Rocket Lab ready to attempt Electron booster recovery

Rocket Lab says it’s on track to test recovering an Electron booster later this year as it also improves the payload performance of the small launch vehicle. Rocket Lab announced last week it completed drop tests of a dummy Electron first stage at its New Zealand launch site, demonstrating that its parachute would deploy as expected and slow the booster after re-entry. “We basically simulated the highest load case, where we drop a fully weighted dummy stage out of the sky and accelerate it to the highest load point and then pop the canopy,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said during a company webcast Aug. 5 held during the 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference. Beck said that was the “final test” of the overall recovery system for the Electron first stage, part of an effort the company announced one year earlier to recover and reuse the boosters. Rocket Lab tested on earlier launches the ability of the stage to perform a controlled re-entry, as well as using a helicopter to catch the stage as it descends under a parachute.

With the tests complete, Beck said Rocket Lab intends to make its first effort to recover a first stage on an upcoming launch, known as Flight 17 and expected to take place later this year. “That is really the final signoff before we’re ready to go fly Flight 17,” he said. “Flight 17 is sitting in the hangar.”

Beck said Rocket Lab won’t attempt to catch the stage in mid-air on the Flight 17 mission, focusing instead on simply recovering the booster from the ocean. “We’ll fish it out of the ocean, bring it back, put it in the factory and then we’ll really see what we’ve got,” he said. “That will determine how much work we have ahead of us.” Rocket Lab said last year it decided to pursue reusability in order to increase its launch rate without having to make major investments in increased booster production.

This giant crater on Ceres with bright spots may be the most fascinating place in the solar system

For a few months in 2018, as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft used up its last drops of fuel, it gave scientists an incredibly detailed look at one of the strangest places in the solar system: Occator Crater. That’s the name of a massive impact site on the dwarf planet Ceres, tucked away in the asteroid belt. In the mission’s last months, Dawn flew just 22 miles (35 kilometres) above the dwarf planet’s surface and focused its energies on Occator Crater. Earlier observations from the mission had suggested that some sort of geological activity was bringing saltwater to the surface, and scientists wanted a closer look.

Now, initial analysis of those final months of science suggest that Ceres may have been active much more recently than scientists had dared to imagine, according to an article summarizing seven different research papers published on August 10 in the journals Nature Communications, Nature Geoscience and Nature Astronomy. “Dawn accomplished far more than we hoped when it embarked on its extraordinary extra-terrestrial expedition,” Mission Director Marc Rayman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said in a NASA statement. “These exciting new discoveries from the end of its long and productive mission are a wonderful tribute to this remarkable interplanetary explorer.”

The new research papers focus on a host of different intriguing findings about Occator Crater, which is about 22 million years old and about 57 miles across (92 km), as well as about Ceres more generally. Although Dawn’s final months revolutionized scientists’ view of the dwarf planet and its large crater, the new research doesn’t satisfy curiosity about this ocean world asteroid and may lay the groundwork for a new mission to Ceres, according to an overview paper released with the new findings.

Pentagon picks SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to remain its primary launch providers

The U.S. Department of the Air Force announced that incumbents United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX have been selected to receive five-year contracts totalling $653 million to launch national security satellites for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The companies beat Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman in the four-way competition known as the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement.

Between 2022 and 2027 SpaceX and ULA will collectively fly as many as 34 missions for the Department of Defense and the National Reconnaissance Office under the firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery contracts. In Phase 2 ULA will get 60 percent of the missions, and SpaceX will get 40 percent. The Air Force will assign specific rockets on a yearly basis depending on the required missions. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters.

Roper said the Phase 2 awards mark a pivotal point in the transition of the national security launch program to take advantage of commercial innovation and private investments in launch vehicles. “Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department of Defense off Russian RD-180 engines,” he said. The shift to new launch vehicles also is compelled by a legislative mandate to end the Pentagon’s reliance on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket which has the Russian RD-180 as its main engine. By law, Department of Defense will not be allowed to buy Atlas 5 launches after Dec. 31, 2022.

Signs of ‘missing’ neutron star found in heart of supernova

Evidence of a neutron star hidden deep inside Supernova 1987A is helping astronomers solve a 33-year-old mystery surrounding one of the brightest star explosions ever observed. On Feb. 23, 1987, astronomers witnessed an incredibly bright stellar explosion, also known as a supernova. Using the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA), researchers believe they have found that explosion’s remnants, a super dense corpse called a neutron star, hiding within the dust of the supernova. High-resolution ALMA images revealed what researchers described as a hot “blob” that is brighter than its surroundings and located at the supernova’s dusty core. If confirmed, this neutron star would be the youngest known to date, according to a statement. “We were very surprised to see this warm blob made by a thick cloud of dust in the supernova remnant,” Mikako Matsuura, an astronomer at Cardiff University and one of the researchers who spotted the blob, said in the statement. “There has to be something in the cloud that has heated up the dust and which makes it shine. That’s why we suggested that there is a neutron star hiding inside the dust cloud.”

Their findings were published in November 2019, in The Astrophysical Journal. At the time, however, the researchers could not definitively say what the glowing blob was, as it was believed to be too bright to be a neutron star. A new paper offers an explanation for that brightness in a neutron star: the glowing blob is consistent with thermal emission from a very young neutron star that is still really hot from the supernova explosion, according to the statement. The researchers estimate the temperature of the 15.5 mile (25 kilometre) wide neutron star is approximately 9 million degrees Fahrenheit (5 million degrees Celsius), which provides enough energy to explain the blob’s brightness. The study also suggests the neutron star is located off-centre, as researchers expect, due to the powerful stellar blast.

SpaceX’s Starship SN5 prototype soars on 1st test flight!

SpaceX just flew a full-size prototype of its Starship Mars-colonizing spacecraft for the first time ever. The short hop could end up being a big leap toward Mars. ‘Mars is looking real,’ Elon Musk says.

The Starship SN5 test vehicle took to the skies for about 40 seconds this afternoon (Aug. 4) at SpaceX’s facilities near the South Texas village of Boca Chica, performing a small hop that could end up being a big step toward human exploration of the Red Planet. The stainless-steel SN5 rose into the air at 7:57 p.m. EDT (2357 GMT; 6:57 p.m. local Texas time). It travelled sideways a bit during the brief, uncrewed flight, which Musk had previously said would target a maximum altitude of about 500 feet (150 meters). The spacecraft deployed its landing legs as planned and stuck the landing. The SN5 is just the second Starship prototype to get off the ground, and the first to do so in nearly a year. A squat and stubby vehicle called Starhopper took a few brief flights in the summer of 2019, retiring after acing its own 500-foot-high hop that August.

Ending this flight lull fell to the SN5 after several of its predecessors were destroyed during pressurization or engine-firing tests. Starhopper and the SN5 both feature a single Raptor, SpaceX’s powerful next-generation engine. The final Starship vehicle will sport six Raptors, stand about 165 feet (50 m) tall and be capable of carrying up to 100 people, Musk has said. The operational Starship will launch from Earth atop a gigantic rocket called Super Heavy, which will have 31 Raptors of its own. Both vehicles will be fully and rapidly reusable, potentially slashing the cost of spaceflight enough to make crewed trips to and from the moon, Mars and other deep-space destinations economically feasible, Musk has said. Super Heavy will land back on Earth after each lift-off; Starship will be powerful enough on its own to get itself off Mars and the moon, both of which have much weaker gravitational pulls than our planet does.

Virgin Galactic delays SpaceShipTwo commercial flights to 2021

Virgin Galactic has pushed the beginning of commercial flights of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle to no earlier than the first quarter of 2021 while announcing plans to sell additional stock to raise money. The company, in its fiscal second quarter financial results released Aug. 3, said it expected to perform two more test flights of SpaceShipTwo from Spaceport America in New Mexico, both of which will be powered flights. The vehicle has made two glide flights since moving to the spaceport early this year.

The first of those powered flights, scheduled for the fall, will have two pilots on board. It will also carry payloads for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program that arranges flights of experiments on suborbital vehicles, said George Whitesides, chief space officer and former chief executive of Virgin Galactic, in a company earnings call. If that flight goes as expected, Virgin Galactic will then perform a second flight, this time with four mission specialists on board along with the two pilots. Those mission specialists “will evaluate the performance of our full customer cabin and associated hardware,” he said.

“Presuming things go as expected on this fully-crewed flight, we would then plan to fly Sir Richard Branson on the third powered flight from New Mexico,” he said. That flight would take place in the first quarter of 2021 and mark the beginning of commercial service, although Whitesides said it will also be a test flight of sorts. “Sir Richard is in a unique position to provide the ultimate cabin and spaceflight experience evaluation, as a visionary of the Virgin customer experience.”

Rocket Lab to resume Electron launches in August

Rocket Lab has received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to resume launches this month, after identifying an anomalous electrical connection as the cause of an in-flight failure on July 4, 2020. With corrective measures underway, the next Electron launch has been scheduled for August from Launch Complex 1. Over the past month, Rocket Lab has collaborated on an investigation with the support of the FAA, the primary federal licensing body for commercial space launch activity. Rocket Lab’s Accident Investigation Board (AIB) worked through an extensive fault tree analysis to examine all potential causes for the anomaly that took place late into Rocket Lab’s 13th launch.

On July 4, 2020, the Electron launch vehicle successfully lifted-off from Launch Complex 1 and proceeded through a nominal first stage engine burn, Stage 1-2 separation, Stage 2 ignition, and fairing jettison as planned. Several minutes into the second stage burn, the engine performed a safe shutdown resulting in a failure to reach orbit. Due to the controlled way the engine shut down, Rocket Lab continued to receive telemetry from the vehicle, providing engineers with extensive data to conduct a robust investigation into the issue.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO stated that the Rocket Lab team is immensely grateful for the continued support of their customers and the FAA as the company worked meticulously through the flight investigation. “It’s a testament to Electron’s track record of reliability that the FAA has approved us for return to flight already. Electron was the 4th most frequently launched rocket in the world last year and prior to the anomaly we had deployed 53 customer payloads to orbit without fail. Returning to the pad with an even more reliable vehicle for our mission partners is our top priority.”

Rocket Lab is now set to return to the pad in August to launch a dedicated mission from Launch Complex 1 Pad A on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. Specific details of the launch window will be provided. Read the full story for details of the investigation.

SpaceX Crew Dragon makes historic 1st splashdown to return NASA astronauts home

SpaceX’s first astronaut mission for NASA is in the books. A Crew Dragon capsule carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley splashed down off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, at 2:48 p.m. EDT (1848 GMT) August 2, bringing an end to SpaceX’s historic Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station. “Welcome back to planet Earth,” SpaceX’s mission control radioed the two astronauts aboard the capsule, which is named Endeavour. “Thanks for flying SpaceX.”

“It was truly our honor and privilege,” Hurley radioed back. Just hours earlier, while still in space, Hurley said the experience is one he won’t soon forget. “It’s hard to put into words just what it was like to be a part of this expedition — Expedition 63,” Hurley said during a farewell ceremony aboard the space station on Saturday (Aug. 1), the day Endeavour undocked and began its journey home. “It’ll be kind of a memory that will last a lifetime for me.”

The SpaceX recovery ship GO Navigator met Endeavour and hoisted the capsule aboard shortly after splashdown. After a series of checkouts, recovery teams opened Endeavour’s hatch at 3:59 p.m. EDT (1959 GMT) and extracted the two astronauts about 10 minutes later. Medical personnel can now begin assessing Behnken and Hurley, making sure the two spaceflyers are in good shape after their journey home from orbit. We haven’t seen such activity at sea for more than four decades. The most recent crewed ocean return occurred in July 1975, when NASA astronauts Tom Stafford, Vance Brand and Deke Slayton wrapped up the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project by splashing down in the middle of the Pacific.

The First UK Mission to the Moon

Learn about Spacebit Mission One: the United Kingdom’s first moon rover launch scheduled for 2021. The rover they are planning to send to the moon will be the world’s first walking rover. Asagumo rover is built on a single-unit CubeSat frame that is usually used for tiny satellites. Moon rover weighs just 1.3 kilogrammes, is solar-powered and instead of wheels or tracks, is equipped with four arachnid-like legs. The mission will be launched by the first ULA Vulcan mission in Q3 2021. The walking rover will be delivered to the Moon by Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander spacecraft. During the first demo mission the walking rover will move 10 meters from the Peregrine lander and send Full HD video plus 3D LIDAR data from its onboard sensors. It will be a flight of firsts — the first mission for both Peregrine and its rocket, United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur; the first trip to the moon’s surface by a UK-built craft; and the first time a legged robot has explored another world.

Working in partnership with Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, Spacebit is also building a new ecosystem for ground based elements in space missions, including radio communications, ground networks and eventually components of mission control and they will be utilising Goonhilly’s existing network of over 60 dishes to run our pilot projects.

Thomas Pesquet named as the first ESA astronaut to ride a Dragon to space

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet has officially been assigned to the second operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, launching in spring 2021 from Cape Canaveral, USA, to the International Space Station. Thomas’ second mission to the International Space Station will be called Alpha. This is after Alpha Centauri, the closest stellar system to Earth, following the French tradition to name space missions after stars or constellations.

“I am thrilled to be the first European to fly on the new generation of US crewed spacecraft,” says Thomas. “It will be extra interesting for me to compare with my first flight as a Soyuz pilot, and to bring this experience to the team. The Dragon spacecraft is a modern machine with amazing new capabilities. On the other hand, the Soyuz has an unbelievable track record which enabled us to reach the International Space Station for many years. It is a privilege to fly on both.”

Virgin Galactic unveils sleek interior of SpaceShipTwo spaceliner

We now know what Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceliner looks like, inside and out: SpaceShipTwo passengers will ride in style. The company, part of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, revealed the cabin interior of the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, which is designed to carry people and payloads to suborbital space and back. “When we created Virgin Galactic, we started with what we believed would be an optimal customer experience and then built the spaceship around it,” Branson said in a statement today. “We will continue with that ethos as we expand our fleet, build our operations and underpin Virgin Galactic’s position as the spaceline for Earth,” he said. “This cabin has been designed specifically to allow thousands of people like you and me to achieve the dream of spaceflight safely — and that is incredibly exciting.”

The six seats can recline, a feature that SpaceShipTwo’s two pilots will manage to minimize g-forces on passengers during the boost and re-entry phases of each suborbital flight. Every seat boasts a screen that will display flight data, and passengers will have personal communications systems that give them access to the pilots, Virgin Galactic representatives said. SpaceShipTwo is hauled aloft by a big plane called WhiteKnightTwo, which drops the spacecraft at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). SpaceShipTwo’s onboard rocket motor then kicks on, blasting the vehicle up to suborbital space. Passengers will get to see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness before they come back home for a runway landing. The cabin is designed to accentuate this dramatic and (for most people) once-in-a-lifetime experience, company personnel said.

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will use some of the best Martian maps ever made

NASA’s next Mars rover, Perseverance, will explore the Red Planet with the aid of some of the most precise Martian maps ever created. The rover will be able to identify and avoid hazards during its harrowing touchdown. Perseverance, the centrepiece of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, is scheduled to launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday morning (July 30). If all goes according to plan, the car-sized rover will touch down inside Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. The 28-mile-wide (45 kilometres) Jezero hosted a lake and a river delta in the ancient past, making it an ideal destination for the life-hunting, sample-caching Perseverance. Ideal scientifically, anyway. The crater is covered in rough and rugged terrain, especially in the delta region so enticing to mission researchers, posing a challenge for the engineers tasked with getting the six-wheeled robot down safely.

Mars 2020 will meet that challenge with the help of several new technologies. One of the most important is Terrain-Relative Navigation (TRN), which will allow the mission’s sky-crane descent stage to assess the Jezero landscape for hazards during its landing approach and change course autonomously if need be. That’s where the ground-breaking cartography comes in. Mars 2020 will take advantage of two maps that United States Geological Survey (USGS) researchers created using imagery captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mars 2020 will snap photos of the Jezero landscape as it descends through the Red Planet sky next February. Its onboard TRN system will then compare this imagery to the precisely aligned maps, in a manner similar to that employed by facial-recognition software. “It can then identify, ‘Are we going to be landing on a red pixel?’ and, if we are, fire its retrorockets and navigate to the closest green pixel possible,” Robin Fergason, a research geophysicist at the USGS’ Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, told “If we didn’t have Terrain-Relative Navigation, the probability of landing safely at Jezero Crater is about 80 to 85%. But with Mars 2020, we can actually bring that probability of success of landing safely at Jezero Crater all the way up to 99% safe every single time,” Mars 2020 guidance and control engineer Swati Mohan, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a 2019 NASA video about TRN. (JPL built Perseverance, developed its TRN system and will manage mission operations on the Red Planet).

NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance launches this week if all goes according to plan

The car-sized Perseverance rover, the centrepiece of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, is scheduled to launch Thursday (July 30) during a two-hour window that opens at 7:50 a.m. EDT (1150 GMT). The spacecraft will lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Mission team members have some wiggle room if technical issues or bad weather scuttle the Thursday attempt. Mars 2020 can still make its way to the Red Planet as long as it launches by Aug. 15, NASA officials have said. After that, the mission would have to wait 26 months, until Mars and Earth are properly aligned again for interplanetary journeys.

Mars 2020 will be the third and final mission to launch toward the Red Planet during this year’s window. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter and China’s ambitious Tianwen-1 mission launched on July 19 and July 23, respectively. A fourth spacecraft, the European-Russian ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin, was supposed to join the launch party this summer. But that mission suffered technical issues that could not be fixed in time and now must wait until 2022.

Read the full story to see the schedule of daily press conferences and briefings leading up to the launch and find out how you can watch the spaceflight live.

Southern Launch prepares for spaceflight in South Australia

The development of small-satellite technologies (SmallSats) has ushered in an era of dynamic and responsive space systems. Hundreds, and soon thousands, of these small platforms will be launched into Low Earth Orbits (LEO) every year. LEO are ideal for Earth-Observation missions and other near-earth activities, including internet with global coverage. Approximately half of these SmallSats are projected to be launched into polar orbits, with the other half orbiting around the equator. According to recent estimates by an SSTL study, close to 1000 SmallSats will be launched annually from 2025 onwards. These satellites will be inserted into new and existing LEO constellations, offering innovative services to the world, while actively limiting the proliferation of space debris in orbits. SmallSats in LEO remain there for less than 3 years before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Historically, launch sites have been constructed closer to the equator to support large satellites launches into equatorial orbit. However, direct launch to polar orbit is achieved most efficiently from launch sites nearer the poles, which have minimal interference from aviation and maritime traffic. Southern Launch, founded in 2017, is developing a multi-user launch complex at the tip of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, offering a turn-key launch service solution to polar and sun-synchronous orbit. In addition to providing the complete launch infrastructure, Southern Launch has the ability to undertake flight and range safety, vehicle design, and avionics, while assisting with launch permitting and other support services. The year-round temperate weather, coupled with the skilled local workforce and a robust logistics supply network, enables a launch site that offers high-cadence launch operations at cost-competitive prices.