Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Last week SpaceX secured a $1 billion dollar investment from Google and Fidelity. Google’s interest in the company is supposedly tied to their plans for an Earth-wide satellite internet system.

Orbital Sciences has signed a contract with RSC Energia (the Russian state-owned corporation which includes NPO Energomash) to purchase enough RD-181 rocket engines to power 10 Antares flights. The engine replacement is needed to replace the AJ-26 engines which are implicated in the loss of an ISS cargo resupply mission last October.

British singer Sarah Brightman has started her cosmonaut training in Russia. She will launch to ISS for ten days later this year.

In Orbit

If you aren’t on Google+, one reason to join is to follow Samantha Cristoforetti’s posts from the ISS. She posts almost-daily updates on how her mission is going, which is a pretty good read. Her most recent posts include a summary of the false emergency last week and a cool student robotics competition they hosted onboard.

These nighttime photos of cyclone Bansi are some of the most amazing pieces of Earth photography I have ever seen from the ISS.

Here is an interesting pair of photos from Terry Virts.

The Atlas V launch of a Navy communications satellite was successful on January 20th. This was the second orbital launch of the year, following SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch on January 10th.

Atlas V night launch (photo from Spaceflight Now)

Coming up this week, NASA’s Soil Moistive Active Passive (SMAP) satellite will launch on a Delta II rocket from Florida on Thursday, January 29th.

Pop Space

Phil Plait’s new web series, Crash Course Astronomy, kicked off. Here are links to episodes 1 and 2:

Patrick Stewart was announced as the narrator for the new Journey to Space film which is coming out next month. Here is the trailer, which was released last month (and does not feature Stewart). I am excited for this!

January 26, 2015 8:00 am

2014 in review – Part II

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the year 2014 in spaceflight. Here is a link to Part I.

If you read my blog it’s because you are a lover of space, or you are my mom (hi mom!). So I assume you are not offended by the limited focus of this small slice of the internet. There are of course other things going on in the world besides rockets launching and people flying in space. And even I admit that in many cases those things are more important. For instance, the January 7th terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo commanded the world’s attention, and rightly so. Such a tragic and visible event is an important moment in the history of our culture – the way we choose to respond says something about how we value our free speech (or not).

The year of 2014 had its share of world events that command more attention than what I write about in this blog. From the threat of ISIS in the middle east, the winter olympics in Sochi, Russia, Ebola virus outbreaks in West Africa, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and the normalization of US-Cuba relations, it was a busy year (it’s nice to see the Rosetta comet mission on some lists of major world events).

In the same way that my space blog almost completely ignores these events to stay on point, I think the space community at large tends to insulate itself from the outside world. As you might imagine, this can have its downsides. The world is connected, and as much as we want, the fun things we do in space are affected by the rest of the world. Fans of NASA know this as they watch the yo-yo-ing of NASA’s slice of the federal budget over the years. I think 2014 drove this lesson home in a way fans of spaceflight hadn’t been expecting. When Russia invaded Crimea in late February, most space fans weren’t thinking of a connection. We were busy talking about Orbital Sciences’ successful cargo mission to ISS or looking at pictures of SpaceX’s new rocket with legs. It took until April for “reality” to catch up with us.

Part II – Of trampolines and rockets

In early April, the US state department instructed NASA to cut all contact with Russia. This would of course be very concerning – and hard for the space community to tune out – except for that the ISS program was exempted. The ISS of course being the one major ongoing collaboration between our two space programs. The only other example I can think of is that NASA and Roscosmos are both involved in the ESA-led ExoMars mission.

Things really got interesting when Dmitri Rogozin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister, tweeted “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.” Most Americans wouldn’t have even heard about it – after all, it was tweeted in Cyrillic – except it was too pithy a jab to go unnoticed by American media. In light of the geopolitcal tensions between our nations that had been brewing since February, it was a juicy new angle – Russia might not let American astronauts fly on their Soyuz. It didn’t matter that most Americans hadn’t heard of Rogozin before, if he was saying that he would cut America off from the ISS, it must mean he could. He said it on Twitter, after all.

It seemed that although the US had exempted the ISS program, Russian officials weren’t taking it off the table as a political chess piece. Rogozin’s anger stemmed from the fact that he was individually targeted in the recent sanctions from the US against Russia for their actions in Ukraine. As ABC News reported,

The sanctions freeze any assets under American jurisdiction and prevent American banks from doing business with the named individual, essentially freezing them out of the international banking system. The sanctions also impose a ban on their travel to the United States.

As Deputy Prime Minister, Rogozin is responsible for the entire Russian space program, including the state-owned corporation NPO Energomash, which produces the RD-180 rocket engine used by the American company United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch US Department of Defense satellites with the Atlas V rocket… see where this is going?

However, nowhere in the sanctions against Rogozin are the companies and agency’s he manages directly called out. Business was going on as usual in the space industry up to this point (the NASA ban on Russian cooperation doesn’t apply to a private company, ULA, buying rocket engines). So, the question still stands, what set off Rogozin to author the trampoline tweet?

Enter Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, whose lawyers filed a lawsuit against the government (specifically, the U.S. Air Force) challenging a 36-rocket “block buy” contract with ULA. The main premise of the suit was that the contract was unfair and lacked competition (meaning of course, that SpaceX did not have a chance to offer a bid). Among other statements at the press conference announcing the suit, Musk is quoted as saying (from SpacePolitics.com):

How is it that we’re sending hundreds of millions of US taxpayers’ money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine? It would be hard to imagine that Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting personally from the dollars that are being sent there. On the surface of it, it appears that there’s a good probability of some kind of sanctions violation.

It seems that Elon Musk stoked the fire here, complaining that ULA’s use of the RD-180, a powerful engine built and sold by NPO Energomash, should not be allowed during this time of geopolitical tension with Russia. Hard to argue with his logic, isn’t it? A few days after the lawsuit was filed and Elon Musk’s press conference, Rogozin posted his famous tweet. The next day, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued an injunction saying that ULA could not purchase more RD-180 engines from NPO Energomash for Department of Defense rocket launches, citing the sanctions against Rogozin. Your move Dmitri.

How is it that Elon Musk, with his 12-year-old rocket company, had amassed enough influence to directly affect international relations between two of the biggest world powers? Granted, Musk is a billionaire, but his company is just a rocket company, not a media conglomerate or oil company, the traditional ways to have political influence as a rich guy. Founded in 2002, you wouldn’t think that SpaceX has a huge share of the world launch market. They have only 19 launches under their belt (a few of which were failures); compare that to the 14 successful launches from ULA just in 2014[1]. A big part of SpaceX’s quick rise surely comes from the intriguing personality of Elon Musk, whose vision and ideas capture the imagination of the young generation. His tenacity and commitment to his dreams make it hard to root against him – his three current big ventures (SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City), if successful, seem to have a clear benefit for society. But this really only explains the cult of SpaceX, not its influence on a political level. To understand why SpaceX is in such a position of influence takes a revelation about the “launch services sector” (or, the rocket business), that I don’t think most people understand; I don’t think I got it until last year either.

Not to get too technical, but the revelation becomes clear with just a little bit of Wikipedia research. Forgive me for making you look at a data table, but I think it tells the story better than a bunch of links. Let’s say you work for Iridium, the satellite phone service company, and you need to buy a rocket to launch a new satellite. If your satellite weighs around 689 kg, then there are only 21 types of rockets in the world that have the power, and a lot of them aren’t for sale. Here’s the list:

Screen shot 2015-01-13 at 10.24.22 PM

Source: Wikipedia article “comparison of orbital launch systems”

The first thing that should jump out at you is that there are only three companies from the United States that can launch medium-sized satellites. Fortunately for the folks at Iridium, their satellites are not military, and the company has utilized American, Russian, and even Chinese rockets to build their global sat-phone network.

In another scenario, you work at the Pentagon and need to find a large rocket to launch a secret spy satellite that weighs between 2,000 and 3,000 kg. Not only do your options get more limited (the Indian GSLV and Orbital Minotaur fall off the list, among others) but you are going to have to use an American company. You won’t be allowed to ship a secret satellite out of the country for launch, obviously.

So now your options are down to the three American companies, all of which have rockets that can launch your big spy satellite. However, if our scenario occurs before 2008, before the first Falcon 9 or Antares flight, there was only one choice – ULA. This is the revelation that 2014 made clear to me. We are 50 years into the “space age” but our grasp on space is hanging on by one company’s monopoly and just a few rocket designs. Until the Falcon 9 and Antares rockets, every major government launch – NASA, Air Force, NOAA, or other military – was on either a ULA rocket (or predecessors), or a Space Shuttle. If space is the frontier, then ULA is Union Pacific at Promontory Point.

So, three choices is pretty good, right? It’s better than we get in our presidential elections here in the US. Well, the problem is that although 2008 is 7 iPhone versions ago, it is very recent in terms of the space industry. As of April 2014, Orbital Sciences was not pursuing military payloads and SpaceX had not yet received certification from the USAF for their Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket. ULA was the only game in town for the Pentagon, but SpaceX expected that to change soon, as they had successfully launched the CRS-3 mission to the ISS on April 18th, the all-important third flight needed as part of the certification process. The Russian sanctions and push back from Rogozin could not have been happening at a better time for SpaceX, who appeared to be on the verge of becoming a real direct competitor to ULA. SpaceX is an American company, using American-built rocket engines, seen to be on the verge of being able to fully replace America’s areas of dependence on Russia in space. Keep in mind that the Atlas V was also in the pipe to be the launch vehicle for both Boeing and Sierra Nevada if they were to be awarded commercial crew contracts to the ISS. It seemed everything about the US launch sector was wrapped up in this issue. You can bet Musk was going to take advantage of it.

The story didn’t end on April 30th with the injunction against he RD-180 engine. That should be obvious from the way Rogozin responded to Elon Musk’s comments days before. Unfortunately for SpaceX’s political goals, the injunction against the RD-180 engines was lifted by the court about a week later. Just as things were seeming to thaw out, Rogozin hit Twitter again.

Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the us only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.”

Roscosmos doesn’t plan to continue cooperation with the US on the ISS after 2020

It may be tempting to dismiss Rogozin’s comments as just posturing on Twitter. However, they came after the topics were discussed at more length at a Russian press conference, and led directly to debate in the U.S. Senate and a letter from Congressmen to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden questioning how he plans to deal with these threats. It just goes to show that what’s most important is who says something, not how. And although a National Reconnaissance Office payload launched on an Atlas V on May 19 with no apparent political repercussions, Rogozin’s inflammatory remarks had done their job. An “RD-180 Study Group” was busy investigating the impacts of a potential loss of the RD-180 engine, which recommended allocating funds to develop a new engine. This would turn into a funding debate for the rest of 2015. Ultimately, the 2015 budget passed in December included $220 million to start designing an RD-180 replacement.

In the meantime, over at NASA, things never got much more heated than they were back in April and May. In fact, in August there were reports out of Russia from Roscosmos officials that ISS would likely be operated past 2020. But the “trampoline tweet” was ingrained in the community’s mind. Fortunately, optimism was available later in the year when NASA announced that the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts would go to Boeing for the CST-100 and SpaceX for the Dragon V2. It’s no surprise that SpaceX was included as one of the remaining two options – if NASA had gone with both Boeing and Sierra Nevada then NASA astronauts would be flying atop Atlas V’s starting in 2017, powered by RD-180 engines. Sierra Nevada immediately protested the award, but the protest was recently thrown out in January 2015.

Optimism turned to shock when on October 28th an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, carrying cargo to the ISS, exploded spectacularly just seconds after liftoff.

First moments of Antares explosion (via Spaceflight Now, image courtesy NASA)

If you remember from our earlier chart, the Antares is the other large US rocket powered by foreign technology. The first stage engine for the Antares is the AJ-26, which is really just the Ukranian NK-33 imported by Aerojet Rocketdyne and refurbished. These imported engines were literally built decades ago, but are an affordable and well-built option. The seemingly excessive use of Russian or Ukranian engines in the US launch sector isn’t for nothing – the Soviets were darn good at building rocket engines, and that expertise has continued to today.

Earlier in the year an AJ-26 blew up on a test stand, but a successful launch of a mission to ISS in July eased everyone’s concerns. Things seemed to be going well for “commercial space” – SpaceX had recently launched their sixth and final Falcon 9 flight of the year – but everyone immediately thought of that old Soviet NK-33 engine the moment they saw the Antares rocket raining down in flames.

The loss of that Antares rocket unfortunately will be the lasting memory of 2014, a year of uncertainty and debate for rocket companies in the US. While Orbital Sciences has announced a path forward, it doesn’t help answer many of the questions raised by events of the past year. Orbital announced in December that it would fly at least its next ISS resupply mission on an Atlas V (yes, that Atlas V) while it works on a plan to replace the aging AJ-26 engines on its own Antares rocket. And finally, in January 2015, Orbital announced it had made a deal with NPO Energomash (yes, that NPO Energomash) to purchase RD-181 engines to power future versions of the Antares, hopefully with a first flight sometime in 2016.

So you can see the tricky spot the industry is left in at the beginning of 2015. Despite Russia not being a political ally of the United States, Russian rocket engines continue to be an important workhorse for American launches – both military and civil – and operations of the ISS cannot continue without Russian cooperation (by design). The good news is that the issues from 2014 are mostly reasons just to be cautious and concerned about the future, and to lay plans accordingly. No scary outcome, like an actual embargo against NASA astronauts flying on a Soyuz, seems at all likely. ISS operations continue as always, and those of us working on the program have not seen any real signs that that won’t continue for the life of the space station. Atlas V rocket launches – powered by Russian RD-180 engines – continue apace with no signs of stopping. In fact, an Atlas V will launch from Florida tomorrow night with the MUOS-3 reconnaissance payload.

In 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to achieve Air Force certification, and hopefully the ongoing lawsuit that SpaceX started in April of last year will be resolved. Will SpaceX win and break the monopoly held by ULA? Also, the next phase of the ISS commercial cargo contract will be awarded by NASA. Will the award go to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to maintain the status quo? Or will Orbital’s launch vehicle uncertainty open the door for a new player like Sierra Nevada? Either way that contract goes, the only fully domestic option available to NASA seems to be SpaceX. All of these questions involve SpaceX in one way or another and the answers will color the future of the rocket launching business in America.

Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 8.51.32 PM

[1] – ULA has actually only existed since 2006, but the parent companies – Lockheed Martin and Boeing – have a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Air Force. The current suite of ULA rockets are part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program (EELV) which was started in the mid 1990’s.

January 19, 2015 8:49 pm

2015 Link Dump

2015 has already gotten off to a blazing start and I haven’t even finished writing my 2014 year in review essays. SpaceX had the first launch of the year, with a successful Falcon 9 launch and then Dragon rendezvous at ISS. Some space politics have already been in the news this year with Sierra Nevada’s protest of the NASA commercial crew contract being struck down.

I expect 2015 to be just as busy as 2014, with a lot of exciting things to look forward to from robotic exploration, to human spaceflight, to commercial and “New Space”. I am writing an essay about what I think 2015 has the potential to be remembered for. In the mean time, here are some thoughts from other space bloggers about what 2015 has in store.

Here is Spaceflight Now’s worldwide launch schedule (continuously updated).

The Wikipedia 2015 in spaceflight article isn’t a bad reference either.

The Year Ahead In Space at Parabolic Arc by Doug Messier.

10 Space Science Stories to Watch in 2015 at Universe Today by David Dickinson.

2015: NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet at Universe Today by Tim Reyes.

The Year of the Dwarf Planet by Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society.

15 Amazing Spaceflight Missions to Watch in 2015 at Space.com by Miriam Kramer.

13 launces on manifest for ULA in 2015 at Spaceflight Now by Justin Ray.

Is SpaceX’s 2015 launch manifest realistic? at Spaceflight Insider by Joe Latrell.

10 Space Movies to Watch in 2015 at Space.com by Miriam Kramer.

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2015 at EarthSky.org by Bruce McClure.

The Top 101 Astronomical Events to Watch in 2015 at Universe Today by David Dickinson.

January 16, 2015 2:20 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Elon Musk released photos on his Twitter feed of the moment that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket first stage hit their “autonomous spaceport drone ship” (see, barge) and blew up. This occurred a few minutes after the launch of the latest Dragon resupply craft last Saturday. It seems like they hit their target but came in too hard. Maybe better luck on their next flight in a couple of weeks.

Update: Just a little while after I wrote this post, the SpaceX twitter account posted this amazing Vine video.

NASA completed a “hot fire” test of the new RS-25 liquid fueled engine at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The RS-25 is a modified Space Shuttle main engine which will power the SLS.

Much noise has been made about Ted Cruz (R-TX) being assigned to a US Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of NASA. The main concern is that Cruz is considered anti-science. At the very least, he is anti-science when it comes to climate research, which NASA supports with a fleet of Earth-observering satellites. Houston Chronicle has the best analysis I have seen of what impact Cruz may actually have on the NASA budget. If you are concerned about this topic, you should read Eric Berger’s post. Here’s a longer more technical analysis at Space Policy Online.

Virgin Galactic is teaming up with a small satellite company known as OneWeb to launch a large constellation of satellites to bring broadband internet to the entire world. Replacement satellites will be launched by the LauncherOne rocket dropped from Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

There is an idea floating of a new reality show which would be a competition between inventors and scientists to get their research flown to ISS. Sounds cool!

In Orbit

Two big things happened on the ISS this week. on Monday, the latest SpaceX Dragon resupply craft arrived. This was the first cargo delivery to ISS from the US since the loss of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket in October. There was one Russian Progress resupply flight back in November.

The SpaceX flight was quickly overshadowed by an emergency alarm onboard the ISS on Wednesday morning. The alarm was for a toxic leak of ammonia, which cools the space station avionics hardware in fluid loops on the outside of ISS. In certain failure cases (for which there is multiple layers of redundancy to prevent) the ammonia can break into the internal fluid lines (which carry water) and endanger the astronauts.

Ground teams and the astronauts took immediate safety actions, as we train for hours and hours for, and evacuated to the Russian side of the space station, which does not have ammonia coolant lines. The emergency alarm was eventually determined to be false, caused by a computer glitch, and the astronauts were allowed to open the hatch to the rest of the station late in the day on Wednesday.

While the astronauts are safe, cleanup from such a major (potential) failure takes some time because of all of the automatic safing software that shut down ISS systems on Wednesday. The Flight Control Team will still be diligently working towards bringing the ISS back to “nominal” during my evening shifts this weekend.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s New Horizons probe has technically begun science operations for its Pluto encounter, although it is still more than 100 million miles from Pluto.

The long-lost Beagle 2 lander has been found on Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The lander was lost during EDL phase (Entry, Descent, and Landing) back in 2003, which was a huge disappointment to the United Kingdom’s space agency. Incredibly, although the world had assumed that Beagle 2 crashed into the surface – hence the loss of communication – the MRO images show the lander safely on the surface, partially deployed. In honor of deceased mission designer John Pillinger, I think this image deserves an update to show that Beagle 2 made it to the surface.

Check out this colorized view from Opportunity on the summit of Cape Tribulation. Image processing done by @mars_stu at his blog The Road to Endeavour (click to embiggen, of course).

Opportunity at Cape Tribulation (credit: NASA/JPL processed by Stuart Atkinson)

January 16, 2015 7:34 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

As of Friday night, the next SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to send a Dragon capsule to the ISS is still on the ground. But the issue that caused launch abort on Tuesday has been dealt with, and the SpaceX launch team is busy prepping for another attempt in just a few hours. Launch is scheduled for 4:47 AM Eastern, Saturday, January 10th. I will be getting up to watch mostly because of the crazy attempt to land the first stage on a barge… I mean autonomous drone ship.

At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit just opened called Outside the Spacecraft. The exhibit celebrates 50 years of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) which started with Russian Alexei Leonov’s first spacewalk in 1965.

In Orbit

Space Adventures has announced they have signed on another ISS “spaceflight participant” (or, tourist, if you prefer) – Japanese advertising mogul Satoshi Takamatsu. It is likely that he is the “backup” for Sarah Brightman, who will be flying to ISS later in 2015.

The week in images, from ESA.

Have to include some obligatory tweets from space.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s amazing Mars rover Opportunity finally summited Cape Tribulation this week, the highest point Opportunity will see during her mission. She is now over 400 feet above the vast plains that she drove across for years to reach Endeavour Crater. Here is the view.

Out There

2015 is 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still returning amazing astronomical results. The Hubble team knows how to celebrate right, and this week released two amazing images: first a new view of the Pillars of Creation and second an amazingly huge view of the Andromeda galaxy.

Because it’s cool

Randall Munroe of XKCD does some fun calculations about building a swimming pool on the moon.

I love these exoplanet “travel posters“.

This response, which injects a dose of realism, is even better:

January 9, 2015 9:31 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The Chinese rocket that launched on December 31st was only carrying a Chinese weather satellite – not super exciting. But check out these incredible images of the first stage of that rocket, which appears to have landed in the middle of a road in a rural Chinese town. I am glad that in the US we have more concern about where our spent rocket stages end up…

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to launch to ISS Tuesday is still stuck on the ground. A problem with a hydraulic actuator for the second stage’s Merlin 1D engine lead to a launch scrub. They will try again on Friday, January 9th. Here are some shots of the rocket on the pad.

In a pretty awesome outreach move, Elon Musk did an “Ask Me Anything” hour on the website Reddit on Monday night (on the eve of their launch attempt). Here is the link to the whole thread, or you can read some highlights at Parabolic Arc.

The new SpaceX launch site at the extreme southern coast of Texas is likely going to seem more and more real throughout 2015. Just this week, SpaceX has begun posting job openings for the new location near Brownsville, Texas.

Richard Branson wrote a blog post about his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo accident, and his continued resolve to move forward with Virgin Galactic. As always, Doug Messier has some excellent commentary and dissects Branson’s writing.

The US Government Accountability Office has denied Sierra Nevada’s protest regarding the awarding of the CCtCap contract for commercial crew flights to ISS. That means that NASA’s decision to fund only SpaceX and Boeing will stand.

In Orbit

The Atlantic had an extensive feature article about the ISS titled “5,200 days in space: an exploration of life aboard the International Space Station, and the surprising reasons the mission is still worthwhile.” It is one of the most compelling stories covering the ISS that I have ever read.

Surprisingly, at about the same time, Time ran a cover article about Scott Kelly, who will be launching in March for his one-year stay aboard the ISS. It is also a very good story that touches on the human side of life in space.

And of course, our friends in orbit continue to dazzle us on Twitter with views from orbit. Here is a sampling.

Around the Solar System

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is getting very close to the summit of Cape Tribulation on the rim of Endeavour crater. It amazes me every time I read an update on Opportunity that the mission is still going and still so successful 11 years later! (Edit: and here is a more detailed MER update from the Planetary Society blog)

On the other side of the planet (Mars that is) Curiosity has made some exciting discoveries. The rover has proven the existence of organics in the rocks of Gale crater and also that there is detectable concentrations of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. The methane is important because, due to chemical reactions that must necessarily occur, the methane is transient – meaning something is producing it. A very detailed discussion of this new finding is at the Planetary Society blog. The research was also published in the journal Science.

Out There

The Kepler team announced yesterday that a number of newly confirmed planets (based on old Kepler data) brings the total exoplanets discovered by the space telescope to 1,000. 8 of these new worlds can reasonably be considered “Earth-sized” and even in their stars’ habitable zones. Because we don’t have details on their composition or atmosphere, we can’t actually know how likely it is that life could live on these planets. But, as Phil Plait writes, this is further confirmation that the universe is full of small planets. Eventually, we will find Earth’s twin.

Graphic from JPL-NASA

Because it’s cool

This creative short film titled “Shoot for the Moon”:

New footage from the Marianas Trench documents the deepest known fish. An alien world in its own way.

January 7, 2015 8:29 am

2014 in review – Part I

You can read last year’s 2013 in review posts for context here: Part I and Part II.

Part I – NASA

When trying to summarize a year for any topic, be it world events, politics, or some niche area, like spaceflight, it is tempting to try to pick out one or two big events that were the highlight of the year. I expect the people at NASA headquarters will want to focus especially on the successful first mission of the new Orion capsule. That unmanned mission, called EFT-1, went off without a hitch in early December and was promoted by NASA as a “first step” on our new journey to Mars. Certainly, the Orion (and the SLS rocket to fly it) is a significant enough portion of NASA’s budget ($3.1 out of $17.6 billion for FY 2014) to make some noise about. But it is obviously not the only thing the agency is doing.

NASA lives in a tough public relations environment in which its greatest area of success and stability – robotic planetary exploration – doesn’t receive the same level of attention as its manned exploration programs, which are more often in flux. In 2013, NASA launched a very expensive new Mars orbiter, MAVEN, which entered Mars orbit right on schedule. MAVEN is an interesting science mission, but it is hard to explain to the public in an easy sound bite why the “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” mission is exciting. MAVEN also serves a very important secondary role of being a replacement relay satellite for the active Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. In fact, the solar system is full of continuing stories of NASA’s success in planetary exploration – sometimes referred to as NASA’s “crown jewel”: three Mars orbiters, two rovers on Mars, New Horizons on the way to Pluto, Cassini at Saturn, Dawn on the way to Vesta, Juno on the way to Jupiter, and I’ve certainly left something out.

The problem with ongoing planetary missions is that they move slowly. They don’t have the sex appeal that news channels can include on the morning edition. It seems to me that there are only a few distinct things that get a space story coverage on the national news, and none of them are “Mars rover continues to rove”. The hooks as I see them are: rocket launch, astronauts, political relevance, failure, or the specter of failure (like a daring Mars landing). So which planetary missions had a hook this year? Well, none, really. No major missions launched, no major missions failed in a newsworthy way, and no NASA missions had a daring EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) sequence to capture the public’s attention. The European Space Agency’s landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko got widespread media coverage specifically because of that hook about the specter of failure. Google even featured Philae in at least one of their “doodles” and in a national TV ad run on New Year’s Eve.

The story of the year was clearly ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission. Robotic planetary exploration, NASA’s crown jewel, did not shine in 2014, and was in fact overshadowed by the plucky yet doomed Philae lander. So, although NASA had a lucky 13 planetary missions in operation during 2014, the biggest success of the year for the agency really did come late in the year with the EFT-1 flight of Orion. Thus, you would expect that NASA’s own PR would focus on this hugely expensive and visible part of their plans. But looking at their own year-end summaries, like the “This Year At NASA” video, Orion, SLS, and the future of manned spaceflight are not given the importance we would expect.

In fact, the video opens by mentioning “…the next giant leap in space exploration: sending astronauts to Mars” but only mentions development of certain “game-changing technologies” in that context, and briefly mentions that NASA’s plans “…could include a human mission in the 2020s to an asteroid…” SLS and Orion are mentioned in a different part of the video. Here in this short 6-minute 2014 summary video, we can see why coverage of the EFT-1 mission was by-and-large fleeting. NASA PR material does not make it clear what the long-term plan is. Astronauts could visit an asteroid? Why don’t we know where we are going yet? These are reasonable questions for the public to be asking. Americans probably wouldn’t mind if the first mission to Mars is 15 to 20 years away if you tell them specifically what needs to be done to reach that goal. Imagine a series of milestones like we had for Apollo – the Gemini program missions and then the early Apollo missions each had a purpose, a technology or technique to test out, that had to be done before a landing could be attempted. 2014 was a year of opportunity for NASA to lay out that plan for people as EFT-1 approached. Instead, we get two rather vague graphics (one released in April, and the other in December), which do not do much to outline specific milestones.

“Path to Mars” from April 2014 by NASA

“Journey to Mars” from December 2014 by NASA

With vagueness, very long timelines, and no second Orion mission for 3 years, it is understandable that the public did not latch on to the EFT-1 story in 2014. Before we blame “kids these days”, the state of education, or America’s preoccupation with reality TV and celebrities, I think in some ways 2014 also proved that people do in fact care about space exploration.

Perhaps I need to convince you. Go watch that Google TV spot again. It ends with a rather long sequence highlighting the success of Philae, voiced over by Bill Nye. The movie Interstellar was a financial success this year, hot on the heels of 2013’s Gravity. Most tellingly, in my opinion, is how the public responds to real stories and images of spaceflight from the astronauts onboard the ISS.

The ISS was home to many prolific tweeters in 2014, including Mike Hopkins, Richard Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata, Reid Wiseman, Alex Gerst, Terry Virts, and Samantha Cristoforetti (Virts and Cristoforetti are in space at the time of this writing). Commander Steve Swanson didn’t tweet, but posted lots of pictures on the ISS Instagram feed – more recent crews have kept up the postings there. And then during Expedition 40, the ISS crew joined Vine, with accounts from Reid Wiseman, Terry Virts, and “InsideISS” popping up. Most posts from astronauts average several hundred retweets, favorites, or comments per post, but often they reach several thousand. A tweet of a few shots of a moonset from ISS on Virts’ twitter feed from December 22nd has been retweeted 3,571 times.

The average person loves space exploration and the idea of living in space. What people don’t love is talking about space policy. The average person doesn’t want to know the political or technical nuances of this or that NASA budget or plan. I know this from personal experience talking about my job. What people want to know is where we are going, that we have a solid plan to get there, and that there’s a chance that their kid who wants to be an astronaut could be involved in those awesome plans. Americans expect NASA and its employees to be brilliant, driven, motivated, and no nonsense – the qualities of all of the characters in the movie Apollo 13. The “failure is not an option” mythos translates directly to an expectation that NASA knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. When NASA’s own PR says things like we could be going to an asteroid in a few years, not that we will, most people would understandably be thinking that they’ll check back in when NASA has its plans figured out.

I don’t know what the most common answer would be if you asked people on the street what important things happened for NASA in 2014, but I have some guesses. A lot of people may think that Rosetta/Philae was a NASA mission and mention that. Others will remember the “NASA rocket” that blew up, by which they would be referring to the Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that failed shortly after launch (technically not a NASA failure, but it’s unfair to expect the layman to understand the difference). What would not likely be on the list is the official PR line about EFT-1: that NASA launched the first in a series of missions to take the human race to Mars. The general feeling towards NASA at the end of 2014 is likely more along the lines of “has plans to do some awesome stuff in 10 or 20 years that I’ll get excited about then.”

What answers would you get if you asked the same question of congress people and staffers on Capitol Hill? They are well aware of the SLS/Orion program because of its large cost – in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget that was approved in December, a big part of the $500 million increase over last year’s budget went to that project. A total of about $2 billion will be spent on SLS/Orion in 2015. Unfortunately, the willingness to increase NASA’s budget likely has more factors than a commitment to a long-term Path to Mars. More immediate issues, like the ripple effects of growing geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia, were likely on politicians minds when they approved the Cromnibus spending bill last month. The Crimea crisis in February set the tone for most discussion about NASA inside the Beltway during 2014: NASA can’t launch its own astronauts to space. Most of all, 2014 was a reminder of that fact. The good news is that with the award of the CCtCAP contract to Boeing and SpaceX and the launch of EFT-1, 2014 had a lot of bright points; it showed concrete evidence that NASA is working on closing the gap.

So how will 2014 be remembered? With an increased budget, an almost flawless Orion test flight, and lots of “rovers continuing to rove”, NASA has reasons to be optimistic going into 2015. However, 2014 was the middle year in the gap that hopefully will end in 2017 with a crewed test flight of an American spacecraft. The explosion of an ISS resupply rocket in October combined with mostly vague plans for future human spaceflight has left the public unconvinced that NASA is where their love of space should be focused right now. NASA faces a real chance of being further marginalized and replaced in the public’s psyche by “New Space”, but it all depends on what certain key players, such as SpaceX and Bigelow can achieve in the coming year.

In part 2 of my year in review, I will recap how the US sanctions on Russia related to Ukraine affected various aspects of the US space sector, a perfect opportunity for Elon Musk to steal the public’s focus away from NASA.

January 4, 2015 3:27 pm

2014 Link Dump

The past year was one of ups and downs in the space sector. The year started with a lot of successes that are lost in the shadows of the bigger stories late in the year, including successful launches for Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, China’s Yutu rover on the moon, NASA’s LADEE ending a successful mission, and the debut of new live streaming HD camera views from the ISS, among other stories.

The space sector’s focus quickly shifted when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in February, which kicked off a ripple effect involving the Russian RD-180 engines, used to launch American Department of Defense assets. The question of whether the US launch sector is too reliant on Russian rocket engines is still playing a huge role in space policy almost a year later. I would go so far as to say the RD-180 story was the start of a year dominated by a focus on launch vehicles, rather than actual ongoing missions.

That dominance came to a head at the end of 2014 with the loss of an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, just days apart. In fact, all 2014 summaries seem to be dominated by the last 10 weeks of the year. There were several triumphs late in the year, such as ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission and NASA’s EFT-1 demonstration. However, the vehicle losses were bigger stories (as negative stories often are) and likely have bigger implications for the future. The contrast of the positive and negative events towards the end of the year are a microcosm of how the year feels to me: great ambitions underscored by sobering reality.

I have a series of posts planned to sum up the year in space with a bit of commentary. In particular, it is interesting to put 2014 into context by following the themes that I used when summing up 2013 – they seem to have continued about the same for the last 12 months; the mood continues to be one of cautious anticipation. I’m sure you are waiting for my commentary with bated breath (yeah, right). While you wait, enjoy some high level summaries and top lists from around the internet.

Happy New Year!

Wikipedia Stats

The “2014 in Spaceflight” article is fairly comprehensive at capturing all of the launches of the year. 2014 saw 92 launches (with one from China earlier today), outdoing the last few years by at least several launches. 2014 is the only year I am aware of to hit the 90s as far as number of launches. Update: According to Spaceflight Now, the last time more than 90 launches occurred in a year was in 1992, with 93.

On the ISS, several cosmonauts on the list of most total time in space added to their totals this year, such as Tyurin at 13 and Kotov at 14. Japan’s Koichi Wakata commanded Expedition 39 to solidify his spot as one of the few non-Russian or Americans on the list at 35. Richard Mastracchio snuck into the last spot at number 50 on the Wikipedia list during Expedition 39 (but he is going to get bumped next year by Scott Kelly and possibly others).

Speaking of Mastracchio, he did 3 spacewalks while on ISS at the end of 2013 and early 2014. The EVAs totaled 14 hours, bringing his lifetime total above 53 hours and bringing him way up to number 5 on the list of most total EVA time. There were 7 total spacewalks on ISS in 2014. However, none of the other spacewalkers from this year made the Wikipedia list of top 30 for time.

Top Space Stories of 2014

The following outlets have a rundown of the biggest things that happened this year. Usually with a paragraph or two of detail on each topic.

Universe Today

AmericaSpace

Spaceflight Now

Space.com

Scientific American

Here are some video summaries from the eyes of the space agencies themselves. First, NASA’s “this year @NASA” video.

The European Space Agency also produced a short summary video.

Update: and here is SpaceX’s own summary of their year.

Other Top Lists

Universe Today’s top space photos of 2014.

Space.com’s top astronomy stories of 2014.

While not space-related, The Big Picture’s year in pictures photo essay is a must read. Here are parts one, two, and three.

EarthSky has the top 10 new species of 2014.

Jeff Master’s at the Wunderground has the top 10 weather stories and top 10 weather videos of 2014.

Top 25 images of Earth from space (all DigitalGlobe).

Scientific American’s top science stories of 2014.

Update: Top space images of the year from Reuters.

December 31, 2014 8:20 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

I am continually puzzled by large-scale aerospace projects using crowdfunding sites. In the latest installment, a company called Bristol Spaceplane (who have apparently been around at least since the Ansari X Prize days) is looking for 10,000 GBP (that’s about 15,500 USD) to build a remote controlled scale model of their spaceplane concept (via Parabolic Arc). How they intend to turn $15,000 of crowdfunding into a multi-billion dollar spaceplane project is not mentioned on their fundraising page.

SpaceX has picked up a Qatari telecommunications launch for 2016, adding to their already packed manifest. The Falcon 9 launch rate will be one of the big stories to follow in 2015. SpaceX is still on track for a January 6th launch to resupply the ISS.

In some continued minor fallout from the Virgin Galactic accident earlier this year, a company called Virool (I hadn’t heard of them) has changed up the prize in a previous contest: instead of winning a SpaceShipTwo ticket, the prize is now just a ride on a “vomit comet” style airplane.

In Orbit

In a quick flurry of launches, the Russian space program lofted 3 successful missions to end 2014 on a very positive note last week. The launches were all unmanned and unrelated to the ISS program. First, on December 23rd, the first flight of the new Angara rocket put a “dummy payload” into geosynchronous orbit.

Next, on December 26th, a Soyuz rocket put the Resurs P2 Earth observing satellite into orbit.

Lastly, on December 28th, a Proton rocket launched a European communication satellite to geosynchronous orbit. This was the 4th successful Proton launch since the failure in May. Proton is notorious for failures (one failure a year since 2010), and is intended to be replaced by the new Angara rocket.

Up on the ISS, the crew celebrated Christmas last week by putting out cookies for Santa Claus and exchanging presents. Astronaut Terry Virts shared their celebration with a few pictures on Twitter.

Out There

A new study with the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a previously unknown “dwarf spheroidal” galaxy only 10 million light years from our galaxy. These types of small galaxies filled with older stars are expected to help astronomers improve models of star formation. The new galaxy is in our “Local Group” and is called KKs3. Hopefully someone at the IAU can come up with something more catchy.

Back in 2013, when Kepler’s second of four reaction wheels failed, it looked like the space telescopes science days were over. However, earlier this year the mission was relaunched as “K2″. The new mission uses the two remaining reaction wheels and solar wind pressure to keep the spacecraft pointed accurately enough to do science. The pointing is not as accurate as the original mission, but the first exoplanet discovery of the new mission proves that Kepler is not dead! Kepler found HIP 116454b, which is a small planet 2.5 Earth diameters in size.

December 29, 2014 8:17 am

Weekly Links

With Christmas and New Year’s fast approaching (and Chanukah already here), everyone stays a little less connected, since more time is devoted to family and friends. So this week I have a rather short update on space news in the past week. I have plans for a pretty detailed “year in space” retrospective on 2014, which I will write after the holidays. So read this right quick and get back to the post office to ship those late gifts!

Down to Earth

SpaceX did not manage to get their CRS-5 (or 5th ISS resupply flight) off the ground as planned this week. They had an issue with their first attempt at the “static fire test” of the rocket on the pad and had to try again on Friday, December 19. The Friday test went well and launch is now no earlier than January 6th with rendezvous two days later.

In other SpaceX news, the company was awarded an $87 million contract with NASA to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) on one of their Falcon 9 rockets in 2017.

The Commercial Cargo Resupply contract, which SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently hold, will be coming up for rebid (for launches starting in 2018). Boeing is now on record that they plan to bid on the contract with their CST-100 vehicle, which, just this year, received an award for NASA’s commercial crew transfer contract.

In Orbit

In a little talked about test flight, India had a successful launch of its new GSLV Mark III rocket, which was carrying a rudimentary test article for a future crew module. Although I put this news in the “In Orbit” section, since it went to space, the mission was actually just a quick sub-orbital hop to 126 km. It’s an impressive step for India, but clearly there is a lot of work between here and a manned program.

Things are pretty quiet on the ISS, with the slip of the SpaceX mission to next month and the Christmas and New Year’s holidays coming up. With no Dragon to capture this weekend and a day or two off for Christmas next week, I imagine the astronauts will be taking lots of great photos of the Earth, as they always do. You should keep following Terry and Sam especially. Their Earth photography is always fun to look at and posted in near real-time, like this incredible shot of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.

Around the Solar System

Unfortunately, the Venus Express spacecraft could not hold out until 2015. The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that the spacecraft ran out of fuel and is no longer gathering science data. The mission is over. Congratulations to ESA on an impressive 8 year campaign at Venus!

December 20, 2014 2:16 pm