Space News Roundup

China lands on the Moon, Boeing Starliner goes to orbit, Hubble limps along, Starship test flight 4 went pretty well

June 6, 2024 Issue #731

Space News Part 1

Space is big. That’s why we call it “space”

There was a lot of news that hit the past day or so. I was out all day Wednesday running errands, so I didn’t have a lot of time to read and write about it all. What follows are brief synopses plus links to read more. My apologies, but sometimes life gets in the way of (my other) life.

The Chinese space agency’s Chang’e 6 lunar mission landed on the far side of the Moon on June 1, a difficult mission — the primary purpose of which is to grab a sample of the lunar surface and return it to Earth — that apparently went very well. This was a four-spacecraft mission: 1) A service module that acts as a ferry, 2) a descent module to touch down on the Moon, 3) an ascent module to send the sample into lunar orbit, after which it will rendezvous with the service module and transfer the sample to 4) a re-entry module that will take the sample down to Earth. As I write this the ascent module is in lunar orbit, and will do the rendezvous soon. The sample is expected to get to Earth in a couple of weeks. SpaceNews has more details, as does The Orbital Index.

Space News Part 2

The much-delayed Boeing Starliner rorared into orbit yesterday, after two postponed launches due to issues with the rocket. The capsule has had a checkered history, with several failures causing delays and cost overruns. However this flight seems to have gone well; two astronauts, Sunni Williams and Barry Wilmore, are on board and headed to the International Space Station. Docking should occur today around noon Eastern (US) time. Swapna Krishna has details.

The white Starliner capsule is seen face-on, a blunt cone with the hatch at its tip open, with the blue Earth in the background. A small bit of the space station portal/window frame can be seen to the upper right.

This shot was taken during Starliner’s approach to the International Space Station during its second orbital mission. Credit: Bob Hines/NASA

Space News Part 3

NASA held a press conference about Hubble Space Telescope, and the news isn’t great, but it’s not terrible: the grand old observatory is now operating with one gyro instead of three. The gyroscopes help the telescope aim and remain pointed at its target, and there are six on board (three primaries and three backups). The gyros wear down over time, and quite a few have failed and been replaced during the servicing mission back when the Shuttle was flying.

However, with the Shuttle retired, they cannot (as yet) be replaced, so engineers have been careful with what’s left. Hubble’s been operating on two gyros for some time, but one has been acting increasingly erratically of late, causing the telescope to go into safe mode, where it shuts down operations until things can be sorted out. Given that, NASA decided to switch that one off and run Hubble on just one gyro.

That won’t affect the observations themselves much, but it does reduce Hubble’s efficiency, since it will take longer to acquire targets. NASA has a great page going into all those details.

I had heard that this meant the coronagraph on STIS would no longer be used, but that turns out not to be the case; astronomer John Debes gives a mildly technical overview of this on Bluesky. STIS is the camera I worked on and helped calibrate, and the coronagraph is a series of metal wedges and rectangles that can be used to block the light from a bright source, like a star, to see fainter stuff around it, like gas and dust that feeds the star and any planets around it. I wrote about this in BAN 455 if you want details. Anyway I’m glad these observations will only be mildly impacted.

But this all does serve as a reminder that Hubble’s life is limited. It may be possible to send a private spacecraft like a SpaceX Dragon to service it once again, but that’s a very tricky proposition; it takes a lot of planning, training, and elbow grease to perform. NASA has so far declined to do this sort of mission, and I agree: For now Hubble works, and sending a Dragon there could do more damage than it fixes (for example, the maneuvering thruster exhaust could damage the instruments or mirror). If the time comes then yes, let’s do a full-up investigation, but at this very moment that’s premature.

Space News Part 4

The fourth test flight of the SpaceX Starship rocket launched this morning at 08:50 Eastern (US) time. The mission focused on propulsion and landing, a first for the enormous rocket. As I write this moments after the mission ended, it looks like it was a success, with some caveats.

One big mission goal was a soft, controlled “landing” of the huge first stage booster in the Gulf of Mexico (again, Swapna Krishna has details on the mission.). The ultimate goal is to have the booster be able to reland at the launch pad in Texas, but SpaceX is working toward this in steps. In today’s test, the idea was to be able to control the booster all the way down to the surface of the ocean and touch down gently, which they achieved! So that’s a success. The rocket actually stayed upright for a few seconds before tipping over, which is also a good sign.

Why land in the open water?

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