An ambitious plan for a private space station, the Chinese spacecraft raises important questions, a new program for space debris removal, tourism to the edge of space, and the mystery of water on Mars. This Week in Space.
A New Private Space Station On The Horizon?
The American company Vast announced that it has signed an agreement with SpaceX to launch the first private space station on a Falcon 9 rocket in 2025. According to the agreement, shortly thereafter, SpaceX will launch a Dragon spacecraft to the station with four crew members who may stay there for up to a month. “Vast is thrilled to embark on this journey of launching the world's first commercial space station, and its first crew,” said Jed McCaleb, CEO of Vast, in a press release. “This exciting partnership represents the first steps in Vast’s long-term vision of launching much larger, artificial gravity space stations in Earth orbit and beyond.”
The company, which was established only two years ago, plans to offer flight tickets for its space station to private astronauts. While the price has not yet been advertised, interested individuals can already sign up for a flight on the company’s website. Vast's initial intention is to deploy the first station in Earth’s orbit, followed by gradual expansion through the addition of further components. This endeavor puts them in competition with Axiom, a company constructing a private space station in stages on the International Space Station. Its first component is scheduled for launch to the International Space Station in early 2025, with the ultimate aim of achieving an independent station by the decade’s end.
In the recent announcement, Vast unveiled its ambitious plans to establish a 100-meter-long space station that will utilize self-rotation to generate artificial gravity. The company intends to launch the components of this grand station using SpaceX's Starship, as outlined in their plan. They have also highlighted that the first small station will serve as a testing ground for the self-rotation technology aimed at creating artificial gravity. While Vast has shared limited technical specifications for the station, many details remain undisclosed. Notably, the company has not provided specific information about the project's funding sources.
In the past, numerous companies have made ambitious claims about constructing and launching private space stations. However, the existence of a signed launch contract may suggest that this endeavor may hold more substance than previous empty promises.
Ticket sales will open soon. Illustration of the space station with the Dragon spacecraft by SpaceX. | Source: vastspace.com
China’s Enigmatic Sattelite Catcher
China's mysterious spaceplane touched down this week after a 276-day stay in orbit. The plane and its objectives remain veiled in secrecy, particularly in the Western world. Speculations suggest that it bears resemblance to the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane—an miniaturized, unmanned version of the space shuttle, embarking on missions that last several months. While much of the information remains classified, indications suggest that the Chinese spaceplane is primarily involved in military espionage.
Data released by LeoLabs, an American company that specializes in tracking artificial objects in low Earth orbit, revealed an intriguing observation in late October 2022. Another object emerged in a highly similar orbit to the Chinese spaceplane, potentially indicating the release of a satellite by the spaceplane itself. Over the subsequent months, these entities intermittently flew in proximity, separated, and reconverged. It's impossible to tell whether this was a very close "formation flight", or whether the spaceplane repeatedly captured and released the satellite.
Reports of such capabilities of the Chinese space plane have raised concerns within the United States' security apparatus. If China can capture its own satellites in space, it could certainly seize satellites from other nations and disrupt their operations. China has not officially commented on the specific capabilities of the spaceplane. CASC, the corporation responsible for manufacturing the plane, issued a brief statement upon its landing, saying that "the project aims to facilitate more affordable and convenient space access, for future peaceful uses of space."
In-flight dynamics. Examining LeoLabs' tracking data of the Chinese spaceplane and the adjacent satellite | Source: LeoLabs
Cleaning Up Space
The startup ClearSpace has signed an agreement to launch its first satellite dedicated to space debris removal. Arianespace will launch the Swiss company's satellite aboard the Vega-C rocket. The mission, presently known as ClearSpace-1, is set to take place approximately three years from now, in 2026.
The satellite’s primary objective is to remove from Earth's orbit a section of an upper upper stage rocket that was launched in 2013 and has since remained in orbit. This segment, weighing 112 kilograms, will serve as a demonstration for the cleaning satellite's capabilities. Equipped with four robotic arms, the satellite is designed to approach the target, activate its engine, and navigate itself, along with the debris, to an orbit that will ensure its incineration upon re-entry into the atmosphere. The ultimate goal is to develop such satellites for multiple purposes, enabling them to remove debris by directing it to an orbit that will lead to its controlled destruction upon atmospheric re-entry. This process can then be repeated with additional debris.
“Above us, there currently are over 34,000 pieces of space debris of more than 10 centimeters each as well as about 6,500 operational satellites in orbit, a number expected to rise to more than 27,000 by the end of the decade,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace, ” These figures demonstrate the need to find innovative solutions for preserving the benefits of Space for humanity and life on Earth.”
The main funding for the project is expected to come from the European Space Agency (ESA). However, it is important to note that there are other initiatives in the field. For instance, a British group showcased space debris removal capabilities around five years ago, but their project did not progress further. Astroscale, an international company with a development center in Israel, is also actively developing technologies for space debris removal, among other endeavors. Ultimately, to transition from the demonstration stage to practical implementation, the technologies in the field will need to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Only then can effective space debris removal be achieved, contributing to enhanced safety in activities conducted within low Earth orbit.
The robotic arms are supposed to pick up the debris from the orbit. A visualization of the ClearSpace-1 mission | Source: European Space Agency
Virgin Tightens Belts
Nearly two years after Virgin Galactic's successful maiden flight to the edge of space, the company announced a delay in their second mission, originally scheduled for the end of the month. However, the official date has not yet been disclosed. Virgin's Galactic’s tourism flights to the edge of space involve a small spacecraft with a commander, a pilot, and up to six passengers. A dedicated aircraft carries the spacecraft to an altitude of 18 kilometers, where the spacecraft separates and ignites its rocket engine, propelling it to an altitude of approximately 90 kilometers, at the edge of space. Passengers then experience a few minutes of weightlessness in zero gravity before the spacecraft glides back to Earth, using its wings for a runway landing. Following the maiden flight in July 2021, which included the company's founder and owner Richard Branson, the carrier plane, named Eve, was grounded for an extended period and has only recently resumed operations.
The inaugural mission will be led by Commander Mike Masucci and the company's chief flight instructor CJ Sturckow, joined by four senior employees of the company - two women and two men. A successful flight will pave the way for commercial operations of the system as early as June. The Italian Air Force has already secured a flight for a microgravity experiment, marking the first among future commercial flights.
Following the initial mission, the company plans to introduce tourist flights for paying passengers. The anticipated price for such flights is set at $450,000. With each flight projected to generate revenues of approximately two million dollars, the company aims to gradually recover from the substantial losses it has incurred in recent years, ultimately achieving profitability.This objective relies on the successful completion of manufacturing additional spacecraft from the new Delta series, which is scheduled to enter service in approximately two years. Each spacecraft in the Delta series is designed to sustain at least 500 flights. The company already has a waiting list of hundreds of individuals who have purchased tickets in recent years. Furthermore, as revealed in a recent company statement, Virgin Galactic aspires to increase flight frequency to at least one flight per month, at the earliest opportunity.
The Unity spacecraft approaches the landing track in the last glide test conducted last month, in preparation for the renewal of manned flights | Photo: Virgin Galactic
Signs of Water on Mars
Although China's Mars rover Zhurong has likely concluded its operations, the images it transmitted have provided intriguing indications of the presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars during a much later period than previously hypothesized. Previous studies, including data from the five American rovers that have landed on Mars, have suggested that the planet was once abundant with water, with oceans, rivers, clouds, and a water cycle similar to Earth. Approximately three billion years ago, Mars gradually lost most of its atmosphere, resulting in the evaporation of most of its water into space. Presently, the majority of the remaining water on its surface exists in the form of ice, possibly accompanied by salts. Additionally, there have been unverified reports of subterranean reservoirs harboring liquid water on Mars.
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed images captured by the Zhurong rover on Mars and concluded that there might have been liquid water on the Martian surface in the relatively recent past, potentially within the last few hundred thousand years. Their analysis focuses on a specific region known as "Utopia Planitia." By studying the structure of sand dunes in this area, which are formed by wind movements similar to certain desert regions or sandy beaches on Earth, the researchers noticed the presence of cracks and polygon-shaped formation along the crests of some of the dunes. The researchers propose that these features likely result from the presence of salts or minerals that were dissolved in water, and subsequently remained on the surface of the dunes when the water froze or evaporated.
Based on their analysis of the findings, the researchers concluded that the presence of water in the studied area occurred sometime between 1.4 million years ago and 400,000 years ago, and potentially even more recently. They also ruled out the possibility that the observed formations were formed by the freezing and evaporation of carbon dioxide, establishing water evaporation as the more plausible explanation. According to them, it is possible that certain regions on Mars have retained moisture even after the majority of the water disappeared from the surface of the planet. They also propose the existence of a seasonal water cycle wherein water froze during winter, subsequently thawing and evaporating during summer, and vice versa.
The tantalizing possibility of liquid water existing on Mars during a more recent timeframe, particularly in specific regions, raises intriguing speculations. If substantiated, this finding could suggest the occurrence of microbial activity and the potential survival of resilient bacterial forms within the soil. If further evidence emerges in support of the findings of the Chinese researchers, the search for signs of life on Mars may gain renewed momentum.
Was there a sea here once? The Chinese rover Zhurong next to its landing site in Utopia Planitia on Mars | Simulation: Chinese Space Agency