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SpaceX to fly NASA's reconnaissance mission to Jovian moon Europa
by Chandrakant Isi
Elon Musk's SpaceX has bagged another contract from NASA. The private space exploration company has been awarded approximately $178 million to fly the upcoming Europa Clipper mission on its Falcon Heavy rocket. That's significantly cost effective compared to NASA's in-house Space Launch System (SLS) that burns around $2 billion per launch. The Europa Clipper mission is expected to take off in 2024 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Europa is one of the most fascinating heavenly bodies in our solar system. The Jovian moon has been on the radar of astronomers due to the vast ocean underneath its icy shell. It is one of the most likely places in our solar system to harbor life as we know it. Hence, NASA has been planning the Europa Clipper mission to closely study this Jovian moon and scout for possible landing sites for future lander missions.
The Europa Clipper spacecraft will be equipped with several instruments to study if this icy moon harbors conditions suitable for life. The reconnaissance mission will focus on capturing high-resolution images of Europa's surface and detect signs of geological activity. The onboard spectrography sensors will try to determine the moon's composition. NASA also hopes to measure the thickness of Europa's icy shell and the depth and salinity of the sub-surface ocean.
Based on current data, Europa's ice shell probably has a depth of 10 to 15 miles. Below that lies an ocean with depths of whopping 40 to 100 miles. To put things in perspective, although Europa's diameter is only one-fourth to that of Earth, it may hold twice as much water compared to our home planet.
In addition to this latest contract, SpaceX recently won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to build a lunar lander. However, it has been put on hold after Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GOA) over NASA's favorable treatment to SpaceX among other things.
TWIRL 19: SpaceX set to launch Transporter-2 satellite mission
by Paul Hill
In the upcoming week, SpaceX is expected to launch its Transporter-2 mission carrying several satellites as part of a rideshare. Roscosmos plans to launch the Progress MS-17 mission which will deliver cargo to the International Space Station, and a Starsem Soyuz rocket will try to orbit 36 OneWeb internet satellites
Tuesday, June 29
The first mission of the week will come from SpaceX with its Transporter-2 rideshare mission. A Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket will launch several payloads to Sun-synchronous orbit. Aboard will be the Kleos Polar Vigilance Mission consisting of four satellites, at least four NuSats for Satellogic, YAM 3, Mars Demo 1, and a Vigoride CubeSate carrier with Skycraft, TROPICS Pathfinder, Sen EarthTV, and IRIS-A. This mission was also mentioned in last week’s TWIRL installment with the launch date set at June 25 but it looks like that slipped.
Wednesday, June 30
Roscosmos will be launching its trusty Soyuz 2.1a rocket in the early hours (local time) on Wednesday carrying the Progress MS-17 mission. This is the 78th Progress cargo delivery ship heading for the International Space Station. It will remain connected to the space station acting as an expansion of the Russian Orbital Segment for around 179 days before being undocked. Following the launch, Progress MS-17 will spend 3 hours and 20 minutes getting to the space station before it automatically docks.
Thursday, July 1
On Thursday, the private company, Starsem, will launch a Soyuz 2.1b rocket carrying 36 OneWeb internet satellites. Similarly to SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, the OneWeb constellation can beam internet connectivity back down to the planet. One instance where OneWeb’s satellites will be used will be on airplanes following a deal the firm made with SatixFy. The Canadian military will also benefit from the satellites following a deal OneWeb made with ROCK Networks which serves the Canadian military.
It’s was a bit quiet last week in terms of actual rocket launches but the Pion-NKS 1 satellite managed to launch successfully.
TWIRL 18: SpaceX to deliver missions to Sun-synchronous orbit
by Paul Hill
Following an exciting week where we saw three Chinese astronauts arrive at their space station for the first time, we have a less certain week ahead. There could be eight rocket launches in the upcoming week, however, only two of these missions have a definite launch time, the rest are listed as No Earlier Than. If these missions don’t launch, next week could be pretty quiet.
Monday, June 21
The first mission that could take off on Monday is Rocket Lab’s STP-27RM mission. The customer for this mission is the U.S. Air Force which is having its Monolith satellite launched, equipped with a space weather instrument, atop an Electron rocket. It’s expected that this mission will demonstrate the ability of small satellites to carry large aperture payloads. It will launch from Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Wallops Island, Virginia.
The second launch of the day will be an Iranian Zoljanah rocket carrying the Nahid 1R satellite into a geosynchronous orbit. The rocket will take off from the Imam Khomeini Space Launch Center in Semnan. This mission was delayed from March. It's also marked as No Earlier Than so it may not take off on Monday.
Wednesday, June 23
The third mission of the week comes from Virgin Orbit and is also marked as No Earlier Than. This STP-27VPA mission will see the LauncherOne rocket perform an air-launch from a Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl. It will carry six CubeSats into orbit for the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program, the Dutch military, and SatRevolution. The U.S. Air Force has three CubeSats launching as part of the DoD’s Space Test Program’s Rapid Agile Launch (RALI) initiative, the Netherlands’ satellite is a military satellite called BRIK II, and SatRevolution’s satellites are called STORK 4 and STORK 5, and make up an optical satellite constellation.
Friday, June 25
Friday has the potential to be the busiest launch day, however, three of the five launches are marked as No Earlier Than.
The first launch on Friday is that of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket will be carrying commercial payloads for Benchmark Space Systems and AstroGrams. The mission will also deploy a Spinnaker 3 dragsail prototype. In its first launch, the Alpha rocket will carry several projects from the Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission (DREAM) programme which gives students and small companies a way to put their payloads in space. It is marked as No Earlier Than.
Next up we have a Rocket Lab Electron rocket carrying two BlackSky satellites. They will join the BlackSky constellation which can produce 1000 images per day as still or as videos. Each satellite has a lifespan of three years and the full constellation should consist of 60 satellites.
The final No Earlier Than mission on Friday is India’s GSLV-F10 mission which will launch the EOS 3 satellite for India’s space agency, ISRO. EOS 3 will provide continuous remote sensing observations over India from a geostationary orbit.
On Friday, a Roscosmos Soyuz 2.1b will launch the Pion-NKS 1 satellite for the Russian military. It is described as an electronic intelligence-gathering satellite. Pion-NKS 1 is a new type of reconnaissance satellite that will be used for naval surveillance.
The final mission is SpaceX’s Transporter-2. A Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket will launch several payloads to Sun-synchronous orbit as part of the rideshare mission. Aboard will be the Kleos Polar Vigilance Mission consisting of four satellites, at least four NuSats for Satellogic, YAM 3, Mars Demo 1, and a Vigoride CubeSate carrier with Skycraft, TROPICS Pathfinder, Sen EarthTV, and IRIS-A. This mission was moved forward from July but delayed from June 24.
The first mission we mentioned last week was Northrop Grumman’s Minotaur I rocket carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. This launch successfully went ahead.
The exciting mission last week was the one carrying Chinese astronauts to the Chinese Space Station. Just hours after launch, they arrived at the space station. You can see clips from their arrival below.
Three Yaogan-30 remote sensing satellites were also launched from China earlier in the week. You can see the launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center below.
NASA Crew-1 Dragon set to return to Earth with Saturday splashdown
by Paul Hill
The American space agency NASA has announced that it will be live streaming the return to Earth for the NASA SpaceX Crew-1 mission from the International Space Station. NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi are set to splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico at 11:36 a.m. EDT on Saturday, May 1.
The Crew Dragon spacecraft which will be returning the astronauts is dubbed Resilience and will undock from the ISS at 5:55 p.m. following the hatch closure at 3:50 p.m. NASA TV will stream the hatch closure from 3:30 p.m. and the undocking from 5:30 p.m. It will then provide continuous coverage until the following morning when the craft finally lands back in the gulf. Following the return, NASA will hold a news conference from the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston at 1:30 p.m. You can find the NASA TV stream on the agency’s website.
According to NASA, the undocking and splashdown were originally slated for Wednesday, April 28, but due to weather conditions expected in the splashdown zones, the return has been delayed. The agency and its commercial partner SpaceX will continue to monitor the weather forecasts to ensure that the return can still go ahead on Friday night.
There are currently 11 people on the space station which is several more than we usually see up there at any one time. This is because the SpaceX vehicles take four astronauts up at a time rather than the three that Soyuz vehicles are able to carry and the arrival of two crews in quick succession. The latest crew arrived at the ISS on April 21 aboard the Crew-2 Dragon.
Crew-2 Dragon mission successfully launches towards ISS
by Paul Hill
NASA has announced that astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew-2 Dragon are now in orbit following an early morning launch and are headed for the International Space Station (ISS). This is the second time a SpaceX Crew Dragon craft is taking astronauts to the ISS.
The rocket, which launched at 5:49 a.m. EDT on Friday from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is carrying NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Their time aboard the ISS will last six months while they perform various science experiments and ISS maintenance.
You can see the launch highlights and post-launch coverage in the video below:
Commenting on the launch, NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk said:
The astronauts are set to autonomously dock at the ISS’ Harmony module nearly 24-hours after launch at 5:10 a.m. EDT on Saturday. The docking, hatch opening, and welcoming ceremony will be live-streamed on NASA’s website. Once aboard, there will be 11 astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS but four of them are set to depart back for Earth after a couple of days so it shouldn’t be too cramped up there.