Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Another SpaceX Dragon capsule completed its mission with a splashdown in the Pacific on Thursday, May 21st. Their next ISS mission is scheduled for late June.

NASA has certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch “medium risk” science missions.

Speaking of SpaceX, it looks like I forgot to post videos from their successful pad abort test earlier in May. Here is the original video as well as a new video from onboard the capsule, which is a must watch!

Congress has been doing a lot of space and NASA related work in their current session. The House Appropriations Committee has a markup that includes some details for NASA. Parabolic Arc has the breakdown.

In Orbit

There were two launches in the past two weeks, one successful and one not so successful. First, on May 16th, a Russian Proton rocket launched from Baikonaur with a Mexican commercial satellite did not deliver the payload to orbit. The last time a Proton rocket failed was about a year ago. They had had 6 successful launches between these most recent two failures.

The good news is that on Wednesday, May 20th, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launched from Florida on a flawless flight that delivered the Air Force’s secret X-37B spaceplane and also a fleet of ride-along cubesats.

Among the cubesats on the launch was the awesome LightSail mission from the Planetary Society. The citizen-funded mission is a technology demonstration mission of solar sailing. The current mission is to demonstrate that the sail can be unfolded in orbit. A later mission in 2016 will actually go to a high enough orbit to use light from the sun to steer. You can follow the mission here and contribute to their funding here.

On May 15th, a glitch on the space station caused a reboost, or orbital trajectory correction burn, to be cancelled. Mission controllers were able to turn the plan around and get a good reboost a couple of days later though. Way to go team! (I was on vacation in Austin, so I was not involved)

Because of the changes to the ISS mission schedule (Soyuz TMA-15M crew not coming home for a few extra weeks), the mission control team had the opportunity to come up with some “get aheads” to take care of while there are still 6 people on ISS. The result is that later this week we will be executing the “PMM relocate”, or moving the large logistics module from one place on ISS to another, to free up a new docking port. This animation should help:

This is the first large module relocation like this since the end of the Space Shuttle program. The activities will be covered on NASA TV this Wednesday, May 27th.

Here’s the view through the Node 3 forward hatch where PMM will be berthed:

Around the Solar System

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft is still orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Recently they released some pictures showing some boulders that appear to be “balancing” on their ends, due to the strange gravity field. The direction of “down” is highly dependent on your location on this strangely shaped object, causing configurations that would not be possible on a round world.

Here’s a new higher resolution view of the “bright spots” on Ceres.

Here’s a video of the sun setting on Mars, in real-time, as recorded by the Curiosity rover on Mars (via the Planetary Society).

May 20, 2015 6:53 am

Weekly Links

This post will have to cover the last two weeks, as I missed last week’s update partly due to being on the evening shift at the ADCO console. I happened to be on duty in mission control when the lost Progress cargo ship re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific. Unfortunately, ISS was too far away for us to see anything from the onboard cameras.

Down to Earth

The crew of Expedition 43 will not be coming back down to Earth as planned this month. NASA and the other ISS partners announced this week that upcoming crew rotation dates will be delayed due to the ongoing investigation of the Progress resupply craft that failed to reach ISS. The next launch was also postponed by a couple of months.

Fortunately, the astronauts aboard ISS seem to be in high spirits and are making the best of it:

In a seemingly unrelated announcement, British singer and spaceflight hopeful, Sarah Brightman, has postponed her plans to fly on a Soyuz to the International Space Station, according to a press release on her website. No official word yet if her backup Satoshi Takamatsu will take her Soyuz seat on TMA-18M later this year.

A new astronaut movie called Pale Blue Dot will star Reese Witherspoon. Let’s hope it lives up to the pedigree of its namesake. Based on what little we know about it so far, I don’t know if I am convinced.

The company that designed the capillary flow coffee cups for serving espresso on the ISS wants to commercially produce the cups for sale on Earth. You can pledge to their Kickstarter here.

The UAE space agency has produced a pretty interesting promo video for their Martian orbiter mission plans:

In Orbit

Check out this awesome video blog from Smarter Every Day about the window shutters in the Cupola on ISS (via Bad Astronomy).

Here are some of my favorite posts from the astronauts in space from the last week or so:

Around the Solar System

The small Japanese probe Procyon was unable to recover its ion engine in time for a needed course correction and will miss its asteroid rendezvous. Procyon launched with Hayabusa 2 in December.

New Horizons is now close enough to Pluto to image all 5 of its known moons!

The “tiger stripes” on Europa could be “sea salt” from beneath the surface.

In other icy moon news, the geysers on Enceladus, seen by the Cassini probe, may actually be curtains rather than geysers.

Check out this awesome Vine from Saturn:

And How could I not share this sunset image taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Out There

Astronomers may have found the first volcanoes on a planet around another star.

Astronomers from Yale University discovered the most distant galaxy ever seen – a stunning 13 billion light years distant.

May 15, 2015 7:30 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ok, politics out of the way first. A committee in the US House of Representatives recently marked up a version of a budget bill for NASA that funds the agency at healthy levels but takes a bunch of money from Earth science and gives it to the manned exploration programs. Here is Administrator Charlie Bolden’s official statement on the bill.

Dr. Dava Newman, of MIT, has been confirmed by the US Senate as the new deputy NASA administrator.

SpaceX will conduct their first Pad Abort Test of the manned version of their Dragon capsule on Wednesday. Details of the test can be found here. The unmanned test will be streamed live on NASA TV. Here are some pictures of the Dragon on the pad waiting for the test.

Also, here is a new awesome picture from the failed droneship landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster last month.

Blue Origin tested their New Shepard vehicle on April 29. The launch got them very close to space, only a few miles short of the Karman Line. Here is a video they released of the test.

Mark Kelly will appear on Celebrity Jeopardy! later this month.

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago is currently running a special exhibit about Apollo 13.

In Orbit

SpaceX successfully launched their 5th flight of the year, launching a comm satellite for Turkmenistan on April 27th.

On April 28, a Soyuz rocket carrying an unmanned Progress resupply craft launched from Kazakhstan, headed for the ISS. Unfortunately, a problem occurred at or near separation from the upper stage and the vehicle spun out of control. Mission controllers in Russia were not able to recover the spacecraft and it is expected to crash back to Earth this week. NASA and its partners have a plan for continued logistical support of the space station without the Progress (SpaceX is launching another resupply very soon) and Russia is conducting an internal investigation.

Meanwhile, up on the ISS, the crew has some distractions to keep them from thinking about the logistical challenges. They have installed their brand new espresso machine (or ISSpresso) and also setup a new projector movie screen.

Sam recorded a quick tour of her “hygiene corner” on the ISS.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s MESSENGER probe crashed into Mercury (deliberately) last week, after a successful 4 year orbital mission.

Check out these awesome new images of Pluto from the New Horizons probe… getting closer!

Because its Cool

You can always count on the Onion to make fun of NASA in the best way possible.

May 5, 2015 1:48 pm

Weekly Links

It was a bit of a slow week in spaceflight, with only one rocket launch of note and a few bureaucratic developments. Meanwhile, the people of Nepal were hit hard by a major earthquake and over 3,000 are dead. USA Today has a list of charitable organizations (such as UNICEF, Red Cross, World Food Program, and more) that are mounting relief efforts. Here is the link. I gave to American Red Cross.

Down to Earth

NASA’s decision on the next set of contracts for ISS cargo resupply has been delayed until September. This is the re-bid of the contract currently being fulfilled by SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

The US House of Representatives has marked up their first draft of a spending bill for NASA which includes both 2016 and 2017. There is some good news is that the overall NASA budget is going up, pretty much matching the increase requested by the White House. However, the bill from Congress has a significant difference in funding levels for exploration systems and Earth science.

ESA could join NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, planned to launch in 2022, by providing a lander of some kind. Cool!

ABC released a trailer for “The Astronaut Wives Club”. Check it out.

In Orbit

An Ariane 5 rocket launched from French Guiana today with a pair of communications satellites. SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch is currently scheduled for tomorrow, from Florida.

Canada has budgeted support of the ISS through 2024 in their latest federal budget. Hooray!

This past week, many in the scientific community celebrated 25 years since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit. In fact, many not in the scientific community were also celebrating!

With operations planned until at least 2020, Hubble will likely overlap in operations with its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.

Around the Solar System

The intriguing bright spots seen by the Dawn spacecraft on the asteroid Ceres have come back into view. Check out this imagery from the mission!

April 26, 2015 11:20 pm

31st Space Symposium

I imagine that my time in Colorado Springs during the week of April 13th was a lot like what some first-time attendees at the Star Wars Celebration (also occurring that week, in LA) were going through. Surrounded by geeks and famous names in my own passion, attending the 31st Space Symposium was like something you might win in a sweepstakes. Except I wasn’t there just as a fan of space. Somehow, I had managed to impress someone enough to be invited as a speaker. What? Yes, I still don’t believe it either. I guess some background is required.

When I joined Twitter in late 2008, it was mostly because it seemed like something the cool kids were doing, and I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t hip. I didn’t think I would use it much. I definitely didn’t think I would find 2,000 people out there who wanted to hear about my job at NASA. It turns out that Twitter, or social media in general, is a great way to stay in touch with the things you care about in the world, and to connect with like-minded people, no matter where they live. This is how I ultimately ended up on stage at the 31st Space Symposium last week, talking about my job as an ISS flight controller. A fellow flight controller, half a world away in Germany, followed me on Twitter and recommended my name as a good representative of the Houston mission operations community for a panel she was helping to organize. It seems like a 21st century idea – to give a professional recommendation for someone you have never met face-to-face!

Our panel, called “Controlling the ISS: Global Collaboration and the Contribution of Young Professionals” was made up of four of us from ISS ops: one each from Houston, Huntsville, Germany, and Japan. Our moderator, retired astronaut Leroy Chiao, was commander of ISS during Expedition 10, his last of four flights to space. Getting ready for the conference was a bit like what we do daily in the ISS program; we had to find a good time for a Google Hangout video conference across 4 time zones in 3 countries. Our first “hangout” all together was at 6 AM in Houston, noon in Germany, and 8 PM in Japan! Our second hangout was at the Space Foundation’s Yuri’s Night party in Colorado Springs, two days before our panel!

It was a unique experience to find oneself with so much in common with people from literally all over the world. Culturally, we are from at least 3 totally different backgrounds (two of us being American) but we share a common language in ISS operations speak. I learned throughout the symposium that this is a theme of the space business these days, and is exactly why the Space Foundation put our panel together. There is a large industry of space and space-related companies and organizations out there, all trying to do similar things. Why allow the barriers of politics, geography, and culture to stand in the way of a shared passion? It was international collaboration that has made the ISS so successful, a success very visible to everyone else trying to do big things in space. Even the military panels had discussions about how cooperation and collaboration across international borders is the path to global space security, and the ISS is often referenced as a model for those efforts!

Our panel was just a one hour session in a full week of panels, speakers, and technical forums. We had a marginal audience of maybe a hundred people – there were concurrent sessions about satellite design, military space situation awareness, and of course the ever buzzing exhibit hall was open. So I feel content that we had a decent audience at all – not to mention Bill Nye came to listen. The pressure was on… one of my childhood heros was going to listen to me talk…

One hour of talking goes really fast when you have 5 people on stage, but we managed to cover some good ground: from what it takes to be a flight controller, to working with the Russians, to challenges of international collaboration, to the Chinese space program, and more. My co-panelists of course had some great things to say, but I thought I would recap a bit of what I covered, since it is what I remember the best!

When prompted by Chiao to address the impact of the Ukraine crisis and other geopolitical tensions on ISS, I noted that we don’t see the effect of politics at all at the working level. I explained that the mass media’s narrative of the program, with Russia holding all the cards, misses the big picture. The Russians can’t just stop flying NASA’s astronauts to the space station as a political tool if they want to keep the station running. Successful ISS operations is not one-sided, but involves contributions from all partners. Russia provides our launch vehicle but NASA brings much to the table also. I gave the example of how the Russian thrusters and American gyroscopes (CMGs) are both needed together if we intend to fly ISS for another decade. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The ISS needs both Russia and the US equally, in its current operational model.

When China was discussed, Chiao asked us “if the political issues were overcome, what would it take to add China to the program?” something I learned from Andrea (my co-panelist from Germany) is that ESA already has a relationship with the Chinese program and their astronauts learn Chinese. As for NASA, we currently don’t have a direct relationship with the Chinese program (it is tricky, since they do not have a clear delineation between civil and military space industry). I did note that adding any new player to ISS, no matter who they are, would present challenges, especially if they would be a new equal partner. Processes like mission management teams and flight rule boards would require additional coordination. I also pointed out that the current relationship NASA has with Russia did not start with ISS. Following the fall of the USSR, we built a relationship of trust through stages of operations such as flying astronauts on each others vehicles and then with the Shuttle-MIR program. A similar phased in approach would be needed with China or any new country that we have never worked with before.

I also fielded a question about debris avoidance on ISS which allowed me to give the example of the Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM), which is a triumph of international collaboration. The procedure allows the US mission control team to direct the crew to send the reboost command, using the russian segment computers and rocket engines, even if none of the Russian planning team is on duty in Moscow. This capability enables more rapid response to a debris threat but also requires a great level of trust on the part of our Russian friends. I think this is a great example of the successful partnership we have built with the ISS. When asked about the future of spaceflight, I remarked that it would be wise for any future programs, no matter where we go, to be an international endeavor. It would be a shame to waste the lessons we have learned since the concept of Shuttle-MIR was formed in the 1990s.

We even had time to field a few good questions from the audience, including the predictable “what would you tell someone who wants to be a flight controller?” Fortunately, we talk about this often at work, so I explained that even though our intent is to hire steely-eyed engineers with great technical knowledge and aptitude, we don’t put a huge emphasis on grades when hiring. More important is a proven ability to learn and adapt and especially to work with other people and communicate clearly. I spend infinitely more time in my job communicating in many ways (verbal, email, console logs, etc) than doing any math that looks anything like what I studied in college. Mission operations is all about working in a team environment.

The Space Symposium this year placed an emphasis on young professionals with an entire track for “New Generation Space Leaders”, featuring an evening reception with Bill Nye and a luncheon with Dr. Ellen Ochoa (astronaut and director of JSC) as keynote speaker. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of those “New Gen’ers” who came up to us after our panel and thanked us for sharing about working in the ISS program. Before the Symposium, I imagined my fellow young professional attendees to be made up primarily of young engineers excited about New Space – wanting to build rockets with SpaceX, Xcor and Virgin Galactic, and not interested in the slow bureaucracy of NASA. Fortunately, I was proven very wrong! It turns out most everyone still thinks NASA is cool, and wants to hear about working there. We even had a few people try to give us their resumes… of course I gave them some advice, but had to tell them to just check the job postings online!

One of my favorite things I noticed was that almost every booth in the exhibit hall, and all of the videos played at award dinners and luncheons, tended to utilize imagery of the ISS at some point. Even the FedEx booth had the ISS on their booth’s banner, with the phrase “mission control” prominently displayed. They very much want to help out with ISS – by transporting precious experiments and cargo to the launch site, or home from splashdown.

One lesson I have learned from this Symposium is that NASA and the ISS program should be very proud of the example we are setting, and should not be shy about telling our story, because it is a good one. At the same time, it is a wide world of spaceflight industry out there, with thousands of people working on their own projects, regardless of NASA. If we don’t keep up with them, they will leave us behind. That is why I am honored that my company and NASA trusted me to attend the conference based on an invite obtained through social media. It is also why it is great to see NASA embracing social media in the broader context – giving astronauts free reign to post to Twitter without a pre-screening (at least it looks like there is no pre-screening!) and allowing so many flight controllers, flight directors, and others to engage with the public online.

With the ISS program now solidly moved from “assembly” to “utilization” phase, and with social media now something most of the world understands and uses, I have a new confidence that the general public will learn about the ISS and the space program and will be supportive of further exploration. The days of meeting people on the street who don’t even know we have a permanent space station are coming to a close – at least that is my hope! I do realize that going to a conference full of other space geeks is like going into a bit of an echo chamber. But my confidence comes from the support across programs and companies for the future of space. No longer do you hear other space fans referring to the ISS as an expensive “boondoggle” – at least not at the Space Symposium.

And regardless, even if some do still feel that way about the ISS, the symposium showed me that the space industry is a big place. For instance, even if Sierra Nevada doesn’t get the ISS cargo contract for their Dream Chaser, they have agreements with Japan and Germany to use the vehicle – it will get built anyway. A lot of wheels are turning and there are a lot of people out there doing amazing things. The Symosium had panels about the new Europa clipper mission (and the advantages of flying it on an SLS), about constellations of satellites providing broadband internet to the world, about the United Arab Emirates’ new space agency. The list goes on. For me, a young engineer who has only had one job and has not really traveled abroad, going to the Space Symposium was like leaving home for the first time and seeing the size of the world. There is so much to do, so let’s work together and get it done!

April 26, 2015 6:00 pm

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