Archive for the ‘commercial crew’ Category

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

The US federal budget bill for 2016 (referred to as the “omnibus bill”), which has been signed into law by the President, is good news for NASA, with over a $1 billion budget increase for next year.

NASA has confirmed with ESA that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will launch to space aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in 2018. Basically, they signed the contract to pay for the launch. Meanwhile, the JWST mirror installation has been ongoing at Goddard Spaceflight Center (GSFC) in Maryland.

NASA’s next mission to Mars, the InSight lander (not a rover), was delivered to the launch site in California. However, the launch will be delayed, probably about two years, due to an issue with the spacecraft. Here’s the press release from NASA.

NASA ordered a second Boeing CST-100 Starliner flight to ISS. The first crewed mission is expected sometime in 2017.

In Orbit

Other than the InSight delay, the year is wrapping up nicely with some successes. Since my last post on the 13th, there were 6 orbital launches, all successful. The launches included the arrival of the rest of the Expedition 46 crew on ISS, with Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake aboard. Also an Indian commercial launch, a Chinese dark matter telescope, and a European launch of two Galileo satellites, which is their equivalent to the GPS system.

December 21st was a big day with the last two of those six launches as well as an emergency ISS spacewalk to fix the stuck Mobile Transporter. The spacewalk went fine. Meanwhile, Russia launched a Progress resupply mission to the ISS, which docks on the 23rd, and SpaceX made their return to flight launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with a commercial launch for Orbcomm. In addition to successfully returning to flight and launching the first of their upgraded version 1.2 Falcon 9, the first stage was successfully landed back at the landing site for the first time. Here’s a video:

And here’s some photos of the booster on the landing pad the morning after.

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

At the “grand opening” of Boeing’s new spacecraft processing facility, the new name for their space capsule was announced. Boeing CST-100 is now called Starliner. In addition, the former Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) at Kennedy Space Center will now be known as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF). Check out the new mural on the side of the building!

via CollectSPACE

A couple of “design nerds” are running a Kickstarter campaign to reproduce the “NASA design manual” from 1976 which introduced the NASA worm logo, which the agency used until 1992. Given that I was born in 1987, I actually have such mixed memories of NASA imagery from my childhood that I didn’t realize that ” themeatball” (currently used logo) and “the worm” were mutually exclusive, and never used by NASA at the same time.

In Orbit

The big news in orbit this past week was the launch and docking of Soyuz 44, or TMA-18M, with crew of Sergey Volkov, Andreas Mogensen, and Aydyn Aimbetov. They docked this past Friday, September 4th. There will be 9 people on the ISS until Soyuz 42 (TMA-16M) undocks on September 11th. Mogensen and Aimbetov will be flying home with Gennady Padalka on the 11th.

In preparation for the crew rotation next week, Gennady Padalka handed command of the ISS over to Scott Kelly, who will command two consecutive missions, Expedition 45 and 46, until he ends his one-year mission next year.

In other launch news, a Navy communications satellite launched from Florida on an Atlas V rocket last Wednesday (actually, only a few hours after the Soyuz launch!).

Unfortunately, the big radar on NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) spacecraft (launched on a Delta II rocket earlier this year) has failed. The probe has one other science instrument so it will continue operations.

An old Soviet satellite called Kosmos 1315 re-entered the atmosphere over Hawaii on August 31st, which many locals caught on film.

Around the Solar System

The Curiosity rover spotted some really interesting wind-eroded rock formations on Mars.

I know I shared one of these before but this new Pluto flyby animation is even better than the last one.

What will be the legacy of ISS?

What will be the legacy of the International Space Station? It seems ridiculous to ask at this early stage, with probably a decade of operations remaining. But when you ask the man who was ISS program manager since August 2005, you get a pretty convincing answer. Michael Suffredini, who retired from NASA earlier in August, recently sat down and gave a refreshingly frank interview with Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle. Simply put, this is a must read if you care enough to have a strong opinion of the ISS and the future of NASA. By the end of the article, not only did Suffredini have me fairly convinced that ISS will have a lasting legacy – leaving in the dust all that talk of station as a “white elephant” – but he had me feeling somewhat optimistic.

Over the past ten years, through all the ups and downs of the ISS, NASA, and this country, Suffredini was the guy who had to deal face-to-face with US politicians, heads of foreign space programs, and CEOs of major contractors. You’d think there’d be a lot of frustration and head-banging involved with those kinds of dealings, and yet Suffredini provides optimistic statements about the two most important players today in the space business other than NASA.

First, when Berger asks if there is any question about the safety of SpaceX’s rockets following their accident earlier this year, Suffredini expresses some pretty strong confidence in the corporation:

And I can tell you, my involvement with what they’ve been doing, they’re taking it very seriously. They’ll do far more mods than are mandatory to fix the problem that occurred. It’s that kind of mindset that’ll allow you to be able to fly crew safely.

Things have come a long way from even just five years ago when the public perception was that NASA didn’t trust SpaceX and SpaceX didn’t want NASA’s help. Such a strong statement as Suffredini’s makes the vision of an affordable and more adaptive future for NASA and the space industry seem very likely.

However, that vision has been thwarted somewhat by shifting federal funding in the area of the ISS commercial crew program. My favorite quote from the interview came from Suffredini’s thoughts on commercial crew funding:

Even our Russian partners would tell you, to have a single crew vehicle to ISS, is not the right way to operate in low-Earth orbit.

I don’t believe this quote is just rhetoric. Suffredini probably had to deal with the heads of the Russian space program on the regular to do his job successfully, so he knows what they think. In fact, if I had to guess, they’ve probably had conversations behind closed doors about this very topic and they probably told Suffredini directly they wished there was more redundancy for crew transportation.

This cuts right to something I have been trying to tell people when the “relying on the Russians” angle of the ISS program comes up. The folks working ISS over in Moscow just want to explore space, same as us. If something unfortunate grounded the Soyuz fleet, everyone would be disappointed – obviously – and I’m sure the Russians would be grateful if NASA had a SpaceX or Boeing capsule ready to go to keep the program on its feet.

So what is the legacy of station? In Suffredini’s answer to that particular question, he only discussed contributions to furthering exploration and learning lessons to get us to Mars. However, in his answers throughout the rest of the interview, he implied much more: international collaboration, catalyzing a commercial space market beyond just satellite manufacturing, and the early success of SpaceX.

Sign me up… oh wait.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Claudia Alexander, a successful planetary scientist who has been a project manager for NASA, died Saturday, July 11th.

William Borucki, Principal Investigator of the Kepler Space Telescope, has retired from NASA after over 50 years with the agency.

A few announcements out of NASA’s astronaut office this week: Chris Cassidy is the new chief of the astronaut office, replacing Bob Behnken, who will be busy training as one of the four astronauts chosen for the first commercial crew flights in 2017. The other three are Sunita Williams, Eric Boe, and Doug Hurley. Also, the class of 2013 has officially graduated from ASCANs (astronaut candidates) to astronauts, after finishing what is basically their “basic training”.

Nicole Stott, who recently retired from the astronaut office, is taking up space-themed art as her new mission. Very cool!

In Orbit

Follow-up to the launch news from last week: the Progress resupply vehicle launched on July 3rd made it to ISS on the 5th, keeping the supply chains flowing. The next ISS cargo mission is a Japanese HTV flight in August.

Also in rocket news, there was one orbital launch last week from India, carrying several commercial and technology demonstration satellites. Upcoming launches include an Ariane 5 launch from Kourou and an Atlas V launch from Florida, both on the 15th (I use this Wiki page to track launch schedules).

You’ve got to love a good ISS transit photo. Here’s one of the station passing in front of the moon.

Around the Solar System

It’s time! New Horizons will fly past Pluto on Tuesday! Here is a summary of NASA TV’s coverage of the flyby. The probe gave us a scare last weekend when it went into safe mode briefly, but it is back up and running now and sending home new pictures every day.

One of the latest looks at Pluto

The Dawn spacecraft, in orbit around dwarf planet Ceres, also went into safe mode recently, but was also recovered. Dawn was planning to spiral down to a lower mapping orbit but the issue has delayed that next step in the flight plan.

Mission controllers for the Curiosity rover are dealing with some troubles of their own on Mars. The rovers wheels are continuing to show signs of worsening wheel damage. However, the JPL guys know what they are doing, and they don’t seem too worried yet. Here are some good details from Space.com.

Lean on me

Last Thursday night, I stayed up late like many space fans to watch a “routine” Russian Progress cargo launch to the ISS. This was the 60th flight of a Progress to ISS, clearly a very reliable way to get cargo up there, given that only two previous missions had failed in their objective. But, one of those failures came only about 9 weeks prior, and just 6 days prior a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket also failed to reach orbit. So despite the apparently reliability of both the Progress vehicle and the Soyuz rocket family, the spaceflight world was on “pins and needles” as Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle put it.

There seemed to be a theme in the general mood last Thursday about being glad that Russia was able to have a successful launch, but regret that Russia is the country that had to save the day.

This mood is not surprising. Since the last Space Shuttle mission 4 years ago, America’s astronauts have only flown to space on Russian Soyuz capsules. And of course, there are political reasons – unrelated to spaceflight and ISS – that makes people wary to have close ties with the Russian government right now. The loss of two American unmanned flights to ISS in the last year highlights what is an apparently lopsidedness between NASA and Roscosmos when it comes to flying to space.

This whole situation causes the patriot to come out in a lot of people, which is also understandable. Americans have grown accustomed over the last 50 years to NASA being top dog in space. We want our astronauts launching from Florida, not Asia (much harder road trip) and we don’t want our tax dollars going to Russia either. This all makes sense, and I agree. We should all be excited for American space companies being successful, and the commercial crew flights from Boeing and SpaceX can’t come soon enough. Nevertheless, the narrative that somehow Russia has the upper hand is misplaced and frankly doesn’t make sense to me.

This is the narrative that has been a great political point in Washington ever since the end of the Shuttle program but has been used even more over the last year. The phrases people use are that we are “hitching rides” with the Russians or that we are “dependent on” the Russians. Some people are implying that this means the Russians have some sort of power over us. That they are somehow in control of the ISS program politically, and could use it as a bargaining chip if they wanted. In fact, last year Russian Deputy Prime Minister seemed to think that as well when he said that the US should “use a trampoline” to get to space and I even saw a blog article titled “No, Russia did not just kick the US out of the Space Station.”

What I would like to propose is an alternate perspective based up on a more nuanced consideration of what goes on in a partnership. Perhaps the politicians, including Rogozin, do not understand the nuances of what each member country really contributes to the ISS. Yes, right now we are “dependent” upon the Russians Soyuz launch vehicle to get to the ISS. But there is more to operating a giant space station than just getting up there.

Consider my wife (no seriously, stay with me here). Two weeks ago she fractured her right leg playing soccer and has been in a cast. She hasn’t been able to drive, so has been “dependent” on me to get around. I am her only way to work (kind of like the Russian Soyuz is the astronaut’s only way to work). Does this mean I have some kind of power over my wife? Yes, temporarily, but it wouldn’t make sense to exploit that power for a few reasons. The obvious one being that she is my wife and I’m not a jerk, but for the purposes of my analogy, let’s consider the others: while she is dependent on me for transportation and some chores around the house, I am dependent on her for companionship, love, conversation, and wardrobe ideas, not to mention she helps us pay the bills with her equally cool job at NASA! Like any balanced partnership, there is much more going on than just who can drive the car to work. And of course, the cast will come off in about another week and my period of apparent power will be over. What would it gain for our marriage in the longterm for me to somehow use the fact that I have to drive her around to get something I want?

The more I think about it, the more I think this is exactly like the relationship of NASA and Roscosmos in the ISS program right now. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2011, it happened and cannot be undone, leaving us in a period of a few years during which astronauts will not be launching from American soil. But we are not in this space business alone anymore. The open-mindedness of the politicians and NASA management who went ahead with the ISS program over 20 years ago has put us in the unique situation of being able to keep our astronauts flying during our period of weakness, if you want to call it that.

But we are not weak. We invented the modern concept of Mission Control and continue to operate the ISS – and the odd Orion flight – from the Johnson Space Center, day in and day out. America has fully seven manned spacecraft* of some type or another in development right now. We operate the critical US Orbital Segment of the ISS without which the ISS could not function. Anyone who thinks it would be a technically simple thing to do for the Russians to “kick us out” and keep the ISS functioning without us (even if such a political move was likely, which I doubt) either doesn’t understand the International Space Station, or is oversimplifying the situation in favor of their politics.

Russia provides critical access to the ISS right now via the Soyuz spacecraft, as well as propulsive support and propellant resupply with the Progress spacecraft. However, just as critical, the USOS provides non-propulsive attitude control with the CMGs, so that the propellant doesn’t get used up so fast that it would be impossible to resupply in time. Also, over half an acre of solar panels on the US segment are needed to power those CMGs – not to mention we ship some of those kilowatts to the Russian Segment, since it has grown too big for its own solar panels over the years.

I could go on. Much of the redundancy of the ISS is built specifically around the concept that the backup system is on the other segment. Sometimes the cosmonauts are even assigned to sleeping quarters in Node 2, on the USOS. The ISS was designed as a partnership from the beginning and our joint interest in continuing our own individual legacies in spaceflight, which has now become a joint legacy, would prevent pretty much anything short of a complete diplomatic breakdown from causing either party to pull out of the program, because it would likely mean doom for the station itself.

So, before you go off on a rant about how its too bad that America is “dependent” on the Russians to get to space, think about whether we should be grateful we are willing to work together despite geopolitical tensions. Perhaps we should be grateful that twice in our time of need, after the loss of an Orbital rocket last year and a SpaceX rocket last month, they quickly launched a Progress resupply vehicle to restock the International Space Station. Perhaps we should be grateful that instead of our astronaut corps being grounded, like it was for 6 years between Apollo-Soyuz and STS-1, that our astronauts continue to fly in space and that our teams on the ground continue to hone their skills as we wait for the big adventures to come with Orion and beyond.

I don’t think we should let the politics and the nationalism overshadow what is really going on here. The International Space Station is just that, international. So to get bent out of shape over sharing rides is kind of counter to the whole point of the thing. Our access to space, to the ISS, is assured specifically because of the redundancy of the partnerships we have built. We have supply lines from America, Russia, and Japan on 4 different rockets. Very soon, our crew access will be from both America and Russia via 3 different rockets. It will be very hard to stop humanity’s access to space at that point. And who knows where we will go from there, together?

Thank you Russia, for letting us lean on you for a little while, as we journey onward.

*Orion, Dragon V2, CST-100, Dreamchaser, SpaceShipTwo, Lynx, New Shepard

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jack King, who provided launch commentary for NASA missions in the 1960s and 1970s, has died at 84.

The United States Senate is busy working on a markup of a budget in the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which includes money for NASA. The current budget, if passed, would include about $18.5 billion for NASA. However, there is some debate about how that money is being spent, including whether enough money is being allocated to the “commercial crew” program for launching astronauts to ISS on spacecraft built by SpaceX and Boeing.

NASA has awarded $30 million to SpaceX for their launch abort test milestone last month.

NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) had a second drop test over Hawaii this week. The technology will help with Martian EDL for large mass spacecraft. Unfortunately, the parachute failed at high altitudes. More test flights are planned.

In Orbit

It was a very busy week up on the ISS. The most important update is that Expedition 43 ended on Wednesday when Terry Virts handed over command to Gennady Padalka for Expedition 44. Then on Thursday morning the crew of TMA-15M (consisting of Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov) undocked from the ISS and landed safely in Kazakhstan a few hours later.

Earlier in the week, there was some unrelated excitement: first, on Monday, June 8th, the mission control teams in Moscow and Houston had to work together to execute a Pre-determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM) to change the ISS orbit to dodge some space junk.

Then, on Tuesday, an unexpected thruster firing from a docked Soyuz vehicle caused ISS to take contingency actions. The Soyuz thruster firing overwhelmed the NASA-owned Control Moment Gyroscopes (CMGs), requiring use of Russian Segment attitude control thrusters to “right the ship” so to speak. Long story short, this is exactly the kind of contingency we plan for and practice hundreds of times in the ADCO group. From what I have heard, the situation was handled very well!

With Expedition 44 underway, there are only 3 astronauts aboard ISS. According to official launch dates from Roscosmos, we won’t see 6 people aboard again until TMA-17M launches in late July.

The LightSail mission has been declared a success, now that there are images of the mylar solar sails deployed! Can’t wait for the next test flight next year.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence of impact glass, which may preserve evidence of past life.

Here is some new imagery of Ceres from the Dawn spacecraft, featuring a new high resolution look at the “bright spots”. Ceres is slowly moving to lower and lower mapping orbits.

There is also new imagery of Pluto from New Horizons:

Because its Cool

Check out the first official trailer for the highly anticipated (at least by geeks) movie, The Martian:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Last week, on Wednesday, March 11th, Orbital ATK conducted a successful static test fire of one of the solid propellant rocket motors that will be used for the SLS rocket.

The next day, on the 12th, the Soyuz carrying Butch Wilmore, Elena Serova, and Alexander Samokutyaev returned to Earth. Check out these incredible pictures of their descent and landing. Looks like it was a beautiful (cold) day in Kazakhstan.

With Butch and crew on the ground, Expedition 43 is underway with only three crew members onboard – Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Anton Shkaplerov. They are a good trio to have onboard together, as they are all very active on Twitter, providing us awesome views of Earth from on orbit! However, they will be joined very shortly by Scott Kelly, Gennady Padalka, and Mikhail Korniyenko who are launching next Friday, March 27th.

On March 18th, many space fans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first ever spacewalk, conducted by Alexei Leonov on the Voskhod 2 mission.

Leonov is 80 years old, and did a press circuit for the occassion!

In less fun news, there has been a lot of talk about a couple of space-related hearings in Washington, D.C. that happened earlier this month. Let me break it down into the biggest talking points for you:

1. On March 4th, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden appeared before the “House Appropriations Committee” for a budget hearing. Some folks latched on to a discussion between Bolden and Congressman John Culbertson about whether NASA has a plan for ISS if Russia decides to no longer participate. Given that the program is a joint venture that depends on both parties, it seems to me like an unfair premise.

2. On March 12th, Bolden appeared before the “Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness”. One of the big takeaways was Bolden’s comments about why the Opportunity’s rover’s budget is being cancelled in 2016. The Planetary Society has a pretty good explanation of why that is a bad idea.

3. In the same hearing, Bolden was asked by Texas Senator Ted Cruz why NASA spends so much time on Earth science instead of exploring space. Of course, Earth science is part of NASA’s core mission. Parabolic Arc explains why Ted Cruz doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.

4. Lastly, the senate held an “Army and Air Force hearing” on March 18th. There was some discussion about the RD-180 engine issues (see my earlier post) and whether the Air Force could provide a replacement by the 2019 deadline. USAF and ULA officials say it is not possible. Some of the senators scolded that no progress has been made. However, Aerojet recently conducted a test of their new AR1 engine, which may be a starting point for a replacement.

In Orbit

I will optimistically put this news in the “in orbit” section: with bids on the CRS-2 (commercial resupply services) contract due, both Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada have been promoting their ideas for how to get cargo to and from the ISS. Lockheed Martin has a unique design involving a reusable cargo ferry that stays in orbit and transfers cargo to a rocket stage with a robotic arm. Sierra Nevada is proposing an unmanned variant of their Dreamchaser spaceplane, which recently lost out on the ISS crew transfer contract (CCtCAP).

Speaking of ISS cargo, NASA has extended the contracts with SpaceX and Orbital ATK by a few additional flights in 2017 to close the gap between CRS and CRS-2.

Alright, back to the fun stuff. Up in space, the pretty pictures from the ISS crew just keep on coming:

Today there is a total solar eclipse in the Northern Atlantic and Arctic. Hopefully the astronauts can get some views from the ISS! In fact, Cristoforetti just posted the below picture just a few minutes ago, as I write this.

Around the Solar System

Recent observations of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede using the Hubble Space Telescope confirms the presence of a sub-surface ocean. Wicked.

Meanwhile, Cassini has discovered evidence or hydrothermal activity below the surface of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.

The MAVEN spacecraft has discovered ultraviolet aurora at Mars.

Out There

There is a new nova in the constellation Sagittarius bright enough to see with binoculars. It was too cloudy this morning in Houston to spot it but I will keep looking!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Hungary is the newest member of the European Space Agency (ESA). With the addition of Hungary and Estonia, ESA will need to revise their astronauts’ flag-covered shoulder patch (seen below on Andre Kuipers’ flight suit).

Since I mentioned ESA, it is always nice to share their Week in Images post.

The Intelsat 603 satellite, which was rescued to a higher orbit on the first 3-person EVA on STS-49 in 1992, has been disposed of in a “graveyard orbit”.

Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for best actor last weekend, is a NASA supporter.

It’s a rare week that goes by without some news related to SpaceX worth mentioning. A few things this week. First, SpaceX has a new contract with SES for the launch of two communications satellites which may be the first to launch from the new facility in the Southernmost part of Texas. Secondly, SpaceX has started construction of their hangar near launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. 39A is one of the two historic launchpads built for the Apollo program and also used during the Space Shuttle program. Lastly, SpaceX will be launching their next Falcon 9 rocket in a few days. The current date is listed by Spaceflight Now with an uncertain “March 1/2”. This launch is of commercial payloads and will liftoff from Florida.

In Orbit

No notable rocket launches this week, except for a Russian military satellite on a Soyuz rocket, which launched this morning. Instead, there was another spacewalk up on the ISS. Terry Virts and ISS Commander Butch Wilmore have one more spacewalk this coming weekend to finish out their tasks laying cable for future commercial crew dockings.

Speaking of the ISS, the Russian Federal Space Agency (I’m not sure what to call it, as they are in the middle of a re-organization) announced this week that they now intend to continue ISS operations through 2024. Previously, Russia had only committed through 2020, so this is good news.

The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, launched by NASA on a Delta II rocket earlier this year, deployed its impressive sensing array this week and is getting ready to start its science campaign. Here’s an animation of what it would have looked like.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Curiosity rover took an impressive self-portrait (or “selfie”, if you must) of its current location on the foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars. Curiosity is currently at a site called Pahrump Hills where it has been drilling various rocks.

Courtesy NASA (click image for annotated version)

Meanwhile, out in the asteroid belt, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is just a week away from entering orbit around Ceres, the largest asteroid. The pictures coming down are already remarkable and include a strange pair of bright spots in a crater.