Space Sunday: Starliners, Martian “eclipses” and dates

The CST-100 Starliner: further delays, with the crewed test flight potentially being extended into an “operational” flight – something NASA discussed with Boeing in 2016. Credit: NASA / Boeing

Boeing has opted to delay the first launch of its CST-100 Starliner, designed to fly crews to and from the International Space Station. The uncrewed launch, referred to as the Orbital Flight Test, has been pushed back from April to August 2019, with the company citing a tight schedule and conflicts with another launch – that of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) 5 military communications satellite due in June 2019 – as the reasons for the delay.

The “tight schedule” meant that the launch would likely slip into May – but the AEHF-5 launch would mean that the Starliner would only have a 2-day launch window before its own Atlas 5 booster would have to be removed from the launch complex in order to make way for the classified military launch.

Our Starliner team continues to press toward a launch readiness date later this spring,” the company said, which also included the completion of a final set of testing milestones. In order to avoid unnecessary schedule pressure, not interfere with a critical national security payload, and allow appropriate schedule margin to ensure the Boeing, United Launch Alliance and NASA teams are able to perform a successful first launch of Starliner, we made the most responsible decision available to us and will be ready for the next launch pad availability in August.

– Boeing statement

The CST-100 due to make the first crewed flight, at Boeing’s CST-100 processing facility. Credit: Boeing

The delay means that the second test flight of the vehicle, due to fly a crew of two NASA astronauts, Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke, together with Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, to the International Space Station, will also be delayed. That flight had been due to take place no earlier than August, but Boeing now state it will take place “later in the year”, with industry experts suggesting it will not proceed any earlier than November 2019.

Following the announcement, NASA indicated that the crewed flight for Starliner will include an extended stay at the International Space Station, lasting several months (the extract length of the stay still to be determined). This extension will effectively allow NASA to turn the mission from a test flight into a crew rotation mission – an idea that had been first mooted in 2016. All three of the crew have been training for ISS operations, and the move could offset the need for an extended use of Soyuz vehicles. As it is, in February, 2019, NASA issued a procurement notice to purchase two additional Soyuz seats from the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, seats that the Russians didn’t plan to use for their own cosmonauts in order to help ease potential problems were either SpaceX or Boeing to encounter programme issues with their respective vehicles, the Crew Dragon and the CST-100.

While we have already made substantial progress this year, this shift gives us the time to continue building a safe, quality spacecraft capable of carrying crews over and over again after a successful uncrewed test, without adding unnecessary schedule pressure.

– John Mulholland, VP and Program Manager, Boeing CST-100 programme

Mars: of “Eclipses”, and Evidence of Ancient Life?

In March 2019, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity was able to record a “double eclipse” as the two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos passed between the rover and the Sun; although while the media referred to them as “eclipses”, such is the size differential between the tiny moons and the Sun, they are technically transits.

The first transit took place on March 17th when Deimos, the more distant of Mars’ two captured moons, passed across the face of the Sun, its passage recorded by Curiosity’s Mastcam. The second event took place on Mars 26th, when the much larger – and closer – Phobos (11.5 km across) passed in front of the Sun, again filmed by Curiosity’s Mastcam. This event was the more dramatic of the two, not only because of the larger apparent size of Phobos, but because the Moon actually cast a visible shadow, which was captured by the rover’s navigation cameras. Images of all of the events were subsequently strung together to make a short video (below).

However, movie making isn’t the primary objective in observing the transits. Each set of these types of observations – which have also been made by the now-defunct Mars Exploration Rovers, help scientists further refine each moon’s orbit of Mars. When observations of Deimos commenced from the surface of Mars, for example, estimates for where it should be were about 40 km off.

According to NASA, scientists are in agreement present-day Mars is without life. However, whether there might once have been life there is open to debate, and a team from Hungary believe they have found organic material embedded in a Martian meteorite found here on Earth in the late 1970s.

Officially named ALH-77005, the Martian meteorite was found in the Antarctica’s Allan Hills during the Japanese National Institute of Polar Research mission of 1977 / 78. If the reference “ALH” and “Allan Hills” sounds familiar, it might be due to a furore that occurred around another Martian meteorite fragment in the late 1990s.

ALH-84001 caused a lot of controversy – not helped by the media – in the late 1990s

That fragment – ALH-84001, found in Allan Hills in 1984 – is one of the oldest fragments of Mars rock to have fallen to Earth, being dated at 4 billion years of age. When studying the fragment, a US team thought it might contain evidence for microscopic fossils of Martian bacteria within it.

From the start, the claims were considered controversial – although the way the White House and the media over-reacted at the time didn’t help. However, extensive and international study of shavings from the fragment revealed that all of the unusual features discovered within the meteorite could be explained without requiring the intervention of microbial life, and the wider scientific community rejected the hypothesis that the fragment offered evidence of past life. Nevertheless, the events surrounding ALH-84001 pushed the science of astrobiology firmly into thee public domain.

In their report on ALH-77005, Hungarian scientists Ildiko Gyollai, Marta Polgari and Szaniszlo Berczi state they have been able to determine the presence of mineralised organic matter within the rock, such as different forms of bacteria within the meteorite, suggesting that life could once have existed on the Red Planet.

Our work is important to a broad audience because it integrates planetary, earth, biological, chemical, and environmental sciences and will be of interest to many researchers in those fields. The research will also be of interest to planetologists, experts of meteorite and astrobiology as well as researchers of the origin of life, and to the general public since it offers an example of a novel aspect of microbial mediation in stone meteorites.

– Ildiko Gyollai from HAS Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences in Budapest

While the work will require independent study and review, and the lessons of ALH-84001 could result in some remaining sceptical of the Hungarians’ findings. Nevertheless, there report could change the examination of meteorites in the future. In light of their discovery, the authors posit that solar system materials should be studied to establish whether there is evidence of microbial forms within space rocks as well.

SpaceX: Falcon Heavy Roars and Starhopper Hops

SpaceX is getting ready for the second flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket – currently the most powerful launch vehicle in the world. The launch is intended to place into orbit Arabsat 6A, a large communications satellite for Saudi Arabian corporation Arabsat. Built by Lockheed Martin, the satellite is an advanced commercial communications satellite, designed to provide internet and communications services to residents of the Middle East, Africa and parts of Europe.

The flight will not only be the first official commercial launch of the Falcon Heavy – its only other flight thus far being its February 2018 test launch – but the first flight of the Block 5 variant which utilises three core stages of the most powerful version of the Falcon 9 core stage.

The Falcon Heavy is prepared for roll-out to Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre ahead of the April 5th static fire test. Credit: SpaceX

As is the norm for SpaceX, the massive booster underwent a “static fire test” at the SpaceX launch facilities, Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre on Friday, April 5th. These tests involve firing a Falcon vehicle’s main engines briefly at full thrust – all 27 of them in the case of the Falcon Heavy – before shutting them down. The firing allows the start-up and firing procedure for the engines to be tested while measuring pressure, temperature and propellant-flow gradients. The data gathered can then be used to develop a set of criteria unique to the rocket and its engines to help determine whether the vehicle is fit for lift-off in the final stages of a launch count-down, including helping to identify any serious deviation in motor performance which might cause the flight control computers to issue a launch abort.

In this case, the static fire test was completed successfully clearing the way for an April 9th launch. However, as this is the first flight of the Block 5 vehicle, Elon Musk has warned it might slip as final check-outs are completed.

The Falcon Heavy test came sandwiched between the first two engine tests of the SpaceX Starhopper test vehicle. As noted in my recent Space Sunday updates, this is a test vehicle for SpaceX’s next generation passenger / cargo vehicle the Starship, which SpaceX intends to use in the coming months to examine vertical flight and landing characteristics for the full-sized Starship passenger / cargo vehicle they are developing alongside its massive booster core.

The vehicle, constructed at the company’s Boca Chica, South Texas, facility, is currently minus its nose cone, which was destroyed in a January storm. However, one of the three Raptor engines that will power it has been installed, and on April 3rd, with the vehicle tethered to its launch stand, that engine was fired for several seconds – enough to lift the vehicle clear of the pad.

The moment of ignition for the Starhopper’s single Raptor motor, April 3rd. Credit: SpaceX

A second test was performed on Saturday, April 6th. Again, the motor only fired for a few seconds, but it was enough to lift the lower section of the vehicle to the limits of its securing tethers designed to prevent it entering uncontrolled flight.

The vehicle will later perform a series of free flights to test its ability to both take off and land vertically. Once SpaceX has confirmed the vehicle’s flight characteristics, these flights will initially work up to about 500m while later tests will carry it to up to 5,000m. It’s unlikely the vehicle will be fitted with a new conical upper section for these flights, as computer modelling has shown it won’t be required.

SpaceX is currently working on a full Starship prototype, which they state will be capable of reaching orbit.

2019 Space & Astronomy: Some Key Dates

Note dates such as rocket launches, are subject to change.

April

  • Tuesday 9th: second Launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (first launch utilising the Falcon 9 Block 5 first stages), carrying the Arabsat 6A communications satellite. Lift-off will take place from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Centre, and an attempt will be made to recover all three first stage boosters, with 2 touching down on land, and one at sea on an Autonomous Drone Landing Ship.
  • Thursday 11th: SpaceIL’s Beresheet mission will attempt a historic moon landing. If successful, Israel will become the fourth nation to land a spacecraft on the moon.
  • Saturday 21st / Sunday 22nd: the Lyrid meteor shower peaks overnight.

June

  • Monday June 17th: “Strawberry Moon”: the “Strawberry full Moon” will reach full phase at 08:31 GMT.

July

  • Tuesday 2nd: a total solar eclipse will be visible from South America.
  • Friday 5th: NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency, and Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov, the International Space Station Expedition 60 crew, will lift-of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
  • Thursday 25th: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, will lift-off from Kennedy Space Centre for the International Space Station on the Demo-2 test flight.

August

  • Date TBA: Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner to make its first (delayed) uncrewed flight to the International Space Station.

September

  • Wednesday 25th: NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and Hazza Al Mansouri of the United Arab Emirates will lift-off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz rocket as the Expedition 61 International Space Station crew members.

November

  • Monday 11th / Tuesday 12th: Mercury transits the Sun.

December

  • Wednesday 25th / Thursday 26th: An annular solar eclipse will be visible from the Arabian Peninsula to Indonesia. A partial solar eclipse will be visible across much of Asia, the Middle East, Australia and western Africa.

Also Due in 2019

  • The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane will launch on its sixth classified mission atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
  • Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket will make its first orbital test flight.
  • India will launch the Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon. It will lift off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.
  • China will launch the Chang’e 5 mission to return samples from the moon. It will be the first lunar sample return mission attempted since 1976.
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