Archive for the ‘ESA’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA successfully completed its latest underwater NEEMO mission off the coast of Florida. A crew of astronauts and engineers spent several days in an underwater base testing techniques, gear, and technology for spaceflight. This was the 22nd expedition to the underwater facility.

The Canadian Space Agency announced the selection of their two latest Astronaut Candidates. Jennifer Sidley is a 28-year-old PhD and professor at the University of Cambridge. Joshua Kutryk is a 35-year-old fighter pilot and test pilot with several master’s degrees.

The President of the United States signed an executive order establishing a National Space Council, to guide all of the nation’s endeavours related to spaceflight.

In Orbit

There were five rocket launches since my last post:

Yes, SpaceX had a 48 hour turnaround between two launches, to reach 9 launches on the year. Both first stages were recovered.

In a non-orbital launch, NASA launched an experiment sounding rocket from Virginia’s Wallops Island.

A large satellite in geostationary orbit appears to have broken apart, causing concerns about orbital debris in one of the most important Earth orbits.

Around the Solar System

A recent survey of outer solar system bodies, which found several new distant objects, casts doubt on the hypothesized existence of “Planet 9″. However, the lead researchers of the Planet 9 theory have done their own analysis of the new data, and claim that the data can fit the model. The hunt for Planet 9 continues.

The Curiosity rover is still climbing up Mount Sharp in the center of Gale Crater on Mars. Recently, the MRO spacecraft captured this image of the rover from orbit.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

It was a busy two weeks since my last post, but the most important event for those of us in the ISS program was the safe return of two crew members from the ISS on June 2nd. France’s Thomas Pesquet and Russia’s Oleg Novitskiy undocked and landed on the same day, leaving Fyodor Yurchikhin, Peggy Whitson, and Jack Fischer aboard ISS.

Speaking of astronauts, NASA announced a new class of 12 astronaut candidates last week at an event at Johnson Space Center. Here is a link to their short bios, and the complete video of the event is below. Notably, the United States Vice President came to JSC for the event. Also, 3 of the candidates under thirty (the first time anyone of my generation has been selected) and one of the candidates is a former SpaceX employee.

Also speaking of astronauts, the astronaut office has a new chief astronaut. Patrick Forrester has replaced Chris Cassidy in the role. The change was made so that Cassidy can go back into flight rotation.

The enormous Stratolaunch aircraft – designed to air launch large orbital rockets – made a debut in Mojave, California when it was rolled out for a fueling test.

Also in Mojave, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted another glide test flight.

LEGO has released a $120 model kit of the Saturn V.

In Orbit

Five orbital rocket launches so far in June:

Up at the International Space Station, the station crew was busy with cargo transfer. First, the Cygnus vehicle, which had been docked for a month, departed and then two days later the SpaceX Dragon capsule was successfully captured by the robotic arm.

Around the Solar System

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was struck by a meteor. Remarkably, the results were captured in an image.

NASA has announced a solar investigation probe that will launch next year.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Two very accomplished former NASA astronauts, Dr. Mike Foale and Dr. Ellen Ochoa, were inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

SpaceX conducted a static fire test in Florida in preparations for their next rocket launch on Thursday, June 1. This launch is a Dragon cargo mission headed to the ISS.

The New Zealand company (but based in Los Angeles), Rocket Lab, had their first launch last week. The Electron rocket was launched as strictly a test flight, and thus carried no payload.

In Orbit

Astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer conducted a contingency spacewalk on May 23rd to replace a failed computer outside the ISS. The repair was successful and Peggy Whitson now has the 3rd all-time most hours on spacewalks, having been on 10 EVAs.

Three orbital rocket launches since my last post on May 14th:

  • May 15 – A Falcon 9 rocket launched a communications satellite for Inmarsat from Florida
  • May 18 – An ESA Soyuz rocket launched a communications satellite for SES from French Guiana
  • May 25 – A Russian Soyuz rocket launched a military satellite from Plesetsk in northern Russia

Two astronauts will undock their Soyuz from the ISS later this week and head home. Check out these brief reflections from ESA’s Thomas Pesquet as he prepares to end his mission:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

Three rocket launches since my post last week:

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

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

Cygnus in flight below ISS

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX’s latest Dragon capsule left the ISS on March 19th and was successfully recovered by the company at sea.

A new exhibit about Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, has opened at the Science Museum in London.

The White House released their budget proposal for 2018, including proposed spending on NASA. The proposal funds NASA at $19.1 billion, which is a slight cut. Taking into account inflation, it comes out to a few percent less than what NASA is working under in 2017. If you really really love reading about budgets, here is a super long post from Casey Dreier at the Planetary Society breaking down the proposal.

The European Space Agency is having trouble with their only orbital launch site down in French Guiana as a general strike is causing most of society in the small French territory to grind to a halt. There had been an Ariane 5 rocket launch planned for last week that continues to be delayed.

In Orbit

There have been three successful orbital rocket launches since my last post on March 12th:

Meanwhile, SpaceX is working towards their next rocket launch. The next Falcon 9 rocket will be a commercial launch of the SES-10 communications satellite. The exciting part of this mission is that it will be the first flight of a reused first stage booster. The static fire test was completed today, with launch scheduled for Thursday evening.

On the International Space Station, the Expedition 50 crew is very busy with a series of spacewalks that will serve as Commander Shane Kimbrough’s send off before he comes home in early April. The first spacewalk was conducted last Friday, March 24th, when Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet spent six and a half hours outside conducting various repairs and upgrades.

One of the spacewalk’s tasks was to disconnect Pressurized Mating Adapter 3 (PMA-3) before it was robotically moved this past Sunday to its new home on top of Node 2 for future dockings of the Dragon and Starliner spacecraft.

The next spacewalk is this coming Thursday. here is an hour long briefing from last week that describes the spacewalk plans in detail (keep in mind the discussed arrival of the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft has since slipped):

Next up is your weekly dose of awesome Twitter photos from the ISS crew (and go check out Oleg Novitskiy who posts exclusively to his Instagram account).

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

Astronauts Mike Fossum and Mike Baker announced their retirement from NASA last week.

NASA announced that it will be funding two new robotic missions to study distant asteroids. The Lucy probe will take many years to go all the way out to study the Trojan asteroids, which share Jupiter’s orbit. The Psyche probe will travel to an asteroid named Psyche which is a solid iron asteroid. It will be the first large iron asteroid visited by a spacecraft.

In Orbit

The one and only orbital launch since my last post on January 5th was yet another Chinese rocket. This launch on the 9th carried several small Earth observation satellites into orbit.

Up on the ISS, the Expedition 50 crew completed two successful spacewalks to upgrade a portion of the space station’s power systems to use new lithium-ion batteries. Last Friday, January 6th, Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough completed the first spacewalk and yesterday, Friday, January 13th, Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet completed the second. Whitson’s 46 hours over 7 spacewalks puts her in an elite class at 14th on the list of most spacewalking hours ever by a human. Shane also has an impressive 25 hours over only 4 EVAs, but it keeps him off this list of top 30 humans on Wikipedia (30th place is just over 38 cumulative hours. Also note that Whitson would only need one more spacewalk on her current mission to pass Sunita Williams’ 50 hours in 7th place for most hours for a woman). Here are some video summaries from NASA and pictures from the spacewalks:

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this incredible image of the Earth and moon from Mars orbit.

Fascinating analysis of some odd terrain on Pluto.

JPL has put together a new compilation of images from the Huygens probe descent to Saturn’s moon Titan, 12 years after the event. The mothership, Cassini, will end its mission later this year.

Out There

Astronomers observing a distant binary star have concluded that they will collide and merge in roughly 5 years, creating a bright nova that will be visible with the naked eye from Earth. Mark your calendars for 2022!

2016 Link Dump

NASA exploration year in review (press release)

NASA space technology year in review (press release)

NASA commercial crew year in review (press release)

Best NASA photos of 2016 (via Universe Today)

100 best space photos of 2016 (by Space.Com)

ESA’s 2016 year in review video

ESA’s 2017 preview video

Space industry in 2016 (by Spaceflight Insider)

ISS ops in 2016 (by Spaceflight Insider)

The year in rocket launches, part 1 (by Parabolic Arc)

The year in rocket launches, part 2 (by parabolic Arc)