ESA commits more than $100 million to encouraging private space companies

Capitalism in space: The governmental officials representing all of the partners in the European Space Agency this week decided to commit $122 million to a program designed to encourage private independent and competing space companies.

This budget represented a 17% increase.

The ScaleUp programme, which has two elements, supports a company along its entire life cycle. First, it assists in the development of the enterprise with business incubation, business acceleration, intellectual property and technology transfer services (ScaleUp Innovate), and then, it facilitates the scaling up of their products on new markets (ScaleUp Invest).

ScaleUp is business-focused and not technology or sector specific and applies within all ESA programmes. This programme targets start-up companies, applied research and innovation centres, and more mature companies such as SMEs, Mid-Caps and large system integrators.

While encouraging news, the language of the press release and the size of the budget indicates that these European governments are being dragged kicking and screaming into this new capitalist aerospace world. It is clear that ESA has been losing out by sticking with its government-run and government-owned Arianespace operation. At the same time, it is also clear that ESA officials and their governments are showing the same reluctance Congress showed in the last decade when NASA wanted to transition from its government-run and -owned system. At that time, Congress consistently resisted budgeting the commercial space line in NASA’s budget, thus delaying the launch of both Dragon and Starliner significantly.

In the end the effectiveness of competition, private property, and freedom however won out in the U.S. I expect it will do the same in Europe, though it might take another decade or so before Europe’s governments realize it.

European nations struggle with the new private commercial space station concept

The European partners that have been doing research and work on ISS are now struggling to figure out their future on the multiple new private commercial space stations American private enterprise is now building to replace ISS.

The ISS today relies extensively on barter arrangements among participating agencies, providing services to cover their share of operations of the station. Such arrangements are unlikely to work for commercial stations, however. “We need to find a new way of cooperating,” said Nicolas Maubert, space counselor at the French Embassy in the U.S. and representative of the French space agency CNES in the U.S., citing the challenges of extending current barter arrangements to commercial stations. “We need to put on the table every option.”

The simplest approach — direct payments from space agencies to the companies operating commercial stations — could face political obstacles. “The taxpayers in Europe don’t want to pay directly to private American companies,” he said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate the fundamental problem. Europe on ISS has been for decades like a welfare queen. It has gotten access to space mostly free, since what it has offered in exchange for that access has never come close to matching what its work on ISS cost American taxpayers. Now that it will have to pay for that access in real dollars, some of its member nations are balking.

France for example still wants a free ride. Maubert suggested that Europe build its own space station, which means France wants its other ESA partners to help pay for the station that France wants to use.

I say, too bad. The costs on the private stations — built for profit and efficiency — will be far less that ISS. That cost will also be far far less than anything Europe might spend trying to build its own government station. Europe should bite the bullet and pay up. It won’t regret it.

ESA asks member nations to build lander for Franklin Mars rover

In its most recent request for funding from the member nations of the European Space Agency (ESA), the agency has asked the member nations to finance the design and construction of a new lander for its long delayed Rosalind Franklin Mars rover, replacing the Russian lander that had became unavailable due to sanctions resulting from Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.

According to the BBC (opens in new tab), ESA will request 360 million euros to kickstart work on the new landing system, with additional funds likely needed in subsequent years. ESA has already spent some 1.3 billion euro on the ExoMars program, which also includes an orbiter that has been studying Mars’ atmosphere and surface since 2017. ESA will put the plan in front of delegates of its 22 member states at a ministerial conference in November.

“We will have to wait if the [member states] decide to go forward with the project,” Parker said. “This concept is now proposed as part of the director general’s package within [ESA’s] exploration program for decision at the ministerial [conference].”

If ESA’s member nations agree to this plan, expect the launch of Franklyn to be delayed further. Based on the normal pace in which ESA functions, that lander will take a minimum of five years to design and build (likely much longer). Though ESA is now targeting ’28 for the launch of Franklin, which was supposed to launch this past summer after a two year delay, this plan likely means it will not get off the ground this decade.

Meanwhile, there are now at least a half dozen private companies building lunar landers that could more quickly (and for less money) get a Franklin Mars lander built for ESA. None are in Europe however, which means ESA would rather have this mission delayed years so that it can funnel money to its own contractors..

ESA delays first Ariane-6 launch to late in 2023

The European Space Agency has once again delayed the first Ariane-6 launch, shifting it to the fourth quarter of 2023.

Even so, officials warned that this is merely “a planned date,” and that static fire tests of both the first stage and second stage must first be completed before the launch can go forward.

Ariane-6 was initially supposed to begin launching in 2020, putting it three years behind schedule. Furthermore, it has struggled to obtain customers, as it is entirely expendable and thus expensive and not competitive with SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

Since Ariane-6 is delayed and the Ariane-5 rocket’s has only a few launches left before retirement, ESA officials also noted that it has now been forced to buy two launches from SpaceX.

The launches include the Euclid space telescope and the Hera probe, a follow-up mission to NASA’s DART spacecraft which last month succeeded in altering the path of a moonlet in the first test of a future planetary defence system. “The member states have decided that Euclid and Hera are proposed to be launched on Falcon 9,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told reporters after a meeting of the 22-nation agency’s ministerial council.

The launches will take place in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

The irony is that ESA is probably going to save a lot of money launching with the Falcon 9, rather than its own Ariane-6. In fact, I would not be surprised if the total SpaceX price for both launches equals one Ariane-6 launch. Furthermore, SpaceX gets this business because its own American competitors, ULA and Blue Origin, have also failed to get their new rockets flying on time.

ESA looking to SpaceX to launch Euclid space telescope

Capitalism in space: Having lost its Soyuz launch vehicle for its Euclid space telescope because of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the European Space Agency (ESA) is now looking at SpaceX as a possible option.

At a meeting of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Council, Mark Clampin, director of the agency’s astrophysics division, said his understanding is that the European Space Agency was leaning towards launching its Euclid mission on a Falcon 9 in mid to late 2023.

NASA is a partner on Euclid, a space telescope that will operate around the Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth to study dark energy, dark matter and other aspects of cosmology. The 2,160-kilogram spacecraft was to launch on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana in 2023.

Europe has for years used its own rockets for its science missions. However, right now the Falcon 9 appears the only option. The last launches of Europe’s Ariane-5 rocket are already assigned, and the new Ariane-6 rocket has not yet flown, is behind schedule, and its early launches are also already reserved.

Nor does ESA have other options outside of SpaceX. Of the rockets powerful enough to do the job, ULA’s Atlas-5 is also being retired, and the Vulcan rocket is as yet unavailable. Blue Origin’s New Glenn is years behind schedule, with no clear idea when it will finally launch.

A final decision is expected soon. ESA could either go with SpaceX, or simply delay several years until Ariane-6 is flying.

If SpaceX gets the job however it will once again demonstrate the value of moving fast in a competitive environment. While its competitors have dithered and thus do not have their rockets ready, SpaceX has been flying steadily for years, so it gets the business.

NASA and ESA sign simple lunar exploration agreement

In what appears to be an attempt by both to maintain their working relationship, even though several major European nations have not yet signed the Artemis Accords, last week NASA and ESA signed a simple agreement reaffirming their desire to work together in exploring the Moon.

Neither ESA nor NASA published the agreement, which in a photograph appeared to be little more than one page. In a Sept. 23 statement, NASA described the agreement as a “non-binding joint statement” about current and prospective future cooperation in Artemis.

Of ESA’s members, only France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, and the United Kingdom have signed the Artemis Accords. Thus, ESA and NASA face a conundrum. According to the accords and the NASA policy established by the Trump administration and supposedly continued under Biden, only signatories can participate in the Artemis program. Yet, most of the members of ESA have not signed, and ESA has no authority to make them do so. ESA however is building the service module for the Orion capsule — as well as other major components of Artemis — which NASA must have.

I suspect this short one page agreement is the Biden administration’s under-handed admission that — when it comes to Europe — the Artemis Accords will no longer be required.

Astrobotic gets ESA’s first commercially purchased lunar lander payload

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic yesterday announced that the European Space Agency (ESA) has purchased payload space on the company’s Griffin lunar lander for a commercially produced camera.

This is the first commercial payload ESA has purchased for a lunar mission. The camera will fly as a secondary payload on Griffin’s first mission, which will deliver NASA’s VIPER rover to the Moon’s south pole in 2024. The camera is being built by a French startup called Lunar Logistics Services.

Rocket Lab & ESA complete launches

Very early today from New Zealand Rocket Lab successfully launched the first of two quickly scheduled launches for the National Reconnaissance Office, designed to demonstrate its ability to achieve fast scheduling and rapid turnaround. The second launch is targeting July 22, 2022, only ten days later.

Also today the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully completed the first launch of its new upgraded Vega-C rocket, putting its prime payload (a passive test satellite) plus six cubesats into orbit. Though ESA says it will eventually hand over operations to Arianespace, its commercial arm, the rocket itself is mostly built by the Italian company Avio. Also, the rocket’s solid rocket first stage will be used as an optional side booster on the Ariane-6 rocket ArianeGroup is building for ESA.

Though ESA launched Vega-C, as it will eventually be managed by Arianespace I include it in that company’s total, which is now three launches for 2022.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

29 SpaceX
22 China
9 Russia
5 Rocket Lab
4 ULA

American private enterprise. now leads China 42 to 22 in the national rankings, and the entire globe 42 to 38.

Europe’s new long term space strategy calls for its own independent and competing manned program

Figure 6 from the Terrae Novae policy paper

The new colonial movement: The European Space Agency (ESA) yesterday unveiled a new roadmap for its future space effort, aimed primarily in developing an independent space program capable of launching its own astronauts and taking them to both the Moon and Mars.

The program is dubbed Terrae Novae (“New Worlds”) and aims to put European astronauts on other worlds using its own rockets and landers by the 2030s. The graphic to the right, figure 6 from the policy paper, illustrates this long term goal.

From the full document [pdf]:
» Read more

ArianeGroup chosen by Europe to develop reusable rockets

The new colonial movement: The European Commission, which makes the major decisions for the European Space Agency, has chosen the European commercial company ArianeGroup to run two programs designed to produce that continent’s first reusable rocket.

From the press release [pdf]:

The SALTO project will facilitate the first flight tests of the Themis reusable stage demonstrator in Kiruna, Sweden. The ENLIGHTEN project will speed up the development and introduction of reusable engine technologies.

The main goal of SALTO will be to develop the kind of vertical landing technology that SpaceX now does routinely. ENLIGHTEN in turn will develop rocket engines using either methane or hydrogen as the fuel. The total budget allocated for both is just under 50 million euros, which seems quite small. The press release also made no mention of a schedule for accomplishing these tasks.

Ariane-6 rocket delayed again

Capitalism in space: The first launch of ArianeGroup’s new rocket, Ariane-6, has been delayed again, and will not launch this year as planned.

The new delay appears mostly related to getting the rocket’s ground systems up and running.

The rocket, being built for the European Space Agency’s commercial division, Arianespace, had originally been scheduled for launch in 2020. Initially the rocket struggled to find customers, because it is not reusable and is thus more expensive. That changed in the past few months with the Ukraine War eliminating Russian rockets as a competitor combined with a new gigantic launch contract from Amazon to launch a large number of its Kuiper satellites using Ariane-6.

Russia proposes restart of ExoMars partnership with ESA

Russia’s aerospace corporation Roscosmos has proposed to the European Space Agency (ESA) that its partnership to launch and land ESA’s Franklin rover on Mars be renewed, despite the Ukraine War and Roscosmos’ confiscation of 36 OneWeb satellites.

[According to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin] the equipment and Kazachok landing platform for the mission have the potential for launch in 2024. “ESA colleagues promised to make requests to their patrons, who are ESA member states. If they cooperate and give their consent, the mission may be implemented,” Rogozin said.

He estimates the likelihood of this scenario to be at about 708%. [sic] Roscosmos plans to get the response in late June. [emphasis mine]

It would not be surprising if ESA made this deal, despite its stupidity. Roscosmos’ actions recently, especially related to OneWeb, prove the people running it are very untrustworthy business partners. Yet Europe’s historic willingness to deal with the devil for short term gain — eventually and repeatedly leading to overall disaster — is legendary.

ESA successfully tests controlling a robot on Earth from orbit

The European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully completed a test program, proving that an astronaut in orbit on ISS can control and operate a small robot on Earth.

Astronaut Luca Parmitano aboard the ISS [in 2019] operated the gripper-equipped ESA Interact rover in a mock lunar environment inside a hangar in Valkenburg, the Netherlands to survey rocks and collect samples. The two-hour space-to-ground test was a success, overcoming a two-way signal delay averaging more than 0.8 seconds and a data packet loss rate of 1% plus.

The value of this test is obvious. It shows that astronauts will be able to use small rovers and robots in remote operations, such as sending a probe down to the surface before landing themselves, or once on the planet sending that probe into dangerous terrain as a scout, while the astronaut stays back in safety.

At the same time, the robot used and the tasks it completed were all relatively simple. Moreover, the “mock lunar environment” was hardly realistic. A lot more work is needed before such a robot is functional in a real planetary environment.

Europe removes its science instruments from future Russian lunar missions

The Europe Space Agency (ESA) yesterday announced that because of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine it will no longer fly any science instruments on three upcoming Russian unmanned lunar probes.

ESA will discontinue cooperative activities with Russia on Luna-25, -26 and -27. As with ExoMars, the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the resulting sanctions put in place represent a fundamental change of circumstances and make it impossible for ESA to implement the planned lunar cooperation. However, ESA’s science and technology for these missions remains of vital importance. A second flight opportunity has already been secured on board a NASA-led Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) mission for the PROSPECT lunar drill and volatile analysis package (originally planned for Luna-27). An alternative flight opportunity to test the ESA navigation camera known as PILOT-D (originally planned for Luna-25) is already being procured from a commercial service provider.

In other words, Europe is switching to the many private American companies that are developing lunar landers for NASA science instruments. It has also signed onto a Japanese lunar mission. All have payload space, and all are willing to take the cash of a new customer.

Meanwhile, this is how Dmitry Rogozin responded to this decision:

“Good riddance! One less European dame off our backs, so Russia should go far with a lighter load,”

To sum this all up, when it comes to space, the Ukraine invasion has been Russia’s loss, and everyone else’s gain. Even if the invasion were to end today, it will take at least a decade to re-establish Russia’s business ties with the west.

Unfortunately, the invasion will cost the Ukraine as well. In making the above announcement ESA officials also said that it is looking for alternatives to the Ukrainian rocket engines used in its Vega-C upper stage.

At the news conference, ESA also discussed the future of its small Vega rocket, which relies on Ukraine-built engines in its upper stage. The engines are manufactured by the Ukrainian company Yuzhmash, which is based in the tech city of Dnipro. Although Dnipro has been under heavy bombardment, there have been no official reports so far about damage to Yuzhmash. It is, however, clear that ESA doesn’t expect to continue its partnership with the company in the future. “We now have sufficient engines for 2022 and 2023,” Aschbacher said. “We are working on options for 2024 and onwards based on different technologies.”

Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation, added: “We are working on engine opportunities within Europe and outside of Europe, which are either tested or, even better, already existing and fully qualified.”

Whether ESA completely breaks off its partnership with the Ukraine however is not certain. Should the war continue to favor the Ukraine, then it could be that partnership will continue. Only time will tell. Right now, it is simply prudent for ESA to look for more stable alternatives.

Europe to put instrument on Japanese rover being launched and landed on the Moon by India

The new colonial movement: The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed an agreement with Japan’s space agency JAXA to put a science instrument on a Japanese rover that will be launched by India to the Moon and landed there on an Indian lander.

Under the deal, ESA would provide instruments for the Japanese rover, which would be used in the exploration of the Moon’s south pole under the mission targeted for 2024. … The lunar endeavour between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and JAXA is called the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission (LUPEX) which aims to launch an Indian lander and a Japanese rover to the Moon.

In the next three years a lot of landers and rovers are planning to land on the Moon, most built by private American companies flying NASA and private payloads, but also joined by probes being sent by Russia, China, and now this Japanese-Indian-European mission. Even if only half succeed, the exploration of the lunar surface will still be quite busy.

Europe’s deep space communications network to support India’s next two missions beyond Earth orbit

The new colonial movement: Based upon a 2021 agreement, the European Space Agency (ESA) today outlined how its deep space communications network of antennas will support India’s next two missions beyond Earth orbit.

ESA’s global deep-space communication antennas will provide essential support to both missions every step of the way, tracking the spacecraft, pinpointing their locations at crucial stages, transmitting commands and receiving ‘telemetry’ and valuable science data.

In June 2021, ESA and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) signed an agreement to provide technical support to each other, including tracking and communication services to upcoming Indian space missions via ESA’s ground stations.

The first missions to benefit from this new support agreement will enable India look to the Sun and the Moon with the Aditya-L1 solar observatory and Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander and rover, both due to launch in 2022 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota Range (SDSC SHAR), India.

Though scheduled for launch this year, ISRO (India’s space agency) has not yet announced firm launch dates for either.

This arrangement signals an effort by India and Europe to remain independent of the American Artemis program, which is NASA’s central program for manned missions beyond Earth orbit. To partner with NASA for such missions the Trump administration had demanded nations sign the Artemis Accords, though that requirement might have been eased by the Biden administration for deep space communications.

Regardless, this agreement gives both India and ESA flexibility for remaining outside the accords, at least for now. Neither India nor most of the partners in the ESA have signed, with France and Germany the most notable European nations remaining outside the accords.

Solar Orbiter takes closest image of Sun so far

Solar Orbiter's closest image of the Sun, so far
Click for full interactive image, where you can zoom in, a lot.

Cool image time! The European Space Agency (ESA) yesterday released several new images from its Solar Orbiter probe, taken when the spacecraft made its most recent closest approach of the Sun.

One of the images, taken by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) is the highest resolution image of the Sun’s full disc and outer atmosphere, the corona, ever taken.

Another image, taken by the Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE) instrument represents the first full Sun image of its kind in 50 years, and by far the best one, taken at the Lyman-beta wavelength of ultraviolet light that is emitted by hydrogen gas.

The images were taken when Solar Orbiter was at a distance of roughly 75 million kilometres, half way between our world and its parent star. The high-resolution telescope of EUI takes pictures of such high spatial resolution that, at that close distance, a mosaic of 25 individual images is needed to cover the entire Sun. Taken one after the other, the full image was captured over a period of more than four hours because each tile takes about 10 minutes, including the time for the spacecraft to point from one segment to the next.

The photo to the right, reduced to post here, is the EUI photo.

Solar Orbiter has been in its science orbit since November, though that orbit over time will slowly be adjusted to swing the spacecraft into a higher inclination so that it can make the first close-up observations of the Sun’s polar regions. It is also working in tandem with the Parker Solar Probe, which observes the Sun from even closer distances using different instruments.

ESA: ExoMars launch in ’22 “very unlikely” due to Russian invasion of the Ukraine

In a statement yesterday condemning Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and responding to the Russians’ decision to suspend cooperation with Arianespace in French Guiana, the European Space Agency (ESA) also admitted, almost as an aside, that the ExoMars launch in ’22 to Mars is now “very unlikely.”

That mission is a partnership with Russia, where the Russians provide the rocket and the lander that will put Europe’s Franklin rover on the surface.

For the scientists running ExoMars, this delay only adds to their frustration, as the mission has already been delayed several times, most recently from a ’20 launch because the lander parachutes — being built by ESA — were not ready.

ESA dithers, forming committee to study concept of building its own manned capsule

My heart be still! The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to create a committee to study the concept of building a European manned capsule so that it will no longer be dependent on either the U.S. or Russia to get its astronauts into space.

Aschbacher said a draft mandate for the new advisory group will be presented to ESA members at a March meeting of the ESA Council, with the goal for the group to start working immediately thereafter. The committee will prepare an interim report in time for the ministerial meeting in November, with a final report by next spring.

“It is clear that this group has to be independent and comprising mostly non-space experts,” he said, “because we really would like to look at various aspects of society from an economic point of view, a historical point of view, a geopolitical point of view.” That means including people such as artists and philosophers in the group to look at various aspects of exploration beyond science and technology. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate the empty PR nature of this committee. It will not result in any European manned spacecraft at all. Instead, it will spend more than a year talking a lot about the wonders of space, and then produce a report repeating how wonderful space is and how Europe must be there.

The result? ESA will have wasted a year and not gotten itself one iota closer to having its own manned spacecraft.

If this hollow effort was the exception to the rule for Europe, there might be hope some political pressure could get the committee reformed and actually include engineers to develop a real design. That hope is in vain, however, because this is how Europe and ESA does everything. By the time ESA produces the first designs of this capsule, probably five to six years hence, it will be so out-of-date that building it would be a joke.

In a larger sense, this absurd committee and the top management at ESA and in the European Union that proposed it illustrate the overall bankruptcy of modern civilization’s entire management class. The people running governments worldwide are generally all do-nothing idiots, who talk a lot, waste a lot of money for their own aggrandizement, impose taxes and regulations on everyone else that makes the lives of ordinary people a misery, and fail in almost every project they undertake. We need only look at their panicked, dishonest, and failed global response to the Wuhan flu in the past two years for a prime example.

The official intellectual class that is running our governments worldwide are bankrupt. They need to be fired.

ESA selects Ariane-6’s first payloads

The European Space Agency (ESA), ArianeGroup, and Arianespace today announced the payloads that will fly on the first launch of its new Ariane-6 rocket.

The payloads are a variety of cubesats and science experiments, none heavier than 175 pounds with a total payload weight less than one ton. These secondary payloads will either be deployed from or kept attached to a dummy mass that will simulate a large primary satellite payload.

The press release makes no mention of a launch date, as has been the pattern in the last few Ariane-6 press releases. The last release to mention a launch date was in October 2020, which then predicted a launch in the second quarter of ’22. That this date is no longer being mentioned suggests the date has been pushed back, though for how long remains a mystery.

Lockheed Martin wins NASA contract to build Mars rocket

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded Lockheed Martin a $194 million contract to build the Mars rocket that will lift Perseverance’s samples into orbit for return to Earth.

Set to become the first rocket fired off another planet, the MAV [Mars Ascent Vehicle] is a crucial part of a campaign to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover and deliver them to Earth for advanced study. NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander, another important part of the campaign, would carry the MAV to Mars’ surface, landing near or in Jezero Crater to gather the samples cached by Perseverance. The samples would be returned to the lander, which would serve as the launch platform for the MAV. With the sample container secured, the MAV would then launch.

Once it reaches Mars orbit, the container would be captured by an ESA (European Space Agency) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft outfitted with NASA’s Capture, Containment, and Return System payload. The spacecraft would bring the samples to Earth safely and securely in the early- to mid-2030s.

According to this project’s webpage, the European Space Agency (ESA) is building that they call a “fetch rover” which will be deployed from the rover to get the samples and bring them back to the MAV.

There are a lot of uncertainties in this scenario. It has been decades since Lockheed Martin built rockets. ESA has not yet built an operational Mars rover. It is also unclear who will build NASA’s lander and capture/return payload. Thus, do not expect this mission to launch “as early as ’26,” as the press release says. I predict it will launch at least five, maybe ever ten years, later.

Webb telescope reaches launchpad on Ariane 5 + how to watch launch

The James Webb Space Telescope, stacked on top of Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket, has finally reached its launchpad in French Guiana after twenty years of development costing 20 times its original budget.

The launch itself is now scheduled for December 25, 2021 at 7:20 am (Eastern). It will be live streamed by both NASA (in English) and Arianespace (with options in English, French, or Spanish).

I have embedded below NASA’s feed. As always, expect NASA to pump you with lots of propaganda during its live stream.

When all is said and done, Webb has the chance to show us things about the universe we’ve never seen before. Optimized for deep space cosmology, it will provide us a window into the earliest moments of the universe’s existence. And is infrared capabilities will allow it to peer into many nearer places obscured by dust with a resolution unmatched by previous telescopes.

Keep your fingers crossed all goes as planned.
» Read more

ESA delays Webb launch one day due to weather

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced late yesterday that, due to “adverse weather conditions” in French Guiana, it has delayed the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope on an Ariane 5 rocket one day to December 25th.

The announcement also stated that the final launch readiness review also approved the launch, though no update has yet been issued on the ground control communications problem that had caused a two day delay last week.

Meanwhile, this story and its headline encapsulates the terror I think many astronomers presently feel about this telescope:

Why Astronomers Are “Crying and Throwing Up Everywhere” Over the Upcoming Telescope Launch

The sense is one of helpless panic among astronomers who want to use Webb. They know it will do really cutting edge science, but they also know that many things can go wrong, and the history of the telescope (ten years late and 20x overbudget) will likely make replacing it impossible.

And many things can go wrong. Below is NASA’s video showing the telescope’s complex unfolding, step-by-step, after launch.
» Read more

Scientists discover underground reservoir of hydrogen, likely ice, near Martian equator

Detection of underground hydrogen in Valles Marineris
Click for full image.

In what could be a very significant discovery, scientists using Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) have discovered a surprisingly large underground reservoir of hydrogen, likely ice, near Martian equator and inside the solar system’s largest known canyon, Valles Marineris.

The map to the right, reduced to post here, provides all the important data. From its caption:

The coloured scale at the bottom of the frame shows the amount of ‘water-equivalent hydrogen’ (WEH) by weight (wt%). As reflected on these scales, the purple contours in the centre of this figure show the most water-rich region. In the area marked with a ‘C’, up to 40% of the near-surface material appears to be composed of water (by weight). The area marked ‘C’ is about the size of the Netherlands and overlaps with the deep valleys of Candor Chaos, part of the canyon system considered promising in our hunt for water on Mars.

What the caption does not note is the latitude of this hydrogen, about 3 to 10 degrees south latitude. Assuming the hydrogen represents underground ice, this would be the first detection on Mars below 30 degrees latitude, and the very first in the equatorial regions. Data from orbit has suggested that Mars has a lot of water ice, found near the surface more and more as you move into higher latitudes above 30 degrees and making Mars much like Antarctica. Almost no ice however had until now been detected below 30 degrees latitude. As the European Space Agency’s press release noted,
» Read more

Arianespace launches two Galileo GPS-type satellites

Capitalism in space: Using a Russian Soyuz-2 rocket, Arianespace successfully launched two Galileo GPS-type satellites from its spaceport in French Guiana tonight.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

45 China
27 SpaceX
20 Russia
6 Europe (Arianespace)

China still leads the U.S. 45 to 42 in the national rankings. This launch tonight was 116th successful launch in 2021, which is the most launches completed in a year since 1988. Based on the number of planned launched over the next three weeks, there is an outside chance that the global total will top 127, making this the second most active year ever in the history of space. Even if the numbers end up in the mid-120s, 2021 will be among the top eight years ever.

And I expect next year to easily top this year.

Mars Express successfully relays data from Zhurong to Earth

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has successfully been used to relay data from China’s Zhurong Mars rover to Earth and then to China.

In November, ESA’s Mars Express and CNSA’s Zhurong teams carried out a series of experimental communication tests in which Mars Express used this ‘in the blind’ mode to listen for signals sent to it by the Zhurong Rover.

The experiments culminated in a successful test on 20 November. “Mars Express successfully received the signals sent by the rover, and our colleagues in the Zhurong team confirmed that all the data arrived on Earth in very good quality.” says ESA’s Gerhard Billig.

Apparently, normal communications would first involve “handshake” communications between the two, but that requires communications frequencies Zhurong does not use. Mars Express instead had to grab the data on the blind. The test was a success, which means the ESA will likely act as another communications relay for Zhurong, in addition to China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter, as the rover’s mission on Mars continues.

Engineers: Webb undamaged by “incident”, ready for December 22nd launch

Arianespace engineers have confirmed after testing that the James Webb Space Telescope was undamaged by “incident” that occurred during stacking, and have okayed the resumption of the telescope’s preparation for launch.

On Wednesday, Nov. 24, engineering teams completed these tests, and a NASA-led anomaly review board concluded no observatory components were damaged in the incident. A “consent to fuel” review was held, and NASA gave approval to begin fueling the observatory. Fueling operations will begin Thursday, Nov. 25, and will take about 10 days.

The launch is now set for December 22nd.

Europe’s Solar Orbiter to make last flyby of Earth

Solar Orbiter, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) probe to work in tandem with NASA Parker Solar Probe in studying the inner regions surrounding the Sun, will make last flyby of Earth on November 27, 2021, thus putting it into its planned science orbit.

While the press release gives a good overview of the mission, it focuses on the risk during that fly-by of the spacecraft hitting something during its close approach.

Solar Orbiter’s Earth flyby takes place on 27 November. At 04:30 GMT (05:30 CET) on that day, the spacecraft will be at its closest approach, just 460 km above North Africa and the Canary Islands. This is almost as close as the orbit of the International Space Station.

The manoeuvre is essential to decrease the energy of the spacecraft and line it up for its next close pass of the Sun but it comes with a risk. The spacecraft must pass through two orbital regions, each of which is populated with space debris.

The first is the geostationary ring of satellites at 36 000 km, and the second is the collection of low Earth orbits at around 400 km. As a result, there is a small risk of a collision. Solar Orbiter’s operations team are monitoring the situation very closely and will alter the spacecraft’s trajectory if it appears to be in any danger.

While there is a risk, it seems to me that ESA is taking advantage of the recent news outburst in connection with the Russian anti-sat test and the space junk it created to sell this mission. The risk of impact during this fly-by is very low, especially in the geostationary ring.

Italy switches from Arianespace to SpaceX for launch contract

Capitalism in space: Because of the two recent launch failures of Arianespace’s Vega rocket (built mostly in Italy), the Italian space agency (ASI) has decided to take the launch of an Earth observation satellite from Arianespace and award the launch contract instead to SpaceX.

The article at the link describes in detail the history and politics that make this decision significant. Essentially, because Arianespace in the past decade has failed to meet the challenge of SpaceX, so that its launches continue to be more expensive, this government-subsidized business has tried to force nations in the European Space Agency (ESA) to use Arianespace rockets via political agreements.

With this decision Italy is defying that pressure, which in turn is going to increase the pressure on Arianespace to finally step up its game, or die from lack of business. For example, when the ESA agreed to have Arianespace build its next generation rocket, the Ariane 6, it failed to require it to be reuseable. The Ariane 6 rocket was therefore designed as an expendable rocket, which meant that right from the start it could not compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9. It has therefore failed to win launch contracts.

Expect the Ariane 6 to continue to fade as the years pass, simply because the bureaucrats in ESA and Arianespace refused to take their competition seriously.

Arianespace successfully completes first Ariane 5 launch in almost a year

Arianespace today successfully completed its first Ariane 5 launch since August 2020, placing in orbit two commercial communications satellites.

The long gap in launches occurred because of a vibration issue discovered during that August 2020 launch durng the release of the rocket’s two fairing halves.

Engineers introduced modifications to the Ariane 5’s payload fairing, or nose cone, to reduce vibrations imparted on the satellites during separation of the shroud, which protects payloads during the first few minutes of flight through the atmosphere. Ground teams will analyze data from the rocket to make sure the changes reduced the vibrations.

Another launch is scheduled for September, followed next by the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in either November or December. The results from today’s launch as well as the one in September will determine if the Webb launch will go forward on time.

These issues with Ariane 5, delays imposed by the company in fear of the Wuhan flu, and other launch problems with Arianespace’s Vega rocket, has meant that this is only its second launch in 2021, a pace that is below its pace for most of the last decade. Whether the company can recover and pick up the pace before the end of the year will depend on what they learn during today’s launch.

With only two launches total, Europe’s Arianespace remains off the leader board in the 2021 launch race:

24 China
20 SpaceX
12 Russia
3 Northrop Grumman
3 Rocket Lab

The U.S. lead over China in the national rankings remains 30 to 24.

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