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Planning a trip to space to escape COVID-19? Tough. Arianespace shuts up shop while SpaceX sputters

Also: China has a launch failure but hey, things on Mars might be looking up

Roundup It has been a frustrating few days for space fans, with automatic safeties and virus fears stopping rocket-based play. Still, there was at least a glimmer of hope from the red planet.

COVID-19 claims Arianespace's launch campaign

Amid office closures and a general panicking of the populace, Arianespace bowed to the inevitable and called a halt to launch campaigns underway at its base in French Guiana, South America.

Measures introduced by the French government pretty much did for the space centre as worries over the health of staff and the local populace resulted in the "exceptional measure."

Arianespace operates the Ariane 5, Soyuz and Vega vehicles from the space port. The next mission scheduled was a return to flight for the Vega, which would be packed with small satellites, following last year's mishap. A delayed Soyuz was due to follow.

In the absence of a definitive date for when operations might resume, the launchers and satellites are being placed in a safe, standby condition.

SpaceX stay put

In a display that will have Shuttle-huggers feeling nostalgic for the good old days, the next Falcon 9 Starlink mission was aborted at T-0, as the rocket's engines were spun up. The company was its usual tight-lipped self, saying only that the abort had happened automatically due to "out of family" data during the engine power check.

SpaceX will have another crack at launching on Wednesday, 18 March at 1216 UTC.

The Falcon 9 had successfully performed a static firing of its engines on the former Shuttle launch pad; LC-39A in Florida. However, what should have been the fifth launch for the Falcon 9 first stage ended with an abort.

The mission had been due to lift off at 13:22 UTC on 15 March and carry another 60 260kg Starlink satellites into orbit ahead of a planned 2020 start of internet service over Canada and the northern US states. The first stage had seen action twice in 2018 and twice in 2019, with its last outing being to support the second Starlink launch. The fairing enclosing SpaceX's tree of astronomy delight had previously been used for the first Starlink launch in May 2019.

The plan was then to land the first stage on a droneship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean while recovery vessels attempted to catch the fairing halves.

An abort as engines start up is not a new thing. The Space Shuttle experienced five "Redundant Set Launch Sequencer" (RSLS) aborts during the programme. The three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) were fired up less than seven seconds before lift-off and automatically shut off before the solids were ignited if any anomalies were detected. The last such event was STS-68 in 1994, when Endeavour was coincidentally also sat on LC-39A.

While annoying, the abort is a demonstration of the safety systems present in Falcon 9 boosters. Heartening, since astronauts might be riding the thing as soon as May.

China's Long March VII fails

The bad news bus kept rolling for space fans this week as the launch of China's Long March 7A rocket ended in failure on Monday, according to a report from the Xinhua News Agency.

It was the first flight for the rocket and the first indication that things might not have gone entirely to plan came with an ominous silence from authorities when observers might have expected the trumpeting of success. Eventually it was confirmed that the flight was "abnormal" and the mission failed.

Officials are set to conduct an investigation into the failure, which could have far reaching consequences for China's space programme due to components shared by other rockets in the family.

Martian mole gets digging?

There was happier news from Mars as the "mole" of the HP3 experiment appeared to be responding to a gentle nudge from the robotic arm of the NASA InSight lander.

Designed to burrow up to 5m into Mars, the 40cm-long "mole" has failed to do much more than bounce around in a hole of its own making since operations began over a year ago. Despite attempts to "pin" the mole in place, the thing has obstinately popped back up again after encountering unexpectedly thick duricrust just beneath the loose soil on the surface.

It is expected several tries will be needed to perfect the "push" being given to the back of the mole while avoiding doing damage to the tether connecting the instrument to the lander.

However, the progress made will give boffins hope that perhaps there remains a chance the device might accomplish its mission. And goodness, some cheery news would be welcome. ®

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