Pull! Rocket Lab fires off another potential target as India joins exclusive satellite shooting club

China's OneSpace smiles through explosion and 'nauts change out ISS batteries

Roundup While US vice president Mike Pence directed NASA to put boots on the Moon before Trump's second term 2024 is out, last week demonstrated how hard space can be.

Electron launches (finally)

After repeated delays, Rocket Lab, proclaimer of the slogan "Frequent and reliable launch is now a reality", successfully got another Electron off its New Zealand launch pad.

The launch, at 23:27 28 March UTC, marked the outfit's 25th satellite delivered to orbit and the fourth successful launch of the company's Electron rocket (the first had to be destroyed after telemetry was lost during flight).

The 150kg payload, DARPA's Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) mission, is designed to qualify a new type of array antenna. This antenna, which will deploy to 2.25 metres in diameter, should allow smaller spacecraft to punch above their weight in terms of communication capability.

While this is the first launch in over three months from Rocket Lab, the company is bullish about upping the cadence, and lays claim to an order book for a launch every four weeks.

It's a challenging goal since this mission sat on the pad for four days while engineers replaced a video component and waited for weather to improve.

Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck was naturally pleased as punch, delivering kudos to his team of rocketeers: "Congratulations to our dedicated team for delivering another important and innovative asset to space – on time and on target."

The 17m Electron rocket can loft as much as 225kg, although the company describes the "nominal" payload as being 150kg, which can be delivered to a 500km Sun-synchronous orbit.

While the gang are proud of their yet-to-be-shown launch cadence, they're also good citizens when it comes to orbital debris. The second stage of the Electron was left in a highly elliptical orbit, which will cause it to re-enter the atmosphere before long, while the Kick Stage used to send the satellite to its final destination is able to perform its own de-orbit burn.

After deployment, of course.

Outdoor battery antics continue at the ISS

Somewhat lost in the furore over the short-notice cancellation of an all-female spacewalk, NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch ventured out of the International Space Station (ISS) on 29 March to continue battery replacement work on the orbital outpost.

The spacewalk began 07:42 EDT, when the 'nauts switched their suits to battery power and headed outside. It makes Koch only the 14th female spacewalker, according to NASA.

The team hooked up three lithium-ion batteries (replacing six nickel-hydrogen units) and also set things up to allow robotic specialists to remove one of the new batteries fitted during the previous spacewalk and replace it with two of the old units. The new battery, it appears, is not charging properly.

While NASA's Anne McClain may have missed out this time around, she will be taking her turn on 8 April with David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency. The duo are expected to be adding some redundant power to the Canadarm2 robotic arm and stringing up some cables to allow for better wireless communications coverage outside the ISS.

One becomes many, many fiery bits in OneSpace launch

Chinese commercial launch hopeful OneSpace has suffered a setback as the maiden flight of its OS-M vehicle appeared to end with things going "phut" shortly after the separation of the first stage.

The company's Twitter orifice has been silent as to what actually happened, although amateur footage shows things going south about a minute after launch.

The launch followed two sub-orbital tests so confidence was high that all would be well. The 19m rocket, which lays claim to an Electron-baiting launch preparation time of 48 hours, can loft up to 205kg to Low Earth Orbit, or less to high orbits with inclination from 42°-100°

The company will hopefully take heart from the experiences of other commercial rocket companies, such as Rocket Lab and SpaceX.

SpaceX's first Falcon 1 didn't even make it to the one-minute mark, letting go in spectacular fashion back in 2006 thanks to a fuel leak.

Just over 13 years later the company is now poised to launch its second Falcon Heavy.

Breaking (up satellite) news: India is good at smashing stuff in orbit

Finally, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) of India announced on 27 March that the country had joined the select group of nations capable of blowing up satellites. It did this by pointing a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Interceptor at an unfortunate Indian satellite and smashing the thing to smithereens.

Or, as India's Ministry of Defence put it, "the mission met all of its objectives".

Reaction to the launch of the three-stage missile was relatively muted. After all, unlike China's efforts back in 2007, the Indian satellite was in a low orbit and so the debris should re-enter within weeks or months. Not years, as with China's demonstration.

And demonstration it is. The US, Russia and the aforementioned China have all shown off their prowess at shooting down things in predictable orbits. India can now join the Anti-Satellite Club, ready to knock out the orbital infrastructure of an opponent in times of war.

But if things ever escalate to that point, orbital debris will be the least of our problems. ®

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