Archive for the ‘ESA’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA has announced the chosen landing site of the upcoming 2020 Mars rover: Jezero Crater.

The European Space Agency (ESA) delivered the service module that will be used by NASA’s Orion capsule for the EM-1 test mission.

NASA released this new promotional video:

In Orbit

Two orbital rocket launches since my last post:

  • November 19 – A Chinese Long March 2D rocket carrying a communications satellite as well as other payloads.
  • November 21 – An ESA Vega rocket launched an earth-observing satellite for Morocco.

Check out this amazing time lapse footage taken by astronauts aboard the ISS of a Soyuz rocket launch on November 16th.

NASA celebrated the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS module in 1998.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s InSight Mars lander will land on the red planet tomorrow.

Check out this animation which translates the orbits of the 8 major planets in our solar system into musical notes:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A major election took place in the USA this month, with implications for the future of NASA and space exploration, among many other policy concerns. Here is a brief summary from The Planetary Society of some of the impacts to members of congressional space and science committees.

The ISS was prominent in pop culture this last week. Check out the short Macy’s ad below and then the longer sketch scene from SNL.

In Orbit

Seven orbital launches since my last post on November 4th. With 92 successful launches as of today, 2018 is poised to have the most launches in a year since the early 1990s.

  • November 7 – An ESA Soyuz rocket launched from French Guiana carrying a weather satellite.
  • November 11 – New Zealand’s Rocket Lab launched an Electron rocket carrying their first commercial payloads.
  • November 14 – An Indian GSLV rocket launched carrying a communications satellite.
  • November 15 – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from California carrying a communication satellite for Qatar.
  • November 16 – A Russian Soyuz-FG rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying a Progress resupply flight for the ISS.
  • November 17 – A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launched a Cyngus spacecraft on its way to the ISS.
  • November 18 – A Chinese Long March 3B rocket launched carrying two Beidou navigation satellites.

The Progress robotic resupply reached the ISS and successfully docked on Sunday.

An HTV cargo vehicle departed the ISS carrying trash, but also a small return capsule. The return capsule was an experimental new way to return science from the ISS, and was retrieved successfully at sea.

Around the Solar System

Check out this new imagery of asteroid Bennu from the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Microsoft co-founder and commercial spaceflight pioneer Paul Allen died last week.

Rocket Lab has decided it will operate a launch site from Wallops Island, Virginia.

In Orbit

There have been 9 successful orbital launches since my last post on October 14th:

A private Chinese rocket startup, LandSpace, failed to put a satellite in orbit on the first launch of their ZhuQue-1 rocket.

Roscosmos completed the accident investigation of the Soyuz abort last month and released the below onboard camera footage. The first crewed return to flight since the accident is expected in December.

Both the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) have been recovered from safe mode.

In other space telescope news, NASA announced that Kepler will cease operations.

NASA released photographs from the Soyuz flyaround following the most recent crew undocking in October. This was the first detailed flyaround and photographic survey of the ISS since the end of the Shuttle program.

ISS on October 4th, 2018

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has run out of fuel and ceased communications.

Check out this amazing GIF of asteroid Bennu from the Osiris-Rex spacecraft. This is an early look at an unexplored world.

And here’s a cool video from Hayabusa-2 of a touchdown rehearsal on asteroid Ryugu.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA’s Marshall SpaceFlight Center has a new Director, Jody Singer.

Members of the Jet Propulsion Lab’s media relations team have won an Emmy Award for coverage of the Cassini mission.

Holly Ridings has been named the new chief of the Flight Director office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Veteran NASA astronaut Tim Kopra has left the agency. He flew to space twice, once serving as ISS commander.

SpaceX has announced that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has paid to be a passenger on a test flight around the moon.

In Orbit

The following orbital launches have occurred since my last post.

  • September 10 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida carrying a Canadian communications satellite.
  • September 15 – ULA launched a Delta II rocket from California carrying several research payloads.
  • September 16 – India launched a PSLV rocket carrying two Earth-observation satellites.
  • September 19 – China launched a Long March 3B rocket carrying two Beidou navigation satellites.
  • September 22 – Japan launched an H-II rocket carrying an HTV cargo freighter bound for the ISS.
  • September 25 – ESA launched an Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communications satelites.
  • September 29 – China launched a Kuaizhou rocket carrying a small technology demonstration payload.
  • October 8 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from California carrying an Argentinian Earth-observation satellite.

The HTV-7 cargo vehicle was captured and berthed to the ISS several days after it launched.

A Soyuz spacecraft carrying the returning ISS Expedition 56 crew has landed safely in Kazakhstan. Now that Drew Feustel, Ricky Arnold, and Oleg Artemyev are home, the next Soyuz is readying for launch. The Expedition 57 crew of Nick Hague and Aleksey Ovchinin are preparing to launch on Thursday, October 11, which will brin ghte ISS crew back up to 5 people.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has entered safe mode due to a failed gyroscope.

Around the Solar System

Still no news from beleaguered Opportunity rover, on the surface of Mars. It has been 4 months.

And now on the other side of Mars, the Curiosity rover is having issues of its own. JPL engineers are troubleshooting an interruption in science data from the larger rover.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has successfully deployed 2 small rovers from the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft onto the surface of asteroid Ryugu.

Out There

Astronomers have detected the first evidence of an exomoon (or moon around a planet around another star) using data from the Kepler and Hubble space telescopes. The planetary system is 8,000 lightyears distant.

A bit of fun exoplanet news: astronomers have discovered a planet in orbit around 40 Eridani A, which is the star system of the fictional planet Vulcan from Star Trek.

And lastly in the busy period of astronomy news, a new dwarf planet has been discovered beyond Pluto.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In late July, Virgin Galactic conducted a third powered test flight of their new SpaceShipTwo spaceplane.

In a ceremony at Johnson Space Center, NASA announced the names of the astronauts who will fly the first flights of the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon, the first crewed missions from US soil since 2011.

SpaceX installed a shiny new crew access arm to launch complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Russia has selected a new class of 8 cosmonauts.

United States Vice President Mike Pence visited the Johnson Space Center and gave a speech on future plans for exploration.

Rocket Lab’s next Electron launch has been delayed further.

In Orbit

Operations at the ISS over the past month have included two visiting vehicle departures and one spacewalk. On August 3rd, the latest SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle undocked from ISS and splashed down in the Pacific. On August 22nd, a Russian unmanned Progress freighter undocked from the ISS. On august 15th, two Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev and Sergey Propokyev, conducted a lengthy spacewalk to complete maintenance and science tasks.

There were 8 orbital rocket launches since my last post on July 23rd:

  • July 25 – ESA Ariane 5 rocket launched carrying Galileo navigation satellites.
  • July 25 – SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from California carrying communications satellites for Iridium.
  • July 29 – Chinese Long March 3B rocket launched carrying BeiDou navigation satellites.
  • July 31 – Chinese Long March 4B rocket launched carrying an Earth-observing satellite.
  • August 7 – SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida carrying an Indonesian communications satellite.
  • August 12 – ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket launched from Florida carrying NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.
  • August 22 – ESA Vega rocket launched carrying an Earth-observing mission.
  • August 24 – Chinese Long March 3B rocket launched carrying more BeiDou navigation satellites.

 

Around the Solar System

The Martian dust storm is waning but NASA mission teams have yet to hear from the Opportunity rover.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

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

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

NASA cancelled a robotic moon mission called the Resource Prospector.

In Orbit

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Elon Musk was busy this week entertaining his fans with tidbits about future SpaceX plans, including the tweet below, as well as this picture on Instagram of a tool for their next larger rocket, the BFR.

NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director, Jim Greene, is now the agency’s new chief scientist.

Check out this music video by Snow Patrol which uses imagery from the ISS and was partially filmed at ESA.

In Orbit

There were three orbital rocket launches since my last post:

On Monday, April 16th, A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch carrying NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) space telescope.

Around the Solar System

The International Astronautical Union (IAU) has approved official names for features on Pluto’s moon Charon, some named after iconic sci-fi figures such as Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.

Because images of Saturn are just so damn stunning, here’s Saturn’s moon Dione as imaged by the late Cassini spacecraft.

Moon Dione and Saturn’s rings edge-on

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

VSS Unity, the latest spacecraft from Virgin Galactic, made its first powered flight test yesterday. Video below.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has a new executive director: Ellen Stofan, former NASA chief scientist.

Ars Technica interviewed Peggy Whitson. Check out the video below.

In Orbit

There were only two orbital launches in the past week:

  • April 2 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon resupply capsule to the ISS.
  • April 6 – ESA launched an Ariane 5 rocket carrying a pair of communications satellites.

The Dragon spacecraft arrived at the ISS two days later where the station astronauts grappled it with the robotic arm. A busy month of operations now begins as the astronauts unpack the Dragon and begin new science experiments.

The Indian space agency (ISRO) lost contact with a communications satellite they launched last week.

Around the Solar System

In case you forgot we have robotic rovers exploring other planets, here are some fresh photos from the surface of Mars.

Out There

Hubble has taken an image of the most distant star ever discovered. The star, which is billions of light years away, was found through gravitational lensing.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Mattell launched a new line of “Inspiring Women” Barbie dolls. The release includes a doll of NASA’s Katherine Johnson, made famous by the movie Hidden Figures.

JPL posted a 360-video from inside the InSight lander test lab (this is the next mission to Mars launching in May).

Westworld director Jonah Nola showed the below video during a SXSW panel this weekend.

National Geographic’s March issue features NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson on the cover and an article by Nadia Drake which profiles a handful of other astronauts.

In Orbit

Two rocket launches since my last post a week ago:

  • March 6 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying two satellites for commercial companies.
  • March 9 – Arianespace launched a Soyuz rocket from Kourou carrying three communications satellites for O3b.

There has been a lot of talk lately of China’s defunct Tiangong-1 space station, and it’s imminent uncontrolled plunge back to Earth. Predictions are for early April.

Around the Solar System

NASA released some new imagery data and science results from the Juno probe in orbit of Jupiter. Some of the intriguing mysteries uncovered include the strange polar cyclones and the 3,000 kilometer deep wind patters. Phil Plait has an excellent summary at his blog.

Out There

Another asteroid on an interstellar hyperbolic orbit has been discovered. This object is likely from the Oort cloud, which makes it different than ‘Omuamua, which is believed to have originated in interstellar space.

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.