Archive for the ‘Friday Links’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

One of the three original founders of the Planetary Society, Bruce Murray, passed away on August 29th. Murray was director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the Viking and Voyager era. He started The Planetary Society with Lou Friedman and Carl Sagan in 1980. If you are a space enthusiast and you are not yet a member of the Planetary Society, you are missing out. Check out their website and weekly radio show.

From Wikipedia

Friedman, Murray, Sagan, and journalist Harry Ashmore

Last week three ISS crew members returned to Earth, ending Expedition 36. Chris Cassidy, Pavel Vinogradov, and Alexander Misurkin landed on September 11 in Kazakhstan. Next week a new crew will launch and dock on Wednesday, September 26.

Not Quite in Orbit

It seems cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov – who was in space on Expedition 18 when I started working at JSC – has decided to retire from the space business. He had been in training to fly as commander of Expedition 44 in two years, which is what makes the departure somewhat confusing. However, as NASA Watch points out, he has been in the corps for a long time, with his first flight over a decade ago on STS-100. Everyone has to move on some time.

Last post I wrote about the second powered flight of SpaceShipTwo on September 5, and included some cool footage of the flight from the ground. Well, since then, Virgin Galactic released this view from onboard the spaceplane. Very cool (via Ubergizmo).

Last week on the 12th, SpaceX did a “static firing” (which means the rocket didn’t go anywhere) of the new Falcon 9 rocket on the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (here’s a Google Maps link). Unfortunately, they saw some anomalies and the test launch was delayed from the planned date of the 15th. According to Elon Musk, they hope to launch at the end of the month.

There was a problem connecting to Twitter.

The new rocket is the Falcon 9 version 1.1. As you can see in the graphic below (from Wikipedia), version 1.1 is a significant visual upgrade from the existing Falcon 9. In addition to the payload faring and longer fuel tanks – making it taller – they are upgrading the Merlin engines that power the first stage. All future Falcon flights are supposed to transition to this rocket after the tests, including NASA cargo flights to ISS. So here’s hoping for a good launch in a week or two!

from Wikipedia

Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon 9 v1.1, and Falcon Heavy

In Orbit

This morning at 10:50 AM Eastern, the Antares rocket carrying the first Cygnus cargo craft launched from Wallops Island, Virginia on the way to ISS.

The flight will bring Cygnus up to ISS for rendezvous this coming Sunday, September 22nd. My favorite part of the launch is this clever sign near the launch pad that made for a good photo op. Or maybe this bald eagle who had a front row seat is cooler?

As of this writing, the spacecraft has already done initial checkouts, with more ongoing.

In a nice double-whammy, there was also a big rocket launch from Florida early this morning. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched an Air Force satellite before dawn at Cape Canaveral.

I was intrigued by this article at the Huffington Post about NASA’s radiation limits on active astronauts. Because of differing risks for cancer between genders, women have lower allowed limits of radiation, meaning they can’t fly as many days in space.

Around the Solar System

In somber news, mission managers of the Deep Impact/EPOXI mission announced earlier this month that they have been out of contact with the spacecraft for about a month. Flight controllers have indications that the onboard computer had a glitch and is now likely spinning out of control, which is why they can’t get commands uplinked to correct the problem – the communications antenna is not pointing towards home. The worry is that if it spins out of control for too long, the batteries won’t get charged from the solar arrays and the spacecraft will die.

EPOXI was launched as Deep Impact in 2005 and has had a very successful mission so far, with the rendezvous and impact of comet Tempel 1 and then years later the dramatic flyby of comet Hartley 2.

The biggest space news so far this month, at least that the public has noticed, was the official announcement by NASA that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has entered interstellar space. Some people were incorrectly reporting the announcement as “Voyager 1 has left the solar system” which makes me roll my eyes (see below). Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy covers this topic well.

from XKCD

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Parabolic Arc has a quick summary of the history of NewSpace suborbital launches, based on some tabulated data from the FAA. It is interesting to see the number of (or lack of) launches for some companies. You can really see how SpaceX is the only reall success story so far.

On the almost success story front, there is Virgin Galactic who did another SpaceShipTwo flight on July 25. Disappointingly, it was only a glide test for pilot training. Everyone is hoping SpaceShipTwp will make its first trip to space before the end of the year.

And then at the bottom is Armadillo Aerospace, which is one step away from being simply a failure story of NewSpace. Armadillo blew up a rocket early this year and hasn’t flown since. Recently John Carmack (owner and investor) announced at a conference that the company is “going into hibernation” because it is out of money and he doesn’t want to sink any more cash in it.

NewSpace aside, there is a bit more drama going on – like the mess that is the Russian space program and its politics. The prime minister publicly called out Roscosmos head Popovkin for the recent Proton rocket failure (the spectacular crash you can see in an earlier post here). Popovkin was hired just a couple of years ago to take over the space program after several other high profile failures. Surprisingly, the Proton rocket is expected to fly 4 to 5 more times this year, with the return to flight coming as soon as next month.

In Orbit

In what is perhaps a revealing indication of where the Russian space program’s priorities really come from, the plan to fly an Olympic torch to the ISS for a spacewalk in time for the winter games in Sochi, Russia, is coming together. The crew of Soyuz flight TMA-11M even have a mission patch design that includes an Olympic flame element.

On Saturday, August 3rd, the fourth Japanese cargo resupply craft, HTV-4, launched from Japan on the way to ISS. The mission will arrive for rendezvous on early Friday morning.

I am assigned to the day shift (7-4) in Mission Control every day this week, so I am lucky enough to have the first shift after rendezvous, where the team will maneuver HTV on the end of the Space Station’s robotic arm to “berth” or attach to the ISS to deliver its cargo.

Look at ISS tracker websites like over the rest of the week for upcoming ISS passes overhead – as you might also catch sight of a much fainter HTV in chase. There is a bright pass over North America tomorrow morning at around 4-5 AM. ISS will be visible in Houston at exactly 5 AM.

In what might be a pretty good PR move, NASA is advertising an upcoming research opportunity… to use twins to study the affect of long duration spaceflight. How? Well when Scott Kelly flies to ISS for a year in 2015, he will come home with 10 times more days in space than his twin brother, Mark Kelly. I’m no biologist or geneticist, but I imagine that being twins, there are some variables this can isolate to better understand what will be happening to Scott during his long flight. Its a very cool offer for the Kellys to make, considering Mark is retired.

I put this news item under the “In Orbit” as a show of hope: NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS (worst name for a rocket I’ve ever seen) , completed Preliminary Design Review at the end of July. Here’s hoping this project can stay near budget and get American back to space soon.

Around the Solar System

Happy Birthday to the Mars rover Curiosity, who has spent one year on the Martian surface as of today! Check out Phil Plait’s post for a cool timelapse of the last 365 days on Mars. It’s a great video, but a bit disappointing because of how little Curiosity has actually roved so far. Here’s to more roving in the next year! Really we shouldn’t celebrate for another 322 days, since the Martian year is about 687 days long… and let’s face it, Curiosity is a Martian.

Because it’s Cool

Check out this picture of 4 funnel spouts at once in the ocean off of Italy.

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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!

Out There

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.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Sally Ride is to be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Recently returned ISS Commander Chris Hadfield announced his retirement from the Canadian astronaut corps today.

Last month, the governor of Texas signed a new law that is necessary for SpaceX to build a new spaceport near South Padre Island and Brownsville. The bill allows the mandated closure of Boca Chica Beach – a public state park – on the days of rocket launches. This bill is a big step towards SpaceX making South Texas their second launch site.

Apparently Justin Bieber made a down payment on a spaceflight with Virgin Galactic last week.

Great to hear @ & @ are latest @ future astronauts. Congrats, see you up there!

If you are a night owl (or the opposite) you should go outside at about 4:30 AM (Eastern) on Tuesday, June 11, and see if you can spot some Gamma Delphinid meteors. The possible meteor outburst may only last 30 minutes or so, but may be dramatic.

The asteroid mining company Planetary Resources launched a “crowdfunding” campaign last month to help them raise money for their asteroid hunting space telescope(s). They are getting close to their $1 million goal. I think it is worth donating (I contributed already) just for the possibility of getting the cool “space selfie” perk they are offering. They are planning to have a small video screen on the outside of the spacecraft that can display photographs that can then be themselves photographed against the backdrop of the Earth.

Warner Brothers intends to make a feature film based on the nonfiction book “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo”. I’ll go see it!

In Orbit

On Wednesday, May 29, the second half of Expedition 36 docked to the ISS in the second “express” docking. Launch to docking time was about 6 hours. The new crew consists of Karen Nyberg (American), Luca Parmitano (Italian), and Fyodor Yurchikhin (Russian). Soyuz Commander Yurchikhin is on his third spaceflight. He was just in space exactly 3 years ago for Expedition 24.

Last week, the fourth European transfer vehicle (ATV4) launched from French Guiana on its way to ISS. ATV4 is named “Albert Einstein” and will stay docked to ISS for several months.

Early tomorrow morning, China intends to launch their fifth manned spaceflight. The mission will be Shenzhou 10, and will send three taikonauts to the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station. (via NASA Watch)

Out There

The Keck Telescope in Hawaii (where my dad works) was used for some new research into the Big Bang. The giant telescope looked at stars to get spectroscopic data of their Lithium isotope content in order to confirm a prediction made by The Big Bang Theory of the universe’s origin.

Because it’s cool

Perhaps the answer to Life the Universe and Everything is 3, not 42.

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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.

Amazon Prime, are you hiring? Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn delivered new pump package to ISS cooling system in less than 2 days.

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!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

I wrote last week about a few updates to Space Shuttle artifact exhibits coming online around the country. And there is yet more news to tell this week.

The exhibit of the Space Shuttle (not) Orbiter Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum is coming together after recovering from hurricane Sandy. The new upgraded “pavilion” is being built over Enterprise now and will open on July 10.

The last pieces of wrapping paper were taken off of Space Shuttle Atlantis at KSC.

The first Canadarm, or Space Shuttle robotic arm, was put on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum last week. ISS Commander Chris Hadfield was linked to the museum live from space for the unveiling.

Speaking of the Canadian Space Agency, Canada also revealed this past week that the new Canadian $5 bill will feature space images, including a picture of the Space Station Robitc arm and an astronaut on a spacewalk.

NASA resigned the contract with the Russian space agency to provide transport for American astronauts to ISS on Soyuz launch vehicles. The renewal paid for seats through 2017 – which is only 3 years before the official end of ISS in 2020 (but everyone expects the program to extend into the late 2020s).

Boeing successfully completed a flight test of the X-51A scramjet known as “Waverider”. This was the longest airbreathing scramjet flight to date (that’s unclassified…).

Not Quite in Orbit

As I wrote about in a separate post, Virgin Galactic had their first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo last week on April 29. The video is too good not to repost.

In the wake of all the excitement surrounding that flight, Virgin Galactic has confirmed that ticket prices are about to go up 25% from $200,000 to $250,000 to account for inflation.

In Orbit

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory ran out of helium coolant last week and officially ended its mission.

A 3-D printer will fly to the ISS next year. This is a good idea in how to test ways to make spacecraft more self-sufficient, which will be necessary if humanity ever takes true deep space missions.

Chris Hadfield explains in a little over a minute my job as an Attitude Determination and Control Officer for ISS. Thanks, Chris!

The Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope did a debris avoidance maneuver in early April to avoid a nasty collision with an old Soviet Satellite. This was apparently the first time in Fermi’s mission (launched in 2008) that they had to use the thruster system for such a maneuver. This is a common problem for low Earth orbit spacecraft and the ISS has close calls with debris – and performs maneuvers – more than we would like to.

Around the Solar System

I enjoyed this story of unexpected scientific discovery. The team searching the outer solar system for an object for New Horizons to visit after it reaches Pluto happened to discover a new Trojan asteroid of Neptune (he explains what a Trojan asteroid is).

The Mars probes and rovers have woken up from solar conjunction. Opportunity and Curiosity should be off and roving again. Opportunity actually had a minor glitch when NASA initially resumed contact but she recovered no problem.

The asteroid that NASA’s Osiris-Rex sample return mission will visit in a few years has officially be named Bennu.

Friday Links

Down to Earth

A couple of updates on Space Shuttle artifacts being displayed. First, the original external fuel tank test article was shipped from KSC to the “Wings of Dreams Aviation Museum” in Starke, Florida. Second, the space shuttle Atlantis was “unwrapped” at its new display at the KSC visitor center.

Rumor has it that Virgin Galactic might have their first powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo next week.

The Texas state legislature is a few steps away from approving key measures that would enable SpaceX to build a launch site near the Mexico border outside of Brownsville. This week the Texas House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow closure of state beaches during launches. The bill still needs to go to the State Senate before passing.

Mars One, the… company? … that plans to colonize Mars, has opened up their astronaut application process. What the heck, why not apply?

In Orbit

Orbital Sciences successfully launched their first Antares rocket on April 21st. It was a beautiful launch into a clear blue sky. We look forward to seeing them on ISS in a few months.

Up on the Space Station, two cosmonauts – Pavel Vinogradov and Roman Romanenko – went on a six-and-a-half hour spacewalk to work on some external experiments and also some various maintenance.

On Wednesday, the latest Russian Progress resupply craft launched on its way to ISS. The docking is planned for just a few moments from now, on Friday morning (coverage is live on NASA TV if you catch this post right after it goes up). The Progress will be docking to ISS despite a rendezvous antenna that was unable to fully deploy after launch. The retracted antenna is physically in the way of the docking mechanism, so flight controllers will have to come up with a plan to get the antenna out of the way… or something else. Otherwise the cargo inside will not be accessible. One possibility is to plan another spacewalk after docking to move the antenna.

And on a lighter note, Commander Hadfield talks about barf bags in space.

Around the Solar System

At Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft has been observing meteors impacting the planet’s rings. Awesome.

Weekly Links

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.’s “The Big Picture” blog has a nice photo essay of two different Mars analog missions going on here on Earth.

In Orbit

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.

Going off the grid (temporarily). Stationed here for solar conjunction (@ Yellowknife Bay)
Curiosity Rover

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!

Mars 3 components found on Mars

Out There

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.

Weekly Links

As I wrote about in my last post a week ago, ISS ops have been very busy lately. We were able to unberth and release the SpaceX Dragon capsule last Tuesday morning, as planned. It splashed down a few orbits later in the Pacific, while I was asleep, and was successfully picked up by SpaceX’s contracted recovery ship. I only got a bit of a rest after the Tuesday morning night shift as I had to work the day shift back in the control room Wednesday through Friday. More on what I got to do and see those days in the “In Orbit” section below. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the delay in posts lately. But you don’t really care – on with the space news!

Down to Earth

In a bit of grim space politics news – unless you are all about commercial only, I suppose – last week NASA’s 2013 budget finally became clear after the US Congress passed a big spending bill. The bill is better than the continuing resolutions* that a lot of the US government has been dealing with for a while – but it does nothing about the “sequestration” cuts across all Federal departments. This means that NASA ends up with greater than a 7% cut on the 2011 and 2012 funding levels. Ouch.

*A continuing resolution is simply an agreement to fund agencies or programs at the previous years levels because no agreement can be made on a new budget.

Masten Space Systems’ Xombie vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicle recently made its longest and highest flight to date, soaring over 500 meters according to their press release (no video yet available that I can find). Masten is using a guidance system developed by Draper Labs (of MIT) in order to build a testbed type craft on which NASA or other customer’s can test planetary landing instruments “without leaving home”, so to speak. I wrote about a similar test of the Xombie systems over a year ago, so this project has been in development for a while. This flight was ten times higher than the test last year.

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has started a crowdfunding project at IndieGoGo to try to pay for NASA’s video “We Are the Explorers” to be run in American theaters before the movie Star Trek Into Darkness this spring (no, I don’t want to discuss if I capitalized that title correctly).

This is a clever, and apparently legal, way to get around the advertising ban that NASA is under. I donated!

Speaking of space cinema, a new IMAX movie was announced that will feature Earth photography from space. The film is being co-produced by Disney, and no release date or title has been announced.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of – who seems to be trying to compete – sponsored an expedition that has raised an F-1 rocket engine straight off the sea floor in the Atlantic. They do not know for sure which rocket the engine(s) came from, but they do intend to restore and display them. It seems they would likely be displayed at the Smithsonian; partly because the engines are still technically NASA’s property.

In Orbit

After Dragon left, the biggest event aboard ISS in the past two weeks was the docking of Soyuz 34 (or 34S to us) last Thursday only 5 hours and 45 minutes after launch. This was a new quick rendezvous profile that had previously only been used on flights of the unmanned Progress resupply spacecraft.

Chris Cassidy just launched from Baikonaur on a Soyuz rocket and will dock with ISS 6 hours later, and he doesn't even have Amazon Prime!

The Soyuz brought two cosmonauts – Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin – and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. The speed of the launch-to-docking timeline was impressive even to those of us tied into ISS operations. As I was on the day shift Thursday, I had the privilege of giving a “Go” for launch at the end of my shift – and the colleague who I handed over to started prepping ISS systems for Soyuz arrival right after I left! I heard that the Soyuz reached ISS before the NASA personnel who were in Kazakhstan for the launch made it back to Moscow…

Amazingly, ISS Commander Chris Hadfield got this shot of Baikonaur at the moment of Soyuz ignition (by the laws of orbital mechanics, ISS often passes right over the location of launch for many ISS supply missions).

Tonight's Finale: Soyuz Rocket Launch - the moment of ignition, as-seen from their target, the Space Station.
Chris Hadfield

Speaking of which, if you haven’t been following ISS Commander Chris Hadfield (@cmdr_hadfield) on Twitter, you are seriously missing out on some stunning high resolution Earth photography posted nearly in real-time.

Tonight's Finale: Our Earth is mostly liquid rock. We live on a thin crust, with occasional hot spots, like Mt. Etna.
Chris Hadfield

Also, the epic timelapse photography from the ISS Cupola… (via APOD).

Or if you want the more practical, here’s how to brush your teeth (I wasn’t originally going to share this until I heard the music kick in halfway through and started laughing).

Around the Solar System

Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon (or just Lemmon for short) is set to start being a target for skywatchers this week (depending on your latitude). From the finder charts, it looks like Lemmon will still be too close to the sun at sunrise for most observers to have a chance at. Later in the month, Lemmon will move higher in the sky at dawn and may turn out to be as bright or better than Comet PanSTARRS which some of us enjoyed last month. Of course, the catch is that Lemmon will be a morning object rather than an evening object, so is likely to attract fewer hunters. You can bet I will try to see it!

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos (of Russia) formally signed an agreement last month to move forward with their Exomars mission, which will consist of orbiters and a rover to be flown to Mars later this decade. This is the big mission that NASA had to pull out of due to budget reasons.

New research using the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii has revealed compelling evidence for the nature and composition of undersea ocean’s on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Read a great summary of the research at Phil Plait’s blog.