NASA's lunar spy looks for hide-and-seek champ Vikram, Starliner test success, and more

Happy 43rd birthday to Space Shuttle Enterprise

Roundup Unlike SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which plops down in the ocean at the end of a mission (ideally in one piece), Boeing's CST-100 Starliner is designed to land on, er, land. As NASA and Boeing inch ever closer to its first crewed launch, rehearsals were conducted last week to practice locating a capsule, safing it and preparing for hatch opening.

The gang went through more than half-a-dozen scenarios at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, encompassing the return of both the impending uncrewed test and subsequent crewed flights. On hand to observe were intrepid 'nauts Nicole Mann, Mike Fincke and Chris Ferguson, who will eventually be stuffed into the capsule for the first flight.

The trio would have been relieved to see the recovery team managed to locate and prep a Starliner test capsule for hatch opening in less than an hour.

Of course, that first crewed flight is very much a moving target as milestones continue a relentless march to the right. NASA effectively wiped the slate clean at the end of July, deferring the setting of new dates until "new leadership is in place to deliver realistic schedule plans".

However, there remains every chance that an uncrewed Starliner will pay a visit to the International Space Station (ISS) before 2019 is out.

Not to be outdone, SpaceX, which has already sent a Crew Dragon to the ISS, boasted of its upcoming abort test which will require the use of the spacecraft's eight SuperDraco engines.

Tentatively scheduled for October (more likely November), the test will see a Crew Dragon (with no 'nauts on board) ejected from a Falcon 9 at the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure. The Dragon will then descend via parachutes to a splashdown in the ocean and be recovered.

Should that go well, a crewed version could take a pair of astronauts to the ISS at the end of 2019.

Finding Vikram

With the Indian Space Agency aping its lander by adopting radio silence, NASA is to step in and attempt to capture imagery of Vikram's planned landing site.

While the Indian Space Research Organisation (IRSO) has claimed to have located the lander, the agency has yet to officially release any pictures, and its social media orifice has kept mum on the matter.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), on the other hand, has snapped a good few images of the surface over the years, including imagery of the Apollo landing sites at a resolution high enough to make out the tracks left by the astronauts.

While the cameras aboard the LRO are not quite of the same resolution as those on ISRO's Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, fly-overs by NASA's spacecraft over the coming days should reveal the fate of the Vikram lander in the absence of news from ISRO.

A CubeSat to check out NASA's lunar orbit

NASA is to spank $13.7m on a CubeSat mission to the lunar orbit planned for its upcoming Gateway. Dubbed Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), the mission will place the spacecraft in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon.

The CubeSat will rotate together with the Moon and come as close as 1,600km from the surface and as far as 70,000km. About the size of a microwave oven, the 12-unit CubeSat will be used to verify how spacecraft operate in the orbit before putting more humans up there.

The contract for the mission was awarded to Advanced Space of Boulder, Colorado, and could launch as soon as December 2020. NASA still hopes to put American boots back on the lunar surface by the end of 2024.

Happy birthday, Space Shuttle Enterprise

Shuttle-huggers will be lighting a candle or two today for the 43rd anniversary of the craft's first rollout.

On 17 September 1976, Space Shuttle Enterprise emerged from Rockwell's Palmdale construction facility in California ahead of its maiden flight the following year. Much of the cast of Star Trek attended the event after determined fans persuaded the administration to rename the orbiter, designated OV-101, after the sci-fi show's fictional starship.

Not that Enterprise did any orbiting. Lacking engines, a heat shield, in fact pretty much anything that could qualify it for spaceflight, Enterprise was used for atmospheric flight tests as well checks for fit on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center.

Dropped from a converted Boeing 747, Enterprise enjoyed five free flights, during which a crew of two piloted the glider to a landing. The first three free flights featured a tailcone to improve aerodynamics, which was removed for the final two and replaced with mock-ups of the eventual Space Shuttle Main Engines and OMS pods.

The last landing, on 26 October 1977, was a tad sporty thanks to a touch of pilot-induced oscillation.

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Following testing, NASA had hoped to refit Enterprise for orbital duties, but the cost turned out to be too much for the agency, which opted to turn another structural test article into what would become Challenger.

Enterprise was stripped of any components that could be useful to the Space Shuttle programme and sent on a worldwide tour before being used to fit-check the never-used Shuttle launchpad at Vandenburg. It was then handed over to the Smithsonian Museum for display.

Enterprise's story does not quite end there. Following the destruction of Challenger, NASA once again considered a retrofit of Enterprise before eventually electing to build Endeavour out of spares.

Enterprise was also called upon to assist in the Columbia investigation. A section of the fibreglass leading edge of Enterprise's wing had a block of foam fired at it. While the panel was not destroyed, it was sufficiently damaged to suggest that the less flexible reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) of Columbia would have fared less well. Subsequent tests blew a hole through a sacrificial section of RCC.

Enterprise enjoyed one final flight in 2012 as a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) flew the orbiter to New York while the rest of the Shuttle fleet were retired and decommissioned. A gust of wind damaged a wing tip as the Shuttle was moved to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum.

A new pavilion, opened in 2013 after the previous one blew down, affords visitors some close-up views of the almost-a-spacecraft and is well worth a visit (although a tad costly). ®

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