SpaceX's next Starlink volley remains stuck on Earth to glee of astronomers everywhere

Plus: Did NASA just accidentally give the game away?


Roundup Cygnus flies, SpaceX stands down, Rocket Lab is going to the Moon and New Horizons drops a massive dump (of new data) in this week's roundup. A heck of a way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of a view of Earth from really, really far away.

A hot mic and fresh ISS supplies as Cygnus launches

Northrop Grumman overcame both a delay and some unexpected bonus commentary (in the form of a Verizon interruption) to launch its latest freighter, Cygnus NG-13, to the International Space Station (ISS). The spacecraft, loaded with science and supplies, should turn up at the orbiting outpost at around 0905 UTC on Tuesday.

NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan will use the ISS's robotic arm to capture the Cygnus and install it on the Earth-facing port of the Unity module while fellow 'naut Jessica Meir keeps an eye on things. The spacecraft is scheduled to remain docked to the ISS until May.

The launch marks the 13th successful mission of the freighter. Memorably, the third operational flight ended in a fireball just after launch in 2014 following a catastrophic failure involving the elderly Russian engines of the 130-variant Antares rocket. Excepting a brief flirtation with the Atlas, the Cygnus has continued to fly on the Antares, although using somewhat more recent RD-181 power plant.

SpaceX scrubbed, but (someone at) NASA still loves them

The next batch of 60 Starlink satellites remained rooted to a Cape Canaveral pad this weekend as engineers opted to take a look at a potentially iffy valve on the second stage of the launcher.

Our suspicion that an astronomer snuck up in the dead of night and had at the thing with a hammer is, of course, totally unfounded. After all, Elon has said that the albedo issue is going to get better. No, really, it will. Elon said so:

The launch, now scheduled for 17 February, will be the fourth flight for the first stage of the Falcon 9. The stage has lofted two Dragon freighters bound for the ISS, CRS-17 and CRS-18, and, most recently, the JCSAT-18/Kacific1 mission in December 2019. The company plans to recover the first stage once again as well as having another crack at catching the fairing halves.

In a now deleted tweet, NASA's commercial crew tentacle heralded the arrival in Florida of the next Crew Dragon capsule, which will be used for the upcoming Demo-2 mission. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will clamber into the spacecraft for a trip to the ISS in the coming months.

NASA proudly declared that the SpaceX capsule would be the first to launch a crew from American soil since the shuttles were rolled off to museums.

The tweet was accompanied by a blog post giving SpaceX a nod. The original post was rapidly updated since – while Boeing's capsule may have managed just one, near-disastrous flight and SpaceX's spacecraft has survived an exploding Falcon 9 as well as paying an uncrewed visit to the ISS – it's still a two-horse race.

The internet, alas for NASA, never forgets.

The tweet was hastily replaced by one that doubtless made faces at Boeing, manufacturers of the Calamity Capsule Starliner CST-100, less frowny.

We imagine that Virgin Galactic, which has already sent Americans into space (depending on which definition you're using), might have had a thing or two to say about that assertion too, though the suborbital lobs in Branson's much delayed glider are quite a bit different to SpaceX and Boeing's orbital ambitions.

New Horizons lifts a veil on planet formation

While it is over a year since NASA's New Horizons probe made its flypast of the Kuiper Belt Object Arrokoth (formerly known as 2014 MU69), the spacecraft has continued to return to Earth the data it captured during the event. Last week, the team reported more findings, giving new insights into how planetesimals (the building blocks of planets) are formed.

Arrokoth consists of two lobes, and the gang has pieced together a picture of how the object came to be; two objects formed close together and orbited each other at low velocity before gently merging to create the 22-mile long object.

The indications are that Arrokoth formed during the gravity-driven collapse of a cloud of solid particles rather than through hierarchical accretion (the slamming together of planetesimals to form larger bodies).

The probe, now 7.1 billion kilometres from Earth and heading deeper into the Kuiper Belt at nearly 50,400 kilometres per hour, has more observations to transmit, and Principal Investigator for the mission Alan Stern told The Register that it would be 2021 before everything was down.

This summer the team will start searching for more bonus KBOs for the probe to visit, should fuel allow.

Rocket Lab picks up CAPSTONE

Having made much of its lunar ambitions last year, Rocket Lab was cock-a-hoop over its selection by NASA last week for the upcoming Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission, which will be launched from the company's Launch Complex 2 at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA. The CAPSTONE satellite will be sent on its way by Rocket Lab's Photon platform, eventually operating in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon.

CAPSTONE will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.

The mission is slated for launch in early 2021, and it will take nearly three months for CAPSTONE to enter its target orbit ahead of spending six months demonstrating operations in the region where NASA hopes to send the Lunar Gateway. Should the latter, of course, survive the determination of lawmakers to sacrifice sustainability on the altar of getting flags on footprints on the regolith by 2024.


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