Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ron Howard is working on a TV a miniseries based on Elon Musk and his plans to colonize Mars.

Bulgaria has joined ESA as a “cooperating state”.

Orbital ATK has been contracted by Lockheed Martin to provide the launch abort motor for Orion.

Blue Origin will reportedly resume test flights of their New Shepard rocket later this year.

Check out these very creative animations of NASA’s Apollo mission patches (via CollectSpace).

The members of the Made in Space ISS 3-D printer team received their shipment recently. In fact, you can watch them unboxing it on YouTube (via Parabolic Arc):

In Orbit

SpaceX will launch their next ISS resupply mission today, April 13, and will also be giving the barge landing another shot. The static fire test happened on Saturday, which is an important milestone before launch. I suspect they won’t stream imagery of the barge landing live (like last time) but hopefully they will have dramatic imagery of a success or failure to share afterwards! Among other cargo, food, and science that this CRS-6 mission is hauling to the ISS, there is also a cubesat known as Arkyd-3, which is a demonstration mission for the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

The forecast for the launch window is only 60% as of last night. There is another launch window on Tuesday. Here is Spaceflight Now’s live stream with “mission status center”.

And of course I need to share a few recent tweets and pictures from the ISS:

Around the Solar System

Curiosity has been very busy in Gusev Crater on Mars ever since the team resolved the issue with the instruments on the robotic arm earlier this year. They recently did a few good drives and got some great images. You can see them and follow along with the mission at The Martian Chronicles blog. I love this picture. Curiosity should be reaching the 10 kilometer mark soon.

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has completed 1,000 orbits of Mars.

Mission planners for ESA’s Rosetta are rethinking their future close flybys of the comet 67P due to the navigation hazard caused by dust. A flyby in March sent the spacecraft into safe mode.

And don’t forget Cassini, still orbiting Saturn taking amazing pictures and doing science!

April 13, 2015 7:30 am

Book Review: Altered Space Series by Gerald Brennan

When I bought myself my first e-reader last month, a small wi-fi enabled Amazon Kindle, I was looking forward to all the common advantages expounded by their advocates: portability, lower book prices, etc. I also was hoping to supplement the constant LCD screen time I find in my life these days with something more relaxing. I was a nerd growing up and used to read constantly (often at the expense of my social life or studies). These days I find myself spending hours staring at an iPhone or computer screen keeping up with my favorite blogs, and the stack of new books beside my bed growing larger. What I did not expect was that my Kindle would open up a whole new genre of fiction.

Amazon knows me very well – recommending each new space memoir as it is released (many of which are still in that unread pile beside my bed, including last year’s Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong biographies) – and as soon as I registered my new Kindle to my account, I started getting Kindle Store recommendations as well. On the first page was a short story that caught my eye immediately: Zero Phase – Apollo 13 on the moon.

I had heard of alternate history fiction before, like Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South series, which was always in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle that I spent hours in at Borders as a teenager. But Brennan’s alternate history of “NASA’s finest hour” requires no time travel. In fact, I am not sure which category of the bookstore it should be placed. Zero Phase is a meticulously researched thought experiment based entirely in reality. The only difference between the real saga of Apollo 13 and Brennan’s story is a fateful difference in timing: what if the accident happened after reaching lunar orbit? Would they still have made it home alive?

Intriguing, right? Zero Phase, at only about 100 pages, is a fast and exciting entry into what for me was a hidden genre: alternative spaceflight history. My Kindle is now full of short story and novel titles with the same spirit: Recovering Apollo 8, Gemini 17, One False Step, STS-136, Launch On Need… most I have yet to read. Maybe most of them are poorly executed, which could explain the genre’s quiet existence? But the first two entries in the Altered Space series are an engrossing ride for any lover of space history. After finishing Zero Phase I also quickly devoured Brennan’s second story, Public Loneliness, which chronicles a solo circumlunar flight by Yuri Gagarin.

Both stories are written in the first person and don’t waste any time on exposition. Zero Phase opens with Jim Lovell and Fred Haise together in their Lunar Module (LM), already floating free of the Command Module (CM), moments from beginning their descent burn. Brennan has a knack for turning tedious technical details into a story. The prose is dense with a wealth of research into the sequence of events of a powered lunar descent and preparation for a surface EVA. But mixed in with the facts is an intriguing view into the character of an Apollo commander put into an unusual situation.

Brennan performed his research with Jim Lovell’s consent and help and it certainly would not be the thought-provoking read that it is without the fictional but believable voice of narration from Lovell. The story moves in a fast pace from descent, to EVA prep, through the accident, and then preparation for an emergency ascent from the lunar surface – each piece true to actual NASA procedure. But mixed in are periods of flashbacks or commentary from this fictional Lovell that do as good a job as Tom Hanks in the film Apollo 13 of creating a sympathetic character.

You may not get the answer you are looking for at the end of Zero Phase. The story ends as abruptly as it starts (no hints on whether it is a happy ending or not) and leaves you excited enough to read more that you will quickly go and download Public Loneliness, the slightly longer Gagarin story.

Public Loneliness is a different story from Zero Phase in many ways. For one thing, it is going to be a much less familiar setting for most readers, given that Zero Phase involves characters and events from one of the most beloved space movies of all time. The character of Gagarin himself is a bit jarring. Based on a legendary Soviet hero long dead, Brennan likely had a harder time researching for this story, including teasing the facts from fiction in the various biographies (and Gagarin’s autobiography). Brennan takes an interesting tact in his fictional tale and what seems as an honest narration from Gagarin is sprinkled with hints that he isn’t being completely honest, that you may be reading a propaganda piece with half-truths.

Gagarin’s story starts atop a Proton rocket ready to launch towards to moon, but spends as much time on flashbacks as the circumlunar flight itself. Having not read much on Gagarin previously myself, these parts were in some ways more interesting to me. The fictional mission that is the subject of the story is less interesting than in Zero Phase because it is somewhat more fanciful. The nature of his flight and the problems that arise are imagined by Brennan, while in Zero Phase, a known problem merely takes place later in the mission.

Public Loneliness is an exploration of what it must have been to be a hero in the USSR – so much in the public eye but with your true nature hidden from even those closest to you. Did he really buy into the propaganda or was he just doing his job? Despite these interesting digressions into unanswerable questions about personality, Brennan still manages to focus the story on a realistic adventure aboard a Soviet spacecraft that almost was. Like in Zero Phase, portions of the book focus on technical procedures – like doing a trajectory correction burn on the way home from the moon – that are true to Soviet design while also creating exciting tension for the reader.

Again, I highly recommend Zero Phase to all fans of spaceflight history, especially if the Apollo Program and Apollo 13 are exciting to you. Public Lonelines is not as quick a read, but is just as intriguing a “what if” story, not only because of the extensive research done in its writing, but because of the fictional voice of a long-dead hero jumping off the pages. If nothing else, Gerald Brennan’s first two entries in what will hopefully be a continuing series will get most space geeks addicted to this new genre of alternate history story. Happy reading!

You can buy Zero Phase in Kindle or paperback editions here. You can buy Public Loneliness in Kindle or paperback editions here.

April 10, 2015 7:49 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The California Senate has voted to replace one of their statues in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. with a likeness of late astronaut Sally Ride. Awesome! The bill still has a few legislative hurdles before it is law though.

The user-proposed LEGO model of the ISS has received enough votes for the company to move it to “production review”.

United Launch Alliance announced their plans for their Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) which will replace the Atlas family of rockets in a few short years (hopefully). The new rocket will be named Vulcan and will be ULA’s answer to the US Congress’s order to stop using the Russian built RD-180 engine to launch DoD assets. Not only does Vulcan solve the RD-180 problem by contracting with Blue Origin to develop a new liquid propellant first stage, the BE-4, but it answers SpaceX’s innovative attempts at reusability with their own system (see graphic below).

Sierra Nevada Corporation and the Germany space agency DLR signed an agreement to cooperate on future uses of the Dream Chaser space plane.

In Orbit

SpaceX launched CRS-6, another ISS resupply mission, last Tuesday. The cargo arrived safely on Friday when Samantha Cristoforetti captured the vehicle with the Canadarm-2.

The Dragon spacecraft has a new ISSpresso machine onboard, built by an Italian company to be delivered while Samantha Cristoforetti is on ISS.

SpaceX’s attempt to land their Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage on a barge (ahem, the Autonomous Spaceport Droneship) was not successful. Luckily, we got what we were all waiting for: awesome footage of the not-landing! Good job, SpaceX! They will likely stick it next time (YouTube link via Parabolic Arc).

Some SpaceX employees had some fun (honestly, I don’t know how they found the time) producing a music video parody of Uptown Funk entitled Launch You Up. Enjoy. (Update: I’ve been informed that these are not actually SpaceX employees. The video is by Cinesaurus which is in the business of producing parodies on YouTube. It is entertaining nevertheless)

Those guys better get back to work. The next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled for April 27, which would be the fastest time between two Falcon 9 launches, 10 days, beating the previous record of 13 days.

This Hyundai commercial entitled “A Message To Space” may be an ad, but it is still inspirational and I love seeing the ISS on TV. I hope to see more things like this in the future!

And here’s the obligatory list of best pictures taken from the ISS astronauts over the last week. They never fail to impress:

Around the Solar System

Measurements from the Curiosity rover indicate that liquid water could exist in the soil at night on Mars. In short, the speculated process requires two key factors: salts in the soil, and then humid air during the day that freezes into frost in the evening. This frost then combines with the salts to make a brine which has a higher freezing point, such that it might melt and exist as liquid. Exciting!

Curiosity also stopped to watch a sunset on Sol 956 last week in order to catch images of a Mercury transit. As far as I have found, the images have not been released yet.

Meanwhile, Dawn is getting closer to Ceres and New Horizons is getting closer to Pluto. Both probes returned some exciting new imagery over the last week, including the first color view of Pluto and Charon from New Horizons.

I just learned about the small probe PROCYON that is heading towards asteroid 2000 DP107. PROCYON was launched as a secondary payload with Japan’s Hayabusa-2. Unfortunately, PROCYON is having a bit of a problem with its ion propulsion. I hope they get it fixed soon!

April 10, 2015 7:45 am

Weekly Links

Sorry for the delayed post this week. It has been a busy month, as I prepare for my trip to the 31st Space Symposium in just over a week. Plus, I recently got a new Amazon Kindle and have been diving into the world of spaceflight historical fiction (I know, I was surprised too!). I recently finished reading both Zero Phase and Public Loneliness by Gerald Brennan. Check them out!

The most exciting space news since my last post on March 20th of course was the launch of Soyuz TMA-16M last Friday. Here’s a video of the launch. More on what’s been going on ISS under “In Orbit”, below.

Down to Earth

United Space Alliance is having a public contest to vote on the name of their new rocket, which they hope will replace their medium lift Atlas V and Delta IV rockets by the 2020s.

Speaking of naming contests, the SETI Institute has launched the “Our Pluto” campaign for the public to help suggest names for features on Pluto, which will soon be discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft. From what I can tell, NASA and the IAU are onboard, so the names may actually become official.

Ellington Airport, just a few miles from the Johnson Space Center, has a new agreement with Sierra Nevada Corporation to land unmanned Dream Chaser spaceplanes here in Houston. If Sierra Nevada is awarded the CRS-2 contract, this could provide a nice logistical advantage for the ISS program.

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, which is another cargo resupply flight to ISS, has been delayed to April 13 (a 3-day slip).

NASA has selected “Option B” for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The mission will involve an unmanned robotic mission retrieving a small boulder from the surface of a Near Earth Object (NEO) which will be visited later by astronauts in lunar orbit.

In Orbit

Lots of rocket launches in late March, in addition to the Soyuz launch that sent Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka to ISS. The list of launches includes: an Atlas V with a new GPS satellite, A Japanese reconnaissance satellite on an H-II rocket, two European Galileo navigation satellites on a Soyuz rocket, and at least one other Indian, Russian, and Chinese rocket. The Chinese launch reportedly included a test flight of a new mini-space plane. The number of rocket launches this year now stands at 21 to orbit, with no failures.

As for that Soyuz flight to the ISS, it was a picture perfect launch, rendezvous, and docking, with Kelly and crewmates arriving at ISS only 6 hours after departing Kazakhstan. The number of humans off-world is now back up to 6, and the number of people tweeting from space is now at 4, with Kelly joining Cristoforetti, Virts, and Shkaplerov. Here’s a sample of their recent posts:

Around the Solar System

The annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference took place in March, which usually means interesting news from spacecraft exploring the solar system. Some of the best stories from this year’s LPSC are:

Out There

I was excited to learn that there are still astronomers diligently watching the Alpha Centauri system, with HST even, to try to confirm the potential worlds detected orbiting there several years ago. The latest data indicates that perhaps there are two worlds, not just one, orbiting Alpha Centauri B. Unfortunately, the data is not strong enough to say they are there for sure… yet.

April 2, 2015 11:00 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Last week, on Wednesday, March 11th, Orbital ATK conducted a successful static test fire of one of the solid propellant rocket motors that will be used for the SLS rocket.

The next day, on the 12th, the Soyuz carrying Butch Wilmore, Elena Serova, and Alexander Samokutyaev returned to Earth. Check out these incredible pictures of their descent and landing. Looks like it was a beautiful (cold) day in Kazakhstan.

With Butch and crew on the ground, Expedition 43 is underway with only three crew members onboard – Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov. They are a good trio to have onboard together, as they are all very active on Twitter, providing us awesome views of Earth from on orbit! However, they will be joined very shortly by Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka, and Mikhail Korniyenko who are launching next Friday, March 27th.

On March 18th, many space fans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first ever spacewalk, conducted by Alexei Leonov on the Voskhod 2 mission.

Leonov is 80 years old, and did a press circuit for the occassion!

In less fun news, there has been a lot of talk about a couple of space-related hearings in Washington, D.C. that happened earlier this month. Let me break it down into the biggest talking points for you:

1. On March 4th, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden appeared before the “House Appropriations Committee” for a budget hearing. Some folks latched on to a discussion between Bolden and Congressman John Culbertson about whether NASA has a plan for ISS if Russia decides to no longer participate. Given that the program is a joint venture that depends on both parties, it seems to me like an unfair premise.

2. On March 12th, Bolden appeared before the “Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness”. One of the big takeaways was Bolden’s comments about why the Opportunity’s rover’s budget is being cancelled in 2016. The Planetary Society has a pretty good explanation of why that is a bad idea.

3. In the same hearing, Bolden was asked by Texas Senator Ted Cruz why NASA spends so much time on Earth science instead of exploring space. Of course, Earth science is part of NASA’s core mission. Parabolic Arc explains why Ted Cruz doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.

4. Lastly, the senate held an “Army and Air Force hearing” on March 18th. There was some discussion about the RD-180 engine issues (see my earlier post) and whether the Air Force could provide a replacement by the 2019 deadline. USAF and ULA officials say it is not possible. Some of the senators scolded that no progress has been made. However, Aerojet recently conducted a test of their new AR1 engine, which may be a starting point for a replacement.

In Orbit

I will optimistically put this news in the “in orbit” section: with bids on the CRS-2 (commercial resupply services) contract due, both Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada have been promoting their ideas for how to get cargo to and from the ISS. Lockheed Martin has a unique design involving a reusable cargo ferry that stays in orbit and transfers cargo to a rocket stage with a robotic arm. Sierra Nevada is proposing an unmanned variant of their Dreamchaser spaceplane, which recently lost out on the ISS crew transfer contract (CCtCAP).

Speaking of ISS cargo, NASA has extended the contracts with SpaceX and Orbital ATK by a few additional flights in 2017 to close the gap between CRS and CRS-2.

Alright, back to the fun stuff. Up in space, the pretty pictures from the ISS crew just keep on coming:

Today there is a total solar eclipse in the Northern Atlantic and Arctic. Hopefully the astronauts can get some views from the ISS! In fact, Cristoforetti just posted the below picture just a few minutes ago, as I write this.

Around the Solar System

Recent observations of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede using the Hubble Space Telescope confirms the presence of a sub-surface ocean. Wicked.

Meanwhile, Cassini has discovered evidence or hydrothermal activity below the surface of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

The MAVEN spacecraft has discovered ultraviolet aurora at Mars.

Out There

There is a new nova in the constellation Sagittarius bright enough to see with binoculars. It was too cloudy this morning in Houston to spot it but I will keep looking!

March 20, 2015 7:15 am

Weekly Links

Before I get into my recap of what has happened over the past week and a half, I want to make sure to note that tomorrow, Wednesday, March 11, there will be two big events covered on NASA TV. First, Orbital ATK will conduct a test firing of a solid rocket motor in support of SLS development. The coverage will start at 11 AM Eastern with the test firing at 11:30 AM. Secondly, Soyuz TMA-14M will undock from the ISS at 6:44 PM Eastern and land at around 10:07 PM in Kazakhstan. There is NASA TV coverage throughout the day, including at 3 PM for hatch closing. Here is the change of command ceremony from earlier today:

Down to Earth

Sci-fi icon Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock on Star Trek) died on February 27th.

Cast of Star Trek with NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise

One of Chris Hadfield’s old flight suits (not worn in space) was bought at a random Toronto thrift store. Seriously.

Although SpaceX’s lawsuit against the USAF seems to have been resolved, there has been another interesting piece of space legal work going on. SpaceX is suing over Blue Origin’s patent on landing a rocket stage on a platform at sea.

United Launch Alliance plans to retire the Delta IV launch vehicle (but not the Heavy variant).

China has made some of their future manned spaceflight plans public, including the launch of a new larger space station next year.

I don’t know what to call this other than a “trailer”. Check out this video about the LHC starting up again this year:

In Orbit

A USAF weather satellite known as DMSP-13 broke apart at a 500 mile altitude in early February.

On March 1st, SpaceX launched its third Falcon 9 launch of the year. Quite a good pace so far in 2015…

Also on March 1st, astronauts Terry Virts and Butch Wilmore completed the third of their trilogy of spacewalks outside the ISS to “wire up” the US segment for the new docking ports to be delivered starting later this year.

ISS Commander Butch has been posting some excellent Vine’s in his last few weeks aboard. Here is a sample (follow @space_station on Twitter or Vine):

Of course, Samantha Cristoforetti has been just as busy on social media. Here is a shot she got of some cubesats recently launched from the Japanese robotic arm on the ISS.

Around the Solar System

The Dawn spacecraft has reached Ceres! However, as you can see in the animation below, the spacecraft is in a bit of an odd “orbit” above the dark side of the asteroid until early April. That is why we won’t get better sunlit images of the asteroid for several weeks.

Check out this awesome shot of Mars’ moon Phobos in silhoutte, by India’s MOM.

via The Meridiana Journal. Photo Credit: Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

Check out this picture that the Rosetta spacecraft took of its own shadow.

Some scary news from Mars at the end of last month – a short circuit in the instruments at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm caused the missions’s flight control team to halt operations for troubleshooting. It sounds like as of this week, they have determined it is safe to continue operations. Excellent!

March 10, 2015 9:48 pm

2015 in space: the year of ______

In my first post looking back on 2014 in space, I discussed how the year in spaceflight might be remembered. A few major events happened that may stick in the public’s mind – Rosetta/Philae’s comet encounter and the first Orion capsule launch. For the average person, that may be all they remember from last year. Definitely not a banner year for space, although the world rightly celebrated the triumph of landing on a comet for the first time. So not a bad year either. Overall, as I concluded in that earlier post, 2014 was a building year. For those of us who pay closer attention to space news, 2014 was also a year to worry about policy, budgets, and the future of the launch sector, as I wrote about in my second post.

While 2014 was a building year, 2015 looks to be a year of action. Action that goes beyond just NASA and extends to the “New Space” sector, as SpaceX plows forward aggressively, Virgin Galactic attempts to regroup from last year’s tragedy, and some lesser-knowns like XCOR might have their first flights.

2015 looks to be an exciting year. The question is not whether it will be an exciting or busy year, but rather, what will grab the public’s attention more? Will the old childlike excitement over new discoveries be stirred up by NASA’s ambitious missions arriving at Pluto and the asteroid Ceres? Or will the sexy sleek SpaceX rockets – launching ever more frequently – grab the most headlines?

The Year of the Dwarf Planet?

This will be a big year for NASA’s planetary science program. 2014 had a lot of great action at Mars. Unfortunately, Mars has a “been there, done that” tone for the general public (perhaps the 2015 release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian will help turn that around?). Mars makes headlines if there is a daring rover landing or a manned mission, or of course if we discovered life. Otherwise, Mars is cool, but not front page cool. ESA’s Philae landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko proved that robotic exploration is still front page cool, but that it takes a new destination these days. That’s exactly why 2015 is exciting. Two robotic missions launched almost a decade ago will rendezvous with their destinations: two unexplored worlds, both newly classified as “dwarf planets” back in 2006. There’s a whole new category of world out there which we will get to see for the first time this year.

As I write this, the Dawn spacecraft is mere days away from the March 6th rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres, king of the asteroid belt. Dawn will go into orbit around the asteroid, where it will stay for the rest of its mission. The popular space blogs have already been getting pretty excited about the high(er) resolution images coming back from the probe, including mysterious bright spots in a crater. Could they be ice geysers? Or something else unexpected?

Latest view of Ceres from Dawn (courtesy: NASA)

Much farther from home, the New Horizons probe is now only months away from a July flyby of distant dwarf planet Pluto. New Horizons was launched in 2006; so long ago that the probe was actually launched before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) made its controversial decision to change the definition of “planet.” Of course, this sets up for the pithy quip that the probe took so long to get there that when it left, Pluto was a planet! I suppose we will be hearing that line a lot more, come July.

The public loves Pluto. So much so that it make front page news back in 2006 just due to a classification debate. I have no doubt that the public will get pretty excited over the upcoming encounter. The mission has all the drama a good space rendezvous needs: the promise of views of a new world and new discoveries with the very real danger of the probe being destroyed by some rogue undiscovered moon. Success or failure, it’s a win-win for the media. People love the tension.

If rendezvous goes well for both Dawn and New Horizons, the American public will be reminded how exciting it is to discover new worlds. That excitement can likely be funneled by NASA and organizations like The Planetary Society into support for future missions like the Europa Clipper. 2015 is a chance for NASA’s crown jewel, planetary science, to take center stage.

The Year of SpaceX?

Unfortunately for NASA, Dawn and New Horizons may get overshadowed by the new kid on the block. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) stands poised to have their busiest year yet. Their manifest calls for somewhere between 12 and 18 launches in 2015. SpaceX only launched 3 rockets in 2013 and doubled that to 6 in 2014. With 3 launches already this year as of March 2nd, I am starting to believe they can double their launch rate again this year.

Of course, a bunch of rocket launches isn’t by definition more exciting than the first flyby of Pluto or Ceres. The reason NASA stands to get overshadowed is the story of SpaceX. SpaceX isn’t just another rocket company out for profit – they are a product of one billionaire’s crazy vision of the future. And 13 years after their founding, with thousands of employees and billion dollar government contracts, the company has somehow stayed focused on their longterm goals. Other startups with dreams of Mars have been called “scams”. Meanwhile, SpaceX has proven their technical expertise with the reliability of their Falcon 9 rocket and has become a major player in the industry, continuing to snap up government and private launch contracts. Sexy rockets, an eccentric billionaire, and dreams of Mars. Usually the news is full of negative stories – airplane crashes, war, corrupt politicians, police brutality, racial tensions – but SpaceX is exactly the kind of positive story people love. And SpaceX has manages to hook us in by being just transparent enough to make us take them seriously, but also keep us guessing. For instance, the SpaceX twitter feed was fairly silent through much of December as they tried to launched their fifth resupply flight to ISS. Then 6 days after this launch they posted this incredible Vine of their failure to land the first stage safely on their autonomous drone ship. I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched it about a thousand times.

Besides a record number of launches, here are a few of the things SpaceX is planning to do this year:

  • four missions to resupply the International Space Station
  • build a new hangar and launch tower for crew launches in Florida
  • build a new spaceport near South Padre Island in Texas
  • pad abort tests for new Dragon V2
  • land a rocket on an autonomous drone ship (minus the explosion)
  • the first demo launch of the new Falcon Heavy rocket

New Space has been on a slow crawl for years, full of promise but few results. With Virgin Galactic likely out of commission for at least many more months and no planned launches in the Google Lunar X Prize competition until 2016, SpaceX is seemingly alone in the New Space business – at least as far as going to space is concerned. All the buzz about mining asteroids, billionaire funded flybys of Mars, and crowd-sourced space missions seems to have faded into the background noise. A lot of people seem to have the attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” myself included. But even the cynics and naysayers have to be impressed by SpaceX’s continued progress. If they can achieve most of their goals for this year while continuing to fly safely and reliably, it just might be the year of SpaceX.

The Year of ISS?

As if dwarf planets and SpaceX aren’t enough, I think there is a third possibility for the biggest story of 2015. In fact, it made front page news before 2015 even started. In case you missed it, here was the cover of Time for their “2015: the year ahead” issue.

Scott Kelly Time cover

What’s the big deal? Astronauts have been living and working on the ISS non-stop since November 2000. The following major world events have all happened with a continuous human presence in space (from Futuretimeline.net and Wikipedia): George Bush sworn in, terrorist attack on 9/11/01, iPod launched, iPhone launched, Space Shuttle Columbia lost, invasion of Iraq, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, three summer Olympic Games, four FIFA World Cup Finals, the Great Recession, Barack Obama sworn in, Burj Khalifa constructed, two new Popes, and all 7 Harry Potter films released.

Ok, maybe I got a little carried away. The point is, astronauts living and working on the ISS is nothing new. Even the story of the Kelly twins – a major focus of the Time issue – is not new. Scott Kelly already commanded the ISS once during Expedition 26 and Mark Kelly, husband of Gabby Giffords, commanded STS-134. But just like the two NASA probes visiting new worlds this year, Scott Kelly’s missions is new territory for NASA. His stay aboard the ISS of almost a year will beat the next longest flight by an American by over four months. America loves a hero figures and pioneers. So when Commander Kelly got a personal invitation to the State of the Union Address, he got the biggest ovation of the night.

Having a single human face to connect with the space program this year may bring more attention to NASA than we have seen in a while. Only half a decade ago, the ISS was thought of by a good segment of the space community as a “white elephant” that sucked up money and the public largely didn’t know it existed (or would be reminded and then promptly forget). Now the ISS is featured in major motion pictures like Gravity and video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. NASA public affairs has embraced social media and at least one member of every space station crew regularly tweets stunning views and thoughts from space. When school kids or the morning news shows get to interview the astronauts on ISS, no one ever asks “is the space station a waste of money?” Instead they ask, “what is it like?”

Scott Kelly won’t be the only famous face people will connect with the ISS this year. In September 2015 the next space tourist, Sarah Brightman, will launch to the ISS as part of a “ferry crew”. She will spend less than 2 weeks in space while crews and Soyuz capsules are shuffled on the ISS – Scott Kelly’s long stay will mess up the regular and predictable 4 month cycle of 3-person crews. Brightman will be the first tourist on the ISS since Guy Laliberte in 2009. While she is not exactly a household name, people love to talk about rich people and the expensive things they buy. What is more glamorous than paying your way into space? A human story is just what NASA needs to bring attention to the ISS, and NASA has two of those stories this year. If Mark Kelly is open to media interviews while he goes through the same experiments as his brother, it may even make an interesting recurring story in the media, if it gets picked up. It could be a big story – or maybe the ISS was only front page news for one week at the beginning of the year? We will have to wait and see!

Conclusion

Of course, there is a lot more that might happen this year. The XCOR Lynx spaceplane may take flight finally; Virgin Galactic may return to flight; Curiosity may continue to build a case for organics on Mars; the Philae lander may wake up as comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko approaches the sun. Going in to 2014, it was predictable that the Rosetta mission and Philae lander would be a big story. But nobody predicted that 2014 would be largely remembered for two major spaceflight accidents, nor that a lot of sweat would be spent on the impacts to the launch sector from deteriorating international relations in Eastern Europe.

Although the unexpected may happen, I’m kind of hoping for a predictable year with lots of success and increasing media and public attention. I want to learn some new and surprising things about Ceres and Pluto while also checking Twitter every day for some stunning Earth views posted by Commander Kelly. I want to see thousands of people flock to the Space Coast for an on time launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Space exploration of all kinds is a great positive endeavor for us to share as a society, especially as a seemingly improving economy opens up space in our culture to look outward. I think a good year in all sectors of spaceflight could lead to even more bipartisan support of manned and robotic exploration alike in the NASA budget, and we can start to see a way out of the woods towards a clear space policy. Or I could be wrong, and distractions like the upcoming 2016 US presidential election could keep us in limbo for a while longer. What I like about the future is that anything is possible. Either way, I get to find out what those bright spots on Ceres are in just 4 days. Are you excited too?

March 2, 2015 10:12 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Hungary is the newest member of the European Space Agency (ESA). With the addition of Hungary and Estonia, ESA will need to revise their astronauts’ flag-covered shoulder patch (seen below on Andre Kuipers’ flight suit).

Since I mentioned ESA, it is always nice to share their Week in Images post.

The Intelsat 603 satellite, which was rescued to a higher orbit on the first 3-person EVA on STS-49 in 1992, has been disposed of in a “graveyard orbit”.

Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for best actor last weekend, is a NASA supporter.

It’s a rare week that goes by without some news related to SpaceX worth mentioning. A few things this week. First, SpaceX has a new contract with SES for the launch of two communications satellites which may be the first to launch from the new facility in the Southernmost part of Texas. Secondly, SpaceX has started construction of their hangar near launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. 39A is one of the two historic launchpads built for the Apollo program and also used during the Space Shuttle program. Lastly, SpaceX will be launching their next Falcon 9 rocket in a few days. The current date is listed by Spaceflight Now with an uncertain “March 1/2″. This launch is of commercial payloads and will liftoff from Florida.

In Orbit

No notable rocket launches this week, except for a Russian military satellite on a Soyuz rocket, which launched this morning. Instead, there was another spacewalk up on the ISS. Terry Virts and ISS Commander Butch Wilmore have one more spacewalk this coming weekend to finish out their tasks laying cable for future commercial crew dockings.

Speaking of the ISS, the Russian Federal Space Agency (I’m not sure what to call it, as they are in the middle of a re-organization) announced this week that they now intend to continue ISS operations through 2024. Previously, Russia had only committed through 2020, so this is good news.

The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, launched by NASA on a Delta II rocket earlier this year, deployed its impressive sensing array this week and is getting ready to start its science campaign. Here’s an animation of what it would have looked like.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Curiosity rover took an impressive self-portrait (or “selfie”, if you must) of its current location on the foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars. Curiosity is currently at a site called Pahrump Hills where it has been drilling various rocks.

Courtesy NASA (click image for annotated version)

Meanwhile, out in the asteroid belt, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is just a week away from entering orbit around Ceres, the largest asteroid. The pictures coming down are already remarkable and include a strange pair of bright spots in a crater.

February 25, 2015 4:56 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony at Cape Canaveral signaled the start of construction on a new crew access tower for eventual manned launches of the Boeing CST-100 atop United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets. The tower is at Launch Complex 41, which is technically on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, not Kennedy Space Center.

Also at the Cape in Florida, SpaceX has signed a lease with the U.S. Air Force to land Falcon 9 rocket stages at Launch Complex 13, which is currently not used for anything else.

The Mars One project has reduced their list of candidates for the first one way trip to Mars down to 100 candidates. If you forgot who Mars One is, they are the company that will air the last rounds of astronaut selection as a reality TV show as a way to fund their mission. However, you can color me skeptical whether that is a sound financial plan to fund a multi-billion dollar mission. Here is the list of 100 candidates from the Mars One website.

A recent poll reveals that most Americans apparently would not take a free ride to space.

In Orbit

Some more action up on the ISS last week. A Russian Progress resupply spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan and docked just 6 hours later.

Then on Saturday the first of three spacewalks of Expedition 42 went off with out a hitch when Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts spent almost 7 hours reconfiguring the front docking port of the ISS. There is a great detailed summary at AmericaSpace. The next spacewalk will be this coming Wednesday.

Around the Solar System

If you have heard the strange news about an unexplained “plume” seen high in the Martian atmosphere, you heard right. Astronomers aren’t sure what it is… could it be a high altitude dust storm or auroral activity? I hope they can figure it out!

Check out this “trailer” for a mission concept from NASA for a submarine on Titan. Awesome.

February 22, 2015 6:00 pm

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Some good stuff from NASA’s astronaut office this week. First, the members of ISS Expeditions 48, 49, and 50 were announced. The crews have some veterans such as Jeffrey Williams and Peggy Whitson but also some rookies such as Katie Rubins and Takuya Onishi. Then, the Expedition 45 crew gave us this awesome mission promo poster.

Arianespace scooped some recent commercial launch contracts that SpaceX probably would have liked to win. Interestingly, the two companies each won 7 new contracts last year.

Items from a long-forgotten bag of odds and ends from the Apollo 11 mission are on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The bag was found in Neil Armstrong’s closet by his widow. You can’t make this stuff up!

In Orbit

It has been a busy week in space! On Tuesday, SpaceX brought home a Dragon capsule from the ISS and then a day later launched another Falcon 9 rocket, this time with NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft. The launch was at just about sunset making for some great pictures, which are all over the internet: Spaceflight Now has some good ones, or you can just browse Twitter.

Also on Wednesday, ESA launched a Vega rocket on a suborbital test mission of a small reusable spaceplane-like spacecraft (technically a “lifting body”). Watch how fast this rocket jumps off the pad!

The excitement extended into the weekend, with the departure of ESA’s last ATV cargo vehicle from ISS this morning. Here is the final status report from the ATV mission manager from prior to undocking. Unfortunately, the undocking was during orbital night so it is hard to find any good pictures. Here you can see ATV’s navigation lights shining in the darkness.

Next week a new Progress cargo vehicle will launch from Kazakhstan taking ATV’s place at the aft port of ISS. Then late in the week, Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts will step outside on the first of three upcoming spacewalks.

With such a busy and memorable week for ESA, it would be remiss of me not to share their Week in Images post!

And of course Terry and Samantha continue to take amazing photos of the Earth and post them quickly on Twitter for us to enjoy! Here is your weekly selection:

Around the Solar System

As always, the rover Opportunity is slowly trudging along on Mars. She is approaching “Marathon Valley,” the point where her odometer will reach 26.2 miles. At over 11 years, her time won’t break any records; but she sure is determined.

Because it’s Cool

Two new episodes of Phil Plait’s Crash Course Astronomy are up!

February 14, 2015 9:39 am