This Week In Spaceflight: Vulcan fires up, Canadian fires from space, and JWST deep field data


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Jun 09, 2023

This Week In Spaceflight: Vulcan fires up, Canadian fires from space, and JWST deep field data

A variety of methalox rockets are approaching launch, with the United Launch

A variety of methalox rockets are approaching launch, with the United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Vulcan rocket completing its flight readiness firing. What's more, the wildfires currently raging in Canada have been studied from space using a plethora of weather observation satellites, and the James Webb Space Telescope's (JWST) advanced extragalactic survey data was officially released.

SpaceX also added two more Falcon 9 missions to their yearly tally this week and a Chinese semi-private launch company launched some very secretive payloads into orbit.

Methalox Rockets March Toward Launch

Three methalox rockets are marching toward their upcoming launches: ULA's Vulcan, Landspace's ZhuQue-2, and SpaceX's Starship.

Vulcan finally performed its Flight Readiness Firing this week after several delays due to issues with the engine igniters. With a fix in place, ULA rolled the rocket out to the pad on June 6 and proceeded to test the igniters before loading propellant onto the vehicle – thus ensuring the new igniters worked ahead of the start of the countdown.

Another milestone Vulcan achieved ahead of its static fire was a recycle test. During a recycle test, the clock counts down to a simulated T0 and is then held seconds before engine ignition. A simulated abort is called and then the count moves back to the "T-7 minutes and holding" mark on Vulcan's countdown.

After a three-hour delay due to weather, ULA finally resumed the count and went ahead with the firing of Vulcan's two BE-4 engines on June 8 at 9:05 PM EDT (01:05 UTC on June 9). ULA later confirmed on Twitter that the test ran for the expected duration and that the company would now begin preparations for Vulcan's first flight. Preparing Vulcan for flight will see the completion of the investigation into a Centaur V test stand anomaly that occurred earlier this year.

ULA will likely release more information closer to the test flight as Astrobotic's Peregrine lander is shipped to Florida for integration with Vulcan and other pre-launch activities take place.

On the other side of the world in China, LandSpace's ZhuQue-2 (ZQ-2) rocket has been rolled out to the pad for a launch that is expected to occur in just a few days.

It appears that Landspace has rolled ZhuQue-2 out to the launch pad ahead of the vehicle's second orbital launch attempt from Jiuquan later this month.

— Harry Stranger (@Harry__Stranger) June 8, 2023

This would be ZQ-2's second attempt to reach space with its first flight ending in failure last December. On its first flight, a failure on the second stage vernier engines caused the rocket to not reach the velocity needed to attain orbit. LandSpace claims it has solved this issue, and if so, ZQ-2 will win the "race" to be the first methalox rocket to orbit if this second flight succeeds.

At Starbase, new road closures have been scheduled for next week as seen on Cameron County's website. These are believed to be for static fire testing of Ship 25 ahead of the next launch of SpaceX's Starship rocket.

Closures scheduled for next week at Starbase (Credit: Cameron County)

For this launch, Booster 9 will be used and have to be tested in the following weeks and months. However, this testing will only be able to occur once all repair and upgrade work on the orbital launch mount has been completed.

Rocket Factory Augsburg Completes Full Duration Firing of Helix Engine

German aerospace company Rocket Factory Augsburg has completed a full-duration firing of their Helix engine.

The test was conducted at the company's test site at the Esrange Space Center in Sweden and ran for 280 seconds. The Helix engine is the first privately-developed staged combustion cycle engine in Europe and will power the company's RFA One rocket. This rocket will sport nine Helix engines on the first stage and one single vacuum-optimized Helix engine on the upper stage.

For this test, the Helix engine was also attached to a prototype RFA One second stage tank and systems, which also validated the rocket's upper-stage performance in what the company calls an "integrated system test".

This puts RFA just one step closer to launching Europe's first privately-developed rocket into space and into orbit — but only if it can beat the rest. RFA is not alone in this race, there are at least two more major European private companies working on orbital rockets: PLD Space from Spain and Isar Aerospace from Germany.

Canada Fires and Their Impacts as Seen from Space

Canada's raging wildfires are burning thousands of hectares of land and their effects are being studied not only from the ground but also from space.

Picture from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA's Aqua satellite from the fires in Quebec as seen on June 3 (Credit: NASA)

While ground pictures from cities like New York City have been in the news throughout the world this past week, the scope and damage of these fires can be seen even more broadly from space. Multiple satellites from different agencies and companies have been retasked in the last few weeks to study these fires to better help combat them and learn from them.

While these fires are expected to occur around this time of year, they have already expanded to over 160,000 hectares of land. During an average year, only about 247 hectares are burned.

New York City under the cloud of smoke from Canada's fires as seen from the USS Intrepid (Credit: Elysia Segal)

These images from space all show how, over the span of just a few days, the smoke from these fires has accumulated and drifted south into the northeastern regions of the United States. The smoke has already covered hundreds of kilometers of land and has raised the levels of fine particulate matter in the air to record-breaking numbers.

Planet released two images this week comparing the presence of smoke in New York City before and after the fires as seen from space. These images, as well as other images and data captured from space, are helping scientists understand how particulates in the atmosphere travel over long distances.

Different layers of air move in different directions and thus, depending on their size, some particles may be in one layer or another up in the atmosphere. This means that different parts of the atmosphere can have different amounts of smoke depending on the location – which is important for authorities responsible for predicting hazardous health conditions in certain areas.

New York City, covered in haze, due to the ongoing wildfires in Canada.

📸 (1): PlanetScope • New York City, USA • June 1, 2023📸 (2): PlanetScope • New York City, USA • June 7, 2023

— Planet (@planet) June 8, 2023

These observations are another example of the importance of studying Earth from space. Gathering scientific data on the expanse and effects of natural events around the globe allows scientists to predict their effects and thus protect people against disasters like the Canadian wildfires.

Firefly Aerospace Acquires Spaceflight Inc.

Firefly Aerospace has acquired Spaceflight Inc., a move that rearranges the company's vision of its future.

Spaceflight Inc.'s operations until now have consisted of arranging flights for small satellite operators, integrating their payloads on different rockets, and deploying them from those rockets once in orbit. The company also developed the SHERPA satellite dispenser which later evolved into an orbital tug that could power and place customer payloads into a more precise final orbit.

Big news today! Firefly is acquiring Spaceflight Inc. to further grow our on-orbit capabilities and service the entire lifecycle of our customers’ payloads. Learn more about the acquisition here:

— Firefly Aerospace (@Firefly_Space) June 8, 2023

Firefly claims that this acquisition will allow the company to combine Spaceflight Inc.'s capabilities with its launch services for a full end-to-end service for customers. These capabilities will also be added on top of the development of Firefly's Medium Launch Vehicle, Space Utility Vehicle, and Blue Ghost lunar lander.

Under new ownership, Spaceflight Inc. says it will carry out all of its remaining contracts on rockets from other companies, but new customers will exclusively use Firefly's Alpha and future medium launch vehicles.

JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey Data Results

This week saw the release of the results from the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES).

The results were presented as a part of the latest meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Not only did the results reveal 45,000+ galaxies in a single image, but they also highlighted how JWST has become a powerful tool for scientists to understand the secrets of the early universe.

As mentioned, the JADES data revealed over 45,000 galaxies, with several thousand galaxies in the image existing when the universe was between 500 and 850 million years old. These galaxies are located so far away that their light has been stretched over time due to the expansion of the universe – an effect that is called redshift. This means that the light emitted by them has shifted wavelengths from the ultraviolet and visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to infrared – a wavelength of light Webb was precisely designed to observe.

A deep field taken by Webb as part of the JADES results. An area of the asky known as GOODS-South is seen in this image. (Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Brant Robertson/Ben Johnson/Sandro Tacchella/Marcia Rieke/Daniel Eisenstein/Alyssa Pagan)

The further away a galaxy is, the more red-shifted its light will be. Using Webb's different filters and instruments to capture the galaxies’ spectrums, scientists were able to measure the redshift of thousands of galaxies at once, with hundreds of these galaxies now found at record-breaking redshifts and distances.

This new data has also allowed scientists to understand the rate of star formation in the early universe, as well as study the complex structures that formed within galaxies during that era. The data suggests that these early galaxies had a really high rate of star formation and already hosted complex structures within them very similar to those we see today. This indicates that galaxy evolution may have occurred much faster than previously thought.

Although Webb has been in operation for less than a year, the observatory is already rewriting the books on astrophysics and cosmology.

Shenzhou-15 Returns To Earth

The Shenzhou-15 ended this week as the crew successfully returned to Earth from the Tiangong Space Station.

Shenzhou-15 launched on Nov. 29, 2022, carrying taikonauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming, and Zhang Lu. The crew spent around six months onboard Tiangong conducting scientific experiments, carrying out four spacewalks to upgrade the station, and deploying satellites.

With the launch of Shenzhou-16 last week, the Shenzhou-15 crew handed over command of the station to the new crew and departed the orbital laboratory. Undocking from the station's forward docking port occurred on June 3 at 13:29 UTC.

Shenzhou-15 and its crew of three have landed.

— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) June 3, 2023

Several orbits later, Shenzhou-15 jettisoned its orbital module and started its deorbit burn for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. Landing of the spacecraft's descent module successfully occurred in the Gobi Desert at 22:33 UTC later that day.

This Week in Launches

Starlink Group 6-4: June 4, 12:20 UTC

A Falcon 9 lifted off on June 4 at 8:20 PM EDT (12:20 UTC on June 5) from Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida carrying more Starlink v2 Mini satellites for Starlink's second-generation constellation. The first stage, B1078, was flying for a third time and successfully landed on SpaceX's droneship Just Read The Instructions.

This launch added 22 Starlink satellites into orbit bringing up the total number of these satellites launched to 4,543. Of these, 4,218 satellites remain in orbit and 3,551 are in operational orbit.

SpaceX CRS-28: June 5, 15:47 UTC

Another Falcon 9 lifted off on June 5 at 10:47 AM EDT (15:47 UTC) from Launch Complex 39A in Florida carrying the CRS-28 Cargo Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). The first stage, B1077, was flying for a fifth time and landed successfully on the droneship A Shortfall Of Gravitas.

This was the third SpaceX launch featuring the shortened MVac nozzle extension on the upper stage.

Dragon completed an 18-hour rendezvous and docked to the zenith docking port on the ISS Harmony module the next day, June 6, at 09:54 UTC. The spacecraft carried 3,304 kilograms of payloads onboard, including a new pair of ISS Roll-Out Solar Arrays that will be installed on the Station in the coming weeks.

Lijian-1 Shiyan-24A/B: June 7, 04:10 UTC

A Lijian-1 rocket lifted off on June 7, at 04:10 UTC from Site 130 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China.

The rocket carried 26 payloads onboard, including two Shiyan experimental satellites for the Chinese government. Most of the rocket's other payloads are unknown at the time of publication.

China confirmed the rocket inserted all payloads successfully into their target Sun-synchronous orbit, completing the successful second flight of the rocket after debuting in July of last year.

Longjiang 3: June 9, 02:35 UTC

A Kuaizhou 1A rocket lifted off on June 9, at 02:35 UTC from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China carrying the Longjiang 3 satellite into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

The spacecraft is a prototype communication satellite by the Harbin Institute of Technology aimed at testing a new flat-packed satellite platform similar in shape to SpaceX's Starlink satellites. This kind of platform could be used for future LEO communication satellite constellations from China.

(Lead image: Image taken by GOES-16 of the smoke from Canada's fires blanketing extensive regions of northeast United States. Credit: NOAA)

Methalox Rockets March Toward Launch Rocket Factory Augsburg Completes Full Duration Firing of Helix Engine Canada Fires and Their Impacts as Seen from Space Firefly Aerospace Acquires Spaceflight Inc. JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey Data Results Shenzhou-15 Returns To Earth This Week in Launches Starlink Group 6-4: June 4, 12:20 UTC SpaceX CRS-28: June 5, 15:47 UTC Lijian-1 Shiyan-24A/B: June 7, 04:10 UTC Longjiang 3: June 9, 02:35 UTC