IF there was ever any doubt that we are living in a new golden age of space discovery, then this week should dispel all misgivings.
The world is currently engaged in a spate of frenetic exploration the like of which has not been seen since the era of the Apollo Missions during the late 1960s and early 70s. From advanced satellite launches and spacewalks to plans for a mission to Mars and the study of asteroids heading near Earth, the sky above our planet haver never been so full of human activity.
SpaceX, the commercial space transport company, was due to launch the latest privately-owned communications satellites into orbit from ASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida last night at 11pm, as the Sunday Herald went to press.
The SES 11/EchoStar 105 satellite, made by Airbus Defense and Space, arrived at Cape Canaveral from a factory in Toulouse, France, last month. It will support video distribution and TV broadcasts over North America during its mission.
The satellite was last night heading toward geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles over the equator at 105 degrees west longitude. SES 11/EchoStar 105 was originally due to be launched on October 2 but was delayed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
The satellite was sent up in a Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX, the American aerospace manufacturer founded in 2002 by billionaire Elon Musk. It was the 14th Falcon 9 flight of the year – marking a record pace of launch activity for SpaceX, and the 42nd launch of a Falcon 9 rocket overall.
The European Space Agency will hold its annual open day today at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands, where space missions are first designed, then guided through development and finally tested for orbital readiness.
Visitors will meet astronauts Michael Foale of the UK, Dirk Frimout of Belgium, Ulf Merbold and Ernst Messerschmid of Germany, Dumitru Prunariu of Romania, André Kuipers of the Netherlands and Jean-Jacques Favier and Claudie Haigneré of France.
The seventh annual open day will also include a rare public walkthrough of the European Space Agency’s Test Centre, where satellites are subjected to simulated launch and orbital conditions.
Visitors will be able to see the Phenix thermal vacuum chamber, which exposes satellites to sustained vacuum and temperature extremes for days or weeks at a time, the Large European Acoustic Facility, which blasts satellites with the equivalent sound pressure experienced during a rocket launch, and the Hertz radio-frequency test chamber, which simulates the boundless realm of space to test radio systems as if they are already operating in orbit.
SpaceX operations continue apace with its second launch in as many days when another Falcon 9 will blast Iridium Communications satellites into the atmosphere. Iridium operates a satellite constellation used for worldwide voice and data communication from hand-held satellite phones and other transceiver units. The unique network covers the entire surface of Earth, including poles, oceans and airways.
Monday’s launch will see the third set of 10 new-generation spacecraft for Iridium’s network blasted into orbit. Lift-off of the Iridium satellites, each weighing around 1,896 pounds fully fuelled, from Space Launch Complex 4-East at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is scheduled for 12:37 GMT.
The Iridium flight had previous target launch dates of September 30 and October 4 but SpaceX requested delays to allow additional time for rocket processing.
Tuesday will see NASA astronauts Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei undertake a spacewalk outside the International Space Station.
The spacewalk is expected to last around six hours and will be broadcast live on NASA TV from 1pm.
Also on Tuesday, Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is scheduled to launch a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite from Tanegashima Space Centre.
The Michibiki 4 is part of a constellation of spacecraft intended to improve the accuracy of satellite navigation in built-up areas.
Buildings can block line-of-sight to the satellites and can also reflect or scatter signals, resulting in a multi-path effect which can cause the receiver to miscalculate the distance to the satellite.
The Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) will broadcast additional signals from high angles allowing receivers to pick up the signals without being obstructed or reflected by buildings.
Astronauts Scott Tingle of NASA, Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Norishege Kanai of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) will be feted at Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.
The three astronauts will head to the International Space Station on December 17, launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
NASA will also reveal deep space exploration plans in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Wednesday. When completed the Space Launch System (SLS) will be the most powerful rocket ever built, and is intended to be used for a manned mission to Mars.
On the same day experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats and space archaeologist Alice Gorman will reveal their “welcome mat” for aliens in Los Angeles.
It features a design intended to inform intelligent extraterrestrial life forms that humans are pleased to meet them. The mat’s abstract, geometric pattern is designed to be welcoming to all possible cultures and life-forms.
A prototype of the mat was unveiled at the International Astronautical Congress on September 25. Keats has said that he hopes every home in the world will one day own one of the mats.
The Russian government will launch its International Space Station resupply mission from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Thursday. The 68th Progress cargo delivery ship will be aboard a Soyuz rocket.
After removing the cargo, the space station crew fills Progress with up to 3,748 lbs (1,700 kg) of waste and sends it to burn up in the atmosphere.
When the cargo ship is on its way to the International Space Station it may well be within sight of a small asteroid set to hurtle past Earth on Thursday.
The space rock called 2012 TC4 is expected to miss our planet by 27,000 miles. While it is visible, scientists will study the object thought to be between 15 and 30 metres across.
Eurockot is expected to launch the Sentinel 5 Earth Observation satellite for the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission on Friday from Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia.
Part of the Copernicus Earth Observation Programme, the spacecraft will make global maps of gases and particles in the atmosphere to track pollution and climate change.
The Copernicus project has launched several satellites which collect vast amounts of global data to help service providers, public authorities and other international organisations improve the quality of life for the citizens of Europe.
Copernicus also collects information from in situ systems such as ground stations, which deliver data acquired by a multitude of sensors on the ground, at sea or in the air.
The information services provided by Copernicus are freely and openly accessible to its users.