Archive for the ‘Extrasolar planets’ Category

Weekly Links

Sorry for the delayed post this week. It has been a busy month, as I prepare for my trip to the 31st Space Symposium in just over a week. Plus, I recently got a new Amazon Kindle and have been diving into the world of spaceflight historical fiction (I know, I was surprised too!). I recently finished reading both Zero Phase and Public Loneliness by Gerald Brennan. Check them out!

The most exciting space news since my last post on March 20th of course was the launch of Soyuz TMA-16M last Friday. Here’s a video of the launch. More on what’s been going on ISS under “In Orbit”, below.

Down to Earth

United Space Alliance is having a public contest to vote on the name of their new rocket, which they hope will replace their medium lift Atlas V and Delta IV rockets by the 2020s.

Speaking of naming contests, the SETI Institute has launched the “Our Pluto” campaign for the public to help suggest names for features on Pluto, which will soon be discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft. From what I can tell, NASA and the IAU are onboard, so the names may actually become official.

Ellington Airport, just a few miles from the Johnson Space Center, has a new agreement with Sierra Nevada Corporation to land unmanned Dream Chaser spaceplanes here in Houston. If Sierra Nevada is awarded the CRS-2 contract, this could provide a nice logistical advantage for the ISS program.

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, which is another cargo resupply flight to ISS, has been delayed to April 13 (a 3-day slip).

NASA has selected “Option B” for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The mission will involve an unmanned robotic mission retrieving a small boulder from the surface of a Near Earth Object (NEO) which will be visited later by astronauts in lunar orbit.

In Orbit

Lots of rocket launches in late March, in addition to the Soyuz launch that sent Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka to ISS. The list of launches includes: an Atlas V with a new GPS satellite, A Japanese reconnaissance satellite on an H-II rocket, two European Galileo navigation satellites on a Soyuz rocket, and at least one other Indian, Russian, and Chinese rocket. The Chinese launch reportedly included a test flight of a new mini-space plane. The number of rocket launches this year now stands at 21 to orbit, with no failures.

As for that Soyuz flight to the ISS, it was a picture perfect launch, rendezvous, and docking, with Kelly and crewmates arriving at ISS only 6 hours after departing Kazakhstan. The number of humans off-world is now back up to 6, and the number of people tweeting from space is now at 4, with Kelly joining Cristoforetti, Virts, and Shkaplerov. Here’s a sample of their recent posts:

Around the Solar System

The annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference took place in March, which usually means interesting news from spacecraft exploring the solar system. Some of the best stories from this year’s LPSC are:

Out There

I was excited to learn that there are still astronomers diligently watching the Alpha Centauri system, with HST even, to try to confirm the potential worlds detected orbiting there several years ago. The latest data indicates that perhaps there are two worlds, not just one, orbiting Alpha Centauri B. Unfortunately, the data is not strong enough to say they are there for sure… yet.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

As of Friday night, the next SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to send a Dragon capsule to the ISS is still on the ground. But the issue that caused launch abort on Tuesday has been dealt with, and the SpaceX launch team is busy prepping for another attempt in just a few hours. Launch is scheduled for 4:47 AM Eastern, Saturday, January 10th. I will be getting up to watch mostly because of the crazy attempt to land the first stage on a barge… I mean autonomous drone ship.

At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit just opened called Outside the Spacecraft. The exhibit celebrates 50 years of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) which started with Russian Alexei Leonov’s first spacewalk in 1965.

In Orbit

Space Adventures has announced they have signed on another ISS “spaceflight participant” (or, tourist, if you prefer) – Japanese advertising mogul Satoshi Takamatsu. It is likely that he is the “backup” for Sarah Brightman, who will be flying to ISS later in 2015.

The week in images, from ESA.

Have to include some obligatory tweets from space.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s amazing Mars rover Opportunity finally summited Cape Tribulation this week, the highest point Opportunity will see during her mission. She is now over 400 feet above the vast plains that she drove across for years to reach Endeavour Crater. Here is the view.

Out There

2015 is 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still returning amazing astronomical results. The Hubble team knows how to celebrate right, and this week released two amazing images: first a new view of the Pillars of Creation and second an amazingly huge view of the Andromeda galaxy.

Because it’s cool

Randall Munroe of XKCD does some fun calculations about building a swimming pool on the moon.

I love these exoplanet “travel posters“.

This response, which injects a dose of realism, is even better:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The Chinese rocket that launched on December 31st was only carrying a Chinese weather satellite – not super exciting. But check out these incredible images of the first stage of that rocket, which appears to have landed in the middle of a road in a rural Chinese town. I am glad that in the US we have more concern about where our spent rocket stages end up…

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to launch to ISS Tuesday is still stuck on the ground. A problem with a hydraulic actuator for the second stage’s Merlin 1D engine lead to a launch scrub. They will try again on Friday, January 9th. Here are some shots of the rocket on the pad.

In a pretty awesome outreach move, Elon Musk did an “Ask Me Anything” hour on the website Reddit on Monday night (on the eve of their launch attempt). Here is the link to the whole thread, or you can read some highlights at Parabolic Arc.

The new SpaceX launch site at the extreme southern coast of Texas is likely going to seem more and more real throughout 2015. Just this week, SpaceX has begun posting job openings for the new location near Brownsville, Texas.

Richard Branson wrote a blog post about his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo accident, and his continued resolve to move forward with Virgin Galactic. As always, Doug Messier has some excellent commentary and dissects Branson’s writing.

The US Government Accountability Office has denied Sierra Nevada’s protest regarding the awarding of the CCtCap contract for commercial crew flights to ISS. That means that NASA’s decision to fund only SpaceX and Boeing will stand.

In Orbit

The Atlantic had an extensive feature article about the ISS titled “5,200 days in space: an exploration of life aboard the International Space Station, and the surprising reasons the mission is still worthwhile.” It is one of the most compelling stories covering the ISS that I have ever read.

Surprisingly, at about the same time, Time ran a cover article about Scott Kelly, who will be launching in March for his one-year stay aboard the ISS. It is also a very good story that touches on the human side of life in space.

And of course, our friends in orbit continue to dazzle us on Twitter with views from orbit. Here is a sampling.

Around the Solar System

The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is getting very close to the summit of Cape Tribulation on the rim of Endeavour crater. It amazes me every time I read an update on Opportunity that the mission is still going and still so successful 11 years later! (Edit: and here is a more detailed MER update from the Planetary Society blog)

On the other side of the planet (Mars that is) Curiosity has made some exciting discoveries. The rover has proven the existence of organics in the rocks of Gale crater and also that there is detectable concentrations of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. The methane is important because, due to chemical reactions that must necessarily occur, the methane is transient – meaning something is producing it. A very detailed discussion of this new finding is at the Planetary Society blog. The research was also published in the journal Science.

Out There

The Kepler team announced yesterday that a number of newly confirmed planets (based on old Kepler data) brings the total exoplanets discovered by the space telescope to 1,000. 8 of these new worlds can reasonably be considered “Earth-sized” and even in their stars’ habitable zones. Because we don’t have details on their composition or atmosphere, we can’t actually know how likely it is that life could live on these planets. But, as Phil Plait writes, this is further confirmation that the universe is full of small planets. Eventually, we will find Earth’s twin.

Graphic from JPL-NASA

Because it’s cool

This creative short film titled “Shoot for the Moon”:

New footage from the Marianas Trench documents the deepest known fish. An alien world in its own way.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

I am continually puzzled by large-scale aerospace projects using crowdfunding sites. In the latest installment, a company called Bristol Spaceplane (who have apparently been around at least since the Ansari X Prize days) is looking for 10,000 GBP (that’s about 15,500 USD) to build a remote controlled scale model of their spaceplane concept (via Parabolic Arc). How they intend to turn $15,000 of crowdfunding into a multi-billion dollar spaceplane project is not mentioned on their fundraising page.

SpaceX has picked up a Qatari telecommunications launch for 2016, adding to their already packed manifest. The Falcon 9 launch rate will be one of the big stories to follow in 2015. SpaceX is still on track for a January 6th launch to resupply the ISS.

In some continued minor fallout from the Virgin Galactic accident earlier this year, a company called Virool (I hadn’t heard of them) has changed up the prize in a previous contest: instead of winning a SpaceShipTwo ticket, the prize is now just a ride on a “vomit comet” style airplane.

In Orbit

In a quick flurry of launches, the Russian space program lofted 3 successful missions to end 2014 on a very positive note last week. The launches were all unmanned and unrelated to the ISS program. First, on December 23rd, the first flight of the new Angara rocket put a “dummy payload” into geosynchronous orbit.

Next, on December 26th, a Soyuz rocket put the Resurs P2 Earth observing satellite into orbit.

Lastly, on December 28th, a Proton rocket launched a European communication satellite to geosynchronous orbit. This was the 4th successful Proton launch since the failure in May. Proton is notorious for failures (one failure a year since 2010), and is intended to be replaced by the new Angara rocket.

Up on the ISS, the crew celebrated Christmas last week by putting out cookies for Santa Claus and exchanging presents. Astronaut Terry Virts shared their celebration with a few pictures on Twitter.

Out There

A new study with the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a previously unknown “dwarf spheroidal” galaxy only 10 million light years from our galaxy. These types of small galaxies filled with older stars are expected to help astronomers improve models of star formation. The new galaxy is in our “Local Group” and is called KKs3. Hopefully someone at the IAU can come up with something more catchy.

Back in 2013, when Kepler’s second of four reaction wheels failed, it looked like the space telescopes science days were over. However, earlier this year the mission was relaunched as “K2″. The new mission uses the two remaining reaction wheels and solar wind pressure to keep the spacecraft pointed accurately enough to do science. The pointing is not as accurate as the original mission, but the first exoplanet discovery of the new mission proves that Kepler is not dead! Kepler found HIP 116454b, which is a small planet 2.5 Earth diameters in size.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Thankfully, this week was a bit quieter than last. However, speculation, discussion, and official press conferences and releases continue in the wake of the loss of both an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and SpaceShipTwo.

Orbital Sciences has stated that the first stage AJ26 engine – in particular, a turbopump failure – is suspected in the accident that ended their ISS resupply flight only 15 seconds after launch. Fortunately for NASA, Orbital has a plan to maintain their logistics contract to ISS. The company plans to accelerate an already scheduled upgrade to the Antares rocket propulsion system. The implication seems to be that the AJ26 engines will be retired (which are refurbished Soviet NK-33 engines built decades ago). The second piece of the plan is that Orbital will contract out ISS cargo flights to other launchers (exactly who is not identified) until the new Antares upgrade is ready. Therefore, no further flights of Antares with the AJ26 will be attempted. The company announced both the initial findings of the accident investigation and their forward plans in a press release on November 5th.

On the other side of the country in the Mojave Desert, there are still a lot of questions concerning what caused the loss of SpaceShipTwo and one of her pilots, as well as what the impact might be on the project. In the fourth daily onsite press conference from the NTSB (full briefing below), it was revealed that cockpit video shows Michael Alsbury (who did not survive) prematurely unlocked the SpaceShipTwo wing feather system. However, the feather was not actually deployed. Further investigation is needed to determine the complete error chain.

Unfortunately for Virgin Galactic, but unsurprisingly, a number of ticket holders are known to have already asked the company for a refund on their deposit for a future ride on SpaceShipTwo. The company is likely to experience significant delays before their first commercial flights, but at least their replacement vehicle is already under construction.

Before we move on to the cool stuff actually happening in space, there are two more earthbound topics I wanted to cover.

First, the midterm elections in the United States. The senate is now controlled by the Republican party and Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society has a brief but comprehensive assessment of what this will likely mean for spaceflight (including planetary science, manned spaceflight, and commercial enterprises). The summary is that no sweeping change, good or bad, is likely to be a direct result of this political swing. But it is hard to know.

Lastly, the much anticipated science fiction film Interstellar was released to what appears to be mostly great reviews. Users on IMDB are rating the film a staggering 9.1 out of 10 (keep in mind that most hyped films have very large IMDB rating inflation at release). I saw the film last night in IMAX and enjoyed it quite a bit. My recommendation is that anyone who is a fan of space, science fiction, and movies, should see this film and see it in the big format; but don’t expect to see a film that feels completely without plot holes or twinges of fantasy. This movie is “hard” science fiction in the flavor of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Recall that ASO involves advanced aliens and interstellar worm hole travel. So if you go into Interstellar expecting to not have to suspend your disbelief somewhat, you will be disappointed. I recommend you see it before reading any reviews, but if you must, here is a good one from Tim Reyes of Universe today (who liked it) and an iffy one from Phil Plait (who didn’t like it).

CollectSpace has a nice piece on how the actors in Interstellar consulted with Space Shuttle astronaut Marsha Ivins.

In Orbit

Coming up on Sunday, November 9, the crew of Expedition 41 (which ended with a change of command ceremony today) will return to Earth after their Soyuz undocks from the ISS. Maxim Suraev, Reid Wiseman, and Alex Gerst will depart ISS in the evening, around 7:30 PM Eastern, and land in Kazakhstan only about 3.5 hours later. Reid and Alex have been excellent ambassadors of the ISS on social media with their great posts on Twitter and Vine. You should follow them during their last day (and look at all their old posts)! Expedition 42 should be an exciting one with additional spacewalks planned.

Around the Solar System

A proposed Canadian mission (yes, Canadian!) would endeavor to search directly for life on Mars. The mission would consist of a small lander and just as small a rover. It is unclear what their budget would be, but since they are using an IndieGoGo campaign to raise a modest (in spaceflight terms) $1 million, I would suspect it is what could be called “shoestring”! Nevertheless, The “Northern Light” lander is exciting in its simple goal of scrapping away at the Martian dirt and looking for the color green. The presumption being that photosynthetic organisms may be alive just below the surface. With a launch window in 2018, the idea is ambitions, but exciting. I donated!

NASA held a press conference on November 7 to give an update on the science gained from observations of comet Siding Spring’s encounter with Mars back in October. One of the most interesting observations, to me, were the many kinds of metal detected by observing the chemical composition of Mars’ atmosphere during the encounter; the atmosphere changed as it was pelted with the dust and rock from the comet. Since Siding Spring is from the distant Oort cloud, these measurements are a window into the chemistry of our solar system as far back as the formation of the sun. The observations were done by the fleet of spacecraft humanity now has at Mars (6 in all counting rovers). Unfortunately, no pictures have come out from the surface of Mars (maybe from Curiosity, which can operate at night?) of the meteor storm that was likely visible from surface.

While comet Siding Spring’s encounter with Mars was an anticipated event, the events at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko next week will be a highlight of the year, or even the decade, in space… if the Rosetta spacecrafts Philae lander is able to touchdown on the comet. You could read about the mission on their website here, or just watch these two brilliantly produced videos that should get anyone excited about the mission!

Talk about having a good PR department! Philae will be released from Rosetta on Wednesday, November 12, with a touchdown signal confirming landing reaching Earth at about 11 AM Eastern. NASA TV will cover the event.

Out There

Happily, There is some cool astronomy news to cover this week as well!

The ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) Observatory has taken a stunning image of the planet-forming disc around star HL Tau, which is 450 light years away. I should note that the data was not taken in visible light, but in wavelengths closer to radio. The gaps in the dust around the star are understood to be the orbits of planet-sized bodies forming around the star as we watch. Wow.

Observations from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawai’i showed an object known as G2 approach the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. G2 was thought to be a large glass cloud that would get torn apart by the black hole. But when G2 survived, scientists were forced to revise their hypothesis. The new working theory is that G2 was a binary star system that merged into one massive star due to the gravitational affects of the black hole. I wonder if the system had planets?

Weekly Links

This was not a good week for spaceflight, with two major mishaps. The first mishap, the loss of Orbital Science’s Antares rocket, with ISS cargo onboard, mere seconds after liftoff, was like a gut punch for American spaceflight. But the loss of a Scaled Composites test pilot when SpaceShipTwo was destroyed during Friday’s test flight in Mojave was a true disaster. Not only will it be a major setback from Virgin Galactic and the NewSpace industry (and a potential PR nightmare), it was a tragic loss of life. I hope that Scaled and Virgin make the families of the deceased their first priority. You can contribute to a GoFundMe program for deceased pilot Michael Alsbury here.

So, I guess it is ok that I haven’t posted for a while; now the bad can be mixed in with a bunch of cool stuff I need to catch you up on. Here are a few of the bigger stories in spaceflight over the past couple months that you should know about.

Down to Earth

One of the biggest stories of the summer was the CCtCAP (basically, NASA contract for private commercial manned flights to the ISS) award to SpaceX and Boeing. Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser was cut from the competition. However, Sierra Nevada has filed an official protest. The appeal process is expected to take several months, but Boeing and SpaceX will continue working on their vehicles in the meantime. The award was worth a total of $6.8 billion (over several years) with $2.6 billion to SpaceX and the rest to Boeing. Regardless of the results of the protest, space enthusiasts should be getting excited about the first crewed flights now only a few years away!

A bill is being discussed in the US House of Representatives known as the ASTEROIDS Act, which would seek to establish legislative rules regarding the mining of asteroids.

On October 17, the Air Force successfully landed the third of their secret space plane fleet, the X-37B, in California. The spacecraft spent 675 days in orbit (wow!). A fourth flight is planned for next year.

In Orbit

A lot has been going on with the ISS program since my last update just after the end of Expedition 40. Soyuz TMA-14M successfully arrived at ISS in late September with three new crew members onboard. Not long after the crew returned to 6-person strength, three separate spacewalks were conducted (two from the US segment and the RS segment) on October 7, 15 and 22. Rookie astronauts Reid Wiseman and Alex Gerst got their first spacewalks and will be returning to Earth as veterans next week. Reid got two spacewalks while Alex Gerst and Barry Wilmore both got one each.

October was the month of spacewalks, but it also saw some successful ISS vehicle traffic (despite the loss of Orbital-3). SpaceX’s fourth Dragon resupply flight was recovered after splashdown in the Pacific ocean on October 24th. Their next mission is planned to launch on December 9th. Also, just the morning after the loss of Orbital-3, a Progress resupply mission launched and docked to ISS without a hitch.

Expedition 41 will come to an end with the undocking and landing of Soyuz TMA-13M on November 10. You should follow Reid and Alex on twitter while they are still up in space taking pictures like mad.

You know Expedition 42 will be a fun time on ISS as well because of this awesome poster they made (most geeks should get the reference).

Around the Solar System

Back on October 8 many people in the Western Hemisphere enjoyed a total lunar eclipse in the early morning hours (at least for us in the USA). But here’s the view you didn’t expect: a video from Mercury (by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft) of the moon winking out as it passes into Earth’s shadow.

You know what, why don’t we just do a whole bunch of cool things spotted from around the solar system?

Next is Phobos transiting the sun as seen from the NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars.

And lastly, we have the NASA spacecraft New Horizons, less than a year from arrival at Pluto. New Horizons is now close enough to its target that it was able to spot Pluto’s tiny moon Hydra with its modest onboard imaging systems (originally detected by the Hubble Telescope in 2005).

There is a lot of other exciting solar system news to catch up on. At Mars, two new spacecraft have recently arrived in orbit: India’s MOM (Mars Orbiter Mission) and NASA’s Maven. MOM is India’s first interplanetary mission and has already sent back some very nice images of the red planet. MAVEN is a probe designed to get a better understanding of Mars’ atmosphere (which should be a window into the planet’s history). MAVEN arrived at Mars in time to get some observations of comet Siding Springs as it had a close approach. Here are some other cool photos of the approach.

Just yesterday, China’s Chang’E 5 T1 mission, a technology demonstrator for a future lunar sample return, landed successfully in Mongolia.

Lastly, the Rosetta spacecraft in orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has reached the final orbit form which the Philae lander will be deployed later this month. The landing site, site J, was chosen a few weeks ago in October.

Out There

Astronomers using the HARPS instrument in Chile have discovered a swarm of comets (almost 500!) around a nearby star. More evidence that our solar system is typical, rather than unique.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In early January, Boeing announced that it will be leasing Orbiter Processing Facility 1 (or OPF-1 to NASA) near the VAB at KSC for launch processing of their X-37B spaceplane, which flies secret missions for the United States military. There are three OPFs at Kennedy Space Center. OPF-3 is already under a lease contract by Boeing for processing of their CST-100 crewed space capsule. CST-100 is one of three spacecraft (along with SpaceX’s DragonRider and Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser) competing for commercial ISS crew transport contracts with NASA.

Speaking of the commercial crew contract, Sierra Nevada announced in January that they will be purchasing a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket for an unmanned test flight of the DreamChaser in 2016. The launch would be from existing ULA launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Also launching in 2016 is the first part of the European ExoMars mission. The core module of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was delivered in Germany last month. ExoMars is a flagship ESA mission to explore Mars, which will consist of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.

A LEGO model of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity was launched in early January.

Since operations at KSC are ramping up for new spacecraft (like the Orion flight this fall) the VAB will be closing for tours on February 23rd. I am very happy to have seen space shuttle Endeavour in the VAB back in 2011.

The small town of Webster, adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center here in the Clear Lake area of Houston, is planning an ambitious visitor center that will pay tribute to America’s space program and feature an 80-foot tall astronaut statue.

Former astronauts Jerry Ross and Shannon Lucid will be inducted into the astronaut hall of fame this year.

In Orbit

Up on the ISS, the first official Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo mission arrived on January 12th. The private spacecraft is expected to stay another week or two before departing and burning up in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, SpaceX had another successful Falcon 9 version 1.1 launch, putting a commercial payload into geosynchronous orbit. Their next launch is a Dragon cargo spacecraft on its way to the ISS, with a plethora of other launches on the manifest for this year. The ISS flight was recently moved to a March 16 launch.

Around the Solar System

On Mars, a big anniversary happened last month. January 4th was the 10-year anniversary of Spirit landing at Columbia Memorial Station and just a few weeks later Opportunity landed at Eagle Crater on January 28, 2004. Today, Opportunity is still trucking along at Endeavour crater, after driving over 35 kilometers since landing. Pretty good for a rover expected to live 90 days and drive maybe a kilometer or two.

There were a lot of NASA media events and discussions of the missions online. Universe Today put together a list of the top 10 discoveries made by the MER rovers. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is running an exhibition on the MER rovers through September.

For some nice retro entertainment, here’s the landing video from 2004. Most of the exciting stuff is in the first minute or two, so you don’t have to watch all 8 minutes.

Opportunity is currently on the rim of Endeavour Crater – where she has been exploring since 2011. She has had some mild winter weather and is expected to make it through the solstice coming up in February. While exploring some rock outcrops at her winter stop point, Opportunity did a bit of a piroute and noticed something strange. In an area that had already been imaged by the rover, sat a new mysterious rock.

Leading theories initially were that it could be a fallen meteorite or ejecta from a meteorite impact somewhere nearby. Other theories are that it was simply dislodged by Opportunity’s wheels and simply “kicked” or dropped into the new location. An interesting mystery for the 10 year anniversary. Rove on, Opportunity!

Meanwhile on the other side of Mars, the younger but much larger Curiosity rover is navigating the “Dingo Gap” on its way to Mount Sharp and was currently parked atop a sand dune when I started to draft this post early last week. Nice view. Since then, Curiosity has successfully made it over the dune into the “valley” beyond. Curiosity is getting closer and closer to Mount Sharp, but spending lots of time stopping to do science along the way.

While waiting to cross the dune last week, the rover team released a stunning image of Earth in the Martian sky, as photographed by Curiosity on a clear twilit day. Beautiful.

Speaking of rovers, on the moon, the Chinese rover Yutu headed into its second lunar night in late January. Unfortunately, reports from the Chinese space program are that the rover suffered some kind of mechanical anomaly and is in danger of not surviving the two week “night”. It seems that some of the mechanical systems that are supposed to fold up the solar panels to provide thermal protection for sensitive components did not work properly. There has been no new news since the first reports more than a week ago. We will likely have to wait until “morning” on the moon (sometime next week) to know the rover’s fate.

Farther out in the solar system, the European comet-chasing spacecraft, Rosetta, has been woken up from hibernation. The spacecraft will be approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko later this year and in an exciting and challenging mission will drop a lander onto the comet’s surface.

Out There

A new sensitive camera on the Gemini telescope in Hawaii took an impressive infrared light image of the distant planet Beta Pictoris b. This kind of direct imaging is certainly the future of exoplanet astronomy.

The NEOWISE mission (a re-purposing on the WISE infrared orbital observatory) has found its first near-Earth asteroid.

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory were following up on an interesting binary star system, two brown dwarfs only a few lightyears from Earth, when data suggested that the star system contains a third companion, a jupiter-mass planet.  More study is expected to confirm the planet’s existence.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Many space enthusiasts and planetary scientists were unsettled by a NASA announcement on December 3rd about a restructuring of the planetary science budget. In particular, the money allocated for planetary science grants is being reorganized into new programs – and half of that money will not be used for new grants in 2014. In short, this means there is less money available to scientists writing new proposals.

In other disappointing news, some vandals in Houston spray-painted graffiti on the side of the Space Shuttle mock-up Independence. Independence lived for almost 20 years at KSC where it was known as Explorer. The mock-up is displayed outside near the Space Center Houston parking lot, with no significant security at night (in contrast to the nearby Rocket Park which is behind a locked fence at night).

On December 3rd, NASA scientist and former JPL director Ed Stone was on Stephen Colbert to talk about Voyager entering interstellar space. At the end of the episode, Stephen Colbert surprised Dr. Stone with the NASA distinguished service medal. You can watch the interview here and the award presentation here (both links to the Colbert Report’s website and the clips come with ads).

On December 6, 1957 (56 years ago today), the Vanguard TV3 was the first attempted launch of a satellite by the United States – which ended in a spectacular explosion on the launch pad.

41 years later, December 4, 1998, the Space Shuttle mission STS-88 attached the “Unity” Node to Russia’s “Zarya” – the first step in what would be over 10 years of ISS assembly.

Endeavour prepares Unity for docking (Source: NASA)

Thanks to a post from Parabolic Arc, I have bookmarked this interactive map from SpaceWorks Software that maps all planned, active, and former spaceports around the world.

Around the Solar System

According to Chinese media, the Chang’e 3 probe has reached lunar orbit. The lander is expected to make it to the surface on December 14th.

While we have seen imagery of Saturn’s mysterious North Pole hexagon before, the newly released images (and movie!) from Cassini is the highest resolution view yet, through multiple color filters. Pretty.

Out There

Astronomers using the Keck II telescope in Hawaii have taken images of 3 large (bigger than Jupiter) exoplanets. So few planets from other systems have been directly imaged that each new one is notable, even if the planets are unlikely to be habitable or otherwise remarkable. Phil Plait provides the images at the top of his post on the results.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX has purchased more land on the coast near Brownsville and South Padre Island in Texas, making their intentions fairly clear.

The United States Congressional Budget Office issued a report with options for reducing the national deficit. One option outlined includes completely eliminating all NASA spending on manned spaceflight. Oh dear.

In Orbit

The big news in the past two weeks, in my opinion, was the launch of Chang’e 3, a Chinese lunar lander. Chang’e 1 and 2 were successful moon orbiters, and the third mission, launched December 2nd, is scheduled to land a large rover on the lunar surface – the first to do so in 37 years – on December 14th. So far, China is putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their spaceflight program.

Today, December 3rd, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 version 1.1  with a commercial telecommunications satellite onboard. The SES-8 satellite was successfully sent on the planned geostationary transfer orbit – proving that SpaceX had sussed out and fixed the problem that marred an earlier test launch back in September. The failure of the upper stage to relight back on September 29 was traced back to frozen igniter fluid lines. As SpaceX points out in their press release, this mission is a big step towards fulfilling their long launch manifest, which includes many commercial launches, some requiring a geostationary orbit insertion. One more successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launch is needed for DOD certification. Also, the first ISS resupply flight aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 is planned for early next year.

On November 19th, the robotic arm on the Kibo module of the ISS (the Japanese lab) was used to deploy several small “cubesats” into orbit. This is the second time the ISS has been used as a launching platform (last time was in December 2012 also using Kibo).

On November 20th, the International Space Station program celebrated the 15th anniversary of the first module launch – the Russian “Functional Cargo Block”, or more poetically “Zarya” (Sunrise)*. Here’s a short but amazing ISS timelapse to celebrate (via Universe Today).

*Nobody in Mission Operations at NASA JSC calls it Zarya.

Around the Solar System

The big story this past month (apart from recent Chinese success) has been comet ISON – the comet-of-the-century that wasn’t. ISON was a fun story to follow because the steep-diving comet (which grazed by the Sun at less than one solar diameter on Thanksgiving Day) was so dynamic that astronomers were having a hard time predicting how and when the comet might brighten, dim, or die. I had spent a week prior to perihelion (the name for closest approach to the sun) hoping I could get up in the morning and spot ISON before dawn, but the Houston weather would not cooperate. As evidenced by this amateur photographer, the comet was naked-eye in the right conditions. Anyway, ISON’s story ended shortly after perihelion, where the nucleus seemingly broke up in the extreme heat. The disintegrating rubble pile that emerged from the far side of the sun brightened very briefly, and is now dispersing and dimming, currently at 8th magnitude. As the writers at “Sky and Telescope” joke in their summary: “ISON now ISOFF”.

On December 1st, the Indian Mars orbiter Mangalyaan (now being referred to as “MOM” in all the english language media I follow) completed a successful rocket firing to leave high Earth orbit and go into solar orbit, on its way to Mars in September 2014. MOM is now cruising through interplanetary space behind NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which successfully launched towards Mars on November 18th. Here’s a shot of MAVEN back in August when it was being readied for launch.

Maven spacecraft (Source: NASA)

The European Exomars project – which consists of two missions in 2016 and 2018 – has chosen the name “Schiaparelli” for the 2016 lander. Schiaparelli was the Italian astronomer in the late 19th century who mapped Mars (and incorrectly deduced that Mars was covered in canals).

The Mars rover Opportunity (still roving almost 10 years after landing!) has found a winter post. Opportunity will hang out for the next 6 months on a north-facing slope called “Murray Ridge”. Murray Ridge is named after Bruce Murray, an influential planetary scientist from JPL who died earlier this year.

Out There

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to detect water in the atmosphere of 5 “hot Jupiters” orbiting nearby (in galactic terms) stars. Since the planets are Jupiter-like rather than Earth-like, there is nothing Earth-shattering (or Jupiter-shattering) about the finding. However, future studies should be able to analyze the atmospheres of smaller and smaller worlds, leading us closer to finding a true Earth twin.

There is a new naked-eye nova in the sky. Don’t go running outside expecting to see something as bright as Venus – it is only magnitude ~5 and is not visible from Northern latitudes.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Sierra Nevada had an unpiloted glide and landing test of their DreamChaser space plane back on October 26th. Unfortunately, the left landing gear did not deploy on approach and the spacecraft crashed. The company quickly clarified that no major damage was sustained and they are looking into the mechanical cause of the stuck landing gear. The company has not released footage of the actual crash though. The video below cuts off just before landing.

Retired ISS commander Chris Hadfield’s new book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth” is now on sale. I got my signed copy today here at NASA JSC! Commander Hadfield is back in Houston for a NASA checkup and is doing some book tour stops while here. Hope to read it and write a review soon!

In Orbit

November is a busy month for deliveries to the ISS. Last weekend, on November 2nd, ATV4 re-entered the atmosphere – undocking had been several days prior. A special experiment took place on ISS to get high resolution photos of the craft burning up and here are the results.

Courtesy ESA

ATV4 re-entry from ISS

With ATV gone, we are gearing up for the arrival of the new ISS crew. The second half of Expedition 38 – Koichi Wakata, Richard Mastracchio, and Mikhail Tyurin – will launch from Kazakhstan on their Soyuz spacecraft on Thursday, November 7. As is the new flavor of Soyuz flights, they will arrive at ISS just 6 hours later. This crew is one of the most veteran-filled to share a Soyuz in a while. Wakata and Mastracchio will each be on their 4th spaceflights while Tyurin will be on his third. I expect that when Wakata returns to Earth, he will be the only Japanese astronaut on the top 50 list of most time in space (Which you can find about halfway down the page here).

The really exciting thing about this Soyuz flight is that it launches before the first half of Expedition 37 leaves ISS – which is usual how we trade out crews. Instead there will be a short period of 9 people onboard ISS for the first time since the end of the Shuttle program. Why are we doing this? So that an Olympic torch can be carried on a Russian EVA this weekend and then quickly returned two days later with the Soyuz TMA-09M crew. In order for this even to work, last Friday that crew climbed aboard their Soyuz in full re-entry suits and “relocated” their spacecraft from one ISS port to another. A lot of work for a little PR. We will see if it pays off.

Around the Solar System

On Tuesday, November 5th, India launched their Mangalyaan spacecraft to Mars. Mangalyaan is a Mars climate orbiter that will reach the red planet next year after a 10-month Hohmann transfer orbit. India’s mission is the first of two missions to launch int he current Mars window. NASA’s MAVEN mission is to launch on November 18.

Out There

I always like getting to talk hard science. There have been some great results regarding astronomy in the past few weeks:

First, astronomers from various universities collaborated on an observation that found the most distant galaxy ever imaged. The work was done at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii (shout out to my dad who does coding work at Keck on the instrument that was used!). The galaxy has an extreme redshift that puts it only 700 million years after the birth of the universe. Hopefully imaging the youngest galaxies will help us understand fundamentals of galaxy formation.

In exoplanet news, there are some developments. Planet Kepler-78b, which is a small very hot planet orbiting its star in just 8.5 hours – had its density measured (using the Doppler Shift method) and it was discovered that it is about the same size and density as the Earth. Most people are calling this the first actual “Earth-like” planet discovered in another solar system. However, it is still too close to its star to be habitable.

But even more exciting, perhaps, than this actual discovery of an “Earth-like” world is the statistical analysis (again using Keck data!) that shows that one-in-five stars in our galaxy is likely to have an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Wow! You might be tempted to say “its just a statistical analysis” but really that’s all any estimate like this is ever going to be because we cannot get direct data on whether all 400 stars have planets. The more planets we discover, the better our sample size, of course. But right now it is looking promising that the follow-on missions to Kepler (JWST and others) have a high likelihood of directly imaging one of these sister Earths. We live in exciting times.