Archive for the ‘Extrasolar planets’ Category
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
It’s been a whole month since I last posted, so there is some catching up to do. I’m going to try to just hit the highlights.
Down to Earth
A few quick news items from the “NewSpace” sector:
Most exciting and most recently, today Virgin Galactic flew the second powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo space plane. This test involved “feathering” the spaceship’s wings after the engine is shut down to help with a controlled “re-entry”. With this only being the second test flight of the year – the first was back in April – it seems unlikely Virgin will start flights to space by the end of the year. Still, it is awesome to see progress. Here’s a video of the flight.
ATK has partnered with Orbital Sciences to build the rocket for Stratolaunch. Orbital is designing the rocket and ATK will provide the first and second stages. For those that need a refresher, Stratolaunch is the Paul Allen project to have a 747-sized plane be the launch platform for a massive rocket that can deliver as much as 13,500 pounds to Earth orbit.
Last month Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” space plane went through some taxi tests out in California. Basically, it was just towed down the runway to test the landing gear. But if you think that’s exciting, there’s a video! Interestingly, the nose landing gear is a skid, not a wheel.
SpaceX had another test flight of their “Grasshopper” vertical take off and landing rocket. This time it was a “divert” test where it flew sideways and came back. Here’s the video.
In the NASA world there are a few updates also:
First of all, deputy NASA administrator Lori Garver has announced she will be leaving NASA for a job in the private sector (specifically as president of the American Airline Pilots Association).
Astronaut Mike Foale is also leaving NASA after a 26 year career.
A recent paper was published identifying 12 EROs (easily-retrievable objects) to add to a list of possible destinations for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission. Unfortunately, Lori Garver (see above) was a chief proponent of this new controversial mission. Check out this article in the Washington Post outlining some of the technical and political issues that may hinder this mission.
Tomorrow night at 11:27 PM Eastern time, NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) will launch from the Wallops Island facility in Virginia. The launch should be visible to much of the East coast, so stay up to watch if you can! The spacecraft will not have any cameras. Instead, it has spectrometers and dust scoops for studying the tenuous lunar atmosphere. Once LADEE has launched it will clear the Wallops Island launch range for the Orbital Sciences launch of their first Cygnus flight to ISS on September 17th.
A link I should have posted weeks ago is a first hand account from ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano of the EVA which was aborted in July when his helmet started filling up with water. This was probably the scariest thing to happen in spaceflight since the loss of Columbia a decade ago. Great job by flight controllers and especially Luca in staying calm under pressure.
NASA is officially no longer attempting to fully recover the Kepler Space Telescope. Fortunately, lots of people are thinking of ways Kepler can still do exciting science without the stability of three gyroscopes. One of the most publicized white papers from this past week was the idea to look for planets in the very close habitable zones of white dwarf stars.
Similarly, the WISE spacecraft (wide-field infrared survey explorer) is getting a new mission. WISE is being reactivated on a 3-year mission to look for NEOs (Near-Earth Object). As Phil Plait points out, this mission may be directly related to NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission, and the effort to find a candidate rock to go grab.
To round out the space telescope news, the Spitzer Space Telescope celebrated its 10th year in space this summer. Spitzer ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 but is still going strong with its “warm mission”.
In what is a startling development, the United States Air Force’s “Space Fence” will be shut down after the end of this fiscal year. The Space Fence is a key part of our orbital surveillance program. Without the space fence program there will be a gap in capability until if and when the new system comes on line in a few years. It’s very possible that without this system the risk of debris striking any given spacecraft without warning – including the ISS – goes up.
Around the Solar System
Mars rover Curiosity got an awesome set of images of the moon Phobos passing in front of Deimos. Not just a rover!
Because it’s cool
Speaking of Virgin Galactic, the term “space tourism” has been officially added to the OED.
The great XKCD comic recently did a great job describing the basics of orbital mechanics.
Somebody recreated the famous shot of a bike flying in front of the moon from the movie E.T.
In a post in July I wrote about how Hubble had determined the color of a far-flung exoplanet. What I failed to mention that they had also discovered that on this planet it probably “rains glass sideways”, which is a bit of a let down if you are wanting to visit this nifty blue world someday. The web comic Sci-Ence is apparently annoyed at how often the planets we discover are unlivable, and has created a handy guide.
Down to Earth
Chris Hadfield, recently returned ISS commander and now retired astronaut, has announced he will be releasing a book titled “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. It’s not clear yet if the format will be that of a memoir or something else.
John Anthony Llewellyn, who was selected as an astronaut in 1967, died earlier in July. He was 80 years old. Mr. Llewellyn was one of the scientist-astronauts of the 6th NASA group, and resigned from NASA before flying to space.
Its time for the NASA budget battle. Congress has been working on the authorization acts for the 2014 federal budget. The proposal from the Senate has NASA being funded at $18.1 billion, or even higher than the executive branch requested ($17.7 billion). However, the House of Representatives has something different in mind, and is proposing a budget as low as $16.6 billion, which is less than the White House requested. It would take a miracle for this to get resolved before the fiscal year starts.
The Apollo rocket parts being recovered from the Atlantic by Jeff Bezos have been identified as originating from the rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the moon.
Lots of news from ISS and the world’s active space programs in the past few weeks.
First, NASA conducted two spacewalks from the US airlock on the ISS. The first, on July 9th, was successful. Luca Parmitano and Chris Cassidy did maintenance outside for a solid 6 hours. However, if you google “July 2013 spacewalk” you won’t get any results for the July 9th EVA, because just a week later the two astronauts went out the door again, and were not as successful. The Tuesday, July 16 spacewalk ended after only 92 minutes because of water collecting in Parmitano’s helmet. It seems his spacesuit, or EMU, had some kind of cooling system leak. NASA is still investigating to figure out what exactly is broken. There are 3 NASA spacesuits on ISS, so they have a backup if an emergency spacewalk is needed.
In Kazakhstan on July 2, a Russian Proton rocket crashed spectacularly just seconds after launch.
The rocket is the same kind that sometimes takes large ISS components into orbit – such as the MLM, or Nauka, module that is manifested to launch later this year. The rocket was carrying several Russian GPS satellites (known as Glonass). Obviously all the payload was lost.
Check out the shockwave hitting the cameraman in this amateur footage of the crash.
The official investigation commission in Russia has publicly announced their preliminary findings. It appears some sensors were improperly installed. Oops.
Meanwhile, the Kepler Space Telescope team is working towards attempting recovery of one of her failed reaction wheels – which are currently preventing the telescope from doing any more science.
Around the Solar System
The International Astronomical Union has given names to P4 and P5, the new moons of Pluto discovered by Hubble just over a year or so ago. The new moons will be named Kerberos and Styx, staying with the god of the underworld theme (the other 3 known moons are Charon, Nix, and Hydra).
The IAU named the Pluto moons just in time, because another astronomer looking through old Hubble data of Neptune, found a new Neptunian moon! It will need a name now also…
Curiosity has now roved more than 1 kilometer at Gale Crater on Mars. I wish she would rove faster!
Data from the Hubble Space Telescope (yes, more Hubble!) has identified the color of an alien world. By watching a distant planet “transit” in front of its parent star, the instrument called Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph was able to figure out that the Jupiter-sized planet is blue. Read Phil Plait’s explanation if you want the details. The color tells us more about the planet – like the fact that the atmosphere is probably full of methane.
Down to Earth
Virgin Galactic has hired two new pilots, including former Space Shuttle Commander and Navy TOPGUN pilot, Frederick “CJ” Sturckow. Awesome!
At the Kennedy Space Center’s new visitor center, the payload bay doors were opened on Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is slated to go on display this summer.
In honor of the new Star Trek movie, here’s something that has nothing to do with space at all. But it’s funny.
A lot has happened at the space station in the past week and a half! Apart from Soyuz TMA-07M returning to Earth on Monday, May 13…
…on Thursday, May 9, in the morning, (while I was working in the Flight Control Room) the astronauts noticed some mysterious debris floating outside the space station…
…which led to an emergency spacewalk to fix a leaky coolant pump only two days later.
For more information, check out my friend and colleague, Anthony, talking about the space station quick fix.
Chris Hadfield’s return to Earth marks the end of a very successful mission that was more than just a typical ISS expedition. Commander Hadfield reached out to people through social media more than any astronaut before. Here is a small “greatest hits” list of some of his photography. But for me, even better than all the pictures from his mission, was the way Hadfield seamlessly connected his love of music to space. Check out this music video he released just hours before coming home last week.
In less successful orbital news, the Kepler Space Telescope – NASA’s planet-finding spacecraft – seems to be in trouble. On May 15, NASA announced that a second of Kepler’s four reaction wheels may be failed. Kepler needs 3 reaction wheels to accurately point the telescope for precision science measurements. If they cannot recover the lost reaction wheel, Kepler’s mission is effectively done. Kepler has been able to discover thousands of planets in our galaxy (most still being officially “confirmed”) but it easily has thousands more left to discover. Save Kepler!
Around the Solar System
In only one day last week, the sun emitted three X-class solar flares (X-class is the biggest class of solar flare, but just like the earthquake scale, an X10 is significantly bigger than an X2, so it’s all relative). Welcome to solar maximum! If you live somewhere where you can see it, there should be some good aurora to see this year.
Remember that rover on Mars? No, not the bigger shiny new one, that one on the other side of the planet – Opportunity. The plucky rover that could just hit a distance record for NASA set by the Apollo 17 moon rover in 1972. Back in 1972, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt drove their lunar rover 35.74 km in just a few days. After almost 10 years on Mars, Opportunity just broke that record this week. Also, there’s still the Russian moon rover Lunokhod 2 which drove 37 km in 1973. Opportunity still has a ways to go. But it is amazing that she is still going at all!
Down to Earth
Earlier this month, the White House released their proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2014. Which includes an allocation of $17.7 billion for NASA. Much has been said about the budget already – but the focuses seem to be on the $200 million cut from planetary science and the proposal to start planning an asteroid retrieval mission. Yes, you read that right, the idea is that NASA will send a robotic mission to find a worthy asteroid to drag back to cislunar space (that’s fancy space talk for bringing it as close to Earth as the moon). This may be the direction, focus, and “mission” that many have been saying was lacking from NASA’s portfolio since the cancellation of Constellation and the Space Shuttle. It is far too early to know what will come of it, at least until the mission starts being paid for in 2014. Personally, I think the idea makes sense and is exciting… more thoughts on this in a later post.
In truly down to Earth news, the ambitious Thirty Meter Telescope project received a permit to begin construction atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. They project plans to begin construction in early 2014. the Thirty Meter Telescope (or TMT) will have almost 10 times the light gathering area of the Keck telescopes, also on Mauna Kea. TMT is going to be an amazing tool for astronomers. It should be able to look “further back in time” and see aspects of the beginning of the universe as well as be an awesome exoplanet finding tool, among many other science applications.
The Navy has announced they will be naming a new research vessel after Sally Ride (first American woman in space).
Virgin Galactic has been busy doing glide flights of SpaceShipTwo, getting ready for their first powered flight this year. In their most recent flight last week, the engine had a “cold flow” test – they flowed some propellant through the engine but did not ignite it.
Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” blog has a nice photo essay of two different Mars analog missions going on here on Earth.
After a planned launch this past Tuesday was delayed, today Orbital Sciences is going to attempt the maiden flight of the Antares rocket, which is planned to take the Cygnus freighter on resupply flights to the ISS. The launch is planned for 5 PM Eastern today (Saturday, April 20). If you read this in time, you can follow along at Spaceflight Now’s mission status center.
Around the Solar System
The Mars rover Curiosity went into hibernation starting on April 4 for the “solar conjunction”. This is the period when Mars is behind the sun as seen from Earth, making it difficult to communicate with probes at the red planet.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to spot the fresh craters left by the GRAIL missions two probes that crashed into the moon last year (on purpose).
Some Mars enthusiasts from Russia have been scouring Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images to look for the lost Mars 3 lander that the USSR sent to Mars in 1971. They seem to have found it!
NASA has announced two new missions in the agencies Astrophysics Explorer Program. Two space telescopes, TESS and NICER, are being developed for launch later this decade. TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Sattelite) is somewhat of a successor to Kepler, and will be an Earth-orbiting satellite that hunts for exoplanets. NICER (Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer) will be attached to the International Space Station and will look at x-ray wavelengths from neutron stars.