The core module of China’s space station is packaged inside the nose cone of a heavy-lift Long March 5B rocket for liftoff late Wednesday (U.S. time), the first of 11 launches to deliver astronauts, supplies, experiments, and new laboratory modules to build out the orbiting complex before the end of 2022.
The massive Tianhe, or “Heavenly Harmony,” core module will be the keystone of the Chinese space station in low Earth orbit a few hundred miles above the planet, serving as astronaut living quarters, a command and control element, an airlock for spacewalks, and a docking port for attachment of future crew and cargo vehicles.
The fully-assembled outpost will be around 66 metric tons, about one-sixth the mass of the International Space Station, and is closer in size to Russia’s retired Mir station than the ISS. China will add two research modules to the space station in 2022.
The launch is scheduled for a one-hour period beginning at 11 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0300 GMT; 11 a.m. Beijing time Thursday), according to publicly-released airspace warning notices. Several sources suggest the launch is scheduled for approximately 11:18 p.m. EDT (0318 GMT), although the Chinese government has not disclosed an exact liftoff time.
China has not announced any plans to broadcast the launch live on state-run television.
The liftoff of the Tianhe core module begins the most ambitious project in the history of China’s human spaceflight program, which seeks to create its own space station after being shut out of the International Space Station, led by U.S. and Russian space agencies.
The core element of the space station will blast off on China’s most powerful launcher, the Long March 5B, with 10 engines burning liquid hydrogen and kerosene fuel. The 176-foot-tall (53.7-meter) Long March 5B rocket rolled out to its launch pad Friday at the Wenchang spaceport on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province.
Gantry arms folded into position around the rocket to allow ground teams to finish preparations for liftoff. Liquid hydrogen, kerosene, and liquid oxygen propellants will begin loading into the Long March 5B a few hours before launch.
The fully-fueled Long March 5B rocket will weigh more than 1.8 million pounds (849 metric tons) at launch. The rocket’s liquid-fueled engines will power the launcher off the pad with about 2.4 million pounds of thrust, guiding the rocket toward the southeast from Wenchang over the South China Sea.
The Long March 5B will shed its four expendable strap-on boosters about three minutes after liftoff, and the rocket’s payload fairing will jettison about 3 minutes, 40 seconds, into the mission. The rocket’s cryogenic center stage will place the Tianhe spacecraft into orbit and deploy the space station module about eight minutes after launch.
The Long March 5B is a variant of China’s heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket specially designed to haul heavy elements of China’s space station into orbit. The Long March 5B flies without the Long March 5’s second stage, making room for a large spacecraft to fit inside the rocket’s payload shroud.
China demonstrated the Long March 5B rocket on a successful test flight in May 2020, proving the rocket’s readiness to launch components of the Chinese space station. Six Long March 5 rockets have launched in various configurations, and the last four Long March 5 missions have been successful, with five successes overall.
The Tianhe module measures more than 54.4 feet (16.6 meters) long, has a maximum diameter of around 13.8 feet (4.2 meters), and has a launch weight of roughly 49,600 pounds (22.5 metric tons), according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. It’s the largest and heaviest spacecraft ever built in China.
The core module resembles the first section of Russia’s Mir space station, but the Tianhe spacecraft is longer and heavier.
The 11 missions to kick off assembly of China’s space station include the the launch of three pressurized modules on Long March 5B rockets and resupply flights using Tianzhou cargo freighters launched on Long March 7 rockets from Wenchang. The flights will also include Shenzhou crew capsules launched on Long March 2F rockets from Jiuquan, an inland spaceport in the Gobi Desert in China’s Inner Mongolia region.
China launched two Tiangong prototype space labs in 2011 and 2016 to test out technologies for the permanently-occupied space station.
The Tiangong 1 space lab hosted two Shenzhou crew in 2012 and 2013, and China’s most recent human spaceflight mission — Shenzhou 11 — docked with the Tiangong 2 module in 2016.
In total, China has launched six astronaut missions on Shenzhou capsules since 2003.
China also launched a test flight of the Tianzhou supply ship, similar in function to Russia’s Progress or SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon capsule supporting the International Space Station. The first Tianzhou freighter took off on a Long March 7 rocket in 2017 and docked with the Tiangong 2 space lab, proving out automated docking and in-orbit refueling technology.
After the Tiangong pathfinders verified key technologies for the Chinese space station, officials are moving ahead with integrating the complex in low Earth orbit between 210 miles (340 kilometers) and 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth.
Once the Tianhe module is in orbit, Chinese space officials will complete preparations for launch of a Long March 7 rocket in May carrying the Tianzhou 2 resupply ship. The cargo freighter will automatically dock with the Tianhe module a few days after launch, setting the stage for liftoff of a Long March 2F from the Jiuquan space base as soon as June with the first astronaut crew to visit the nascent space station.
Chinese officials have said they have selected crew members for the Shenzhou 12 mission, and astronaut training is underway. The astronauts will carry out multiple spacewalks on their mission to link up with the Tianhe module in orbit.
The Tianhe core module has handrails to assist astronauts moving around outside the space station on spacewalks.
Chinese officials say the space station is designed to operate for more than 10 years. Once assembly is complete, the station will be able to permanently host three astronauts, with short-term stays of six astronauts possible during crew changeovers.
The core module has an internal living volume of about 1,765 cubic feet (50 cubic meters), according to Xinhua. With all three modules, the living space will grow to 3,884 cubic feet (110 cubic meters). For comparison, NASA says the International Space Station has a habitable volume of 13,696 cubic feet (388 cubic meters).
One of the two research modules scheduled for launch next year, named Wentian, will have a larger airlock than the Tianhe core module to support spacewalks, plus a robotic arm to move payloads and science experiments outside the space station.
The other research module, named Mengtian, is similar to Wentian but has a special airlock to transfer cargo and instruments between the interior and exterior of the space station, Xinhua said.
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.
Benchmark Space Systems and Starfish Space team up to advance orbital docking and refueling
Humans may not have totally mastered getting objects to space, but we’ve done a pretty good job so far. The hundreds of satellites that orbit the Earth are proof enough that ‘send stuff to space’ is firmly in humanity’s capacity. But what about refueling, repairing, or even adding capabilities to spacecraft or satellites once they’re up there?
In the past few years, a host of companies have started to turn what has long been seen as a pipe dream into a real possibility. Now, satellite servicing company Starfish Space and space mobility provider Benchmark Space Systems will be entering into a new partnership aimed at advancing these much-needed capabilities – and their first demonstration will take place next month, on space startup Orbit Fab’s Tanker 1 mission.
Orbit Fab, which was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in 2019, will be sending up an operational fuel depot on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in June. The tanker is the first of what Orbit Fab is envisioning as a “gas station in space” – in-orbit propellant available to satellite customers who will no longer be limited in terms of their spacecraft’s active life by the amount of fuel they take up on launch.
Benchmark Space Systems and Orbit Fab already have an agreement to combine Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system and the fuel depot startup’s fluid transfer interface (imagine a refueling apparatus) into an integrated propulsion package.
This is where Starfish Space comes in. It will be testing its CEPHALOPOD rendezvous, proximity operations and docking (RPOD) software with Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system to make sure that the refueling demonstration is as accurate as possible. The RPOD software is entirely autonomous and can give small servicing vehicles up to 8 times more maneuvering capability, the company says.
Demonstration missions like the one in June are just the beginning. Refueling capacity could not only extend the mission length of satellites and other spacecraft, it could help open the door to new types of space missions and the emerging space economy.
Aevum is building a modular autonomous drone for space and terrestrial deliveries
Logistics and delivery providers are territorially split between Earth and space, with companies like Amazon and FedEx working to master ground, air and drone transportation, and new entrants like SpaceX honing its expertise in space launch.
Autonomous transportation startup Aevum wants to do both. And it was just issued a patent that will help it move dexterously between space launch to low Earth orbit, and air cargo and drone deliveries here on Earth.
The key is Aevum’s unmanned aircraft system, which it calls Ravn X. So far, Aevum has only publicly discussed its plans for the Ravn X in the context of space launches. It works like this: the Ravn X uses conventional jet fuel and takes off from an airport runway, like a plane, but it has a rocket nested in its belly that deploys at high altitude to deliver payload to space. As the second stage detaches, the Ravn X returns to Earth using conventional touch-down techniques, ready for another delivery.
The new Aevum patent, which was issued on May 4, is for a unique modular payload design positioned in the belly of the drone. With the new system described in the patent, that rocket payload module can be switched out for a cargo bay to carry deliveries around the world, or a drone module that can carry up to 264 smaller drones for last-mile delivery services. Theoretically, the Ravn X could depart from an airport, deliver its payload to space, return back to the airport to be reloaded with a filled cargo module, then take off again for earthbound deliveries.
While the exact amount a Ravn X can carry depends on the distance it’s traveling, the Ravn X air cargo will be able to carry up to 15,000 lbs and the space delivery payload will be able to carry up to 330 lbs. As of now, the rockets are expendable, but the company has plans for 100% reusability across its space launch and air cargo operations.
Aevum’s business model includes operating autonomous transportation and logistics as a service and partnering with existing logistics providers. One interesting possibility for the company is partnerships with logistics giants that so far have been effectively cut-off from space deliveries due to the vertically integrated models of companies like SpaceX, which handles logistics and launch services in-house.
“We aim to enable FedEx, Amazon, UPS, DHL, and others to build upon the logistics infrastructure they have already mastered,” Aevum CEO Jay Skylus said. “Any or all of these respected giants could partner with Aevum or purchase a fleet of Ravn X for their own and add space launch to their offerings. Space logistics should no longer be separated from general logistics.”
Likewise, large companies that have struggled to establish drone delivery services could use the Ravn X’s drone module to deliver and deposit drones over a central area, like a city center, for last-mile deliveries.
“The patent is so significant because what the patent allows you to do is say – the existing FedEx and UPS logistics architecture that’s sorting 70,000 packages an hour right now could not service the needs of defense and space because fundamentally that logistics infrastructure was designed to go from Earth to Earth and not Earth to space,” Skylus explained. “But if you really look at the problem and study it in detail, you know the missing link to allow this existing infrastructure to now be able to service the space domain – that missing link is what we just patented.”
Skylus imagines Ravn X fleets operating around-the-clock. “In my company, what matters is asset utilization. For any reusable flying machine, it doesn’t generate revenue on the ground. My machines will fly around the clock, every day,” he said in a statement.
The company still has a ways to go before it still takes to the skies, however. Ravn X is still undergoing ground test operations and will begin flight testing this year at an FAA-licensed testing facility for unmanned aircraft systems. Aevum’s intention is to fly with the United States Air Force’s ASLON-45 mission this fall and to take its air cargo service live next year.
Because the Ravn X has so many different capabilities, it will need to pursue a few different FAA certifications: for space launches, a license from the FAA Commercial Space Transportation office; for cargo operations, an FAA aircraft type certification and standard airworthiness certification.
“What we’ve patented is the next layer and large batch of connections in the global logistics infrastructure,” Skylus said. “Space logistics shouldn’t be separated from logistics that already exist.”
Aevum’s autonomous aircraft will deliver cargo and launch rockets
The company says space launch is only going to be a part-time job for Ravn X.
WASHINGTON — Space launch startup Aevum on May 18 revealed that its Ravn X unmanned aircraft will be used to both deliver cargo and launch rockets, pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Alabama-based company on May 4 received a patent for an “adaptive autonomous aircraft system with modular payload systems,” a technology that would allow Ravn X to be converted from a space launcher to a cargo delivery aircraft and vice versa.
Before receiving this patent, Aevum had been vague about its business plan, touting its autonomous aircraft as the first stage of a launch system that releases expendable rockets from under its belly.
The company is now saying that space launch is only going to be a part-time job for Ravn X. The aircraft is expected to mostly perform cargo and drone delivery services, and launch rockets eight to 10 times a year, said Aevum’s founder and CEO Jay Skylus.
Since the company was started in 2016 the plan was always to be a “logistics company and not just a rocket company,” he said. “I just couldn’t really talk about it.”
Skylus said Ravn X will be capable of transporting cargo around the world and deploy rockets to space “simply by swapping out the type of payload module it carries on its belly.”
The autonomously operated Ravn X weighs 55,000 pounds, is 80 feet in length with a 60-foot wingspan. For package deliveries, the cargo module could deploy up to 264 smaller drones, Skylus said. He noted that the aircraft will be able to fly from any airport or spaceport that has a mile-long runway, a hangar and regular jet fuel.
Aevum knew from the beginning that it couldn’t be profitable just launching rockets to space, said Skylus. “What matters is asset utilization. For any reusable flying machine, it doesn’t generate revenue on the ground. My machines will fly around the clock, every day.”
Ravn X’s cargo capacity per flight is 15,000 pounds, comparable to an 18-wheeler traveling by road.
Skylus said Ravn X will fly for the first time later this year. Aevum has not yet set a target date for its first orbital space launch.
Aevum currently has one Ravn X non-flight capable airframe for ground tests, which the company unveiled in December. Skylus said two more aircraft are in production and will be used for flight testing.
The company does not disclose the sources of its private funding. Skylus said Aevum has won classified intelligence community and DoD space launch contracts, including a $4.9 million deal in 2019 to deploy a 100-kilogram military satellite called the Agile Small Launch Operational Normalizer (ASLON)-45.
An uncrewed aircraft as the carrier platform for rockets is an attractive option for the military, Skylus said, because the vehicle is not restricted to specific launch sites and missions can be scheduled on short notice.
In an interview with SpaceNews, Skylus said the company likely could not survive as just a small satellite launcher. “Eight launches for $40 million is not an attractive business for most people,” he said. “Now we can claim that we can be sustainable because we’re not just doing those eight launches, we’re flying air cargo.”
He noted that a drone as large as Ravn X has never been certified by the FAA for commercial operations. The company is now pursuing both FAA airworthiness certification and commercial space launch licensing.
Lockheed Martin opens new F-16 production line amid new demand
To support the growing demand for new F-16s from partner nations, Lockheed Martin is opening a new production line.
The Block 70/72 aircraft will be produced at the company’s facility in Greenville, South Carolina.
The line is the only production facility for F-16s in the world, opening three years after the company’s long-time F-16 line in Fort Worth, Texas, wrapped up production.
Recently, and on behalf of five foreign military partners, USAF awarded Lockheed Martin approximately $14 billion to build 128 F-16s at the facility through to 2026.
The first F-16s are expected to roll off the production line in 2022, and production is expected to increase after the first year. The aircraft will be delivered to multiple foreign military partners, including Bahrain, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Taiwan, and others, many of whom have expressed interest beyond the first deliveries.
More aircraft are expected to be built in the upcoming years, and there are requests for F-16s under review from additional foreign military partners.
“This new production line is very significant,” said Brian Pearson, integrated product team lead for F-16 foreign military sales, with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Fighters and Advanced Aircraft Directorate, which is leading the effort to build and deliver the new F-16s. “There are 25 nations operating F-16s today, and they have a lot of expertise with the airframe. The line helps us meet the global demand that a number of nations have for [F-16] aircraft and gives us the additional capability to provide the aircraft to countries interested in purchasing it for the first time.”
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