Space Sunday: UK spaceports, Voyager 2 and TESS’s mosaic

Virgin Orbit’s plans to operate from Cornwall Airport, Newquay (CAN) – also called Spaceport Cornwall – is in the process of receiving a £20 million boost. Credit: CAN

The United Kingdom is to have two space centres operating within the next few years, if all goes according to plan, and at opposite ends of the country.

I last wrote about the plans to have both a vertical (i.e. rocket) launch facility and at least one horizontal (i.e. air lift and launch) facility operating in the 2020s (see: British space ports and some female space firsts, July 2018), and more recently plans for both have taken significant steps forward.

In October 2019 it was announced that construction of the vertical launch facility – now officially called Space Hub Sutherland – to be located at A’Mhoine on the Moine Peninsula, high up on Scotland’s North Atlantic coast, could begin in 2020. It would be used to place small satellites into a polar and sun-synchronous orbits.

An artist’s impression of the Sutherland Space Hub. Credit: Perfect Circle PV

The cost for developing the facility has been estimated at £16.2 million (US $20.7 million), with £2.35 million (US $3 million) already awarded by the UK Space Agency since July 2018. After the required studies, etc., this funding has enabled the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a local Scottish government economic and community development agency, to sign a 75-year option to lease the land where the space hub is to be built, and to award contracts for the design of the hub’s launch-control centre and the assembly and integration buildings that will be used by commercial launch organisations to assemble their launch vehicles and integrate payloads ready for launch. Currently, HIE are awaiting formal planning permission to be granted, which will then allow construction to commence.

A partnership of US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and British aerospace company Orbex have committed to using the launch facility once it becomes operational – possibly in the early-to-mid 2020s.

Orbex plans to use the facilities to launch their innovative Prime rocket, and have already announced a series of contracts for the vehicle, including agreements with the Netherlands-based cubesat launch broker, Innovative Space Logistics and the U.K.-based company In-Space Missions, which plans to launch its Faraday-2b demonstration satellite from Scotland in 2022.

An artist’s impression of an Orbex Prime rocket – capable of lifting 150 Kg payloads to 500 km polar / sun-synchronous orbits – lifting off from the Sutherland Space Hub. Credit: PRNewsfoto / Lockheed Martin

Prime is a leading edge technology launch vehicle that among other things uses 3D printed rocket motors that can be produced as a single unit without joins, and utilises a bio-propane fuel and emits 90% less carbon dioxide than conventional, hydrocarbon-fuelled rockets. Bio-propane is an alternative to natural gas that’s produced from waste or sustainably sourced materials like algae. Development of the system is being partially funded by the UK government to the tune of £5.48 million (US $7 million), specifically in relation to the use of the Sutherland Hub.

Lockheed Martin has received funding to the tune of £24.3 million (US $31 million) to develop a vertical launch system suitable for operations out of the hub. However, precisely what they plan to launch from the facility once it is available, is currently unclear.

Planning permission for the facility is liable to meet some opposition, however. Moine Peninsula is part of an expanse of blanket peat bog that is a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. These peat lands are regarded as some of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth: they preserve global biodiversity, provide safe drinking water and minimise flood risk. In addition, they are the “largest natural terrestrial carbon store”, and when damaged ecologically, can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions (around 6% of global greenhouse emissions can be traced back to damaged peat lands). As such, opposition to the Sutherland Hub has already been voiced, and further objections may well be expected.

Cornwall Airport Newquay, also known as Spaceport Cornwall. Credit: CAN

At the other end of the country, plans for a horizontal launch centre at Cornwall Airport Newquay (CAN) – also known as Spaceport Cornwall – took another step forward with the UK Agency announcing on November 5th, 2019 that it will provide £7.35 million (US $9.5 million) to help develop the necessary infrastructure to support operations of the Virgin Orbit air-launch system.

We want the U.K. to be the first country in Europe to give its small satellite manufacturers a clear route from the factory to the spaceport. That’s why it’s so important that we are developing new infrastructure to allow aircraft to take off and deploy satellites, a key capability that the U.K. currently lacks.

– UK Government Science Minister, Chris Skidmore

Responding to the news of the funding, Virgin Orbit indicated that Spaceport Cornwall could host its first LauncherOne mission potentially around late 2021, the precise date being dependent on various regulatory approvals in the UK and in the United States, quite aside from the completion of the required infrastructure improvements at the airport. Should this time frame be met, a Virgin Orbit launch from Spaceport Cornwall would be the first orbital launch ever conducted from the UK (Britain’s Black Arrow launch vehicle was launched from Australia).

The funding is part of a £20 million (US $25.5 million) package promised to CAN; a further £10 million (US $12.78 million) to come from the Cornish local government and £2.35 million (US $3 million) from Virgin Orbit.

Cornwall itself is well-placed to support space launch operations. It is home to Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station, once the world’s largest satellite earth station, with more than 25 communications dishes in use and over 60 in total, the largest of which were named after characters from the Arthurian legends.

While operations at the facility were pretty much shut down in the early 2000s, the complex has entered into an agreement with CAN to provide communications support for launches from the spaceport, whilst also being subject to possible upgrade and enhancement to support future lunar missions, both crewed and automated – including those planned as a part of NASA’s Artemis programme.

The largest of the Goonhilly communications dishes, the 32m (105 ft) diameter “Merlin”. Goonhilly may provide communications support for Spaceport Cornwall. Credit: British Telecom.

Voyager 2: One Year in Interstellar Space

On November 5th, 2018, Voyager 2, passed beyond the outer limits of the solar system and into interstellar space.

Launched on August 20th, 1977, Voyager 2 gave us our first close-up looks at gas giants Uranus and Neptune, after passing Jupiter and Saturn – also visited by its twin, Voyager 1 – using the gravity of each planet to spur it on to the next on its itinerary. Voyager 1 did not proceed to Uranus or Neptune as it was tasked with observing Saturn’s massive moon Titan as well as the planet, and to do so, it had to use Saturn’s gravity to “bend” its course out of the plane of the ecliptic along which the planets lie, and set it on a course out of the solar system).

An artist’s impression of a Voyager probe. Credit: NASA

Voyager 2’s last planetary encounter – with Neptune – occurred in August 1989. I reviewed that event, together with the Voyager Programme as a whole on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Voyager 2’s launch (see Voyager at 40, August 2017). Since that encounter, Voyager 2 has been travelling through the bubble of space surrounding the solar system called the heliosphere, where plasma streaming out from the Sun is dominant.

Beyond this bubble lies true interstellar space, with the boundary of the two marked by a complex series of regions. The first of these is the termination shock, the point at which the outward flow of the solar wind slows down to subsonic speeds as it is confronted by the opposing flow of plasma from the interstellar medium. Beyond this lies the heliosheath, a “turbulent” region of complex interactions between the solar and interstellar winds, which is surrounded by the heliopause, the “skin” of the plasma bubble surrounding our solar system.

Voyager 2‘s passage through the heliopause in November 2018 marked it as only the second probe from Earth to pass into “true” interstellar space – although Pioneer 10 (1972) and Pioneer 11 (1973) were both launched ahead of the Voyager missions, their trajectories mean they are still passing through the heliosheath.

Voyager 2’s journey

To mark the first anniversary of Voyager 2 entering interstellar space, five papers on what the vehicle has found since entering the interstellar medium have just been published. This aspect of the mission is important, as it allows scientists studying the data returned by the probe’s operational instruments (the more power-intensive systems were turned off decades ago) to be compared with the data returned by Voyager 1, thus allowing more to be known about the Sun’s interactions with interstellar space.

In particular, both vehicles have confirmed that interstellar plasma is more dense than the plasma of the heliosphere and it is also colder. Both probes have also confirmed that the interstellar plasma is being compressed and warmed by its interaction with the solar wind – although not enough to warm it to levels comparable to those of the out flowing solar wind. Quite what this compression and heating means is unclear to those studying the data. Is it simply a product of the “collision” between solar and interstellar plasma? Given the “turbulent” nature of the heliosheath where the two interact, that seems unlikely.

Voyager 2 also found the region of the heliopause it passed through to be “leaking” solar particles into the surrounding interstellar medium in a manner not seen by Voyager 1, suggesting that the boundary between solar and interstellar space is subject to localised influences and patterns that again have yet to be understood.

Voyager 2 as it was positioned at the start of December 2018, passing through the Heliopause into interstellar space. Note that the scale is compressed from left to right. Earth is 1 AU from the Sun; Saturn 10 AU and the heliopause 120 AU. Credit: NASA/JPL

Voyager 2 is currently – and sadly – approaching mission termination. In 2019, the heater unit for the Cosmic Ray System – one of the primary instruments for this phase of the mission – had to be turned off. In 2020, Voyager 2 will have to switch to a “power sharing” mode among its remaining instruments, meaning only one is active at a time to help conserve the vehicle’s ability to generate electrical power from its nuclear RTG. However, even allowing for this, it is anticipated that the probe will be unable to draw sufficient heat from the RTG to convert to electrical power in or around 2025, bringing the science mission to an end.

At that point, the probe will become a silent interstellar ambassador from Earth, carrying with it the famous Golden Record that includes the sights, sounds and voices of Earth. In around 42,000 years, it will slip by the red dwarf star Ross 248 at a distance of 1.7 light years. It will then be some 296,000 years before its next notable encounter, when it will pass Sirius at a distance of about 4.3 light years.

TESS Completes Initial South Sky Survey

TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite has completed its initial survey of the southern skies in its search for exoplanets. To mark the event, NASA has released a stunning mosaic image of the sky it has surveyed and imaged, together with a video.

Launched in April 2018, TESS began the first phase of its mission in August of that year – and while it has made some remarkable finds in terms of exoplanets (29 confirmed planets or planetary systems and up to another 1,000 awaiting verification), it is the mosaic of 208 high-resolution images (out of the 15,347 TESS has so far taken) that is perhaps the most captivating.

The southern sky from TESS’s vantage point in orbit. 208 high-resolution images taken by the observatory’s four cameras make up this image. Credit: NASA/JPL

To the left of the mosaic is the bright band of the milky way, the most densely populated (in terms of stars) part of our own galaxy. Centred within the image is the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), one of our galaxy’s closest neighbours. Below and to the right of this, just off-centre is another galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), with the globular cluster of stars within our galaxy called NGC 104 appearing as a bright spot close to it.

To give an idea of the depth of the mosaic, NGC 104 is around 13,000 light years from Earth, while the LMC is some 163,000 light years from us, and the SMC is around 200,000 light years away. Interestingly, while the SMC is further from us than the LMC, it is considered to be a satellite galaxy to our own.

As well as discovering exoplanets and potential exoplanets, TESS has also managed to capture images of C/2018 N1, discovered shortly before the mission was launched, a distant supernovae, a flare caused by a star that was being ripped apart by a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH).