Space Sunday: balloons, rockets, rovers, returns

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A cabin at the edge of space. Credit: Space Perspective

Almost a year ago, I wrote about a company called Space Perspective and their plan to offer fare-paying passengers the chance to experience high-altitude balloon flights which, while failing to cross (or even come close to) the Kármán, will give the unique experience in rising to altitudes sufficient enough to witness the curvature of the Earth and see first-hand the tenuous nature of our protective atmosphere. And to do so in unique comfort.

As I reported in Space Sunday: balloons to space, Mars movies and alien water clouds, Space Perspective intend to offer passengers a six hour trip into the upper atmosphere aboard a luxury capsule slung beneath a gigantic helium balloon. And the price? US $125,000 per person – which sounds a lot, but is actually half that charged by Virgin Galactic for a flight lasting around 65 minutes, and who knows how much cheaper than a 12-minture trip aboard a Blue Origin New Shepherd vehicle.

A typical Space Perspective flight. Credit: Space Perspective

Obviously, both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have the added attractions of allowing passengers to experience microgravity for about three minutes and then collecting their (unofficial) astronaut wings on their return – neither of which are part of Space Perspective flights; which “only” rise to around 30-32 km. However, the watchword for Space Perspective trips is going to be a level of comfort well beyond anything Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin can achieve.

Just how much comfort has now been revealed by Space Perspective as they start to move ahead with the design of their full-scale Neptune capsule. In particular, the company has released a 3D interactive model of the capsule’s interior, demonstrating the 4 pairs of passenger seats located on other side of the capsule, the central bar / snack area alongside the access door.

The bar area and boarding door on Neptune. Credit: Space Perspective

In addition, the capsule has mood lighting and includes something necessary for a 6-hour flight: a lavatory (complete with its own window of its own so those needing it can continue to enjoy the view!). The passenger seats are designed to conform to the sitter’s body to offer maximum comfort and are fitted with fold-away tray tables. Potted plants add to the overall ambience while the floors and walls of the capsule covered in fabric to absorb sound and add to the sense of privacy.

Finally, the bar can be loaded with snacks and beverages in according with passenger’s preferences, whilst a central information display and wall-mounted tablets provide information on a flight. In addition the cabin will be equipped with wi-fi connectivity back to Earth, and heads-up displays may be included in the windows to help point out locations of interest visible beneath the clouds some 20 kilometres below the capsule as it cruises at altitude.

A view across Neptune, with the toilet on the left. Note to low-level lighting. Credit: Space Perspective

Flights will comprise a land-based launch From the Florida Space Coast with a 90-minute ascent to cruising altitude. The capsule will remain at its cruising altitude for around two hours before starting an equally gentle descent with a splashdown on water where the will be met by a support ship / yacht that will offer comfortable facilities to the passengers while the capsule is recovered, and then return them to land.

Should problems occur with the balloon during any phase of a trip, ground controllers can command the capsule to detach and drop aerodynamically to an altitude where parachutes can be deployed to slow the descent and cushion splashdown.

Space Perspective has recently secured a further US $40 million in funding to allow development of the full-scale Neptune capsule to proceed, and has secured the first of three hoped-for patents relating to the capsule’s unique structural design. In addition, the company states it already has 600 people who have paid for seats on flights, which are due to commence in 2024.

SLS: WDR Halted, Rocket to Return to VAB

In what is fast becoming something of a humiliating train of events in trying to get its first Space Launch System (SLS) rocket ready for launch, NASA has abandoned the critical wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and will be returning the rocket to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for a series of updates.

As I’ve reported over the last few week, the WDR is a last, critical step in ensuring the rocket and all its support systems – the mobile lunch platform, the propellant loading system, the launch control systems, etc., are ready to make a launch attempt. After been rolled out to launchpad 39B at Kennedy Space Centre, the WDR started on April 1st, and should have lasted three days.

However, that initial attempt had to be twice scrubbed as a result of issues within the supply of nitrogen gas (used to help purge and cool part of the launch system) to the vehicle. Correcting these issues took several days, prompting a further delay in resuming the test to make way for the launch of the Axiom Ax-1 private crew to the space station from the SpaceX facilities at neighbouring Pad 39A (see: AX-1 Artemis, ESA & a galaxy far, far away).

Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Centre: in the foreground, the SpaceX / Axiom AX-1 stands on launch pad 39A. In the distance sits the NASA Artemis 1 SLS rocket on pad 39B. This picture was taken on April 6th, 2022. Credit: NASA

The intention had been to resume WDR processing on April 9th, but on April 7th, a fault was detected in pressure valve in the rocket’s upper Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). Rather than delay the test for at least a couple of months by returning the rocket back to the VAB to fix the faulty valve, NASA determined a process by which the test could continue with only “minimal loading” of the tanks on the ICPS, and pushed the resumption of the test back until at least April 12th to allow the necessary procedures to be properly revised.

Operations in fact resumed on April 14th – and almost immediately came to a halt due to propellent loading issues with the liquid oxygen. No sooner was this triaged and fixed than an over-pressure situation was detected within the liquid hydrogen tank, again bringing operations to a halt. After reviewing the situation again, NASA tried once more to resume propellant loading in a “modified” state, only for a hydrogen to be detected leaking from an umbilical line connecting the core stage to the mobile launch tower, again bringing operations to a halt.

The cause of the leak was found to be with the same nitrogen feed / purge system that caused the original problems at the start of the WDR process on April 1st. As a result, NASA announced late on April 16th that all WDR activities are now curtailed, and the rocket will be rolled back to the VAB to allow the problems with the nitrogen umbilical system to be addressed, and the valve in the ICPS to be fixed or replaced. The roll back will also be used to further investigate the liquid hydrogen over pressure issue on the core stage tank.

No date has been given on when the roll-back will occur  – there will be a further meeting to discuss this on April 18th. However, the move does mean that any Artemis 1 launch is unlikely to come before July at the earliest. However, to present further delays once the vehicle has been returned to the pad, mission managers are said to be considering – assuming the WDR runs flawlessly – moving directly from the test to launch readiness preparations without again returning the vehicle to the VAB for post-WDR inspections.

Picture of The Week

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover Perseverance has been “on the road” of late, backtracking along its path of exploration as it makes its way to its next significant area of study: the delta of the river that once flowed into Jezero Crater. Back tracking like this might seem a bit of a waste, but the route is necessary in order for the rover to avoid terrain that could result in it finding itself in trouble or suffering damage.

However, the route mean that the rover passed close by two objects that helped secure its successful arrival on Mars: its discarded aeroshell (which helped protect it during entry into the Martian atmosphere) and the parachute that helped slow its decent through the lower Martian atmosphere. Both the parachute and aersohell were the subject of an image captured by the rover as it passed, and which was published by NASA on April 14th

In this image taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover and released on April 14th, 2022, the white cone of the rover’s aeroshell can be seen in the middle distance to the right, and the discarded parachute to the centre level. Credit: NASA/JPL

Chinese Crew Sets National Space Record

The first Chinese crew to spend 6 months in space – the average amount of time crews spend in space aboard the International Space Station – have returned to Earth to conclude a most successful mission aboard China’s nascent space station.

The Shenzhou-13 crew – comprising Commander Zhai Zhigang and crewmates Wang Yaping and rookie tiakonaut Ye Guangfu – launched to the Tiangong station’s core module, called Tianhe-1, on October 15th, 2021.Since then they have been performing a range of tasks to commission the module and prepare it for expansion through the addition of further modules.

This work included testing the station’s robot arm, performing payload relocation and docking operations with the arm and a Tianzhou re-supply vehicle, completing two spacewalks – with Wang becoming the first female tiakonaut to complete an EVA – and various other tasks.

Wang Yaping (l) and Ye Guangfu give a thumbs-up from the Tianhe-1 core module of the Chinese space station whilst mission commander Zhai Zhigang stands proudly behind them, in a broadcast made shortly before they started preparations for their return to Earth, April 15th, 2022. Credit: CMSE

In addition, the crew completed more than 20 different science studies and delivered a series of lectures and presentations to Chinese schools – and also performed a special “international Q&A” with American students visiting the Chinese embassy in Washington DC. They also became the first Chinese nationals to celebrate the Lunar New Year in space.

Shenzhou-13 undocked from Tianhe at 16:44 UTC on April 15th, 2022 at the start of a 9-hour “rapid return” to Earth, rather than the 24+ hour returns seen with crews returning from previous orbital missions. Following the separation of the vehicle’s orbital module at 01:06 UTC on April 16th, the Earth return capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and soft-landed in Dongfeng, Inner Mongolia, at 01:56 UTC, April 16th.

A jubilant Weng Yaping gives another thumbs up to camera as she is lowered from the hatch at the top of her Shenzhou vehicle by the ground support team after a successful landing. Credit: CCTV

The conclusion of the flight marks the start of a sharp increase in Tiangong operations.

Tianzhou-4, the next automated re-supply vehicle that will fly to Tianhe-1, is already on the pad at the Wenchang spaceport, and is set to launch on or around May 10th. It is due to be followed on June 5th by Shenzhou-14 and a further 3-person crew who will again spend 6 months on the station. During this time they will oversee the arrival and docking of the station’s science modules Wentian (scheduled for a July launch) and Mengtian (due to launch in October).

The addition of the two laboratory cabin modules will complete the currently-planned construction operations at the station.

With thanks to Dani Desire for the pointer on Perseverance.

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