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India's Chandrayaan-2 and Vikram lander split amicably above Moon, SpaceX hops over Texas

Also: Second time lucky for Russia and onward to Mars for ESA (via Toulouse)

Roundup As NASA nervously eyed Hurricane Dorian, Roscosmos finally persuaded Soyuz MS-14 to dock with the ISS and India's Chandrayaan-2 enjoyed an amicable separation above the Moon.

India: Ready for powered descent?

Following a sequence of successful manoeuvres in Lunar orbit, India's Vikram lander earlier today separated from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter ahead of descending to the Moon's surface.

The lander is in an orbit of 119km x 127km and has a few more engine firings to go. A first deorbit burn is planned for tomorrow, taking the orbit down to 109km x 120km. A second manoeuvre on 4 September will send the lander to 36km x 110km.

A powered descent on 7 September will then, if all goes well, deposit the lander on the surface for an intense bit of science (which will also see the Indian trundlebot, Pragyan, in action). The lander and rover are expected to survive a single lunar day (14 Earth days) before the lunar night ends the fun and games.

If it goes to plan, India will become the first country to soft-land something on the lunar south pole as well being the fourth country overall to set down on the regolith in one piece.

Skybot arrives

It was second time lucky for Roscosmos as the uncrewed (by humans at least) Soyuz MS-14 docked to the International Space Station (ISS). The first attempt had to be aborted after a problem with the ISS's KURS docking system.

Three ISS expedition 60 crew members boarded the Soyuz MS-13 lifeboat, already attached to the station, and relocated it to the Poisk module. On Tuesday morning (27 August), MS-14 successfully docked with the vacated aft-facing Zvezda module.

MS-14 is a test to check out how the Soyuz spacecraft and its updated software work with the Soyuz-2-1a booster. The new booster performs a roll following launch, unlike older variants, which could trigger the abort systems of the Soyuz spacecraft. Hence the test of a software update.

Roscosmos intends to start crewing the new booster in 2020.

With the ongoing delays to NASA's attempts to get the likes of SpaceX and Boeing to fly its own astronauts to the ISS, the venerable spacecraft remains the only method of transporting humans to and from the outpost.

For its part, SpaceX proudly boasted of a completed static fire test of the Falcon 9 due to ferry the first humans in Musk's latest and greatest to the ISS. The mission might squeak in by the end of the 2019 (along with Boeing's own effort), which could mean the first official commercial crew rotation missions can finally start in 2020.

Starhopping, across the Texas plain

Still, SpaceX had much to celebrate. As well as the successful splashdown into the Pacific ocean of its Dragon freighter (making this particular vehicle the first Dragon to complete three missions to the ISS), Musk's rocketeers sent the company's Starhopper demonstration vehicle on its highest "hop" to date last Tuesday.

The stumpy-looking thing (dubbed a "flying water tower" by some) is a test bed for technology planned for SpaceX's Super Heavy and Starship. It is also the first to feature SpaceX's Raptor engine, which runs on cryogenic methane and liquid oxygen.

While 200 metres had been mooted as a target, an FAA-mandated 150m limit kept Starhopper's wings clipped this time around as the vehicle rose to altitude, remained stable, then translated to a different landing zone.

SpaceX head honcho Elon Musk detailed ambitious plans for the monster rocket and said the gang were "aiming for 20km flight in October" and would be having a crack at getting to orbit shortly after, with a full-scale Starship prototype.

Rosalind Franklin goes to France

Construction of ESA's ExoMars rover was declared complete last week, and the trundlebot was packed up for shipment to France for testing in Mars-like conditions.

Having enjoyed an extended sojourn in sunny Stevenage, it's off to Toulouse for the final rounds of testing, which will involve vibration benches and time in a chamber able to simulate the harsh conditions of Mars. The rover and its instruments must be able to ensure external temperatures as low as -120°C (-184°F) and -60°C (-76°F) within the vehicle as well as operate in less than one-hundredth of Earth's atmospheric pressure.

Once testing is complete, the rover will be enclosed within the landing platform and descent module of the spacecraft and declared ready for the hoped-for eight-month jaunt to Mars.

ESA and the other international project participants are still eyeing a July 2020 launch for the mission, atop a Proton-M launcher, which would see the rover's search for signs of Martian life kick off in March 2021. ®

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