Archive for the ‘Astrophotography’ Category

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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.

2016 Link Dump

NASA exploration year in review (press release)

NASA space technology year in review (press release)

NASA commercial crew year in review (press release)

Best NASA photos of 2016 (via Universe Today)

100 best space photos of 2016 (by Space.Com)

ESA’s 2016 year in review video

ESA’s 2017 preview video

Space industry in 2016 (by Spaceflight Insider)

ISS ops in 2016 (by Spaceflight Insider)

The year in rocket launches, part 1 (by Parabolic Arc)

The year in rocket launches, part 2 (by parabolic Arc)

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Some new videos from Blue Origin and SpaceX of their recent rocket successes were released this past week:

The astronaut Kelly brothers, Mark and Scott, had their childhood elementary school named after them this past week.

Two astronauts, Scott Parazynski and Brian Duffy, were inducted into the astronaut hall of fame.

The amazing Thierry Legault has done it again, this time taking a video of the ISS transiting the sun at the same time as the Mercury transit on May 9th.

An unusual parade happened in Los Angeles on May 21st when the last Space Shuttle External Tank was towed from the coast to the California Science Center.

In Orbit

The Indian Space Research Organization launched their new experimental space plane on May 23rd. The uncrewed vehicle actually didn’t make it to orbit, or even to space, reaching only a peak altitude of 65 km. Still, reaching Mach 5 on re-entry is no joke.

The only other notable rocket launch since my last post on May 9th was a Chinese low earth orbit (LEO) reconnaissance satellite launched on May 15.

Around the Solar System

Some recent experiments in a Martian atmosphere simulator have given us an update on the Recurring Slope Linae (RSL), which were announced last year as evidence of flowing liquid water on Mars. It may be that ice boiling directly to a gas may be causing the features.

NASA’s flying telescope, SOFIA, has detected atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars. Atomic oxygen is highly reactive and thus can tell us a lot about what is going on at Mars, potentially even the chance for life.

Speaking of Mars, check out this new image from Hubble. Mars is at opposition this week – or the closest approach to Earth – making it a great target for Earth-based astronomers.

Out There

You probably didn’t miss this story: NASA announced the confirmation of more than 1,200 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This brings the total planets discovered outside our solar system to over 3,300 worlds.

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Down to Earth

Former Space Shuttle astronaut and commander Don Williams passed away on February 23rd at 74. Read about his impressive career at CollectSpace.

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Deke Slayton departed the ISS on February 20 after a successful two-month mission.

NASA received a record number of applicants to the astronaut class of 2017.

Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut, has been named the chief pilot at World View, which aims to launch tourists to the edge of space in a balloon.

Virgin Galactic unveiled their latest spaceship, the second version of their SpaceShipTwo. They hope to start their flight test campaign soon, but no new target date for commercial flights was announced.

China has announced that they plan to launch their next space station later this year.

In Orbit

Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned safely from his 340 day mission aboard ISS. Before he left, he had a little fun with a costume his brother sent up to him:

You can see all the pictures that Scott took while onboard the ISS here (and there a lot!).

SpaceX finally had another successful launch, after several scrubs over the past week or two. On Friday, March 4th, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-9 payload launched from Florida. It was their first launch since January and second of the year. The first stage attempted a landing on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) but had a hard landing.

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Down to Earth

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

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

In Orbit

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

The week in images, from ESA.

Have to include some obligatory tweets from space.

Around the Solar System

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

Out There

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

Because it’s cool

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

I love these exoplanet “travel posters“.

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX has purchased more land on the coast near Brownsville and South Padre Island in Texas, making their intentions fairly clear.

The United States Congressional Budget Office issued a report with options for reducing the national deficit. One option outlined includes completely eliminating all NASA spending on manned spaceflight. Oh dear.

In Orbit

The big news in the past two weeks, in my opinion, was the launch of Chang’e 3, a Chinese lunar lander. Chang’e 1 and 2 were successful moon orbiters, and the third mission, launched December 2nd, is scheduled to land a large rover on the lunar surface – the first to do so in 37 years – on December 14th. So far, China is putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their spaceflight program.

Today, December 3rd, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 version 1.1  with a commercial telecommunications satellite onboard. The SES-8 satellite was successfully sent on the planned geostationary transfer orbit – proving that SpaceX had sussed out and fixed the problem that marred an earlier test launch back in September. The failure of the upper stage to relight back on September 29 was traced back to frozen igniter fluid lines. As SpaceX points out in their press release, this mission is a big step towards fulfilling their long launch manifest, which includes many commercial launches, some requiring a geostationary orbit insertion. One more successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launch is needed for DOD certification. Also, the first ISS resupply flight aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 is planned for early next year.

On November 19th, the robotic arm on the Kibo module of the ISS (the Japanese lab) was used to deploy several small “cubesats” into orbit. This is the second time the ISS has been used as a launching platform (last time was in December 2012 also using Kibo).

On November 20th, the International Space Station program celebrated the 15th anniversary of the first module launch – the Russian “Functional Cargo Block”, or more poetically “Zarya” (Sunrise)*. Here’s a short but amazing ISS timelapse to celebrate (via Universe Today).

*Nobody in Mission Operations at NASA JSC calls it Zarya.

Around the Solar System

The big story this past month (apart from recent Chinese success) has been comet ISON – the comet-of-the-century that wasn’t. ISON was a fun story to follow because the steep-diving comet (which grazed by the Sun at less than one solar diameter on Thanksgiving Day) was so dynamic that astronomers were having a hard time predicting how and when the comet might brighten, dim, or die. I had spent a week prior to perihelion (the name for closest approach to the sun) hoping I could get up in the morning and spot ISON before dawn, but the Houston weather would not cooperate. As evidenced by this amateur photographer, the comet was naked-eye in the right conditions. Anyway, ISON’s story ended shortly after perihelion, where the nucleus seemingly broke up in the extreme heat. The disintegrating rubble pile that emerged from the far side of the sun brightened very briefly, and is now dispersing and dimming, currently at 8th magnitude. As the writers at “Sky and Telescope” joke in their summary: “ISON now ISOFF”.

On December 1st, the Indian Mars orbiter Mangalyaan (now being referred to as “MOM” in all the english language media I follow) completed a successful rocket firing to leave high Earth orbit and go into solar orbit, on its way to Mars in September 2014. MOM is now cruising through interplanetary space behind NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which successfully launched towards Mars on November 18th. Here’s a shot of MAVEN back in August when it was being readied for launch.

Maven spacecraft (Source: NASA)

The European Exomars project – which consists of two missions in 2016 and 2018 – has chosen the name “Schiaparelli” for the 2016 lander. Schiaparelli was the Italian astronomer in the late 19th century who mapped Mars (and incorrectly deduced that Mars was covered in canals).

The Mars rover Opportunity (still roving almost 10 years after landing!) has found a winter post. Opportunity will hang out for the next 6 months on a north-facing slope called “Murray Ridge”. Murray Ridge is named after Bruce Murray, an influential planetary scientist from JPL who died earlier this year.

Out There

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to detect water in the atmosphere of 5 “hot Jupiters” orbiting nearby (in galactic terms) stars. Since the planets are Jupiter-like rather than Earth-like, there is nothing Earth-shattering (or Jupiter-shattering) about the finding. However, future studies should be able to analyze the atmospheres of smaller and smaller worlds, leading us closer to finding a true Earth twin.

There is a new naked-eye nova in the sky. Don’t go running outside expecting to see something as bright as Venus – it is only magnitude ~5 and is not visible from Northern latitudes.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic has hired two new pilots, including former Space Shuttle Commander and Navy TOPGUN pilot, Frederick “CJ” Sturckow. Awesome!

At the Kennedy Space Center’s new visitor center, the payload bay doors were opened on Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is slated to go on display this summer.

In honor of the new Star Trek movie, here’s something that has nothing to do with space at all. But it’s funny.

In Orbit

A lot has happened at the space station in the past week and a half! Apart from Soyuz TMA-07M returning to Earth on Monday, May 13…

…on Thursday, May 9, in the morning, (while I was working in the Flight Control Room) the astronauts noticed some mysterious debris floating outside the space station…

…which led to an emergency spacewalk to fix a leaky coolant pump only two days later.

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For more information, check out my friend and colleague, Anthony, talking about the space station quick fix.

Chris Hadfield’s return to Earth marks the end of a very successful mission that was more than just a typical ISS expedition. Commander Hadfield reached out to people through social media more than any astronaut before. Here is a small “greatest hits” list of some of his photography. But for me, even better than all the pictures from his mission, was the way Hadfield seamlessly connected his love of music to space. Check out this music video he released just hours before coming home last week.

In less successful orbital news, the Kepler Space Telescope – NASA’s planet-finding spacecraft – seems to be in trouble. On May 15, NASA announced that a second of Kepler’s four reaction wheels may be failed. Kepler needs 3 reaction wheels to accurately point the telescope for precision science measurements. If they cannot recover the lost reaction wheel, Kepler’s mission is effectively done. Kepler has been able to discover thousands of planets in our galaxy (most still being officially “confirmed”) but it easily has thousands more left to discover. Save Kepler!

Around the Solar System

In only one day last week, the sun emitted three X-class solar flares (X-class is the biggest class of solar flare, but just like the earthquake scale, an X10 is significantly bigger than an X2, so it’s all relative). Welcome to solar maximum! If you live somewhere where you can see it, there should be some good aurora to see this year.

Remember that rover on Mars? No, not the bigger shiny new one, that one on the other side of the planet – Opportunity. The plucky rover that could just hit a distance record for NASA set by the Apollo 17 moon rover in 1972. Back in 1972, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt drove their lunar rover 35.74 km in just a few days. After almost 10 years on Mars, Opportunity just broke that record this week. Also, there’s still the Russian moon rover Lunokhod 2 which drove 37 km in 1973. Opportunity still has a ways to go. But it is amazing that she is still going at all!

Weekly Links

As I wrote about in my last post a week ago, ISS ops have been very busy lately. We were able to unberth and release the SpaceX Dragon capsule last Tuesday morning, as planned. It splashed down a few orbits later in the Pacific, while I was asleep, and was successfully picked up by SpaceX’s contracted recovery ship. I only got a bit of a rest after the Tuesday morning night shift as I had to work the day shift back in the control room Wednesday through Friday. More on what I got to do and see those days in the “In Orbit” section below. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the delay in posts lately. But you don’t really care – on with the space news!

Down to Earth

In a bit of grim space politics news – unless you are all about commercial only, I suppose – last week NASA’s 2013 budget finally became clear after the US Congress passed a big spending bill. The bill is better than the continuing resolutions* that a lot of the US government has been dealing with for a while – but it does nothing about the “sequestration” cuts across all Federal departments. This means that NASA ends up with greater than a 7% cut on the 2011 and 2012 funding levels. Ouch.

*A continuing resolution is simply an agreement to fund agencies or programs at the previous years levels because no agreement can be made on a new budget.

Masten Space Systems’ Xombie vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicle recently made its longest and highest flight to date, soaring over 500 meters according to their press release (no video yet available that I can find). Masten is using a guidance system developed by Draper Labs (of MIT) in order to build a testbed type craft on which NASA or other customer’s can test planetary landing instruments “without leaving home”, so to speak. I wrote about a similar test of the Xombie systems over a year ago, so this project has been in development for a while. This flight was ten times higher than the test last year.

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has started a crowdfunding project at IndieGoGo to try to pay for NASA’s video “We Are the Explorers” to be run in American theaters before the movie Star Trek Into Darkness this spring (no, I don’t want to discuss if I capitalized that title correctly).

This is a clever, and apparently legal, way to get around the advertising ban that NASA is under. I donated!

Speaking of space cinema, a new IMAX movie was announced that will feature Earth photography from space. The film is being co-produced by Disney, and no release date or title has been announced.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of – who seems to be trying to compete – sponsored an expedition that has raised an F-1 rocket engine straight off the sea floor in the Atlantic. They do not know for sure which rocket the engine(s) came from, but they do intend to restore and display them. It seems they would likely be displayed at the Smithsonian; partly because the engines are still technically NASA’s property.

In Orbit

After Dragon left, the biggest event aboard ISS in the past two weeks was the docking of Soyuz 34 (or 34S to us) last Thursday only 5 hours and 45 minutes after launch. This was a new quick rendezvous profile that had previously only been used on flights of the unmanned Progress resupply spacecraft.

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The Soyuz brought two cosmonauts – Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin – and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. The speed of the launch-to-docking timeline was impressive even to those of us tied into ISS operations. As I was on the day shift Thursday, I had the privilege of giving a “Go” for launch at the end of my shift – and the colleague who I handed over to started prepping ISS systems for Soyuz arrival right after I left! I heard that the Soyuz reached ISS before the NASA personnel who were in Kazakhstan for the launch made it back to Moscow…

Amazingly, ISS Commander Chris Hadfield got this shot of Baikonaur at the moment of Soyuz ignition (by the laws of orbital mechanics, ISS often passes right over the location of launch for many ISS supply missions).

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Speaking of which, if you haven’t been following ISS Commander Chris Hadfield (@cmdr_hadfield) on Twitter, you are seriously missing out on some stunning high resolution Earth photography posted nearly in real-time.

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Also, the epic timelapse photography from the ISS Cupola… (via APOD).

Or if you want the more practical, here’s how to brush your teeth (I wasn’t originally going to share this until I heard the music kick in halfway through and started laughing).

Around the Solar System

Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon (or just Lemmon for short) is set to start being a target for skywatchers this week (depending on your latitude). From the finder charts, it looks like Lemmon will still be too close to the sun at sunrise for most observers to have a chance at. Later in the month, Lemmon will move higher in the sky at dawn and may turn out to be as bright or better than Comet PanSTARRS which some of us enjoyed last month. Of course, the catch is that Lemmon will be a morning object rather than an evening object, so is likely to attract fewer hunters. You can bet I will try to see it!

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos (of Russia) formally signed an agreement last month to move forward with their Exomars mission, which will consist of orbiters and a rover to be flown to Mars later this decade. This is the big mission that NASA had to pull out of due to budget reasons.

New research using the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii has revealed compelling evidence for the nature and composition of undersea ocean’s on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Read a great summary of the research at Phil Plait’s blog.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

This week is the time every year for somber reflection at NASA, as it sees the anniversaries of all three of NASA’s spaceflight fatalities: Apollo 1 on January 27, Challenger on January 28, and Columbia on February 1. This coming  February marks 10 years since the space shuttle Columbia was lost on mission STS-107. It’s not fun to watch, but I do re-watch this video* from time to time to remind myself that things can and will go wrong in this dangerous business.

*It amazes me the number of cameras that were on hand in Mission Control for Space Shuttle re-entry. In routine ISS operations, I’ve never had to deal with a camera in my face the way these ascent/entry flight controllers did.

The makers of a small budget documentary about Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, lost on Columbia, will air on PBS this Thursday night. I saw an early cut of the film a few years ago and it is well worth watching – I suggest you tune in! Here is their trailer.

In Orbit

Well, he didn’t quite make it to orbit, but an Iranian monkey did fly to space, according to reports out of that country.

The United States government says the monkey’s flight is (officially) unconfirmed.

The Robotic Refueling Mission aboard the ISS wrapped up successfully. The several weeks of operations completed with a successfully simulated refueling, using ethanol, early Monday morning.

And if you need to relax, here’s what it’s like to orbit the Earth from a couple hundred miles up.

Or if you prefer, here is a nice event from last week in which two NASA astronauts on ISS answered student questions live on TV. I enjoyed it live from the Flight Control Room!

Around the Solar System

This month is the 9th anniversary of the Mars Exploration Rovers landing on Mars and the start of Opportunity’s tenth year exploring that planet. Curiosity has a long way to go to match the legacy of Oppy, who landed on January 25, 2004. I can’t wait for her ten year anniversary next year, which I believe she will easily surpass. As Stu, from The Road to Endeavour, points out, Opportunity has spent far more of her life on Mars than she ever did on Earth. She is truly a Martian.

On the other side of Mars from Opportunity, Curiosity has taken her first nighttime pictures! Curiosity can take pictures with white LEDs or ultraviolet light. this can reveal some specific properties of the local geography that are trickier to pinpoint when you have the complex wavelengths of light coming from the sun. In particular, UV light can help Curiosity find fluorescent minerals, which could indicate organics.

Also, Curiosity has discovered lots of evidence of a water-rich past in Gale Crater, including calcium deposits. Curiosity should be doing her first rock drilling very soon!

Because it’s Cool

Stunning exposure of the ISS and the night sky.

NASA TV has been playing this video… awesome.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Monday night had a stunning Moon and Jupiter conjunction in the sky that I hope you saw if you had clear skies! I was able to view the Moon and Jupiter together on a clear night here in Texas through my binoculars. In case you missed it, here is a collection of images from the conjunction.

Another company that claims it will make billions mining asteroids in a few short years? Yes. Enter, Deep Space Industries.

The ten year anniversary of the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia is coming up. On January 31, a documentary about Israeli Columbia astronaut Ilan Ramon will air on PBS.

In the realm of space law (yes, I know, exciting!) a compromise has been reached regarding liability for space tourism flights out of New Mexico. The new law is intended to appease Virgin Galactic so that they don’t consider leaving the New Mexico spaceport as their home base.

Kazakhstan has not approved all of Russia’s launches from their Baikonaur spaceport for this year (if you need a history refresher – Kazakhstan used to be part of the USSR and that is where the Soviets built their launch facility. Russia continues to use the existing infrastructure in Kazakhstan even now, long after the fall of the USSR). This is unfortunate for the Russian program and a good reason not to have such an important facility in a foreign country. Fortunately for Russia, they are already building a new native facility in the far Eastern reaches of the nation. NASA should pay attention and make sure Texas and Florida don’t secede!

In Orbit

As I wrote about last week, the European planet hunting space telescope CoRoT may be a lost mission. Well, it seems luck is not with astronomers this month; NASA’s Kepler space telescope has had an issue with one of its momentum wheels (excess friction) and is spending a week or so in safe mode, suspending all science, in hopes the situation will improve. Kepler is already down one of 4 reaction wheels, which failed in July. It needs at least 3 to be able to control attitude precisely to do science.

To lighten the mood, here’s a quick NASA bit from The Onion (you have to watch a commercial for their fake Joe Biden book first).

Here is an official statement from NASA about the new Bigelow inflatable module that will be tested on ISS. It seems the module will be scheduled to launch on a SpaceX cargo mission in 2015.

More on future NASA plans: here’s an update on the four companies that are developing vehicles for NASA’s commercial crew program.

And here’s a quick update on Orbital Sciences’ launch schedule for ISS commercial cargo resupply missions.

The Robotic Refueling Mission has continued in earnest this week. I have had the pleasure of working the day shifts in ISS mission control this week, being tangentially involved in these operations by disabling thruster firings to protect the robotics hardware.