In my last Space Sunday update, I wrote about the comings and goings at the International Space Station (ISS), including the launch of the long-overdue Russian Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), which at the time of that article was on its way to rendezvous and docking with the station having been lifted into orbit by a Proton M launcher on July 21st.
Designed to provide further dedicated space for Russian activates on the ISS, the 20-tonne module combines additional living space with working space, cargo storage, a dedicated external robotic arm that is capable of “walking” around the module using its two manipulator / mounts, courtesy of the European Space Agency), and an attitude control system to supplement those already on the station. It is the largest component Russia has provided for the ISS, and its launch – whilst 14 years overdue – is part of an effort by Russia to boost its space programme.
However, not long after the module reached orbit there were reports it was encountering some issues with a number of systems – including the thrusters. Neither Roscosmos nor NASA commented on these reports, and they apparently did not delay the planned rendezvous and docking at the station.
This took place at 13:29 UTC on Thursday, July 29th, when Nauka made an initial “soft dock” with the station following a fully automated approach to the ISS, monitored by cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky aboard the station, who sat at a control station that would enable him to take over manual control of the module should it become necessary. Nauka docked at a port on the Zvezda module that had been vacated earlier in the week by the 20-year-old Pirs docking / mini- science module. This had been towed away from the station by a departing Progress automated resupply vehicle, with both Pirs and the Progress vehicle burning up on re-entering the Earth’s denser atmosphere. The soft dock was followed by a confirmed “hard” dock, and things then appeared to be set.
However, at 16:34 UTC, the module’s thrusters started firing of their own accord. No warning was given, and the firings were enough to cause the station to lose attitude control eight minutes later, rolling as much as 45º out of orientation. The cause of the problem was not initially known; however in subsequent updates, Roscomos blamed the issue on a software glitch and / or human error.
There was such euphoria after docking, people relaxed to some extent. Perhaps one of the operators didn’t take into account that the control system of the block [Nauka] will continue to adjust itself in space. And it determined a moment three hours after docking and turned on the engines.
– Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, speaking on Russian radio
Rogozin also suggested the problem didn’t last that long, stating it was “quickly countered by the propulsion system” on the Zvezda module. However, NASA reports that overall, the station remained out of orientation for some 47 minutes before returning to its proper attitude.
That was a pretty exciting hour!
– NASA’s human spaceflight chief Kathy Lueders
During this time there were two drops in communications between the station and the ground, and the period of control loss was enough for NASA mission managers to advise the US / international crew on the station to ready the Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour for possible departure as a precautionary measure, the order remaining in place until it had been confirmed Russian ground controllers had inhibited Nauka’s thrusters to prevent any recurrence. However, whilst the order was given US ISS program manager Joel Montalbano emphasised there was never any significant danger for personnel on the station, and the ISS did not appear to suffer any damage.
With the ISS back under control, the crew and mission controllers Earthside commenced a period of careful check-out of the station and all of its systems, with the Russian crew members working to open the airlock doors to Nauka and check the module’s interior. While this work has continued through the weekend, both Russia and the US have been keen to emphasise that things aboard the ISS are pretty much business as usual once more.
There was, however, one casualty following the situation: the planned launch of the CST-100 Starliner, due to make its second attempt of its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the station ahead of being certified for crew operations. Starliner’s launch had been set for Friday, July 30th, the day after the Nauka docking. However, the decision was taken to delay the launch, and the vehicle and its Atlas V launcher were rolled back from the pad on July 30th.
Scheduling conflicts with other launches from Cape Canaveral mean that Starliner’s launch will now not take place until Tuesday, August 3rd at the earliest – and that is subject to how the weather behaves.
Currently, the launch is set for 17:20 UTC on the 3rd, but there is around a 40% chance things could get derailed by thunderstorms. However, once fuelled and ready, the Atlas V is capable of an “instantaneous” launch should a break occur in the weather, and launch managers are hoping the worst of the weather will hold off until after the launch window. Should a scrub be called for the 5rd, a further window will open on Wednesday, August 4th.
GAO Rejects Complaints over NASA / SpaceX HLS Contract
The US Government Accountability Office has rejected objections by the teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics over NASA awarding a single contract for the the initial development of their Human Landing System (HLS) which will deliver crews and cargo to the surface of the Moon as a part of Project Artemis to SpaceX.
In a statement issued on July 30th, the GAO said that NASA did not violate procurement law when it decided to award a single contract to SpaceX after originally stating it hoped to award two contracts to the leading contenders for HLS development.
At the time – April 2021 -NASA awarded the contract, they cited a limitation on available funding and timescale constraints as reasons for not offering an additional contract, and the GAO upheld this. While further funding for HLS has since been received from Congress, the GAO further stated that NASA was under no obligation to re-open contract negotiations with either the Blue Origin team or that of Dynetics.
However, the GAO did uphold a complaint that in opting for SpaceX – who propose using a special variant of their Starship vehicle for HLS operations – NASA waived a “mandatory solicitation requirement”, thus showing a degree of favour towards the company – but this was not in itself reason to revoke the contract or have NASA offer an opportunity for an second contract. to be awarded.
The decision allows both NASA and SpaceX to continue with the funding and development of the “HLS Starship”, and to actually establish an actual time line for NASA’s human return to the surface of the Moon. Even so, the choice of vehicle remains controversial.
Whilst capable of delivering up to 100 tonnes of cargo to the surface of the Moon – far more than either the Dynetics or Blue Origin led vehicles – the Starship design is potentially also the most controversial in terms of design. At 50 metres in height and designed to land tail-first, the Starship HLS isn’t going to be the easiest of vehicle to land on the Moon. It’s layout also means that the cargo (and crew, who will transfer to it at the lunar orbital Gateway station) will be near the top of the vehicle and require an external means to be lowered some 30 metres down to the surface, post-landing.
Perhaps the biggest argument against Starship HLS however is the complexity of operations. To deliver 100 tonnes of cargo to the Moon, it will require around nine separate Super Heavy vehicle launches: the first to place Starship HLS in Earth orbit, then a further 8 to refuel it for the flight to the Moon and to allow it to both brake into lunar orbit and reach the surface and lift-off again. Even a a pure crew taxi operating between the Gateway station and the Moon it will require periodic refuelling, which could take between 2 and 3 Starship tanker flights from Earth.
By contrast, the Dynetics design, were it to be used just as the crew between Gateway and the Moon, could be delivered to Gateway via a single SLS launch, and more refuelled using its “drop tanks” carried to Gateway using one or two ULA Vulcan rockets. The major difference is that as a cargo vehicle, it would require multiple launches to deliver the same amount of cargo to the Moon as a single SpaceX HLS vehicle.
Given this, Dynetics have already responded to the GAO’s findings by stating they will continue development of their vehicle and look to future contract opportunities to support lunar operations. At the time of writing this piece, no formal statement has been made on Blue Origin’s intent with their proposed design. However, ahead of the GAO’s decision, Blue Origin’s founder, Jeff Bezos, offered to waive US $2 billion in NASA payments if the agency would reconsider its decision to only go with SpaceX with the first contract.
Astronomers see a Moon-Forming Disk Around a Newly Forming Planet
The above image may not look like much, but it is the first time a moon-forming disk has been imaged around a planet that is tiself likely still forming. It comes via the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile and shows the star PDS 70, a very young T Tauri star in the constellation Centaurus, approximately 370 light-years away.
In the main imaged on the left, the star is a central fuzzy blob surrounded by a ring of circumstellar material pushed away from it by the outflow of solar wind to a point where is is balanced by the pull of gravity. To the right, between the star and the ring is a second fuzzy blob is clearly visible. with a bright centre. Seen in the enlargement on the right, the bright centre of the blob is a Jupiter-sized planet – PDs 70c – one of two such young planets orbiting the star. The fuzz around it is its own accretion disk, one that could form new moons within it.
This is important because the formation of moons is even less well understood than planetary formation at this point. However, what is known is that moon formation also plays a key part in planetary formation, with circumplanetary disks that can form moons also influencing the creation of the planet itself. Thus, while it may take hundred of thousands of years for moons to form, as then develop with the cloud around PDS 70c – which has sufficient mass within it to form around three moons the size of our own – it is possible that any moon(s) that are forming within that cloud may already be influencing PDS 70c – so observations over the decades and centuries to come may greatly inform scientist on the development of both planets and moons.