Roundup As well as that launch and docking, there was plenty to amuse rocket fans last week as China unveiled space station plans, ESA aimed for more bonus science and Rocket Lab named the date. Again.
On the 12th launch of Electron, my true love gave to me...
Small sat flinger Rocket Lab is very much back in the launcher business after New Zealand eased some of the country's COVID-19 restrictions.
Dubbed "Don't stop me now" (unless you're a global pandemic, presumably), the mission, originally scheduled for 27 March, has a new launch window opening on 11 June and will carry a NASA payload, the Ad-Hoc Network Demonstration for Extended Satellite-Based Inquiry and Other Team Endeavors (ANDESITE). Thank heavens for acronyms.
ANDESITE is designed to study the Earth's magnetic field and will be joined by three payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) as well the M2 Pathfinder satellite, a collaboration between the University of New South Wales Canberra Space and the Australian government.
The mission is the 12th launch of the company's two-stage Electron rocket. The 17-metre launcher is capable of sending a maximum payload of 225kg into space (although the nominal figure is 150kg) and, other than the first test launch, has a 100 per cent success record.
Chance comet encounter means premature activation for ESA's Solar Orbiter
Those following our Space Extenders series (coming up: INTEGRAL and then SOHO) will know that the European Space Agency likes a bit of bonus science, but not normally so early on in a mission.
Launched on 10 February, ESA's Solar Orbiter was due to complete the commissioning phase for its instruments on 15 June ahead of its first close pass of the Sun in mid-June. However, boffins have discovered that the probe will cross the ion tail of Comet ATLAS just about now and will then pass through the dust tail on 6 June.
The probe's magnetometer and Solar Wind Analyser might capture some of the particles as the ion tail is traversed, though there is a possibility the dust grains might hit the spacecraft. While the spacecraft would not be damaged by the impact, the Radio and Plasma Waves (RPW) instrument might pick up the electrically charged clouds of gas or plasma created as those grains vaporise.
It is the first time such a "chance encounter" has been predicted in advance; earlier this month Geraint Jones of the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UK, noted that SoLo's trajectory would take it 44 million kilometres downstream of Comet ATLAS and let the ESA team know. Jones has form when it comes to accidental crossings; in 2000 he noted oddities in 1996 data from the ESA/NASA Ulysses Sun-studying spacecraft and showed that it had passed through the tail of Comet Hyakutake.
The advance warning meant that ESA scientists and engineers were able to bring up the necessary instruments ahead of time.
China unveils more details of its upcoming space station
While NASA and SpaceX were preparing for a first crewed launch to orbit from US soil since the Space Shuttles were nudged into museums, the infamously taciturn China National Space Administration (CNSA) published more details on the country's own space station following the maiden launch of the Long March 5B.
Not currently part of the International Space Station (ISS) project, China is expecting its station to be completed in 2022 and able to support three astronauts during normal operations, and six during crew changeover.
The station will consist of three modules, arranged in a T shape, with a core module at the centre and a lab on each side. The core, dubbed Tianhe, will weigh in at 22.5 tonnes at launch with a length of 16.6 metres and a diameter of 4.2 metres. The CNSA reckon it will be the largest spacecraft ever developed by China.
The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) put the habitable volume of Tianhe (which will be the control centre and living space of the station) at 50 cubic metres. The two laboratory modules will take the volume up to 110 cubic metres.
As well as connectors for the lab modules, the station will also have three docking ports for visiting vehicles and an airlock.
Chris Cassidy, NASA's very own Chuck Norris, greets SpaceX's Crew Dragon
Finally, Chris Bergin of NASASpaceflight.com whiled away the wait for the docking and hatch opening between the ISS and the Crew Dragon by reminding space fans of what lay in wait on the other side of the hatch. Namely, Chris Cassidy.
STS-127 include Mission Specialist Chris Cassidy. A NAVY SEAL, the 500th person in space....and "basically Chuck Norris, minus the restrictions of gravity".— Chris B - NSF (@NASASpaceflight) November 3, 2019
(During Shuttle missions, there were usually a few jokes. This "Flight Rule" (via L2) is brilliant. 😁) pic.twitter.com/26cMphQGDy
Bergin posted some "flight rules" from Cassidy's first mission, STS-127, including "Engineering judgement:
CHRIS WILL FIX IT (Nobody knows how; probably with fists and explosions).
As well as STS-127, which ferried the final two elements of the Japanese Experiment Module, Cassidy also served on ISS Expedition 35/36 and participated in the spacewalk which saw ESA 'naut Luca Parmitano experience the infamous water-in-helmet incident.
As a US Navy SEAL, Cassidy has also been deployed twice to both the Mediterranean and Afghanistan, and is a recipient of a Bronze Star with combat "V" and Presidential Unit Citation.
As such, we hope the Dragon crew knocked carefully before opening that hatch. Very carefully. ®