A Busy Six Months as Suborbital Spaceflight Comes Into its Own

New Shepard lands after the NS-21 flight. (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

Part I of II

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For decades, the suborbital launch sector was largely a backwater. Militaries tested ballistic missiles, scientists conducted experiments, and engineers tested new technologies. A sounding rocket is small potatoes compared with orbital rocket launches and the glamor of human spaceflight. Few people paid much attention.

All that has changed in recent years as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin and their billionaire owners — Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos — started launching themselves and others on suborbital joyrides. Startups have been conducting suborbital flight tests of new orbital launch vehicles designed to serve the booming smalls satellite market. Suborbital has become a much more interesting sector.

This year has been no exception. The first half of 2022 saw Blue Origin send 12 people into space on two New Shepard flights, a Chinese company conduct six launches in a program to develop aa suborbital spaceplane and hypersonic transport, South Korea and Iran perform flight tests of three different smallsat launchers, Germany test technologies for reusable rockets, and first-ever commercial launch from Australia. And, a great deal of science was done.

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NASA’s Webb Reveals Cosmic Cliffs, Glittering Landscape of Star Birth

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

NASA Mission Update

  • NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals emerging stellar nurseries and individual stars in the Carina Nebula that were previously obscured
  • Images of “Cosmic Cliffs” showcase Webb’s cameras’ capabilities to peer through cosmic dust, shedding new light on how stars form
  • Objects in the earliest, rapid phases of star formation are difficult to capture, but Webb’s extreme sensitivity, spatial resolution, and imaging capability can chronicle these elusive events

This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.

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OSIRIS-REx Scientists: Taking Asteroid Sample was Like Punching a Ball Pit

Bennu’s surface was disturbed in three different ways: by the force of the spacecraft touching down; by the sampling mechanism, which collected material by blowing gas into its collection filter; and by four of the spacecraft’s back-away thrusters, which moved the spacecraft away from the sample site (marked with a red “X” in the second of these two images) and agitated dust and boulders on the surface. The image above shows the TAG site and highlights (red circle) a large boulder thrown about 40 feet (about 12 meters). (Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

TUCSON, Ariz. (University of Arizona PR) — Asteroid Bennu, the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, led by the University of Arizona, kept surprising the mission team while the spacecraft studied the asteroid from a distance. The biggest surprise, however, came when OSIRIS-REx swooped in to grab a sample of material from Bennu and encountered not a solid surface but one that gave way so easily the sampler arm sank 1 1/2 feet into it within seconds.

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This Week on The Space Show

This week on The Space Show with Dr. David Livingston:

Tuesday, July 05 — 7 PM PDT (9 PM CDT; 10 PM EDT): We welcome back BOB ZIMMERMAN for space news, policy and more.

Wednesday, July 06 — Hotel Mars pre-recorded. See the Upcoming Show Menu at www.thespaceshow.com for details.

Friday, July 08 — 9:30-11 AM PDT; 11:30 AM- 1 PM CDT; 12:30-2 PM EDT: We welcome back KAI STAATS, Director of SAM Research @ Biosphere 2, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.

Sunday, July 10 — 12-1:30 PM PDT, (3-4:30 PM EDT, 2-3:30 PM CDT): We welcome KEN NEBERGALL on Space Settlement per his recent ISDC presentation. See his space settlement focused site at https://macroinvent.com/

UH Manoa Receives $2.5M Grant to Monitor Space Weather, Making Space Travel Safer

The Sun sends out a constant stream of particles and energy, which drives a complex space weather system near Earth and can affect spacecraft and astronauts. NASA has chosen five new mission concept studies for further development to study various aspects of this dynamic system. (Credits: NASA)

MANOA, Hawaii (University of Hawaii at Manoa PR) — A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa-led project to better predict and understand weather in space earned a major boost from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The four-year, $2.5 million grant will fund a project to construct a space weather station center on the UH Mānoa campus and deploy a neutron monitor on Maui, which researchers say will greatly improve their research in this critical field.

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NASA Extends Exploration for 8 Planetary Science Missions

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Following a thorough evaluation, NASA has extended the planetary science missions of eight of its spacecraft due to their scientific productivity and potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.

The missions – Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover), InSight lander, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, OSIRIS-REx, and New Horizons – have been selected for continuation, assuming their spacecraft remain healthy. Most of the missions will be extended for three years; however, OSIRIS-REx will be continued for nine years in order to reach a new destination, and InSight will be continued until the end of 2022, unless the spacecraft’s electrical power allows for longer operations.

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NASA Gives Green Light for OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft to Visit Another Asteroid

The extended mission, dubbed OSIRIS-APEX, will study the near-Earth asteroid Apophis, which will have a close encounter with Earth in 2029.

This is an artist’s illustration of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft firing thrusters near the surface of the asteroid Apophis.( Credit: Heather Roper)

TUCSON, Ariz. (University of Arizona PR) — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will swing by Earth to deliver a sample from asteroid Bennu on Sept. 24, 2023. But it won’t clock out after that. 

NASA has extended the University of Arizona-led mission, which will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX, to study near-Earth asteroid Apophis for 18 months. Apophis will make a close approach to Earth in 2029. 

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AFRL/AFOSR Conducts Successful Rocket Launch at NASA Wallops for Hypersonic Research

AFRL/AFOSR BOLT II Rocket launching from NASA/Wallops Flight Facility on March 21, 2022. (Credit: NASA/Wallops/Brian Bonsteel)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL PR) – The BOLT II “In memory of Mike Holden” flight experiment, managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory/Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFRL/AFOSR), launched on the evening of March 21 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Dr. Michael Holden, who, up until his passing in 2019, had been a leader in the hypersonics field since the 1960s. The flight experiment successfully flew the planned flight path and acquired tremendous scientific data to further our understanding of boundary layer transition, turbulent heating, and drag at hypersonic conditions.

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NASA, FEMA, Other U.S. Partners Simulate Asteroid Impact Response

Credits: NASA

LAUREL, Md. (NASA PR) — This past month, NASA, FEMA, the United States Space Command, and other federal, state and local agencies convened for the fourth iteration of a Planetary Defense Interagency Tabletop Exercise to inform and assess our nation’s ability to respond effectively to a (simulated) asteroid impact threat to Earth. While there are no predicted asteroid impact threats to our planet for the foreseeable future, this exercise—sponsored by NASA and FEMA and hosted by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland—focused extensively on federal and state government coordination that would be necessary to respond to such a threat should one ever be discovered.

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UArizona Students Confirm Errant Rocket’s Chinese Origins and Track Lunar Collision Course

A high-definition image of the Mars Australe lava plain on the Moon taken by Japan’s Kaguya lunar orbiter in November 2007. (Credit: JAXA/NHK)

TUCSON, Ariz. (University of Arizona PR) — The presumed SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster that’s on a course to hit the moon March 4 is actually a Chinese booster from a rocket launch in 2014, a University of Arizona team has confirmed.

UArizona students in the university’s Space Domain Awareness lab at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory have had their eyes on the piece of space junk for weeks as they studied its rotation. They have been gathering other data as well, which they used to confirm its Chinese origin.

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NASA Asteroid Tracking System Now Capable of Full Sky Search

From left to right: Sutherland ATLAS station during construction in South Africa. Credit: Willie Koorts (SAAO); Chilean engineers and astronomers installing the ATLAS telescope at El Sauce Observatory. Credit: University of Hawaii; Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube prior to impact at the Didymos binary system. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins, APL/Steve Gribben; Illustration of the NEO Surveyor spacecraft.

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — The NASA-funded Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS)—a state-of-the-art asteroid detection system operated by the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) Institute for Astronomy (IfA) for the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO)—has reached a new milestone by becoming the first survey capable of searching the entire dark sky every 24 hours for near-Earth objects (NEOs) that could pose a future impact hazard to Earth. Now comprised of four telescopes, ATLAS has expanded its reach to the southern hemisphere from the two existing northern-hemisphere telescopes on Haleakalā and Maunaloa in Hawai’i to include two additional observatories in South Africa and Chile. 

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Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) to Develop Two Small Satellites for NASA Astrophysics Pioneers Program

Artist’s conception of the NASA StarBurst astrophysics mission. (Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center)

TORONTO, Ontario, Canada, 25 January 2022 (SFL PR) – Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) will develop two small spacecraft for the new NASA Astrophysics Pioneers Program. SFL will provide the spacecraft platforms, perform system integration, and conduct system testing for the StarBurst and Aspera astrophysics missions, led by Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and the University of Arizona, respectively.

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OSIRIS-REx Mission Team Wins 2022 Swigert Award for Space Exploration

TUCSON, Ariz. (University of Arizona PR) — The NASA and University of Arizona OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission team has been selected to receive the 2022 John L. “Jack” Swigert Jr. Award for Space Exploration by the Space Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for space exploration and space-inspired industries.

The award will be presented April 4 during the opening ceremony of the 37th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

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NASA’s Webb Telescope Will Have the Coolest Camera in Space

Engineers conduct a “receiving inspection” of the James Webb Space Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center after its journey from the United Kingdom. (Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn)

Before the MIRI instrument – one of four scientific instruments aboard the observatory – can operate, it has to be cooled down to almost the coldest temperature matter can reach.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Set to launch on Dec. 22, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the largest space observatory in history, and it has an equally gargantuan task: to collect infrared light from the distant corners of the cosmos, enabling scientists to probe the structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.

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