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.
Tianzhou-1 has docked with the unoccupied Tiangong-2 station and completed an on-orbit refueling demonstration. The entire operation took five days. Tianzhou-1, which is loaded with inert bags to act as mass models of station supplies, will remain at the station for a few months, conducting other tests, before undocking for a free-flight phase of the mission before it is commanded to a destructive reentry.
Tianzhou-1 is the heaviest payload ever launched by China, bigger even than the Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space stations, which speaks to the high aspirations they have for their subsequent stations. They are planning something substantial, and capable of continuous occupation. Tianzhou itself is designed to supply the needs of three crewmembers (in food, water, supplies, and breathable air) for a full month.
Yesterday didn’t just see the launch of Soyuz MS-04; the Chinese also launched Tianzhou-1, the experimental first model of their new autonomous cargo vehicle to support their crewed space station program. Tianzhou-1 will dock several times with the now-uncrewed Tiangong-2 space station to validate the performance of the docking system and its ability to offload propellants into the station (a feature that has only ever been available in two other cargo vessels, Progress and Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle). This launch occurred using a Long March 7 rocket flying out of the new Wengchang Space Center on Hainan Island. Both the Long March 7 and Wengchang were built largely with the crewed program in mind; Hainan is much further south than any other Chinese launch centers, improving the available upmass. Long March 7 will be used to fly both Tianzhou and Shenzhou (the crewed vehicle).
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. 😉