Launches and spaceflight updates: Week of July 25, 2022
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July 27 update: China liftoffs and uncontrolled re-entries
From Lia: A nameless payload – the contents of which are currently unknown – is scheduled to launch on a Long March 2D rocket from China on Friday (July 29, 2022). It’ll depart from Launch Complex 3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, near the city of Xichang, China. The launch window is open from 9:26 p.m. to 9:37 p.m. local time in Xichang (13:26 to 13:37 UTC on Friday). The Chinese Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation has disclosed little to no information about the payload. Will it be a batch of satellites?
Also … will the Chinese rocket fall to Earth uncontrolled, as its three predecessors did?
A case in point … earlier this week, on July 24, China’s space agency launched its second Tiangong space station module, called Wentian, atop a Long March 5B rocket. Wentian successfully docked with the Tianhe module of the station hours later at 19:13 UTC, according to a statement from China’s space agency. But the agency once again have opted to let the huge rocket stage fall back to Earth on its own, as it did following launches in 2020 and 2021. AP reported that researchers predict the 25-ton core stage will descend for a few days and reenter Earth’s atmosphere – maybe – this Sunday, July 31.
Another case in point … pieces of a Chinese cargo capsule released from the Tiangong on July 17 struck the ground yesterday (July 27) following an uncontrolled re-entry.
None of these incidents have caused any reported injuries. Still, there is a potential for danger. And so China has come under international scrutiny. John M. Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told Business Insider over a year ago:
Rockets get launched all the time and very seldom is there concern about re-entry. So, yeah, I’m a little confused as to why this is happening. Is it just willful disregard of the international guidelines? Or because it’s a new vehicle, it wasn’t properly designed so it could do a controlled re-entry?
The answer to those questions remains unclear. But, steadfast in the face of growing criticism, China remains on track to complete the construction of Tiangong by the end of this year.
July 26 update 2: Russia to quit International Space Station after 2024
From Kelly: On the heels of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s firing of Dmitry Rogozin on July 15, 2022, the new administrator of Russia’s space program Roscosmos, Yury Borisov, said today (July 26, 2022) that Russia will quit the International Space Station after 2024.
The cooperation of Russia and other countries on various spaceflight ventures has been in some disarray since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year. But this announcement appears to be for real. Phys.org reported today that – according to a Kremlin account of their meeting – Borisov told Putin:
Of course, we will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made. I think that by this time we will start putting together a Russian orbital station.
And Putin answered with a simple:
Last year, Russia announced that it wanted to build its own space station in 2025. Rogozin claimed they’d already begun working on a new module. Then, this February, as tensions mounted with Ukraine and the West, Rogozin threatened in a long series of tweets:
…who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States?
Russia or no Russia, though, the International Space Station’s days are numbered. Some of its primary structures can’t be repaired or replaced. The space station might be deliberately crashed into the Pacific Ocean as early as 2031, according to a report from earlier this year.
July 26 update 1: SpaceX tapped to lift NASA telescope
From Dave: While the first images from the new James Webb Space Telescope were grabbing headlines around the globe, NASA quietly announced it was awarding SpaceX the contract to place its next astronomical instrument – the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope – among the stars, hopefully, sometime in 2026. They made the official announcement on July 19, 2022.
The Roman Space Telescope – formerly the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) – will carry a 2.4-meter (7.9-foot) primary mirror. This is the same size as Hubble‘s main mirror, but its infrared detector will be 100 times more powerful. Like the Webb, the Roman will not orbit Earth. Instead, it will orbit the sun at the gravitationally stable L2 Lagrange point, about four times the moon’s distance from Earth.
And it will be SpaceX’s task to get it there safely.
The primary observing mission for the Roman will be seeking out new exoplanets orbiting distant suns. NASA says it expects the instrument to discover around 100,000 new worlds during its five-year mission. The scope will detect the alien globes using tried and true techniques of measuring the dimming of their parent stars as they transit between our sun and their own star, as well as the more exotic method of capturing light from exoplanets that has been skewed on its journey to our solar system when it encountered massive objects in its path. It will also investigate dark energy.
NASA has selected Falcon Heavy to launch the Roman Space Telescope, which is designed to study dark energy and dark matter, search for and image exoplanets, and more. Liftoff is targeted for no earlier than October 2026 from Launch Complex 39A in Florida https://t.co/lZ0q79RmVh pic.twitter.com/pwPqEZLSEc
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 19, 2022
July 25, 2022 Launches update: Chinese space station expanded
From Dave: The China National Space Administration successfully added a second module to the Tiangong Space Station on Sunday (July 24, 2022). Tiangong translates as Heavenly Palace. The Wentian Laboratory Module joins the Tianhe Core Module, which was launched in April 2021.
About five hours after the modules were mated, the three Shenzhou-14 taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) already onboard the station ratcheted open the hatchway and entered the new addition (see video in the tweet below).
When completed, the Chinese space station will be roughly the same size as the Soviet-era Mir Space Station. It’ll have three components – a core module attached to two space laboratories – with a combined weight of nearly 70 tons. Like NASA’s International Space Station, it orbits the Earth in low-Earth orbit) at an altitude varying between 210 – 280 miles (340 km and 450 km) above Earth’s surface.
Timeline of #Wentian docking:
19:08 UTC, captured by Tianhe docking mechanism
19:13 UTC, officially recognized time of docking
19:24 UTC, docking system fastened & secured
(c) info, ????
(c) video, ???? https://t.co/sYQtBmSDRN pic.twitter.com/DpBi7UCXsj
— China ‘N Asia Spaceflight? (@CNSpaceflight) July 25, 2022
Footage of Shenzhou-14 astronaut CHEN Dong opening the hatch and then 3 crew members entering the brand-new laboratory in space.#Wentian https://t.co/nnBejfzIwj pic.twitter.com/01WzGySAJ9
— China ‘N Asia Spaceflight? (@CNSpaceflight) July 25, 2022
Bottom line: A busy week for spaceflight as China expands upon its space station several days before its launch of a nameless payload on July 29. On July 26, Russia announced its plan to quit the International Space Station after 2024 while SpaceX earns another contract with NASA to launch The Roman Space Telescope.