Dickens' forgotten spaceship classic: A Tale of Three Missions

It was the best of weather, it was the worst of weather

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Roundup Atlas slipped a day, SpaceX slipped by more and ESA enjoyed some delay-based rover tinkering as we look back at the successful culmination – and the foiling – of great expectations in rocketry over the past few days.

US mystery robot spaceplane enters second decade of operations

United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched the US Space Force's (USSF) X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) atop an Atlas V on Sunday, marking the sixth mission for the uncrewed mini-Shuttle and the 84th successful launch of an Atlas V. The mission is the first for the OTV under the auspices of the USSF.

Dedicated to "front line responders and those affected by this global pandemic", the rocket featured a message of "condolence, appreciation and hope" on the payload fairing, which is discarded during launch. We have a feeling that while the message is doubtless appreciated, those affected by COVID-19 would likely have preferred to see the cash being spanked on the USSF sprinkled elsewhere. Still, thoughts and prayers, eh?

The workhorse Atlas V launched after a delay due to adverse weather and, as well as the mysterious spaceplane, carried a small satellite, FalconSat-8, a pair of NASA experiments to measure the results of radiation on materials in space and a nifty bit of tech from the Naval Research Laboratory aimed at testing the conversion of solar power into radio frequency microwave energy.

The launch itself occurred at 13:14 UTC from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) and maintained ULA's enviable 100 per cent mission success record (assuming one considers the NRO mission in 2007 where the Atlas V dumped the payload in the wrong orbit a success.)

The Atlas V is due to be replaced in the coming years by ULA's Heavy Lift Vulcan launcher (powered by a pair of Blue Origin BE-4 engines rather than the Russia-derived RD-180.) It will, however, see action on SLC-41 once again on 17 July, launching NASA's Mars 2020 mission and the Perseverance Rover.

ESA upgrades ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover as engineers prepare for more parachute tests

Doubtless casting a slightly envious eye at their NASA colleagues, ESA engineers began making use of the bonus time afforded by the delay to their own launch.

The ExoMars rover had been due to launch this year, but a variety of factors, including borked parachutes, meant that the jaunt was delayed to 2022.

The gang has decided to use the unexpected extra time to make some upgrades to the rover, including improvements to the solar panels and a software update for the Close-Up Imager. Some of the electronics may also be replaced, including a secondary electronics box on the Mars Organic Molecule Analyser and a new infrared spectrometer.

Lucky there was a delay, eh?

Some of the work might prove a bit tricky since the flight version of the rover is currently lurking at Thales Alenia Space in Turin, Italy, where it is being kept scrupulously clean to avoid sending Earthly microbes to Mars.

The problematic parachutes have, however, continued to present a headache. An updated design was shown to behave correctly at velocities of 200km/h (similar to what the system will experience during the descend to the Martian surface.)

The parachutes were pulled from their bags without tearing or "friction damage" during six ground-based tests at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory earlier this year.

However, the next stage in testing has suffered at the hands of travel restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic, with the final high-altitude tests postponed from May to September 2020 at the earliest. That final test will see the parachute canister dropped from a helium balloon some 30km up. The test will verify that the parachutes do their thing in atmosphere as thin as that on Mars.

Starlink slipping

SpaceX was also due to launch over the weekend, but was delayed by both the Atlas V and inclement weather. The next batch of 60 Starlink satellites should have been lifted by a booster previously used for two Starlink launches and the Iridium-8 and Telstar 18 VANTAGE missions at 07:53 UTC on 17 May, but the launch from Florida's SLC-40 had to be postponed "due to a conflict on the range."

The 07:32 UTC 18 May date was also postponed as the company eyed worsening weather conditions both at the launch and landing sites. While the company's Twitter orifice optimistically rescheduled things for 07:10 UTC on 19 May, it was all looking a bit iffy.

Eventually Musk's rocketeers blinked and admitted that, yes, this batch of Starlink satellites would remain resolutely on the Earth due to the presence of tropical storm Arthur.

After all, the company needs decent weather at both launch and landing to avoid dumping a booster in the ocean.

The delay means that the next SpaceX launch will be the one that carries humans into space from US soil, a first since the final flight of the Space Shuttle. ®

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