Lean on me

Last Thursday night, I stayed up late like many space fans to watch a “routine” Russian Progress cargo launch to the ISS. This was the 60th flight of a Progress to ISS, clearly a very reliable way to get cargo up there, given that only two previous missions had failed in their objective. But, one of those failures came only about 9 weeks prior, and just 6 days prior a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket also failed to reach orbit. So despite the apparently reliability of both the Progress vehicle and the Soyuz rocket family, the spaceflight world was on “pins and needles” as Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle put it.

There seemed to be a theme in the general mood last Thursday about being glad that Russia was able to have a successful launch, but regret that Russia is the country that had to save the day.

This mood is not surprising. Since the last Space Shuttle mission 4 years ago, America’s astronauts have only flown to space on Russian Soyuz capsules. And of course, there are political reasons – unrelated to spaceflight and ISS – that makes people weary to have close ties with the Russian government right now. The loss of two American unmanned flights to ISS in the last year highlights what is an apparently lopsidedness between NASA and Roscosmos when it comes to flying to space.

This whole situation causes the patriot to come out in a lot of people, which is also understandable. Americans have grown accustomed over the last 50 years to NASA being top dog in space. We want our astronauts launching from Florida, not Asia (much harder road trip) and we don’t want our tax dollars going to Russia either. This all makes sense, and I agree. We should all be excited for American space companies being successful, and the commercial crew flights from Boeing and SpaceX can’t come soon enough. Nevertheless, the narrative that somehow Russia has the upper hand is misplaced and frankly doesn’t make sense to me.

This is the narrative that has been a great political point in Washington ever since the end of the Shuttle program but has been used even more over the last year. The phrases people use are that we are “hitching rides” with the Russians or that we are “dependent on” the Russians. Some people are implying that this means the Russians have some sort of power over us. That they are somehow in control of the ISS program politically, and could use it as a bargaining chip if they wanted. In fact, last year Russian Deputy Prime Minister seemed to think that as well when he said that the US should “use a trampoline” to get to space and I even saw a blog article titled “No, Russia did not just kick the US out of the Space Station.”

What I would like to propose is an alternate perspective based up on a more nuanced consideration of what goes on in a partnership. Perhaps the politicians, including Rogozin, do not understand the nuances of what each member country really contributes to the ISS. Yes, right now we are “dependent” upon the Russians Soyuz launch vehicle to get to the ISS. But there is more to operating a giant space station than just getting up there.

Consider my wife (no seriously, stay with me here). Two weeks ago she fractured her right leg playing soccer and has been in a cast. She hasn’t been able to drive, so has been “dependent” on me to get around. I am her only way to work (kind of like the Russian Soyuz is the astronaut’s only way to work). Does this mean I have some kind of power over my wife? Yes, temporarily, but it wouldn’t make sense to exploit that power for a few reasons. The obvious one being that she is my wife and I’m not a jerk, but for the purposes of my analogy, let’s consider the others: while she is dependent on my for transportation and some chores around the house, I am dependent on her for companionship, love, conversation, and wardrobe ideas, not to mention she helps us pay the bills with her equally cool job at NASA! Like any balanced partnership, there is much more going on than just who can drive the car to work. And of course, the cast will come off in about another week and my period of apparent power will be over. What would it gain for our marriage in the longterm for me to somehow use the fact that I have to drive her around to get something I want?

The more I think about it, the more I think this is exactly like the relationship of NASA and Roscosmos in the ISS program right now. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2011, it happened and cannot be undone, leaving us in a period of a few years during which astronauts will not be launching from American soil. But we are not in this space business alone anymore. The open-mindedness of the politicians and NASA management who went ahead with the ISS program over 20 years ago has put us in the unique situation of being able to keep our astronauts flying during our period of weakness, if you want to call it that.

But we are not weak. We invented the modern concept of Mission Control and continue to operate the ISS – and the odd Orion flight – from the Johnson Space Center, day in and day out. America has fully seven manned spacecraft* of some type or another in development right now. We operate the critical US Orbital Segment of the ISS without which the ISS could not function. Anyone who thinks it would be a technically simple thing to do for the Russians to “kick us out” and keep the ISS functioning without us (even if such a political move was likely, which I doubt) either doesn’t understand the International Space Station, or is oversimplifying the situation in favor of their politics.

Russia provides critical access to the ISS right now via the Soyuz spacecraft, as well as propulsive support and propellant resupply with the Progress spacecraft. However, just as critical, the USOS provides non-propulsive attitude control with the CMGs, so that the propellant doesn’t get used up so fast that it would be impossible to resupply in time. Also, over half an acre of solar panels on the US segment are needed to power those CMGs – not to mention we ship some of those kilowatts to the Russian Segment, since it has grown too big for its own solar panels over the years.

I could go on. Much of the redundancy of the ISS is built specifically around the concept that the backup system is on the other segment. Sometimes the cosmonauts are even assigned to sleeping quarters in Node 2, on the USOS. The ISS was designed as a partnership from the beginning and our joint interest in continuing our own individual legacies in spaceflight, which has now become a joint legacy, would prevent pretty much anything short of a complete diplomatic breakdown from causing either party to pull out of the program, because it would likely mean doom for the station itself.

So, before you go off on a rant about how its too bad that America is “dependent” on the Russians to get to space, think about whether we should be grateful we are willing to work together despite geopolitical tensions. Perhaps we should be grateful that twice in our time of need, after the loss of an Orbital rocket last year and a SpaceX rocket last month, they quickly launched a Progress resupply vehicle to restock the International Space Station. Perhaps we should be grateful that instead of our astronaut corps being grounded, like it was for 6 years between Apollo-Soyuz and STS-1, that our astronauts continue to fly in space and that our teams on the ground continue to hone their skills as we wait for the big adventures to come with Orion and beyond.

I don’t think we should let the politics and the nationalism overshadow what is really going on here. The International Space Station is just that, international. So to get bent out of shape over sharing rides is kind of counter to the whole point of the thing. Our access to space, to the ISS, is assured specifically because of the redundancy of the partnerships we have built. We have supply lines from America, Russia, and Japan on 4 different rockets. Very soon, our crew access will be from both America and Russia via 3 different rockets. It will be very hard to stop humanity’s access to space at that point. And who knows where we will go from there, together?

Thank you Russia, for letting you lean on you for a little while, as we journey onward.

*Orion, Dragon V2, CST-100, Dreamchaser, SpaceShipTwo, Lynx, New Shepard

July 7, 2015 7:27 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Unfortunately, putting Sally Ride in the US Capitol Statuary Hall is on hold. The issue is that Father Junipero Serra’s statue would be removed and he is expected to be canonized soon. The bill was on the docket in the California state legislature (I linked to the original proposal back in April).

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, as of July 1, is the new the ESA Director General. Previously, he was the head of the German space agency.

My favorite news of the week, other than all the goings-on with the ISS below, is that Houston’s Ellington field has been granted a Launch Site License by the FAA. This means it could be a “spaceport” in the future. It would be pretty cool to see takeoffs and landings of space vehicles from just down the road here!

In Orbit

As of June 29th, Gennady Padalka, current commander of Expedition 44 onboard ISS, became the most-flown astronaut or cosmonaut. The previous record of 803 cumulative days in space, held by Sergei Krikalev ,was broken by Padalka on Tuesday. He will get to almost 900 days before he comes home in September. Krikalev’s flew in space six times, while this is Padalka’s fifth.

Of course, the biggest news of the week was the loss of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on June 28th. The rocket was launched to send another Dragon capsule to the ISS for their 7th resupply flight (8th if you count the demo mission). The rocket came apart just a couple of minutes into the flight. Here’s the video:

SpaceX will of course have to do an investigation of the failure, and possibly make some design changes, before their next flight. Some important but not critical ISS cargo was lost on the mission, like a new docking adapter and spacesuit parts. There’s a good cargo list on Wikipedia, or check out this post from Parabolic Arc.

Fortunately, given that the ISS has many partners, including four redundant rockets used for resupply, the loss of one SpaceX mission hopefully won’t pose a longterm problem for the program. Just last night, Russia launched a Progress resupply spacecraft, which will dock to ISS tomorrow. The Progress brings all kinds of cargo, including propellant, food, water, and other supplies.

It is interesting to look at some numbers with SpaceX. The launch failure was their first with the Falcon 9 rocket, which had previously had 18 successful flights. Also, before the failure, they had launched five Falcon 9 flights successfully in 2015. Their previous record flight rate was 6 flights in 2014. They could still fly more this year depending on how the failure investigation goes. Parabolic Arc has a nice breakdown of what their upcoming manifest looked like before the failure.

As usual, ISS commander Scott Kelly posted some great photos of Earth from space over the last week:

Around the Solar System

Update from comet 67PP/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: mission controllers are still trying to establish consistent contact with the Philae lander. Meanwhile, the Rosetta orbiter is doing awesome science, like discovering lots of surface ice and sinkholes (I think I’d rather call them “air pockets”).

Check out the obvious red color (probably caused by hydrocarbons, not rust) in recent images of Pluto from New Horizons. Only 2 weeks until rendezvous, and NASA has given the all-clear for the close encounter on the current orbit. No new hazards (moons or rings) have been spotted in Pluto orbit.

July 3, 2015 5:00 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A new exhibit called ‘Forever Remembered’ at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has opened, featuring artifacts from the fateful STS-51L and STS-107 missions.

NASA is offering to lease parts of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Mobile Launch Platforms (MLP) at the Kennedy Space Center to commercial users. I guess NASA doesn’t need both high bays all the time due to the low launch rate expected for the new SLS rocket.

Famous composer James Horner died in a plane crash this week. Here are some excerpts from my favorite work of his, the Apollo 13 soundtrack:

In Orbit

In orbital launch news, the Russian military launch I wrote about last week was successful on June 23rd. The rocket was a Soyuz-2.1b, which has a different third stage than the Soyuz rockets used to launch missions to ISS. Here is a good discussion of the Soyuz rocket family from Russian Space Web.

There was also a Chinese Earth-observing satellite launch on June 26 (was early in the day, so June 25 in the US).

And of course, another much-anticipated SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is still scheduled for tomorrow. The pre-launch static fire test was successful on Friday, June 26, so they are ready for launch on June 27 at around 10:20 AM Eastern.

This Falcon 9 launch is supposed to have another barge landing attempt. SpaceX recently launched this new tracking cam footage of the almost-made-it attempt in April. This should get you excited for tomorrow!

As always, here are some more great photos from ISS, posted by @StationCDRKelly

Around the Solar System

The European Space Agency has extended the Rosetta mission, in orbit of comet 67P, until late 2016. Good thing too, because Rosetta keeps finding new things about comet 67P, like the recent announcement that they have found exposed water ice on the surface.

This song about the New Horizons mission to Pluto is rather fun. If you don’t like sentimentality or kitsch, you might want to skip it.

Out There

Some cool astronomy news worth sharing this week. First, the V404 Cygni system, which is a black hole orbited by a companion star, has recently become very active and is flaring into the brightest X-ray object in the sky (so you can’t see it).

Second, astronomers have discovered that exoplanet GJ436b (which is about the size of Neptune) has a giant cloud of hydrogen following it in its orbit, like a comet tail.

June 27, 2015 5:16 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The next SpaceX resupply flight to ISS will now be on June 28.

NASA’s “Europa Clipper” mission, which will explore the icy moon of Jupiter, has moved on to development phase.

US Senator from Texas John Cornyn visited mission control last week.

In Orbit

For the rocket junkies, the first launch since June 5th occurred today. The ESA Earth-observing satellite Sentinel-2 launched from French Guiana just a little while ago as I write this. There are no press releases up about the successful launch yet, so here is the Wikipedia page about the mission. Russia is launching a reconnaissance mission on a Soyuz rocket tomorrow, and then there is the SpaceX launch next Monday (see Wikipedia page 2015 in spaceflight for launch schedule).

On Thursday, ISS flight control teams commanded a reboost burn in order to slightly changing the station’s orbit. This is done to make sure that upcoming rendezvous events, like the next Soyuz launch and docking in July, happen when and where they are planned.

Robonaut 2, which lives aboard the ISS, was named the 2014 Government Invention of the Year (US).

New high definition videos of cities, filmed from the ISS, were released by UrtheCast. From 200+ miles up, you can see cars moving on streets and boats on rivers. More than that though, I think I like watching the buildings “move” as the perspective shifts at 17,500 mph.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail solar sailing test re-entered Earth’s atmosphere last Sunday, June 13th. Their next test launch will be late in 2016.

Roscosmos has announced that Sarah Brightman’s empty seat on Soyuz TMA-18M later this year will be filled by a cosmonaut from Kazakhstan.

Scott Kelly is doing a great job still posting a great variety of beautiful images from ISS on Twitter all by himself. Here is a sampling:

Around the Solar System

ESA’s Philae lander, which has been hibernating on comet 67P since November, has woken up! Data was received by the Rosetta orbiter on June 13 and 14, prompting the mission team to start making plans for when they gain a more solid link with the probe.

Scientists have discovered methane in Martian meteorites (pieces of Mars that came to Earth as a meteorite), thus confirming and deepening the mystery around the methane that has been detected at Mars by various spacecraft.

Check out this epic trailer for the upcoming rendezvous of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto:

June 22, 2015 10:00 pm

Book Review: Launch On Need

NASA’s Foundations of Mission Operations is meant to be a reminder to all working in the manned spaceflight program of the responsibility we hold to the taxpayer and to the astronauts we train and protect. Among other core values, the foundations state:

To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.

As part of that goal, certified flight controllers must complete annual proficiency training, which includes reading key chapters of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report (the report is often simply referred to as “the CAIB”). We are not required to read the entire report annually – both because it is very long at over 200 pages and because many chapters are irrelevant now that the Shuttle program has retired. However, we read chapters that have a direct relation to how we continue to do our job as flight controllers, such as chapter 7: “The Accident’s Organizational Causes”. These parts of the report drive home the importance of good leadership, speaking up when you see a problem, and technical rigor, among other skills. For instance, page 191 has a very relevant discussion of the danger of trying to present a precise technical topic on a brief PowerPoint slide.

The most important part of the CAIB ultimately is the list of recommendations found in chapter 11, especially those that are organizational and apply still today. Nevertheless, it is human nature to ask “what if?” about the Columbia accident. A 2-page section of chapter 6, titled “Possibility of Rescue or Repair”, seeks to answer this question, however briefly. Chapter 6 (and the longer associated appendix) explain that, had NASA managers understood Columbia’s plight early in the flight, resources could have been conserved onboard to extend STS-107 to a mission length of several weeks and Atlantis – already being prepped for STS-114 in the Orbiter Processing Facility – could have been rushed for a possible bid at rescue. This section of the CAIB, almost a footnote, is the premise of the fictional novel Launch on Need by Daniel Guiteras.

Launch on Need takes the “what ifs?” about as far as they can go, exploring both the how the world would react to the drama of a stranded space shuttle as well as detailing NASA’s mobilization efforts for rescue. Surprisingly, the most central character to the novel is fictional CNN reporter John Stangley, rather than a NASA flight controller or astronaut. It is actually the novel’s biggest failing that Stangley is the only character who is truly explored with depth or appreciable character arc. At 350 pages, this means that a lot of time is spent with characters of little emotional interest to the reader. The fact that all of the characters are fictional – including STS-107 astronauts, rescue astronauts, and mission managers – definitely slowed down my ability to connect with them. However, to be fair to Guiteras, the book likely would not have faced problems getting published if he had assigned invented dialogue and motivations to real people, especially the crew of Columbia.

Fortunately, the reason I read Launch on Need was not really for complex characters. The book intrigued me probably for the same reasons Guiteras wrote it. NASA has not had to publically “save” a crew since the successful failure of Apollo 13, a generation ago. Both accidents during the space shuttle program were tragedies, not crises. By the time the public knew of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the astronauts were already dead. What would a modern day Apollo 13 look like? How would the public react? Could NASA really pull it off? Of course, without a time machine, we will never really know the answers to these questions. But Launch on Need makes a compelling case for how things may have turned out differently. Despite the weak characters, and often weak dialogue, Guiteras’ loving attention to technical detail creates a drama that carries the reader all the way to the finish.

Guiteras sets up the structure of the novel in a clever way, with three parts titled The Discovery, The Challenge, and The Endeavour, using the names of three of NASA’s fleet of space shuttles. The Discovery starts at launch of STS-107 and ends with the wing inspection EVA, The Challenge covers the rescue flight’s prep for launch, and The Endeavour is the rescue mission itself. This means that, rather surprisingly, the rescue mission launches well over half way through the novel. If this story were ever to be made into a movie (unlikely) this would not fly. The big screen eye candy comes from action in space. The excitement of launch day and the drama of the rendezvous and tense rescue EVA would certainly be the focus, and launch would occur, at latest, halfway through the film. But this imagined big-screen version would steal the soul of Guiteras’ story. The real drama of the story occurs during part 2, as NASA prepares Atlantis for launch. Guiteras does a great job of building up the conflict of man versus schedule in this part of the book, which is hard to do, since the antagonist is not a person but is time itself.

One of my favorite chapters in the book comes in the middle of part 2, while Atlantis is still in the OPF, and NASA is working 3 shifts and struggling to shave precious hours of the launch prep timeline so that Atlantis can reach orbit before Columbia runs out of CO2 scrubbers. In the middle of this chaos, a careless worker drops a large bucket from an upper level of the OPF onto Atlantis’ wings, potentially putting the entire mission in danger, if the damage is bad enough. Not only did I fear for Atlantis herself but I really felt for Wally Jensen, the OPF manager you meet only for the brief 5 pages of this chapter. The accident’s impact on Jensen really painted an accurate picture of how the stress of something like a real rescue mission might take its toll on NASA’s employees.

In contrast to the parts of the novel about Atlantis being readied for launch are the chapters following the rescue crew, which I felt really missed the mark. For instance, during one chapter, we join two of the rescue mission astronauts who are selected to do the spacewalk to ferry all 7 astronauts from Columbia to Atlantis. They are training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) the week before the flight. Actually, it is the day after they were assigned to the mission and they are already on their first NBL run. As they alone in the locker room getting ready for prebrief, one astronaut begins to confide in the other that he is worried and scared, that he has lost confidence in himself. While astronauts are just humans like you and me, and surely feel the pressure leading up to a big mission, the timing of the confession and the dialogue was rather contrived. Keep in mind that these two characters were introduced as NASA’s best spacewalkers. Unfortunately, this was a theme throughout and I felt that the astronauts were the weakest characters in the story. Similarly, a lot of the scenes that occur in mission control itself felt off to me, based on my experience in mission operations for the ISS. The most jarring scene for me was when a “tiger team” of 4 members is formed in the middle of the climactic rescue EVA to figure out how to open a stuck hatch, or else the last two crew of Columbia will die aboard. The entire logistics of this episode do not match how we do things at mission control: the IMMT chair, who was at the back of the control room at the management console, grabs 3 flight controllers who are currently on shift in the front room during an EVA and leave the room to come up with options. This would never happen. Instead, the army of back room flight controllers and engineering support rooms would be working together on the comm loops to come up with a plan.

Despite Guiteras lack of ability to provide believable astronaut or flight controller characters, the story has another strength in its exploration of the space program in the American psyche. One of the most interesting scenes to me (regardless of its realism) comes near the beginning of Part II, shortly after NASA has committed to rescue as the only option for Columbia. The NASA administrator is holding a meeting with the heads of his public affairs and communications divisions and outlines an innovative approach to media relations during preparations for the rescue mission: hide nothing, let the media in everywhere. The administrator realizes that this is an “Apollo 13 moment” and seizes on the opportunity to get everyone talking about NASA again.

As NASA starts to let reporters into the VAB and OPF, just inches from Atlantis as she is prepared for her rescue mission, the American public begins to become fixated on the mission. The 24-hour news channels essentially have a launch countdown ticker on the screen at all times and they do daily status updates. STS-300 is on the front page of the New York Times. This is my favorite part of Launch on Need. I think Guiteras has a great sense of how Americans really feel about space. Sometimes it seems NASA is ignored, often even forgotten, but that is not because people don’t love space. Spaceflight is in the background fabric of our culture, the way we expect to have a football game on TV on Sunday night or that we get 100 options of breakfast cereal at the grocery store. You don’t notice something so ingrained in our culture until they are gone. Everyone wants to talk about space when something goes wrong; we see this every time a cargo launch doesn’t make it to ISS – you see a headline in every news media outlet, even if they just use the AP brief. Often those launches aren’t covered when they are successful.

Guiteras seems to understand all of this about American culture, which makes his fictional tale about how STS-107 could have ended in triumph an optimistic but cautionary tale that I think leaders within NASA should read and learn from. Launch On Need is an interesting thought experiment about NASA public affairs. It points out that people love space (which I think is true of the majority), but that NASA needs to actively share its mission in an exciting and emotional way if we want people’s love of space to be active and conscious, and not just like their love of the breakfast cereal aisle.

We will never know if Atlantis really could have made it to orbit to save the Columbia crew before Flight Day 30. All we can say is that if NASA hadn’t made the errors in management, communication, and decision making which are outlined in the CAIB, there could have at least been a chance to try. Even if a rescue mission had been attempted and failed, the way we remember the Columbia disaster would be very different. The idea of following the Foundations of Mission Operations – of being ever vigilant – is not because we believe we can prevent all disasters from happening, but instead is to at least give ourselves the chance to turn something like Columbia from a tragedy that no one saw coming into a crisis that we can put forth our best effort to recover from. This is the point of the last line of the Foundations of Mission Operations:

To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

I would recommend Launch On Need to fans of space history and flight controllers alike. In fact, with some good editing and improved character development in another edition, I think it could be quite good. I hope that if and when NASA has another crisis in manned spaceflight, we will have improved our blind spots that led to disaster for Challenger and Columbia and will instead give ourselves the chance for redemption shown by Guiteras in Launch on Need.

You can read Launch on Need for free if you have Kindle Unlimited or order it for $11.60 in paperback. Here is the Amazon link.

June 15, 2015 6:00 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jack King, who provided launch commentary for NASA missions in the 1960s and 1970s, has died at 84.

The United States Senate is busy working on a markup of a budget in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which includes money for NASA. The current budget, if passed, would include about $18.5 billion for NASA. However, there is some debate about how that money is being spent, including whether enough money is being allocated to the “commercial crew” program for launching astronauts to ISS on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing.

NASA has awarded $30 million to SpaceX for their launch abort test milestone last month.

NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) had a second drop test over Hawaii this week. The technology will help with Martian EDL for large mass spacecraft. Unfortunately, the parachute failed at high altitudes. More test flights are planned.

In Orbit

It was a very busy week up on the ISS. The most important update is that Expedition 43 ended on Wednesday when Terry Virts handed over command to Gennady Padalka for Expedition 44. Then on Thursday morning the crew of TMA-15M (consisting of Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov) undocked from the ISS and landed safely in Kazakhstan a few hours later.

Earlier in the week, there was some unrelated excitement: first, on Monday, June 8th, the mission control teams in Moscow and Houston had to work together to execute a Pre-determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM) to change the ISS orbit to dodge some space junk.

Then, on Tuesday, an unexpected thruster firing from a docked Soyuz vehicle caused ISS to take contingency actions. The Soyuz thruster firing overwhelmed the NASA-owned Control Moment Gyroscopes (CMGs), requiring use of Russian Segment attitude control thrusters to “right the ship” so to speak. Long story short, this is exactly the kind of contingency we plan for and practice hundreds of times in the ADCO group. From what I have heard, the situation was handled very well!

With Expedition 44 underway, there are only 3 astronauts aboard ISS. According to official launch dates from Roscosmos, we won’t see 6 people aboard again until TMA-17M launches in late July.

The LightSail mission has been declared a success, now that there are images of the mylar solar sails deployed! Can’t wait for the next test flight next year.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of impact glass, which may preserve evidence of past life.

Here is some new imagery of Ceres from the Dawn spacecraft, featuring a new high resolution look at the “bright spots”. Ceres is slowly moving to lower and lower mapping orbits.

There is also new imagery of Pluto from New Horizons:

Because its Cool

Check out the first official trailer for the highly anticipated (at least by geeks) movie, The Martian:

June 12, 2015 8:00 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Astronaut Nicole Stott has retired from NASA. She flew to space on Discovery twice with one mission being a long duration stay at the ISS.

The Canadian Space Agency has committed to their partnership in the ISS through 2024. This means that their two unflown astronauts, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, will get to fly expeditions to the station.

In Orbit

Half of the Expedition 43 crew will finally return to Earth this week aboard their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft. This will start Expedition 44 with a 3-man crew of Padalka, Kelly, and Kornienko. NASA TV will cover the undocking from ISS on Thursday morning, June 11. The undocking was delayed last month due to the launch failure of an unmanned Progress spacecraft. Due to the extended mission, Samantha Cristoforetti now holds the record for the longest spaceflight by a woman.

On Friday, June 5, a Russian military satellite launched on a Soyuz 2a.1 rocket. This launch is notable because it is the first flight of a Soyuz rocket since the launch failure of the Progress spacecraft. Flights of unmanned Progress and manned Soyuz spacecraft to ISS both launch on the Soyuz family of rockets.

Speaking of Soyuz, check out this awesome timelapse from the TMA-16M docking to ISS earlier this year.

The Planetary Society has confirmed via telemetry that their LightSail’s solar sail has deployed. No photos or video available yet.

Here’s another cool video from a GoPro mounted to the inside of a Falcon 9 payload fairing after a recent launch. The video starts after the fairing has already separated from the rocket.

Around the Solar System

A new analysis of Hubble Space Telescope data shows that at least two of Pluto’s small moons (Nix and Hyrda) are tumbling unpredictably. Here is a simulation:

June 8, 2015 9:00 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX officially received certification from the United States Air Force (USAF) to launch military payloads.

NASA has officially ordered the first official crew rotation flight to ISS under the contracts awarded to Boeing and SpaceX last year. Boeing is expected to make this flight (after a demo flight) in late 2017.

At NASA’s Stennis Space Center, the new RS-25 rocket engine went through a long duration test firing. The RS-25 is a modified space shuttle main engine and will be used on NASA’s new SLS rocket. Here is the full video of the 450 second (7.5 minute) test:

A new venture called MarsPolar hopes to work with SpaceX to mount the first expeditions to Mars. They have a rather shiny website (and an awesome logo). There are a lot of ambitious people promising big dreams these days, which is exciting. But it is hard to take these announcements seriously until we start seeing results. I wish them luck!

In Orbit

The big event on ISS last week was the relocation of the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) from the bottom of ISS to another out of the way port, so that the previous location can be used as a docking port. Here are some images and timelapses of the operation:

The ISS is currently in perpetual twilight during a time of year we call “high beta”. This often means frequent and very bright ISS passes for much of the world. My favorite way to look up whether ISS will be flying over my location is with the website Heavens Above.

In rocket news, only one orbital rocket launched in the past week: an Ariane 5 rocket carrying a DirecTV satellite. The next ISS related launches are expected to be a SpaceX launch late in June and hopefully also the next Progress launch.

Around the solar System

As New Horizons is now less than two months from closest approach to Pluto, we are getting higher resolution images of the dwarf planet every week. Here is the latest batch. Here’s an animation of the imagery (via APOD):

These images are more than just pretty pictures. The New Horizons mission control team is watching Pluto and its moons closely throughout approach to ensure no hazards will destroy the spacecraft at the close encounter. Analysis so far is good.

If you are excited about the Pluto mission, maybe you should download the new “Pluto Safari” iPhone app. I have downloaded it, but not played with it yet.

May 30, 2015 12:00 pm

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