NASA Has A Leaning Launch Tower. Here’s What You Need To Know About It.

Anybody who has ever hung a picture knows it’s a challenge to figure out if something is level. Yet it might be concerning to hear NASA is having the same trouble with their Mobile Launcher structure, built to propel their enormous Space Launch System (SLS) rocket into space. According to NASASpaceFlight.com, this tower is leaning.

The Mobile Launcher (ML) structure is designed to support testing and servicing of the rocket, as well as move it to the launch pad and aid in the launch itself. It’s not quite bent enough to require an emergency fix, but NASA officials probably won’t beeline for the ML when they show Vice President Mike Pence around the facilities this week.

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

Not only is the tower less than perfectly straight; it also cost nearly $ 1 billion, and could be used as little as just once. Because of its lean, and the difficulties the agency has had with the tower, it’s possible it will be used for the initial launch of the SLS in 2020 and then discarded. NASA will also potentially scrap the idea of building a second one.

As we did, we’re sure you have some questions about the Leaning Tower of NASA. We also have some answers.

Q: How did this even happen?

A: The construction of this ML began in 2009 for the Ares I rocket. When that project was canceled, and NASA began looking at options to launch the developing SLS rocket, the lowest-cost option appeared to be “simply” modifying this tower.

A NASA spokesperson told NASASpaceflight that the lean is probably due to the modifications made to convert it from an Ares I launcher to an SLS launcher.

“The first surveys of the tower in 2011 indicated some deflection and imperfections, which is not unusual for big steel construction of this magnitude,” the agency said in a statement, NASASpaceflight.com reports. “This is likely due to a combination of welding the different levels and modifying them one at a time from the ML’s original design for the Ares rocket, changes introduced in the structure during these modifications, and the additional mass.”

NASA also added that other natural factors could have caused the giant steel structure to move and twist, such as wind, temperature, and vibration as the tower was moved on its crawling transporter.

Q: What does this mean for the fate of the ML? 

NASA says the tower is structurally sound and “does not require a design change or modifications.” Apparently, the lean is well understood, and it has so far matched model predictions.

Additional models have predicted how much more the tower might lean as newer parts are installed – and the space agency has a plan in place if that does happen: engineers could remove all of the lightweight fiberglass grating on the tower and replace it with heavier steel grating.

However, this change would add another 750,000 pounds to the launcher, taking it a million pounds over its desired weight target — not great for something that will have to be moved around with a heavy rocket on it.

NASASpaceflight.com reports that this wouldn’t be an issue for the SLS Block 1 rocket, set to launch in 2020, but could be a problem for the much larger SLS Block 1B. This feeds into the agency’s desire to construct another brand-new, purpose-built launcher.

Q: Could this happen again? 

In 2011, modifying the $ 234 million launcher was estimated to cost an additional $ 54 million, which appeared to be the cheapest option. However, things don’t always go according to plan, and NASA ended up spending a total of $ 912 million on the ML. Furthermore, because NASA intends to improve the SLS’s upper stage to support a larger payload and further range for Block 1B, the ML will require 33 more months of construction and, of course, more money.

Instead, building a second ML is estimated to cost $ 300 million — if this one manages to stay on budget. Yet there’s currently no budget for a secondary launcher, making it unlikely that we’ll see a twin any time soon.

If another launcher were to materialize, NASA has received several grim safety lessons in learning from their mistakes; we’d guess the agency will take pains to ensure the next launcher remains on the straight and narrow.

Testing of the First RS-25 Engine Controller, to be used on the SLS flight. Image Credit: NASA
Testing of the First RS-25 Engine Controller, to be used on the SLS flight. Image Credit: NASA

Q: Where does this leave NASA in the increasingly crowded world of spaceflight?

A: In short, we’ll probably have to wait two years or so to find out the answer to this one. A billion dollars later and with likely only one launch in store, one would hope the SLS better be something special. Still, in the world of reusable rockets that are lowering the cost of space travel, this price tag is a little grim.

The SLS is more powerful than the Falcon Heavy while remaining equally capable of ferrying passengers. NASA describes the SLS as having “unprecedented lift capability” and asserts that this, among others, improvement could allow us to venture further into the solar system than ever before. Its payload will be so massive it will even carry an Orion spacecraft, planned to one day take humans to Mars, into low-Earth orbit.

However, we all know that NASA isn’t the only organization building a massive spacecraft pointed towards Mars. With multiple entities jockeying to put boots on Mars, let’s just hope NASA’s launcher can lean into the challenge.

The post NASA Has A Leaning Launch Tower. Here’s What You Need To Know About It. appeared first on Futurism.

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NASA May Stop Trying to Understand Dark Energy

First To Fall

In recent weeks we’ve heard how the Trump administration’s proposed NASA budget might affect the future of the agency’s projects. The International Space Station could be eyeing its last seven years in service; its funding will likely not be extended beyond the mid-2020s. Now, another NASA initiative is on the chopping block.

The new budget, if passed, will defund the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a high-priority project by a blue-ribbon panel from the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. The telescope was set to launch in the next decade, helping astronomers in their quest to explore an expanding universe and unravel the mysteries behind dark energy.

NASA’s acting administrator, Robert M. Lightfoot Jr., described the cut as “one hard decision,” according to a report from the New York Times. He stressed the need to reallocate the telescope’s funds — the project is set to cost more than $ 3 billion in total — into other areas of research.

Astronomers have harshly criticized plans to nix WFIRST’s funding. A statement from the American Astronomical Society suggested that NASA’s budget reductions could “cripple U.S. astronomy.”

“A handful of people within the bureaucracy” David Spergel, former chairman of the academy’s Space Study Board, told the New York Times, “have overturned decades of community-driven processes and tried to set the direction for space astronomy.”

Learning more about dark energy — a cosmological force that makes up 68 percent of the universe — could have a profound impact on our knowledge of how and why our universe is expanding. Scientists want to delve deeper into its intricacies, but need better tools to do so. That’s where WFIRST comes in.

WFIRST’s original mission timeline was pushed back because of delays to the James Webb Telescope launch, which went well over budget. When it became clear that WFIRST wasn’t going to launch on schedule, NASA purchased a share of a spacecraft called Euclid, a mission to explore dark energy spearheaded by the European Space Agency. But the Euclid mission isn’t expected to be as comprehensive as WFIRST, and NASA will have to rely on an outside agency for dark energy data. Without a wholly NASA-based mission, our nation’s dark energy research will suffer.

It’s no secret that the Trump administration wants NASA to focus on sending astronauts to the Moon  — but now it seems clear that prioritizing that kind of attention-grabbing program might come at the cost of other, perhaps more important, research.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Congress will approve this budget in its current form. Despite the administration’s sweeping cuts and proposed reallocations, the clock has yet to strike midnight on the WFIRST mission.

The post NASA May Stop Trying to Understand Dark Energy appeared first on Futurism.

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A successful SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch gives NASA new options

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will launch for the first time next week. It might be the company’s most anticipated mission yet, and it could open up a new line of business — one that might interest NASA.

The new rocket will be the most powerful in the world, which means it could launch heavier and more complex cargo to space. Once the vehicle becomes operational, SpaceX could soon start launching what the company’s Falcon 9 can’t: heavier national security satellites, large habitats and telescopes, or even humans to deep space.

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