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Max Q: Ocean splashdown

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Hello and welcome back to Max Q. TC’s in-person Space event is almost upon us. Will you be there? Learn more about the event here. In this issue:

  • Rocket Lab’s helicopter catch attempt ends in ocean splashdown
  • ispace wants to stake its claim to the moon
  • News from the FCC, Constellr and more

Rocket Lab’s second attempt to catch a rocket booster mid-air using a helicopter was aborted, though it’s unclear at the time of writing what exactly went wrong.

Rocket Lab aims to recover its rocket boosters using a parachute and a helicopter — a bit different than SpaceX, whose boosters return to Earth by vertically landing on a pad. Instead, Rocket Lab’s technique is to equip the booster with a parachute to slow its descent, and keep a helicopter waiting nearby to snag it out of midair. From there, the plan is for the helicopter to carry the booster straight back to the company’s production complex.

But alas, we did not see a catch after this launch. Here’s what we know: After a nominal launch and payload deployment, the company’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter did not make the catch attempt. Instead, the company recovered the booster from the ocean after it splashed down. We’ll be looking out for more information on what went wrong in the days ahead.

Tokyo-based startup ispace’s lunar ambitions will soon be put to the test, as the company gears up for its first launch at the end of this month.

The startup will attempt to send its “Hakuto-R” lander to the moon’s surface, kicking off an ambitious lunar exploration program of the same name. Founded in 2010, ispace is one of many emerging companies that want to foster new markets on and around the moon; on its website, it describes its goal as becoming “a gateway for private sector companies to bring their business to the moon.”

Being the middle- and last-mile delivery partner of the moon could prove to be lucrative, given the intensifying interest from both government space agencies and private companies in lunar exploration. But there’s more than far-off revenues at stake in this first launch; recent reporting suggested that ispace is preparing to list on the Tokyo Stock Exchange as early as this fiscal year.

 

While the company was previously targeting a launch window of November 9-15, ispace said Monday it was now aiming to launch no earlier than November 22. The new date was chosen “in careful coordination” with launch partner SpaceX, the startup said in a statement. Indeed, ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada confirmed that the lander had arrived in Cape Canaveral, Florida, via cargo plane in advance of launch.

ispace m1 hakuto-r lander
ispace m1 hakuto-r lander

The ispace M1 Hakuto-R lander. Image Credits: ispace

More news from TC and beyond

  • Arkisys is launching a new program called “Embark” for on-orbit payload services for SBIR and STTR Phase I entrants. (Arkisys)
  • Blue Origin delivered its set of two BE-4 rocket engines to United Launch Alliance, which will be used on ULA’s heavy-lift Vulcan Centaur rocket as early as next year. (Blue Origin)
  • China is releasing things into orbit using spaceplanes, and we don’t know what they are! (SpaceNews)
  • China launched the third and final module for its Tiangong Space Station, and the rocket booster that carried it to orbit began its uncontrolled reentry back to Earth. (The New York Times/USSC)
  • Constellr raised $10 million in seed funding for its space-based water monitoring system. (TechCrunch)
  • Exotrail, a company developing last-mile satellite transportation, signed a launch services agreement with German launch startup Isar Aerospace. (Payload)
  • Firefly Aerospace is seeking to raise up to $300 million in private funding at an undisclosed valuation. (Reuters)
  • NASA’s Space Launch System rocket was rolled back out to the launch pad in advance of the next launch attempt on November 14. (CNN)
  • NASA’s Psyche mission was delayed and an independent review board was assembled to investigate why. The report is back, and it’s not good: The review board identified multiple staffing issues at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab, including burnout and a lack of technical expertise in key positions. (NASA)
  • Orbex, a small rocket startup based in Scotland, will oversee construction of the first spaceport for vertical rocket launches on the U.K. mainland. (Orbex)
  • Rocket Lab was contracted by Inmarsat to develop and manufacture an L-band radio for NASA; it also delivered the final solar panels to Maxar that will end up on the space agency’s lunar Gateway orbital platform. (Rocket Lab/Rocket Lab)
  • Sierra Space and Blue Origin will be participating in Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s feasibility study exploring g opportunities for Japan to participate in commercializing low Earth orbit. (Baker McKenzie)
  • SpaceX is tentatively targeting early December for Starship’s first test flight, a NASA official said. The company is also now building seven Raptor 2 rocket engines a week. (!) (Ars Technica)
  • SpaceX launched a Falcon Heavy for the fourth time ever in a mission for the United States Space Force. The double booster landing made more than a few jaws drop. (TechCrunch)
  • Spire won a DARPA contract for a preliminary design of a satellite that would carry sensors to measure the ionosphere. (Spire)
  • Terran Orbital landed an additional $100 million investment from Lockheed Martin, and announced it built its massive spacecraft manufacturing facility in California, rather than Florida as originally announced. (TechCrunch)
  • The U.S. Federal Communications Division will undergo a major organizational shakeup in response to the explosion of activity in commercial space by establishing a Space Bureau to separate satellite policy issues from the overall “International Bureau,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said. (FCC)
  • Virgin Galactic released its quarterly financial report and released details on how it plans to kickstart its space tourism service. (Space)
  • Wyvern, a startup building satellites that capture hyperspectral imagery using telescopes that unfold in space, has raised $7 million in a seed plus round. (Wyvern)

Photo of the week

Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engineBlue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine
Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine

Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine. Image Credits: Blue Origin

Max Q is brought to you by me, Aria Alamalhodaei. If you enjoy reading Max Q, consider forwarding it to a friend. 

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Las Vegas Aces Rookie Kate Martin Suffers Ankle Injury in Game Against Chicago Sky

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Las Vegas Aces rookie Kate Martin had to be helped off the floor and taken to the locker room after suffering an apparent ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Sky.

Late in the first quarter, Martin was pushing the ball up the court when she appeared to twist her ankle and lost her balance. The rookie was in serious pain, lying on the floor before eventually being helped off. Her entire team came out in support, and although she managed to put some pressure on the leg, she was taken to the locker room for further evaluation.

Martin returned to the team’s bench late in the second quarter but was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

“Kate Martin is awesome. Kate Martin picks up things so quickly, she’s an amazing sponge,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said of the rookie during the preseason. “I think (coach) Becky (Hammon) nicknamed her Kate ‘Money’ Martin. I think that’s gonna stick. And when I say ‘money,’ it’s not just about scoring and stuff, she’s just in the right place at the right time. She just makes people better. And that’s what Becky values, that’s what our coaching staff values and that’s why she’s gonna be a great asset to our team.”

Las Vegas selected Martin in the second round of the 2024 WNBA Draft. She was coming off the best season of her collegiate career at Iowa, where she averaged 13.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game during the 2023-24 campaign. Martin’s integration into the Aces organization has been seamless, with her quickly earning the respect and admiration of her teammates and coaches.

The team and fans alike are hoping for a speedy recovery for Martin, whose contributions have been vital to the Aces’ performance this season.

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Asteroid Apophis will visit Earth in 2029, and this European satellite will be along for the ride

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The European Space Agency is fast-tracking a new mission called Ramses, which will fly to near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis and join the space rock in 2029 when it comes very close to our planet — closer even than the region where geosynchronous satellites sit.

Ramses is short for Rapid Apophis Mission for Space Safety and, as its name suggests, is the next phase in humanity’s efforts to learn more about near-Earth asteroids (NEOs) and how we might deflect them should one ever be discovered on a collision course with planet Earth.

In order to launch in time to rendezvous with Apophis in February 2029, scientists at the European Space Agency have been given permission to start planning Ramses even before the multinational space agency officially adopts the mission. The sanctioning and appropriation of funding for the Ramses mission will hopefully take place at ESA’s Ministerial Council meeting (involving representatives from each of ESA’s member states) in November of 2025. To arrive at Apophis in February 2029, launch would have to take place in April 2028, the agency says.

This is a big deal because large asteroids don’t come this close to Earth very often. It is thus scientifically precious that, on April 13, 2029, Apophis will pass within 19,794 miles (31,860 kilometers) of Earth. For comparison, geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above Earth’s surface. Such close fly-bys by asteroids hundreds of meters across (Apophis is about 1,230 feet, or 375 meters, across) only occur on average once every 5,000 to 10,000 years. Miss this one, and we’ve got a long time to wait for the next.

When Apophis was discovered in 2004, it was for a short time the most dangerous asteroid known, being classified as having the potential to impact with Earth possibly in 2029, 2036, or 2068. Should an asteroid of its size strike Earth, it could gouge out a crater several kilometers across and devastate a country with shock waves, flash heating and earth tremors. If it crashed down in the ocean, it could send a towering tsunami to devastate coastlines in multiple countries.

Over time, as our knowledge of Apophis’ orbit became more refined, however, the risk of impact  greatly went down. Radar observations of the asteroid in March of 2021 reduced the uncertainty in Apophis’ orbit from hundreds of kilometers to just a few kilometers, finally removing any lingering worries about an impact — at least for the next 100 years. (Beyond 100 years, asteroid orbits can become too unpredictable to plot with any accuracy, but there’s currently no suggestion that an impact will occur after 100 years.) So, Earth is expected to be perfectly safe in 2029 when Apophis comes through. Still, scientists want to see how Apophis responds by coming so close to Earth and entering our planet’s gravitational field.

“There is still so much we have yet to learn about asteroids but, until now, we have had to travel deep into the solar system to study them and perform experiments ourselves to interact with their surface,” said Patrick Michel, who is the Director of Research at CNRS at Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, in a statement. “Nature is bringing one to us and conducting the experiment itself. All we need to do is watch as Apophis is stretched and squeezed by strong tidal forces that may trigger landslides and other disturbances and reveal new material from beneath the surface.”

The Goldstone radar’s imagery of asteroid 99942 Apophis as it made its closest approach to Earth, in March 2021. (Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/NSF/AUI/GBO)

By arriving at Apophis before the asteroid’s close encounter with Earth, and sticking with it throughout the flyby and beyond, Ramses will be in prime position to conduct before-and-after surveys to see how Apophis reacts to Earth. By looking for disturbances Earth’s gravitational tidal forces trigger on the asteroid’s surface, Ramses will be able to learn about Apophis’ internal structure, density, porosity and composition, all of which are characteristics that we would need to first understand before considering how best to deflect a similar asteroid were one ever found to be on a collision course with our world.

Besides assisting in protecting Earth, learning about Apophis will give scientists further insights into how similar asteroids formed in the early solar system, and, in the process, how  planets (including Earth) formed out of the same material.

One way we already know Earth will affect Apophis is by changing its orbit. Currently, Apophis is categorized as an Aten-type asteroid, which is what we call the class of near-Earth objects that have a shorter orbit around the sun than Earth does. Apophis currently gets as far as 0.92 astronomical units (137.6 million km, or 85.5 million miles) from the sun. However, our planet will give Apophis a gravitational nudge that will enlarge its orbit to 1.1 astronomical units (164.6 million km, or 102 million miles), such that its orbital period becomes longer than Earth’s.

It will then be classed as an Apollo-type asteroid.

Ramses won’t be alone in tracking Apophis. NASA has repurposed their OSIRIS-REx mission, which returned a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, 101955 Bennu, in 2023. However, the spacecraft, renamed OSIRIS-APEX (Apophis Explorer), won’t arrive at the asteroid until April 23, 2029, ten days after the close encounter with Earth. OSIRIS-APEX will initially perform a flyby of Apophis at a distance of about 2,500 miles (4,000 km) from the object, then return in June that year to settle into orbit around Apophis for an 18-month mission.

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Furthermore, the European Space Agency still plans on launching its Hera spacecraft in October 2024 to follow-up on the DART mission to the double asteroid Didymos and Dimorphos. DART impacted the latter in a test of kinetic impactor capabilities for potentially changing a hazardous asteroid’s orbit around our planet. Hera will survey the binary asteroid system and observe the crater made by DART’s sacrifice to gain a better understanding of Dimorphos’ structure and composition post-impact, so that we can place the results in context.

The more near-Earth asteroids like Dimorphos and Apophis that we study, the greater that context becomes. Perhaps, one day, the understanding that we have gained from these missions will indeed save our planet.

 

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McMaster Astronomy grad student takes a star turn in Killarney Provincial Park

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Astronomy PhD candidate Veronika Dornan served as the astronomer in residence at Killarney Provincial Park. She’ll be back again in October when the nights are longer (and bug free). Dornan has delivered dozens of talks and shows at the W.J. McCallion Planetarium and in the community. (Photos by Veronika Dornan)

Veronika Dornan followed up the April 8 total solar eclipse with another awe-inspiring celestial moment.

This time, the astronomy PhD candidate wasn’t cheering alongside thousands of people at McMaster — she was alone with a telescope in the heart of Killarney Provincial Park just before midnight.

Dornan had the park’s telescope pointed at one of the hundreds of globular star clusters that make up the Milky Way. She was seeing light from thousands of stars that had travelled more than 10,000 years to reach the Earth.

This time there was no cheering: All she could say was a quiet “wow”.

Dornan drove five hours north to spend a week at Killarney Park as the astronomer in residence. part of an outreach program run by the park in collaboration with the Allan I. Carswell Observatory at York University.

Dornan applied because the program combines her two favourite things — astronomy and the great outdoors. While she’s a lifelong camper, hiker and canoeist, it was her first trip to Killarney.

Bruce Waters, who’s taught astronomy to the public since 1981 and co-founded Stars over Killarney, warned Dornan that once she went to the park, she wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

The park lived up to the hype. Everywhere she looked was like a painting, something “a certain Group of Seven had already thought many times over.”

The dome telescopes at Killarney Provincial Park.

She spent her days hiking the Granite Ridge, Crack and Chikanishing trails and kayaking on George Lake.  At night, she went stargazing with campers — or at least tried to. The weather didn’t cooperate most evenings — instead of looking through the park’s two domed telescopes, Dornan improvised and gave talks in the amphitheatre beneath cloudy skies.

Dornan has delivered dozens of talks over the years in McMaster’s W.J. McCallion Planetarium and out in the community, but “it’s a bit more complicated when you’re talking about the stars while at the same time fighting for your life against swarms of bugs.”

When the campers called it a night and the clouds parted, Dornan spent hours observing the stars. “I seriously messed up my sleep schedule.”

She also gave astrophotography a try during her residency, capturing images of the Ring Nebula and the Great Hercules Cluster.

A star cluster image by Veronika Dornan

“People assume astronomers take their own photos. I needed quite a lot of guidance for how to take the images. It took a while to fiddle with the image properties, but I got my images.”

Dornan’s been invited back for another week-long residency in bug-free October, when longer nights offer more opportunities to explore and photograph the final frontier.

She’s aiming to defend her PhD thesis early next summer, then build a career that continues to combine research and outreach.

“Research leads to new discoveries which gives you exciting things to talk about. And if you’re not connecting with the public then what’s the point of doing research?”

 

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