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Monday, June 6, 2022

How Low (Observable) Can You Go?

Late last month what is arguably the first major East Coast air show of 2022 took place at Dover Air Force Base. And “Thunder Over Dover” certainly qualifies as major, having hosted both the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels across a practice show day and two public show days.

In the relatively near future, I’ll post a link to a photo album of the very best of over 1000 (!) images captured during the three days I spent at Dover Air Force Base.

But if any single aircraft could be considered the star of the Dover show it’s the B-2 Spirit, popularly known as the Stealth Bomber.



The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber banks over Blue Angel 1 for a final pass at Thunder Over Dover on May 21, 2022.
 Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions


The appearance of a B-2 at air shows always generates excitement, and the three passes by this unique aircraft at “Thunder Over Dover” – present on May 21 only – drove a massive attendance turnout despite high temperatures well into the 90s.



The B-2 "Spirit of Nebraska" passes over the awestruck airshow crowd below. 
Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Built by Northrop Grumman, the B-2 first flew over 30 years ago, but despite being one of the most recognizable modern-day aircraft a noticeable hush fell over the crowd assembled at Dover AFB as the massive black boomerang made several passes along the flight line.

Despite the B-2’s popularity with the general populace, by the time the next airshow at Dover Air Force Base rolls around on the calendar it’s likely that a new generation of stealth will be coming into service.



Artist conception of the B-21 Raider ascending over Edwards Air Force Base. 
Image: U.S. Air Force rendering


The all-new B-21 Raider – also being built by Northrop Grumman – will be the result of a program to create the next-generation stealth bomber. Assembly of the first B-21 is nearing the stage where engine runs and taxi testing will lead to a first flight. The ground testing is now planned for later this year, with flight following in 2023. Initially flight testing was hoped for right about now on the calendar, but ironically on the day before the B-2 soared over Dover the Air Force announced this new testing timetable.

When the first B-21 is seen, the vision will look quite familiar at first glance. Retaining the B-2's overall shape, the Raider will have ample long-range capability even though it will be smaller than the B-2. Most important, though, the B-21 will boast new generations of what the Air Force refers to as “low-observable technology” – in another word, stealth.

Northrop Grumman has created website content for its B-21 Raider project, which you can visit here:

https://www.northropgrumman.com/what-we-do/air/b-21-raider/

Development logo of the B-21 Raider.

 Image: Northrop Grumman

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Raising Endeavour

One of the biggest thrills a space tourist can experience – not counting those tourists either financially well-off enough or lucky enough to find themselves actually launched into space – unfolds every few minutes at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

After watching a brief documentary, visitors are suddenly – and dramatically – presented with a sweeping view of the space shuttle orbiter Atlantis. As far as generating a goosebump-inducing experience, the revelation of Atlantis has been pretty much unrivaled.

Until now.

Next week groundbreaking will take place on a new home for Atlantis’ sister orbiter, Endeavour.


In 2021 the decommissioned space shuttle orbiters were dispatched across the United States for display. Here the first orbiter to fly, the test vehicle Enterprise, is seen en route to its new home in New York. Photo: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions


In September 2012 the decommissioned and safed Endeavour arrived in California for transport to its new home, the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Since going on display shortly thereafter, Endeavour has been visited by thousands who have seen the orbiter horizontal in a temporary pavilion. But bigger plans are at last coming to fruition.

The Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center will be constructed adjacent to the California Science Center. The construction, estimated to take approximately three years, will result in a stunning presentation of Endeavour standing vertical as though ready for liftoff, mated to the last surviving space shuttle external tank and two solid rocket boosters (with, of course, propellants removed).


An artist conception of Endeavour's new home, the Samueal Oschin Air and Space Center. Image: Ron McPherson/ronmcpherson.com/


Having stood beneath Atlantis on the launch pad just before the STS-135 mission completed the space shuttle program, I can attest to the awe-inspiring nature of witnessing the full stack of the space shuttle system towering overhead. This new museum setting will be an appropriate depiction of one of mankind’s most amazing technical developments and will doubtless leave visitors with unforgettable memories.

Groundbreaking for the new space center is scheduled for June 1, with much additional information on Endeavour’s new home to come in the wake of the ceremony. Visits the California Science Center website to learn the latest:

https://californiasciencecenter.org

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Sculpting the Skies with an F-22

With the first airshows of the 2022 season getting underway, I happened to take a look back at some of my work from 2021.

One of my favorite images pulled from the skies last year is this photograph of a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor as seen during a practice flight over New Jersey’s Millville Executive Airport. The image as a whole isn’t particularly noteworthy – F-22s frequently create their own cloud systems while maneuvering, which often translate into stunning photos. But the attraction here is in the details: an unusual exhaust pattern that is particularly striking.

 


Both photographs: Ⓒ 2022 Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

 


From the heat and moisture content being displaced by the aircraft, the sky itself has taken on a three-dimensional appearance. It looks as though it’s a solid section, hovering in mid-air with a texture that could be felt – if you could only get your hands a few thousand feet up and not get burned as well!

Last year I had a half-dozen opportunities to photograph the F-22 in action, and look forward to further encounters in 2022.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

More Rockets for Wallops

Rocket Lab’s two-stage Electron vehicle has not been covered here at Aerospace Perceptions before now, largely because to date the company’s launches have taken place on the opposite side of the globe from a complex in New Zealand. But in the relatively near future, that may change.

Last week Rocket Lab announced the first three scheduled launches from increasingly-busy Wallops Island, Virginia. The company’s Launch Complex 2 was built at Wallops’ Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and has been awaiting its first Electron launch for three years, a delay largely generated by stringent safety initiatives in NASA software covering flight termination systems. But as soon as later this year an Electron will soar on a dedicated mission for Virginia satellite company HawkEye 360.

 


A Rocket Lab Electron heads uphill from the company’s first launch complex, located in New Zealand. Image: Rocket Lab USA

 

The payload for this initial mission launching from Virginia will be six radio-frequency-monitoring satellites, with nine more to be included in subsequent launches. As noted in a press release announcing these three missions, “HawkEye 360 provides commercial and government customers with insights that have helped to detect illegal fishing, poachers in national parks, GPS radio frequency interference along international borders, and emergency beacons in crisis situations.”

 


An artist conception of Rocket Lab’s Neutron, planned as a significant upgrade in launch capabilities. Image: Rocket Lab USA

 

Standing half as high as a space shuttle orbiter’s length, the Electron is unique in that it utilizes an electric pump configuration that feeds its Rutherford liquid propellant engines, built by Rocket Lab in Long Beach, California. By 2024 Rocket Lab hopes to implement launches of its under-development Neutron rocket from a second location on Wallops Island. This new vehicle will stand twice as tall as Electron.

Rocket Lab is also working toward enhancing its ability to recover and reuse rocket stages. One thing the company has already perfected is a certain comedic levity in naming its missions. The first three Electron launch attempts in New Zealand were christened “It’s a Test,” “Still Testing,” and “It’s Business Time.” Those were followed by missions including “Pics or It Didn’t Happen,” “Return to Sender,” and the upcoming “There and Back Again.”


For more on Rocket Lab visit: https://www.rocketlabusa.com/

For more on HawkEye 360 visit: https://www.he360.com/

Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Cult of Personality

Elon Musk has been in the news a lot lately, which really isn’t news – or surprising. Whether it’s helping enable internet access to a besieged Ukrainian citizenry through his Starlink constellation system, or less altruistic activities like his hostile takeover attempt of Twitter, the richest man in the world injects his sphere of influence into many realms.

Perhaps Musk’s most high-profile endeavor, of course, is SpaceX. Currently – and successfully – cementing the idea of commercial space business activities in Earth orbit, SpaceX is also looking long-long-range at the colonization of Mars and eventual human exploration far beyond our Solar System neighbor. And from the beginning, SpaceX has proudly reflected its own spaceflight culture. Witness the decidedly different attitude on display during SpaceX launches, with lots of cheering and waving in a party-like atmosphere, compared to the staid liftoff proceedings witnessed within Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Control Center throughout the Apollo and Shuttle eras.


A featured image representing the content of a YouTube video.

Aside from such surface reflections, I’ve always been of a mind that when one space effort succeeds, they all succeed – if for no other reason than the illumination of success shines across the realm of space ventures as a whole. But it’s increasingly difficult to ignore a somewhat manic subset of SpaceX followers who eschew such a “one for all, all for one” philosophy.

This attitude was fully on display during NASA’s recent attempt to stage a full-dress rehearsal of its Space Launch System on Pad 39-B at Kennedy Space Center, complete with full system fueling. As might be expected with an entirely new assembly, numerous issues arose, to the extent that a roll-back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for problem resolution will delay launch plans until much later in the year. Each complication was derided by dozens of Twitter-based proponents of Musk’s Starship program – a program nowhere near as close to flight as NASA’s SLS. No matter – to them it’s Starship or nothing.

This fascination has led to seemingly-full-time social media “reporters” who plant themselves outside the SpaceX Starbase in Texas while trying to monetize hours-long web streams that usually show nothing more exciting than a pickup truck entering or exiting the Musk kingdom.

That’s just one symptom. I’ve seen SpaceX followers openly mocking the development efforts of other aerospace entities, with some even outright rooting for mission failures of rockets not bearing the correct logo. There’s nothing like holding aerospace programs to the standards of juvenile popularity contests.


Elon Musk and his partner in an on-again, off-again relationship, Grimes. A snapshot from the unavoidably glamorous life of the richest man in the world. Photo: thecut.com

Much of this frenzy is a strangely cult-like obsession with Elon Musk himself – which Musk certainly cultivates, consciously or not. It’s the aerospace edition of celebrity status circa 2022: how well known are you? In the increasingly weird global culture circling endlessly around influencers and personalities, being a celebrity is the very best thing you can do.

As a writer focused on the realm of aerospace, I will always be interested in Elon Musk and how he directs SpaceX. The interest in Elon as a person? Not so much. Like Apple’s own technical revolutionary, Steve Jobs, Musk may be brilliant - but I don’t think I’d want to spend much time around him.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Aviation Transformation Through imaginAviation

NASA operations, as of this writing, are struggling to deal with the inevitable new system problems that have arisen with the Space Launch System “wet test” - basically all aspects of launch pad operations (including fueling) save the launch itself.

A few weeks ago, though, much of the NASA community was embracing a much broader perspective through a program cleverly titled imaginAviation, under the auspices of NARI – the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute.

 


This three-day virtual event, which included the participation of many universities and other educational organizations, was based on imagination and how resulting visions can lead to the future transformation of aviation. Through more than 30 presentations, imaginAviation delved into topics and concepts ranging from environmental and emissions concerns to more esoteric topics such as Hyper-Spectral Communications for more robust and reliable air-to-ground communications.

 

NASA is continually involved in developing technical innovations in aircraft systems, a process that includes the utilization of this modified F/A-18. Photo: NASA


The tone for imaginAviation was set from the event’s keynote address, given by Dr. Kathryn Jablokow, a Program Director at National Science Foundation and Professor of Engineering Design and Mechanical Engineering at Penn State University. Dr. Jablokow stressed the idea of embracing multiple leading edges, noting, “Innovation makes people uncomfortable, but that’s not always a bad thing. It just means that people have this sense, this capacity to know when they’re getting close to an edge.

You can learn much more about ideas for the future of aviation and aeronautics as every presentation given across all three days of imaginAviation is available to watch by simply accessing the following link:

imaginAviation 2022 Presentations

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Color Statement

The March 18 launch of Russia’s Soyuz MS-21 – mentioned in an earlier Aerospace Perceptions update – has taken a turn for the surprising. After a fully nominal, brief two-orbit chase of the International Space Station, the Soyuz Korolyov spacecraft docked with the ISS. Hatches opened – and things took a turn toward the unexpected.

The three-man crew of the mission boarded the ISS wearing bright yellow and blue flight suits – the unmistakable colors of the Ukrainian flag.


Russian cosmonauts Sergey Korsakov, Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveyev speak upon their arrival at the ISS, in a video broadcast by the Russian space agency. Video image: Roscosmos


Rampant speculation commenced. Was this the orbital equivalent of holding up a “No War” sign on Russian state television? How could the crew of the Soyuz stow away unofficial gear in the cramped confines of their vehicle? Was this a semi-official Roscosmos statement expressing anger over the financial impact Putin’s folly will have on the Russian space program? If Roscosmos was horrified by a crew protest, why did they allow video of the impertinence to stream out before the eyes of the world?

What was certain is that such colors have never been worn by any other Soyuz crew arriving at the ISS. When asked if the colors had special significance, mission commander Oleg Artemyev demurred.

“It became our turn to pick a color. But in fact, we had accumulated a lot of yellow material so we needed to use it. So that’s why we had to wear yellow,” he said.

Actions speak louder than words? Or perhaps an old truism says it best: a picture is worth a thousand words.