This Month in Space: October 2020
One year after the first all-female spacewalk, space exploration is moving at an incredible rate. This month, the Orion spacecraft, which will carry the next astronauts to the moon in 2024, received key components, Elon Musk announced an uncrewed Mars mission, and the OSIRIS-REx finally touched Bennu after four years of autopilot. Read more in this month’s space news roundup.
NASA Engineers Install Two Solar Array Wings on Orion Spacecraft
As the Orion spacecraft prepares to launch atop the Artemis I in preparation for a moon landing in 2021, key components were recently added by NASA engineers: two of the four solar array wings.
On Oct. 20, engineers from Lockheed Martin, lead contractor for Orion, installed two of the wings, surrounded by panels that will protect the spacecraft from the harsh elements during launch from Earth’s atmosphere and ascent into space.
Solar array wings are essential to the spacecraft to trap the Sun’s energy and provide electricity to Orion. Similar array wings on the International Space Station, made up of thousands of solar cells, directly convert light to electricity using a process called “photovoltaics.” Once in orbit, ground controllers send commands to the wings to deploy.
The Orion spacecraft will be launched atop the Artemis I mission on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The 2021 Artemis I mission will test Orion and SLS as an integrated system before launching crewed flights to the Moon. The Artemis program will see the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024.
After four years, OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Touches Asteroid Bennu
Two hundred million miles from Earth, and after four years of autopilot flight, the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx performed an incredible “touch-and-go” landing on the asteroid named Bennu, collecting samples of the asteroid surface material.
On Thursday, Oct. 22, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission team received images confirming that the spacecraft had collected more than enough material to complete one of its main mission requirements: acquiring at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of surface material from Bennu.
The sample collector, known as the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), worked successfully to collect the asteroid particles, though from the images, it seems some of the particles escaped slowly from the TAGSAM collector head. Larger rocks appear to be wedging the “lid” of the collector open, allowing smaller particles to pass through.
Now that the sample has been collected, it will be stowed as quickly as possible in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC), where any loose asteroid particles will be secured during the craft’s journey back to Earth. The mission team is currently finalizing the timeline for sample storage.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Hosts North American IMAX Premiere of “Asteroid Hunters” Film
World Space Week (Oct. 4-10) kicked off at the Kennedy Center Visitor Complex with the North American premiere of a new IMAX film, Asteroid Hunters. The Oct. 6 showing offered opportunities for in-person and virtual guests to celebrate the past, present and future of space exploration.
The film, narrated by Star Wars actor, Daisy Ridley, ventures into deep space for a look at the cosmic origins of asteroids and any potential threats they pose to Earth. The film is produced by Jini Durr and directed by W.D. Hogan. Asteroid Hunters introduces the scientists who have dedicated their lives to the study of these phenomena, and reveals the cutting-edge tools and tech they use to detect and track the asteroids. These scientists are Earth’s best line of defense against the destructive forces of asteroids.
The writer and producer of Asteroid Hunters, Phil Groves, was present for a Q&A with guests following the premiere. Groves, a long-time Hollywood film distributor, saw a news story about asteroids that reignited his childhood interest in space. The spark of inspiration for the film came from his research into the joint NASA-European Space Agency’s Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission.
Asteroid Hunters has a run time of 38 minutes, and is presented in IMAX in association with Huahuang Pictures. For the health and safety of guests and employees, the IMAX theatre is open at a limited capacity at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and guests are encouraged to practice social distancing when choosing their seats.
Astronaut Christina Koch Reflects on the Anniversary of the First All-Female Spacewalk
Sunday, Oct. 18, marked the first anniversary of the inaugural all-woman spacewalk. NASA astronaut Christina Koch reflected on her participation in the event in a story for Space.com.
The 2013 astronaut class was the very first to be 50 percent female. Koch and her colleague Jessica Meir were both part of that class. They both took part in the first all-female spacewalk, which wasn’t an orchestrated event, but rather happened as a chance pairing.
Koch told Space.com, “It was such a momentous moment … and I think the year has really made me realize that. It’s really been interesting how 2020 has become this year that has symbolized inclusion in so many ways.”
Astronaut Koch also mentioned in her reflection that in the future, she sees the next generation of astronauts and spacewalkers will find themselves with equal bars of expectation regarding their capabilities. “There’s no excuses,” she said. “I see a world where women are selected into the astronaut corps and it’s not even a surprise.”
Following the anniversary on Oct. 19, the Guinness Book of World Records officially recognized Koch and Meir for their spacewalk, and Koch specifically for her mission, which was the longest single spaceflight by a woman to date.
Elon Musk Announces Goal for Uncrewed Flight to Mars in 2024
The Starship rocket is SpaceX’s vehicle to start building a permanent human settlement on Mars. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, speaking to the International Mars Society Convention on Oct. 16, said that the company is on track to launch its first uncrewed mission to Mars in as little as four years.
The launch depends on an opportunity that arises every 26 months called the “Mars transfer window.” NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates all launched missions to Mars in July 2020. The next window opens in 2022, and Musk believes SpaceX has a chance to make the window that opens in 2024.
The prospected 2024 launch will utilize the massive Starship vehicle — a reusable rocket-and-spacecraft combo — currently under development at SpaceX’s south Texas facility.
Musk has been a proponent of a permanent and self-sustaining presence on Mars in the event that Earth is left uninhabitable by a natural disaster or man-made event like nuclear war. SpaceX would not be the agency to build the settlement, simply acting as the transportation system, taking on “the biggest single challenge,” according to Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin.
If the SpaceX projections are correct, the Starship launch would coincide with NASA’s Artemis I mission, returning astronauts to the Moon, and would be one year later than the planned mission to fly space tourists on a Starship mission around the Moon in 2023.