Space Sunday: space stations, politics and Artemis 1

2 months ago 37
The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The war in Ukraine continues to have repercussions in international space activities. some of them somewhat bizarre in nature.

In particular, the head of Roscosmos and noted Putin hardliner, Dmitry Rogozin has been putting out a series of tweets that have been increasingly threatening – in my previous Space Sunday update, I noted that Rogozin had threatened to allow the International Space Station ISS to slip into an uncontrolled de-orbit and potentially crash into a Western city (since the shuttle’s retirement, Russian Progress re-supply vehicles have been used to routinely boost the station’s orbit as drag with the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere), despite the fact the multiple means by which the United States can boost the station’s orbit. In fact, NASA is planning a test using the current Cygnus NG-17.resupply vessel that docked with the ISS on February 21st to do just this, the test being scheduled for early April 2022.

Since then, there have been threats to “abandon” US astronaut Mark Vande Hei on the station at the end of his tour. Vande Hei flew to the ISS in 2021 aboard Soyuz MS-18 in April 2021. He is due to return to Earth at the end of March aboard Soyuz MS-19, but Rogozin has publicly tweeted that Russia will deny him his seat on the flight unless US and International attitudes towards Russia are reversed.

Whilst denying Vande Hei a seat on a Soyuz would mean his return to earth would be delayed, it is hardly “abandoning” him. NASA has at least two options for returning him directly to the United States using the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which can carry up to seven people – although flights thus far have not exceeded four -, whilst Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, once operational and as a longer-term option, might also be used.

Most bizarrely, and in connection with Vande Hei, on March 5th Russian state media company RIA Novosti posted a video apparently put together by Roscosmos that showed Russian cosmonauts packing up and detaching the Russian segment from the ISS utilising edited footage of actual activities on the ISS, together with studio-developed CGI images,  it is unclear if the video is intended to be a threat or not, although it does end with the words “This is based on unreal events”, but it appeared to be a further part of the Roscosmos / Rogozin belligerency, the latter issuing a statement at more-or-less the same time, also through Russian media:

The blame for the collapse of cooperation in space lies on the shoulders of the United States, Britain, France and Germany. These countries destroyed what was created by mankind with such difficulty, what was created by the blood and sweat of those people who mastered space.

– Dmitry Rogozin, Roscosmos director

But could / would Russia take such an act? The Russian elements of the station sit as an individual group of modules connected to the rest of the station at a single point. So technically, they could be detached. However, doing so would require more than a simple packing up of bags, closing a couple of hatches and pushing off; there are a lot of interdependencies to be considered – and the flow of power, etc., is not one-way as Rogozin has attempted to paint. As such, numerous activities would have to be completed ahead of time so as to avoid risk to the Russian crew. As such, seeing the video as an outright threat, per the NASAWatch tweet above, this seems unlikely.

More to the point, Roscomos has already announced plans for a new dedicated space station – the Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS) – they intend to start assembling in 2025. This will use at least one module (SPS-1/NEM-1) originally intended to join the ISS in 2024, but which Roscosmos has stated will be repurposed for the new station. This will be added to using a second “former ISS” module and the Nauka module that arrived at the ISS in July 2021, both in around 2028. As such, detaching modules such as Zarya and Zvezda, already practically at the end of their operational life, from the ISS and which would serve no real purpose would seem unlikely. But then, international space cooperation is one of the more significant areas in which Russia could express itself without necessarily escalating tension on Earth in an irreversible manner.

Given their plans to fly ROSS – the Russian Orbital Service Station, it would seem unlikely Roscosmos would unduly threaten ISS operations. Credit: Roscosmos

Currently, NASA is stressing that from their perspective, and despite Rogozin’s rhetoric, it is cooperation as usual with the ISS, although some voices are urgent the agency to put together a tiger team to explore options should Russia opt to do something unexpected with the ISS. However, ISS missions aren’t the only target.

As I noted last time around the worsening situation in Western-Russian relations means that a number of ESA launches have potentially been impacted, and the fate of the joint ExoMars lander / rover mission, due for launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in September – a date a lot closer than the other threatened missions.

More directly impacted has been British satellite internet company OneWeb. They had contracted Roscosmos to launch 36 of their internet communications satellite network – part of an initial network of 220 such satellites (eventually rising to 600), However, OneWeb was rescued from bankruptcy by the UK, which now holds a 51% stake, and Roscosmos initially refused to go through with the launch until the UK government sold its stake in OneWeb – a demand that was refused. As a result of the action by Roscosmos, OneWeb has cancelled all further launches using Russian vehicle, and has joined a growing number of businesses no longer utilising the Russian launch vehicle fleet, and taking their business elsewhere.

Spektr-RG telescope. Credit: DLR

But it is not all one-way. The German Aerospace Centre (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt or DLR), one of the largest space agencies in Europe announced it has cancelled its partnership with Roscosmos across all space research and development, with no intention of resuming cooperative ventures with Russia in the future.

In response, Dmitry Rogozin immediately ordered the shut down of the  German-built eROSITA x-ray instrument on the on the Spektr-RG  high-energy astrophysics space observatory, launched in 2019. Occupying the Earth-Sun L2 position 1.5 million km from Earth, Spektr-RG was a flagship mission for both DLR and Roscosmos. However, shutting eROSITA down is something of a pyrrhic response on Rogozin’s part, as it is the primary instrument aboard the satellite, and its loss impacts Russian space science as much as German.

China Offers Station for Commercial and International  Cooperation

China is planning to open its space station to commercial research and activities, according to a senior human spaceflight program official. It is first indication that the national space agency will allow Chinese commercial enterprises to participate in the programme, and is being seen as a similar step to NASA’s “public/private” partnerships for crew and cargo vehicles for the ISS.

When our space station is completed and running, we will actively encourage the private sector to engage in space through various ways. There are many possibilities. We hope there will be competitive, cost-efficient commercial space players to participate in areas including space applications and space resource development. The prospects are good.

– Zhou Jianping, director of China’s human spaceflight programme

Construction of the Tiangong station is due to be completed this year with the addition of the Wentian and Mengtian modules (May / June 2022 and August / September 2022 respectively), two cargo spacecraft and two crewed missions – Shenzhou 14 and 15 – are also due to visit the station, marking the start of a 10-year operational lifecycle for Tiangong.

An artist’s impression of the Tiangong space station. Credit: CNSA

As well as national interests, China is also seeking international involvement with the station, calling directly to scientists and universities around the world to provide experiments and engage with China to research and station activities. China has also extended an invitation to United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), following in the footsteps of America’s Sierra Space in offering the opportunity to those countries that do not have easy access to space with the ability to fly experiments to Tiangong (Sierra Space is due to fly the first UNOOSA mission aboard its Dream Chaser Cargo space plane in 2024).

Nor is this passing unnoticed. Nanoracks, a company that specialising in flying experiments to the International Space Station in behalf of clients, has admitted China has already lured one of the significant customers to start flying to Tiangong in preference to the ISS.

NASA Prepares for Artemis-1 Roll-Out

NASA is readying itself for the roll-out of the first Space Launch System rocket add of the final tests that should clear the vehicle to fly the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission to cislunar space.

After numerous delays and overruns, the mammoth rocket is due to roll out to launch pad 39B at Kennedy Space Centre at 22:00 UTC on Thursday, March 17th, 2022 to start a gentle 11-hour trip to launch Pad 39B atop one of NASA’s refurbished crawler-transporters (the same vehicle used to carry Saturn V and shuttle launch systems to the pad as they sat upon their launch platforms). Once there, SLS will spend around one month at the pad during which it will undergo expensive testing required to ensure its launch readiness.

In particular, at the end of March / start of April, the critical wet dress rehearsal will take place. This will see the liquid fuel tanks in the rocket’s core stage filled with propellants and the vehicle and its launch systems go through a full launch countdown which will end just 9 seconds short of an actual launch – the point at which the four RS-25 engines at the base of the rocket would normally ignite in order to build their thrust to maximum really to launch.

The Crawler-Transporter sits outside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the hi-bay doors of the latter partially open to show the back of the launch tower standing on the SLS launch platform, supporting the (unseen) SLS. Credit: NASA

Once the wet-dress is complete, the rocket will be rolled back into the VAB for final launch preparations, including the identification and repair of any issues found during the rehearsal, final Orion spacecraft work, and flight software updates. After SLS’ return to the VAB, NASA expects that final work to take one month to complete – although it could, going on past performance, take longer. While no exact date has been set for the launch, NASA is currently looking at a window that runs from May 7th through 21st which would allow the vehicle to launch the uncrewed Orion capsule and its service module towards the Moon at the start of a 25-days to cislunar space and then back to Earth, with 6 days spent actually orbiting the Moon. After that, a second window opens in June, and again in July, etc.

Providing all goes well with Artemis 1, Artemis 2 will fly a crew of four around the Moon and back to confirm the Orion vehicle is ready to commence crewed operations. Currently projected for launch in 2024, and with the SLS rocket and the Orion vehicle it will use under construction, Artemis 2 will be followed in 2025 (in theory at least, although 2026 looks far more likely) by Artemis 3, which will see four crew travel to lunar orbit, where two will transfer to a SpaceX Human Landing System (HLS) starship and attempt a landing on the lunar surface.

What happens after that is currently anyone’s guess. While a total of three more SLS rockets are currently being fabricated / constructed (covering Artemis mission 2-4); as I’ve previously reported in these pages, Artemis 4 will not be a lunar landing mission, and NASA likely won’t actually have any HLS vehicle until around 2028 – the SpaceX contract is just for one mission, and the agency is expected to make use of at least one different system going forward. Therefore, Artemis 4 will be part of the mission to establish the Lunar Gateway station in a halo orbit around the Moon, with Artemis 5 – yet to have any vehicles assigned – being the earmarked for the second mission to the surface of the Moon.

The Artemis 1 SLS standing on its launch platform inside the VAB. Credit: NASA

That’s assuming Artemis gets that far; a recent review of Artemis / SLS by the agency’s Office of Inspector General – one of a series over the course of the last few years – has suggested that Artemis / SLS is liable to cost US $4 billion – twice that of NASA’s estimates, and that after development costs are factored in – excluding those associated with HLS and the Lunar Gateway, Project Artemis is liable to cost US 93 billion by Artemis 5.  All of which could – assuming the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin can achieve their stated goals with their respective Starship / Super Heavy and New Glenn vehicles – make SLS / Orion appear to be utterly over-priced and potentially unsustainable by the US government.

Have NASA Fly Your Name on Artemis 1

And on the subject of Artemis, NASA is inviting people to submit their names to be included on a flash drive that will be sent along with Artemis 1.

My Artemis 1 “boarding pass”

The sign-up process is easy: go to this link on NASA’s website, and click on the “Get boarding pass.” Users will be directed to fill in their first and last name, along with a 4-7 digit pin code. A “boarding pass” will be displayed with your name, which you can save, or you can access it again later by remembering your pin code.

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