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Science and Environment

US billionaire announces three more ambitious SpaceX flights

Issam Ahmed - Agence France-Presse
US billionaire announces three more ambitious SpaceX flights
This handout photo courtesy of Polaris Program taken on February 11, 2022 and obtained on February 14, 2022 shows the SpaceX Polaris Dawn crew (From L) Jared Isaacman, Mission Commander, Anna Menon, Mission Specialist and Medical Officer, Sarah Gillis, Mission Specialist, and Scott Poteet, Mission pilot, posing for a photo. Billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chartered the first all-civilian orbital spaceflight, announced Monday three more private missions with SpaceX -- which will include spacewalking and culminate in the first crewed flight of the next-generation Starship rocket. The first, named Polaris Dawn, will take place no sooner than the fourth quarter of this year, and will be commanded by Isaacman, the founder of payment processing company Shift4, according to a statement. The program represents a new step for the commercial space sector, as Elon Musk's SpaceX seeks to carry out ambitious exploration missions, formerly the domain of national space agencies.
John KRAUS / Polaris Program / AFP

WASHINGTON, United States — US billionaire Jared Isaacman, who chartered the first all-civilian orbital spaceflight, announced Monday three more private missions with SpaceX — which will include spacewalking and culminate in the first crewed flight of the next-generation Starship rocket.

The first, named Polaris Dawn, will take place no sooner than the fourth quarter of this year, and will be commanded by Isaacman, the founder of payment processing company Shift4.

The program represents a new step for the commercial space sector, as Elon Musk's SpaceX seeks to carry out more ambitious missions that were until now the domain of national space agencies.

In a press call, Isaacman revealed that the Polaris Program, named after the North Star, will be co-funded by himself and SpaceX. He declined to give further details such as total cost, or the percentage each side would contribute. 

It is however widely expected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"This program has been purposefully designed to advance long duration spaceflight capabilities... guiding us towards the ultimate goal of facilitating Mars exploration," Isaacman told reporters.

He is an experienced pilot who last year led the Inspiration4 mission, which saw four civilian crew complete a three-day orbital mission aboard a SpaceX Dragon, raising $240 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. 

For Polaris Dawn, the crew will journey deeper into space than any Dragon has previously flown — with Isaacman indicating the altitude would be similar to NASA's Project Gemini, the agency's second crewed spaceflight program in the 1960s. 

Gemini 11 flew around 850 miles (1370 kilometers) high, which is far deeper into space than more recent missions to the International Space Station, 250 miles high. 

But it is still well short of the journey to the Moon during the Apollo-era, which is roughly 239,000 miles — or 30 Earths back-to-back — away.

The Polaris Dawn crew will also attempt the first commercial spacewalk, which will require new extravehicular space suits that have yet to be developed.

Since Dragon has no airlock, the whole spacecraft will be exposed to the vacuum of space when the hatch is opened. 

The crew will "make sure that everything is secured very well before we open that hatch," mission specialist and medical officer Anna Menon said.

Launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket, the spacecraft will spend up to five days in orbit.

The crew's intended altitude will see them enter the inner Van Allen belt, a region of dangerous radiation that protects the Earth from solar wind.

Dragon's hull and the new spacesuits will help protect the crew, who will be measuring radiation exposure throughout, added Menon, a former NASA employee whose husband Anil Menon was selected in the latest cohort of NASA astronaut candidates.

"We had just told our four-year-old son that daddy was going to be an astronaut and our son's first response was, 'Mama, when are you going to be an astronaut?'" she said — with her invitation to join Isaacman's mission coming just weeks later.

Starship mission

The crew includes former US Air Force Colonel Scott Poteet — an executive at Isaacman's companies Shift4 and private aerospace contractor Draken International — as its pilot. 

Rounding out the quartet is Sarah Gillis, SpaceX's lead space operations engineer, who will assume the role of mission specialist.

During the mission, they will also test laser-based communication in space using SpaceX's Starlink satellite network, and conduct medical research such as studying decompression sickness, the impacts of space radiation and the effects of spaceflight on eye health.

The last of the three missions will involve a SpaceX Starship rocket, which when complete will be the biggest and most powerful spacecraft ever built. 

Musk sees the vessel as key to fulfilling his vision of colonizing Mars, while a version has been contracted by NASA as a lunar lander for the Artemis program, which is set to return humans to the Moon around the middle of this decade.

SPACEX

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: June 5, 2022 - 10:52am

Monitor major developments on space explorations and the status of missions.

June 5, 2022 - 10:52am

State broadcaster CCTV says China launched a rocket carrying three astronauts on a mission to complete the construction of its new space station, the latest milestone in Beijing's drive to become a major space power.

The trio blasted off in a Long March-2F rocket at (0244 GMT) from the Jiuquan launch center in northwestern China's Gobi desert, with the team expected to spend six months expanding the Tiangong space station. — AFP

May 13, 2022 - 10:54am

That's one small pot of soil, one giant leap for man's knowledge of space agriculture: scientists have for the first time grown plants in lunar soil brought back by astronauts in the Apollo program.

The ground-breaking experiment, detailed in the journal Communications Biology on Thursday, has given researchers hope that it may be possible to one day grow plants directly on the Moon.

That would save future space missions much hassle and expense, facilitating longer and farther trips.

However, according to the study's University of Florida authors, much remains to be studied on the topic, and they intend to leave no stone unturned. -- AFP

May 6, 2022 - 2:42pm

NASA's Crew-3 mission returns home to Earth on Friday after six months aboard the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Dragon Endurance spacecraft with NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Tom Marshburn, as well as European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, undocked from the orbital laboratory a day earlier.

Their 23.5 hour journey back saw them splash down off the coast of Florida at 12:43 am (0443 GMT).

"On behalf of the entire SpaceX team, welcome home," a SpaceX official said to the crew moments after the capsule splashed down. — AFP

April 25, 2022 - 10:03am

The crew of the first fully private mission to the International Space Station departed the orbiting laboratory on Monday to head back to Earth.

The three businessmen and a former NASA astronaut had spent more than two weeks on the station on a history-making mission organized by startup company Axiom Space.

The SpaceX capsule undocked from the ISS at 0110 GMT for the return trip and was scheduled to land in the ocean off the coast of Florida at around 1:00 pm local time (1700 GMT). — AFP

April 16, 2022 - 10:27am

State broadcaster CCTV says three Chinese astronauts landed in northern China on Saturday after 183 days in space, ending the country's longest crewed space mission to date.

The Shenzhou-13 spacecraft is the latest mission in Beijing's drive to become a major space power rivalling the US, after landing a rover on Mars and sending probes to the Moon.

The two men and one woman -- Zhai Zhigang, Ye Guangfu and Wang Yaping -- landed in a small capsule shortly before 10 am Beijing time, after six months aboard the Tianhe core module of China's Tiangong space station. — AFP

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