Spacecraft that told us 'you're screwed' finally gives up the ghost after doubling its shelf life

Plus: Space suits, walks and a new Crew Dragon

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Roundup How's your World Space Week shaping up? Baked a rocket cake or two? No? Nevermind. Take some time out to catch up with this week's roundup of space stuff.

Italian Air Force going to space* with Virgin

The Italian Air Force has signed up with the Bearded One's Virgin Galactic to take a jaunt into space aboard the company's SpaceShipTwo, once flights start in earnest.

It has rather trumped the secondment of a RAF pilot to Virgin Orbit, although Blighty's flyboy will be aboard the Boeing 747 destined to launch uncrewed rockets while the Italian team will be strapped into Branson's rocket plane.

Flight Lieutenant Mathew Stannard

RAF pilot seconded to Virgin Orbit for three years of launching rockets from a 747


The flight, which could happen as soon as 2020, will see three Italian payload specialists frantically performing experiments during the few minutes of weightlessness following engine shutdown. Unsurprisingly, the payload includes gear to measure the effect of the transition from gravity to microgravity on the human body.

NASA has already flown payloads on test flights of Virgin's sub-orbital lobber. However, this will be the first time a government department has funded a human-tended research flight on a commercial vehicle.

End of the line for Jason-2

The mission of the joint US-European Jason-2 spacecraft came to an end last week after the vehicle's power system deteriorated and officials took the decision to switch it off.

The final decommissioning of Jason-2 will be performed by the French space agency Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) on 10 October amid concern about the risk posed to other satellites from the potentially derelict and out-of-control hulk.

The Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM) has far exceeded expectations. It was only supposed to last three years but spent 11 sending measurements back to Earth after its June 2008 launch. Jason-2 has recorded almost five centimetres of global sea-level rise over the years, adding to the data recorded by its predecessors.

That measuring has continued with its successor, Jason-3, which launched in 2016. Jason-3 will be followed in 2020 and 2025 by Jason-CS and Sentinel-6 satellites.

The clock had been ticking for Jason-2 since control systems degraded in July 2017. Engineers dropped the spacecraft into a slightly lower orbit away from other satellites, which meant that while the resolution of data improved, there was a reduction in frequency of observations of the same location.

And now, after an impressively long life, the end has finally come.

50 years on, NASA wants to make a new spacesuit for lunar surface antics

With a mere five years left before the next American bootprint is due to be left on the Moon, NASA has put out a Request For Information (RFI) aimed at identifying vendors interested in producing a new spacesuit.

The US space agency will deal with building and certifying the first batch of astro-wear itself, but expects US industry to take over after the first Moon landing. That is scheduled to occur with Artemis III in 2024.

The Artemis spacesuits will be very different from those of the Shuttle and Apollo eras, multi-purpose and equally suited to bounding around on the Moon or (whisper it) Mars, as well as driving rovers and performing spacewalks.

The new designs improve fit, comfort and mobility. Killjoy-in-Chief Marshall Smith, of NASA's Human Lunar Exploration Program, said: "You won't see the bunny hopping and falls like those seen in the Apollo videos."

Smith went on to say: "We've added bearings and new soft elements to help the suit move smoothly with the wearer."

The suits will also accommodate a wider range of crew sizes, which will be music to the ears of 'nauts forced to call off the first all-female spacewalk from the ISS due to ill-fitting spacewear.

Christina Koch and Jessica Meir will now conduct the first all-woman spacewalk (in the ageing suits aboard the ISS) on 21 October.

Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon arrive at Cape Canaveral ahead of abort test

NASA posted imagery from the interior of SpaceX's Florida facilities showing the arrival of the Falcon 9 and the not-explosively-dismantled Crew Dragon capsule to be used for the upcoming in-flight abort test.

The abort test is the final milestone before SpaceX can have a crack at shoehorning a pair of astronauts into the capsule and blasting them into orbit.

Neither NASA nor SpaceX have published a date for the test, which will see the SuperDraco thrusters push the Crew Dragon away from the Falcon 9 after lift-off, although the arrival of hardware means the launch is expected to occur in the next few months.

A successful test would set the stage for a crewed mission, which would now most likely occur in 2020. The Crew Dragon conducted a successful docking with the ISS back in March before memorably detonating during a test in April.

That test involved those SuperDraco thrusters with the explosion occurring just before the thrusters were due to fire.

The milestone comes after NASA's Administrator issued a terse tweet targeted at the commercial crew providers ahead of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's trumpetings about his monster rocket, Starship.

After all, the company has yet to send a crewed Dragon to orbit, let alone something like Musk's shiny steel behemoth. ®

* Depending on where you think the Kármán line lies.


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