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Cameras in various locations at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center capture the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying NASA’s TESS planet-hunting telescope.

Video: NASA TV.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at 6:51 p.m. EDT (2251 GMT) with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II/Spaceflight Now

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, built to find planets around other stars that are close enough for detailed follow-ups by future telescopes, launched Wednesday into a unique high-altitude orbit on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.

The $337 million mission is the latest in a line of space-based observatories designed for exoplanet research, building on discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler telescope and laying the foundation for missions set for launch over the next decade.

TESS lifted off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad at 6:51:31 p.m. EDT (2251:31 GMT) Wednesday, heading for an arcing elliptical orbit that will take the spacecraft more than two-thirds the distance to the moon.

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket thundered into a clear evening sky over Florida’s Space Coast with 1.7 million pounds of thrust, departing to the east over the Atlantic Ocean, where the launcher’s first stage descended to a SpaceX landing platform parked a few hundred miles east of Cape Canaveral.

While the first stage made its away back to Earth for refurbishment and reuse — potentially in late June on SpaceX’s next space station resupply flight — the Falcon 9’s second stage engine drove the 798-pound (362-kilogram) TESS spacecraft into a transfer orbit that was targeted to range from a low point of 154 miles (248 kilometers) as far as 168,000 miles (270,000 kilometers) from Earth at its highest point.

SpaceX and NASA officials said the Falcon 9 rocket achieved an on-target orbit before deploying TESS less than 50 minutes after liftoff, while the spacecraft soared over the Indian Ocean west of Australia.

A few minutes later, engineers confirmed TESS extended its power-generating solar panels to a span of 12.8 feet (3.9 meters) tip-to-tip. The satellite started charging its batteries as designed, while ground controllers at Orbital ATK, which built the TESS spacecraft, ran it through a post-launch health check.

Officials said TESS was performing as expected late Wednesday evening.

“We are thrilled TESS is on its way to help us discover worlds we have yet to imagine, worlds that could possibly be habitable, or harbor life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate in Washington. “With missions like the James Webb Space Telescope to help us study the details of these planets, we are ever the closer to discovering whether we are alone in the universe.”

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Credit: SpaceX

After a five-day checkout of the spacecraft, ground controllers will kick off procedures to switch on TESS’s cameras, with “first light” from the observatory expected next week.

TESS will scan around 85 percent of the sky during its two-year mission, and astronomers predict the mission could detect as many as 20,000 undiscovered planets lurking around stars in our solar neighborhood.

Carrying four 16.8-megapixel cameras, TESS will look for dips in light coming from some 200,000 relatively bright, pre-selected nearby stars. The periodic blots, if found to occur in a repeating pattern, are a tell-tale sign of a planet transiting between its host star and the telescope.

The craft’s four imaging cameras each cover a square in the sky that measures 24 by 24 degrees, wide enough to fit the constellation Orion into the field of view of a single camera. The cameras together will simultaneously survey a 24-degree by 96-degree strip of the sky for 27 days, then move on to stare at another sector of the sky.

TESS will search for exoplanets from a unique orbit in a 2:1 resonance with the moon, following a loop that takes it as close as 67,000 miles (108,000 kilometers) from Earth, and farther than the moon at its most distant point.

Such an orbit has three key advantages: It’s stable, using lunar gravity to maintain its shape without the need for maneuvers; It passes close enough to Earth to transmit full frame images through a high-speed Ka-band downlink; It keeps TESS away from the damaging effects of the Van Allen radiation belts.

“The orbit takes 13.7 days to go around once, so we do actually two orbits for every lunar orbit,” said Padi Boyd, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who serves as TESS’s deputy project scientist. “It swings out very far past the moon at its farthest point, then when it comes back in towards the Earth it’s going very quickly and that’s when it dumps the data.

“So we’re only going to get one data dump every 13.7 days, and then it takes a tremendous software effort to analyze those images and look for these transit signals,” Boyd told CBS News in an interview.

An illustration of the phasing orbits to be employed by TESS on the way to its final science orbit, labeled P/2 in this image. Credit: NASA

With the stability of the mission’s final science orbit, TESS has enough fuel to keep up its exoplanet hunt for as long as 20 or 30 years, assuming NASA funding and spacecraft components remain robust.

Reaching TESS’s unique observing orbit, known as a P/2 orbit, requires time and finesse.

The compact spacecraft’s on-board propulsion system will raise TESS’s orbit in the coming weeks to set up for a flyby of the moon May 17.

TESS will slingshot by the moon at a distance of around 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers), using gravity to reshape its orbit, increasing the satellite’s orbital perigee, or low point, to the final planned altitude of around 67,000 miles. After the lunar flyby, the high point of the satellite’s elongated orbit will stretch well beyond the moon, and another thruster firing will nudge TESS into its final science orbit in mid-June.

The collection of science data is scheduled to begin in July, with the first year of TESS’s two-year campaign aimed at stars in the southern sky. In 2019, TESS will start looking at stars in the northern sky.

George Ricker, who leads the TESS science team at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said the exoplanet surveyor is a “finder scope” for the Webb telescope and huge ground-based observatories.

TESS will primarily look at M-dwarf stars, which are smaller and cooler than the sun, and make up the majority of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Also called red dwarfs, the stars that are TESS’s focus have not been thoroughly investigated to determine whether they harbor their own solar systems.

The observatory’s wide-angle cameras are only about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in size, giving TESS a tiny fraction of the light-collecting power of a telescope like Webb, which is scheduled for launch in 2020 with a 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) primary mirror.

A view of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite before launch. The observatory’s four cameras are located at the top of the spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The planets found by TESS will be prime candidates for further study by JWST because they will be relatively nearby. The bulk of the more than 2,600 planets discovered by Kepler are located between 300 and 3,000 light-years away — too far for composition measurements with current technology — while TESS will look at stars 10 times closer and 100 times brighter.

In addition, Kepler has only pointed at certain parts of the sky, while TESS will take a broader look.

“You can go out on a dark night, and you can see 6,000 stars or so in the sky with your naked eye,” Ricker said. “We’re going to look at every single one of those stars.”

Approximately 20 million stars will be visible by TESS’s light-sensitive cameras, including targets up to a million times fainter than observable with the naked eye, Ricker said. Around 200,000 of those stars are “pre-selected” by the TESS science team for special emphasis because of their proximity and brightness.

The TESS observatory will “build upon the legacy of the Kepler mission, only it is going to focus on nearby bright stars that are sprinkled across the whole sky, and it’s going to help us answer a really important question: Which of our nearest stellar neighbors have planets?” said Elisa Quintana, an astrophysicist and TESS mission support scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Each of TESS’s cameras house four custom-built red-sensitive CCD detectors designed and developed by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.

“I think it’s fair to say that the CCDs that TESS is flying are the most perfect CCDs that have ever been flown on any science mission, NASA or otherwise,” Ricker said.

Artist’s concept of the field-of-view from TESS’s four cameras, which will scan the sky in slices as illustrated in this image. Credit: NASA

“TESS is a survey machine, and it’s going to find the very best planets for us to follow-up, and among that category are these small rocky planets, transiting small red dwarf stars,” said Sara Seager, deputy science director on the TESS mission at MIT.

Data from TESS will tell astronomers the size of each planet. With that information, they can use other techniques like radial velocity measurements to determine each planet’s mass and density.

“Measuring masses is a really big deal because the planet mass is really definitive,” Seager said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “Is it a rocky planet like Earth with a thin atmosphere? Is it a giant planet like Jupiter or Neptune that has a huge gas envelope?”

Ricker said he expects TESS to find between 500 and 1,000 planets that are between one and three times the size of Earth. Up to 20,000 planets the size of Neptune or Jupiter could be discovered by TESS, he said.

That would grow the number of known planets beyond our solar system by factor of five or more, but it’s not all about expanding the exoplanet catalog.

“The focus that TESS has on finding systems associated with bright stars means that they will be much easier to follow-up,” Ricker said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “Once you find that a transiting system exists, it’s something that you’ll want to come back to and study more and more as improved instruments, satellites and telescopes become available because this is going to be the benchmark for future research.”

That’s where the James Webb Space Telescope becomes a crucial tool for astronomers seeking to learn more about the nature of faraway exoplanets. JWST will be able to probe the atmospheres of some of these worlds, learning about their chemical make-up and searching for evidence that the planets might be habitable.

Once launched, the huge, expandable observatory “will be able to look for characteristic signatures of materials in the atmospheres of those planets … and something that’s potentially a biogenic signature,” Ricker told Spaceflight Now. “Of course, that takes a lot of care and a lot of work. TESS can only point the way to these are the best targets that you should be focusing on with Webb.”

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A launch pad camera captures the launch of the Falcon 9 and NASA’s exoplanet hunting space telescope TESS. The rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40 on April 18 at 6:51 pm EDT (2251 GMT).

Video: NASA/SpaceX.

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Artist’s concept of the Vega rocket’s Small Spacecraft Mission Service dispenser deploying multiple satellites in orbit. Credit: ESA

Spaceflight Industries has booked reservations for two commercial rideshare missions on Arianespace’s Vega rocket, officials announced Tuesday, beginning with a proof-of-concept flight in early 2019 of a new Italian-built multi-payload dispenser tailored to accommodate small satellites and CubeSats seeking a ride into orbit.

The launch contract between Spaceflight and Arianespace covers the launch of a microsatellite and a “significant number” of CubeSats on the first demonstration of the Vega rocket’s Small Spacecraft Mission Service, an adapter structure designed for rideshare missions, in which multiple spacecraft share a rocket flight, instead of only a primary payload.

The names and owners of the satellites set to launch on the Small Spacecraft Mission Service proof-of-concept flight in early 2019 were not disclosed. Spaceflight is in charge of identifying customers for the mission.

The Vega rocket will take off from the Guiana Space Center, Europe’s spaceport on the northeastern coast of South America, and head into a polar sun-synchronous orbit a few hundred miles above Earth.

Seattle-based Spaceflight is a payload aggregator, arranging launch services for small satellite owners. The launch broker has managed — or was already planning — commercial smallsat missions on Russian, Indian and U.S. launchers.

“Striking this deal with Vega will serve a growing part of our market demand – namely organizations that need a diversified launch plan for small satellite constellations,” said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight. “We are thrilled to add Arianespace to our network of launch partners.”

Spaceflight also has an agreement with NASA to book commercial rocket rides for some of the space agency’s CubeSats.

The Spaceflight launch agreement is a key win for Arianespace and Avio, an Italian company which serves as lead contractor for the Vega rocket and designer of the Small Spacecraft Mission Service platform.  SAB Aerospace, another Italian company, is charged with building the carbon-fiber SSMS structure.

With development funded by the European Space Agency and the European Commission, the new multi-satellite dispenser is intended to help the Vega rocket capture the growing smallsat launch market. India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, Russia’s Soyuz rocket and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket have won the lion’s share of rideshare contracts in recent years, with the PSLV holding the current record for launching 104 satellites into orbit on one mission.

According to ESA, the SSMS adapter can accommodate up to 15 small spacecraft or CubeSat deployers, some of which can hold multiple individual CubeSats.

File photo of a Vega rocket launch from French Guiana. Credit: Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – S. Martin

The Vega rocket has launched 11 times to date — all successfully — primarily with satellites for ESA, the European Commission and other governments, including Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Peru, Turkey and Vietnam. A Vega rocket also launched a batch of four SkySat Earth observation satellites for Terra Bella, now part of Planet.

Up to two more Vega launches are planned later this year carrying ESA’s Aeolus environmental satellite to measure global winds and the Italian space agency’s experimental Prisma Earth observation spacecraft.

“We are honored to have been selected for the first time by Spaceflight for the launch of small satellites on the POC (Proof-of-Concept) flight of the Vega’s Small Spacecraft Mission Service dispenser,” said Stephane Israel, CEO of Arianespace. “It is exciting to be able to partner with Spaceflight, a company that has helped to revolutionize our industry! This multi-launch mission demonstrates Arianespace’s dedication to providing access to space for the quickly evolving small satellite market. With a flawless record, Vega is perfectly suited for the job.”

The Vega rocket is powered by three Italian-built solid-fueled booster stages, topped with a liquid-fueled fourth stage capable of multiple restarts, allowing the launcher to place satellites into different orbits on the same mission.

ESA and Avio are developing an upgraded version of the Vega launcher called the Vega-C set for a maiden flight in mid-2019, debuting enlarged first and second stage solid rocket motors, and a fourth stage with a lighter structure. The enhancements will give the Vega-C the ability to lift up to 2.2 metric tons — 4,850 pounds — of cargo into a 700-kilometer-high (435-mile) polar orbit, up from the current Vega configuration’s 1.5-metric ton (3,300-pound) lift capacity.

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A view inside the Dragon spacecraft’s trunk, housing (clockwise from upper left) the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor, the Materials ISS Experiment Flight Facility — a materials exposure experiment platform — and the Pump Flow and Control Subassembly. Credit: SpaceX

Scientists working on a new lightning detection instrument mounted outside the International Space Station said Tuesday they expect little effect on the sensor’s performance from possible contamination from the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched it into orbit April 2.

The Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor, an instrument developed in Denmark and funded by the European Space Agency, was attached to an observation post outside the space station’s European Columbus lab module Friday, then powered up for a six-week calibration and commissioning campaign.

The science payload was activated sooner than expected, and an initial checkout of computers and sensors was accomplished over the weekend, according to Ole Hartnack, ASIM project manager at Terma A/S, the Danish company that led the technical development of the instrument.

Hartnack told Spaceflight Now on Tuesday that scientists are examining “possible contamination” on cameras that will be used to detect optical flashes associated with lightning.

But the potential contamination on ASIM’s Modular Multispectral Imaging Array — a pair of light-sensitive optical cameras — is not expected to degrade the instrument’s scientific performance, officials said.

“We have been assessing possible contamination of the MMIA cameras from (the) Falcon 9 second stage engine, however, we do not expect any problems or issues at this point based on the information we have received from SpaceX,” Hartnack said. “Furthermore, all cameras do have a decontamination system which can be activated if performance issues will be identified, which to my understanding is not likely for now.”

Torsten Neubert, the ASIM science team coordinator at the Technical University of Denmark, added: “We do not anticipate issues here, because our optical lenses carry decontamination heaters.”

The 692-pound (314-kilogram) ASIM instrument launched April 2 from Cape Canaveral inside the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft, alongside a platform containing materials exposure experiments and a refurbished spare pump for the space station’s coolant system.

SpaceX said in a statement that it has heard of no performance issues on any of the three payloads launched inside Dragon’s trunk section, and the decision to call off a Falcon 9 launch attempt Monday with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite was not related to the April 2 launch.

The statement did not say whether SpaceX had studied the contamination concern.

SpaceX's Dragon Arrives at the International Space Station (Time-lapse) - YouTube

After the Dragon capsule arrived at the station April 4, the research lab’s Canadian-built robotic arm — with the help of its two-armed appendage nicknamed Dextre — extracted the three trunk payloads, one at a time.

It was ASIM’s turn Friday after smooth transfers of the external experiment-carrier, known as MISSE-FF, and the coolant pump to their new homes outside the space station.

The Dextre robot grabbed the ASIM instrument package — about the size of a mini-refrigerator — and pulled it out of the Dragon cargo bay for the move over to ESA’s Columbus module. Ground controllers wanted to get the instrument plugged into power on Columbus within six hours from the time its heaters were disconnected inside the Dragon trunk.

The transfer took about four-and-a-half hours, and Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai flipped switches inside the space station apply power to the new instrument.

According to Hartnack, ASIM’s initial checkout after power-up occurred as planned.

“We have performed the initial checkout of computers and instruments during the weekend, and everything works fine and as expected,” he said.

Despite the initial contamination concern, the instrument’s optical cameras registered their first Transient Luminous Events, or TLEs, late Monday, Hartnack said.

TLEs are electrical discharges high in the atmosphere above large thunderstorms, often manifesting themselves as red sprites or blue jets and sometimes visible on dark nights, especially from aircraft. Phenomena known as elves are the most difficult to detect, requiring special photographic equipment.

This diagram illustrates the relationship between thunderstorms and Transient Luminous Events like sprites, jets and elves. Credit: DTU Space

Long theorized with sporadic observations which were spread by word-of-mouth, bright electrical bursts above thunderstorms were first documented in 1989.

In addition to the two light-sensitive optical cameras, ASIM also carries sensors to detect X-ray and gamma-ray emissions from thunderstorms. Scientists hope to correlate the high-energy emissions with simultaneous optical observations of high-altitude lightning.

Scientists know little about how the discharges are triggered, or how they reach so high in the atmosphere, near the edge of space, Neubert said before the April 2 launch.

Lightning processes are slowed at high altitude, Neubert said, making it a good laboratory for studying how electrical discharges emanate through the atmosphere.

“They are really lightning, except they are lightning processes in the upper atmosphere,” Neubert said of sprites and jets. “So they look a little bit different, but if we understand them, we’ll also understand normal lightning much better.”

Scientists also hope to study lightning’s effects on ozone and other gases in the atmosphere during the nearly $50 million (40 million euro) instrument’s two-year observing campaign.

ASIM will point down at Earth from the space station’s 250-mile-high (400-kilometer) orbit, which covers the regions of the planet where most thunderstorms form and strengthen. Parts of the instrument’s payload were also contributed by scientists in Norway, Poland and Spain.

Artist’s illustration of the ASIM instrument’s location (at bottom left) on the Columbus module. Credit: ESA–D. Ducros

In addition to research into lightning formation and electrical processes above thunderstorms, the European instrument could also detect meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Part of the calibration effort in the coming weeks will involve determining where to set limits in on-board software to decide whether the instrument’s computer should flag an image for downlink to Earth. Scientists don’t want to overload the pipeline of data coming from the space station with too many images.

“Setting the levels will be a matter of trial and error – setting the trigger too low will flood the network with images that are of no use, too high and some thunderstorms will not be recorded,” ESA said in a statement.

Regular science observations should begin by late May.

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Rocket Lab’s third two-stage Electron rocket on its launch pad in New Zealand last week in advance of a fueling test. Credit: Rocket Lab/Peter Beck

Rocket Lab said Tuesday it will push back the first commercial launch of its light-class Electron rocket from New Zealand by a few weeks to address a problem uncovered during a recent fueling test.

The company announced the launch slip on Twitter, saying that the Rocket Lab launch team “saw some unusual behavior with a motor controller” during a wet dress rehearsal, a test often employed by launch providers to practice countdown procedures and verify that rocket and ground systems are ready for liftoff.

“With only days between rehearsal & window, we want a little extra time to fully review data, so have decided to roll to the next slot in a few weeks. Stay tuned!” Rocket Lab tweeted.

The launch was expected during a two-week window beginning April 19, U.S. time.

The New Zealand Herald reported Monday that Rocket Lab experienced a “minor fueling issue” during the wet dress rehearsal Sunday, attributing the information to Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck. The newspaper reported emergency responders were on the scene at the company’s launch base on Mahia Peninsula, located on the eastern shore of New Zealand’s North Island, but did not say if fire services were normally on-site during fueling and launch operations.

The upcoming launch, which Rocket Lab has christened “It’s Business Time,” will be first fully commercial flight by an Electron rocket. Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher reached orbit for the first time in January, on its second test flight after a maiden mission fell short of orbit in May 2017 due to a ground tracking error that led safety officials to prematurely terminate the launch.

The Jan. 20 test flight placed four small satellites in orbit, but the mission’s primary objective was to demonstrate the Electron’s performance. The successful test flight led Rocket Lab officials to declare the launcher ready for commercial service, beginning with its next mission.

The Electron’s third flight will deploy two CubeSats for Spire Global, and one nanosatellite for GeoOptics.

The Spire and GeoOptics payloads will measure GPS satellite navigation signals passed through Earth’s atmosphere to derive information about weather and climate.

Rocket Lab’s fourth launch will be dedicated to launching CubeSats sponsored by NASA and developed by U.S. research institutions.

The Electron booster can carry up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) to a polar orbit around 310 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth. The rocket’s capacity to a lower-altitude orbit is up to 500 pounds (225 kilograms), according to Rocket Lab.

The rocket company, founded in New Zealand and headquartered in Southern California, says it can launch an Electron rocket for less than $5 million per flight.

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The Falcon 9 rocket stands on launch complex 40 on 16 April as SpaceX prepares to launch NASA’s TESS spacecraft on a mission to seek out new planets beyond our Solar System.

Video: Steven Young/Spaceflight Now.

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Officials from NASA, research institutions and companies involved in the development and launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite briefed reporters in the mission Sunday, the day before its scheduled liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

The two briefings focused on the TESS mission, spacecraft, launch and scientific objectives.

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File photo of acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA is working with the Russian space agency to potentially extend crew stays on the International Space Station, the agency’s acting administrator said last week, as a cushion against expected delays in the development of commercial crew capsules by Boeing and SpaceX.

Robert Lightfoot, who has led the U.S. space agency on an interim basis since January 2017, told lawmakers Thursday that NASA is looking for ways to ensure U.S. astronauts can fly to the space station in case commercial spaceships designed by Boeing and SpaceX are not operational by the time a transportation contract with Russia expires in late 2019.

One option already under study is potentially extending the first piloted test flights of the commercial crew ships from two days up to six months. NASA recently updated its commercial crew contract with Boeing, giving officials the option to lengthen the first piloted test flight of the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft from two weeks to six months, along with the possible addition of a third crew member.

The space agency said it would consider a similar arrangement with SpaceX if the company proposes it.

Lightfoot, who is retiring at the end of April, told a House appropriations subcommittee Thursday that NASA does not expect a gap in crew access to the space station between the end of Soyuz missions under contract with U.S. astronauts and the start of regular space station crew rotation flights by Boeing and SpaceX.

But the Government Accountability Office in January reported that the schedules are likely to fall behind NASA’s current projection, which anticipates Boeing and SpaceX’s vehicles completing their uncrewed and crewed demonstration missions by the spring of 2019.

The GAO’s report said certification of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule for operational crew rotation missions is likely to slip until December 2019, with Boeing’s final certification likely to occur in February 2020.

Lightfoot said NASA is taking further steps to minimize the impact of further commercial crew delays, including the possibility of lengthening the time astronauts live and work on the space station.

“We’re working with all our partners and working all the options, but right now we know we still show margin,” Lightfoot said.

“One thing we have is a great relationship wih our Russian partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending the mission durations for the current missions that are there,” he said.

File photo of NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold boarding a Soyuz spacecraft during testing at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

Space station crews typically spend around six months in orbit, but some crew members have stayed longer. NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent 340 days on the space station in 2015 and 2016. Astronaut Peggy Whitson returned from an extended 288-day mission in September.

Scientists are eager for more astronauts to stay on the space station for longer missions. The long-duration missions give researchers important data about how extended exposure to microgravity and radiation affects the human body.

Joel Montalbano, NASA’s deputy space station program manager, said April 1 that scientists have asked station officials to find 10 to 12 slots for year-long crew members. There are no firm plans to send a crew to the station for a year, but NASA continues to look for an opportunity, Montalbano said.

“We’re looking at ways to … extend stays that we have currently on the station with the seats that we do have left through the Soyuz program,” Lightfoot said Thursday.

NASA is not planning to buy more Soyuz seats from Russia, but officials have previously said that once the commercial crew spacecraft are operational, the station partners plan to accommodate at least one U.S. astronaut and one Russian cosmonaut on each launch. The in-kind arrangement has been negotiated without the exchange of funds between NASA and Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

Lightfoot said Boeing and SpaceX are “making great progress” on their commercial crew capsules. But like NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion programs — part of the agency’s deep space exploration plans — the commercial crew vehicles are running into difficulties as engineers build the first flight-ready models of each spacecraft.

The most recent public schedule released by NASA indicate the first test flights by the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner could occur in August, but industry and government officials expect that schedule to slip. Plans to conduct the first Crew Dragon test flight with a two-person crew in November, and fly two test pilots on a CST-100 Starliner spaceship in December, are also widely considered “aggressive” by space program officials.

Lightfoot said Thursday that NASA still expects both companies to complete their unpiloted demonstration flights to Earth orbit by the end of the year. He declined to state a schedule for the crewed test flights.

“We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year, from both providers,” he said. “These would be the uncrewed flights. We’re working through that now.”

The unpiloted and crewed test missions will dock with the International Space Station.

The Crew Dragon capsule will blast off on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, then parachute into the Atlantic Ocean at the end of its mission. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will lift off on the Atlas 5 rocket, built and operated by Boeing subsidiary United Launch Alliance, then return to a parachute-assisted and airbag-cushioned touchdown at one of five landing zones in the Western United States, likely in New Mexico.

The U.S.-built ships will normally carry a crew of four to the space station, where the capsules will remain docked for up to 210 days before returning the astronauts to Earth. Russian Soyuz spacecraft carry three-person crews.

“Regardless of what is going on in the rest of the world, our space cooperation with the Russians has been very good,” Lightfoot said. “It’s a good team. We’re ready to get our flights from U.S. soil though. We’re ready to get back to that.”

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