Rocket Lab crows about launch, SpaceX zipwires, and a monster mock-up arrives at Kennedy – The Register

Roundup While shy and retiring Elon Musk may have made a big noise with his big rocket, there was plenty other news for space fans to chew over in the last week.

Small-sat upstart RocketLab has set the date kind of for its ninth Electron launch. The mission, still from the company's New Zealand Launch Complex 1, is scheduled for lift-off during a 24-day window, which opens on 14 October (UTC).

The company is still some way from achieving the cadence it boasts of, with the launch window opening almost two months after the successful "Look Ma, No Hands" mission.

There have been some manifest shenanigans, however, with the original customer for this mission requesting a later launch date. The slip has allowed fellow upstart satellite operator Santa Clara-based Astro Digital to nab the Electron for its satellite.

The name of the mission is a nod to the operator's Corvus satellite platform. The Corvus genus of birds includes ravens, rooks and... crows. Geddit?

The launch announcement came as the company completed a major milestone toward erecting an Electron at its Launch Complex 2 in Virginia, USA.

Construction of the pad began in February 2019 and in recent weeks the launch platform was installed. The strongback, which lifts the Electron vertically, is due for installation imminently and the remaining work consists of fitting and testing connections ahead of completion in December 2019.

The first launch from US soil is expected in "early 2020".

While Elon Musk bragged about Starship, NASA's boffins continued their methodical plod toward a Space Launch System (SLS) launch with a full scale mock-up of the SLS arriving by barge to demonstrate that the functional version can be processed by the venerable space port.

Those with long memories will remember similar activities with Space Shuttle Enterprise and the External Tank ahead of Columbia's first launch.

The Pathfinder stage arrived on NASA's Pegasus barge and was moved into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for a month of testing. The team plans to practice stacking manoeuvres ahead of the long-awaited arrival of actual Artemis I hardware.

That core stage, which will send an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon, must first undergo a full test firing, with all flight hardware, at Stennis Space Center ahead of finally arriving at Kennedy in 2020.

Japan's HTV-8 was successfully bolted to the International Space Station (ISS) over the weekend with ground controllers dealing with the attachment after astronauts captured the thing with the station's robotic arm.

As well as a number of experiments on board the freighter, the Kounotori 8 H-II Transfer Vehicle also carries six new lithium-ion batteries and adapter plates to replace ageing nickel-hydrogen units on the ISS.

The arrival comes as the ISS prepares to see its existing nine-person crew reduced to six as Alexey Ovchinin, Nick Hague and spaceflight participant Hazzaa Ali Almansoori pack their bags for a return to Earth onboard Soyuz MS-12.

The trio are due to leave the station on Thursday ahead of a 5pm (Kazakhstan time) landing.

SpaceX continued its slow progress towards flying a crew to the ISS despite the NASA Administrator launching a toy or two from his pram at ongoing commercial crew delays.

Last week's test concerned getting astronauts away from the launch pad in the event of an emergency before lift-off.

Two evacuation exercises were demonstrated by astronauts Bob Behnken and Shannon Walker. The first was an "expedited non-emergency egress", which saw the 'nauts saunter back from the white room at the end of the crew access arm and descend by the launch tower's elevator.

The second was the altogether more exciting emergency egress, which involved clambering into the slidewire baskets which would whisk the crew to an armoured vehicle on the ground.

Sadly, although the crew demonstrated improvements made to those baskets since the Shuttle era, it was an empty, weighted basket that got to take the wild ride to the ground and show off the updated braking mechanisms.

There was also no Crew Dragon capsule present for the crew to actually escape from. SpaceX has yet to demonstrate an inflight abort for an uncrewed mission ahead of the first crewed mission from the launchpad since the days of the Space Shuttle.

Arianespace's next launcher, the Ariane 6, took a big step toward launch as the rocket's Vulcain 2.1 liquid-fuelled engine completed a 15-month test campaign at the DLR German Aerospace Center in Lampoldshausen.

The last firing of the engine (one of two demonstration models) lasted for nearly 11 minutes, bringing the total operation during testing to almost 11 hours. During a launch, the engine will be expected to fire for eight minutes, propelling the Ariane 6 to an altitude of 200km.

A refurbishment for vibration testing is next on the agenda along with combined tests with a fully representative main stage. The qualification of the Vinci upper stage engine was completed in October 2018 although a static firing of the final qualification model of Ariane 6's P120C solid-fuel booster in French Guiana is still pending.

Finally, as the 2024 boots-on-the-Moon date creeps closer, NASA is seeking proposals for getting humans there and back again, otherwise known as the Artemis programme.

The final call to industry comes after two earlier drafts, and NASA expects proposals by 1 November because, well, the clock is ticking.

The agency plans to make multiple awards to industry for development and demonstration of a human landing system. The first company selected will handle the 2024 landing. The second company will take care of a landing in 2025.

It's going to be a challenge. As NASA acknowledges: "Typical spaceflight hardware can take six to eight years to develop." There is less than five years to go before the agency hopes to get the humans back on the lunar surface.

To that end, NASA has cut the number of contract deliverables to just 37.

While the agency still hopes that a lander and Orion capsule will launch separately and meet at the Lunar Gateway space station, NASA is "open to alternative, innovative approaches".

However, dropped is NASA's desire to make its lunar lander refuelable. In order to give industry a fighting chance of making that 2024 date, the requirement, originally set when the goal was 2028, has been removed.

Although NASA would really like to have the option at some point in the future.

Otherwise Artemis risks losing much of its much-vaunted sustainability in favour of another Apollo-style rush to the Moon.

For those wondering about the challenge of building a lunar lander, we'd recommend the "Spider" episode of HBO's From The Earth To The Moon series.

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Rocket Lab crows about launch, SpaceX zipwires, and a monster mock-up arrives at Kennedy - The Register

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