Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

VSS Unity, the latest spacecraft from Virgin Galactic, made its first powered flight test yesterday. Video below.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has a new executive director: Ellen Stofan, former NASA chief scientist.

Ars Technica interviewed Peggy Whitson. Check out the video below.

In Orbit

There were only two orbital launches in the past week:

  • April 2 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon resupply capsule to the ISS.
  • April 6 – ESA launched an Ariane 5 rocket carrying a pair of communications satellites.

The Dragon spacecraft arrived at the ISS two days later where the station astronauts grappled it with the robotic arm. A busy month of operations now begins as the astronauts unpack the Dragon and begin new science experiments.

The Indian space agency (ISRO) lost contact with a communications satellite they launched last week.

Around the Solar System

In case you forgot we have robotic rovers exploring other planets, here are some fresh photos from the surface of Mars.

Out There

Hubble has taken an image of the most distant star ever discovered. The star, which is billions of light years away, was found through gravitational lensing.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA announced last week that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launch date is slipping about a year to May 2020.

Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell celebrated their 90th birthdays.

Ars Technica got Chris Hadfield to open up on some details of his viral Space Oddity video, shot on the ISS.

The Chinese Tiangong-1 space station completed its long-anticipated uncontrolled re-entry today, somewhere over the South Pacific.

In Orbit

Last Thursday, March 29, astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold exited the ISS airlock for a full six-hour spacewalk to conduct repairs and maintenance.

There were five orbital rocket launches since my last post a week ago:

Tomorrow, Monday, April 2, SpaceX will be launching a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule to the ISS. Below is a video from CASIS with an overview of the science launching on the mission.

Out There

Astronomers have discovered a galaxy which has no dark matter – the first galaxy discovered of this kind.

Weekly Links

Down to earth

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

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

Two rocket launches last week:

Around the solar system

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

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

Out There

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

Weekly Links

In Orbit

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

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

Out There

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

Around the Solar System

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

Rhea eclipses Titan

Out There

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

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

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

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

In Orbit

Four successful orbital rocket launches since my last post

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

Out There

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

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

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

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

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

In Orbit

The following rocket launches occurred last week:

Out There

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

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

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).