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SpaceX launches first polar orbit mission from Florida in decades – Spaceflight Now

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A Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from pad 40 Sunday at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

Vaulting away from Cape Canaveral on an unusual southerly trajectory, a Falcon 9 rocket dodged stormy weather and successfully placed an Argentine radar observation satellite into an orbit over Earth’s poles Sunday on SpaceX’s 100th launch.

Scattered thunderstorms across Central Florida threatened to prevent the launch from happening Sunday, but weather criteria were acceptable as the countdown ticked through the final minutes before liftoff of the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket at 7:18:56 p.m. EDT (2318:56 GMT).

SpaceX aimed to launch two Falcon 9 rockets from Cape Canaveral Sunday — a feat unmatched since 1966 — but preparations for the other flight fell behind schedule due to poor weather. That rocket is loaded with 60 Starlink broadband satellites, and is now scheduled to take off at 9:29 a.m. EDT (1329 GMT) Tuesday from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Nine Merlin engines flashed to life seconds before launch, and clamps opened to allow the 1.2-million-pound rocket and Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B radar remote sensing satellite to climb away from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Instead of launching toward the northeast or east, the Falcon 9 darted through a cloudy sky and arced to the south-southeast from Florida’s Space Coast, then made a right turn to fly along the east coast of Florida over Fort Lauderdale and Miami on the way to a polar orbit.

The launch Sunday was the first from Cape Canaveral to fly on a southerly track since 1969. Since then, most U.S. launches into polar orbit have departed from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which has an open range over the Pacific Ocean that does not require rockets to make an in-flight turn, or “dogleg” maneuver, to avoid flying over land.

The nine Merlin engines on the Falcon 9’s first stage shut down about two-and-a-half minutes after launch, then the booster — reused from three previous missions — separated and flipped around to begin thrusting back toward Cape Canaveral.

After firing engines to slow down, the booster extended landing legs and returned to Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station about eight minutes into the mission, touching down as a powerful sonic boom rippled through an atmosphere thick with humidity.

It was the 18th time SpaceX has landed a Falcon 9 booster at Cape Canaveral since 2015, and the 59th successful recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage overall, including landings on SpaceX’s ocean-going drone ships.

During the booster’s descent, a single Merlin engine on the Falcon 9’s upper stage injected the 6,724-pound (3,050-kilogram) SAOCOM 1B satellite into orbit roughly 380 miles (610 kilometers) above Earth.

The Argentine-built satellite, equipped with a sophisticated radar imaging instrument, separated from the Falcon 9’s upper stage about 14 minutes into the mission. Two smaller rideshare payloads — named GNOMES 1 and Tyvak 0172 — deployed from the Falcon 9 about 45 minutes later.

The GNOMES 1 microsatellite is the first of a planned fleet of around 20 small spacecraft being developed by a Colorado-based company PlanetiQ to collect radio occultation data by measuring the effects of the atmosphere on signals broadcast by GPS, Glonass, Galileo and Beidou navigation satellites. The information can yield data on atmospheric conditions that are useful in weather forecasts.

Tyvak 0172 is a small spacecraft built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. Details about its mission have not been disclosed by SpaceX or Tyvak.

SpaceX launches first polar orbit mission from Cape Canaveral since 1969

The rideshare payload separations wrapped up the first launch into polar orbit from Florida’s Space Coast in more than 50 years. Before Sunday, the last polar orbit launch from Cape Canaveral was on Feb. 26, 1969, when a Delta rocket launched the ESSA 9 weather satellite.

After skirting South Florida, the Falcon 9 rocket flew over Cuba and Central America, then soared over the Pacific Ocean west of South America. The bend in the rocket’s track a few minutes after launch ensured the instantaneous impact point — where debris might fall of the launcher failed — did not cross over Florida after departing Cape Canaveral.

By the time the rocket reached Cuba, it was flying too high to be a safety concern, according to officials from the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Space Wing and the Federal Aviation Administration, which are charged with ensuring public safety during rocket launches from Cape Canaveral.

This approximation of the SAOCOM 1B flight path is an estimate derived from downrange hazard areas and the satellite’s known target orbital parameters. Credit: Spaceflight Now

Range safety officials studied whether the the southerly launch trajectory from Florida might be resurrected after wildfires at Vandenberg Air Force Base — the primary U.S. polar orbit launch site in California — threatened launch and payload processing facilities in 2016.

It turned out SpaceX’s ability to return first stage boosters to controlled landings — rather than having them plummet unguided back to Earth downrange — and the Falcon 9’s use of autonomous flight safety system made the polar launch trajectory from Cape Canaveral feasible.

“What we came up with after we analyzed is SpaceX should be able to do it because of two things,” said Wayne Monteith, associate administrator of the FAA’s office of commercial space transportation. “No. 1, booster flyback, and No. 2, even more important, is autonomous flight safety because going south, the way the architecture of the command destruct systems are set up terrestrially, you’d be looking right up the plume, and you get signal attenuation, and you may not be able to … send command destruct.

“So with autonomous flight safety and booster flyback, we were able to provide for them what appeared to be a notional safe corridor from a safety perspective,” said Monteith, a former commander of the 45th Space Wing.

The State Department is charged with notifying other countries of a rocket flight over their territories. Those notifications were made for the SAOCOM 1B mission, according to Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, the current commander of the 45th Space Wing.

A satellite launching from Cape Canaveral targeting a polar orbit in 1960 suffered an in-flight failure and spread debris over Cuba, reportedly killing a cow and prompting protests at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

SpaceX elected to use the southerly polar launch trajectory on the SAOCOM 1B mission to allow the company to reduce staffing levels at Vandenberg during a period with few launches there, Gwynne Shotwell, company’s president and chief operating officer, told reporters last year.

The company plans another launch from Vandenberg in November with the Sentinel 6 Michael Freilich oceanography satellite, a joint project between NASA, NOAA, the European Space Agency, and other European institutions.

Another Falcon 9 launch into a polar sun-synchronous orbit is planned from Cape Canaveral in December on a rideshare mission with numerous small satellites.

Scott Higginbotham, a mission manager from NASA’s Launch Services Program, confirmed the mission — which SpaceX calls Transporter-1 — is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral. NASA has booked a small payload to fly on the Falcon 9 rideshare launch.

SAOCOM 1B joins twin in orbit

Developed by Argentina’s space agency, CONAE, and the Argentine aerospace contractor INVAP, the SAOCOM 1B satellite joins a twin radar imaging spacecraft that launched on a previous Falcon 9 flight in October 2018.

The SAOCOM 1B spacecraft will scan the Earth with an L-band steerable synthetic aperture radar, enabling all-weather imagery of the planet day and night. Radar imagers can see through clouds and are effective 24 hours a day, but optical cameras are hindered by clouds and darkness.

Among other objectives, the SAOCOM satellites are designed to measure soil moisture and collect data for users in Argentina’s agricultural and forestry sectors.

The SAOCOM 1B satellite weighs around 6,724 pounds (3,050 kilograms) and is identical to SAOCOM 1A, according to Raúl Kulichevsky, executive and technical director of CONAE.

Kulichevsky said the Falcon 9 will place SAOCOM 1B into a 385-mile-high (620-kilometer) orbit, where it will double the observing capacity of SAOCOM 1A. The SAOCOM satellites work in tandem with Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed satellites to survey the same regions with L-band and X-band radar imagers.

“One of the main targets of the SAOCOM satellites is to provide information for the agriculture sector because one of the things we develop is soil moisture maps, not only of the surface, but taking advantage of the L-band capabilities, we can measure the soil moisture 1 meter the surface of the land,” Kulichevsky said. “This is very important information.”

The entire SAOCOM project cost about $600 million, including two satellites, two launches, a new ground tracking station, and industrial improvements, Kulichevsky told Spaceflight Now in an interview.

Team members pose with the SAOCOM 1B radar imaging satellite before it was shipped from Argentina to Cape Canaveral earlier this year. Credit: CONAE

SAOCOM 1B was previously scheduled for launch in March, but Argentine officials called off the mission due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Engineers placed SAOCOM 1B in storage at Cape Canaveral until early July, when engineers returned to Florida from Argentina to finish readying the spacecraft for liftoff.

The launch of SAOCOM 1B was again delayed from late July because the range was not available for the launch, according to SAOCOM 1B team members. Sources said the delay was caused by range safety and overflight concerns with the classified payload mounted on top of United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket at a neighboring launch pad.

The southerly trajectory required for the SAOCOM 1B mission took the Falcon 9 rocket on a track closer to the Delta 4 pad than for a typical launch toward the east.

The overflight range safety concerns associated with the Delta 4’s NRO payload appeared to suddenly evaporate without explanation Saturday, when range safety officials agreed to permit the SAOCOM 1B launch to go ahead.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Starship SN8 prepares for test series – First sighting of Super Heavy – NASASpaceflight.com

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Starship SN8 prepares for test series – First sighting of Super Heavy – NASASpaceFlight.com

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Chang'e-4 lander finds radiation levels on the moon 2.6 times higher than at space station – Firstpost

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As the US prepares to return humans to the Moon this decade, one of the biggest dangers future astronauts will face is space radiation that can cause lasting health effects, from cataracts to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.

Though the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s proved it was safe for people to spend a few days on the lunar surface, NASA did not take daily radiation measurements that would help scientists quantify just how long crews could stay.

This question was resolved Friday after a Chinese-German team published in the journal Science Advances the results of an experiment carried out by China’s Chang’E 4 lander in 2019.

“The radiation of the Moon is between two and three times higher than what you have on the ISS (International Space Station),” co-author Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber, an astrophysicist at the University of Kiel told AFP.

“So that limits your stay to approximately two months on the surface of the Moon,” he added, once the radiation exposure from the roughly week-long journey there, and week back, is taken into account.

There are several sources of radiation exposure: galactic cosmic rays, sporadic solar particle events (for example from solar flares), and neutrons and gamma rays from interactions between space radiation and the lunar soil.

Scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt collecting lunar rake samples during the first Apollo 17. Schmitt was the lunar module pilot for the mission. The Lunar Rake is used to collect discrete samples of rocks and rock chips of different sizes. Image courtesy: NASA

Radiation is measured using the unit sievert, which quantifies the amount absorbed by human tissues.

The team found that the radiation exposure on the Moon is 1,369 microsieverts per day – about 2.6 times higher than the International Space Station crew’s daily dose.

The reason for this is that the ISS is still partly shielded by the Earth’s protective magnetic bubble, called the magnetosphere, which deflects most radiation from space.

Earth’s atmosphere provides additional protection for humans on the surface, but we are more exposed the higher up we go.

“The radiation levels we measured on the Moon are about 200 times higher than on the surface of the Earth and five to 10 times higher than on a flight from New York to Frankfurt,” added Wimmer-Schweingruber.

NASA is planning to bring humans to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis mission and has said it has plans for a long term presence that would include astronauts working and living on the surface.

For Wimmer-Schweingruber there is one work-around if we want humans to spend more than two or three months: build habitats that are shielded from radiation by coating them with 80 centimeters (30 inches) of lunar soil.

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NASA’s New Budget for Artemis? $28 Billion – Universe Today

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It’s no exaggeration to say that NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the Moon has faced its share of challenges. From its inception, Project Artemis has set some ambitious goals, up to and including placing “the first woman and next man” on the Moon by 2024. Aside from all the technical challenges that this entails, there’s also the question of budgets. As the Apollo Era taught us, reaching the moon in a few years doesn’t come cheap!

Funding is an especially sticky issue right now because of the fact that we’re in an election year and NASA may be dealing with a new administration come Jan of 2021. In response, NASA announced a budget last week (Mon. Sept 21st) that put a price tag on returning astronauts to the Moon. According to NASA, it will cost taxpayers $28 billion between 2021 and 2025 to make sure Project Artemis’ meets its deadline of 2024.

On the same day during a phone briefing with journalists, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted that “political risks” are often the biggest obstacle to NASA’s work. This is perhaps a reference to the fact that NASA’s plans and goals have forcible shifted over the past decade or so in response to the changing priorities of new administrations.

Artist’s illustration of the new spacesuit NASA is designing for Artemis astronauts. It’s called the xEMU,, or Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit. Image Credit: NASA

When he took office in 2009, President Obama and his cabinet inherited the Constellation Program initiated by the Bush administration in 2005. This program aimed to create a new generation of launch systems and spacecraft to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 at the latest. However, due to the then-current economic crisis and recommendations that the 2020 deadline could not be reached, it was canceled.

A year later, the Obama administration initiated NASA’s “Journey to Mars,” which picked up much of Constellation’s architecture but shifted the focus to a crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s. By 2017, VP Pence announced that the Trump administration’s focus would be on returning to the Moon within the 2020s. By March of 2019, Project Artemis was officially unveiled and NASA was charged with returning to the Moon in five years.

Approval for this funding now falls to Congress, which will be looking at elections by November 3rd. This year, in addition to deciding who will be president, 434 of the 435 Congressional districts across all 50 US states and 33 class 2 Senate seats will be contested. Come January, NASA could be dealing with an entirely new government.

According to Bridenstine, the first tranche of funding ($3.2 billion) must be approved by Christmas in order for NASA to remain “on track for a 2024 moon landing.” In total, NASA will require a full $16 billion in order to fund the development of the human landing system (HLS) – aka. a lunar lander – that will allow the crew of the Artemis III mission (one man and one woman) to land on the surface of the Moon.

The three top HLS concepts for NASA’s Project Artemis. Credit: NASA

At present, three major companies are competing to see which of their concepts NASA will choose. They include SpaceX, which presented NASA with a modified version of their Starship designed, altered to accommodate lunar landings. Then there’s Alabama-based Dynetics’ Human Landing System (DHLS), a vehicle that will provide both descent and ascent capabilities.

Rounding out the competitors is Blue Origin, meanwhile is collaborating on a design for an Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) that will consist of three elements – the descent, transfer, and ascent elements – designed by Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin, respectively. The winning design will either be integrated with the Orion capsule carrying the crew to the Moon or will launch on its own atop a company rocket.

Bridenstine also took the opportunity to set the record straight regarding where the Artemis III mission would be landing. This was in response to a previous statement he made during an online meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), which seemed to hint that the Artemis crews might revisit the Apollo sites.

“If you’re going to go to the equatorial region again, how are you going to learn the most?” he said. “You could argue that you’ll learn the most by going to the places where we put gear in the past. There could be scientific discoveries there and, of course, just the inspiration of going back to an original Apollo site would be pretty amazing as well.”

Artist’s impression of surface operations on the Moon. Credit: NASA

During Monday’s phone briefing, however, Bridenstine emphasized that the mission will be heading to the South Pole-Aitken Basin:

“To be clear, we’re going to the South Pole. There’s no discussion of anything other than that. The science that we would be doing is really very different than anything we’ve done before. We have to remember during the Apollo era, we thought the moon was bone dry. Now we know that there’s lots of water ice and we know that it’s at the South Pole.”

Investigations of this ice and other resources will be intrinsic to long-term plans to create the Artemis Base Camp. The current schedule has the Artemis I flight (which will be uncrewed) taking place by November of 2021. This will be the inaugural flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) flying with the Orion space capsule. Artemis II is scheduled for 2023, and will take a crew of astronauts around the Moon but will not attempt a lunar landing.

In 2024, the long-awaited Artemis III mission will occur and will see astronauts land on the surface for a week of operations and up to five operations on the surface. Beyond 2024, NASA plans to deploy the various segments that make up the Lunar Gateway, which will facilitate more long-term missions to the lunar surface and allow for the construction of the Artemis Base Camp.

Further Reading: Phys.org

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