Two Soyuz launches, Starhopper hops, sats play chicken with Indian weapons test fallout

Lunar Trump and other news from the rocket world

Roundup SpaceX has set tomorrow as the launch date for the second Falcon Heavy, which was hauled up to pad 39A last week and its first stage engines ignited briefly as part of a routine static test.

The booster, which stood without its payload, had its motors fired up at noon local time. Based on the results of the test, and after worries about the weather, SpaceX said it would be good to go on Wednesday 10 April.

SpaceX boss Elon Musk was careful to manage expectations, pointing out that this Falcon Heavy would be using three new Block 5 first-stage boosters this time around. The test flight had used two "flight-proven" Full Thrust boosters, which both landed successfully, and a central core, which didn't.

The work required to strap three Falcon 9 boosters together proved more challenging than the company expected, so a bit of prudence is warranted.

However, the caution did not stop Musk telling his army of followers that the maximum thrust was up almost 10 per cent on last year's demo flight. SpaceX itself chimed in, reminding rocket fans that Musk's mighty missile would generate more than five million pounds of thrust at lift-off.

The 4th of April was a busy day for Soyuz fanciers, with two of the venerable launchers being sent into space, one from French Guiana and the other from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The first launch, the Soyuz-2.1a variant, was to carry the Progress MS-11 (aka Progress 72) freighter into orbit on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The blue touchpaper was lit at 11:01 UTC, sending the spacecraft and its 3.7-ton (3.4 tonnes) cargo of food, water and air for the six crew aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The launch went off with little drama and docking of the uncrewed freighter to the ISS's Pirs docking compartment on the Russian end of the station occurred a mere three hours and 21 minutes later.

It is going to a be a busy month aboard the ISS. Both SpaceX's Dragon and Northrop Grumman's Cygnus are due to pay a visit, loaded with more supplies. Boeing's Starliner, which was supposed to arrive in April or May as well? Yeah, that won't be happening any time soon.

The tag-team launching continued with a slightly delayed 17:03 UTC blast-off of a Soyuz ST-B from French Guiana. The Arianespace mission, the fifth O3b mission by the company, lobbed the final four satellites into orbit for the O3b constellation, bringing the total in the Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) constellation to 20. The Ka-band communication satellites will lurk at an altitude of approximately 8,000km, serving customers in nearly 50 countries.

The launch marked the second of 2019 for the Soyuz from French Guiana, with one more currently planned for this year.

Indian debris fallout continues as NASA administrator rallies troops for Lunar Trump 1

At 8,000km, those O3b satellites should be safe from debris caused by India's anti-satellite demonstration, although NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine took time out during his April Fools' Day Town Hall meeting to chastise the country for blowing up a passing spacecraft.

Bridenstine told attendees that agencies had identified a cloud of 400 pieces of debris, and were tracking 60 that were 10cm or bigger in size, of which 24 had an apogee higher than ISS. He described doing that intentionally as a "terrible thing" and "not compatible with human spaceflight".

Those who were hoping for a little more heat in the condemnation after the mostly muted response from governments were to be disappointed. While Bridenstine said the risk to the ISS from debris had increased by 44 per cent over 10 days (we asked NASA to clarify what "44 per cent" actually meant and will update when we hear back), he also pointed out that it was low enough that it would dissipate before long. Unlike China's much higher altitude test, much of the debris from which is still lurking in orbit.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch sighed: "Well, that sucks" upon learning that his satellites could also be in the path of India's largesse.

Getting to the Moon is, of course, where it's at. Having lit a fire under the bottoms of the Space Launch System (SLS) team with the threat of commercial providers stepping into the fray, the NASA administrator took a step back after, surprise surprise, the SLS programme reckoned it could indeed get something off the ground in 2020.

However, SpaceX fans were intrigued to learn that NASA has calculated that a Falcon Heavy (which, at time of writing, has only managed one flight) could indeed send Orion around the Moon. Just.

Getting boots on the Moon by 2024 remains a challenge. Although big on dreams, Bridenstine remained woefully light on detail. While NASA's Lunar Gateway, a mini-space station destined for deep space, is on the drawing board, there were no plans given for what a lander might look like (we imagine some frantic dusting off of Constellation concepts is happening right now) and no plans for how to effectively halve the schedule.

And, of course, there is also the small question of a change in US administration. Should President Trump be re-elected in 2020, then the landing could take place at the end of his second term. However, a change in leadership could result in the usual "whiplash" of policy change that has bedevilled the agency since the end of Apollo.

Bridenstine pointed to the Apollo Moon landings still occurring even with a switch from Democrat to Republican administrations, and that Richard Nixon's name is on the plaque of the Apollo 11 lander. We would suggest a look at history, starting with the excellent, if dense, After Apollo to see just how keen Nixon was on the Moon programme kicked off by JFK.

And then there is the small matter of NASA's budget. Speeding things up will not come cheap.

Starhopper hops twice as the second Falcon Heavy fires its engines

After a lengthy tease of Wet Dress Rehearsals (WDR) at SpaceX's site at Boca Chica, Texas, engineers finally fired up the single Raptor engine fitted to the stumpy "Starhopper". The nose of the demonstrator had been damaged when high winds blew it over, and SpaceX elected not to bother replacing it.

After all, Starhopper is only destined for sub-orbital "hops".

A filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) late last year pointed to initial tests starting at 500 metres before rising to 5,000 metres for "higher altitude" tests which could occur approximately once per week.

Those lofty goals are still a little way off.

The first test, on 4 April, fired up the Raptor but Starhopper, still firmly tethered to the ground, barely moved. A second test on 5 April had the truncated rocket straining against its tethers.

Thankfully there was no rapid unplanned disassembly.

So probably enough to send a capsule around the Moon, right?

Israeli Moon landing edges closer

Already orbiting the Moon is Israel's Beresheet lander.

Following a succession of firings of the UK-built Nammo LEROS 2b engine, the team dropped the probe into a circular orbit 200 km above the surface ahead of Thursday's landing.

SpaceIL hope to touch down between 22:00 and 22:30 Israel time on 11 April.

The LEROS engines have powered spacecraft to Mars, Mercury and Jupiter, but never to a landing. The engine fitted to Beresheet has had its nozzle shortened, to avoid contact with the lunar surface, and its thrust increased. The Nammo team has also verified that the engine will be able to manage multiple "hot restarts" during landing. ®

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