samedi 23 janvier 2021

Starship SN9 prototype fires engines to prep for high-altitude test flight


SpaceX - Starship (unofficial) patch.

Jan. 23, 2021

The high-altitude hop could come as early as Monday (Jan. 25).

Image above: SpaceX's Starship SN9 prototype performs a static-fire test, its fifth overall, on Jan. 22, 2021. Image Credits: Elon Musk via Twitter.

SpaceX's latest Starship prototype may now be cleared for takeoff.

Animation above: SpaceX's Starship Prototype Unveiled. animation Credit: SpaceX

The Starship SN9 vehicle performed its fifth static fire test Friday morning (Jan. 22), briefly lighting its three Raptor engines at 9:59 a.m. EST (1459 GMT) while remaining firmly on the ground at SpaceX's South Texas facility, near the Gulf Coast village of Boca Chica.

SpaceX Starship SN9 High Altitude Flight Animation

Static fires are common preflight checkouts for SpaceX rockets, and SN9 might now have checked enough boxes to launch on a high-altitude test mission in the coming days — perhaps as early as Monday (Jan. 25).

SN9's flight is expected to resemble that of its predecessor, the three-engine SN8 vehicle, which soared about 7.8 miles (12.5 kilometers) above Boca Chica on Dec. 9. SN8 did everything that was asked of it that day except stick the landing; the stainless-steel craft came down a bit too fast and exploded when it hit its designated landing area.

SpaceX is developing Starship to carry people and cargo to the moon, Mars and other cosmic destinations. The transportation system consists of two elements, both of which will be fully and rapidly reusable: the 165-foot-tall (50 meters) Starship spacecraft and a huge booster known as Super Heavy.

Inside SpaceX Starship - unofficial interior concept

Both will be powered by the next-gen Raptor. The final version of Starship will have six Raptors, and Super Heavy will sport about 30 of the engines, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said. (Super Heavy will be needed to launch Starship off Earth, but the spacecraft will be able to get itself off both the moon and Mars.)

SpaceX is moving fast with Starship, as it tends to do with its projects. Musk has said that he expects Starship to begin flying people to Mars by 2026, and that this epic milestone could even occur in 2024 "if we get lucky." (Mars missions work on roughly two-year cycles; Earth and Mars align properly for interplanetary missions every 26 months.)

Animated Starship Plumbing Diagram V2

SN9 previously performed one static fire on Jan. 6 and three in quick succession on Jan. 13. After the Jan. 13 tests, SpaceX swapped out two of the vehicle's three engines, which Musk said needed slight repairs.

The prototype also appeared to attempt a static fire on Thursday (Jan. 21), but that try was so brief that it seems to have been aborted.

Related articles:

Starship SN8 Takes Flight

SpaceX Starship is About to Flight its Highest Altitude Test

SpaceX - Private Lunar & Martian Missions

Related link:


Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Videos, Text, Credits: SpaceX/C-bass Productions/DeepSpaceCourier/ Wall.

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NASA’s Deep Space Network Welcomes a New Dish to the Family


NASA - Space Communication and Navigation (SCaN) patch.

Jan. 23, 2021

The addition brings new capabilities to the network, which acts as an interplanetary switchboard, connecting us to missions at the Moon and far beyond.

Image above: Deep Space Station 56, or DSS-56, is a powerful 34-meter-wide (112-foot-wide) antenna that was added to the Deep Space Network's Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex in Spain in early 2021. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A powerful new antenna has been added to the NASA Space Communications and Navigation’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which connects us to the space robots exploring our solar system. Called Deep Space Station 56, or DSS-56, the dish is now online and ready to communicate with a variety of missions, including NASA’s Perseverance rover when it lands on the Red Planet next month.

The new 34-meter-wide (112-foot-wide) dish has been under construction at the Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex in Spain since 2017. Existing antennas are limited in the frequency bands they can receive and transmit, often restricting them to communicating only with specific spacecraft. DSS-56 is the first to use the Deep Space Network’s full range of communication frequencies as soon as it went online. This means DSS-56 is an “all-in-one” antenna that can communicate with all the missions that the DSN supports and can be used as a backup for any of the Madrid complex’s other antennas.

“DSS-56 offers the Deep Space Network additional real-time flexibility and reliability,” said Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator and program manager of NASA's Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN). “This new asset symbolizes and underscores our ongoing support for more than 30 deep space missions who count on our services to enable their success.”

With the addition of DSS-56 and other 34-meter antennas to all three DSN complexes around the world, the network is preparing to play a critical role in ensuring communication and navigation support for upcoming Moon and Mars missions and the crewed Artemis missions.

Image above: Three eye-catching posters featuring the larger 70-meter (230-feet) antennas located at the three Deep Space Network complexes around the world. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“The Deep Space Network is vital to so much of what we do – and to what we plan to do – throughout the solar system. It’s what connects us here on Earth to our distant robotic explorers, and, with the improvements that we’re making to the network, it connects us to the future as well, expanding our capabilities as we prepare human missions for the Moon and beyond,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA’s headquarters in Washington. “This latest antenna was built as an international partnership and will ultimately benefit all of humanity as we continue to explore deep space.”

With DSS-56’s increased flexibility came a more complex start-up phase, which included testing and calibration of a larger suite of systems, before the antenna could go online. On Friday, Jan. 22, the international partners who oversaw the antenna’s construction attended a virtual ribbon-cutting event to officially mark the occasion – an event that had been delayed due to historic snowfall blanketing much of Spain.

“After the lengthy process of commissioning, the DSN’s most capable 34-meter antenna is now talking with our spacecraft,” said Bradford Arnold, DSN project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Even though pandemic restrictions and the recent weather conditions in Spain have been significant challenges, the staff in Madrid persevered, and I am proud to welcome DSS-56 to the global DSN family.”

More About the Deep Space Network

In addition to Spain, the Deep Space Network has ground stations in California (Goldstone) and Australia (Canberra). This configuration allows mission controllers to communicate with spacecraft throughout the solar system at all times during Earth’s rotation.

The forerunner to the DSN was established in January 1958 when JPL was contracted by the U.S. Army to deploy portable radio tracking stations in California, Nigeria, and Singapore to receive telemetry of the first successful U.S. satellite, Explorer 1. Shortly after JPL was transferred to NASA on Dec. 3, 1958, the newly-formed U.S. civilian space program established the Deep Space Network to communicate with all deep space missions. It has been in continuous operation since 1963 and remains the backbone of deep space communications for NASA and international missions, supporting historic events such as the Apollo Moon landings and checking in on our interstellar explorers, Voyager 1 and 2.

The Deep Space Network is managed by JPL for SCaN, which is located at NASA’s headquarters within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. The Madrid station is managed on NASA’s behalf by Spain’s national research organization, Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (National Institute of Aerospace Technology).

Related links:

Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex:

NASA's Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN):

Online application DSN Now:

Deep Space Network complexes around the world:

California (Goldstone):

Australia (Canberra):

Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (National Institute of Aerospace Technology):

Explorer 1:

Voyager 1 and 2:

Artemis missions:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/JPL/Ian J. O'Neill.


vendredi 22 janvier 2021

Space Station Science Highlights: Week of January 18, 2021


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Jan. 22, 2021

Crew members aboard the International Space Station conducted a number of scientific experiments during the week of Jan. 18, including testing technologies for space debris removal and inflight white blood cell counts and studies of fire safety. NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins continued preparations for a pair of spacewalks currently scheduled for Jan. 27 and Feb. 1. Tasks on the first spacewalk include setting up Bartolomeo, an ESA (European Space Agency) platform for hosting science payloads on the exterior of the space station.

Animation above: NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Shannon Walker conducting various tasks aboard the space station. Animation Credits: NASA.

Seven crew members currently inhabit the station, including four from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, providing increased crew time for science on the orbiting lab. The space station has been continuously inhabited by humans for 20 years and has supported many scientific breakthroughs during that time. The station provides a platform for long-duration research in microgravity and for learning to live and work in space, experience that supports Artemis, NASA’s program to go forward to the Moon and on to Mars.

Here are details on some of the microgravity investigations currently taking place:

Grabbing like a gecko

Image above: NASA astronaut Shannon Walker sets up the Astrobee robots for a run of the REGGAE investigation, which uses these free-flyers to test a technology for potential capture and active removal of space debris in low-Earth orbit. Image Credit: NASA.

The crew installed targets for the Reduced Gravity Gecko Adhesion Docking Experiments (REGGAE) investigation onto Astrobee satellites and performed a functional checkout during the week. Developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), REGGAE tests a technology for potential capture and active removal of space debris in low-Earth orbit using materials that mimic the microscopic structures in the feet of geckos, spiders, and some insects that allow them to adhere to almost any surface. These materials are attached to one of the free-flying Astrobees and target materials on another. The first then attempts to capture the target materials. This method could make it possible to use small and cost-efficient CubeSats to capture space debris – human-made objects that remain in orbit but no longer serve a useful purpose. Space debris poses a risk to the use of low-Earth orbit and its removal is essential to continued safe operation of satellites and spacecraft.

Counting blood cells

Medical providers use white blood cell counts to monitor a number of heath conditions, including viral and bacterial infections, impacts of radiation exposure, and inflammatory diseases. HemoCue tests the ability of a commercially available device to provide quick and accurate blood cell counts in microgravity. On future exploration missions, this capability could allow crews to identify certain medical conditions, diagnose illnesses, monitor conditions such as infections or radiation exposure, track treatment response, and assess the severity of an illness. The crew prepared and processed samples using the analyzer during the week, producing 12 successful runs.

Fire safety studies

Image above: Image from a run of the BRE investigation, which examines the flammability of solid and liquid materials in order to improve fire safety in spacecraft. Image Credits: NASA's Glenn Research Center.

Two investigations conducted this week aim at improving fire safety in space: BRE and FLARE. BRE, part of the set of Advanced Combustion via Microgravity Experiments (ACME), simulates the flammability of solid and liquid materials by burning gaseous fuels under conditions corresponding to those materials. ACME’s goals include advancing fuel efficiency and reducing pollutant production in practical combustion on Earth in addition to improving spacecraft fire prevention. During the week, crew members reconfigured the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) for continued BRE-2 runs.

A fire safety investigation from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), FLARE burns various solid fuels under different conditions inside a flow tunnel. In microgravity, flames can spread more quickly across materials under certain conditions than they do on Earth. Current materials flammability screening tests for crewed space missions do not consider the effect of gravity, but this investigation could provide a new way to predict flammability in microgravity, significantly improving fire safety on future missions. Crew members conducted operations for this investigation during the week.

Other investigations on which the crew performed work:

- Time Perception, an ESA (European Space Agency) experiment, quantifies the subjective changes in time perception that humans experience during and after long-duration spaceflight.

- For The ISS Experience, crew members capture footage used to create an immersive virtual reality series documenting life and research aboard the space station. The first episode of Space Explorers: The ISS Experience premiered in fall 2020 on multiple platforms.

- The Veg-03 investigation cultivates various plants using pillows – low-mass modules that require little energy and maintenance – as part of efforts to understand how plants respond to microgravity so crews can eventually grow them for food on long-duration missions.

- Bacterial Adhesion and Corrosion tests an antimicrobial coating on materials used to represent typical surfaces on the space station, which could provide insight into better ways to control and remove resistant biofilms for long-duration spaceflight.

- 3D Microbial Monitoring uses DNA sequencing and other analyses to construct a three dimensional map of bacteria and bacterial products throughout the station to help identify risks to human health and environmental systems.

- Standard Measures ensures consistent collection of specific data from crew members throughout the space station program in order to characterize the adaptive responses to and risks of living in space.

- Food Acceptability looks at how the appeal of food changes during long-duration missions. Whether crew members like and actually eat foods directly affects caloric intake and associated nutritional benefits.

- APM measures and quantifies the concentration of both small and large particles in cabin air as part of efforts to maintain air quality in the occupied environment on station, vital for the crew’s health.

Image above: NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, left, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi completing an ISS HAM radio connection with Hisagi junior high in Japan. Image Credit: JAXA.

- ISS Ham gives groups of students an opportunity to ask questions of crew members as the space station passes over their school, camp, museum, or other facility.

Space to Ground: Spacewalk Preparations: 01/22/2021

Related links:

Expedition 64:

Commercial Crew Program:






Advanced Combustion via Microgravity Experiments (ACME):


ISS National Lab:

Spot the Station:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Video (NASA), Text, Credits: NASA/Michael Johnson/John Love, ISS Research Planning Integration Scientist Expedition 64.

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The 7 Rocky TRAPPIST-1 Planets May Be Made of Similar Stuff


JPL - Jet Propulsion Laboratory logo.

Jan. 22, 2021

Precise measurements reveal that the exoplanets have remarkably similar densities, which provides clues about their composition.

The red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is home to the largest group of roughly Earth-size planets ever found in a single stellar system. Located about 40 light-years away, these seven rocky siblings provide an example of the tremendous variety of planetary systems that likely fill the universe.

Image above: Measuring the mass and diameter of a planet reveals its density, which can give scientists clues about its composition. Scientists now know the density of the seven TRAPPIST-1 planets with a higher precision than any other planets in the universe, other than those in our own solar system. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A new study published today in the Planetary Science Journal shows that the TRAPPIST-1 planets have remarkably similar densities. That could mean they all contain about the same ratio of materials thought to compose most rocky planets, like iron, oxygen, magnesium, and silicon. But if this is the case, that ratio must be notably different than Earth’s: The TRAPPIST-1 planets are about 8% less dense than they would be if they had the same makeup as our home planet. Based on that conclusion, the paper authors hypothesized a few different mixtures of ingredients could give the TRAPPIST-1 planets the measured density.

Some of these planets have been known since 2016, when scientists announced that they’d found three planets around the TRAPPIST-1 star using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. Subsequent observations by NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope, in collaboration with ground-based telescopes, confirmed two of the original planets and discovered five more. Managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Spitzer observed the system for over 1,000 hours before being decommissioned in January 2020. NASA’s Hubble and now-retired Kepler space telescopes have also studied the system.

All seven TRAPPIST-1 planets, which are so close to their star that they would fit within the orbit of Mercury, were found via the transit method: Scientists can’t see the planets directly (they’re too small and faint relative to the star), so they look for dips in the star’s brightness created when the planets cross in front of it. 

TRAPPIST-1 system. Animation Credits: NASA/JPL

Repeated observations of the starlight dips combined with measurements of the timing of the planets’ orbits enabled astronomers to estimate the planets’ masses and diameters, which were in turn used to calculate their densities. Previous calculations determined that the planets are roughly the size and mass of Earth and thus must also be rocky, or terrestrial – as opposed to gas-dominated, like Jupiter and Saturn. The new paper offers the most precise density measurements yet for any group of exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system.

Iron’s Reign

The more precisely scientists know a planet’s density, the more limits they can place on its composition. Consider that a paperweight might be about the same size as a baseball yet is usually much heavier. Together, width and weight reveal each object’s density, and from there it is possible to infer that the baseball is made of something lighter (string and leather) and the paperweight is made of something heavier (usually glass or metal).

The densities of the eight planets in our own solar system vary widely. The puffy, gas-dominated giants – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune – are larger but much less dense than the four terrestrial worlds because they’re composed mostly of lighter elements like hydrogen and helium. Even the four terrestrial worlds show some variety in their densities, which are determined by both a planet’s composition and compression due to the gravity of the planet itself. By subtracting the effect of gravity, scientists can calculate what’s known as a planet’s uncompressed density and potentially learn more about a planet’s composition.

Image above: A planet’s density is determined by its composition as well as its size: Gravity compresses the material a planet is made of, increasing the planet’s density. Uncompressed density adjusts for the effect of gravity and can reveal how the composition of various planets compare. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The seven TRAPPIST-1 planets possess similar densities – the values differ by no more than 3%. This makes the system quite different from our own. The difference in density between the TRAPPIST-1 planets and Earth and Venus may seem small – about 8% – but it is significant on a planetary scale. For example, one way to explain why the TRAPPIST-1 planets are less dense is that they have a similar composition to Earth, but with a lower percentage of iron – about 21% compared to Earth’s 32%, according to the study.

Alternatively, the iron in the TRAPPIST-1 planets might be infused with high levels of oxygen, forming iron oxide, or rust. The additional oxygen would decrease the planets’ densities. The surface of Mars gets its red tint from iron oxide, but like its three terrestrial siblings, it has a core composed of non-oxidized iron. By contrast, if the lower density of the TRAPPIST-1 planets were caused entirely by oxidized iron, the planets would have to be rusty throughout and could not have solid iron cores.

Eric Agol, an astrophysicist at the University of Washington and lead author of the new study, said the answer might be a combination of the two scenarios – less iron overall and some oxidized iron.

The team also looked into whether the surface of each planet could be covered with water, which is even lighter than rust and which would change the planet’s overall density. If that were the case, water would have to account for about 5% of the total mass of the outer four planets. By comparison, water makes up less than one-tenth of 1% of Earth’s total mass.

Because they’re positioned too close to their star for water to remain a liquid under most circumstances, the three inner TRAPPIST-1 planets would require hot, dense atmospheres like Venus’, such that water could remain bound to the planet as steam. But Agol says this explanation seems less likely because it would be a coincidence for all seven planets to have just enough water present to have such similar densities.

Image above: Three possible interiors of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets. The more precisely scientists know the density of a planet, the more they can narrow down the range of possible interiors for that planet. All seven planets have very similar densities, so they likely have a similar compositions. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“The night sky is full of planets, and it’s only been within the last 30 years that we’ve been able to start unraveling their mysteries,” said Caroline Dorn, an astrophysicist at the University of Zurich and a co-author of the paper. “The TRAPPIST-1 system is fascinating because around this one star we can learn about the diversity of rocky planets within a single system. And we can actually learn more about a planet by studying its neighbors as well, so this system is perfect for that.”

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, managed the Spitzer mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations were conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at IPAC at Caltech. Spitzer’s entire science catalogue is available via the Spitzer data archive, housed at the Infrared Science Archive at IPAC. Spacecraft operations were based at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado.

Related links:

Planetary Science Journal:


Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL):

Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/JPL/Calla Cofield.

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Hubble Takes Portrait of the ‘Lost Galaxy’


NASA & ESA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.

Jan. 22, 2021

Located in the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin), around 50 million light-years from Earth, the galaxy NGC 4535 is truly a stunning sight to behold. Despite the incredible quality of this image, taken from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, NGC 4535 has a hazy, somewhat ghostly, appearance when viewed from a smaller telescope. This led amateur astronomer Leland S. Copeland to nickname NGC 4535 the “Lost Galaxy” in the 1950s.

The bright colors in this image aren’t just beautiful to look at, as they actually tell us about the population of stars within this barred spiral galaxy. The bright blue-ish colors, seen nestled amongst NGC 4535’s long, spiral arms, indicate the presence of a greater number of younger and hotter stars. In contrast, the yellower tones of this galaxy’s bulge suggest that this central area is home to stars which are older and cooler.

This galaxy was studied as part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) survey, which aims to clarify many of the links between cold gas clouds, star formation, and the overall shape and other properties of galaxies. On January 11, 2021 the first release of the PHANGS-HST Collection was made publicly available.

For more information about Hubble, visit:

PHANGS-HST Collection:

Text Credits: European Space Agency (ESA)/NASA/Lynn Jenner/Image Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-HST Team.


jeudi 21 janvier 2021

ISS orbital altitude increased by 1.2 km


ROSCOSMOS - Russian Vehicles patch.

Jan. 21, 2021

In accordance with the flight program of the International Space Station, on January 21, 2021, specialists from the Russian Mission Control Center TsNIIMash (part of the Roscosmos State Corporation) corrected its orbit. For this, the engines of the Progress MS-14 transport cargo vehicle docked to the Zvezda service module of the ISS Russian segment were automatically switched on at 19:14 Moscow time.

ISS reboosts by Progress cargo vehicle. Image Credit: NASA

The orbit was corrected in full accordance with the calculated data. The engines of the cargo ship worked for 417.5 s, as a result of which the average altitude of the station's orbit increased by 1.25 km and amounted to 419.79 km. According to the ballistic and navigation support service of the TsNIIMash MCC, the ISS orbit parameters are now:

- Orbital period: 92.91 min;

- Orbital inclination: 51.66 degrees;

- Minimum height above the Earth's surface: 420.09 km;

- Maximum height above the earth's surface: 436.17 km.

This maneuver was performed to form ballistic conditions before the launch of the Soyuz MS-18 manned spacecraft and the landing of the Soyuz MS-17 descent vehicle, which are scheduled for April 2021. The previous correction of the ISS orbit was performed on November 12, 2020 by the engines of the Progress MS-14 cargo vehicle with an increase in the average altitude of the station's orbit by the same 1.2 kilometers.

ISS reboost. Video Credit: ESA

Currently, the crew of the 64th long-term expedition, consisting of Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov, as well as NASA astronauts Kathleen Rubins, Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, is working on board the International Space Station.

ROSCOSMOS Press Release:

Related article:

Station Boosts Orbit During Research and Spacewalk Preps

Image (mentioned), Video (mentioned), Text, Credits: ROSCOSMOS/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.

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Station Boosts Orbit During Research and Spacewalk Preps


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Jan. 21, 2021

DNA, time perception and combustion investigations filled the research schedule aboard the International Space Station today. The Expedition 64 crew is also training for a pair of spacewalks set to start next week.

Researchers are studying how microgravity affects a human’s DNA and even time perception as astronauts spend more time living in space. Radiation and weightlessness can impact DNA while the lack of an up-down orientation and a day-night cycle may influence spatial and time perception.

Image above: Flight Engineer Michael Hopkins works inside the Quest airlock configuring tools for planned spacewalks to continue maintenance on the outside of the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA.

Biologist and NASA Flight Engineer Kate Rubins, the first person to sequence DNA in space in 2016, was once again preparing DNA samples for sequencing to learn how to monitor crew health and identify organisms in space. She also replaced fuel bottles inside the Combustion Integrated Rack to maintain safe fuel and flame studies aboard the orbiting lab.

Flight Engineers Michael Hopkins of NASA and Soichi Noguchi of JAXA took turns Thursday morning helping researchers understand the subjective changes in time perception they may experience in space. The duo wore a virtual reality headset, used a trackball and performed tests to measure their timed responses.

Astronaut spacewalk. Animation Credit: NASA

All three astronauts then joined NASA Flight Engineer Victor Glover in the afternoon to practice robotics maneuvers they will use during a pair of spacewalks set for Jan. 27 and Feb. 1. Hopkins and Glover will be the spacewalkers for both excursions. The duo will set up European science and communications hardware on the first spacewalk and configure battery gear and high definition cameras on the second.

The orbiting lab slightly boosted its orbit this morning after the Progress 75 cargo craft fired its engines for nearly seven minutes. The new altitude readies the station to receive a new cargo craft, the Progress 77, when it docks on Feb. 17 to the Rassvet module.

Related links:

Expedition 64:

Combustion Integrated Rack:

Rassvet module:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

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6 Things to Know About NASA’s Mars Helicopter on Its Way to Mars


NASA - Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover logo.

Jan. 21, 2021

Ingenuity, a technology experiment, is preparing to attempt the first powered, controlled flight on the Red Planet.

Image above: In this illustration, NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet's surface as NASA's Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

When NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, it will be carrying a small but mighty passenger: Ingenuity, the Mars Helicopter.

The helicopter, which weighs about 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) on Earth and has a fuselage about the size of a tissue box, started out six years ago as an implausible prospect. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California knew it was theoretically possible to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere, but no one was sure whether they could build a vehicle powerful enough to fly, communicate, and survive autonomously with the extreme restrictions on its mass.

Then the team had to prove in Earthbound tests that it could fly in a Mars-like environment. Now that they’ve checked off those objectives, the team is preparing to test Ingenuity in the actual environment of Mars.

“Our Mars Helicopter team has been doing things that have never been done before – that no one at the outset could be sure could even be done,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager at JPL “We faced many challenges along the way that could have stopped us in our tracks. We are thrilled that we are now so close to demonstrating – on Mars – what Ingenuity can really do.”

Ingenuity survived the intense vibrations of launch on July 30, 2020, and has passed its health checks as it waits to plunge with Perseverance through the Martian atmosphere. But the helicopter won’t attempt its first flight for more than a month after landing: Engineers for the rover and helicopter need time to make sure both robots are ready.

Here are the key things to know about Ingenuity as the anticipation builds:

1. Ingenuity is an experimental flight test.

The Mars Helicopter is what is known as a technology demonstration – a narrowly focused project that seeks to test a new capability for the first time. Previous groundbreaking technology demonstrations include the first Mars rover, Sojourner, and the Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats that flew by Mars.

The helicopter doesn’t carry science instruments and isn’t part of Perseverance’s science mission. Ingenuity’s objective is an engineering one: to demonstrate rotorcraft flight in Mars’ the extremely thin atmosphere, which has just around 1% of the density of our atmosphere on Earth.

Ingenuity will attempt up to five test flights within a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) demonstration window. Its pioneering aspirations are similar to those of the Wright brothers' Flyer, which achieved the first powered, controlled flight on Earth.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter: Attempting the First Powered Flight on Mars

Video above: NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter will make history's first attempt at powered flight on another planet next spring. It is riding with the agency's next mission to Mars (the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover) as it launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station later this summer. Perseverance, with Ingenuity attached to its belly, will land on Mars February 18, 2021. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

2. Mars won’t make it easy for Ingenuity to attempt the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Because the Mars atmosphere is so thin, Ingenuity is designed to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity’s mass on Earth.

The Red Planet also has beyond bone-chilling temperatures, with nights as cold as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius) at Jezero Crater, the rover and helicopter’s landing site. These temperatures will push the original design limits of the off-the-shelf parts used in Ingenuity. Tests on Earth at the predicted temperatures indicate Ingenuity’s parts should work as designed, but the team is looking forward to the real test on Mars.

“Mars isn’t exactly pulling out the welcome mat,” said Tim Canham, Ingenuity’s operations lead at JPL. “One of the first things Ingenuity has to do when it gets to Mars is just survive its first night.”

3. Ingenuity relies on the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission for safe passage to Mars and for operations on the Red Planet’s surface.

Ingenuity is nestled sideways under the belly of the Perseverance rover with a cover to protect it from debris kicked up during landing. Both the rover and the helicopter are safely ensconced inside a clamshell-like spacecraft entry capsule during the 293-million-mile (471-million-kilometer) journey to Mars. The power system on the Mars 2020 spacecraft periodically charges Ingenuity’s batteries on the way there.

To reach the Martian surface, Ingenuity rides along with Perseverance as it lands. The rover’s entry, descent, and landing system features a supersonic parachute, new “brains” for avoiding hazards autonomously, and components for the sky crane maneuver, which lowers the rover onto Mars from a descent vehicle. Only about 50% of the attempts to land on Mars, by any space agency, have been successful.

Once a suitable site to deploy the helicopter is found, the rover’s Mars Helicopter Delivery System will shed the landing cover, rotate the helicopter to a legs-down configuration, and gently drop Ingenuity on the surface in the first few months after landing. Throughout the helicopter’s commissioning and flight test campaign, the rover will assist with the communications back-and-forth from Earth. The rover team also plans to collect images of Ingenuity.

4. Ingenuity is smart for a small robot.

Delays are an inherent part of communicating with spacecraft across interplanetary distances, which means Ingenuity’s flight controllers at JPL won’t be able to control the helicopter with a joystick. In fact, they won’t be able to look at engineering data or images from each flight until well after the flight takes place.  

So Ingenuity will make some of its own decisions based on parameters set by its engineers on Earth. The helicopter has a kind of programmable thermostat, for instance, that will keep it warm on Mars. During flight, Ingenuity will analyze sensor data and images of the terrain to ensure it stays on the flight path designed by project engineers.  

5. The Ingenuity team counts success one step at a time.

Given Ingenuity’s experimental nature, the team has a long list of milestones the helicopter must reach before it can take off and land in the spring of 2021. The team will celebrate each milestone:

- Surviving the cruise to Mars and landing on the Red Planet
- Safely deploying to the surface from Perseverance’s belly
- Autonomously keeping warm through the intensely cold Martian nights
- Autonomously charging itself with the solar panel atop its rotors
- Successfully communicating to and from the helicopter via a subsystem known as the Mars Helicopter Base Station on the rover

If the first experimental flight test on another planet succeeds, the Ingenuity team will attempt more test flights.

NASA’s Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity (UHD Trailer)

Video above: NASA’s Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity, is set to arrive at the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021. Its mission: to demonstrate the first powered flight on another world. Video Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

6. If Ingenuity succeeds, future Mars exploration could include an ambitious aerial dimension.

Ingenuity is intended to demonstrate technologies and first-of-its-kind operations needed for flying in the Martian atmosphere. If successful, these technologies and the experience with flying a helicopter on another planet could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be part of future robotic and human missions to Mars. Possible uses of a future helicopter on Mars include offering a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground; high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans; and access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach. A future helicopter could even help carry light but vital payloads from one site to another.

More About the Project

JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter technology demonstration for NASA. JPL also manages the Mars 2020 Perseverance project for NASA.

More on Ingenuity can be found in its online press kit:

A landing press kit for Perseverance can be found at:

Related link:

Mars Perseverance Rover:

Image (mentioned), Videos (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius/Alana Johnson/Grey Hautaluoma/JPL/Jia-Rui Cook.


A Hot Spot on Jupiter


NASA - JUNO Mission logo.

Jan. 21, 2021

This composite image shows a hot spot in Jupiter’s atmosphere. In the image on the left, taken on Sept. 16, 2020 by the Gemini North Telescope, the hot spot appears bright in the infrared at a wavelength of 5 microns. The inset image on the right was taken by the JunoCam visible-light imager aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft, also on Sept. 16, during Juno’s 29th close pass by Jupiter. Here, the hot spot appears dark.   

Jupiter’s hot spots have been known for a long time. On Dec. 7, 1995, the Galileo probe likely descended into a similar hot spot. To the naked eye, Jupiter’s hot spots appear as dark, cloud-free areas in the planet’s equatorial belt, but at infrared wavelengths they are extremely bright, revealing the warm, deep atmosphere below the clouds.  

High resolution images of Jupiter’s hot spots such as these are key to understanding the role of storms and waves in Jupiter’s atmosphere and to solving the mystery of Jupiter’s elusive water.

Citizen scientist Brian Swift processed the images to enhance the color and contrast, with further processing by Tom Momary to map the JunoCam image to the Gemini data.

JUNO spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. Animation Credit: NASA

The international Gemini North Telescope is a 26.6 foot (8.1 meter) diameter optical/infrared telescope optimized for infrared observations, and is managed for the NSF by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

JunoCam's raw images are available for the public to peruse and process into image products at More information about NASA citizen science can be found at and

More information about Juno is at and

Gemini image: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley)/JunoCam image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/ Brian Swift © CC BY / Tom Momary © CC BY/Animation (mentioned)/Text, Credits: NASA/Tony Greicius.

Best regards,

So what the heck is StDr 56?


Astronomy logo.

Jan. 21, 2021

Over the years, I've seen a lot of things in the night sky, oh my, yes I have. Galaxies, planets, moons, satellites, balloons, lanterns, rockets, and so much more. Some have baffled me for a moment, but then a deeper look usually solved the case.

It is very rare for me to see something and actually not be sure at all what it is. It is even more rare for such an object to make me literally gasp out loud when I first see it, say Astrophotographer Robert Pölz.

But StDr 56 is precisely such an object. It is profoundly beautiful, every bit as much as it is profoundly bizarre.

Image above: StDr 56, a possible planetary nebula in the constellation of Triangulum. It’s about the same size as the full Moon on the sky. Image Credits: Robert Pölz, Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner.

See? I told you. Absolutely breathtaking.

But... what is it?

The quick version is, I don't know. The slightly more lengthy version is, it's a nebula, and probably a planetary nebula, but I have never seen one like this, and there are some baffling aspects of it I cannot explain.

StDr 56 was discovered by amateur astronomers Marcel Drechsler and Xavier Strottner, who comb through surveys of the sky looking for planetary nebulae (or PNe) — winds of gas that flow from stars like the Sun when they die, blown when the star turns into a red giant. Eventually the outer layers blow away entirely, revealing the core of the star: a hot dense white dwarf. Ultraviolet light from the white dwarf excites the gas, causing it to glow.

undreds of such objects can be found in catalogs. In general they're a few light years across at most. After that, the expanding gas gets too thin for it to efficiently catch the light of the central white dwarf, and the nebula dims. Eventually, generally after a few thousand years, the gas mingles and merges with the gas in interstellar space.

They can take on all manners of shapes; some mundane, like Abell 33, which is a near-perfect soap bubble in space, and some fantastic, like M 2-9, which looks like a pair of squid kissing.

But this? Strottner and Dreschler have found quite a few previously unknown PNe and recorded them in their catalog (called StDr after their names, with the one in question here being number 56), and many of them are odd, but nothing like this.

Drechsler and Strottner named it the Goblet of Fire Nebula. Fair enough.

First of all those long thin filaments are very unusual for a PN. In general, such striping can occur when the gas flows along magnetic field lines. A white dwarf can indeed have a strong magnetic field, but I don't think it could shape the gas structure over the size of a nebula like this. Sometimes gas moves along the Milky Way galaxy's magnetic field lines, so that's a contender. But it's not clear.

In the image, red gas is hydrogen and blue oxygen. Both glow strongly when hit by UV light, so those are pretty common to see in PNe. Also, the oxygen seems to be smaller and inside the structure of the hydrogen. That too is somewhat common in this kind of nebula.

Image above: Close-up of StDr 56 showing two stars (highlighted), either of which might be the nebula’s central star. Image Credits: Robert Pölz, Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner.

Drechsler and Strottner identified two possible white dwarfs, either of which could be the nebula's central star. The brighter of the two is called Gaia DR2 300394067131824768, and is about 1,130 light years from Earth. The other is Gaia DR2 300394964780348288 and is 3,800 light years away.

That info in turn tells us how big the nebula might be. Its apparent size on the sky is about a half a degree, the same size as the full Moon. If the first white dwarf is the central star, then at 1,130 light years away the nebula is about 10 light years across. If it's the other star, the nebula is about 33 light years across.

The latter size is huge, so much so that I think it rules out the nebula being that far away. But even 10 light years is extremely large for such an object... but maybe not too large. If the dying star was a massive one (say, 5 times the Sun's mass) then it would blow a large wind into space.

As it happens, StDr 56 is in the constellation of Triangulum, which is well off the plane of the Milky Way. The flat disk of the galaxy contains a lot of gas and dust, and a nebula trying to expand into that material would slow rapidly, limiting its size. StDr 56 being so far off (30°) means it can expand more freely. So that fits, but the large size has me scratching my head. That's into supernova remnant territory, where it takes an exploding star to get gas out that far. It's weird.

I'll note this object is faint. Astrophotographer Robert Pölz took it in Austria using a 25-centimeter telescope and it's a total of 60 hours of exposure time. I mention this because one way to determine what this object is would be to take spectra of, very carefully measuring the wavelengths of light it emits. It's possible to measure the expansion speed doing that, which could immediately tell us if it were a supernova remnant (which expand rapidly, hundreds or thousands of kilometers per second) or a planetary nebula (which expand in the dozens of km/sec range). The problem is, getting a spectrum takes much longer exposure times than an image, and would take a big telescope.

So. I know professional astronomers read this blog, including many who study objects like this. I am putting this out there if anyone wants to follow up. I would love to see even deeper images with big ‘scopes, and love spectra even more.

Just what is StDr 56? Besides jaw-droppingly gorgeous, I mean. Maybe we can find out.

Many thanks to Marcel Drechsler for helping with info on this amazing object.

Related links:

Gaia DR2 300394067131824768:

Gaia DR2 300394964780348288:

Images (mentioned), Text, Credits: SyFy Wire/Bad Astronomy/Phil Plait.


mercredi 20 janvier 2021

Spacewalk Training, Science Maintenance on Schedule for Wednesday


ISS - Expedition 64 Mission patch.

Jan. 20, 2021

Spacewalk preparations and science maintenance tasks kept the seven-member Expedition 64 crew busy today aboard the International Space Station.

Two NASA astronauts are getting ready for a pair of spacewalks scheduled for Jan. 27 and Feb. 1. Flight Engineers Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover will spend about six and a half hours during both excursions upgrading science hardware and high definition cameras. The duo trained on a computer throughout the day on a variety of spacewalking techniques and procedures.

Image above: Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Kate Rubins is pictured with spacewalk hardware inside the Quest airlock where spacewalks in U.S. spacesuits are staged. Image Credit: NASA.

The orbiting lab is humming everyday with numerous science experiments investigating how microgravity impacts a diverse range of phenomena including biology and physics. The facilities that host and power those space studies are constantly attended to, both remotely from ground specialists and directly from the astronauts.

NASA Flight Engineer Kate Rubins, on her second station mission, worked on life science gear today maintaining ongoing research operations. She first swapped centrifuge components inside the Human Research Facility that evaluates physiological, behavioral, and chemical changes that take place in space. Rubins then spent the afternoon servicing the BioLab automated research device that enables observations of small organisms from microbes to plants.

International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: ESA

JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi installed new combustion hardware in the Multipurpose Small Payload Rack that will help scientists and engineers improve fire safety aboard spacecraft. Shannon Walker of NASA updated a computer that supports external payloads on the station. She then cleaned a device that monitors and measures the small forces the station experiences as it orbits Earth.

The two cosmonauts, Commander Sergey Ryzhikov and Flight Engineer Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, started the day processing their blood samples for a Russian space immunity study. Ryzhikov then replaced smoke detectors and cleaned ventilation filters. Kud-Sverchkov expanded on the immunity research before setting up Earth observation hardware at the end of the day.

Related links:

Expedition 64:

Space Station Research and Technology:

International Space Station (ISS):

Image (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.

Best regards,

Genesis of blue lightning into the stratosphere detected from the International Space Station


ISS - International Space Station logo.

Jan. 20, 2021

Thunderstorm seen from Space Station

Dark clouds, the smell of rain on a hot sidewalk, the flashes of intense light followed by a loud crackling and then a low, rolling thunder – who doesn’t love a good summer thunderstorm? We’ve all seen one, heard one, or been completely soaked by one. But how much do we really know about this weather phenomenon?

As it turns out, there are many things left to discover, such as blue jets, elves and red sprites. These bizarre-sounding things are very difficult to observe from the surface of the Earth. As a new Nature paper reports, however, the European Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM) observatory on the International Space Station is helping scientists find answers.

Storm hunter infographics (Click on the graphic for enlarge)

Looking down on Earth’s weather from the International Space Station 400 km above, ASIM’s enhanced perspective is shedding new light on weather phenomena and their characteristics.

The collection of optical cameras, photometers and an X- and gamma-ray detector was installed on the Space Station in 2018. It is designed to look for electrical discharges originating in stormy weather conditions that extend above thunderstorms into the upper atmosphere.

And now, for the first time for an ESA International Space Station experiment, ASIM’s findings have been published in Nature as front-page article. The paper describes a sighting of five intense blue flashes in a cloud top, one generating a ‘blue jet’ into the stratosphere.

ASIM in action

A blue jet is a form of lightning that shoots upwards from thunderstorm clouds. They can reach as far 50 km into the stratosphere and last less than a second. The space storm-hunter measured a blue jet that was kicked off with and intense five 10-microsecond flash in a cloud near the island of Naru in the Pacific Ocean.

The flash also generated equally fantastic-sounding ‘elves’. Elves are rapidly expanding rings of optical and UV emissions at the bottom of the ionosphere. Here, electrons, radio waves and the atmosphere interact to form these emissions.

Elves seen from space

Capturing these phenomena using ASIM’s highly sensitive tools is vital for scientists researching weather systems on Earth. The observations hold clues to how lightning is initiated in clouds and investigators think these phenomena could even influence the concentration of greenhouse gasses in Earth’s atmosphere, underscoring once more how important it is to find out exactly what’s going on above our heads.

Astrid Orr, ESA's Physical Sciences Coordinator for human and robotic spaceflight says, "This paper is an impressive highlight of the many new phenomena ASIM is observing above thunderstorms and shows that we still have so much to discover and learn about our Universe.

“Congratulations to all the scientists and university teams that made this happen as well as the engineers that built the observatory and the support teams on ground operating ASIM – a true international collaboration that has led to amazing discoveries.”

Related links:

ASIM’s findings have been published in Nature:

Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM):

International Space Station (ISS):

Images, Video, Text, Credits: ESA/NASA/DTU Space, Mount Visual/Daniel Schmelling.


Tests prove carbon-fibre fuel tank for Phoebus upper stage


ESA - Ariane 6 patch.

Jan. 20, 2021

Recent tests show that lightweight carbon-fibre reinforced plastic is strong enough to replace metal used in upper-stage rocket structures. This is an important milestone in Europe for the development of a prototype of a highly-optimised ‘black’ upper stage, Phoebus, a joint initiative by MT Aerospace and ArianeGroup, funded by ESA.


The key goal of the Phoebus project is to increase launch vehicle payload performance by over two tonnes by reducing the mass of the upper stage through new design and lighter materials. At the same time, Phoebus shall also reduce production costs.

Carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) materials, or carbon composites, allow new architectures and combinations of functions otherwise not possible using metallic materials. CFRP is lightweight and dark in appearance and will be used for the cryogenic propellant tanks as well as primary and secondary structures of Phoebus, hence the name ‘black’ upper stage.

Furthermore, their manufacturing process allows for an integrated layout that results in fewer parts compared to a comparable metallic configuration, thereby reducing production and assembly costs.

“The technology challenges include developing the machine capability that allows high-precision placement of the carbon composite materials and identification of the optimal subsequent curing steps to set the composite. The carbon fibre must withstand the extremely low temperatures of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants whilst ensuring no leaks,” explained Kate Underhill, ESA propulsion engineer.

“CFRP material can be chemically very reactive with oxygen, therefore the proper selection of an appropriate material system of fibres and resin is an especially demanding task. Mastering this compatibility is a crucial milestone, which has now been achieved within the Phoebus project.”

Test of carbon-composite oxidiser tank

During experiments by MT Aerospace on a testing site managed by Rheinmetall in Unterlüß, Germany, a subscale CFRP tank was tested with liquid oxygen. During these tests, the tank was filled and drained multiple times, pressurised beyond operational limits and shock tested to ensure no ignition event of the oxygen tank.

The test tank was equipped with a variety of sensors to monitor pressure, temperature, strain or a possible leakage. The analysis of the results and the overall good structural integrity of the liquid oxygen tank prove the technology.

Test of carbon-composite oxidiser tank

Video above: Tests show that lightweight carbon-fibre reinforced plastic is strong enough to replace metal used in upper-stage rocket structures.

This achievement clears the way for further activities and indicates that the Phoebus demonstrator is on track. The next steps are the application of the CFRP material to a leak-tight liquid hydrogen tank design, and finally, a proper upscaling to and ground testing of the near full-scale Phoebus upper stage structural demonstrator in 2023.

These activities are being carried out within the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme of ESA’s Directorate of Space Transportation.

Related links:

Ariane 6:

Space Transportation:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: European Space Agency (ESA).

Best regards,

CASC - Long March-11A and more sea launches for Long March-11


CASC - China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation logo.

Jan. 20, 2021

Long March-11A sea launch test (no payload)

Long March-11 is a solid-propellant launch vehicle developed by China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT).

Long March-11A and more sea launches for Long March-11

According to Li Tongyu, Chief Commander of Long March-11, the new version Long March-11A “will have a diameter of 2.65 metres, with its payload capacity at the low-Earth orbit reaching 1.5 to 2 tons.”

Long March-11 sea launch

Related article:

China’s first sea launch: Long March-11 launches from a ship at sea

For more information about China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), visit:

Images, Video, Text, Credits: CASC/China Central Television (CCTV)/SciNews/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.

Best regards,

SpaceX Starlink 16 launch


SpaceX - Falcon 9 / Starlink Mission patch.

Jan. 20, 2021

SpaceX Starlink 16 launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 60 Starlink satellites (Starlink-16) from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, on 20 January 2021, at 13:02 UTC (08:02 EST).

SpaceX Starlink 16 launch & Falcon 9 first stage landing, 20 January 2021

Following stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage (B1051) landed on the “Just Read the Instructions” droneship, stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. Falcon 9’s first stage previously supported seven other missions: the SXM-7 mission in December 2020, launch of the RADARSAT Constellation Mission in June 2019, launch of Crew Dragon’s first demonstration mission in March 2019, and four Starlink missions.


Image, Video, Text, Credits: SpaceX/SciNews/ Aerospace/Roland Berga.