Earth and Moon, Together Again, from Chang’e 5-T1

Chang’e 5-T1 is really a test flight, not a scientific flight; its primary goal is to validate the return capsule and heat shield for an upcoming lunar robotic sample return mission (planned for 2017).  But that doesn’t mean it can’t enjoy the view while it’s up there:

change5t1-earthmoon

I really am a sucker for Earth-Moon photos.  ;-)  There are surprisingly few that have both Earth and Moon together without someone compositing two frames together.  This is definitely one of the lovelier ones, with the Moon seeming unnaturally large because it’s so much closer to the spacecraft than Earth.  Thank you, China, and good luck on your upcoming missions!

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It’s not all bad; two successful launches

The Antares failure was disappointing, of course, but don’t despair, space fans — there’s good stuff too!  This week has also seen two flawless launches.  The first, just a few hours after the Antares failure, was a Progress supply run to the ISS, launched aboard a Soyuz FG from Baikonur Cosmodrome.  This was Progress M-25M, making the 57th Progress flight to the ISS.

It then docked with the station’s Pirs module, after flying a new trajectory that allowed it to carry an additional 660 pounds of cargo — though probably its most important cargo is 1,940 pounds of propellant that will later be loaded onto Zvezda.  (That won’t happen until it has an opportunity to relocate to the aft port, which is the only one equipped for propellant transfer.  Progress modules typically stay at station much longer than American cargo vehicles do, often staying up for many months and only departing when they need to make way for another.)  YouTube user Trent Faust made a nice time lapse of the docking (which spares you watching the 30 minute unedited version, and comes with a lovely soundtrack that Trekkies will recognize):

And then yesterday, from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Atlas V completed its fiftieth mission.  To date, it has enjoyed an enviable flight record, with only one partial failure in its entire history; in 2007, the Centaur upper stage cut off prematurely, leaving the payload of two naval observation satellites for the NRO in suboptimal orbits.  The two satellites were able to correct their orbits and are still in operation today, although they are expected to have a reduced lifespan due to that early propellant consumption.  Yesterday’s flight placed GPS IIF-8 into orbit, maintaining the GPS Block IIF constellation.  There are some lovely rocketcam shots towards the end of the video.

Since it’s not a classified mission, ULA could provide coverage for the entire flight.  This edited highlights video concludes with a lovely shot of the departing satellite at the very end.

This is the fourth and final GPS Block IIF launch this year, and the eighth overall.  There will be two more next year, leaving two spacecraft left, with launch dates TBD.  The next generation of GPS satellites is already in production; GPS Block IIIA, currently set to fly no earlier than 2016.  Block IIIA was authorized over a decade ago, but has suffered a lot of delays; Block IIF is a gapfiller to maintain capabilities until the new and improved system can become operational.

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Catastrophic launch failure for Cygnus-Antares

ORB-3 “Deke Slayton” will not be reaching orbit.  :-(  In the first failure for the Commercial Access To Space program that manages the two commercial cargo carriers to the ISS, the Antares rocket exploded above Wallops Island this evening, just fifteen seconds into the flight.  The solid upper stage appears to catch fire in the conflagration, resulting in a quite spectacular accident.  I very much doubt there will be much salvageable from the Cygnus spacecraft; it’s quite a big explosion.  Very unfortunate for both NASA and the Orbital Sciences team.

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SCRUB & reset for Tuesday: Cygnus ORB-3 “Deke Slayton” flight delayed

With Dragon safely down to Earth, it’s time for Cygnus to fly — unfortunately, last night’s Antares launch (set to debut a new upper stage booster) had to scrub due to an idiot.  Weather was great, all systems were go, but unfortunately a sailboat entered the exclusion zone and did not leave until the launch window expired.  (Sailboats are not generally known for speed, unfortunately.)  They’ve reset and will try again today.

The Cygnus spacecraft is named for the first head of NASA’s astronaut office and one of the last crew to fly aboard Apollo, Deke Slayton.  He had been selected as one of the original Mercury astronauts, but a previously undiagnosed heart condition had grounded him and he’d been assigned instead to head up the newly formed astronaut office.  Thus, he was the man who decided who would first set foot on the Moon, and all the other crew assignments through the Apollo and Skylab programs, before relaxed requirements finally allowed him to fly in 1975, at the age of 51, setting a record for astronaut age that would not be broken until John Young flew at age 53 in 1983.  (The record is currently held by John Glenn, whose second spaceflight was at the age of 77.)  Slayton died of brain cancer in 1993.

This follows Orbital Sciences’ tradition of naming their capsules for deceased astronauts important to the history of commercial spaceflight; after retiring from NASA, Slayton served as president of Space Solutions, Inc, which launched the world’s first privately funded rocket to reach space, the suborbital Conestoga 1.  This blazed a trail that Orbital Sciences itself would later follow with the Pegasus, the first privately-funded rocket to reach orbit.

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CRS-4 Dragon Capsule Comes Home

Dragon left the Station last Saturday.  Here’s the unberthing video; watch the sunrise just after Dragon separates from the node, and the first burn of its engines after release, seen from the camera on the end effector of the SSRMS:

The capsule later splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, laden with 3,300 pounds of cargo, including a group of mice.  At 34 days, 13 hours and 49 minutes (from liftoff to splashdown), this sets a new duration record for the Dragon.  This now gives the type second place in flight duration for a reusable spacecraft; Shuttle maxed out at 17 days, and the current duration record for X-37 is over two years.  I’m not sure how long Dragon could theoretically remain on orbit; being solar powered it isn’t constrained by fuel cell reactants like Shuttle was, but there are other considerations and I just don’t know what its limit is.  There hasn’t been much reason to challenge it to date, but its crewed successor would need to last at least six months to compete favorably with Soyuz, so I would presume it can manage at least that (and ideally, much longer).

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Chang’e 5 launch video now available!

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China’s first lunar swingby and the first commercial lunar mission are on their way!

Chang’e-5-T1, which is a lunar swingby mission that looks very much like a dry-run for a manned mission as it uses a return capsule based on the Shenzhou descent module (only smaller), blasted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center today.  The mission profile is strongly reminiscent of the Zond lunar swingby missions of the late 1960s, where the Soviets lobbed modified Soyuz descent modules around the Moon in the run-up to a manned mission.  Unfortunately, their larger rocket (necessary for the heavier crewed flight) never entered service, and the capsules found it trickier than expected to nail the double-skip reentry; only one made a survivable entry, and because it was off-target, the tracking ships transmitted a self-destruct signal to prevent capture by hostile nations.  China is likely preparing to do what the USSR was trying to do, and become the second nation to send humans to the Moon.

You may have noticed there was no Chang’e 4; this is because Chang’e 4 was a backup for Chang’e 3.  Since that mission achieved its objectives of landing on the Moon, the spare was not required.  Chang’e 5-T1, meanwhile, is actually a test vehicle in preparation for the real Chang’e 5, which will fly in 2017 and will include a robotic lander and sample return system.

Meanwhile, hitchhiking on the rocket was the 4M spacecraft.  Strapped to the Long March 3C/G2 rocket’s upper stage, the 4M spacecraft is the first commercial mission sent into deep space, built by European company LuxSpace.  It will send human-readable messages on amateur radio frequencies for the duration of its mission, as the upper stage flies past the Moon and into heliocentric orbit.  In addition, it carries an instrument for measuring radiation.  It is not really intended as a scientific instrument, though, but rather as a curiosity to encourage amateurs and students around the world to become involved in spaceflight as the industry becomes more accessible and the projects more achievable by the amateur.

This was the first flight of the Long March 3C/G2 vehicle.  I’ll post a launch video if/when one becomes available.  ;-)

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