Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The United Arab Emirates has begun looking for astronaut candidates for their space program.

In Orbit

It’s been a quiet week: no orbital launches since my last post, although several were planned. Here’s the packed schedule coming up*:

  • Dec 10 – Chinese launch of a communications satellite for Algeria (this occurred successfully this morning)
  • Dec 11 – Rocket Lab test launch in New Zealand
  • Dec 12 – SpaceX launch to ISS
  • Dec 12 – ESA nav sat launch from French Guiana
  • Dec 17 – Three astronauts launch to ISS from Kazakhstan

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft departed the ISS last week.

Cygnus will remain in orbit until December 18th, giving it enough time to deploy a payload of cubesats.

Speaking of cubesats, a JPL-built cubesat was deployed from the ISS to prove that valuable astronomy can be done in a small orbital package.

The astronauts on the ISS have been taking some incredible pictures of the fires in Southern California:

Around the Solar System

Spring is coming to the northern hemisphere on Mars and Opportunity has survived another winter – nearly 14 years after landing.

The New Horizons spacecraft completed a course correction burn as it continues on its way to Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69.

Out There

Astronomers have confirmed an exoplanet system containing K2-18b and K2-18c, both large potentailly habitable rocky worlds orbiting a red dwarf star. Phil Plait has an interesting observation about what this news means for our perspective about our own solar system.

*Best references for upcoming launches are LaunchLibrary.net or 2017 in Spaceflight on Wikipedia

December 10, 2017 5:16 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In a spectacularly successful PR move last Friday, Elon Musk posted some provocative tweets (copied below) about the upcoming Falcon Heavy debut. The launch is hoped to be sometime in early 2018. The question the tweets seem to answer is where will the rocket go and what will it be carrying. The answer? Apparently a car – a Tesla Roadster. Apparently he is serious about it too.

The James Webb Space Telescope has finished up vacuum testing at Johnson Space Center and has recently come out of the vacuum chamber. It will be transported back to California for final processing before shipping to the launch site.

In Orbit

Here’s a quick summary of the rocket launch attempts of the last week (two successful, one failure):

In upcoming launches, two much anticipated attempts. On December 8th, Rocket Lab will attempt its second test flight from New Zealand while SpaceX will send another Dragon spacecraft on the way to ISS.

Out There

The Voyager 1 spacecraft fired up its backup attitude control thrusters for the first time in 37 years. NASA engineers wanted to checkout this extra set of thrusters to help determine how long the spacecraft can stay operational. It requires fine pointing with thrusters in order to communicate with home.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected another black hole merger. This one was the lowest mass pair detected so far.

December 3, 2017 9:24 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA is working on an experimental compact nuclear reactor for use on larger Mars missions.

Check out this list of space books for kids and add some to your Christmas shopping list!

In Orbit

The only orbital rocket launches of the last week were from China. CNSA launched a Long March 6 rocket on November 21 carrying several Earth-observing satellites. Then on November 24 they launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying several reconnaissance satellites.

If you’re wondering about the next launch from US soil, it’s a planned SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply to the ISS, launching from Florida on December 4th. That launch will be the first NASA mission to use a “flight-proven” first stage booster.

One of the experiments onboard the Dragon spacecraft will be a package of barley seeds from Anheuser-Busch.

Around the Solar System

A new study finds that the Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL) on Mars may not be such good evidence for contemporary liquid water.

Because it’s just so darn beautiful, check out this full color mosaic of Saturn from Cassini (captured 2 days before Cassini’s demise).

Out There

NASA has announced some of the details of the early observing campaign of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), covering the first 5 months of its mission. Yes, exoplanets are included!

November 26, 2017 8:15 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Andy Weir, author of the smash hit The Martian released his second novel, Artemis.

Sierra Nevada released video of last week’s successful glide flight of their Dream Chaser space plan:

A long-lost Omega astronaut watch from the Apollo era has been recovered and returned to the Smithsonian.

In Orbit

The Cygnus cargo freighter that launched last week, arrived at the ISS successfully on November 14.

Two rocket launches last week:

Around the Solar System

A new study in Nature analyzes Pluto’s hazy atmosphere and offers an explanation for the planet being colder than expected ( minus 300 deg F instead of minus 280 deg F).

Out There

A newly discovered exoplanet, Ross 128 b, is only 11 light years away and could be in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star it orbits.

November 19, 2017 4:21 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Sierra Nevada Corporation completed a successful free-flight landing test of their Dream Chase space plane. The test was the first free-flight since 2013, when they had a landing gear issue during their first test.

XCOR Aerospace, a company that spent over a decade trying to develop their own space plane, has filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy (i.e., their assets will be auctioned off).

Another veteran astronaut of the Apollo era has passed away. Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon died last week at 88 years old. In addition to orbiting the moon, Gordon flew on the Gemini 11 mission with Pete Conrad and later worked on the Space Shuttle program.

During an engine test last week, SpaceX had an incident with a qualification unit of their new Merlin engine design. The engine basically blew up but no one was injured.

If you get up before dawn tomorrow, you will have a chance to see a conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter. They will rise very close together in the East.

In Orbit

Three orbital rocket launches since my last post:

  • November 5 – China launched two new Beidou navigation satellites.
  • November 8 – ESA launched a Vega rocket carrying an earth-observing satellite for Morocco.
  • November 12 – Orbital ATK launched an Antares rocket from Virginia carrying a Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station. It will arrive on station Tuesday morning.

Around the Solar system

You can vote on a name for the small object 2014 MU69, which will be visited by the New Horizons probe in early 2019.

A study gives new explanation to why Saturn’s watery moon Enceladus is so geologically active.

November 12, 2017 8:05 pm

Seventeen Years

Last Thursday, November 2nd, the ISS passed the milestone of 17 years of crewed flight. The launch of Expedition 1, now nearly two decades in the past, was a great way to kick of the new millennium for us space geeks. The significance of that event will only be truly known in retrospect. If our continuous presence continues through the ISS program’s entire length – into the 2020s and hopefully beyond – it will have been a huge achievement. If some future unbuilt space station continues the record, leaving us as a space-faring species for generations to come – the launch of Expedition 1 could perhaps be remembered as a turning point for our species. But that legacy is yet to be written.

I wrote about this same event in this post from 2012, when I had been working at NASA’s Johnson space center for only about 4 years. At the time, those years felt significant – a third of the crewed mission! Now five years later, that share has increased to a number that scares me – half. I have been working on ISS for half of its crewed mission. As long as we are talking numbers, it’s also been about a third of my life.

It scares me because with all of that experience, you might think that I am an expert on spacecraft operations. You probably would think that the ISS operations team as a whole are collectively geniuses in that respect, that we knock down pretty much every problem that comes up with ease. But the truth is we are still exploring. There are still ways to use a space station we have yet to try and experiments we have yet to run. Only in the past few years have we started to master the idea of deploying small satellites from the ISS. We are yet to truly utilize the idea of additive manufacturing in space. On a personal level, there are many lessons about teamwork and leadership and overcoming failure I have yet to learn. When Gene Kranz called mission control a leadership laboratory, it was not hype. All of the leadership experience that was on my resume coming out of college pales in comparison to what I have learned as part of a spaceflight operations team. And that’s because there are still problems to solve that I have gained skills by helping to overcome.

The world has many challenges today, some of them unknown at the time that the ISS mission began at the dawn of this century. The relentless pace of globalization and improvements in communication technology put us at a crossroads with respect to social structures, security, sovereignty, and our pursuit of the truth. To say nothing of humanity’s growing population and challenges we must confront with our changing climate. Some might say things are worse today than in 2000. Others will point out the clear advances in science, medicine, and communication that make life better for many. This up-and-down trend of history is what has made me even more certain that projects like the ISS are fundamentally important to our pursuit of positive solutions.

The ISS does not stand alone. Major multinational scientific and engineering projects existed before the space station and will continue after. One of the best examples is CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The design and construction of the LHC could only have been made positive with such an impressive peaceful cooperation between many nations. The Human Genome Project is another success story, not to mention the many international large astronomical observatories around the world. I like these projects not just because they make amazing scientific discoveries and foster peaceful international collaboration. I also like how they transcend the changing tides of politics and rise above changing administrations. The ISS, for instance, was conceived in its first version more than 5 US presidential administrations ago. It has been continuously occupied by astronauts now during 4 presidencies.

This longevity should give us hope. Hope that despite the feeling of “one step forward two steps backwards” we sometimes get from following politics, that it is possible for us to build something together that can stand the test of time. The ISS is certainly not the longest lasting example, but the ISS should have special symbolism for us. The ISS is not just a scientific endeavor or an engineering testbed, it also challenges the frontier of human experience (just ask Scott Kelly) while specifically calling us to imagine more and more ambitious voyages into deep space. To take the space stations mission seriously is to have an optimistic outlook.

One of my idols, Bill Nye, says it best when he says that “space exploration brings out the best in us.” It is for this reason that after 9 years here, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else, and that I hope the ISS can go on for 17 more years. We are far from done learning from this unique laboratory in low Earth orbit. It’s hard to imagine where we will be in ten, twenty, or thirty years. History takes many unpredictable twists and turns. But I hope that the legacy started by the launch of Expedition 1 will go on, and that we never come back down the Earth.

 

November 5, 2017 3:17 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Skylab and Space Shuttle astronaut Paul Weitz has died at 85 years old.

The 2018 US Olympic Snowboard team will wear uniforms inspired by NASA spacesuits.

Saudi Arabia has agreed to invest $1 billion dollars in Virgin Galactic.

In Orbit

In rocket news, there were only two orbital launches since my last post on October 21:

Around the Solar Systems

NASA’s robotic probe Dawn has received an official mission extension to stay in orbit around the asteroid Ceres.

Out There

Astronomers at an observatory in Chile have discovered an unusual exoplanet orbiting a dwarf star. The planet is larger than Jupiter and is 25% the size of its host star, the highest known planet-to-star ratio yet discovered.

The Pan-STARRS-1 observatory in Hawaii detected a small rocky body hurtling into our solar system from interstellar space. The asteroid (or should it be called something else?) poses no risk to Earth. Follow the link for a cool animation of its orbit.

November 4, 2017 5:04 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

LEGO is releasing a “women of NASA” set.

The Apollo 11 capsule Columbia has started its around the country tour with a new exhibit at Space Center Houston: Destination Moon.

This Lyft commercial referencing the Apollo program is cute, but is missing a shout out to Michael Collins.

Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, conducted the first test fire of their new BE-4 rocket engine.

In Orbit

The ISS Expedition 53 crew completed the second and third spacewalks in their October series. All planned tasks were completed successfully, leaving the space station with some new cameras and a repaired robotic arm. The rest of the year on ISS will be focused on science research, with some critical deliveries onboard a Cygnus resupply and SpaceX Dragon resupply.

Since my last post on October 9th, there have been four orbital rocket launches:

  • October 11 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying two geostationary communication satellites. The first stage was a previously flown booster and was recovered on a droneship.
  • October 13 – A Russian Rokot launched carrying an Earth obesrvation payload for ESA.
  • October 14 – A Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonaur carrying an unmanned Progress resupply bound for the ISS.
  • October 15 – ULA launched an Atlas V rocket carrying a national security payload for the NRO.

The Progress freighter docked successfully two days after launch.

Below are a few of the best pictures taken onboard the ISS from the past two weeks. If you want to help maintain the amazing archive of millions of pictures of Earth taken from ISS, now there’s a way! Check out Cosmo Quest’s new Image Detective project.

https://twitter.com/astro_paolo/status/920369795111051264

ISS astronauts tried to capitalize on a cultural craze down here on Earth with this recent video:

Out There

Hot on the heels of the Nobel Prize in Physics announcement, LIGO made another big discovery using gravitational waves: the first signal from the collision of two neutron stars was detected and confirmed. Phil Plait has a wonderful poetic post explaining what this means for our understanding of the universe.

October 21, 2017 11:41 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Retired NASA astronaut Terry Virts has published a “coffee table book” of images he took while aboard the ISS during Expeditions 42 and 43.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO team.

Canadian company MDA has acquired DigitalGlobe and the new merged corporation will be changing their name to Maxar Technologies. MDA is the company that build the Canadarms and DigitalGlobe is a major provider of orbital imagery for users like Google.

In Orbit

Three rocket launches since my last post. All of them occurred today, October 9th:

  • China launched a Long March 2D rocket carrying a Venezuelan satellite.
  • SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 new communication satellites for Iridium.
  • Japan launched an H-2A rocket carrying a native navigation satellite.

Things have been quite busy up on the ISS. Astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Randy Bresnik executed the first of a series of spacewalks last week to maintain the station’s robotic arm. They will go out again tomorrow, October 10th, to continue the work. Here are a few pictures from last week’s EVA:

NASA has announced plans to keep the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on the ISS for longer than planned and use it as a logistics module.

Out There

A recent study of “Tabby’s Star” using NASA’s orbiting observatories Spitzer and Swift has a new theory for the unexplained dips in brightness: dust. The new hypothesis is compelling because the telescopes detected differences in the dimming at different wavelengths, which implies something transparent like dust.

October 9, 2017 8:08 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

U.S. Vice President Pence visited NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama last week. Pence spoke to the crew onboard the ISS from the Payload Operations Center, as part of his tour.

Check out this amazing video of a Soyuz re-entry over Kazakhstan taken from onboard a nearby airplane.

NASA has announced that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been delayed from late 2018 to early 2019.

NASA opened a new facility at the Langley Research Center named after Katherine Johnson, one of the central women profiled in the book and film Hidden Figures.

The latest crew of the HI-SEAS Mars simulation facility in Hawaii completed their 8-month mission.

In double Hawaii news this week, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) approved the construction permit for the long-debated Thirty Meter Telescope to be built on Maunakea.

At the International Astronautical Congress, SpaceX CEO gave a 45 minute presentation updating the public on his company’s plans for future rocket designs and Mars exploration. Here is the full video of the talk:

In Orbit

Three orbital launches since my last post:

October 1, 2017 8:54 pm