Space Sunday: launches, names, and departures

A remarkable shot of the SpaceX Demo-2 Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, due to launch on May 27th, 2020, on the pad at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Centre. It was taken at an altitude of some 650 km above the surface of the Earth by the Maxar Worldview-3 satellite. Credit: Maxar Technologies (formerly DigitalGlobe)

If all goes according to plan, the United States will make its first crewed launch from its home soil since the space shuttle programme drew to a close in 2011.

On May 27th, 2020, shrouded in additional safety protocols to protect crews from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster should lift off from the company’s launched pad – leased from NASA – at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. Aboard the Crew Dragon vehicle at the top of the rocket will be NASA veterans Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley, who will be heading to the International Space Station (ISS).

The primary goal of the mission – referred to as Dmeo-2 by SpaceX and SpX DM-2by NASA – is to confirm the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle is ready to commence operations ferrying crew to and from the ISS. To this end, NASA has contracted SpaceX to provide the agency with 6 Crew Dragon launches to carry four astronauts at a time to and from the ISS; the vehicle is actually capable of carrying up to seven per flight, but NASA will use the additional capacity for light cargo and equipment bound for the ISS.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley discuss the upcoming Demo-2 commercial crew test flight after arriving at the Kennedy Space Centre May 20. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In addition to flying crews on behalf of NASA, SpaceX has also been contracted by Axiom Space to fly one Axiom professional astronaut and three private astronauts at a time to the ISS for periods of around 10 days at a cost of US $55 a seat. However, these private astronauts are not necessarily space tourists: Axiom is committed to developing the world’s first fully commercial space station.

As a part of this, the company entered into an agreement with NASA to dock three of its own space station modules to the ISS to kick-start their station development, with the first module potentially being launched in 2024. These modules will be used to host experiments and research by Axiom and their partners; following the retirement of the ISS (around 2028), Axiom plan to launch their own power and thermal module, airlock system and habitation module to replace the ISS facilities.

Not that SpaceX and the Crew Dragon won’t be involved in space tourism; the company has also partnered with Space Adventures to provide sets to fly up to four space tourists at is time on orbital flights lasting between three and five days. These will have an apogee three times that of the ISS and higher than the Earth orbital altitude record set by Gemini 11 in 1966.

Astronauts Douglas G. Hurley (l) and Robert L. Behnken in their futuristic (and vacuum-capable) space suits designed by SpaceX, posing alongside their Tesla (what else?) crew vehicle during a full launch dress-rehearsal on Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

In the meantime , this first crewed flight with see Behnken  and Hurley rendezvous with the ISS the day after launch (May 28th if the launch goes ahead as planned). The docking will be carried our autonomously – as will the majority of the flight, although the crew can fly the vehicle manually at any time, including the docking. Once at the ISS, the crew and vehicle will remain there for around four weeks, before making a return to Earth.

Hurley and Behnken arrived at Kennedy Space Centre on May 20th, ahead of the final flight readiness review (FRR) for the mission, which took place on May 22nd. This cleared the mission for its planned launch after an extensive review of all the Crew Dragon’s systems, notably its parachute system, which has been a point of concern for NASA after the parachutes had to go through a complete redesign and a rapid series of tests in the lead-up the the flight.

Following the FRR, SpaceX proceeded with a standard static-fire test of the Falcon 9’s first stage engines in readiness for launch, which the booster completed successfully. On Saturday, May 23rd, crew and vehicle went through full launch dress rehearsal. This will be followed by a final series of tests and checks on both the booster and Crew Dragon vehicle in the lead up to the launch, which is currently scheduled for 16:33 EDT on May 27th. It will come just over a year since Crew Dragon made its first (uncrewed) flight to the ISS in May 2019.

Crew Dragon comprises the main (potentially re-usable) capsule and a single-use service module that provides propulsion and power. Credit: Archipeppe68

Crew Dragon is intended to be semi-reusable, with each capsule potentially capable of being re-flown after refurbishment following a flight. However, the vehicles used by NASA will only be flown once each. It has been said this is due in part to a decision not to use Dragon’s propulsive landing capabilities with NASA missions, but to instead make ocean splashdowns when returning crews to Earth, exposing the capsules to sea water contamination. Even so, it is estimated the per-seat cost for launching NASA astronauts on Crew Dragon is around 40% less than the cost of a seat on the Boeing Starliner.

The flight will mark the third time both Behnken and Hurley have been in space. Behnken has previoucly flown on shuttle missions STS-123  and STS-130 for a total of over 29 days in space, with Hurley flying on missions STS-127 and STS-135, accumulating over 28 days. Behnken went on to serve as Chief of the Astronaut Office for three years prior to transferring to NASA Commercial Crew Programme; Hurley, meanwhile, became an Assistant Director at NASA’s for the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, prior to being appointed Assistant Director for the Commercial Crew Programme. For Hurley, the launch is likely to be especially poignant, as he was one of the last Americans to fly into space from US soil, as the pilot of Atlantis in the last ever shuttle orbital flight.

The launch will be live streamed through a range of platforms, including NASA TV and You Tube. In the meantime, here’s an animation of how the flight should proceed, courtesy of SpaceX. Prior to the launch the crew will officially reveal the name they have selected for their capsule.

WFIRST Gains a Name

Nancy Grace Roman, after whom the WFIRST space telescope has been named, in the late 1970s posing beside a model of the Large Space Telescope (which would eventually become the Hubble Space Telescope), in which she played a key role. Credit: NASA

NASA has announced the troubled Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) now has a name: the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

It’s a name that might not be familiar to many, but Nancy Roman, who sadly passed away in 2018, was one of the true pioneers of stellar, radio and space-based astronomy.

Born in 1925, she showed an early interest in astronomy. However, her teachers were not encouraging; on reaching college, she was told by the dean of women that if she persisted in her desire to major in a science or in engineering, the dean would have nothing further to do with her. Even her astronomy professor did little more than teach her from books – Roman had to carry out practical work on her own using a pair of defunct telescopes.

As a professional astronomer, Roman was at the forefront of a range of projects in the 1940s and 1950s, overcoming initial prejudice against her gender. In particular, her research in stellar spectroscopy became some of the most highly cited papers at the time. In the 1950s, she was one of the first US astronomers to recognise the potential of using digital computers in astronomy, and took a position at the US Naval Research Laboratory (on the recommendation of Gerard Kuiper) to work in the new field of Radio astronomy.

She continued with both stellar and radio astronomy research through the 1950. She carried out one of the first surveys of all naked-eye stars similar to the Sun, recognising in the process that they could be divided into two categories by chemical content and motion through the galaxy; she was also one of the first astronomers to realise stars were not of the same age. In addition, her studies of hydrogen lines of the low dispersion spectra in the stars, lead her to realise that the stars with the stronger lines moved closer to the centre of the Milky Way and the others moved in more elliptical patterns, off of the plane of the galaxy. These observations provided the first clue to the formation of the galaxy.

Roman joined NASA not long after it was formed, and one of her first proposal was that detecting planets around other stars might be possible using a space-based telescope, suggesting technique employing a rotated coronagraph to block the light from stars to make seeing the light reflected by planets orbiting them a lot easier. This became one of the standard methods for observing the space close to a star, and an advanced form of a coronagraph will be flown aboard the WFIRST.

As Chief of Astronomy and Solar Physics at NASA, Roman oversaw the development of the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) to study the Sun, and the Orbital Astronomical Observatories, a series of optical and ultraviolet telescopes that essentially paved the way for NASA’s four Great Observatories: the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and of course the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble was also the last major project for NASA Roman engaged in, back when it was still the Large Space Telescope. Her input to that project as it matured earned her the recognition of being “the Mother of Hubble” among the Hubble science team.

Officially retiring from NASA in 1979, after 20 years with the agency, Nancy Roman continued with the Hubble project in a consultancy capacity, as well as working on various astronomy and computing projects. She re-joined NASA in 1995 for a 2-year period as head of the Astronomical Data Centre at Goddard Space Flight Centre, after which she returned to teaching for three years. Even after her official retirement, she remained active by recording astronomical textbooks for Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic through until 2010.

Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy, pictured at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, 1972. Credit: NASA

Commenting on the selection of her name for WFIRST, NASA Administrator James Bridenstine stated:

It is because of Nancy Grace Roman’s leadership and vision that NASA became a pioneer in astrophysics and launched Hubble, the world’s most powerful and productive space telescope. I can think of no better name for WFIRST, which will be the successor to NASA’s Hubble and Webb Telescopes.

Whilst it now has a name, the future of WFIRST – or NGRT as it is now likely to be abbreviated – isn’t entire sure. In particular, the Trump administration has appeared particularly hostile to the telescope, having twice tried to cancel it, and refusing to directly fund it for three consecutive NASA budgets. This despite the fact that telescope was the top large-scale space mission in the 2010 astrophysics and astronomy decadal survey, and is of major import in the  studies of dark energy and of exoplanets.

Despite the lack of official funding, development of the telescope has continued via discretionary funding. It’s overall cost has been set at between US $3.2 and $3.9 billion, which includes the first five years of operations in space. When asked about the telescope’s future in light of being given a name, NASA would only comment that the Trump administration is unwilling to fund another telescope until the James Webb Space Telescope has been launched.

Virgin Launcher One Flight Delayed

Virgin Orbit has postponed the début launch of its new rocket for small satellite missions due to a sensor glitch on the booster.

A view of a LauncherOne rocket dropping from its carrier aircraft, captured by a chase plane during drop tests of the system carried out in 2019. Credit: Virgin Orbit

The LauncherOne rocket, designed to be carried aloft under the wing of a 747 carrier aircraft before being released to fly to orbit, was due to complete its first full test flight on Sunday, May 24th. However, while fuelling the rocket ahead of the flight, engineers noted a faulty sensor, which would need to be replaced. As a result, the test flight has been rescheduled for Monday, May 25th.

LauncherOne is designed to carry payloads of up to 500 kg to low Earth orbit, but for the test flight it will be carrying a dummy payload. Under the plan, the carrier plane – called Cosmic Girl – will take off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, fly over the Pacific Ocean and drop LauncherOne from an altitude of 10,700 m. The rocket will then proceed to orbit before separating from the payload. Both rocket and payload will quickly re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

The view from the carrier aircraft as LauncherOne rocket is released during a drop test. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Given it is the first full test of the system, Virgin Orbit states the chances of it being completely flawlessly are low; however, if things do go as planned, it will move the company significantly closer to commencing commercial launches.

Why did NASA’s Chief of Human Spaceflight Resign?

NASA’s former associate administrator of Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Douglas Loverro. Credit: NASA

Speculation ran rife in the space community recently when it was announced NASA’s latest associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, abruptly resigned just nine days ahead of the Demo-2 flight and after just 7-months into the job.

In an e-mail to staff purported from Loverro sent at the time of his resignation, he apparently stated that his decision was related to a “risk” he had taken earlier in the year, which he now regards to have been “a mistake”.

As Loverro referred to “risks” being technical, political, or personal, speculation quickly grew that his resignation was a form of comment / protest over the agency’s Commercial Crew Programme, or in connection with an audit into into NASA’s acquisition strategy for its Artemis lunar programme, announced by the Office of the Inspector General, announced in March.

While he and NASA have refused to comment on specifics of his resignation, the rumours were such that Loverro spoke to to clarify matters as far as he could, stating in part:

The biggest false rumour, the one that I was most concerned about and I think the agency was most concerned about … was that there was a problem with the commercial crew launch coming up next week that I resigned over, and nothing could be further from the truth.

[The] acquisition-related report that was started by the IG just the way they start other things… It’s so completely different. It happens to be contemporaneous, but it’s completely different than anything that would happen that affected this [decision].


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