Boeing has opted to delay the first launch of its CST-100 Starliner, designed to fly crews to and from the International Space Station. The uncrewed launch, referred to as the Orbital Flight Test, has been pushed back from April to August 2019, with the company citing a tight schedule and conflicts with another launch – that of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) 5 military communications satellite due in June 2019 – as the reasons for the delay.
The “tight schedule” meant that the launch would likely slip into May – but the AEHF-5 launch would mean that the Starliner would only have a 2-day launch window before its own Atlas 5 booster would have to be removed from the launch complex in order to make way for the classified military launch.
Our Starliner team continues to press toward a launch readiness date later this spring,” the company said, which also included the completion of a final set of testing milestones. In order to avoid unnecessary schedule pressure, not interfere with a critical national security payload, and allow appropriate schedule margin to ensure the Boeing, United Launch Alliance and NASA teams are able to perform a successful first launch of Starliner, we made the most responsible decision available to us and will be ready for the next launch pad availability in August.
– Boeing statement
The delay means that the second test flight of the vehicle, due to fly a crew of two NASA astronauts, Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke, together with Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, to the International Space Station, will also be delayed. That flight had been due to take place no earlier than August, but Boeing now state it will take place “later in the year”, with industry experts suggesting it will not proceed any earlier than November 2019.
Following the announcement, NASA indicated that the crewed flight for Starliner will include an extended stay at the International Space Station, lasting several months (the extract length of the stay still to be determined). This extension will effectively allow NASA to turn the mission from a test flight into a crew rotation mission – an idea that had been first mooted in 2016. All three of the crew have been training for ISS operations, and the move could offset the need for an extended use of Soyuz vehicles. As it is, in February, 2019, NASA issued a procurement notice to purchase two additional Soyuz seats from the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, seats that the Russians didn’t plan to use for their own cosmonauts in order to help ease potential problems were either SpaceX or Boeing to encounter programme issues with their respective vehicles, the Crew Dragon and the CST-100.
While we have already made substantial progress this year, this shift gives us the time to continue building a safe, quality spacecraft capable of carrying crews over and over again after a successful uncrewed test, without adding unnecessary schedule pressure.
– John Mulholland, VP and Program Manager, Boeing CST-100 programme
Mars: of “Eclipses”, and Evidence of Ancient Life?
In March 2019, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity was able to record a “double eclipse” as the two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos passed between the rover and the Sun; although while the media referred to them as “eclipses”, such is the size differential between the tiny moons and the Sun, they are technically transits.
The first transit took place on March 17th when Deimos, the more distant of Mars’ two captured moons, passed across the face of the Sun, its passage recorded by Curiosity’s Mastcam. The second event took place on Mars 26th, when the much larger – and closer – Phobos (11.5 km across) passed in front of the Sun, again filmed by Curiosity’s Mastcam. This event was the more dramatic of the two, not only because of the larger apparent size of Phobos, but because the Moon actually cast a visible shadow, which was captured by the rover’s navigation cameras. Images of all of the events were subsequently strung together to make a short video (below).
However, movie making isn’t the primary objective in observing the transits. Each set of these types of observations – which have also been made by the now-defunct Mars Exploration Rovers, help scientists further refine each moon’s orbit of Mars. When observations of Deimos commenced from the surface of Mars, for example, estimates for where it should be were about 40 km off.
According to NASA, scientists are in agreement present-day Mars is without life. However, whether there might once have been life there is open to debate, and a team from Hungary believe they have found organic material embedded in a Martian meteorite found here on Earth in the late 1970s.
Officially named ALH-77005, the Martian meteorite was found in the Antarctica’s Allan Hills during the Japanese National Institute of Polar Research mission of 1977 / 78. If the reference “ALH” and “Allan Hills” sounds familiar, it might be due to a furore that occurred around another Martian meteorite fragment in the late 1990s.
That fragment – ALH-84001, found in Allan Hills in 1984 – is one of the oldest fragments of Mars rock to have fallen to Earth, being dated at 4 billion years of age. When studying the fragment, a US team thought it might contain evidence for microscopic fossils of Martian bacteria within it.
From the start, the claims were considered controversial – although the way the White House and the media over-reacted at the time didn’t help. However, extensive and international study of shavings from the fragment revealed that all of the unusual features discovered within the meteorite could be explained without requiring the intervention of microbial life, and the wider scientific community rejected the hypothesis that the fragment offered evidence of past life. Nevertheless, the events surrounding ALH-84001 pushed the science of astrobiology firmly into thee public domain.
In their report on ALH-77005, Hungarian scientists Ildiko Gyollai, Marta Polgari and Szaniszlo Berczi state they have been able to determine the presence of mineralised organic matter within the rock, such as different forms of bacteria within the meteorite, suggesting that life could once have existed on the Red Planet.
Our work is important to a broad audience because it integrates planetary, earth, biological, chemical, and environmental sciences and will be of interest to many researchers in those fields. The research will also be of interest to planetologists, experts of meteorite and astrobiology as well as researchers of the origin of life, and to the general public since it offers an example of a novel aspect of microbial mediation in stone meteorites.
– Ildiko Gyollai from HAS Research Centre for Astronomy and Earth Sciences in Budapest
While the work will require independent study and review, and the lessons of ALH-84001 could result in some remaining sceptical of the Hungarians’ findings. Nevertheless, there report could change the examination of meteorites in the future. In light of their discovery, the authors posit that solar system materials should be studied to establish whether there is evidence of microbial forms within space rocks as well.