Space Sunday: helicopters, craters and a sunny ISS

A perspective view of Korolev Crater, Mars. Measuring 82 kilometres across and located in the northern lowlands, this image of the crater was digitally created from pictures taken by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter. Story below. Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin

Later this month an Atlas V launch vehicle should depart Canaveral Air Force Station at the start of what will be a 6+ month cruise to Mars for its payload, the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance. A twin to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity that has been operating on the red planet since 2012, the Mars 2020 vehicle carries a range of updated systems and a science package designed, among other things, to investigate the possibility of past life on Mars, and the potential for preservation of biosignatures within accessible geological materials.

I’ll have a lot more to say about the rover – already nicknamed “Percy” in some circles – but here I’d like to focus on the rover’s travelling companion, Ingenuity, the perfectly named Mars helicopter.

Weighing just 1.8 kilogrammes, Ingenuity will make the trip to Mars mounted on the underside of Perseverance, where it will sit until such time in the rover’s surface mission – probably around the 60-day mark – will hopefully be in a position to deploy the helicopter ready to undertake up to five flights under its own power.

Mars Helicopter Ingenuity. Credit: NASA/JPL

The helicopter is very much a proof-of-concept vehicle, but if it proves successful, it will pave the way for future helicopter drones to assist in Mars surface missions. Such drones could, for example, be used to provide better terrain images and mapping when planning routes for future rovers to take, scout locations that may be suitable for more detailed study by rovers, and even undertake the recovery of samples obtained by other missions and left for collection, and return them to the craft that will carry them back to Earth for analysis.

Such future helicopter systems would likely be larger and heavier than Ingenuity, and capable of carrying their own science packages for use for studying things like the atmosphere around them. Further, their use is neither restricted to automated missions or to Mars. There is no reason why, if successful, Ingenuity shouldn’t pave the way for helicopter drones that could be used in conjunction with human missions on Mars, or in automated missions to Titan.

First, however, Ingenuity has to safely get to the surface of Mars – and that means experiencing the same “seven minutes of terror” of the entry, decent and landing (EDL) phase of the rover’s. mission. After that, it has to survive 60 days slung under the rover’s belly, with just 13 centimetres clearance between its protective shield and whatever is under the rover before it is liable to be a a location where it can be deployed. And then the fun begins.

Ingenuity stowed under Perseverance. The blue arrow shows the rotor mechanism, the red the helicopter’s body, as it sits on its side under the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL

Ingenuity has to be placed on ground that is relatively flat and free from significant obstacles – an area roughly 10 metres on a side. The shield protecting the helicopter will then be dropped by the rover at the edge of the location, and checks will be made to confirm the shield has fallen clear of both helicopter and rover and that the helicopter’s systems are in working order, a process that will take several days. After this, the rover will be commanded to roll forward several metres in readiness for actual helicopter deployment.

After this, the actual deployment process can commence. Due to its shape, the helicopter is stowed on its side under the rover, relative to the ground. This means the locking system that holds it in place must be released to allow the helicopter to drop through 90º, bringing two of its landing legs parallel to the ground. The remaining two legs will then be released to drop and lock into position, a the helicopter itself released from its restraining clips and literally drops down to the ground, and the rover drives clear, leaving Ingenuity to go through final checks head of its first flight.

The reason the helicopter is carried horizontally under the rover is because its rotor system makes it taller than it is wide, and the engineering team didn’t want to complicate the design by making it such that rotors would have to be unpacked / unfolded / deployed; they are instead ready for use once the helicopter is upright.

Ingenuity has two contra-rotating main rotors, one above the other. These not only provide lift and motion; the fact that they are contra-rotating means they each cancel the torque they would each induce in the helicopter’s body, something that would otherwise require a tail rotor to prevent it from also spinning when flying.

Once ready to go, Ingenuity is expected to fly up to five times, as noted, reaching heights of between 3 and 10 metres and potentially covering 300 metres per flight. Data from each flight will be shared from the helicopter and the rover using the Zigbee wi-fi low-power communications protocol, with Perseverance acting as the helicopter’s communications relay with Earth. Cameras on the helicopter should also provide the first ever bird’s eye view of low-level flying above Mars.

An artist’s impression of Ingenuity flying free of Perseverance, seen in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL

Continue reading “Space Sunday: helicopters, craters and a sunny ISS”

Space Sunday: SpaceX and a rapid round-up

Starship SN7 rises briefly through a cloud of super-cold nitrogen gas after the base of the tank ruptured during a deliberate over-pressurisation teat, June 23rd. Credit: LabPadre

SpaceX has had a busy week. Following the loss of the Starship prototype SN4, the company has been pushing ahead with the construction of prototypes SN5 and SN6 – one of which is likely to complete the first flight tests for the vehicle.

These prototypes look a little odd to some, resembling little more than steel cylinders. This is because SpaceX is currently focused purely on the vertical ascent / decent capabilities of the vehicle, and for this they only need the section of the hull that contains the fuel tanks and the raptor motors. Experience in flying the smaller Starhopper vehicle demonstrated there is no need to include the vehicle’s upper sections or the dynamic flight surfaces – although these will be added as the test flights become more ambitious and broader in scope.

Starships SN5 and SN6 under construction at the SpaceX Boca Chica Midbay building: Credit: SpaceX

Also following the destruction of the SN4 prototype, the company started work on the SN7 vehicle. This caused some speculation as to where it might fit in the test vehicle series. Might it be the start of a prototype that does go on to include the said upper sections and flight surfaces? Was it being built in case SN5 or SN6 went the way of SN4 and SN3?

As it turned out, SN7 was constructed specifically for further tests on tank pressurisation. On June 15th, 2020 the tank, mounted on a test stand was filled with liquid nitrogen (used in testing because it mimics the super-cold temperatures of the propellants the tanks will eventually contain, and so exposes the tank to the same temperature stresses, but if the tank ruptures, it will not explode) to its maximum pressure. It resulted in a slight leak developing, which was repaired. Then, on June 23rd, the tank was once more filled with liquid nitrogen – but this time to a pressure well beyond it would have to face when in use during a launch.

With nitrogen gas still roiling on the ground, Zeus, the robot dog (arrowed) goes in to check the area around the wrecked SN7 tank. Credit: LabPadre

The results were spectacular: an initial rupture occurs in the lower half of the tank, instantly expand into a tear along its base seam that released the liquid nitrogen in such bulk and pressure that it instantly vaporised en masse, venting with a force that lifted tank and test stand sideways off the ground. Immediately after the incident, SpaceX deployed their newest team member, Zeus.

A robot “dog” developed by Boston Dynamics (which they generically call “Spot”), Zeus is being used by SpaceX to assess potentially hazardous situations around the Boca Chica test site – in this case, the ground conditions following exposure to so much liquid nitrogen that took time to completely boil off. In typical SpaceX humour, the company has even erected a large Snoopy-style dog house on the grounds that’s allegedly the robot dog’s home.

And aerial view: the remnants of SN7 can be seen on their side, the test stand attached. The grey area “below” it is the concrete base on which it stood. A second test stand sits “above” the wreck. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography

One of the reasons for taking the test beyond limits was to check the steel used in SN7’s construction. Earlier versions of the Starship prototypes had been built with 301 stainless steel, but the company has opted to switch to the stronger 304L, and the degree to which the tank stood up to the test is being seen as indicative that the 304L is structurally a better choice.

Also during the week, NASA announced that the Crew Dragon currently docked with the International Space Station will likely return to Earth at the start of August 2020, with its crew of Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. Its return will pave the way for the first “operational” crew Dragon launch, which will carry astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker (commander) and Soichi Noguchi to the ISS at the end of August or early September.

Starship prototype SN5 being raised on to its test stand. In the foreground is the Spacehopper. Credit: BocaChicaGal

In a separate announcement, the agency further indicated that in a change to their requirements, they will in future allow SpaceX to make use of re-used Falcon 9 first stages in Crew Dragon launches. Previously, the agency had specified that each crewed mission must take place using a new Crew Dragon and new Falcon 9 launcher. The change came after a second Falcon 9 first stage successfully completed its fifth launch and landing.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: SpaceX and a rapid round-up”

Space Sunday: how to fly your Dragon

The International Space Station imaged from 200 metres by the docking systems camera looking out of the forward hatch window of SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour. Credit: SpaceX / NASA

On Saturday, May 30th, 2020 the United States successfully launched astronauts into orbit from American soil for the first time since July 8th, 2011. It came after an initial attempt on May 27th, 2020 had to be scrubbed (called off) due to adverse weather conditions putting the launch vehicle at risk of a possible electrical strike.

As I noted in my previous Space Sunday piece, the primary goal of the mission is to confirm the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle is ready to commence operations ferrying crew to and from the International Space Station. Intended to fly up to four crew at a time on such missions, for this final test flight, Crew Dragon lifted-off with only two crew aboard: NASA veterans Robert L. Behnken (flight pilot) and Douglas G. Hurley (commander).

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (l) and Doug Hurley, photographed at the top elevator station at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Centre, at a dress rehearsal for the Crew Dragon Demo-2 flight, May 24th, 2020. Credit: SpaceX

Weather was also a concern in the run-up to the May 30th launch, with NASA putting a chance of lift-off at 50/50 through to less than an hour ahead of the launch time. However, after a burst of rain in the area of Kennedy Space Centre as the Falcon 9 launch vehicle was being prepared for lift-off, the weather situation both around the Florida Cape and downrange of the launch site and along the track of the vehicle’s line of ascent, cleared sufficiently for the launch to go ahead.

The entire launch, from the astronauts suit-up in the crew room at Kennedy Space Centre, through lift-off, ascent to orbit, on-orbit operations and the rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station some 19 hours after launch, was covered entirely live through NASA TV and SpaceX on You Tube and other channels. This coverage made it one of the mos-watched launches of a space vehicle despite the limitations of travel in place due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, with 1.5 million people watching the SpaceX relay of the NASA feed alone.

Thursday, May 21st, 2020: The Falcon 9 / Crew Dragon vehicle bearing the NASA worm and meatball logos, rolls out of the SpaceX vehicle processing building en route to pad 39A

Following their arrival at the launch pad some 2+ hours ahead of the the launch, the astronauts – known as “the Dads” to the SpaceX team – travelled to the top of the launch tower prior to ingressing into the Crew Dragon vehicle and performing a series of pre-flight checks both before and after the crew hatch was closed-out by the fight support crew.

At around an hour prior to launch and with the flight support crew clear of the tower, the access arm was rotated clear and fuelling of the Falcon 9’s first and second stage tanks commenced as the weather clearance was given. Unlike Apollo and the shuttle, the SpaceX vehicles go through fuelling as a last stage of ground operations to minimise the amount of fuel venting / topping-up that is required as the super-cold liquid propellants start to slowly warm despite insulation and cooling.

Ahead of the launch, the ISS passed over Kennedy Space Centre and this photograph was taken. Centre top is the massive Vehicle Assembly Building where the SLS will be assembled for launch and the former Orbiter Processing Buildings, one of which is now used by Boeing for the Starliner crew vehicle and another by the Orion MPCV; The crawler / transporter track runs from the VAB toward the coast, splitting so one leg runs to the right and Pad 39B, which will host the SLS, while the second runs down to Pad 39A where the white SpaceX vehicle assembly building can be seen, with the Falcon 9 on the pad. Credit: NASA

A crucial aspect of the Demo-2 launch was that orbital mechanics demanded the vehicle had to lift-off precisely on time – there could be no “holds” that delayed it beyond the appointed lift-off time. Were launch to be delayed, even by a few minutes, the Crew Dragon would reach orbit at the wrong point related to the ISS, and so and rendezvous would be much harder, if not impossible, given what needed to be achieved in the flight ahead of reaching the space station.

So, at 19:22:45 UTC, precisely on schedule, the nine motors of the Falcon 9’s first stage igniting, lifting the black-and-white rocket and capsule vehicle smoothly off the pad. This marked a further first for the mission: not only was it the first US crewed mission into space undertaken from US soil bult and operated by a private company, the entire launch process was run by SpaceX and not by NASA’s Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR – or “moe-kerr”) at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC), although the latter were obviously looking over SpaceX’s shoulder and monitoring things, with the ISS Fly Operations Centre fully “in the loop”.

A Dragon rises with its riders as the Falcon 9 clears the tower at LC-39A, May 30th, 2020. Credit: NASA live stream

Ascent to orbit lasted some 8 minutes – although to all those watching, it probably seemed a lot quicker. Powering the vehicle through the denser part of the atmosphere, the Falcon’s first stage reached MECO (main engine cut-off) just over 2 minutes after launch. Separating, this continued along a ballistic trajectory, flicking itself around to deploy vanes to help with its descent back though the atmosphere so it might make a landing on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.

Camera footage from the first stage, transmitted as the Falcon’s second stage continued to boost the Crew Dragon vehicle to orbit, showed it orienting itself using its attitude thrusters, prior to three of the Raptor engines firing to slow it down and cushion it as it dropped back into denser atmosphere. From here, it dropped smoothly back towards the drone ship, the deployed vanes holding it upright. Unfortunately, video footage was lost prior to touch-down, but moments later, the feed resumed, showing the stage sitting on the ship’s deck as high above, the Falcon’s second stage reached SECO – Second (Stage) Engine Cut-off, and shortly after, the Dragon separated from it.

Timing in the flight meant that the Falcon 9 first stage successfully landed on the autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (l) at almost the same time as SECO was reached by the rocket’s upper stage, followed a couple of minutes later by Crew Dragon successfully separating from the second stage (r). Credit: SpaceX

Continue reading “Space Sunday: how to fly your Dragon”

Space Sunday: launches, names, and departures

A remarkable shot of the SpaceX Demo-2 Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, due to launch on May 27th, 2020, on the pad at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Centre. It was taken at an altitude of some 650 km above the surface of the Earth by the Maxar Worldview-3 satellite. Credit: Maxar Technologies (formerly DigitalGlobe)

If all goes according to plan, the United States will make its first crewed launch from its home soil since the space shuttle programme drew to a close in 2011.

On May 27th, 2020, shrouded in additional safety protocols to protect crews from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster should lift off from the company’s launched pad – leased from NASA – at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Centre, Florida. Aboard the Crew Dragon vehicle at the top of the rocket will be NASA veterans Robert L. Behnken and Douglas G. Hurley, who will be heading to the International Space Station (ISS).

The primary goal of the mission – referred to as Dmeo-2 by SpaceX and SpX DM-2by NASA – is to confirm the SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle is ready to commence operations ferrying crew to and from the ISS. To this end, NASA has contracted SpaceX to provide the agency with 6 Crew Dragon launches to carry four astronauts at a time to and from the ISS; the vehicle is actually capable of carrying up to seven per flight, but NASA will use the additional capacity for light cargo and equipment bound for the ISS.

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley discuss the upcoming Demo-2 commercial crew test flight after arriving at the Kennedy Space Centre May 20. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In addition to flying crews on behalf of NASA, SpaceX has also been contracted by Axiom Space to fly one Axiom professional astronaut and three private astronauts at a time to the ISS for periods of around 10 days at a cost of US $55 a seat. However, these private astronauts are not necessarily space tourists: Axiom is committed to developing the world’s first fully commercial space station.

As a part of this, the company entered into an agreement with NASA to dock three of its own space station modules to the ISS to kick-start their station development, with the first module potentially being launched in 2024. These modules will be used to host experiments and research by Axiom and their partners; following the retirement of the ISS (around 2028), Axiom plan to launch their own power and thermal module, airlock system and habitation module to replace the ISS facilities.

Not that SpaceX and the Crew Dragon won’t be involved in space tourism; the company has also partnered with Space Adventures to provide sets to fly up to four space tourists at is time on orbital flights lasting between three and five days. These will have an apogee three times that of the ISS and higher than the Earth orbital altitude record set by Gemini 11 in 1966.

Astronauts Douglas G. Hurley (l) and Robert L. Behnken in their futuristic (and vacuum-capable) space suits designed by SpaceX, posing alongside their Tesla (what else?) crew vehicle during a full launch dress-rehearsal on Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

In the meantime , this first crewed flight with see Behnken  and Hurley rendezvous with the ISS the day after launch (May 28th if the launch goes ahead as planned). The docking will be carried our autonomously – as will the majority of the flight, although the crew can fly the vehicle manually at any time, including the docking. Once at the ISS, the crew and vehicle will remain there for around four weeks, before making a return to Earth.

Hurley and Behnken arrived at Kennedy Space Centre on May 20th, ahead of the final flight readiness review (FRR) for the mission, which took place on May 22nd. This cleared the mission for its planned launch after an extensive review of all the Crew Dragon’s systems, notably its parachute system, which has been a point of concern for NASA after the parachutes had to go through a complete redesign and a rapid series of tests in the lead-up the the flight.

Following the FRR, SpaceX proceeded with a standard static-fire test of the Falcon 9’s first stage engines in readiness for launch, which the booster completed successfully. On Saturday, May 23rd, crew and vehicle went through full launch dress rehearsal. This will be followed by a final series of tests and checks on both the booster and Crew Dragon vehicle in the lead up to the launch, which is currently scheduled for 16:33 EDT on May 27th. It will come just over a year since Crew Dragon made its first (uncrewed) flight to the ISS in May 2019.

Crew Dragon comprises the main (potentially re-usable) capsule and a single-use service module that provides propulsion and power. Credit: Archipeppe68

Crew Dragon is intended to be semi-reusable, with each capsule potentially capable of being re-flown after refurbishment following a flight. However, the vehicles used by NASA will only be flown once each. It has been said this is due in part to a decision not to use Dragon’s propulsive landing capabilities with NASA missions, but to instead make ocean splashdowns when returning crews to Earth, exposing the capsules to sea water contamination. Even so, it is estimated the per-seat cost for launching NASA astronauts on Crew Dragon is around 40% less than the cost of a seat on the Boeing Starliner.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: launches, names, and departures”

Space Sunday: to land on Europa

An artist’s impression of the Europa Lander. Credit: NASA

Of all the planets and moons in the solar system, the two that – next to Earth – are likely to be homes to oceans of liquid water are Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s Moon Enceladus. The latter, as I’ve noted in this column, has visible evidence of geysers venting water vapour around its southern polar regions, while in November 2019, the the W.M. Keck Observatory indicated they had directly detected water vapour around Europa (see here for more) – evidence that has since been added to through further study of the data gathered by NASA’s Galileo mission that ended in 2003.

Given their distance from the Sun, both of these moons are covered in shell of icy material  that is believed to encase a liquid water ocean, likely heated from within by hydrothermal vents, themselves the result of both moons being “flexed” by the gravitational influence of their parent planets and the other large moons orbiting them. And where there is water, heat and a source of energy for sustenance, there is a possibility that life may also be present – which makes both Enceladus and Europa potential destinations in the search for life beyond our own world; and of the two, Europa is somewhat “easier” to reach.

A high resolution image of Europa’s chaotic surface taken by the Galileo mission. It shows terrain where blocks of material have shifted, rotated, tilted and refrozen. Credit: NASA/JPL

To this end, and again as has been written about in this column, in 2024 NASA intends to send the Europa Clipper to the Jovian system, placing it in a orbit around Jupiter that will allow it to make repeated fly-bys of Europa, joining the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer allowing it so study the moon in detail, and characterise its surface and any ocean that might lay beneath.

However, to have a real chance of detecting any evidence of microbial life on Europa, scientists argue that a landing there is required, and as planetary scientist Conor A Nixon reminded me via Tweeter, a proposal to put a lander on the surface of Europa has been in development for over two years – although it has yet to reach the point of actually being funded. Were it to go ahead, it would – amongst other things – be the heaviest robot mission launched from Earth; so heavy, it would require either the Falcon Heavy or NASA’s massive Space Launch System (SLS) to throw it on its way to Jupiter – with the SLS being the preferred vehicle, as it would allow the mission to reach Jupiter after just a single gravity assist from Earth, shortening the flight time.

The proposed Europa Lander mission outline, as it stood in 2018, and reviewed in 2019. Credit: NASA

The primary objectives of the mission would be to search for subsurface biosignatures; to characterise the surface and subsurface properties at the scale of the lander to support future exploration of Europa and determine the proximity of liquid water and recently erupted material near the lander’s location; and assess the habitability of Europa via in situ techniques uniquely available to a landed mission. Under current plans, last revised in 2019, the mission  – outside of this launcher – will comprise five core elements:

  • The Europa Lander: a battery-powered vehicle intended to operate on the surface of Europa for 22 terrestrial days, and carrying a suite of around 14 scientific instruments / experiments.
  • The Descent Stage (DS): to reduce the risk of contaminating / damaging the lander’s touch-down point, it will be winched down to the surface by a “sky crane” vehicle similar to the one used to put the Curiosity lander on Mars and will be used with the Perseverance rover in February 2021. Once the sky crane has done its job, the sky crane will boost itself into an orbit where it will eventually burn-up in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.
    • Together, the lander and the DS form what NASA call the Powered Descent Vehicle (PDV).
  • The De-Orbit Stage (DOS): a propulsion unit intended to slow the PDV into a decent to the surface of Europa.
    • When combined the DOS and PDV form the De-Orbit Vehicle (DOV).
  • This assembly is carried to Jupiter within the carrier stage, comprising two parts:
    • The carrier vehicle, which provides communications, power and flight management hardware and software.
    • A protective bio-barrier dome designed to protect PDV from the risk of contamination / damage during the 5-year trip to Jupiter.
The Europa Lander’s component element. Credit: NASA

Continue reading “Space Sunday: to land on Europa”

Space Sunday: rockets, landers, FRBs and the Moon

The Long March 5B booster heads towards orbit, carrying China’s next generation crew capsule on its first (uncrewed) flight, Tuesday, May 5th. Credit: China TV

China has successfully completed an uncrewed test-flight of its next generation of space vehicles that will support future crewed operations in Earth orbit and be a part of missions to the Moon – and possibly beyond.

The new craft – which resembles the Apollo command and service module (CSM) combination used by NASA in the 1960s and early 1970s (or, if you prefer, Boeing’s current CST-100 Starliner capsule and service module) – was launched atop a Long March 5B rocket, China’s most powerful launch vehicle, on Tuesday May 5th. From the launch pad at the Wenchang launch site on the southern island of Hainan, the vehicle took 8 minutes to rise to its initial orbital separation altitude, where it successfully entered orbit. A second payload – that of a cargo return capsule also undergoing tests – also successfully separated from the booster.

A significant difference between the new crew capsule and China’s Soyuz-derived Shenzhou is in the use of three, rather than one, parachutes, during descent to landing. Credit: CASC

While the crew capsule test vehicle would remain in space for several days, allowing it to complete a series of automated tests, the cargo capsule – designed to return equipment and experiments from China’s upcoming space station – had been due to return to Earth on Wednesday, May 6th. Unlike the crewed vehicle, the cargo unit is designed to use an “inflatable” heat shield during re-entry.

Called a “ballute” (a portmanteau of balloon and parachute), this approach to inflatable systems was initially developed in the last 1950s as a parachute-like braking device optimised for use at high altitudes and supersonic velocities. In the 1960’s, ballutes were included as part of the astronaut escape system in NASA’s Gemini missions. More recently, a number of organisations and countries have been looking at there use as re-entry systems as they are lighter and potentially less complex than conventional re-entry systems.

The capsule on the ground, the white thermal protection of the hull scorched after re-entry, the airbags used to soften the impact of land deflated. The open compartment to the right is one of the airbag containers. Credit: Xinhua

In this instance, it appears the ballute may have failed. Following re-entry, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) announced the cargo vehicle has suffered an “anomaly” that was being investigated – with no further information forthcoming.

The crew capsule, however, completed its mission entirely successfully, performing a number of orbital manoeuvres, testing the deployment of the vital solar panels and carrying out a series of communications tests.

The extended orbit of the vehicle carried it some 8,000 km altitude – greater than that of the Orion uncrewed flight test in 2018. This meant it would be able to make an atmospheric entry at speeds matching a return from the Moon – putting the heat shield to its ultimate test.

Ths initial de-orbit burn took place on Friday, May 8th, at 5:21 UTC, after which the capsule separated from its service module. Following a successful atmospheric entry, the vehicle deployed three main parachutes to make the descent over the planned Dongfeng desert landing area. Shortly before landing, self-inflating airbags were deployed to soften the impact, which occurred at 5:49 UTC. In all, the vehicle spent more than 2 days and 19 hours in orbit.

When crewed flight commence, the vehicle will be capable of carrying a combination of crew and cargo, with a minimum of 3 crew (and up to 500 kg of cargo, if required) required for a launch and operation of the vehicle, with a maximum of 6 (or 7 according to some Chinese sources) crew. The core of the capsule is designed to be used over a maximum of ten flights, with the heat shield being completely replaced after each flight, with the side thermal protection system also being refurbished.

The success of the flight, together with that of the Long March 5B – making its first launch – has been reported as now opening the door to a slate of 11 missions revolving around space station construction, with CNSA indicating they plan to complete space station construction by the end of 2022.

However, one side-effect of this flight is that the 20-tonne core stage of rocket also reached orbital velocity. It is expected to make an uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere on Monday, May 11th, the largest man-man object to date to do so. Any elements surviving re-entry should splash down in the Indian ocean.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: rockets, landers, FRBs and the Moon”