SpaceX to return NASA 'nauts to Earth with a splash

Plus: Minotaurs are from MARS, ANASIS-II awaits, and a cool half billion for Skynet

In brief NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed last week that the intrepid SpaceX duo, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, would be departing the International Space Station (ISS) on 1 August, with a splashdown of the Crew Dragon capsule targeted for 2 August.

The exact date will depend on the weather. Unlike the Space Shuttle and Soyuz, SpaceX's capsule cannot return to land and must be recovered from the ocean, Apollo-style.

NASA has certainly appreciated the additional astro-time onboard the outpost, recently sending Behnken outside (with ISS resident Chris Cassidy) to switch out ageing nickel-hydrogen batteries for new lithium-ion units. The pair are to head out once again this week to prepare the Tranquility module for the installation of a NanoRacks commercial airlock, due to arrive later this year.

SpaceX has already demonstrated that the Crew Dragon can return safely to Earth from the ISS and, assuming all goes well, plans are afoot for a first operational mission to the orbiting laboratory within the month. Three more NASA 'nauts will be sat in the capsule this time, alongside one Japanese astronaut.

ANASIS-II: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again

SpaceX is gearing up to have another go at launching ANASIS-II, a South Korean military communications satellite.

The previous attempt was scrubbed after engineers declared that a closer look was needed at the booster's second stage. The first stage had previously been used to launch Behnken and Hurley on their jaunt to the ISS. While booster recovery is always impressive, the turnaround time of the first stage so it's ready for the ANASIS-II mission is even more so.

Assuming it actually gets off the ground this time. The forecast for the range currently warns of a 30 per cent chance that the weather might stop Musk's rocketry fun this evening, rising to 50 per cent tomorrow.

Should things go to plan, the window for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force station's SLC-40 opens at 21:00 UTC today. SpaceX also intends to have a crack at recovering the booster via droneship.

Minotaur from MARS

After a delay caused by wayward boats in the Range, Northrop Grumman successfully sent a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) into orbit from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS).

The launch, at 13:46 UTC on 15 July, was the seventh Minotaur IV flight. The configuration included three decommissioned Peacekeeper stages and a Northrop Grumman manufactured Orion 38 solid fuel upper stage.

The rocket is capable of sending 1,800kg into Low Earth Orbit, and examples of the breed have launched from Alaska, California, Florida and Virginia. As well repurposing the Peacekeeper Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the Minotaur series has also made use of retired Minuteman missiles.

Blighty agrees to fling £500m at Airbus for more Skynet goodies

The UK plans to kick off the Skynet 6 military constellation with a 2025 launch of the Airbus-built Skynet 6A satellite.

The Stevenage firm and the Ministry of Defence announced the deal over the weekend. Comprising launch, in-orbit testing and updates to the current Skynet 5 system, the contract is worth more than £500m.

Airbus has plenty of fingers in the Skynet pie, having been involved in Skynet 5 since 2003, and has had a hand in all Skynet phases since 1974. The award for Skynet 6 was originally made back in 2017 without a competition, and the new satellite will fill a capacity gap as the Skynet 5 spacecraft reach the end of their useful lives.

The satellite, which provides military communications, will be based on Airbus's Eurostar Neo platform and is expected to last at least until 2040. Complete satellite integration will take place in the UK. ®

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