When NASA astronauts return to the surface of the Moon in the Artemis III mission, the plan is to use a modified SpaceX Starship as their lunar lander. NASA announced last week that SpaceX has now demonstrated an important capability of the vacuum-optimized Raptor engine that will be used for the lander: an extreme cold start.
A test last month successfully confirmed the engine can be started in the frigid conditions of space, even when the vehicle has spent an extended time in space, where temperatures will drop lower than a shorter low-Earth orbit mission. The Raptor vacuum engine was chilled to mimic conditions after a long coast period in space, and then was successfully fired.
Since 2019, Elon Musk and SpaceX have led the charge to create high broadband satellite internet services. As of May 2023, the Starlink constellation consisted of over 4,000 satellites operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and roughly 1.5 million subscribers worldwide. Several competitors began launching constellations years before Starlink began, and several companies have emerged since. This includes HughesNet, OneWeb, and Amazon’s Kuiper Systems. But Starlink’s latest challenger could be its most fearsome yet: a company in China backed by the Beijing government!
On Sunday, July 9th, a prototype internet satellite was launched aboard a Long March 2C carrier rocket from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. The satellite has since entered a predetermined orbit, where it will conduct several tests to validate the broadband satellite technology. The long-term aim of the project is to create a constellation of 13,000 satellites code-named “Guo Wang,” – which loosely translates to “state network” in Mandarin – reflecting Beijing’s vision for a state-run share of the satellite internet market.
On Saturday, July 1st (Canada Day!), the ESA’s Euclidspace telescope lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. This next-generation astrophysics mission will spend the next few weeks flying to the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange Point, where it will spend the next six years observing one-third of the sky. During that time, Euclid will observe billions of galaxies to a distance of 10 billion light-years, leading to the most extensive 3D map of the Universe ever created. This map will help astronomers and cosmologists resolve the lingering mystery of Dark Matter and Dark Energy (DM & DE).
Reusable launch vehicles have been a boon for the commercial space industry. By recovering and refurbishing the first stages of rockets, launch providers have dramatically reduced the cost of sending payloads and even crew to space. Beyond first-stage boosters, there are efforts to make rockets entirely reusable, from second stages to payload fairings. There are currently multiple strategies for booster recovery, including mid-air retrieval using helicopters and nets. Still, the favored method involves boosters returning to a landing pad under their own power (the boost-back and landing maneuver).
This strategy requires additional rocket propellant for the booster to land again, which comes at the expense of payload mass and performance for the ascent mission. As an alternative, researchers from the National Office Of Aerospace Studies And Research (ONERA) propose two new types of strategies that would allow boosters to return to their launch site. These are known as “glide-back” and “fly-back” architectures, both of which involve boosters with lifting surfaces (fins and wings) performing vertical takeoff and horizontal landing (VTVL) maneuvers.
While the SpaceX Crew Dragon is making regular trips to and from the International Space Station, the other vehicle NASA was planning to rely on for crew transportation keeps running into problems and delays. Boeing and NASA just announced another set of delays for the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, pushing it even further back from its proposed July launch window — which was already years behind schedule.
Problems with its parachute lines and the electrical system were identified, and the program manager isn’t sure if Starliner will even fly by the end of 2023.
The commercial space sector (aka. NewSpace) is one of the fastest-growing industries of the 21st century. In the past twenty years, what was once considered an ambitious venture or far-off prospect has become a rapidly-accelerating reality. Today, companies are conducting launches using their own rockets and spacecraft, often from their own facilities, to send everything from satellites and cargo to astronauts (commercial and professional) into space. The growing number of launch providers has also led to a dramatic increase in demand for launch-related services.
This includes retrieval operations designed to provide launch flexibility and safe retrieval. This is the purpose behind The Spaceport Company, a Virginia-based aerospace company dedicated to creating a global network of mobile, sea-based launch and landing site systems. On Monday, May 22nd, the company successfully tested its prototype platform by conducting the first-ever commercial rocket launches from U.S. water. This test demonstrated the potential for mobile sea platforms to ease congestion at on-shore launch facilities and expedite the delivery of payloads to orbit.
On Sunday, May 21, the 4-person crew of Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) blasted off to the International Space Station (ISS) on board a SpaceX Crew Dragon, and today, May 22, the private astronaut crew boarded the International Space Station for a scheduled 10-day stay.
Another of NASA’s top human spaceflight officials has joined SpaceX. Kathy Leuders, the former associate administrator for NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, retired from NASA on May 1 after 31 years of service. But this week, CNBC reports that Lueders has joined SpaceX at the company’s Starbase facility in Texas. She follows Bill Gerstenmaier, who retired from NASA in 2020 and became a senior executive at SpaceX as build and flight reliability vice president.
During the recent ViaSat-3 launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX released the protective spacecraft fairing at the highest altitude ever attempted. Therefore, the fairing reached incredible speeds during its fiery re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere. Fortunately, there was a camera on board so we could watch. At one point, the one half of the fairing was traveling 15 times faster than the speed of sound, releasing a trail of plasma in its wake as it returned to Earth.