Astraph

Into the Void

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Hello there!

The following AAR will follow my current Galileo Planet Pack science campaign - with a minor twist being the inclusion of as many mods as my machine can withstand. ;) There are no solid objectives I put in front of myself - obviously, visiting every body in the system is one, but this is pretty much a no-brainer in this game (what else would one play for, other than visiting other planets?).

Anyway, without further ado, I invite you to read up! :)

I
Breaking the Blue

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Every journey has to start at some point; the first step has to be taken one way or another. And so does the story of the Gaelian space program. Before the distant worlds are reached, we first need to break through the blue canopy above our heads; to reach into the black void of space. And in order to do that, we need to find ways to kick ourselves away from the ground and - what is even more important - come up with a way to get back in one piece.

First attempts were rather modest; a short series of single seat, suborbital vessels dubbed Jumper was conceived, with their objective being crossing the threshold between the atmosphere and space. This objective was accomplished in third launch - during which Varyag became the first kerbonaut to enter space, as well as perform a brief EVA at the flight's apogee. Also of note was the second launch, when a modified capsule performed just a short jump to test the recovery system. This ambitious design, however, failed miserably, with lander legs giving way under the capsule's weight - luckily, without injuring Varyag in the process.

Spoiler

Jumper 1 capsule

Jumper 1 capsule

Jumper 2 capsule

Jumper 2 capsule

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Varyag in front of Jumper 1 capsule

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Jumper 1 capsule reached the maximum altitude of ~40 kilometres

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Splashdown recovery was used... with some groundbreaking results

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Jumper 2's landing legs snapped under the pressure, making the engine and bottom fuel tank slam into the ground. Luckily, no damage to scientific equipment was done.

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At the topmost point of Jumper 3's flight, Varyag performed a short EVA

At the same time, development of sattelite devices proceeded as well; the result was a small apparatus, dubbed Stardust, which was launched into low Gael orbit following Jumper 3 flight. Stardust was a simple device, its only scientific instruments designed to measure Gael's magnetic field, exosphere density and temperature. It also lacked solar panels; internal battery supply lasted for just a few days, after which the satellite became a dead derelict.

Spoiler

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Stardust sitting atop prototype Agathe booster

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The satellite and its final orbit

 

Jumper capsule served as a basis for the first orbital craft in Kerbal history; Zenith 1.Weighing just short of 3 tons, the capsule provided life support for just a few days in low Gael orbit - but it was the first time a Kerbal was able to look at his planet from above. The full reusability concept tested during Jumper 2 flight has been discarded for the time being - still, the Zenith capsule has been designed specifically with reusability in mind.

Spoiler

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Zenith 1 capsule resting atop Beryl booster

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During his single orbit, Varyag conducted numerous short EVAs to collect data.

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Service module separation prior to reentry

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To facilitate recovery, Zenith launches were scheduled to take place on land, instead of splashdowns.

 

Edited by Astraph

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On 8/26/2018 at 10:56 PM, Lo Var Lachland said:

I LOVE that screenshot with the grid and all.  will the following this. Keep it up!

;)

It's taken from Galileo's Planet Pack wiki - I think it's the best way to sum up data about planetary body in a short, compact way. :) Also happy you liked it, and hope you'll like the continuation as well :D 

II
Towards Iota

The success of the Zenith flight gave green light to further development of the capsule, with the final purpose being sending a manned mission to land on the moon of Gael - and return safely. Out of the two natural satellites orbiting the planet, the smaller Iota was picked as a more feasible target. But sending kerbonauts without preparetions would have been foolish; therefore, a series of initial missions was authorized.

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The first of them was a flyby mission, aimed to serve a double purpose; first, it was to perform a series of measurments and experiments in iotan vicinity. Second, it was to test the feasibility of current propulsion technology in terms of trans-iotan injection, flyby and return to low Gael orbit. The probe, dubbed SpaceBus, was launched atop the Beryl booster, and successfully accomplished a iotan flyby. Apart from first measurements of magnetic field around the moonlet, it also sent back first direct images of its surface - as well as returned a number of samples that have been exposed to deep space environment.

Spoiler

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SpaceBus en route to Iota

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Images of Gael from initial flight (above) and from Iota flyby (bottom)

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First direct imaging of iotan surface

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SpaceBus reentering gaelian orbit; for fear of damaging or contaminating the samples, a low orbit recovery was planned instead of reentry.

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Render of the Zenith 2 capsule; extended compartment contains an autopilot, added to facilitate flight for non-pilot kerbonauts

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Mission scientist Charlie on EVA to recover samples from SpaceBus

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Successful reentry - and its results

Using experience learnt during SpaceBus and Zenith 2 flights, an extended version of the Zenith capsule has been designed. This variant contained not only extended crew compartment, capable of housing a full crew of three for the duration of iotan mission, but also a separate landing/return stage.

Spoiler

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Rendering of Zenith 3

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Due to Zenith 3 mass, a heavy version of the Beryl booster had to be designed

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The spaceship followed a flyby trajectory similar to SpaceBus'

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However, due to miscalculation, the reentry trajectory put the spaceship too high to brake down - resulting in another loop around Gael. Upon second reentry, the damaged heatshield disintegrated, destroying the spaceship.

While this lesson was reincorporated into another iteration of Zenith spaceship, the final probe mission to Iota was sent - Iotan Science Instrumentation System, ISIS for short - with a mission of performing mapping of Iota's surface, as well as putting the first lander on the surface.

Spoiler

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Render of the ISIS probe

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During departure, the probe tested its mapping instrumentation and calibrated navigation system

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The mapping satellite was released to a circular orbit with ~30 degrees inclination.

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The lander successfully touched down in iotan highlands, transmitting first direct surface data and images

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With all the data collected, the final iteration of the Zenith spaceship has been designed. An enlarged and reinforced heatshield, as well as bigger landing legs have been installed to make sure the spaceship survives all mission-critical phases of the flight.

Spoiler

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Zenith 4 render

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Beryl Heavy booster has also been updated, with a standarized 3rd stage and streamlined staging.

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Unlike its predecessor, Zenith 4 used its engines to enter iotan orbit, before propelling itself back into return trajectory

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Extended heatshield worked splendidly during reentry, surviving a much deeper dive into the atmosphere than in Zenith 3 flight.

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With the success of the Zenith 4 mission, a green light was given for the crewed mission's takeoff. The landing area was decided to be in ISIS lander's vicinity, so that the probe could be inspected, and its Mystery Goo container recovered for evaluation back on Gael.

Edited by Astraph

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Text report from mission to Iota will be posted later this week. Today I decided to stream the mission itself of Twitch - and only afterwards realized I could drop a link here. For the time being, I'll post the links to Twitch clips for those with too much time to spare to check out. ;)

EDIT: So yeah, looks like I've done goofed. Forgot to download the clips for posteriority, and on top of that, forgot to make any screenshots of the mission. Apollo 11 turned up to eleven and in KSP universe nonetheless...
 
But from good news - the project is gonna continue!
Edited by Astraph

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On 9/9/2018 at 2:27 PM, Pretorian28715 said:

Interesting, but whilst I like this I'm not usually able to watch videos, how soon will the the text report be?

Today - I had a longer than I expected break due to a number of factors, but I decided not to abandon this run (for once), if only because I just want to finally go interplanetary in GPP :)

 

III
Zenith 5 & 6

It is ironic that a groundbreaking mission like Zenith 5 left so little trace in the Space Agency’s archives. While mission itself was transmitted live across whole Gael, the recordings of the event have been mistakenly overwritten some two weeks afterwards; while Varyag, Charlie and Jolly’s experiences and data collected were first of their kind, there was little material evidence left of their trip. Below are the only 2 photos recovered from the accidental data purge.

Spoiler

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Man in Fedora - an art installation left on Iota by the Are We Kool Yet collective

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Charlie performing an EVA jump to collect samples

To avoid this kind of mishap, the second mission to Iota was documented on redundant data storage devices. Zenith 6’s crew consisted of the following kerbonauts:

  • Aobaka - pilot
  • Scoots - flight engineer
  • Meatball - scientist
Spoiler

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Zenith 6 was launched using the old, trusted Beryl Heavy rocket again

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Arrival to Iota and landing proceeded without issues, even despite the uneven terrain at designated landing site

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Scoots and Aobaka worked at the landing site, collecting data about the nearest vicinity

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Meatball at the same time performed an EVA jump to ISIS lander's location; however, the probe itself was found upturned. Whether this could be attributed to mechanical failure (such as engine’s spontaneous reignition) or an icequake was unable to be determined.

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The probe's systems, however, remained operational - and the Mystery Goo container has been recovered and transported to Zenith 6 lander...

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...though not without some incidents.

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The takeoff from Iota, return to Gael and subsequent recovery happened without any incidents, making Aobaka, Scoots and Meatball the second certified crew of the Gaelian Space Program.

With data and experience collected, the Space Agency could start pondering on new targets to pursue...

Edited by Astraph

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IV
Breaking ground on Ceti

With Iota conquered - at least symbolically - the second of Gael’s moons became the primery target of exploration.

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Compared to primarily icy Iota, Ceti is a mixed body, consisting of approximately equal amounts of rock and ice. It’s also bigger and more massive, thus possessing far bigger gravity. This meant that Zenith spacecraft, while capable of reaching and orbiting the satellite, would be ill-suited for landing and return. A new generation of spaceship had to be developed beforehand. Again, before crewed spacecraft could be launched, robotic exploration would pave the way. Two probes have been prepared for this purpose - Ceti Explorer for low orbit surface survey, and Ruaumoko, designed to provide insight into Ceti’s structure and composition.

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Ceti Explorer was equipped with a multitude of scientific tools, aimed at collecting data about Ceti and its immediate vicinity; apart from low-resolution surface radar, it possessed devices to measure the moon's potential magnetosphere, interaction with Gael's magnetic field, collect and analize samples of space dust. Additionally, a simple photographic system was included in the scientific package; two example photos are included below.

Spoiler

 

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Gael visible in the centre

 

Ceti Explorer confirmed initial assumptions by Gael-bound scientists; Ceti appeared largely geologically inactive, with almost no magnetic activity. However, it's surface lacked distinct impact craters, suggesting some form of geological activity.

Ruaumoko probe was in fact two separate spacecraft; Ruaumoko lander itself, equipped with a seismograph, was to descend on Ceti's surface. Once safe touchdown was confirmed, a second spacecraft - FullThrottle impactor - was to be launched from Gael, aimed at hitting the moon with maximum velocity possible.

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Ruaumoko lander with its transfer/landing stage

Spoiler

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Due to lander's mass, Beryl Heavy was to be used for the launch

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Transfer stage was used for TCI, orbital insertion and initial braking

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Final landing was executed with the probe's internal fuel tank and miniature thruster

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A slight design error did not impede communications (praise the Kraken)

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Beryl B 2nd stage was used for TCI and initial acceleration

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3rd stage booster was propelled by liquid hydrogen (LH), allowing the stage to be light and at the same time providing sufficient delta V for 2nd phase acceleration

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Impactor had a small engine of its own as well, further increasing the velocity on approach to Ceti

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Final impact occured at the velocity of approximately 3.5 km/s, releasing 735 MJ of energy (roughly 175 kg TNT equivalent). The shockwave has been detected by the seismograph, and by its propagation within Ceti's interior, a proof of the mixed ice/rock hypothesis has been obtained. Data collected during those two missions would prove invaluable during the planned crewed mission to the moon.

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Posted (edited)

 

V
Zenith the Irreplaceable

With first steps towards Ceti paved, preparations were made for an actual manned Ceti flight. Initial proposals to redesign the Zenith spaceship for Ceti landing have been rejected; instead, a new craft, codename Apex, was to be designed with both Ceti landing and interplanetary missions in mind.

Before that, however, a series of missions designed to test deep space habitation has been envisioned. For this purpose, yet another Zenith variant - aimed to be the stepping stone between Zenith and Apex - was designed. Featuring living quarters for 4 kerbonauts and extended pressurized cargo trunk for supply storage, it was to support its crew during mission lasting for up to one month. Following up on successful use of liquid hydrogen stages during CetiExplorer and Ruaumoko missions, a full-scale LH transfer stage was included in the design, offering superior performance at the cost of increased spacecraft size.

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The first of redesigned Zeniths was to be launched as an uncrewed flight, testing the design's viability for deep space operations. In order to provide it with a suitable testbed for life support systems, docking mechanism and environmental protection, the first space station in Kerbal history has been prepped for launch as well.

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The HOLTCH (High-Orbit Long Term Crewed Habitat) was equipped with a prototype recycling system, as well as enough supplies to support the crew of four kerbonauts for approximately 400 days. Launched to a highly eccentric orbit with a period of roughly 40 days, this mission also saw the first use of the Corundum booster - the perspective workhorse for the whole developing Apex program.

Spoiler

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Nicknamed Newbie, Zenith 7 was launched shortly after HOLTCH achieved desired orbit; the docking proceeded without issues, and the spacecraft began its 60 day long endurance flight, which was supposed to end with a high-velocity reentry, testing the projected return method for future Apex missions.

Spoiler

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The rendez-vous took place at relatively low altitude; this was supposed to test the viability of intercepting high velocity targets - such as asteroids passing through Gael system, or interplanetary ships requiring resupply mid-flight.

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With Zenith 7 in place, and carried by the euphoric success of both Iota flights, the Space Agency administration made a fateful decision - the projected Ceti flyby, which was to take place after Zenith 7 mission's conclusion - was accelerated. The crew, consisting of Zenith 5 veterans Varyag, Charlie and Jolly, was scrambled and the Zenith 8 spaceship was rushed to the launchpad. The mission was not meant to land on Ceti - this groundbreaking achievement was supposed to be reserved for the first Apex flight. Instead, a low orbit survey was planned, coupled with a number of deep space EVAs.

Spoiler

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With Corundum supposed to become the working horse of the Apex program, each flight was monitored for tweaks and optimizations to be implemented in rocket's design

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In this photo, taken by Jolly during his EVA inspection shortly after trans-Ceti injection burn, we can see the scientific module, attached to the docking point at the tip of the ship

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An eccentric orbit allowed the crew to conduct experiments in varying conditions

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The scientific section has been visited by Charlie multiple times; countless samples of low and high orbit dust have been collected, as well as detailed observational data.

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Following the conclusion of the data collection, the scientific module was discarded and crashed into Ceti's surface.

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However, this was were complications struck; simulations ran on Gael confirmed that the reentry procedure contained a critical flaw. While ablative heat shield at the spacecraft's bottom provided sufficient protection against the shockwave in front of the ship, ionized plasma flowing around the hull would cause habitat module to overheat, melting its relatively thin plating and killing all passengers onboard. This flaw would have become apparent, should Zenith 7 had been allowed to complete the entirety of its mission. An improvised rescue mission had to be mounted to rescue Varyag and his crew before their supplies ran out.

Spoiler

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A mothballed, old generation Zenith was reactivated and launched in fully automated mode; the capsule was given an unofficial moniker OhSnap

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Zenith 8 performed a braking burn, entering a low altitude, polar orbit over Gael

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Since old generation Zenith spaceships were not designed for docking, transfer between Zenith 8 and 9 had to be performed via EVA - which also meant manually moving all dust samples collected at Ceti orbit

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The robust design of old Zenith has once again proven to be successful - delivering Varyag, Charlie and Jolly back to Gael safely.

With Varyag's crew recovered successfully, Zenith 7's mission profile got redefined; after completing its 60 day endurance test, the reentry would still be performed, albeit at a redesigned trajectory, hoping to reduce heating and stress endured by the capsule.

Spoiler

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Newbie targeted its periapsis at a relatively high altitude of 60 kilometres, with the engine firing in atmosphere to brake as much as possible before the critical reentry phase took place

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Trajectory was further flattened by using what little lift could the capsule generate

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Ultimately, the ship retured to Gael intact - but the complex reentry pattern was deemed too difficult to replicate upon interplanetary reentry.

While data gathered during Ceti mission has proven to be - yet again - invalueable, the rushed and carefree approach to the mission itself resulted in several unwelcome conclusions; with no viable way of reliably bring the habitat module back to Gael, the idea of a fully reusable Apex spacecraft had been shelved for the time being. Until those issues got resolved, a request for six more 'obsolete' Zenith spacecraft was filed in, to serve as recovery vessels for first Apex missions.

Zenith 8 was left in LGO, either to be recovered one day, or to be used as a ferry during future missions within Ceti orbit.

Edited by Astraph

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VI
Reaching for the Apex

Even with the dream of a fully reusable Apex spacecraft shelved for the time being, design works for the spaceship began. Compared to Zenith, Apex was to be a leap in capabilities; while retaining the crew of 3 kerbonauts, it was supposed to be able to carry its crew to Ceti and beyond - with ultimate target being interplanetary missions to worlds closes to Gael; Tellumo and Niven. First missions, however, were supposed to be far less ambitious.

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Apex lander module (left) and full transfer stack (right)

A typical Apex mission architecture would invole refueling the transfer stack at low Gael orbit, using the propulsion module to perform injection and insertion burns at target orbit. Once there, the lander would detach, perform landing on the surface (with potential multiple suborbital "hops" between different landing zones, depending on fuel supplies, local gravity and mission profile), and launch back into orbit to dock with the propulsion module and begin trip back home.

To work in tandem with this, a deriviate Apex vehicled - dubber Apex Supply - was designed; using the propulsion module as the basis. A bulky cargo section was added, carrying fuel and materials required to resupply the spaceship between missions. Just like the rest of Apex complex, it was ultimately hoped to be fully reusable; for the time being, it was the only piece of equipment that deemed expendable.

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Apex Supply

When fully assembled, Apex complex weighed over 60 tons, outclassing both the HOLTCH station and every Zenith mission up to date. Corundum booster had to be employed again, with an upgraded, even more powerful version being prepared to launch the supply mission afterwards. The target of Apex 1 mission was the same as the last Zenith - the outer Gaelian moon of Ceti. With Varyag and his team recuperating after the rocky return from their flight, the honour of becoming the first Kerbals to walk on Ceti fell on Aobaka and his crew - making them the first team to land on two different celestial bodies.

Phase I - launch and cruise to Ceti

Spoiler

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Twin Tunguska engines, proved in previous robotic missions, provided thrust for injection/insertion burns. Fueled by liquid hydrogen, they offered excellent efficiency, at the expense of increased fuel tank volume and higher power consumption due to cryogenic tanks requiring constant cooling.

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Following the injection burn, the Apex lander detached from propulsion module and perfomed a 180 degrees flip, followed by redocking to the module. This docking procedure was to ensure landing gear would not get damaged during return from Ceti surface,  as well as allow easy inspection of lander's bottom for potential damage.

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Following an uneventful coast and insertion burn, the Apex was ready to perform its descent.

Phase II - landing and surface activities

Spoiler

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Ceti's uneven and hilly surface has proven to be far less forgiving than Iota's icy watelands; the lander almost toppled on approach, with the disaster only narrowly avoided by Aobaka's last second adjustments.

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Due to the mission being mostly a proof-of-concept ride for the Apex design, surface activities were limited to bare minimum; only a handful of samples have been collected, with more thorough exploration reserved for future flights.

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Take off and redocking were performed with no issues. What was more, Apex lander returned to orbit with plenty of fuel left - proving that extended missions, featuring suborbital 'hops' across the moon, were an actual possibility.

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Phase III: return and resupply

Spoiler

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The target parking orbit for a returned Apex was determined at ~2.5k km, to keep the spaceship both easy to reach from the surface, and to reduce fuel loses on climbing out of Gael gravity well during future missions. The insertion burn, however, was performed at just ~100 km altitude, to take advantage of the Oberth effect and maximize fuel efficiency.

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Zenith 11 - the first of six 'supplementary' Zenith spacecraft, ordered in the wake of Ceti flyby fiasco - was used as a return craft for Aobaka and his crew

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Beryl booster, however, has proven insufficient to deliver the spacecraft to high orbit; with their fuel running short just before achieving proper reentry angle, Aobaka was forced to improvise...

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...by using his own jetpack (and the crew's fuel reserves) to push the spaceship to the correct trajectory.

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Sorry to say this, but we need to fix this reentry thing - Aobaka, upon return.

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Even bulkier and more massive than its predecessor, the upgraded Corundum ferried Apex S1 to orbit as the final phase of the whole mission.

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Shortly after launch, the main hydrogen tank developed a leak, losing almost 2/3 of propulsion module's supplies. The mission was ordered to proceed, while S2 craft was hurriedly prepped for launch.

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Fully automated, the docking between Apex 1 and S1 created the largest ship to orbit Gael so far - just a bit above 100 tons of total mass.

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Following the mission's conclusion, S1 (and shortly afterwards S2 - which completed its flight with no malfunctions), burnt up upon reentry.

All in all, Apex 1 mission was deemed a great success. Even with Apex S1 partial failrue and Zenith 11's reentry issues, the concept of a partially reusable, multirole spaceship has been proven. Using the experience gathered as a basis, the following improvements were ordered for the second, upgraded iteration of Apex:

  • Lowered centre of mass, to increase stability upon landing
  • Extended power supply - solar panels were given up in favour of a karbonite-powered generator to enable stays during 30 days long Ceti nights; however, Apex 1's supply and consumption turned out to be grossly miscalculated, with the onboard karbonite generator lasting only a few days at full output.
  • Integrated cargo trunk for delivery of rover components, sophisticated scientific instruments and additional supplies (with potential robotic supply lander variant to be developed)
  • Should full reusability be proven impossible, a dedicated ascent/reentry vehicle was to be designed to replace the Zenith design.
Edited by Astraph

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You have some interesting spacecraft designs. I hope you continue with this; I like seeing interplanetary missions, especially for planets that I am less familiar with.

You may have an interesting time designing a Tellumo ascent vehicle. That planet is far more of a challenge than it looks, at least going by the data on the github page (I have yet to start out my own GPP campaign, but I have been doing some planning and it looks like I will have to treat Tellumo much like I typically treat Eve - i.e. not landing crew on it until I am also at the phase where I would be visiting moons of gas planets). It may be advisable to expand your crewed mission architecture to visit planets in the order Niven ==> Gratian ==> Tellumo, or perhaps Niven ==> Gratian ==> Thalia ==> Tellumo; the extra life support requirements to reach the more distant worlds will no doubt be insignificant compared to the enormous task of ascending from Tellumo - unless you are good with spaceplanes, but I am unsure of how well a spaceplane would perform there.

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Thanks :D I'm very happy to finally be able to move on with this campaign - and not be discouraged by like 2 KSP updates that got released in the meantime. But GPP > stock system in my book, so...

I mostly used RL craft ideas as inspiration so far - Zenith, especially in its current iteration, is pretty much Soyuz, while Apex is a weird mix of Apollo (transposition and docking after launch) and Soviet LK-700 Moon lander. I have the whole reusable Apex idea in mind, and when I look at it, it gets weirdly similar to Musk's Spaceship, with a reusable lander, orbital tankers and so on... Guess I'm not really that creative XD

As for interplanetary flights - Niven is definitely primary target, I don't even plan to land crewed ships on Tellumo until I get my tech advanced far enough... As for Gratian and other planets, I admit I didn't check them too thoroughly; I want to have some fun and surprise discovering them on my own as well ;)

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I think that, to some extent, using the same (or similar) mission profiles as real spacecraft means you are doing something right. There are good reasons for the mission profiles used or planned in reality; using similar methods for space exploration probably means you are planning things well (or it might mean you are simply mimicking reality specifically for the sake of doing so, but I do not think that is a bad thing because the results are usually good).

Edited by septemberWaves

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I'm not really emulating any RL missions deliberately, but you're right - why fix something that works? ;)

Well, at least until I go interplanetary on a larger scale. Kraken help me then ^^'

I'll post an update tomorrow - stay tuned :)

Edited by Astraph

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VII
Piñata I

"It might require some adjustments"
- Kosen Kerman

With Apex missions depending on a limited supply of Zenith capsules to enable crew transfers, two corporations have been tasked with creating a replacement for the trusted spacecraft. Kyakovlev Industries, creators of the original Zenith, proposed yet another iteration of their flagship product - featuring a more robust design and sacrificing all beyond-LGO capacities in exchange for full reusability. Their competitors from NASEK Corporation proposed a spaceplane, capable of controlled reentry and powered flight to the Space Centre. In the long run, the spaceplane development was to offer 100% reusability as well - through the creation of an actual Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) plane - but those promises were at least as distant in time as an interplanetary Apex craft.

Both concepts were given a green light; NASEK's spaceplane was to conduct a test high-orbit mission to the parked Trailblazer spacecraft, while Zenith Heavy prototype was to deliver the first crew crew to the HOLTCH station.

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Piñata shuttle render

Due to limitations of aeronautic technology, the first iteration of Piñata shuttle had limited capabilities- enough space to carry 4 Kerbals into orbit, without any functional cargo hold or bulk carrying capacity. Still, the promise of a controlled reentry and landing the kerbonauts directly was sufficient for the administration to approve the design - and give it green light for testing.

The first flight was aimed at evaluating the shuttle's aerodynamics; the spaceplane took off from Space Centre's runway, performed a short flight around the island and, after confirming all systems worked correctly, landed on the grassy field next to the compound. Test pilot's report was optimistic; while the shuttle did feel underpowered with only twin turbojets providing propulsion, neither limited wingspan nor a heavy engine in the back caused any issues when it came to flight characteristics, both under power and while gliding. The second - orbital - flight has been approved.

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Since Piñata lacked means to get to space on its own, several launch configurations have been proposed, including designing a dedicated stack centred aroung an external fuel tank, using a high-altitude carrier aircraft as a launch vehicle and adapting an existing rocket design. Ultimately, the final option prevailed, due to simplicity and low cost - and Piñata's maiden voyage was to begin atop the Corundum booster.

Another issue was the question of fuel; the shuttle's small frame left little space for tanks, especially since the main propulsion was to be provided by a hydrogen-powered engine - which, due to hydrogen's low density, meant the fuel supply for given volume woud be very limited. Out of options evaluated - including ideas as exotic as launching the shuttle atop its fuel tank into a suborbital trajectory, decoupling and redocking before achieving apoapsis and then making circulation burn - the one chosen was, again, the simplest; three strap-on external fuel tanks have been attached to the spaceplane's wings and hull, to be discarded shortly before reentry.

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Piñata I Test Flight

Spoiler

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"If it's fugly, but it works, it ain't stupid" - Kosen Kerman, CEO of NASEK Corporation

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To ensure stability, first stage of Corundum II booster was equipped with oversized steering fins.

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2nd stage was powerful enough to push the shuttle to a high, suborbital trajectory. A dead weight in vacuum, aerodynamic nosecones got discarded shortly afterwards.

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Both the engine and fuel systems worked flawlessly, redeeming the system after the botched Apex S1 mission; however, due to construction oversight, actual docking between Piñata and the spacecraft turned out to be impossible. Neverheless, with the target approach achieved, the mission was deemed an incomplete one - but a success nonetheless.

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Disaster struck upon reentry; as soon as the shuttle passed the 65 km altitude mark, telemetry data from the cockpit was lost. Backup systems kicked in soon enough - shuttle's nose section got depressurized and ripped away from the hull, turning the spaceplane into an unsteerable wreck, tumbling across the atmosphere with little control.

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Attempts were made to regain control over the spaceship, as apparently attitude systems miraculously managed to stay intact during reentry.

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The post-flight evaluation of crashlanded shuttle resulted in the following conclusions:

  • Cockpit requires thorough redesign; while it turned out to be impossible to determine whether its destruction was caused by overheating or random damage, it was beyond doubt a pilot's death would be inevitable
  • Shuttle's sturdiness during uncontrolled reentry exceeded all expectations; it was also noted as remarkable that the passenger compartment did not suffer any extensive damage
  • Hydrogen engine performed well in terms of efficiency; however, given Corundum's carrying capacity, it was deemed that using a less efficient (but more compact) fuel would be preferrable
  • A dedicated docking adapter would be developed for both Piñata and Zenith Heavy, for use with future space stations and landers.

Kosen Kerman was granted funds to continue the development; however, the ultimate decision was to be taken only after Zenith Heavy flight.

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Posted (edited)

Before we begin today, just a small shameless plug - I recently started/reactivated a small blog, which I plan to use as a nexus for stuff I post on the Interwebz - for now AARs, in the future with some other forms of writing. So far there's not too much there, but I invite you to pay a visit nevertheless. :) Link is both here and in my signature below each post.

Anyway, let's go!

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

VIII
Near and Far

"I don't even know that song"
- Astraph Kerman

Following Piñata I test flight came the trail of its competitor, Zenith Heavy. Using components from a discarded Apex variant, the new spaceship was to be able to carry three Kerbals - one less than the shuttle - to every point withing Gael stationary orbit and return to the surface. While it lacked the shuttle's ability to return to every point on Gael by atmospheric cruise, it boasted an ability to deploy secondary payloads, while retaining a similar degree of reusability. One huge difference between Zenith Heavy and old Zenith model was the reentry technique: instead of parachuting to the ground, Zenith Heavy would use a set of three engine pods to perform the final burn before landing.

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The spaceship's first task was to deliver the first permanent crew to the HOLTCH space station, consisting of Ceti mission veterans: Aobaka, Meatball and Scoots Kerman.

ZH-1 flight

Spoiler

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Due to HOLTCH station's apoapsis being located far beyond Ceti orbit - at over 80,000 km from Gael - the station's velocity on periapsis exceeded 3 km/s. This required using the massive Corundum rocket to boost Zenith into interception trajectory - and even then, it took a long burn from capsule's orbital engine system to match velocities.

 

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The docking proceeded without anomalies, and Aobaka's crew could have started their 60 day-long endurance test in the station.

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Following 60 days time onboard HOLTCH, the crew returned to the spaceship and prepared for reentry

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Due to HOLTCH's highly eccentric orbit, orbital engines performed an extended braking burn to ease the reentry profile

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Braking engines utilized a new, experimental fuel - Karbonite. While capable of combustion without a dedicated oxydizer and producing enormous amounts of energy, it had very low specific impulse - which prevented using it as a fuel for orbital engines as well.

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Due to throttle control issues, the spacecraft ran out of its limited karbonite supply just before touchdown - resulting in a hard impact that destroyed the engines and lower bottom of the craft; however, the crew remained safe and uninjured.

Despite partial failure of the mission, Zenith Heavy was approved into production, as fixing the issues would take much less effort than in Piñata's case;

  • Inflatable cushions were to be added to the bottom section, both to allow splashdowns and to cushion dry land impacts
  • Karbonite supply was to be extended to increase safety margains during landings
  • Two other variats have been proposed; Zenith Heavy T for secondary payload deployment and Zenith Heavy IC, capable of operating from perspective stations around Gaelian moons.

 

Paralelly with Zenith Heavy mission, the Ceti exploration project continued; with Apex lander's stability issues, it was decided that the second flight would have to carefully pick landing sites, to avoid the risk of the Trialblazer tipping over. In order to facilitate that, two rovers were to be constructed and delivered to Ceti to survey potential landing sites. Upon doing so, they were to deploy a radio beacon, which in turn was to be used to guide Apex's approach. Due to their 'lighthouse' mission, both rovers were named Pharos, after an ancient lighthouse in Kalexandria.

Pharos I mission

Spoiler

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"This is a damn fine rocket" - Werner von Kerman, upon hearing Corundum exceeded a dozen of completed and scheduled launches

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Pharos I rover carried a secondary payload of a single relay satellite that was to ensure coverage of Ceti's far site during the descent and future missions

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Pharos I used a skycrane device to lower itself on Ceti surface - but due to issues in thrust and attitude control, it slammed hard, destroying its wheels and jamming the skycrane jettison system.

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It was still, however, able to perform its main task - act as a radio beacon. Additionally, a laser surface sampling device was successfully deployed, providing valueable insight into landing zone's composition and properties.

Pharos II mission

Spoiler

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Launched several days after Pharos I touchdown, Pharos II featured a redesigned skycrane and rover architecture, aimed at avoiding the issues that plagues the first rover.

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While the touchdown was much smoother, it was by no means ideal - a piece of debris produced during skycrane jettison struck the solar panels, rending them practically inoperable. While the rover could have been set to standby mode and await Apex's arrival, it first needed to locate the suitable landing zone for the spacecraft.

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Such place was located at the rim of a large crater - and the rover was ordered to deploy and switch into standby mode, to be awoken with a signal from the orbiting Trailblazer spacecraft.

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And finally, far beyond Ceti's orbit, another mission came to it's successful conclusion - Surveyor 2 probe, launched from Gael shrotly before the Apex flight, has reached its target.

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A distant relative to CetiExplorer, Surveyor series of probes have been designed to provide data on the planets closest to Gael by performing a close flyby. Launches 1 and 3 ended up with complete spacecraft loss, due to issues with experimental, Karbonite-based launcher being used. Surveyor 2 and 4 relied on a modified Corundum core to throttle them to orbit - and wen to their long journeys towards Niven and Tellumo - the 3rd and 5th planet of the Ciro system.

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Gael-based observations managed to uncover basic information about Niven; it was a small terrestrial globe, possessing a thin atmosphere and a uniform, brown-grey surface colour palette. Surveyor 2 was to perform close observation of the planet, its magnetosphere and atmosphere. Due to its proximity (3.5 million kilometers average), Niven has always been considered the most probable target for first Kerbal interplanetary flights - and with recent advances in shipbuilding, this dream finally seemed an actual possibility.

Surveyor 2 Niven flyby

Spoiler

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Dubbed Corundum L, the launcher used for Surveyor missions was basically a Corundum core stage, without side boosters.

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Interplanetary transfer burn was provided by a hydrogen thruster, similar to ones used on Apex transfer stage

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Upon release, the probe performed calibration of its equipment, sending data back to Gael; however, due to miscalculated power supply requirements, irradiance data was not retrievable.

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Taken from over 5 million kilometres away, this photo captured both Gael and it's satellites (two smaller dots just below the planet)

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Photo of Niven taken during approach

Flyby animation, made of photos taken during the closest approach to Niven

Even without the irradiance data, the flyby provided valueable insight into Niven's characteristics:

  • Lack of any moonlets has been confirmed; while Gael-based observations disproved existence of any moons larger than 1 km, some claims for smaller moonlets' existence continued
  • Niven's thin atmosphere, while rarer than Gael's, extended far higher than expected; this was attributed to the planet's low gravity
  • Thin atmosphere would make parachute-assisted landing difficult, if not impossible; development of propulsive landing technology was given priority.
  • Lack of irradiance data meant the composition of the atmosphere (assumed to be a nitrogen/carbon dioxide mix) could not have been confirmed; however, lack of bodies of water confirmed planet was arid, if not completely desert. This posed significant challenges for potential long-term stay.
  • Magneosphere is practically non-existent; Ciro's solar wind keeps blowing off outer layers of the atmosphere, but the magnetosphere's presence indicates some sort of internal activity is possible

Concluding the flyby, the Space Agency was tasked with preparing a comprehensive crewed Niven mission plan.

Edited by Astraph

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you should be able to set the antenna to allow partial transmission, allowing you to retrieve the irradiance data

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On 3/4/2019 at 5:25 PM, insert_name said:

you should be able to set the antenna to allow partial transmission, allowing you to retrieve the irradiance data

This worked, thanks for reminding me about this game's basics :D

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IX
One year in

 

Not surprisingly, the first anniversary of Jumper 1 flight was met with huge celebrations alls across Gael. A symbolic monument has been erected to commemorate this day - Zenith 10 lander, the supposed final ship of its series, was placed on the Space Centre's courtyard. The pompous ceremony was followed by a public press conference, where Space Agency’s chief engineers outlined the future direction for their program to take.

 

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We have come a long way in the span of those few months. Starting with capsules barely able to break the blue above our heads, we managed to end up reaching across the darkness, towards the alien worlds waiting on the other side. Today, we can only shoot a passing glance at them - but I am fully confident that next year, at this very spot, I will be able to proudly announce that first kerbonaut has stepped on another planet’s soil!

I extend my congratulations towards our brave crews - to Varyag, Charlie, Jolly, Aobaka, Scoots and Meatball. To new crews, currently training for their first flights. Finally, to all kerbals who remain on Gael to make sure the pioneers’ mission succeeds - to technical crews, R&D teams, to designers at Kyakovlev and NASEK. To all those working hard to make our future brighter!

Onwards, into the Void!!!

- Astraph Kerman

But before we move onto that, let’s spend a while for a small review of how far the kerbals had gone in the span of just a year.

Initial phase was hectic and characterized by every launch using a different craft and booster. The first family to actually achieve any sort of consistency were the Beryls; based on 1.25 m wide cores, those rockets propelled early Iota and Ceti landers - such as uncrewed Ruaumoko and pioneering Zenith 5 and 6 flights. Their robust and simple design made them cheap and easy to assemble - but at the same time, their limited carrying capacity (up to 12 tons to low Gael orbit in Beryl Heavy’s case) limited their use and called for swift replacement.

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Beryl IIB (left) and Beryl Heavy (right)

Ceti missions and interplanetary flight studies led to the creation of Corundum booster. With 2.5 m diameter core at their base and high modernization potential, Corundums evolved into the first truly universal rocket family - starting with 5 ton capable Corundum Light, all the way to monstrous Corundum III, used to launch Apex Resupply missions at the excess of 65 tons weight.

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The highly successful Zenith design, gradually evolving with each generation, dominated the first year of space exploration; ten vessels have been launched during that year, with five more awaiting use in planned missions. Similarly to Beryl, their small, sturdy design made them most successful in their designed role - but left unable to upgrade and advance into a truly interplanetary spacecraft. The only partially successful Zenith Heavy flight cast a shadow of doubt on the design’s future - but should the flaws be corrected, the spacecraft had a chance for a long, fruitful career.

Much bigger Apex had already completed its maiden voyage by the end of the year - and entered the following one with great expectations. The second flight, paved by Pharos rovers’ mission, was to evaluate long-term mission feasibility - and with Surveyor 2 clearing the path towards Niven, it was certain that new generation of Apexes was bound to follow.

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Four main objectives have been designated by the Agency for the upcoming year:

  • Construction of a 2nd generation Apex spacecraft, capable of interplanetary flight and soft landing on target bodies; in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technologies were to be included in the project, using karbonite as resource.
  • Development of a super-heavy launch vehicle for crewed interplanetary flights, utilizing new, experimental propulsion technology; design was given preliminary name Electrum and was to use components from Corundum family to simplify construction process and future operations.
  • Laying groundwork for a crewed Niven mission by gathering additional information about the planet and its environment. 
  • Launching probes to more distant planets of the system; two projects have been announced with this goal in mind - Phaeton and Khione.

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X
Mysteries

"Gael...? It... shouldn't be here..."
- Charlie Kerman

The second flight of the Apex didn’t cater as much public interest as initial Ceti flights. Even with the spaceship’s size and complexity, the mission itself was pretty routine - and with public opinion’s sight set on Niven, baren, airless wastelands of Gael’s moons stopped being that appealing.

Phase I - Launch and TCI

Spoiler

 

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Zenith 12 delivered the crew of Varyag, Jolly and Charlie into the Apex spacecraft parked on Gael medium orbit.

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Rehearsed ad nauseum, Zenith's reentry and landing proceeded without incidents.

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One of Apex's flaws was insufficient power production, compared to life support system's requirements; to remedy that, a set of simple solar panels has been delivered onboard Zenith 12, and installed during a deep space EVA by Jolly.

Phase II - Pharos 2 landing

Spoiler

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Pharos 2 landing zone was located almost directly on the terminator line, forcing Apex to land in pretty much complete darkness.

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Until sunrise, the crew had to rely on internal karbonite generator to keep the spaceship warm and powered up.

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During their EVA, Charlie and Jolly inspected the Pharos 2 rover; analysis of its condition provided valuable data on how complex mechanisms and electronics behaved after prolonged exposure to deep space conditions.

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A set of scientific instruments has been attached to Apex's bottom, providing detailed analysis of Ceti's nocturnal environment

Phase III - Resupply

Spoiler

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Due to Ceti's extremely long day/night cycle - spanning over 60 days - and Apex providing supplies for only 30 days, a mid-mission resupply flight was scheduled to land in Pharos 2 area.

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Apart from cargo lander, the mission included two small satellites, designed to provide high-resolution surface scans of both Iota and Ceti.

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The first satellite was released just after Ceti transfer burn; it was to use the bigger's satellite gravity to loop around and approach Iota.

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The second satellite was deployed above Ceti, while the supply lander began its approach.

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The landing was successful in terms of approach; shortly after touchdown, however, one of lander's legs suffered a mechanical failrue, toppling the craft.

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Kerbonauts took turns in carrying the supplies - as well as salvaging the solar panels to improve the spaceship's constantly underwhelming energy budget.

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Initial plan called for the Apex to perform a sub-orbital hop to Pharos 1's location as soon as sun would rise over the second rover's location. However, shortly before the scheduled departure, Varyag and his crew received a message from the Space Center; the new mapping satellite has detected an unusual rock formation, roughly 100 kilometers north-west of their position.

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Frame from Ceti Mapper satellite with anomaly in sight - section of image magnified by a factor of 5.

It was deemed a change of landing zone would not disrupt the mission as a whole - it would still prove the feasibility of suborbital hops during a single mission, and fuel budget would remain largely unaffected. The decision was made to perform the jump.

Phase IV - Sub-orbital hop & Anomaly 1

Spoiler

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The second landing zone differed significantly from the ones explored up to that point - it was much flatter, with the surface covered by fine regolith dust, as opposed to rocky vicinity of previously explored areas.

The following is the transcript of Charlie's excursion towards the anomalous rock formation.

Charlie: Mic check, mic check. Apex, how do you read me?
Varyag: Loud and clear Charlie. How's the connection, Gael?
Space Center: Adequate.
C: Permission to move out.
SGranted
C: Thrusters active, moving out. Heading 2-2-7. Should be just beyond that hill, judging by what we saw on approach.
<Charlie proceeds to fly using his suit's mobility thrusters. Irrelevant chatter omitted for brevity>
C: OK, just got past the hill. I should have it in sight...
S: What do you see?
C: It's... It's... Holy [Expletive redacted]!
V: Charlie? What is that?!

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C: C-control... That thing... It's almost perfectly cubic in shape. There is some other shape on top of it, unable to discern details. I'll try to get closer.
S: Report any anomalies.
<Charlie proceeds to approach the object, landing roughtly 10 metres from its base>
C: T-there is something on its side. Can you see it?
S: Yes, the image is a bit distorted, but otherwise acceptable. Apex, what is the magnetic field reading?
Jolly: All nominal.
C: I'm flying up. I'll try to get a clear view of that thing on top

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C: The thing on top... It looks a bit like our Zeniths... Or the Apex... But there's something off about it. It's definitely not a natural formation. Three different types of rock combined. With evidentally artificial carvings...
<Charlie's breathing becomes agitated>
C: Gael...? It... shouldn't be here...

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Following Charlie's excursion, the area has been designated as Anomaly 1 and declared off-limits for the remaining duration of the mission. Electromagnetic interference turned out to be inexplicable; the estimated mass of the formation greatly exceeded known means of transportation.  The purpose, origin or meaning of Anomaly 1 were shrouded in complete mystery. Apex 1 was ordered to return to Gael as soon as scheduled experiments and tests had been completed.

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Phase V - Return

Spoiler

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Shortly after returning to orbit, a potentially fatal flaw became apparent - due to a faulty valve, a significant portion of oxydizer got sucked out of Apex into the transfer stage following the first transfer burn. Fuel level indicators failed to account for discrepancy - resulting in the crew suddenly realizing their craft was almost out of propellent.

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Remotely operated from Gael, the transfer stage performed the rendezvous burn instead, allowing Apex to dock with minimal propellant usage.

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Docking and return burn were accomplished smoothly and without incidents.

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Back in Gael orbit, Zenith 13 met up with Apex and recovered the crew for reentry.

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Excerpt from classified addendum to post-mission evaluation:

Spoiler

The discovery of alien artifacts is disturbing, to say the least. Even though Anomaly 1 is but a pile of rocks - those rocks are, without a doubt, processed by an intelligent hand. We do not know, whose hand that was - and where its owner currently resides.

There are no evident signs of a space-faring species inhabiting the system other than us. This might seem to be good news (...). But the other option is far more disturbing.

If they were here, they might come back one day. And if they do, we must know as much as possible about those aliens, their technology and motives.

The Niven mission is currently motivated and justified as an exercise in curiosity and strive for knowledge. This is a very good base - but we need to recalibrate this effort. Focus it. Make it more coherent.

(...)

This time, curiosity might just save the cat.

 

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Posted (edited)

XI
Portal Station

The discovery of an anomalous - and clearly artificial - phenomenon on Ceti sped up preparations for the full-scale Niven mission. Practically unlimited funds have been assigned to both the super-heavy launcher design and 2nd generation Apex spacecraft. Even though discovery of Anomaly 1 was not publicized, careful media campaign about potential of alien life forms commenced - with even concepts like ancient astronauts getting some media coverage.

In terms of actual spaceflight, the following roadmap has been proposed for Niven mission:

  • Construction of Portal Station - a high Gael orbit outpost, serving as a stop station between the planet and extragaelian destinations, as well as a zero g laboratory for conducting tests and experiments
  • Niven Prospector - an unmanned probe mission, aimed at in-depth analysis of Niven atmosphere and surface composition
  • Niven Sampling - a telerobotic mission, consiting of a crewed orbiter and unmanned lander, capable of returning surface samples from the planet's surface
  • Niven Cygnus - An unmanned lander, containing in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) facilities, paving the way for actual crewed landing
  • Niven Cydonia - A crewed landing, expected to stay at least 200 days on Niven surface

Obviously, those plans were laid out in long term - much longer than Astraph's overoptimistic schedule of a single year.

The first phase began immediately - the design of a modular space station, using experiences of the HOLTCH mission, as been in preparation for some time already. In total, the assembly required three launches - one to deliver each of the components: the Core Module. Laboratory and the Habitat. Each launch was to performed by the prototype super-heavy Electrum rocket - designed to be able to deliver 50 tons to Gael synchronous orbit.

I - Portal Core launch

Spoiler

 

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Electrum booster used four Corunund Light cores as side boosters, with the core being constructed of extended 3.75 m wide tanks

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Orbital insertion and assembly was to be handled by an unmanned Zenith T craft

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Upon reaching the designated orbit, Zenith T performed a reentry burn

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The spacecraft has been refit with several systems, designed to finally make the design fully reusable

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One of them was a set of inflatable airbags, designed to protect the spacecraft's underbelly during landings and provide buoyancy during splashdowns

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First landing was a partial success - the craft managed to land intact, but the following flipover would most likely cause crew injury.

II - Laboratory launch

Spoiler

 

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Second launch was made using a modified Electrum prototype, featuring a redesigned 2nd stage

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Unlike Corundums and Beryls, Electrum Ib used a prototype Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR) technology instead of chemical rockets. This gave the 2nd stage excellent performance, makind Zenith T practically redundant, save for minor orbital corrections.

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Upon docking, Zenith detached the Plant Experiment Module, initially launched with the core and re-attached it to the laboratory module.

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Deorbit burn proceeded without issues, massive Karbonite thrusters reducing the stress and heating upon reentry.

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The burn however used up too much fuel, making the Zenith lose thrust just above ground - and instead of a soft touchdown, the spacecraft crashed into pieces upon lithobraking

III - Habitat module and crew launch

Spoiler

 

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The 3rd launch returned to using chemical-powered Electrum booster, as the module was far less massive than the laboratory

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Along with the habitat, two cre members - Ace and Shigu Kerman - have been launched to begin conducting experiments ASAP.

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By design, the Portal was to sustain a two-kerbal permanent crew for the period of 400 days. Four docking points in the laboratory allowed for multiple experiments and analysis to be conducted at the same time, making Portal the first deep space laboratory in Kerbal history.

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The sweet triumph was embittered however with yet another return failrue - even though soft touchdown was achieved, the lander's legs failed to sustain the craft's mass, making it tip over and fall, pretty much like the first attempt.

 

With Portal finally operational, green light was given for a direct Niven launch. Smaller in scale, two missions to Iota and Ceti have been scheduled as well, to test the Portal's capabilities and craft recovery techniques needed for the Niven mission. The yellow planet seemed closer than ever before...

Edited by Astraph

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XII
Samples and Flybys

With the Portal Station assembled and operational, preparation for the telerobotic sample return mission became top priority for the Space Program. Apart from obvious scientific payoff of studying Niven surface conditions without risking the life of kerbonauts, landing and taking off from the planet with an uncrewed probe offered one more benefit - access to valueable data regarding atmospheric conditions and take off profile.

I - Iota Sample Return

Spoiler

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The probe's basic architecture was based on Zenith T transport craft; atmospheric landing engines have been removed, and the forward section has been replaced by a detachable capsule, meant to return samples and data back to Gael.

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Upon landing, the probe conducted a number of tests and measurements; not surprisingly, one of the most aboundant substances was water - which meant that, should suitable hardware be developed, Iota could become the source of liquid hydrogen for interplanetary missions.

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The cargo capsule was propelled by twin monopropellant engines, and the majority of its mass was concentrated in a thick heat shield - a component crucial for Geal recovery.

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An attempted aerocapture, however, was too shallow for the probe to bleed its excessive speed - even with using up all remaining fuel, the capsule was not able to rendez-vous with Portal properly, let alone dock. A second aerobraking was also ruled out, as the heatshield was too thin to withstand the stress twice.

II - Ceti Sample Return

Spoiler

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Learning from mishaps of its predecessor, second lander followed an adjusted flight plan; transfer stage was bled dry during landing, conserving much of lander's fuel reserves.

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Lacking the icy crust, Ceti was expected to be much drier than Iota; however, much to researchers' surprise, regolith contained a substantian amount of hydrated compounds; while more complex than simple electrolysis, this also opened possibilities for fuel production - and Ceti's position outside the depth of Gael's gravity well could make interplanetary flights easier.

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Remaining fuel in the lander has been used to propel the return capsule to a suborbital trajectory

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The corrected aerobraking manuever lowered the apogaelium enough for the capsule to perform an independent correction using 

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The success of second sample return mission has shown that recovery of Niven samples by a low Niven orbit based spacecraft - or following an interplanetary cruise, should the crewed spaceship be not prepared in time - was a possibility.

III - Zenith T 4 & Extended Laboratory Music

Spoiler

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The amount of data and quality of samples brought back from Ceti exceeded Portal laboratory designers' expectations; to rememdy this, an extended laboratory module, containing additional instruments and more powerful computers, was launched.

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Following the delivery, a containgency plan to recover Iota samples has been enacted; using its remaining fuel, the capsule lowered its apoapsis to intersect with Portal's orbit. Zenith was then redirected to catch up with the capsule and bring it to the station.

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Following the recovery and transfer of samples and data, both Zenith and Iota sample craft have been deorbited; no attempt at landing has been made.

While low Gael orbit teemed with activity, the Mission Control had to keep their eyes on a more distant place; Surveyor 4, launched soon after it's Niven-bound brother (and an unsuccessful Surveyor 3), was approaching its target; planet Tellumo. Basically an updated version of its predecessor, the probe carried exact same suite of scientific instruments, and was planned to only make a brief flyby.

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Flyby animation

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As the report of the mission pointed out:

  • Presence of abundant atmospheric oxygen and water vapour was confirmed; this opens the possibility that, barring presence of unknown compounds in the atmosphere or soil,  life support systems would have to be far less complex than during other missions.
  • Higher estimates of both radius and mass have been confirmed; crushing pressures and gravity would pose a completely different set of challenges for future explorers. Higher gravity also results in a more compact atmosphere.
  • A single moonlet, dubbed Lili, was found within the planet's ring system. Its proximity to Tellumo would make it a good staging point for crewed missions, as well as a potential fuel depot during surface excursions.
  • However, the overall conclusion is that crewed exploration of Tellumo should be limited to orbital missions at most; while designing an ascent vehicle capable of attaining orbit is feasible, it would require extensive and time-consuming research and development to construct one, yet alone deliver it on Tellumo's surface.

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Hooray! It's not dead!

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On 6/30/2019 at 9:18 AM, fulgur said:

Hooray! It's not dead!

Haha, no worries :D I have a patchy schedule, I know, but I am not giving up on this campaign. It might be hopelessly outdated now (the version I play is 1.4.5), but screw this, even if I updated, checking each of 100 mods I have installed would most likely kill me and my motivation. And my hopeful plan is to get this Niven landing done before the anniversary rolls in ;)

Thanks to all else who is reading this, you are the main reason to keep writing! :D 

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A short preface this time - phew, I never thought I'd come back to KSP with such zeal anymore. The past two weeks were spent almost exclusively in the game, designing, tweaking and refining my crewed mission architecture. Having to deal with science mode limitations is a pretty new thing for me (as I said, none of my campaigns actually progressed to interplanetary crewed flights), and it's way easier to just slap together a Dres mission in sandbox. Anyway, let's go!

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

XIII
One step back, two steps forward

With Ceti and Iota samples delivered onboard the Portal, Ace and Shigu sat down to tedious laboratory experiments and tests. Zero-g environment in Gael orbit and lack of local contamination helped preserve the samples' pristine condition - but the complete novelty of such laboratories meant research lagged considerably. What was designed as a 200 day long stay ended up lasting over twice as long - a whole Gaelian year. Portal's life support system was not designed for such prolonged stay; a mid-year resupply mission had to be undertaken.

While Kyakovlev still had several examples of Zenith at the ready, its unsuccessful landing attempts discouraged using them for a crewed mission. Moreover, preliminary Niven mission concept studies made it apparent that any reasonable Niven-capable spaceship had to be designed from scratch. This meant the end of both Apex and Zenith projects, as all manpower and resources were to be directed towards this completely new craft.

However, flights to Portal still had to be undertaken; to this end, Kyakovlev Industries presented a low-cost, expendable crew and supplies delivery system, dubbed Nadir.

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Vastly simpler than Zenith Heavy, Nadir was designed around completely opposite principles - the whole service and cargo module was expendable, with only the capsule designed for recovery. Dual karbonite/liquid fuel propulsion system has been replaced with a set of simple, lightweight monopropelant engines. A strictly low-orbit vessel, Nadir was painfully limited - but at the same time, it was perfectly tailored for its designed purpose.

Nadir 1 & 2 flights to Poral station

Spoiler

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As part of cost saving measures, Nadirs were designed to be launched using proven Corundum boosters. The first mission, undertaken during

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With their limited performance and fuel capacity, those ships required a substantial kick to a high, sub-orbital trajectory. Corundum 2nd stage was used to filt the capsule all the way to Portal orbital height.

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Following Nadir 1's docking and supply transfer, Scoots performed a bried EVA to install a broadband radio transmitter to facilitate communication between Gael and the station

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Undocking, reentry and splashdown proceeded without anomalies, marking the decisive success of the unorthodox "simpler is better" approach.
Portrayed: Scoots, delighted with the colourful display of plasma dancing around the capsule.

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Nadir 2 launched by the end of Ace and Shigu's mission, followed the same pattern as its predecessor - high suborbital launch, docking and recovery.

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Ace and Shigu's 400 day long stay onboard Portal marked a new record in terms of long duration missions.

Ace and Shigu's prolonged mission meant that the overambitious goal set up by Astraph Kerman - to land on Niven before the second anniversary of first crewed flight - has not been met. Shelving of both Apex and Zenith projects also meant that no crewed flights beyond Portal orbit have been undertaken for the whole year. But this didn't mean the second year passed without any breakthroughs; quite the contrary.

As soon as Portal became fully operational, the second phase of Niven mission came into motion; Niven Prospector.

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The largest probe up to date, the Prospector consisted of four separate vessels:

  • Bus - the structural and propulsive module; powered by four experimental Candle RTG engines, it was to deliver the 3 probes to Niven, while serving as a testbed for nuclear space propulsion technnologies
  • Scanner - an autonomous satellite, equipped with sophisticated surface imaging devices.
  • Surface Component - twin landers, designed to achieve soft descent and collect surface samples for analysis.

Mission summary

1) Launch & Coast

Spoiler

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Due to Prospector's considerable mass, Electrum booster was required to push the spaceship into transfer orbit.

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While still in Gael orbit, the probe callibrated its optical instruments. Electrum 2nd stage visible in upper-right corner.

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Mid-course trajectory correction was performed using the Candle thrusters. Their unique architecture - an RTG heating up propellant instead of using oxidizer - provided excellent efficiency, at the expense of thrust. It was hoped that clusters of such engines could reduce Niven transfer time to 100 days and below.

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Deep space conditions provided excellent opportunity to adjust instrument callibration as well.

2) Orbital insertion & Scanner deployment

Spoiler

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Upon arrival, the Prospector used Niven's thin atmosphere to facilitate orbital insertion into an eliptical, polar orbit.

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The Scanner has been released into retrograge orbit to test multiple object control and coordination systems on Gael.

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Following a braking maneuver, the scanner poised itself above the Yellow Planet, its findings beamed back to Gael via Prospector's relay.

3) Probe landing

Spoiler

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Several days later, after preliminary landing spots have been picked, the Prospector lowered its orbit in preparation for Surface Component release.

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Even though Niven's atmosphere had already been confirmed to be thin and wispy, the landers were designed with a robust reentry system - a thick heat shield, thrusters and kevlar parachutes. However, the heatshield's design required the Prospector to temporaly lower its periapsis belore release, as landers lacked their own propulsion during initial descent stage.

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The first lander touched down safely in a dark, dust-covered valley.

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The second lander touched down on a slope; while it was initially feared it toppled and tumbled down the hillside, emergency systems managed to anchor it in place and succesfully deploy all devices.

The Prospector mission provided valueable insight into Nivenian environment. The surface and relief appeared relatively young, which implied a set of active geological conditions - be it tectonics, volcanism or aeolian erosion. No traces of surface water have been detected - and lack of atmospheric vapour precluded the existence of an active hydrosphere. However, considerable amount of hydrates and gypsium have been found - which meant that extracting water from soil was a viable option. This, combined with confirmed karbonite presence, meant that a wide selection of potential fuels was available for production - from hydrogen, through water, to simple synthetic hydrocarbons.

Of special significance was discovery of aerial methane and ammonia. Unstable and highly reactive, those compounds could not last long in the atmosphere without a source to replenish their supply - with organic metabolism being the most exciting possibility. Out of other atmospheric gases, the results were neither spectacular nor surprising - high carbon dioxide content and was confirmed during first the very first mission to Niven and trace gases composition matched theoretical models made up back on Gael.

Prospector's findings, combined with data collected during first flyby, finally provided the Agency with the bare minimum of data required to organized the crewed mission. With concept studies on Gael reaching their ending, time has come to move on to another great step - creation of an actual interplanetary spacecraft...

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One of preliminary designs for Apex Sidonia, with mass simulator replacing the actual crew module.

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