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!

Largest rocket to blast off from UK mainland

The largest rocket to blast off from the British mainland has launched from Northumberland for a test flight, fuelling hopes that it could pave the way for commercial flights into space.

Built and privately funded by the Manchester-based firm Starchaser, the Skybolt 2 successfully fired into the sky from the back of a converted flatbed truck in Otterburn, a village 31 miles north-east of Newcastle in the usually tranquil Northumberland national park.

The 8.2-metre (27ft) carbon-fibre reusable rocket then broke into three pieces and returned to earth. The managing director of Starchaser, Steve Bennett, said: “We’re really pleased with that launch, the rocket went really well, it flew nice and high, exactly as it should do.”

Designed to fly more than 100km (62 miles) to the edge of space, Skybolt 2 is part of a scheme to test and develop space tourism rockets of the future.

Onboard was a science project from Sheffield Hallam University, commercial cargo, a number of video cameras and a stuffed toy dog called Sam – launched on behalf of Morecambe Bay primary school on the Lancashire coast.

Bennett, who started the space tourism firm 25 years ago, said: “We’ve built and launched some big rockets and it’s been a long hard road but we’re nearly there and we’re just a couple years away from launching people on holidays into space.”

Despite some huge players in the space tourism market, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, Bennett said he was confident his firm would have a part to play. “One of the things we want to do is make space tourism a reality, we want to be launching people into space and this rocket was carrying various systems and experiments that will allow us to do that.

“Space tourism is a big cake and there’s a slice for everyone. There’s some people out there with a little bit more money than us but we’ve got a fantastic team of people, we’ve got the University of Chester behind us and we’re going to make this happen.”

Skybolt 2 is sponsored by the University of Chester, where Nick Avis, the pro-vice-chancellor of research and knowledge transfer, congratulated Bennett on his “fantastic milestone”.

The rocket will now tour thousands of schools as part of an educational outreach programme. Bennett is shooting for the stars with his next project: Nova 2 is “a 12-metre rocket big enough to carry a person” and is intended to launch within the next 18 months.

China And Japan Vie To Shape Asia’s Approach To Outer Space

The increasing militarization of outer space involving all major space powers, in and out of Asia, presents huge challenges to the existing global legal and policy regimes. How might the top Asian space powers, China and Japan, attempt to shape institutional outcomes amid such realities? A book I edited out from Cornell University Press this October, entitled “Asian Designs: Governance in the Contemporary World Order,” takes up this issue.

“Asian Designs” gives us a new way to think about how Asian powers aim to plant their flags in matters of global governance. Under a novel conceptual rubric, the book uncovers and scrutinizes thousands of formal and informal institutions, processes and practices they are deploying in shaping governance patterns across a number of cases. Here, I’ll focus on space.

The two regional intergovernmental space institutions in Asia

Both China and Japan have made moves to shape institutional realities in the region. Their motivations echo those found in other places and earlier times in this domain, and so are not surprising: strategic concerns, competitive nationalism, relative prestige and national security. You might then think that they would choose fairly similar types of institutions to govern their relations with other powers, possibly soft and informal forums that are said to be characteristic of the so-called Asian way of governance.

But that turns out not to be true. There are two regional intergovernmental space institutions in Asia whose designs deserve attention, as they can be building blocks for possible whole-of-region space cooperation. These are the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) and the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF). Their differences in institutional designs reflect the leadership styles and preferences of Asia’s topmost powers.

APSCO is a creature of Chinese creation, which morphed out of an earlier association dating back to 1992. Modeled on the European Space Agency, it is decidedly not set up in the Asian way. Over time it has cemented its rules in the 2005 APSCO Convention, and acquired the trappings of a formal organizational structure. Yet, apart from China, APSCO’s present due-paying members—Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey—have only rudimentary space technology. This membership certainly suggests APSCO’s continuing inability to draw in even moderately sophisticated space players such as South Korea. But perhaps it more accurately reflects long-term geopolitical positioning on APSCO’s part, drawing friendly aspirants into a China-centered space regime at an infant industry stage.

APRSAF is different, cast more in the softer informal way. Established in 1993, it is led by Japan. APRSAF has no underlying charter for any one to sign, but there are a set of principles guided by the goal of promoting and expanding peaceful uses of space activities in Asia and the Pacific. APRSAF has no members, but rather a wide variety of both state and non-state participants from over 40 countries. It bills itself as open and flexible, voluntary and cooperative, and solution-driven. APRSAF can best be thought of as a space exchange, which brings together advanced and developing space stakeholders together in an annual meeting, in focused working groups, around initiatives, and capacity building ventures. There is an undeniable political dimension here as well. Japan, with its considerable space technology prowess, is clearly interested in using APRSAF to bolster its leadership in this domain.

Unlikely either will be used as platforms for space cooperation

All of which brings us to the not so good news. It is unlikely, based on present trends, that either APSCO or APRSAF can be used as platforms for space cooperation in the region. Deep rivalries and dynamics persist, throwing the possibility of regional cooperative ventures into doubt. The national security space paradigm shift across both countries feeds into this narrative, as it has only deepened their wariness and competition; it has also lowered global expectations of peaceful prospects in outer space.

These factors mean that it will take top-level political leadership, perhaps in the face of a natural calamity, to move the two countries toward a region-wide, inclusive and cooperative format that then reverberates at the global level. That may yet be possible. This is because the space case is just one among many that mark complex intra-Asian realities. An exclusive focus on Asian security and strategic challenges, such as in the space domain, doesn’t tell us exactly where Asia is headed as a whole.

Not all the interactions of China and Japan are driven by historical, nationalist and territorial prisms. Other cases in “Asian Designs” show these two countries are not always the rivals you think. Some of China and Japan’s more constructive efforts to date, as in investment and trade, may cross over into the space domain and change the tenor of their interactions going forward.

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.


Peter H says:

Yuri’s 50th anniversary came and went, and still the space excitement grows. A graphic novel has been created to celebrate the successful first manned spaceflight. Yuri’s Day illustrates the amazing stories of early rocket development through to the space race culminating in Gagarin’s successful manned space flight. Includes the raw detail – from the Chief Designer Korolev’s incarceration in a Stalin re-education (gulag) camp to the incredible space training methods employed by the Soviets. This is an accurate visual take on some incredible stories – an educational honouring of the past.

Printed in both paperback and hardcopy, English and Russian. Even an iPad App with interactive Russian TV set!

Sample pages can be viewed here: https://www.yuri-gagarin.com/about/

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