Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch

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After a couple of months away we’re returning with our periodic roundup of happenings in orbit, as we tear you away from Star Trek: Discovery and The Mandalorian, and bring you up to date with some highlights from the real world of space. We’ve got a launch to look forward to this week, as well as a significant anniversary.

The ISS as it looked twenty years ago. NASA (Crew of STS-106), Public domain.
The ISS as it looked twenty years ago. NASA (Crew of STS-106), Public domain.

A quiet but extremely significant anniversary first up: in the week that this is being written we’ve passed the 20-year anniversary of a continuous human presence in space aboard the ISS. The geopolitical map of the world may have swirled around down on the surface over the last couple of decades, but American, Russian, Canadian, European, and Japanese astronauts and cosmonauts with all their modules and experiments have continually passed over our heads in an island of international harmony and scientific endeavour. There appears to be political uncertainty over how long the station will eventually serve, however for now its future seems assured with talk of its use in research for Mars missions and for commercial expansion modules.

SpaceX’s Starlink global satellite broadband project has been in the news. As any long-term space-watchers will know, there is a failure rate among satellites and it’s not uncommon for craft to be lost before they can come into service, and in this Starlink is no exception. Their failure figure was reported as 2.5% leading to a possible thousand or so dead satellites in orbit by the completion of the constellation, but revised calculations from the astronomer Jonathan McDowell show an impressive improvement over the different series’ of launches. The latest launches boast a failure rate of only 0.2%, which almost certainly corresponds to some impressive behind-the-scenes work from the SpaceX engineers.

If you remember Nokia only for their dominance of the consumer mobile phone market over a decade ago then you may not be aware that they remain a major player in the world of cellular phone infrastructure, even if their handset glory days are behind them. As such they’ve been selected by NASA to deploy the first 4G cellular network off-planet, on the lunar surface. So if you’re in a spot with poor signal down on Earth you can now complain that even astronauts have better service than you! Jokes aside, the network won’t be an extension of the ones we use down here. Instead it will use 4G technologies to provide reliable on-moon communication for voice, video, and telemetry across the whole surface of NASA’s area of operations. The system will consist of space-hardened and miniaturised base stations that will be robotically deployed, so there are unlikely to be astronaut cell tower engineers working on the moon any time soon.

The story to look out for this week will be the launch of SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission to the ISS on the 14th of November. We all saw the first manned Crew Dragon test mission earlier in the year, and this will form the first operational crew launch of the capsule. This mission has been delayed since August due to some technical issues for the SpaceX engineers to iron out. We wish them every success, and will let out a sigh of relief when we watch the hatch open and them coming aboard their new orbiting home.

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