SpaceX ponders its next mission to blot out the Sun with another 60 Starlink sats

Also: ISS batteries changed, Virgin's fleet grows, Rocket Lab makes nod to crap sitcom, and more

Roundup Welcome back to The Register's weekly roundup of stories from the world of rockets and orbital shenanigans.

Rocket Lab to add another Mission Control and names the next launch date

Rocket Lab is to launch a second dedicated mission for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) with a launch window opening on 31 January. The contract was awarded under the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract vehicle and will lift off from the company's New Zealand Launch Complex 1 facility.

Dubbed "Birds of a Feather", this will be the 11th launch of the Electron. Rather than carrying the trio of stars from the eponymous UK TV sitcom into orbit, it'll be the NROL-151 satellite.

Just as well, Lesley Joseph is still in panto until the start of February. It would, however, be a whole new excuse for a launch delay.

The date has been set after the company kicked off construction of a new facility in Long Beach, California, to serve as Corporate HQ, add Mission Control Centre capabilities and provide incremental production capacity. The team expects the facility to spit out 12 Electron vehicles a year to support a monthly launch cadence from the company's first US launch site, Launch Complex 2 in Wallops Island, Virginia.

The first US launch is booked for Q3 2020.

Virgin Galactic appoints a new COO as the next SpaceShipTwo tries out its wheels

Virgin Galactic veteran Enrico Palermo has been appointed chief operating officer for the sub-orbital lobber. Previously president of The Spaceship Company, Palermo joined Virgin Galactic in 2006 as one of its first employees.

The move comes as Virgin Galactic looks set to finally fly paying passengers to the edge of space and back, depending on where you think space actually starts.

Some put the Kármán line at 100km, while others reckon space begins at 80km. Virgin Galactic falls into the latter camp, having got to nearly 90km in the last flight of VSS Unity almost a year ago.

While well-heeled passengers patiently await that much-delayed flirtation with microgravity, Virgin Galactic has pressed ahead with building its fleet of SpaceShipTwo vehicles. The company trumpeted that the next in the line is now 80 per cent complete and able to bear its own weight or take "weight on wheels". A further vehicle is at the 50 per cent point. The company plans to build five of the things in total, as well as a second mothership in order to meet demand from wannabe astronauts.

SpaceX test fires another Falcon 9 for the next Starlink launch

Flush with success following its Crew Dragon abort demonstration, Elon Musk's lot got to work on the next mission – squirting another 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. The Falcon 9 was test fired on Monday 20 January, interestingly with the payload on top, and launch was expected to occur today.

However, citing "extreme weather in the recovery area", the company has stood down and is pondering when best to launch the things (much to the delight of astronomers everywhere).

While the booster used for the abort demonstration was destroyed in the process, as planned, SpaceX would really like to recover this one. Part of the company's business model depends on Falcon 9 reuse after all.

It'll be the third flight for this particular booster, this time from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's SLC-40. SpaceX also hopes to recover the payload fairings as well as the Falcon 9 itself.

First Ariane 5 of 2020 sends two satellites into orbit

Arianespace successfully sent two telecommunication satellites into orbit following a 21:05 GMT launch on 16 January from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The heavy-lifter sent the first spacecraft, Konnect, on its way after approximately 27 minutes. The 3,619kg satellite is the first to be based on the new Spacebus Neo product line and is expected to spend the next 15 years bringing broadband to Europe and Africa.

The second was the 3,357kg GSAT-30, released 11 minutes after Konnect. Owned by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the satellite also has a design life of 15 years and will be spraying the Indian subcontinent with telecommunications services.

Spacewalking duo upgrade ISS batteries

Astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch (who recently crossed the 300 days in space milestone) completed their third spacewalk together on 20 January, dealing with the battery upgrade for one channel on one pair of the ISS's solar arrays.

The duo installed the sixth and final new lithium-ion battery and removed the last two nickel-hydrogen units. The latter were placed on an external platform ahead of the arrival of a Japanese HTV freighter later this year. The units will be loaded on the HTV and disposed of when the spacecraft burns up in the atmosphere.

This spacewalk took a shade under seven hours and brings the total time 'nauts have spent clambering outside the orbital outpost to over 59 days.

NASA's Andrew Morgan and ESA's Luca Parmitano will take their turn on 25 January, when the pair will finally finish installing the new cooling apparatus and lines for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) bolted to the ISS.

Too late to join the queue to be Japanese billionaire special Moon friend

Bad news everyone, it is now too late to apply to be Yusaku "Moneybags" Maezawa's "life partner" on his trip to Moon aboard one of Elon Musk's Starships.

We were vaguely horrified to learn that more than 20,000 hopefuls had signed up for the experience. The lucky individuals will be whittled down to a more reasonable number ahead of matchmaking dates in February followed by "special dates" with Maezawa in March.

A final decision is due by the end of March, after which the waiting begins. SpaceX watchers will remember the delays as boffins tried to make Musk's dream of creating a heavy-lifter by strapping three Falcon 9s together a reality. This mission is currently tentatively scheduled for 2023.

Sadly, patience was not listed in the qualities required in the "single woman, age 20 or over". ®

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