Space Sunday: Ups and Downs

An artist’s rendering of the ispace HAKUTO-R M1 lunar lander. Credit: ispace

Japan’s first attempt at a lunar landing appears to have ended with the loss of the vehicle – once again proving that, for all its successes, spaceflight is nowhere close to being a certainty.

Launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 in December 11th, 2023 on a low-energy ballistic trajectory that carried it 1.4 million km from Earth before starting on its return, with the Moon getting in the way to allow the vehicle enter an extended elliptical orbit on March 20th, 2023. Over the course of the next several weeks that orbit was circularised, allowing the vehicle to attempt a landing on April 25th.

Essentially a private mission – the lander was built by Tokyo-based ispace – the craft was carrying a set of private and government-sponsored payloads. Among them was Rashid, a small lunar rover developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in the United Arab Emirates, and a “transformable lunar robot” the size of a baseball from Japan’s space agency JAXA. Other payloads include cameras and technology demonstrations.

ispace originally started as a partner of Netherlands-based White Label Space, founded in 2008 to compete in the Google Lunar X Prize. The team then became White Label Space, Japan LLC. They then become Hakuto in order to compete directly in in the Lunar V Prize, developing the Sorato rover before finally transitioning into its present form. Credit: Syced

The landing was streamed live and appeared to initially go well, the HAKUTO-R M1 vehicle having survived its extended trip to the Moon with only minor issues, all of which ispace were able to rectify.  However, during the final part of the lander’s decent – whilst it was still some 80 metres above the lunar surface, close to Atlas Crater and descending at a rate of 48 km/h, the telemetry readings for the lander appeared to switch from live data to a simulation, with no subsequent confirmation of a safe landing or any further receipt of telemetry.

ispace initially acknowledged the potential vehicle loss 25 minutes after the planned landing. It came after repeated attempts at communication had failed; six hours after that, the company issued a statement confirming they believed the vehicle had been lost.

During the lander’s final approach to the surface [the] estimated remaining propellant reached at the lower threshold and shortly afterward the descent speed rapidly increased. Based on this, it has been determined that there is a high probability that the lander eventually made a hard landing on the Moon’s surface … it has been determined that Success 9 of the Mission 1 Milestones, successfully landing on the Moon and establishing communications, is no longer achievable.

– ispace announcement on the loss of the HAKUTO-R M1 lander

Despite the loss, Takeshi Hakamada, founder and chief executive of ispace, believes the mission yielded valuable data from both the development and flight of the M1 lander. This, he said would be fed into the company’s next lander mission – M2 – which is targeting a late 2024 launch. It will carry a set of customer payloads as well as a “micro rover” that ispace developed. That rover will collect a regolith sample that will be transferred to NASA under a 2020 contract awarded to ispace’s European subsidiary.

Ingenuity Snaps Perseverance

A panoramic view of Belva Crater captured by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter during its 51st flight on April 22nd, 2023, the 772nd Martian day, or sol of the Mars 2020 mission. Within it can be seen – upper left and upper right edges – two of the helicopter’s landing feet, and just below and to the right of the image centre is the helicopter’s own shadow. Taken at an altitude of 12 metres, the picture also shows – top left (and just above and inboard of Ingenuity’s landing foot), at the foot of a create wall slope – the Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Voyager 2 Gets Extended Mission Life

NASA engineers have developed a means to extend the science lifespan of their venerable Voyager 2 space probe beyond its already impressive 45 years – and could do the same for the Voyager 1 craft.

The twin Voyager programme vehicles, launched in August and September 1977 respectively, are the only human-made spacecraft to reach interstellar space.  Together, they are helping scientists understand the heliosphere, the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields generated by the Sun, informing them as to its shape and its role in protecting Earth from the energetic particles and other radiation found in the interstellar environment. At the same time, the vehicles are helping those scientists also understand the nature of the environment beyond our solar system.

An artist’s rendering of Voyager 2 in deep space. Credit: NASA/JPL

However, whilst powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which convert heat from decaying plutonium into electricity, the two vehicles have a limited source of power, the RTGs generating less and less electricity as the plutonium degrades.

Thus far, the flow of electricity to the science instruments has been maintained by means of turning off other systems as they’ve ceased being required – such as the high-power camera systems – and those which do not contribute to the science mission or communications. Nevertheless it has been estimated by late 2023, Voyager 2 would be unable to generate sufficient power to manage its instruments, and NASA would have to start turning them off one by one.

To avoid this, engineers carried out a review of the craft’s systems, and realised that the voltage regulation system, designed to protect the science instruments against unexpected surges in the flow of electricity to them, has a small percent of power from the vehicle RTG specifically dedicated to it; a reserve that isn’t actually required, as it also works off the primary supply. The decision has therefore been taken to release this reserve and allow the instructions access it.

This does mean that if there is a serious voltage issue on the vehicle, the regulator might not be able to deal with it – but as engineers note, after 45 years of continuous operations, the regulators on both of the Voyager craft have been perfectly stable and have never needed to draw on the reserve. While the amount of power freed-up by the move is small, it nevertheless means NASA can forestall any need to start turning off instruments until 2026.

The same approach can also be taken with Voyager 1, although the situation there is less critical at that craft lost one of its science instruments relatively early in the mission, leaving it with sufficient power to keep the remaining instruments through until the end of 2024 before decisions on releasing the power reserve needs to be taken.

JUICE Needs Juice for Antenna Deployment

Europe’s flagship Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, JUICE mission has hit an early snag the mission team is trying to rectify.

As I reported on April 17th, JUICE is an ambitious multi-year mission to probe the secrets of three of Jupiter’s large Galilean moons – Callisto and (in particular) Europa and Ganymede. Successfully launched on April 14th,  the vehicle is currently on the initial leg of a complex dance around the inner solar system in which it will use the gravities of the Moon, Earth and Venus to built up the momentum it needs and slingshot it on its way to Jupiter without the need to carry vast amounts of propellants to power itself all the way there.

An artist’s rendering of ESA’s JUICE spacecraft orbiting Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Credit: ESA/ ATG MediaLab

During this early phase of the flight, the vehicle is also supposed to deploy and commission all 11 of its science instrumentation; but one of the most critical elements of this instrumentation is proving to be recalcitrant. A 16-metre long radar boom is refusing to extend.

Imaginatively called RIME – Radar for Icy Moons Exploration – the radar boom, when fully deployed, is designed to allow JUICE to probe the ice-covered surfaces of Ganymede and Europa to depths of up to 9 km to see what lay beneath. However, following initial attempts to deploy the boom, it appears to be caught within its mounting bracket, possibly due to a small release pin failing to disengage.

It is thought the pin might have become stuck during the initial release of the boom from its stowed position – images captured from JUICE shoe the boom starting to deploy then coming to an abrupt a halt – or that has it is on the “shadowed” side of the vehicle and out of direct sunlight, the pin may have partially frozen in place.

A .GIF capturing the RIME radar boom aboard ESA’s JUICE mission starting to deploy and then snagging, possibly due to a stuck release pin. Credit: ESA
A matter of millimetres could make the difference to set the rest of the radar free [we currently have] have lots of ideas up our sleeves to free it. The next steps to fully deploy the antenna include an engine burn to shake the spacecraft a little, followed by a series of rotations that will turn JUICE, warming up the mount and radar, which are currently in the cold shadows.

– ESA JUICE team statement

Currently, the team are not panicking about the issue; the cruise around the inner solar system over the next few years offers planet of opportunities to free-up the boom and to get RIME properly calibrated for operations. In the meantime, all 10 of the other science instruments on the vehicle are behaving as expected, and each will go through a commissioning and calibration process.

Russia Commits to ISS Until 2028

Russia has finally committed to the International Space Station (ISS) through unto the end of 2028, marking it as the last of the current partners in the project to do so.

As noted numerous times in these pages, Russia has made various noises about withdrawing from the ISS at some point after the end of the current partnership period in 2024. The loudest of these voices was that of former head of Roscosmos,  Dmitry Rogozin, who in the wake of international condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, made noises about the “after” being sooner rather than later in the post-2024 period.

Captured in 2021 from a NASA / SpaceX crew mission, this image shows the ISS with the international modules suspended “below” the main truss and the Russian segment “above” it, framed between the station’s radiator panels. Credit: NASA / SpaceX

But on April 25th, 2023 current Roscosmos director Yuri Borisov confirmed with the other ISS partners that the Russian government has agreed to see the station through to the previously-confirmed end-date of the end of 2028. However, in a statement made on Russian social media, he re-stated his scepticism that the ISS mission can be extended through until the end of 2030. In particular, Borisov has (not incorrectly) stated that some of the modules – notably those of the Russian segment of the station – are well beyond their planned lifespan, and aren’t exactly aging well.

Alongside of allowing the ISS to continue operations, the announcement means the current waiver to sanctions imposed by the United States’ Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) will continue, allowing NASA to barter seats on its ISS crew ferry vehicles with Roscosmos, allowing Russian cosmonauts to fly on American vehicles and US nationals to fly on Russian Soyuz vehicles.

Phobos: Our Clearest View Yet

Credit: UAE Space Agency

The above may appear to be computer-generated, but it is in fact one of the clearest, most high-resolution image thus far obtained of Deimos, the outmost (and smallest, being just 15 km across at its widest point) moon of Mars. It orbits the planet at a distance of around 20,000km, and the image was one of of 27 images of the tiny moon – thought to be a captured asteroid, as within the slightly larger (27 km across) cousin – captured by on March 23rd, 2023 by the “forgotten mission” to Mars, the UAE’s Hope mission.

At the time the images were taken, the vehicle was just 100km from Deimos, the closest any spacecraft has been in 50 years, and while it has been subject to post processing to remove many defects caused by the camera system, and contrast and brightness have been adjusted, it offers dramatic view of the tiny moon as it tumbles around Mars.

Virgin Group’s Space Ups and Downs

Subsidiaries of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group continue to have ups and downs. On the ups, Virgin Galactic has resumed flights – albeit on a test basis – with an April 26th test flight involving both MSS Eve, the company’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier / launch aircraft and VSS Unity, the first (and only) operational SpaceShipTwo sub-orbital passenger carrying vehicle.

The flight was the first since Unity made its first passenger-carrying flight – featuring Branson and other Virgin Galactic personnel – in July 2021. Ahead of that flight it had been indicated both Eve and Unity would afterwards enter a period of prolonged maintenance for up to two years duration, although the period extended well beyond that.

Having itself completed its first flight following the overhaul period in February, Eve lifted Unity into the skies over New Mexico, climbing to an altitude of 14.3 km before releasing the sub-orbital spaceplane in an unpowered glide back to a landing, piloted by a crew of two. Intended as a general check-out of Unity’s flight systems, the test now paves the way for a further “passenger check-out flight”, which will see Unity attempt a powered flight test with four more Virgin Galactic personnel joining the pilots to ascertain the vehicle’s readiness to receive the first of some 800 people confirmed as having paid for a trip on the spaceplane.

Caught via a camera mounted on the tail boom, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane is released from its VMS Eve mothership on a glide flight in New Mexico April 26th, 2023. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic plans to start these commercial flights later in the second quarter of 2023, the first of which will be a dedicated science flight featuring members of the Italian Air Force. Flights are then planned to proceed on a monthly basis, the upgrades to Eve and Unity designed to allow both to undertake a higher cadence of flights.

For Eve, these flights will include carrying the company’s new Spaceship III vehicle, VSS Imagine on a series of tests in preparation for it to enter service alongside Unity. While it has yet to be confirmed, it is expected that MSS Eve will at some point be joined by the MSS Spirit of Steve Fossett, the second WhiteKnightTwo carrier vehicle Virgin Galactic ordered in 2008 and named for Steve Fossett, the American businessman, record-setting aviator and long-time friend of Branson, who was killed in an aircraft accident in 2007.

The downs for the Virgin Group come as Virgin Orbit, the air-launched payloads-to-orbit company, continues to struggle to find purchasers in the wake of its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Under the filing, the company has until May 4th for potential bidders to declare their interest, with final bids to be made no later than May 14th.

In a statement released by the company on April 19th, two options for its future were outlined: in the first, the company’s assets would be sold with a view to dissolution and a view of meeting the fiscal requirements of “all stakeholders and creditors”, in the second (and hoped for) path, a buy-out would allow the company to fully restructure and complete its next launch – already bought and paid for, and with the LauncherOne rocket due to deliver it to orbit some “90% flight-ready” – before resuming a cadence of launchers at around 4 per year from 2024 and increasing the rate in meet demand.

The (possibly final) flight of the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne vehicle came of January 9th, 2023, starting at Spaceport Cornwall. Credit: Virgin Orbit

However, the sticking-point remains in finding a buyer willing to commit to the latter course. On April 19th, the company released the results of the loss of its last launch attempt (and the first payload-to-orbit launch attempt that commenced from UK soil), which has been put down to the failure of a now re-designed fuel filter which prevented second stage engine ignition. It has been hoped that the release of this report, together with information on the remedial actions taken would stir the interest of potential buyers, but this is thus far not been the case, leaving the company’s future looking bleak.


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