Space snippets: China lands, Starliner stands, ESA inspects

Far side landing for China spacecraft

Reports out of China suggest its Chang’e 6 probe has landed on the far side of the Moon.

After launching on May 3, the landing marks the second time China has touched down on the Moon’s obscured side.

China hopes Chang’e 6 will retrieve and return about 2kg of lunar soil to an orbiting service module, then back to Earth for analysis.

It is thought samples will give insight into both the massive South Pole-Aitken basin impact crater (where the spacecraft has landed) and the history of the Moon’s formation.

The landing point is at the lunar south pole, a region anticipated to contain water (as ice), which could support permanent bases on the Moon. China wants to land its first astronauts on the surface by 2030. The US is targeting the return of American astronauts for the first time from 2026, though its Artemis mission has been beset by delays.

A rocket on the launchpad
The ULA Atlas V rocket with Starliner mounted on its nose stands at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Starliner delayed again

Issues with the computer ground launch sequencer has added a further delay to a more immediate NASA project.

Boeing’s Starliner space capsule remains mounted to a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after the launch sequence failed to load correctly on Saturday.

The launch was scrubbed, and the next available launch opportunity on Sunday 2 June was passed over. It follows a month of delays due to several faults detected on the ULA and Boeing infrastructure.

Wednesday 5 June (local time) is the next opportunity for the launch. Starliner is part of NASA’s commercial crew program, which contracts private companies to provide space transport services for NASA projects. The current mission is an important milestone in the Boeing Starliner project as the first to send astronauts to the International Space Station on board one of its capsules.

Two women look inside an astronaut habitation facility
Rosemary Coogan explores the Lunar I-Hab mock-up with engineers from Thales Alenia Space. Credit: Thales Alenia Space and Master Programmes/ESA.

ESA tests orbital habitat

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reached a key milestone in building its lunar habitation module, which will be installed in the Gateway, an orbital platform being developed by NASA with international partners.

Gateway will act as a transit station for future missions to the Moon, docking with arriving spacecraft and providing an interchange for transportation to the lunar surface.

ESA and NASA astronauts recently toured the facilities of construction partner Thales Alenia Space to understand the human needs of the Lunar I-Hab module build. The module will act as the main entrance to Gateway and will be installed as part of Artemis IV in 2028.

During the inspection of the under-construction Lunar I-Hab, experienced astronauts Luca Parmitano (Italy, ESA) and Stanley G. Love (US, NASA) along with current ESA astronauts Rosemary Coogan (UK) and Marcus Wandt (Sweden) provided vital perspectives on how the habitat should serve the needs of spacefarers.

ESA says the astronaut input, which marks the start of ‘humans in the loop’ for the project, will enable Thales Alenia to “make informed design choices, identify potential issues and improvement, and evaluate the efficiency, safety, effectiveness, and acceptability of the [Lunar I-Hab design”.

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