In Brief Those anxiously anticipating the moment Richard Branson gets strapped into his space-jalopy and sent on a sub-orbital lob may not have much longer to wait, if the latest emission from Virgin Galactic is anything to go by.
The company is expecting the first rocket-powered test flight of VSS Unity from its new home at New Mexico's Spaceport America to occur between 19 and 23 November ahead of kicking off commercial operations.
It has been a while coming. VSS Unity has been limited to gliding duties since the move to Spaceport America, and its last jaunt to space was in 2019. Powered flight, should all go well, will be a precursor to the much-delayed flights of paying passengers, which number "approximately 600" according to the company's Q3 2020 financial results. Those same financials also showed a net loss of $77m, up from $63m in the previous quarter.
The company plans to roll out its second spaceship (third, if one is counting the one that met an unfortunate end during flight testing) in the first quarter of 2021 and will be re-opening ticket sales in the same year following Branson's flight.
GPS launches, Sentinel slips but SpaceX's Crew Dragon still on
After a lengthy delay, SpaceX finally managed to launch a GPS satellite for the US Space Force. The Falcon 9 had been due to leave Florida at the beginning of October, but the launch was aborted with two seconds left on the clock due to some iffy readings.
There were no such problems on 5 November as the Falcon 9 left Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's SLC-40 launch pad at 23:24 UTC, deploying the GPS satellite into orbit approximately 1 hour 29 minutes after lift-off. The first stage performed the impressive feat of landing on SpaceX's "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship, stationed in the Atlantic Ocean, just over eight minutes after launch.
While things may now be rosy on the Space Force side of things, the ESA/NASA Sentinel 6 ocean monitoring satellite, due for launch on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Bases' SLC-4E in California, has been delayed. Citing a need to swap out two of the Merlin engines from the booster following inspections, NASA has now set the date for 17:17 UTC on 21 November.
The delay has not affected the next launch of crew to the International Space Station (ISS), currently scheduled for lift off from Florida on Saturday, 14 November.
Artemis I's service module fitted with fairings
NASA's much delayed first SLS flight of its Orion spacecraft edged a little closer last week as the capsule and its European ATV-derived service module neared the assembly-complete milestone.
Last week's activities saw three 14 feet high and 13 feet wide fairing panels attached to the service module. The panels protect the service module's solar array wings during the launch and are ejected via pyrotechnics before the four arrays can unfurl.
The next step will include the installation of a forward bay cover, to protect key hardware such as the parachutes during the capsule's mission. Engineers can then close things out ahead of a trek to assembly with the first SLS rocket and the first Artemis flight.
Former NASA 'naut, now Senator, Mark Kelly?
While dithering continues over the counting of votes for the next US President, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly appears to have won the race for the US Senate in Arizona, according to results published by Secretary of State, Katie Hobbs.
A veteran of four Space Shuttle missions, including the final flight of Endeavour, STS-134, Kelly follows in the footsteps of other astronauts that have served in the US Congress. Memorably, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, spent nearly 25 years in office. He returned to space in 1998, three year's before Kelly's first mission on the Space Shuttle in 2001.
While it was Mark Kelly's twin, Scott Kelly, who notched up a year in space, we're sure Mark Kelly's NASA experience will stand him in good stead as he deals with politicos.
We will, however, leave it to others to make the comparison between the frequently broken or blocked toilet facilities onboard the Space Shuttle and International Space Station and what tends to spew from certain lawmakers. ®