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NASA-funded cubesats are launched by Firefly Aerospace

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On a NASA-funded mission, Firefly Aerospace launched eight cubesats into orbit, marking the company’s maiden flight of an Alpha rocket following an upper stage malfunction more than six months prior.

On July 4, at 12:04 a.m. Eastern, the Alpha rocket took off from a misty Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. A ground equipment malfunction stopped the countdown moments before the rocket’s first stage engines ignited, forcing the cancellation of the planned launch on July 2.

A timetable released by Firefly indicated that the rocket began deploying its cargo of eight cubesats approximately 35 minutes after the upper stage shut down. The operation was estimated to take approximately 11 minutes. Firefly did not reveal the precise target orbit for the mission prior to launch, although it was a low Earth orbit.

Three hours after liftoff, the agency announced on social media, “After expected deployment, @NASA’s CubeSat teams are now awaiting acquisition of signal.” However, during the first few hours following launch, neither NASA nor the payload owners provided an update on the condition of their cubesats. Seven of the eight cubesats were confirmed to have been deployed during the launch webcast.

Four university-developed satellites were carried on the mission, which NASA named Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa 43): CatSat from the University of Arizona, KUbeSat-1 from the University of Kansas, MESAT-1 from the University of Maine, and SOC-I from the University of Washington. The TechEdSat-11 cubesat was constructed by the Ames Research Center, while the R5-S4 and R5-S2-2.0 satellites were supplied by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Teachers In Space is a charity organization that provided the eighth cubesat, named Serenity.

In order to support future small launch vehicles, NASA contracted Firefly for the launch through the Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) Demo 2 program. 2020 saw the contract for VCLS Demo 2 awarded to Firefly, Astra Space, and Relativity Space. Astra’s VCLS launch in February 2022 was unsuccessful due to a malfunctioning upper stage on its Rocket 3.3. For its VCLS mission, Relativity intended to deploy its Terran 1 rocket; however, the corporation declared in April 2023 that it was retiring the vehicle following a single launch attempt that was unsuccessful in reaching orbit in order to concentrate on its larger Terran R vehicle.

This was the first Alpha launch overall and the first since December 2023, when an upper stage malfunction during a second fire left the payload—a Lockheed Martin technology demonstration satellite—stranded in a low orbit. Subsequently, the business attributed the occurrence to a technological glitch. After the cubesats were deployed, Firefly reported that it had successfully accomplished a “nominal plane change” and a second stage relight on this mission.

Following the launch, Firefly Aerospace CEO Bill Weber said in a statement, “The Firefly team knocked it out of the park.”

The next Firefly launch date has not yet been disclosed, but prior to this one, Firefly stated that it intended to conduct up to four Alpha launches this year and up to six in 2025. Lockheed Martin, which stated on June 5 that it had signed a contract with Firefly for at least 15 and up to 25 Alpha launches through 2029, is expected to be the next launch customer.

Lockheed will launch a “dedicated commercial mission” on the next Alpha, Firefly confirmed in its post-launch statement. Later in the year, Firefly’s Elytra tug will be used for a responsive space demonstration mission for the National Reconnaissance Office on another Alpha.

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NASA Releases a New Study by Sunita Williams While the Boeing Starliner Remains in Orbit

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The two astronauts who were sent as part of Boeing’s Crew Flight Test were Sunita “Suni” Williams and Butch Wilmore.

For more than a month now, Boeing’s Starliner has been trapped in orbit. The spacecraft was originally scheduled for a 10-day mission when it launched on June 5. But when it docked at the International Space Station the following day, it ran into unanticipated problems with its thrusters. The astronauts are conducting research while in orbit as they continue to work on a solution.

NASA releases research on space plants by Sunita Williams

As part of Boeing’s Crew Flight Test, two astronauts were deployed: Sunita “Suni” Williams and Butch Wilmore. According to a NASA statement, the two, with plenty of free time on their hands, conducted research on space plants and free-flying robots on Wednesday. According to the US space agency, Wilmore and Williams are “exploring ways to effectively water plants in the weightless environment.”

The announcement also stated that “The duo took turns throughout the day in the Harmony module, testing how root models and plants of various sizes would absorb water in microgravity . The Plant Water Management study looks at techniques such as hydroponics and air circulation to nourish plants growing aboard spacecraft and space habitats.”

NASA noted in an earlier statement that the two astronauts’ primary focus was testing various techniques for watering plants grown in the weightless microgravity environment without soil. According to the statement, “Williams first set up the Plant Water Management hardware in the Harmony module then tested a variety of liquid flow methods while video recording the results,”

It continues, “Following her work, Wilmore ran more tests using hydroponics and air circulation techniques to learn how to effectively nourish a variety of plants on spacecraft and space habitats.” In the meantime, the agency stated that the two “started their day servicing a variety of research hardware” in the release on Thursday.

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New Era of Space Storm Warnings Could Protect Earth’s Technological Infrastructure

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Our understanding of the precise moment when a strong solar eruption may strike Earth has advanced to the point where space storms may soon be foretold with ever-greater accuracy.

Even before a coronal mass ejection (CME) has completely erupted from the sun, scientists claim that they are now able to forecast the exact speed at which a CME is traveling and the exact moment at which it will destroy our planet.

CMEs are outbursts from the solar atmosphere that consist of gas and magnetic fields.

Space weather forecasts are being improved by specialists worldwide because they can trigger geomagnetic storms that could cause major disruptions to terrestrial technology both on Earth’s surface and in its orbit.

Researchers from Aberystwyth University, who will present their findings today at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2024) in Hull, believe that advancements like this one could make a significant difference in helping to protect infrastructure that is essential to our daily lives.

After examining particular solar regions known as “active regions,” which have powerful magnetic fields and are the birthplace of CMEs, scientists discovered their discovery. The areas’ changes prior to, during, and following an eruption were observed by the researchers.

The “critical height” of the active regions—the altitude at which the magnetic field becomes unstable and potentially triggers a CME—was a crucial factor they examined.

Lead researcher Harshita Gandhi, a solar physicist at Aberystwyth University, said, “We can determine this critical height by measuring how the strength of the magnetic field decreases with height.”

“This data can then be used along with a geometric model, which is used to track the true speed of CMEs in three dimensions rather than just two, which is essential for precise predictions.”

“Our findings reveal a strong relationship between the critical height at CME onset and the true CME speed.” she continued.

“This insight allows us to predict the CME’s speed and, consequently, its arrival time on Earth, even before the CME has fully erupted.”

These CMEs have the ability to cause a geomagnetic storm that can result in breathtaking aurorae, often known as the Northern Lights in the northern hemisphere, when they strike the Earth.

However, the storms also pose a threat to critical infrastructure that we depend on on a daily basis, such as communication networks, power grids, and satellites. For this reason, scientists from all over the world are putting a lot of effort into enhancing our capacity to forecast the exact time when CMEs will strike Earth.

In order to more accurately predict when the CME will strike our planet, it is necessary to know its speed quickly after it bursts from the solar.

Precise velocity forecasts allow for a more accurate estimation of the arrival time of a CME on Earth, hence offering vital early warnings.

“Understanding and using the critical height in our forecasts improves our ability to warn about incoming CMEs, helping to protect the technology that our modern lives depend on,” Gandhi stated.

“Our research not only enhances our understanding of the sun’s explosive behavior but also significantly improves our ability to forecast space weather events.”

“This means better preparation and protection for the technological systems we rely on every day.”

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NASA Terminates the VIPER Lunar Rover

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Citing development delays and expense overruns, NASA has canceled a robotic lunar rover project that was intended to explore for ice at the moon’s south pole.

On July 17, NASA declared that the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rove (VIPER) mission would no longer be developed. In order to gain a better understanding of the amount and type of water ice present on the moon, the rover—which was scheduled to be launched atop a commercial lander named Griffin from Astrobotic Technology—would have investigated terrain that included areas that were constantly shadowed.

Agency representatives stated at a briefing to announce the cancellation that VIPER expenses had increased by over 30%, prompting an agency review of the termination. In 2021, NASA confirmed VIPER, spending $433.5 million in the process. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Joel Kearns, deputy associate administrator for exploration, stated that the most recent estimate was $609.6 million, with a launch anticipated in September 2025.

NASA associate administrator for science Nicky Fox stated, “In this case, the projected remaining expenses for VIPER would have resulted in either having to cancel or disrupt many other missions in our Commercial Lunar Payload Services line.” “Therefore, we have made the decision to forgo this particular mission.”

According to Kearns, VIPER experienced a number of supply chain problems that caused deliveries of important, unidentified components that date back to the pandemic to be delayed. He claimed that “the delays occurred over and over for several key components,” adding that it was more difficult for the mission to plan around a series of little delays than a single, significant one.

This made the rover’s construction more difficult. According to him, it is around the size of a compact automobile and is constructed from the inside out. “Many of the components that were delayed were actually in the inner section of VIPER, so as the components were delayed, it started forcing the VIPER team to delay the assembly and delay the integration and initial testing.”

Despite being finished, the rover is only now beginning its environmental tests. The updated budget and timeline, according to Kearns, were predicated on VIPER passing the environmental testing with flying colors. “I will tell you that in general, spacecraft development system-level environmental testing does uncover problems that do need to be corrected, which would take more time and money.”

NASA will save at least $84 million if VIPER is canceled now. If the launch of VIPER were to be delayed past November 2025, he said, it would mean having to wait nine to twelve months for the proper lighting conditions to return to the landing spot in the polar zone.

Kearns and Fox state that other missions, such orbiters and landers, will accomplish a significant amount of the science that VIPER would have undertaken.However, until NASA’s Lunar Terrain Vehicle—a rover for crewed Artemis missions that can also be teleoperated—is deployed later this decade, the mobility that VIPER would have offered might not be available.

In order to use its instruments and other parts, NASA intends to deconstruct VIPER. But first, NASA will take into account offers from domestic businesses and foreign allies to independently fly VIPER at no expense to the federal government. NASA must receive proposals by August 1.

Griffin’s mission should be revised

Aside from its own development issues, VIPER also had to contend with delays from Griffin, the lander built by Astrobotic that was supposed to send the rover to the moon as part of a $322 million CLPS task order. Griffin is currently anticipated to be prepared for the trip, according to NASA, no earlier than September 2025.

NASA will keep the Griffin task order even with the cancellation of VIPER. Rather than using a rover, the mission will instead serve as a technological demonstrator, testing Griffin’s capacity to land heavy payloads by using a mass simulator.

According to Kearns, NASA thought about transporting science payloads instead, but the lander was made to carry a rover, therefore it lacked the accommodations and capabilities needed for payloads, including electricity and communications.

Regarding possible adjustments to accommodate payloads, he stated, “We believe that if we were to ask Astrobotic to make changes like that, it would further delay their schedule.”“It would lead to more cost for the government. It would lead to a delay of the demonstration of a successful south pole 
landing by the large Griffin lander, which we are very interested in seeing.”

It will also be open to Astrobotic to launch their own commercial payloads. In an interview, Astrobotic CEO John Thornton stated that the business is thinking of testing its LunaGrid power generation service on Griffin. “We do want to fly quickly, but we also want to make a mission that is more impactful than just the lander itself.”

He stated that even without VIPER, Griffin will still land in the moon’s south polar area, albeit possibly not at the location NASA chose for VIPER. It will rely on any additional payloads it agrees to carry with the lander; in order to lower mission risk, it may choose to land at a safer location.

Although they could not provide further details, Kearns and Thornton both stated that the agency only recently notified the corporation of the decision. According to an industry insider, NASA notified Astrobotic of the decision only one day prior to its official announcement.

He made reference to the January launch of Astrobotic’s first lunar lander, Peregrine, which was unable to attempt a lunar landing due to a fuel leak. “This has been certainly a year of tumult and challenge for Astrobotic as a company,” he added. “certainly another punch to the gut here, but we’ll roll with it.” the VIPER cancellation said.

Kearns noted the work NASA sponsored for the business to conduct further propulsion system tests and stated that NASA thought Griffin would be able to land safely on the moon with or without VIPER on board. “We do have confidence in them to go out and attempt this landing, or we wouldn’t be continuing to work with them.”

“I’m an eternal optimist. You kind of have to be in the space industry,” Thornton added. “I’m excited about what we can turn this into.”NASA terminates the lunar rover VIPER

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