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Starship's fourth test, Boeing Starliner, Hubble on its last legs

It was a busy week in spaceflight

This is going to be a little different than usual weekly space news roundups because it was such a busy week in spaceflight. There were four huge things that happened this week, each of which has their own video:

  • Boeing Starliner’s first crewed test flight lifted off safely (and docked with the ISS, after some thruster trouble)

  • SpaceX’s Starship had a surprisingly successful fourth test flight

  • NASA announced that Hubble will move to one gyro mode…and (the bigger news in my opinion), they will not be pursuing the SpaceX reboost for the observatory

  • China’s Chang’e-6 robotic lander lifted off from the far side of the moon with rock samples

Boeing Starliner continues to frustrate

Yes, Boeing Starliner finally lifted off successfully. I have the full account of the liftoff for you over here. The launch went super smoothly, but things got a little rough after liftoff.

One of the issues that delayed Starliner after the May 4 launch scrub was a helium leak in its propulsion system. Helium isn’t a fuel, but it’s used to push propellant to the thrusters. They monitored the leak and determined it was safe to launch with, opting not to fix it.

The leak was stable at launch, but two more helium leaks popped up after launch. And then, on approach to the ISS, four of the capsule’s 28 thrusters went down. It’s unclear whether these were related to the helium leak, though it is possible (and I was serious when I posted on Bluesky and Mastodon that if I had to make a video update that Starliner was unable to dock with the ISS, the video would just be me screaming).

The good news is that they were able to restart three of the thrusters and successfully dock with the ISS. I’m sure we will hear a lot more in the days and weeks to come about this thruster issue.

Starship’s successful test flight was surprising

Genuinely I was expecting Starship’s fourth test flight to be a failure. In my opinion they really needed to figure out re-entry and soft landing for both the booster and the ship, and I didn’t think they’d be able to do that with just one flight. (More on my expectations here.)

But…they did it? It wasn’t perfect, but SpaceX managed to soft land both stages. I was honestly shocked, but the test flight was certainly a cool sight to see. Here’s my rundown of the fourth test flight (in this case I do recommend watching the first half of the video, even if you’re usually more of a text person, because it’s easier to understand when you can see what’s happening).

Hubble has transitioned to one gyro mode

Well, I saw this one coming — and the good news is I actually made a video/newsletter about what this means back in April. Here’s the deal.

Basically, Hubble has been having problems with its gyroscopes for months. It uses its gyroscopes to point accurately, and it needs three of them. Four are now non-operational, so the science team is transitioning to one gyro mode, holding one in reserve.

What does this mean? Well, a few things: Hubble will not be able to observe at anything closer to us than Mars, so more no near-Earth asteroid observations. And the observatory will become less productive because it’s going to take more time to point it at targets. This is basically the last phase of Hubble’s life before its orbit decays so low that it’s no longer usable; NASA predicts that will happen in the mid-2030s.

Speaking of, we’ve been talking about a feasibility study conducted by SpaceX and NASA to possibly boost and service Hubble as part of a private series of missions from billionaire Jared Isaacman, called the Polaris program. Isaacman was interested in doing this at no cost to NASA. In my opinion, the bigger news at this press conference was that NASA was not pursuing that boost option.

They haven’t ruled out the possibility of a boost from some other source, but Hubble is old and delicate. NASA is basically worried that any servicing attempt by someone not specifically trained on Hubble would end up damaging the telescope and cutting short its life. Basically they’d rather take the 10 years they’ve got than play with a huge risk/reward scenario.

China’s Chang’e-6 mission lifted off from the far side of the moon with lunar samples

This is huge news: China’s uncrewed Chang’e-6 mission touched down on June 1, spent 48 hours collecting samples, and lifted off on June 3 in an ascent vehicle. That ascent vehicle rendezvoused with the service module for the mission in orbit, and it’s all set to return to Earth by the end of the month.

Credit: CNSA

The mission also sent back some AMAZING photos.

Credit: CNSA

If it’s successful, these will be the first lunar samples we have from the far side of the moon. I have a whole video coming on this mission next week (including about the moon’s color in these photos) because I didn’t have time to fit it in this week!