Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category

2017 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

John Young – astronaut, moonwalker, space shuttle commander – died on Saturday, January 6th at 87 years old.

In Orbit

NASA installed two new external payloads on the ISS, brought up in the SpaceX Dragon: Space Debris Sensor (SDS) and Total Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS).

SpaceX will attempt the first orbital launch of the new year tonight at 8 PM ET. Follow the webcast of the launch at the link below.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Curiosity rover has confirmed that the variation of methane in the Martian atmosphere appears to be seasonal.

Out There

Astronomer’s have some updated theories about KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s Star. Based on new analysis of recent data, the dimming of the star appears to vary by wavelength, leading researchers to place large clouds of dust at the top of their list.

New analysis of interstellar object ‘Omuamua reveals that it may be more icy than originally assumed.

Some other researchers are trying to determine ‘Omuamua’s origin. They have done some statistical analysis to show that it is likely it came from a white dwarf star system.

Looking Forward

Here is some information about what to expect in 2018 in spaceflight. For starter’s here is Universe Today’s top 2018 astronomy events.

What’s up in solar system exploration in 2018, from The Planetary Society.

NASA’s look at the year ahead:

ESA’s look at the year ahead:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former astronaut Bruce McCandless II died at 80 years old. McCandless was selected as an astronaut in 1966 but didn’t fly until 1984 on STS-41-B. McCandless is probably best known as the first astronaut to do an untethered EVA using the MMU on that first flight. He flew again on STS-31 in 1990.

SpaceX released photos of the first Falcon Heavy rocket being readied for flight, as well as its payload.

The Falcon Heavy rocket was temporarily vertical on the launch pad for fit checks ahead of its January launch.

NASA completed a parachute drop test of the Orion spacecraft in Arizona. The test used only 2 of the 3 parachutes, to validate a parachute failure case.

NASA conducted a water suppression system test at launch pad 39B at KSC in preparation for SLS flights. Check out the video below:

NASA has selected two finalists for a new robotic planetary mission. The mission will either be a comet sample return or a Titan quadcopter.

The new American Girl doll will be an aspiring astronaut, with space suit and all.

In Orbit

There were five orbital rocket launches since my last post, two weeks ago:

  • Dec 23 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg in California, carrying communications satellites for Iridium.
  • Dec 23 – JAXA launched an H-IIA rocket carrying two scientific satellites.
  • Dec 23 – The Chinese space agency launched a Long March 2D rocket carrying an Earth-observing payload.
  • Dec 25 – The Chinese space agency launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying payloads for the Chinese military.
  • Dec 26 – Roscosmos launched a Zenit rocket carrying a communications satellite for Angola.

The Anogosat-1 payload initially had a problem and lost comm with ground control. However, reports in the past day or two indicate that communications have been restored.

The SpaceX launch was their 18th and last of the year – in 2016 they launched only 6 rockets. The launch was just after sunset and created spectacular views from the LA metro area. The video below from a drone is one of the best examples:

Meanwhile, the Soyuz rocket that launched on December 17th arrived at ISS successfully on Wednesday. The ISS crew has now returned to a full complement of 6. One of their Christmas treats was an onboard screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Also aboard the space station, the Progress 67P freighter undocked from the ISS this week and re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, carrying trash. The freighter will be replaced by 69P in February.

Here are some more pictures from the astronauts aboard the ISS the enjoy on your holiday weekend (as always, follow them on Twitter here).

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Blue Origin conducted their first New Shepard test flight in over a year. Video below.

Rocket Lab has postponed their Electron test launch to next year.

The President of the United States signed a new space policy initiative.

The USPS will be releasing a stamp featuring an image of astronaut Sally Ride.

In Orbit

Three orbital rocket launches this week:

  • Dec 12 – An ESA Ariane 5 rocket carrying four Galileo navigation satellites
  • Dec 15 – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon freighter to the ISS (the first launch from pad 40 since the accident last year)
  • Dec 17 – A Soyuz rocket carrying the next crew of three to the ISS: Anton Shkaplerov, Scott tingle, and Norishige Kanai

ISS operations have been very busy! The Dragon cargo arrived this morning with no issues. But before this weekend’s launches, three astronauts left ISS and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere safely. Expedition 53 has come to a close with Randy Bresnik, Paolo Nespoli, and Sergey Ryazansky coming home.

Out There

NASA announced that the Kepler Space Telescope had discovered an 8th planet in the Kepler-90 system, making it tied with our own solar system for most known planets.

Astronomers with Breakthrough Listen are pointing their radio telescope at the interstellar rock ‘Oumuamua in the off-chance it is emitting alien signals.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The United Arab Emirates has begun looking for astronaut candidates for their space program.

In Orbit

It’s been a quiet week: no orbital launches since my last post, although several were planned. Here’s the packed schedule coming up*:

  • Dec 10 – Chinese launch of a communications satellite for Algeria (this occurred successfully this morning)
  • Dec 11 – Rocket Lab test launch in New Zealand
  • Dec 12 – SpaceX launch to ISS
  • Dec 12 – ESA nav sat launch from French Guiana
  • Dec 17 – Three astronauts launch to ISS from Kazakhstan

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft departed the ISS last week.

Cygnus will remain in orbit until December 18th, giving it enough time to deploy a payload of cubesats.

Speaking of cubesats, a JPL-built cubesat was deployed from the ISS to prove that valuable astronomy can be done in a small orbital package.

The astronauts on the ISS have been taking some incredible pictures of the fires in Southern California:

Around the Solar System

Spring is coming to the northern hemisphere on Mars and Opportunity has survived another winter – nearly 14 years after landing.

The New Horizons spacecraft completed a course correction burn as it continues on its way to Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69.

Out There

Astronomers have confirmed an exoplanet system containing K2-18b and K2-18c, both large potentailly habitable rocky worlds orbiting a red dwarf star. Phil Plait has an interesting observation about what this news means for our perspective about our own solar system.

*Best references for upcoming launches are LaunchLibrary.net or 2017 in Spaceflight on Wikipedia

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In a spectacularly successful PR move last Friday, Elon Musk posted some provocative tweets (copied below) about the upcoming Falcon Heavy debut. The launch is hoped to be sometime in early 2018. The question the tweets seem to answer is where will the rocket go and what will it be carrying. The answer? Apparently a car – a Tesla Roadster. Apparently he is serious about it too.

The James Webb Space Telescope has finished up vacuum testing at Johnson Space Center and has recently come out of the vacuum chamber. It will be transported back to California for final processing before shipping to the launch site.

In Orbit

Here’s a quick summary of the rocket launch attempts of the last week (two successful, one failure):

In upcoming launches, two much anticipated attempts. On December 8th, Rocket Lab will attempt its second test flight from New Zealand while SpaceX will send another Dragon spacecraft on the way to ISS.

Out There

The Voyager 1 spacecraft fired up its backup attitude control thrusters for the first time in 37 years. NASA engineers wanted to checkout this extra set of thrusters to help determine how long the spacecraft can stay operational. It requires fine pointing with thrusters in order to communicate with home.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected another black hole merger. This one was the lowest mass pair detected so far.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Sierra Nevada Corporation completed a successful free-flight landing test of their Dream Chase space plane. The test was the first free-flight since 2013, when they had a landing gear issue during their first test.

XCOR Aerospace, a company that spent over a decade trying to develop their own space plane, has filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy (i.e., their assets will be auctioned off).

Another veteran astronaut of the Apollo era has passed away. Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon died last week at 88 years old. In addition to orbiting the moon, Gordon flew on the Gemini 11 mission with Pete Conrad and later worked on the Space Shuttle program.

During an engine test last week, SpaceX had an incident with a qualification unit of their new Merlin engine design. The engine basically blew up but no one was injured.

If you get up before dawn tomorrow, you will have a chance to see a conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter. They will rise very close together in the East.

In Orbit

Three orbital rocket launches since my last post:

  • November 5 – China launched two new Beidou navigation satellites.
  • November 8 – ESA launched a Vega rocket carrying an earth-observing satellite for Morocco.
  • November 12 – Orbital ATK launched an Antares rocket from Virginia carrying a Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station. It will arrive on station Tuesday morning.

Around the Solar system

You can vote on a name for the small object 2014 MU69, which will be visited by the New Horizons probe in early 2019.

A study gives new explanation to why Saturn’s watery moon Enceladus is so geologically active.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Skylab and Space Shuttle astronaut Paul Weitz has died at 85 years old.

The 2018 US Olympic Snowboard team will wear uniforms inspired by NASA spacesuits.

Saudi Arabia has agreed to invest $1 billion dollars in Virgin Galactic.

In Orbit

In rocket news, there were only two orbital launches since my last post on October 21:

Around the Solar Systems

NASA’s robotic probe Dawn has received an official mission extension to stay in orbit around the asteroid Ceres.

Out There

Astronomers at an observatory in Chile have discovered an unusual exoplanet orbiting a dwarf star. The planet is larger than Jupiter and is 25% the size of its host star, the highest known planet-to-star ratio yet discovered.

The Pan-STARRS-1 observatory in Hawaii detected a small rocky body hurtling into our solar system from interstellar space. The asteroid (or should it be called something else?) poses no risk to Earth. Follow the link for a cool animation of its orbit.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Retired NASA astronaut Terry Virts has published a “coffee table book” of images he took while aboard the ISS during Expeditions 42 and 43.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO team.

Canadian company MDA has acquired DigitalGlobe and the new merged corporation will be changing their name to Maxar Technologies. MDA is the company that build the Canadarms and DigitalGlobe is a major provider of orbital imagery for users like Google.

In Orbit

Three rocket launches since my last post. All of them occurred today, October 9th:

  • China launched a Long March 2D rocket carrying a Venezuelan satellite.
  • SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 new communication satellites for Iridium.
  • Japan launched an H-2A rocket carrying a native navigation satellite.

Things have been quite busy up on the ISS. Astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Randy Bresnik executed the first of a series of spacewalks last week to maintain the station’s robotic arm. They will go out again tomorrow, October 10th, to continue the work. Here are a few pictures from last week’s EVA:

NASA has announced plans to keep the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on the ISS for longer than planned and use it as a logistics module.

Out There

A recent study of “Tabby’s Star” using NASA’s orbiting observatories Spitzer and Swift has a new theory for the unexplained dips in brightness: dust. The new hypothesis is compelling because the telescopes detected differences in the dimming at different wavelengths, which implies something transparent like dust.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Astronauts Mike Fossum and Mike Baker announced their retirement from NASA last week.

NASA announced that it will be funding two new robotic missions to study distant asteroids. The Lucy probe will take many years to go all the way out to study the Trojan asteroids, which share Jupiter’s orbit. The Psyche probe will travel to an asteroid named Psyche which is a solid iron asteroid. It will be the first large iron asteroid visited by a spacecraft.

In Orbit

The one and only orbital launch since my last post on January 5th was yet another Chinese rocket. This launch on the 9th carried several small Earth observation satellites into orbit.

Up on the ISS, the Expedition 50 crew completed two successful spacewalks to upgrade a portion of the space station’s power systems to use new lithium-ion batteries. Last Friday, January 6th, Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough completed the first spacewalk and yesterday, Friday, January 13th, Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet completed the second. Whitson’s 46 hours over 7 spacewalks puts her in an elite class at 14th on the list of most spacewalking hours ever by a human. Shane also has an impressive 25 hours over only 4 EVAs, but it keeps him off this list of top 30 humans on Wikipedia (30th place is just over 38 cumulative hours. Also note that Whitson would only need one more spacewalk on her current mission to pass Sunita Williams’ 50 hours in 7th place for most hours for a woman). Here are some video summaries from NASA and pictures from the spacewalks:

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this incredible image of the Earth and moon from Mars orbit.

Fascinating analysis of some odd terrain on Pluto.

JPL has put together a new compilation of images from the Huygens probe descent to Saturn’s moon Titan, 12 years after the event. The mothership, Cassini, will end its mission later this year.

Out There

Astronomers observing a distant binary star have concluded that they will collide and merge in roughly 5 years, creating a bright nova that will be visible with the naked eye from Earth. Mark your calendars for 2022!