ESA contracts Airbus to build three more Orion service modules

The European Space Agency (ESA) late last week announced that it has awarded Airbus a contract to build three more service modules for NASA’s Orion capsule.

This new contract supplements the existing contract that already has Airbus building three service modules. With six service modules in the pipeline, the ESA is signaling that it is very confident the Artemis program will continue.

The key question remains: Will it continue with SLS as the rocket of choice? Right now there simply aren’t the funds to build six SLS rockets. Congress has only funded two. Moreover, the pace of construction for SLS means that, if funded, it will likely take a decade at least for it to launch these six capsule/service modules. Since SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy will likely be operational in about half that time, and will also be capable of much more for far less, I suspect that if these additional Orion capsules get launched, they will do so on something other than SLS.

ESA funds ArianeGroup prototype vertical landing hopper

The European Space Agency (ESA) has now committed 33 million euros for ArianeGroup to develop a prototype vertical landing hopper dubbed Themis that would begin testing first stage landings by ’23.

ArianeGroup and its collaborators in Belgium, Switzerland, France and Sweden offer critical technical knowhow gained through the development of Europe’s next-generation engine – Prometheus – which will power Themis.

ESA’s Prometheus is a highly versatile engine capable of providing 1000 kN of variable thrust and is reignitable which makes it suitable for core, booster and upper stage application. An onboard computer handles engine management and monitoring in real time – a crucial feature for reusability.

ArianeGroup is the private consortium led by Airbus and Safran that is building Ariane 6. This deal suggests that ESA amd ArianeGroup has finally recognized that Ariane 6, built without reusability, is a lemon and is not attracting customers. This new contract starts the process of developing a reusable first stage.

They still might be too late. They will only begin testing the Themis prototype in ’23, with no clarity on when a full scale version will follow. Meanwhile, it is very likely that SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship/Super Heavy will be flying orbital missions by then, and likely charging far less than they presently do for their Falcon 9.

ESA funds construction of its own X-37B, dubbed Space Rider

The new colonial movement: The European Space Agency (ESA) has now signed the contracts to fund the construction of its first reusable mini-shuttle, dubbed Space Rider and comparable to the Air Force’s X-37B.

ESA signed two contracts with industry on 9 December at Palazzo Chigi in Rome, Italy in the presence of Italian government representatives. The first contract is for delivery of the Space Rider flight model including the reentry module and the AVUM orbital service module, by co-prime contractors: Thales Alenia Space Italy and Avio. The second contract covers the delivery of the ground segment by Italian co-prime contractors: Telespazio and Altec.

Activities are on track for the first flight of Space Rider in the third quarter of 2023 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

Like the X-37B, Space Rider will provide Europe with a space platform for performing long term experiments in space and recovering them undamaged, though initially the flights will be no more than two months long. While it will launch on a rocket like the X-37B, and will use its body to shed velocity as it returns through the atmosphere, it will not land on a runway but will instead use parachutes to drop it to the ground.

More importantly, Space Rider will be available to the private sector. The X-37B is controlled by the U.S. military, and they have made it available for only a limited number of non-military experiments.

New Gaia data release tracks distance and motion of 1.8 billion stars

The European Space Agency (ESA) today released the third round of data from its Gaia satellite, designed to measure precisely the distance and motion of billions of nearby stars.

Gaia EDR3 contains detailed information on more than 1.8 billion sources, detected by the Gaia spacecraft. This represents an increase of more than 100 million sources over the previous data release (Gaia DR2), which was made public in April 2018. Gaia EDR3 also contains colour information for around 1.5 billion sources, an increase of about 200 million sources over Gaia DR2. As well as including more sources, the general accuracy and precision of the measurements has also improved.

This release also included the following discoveries:

  • The Milky Way’s outer regions beyond the Sun contain two populations of stars, one slowly dropping towards the galaxy’s plane, the second flying away quickly.
  • The first precise measure of the solar system’s orbit in the Milky Way
  • A more complete census of all stars within 100 parsecs of the Sun
  • A better map of the interaction between the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Milky Way, which also showed that the cloud does have a spiral structure

This precise data will take decades to digest, as past research has been based on only rough distance and motion estimates. Having precise data will change our approximation of each object’s brightness, which will also change much of what we assume about it.

ESA signs contract for 1st space junk removal

Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency (ESA) has now signed a contract with a private company, ClearSpace SA, for the first dedicated commercial mission to remove a piece of orbiting space junk.

ESA officials signed a contract with ClearSpace on Nov 13. to complete the safe deorbiting of a payload adapter launched aboard the second flight of the Arianespace Vega rocket in 2013.

Unlike traditional ESA contracts that involve the agency procuring and coordinating the mission, ClearSpace-1 is a contract to purchase a service: the safe removal of a piece of space debris. ESA officials said they intend this mission to help establish a new commercial sector led by European industry. The 86 million euros supplied by ESA will be supplemented with an additional 24 million euros ClearSpace is raising from commercial investors. Approximately 14 million euros of the privately-raised funding will be utilized for the mission, while the remaining 10 million will be set aside for contingencies, ESA spokesperson Valeria Andreoni told SpaceNews.

First, that the ESA has decided here to shift from running the mission and to merely being the customer buying the product from a private company is magnificent news. Europe has been, like NASA was in the 2000s, very reluctant to give up its total control in the design, construction, and launch of rockets and spacecraft. That they are now mimicking NASA’s own shift in the 2010s to this private model, as I outlined in detail in Capitalism in Space, means that ESA’s bureaucracy is finally coming around to the idea of freedom, capitalism, and private enterprise. What a thing!

Second, though this mission is commercial, it isn’t really a practical economic solution to the removal of most space junk. The contract will cost $104 million, plus the additional private capital ClearSpace has raised. None of this appears to include the launch cost. Yet, it will only remove one defunct object in orbit.

Such a technology will be useful for removing specific large pieces of space junk that pose a risk should they crash to Earth. It will not be economically useful for removing the small junk in orbit that threatens other working satellites and spacecraft. For that technology to be cost effective it will need to be able to clean up many objects on a single flight.

ESA maps out first launch schedule for new rockets

Capitalism in space? The European Space Agency (ESA) today laid out the development roadmap that will lead to the launch of two new rockets, the Vega-C being built by the Italian company Avio, and the Ariane 6 being built by ArianeGroup.

The Vega-C is a more powerful version of the Vega rocket, aimed at capturing the smaller satellite market. It maiden flight is now scheduled for June ’21.

The Ariane 6 is aimed at replacing the Ariane 5, Europe’s big workhorse rocket, but to do so at a lower cost. Its maiden flight is now set for the second quarter of ’22, a significant delay from the previously announced target date in ’21, which itself was a delay from the original late ’20 launch date.

Ariane 6 however has not succeeded in cutting costs enough to match its competitor SpaceX, and thus it continues to have trouble attracting customers, even among ESA’s partner nations that it is meant to serve. These issues have led to rumors that ESA is already looking to either significantly upgrade Ariane 6 (before it even flies), or replace it entirely wit a new re usable rocket.

NASA and ESA ink Lunar Gateway deal

NASA yesterday announced that it has signed a deal with the European Space Agency (ESA) outlining their partnership in building the Lunar Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon.

Under this agreement, ESA will contribute habitation and refueling modules, along with enhanced lunar communications, to the Gateway. The refueling module also will include crew observation windows. In addition to providing the hardware, ESA will be responsible for operations of the Gateway elements it provides. ESA also provides two additional European Service Modules (ESMs) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. These ESMs will propel and power Orion in space on future Artemis missions and provide air and water for its crew.

For some reason NASA’s press release makes no mention of what ESA gets from the deal. From this news report:

[ESA] said it will receive “three flight opportunities for European astronauts to travel to and work on the Gateway” as part of the agreement.

I also note that there is no mention of the Artemis Accords in this agreement. As far as I can tell, right now the only ESA member who has signed on is the United Kingdom, and I am not sure of the UK’s status in the ESA considering their exit from the European Union. The two are different political deals, but exiting one might affect the other.

The Trump administration has said repeatedly that it will only partner in its lunar ambitions with countries that sign the accords. However, at this moment Congress has simply not funded those ambitions, so NASA needs partners to get things built. Moreover, Orion is a space capsule (costing about $18 billion and taking 20 years to build) that does not have a service module to provide it air and water. Europe provides that, and had only agreed to build two.

It might be that NASA has traded the accords away to get Europe’s help for both Gateway and Orion. This deal, announced now, might also be an effort by NASA (and Europe) to lobby Congress to fork up the cash.

Mercury probe BepiColombo probe flies past Venus

Venus during BepiColombo fly-by
Click for full image.

The two-pronged European and Japanese probe BepiColombo today has completed its first of two fly-bys of Venus on its way to an arrival at Mercury in 2025.

The image to the right is one of 64 taken during the fly-by. The science team has created a movie from those images, showing Venus slide past as the spacecraft slewed to view it. During the fly-by the instruments on board its Japanese and European orbiters, both of which will separate and operate independently once they reach Mercury, gathered data of Earth’s sister planet.

The spacecraft still needs one more Venus fly-by plus six past Mercury to get it on a trajectory that will put it in orbit around Mercury. It has also already completed one fly-by past Earth in this complicated route.

COVID-19 and launchpad issues delay Ariane 6

The European Space Agency (ESA) confirmed today that the first launch of Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket will be delayed at least six months, to late 2021, due to lock downs related to the Wuhan flu panic, as well as construction issues at the rocket’s new launchpad.

“While we know that the maiden flight will not take place before the second semester of 2021, we cannot at this moment precisely quantify the delay, and we cannot provide an exact launch date,” Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation, said according to an ESA translation of remarks at a July 9 press event provided to SpaceNews. The French Association of Professional Journalists in Aeronautics, organized the event at ArianeGroup’s headquarters in Paris.

ESA hopes to have greater clarity on the delays in a few months, he said, according to the ESA translation.

It bodes bad for this rocket that they, at this time, have so little handle on the issues and the length of the delays.

ArianeGroup developing new rocket engine

Capitalism in space: The private company ArianeGroup has now gotten the okay from the European Space Agency (ESA) to begin full development of its new Prometheus rocket engine, intended to reduce costs 10x.

By applying a design-to-cost approach to manufacturing Prometheus, ESA aims to lower the cost of production by a factor of ten of the current main stage Ariane 5 Vulcain 2 engine. Features such as variable thrust, multiple ignitions, suitability for main and upper stage application, and minimised ground operations before and after flight also make Prometheus a highly flexible engine.

This Prometheus precursor runs on liquid oxygen–methane which brings high efficiency, allows standardisation and operational simplicity. Methane propellant is also widely available and easy to handle.

Essentially, ArianeGroup is going to try to build its own methane-powered rocket engine, having seen the success that SpaceX has so far had with its own Raptor methane engine. This also signals an increased recognition at ESA and ArianeGroup that their new Ariane-6 rocket, whose first launch is still about a year away, is not going to be competitive with SpaceX’s offerings, and needs to be upgraded or replaced.

First Ariane 6 launch likely delayed to 2021

Because of delays caused by the Wuhan flu panic, the European Space Agency (ESA) and ArianeGroup now expect that the first launch of their new rocket, the Ariane 6, will likely be delayed from late in 2020 to 2021.

The loss of the flight’s payload is also a problem.

Finally, megaconstellation startup OneWeb had booked 30 small broadband satellites on the Ariane 6 maiden flight, but filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, putting the mission in question. Luinaud said if Arianespace can’t find another customer for the Ariane 6 maiden flight this year, it may wait until 2021 to find a payload and avoid flying the rocket empty.

Overall Ariane 6 has been having trouble getting customers. Though it is less expensive that the Ariane 5, it it is entirely expendable and thus remains much more expensive than SpaceX’s Falcon 9. And with the Russians slashing the price of their Russia Proton rocket satellite companies have ample other options. It is for this reason I do not expect Ariane 6 to stick around long. ESA will be quickly forced to replace it with something less expensive and probably reusable.

Europe turns to private enterprise for future space transportation

Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced a permanently open call for private companies to develop “space transportation to space, in space, returning from space, or any combination of these.”

To be eligible, the economic operator should demonstrate that its space transportation service is a ‘complete offering’. This means that customers should not need to procure any additional essential service elements such as access to facilities, transport or logistics, to obtain the full service.

The economic operator should take full responsibility for the service project, including finding the funding and resources necessary to develop and deploy the service.

The new space transportation services should justify commercial viability, oriented toward private sector customers, without relying on a guaranteed European institutional demand during the operational phase and with a long-term vision of service provision. Preference will be given to such service projects that are conceived, developed and commercialised in the Participating States.

Though the announcement is filled with the typical hard-to-translate bureaucratic language typical of ESA’s projects, the intent here seems clear. The ESA no longer wishes to do any designing and developing of its rockets, as they have done from the beginning of the space age. This also means they are facing the reality that the Ariane 6 rocket, developed for them by the joint partnership of Airbus and Safran dubbed ArianeGroup, is going to be a financial failure, unable to compete against the lower cost SpaceX and Russian rockets now on the market.

Instead, they are now following what appears to be NASA’s path — the path I outlined in Capitalism in Space — to have ESA act merely as a customer, buying these services from competing private companies (not just ArianeGroup) who will develop the rockets themselves and (most important) own the rockets themselves.

If this is so, it is very good new for the future of space travel. It ups the competition, and it will allow for the development of European rockets able to provide this service at low cost.

The one wrench in the process is that this announcement also includes a bidding process for allowing these new private companies to get development money and technical assistance from ESA. That process appears to have some strings attached that might in the end prevent competing private companies to grow, independent of this governmental body. For example, the submission process allows “ESA to check compliance with Programme objectives and general eligibility. After a positive assessment, ESA will invite the economic operator to submit a full service proposal.” In other words, if you want ESA’s help, you will have to have ESA’s stamp of approval.

Still, this proposal does not require ESA’s help. The agency does appear to be willing to now entertain the use of any rocket system developed by any private operators within the participating ESA’s member nations of Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

European planetary missions go dark because of Wuhan virus

The European Space Agency has suspended operations and shut down several planetary missions, including two Mars orbiters and two solar missions, because of lockdowns imposed because of COVID-19.

The problem is that they don’t have enough people in their mission controls to operate everything. They are shutting these down so that they can continue operations on their Mecury mission BepiColumbo, for example.

The article also tries to lay the blame for the recently announced launch delay of Europe’s Mars 2020 rover to 2022 on the virus, but that’s false. The mission was delayed because it simply wasn’t ready.

ExoMars2020 rover delayed until 2022

The European Space Agency (ESA) today announced that they are delaying the launch of their ExoMars2020 rover mission until the next launch window in 2022

The press release says this will give them the time “necessary to make all components of the spacecraft fit for the Mars adventure.” Considering that the spacecraft’s parachutes have yet to have a successful high altitude test, that the entire spacecraft is not yet assembled, and that when they did the first thermal test of the rover the glue for the solar panel hinges failed, this seems that they need to do a lot of testing.

Overall the decision is smart. Better to give them the time to get this right then launch on time and have a failure.

At the same time, there appears to be something fundamentally wrong within the management of this project at ESA. This project was first proposed in 2001, and has gone through repeated restructurings and redesigns. Moreover, they began planning the rover for this 2020 launch in 2011, and after ten years were not ready for launch.

ExoMars2020 parachute tests delayed until late March

The European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to delay until late March the next high altitude tests of the revamped ExoMars2020 parachutes, despite the success of recent ground tests.

The tests of the 15-meter-diameter supersonic and 35-meter-wide subsonic parachutes—an essential part of the entry, descent and landing phase of the mission—had been scheduled for December and February. The delay comes despite six ground tests demonstrating successful parachute extraction – the point at which damage was caused in earlier, failed high altitude tests.

Both tests need to be successful for the go-ahead for launch of 300-kilogram Rosalind Franklin rover during the July 25 to Aug. 13 Mars launch window. Any failure would mean a wait of 26 months for the next launch window, opening late 2022.

There will be a meeting next week of the project’s top management, from both Russia and Europe, and I strongly suspect that they are going to decide to delay launch to the 2022 launch window. Not only have the parachutes not been tested successfully at high altitude, they recently discovered an issue with the glue holding the solar panel hinges on the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover.

Airbus gets ESA as customer for its ISS commercial platform

Capitalism in space: Airbus has signed up the European Space Agency (ESA) to use its as-yet unlaunched ISS Bartolomeo module as an experimental platform.

The Bartolomeo platform – named after Christopher Columbus’ younger brother – is currently in the final stage of launch preparation at Airbus in Bremen and is scheduled for launch to the ISS in March 2020. Bartolomeo is developed on a commercial basis by Airbus using its own investment funds and will be operated in cooperation with ESA.

The platform can accommodate up to 12 different experiment modules, supplying them with power and providing data transmission to Earth. Bartolomeo is suitable for many different experiments. Due to the unique position of the platform with a direct view of Earth from 400 kilometres, Earth observation including trace gas measurements or CO2 monitoring of the atmosphere are possible, with data useful for climate protection or for use by private data service providers.

This is the European effort to duplicate the slow commercialization of ISS that is also taking place in the U.S., with more and more of the payloads and operating platforms on the station being developed, owned, and operated not by NASA but by private companies.

ExoMars2020 passes new parachute tests

Revisions to Europe’s ExoMars2020 parachutes have successfully passed tests at JPL in California.

Working with Nasa, ESA made modifications to the way the parachutes are released from the bag, which avoids creating so much friction. Using a special rig at JPL, the parachutes have now been tested up to their expected extraction speed of just over 200km/h with no sign of damage. Further confirmatory tests will now take place.

Time remains very short however. The launch window for ExoMars2020 is this coming summer.

Soyuz rocket launches five satellites for Arianespace

A Russian Soyuz rocket, launching from French Guiana for Arianespace, successfully placed five satellites in orbit early this morning, including CHEOPS, a European space telescope designed to study exoplanets.

Though this was a Russian rocket, I count it as an Arianespace launch as that is the company under which the launch operates. I also realize this is open to debate.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

30 China
20 Russia
13 SpaceX
8 Arianespace (Europe)

China still leads the U.S. 30 to 26 in the national rankings.

ESA hires private company to remove space junk

Capitalism in space: The European Space Agency has hired the private company ClearSpace to fly an unmanned mission aimed at de-orbiting a large no-longer-needed launch component of its Vega rocket.

The European Space Agency signed a debris-removal contract with Swiss startup ClearSpace tasking the company with deorbiting a substantial piece of a Vega rocket left in orbit in 2013.

The mission, dubbed ClearSpace-1, is slated to launch in 2025 to capture and deorbit a 100-kilogram Vespa payload adapter an Arianespace Vega left in orbit after deploying ESA’s Proba-V remote-sensing satellite.

ClearSpace will lead a consortium of European companies in building a spacecraft equipped with four robotic arms to capture debris and drag it into Earth’s atmosphere.

The real importance of this contract is its nature. ESA is not taking the lead in designing or building the robot to do this work. Instead, it is acting merely as a customer, hiring ClearSpace to develop and build it. Afterward the robot design will belong to ClearSpace, which will then be able to sell that design for further space junk removal contracts.

[Luc Piguet, co-founder and chief executive of ClearSpace] said that while this first mission will destroy both the debris and the servicer spacecraft, future plans call for servicers that could deorbit multiple objects without also destroying themselves.

It seems that the ESA is following the recommendations I put forth in Capitalism in space, shifting power and ownership of its space missions from the agency to the private sector. This is excellent news.

Big budget boost for ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) received its largest budget increase ever, 20%, from its 22 member nations at a high level meeting yesterday.

The meeting also included commitments to remain a partner in ISS to 2030 and increase participation in Lunar Gateway. From the press release:

With worldwide partners, Europe will take its place at the heart of space exploration going farther than we have ever gone before – we continue our commitment to the International Space Station until 2030 as well as contributing vital transportation and habitation modules for the Gateway, the first space station to orbit the Moon. ESA’s astronauts recruited in 2009 will continue to receive flight assignments until all of them have been to space for a second time, and we will also begin the process of recruiting a new class to continue European exploration in low Earth orbit and beyond. European astronauts will fly to the Moon for the first time. Member States have confirmed European support for a ground-breaking Mars Sample Return mission, in cooperation with NASA.

ESA will help develop the commercial benefits of space for innovators and governments across the Member States, boosting competitiveness in the NewSpace environment. We will develop the first fully flexible satellite systems to be integrated with 5G networks, as well as next-generation optical technology for a fibre-like ‘network in the sky’, marking a transformation in the satellite communication industry. Satellite communications will join forces with navigation to begin satnav for the Moon, while closer to home commercial companies can access funding for new applications of navigation technologies through the NAVISP programme. ESA Ministers have secured a smooth transition to the next generation of launchers: Ariane 6 and Vega-C, and have given the green light to Space Rider, ESA’s new reusable spaceship.

Isn’t competition wonderful? ESA’s budget has been stagnant for years. Then SpaceX comes along and threatens its commercial market share while generating a new political will in the U.S. to renew its own space effort, and suddenly the European nations that make up ESA decide they need to do the same.

Much of the proposed program for ESA is very likely to happen, especially the commitments to a variety of astronomical and planetary missions. The agency’s commercial effort is also likely to happen, but whether it can happen fast enough to be competitive is questionable. As a government agency ESA’s track record in its effort to compete in the launch market has not been impressive. It took them far too long to accept the idea of reuseable rockets or the need to cut their costs drastically.

Mars Express confirms ancient glaciers in northern Martian mid-latitudes

Perspective view of Deuteronilus Mensae
Click for full image.

The European Space Agency’s orbiter Mars Express has confirmed the presence of large fractured ice sheets suggestive of buried and ancient glaciers. These ice sheets are within one region on Mars located in the mid-latitudes where many such glacial features have been found. They are also in the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands.

This landscape shows clear and widespread signs of significant, lasting erosion. As is common with fretted terrain, it contains a mix of cliffs, canyons, scarps, steep-sided and flat-topped mounds (mesa), furrows, fractured ridges and more, a selection of which can be seen dotted across the frame.

These features were created as flowing material dissected the area, cutting through the existing landscape and carving out a web of winding channels. In the case of Deuteronilus Mensae, flowing ice is the most likely culprit. Scientists believe that this terrain has experienced extensive past glacial activity across numerous martian epochs.

It is thought that glaciers slowly but surely ate away at the plains and plateaus that once covered this region, leaving only a scattering of steep, flat, isolated mounds of rock in their wake.

Smooth deposits cover the floor itself, some marked with flow patterns from material slowly moving downhill – a mix of ice and accumulated debris that came together to form and feed viscous, moving flows of mass somewhat akin to a landslide or mudflow here on Earth.

Studies of this region by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter [MRO] have shown that most of the features seen here do indeed contain high levels of water ice. Estimates place the ice content of some glacial features in the region at up to 90%. This suggests that, rather than hosting individual or occasional icy pockets and glaciers, Deuteronilus Mensae may actually represent the remnants of an old regional ice sheet. This ice sheet may once have covered the entire area, lying atop the plateaus and plains. As the martian climate changed this ice began to shift around and disappear, slowly revealing the rock beneath.

Overall, the data coming from both Mars Express and MRO increasingly suggests that there is a lot of buried glacial ice in the mid-latitudes. Mars might be a desert, but it is increasingly beginning to look like much of the planet is a desert like Antarctica, not the Sahara.

Europe schedules new parachute tests for ExoMars 2020

Following the failure on all previous tests of the parachutes for its ExoMars 2020 Mars lander, the European Space Agency has now made some design changes and is planning to do additional tests in the first quarter of 2020.

ESA has also requested support from NASA to benefit from their hands-on parachute experience. This cooperation gives access to special test equipment at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that will enable ESA to conduct multiple dynamic extraction tests on the ground in order to validate any foreseen design adaptations prior to the upcoming high altitude drop tests.

The next opportunities for high altitude drop tests are at a range in Oregon, US, January–March. ESA is working to complete the tests of both the 15 m and 35 m parachute prior to the ExoMars project’s ‘qualification acceptance review’, which is planned for the end of April in order to meet the mission launch window (26 July–11 Aug 2020).

Their schedule is incredibly tight, since their launch window to Mars is in July 2020, and if they fail to meet it the launch will have to be delayed two years until the next launch window.

Mars Express looks at Martian river relic

Mars Express perspective view of Nirgal Vallis
Click for full image.

The Mars Express science team today released a mosaic produced by the orbiter’s high resolution camera of the 300 hundred mile long relic river valley Nirgal Vallis. The image to the right, reduced to post here, is the oblique view that was produced by computer using the camera’s stereo images.

This ancient valley system is named Nirgal Vallis, and was once filled with running water that spread across Mars. By exploring the characteristics of the surrounding craters, scientists estimate the system’s age to be between 3.5 and 4 billion years old.

The part of Nirgal Vallis captured in these images lies towards the western end of the river system, where it is slowly spreading out and dissipating; the eastern end is far less branched and more clearly defined as a single valley, and opens out into the large Uzboi Vallis – the suspected location of a large, ancient lake that has long since dried up.

Nirgal Vallis is a typical example of a feature known as an amphitheatre-headed valley. As the name suggests, rather than ending bluntly or sharply, the ends of these tributaries have the characteristic semi-circular, rounded shape of an Ancient Greek amphitheatre. Such valleys also typically have steep walls, smooth floors, and, if sliced through at a cross-section, adopt a ‘U’ shape. The valleys pictured here are about 200 m deep and 2 km wide, and their floors are covered in sandy dunes; the appearance of these dunes indicates that martian winds tend to blow roughly parallel to the valley walls.

Unlike the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which is for taking close-up images of specific surface features, Mars Express is producing a high resolution survey of the entire planet. Its camera does not have quite the same resolution, but as it is taking wider images that’s okay.

What is unfortunate is the European Space Agency’s policy for releasing those images. Unlike MRO, they do not make them all available to the public instantly. Instead, they periodically do press releases like today’s, highlighting a specific region or single large feature. As a result, Mars Express does not get the press it deserves.

ESA asks NASA’s help on ExoMars rover parachute problems

The European Space Agency (ESA) has asked for help from NASA in trying to figure out the cause of the failures during testing of the parachutes they want to use to safely land their ExoMars 2020 rover, Rosalind Franklin.

So far the parachutes have been damaged on all previous tests. They plan two more tests in December and February.

Both tests, to be held at high altitude to simulate the Martian atmosphere, need to succeed in order for the parachutes to pass qualification. TheExoMars mission faces a final review scheduled April 2020, Francois Spoto, ExoMars program manager, told SpaceNews. “Now the situation is critical, of course, because we have limited time and no margin,” Spoto says.

If one of the tests fails, the ExoMars mission will miss the narrow July 25 to Aug. 13 launch window next year and slip to the next window, in late 2022. The lander and rover segments are meanwhile progressing well and ready for environmental testing.

They held a workshop on the previous failures, and obtained new analysis of the causes from JPL engineers.

More parachute problems for ExoMars 2020?

Space is hard: Eric Berger at Ars Technica reported yesterday that the parachute issues for Europe’s ExoMars 2020 mission are far more serious that publicly announced.

The project has had two parachute failures during test flights in May and then August. However,

The problems with the parachutes may be worse than has publicly been reported, however. Ars has learned of at least one other parachute failure during testing of the ExoMars lander. Moreover, the agency has yet to conduct even a single successful test of the parachute canopy that is supposed to deploy at supersonic speeds, higher in the Martian atmosphere.

Repeated efforts to get comments from the project about this issue have gone unanswered.

Their launch window opens in July 2020, only about ten months from now. This is very little time to redesign and test a parachute design. Furthermore, they will only begin the assembly of the spacecraft at the end of this year, which is very very late in the game.

When the August test failure was confirmed, I predicted that there is a 50-50 chance they will launch in 2020. The lack of response from the project above makes me now think that their chances have further dropped, to less than 25%.

Results released of July Vega launch failure investigation

The European Space Agency (ESA) this week released the results of its investigation into the July 10, 2019 launch failure of Arianespace’s Vega rocket, the first such failure after 14 successful launches.

The failure had occurred about the time the first stage had separated and the second stage Z23 rocket motor was to ignite. The investigation has found that the separation and second stage ignition both took place as planned, followed by “a sudden and violent event” fourteen seconds later, which caused the rocket to break up.

They now have pinned that event to “a thermo-structural failure in the forward dome area of the Z23 motor.”

The report says they plan to complete corrective actions and resume launches by the first quarter of 2020.

SpaceX issues explanation for nonresponse in potential satellite collision issue

SpaceX today issued an explanation for why it had not responded when ESA officials had asked them to change the orbit of one of its Starlink smallsats to protect against a possible collision with ESA’s Aeolus spacecraft.

SpaceX, in a statement Sept. 3, said it was aware of a potential conjunction Aug. 28 and communicated with ESA. At that time, though, the threat of a potential collision was only about 1 in 50,000, below the threshold where a maneuver was warranted. When refined data from the U.S. Air Force increased the probability to within 1 in 1,000, “a bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase,” a company spokesperson told SpaceNews.

“SpaceX is still investigating the issue and will implement corrective actions,” the spokesperson said of the glitch. “However, had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver.”

This incident increasingly strikes me as a tempest in a teapot created by ESA for any number of reasons, including their overall dislike of SpaceX (for generally making all government-run space programs look foolish). There is also this quote from an ESA official in the article above:

“The case just showed that, in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance has to rely on the pragmatism of the involved operators,” Krag said. “This is done today by exchange of emails. Such a process is not viable any longer with the increase of space traffic.” He said that, if the Space Safety initiative is funded, ESA would like to demonstrate automated maneuver coordination by 2023. [emphasis mine]

I can just see ESA officials drooling with eager anticipation the coming of more “traffic rules and communication protocols,” partly inspired by this fake crisis they just created. Imposing more rules and getting increased funding is what they do best, since it certainly isn’t exploring space with creative and efficient innovation.

ESA confirms ExoMars parachute test failure

You heard it hear first! The European Space Agency (ESA) today confirmed earlier stories from last week that the parachutes for its ExoMars 2020 spacecraft had failed during a high altitude drop test on August 5.

I reported this on Saturday, August 10, noting that ESA had not confirmed it. It apparently took them a week to write the press release.

This was the second consecutive test failure for these parachutes, as noted in the release.

On 28 May this year, the deployment sequence of all four parachutes was tested for the first time from a height of 29 km – released from a stratospheric helium balloon. While the deployment mechanisms activated correctly, and the overall sequence was completed, both main parachute canopies suffered damage.

Following hardware inspection, adaptations were implemented to the design of the parachutes and bags ready for the next high-altitude test, which was conducted on 5 August, this time just focusing on the larger, 35 m diameter, parachute.

Preliminary assessment shows that the initial steps were completed correctly, however damages to the canopy were observed prior to inflation, similar to the previous test. As a result, the test module descended under the drag of the pilot chute alone.

The tests occur at high altitude where the Earth’s atmosphere mimics the thin atmosphere of Mars. In both cases it appears the parachutes became damaged very early in their deployment process, possibly during deployment. This means there might be a design problem with the deployment process. It also means that both tests were unable to test the chutes themselves, as they were damaged before inflation, meaning that the engineers still do not know if they would work as intended once filled with air.

All this puts incredible time pressure on the mission, which needs to launch in the summer of 2020 to meet its launch window. There is very little time to redesign and retest these chutes. I would rate their chances of meeting that launch date as less than 50-50.

Reports of another ExoMars parachute failure during test

Following a failure of ExoMars’ parachutes during a May test, there are now reports that a second failure occurred on August 5.

A fresh test of the parachute system for the Russian-European mission ExoMars-2020 have failed again as a structural mockup of the Russian-built lander crashed during the simulated landing, a source familiar with the test results told Sputnik.

The test with the use of a high-altitude balloon was carried out on August 5 at a Swedish Space Corporation’s test site in northern Sweden.

“Tests of the parachute system at the Esrange test site in Sweden failed. A full-size mockup of the landing module of the ExoMars-2020 Martian station crashed during the landing,” the source said.

I have seen this report in two other sites, but it has not yet been confirmed by the European Space Agency.

If these reports are true, the chances of ExoMars launching in July 2020 is likely almost nil. They haven’t even begun assembling the spacecraft, and have had two parachute failures in tests, with the second destroying the prototype used for those tests.

1 2