Archive for the ‘MSL’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Peggy Whitson, the American astronaut with the most day’s in space, has retired from NASA.

Orbital ATK is no officially a division of Northrop Grumman.

An interesting Pew Research Center poll was getting some media coverage last week, after it showed that the American public’s priorities for NASA do not line up with its official priorities (at least when you measure “priorities” by funding levels).

Check out the trailer for the upcoming film First Man.

The new NASA Johnson Space Center director, Mark Geyer, now has a twitter account.

The soccer ball used to kickoff the 2018 FIFA World Cup was previously flown to the ISS.

In Orbit

There were four orbital rocket launches since my last post on June 5th:

  • June 5 – China launched a Long March 3A rocket carrying a weather satellite.
  • June 6 – Russia launched a Soyuz rocket carrying three new crew members to the ISS.
  • June 12 – Japan launched an HII-A rocket carrying a reconnaissance satellite.
  • June 16 – Russian launched a Soyuz rocket carrying a GLONASS navigation satellite.

In upcoming launches, Rocket Lab will launch its first commercial flight from New Zealand on June 23rd.

The Soyuz crew arrived at the ISS a couple of days after launch, bringing the onboard crew to six withSergey Prokopyev, Serena Auñón-Chancellor, and Alex Gerst now onboard.

Astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold completed a nearly 7-hour spacewalk at the ISS last Thursday, in order to complete maintenance activities and install new cameras.

Around the Solar System

A major dust storm on Mars has caused NASA to lose contact with the solar-powered Mars rover Opportunity. The rover is in low power mode waiting out the storm. Mission controllers are waiting for sufficient battery charge to allow the rover to restore communications.

Fortunately, the nuclear powered rover Curiosity can keep on roaming through the dust storm. It captured this image of the hazy sky from Gale Crater.

Scientists with the Curiosity mission published two new papers detailing discoveries related to season methane concentrations in the atmosphere and ancient organic molecules in rock samples.

An extension to NASA’s Juno mission, currently in orbit of Jupiter, has been approved.

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft is now close enough to asteroid Ryugu that it has been able to image the small rock.

Out There

Astronomers have made observation of a “tidal event” in which a star is seen falling into a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Legendary astronaut and moonwalker, Alan Bean, died at age 86.

Air Force test pilot and Shuttle astronaut, Don Peterson, died at age 84.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo had another powered test flight.

Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut who had been serving at SpaceX as the director of space operations, has taken a new faculty position at USC.

NASA obtained imagery of the volcanic eruption in Guatemala.

The President of the United States signed Space Policy Directive 2, which aims to reduce the regulatory burden on commercial spaceflight.

In Orbit

A number of orbital rocket launches since my last post on May 20th:

Notable rocket launches coming up include a Soyuz rocket with 3 astronauts launching form Kazakhstan on Wednesday morning.

The Cygnus spacecraft was successfully captured by the ISS robotic arm on May 24 and installed on a docking port, delivering tons of supplies.

NOAA’s new GOES-17 weather satellite has a serious problem that will prevent it from retrieving all the intended data.

On June 3rd, three crew members undocked from the ISS and landed back in Kazakhstan in their Soyuz after 168 days in space.

Around the Solar System

The discovery of an asteroid in a retrograde orbit (backwards) has raised questions about whether it could be a captured interstellar object.

The Curiosity rover on Mars is back to drilling samples, after that particular instrument had been held in reserve for about a year.

A new study of Pluto data from New Horizons finds that there are likely dunes made of solid methane on its surface.

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.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A new Kickstarter campaign seeks to build replicas of the Apollo guidance computer DSKY (Display and Keyboard) interface.

NASA’s 15th Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mission started last week at Johnson Space Center. Four crew members will spend 45 days isolated on a simulated deep space mission.

The much anticipated Falcon Heavy launch is now less than 48 hours away. Eric Berger of Ars Technica has an excellent discussion about the new rocket and what it could mean for the industry (if successful).

In Orbit

Four successful orbital rocket launches since my last post

A spacewalk conducted by Alexander Misurkin and Anton Shkaplerov on the International Space Station broke the Russian record for longest spacewalk, at 8 hours and 13 minutes.

An amateur astronomy discovered a NASA satellite that had been missing for over 10 years.

Around the Solar System

NASA published a beautiful composite panorama from the Curiosity rover looking back down the slopes of Mt. Sharp.

Curiosity also took a new selfie, looking the other direction.

Out There

Astronomers have announced that using gravitational microlensing they have discovered evidence of planets in another galaxy for the firs time.

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:

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.

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

NASA has finalized an agreement with Boeing to use the extra seats on two Soyuz flights to the ISS over the next year and a half for additional US astronauts. There is some contractual stuff going on here, but basically NASA is going to use seats that Roscosmos was going to leave empty to save money.

Virgin Galactic has spun off its LauncherOne program into a new company called Virgin Orbit.

Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin is now getting in on the new moon missions also. According to the Washington Post (owned by Bezos), Blue Origin has floated a proposal to the new US presidential administration that they want to help support NASA missions to the moon with their Blue Moon concept.

PBS News Hour did a brief segment on all of this new interest in lunar missions:

In Orbit

Two rocket launches since my last post:

It’s hard to keep up with the current ISS crew, the members of Expedition 50, as they tweet like its all they do in what little spare time they have. Here’s a selection of the best pictures from just the last week.

 

Around the Solar System

NASA’s MAVEN probe in orbit of Mars executed an avoidance maneuver of about 0.4 m/s to avoid colliding with the moon Phobos. That velocity change is small, about on the order of the debris avoidance maneuvers we do with the ISS.

Check out these dust devils spotted by Curiosity rover on Mars.

Did you know that Saturn’s moon Enceladus is half cratered and half smooth? Check out this recent image from NASA’s Cassini probe to see for yourself.

2016 In Review – Part I

2015 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review posts: Part I and Part II.

Part I – Exploration

Spaceflight, as a many-hundred billion-dollar sector, is a broad and complex industry. Even if we focus in on “exploration” – which is the primary focus of this blog – so that we can ignore military and commercial uses of Earth orbit, we are still left with a global list of activities, studies, missions, and companies. This means there is a lot of stuff going on. 2016 was a busy year with many exciting missions from several different countries. This diversity is great, but makes it hard to boil down the events of last year into a coherent story. Even within NASA, we have the ISS program, with its own highs and lows, and the totally separate and just as successful planetary science portfolio of missions. Those missions keep on going, regardless of whether the most recent cargo delivery has made it to our astronauts in orbit, for instance. Meanwhile, in China, the CNSA is continuing to grow as a nascent space power with new rockets, new launch sites, and a brand new space station. Then there’s Russia, Japan, Europe, India, and more. If any theme can be found at all in the events of last year it is that space exploration continues to be a diverse and global endeavor. Putting any nationalism aside, this should give us hope that despite the ups and downs of the economies or space budgets in any given country, that exciting times lie ahead.

It’s hard to start a summary of 2016 in spaceflight without acknowledging that the United States had a major election, with a new President to be inaugurated this week. Any presidential transition leads to uncertainty in the future of government programs, including NASA. Often election years leave the federal government in a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution means that Congress has yet to pass a budget for the year. This leaves NASA and other agencies working under last year’s budget levels, with no increase for inflation or otherwise. The election was a big story for the country in a lot of ways, but NASA and its programs are most likely to feel the effects in 2017, as it tries to continue with business as usual as it waits for new priorities and a new budget.

While 2017 may bring about change (or not), 2016 was another good year for NASA’s flagship space exploration missions. NASA had no major failures last year, just the usual hiccups and challenges (space is hard, after all) and even launched a new planetary exploration mission: OSIRIS-REX, which is on its way to visit an asteroid in 2023. In fact, last year showed that NASA is still a clear leader in planetary exploration, with probes in action all over the solar system. The NASA fleet at Mars remains strong, with two rovers on the surface and two probes in orbit. New Horizons received a mission extension and is on its way to a Kuiper Belt Object rendezvous in a few years. Meanwhile, the probe Juno made orbit at Jupiter and started scientific observations. Unfortunately, Juno has some sticky propellant valves and missed some of its early science orbits when it entered “safe mode.” Fortunately, the probe was brought out of safe mode and completed a Jupiter flyby in December. Most of the probe’s 20-month mission is ahead. Hopefully Juno’s worst days are in the past! Out at Saturn, NASA is still operating the Cassini probe, which has been in orbit since 2004. Sadly, 2017 will see the end of Cassini, as it destroys itself in dramatic fashion, with a dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Two other planetary missions of note from other countries had some action last year. ExoMars (a joint mission between ESA and Russia) launched and made it to Mars. However, its companion lander, Schiaparelli, was unable to make it safely to the Martian surface and crash-landed. Thus, NASA remains the sole space agency to have safely brought a spacecraft to the surface of Mars… having done so seven times. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Soviet Union is the only country to have ever landed a probe on Venus! A feat which has not been repeated since 1982, and does not appear to be repeated any time soon, as most space agencies focus on asteroids and the outer solar system in their planetary science missions. Venus is not forgotten though, as Japan was able to begin doing science with their Akatsuki orbiter at Venus last year.

Following the theme of “space is hard,” Japan had a pretty devastating failure when their new X-ray telescope Astro-H, or Hitomi, went out of contact after reaching orbit. Fortunately, Japan already has a strong space program and seems mature and professional enough to learn from their mistakes – they released a failure report very quickly after the accident. They currently have an asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2, en route to its target in 2018, which we should all be very excited about. NASA has a strong relationship with JAXA, and will be curating the Hayabusa samples here at the Johnson Space Center when they return.

In human space exploration, the story continues to be the International Space Station. The ISS had an exciting year, partly because NASA and ESA continue to send charismatic astronauts who manage to make the mission feel very personal to all of us following back on Earth. It was a great year for following astronauts on Twitter, including Jeff Williams, Kate Rubins, Tim Kopra, Tim Peake, Scott Kelly, Shane Kimbrough, Thomas Pesquet, and Peggy Whitson. It’s hard to see how this trend will do anything but accelerate, as it’s a cheap and easy way for NASA to connect with the American public and share its mission. Scott Kelly of course returned from space early in the year and retired from NASA on a high note. Since the “year in space” was such a success, both operationally and as a public affairs bonanza, it seems likely NASA will want to try more longer duration expeditions in the future.

On the more nuts and bolts side of things for the ISS, all major mission events went well last year, with both the arrival and installation of the new IDA2 docking adapter and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM is an exciting demonstration of where human habitability in Earth orbit may be able to go in the future with inflatable structures. It is exciting to think that the technology may spinoff a private-public partnership with either or both of the companies Bigelow and Axiom to expand the ISS with new large inflatable modules in the future.

The ISS did face some minor setbacks of its own, although not quite as dramatic as in more recent years. Two rocket failures impacted ISS logistics: the SpaceX explosion on the pad in Florida in September and the loss of a Russian Progress resupply mission in December. The good news for NASA was that the SpaceX failure was not an ISS mission, but it meant a delay to the next planned resupply flight of a Dragon capsule, now scheduled for February. ISS is well stocked on supplies thanks to a Japanese resupply mission that also flew in December and the Orbital ATK Antares rocket returning to flight status in October. Even with both Japanese and American rockets able to keep ISS supplied, having the Russian Soyuz rocket family grounded must always make mission managers uneasy. After all, it is the same rocket family that failed in December that also delivers crews to the station. We are not in uncharted territory, as expedition schedules were in limbo after similar accidents in 2011 and 2015. But the ups and downs of the launch vehicle sector are a continual challenge not only for NASA’s ISS program but for dreamers who envision hundreds of people at a time into deep space for colonization. ISS truly is the foothold where we must learn first, and is a great proving ground for those dreamers.

The ISS accounts for over 2,000 person days of space experience a year. The day-in and day-out slog of operating an aging orbital laboratory and learning to live there is slowly but surely preparing us for what comes next. This experience is shared by a partnership of 15 nations (USA, Canada, Russia, Japan, and 11 countries from ESA). However, the rising nation of China finds itself on the outside. Just like in many other sectors, China is finding its own way in space. Last year was a good one for the China National Space Agency (CNSA). Not only did they launch a brand new space station, Tiangong-2 and send a crew of 2 on a 30-day mission to the outpost, they also debuted a brand new Long March 5 heavy lift launcher while matching the US in successful launches on the year – twenty-two. A new medium-lift rocket, Long March 7, also debuted from a new coastal spaceport on Hainan Island, which should give CNSA more flexibility. CNSA’s recent white paper publically published outlining their five-year plan shows ambition but also should be a douse of cold water on people expecting a space race between China and the USA. China certainly has a lot to be proud of as only the third independent nation to place humans in space. But they have a long way to go to put themselves on par with the modern space programs in America and elsewhere. I look forward to their planned lunar sample return mission in 2017, which will give them a lot of “street cred” if they pull it off!

Obviously these are not the only happenings in space exploration and related science areas. I could go on about the exciting developments in exoplanet astronomy, a field that may provide worlds to explore decades or centuries from now, for example. We continue to live in a golden age of space exploration that started with the Galileo probe to Jupiter in the early 90s. For me, 2016 was a testament to the true diversity of the state of space exploration and should serve as a reminder to avoid tunnel vision. There are many facets to how we explore. It’s not just about shiny new rockets and capsules and astronauts, but its also not just about gathering science through a space telescope or a distant robotic probe. All these pieces fit together to move forward the state of our knowledge about the universe together. One of my favorite examples of this from last year was astronaut Kate Rubins’ work on gene sequencing while aboard the ISS. Talk about two sectors that do not traditionally intersect, at least not in the minds of the general public. Diversity – both in the space agencies doing the exploration as well as the type of exploration – will keep the dream alive. I can’t wait to see what we do on ISS this year but I also look forward to news out of China and India as they learn what it takes to fly in space.

The biggest problem with keeping up this steady cadence of exploration is how all these space agencies will pay for it, as the world faces challenging fiscal and security issues. Space is exciting – and important – but it is far from the first priority when it comes to setting budgets in most parts of the world. Fortunately, we have disruptive new players in the launch sector that can help us keep costs down. More on that in my next post.