Our Rocket Roundup is a launch bonanza, with launches from Arianespace, China, Blue Origin, Astra, SpaceX, and Firefly. Plus, this week in rocket history, we look back at the Luna 16 mission, which included the first successful robotic sample return from the Moon.

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Hello, and welcome to the Daily Space. My name is Annie Wilson and most weekdays the CosmoQuest team is here putting science in your brain.

Today, however, is for Rocket Roundup.

This week we’re doing things a bit differently: we’re highlighting select launches instead of covering all nine orbital and suborbital launches that happened in the last two weeks. There were simply too many rockets that launched over our break, and there’s not enough time in the show to cover all of them completely and still include all of our usual segments.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

CREDIT: Arianespace

First up, on August 22 at 22:13 UTC, Arianespace and its affiliate, Starsem, launched a Soyuz 2.1b/Fregat from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Onboard the Soyuz were 34 satellites for the OneWeb 9 mission. It was the 1,944th Soyuz launch since its first in 1957.

This launch was delayed by one day due to an abort moments before engine ignition on the first attempt, which is highly unusual for a Soyuz rocket. The abort was due to the rocket’s ground system seeing something it didn’t like in the final count and calling a hold, something that can happen to any rocket.

The rocket’s Fregat upper stage conducted several engine burns over the course of two and a half hours and then inserted the 34 satellites into their target orbits in several groups. This marks 288 satellites launched of a planned constellation of 648 OneWeb internet satellites, making the constellation about 44% complete.

IMAGE: A Yuanzheng-1 (Expedition-1) upper stage aboard a Long March-2C carrier rocket, carrying two experimental satellites, blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, Aug. 24, 2021. China successfully sent two experimental satellites into planned orbit on Tuesday. CREDIT: Wang Jiangbo/Xinhua

Next up, on August 24 at 11:15 UTC, a Chinese Long March 2C with a Yuǎnzhēng-1S third stage delivered three Integrated Experimental Satellites into polar orbit. According to state satellite manufacturer China Aerospace Science and Technology Group (CASC), they have a communication technology test mission.

This flight of the Long March 2C debuted two new features. This was the very first time a new, wider 4.2-meter diameter fairing was used. The usual fairing is 3.35 meters in diameter, matching the diameter of the rocket. These satellites apparently would not have fit into the standard-sized fairing and needed a wider fairing for launch. The rocket also used a new type of launch adapter to securely hold all three of the satellites on the upper stage.

And although it’s not another first for this flight, it was only the second flight for the Long March 2C YZ-1S third stage. A total of twenty of these upper stages have flown — mostly to deploy Beidou satellites in medium Earth orbit — and several other versions exist for other Chinese rockets.

You know how we mentioned that there were too many rockets launched and not enough time? There were two other Chinese launches that took place during the break. Both were military in nature, and there wasn’t much information about them other than the usual statements issued by the Chinese government for classified missions. Patreon members can read about what we do know about these other missions in our show notes.

IMAGE: New Shepard landing on the pad in West Texas on August 26, 2021, with the NASA Lunar Landing Sensor Demo mounted on the exterior of the booster during this planned second flight. CREDIT: Blue Origin

On August 26 at 14:31 UTC, a Blue Origin New Shepard suborbital rocket launched the NS-17 mission from the company’s Van Horn, Texas, launch site. Onboard were eighteen scientific payloads and no human passengers. Eleven of the payloads were NASA-supported.

On the outside of the booster was NASA’s Deorbit Descent and Landing Sensor Demonstration, which improved on a sensor package previously flown on the NS-13 flight back in 2020. The technology will allow landing at sites on the Moon not possible during the Apollo missions.

NS-17 also carried artwork on the outside of the uncrewed capsule: three paintings that were installed on the main chute covers. Made by Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo, they depict himself, his mother, and a friend’s mother.

Both the booster and capsule landings were successful. 

CREDIT: Astra

Next up, a little rocket that couldn’t quite do it. On August 28 at 22:35 UTC, an Astra Space Rocket 3.3 (yes, that’s really the name) launched the equally blandly named STP-27AD1 mission from the Pacific Spaceport Complex, launchpad 3B, in Kodiak Alaska.

The rocket lifted off but almost immediately took a ten-degree pitch and hovered sideways for some distance, burning a dark streak in the grass around the launch site as it traveled horizontally away from the launch pad. Finally, at about T+16 seconds, it burned enough propellant to begin rising away from the Earth — you know, the direction rockets are supposed to go — and headed downrange. 

Just over two minutes later at Max-Q (the point of maximum dynamic pressure on the spacecraft during launch), the rocket tumbled end over end and was observed shedding debris. At this point, it was heading out of the safety corridor where it could have potentially hit someone or something, so Range Safety then commanded the shutdown of the rocket’s engines. And yes, in case you were wondering, Astra’s launch webcast did indeed cover every event including flight termination.

After the launch, Astra CEO Chris Kemp said that the rocket’s odd liftoff was because one of its five main engines failed less than one second after ignition. The poor rocket was doomed from the start.

Even though the rocket didn’t make it to space, it still had a payload. The United States Space Force flew an instrumented test payload instead of a real satellite. This test payload recorded the flight environment of the rocket. Although it may not sound exciting, the data collected by the test payload would have been used by Astra and their customers to get a better idea of how the rocket flies so the customers can ensure their payload will be able to withstand vibration and acceleration on its way to space.

CREDIT: SpaceX

On August 29 at 03:14 UTC, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launched the CRS-23 mission towards the International Space Station from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Cargo Dragon C208 was deployed about twelve minutes after liftoff, beginning its second trip to the ISS. It is the first Cargo Dragon 2 to be reused, with its first flight on CRS-21 back in December 2020.

Onboard Dragon was the usual complement of scientific experiments and technology demonstrations. In total, it brought 2,207 kilograms of cargo up to the station or the equivalent of just over 1,100 two-liter soda bottles.

This was the fourth flight for Booster 1061. It successfully landed on the ASDS A Shortfall Of Gravitas, SpaceX’s newest droneship, marking the 90th landing of a Falcon booster.

One of the technology demonstrations will help astronauts take better care of their eyes. The Retinal Diagnostics device takes an off-the-shelf ophthalmology lens and puts it in a handheld device suitable for use in orbit. It will be used to take pictures of astronaut retinas to monitor the progression of Space-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome. This condition affects astronauts who perform long-duration missions in space and comes from increased fluid in the head due to microgravity. This results in swelling of the optic nerve and flattening of the eye shape. 

The change in an astronaut’s vision is severe enough that they need glasses to see clearly when they return to Earth. With future missions to Mars planned, astronauts need to be able to diagnose themselves instead of needing a trained professional and an office full of equipment. The mobile diagnostic device will also help treat patients in remote or extreme environments on Earth.

In addition to its payloads for the inside and outside of the station, CRS-23 also carries CubeSats to be deployed into orbit. The group of CubeSats called Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 37 includes CAPsat, a 3U CubeSat designed to test different technologies including thermal management, deployable panels, and a “single-photon avalanche detector”, which is an electrical sensor for detecting very faint signals down to a single photon as the name suggests. The bread-loaf-sized CAPsat will specifically investigate the on-orbit repair of the said sensor by annealing, or heating it up and cooling it down in a controlled manner, using a laser to allow the atoms of the sensor to reorder themselves into an undamaged state.

You can read about the other two CubeSats carried by CRS-23 in our Patreon show notes.

IMAGE: Firefly’s Vandenberg Space Force Base SLC-2 launch site. CREDIT: Firefly Aerospace

Finally, on September 2 at 01:00 UTC, a Firefly Alpha rocket took its debut flight, launching from SLC-2W at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. This rocket’s first-ever launch was named Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission, which can be shortened to DREAM.

The Alpha rocket ignited its four Reaver engines and headed southwest. Unknown to most viewers, the rocket had lost an engine fifteen seconds after liftoff, which made it accelerate slowly, taking over two minutes to go supersonic. Seconds after finally passing through the sound barrier, the rocket cartwheeled end over end twice before being detonated by Range Safety.

The dramatic end of the flight was caused by something more mundane: the valves simply closed due to loss of electrical signal, according to Firefly CEO Tom Markusic.

A combination of the slower ascent and early failure meant that the rocket’s trajectory was largely vertical. Most of the lightweight debris from the rocket fell back onto land in Orcutt, California (about 16 kilometers southeast of the launch pad), where people posted pictures onto social media. The rocket’s first stage engines landed much closer to the launch pad — only 1.2 kilometers away. The 30th Space Wing, who runs the range in California, stated that the rocket was blown up while it was over water.

So, about those payloads. Firefly ran a competition through 2020 to select payloads that would launch for free on the first flight of the Firefly Alpha. Twelve payloads were selected, including small satellites of all shapes and sizes along with art pieces. This was an incredible opportunity: build the satellite, go to space for free. Here’s the catch: it’s risky to have your expensive payload going up on the first launch of a new rocket. Of the rockets introduced in this century, half have failed on their first launch.

Why would somebody do this? Launch costs are a significant barrier for CubeSat operators to get their payloads in orbit, costing many times more than the satellite itself. NASA and the military launch multibillion-dollar spacecraft where a few hundred million dollars for launch is just a rounding error in the budget.

This Week in Rocket History

IMAGE: Map showing the landing sites of the Surveyor, Apollo and Luna missions. CREDIT: NASA

This week in rocket history: the first successful robotic sample return from the Moon, Luna 16. But first, some background.

The Soviet Union made several attempts starting in 1969 to return samples from the Moon with robotic spacecraft as part of their wider Luna program, which included flybys, impactors, and lunar rovers. Most of the first five attempts at sample return failed and were either not acknowledged by the Soviets or given really generic code names like “Kosmos 300” to hide their true purpose. However, one of them, Luna 15, almost made it.

Luna 15 was the second attempt by the Soviets to do a sample return, and it launched on July 13, 1969, and successfully burned for the Moon. It was in lunar orbit at the same time as the crewed Apollo 11 mission and even attempted to land the day after Neil and Buzz. Unfortunately, it crashed on the surface of the Moon some 553 kilometers (that’s 344 miles) northwest of where Apollo 11 landed. That’s a little more than the distance between Houston and New Orleans in the U.S.

The next attempt, Luna 16, was the sixth attempt by the Soviets to conduct a fully autonomous sample return mission from the moon.

Luna 16 was launched on a Proton K- Blok D rocket from Baikonur on September 12, 1970. The spacecraft weighed a massive 5,750 kilograms at launch. Most of that mass was propellant for its lunar descent stage.

Five days after launch, Luna 16 entered lunar orbit to study lunar gravity and the terrain around the landing site. This extra step was necessary to prevent another failure — Luna 15 had crashed into the side of a mountain that the Soviets didn’t even know about.

IMAGE: Luna 16 model in the Museum of Cosmonautics, Moscow. CREDIT: Bembmv via Wikimedia Commons

Lunar descent was initiated on September 20. The entire landing sequence took six minutes and was conducted using two different sets of engines: the main engine for the majority of the landing sequence and a different set of easier-to-control lower thrust landing engines for the final twenty meters. Luna 16 landed successfully at 05:18 UTC in the Sea of Fertility. This was the first landing on the Moon in the dark.

Only one hour after landing, the spacecraft set to work drilling and collecting its sample. The drill managed to go 35 centimeters into the lunar surface before hitting a rock. The collected regolith was transferred into the return capsule, and the upper stage of the lander blasted off of the Moon’s surface at 07:43 UTC on September 21, after spending nearly 27 hours on the surface.

The return trajectory was very simple: a direct burn back to the Earth’s atmosphere. The return capsule landed back in Kazakhstan at 03:26 UTC on September 24. During reentry, the capsule was subjected to a maximum of 350 Gs of force, or about 175 times more than a shuttle astronaut experienced.

With the successful return of the samples to Earth, planetary scientists were able to get to work.

Scientific analysis of the Luna 16 regolith samples demonstrated that these soils were different from many of the other samples thus far collected on the Moon and suggested a far more complicated geologic history for our only natural satellite. Although the rocks collected were basaltic, which is a common volcanic rock type on both the Earth and the Moon, these rocks contained iron-rich pyroxene. The higher iron content showed that these rocks originated from a different volcanic process than the Apollo samples that had been collected at that time. 

IMAGE: Copy of Russian photo of Luna 16 core after initial dissection. CREDIT: NASA via LPI

In fact, high iron content is often an indication of longer-term volcanic processes than had been previously known to have happened on the Moon. The volcanic rocks in the regolith were also ancient, with radioisotope ages of around 3.4 billion years. For reference, the first bacterial life is thought to have originated on the Earth around that time. This kind of iron-rich basalt shows that volcanic systems on the Moon lasted for long periods of time, rather than short melting and eruption events as had been previously thought.

So there you have it: the Soviets didn’t crash their spacecraft into a mountain and brought back evidence of ancient lunar volcanism.

Statistics

To wrap things up, here’s a running tally of a few spaceflight statistics for the current year:

Toilets currently in space: 8: 4 on ISS, 1 on the Crew Dragon, 1 on the Soyuz, 1 on the  Shenzhou, and 1 on Tianhe.

Total 2021 orbital launch attempts: 86, including 7 failures

CREDIT: Annie Wilson

Total satellites from launches: 1368

I keep track of orbital launches by where they launched from, also known as spaceport. Here’s that breakdown:

China: 32
USA: 31
Kazakhstan: 7
Russia: 6
New Zealand: 4
French Guinea: 3
India: 2
Iran: 1

Your random space fact is the “Pioneer 10/11 Full-Scale Model” on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is no mere mockup. It was a fully functional spacecraft that was built along with Pioneer 10 and 11. Despite many proposals to do so, it was never launched and was donated to the museum in 1976. Before anyone gets the wild idea of trying (again) to launch this craft into space, please note that the nuclear generators were replaced with mockups before going on display.

Learn More

More OneWeb Internet Satellites Launch on Soyuz

China Launches Three Integrated Experimental Satellites

Yet Another Uncrewed New Shepard Launches Science Payloads

Astra Rocket Powerslides Off Pad, Fails Later

SpaceX Finally Launches Again

Firefly Alpha Launches, Flips Out of Control

This Week in Rocket History: Luna 16

Credits

Host: Annie Wilson
Writers: Nick Castle, Gordon Dewis, Pamela Gay, Erik Madaus, Ally Pelphrey, and Annie Wilson
Audio and Video Editing: Ally Pelphrey
Content Editing: Beth Johnson
Executive Producer: Pamela Gay
Intro and Outro music by Kevin MacLeod, https://incompetech.com/music/