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NASA wheels out Habitation prototypes while SpaceX encounters problems with parachutes

Also: 60 Starlink sats shoehorned in a Falcon 9 fairing, bound for orbital shenanigans

Roundup Pull up a chair and tuck into a sachet of dried astro-nosh with a round-up of space news you might have missed.

You spend years waiting for a Deep Space Habitat and then two turn up at once

NASA's Johnson Space Center cheerfully trumpeted the arrival of two very early mock-ups as part of the agency's NextSTEP Habitat effort, aimed at private industry building something in which astronauts might live during Moon missions. Kicked off in 2015, with prototypes developed in 2016-2018, the first results of the programme began turning up this month.

Northrop Grumman's take on a Gateway habitation module is naturally built around the company's Cygnus freighter, which has enjoyed a successful record shipping astro-pants to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The prototype includes modules showing where astronauts might live, with a galley and sleeping quarters and an airlock. The Gateway will also need a docking port to greet an Orion spacecraft.

While Northrop Grumman built on its existing designs, Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC) take on the idea was a little more wild.

The company is better known among space aficionados for its Dream Chaser reusable lifting body idea for ISS crew and cargo transportation. Well, it's only cargo now after SNC lost out to Boeing and SpaceX in the competition for those sweet, sweet NASA commercial crew dollars.

However, the company has been, in a very real sense, thinking big with its take on an inflatable habitat, which would expand to comprise three floors when deployed. Plenty of space for travelling 'nauts to enjoy during lunar missions.

While the design has its roots in a long-cancelled ISS concept, the idea of inflatable modules was memorably proven by the engorgement of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) back in 2016. Following a successful primary mission, BEAM remains attached to the ISS, serving as storage for the space-constrained space station.

Bigelow has its own approach to a habitation module in the form of the inflatable B330 prototype, which enjoys a spacious 330 cubic metres of liveable area. Lockheed Martin, on the other hand, has gone down the Northrop Grumman route with a proposal to recycle technology used by ISS Multi-Purpose Logistic Modules (MPLM). Boeing has also taken the ISS heritage path in its Exploration Habitat Demonstrator.

NanoRacks' concept has left greybeards thinking wistfully of Skylab wet workshop designs with its study based on refurbishing a spent rocket tank.

While NASA does not expect to select one habitat at this stage, the agency will take the results from the tests – which will involve 'nauts pottering about in the earthbound prototypes – in defining the final concept.

And a couple of pieces of physical hardware at least shows progress toward the agency's 2024 Lunar goal.

Virgin Galactic relocates to New Mexico

Slightly upstaged by Jeff Bezos' moonship, Virgin Galactic head honcho Richard Branson has announced that the company is shifting spaceline staff and vehicles from the company's current Mojave facility to the modestly named Spaceport America in New Mexico in advance of the first commercial flights to space.

The move will involve relocating 100 staff as well as the carrier aircraft VMS Eve and spacecraft VSS Unity from Mojave to New Mexico once Virgin Galactic's sister outfit, The Spaceship Company (TSC), has finished fitting out the thing. VSS Unity will then complete its final test flights from New Mexico.

TSC, on the other hand, isn't going anywhere and will keep on making SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo vehicles in Mojave.

While the company was coy on how many test flights remain before actual paying customers will get to enjoy a few minutes of micro-gravity in space (depending on your take on where the Kármán Line is), that first jaunt cannot be far off.

The move starts now, and the company plans to continue the relocation during the summer.

SpaceX parachute oopsie

After its triumphant visit to the ISS with a Crew Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX has had a bit of a torrid time with a pesky anomaly blowing that same capsule to pieces and now William Gerstenmaier, NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, telling the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that Musk's rocketeers had a bit of a problem with parachutes – essential for returning the capsule to Earth at a velocity that won't result in a Rapid Unplanned Disassembly.

When asked about an April parachute test, Gerstenmaier replied that "we did not get the results we wanted". The test was to simulate one of the four chutes failing to open. Alas, the other three also had a problem, leading to the test sled (a simulator for the Crew Dragon capsule) being "damaged on impact".

Naturally, this is what testing is for, and Gerstenmaier was quick to describe the experience as something that would be learned from rather than an out and out negative. Better to happen with a metal sled than a capsule with something squishy onboard.

While SpaceX had not mentioned the failure prior to the hearing, its rival, Boeing, coincidentally posted footage showing how well testing of the parachutes of its own CST-100 Starliner capsule was going.


Both companies have historically struggled with parachutes. NASA's 2018 Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel stated (PDF) that "Parachutes remain a challenging area for both providers" with both experiencing technical challenges "albeit different ones."

The internet in spaaaaace

While its crew ambitions remain mired in technical difficulty, SpaceX has continued to press ahead with another of Elon Musk's pet projects – Starlink.

Musk plans to send up 12,000 or so low-Earth orbit satellites to blanket the planet with gigabit-speed internet connectivity. The company currently has two demo satellites Tintin A & B, launched in February 2018. Tomorrow's Falcon 9 launch will send up 60 of what Musk describes as "production design" versions, packed tightly into the Falcon's fairing.

Always keen to manage expectations, Musk added that "much will likely go wrong on 1st mission" and reckon another six launches would be need for minor and 12 for moderate coverage, or 720 satellites.

The company has remained its usual taciturn self when it comes to the actual Starlink satellites themselves. Compared to traditional dispensers, the stack designed by SpaceX is something quite different. The company does, after all, have a history with throwing away the rule book with varying degrees of success.

SpaceX President (and Musk parser) Gwynne Shotwell confirmed the launch during last week's SATELLITE 2019 conference, although she left it to Musk to tweet out just how many satellites were being flung into orbit. She did, however, say that the fleet heading to space tomorrow consisted of test units. Fully operational satellites would follow later this year, assuming things go well.

Following a successful static fire of the Falcon 9, SpaceX is aiming for a 02:30 UTC (22:30 Eastern) launch on 16 May. ®

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