In this week’s spaceflight news round-up, China’s reusable spaceplane has completed its second long-duration mission in orbit, with social media images suggesting it shares similarities with the US X-37B. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic is set to resume human spaceflights with its SpaceShip Two, with four employees taking a final assessment before customer flights begin later this summer.
In other news, SpaceX plans to perform a double droneship landing on an upcoming Falcon Heavy, and ULA rolls its Vulcan rocket for final pre-launch testing.
China’s secretive spaceplane has returned to Earth this week after 276 days in orbit.
The reusable spacecraft lifted off on Aug. 4 last year onboard a Chang Zheng 2F rocket – the same rocket China uses to launch their Shenzhou crewed capsules.
On its nine-month-long stay in orbit, the spaceplane conducted several major maneuvers in orbit, likely to test its orbital maneuvering capabilities. The spacecraft also appeared to test the release, capture, re-release, and re-capture of a satellite companion stowed onboard its payload bay during launch.
This was the second mission of the spacecraft following a much shorter two-day trip to orbit in September 2020, when it also released a satellite stowed in it.
It is not fully known what this spacecraft looks like and what it was doing up in orbit, but social media pictures of the rocket fairing that protected it during launch show protuberances that suggest it is similar in design to the US Space Force X-37B spaceplane.
Very much like the X-37B, it also seems like the Chinese spaceplane – of which we also don’t know its name yet – can remain in orbit for long periods of time.
The X-37 B’s record for the longest stay in orbit is 908 days.
Virgin Galactic has announced it is resuming human spaceflights of its SpaceShip Two spaceplane.
After performing a captive flight test and a glide flight test of SpaceShip Two last month, the company says it is ready to resume powered flights up to the edge of space and back in late May.
The mission, called Unity 25, will carry four passengers – all Virgin Galactic employees – that will provide a final assessment before the company’s first customer flight in late June.
The spaceflight will feature three rookie travelers: Luke Mays, Jamila Gilbert, and Christopher Huie. The fourth passenger will be Beth Moses, flying for a third time on SpaceShip Two. The commander will be Michael Masucci, and the pilot will be former Space Shuttle astronaut Frederick Sturckow; both will fly for a third time on SpaceShip Two.
The company plans to start customer flights about a month in late June with a flight cadence of roughly once a month.
ULA’s Vulcan rocket has rolled out to the pad for final pre-launch testing ahead of launch.
If the tests are successful, Vulcan could be ready for launch as soon as this summer.
Rocket Lab launched the “Rocket Like A Hurricane” mission on May 8 at 1:00 UTC from Launch Complex 1B in New Zealand. The mission successfully placed two satellites for NASA’s TROPICS constellation.
These weather satellites will monitor the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere in tropical areas of the world. By having multiple satellites instead of one, a specific location may be revisited numerous times a day instead of once a day, allowing a higher resolution in time for the changes in the atmosphere.
LAUNCH! Rocket Lab Electron launches with two TROPICS satellites from Launch Complex 1B (LC-1B) in Mahia, New Zealand.
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) May 8, 2023
NASA hopes this will increase understanding of the evolution of tropical cyclones – hence the funny name Rocket Lab gave to the mission.
Another two TROPIC satellites are set for launch later this month on a mission named “Coming To A Storm Near You.”
China has launched its Tianzhou 6 cargo spacecraft to the Chinese Space Station. Liftoff occurred on May 10 at 13:22 UTC from the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center.
LAUNCH! Tianzhou-6 launches on a Chang Zheng 7 (Long March 7) from the Wenchang Space Launch Site to the Tiangong Space Station (TSS).
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) May 10, 2023
This Tianzhou spacecraft debuted a new cargo rack configuration that will allow it to carry up to 7.4 tonnes of cargo in future missions. It also flew with improved antennas, enabling higher data transfer rates between the spacecraft and the ground.
The Tianzhou 6 spacecraft docked at the Chinese Space Station on May 10 at 21:16 UTC – almost eight hours after launch. It’ll remain on the station until early next year.
A Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on May 10 at 20:09 UTC from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
LAUNCH! SpaceX's Falcon 9 B1075 launches with Starlink Group 2-9 from SLC-4E at Vandenberg.
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) May 10, 2023
The Falcon 9 carried the latest batch of Starlink v1.5 satellites headed to Starlink’s first-generation constellation. The first stage for the mission, B1075, was flying for a third time and successfully landed on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You.
The Starlink satellites deployed successfully 20 minutes after liftoff. With this launch, SpaceX has now launched 4,391 Starlink satellites, of which 4,074 remain in orbit. Of those, 3,427 satellites are in operational orbits.
This week Vast announced that it had selected SpaceX to launch its Haven-1 space station and a human spaceflight mission to that station.
Vast recently acquired a rocket company, Launcher, that was developing its propulsion systems and launched an orbital tug on a Falcon 9 rocket not long ago.
The Haven-1 station Vast is planning to build would be straightforward in construction, just a single module with propulsion and solar panels. It would serve as an extension of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle rather than a fully outfitted space station.
The plan is to launch the station on a Falcon 9 in August 2025, followed shortly by a crewed mission. Crew Dragon would remain docked at Haven-1 for about 30 days, and during its stay, the station’s propulsion system would be used to spin it and create some small artificial gravity for the passengers.
The station would also sport a cupola on one of its ends for viewing the Earth, with extended plans to develop a larger modular station in the future sized for the payload volume of Starship.
Earlier this week, SpaceX filed with the Federal Communications Commission permits to communicate before and during launch with the Falcon Heavy rocket and all its stages and boosters.
While the center core will be expendable, this mission will feature a double droneship landing of the Falcon Heavy side boosters.
— Alejandro Alcantarilla Romera (Alex) (@Alexphysics13) May 11, 2023
These permits are usual for all SpaceX launches, and while they’re just more boring paperwork, they allow us to gather some information about an upcoming mission.
These two upcoming Falcon Heavy launches are the USSF-52 and Echostar 24 missions. According to these permits, both missions will feature an expendable center core while the boosters will be landing and recovered.
For USSF-52, it’ll be like five of the six Falcon Heavy missions so far: they’ll separate, turn back, and land on land at Landing Zone 1 and Zone 2.
However, for Echostar 24, this will be the first time both boosters will land on drone ships. After booster separation, they’ll reorient engines first and go through entry, but they will not perform a boostback burn to return to land. Instead, they will land on two drone ships.
This is because Echostar 24 satellite is very heavy, the heaviest geostationary communications satellite ever launched at over nine tonnes in mass. It is also a high-energy orbit mission close to GEO.
As such, the side boosters will be heading to the ocean assets instead of back to land.
The USSF-52 mission is set for July 7, while the Echostar 24 mission is set for no earlier than August.
Outside the ISS, Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin are performing a spacewalk on the International Space Station to deploy and activate a newly installed radiator on the Nauka.
Cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin opened the hatch of the Poisk airlock at 11:47 am ET today, beginning their spacewalk to deploy a radiator. https://t.co/QgR5gqFu2u
— International Space Station (@Space_Station) May 12, 2023
Last week, SpaceX targeted a Starlink doubleheader with Starlink Group 2-9 and Starlink Group 5-9 missions. However, the latter was delayed.
Starlink Group 5-9 is now scheduled to launch on May 14 within a window of nearly four hours, opening at 04:48 UTC, again from Florida.
SpaceX also plans another Starlink mission, Starlink Group 6-3, from that same pad about four days later on May 18. This will break a record turnaround time for the launch pad if they do both missions without delay.