Scrubtastic end to 2018 as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Arianespace all opt for another day on Earth

But spare a thought for 'nauts coming home in punctured Soyuz

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Roundup It's been a packed week to round out the year for rocket fans still giddy from Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo sub-orbital jaunt.

Rocket Lab – most definitely in business

Small-sat specialists Rocket Lab celebrated a third successful launch of its Electron rocket at 06:33 UTC on Sunday from New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula, deploying a 78kg payload of 13 satellites into orbit.

The "It's Business Time" launch was just over a month ago and the latest brings the total satellites dumped in orbit by the company this year to 24.

The mission, designated ELaNa-19 (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites), included 10 nano satellites selected by NASA's CubeSat Launch Initiative, aimed at getting students involved in space technology. The three other sats were for JPL and DARPA.

The flotilla of 10 x 10 x 10cm satellites included demonstrations of a solar sail blade and robotic arms, as well as high energy particle and plasma instruments.

The mission was named "This One's For Pickering" in honour of Sir William Pickering, who headed NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and led the team that developed the first US satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958.

If Rocket Lab has taken to naming its launch vehicles after JPL's founding fathers, may we suggest "Jack Parson's Sex Magic Missile". Look him up, but be warned: it all gets NSFW very quickly.

Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab, was obviously chuffed and plans to increase the cadence of launches. Certainly, 2019 looks like it will be a busy one for the startup, and Beck said he expects to pick up business from nano and cubesat operators tired of having to hitch rides on larger launchers. The company said the next Electron "will be on the pad" in January, but was tight-lipped as to who the lucky customer would be.

SpaceX rounds out 2018 with the first GPS III satellite

There was much at stake for Elon Musk's army of rocketeers today as a Falcon 9 was poised to send the first of a new generation of GPS satellites into medium Earth orbit. The launch is the first of five National Security Space (NSS) missions awarded to the company. SpaceX scored the first back in April 2016, much to the chagrin of established player ULA.

Alas, it was not to be. Seven minutes before launch, the Falcon's onboard systems triggered an automatic abort. SpaceX later confirmed that an "out of family" reading on first stage sensors had tripped the alarms.

With no time left in the launch window, engineers had little option but to leave the Falcon 9 firmly sat on Floridian soil until the next window opens tomorrow at 14:07 UTC.

The Falcon 9 is to take off from Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) free of the fripperies needed for landing. This Block 5 booster is not going to be returning home. Not in one piece, at any rate.

SpaceX said the decision not to attempt a landing was due to "mission requirements". The Air Force, however, was more blunt. It's all about maximising performance. In a call with reporters, Walter Lauderdale, of the Air Force Space and Missile Center, said that the priority was "taking care of the spacecraft".

Should the launch be successful, Lauderdale said there might be potential for SpaceX to recover some performance in order to be able to land the Falcon 9 in the future. After the US Air Force has taken a very close look at how things went, of course.

The next-generation GPS constellation is, as is the case with most things space related, running a bit behind schedule and was supposed to go live in 2016. With the first satellite finally in orbit, things should be operational by the early part of the next decade.

Bezos (almost) in spaaaaace

Jeff Bezos' pet project to set fire to his Amazon billions saw the tenth launch of the reusable New Shepard rocket, carrying a payload of NASA-sponsored experiments, scrubbed shortly before launch due to a "ground infrastructure issue", according to Blue Origin's Twitter mouthpiece.

The first mission since July's capsule abort demonstration will reuse the same booster and crew capsule, but not repeat the emergency escape shenanigans seen in the summer. In the ongoing game of rocket mogul one-up-manship, it will also be the fourth flight of this particular booster, trumping Musk's third flight of a Falcon 9 earlier this month.

Of course, SpaceX could simply cough the word "orbital".

The launch will follow on the heels of paying-passenger competitor Virgin Galactic's flight last week, although New Shepard has not required a redefinition of boundaries in order to reach space. The abort demonstration launch in July saw the capsule reach an altitude of 118.8km.

Blue Origin has also reached another milestone, with two New Shepard boosters squeezed into its West Texas processing facility. One, according to the company, will fly a crewed capsule next year.

ULA to try, try again while Arianespace readies its last Soyuz of 2018

Arianespace began its 11th mission of the year – the third involving a Soyuz – with the launch of a CSO-1, a French military satellite. It is the 20th Soyuz launched from the Guiana Space Centre since operations with the Russian rocket kicked off in 2011.

The Soyuz has been a relatively reliable vehicle since its introduction to Arianespace's launch facility, notching up a solitary partial failure in 2014 when it dumped a pair of Galileo satellites into the wrong orbit. Both spacecraft were later able to manoeuvre to a usable location.

CSO-1 (Composante Spatiale Optique) is the first of a trio of satellites dedicated to Earth observation and will be placed in a Sun-synchronous orbit, at an altitude of 800km. Lift-off of the Soyuz ST-A carrying the 3,565 kg satellite is scheduled for 16:37 UTC on 19 December, following a scrub on the 18th due to iffy weather.

Also battling the weather, ULA will have another crack at getting its Delta IV Heavy off its Vandenberg launch pad at 01:57 UTC on 19 December. The previous attempt was memorably aborted seven seconds before lift-off as flames licked around the three common booster cores that form the launcher.

A review on 17 December confirmed the rocket was ready for launch, but the weather may not cooperate. Forecasted windy conditions currently point to only a 20 per cent chance of the National Reconnaissance Office getting its payload off the ground.

Home, James, and don't spare the duct tape!

Proving that what goes up must come down, a trio of ISS 'nauts in the shape of Alexander Gerst, Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Sergey Prokopyev are packing their bags, ready for a return to Earth in Soyuz MS-09.

Yes, the Soyuz with the hole in it. The one that two spacewalking cosmonauts ripped into last week.

The three will be safely sealed inside the descent module of the Soyuz. The mystery hole is in the wall of the habitation, or orbital module, which is jettisoned after the Soyuz engines perform a re-entry burn.

The crew is therefore in no danger. The Soyuz is scheduled to land in Kazakhstan early on 20 December. ®


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