Space Sunday: China’s ambitions, Dawn’s success and Kepler’s return

China's space station, as it should look in 2022 (credit: China Manned Space Engineering)

China’s space station, as it should look in 2022 (credit: China Manned Space Engineering)

China has confirmed a series of ambitious new goals for its growing space endeavours, starting with the launch later this year of a new orbital facility, and progressing through 2018 with the launch of the core module for a large-scale space station, and which includes further mission to the Moon and to Mars.

The first orbital facility launched by China, Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace-1”), was launched in 2011. Referred to as a “space station”, the unit was more a demonstration test-bed for orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. While it was visited by two crews in 2012 and 2013, neither stayed longer than 14 days, and sinc 2013,  Tiangong-1 has operated autonomously, although it has suffered a series of telemetry failures in that time.

A model of Tiangong-2, which will be 14.4 metres (47 ft) in length, 4.2 metres (14 ft) in diameter and mass 20 tonnes, seen docked with a crewed Shenzhou ("Divine Craft") orbital vehicle on the left (Credit: unknown originating source)

A model of Tiangong-2, which will be 14.4 metres (47 ft) in length, 4.2 metres (14 ft) in diameter and mass 20 tonnes – almost 3 times the mass of the Tiangong-1 unit, seen docked with a crewed Shenzhou (“Divine Craft”) orbital vehicle on the left (Credit: unknown originating source)

Tiangong-2 will be launched later in 2016, and is designed to build on the experiences gained with the original facility, helping to pave the way for China’s first “genuine” space station. In particular, Tiangong-2 will provide an experiments bay, improved living facilities for longer-during stays, and allow China to verify key technologies such as propellant refuelling while in orbit, and undertake fully automated docking activities using uncrewed vehicles, when the nation’s first automated resupply vehicle, Tianzhou-1 (“Heavenly Vessel-1”) docks with the facility in 2017.

Tiangong-2 will be followed, in 2018 by the launch of the larger Tianhe-1 (“Sky River-1”) unit, which will form the core module for China’s first dedicated space station. Over the four years from 2018, this will grow with the addition of up to three other pressurised modules,  together with a docked “Hubble-class” space telescope. It be supported and maintained by automated re-supply mission from Earth using the Tianzhou, and provide living and working space for up to 6 crew,

A prototype model of the propsed Mars rover China plans to launch in 2020 as part of a 3-phase mission involved an orbiter / carrier vehicle, a static lander and the rover (credit:

A prototype model of the proposed Mars rover China plans to launch in 2020 as part of a 3-phase mission involved an orbiter / carrier vehicle, a static lander and the rover (credit: China National Space Administration)

Nor does it end there. At the end of March, I wrote about China’s aggressive approach to Mars exploration.

As a part of the series of announcements made by the Chinese authorities in the run-up to their first national Space Day on April 24th, 2016 – being the anniversary of the launch of China’s first satellite, Dongfanghong-1 (‘The East is Red’) – it was confirmed that the planned orbiter / rover mission to the red planet will be launched in 2020.

The rover element of the mission will build on experience gained during the deployment and operation of the Yutu vehicle on the Moon in 2013, and will be used to investigate the planet’s soil, atmosphere, environment, and look for traces of water.

As part of the preparations for this mission – although it is also a mission in its own right – China plans to land the its Chang’e-4 (“Moon Goddess”) probe, on the far side of the Moon in 2017, an operation which will be carried out fully autonomously of Earthside intervention.

To ensure all this happens, China is developing two new launch vehicle – the Long March 5 and the Long March 7. The Long March 5 will form the backbone of China’s space activities, offering a family of 6 launch vehicle variants, the largest of which will be capable of placing up to 25 tonnes in low Earth orbit (LEO), 14 tonnes in geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) for missions to the Moon, Mars or elsewhere, putting it in the same class of launch vehicles as America’s Atlas V and Delta IV launchers, and the commercial SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher.

Using non-toxic and pollution-free propellant, the 60-metre-long vehicle has a core diameter of 5 metres, and will be equipped with four strap-on booster 3.5 metres in diameter, Long March 5 is the first of China’s launch vehicles to specifically designed for both cargo / satellite launches and crewed mission launches.  The maiden flight of the vehicle is expected to be the Chang’e-4 mission to the far side of the Moon.

China's Long March 5 (l) and Long March 7 (r) next generation launch vehicles

China’s Long March 5 (l) and Long March 7 (r) next generation launch vehicles (credit: Sina Weibo)

The Long March 7 vehicle will be slightly smaller, capable of lifting 13.5 tonnes to LEO, although this will be enhanced over time to allow the vehicle to lift up to 20 tonnes to LEO. It will form the launch vehicle for the  Tianzhou resupply missions to Tiangong-2 and Tianhe-1, and over time will be uprated to crewed launch vehicle status. It is slightly smaller than the Long March 5, with a height of 53 metres, a core diameter of 3.35 metres, and used 4 2.25 metre diameter liquid-fuelled strap-on boosters. The first launch of a Long March 7 vehicle is expected later in 2016, when it lifts Tianzhou-1 for a rendezvous with Tiangong-2.

Dawn Reveals More of Ceres’ Mysteries

Now in orbit for just over a year at dwarf planet Ceres, NASA’s Dawn mission continues to astound with new discoveries, particularly now the craft is in its lowest, and final, mapping orbit.

On Tuesday, April 19th, the science team released stunning news images of the Haulani craters, revealing landslides and mysterious slumps which again suggest that Ceres – the largest asteroid in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter – is, or has been, a surprisingly active place.

An enhanced colour view Haulani Crater on Ceres (credit: NASA / JPL / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

An enhanced colour view Haulani Crater on Ceres (credit: NASA / JPL / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

The image shows the crater in enhanced colour, revealing evidence of landslides emanating from its rim, the bluish colour indicating the material in the landslides is relatively young when compared to the surrounding surface material. Smooth material and a central ridge stand out on the crater floor, the smooth material resembling the bright deposits found in other craters on the protoplanet, notable Occator carater.

Haulani Crater has a diameter of 34 km (21 mi) and was mostly likely formed by an object striking Ceres in – geologically speaking – the recent past. The crater is also of interest because, rather than having rounded sides, as with craters found elsewhere n the solar system, it exhibits a distinctly polygonal shape, evidence that the impact fractured the surface along pre-existing subsurface stress lines and faults.

launched in 2007, Dawn has been a remarkably successful mission. After getting assistance from Earth’s gravity, the craft flew on to a rendezvous with  Vesta, the second largest protoplanet in the asteroid belt. It arrived at Vesta in 2011 and spent 14 months gathering images and data, before gradually moving to intercept Ceres, where it arrived in March 2015.

In fact, so successful has the mission been, including being able to retain more Xeon gas for its ion propulsion system than had been thought would be the case by this point in the mission, the science team have applied for a mission extension so that a further asteroid belt target can be studied.

It’s not clear if the extension will be granted, but if so, it will be a sterling endorsement in the use of low-power, but highly efficient ion drive systems, and further justify the development of the more powerful next generation of such propulsion systems, referred to as the Advanced Electric Propulsion System (AEPS), and which is seen as key to a number of deep space missions – including being used in support of human missions to Mars.

Kepler Back in Action

Kpler: back in operation and commencing a new science mission

Kepler: back in operation and commencing a new science mission

NASA’s Kepler space telescope has recovered fully from it’s recent issues (see my last two reports here and here), and is once again scanning the heavens for exoplanets once again.

The final phase of work to bring the observatory, orbiting the Sun at a distance of roughly 121 million kilometres (75 million miles) “behind” Earth and which went into an emergency mode in early April, commenced on Tuesday, April 19th and was completed on Friday, April 22nd.

“The spacecraft is now ready for science operations, officially starting K2’s new gravitational microlensing campaign, known as Campaign 9 or C9,” Kepler mission manager Charlie Sobeck, of NASA’s Ames Research Centre, California, announced once it had been confirmed all systems on the observatory were in a nominal state.

However, what caused the initial emergency, which saw Kepler shut down all but the most essential of its systems and put in a call for help to Earth, remains unclear. The mission team hope that by cycling all of the observatory’s systems and sub-systems off and then bringing them back on-line one at a time has cleared whatever the underpinning reason for the initial shut-down.

An artistic concept demonstrating gravitational microlensing. As an exoplanet passes in front of a more distant star, its gravity causes the trajectory of the starlight to bend, and in some cases results in a brief brightening of the background star as seen by a telescope, enabling scientists to search for exoplanets that are too distant and dark to be detected any other way (Credit: NASA / JPL / T. Pyle)

An artistic concept demonstrating gravitational microlensing.
As an exoplanet passes in front of a more distant star, its gravity causes the trajectory of the starlight to bend, and in some cases results in a brief brightening of the background star as seen by a telescope, enabling scientists to search for exoplanets that are too distant and dark to be detected any other way (Credit: NASA / JPL / T. Pyle)

And what exactly is a “gravitational microlensing campaign”?

Well, as we know, the gravity of massive objects such as stars and planets produces a noticeable effect on other nearby objects. but this isn’t all. It also influences light, deflecting or warping, the direction of light that passes close to massive objects.

This bending effect can make gravity act as a lens, concentrating light from a distant object, just as a magnifying glass can focus the light from the sun. Scientists can take advantage of the warping effect by measuring the light of distant stars, looking for a brightening that might be caused by a massive object, such as a planet, that passes between a telescope and a distant background star. Such a detection could reveal an otherwise hidden exoplanet.

Congrats to Time Peake: The London Marathon in 100,000km!

British astronaut Major Time Peake completed the London Marathon on April 24th, 2016 – without ever setting foot on the course.

Still aboard the International Space Station, “Major Tim” ran the course tethered to a treadmill on the ISS, setting out at the same time as the other runners and able to watch their progress via an iPad strapped to the treadmill.

In 1999, he completed the marathon in 3 hours, 18 minutes and 50 seconds, and while he was not out to break that record – mission managers had warned him not to overtax himself – he still completed the 42km (26.2mi) distance in about three hours, 35 minutes according to the European Space Agency. As the ISS is orbiting the Earth at a relative velocity of 28,800km/h (17,900mph), he effectively covered around 100,000km (62,500mi) during his run!

Purple Nebula

NASA paid tribute to the passing of Prince by issuing an image of the stunning Crab Nebula, some 6,500 light years from Earth, coloured purple in the musician’s honour.

“A purple nebula, in honour of Prince, who passed away today,” NASA tweeted on Thursday, April 21st.

Recalling the iconic Purple Rain album, the image was a composite of those captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory.

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, shaped by the explosive death of a massive star, which burned bright and died young; so the tribute seems doubly appropriate: Prince’s star burned bright in the world of music, and he passed away whilst still relatively young.

Purple Nebula: NASA's Tribute to Prince

Purple Nebula: NASA’s Tribute to Prince

 

2 thoughts on “Space Sunday: China’s ambitions, Dawn’s success and Kepler’s return

  1. Willow

    I always look forward to your Space Sundays! For my Space Sunday I got nostalgic when I watch the Smithsonian’s documentary of the final flight of Discovery from the cape to Washington. So I started remembering what it was like when I started following the space program. I went to the parade in Washington celebrating Alan Shepard’s sub orbital flight. I also saw Apollo 17 turn night into day when it lifted off the pad in 1972. The US space program has almost shut down so I’m glad the Chinese are adding their involvement to that of the Europeans.

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