Chinese fireworks, Indian orbits, and NASA names Maxar as maker of its first Moon module

Also, Boeing fires Starliner's rockets

NASA Lunar Gateway (pic: NASA)
Power and propulsion for NASA's Lunar Gateway (pic: NASA)

Roundup Last week the Champagne corks were popping as SpaceX flung Starlink into orbit and the achievements of Apollo 10 were celebrated. There was, however, plenty of other space news to go around.

Boomtime for China (and not in a good way)

China's launch programme sputtered once again with the failure of a Long March 4C rocket launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center early on 23 May. The Xinhua news agency reported that though the first and second stages of the flight were A-OK, things went downhill rapidly with the third.

The lost spacecraft, dubbed "remote sensing no. 33" by Chinese media, was the latest in a series of reconnaissance satellites.

The Long March 4C has launched 26 times since its debut in 2006, and this is the second failure. The previous failure occurred in 2016. The 45-metre rocket is capable of dumping 4.2 tonnes into low Earth orbit or 1.5 tonnes into a geostationary transfer orbit. The failure came just over a year since the rocket's last successful launch and two months after Chinese commercial launcher OneSpace saw the maiden flight of its OS-M booster fizzle shortly after liftoff.

As for the next time The People's Republic will attempt to send something into space? Possibly June or July for i-Space's Hyperbola-1 or perhaps a Long March 11. The infamously taciturn country rarely announces a launch the way NASA does, preferring to wait until it succeeds, blows up, or crashes to the ground a little too close to its citizens for comfort.

NASA names the supplier of the first bit of the Lunar Gateway

Maxar (formerly SSL) will be building the power and propulsion element of NASA's Lunar Gateway, or at least a demonstration version, ahead of the agency's ambitions to plant American boots on the lunar surface 55 years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

The award carries a maximum value of $375m and, after a demonstration period, NASA has the option of acquiring the spacecraft to use as the first element of its Lunar Gateway.

While perhaps not as well known as the likes of SpaceX, Maxar has been carving itself a niche in the new space economy, with 91 spacecraft based on its 1300-class platform, which forms the basis of NASA's Psyche mission to an asteroid beyond Mars in 2026. Assuming, of course, the axe doesn't fall on some of NASA's more ambitious missions in order to preserve Trump's bid to get feet back on the Moon before the end of a notional second presidential term.

We're sure that science won't be sacrificed on the altar of a lunar selfie, right?

Maxar also has experience with solar propulsion, laying claim to 36 spacecraft in orbit and 100,000 hours of firing time.

The price tag has raised an eyebrow or two. The module is to be launched as soon as 2022 on a commercial rocket. It will be a 50kW solar electric spacecraft capable of shunting mass around the Moon, such as a landing system and habitation module as well as acting as a communications relay.

Maxar named Blue Origin and Draper as members of the team charged with assembling the spacecraft ahead of the launch in three years' time.

Boeing's Starliner and NASA's Orion march onwards to launch

While SpaceX continues to sweep up the remains of its Crew Dragon capsule, arch-rival Boeing progressed to a pad abort test and subsequent orbital flight test ahead of shoving a crew in its Starliner capsule.

The latest testing consisted of a hot fire of the CST-100's systems using a "flight-like" service module.

The team simulated in-space manoeuvres, and both a high and low-altitude abort, at NASA's White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.

NASA's Orion capsule also ambled leisurely towards flight, with a test version of the spacecraft integrated with its Launch Abort System (LAS) for the Ascent Abort-2 test and shipped to Space Launch Complex 46 for launch this summer.

The flight will see the Orion launched six miles in altitude before the LAS fires to demonstrate the capsule being hauled away to safety. The flight is planned for 2 July.

And as for the rocket that will actually send a crew to the International Space Station (ISS) in the Starliner? The United Launch Alliance is shipping the thing to Cape Canaveral.

No pressure, Elon.

India launches RISAT-2B, doesn't shoot anything down

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) sent RISAT-2B, a 615kg radar-imaging Earth observation satellite, into orbit on 22 May from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC). It is the seventh successful launch of the PSLV family since a payload fairing failure doomed a satellite in 2017.

RISAT-2B was deposited into a 556km orbit before deploying an impressive 3.6m radial rib antenna.

The success sets the stage for the launch of India's lunar lander, Chandrayaan-2, onboard a GSLV MkIII launcher between 9 and 16 July. Chandrayaan-2 consists of three modules – an orbiter, lander and rover, with a landing on the South Pole of the Moon expected on 6 September. ®

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