Space Sunday: transporting a telescope, NS-18, Lucy and China

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), shown with the central segment of its gold mirror just visible above the compressed solar shield, housed within the inner casing and support structure of STTARS, is lowered towards the base of the container. Credit: Northrop Grumman / NASA

How do you ship a telescope several thousand kilometres without damaging it? You pack it in a special carry-case. How do you transport it in conditions that allow it and its ultra-sensitive components to remain completely clean with a strictly controlled environment? You ship it in a very special case. How do you do all this with a telescope that is 20 metres in length, 14 metres across and weighs 6.5 tonnes?

You get a really big special case – which is precisely what NASA has done with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). They call it STTARS – the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea, and it is pretty much as remarkable as the telescope itself.

Weighing 76 tonnes, STTARS is 33.5 metres in length, 4.6 metres wide and 5.5 metres high. It was built specifically to handle the shipping of various JWST components around the United States and bring them together at the Northrop Grumman assembly and integration facilities at Redondo Beach, California. And now it has been used to ship the completed telescope the 9,500 km California to the launch site in French Guiana.

STTARS, carrying the JWST, en route to Seal Station, California. Credit: NASA

STTARS is more than just a container. It is an ultra-clean, hermetically sealed environment designed to minimise all vibrations and G-forces that reach the telescope and its sensitive instruments during transport, while holding them in an atmosphere that is strictly regulated and allows for the presence of no more than 100 airborne particles greater than or equal to 0.5 microns in size within it. For reference, half a micron is just one hundredth of the width of a human hair!

To achieve this, STTARS also had to be built in an ultra-clean environment, and before each use it is subjected to a highly-detailed “cleaning” using high-intensity ultra-violet light to both locate contaminants so they can be removed, and to kill off microbes. Following installation, the unit is connected to a dedicated heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system that maintains temperature, humidity and pressure precisely as the telescope experienced them within Northrop Grumman’s clean room. In addition, it contains special mounts and dampeners designed to hold the telescope securely and isolate it as much as possible from bumps and other forces when being moved around.

Even so, moving STTARS around still takes considerable care. For example, the 35 km drive from Northrop Grumman’s facilities the port at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach in preparation from the journey to French Guiana was performed at an average speed of just 10-12 km/h to avoid undue bumps, and potholes along the route had to be repaired in advance. The journey was also carried out at night to both minimise traffic disruption and the amount of traffic vibration affecting STTARS and its cargo.

Once at Seal Beach, STTARS was carefully transferred to the MN Colibri for the trip to the European Spaceport – air transport having been ruled out both because of the amount of vibration and stress it could place on JWST, and because the 96-km journey from airport to spaceport in French Guiana would require the reinforcing of several bridges in order to support STTARS weight.

Built as a roll-on – roll-off (Ro-Ro) freighter by Maritime Nantaise, the MN Colibri is in fact a highly specialised vessel ideal for transporting JWST. Commissioned by the European Space Agency, it is also used to transport Ariane and Soyuz rockets and their cargoes from Europe and Russia and elsewhere in the world to the European Spaceport. Not only is she fitted with the kind of specialist equipment needed by sensitive HVAC systems, etc., she has the unique characteristic of being able to adjust her trim whilst at sea to reduce things like vessel roll to minimise the stresses placed on her cargo. Even so, travelling at an average 15-16 knots, her journey down the coasts of the United States and central America and through the Panama canal to Port de Pariacabo, Kourou, roughly 15 km by road from the space centre, took almost a month, the vessel arriving on October 12th.

The use of the MV Colibri meant that at no point did STTARS have to be transferred off of its transporter, again minimise vibration or other shocks being transmitted to the telescope (as well as reducing the risk of any form of unforeseen loading / unloading accident), allowing its special transporter and support equipment to been driven on to the vessel (with the assistance of a barge, purely due to the layout of the docks), be secured, and then driven off again for the journey to the space port, where it arrived on October 13th.

Over the next two months, JWST will be unpacked and given a careful check-up. It will then be prepared for launch, being mounted on its launch adaptor and Ariane upper stage, enclosed within its payload fairings and then integrated with the booster itself. Providing all goes according to plan, the telescope is due to be launched on December 18th, 2021.

Blue Origin NS-18

Wednesday, October 13th saw Blue Origin complete the 18th successful flight of their New Shepard sub-orbital system.

Aboard NS-18 were Blue Origin’s President of Mission & Flight Operations Audrey Powers, fare-paying passengers Chris Boshuizen, co-founder of the Earth-observation company Planet, and Glen de Vries, co-founder of the medical software company Medidata Solutions, and invited guest, actor William Shatner.

A camera mounted at the top of the New Shepard booster captures the capsule rising ahead of it following separation (l). And a high-resolution camera images the separated booster and capsule from Earth (r). Credit: Blue Origin

In the process, Mr. Shatner – best known for his roles at Captain James T. Kirk, police officer T.J. Hooker and eccentric lawyer Denny Crane – became the oldest individual to date to fly into space at 90 years of age – a record he could well hold for some time – and Chris Boshuizen became the first full Australian national to become an astronaut (not counting those who have flown space missions under dual nationality).

The live stream of the launch revealed that the company has been somewhat stung by the essay co-written by 21 current and past employees and recently published by The Lioness that cites safety and other concerns: the initial part of the live stream sounded more like an attempt to rebut the charges made than an attempt to cover the launch and flight.

NS-18 crew (l to r): Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner and Chris Boshuizen, share a moment holding on to the central table aboard their capsule as they experience micro-gravity. Credit: Blue Origin

Overall, the flight was, from an observational standpoint, uneventful. The vehicle lifted-off smoothly as scheduled, then climbed up through 57 km, where main engine cut-off (MECO) occurred. Moments after this, the capsule separated from the booster, and both continued to rise under their own inertia and in tandem, the capsule above and to one side of the booster to avoid collision.

Apogee was reached at 107 km, and the fall back to Earth began. At this point, the two parts of the New Shepard vehicle became more distanced from one another, the pencil- line booster, kept upright by deployable fins, dropping more-or-less vertically through the air, the rounded form of the capsule generating more air resistance and so falling at a slightly slower rate. This meant that the booster, re-firing its BE-3 engine at 1.2 km above the ground to ease itself into a touch-down, ended its forth flight before the capsule had got as far as deploying its parachutes.

Blue Origin NS-18 drifts towards landing under its three main parachutes. Credit: Blue Origin

The initial deployment of the capsule’s drogue ‘chutes at just under 2 km altitude, shaved 100 km/h from its descent speed  – from around 320 km/h to 221 km/h  – in 12 seconds, bringing the capsule down to a speed where the three main parachute could deploy, slowing the capsule a a fairly “gentle”22 km/h prior to touchdown.

Following his egress from the capsule, it was clear that Mr. Shatner had been profoundly affected by the flight and the site of Earth from space, as he talked in very emotional terms to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (who initially and sadly appeared more interested in grabbing some champagne than in paying attention) about understanding the real fragility of the Earth, something which has remained his core point of discussion during interviews in the days following the flight.

In this, Mr. Shatner’s experience was perhaps a step apart from his fellow passengers, who – as with those of the MS-16 flight – seemed more interested in the “fun” of micro-gravity than in pondering deeper thoughts. We often – perhaps glibly – say that flying into space is a “life changing” experience; but William Shatner articulates this perhaps in a way we can finally understand, as he does the sheer fragility of our world  and its thin envelope of life-giving atmosphere. I would that more – particularly those in power – could share in his experience and realisation.

Lucy Launches

NASA has launched its 12-year mission to the Trojan asteroids orbiting in two clouds – the Greek and Roman “camps”, 60º ahead and 60º behind Jupiter as it travels around the Sun. Carried aloft by a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 401, the Lucy spacecraft successfully separated from the booster’s Centaur upper stage after the latter completed two burns to push it on its way, and deployed its solar arrays over a 20-minute period.

Lucy – dubbed “our robot archaeologist” – is now in an orbit that well carry it away from Earth and then back again so that in 2022 it can use our gravity to accelerate into a more extended orbit. It will return again in 2024, when it will again use the Earth’s gravity to push itself on towards the orbit of Jupiter, which it will reach in 2027.

A chart of the the asteroids Lucy will visit and their comparative sizes. Patroclus is approximately 110-115 km across, and 52246 Donaldjohanson some 2.5 km. Credit: NASA

Along the way, the spacecraft will fly by the asteroid 52246 Donaldjohanson in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and then carry on to complete fly-bys of five asteroids in the Greek “camp” of Trojans travelling ahead of Jupiter. After this, it will make a return to Earth, swinging past us in 2031 to then head for the Trojan “camp” of asteroids following behind Jupiter, where it will fly by two more asteroids.

The aim of the mission is to gain a better understanding of these rocky bodies that represent the earliest parts of the solar system to be created. To do this, Lucy will use three main instruments: a high-resolution camera (up to 14 metres per pixel), a multi-spectral camera that will collect data at visible and infrared wavelengths to determine the composition of the asteroids’ surfaces, and a thermal emission spectrometer to measure surface temperatures, which can help determine surface properties.

Second Russian Thruster Misfire Shunts ISS

For the second time in just over three months, a thruster mis-firing on a Russian element attached to the International Space Station (ISS) has caused the station to enter a slow rotation.

On October 15th, Cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky boarded Soyuz MS-18, which has been docked at the ISS since April, to carry out a series of checks and tests ahead of bringing the vehicle back to Earth on October 17th. One of these tests should have been a brief firing of the vehicle’s thrusters to “clear their throats”. Except the thrusters refused to shut down, and over an 11-second period pushed the 420-tonne ISS into a very slow rotation that saw it roll a total of 57º off axis.

While the rotation did not pose a threat to the station or is crew, it did take some 30 minutes for Russian controllers Earthside and cosmonauts in the Russian section of the station (which includes the primary means of adjusting the station’s attitude and orbit) to correct matters.

Soyuz MS-18 seen docked at Russia’s Nauka multipurpose laboratory module at the International Space Station, where it relocated on September 28th. Credit: NASA

Following the incident, Russian sources stated the erroneous firing was the result of a procedural error in instructions sent to Novitsky ahead of the test. However, concern has been expressed that neither ground controllers nor Novitsky did not react faster to the situation, as it is believed the thrusters only ceased firing as they reached the limits of the propellants the flight control system would allow for such tests. As such, it is something of an embarrassment to Roscosmos, being the second such thruster mis-fire in recent months.

In July 2021, the newly-arrived Nauka module suffered an unplanned firing of its thrusters that pushed the ISS into a 540º roll that took around an hour to correct, although again it posed no serious threat to station or crew. That event was put down to a “short-term software failure” following a Russian investigation into the situation.

The issue with MS-18 was not deemed serious enough to delay the vehicle’s departure from the ISS, and at 01:35 GMT on Sunday, October 17th, the Soyuz, with Novitsky at the controls, flanked either side by film of director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Peresild, who had been on the station for 12 days to film scenes for Shipenko’s new film Vyzov (“Challenge”). After a successful de-orbit and atmospheric re-entry, the vehicle landed safety at 04:35 UTC on the 17th.

China Launches Shenzhou 13 and a Solar Observatory

Shenzhou 13, the second crewed mission to China’s nascent space station, lifted off Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert at 16:23 UTC on October 16th, carrying taikonauts Zhai Zhigang (mission commander), Wang Yaping (making her second trip into space to become the first female taikonaut to visit the Tianhe-1 module) and rookie Ye Guangfu in what is planned as a 6-month stay aboard the station.

Shenzhou 13 framed against the Moon as it rises into the sky on October 16th. Credit: CCTV

Using a fast-track trajectory, the vehicle achieved orbit and entered into an immediate climb to rendezvous with Tianhe 1 within hours of launch, where it docked with the module’s nadir (Earth-facing) port, joining the Tianzhou 12 and Tianzhou 13 resupply vehicles already attached to the module. One of these vehicles will be used by the crew to rehearse using Tianhe 1’s robotic arm to move large objects around in preparation for the arrival of the station’s additional modules in 2022. Also planned for the mission are between two and three spacewalks to help prepare Tianahe 1 for the receipt of those modules.

Two days prior to Shenzhou 13, and separate from the space station programme, a Long March 2D lifted off from Taiyuan, north China, its primary payload was that of the Chinese H-alpha Solar Explorer CHASE), intended for a 517-kilometer-altitude Sun-synchronous orbit.

Also dubbed Xihe, for a solar deity from Chinese mythology, the 508 Kg vehicle is tasked with acquiring the first full-disk spectroscopic solar observations in the H-alpha deep-red visible spectral line waveband and study solar activity and provide critical data for space weather forecasting, including observing filaments prior to eruptions of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. In particular, it will be used to study the upcoming 2025 solar maximum, in which it will be joined by the Advanced Space-born Solar Observatory (ASO-S), which China plans to launch in 2022.

A view of one of the grid fins on the upper portion of a Long March 2F rocket during assembly. To more can be seen on either side of the booster. Similar fins are used on SpaceX Falcon 9 boosters to maintain their attitude as they fall back through the atmosphere after launch. Credit: SAST

In addition to delivering a total of 10 satellites to orbit, the Long March was used to test a set of grid fins very similar in nature to those used by SpaceX on its Falcon 9 first stages, and which are believed to be part of move by China to develop a reusable launch system.