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SpaceX Falcon 9 meets watery end, and NASA needs someone to go to Mars and whack its mole

Also: Musical Soyuz seats ahead of next ISS mission

Roundup SpaceX gets its feet wet, digging for victory with Mars InSight and a changing of the ISS guard await rocket fanciers in this week's summary of space news.

SpaceX splashes down after Starlink launch

SpaceX's postponed Starlink mission finally got off the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station SLC-40 launchpad last week, the lift-off at 15:05 UTC on 17 February marking the fourth flight of booster B1056.

Sadly, it was also to be the last for that particular Falcon 9 first stage.

The launch itself went off without a hitch, with the separation of the stages occurring at two minutes, 35 seconds and the fairing enclosing the 60 Starlink satellites jettisoned three minutes and 10 seconds following lift-off.

The company's social media orifice cheerfully confirmed the Starlink satellites were successfully deployed, but remained tight-lipped concerning the fate of the booster.

Those watching the livestream were, however, treated to a somewhat unusual event nowadays. Less than nine minutes following launch, the returning booster missed the "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship, which was stationed in the Atlantic. Water spray hinted that, just out of shot, the booster had met a watery end.

Attempts to catch the fairing halves also did not meet with much success.

The incident is a reminder of the technical challenge of a vertical landing, on a barge, in the ocean. A challenge which will need to be overcome by a company with a business model that would really like first stages to get more than four flights.

A Russian switcheroo and a delayed checkout for Demo-2 astros

NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman revealed that SpaceX's maiden crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) would be lengthier than planned after the Johnson Space Center showed off shots of the lucky 'nauts in EVA training.

The imagery raised more than a few eyebrows since the planned minimum duration flight should not have required such shenanigans. Driven, according to Reisman, "by NASA needs to staff the ISS", it is clear the Crew Dragon gang will be keeping the ISS residents company longer than originally planned.

This is no bad thing, and came in the week that Russian space agency Roscosmos announced that it was swapping out the two RSA crewmembers accompanying NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy to the ISS on 9 April. The commander and flight engineer slots will now be taken by Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Wagner due to what the agency called "Medical Reasons".

The situation is unusual, but not unheard of.

It's all getting a little tight in terms of ISS crewing. After the crew of expedition 62 returns to Earth, Cassidy and chums will be left alone on the ISS until either the first commercial crew vehicle arrives or the next Soyuz pays a visit (due in October).

The trio will have their hands full just keeping the complex operating so the extra hands delivered by SpaceX will be most welcome.

Mars InSight celebrates a year of failing to dig into the surface by mashing the mole

Engineers are planning to use the scoop on the NASA InSight lander to give its stricken "mole" a push into the recalcitrant Martian surface.

The 40-centimetre-long "mole" is part of the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), and was supposed to have dug up to five metres into the planet to measure heat from the interior. However, the thing has kept backing out of its hole.

Scientists have put the problems down to some unusually thick duricrust (cemented soil) beneath the mole rather than the loose, sand-like soil expected. Attempts to pin the mole in place using the scoop (and thus avoiding the tether on top) met with limited initial success before the mole popped back out, possibly due to loose soil dropping into the hole.

With limited options left, the team is going to attempt to push on the mole's back cap, while trying not to damage the fragile cable tethering the mole to InSight. Another option would be to try and fill in the hole around the instrument to give it some friction to work against.

With the first anniversary of the first failure approaching, time is running short for the instrument, and at this point engineers are willing to take greater risks in the hope of getting some science out of the thing before InSight's mission comes to an end. ®

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