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Found: One European Mars Lander, No Longer Intact

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Oct-2016 (Updated: 21-Oct-2016 07:15 PM)

Imagery from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars has located the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Schiaparelli lander.  ESA lost contract with the lander two days ago mid-way through its descent to the planet's surface.  The image suggests that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of 2-4 kilometers, probably because the thrusters cut off early.  It "may have" exploded on contact with the surface since the fuel tanks would have been full, but ESA cautions that these are only preliminary interpretations.

The image was taken by the low-resolution CTX camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been orbiting Mars since 2006.  MRO will make another pass over the site next week and use its high-resolution HiRISE camera to image the area again. 

Today's image has a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface compared to an image taken in May.  ESA concluded that one feature is Schiaparelli's 12-meter diameter parachute and the other is from the lander's impact with the surface.

Top:  mosaic of images of Schiaparelli landing area from MRO and NASA's Mars Odyssey.
Bottom: MRO imagery of surface of Mars showing before (left) and after (right) images of location where ESA's Schiaparelli lander impacted.
Caption credit:  condensed from Emily Lakdawalla's Planetary Society blog.

An ESA press release stated: "Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometres, therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 km/h. ... It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.  These preliminary interpretations will be refined following further analysis."

The "fuzzy dark patch" where it impacted the surface is about 1 kilometer away from the parachute. The impact area is 5.4 kilometers west of its intended landing point and within the planned landing ellipse.

Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society calculated that Schiaparelli impacted 54 kilometers away from NASA's Opportunity rover's current location on the edge of Endeavour crater.

Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program, a cooperative program with Russia.   There are four spacecraft in the program:  the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander, launched together earlier this year, and a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020 (delayed from 2018).

Schiaparelli's purpose was to test entry, descent, and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the 2020 mission.  At a press conference yesterday, ESA Director General Jan Woerner said he was happy with the mission even if Schiaparelli did not make a survivable landing since its purpose was to test these technologies.   It did enter the Mars atmosphere correctly, descend, jettison its heat shield and deploy its parachute. Something happened right at the time the parachute should have jettisoned.  What happened remains a mystery, but ExoMars Project Manger Don McCoy expressed confidence yesterday that after fully analyzing data transmitted from Schiaparelli to TGO during the descent "we will have no doubt" about what transpired. The imagery from MRO will certainly help in the quest for answers.

Woerner is also enthusiastic about the mission because TGO is in its proper orbit, able to serve as a communications link with the 2020 lander/rover as well as to conduct its scientific mission to study trace gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere that could provide information on whether life ever existed there.   He is optimistic that the ministers of ESA's member states will similarly see the mission as a success since more money is needed to complete the 2020 portion of the mission, on the order of 300 million Euros.

The United States is the only country to unequivocally make successful landings on Mars.   The Soviet Union sent four landers to Mars in the 1970s (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6 and Mars 7).  Only Mars 3 transmitted a signal back to Earth after landing and it lasted less than 20 seconds.  Britain's Beagle 2 traveled to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express orbiter in 2003.  Contact was lost before it entered the Martian atmosphere.  MRO also located that spacecraft on the surface just last year.  It was only partially deployed and unable to communicate back to Earth.

NASA has sent eight landers to Mars, seven successfully:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity.  One, Mars Polar Lander, failed, probably because of a similar problem as Schiaparelli -- early termination of the retrorockets.


ESA's Woerner: "I'm Happy" with ExoMars Even Though Fate of Lander Still Unknown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Oct-2016 (Updated: 20-Oct-2016 06:39 AM)

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner painted a highly positive picture of ESA's ExoMars 2016 mission this morning even though the agency still does not know the fate of one of the two spacecraft -- the Schiaparelli lander.  Stressing that Schiaparelli was a test, Woerner focused on the successful insertion into orbit of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) that not only will study the Martian atmosphere, but serve as a communications relay for a planned rover ESA will launch in 2020. 

ExoMars is a cooperative program between ESA and Russia's Roscosmos.  NASA originally planned to partner with ESA, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion, so ESA turned to Russia instead.  A total of four spacecraft -- two launched in 2016 and two in 2020 (delayed from 2018) -- comprise the program.

TGO and Schiaparelli are ExoMars 2016.  They were launched in March 2016 and traveled together to Mars. They separated on October 16, three days before Mars arrival, for the final legs of their journeys. They reached Mars yesterday.  TGO went into orbit as planned, but contact with Schiaparelli was lost before it reached the surface.

Artist's illustration of the separation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter from the Schiaparelli lander.  Image credit: ESA

TGO has two functions: to study traces gases, especially methane, in the Martian atmosphere, that could provide clues as to whether life ever existed there, and to serve as a communications relay for a Russian lander and European rover that will be launched in 2020.  The lander and rover are ExoMars 2020.

Woerner and other ESA officials speaking at a press conference at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstat, Germany this morning stressed that TGO is the "cornerstone" of both ExoMars 2016 and ExoMars 2020 and it is fine.  Schiaparelli was a test of entry, descent and landing technologies that will be needed for ExoMars 2020 and although its ultimate fate is not yet determined, it did successfully enter the Martian atmosphere and proceed through initial phases of descent, providing important data.

From Woerner's point of view, the overall mission is TGO plus the landing test and he is satisfied:  "I'm happy.... It's a big success."   

Andrea Accomazzo, head of ESA's Solar and Planetary Missions Division, explained that they are still analyzing the large amount of engineering data Schiaparelli transmitted to TGO during its descent.  What they know now is that Schiaparelli, also referred to as EDM -- entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module -- entered the Martian atmosphere, the heatshield worked "perfectly," and the parachutes deployed successfully following a pre-programmed set of commands. 

However, just before the parachutes were to be ejected, about 50 seconds before it would have reached the surface, the spacecraft "did not behave exactly as expected," he said.  At least some of Schiaparelli's retrorockets fired, but for only 3-4 seconds and the lander's ground radar was activated.  What happened next is undetermined, although he is confident that eventually "we will have no doubt" about what occurred.

Schiaparelli is somewhere on the surface of Mars now, whether or not it is operating.   ExoMars Program Manager Don McCoy said that its batteries should last between four and 10-12 Martian days (sols).  Although TGO could receive data from Schiaparelli during its descent, now that it is in orbit, it is not in a position to hear the lander.  Instead, an older ESA orbiter, Mars Express, and NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) will listen for signals that Schiaparelli is programmed to transmit at specific times.

As noted, ExoMars 2016 is only the first part of the ExoMars program.  The second part is the Russian lander/European rover still under development.  Woerner said that a review of the 2020 mission is scheduled for next week and acknowledged that ESA already was planning to ask its member states for more money to finish it, on the order of 300 million Euros.  He is optimistic that they will view ExoMars 2016 as a success just as he does and provide the necessary resources to complete the program.

Tense Times for ESA ExoMars and NASA Juno Teams

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016 (Updated: 19-Oct-2016 10:59 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) was hoping to announce its first successful landing on Mars today, but the fate of its Schiaparelli lander is unknown at this time.  Meanwhile NASA's Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in July, has an engine problem and, separately, went into safe mode last night. Both teams remain optimistic, but it will a tense wait until they have answers to the fate of these two spacecraft.

On the good news front, Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars 2016 program and traveled to Mars with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO).  TGO successfully went into orbit around Mars today.

Schiaparelli is a small demonstration spacecraft to test entry, descent and landing technologies for a Russian lander and ESA rover currently planned for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). ESA sometimes refers to Schiaparelli as EDM -- entry, descent, and landing demonstrator module.

Artist's illustration of Schiaparelli landing on Mars.  Image credit:  ESA

Schiaparelli and TGO separated from each other three days ago to finish their journeys on their own with Schiaparelli headed for the surface and TGO to orbit. 

TGO joins five other spacecraft currently operating in Mars orbit today:  ESA's Mars Express, India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), and three from NASA -- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Odyssey, and MAVEN.  NASA also has two rovers operating on the surface of Mars -- Opportunity and Curiosity.  NASA is the only space agency to land spacecraft on Mars that can be counted as unequivocal successes (Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity).  The Soviet Union sent four landers (Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 6 and Mars 7), but only Mars 3 sent back a signal after landing and it lasted for less than 20 seconds.  Britain's Beagle 2 lander was sent to Mars along with Mars Express in 2003, but it was never heard from after separation.  It was recently located on the surface in imagery from MRO showing that it landed in a partially deployed configuration that prevented communication.

During its descent, Schiaparelli was sending data to Mars Express and emitting a beacon that allowed its progress to be tracked by a telescope on Earth, India's Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope.  ESA knows it successfully entered the Martian atmosphere and deployed its parachutes.  Next, the "backshell" heat shield was to release, followed by retrorocket braking, and a final fall from a height of 2 meters (6 feet) protected by a crushable structure.  At some point in that sequence, the signal was lost.

If it reached the surface and is still functioning, its batteries will allow it to transmit signals for 3-7 days.  Mars Express, MRO and MAVEN will be listening.

ESA will hold a pre-scheduled news conference tomorrow, October 20, to discuss Schiaparelli and TGO from 4:00-5:00 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), which is 10:00-11:00 am local time at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. 

The mixed news from ESA -- good for TGO, uncertain for Schiaparelli -- was quickly followed by worrisome news about a completely different deep space probe, NASA's Juno.  NASA launched Juno in 2011 and the solar powered spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. 

Artist's illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft and its science instruments.  Image credit: NASA/JPL.

The initial orbit is highly elliptical, with a period of 53.5 days. The plan was to circularize it into a 14-day orbit as close as 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) above Jupiter's cloud tops for science observations.

An engine burn to change the orbit was planned for today (October 19), but an anomaly was detected in a pair of helium check valves in the engine.  Juno project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Rick Nybakken, said the valves should have opened in a few seconds, but took several minutes instead for unexplained reasons.  After consulting with spacecraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin, NASA decided to postpone the engine firing until the next opportunity on December 19.

The spacecraft already was on a path to come close to Jupiter's cloud-tops, although most of the science instruments were to be off during that pass.  Instead, the decision was made to turn all of them on to gather whatever data was possible.

However, Juno Principal Investigator Scott Bolton said a media briefing today that as Juno neared that close approach (perijove) last night, the spacecraft went into safe mode.

Spacecraft are designed to go into safe mode when an anomaly occurs and the goal is to protect the spacecraft systems and instruments while awaiting instructions from Earth.  In safe mode, all non-essential systems, including science instruments, are turned off.  Therefore no science data was acquired.

It is not all that uncommon for spacecraft to go into safe mode.  Often the problem is diagnosed by ground controllers who then upload new instructions and the mission continues.  One cannot be assured of that outcome, however.

As it is, Juno remains in orbit.  Assuming whatever caused safe mode to engage can be resolved, Bolton said today that scientists can obtain the science data they need even if the engine burn cannot be made and the orbital period is not reduced to 14 days.  It simply will take longer.

The twin anomalies underscore the increasingly trite, but nevertheless true, expression that "space is hard."

Trump Would Reinstate White House Space Council - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016 (Updated: 22-Oct-2016 12:31 PM)

UPDATED October 22, 2016 to reflect the fact that Trump no longer plans to visit Kennedy Space Center next week, as reported by Florida Today.

In an op-ed published in Space News on October 19, two advisers to Donald Trump's presidential campaign laid out the broad strokes of what a Trump space policy would look like.  Trump himself reportedly had planned to visit NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida next week as the campaign enters its final phase.  Florida is one of the battleground states that each candidate especially wants to win.  Florida Today reported on October 22, however, that those plans have changed.

The op-ed was penned by former Congressman Bob Walker and University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro.   Walker was a Pennsylvania Congressman for 20 years and is now Executive Chairman of one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, Wexler|Walker.  Earlier he was advising Ohio Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign on space issues, writing an essay in response to questions posed by Aerospace America.

While in Congress, Walker served as chairman of what is now the House Science, Space and Technology Committee when Republicans took over the House in 1995 and was one of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's inner circle.  Both men are ardent space program supporters.  Gingrich also is associated with the Trump campaign.

An op-ed in a trade publication is not the same as a statement from the candidate himself.  Florida Today had reported that Trump was planning to visit KSC on October 24 and participate in an industry roundtable.  However, it updated its report on October 22 saying that he would not visit the Space Coast after all because there was no suitable indoor venue and outdoor venues "present security concerns." The event would have been reminiscent of Gingrich's own presidential campaign in 2012 when he held an industry roundtable and made a major speech in Cocoa, FL (near KSC) laying out plans for a Moon base.

A key element espoused by Walker and Navarro in the Space News op-ed is reinstating the White House National Space Council, chaired by the Vice President.

The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act created NASA to conduct U.S. civil space activities and assigned military space efforts to DOD.  It established a White House National Aeronautics and Space Council to coordinate those activities.  Originally the President was to chair the council, but that was quickly changed to the Vice President and it operated through the first Nixon term.  Nixon abolished the Council in 1973, however, and a variety of other mechanisms were used thereafter to coordinate government space activities and provide advice to the President. 

Following the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy, Congress became so dissatisfied with how the White House was making space policy decisions, however, especially the length of time and lack of transparency, that it recreated a National Space Council (without the aeronautics component) in the 1989 NASA Authorization Act.  President George H.W. Bush signed an Executive Order shortly after taking office formally establishing it as part of his Executive Office of the President.  Chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, it had an often fractious relationship with NASA.  Mark Albrecht, who served as Executive Director for most of the Bush Administration, wrote a book with an insider's view of what transpired during those years.

Subsequent Presidents have chosen not to staff or fund the Council, although it still exists in law. Currently, national security space policy resides within the White House National Security Council and civil space policy is overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the White House Office of Management and Budget playing a major role as well.

Opinions in the space policy community about the value of such a Council run the gamut.  Opponents argue it is just one more White House entity that can say "no" to any idea, but without the clout to say "yes" and make something happen.  Supporters insist that a top-level mechanism is needed not only to effectively coordinate government civil and national security space programs, but to bring in the commercial sector and develop a holistic approach to space.

Walker and Navarro clearly share the latter opinion.  They say the Council would "end the lack of proper coordination" and "assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests."

The op-ed offers few specifics, other than to praise private sector launch vehicle development efforts and question the need for the government to duplicate such capabilities.  Overall it is a rallying cry for the need to have a strong space program based on classic arguments that it will spur invention, innovation, and economic growth and appeal to aspirational and inspirational needs:  "Americans seem to know intuitively that the destiny of a free people lies in the stars.  Donald Trump fully agrees."

Neither Trump nor his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton have space policies posted on their campaign websites.  Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms mention space activities, but only briefly.  Trump has made a number of statements in response to questions about the space program during the campaign, but they often are vague and sometimes conflict.  Clinton also has responded to questions about space, but she is invariably enthusiastic and often tells the story of how she wanted to be an astronaut herself, but at the time, females were not allowed in the astronaut corps.

Soyuz MS-02 On Its Way to ISS - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Oct-2016 (Updated: 21-Oct-2016 08:09 AM)

UPDATE, October 21, 2016:  Docking was successful at 5:52 am ET this morning.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 19, 2016: Three new crew members for the International Space Station (ISS) lifted off on time at 4:05 am ET this morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  They are expected to arrive at ISS on Friday morning on their Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft.  The launch comes just hours after two Chinese astronauts entered their own space station, Tiangong-2.

Today's launch was postponed from September 23 because of a "squeezed cable" inside the spacecraft.  Soyuz MS-02 is the second of a new version of the Soyuz spacecraft and some of the kinks are still being worked out.  The first Soyuz was launched in 1967 and the spacecraft has undergone a number of upgrades over the decades.  This MS version replaces the TMA-M variant.  The first MS launch, Soyuz MS-01, also was delayed this summer because of last minute technical issues.

Soyuz MS-02 on launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakshtan, minutes before launch on October 19, 2016 ET.  Screenshot from NASA TV.

The three crew members aboard Soyuz MS-02 are NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Rhzhikov and Andrew Borisensko.  They are taking the 2-day trajectory to ISS, rather that the shorter 6-hour route, to checkout the new spacecraft systems.  Docking is expected at 5:59 am ET on Friday.

They will be the second crew to dock at a space station this week.

Two Chinese astronauts docked with and entered their own space station, Tiangong-2, yesterday (Eastern Daylight Time-EDT). Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong were launched on Shenzhou-11 on Sunday (EDT).  They will spend 30 days aboard their 8.6 metric ton (MT) space station, China's second (Tiangong 1 was launched in 2011 and was visited by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013 respectively).  That will double the duration of the longest Chinese human spaceflight to date, the 15-day Shenzhou-10 flight in 2013.  Tiangong-1 and -2 are precursors to a 60 MT multi-modular space station China plans to have in place by 2022.

The Soyuz MS-02 crew will remain aboard the 400 MT ISS until February 2017.   ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russian, Japan, Canada and 11 European nations working through the European Space Agency (ESA).  It has been permanently occupied since December 2000 with crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules. 

The Soyuz MS-02 crew will be joining three crew members already aboard -- NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.  They are getting ready to come home in less than two weeks, having been aboard the facility since July.  Their replacements will be launched four weeks from now.  On November 15, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky will head to ISS continuing the routine do-si-do of crew arrivals and departures.

In the meantime, Orbital ATK's Cygnus OA-5 cargo spacecraft is in orbit waiting for Soyuz MS-02 to dock.  Its launch was delayed a day, from Sunday to Monday, so it missed its original arrival date this morning.  NASA decided to have it loiter in space while Soyuz MS-02 arrives and the crew has a day to acclimate itself.  Cygnus is berthed to ISS, rather than docking.   It will be grappled using the robotic Canadarm2 at about 7:05 am ET on Sunday, with berthing to an ISS port about two hours later.

NASA TV will cover the Soyuz MS-02 docking on Friday beginning at 5:15 am ET and the Cygnus berthing operation on Sunday beginning at 6:00 am ET.

GOES-R Launch Delayed Due to Hurricane Matthew Impacts - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2016 (Updated: 19-Oct-2016 09:05 AM)

NOAA announced today that the launch of the first of its new generation of weather satellites, GOES-R, will be delayed because of impacts from Hurricane Matthew.  The scheduled November 4 launch now will take place no earlier than November 16.

The revised launch date is tentative pending approval of the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, which operates Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).  GOES-R will be launched by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, which is launched from Launch Complex 41 at CCAFS.

NOAA stressed that the spacecraft itself was safe inside the Astrotech Space Operations facility in nearby Titusville, FL during the storm.  It is fine.  The delay is due to unspecified damage to launch infrastructure.  

ULA said in a tweet that the damage is "minor to moderate." 

ULA spokeswoman Lyn Chassange added via email on October 19 that the "areas hardest hit were some ground equipment at the SLC-41 Vertical Integration Facility, damage to the Mobile Service Tower doors at SLC-37 and the Delta Operations Center roof."

NOAA and the weather community are anxiously awaiting the launch of GOES-R, the first of four satellites expected to provide revolutionary capabilities to improve weather forecasting.   It is somewhat ironic that its launch is being delayed by the very type of weather system -- a hurricane -- that it is designed to track.  

Hurricane Matthew was forecast to wreak severe damage in Florida earlier this month due to very high winds and storm surge.  In the end, Florida was spared the worst case scenario.  The storm's greatest damage was in North Carolina caused by heavy rains and flooding.  Still, the Cape Canaveral area suffered winds in excess of 100 miles per hour.

Note:  This was article was updated on October 19 to include the comments from Lyn Chassange.


Antares Soars Back Into Service - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2016 (Updated: 23-Oct-2016 11:27 AM)

UPDATE, October 23, 2016:   Cygnus OA-5 was successfully berthed to the ISS this morning as planned.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 18, 2016: Orbital ATK's Antares rocket is back in service after a successful launch five hours ago from Wallops Island, VA.  The rocket delivered a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to orbit.  Cygnus will be berthed to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday after an extended period of independent flight while a new crew arrives.

The 7:40 pm ET launch on October 17 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility slipped to 7:45 pm ET, the end of the 5-minute launch window.  A commentator on NASA TV said at the time it was due to a minor engine problem.  At a post-launch press conference, however, Orbital ATK's Frank Culbertson said it was to give the launch crew one last chance to check everything over according to a tweet from Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) of Space News.

Whatever the reason for the brief delay, the launch appeared flawless when it took place.

Antares Liftoff on Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-5 Mission, October 17, 2016.  Photo Credit: NASA Wallops/Patrick Block

This is first flight of Antares since a failure almost exactly two years ago (October 28, 2014).  In the intervening time, Orbital ATK replaced the old Russian NK-33/AJ26 engines with newer Russian RD-181 engines.

The launch was delayed many times since this spring, most recently from Sunday to Monday.  It is designated OA-5, for Orbital ATK-5, even though OA-6 already has been launched.  While Antares was being re-engined, Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus cargo spacecraft on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets. OA-4 was launched in December 2015 and OA-6 in March 2016.   This mission was intended to launch in between those, hence the non-sequential numbering.

If this launch had taken place as planned on Sunday, Cygnus OA-5 would have gone directly to the ISS and been berthed there on Wednesday.  Because of the one-day delay, however, it will have to wait until Sunday because a new ISS crew (Soyuz MS-02) will be launched on Wednesday and dock on Friday.  NASA wants to wait for that to occur and the new crew to have a day to acclimate.   Cygnus will be grappled using the robotic Canadarm2 at about 7:05 am ET on Sunday and berthed to an ISS port about two hours later.

China Launches Two Crew Members to Tiangong-2 Space Station - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 18-Oct-2016 11:19 PM)

UPDATE, October 18, 2016, 3:40 pm EDT:   The two astronauts just successfully docked with Tiangong-2.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 16, 2016, EDT: Two Chinese astronauts were successfully launched to China's Tiangong-2 space station tonight.  They are expected to dock in two days.

The Long March 2F rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi desert on time at 7:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time (7:30 am Monday, October 17, local time at the launch site) sending the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft into orbit.

Liftoff of Shenzhou-11 on a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, October 16, 2016 EDT.  Photo credit:  CCTV

Aboard are astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong.  Jing, 50, is on his third spaceflight and is commander of the mission; Chen, 38, is on his first spaceflight.  The two men will remain aboard Tiangong-2 for 30 days after docking.

Jing Haipeng, Shenzhou-11 commander.  Photo credit: Xinhua

Shenzhou-11 astronaut Chen Dong. Photo credit: Xinhua

The two men will conduct a variety of experments during their 30 days on Tiangong 2, including taking ultrasound measurements for the first time in space, cultivating plants, and testing the three winners of an experimental design competition in Hong Kong for secondary students, according to Xinhua.

China provided little information about the mission until yesterday.

Although Chinese sources initially indicated this is the first of two two-man crews that will occupy Tiangong-2, more recent indications are that it will be the only one.  The next launch to the small 8.6 metric ton space station is scheduled for April 2017.  It is China's first cargo resupply spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, which will be launched on a Long March 7 from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.  It reportedly will conduct a refueling test.


What's Happening in Space Policy October 16-22, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 16-Oct-2016 06:36 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of October 16-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess until November 14. 

During the Week

At 7:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tonight, China will launch a two-man crew aboard the Shenzhou-11 (SZ-11) spacecraft from the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi desert (where it will be 7:30 am Monday),  They are headed to the new Tiangong-2 space station with docking expected in two days.  They will remain aboard for 30 days, doubling the duration of China's longest human spaceflight mission to date. Tiangong-2 is small, 8.6 metric tons (MT), compared to the 400 MT International Space Station (ISS), but it is a precursor to a larger 60 MT space station the Chinese plan to have in place in the early 2020s.

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe.  It has been permanently occupied by multinational crews rotating on 4-6 month shifts since the year 2000 and is regularly resupplied via cargo missions launched by two U.S. companies (Orbital ATK and SpaceX) and the Japanese and Russian space agencies.  The next cargo mission, Orbital ATK's OA-5,  was scheduled for launch tonight from Wallops Island, VA at 8:03 pm EDT.  At press time, however, Orbital ATK announced that the launch of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft is being postponed for 24 hours because of a bad ground support cable.  The new launch time is Monday at 7:40 pm EDT.   Cygnus OA-5 will deliver supplies, equipment and scientific experiments to the three crew members currently aboard (one each from NASA, JAXA and Roscosmos).  Cygnus is being launched with a new version of Orbital ATK's Antares rocket.  This is the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 failure.  If launched tonight, Cygnus was to arrive at ISS Wednesday morning, but with a Monday launch, arrival at ISS will be delayed a few days.  Three new ISS crew members are being launched to ISS on the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft early Wednesday morning EDT.  They are taking the 2-day route to ISS arriving on Friday.  NASA and Orbital ATK said at a press conference yesterday that if the OA-5 launch was delayed to Monday, as now has happened, they would have the Cygnus spacecraft loiter in orbit for a few days to allow the Soyuz MS-02 crew to dock first.  The Cygnus arrival is now scheduled for Sunday, October 23.  The Soyuz MS-02 crew (one American, two Russians) will restore the ISS to its usual crew complement of six.

The European Space Agency (ESA)-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) mission already had an important event today. The spacecraft is carrying a small lander, Schiaparelli, and they made the trip to Mars together.  They are three days away from Mars now and it was time for them to separate.  Separation occurred at approximately 10:30 am EDT, but was followed by a nail-biting period of time when ESA was not receiving telemetry from TGO.  That problem appears to be resolved now and the mission is proceeding as scheduled.  On Wednesday, Schiaparelli will land on Mars and TGO will enter orbit.  ESA will provide live coverage of those events and hold a press conference on Thursday.

To recap only these events (all EDT):

Today (Sunday)

  • ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter/Schiaparelli lander separation
  • Chinese launch of Shenzhou-11 with two crew members to Tiangong-2 space station at 7:30 pm EDT (usually broadcast on China's CCTV, available in English on the Internet)


  • New launch date for U.S. Orbital ATK launch of Cygnus OA-5 cargo mission to ISS, 7:40 pm EDT (broadcast on NASA TV)


  • Chinese crew arrives at Tiangong-2 (time not announced)


  • Russian Soyuz MS-02 launch to ISS from Kazakhstan with three crew members (one American, two Russian) at 4:05 am EDT (watch on NASA TV)
  • ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter enters Martian orbit and Schiaparelli lands (watch on ESA's website, 9:00 am - 4:00 pm EDT)


  • ESA press conference about ExoMars (watch on ESA's website, 4:00-5:00 am EDT)


  • Soyuz MS-02 docks at ISS (time not announced)


  • Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-5 arrival at ISS (if launch is on October 17), grapple at approximately 7:00 am EDT

Many other events are on tap this week in addition to those launches and arrivals.  Among them is the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Division on Planetary Sciences (DPS) in Pasadena, CA.  This year it is combined with a meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress.  Exciting discoveries and other results from planetary exploration missions are the staple of this conference.  It starts today and runs through Friday.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA) is having an interesting discussion on Tuesday morning at the Newseum in Washington, DC.  CSBA challenged teams from four prominent Washington think tanks to develop alternative strategies and rebalance DOD's major capabilities in light of today's security challenges.  They could choose from over 1200 pre-costed options provided by CSBA to add to or cut from the projected defense program for the next 10 years.  They will present their conclusions at the meeting.  It will be interesting to see if they recommend any changes to the national security space portfolio.  The event will be webcast.

On Friday, the State Department and the Secure World Foundation will hold a day-long seminar at the State Department on International Best Practices for Space Sustainability. It features four panels of top experts from around the world (your editor is lucky enough to moderate the industry panel).  Hopefully you followed the instructions and registered by last Friday as required for this event (for security checks etc.).

And last but not least of our highlighted events for the week, the final 2016 presidential debates is Wednesday night from 9:00-10:30 pm EDT.  It will be nationally televised (check local listings).   The election is on November 8.

All of those events and others we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list or for schedule changes.

Sunday, October 16

Sunday-Friday, October 16-21

Monday, October 17

Tuesday, October 18

Wednesday, October 19

Thursday, October 20

Friday, October 21

China Set to Launch Two-Man Crew to New Tiangong-2 Space Station

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 16-Oct-2016 06:03 AM)

Just one day before launch, China finally officially announced the names of the two crew members and launch time for the first mission to its new Tiangong-2 space station.  The Shenzhou-11 spacecraft with Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong will launch at 7:30 pm Eastern Daylight Time tonight (Sunday), which is 7:30 am Monday (October 17) local time at the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi desert.

Andrew Jones, a reporter in Finland who writes for, had calculated the launch time several days ago based on observations of the space station's orbital position and a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued by China, but China's official announcement through its Xinhua news service was not made until late last night EDT.   In fact, China's CCTV television network released a story yesterday with an incorrect launch day and time.

In any case, Xinhua states that the launch aboard a Long March-2F rocket is at 7:30 pm EDT tonight.  Jing and Chen are headed to China's Tiangong-2 space station, which was launched last month, where they will remain for 30 days. The longest Chinese human spaceflight mission to date is 15 days.

By coincidence, the Shenzhou-11 launch is just 33 minutes before NASA and Orbital ATK will launch a cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The two space stations are in completely different orbits.

Tiangong-2 is a small, 8.6 metric ton (MT) space station.  It is similar to China's first space station, Tiangong-1, which was launched in 2011 and occupied by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013.  (For a list of all Chinese human spaceflight launches, see this fact sheet.)  These two small stations are precursors to a multi-modular 60 MT space station China plans to have in place by the early 2020s.  

By comparison, ISS has a mass of approximately 400 MT.  It is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries acting through the European Space Agency.  ISS has been permanently occupied by multinational crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules since the year 2000.  NASA is prohibited by law from bilateral cooperation with China unless it makes specific certifications to Congress in advance.

Jing, 50, is the Shenzhou-11 mission commander.  This is his third spaceflight.   Chen, 38, is on his first mission.  They will dock with the space station two days after launch.  In addition to conducting scientific experiments and other tasks, they will serve as "special correspondents" sharing "their work and life in space via text, audio and video through Xinhua's media services."

The experiments include taking ultrasound measurements for the first time in space, cultivating plants, and testing the three winners of an experimental design competition in Hong Kong for secondary students, according to Xinhua.

China plans to launch its first cargo mission to Tiangong-2 in April 2017.  The Tianzhou-1 spacecraft will conduct a refueling test.  Until now, all Chinese human spaceflight-related missions have been launched from Jiuquan, but Tianzhou-1 will launch on a new Long March 7 rocket from the new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

Chinese sources have variously stated that Tianzhou-1 will be the last launch to Tiangong-2 or that a second two-man crew will be sent on Shenzhou-12.


Events of Interest


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