ISS air leakage fixed in time for crew handover, thanks to floating teabag

Also: Starlinks soar but GPS stays grounded, NASA names first Virgin Galactic flier

In Brief There was good news for International Space Station (ISS) residents this week as the crew managed to plug a leak in the orbiting laboratory. While never an immediate threat to the crew's safety, nobody likes knowing that air is escaping overboard.

Russian space agency Roscosmos reported the "temporary" fix on 19 October after the source of the seepage was identified using the drift of a tea bag, according to Russian News Agency, Tass.

The fix was good news for the new Expedition 64 crew, consisting of NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. The trio arrived at the ISS for a six month stint aboard the outpost after a speedy transit in Soyuz MS-17. The welcoming crew, including commander Chris Cassidy, returned to Earth safely last night.

Rubins could well take the honour of being the last NASA 'naut to require a Soyuz seat as the US commercial crew schedule picks up pace, with SpaceX expected to launch the first operational crew mission some time in November.

The new crew will also welcome another SpaceX vehicle, in the form of the company's 21st commercial resupply services (CRS-21) mission in late November or early December. Notable for being the first flight of the upgraded cargo version of the Dragon, the freighter will also carry the first commercially funded airlock for the ISS, the Nanoracks Bishop Airlock.

Another batch of Starlinks added to the heavens while GPS sulks

SpaceX repeated the never less-than-impressive feat of launching a Falcon 9 and landing its first stage on a droneship on 18 October while the rocket due to launch a GPS satellite remained firmly grounded as investigations continued into the cause of the scrub.

The payload of 60 satellites brought the total launched to date for the constellation to only a few Falcon 9s shy of the 1,000 mark. The launch, from Kennedy Space Center's LC-39A pad, was the sixth flight of that particular booster as well as a reuse for the payload fairing halves.

The company has yet to give an exact date for when it will try again to launch the GPS satellite, with the firing currently likely for November. Instead, it is pressing ahead with the launch of the next batch of Starlink satellites atop another flight-proven Falcon 9, this from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base's SLC-40 in the coming days.

Microsoft will be so pleased.

Rocket Lab keeps focus

Rocket Lab scrubbed the first launch opportunity of its next mission from Pad A of Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula. The company cited some iffy sensor data as the cause.

The mission's launch window runs from 21 October to 2 November with the next opportuniy kicking off tonight at 22:02 UTC. The Electron is to send 10 small satellites to a 500km circular low Earth orbit.

As well nine SuperDove imaging satellites for Planet, the mission will also carry Canon's telescope-equipped Earth imaging satellite CE-SAT-IIB. Canon's CE-SAT-IB was lost when the "Pics Or It Didn't Happen" mission failed to reach orbit in July.

Dubbed "In Focus", the mission is the fifteenth for the Electron booster and the fifth of 2020 for the small satellite launcher outfit.

Those hoping to see parachutes pop out from the descending first stage are, however, in for disappointment. The company is not planning any recovery testing this time around.

From Pluto to New Mexico

Dr Alan Stern, famed for his work on the New Horizons mission, is to take to suborbital space as the first researcher to conduct NASA-funded science experiments while flying aboard a commercial spacecraft.

The spacecraft in question will be Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which will carry Dr Stern on a suborbital mission on a to-be-determined date. Among other work, he will be tasked with operating a former space shuttle camera to determine how well space astronomical observations can be conducted.

Stern, who has been involved in 29 space mission science teams, but never actually been there in person, described the event as "a major career highlight."

Hopefully he will not have too long to wait. SpaceShipTwo has only managed two flights to space; the last being well over a year ago. Since then it has undertaken two test flights from its new home in New Mexico, but passengers hoping to use their ticket to space have been kept waiting.

The company is planning its first flight to space from New Mexico this autumn. ®

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