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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: 17-Nov-2016 11:05 PM)

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 Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko.  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 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Oct-2016 (Updated: 20-Nov-2016 03:15 PM)

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. [UPDATE: The launch date slipped again to November 19 due to technical issues with the Atlas V rocket.  It was successfully launched on November 19 at 6:42 pm ET, the end of its hour-long launch window after another Atlas V technical issue and an undisclosed problem at the Eastern Test Range were resolved.]

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 and again on November 20 to indicate when the launch took place.


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.


Antares Ready for Sunday Night Launch, Viewable Along East Coast - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Oct-2016 (Updated: 16-Oct-2016 06:33 PM)

UPDATE, October 16, 6:30 pm ET:  Orbital ATK has postponed the launch for one day because of a bad ground support cable. The new launch date and time are Monday, October 17, at 7:40 pm ET.  If that date holds, Cygnus OA-5 will loiter in orbit for a few days rather than going directly to ISS in order to allow the Soyuz MS-02 crew to dock on Friday first.  Cygnus will wait until Sunday, October 23, with grapple by the robotic Canadarm2 at approximately 7:00 am ET.

ORIGINAL STORY, OCTOBER 16, 6:04 am ET:  Orbital ATK will launch an Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft full of cargo for the International Space Station (ISS) at 8:03 pm ET tonight (Sunday).  There is a 5 minute launch window.  Weather is forecast 95 percent "go" for the launch from Wallops Island, VA on the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia (DELMARVA) peninsula.  By coincidence, the launch will take place just half an hour after China launches a two-man crew to its new Tiangong-2 space station.

NASA TV coverage begins at 7:00 pm ET of the launch of Orbital ATK's Commercial Resupply Services-5 (OA-5) mission, but it also should be visible to the naked eye from New England to South Carolina and as far west as Charleston, WV.  Orbital ATK provided a map of where and when to look.

Where to Look for the Orbital ATK OA-5 Launch on October 16, 2016.  (L = launch) Image credit: Orbital ATK.

This is the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 launch failure that was caused by one of its two Russian NK-33/AJ26 rocket engines.  During the past two years, Orbital ATK has substituted newer Russian RD-181 engines in all of its Antares rockets, so this is also the first flight of the re-engined Antares.  

The failed mission in 2014 was designated Orb-3 -- the third operational ISS cargo mission for Orbital Sciences Corporation, which later merged with ATK to form Orbital ATK.

Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus missions from Cape Canaveral, FL using United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets while Antares was being readied for flight.  Those were Orbital ATK-4 (OA-4) in December 2015 and OA-6 in March 2016,   Today's mission is OA-5 and, as the name indicates, was originally intended to fly in-between those two launches, but was delayed for a variety of technical reasons.

The OA-5 Cygnus spacecraft is loaded with 5,300 pounds (2,400 kilograms) of supplies, equipment, and science experiments.  The spacecraft is named after the late Alan Poindexter, a former NASA astronaut who died in 2012 from injuries sustained in a non-space-related accident.  Poindexter flew on two space shuttle missions that delivered modules to the ISS. 

If all goes as planned, OA-5 will arrive at the ISS on Wednesday morning and be grappled using the robotic Canadarm2 at about 7:00 am ET and berthed to the space station approximately two hours later.  If the launch is delayed for any reason, the next opportunity is tomorrow, Monday, at 7:40 pm ET.

This is the beginning of a busy two-week period at the ISS.  Three new crew members will launch to the ISS on Wednesday aboard the Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft, about three hours before OA-5 arrives at ISS.  The Soyuz MS-02 crew is taking the two-day trajectory to ISS, with arrival on Friday.  The three crew are NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisneko and Sergey Rhyzhikov.

If the OA-5 launch slips to Monday, NASA and Orbital ATK plan to have the Cygnus spacecraft loiter in space for several days and berth after the Soyuz MS-02 crew is aboard.  Ten days after Soyuz MS-02 arrives, the three crew members currently aboard the ISS (NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin) will return to Earth. They will be replaced in November.

OA-5 will remain berthed to ISS for about one month.  After it departs from the ISS in November, several cubesats will be deployed.  For the first time, they will be released from an altitude above the ISS, providing a longer orbital lifetime.   In subsequent days, a second SAFFIRE fire experiment will be conducted inside the Cygnus capsule to study how fires behave in weightlessness.  Once the experiment is completed, Cygnus will be commanded to reenter Earth's atmosphere and the entire capsule will burn up due to the heat of reentry.  Cygnus spacecraft are not designed to survive reentry and are used for trash disposal.

This "commercial cargo" launch is part of Orbital ATK's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA under which the company is delivering a total of 66,000 pounds (33,000 kilograms) of cargo to the ISS through 2018.   SpaceX, with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, is Orbital ATK's competitor for CRS missions.   Both companies as well as Sierra Nevada were awarded at least six flights each under the follow-on CRS2 contract,  Sierra Nevada is building the Dream Chaser winged spacecraft (which looks like a small space shuttle) that will be launched with ULA's Atlas V rocket.  The CRS2 missions begin in 2019.  

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries acting through the European Space Agency (ESA).  All the partners except Europe are committed to operating the ISS at least through 2024.  ESA is expected to agree at its December 2016 ministerial meeting where the ministers in charge of space activities for each of its member countries make decisions about future activities.

Forget Matthew, It's Nicole Delaying the Return to Flight of Antares-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Oct-2016 (Updated: 14-Oct-2016 02:29 PM)

Update, October 14:   NASA/Wallops PAO Keith Koehler reports that there was little damage to the tracking station and final testing remains scheduled for tomorrow.  Launch is still on for Sunday, October 16, at 8:03 pm ET, as of now.

Original Story, October 11, 2016: Orbital ATK's return to flight of the Antares rocket has been delayed again.  The new launch date is Sunday, October 16, at 8:03 pm ET.  Last week's concerns that Hurricane Matthew might impact the launch site at Wallops Island, VA have given way to new worries that Tropical Storm Nicole will affect a critical tracking site on Bermuda.  Nicole is expected to reach hurricane status by the time it arrives there.  Ironically, a hurricane also delayed the last Antares launch, which failed two years ago this month.

The launch date for this cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Orbital ATK-5 (OA-5), has been delayed many times this year.  It is the first Antares launch since an October 28, 2014 failure that was traced to one of the Russian-built NK-33/AJ26 rocket engines. Orbital ATK decided to replace those engines for all Antares rockets with new Russian RD-181 engines.  Technical challenges in doing that slipped the launch, originally expected in the spring, until now. 

The October 28 failure was of the Orb-3 cargo mission to ISS.  At the time, the company was Orbital Sciences Corporation and its ISS cargo missions were designated "Orb."  As the number implies, it was the third operational cargo mission for that company, which later merged with ATK and is now Orbital ATK.  Orbital ATK has launched two cargo flights, OA-4 and OA-6, to ISS in the interim, using United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets instead of Antares.

In a twist of fate, the Orb-3 launch also was delayed by a hurricane hitting Bermuda -- Gonzalo.

Most recently, the Antares return-to-flight mission was scheduled for October 13, but slipped to October 14 because of minor technical issues and preparations for Hurricane Matthew, whose path was difficult to forecast and could have come up the East Coast.  (Instead, it caused wind and storm surge damage in Florida and then dealt a punishing blow to North and South Carolina with rain).

Having dodged that bullet, however, the launch is now being affected by Tropical Storm Nicole.  It does not threaten the U.S. East Coast, but is headed towards Bermuda and is forecast to reach hurricane status before it arrives there on October 13.

"The tracking station at Bermuda is required to conduct the Antares launch from Wallops," said Steven Kremer, chief of the Wallops Range and Mission Management Office. The threat to not only the tracking station itself, but Bermuda's overall infrastructure, are of concern.  Once the storm passes, a damage assessment will be performed, mission readiness will be tested, and the site will be brought back to operational status NASA said in a press release today.

Two pre-launch briefings that were scheduled for tomorrow, October 12, also have been postponed.  They now will take place on Saturday, October 15, at 4:00 pm ET (science) and 6:00 pm ET (mission status).  They will be aired on NASA TV. 

If the launch takes place on Sunday, October 16, at 8:03 pm ET, NASA TV coverage will begin at 7:00 pm ET.

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