SpaceX blows away cobwebs at dormant California pad with satellite launch as a Falcon 9 makes touchdown number 7

Also: New Zealand owl watching with Rocket Lab and ExoMars 'chute test


In Brief Elon Musk's SpaceX demonstrated that a long-dormant pad could be reactivated with seemingly little effort after it launched the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite from Space Launch Complex 4 at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The launch, at 17:17 UTC on 21 November, was the first from the pad since 2019, and the brand-new Falcon 9 booster performed the always-impressive trick of landing back on Earth, fiery end down. Rather than a drone ship, however, the first stage performed a ground landing.

The spacecraft itself is part of ESA's Copernicus programme, and is expected to spend the next five years or so orbiting Earth and measuring changes in sea levels.

The booster, however, will doubtless be reused before long. Shortly after the Vandenberg launch, SpaceX passed another milestone with the launching and landing of a Falcon 9 for the seventh time.

The first stage in question had first seen action in 2018, launching the Telstar 18V satellite. It was then used for the Iridium NEXT mission at the start of 2019 before being tasked with repeated Starlink loftings. While Shuttle fans might point to the number of times each orbiter flew, seven launches in two years is not something to be sniffed at.

The mission, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's SLC-40 on 25 November, delivered another 60 Starlink satellites to orbit. The constellation is now one mission away from 1,000 active pieces of space litter.

The first stage returned, once again, to a drone-ship stationed in the Atlantic and also marked the 100th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket.

Rocket Lab has a hoot with mission names

Rocket Lab plans to round out a year of ups and downs with a mid-December lift-off from its Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula. The dedicated launch will be carrying a single satellite for Japanese Earth-imaging company Synspective. Dubbed "The Owl's Night Begins" in a nod to Synspective's StriX family of synthetic aperture radar spacecraft, the seventh mission of the year for the company has a 14-day launch window opening on 12 December.

The mission comes as Rocket Lab boss Peter Beck declared success for the recovery of the first stage of the company's 16th Electron launch. In a call with media, Beck told listeners the parachute approach had been proven, although some work was needed on thermal protection for the booster as it descended.

This was, after all, the first time the team had got one back intact.

Rocket Lab plans to refine things based on what it learns from the recovered stage. The next mission to be equipped with recovery gear is likely to fly in 2021 and, once Beck's team are satisfied the stage's condition will be acceptable, Rocket Labs will try to catch one by helicopter as it descends.

Parachutes for UK-built Mars rover pass full scale test

The parachutes system that will be used to slow the ESA ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover on its Martian arrival have survived a US-based drop test. The test, which had been delayed from March to November due to a combination of COVID-19 and environmental conditions, saw the system fall from 29km up in order to simulate the low atmospheric pressure on Mars.

There had been problems with the parachutes in previous tests, but engineers were delighted to note that both parachutes were extracted successfully and only minor canopy damage was seen at the onset of inflation.

On Mars itself, atmospheric drag will slow the rover from 21,000kmph to 1,700kmph. The first parachute will then be deployed. Once slowed to around 400kmph, the second parachute will pop out. At about 1,000 metres up, braking rockets will fire to make the landing survivable for the trundlebot.

ExoMars was supposed to have launched this year, but was delayed to 2022 as problems (not least the parachute issues) caused mission managers to blink. While the parachute test was not a failure this time around, the ExoMars team remains cautious.

Team leader Francois Spoto said: "Landing on Mars is extremely difficult, with no room for error. The latest test was a good step forward but is not yet the perfect outcome we are seeking. Therefore, we will use the extensive test data we have acquired to refine our approach, plan further tests and keep on track for our launch in September 2022." ®


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