November 25, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay.



Chinese seize space debris being towed by Filippino sailors

According to Filippino Navy officials, after their sailors had captured and was towing a piece of space floating rocket debris back to shore, the Chinese Coast Guard arrived and forcibly seized it, cutting the tow line.

As they were traveling back to the island, “they noticed that a China coast guard vessel with bow number 5203 was approaching their location and subsequently blocked their pre-plotted course twice,” Carlos said in a statement.

The Chinese coast guard vessel then deployed an inflatable boat with personnel who “forcefully retrieved said floating object by cutting the towing line” attached to the Filipino sailors’ rubber boat. The sailors decided to return to their island, Carlos said, without detailing what happened.

Chinese officials denied this, saying they took possession after a “friendly consultation.”

Whether or not the Chinese took this debris by force or not, the fact remains that it existed, indicating once again that China is dropping rocket parts indiscriminately on other nations. In this case the debris probably came from either a first stage or a strap-on booster, released shortly after the launch from a low enough altitude that it doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere.

China: We like dumping out-of-control rockets on your head!

China has now signaled that it intends to ramp up the launch rate of its Long March 5B rocket, its most powerful rocket but also a rocket with a core stage that falls to Earth out-of-control after each launch, risking injury and damage to others.

Liu Bing, director of the general design department at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), told Chinese media that the the Long March 5B, designed for launches to low Earth orbit, would be used together with the Yuanzheng upper stage series to launch multiple satellites for constellations.

Though not clearly stated, the launcher and YZ-2 combination could be used to help deliver high numbers of satellites into orbit for the planned national “guowang” satellite internet megaconstellation.

It is very possible that with the addition of an upper stage, engineers could reconfigure the rocket so that the first stage is shut down and separated earlier so that it immediately falls into an ocean drop zone following launch. At the same time, making sure that drop zone is always over the ocean might be difficult for some polar launches.

What China really has to do is to upgrade the engines on the core stage so that they can be restarted. At present these engines can only be started once, and once shut down they are dead. If the stage reaches orbit — which it has done on all previous launches — there is then no way to control it, and since that orbit is unstable the stage crashes to Earth, who knows where, shortly thereafter. With restartable engines the stage could easily be de-orbited properly.

China has expressed utter contempt for the complaints of other nations about these out-of-control crashes, claiming the risk is infinitesimal. While quite small, it still exists.

Ted Muelhaupt of the Aerospace Corporation said in July that the odds of debris from the reentry following the launch of the Wentian module ranged from one in 230 to one in 1,000. This was more than an order of magnitude greater than internationally accepted casualty risk threshold for the uncontrolled reentry of rockets of one in 10,000, stated in a 2019 report issued by the U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices.

Small or not, China is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, and every out-of-control crash has been a violation of that treaty. This behavior clearly makes China a rogue nation, not to be trusted.

Long March 5B core stage crashes in Pacific

According to a tweet from the U.S. Space Force, the out-of-control core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket has come down in the Pacific Ocean sometime around 4 am (Mountain).

#USSPACECOM can confirm the People’s Republic of China Long March 5B #CZ5B rocket re-entered the atmosphere over the south-central Pacific Ocean at 4:01am MDT/10:01 UTC on 11/4.

The exact location has not yet been revealed, nor do we know yet if any pieces landed on any habitable islands. The odds however of the re-entry causing any damage or injury now appears nil, which is a fortunate thing considering the risks China asked everyone else to take.

Crash prediction for Long March 5B core stage narrows

Crash prediction
Click for original image.

List of the largest uncontrolled re-entries

This morning’s report by the Aerospace Corporation has narrowed the crash time and location for China’s out-of-control Long March 5B core stage to six orbits, about 8 hours, on November 4, 2022, with the prediction centered over a point in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The company’s graphic to the right shows the orbital tracks. Note that this prediction puts many habitable locations under risk, including parts of the United States, Spain, Africa, and Australia.

Since the crash is now expected tomorrow, expect further updates later today.

The second graphic to the right has also been created by the Aerospace Corporation. It shows the top 20 largest man-made objects that have fallen out-of-control from orbit. Four of the top six were dropped on the world by China, all within the past two years. All but one of the others occurred prior to 1987, before the U.S. and Russia took positive action to prevent such things. The one exception, Phobos-Grunt, was an unexpected failure, its rocket putting it into an unstable orbit rather than sending it to Mars.

China, like the U.S. and Russia, has signed the Outer Space Treaty. That treaty requires each signatory to control the objects it puts in space, and makes it liable for any damage caused by such objects. The U.S. and Russia have both tried very hard to abide by that treaty. China however has thumbed its nose at it.

We must wonder what China will do if this core stage kills someone when it comes down tomorrow.

The crash of China’s Long March 5B core stage: first rough prediction

Long March 5B reentry prediction as of 11/2/22

The Aerospace Corporation has made its first rough estimate of the uncontrolled reentry of the core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket that launched the Mengtian module to its Tiangong-3 space station on October 31st.

The prediction at present is very uncertain, covering about 20 orbits (about 30 hours) centered on November 5, 2021 over the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Brazil, as shown in the graphic to the right. Though this prediction will eventually narrow down to less than one full orbit, it will never be possible to predict in advance the core stage’s exact impact point. As the margin of error shrinks, the predictions will come more frequently.

At this moment, however, the core stage’s orbit crosses over most of the habitable areas of the Earth, and thus all those regions are under threat.

Watching the launch of the final large module to China’s Tiangong-3 space station

UPDATE: The Mengtian module has been deployed, and is now proceeding to a rendezvous and docking within the next day or so. The core stage is in orbit, and we can only wait over the next few days to find out where it will hit the Earth.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

49 SpaceX
47 China
18 Russia
8 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise still leads China 69 to 47, though it now trails the rest of the world combined 74 to 69.

Original post:
The launch of the final large module for China’s Tiangong-3 space station is scheduled to occur at 12:37 am (Pacific) tonight.

The module is called Mengtian, and once moved to its permanent port will complete the station in its t-shape. The rocket is the Long March 5B, the core stage of which will reach orbit, and then within a week crash uncontrolled somewhere on Earth.

I have embedded the English live stream below. A lot of Chinese propaganda (though not much different from a NASA broadcast). As I understand it, the launch window is instantaneous, so if there are any holds the launch will be scrubbed for the day.

» Read more

China’s Long March 5B rocket with new space station module is now at launchpad

China’s Long March 5B rocket had now been rolled out to its launchpad, carrying the new Mengtian module for China’s Tiangong-3 space station.

The launch is presently scheduled for October 31, 2022. Assuming China has not upgraded the engines on the rocket’s core stage, that stage will tumble back to Earth, uncontrolled, sometime in the following week. Since it is large enough to survive re-entry, it will hit the ground, thus threatening every habitable location under its orbital path. By allowing this to happen China violates the Outer Space Treaty, to which it is a signatory.

Nor will this likely be the last time China does this. Though this module completes China’s station, as presently designed, this will not be the last Long March 5B launch. China plans to use it put its Hubble-class space telescope into orbit, as well as other things.

ISS dodges space junk from Russia’s November 2021 anti-satellite test

In order for ISS to avoid one of the approximately 585 pieces of space junk still in orbit that were produced when Russia destroyed its defunct Cosmos 1408 satellite in a November 2021 anti-satellite test, engineers fired the engines of a docked Progress freighter yesterday for just over five minutes.

Without the burn the debris would have flown within three miles of the station, too close for comfort or anyone’s margin of error.

According to a report in September, of these 585 pieces, most will burn up in the atmosphere by ’25, with only 38 pieces left afterward to pose a threat to other operating satellites and manned spacecraft.

Head of Commerce’s space office questions new FCC regulations on space junk

Turf war! At a conference yesterday Richard Dalbello, director of the Office of Space Commerce at the Commerce Department, strongly questioned the FCC’s legal authority for its just passed new regulation on the de-orbiting of space junk.

“I think the FCC, for their part, has pushed the boundaries of their authorities pretty aggressively,” he said when asked about what agency should have oversight for issues like that, as his office works to create a civil space traffic management capability. “Although I certainly congratulate them on the depth of their intellectual work,” he said of the FCC and its new order, “a lot of the things that they articulated are probably, arguably, outside their job jar.”

Dalbello’s comments only add to the many turf wars going on in the DC swamp over space regulation. Some in Congress want all space regulation to shift to his office. Others want it to be distributed across a number of agencies in both the military and civilian bureaucracies.

Regardless, Dalbello’s office is the agency that might actually have the legal authority for regulating space junk. And it is certain that the FCC does not have it.

The new in-space repair and refueling industries that are about to revolutionize space exploration

Robot repair, as imagined in 1979
Robots doing work in orbit, as imagined in 1979

When Orbital ATK announced in 2016 that its robotic Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) — designed to dock with and extend the life of defunct commercial communications satellites — had won its first contract with Intelsat, that contract award only came after several years of persistent campaigning.

In fact, Orbital ATK had had great difficulties getting any satellite communications company interested. At the time, all communication satellites were in geosynchronous orbit, were expensive to build, but lasted routinely from 10 to 15 years. The satellite companies didn’t see a need to fix them when they ran out of fuel. It seems better to launch a new replacement.

Even after winning that contract with Intelsat, it was still four years before that MEV docked with Intelsat’s satellite, bringing it back to life. In the interim Northrop Grumman (which had purchased Orbital ATK in a merger) had managed just one other contract, even as it had announced upgrades to the MEV to allow it to service many satellites, not just one.

The satellite industry seemed in those days to be largely resistant to the concept of repairing and refueling its older satellites.

No more. We are on the cusp of a major revolution in satellite operations, driven first by innovations like the MEV, but accelerated greatly by the new satellite companies launching low orbit constellations. These new companies are willing to take risks, and thus have also shown an eager desire to link their satellites to a variety of in-space services that they themselves did not wish to provide, from satellite repair and refueling to tug services to space junk removal to quick and controlled de-orbit technologies.

The variety and innovation of this new industry is somewhat astonishing, especially considering how young an industry it is.
» Read more

Defense to help Commerce create its own ability to track orbital objects

The Defense and Commerce departments yesterday signed an agreement where Defense will help Commerce create its own capability for tracking of all objects in orbit, from satellites to space junk.

The agreement, the Commerce Department said in a statement, defines how the two departments will work together to implement provisions of Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 in 2018 that directed commerce to provide space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM) services, such as conjunction warnings, currently provided by the U.S. military.

The result of this is that the federal government is now creating a second bureaucracy to do what the military has been doing quite capably for more than a half century. Commerce intends to obtain its data by awarding contracts to private companies, who will do the actual tracking. The irony is that it is very possible the military will eventually sign similar contracts with the same companies, thus paying them twice for the same service. Meanwhile, Washington has an excuse for hiring more people.

Even more ironic, this policy directive was issued during the Trump administration. It might have intended for Commerce to replace the military, but under the Biden administration the federal bureaucracy is being allowed to interpret the policy more broadly, thus allowing both agencies to do the work.

I also guarantee that the Republicans will almost certainly do nothing to change this, should they take over Congress. For the past thirty years this so-called party of small government has done nothing to earn that title. Instead, it has simply engineered the growth of government, in a more subtle and deliberate manner.

FCC proposes new regulation requiring satellites to be de-orbited five years after mission end

The FCC yesterday announced it is considering a new regulation that would require companies to de-orbit defunct satellites in low Earth orbit no more than five years after the satellite’s shut down.

The order, if adopted by commissioners, would require spacecraft that end their missions in or passing through LEO — defined as altitudes below 2,000 kilometers — dispose of their spacecraft through reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere as soon as practicable and no more than five years after the end of the mission. The rule would apply to satellites launched two years after the order is adopted, and include both U.S.-licensed satellites as well as those licensed by other jurisdictions but seeking U.S. market access.

According to the FCC press release [pdf], this new regulation will be discussed at the next public meeting of the commission on September 29, 2022.

Though in general this rule appears a good idea, there are several legitimate objections to it. NASA’s orbital debris office noted that this rule would only reduce space junk by 10%. Others questioned the FCC’s regulatory authority to do this at all, since its main statutory function is not the regulation satellite operations but the use of the frequencies those satellites use.

Debris from Russian anti-sat test causing numerous near Starlink collisions

According to an official of a company that helps track space junk, the scattered debris from the satellite destroyed by Russia in an anti-satellite test in 2021 has had numerous near collisions with multiple Starlink satellites.

In the Aug. 6 event, Oltrogge said there were more than 6,000 close approaches, defined as being within 10 kilometers, involving 841 Starlink satellites, about 30% of the constellation. It’s unclear how many, if any, of the satellites had to maneuver to avoid collisions.

This conjunction squall was exacerbated by a new group of Starlink satellites. SpaceX launched the first set of “Group 3” Starlink satellites July 10 from Vandenberg Space Force Base into polar orbit, followed by a second set July 22. A third batch of Group 3 satellites is scheduled to launch Aug. 12.

The problem is only going to get worse, as this junk will be in orbit for quite some time.

Australian Space Agency confirms debris is from SpaceX Dragon capsule

Officials from the Australian Space Agency have inspected and confirmed that the debris that landed recently in the southeast Australia came from service module/trunk of a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

The agency had been alerted by Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist from the Australian National University, who first realised the timing and location of the debris falling coincided with a SpaceX spacecraft which re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 7am on 9 July, 20 months after its launch in November 2020.

Tucker believes the debris came from the unpressurised trunk of the SpaceX capsule, which is critical to take off but dumped when returning to earth.

This capsule was Resilience, launched on November 15, 2020 on SpaceX’s second manned launch for NASA. The capsule and crew returned in April, 2021. The service module apparently remained in orbit until July 2022, when its orbit decayed.

This service module was considered small enough it would burn up in the atmosphere. That assumption was apparently wrong. Though the pieces caused no damage, SpaceX needs to revise its operations to make sure future service modules will come back over the ocean, just in case sections reach the surface.

Space junk thought to be service module of Dragon manned capsule found in Australia

In news that is related to the impending crash of the Long March 5B core stage, Australian farmers have found scattered space junk pieces that some are claiming are the remains of the service module or trunk section that re-entered on May 5th, the day of the splashdown of SpaceX’s Endurance manned spacecraft.

The debris is most likely the unpressurized “trunk” of the spacecraft, astrophysicist Brad Tucker told “Having gone out there and looked at the bits myself, there is not a doubt in my mind it is space junk,” he said in an e-mail. The trunk is designed to send unpressurized cargo into space, and also to support the Crew Dragon during its launch, according to SpaceX (opens in new tab). Half of the trunk includes solar panels that power Dragon when the vessel is in flight or docked to the station. The trunk detaches from the spacecraft shortly before re-entry.

The sonic boom, Tucker said, was widely heard at 7:05 a.m. local time on July 9 and the pieces found near Dalgety were “very close to the tracked path of the SpaceX-1 Crew trunk.”

The problem with this claim is that the sonic boom on July 9th matches no SpaceX launch or re-entry. The material however could be from that Endurance capsule, which returned May 5th, if the trunk once detached did not re-enter until two months later.

If confirmed, this story is surprising, as that service module is thought to be too small to survive re-entry through the atmosphere. It is instead expected to burn up before reaching the ground.

Tentative crash date for Long March 5B core stage: July 31st

Predicted crash path of Long March 5B core stage
Click for full image.

Engineers from the Aerospace Corporation have now made the first preliminary calculations and determined that the core stage of China’s Long March 5B rocket that launched July 24th will crash to Earth uncontrolled on July 31, 2022, give or take one day.

The map to the right, reduced to post here, shows all the orbits during that 48 hour period. Note that, except for most of Europe, almost all the high population regions of the globe are in the crash zone.

This prediction is very tentative, and will change as the core stage’s orbit evolves in the next few weeks. It also could change entirely if China has updated the rocket’s engines so they can be restarted at least once to de-orbit the stage properly, as it has hinted it could do. If however the orbit begins to decay without any action by China, then we will know those hints were lies, and that China is once again violating the Outer Space Treaty by acting with willful negligence to threaten harm to others with one of its launches.

ISS forced to dodge space junk from Russia’s November ’21 anti-sat test

Last week the Russians were forced to use the engines of the Progress cargo capsule docked to ISS to shift the station’s orbit slightly to avoid a collision with some debris left over from Russia’s anti-satellite test in November 2021.

“I confirm that at 22.03 Moscow time, the engines of the Russian Progress MS-20 transport cargo ship carried out an unscheduled maneuver to avoid a dangerous approach of the International Space Station with a fragment of the Kosmos-1408 spacecraft,” Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Telegram (opens in new tab), according to a Google translation, using Roscosmos’ designation for Progress 81.

While the Russians have consistently denied the anti-sat test and the 1,500 satellite pieces it created would cause a collision threat, yesterday’s action was not a surprise, and was predicted by many right after the test.

The concern however is not the debris that has been identified and is being tracked, since collisions from that stuff can be predicted and avoided. The concern is from the smaller pieces that were not identified.

Test of solar sail for de-orbiting smallsat ends successfully

Capitalism in space: The Canadian company Space Flight Labs announced yesterday that its first test of a solar sail for de-orbiting a small satellite ended successfully last month.

The CanX-7 (Canadian Advanced Nanospace eXperiment-7) was a three-kilogram, 10x10x34cm satellite that was launched on September 26, 2016. The satellite was funded by the Defence Research and Development Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, COM DEV Ltd. (now Honeywell), and the Canadian Space Agency.

According to SFL [Space Flight Labs] “the satellite successfully completed a seven-month aircraft tracking campaign before deploying its drag sails in May 2017 to demonstrate drag-sail based deorbiting.” SFL said it took five years for the drag sail to deorbit the satellite and without it the satellite wouldn’t have burned up in the atmosphere for roughly another 178 year.

When the four drag sails, each about one square meter in size, were deployed, engineers immediately measured an increase in the orbital decay rate. Though it still took five years to force a de-orbit, the system removed the satellite from orbit much sooner than otherwise.

The system is aimed at the smallsat market, satellites too small for other proposed removal methods that also might remain stranded in orbit for a very long time because of their small size.

China begins preparing Long March 5B for launch of next space station module

The new colonial movement: The Long March 5B rocket that will launch in July the next large module for China’s Tiangong space station, dubbed Wentian, has arrived at the launch site.

China’s Long March-5B Y3 rocket, which will launch lab module Wentian for the country’s space station, arrived on Sunday at the launch site in the southern island province of Hainan. The rocket, along with the Wentian lab module already transported to the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, will be assembled and tested at the launch site, announced the China Manned Space Agency. [emphasis mine]

In all past launches of the Long March-5B the core first stage has crashed to Earth in an uncontrolled manner because its engine could not be restarted after it shut down. The highlighted “Y3” added to the rocket’s name above suggests China might have fixed this. Previous Long March-5B rockets used YF-77 engines. Adding Y3 to the name — which generally follows China’s system for naming its engines — could mean they will now be able to control the core stage’s de-orbit. This speculation is further strengthened by a previous report that China was testing a new engine for the core stage that implied it was restartable.

If so, China will avoid the kind of bad press it received with previous Long March 5B launches. It will also put it back in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty, which it violated with each past core stage crash.

Astroscale to deorbit OneWeb satellites, funded by the European Space Agency

Capitalism in space: Astroscale has obtained OneWeb as a major customer for its system to safely deorbit its defunct satellites, with the work partly funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). From the ESA press release:

There are currently two options for removing end-of-life OneWeb satellites from their orbits at the end of their predicted five to six years of service. Each has been allocated enough fuel to be able to actively deorbit at the end of its useful lifetime. But, in case of failure, each has also been built with either a magnetic or a grappling fixture [designed by Astroscale], so that a servicer spacecraft could collect and actively deorbit the satellite.

The servicer spacecraft that Astroscale will build and test is called “ELSA-M” and is planned for launch in 2024. The servicer spacecraft will be the first “space sweeper” capable of removing multiple defunct satellites from their orbits in a single mission.

Following this demonstration, Astroscale will offer a commercial service for clients that operate satellite constellations in low Earth orbit, providing the technology and capability to make in-orbit servicing part of routine satellite operations by 2030.

Apparently, the ESA will pay Astroscale a little less than $16 million to install its grappling fixture on OneWeb’s satellites as well as build and fly the test ELSA-M mission. Once that flight proves the technology by removing several satellites, OneWeb will be expected to pay for Astroscale’s services, as will any other satellite customers.

This deal gives Astroscale a significant leg up on any other junk removal companies, as it getting its grappling fixture in space on many satellites. If that fixture should become standard, it will allow Astroscale to become the dominate satellite junk removal company, at least for the near future.

More Chinese space junk crashes in India

It appears that debris from an upper stage of a Chinese Long March 3B rocket, launched in September ’21, fell in India on May 12, 2022.

Local media reported that the objects crashed with “loud thuds that shook the ground” in Gujarat. There were no casualties or property damage, according to The Indian Express. The crashed objects were all discovered within a 15-kilometer radius, and among them was a black metal ball weighing around five kilograms, the newspaper said.

Though the sources objects have not been identified with certainty, they look like inner tanks from a rocket, and the only object that reentered the atmosphere on this date and also had an orbit that crossed this part of India was the Long March 3B.

This is second time in less than a month that debris from an abandoned Chinese upper stage has crashed in India. Both are thought to have come from Long March 3Bs. More important, both now prove that China has no protocols when it launches these rockets to de-orbit the upper stages in a controlled manner.

Stay tuned for more Chinese space junk heading your way. In the next seven months it will launch two Long March 5B rockets, the large core stage of which reaches orbit. In all of the previous 5B launches, that stage — big enough to hit the Earth — then quickly fell back in an uncontrolled and unpredictable manner. Fortunately, each time it crashed in the ocean, though the May 2020 deorbit ended up with some debris landing near villages in Africa.

Recent tests of the 5B’s core stage’s engine have suggested that China might have redesigned it to allow it to be restarted, which would allow them to control its deorbit. This fact however has not been confirmed.

Old Russian Proton rocket engine explodes in orbit, creating more space junk

According to tracking data from the Space Force, an old Russian Proton upper stage engine, originally launched in 2007, broke up on April 15, 2022, creating a small cloud of new space junk in a highly elliptical orbit.

These Proton upper-stage ullage motors are known as SOZ motors, and there are currently 64 of them in Earth orbit, McDowell tweeted. The acronym is short for “Sistema Obespecheniya Zapuska,” which translates roughly as “Launch Assurance System,” he said.

The SOZ motors don’t use up all their propellant when they fire. And they have an unfortunate tendency to go bang years or decades later, leaving a bunch of debris in highly elliptical orbit. At least 54 SOZ motors have now exploded,” McDowell tweeted.

The SOZ motor that just blew up had been racing around Earth in a highly elliptical path, getting as close as 241 miles (388 kilometers) and as far away as 11,852 miles (19,074 km), McDowell said in another tweet, noting that “the debris will take quite a while to reenter.”

“So — this debris event was predictable and is well understood; still very unfortunate,” he wrote. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words suggest a certain irresponsibility on the Russian’s part. If these upper stage engines are abandoned with fuel still on board, why doesn’t Russia use that fuel to fire the engines to de-orbit them safely, especially as the engines have a tendency to eventually blow up and cause space junk? There might be complex technical reasons, but I suspect the real reason is pure laziness on Roscosmos’ part. No one ever bothered to think about it.

Pieces of old Long March 3B rocket fall in India

It appears that pieces of an old Long March 3B rocket, launched on February 4, 2021, have fallen in India earlier this month.

On April 2, locals of Sindewahi tehsil were shocked to see six metallic spheres, metal balls and a metallic ring falling from the sky. Similar objects fell from the sky simultaneously in parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

This is not an example of China dumping the expendable first stage of a rocket on the ground during launch. These pieces came from the rocket’s upper stage, which reached orbit in ’21 and only now fell to Earth when its orbit decayed. Usually, most of the upper stage of a rocket burns up upon re-entry. However, certain pieces, such as the inner helium tanks that keep the larger fuel and oxidizer tanks pressurized, are sometimes strong enough to survive re-entry. It is likely that these tanks are the metallic spheres.

To avoid this, the rocket’s upper stage engine needs to be fired one last time to aim the re-entry over the ocean. SpaceX does this routinely. It appears at least in this one case China did not.

Chinese rocket stage impacts Moon

What is believed to be an abandoned upper stage from a Chinese launch in 2014 is now believed to have impacted the Moon’s far side, as predicted by the estimates of its orbital mechanics.

None of this story is certain, other than amateur astronomers had identified an abandoned uppers stage that they calculated would hit the Moon on March 4th. While the data strongly suggests it was an upper stage from a Chinese launch, that is not confirmed. And so far we do not have confirmation of the impact either. Expect images identifying the impact site from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in the next few months.

China denies the rocket stage about to hit the Moon comes from its rocket

A Chinese official yesterday claimed that the abandoned rocket stage that will hit the Moon on or about March 4th does not come from its 2014 Long March 3C rocket that tested technology for the later launched Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, as suggested by amateur astronomers and an engineer at JPL.

“According to China’s monitoring, the upper stage of the rocket related to the Chang’e-5 mission entered into Earth’s atmosphere and completely burned up,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Feb. 21.

Space tracking data from the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron suggests that 2014-065B—the international designator for the rocket stage in question—reentered the atmosphere in October 2015, a year after launch, apparently backing China’s claim.

We are thus left with a mystery. If that abandoned upper stage did not come from either a SpaceX or Chinese launch, what launch did it come from? Or is it a rocket stage at all? Could it be a previously unidentified asteroid?

There is also the possibility that it is a piece from that Chinese launch, considering how the orbital data matches so well. The stage could have split or broken apart, with one part falling in the ocean as monitored by the Space Force, and the other section now heading for the Moon. If so, China is likely denying this fact for propaganda reasons.

Astroscale about to resume space junk capture test

Capitalism in space: After several weeks of delay due to unstated technology issues, the Japanese company Astroscale has begun maneuvers in its test to see if its robot satellite can approach from a distance and capture a target satellite acting as orbital space junk.

The Japanese startup has started moving its 175-kilogram servicer spacecraft closer to the 17-kilogram client satellite ahead of deciding whether to restart the demonstration, Astroscale said in a social media post.

According to Astroscale, it has made “good progress in working through solutions to the anomalous spacecraft conditions that we identified with ELSA-d,” or End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration.

The company did not disclose the nature of the issue, when it could restart the mission or the distance between the two objects.

That no specifics have been stated, and that the company also says it is “keeping regulators and key partners updated on our status,” suggests that maybe the problem wasn’t technical, but bureaucratic. Maybe some Biden administration functionary got nervous, and demanded Astroscale slow down the test so that he or she could review what was happening.

This would not surprise me in the least, though I admit it is nothing more than some wild speculation.

Forty just-launched Starlink satellites lost because of geomagnetic storm

SpaceX revealed today that because of the unexpected and ill-timed arrival of a geomagnetic storm from the Sun, 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites launched on February 3rd were lost and will quickly burn up in the atmosphere. As noted at Teslarati:

SpaceX says it “commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag” as soon as it was aware of the issue but that “the increased drag…prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers.” Based on that phrasing, the most obvious explanation is that the added drag caused up to 40 of the satellites to fall far enough into the atmosphere that their ion thrusters would no longer be able to raise their orbits faster than the drag was lowering them. Raising their solar arrays into the position needed for maximum power generation (and thus maximum sustained thrust) would also drastically accelerate reentry.

A lot of the press and those who love to attack SpaceX have made a big deal about this, but the real news of this story is the unprecedented impact of a geomagnetic storm on some newly launched satellites. Such a thing has never happened before, and only happened now because SpaceX does not raise the orbits of any Starlink into a more stable orbit before making sure the satellite is functioning properly. If it is not, the company leaves it in a low orbit so it quickly burns up and does not add to the amount of space junk in orbit. This approach is also somewhat unprecedented, but it also demonstrates SpaceX’s generally rational and responsible approach to what it does in commercial space.

Because of this approach, however, these satellites were vulnerable to this storm. The timing had to be just perfect to destroy them, and sadly for SpaceX it was. I fully expect SpaceX to add solar activity as a factor in timing future Starlink launches.

Note: I didn’t initially comment because I don’t see this as that big a deal. The effort to slander SpaceX by some (see the quotes for example near the end of this article) however changed my mind.

China tests space junk removal robot in geosynchronous orbit

China has apparently used a space junk removal robot to tug a defunct Chinese satellite out of geosynchronous orbit, thus opening that slot for future satellites.

Ground tracking by ExoAnalytic Solutions found that the robot, dubbed SJ-21, apparently docked with the defunct satellite on January 22nd. Since then:

In an email to Breaking Defense this afternoon, Flewelling [of ExoAnalytic] said the latest tracking data gathered earlier today from ExoAnalytic’s telescopes show the SJ-21 separating from the Compass G2, leaving the latter in the eccentric “super-graveyard drift orbit.” SJ-21 now has moved back to a near-GEO orbit.

The orbit places the defunct satellite in an orbit above the geosynchronous orbit satellites use, but in an orbit that is not typical.

This work is comparable to what the Japanese/American company Astroscale is presently testing in low Earth orbit, though it appears far more sophisticated. In fact, based on what SJ-21 has done so far, it appears China is far ahead of everyone else in developing in-orbit robotic servicing capabilities.

Astroscale stops orbital capture demo after detecting “anomalous spacecraft conditions”

Capitalism in space: Astroscale has halted an ambitious demonstration in-orbit of its magnetic capture technology when its engineers detected “anomalous spacecraft conditions.”

The demo involved a client satellite (posing as space junk) and a separate robot. Both were equipped with Astroscale’s magnetic capture device. A test in August had successfully separated the two units by a small distance, and then demonstrated that the magnetic capture device could grab the client satellite.

In the on-going but paused demo the robot was to separate, fly a distance away, and then use its autonomous programming to rendezvous with the client and then recapture it again. It successfully separated but that’s when the anomalies were detected. Engineers are now reviewing the data to see if they correct these issues and then proceed with the rest of the demo.

If successful Astroscale would demonstrate that their magnetic capture system works, thus giving them a strong selling point to have satellite companies buy it and install it on their satellites. Then, when the satellite was no longer needed Astroscale could send a robot up, capture it, and then de-orbit it safely.

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