Archive for the ‘Mars’ Category

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.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

John Young – astronaut, moonwalker, space shuttle commander – died on Saturday, January 6th at 87 years old.

In Orbit

NASA installed two new external payloads on the ISS, brought up in the SpaceX Dragon: Space Debris Sensor (SDS) and Total Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS).

SpaceX will attempt the first orbital launch of the new year tonight at 8 PM ET. Follow the webcast of the launch at the link below.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Curiosity rover has confirmed that the variation of methane in the Martian atmosphere appears to be seasonal.

Out There

Astronomer’s have some updated theories about KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s Star. Based on new analysis of recent data, the dimming of the star appears to vary by wavelength, leading researchers to place large clouds of dust at the top of their list.

New analysis of interstellar object ‘Omuamua reveals that it may be more icy than originally assumed.

Some other researchers are trying to determine ‘Omuamua’s origin. They have done some statistical analysis to show that it is likely it came from a white dwarf star system.

Looking Forward

Here is some information about what to expect in 2018 in spaceflight. For starter’s here is Universe Today’s top 2018 astronomy events.

What’s up in solar system exploration in 2018, from The Planetary Society.

NASA’s look at the year ahead:

ESA’s look at the year ahead:

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

The United Arab Emirates has begun looking for astronaut candidates for their space program.

In Orbit

It’s been a quiet week: no orbital launches since my last post, although several were planned. Here’s the packed schedule coming up*:

  • Dec 10 – Chinese launch of a communications satellite for Algeria (this occurred successfully this morning)
  • Dec 11 – Rocket Lab test launch in New Zealand
  • Dec 12 – SpaceX launch to ISS
  • Dec 12 – ESA nav sat launch from French Guiana
  • Dec 17 – Three astronauts launch to ISS from Kazakhstan

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft departed the ISS last week.

Cygnus will remain in orbit until December 18th, giving it enough time to deploy a payload of cubesats.

Speaking of cubesats, a JPL-built cubesat was deployed from the ISS to prove that valuable astronomy can be done in a small orbital package.

The astronauts on the ISS have been taking some incredible pictures of the fires in Southern California:

Around the Solar System

Spring is coming to the northern hemisphere on Mars and Opportunity has survived another winter – nearly 14 years after landing.

The New Horizons spacecraft completed a course correction burn as it continues on its way to Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69.

Out There

Astronomers have confirmed an exoplanet system containing K2-18b and K2-18c, both large potentailly habitable rocky worlds orbiting a red dwarf star. Phil Plait has an interesting observation about what this news means for our perspective about our own solar system.

*Best references for upcoming launches are LaunchLibrary.net or 2017 in Spaceflight on Wikipedia

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

I’m back from my own personal August recess and catching up on almost a month of space news. Here’s your headline dump for August 14 to September 9! A lot has happened

Down to Earth

The Trump Administration has named Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine as their nominee for NASA administrator.

The Chinese and European astronauts conducted a joint survival training exercise off the coast of China.

Sierra Nevada Corporation conducted a “captive carry” flight of their Dream Chaser spaceplane.

Last week an ESA Ariane 5 rocket had a pad abort. The agency is still investigating.

In Orbit

The Dragon capsule launched two days earlier docked with the ISS on August 16th.

The day after the cargo. arrival, cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Sergey Ryazanskiy conducted a successful spacewalk to do space station maintenance as well as some small satellites deployments.

Then on September 3rd a Soyuz returned to Earth, safely carrying Jack Fischer, Peggy Whitson, and Fyodor Yurchikhin to the steppes of Kazakhstan. Both Yurchikhin and Whitson now have accumulated over 600 days in space.

Meanwhile on the ground, a dedicated team of flight controllers was riding out Hurricane Harvey in Houston’s Mission Control Center to ensure the successful undocking and return of the crew.

Speaking of hurricanes, the ISS crew has taken some incredible imagery of Irma has it makes its way across the Caribbean and now Florida.

Lots of launches while I was out. Here’s a worldwide rundown:

Around the Solar System

Congratulations to the engineers and scientists on the New Horizons project; the International Astronomical Union has selected many of their original choices for features on Pluto as official names!

Good news for Mars enthusiasts: there is new talk at NASA of planning a robotic Mars sample return mission for the middle of the 2020s.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

With no new NASA administrator named as of last week, NASA has now broken the record for longest transition period under a new presidential administration.

Virgin Orbit published a video of a full duration test firing of their Newton Four upper stage.

Blue Origin announced that it was build a new rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of its contract with United Launch Alliance to supply engines for the future Vulcan Rocket.

In Orbit

On July 2, the Chinese space agency attempted to launch a communications satellite on their heavy lift Long March 5 rocket. Unfortunately, the second stage failed and the payload did not make it to orbit.

On July 5, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a commercial communications satellite for Intelsat. The satellite was delivered to geosynchronous orbit. Due to the high performance requirements of the mission, the first stage was disposable, rather than being recovered. This was their 10th launch of the year (the most of any year for SpaceX).

Meanwhile, up on the ISS on July 3rd, the Expedition 52 astronauts unberthed and released the visiting SpaceX Dragon capsule, which splashed down and was recovered that same day.

Around the Solar System

Engineers at JPL have uploaded new driving software to the Curiosity rover on Mars. The software underwent extensive testing on Earth before it was approved for use. NASA hopes the new algorithm will reduce wear on the rover’s wheels by 10 to 20 percent.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA successfully completed its latest underwater NEEMO mission off the coast of Florida. A crew of astronauts and engineers spent several days in an underwater base testing techniques, gear, and technology for spaceflight. This was the 22nd expedition to the underwater facility.

The Canadian Space Agency announced the selection of their two latest Astronaut Candidates. Jennifer Sidley is a 28-year-old PhD and professor at the University of Cambridge. Joshua Kutryk is a 35-year-old fighter pilot and test pilot with several master’s degrees.

The President of the United States signed an executive order establishing a National Space Council, to guide all of the nation’s endeavours related to spaceflight.

In Orbit

There were five rocket launches since my last post:

Yes, SpaceX had a 48 hour turnaround between two launches, to reach 9 launches on the year. Both first stages were recovered.

In a non-orbital launch, NASA launched an experiment sounding rocket from Virginia’s Wallops Island.

A large satellite in geostationary orbit appears to have broken apart, causing concerns about orbital debris in one of the most important Earth orbits.

Around the Solar System

A recent survey of outer solar system bodies, which found several new distant objects, casts doubt on the hypothesized existence of “Planet 9”. However, the lead researchers of the Planet 9 theory have done their own analysis of the new data, and claim that the data can fit the model. The hunt for Planet 9 continues.

The Curiosity rover is still climbing up Mount Sharp in the center of Gale Crater on Mars. Recently, the MRO spacecraft captured this image of the rover from orbit.

Rejected

Like many aspiring spacefarers, I finally received a long anticipated email this past Thursday. Paradoxically, the anticipation resulted from already knowing the news the email would contain. Given that NASA had announced the new Class of 2017 of astronaut candidates the week before, it was no surprise to me and about 17,000 others to get an email from the astronaut selection office which effectively said “thanks, better luck next time.”

As a young engineer with only one degree and less than a decade of experience, my application was a longshot, and will continue to be until I expand my experience base significantly. It is hard to compete with military pilots, doctors, and scientists that have traveled to Antarctica! My role in humanity’s exploration of outer space continues to be from a desk in mission control – only the second best job I can imagine.

And if you don’t work in mission control, there are still ways you can help. At the end of Thursday’s email were some helpful links about how to stay involved. However, I was a little disappointed that the email blast to thousands of motivated Americans wasn’t better utilized to plug some important volunteer opportunities to directly help with preparations for future missions.

Firstly, there are the various analog missions. NASA conducts their HERA missions in a small pressurized facility on-site at Johnson Space Center. The campaign is currently doing 45-day missions and they are always looking for interested “astronauts”. NASA also participates in the HI-SEAS project in Hawaii, which simulates deep space missions in a habitat on Mauna Loa. But, if you don’t have enough time to commit to the more lengthy analog missions, you can do what I’ve done, and volunteer with NASA to be a human test subject.

Last year I participated in two interesting experiments to help with NASA’s data-gathering on astronauts who return from the ISS. The first study – the easy one – involved driving a Mars rover simulator (the fun part) after 30 hours of sleep deprivation (the not so fun part).

Driving the martian rover simulator

Driving the martian rover simulator

In addition to the Mars rover, I did a few other cognitive and tactile tests on an iPad. Some of the tests are the same ones given to astronauts before, during, and after their flight. The idea is to see how ISS missions affect crew performance, especially if they are sleeping less up there.

The second study (called exMOD) was much more challenging. In the exMOD study, NASA was investigating the apparent changes to eyesight experienced by ISS astronauts. One of the hypotheses is that microgravity affects the intraocular pressure. In order to see what affect strenuous exercise has on the eyes – since we ask the crew to exercise many hours a day while onboard the ISS – I was fitted with a strain gauge in a contact lens (see picture below) and then asked to do strenuous exercise in an inverted position… oh yeah and did I mention the swimming goggles they added to make sure there was extra pressure on the eye?IMG_0521

After a tough few minutes of cycling during exMOD

After a tough few minutes of cycling during exMOD

The eye study was strenuous and exhausting. It wasn’t “fun” in the sense that I enjoyed it while it was happening. But every day that I reported in for the study, I felt a sense of excitement knowing I was helping NASA scientists and doctors better understand the specific and strange effects that the human body experiences during spaceflight. It is a unique opportunity that is available here at the Johnson Space Center, and the good news is that it is not just for people like me who are already on the “in crowd”. Anyone can apply to be a human test subject (see link below) and they are still looking for about a dozen more people for this year’s Fitness for Mission Tasks (FMT) study.

FMT is more exciting for me than exMOD was (and I’m promised that it is not as exhausting). The idea behind FMT is to try to gather a baseline of data across a variety of demographics on the level of strength required to complete certain mission tasks (walk around a Mars base, rescue a fellow crew member, escape a capsule after splashdown). They do this by first putting me through various tests and measuring things like my deadlift, bench press, VO2 max, etc. Then I do timed trials of all of the planned tasks. The fun part then takes place in the last 4 sessions, where I am timed completing the same tasks with a weight suit weighing from 20% up to 80% of my own body weight. The idea is to approximate the weakness or muscle atrophy caused by months of interplanetary travel without having to do a lengthy bedrest study.

So, you don’t have to get a callback from the astronaut selection office to play astronaut. There are plenty of practical opportunities to directly contribute to our ability to send humans into space. Of course, for the FMT study, you need to be able to report to JSC for the study. Check out the links below and check back in here where I will try to post pictures of my FMT time trials in the coming weeks!

NASA Human Test Subject program: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/human-test-subject

Apply for HERA: https://www.nasa.gov/analogs/hera/want-to-participate

Hi-Seas: http://hi-seas.org/

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.