Space Sunday: to orbit, to orbit!

An image of the International Space Station as it will look once all six iROSA solar arrays have been deployed and unfurled over three pairs of the the station’s existing primary arrays. Credit: NASA

It’s getting to be another busy period at the International Space Station, with a lot of comings and goings, together with the on-going upgrade work.

In June, NASA / SpaceX launched the CRS-22 resupply mission to the station carrying 3.2 tonnes of equipment and supplies. A part of that cargo comprised a pair of new “roll out” solar arrays (i.e. they are stowed as a tube, and then unfurled when mounted on the space station). Their arrival marked the start of a major plan to completely overhaul the station’s power generation capabilities by supplementing the current arrays.

Referred to as iROSA, the new arrays were installed over pairs of existing panel which have been getting steadily less efficient in converting sunlight into electrical power. Once the work has been completed – there are two more pairs of iROSA arrays to be delivered in upcoming resupply missions – the station’s ability to produce electrical power via sunlight will be increased to ~215 Kilowatts, well about the  ~160 Kilowatts needed to power it at the moment.

How the ISS looked after the departure of the CRS-22 Cargo Dragon. Credit: NASA

The CRS-22 Dragon vehicle actually departed the ISS on July 10th, leaving two Russian Progress resupply vehicles (77/MS-16 and 78/MS-17), the Soyuz MS-18 crew vehicle and the Endeavour Crew-2 Dragon vehicle docked at the station.

On July 21st, the Crew Dragon Endeavour, which carried NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur and Thomas Pesquet and Akihiko Hoshide (ESA and Japan’s JAXA respectively) to the station, also undocked, but not to return to Earth. Instead, it was piloted around the station to be re-attached to the International Docking Adaptor 3 port vacated by the CRS-22 Cargo Dragon, in order to make way for the upcoming CST-100 Starliner test flight to the ISS, of which more below.

Caught from a camera on the ISS, Crew Dragon Endeavour, with its nose cone open to expose the forward docking mechanism and hatch, makes a soft dock at the IDA-3 docking port of the ISS, July 21st, 2021. Credit: NASA

The next ISS launch to take place came out of Russia on July 21st, when a Proton-M booster lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 14:58 UTC, carrying the Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) on its way to the station.

Designed to provide dedicated space for Russian activates on the ISS, the 20-tonne module – the largest component of the ISS built and launched by Russia, combines additional living space with working space, cargo storage, a dedicated external robotic arm courtesy of the European Space Agency, and attitude control system to supplement those already on the station. It is also around 14 years overdue, having originally been intended for launch in 2007 – and parts of it are approaching 30 years of age, having been originally built in the 1990s as the Functional Cargo Block-2 (FGB-2), built alongside the station’s Zarya module.

A Proton-M lifts-off on July 21st carrying the Nauka MLM on its way to the ISS. Credit: Roscosmos

Following a 9-minute ascent to orbit, Nauka successfully detached from the booster’s upper stage and deployed its solar panels and communications arrays at the start of an 8-day flight to rendezvous and dock with the ISS. This lengthy rendezvous being designed to allow ground engineers to carry out a range of checks ahead of the module reaching the station.

After the launch, reports circulated that the module had encountered assorted problems with its automatic docking system, various sensors and its motors. Neither Roscosmos nor NASA have commented on these reports, other than Roscosmos stated the module was in a safe orbit, and there has been no change in the planned rendezvous and docking date of July 29th.

British skywatcher Martin Lewis snapped this picture of Nauka passing over southern England some 6 hours after launch. Credit: SkyInspector
Ahead of that, the Progress 77/MS-16 vehicle will depart the station, taking the Russia Pirs docking / mini- science module with it. Once clear of the station, the Progress vehicle will de-orbit, burning up in the atmosphere with the 20-year-only Pirs. The module has already been subject to an EVA by Russian cosmonauts on the ISS, who severed all non-essentially connections to the module and ensured it was ready for the undocking manoeuvre.

The undocking / detachment had originally been scheduled for Friday, July 23rd, but was postponed for twenty-four hours, ostensibly to give the the Russia crew on the station more time in which to complete tasks in preparation to detach Pirs. As it is, the undocking / detachment is now expected to occur on Monday, July 26th.

The Nauka MLM being prepared for launch integration. Credit: Rsocosmos

CST-100 Demo 2 Set To Launch

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is ready to make its second attempted to make an uncrewed rendezvous with the ISS.

If all goes according to plan, the flight will commence at 18:53 UTC on Friday, July 30th, 2021 when an Atlas V rocket will lift-off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. once in orbit, the capsule – which will be used alongside the SpaceX Crew Dragon to ferry crews to / from the space station – will be put through a series of tests prior to performing an automated rendezvous and docking with the ISS.

The flight – called Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), comes after an 18-month delay in the Starliner programme, in part the result of the OFT-1 having to be aborted without any rendezvous and docking with ISS after a software issue caused things to go slightly awry, although the capsule did make a successful return to Earth an landing (see: Space Sunday: Starliner’s First Orbital Flight).

The CST-100 Starliner due to fly the OFT-2 mission is moved from Boeing’s vehicle preparation facilities at Kennedy Space Centre ahead of integration into its United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle. Credit: Greg Scott

Following that flight, an extensive review of Boeing / NASA CST-100 flight operations resulted in a wide-ranging series of recommendations being made, including that of a second uncrewed test flight and rendezvous.  Originally, it had been hoped OFT-2 could be completed by the end of 2020, but several factors – including the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic – put paid to that. Even so, while “late”, the July 30th target launch date is ahead of the August / September period NASA had been looking at.

After launch, the Demo-2 flight should see the capsule reach its initial orbit some 31 minutes after lift-off, allowing the initial in-flight tests to be carried out under the eyes of ground control. After this, the vehicle will proceed to catch-up and rendezvous with the ISS, with docking scheduled for `9:06 UTC on Saturday, July 31st.

If all goes well, I’ll have an update on the flight in my next Space Sunday update.

In Brief

FAA Alters Criteria for Awarding Commercial Astronaut Wings

As Blue Origin were engaged on the first passenger-carrying flight of their sub-orbital New Shepard, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) changed their requirements for the awarding “official” astronaut wings to those flying on commercial flights into space.

Up until July 20th, the requirements for someone to receive their FAA astronaut wings were that individual must meet the FAA regulations for flight crew qualifications and training, and must fly on an FAA-licensed commercial launch system to at least 80 km above the ground. Under the new requirements, those flying commercially to the edge of space must additionally demonstrate “activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.”

These new regulations effectively mean those flying on either Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic – including the majority of those who participated in the two recent crewed flights by the two companies – are excluded from receiving FAA astronaut wings (this does not include Virgin Galactic pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci and Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses, as they all qualified and were awarded their FFA wings in 2019). Discretionary powers held by the FAA mean they could still award Branson and Bezos and their fellow passengers with FAA wings, but this seems unlikely.

Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci and Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses receive their FAA astronaut wings at the 35th Space Symposium in 2019. Credit: AP

However, the new FAA regulations do not prevent either company  awarding passengers with “company” astronaut wings (which essentially carry the same weight as FAA commercial astronaut wings, as they are largely symbolic anyway), which is essentially what they are doing.

SpaceX Complete Super Heavy Static Fire Test

SpaceX are continuing with preparations for their first attempt at an orbital flight of their starship / booster system.  On July 19th, the company completed a “full duration” static test firing of three raptors mounted on their Super Heavy test article Booster 3 (B3). Given that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has already indicated there will be substantial changes between B3 and the first flight-ready booster (B4), the motor tests came as a surprise to some, as it is not clear how useful data gathered from it will be when applied to the the B4 / production design.

But the test does mark the speed with which SpaceX are proceeding with vehicle development: B3 was only moved to the test stand at the start of the month and since then it has been cycled through a series of pressurisation and cryogenic load tests using both inert liquid nitrogen and liquid oxygen / liquid methane fuel stocks.

The three Raptor sea-level motors at the base of the now almost 70-metre tall Super Heavy B3 rocket fire for 1-2 seconds during a static fire test. Credit: SpaceX

Following the test, Musk indicated that, depending on progress in fabricating and stacking B4, the company might opt to carry out a static fire test using B3 and nine Raptor engines. If so, this will be the first time such a cluster of Raptors will have been fired together – generating around 1,800 tonnes of thrust in the process. To put that in perspective, the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster with 9 Merlin engines generates 855 tonnes of thrust.

Even so, that’s just peanuts to a Super Heavy with a full complement of 30+ Raptor motors. This will generate an incredible 7,500 tonnes of thrust at launch – the equivalent of almost nine Falcon 9s or two of NASA’s Space Launch System rockets lifting-off simultaneously. The noise alone created by such a beast will be staggering – hence why the FAA is carrying out an extensive environmental impact study around the SpaceX Boca Chica facilities.

Currently, there is no confirmed date for the first orbital attempt – the planned July launch has clearly gone out the window. Some have pointed to August as being the month, but even given the breakneck pace at which things are moving, this would seem unlikely.

Ingenuity Passes 1 Mile of Flying

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter drone continues to impress on Mars. On Saturday, July 24th, the vehicle completed its 10th and most complex sortie so far, and in the process brought its total flying distance up to 1.6 km (which for those of you still working in old money is a mile 🙂 ). The flight also saw the vehicle reach its highest altitude so far – 12m above the ground.

The flight was another designed to assist in the ground mission of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. It saw Ingenuity fly a fairly complex route along 10 waypoints as it passed over an area of geologic interest called the “Raised Ridges”, and which are thought to have once covered a subsurface water channel.

A high resolution image of the “Raised Ridges” area of Jezero Crater, captured by the HiRISE imager on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The blue line denotes Ingenuity’s 165-second flight along the feature, following a set of ten waypoints (blue dots) used by its navigation computer to maintain its course. Credit: NASA/JPL

The goal of flight 10 was to use Ingenuity’s high resolution camera to obtain stereo imagery of “Raised Ridges” that will allow the Mars 2020 team make a better assessment of the feature’s geology, etc., before opting to send Perseverance into the area to investigate it on the ground.

At the moment, the rover is some distance from the feature and studying an area of exposed rock dubbed “Cratered Floor Fractured Rough”, and from which it is anticipated the rover will collect its first samples, some of which may be stored for later deposit at a “caching location” from where they can later be recovered by a sample return mission and brought to Earth for analysis.

NASA to Fly Europa Clipper on Falcon Heavy

NASA has selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to launch its Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, opting to go with the SpaceX vehicle over their own Space Launch System rocket.

Targeting an October 2024 launch, the Europa Clipper  mission is intended to place the vehicle in an orbit around Jupiter from where it can perform multiple fly-bys of the icy moon, which is believed to contain a sub-surface ocean of of liquid water that is kept warm by hydrothermal vents, and so might be capable of supporting life.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy – which uses three Falcon 9 first stages as its core propulsion – has been confirmed as the launch vehicle for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission in October 2024. Credit: SpaceX

As a less powerful launch vehicle that SLS, the choice of the Falcon Heavy means the satellite  will not reach Jupiter until 2030. However, the selection was made in the face of increasing concerns that the greater thrust exerted by SLS during launch could place potentially destructive lateral loads on the satellite.

Nor is Europa Clipper the only NASA launch contract to go to the Falcon Heavy – in February 2021, NASA opted to use the vehicle, which has so fair succeeded in 4 out of 4 launches – to fly the first two modules in the Lunar Gateway programme to the Moon. Not that this should be seen as a lack of faith in SLS – just a recognition that the programme is running behind schedule, and when available, SLS launchers will primarily be needed to get humans and equipment to the Moon.