In brief The weekend started badly for rocket fanciers as SpaceX failed yet again to launch a GPS III satellite for the US Space Force. The mission has been subject to repeated delays, and the company opted to press ahead last week with an attempt from Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40.
After a number of setbacks, it looked as though the stars were aligning. There was a 70 per cent chance of the weather cooperating for the 15-minute launch window, which opened at 21:43 EDT on Friday 2 October (01:43 UTC Saturday 3 October).
Alas, it was not to be. With mere seconds remaining on the countdown clock, the launch was aborted. The issue, which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk later put down to "unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator", could not be resolved within the launch window, and the mission was scrubbed.
Stating what many observers were musing, Musk tweeted: "We will need to make a lot of improvements to have a chance of completing 48 launches next year!" Then things took an ominous turn for staff at the company's Florida launch facilities.
All of that and more. We’re doing a broad review of launch site, propulsion, structures, avionics, range & regulatory constraints this weekend. I will also be at the Cape next week to review hardware in person.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 3, 2020
Far be it from us to liken the SpaceX bigwig to a fictional character from a popular space opera, but there seemed to be more than a whiff of Sith lord about his in-person appraisal of the situation.
Lacking a lightsaber or mystical throat choke, we can only speculate what Musk did to rally the troops, but rally they did. Following a weather-related scrub, the company finally managed another Falcon 9 launch, this time from LC-39A at 11:29 UTC on 6 October. The Starlink mission had also suffered a prodigious amount of delays due to issues with ground equipment and weather.
A third launch for this particular booster, another 60 Starlink satellites duly dumped into orbit, and the first stage of the Falcon 9 made its crowd-pleasing return to a waiting drone ship.
James Webb Telescope completes environmental testing
There was some much-needed good news for the troubled James Webb Space Telescope this week. Although hugely delayed and suffering impressive cost overruns, the precious spacecraft made it through a succession of tortures that ensure it will survive its launch and journey to the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2).
The fully assembled observatory spent several weeks going through acoustic and sine-vibration tests [PDF] to simulate the noise and sound pressure of a launch. It was then placed on a shaker table and subjected to vibration levels above those expected in flight in order to demonstrate the margins available to engineers.
While the spacecraft has passed its tests to date, more lie in store ahead of a hoped-for launch in October 2021. Engineers must next verify the five-layered sunshield will deploy correctly as well as check out the wing deployments of the epic primary mirror. There will then be a final full systems evaluation before the telescope can make its journey to French Guiana and a waiting Ariane 5.
S.S. Kalpana Chawla reaches the International Space Station
While SpaceX's finest remained firmly rooted to their Florida launchpads over the weekend, Northrop Grumman's Anatares sent another Cygnus Freighter, designated NG-14 and named for the fallen Columbia astronaut, to a rendezvous with the orbiting outpost. The launch had suffered a number of delays due to issues with ground equipment (yes, again) and a boat lurking in the range.
Carrying almost 3,500kg of supplies, including experiments and a new toilet for the ISS, the Cygnus was launched at 01:16 UTC on 3 October. It was grappled by the station's robotic Canadarm2, operated by NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, at 09:32 UTC and installed on the Earth-facing port of the station's Unity module. It is expected to remain there until mid-December. ®