Following its launch on December 25th, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has completed several major steps in the deploying its critical hardware as it continues its month-long voyage towards its operational orbit at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point.
Here’s a brief summary of what has happened thus far with deployments.
In the early houses of Wednesday, December 29th (UTC), Earth, JWST unfolded the forward sunshield pallet, lowering it away from its stowed position in front of the central deployable tower supporting the (still folded) primary and secondary mirror assemblies and the telescope’s massive radiator, and containing JWST’s vital electronics and science instruments.
The lowering process took 20 minutes to complete, and was followed by the aft sunshield pallet being unfolded from behind the mirror tower in an 18-minute operation. After this, JWST went through several hours of additional operations, including ensuring the pallets were correctly in place and their sub-systems operational, and orienting the observatory with respect to the Sun to provide optimal shielding when the sunshield is deployed and tensioned. Once all this was completed, the command was given for the pallets to lock themselves in their deployed condition.
Later on the 29th, the deployable tower was raised some 1.2 metres from its “stowed” state over a 6-hour period. This moved it away from JWST’s thrusters and provided the room needed for the sunshields to be deployed and tensioned.
Thursday, December 30th saw the deployment of the sunshield commence. A three-part process, and one vital to the observatory’s operations, this started with the drawing back of the membranes that have protected the delicate sunshield.
On December 31st, the booms that extend the five layers of the sunshield were extended. Operations began at 18:30 UTC, with the five segments of the portside boom extending outwards from the mid-point between the two sunshield pallets. The procedure took just over three hours to complete, and was followed by the extension of the starboard boom, which took a similar amount of time, also drawing out the membranes of the sunshield on that side of the telescope.
Overall, the deployment of both booms took longer than anticipated, but was successfully completed, with operations then being halted for New Years Day. On January 2nd, operations resumed on the tensioning of the membranes. A 2-day operation, this involves separating each of the 5 membranes from the others and then tensioning it using the side booms and four fore-and-aft boom mechanisms. Once this has been completed, the focus will switch to deploying the telescope’s “eyes” – its secondary and primary mirrors.
The other news on the programme is that such was the accuracy with which the Ariane 5 placed JWST onto its transfer orbit, coupled with the smoothness of the first “mid-course” thruster burns, far less propellants that had been estimated. This now means that the observatory has sufficient reserves to complete at least a 10-year mission (although NASA remains focused on the 5-year primary mission).
Space Highlights for 2022
I generally try to look ahead to key space events at the start of the year, and while this may not be as comprehensive as previous years, but the following is offered as a broad summary of high points.
Several new launch vehicles will undergo initial launch tests / flight in 2022, including:
- Block 1 NASA Space Launch System (USA): maiden flight, February 2022 carrying the Artemis 1 mission hardware and cubesats for ten missions in the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI), and three missions in the Cube Quest Challenge. The payloads will be sent on a trans-lunar injection trajectory.
- SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy (USA): designed to lift up to 100-150 tonnes to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) when operational, SpaceX should complete at least two orbital launch attempts in 2022.
- Blue Origin New Glenn (USA): a semi-reusable (eventually fully reusable) heavy lift launch vehicle capable of lifting 45 tonne to LEO orbit and 13.6 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). Test launch currently schedule for Q4 2022, with customer launches commencing in February 2023 (5 customers already signed-up).
- Vulcan-Centaur (USA): a heavy-lift launch vehicle developed by United Launch Alliance primarily for use with US government National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program. Capable of lifting up to 27.2 tonnes to LEO; up to 26.2 to ISS orbit; 24 tonnes to polar orbit; 7.2 tonnes to GEO and 14.4 tonne to GTO.
- ArianeSpace Ariane 6 (Europe): maiden flight scheduled for late 2022. A multi-function rocket capable of lifting up to 21 tonnes to LEO, up to 11.5 tonnes to GTO, 5.5 tonnes to geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), up to 15.5 tonnes to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) and 8.6 tonnes to lunar transfer orbit (LTO). Ariane 6 is designed to compete with SpaceX Falcon 9 in terms of launch costs.
- ArianeSpace Vega-C (Europe): maiden flight of the latest evolution of the Vega small satellite launch vehicle, capable of delivering 1.4 tonnes to polar orbit, 1.96 tonnes to an elliptic orbit, and 1.45 tonnes to SSO.
- H3 (Japan): capable of delivering up to 4 tonnes to SSO and 7.9 tonnes to GTO.
- SSLV (India): a small satellite launcher capable of delivering up to 600 kg to orbit.
In addition numerous commercial space entities in the USA, China, Korea, India, Canada, Brazil, UK, Germany and Australia will attempt launches of are range of smaller rocket systems. There will also be further space tourism flights.
- Meteor showers:
- May 30th/31st: The Earth passes through a dense cloud of meteoroids expelled by the fracture of the nucleus of comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3. The (relatively) slow-moving meteors should be visible from Europe and particularly North America.
- August 12: Perseid meteor shower reaches a peak, although observation may be hindered by the reflected light of the full Moon. The shower should also be visible at night in Europe and North America during the weeks before / after August 12th.
- December 12th/13th: Geminid meteor shower peaks.
- April 30th: partial solar eclipse visible from the South Pacific Ocean, and southern and western portions of South America, including Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, southern Peru southern Bolivia, western Paraguay and a tiny slice of Brazil.
- May 15th/16th: total lunar eclipse most fully visible along the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington State and across much of western and north-central Canada.
- October 25th partial solar eclipse visible from an eastern slice of Greenland and all of Iceland, as well as most of Europe (except Portugal and the western and southern portions of Spain), northeast Africa and in varying extent over much of western and central Asia.
- Planetary alignments:
- Mid February to mid-March: Venus, Mars and Mercury will share the sky during pre-dawn mornings, aligned to the south-east (northern hemisphere, with Mercury to lowest on the horizon.
- April 5th: Mars and Saturn will be in close proximity and visible to the naked eye before dawn towards the south-south-east (northern hemisphere), with Venus close by. Their proximity should allow their differences in colour to be seen.
- April 27th-30th: Jupiter joins the party, being visible low on the south-south-east (northern hemisphere) before sunrise, with the crescent Moon below.
- Mid-to-late June: early morning skies will reveal a line formed by 5 planets and the Moon arrayed from east-to-south (northern hemisphere), with Mercury the lowest to the east, then Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, with the Moon gradually moving between them from south-to-east.
- September 26th: Jovian opposition – Jupiter will appear on the opposite side of the Earth relative to the Sun whilst making its closest approach to Earth since 1963 at a distance of 591.2 million km, making it ideal for observations.
- Possible naked-eye comet: Comet C/2021 O3 will pass to within 42.8 million km of the sun on April 21st, and may reach magnitude 4 brightness, bright enough to see with the naked eye. If visible, it will be low in the west-northwest sky shortly after sunset (northern hemisphere).
Key Missions – Brief Summary
- The James Webb Space Telescope will reach its operational orbit at the end of January. It will then engage in a commissioning period lasting several month. The observatory will then commence the first Cycle 1 GO programme of its 5-year mission, involving 266 proposals for observations and studies.
- Boeing / NASA will attempt the second orbital flight test of the CST-100 Starliner, designed to fly crews to / from the ISS. If successful, the first crew mission could take place before the end of 2022.
- The European / Japanese BepiColumbo mission to Mercury will perform its second (of 6) flyby of the planet, further slowing itself in preparation to eventually enter orbit in 2025.
- The Juno mission will complete its 45th close flyby of Jupiter and perform a close pass over the icy moon Europa on September 29th.
- The Double Asteroid Redirection Test DART mission will impact the minor asteroid Dimorphus on October 2nd, to test the kinetic diversion of an asteroid.
- Lucy, NASA’s mission to visit 8 different asteroids will perform its first gravity assist of Earth on 16th October.
Starship / Super Heavy
SpaceX has postponed the first orbital launch attempt of their Starship / Super Heavy launch system until at least March 2022. This is primarily because the Federal Aviation Administration has stated it will not complete its final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) until the end of February 2022, due to the 18,000 public comments both for and against SpaceX’s plans for their Boca Chica, Texas, facilities. Completion and final review of the PEA is a vital requirement for any licence to be granted to allow orbital launches to take place from the facility.
An additional reason for the delay is – frankly – things aren’t ready. Further work (possibly) intensive) is required on the orbital launch stand. Unlike the majority of launch pads, the stand used by Starship / Super Heavy carries out many crucial roles that would normally be carried out directly by a rocket, or handled via the launch support tower (that would keep them well away from the flames and heat of engine exhausts). So crucial, in fact that the launch stand is referred to as “stage zero” for all launches.
Right now, the launch stand lacks full and proper protection for all the systems it carries / contains against the heat, explosive force and noise the 7,500 tonnes of thrust a Super Heavy generates at launch. To this end and following a successful test of the “torch” igniters that will ensure all the Raptor engines fire correctly at ignition. Booster 4 was removed from the launch stand to allow work to continue. Also, just before Christmas, Starship 20 completed a further 2-3 second Static fire test of its six Raptor motors.
China Blames SpaceX for “Near Misses”
China has blamed SpaceX for two “near-misses” between Starlink satellites and the Tianhe-1 core module of the new Chinese space station.
Starlink satellites typically orbit at around 550 km above the surface of the Earth, with the Chinese and International space stations orbiting around 100 km lower. However, in July and October, SpaceX moved two of their Starlink satellites in lower orbits, likely in preparation to de-orbit them for burn-up in the upper atmosphere, and their proximity to Tianhe-1 prompted mission controllers to order the module to change its orbit.
The Chinese complaint is somewhat salty in nature. Their own military and space operations have caused their share of issues with near-misses and careless actions. In 2007, the test of a Chinese anti-satellite system left the ISS having to avoid a shower of debris (much like in the case of the Russian ASAT test carried out in November- see Space Sunday: Debris, Artemis delays, SpaceX Plans).
Further, the first stage of the Long March 4 heavy lift launcher has not been equipped with the ability to correctly de-orbit itself on at least 2 launches, resulting in the potential for elements of those boosters (such as engines) to survive re-entry and strike populated areas. Also, in 2018, China refused to acknowledge they had lost control of their Tiangong-1 orbital laboratory, which also made an uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere, again risking potential debris impacting populated areas.
Nevertheless, the Chinese complaint feeds into growing concern over the Starlink mega-constellation, currently numbering 1,800 satellites, which another 12,000 approved by the FAA. In particular, they have caused considerable interference for astronomers and added to the complexity of tracking space debris. In addition, SpaceX has been sharply criticised across the space sector for what amounts at times to bullying tactics and refusals to cooperate with others.
Iran Makes 2nd Launch of the Year
Iran is not generally noted for being a space-capable nation, but the fact is, the country has been undertaking flights of sub-orbital and orbit-capable rockets since 2007, and has been developing a and flying a range of launch vehicles.
Currently, these comprise the Safir, Simorgh and Zuljanah satellite launch vehicles (SLVs), capable of placing 60 kg, 350 kg and 22 kg payloads into LEO respectively. These have been used to launch a range of small payloads into space, including domestically-built communications satellites; imaging satellite, Earth observation payload, and even monkeys (other satellites built by Iran have been launched by China and Russia).
On December 30th, Iran carried out a launch of a Simorgh vehicle, said to be carrying three science payloads. Currently, it’s not clear how successful the launch may have been – initial reports out of Iran suggested the vehicle reach orbit successfully, but given there has been no confirmation of the payloads achieving their own orbits, it’s believed any subsequent deployment failed.
The Simorgh launch was the second made by Iran in 2021, the other being a test flight of its Zuljanah SLV. The country has also indicated it is developing two large launch vehicles Qoqnoos and Soroush, the latter capable of lifting 8 t0 15 tonnes to LEO.
Iran’s launch capabilities have been sharply criticised in some quarters due to the launch vehicles being seen as also being capable of launching nuclear weapons payloads – the Revolutionary Guard utilises its own variant of the Safir and Simorgh. The December 30th launch has been seen by some the West as a deliberate move to remind the world of Iran’s launch capabilities in the wake of the on-going renegotiations of the atomic accord, idiotically broken by the 45th President of the United States amidst a series of false claims.