Space Sunday: starships, dishes and microbes

A stunning image of Starship SN9 standing on the Boca Chica launch platform framed by a low Sun. Credit: Mary “BocaChicaGal”

In December 2020, and following the not-quite-successful flight of Starship prototype SN8, SpaceX suffered what might have been a further setback in their flight test plans for the Starship vehicle, when prototype SN9 toppled sideways whilst in the stacking facility at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, construction and flight test centre (see: Space Sunday: the flight of SN8 and a round-up).

However, the vehicle was quickly righted and following examination, work commenced on repairing / replacing the damaged elements (notably one of the forward aerodynamic surfaces). This work proceeded at a surprising pace; so much so that on December 22nd, 2020, it was delivered to he Starship launch platform.

Since then work has continued at the same rapid pace, such that within the two weeks since its arrival on the stand, SN9 has completed the majority of its pre-flight checks that took around 2 months to complete for SN8. These included initial fuel tank pressurisation tests using inert liquid nitrogen (to test the tanks and structure for leaks), partial and fuel test fuelling operations, vent system tests, testing of the reaction Control system (RCS) thrusters that help maintain the vehicle’s orientation in the atmosphere and will provide manoeuvring capabilities in space, and even a full static fire test of the vehicle’s three Raptor engines, which took place on January 6th.

SN9 static fire engine test. Credit: Mary “BocaChicaGal”

Two tests were skipped in the process – but this is seen as not so much because the company is trying to make up for any “lost time”, but rather the result of growing confidence in the process of taking a prototype vehicle from fabrication to test flight. However, while the engine firing was successful, it was somewhat shorter than those for SN8 – the Raptors fired for less than 2 seconds – so it is not clear whether or not an issue was encountered, forcing a premature shut-down.  If this is the case, then it might be that further static fire tests may be announced ahead of any flight; if the brief firing was intentional, then it is possible a flight test could come within the next week or so.

As it is, the exact date of any actual flight test for SN9  – which will seek to repeat the 12.5 km altitude reached by SN8, but hopefully follow it with a successful landing – hasn’t been confirmed. However, to avoid a repeat of the SN8 crash, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that the Methane header tank – a smaller tank designed to feed fuel to the Raptor motors during the landing sequence  – for SN9 and at least some of the prototypes that follow it will be “pressed” with helium (this is, helium will be forced into the tank in order to force the methane out and to the engines) in order to avoid any pressurisation issues. However, it is not clear if this will be the permanent solution to the problem, or an interim update to allow test flights to continue whilst SpaceX develop a more permanent solution to the problem.

A diagram showing Starship and Super Heavy prototype development. On the left, SN9 is complete, and awaiting its flight. SN10 is awaiting Raptor motor installation and the attachment of its aft flaps, and SN11 has yet to have its upper sections installed and is awaiting its tail flaps and motors. All of the major hull elements of SN12 have been fabricated but have yet to be assembled. The diagram also show the assembly of SN15, which is will in advance of SN13 and SN14, while to the right is the status (as of January 9th) of the first Super Heavy prototype. Credit Brendan Lewis

At the same time as pre-flight tests have been continuing with Starship SN9, work has been continuing with a number of further prototypes. SN10 very close to completion, with just engines and aft aerodynamic flaps to be mounted, and SN11 will be receiving its upper sections in the coming week. Further down the chain, SN15 is also progressing, as is SN16. These will likely be the first two prototypes fully fitted with the thermal protection system used to safeguard the vehicle’s hull during atmospheric entry. This doesn’t necessarily mean either will make an orbital flight – SpaceX will doubtless want to text how the entire thermal system holds up under atmospheric flight prior to committing to an orbital attempt.

However, work currently appears to be on hold for vehicles SN13 and SN14, and SN12 has yet to be stacked. Whether these vehicles will be completed remains to be seen: Musk has previously indicated that the SN15 vehicle and beyond will include “significant upgrades” compared to earlier vehicles, so it is possible SpaceX may opt to skip from SN11 to SN15 in the flight test programme.

An image demonstrating the relative size of SpaceX vehicles and the shuttle. Left: the Crew Dragon – capable of flying up to 7 into LEO; right: a starship vehicle with a shuttle orbiter alongside. The orbiter could carry up to 7 into LEO with up to 28 tonnes of cargo. Starship can carry up to 100 people + cargo or up to 100 tonnes (cargo variant) to LEO. A Tesla 4×4 and human are included for scale. Credit: Dale Rutherford

Puerto Rico Governor  Supports Rebuilding Arecibo

The outgoing governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez Garced, signed an executive order on December 28th, 2020 backing the rebuilding of the 305-m diameter Arecibo radio telescope that collapsed in November 2020 (see:  Space Sunday: returns and a collapse).

The order states that US $8 million is to be “assigned and allocated” for removing the debris of the collapsed telescope and “remedial environmental” work be completed at the site. It further states that the Puerto Rico government wishes to see the development of a telescope with a larger effective aperture,  wider field of view and a more powerful radar transmitter to replace the original, thus providing the nucleus of “a world class science and education facility”.

Arecibo as it was: visible is the main dish with the central receiving platform suspended over it via the three towers. Credit: NASA

However, things are not as clear cut as this. For one thing, the construction of a new telescope is liable to cost more than ten times the funding stated in the order. It’s also not clear where the $8 million will come from; the order only suggests it could be provided through “state, federal and private sources (including public-private partnerships and state-federal partnerships)”.

More particularly, Arecibo is not under the funding auspices of the Puerto Rican government, but rather that of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which it turn is funded directly by the US government. Thus far, the NSF has not committed to any rebuilding / replacement at the site, nor have any funds been allocated by Congress in the 2021 federal budget – although the NSF has been directed to prepare a study / report on the telescope’s collapse, the clean-up operation and to determine whether a replacement / comparable facility should be established at the sit, together with the associated costs for doing so.

After the fall: the telescope after the collapse of the receiving platform (the wreckage of which can be see to the right of the disk. Also clearly visible is the scar where the collapsing platform and cables tore through the disk. Credit: NASA
NSF has a very well-defined process for funding and constructing large-scale infrastructure, including telescopes. It’s a multi-year process that involves congressional appropriations and the assessment and needs of the scientific community. So, it’s very early for us to comment on the replacement.

– Ralph Gaume, director of NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences

Continue reading “Space Sunday: starships, dishes and microbes”

Space Sunday: conjunctions, radio signals and budgets

Jupiter (bottom and brighter) and Saturn as seen between the sails of the post windmill at Brill, Buckinghamshire, UK. Credit: Jim Dyson / Getty Images

Monday, December 21st, the winter solstice, saw Jupiter and Saturn reach their closest point of mutual approach to one another when viewed in our evening skies, in what is referred to as a great conjunction.

I covered the event in some detail in my previous Space Sunday report, noting that 2020 would see the two planets appear to come with 6 arc minutes of one another as they lay low over the south-western horizon in last light following sunset.

Caught via a camera with telephoto lens is Jupiter (l) with the Galilean moons also visible (from top left: Calisto, Io, Europa, and furtherest out, lower right, Ganymede). Saturn, to the right, appears as a distinct oval due to its ring system not being sufficiently resolved by the camera lens. Credit: Peter Jay / Getty Images.

Unfortunately, British weather being what it tends to be, I didn’t get to see things on the night thanks to cloud and rain.  To add insult to injury, the skies were clear just 40 km away, allowing friends to witness the event on the night, while the rain and cloud continued here most of the rest of the week, preventing me from getting a further look at the two planets as they dropped ever closer to the horizon. Ho hum.

Not of this Earth: Jupiter and Saturn with rings visible, as seen on December 21st from lunar orbit in an image captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Fortunately, however, many around the world did have clear skies and captured the event using cameras equipped with telephoto lenses or attached to telescopes. I’ve included a handful of my favourites shots here.

The event was also captured on film by Jason De Freitas, who captured the space between Jupiter and Saturn being neatly “cut” by the passage of the International Space Station.

ET Probably Isn’t Radioing Us

A radio signal detected in a part of the sky that neatly aligns with our closest stellar neighbour,  Proxima Centauri, is unlikely to be of extra-terrestrial origin.

The radio burst was detected in  April-May 2019 by the Parkes Radio Telescope in  Australia, one of two radio telescopes used by the Breakthrough Listen project, which since 2015 has been listening to the one million closest stars to our own in an attempt to pick up artificial radio signals that might indicate extraterrestrial intelligence.

The primary 64-metre radio telescope dish of the Parke observatory, New South Wales. Credit: John Sarkissian

At the time the signal was detected, the telescope was engaged in radio observations of Proxima Cantauri, some 4.2 light years away, and a star known to have two planets orbiting it, one of which – Proxima b – is a rocky world about 1.7 times the size of Earth that sits within the star’s  habitable zone.

Parkes wasn’t listening for radio signals at the time they were picked up, but was engaged in radio observations of flare activity from the star. However, when detected, the signal was immediately intriguing due to its relatively narrow frequency – 982.002Mhz – which ruled out it being caused by known natural phenomena. In order to verify it, the Breakthrough Listen team received permission to “nod” the telescope dish.

This is a common technique used to verify radio signals that involves deliberately swinging the receiving dish away from a signal for a period of time, and then back towards it in order to see if it can be re-acquired (indicating it is not an artefact of the telescope itself), and to measure whether the signal has moved relative to the dish (which would indicate the source is likely in Earth’s orbit). In this case, the signal was reacquired, with measurements suggesting it could be emanating from Proxima b.

When news of the signal, and the on-going analysis to try to determine it’s likely point of origin / cause, was anonymously leaked recently, it was picked up by a number of media outlets and caused something of a stir. However, before ET Hunters get too excited, there are a number of additional facts to consider.

Firstly, it is devoid of any modulation – and so is likely devoid of any meaningful data, were it indeed to by an extraterrestrial, which makes sending it a little pointless. Secondly, it was entirely transient; following the period of initial detection in April / May 2019, it was “lost”, and has never been re-acquired. Were it a deliberate signal, it would not be unreasonable to expect it to remain fairly constant in terms of detection, either by Parkes or (preferably) other centres around the world.

But the biggest counts against it being ET “‘phoning home” (or at least us), lies with the fact that the signal came from the general direction of Proxima Centauri. As our nearest, and oft-observed stellar neighbour, the star has been under observation for decades, and nary a once have we received anything amounting to an peep out of it that might suggest aliens are playing with radio systems there.

More particularly, however, is the fact that Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star. As I’ve noted numerous times in these pages, these  M-class stars are prone to exceptionally violent solar flare. Given the close proximity of Proxima b to its star, these flares would likely, at a minimum, be bathed in hard radiation, and at worse, completely rip away the planet’s atmosphere within a period of around 100-200 million years. Therefore, it is highly unlikely the planet really is the point of origin for the signal.

An artist’s impression of Proxima b with Proxima Centauri low on the horizon. The double star above and to the right of it is Alpha Centauri A and B. Credit: ESO

instead, the most likely explanations for the signal are that it might either be something like the carrier wave from a long-forgotten piece of orbital debris of human manufacture or – mostly likely – actually originated on Earth, with conditions in the upper atmosphere serving to “bounce” it into the Parkes Telescope sphere of detection.

The Breakthrough Listen team and their partners certainly lean towards the latter as an explanation, although as noted,  they are still analysing the data gathered on the signal.

This is not a natural phenomenon—I haven’t seen the data, but if it passed BL’s tests then it’s too narrowband to be natural. It’s definitely caused by technology. But it’s almost certainly our own technology.

– Jason Wright, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State University

Continue reading “Space Sunday: conjunctions, radio signals and budgets”

Space Sunday: Conjunctions, China & the Sun as a telescope

Jupiter and Saturn Great Conjunction” – Jupiter (the brighter object) and Saturn, imaged by astronomer Tom Wildoner on December 8th, 2020. Credit: Tom Wildoner

For those who have not already seen it, the next two weeks present an opportunity to witness a unique event – a very close conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn.

“Conjunction” is the term astronomers used to describe two astronomical objects or spacecraft having either the same right ascension or the same ecliptic longitude, and thus when seen from Earth, appear to be close together.

With the planets, such events are not especially rare – in fact as they and the Earth circle the Sun, conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn tend to occur once every 20 years. However, most of these only see Jupiter and Saturn close to around one degree of one another, or about one-fifth the diameter of the Moon as seen from Earth. But sometimes they appear to get much closer, creating what is referred to as a “great conjunction”. This year, the two planets will appear to be just 6 arc minutes apart as seen from Earth on December 21st, 2020; so “close” (remembering that their respective orbits around the Sun will still be separated by 883 million km), they will almost, but not quite, appear as a single point of light when seen with the naked eye.

The great conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn,, tracked from October through to December 21st. Credit: Pete Lawrence

These “great conjunctions” occur, on average, once every 300-400 years, although such is the nature of orbital mechanics, they can actually occasionally occur more frequently, or have longer time gaps between them. As it is, the last time Jupiter and Saturn appeared as close as the will be between December 20th and 22nd was in 1623, not long after Galileo had observed both planets – although he was unable to witness the event, as the rising Sun would have rendered them invisible in its glare.

What is most rare is a close conjunction that occurs in our night time sky. I think it’s fair to say that such an event typically may occur just once in any one person’s lifetime, and I think ‘once in my lifetime’ is a pretty good test of whether something merits being labelled as rare or special.

Astronomer David Weintraub

However, the two planets can appear to be much closer. In 1226, and in the skies over the Mongol Empire, when the planets appear to be just 2 arc minutes apart.

Jupiter (again, the brighter object) and Saturn, seen in the sky over the Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, on December 13th, 2020. Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Tracing these great conjunctions back in time reveals that Jupiter and Saturn may well have played a role in the legend of the Star of Bethlehem. In 7 B.C. not one, but three great conjunctions occurred, with the two planets again being within 2 arc minutes of one another as seen from Earth.

The first occurred in May of that year, when Jupiter and Saturn appeared as a morning star over the middle east. As  the Magi were practitioners of (among other things) astronomy and astrology – both at that time pretty much joined at the hip – such an event may well have caused them to start out on their long journey towards Judea, the second conjunction, in September of the year, encouraging them to continue. The third conjunction occurred in December, 7 B.C., the time at which they were said to have met with Herod the Great.

Using Stellarium, open-source astronomy software, it is possible to reproduce how the great conjunctions of the 6th century B.C. might have looked to the Magi, as a wondrous new star, causing them to set out for Judea. Credit: Stellarium

This year’s conjunction will be not long after sunset, with the two planets located low over the south-west horizon. With a reasonable telescope or good pair of binoculars, you’ll have an ideal opportunity to see both planets and their major moons in the same field of view.  Should you do so, you’ll be looking at over 90% of the planetary mass of the entire solar system.

Beyond the 21st, the two planets will gradually move “apart” as noted, until by the 25th December, they’ll be separated in the night sky by roughly the diameter of a full Moon, and will continue to draw apart relative to Earth as they pass below the horizon.

How to see the “great conjunction” of Jupiter an Saturn

And if you miss this close conjunction between the two, the next will be along in a relatively (and unusually) short period, occurring on March 15th 2080. The next time they’ll be as apparently close as they were in 7 B.C. will be on Christmas Day, 2874.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Conjunctions, China & the Sun as a telescope”

Space Sunday: the flight of SN8 and a round-up

Starship prototype SN8 drops horizontally towards the ground after a flight to 12.5 km altitude, its stability maintained by the fore-and-aft wing flaps. Credit: SpaceX

On Wednesday, December 9th, SpaceX Starship prototype SN8 finally took to the skies in what was to be a very mixed ascent to around 12.5 km altitude and return to Earth.

The much anticipated flight of the prototype vehicle, weighing approximately 672 tonnes with its partial fuel load, was far more successful than SpaceX had anticipated, even if the vehicle was lost in what SpaceX euphemistically calls a “rapid unplanned disassembly” or RUD.

The first attempt at a launch of the 50m tall vehicle was made on Tuesday, December 8th. However, this was scrubbed after a pre-flight engine issue caused an automatic shut-down on all three Raptor motors. The second launch attempt, in the morning of Wednesday, December 9th, was aborted just 2 minutes and 6 seconds before engine ignition when a light aircraft strayed into the no-fly zone around the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica, Texas.

The moment of ignition caught by ground cameras (l) and camera on the hull of the vehicle (top r), and in the engine bay (bottom r). Credit: SpaceX

However, at 16:00 CST (22:00 GMT) that day, the countdown resumed, and at 16:45:26 p.m. CST (22:45:56 GMT), the three Raptor engines on the vehicle ignited and ran up to around 80% thrust, lifting prototype SN8 into the air.

The entire flight was live streamed by SpaceX, with the initial ascent proceeding as anticipated. At 1 minute and 40 seconds into the flight, one of the Raptor engines shut down and gimballed itself away from the remaining two operating motors. 94 second later, a second of the Raptors did the same. At the time, some pundits commenting on the flight speculated the shut-down indicated something was amiss.

The first of the Raptor engines shuts down – a planned part of the flight – as SN8 burns through its partial fuel load, so as to reduce its thrust-to-weight ratio. SpaceX

In actual fact, both engine shut-downs were planned. As the vehicle was flying with around 1/2 its normal fuel load, and getting lighter at the rate of 2.2 tonnes every second, the engines were shut down to reduce SN8’s thrust-to-weight ratio, naturally reducing its rate of ascent.

Even so, SN8 continued upwards under the thrust of the one remaining Raptor – Number 42, the latest and most modern Raptor engine evolution, with the vehicle’s reaction control system (RCS) firing thrusters around its hull in order to stay upright, until it reached a point where it was effectively hovering.

The moment of tip-over: SN8’s Raptor 42, assisted by the vehicle’s RCS thrusters, starts to tip the vehicle over into an horizontal orientation. Credit: SpaceX

What happened next was one of the two most incredible sights witnessed in the testing of a space vehicle: as SN8 started to drop vertically backwards, Raptor 42 gimballed to direct its thrust at an angle, working with the RCS system to tip the entire vehicle over until it was falling more-or-less horizontally. At this point, the fore and aft flaps came into their own, working in tandem to hold the vehicle steady, much like a skydiver uses their arms and legs to maintain stability.

This skydive / bellyflop (as some unkindly refer to it) is how a Starship will make a return from orbit. Dropping into the atmosphere with the fore and aft flaps folded back against the hull to minimise their exposure to the fictional heat of atmospheric  entry, an operational starship will be protected by heat shield tiles along its underside, after which the flaps fold out, acting as air brakes to slow the vehicle’s velocity as well as keeping it stable.

SN8 in its skydive mode (l) with exterior cameras (r) showing the forward (top) and aft (bottom) flaps in action. Credit: SpaceX

Dropping back through the atmosphere for almost two minutes, SN8 then completed the second most incredible sight seen in the testing of a spacecraft when, six minutes after launch, two of the Raptor motors re-ignited, using fuel from two small “header” tanks. These, coupled with the vehicle’s RCS tipped SN8 back to an upright position just 200 metres above ground.

The idea had been for the vehicle to then descend tail-first over the landing pad, deploy its landing feet and touch-down. However, it was at this point things went wrong. With just tens of metres to go, one of the two operating engines shut down. For several seconds, the remaining engine fought to maintain vehicle stability, its exhaust plume turning bright green. Seconds later, its landing legs having failed to deploy, SN8 slammed into the landing pad and exploded in the RUD SpaceX thought might occur at some point in the flight.

The unusual green exhaust plume of the single remaining Raptor motor is clearly visible as SN8 almost overshoots the landing pad, and the failed deployment of the landing legs is visible in the image of vehicle. Three second later, the vehicle hit the landing pad and exploded. Credit: SpaceX

Initial analysis of data from the flight suggests that the header tanks suffered a pressurisation issue that prevented them pushing sufficient fuel into the two Raptor engines, causing one to shut down completely. The green plume from the second motor is thought to be one of two things: either that a) as the motor was so starved of fuel, it started consuming itself, material inside its turbopumps turning the exhaust green; or that b) as one engine shut-down unexpectedly, the second started gimballing wildly to try an maintain the vehicle’s orientation, and in doing so, smashed its engine bell into the other motor, exposing its copper cooling circuits, which caught fire and turned the exhaust plume green.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the flight of SN8 and a round-up”

Space Sunday: returns and a collapse

The Hyabusa2 sample return capsule, measuring just 40 cm across, lies amidst the scrub of Woomera, southern Australia, carrying samples from asteroid 162173 Ryugu. Credit: JAXA via AP

On Saturday, December 5th (Sunday December 6th local time in Australia), Japan’s Hyabusa2 successfully returned samples gathered from the asteroid 162173 Ryugu.

It marked the culmination of a six-year mission to reach the asteroid, gather samples and then make a return to Earth – although as I mentioned in my last Space Sunday update, the return of the samples does not mark the end of the road for Hyabusa2.

Travelling at 43,190 km/h – too fast to enter orbit – the spacecraft released the 40 cm sample return capsule on the night of Friday December 4th, 2020, whilst still some 220,000 km away. With its cargo duties  discharged, Hyabusa2 performed an engine burn to start it on its way for a rendezvous with asteroid (98943) 2001 CC21 in 2026, before flying on to meet with 1998 KY26, in 2031.

With no means to slow down, the sample capsule slammed into the upper reaches of Earth’s  atmosphere at 17:28 GMT on Saturday, December 5th (the earlier  hours of Sunday December 6th in Japan and Australia). Following re-entry, that helped the capsule to slow to supersonic speeds, the capsule dropped to an altitude of 10 km before deploying its landing parachute, touching down in Australia at 17:47 GMT (04:17 a.m. local Australian time on December 6th), JAXA officials said.

Radio tracking systems deployed around the expected landing site were able to follow the capsule down allowing its landing point to be triangulated accurately so that recovery helicopters could quickly move in and retrieve the capsule and its cargo.

Following recovery, work started on capsule assessment and preparations to transfer it to the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) Extraterrestrial Sample Curation Centre, a purpose-built facility designed to house and study cosmic material brought home by space missions. Here some of the samples – believed to measure just a few grams – will be studied by Japanese scientists, and some will be distributed to laboratories around the world, where scientists will study it for clues about the solar system’s early days and the rise of life on Earth.

The mission marks only the second time a dedicated sample return mission has brought samples of an extra-terrestrial body back to Earth, the first being the original Hyabusa mission, which returned samples from asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2010. However, it will not be the last. China’s Chang’e 5 mission will shortly be on its way back to Earth with samples gathered from the Moon (see below for more), and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will be returning samples from asteroid from 101955 Bennu in 2023.

Arecibo Collapses

When it came, it came suddenly and without warning – yet purely by chance, a drone was on hand to capture the event as it happened.

Cable break: a still from video footage recorded at the moment one of the two remaining primary cables supporting the 900-tonne receiving platform snapped, bringing about the destruction of the Arecibo radio astronomy telescope. Credit: UCF / NSF

I recently wrote about the fact that, having lost a primary and secondary support cable that were helping to keep its receiving platform aloft, the Arecibo observatory had been declared unsafe and was to be decommissioned, the replacement of the primary load-bearing cables – one of three in total – being determined to be both difficult and dangerous.

Due to the risk of the 900-tonne receiving platform collapsing onto the dish, built into a hilltop karst sinkhole, it had been hoped the telescope could be decommissioned and dismantled, possibly through the use of controlled demolition, sooner rather than later, lest further cables – including one of the two remaining primary cables – gave way.

But on December  1st, before decommissioning plans could be finalised, one of the remaining suffered a catastrophic failure, sending the receiving platform plummeting into the telescope’s 305-metre diameter dish.

The event took place shortly before 07:30 in the morning, local time – and by chance, engineers were monitoring the telescope’s cable system from the main control room and via an aerial drone positioned above the cable housings on the receiving platform when the cable failed. As a result, the entire collapse was caught on camera from two locations – although the drone had to be hastily moved away from the receiving platform as the collapse started.

Swinging towards the ground on the remaining support cables, the receiving platform disassembled as it fell, the bulk falling the 150m into the aluminium dish, the support frame swinging to smash into the the side of dish, the trailing cables also doing considerable damage. Such was the force of the failure, the mass of the platform tore away the top section of one of the support towers and brought about the complete collapse of another.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: returns and a collapse”

Space Sunday: a Dragon, a telescope and a heavenly princess

Sunday, November 15th, 2020, 19:27 local the Crew-1 Falcon 9 booster lifts-off from Kennedy Space Centre’s Pad 39A.Credit: NASA

Sunday, November 15th saw the official start of a new era in low-Earth orbit space transportation with the launch of the NASA / SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space.

Originally scheduled for launch on Saturday, November 14th, the Crew-1 mission was delayed due to weather causing concerns about the recovery of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s first stage. However, at 19:27 local time on Sunday (00:27 GMT on Monday, November 16th), the Falcon 9 topped by the Crew Dragon and its crew of four – NASA astronauts, Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi – lifted off from the SpaceX leased Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centre, the first stage of the rocket making a successful return to Earth and landing aboard the autonomous drone ship Just Read The Instructions.

Resilience approaches the ISS on November 16th/17th 2020. Credit: NASA / SpaceX

Nine minutes after launch, the Crew Dragon capsule – named Resilience by the crew – achieved an initial orbit, and the crew followed a long tradition of space flight dating back to the first manned space mission, and revealed their “zero gee indicator”, a Baby Yoda plushy toy from the TV series, The Maldorian.

The use of toys and dolls as such indicators goes back to the flight of Yuri Gagarin and his flight aboard Vostok-1 in April 1961.  Gagarin carried a small doll into orbit out of curiosity, as he wanted to see what floating in the micro-gravity of space looked like. However, his practice was copied by other Soviet cosmonauts, and in turn by NASA missions, with crews on the Crew Dragon continuing the tradition – Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken carried a plushy planet Earth on their trip to the ISS earlier in  2020 during the Crew Dragon certification flight.

While not confirmed, it is believed the selection of Baby Yoda was due to back-up crew member Kjell Lindgren. A long-time Star Wars fan, Lindgren had used a model of R2D2 as a zero-gee indicator during a 2015 Soyuz flight to the ISS and while aboard the station, persuaded the rest of the crew to dress up as Jedi Knights for a special NASA promotional poster.

It’s been a tough year. And the fact that … SpaceX and NASA were able to get our spacecraft ready to go, the rocket ready to go, throughout this year, throughout the pandemic, and all of that — we were inspired by everybody’s effort to do that. So that’s why we named Resilience, and we hope that it puts a smile on people’s faces, it brings hope to them. Baby Yoda does the same thing. I think everybody, when you see him, it’s hard not to smile, and so it just seemed appropriate.

– Mission commander Mike Hopkins explaining the choice of name for the Dragon
capsule and the selection of Baby Yoda as the zero-gee indicator.

A NASA graphic showing the craft docked at the ISS at the time the Resilience docked. Credit: NASA

It  took some 27 hours for Resilience to catch up with the ISS, finally rendezvousing and docking with the station at 11:01 EST on Monday, November 16th (04:01 GMT, November 17th). Following a further 2 hours of post-flight checks and preparations both in the capsule and on the station, the forward hatch on Resilience was opened and the four crew were invited aboard the ISS. In doing so, they set a new record for the space station: the first time it has been occupied by full-time crew  totalling seven  people. This is actually one more person than the ISS is designed to accommodate, so Crew-1 commander Mike Hopkins is sleeping aboard the Resilience.

The Expedition 64  crew will remain on the ISS for a 6-month rotation period, Hopkins and his crew joining NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, who arrived at the ISS on October 14th, aboard the Soyuz MS-17 – a mission which was itself a record-setter, rendezvousing with the station just three hours after launch, utilising Russia’s “ultrafast” ISS launch and rendezvous flight plan for the first time.

Kate Robins, who arrived aboard ISS as a part of the Soyuz TM-17 crews, greets Victor Glover as he boards the ISS from Resilience, marking the first time an African-American astronauts has boarded the station as part of the full duration crew. Credit: NASA
Once aboard the station, the crew wasted little time in getting down to work. On November 18th, Ryzhikov – currently in overall command of the ISS – and Kud-Sverchkov made a 6-hour 48-minute spacewalk that inaugurated the operational use of the Poisk “mini research” module as an airlock.

As I noted in my previous Space Sunday update, Poisk has been delivered as an airlock / docking module in 2009. It is one of two such units attached to the Russian Zvezda module, the other being the Pirs airlock / dock, deployed to the ISS in 2001. Up until the Ryzhikov / Kud-Sverchkov EVA, Poisk had only been used as a docking module, spacewalks generally being conducted via the Pirs module.

 Sergey Ryzhikov (centre top with the red stripe on his backpack) and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov work outside of the Poisk (the vertical unit) and Zvezda modules of the ISS. Credit: Roscomos

However, Pirs is due to be removed from the ISS in 2021, so it can be de-orbited to burn up in the upper atmosphere using one of the Russian Progress resupply vehicles. It is due to be replaced by the Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) – although there are some doubts about this module, as its launch has been delayed so much, several of its systems are at the end of their warranty period.

In  particular, the Poisk spacewalk was to start the process of decommissioning Pirs, by moving vital communication equipment and cabling from that module and connecting them to Poisk, allowing it to become the primary Russian EVA airlock.  As  well as this work, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov retrieved hardware used to measure space debris impacts, and repositioned an instrument used to measure the residue from thruster firings. The EVA marked the 47th Russian space walk in support of ISS operations, and the 232nd ISS spacewalk overall.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a Dragon, a telescope and a heavenly princess”