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First private spacecraft getting ready to reach the ISS

In November 2010 the American SpaceX company will launch its Dragon spacecraft on its first mission. The world’s first private spaceship will be carried by the Falcon 9 rocket, developed by the same company. This will be an important milestone for private spaceflight: Falcon 9 and the Dragon, after some more development, will even be able to carry personnel to the International Space Station.

Dragon connecting to the International Space station

After terminating NASA’s Project Constellation, development of the Ares rocket and the Orion spacecraft became uncertain,  and the United States started depending on other nations’ help (mainly the Russian Soyuz spacecraft) sustaining work on the ISS. In this situation the role of private companies in space exploration became more valuable, making the simple and cheap reusable rocket and spaceship affordable. The whole system was also designed to be able transport passengers (for example, during the rocket’s flight there is only moderate acceleration, escaping and saving of personnel is possible throughout the whole flight, and the spacecraft is able to come back to Earth with full load). NASA, being confident, has already ordered 12 flights worth $3.1 billion, starting with this demonstration flight, first of three similar missions.

Dragon spacecraft is of quite simple and conventional design. The conic shaped pressure resistant bow is reusable and all important instrumentation is placed here. At the nose the Common Berthing Mechanism compatible with the American modules of the ISS is placed, which is not able to do a conventional docking: one of the ISS’s robotic arms has to catch the spacecraft, which is then practically fitted to the station. This procedure has already been proven  possible by the Japanese HTV spacecraft. The Dragon is able to bring back its entire cargo to Earth. The landing is done the conventional way: with heat shield and a parachute, the capsule in the end reaching the sea. The reusable spacecraft’s only expendable part is the otherwise empty service module containing only the solar cells, this is separated before entry and burns in the atmosphere.

Both stages of the Falcon 9 rocket are also planned to be reusable, they are to return to sea by parachutes, although so far (five Falcon 1 and one Falcon 9) the recovery was unsuccessful. Bringing back the second stage already in low Earth orbit is even more complicated: its difficulty is similar to those of orbiting spaceships, so this will only implemented in the future.

After successful tests, SpaceX originally scheduled the first flight of the spacecraft, after some delays, to late October. Due to further minor technical problems this was postponed to November. If the first flight takes place as currently expected, one of the important parameters will differ from later missions: the rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center will be sent onto a 31.5 inclination trajectory which is unlike the 51.8 degrees trajectory of Space Shuttles and later Dragon flights, meaning the first launch cannot be seen from Europe.

Last Updated (Tuesday, 19 October 2010 05:19)


China successfully launches second orbiter to the Moon

What is the best use of a backup space probe, apart from displaying it in a museum? Turn it into a real space probe! After the highly successful Chang'e-1 mission, China wants to reach the Moon once again with her slightly upgraded twin sister paving the way for the first Chinese Moon rover.

A Long March 3C typr rocket ready to take off from Xichang Satellite centerA Long March 3C rocket carrying the Chinese Chang'e-2 space probe blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Lauch Center yesterday at 11:00 GMT. The probe will reach the Moon in approximately 5 days to take high-resolution images of the lunar surface for a potential future landing mission. Chang'e-2 will also be a technical experiment before the Chang’e-3 rover, practicing translunar and circumlunar operations.

Just as the their economy, Chinese space ambitions are also growing with great pace. China wants to land on the Moon, first with autonomous rovers and sample return missions and eventually with humans too. But to accomplish this, they will need accurate and detailed maps. The main goal of Chang'e-1, China's first ever Moon orbiter, was to create a photographic and altitude map of the Moon. This was however overshadowed by the swarm of other lunar explorers in those years: the more able Japanese Kaguya, Chandrayaan-1, India's own first lunar mission, and finally the return of Americans to the Moon with the highly anticipated Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS missions. Nor was the mishap helpful with the first released images that showed previously unseen craters. The press claimed fraud, but it turned out shortly that the Chinese were only inexperienced and made mistakes. Later Chang'e-1 successfully mapped the whole surface of the Moon and operated half a year longer than proposed.

It was soon announced that China would return to the Moon with an almost identical probe to continue the work. Chang'e-2 originates from the backup version of the first probe, and has a number of identical systems and instruments, such as the imaging spectrometer, gamma/x-ray spectrometers, microwave detectors, and space environment monitoring system. Others are enhanced or replaced with better ones. The probe will travel on a shorter, faster route to the Moon, thanks to a more powerful rocket. The laser altimeter and the main camera will have better resolution, the latter improved from 120 m to 10 m per pixel resolving power. This will be still lower than LRO's, but identical to Kaguya's performance. Chang'e-2 will also have a lower orbit at 100 km height. This circular path will eventually be turned to an ellipse with flybys of only 15 km (!) above the lunar surface. There is a rumor that the probe carries a small lander or more likely an impactor, but official sources mention no such device.

The second phase of the Chinese lunar programme aims to land on the Moon with a rover that will move around by remote control with a maximum speed of 100 m/hour. A six-wheeled vehicle, not unlike the Mars Exploration Rovers, has been under development since 2002 at the Shanghai Aerospace System Engineering Institute. The current launch date of the proposed Chang'e-3 rover is 2013, posing as a potential deadline for any Google Lunar X-Prize contestants, since the organisers intend to change the rules from a calendar-date deadline to the event of landing a government-sponsored rover on the Moon. The biggest uncertainty of the Chinese mission is the launch vehicle: Chang'e-3 is supposed to be launched with the newly developed Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket whose first test launch is currently scheduled to no earlier than 2014.

Last Updated (Saturday, 02 October 2010 22:04)


Puli to the Moon!


A young and ambitious Hungarian team has embarked on a mission to fulfill the challenge of the Google Lunar XPRIZE – a $40 million international competition – and send a rover to the Moon. The challenge is great, but it is technically feasible. Team Puli is working full speed since June 2010. In the meantime we have managed to collect the required $50 000 registration fee for the competiton and  we are continously working on creating our rovers and broadening our educational program. All scientists, engineers and other professionals taking part in the project do currently this voluntarily, however for a successful mission we need to invest in a large amount of equipment and have to provide funds for various other costs.

Currently we are working on the project Iteration 3 which will result in a space-grade protoflight rover. In our earlier work we laid down the "nervous system" of our Moon mission,  and, in the sense of the Hunveyor program, the same time we developed prototypes of our Puli rovers. Our systems were successfully tested in the Moroccan desert (2013 February) and on the slopes of Mauna Kea, one of the best Moon analog field test facilities (2013 December).

Last Updated (Saturday, 25 January 2014 23:50)


Seeing the Moon ... in a whole new light

This email has recently reached us from Astronomers without Borders. We think it is about a very nice event, so we are happy to share it with you!


Last Updated (Monday, 20 September 2010 09:52)


Russia builds new civilian spaceport and seeks international co-operation

Russia will invest US $820 million US Dollars in a new spaceport which is to be operational by 2015. The Vostochny cosmodrome is intended to ease dependence on the Baikonur site and will mostly handle civilian launches. 'Along with the construction, Russian space agency seeks international partners for future missions', announced Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Soyuz rocket preparing to lauunch in Baikonur

Last Updated (Sunday, 08 August 2010 19:22)

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