Archive for the ‘Extrasolar planets’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Andy Weir, author of the smash hit The Martian released his second novel, Artemis.

Sierra Nevada released video of last week’s successful glide flight of their Dream Chaser space plan:

A long-lost Omega astronaut watch from the Apollo era has been recovered and returned to the Smithsonian.

In Orbit

The Cygnus cargo freighter that launched last week, arrived at the ISS successfully on November 14.

Two rocket launches last week:

Around the Solar System

A new study in Nature analyzes Pluto’s hazy atmosphere and offers an explanation for the planet being colder than expected ( minus 300 deg F instead of minus 280 deg F).

Out There

A newly discovered exoplanet, Ross 128 b, is only 11 light years away and could be in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star it orbits.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Skylab and Space Shuttle astronaut Paul Weitz has died at 85 years old.

The 2018 US Olympic Snowboard team will wear uniforms inspired by NASA spacesuits.

Saudi Arabia has agreed to invest $1 billion dollars in Virgin Galactic.

In Orbit

In rocket news, there were only two orbital launches since my last post on October 21:

Around the Solar Systems

NASA’s robotic probe Dawn has received an official mission extension to stay in orbit around the asteroid Ceres.

Out There

Astronomers at an observatory in Chile have discovered an unusual exoplanet orbiting a dwarf star. The planet is larger than Jupiter and is 25% the size of its host star, the highest known planet-to-star ratio yet discovered.

The Pan-STARRS-1 observatory in Hawaii detected a small rocky body hurtling into our solar system from interstellar space. The asteroid (or should it be called something else?) poses no risk to Earth. Follow the link for a cool animation of its orbit.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Retired NASA astronaut Terry Virts has published a “coffee table book” of images he took while aboard the ISS during Expeditions 42 and 43.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO team.

Canadian company MDA has acquired DigitalGlobe and the new merged corporation will be changing their name to Maxar Technologies. MDA is the company that build the Canadarms and DigitalGlobe is a major provider of orbital imagery for users like Google.

In Orbit

Three rocket launches since my last post. All of them occurred today, October 9th:

  • China launched a Long March 2D rocket carrying a Venezuelan satellite.
  • SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 new communication satellites for Iridium.
  • Japan launched an H-2A rocket carrying a native navigation satellite.

Things have been quite busy up on the ISS. Astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Randy Bresnik executed the first of a series of spacewalks last week to maintain the station’s robotic arm. They will go out again tomorrow, October 10th, to continue the work. Here are a few pictures from last week’s EVA:

NASA has announced plans to keep the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on the ISS for longer than planned and use it as a logistics module.

Out There

A recent study of “Tabby’s Star” using NASA’s orbiting observatories Spitzer and Swift has a new theory for the unexplained dips in brightness: dust. The new hypothesis is compelling because the telescopes detected differences in the dimming at different wavelengths, which implies something transparent like dust.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Leonardo DiCaprio is going to produce a new TV series based on The Right Stuff.

NASA’s new TDRS-M satellite had a mishap during pre-flight processing. Launch has been rescheduled while repairs are conducted.

Virgin Galactic conducted another drop test of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

NASA’s fourteenth crew of the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) program started their 45-day mission yesterday.

Rocket startup Vector Space Systems conducted a test launch of their suborbital rocket on Thursday. Here’s a short video of liftoff.

In Orbit

The International Space Station crew is back up to 6 after a new Soyuz launched from Kazakhstan and docked just a few hours later. The three new ISS crew members, Sergey Ryazanskiy, Paolo Nespoli, and Randy Bresnik, are all spaceflight veterans.

There are now 5 active Twitter users on ISS, sharing their thoughts, activities, and views with us! Check out their posts at this feed.

In addition to the Soyuz launch, the only other rocket launch in the past two weeks was a European Space Agency Vega rocket. The rocket launched on August 2 from French Guiana carrying two earth observing satellites.

Around the Solar System

In case you had forgotten that there are two active NASA rovers on the surface of Mars, here are some beautiful panoramas from Opportunity, on the edge of Endeavour crater.

Results are in of the stellar occultation observation of object 2014 MU69, and astronomers think it may actually be a binary, rather that single piece of rock. 2014 MU69 is the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) that the New Horizons spacecraft will visit in 2019.

New evidence suggests there may be more water hidden beneath the surface of the moon than previously thought.

Out There

Speaking of moons, a new paper analyzing the light curve data from Kepler of a distant star shows the possibility of a large planet with a large moon in orbit. Hubble is scheduled to do follow up observations in October to confirm the finding.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Orbital ATK performed a qualification test firing of the abort motor for the Orion spacecraft.

A recent study at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas (UNLV) found that the cancer risk for a journey to Mars may be higher than previously thought. Spaceflight Insider published a response opinion piece by Robert Zubrin (author of The Case for Mars).

Jeffrey Kluger (science editor at time and coauthor with Jim Lovell of Apollo 13) has published a new book Apollo 8 about humanity’s first mission to orbit the moon. I am currently listening to the book on Audible and will publish a review next week.

A private company based in Europe called Bake In Space has announced plans to fly an experimental zero-gravity oven and dough recipe to the space station.

In Orbit

There have been two orbital rocket launches in the last week:

The Progress freighter arrived at ISS this past Friday and docked successfully, delivering supplies from station propellant to food, water, and science experiments.

Tragically, an employee of the Russian space program died after he was deployed to the cleanup zone after the Soyuz launch and a fire engulfed his truck.

The Chinese space agency has tested robotic refueling with their uncrewed Tianzhou freighter at the Tiangong-2 space station.

Ever since the SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the ISS last week, robotics engineers have been busy at work unloading new science experiments, including the NICER neutron star observatory and the Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA).

Out There

Astronomers continue to search for habitable, Earth-like planets around other stars. However, other oddball planets also continue to pop up, like KELT-9b, which is the hottest planet ever discovered.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

During a media conference call on Friday, NASA managers provided some details about the potential plan to put astronauts onto the first test flight of the new SLS rockets. In particular, they stated that they would look at putting a crew of 2 onto the EM-1 mission for a 9-day loop around the moon (the baseline EM-1 mission is a 31-day mission, including a period in lunary orbit). The study should be completed in the Spring.

And then, on Monday, SpaceX held its own media conference call to announce plans to send a Dragon 2 capsule on a very similar trajectory to the revised crewed EM-1 mission. The plan would send two paying civilian astronauts on a trip around the moon next year. Welcome to the new space race?

Virgin Galactic had another glide flight of its new SpaceShipTwo spaceplane last Friday.

The popular movie Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three women mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s, had three nominations for the Academy Awards on Sunday, but did not win any. During the award show, Katherine Johnson, one of the women on which the movie is based, was invited on stage.

Speaking of movies, check out this new theatrical trailer for Mission Control, a movie based on the book Go, Flight! by Rick Houston.

And here’s one more fun video before we move on to actual news that happened in space. Check out this segment Stephen Colbert did on his visit to Boeing’s facilities at Kennedy Space Center.

In Orbit

There was only one orbital launch since my last post: On Thursday, February 23 Roscosmos launched a Soyuz rocket carrying a Progress cargo spacecraft headed to the International Space Station.

That Progress spacecraft arrived at the ISS a day later without issue, less than a day after the SpaceX Dragon capsule – launched on Sunday, February 19th – was captured using the Space Station’s Canadarm 2. Here’s a timelapse of what it looks like to conduct that operation from inside the Cupola module.

While the Dragon rendezvous on Thursday was flawless, it came a day after a previous attempt had to be aborted due to an issue with relative GPS navigation with the space station.

Out There

NASA announced on Wednesday that the Spitzer Space Telescope had confirmed the existence of 7 small rocky worlds (similar in size to Earth) around the star TRAPPIST-1, which is 40 light years away.

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

It was space capsule drop test week, with an Orion drop test in water and a Boeing Starliner drop test on land, both at NASA Langley.

Here is video of the Starliner crew access arm being installed earlier this month:

SpaceX recently erected their first flown and recovered Falcon 9 rocket first stage’s as a display piece at their factory in California.

Veteran NASA astronaut Terry Virts has retired from NASA. Virts flew on one space shuttle mission (STS-130) and one ISS expedition (42/43) for a total of 213 days in space including 3 EVAs.

In Orbit

On August 19th, ISS astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins exited the ISS airlock for a 6-hour EVA to attach the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the front of the station (along with a few other tasks). The spacewalk went well so Williams and Rubins will conduct their second as planned on September 1st. Below are two videos, a 3-minute summary of the August 19th EVA and then a long press conference discussing the upcoming EVA. Jump to 8 minutes into the press conference for a narrated overview of the EVA.

Jeff Williams recently broke the American record for total time in space, besting Scott Kelly’s 520 days. Williams has launched to space four separate times. Kelly visiting mission control last week to congratulate Williams:

There were three more successful rocket launches since my last post on August 15th. First was a Chinese rocket with a main payload of an experimental quantum navigation satellite. Second was a Delta IV rocket carrying payloads for the U.S. Air Force. Last was a European Ariane 5 rocket with two telecommunication satellites.

Around the Solar System

NASA recently recovered contact with the STEREO-B satellite, which is one of a pair of Sun-observing probes that was lost a couple of years ago.

NASA’s Jupiter orbiter, Juno, completed close approach during its first orbit. This will be Juno’s closest approach to Jupiter during the nominal mission. We should get some great shots from the onboard JunoCam soon!

You should check out the work of Sean Duran, who is inserting accurately scaled astronauts into Mars rover Curiosity’s pictures to help us get a better feel for what Mars would really look like.

Out There

In what may very well be the biggest science story of the year, The European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile announced their findings that a small terrestrial world orbits in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star which orbits Alpha Centauri at a distance of 0.1 light years, and is the closest star to Earth at about 4.2 light years away.

Weekly Links

Lots to catch up on since my last post on July 23rd. The great summer for spaceflight continues.

Down to Earth

After Eileen Collins spoke at the RNC, another Space Shuttle commander, Mark Kelly, spoke at the DNC.

Sierra Nevada is getting ready to start test flights of their Dream Chaser spaceplane in California, once their full-scale vehicle is shipped their from Colorado.

Virgin Galactic was awarded an operations license from the FAA as they are preparing to resume flight tests with their new SpaceShipTwo vehicle.

A small sample bag from the Apollo 11 mission is at the center of two lawsuits. I’m sure Dr. Jones would agree that it belongs in a museum.

One of the Orbiter Access Arm’s from the Space Shuttle program is now on display at Houston’s Space Center Houston.

Meanwhile, the next generation of crew access arms, for Boeing’ Starliner capsule, was delivered to the Atlas V pad in Florida.

SpaceX conducted a full duration test fire of one of their recovered first stage boosters. Here’s the video:

Google Lunar X Prize competitor, Moon Express, has received approval from the United States government for their private mission to land a rover on the moon.

Vector Space Systems completed their first successful sub-orbital launch.

In Orbit

Speaking of launches, there were four successful orbital flights since my last post. This brings the year’s total to 50 for 50 on orbital launches. For comparison, 2015 had 87 total with 5 failures.

First was an Atlas V launch from Cape Canaveral carrying a secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Second and third were two chinese launches carrying a new communications satellite and a radar imaging satellite.

Lastly was the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch early in the morning ofAugust 14. The rocket successfully delivered the Japanese JCSAT communications satellite to orbit and recovered the first stage booster on the ASDS at sea. Very impressive. This brings SpaceX’s year up to 8 successful launches for 8 attempts – a yearly record already in August – and 5 for 8 on booster recovery.

Coming up next week is a spacewalk on ISS by NASA astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins to install the new International Docking Adapter.

Around the Solar System

The Chinese Yutu rover is still communicating with the ground from the lunar surface, although it has long since stopped roving. Despite some reports that it is “dead” it is still expected to wake up from hibernation after the current lunar night.

Follow this link for an update on the Curiosity rover mission on Mars, including some nice pictures.

Here is a full year of observations of the Earth NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite. The cyclones in the Pacific are quite obvious.

Out There

Apparently claims of a discover of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri (our nearest neighboring star) are exciting, but it is worth waiting for more reputable news sources to pick it up than just a small German newspaper… or a peer-reviewed journal paper?

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former astronaut and Space Shuttle commander, Eileen Collins, spoke at the Republican National Convention:

Aboard the New Horizons probe that visited Pluto was a US postage stamp with a picture of Pluto and the phrase “not yet explored”. Last week the Guinness Book of World Records recognized this stamp as the farthest traveled postage stamp in history.

CASIS has partnered with Marvel to create this Guardians of the Galaxy inspired ISS National Lab emblem.

The 21st of NASA’s undersea NEEMO missions has started off the coast of Florida. The crew, made up of astronauts and other explorers, will spend 16 days in a habitat under the ocean simulating a deep space mission.

In Orbit

The only two rocket launches since my last post on July 7th were two cargo launches to the International Space Station. First, a Progress resupply freighter launched from Kazakhstan last Saturday and was docked on Monday evening.

Second, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched on Monday morning, arriving at the ISS early Wednesday morning. In addition, SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage of their booster at their landing facility in Florida. Here’s what that looked like to fans watching from miles away:

Around the Solar System

A new distant Kuiper Belt Object has been discovered. 2015 RR245 is on a 700-year eccentric orbit.

The Curiosity rover on Mars has been back in “full operations” following the safe mode event earlier this month.

Out There

The K2 space telescope has discovered another 100 extrasolar planets.