Archive for the ‘ISS’ Category
Down to Earth
The Chinese rocket that launched on December 31st was only carrying a Chinese weather satellite – not super exciting. But check out these incredible images of the first stage of that rocket, which appears to have landed in the middle of a road in a rural Chinese town. I am glad that in the US we have more concern about where our spent rocket stages end up…
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to launch to ISS Tuesday is still stuck on the ground. A problem with a hydraulic actuator for the second stage’s Merlin 1D engine lead to a launch scrub. They will try again on Friday, January 9th. Here are some shots of the rocket on the pad.
In a pretty awesome outreach move, Elon Musk did an “Ask Me Anything” hour on the website Reddit on Monday night (on the eve of their launch attempt). Here is the link to the whole thread, or you can read some highlights at Parabolic Arc.
The new SpaceX launch site at the extreme southern coast of Texas is likely going to seem more and more real throughout 2015. Just this week, SpaceX has begun posting job openings for the new location near Brownsville, Texas.
Richard Branson wrote a blog post about his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo accident, and his continued resolve to move forward with Virgin Galactic. As always, Doug Messier has some excellent commentary and dissects Branson’s writing.
The US Government Accountability Office has denied Sierra Nevada’s protest regarding the awarding of the CCtCap contract for commercial crew flights to ISS. That means that NASA’s decision to fund only SpaceX and Boeing will stand.
The Atlantic had an extensive feature article about the ISS titled “5,200 days in space: an exploration of life aboard the International Space Station, and the surprising reasons the mission is still worthwhile.” It is one of the most compelling stories covering the ISS that I have ever read.
Surprisingly, at about the same time, Time ran a cover article about Scott Kelly, who will be launching in March for his one-year stay aboard the ISS. It is also a very good story that touches on the human side of life in space.
And of course, our friends in orbit continue to dazzle us on Twitter with views from orbit. Here is a sampling.
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 3, 2015
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 3, 2015
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 2, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) January 7, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) January 6, 2015
Around the Solar System
The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is getting very close to the summit of Cape Tribulation on the rim of Endeavour crater. It amazes me every time I read an update on Opportunity that the mission is still going and still so successful 11 years later! (Edit: and here is a more detailed MER update from the Planetary Society blog)
On the other side of the planet (Mars that is) Curiosity has made some exciting discoveries. The rover has proven the existence of organics in the rocks of Gale crater and also that there is detectable concentrations of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. The methane is important because, due to chemical reactions that must necessarily occur, the methane is transient – meaning something is producing it. A very detailed discussion of this new finding is at the Planetary Society blog. The research was also published in the journal Science.
The Kepler team announced yesterday that a number of newly confirmed planets (based on old Kepler data) brings the total exoplanets discovered by the space telescope to 1,000. 8 of these new worlds can reasonably be considered “Earth-sized” and even in their stars’ habitable zones. Because we don’t have details on their composition or atmosphere, we can’t actually know how likely it is that life could live on these planets. But, as Phil Plait writes, this is further confirmation that the universe is full of small planets. Eventually, we will find Earth’s twin.
Because it’s cool
This creative short film titled “Shoot for the Moon”:
New footage from the Marianas Trench documents the deepest known fish. An alien world in its own way.
Part I – NASA
When trying to summarize a year for any topic, be it world events, politics, or some niche area, like spaceflight, it is tempting to try to pick out one or two big events that were the highlight of the year. I expect the people at NASA headquarters will want to focus especially on the successful first mission of the new Orion capsule. That unmanned mission, called EFT-1, went off without a hitch in early December and was promoted by NASA as a “first step” on our new journey to Mars. Certainly, the Orion (and the SLS rocket to fly it) is a significant enough portion of NASA’s budget ($3.1 out of $17.6 billion for FY 2014) to make some noise about. But it is obviously not the only thing the agency is doing.
NASA lives in a tough public relations environment in which its greatest area of success and stability – robotic planetary exploration – doesn’t receive the same level of attention as its manned exploration programs, which are more often in flux. In 2013, NASA launched a very expensive new Mars orbiter, MAVEN, which entered Mars orbit right on schedule. MAVEN is an interesting science mission, but it is hard to explain to the public in an easy sound bite why the “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” mission is exciting. MAVEN also serves a very important secondary role of being a replacement relay satellite for the active Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. In fact, the solar system is full of continuing stories of NASA’s success in planetary exploration – sometimes referred to as NASA’s “crown jewel”: three Mars orbiters, two rovers on Mars, New Horizons on the way to Pluto, Cassini at Saturn, Dawn on the way to Vesta, Juno on the way to Jupiter, and I’ve certainly left something out.
The problem with ongoing planetary missions is that they move slowly. They don’t have the sex appeal that news channels can include on the morning edition. It seems to me that there are only a few distinct things that get a space story coverage on the national news, and none of them are “Mars rover continues to rove”. The hooks as I see them are: rocket launch, astronauts, political relevance, failure, or the specter of failure (like a daring Mars landing). So which planetary missions had a hook this year? Well, none, really. No major missions launched, no major missions failed in a newsworthy way, and no NASA missions had a daring EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) sequence to capture the public’s attention. The European Space Agency’s landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko got widespread media coverage specifically because of that hook about the specter of failure. Google even featured Philae in at least one of their “doodles” and in a national TV ad run on New Year’s Eve.
The story of the year was clearly ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission. Robotic planetary exploration, NASA’s crown jewel, did not shine in 2014, and was in fact overshadowed by the plucky yet doomed Philae lander. So, although NASA had a lucky 13 planetary missions in operation during 2014, the biggest success of the year for the agency really did come late in the year with the EFT-1 flight of Orion. Thus, you would expect that NASA’s own PR would focus on this hugely expensive and visible part of their plans. But looking at their own year-end summaries, like the “This Year At NASA” video, Orion, SLS, and the future of manned spaceflight are not given the importance we would expect.
In fact, the video opens by mentioning “…the next giant leap in space exploration: sending astronauts to Mars” but only mentions development of certain “game-changing technologies” in that context, and briefly mentions that NASA’s plans “…could include a human mission in the 2020s to an asteroid…” SLS and Orion are mentioned in a different part of the video. Here in this short 6-minute 2014 summary video, we can see why coverage of the EFT-1 mission was by-and-large fleeting. NASA PR material does not make it clear what the long-term plan is. Astronauts could visit an asteroid? Why don’t we know where we are going yet? These are reasonable questions for the public to be asking. Americans probably wouldn’t mind if the first mission to Mars is 15 to 20 years away if you tell them specifically what needs to be done to reach that goal. Imagine a series of milestones like we had for Apollo – the Gemini program missions and then the early Apollo missions each had a purpose, a technology or technique to test out, that had to be done before a landing could be attempted. 2014 was a year of opportunity for NASA to lay out that plan for people as EFT-1 approached. Instead, we get two rather vague graphics (one released in April, and the other in December), which do not do much to outline specific milestones.
With vagueness, very long timelines, and no second Orion mission for 3 years, it is understandable that the public did not latch on to the EFT-1 story in 2014. Before we blame “kids these days”, the state of education, or America’s preoccupation with reality TV and celebrities, I think in some ways 2014 also proved that people do in fact care about space exploration.
Perhaps I need to convince you. Go watch that Google TV spot again. It ends with a rather long sequence highlighting the success of Philae, voiced over by Bill Nye. The movie Interstellar was a financial success this year, hot on the heels of 2013’s Gravity. Most tellingly, in my opinion, is how the public responds to real stories and images of spaceflight from the astronauts onboard the ISS.
The ISS was home to many prolific tweeters in 2014, including Mike Hopkins, Richard Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata, Reid Wiseman, Alex Gerst, Terry Virts, and Samantha Cristoforetti (Virts and Cristoforetti are in space at the time of this writing). Commander Steve Swanson didn’t tweet, but posted lots of pictures on the ISS Instagram feed – more recent crews have kept up the postings there. And then during Expedition 40, the ISS crew joined Vine, with accounts from Reid Wiseman, Terry Virts, and “InsideISS” popping up. Most posts from astronauts average several hundred retweets, favorites, or comments per post, but often they reach several thousand. A tweet of a few shots of a moonset from ISS on Virts’ twitter feed from December 22nd has been retweeted 3,571 times.
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) December 22, 2014
The average person loves space exploration and the idea of living in space. What people don’t love is talking about space policy. The average person doesn’t want to know the political or technical nuances of this or that NASA budget or plan. I know this from personal experience talking about my job. What people want to know is where we are going, that we have a solid plan to get there, and that there’s a chance that their kid who wants to be an astronaut could be involved in those awesome plans. Americans expect NASA and its employees to be brilliant, driven, motivated, and no nonsense – the qualities of all of the characters in the movie Apollo 13. The “failure is not an option” mythos translates directly to an expectation that NASA knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. When NASA’s own PR says things like we could be going to an asteroid in a few years, not that we will, most people would understandably be thinking that they’ll check back in when NASA has its plans figured out.
I don’t know what the most common answer would be if you asked people on the street what important things happened for NASA in 2014, but I have some guesses. A lot of people may think that Rosetta/Philae was a NASA mission and mention that. Others will remember the “NASA rocket” that blew up, by which they would be referring to the Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that failed shortly after launch (technically not a NASA failure, but it’s unfair to expect the layman to understand the difference). What would not likely be on the list is the official PR line about EFT-1: that NASA launched the first in a series of missions to take the human race to Mars. The general feeling towards NASA at the end of 2014 is likely more along the lines of “has plans to do some awesome stuff in 10 or 20 years that I’ll get excited about then.”
What answers would you get if you asked the same question of congress people and staffers on Capitol Hill? They are well aware of the SLS/Orion program because of its large cost – in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget that was approved in December, a big part of the $500 million increase over last year’s budget went to that project. A total of about $2 billion will be spent on SLS/Orion in 2015. Unfortunately, the willingness to increase NASA’s budget likely has more factors than a commitment to a long-term Path to Mars. More immediate issues, like the ripple effects of growing geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia, were likely on politicians minds when they approved the Cromnibus spending bill last month. The Crimea crisis in February set the tone for most discussion about NASA inside the Beltway during 2014: NASA can’t launch its own astronauts to space. Most of all, 2014 was a reminder of that fact. The good news is that with the award of the CCtCAP contract to Boeing and SpaceX and the launch of EFT-1, 2014 had a lot of bright points; it showed concrete evidence that NASA is working on closing the gap.
So how will 2014 be remembered? With an increased budget, an almost flawless Orion test flight, and lots of “rovers continuing to rove”, NASA has reasons to be optimistic going into 2015. However, 2014 was the middle year in the gap that hopefully will end in 2017 with a crewed test flight of an American spacecraft. The explosion of an ISS resupply rocket in October combined with mostly vague plans for future human spaceflight has left the public unconvinced that NASA is where their love of space should be focused right now. NASA faces a real chance of being further marginalized and replaced in the public’s psyche by “New Space”, but it all depends on what certain key players, such as SpaceX and Bigelow can achieve in the coming year.
In part 2 of my year in review, I will recap how the US sanctions on Russia related to Ukraine affected various aspects of the US space sector, a perfect opportunity for Elon Musk to steal the public’s focus away from NASA.
The past year was one of ups and downs in the space sector. The year started with a lot of successes that are lost in the shadows of the bigger stories late in the year, including successful launches for Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, China’s Yutu rover on the moon, NASA’s LADEE ending a successful mission, and the debut of new live streaming HD camera views from the ISS, among other stories.
The space sector’s focus quickly shifted when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in February, which kicked off a ripple effect involving the Russian RD-180 engines, used to launch American Department of Defense assets. The question of whether the US launch sector is too reliant on Russian rocket engines is still playing a huge role in space policy almost a year later. I would go so far as to say the RD-180 story was the start of a year dominated by a focus on launch vehicles, rather than actual ongoing missions.
That dominance came to a head at the end of 2014 with the loss of an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, just days apart. In fact, all 2014 summaries seem to be dominated by the last 10 weeks of the year. There were several triumphs late in the year, such as ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission and NASA’s EFT-1 demonstration. However, the vehicle losses were bigger stories (as negative stories often are) and likely have bigger implications for the future. The contrast of the positive and negative events towards the end of the year are a microcosm of how the year feels to me: great ambitions underscored by sobering reality.
I have a series of posts planned to sum up the year in space with a bit of commentary. In particular, it is interesting to put 2014 into context by following the themes that I used when summing up 2013 – they seem to have continued about the same for the last 12 months; the mood continues to be one of cautious anticipation. I’m sure you are waiting for my commentary with bated breath (yeah, right). While you wait, enjoy some high level summaries and top lists from around the internet.
Happy New Year!
The “2014 in Spaceflight” article is fairly comprehensive at capturing all of the launches of the year. 2014 saw 92 launches (with one from China earlier today), outdoing the last few years by at least several launches.
2014 is the only year I am aware of to hit the 90s as far as number of launches. Update: According to Spaceflight Now, the last time more than 90 launches occurred in a year was in 1992, with 93.
On the ISS, several cosmonauts on the list of most total time in space added to their totals this year, such as Tyurin at 13 and Kotov at 14. Japan’s Koichi Wakata commanded Expedition 39 to solidify his spot as one of the few non-Russian or Americans on the list at 35. Richard Mastracchio snuck into the last spot at number 50 on the Wikipedia list during Expedition 39 (but he is going to get bumped next year by Scott Kelly and possibly others).
Speaking of Mastracchio, he did 3 spacewalks while on ISS at the end of 2013 and early 2014. The EVAs totaled 14 hours, bringing his lifetime total above 53 hours and bringing him way up to number 5 on the list of most total EVA time. There were 7 total spacewalks on ISS in 2014. However, none of the other spacewalkers from this year made the Wikipedia list of top 30 for time.
Top Space Stories of 2014
The following outlets have a rundown of the biggest things that happened this year. Usually with a paragraph or two of detail on each topic.
Here are some video summaries from the eyes of the space agencies themselves. First, NASA’s “this year @NASA” video.
The European Space Agency also produced a short summary video.
Update: and here is SpaceX’s own summary of their year.
Other Top Lists
Universe Today’s top space photos of 2014.
Space.com’s top astronomy stories of 2014.
EarthSky has the top 10 new species of 2014.
Top 25 images of Earth from space (all DigitalGlobe).
With Christmas and New Year’s fast approaching (and Chanukah already here), everyone stays a little less connected, since more time is devoted to family and friends. So this week I have a rather short update on space news in the past week. I have plans for a pretty detailed “year in space” retrospective on 2014, which I will write after the holidays. So read this right quick and get back to the post office to ship those late gifts!
Down to Earth
SpaceX did not manage to get their CRS-5 (or 5th ISS resupply flight) off the ground as planned this week. They had an issue with their first attempt at the “static fire test” of the rocket on the pad and had to try again on Friday, December 19. The Friday test went well and launch is now no earlier than January 6th with rendezvous two days later.
In other SpaceX news, the company was awarded an $87 million contract with NASA to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) on one of their Falcon 9 rockets in 2017.
The Commercial Cargo Resupply contract, which SpaceX and Orbital Sciences currently hold, will be coming up for rebid (for launches starting in 2018). Boeing is now on record that they plan to bid on the contract with their CST-100 vehicle, which, just this year, received an award for NASA’s commercial crew transfer contract.
In a little talked about test flight, India had a successful launch of its new GSLV Mark III rocket, which was carrying a rudimentary test article for a future crew module. Although I put this news in the “In Orbit” section, since it went to space, the mission was actually just a quick sub-orbital hop to 126 km. It’s an impressive step for India, but clearly there is a lot of work between here and a manned program.
Things are pretty quiet on the ISS, with the slip of the SpaceX mission to next month and the Christmas and New Year’s holidays coming up. With no Dragon to capture this weekend and a day or two off for Christmas next week, I imagine the astronauts will be taking lots of great photos of the Earth, as they always do. You should keep following Terry and Sam especially. Their Earth photography is always fun to look at and posted in near real-time, like this incredible shot of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.
Around the Solar System
Unfortunately, the Venus Express spacecraft could not hold out until 2015. The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that the spacecraft ran out of fuel and is no longer gathering science data. The mission is over. Congratulations to ESA on an impressive 8 year campaign at Venus!
The two weeks since my last “links” post have been very busy with mostly good news. The best news being a number of successful rocket launches (two of them space exploration related), helping to make up for the bad taste in everyone’s mouth from the loss of the Antares rocket back in October. I tried counting how many rockets have launched from Earth this year using this launch log at Spaceflight Now, but its so many that I decided to go with the highly scientific “a lot”.
Down to Earth
Let’s quickly get a few boring but important things out of the way. We’ve got a couple of space budget updates from around the world.
First, economic sanctions from the EU on Russia may make it hard for Roscosmos to live up to their current ambitions.
At the European Space Agency ministerial meeting, a few key decisions were made. First they agreed to start development on the new Ariane 6 rocket, which will be a direct competitor with a few American made launchers including those from SpaceX. The Ariane 6 will replace the current Ariane 5, which launches European communications satellites, as well as the ATV to ISS. Secondly, ESA has only agreed to fund their commitment to ISS until 2017. It is assumed at their next meeting in 2016 the funding will be extended until at least 2020.
The total amount provided for NASA in this bill is a very solid $18.01 billion. That’s about $549 million above the President’s request for this year and $364 million above last year. This extra money supports increases to critical programs without raiding others.
The bill still needs to be signed by the President. Follow the link above for a more detailed breakdown. Parabolic Arc has the same data tabulated.
The spending bill also includes $20 million of federal funding to repair the Wallops Island launch pad that was damaged in the Orbital Antares rocket explosion in October. This is an interesting provision because $20 million was the initial assessment of what it would cost for all the repairs – meaning it will be completely paid for with federal money.
Speaking of Orbital Sciences, an announcement was made on December 9th that Orbital will be buying a couple of United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets to fulfill their CRS contract with ISS. Orbital needs to buy someone else’s rocket to fill the gap while they figure out how to upgrade their Antares rocket to no longer use the AJ26 engine, which we can presume is implicated in the rocket failure. Even with the ULA deal, it seems the next launch of cargo aboard a Cygnus spacecraft won’t be until late 2015.
Of course, the big news, big enough to get coverage in all the major news outlets in one way or another, was the launch and successful recovery of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on its first unmanned test flight. The EFT-1 mission launched one day late, on Friday, December 5th, but other than that the flight pretty much went perfectly. There was a big of a glitch with the airbags at splashdown (they didn’t all deploy), which seems to be the only noteworthy problem. Here is a nice photo essay of the mission. Regardless of what you think of NASA’s current programs and roadmap for the future, congratulations are deserved by the whole team – especially my colleagues in Flight Operations – who worked on the mission. It is definitely worth getting excited for the next flight, EM-1, but it sure is a long way away.
While I don’t usually write about DoD launches, the Atlas V launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 12th was notable because of the time of the launch. The Friday night launch, after sunset at 7:19 PM PST, lit up the sky all the way in Los Angeles, as evidenced by Twitter. It’s just too bad that people aren’t better informed so that the could have known they had an opportunity to see a rocket launch!
Aboard the International Space Station, the new Made In Space printer is still churning out test prints. Since I last wrote, they have created a jar with a screw-on lid and a ratchet handle for a socket wrench (although I’m not sure it actually “ratchets”?). Here’s ISS Commander Butch Wilmore showing off the “honey jar”:
Coming up on the ISS before Christmas, the next SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply will be launching this Friday, December 19th. Rendezvous will be on Sunday, December 21st, sometime in the morning. Here’s some details about press conferences and NASA TV coverage.
Lastly, if you want to keep up with what’s going on on the space station, you should be following Terry Virts and Samantha Cristoforetti on Twitter. Cristoforetti is also active on Google+ where she posts logbook updates. If you want details about specifically what science the astronauts are up to, AmericaSpace has a nice week recap.
Around the Solar System
As usual, there is a lot of activity all over the solar system, since humanity seems to have spacecraft everywhere! Unfortunately, that won’t last forever. In the first weeks (or months if we are lucky) of 2015 we will lose both our only active spacecraft at Mercury, NASA’s MESSENGER, and our only active spacecraft at Venus, ESA’s Venus Express. Both spacecraft are running low on fuel. MESSENGER may be able to do another boost in January to keep it from crashing until the Spring, but Venus Express will not be so lucky.
Back to some good news: on December 3rd, JAXA (that’s the Japanese space agency) launched the Hayabusa-2 probe. Hayabusa-2 is a follow-on mission to the successful Hayabusa sample return mission that visited asteroid Itokawa. Check out the launch replay below.
With all these great launches, we are looking to finish out 2014 right, especially if SpaceX gets Dragon to the ISS next weekend.
Elsewhere in the solar system, the Mars rovers have been quietly carrying on their missions. Opportunity is still exploring the rim of the large Endeavour crater, despite some flash memory problems with the rover. Opportunity recently passed 41 kilometers on the odometer and will hit 11 years on Mars in 2015. On the other side of the red planet, Curiosity is busy looking at rock sediments at Mount Sharp. NASA announced earlier this month that Curiosity has discovered that Gale Crater, which contains the central peak of Mount Sharp, once contained a lake – meaning standing water. This is significant in that it means conditions on ancient Mars were warm enough, and had sufficient atmospheric pressure, to maintain a more permanent water cycle.
Speaking of water, Rosetta results recently released by ESA show that the isotope of water found on comet 67P does not match the isotope found on Earth. This means that if Earth’s water did come from comets, it was not the same kind of comet at 67P.
Because it’s Cool
And of course I need to share this awesome video.
This post is overdue. Interstellar, a huge success of a film, both critically and financially, has been out for almost a month. It has a rating of 8.9 out of 10 based on user reviews at IMDb and holds the #15 spot on the IMDb top 250. By this point, if you are a fan of space or sci-fi films, you have likely already found the time to see it.
I am not going to write a point-by-point plot breakdown of Interstellar, nor am I going to pick apart the science of the movie. Those kinds of reviews, of varying harshness and quality, have already been written variously by fans and detractors of the film. Such a post by me wouldn’t sway your choice to see the movie anyway. Instead, I’d like to take a look at what appears to be a changing trend in the style and content of sci-fi movies in the 21st century, and what the recent success of movies like Gravity and Interstellar may mean for the future of science fiction films. Is there a trend back towards hard sci-fi?
Wikipedia’s entry on “Hard Science Fiction” defines the genre as:
Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific accuracy or technical detail, or on both… The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible.
So which space-based sci-fis are hard sci-fis? A couple classic examples most people might be familiar with would be 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Silent Running (1972), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Solaris (1972). These films were released right around the peak of the Space Race and the Apollo Program. The public could see and understand the romance and drama of a simpler space exploration story without marauding aliens, warp drive, or laser weapons.
Another tempting franchise to include, Star Trek, was clearly influenced by the optimism of space exploration in the ’60s, as well. Star Trek, like the films listed above, was also in stark contrast to the earlier space operas that were little different than a cowboy adventure, only set in space. However, we can’t call Star Trek “hard” – after all, it has the warp drives and laser weapons I just ruled out. Star Trek has the veneer of science-focused storytelling, but lacks the “…credible and rigorous… use of current scientific and technical knowledge…”. However, in today’s era of the impossible physics of superhero and Transformers movies, which are clearly not science-based, the Star Trek of the 1960s sure looks sciencey by comparison.
So where do modern films fall on this spectrum? When you consider the most popular science fiction films of the ’90s and 2000s (Armaggedon, Star Wars, The Avengers, The Matrix, District 9, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Men in Black, Starship Troopers, Guardians of the Galaxy), there sure is a lot of fantasy going around. Even a little bit of science could go a long way. So is Interstellar really “hard”, or is it just another space fantasy pretending to know what it is talking about? Let’s look at some of the key science or engineering points of the film to get a feel for its realism (note, spoilers below):
- The world may have trouble feeding a growing population in the near future, and may suffer a population collapse as a result: This is plausible and backed up by a growing scientific consensus, due to climate change and population growth.
- NASA can’t work miracles: The film depicts NASA plausibly – having a hard time getting stuff done in a reduced budget environment. They can’t build the large space stations they want to and instead have to launch rockets and spacecraft of modest size to carry out their missions.
- Worm holes exist and it is possible to travel through them: Both facts are theoretically possible, mathematically.
- It takes a very long time for a spaceship to get from Earth to Saturn: Yup.
- Time dilation would occur on a planet orbiting a large black hole: this is the meat of why the film producers hired noted physicist Kip Thorne as a consultant. The water planet orbiting Gargantua was very plausible.
- Such a planet would have huge tidal waves: No. The planet would likely be tidally locked. There would not be a moving tide on the planet.
- There can be such a thing as frozen clouds on an alien planet: I’m not really sure what a “frozen cloud” even is.
- Don’t open an airlock if your spacecraft isn’t properly docked: plausible results here! And no sound of the explosion in space.
- High spin-rate spacecraft docking: not likely possible at the number of RPMs depicted in the film. But the characters are at least shown experiencing high-Gs in the scene.
That’s just a sample of some of the things I noticed (items 1, 3, 5, and 6 backed up by people smarter than me). So it seems clear that the filmmakers did make an effort to get many things right in Interstellar, while at the same time taking some creative license for the sake of stunning visuals or dramatic effect. Interstellar is probably somewhere in the middle-ground; farther towards “hard” than Star Trek, but not at the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which many people have been comparing Interstellar to, due to certain plot elements.
So, this is why the definition of hard sci-fi I quoted above mentions “trying” to be accurate. If we are going to be strict about the definition and say a hard sci-fi must be perfectly scientifically accurate, it may be very difficult to find a movie that is a true hard sci-fi tale. So, in order to draw the line somewhere – and since this is my blog – I am going to loosen up my definition of “hard sci-fi” but give more parameters than just “trying” to be accurate. Let’s define a hard sci-fi as having astronauts instead of adventurers (see, Dave of 2001 instead of Kirk of Star Trek), having realistic spacecraft technology (for example, artificial gravity is only possible through centrifugal force), and no unreasonable alien encounters. I like to think of these kinds of movies as “astronaut movies” – they are the ones that feel realistic to guys like me that work at NASA.
Using this definition, I have compiled a list of all the astronaut movies since Apollo 13 in 1995 (the pinnace of what a successful astronaut movie can be). By my count, there have been about 20 movies since Apollo 13 that have either been fair “astronaut movies” or have come close, but fail my smell test in some way. I have colored films that are clear successes in red and indie films (for which a flop/hit designation based on gross sales is meaningless) as blue. Three of the other movies made more money than they cost but not enough for me to firmly declare them as hits.
Note: Budget estimates taken from IMDB.com and gross sales figures from BoxOfficeMojo.com
Two things stand out to me in this data. The first is that even when we include the “fantasy” movies that are almost astronaut movies, but not quite, you still see a long drought of mainstream successful films of about 10 years or more. Second, in recent years there is a ramp-up in “indie” films in the astronaut genre, which is promising if you were a fan of Moon, Sunshine, or Europa Report.
Leaving in the three campy films of Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Space Cowboys makes the story look a bit better. But if you don’t like camp, then there really was a true drought of a good mainstream astronaut based film for nearly two decades. By all accounts, Prometheus (which I have not seen) is so full of non-scientific plot elements, not to mention aliens, that I probably shouldn’t include it. But since it features astronauts in spacesuits, I thought it was close enough to my definition to at least get a comparison.
It seems to me that Gravity and Interstellar signal a true return of hard sci-fi films to the mainstream. With Ridley Scott currently working on The Martian, starring Matt Damon along with other big names, the trend is going to continue for now. And if The Martian stays true to the source material, it really will be the hardest astronaut film since Apollo 13.
Those of us who pride ourselves on being nerds or geeks and have heard of Sunshine, Europa Report or Gattaca, or liked Red Planet, would be justified in saying that hard sci-fi never left film, it just went underground. But the fact that you have seen all those great films does not affect the public consciousness; they are not becoming a part of culture. What becomes culture is a mainstream movie that everyone has heard of and seen. It may seem silly, but a film like Gravity can do a simple thing like remind Americans that their tax dollars are paying for an International Space Station. A film like Interstellar may get a kid interested in black holes and she may voluntarily read some physics books. Why not get a little science along with your entertainment?
A good sci-fi film is still all about entertainment first, hard or soft. But a good hard sci-fi film usually has the side effect of being more nuanced, due to it being anchored in reality. This nuance allows such films, usually, to explore real life themes that can be both social and scientific. At a time when the public’s commitment to our space program (be it manned or not) is unclear, films that show that the simple act of exploration is both exciting and hip can go a long way to getting the public back onboard with why we have a space program in the first place. So, despite the fact that I only give Interstellar a 7 out of 10 – and I don’t think it is anywhere near the 15th best movie of all time – I say it is an awesome adventure ride that deserves the hype. The film should be seen both for its visuals and the questions it poses:
What cost are you willing to pay for the future of humanity? Is man’s nature inherently selfish? Can love of family overcome that inherent nature? Or does love simply lead to more selfish acts? Is humanity worth saving if in the restarting, cultural history is lost?
These kinds of questions are the hallmark of a film that makes an effort to reflect reality back at us, rather than let us escape into fantasy. This is the kind of space adventure that will get people talking and thinking. I say give us more! Go see Interstellar.
Lots of cool stuff this week. Read all the way to the end for a special treat of a video.
Down to Earth
The James Webb Space Telescope, under assembly and testing at Goddard Spaceflight Center, did a full secondary mirror deploy test in November. NASA published this timelapse of the test, which gives a great sense of the immense scale of this space telescope. Note that this test is with the actual flight hardware.
The iconic – and very old – countdown clock at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was disassembled last week to make way for a new modern clock, which should be ready for the EFT-1 launch later this week.
Admit it, whenever you are catching up on space news, you are wondering what will happen next with the two recent (but unrelated) space accidents – the loss of SpaceShipTwo and an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket. Well, not a lot has happened in recent weeks. A couple little things have happened, such as Land Rover offering alternatives prizes in their Galactic Discovery Competition and initial damage assessments coming in from the Wallops Island launch pad. In the meantime, you can read this to-the-point discussion of what the accidents say about risk aversion (or acceptance) in the industry.
Last week, NASA and Made In Space were very excited to announce the first replacement part which was printed aboard ISS with the first 3D printer in space. The part was a simple plastic cover for the printer itself, but the point is the proof of concept. Much excitement surrounds the prospect of 3D printers in space – with the Made In Space printer being the first of several printers to make it aboard the space station. This article from the Space Review puts the idea in perspective, by summarizing the findings of the National Research Council Committee on Space-Based Additive Manufacturing.
Also on the ISS last week, the rather large “SpinSat” was deployed using the Japanese robotic arm. SpinSat is a 125 pound satellite designed by the U.S. Naval Research Lab to test out their ground surveillance technologies using lasers. You can read more about it in an NRL press release here. Here are some pictures that ISS commander Butch Wilmore took of the satellite being deployed.
Later this month, the 5th official SpaceX Dragon resupply mission to the ISS will launch from Florida aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch is currently set for December 16th. Although every one of these missions is still exciting (if you haven’t seen a Falcon 9 launch, get down there), this mission will be especially interesting to follow because of what will happen to the rocket’s first stage. On previous flights, SpaceX has practiced “controlled landing” of the first stage in the open ocean. On this flight, the rocket will actually land on an autonomous floating platform. Elon Musk revealed a picture of the craft on his twitter, and I admit, it’s pretty slick. In addition, “grid fins” will help the rocket’s guidance on entry – here’s a picture of those as well.
The biggest story of this week should be the launch of EFT-1 (or Exploration Flight Test 1), which is the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft, which is the new NASA exploration vehicle. Although the spacecraft will be flying aboard a ULA Delta IV Heavy, rather than the Space Launch System (which isn’t ready yet), this is still a major milestone for NASA. The four-and-a-half hour, two-orbit mission will be the first non-ISS spacecraft operations from NASA’s Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center since STS-135 landed in 2011. Flight controllers (colleagues of mine, no less!) have been training hard for months and years for this first dress rehearsal of our new program.
Parabolic Arc has a great summary of the mission and the Planetary Society put together a very readable timeline of the mission’s events. The launch window opens at just after 7 AM EST on Thursday morning, December 4th. I highly suggest you tune in!
Around the Solar System
As if not to be outdone by EFT-1, a big moment in human spaceflight, the world of robotic planetary science has a big launch this week as well: Hayabusa-2. This is a JAXA follow-up to the first Hayabusa mission, which successfully returned samples of asteroid Itokawa in 2010. Hayabusa-2’s overall design is at its core the same as the first mission, with some important upgrades (“lessons learned” have no doubt been incorporated). The mission will hopefully launch from Tanegashima on Wednesday, December 3rd, and make it’s way to asteroid 1999 JU3 by 2018, where it will collect samples to return to Earth in 2020.
And last but not least, check out this awesome imaginative short film about the future of humanity throughout the solar system: Wanderers.
I am in between a string of four “Orbit 1″ (meaning, “graveyard”) shifts, but I wanted to drop in to give a quick space news roundup, especially since three human being are launching to space aboard a Soyuz rocket tomorrow!
Down to Earth
The crew of the TMA13-M Soyuz returned to Earth successfully in the early hours of November 10th after an uneventful undocking from the ISS. Maxim Surayev, Alexander Gerst, and Reid Wiseman are all back in their respective countries recuperating and debriefing. Congratulations to Expedition 41 on a successful mission.
On Wednesday, November 19, a new British space project known as Lunar Mission One was announced and they rolled out their Kickstarter campaign. The mission is noble in its goals – crowdfund a private mission to do basic lunar science, while also promising its backers a unique opportunity to be part of a major time capsule to be buried many meters deep on the lunar south pole. The science of course involves drilling deep into the moon – never done before – hence they can then fill in the hole with a time capsule afterwards. They are already halfway to their crowdfunding goal of 600,00 GBP.
I am still very skeptical of these kinds of projects, which are in vogue amongst ambitious space enthusiasts lately. There have been many other similar crowdfunding projects launched (Mars One, Arkyd, Northern Light, Uwingu, etc) but none have yet proved that something so expensive and technically challenging can be successfully funded in this way. Elizabeth Howell gave us a bit of an understatement when she said in her Universe Today piece about the project that “…success is not necssarily a guarantee.” Best of luck to them.
Happily, Chris Hadfield has been allowed to repost his Space Oddity cover which he filmed aboard ISS during Expedition 35. Enjoy!
Lastly, if you’re into the more meat and potatoes discussion of the space industry, Space News has a good article about “5 companies to watch”, which includes discussion of Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences, among others.
Last week, ISS commander and US astronaut, Butch Wilmore, installed the new “Made in Space” 3D printer in the orbiting laboratory.
This weekend, on Sunday, November 23rd, the crew of TMA15-M Soyuz will launch from Baikonaur and arrive at ISS a few hours later. The second half of the Expedition 42 crew is made up of Anton Shkaplerov, Samantha Cristoforetti, and Terry Virts. Cristoforetti will be joining cosmonaut Yelena Serova who is already onboard, bringing the ISS female contingent up to two for the first time in a while. During Expedition 26, Cady Coleman was joined by Space Shuttle Mission Specialist Nicole Stott during STS-133 to mark the last time two women were onboard the ISSat the same time; that was in early 2011. The last time two women were ISS crewmates was during Expedition 24 in the summer of 2010: Shannon Walker and Tracy Caldwell Dyson.
Around the Solar System
A dedicated observing campaign using the Hubble Space Telescope was able to identify potential KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects) for the New Horizons probe to visit after its encounter with Pluto next year. I’m very glad for them that they got the Hubble observing time! I was starting to worry that they would never find a target. New Horizons may very well be the biggest space story of 2015.
Of course, the biggest news of the last two weeks was that on Wednesday, November 12: the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe deployed the Philae lander, which successfully touched down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This is a huge milestone in humanity’s exploration of the solar system. Unfortunately, the lander’s harpoons, which were meant to help Philae get a firm grip on the comet, which has very low gravity, did not fire as planned. Thus, when Philae made contact with the comet, it bounced off the surface and landed again, two hours later. But, it did land again! Check out these pictures from the surface of a comet.
Up above the lander, the Rosetta probe was able to snap some shots of Philae while it was mid-bounce. Very cool. While it was lucky that Philae did settle down onto 67P, it landed a bit on its side, with less sun on its solar panels than it needed to keep its batteries charge. So after just a couple of days of gathering science data, Philae went dormant.
Early science results from the comet are already being reported. The lander was able to detect organic molecules, assess the water ice quantity of the comet, and do a 3D radar mapping with Rosetta’s help, among other measurements.
Because it’s Cool
Here’s some perspective on the size of the solar system: all the planets fit between the Earth and the moon.
Not much needs to be said about this. Enjoy.
Check out this timelapse of a meteor blowing up in the atmosphere.
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.