What’s up? (In space!) Fall 2021

Welcome to the fall installment of What’s up? (In space!), a seasonal look at upcoming events in the world of space developments, projects, and people.

It’s been a little like summer silly season with posturing billionaires jostling for the headlines as they traveled–sort of–into space. What can we expect for fall? Are we in for more serious space endeavors? Read on to find out!

It’s one big telescope!
A huge–in every sense of the word–event for this fall is the long-awaited launch of NASA’s James Webb Telescope, now scheduled for late November. This has been a joint project involving NASA, ESA, and (waves maple leaf flag) the Canadian Space Agency, with Canada contributing a scientific instrument and guidance sensor.

This successor to the Hubble, designed for infrared astronomy, has cost nearly $10 billion to build. This beast weighs in at over 6000 kg with a primary mirror of 6.5 meters wide and a special sunshade to keep it cool. You can see some fantastic images here. Once up and running in its new home, it’ll be hunting for signs of extraterrestrial civilizations, potentially habitable planets, and providing us with more information about our cosmic history and the origins of life.

A meteor shower with a difference
Bored by the same old meteor showers? How about a never-before-seen event, one which might never be seen again? That’s what’s in store with the “Finlay-id” (named after Comet 15P/Finlay), scheduled to show itself around the end of September, peaking on October 7th. The downside? It’s going to be difficult to spot, visible only in southern-most countries with specialist equipment, and as if that weren’t enough, slow moving as well. Teams of international astronomers are on the case though, so there’s a chance we may be able to see some images.

Who’s up in space?
The month will see the first ever all-civilian crew heading into space on a three-day Inspiration4 spaceflight using SpaceX’s CrewDragon capsule. The all-US crew is headed up by billionaire (yes, another one 🙂 ), pilot, and mission sponsor Jared Isaacman. Joining him are an employee, and former patient, of the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a friend of the winner of the hospital’s special fundraising raffle (yes–the actual winner donated their ticket!), and an entrepreneur who came out on top in a reality TV series contest. (Did I mention silly-season? 🙂 )

For a detailed, behind-the scenes look at the mission, plan to catch “Countdown,” a three-part Netflix show that’s being described as a “near real-time documentary.”

Not to be outdone in the space tourist race, a Russian film director, Klim Shipenko, and actress (not yet named) will be heading to the ISS on October 5th on the Soyuz MS-19 crew capsule. During their one-week visit, they’ll be shooting a movie. Sci-fi presumably? And hopefully not horror…

If all this is whetting your appetite for a spot of space tourism, you can now book a seat for suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic for a mere $450,000. The price just doubled 🙁

Cleaning up
All this activity in space means more space junk, especially when SpaceX’s recent satellite launches are responsible for more than 1600 near-misses per week! All of which is leading to some serious collision problems. Enter Aurora Propulsion Technologies, a company from Finland, who have plans to clean up the mess. Later this year, they aim to launch their Aurora Sat-1 cubesat via a Rocket Lab Electron booster. They’ll be testing a system that will (hopefully) capture satellites before they become space junk.

The future is 3D
As I’ve recently got my Tevo Tornado working (yay!), I felt compelled to include a space-related 3D printing story, and this is an exciting one. A company called Relativity is shaking up the age-old way of building rockets by 3D printing the components. This leads to a far quicker production process–“in days instead of years” to quote their tagline, as well as greater reliability.

The demonstration launch of its Terran 1, the world’s first entirely 3D printed rocket, was meant to have been this fall, but has apparently been rescheduled to early 2022. Its first entirely re-usable rocket, Terran R, is expected to have its first launch in 2024.

Most rockets are built by hand using techniques that haven’t changed much since the 1960s (including SpaceX). Relativity’s approach is truly revolutionary, and promises to really shake up the space industry. I’ll be watching closely!

How are you feeling about space right now? Excited about new tech? Disappointed by the recently announced delay to the next NASA moon landing? Fed up hearing about wealthy business people in space? Let me know in the comments!

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