NASA is Boeing to get to the bottom of that Starliner snafu... plus SpaceX preps to blow up a Falcon 9

Also: Fancy a trip round the Moon? Of course you do, but there's a catch...


Roundup It's a been a busy start to the new year in this week's SpaceX-heavy round-up of news for rocket fanciers.

NASA and Boeing to find the cause of the Starliner Snafu

Boeing's attempt to send its commercial crew capsule, the CST-100 Starliner, to the International Space Station (ISS) famously went a bit wrong last year. The December Orbital Flight Test (OFT) had been intended to demonstrate the capsule could launch, rendezvous with the ISS, and return to Earth ahead of putting crew into the thing.

Alas, things did not go too well. The spacecraft managed get its timings wrong and, after being deposited into orbit by the Atlas V, burned through a large chunk its manoeuvring fuel, thinking it was time to dock with the distant ISS, before controllers could stop it.

Sufficient fuel remained to demonstrate the thing would work in orbit before it made a much-earlier-than-planned return to Earth, safely landing at the White Sands Missile Range.

The question for NASA and Boeing (and also nervous 'nauts destined to ride the capsule into orbit) is whether the OFT will need to be repeated ahead of a crewed mission to the ISS. "The uncrewed mission," said the space agency, "including docking to the space station, became a part of the company's contract with NASA."

Uh oh, so that docking is needed, right? Not so fast: "Although data from the uncrewed test is important for certification, it may not be the only way that Boeing is able to demonstrate its system's full capabilities."

Either way, Boeing is going to need NASA's nod before astronauts get sent into space inside a Starliner. To that end, an independent investigation board is in the process of being set up to decide what the next steps should be.

SpaceX gets ready to destroy a Falcon 9

Boeing's woes may mean that SpaceX will win the game of orbital "capture the flag", and return the memento left by the last Shuttle mission to the ISS to Earth. It was looking a little dicey following the explosion during ground testing of the first Crew Dragon capsule sent to ISS, but the company may steal a march on its arch-rival should this month's abort test go well.

The famously taciturn company tweeted out that a static fire of the sacrificial booster had been completed, setting up the test for 18 January.

It had been hoped that the flight-proven Falcon 9 booster might survive the abort demonstration, but SpaceX boss Elon Musk told fans that, despite the company's best efforts, booster B1046 would not survive the experience.

The veteran booster (the first of the Block 5 line) had a busy 2018, with two launches from Florida and one from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Its last hurrah will be from Florida's Launch Complex 39A.

The booster will be programmed to shut down its engines at around the 88 second mark, when the stack is experiencing the greatest aerodynamic forces. The early shutdown should trigger the SuperDraco escape engines built into the spacecraft and push the Crew Dragon away from the Falcon 9.

While the Crew Dragon returns to Earth safely by parachute (if all goes to plan), B1046 will likely break up due to the aerodynamic loads.

Musk described the mission as a "critical test launch before flying astronauts."

Starlink goes up and Dragon comes down

SpaceX launched another batch of Starlink satellites last week, as astronomers continued to wring their hands over the impact of another 60 of them heading into orbit.

The launch itself went off without a hitch, with a Falcon 9 lifting off from Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida in the early hours of 7 January (UTC) and the first stage executing the always impressive landing aboard a drone ship stationed in the Atlantic.

It marked the fourth launch for the first stage, which had previously been used to send up a batch of Starlink satellites in 2019 as well as spacecraft for Iridium and Telstar.

The launch is the first of a brisk schedule for 2020 and puts SpaceX at the top of the commercial satellite operator league table. More Starlink launches are planned as the company continues its drive to inflict the internet on all parts of the world.

An astronomically bad idea

The final figure for Starlink satellites ranges from anywhere from approximately 1,500 to 12,000 (or more), which has worried astronomers. Stargazers are concerned that the satellites will interfere with observations, after the first 120 turned out to be a tad brighter than expected. SpaceX has responded by trying out a darkening treatment to stop the things looking so gosh darn bright.

Returning to Earth, however, was the company's Dragon freighter, after a four week stay attached to the ISS.

The spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean approximately 271 miles (436km )southwest of Long Beach, California, marking the end of the SpaceX's 19th contracted cargo resupply mission.

Oh dear God no

SpaceX is also gearing up to test its Starship spacecraft this year, handy, because paying passenger Yusaku Maezawa is seeking "a female partner to go to the moon with him."

Those fancying their chances need to get their applications in by 17 January. The field will be narrowed somewhat by the requirements – successful applicants must have a "bright personality" and be "always positive", "want to enjoy life to the fullest" and "be someone who wishes for world peace."

Oh, and it's only open to "Single women aged 20 or over."

A "final decision on partner" is expected by the end of March, after "special dates getting to know Yusaku Maezawa."

While Maezawa states in the advertisement, "I look forward to meeting someone amazing," we can't help but remember the time Caroline Aherne's Mrs Merton character memorably interviewed Debbie McGee.

We fear the duo may have a while to wait for their trip around the Moon. The mission is due to launch in 2023, but a completed Starship has yet to put in an appearance with the company still testing out its welding techniques by ramping up the pressure in its test tanks. After the latest popped dome, Musk declared himself pleased with progress.

More work, however, will be needed before the thing flings a crew into orbit.

SLS arrives at Stennis

Finally, there was good news for NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine as the monster core stage for NASA arrived by barge for Green Run testing in the B-2 Test Stand.

Once testing is complete, the stage will be shipped to the agency's Florida facility ahead of the much delayed first launch to the Moon. While some within NASA still speak wistfully of that launch happening in 2020, 2021 would seem a safe bet, given SLS's past performance when it comes to schedule. ®


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