Oh chute. Two out of three ain't bad, right? asks Boeing after soft-ish crew module landing

Plus: SpaceX to end Florida Falcon drought and more from the realm of rockets

Roundup This week Boeing unveiled its lunar lander ambitions after a sort-of successful commercial crew test, Virgin Orbit revealed plans to shoot smallsats as far as Mars, and SpaceX dried off fairing recovered from the ocean for use in a static fire test.

Boeing parachute 'anomaly'

While rival SpaceX was bragging about its run of 13 successful parachute tests, things did not go so well for Boeing during what the aviation giant insisted was a "successful" Pad Abort Test.

The purpose was to demonstrate that the abort systems of its CST-100 Starliner capsule would work as advertised in the event that the spacecraft needed to be whisked away from a failing booster.

Perched on a test stand at Launch Complex 32 at the US Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, all went well in the first phase of the abort as the four abort engines fired, along with manoeuvring and attitude control thrusters to send the spacecraft into the sky. Within five seconds, the vehicle had reached 650mph and 4,500 feet in altitude.

As the spacecraft reached its peak altitude, it rotated into a landing position before deploying parachutes and dumping the service module. The crew module then floated back to Earth, releasing its heatshield and inflating airbags for a soft-ish landing. The whole test lasted approximately 95 seconds end to end.

Though things didn't go entirely to plan because only two of the three parachutes deployed successfully. Describing the issue as an "anomaly" rather than a "failure", Boeing insisted that it was still "acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety" before going on to say that it wasn't expecting the anomaly to affect the scheduled 17 December orbital test flight. That flight, of course, will not include a crew.

While SpaceX has already sent its capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) and performed its own Pad Abort Test back in 2015, Elon Musk's rocket firm will also demonstrate its abort systems in-flight, something Boeing plans to skip. If all goes well, crewed versions of the commercial vehicles will finally fly in 2020.

We're all Boeing to the Moon

Pesky parachutes did not stop Boeing suggesting that NASA might want to fling some more cash at the company to build a Human Lander System (HLS) in order to meet the agency's 2024 goal of getting boots back on the Moon.

Having more than a whiff of Apollo about it, Boeing's plan calls for the upgraded Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1B rocket to be used to loft both the ascent and descent elements of the lander in a single launch. The HLS will be able to dock with the planned Lunar Gateway, or dispense completely with the space station and link up directly with an Orion vehicle.

Throwing a little shade on the efforts of others, Boeing said that its plan required only "five mission-critical events instead of the 11 or more required by alternate strategies". Furthermore, the HLS would be able to reach the lunar surface without relying on a transfer stage.

The approach, according to Boeing, who is also responsible for the core stage of the monstrously delayed monster SLS rocket, represents the "simplest and therefore highest probability path back to the lunar surface".

But possibly not the most sustainable.

If selected, Boeing's HLS will take either the planned 2024 or 2025 landing opportunities.

Virgin Orbit aims for the Moon and Mars

Virgin Orbit, the tentacle of Richard Branson's brand with designs on the smallsat market, has announced plans to fit a third stage to its air-launched LauncherOne rocket in order to send smallsat payloads to the Moon, asteroids or as far as Mars.

The development of the third stage, which will fit in LauncherOne's fairing, comes a month after Virgin Orbit buddied up with Poland-based SatRevolution to develop the first dedicated commercial satellite mission to Mars. Up to three missions are hoped for, with the first planned for three years from now.

As a reminder, Virgin Orbit has yet to put anything into Earth orbit yet, let alone venture deeper into space.

NASA's MarCO spacecraft have already demonstrated that cubesats can do useful work in deep space. Handy, because while Virgin Orbit should be able to get up to 500kg into Earth orbit, payloads to Mars will likely be in the order of "50kg or less". Around 100kg could be sent to the Moon by the Bearded One's rocket.

Rocket Lab is running out of fingers

Virgin Orbit is not the only show in town when it comes to sending small satellites to the Moon. Rocket Lab has a similar feat planned, although for now it's sticking to Earth orbit with an upcoming 10th mission for its Electron booster.

The mission, called "Running Out Of Fingers", is targeting a 25 November lift-off from the company's Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula. Unlike the last mission, the launcher will be carrying multiple microsatellites from five different countries.

More interestingly, the mission will also see upgrades to the first stage as the company looks to ways of making the Electron reusable. Telemetry will be gathered during re-entry and descent of the booster at the end of the mission, and the stage has been fitted with a Reaction Control System (RCS) to orient the rocket as it descends.

There are no plans to actually attempt a recovery this time around.

SpaceX to end Florida's rocket drought

Finally, SpaceX has completed a static fire of a Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40, setting up a 11 November launch.

The launch is expected at approximately 1400 UTC and will carry the next batch of 60 Starlink satellites much, we suspect, to the unbridled joy of astronomers the world over. The satellites, which will form part of SpaceX's low-earth orbit constellation designed to blanket the globe with high-throughput internet service, have seen some tweaks since the first test batch.

ESA will be ever so relieved.

While the Falcon 9 booster has been used several times before, quite the achievement in itself, the company also plans to reuse the fairing that was recovered from the ocean following the Falcon Heavy Arabsat 6A mission.

Following the launch, Musk's rocketeers plan to recover the Falcon 9 booster once again. A drone ship will be stationed in the Atlantic for the routine crowd-pleasing landing. ®

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