Busy week for ISS as Russia resumes flights and vies for parking spaces with NASA

Don't worry, it was just cargo, not 'nauts

Roundup Russia, China and India all flung rockets into space this week and SpaceX managed to get a secondhand Falcon 9 off the historic pad 39A at Cape Canaveral.

Used Falcon 9. One careful owner

SpaceX continued demonstrating the reusability of the first stage of its Falcon 9 with the launch of Qatar's Es'hail 2 communications satellite atop a booster that had last seen service launching the Telstar 19 VANTAGE mission in July.

At 2:35 into flight the first stage shut off as planned and separated a few seconds later. The second stage then sent the satellite into the desired orbit.

The spent first stage subsequently descended to the ever-crowdpleasing landing on a drone-ship stationed in the Atlantic – a technological achievement that SpaceX is in real danger making appear commonplace.

The launch itself, which had a window that opened from 20:46 UTC on 15 November, was from Pad 39A, which hosted launches including Apollo 11 and the very last Space Shuttle in 2011. SpaceX signed a lease for the pad in 2014 and has been busy modifying it ready for the impending crewed missions due in the next year.

The launch of the geostationary satellite is the 18th of the year for SpaceX, equalling its 2017 record. Of course, a pedant might point out that the figure is higher, since the Falcon Heavy used three of the things in one go.

The next launch, which had been due to lift off from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California on Monday 19 November has been postponed while the upstarts "conduct additional pre-flight inspections". That launch will eject 64 small satellites into space. It will also be the first time SpaceX will have flown a reused booster three times.

SpaceX fans hoping to see the second stage of the Falcon 9 also reused are, alas, in for a disappointment. Falcon-fiddler in chief Elon Musk emitted a tweet indicating that any further changes to the Falcon 9 would be minor (NASA and USAF like a stable platform after all). Instead, he dangled the carrot of the BFR for the faithful to behold.

"Counter-intuitive"? As in "the pointy end will point at the ground"? Oh Elon, you tease.

A successful trip to the Space Station for a Russian freighter

Russia continued its march back to crewed operations by launching the Progress MS-10 resupply vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS) on 16 November. The launch, from Baikonur, was the first for the country to the ISS since October's mishap.

The good news for crew anxiously awaiting their turn atop the venerable booster is that the Progress was carried on a Soyuz-FG; the same variant that exploded in October. The automatic abort systems flung the crew to safety in that incident, but worried 'nauts would prefer not to have a repeat performance.

The success of the Soyuz-FG is therefore a source of great relief as December looms large.

As for the Progress itself, it docked with the ISS after an uneventful two-day journey, clearing the way for a resumption of crewed activities.

The ISS is getting short of parking spots

It wasn't just Russia sending cargo to the ISS last week. Northrop Grumman's Antares rocket launched on Saturday morning for NASA, carrying the Cygnus NG-10 resupply craft to the orbiting outpost. The mission carried 3,350kg of cargo to the station, including 1,141kg of crew supplies and some shiny new HP Zbook laptops.

The Cygnus itself is named the S.S. John Young in honour of the Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle veteran who passed away earlier this year. Young was notable for having visited the Moon twice (and walked on it once for Apollo 16) before going on to fly the first Space Shuttle mission. He also famously smuggled a corned-beef sandwich onboard Gemini 3 to slip to his crew mate, Gus Grissom, much to annoyance of NASA mission controllers.

The launch was conducted atop the Antares 230 rocket, which included new RD-181 engines to increase "performance and reliability" rather than going boom in spectacular fashion thanks to some elderly Russian NK-33 motors.

While this particular Cygnus will remain attached to the ISS for three months before being destroyed in the Earth's atmosphere, the future of the programme is a little hazy. One more mission is planned for the Cygnus in April 2019 under the current Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract before CRS-2 kicks in. Twelfth and thirteenth missions are then planned for late 2019 and early 2020 respectively with potentially more to follow.

China makes it 33 while India launches a third MkIII

India's most powerful rocket, the GSLV MkIII-D2, flung the GSAT-29 communications satellite into orbit. Capable of lofting up to 4,000kg into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, the rocket did its stuff on Wednesday morning, sending the 3,423kg spacecraft on its way to its geostationary orbit for an expected mission lifetime of 10 years.

It is the heaviest satellite ever put into orbit by a homegrown Indian launcher, according to India's space agency, ISRO.

This is the third flight of India's big rocket. The first, in 2014, was a demonstrator with an inert cargo. The second, in 2017, delivered another communications satellite, GSAT-19, to orbit. Future missions planned for the launcher include Chandrayaan 2, a lunar orbiter and rover combo, due to launch in 2019.

China, on the other hand, maintained its impressive launch cadence, sending two Beidou navigation satellites into orbit aboard a Long March 3B booster.

The famously secretive space agency lit the blue touchpaper and stood well back as the spacecraft were sent to orbit to expand the coverage of China's navigation system.

The launch is the 33rd of the year for China, which, even considering the odd mishap, is an impressive feat. With at least two more launches lined up for the rest of the year, including the much-delayed Chang'e 4 lunar orbiter, there is every chance that China might reach 35 launches if not 35 successes.

Farewell Kepler

The Kepler spacecraft ran out of fuel last month, ending its mission. Last week, boffins sent up the final commands to terminate communication. In a touching twist of fate, the last transmissions occurred on the anniversary of the death of the astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler, nearly 400 years ago. ®

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