Archive for the ‘Blue Origin’ Category

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Down to Earth

NASA conducted a parachute test for the Orion spacecraft.

Blue Origin performed another flight test of their New Shepard rocket, complete with escape motor test. Video below (jump to 34:30).

In Orbit

The only orbital launch of the last week was a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch early on Sunday, July 22nd. The rocket carried a private communications satellite for Telstar into a geosynchronous orbit. The first stage booster of the block 5 variant was recovered on an autonomous drone ship.

Notable upcoming launches include an Ariane 5 launch on July 25th, a Falcon 9 launch from California on July 25th, and a Falcon 9 launch from Florida on August 2.

Around the Solar System

You guessed it – no new status from the Opportunity rover, still dormant under a global dust storm.

Out at Jupiter, astronomers have identified a dozen previously undiscovered moons at distant orbits around the gas giant.

Out There

If you like the intersection of science and art like I do, you might enjoy this audio “visualization” of the orbits of the planets in the Trappist-1 system.

 

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Blue Origin flew another test flight of their New Shepard vehicle today.

An issue with the Mars 2020 rover’s heat shield will require a replacement to be build before the upcoming launch.

NASA cancelled a robotic moon mission called the Resource Prospector.

In Orbit

Two orbital rocket launches since my last post (making 40 for the year):

Upcoming launches this week include the launch of NASA’s Mars InSight lander (not a rover) as well as the undocking, re-entry, and splashdown of the latest SpaceX Dragon capsule from the ISS.

Around the Solar System

Check out this incredible animated set of images from comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Ground-based observations of Uranus’ cloud tops have revealed a composition that includes hydrogen sulfide.

The Planetary Society has a lengthy blog post up on the latest status of NASA’s Opportunity rover, which is still trundling on Mars, 14 years after landing.

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

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

LEGO is releasing a “women of NASA” set.

The Apollo 11 capsule Columbia has started its around the country tour with a new exhibit at Space Center Houston: Destination Moon.

This Lyft commercial referencing the Apollo program is cute, but is missing a shout out to Michael Collins.

Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, conducted the first test fire of their new BE-4 rocket engine.

In Orbit

The ISS Expedition 53 crew completed the second and third spacewalks in their October series. All planned tasks were completed successfully, leaving the space station with some new cameras and a repaired robotic arm. The rest of the year on ISS will be focused on science research, with some critical deliveries onboard a Cygnus resupply and SpaceX Dragon resupply.

Since my last post on October 9th, there have been four orbital rocket launches:

  • October 11 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying two geostationary communication satellites. The first stage was a previously flown booster and was recovered on a droneship.
  • October 13 – A Russian Rokot launched carrying an Earth obesrvation payload for ESA.
  • October 14 – A Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonaur carrying an unmanned Progress resupply bound for the ISS.
  • October 15 – ULA launched an Atlas V rocket carrying a national security payload for the NRO.

The Progress freighter docked successfully two days after launch.

Below are a few of the best pictures taken onboard the ISS from the past two weeks. If you want to help maintain the amazing archive of millions of pictures of Earth taken from ISS, now there’s a way! Check out Cosmo Quest’s new Image Detective project.

https://twitter.com/astro_paolo/status/920369795111051264

ISS astronauts tried to capitalize on a cultural craze down here on Earth with this recent video:

Out There

Hot on the heels of the Nobel Prize in Physics announcement, LIGO made another big discovery using gravitational waves: the first signal from the collision of two neutron stars was detected and confirmed. Phil Plait has a wonderful poetic post explaining what this means for our understanding of the universe.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

With no new NASA administrator named as of last week, NASA has now broken the record for longest transition period under a new presidential administration.

Virgin Orbit published a video of a full duration test firing of their Newton Four upper stage.

Blue Origin announced that it was build a new rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of its contract with United Launch Alliance to supply engines for the future Vulcan Rocket.

In Orbit

On July 2, the Chinese space agency attempted to launch a communications satellite on their heavy lift Long March 5 rocket. Unfortunately, the second stage failed and the payload did not make it to orbit.

On July 5, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a commercial communications satellite for Intelsat. The satellite was delivered to geosynchronous orbit. Due to the high performance requirements of the mission, the first stage was disposable, rather than being recovered. This was their 10th launch of the year (the most of any year for SpaceX).

Meanwhile, up on the ISS on July 3rd, the Expedition 52 astronauts unberthed and released the visiting SpaceX Dragon capsule, which splashed down and was recovered that same day.

Around the Solar System

Engineers at JPL have uploaded new driving software to the Curiosity rover on Mars. The software underwent extensive testing on Earth before it was approved for use. NASA hopes the new algorithm will reduce wear on the rover’s wheels by 10 to 20 percent.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this new video of Blue Origin’s orbital rocket concept, New Glenn.

If you like planetary science and are excited by the idea of future missions to Europa, you should read this detailed post at Ars Technica about how Congressman John Culbertson is working to make it happen.

SpaceX successfully conducted the static fire test for their next rocket launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. A Falcon 9 carrying a commercial satellite will liftoff very early Tuesday morning, March 14th.

In Orbit

Only one orbital rocket launch since my last post. A European Space Agency Vega rocket launched the Earth-observing Sentinel-2B satellite from French Guiana on March 7th.

As usual, there are lots of good pictures from the crew on the ISS to share. Here’s a selection.

https://twitter.com/Thom_astro/status/839769655971627008

https://twitter.com/Thom_astro/status/839831200780988418

Around the Solar System

New data from the Dawn probe in orbit of Ceres indicates that the “bright spots” are much younger than the craters they inhabit. This is evidence of relatively recent cryovulcanism.

Check out these incredible images of Saturn’s tiny moon Pan. It has a unique shape no one has ever seen before.

This is a pretty cool series of images showing a global dust storm moving across Mars.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA has finalized an agreement with Boeing to use the extra seats on two Soyuz flights to the ISS over the next year and a half for additional US astronauts. There is some contractual stuff going on here, but basically NASA is going to use seats that Roscosmos was going to leave empty to save money.

Virgin Galactic has spun off its LauncherOne program into a new company called Virgin Orbit.

Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin is now getting in on the new moon missions also. According to the Washington Post (owned by Bezos), Blue Origin has floated a proposal to the new US presidential administration that they want to help support NASA missions to the moon with their Blue Moon concept.

PBS News Hour did a brief segment on all of this new interest in lunar missions:

In Orbit

Two rocket launches since my last post:

It’s hard to keep up with the current ISS crew, the members of Expedition 50, as they tweet like its all they do in what little spare time they have. Here’s a selection of the best pictures from just the last week.

 

Around the Solar System

NASA’s MAVEN probe in orbit of Mars executed an avoidance maneuver of about 0.4 m/s to avoid colliding with the moon Phobos. That velocity change is small, about on the order of the debris avoidance maneuvers we do with the ISS.

Check out these dust devils spotted by Curiosity rover on Mars.

Did you know that Saturn’s moon Enceladus is half cratered and half smooth? Check out this recent image from NASA’s Cassini probe to see for yourself.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jack Garman, who worked a support console for Apollo guidance and navigation, passed away on September 20th, at 72 years old. Garman is best known as being instrumental in the calls to proceed with landing on Apollo 11 when some guidance computer program alarms showed up at just 3,000 feet above the surface. Here’s the raw audio from that part of the landing which is always worth listening to again. Great example of flight control in action.

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast StarTalk had a special episode hosted by astronaut Mike Massimino with guest interviewees, flight directors Royce Renfrew and Emily Nelson. Check it out here!

Musician and singer Grace Potter collaborated with NASA on a music video for her song Look What We’ve Become. It was filmed completely at NASA’s Johnson Space Center! Check it out below.

One of the biggest national stories of the last week was Hurricane Matthew, which came close to dolling out a devastating blow to the East coast of Florida. Fortunately, the most dangerous winds stayed offshore as it passed the Kennedy Space Center, resulting in some damage but nothing too serious.

In the battle of the New Space giants, there were two big stories in recent weeks. First, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had his much anticipated presentation at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico. the speech presented a high level framework of his plans to visit Mars. Most of the details were focused on the rocket design and less on how humans would survive and thrive on Mars. Below is the full length video, but Ars Technica had a good analysis if you don’t want to watch all of it. Another good take on it from Phil Plait here.

If you are interested in just the 4-minute animation from SpaceX showing their imagined Mars mission architecture, jump to the second video below.

The other big story was Blue Origin’s successful in-flight abort test of their New Shepard rocket (personally, I am not sure if they have a separate name for the capsule or if New Shepard refers to the whole system. It was a pretty exciting launch and test. Jump to 51 minutes in the webcast replay below to watch!

In Orbit

Lots of good news regarding the ISS flight manifest. The next Cygnus cargo freighter, launching from Virginia for the first time in 2 years on Orbital ATK’s redesigned Antares rocket, should fly next Thursday, the 13th.

The following week, the next crew should launch on their repaired Soyuz craft. That launch is scheduled for Wednesday, the 19th.

There were two rocket launches since my last post. First, an Indian GSLV rocket launched a slew of satellites into orbit, including some from Algeria, USA, Canada, and India. Second, an ESA Ariane 5 rocket launched two communications satellites to a geosynchronous orbit on the 5th.

Around the Solar System

Check out this “video” (really an animated gif made from stills) of the Curiosity rover drilling on Mars! The rover has just officially entered its next two-year mission extension.

NASA announced new findings from the Hubble Space Telescope that reinforce the conclusion that not only does Europa have a subsurface ocean of liquid water, but that the water regularly exits the moon in powerful plumes (which could be theoretically sampled by a visiting probe).

In even more exciting planetary science news, NASA announced new analysis of data from the MESSENGER spacecraft (which finished its Mercury orbital mission last year). By analyzing imagery from the last part of MESSENGER’s mission, when it was at a lower altitude, scientists have concluded that the surface shows signs of recent contraction, meaning that Mercury is tectonically active.

ESA’s Rosetta mission ended on September 30th with a controlled descent into comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko.

Weekly Links

Here’s your busy June update!

Down to Earth

Blue Origin launched their reusable New Shepard rocket for the fourth time, with a hosted webcast this time. Here is a video of the flight:

A Saturn V first stage, meant to be used on the Apollo 19 flight, was moved to the Stennis Space Center’s visitor center for display, along Interstate 10 in Mississippi.

During a congressional hearing last week, the issue of astronaut post-mission health care was discussed.

This is not strictly space news, but the deep winter rescue mission from the South Pole is just as harrowing and difficult as spaceflight in some ways.

A team of astronauts are going on a multi-night spelunking trip this month as a spaceflight analog training mission.

In Orbit

The new 3D printer aboard ISS by Made In Space has printed its first functional tool.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vessel was released from the ISS on June 14th and re-entered the atmosphere on June 22nd. In the meantime, NASA conducted the SAFFIRE in-flight fire experiment. Here’s some of the video they recorded:

Also returning to Earth this month, but in a more controlled fashion, was there astronauts aboard Soyuz TMA-19M: Tim Peake, Tim Kopra, and Yuri Malenchenko.

Here are all the orbital launches since my last post on June 6th:

  • A Russian Proton rocket carrying a communications satellite (June 9).
  • A ULA Delta IV rocket launch from Florida carrying a spy satellite (June 11).
  • A Chinese launch of one of their navigation satellite (June 12).
  • A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with two communications satellites (June 15).
  • A European Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communication satellites (June 18).
  • An Indian PSLV rocket carrying a slew of satellites including a flock of PlanetLabs Doves (June 22).
  • A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying a US military communications satellite (June 24).

The SpaceX launch, as usual, was the most exciting, with another ASDS landing attempt. They missed the landing this time. Here are some pictures of the wreckage returning to port.

Around the Solar System

New analysis of Pluto has led to the hypothesis that the dwarf planet may have a subsurface ocean… really!

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) got a new shot of the rover Curiosity on the slopes of Mount Sharp.

You’ve got to love this trailer for Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI) of the Juno probe, coming up on July 4th.