Archive for the ‘Ceres’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will take advantage on an open seat in an upcoming Soyuz flight to ISS and fly their first homegrown astronaut into orbit.

The US Air Force has awarded a contract to SpaceX to launch a DOD satellite on a Falcon Heavy in 2020.

Last week the President of the United States signed Space Policy Directive 3, which establishes a formal National Space Traffic Management Policy.

In Orbit

There were no orbital rocket launches or major mission events at the International Space Station last week. However, the NanoRacks Remove Debris (or RemDeb) satellite was deployed from the ISS. This satellite will demonstrate techniques for reducing orbital debris in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The ISS crew continues to be busy with maintenance and science as always. Here’s a selection of some of their most interesting photos posted to Twitter last week.

In upcoming launches, Rocket Lab will attempt to launch their next Electron rocket on Tuesday (New Zealand time) and SpaceX will launch their next Dragon resupply to ISS next Friday.

Around the Solar System

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 continues to get closer to its destination, asteroid Ryugu. Some more detailed images of the unexplored rock were downlinked last week.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been slowly lowering its orbit around asteroid Ceres to get new unprecedented views of the dwarf planet.

The large dust storm on the surface of Mars continues, with no contact from the rover Opportunity. Rover Curiosity continues to operate in Gale Crater, sending back this recent dusty “selfie.”

Data from Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft, which orbits Venus, has returned some interesting results about the variability of the planet’s day-night cycle.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Dr. Stephen Hawking died on March 14th, at age 76. The New York Times published a thorough review of his life and accomplishments.

NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot is retiring.

The startup rocket company Rocket Lab plans to launch their first commercial flight this spring. The rocket will be named It’s Business Time which follows in the naming tradition of their first two test rockets: It’s a Test and Still Testing.

Speaking of small rocket startups, Firefly Aerospace used the popular South by Southwest conference to publicly demonstrate an engine test (video below). The engine would power the upper stage of their planned Firefly Alpha rocket.

If you like rocket engine tests, then watch this new video of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, posted by Jeff Bezos last week.

The US federal government passed a new funding bill for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2018 last week. The large omnibus bill includes $20.7 for NASA. If you’d like a comparison of NASA’s budget over the years, check out this Wikipdia page.

In Orbit

Over the past two weeks there have been only two orbital rocket launches. The first was a Chinese Long March 2D rocket carrying an Earth-observing satellite. The second was a Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying 3 crew members on their way to the International Space Station.

Oleg Artemyev, Drew Feustel, and Ricky Arnold docked to the ISS successfully this past Friday, two days after launch. They join Anton Shkaplerov, Norishige Kanai, and Scott Tingle for the ongoing Expedition 55 mission.

Swarm Technologies launched four very small satellites in January without license from the FCC. In fact, the FCC had specifically asked them not to launch because they were too small to track. Now Swarm may not be able to receive future licenses.

Around the Solar System

Mission managers on the New Horizons project have chosen the name Ultima Thule for the small Kuiper Belt object which will be visited by the probe next year. The name would not become official until the International Astronomical Union (IAU) can weigh in.

Recent observations from the Dawn spacecraft reveal that the surface of the asteroid Ceres is dynamic, with changing amounts of visible ice and other materials.

The Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, will likely run out of fuel this year.

Out There

A couple of interesting new exoplanet systems were announced recently:

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

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.

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

In late June, Orbital ATK test fired the second quality test solid rocket booster for SLS development:

Mike Suffredini, former ISS Program Manager, is now working for contractor SGT, Inc. and announced at a recent NewSpace conference his intentions to develop a commercial space station.

NASA and Apple announced a collaboration to create music inspired by the Juno mission.

A team of astronauts from five different nations completed a multi-night caving expedition in the Sardinia region of Italy. The project is run by ESA and is an spaceflight analog but also has real exploration objectives.

In Orbit

Here are all the rocket launches since the last post on June 24th:

  • June 25 – A Chinese Long March 7 rocket debuted from a new launch pad on Hainan Island. The rocket was carrying a demonstration for a future manned capsule design.
  • June 29 – Another Chinese rocket launched, this one with less information available about the payload.
  • July 7 – A Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying three crew members to the ISS.

The Soyuz crew successfully docked to the ISS on Friday night after 2 days in orbit.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Juno probe arrived in Jupiter orbit last Monday, July 4th.

Several NASA missions received their official mission extensions. New Horizons was officially approved to continue its mission to the 2019 rendezvous with 2014 MU69 in the Kuiper Belt (we have 3 years to come up with a better name). The Dawn mission at Ceres was extended but it will stay in orbit there instead of moving on to another asteroid.

The Curiosity rover on Mars briefly went into safe mode but has since been recovered.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The US Senate has started putting together their version of the 2017 budget, including appropriations for NASA.

The satellite internet startup OneWeb has announced they will build a factory in Florida.

China’s unmanned research capsule, SJ-10, successfully ended last week when it landed in Mongolia under parachute.

SpaceX has moved their latest recovered Falcon 9 booster back to their hangar in Florida. Follow the link for some pictures and video.

In Orbit

The European Space Agency has been trying to launch an Earth-observing satellite, Sentinel-1B, since Friday. They have been delayed twice by weather but they hope for a successful launch later today at just after 5 PM Eastern.

ISS astronaut Tim Peake virtually ran the London marathon this morning.

Around the Solar System

The New Horizons team has officially submitted their Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM) to have the probe flyby the distant object MU69.

Beautiful pictures from Dawn’s low-altitude “mapping orbit” at Ceres give is a good idea of what’s really going on in those “bright spots” on the asteroid.

And here’s an amazing shadowless view of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

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.

2015 Summary Link Dump

The last year was full of spacey goodness. Some things were expected – even long anticipated – like space probes Dawn and New Horizons arriving at their targets. Other things were a complete surprise, like the loss of SpaceX’s seventh commercial flight to ISS and the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars. All-in-all, there was a lot to follow and talk about. Thus, I am putting together one or more “year in review” blog posts to give my perspective on what has happened and what’s to come. In the meantime, you can enjoy other people’s thoughts of 2015 in spaceflight through the links I have gathered below. Happy new year!

Wikipedia Stats

As usual, I love to lean on the “year in spaceflight” pages on Wikipedia. The folks that put these together do a thorough job. If we look at the 2015 in spaceflight page, we see that the human race is maintaining our high flight rate, with 82 successful orbital launches out of 87 attempts. These numbers have been steadily growing for years. Here is the last decade’s successful launches numbers, starting with 2005: 52, 62, 63, 66, 73, 70, 78, 72, 77, 88, 82. As I wrote in last week’s Weekly Links post, Russia had the most launches with 26 and their Soyuz rocket is by far the most dominant, at 17 launches. However, their two failures this year make it hard to call Soyuz both the most dominant and most reliable. China launches 19 of their Long March family of rockets with no failures.

Using the “list of spaceflight records” we can see some changes in the list for total time in space. Most notably, Gennady Padalka spent 167 days on ISS during Expedition 43/44, his 5th spaceflight, to put him at the top spot for most spaceflown human ever. He has spent 879 days of his life in space. Also notable is Anton Shkaplerov, who returned to Earth during Expedition 43 and is at the 32 spot, Oleg Kononenko, who returned during Expedition 45 and holds the 13 spot with 533 days, and Yuri Malenchenko and Sergey Volkov who are currently in space and hold the 7 and 31 spots respectively.

The other notable record that was broken this year is “longest single flight by a woman” (which is on the list of spaceflight records page), broken this year by Samantha Cristoforetti, partly because her crew got stuck on ISS a little bit longer after the loss of a Progress resupply flight in May.

Summary Posts

AmericaSpace

AmericaSpace, but on planetary science.

AmericaSpace’s compilation video of launches:

And here’s a series of four year in review posts from NASA Spaceflight:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Government Agency PR

NASA’s summary of 2015. With video below.

NASA’s top 15 images of Earth from ISS (if you are a real photography or geography nut, you will want to click “read more” on each picture).

ESA year in pictures.

ESA highlights video.

Top Space Stories of 2015

Space.com’s list.

Phil Plait’s list.

Huffington Post.

US News and World Report.

Other Lists

Best pictures from the Curiosity rover.

Top science stories from NYT.

Top science stories from Science Magazine.

Google’s “a year in search” video.

Ars Technica top science images.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Here are some new high resolution images from the SpaceX booster flyback landing last week.

And here is a nice shot of the booster being returned to the SpaceX launch complex.

United Launch Alliance has ordered more of the RD-180 engines that power its Atlas rockets. This is the Russian-built engine that has been causing political controversy since early 2014, since American politicians understandably don’t want our military satellites dependent on a geopolitical adversary’s technology. The new engines are only planned to be used for civil and commercial launches.

Meanwhile, the USAF awarded a bunch of money to several companies for propulsion development so that RD-180s won’t have to be purchased in the future.

Components of ESA’s ExoMars mission have arrived at the launch site in Kazakhstan. Launch is coming up quick in March!

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, was dissolved by law this week under the ongoing reorganization of the space industry going on in that country.

Oak Ridge in Tennessee has produced the first Plutonium-238 in decades. This non-weapons grade nuclear fuel is needed for the RTG power sources of deep space missions.

In Orbit

Only two launches since my last post on December 22nd: a Russian Proton rocket* with a communications satellite and a Chinese rocket with an Earth observation satellite. With no apparent planned launches for the rest of the year (according to my favorite Wikipedia page), that leaves the yearly totals as seen below, with Russia at 25 successful launches and China and the US tied at 18. If SpaceX had launched as many Falcon 9s as they had hoped this year, then the US may have matched or surpassed Russia’s numbers for the first time since probably 2003*. Comments from Musk at a recent press conference indicate he hopes for 12 launches in 2016. We will see.

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*The Proton is the rocket that seemed to blow up every other launch a couple of years ago. Although there has been only been one failure every year since 2012, the failure rate has remained about the same since 2010, with 4 out of 32 launches failed 2010 to 2012 and 3 out of 26 from 2013 to 2015.

**In 2003, Orbital Sciences was operating the Pegasus rocket (four launches), ILS was launching out of both Florida and Kazakhstan (I counted based on launch site) and Boeing and Lockheed had yet to merge as ULA. USA outscored Russia by 23 to 21 that year by  my count.

Around the Solar System

Here’s a cool new “self-portrait” panorama from the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Here are some new images from Dawn’s new low mapping orbit at Ceres.