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History and Future Merge with Blue Origin Engine Plant in the Rocket City

Looking back on history with an eye to the future, elected officials joined the CEOs of Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance in a ground-breaking ceremony Friday for a $200 million rocket engine manufacturing facility in Huntsville.

“We’re here to celebrate history with a vision to the future,” said Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield at the event. Canfield was joined on the speakers’ platform by Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin; Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance; Gov. Kay Ivey; U.S. Sen. Doug Jones; U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks; Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong.

The plant, when its doors open in 2020, is a milestone achievement in helping the United States return to space by building America’s next rocket engine.

“It’s a great day here in the Rocket City,” said Smith. “Thanks to the votes of confidence from United Launch Alliance, from the Air Force for national security missions, and from Huntsville and the state of Alabama, we are breaking ground on a facility to produce our world-class engines and power the next generation of spaceflight.”

Blue Origin was selected by ULA last September of last year to supply its next generation Blue Engine 4, or BE-4, for the first stage of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur Rocket

“It is a true marvel of engineering,” Smith said. “We will be able to end our dependence on Russian engines,” Smith said.

Calling it a “day of destiny,” Brooks said Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was inspired to build rockets when he saw the movie “October Sky” in 1999. The movie was based on the book “Rocket Boys” by Huntsville resident Homer Hickam. “Blue Origin is coming to the home of the man who inspired him.”

Smith also linked Huntsville’s history of building the giant engines that took Americans to the moon to building the BE-4 engines.

“We’re in final negotiations with the Marshall Space Flight Center to test the BE-4 on Test Stand 4670, the historic site of engine tests for the Saturn V and the space shuttle,” he said.

A pair of BE-4 engines will lift the new Vulcan rockets, which are made at ULA’s plant in Decatur.

“Our rockets are going to take Americans on American soil into space,” said Bruno. “And it’s about damn time!”

Blue Origin has a launch services agreement partnership with the Air Force to use its commercial, heavy-lift New Glenn launch vehicle for national security space missions. New Glenn will be powered by seven BE-4 engines.

“This gives us a chance to design, make and test a rocket engine,” said Battle. “We will produce the greatest rocket engine in the world right here in Huntsville.”

Blue Origin’s engine production facility is the latest addition to Cummings Research Park, which is the second largest research park in the United States and fourth largest in the world.

“We are thrilled to officially welcome Blue Origin to Cummings Research Park,” said Erin Koshut, the park’s executive director. “As we like to say, the research and development happening here is driven by science and powered by people.”

The plant, which is expected to employ 300 people, is on a 46-acre site at the corner of Explorer Boulevard and Pegasus Drive.

Citing this area’s importance in U.S. space history, Strong said it’s no coincidence Blue Origin chose Huntsville.

“We have got the right people in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Welcome to the ‘Propulsion Capital of the World.’”

Huntsville’s Connection to NASA’s Parker Solar Probe

Now that the historic Parker Solar Probe is charging toward the Earth’s sun, scientists are ready to use it to answer decades old mysteries about its core, surface and atmosphere.

“This mission has been the dream of scientists since the beginning of the space age,” says Dr. Gary Zank, director, Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “To see it finally happening is intensely satisfying. Like all great missions, however, we will learn more than ever imagined and yet will be left wanting to know even more.”

Since the probe launched Aug. 12, the spacecraft and its instruments are going through commissioning to ensure that everything works as designed and planned, Zank says.

“This takes some time,” he said. “There will be a period that data is returned for a first analysis. But once everything is working, and the data begins to flow, that’s when the real mission begins — this is the discovery phase where the probe will begin to spend significant lengths of time in a part of the solar wind, this will occur even before the closest approach to the sun.”

Zank said scientists are “hoping” to see the probe’s first data possibly by the end of October or early November.

“From then on until the end of the mission, there will be a stream of papers describing, discussing, analyzing, relating to theories and models, everything that will be observed,” Zank said. “In fact, we will not have enough people working on this data set to unearth all the gems waiting to be discovered.

“This data will be used during the mission and for decades after, especially because this is a once-in-a-lifetime mission.”

UAH role

Zank, also an eminent scholar and distinguished professor at UAH, is co-investigator on one of the spacecraft’s investigations: The Solar Wind Electrons Alphas and Protons investigation.

That’s where CSPAR comes into play.

CSPAR and Marshall Space Flight Center formed a consortium with Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Los Alamos National Lab, University of California Space Sciences Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build the SWEAP instruments.

SWEAP instruments will directly measure the properties of the plasma in the solar atmosphere during the probe’s encounters into the sun’s atmosphere over the next seven years. In includes a small instrument that will look around the protective heat shield of the spacecraft directly at the sun. This will allow SWEAP to sweep up a sample of the atmosphere and touch the sun for the first time.

“As fascinating and enjoyable as it is to develop theories and models, unless they’re tested and hopefully validated against observations, it’s about as useful as staring at one’s navel,” Zank said. “So, spacecraft observations are key to ensuring that we can develop testable, quantitative models and theories of the physical phenomena or processes that interest us.”

He said the origin of the solar wind, the high-speed (350 to 800 km/s) flow of charged particles from the solar surface, remains perhaps the outstanding unexplained problem in space physics today. The PSP was built in large part to answer that fundamental question, and basically clear up the mystery that has faced scientists since the start of the space age.

“The Parker Solar Probe is a billion dollar mission so certainly one of the largest heliophysics missions ever flown, and by extension, one of the biggest and most important projects in which CSPAR is involved,” Zank said.

In addition to SWEAP, the other investigations include:

  • The Fields Experiment will measure electric and magnetic fields, radio emissions and shock waves in the sun’s atmospheric plasma.
  • The Integrated Science Investigation of the sun uses two instruments to monitor electrons, protons and ions in the sun’s atmosphere.
  • The Wide-field Imager is a telescope that will make images of the sun’s corona to see the solar wind, clouds and shock waves as they pass by the spacecraft.

Proving a theory?

Then there is Zank’s theories related to how the sun can be hot at its core yet stay relatively cool at its surface, while at the same time super-heating its coronal atmosphere?

“I have developed two theoretical models to explain the heating of the solar corona, which in turn will explain the origin of the solar wind,” Zank said.

Both models, he said, are based on the dissipation of low frequency magnetic turbulence, and the differences reside in certain somewhat technical characterizations of the underlying turbulence.

“Broadly speaking, they’re both turbulence models,” Zank said. “The competing model for heating the solar wind relies on high frequency waves called ion-cyclotron waves, and the damping of these waves is thought to heat the solar corona. PSP will measure directly the coronal plasma using the SWEAP instrument that I’m involved with and the magnetic fluctuations using the Fields instrument.

“The combined results from these two instruments will allow us to infer the nature of the fluctuations and so distinguish between low-frequency turbulence-like and high-frequency wave-like modes. The amount of energy in these fluctuations can be measured as well. From these kinds of measurements, we will be able, if life remains simple and straightforward (not always guaranteed!), we should be able to take the first steps in confirming what the basic heating mechanism is for the solar corona and hence the origin of the solar wind.”

 

 

Miley named associate director of Marshall Space Flight Center

Steve Miley has been named associate director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

“With three decades of government acquisition and management experience, Steve is well prepared for his new position on the center’s senior leadership team,” said Marshall Center Director Todd May. “The leadership skills he has displayed while working with NASA Headquarters, other NASA field centers, the U.S. Air Force, government agencies and partners has been, and will continue to be, invaluable to Marshall and the nation’s space exploration efforts.”

Stephen Miley

As associate director, Miley will manage and lead development of business operations, guide daily business decisions and oversee Marshall’s operational policy and processes. In addition, he will serve as a senior adviser in advancing the direction of the center’s future.

The Dayton, Ohio, native most recently served as director of Marshall’s Office of Procurement. Named to the position in December 2015, he managed the organization responsible for all aspects of the contracting and procurement processes at Marshall, NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and associated contractor facilities.

Marshall, one of NASA’s largest field installations, has almost 6,000 civil service and contract personnel, an annual budget of approximately $2.5 billion, 4.5 million square feet of infrastructure and a broad spectrum of human spaceflight, science and technology development.

A 21-year Air Force reserve officer, Miley received his commission through the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2008.

He and his wife Dana live in Huntsville.