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Argentine team returns to Florida to prep radar satellite for late July launch

Team members pose with the SAOCOM 1B radar imaging satellite before it was shipped from Argentina to Cape Canaveral earlier this year. Credit: CONAE

A team of 18 Argentine engineers is quarantining in Florida this week after arriving from Buenos Aires, observing coronavirus health restrictions before beginning operations at Cape Canaveral next week to ready Argentina’s second radar Earth observation satellite for liftoff as soon as July 25 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Officials suspended preparations for the launch of Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B radar imaging satellite in March due to concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic. The mission was previously scheduled for launch March 30.

Mission managers and engineers from CONAE — Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities — and SAOCOM 1B satellite manufacturer INVAP arrived in Miami on Saturday aboard a commercial flight from Buenos Aires. The team members were expected to quarantine in a hotel for eight days and drive to Cape Canaveral to resume preparations for launch of the SAOCOM 1B spacecraft.

The SAOCOM 1B satellite was flown in a transport plane from Argentina to Cape Canaveral in February. After officials announced the launch delay in March, engineers placed the spacecraft in storage at a SpaceX facility in Florida to await the resumption of launch preparations.

CONAE, which manages the SAOCOM 1B mission, cited “restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic” on the launch and on operations of the satellite as the reason for the launch delay.

Engineers prepare to depart Argentina en route to Florida to resume SAOCOM 1B launch preparations. Credit: CONAE

The SAOCOM 1B engineers who traveled to Florida tested negative for the COVID-19 virus before departing Argentina. They will be tested for the virus again before they are permitted to enter SpaceX facilities at Cape Canaveral, according to CONAE.

The engineers will begin tasks Monday, July 13, to ready the 6,600-pound (3,000-kilogram) SAOCOM 1B spacecraft for launch. The team will verify the health of the satellite after coming out of three months in storage, then encapsulate the spacecraft inside the payload fairing of its Falcon 9 launcher.

Argentine officials said the launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is scheduled between July 25 and July 30. The launch time each day is set for approximately 7:19 p.m. EDT (2319 GMT).

The launch of SAOCOM 1B in late July is currently third in line on SpaceX’s busy launch manifest.

SpaceX is preparing for launch of a Falcon 9 rocket Wednesday from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center — a few miles north of pad 40. Another Falcon 9 is scheduled for liftoff July 14 from pad 40 with South Korea’s Anasis 2 military communications satellite.

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

Engineers in Argentina will participate in the launch campaign remotely, assisting in virtual readiness reviews before ground controllers take command of the SAOCOM 1B satellite after launch.

SAOCOM 1B is the second of two identical radar observation satellites developed by CONAE, following the SAOCOM 1A satellite launched in October 2018 on a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The satellite’s purpose is to scan the Earth with an L-band steerable synthetic aperture radar, enabling all-weather imagery of the planet day and night. Radar imagers can see through clouds and are effective 24 hours a day, but optical cameras are hindered by clouds and darkness.

When it launches with SAOCOM 1B, the Falcon 9 rocket head south from Cape Canaveral to deploy the spacecraft into a polar orbit 385 miles (620 kilometers) above Earth. The flight will be the first rocket launch from Florida’s Space Coast since 1960 to target a polar orbit.

SAOCOM 1B was originally supposed to launch from Vandenberg on the West Coast, the primary U.S. launch base for polar orbit missions. SpaceX moved the launch to Cape Canaveral because the company’s launch schedule at Vandenberg is relatively quiet this year, with no Falcon 9 launches planned from there until November.

The move allowed SpaceX to temporarily reduce its staff at Vandenberg, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said last year.

A 220-pound (100-kilogram) commercial radar imaging satellite owned by Capella Space, a San Francisco-based company, will accompany SAOCOM 1B into orbit on top of the Falcon 9 rocket. It will be the second satellite launched for Capella, which is developing a fleet of small spacecraft it says can be tasked in real-time by customers and collect imagery day and night with a resolution of about 1.6 feet (50 centimeters).

A radio occultation microsatellite for PlanetiQ is also booked to launch with SAOCOM 1B and Capella’s radar satellite.

The GNOMES microsatellite is the first of a planned fleet of around 20 small spacecraft being developed by PlanetiQ to collect radio occultation data by measuring the effects of the atmosphere on signals broadcast by GPS, Glonass, Galileo and Beidou navigation satellites. The information can yield data on atmospheric conditions useful in weather forecasts.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Coronavirus work stoppage likely to delay launch of NASA X-ray astronomy mission

Artist’s concept of the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer. Credit: NASA

A nearly three-month stoppage of on-site work due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus at NASA’s Marshall Space Fight Center in Alabama is expected to push back the launch of the IXPE X-ray astronomy satellite from May 2021 until some time later next year, a senior space agency official said.

The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, mission is assigned to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. IXPE is designed to measure the polarization of high-energy cosmic X-rays, collecting data that will allow astronomers to study the unseen environment around black holes, neutron stars and pulsars, the extremely dense collapsed remains left behind by exploding stars.

Astronomers hope IXPE will reveal the spin of black holes, and yield new discoveries about the extreme magnetic fields around a special type of neutron star called magnetars.

In order to obtain the sensitivity required for the X-ray research, the IXPE observatory will host three identical X-ray telescopes that will be extended after launch on a 13-foot (4-meter) boom. Built at Marshall Space Flight Center, the mirror module assemblies at the end of the boom will focus X-rays onto detectors provided by ASI, the Italian space agency.

Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division, said June 23 that work on assembling the mirrors at Marshall was delayed after the space center in Huntsville, Alabama, was closed to all non-essential personnel in March amid escalating numbers of coronavirus cases in the area.

After developing new safety protocols, teams resume in-person work on the mirrors in late May, Hertz said in a presentation to NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee.

Hertz said IXPE was “probably the most seriously impacted” by the coronavirus pandemic of all of NASA’s Explorer-class missions, a set of small-to-medium size scientific spacecraft designed to pursue questions in astrophysics and solar physics.

“The reason is COVID hit right when we were integrating the mirrors down at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and that is the critical path,” Hertz said. “So when Marshall shut down for three months, nothing happened on the critical path for three months.”

Some work on IXPE has continued, Hertz said.

Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado, kept working on the IXPE spacecraft bus, which will host the X-ray mirrors and detectors. And Italian scientists providing the mission’s X-ray detectors finished their work and prepared them for shipment to the United States, once international travel restrictions allow Italian team members to accompany the hardware to help integrate it into the spacecraft.

“The collective safety of our IXPE team continues to be the number one priority,” said Molly Porter, a NASA spokesperson. “We’re slowly and methodically resuming mission-critical work that cannot be done off site. This includes several tasks for the in-house production of IXPE’s mirror modules at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

“We are still assessing COVID-19’s impacts to cost and schedule,” Porter said.

The team at Marshall will assemble, calibrate and test the mirrors before shipping the flight units to Ball Aerospace for integration on the spacecraft, Hertz said.

NASA also anticipates a budget impact to the IXPE mission from the delay.

“So IXPE did have a three-month delay,” Hertz said. “This happened right at the peak burn rate for IXPE, and we would have completed work and rolled staff off, but the work didn’t complete, so we didn’t roll staff. So not only was it a schedule hit, it was also a budget hit.”

NASA selected IXPE to become the next in the agency’s line of Small Explorer missions in January 2017. At the time, NASA said the IXPE mission would cost $188 million, covering development of the spacecraft and its X-ray telescope payload, a launch vehicle, and two years of operations.

NASA last year signed a $50.3 million contract with SpaceX to launch the IXPE satellite on a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster from the Kennedy Space Center. According to Porter, IXPE is currently predicted to weigh around 743 pounds (337 kilograms) at launch, and will deploy off the Falcon 9 rocket into an unusual 335-mile-high (540-kilometer) equatorial orbit with an inclination of 0.2 degrees.

The orbit hugging the equator will minimize the X-ray instrument’s exposure to radiation in the South Atlantic Anomaly, the region where the inner Van Allen radiation belt comes closest to Earth’s surface.

“I think that certainly IXPE was the most impacted (of NASA’s Explorer missions) because of the timing of when work stopped,” Hertz said. “They were at the worst time for us to stop work of all of our small missions.”

File photo of a Falcon 9 rocket taking off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: SpaceX

NASA’s other Explorer-class missions being prepared for launch have experienced fewer impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

GUSTO, a high-altitude balloon-borne infrared telescope to study the interstellar medium, remains on track for launch from Antarctica in December 2021. NASA’s SPHEREx satellite is scheduled for launch in 2024 on a mission to survey galaxies and search for clues about the formation of ices that could seed life on planets.

Hertz said two major subcontractors working on the SPHEREx mission could not start work on schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic. That caused some delays, but the SPHEREx mission is still relatively early in development, not in the peak phase of assembly and testing like IXPE.

It is too early to know how the coronavirus-related delays might affect NASA’s budget for astrophysics missions, Hertz said.

“We don’t actually know what the final impact will be because we don’t know what the trajectory is for the country and all of our industry partners and academic partners for recovering from the pandemic and getting back to work,” Hertz said. “So for some missions, it’s easy to see like IXPE because there’s a single path right now as we’re integrating it up.

“For the Explorers, we’ll be able to handle the impacts within the resources that I think we have within the program,” he said.

Hertz said he believes NASA’s budget for the James Webb Space Telescope, which has cost more to develop than any space science mission in history, also has “adequate” funding reserves “to encompass all possible predictions of what the COVID impact is.”

“I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me, but right now it does look like we have in place appropriate reserves on Webb,” Hertz said.

NASA established a new budget for Webb in 2018 that covered an expected development cost of $8.8 billion. That does not include international contributions or operating costs after the observatory’s launch.

Like IXPE, Webb experienced a slowdown in work due to the coronavirus. Teams worked at about 40 percent efficiency for several months, but starting staffing at higher levels in June to prepare for a series of key ground tests later this year.

Webb’s launch is expected to be delayed from its previous target of March 30, 2021, but NASA has not yet released an updated schedule.

More than half of the this year’s budget for NASA’s astrophysics program goes toward the James Webb Space Telescope and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, formerly known as WFIRST. Those are NASA’s next two “great observatories.”

The Roman telescope is scheduled for launch in 2025.

“On Roman, I’m just unsure of what the impact (from COVID-19) will be because Roman is doing fine today, but there’s some work that’s not getting done today, so it’s being deferred into the future,” Hertz said. “But that work is funded. So whether we’re just redistributing the work and the money, and it’s not really a cost growth, or whether there’s inefficiencies that amount to something substantial on Roman, I think it’s too early for us to tell.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.