February’s space events start with a somber memorial.
The first of the month is the 20th anniversary of the Columbia disaster, when seven astronauts died as their space shuttle broke up during a return flight to Earth after 17 days in space. The cause of the accident was insulating foam that fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank during its ascent to space. The foam struck the shuttle’s left wing and damaged its heat shielding, which then failed 16 days later during atmospheric re-entry.
The final flight of Columbia was a scientific mission, prioritizing experiments conducted aboard the space shuttle in orbit at a time when the primary mission of many space shuttle missions involved construction and resupply of the International Space Station.
Six American crew members and one Israeli astronaut died in the Columbia descent. Read about them here: Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool and Ilan Ramon.
Journalists for The New York Times also captured the moments when the astronauts’ mission became imperiled and wrote about problems at NASA that contributed to the accident.
Green Light for a Comet
The comet C/2022 E3 (Z.T.F.) has been steadily approaching Earth for the first time in some 50,000 years. On Thursday, Feb. 2, the comet will make its closest approach to our planet, and its green-hued ice ball and tail will be visible from the Earth’s surface.
Even if weather foils opportunities to see the comet that day, there will be more chances to spot it, including on Feb. 10, when its proximity to Mars in the night sky may make it easy to find.
Traffic at the Space Station
Late in the month, two spacecraft could pull up to the International Space Station, each with important missions.
The first, as early as Feb. 20, will be an empty Russian Soyuz capsule. The spacecraft’s mission is to provide a trip home for a trio of Russian and American astronauts whose original ride was damaged during what was probably a micrometeoroid strike in December. That crew of astronauts had been expected to return to Earth in March, but may stay in orbit several more months.
The progress of that flight could affect the timing of Crew-6, a launch of four astronauts to the I.S.S. aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vessel that is to replace the four astronauts of Crew-5. Flying aboard Crew-6 are Stephen Bowen and Warren Hoburg of NASA, Andrey Fedyaev of Russia and Sultan Alneyadi, who will be the second astronaut from the United Arab Emirates to visit the station.
New Rocket Progress
The first flights of new rockets (or first flights of existing rockets from new places) will be highlights of 2023.
January had a mixed start on this front. The company Rocket Lab had its first flight from a launchpad on Wallops Island in Virginia after earlier trips from its New Zealand home base. But an attempt by Virgin Orbit to launch the first orbital rocket from England failed. The company ABL Space Systems also experienced an “energetic explosion” during its first launch.
There are other rockets to keep an eye on in February. At the end of January, SpaceX completed a fueling test of Starship, its next generation orbital rocket prototype. The rocket is central to SpaceX’s ambitions of getting to Mars and NASA’s plans to get astronauts back on the moon. The company may next conduct a “static fire” this month — where the 33 engines on the rocket’s booster stage fire while the ship itself is held in place. If that succeeds, it could set up the rocket’s first flight to orbit in March.
Other launchers are also making progress. United Launch Alliance is preparing for the first flight of its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which could fly during the first quarter of the year from Florida. Another company, Relativity Space, has also been on the launchpad in Florida with its Terran 1 rocket, and its first flight is expected soon.