Space Sunday: China’s plans, and space memorials

China’s nascent space station during a test of its robot arm manoeuvring a Tianzhou automated re-supply vehicle. Credit: CASC

China has published an overview of its plans for the next five years in its space exploration endeavours. It builds on the last five years, which have seen a remarkable acceleration in China’s capabilities with in the introduction of new Long March 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11 rockets, the commencement of work on the country’s multi-module space station, and the launch of missions to the Moon and Mars.

In particular, the plan – published on January 28th, 2022 – indicates that as well as completing its new modular space station, China will seek to develop its space transportation capabilities, test new technologies, embark on both crewed and robotic exploration missions, modernise space governance, enhance innovation and boost international cooperation.

Notably, the plan confirms China intends to the undertake crewed missions to the lunar surface – most likely commencing in the late 2020s, and also folds current private-sector space activities that are in progress within the country into its overall national strategy, utilising the private sector to leverage new technologies and innovation.

Robotic missions confirmed in the paper include:

  • Chang’e-6: a second lunar sample-return mission, scheduled for a 2024 launch, which will return around 2.2 kg of material from up to 2 metres below the Moon’s surface.
  • Chang’e-7: a 4-part lunar mission that will include an orbiter, a lander, a rover, and a robotic “flying probe”, all of which will focus on the Moon’s South Pole.
  • Chang’e 8: a mission to test technologies expected to be used in the establishment of a lunar base.
The Chinese Chang’e robotic lunar missions will continue with Chang’e 6 through 8. Credit: CASC
  • An asteroid sample-return mission (possibly in cooperation with Russia).
  • Developing technologies that will be used for a Mars sample-return mission and for a deep space mission to Jupiter and its moons.

In addition, the paper highlights on-orbit crew operations aboard the new space station which will include a range of sciences and helping to lay the groundwork for human operations in cislunar space in order to make and support actual lunar landings. It also makes mention of the introduction of China’s new crew launch system that will replace the current Shenzhou vehicles, the continued development of a fully reusable space transportation system, and  a possible spaceplane launch system – most likely as a payload delivery system, although one Chinese company has stated it plans to commence operating a spaceplane that, launched vertically, could be used for space tourism flights and point-to-point passenger flights around the Earth.

Some of China’s emerging capabilities have given rise to a certain amount of fear-mongering in the west (and notably within America’s political right). One such mission is that of Shijian 21, referred to by China as a “space debris mitigation mission” and launched in October 25th October 2021, but denounced as an “anti-satellite” mission by the US Right and touted as another failure of President Biden’s “woke” policies.

China’s Shijian 21 was launched in October 21 and has now completed its primary mission: “orbital debris mitigation”. Credit; CCTV

However, on January 22nd, 2022, Shijian 21 docked with the defunct Beidou-2 G2 navigation satellite. The latter had failed to reach its assigned orbit following its launch in 2009, and had since become a risk to other geostationary satellites. Having successfully docked, Shijian 21 pushed the defunct satellite into a much higher orbit, eliminating it as a threat, thus confirming the mission is part of China’s desire to develop a capability to remove its own space debris from orbit, with the Shijian class of vehicle also potentially capable of supply satellites with propellants to extend their lifespan.

The paper is also the first time that China’s private sector space ventures have been mentioned in a government document. This is seen as both a recognition of the rapid growth of the country’s private / commercial space sector, and of the benefits of folding such work into the nation’s broader ambitions and goals – just as the United States has done through NASA contracts with SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, etc.

NASA Commemorates Comrades Lost

NASA has marked the 55th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire with a video commemorating those of the US astronaut corps who have lost their lives whilst preparing for, or during, a US mission into space.  Those commemorated are not the only people to have lost their lives in the quest to achieve a human presence in space, but within the west, the 17 who are commemorated in the video are perhaps the most well-known.

initially designated AS-204, Apollo 1 was intended to be the first  crewed mission of the United States Apollo program, undertaking an Earth orbital test of the Apollo Command and Service module. Set for launch on February 27th, 1967, the mission never took place.

During a full launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 on January 27th, 1967, a fire broke out within the command module and, due to the oxygen-rich nature of the atmosphere within the vehicle, coupled with the extensive use of flammable materials within it and the complex design of the entry / egress hatch, all three astronauts – Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee – were killed before the support crew on the launch gantry could successfully open the hatch to extract them from the vehicle.

Nineteen years later, on January 28th, 1986, the 25th flight of the Space Transportation System, officially designed STS-51-L, came to an abrupt end 68 seconds after launch when the massive external tank that fuelled the pace shuttle orbiter’s three main engines exploded beneath the vehicle, the result of a failure with one of the support solid rocket boosters. All seven souls aboard the shuttle Challenger  – mission commander  Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, pilot  Michael J. Smith, mission specialists Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik and  Ronald E. McNair, together with payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and S. Christa McAuliffe – were lost.

The third disaster marked by the video is that of the shuttle Columbia, lost on February 1st, 2003  at the end of the 113th shuttle system flight – and the vehicle’s 28th mission. It broke apart following re-entry into the atmosphere, the result of super-heated gases penetrating the vulnerable interior wing space of the vehicle as a result of damage received during the mission’s launch. Killed aboard it were Rick D. Husband (commander), William C. McCool (pilot), David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, Michael P. Anderson (mission specialists) and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon.

In Brief

First UK Space Launches Mired in Red Tape

Virgin Orbit hopes to conduct two launches of its LauncherOne air-launch system in mid-to-later 2022 from Cornwall Airport Newquay, also known as Spaceport Cornwall. However, both Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall require operational licenses from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), with Virgin Orbit, being based in the United States, also requiring a special license from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate from foreign shores.

Virgin Galactic and Spaceport Cornwall, UK, are awaiting licenses from the Civil Aviation Authority in order to commence planned launch operations. Credit: Spaceport Cornwall

Both the company and the spaceport submitted applications to the UK’s CAA in 2021, and remain confident the applications will be granted. However, CAA officials have thus far refused to indicate whether or not any licenses will be granted before the end of the year – up to and including refusing to answer questions on the subject from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Representative from the CAA would only state that they are “processing” applications, but it could take up to 18 months for a launch operator’s license to be granted to Virgin Orbit, this being the first such time the CAA has attempted to grant such a license.

Lucy’s Solar Panel Issues Identified

In October 2021, NASA launched one of its more ambitious space missions in the form of the Lucy mission, a 12-year endeavour to explore asteroids in both of the Trojan clouds lying both 60º ahead and behind Jupiter in its orbit around the Sun (see: Space Sunday: Transporting a Telescope, NS-18, Lucy and China).

However, following launch, the Lucy mission ran into difficulty when one of the probe’s two 7.3 m circular solar arrays failed to latch into its “open” position after unfurling. Subsequent telemetry checks confirmed the array had only furled to 347º instead of the full 360º.

In short, both arrays were designed to open like a fan, motors and lanyards being used to pull them from their furled and stowed position. However, it is now believed that as one of the arrays unfolded, tension was lost in the lanyard and it came off its spool and wrapped around the motor shaft, causing the deployment to stall with around 75 centimetres of the array still to be unfolded.

The Lucy space probe undergoing tests on Earth prior to launch and showing one of its 7.1 metres diameter solar arrays fully deployed. Credit: NASA

Engineers believe the motor likely has sufficient power to resume winding the lanyard in, but they want to complete a further assessment on the effect of having the lanyard coil around the motor shaft in order to better determine whether doing so will allow the array to properly deploy and latch.

But even if the array cannot be fully deployed, the twin panels are still delivering around 90% of Lucy’s overall power requirements, which is seen as more than enough to meet the demands of the mission. As such, there are no current plans to attempt a full deployment of the array before April 2022.

ULA Vulcan to Fly Star Trek Memorial Mission

2022 is due to the maiden payload-carrying flight of the new Vulcan-Centaur heavy-lift launch vehicle being developed by United Launch Alliance. Capable of delivering some 27.2 tonnes to low Earth orbit or 12.1 tonnes on a trans-lunar injection orbit, Vulcan-Centaur is principally designed to meet launch demands for the U.S. government’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) programme.

However, for its first mission, Vulcan will primarily be used to deliver Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon as a part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme. In addition, and as confirmed on January 26th, the launch will also be used to send ashes and DNA samples and messages belonging to 150 Star Trek luminaries and fans into deep space, all held within individual flight capsules.

Credit; Celestis Memorial Services

Dubbed Enterprise Flight in recognition of this special cargo, the capsules are part of a “space burial” service provided by Celestis Memorial Flights.

Chief among the ashes being flown on the mission are those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (some of whom’s ashes were spaced in space by Celestis in 1997), those of his second wife Majel Barrett-Roddenberry (Number One and Nurse (later Doctor) Christine Chapel in the original Star Trek television series and motion pictures), and  Lwaxana Troi (Star Trek: The Next Generation; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and the voice of the majority of computer interfaces in the franchise between 1966 and 2009), and James “Jimmy” Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott in the original Star Trek series and motion pictures and Star Trek: The Next Generation).

We’re fulfilling a promise I made to Majel Barrett Roddenberry in 1997 that one day we would fly her and husband together on a deep space memorial spaceflight.

– Celestis CEO Charles Chafer

Gene Roddenberry and Majel Barrett-Roddenberry (l) and James Doohan: ashes to be flown into an orbit around the Sun as part of the maiden payload launch of the ULA Vulcan-Centaur launch vehicle. Credit: various.

The 150 capsules will be stored within the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. After this has placed the Peregrine mission lander on its trans-lunar injection orbit, it will continue onto an stable Sun-centric orbit.

The launch – which still has its date to be confirmed by ULA – will mark the 20th such memorial flight made by Celestis.