Spaceflight is tough, and as the push continues to build cheaper spacecraft, we need to remember why spacecraft are usually so expensive. It’s all about reliability, because there is often an incredibly narrow margin in which these vehicles operate, and sometimes it can take very little to end their missions.
DMSP-19 stopped communicating last February, and yesterday the USAF announced they were discontinuing efforts to contact it. Less than half way through its primary mission, DMSP-19 is dead. The problem is believed to be something in its power system, but there are very few clues to go on. The spacecraft is still intact and tracked by radar, but it is derelict now. What’s really frustrating is knowing how thin this leaves our margins for adequate weather forecasting. DMSP and its civilian cousin POES was supposed to be followed by the NPOESS constellation, but that has been cancelled. Just one element, the gapfiller NPP Suomi, was launched. Today, NOAA and NASA are pressing forward with their part of NPOESS, now called JPSS, but the military side, DWSS, was cancelled and so they will be partnering with the Europeans instead to get adequate coverage. The USAF still has one more DMSP spacecraft as a ground spare, but after that they will no new weather satellites of their own in the pipeline, and there is still no plan to change that state of affairs.
Meanwhile, in Japan, controllers are attempting to learn the fate of their latest x-ray space observatory, Hitomi. It, too, stopped communicating. It was still in its commissioning phase when communications stopped, and now the USAF has reported tracking at least five objects around it. Satellite spotters report seeing its brightness vary in a very predictable way, which means it’s tumbling out of control. This would account for the difficulty in communicating; Japanese controllers have been able to downlink a few snippets of telemetry, but they were very brief as it cannot maintain a lock on the ground with its dish antenna. JAXA doesn’t give up easily, but this one is almost certainly a goner. With debris around it, it’s probably suffered an explosion of some kind. Not quite enough to kill it, but enough to adjust its orbit slightly and set it spinning. Likely suspects include the propulsion system and the batteries. The only thing ruled out at present is a collision with a tracked object; the USAF recorded no objects with a trajectory that could have intersected it. It’s very sad, and I hope they got insurance.
On a more positive note, Progress M-29M, the last of its series, has departed the ISS (and will deorbit in a few weeks, after being used for a number of experiments involving spinning it to create artificial gravity), and its replacement, Progress MS-02, has launched towards the ISS. It is the second of the latest generation of Progress spacecraft, the 63rd to fly to the ISS, and carries production number 432. It launched today aboard a Soyuz-2-1a from Baikonur Cosmodrome.