Archive for the ‘JWST’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA announced last week that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launch date is slipping about a year to May 2020.

Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell celebrated their 90th birthdays.

Ars Technica got Chris Hadfield to open up on some details of his viral Space Oddity video, shot on the ISS.

The Chinese Tiangong-1 space station completed its long-anticipated uncontrolled re-entry today, somewhere over the South Pacific.

In Orbit

Last Thursday, March 29, astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold exited the ISS airlock for a full six-hour spacewalk to conduct repairs and maintenance.

There were five orbital rocket launches since my last post a week ago:

Tomorrow, Monday, April 2, SpaceX will be launching a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule to the ISS. Below is a video from CASIS with an overview of the science launching on the mission.

Out There

Astronomers have discovered a galaxy which has no dark matter – the first galaxy discovered of this kind.

Weekly Links

Down to earth

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may see another launch slip.

The world’s largest airplane, built by Stratolaunch in Mojave, California, was rolled out for runway tests.

NASA’s next Mars lander, InSight, was delivered to the launch site in California.

The Orion crew access arm was installed on the SLS mobile launcher at KSC.

In Orbit

Alexander Misurkin, Joe Acaba, and Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth safely in their Soyuz last week. There are only three crew onboard the ISS until a new crew launches in two weeks.

Two rocket launches last week:

Around the solar system

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is still operating normally after its safe mode scare in February.

The amazing engineer’s at NASA’s JPL have figured out how to use the Mar rover Curiosity’s drill, despite the failure of the device in December 2016. The rover should resume scientific drill operations now that the technique has been demonstrated on Mars.

Out There

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope have discovered a distant water-rich planet, Wasp-39b. The planet is not Earth-like – it is a large planet like Saturn. However, the technique used to detect the atmospheric make-up of Wasp-39b is the best spectrum yet taken of an exoplanet.

2017 in Review

The year of 2017 will be remembered by most of my readers for reasons totally unrelated to spaceflight. It was a tumultuous year with political turmoil, social strife, acts of violence, and devastating natural disasters. Unfortunately, it is these negative stories that tend to embed themselves in our memories as we witness the arc of history unfold. Even when we zoom out to a wide angle view of decades or centuries, it is violence and conflict we remember. What were the biggest events of the 20th century? Wars, economic collapse, threats of annihilation, and social strife. I don’t have to remind you though, as a space fan, that most of the world shares at least one bright memory of the difficult last century: Apollo 11.

In a similar way, I’m hoping that through all the difficult times we face as a society in the 21st century, that spaceflight can be one of those bright spots that is a source of optimism and hope (although, surely not the only source). As Bill Nye is fond of saying “space brings out the best in us.” Spaceflight is an outlet for positive creative energy. Spaceflight applies technology in new ways, often leading to new inventions and sometimes entire industries. Spaceflight allows us to conduct important research that applies directly to the interests and concerns of everyone on Earth – from medical studies onboard the ISS to weather and climate satellites to space telescopes looking out for Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

Spaceflight is a bipartisan endeavor universally loved by young and old alike because it taps into something innate in us. Whether it’s the love of exploration and discovery or just the appeal of astronauts as wholesome hometown heroes, space has always been an easy sell to the public. Very few other uses of time and money are as generally noncontroversial (although we like to argue over specifics). There was a chance for space to get swallowed up in the political turmoil in Washington, DC this past year. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, the space industry had another great year with very few setbacks.

Some readers may take issue with that statement and want to argue that it was not a great year for space. After all, NASA still has no confirmed administrator, XCOR went out of business, several programs slipped their launch dates (JWST, SLS, Orion), and Cassini ended its mission at Saturn (leaving us with a dearth of outer solar system probes). But if we look at those space programs or missions that are active and flying, we see lots of success in 2017 with few failures. The loss of Cassini should probably be spun as a positive story anyway – the planned retirement of a historic program of exploration – 13 years in Saturn orbit.

Other than the few things I listed above, the only other major setbacks of 2017 would be the five complete launch failures shown below (there were one or two other partial failures). Both Japan and New Zealand (Rocket Lab) lost rockets on their maiden launch. India, China, and Russia all lost one rocket each. The two remaining major space powers – ESA and USA – did not have any launch failures.

Country Vehicle Payload Maiden launch?
Japan SS-520 nanosat Yes
New Zealand Electron none Yes
China Long March 5 Comm sat No
India PSLV Nav sat No
Russia Soyuz Various No

2017 actually had the lowest launch success rate since 2011 and yet overall it felt like a very successful year (launch success was about 93% instead of the usual 95%). A few things contribute to this being a good year for rockets. First of course, is that 2 of the failures were test launches. If you remove them from the accounting, we are back at 95%. The second big reason is that none of the other failures led to an interruption in logistical support for the ISS. From 2014 to 2016, ISS operations lost four uncrewed logistical support rockets. After a string that bad, the last 13 months of successful flights (ten missions in all) feels positively blissful.

The third, and maybe most important reason this was a great year for rockets, was that SpaceX had no failures this year. In 2015 they lost an ISS resupply mission on ascent. In 2016 their year was cut short at 8 missions when a rocket blew up on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. The backlog of customers was looming for a long 6 months while SpaceX worked on recovering from that latest failure. Then, last January they returned to flight with a launch for Iridium and haven’t let up since. Their accomplishments include: no launch failures, a record 18 launches, a record 15 first stage recoveries, and first reuse of a first stage. The other American providers, ULA and Orbital ATK, also had good years with 8 and 3 successful launches each with no failures.

As long as we get to space with chemically propelled rockets, everything hinges on how well our rockets are flying. We can’t really do a retrospective on the year without looking at these numbers. This has always been true, but what is particularly poignant from 2017 are those 18 launches from SpaceX. That’s fully 20% of all launches. Not only that, but they flew a lot of important missions. In 2017 alone they launched four times to the ISS and at least twice for the US military. In 2018 they plan to launch several times for NASA, including to the ISS as well as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). At this point, it’s pretty clear that when SpaceX has a good year, the space industry has a good year.

In addition to the 10 successful cargo launches to the ISS this year, there were also 4 flawless crew launches to keep the record of 17 straight years of crewed operations going. NASA stepped up to 4 full-time USOS crew (which includes Japanese, Canadian, and European flyers), enabling even more research. NASA is now in full utilization mode of the ISS. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted each year – from physical science to medicine to biology to botany to astronomy – and each SpaceX Dragon brings up more externally mounted autonomous payloads such as last year’s aerosol monitoring payload (SAGE III) and a neutron star telescope (NICER), among others. The ISS has become an important platform for efficiently deploying small satellites, with dozens launched from the Japanese robotic arm last year.

The ISS looks well positioned for the future, with a healthy manifest of crew and payloads coming up as well as the exciting prospect of even larger crews, once Boeing and SpaceX successfully demonstrate flight of their new crew transportation systems. In the meantime, important maintenance has been ongoing to ensure that ISS can operate well into the 2020s. Early in the year a Japanese cargo vehicle, an HTV, brought up a new set of lithium ion batteries, the first in a series of battery replacements over the next few years that will keep the solar power flowing. The batteries were replaced in a series of 3 spacewalks last January. Ultimately, ISS astronauts would complete 10 successful spacewalks last year with no major issues.

The year in ISS was underscored by Peggy Whitson’s amazing flight. At 57 years old, Whitson now holds the record for most days in space of any American astronaut in history (665) as well as an impressive 60 hours of EVA time that puts her number 3 all time behind Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria. Peggy’s 289 day mission was almost entirely unprecedented. Not only was Whitson praised as a “space ninja” by her crew mates for her work onboard the ISS, but even made a wide impression outside of NASA and received a Woman of the Year award from Glamour Magazine. The crews aboard the ISS continue to bring the wonder of spaceflight home to us through their social media engagement and excellent educational outreach events. If you aren’t checking this link for the latest pictures from space every morning, you are missing out on a little bit of daily wonder.

The ISS is of course not the only game in town. NASA has very active planetary science and astronomy programs, not to mention similar missions from ESA, JAXA, and other agencies. 2017 saw no new launches of solar system probes (that’s right, zero) but many active missions made progress and the only “failure” being the end of Cassini. Mars is incredibly active with 8 missions. Two NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are providing a wealth of insights into the wet history of Mars. The most exciting discoveries from those robots are likely yet to come. Two asteroid sample return missions, OSIRIS-Rex from NASA and Hayabusa 2 from JAXA, remain in interplanetary cruise phase. New Horizons is on its way to visit a Kuiper Belt Object next year, Juno remains in orbit at Jupiter, and Dawn continues to explore the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Some of these missions we heard big news from this year, such as Cassini’s analysis of the ocean plumes from icy Enceladus. We also gained a new understanding of the winds and storms of Jupiter from Juno. Not to mention the absolutely stunning images we have been treated to from JunoCam.

But overall, space exploration, especially planetary exploration, is a long game. Spacecraft take years to reach their targets and then spend sometimes months or years (at least for orbiters and rovers) slowly collecting the data they need to learn something new from our mysterious solar system neighbors. So there were no splashy launches or touchdowns in 2017. Instead, the hard work from years past continued to pay off with well built spacecraft going about their daily business. 2017 was a great year in this respect. Years like this lay the foundation for big discoveries to come; it’s just that we have to wait a bit for the papers to be published. The only real downer this year is probably that Curiosity’s drill is still out of commission.

There is of course, a lot more to cover. Spaceflight is a big industry that goes far beyond just the ISS or big planetary exploration missions. New Space, for instance, had a lot of interesting updates this year. In addition to Rocket Lab making their first launch attempt, Blue Origin demonstrated further progress on their New Shepard vehicle as well as their BE-4 engine, Virgin Orbit moved a few steps closer to their first test launch with several engine tests, and Sierra Nevada conducted their first free glide flight in several years.

Then there’s astronomy. So much is happening in astronomy these days that it deserves a lengthy retrospective all its own. Here are some highlights of last year in a quick paragraph. Many interesting exoplanets were discovered, such as the fascinating Trappist-1 system with three potentially habitable planets. But Ross 128b is my favorite potentially habitable planet, because it is less than 11 light years from Earth. Let’s go! Other exciting developments in astronomy included more neutron star collisions discovered via gravitational waves and also the fascinating cigar shaped something known as ‘Omuamua which flew through our solar system from somewhere this past October (more to come on this we hope).

As we look to the future, we can see that there is a lot to learn. The ISS has years of science to conduct – managers are furiously looking for more ways to maximize timelines and target the most likely breakthroughs. Meanwhile there are dozens of worlds here at home in our solar system yet to explore, not just with probes already launched but many to come (launches to Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in 2018). And most intriguing of all, there are thousands upon thousands of worlds to explore out there, beyond our own star.

The more we look, the more we find. And the more we find, the more questions we think to ask. This is the optimistic and worldview expanding impact of science. We are losing the explorers of the last century – Apollo legends Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, and John Young all passed away in their 80s in the past year. But it’s hard not to see the vast opportunity available to the current generation of explorers in this century. Perhaps some day we will look back at this time period as a changing of the guard. It is hard to say without the benefit of hindsight. If nothing else, for those of us that are inspired by scientific discovery and exploration, 2017 showed us that spaceflight can be – and probably always will be – a candle in the dark.

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2017 Link Dump

Here’s my roundup of all of the year-end summaries posted by various space agencies and space reporters.

NASA’s year in review video:

ESA’s year in review video:

NASA headquarters photographers’ best images of 2017.

Space.com’s top space science stories of 2017.

Space.com’s top spaceflight stories of 2017.

Mashable’s top 5 space stories of 2017.

Parabolic Arc’s analysis of worldwide rocket launches for 2017.

Top planetary science stories of 2017, from The Planetary Society.

Or if you prefer audio, here’s The Planetary Radio’s year-end wrap-up show.

Top stargazing images of the year from EarthSky.

And for non-space context, here’s the year in pictures from around the world:

Boston Globe Year in Pictures: Part I

Boston Globe Year in Pictures: Part II

Washington Post’s year in photos

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In a spectacularly successful PR move last Friday, Elon Musk posted some provocative tweets (copied below) about the upcoming Falcon Heavy debut. The launch is hoped to be sometime in early 2018. The question the tweets seem to answer is where will the rocket go and what will it be carrying. The answer? Apparently a car – a Tesla Roadster. Apparently he is serious about it too.

The James Webb Space Telescope has finished up vacuum testing at Johnson Space Center and has recently come out of the vacuum chamber. It will be transported back to California for final processing before shipping to the launch site.

In Orbit

Here’s a quick summary of the rocket launch attempts of the last week (two successful, one failure):

In upcoming launches, two much anticipated attempts. On December 8th, Rocket Lab will attempt its second test flight from New Zealand while SpaceX will send another Dragon spacecraft on the way to ISS.

Out There

The Voyager 1 spacecraft fired up its backup attitude control thrusters for the first time in 37 years. NASA engineers wanted to checkout this extra set of thrusters to help determine how long the spacecraft can stay operational. It requires fine pointing with thrusters in order to communicate with home.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected another black hole merger. This one was the lowest mass pair detected so far.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA is working on an experimental compact nuclear reactor for use on larger Mars missions.

Check out this list of space books for kids and add some to your Christmas shopping list!

In Orbit

The only orbital rocket launches of the last week were from China. CNSA launched a Long March 6 rocket on November 21 carrying several Earth-observing satellites. Then on November 24 they launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying several reconnaissance satellites.

If you’re wondering about the next launch from US soil, it’s a planned SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply to the ISS, launching from Florida on December 4th. That launch will be the first NASA mission to use a “flight-proven” first stage booster.

One of the experiments onboard the Dragon spacecraft will be a package of barley seeds from Anheuser-Busch.

Around the Solar System

A new study finds that the Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL) on Mars may not be such good evidence for contemporary liquid water.

Because it’s just so darn beautiful, check out this full color mosaic of Saturn from Cassini (captured 2 days before Cassini’s demise).

Out There

NASA has announced some of the details of the early observing campaign of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), covering the first 5 months of its mission. Yes, exoplanets are included!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

U.S. Vice President Pence visited NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama last week. Pence spoke to the crew onboard the ISS from the Payload Operations Center, as part of his tour.

Check out this amazing video of a Soyuz re-entry over Kazakhstan taken from onboard a nearby airplane.

NASA has announced that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been delayed from late 2018 to early 2019.

NASA opened a new facility at the Langley Research Center named after Katherine Johnson, one of the central women profiled in the book and film Hidden Figures.

The latest crew of the HI-SEAS Mars simulation facility in Hawaii completed their 8-month mission.

In double Hawaii news this week, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) approved the construction permit for the long-debated Thirty Meter Telescope to be built on Maunakea.

At the International Astronautical Congress, SpaceX CEO gave a 45 minute presentation updating the public on his company’s plans for future rocket designs and Mars exploration. Here is the full video of the talk:

In Orbit

Three orbital launches since my last post:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Rocket Lab released some information about their failed test launch last month. It turns out the issue was due to some ground segment hardware and they should be able to recover and continue with another test launch soon.

SpaceX is removing the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) at pad 39A at KSC. The RSS was needed for Space Shuttle launches from the historic pad. The RSS from 39B has already been removed in preparations for the SLS program.

The much anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may get delayed from late 2018 into 2019 due to a launch site conflict down in French Guiana, where JWST will be launched on an ESA rocket.

A Japanese rocket launch was cancelled this week due to an unspecified glitch. JAXA was trying to launch a new GPS satellite.

In Orbit

This morning, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon resupply capsule to the ISS. The launch was flawless with a successful first stage landing at Landing Zone 1. The Dragon will rendezvous with the ISS on Wednesday.

Among the cargo on the Dragon capsule is a new experimental super computer, a cosmic ray detector, and a slew of other experiments.

The 6-person Expedition 52 crew is really hitting their stride with their on-orbit photography, with daily Twitter updates to enjoy. The mission will wind down with the return of Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer in early September, followed shortly by the launch of the second half of the Expedition 53 crew.

https://twitter.com/Astro2fish/status/895770661628465152

 

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic completed a successful glide flight of their latest SpaceShipTwo. The test included a test of the “feathering” system. The feathering system is what resulted in the loss of the first SpaceShipTwo during a powered ascent in 2014. This flight was an unpowered glide descent.

The air force’s secret space plane, the X-37B built by Boeing, landed after its 4th flight in space. The plane is small and unmanned, but is still impressive, flying and landing a lot like the Space Shuttle. This fourth mission spent an amazing 718 days in space.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – scheduled for launch next year – has been shipped from Goddard Spaceflight Center to Johnson Spaceflight Center for thermal vacuum testing.

In Orbit

Three successful orbital rocket launches since my last post (with another SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Florida planned for tomorrow):

The video coverage of the SpaceX launch was some of their best ever, with video tracking of the rocket all the way from launch through stage separation and back to the recovery of the first stage booster on land. See below.

NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer completed a 4-hour spacewalk on Friday, May 12th, to do various ISS maintenance and upgrade tasks. The spacewalk was the 200th in support of ISS assembly and maintenance and put Whitson at 5th all time for spacewalking hours.

Around the Solar System

After Cassini’s first “deep dive” between Saturn and its rings (the first in a series as the mission ends), results show that this part of the area near Saturn is more dust-free than expected.

The Mars rover Curiosity is investigating sand dunes on Mars to learn more about local wind patterns in Gale Crater.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

United Launch Alliance has narrowed down the anomaly in their last Atlas V flight – which resulted in an early shutdown of the main stage – to a particular valve.

Check out this 360-degree view of the SpaceX ASDS landing (best viewed on mobile for easy panning).

The next Falcon 9 launch and attempted ASDS landing on May 5th at about 1:22 AM. They are launching a Japanese commercial satellite.

The James Webb Space Telescope had the protective covers removed from its primary mirror last week. Here’s a link to the webcam at Goddard where the multi-billion dollar observatory is being assembled: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/webcam.html

The next spaceflight analog crew to spend 30 days inside a mockup spacecraft at NASA’s Johnson Space Center will start their mission tomorrow. You can follow along on Twitter:

In Orbit

The first launch of Russia’s new Vostochny spaceport took place on April 28th. Here are some great pictures via Spaceflight Now. The rocket was carrying two “technology” satellites and one gamma-ray observatory.

In other launch news, India launched a big rocket carrying one navigation satellite, to complete their domestic navigation constellation. And thirdly, ESA was finally able to launch their Sentinel-1B Earth-observing satellite, which was delayed last weekend.

Up on ISS, the Soyuz TMA-19M crew has learned that they will get about an extra two weeks in orbit, as Expedition 47 has been extended to June 18th.

In sad news, JAXA has given up their attempts to recover the stricken Hitomi x-ray observatory which has been out of contact for some weeks. They now suspect that the spacecraft spun out of control due to an attitude control malfunction and lost its solar arrays.

Tim Peake got to do a unique experiment from the ISS last week when he controlled an ESA rover on the ground via remote control.

Around the Solar System

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has discovered a small moon orbiting the distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as Makemake.