¶Two commercial satellites have docked for the first time. On Feb 25th, Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle 1 (MEV-1) docked with Intelsat 901 in a geostationary graveyard orbit in order to become its maneuvering system and extend its life. Intelsat 901, which is almost 19 years old, has plenty of power from its solar panels, but had run low on fuel and so had been moved to a graveyard orbit for safety. Docking with a satellite that was not designed to be docked with is an interesting challenge. Their solution: expand “fingers” inside of the target satellite engine’s narrow throat—picture a drywall anchor crossed with a leech’s jaws. After checkouts, MEV-1 will move the duo back into the geosynchronous arc and remain with Intelsat 901 for 5 years to maneuver it as needed, then will drop it off again in a graveyard orbit and head off to assist another GEO customer. MEV-1 has a design life of 15 years, allowing multiple dockings, and MEV-2 is under construction. This demonstration is a serious accomplishment, and we’re likely to see many similar missions in the future to service, deorbit, and extend the usefulness of existing space infrastructure. Check out these photos of the rendezvous and docking and a video overview of the mission.
MEV-1’s view of Intelsat 901 from its “near hold” position with the Earth in the background.
¶Heavy Lift: Starship goes boom, Blue Origin rocket factory, and Artemis-I slips again. Starship SN1 exploded dramatically during cryogenic pressure testing. Fittingly, Musk had said 12 hours before, “Failure must be an option […] What you want is to reward success […] there should be minor consequences for trying and not succeeding […] and major consequences for not trying” (we’ve paraphrased—the quote is at 20:04). Rapid failure + iteration seems to be the norm with SpaceX's "hardware rich" Starship development philosophy—they've already started to stack SN2. Meanwhile, Blue Origin released videos of their new rocket factory in Florida and the new 7-meter fairing they are building there for New Glenn—the size is staggering. Lastly, while the Orion capsule has completed testing, including a successful launch abort motor test (check out that video!), Artemis-I has slipped a little more, with NASA’s Steve Jurcyk suggesting that it'll now launch mid- to late- 2021 (here’s the Artemis update video).
¶No end-to-end test for Starliner. The Orlando Sentinel reports that Boeing never performed end-to-end testing of Starliner and its Atlas V launch vehicle together—to the apparent surprise of NASA’s safety panel. 🤦 Boeing claims they found a different way to test. NASA and Boeing will hold a press conference to announce findings and next steps for the project on Friday, March 6th. (Boeing recently intimated that there will be another OFT mission.)
¶News in brief. Jim Cantrell’s Vector is no more, and its assets have been acquired by Lockheed in bankruptcy; Curiosity is going to attempt to climb a 30˚ slope on Mars; SpaceX is looking to raise around $250 million with a $36 billion valuation; Astra failed to launch their rocket, so no one will complete the DARPA Launch Challenge; OmegA’s latest static fire test went well—no anomalies this time; a SpaceX Falcon Heavy will be the launch vehicle for NASA’s Psyche mission in 2022; NASA has officially ended the MarCO CubeSat mission after failing to regain contact with the duo last fall; WFIRST cleared an important development milestone before it begins construction (it’ll be built from a donated spy satellite)—and will launch in 2025 if it can avoid congressional budget cuts; NOAA announced that their JPSS-2 mission scheduled for 2022 will also carry a prototype inflatable decelerator designed to make human landing on Mars possible—meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed a 13.5% reduction in NOAA’s budget; and, NASA may explore human certification for New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, with the goal of flying researchers (solicitation), and potentially astronauts, on suborbital missions.
- Are you a student who’s into open source? Consider applying to Google Summer of Code for funding from May to August to work on open-source software! Options in aerospace include OpenAstronomy (including sub-projects like Poliastro—an Astrodynamics library written in Python— and JuliaAstro), GNU Radio, GNSS-SDR, Libre Space Foundation, AerospaceResearch.net, RTEMS, and others. Juan Luis Cano Rodríguez, a mentor for poliastro, has offered to provide guidance to students who are applying. You can email him here.
- A comparison between Curiosity and Mars 2020, which points out that the rover’s companion Mars Helicopter Scout is powered by COTS parts including a lithium-ion battery pack, “a Snapdragon SoC running Linux, MCUs for flight control, and a Zigbee link back to the rover.” (Zigbee, a home automation protocol, seems like an odd choice for Martian helicopter scout communications—we hope it does better at maintaining a connection than our Zigbee “smart” lights do.)
- A video about the science of NASA’s crazy Dragonfly mission, their nuclear-powered rotorcraft with onboard element-detecting pulsed neutron generator & gamma-ray spectrometer, drill for sample collection, and mass spectrometer & gas chromatograph to look for biosignatures, among other sensors (cf. Issue 19).
- An interview with Keith Cooper. Keith is the author of The Contact Paradox, an in-depth exploration of SETI concepts.
- Videos: A time-lapse of JWST assembly & sunshield deployment and a tour of the ULA’s rocket factory with Tory Bruno.
- An excerpt from Freeman Dyson’s essay “Field Theory”, written in 1953, on how to imagine quantum fields. Dyson passed away last week at the age of 96. “There is nothing else except these fields; the whole of the material universe is built of them.” See also the eponymous spheres, as applied in the fun animated intro to Stellar Engines that we shared a couple weeks ago.
- NASA is accepting applications to #BeAnAstronaut.
- This April, NASA is going to use New Horizons’s position at 47AU to make the longest baseline parallax measurement ever attempted. And, if you own a telescope, they’d like your help.