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NASA and partners Boeing and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are gearing up for a crucial milestone moment on Friday: The ‘Orbital Flight Test’ (OFT) of the Boeing Starliner CST-100 Crew Capsule. The capsule, a spacecraft designed to carry astronauts on board from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program, will be launched on an Atlas V rocket provided by ULA – without anyone on board this time, but in a mission that is one of the last key steps before astronauts take their first ride.

What’s happening

On Friday, pending weather and everything else cooperates, ULA’s Atlas V rocket will carry the Boeing Starliner CST-100 crew capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). This launch will be essentially a full run-through of the forthcoming Crew Flight Test (CFT), the first flight of the Boeing crewed spacecraft with actual astronauts on board.

While this is one key component before that CFT mission takes place, it’s not the only one remaining: Starliner must still undergo three remaining reliability tests for its parachute system, on top of the data gained about this crucial component of the overall launcher, before the spacecraft is certified for regular service transporting astronauts to and from the ISS in a non-testing capacity.

During the mission, the Starliner will ascend atop the Atlas V rocket to a heigh of 98 nautical miles, at which point it’ll separate from the rocket and continue under its own power for the remainder of the trip to orbit, where it’ll rendez-vous with the ISS for docking. Astronauts on board the ISS will assist with docking using the station’s robotic arm, and then unload around 600 lbs of equipment and supplies that’s being carried aboard the crew capsule as a secondary mission, before the capsule undocks and returns to Earth.

When and where it’s going down

The launch is scheduled for Friday morning, December 20th at 6:36 AM EST (3:36 AM PST). It’ll launch from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and currently weather conditions are looking 80% favorable based on current forecasts, which means that as it stands there’s a good chance weather will be within acceptable limits for take-off.

The launch window is instantaneous, meaning that it only open for that specific time and if anything prevents the launch from happening, there are backup dates potentially available either December 21 and 23 – as well as options on either Christmas Day or a few days following. After launch, the Starliner will dock with the station on the morning of December 21, and then spend around a week at the ISS, before undocking on December 28 for its return trip. The journey back is as important as the trip to the ISS in terms of proving out the spacecraft’s proper functioning.

What happens after that

Should everything go to plan, Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 will be much closer to its ultimate goal of transporting people to space. As mentioned above, the parachute system still requires some additional testing for certification purposes, but the crewed CFT test launch should happen sometime in “early 2020” according to Boeing provided everything meets their strict requirements in terms of safety and other readiness standards.

On Wednesday, ULA rolled out its mobile launch platform and the Atlas V rocket to the launchpad in preparation for Friday’s mission. The teams will now conduct pre-launch preparations leading up to Friday, a process it already conducted in dress rehearsal mode covering everything right up to the actual ignition two weeks ago.

We’ll have live coverage of the launch right here on TechCrunch as it happens, and a summary of how the launch went immediately following, so check back Friday for updates.


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NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will have to operate on its own in a harsh environment, hundred of millions of miles from the nearest mechanic. But for now, it’s still in development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab – and every milestone is an important one. Including supporting its own weight, fully assembled and resting on its own six wheels, which is what the rover managed this week.

This stand-up test is one of many the rover is undergoing, including testing its nuclear-powered engine, its ability to move its wheels, its sensor arrays and navigation systems. The six-wheeled robotic exploration platform is readying for its scheduled July 2020 launch, which will see it sent to the Red Planet to carry on and augment the mission of the Mars Curiosity rover.

Mars2020 rover 2

NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover. Credit: NASA

Curiosity launched in 2011, and landed on Mars in August of 2012. This earlier rover was designed for a two-year mission, but it got an indefinite mission extension in 2012, and it’s still operational after switching computers earlier this year following a crash – a full seven years after its original landing.

The Mars 2020 rover has received a number of upgrades vs. Curiosity, which you’d probably expect given that the team developing the newer rover has the benefit of multiple years of experience running a robotic rover platform on the surface of Mars. Mars 2020 features upgrades like improved environmental durability, and it’ll carry a host of different scientific and research equipment to complement Curiosity’s capabilities.


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