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Yesterday — May 15th 2021SpaceFlight Insider

Loss of payload follows Rocket Lab flight anomaly

May 15th 2021 at 11:02

The New Zealand launch site for Rocket Lab, where the 20th Electron mission, “Running Out Of Toes” launched on May 15, 2021. The mission payload was lost following a flight anomaly following stage separation. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab successfully launched its Electron rocket from the shores of New Zealand on May 15 at 11:11 UTC, but unfortunately suffered an unexpected anomaly during staging.

Affectionately dubbed “Running Out of Toes,” the Electron rocket assigned to fly the 20th mission of the type lifted to the skies from Launch Complex-1 at the company’s launch site in New Zealand. After pushing the rocket into stage separation, the first stage made its way back to earth via parachute before splashing down into the Pacific Ocean. It was then recovered by what Rocket Lab refers to as ‘ORCA’, or Ocean Recovery and Capture Apparatus.

The mission patch for Rocket Lab’s 20th mission, “Running Out Of Toes”. Credit: Rocket Lab

The second stage, carrying two BlackSky earth observation satellites, briefly ignited its engine but shut down unexpectedly seconds later, leaving the second stage and its payload spinning out of control, resulting in a loss of payload.

While it is too early to identify the reason for the second stage’s failure, the company will spend the next several days analyzing telemetry and downlink data to hopefully find a probable cause for the second stage’s failure.

The company released an official statement saying, “We are deeply sorry to our customer BlackSky for the loss of their payloads. We understand the monumental effort that goes into every spacecraft and we feel their loss and disappointment. Our team is working hard to identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and chief executive. “On one of our toughest days, our team operated with professionalism and worked swiftly to ensure the anomaly was managed safely. Our team is resilient, and our top priority remains to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers. We will learn from this, and we’ll be back on the pad again.”

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Before yesterdaySpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar mission to fly later this year

May 13th 2021 at 10:00
An illustration of NASA's CAPSTONE mission orbiting near the Moon. Credit: NASA

An illustration of NASA’s CAPSTONE mission orbiting near the Moon. Credit: NASA

Later this year, NASA plans to launch a CubeSat to test a special orbit around the Moon to verify its characteristics in advance of sending the Lunar Gateway there as early as 2024.

The 12-unit CubeSat is called “Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment,” or CAPSTONE, and it is spacecraft designed to test the calculated orbital stability of a “near-rectilinear halo orbit” for the Lunar Gateway outpost, which is expected to be part of NASA’s Artemis program.

NASA has contracted Rocket Lab to launch CAPSTONE aboard an Electron rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia, in 2021. The rocket will send the 55-pound (25-kilogram) CubeSat into an initial Earth orbit.

Rocket Lab's Photon satellite bus. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus. Credit: Rocket Lab

From there, Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus, which CAPSTONE will be attached to during its initial journey to the Moon, is expected to use its propulsion systems to gradually raise their orbit over a three-month period before ultimately adding enough energy for a trans-lunar injection.

After detaching from Photon, CAPSTONE will use its own propulsion to navigate into the elliptical near-rectilinear halo orbit, putting it on a trajectory to circle the Moon every seven days. It’ll come as close as 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) above one lunar pole to roughly 43,500 miles (70,000 kilometers) above the other.

This halo-shaped orbit, with its elongated shape and pin-point balance between the gravity of Earth and the Moon, has a completely unobstructed view of Earth at all times and can support communications to the lunar south pole, the planned destination of Artemis astronauts.

CAPSTONE is planned to be the first CubeSat to fly in cislunar space — the orbital space near and around the Moon — and the first spacecraft to fly in this particular halo orbit. The mission is also expected to demonstrate an innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation solution at the Moon to a near-rectilinear halo orbit by measuring its position relative to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Overall, its mission is to help minimize any risks for future spacecraft destined for this orbit. Using innovative navigation technology, it will orbit the prescribed area around the moon for a minimum of six months to learn the characteristics and specific dynamics of the orbit.

This particular orbit offers stability for long-term missions like the Lunar Gateway and requires little energy to maintain, making it an ideal staging area for missions to the Moon and beyond for humans.

Video courtesy of Orbital Velocity

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Axiom, NASA agree to 1st private astronaut mission to ISS

May 12th 2021 at 17:10
A file photo of the Crew-1 Dragon docked at the space-facing port of the Harmony module. As early as January 2022, a SpaceX Crew Dragon with four private astronauts for Axiom Space is expected to visit the International Space Station for eight days. Credit: NASA

A file photo of the Crew-1 Dragon docked at the space-facing port of the Harmony module. As early as January 2022, a SpaceX Crew Dragon with four private astronauts for Axiom Space is expected to visit the International Space Station for eight days. Credit: NASA

NASA and Axiom Space announced May 10, 2021, an order for the first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station.

The mission, dubbed Ax-1, is expected to see a private crew of four launch in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as soon as January 2022. The mission is expected to last about 10 days with eight days at the outpost.

“We are excited to see more people have access to spaceflight through this first private astronaut mission to the space station,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA Headquarters, said in an agency news release. “One of our original goals with the Commercial Crew Program, and again with our Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development Program, is that our providers have customers other than NASA to grow a commercial economy in low Earth orbit.”

Aboard the Ax-1 mission are Michael Lopex-Alegria, Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe. They’ll serve as the prime crew once they go through a review by NASA and its international partners and complete the necessary medical qualifications for flight required for all astronauts.

Lopez-Alegria is the commander of the mission. He is also a former NASA astronaut. Peggy Whitson (also a former NASA astronaut) and John Shoffner are designated as alternates.

Training is scheduled to commence summer of 2021 and trainers are set to prepare the private astronauts for their stay on the ISS by familiarizing them with the systems, procedures and emergency plans while aboard the floating laboratory for eight days.

The planned Ax-1 mission between NASA and Axiom Space will offer in-orbit activities for the astronauts allowing them to work in conjunction with other space station crew members and flight controllers on earth.

Axiom Space plans to purchase services from NASA for the mission including supplies for the crew, storage and other necessities for daily use while in orbit and NASA plans to purchase from Axiom Space its capacity and capabilities to return temperature-sensitive science samples and experiments to Earth via Crew Dragon

As NASA continues its focus on growing the low Earth orbit economy, the agency is seeking to spur industries that could provide services supporting private-sector astronauts and customers for the marketplace.

NASA itself plans to be one of many customers with the private sector leading the way.

The U.S. space agency hopes this strategy will allow its focus on Artemis missions to the Moon and Mars as it continues to use low Earth orbit for preparation and training for deep space missions.

In January 2020, NASA selected Axiom Space to provide at least one habitable commercial module to be attached to the forward port of the International Space Station’s Harmony module as early as late 2024.

Recently, NASA announced the agency is seeking input from industry on future commercial low Earth orbit destinations that will provide services, such as crew training, scientific research, and advanced systems development for both government and private-sector astronauts and customers.

The Axiom Mission 1 crew. Credit: Axiom Space

The Axiom Mission 1 crew. Credit: Axiom Space

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45th Space Wing re-designated as Space Launch Delta 45

May 11th 2021 at 22:14

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket soars skyward in November 2020 with the NROL-101 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Its launch was supported by the 45th Space Wing, which was today re-designated to Space Launch Delta 45. Photo Credit: Theresa Cross/Spaceflight Insider, Illustration Credit: Derek Richardson/Spaceflight Insider

The United States Space Force has re-designated the 45th Space Wing, which oversees launches on Florida’s Space Coast, as Space Launch Delta 45.

Via a virtual ceremony held at Patrick Space Force Base in Florida, the change occurred May 11, 2021. Space Launch Delta 45’s commander is Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy.

While its roots go back further, the 45th Space Wing itself was formed in 1991 and has since supported nearly 800 launches across the Eastern Range, which includes today’s Patrick Space Force Base and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and extends some 10,000 miles through the South Atlantic, according to a virtual re-designation video posted by the service on YouTube.

“I am proud of the guardians and airmen of today’s 45th Space Wing and the tens of thousands of your predecessors who for decades have worked tirelessly to earn the Wing’s preferred motto as ‘The World’s Premier Gateway to Space,’” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of Space Operations Command, during the video. “Today we’re marking yet another milestone in the storied history of this base and this mission set. And I think we’ll be posturing the 45th to keep using that moniker for many decades to come.”

The plan is to also re-designate the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base (itself expected to be renamed as a Space Force base) in California to Space Launch Delta 30. While currently reporting to the Space Force’s Space Operations Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado, they’ll be expected to begin reporting to the new Space Systems Command in Los Angeles later this year.

Video courtesy of Space Launch Delta 45

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Exoplanets and their characterization the focus of STScl workshop

May 11th 2021 at 06:00
exoplanets

An artist’s rendering of 10 hot Jupiters, exoplanets physically similar to Jupiter that orbit very close to their parent star, studied by Dr. David Sing of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Astrophysical Sciences. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Sing

The various methods used over the last 25 years to discover exoplanets and the science of categorizing the many types of exoplanets that have been found was the focus of an April 19 workshop for science writers sponsored by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

This workshop was part of five-day STScI virtual symposium centering on the formation, structure, and evolution of the more than 4,000 exoplanets discovered to date. Speakers included Dr. Jessie Christiansen of Caltech//IPAC-NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, Dr. Clara Sousa Silver of Harvard University, Dr. Tim Lichtenberg of the University of Oxford, and Dr. Isabelle Rebillido of STScI.

Methods of discovery for exoplanets

Christiansen discussed the different methods of exoplanet detection, noting each is sensitive to different types of planets orbiting different types of stars.

The transit method, which involves observing a star’s drop in brightness when an orbiting planet passes in front of it, has been the most prolific, discovering more than 1,000 exoplanets.

Next is the radial velocity method, which measures the slight wobbling of a star caused by the gravitational tug of a planet orbiting it. This method is more sensitive to large rather than small planets.

Gravitational microlensing uses light from a background star, which bends and magnifies light from a nearer, foreground star to detect an orbiting planet around the foreground star. If the foreground star has a planet, that star’s light will be magnified more than it ordinarily would because of the planet’s gravitational pull. This method is especially sensitive to detecting planets orbiting between one and 10 astronomical units (AU, with one AU equal to the average Earth-Sun distance, or 93 million miles) from their parent stars.

Direct imaging, which blocks the light of a star to locate planets orbiting it, is best for finding planets in distant orbits around their stars.

Planetary systems discovered

Many planets of a size not seen in our solar system, known as mini-Neptunes or super-Earths, have been found. Planets larger than Neptune are far less common; just five to 10 percent of stars have them, Christiansen said.

Artist's depiction of two super-Earths, Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c, exoplanets orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: Mark Garlick/ University of Göttingen

Artist’s depiction of two super-Earths, Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c, exoplanets orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: Mark Garlick/ University of Göttingen

Around 4% of Sun-like stars have gas giants in the same location as Jupiter in our solar system, which is five AU from the Sun. These typically have thick atmospheres that scientists are currently analyzing.

In many cases, planetary systems demonstrate a “peas in a pod” phenomenon, in which all planets in the system are roughly the same size as one another. Significantly, this is different from our solar system. “The question is, why do systems prefer to make planets of all one size?” Christiansen asked.

Atmospheres of exoplanets

Scheduled for launch in 2029, the European Space Agency‘s (ESA) Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey (ARIEL) space telescope will characterize the atmospheres of more than 1,000 exoplanets. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will launch later this year, will obtain detailed spectra for large planets and “will open the door for characterizing the atmospheres of smaller worlds,” Sousa Silver said.

Currently, scientists use spectroscopy, the study of the absorption and emission of light by objects, to identify the molecules in exoplanets’ atmospheres. This works best for hot Jupiters orbiting close to their stars and for giant planets in general.

To search for signs of life on exoplanets, scientists will look not just for familiar molecules like methane and carbon dioxide, but also for biosignatures or the building blocks of life, such as hydrogen cyanide and phosphene. But discovery of these molecules does not necessarily indicate the presence of life, as these can be produced by non-biological sources.

“The detection of life will likely be uncertain, not likely to come from a single molecule,” Silver said. At the same time, she noted, “We are absolutely on the verge of these discoveries. In the next couple of decades, we will have instruments to look at possible alien biospheres.”

Artist's depiction of ESA's ARIEL space telescope, which is being designed to study the formation of exoplanets. Credit: ESA/STFC RAL Space/UCL/Europlanet-Science Office

Artist’s depiction of ESA’s ARIEL space telescope, which is being designed to study the formation of exoplanets. Credit: ESA/STFC RAL Space/UCL/Europlanet-Science Office

Insights from molten planets

Lichtenberg studies molten exoplanets as a means of gaining insight into the formation of planetary systems, including our own. He is especially interested in planets’ transitions from molten magma to ocean worlds.

Traditionally, the first 500 million years of Earth’s history, known as the Hadean period, have been viewed as a “hellish environment,” with a molten surface and constant volcanic eruptions. However, in the last 20 years, a new theory has emerged, which proposes that Earth at that time may have already had oceans and continents, he explained.

Molten worlds are composed solely of magma and have temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Kelvin. Over several hundred thousand years, their temperatures decrease, causing the planets to cooldown and crystallize. Water in their atmosphere condenses to form early oceans.

While there are no molten planets in our solar system today, two super-Earths, 55 Cancri e and GJ 1132b, might be composed of molten magma and may even have atmospheres. Both are tidally locked to their stars, meaning one of their hemispheres is very hot and the other very cold.

Some exoplanets are so close to their stars that they may be unable to retain any atmospheres, LIchtenberg said.

For terrestrial planets, outgassing and tectonics are the determinants of their fates. Lichtenberg pointed out that the climates and surfaces of exoplanets can be probed observationally.

Exocomets and small bodies

Moons, asteroids, and comets are important parts of stellar systems. Kuiper Belts composed of dust and small grains have been found around approximately 300 stars although these cannot be directly observed, Rebollido reported.

Exocomets form in outer regions of stellar systems and are important because they can deliver water and many of the building blocks of life to their systems’ planets.

Spectroscopy is useful for studying exocomets and identifying the materials in the protoplanetary disks surrounding young stars. When exocomets transit their stars, scientists can see their tails and note absorptions that differ from those of the stars. Comets transiting stars have unique shapes that distinguish them from exoplanets.

Discovered even before the first exoplanets, “exocomets are the only minor bodies we have seen and can confirm we have seen” in other solar systems, Rebollido said.

Exomoons also play an important role in the search for extraterrestrial life. As our Moon does for Earth, they can stabilize a planet’s axial tilt, increasing its habitability. Some, like Saturn’s moon Titan, could have complex atmospheres and their own hydrologic cycles. However, exomoons are much more difficult to find than exoplanets.

“Exoplanetary studies include the whole planetary system — that include small bodies,” Rebollido said. “Habitability also depends on minor bodies like moons. They can deliver water and amino acids to planets.”

Fully assembled JWST and its sunshield. One of the goals of the observatory is to make detailed studies of the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Fully assembled JWST and its sunshield. One of the goals of the observatory is to make detailed studies of the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

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Ingenuity Mars helicopter transitions to “operations demonstration phase”

May 10th 2021 at 10:00
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter takes flight for a fifth time to move to another airfield ahead of the expected traverse path of the Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter takes flight for a fifth time to move to another airfield ahead of the expected traverse path of the Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Last week, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter successfully took to the Martial skies, once again proving its capabilities as a fully-functioning aircraft by starting a new demonstration phase.

The helicopter took to the skies at 3:26 p.m. EDT (19:26 UTC, 12:33 p.m. local Martian time) May 7, 2021, with data relayed back to earth at around 7:30 p.m. EDT (23:30 UTC). While the first four flights of Ingenuity were experimental in nature, the fifth flight set out to prove Ingenuity as a functioning aircraft on another planet by taking a one-way trip.

Ingenuity as seen by the Perseverance rover's Mastcam-Z imager following the helicopter's fifth flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity as seen by the Perseverance rover’s Mastcam-Z imager following the helicopter’s fifth flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The fifth flight of the Mars Helicopter is another great achievement for the agency,” said Bob Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, in a NASA news release. “The continuing success of Ingenuity proves the value of bringing together the strengths of diverse skill sets from across the agency to create the future, like flying an aircraft on another planet!”

Each previous flight took the helicopter incrementally farther and higher than the flight before. This time, Ingenuity climbed to 16 feet (5 meters), then followed the course from the previous flight, heading south 423 feet (129 meters).

Instead of returning to Wright Brothers Field like the previous four flights, Ingenuity climbed to a record setting height of 33 feet (10 meters) where the helicopter spent some time surveying and taking full color pictures of the planet’s surface. It then landed in this new location, which is closer to where the Perseverance rover expected to be heading over the next several weeks.

Perseverance contains the helicopter’s main communication relay and database system, so it is best that the helicopter remain as close to the rover as possible.

“I think a lot about the Wrights during our flights,” Josh Ravich, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter mechanical engineering lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said. “I’m sure part of the reason is that I (along with teammate Chris Lefler) had the honor of attaching the small swatch of material from the lower left wing of Flyer I to Ingenuity. But it’s more than that. The Wrights showed what could be accomplished with a combination of teamwork, creativity, and tenacity – and a bit of ingenuity and perseverance.”

According to NASA, flight five represents the helicopter’s transition to a new “operations demonstration phase” that is expected to focus on “investigating what kinds of capabilities a rotorcraft operating from mars can provide.” The agency said this includes aerial observations of areas not accessible by a rover and obtaining stereo imagery from atmospheric altitudes.

Now that Ingenuity has proven itself as fully flight capable, it will spend the next several months pushing the boundaries of powered flight on Mars, paving the way for future human endeavors in the years to come.

Video courtesy of NASA

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Falcon 9 booster flies record 10th time for Starlink mission

May 9th 2021 at 04:15

On May 9, 2021, a Falcon 9 rocket flies into space from Florida with 60 Starlink satellites. The rocket’s first stage, core B1051, flew for a record 10th time. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

An early morning launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket filled the Florida skies as the company continues its aggressive pace of global internet coverage.

At 2:42 a.m. EDT (06:42 UTC) May 9, 2021, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40, the Falcon 9 rocketed skyward to deliver 60 Starlink internet satellites into low Earth orbit.

A Falcon 9 rocket soars into the Florida skies to deliver 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. Credit: Matt Haskell / Spaceflight Insider

A Falcon 9 rocket soars into the Florida skies to deliver 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. Credit: Matt Haskell / Spaceflight Insider

The company has received over 500,000 orders for its satellite-beamed internet service as reported by SpaceX Operations Engineer Siva Bharadvaj during the launch broadcast of the company’s May 4 Starlink mission. Starlink is now the world’s largest constellation with more around 1600 spacecraft in orbit so far.

Today’s liftoff was also the first 10th flight of a Falcon 9 first stage booster, B1051, making this the 59th flight of a Falcon 9 with a flight-proven booster to date. It was the 27th dedicated Starlink mission, 11 of which have occurred this year alone. B1051 was first used to send the unpiloted Crew Dragon mission, Demo-1, into space for SpaceX and NASA in March 2019.

After the first 2.5 minutes of flight, the first stage separated from the second stage. Less than 10 minutes after liftoff, booster B1051 successfully landed on the drone ship “Just Read The Instructions” located some 380 miles (613 kilometers) downrange. The fairing halves were also expected to be recovered by SpaceX support ship Sheila Bordelon, staged in the same general area of the company’s drone ship.

Both ships and their rocket cargo are expected to return to Port Canaveral in Florida so they can be processed and refurbished for presumably another flight.

The 60 Starlink satellites, meanwhile, were successfully deployed into orbit by the second stage just over an hour after leaving Florida. Over the coming weeks, they’ll gradually spread out and begin to maneuver toward their final orbital positions.

Falcon 9 core B1051 flies for 10th time. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

Video courtesy of SpaceX

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Petition asks NASA to name Lunar Gateway after Michael Collins

May 6th 2021 at 11:00
An illustration of a Dragon XL spacecraft approaching an evolved Lunar Gateway outpost around the Moon. Credit: NASA

An illustration of a Dragon XL spacecraft approaching an evolved Lunar Gateway outpost around the Moon. Credit: NASA

There is a Change.org petition to rename NASA’s Lunar Gateway after former Apollo astronaut Michael Collins, who died April 28, 2021, at age 90.

Collins was one of three astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, the first to land humans on the Moon. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface in the Lunar Module, Collins remained aboard the Command Module, orbiting some 65 miles (105 kilometers) above the Moon for more than 21 hours as the world turned its attention to the landing. This led some to call him “the loneliest man in history.”

“It is, for this reason, why I believe the Lunar Gateway should be renamed after him,” said Collins Simpson in the text of the petition he created. “He watched as his fellow astronauts descended onto the surface, just as many astronauts will do from the Gateway in the future.”

Collins trains inside an Apollo command module simulator in advance of the Apollo 11 mission. Credit: ANSA

The Lunar Gateway, part of NASA’s Artemis program, is a space station that astronauts are expected to pass through on their way to the Moon’s surface. Just like Collins, the deep space outpost will orbit the Moon while aspiring moonwalkers descend to the lunar surface.

Located in a “near-rectilinear halo orbit,” the Gateway is expected to circle the Moon once every six days in a highly-elliptical trajectory taking it as close as 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) from one lunar pole to 43,000 miles (70,000 kilometers) from the other. It would offer a full view of Earth during its entire orbit and serve as a communications relay for astronauts on the Moon’s south pole.

The first two modules, Maxar Technologies Power and Propulsion Element and Northrop Grumman’s Habitation and Logistics Module (called HALO), are set to launch sometime in 2024 atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

The first astronauts aren’t expected to visit the outpost until the Artemis 4 mission, which is currently slated to be the second human lunar landing of the Artemis program.

Collins leaves behind a legacy that many, including Simpson, feel should be honored in a way fitting to the solitary mission realized and acknowledged as a three-man crew once the astronauts returned to Earth.

Although Collins never set foot on the Moon, he played an extremely important role maintaining the Apollo Command Module while in orbit while his crewmates were on the lunar surface.

The crew left a plaque on the Moon that reads, “We came in peace for all mankind.” It was signed by Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and then-President Richard Nixon.

While the petition aims to influence NASA to consider changing the name of the Lunar Gateway to Collins Lunar Gateway, NASA is under no obligation to do so. As of May 6, 2021, more than 12,000 have signed the petition.

Video courtesy of NASA

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SpaceX’s Starship SN15 lands successfully!

May 5th 2021 at 20:00
Starship SN15 flies into the South Texas sky to perform what would become a completely-successful launch and landing. Credit: Nicholas D'Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

Starship SN15 flies into the South Texas sky to perform what would become a completely-successful launch and landing. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX’s Starship SN15 landed safely after its high-altitude test flight, successfully performing a landing-flip maneuver to softly touch down on a nearby pad.

The experimental test vehicle successfully launched at about 6:24 p.m. EDT (22:24 UTC) May 5, 2021, from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch facility in South Texas. This came a week after the company secured a rare triple Federal Aviation Administration approval for three Starship flights.

“Starship landing nominal!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted soon after the landing.

Starship SN15 performs its landing-flip maneuver to softly touch down on the pad. Credit: Nicholas D'Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

Starship SN15 performs its landing-flip maneuver to softly touch down on the pad. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

Starship SN15 descends from the clouds and sticks the landing!! Congratulations SpaceX!! 🥳🎉
🎥 -Myself for @SpaceflightIns pic.twitter.com/mkN3hl14cu

— NickyX 🌌🔭 (@NickyX15A) May 5, 2021

The whole flight from launch to landing lasted just over six minutes, and this time the vehicle remained intact, marking the first 100% success of a 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) Starship high-altitude test flight.

The last Starship prototype to come this close to full success was Starship SN10, which landed slightly too hard due to a helium ingestion issue in the engines (reducing thrust), and the vehicle exploded on the pad from the damage around 10 minutes later.

There was some minor concern after Starship SN15 landed when a small fire began spreading underneath the vehicle, something that also happened during the SN10 landing two months ago. However, SpaceX was able to extinguish the flames and safe the test article.

While it wasn’t launched in fog like Starship SN11 in late March, the conditions were still overcast for those viewing in the South Texas area.

As with previous 6.2-mile (10-kilometer) flight tests, the vehicle slowly ascended to its target altitude, shutting down each Raptor engine in sequence as apogee was approached. Then Starship SN15 flipped horizontal for the signature belly-flop maneuver back to Earth.

A small fire can be seen at the base of Starship. However, it was extinguished within a few minutes. Credit: Nicholas D'Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

A small fire can be seen at the base of Starship. However, it was extinguished within a few minutes. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

During the final moments of flight, all three Raptor engines re-ignited (as is now standard, from SN10 onward), with the least desirably performing one downselected and the other two remaining powered until landing.

It’s unclear if Starship SN15 will fly again, however, back at the build facility, Starship SN16’s body and nosecone were recently rolled out of the Mid Bay and over to the High Bay for stacking.

Additionally, a new Raptor engine titled “INSERT MEME HERE” was also spotted being delivered to the production hangars, continuing the company’s running gag of hiding internet humor Easter eggs on the engines and blisteringly fast pace of iteration in general.

This was also the first test to occur after SpaceX was awarded a $2.9 billion contract to build a lunar variant of Starship to land NASA astronauts on the Moon under the agency’s Artemis program.

As of right now, however, the contract is on hold while a protest filed by Blue Origin and Dynetics (the other two contenders for the Human Landing System contract) is resolved by the Government Accountability Office.

Video courtesy of SpaceX

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Light this candle! The 60th anniversary of the first American in space

May 5th 2021 at 10:30

Alan Shepard launches to become the first American in space during the Mercury-Redstone 3 Mission. Image: NASA

Sixty years ago today, on May 5, 1961, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard rocketed to space in his Mercury capsule to become the first American and the second human in space.

The surprise launch by the Soviet Union of the first artificial satellite called Sputnik 1 in October of 1957 sparked the newest front in the Cold War — space. The race to see which country would dominate space was on. But first, humanity had to see if they could survive in space.

The Mercury Seven astronauts in their spacesuits (front row, left to right) Walter M. "Wally" Schirra Jr., Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, (back row) Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. Credit : NASA

The Mercury Seven astronauts in their spacesuits (front row, left to right) Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, (back row) Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. Credit : NASA

A year after Sputnik, in October of 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, was formed out of the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics, or NACA, and would serve as a civilian agency that would see the development of space technology. Among the first objectives of the newly formed agency was Project Mercury, which would set the goal to launch a man into Earth orbit, evaluate his capabilities, and return him safely to Earth. Out of a chosen pool of 110 possible candidates, Shepard and six others were chosen for the program.

Shepard was a U.S. Naval role model perfect for selection as an astronaut. After spending some time and seeing action on a destroyer in World War II, Shepard graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science, becoming a Naval Aviator in 1946. Eventually, he would graduate the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School and become a test pilot in 1950, ultimately gaining over 8,000 hours in aircraft. These experiences would set the basis for his later career.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviets shocked the world when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to see the reaches of space. America wasn’t going to take another blow to their pride, and it was time to put an American in space.

On May 5 1961, Shepard would be the first Mercury astronaut to fly into space. After some minor delays, and an unplanned urination, at 10:34 a.m. ET the Mercury capsule, dubbed Freedom 7, launched atop its Redstone booster from Launch Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Although the flight would only be suborbital, lasting just 15 minutes, the mission would prove American capabilities in space, testing systems such as retrorockets and attitude control systems that would be crucial for the upcoming orbital flight of John Glenn and the Mercury-Atlas rocket.

Apollo 14 Commander Alan Shepard poses with the American flag on the surface of the Moon in 1971. Credit: NASA

Apollo 14 Commander Alan Shepard poses with the American flag on the surface of the Moon in 1971. Credit: NASA

After a successful reentry and parachute landing into the Atlantic Ocean, Shepard and the capsule were recovered by helicopter and the USS Lake Champlain. The mission was a complete technical success, albeit one with hampered pride with the Soviets having beaten the country to orbit three weeks before.

History almost ended differently, however. Originally, Mercury-Redstone 3, the official title of the first American manned mission, was to launch in April of 1960, beating the Soviets to the punch by a whole year. Unfortunately, multiple unplanned program delays would continue to postpone the launch, paving the way for the Soviets to fly first.

The mission would begin a new era in space exploration. Just a few weeks later, President John F Kennedy would make his a statement to a special joint session of Congress, announcing his goals for an American on the surface of the Moon.

Kennedy’s goal would ultimately be realized before the decade was out, with Alan Shepard being later chosen to command Apollo 14, and walk on the moon.

60 years after the history making flight, we remember its legacy as the flight that started it all for NASA, and human spaceflight in the United States. Shepard’s career itself speaks for the advancements, with only just 10 years between his suborbital spaceflight, and walking on the surface of the Moon. From Shepard’s flight, came endless discoveries and international milestones in space. Its milestones and lessons learned continue to be a driving force today.

Video courtesy of NASA

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Starship SN15 poised to fly, as Elon heads to New York for SNL appearance

May 4th 2021 at 22:15

Starship vehicle serial number 15 (SN15) rests on the launch pad prior to its much anticipated test flight, now expected for May 5, 2021. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

Starship SN15 was by all public accounts set to fly Tuesday, May 4, with road closures, Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), and all expected FAA paperwork beleived to be in place.

EDITORS UPDATE (Wed, May 5, 2021):
The SN15 test flight was successfully flown on May 5, 2021; our flight day report is published and available, here.

SpaceX decided to call off the attempt, made clear mid-day by the cancellation of the State Road 4 road closure. Weather was cited as the main concern, due to storms being forecast for the area after sunset, which would have complicated potential recovery operations, as reported by local Boca Chica Village residents in contact with SpaceX during the evacuation.

A SpaceX worker relocates one of the Raptor engines at the Boca Chica, Tx test site for the Starship program, ahead of the SN15 test flight. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

Although this additional delay to the much anticipated inaugural flight of this new generation of Starship prototype (SN15 stands for Serial Number 15, which is said to incorporate many design and construction differences from SN11, the last test article to fly) may have disappointed some space fans – many of whom who were hopeful for a successful test on Star Wars day – this does show that SpaceX is confident enough in chances of a successful landing to seriously consider how weather systems might affect a potentially free-standing vehicle on the landing pad, post-test.

Starship SN15’s next flight attempt is expected on Wednesday, May 5 with road closures and TFRs in place for a backup date of Thursday, May 6. Per the filed road closure, the test flight can occur within a 12pm-8pm CST road closure window on either day; launches have typically occurred in the middle to later portions of issued closures.

That being said, hopes are not high for a late-week test; the weather forecast is looking sub-optimal for the remainder of the week and it remains to be seen if Elon Musk’s travel to New York City (he and family arrived Monday evening, ahead of his scheduled appearance on Saturday Night Live this Saturday, May 8) will delay the flight any further. Leveraging the power of his social media following for feedback, Musk has been exploring various skit ideas (“Irony Man“, and “Baby Shark Tank“) ahead of his first hosting experience on the show.

Additional developments and updates will be posted as they emerge.

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Ninth-flown Falcon 9 launches 60 Starlink internet satellites

May 4th 2021 at 16:15
SpaceX launches 60 Starlink internet satellites on May 4, 2021, using a first stage on its ninth flight. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX launches 60 Starlink internet satellites on May 4, 2021, pressing a Falcon 9 first stage into service for its ninth flight and successful recovery. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

Less than a week after the last Starlink satellite launch, SpaceX sent an additional 60 high-speed internet satellites into orbit using a Falcon 9 first stage booster flying for the ninth time.

At 3:01 p.m. EDT (19:01 UTC) May 4, 2021, from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched another 60 Starlink internet satellites as the company continues its march toward global internet connectivity and coverage.

Falcon 9 B-1049-9. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

Falcon 9 Booster B1049.9. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

The first stage for this mission, core B1049-9, was recovered successfully by SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” staged around 380 miles (613 kilometers) downrange and was supported by the ship GO Quest. The fairing halves were also expected to be recovered by one of the company fleet’s newest addition, a contracted recovery vessel named “Shelia Bordelon.”

In the coming days, SpaceX’s recovery vessels will return to Port Canaveral on Florida’s Space Coast where historically the fairings and booster are prepped for transport back the company’s Florida facility for reconditioning and eventual reuse.

This is the 13th launch for SpaceX in 2021 and the second “ninth flight” of a Falcon 9 first stage booster. SpaceX Starlink V1.0 L25 is the 25th operational Starlink mission bringing the total number of Starlink satellites launched to date to 1,565.

A Federal Communications Commission filing recognizes this launch as “Starlink RF mission 2-2, RF.” The radio frequency, or RF, implies these satellites may not have the inter-satellite function for laser communication links.

At this time only higher altitudes are fully covered and in service as populations in lower latitudes are only able to pre-order services.

The next Starlink launch is currently expected to fly no earlier than May 9, 2021. It’ll be using the first stage core B1051-10, which could be the first time SpaceX attempts to fly the same Falcon 9 first stage for a 10th time.

Video courtesy of SpaceX

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After flight 4, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter begins new demo phase

May 3rd 2021 at 18:30
NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is viewed by one of the hazard cameras aboard the Perseverance rover during the helicopter’s fourth flight on April 30, 2021. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is viewed by one of the hazard cameras aboard the Perseverance rover during the helicopter’s fourth flight on April 30, 2021. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has once again proven itself to be the aeronautic showstopper of 2021 with its fourth flight above the Martian surface, setting the stage for a 30-day “operations demonstration” phase.

The fourth flight of the Ingenuity helicopter took place at 10:46 a.m. EDT (14:46 UTC, 12:30 p.m. local Mars time) April 30, 2021. This was a day later than planned because the device did not transition to flight mode in order for the actual flight to occur.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said this was because of a watchdog timer issue identified earlier in April, which an investigation into the vehicle’s software determined there was a 15% chance of this happening each time a flight is attempted. The team found the easiest solution was to just try again a day later.

An image of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter during its second flight on April 22, 2021. The photo was captured by the Perseverance rover, located about 70 meters away. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

An image of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter during its second flight on April 22, 2021. The photo was captured by the Perseverance rover, located about 70 meters away. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

While the first three flights for Ingenuity were groundbreaking in their own right, the fourth flight highlighted the full capability of the helicopter’s design.

In fact, engineers at JPL said this flight would be the beginning of a transition from the 30-day “technology demonstration” phase to a 30-day “operations demonstration” phase to evaluate how the device, and future designs, can be used for aerial scouting and other functions to benefit future Mars missions, as well as those on other worlds with atmospheres.

“The Ingenuity technology demonstration has been a resounding success,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a NASA news release. “Since Ingenuity remains in excellent health, we plan to use it to benefit future aerial platforms while prioritizing and moving forward with the Perseverance rover team’s near-term science goals.”

Before the fourth flight, backup Mars Helicopter pilot Johnny Lam said, “To achieve the distance necessary for this scouting flight, we’re going to break our own Mars records set during flight three. We’re upping the time airborne from 80 seconds to 117, increasing our max airspeed from 2 meters per second to 3.5 (4.5 mph to 8), and more than doubling our total range.”

Indeed, the fourth demonstration of Ingenuity’s capabilities brought out the full potential of the helicopter by ascending to an altitude of 16 feet (5 meters) and then turning south, traversing the Martian terrain for 276 feet (84 meters).

While flying over the dusty surface, the helicopter was gathering images every four feet with its ground facing navigation camera for a total distance of 436 feet or 133 meters before successfully heading back to its starting point at Wright Brothers Field.

A Mars 2020 mission selfie containing both the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter. Credit: NASA

A Mars 2020 mission selfie containing both the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter. Credit: NASA

When the data collected from the fourth flight is analyzed, the fifth flight will be commanded to go on a one-way flight to a new site in the general direction the Perseverance rover is expected to traverse for its science mission. In fact, the rover has already begun moving away from its location at Van Zyl Overlook where it observed Ingenuity’s tech demo phase.

“With the short drive, we have already begun our move south toward a location the science team believes is worthy of investigation and our first sampling,” Ken Farley, project scientist for the Perseverance rover from Caltech in Pasadena, California, said in a NASA news release. “We’ll spend the next couple of hundred sols executing our first science campaign looking for interesting rock outcrop along this 2-kilometer (1.24-mile) patch of crater floor before likely heading north and then west toward Jezero Crater’s fossil river delta.”

According to NASA, Ingenuity is expected to be used to perform aerial observations of rover science targets, potential rover routes and inaccessible features. However, the time between flights is expected to increase from one every several days to one every several weeks.

“The team will assess flight operations after 30 sols and will complete flight operations no later than the end of August,” a NASA news release reads. “That timing will allow the rover team time to wrap up its planned science activities and prepare for solar conjunction — the period in mid-October when Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the Sun, blocking communications.”

Video courtesy of JPL

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SpaceX Crew-1 Dragon returns to Earth after 168 days in space

May 2nd 2021 at 04:30
Crew-1 Dragon splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Crew-1 Dragon splashes down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Four astronauts returned to Earth in their SpaceX Crew-1 Dragon spacecraft after six months aboard the International Space Station, splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida in the dark of night.

The Crew-1 Dragon astronauts — NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Soichi Noguchi — splashed down at 2:56 a.m. EDT (06:56 UTC) May 2, 2021, off the coast of Panama City, Florida, after some 168 days in space.

Recovery personnel work to secure the Dragon capsule and begin the processes of hoisting it onto the recovery vessel "Go Navigator." Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Recovery personnel work to secure the Dragon capsule and begin the processes of hoisting it onto the recovery vessel “Go Navigator.” Credit: NASA/SpaceX

This was only the second nighttime splashdown in U.S. human spaceflight history, the first being Apollo 8 in 1968. Crew-1 was also the longest spaceflight by a U.S. crew vehicle, beating the 84-day record set by the final crew to visit Skylab in 1974.

“Dragon, on behalf of NASA and the SpaceX team, we welcome you back to planet Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” radioed the SpaceX Crew Operations and Resources Engineer, also known as CORE. “For those of you enrolled in our frequent flyer program, you’ve earned 68 million miles on this voyage.”

Hopkins, the spacecraft commander radioed that it was good to be back on Earth.

“And we’ll take those miles,” Hopkins joked. “Are they transferable?”

CORE replied: “Dragon, we’ll have to refer you to our marketing department for that policy.”

Before leaving the outpost, the Crew-1 astronauts said goodbye to the seven-person Expedition 65 crew that remained aboard the ISS. Four launched aboard Crew-2 Dragon about a week ago: NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide (the current ISS commander) and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Three launched aboard Soyuz MS-18 in early April: Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.

The 11 people aboard the International Space Station between the arrival of Crew-2 Dragon and the departure of Crew-1 Dragon. The Crew-1 astronauts are in the front row. Credit: NASA

The 11 people aboard the International Space Station between the arrival of Crew-2 Dragon and the departure of Crew-1 Dragon. The Crew-1 astronauts are in the front row. Credit: NASA

At 6:26 p.m. EDT (22:26 UTC) May 1, the hatches between Crew-1 Dragon and the ISS were closed. Over the next several hours, the space between the hatches was depressurized and the spacecraft prepared for departure.

Undocking occurred at 8:35 p.m. EDT (00:35 UTC) with springs between Dragon and the docking adapter on the space-facing port of the Harmony module pushing Crew-1 away. Seconds later, the spacecraft’s Draco thrusters increased the rate of the vehicle’s departure.

Departure burn 1 occurred five minutes later, pushing Crew-1 out of the 650-foot (200-meter) radius ISS “keep-out sphere” and eventually the approach ellipsoid. This was followed by departure burn 2 some 53 minutes after undocking.

The final departure burn occurred at 10:14 p.m. EDT (02:14 UTC), which circularized Crew-1 Dragon’s orbit about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) beneath the space station.

It would be several more hours before the next major milestone occurred, which was the detachment of Dragon’s trunk section and the deorbit burn.

Lasting just over 16 minutes, the deorbit burn started at 2:03 a.m. EDT (06:03 UTC), setting the stage for Crew-1 Dragon’s splashdown just off the coast of Panama City, Florida.

Crew-1 Dragon began its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at about 2:05 a.m. EDT (06:05 UTC). Protected by its heat shield, the spacecraft was slowed down to about 350 miles (560 kilometers) per hour.

According to the crew, they experienced about four times the force of Earth’s gravity due to the deceleration.

Crew Dragon Resilience docked at the space-facing port of the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

Crew Dragon Resilience docked at the space-facing port of the Harmony module. Credit: NASA

A few minutes later a series of parachutes deployed culminating in four main parachutes to slow the vehicle’s descent to about 16 miles (25 kilometers) per hour.

The sea state upon splashdown was calm with swells of only one or two feet. The weather was relatively clear with winds around 3 miles (5 kilometers) per hour and ample moonlight.

Once in the water, SpaceX recovery crews began the process of securing the capsule, which landed upright in the “stable-1” configuration, and bringing it to the recovery ship, Go Navigator.

Within 30 minutes, the capsule was brought onto the deck of Go Navigator and placed on a device called the “Dragon Nest.”

“On behalf of Crew-1 and our families, we just want to say thank you,” said Hopkins, just before the side hatch was opened. “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. You all are changing the world.”

The side hatch was opened some 10 minutes after being placed on Go Navigator and over the next 20 minutes or so, recovery teams helped the four astronauts out of the vehicle and onto a stretcher (to ensure they don’t over-exert themselves after six months without gravity) to take them into a room for medical checks.

After initial health checks, the Crew-1 astronauts boarded a helicopter, located on the top of Go Navigator, before being flown to Pensacola, Florida. Once on shore, the four are expected to board a NASA jet to fly back to Houston later today.

This was Hopkins’ second spaceflight. He first spent six months aboard the ISS between September 2013 and March 2014. With the Crew-1 mission, his career time in space now stands at 335 days.

The Crew Dragon Resilience crew participate in a video conference in February 2021 with former NASA astronaut Edward Gibson, who was one of the three Skylab-4 astronauts. From left to right: Mike Hopkins, Soichi Noguchi, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover. Credit: NASA

The Crew Dragon Resilience crew participate in a video conference in February 2021 with former NASA astronaut Edward Gibson, who was one of the three Skylab-4 astronauts. From left to right: Mike Hopkins, Soichi Noguchi, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover. Credit: NASA

Walker was also on her second spaceflight. Her first spaceflight was a roughly 5.5-month stay aboard the ISS in 2010. Her career time in space is now 331 days.

For Hopkins, the Crew-1 mission was his first spaceflight. He was also the first African American long-duration ISS expedition crewmember.

Noguchi completed his third spaceflight. He first flew into space aboard space shuttle Discovery’s STS-114 mission in 2005. His second spaceflight was a six-month stay aboard the ISS between December 2009 and June 2010. His career time in space is 345 days

Crew-1 Dragon, named Resilience, launched to the ISS in November 2020. It was the first operational flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft. A day later, the spacecraft mated with the docking adapter located on the forward port of the Harmony module where it remained for most of the duration of its stay aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Over the course of their mission, the Crew-1 astronauts participated in five spacewalks to upgrade the space station and prepare for the arrival of new solar arrays later this year.

In preparation for the arrival of the Crew-2 Dragon, on April 5 the Crew-1 Dragon and its crew undocked from its initial docking port and relocated to the space-facing port of the Harmony module. This was done to allow Crew-2 to dock with the forward port.

Now that Crew Dragon Resilience is back on Earth, it will be refurbished and prepared for its next flight, the Inspiration4 mission, currently scheduled for September.

Video courtesy of SciNews

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Bill Nelson confirmed as NASA administrator

April 29th 2021 at 23:10
Former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson appears before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation April 21, 2021, in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. Photo and Caption Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson appears before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation April 21, 2021, in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. Photo and Caption Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

On Thursday, April 29, 2021, the U.S. Senate confirmed Bill Nelson by unanimous consent to be the next NASA administrator.

Nelson was formally nominated by President Joe Biden on March 19, 2021, to replace the previous administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who served under the Trump administration until Jan. 20, 2021.

“I am honored by the president’s nomination and the Senate vote,” Nelson said in a NASA news release. “I will try to merit that trust. Onward and upward!”

A native of Florida, Nelson entered the role of NASA administrator as a career politician, having served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1972 to 1978, the United States House of Representatives from 1979 to 2001 and the United States Senate from 2001 to 2019.

On January 12, 1986, Nelson became the second active member of Congress to fly into space, serving as mission specialist aboard space shuttle Columbia during the STS-61-C mission.

Still awaiting confirmation

On April 16, 2021, the Biden administration nominated former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy to be NASA’s deputy administrator. However, as of Nelson’s confirmation, the U.S. Senate has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for Melroy.

No stranger to the spaceflight community, Melroy flew to space three times as pilot for space shuttle missions STS-92 and STS-112, as well as commander aboard STS-120.

Before joining the astronaut corps, Melroy served as an officer in the United States Air Force, where she flew KC-10 tanker aircraft. She attended test pilot school in 2001, where she was selected to fly the C-17 until she was selected for the astronaut program in 1994.

Melroy was also member of the Biden administration’s transition team supporting transitional efforts in relation to NASA projects and programs.

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First Space Launch System rocket core stage arrives in Florida

April 29th 2021 at 13:30
The core stage for the first Space Launch System rocket is moved out of the Pegasus barge for transport to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

The core stage for the first Space Launch System rocket is moved out of the Pegasus barge for transport to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

The core stage for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the uncrewed Artemis 1 Moon mission, scheduled for later this year.

Traveling five days aboard the Pegasus barge from NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi where it was undergoing Green Run testing, the 212-foot (65-meter) SLS core arrived at Kennedy Space Center April 27, 2021.

Then on April 29, under cloudy skies that gave way to a beautiful sunrise and morning, the core stage began its final journey to the Vehicle Assembly Building for final preparations and stacking.

When ready, the core stage will be integrated with the twin five-segment solid rocket boosters, which were recently stacked on the Mobile Launcher in the VAB. This’ll be the first integrated mission of the Orion spacecraft and the SLS.

An infographic over the process the Artemis 1 mission will undergo for stacking. Credit: NASA

An infographic over the process the Artemis 1 mission will undergo for stacking. Credit: NASA

Ahead of launching from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B, NASA and Jacob Engineering teams will stack all the elements atop the Mobile Launcher specifically outfitted, along with the VAB, to accommodate the mammoth rocket.

After completing the assembly process, an upgraded crawler-transporter will move the Space Launch System and Orion capsule from the VAB to the launch pad.

The Artemis program is designed for human space exploration to the Moon in preparation for missions to Mars. Its initial goal is to land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface.

Currently, SLS is the only rocket on Earth that can send supplies, astronauts and the Orion capsule to the Moon in a single mission. NASA has combined the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System, the orbiting Lunar Gateway in space and a commercial human landing system (SpaceX’s Lunar Starship) for comprehensive deep space exploration and the next generation of missions to the Moon.

The SLS core stage enters the Vehicle Assembly Building's transfer aisle. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

The SLS core stage enters the Vehicle Assembly Building’s transfer aisle. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

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China orbits ‘Tianhe,’ the core of its multi-module space station

April 29th 2021 at 09:30
China's Long March 5B sends the Tianhe core module into orbit from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 29, 2021. Credit: CGTN/China National Space Administration

China’s Long March 5B sends the Tianhe core module into orbit from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on April 29, 2021. Credit: CGTN/China National Space Administration

China has begun construction of a large multi-module space station with the launch of the Tianhe core module, starting a period of rapid launches to assemble the outpost by 2022.

Liftoff atop a Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket occurred at 11:23 p.m. EDT April 28 (03:23 UTC April 29), 2021, from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan, China. It was the second flight for the 54-meter-tall “5B” variant and it took about eight minutes to reach its initial trajectory in low Earth orbit to release Tianhe, which is Chinese for “harmony of the heavens.”

About an hour after being deployed into orbit, the core module’s solar panels were deployed. At some point, its onboard engines are expected to circularize its orbit to around 370 kilometers.

Similar to the Russian Zvezda module on the ISS, Tianhe is 16.6 meters long (some 3 meters longer than Zvezda) and about 4.2 meters in diameter at its widest. Its mass is about 22 metric tons.

The Tianhe module undergoing testing before launch. For scale, there is a person next to its base. Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation

The Tianhe module undergoing testing before launch. For scale, there is a person next to its base. Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation

Tianhe is to serve as the station’s command and control hub. It has a single docking port on its aft section and four ports on the forward sphere. Also on the forward sphere is an airlock hatch for spacewalks.

Based on the country’s previous space station program testbeds, the single-module Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 (Tiangong is Chinese for “heavenly palace) in 2011 and 2016, the new modular outpost is China’s answer to the multinational International Space Station. When completed, it’ll be close in size to the Russian Mir space station, which orbited Earth between 1986 and 2001.

This is the first in a series of launches to complete the station by late 2022. An additional 10 missions are planned to complete assembly. This includes crew and cargo missions as well as two additional laboratory modules.

As of right now, the next launch for assembly is expected to be the Tianzhou-2 (Chinese for heavenly ship) automated cargo spacecraft, likely in late May 2021. It’ll likely dock with either the aft or the forward port of Tianhe. The cargo spacecraft is based on the initial Tiangong stations and upgraded to serve as resupply freighters.

From there, the crewed Shenzhou 12 mission will launch with three “taikonauts” — Nie Haisheng, Deng Qingming and Ye Guangfu — to stay aboard the new outpost for several months.

Shenzhou 12 will only be the seventh human spaceflight conducted by China since its first in October 2003, and the first since 2016.

Video courtesy of CGTN

Over the next year, several autonomous Tianzhou and crewed Shenzhou missions will take place to build up the outpost. Two laboratory modules are slated to launch sometime in 2022.

The space station will be constructed in orbit in a “T” shape configuration with the two additional modules, each 14.4 meters long.

Taikonauts and potentially astronauts from other countries are expected to use these the laboratory modules to conduct scientific experiments in orbit similar to astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS.

The first module is called Wentian (quest for the heavens) and the second is Mengtian (dreaming of the heavens).

These will be attached to the Tianhe core module, initially on the forward port before a small arm will move it to either the port or starboard side.

At some point, China is expected to launch a Hubble-class telescope called Xuntian (heavenly cruiser) which will co-orbit with the Chinese space station. It’s launch is expected in 2024 and it will be able to periodically dock with the outpost for maintenance and upgrades.

Video courtesy of SciNews

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Another 60 Starlink internet satellites orbited by SpaceX

April 29th 2021 at 08:30
SpaceX launched its 25th batch of Starlink internet satellites at 11:44 p.m. EDT April 28 (03:44 UTC April 29), 2021. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX launched its 25th batch of Starlink internet satellites at 11:44 p.m. EDT April 28 (03:44 UTC April 29), 2021. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX launched its 25th batch of Starlink internet satellites to join its ever-growing constellation in low Earth orbit as the company continues its push for global coverage.

Liftoff atop a Falcon 9 took place at 11:44 p.m. EDT April 28 (03:44 UTC April 29), 2021, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The first stage, core B1060-7, was on its seventh flight and landed on the drone ship “Just Read The Instructions” less than 10 minutes later.

While the second stage reached orbit after about nine minutes, it coasted in orbit for about 35 minutes before briefly igniting its engine again to circularize its trajectory. Then about 20 minutes after that, the 60 Starlink satellites were deployed.

The Falcon 9 soars skyward into the dark Florida skies. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

The Falcon 9 soars skyward into the dark Florida skies. Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

The constellation of satellites are nearing full connectivity and after twenty eight launches, continuous coverage is expected to be achieved, according to Gwen Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX. 

The Federal Communication Commission recently approved a modification to the internet provider allowing Starlink to move its future satellites to an altitude of 550 kilometers despite the objections of Amazon and other companies.

The concern from other satellite networks is possible signal interference from the growing constellation. The FCC’s approval arrived just ahead of this launch, as SpaceX reached approximately 1,400 satellites in orbit and would have possibly had to suspend further launches until the modification approval was granted.

Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

Credit: Theresa Cross / Spaceflight Insider

Starlink requested that once 1,584 satellites are in orbit, the next 2,814 satellites could orbit at an altitude of just under 570 kilometers, a split from SpaceX’s previous intention of an altitude above 1,100 kilometers. 

Despite numerous objections to SpaceX’s proposed modifications from other providers, currently and intended, the FCC concluded there would be no signal interference in its approval of SpaceX’s modification request.

The Federal Communication Commission also requests SpaceX report twice yearly any “near misses” including those in the past six months. The FCC also would like a count of Starlink satellites that re-entered the earth’s atmosphere as well as ones that were discarded.

Video courtesy of SpaceX

The post Another 60 Starlink internet satellites orbited by SpaceX appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

Starship SN15 performs two static fire tests within 24 hours

April 28th 2021 at 19:30
Starship SN15 performs a static fire in advance of its 10-kilometer hop and landing flip maneuver. Credit: Louis Balderas Jr. / @LabPadre

Starship SN15 performs a static fire in advance of its 10-kilometer hop and landing flip maneuver. Credit: Louis Balderas Jr. / @LabPadre

SpaceX’s latest and improved version of Starship, SN15, has entered the static fire phase of its testing campaign with two recent firings of its Raptor engines in the last 24 hours.

Monday saw the much-awaited first test go off without a hitch, with Elon Musk stating on Twitter that the static fire was completed and the company is preparing for a flight later this week.

The April 2021 super Moon rises over Starship SN15 and the max-q nosecone testing structure at SpaceX's South Texas rocket facility. Credit: Nicholas D'Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

The April 2021 super Moon rises over Starship SN15 and the max-q nosecone testing structure at SpaceX’s South Texas rocket facility. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

However, road closures for the following Tuesday did remain in place with another round of overpressure notices delivered to local residents, and SN15 breathed to life once again in a somewhat shorter-duration test possibly involving less than all three Raptor engines.

Musk returned to Twitter to state that this was a header tank test and that all looked good.

This could mean Monday’s test was a launch static fire while Tuesday’s test was more of a landing burn static fire as the header tanks are used to supply landing propellants.

A road closure for Wednesday remained in place, although as of this writing it does not appear SpaceX used it as it was a backup for Tuesday’s test.

Two further closures have just recently been posted by the Cameron County website for Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. CDT and Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CDT in support of the associated temporary flight restrictions currently in place for those days.

Per the filed documents they are flight opportunity closures, but without an FAA license issued yet, they and the TFRs serve more as a placeholder for those dates should approval happen by then.

The Flight Termination System which is a standard indicator for imminent flight has not been installed yet, either, along with no word of an FAA inspector presence for the flight windows.

Starship SN15. Credit: Nicholas D'Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

As is usual with Starship testing, the timeline of events has become somewhat unclear moving forward. Stay tuned for more updates as they occur.

Meanwhile in between tests, progress at the Orbital Launch Site continues at breakneck speed with the launch integration tower superstructure steadily rising from the ground and two ground support equipment tanks made of repurposed Starship hardware installed.

Back at the build facility, the High Bay is unusually empty with the scrapping of pathfinder Super Heavy BN1 complete and SN16 taking shape in the nearby Mid Bay.

The blunt Starship nosecone testing structure that is believed to be a max-q simulation stand was also moved to the suborbital testing facility before Starship SN15’s static fire tests and the use of it remains to be seen.

The Starship nosecone inside, believed to be that of one of the scrapped SN12 to SN14 models, will likely be pressurized and then subjected to the simulated forces of the most stressful part of an orbital launch.

Starship SN15, right, and the max-q nosecone testing structure. Credit: Nicholas D'Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

Starship SN15, right, and the max-q nosecone testing structure. Credit: Nicholas D’Alessandro / Spaceflight Insider

The post Starship SN15 performs two static fire tests within 24 hours appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

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