A regular update on the most important news stories in astronomy and space from the best European, British and Asian and partners news sources. Breaking news, latest discoveries plus the weird and wonderful. Updated regularly!
Shenzhou-11 manned spaceship reaches launch ground
JIUQUAN, Aug. 13 (Xinhua) — China’s Shenzhou-11 spaceship, set to take two astronauts into space, was delivered to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Saturday. General assembly and testing will begin at the center ahead of its launch scheduled for mid-October, said a statement by China’s manned space engineering office.
The spaceship will transport personnel and supplies to China’s second orbiting space lab Tiangong-2, which is to be launched in mid-September. The astronauts selected for the mission are both male and have been taking intense training, the statement said. Tiangong-2, which will allow two astronauts to live in space for up to 30 days, was delivered to the center in early July and the carrier rockets arrived last week.
China’s Yutu Moon rover could still be alive
China’s Jade Rabbit rover was the first such mission to the Moon since the 1970s, and has contributed to scientific discoveries and top quality images of the Moon. So when it was reported last week that the lunar rover had bitten the lunar dust, the news was understandably widely covered and received with sadness.
However, those reports may turn out to be premature. News of the demise of Yutu, as it is named in Chinese, began on July 31 with the appearance of a widely-shared ‘farewell’ post from the rover’s official account on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.
It was then seemingly confirmed by Chinese state media such as People’s Daily (Chinese) that Jade Rabbit had ceased operating at the start of its 33rd lunar night, some 972 days after launch on December 2, 2013. The reports cited a source at the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), which oversees the country’s space activities.
This in turn resulted in a slew of articles in Western media reporting the death of Yutu, with the assumption that the rover had failed some time after the start of the latest lunar night, when temperatures sink as low as minus 180 degrees Celsius. But as the details were still sparse – it was not reported exactly when Yutu had ‘died’, what had happened and how it was ascertained during lunar nighttime – gbtimes called the SASTIND media centre. The answer was surprising:
“Yutu did not die but is in hibernation. It only stopped detecting work on July 28.” Elaborating, the source said that: “Being dead would mean losing contact with the ground and all its signals ceasing. Yutu still has signals.”
“According to procedures, Yutu will wake up this month, but whether it can continue to work will be determined by the conditions then. Maybe it will give us a surprise.” It seems that Yutu is currently more retired than deceased, and could yet wake up, with its plutonium heaters apparently protecting its internal electronics during hibernation.
China’s new heavy-lift launch vehicle, is on its way to its launch site.
Two ships left a Chinese port this week carrying the Long March 5 components, bound for the new Wenchang spaceport on the island of Hainan. The launch of that rocket, China’s largest yet and comparable in performance to the Delta 4 Heavy, is scheduled for early November.
Japan will launch Kenya’s first satellite from the ISS next year under a UN-sponsored agreement.
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs said Thursday that the Japanese space agency JAXA has selected a satellite being developed at the University of Nairobi for a free launch from the station. The satellite, called the 1st Kenyan University Nano Satellite Precursor Flight, is a cubesat that will test technology for a future Earth observation mission. [Kyodo]
Resurrected – again?
This would not be the first time that Yutu has been declared dead only to be resurrected. In early 2014, a little over a month after Chang’e-3 landed on the Moon, Yutu suffered a mechanical malfunction, leaving the rover incapable of moving. It was quickly reported by Chinese and global media that Yutu was ‘dead’.
But this was swiftly proved wrong by a radio enthusiast in UK, who independently received a downlink from Yutu, showing it was fully ‘awake’.
CBI Files Chargeseet, Names Ex-ISRO Chief
The Central Bureau of Investigation on Thursday charged former Indian Space Research Organisation Chairman G Madhavan Nair and senior Space Department officials in the Antrix-Devas deal case for causing a loss of Rs 578 crore to the exchequer by abusing their official position to favour a private company.
The case relates to leasing S-Band, restricted wavelength of the INSAT satellites to deliver video, multimedia and information services to mobile receivers in vehicle and mobile phones to a private company Devas Multimedia by Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO. It was alleged in the FIR that the lease was given in violation of rules causing undue gain of Rs 578 crore to Devas Multimedia and corresponding loss to the exchequer.
The CBI filed its charge sheet before Special Judge at Patiala House court in which it has named the then Secretary Department of Space, Chairman ISRO and Antrix Corporation G Madhavan Nair, Devas Multimedia and seven others for criminal conspiracy, cheating and under provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act. Besides Nair, others named in the charge sheet as accused include the then Executive Director of Antrix K R Sridhar Murthy, former Managing Director of Forge Advisors and CEO of Devas Ramachandra Vishwanathan, and the then Director of Devas M G Chandrasekhar.
Former Additional Secretary in the Department of Space Veena S Rao, the then Director in ISRO A Bhaskar Narayana Rao and two directors of Devas Multimedia D Venugopal and M Umesh have also been named in the charge sheet as accused. The agency has so far not been able to establish any quid pro quo on behalf of Nair and claims that it has kept open its option to probe the matter further, the sources said.
They said the case against Nair and other government officials is abuse of their official position to facilitate the leasing of coveted wavelength to a private company in violation of guidelines.
“We will face the issue legally,” Nair said reacting to the development. He said there was nothing abnormal in leasing of transponder capacity as it is the primary role of Antrix and Department of Space.
The European Space Agency funds development of a British air-breathing rocket engine.
ESA signed an agreement Tuesday with Reaction Engines Ltd. to provide the company more than $10 million to continue work on the SABRE engine, with ESA serving as the project’s technical auditor. That funding is in addition to the $80 million pledged by the British government for the engine. SABRE is designed to collect oxygen from the air, even at high speeds, to combust with hydrogen fuel. Reaction Engines says the new contract will support development of a ground demonstrator engine ready that will be ready to begin tests in 2020. [BBC]
The European Space Agency’s decision to cooperate on a Russian lunar mission
ESA signed a contract this week to provide a drill on Russia’s Luna-Resurs lunar lander, now scheduled to launch in 2021. That mission will land at the moon’s south polar regions, and the drill will help look for subsurface ice. The mission may play into a larger ESA effort for lunar exploration, including the “Moon Village” concept proposed by ESA’s director-general, Jan Woerner. “The Moon is like a museum of 4.5 billion years of solar system history. So far, we’ve basically only been to the gift shop in the entrance hall,” said ESA’s David Parker. [SpaceNews]
The UK Space Agency announced plans to develop a propulsion test lab for rocket engines.
The UK National Space Propulsion Facility, to be established at the site of the country’s former Rocket Propulsion Establishment, will host facilities for testing spacecraft and rocket engines of up to 450 pounds-force of thrust. The UK Space Agency will invest more than $5 million in the center, with industry providing some of the test facilities. [Engineering and Technology]
Poland’s space agency has signed a cooperative agreement with its Chinese counterpart.
The agreement, signed by the presidents of the two countries during a state visit in Warsaw in late June, covers joint research, monitoring and developing new telecommunications solutions. The POLSA space agency has previously signed cooperative agreements with its counterparts in France, Italy, Ukraine and Brazil. [SpaceNews]
South Korea plans to sell high-resolution images from a satellite launched last year.
Kompsat-3A, also known as Arirang-3A, was built by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and launched on a Dnepr rocket in March 2015. After more than a year of on-orbit tests, the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning said Monday it will begin commercial sales of images from the spacecraft. Arirang-3A is capable of taking images with resolutions of 0.5 meters or better. [Yonhap]
China plans to launch 14 new weather satellites by 2025.
Those spacecraft include one FengYun-2 geostationary satellite, four FengYun-3 polar orbiting satellites and three FengYun-4 satellites, a next-generation version of the FengYun-2. Six other satellites will serve “multiple meteorological purposes,” according to a Chinese official. [Xinhua]
China’s new Long March 7 rocket successful on first flight
The new kerosene-fueled Long March 7 rocket rocket, developed to become a workhorse for a planned Chinese space station and the country’s clandestine military space program, flew into orbit Saturday on its inaugural flight from a launch base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
Burning a combination of rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen, six YF-100 engines on the Long March 7’s core stage and boosters lit with a flash of orange light and climbed away from a new launch pad at 1200 GMT (8 a.m. EDT; 8 p.m. Beijing time) Saturday, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., or CASC, the Chinese space program’s state-owned prime contractor.
Thousands of space enthusiasts crowded around the Wenchang launch base on Hainan Island off China’s southern coastline to get a view of the nighttime blastoff. In a rare move for China’s still-secretive space program, authorities established eight viewing sites around Wenchang to host the public.
Climbing atop more than 1.6 million pounds of thrust, the 174-foot-tall (53-meter) rocket soared southeast from Wenchang, releasing its four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters at about T+plus 2 minutes, 55 seconds, to fall into the South China Sea. Moments later, the twin-engine first stage shut down and separated.
Four smaller YF-115 engines, burning the same kerosene/liquid oxygen mixture, ignited on the Long March 7’s second stage to continue the journey into space, reaching a preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after liftoff.
The Long March 7 is the most powerful rocket ever built in China, with capacity to place nearly 30,000 pounds — about 13.5 metric tons — into low Earth orbit, roughly equivalent to the performance of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket with two solid rocket boosters. That figure will soon be bested by the heavy-lift Long March 5 launcher, will haul up to 55,000 pounds — 25 metric tons — into low Earth orbit after it debuts later this year from a nearby launch pad at Wenchang, matching the low-altitude orbit capability of ULA’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported the Long March 7 reached an orbit with a low point of about 120 miles, or 200 kilometers, and a high point of about 244 miles, or 394 kilometers. Independent tracking data fro the U.S. military showed two objects attributed to the Long March 7 launch orbiting Earth at a similar altitude, with an inclination of 40.8 degrees.
India just launched 20 satellites in 26 minutes and made history
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) just laubched 20 satellites into Earth’s orbit with one rocket launch, making this the largest satellite launch in the space agency’s history. Their earlier record was 10 satellites conveyed with one mission, and this latest achievement takes them a lot closer to the delivery rates of NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency, solidifying India’s place in the global space market.
Out of the 20 satellites, 17 were commercial, so used by companies to help us do things like get better TV signals or weather forecasts. The main cargo, though, was the ISRO’s 725.5-kilogram (1,599-pound) Cartosat-2 – a satellite used for earth observation much like NASA’s Landsat program.
“Each of these small objects that you are putting into space will carry out their own activity, which is independent of the other, and each of them will live a wonderful life for a finite period,” ISRO chairman A. S. Kiran Kumar told NDTV.
Pulling off such a launch is no easy task. The satellites, which were launched from the island of Sriharikota, have to be ‘injected’ into orbit at the correct distance from one another to ensure they don’t eventually smash together.
“After each satellite is injected into orbit, the vehicle will be re-oriented if required and the next satellite will be put into orbit with a varying velocity so that the distance between the satellites grows monotonically,” Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre director, K. Sivan, told T.S. Subramanian from The Hindu. “We will do this to ensure that there is no collision of satellites.”
“Then, after a huge gap of 3,000 seconds, PS-4 [the fourth stage] will be re-ignited for 5 seconds,” Sivan continued. “Then, it will be switched off for another 3,000 seconds. It will be re-ignited for another 5 seconds.”
This is really big news for the ISRO for two reasons: it represents both the largest satellite launch in the agency’s history – putting them closer to NASA’s 2013 record of 29 and Russia’s 2014 record of 33 – and it shows that foreign companies are ready to pay the ISRO to launch satellites for them.
China opens space station to rest of the world with United Nations agreement
China has signed an agreement with the United Nations to open its future space station to spacecraft, science experiments and even astronauts from countries around the world.
The agreement was laid out by Ms Wu Ping, Deputy of China’s Manned Space Agency (CMSA), in a presentation at the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) annual session in Vienna on Tuesday.
The move is aimed at boosting international cooperation in space and spreading the benefits of on-orbit research and opportunities provided by the Chinese Space Station, the core module of which will launch in 2018.
“This is an exciting opportunity to further build the space capacity of developing countries and increase understanding of the benefits space can bring to humankind, including for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) Simonetta Di Pippo in a press statement.Under the agreements, China and UNOOSA will work together to boost international cooperation, outreach and provide opportunities for UN Member States to send space experiments and astronauts to the Chinese Space Station.
UNOOSA and CMSA will work together to solicit proposals for payloads and experiments from scientists all over the world, with projects to be decided by international selection committees.
“Space exploration is the common dream and wish of humankind. We believe that the implementation of the agreements will definitely promote international cooperation on space exploration, and create opportunities for United Nations Member States, particularly developing countries, to take part in, and benefit from, the utilisation of China’s space station,” said Wu Ping.
Set up national space programme or risk UK being left behind
The UK must set up a national space programme to help spur the scientific and technological breakthroughs that will be needed on future missions into the cosmos, MPs say.
Many European states, such as France, Germany and Italy, have well-established, home-grown space programmes that are used to build up national facilities and expertise in key areas of space exploration.
While these national capabilities do not extend to carrying astronauts into space – only Russia can do that today – they do make countries strong candidates for European Space Agency (ESA) contracts, and for lead roles on prime missions, such as the Rosetta comet-chasing spacecraft, and the ExoMars mission that will search for signs of life on the red planet.
Without its own national programme to invigorate UK companies, Britain risks being left behind by competing countries and will steadily lose influence over the ESA programmes that it hopes to join, MPs on the Commons science and technology committee warn in a report published on Wednesday.
The call for action comes as Tim Peake, the UK’s first ESA astronaut, prepares for his return to Earth on Saturday after six months aboard the International Space Station. He is due to land in Kazakhstan at 10.15am BST with Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra and the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko joining him in the Soyuz capsule.
“For the last six months, attention has rightly been focused on Major Tim Peake and Britain’s role in human spaceflight,” said Nicola Blackwood, who chairs the committee. But she said it was important to remember that space and satellite companies needed access to space too, usually through robotic missions, to test their new technologies. Without it, up-and-coming companies struggled to get their ideas out of the lab and commercialised, she said.
“The UK has, so far, only taken small steps towards launching a national space programme that would enable our innovative space and satellite industries to get the ‘flight heritage’ they need,” she added.
More than three quarters of UK Space Agency spending is channelled through the European Space Agency which gives the UK a high return in the form of contracts for space projects. But Britain could secure more contracts, and take leading roles in more missions, if the country built up the capabilities that a national space programme would demand, the report claims.
ESA chief says funding for delayed ExoMars rover mission uncertain
European Space Agency Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner has expressed frustration with the equipment delays that forced a two-year slip in the launch of Europe’s ExoMars rover vehicle and said he would not write a blank check to keep the mission alive.
Addressing a briefing here, where he was attending ESA’s Living Planet Earth observation symposium, Woerner said he still did not fully understand why the project could not make its 2018 launch date. He wondered whether it is possible to have those responsible for the delay finance part of its cost.
“I was not only surprised, I was frustrated with this delay, which was for technical reasons on both the European and Russian sides,” Woerner said, adding that at first he did not accept it.
“I was fighting like hell” to keep the mission on schedule despite indications that multiple pieces of equipment would not make it in time for the launch, he said. “I’m very upset about it and I don’t understand it from a certain point of view.”
Woerner became ESA’s chief in July 2015. Before that he was head of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, which is Germany’s space agency. Germany has long resisted the mission creep of ExoMars – which began years ago has a technology-demonstration mission and has since grown into a telecommunications orbiter and landing demonstrator that launched in March, and the European rover and Euro-Russian surface-experiment package that was to have followed in 2018.
The Russian and European space agencies in March began hinting that the second mission – both launched by Russian Proton rockets – was having trouble meeting its deadlines for unspecified reasons. The two agencies later said they agreed to the two-year delay.
As the ExoMars mission has increased in sophistication and scientific value, its budget has about doubled, to as much as 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion). ESA has raised only about 1 billion euros. Before the latest delay, the agengy had expected to present its 22 member states in June with a plan to raise the remaining monies.
The two-year delay will add more costs, although ESA plans to reduce the increase by doing as much work as can be done soon, then storing the hardware until needed for prelaunch preparations in 2020.
ExoMars is ESA’s sole exploration mission. It also represents a substantial Euro-Russian collaboration that has already launched a telecommunications relay designed to beam the rover’s findings to Earth.