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Experiments, holiday gifts delivered by SpaceX to International Space Station

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SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft, set against the blackness of space, arrived at the International Space Station early Wednesday. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance capsule is pictured in the foreground docked at the station. Credit: NASA/Raja Chari

A SpaceX Dragon cargo capsuled pulled into port at the International Space Station Wednesday, a day after launch from Florida’s Space Coast with 3.2 tons of experiments, holiday gifts, and external instruments developed by NASA and the U.S. military to help improve hurricane forecasts.

Approaching from above, the unpiloted supply freighter docked with the space station’s Harmony module at 3:41 a.m. EST (0841 GMT) Wednesday, nearly 50 minutes ahead of schedule.

The automated link-up capped a 22-and-a-half hour pursuit of the space station by the reusable Dragon cargo ship, which made its second trip to the complex. After docking more than 260 miles (420 kilometers) above Earth, the Dragon spacecraft’s power and data umbilicals plugged in to the space station’s electrical and communications networks for the mission’s planned 30-day stay.

Astronauts inside the space station planned to open hatches and begin unpacking supplies inside the Dragon capsule’s internal compartment. Meanwhile, the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm will extract two instrument packages carried to the lab inside the spacecraft’s unpressurized trunk for the U.S. military’s Space Test Program.

The delivery was the 24th cargo flight to the space station by SpaceX since 2012. NASA contracted with SpaceX in 2008 for commercial cargo missions to the station, taking over some of the program’s logistics train after the retirement of the space shuttle.

NASA also has a contract with Northrop Grumman for cargo deliveries to the station. Sierra Nevada Corp. aims to begin flying to the station with a cargo vehicle in late 2022 or early 2023.

A camera on-board the Cargo Dragon capsule captured this view of the International Space Station during final approach Wednesday. Credit: NASA TV / Spaceflight Now

The latest SpaceX mission carried 6,590 pounds (2,989 kilograms) of supplies and experiments, including packaging, to the research lab’s seven-person crew.

The station crew also received holiday gifts and a feast packed inside the Dragon spacecraft.

“Every year, we do our best to send up some presents to the crew,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station program manager. “I won’t get in front of Santa Claus and tell you what’s going to be sent up, but we are going have some gifts for the crew.”

The meal includes turkey, green beans, fruit cake, and smoked seafood.

Here’s a breakdown of the cargo load:

• 2,468 pounds (1,119 kilograms) of science investigations
• 2,002 pounds (908 kilograms) of unpressurized payloads
• 852 pounds (386 kilograms) of crew supplies
• 724 pounds (328 kilograms) of vehicle hardware
• 400 pounds (182 kilograms) of spacewalk equipment
• 72 pounds (33 kilograms) of computer resources

The Dragon cargo ship delivered four experimental CubeSats to the station from teams at Kennedy Space Center, Aerospace Corp., Utah State University, and Georgia Tech. The CubeSats will be robotically deployed outside the complex next year.

The scientific experiments on the SpaceX cargo freighter include an investigation from Merck Research Labs studying monoclonal antibodies. The research focus of that experiment is on analyzing the structure and behavior of a monoclonal antibody used in a drug aimed at treating cancers.

Another experiment will assess the loss of immune protection in astronauts flying in space.

Proctor & Gamble and NASA have partnered in another experiment to test the performance of a new fully degradable detergent named Tide Infinity, a product specifically designed for use in space.

Astronauts on the space station currently wear an item of clothing several times, then discard the garment. But crews flying to the moon and Mars won’t have the same supply chain of cargo missions to support them.

NASA says Tide plans to use the new cleaning detergent to “advance sustainable, low-resource-use laundry solutions on Earth.”

Team members pose with the Compact Ocean Wind Vector Radiometer instrument at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Two research pallets from the U.S. military’s Space Test Program are riding inside the Dragon spacecraft’s unpressurized trunk. The two payloads, named STP-H7 and STP-H8, will be transferred from the Dragon spacecraft to mounting points outside the space station using the lab’s robotic arm.

The STP-H7 payload package will be mounted outside the European Space Agency’s Columbus lab module, according to NASA. STP-H8 will be placed on the exposed science facility outside the Japanese Kibo lab.

Two weather instruments from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are hosted on the STP-H8 experiment package.

One of them, called the Compact Ocean Wind Vector Radiometer, or COWVR, will measure the direction and speed of winds at the ocean surface. The Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems, or TEMPEST, instrument looks at atmospheric humidity, according to NASA.

Scientists will test the instruments’ performance in space during a three-year primary mission. Simultaneous measurements of ocean winds and atmospheric water vapor profiles could improve storm forecasting and weather models.

The COWVR instrument has been in development for a decade. It originally was designed to fly on a standalone military satellite to replace an instrument named WindSat that collects ocean wind data for the Defense Department.

WindSat is on the military’s Coriolis satellite, which has been in orbit since 2003 and is well beyond its design life.

A microwave instrument like COWVR or WindSat measures ocean winds through detecting naturally occurring microwave emissions from Earth’s surface. The microwave data can reveal the speed and direction of winds, useful in applications such as hurricane forecasting and naval deployments.

NASA partnered with the Defense Department in a $24 million program to develop a simplified, new-generation version of the WindSat instrument that can fit within smaller mass and volume constraints. The COWVR instrument weighs 130 pounds (59 kilograms), about an eight the mass of WindSat, and reduces the number of moving parts needed to spin the rotating microwave sensor and collect data.

The new instrument was reassigned from being hosted on its own satellite to a cheaper ride to the space station.

“COWVR has the distinct possibility of being an absolute game changer for our users,” said Don Boucher, principal scientist in the chief architect’s office in the Space Force. “It’s simpler to build, simpler to test, the timeframe to build the instrument is less – so you can build more of them for the same amount of money as one conventional radiometer. That has tremendous implications for our supply chain.”

The TEMPEST radiometer flying alongside COWVR will be sensitive to a different range of microwave signals that yield information about moisture in the atmosphere. The instrument, just the size of a cereal box, is a spare left over from a CubeSat program.

“TEMPEST brings to the table an ability to sense both the amount of atmospheric moisture and its vertical distribution,” said Steve Swadley, the lead for calibration and validation of microwave sensors at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California. “This is important both for numerical models and for characterizing the moisture surrounding tropical cyclones.”

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Webb reaches orbital destination a million miles from Earth

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Artist’s illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope slipped into orbit around a point in space nearly a million miles from Earth Monday where it can capture light from the first stars and galaxies to form in the aftermath of the Big Bang.

As planned, the European Ariane 5 rocket that launched Webb on Christmas Day put the telescope on a trajectory that required only a slight push to reach the intended orbit around Lagrange Point 2, one of five where the pull of sun and Earth interact to form stable or nearly stable gravitational zones.

The push came in the form of a 4-minute 57-second thruster firing at 2 p.m. EST — 30 days after launch at a distance of 907,530 miles from Earth — that increased Webb’s velocity by a mere 3.6 mph, just enough to ease it into a six-month orbit around L2.

“Webb, welcome home!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a blog post. “Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work ensuring Webb’s safe arrival at L2 today. We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!”

Spacecraft at or near L2 orbit the sun in lockstep with Earth and can remain on station with a minimum amount of rocket fuel, allowing a longer operational lifetime than might otherwise be possible.

An orbit around L2 also will allow Webb to observe the universe while keeping its tennis court-size sunshade broadside to Earth’s star and the telescope’s optics and instruments on the cold side.

As of Monday, Webb’s mirror had cooled down to minus 347 Fahrenheit, well on the way toward a goal of nearly 390 degrees below zero. That’s what is required for Webb to register the exceedingly faint infrared light from the first stars and galaxies.

This infographic illustrates Webb’s journey to L2. Credit: ESA

For the rest of its operational life, Webb will circle L2 at distances between 155,000 and 517,000 miles, taking six months to complete one orbit. Because the orbit around L2 is not perfectly stable, small thruster firings will be carried out every three weeks or so to maintain the telescope’s trajectory.

“Congrats to the team!” tweeted NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen. “@NASAWebb is now in its new stable home in space & one step closer to helping us #UnfoldTheUniverse.”

Before launch, engineers said Webb likely would have enough propellant to operate for five to 10 years. But thanks to the precision of its Ariane 5 launch and two near-perfect trajectory correction burns carried out later, it now appears Webb could remain operational for many years beyond that.

In any case, with the L2 orbit insertion burn behind then, scientists and engineers will focus on aligning Webb’s secondary mirror and the 18 hexagonal segments making up its 21.3-foot-wide primary mirror to achieve the required razor-sharp focus.

Each mirror segment is equipped with seven actuators, six of which can make microscopic changes in a segment’s orientation and one that can push or pull as required to slightly change a mirror’s shape.

As it now stands, the 18 unaligned segments would produce 18 out-of-focus images of the same star. But over the next few months, the positions of each segment will be adjusted in tiny increments, one at a time, to move reflected starlight to the center of the telescope’s optical axis.

Once all 18 light beams are precisely merged, or “stacked,” Webb will effectively be in focus, clearing the way for instrument calibration. The first science images from the fully commissioned telescope are expected this summer.

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Watch live: Cargo Dragon capsule ready to depart space station

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SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft, closing out a month-long mission, is scheduled to undock from the International Space Station Sunday after a two-delay in its departure to wait for better weather in the capsule’s recovery zone off the coast of Florida.

The gumdrop-shaped cargo freighter will undock from the station’s Harmony module at 10:40 a.m. EDT (1540 GMT) Sunday. A series of departure maneuvers using the ship’s Draco thrusters will guide Dragon away from the complex, setting up for a deorbit burn at 3:18 p.m. EDT (2018 GMT) Monday to allow the spacecraft to drop out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere.

Splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, is scheduled for around 4:05 p.m. EDT (2105 GMT) Monday. Four main parachutes will slow the capsule before reaching the ocean, where a SpaceX recovery vessel will be in position to raise the Dragon spacecraft from the sea.

Time-sensitive cargo, such as biological research samples, will be flown back to Kennedy Space Center by helicopter, where NASA researchers will receive and catalog the materials for analysis and distribution to scientists around the world.

The undocking and splashdown will complete SpaceX’s 24th resupply mission to the space station since 2012 under the umbrella of two multibillion-dollar commercial contracts with NASA.

The Dragon spacecraft is packed with more than 4,900 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of cargo, including a spacesuit coming back to Earth for refurbishment after supporting spacewalks outside the space station.

The mission launched Dec. 21 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The Dragon cargo freighter docked with the space station Dec. 22, and astronauts began unpacking science experiments, holiday gifts and food, spare parts and other supplies.

The cargo delivery last month hauled 6,590 pounds (2,989 kilograms) of supplies and experiments, including packaging, to the space station’s seven-person crew.

The Dragon cargo ship delivered four experimental CubeSats to the station from teams at Kennedy Space Center, Aerospace Corp., Utah State University, and Georgia Tech. The CubeSats will be robotically deployed outside the complex later this year.

The scientific experiments launched on the SpaceX cargo freighter included an investigation from Merck Research Labs studying monoclonal antibodies. The research focus of that experiment is on analyzing the structure and behavior of a monoclonal antibody used in a drug aimed at treating cancers.

Another experiment is assessing the loss of immune protection in astronauts flying in space.

Proctor & Gamble and NASA have partnered in another experiment to test the performance of a new fully degradable detergent named Tide Infinity, a product specifically designed for use in space.

Astronauts on the space station currently wear an item of clothing several times, then discard the garment. But crews flying to the moon and Mars won’t have the same supply chain of cargo missions to support them.

NASA says Tide plans to use the new cleaning detergent to “advance sustainable, low-resource-use laundry solutions on Earth.”

Another research investigation will test manufacturing methods for superalloys in space. Alloys, materials made up of a metal and at least one other chemical element, could be produced in microgravity with fewer defects and better mechanical properties, according to NASA.

“These superior materials could improve the performance of turbine engines in industries such as aerospace and power generation on Earth,” NASA said.

With its 32-day stay at the station over, the astronauts on the research outpost replaced the cargo delivered by Dragon with materials tagged for return to Earth.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Astra fires up rocket for first time at Cape Canaveral

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Astra’s small satellite launcher was test-fired at Cape Canaveral’s Complex 46 launch pad Saturday. Credit: Astra / John Kraus

Astra, a company seeking to carve out a segment of the growing small satellite launch market, test-fired its two-stage rocket at Cape Canaveral on Saturday in preparation for an upcoming demonstration flight for NASA.

The engine test-firing, called a static fire test, occurred on launch pad 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station as Astra prepares to deliver four small CubeSat nano-satellites into orbit under contract to NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program.

The rocket’s five Delphin engines, burning kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants, fired for less than 10 seconds at 11:40 a.m. EST (1640 GMT) Saturday on pad 46.

The static fire test sent an exhaust plume away from the rocket that was visible from public viewing locations several miles away. A low rumble was also heard from the beaches south of Cape Canaveral.

Astra confirmed the static fire test in a tweet Sunday afternoon. Chris Kemp, Astra’s founder and CEO, tweeted that the company will announce the target launch date and time for the mission after receiving a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The static fire test was expected to be a prerequisite for Astra receiving an FAA launch license.

Astra’s rocket is small in size compared to other launch vehicles that regularly fly from Cape Canaveral. The launcher, called Rocket 3.3 or LV0008, stands just 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall, more than five times shorter than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and about the same height as the Falcon 9’s payload compartment.

The commercially-developed launch vehicle, in its existing configuration, is designed to carry a payload of around 110 pounds (50 kilograms) into a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) polar orbit, according to Kemp. Astra’s rocket is sized to offer dedicated rides to orbit for small commercial, military, and research satellites.



Astra launched its first successful mission to low Earth orbit in November from Kodiak Island, Alaska, on a test flight sponsored by the U.S. Space Force, following three previous launch attempts that faltered during the climb into orbit.

Founded in 2016, Astra aims to eventually conduct daily launches with small satellites at relatively low cost, targeting a smallsat launch market cramped with competitors such as Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Firefly Aerospace, each of which has begun flying small launch vehicles. Numerous other companies are months or years away from debuting their smallsat launchers.

Four CubeSats are set to ride the rocket into orbit on a mission arranged by NASA.

The mission is part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services, or VCLS, program, which awarded Astra a $3.9 million contract last year for a commercial CubeSat launch. Scott Higginbotham, head of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative at Kennedy Space Center, says the agency is the sole customer for the upcoming Astra launch.

The Venture Class Launch Services program is aimed at giving emerging small satellite launch companies some business, while helping NASA officials familiarize themselves with the nascent industry.

NASA previously awarded VCLS demonstration missions to Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, which completed their first launches for the U.S. space agency in 2018 and 2021. The U.S. military has awarded similar demonstration launch contracts to Astra and other companies.

Higginbotham said the VCLS mission gives NASA insight into companies’ management and technical teams, procedures and processes, and their hardware designs.

“That’s going to allow us to be a better consumer going forward if they stay in business, and can offer their services to us later on,” Higginbotham said. “We’ll already have been introduced and have done a deep dive, of sorts, into those companies to understand what makes them tick, and that’s that’s of tremendous value to us.”

The VCLS demo missions are also a stepping stone toward certification of the new smallsat launchers to carry more expensive NASA satellites into orbit. The certification isn’t required for the demo missions themselves.

“NASA has other missions that require a little bit more reliability from the launch vehicle, a little more certainty, and a little more launch vehicle insight,” Higginbotham said.

Student teams work on the INCA CubeSat set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral on Astra’s small satellite launcher. Credit: New Mexico State University

A team of fewer than a dozen technicians and engineers set up Astra’s rocket on pad 46 earlier this month. Astra’s launch control team remained behind at the company’s headquarters in Alameda, California, where managers remotely control the rocket’s countdown.

A fueling test, or wet dress rehearsal, was accomplished earlier in January before Saturday’s static fire.

NASA assigned four nano-missions to the Astra demonstration launch through the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative program.

One of the CubeSats was developed by the University of California, Berkeley. Named QubeSat, the small spacecraft will test a tiny gyroscope, a device used to help determine the orientation of satellites in space.

Another student-developed payload on Astra’s first launch from Florida is the Ionospheric Neutron Content Analyzer, or INCA mission, from New Mexico State University. INCA’s main science instrument is a directional neutron spectrometer from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Data from INCA will “contribute to understanding the radiation environment that satellites encounter, and to the understanding of neutron air showers, which pose a radiation hazard to occupants of high-altitude aircraft such as airliners,” according to the student team that developed the mission.

The BAMA 1 mission, developed at the University of Alabama, will demonstrate a drag sail device designed to help old satellites and space junk drop out of orbit. The drag sail will encounter air molecules from the rarefied atmosphere at the satellite’s altitude, slowing its velocity enough to fall back to Earth.

The final payload is a CubeSat named R5-S1 from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA says the mission’s objectives including demonstrating quick CubeSat development and testing technologies useful for in-space inspection, which could make human spaceflight safer and more efficient.

Another CubeSat mission from UC-Berkeley originally selected by NASA for the Astra demonstration launch wasn’t ready in time for integration with the rocket in December, according to Jasmine Hopkins, a NASA spokesperson at Kennedy Space Center.

The CubeSat Radio Interferometry Experiment, or CURIE, mission, consists of two identical three-unit CubeSats, each the size of a shoebox, with radio antennas to detect emissions from solar activity, such as solar flares and coronal mass eruptions.

NASA will assign the CURIE satellites to another launch, Hopkins said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Source: Space

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