Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Mattell launched a new line of “Inspiring Women” Barbie dolls. The release includes a doll of NASA’s Katherine Johnson, made famous by the movie Hidden Figures.

JPL posted a 360-video from inside the InSight lander test lab (this is the next mission to Mars launching in May).

Westworld director Jonah Nola showed the below video during a SXSW panel this weekend.

National Geographic’s March issue features NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson on the cover and an article by Nadia Drake which profiles a handful of other astronauts.

In Orbit

Two rocket launches since my last post a week ago:

  • March 6 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying two satellites for commercial companies.
  • March 9 – Arianespace launched a Soyuz rocket from Kourou carrying three communications satellites for O3b.

There has been a lot of talk lately of China’s defunct Tiangong-1 space station, and it’s imminent uncontrolled plunge back to Earth. Predictions are for early April.

Around the Solar System

NASA released some new imagery data and science results from the Juno probe in orbit of Jupiter. Some of the intriguing mysteries uncovered include the strange polar cyclones and the 3,000 kilometer deep wind patters. Phil Plait has an excellent summary at his blog.

Out There

Another asteroid on an interstellar hyperbolic orbit has been discovered. This object is likely from the Oort cloud, which makes it different than ‘Omuamua, which is believed to have originated in interstellar space.

March 11, 2018 10:36 pm

Weekly Links

Down to earth

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may see another launch slip.

The world’s largest airplane, built by Stratolaunch in Mojave, California, was rolled out for runway tests.

NASA’s next Mars lander, InSight, was delivered to the launch site in California.

The Orion crew access arm was installed on the SLS mobile launcher at KSC.

In Orbit

Alexander Misurkin, Joe Acaba, and Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth safely in their Soyuz last week. There are only three crew onboard the ISS until a new crew launches in two weeks.

Two rocket launches last week:

Around the solar system

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is still operating normally after its safe mode scare in February.

The amazing engineer’s at NASA’s JPL have figured out how to use the Mar rover Curiosity’s drill, despite the failure of the device in December 2016. The rover should resume scientific drill operations now that the technique has been demonstrated on Mars.

Out There

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered a distant water-rich planet, Wasp-39b. The planet is not Earth-like – it is a large planet like Saturn. However, the technique used to detect the atmospheric make-up of Wasp-39b is the best spectrum yet taken of an exoplanet.

March 5, 2018 7:45 pm

Weekly Links

In Orbit

The new National Space Council hosted their second meeting, this time at Kennedy Space Center.

Bigelow Aerospace has announced a new sister company, Bigelow Space Operations, who will market their future goals of launching and operating independent space stations.

The latest HI-SEAS space analog mission in Hawaii was put on hold due to some kind of medical emergency.

In Orbit

The only launch of the week was a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg in Californial. The rocket carried three satellites – a payload for the Spanish military and two technology demonstration satellites for SpaceX. The company also tried to “catch” one of the rocket’s discarded payload fairings at sea, but missed slightly. Here is a photo from Instagram of the fairing floating near the SpaceX’s recovery ship.

A Soyuz carrying three space station residents will undock from the ISS on Tuesday morning and return to Earth. Recovery crews are already getting ready out in Kazakhstan.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had a bit of a scare last week, entering safe mode for about 3 days after a battery malfunction. MRO came out of safe mode on the 23rd and NASA reported that it was being returned to nominal service. MRO is a key asset, as it relays all communications from the two rovers on the surface.

Meanwhile, down on the surface, Opportunity continues to trundle along in Endeavour crater. JPL even announced some new observations this past week.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft took an image of Earth from 63 million km away. The probe is currently on its way to the asteroid belt.

Out There

I am in love with this unique interpretation of the Hubble Deep Field from the new website Astronomy Sound of the Month. Follow the link and then, with your sound on, move your cursor over the image to hear different notes correlated to the age of each galaxy.

February 25, 2018 9:45 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The Center for the Advancement of Science In Space (CASIS)  – the organization that manages the ISS as a national laboratory – will be looking for a new executive director after Gregory Johnson steps down.

The White House released their proposed federal budget for 2019, including details for NASA. Here’s a summary from Parabolic Arc of what the budget would include for the space agency. The Planetary Society also has a great summary up on their blog and also covered it in a recent podcast.

Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center has opened a new interactive “Astronaut Training Experience“.

In Orbit

After the launch of a Progress resupply craft to the ISS was scrubbed last Sunday, it was launch successful on Tuesday and docked to the ISS two days later.

Other than the Progress, launched on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonaur, the only other launch last week was a Chinese Long March 3B rocket carrying two global navigation satellites.

ESA celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Columbus modules launch to the ISS.

Two astronauts, Mark Vande Hei of NASA and Norishige Kanai of JAXA, completed a spacewalk on Friday to fix the SSRMS, as well as some other maintenance tasks.

Around the Solar System

The Opportunity rover has now spent more than 5,000 martian days (or “sols”) on Mars. To commemorate the occasion, the JPL rover team commanded Opportunity to take a “self-portrait” mosaic using the cameras on the end of its robotic arm. This is the first time this has been done with Opportunity.

Opportunity self-portrait

New Horizons has broken the record held by Voyager’s famous Pale Blue Dot image for farthest images taken from Earth. The probe is on its way to an encounter with 2014 MU69 next January. While it is cruising through the Kuiper Belt, it took advantage of its “near” pass to two other objects and took some low resolution images of 2012 HZ84 and 2021 HE85.

February 18, 2018 10:18 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Another government shutdown on Thursday night nearly impacted US federal government operations again (including NASA) but was ended in the middle of the night with a budget deal, before facilities could open for work on Friday.

Sierra Nevada Corporation has received their official launch window from NASA for their first uncrewed resupply mission to the ISS, using their DreamChaser space plane.

A SpaceX booster that survived an ocean crash-landing from the GovSat-1 launch on January 31, was demolished at sea as it as deemed a safety hazard.

In Orbit

The only rocket launch since my last post was a big one: the demo flight of the Falcon Heavy. The rocket launched successfully during its first launch window last Tuesday, to the delight of crowds on the ground in Florida and millions of space fans who watched the livestream online. The next Falcon Heavy is scheduled tentatively a few months out, and will carry more official payloads.

Around the Solar System

Not exactly breaking news, but I love this newly released image of Saturn’s moons Titan and Rhea, from the now ended Cassini mission.

Rhea eclipses Titan

Out There

Two new studies of the planets in the Trappist-1 system reveal their atmospheric compositions and densities. It is very possible some of these planets may be habitable with liquid water.

February 10, 2018 2:27 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A new Kickstarter campaign seeks to build replicas of the Apollo guidance computer DSKY (Display and Keyboard) interface.

NASA’s 15th Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mission started last week at Johnson Space Center. Four crew members will spend 45 days isolated on a simulated deep space mission.

The much anticipated Falcon Heavy launch is now less than 48 hours away. Eric Berger of Ars Technica has an excellent discussion about the new rocket and what it could mean for the industry (if successful).

In Orbit

Four successful orbital rocket launches since my last post

A spacewalk conducted by Alexander Misurkin and Anton Shkaplerov on the International Space Station broke the Russian record for longest spacewalk, at 8 hours and 13 minutes.

An amateur astronomy discovered a NASA satellite that had been missing for over 10 years.

Around the Solar System

NASA published a beautiful composite panorama from the Curiosity rover looking back down the slopes of Mt. Sharp.

Curiosity also took a new selfie, looking the other direction.

Out There

Astronomers have announced that using gravitational microlensing they have discovered evidence of planets in another galaxy for the firs time.

February 4, 2018 11:10 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The US federal government was shutdown briefly over the past weekend, and had some impacts to NASA, but ended by Tuesday morning. The federal budget decision has been moved by Congress to February 8th.

SpaceX completed the long-awaited “hot fire” test of their Falcon Heavy rocket on the launch pad in Florida. The company has reportedly set their launch date February 6th.

The flight controller consoles in NASA’s Historic Mission Control at Johnson Space Center began being removed this week as part of a longterm restoration effort.

NASA’s InSight lander, the next mission to Mars, launching this year, had its solar arrays tested at Lockheed Martin.

During the “Year of Education” onboard the ISS, astronauts will record lessons originally planned for Christa McAuliffe’s teacher-in-space flight on Challenger in 1986.

Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa plans to retire this year.

The Google Lunar X Prize will end this March with no team winning the $20 million prize for sending a private rover mission to teh moon.

In Orbit

There were two rocket launches last week:

The Ariane 5 rocket had some kind of anomaly with the upper stage and placed the payloads in the wrong orbit.

ISS astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Scott Tingle completed a spacewalk last Tuesday to service to Canadarm-2. Unfortunately, an issue discovered after the spacewalk has caused a change of plans, and a second excusion planned for this coming Monday will be used to enact some repairs.

Around the Solar System

Some news from Mars:

  • Researchers hope to observe a global dust storm on Mars in the near future to validate a theory that dust storms contribute to the loss of the planet’s atmosphere.
  • Data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has found potential ice sheets at mid-latitudes on the red planet.
January 28, 2018 8:48 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Some recent crew assignment changes for the ISS have been receiving a lot of press, including the replacement of Jeanette Epps with Serena Aunon-Chancellor for a launch this summer. NASA has not provided specific details on the reason for the change.

As of Saturday morning, the US federal government has no official funding and must shutdown many services. This shutdown affects NASA and its field centers. The specific impacts to NASA operations will become more clear if the shutdown extends into the work week on Monday morning. In the meantime, NASA will press forward with the ISS spacewalk on Tuesday.

There was a lot of talk last week about an update on the schedule for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has slipped according to a report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). There was also a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the same topic.. The reports outline a few issues that the commercial providers – SpaceX and Boeing – both need to work through before their rockets and capsules can be certified to flight NASA astronauts to the ISS. Both companies answered questions at a congressional hearing following the report on Wednesday.

SpaceX still has not conducted a static fire of the Falcon Heavy rocket on Pad 39A. They are expected to try again this coming week with a potential launch before the end of the month.

In Orbit

The following rocket launches occurred last week:

Out There

A detailed study of Fast Radio Burst (FRB) 121102, one of the few repeating signals, has yielded a new hypothesis that these highly energetic events are caused by massive black holes.

NASA has demonstrated the concept of deep space navigation using neutron stars with the NICER payload onboard the ISS.

January 21, 2018 8:43 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic conducted their first glide flight of SpaceShipTwo since last August.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has been attempting to conduct a static fire test ahead of launch, but has scrubbed three days in a row. It has been rescheduled for Monday.

In Orbit

Launches this past week included:

In the case of the SpaceX launch, there have been many reports from reliable journalists over the past week that the classified Zuma payload perhaps did not reach orbit. However, no official statement has yet been forthcoming.

Upcoming launches of interest include a ULA Atlas V from Florida on Jan 19, the next Rocket Lab Electron launch attempt on Jan 20, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy test flight (possibly on Jan 25?).

On the ISS, the 13th SpaceX Dragon mission ended successfully with release and splashdown. SpaceX ships are currently retrieving the capsule to return its science samples.

January 13, 2018 2:07 pm

2017 in Review

The year of 2017 will be remembered by most of my readers for reasons totally unrelated to spaceflight. It was a tumultuous year with political turmoil, social strife, acts of violence, and devastating natural disasters. Unfortunately, it is these negative stories that tend to embed themselves in our memories as we witness the arc of history unfold. Even when we zoom out to a wide angle view of decades or centuries, it is violence and conflict we remember. What were the biggest events of the 20th century? Wars, economic collapse, threats of annihilation, and social strife. I don’t have to remind you though, as a space fan, that most of the world shares at least one bright memory of the difficult last century: Apollo 11.

In a similar way, I’m hoping that through all the difficult times we face as a society in the 21st century, that spaceflight can be one of those bright spots that is a source of optimism and hope (although, surely not the only source). As Bill Nye is fond of saying “space brings out the best in us.” Spaceflight is an outlet for positive creative energy. Spaceflight applies technology in new ways, often leading to new inventions and sometimes entire industries. Spaceflight allows us to conduct important research that applies directly to the interests and concerns of everyone on Earth – from medical studies onboard the ISS to weather and climate satellites to space telescopes looking out for Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

Spaceflight is a bipartisan endeavor universally loved by young and old alike because it taps into something innate in us. Whether it’s the love of exploration and discovery or just the appeal of astronauts as wholesome hometown heroes, space has always been an easy sell to the public. Very few other uses of time and money are as generally noncontroversial (although we like to argue over specifics). There was a chance for space to get swallowed up in the political turmoil in Washington, DC this past year. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, the space industry had another great year with very few setbacks.

Some readers may take issue with that statement and want to argue that it was not a great year for space. After all, NASA still has no confirmed administrator, XCOR went out of business, several programs slipped their launch dates (JWST, SLS, Orion), and Cassini ended its mission at Saturn (leaving us with a dearth of outer solar system probes). But if we look at those space programs or missions that are active and flying, we see lots of success in 2017 with few failures. The loss of Cassini should probably be spun as a positive story anyway – the planned retirement of a historic program of exploration – 13 years in Saturn orbit.

Other than the few things I listed above, the only other major setbacks of 2017 would be the five complete launch failures shown below (there were one or two other partial failures). Both Japan and New Zealand (Rocket Lab) lost rockets on their maiden launch. India, China, and Russia all lost one rocket each. The two remaining major space powers – ESA and USA – did not have any launch failures.

Country Vehicle Payload Maiden launch?
Japan SS-520 nanosat Yes
New Zealand Electron none Yes
China Long March 5 Comm sat No
India PSLV Nav sat No
Russia Soyuz Various No

2017 actually had the lowest launch success rate since 2011 and yet overall it felt like a very successful year (launch success was about 93% instead of the usual 95%). A few things contribute to this being a good year for rockets. First of course, is that 2 of the failures were test launches. If you remove them from the accounting, we are back at 95%. The second big reason is that none of the other failures led to an interruption in logistical support for the ISS. From 2014 to 2016, ISS operations lost four uncrewed logistical support rockets. After a string that bad, the last 13 months of successful flights (ten missions in all) feels positively blissful.

The third, and maybe most important reason this was a great year for rockets, was that SpaceX had no failures this year. In 2015 they lost an ISS resupply mission on ascent. In 2016 their year was cut short at 8 missions when a rocket blew up on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. The backlog of customers was looming for a long 6 months while SpaceX worked on recovering from that latest failure. Then, last January they returned to flight with a launch for Iridium and haven’t let up since. Their accomplishments include: no launch failures, a record 18 launches, a record 15 first stage recoveries, and first reuse of a first stage. The other American providers, ULA and Orbital ATK, also had good years with 8 and 3 successful launches each with no failures.

As long as we get to space with chemically propelled rockets, everything hinges on how well our rockets are flying. We can’t really do a retrospective on the year without looking at these numbers. This has always been true, but what is particularly poignant from 2017 are those 18 launches from SpaceX. That’s fully 20% of all launches. Not only that, but they flew a lot of important missions. In 2017 alone they launched four times to the ISS and at least twice for the US military. In 2018 they plan to launch several times for NASA, including to the ISS as well as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). At this point, it’s pretty clear that when SpaceX has a good year, the space industry has a good year.

In addition to the 10 successful cargo launches to the ISS this year, there were also 4 flawless crew launches to keep the record of 17 straight years of crewed operations going. NASA stepped up to 4 full-time USOS crew (which includes Japanese, Canadian, and European flyers), enabling even more research. NASA is now in full utilization mode of the ISS. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted each year – from physical science to medicine to biology to botany to astronomy – and each SpaceX Dragon brings up more externally mounted autonomous payloads such as last year’s aerosol monitoring payload (SAGE III) and a neutron star telescope (NICER), among others. The ISS has become an important platform for efficiently deploying small satellites, with dozens launched from the Japanese robotic arm last year.

The ISS looks well positioned for the future, with a healthy manifest of crew and payloads coming up as well as the exciting prospect of even larger crews, once Boeing and SpaceX successfully demonstrate flight of their new crew transportation systems. In the meantime, important maintenance has been ongoing to ensure that ISS can operate well into the 2020s. Early in the year a Japanese cargo vehicle, an HTV, brought up a new set of lithium ion batteries, the first in a series of battery replacements over the next few years that will keep the solar power flowing. The batteries were replaced in a series of 3 spacewalks last January. Ultimately, ISS astronauts would complete 10 successful spacewalks last year with no major issues.

The year in ISS was underscored by Peggy Whitson’s amazing flight. At 57 years old, Whitson now holds the record for most days in space of any American astronaut in history (665) as well as an impressive 60 hours of EVA time that puts her number 3 all time behind Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria. Peggy’s 289 day mission was almost entirely unprecedented. Not only was Whitson praised as a “space ninja” by her crew mates for her work onboard the ISS, but even made a wide impression outside of NASA and received a Woman of the Year award from Glamour Magazine. The crews aboard the ISS continue to bring the wonder of spaceflight home to us through their social media engagement and excellent educational outreach events. If you aren’t checking this link for the latest pictures from space every morning, you are missing out on a little bit of daily wonder.

The ISS is of course not the only game in town. NASA has very active planetary science and astronomy programs, not to mention similar missions from ESA, JAXA, and other agencies. 2017 saw no new launches of solar system probes (that’s right, zero) but many active missions made progress and the only “failure” being the end of Cassini. Mars is incredibly active with 8 missions. Two NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are providing a wealth of insights into the wet history of Mars. The most exciting discoveries from those robots are likely yet to come. Two asteroid sample return missions, OSIRIS-Rex from NASA and Hayabusa 2 from JAXA, remain in interplanetary cruise phase. New Horizons is on its way to visit a Kuiper Belt Object next year, Juno remains in orbit at Jupiter, and Dawn continues to explore the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Some of these missions we heard big news from this year, such as Cassini’s analysis of the ocean plumes from icy Enceladus. We also gained a new understanding of the winds and storms of Jupiter from Juno. Not to mention the absolutely stunning images we have been treated to from JunoCam.

But overall, space exploration, especially planetary exploration, is a long game. Spacecraft take years to reach their targets and then spend sometimes months or years (at least for orbiters and rovers) slowly collecting the data they need to learn something new from our mysterious solar system neighbors. So there were no splashy launches or touchdowns in 2017. Instead, the hard work from years past continued to pay off with well built spacecraft going about their daily business. 2017 was a great year in this respect. Years like this lay the foundation for big discoveries to come; it’s just that we have to wait a bit for the papers to be published. The only real downer this year is probably that Curiosity’s drill is still out of commission.

There is of course, a lot more to cover. Spaceflight is a big industry that goes far beyond just the ISS or big planetary exploration missions. New Space, for instance, had a lot of interesting updates this year. In addition to Rocket Lab making their first launch attempt, Blue Origin demonstrated further progress on their New Shepard vehicle as well as their BE-4 engine, Virgin Orbit moved a few steps closer to their first test launch with several engine tests, and Sierra Nevada conducted their first free glide flight in several years.

Then there’s astronomy. So much is happening in astronomy these days that it deserves a lengthy retrospective all its own. Here are some highlights of last year in a quick paragraph. Many interesting exoplanets were discovered, such as the fascinating Trappist-1 system with three potentially habitable planets. But Ross 128b is my favorite potentially habitable planet, because it is less than 11 light years from Earth. Let’s go! Other exciting developments in astronomy included more neutron star collisions discovered via gravitational waves and also the fascinating cigar shaped something known as ‘Omuamua which flew through our solar system from somewhere this past October (more to come on this we hope).

As we look to the future, we can see that there is a lot to learn. The ISS has years of science to conduct – managers are furiously looking for more ways to maximize timelines and target the most likely breakthroughs. Meanwhile there are dozens of worlds here at home in our solar system yet to explore, not just with probes already launched but many to come (launches to Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in 2018). And most intriguing of all, there are thousands upon thousands of worlds to explore out there, beyond our own star.

The more we look, the more we find. And the more we find, the more questions we think to ask. This is the optimistic and worldview expanding impact of science. We are losing the explorers of the last century – Apollo legends Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, and John Young all passed away in their 80s in the past year. But it’s hard not to see the vast opportunity available to the current generation of explorers in this century. Perhaps some day we will look back at this time period as a changing of the guard. It is hard to say without the benefit of hindsight. If nothing else, for those of us that are inspired by scientific discovery and exploration, 2017 showed us that spaceflight can be – and probably always will be – a candle in the dark.

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.

January 8, 2018 7:18 pm