Starliner spacecraft ready to undock and return

(ORDO NEWS) — Astronauts at the International Space Station closed the hatch of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft Tuesday, and ground crews used the lab’s robotic arm to inspect the capsule’s heat shield to prepare the test vehicle for docking on Wednesday and returning to Earth for a landing in New Mexico late at night.

The Boeing-owned spacecraft lifted off last Thursday and docked with the space station Friday night, reaching the Orbital Research Facility for the first time since officials aborted a test flight in 2019.

The uncrewed demonstration flight is scheduled to culminate on Wednesday with an automatic takeoff from the space station, followed by a parachute landing with an airbag at White Sands Space Harbor a few hours later.

NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Bob Hines closed the forward hatch of the Starliner spacecraft at 1900 GMT Tuesday. Hines became the first person to enter the Starliner spacecraft in orbit on Saturday, as the station’s crew opened the hatch and began three days of inspections and checks inside the capsule’s cabin.

Lindgren and Hines, who arrived at the station on the SpaceX Dragon capsule last month, performed several tests inside the Starliner capsule as it docked with the space station.

They conducted a communications test inside the Starliner spacecraft, unpacked about 500 pounds of cargo, and then replaced it with about 600 pounds of cargo to return to Earth.

The Starliner is scheduled to undock from the station at 18:36 GMT on Wednesday, then it must move to a safe distance from the complex before a 58-second deceleration at 22:05 GMT to deorbit.

At 22:08 GMT, the reusable Crew Module will drop the Disposable Service Module. The service module contains the ship’s engines, solar panels, radiators, and other equipment.

The service module will burn up on re-entry over the Pacific Ocean, and the Starliner crew module, containing an instrument test dummy nicknamed “Rosie”, will use 12 control thrusters to propel a section of the ship with a flame retardant coating forward to collide with a stream of superheated air at diving into the atmosphere.

Traveling at 25 times the speed of sound, the 4.6m wide Starliner capsule will hit its first visible traces of atmosphere at 22:33 GMT. The temperature outside the capsule will reach 1650 degrees Celsius.

A heat shield with an ablative base, ceramic tiles and thermal blankets will protect the capsule as it makes its way to White Sands.

The manned spacecraft will fly over Mexico, passing just west of El Paso, after which the process of opening the parachute will begin at an altitude of about 9 km.

The Starliner will drop its top heat shield and deploy a pair of parachutes. Then engine braking will begin and at 22:45 GMT the three main parachutes will be retrieved. In less than a minute, the capsule will drop the lower heat shield, allowing the airbags to inflate at an altitude of about 900 meters.

Landing is scheduled for 22:49 GMT at White Sands Space Harbor, part of the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range. The first test flight of the Starliner, which was aborted due to software issues in 2019, has landed successfully at White Sands.

Boeing’s Starliner is America’s first crewed capsule designed to return from orbit to land on the ground. The Russian Soyuz capsule is also designed to land on earth, but SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule – like the Apollo command module of the 1960s and 1970s – fall into the ocean at the end of the mission.

Forecasters predict favorable weather on Wednesday for the landing of the Starliner spacecraft on White Sands. Boeing selected the Willcox Plateau in Arizona as an alternate landing site for this mission.

The Starliner program also explored potential landing sites at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and Edwards Air Force Base in California, in addition to two possible landing sites at White Sands.

The OFT-2 mission is a preliminary phase before NASA allows astronauts to fly the next Starliner to the International Space Station. After landing, Boeing will take the Starliner capsule back to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for repair and use on a future crew flight.

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