Crew Dragon docks to ISS on first operational mission

A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, named Resilience, successfully docked with the International Space Station Nov. 16, a day after launch on the first operational commercial crew mission. Onboard the spacecraft were NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Vic Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi on board. The four astronauts on Crew-1 have now joined NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who have been on the ISS since arriving on a Soyuz spacecraft in October.

Crew-1 marks the beginning of operational flights to and from the ISS on commercial crew vehicles. The spacecraft will remain docked to the station for six months, with the four astronauts returning home shortly after the launch of the Crew-2 mission on another Crew Dragon spacecraft next spring. Besides ending reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for getting crews to and from the station, commercial crew vehicles like Crew Dragon will enable the station to support seven-person crews for long-duration missions. NASA has touted the additional science that the additional crewmember will be able to perform. “NASA, with American industry, has developed these commercial vehicles that will allow us to bring more people to low Earth orbit, bring more people to the International Space Station, allow us to do more science in low Earth orbit and allow more commercial opportunities,” Joel Montalbano, manager of the ISS program at NASA, said at a Nov. 13 prelaunch briefing.

Germany joins JAXA’s low-cost deep space test mission

The German Aerospace Center, DLR, has partnered with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on a planned low-cost asteroid mission called Destiny+, expected to launch toward the asteroid 3200 Phaethon in 2024. DLR will build the Destiny Dust Analyzer instrument, which will measure the properties of cosmic dust during the spacecraft’s four-year cruise and its flyby of the 5.8-kilometer asteroid. The spacecraft will test innovative technologies that JAXA hopes to utilize in its future deep space exploration missions. “The objective of this mission is to make deep space exploration accessible with a small launcher,” Carsten Henselowsky, Destiny+ project manager at DLR, told SpaceNews. “The mission will also test advanced trajectory planning routines that will probe new ways of reaching the desired orbit, new lightweight solar cells and electric propulsion.”

JAXA is responsible for funding the mission, including its launch aboard Japan’s Epsilon rocket. Germany is the biggest contributor to the European Space Agency’s budget, but also has its own space program with international partnerships. During the online bilateral meeting, DLR and JAXA discussed more than 60 joint projects. The two have a comprehensive joint strategy agreement dating back to 2016.

Virgin Galactic executive to lead Australian Space Agency

A long-time Virgin Galactic executive will return to Australia to take over the country’s young space agency, the Australian government announced recently. In a statement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that Enrico Palermo, chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic, will take over as head of the Australian Space Agency in January. Palermo will replace Megan Clark, who led the agency since it was formed in 2018 and will become chair of the agency’s advisory board.

Palermo is an Australian native who graduated from the University of Western Australia. He joined Virgin Galactic in 2006 as one of its first employees, originally based in London before moving to Mojave, California. He worked at The Spaceship Company, the Virgin Galactic subsidiary responsible for manufacturing the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, rising to president of that unit in 2018. He became chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic in January 2020. “Palermo’s leadership will rocket Australia toward our goal of becoming a major player in the international space industry, while providing benefits across our economy,” Morrison said in the statement.

This bizarre planet could have supersonic winds in an atmosphere of vaporized rock.

Scientists think they have identified a lava world so dramatic that it might boast a thin regional atmosphere of vaporized rock where it is closest to its star. That exoplanet is called K2-141b and was originally discovered in 2017. The world is about half again as big as Earth but orbits so close to its star, which is one class smaller than our own, that it completes several loops each Earth-day with the same surface permanently facing the star. Now, scientists predict those factors mean that two-thirds of the surface of K2-141b is permanently sunlit — so much so that not only is part of the world covered in a lava ocean, but some of that rock may even evaporate away into the atmosphere. “All rocky planets, including Earth, started off as molten worlds but then rapidly cooled and solidified,” Nicolas Cowan, a planetary scientist at McGill University in Canada and a co-author on the new paper, said in a statement. “Lava planets give us a rare glimpse at this stage of planetary evolution.”

New report outlines international approach to lunar exploration

An updated version of a study developed by an international working group backs an approach to lunar exploration that largely follows NASA’s Artemis plans to return humans to the moon in 2024. The International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), a group of 24 space agencies, released an updated version of its “Global Exploration Roadmap” report in August with little fanfare. The document offers what the group called a “a shared international vision for human and robotic space exploration,” although one that is not binding on member agencies. The new report, an update of a version published in 2018, reflects “new national priorities and intensified and accelerated lunar exploration plans” by member nations announced since that earlier report. While not explicitly stated, that would include the United States, which in March 2019 moved up the date for a human return to the lunar surface by four years, from 2028 to 2024.

The report outlines a scenario for lunar exploration similar to NASA’s plans for the Artemis program with three phases. The first phase, dubbed “Boots on the Moon,” calls for a human return to the moon in 2024, just as NASA is planning. Phase 2 envisions establishing a more permanent, sustainable presence at the lunar south pole, with excursions elsewhere on the moon. A final phase calls for “a sustained and vibrant lunar presence in the coming decades” including commercial activities. “We don’t know when it will be,” Sato said. “We’d like to encourage industries in the world to achieve a fully developed lunar economy using technologies demonstrated in Phase 1 and 2.” That approach, particular for the first two phases, closely mirrors NASA’s own plans. The plan doesn’t specify specific roles for individual countries, but does include elements of NASA’s plans, like the lunar Gateway and reusable lunar landers, as well as contributions announced by partner nations, like a large pressurized rover that JAXA has said it will develop.

Scientists detect strange ‘fast radio burst’ from within our own Milky Way

Mysterious super powerful blasts of radio waves once seen only outside the galaxy have for the first time been detected within the Milky Way, new studies find. In addition, scientists have traced these outbursts back to a rare kind of dead star known as a magnetar, the strongest magnets in the universe, for the first time. Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are intense pulses of radio waves that can release more energy in a few thousandths of a second than the sun does in nearly a century. Scientists only discovered FRBs in 2007, and because the bursts are so fast, astrophysicists still have many questions about them and their sources.

Scientists have dozens of theories about the causes of fast radio bursts, from colliding black holes to alien starships. Many theories suggest the bursts originate from neutron stars, which are corpses of stars that died in catastrophic explosions known as supernovas. (Their name comes from how the gravitational pulls of these stellar remnants are powerful enough to crush protons together with electrons to form neutrons). Specifically, previous research has suggested fast radio bursts might explode from a rare type of neutron star known as a magnetar. Magnetars are the most powerful magnets in the cosmos — their magnetic fields can be up to approximately 5,000 trillion times more powerful than Earth’s. “A magnetar is a type of neutron star whose magnetic fields are so strong, they squish atoms into pencil-like shapes,” Christopher Bochenek, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author on one of the new studies, told Space.com.

OSIRIS-REx safely stores asteroid sample

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has secured material it collected from the asteroid Bennu into a sample return capsule, a process the mission accelerated after images showed material leaking into space. Project officials said they had stowed a sample collection device called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) into a capsule on the spacecraft. A robotic arm moved the TAGSAM head into position within the capsule, which then sealed shut. That TAGSAM head touched down on the surface of the asteroid Bennu Oct. 20 for several seconds, and appeared to capture a large volume of material. However, officials said Oct. 23 that the TAGSAM had gathered so much material a Mylar flap designed to seal the material into place had been wedged open by several large rocks, causing some material to leak out, as seen in images from the spacecraft. NASA then decided to accelerate the process of stowing the TAGSAM head into the capsule that will return the material to Earth, skipping a manoeuvre to weigh the sample. Controllers spent about 36 hours on Oct. 26 and 27 to use the robotic arm to move the TAGSAM head into position in the sample return capsule and verify it was locked in place, and then sealed the capsule.

With the material collected form Bennu secured inside the sample return capsule, the mission is now focused on returning those samples to Earth. The window for the spacecraft’s maneuver to depart the vicinity of Bennu opens in early March 2021. Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the window for that maneuver extends through May. The departure manoeuvre would bring the spacecraft back to Earth in September 2023.

Airbus ROXY reactor to turn lunar dust into oxygen

Airbus Defence and Space presented a technology to produce oxygen from lunar dust, the company announced. The breakthrough process and reactor invented by Airbus and named ROXY (Regolith to OXYgen and Metals Conversion) could revolutionize human space exploration and contribute to UN sustainability goals on Earth, the company said. The production of oxygen and metals from simulated lunar dust (regolith) was demonstrated by an international team led by Airbus Defence and Space (Friedrichshafen, Germany) with scientists from Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM (Dresden, Germany), Boston University (Massachusetts, USA) and Abengoa Innovación (Seville, Spain).

ROXY could be the heart of an integrated value chain using additive layer manufacturing to produce a wide range of products ‘Made on the Moon’, Airbus said. “These could include metals, alloys and oxygen. Combined with lunar ice, it would even be possible to produce rocket fuel from ROXY metal powder.” On Earth, Airbus thinks, “ROXY opens a new pathway to drastically reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that result from production of metals” – “another example of how space technologies can improve life on Earth.”

NASA-ESA agreement a milestone in efforts to develop Artemis international partnerships

While NASA and the European Space Agency hailed an agreement this week to work together on the lunar Gateway, both agencies have work ahead to establish international cooperation on the overall Artemis program of human lunar exploration. NASA and ESA announced Oct. 27 that they had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to cooperate on the lunar Gateway. The MOU extends the existing intergovernmental agreement for the International Space Station to the Gateway, a human-tended outpost in orbit around the moon intended to support crewed missions to the lunar surface.

Under the agreement, ESA will provide for the Gateway a habitation module called I-Hab and a telecommunications and refueling element called the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure and Telecommunications (ESPRIT). ESA will also build two additional service modules for the Orion spacecraft. In return, NASA will provide opportunities for European astronauts to fly to the Gateway. “This MOU marks a critical point in Europe’s trajectory: it confirms we are going forward to the moon, not just in terms of equipment and technology, but also with our people,” Jan Woerner, ESA director general, said in a statement. The announcement of the MOU did not mention how many European astronauts would fly to the Gateway. NASA spokesperson Gina Anderson said Oct. 28 that the agreement includes three “crew opportunities” to the Gateway, although specific missions and dates for them have not yet been determined. The agreement only addresses flights to the Gateway, she added, and not missions to the lunar surface.

NASA’s first attempt to sample an asteroid in space made a mess, but it’s the best mess ever, scientists say

A NASA spacecraft has really made a mess of things on the asteroid Bennu, and scientists are thrilled. The spacecraft, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe, briefly touched down on Bennu Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 21) in the space agency’s first-ever attempt to collect samples of an asteroid. It will take time to confirm if OSIRIS-REx did, in fact, collect pieces of Bennu, but so far everything appears to have gone as planned. “We really did kind of make a mess on the surface of this asteroid. But it’s a good mess,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, told reporters from the mission’s Lockheed Martin control center in Littleton, Colorado. “It’s the kind of mess we were hoping for.”

OSIRIS-REx touched a rocky region of Bennu called Nightingale with a spindly arm tipped with a hubcap-shaped collection plate. At the moment of contact, which lasted just 6 seconds, the spacecraft fired off a puff of nitrogen gas to essentially blow tiny pieces of the 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) Bennu into its collection device. During Tuesday’s encounter, OSIRIS-REx could have crashed into Bennu, detected a problem and waved itself off or touched the surface but hit a big rock that made snatching smaller particles impossible. Any one of those scenarios could have spelled failure for the $800 million sample-return mission. But when the first images reached Earth in the wee hours of this morning, scientists were jubilant. “The spacecraft’s performance was phenomenal,” said Sandy Freund, OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager for Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft. The views from OSIRIS-REx showed a successful touchdown, a puff of rocky particles and a smooth departure from the asteroid Bennu.

Soyuz crew lands from space station ahead of ISS 20-year milestone

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are back on Earth. Chris Cassidy, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, left the space station and landed on the steppe of Kazakhstan with cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner of the Russian federal space corporation Roscosmos on Wednesday (Oct. 21). Their Russian Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft touched down southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan at 10:54 p.m. EDT (0255 GMT and 8:54 a.m. on Oct. 22 Kazakh time). The trio’s landing came just 10 days before the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first crew to take up residency aboard the International Space Station (ISS), an expedition that was also comprised by one American and two Russians.

Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner’s departure from the space station marked the end of Expedition 63, with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov of Roscosmos on board the ISS to start Expedition 64. Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner were met after landing by recovery forces, who helped them out of the Soyuz and provided initial medical checks as they began to readjust to the pull of gravity after 196 days off the planet. Cassidy, 50, has now logged 378 days in space over the course of his three missions, including a 2009 space shuttle flight and a previous ISS stay in 2013. He now ranks fifth among all NASA astronauts for total time in space. Ivanishin, 51, also completed his third spaceflight, adding to his previous ISS expeditions in 2012 and 2016 for a total of 476 days. This was the first spaceflight for Vagner, who is 35. Soyuz MS-16 was the 62nd Soyuz to launch for the International Space Station. It travelled 83 million miles (133.5 million km) spanning 3,136 orbits of Earth.

Astronaut requirements changing rapidly with private spaceflyers, long-duration missions

Being an astronaut of the 2020s will be completely different than it was for any astronaut that came before, a panel of spaceflyers told the virtual International Astronautical Congress Wednesday (Oct. 14). The spaceflight environment is rapidly changing due to several different factors. The International Space Station (ISS) is pushing harder into commercialization and will soon be welcoming more and larger space agency crews on commercial crew vehicles while bringing in a few private astronauts. Meanwhile, NASA and its international partners are preparing for the next phase of human spaceflight missions after the ISS, which they hope will include moon landings in 2024 and eventual astronaut excursions to Mars. Also in the next few years, private companies such as Virgin Galactic hope to send paying astronauts on suborbital flights, in a bid to open up space to more people besides professional astronauts.

NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold flew a space shuttle mission and the long-duration Expedition 55 mission in 2009 and 2018, respectively. It was an era when training in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) became especially important as astronauts learned more generic “expeditionary behavior” for long-duration missions, he said, rather than focusing on a few small specific skills. The newer shift in astronaut training, he added, is getting ready for the proliferation of new spacecraft — including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner and NASA’s Orion spacecraft. This will add on to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that currently ferries astronauts to space. “There is the potential for four different vehicles you have to figure out how to fly,” Arnold said, “and it’ll be interesting to see what the training team does with the next class of astronauts that will come on.” The skillset will change even further when private astronauts come on board the ISS or work on other spacecraft, said Michael López-Alegría, who flew three space shuttle missions and the long-duration Expedition 14 in the 1990s and 2000s. “We’re entering a new realm where you don’t have to be a professional astronaut to fly to space; it’s the era of democratizing that access,” López-Alegría said. “It’s very difficult right now, because the seats are few. And as a result, they’re quite expensive to go. But I’m quite confident that these prices will come down, just like [for aviation] in the 1920s and 1930s. Commercial aviation was only something that was reachable by the very, very wealthy.”