Brit Mars bot named while NASA 'nauts must wait a bit longer for a US rocket trip to the ISS

Also: Well done, Squirrels, you've got your Commercial Astronaut badge


Roundup Over the past two Earth days, NASA released pics of China's Moon lander, SpaceX saw a Falcon delay to its Crew Dragon and the UK failed to name the ExoMars rover Rover McRoverface.

SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew flights slide to the right

A year has passed since SpaceX fired up Musk's mighty Falcon Heavy but the Demo-1 mission to show off the company's crew-capable Dragon capsule continues to suffer delays.

NASA's commercial crew office has blinked again and admitted that things are going to happen later than it had hoped.

Again.

NASA reckons that more testing, verification, reviewing and training is needed before any blue touchpaper can be lit.

The slip gives both Boeing and SpaceX a little more breathing space to get their oft-delayed orbital jalopies ready to be flung off the Earth. SpaceX's Demo-1 is now aiming for 2 March while Boeing's flight has slipped into April.

Both companies still need to perform an abort demonstration. SpaceX's earliest crewed flight will now be – maybe – July 2019 while Boeing is targeting August. NASA will then decide when operational flights to the International Space Station (ISS) can take place.

The sooner the better as far as the US agency is concerned – it has had to pony up more cash for additional seats on Russian rockets as timelines keep slipping.

NASA probe spots a white, Chinese dot on the Moon

While US 'nauts continue to wait for a domestic ride into space, NASA's long-lived Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) snapped a shot of China's Chang'e 4 lander on the floor of the 186km (116 mile) diameter Von Kármán crater.

LRO was designed as a precursor for robotic and crewed missions to the lunar surface, with its data used for planning purposes. It has enjoyed multiple mission extensions during its nine-year lifespan and has photographed the Apollo landing sites, but the hoped-for US robotic surface missions have yet to put in an appearance.

It's tricky to make out Chang'e 4 itself in the images; it occupies just two pixels in the picture due to LRO being 330km (205 miles) east of the landing site when the image was taken. The rover, unfortunately, is too small to occupy even one pixel at that range.

Cornish blasty and ExoMars Rover renamed

The UK's ambitions in space remain undimmed, and the UK Space Agency was chuffed to announce yesterday that the trundlebot previously known as the ExoMars rover, due to start rolling around the Red Planet in just over two years, will henceforth be known as Rosalind Franklin.

Franklin was a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer who contributed to unravelling the double helix structure of DNA. She also made enduring contributions to the study of coal, carbon and graphite.

The name was chosen by a panel of experts from a shortlist submitted by the public. Nearly 36,000 people made a suggestion but sadly we can only speculate on the possibilities that failed to make the cut.

Brexitbot perhaps. Or Mogg the Mars Explorer.

The rover itself is being assembled in the UK, and the UK Space Agency is the second largest European contributor to the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars mission, having invested €287m in the project and £14m on the instruments.

While ExoMars will be launched from foreign shores, Skyrora, the outfit responsible for lugging a battered Black Arrow back to Blighty, has announced plans to kick off testing for the upper-stage motor of its yet-to-launch orbital booster.

The Scottish company is in the process of finalising engine test preparations and setting up distillation equipment for its rocket oxidiser from a new workshop at Cornwall's Airport Newquay.

Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) chief exec Glenn Caplin was chuffed, seeing the move as another step to creating a "£1bn space economy in Cornwall by 2030". Cornwall also harbours ambitions of creating a spaceport that can launch orbital missions.

While the firm is delighted to expand into Cornwall, with a grant from the UK Space Agency adding a position for another chemistry engineer, Skyrora director Daniel Smith admitted that "it's likely that we will test our larger engines at a new permanent site in Scotland".

Still, with the company's Skylark Micro and SkyHy vehicles built and two launches planned for 2019, British-based rocket fans have much to look forward to.

Virgin fliers collect their shiny new wings as their old engine is museum bound

Pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow received their Commercial Astronaut Wings during a ceremony at US Department of Transportation's HQ in Washington D.C. in recognition of the duo's flight in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft.

The flight saw the pair reach an apogee of 82.7km (51.4 miles) on 13 December 2018 before they guided the spacecraft back down to an unpowered safe landing.

It was Stucky’s first jaunt to space, and he was talkative as he received the wings, telling the crowd the award was an "honour" and an "acknowledgement of a personal achievement" before going on to name-check the team behind the spacecraft, including Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites.

Sturckow, a veteran of four shuttle missions (including the first visit to the International Space Station), simply said: "It was a great flight and I can't wait to do it again."

While Virgin Galactic plans further test flights as it heads towards a commercial passenger service from the New Mexico spaceport, it won't be with the same engine that earned Forger and CJ their Commercial Astronaut Wings. Shortly after the ceremony, Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson headed down to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. to donate the hybrid rocket motor to be exhibited in a planned commercial space flight gallery.

The thing weighs in at approximately 3,000 pounds and generates 320kN of thrust. It was enough to propel VSS Unity to space at Mach 2.9 and has been given the somewhat tortuous title of "Most powerful hybrid rocket to be used in manned flight" by Guinness World Records.

The date of the next flight of the Bearded One’s rocketplane has yet to be announced. ®

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