretty tall guy, and the Soyuz was not designed for people over six feet tall,” he said of the two-day rendezvous in the cramped ship. “However, it does a great job of getting us to and from orbit, it provides a lifeboat for us in case we need to come home in an emergency. I’m incredibly thankful to have to have the opportunity to fly both of those iconic spacecraft.”

Once docked at the station, Artemyev and his crewmates will be welcomed aboard by Expedition 55 commander Anton Shkaplerov, NASA astronaut Scott Tingle and Japanese crewmate Norishige Kanai. They’ve had the station to themselves since three other crew members — Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei and Joe Acaba — returned to Earth on Feb. 27 to close out a 168-day stay in space.

All three members of the Soyuz MS-08 crew are spaceflight veterans with a combined 10 spacewalks between them, experience that will come in handy during up to four planned EVAs, three U.S. and one Russian, during their station expedition.

Artemyev completed a 169-day stay aboard the station in 2014, participating in two spacewalks totaling 12 hours and 34 minutes. Arnold, an educator with a degree in marine science who has taught at schools around the world, flew a single mission aboard the shuttle Discovery in 2009 and logged two spacewalks totaling 12 hours 34 minutes helping install one of the station’s main solar array truss segments.

“Oleg Artemyev is one of the best guys you can meet but honestly, I never met a cosmonaut in the last 18 years that I didn’t like and get along with,” Feustel said in an interview with CBS News. “We have a great relationship with these individuals, they’re very professional, they’re very technically skilled, and I can’t speak more highly of him and having him as a crewmate. I really look forward to spending time with him on orbit.”

Arnold agreed, saying “he is a great guy.”

“He comes from an EVA background, which is the job I had prior to being assigned to this mission,” Arnold added. “He’s been here a long time, he’s very technically sharp. It’s his second mission, his first time in command of the Soyuz. He’s very kind, he has a great sense of humor, and I think he does a really good job of bringing people together and making them feel part of the team.”

Of the three new station crew members, Feustel has the most spacewalk experience. He participated in two shuttle missions for a combined 28 days 15 hours in space, one in 2009 to service the Hubble Space Telescope and another in 2011 to help finish construction of the space station.

He logged 21 hours and 20 minutes of EVA time during three excursions at the space station and another 20 hours and 58 minutes during three spacewalks to work on the Hubble telescope.

Feustel and Arnold expect to venture outside the space station on March 29 to install wireless communications gear that will be used by an external payload and, eventually, by approaching commercial crew ferry ships being built by Boeing and SpaceX. They also plan to swap out a high-definition camera and remove aging hoses in the station’s ammonia coolant system.

Two more NASA spacewalks are expected in the May-June timeframe, followed by a Russian excursion in August. But the primary goal of the mission is science, with a full agenda of experiments and research on tap, along with the usual station maintenance work.

Asked what he was looking forward to the most, Artemyev said through an interpreter “I really hope our work will be a step forward towards further solar system exploration.”

“Everything that we’re doing on the station is a step forward to future flights to the moon, to Mars and farther,” he said. “And, of course, we need to stay friends throughout our joint endeavour. … We cannot allow politics to rule our life on the ISS.”

Arnold said he was looking forward to living on the station long term rather than visiting as a “quick house guest” like he did on his previous shuttle mission.

“You don’t really get the sense of living and working in space” on a short visit, he said. “You’re kind of there to do a specific job and then turn around and go home. The pace will be different, I believe, the continuity and the science, actually seeing day to day how the flight plan lays out and then when we do have some time off to be able to enjoy the view. I think it’s just going to have a different feel to it.”

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Arnold taught middle school science in Maryland, earned a master’s degree in environmental science and later taught in Casablanca, Morocco, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, West Papua, Indonesia, and Bucharest, Romania.

Arnold said he also hopes to follow in the footsteps of the Acaba, a fellow teacher, “to really shine a light on the people who are working in our nation’s and the world’s classrooms, just to kind of say this is what’s possible, these are amazing people, we have really talented folks working in the classroom and just to kind of say thanks to them.”

For Feustel, it’s the science and a chance to maintain the equipment that’s most appealing about a long-term stay aboard the station. He worked as an auto mechanic while attending community college in Michigan, restoring 1950s-era Jaguars, before earning a doctorate in geology and eventually working as a geophysicist for Exxon.

“I’m looking forward to the science,” he said, “but what I’m really looking forward to is the opportunity to keep the space station living for another six months and have it well prepared to receive the next crew that comes on after us.

“As you know, we’re the hands, eyes and ears of the researchers, and our job is just to keep things operating and executing the science. Most of us don’t make up science experiments to take to space, but we’re really there to make sure everything gets done to ensure the success of the mission.

“I’m a bit of a gearhead, so putting my hands on the hardware to make sure we can keep it operating will be a fun challenge.”

Shkaplerov, Tingle and Kanai are scheduled to return to Earth on June 3 to close out a 167-day voyage while Artemyev, Feustel and Arnold expect to remain in space for 159 days, returning to a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan on Aug. 28.

The “Hidden Survival Muscle” In Your Body Missed By Modern Physicians That Keep Millions Of Men And Women Defeated By Pain, Frustrated With Belly Fat, And Struggling To Feel Energized Every Day…

You train hard, you eat well…it should be enough to keep you in good health and physically and emotionally strong.

Yet, there is a danger lurking in our bodies that’s not only hidden from us… but which even doctors are failing to identify.

It affects nearly everybody, no matter how active or sedentary you are, or how old or young you are.

This problem affects not only our body but our whole well-being.

And when I tell you what it is, you’ll be shocked…
Hip Flexor Muscles
… because it’s tight hip flexors.

You see, our hip flexors are the engine through which our body moves. They control balance, our ability to sit, stand, twist, reach, bend, walk and step.

Everything goes through the hips.

And when our hip flexors tighten it causes a lot of problems in ordinarily healthy and active people, like us.

Before I reveal how most people end up having tight hip flexors yet never realize it, let me introduce myself.

Coach Mike Westerdal
My name is Mike Westerdal and I’m a national best-selling fitness author, sports nutrition specialist, personal trainer, Iron Man magazine contributor and founder of the internet’s longest-standing strength site,

In a moment, I’ll reveal to you the 10 Key Moves you need to loosen your hip flexors and unlock the hidden power in your body.

But first, let me explain just how deep-rooted the problem is.

Here’s the truth: Most people don’t realize the cause of their problems is tight hip flexors.

The impact the hips had on the whole body never occurred to me until I saw the effect of tight hip flexors had on the health and well-being of my wife after she gave birth.

It was only then that I truly understood the magnitude of the problem.

We’re not just talking about a bit of soreness; tight hip flexors are the root cause of problems such as:

Nagging joint pains in your legs, lower back or hips
Walking with discomfort
Hips locking up
Bad posture
Trouble sleeping
Sluggishness in day to day life
High Anxiety
Digestive problems
Compromised Immune System
Circulatory issues
Loss of sexual performance
Lack of Explosiveness in the gym or sports
If any of these sound familiar to you, don’t worry because you’re not alone.

Tight hip flexors affect nearly everybody, but few realize the impact on your whole body.

Again, everything flows through the hips.

Think of the hips as a barometer. The health and flexibility of your hip muscles are an indicator of the strength and health of our whole body.

Let Alone Trained!The Psoas muscle
Your hips are the bridge between your upper body and lower body. They are at the center of your body’s movement.

Sitting within the well of your hip and lower spine is the psoas major muscle, one of the two muscles that makes up the iliopsoas.

It’s often called the “mighty” psoas (pronounced so-az) for the many important functions it plays in the movement of your body.

The psoas is the only muscle in the human body connecting the upper body to the lower body.

The muscle attaches to the vertebrae of the lower spine, moves through the pelvis and connects to a tendon at the top of the femur. It also attaches to the diaphragm, so it’s connected to your breathing, and upon it sits all the major organs.

A functioning psoas muscle creates a neutral pelvic alignment, stabilizes the hips, supports the lower spine and abdomen, supports the organs in the pelvic and abdominal cavity and gives you greater mobility and core strength.

When it functions well, it has the power to…

… help you achieve peak performance day after day after day.
… rapidly drop ugly body fat that stubbornly clings to your body.
… train harder, heavier and gain strength faster than you thought possible.
… hit your peak of sexual health.
… flood your mind and body with renewed energy and vigor.
Put simply, this muscle is the core of activity in your body. So, when it’s out of balance or if the psoas tightens, there are serious consequences which flow throughout the body.

And there’s one activity, in particular, that’s the sworn enemy of your psoas muscle…

Sitting is harmful
It may be the most harmless activity known to man, but it’s also one of the biggest dangers to your health.

Even if you’re the most active of athletes, you may still suffer from a tight psoas due to the amount of time you spend each day planted to a chair.

Weakness, shortening and tightness develops in the muscle through sitting for extended periods of time, poor sleep posture and even stress and tension.

Bulging Belly
Wonder why your stomach still sticks out even though you’re hammering the core exercises every day? It’s a common myth that bulging belly is due to weak abdominal muscles. The real cause is likely to be tight psoas muscles, which cause the lower back to curve pushing out the stomach. When the psoas works properly it pulls the abdomen back tucking the tummy in, giving you a strong, flat stomach.

Stress Response System
As the body’s “fight or flight” muscle, your psoas is deeply connected to our natural survival instinct. It instantly tightens in moments of danger to either protect you (in a fetal position) or help you run, fueled by the release of adrenaline. However, if your psoas is constantly tight, it signals to the body you are in constant danger, leading to overworking of the adrenal glands. When this happens, your immune system suffers and your body automatically switches into fat storing mode in anticipation of danger. Can’t shift that weight? Blame your hips also known as your “survival muscle”.

Lack of Sexual Performance
Sitting all day causes your hips to become stuck in a forward thrust position. This leads to pulling on the lower back and decreased blood flow and circulation through the hips and to where it matters.

Diagnosing tight hip flexors is tricky.

If you’ve seen a therapist or physician, chances are they weren’t able to pinpoint the issue.

Buried so deep within your abdomen, it’s no wonder identifying it as the root cause of any of your symptoms is difficult to do.

It’s why tight hip flexors are left undiagnosed and untreated for far too long, as physicians look for a simpler explanation.

So understand that this it’s not your fault.

However, knowing this hands you the power to finally do something about it before it’s too late.

Static Stretching
Knowing you have tight hip flexors is one thing.

Knowing how to fix your hip flexors is another challenge altogether.

If you trust so-called experts on Youtube and online, they’ll have you believe it’s simply a case of holding a few static stretches for a period of time to try and lengthen the muscle.

Or rolling around with a tennis ball stuck to your hip (as if that will really make any difference).

It takes more than a tennis ball and foam roller to unlock your hip flexors…and doing it wrong could cause even MORE damage.

The reason few people manage to fix their hip flexors is simple.

It’s really a hard area to reach.

If you see how the psoas is attached within your body, it’s buried deep inside your core making it tough to access. It’s a hard muscle to find, let alone train.

Hip Flexor Exercices
Static Stretching Has Its Place – But The Stretch You See Above Is the Best Stretch To Do In The Morning

So it’s little wonder why trying to loosen it requires more than a simple static hip flexor stretch like the one below you’ve probably tried before.

You’ve probably found you’re spending (or wasting) hours of your time stretching this way only to find it’s having minimal effect.

That’s because you need to attack the muscle from a variety of angles using a variety of exercise techniques and modalities in order to “unpack” the muscle in the right way.

The truth is, you can learn to release your tight hip flexors on your own.

If you think of your psoas as a combination safe lock, there are several numbers that will unlock it but they need to be entered in the right order.

There are a number of specific movements beyond simple static stretching you can use to unlock and loosen your hips, legs and back.

Some of these include
PNF Stretching

PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. It is a technique where you are activating a specific muscle in order to relax the muscles around a joint so you can decrease the stiffness around a joint.

Dynamic Stretching

This is where you are activating the muscle around a joint and moving that joint through its full range of motion in a progressive manner. This leads to an increased range of motion around the joint, warming up of the muscle around the joint and improved circulation around the joint. Think of high knees or butt kicks.

3-Dimensional Core Stability Exercises

With these exercises we are targeting the muscle in all planes of movement so the core and abdominal muscles have good activation, endurance and strength in all planes of movement which leads to a decrease in unnecessary damaging stress on joints.

• Mobility Exercises

In these exercises, we are targeting the joint and doing movements and exercises that help the joint function optimally. This allows a joint to move more freely.

Fascia Stretching

In this unique technique, we are targeting the tissue that muscles are surrounded in and working on loosening and lengthening the fascia. Few people understand the negative effect this tissue can have on your body.

Muscle Activation Movements

Due to all of our sitting and daily technology use, many of our muscles are not working properly. With this technique, we’re targeting those muscles that are off and activate them in order to help the body move more efficiently.

Now you know the specific techniques you need to unlock your hip flexors, the next question is how to combine these in the most effective way. Please don’t be overwhelmed by the “Shop Talk” above because…