Archive for the ‘Cassini’ Category

2017 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA is working on an experimental compact nuclear reactor for use on larger Mars missions.

Check out this list of space books for kids and add some to your Christmas shopping list!

In Orbit

The only orbital rocket launches of the last week were from China. CNSA launched a Long March 6 rocket on November 21 carrying several Earth-observing satellites. Then on November 24 they launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying several reconnaissance satellites.

If you’re wondering about the next launch from US soil, it’s a planned SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply to the ISS, launching from Florida on December 4th. That launch will be the first NASA mission to use a “flight-proven” first stage booster.

One of the experiments onboard the Dragon spacecraft will be a package of barley seeds from Anheuser-Busch.

Around the Solar System

A new study finds that the Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL) on Mars may not be such good evidence for contemporary liquid water.

Because it’s just so darn beautiful, check out this full color mosaic of Saturn from Cassini (captured 2 days before Cassini’s demise).

Out There

NASA has announced some of the details of the early observing campaign of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), covering the first 5 months of its mission. Yes, exoplanets are included!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX’s CEO Elon Must tweeted this fun video compilation of the companies many rocket failures over the past few years. You can tell they are learning a lot of lessons that have led to their recent successes.

Meanwhile, their Dragon capsule which has been docked to the International Space Station for about a month will be returning to Earth Sunday.

In Orbit

Two rocket launches since my last post, both from Baikonaur Kazakhstan:

First, a Russian Proton rocket launched a Latin American communications satellite.

Then a Soyuz rocket carried three crew members to the International Space Station: Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei, and Joe Acaba. They joined their Expedition 53 crewmates early last week to make a full crew of 6 onboard.

Around the Solar System

The incomparable Cassini probe ended its mission this past Friday with a planned suicide dive into the clouds of Saturn. The probe was launched in 1997 and was one of the most successful planetary missions of all time, but it had finally run out of fuel. This Ars Technica article has a brief photo gallery of Cassini’s greatest hits.

One of Cassini’s last acts was a flyby of the moon Titan. Here are some pictures.

And here’s a gallery of photos from mission control at JPL during Cassini’s last day.

Or if you prefer silly things, here is actor Robert Picardo singing an opera parody about Cassini:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic completed a successful glide flight of their latest SpaceShipTwo. The test included a test of the “feathering” system. The feathering system is what resulted in the loss of the first SpaceShipTwo during a powered ascent in 2014. This flight was an unpowered glide descent.

The air force’s secret space plane, the X-37B built by Boeing, landed after its 4th flight in space. The plane is small and unmanned, but is still impressive, flying and landing a lot like the Space Shuttle. This fourth mission spent an amazing 718 days in space.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – scheduled for launch next year – has been shipped from Goddard Spaceflight Center to Johnson Spaceflight Center for thermal vacuum testing.

In Orbit

Three successful orbital rocket launches since my last post (with another SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Florida planned for tomorrow):

The video coverage of the SpaceX launch was some of their best ever, with video tracking of the rocket all the way from launch through stage separation and back to the recovery of the first stage booster on land. See below.

NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer completed a 4-hour spacewalk on Friday, May 12th, to do various ISS maintenance and upgrade tasks. The spacewalk was the 200th in support of ISS assembly and maintenance and put Whitson at 5th all time for spacewalking hours.

Around the Solar System

After Cassini’s first “deep dive” between Saturn and its rings (the first in a series as the mission ends), results show that this part of the area near Saturn is more dust-free than expected.

The Mars rover Curiosity is investigating sand dunes on Mars to learn more about local wind patterns in Gale Crater.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Gennady Padalka, who holds the record for most days in space by any person ever, is retiring from the Russian space program.

Back home at NASA, Anna Fisher, hired in the first class of space shuttle astronauts in 1978, has retired from the agency.

It was a busy week with some important milestones across NASA. Some of the key events are summed up well by this quick video:

In Orbit

Peggy Whitson made history by breaking fellow astronaut Jeff Williams for most accumulated days in space for any NASA astronaut. Whitson is at 538 days and counting. She will be the most experience active astronaut or cosmonaut by far when she gets home, now that Padalka has retired. Here is video of the president’s live phone call to congratulate Whitson:

Three rocket launches since my post last week:

  • April 18 – an Atlas V rocket launched from Florida carrying a Cygnus cargo resupply to the ISS
  • April 20 – a Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Russian Cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin to the ISS
  • April 20 – a Chinese Long March 7 rocket launched from the Hainan Island spaceport carrying an unmanned Tianzhou resupply craft headed for the Chinese space station

Both the Cygnus cargo freighter and the Soyuz crew arrived at ISS with no problems. The Chinese Tiangong also successfully docked with the Tiangong space station (which is currently unmaneed).

Cygnus in flight below ISS

Today, April 30th, SpaceX attempted to launch another Falcon 9 rocket from Florida, carrying a payload for the US National Reconnaissance Office. The launch was scrubbed during the last minute before ignition due to an issue with the booster. SpaceX will try again tomorrow.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, in orbit of asteroid Ceres, has lost another reaction control wheel, and is now flying on its remaining wheel. The spacecraft launched in 2007. Mission managers believe the spacecraft should make it through the remainder of the mission on the last of four wheels.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, in orbit of Saturn, is wrapping up operations as it heads toward the end of its mission in September. The mission is going out in style, with several new images from its new closer orbit. Including this view of Earth through Saturn’s rings and these images from the closest ever orbit of Saturn.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

JAXA has included a replacement for their lost Hitomi X-Ray astronomy satellite in next year’s budget.

A new documentary about the early days of NASA Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control was released last week.

Marine, astronaut, and Senator John Glenn was laid to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery last week.

In Orbit

There have been only two orbital rocket launches since my last post on March 28th:

The first launch was a much-anticipated flight from SpaceX. The launch on March 30th was a relatively routine launch of a communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit. What made it unique was the the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket had previously been flown before on a NASA cargo launch last spring. The launch was flawless, including recovery of the first stage booster on the droneship at sea, marking the first operational reuse of a rocket by a commercial company (components of the Space Shuttle system, such as the Orbiter and the SRBs, were frequently reflown).

The second launch was a Chinese Long March 3B rocket with a communications satellite aboard. This launch was mostly notable for this incredible video of the launch filmed from a dangerously close range:

Meanwhile, things have been very busy at the International Space Station. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson conducted another spacewalk (designated US EVA 41) on March 30th. The pair of experienced spacewalkers managed to complete all planned tasks, including hooking up a new docking port at the front of the space station. However, the EVA was not without some excitement: one of four special thermal “shields” was accidentally dropped overboard and mission control teams had to come up with a plan to replace the shield in order to keep components of the ISS thermally protected.

Shortly after the spacewalk, Commander Shane Kimbrough handed the space station over the Whitson and then returned to Earth with the rest of his Soyuz crew, completing Expedition 50.

It was then announced that Peggy Whitson has agreed to stay onboard the ISS an extra 3 months and use a bonus empty seat on next week’s Soyuz mission to come home in September. Peggy will be the most experienced non-Russian astronaut in history when she comes home.

Around the Solar System

New results from the Cassini spacecraft, which orbits Saturn, have shown that the “plumes” coming from the ocean moon Enceladus’ subsurface seas contain molecular hydrogen, which could be used by microbial life to conduct methanogenesis (like the life living near Earth’s deep sea hydrothermal vents).

Measurements of elemental argon in Mars’ atmosphere by the MAVEN spacecraft have revealed that most of the planet’s atmosphere has been lost to space.

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.

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.