Today’s Tidbits: May 11, 2021

Today’s Tidbits: May 11, 2021

Here are’s tidbits for May 11, 2021: China’s LM-5B rocket gets close to ISS; JWST ready for packing; Ingenuity and Perseverance hard at work; O-REx headed home; Boeing gets a date for OFT-2.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

China’s Long March-5B Rocket Gets Close to ISS

As we reported late Saturday night, China’s Long March-5B (Chang Zheng-5B in Chinese) reentered over the Arabian Peninsula about a week after launching Tianhe, the core module for China’s new space station.  Attention at the time was focused on whether the rocket stage would reenter over a populated area. Fortunately, whatever pieces survived reentry landed in the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, but NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a rebuke to China for not following “responsible standards regarding their space debris” in the first place.

The next day, however, it came to light that Tianhe and the rocket stage had come pretty close to the International Space Station (ISS).

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who closely tracked the LM-5B reentry, tweeted that the rocket stage had come within 300 kilometers (184 miles) of the U.S.-Russian-Canadian-Japanese-European orbiting space laboratory with seven people aboard. He called it “a tad alarming.”

When we asked NASA if Nelson had a further statement about the close approach to ISS, we received this response.

“The ISS is currently at an altitude of ~417 km and an inclination of 51.6 degrees.  The Chinese Space Station was placed at altitude of ~370 km and an inclination of ~41 degrees. The ISS crew members were never in danger, and the altitude of the Chinese Space Station is such that no analysis was required to ensure the space station was safe. The Long March Rocket core stage also was below ISS, and the closest miss distance was in the radial direction of ~300 km.  Radial distance is the easiest parameter to measure and the most stable. The ISS was never in danger and could have adjusted its orbit up or down if a potential conjunction was a concern.

NASA works closely with U.S. Space Command, which sends notifications of potential conjunctions to our trajectory officer in Mission Control Houston. Any issues with the Chinese Space Station or other objects are immediately reported to the MCC-Houston Flight Control team who work with U.S. Space Command and our international partners to determine if action aboard the ISS is necessary.”

Basically, no worries from NASA in that case.

All’s well that ends well, this time at least, but there are more LM-5B launches coming up. We’ll see if China makes any changes when it launches the other two space station modules over the next year.

JWST Ready for Packing

NASA and Northrop Grumman (NG) held a press conference today to give reporters a last view of the amazing and beautiful mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) just before the telescope is packed up for shipping to its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

Northrop Grumman’s Scott Willoughby (L) and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Bill Ochs (R) on a balcony overlooking the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST’s) at Northrop Grumman’s Redondo Beach, CA facility where final preparations are underway to ship it to the launch site. JWST’s gold mult-segment mirror is in the background. Screengrab.

The much-delayed launch of the significantly over-budget telescope is set for October 31, 2021 on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana. The European Space Agency is a partner in the JWST program and is providing the launch at no cost to NASA.

The date is somewhat tentative, however, not because of JWST, but due to problems with the Ariane 5.  The rocket has not launched since August 2020 because of concerns about excess vibrations during separation of the fairing that protects the payload during launch. Two sets of communications satellites will launch before JWST so there is an opportunity to test out the fixes.

Ochs, the JWST project manager at NASA, did not seem concerned about the exact launch date today. Unlike planetary missions that have strict launch windows, JWST can launch anytime.  “We have launch windows almost virtually every day. They’ll vary in length and size, but typically in the morning.”

Scientists are anticipating amazing data from the infrared telescope, the follow-on to the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble is in Earth orbit and still sending back data after more than 30 years thanks to repairs and upgrades made by space shuttle astronauts who visited five times. By contrast, JWST is not designed to be serviceable and will be 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) away at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point. Once launched, JWST is on its own as it goes through a daunting multi-week deployment sequence. It will be nail-biting month, but once operational, JWST’s ability to look back in time almost to the beginning of the universe will be well worth it.

Ingenuity and Perseverance Hard at Work

Speaking of planetary missions, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter and Perseverance rover are hard at work on Mars.

Ingenuity made its fifth flight on Friday. For the first time it was a one-way trip to a new “airfield” 129 meters (423 feet) away. The first four flights were made close to Perseverance, which relays the signals from Ingenuity back to Earth.  The tiny (1.8 kilogram/4 pound) helicopter ventured a bit further each time but always came back to home base at “Wright Brothers Field.”

But after its successful technology demonstration flights, Ingenuity now has a new operational mission scouting ahead for Perseverance.  It’s still not all that far away and Perseverance’s Mastcam camera took this photo of Ingenuity at its new site.

Ingenuity helicopter at its new landing site, May 7, 2021. Credit:. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Perseverance now is getting down to work on its science mission, taking detailed photos of the Martian surface with another camera, Watson, at the end of its robotic arm.

O-REx Headed Home

Another NASA planetary science mission is also on the move. The OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission departed asteroid Bennu yesterday for the more than two year trip back to Earth.  O-REx collected samples of Bennu last fall, but had to wait until Earth and Bennu were correctly aligned again in their orbits before it could leave.

The spacecraft and its sample return capsule will arrive at Earth on September 24, 2023.  The capsule will separate from the spacecraft and land at the Utah Test and Training Range in Utah’s West desert, where scientists will be eagerly awaiting its arrival. Japan returned asteroid samples to Earth twice (in 2010 and 2020), but this is a first for NASA, though it has brought back samples of dust from a comet (Stardust) and the solar wind (Genesis).

Image of Bennu taken by OSIRIS-REx March 4, 2021. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Boeing Gets a Date for OFT-2

Boeing now has a new date to launch its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) for the Starliner spacecraft.

Boeing and SpaceX won contracts from NASA to build “commercial crew” space transportation systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). SpaceX’s Crew Dragon system is in use already, but Boeing’s first OFT for Starliner in December 2019 did not go as planned. Under the PPP, Boeing retains ownership of the system, but the investigation of what went wrong was conducted jointly with NASA.  Boeing ultimately decided to redo the test, OFT-2, before putting a crew onboard.

The Starliner spacecraft is ready, but it needs to dock with the ISS and that’s a busy place. NASA and Boeing have decided July 30 at 2:53 pm ET is the best time to launch. If all goes well, the Crewed Flight Test and the first operational mission could happen this year.

Unlike Crew Dragon, which splashes down in the water, Starliner lands on terra firma at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule after landing at White Sands, NM, December 22, 2020, ending the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT). The white tent is an environmental enclosure about to be placed around the spacecraft. Screengrab.


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