This week marked as exciting week in space launches with 2 successful launches, a twice aborted launch, a 6 hour spacewalk and a postponed launch. Along with that was the initial submission by NASA of its suggested 2013 budget
The first launch of the week came from the European space Agency (ESA), and marked the inaugrial launch of the new small payload rocket VEGA. This took place on Monday 13th February. The launch took place from the ESA facility in Kourou and VEGA launched successfully at 10:00 GMT.
The rocket, mainly developed by the Italians has been in development since 1998. As this was the 1st qualification flight of the rocket, dubbed VV01, ESA offered the payloads, which included 7 pico (or cube) satellites from European universities, LARES (a Laser Relativity Satellite to test various aspects of general relativity) and ALMASat-1. a free ride. The mission performed flawlessly. The VEGA rocket is 30 metres tall, and weighs 137 tonnes at lift off, which is 1/6 the weight of a fully loaded Ariane 5 rocket.
ESA hope that VEGA will allow smaller payloads to be launched into orbit at a greatly reduced cost. Time alone will tell, if this turns out to be the case.
This week saw the launch, at the third attempt, of the SES-4 communications satellite. Originally delayed since late December 2011, this finally launched on 14th February at 19:36 GMT/UTC from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The SES-4 satellite was carried on top of a Proton-M rocket standing 58 metres in height, weighing 705,000 Kg at lift off. The upper stage of the rocket was a Breeze-M upper stage.
Manufactured by Space Systems Loral, the SES-4 satellite is a hybrid satellite featuring both C and Ku-band payloads and provides enhanced coverage and capacity across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Western Africa and Latin America. The satellites estimated lifespan is expected to be around 15 years.
First spacewalk of 2012
Cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov spent 6 hours in the first spacewalk of 2012. They exited the PIRS module at 14:15 GMT/UTC on February. Wearing the Russian Orlan spacesuits, the cosmonauts had issues getting out of the hatch and were 20 minutes late starting their work. The main task was moving the Strela-1 crane from the PIRS module to the POISK module. The crane needs to be relocated so that the new Russian module, Nauka, can be installed by the Russians later in 2012.
They also installed a material experiment on the exterior of the station, and took samples from the station’s insulation to access its quality in protecting the station and also to assess the damage it has sustained so far. Due to the earlier tasks over-running the cosmonauts did not have the opportunity to install new debris shields on the Zvezda module.
The launch of a Proton-M rocket from Baikonur, carrying the Sirus FM-6 satellite that was supposed to launch in early March 2012, has been delayed for several months. It has been reported that technicians found problems with the solar panels attached to the satellite and that the satellite has now been returned to the manufacturer; Space Systems Loral.
The launch of the US Navy’s Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-1 (Mobile User Objective System) was twice postponed last week. On Thursday 16th February, the pre-planned 10 minute hold that occurs at T-minus 4 minuites was held at 5 minute intervals throughout the 45 minute launch window. This was to process high level wind data being sent by high altitude weather balloons that was preventing launch.
A final poll of the launch engineers gave a “GO” for launch, and the countdown proceeded at 23:25 GMT, until 1 minute and 14 seconds prior to launch an abort was signalled, again due to high level winds. As the abort came so close to the end of the launch window, the launch was immediately scrubbed for the day.
The following day the launch was also scrubbed; this time due to clouds and high level winds.
Launch engineers have now scheduled the launch of the MUOS-1 satellite to occur on the 24th February at 22:15 GMT/UTC. The launch window closes 44 minutes later at 22:59.
NASA Budget 2013
NASA announced on Monday 13th February a $17.7 billion budget request for fiscal year 2013. The budget includes $4 billion for space operations and $4 billion for exploration activities in the Human Exploration Operations mission directorate, including final close-out of the Space Shuttle Program, and funding for the International Space Station. $4.9 billion is allocated for science, $669 million for space technology and $552 million for aeronautics research.
What the figures don’t really show is that certain NASA budgets have been massively cut in order to continue funding the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Expenditure on the JWST, which has been plagued by cost overruns almost since the inception of the project, is set to increase to almost $700 million in 2014. To continue to fund the JWST, some projects, namely the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, in collaboration with the European Space Agency will now not go ahead.
The budget will inevitably be trimmed by Congress, and in future years NASA sees its budget staying fairly flat in monetary terms.