It’s been a while since I’ve posted; work’s been crazy busy! So I’ll quick catch you up with some of what’s gone up and down since I last posted:
On September 17, the latest Dragon capsule (CRS-12) returned from the ISS with a two tons of research material and hardware on board, including a population of laboratory mice sent into space to study effect on eyesight and movement.
On September 21, a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome placed the latest element of the GLONASS M navigation constellation into orbit.
On September 23, an Atlas V out of Vandenburg Air Force Base carried the classified NROL-42 into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Obviously, they won’t tell us much about the payload, but the mission patch and the launch site both suggest a polar orbiting spacecraft. The size of the fairing and quantity of boosters both suggest a very big spacecraft, which is fairly typical for spy satellites. It is believed to be a signals intelligence spacecraft, which means its job will likely be to intercept communications. Maybe. 😉
Lastly, the Tianzhou 1 spacecraft returned to Earth in pieces last Friday. It was supposed to; it was an experimental robotic resupply and refueling spacecraft similar in function to Progress, which also undergoes a destructive reentry at the end of its mission. Tianzhou 1 completed a successful mission docking with the uninhabited Tiangong 2 space station, transferring propellant, and then later undocking and safely disposing of itself. Tiangong 2 is not expected to host any more human occupants, but remains in orbit as a procedures testbed for ground controllers. It is not clear when the next space station will fly; China intends to greatly increase the size and functionality of their stations, but they have had a major setback with the failure of the last Long March 5 rocket. This is the heaviest rocket they’ve built to date, and is intended to place the major elements of their new modular space station in orbit, but with a 50/50 operational record after two flights, some more work is needed before it can carry such valuable cargo.
Sunday evening/Monday morning, Shenzhou 11 blasted off with two crew on board, and today it linked up with the Tiangong-2 space station, China’s newest human spaceflight program. Aboard are astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong; the two men plan to spend just over a month at the station. Previous Shenzhou missions have carried three crew; this mission downsized to two in order to allow a longer stay due to a reduced need for consumables. As of the time I write this, they have not yet ingressed the Tiangong-2 station, but are awaiting pressure checks. They will be the first crew of the new station.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that I have heard not a peep about this in the regular media. I almost missed the story entirely. Human spaceflight! How is this not getting reported? Are we already so jaded with respect to human spaceflight? Heck, I’d think that in the current election season, it would make a welcome distraction.
So, here comes that distraction. 😉 The launch of Shenzhou 11:
And here’s docking:
China’s second space station (and the world’s eleventh) has just been placed into orbit! It was boosted successfully by a CZ-2F-T2 rocket early this morning. This will be the first Chinese station designed for resupply, although China still considers this all experimental work in preparation for a much larger station to come later.
A crewed flight will follow later, as will an unmanned flight by a robotic spacecraft comparable in mission to the Russian Progress (capable of both resupply and refueling).
There is a Vega launch expected shortly from Kourou, French Guiana; if all goes well, I will be able to post that video tomorrow night. 😉
As you may have already heard, one of the major payloads aboard the CRS-8 Dragon mission is the Bigelow Expandable Activy Module (BEAM) — an inflatable habitat delivered in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk section that will be berthed at the ISS and create its first new habitable volume since 2011’s delivery of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module aboard Endeavour. This is all that remains of the original TransHab concept, which was cancelled under the redefined “ISS Core Complete” program devised under the Bush administration. (The Bush administration had trimmed America’s ISS responsibilities in order to redirect effort to a lunar program. Alas, that did not pan out, as it required more funding than that, and Congress was not so cooperative.) Bigelow Aerospace salvaged the concept, purchasing the intellectual property and whatever hardware had been assembled from NASA, and launched two experimental inflatable spacecraft to test the engineering. But Bigelow has mostly been otherwise tight-lipped. The two experimental Genesis spacecraft remain in orbit today, and apart from signing a deal with Boeing to provide CST-100 Starliner flights to future inflatable space hotels, so far there has been little for the public to judge.
Falcon 9 first stage landing, and CRS-8 Dragon floating away from second stage after separation. The white thing in the middle of the Dragon’s “trunk” is the BEAM; the two tiny dark gray circles on it are RMS grapple fixtures to allow the SSRMS to pull it out of Dragon and mount it to the station.
That’s all changing. With the arrival of BEAM at the ISS (although installation isn’t planned for a while), Bigelow Aerospace apparently feels confident enough to start talking some more about their other plans. They’ve spoken a bit about building inflatable space hotels, with a BEAM module servicing as airlock. Today those plans got a whole lot more concrete: they’ve purchased an Atlas V in its 552 configuration (which so far has never flown; the “2” means they’ll require a two-engine Centaur upper stage, which so far no payload has required) with five solid rocket motors. The new module will be called XBASE: eXpandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement, and they’re saying it’ll launch in 2020. As befits their tight-lipped legacy, Bigelow Aerospace was a bit cagey as to the module’s destination — it could go to the ISS or it could be free-flying. Most likely, that decision is pending additional discussions with NASA, but clearly they intend to go ahead in any case, with or without NASA. For now, they have funding from NASA for a study contract to utilize one of their proposed B330 modules as XBASE; we’ll have to watch closely to see what comes of this.
42 years ago today, on May 25, 1973, the first Saturn 1B to launch from LC39 lifted off. To adapt it to the structures built for the larger Saturn V rocket, the Saturn 1B stood atop a framework nicknamed the “milkstool”. The crew of Commander Pete Conrad, Joseph Kerwin, and Paul Weitz successfully lifted off and rendezvoused with Skylab, which had suffered damage during launch. Their first priority was to fix the damage, and erect a “parasol” of reflective film to reduce solar heating, as it had lost one of its radiators during launch. Their mission was completely successful, and Skylab would host two more crews before ultimately returning to Earth.