Archive for the ‘Cassini’ Category

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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.

2016 In Review – Part I

2015 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

Part I – Exploration

Spaceflight, as a many-hundred billion-dollar sector, is a broad and complex industry. Even if we focus in on “exploration” – which is the primary focus of this blog – so that we can ignore military and commercial uses of Earth orbit, we are still left with a global list of activities, studies, missions, and companies. This means there is a lot of stuff going on. 2016 was a busy year with many exciting missions from several different countries. This diversity is great, but makes it hard to boil down the events of last year into a coherent story. Even within NASA, we have the ISS program, with its own highs and lows, and the totally separate and just as successful planetary science portfolio of missions. Those missions keep on going, regardless of whether the most recent cargo delivery has made it to our astronauts in orbit, for instance. Meanwhile, in China, the CNSA is continuing to grow as a nascent space power with new rockets, new launch sites, and a brand new space station. Then there’s Russia, Japan, Europe, India, and more. If any theme can be found at all in the events of last year it is that space exploration continues to be a diverse and global endeavor. Putting any nationalism aside, this should give us hope that despite the ups and downs of the economies or space budgets in any given country, that exciting times lie ahead.

It’s hard to start a summary of 2016 in spaceflight without acknowledging that the United States had a major election, with a new President to be inaugurated this week. Any presidential transition leads to uncertainty in the future of government programs, including NASA. Often election years leave the federal government in a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution means that Congress has yet to pass a budget for the year. This leaves NASA and other agencies working under last year’s budget levels, with no increase for inflation or otherwise. The election was a big story for the country in a lot of ways, but NASA and its programs are most likely to feel the effects in 2017, as it tries to continue with business as usual as it waits for new priorities and a new budget.

While 2017 may bring about change (or not), 2016 was another good year for NASA’s flagship space exploration missions. NASA had no major failures last year, just the usual hiccups and challenges (space is hard, after all) and even launched a new planetary exploration mission: OSIRIS-REX, which is on its way to visit an asteroid in 2023. In fact, last year showed that NASA is still a clear leader in planetary exploration, with probes in action all over the solar system. The NASA fleet at Mars remains strong, with two rovers on the surface and two probes in orbit. New Horizons received a mission extension and is on its way to a Kuiper Belt Object rendezvous in a few years. Meanwhile, the probe Juno made orbit at Jupiter and started scientific observations. Unfortunately, Juno has some sticky propellant valves and missed some of its early science orbits when it entered “safe mode.” Fortunately, the probe was brought out of safe mode and completed a Jupiter flyby in December. Most of the probe’s 20-month mission is ahead. Hopefully Juno’s worst days are in the past! Out at Saturn, NASA is still operating the Cassini probe, which has been in orbit since 2004. Sadly, 2017 will see the end of Cassini, as it destroys itself in dramatic fashion, with a dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Two other planetary missions of note from other countries had some action last year. ExoMars (a joint mission between ESA and Russia) launched and made it to Mars. However, its companion lander, Schiaparelli, was unable to make it safely to the Martian surface and crash-landed. Thus, NASA remains the sole space agency to have safely brought a spacecraft to the surface of Mars… having done so seven times. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Soviet Union is the only country to have ever landed a probe on Venus! A feat which has not been repeated since 1982, and does not appear to be repeated any time soon, as most space agencies focus on asteroids and the outer solar system in their planetary science missions. Venus is not forgotten though, as Japan was able to begin doing science with their Akatsuki orbiter at Venus last year.

Following the theme of “space is hard,” Japan had a pretty devastating failure when their new X-ray telescope Astro-H, or Hitomi, went out of contact after reaching orbit. Fortunately, Japan already has a strong space program and seems mature and professional enough to learn from their mistakes – they released a failure report very quickly after the accident. They currently have an asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2, en route to its target in 2018, which we should all be very excited about. NASA has a strong relationship with JAXA, and will be curating the Hayabusa samples here at the Johnson Space Center when they return.

In human space exploration, the story continues to be the International Space Station. The ISS had an exciting year, partly because NASA and ESA continue to send charismatic astronauts who manage to make the mission feel very personal to all of us following back on Earth. It was a great year for following astronauts on Twitter, including Jeff Williams, Kate Rubins, Tim Kopra, Tim Peake, Scott Kelly, Shane Kimbrough, Thomas Pesquet, and Peggy Whitson. It’s hard to see how this trend will do anything but accelerate, as it’s a cheap and easy way for NASA to connect with the American public and share its mission. Scott Kelly of course returned from space early in the year and retired from NASA on a high note. Since the “year in space” was such a success, both operationally and as a public affairs bonanza, it seems likely NASA will want to try more longer duration expeditions in the future.

On the more nuts and bolts side of things for the ISS, all major mission events went well last year, with both the arrival and installation of the new IDA2 docking adapter and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM is an exciting demonstration of where human habitability in Earth orbit may be able to go in the future with inflatable structures. It is exciting to think that the technology may spinoff a private-public partnership with either or both of the companies Bigelow and Axiom to expand the ISS with new large inflatable modules in the future.

The ISS did face some minor setbacks of its own, although not quite as dramatic as in more recent years. Two rocket failures impacted ISS logistics: the SpaceX explosion on the pad in Florida in September and the loss of a Russian Progress resupply mission in December. The good news for NASA was that the SpaceX failure was not an ISS mission, but it meant a delay to the next planned resupply flight of a Dragon capsule, now scheduled for February. ISS is well stocked on supplies thanks to a Japanese resupply mission that also flew in December and the Orbital ATK Antares rocket returning to flight status in October. Even with both Japanese and American rockets able to keep ISS supplied, having the Russian Soyuz rocket family grounded must always make mission managers uneasy. After all, it is the same rocket family that failed in December that also delivers crews to the station. We are not in uncharted territory, as expedition schedules were in limbo after similar accidents in 2011 and 2015. But the ups and downs of the launch vehicle sector are a continual challenge not only for NASA’s ISS program but for dreamers who envision hundreds of people at a time into deep space for colonization. ISS truly is the foothold where we must learn first, and is a great proving ground for those dreamers.

The ISS accounts for over 2,000 person days of space experience a year. The day-in and day-out slog of operating an aging orbital laboratory and learning to live there is slowly but surely preparing us for what comes next. This experience is shared by a partnership of 15 nations (USA, Canada, Russia, Japan, and 11 countries from ESA). However, the rising nation of China finds itself on the outside. Just like in many other sectors, China is finding its own way in space. Last year was a good one for the China National Space Agency (CNSA). Not only did they launch a brand new space station, Tiangong-2 and send a crew of 2 on a 30-day mission to the outpost, they also debuted a brand new Long March 5 heavy lift launcher while matching the US in successful launches on the year – twenty-two. A new medium-lift rocket, Long March 7, also debuted from a new coastal spaceport on Hainan Island, which should give CNSA more flexibility. CNSA’s recent white paper publically published outlining their five-year plan shows ambition but also should be a douse of cold water on people expecting a space race between China and the USA. China certainly has a lot to be proud of as only the third independent nation to place humans in space. But they have a long way to go to put themselves on par with the modern space programs in America and elsewhere. I look forward to their planned lunar sample return mission in 2017, which will give them a lot of “street cred” if they pull it off!

Obviously these are not the only happenings in space exploration and related science areas. I could go on about the exciting developments in exoplanet astronomy, a field that may provide worlds to explore decades or centuries from now, for example. We continue to live in a golden age of space exploration that started with the Galileo probe to Jupiter in the early 90s. For me, 2016 was a testament to the true diversity of the state of space exploration and should serve as a reminder to avoid tunnel vision. There are many facets to how we explore. It’s not just about shiny new rockets and capsules and astronauts, but its also not just about gathering science through a space telescope or a distant robotic probe. All these pieces fit together to move forward the state of our knowledge about the universe together. One of my favorite examples of this from last year was astronaut Kate Rubins’ work on gene sequencing while aboard the ISS. Talk about two sectors that do not traditionally intersect, at least not in the minds of the general public. Diversity – both in the space agencies doing the exploration as well as the type of exploration – will keep the dream alive. I can’t wait to see what we do on ISS this year but I also look forward to news out of China and India as they learn what it takes to fly in space.

The biggest problem with keeping up this steady cadence of exploration is how all these space agencies will pay for it, as the world faces challenging fiscal and security issues. Space is exciting – and important – but it is far from the first priority when it comes to setting budgets in most parts of the world. Fortunately, we have disruptive new players in the launch sector that can help us keep costs down. More on that in my next post.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Caltech has announced that Michael Watkins will replace Charles Elachi as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

New legislation in the US Senate, if passed, would put fallen astronaut Christa McAuliffe on a dollar coin for the 30th anniversary of the loss of Challenger.

Don’t miss today’s (Monday, May 9) transit of the sun by Mercury. If you don’t have the skill, equipment, or location to view it yourself, you can follow online with a live feed from various sources.

The joint European-Russian Mars rover project ExoMars has been delayed from the 2018 to 2020 launch window.

NASA’s Langley Research Center has named a new building for Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

In Orbit

Early on the morning of May 6, SpaceX launched a commercial communications satellite on a Geostationary Transfer Orbit. The launch was a beautiful and nominal night launch. After Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) the Falcon 9 first stage flew back to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) for another successful landing at sea. Are you not entertained?

Speaking of SpaceX, don’t forget to tune into NASA TV on May 11 for coverage of their Dragon spacecraft departing the International Space Station.

And as usual, the ISS crew has been busy sharing their view on high with us. Here are some stunning recent posts from their Twitter accounts:

In Orbit

Cassini did some recent observations of Enceladus by watching a the moon transit in front of a star, revealing new clues about the ice world’s geology.

Out There

The TRAPPIST observatory in Chile has discovered a solar system of three small planets about 40 light years from Earth.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA’s Dawn mission was awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy.

Former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi is the new director of Glenn Research Center in Ohio.

WIRED sent a guy to spend a day at JSC learning what it’s like to be an astronaut. The short video is fun and probably fairly informative for non-space geeks.

In Orbit

Lots of launch activity in the past two weeks. Of the five total launches, I’ll get the two less interesting ones out of the way first: on March 13, a Russian Earth observation mission launched from Baikonaur and then on March 24, a Russian military mission launched from Plesetsk. Both were on Soyuz rockets.

The other three launches are much more interesting. First, on March 14 the much anticipated ExoMars mission launched on a Proton rocket from Baikonaur. The Mars exploration mission is currently safely in solar orbit on its way to an October rendezvous.

On March 18, another Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonaur, but this time carrying 3 people. Aleksey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka, and Jeff Williams had an uneventful launch, rendezvous, and docking with the ISS. Or at least, as uneventful as those sorts of things go!

Lastly, an Atlas V rocket launched from Florida on March 23 carrying a Cygnus cargo freighter. Cygnus, named the S.S. Rick Husband by Orbital ATK, arrived (also uneventfully) at ISS on Saturday morning.

Unfortunately, it sounds like Japan’s Astro-H X-ray observatory may have been lost only weeks after it launched in February.

Around the Solar System

Check out this picture of the tallest mountains on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Here’s some awesome new close-up imagery of the “bright spots” on Ceres.

Newly released analysis of New Horizons data indicates that Pluto may have had periods of high atmospheric pressure in the past, which allowed liquid nitrogen to flow in rivers on its surface.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A “topping off” ceremony was held at Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida, which will be the launchpad for the Boeing “commercial crew” capsule that will send astronauts to the ISS.

The crew of Soyuz TMA-17M undocked from the ISS and landed back on Earth this past Friday. Here’s a cool shot of the landing site after the recovery team had arrived (click to see larger on Flickr).

Expedition 45 Soyuz TMA-17M Landing (NHQ201512110002)

The crew of Oleg Kononenko, Kimiya Yui, and Kjell Lindgren were in good spirits upon extraction from their capsule, despite the subfreezing temperatures on the Kazakh steppe.  Here are some shots of them smiling just after touchdown (yes, I’m calling that a “smile” from Oleg).

Expedition 45 Soyuz TMA-17M Landing (NHQ201512110004)

Expedition 45 Soyuz TMA-17M Landing (NHQ201512110006)

Expedition 45 Soyuz TMA-17M Landing (NHQ201512110014)

Over the weekend, the new Soyuz rocket for the next ISS crew to launch was raised on the launch pad in Kazakhstan in anticipation for a Tuesday launch.

Expedition 46 Soyuz Rollout (NHQ201512130026)

(All photos in the section above from the NASA Flickr stream)

In Orbit

Before the TMA-17M crew left ISS, they helped out Commander Scott Kelly with the capture and berthing of the new Cygnus cargo craft, also known as the SS Deke Slayton. It is a beautiful spacecraft.

In launch news, there were three launches this past week: one Chinese and two Russian. All communication or Earth-observing satellites. One of the Russian launches was a Zenit rocket carrying a weather satellite. This is reportedly going to be the last launch of the Ukranian built Zenit. The other launches were a Russian Proton rocket with a communications satellite and a Chinese Long March 3B/E carrying a communications satellite.

In the coming week, it looks like there may be several more launches, but he most exciting should be the Soyuz crewed launch and then hopefully the Falcon 9 return-to-flight by SpaceX next Saturday. It looks like Russia, USA, and China may be in a race for “most launches in 2015″ as we head into the last two weeks of the year, at least according to this running count from Wikipedia:

Screen shot 2015-12-13 at 9.15.45 PM

Current launch count as of 12/13/15 according to “2015 in Spaceflight”

Around the Solar System

Researchers with the Dawn mission, in orbit of dwarf planet Ceres, believe that the “bright spots” on the asteroids surface could be caused by salty water which makes its way to the surface and then sublimates.

Because it’s just so darn beautiful, check out this picture of Saturn’s Moon Prometheus taken by Cassini last week during a close flyby:

Weekly links

Down to Earth

There was a workshop in Houston last week for technical discussion about selecting future landings sites for missions to Mars. It may seem a bit premature, with NASA saying missions to Mars won’t occur for 20 years, but engineers would like to take advantage of the excellent capabilities of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to get early high resolution imagery of potential targets.

The US Congress passed a federal budget bill that avoids “continuing resolution” levels of funding for the rest of Fiscal Year 2016. The appropriations negotiations for specifics, like how much money NASA will receive, is not yet decided, but generally a budget provides more flexibility than a continuing resolution. Bottom line is that space policy fans have to wait to see how their favorite NASA programs are affected, but this is hopefully good news.

Check out this article at The Atlantic that does a good job of explaining the complexities and nuances in the political battle over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea in Hawai’i.

In Orbit

In rocket news, only one Chinese launch along with the launch of a new GPS satellite from Florida this past week. The next launch to the ISS will be a Cygnus resupply on top of an Atlas V rocket in early December. Later today, the first orbital launch from Hawai’i’s island of Kauai will take off from USAF’s Pacific Missile Range Facility.

Up on the ISS, astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren got to go on their first EVA ever! The EVA had a variety of tasks (it was in fact referred to here at mission control ambiguously as simply the “ISS Upgrades EVA”). The guys get a second walk outside later this week on Friday, November 2nd.

Meanwhile, on November 2nd, NASA marked 15 continuous years of habitation onboard the ISS.

Around the Solar System

The Cassini spacecraft conducted one of its closest flybys of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, passing within 30 miles of the surface and flying right through the “plumes” of water ice flowing out from the subsurface ocean.

A recent astronomical study of Europa – an icy moon of Jupiter with an ocean, much like Enceladus – revealed areas on the surface that appear to have a unique composition, probably caused by the sea water mixing with the surface ice.

A very large asteroid (2,000 feet) called 2015 TB145 flew past Earth this past weekend at a distance of about half a million kilometers. Heres a radar image of the rock; here’s some videos of the flyby.

The New Horizons spacecraft has conducted the first of its course correction thruster firings needed to reach its next target – a small Kuiper Belt object flyby in 2019.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin announced they will be manufacturing and launching from Cape Canaveral at Launch Complex 36.

Check out this Kickstarter for a planetary exploration based board game called Xtronaut.

A new exhibit about the early Russian space program, with some awesome artifacts, has opened at the Science Museum of London.

Check out this unique scale model of our solar system in the Nevada desert (via Universe Today).

In Orbit

There were several rocket launches to orbit in the past week, all from Russia and China carrying communications or Earth-observing spacecraft. China launched three rockets of various sizes from their Long March series, ending with a maiden flight of the new Long March 6 rocket. Russia’s single launch was a Proton rocket lofting a communications satellites.

Up on the ISS, Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly reached the halfway mark of their one-year stay on the ISS. One of the ways they celebrated was by watching an advance copy of the new movie The Martian.

Some of the cast from The Martian visited the Johnson Space Center last week and got to talk to Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren aboard the ISS.

Speaking of “live from space”, there was a special event at the National Press Club last week with Mark Kelly, Terry Virts, and Scott Kelly.

Around the Solar System

You have to check out the latest batch of images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft.

New analysis from the Cassini mission around Saturn has revealed that the liquid water under the ice on Enceladus may in fact be a global ocean, not just an isolated pocket or sea. This makes the prospect of a “life-hunting” mission to Enceladus all the more tantalizing.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

The Smithsonian Institution met their funding goal for their Kickstarter project to raise money to restore both Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 suit and Alan Shepard’s Mercury suit.

Last week, water tanks were “harvested” from the Space Shuttle Endeavour (on display in California), for use on the ISS.

China recently had a successful engine test of the propulsion system for their new Long March 5 rocket.

The pop band One Direction released a music video filmed almost entirely at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The video for Drag Me Down has reached over one million views on YouTube.

While we’re talking about space in popular culture, here is the latest full length trailer for The Martian.

In Orbit

The latest ISS resupply mission successfully launched from Japan on August 19th and is on track for a Monday, August 24th, arrival at the space station. Here is NASA TV’s schedule of live coverage.

The European Space Agency also launched a rocket last week. The Ariane 5 rocket launched from the Kourou launch site on August 20th with two communication satellites.

ISS Commander Scott Kelly got a great shot of tropical cyclone Danny last week that got a lot of media attention.

Another amazing picture from the ISS was this picture of lightning which also captured a rare red “sprite” in the upper atmosphere.

Around The Solar System

New analysis from the LADEE spacecraft (which has already been crashed into the moon) confirm the presence of neon in the moon’s tenuous exosphere.

I failed to link to this awesome imagery of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko outgassing just after passing perihelion earlier this month.

Imagery via ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft

The Cassini spacecraft had its last close flyby of Saturn’s small but interesting moon Dione and sent back some of its own awesome imagery.

This awesome Curiosity rover “selfie” from Mars got a lot of press last week. Curiosity recently “celebrated” 3 years on Mars and is still going strong.

If you’re into that sort of thing, you can send your name (and your cat’s) to Mars with the Insight probe, launching next year.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Astronauts Stephen Frick and Michael Foreman announced their retirement from NASA this week. If you are interested, NASA maintains an updated list of active astronauts here, which can be easily copied into a spreadsheet. With the addition of the class of 2013 as active astronauts, the number is currently at 46 after recent retirements. Interestingly, the oldest class still represented is the class of 1996, of which Scott Kelly (currently in space) and Peggy Whitson and Jeff Williams (upcoming ISS commanders), are all members.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their findings regarding the accident last fall that destroyed the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and one of its pilots. Their findings are summarized nicely at Parabolic Arc or you can read the longer executive summary of the report. In short, it was indeed the “early unlocking” of the spaceplanes “feather system” that doomed the craft. the NTSB’s analysis found that the risk of human error was not properly taken into account during development.

Rumors out of Russia is that a new “Manned Spaceflight Center”, analogous to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is in the planning stages, and would be headed by former cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.

In Orbit

Last weekend, on Saturday, July 25th, ISS flight controllers had to command a debris avoidance maneuver to dodge orbital debris that was headed to the ISS.

Check out this absolutely awesome virtual ISS tour published by ESA and narrated by Samantha Cristoforetti. Some people are calling it “Google Street View on ISS” but it’s really just an old school click-through VR tour. It’s very well done!

ESA is exposing the bacteria found in kombucha to space on the ISS to see how it fares in the harsh environment.

Another cool experiment I learned about while at an ISS payloads meeting in Huntsville, Alabama last week is a small genetic sequencer called minION, which will launch next year.

Peggy Whitson, who will command ISS Expedition 51 in 2017, has joined Twitter!

Speaking of Twitter, here are some good posts from the three tweeters in space right now:

Around the Solar System

The Cassini spacecraft has discovered strange red stripes or streaks on the surface of Saturn’s moon, Tethys. Check it out.

The Curiosity rover is busy investigating some interesting new rocks it has found on the slopes of Mount Sharp on Mars.

Out There

A combination of observations from the HARPS-North ground telescope and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have confirmed the existence of a rocky exoplanet just about 21 light-years away.

While studying another star that is about 20 light-years away, NASA astronomers from JPL have discovered aurora in the atmosphere of a brown dwarf star.