NASA Launched a Rocket 54 Years Ago. Has It Finally Come Home?

It was after midnight on Sept. 19 and Paul Chodas, the manager of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was working late, studying an object called 2020 SO that other astronomers had spotted in the night skies just the day before. Something about its orbit was peculiar.

The computer program he was working with showed that 2020 SO followed a nearly circular path just slightly outside our planet’s orbit. And the plane of the object’s orbit was just barely tilted relative to Earth’s.

“I was suspicious immediately,” he said.

Out of curiosity, Dr. Chodas ran his simulation in reverse. With time dialing backward, he watched 2020 SO pass very near Earth in September 1966. “Close enough that it could have originated from the Earth,” he said.

At 1:12 a.m., Dr. Chodas acted on his hunch, and sent an email to fellow astronomers with a subject line of “2020 SO = Surveyor 2 Centaur r/b?” In the months that followed, amateur skywatchers and professional astronomers alike have been tracking this specter with their telescopes, following what many believe is a rocket booster that flew toward the moon more than 50 years ago during a failed NASA mission.

On Tuesday, the object, now temporarily orbiting Earth, will make its closest pass. And with more observations, scientists hope to find conclusive evidence that the dot on their monitors really is a ghost of the Cold War moon race.

Hopes were high when Surveyor 2 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sept. 20, 1966. NASA designed the roughly one-ton lunar lander to collect images of the moon in preparation for the Apollo missions. It was following close on the heels of its successful predecessor, Surveyor 1, launched just a few months earlier, which had landed on the moon and returned over 11,000 images.

Surveyor 1 performed flawlessly, said Mike Dinn, then the deputy station director of Australia’s Tidbinbilla Tracking Station, where giant radio antennas communicated with the spacecraft during its journey. “We fully expected Surveyor 2 to be a complete success.”

But it wasn’t — the spacecraft crashed into the moon. Its death knell came roughly 16 hours after launch, when one of the three small engines attached to the spacecraft’s legs failed to fire. The imbalanced thrust sent Surveyor 2 into a spin, and after 38 unsuccessful attempts to revive the engine it became clear that the mission could not be salvaged. Mr. Dinn and his colleagues at Tidbinbilla were the last people to communicate with the spacecraft.

(Five more Surveyor missions followed, and four were successful before NASA switched its focus to human exploration of the moon.)

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Rocket Lab says recovered booster in “good condition,” some parts will re-fly

Rocket Lab successfully launched its “Return to Sender” mission 10 days ago. Then, for the first time, the company attempted to recover the Electron booster’s first stage from the ocean after this launch, and now Rocket Lab has provided a preliminary assessment of the vehicle’s condition.

In summary, the company said in an update on its website, “We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome of our first recovery attempt and the team is thrilled.” The rocket came back in such good condition, the company added, “We will re-qualify and re-fly some components.”

The November 20 flight marked the first time Rocket Lab has fished an Electron out of the Pacific Ocean. The rocket was picked up in the waters off the coast of New Zealand, where the small booster launches from. Founder Peter Beck said the company wanted to assess the health of the first stage—and make necessary modifications to heat-shield and flight software—before going to the final step of catching the Electron rocket midair, with a helicopter.

Although they had conducted a number of tests before this mission, the company’s engineers weren’t entirely sure what they would get back after the Electron rocket experienced temperatures in excess of 2,400°C and speeds of 2.35km/s during its descent.

Video of Electron first-stage separation.

To accommodate this turbulent environment as Electron screamed back through the atmosphere, Rocket Lab added reaction-control-system thrusters to reorient the first stage for re-entry. A parachute system was also added to slow its descent lower in the atmosphere.

So how did the rocket’s heat shield withstand these conditions?

“The stage held up remarkably well,” the company said. “The carbon composite structure was completely intact. As expected, the heat shield on the base of the stage suffered some heat damage during re-entry. It was never designed for this load case, but before we strengthen the heat shield we wanted to see just how much heat it could take unchanged. With a wealth of data on this now, our team has already started working on upgrades for future recovery missions.”

What the news release does not say is how well the rocket’s engine section, with its nine Rutherford engines, fared during re-entry. Neither has the company released photos of the engine section itself. This suggests there is still significant work to be done to protect this area during re-entry.

“Data is great”

However, it seems likely that Rocket Lab will get there. The company’s engineers are now inspecting and analyzing “every inch” of the recovered first stage so that they can refine its recovery systems ahead of the next attempt. This will not take place on Rocket Lab’s next launch—the “Owl’s Night Begins” mission for Synspective, a Japanese Earth-imaging company, due to launch as soon as December 12.

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Share Prices Rocket As The Rare Earth Rush Is Rebooted

From the frozen hills of Greenland to the outback of Australia a rush has restarted for rare earths, a family of metals essential in electric vehicles (EVs) and renewable energy systems.

Sidelined for much of the last 10 months by the Covid-19 pandemic the re-awakening of interest in rare earths has seen leading producers and explorers enjoy sharp share price rises along with forecasts of a doubling in the price of some rare earths.

The investment case for rare earths has traditionally been based on the need to break the near-monopoly control of the industry held by Chinese producers.

That concern remains a factor, especially for European and U.S. car makers who need long-life magnets made from two of the metals, neodymium and praseodymium, in their increasing output of EVs.

But the new price-driving factor is a developing shortage, even from China, caused by confidence in the start next year of strong global economic growth and a lack of investment in exploration and mine development.

A measure of investor interest can be seen in robust investor support this week for a $22 million (A$30 million) capital raising by an Australian company planning to develop a rare earth mine in Greenland

The funds will be used by Greenland Minerals to accelerate work on its Kvanefjeld rare earth project in the south-east of the island which is an autonomous territory of Denmark.

Increasing confidence in the mine development plan of Greenland Minerals has seen the company’s share price double since mid-year.

It’s a similar story at Lynas Corporation, an established Australian producer of rare earths and the biggest supplier of the metals outside China.

Since slumping to mid-March low of 75c (A$1.02) Lynas has risen by more than 250% to $2.65 (A$3.64), partly because it has resolved an impasse with the government of Malaysia over the treatment of rare earth ore and partly because of rapid growth in demand for non-Chinese supplies of the essential metals.

UBS, an investment bank, is confident that demand for EVs will trigger a substantial increase in rare earth prices over the next few years, especially for neodymium and praseodymium (commonly traded as NdPr) which could double from $50/kilogram to $100/kg by 2024.

To meet rare earth demand in EVs, which require about five-times as much rare earth material as vehicles with a combustion engine, an estimate which means the supply for NdPr needs to triple by 2030.

“We do not think the market has created sufficient incentives for supply growth to triple by 2030,” UBS said in a research note on Lynas.

“We estimate that an incentive price for NdPr is approximately $60/kg. Prices have

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NASA begins assembling the rocket for Artemis moon mission

The first booster segment of the Space Launch System (SLS) was stacked on top of the mobile launcher at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this week in preparation for its maiden flight, NASA said Tuesday.

A total of 10 segments will form the twin solid rocket boosters before its first liftoff, which is expected to take place next year.

The rocket is a key part of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, which aims to send the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024. NASA officials also hope the SLS will be used to reach Mars and other “deep space destinations.”

NASA's Artemis I mission is expected to launch in 2021 with two test flights around the Moon without astronauts

Once fully assembled, NASA said the SLS rocket will stand taller than the Statue of Liberty and have about 15% more thrust at liftoff than the Saturn V rockets that powered the Apollo missions about 50 years ago, making it the most powerful rocket ever built.

However, the project has been dogged by delays and cost overruns.
NASA, European Space Agency to collaborate on Artemis Gateway lunar outpost

“Stacking the first piece of the SLS rocket on the mobile launcher marks a major milestone for the Artemis Program,” said Andrew Shroble, an integrated operations flow manager with Jacobs, a company working with NASA on the Artemis program, in a NASA news release.

Eight nations sign NASA's Artemis Accords that guide cooperative exploration of the moon

“It shows the mission is truly taking shape and will soon head to the launch pad.”

NASA’s Artemis I mission is expected to launch in 2021 with two test flights around the moon without astronauts. Artemis II is set to launch in 2023 with astronauts on board in preparation to have Artemis III bring astronauts to the surface of the moon.

Artemis is named after the Greek goddess of the moon and is twin sister of Apollo.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches for record 7th time, Starlink mission

  • A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket delivered 60 Starlink satellites into orbit on Tuesday night, marking the rocket’s seventh successful launch.
  • The launch was also SpaceX’s 16th Starlink mission, its 100th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket, and its 23rd flight in 2020 — the most flights it has ever achieved in one year.
  • SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:13 p.m. on Tuesday. The booster then returned to Earth and landed on the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship.
  • Elon Musk’s space company now has at least 830 Starlink satellites in orbit. It plans to surround the Earth with up to 42,000 satellites beaming down high-speed internet.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

SpaceX successfully launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets on Tuesday night for a record-breaking seventh time, delivering 60 satellites to orbit for its Starlink satellite-internet service.

The launch marked SpaceX’s 100th flight of a Falcon 9 rocket and its 16th Starlink mission. The goal of Starlink is to envelop Earth with a network of 42,000 satellites beaming down high-speed internet.

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, has launched at least 830 working Starlink satellites into orbit. 

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket took off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:13 p.m. on Tuesday.

Around nine minutes later, the Falcon 9 booster’s first stage came back down to Earth, landing on SpaceX’s drone ship called “Of Course I Still Love You,” which was positioned northeast of Cape Canaveral in the Atlantic Ocean.

“For the seventh time, this Falcon has landed,” SpaceX engineer Kate Tice said in the live launch broadcast.

The rocket’s seventh successful landing is the most SpaceX has achieved for any individual Falcon 9 rocket.

The Falcon 9 rocket, which is known for its reusability, previously flew on the Telstar 18 VANTAGE mission in September 2018, the Iridium-8 mission in January 2019, and four Starlink missions across 2019 and 2020.

This mission was the 23rd SpaceX launch of 2020, the most flights the company has carried out in one year. Its previous best was 21 in 2018.

Read more: A Texas superintendent reveals how — and why — he got SpaceX to turn his rural school district into a Starlink satellite-internet laboratory

On October 18, SpaceX kicked off its public beta test for Starlink, called the “Better Than Nothing Beta.” The company began testing the service in the northern US and southern Canada, and plans to launch a full public beta test in North America soon.

Starlink’s website says it wants coverage in the US and Canada by the end of 2020 and “near global coverage of the populated word” by 2021.

A subscription to SpaceX’s Starlink service costs $99 a month, plus an additional $499 for the Starlink Kit, which includes a mounting tripod, a WiFi router, and a terminal to connect to the satellites. 

The

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Rocket Lab on road to reusability after successful booster recovery

Rocket Lab is now confident that its reusability dreams can come true.

The company recovered the first stage of its two-stage Electron rocket for the first time on Thursday (Nov. 19), fishing the booster out of the Pacific Ocean a few hours after it had helped launch a 30-satellite mission aptly called “Return to Sender.”

The stage survived its trip back from space in great shape, helping to validate Rocket Lab’s reusability vision, according to company founder and CEO Peter Beck.

“The test was a complete success,” Beck said during a call with reporters today (Nov. 23). “We’re really confident now that Electron can become a reusable launch vehicle.”

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)

The 58-foot-tall (18 meters) Electron, which gives small satellites dedicated rides to orbit, has been an expendable vehicle since its debut launch in 2017. Last year, however, Beck announced that the company plans to make the first stage reusable, chiefly to boost production and launch rates, although the move will likely lead to significant cost savings as well.

Rocket Lab’s recovery strategy is different than that of SpaceX, which routinely reuses the first stages of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Electron is too small to make vertical, powered touchdowns like the Falcon boosters do, Beck has said; the Rocket Lab vehicle cannot carry enough fuel to have enough left over for landing. So Electron first stages will come back to Earth under parachute and be plucked out of the sky with a helicopter before they hit the water.

Rocket Lab had already made significant progress toward this goal before the launch of “Return to Sender,” the 16th Electron flight. The company had guided boosters back to Earth in a controlled fashion on two previous missions, for example, and it demonstrated the helicopter-snagging technique during a drop test with a dummy first stage this past March.

But “Return to Sender” marked the first time an Electron first stage came home under parachute, and the first time it was recovered after splashdown.

Close-up of the Electron first stage recovered by Rocket Lab on Nov. 19, 2020. (Image credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter)

The recovery, which occurred in the Pacific about 400 miles (650 kilometers) from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch site, was no picnic. The recovery vessel encountered 6.5-foot (2 m) swells at the splashdown site, “so it was a pretty lively event out there,” Beck said. “Ironically, the stage survived in really great condition after coming back from space, but it did take a bit of a beating out at sea.”

And things got really sporty on the way back to shore, when the ship and its crew battled 16.5-foot (5 m) swells.

“Containers that were welded to the steel deck of the ship started breaking, so it was a pretty wild, wild trip,” said Beck, who remained onshore at mission control during the operation.

With the booster now back on dry land, Rocket Lab will methodically inspect its many components and

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Small U.S. launch firm Rocket Lab recovers rocket, in test of reusability

FILE PHOTO: Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck sits alongside a Rutherford rocket engine in Auckland, New Zealand, October 20 2015. REUTERS/Nigel Marple

(Reuters) – Small launch firm Rocket Lab was able to safely recover from the ocean a rocket it sent to space, its chief executive said on Monday, a key test of the company’s strategy to slash rocket launch costs via reusability.

California-based Rocket Lab’s 16th mission to space using its Electron rocket took off last Thursday from the company’s New Zealand launch site, with its four-storey-tall booster stage returning back to Earth under parachutes for the first time instead of burning up in the atmosphere.

The recovery test comes as other launch companies ramp up investments into reusable systems after the industry was jolted by successes from the reusable Falcon 9 rocket of Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

“What it really proved to us is that, yep, this is a feasible approach, and we’re really confident that we can make Electron a reusable launch vehicle from here,” Rocket Lab’s chief executive, Peter Beck, told reporters on Monday. “It was always a little bit of an unknown until you actually get it back.”

With its next reusability test planned for early next year, Rocket Lab’s eventual plan is to pluck the rocket booster mid-air using a helicopter as it floats down from space. SpaceX’s Falcon 9, on the other hand, returns from space by using its rocket engines to land on platforms.

“If we can get the reusability to the point where it is a really light touch between flights, then of course the economics change,” Beck said, adding that the majority of Electron’s cost comes from its first stage.

Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Matthew Lewis

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SpaceX rocket deploys latest NASA satellite into orbit after Santa Barbara County launch

Hawthorne-based SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket Saturday morning, Nov. 21, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County. The craft promptly deployed NASA’s Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite into orbit and doubled back to return its reusable main components to Earth.

On an unexpectedly clear morning, many residents in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties got a good view of the airshow and could hear a series of sonic booms following liftoff.

Farther south in Los Angeles County, residents might have caught a glimpse of the rocket’s smoky trail as it powered the satellite into orbit, then reversed course and returned to Vandenberg for recovery and use in future missions.

The launch was scheduled for 9:17 a.m., and SpaceX tweeted a video showing the successful liftoff at 9:19 a.m.

At 9:28 a.m., the company tweeted that “Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on Landing Zone 4,” and deployment of Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich was confirmed at 10:18 a.m.

The rocket cut loose the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite, which joins a nearly 30-year project to measure global sea-surface height, while also providing atmospheric data that, officials say, will improve weather forecasts, climate modeling and hurricane tracking.

That satellite’s twin, dubbed Sentinel 6B, will join the mission in 2025.

The namesake of Saturday’s satellite was NASA’s former Earth Science Division director. Freilich died in August, about seven months after NASA announced the satellite would bear his name. He was 66.

“Mike’s excellence as a scientist is well known,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a written statement after Freilich died. “His dedication to oceanography and helping train the next generation of scientific leaders was inspiring.

 

“This satellite,” Bridenstine added about the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, “will gather critical information about the oceans for which Mike had such an abiding passion.”

Three science instruments aboard the satellite were built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena — the Advanced Microwave Radiometer, the Global Navigation Satellite System-Radio Occultation and the Laser Retroreflector Array.

The ocean-monitoring program was developed by the European Space Agency in conjunction with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

 

The launch was the second triumph in a week’s time for the South Bay rocketbuilder.

The company’s Crew Dragon capsule docked at the International Space Station on Monday, Nov. 16, to engage in a history-making six-month science mission by its four-person crew, which includes Pomona native Victor Glover.

The Dragon capsule’s docking concluded a 27-hour, completely automated flight from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The Space Station will be home and workplace for the four-astronaut crew until spring.

Among the capsule crew is Navy Cmdr. Glover, 44, the first Black astronaut to serve on an extended Space Station Mission. Glover, a Navy commander, aviator and test pilot, is taking his first spaceflight as a Crew Dragon First Mission astronaut. He was presented his gold astronaut

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A solar-powered rocket might be our ticket to interstellar space

A solar-powered rocket might be our ticket to interstellar space

If Jason Benkoski is right, the path to interstellar space begins in a shipping container tucked behind a laboratory high bay in Maryland. The setup looks like something out of a low-budget sci-fi film: one wall of the container is lined with thousands of LEDs, an inscrutable metal trellis runs down the center, and a thick black curtain partially obscures the apparatus. This is the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory solar simulator, a tool that can shine with the intensity of 20 Suns. On Thursday afternoon, Benkoski mounted a small black-and-white tile onto the trellis and pulled a dark curtain around the setup before stepping out of the shipping container. Then he hit the light switch.

Once the solar simulator was blistering hot, Benkoski started pumping liquid helium through a small embedded tube that snaked across the slab. The helium absorbed heat from the LEDs as it wound through the channel and expanded until it was finally released through a small nozzle. It might not sound like much, but Benkoski and his team just demonstrated solar thermal propulsion, a previously theoretical type of rocket engine that is powered by the Sun’s heat. They think it could be the key to interstellar exploration.

“It’s really easy for someone to dismiss the idea and say, ‘On the back of an envelope, it looks great, but if you actually build it, you’re never going to get those theoretical numbers,’” says Benkoski, a materials scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory and the leader of the team working on a solar thermal propulsion system. “What this is showing is that solar thermal propulsion is not just a fantasy. It could actually work.”

Only two spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, have left our Solar System. But that was a scientific bonus after they completed their main mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Neither spacecraft was equipped with the right instruments to study the boundary between our star’s planetary fiefdom and the rest of the universe. Plus, the Voyager twins are slow. Plodding along at 30,000 miles per hour, it took them nearly a half-century to escape the Sun’s influence.

But the data they have sent back from the edge is tantalizing. It showed that much of what physicists had predicted about the environment at the edge of the Solar System was wrong. Unsurprisingly, a large group of astrophysicists, cosmologists, and planetary scientists are clamoring for a dedicated interstellar probe to explore this new frontier.

In 2019, NASA tapped the Applied Physics Laboratory to study concepts for a dedicated interstellar mission. At the end of next year, the team will submit its research to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Heliophysics decadal survey, which determines Sun-related science priorities for the next 10 years. APL researchers working on the Interstellar Probe program are studying all aspects of the mission, from cost estimates to instrumentation. But simply figuring out how to get to interstellar space in any reasonable amount of time is by far

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Rocket Lab’s next launch will deliver 30 satellites to orbit

Rocket Lab’s next mission will put dozens of satellites into orbit using the launch company’s Kick Stage “space tug,” as well as a 3D-printed garden gnome from Valve Software’s Gabe Newell. The latter is a test of a new manufacturing technique, but also a philanthropic endeavor from the gaming industry legend.

Scheduled for no earlier than November 15 (or 16 at the New Zealand launch site), the as-yet-unnamed launch — Rocket Lab gives all of their missions cheeky names — will be the company’s “most diverse ever,” it said in a press release.

A total of 30 satellites will be deployed using Rocket Lab’s own Kick Stage deployment platform, which like other “space tugs” detaches from the second stage once a certain preliminary orbit is reached and then delivers its payloads each at their own unique trajectory. That’s the most individual satellites every taken up at once by Rocket Lab.

24 of them are Swarm Technologies’ tiny SpaceBEEs, the sandwich-sized communications satellites it will be using to power a low-cost, low-bandwidth global network for Internet of Things devices.

The most unusual payload, however, is certainly “Gnome Chompski,” whose passage was paid by Valve president Newell: a 3D-printed figure that will remain attached to the Kick Stage until it burns up on reentry. The figure, a replica of an item from the popular Half-Life series of PC games, was made by Weta Workshop, the effects studio behind Lord of the Rings and many other films. It’s both a test of a potentially useful new component printing technique and “an homage to the innovation and creativity of gamers worldwide.”

More importantly, Newell will donate a dollar to Starship Children’s Hospital for every viewer of the launch, so you’ll definitely want to tune in for this one. (I’m waiting to find out more from Newell, if possible.)

The launch will also deliver satellites for TriSept, Unseenlabs, and the Auckland Space Institute — the last will be New Zealand’s first student-built spacecraft.

Rocket Lab has worked hard to make its launch platform all-in-one, so prospective customers don’t have to shop around for various services or components. Ideally, the company’s CEO has said, anyone should be able to come to the company with the barebones payload and the rest is taken care of.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

“Small satellite operators shouldn’t have to compromise on orbits when flying on a rideshare mission, and we’re excited to provide tailored access to space for 30 satellites on this mission. It’s why we created the Kick Stage to enable custom orbits on every mission, and eliminate the added complexity, time, and cost of having to develop your own spacecraft propulsion or using a third-party space tug,” Beck said in the press release.

Rocket Lab recently launched its own home-grown satellite, First Light, to show that getting to orbit doesn’t have be such a “pain in the butt,” as Beck put it then.

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