Space Sunday: launches, returns and tests

A shot from the viewing stand at Kennedy Space Centre showing Artemis 1 on Pad 39B, and in the foreground is a sign marking the 5 Apollo launches, 53 space shuttle launches and single Constellation launch undertaken from the complex. Credit: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

NASA has confirmed that the first launch of its Space Launch system rocket will still go ahead on November 16th, 2022.

Concerns about the launch had been raised after the US space agency decided to leave the vehicle on the pad in the face of category 1 tropical storm Nicole, which made a Florida landfall south of Kennedy Space Centre on November 10th, with high winds and rain lashing the launch centre. However, in a statement made on November 1tth after the storm had passed, NASA stated the vehicle had suffered only minor damage – all of which will be rectified in time for the launch attempt to go ahead.

NASA was aware of the approaching storm ahead of returning the vehicle to Pad 39B on November 4th, but at the time, Nicole was an unnamed mild tropical storm with wind speeds measured at between 65-74 km/h, well below the threat level for the rocket and its launch systems. However, following roll-out to the pad, the storm rapidly strengthened, and the decision was taken to leave the rocket bolted to the launch pad rather than being caught on the move on the back of the crawler-transporter.

Overall, winds at the pad during the worst of the storm reached 132 km/h at 18 metres above the ground – just 5 km/h below the stress limit for the vehicle at that height. At the top of the tower, the wind was recorded at 160 km/h against an October 2021 stated maximum for rocket and launch tower of 172 km/h. These resulted in some damage being done to covers that would be detached during launch.

An updated infographic for the Artemis 1 flight. Credit: NASA

The November 16th launched of Artemis 1 is – as I’ve noted before – designed to send an uncrewed Orion vehicle on an extended flight to cislunar space utilising a distant retrograde orbit (DRO) around the Moon. It will last some 39 days and is designed to be the final uncrewed test flight of Orion (and the first Orion flight to use the European-built Service Module to supply the capsule with power and propulsion) as well as the first test flight of SLS itself.

As well as testing the various vehicles and their systems for operation on missions to the Moon – and in preparation for sending humans onwards to Mars in the future – the Orion vehicle will also be carrying a set of sensor-laden mannequins dubbed “Moonikins”. As I’ve previously noted, two of these are part of research to better understand the radiation environment of space beyond the Earth’s protective magnetic field.

Despite the cavalier attitude shown towards it by the likes of SpaceX’s Elon Musk (radiation is “not that big a problem”), there is much we do not know about the impact of cosmic radiation on the human body – although there is  growing evidence that long-terms exposure to GCRs and solar energetic particles (SEPs) can be extensively damaging – 60% of astronauts who have spent extended time on the ISS have developed herpes through the re-activation of naturally-occurring viruses in the human body such as the Epstein–Barr virus (EBV) as a likely result GCR / SEP exposure¹. These viruses can also give rise to serious medical conditions and (as well as the radiation itself) can also be responsible for various cancers².

This being the case, the “Moonikins” are constructed from materials that mimic human bone and tissue, as well as organs unique to adult females, such as breast tissue and ovaries, which are particularly susceptible to radiation damage. Equipped with over 6,000 sensors, the “Moonkins” are linked to a series of Earth-based computational 3D models which include cardiac and respiratory motions and can simulate any number of diseases. Overall, the aim is to gain a clearer understanding of the potential impact of high-energy radiation on human tissue, bone and organs that can hopefully help determine better means of mitigation – be it through recommendations on general exposure during things like space walks / lunar surface operations, or providing better primary and secondary radiation protection through the materials used in space vehicles and space suits.

An Artist’s rendering of the Artemis 1 Orion vehicle  showing “Commander Moonikin Campos”, a full-body “Moonikin” designed to test the Orion Crew Survival System Suit (OCSSS), designed to be worn for up to 6 days and preserve the wearer’s life in the event of an issue with the vehicle’s primary life support systems, together with the two radiation research torsos “Helga” and “Zohar”.  Credit: NASA / Lockheed Martin

In the meantime. those wishing to watch the launch of Artemis 1 can do so via NASA TV. The launch window opens at 06:04 UTC on Wednesday, November 2022 and lasts for 2 hours – although NASA is aiming to launch as close to the opening of the window as possible, with coverage of the launch preparations commencing some 24 hours in advance of the launch window opening.

Should the mission miss the November 16th launch window, there will be two further opportunities during the month. The first will open at 06:45 UTC on Saturday, November 19th, and the second on Friday, November 25th. Both will be “short form” missions of 25 days and between 26 and 28 days respectively. Should the mission miss those dates, there is an extended launch opportunity running from December 9th through 23rd (excluding December 10th, 14th, 18th and 23rd as currently stated by NASA), with windows then resuming in January 2023.

X-37B Returns Home

The US Space Force has ended the 6th flight of its orbital space plane, bringing the vehicle through re-entry and a rolling landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, Florida on Saturday November 12th, 2022. The landing brought to an end a mission of 908 days in space, the vehicle having launched on May 17th, 2020.

Officially called the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the X-37B comprises two uncrewed vehicles of the same design, which together have completed six orbital missions for a combined time in space of 3,774.4 days (10.34 years). It was the first of these vehicles – OTV-1 – that completed this latest mission, itself slightly confusingly referred to as OTV-6, the first of these missions to be flown completely under the auspices of the United States Space Force, even if the vehicle carries the markings of the US Air Force.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1) sits on the runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre following its landing on November. 12, 2022 to conclude the 908-day OTV-6 mission. Credit: U.S. Space Force

The exact function of the 8.92 metre long vehicle is rated as classified, leading it being labelled as a weapons platform. However, its primary cargoes thus far have been purely scientific in nature, with payloads being both military and civil in nature.

With this most recent flight, OTV-1 carried NASA’s Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space, designed to further understand the effects of the space environment on different types of materials. It also carried an experiment to investigate the effects of long-duration space exposure on seeds. Past flights have carried both classified and unclassified tests of high-frequency communications and experimental propulsion systems, and one from the US Navy to convert sunlight directly into electrical energy.

A further first for this mission was the use of an expendable service module designed to both further extend the vehicle’s operational duration – the X-37B was originally designed to spend a maximum of 270 days at a time in space – and host additional experiments. This module was jettisoned from the vehicle prior to its return to Earth.

This mission highlights the Space Force’s focus on collaboration in space exploration and expanding low-cost access to space for our partners, within and outside of the Department of the Space Force.

– General Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, USSF.

SpaceX Moving Towards Booster 7 Static Fire Tests

SpaceX has taken a further step towards a full static fire test of its Super Heavy booster as it continues to move towards the first orbital flight attempt of the Super Heavy / Starship combination.

As reported in my previous Space Sunday update, the company has been carrying out a series of cryogenic and pressurisation tests of both Booster 7 and Ship 24 – the pairing of booster and orbital vehicle to make this first attempt to reach orbit. These tests ended on Tuesday, November 8th, when Ship 24 was “unstacked” from the booster and moved to a sub-orbital test stand after its sibling, Ship 25, which had been undergoing its own propellant tanks cryogenic and pressurisations tests, being returned to the production facilities at Starbase Boca Chica, Texas,  most likely to have its Raptor motors installed.

The “Mechazilla” arms on the SpaceX orbital launch tower start to lift Ship 24 clear of Booster 7 on Tuesday, November 8th, 2022. Credit: NasaSpaceFlight.com (not a NASA affiliate)

The removal of Ship 24 from Booster 7 leaves the way clear for the latter to undergo a further static fire engine test – part of the pre-requisites for any flight test. One such test has already been carried out with seven of the Booster’s 33 motors, and it is widely speculated that any forthcoming static fire test will involve around 14-15 of the booster’s motors, and could occur in the next week. A successful test should pave the way for a static fire of all of the vehicle’s motors, possibly before the end of November.

China Launches Tianzhou 5; Seeks to Launch More Long March 5 Vehicles

Following the successful rendezvous and docking of the Mengtian science module to their Tiangong space station, China has now furthered the operational campaign of the space station with the launch and rendezvous of the automated Tianzhou 5 re-supply vehicle.

The 10.6-metre long, 13.5-tonne (including 6.7 tonnes of cargo) vehicle departed the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre, Hainan Province in on November 12th, lifted aloft by a Long March 7 booster. It was placed on a “fast rendezvous” track to the space station, reaching it just over 2 hours after launch. On arrival, it moved to dock with the rear axial docking port of the Tianhe-1  core module. That port had been occupied by the Tianzhou 4 re-supply vehicle since May 10th, 2022. However, that vehicle was detached from the station on November 9th under autonomous control and placed into an orbit in preparation for it to be safely de-orbited.

Images from China’s mission control showing pictures returned from Tiangong space station showing the Tianzhou 5 re-supply vehicle about to dock with the Tianhe-1 core module. Credit: CMSA

Tianzhou 5’s arrival at the station signals a further shift in Tiangong’s status as being “under construction” to being “operational”; it brings with it supplies for the upcoming Shenzhou 15 crew, who will flying to the station in December, and additional propellants for the station’s manoeuvring systems.

As I’ve recently covered, China has not made itself popular within the international community thanks to its unwillingness to manage the re-entries of the 21-tonne core stages of its Long March 5B booster. Most recently, the uncontrolled re-entry of such a core stage – the one used in the recent launch of the Mengtian space station module – saw cities and airspace across southern Europe and the Middle East on alert. This being the case, the news that China plans to step up the cadence of Long March 5B launches has raised some concerns.

In a statement made on November 11th, 2022, Liu Bing, director of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), indicated that the Long March 5 booster will be transferred to “high density” launches. This means offering the vehicle to China’s emerging “private sector” space industry as a launch platform, and using it in high-volume “constellation” type launches of multiple satellites in one pass (as SpaceX does with its Starlink network).

To achieve this, the Long March 5B booster will likely be paired with the  Yuanzheng-2 (YZ-2) upper stage. This may overcome the need for the core stage to achieve its own orbital velocity in lifting payloads, leaving it on a sub-orbital track to fall back into the ocean downrange from the launch site – although China has not, as yet, committed to this, and the YZ-2 tends to operate with varying levels of efficiency depending on the payload.

In the meantime, the next Long March 5B launch is due in late 2023, when the vehicle will be used to launch the free-flying Xuntian, the Chinese Survey Space Telescope (CSST), designed to operate alongside the Tiangong space station.

Footnotes

  1. Herpes Virus Reactivation in Astronauts During Spaceflight and Its Application on Earth, Rooney, Crucian, et al, NASA JSC, GeoControl System, Houston, etc. 2019.
  2. Radiation Shielding: The Astronomical Problem of Protecting Astronauts on Mars, Madelyn Hoying, Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and John G. Rangos, Sr. School of Health Sciences, Duquesne University, 2019.

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