Space News for April 2018.

There have been several news items over the past month dealing with space exploration so let’s right get to it. I’ll start with the new kid on the block Rocket Lab.

I first mentioned Rocket Lab in my post of 10Feb18 when I discussed the second successful test launch of their Electron rocket. With two successes under their belt Rocket Lab is already planning their first actual paying launch placing two small satellites into orbit that are owned by Spire Global and GeoOptics. The mission is scheduled to take off on April 19th.

Now the Electron is a small rocket, see image below, with a total payload to orbit of only 150-250kg but Rocket Lab is aiming to grab a share of the growing market in miniaturized satellites. Presently small satellites may have to wait months or even years in order to ride up piggyback with some big satellite on an Atlas or Falcon rocket. Rocket Lab plans on using a quick turnaround launch schedule as a part of the company’s sales pitch to bring in business.

Rocket Lab’s Second Successful Launch of their Electron Rocket (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab launches their Electron rocket from their own launch pads in New Zealand into polar orbits at a cost of only about $5 million USD. If this third launch is successful Rocket Lab’s fourth mission, carrying 10 miniature satellites for NASA, could come in the next few months.

Also in my February post I mentioned that the Russian space agency was making plans to attach a new module to the International Space Station (ISS) as a luxury hotel in space. Well the idea of a space hotel is picking up steam as a company called Orion Span has announced plans for its own space hotel hopefully as early as late 2021.

The station/orbiting hotel concept is called Aurora and the planned cost of a twelve-day stay is ‘only’ $9.5 million USD. The initial Aurora will accommodate four paying guests along with two astronaut crewmembers in a pressurized chamber of 160 cubic meters volume. The images below show what the Aurora will look like inside and outside.

Proposed Aurora Space Hotel (Credit: Sia Magazine)
Aurora Outside (Credit:

Just how customers will get to the Aurora hasn’t been finalized yet but Orion Span will soon have a choice of companies capable of providing the ride. Space X, Boeing and Blue Origin are all planning to launch a crewed space capsule either this year or next and the possibility of using these commercial, manned space vehicles to maintain a space hotel has often been discussed.

In time Orion Span intends to add additional units to Aurora and one day hopes to even sell permanent space on Aurora as a kind of orbiting condo. The image below shows what Aurora could one day look like.

Aurora Final Configuration (Credit: You Tube)

If you’d like to learn more about Orion Span’s plans for their Aurora space hotel click on the link below to be taken to their site.

Speaking of Boeing’s Starliner manned space capsule; the first, unmanned launch is now only months away with the second manned mission is less than a year. And now there’s a possibility that NASA might want Boeing to add a third astronaut to the second mission and turn the second test flight into a full mission to the ISS.

You see NASA has only scheduled to fly astronauts to the ISS on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft through the end of next year so the space agency has to get its commercial space program up and running before then. The timing is tight, especially because both Boeing and Space X have seen several delays in their original schedule. The deal isn’t done yet; NASA still has to perform a technical evaluation of switching from a test flight with a visit to the ISS to a full six month mission. The image below is an artist’s representation of the Boeing Starliner docking at the ISS, something we’ll hopefully see for real in less than a year.

Boeing Starliner docking at the ISS (Credit: Youtube)

Finally before I go, did you see it? Did you see China’s Tiangong-1 space station as it fell back to Earth? Well either did anyone else. After all of the hysteria by the chicken littles out there the Tiangong-1 ended up falling harmlessly into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and apparently nobody even got to see anything. In fact in all of the history of space exploration on one has even been harmed by debris falling from space and very few people have ever even seen anything fall from space! Only goes to show just how big our planet really is!





Tiangong-1 is falling, Tiangong-1 is falling, but don’t worry, it won’t hit you on the head.

Over the last several weeks it’s been next to impossible to avoid all of the news stories telling you about how China’s first space station the Tiangong-1 is out of control and will come crashing back to Earth any day now. The headlines grab you by announcing the crash is bold letters while the small print inside reveals that there’s a one in ten billion, or less, chance that anything will actually hit you.

The Tiangong-1 station, Tiangong means ‘Heavenly Palace’ in Chinese, was launched by China in 2011 as both a target for practicing rendezvous maneuvers in space as well as some extra living space for the crews of their Shenzhou manned spacecraft. The design of the Tiangong-1 station is based upon the design of the Shenzhou but with a slightly larger habitable section giving it a slightly greater mass (8500kg versus 7840kg for the Shenzhou). The image below compares the Tiangong and Shenzhou.

Tiangong-1 space station and the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft. (Credit: The Daily Mirror)

Like the United States’ Skylab and Russia’s Salyut early space stations the Tiangong-1 was launched into space unmanned and in one piece and then visited several times by manned spacecraft. The Shenzhou-9 mission rendezvoused with the Tiangong-1 in June of 2012 with a crew of three and stayed for ten days while the Shenzhou-10 mission, also with a crew of three, visited the Tiangong in June of 2013.

In both of these missions China’s growing space program demonstrated the ability to carryout the routine operations necessary for more complicated space missions in the future whether that be building a modular space station or even missions to deep space. The image below shows the launch of the Shenzhou-9 mission on its Long March 2F rocket.

Launch of Shenzhou-9 on a Long March 2F rocket (Credit: CCTV)

After the two successful missions to Tiangong-1 China launched the Tiangong-2 station as a replacement for Tiangong-1 and the first station was then placed into a sleep mode. The plan was to maintain Tiangong-1 in orbit as a test platform for the longevity of both components and systems in a space environment before the station was brought back to Earth in a controlled reentry into an ocean.

Apparently that test didn’t go so well because on 21Mar2016 China’s Space Engineering Office announced that they had lost their radio telemetry link with the station. Amateur satellite watchers soon confirmed that the Tiangong station was tumbling out of control. Notice how China never actually admitted that the station was out of control.

It wasn’t long before scientists were calculating that the Tiangong-1 would be making an uncontrolled reentry back to Earth sometime in either March or April of 2018. That estimate has since been fine-tuned down to between 29Mar and 9April of this year.

So here we are, all of the news stories loudly telling us that Tiangong-1 is falling out of control, is there any real danger? Well first of all let me tell you that most of the station will burn up during reentry, only a few hundred kilograms of material are expected to survive to reach the ground. Also remember that the Earth’s surface is 70% ocean so Tiangong will probably sink without a trace.

Then, even if Tiangong does hit dry land there are literally millions of square kilometers of emptiness out there so the odds of anyone being hurt are less than ten billion to one. In fact when the much larger and heavier US Skylab station also fell to Earth in an uncontrolled reentry back in 1979 pieces of it fell near the city of Perth Australia but no one was injured in any way. A few people did get some really neat pieces of space debris however as souvenirs.

Finally, the orbit of Tiangong is tilted at an angle of 42.8º to the equator. That means that Tiangong never goes further north than 42.8º of Latitude nor further south than 42.8º. If you live outside of that band you have absolutely nothing to fear.  See the image below to know if you should be worried. I live in Philadelphia at a latitude of 40º  but I ain’t gonna fret!

Tiangong-1 will fall somewhere between 40N and 40S (between the Lines) (Credit: Mail Online)