International Space News
China will launch a robotic spacecraft to fly around the Moon and return to Earth as early as tomorrow as a test related to its goal of returning a lunar sample later in the decade. China's Xinhua news service reports today that the launch will take place between Friday and Sunday. The spacecraft will carry an amateur radio payload and AMSAT-UK says the launch is scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, October 23, at 18:00 GMT, which is 2:00 am Friday, October 24, local time in China. (Or 2:00 pm Thursday Eastern Daylight Time).
China has indicated for quite some time that it plans to launch this test mission, but has provided few details, including its name. Most of the public information comes from the amateur radio community, especially the AMSAT-UK website. The 14-kilogram battery-powered amateur radio payload is built by LuxSpace, a Luxembourg company that is part of OHB. The payload, 4M-LXS, honors the late Manfred Luchs, OHB's founder, where "4M" refers to Manfred Memorial Moon Mission. AMSAT-UK reports that the entire mission is expected to last 196 hours.
The spacecraft was delivered to the Xichang launch site in August. The planned landing site has not been specified. Xinhua said today only that the mission involves "entering, exiting, and re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and landing on the Earth" and demonstrating the spacecraft can be slowed "so it can land safely at a predetermined location." China has not attempted atmospheric reentry as such speeds before.
China's lunar probes to date have been named Chang'e after China's mythological goddess of the Moon. Chang'e-1 (2007) and Chang'e-2 (2010) were lunar orbiters (and Chang'e-2 was later redirected to fly past the asteroid Toutatis, which it did successfully in 2012). Chang'e-3 landed on the Moon last year and delivered the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover, which was only a partial success.
Since China has not officially announced the name of this upcoming test mission, it is referred to variously by observers of the Chinese space program. Perhaps "Chang'e-5 precursor" is the best designation for now. Chang'e-5 itself is scheduled for launch in 2017 from China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island. (Chang'e-4 was originally described as a back-up for Chang'e-3, but more recent Chinese media reports have said it would be adapted to verify technologies for Chang'e-5. An August 2014 CCTV report said Chang'e-4 would be launched in 2015, however, so apparently that is not the name of this upcoming test mission.)
Construction of China's new launch site on Hainan Island is complete according to a report in the Chinese media. The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center is the country's fourth space launch site and the first that is not inland. It also is the furthest south, improving China's ability to launch satellites into geostationary orbit.
China currently launches satellites from Jiuquan in the Gobi desert (human space missions, lunar spacecraft, mid-high inclination orbit satellites), Xichang in Sichuan province (primarily geostationary satellites), and Taiyuan, just south of Beijing (polar-orbiting satellites).
Wenchang is on the northeast coast of Hainan Island and only 19 degrees north of the equator (currently Xichang is the furthest south, at 28 degrees north). China plans to use it for its new Long March 5 rocket, still under development, that will be able to launch about 25 metric tons to low Earth orbit, in the same class as the U.S. Delta IV.
China Daily says Wenchang and Long March 5 will be used to launch spacecraft not only into Earth orbit, but to lunar and interplanetary destinations. The first launch from Wenchang is expected next year.
Among the science missions planned for Long March 5 from Wenchang is a lunar sample return mission, Chang'e-5, planned for 2017. An engineering test for that mission reportedly is scheduled for launch this week. (Chang'e-3 was launched last year and deposited the Yutu rover on the Moon. Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 were lunar orbiters. Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon.)
Note: The original version of this article referred to the engineering test for Chang'e-5 that may be launched this week as Chang'e-4 and provided other information. However, the name is reported differently in various sources (Bob Christy's zarya.info site calls it "Chang'e Lunar Sample Container Test Flight"). The name and other details of that mission are incidental to this article, which is about the Wenchang launch site, so we have simply omitted it in this update.
Here is our list of space policy-related events in the coming week, October 20-24, 2014, and any insights we can offer about them. Congress returns on November 12.
During the Week
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has scheduled a second hearing on Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC's) lawsuit against the government vis a vis the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts for Tuesday at 2:30 pm ET (it's not listed on our calendar because we don't list court dates for lawsuits since they are rarely open to the public). The first hearing was on Friday, where the court allowed SpaceX and Boeing to intervene in the case. The court is also considering SNC's request to keep most of the filings under seal because some of the material may be proprietary and some is protected under SNC's protest to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). SNC is protesting NASA's award of the CCtCAP contracts to Boeing and SpaceX. Ordinarily, under the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA), work would stop under those contracts until GAO rules on SNC's protest (it has until January 5, 2015). NASA did issue a stop-work order, but later rescinded it based on its statutory authority to avoid significant adverse consequences. SNC is challenging the legality of that rescission. Check back with SpacePolicyOnline.com to learn about what happens on Tuesday.
There are many other interesting events on tap during the week as well. On Monday, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (which administers the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space), the Mexican Space Agency and another Mexican organization, CICESE, will hold a symposium on Making Space Technology Accessible and Affordable. The opening ceremony and a press conference -- including the head of the Mexican Space Agency, Javier Mendieta -- will be webcast.
The third of three International Space Station (ISS) spacewalks in as many weeks is scheduled for Wednesday. This time it is two Russians, Max Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, who will step outside. NASA TV will cover it beginning at 9:00 am ET.
Two very interesting luncheons are being held in the Washington, DC area on Thursday, unfortunately at exactly the same time. The Washington Space Business Roundtable is hosting a panel of experts on the future of satellite communications in support of DOD at the University Club is downtown DC, while the National Capital Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics is hearing from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Chris Scolese across the river in Arlington, VA. Not to mention that there's an all-day symposium in DC that day on space and satellite regulatory issues. Busy day!
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, October 20
Wednesday, October 22
Wednesday-Sunday, October 22-26
Thursday, October 23
Comet Siding Spring will make a close pass of the planet Mars tomorrow (Sunday, October 19) while human and robotic observers watch intently to see what they can learn about this rather rare type of celestial body. On Earth, the best viewing is from the Southern Hemisphere and it will not be visible to the naked eye (Magnitude 13), but several websites plan live coverage with images and/or commentary.
Astronomers world-wide have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Comet Siding Spring, also known as C/2013 A1, which was discovered in January 2013 by Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. This particular type of comet, from the Oort Cloud far beyond the orbit of Pluto, rarely reaches the inner solar system. This is the comet's first time sweeping around the Sun so none of its material has yet been affected by the Sun's heat. It is comprised of material from the time the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago.
The nucleus of the comet will come within 87,000 miles (140,000 kilometers) of the surface of Mars at 2:28 pm Eastern Daylight Time (11:28 am PDT, 18:28 GMT). It will pass Mars traveling at 126,000 miles per hour (56 kilometers per second).
Five spacecraft are currently orbiting Mars: three from NASA and one each from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). In addition, two functioning NASA rovers are on the surface: Opportunity and Curiosity. All will be tasked to study the comet and its interaction with Mars.
To be on the safe side, NASA positioned its orbiters -- Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and MAVEN -- so they will be on the opposite side of the planet as the comet's tail passes by lest any of the particles damage spacecraft instruments. ISRO similarly repositioned its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). The European Space Agency decided that the risk of damage to its Mars Express orbiter was so low that it did not change its orbit. The tail will be in close proximity to Mars about 90 minutes after the nucleus goes by and will be there for only about 20 minutes.
Many other space- and Earth-based observatories will study the comet as well. NASA has a website with a wealth of information about its plans.
Comet expert Karl Battams posted an analysis of the parallels between observing this comet and last year's comet ISON, which was a disappointment for many observers because the comet was not as spectacular as expected. Today Battams said in his blog post that the same phenomenon has occurred with Comet Siding Spring: "...again, like comet ISON - we have watched nervously in these final couple of weeks ... as the comet has suddenly and dramatically faded in brightness. This in particular has left us scratching our collective heads...." Still, although "we have plenty of unknowns," he is optimistic for a successful Mars-based observing campaign.
He (@SungrazerComets) and the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) are among those who will be tweeting the event (#MarsComet or #SidingSpring). Both list places on the web that will have live images and/or commentary:
The good news is that the two European Union (EU) Galileo navigation satellites launched in August are in "excellent health and working normally." The not so good news is that they are in the wrong orbit. What they will be used for is an open question.
The European Space Agency (ESA), which serves as the design and procurement agent for the satellites, announced today that the pair of satellites were handed over from ESA's Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany to the Galileo Control Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany in late September.
Galileo is Europe's version of the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) for providing positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) data. The EU and ESA shared Galileo development costs, but the EU is shouldering the full cost of the operational system.
These two satellites, the first of 30 that will comprise Galileo's Fully Operational Capability (FOC), were launched by Arianespace from Kourou, French Guiana, using Russia's Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage on August 22, 2014.
Initially, the launch was thought to have been a complete success, but ESOC soon determined that the satellites were not in their correct orbital locations. Further analysis showed the satellites were in an orbit with an apogee that is too high, perigee that is too low, and at the wrong inclination. Ultimately it was determined that the Fregat upper stage had malfunctioned.
In addition, one solar panel on each OHB-built satellite had not deployed. Controllers were able to point the satellites so the solar array release mechanisms could be warmed by the Sun and that did the trick. Thus they are fully functional now, but what use they will be in that orbit is unclear. They do not have sufficient on-board fuel to reach their correct orbit. The ESA announcement said the Galileo Control Center will "care for them pending a final decision on their use."
NOTE: As of 5:00 pm EDT October 15, the Air Force has not made any announcement that the X-37B landed. The original announcement that it was returning to Earth said the exact landing date and time were dependent on technical and weather considerations. Unofficial observers monitoring FAA's NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) and using amateur observations of its orbit can offer possible landing times, but they are subject to uncertainty. Reuters reporter Irene Klotz (@Free_Space) tweeted today that the landing "now looks like no earlier than Thursday, FAA pilot advisory indicates." Bob Christy at zarya.info calculates there is a landing opportunity that day (tomorrow) about 16:25 GMT (12:25 EDT). This article has been updated to reflect the delay from the anticipated landing date of October 14.
UPDATED, October 15, 2014: The Air Force announced on Friday (October 10) that its secretive X-37B spaceplane, in orbit for almost two years, will soon return to Earth and land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA. At the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) in Toronto, Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation encouraged the U.S. government to be more open about what the X-37 is doing as part of the Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) the United States is advocating to help ensure space sustainability.
Officially called the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the vehicle resembles a very small space shuttle. The Air Force launches the robotic spacecraft for lengthy on-orbit classified missions. This flight is the longest to date. Launched on December 11, 2012, its mission duration will be more than 667 days. There are at least two OTVs. The first, OTV-1, made a 224 day flight in 2010. The second, OTV-2, made a 469 day flight from March 2011 to June 2012. The OTVs are reusable and this is the second flight for OTV-1.
Photo of X-37B OTV-1. Photo credit: Boeing (via Spaceflightnow.com)
The Air Force statement said the exact time of the landing "will depend on technical and weather considerations." Initial indications were that landing was targeted for October 14, but that day passed with no announcement from the Air Force. Unofficial observers are estimating potential landing times based on the FAA's NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) and amateur observations of the X-37's orbit, but they are subject to uncertainty. Check back here for updated information when it is available.
The classified nature of the missions prompts much speculation about what they are doing. In an era when the United States and other countries are advocating for establishing TCBMs to help ensure space sustainability, some question why the missions are kept secret. In an October 1 session at IAC2014 on "Assuring a Safe, Secure and Sustainable Space Environment for Space Activities," the Secure World Foundation's (SWF's) Samson cited the X-37B's secrecy as at odds with TCBMs. TCBMs are norms of behavior that "nations that mean no harm" should follow, she said, including a willingness to share information about technical capabilities in order to avoid misperceptions. She remarked that the U.S. "refusal to explain what the X-37B is [doing] has led a lot of people to assume the worst, and probably wrongfully so."
A 2010 SWF analysis concluded it "has near zero feasibility as an orbital weapons system for attacking targets on the ground" and has "limited capability for orbital inspection, repair and retrieval," although speculation often centers on exactly such missions. SWF concluded its most likely purpose is "flight testing new reusable space launch vehicle (SLV) technologies ... and on-orbit testing of new sensor technologies and satellite hardware primarily for space-based remote sensing."
The OTVs are launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC). NASA and the Air Force announced last week that the Air Force will use two of KSC's Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) to process the X-37B in the future. To date the OTVs have landed across the country at Vandenberg, but the NASA-Air Force announcement also said that tests were conducted to demonstrate the X-37B could land at KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility. The landing facility and the OPFs are left over from NASA's space shuttle program, which was terminated in 2011.
The X-37, built by Boeing, initially was a NASA test vehicle designed to lead to an Orbital Space Plane that could serve as a Crew Return Vehicle to bring International Space Station astronauts back to Earth in an emergency and, eventually, as a taxi to take them to the ISS as well. NASA terminated that program in 2004 after President George W. Bush reoriented the human spaceflight program toward returning astronauts to the Moon instead of ISS utilization. The X-37 program then was transferred to the Department of Defense.
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of October 13-17, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in recess until November 12.
During the Week
The event likely to attract the most attention this week is the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS). The speaker line-up is an intriguing array of "traditional space" and "new space" luminaries, although the description of Bill Gerstenmaier's talk may say it best: "Never before have the titles of 'old space' and 'new space' been as trivial as they are today."
Just to illustrate the breadth of speakers (sorry we can't list everyone -- the program is here), in addition to Gerstenmaier (NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations), speakers include Clay Mowry (Arianespace), George Sowers (United Launch Alliance), George Whitesides (Virgin Galactic), Stuart Will (Mojave Air and Space Port), Barry Matsumori (SpaceX), Brett Alexander (Blue Origin), Doug Loverro (DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy), John Shannon (Boeing), Mark Sirangelo (Sierra Nevada Space Systems), Doug Young (Northrop Grumman) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM).
Most unfortunately, if you can't be there in person, you're out of luck. The conference's media contact says none of the sessions will be webcast live, though "a few of the keynotes" may be posted online in a month or two.
That and other events we know about as of this afternoon (Sunday) are listed below.
Tuesday, October 14
Wednesday, October 15
Wednesday-Thursday, October 15-16
Wednesday-Friday, October 15-17
Friday-Tuesday, October 17-21
Arianespace released the results of an investigation into why two European Union (EU) Galileo navigation satellites were left in the wrong orbit following a launch using Russia's Soyuz rocket with Fregat upper stage. The root cause was a "shortcoming" in the system thermal analysis of the Fregat design that led to freezing of the hydrazine fuel.
The conclusion was reached by an Independent Inquiry Board established by Arianespace after the August 22, 2014 anomaly. The two Galileo satellites, intended to be the first of the Full Operational System, were stranded in an orbit that renders them unable to perform their primary mission. The inquiry Board was led by Peter Dubock, former Inspector General of the European Space Agency (ESA). The EU is funding the Galileo navigation satellite system, which is similar to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). ESA is the EU's design and procurement agent for Galileo. The EU plans to have 30 operational Galileo satellites in orbit by the end of the decade.
Arianespace launches Russia's Soyuz rocket from its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, through a partnership with Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, and two Russian manufacturers -- RKTs-Progress, which builds Soyuz, and NPO Lavochkin, which builds the Fregat upper stage.
At first, the August 22 launch seemed to go fine, but the satellites were later discovered in the wrong orbit. The Arianespace inquiry drew on data supplied by its Russian partners and its findings "are consistent with" a separate board of inquiry appointed by Roscosmos.
The Soyuz rocket was exonerated and found to have performed as planned. The problem was in the Fregat upper stage because the hydrazine fuel froze and blocked the fuel supply to the Fregat's thrusters. The fuel froze because the hydrazine and cold helium feed lines were connected by the same support structure, creating a thermal bridge. The root cause was found to be "ambiguities" in the design documentation as the result of poor system thermal analysis in the design phase.
Arianespace concluded that the issue is easy for Lavochkin to resolve and launches could resume as early as December 2014. The company also noted that this failure followed 45 consecutive successful uses of the Fregat.
UPDATE 2, October 10: The MIT students will hold a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session from 3:00-6:00 pm ET today to answer questions about their analysis (username: MarsOneAnalysis). The AMA can be accessed at: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2ivo0t/we_are_the_authors_of_the_mit_mars_one/. They also have posted an Open Letter to further explain their purpose and conclusions. If we learn of Mars One holding any similar public discussion, we will be happy to spread the word on that as well.
UPDATE: This October 7, 2014 article was updated on October 8 with a response from Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp. On October 9, Mr. Lansdorp added a comment to the DisQus feature of this website explaining some of his concerns about the MIT analysis.
An analysis by a team of MIT students of the Mars One concept to send people to Mars on one-way missions to establish a settlement there offers a bleak picture of the outcome. The paper was presented at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014) in Toronto last week.
Sydney Do, Koki Ho, Samuel Schreiner, Andrew Owens and Olivier de Weck conducted “An Independent Assessment of the Technical Feasibility of the Mars One Mission Plan” supported by grants from NASA and the Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust.
The team looked at the Mars One plan as outlined in public sources, especially its assertions that a sustainable society on Mars can be established beginning in the 2020s using existing technology. A “pre-deployment” phase between 2018 and 2023 would send robotic precursors and establish a crew “habitat” on the surface to await the first crew, which would be launched in 2024. Additional four-person crews and habitats would be launched at every 26-month opportunity thereafter.
Because many details of the Mars One plan are not available, the MIT team made a number of assumptions that are comprehensively explained in order to conduct their analysis.
Some of the key conclusions of the study are that:
The lead author, Sydney Do, a Ph.D. candidate in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said via email that in his view “the Mars One Concept is unsustainable” because of the current state of technology and its “aggressive expansion approach” of quickly adding more and more people rather than keeping the settlement at a fixed size for a period of time.
The paper acknowledges that the study was based on "the best available information” and the team is willing to update their analysis if more information becomes available.
MarsOne co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp, in an email to SpacePolicyOnline.com on October 8, said that while he welcomed the students' analysis, his company does not have time to respond to all the questions it receives from students and "the lack of time for support from us combined with their limited experience results in incorrect conclusions."
Editor's Note: Mr. Lansdorp's October 8 email discusses several areas where he believes the MIT analysis is incorrect. We encouraged him to post his entire comment to our website's DisQus feature, but he declined. We responded that if he does post his entire reaction elsewhere (perhaps on the Mars One site), we will be happy to include a link to it.
Editor's Note 2: On October 9, Mr. Lansdorp did, indeed, add a comment to the DisQus feature of this website explaining his concerns. It can be found in the comment stream labeled "Bas Lansdorp."
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of October 6-10, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in recess until November 12.
During the Week
World Space Week 2014 continues (it began on Saturday) with events worldwide commemorating the beginning of the Space Age on October 4, 1957 and the benefits derived from space over the decades. This year's theme is "Space: Guiding Your Way" and the DC chapter of the International Space University alumni association will hold a Space Café on Tuesday featuring James Miller, who works for NASA's Space Communications and Navigation program.
Two of the five standing committees of the National Research Council's (NRC's) Space Studies Board (SSB) will meet this week. The five committees align with the five Decadal Surveys the SSB produces that advise NASA and other agencies on the top space science priorities. The committees provide a forum to maintain discussion about the topics in between the once-a-decade (hence "decadal") reports. This is the first meeting of the new Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space, formed after completion of the first Decadal Survey for that field of research, which was published in 2011. It is meeting at the NRC's Keck Center on 5th Street Tuesday and Wednesday, though the sessions on Wednesday are closed to the public. The SSB's Committee on Solar and Space Physics will meet Tuesday-Thursday across town at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Ave. It will have open sessions the first two days. (If you're keeping track, the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences and the Committee on Earth Science and Applications in Space met in September; the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics meets in November.)
On Tuesday the first of two "U.S." spacewalks scheduled for October will take place from the International Space Station (ISS). They are "U.S." because they involve tasks on the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS) and the spacewalkers will be wearing U.S. spacesuits, but one of the two is Europe's Alexander Gerst (joining NASA's Reid Wiseman) so it really is a U.S./ESA spacewalk. Next week (October 15) Wiseman and NASA's Barry "Butch" Wilmore will do another spacewalk, and the week after that, on October 22, two of the Russian cosmonauts will do a spacewalk on their segment of the ISS. It's a busy time on the ISS with visiting spacecraft coming and going in addition to those spacewalks. Three new crewmembers just arrived on September 25. Two cargo spacecraft, a Russian Progress and SpaceX Dragon, already docked there will depart and be replaced by a new Progress and an Orbital Sciences Corporation Cygnus later this month.
Those and other events for the week of October 6-10 that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
October 6-10, Monday- Friday
Tuesday, October 7
Tuesday-Wednesday, October 7-8
Tuesday-Thursday, October 7-9
Tuesday-Friday, October 7-10
Thursday, October 9