Weekly Links

I am in between a string of four “Orbit 1″ (meaning, “graveyard”) shifts, but I wanted to drop in to give a quick space news roundup, especially since three human being are launching to space aboard a Soyuz rocket tomorrow!

Down to Earth

The crew of the TMA13-M Soyuz returned to Earth successfully in the early hours of November 10th after an uneventful undocking from the ISS. Maxim Surayev, Alexander Gerst, and Reid Wiseman are all back in their respective countries recuperating and debriefing. Congratulations to Expedition 41 on a successful mission.

On Wednesday, November 19, a new British space project known as Lunar Mission One was announced and they rolled out their Kickstarter campaign. The mission is noble in its goals – crowdfund a private mission to do basic lunar science, while also promising its backers a unique opportunity to be  part of a major time capsule to be buried many meters deep on the lunar south pole. The science of course involves drilling deep into the moon – never done before – hence they can then fill in the hole with a time capsule afterwards. They are already halfway to their crowdfunding goal of 600,00 GBP.

I am still very skeptical of these kinds of projects, which are in vogue amongst ambitious space enthusiasts lately. There have been many other similar crowdfunding projects launched (Mars One, Arkyd, Northern Light, Uwingu, etc) but none have yet proved that something so expensive and technically challenging can be successfully funded in this way. Elizabeth Howell gave us a bit of an understatement when she said in her Universe Today piece about the project that “…success is not necssarily a guarantee.” Best of luck to them.

Happily, Chris Hadfield has been allowed to repost his Space Oddity cover which he filmed aboard ISS during Expedition 35. Enjoy!

Lastly, if you’re into the more meat and potatoes discussion of the space industry, Space News has a good article about “5 companies to watch”, which includes discussion of Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences, among others.

In Orbit

Last week, ISS commander and US astronaut, Butch Wilmore, installed the new “Made in Space” 3D printer in the orbiting laboratory.

This weekend, on Sunday, November 23rd, the crew of TMA15-M Soyuz will launch from Baikonaur and arrive at ISS a few hours later. The second half of the Expedition 42 crew is made up of Anton Shkaplerov, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Terry Virts. Cristoforetti will be joining cosmonaut Yelena Serova who is already onboard, bringing the ISS female contingent up to two for the first time in a while. During Expedition 26, Cady Coleman was joined by Space Shuttle Mission Specialist Nicole Stott during STS-133 to mark the last time two women were onboard the ISSat the same time; that was in early 2011. The last time two women were ISS crewmates was during Expedition 24 in the summer of 2010: Shannon Walker and Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

Around the Solar System

A dedicated observing campaign using the Hubble Space Telescope was able to identify potential KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects) for the New Horizons probe to visit after its encounter with Pluto next year. I’m very glad for them that they got the Hubble observing time! I was starting to worry that they would never find a target. New Horizons may very well be the biggest space story of 2015.

Of course, the biggest news of the last two weeks was that on Wednesday, November 12: the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe deployed the Philae lander, which successfully touched down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This is a huge milestone in humanity’s exploration of the solar system. Unfortunately, the lander’s harpoons, which were meant to help Philae get a firm grip on the comet, which has very low gravity, did not fire as planned. Thus, when Philae made contact with the comet, it bounced off the surface and landed again, two hours later. But, it did land again! Check out these pictures from the surface of a comet.

Up above the lander, the Rosetta probe was able to snap some shots of Philae while it was mid-bounce. Very cool. While it was lucky that Philae did settle down onto 67P, it landed a bit on its side, with less sun on its solar panels than it needed to keep its batteries charge. So after just a couple of days of gathering science data, Philae went dormant.

Early science results from the comet are already being reported. The lander was able to detect organic molecules, assess the water ice quantity of the comet, and do a 3D radar mapping with Rosetta’s help, among other measurements.

Because it’s Cool

Here’s some perspective on the size of the solar system: all the planets fit between the Earth and the moon.

Not much needs to be said about this. Enjoy.

Check out this timelapse of a meteor blowing up in the atmosphere.

November 22, 2014 5:19 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Thankfully, this week was a bit quieter than last. However, speculation, discussion, and official press conferences and releases continue in the wake of the loss of both an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and SpaceShipTwo.

Orbital Sciences has stated that the first stage AJ26 engine – in particular, a turbopump failure – is suspected in the accident that ended their ISS resupply flight only 15 seconds after launch. Fortunately for NASA, Orbital has a plan to maintain their logistics contract to ISS. The company plans to accelerate an already scheduled upgrade to the Antares rocket propulsion system. The implication seems to be that the AJ26 engines will be retired (which are refurbished Soviet NK-33 engines built decades ago). The second piece of the plan is that Orbital will contract out ISS cargo flights to other launchers (exactly who is not identified) until the new Antares upgrade is ready. Therefore, no further flights of Antares with the AJ26 will be attempted. The company announced both the initial findings of the accident investigation and their forward plans in a press release on November 5th.

On the other side of the country in the Mojave Desert, there are still a lot of questions concerning what caused the loss of SpaceShipTwo and one of her pilots, as well as what the impact might be on the project. In the fourth daily onsite press conference from the NTSB (full briefing below), it was revealed that cockpit video shows Michael Alsbury (who did not survive) prematurely unlocked the SpaceShipTwo wing feather system. However, the feather was not actually deployed. Further investigation is needed to determine the complete error chain.

Unfortunately for Virgin Galactic, but unsurprisingly, a number of ticket holders are known to have already asked the company for a refund on their deposit for a future ride on SpaceShipTwo. The company is likely to experience significant delays before their first commercial flights, but at least their replacement vehicle is already under construction.

Before we move on to the cool stuff actually happening in space, there are two more earthbound topics I wanted to cover.

First, the midterm elections in the United States. The senate is now controlled by the Republican party and Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society has a brief but comprehensive assessment of what this will likely mean for spaceflight (including planetary science, manned spaceflight, and commercial enterprises). The summary is that no sweeping change, good or bad, is likely to be a direct result of this political swing. But it is hard to know.

Lastly, the much anticipated science fiction film Interstellar was released to what appears to be mostly great reviews. Users on IMDB are rating the film a staggering 9.1 out of 10 (keep in mind that most hyped films have very large IMDB rating inflation at release). I saw the film last night in IMAX and enjoyed it quite a bit. My recommendation is that anyone who is a fan of space, science fiction, and movies, should see this film and see it in the big format; but don’t expect to see a film that feels completely without plot holes or twinges of fantasy. This movie is “hard” science fiction in the flavor of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Recall that ASO involves advanced aliens and interstellar worm hole travel. So if you go into Interstellar expecting to not have to suspend your disbelief somewhat, you will be disappointed. I recommend you see it before reading any reviews, but if you must, here is a good one from Tim Reyes of Universe today (who liked it) and an iffy one from Phil Plait (who didn’t like it).

CollectSpace has a nice piece on how the actors in Interstellar consulted with Space Shuttle astronaut Marsha Ivins.

In Orbit

Coming up on Sunday, November 9, the crew of Expedition 41 (which ended with a change of command ceremony today) will return to Earth after their Soyuz undocks from the ISS. Maxim Suraev, Reid Wiseman, and Alex Gerst will depart ISS in the evening, around 7:30 PM Eastern, and land in Kazakhstan only about 3.5 hours later. Reid and Alex have been excellent ambassadors of the ISS on social media with their great posts on Twitter and Vine. You should follow them during their last day (and look at all their old posts)! Expedition 42 should be an exciting one with additional spacewalks planned.

Around the Solar System

A proposed Canadian mission (yes, Canadian!) would endeavor to search directly for life on Mars. The mission would consist of a small lander and just as small a rover. It is unclear what their budget would be, but since they are using an IndieGoGo campaign to raise a modest (in spaceflight terms) $1 million, I would suspect it is what could be called “shoestring”! Nevertheless, The “Northern Light” lander is exciting in its simple goal of scrapping away at the Martian dirt and looking for the color green. The presumption being that photosynthetic organisms may be alive just below the surface. With a launch window in 2018, the idea is ambitions, but exciting. I donated!

NASA held a press conference on November 7 to give an update on the science gained from observations of comet Siding Spring’s encounter with Mars back in October. One of the most interesting observations, to me, were the many kinds of metal detected by observing the chemical composition of Mars’ atmosphere during the encounter; the atmosphere changed as it was pelted with the dust and rock from the comet. Since Siding Spring is from the distant Oort cloud, these measurements are a window into the chemistry of our solar system as far back as the formation of the sun. The observations were done by the fleet of spacecraft humanity now has at Mars (6 in all counting rovers). Unfortunately, no pictures have come out from the surface of Mars (maybe from Curiosity, which can operate at night?) of the meteor storm that was likely visible from surface.

While comet Siding Spring’s encounter with Mars was an anticipated event, the events at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko next week will be a highlight of the year, or even the decade, in space… if the Rosetta spacecrafts Philae lander is able to touchdown on the comet. You could read about the mission on their website here, or just watch these two brilliantly produced videos that should get anyone excited about the mission!

Talk about having a good PR department! Philae will be released from Rosetta on Wednesday, November 12, with a touchdown signal confirming landing reaching Earth at about 11 AM Eastern. NASA TV will cover the event.

Out There

Happily, There is some cool astronomy news to cover this week as well!

The ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) Observatory has taken a stunning image of the planet-forming disc around star HL Tau, which is 450 light years away. I should note that the data was not taken in visible light, but in wavelengths closer to radio. The gaps in the dust around the star are understood to be the orbits of planet-sized bodies forming around the star as we watch. Wow.

Observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawai’i showed an object known as G2 approach the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. G2 was thought to be a large glass cloud that would get torn apart by the black hole. But when G2 survived, scientists were forced to revise their hypothesis. The new working theory is that G2 was a binary star system that merged into one massive star due to the gravitational affects of the black hole. I wonder if the system had planets?

November 8, 2014 5:22 pm

Weekly Links

This was not a good week for spaceflight, with two major mishaps. The first mishap, the loss of Orbital Science’s Antares rocket, with ISS cargo onboard, mere seconds after liftoff, was like a gut punch for American spaceflight. But the loss of a Scaled Composites test pilot when SpaceShipTwo was destroyed during Friday’s test flight in Mojave was a true disaster. Not only will it be a major setback from Virgin Galactic and the NewSpace industry (and a potential PR nightmare), it was a tragic loss of life. I hope that Scaled and Virgin make the families of the deceased their first priority. You can contribute to a GoFundMe program for deceased pilot Michael Alsbury here.

So, I guess it is ok that I haven’t posted for a while; now the bad can be mixed in with a bunch of cool stuff I need to catch you up on. Here are a few of the bigger stories in spaceflight over the past couple months that you should know about.

Down to Earth

One of the biggest stories of the summer was the CCtCAP (basically, NASA contract for private commercial manned flights to the ISS) award to SpaceX and Boeing. Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser was cut from the competition. However, Sierra Nevada has filed an official protest. The appeal process is expected to take several months, but Boeing and SpaceX will continue working on their vehicles in the meantime. The award was worth a total of $6.8 billion (over several years) with $2.6 billion to SpaceX and the rest to Boeing. Regardless of the results of the protest, space enthusiasts should be getting excited about the first crewed flights now only a few years away!

A bill is being discussed in the US House of Representatives known as the ASTEROIDS Act, which would seek to establish legislative rules regarding the mining of asteroids.

On October 17, the Air Force successfully landed the third of their secret space plane fleet, the X-37B, in California. The spacecraft spent 675 days in orbit (wow!). A fourth flight is planned for next year.

In Orbit

A lot has been going on with the ISS program since my last update just after the end of Expedition 40. Soyuz TMA-14M successfully arrived at ISS in late September with three new crew members onboard. Not long after the crew returned to 6-person strength, three separate spacewalks were conducted (two from the US segment and the RS segment) on October 7, 15 and 22. Rookie astronauts Reid Wiseman and Alex Gerst got their first spacewalks and will be returning to Earth as veterans next week. Reid got two spacewalks while Alex Gerst and Barry Wilmore both got one each.

October was the month of spacewalks, but it also saw some successful ISS vehicle traffic (despite the loss of Orbital-3). SpaceX’s fourth Dragon resupply flight was recovered after splashdown in the Pacific ocean on October 24th. Their next mission is planned to launch on December 9th. Also, just the morning after the loss of Orbital-3, a Progress resupply mission launched and docked to ISS without a hitch.

Expedition 41 will come to an end with the undocking and landing of Soyuz TMA-13M on November 10. You should follow Reid and Alex on twitter while they are still up in space taking pictures like mad.

You know Expedition 42 will be a fun time on ISS as well because of this awesome poster they made (most geeks should get the reference).

Around the Solar System

Back on October 8 many people in the Western Hemisphere enjoyed a total lunar eclipse in the early morning hours (at least for us in the USA). But here’s the view you didn’t expect: a video from Mercury (by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft) of the moon winking out as it passes into Earth’s shadow.

You know what, why don’t we just do a whole bunch of cool things spotted from around the solar system?

Next is Phobos transiting the sun as seen from the NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars.

And lastly, we have the NASA spacecraft New Horizons, less than a year from arrival at Pluto. New Horizons is now close enough to its target that it was able to spot Pluto’s tiny moon Hydra with its modest onboard imaging systems (originally detected by the Hubble Telescope in 2005).

There is a lot of other exciting solar system news to catch up on. At Mars, two new spacecraft have recently arrived in orbit: India’s MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) and NASA’s Maven. MOM is India’s first interplanetary mission and has already sent back some very nice images of the red planet. MAVEN is a probe designed to get a better understanding of Mars’ atmosphere (which should be a window into the planet’s history). MAVEN arrived at Mars in time to get some observations of comet Siding Springs as it had a close approach. Here are some other cool photos of the approach.

Just yesterday, China’s Chang’E 5 T1 mission, a technology demonstrator for a future lunar sample return, landed successfully in Mongolia.

Lastly, the Rosetta spacecraft in orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has reached the final orbit form which the Philae lander will be deployed later this month. The landing site, site J, was chosen a few weeks ago in October.

Out There

Astronomers using the HARPS instrument in Chile have discovered a swarm of comets (almost 500!) around a nearby star. More evidence that our solar system is typical, rather than unique.

November 2, 2014 10:49 pm

Weekly Links

Wow! What a year so far! There has been a lot of radio silence here on this blog since I was busy with my flight lead assignments at work (lead ADCO for SpaceX-3 cargo flight to ISS and then Expedition 40). Also, I am still very busy planning my wedding next month. I’m not going to try to catch you up on all the amazing and interesting things that have been going on in spaceflight year, for which I apologize. To partially fill the gap, here is a list of spaceflight industry news items that happened in August, helpfully compiled by Doug Messier of Parabolic Arc. Now on to more recent news.

Down to Earth

The crew of Soyuz TMA-12M returned to Earth on Wednesday, bringing to a close the long and eventful Expedition 40 onboard the ISS. I wonder if Swanny was happy to be home? Below is a video summary of their farewell, undocking, and landing.

Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman got this shot of the Soyuz re-entering.

Unfortunately, SpaceShipTwo will likely not have its first flight to space with Richard Branson aboard until at least early next year, according to Branson during an appearance on The Late Show. In just a few weeks it will be the 10 year anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s final flight which won the Ansari X Prize. Ten years later, the burgeoning “NewSpace” industry has not sent a single person to space. Let’s hope they are finally close.

On Thursday this week the first Orion crew module, which will fly an unmanned test flight in December, was moved from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility where it will be fueled. Perhaps “the gap” is slowly coming to a close?

In Orbit

With Expedition 40 complete on the ISS, Expedition 41 will start off with just a three-man crew of Alex Gerst, Reid Wiseman, and Maxim Suraev. They will be joined later this month by the crew of Soyuz TMA-14M, which includes the first female cosmonaut, Elena Serova, since Yelena Kondakova flew on STS-84 in 1997. So far, Alex and Reid are kicking off Expedition 41 by continuing to constantly post amazing pictures on Twitter as @astro_reid and @astro_alex. Why aren’t you following them?!

Last weekend on September 7, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the commercial communications satellite Asiasat-6. The next Falcon 9 rocket on deck will hopefully launch on September 19 carrying a Dragon spacecraft full of cargo to the ISS.

Some high activity on the sun, including an X-class solar flare, is expected to bring some very nice aurora to people living in northern latitudes tonight and tomorrow. Look up!

Around the Solar System

The Rosetta spacecraft is in orbit around the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, arriving earlier this summer, 10 years after launch. This “selfie” is an amazing picture that shows both part of the spacecraft and the comet in the background. Rosetta will deploy the Philae probe to land on the comet later this year. ESA is expected to announce the landing site on the comet next week.

Not wanting to be left out, Opportunity also sent home a cool summer vacation photo from the rim of Endeavour crater on Mars. Yes, this is the same Opportunity rover that landed on January 25, 2004. That would be BEFORE the last flight to space by the NewSpace industry over 10 years ago, but who is counting?

China is getting in on the party too. It seems the Yutu rover is still alive on the moon and has sent back a recent panorama.

September 11, 2014 10:56 pm

Expedition 40: Beginnings and Endings

The International Space Station program is unique in spaceflight in that it holds the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at over 5,000 days. The longevity of the program puts people like myself in a distinct and strange position: despite being a moderately experienced flight controller with over 5 years of experience, the start of Expedition 1 in November 2000 is distant history to me. Do you know where I was when Soyuz TM-31 launched that Fall? Taking Algebra and French in 8th grade. As far as my professional career is concerned, the ISS has always been there. There was no beginning – it just was.

Being the lead ADCO, or guidance officer, for Expedition 40, has been an outstandingly challenging and rewarding experience. Taking over the reigns of something with so much history and meaning and trying to learn to steer is a bit terrifying. I imagine that it’s a bit like what stepping into the Oval Office on the first day is like, although with significantly less pressure and responsibility. There are already so many pieces in motion when you step in – people doing their jobs, mostly quite well, who don’t care that a new guy is running the show. And of course, the space station didn’t reset the day Expedition 40 began. Any issues that came up in Expedition 39 (bugs in software, worn down mechanical systems, lost cargo) are still there when the shiny new Expedition 40 patch is velcroed to the side of the Flight Director console in FCR-1. There are people working those issues: running failure investigation teams, rewriting flight rules and procedures, and planning cargo manifests. That daily grind carries no Expedition number. It is simply the work that needs to be done day in and day out until the last expedition comes home.

Which brings us to endings. There’s a cliched question you are supposed to get asked at a job interview: “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” This question is used because 10 years is a long time. Long enough that your career should have progressed forward in some important way – maybe you moved on to management or got assigned to some new project, or maybe you don’t even want to do the same job for 10 years. Hence the interview question. Will I still be doing this job in 10 years? I don’t know. Based on the average rate that flight controllers move on to new things, I likely won’t still be in ADCO. But one thing is fairly certain: there will still be ADCOs. The ISS is planned to be flying until at least 2024. So the end is just as distant as the beginning. A child born on the day Bill Shepard launched to the ISS in 2000 could easily be manning the ADCO console when we send the space station into the Pacific in 2024, or later.

So when Expedition 40 ends tomorrow with the undocking and landing of Steve Swanson, Aleksandr Skvortsov, and Oleg Artemyev, isn’t it an ending? When Commander Steve Swanson shook Maxim Suraev’s hand today during the change of command ceremony it was the end of Expedition 40 and the beginning of Expedition 41. The return to earth of an ISS astronaut is an end to a long journey that includes years of training and preparation. For some astronauts like Chris Hadfield, who retired from the agency after he commanded ISS on Expedition 35, the return to Earth can signal the end to an important chapter of life and the chance to start something new. But at the same time, that handshake today was just the latest in a long line of handshakes that started with Bill Shepard and Yury Usachev in August 2001 when Expedition 1 ended and Expedition 2 began. Swanny and Max’s handshake was preceded by Swanny and Koichi, Koichi and Oleg, Oleg and Fyodor, Fyodor and Pavel, Pavel and Chris, and so on. So while we may choose to label tomorrow’s undocking with some importance as a minor beginning or ending, the reality is that that handshake really represents the continuation of something important and lasting.

In human spaceflight, as with many other difficult technical endeavors, the job is about building on the work of those that came before you. When the ISS elapsed time clock ticks over from 5,063 to 5,064 days tomorrow night, nothing will have begun nor ended. Instead, something amazing will continue. What a privilege to help keep it running for the 103 days of Expedition 40. Here’s to 5,000 more.

September 9, 2014 11:30 pm

“Always plan your vacation on launch day”

You may be wondering what happened to this blog. Then again, you may have forgotten it existed, since so many higher quality space news outlets already exist online. I will take the lack of complaints as a sign not too many were listening to begin with. In any case, to be fair to myself, I have an excuse for the silence: I was busy jinxing rocket launches.

I already explained in my previous post about taunting the space station that even the highly technical minded people of mission control – we who will say “negative” or “copy” in social conversation with friends – are as superstitious as everyone else. You simply don’t mention on a slow night that its been an easy shift. The space station will hear you and she will remind you that “space is hard” if she feels bored. This superstition goes beyond the walls of the flight control room and bleeds into our personal lives.

I had the great frustration and privilege this year of having to consider rocket launch manifests when planning my vacations. As a newly minted ADCO “specialist” flight controller, whether I am in town or not actually matters. But just to create some conflict, 2014 is a big year for me at home as well: my dad and I wanted to go on an epic 10 day road trip through California for his 60th birthday; my parents are meeting my fiance’s parents in Hawaii in June (a trial run for the wedding in October).

Staring at the ISS flight manifest last fall, the SpaceX cargo mission – my first lead assignment – looked like it would be all wrapped up by mid-January. No problem for the March road trip. But we all know space is hard; launches slip. I decided to wait another month or two to book the tickets…

Four months later it was early January and SpaceX was now to launch sometime in February, and I still had no confirmed reservations for the big trip. Launch day had already moved twice but the Dragon capsule was still scheduled to splashdown in the Pacific before my dad and I were to meet up in Sacramento. Do I book the non-refundable tickets? If the mission slips again into March do I go on the trip or not? Being a flight lead for such a big mission only 5 years into my career had been exciting and rewarding – with many hours of work put in since we became the “prime” team when SpaceX-2 splashed down in March 2013. I wasn’t going to miss rendezvous day. But with two launch slips already I was starting to learn a lesson: no one person can control or predict the manifest. During a lunch break of a joint simulation with SpaceX in January I made reservations for our trip. Time to cross my fingers.

I bet you can guess what happened next. Two weeks later the launch date had moved again, now only 5 days before I leave for California. Starting to get worried. Then in February, it slips to the day before I get back from the trip – Ack! – but if my flight is on time I will be home in time to be in the control center for rendezvous. Well, of course, I go on the trip and launch slips again into April. Guess I never had to worry.

All in all, the SpaceX cargo flight had 8 different official launch dates (see Wikipedia). I did ultimately get to fly the rendezvous I helped to plan, on April 20th. Just last week I was on console for Dragon’s departure from ISS – occurring late enough to fall in the “Increment”* for which I am also lead. This is not a knock on SpaceX; it is just the name of the game. Space Shuttle flights slipped for all kinds of reasons as well. I once drove all the way to Florida to watch STS-133 launch only for it to be cancelled 18 hours prior and launch about 5 months later.

If I had paid more attention as a rookie flight controller I wouldn’t have had to learn this lesson through experience. The folks that have been around at least a few years longer had the opportunity to be flight leads for Shuttle flights. That’s rock star stuff right there – especially now that we are in the gap years. Listening to them talk, you would realize that they aren’t joking when they talk about planning vacations on launch day. I have even heard of wedding dates being picked in this way.

It’s not a joke, but a true superstition just like “don’t taunt the space station”. If one wants to jinx a mission, don’t plan an important vacation right on top of it. Fate will slip that launch right into your family trip to Disneyland. As for me, I’m no longer worried about the in-laws trip next month. When I first asked for a 6-day leave in the middle of my lead increment last year I was worried about misplaced priorities. But the manifest looks nothing the same, and if something comes up, I have a backup lead to take my place. Even at such an awesome workplace, its probably not healthy to be married to the job. So in a way it’s just an affirmation of proper priorities and trust in the team to always plan to be somewhere on a beach on launch day.

*Increment is what we call the time period during a specific Expedition aboard ISS.

May 29, 2014 10:44 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In early January, Boeing announced that it will be leasing Orbiter Processing Facility 1 (or OPF-1 to NASA) near the VAB at KSC for launch processing of their X-37B spaceplane, which flies secret missions for the United States military. There are three OPFs at Kennedy Space Center. OPF-3 is already under a lease contract by Boeing for processing of their CST-100 crewed space capsule. CST-100 is one of three spacecraft (along with SpaceX’s DragonRider and Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser) competing for commercial ISS crew transport contracts with NASA.

Speaking of the commercial crew contract, Sierra Nevada announced in January that they will be purchasing a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket for an unmanned test flight of the DreamChaser in 2016. The launch would be from existing ULA launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Also launching in 2016 is the first part of the European ExoMars mission. The core module of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was delivered in Germany last month. ExoMars is a flagship ESA mission to explore Mars, which will consist of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.

A LEGO model of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity was launched in early January.

Since operations at KSC are ramping up for new spacecraft (like the Orion flight this fall) the VAB will be closing for tours on February 23rd. I am very happy to have seen space shuttle Endeavour in the VAB back in 2011.

The small town of Webster, adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center here in the Clear Lake area of Houston, is planning an ambitious visitor center that will pay tribute to America’s space program and feature an 80-foot tall astronaut statue.

Former astronauts Jerry Ross and Shannon Lucid will be inducted into the astronaut hall of fame this year.

In Orbit

Up on the ISS, the first official Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo mission arrived on January 12th. The private spacecraft is expected to stay another week or two before departing and burning up in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, SpaceX had another successful Falcon 9 version 1.1 launch, putting a commercial payload into geosynchronous orbit. Their next launch is a Dragon cargo spacecraft on its way to the ISS, with a plethora of other launches on the manifest for this year. The ISS flight was recently moved to a March 16 launch.

Around the Solar System

On Mars, a big anniversary happened last month. January 4th was the 10-year anniversary of Spirit landing at Columbia Memorial Station and just a few weeks later Opportunity landed at Eagle Crater on January 28, 2004. Today, Opportunity is still trucking along at Endeavour crater, after driving over 35 kilometers since landing. Pretty good for a rover expected to live 90 days and drive maybe a kilometer or two.

There were a lot of NASA media events and discussions of the missions online. Universe Today put together a list of the top 10 discoveries made by the MER rovers. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is running an exhibition on the MER rovers through September.

For some nice retro entertainment, here’s the landing video from 2004. Most of the exciting stuff is in the first minute or two, so you don’t have to watch all 8 minutes.

Opportunity is currently on the rim of Endeavour Crater – where she has been exploring since 2011. She has had some mild winter weather and is expected to make it through the solstice coming up in February. While exploring some rock outcrops at her winter stop point, Opportunity did a bit of a piroute and noticed something strange. In an area that had already been imaged by the rover, sat a new mysterious rock.

Leading theories initially were that it could be a fallen meteorite or ejecta from a meteorite impact somewhere nearby. Other theories are that it was simply dislodged by Opportunity’s wheels and simply “kicked” or dropped into the new location. An interesting mystery for the 10 year anniversary. Rove on, Opportunity!

Meanwhile on the other side of Mars, the younger but much larger Curiosity rover is navigating the “Dingo Gap” on its way to Mount Sharp and was currently parked atop a sand dune when I started to draft this post early last week. Nice view. Since then, Curiosity has successfully made it over the dune into the “valley” beyond. Curiosity is getting closer and closer to Mount Sharp, but spending lots of time stopping to do science along the way.

While waiting to cross the dune last week, the rover team released a stunning image of Earth in the Martian sky, as photographed by Curiosity on a clear twilit day. Beautiful.

Speaking of rovers, on the moon, the Chinese rover Yutu headed into its second lunar night in late January. Unfortunately, reports from the Chinese space program are that the rover suffered some kind of mechanical anomaly and is in danger of not surviving the two week “night”. It seems that some of the mechanical systems that are supposed to fold up the solar panels to provide thermal protection for sensitive components did not work properly. There has been no new news since the first reports more than a week ago. We will likely have to wait until “morning” on the moon (sometime next week) to know the rover’s fate.

Farther out in the solar system, the European comet-chasing spacecraft, Rosetta, has been woken up from hibernation. The spacecraft will be approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko later this year and in an exciting and challenging mission will drop a lander onto the comet’s surface.

Out There

A new sensitive camera on the Gemini telescope in Hawaii took an impressive infrared light image of the distant planet Beta Pictoris b. This kind of direct imaging is certainly the future of exoplanet astronomy.

The NEOWISE mission (a re-purposing on the WISE infrared orbital observatory) has found its first near-Earth asteroid.

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory were following up on an interesting binary star system, two brown dwarfs only a few lightyears from Earth, when data suggested that the star system contains a third companion, a jupiter-mass planet.  More study is expected to confirm the planet’s existence.

February 8, 2014 4:45 pm

2013 In Review – Part II

In Part I of my 2013 year in review I discussed NASA policy and budget changes in 2013. The year for NASA can be summarized as continued excellence, with reason to be concerned for the future. Concern stems from the lack of funding or long-term policy. NASA always dominates space news, but much is also said of the emerging “private” or “New” space sector – as has been the case for the past decade – ever since SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. In part II of my review I will discuss the developments in New Space in 2013 and whether I think New Space is finally about to deliver the revolution that we have been promised.

Part II – The Idea Frontier

The 2000s brought New Space to our attention, but the 2010s will be the decade that the dream is realized, fizzles out, or is replaced by New New Space. While Virgin Galactic is making powered flights (two short flights in 2013, none to space) a horde of other bold new companies are showing up, whose ideas make the idea of a blossoming  suborbital space tourism sector seem mundane.

The crazy ideas (and I say that in the most respectful way possible) started in 2012 with the announcement of Planetary Resources: The Asteroid Mining Company. Planetary Resources got attention for putting money where its mouth is; with big name and big money backers like Larry Page, James Cameron, Eric Shcmidt, and Ross Perot. Planetary Resources was followed by Deep Space Industries, another independent asteroid mining company announced in January 2013. By that same time in 2013, Planetary Resources was already working on hardware, with a ground test article of their Arkyd spacecraft. One would think that with all the backing that Planetary Resources has, the development and launch of some small space telescopes wouldn’t be too much of a stretch – SpaceX is doing it with only one billionaire – but apparently they don’t have enough billionaires. In May 2013 Planetary Resources unveiled a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million towards the first step in their mission: the launch of space telescopes (which they call their Arkyd model) to discover the asteroids they will later mine. Planetary Resources may have single-handedly proved the concept of crowdfunding a space mission by raising to date $1.5 million towards their goal.

But then again, after about 8 months Planetary Resources has received less than half a cent in donations from each American. Contrasted with the taxed $48 or so per American that NASA received last year, it’s not much. Numbers like that shows why the billionaires are necessary, and they are all getting in on the game. In January 2013, billionaire Dennis Tito (who paid for a trip to ISS in 2001) announced his new space project, Inspiration Mars. The extremely ambitious mission hopes to launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018. The trip would be for only two people – preferably a middle-aged married couple, according to the company – but would aim to inspire the world. Hence the slogan “Send Two People, Take Everyone.” I personally think Inspiration Mars is a great idea. It does not seem to have any false or unreasonable pretenses – like intending to start a brand new multi-billion dollar industry of mining asteroids from scratch. Instead the goal is in the name: inspiration.

If achieved, the Inspiration Mars mission likely would change humanity’s perspective and focus – imagine the real life image of someone staring out through a spacecraft window at the globe of Mars? But Tito’s ambition is clearly bigger than his checkbook. A mission to Mars, even a flyby, is expected to cost billions of dollars, and no launch vehicle exists that would be able to send a manned vehicle on its way to Mars (the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy is expected to eventually be able to do the trick). So who pays for it? That’s what everyone was asking back in early 2013. Tito answered that question by appearing before a congressional subcommittee in November and proposing that Inspiration Mars be a joint venture with NASA. Who will pay for it? The American taxpayer? It was worth a shot, but NASA and Congress did not seem impressed or swayed by the proposal. Whether funded philanthropically or federally, Inspiration Mars would be an amazing feat. But for now the US Government won’t be helping out.

So Inspiration Mars started off as an interesting and exciting kind of New Space that quickly morphed into a grasp at money to make it an Old Space style venture, which Congress shot down. To qualify as “New Space,” generally a venture needs to avoid NASA and come up with new, novel, cheaper ways to grow the space sector on their own. Well, that’s where Mars One came in, announcing in 2012 plans to send the first manned mission to Mars as part of a reality show.  Probably seeing the success of Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter campaign, the Mars One project started an IndieGoGo campaign in December 2013 to fund their orbiter and lander precursor mission in 2018. As of January 18th they have raised just short of half of their goal of $400,000.

So where does this put us? We have a lot of people with a lot of new crazy ideas. When Deep Space Industries was announced early last year, its chairman Rick Tumlison was quoted as saying “One company is an anomaly. Two companies is an industry.” But that is yet to be seen. A lot of excitement and press briefings and a few crowdfunding campaigns is enough to get made fun of by Jon Stewart (as in this April 2012 episode), but in my book, results are what matter. As far as the frontier of crazy new ideas goes, 2013 was mostly a year of announcements with results yet to come.

But that doesn’t mean that we are not seeing the glimmer of the results first foreshadowed by SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize ten years ago. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo succeeded on 3 different powered flights in the last year: April 29th and September 5th of last year, and then recently on January 10th. They have yet to reach space, but they are clearly very close to being “operational”. Also in the suborbital sector, XCOR’s Lynx is still under development and is expected to make a flight test soon. However, on the other side of the coin, some of the promising young companies that were kicked off by the X Prize Cup and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge last decade have fizzled out. Armadillo Aerospace has officially been put on hold by John Carmack and Masten Space Systems never grew out of the tiny mom-and-pop operation they started as. They are doing interesting work, but are more like an R&D outfit than a company in a new industry. I don’t believe they had any flights in 2013 either.

The real results are clearly coming from the companies that are challenging the definition of “New Space” by not being afraid to work with the government to get their feet off of the ground. SpaceX is the most obvious success, with 3 flights of their Falcon 9 rocket last year, one earlier this month, and no major failures. They have demonstrated technical excellence with their low failure rate, by following through on their contract to resupply the International Space Station, and by their impressive efforts to develop a reusable rocket with their “Grasshopper” rocket. SpaceX is joined by other companies that are using NASA contracts as a funding source such as Sierra Nevada who are developing the Dreamchaser reusable space plan and Bigelow Aerospace, which may deliver an inflatable hab module to the ISS in the future.

SpaceX has even purchased nearly 100 acres near the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas with the intent to launch commercial and military payloads – leaving operations for NASA cargo and crew missions in Florida. SpaceX is quickly morphing into something much more Old Space, with NASA, Department of Defense contracts (if their Falcon 9 rocket is certified by the DoD), and comm sat companies as their main source of revenue. Perhaps 2013 was the year that New Space gave its last gasp before it faded away as a false dichotomy. After all, you can’t fund a high tech company off of Kickstarter and dreams. But you can fund it off of NASA and the DoD. Perhaps the distinction between New and Old space isn’t whether you are funded by the government or not, but rather what your motivations are, and whether you keep the dream alive. So far SpaceX is still run by an eccentric billionaire with dreams of Mars. Meantime, no one at United Launch Alliance, Boeing, ATK, or Lockheed is publicly saying the goal of their company is to send the human species to the stars. And if SpaceX can keep that dream alive, maybe there is something to New Space after all. We will have to wait and see.

January 18, 2014 7:02 pm

Sharing the View

Another week in mission control is done for me. Newly rested flight controllers are taking over for the weekend to prepare for the arrival of a new cargo spacecraft on Sunday morning. To celebrate my 5 year anniversary at JSC yesterday, I thought I’d share some pictures I took in the flight control room this week. After 5 years, I am still a tourist! Enjoy, and have a good weekend!

The American Northeast

Lower Texas Coast and South Padre – future home of SpaceX?

Moon rise from orbit

Cygnus on the launchpad moments before launch

Fresh fruit delivery!

January 11, 2014 12:01 am

2013 in Review – Part I

Hello, and Happy New Year! Thanks for stopping by while you are hopefully enjoying a New Year’s break with friends or family. Last year, my 2012 in Review post was a link style post of discoveries made, missions launched, and heroes lost throughout the year. Reading that post again, it doesn’t give a real feel for the lay of the land, or the lay of space, if you will. Therefore, in the spirit of New Year Resolutions, this year I resolve to spend some extra effort and write a more op-ed style summary of 2013. So read on to get my impression of the triumphs, losses, and curiosities of 2013 as I see them.

Part I – NASA’s present and future

I have never liked the phrase “mixed bag”, but that’s really what the world of spaceflight has been over the past 12 months, especially if you have a balanced interest, as I do, in Earth science, planetary science, manned spaceflight, and commercial development. Space exploration is dominated by NASA and its government-given budget. Therefore, it is hard to ignore the impact of the American government’s indecision and disagreement when it comes to NASA funding, and the impact that has on our industry as a whole. NASA continues to get a relatively flat budget, which stagnates growth. But you can’t begrudge the American government too much for this – most people agree that our federal government should do something about the deficit; all agencies are being asked to do with less. The story of 2013 isn’t that NASA is getting a flat budget, it is specifically how NASA has chosen to distribute that money.

NASA continues to generously fund the growth of commercial resupply missions to ISS as well as the development of a new exploration system consisting of the Orion crew capsule and the SLS rocket. When combined with the annual operating budget of ISS, this exploration funding amounted to around 44% in both 2013 and 2012. We can see the results of this spending in a very successful year for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (one successful ISS resupply flight each and 3 other combined test flights and no major failures) and the steady progress that the Orion capsule is making towards the first flight next fall. However, on the other side of the agency, Planetary Science has slid from 8.5% to 6.7% of the budget (here is my source for budget numbers). This doesn’t sound like much, but the dollar amount is nearly $300 million less than the planetary science community is used to. What this led to in 2013 is the beginning of the budget squeeze;  it looks as though the coming decade will have far less new planetary science missions than the American public has gotten used to from the golden ages of funding in the 1990s and 2000s. I know you probably like pictures, because I do too, so here’s a chart from the Planetary Society that can help put it into perspective.

NASA planetary science funding over time

As you can see, less money means fewer missions. The reason 2013 was full of great science results and pictures, despite budget woes, is because of the funding that launched so many great spacecraft over the past 10 years – MER rovers, Curosity rover, MESSENGER, Cassini, Juno, New Horizons, all of the Mars orbiters, Dawn, MAVEN, LADEE, LRO. All of these spacecraft were built and launched under an earlier year’s budgets. This highlights the core contradiction of where we found ourselves in 2013 in planetary science. Stunning pictures from Saturn and Mars come in daily from Opportunity, Curiosity, and Cassini, while planetary scientists are very concerned about the future. As NASA funding is funneled into the James Webb Space Telescope and the 2020 Mars rover (both missions I hope to see launched!), the American expertise when it comes to solar system exploration may, for a time, be funneled through the camera lenses of just a few spacecraft.

My intent is not to express an opinion about how much money NASA should get – or even what percentage should be given to planetary science versus other programs – but merely to paint a picture of the internal conflict (and conflict with the public perception of NASA) that started with the budget cuts in 2012 and will continue as long as NASA’s budget remains flat. Just look at this amazing view of Mount Sharp on Mars, from the Curiosity rover, a marvel of science and engineering…

The foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars

The Curiosity rover (and her older sometimes forgotten sister Opportunity) continues to inspire the enthusiast and layman alike. Budget or not, NASA has a mastery of robotic exploration, and demonstrated it in 2013 by continuing to operate missions successfully. NASA did lose two missions in 2013 – Kepler and Deep Impact/EPOXI – but both had technically fulfilled their primary missions.

While planetary science missions are usually the “best foot forward” for NASA, 2013 showed us that the public still loves our astronauts and finds manned spaceflight worthwhile. As I wrote last year, 2012 was the year that NASA’s astronaut office realized the importance and potential of online social media. The active ISS crews in 2013 took this to heart and turned Expeditions 34 and 35 during the first half of the year into an internet sensation, mainly due to the charismatic presence of Commander Chris Hadfield on Youtube and Twitter (here’s a Flickr stream of Hadfield’s mission).

Hadfield was special in that he combined the constant joy of being in space (which is not unique to him at all) with an open and emotional personality, a desire to share, and artistic talent. That last one locked in the “sensation” part. All impressive for someone who is first – professionally – a fighter pilot.

If NASA is crafty, it will take advantage of the enthusiasm for Hadfield and the ISS program before it has time to fade (which I hope it won’t!) and direct it into support for future programs like SLS and Orion and the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization mission. In case you missed it, the ARU is the plan to send a spacecraft to a Near Earth Asteroid, capture that asteroid, and return it to Earth, all with human astronauts aboard. The ARU was announced by NASA leadership in the spring of 2013. As I wrote about in late April, the plan got somewhat less excitement from the public than was probably hoped.

The problem with ARU, and NASA’s current approach to manned spaceflight overall, is context and an end goal. When asked to explain the initiative this spring, NASA stated that the mission will integrate the best of our science and technology, while utlizing the new Orion and SLS systems, while at the same time keeping “…NASA on target to reach the President’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.” The question is, is NASA’s focus on planetary defense and asteroid deflection or is it just an excuse to test technology for going to Mars? NASA leadership is quoted as saying that Mars is a priority and that the moon is not even being considered. Yet, no clear internal roadmap or guiding set of priorities outlines the timeline and rationale for future exploration missions. Instead it often feels to the public like NASA is searching for missions to justify new hardware, rather than the other way around.

It may very well be that NASA knows where it is going, but is simply in the necessary doldrums. Stuck in between manned launch vehicles (the dreaded “gap”) there is a lack of inspiration for the public. NASA may just need some results, some action, when it comes to these grand future plans, and the public will jump onboard. Orion’s first (unmanned) flight is less than a year away. The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) will send Orion up to almost 4,000 miles to test out the heat shield on a blazing fast re-entry. Will this mission inspire and excite? It is possible. It could be that more results and less talk will cause the roadmap to also become more clear. For now, talk is cheap, and that is essentially NASA’s problem – lots of talk, and a cheap government.

Talk is also cheap in the continuously emerging private sector, and yet somehow they seem to inspire somewhat more excitement. I will explore the new private initiatives of 2013, and their impact on the spaceflight industry, in part II of my 2013 year in review.

January 1, 2014 3:44 am