Space Sunday: stations, Ceres, doubts and rockets

Tiangong-2, with one of the two docking ports visible. Credit: China News

China may be preparing to de-orbit its Tiangong-2 orbital laboratory, possibly to avoid a situation similar to that relating to the so-called “uncontrolled” re-entry of their Tiangong-1 facility, which re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke-up / burnt-up in April 2018.

Orbital information published by the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command, through the Joint Space Operations Centre, indicates that Tiangong-2 has moved from an altitude of around 380 by 386 km down to 292 by 297 km.

No official announcement regarding the status of the Tiangong-2 space lab has been made by the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSE), however, China has made no secret of its plans to establish a permanent orbital presence over the Earth in the 2020s – and that to do so, they would discontinue operations with both Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2. and de-orbit both.

Measuring 10.4 metres in length and some 3.3 metres in maximum diameter, Tiangong-2 weighs 8.6 metric tonnes – making it the same overall size and weight as Tiangong-1, launched in 2011. The re-entry of that unit came after a series of alarmist headlines claiming it would “crash” to Earth after it was reported the Chinese only had partial control over it. Because of that tabloid farrago, some have speculated the alteration in Tiangong-2’s orbit is to allow China to retain full control over the facility, including when it re-enters the atmosphere.

Jing Haipeng (l) and Chen dong (r) aboard Tiangong-2. The only crew to visit the facility Credit: CCTV

Launched in September 2016, Tiangong-2 hosted a single crewed visit that same year, which lasted 30 days. In 2017 served as a test-bed for verifying on-orbit automated docking and refuelling capabilities  – two aspects of operations vital to the Chinese ambitions of developing their large-scale space station – using the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft.

Tiangong-2 carried a range of science payloads, including POLAR, a gamma-ray burst detector developed by an international collaboration including Swiss, Chinese and Polish institutes. According to principal investigator Nicolas Produit, this astro-particle experiment collected excellent data during six months of operations, with science results to be published shortly. It is the kind of international collaborative effort China would like to develop with its new station.

Artist’s impression of the planned Chinese space station complex. Credit: CCTV

China is aiming to launch the first module of the space station proper, named Tianhe, around 2020. This mission first requires the nominal return-to-flight of the heavy lift Long March 5 launch vehicle, which suffered a launch failure in July 2017. When completed, the space station will mass between 60 and 100 metric tonnes, including two experiment modules due for launch in 2022. It will be capable of hosting three astronauts in rotations of up to six months at a time. A further element of the station will be a free-flying Hubble-class space telescope capable of docking with the station to receive propellants and undergo maintenance and repairs.

More on Ceres and the Building Blocks of Life

In February 2017, I wrote about the discovery of the basic building blocks of life on Ceres, which has been the subject of the joint NASA / ESA Dawn mission since March 2015.

The discovery of aliphatic compounds on the surface of Ceres was made by an international team of scientists who had been reviewing data from the Visible and Infra-red Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) aboard the spacecraft. Now, a new study conducted by a team of researchers from Brown University suggests that these patches contain more organic material than previously thought.

Dawn spacecraft data show a region around the Ernutet crater where organic concentrations have been discovered (labelled “a” through “f”). The colour coding shows the strength of the organics absorption band, with warmer colours indicating the highest concentrations. Credit: NASA/JPL / UCLA / ASI / INAF / MPS / DLR / IDA

Aliphatics are a type of compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and chlorine – all of which are necessary for the evolution of life. This doesn’t actually mean that Ceres supports life, because these molecules can also arise from non-biological processes. Nevertheless, the presence of these compounds does raise the questions.

The team behind original discovery of the aliphatics, found within a 1000 km² region around of the Ernutet crater, concluded that between 6 and 10% of the spectral signature detected on Ceres could be explained by organic matter. As hydrothermal activity had been detected on Ceres, the researchers hypothesised that the molecules were endogenous in origin – that is, they came from inside the protoplanet. Given that ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts have also been detected on Ceres, there is the suggestion that it may have an interior environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.

Dawn mission (NASA / JPL) – click for full size

However, rather than relying on Earth rocks on which to base their work and findings, the team from Brown University used carbonaceous chondrite meteors, which have been shown to contain organic material that is slightly different from what we are familiar with here on Earth. As a result, they determined that the organics found on Ceres were distinct from their terrestrial counterparts – and the up to 40 to 50% of the spectral signal we see on Ceres is explained by organics – far more than originally estimated.

If this latter estimate is correct, it raises the question about where it came from – 40% is a lot for the compound to be entirely endogenous in origin. Rather, the high concentrations seem to be more consistent with being deposited by a comet impact.

Given that the asteroid belt is composed of material left over from the formation of the Solar System,  determining where these organics came from could shed light on how organic molecules were distributed throughout the Solar System early in its history, and the role this distribution may have played in the development of life here in Earth.

If, however, the compound deposits are endogenous in origin, there is still the question of what mechanisms were / are in play to result in such high concentrations emerged in Ceres’ northern hemisphere, and then preserve them in these locations. This is a question unlikely to be answered without follow-up missions able to obtain and analyse samples gathered from the surface of the protoplanet.

Former Astronauts Critical of Lunar Gateway and Lack of Vision

A former NASA astronaut used an appearance at a National Space Council meeting on June 18th, 2018, to argue that a key element of NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon should be reconsidered.

Former astronaut Terry Virts: critical of LOP-G

Appearing on a panel during the meeting at the White House, Terry Virts (STS-130, Soyuz TMA-15M) said that the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), a human-tended facility in an extended  lunar orbit,  isn’t an effective next step in human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit after the International Space Station.

Virts’ comments came after NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the Gateway played an essential role in developing a long-term, sustainable human presence at the Moon.

It essentially calls for building another orbital space station, a skill my colleagues and I have already demonstrated on the ISS. Gateway will only slow us down, taking time and precious dollars away from the goal of returning to the lunar surface and eventually flying to Mars. Now is the time to establish a program that will fill the role of Gemini, developing and testing the technologies that we will need to return to the lunar surface. Unfortunately, the recently proposed Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway does not fill that role of Gemini.

Former astronaut Terry Virts

The former astronaut is not alone in voicing reservations about the US plans to place a facility in an extended orbit around the Moon. As I’ve previously reported, respected aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin has spoken out against the idea, and he and Virts are not alone.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot believes the Lunar Orbit platform-Gateway (LOP-G, formerly the Deep Space Gateway) could be build and operating by 2024 as a cost of around US $3 billion. Really? Credit; NASA

While not directly mentioning the proposed Gateway, another former astronaut was also critical of the lack of forward momentum in America’s space endeavours.

I’m frustrated with our national failure to commit to a sustained, bold exploration beyond Earth orbit. Sadly, we could probably stack up all the NASA studies that have been done over the years on NASA’s next steps into space and attain lunar orbit.

Former astronaut Scott Parazynski

The panel of former astronauts – which included Eileen Collins – also offered some more general advice, including the importance of international and commercial partnerships, seeking bipartisan support to ensure the long-term viability of NASA’s exploration plan, and more outreach to the public.

The panel was one of two brought together to provide input on NASA’s implementation of Space Policy Directive 1, which directs the agency to return humans to the Moon.

SpaceX Wins Military Contract for Falcon Heavy

The US Air Force has awarded SpaceX a US $130 million contract for the launch of the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-52 satellite. It is the first major military launch contract the company has secured for its Falcon Heavy rocket, and the announcement comes ahead of the Falcon Heavy’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle certification flight, now expected to occur in October 2018, after being pushed back from a targeted June 2018 launch.

In securing the contract, SpaceX beat out United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint Boeing / Lockheed owned company which has – until recently – handled all of the US government’s military launches using their Delta and Alta launch vehicles. ULA had bid to launch AFSPC-52 using the Delta IV – but at cost to the US taxpayer of US $350 million – almost three times the price supplied by SpaceX.

Three cores, 27 Merlin engines, 5 million pounds of thrust, the equivalent of 18 747 airliners running their engines at full throttle. A remarkable shot of the Falcon Heavy at lift-off on its maiden flight, February 6th, 2018. Credit: R. Chylinski / Spaceflight Insider

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles announced the contract award on Thursday, June 21st. SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson said this was “another opportunity to foster competition on the EELV program in an effort to reduce launch costs while maintaining assured access to space.”

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement that the company is “honoured by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively awarded AFSPC-52 mission.” She said the contract award indicates the military’s “trust and confidence” in the company. If all goes according to plan, a Falcon Heavy will launch the satellite in 2020.

Blue Origin to Commence Selling Space Tourism Tickets

The New Shephard sub-orbital launch vehicle being prepared for its April 29th, 2018 test flight. Credit: Blue Origin / CBS

Blue Origin, the company established by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has announced it expects to start flying people on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle “soon” with tickets for flights going on sale from 2019.

“We plan to start flying our first test passengers soon,” Blue Origin Senior Vice President Rob Meyerson said at the Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit, after showing a video of a previous New Shepard flight at the company’s West Texas test site. All of the New Shepard flights to date have been without people on board, but the company has said in the past it would fly its personnel on the vehicle in later tests.

No details on seat prices have been released, but the announcement that tickets would be going on sale was accompanied by a video showing people on a New Shepard suborbital flight. The approach taken by Blue Origin is in sharp contrast to that of Virgin Galactic, which has been offering tickets to fly aboard its sub-orbital space planes for a number of years, and has secured around 700 sales or deposits on seats.

New Shepard has flown in an uncrewed mode eight times so far, the most recent occurring on April 29th, 2018. The company plan to start crewed text flights in the near future, but no dates for when these might start have been made public.

“We continue to be head down on making sure the configuration is good and stable and ready to fly,” Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said following the last test flight. “Once we all feel confident that that’s the case, then we’ll have the conversation internally about what prices are and what that whole process looks like.”

The next New Shepherd test flight will likely be this summer.