Launches, dockings and an asteroid flyby highlight busy space week

While representatives from NASA, the Space Force and commercial companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin descended on Orlando this past week for the annual SpaceCom conference, there was no shortage of action on launch pads, test sites and 254 miles above the Earth.

Here’s a rundown of 15 nuggets of space news for the week:

1. Lit up: SpaceX managed the seventh launch from the Space Coast on Tuesday, and 10th of the year for the company among Florida and California launch pads. Lifting off from Kennedy Space Center, it carted up competitor Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft that then docked with the International Space Station with 8,200 pounds of science and supplies early Thursday. It was the first time SpaceX has flown Cygnus, making its 20th resupply mission to the ISS. Most of those missions have been flown on Northrop’s Antares rockets from Virginia, but Russian and Ukrainian rocket part supply issues mean SpaceX will be flying at least two more missions from Florida until a new version of the rocket can be built with American-made engines by Firefly Aerospace.

2. No. 2 provider: While SpaceX leads the way in launches, small rocket company Rocket Lab actually flew the second most in 2023 and managed its first launch of the year this week, sending up its Electron rocket on Wednesday from its launch site in New Zealand with four small satellites. It was the California company’s 43rd launch of an Electron rocket and brings the number of successful satellite deployments to 176. The rocket booster made a parachute-assisted landing in the Pacific for recovery so the company can see how it can eventually reuse a future Electron rocket’s first stage on a second launch.

3. Next launch: SpaceX is set to send up a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 targeting a 1:33 a.m. liftoff Tuesday if weather permits, carrying NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol Cloud Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite to conduct Earth science. The probe was encapsulated in the fairing on Thursday and transported to the hangar ahead of launch. The satellite’s task is to observe ocean ecosystem health by measuring the distribution of phytoplankton as well as to measure clouds and airborne particulate aerosols like smoke and dust.

4. Extra days in space: Axiom Space’s Ax-3 mission was supposed to depart the ISS as early as Saturday, but weather concerns continue to push the undocking of the SpaceX Crew Dragon Freedom with its crew of four until at least Tuesday. The third private mission to the ISS for Axiom brought up Axiom’s chief astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who made his sixth trip to space along with customers Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei, Alper Gezeravcı of Turkey and ESA project astronaut Marcus Wandt of Sweden.

5. Intuitive Machines nears launch: The next commercial company lined up to try and land on the moon is set to launch from KSC atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 during a three-day window in mid-February, although SpaceX has not announced the exact dates yet. Houston-based Intuitive Machines is looking to become the 2nd company to launch under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program following January’s launch of Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander, which suffered issues after launch that precluded any attempt to land on the moon. The IM-1 mission looks to complete the task, though, with a targeted landing on Feb. 22 no matter the launch date with its Nova-C lander dubbed Odysseus carrying six NASA experiments to its planned landing site near the moon’s south pole.

6. Crew-8 launch date: The departure of Crew Dragon Freedom with the Ax-3 visitors will allow for the next SpaceX crew rotation mission Crew-8 to fly up to ISS with its four crew to relieve Crew-7, who have been on station since August. NASA announced that mission could fly as early as Feb. 22 with its four crew members NASA astronauts Commander Matthew Dominick, pilot Michael Barratt, mission specialist Jeanette Epps and Roscosmos cosmonaut mission specialist Alexander Grebenkin. They will be flying in the Crew Dragon Endeavour, making its fifth trip to space.

7. Space Force’s 1st astronaut: NASA also announced the crew for the SpaceX Crew-9 mission slated for no earlier than August. It features the first Guardian with an astronaut flight assigned in the form of pilot Nick Hague, although he is actually making his third flight including one mission abort from Russia, but those were while he was with the Air Force. Also flying are NASA astronaut and commander Zena Cardman, making her first flight; NASA astronaut and mission specialist Stephanie Wilson, who flew three times on Space Shuttle Discovery; and Roscomos cosmonaut and mission specialist Aleksandr Gorbunov, making his first trip to space.

8. Starliner practice: While SpaceX continues to line up flights for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing continues to play catch-up, honing in on a planned mid-April flight of the CST-100 Starliner to the ISS carrying humans for the first time. NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore were on the Space Coast on Wednesday completing a full launch simulation exercise for the Crew Flight Test as Boeing attempts to certify its spacecraft to share commercial crew duties with SpaceX. Teams with NASA, Boeing and United Launch Alliance ran through launch day activities including Williams and Wilmore suiting up, getting a ride in their crew transportation vehicle and climbing to the top of the ULA launch tower at Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41, from where they will fly atop an Atlas V rocket. If certified, Starliner could fly with its first rotational mission as soon as early 2025.

9. A lot of liftoffs: The seven launches from the Space Coast could be part of up to 111 potential flights from Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center, according to Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, who mentioned the high-end number on the Eastern Range’s manifest during a speech at SpaceCom on Wednesday.

10. Big Blue: One of those could be the first flight of Blue Origin’s New Glenn heavy-lift rocket. The massive rocket for Jeff Bezos’ company that’s constructed on Merritt Island has a requested launch window as early as September from Canaveral’s Launch Complex 36, according to a Space Force official speaking SpaceCom, although Blue Origin would only confirm the company intends to fly by the end of the year. One limiting factor to its flight is the required seven BE-4 engines needed for the rocket’s first stage while Blue Origin also needs to supply customer ULA with a pair of BE-4 engines for each of its new Vulcan Centaur rocket flights, the first of which occurred earlier in January.

“We’ve expanded our facility at Huntsville (Alabama) to ramp up and be able to support both in a capacity and in a rate,” said Lars Hoffman, Blue Origin’s vice president for national security sales on Thursday. “So we are ramping up rapidly to build to rate to stay, not just support to stay ahead and make sure that we’ve got some additional flex to accommodate more demand as it continues to grow. And we are 100% scaled, scoped, sized to support both the Vulcan program and the New Glenn program.”

11. Asteroid Drive-by: An asteroid the size of the Empire State Building made a fly-by Friday of Earth, although only 1.7 million miles away. It was the largest of several near-Earth asteroids making a pass by the planet this week, estimated to be between 690 and 1,575 feet across. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory classifies the rock, discovered in 2008 and designated 2008 OS7, as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid” because of how close it gets to Earth. It won’t be back until 2032, but not as close next time around.

12. SpaceX Starship new customer: SpaceX’s in-development Starship lined up another future customer expected to fly up the hardware of one of several commercial space stations in the works. Starlab, which is a combined effort between Voyager Space and Airbus, announced Wednesday that it had chosen Starship to get its space station to low-Earth orbit on a single mission aiming to launch sometime before the decommissioning of the International Space Station. Starship, which is expected to try for its third attempt at a suborbital test flight this month after two previous attempts in 2023 ended explosively, is already tapped to serve as a human landing system for two NASA Artemis missions as well as fly a series of commercial customers on human spaceflights including the dearMoon mission paid for by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

13. Sierra Space Dream Chaser: The third player in NASA’s commercial cargo missions to the ISS is getting closer to its first launch. The Dream Chaser spaceplane, coupled with the Shooting Star cargo module, went vertical at NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Sandusky, Ohio, to be tested on the facility’s massive vibration table to ensure it will be ready for launch. Dream Chaser is targeting a launch as early as April to the ISS on what would be the second ever flight of ULA’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. Sierra Space would join SpaceX cargo Dragon and Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft on resupply missions to the ISS, but make its landings at KSC’s former shuttle landing facility.

14. Space Shuttle Endeavour goes vertical: The last space shuttle to leave the Space Coast for its forever home departed in 2012 for the California Science Center in Los Angeles, where it spent more than a decade on display resting horizontally. This week, the orbiter was back in launch configuration, remated with the last intact external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters, all to be put on display vertically for the public to see when the new Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center at the museum is complete. That may not happen for another two years. Space Shuttle Atlantis remained in Florida at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in a suspended display as if on orbit, while Space Shuttle Discovery resides in a hangar, wheels on the ground at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. A test orbiter Enterprise that never made it to space in on display at the Intrepid Museum in New York.

15. Psyche buckles up: The long trip to a metallic asteroid hit a milestone this week as NASA’s Psyche probe entered its cruise phase. The long-delayed $700 million satellite launched from KSC atop a Falcon Heavy rocket last October to begin its 2.5-billion-mile trip to the asteroid named Psyche that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter. It won’t arrive until August 2029, but is already traveling more than 41,000 mph as it nears Mars’ orbit. Scientists are interested in the rare asteroid, as they believe it could mirror the inner core of Earth and other planets in the solar system.