NASA 'nauts do what flagship smartphone fans can only dream of: Change the batteries

Also: Boeing delays, and InSight to try diagnostic hammering to catch glitch in act

Astronauts may have swapped a set of ISS batteries, but it may be a little while yet before they get a ride on Boeing's finest in this week's round-up.

Spacewalking 'nauts swap ISS batteries (iFixit teardown not required)

Demonstrating that it is possible to design battery-powered tech with power-packs that can be switched out, two astronauts ventured out of the orbital outpost last week to replace the NiH2 batteries on part of the station's truss with brand spanking new Li-ion devices.

While NiH2 might have been the bees' knees back in the day, the units are degrading and NASA has opted to replace them with minty fresh Li-on models.

The new batteries should see the ISS out, with a design life that will exceed the expected dunking the station will receive during the 2020s.

While the station's Canadarm2 and Dextre manipulator can do so much, there is no substitute for sending an astro out to connect up the important cables. Hence the spacewalk, which saw NASA 'nauts Anne McClain and Nick Hague exit the airlock at 08:01 EDT (12:01 UTC) and return at 14:40 EDT 18:40.

The spacewalk had been delayed due to Nick Hague's wild ride atop Soyuz MS-10.

Further spacewalks will be required to replace the rest of the batteries, hauled up by Japan's HTV freighters, before the station is sorted (power-wise) for the remainder of its orbital life.

McClain and Christina Koch will head out on 29 March to work on a second set of battery replacements on a different power channel in the same area of the station.

InSight to give its mole a good old diagnostic hammering

Boffins are about to have another crack at getting the NASA Mars InSight lander's mole burrowing once more. The Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument on the lander is intended to hammer its way up to five metres into the planet's surface in order to measure the amount of heat flowing from the Martian interior.

At least that was the plan until the instrument, nicknamed the "mole", encountered an underground obstacle or jammed in some way. Tilman Spohn, principal investigator (PI) for the instrument, posted that, based on imagery sent back by the lander, "the consensus is that the mole is about 30cm in the regolith and probably still 7cm in the tube of the support structure".

Scientists really need the stricken tool to dig down to at least three metres in order to get useful science about the Martian interior.

So quite a way to go then.

The latest plan the team has come up with will see the mole run for 10 to 15 minutes, using InSight's seismometer to detect the machine striking whatever is in its path, while the camera on the lander's robot arm will keep an eye on the equipment to spot any movement.

Spohn has posted that the "diagnostic hammering" will kick off on Monday, with data being downlinked on Wednesday, which will hopefully give the gang a clue as to what is going on.

The mole is very much a multinational effort (as is the rest of the probe) with input from countries including Germany, France, Austria and Poland. The hammering mechanism itself was supplied by Poland's Astronika, in conjunction with the Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Warsaw University of Technology.

The HP3 project itself is headed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which plans to ship a replica to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California to allow US engineers to test alongside their counterparts in Bremen, Germany.

Vega launches PRISMA

While NASA and DLR engineers worried about InSight's hammering mole, Arianespace's Vega was launched from the group's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, carrying a small, demonstration satellite for the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

The solid-fuelled first stage of the booster was ignited at 01:50 UTC on 22 March and burned out just under two minutes later. The second and third stages of the multinational rocket then carried the payload, dubbed PRISMA, to a Sun-synchronous orbit.

PRISMA (PRecursore IperSpettrale della Missione Applicativa) is intended to collect hyperspectral data in space to determine the chemical characteristics of objects on the Earth's surface. The thinking is that data from the instrument (and its successors), along with panchromatic camera, will assist in environmental monitoring.

The 879kg spacecraft, while a demonstrator, is intended to spend at least five years returning data.

As for the Vega booster, the launch marks the 14th success since its debut in 2012. Three more launches are planned in 2019 before the booster's successor, the Vega-C, arrives in 2020. The Vega-C will stand five metres taller than its predecessor, at 35 metres, and be capable of hauling 2,200kg of payload to Sun-synchronous Earth orbit at 700km.

Israel swings ever closer to the Moon

While mutterings abound that NASA might be directed to get boots on the Moon sooner than planned, the plucky Israeli lander Beresheet continued its journey by firing its engine for 60 seconds to raise its orbit to 405,000km.

The firing was the fourth since launch, and the team expects to perform a few more minor manoeuvres before dropping into lunar orbit on 4 April. If all goes well, the probe will close in on the Moon's surface ahead of a landing on 11 April.

Boeing: Another Starliner slippage on the way?

NASA is staying quiet for now, as its Commercial Crew orifice busies itself high-fiving SpaceX, but reports are coming in to the effect that Boeing has a problem.

Boeing has been competing with SpaceX to launch NASA's astronauts to the ISS, relieving the agency of the need to keep buying seats for its spacefarers from the Russians following the retirement of the USA's own crew-capable spacecraft back in 2011.

Even before the Shuttles were strung up in museums, the lack of a US lifeboat has meant seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft were required.

Worried about the schedules of the commercial candidates, NASA has been reportedly muttering about paying for two more Soyuz seats to the space station for autumn of 2019 and spring of 2020, just to be sure.

It is unclear what has caused the delay, which could see Boeing's first uncrewed flight to the ISS delayed as far as August and the first crewed flight pushed to November. SpaceX could launch a crewed mission to the ISS as soon as July, should an upcoming abort test go well, and nab the flag left behind by the last shuttle crew.

At the time of NASA's 2018 Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel report (PDF) there were worries concerning Starliner's parachutes, pyrotechnic separation bolts and, of course, the launch abort engine hot fire testing.

An update to the Commercial Crew schedule, promised by NASA for next week, will make for interesting reading. ®

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