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India pokes Vikram with a stick, drill-toting robot lands on Earth, UK plans launch site, and more

Also: A billion lucky smartphone owners can make use of Galileo

Roundup It was a busy last week for space fans as drill-wielding humanoid robot Fedor returned from space, India's Vikram lunar lander failed to return signals from the Moon and the Vega launcher inched closer to a return to flight.

India's Schrödinger's Moon lander

Confusion continued to reign over the fate of India's Vikram lunar lander, following a communications blackout that many assumed indicated a failure.

Things went south (although not in the way the Indian space agency would have liked) early in the morning of 7 September (Bengaluru time) when communication with the lander was lost as it descended past 2.1km in altitude toward the Moon's South Pole.

The Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) communications orifices, aside from a succession of commiseration and congratulatory retweets, remained conspicuously silent on the matter.

Which, frankly, is odd. The orbiter, Chandrayaan-2, remains in rude health and is equipped with a terrain-mapping camera (TMC 2) with a spatial resolution of five metres and an Orbiter High Resolution Camera that was intended to capture a high resolution image of the landing site at a resolution of 0.32 metres.

So it is surprising that the lander has yet to be spotted. And, indeed, reports soon began appearing that Vikram had survived. Some claimed that the lander had ended up on its side after a hard touchdown. Others, wonderfully, spat out pictures of old Apollo landing sites purporting to be the first imagery of the stricken Vikram.

While still not sharing any snapshots of its own, ISRO finally confirmed today that it had found the lander and was attempting to get the thing to communicate.

The suspicion is that a probable hard landing has prevented the lander from either using its antenna or collecting solar energy. ISRO is, as ever, not talking.

One thing is, however, for certain. If it has somehow survived the landing, Vikram was not designed to make it through the lunar night, which is less than two weeks away.

Euro-boffins lay claim to 1 beeeellion Galileo-enabled smartphones

The European Global Satellite Navigation Satellite Systems Agency celebrated a milestone for the satellite constellation with what it estimated was the billionth smartphone to feature tech to receive the navigation signals.

No, not the super-secret-squirrel one that has left Blighty bereft of playthings, having lobbed its toys from its pram. The one mere mortals use to find out where they are.

The figure for actual users is potentially higher if one also adds other devices, such as the eCall system that has been compulsory in new European cars since April 2018 (although it wasn't until July 2018 before the first Galileo-enabled Volvos rolled off the production line.)

The GSA reckoned there are currently 156 Gallileo-enabled smartphones on the market and with 95 per cent of manufacturers of the navigation chips building in the ability to pick up the constellation's signal, that figure will continue to grow, from 1.8bn units in 2019 to 2.7bn by 2029. Assuming, of course, that signal can be picked up. Galileo was rocked by an extended outage earlier this year that left travellers bereft of location data. Until, of course, they fell back to good old GPS.

Sutherland spaceport inches closer to construction

The UK crept closer to a new space port last week as the £17.3m Space Hub Sutherland lodged a proposal of application notice with the Highland Council, kicking off a process that should lead to a planning application arriving before the end of the year.

The UK Space Agency has popped £2.5m into the pot, and awarded grants to Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Orbex, which has set up a manufacturing facility in the Moray town of Forres in the north of Scotland.

A lease option agreement on the earmarked land was signed on 1 August 2019.

While Roy Kirk, the Highland and Islands Enterprise Space Hub Sutherland project director, described the project as "hugely ambitious", the reality is that the launch site is only expected to enjoy 10 small-sat launches a year when things kick off.

It will, however, employ 40 "or so" skilled workers at the space hub itself, part of 400 jobs created in the region.

The first launch could take place as soon as the early 2020s.

Soyuz MS-14 back on Earth (with Russian drill-toting robot onboard)

The inhabitants aboard the International Space Station (ISS) doubtless heaved a sigh of relief last week, as the Soyuz MS-14 capsule, with a solo robotic occupant, returned safely to Earth.

The humanoid robot, Fedor, can be seen in the clip below wielding a drill aboard the ISS.

Cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin was on hand in the event that the Skybot F-850 ran amok with the power tool and had a crack at putting holes in the hull of the ISS or its lifeboats, thus incapacitating the meatbags on board.

While other lesser 'nauts might not have been up to the task, Ovchinin had already survived the hair-raising mid-flight abort of Soyuz MS-10 and so we are confident he could handle a rogue robot.

Of course, in reality, Fedor lacks much in the way of autonomy and is controlled remotely.

MS-14 was attached to the aft-facing port of the ISS's Zvezda service module and had spent two weeks at the outpost before its return to Earth to conclude the testing of upgrades made to the venerable spacecraft ahead of human flights.

The Soyuz, and its anthropomorphic robot cargo, landed safely on 7 September at 00:32 Moscow time.

Vega boom: it was the thermo-structural failure wot dunnit

The Independent Inquiry Commission into July's Vega launcher failure submitted its findings last week.

The Arianespace launcher had lifted off as normal on 10 July, but just over two minutes after lift-off, after second stage ignition, things went dramatically wrong and the mission ended a tad earlier than planned.

The committee noted that while the P80 first stage had performed as planned, things did not go so well for the Zefiro 23 (Z23) second stage.

The Z23 performed nominally for the first 14.25 seconds of its firing before "a sudden and violent event occurred on the Z23 motor."

A "neutralisation command" was sent just after the 213-second mark, and by 314 seconds, all telemetry from the launcher had been lost.

The gang reckoned that an inadvertent triggering of the Z23's own neutralisation system was unlikely and found no evidence of a malicious act. Instead it reckoned that a thermo-structural failure in the forward dome of the Z23 motor was the most likely culprit.

It recommended more tests to verify its findings and a set of corrective actions to stop the boom happening again.

The findings clear the path to a resumption of Vega flights as soon as the first quarter of 2020. ®


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