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Double trouble for Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit as aborted test flight and COVID-19 keep both grounded

Also: ESA signs contracts for the Space Rider and Boeing's Calamity Capsule aims for March 2021

In brief Richard Branson might have to wait a little longer to ride in Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital jalopy, SpaceShip Two VSS Unity, after an aborted test flight saw the spacecraft return to Spaceport America in New Mexico.

It would have been the first rocket-powered flight from the company's New Mexico base, the window for which opened on 11 December. Alas, it was not to be; the onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor was disconnected, halting ignition and triggering an automatic abort.

Disappointing stuff for those queueing for a ride, but a handy demonstration of the safety systems as Space Shuttle veteran "CJ" Sturckow and Virgin Galactic's Chief Pilot, Dave Mackay, brought VSS Unity back to the ground.

Before the flight, Virgin Galactic had noted the changes it had had to make in light of restrictions implemented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn't alone. There was bad news from another of Branson's space tentacles, Virgin Orbit. The company is in the business of air-launching the uncrewed LauncherOne and had been making solid progress toward a second test after May's 9 seconds of power (followed by an unscheduled shutdown and an unplanned rendezvous with the ocean).

The company found itself short of staff ahead of a final dress rehearsal after some were sent to precautionary quarantine following contact tracing undertaken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Consequently," it said, "we've fallen below the number of staff we feel we require to prudently and safely proceed with pre-launch operations."

For now, the launch is on hold until the impact can be assessed.

Easy ESA Rider

The European Space Agency (ESA) is to fling more cash at Thales Alenia Space Italy and Avio with a €167m contract to develop the reusable and uncrewed Space Rider transportation system.

The contract will cover the flight model, which includes a re-entry module and orbital service module. The first flight of the system is planned for the third quarter of 2023 and should see the spacecraft launch from French Guiana atop a Vega-C.

Good luck with that.

Space Rider is all about providing regular, uncrewed access to space and can carry up to 800kg [PDF] to orbit. A mission is expected to last at least two months in orbit before the re-entry module returns to a soft landing and a turnaround time of less than six months before the next mission.

It sounds a little similar to the US Space Force's mysterious X-37B, most recently launched in May atop an Atlas V, which has been gliding to autonomous runway landings for the last ten years. The Space Rider will, however, make use of a parafoil as part of its return to Earth.

Boeing's Calamity Capsule to fly again in 2021

Surprising nobody, Boeing's Calamity Capsule is now targeting 29 March for a second crack at an uncrewed demonstration mission to the International Space Station (ISS). There had been hope that this mission would fly in 2020, but as the end of the year neared, this seemed increasingly unlikely.

The first demonstration around this time last year resulted in a premature return to Earth for the CST-100 Starliner after a timer error saw the spacecraft burn through its attitude control fuel before getting anywhere near the ISS. Investigators picking through the data were alarmed to find just how close the uncrewed mission came to catastrophe. NASA used the dread words "risk of spacecraft loss" in a stark assessment of Boeing's pisspoor processes and the frantic work of those on the ground to rescue the mission.

While the capsule made it back safely, a repeat of the flight test has been deemed necessary before crew will be crammed into the capsule. Should this second test (dubbed Orbital Flight Test 2) go well, the first crew might launch in the summer of 2021 before operational missions can commence. ®

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