Archive for the ‘NEOs’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Two astronauts announced their departure from the NASA astronaut corps at the end of September – Ron Garan and Greg Chamitoff. Greg Chamitoff actually worked in my office as an ISS guidance officer, almost 20 years ago (although the ISS had not been launched yet at the time).

The J-2X upper stage engine, in development under NASA contract for about 6 years for use first in the Ares program and then on SLS, will apparently be “mothballed” next year. In other words, NASA has decided J-2X won’t work for SLS so it is going on hold until they find a future use for it. Bummer.

The European Space Agency is doing rover field tests in the Atacama Desert in Chile in preparation for their 2018 launch of the ExoMars rover.

Roscosmos – the Russian federal space agency – has once again replaced their head administrator in an effort to end the string of launch failures that has plagued the program over the past few years. Good luck with the new guy.

Speaking of Roscosmos; Russian media reports that they intend to try a new Phobos sample return mission (following their failed Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011). The new mission would not occur until 2020 or later. It bears repeating: good luck.

The SpaceX grasshopper test vehicle had one more test flight earlier this month – video below – which will apparently be the last. I have to admit that I am disappointed. I hope SpaceX has something more exciting up their sleeve; the Falcon 9-R might fit the bill.

The new company out of Tucson, Arizona known as “World View” intends to send paying customers to 30 km altitude in a balloon lifted capsule. The flights wouldn’t technically take tourists to space, but would give them a high altitude view of the Earth for far longer than flights in suborbital vehicles like SpaceShipTwo. Tickets are planned to only be $75,000.

In Orbit

Luca Parmitano wrote a nice blog post about what it was like to capture the Orbital Cygnus spacecraft last month.

A relatively large Near Earth Asteroid, 2013 TV135, was discovered on October 8th. TV135 has a diameter of about 400 feet and came within 4.2 million miles of Earth last month. The asteroid has another close approach in 2032 for which the probability of an Earth impact is 1-in-63,000.

Speaking of asteroids, on October 15 a Russian dive team found a half-ton chunk of the Chelyabinsk impact at the bottom of a lake near Chelyabinsk, Russia. Awesome.

Around the Solar System

On October 9, the NASA Jupiter probe Juno had a close flyby of the Earth to get a gravity assist and start heading to the outer solar system. Here is a view of Earth from Juno near closest approach. And here is a diagram of the spacecraft’s trajectory showing the affect of the Earth flyby.

The 2013 Mars launch window is coming up fast. First up is India’s Mars orbiter, currently scheduled to launch November 5. Then NASA’s MAVEN mission will launch on November 18.

Weekly Links

It’s been a whole month since I last posted, so there is some catching up to do. I’m going to try to just hit the highlights.

Down to Earth

A few quick news items from the “NewSpace” sector:

Most exciting and most recently, today Virgin Galactic flew the second powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo space plane. This test involved “feathering” the spaceship’s wings after the engine is shut down to help with a controlled “re-entry”. With this only being the second test flight of the year – the first was back in April – it seems unlikely Virgin will start flights to space by the end of the year. Still, it is awesome to see progress. Here’s a video of the flight.

ATK has partnered with Orbital Sciences to build the rocket for Stratolaunch. Orbital is designing the rocket and ATK will provide the first and second stages. For those that need a refresher, Stratolaunch is the Paul Allen project to have a 747-sized plane be the launch platform for a massive rocket that can deliver as much as 13,500 pounds to Earth orbit.

Last month Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” space plane went through some taxi tests out in California. Basically, it was just towed down the runway to test the landing gear. But if you think that’s exciting, there’s a video! Interestingly, the nose landing gear is a skid, not a wheel.

SpaceX had another test flight of their “Grasshopper” vertical take off and landing rocket. This time it was a “divert” test where it flew sideways and came back. Here’s the video.

In the NASA world there are a few updates also:

First of all, deputy NASA administrator Lori Garver has announced she will be leaving NASA for a job in the private sector (specifically as president of the American Airline Pilots Association).

Astronaut Mike Foale is also leaving NASA after a 26 year career.

A recent paper was published identifying 12 EROs (easily-retrievable objects) to add to a list of possible destinations for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission. Unfortunately, Lori Garver (see above) was a chief proponent of this new controversial mission. Check out this article in the Washington Post outlining some of the technical and political issues that may hinder this mission.

In Orbit

Tomorrow night at 11:27 PM Eastern time, NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) will launch from the Wallops Island facility in Virginia. The launch should be visible to much of the East coast, so stay up to watch if you can! The spacecraft will not have any cameras. Instead, it has spectrometers and dust scoops for studying the tenuous lunar atmosphere. Once LADEE has launched it will clear the Wallops Island launch range for the Orbital Sciences launch of their first Cygnus flight to ISS on September 17th.

A link I should have posted weeks ago is a first hand account from ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano of the EVA which was aborted in July when his helmet started filling up with water. This was probably the scariest thing to happen in spaceflight since the loss of Columbia a decade ago. Great job by flight controllers and especially Luca in staying calm under pressure.

NASA is officially no longer attempting to fully recover the Kepler Space Telescope. Fortunately, lots of people are thinking of ways Kepler can still do exciting science without the stability of three gyroscopes. One of the most publicized white papers from this past week was the idea to look for planets in the very close habitable zones of white dwarf stars.

Similarly, the WISE spacecraft (wide-field infrared survey explorer) is getting a new mission. WISE is being reactivated on a 3-year mission to look for NEOs (Near-Earth Object). As Phil Plait points out, this mission may be directly related to NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission, and the effort to find a candidate rock to go grab.

To round out the space telescope news, the Spitzer Space Telescope celebrated its 10th year in space this summer. Spitzer ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 but is still going strong with its “warm mission”.

In what is a startling development, the United States Air Force’s “Space Fence” will be shut down after the end of this fiscal year. The Space Fence is a key part of our orbital surveillance program. Without the space fence program there will be a gap in capability until if and when the new system comes on line in a few years. It’s very possible that without this system the risk of debris striking any given spacecraft without warning – including the ISS – goes up.

Around the Solar System

Mars rover Curiosity got an awesome set of images of the moon Phobos passing in front of Deimos. Not just a rover!

Because it’s cool

Speaking of Virgin Galactic, the term “space tourism” has been officially added to the OED.

The great XKCD comic recently did a great job describing the basics of orbital mechanics.

Somebody recreated the famous shot of a bike flying in front of the moon from the movie E.T.

In a post in July I wrote about how Hubble had determined the color of a far-flung exoplanet. What I failed to mention that they had also discovered that on this planet it probably “rains glass sideways”, which is a bit of a let down if you are wanting to visit this nifty blue world someday. The web comic Sci-Ence is apparently annoyed at how often the planets we discover are unlivable, and has created a handy guide.

Why is suborbital space more exciting than NASA’s latest exploration plans?

Earlier today, Virgin Galactic flew the first powered flight of their SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft.

In case you are out of the loop, Virgin Galactic is the company that intends to fly paying tourists to suborbital space on their 8 passenger spacecraft. The company was founded after Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 for being the first private company to reach space with their SpaceShipOne. Virgin Galactic was formed when Sir Richard Branson saw dollar signs after the X Prize was won and decided to partner with Scaled Composites to design an upgrade to SpaceShipOne that could make a profit off of tourism. Virgin Galactic has around 500 customers already with down payments ready for a quick suborbital hop – for a mere several hundred thousand dollars – as soon as the SpaceShipTwo flight test program ends later this year.

From my view here at Johnson Space Center, as a member of the International Space Station flight control team, SpaceShipTwo should look like small potatoes. The max altitude of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo each is a meager 110-120km – barely past the Karman Line, or the official border of space. And yet, this morning I found myself waiting for news of Virgin Galactic’s flight in eager anticipation, like a typical fan boy.

Let’s look at some other space news to see if maybe I’m just a big fan boy all the time?

Earlier this month, the White House released their federal budget proposal for 2014, which includes the exciting prospect of  funding “for a robotic mission to rendezvous with a small asteroid—one that would be harmless to Earth—and move it to a stable location outside the Moon’s orbit”. This is classic stuff. Exactly what most space advocates would say we should be spending our NASA tax dollars on. This idea combines robotic planetary exploration with human spaceflight (astronauts will visit the rock once it is in Earth orbit) with the practical application of planetary defense. Awesome. This is the kind of stuff I would be happy to spend my career working on. So why am I underwhelmed by this and excited by Virgin Galactic?

The likelihood of either of these missions failing is reasonably high. Both are high risk. But, I think the key difference is in the type of risk we are talking about. Virgin Galactic has a high risk of failure due to the challenges of spaceflight, and the reaction from their shareholders and customers if and when they have a major failure. Rockets fail. Accidents happen. People die. The company already lost three employees in 2007 in a rocket test stand explosion, which surprisingly did not slow down development much. Virgin is facing the same kind of risk that aerospace pioneers have always had when operating at “the edge of the envelope.” This is understood and accepted in the industry. But since they are trying to send rich comedians like Russell Brand to space and not trained test pilots, I’m not sure the program could sustain itself after a fatal accident.

By contrast, I think the risk that NASA’s new asteroid mission faces has largely to do with politics and little to do with the risks of high performance spaceflight.

In the same year that SpaceShipOne successfully earned Scaled Composites the Ansari X Prize, US President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which evolved into the Constellation Program. Over the next 6 years, Constellation progressed as most government aerospace projects due – with steady progress, but a growing budget. Eventually, in 2010, the new Obama Administration cancelled Constellation, taking NASA back to square one with the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program also on the horizon. In the meantime, Virgin continued steady development of their space plane – admittedly, with their own budget growing past expectations – and here we are less than ten years later looking at paying customers flying to space by the end of the year.

So, to answer to my rhetorical question…

The reality is that the chances of the political winds in Washington cancelling or underfunding an exciting Near-Earth Asteroid mission seems higher than the chances of SpaceShipTwo failing in flight, based on historical evidence. Thus, I am watching the skies for successful suborbital tourism with eager anticipation, while I also read about political progress in NASA exploration missions with cautious optimism.

In the meantime, you should support organizations like The Planetary Society, who hope to show lawmakers the benefits of space exploration of all kinds. This kind of lobbying seeks to secure steady funding for NASA to prevent the kind of stop-and-go programs that has most of us jaded to taxpayer funded exploration. With more excited enthusiasts showing support and private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX posting more successes, the future may be brighter. But in the end a rocket’s flame is more convincing than a balance sheet, and that’s really what has me cheering for Virgin Galactic. Results.

SpaceShipTwo in flight on April 29,2013 (via @VirginGalactic)

Weekly Links

It has been a while since I have posted one of my weekly space news links posts. Part of the reason has been a whirlwind move that we (my girlfriend and I) made from our apartment into a new house. We currently don’t have internet, which hampers my blogging a bit. But also, I have been busy at work, including having the privilege of working rather closely on the current SpaceX mission to ISS, which has been exciting. I even attended a joint planning meeting for the mission today to talk about unberth and departure of the Dragon capsule on March 25th, which I will get to support from the Mission Control Center.

Down to Earth

It’s official. As of late last month, the US House of Representatives finally passed a bill to rename the Dryden Flight Research Center in California the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center. The proposal still needs to be approved by the Senate.

An international research team working in Antarctica has found an 18 kg meteorite on the ice surface of that barren continent. This is the largest meteorite find in Antarctica since 1988.

Millionaire and former space tourist, Dennis Tito, announced last month that he intends to create a new space “adventure” (not venture) known as Inspiration Mars. The intent of the project is to send humans (ostensibly a single married couple) on a circum-Martian flight that would take about 500 days. The mission would not involve a landing on the planet, due to cost and complexity, but would seek to inspire a generation and possibly lead to greater adventures (and ventures) in the future. Color me skeptical, but I hope they can do it! Fundraising will be a challenge.

Here are some helpful ideas of how Inspiration Mars might be able to generate revenue to make their mission a success.

SpaceX did another hover test of their huge Grasshopper vertical landing test rocket. Cool stuff.

In Orbit

On March 1, SpaceX successfully launched another Dragon cargo craft to ISS on the first attempt.

SpaceX had some issues with their propellant system that delayed their spacecraft’s arrival at ISS by a day. Dragon arrived with no problems on Sunday, March 3, after many meetings to discuss the issues and agree to a replan. I was working in the Houston Mission control Center that weekend and was impressed to see the machine of mission operations chugging away to produce such a quick turnaround of the timeline!

I enjoyed watching the ISS crew open the Dragon hatch and begin unloading on Sunday evening, which I already wrote about in a previous post.

Around the Solar System

On Mars, the Curiosity rover is having some unknown computer memory issues. On February 28th, ground controllers intentionally commanded the rover to use the backup computer, which put the rover into safe mode (coincidentally, on the same day that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was having issues). The rover is currently functioning while teams back on Earth prepare to send software “patches” to the rover later this week.

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NASA’s Van Allen Probe mission has discovered a third distinct radiation belt around Earth.

This week, the comet panSTARRS is making an appearance in the Northern hemisphere’s skies. This is one of the two comets (the other being comet Lemmon) that were supposed to make a splash this year. PanSTARRS has not turned out to be dimmer than hoped, but still worth looking for. The comet just passed the sun and is coming around the other side, which is why it is fading out of peak brightness while also creeping higher above the horizon after sunset. I was able to find panSTARRS with my binoculars this evening and she is definitely pretty, if small.

Speaking of comets, a newly discovered comet, named Siding Spring, is predicted to have a very close approach of Mars (not us, phew!) in late 2014. The uncertainty in the orbit leaves the possibility open that the comet make actually impact Mars. This would be a bad day for Mars and our spacecraft stationed there. Phil Plait explores the possibility of destruction, while Emily Lakdawalla considers the more benign possibility of a nice meteor shower.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA administrator Charles Bolden and Buzz Aldrin laying a wreath at Arlington.

You thought it was all over last month didn’t you? Well think again. The deal that the 112th Congress agreed to early in January only delayed the “sequestration” of the federal budget. Sequestration is a returning threat if a more permanent deal can’t be reached by March. This will of course have far-reaching impacts in this country, including in space exploration. Here’s a summary from the Planetary Society about what sequestration would mean for NASA’s planetary science programs. The bottom line though is that NASA leadership has not publicly indicated how drastic budget cuts would be dolled out within the administration.

Veteran space shuttle astronaut Jerry Ross has released his new autobiography in hard cover.

Ron McNair died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. His brother remembers him in a story that was turned into this cartoon by StoryCorps.

In Orbit

Later this morning – at 10:30 AM eastern – famed actor William Shatner will have a public video conference with ISS astronaut Chris Hadfield. As I understand it, some of America’s major news networks plan to cover the brief event.

The large asteroid 2012 DA14 will fly within just 17,200 miles of the Earth next week, on the 15th. That distance is below the roughly 22,400 mile altitude of geosynchronous orbit. The asteroid is about 50 meters or so across so it will be too small to see with the naked eye. I have not read anything that indicates we should be worried about a gravitational “keyhole” for 2012 DA14. It does not seem to be at a high risk for impact in the near future.

In less serious asteroid news, there is one out there with the newly minted official name “Wikipedia”.

There was some speculation earlier this week that the Iranian space monkey launch was faked. The accusation was based on the before and after pictures of the monkey, which appeared to be of a different animal, to experts. Iran has said they simply used the wrong photos, but they did really send their monkey on a successful suborbital flight.

Bigelow Aerospace has posted pricing information for trips to their planned Earth orbit space station. Visitors would fly up on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule or Boeing’s CST-100. The flights are noticeably cheaper than what tourists have paid in the past to travel to ISS. This is all well and good, but I want to know why Bigelow is calling their station “Alpha Station” when some NASA astronauts still refer to ISS as “Space Station Alpha”. Could get confusing.

Around the Solar System

Mercury and Mars are having a very close conjunction in the sky (as seen from Earth). At dusk today, February 7th, you should look West if you have  a clear view to the horizon, and you may be lucky enough to spot this unlikely pair. You probably need binoculars to easily see the planets.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Whether you think the White House’s online petition system a flop or not, you have to appreciate this tongue-in-cheek response to the petition to have NASA build a Death Star.

In Orbit

Although a bit out of the ordinary, I thought that this article about the firearms launched about Soyuz spacecraft (yes, guns) an interesting read.

NASA has officially contracted with private venture Bigelow Aerospace to provide an “inflatable” additional module to the ISS. There is an official press conference out of Las Vegas (where Bigelow is based) tomorrow – none of the early press releases seem to indicate when the module would arrive on orbit.

This week, robotics flight controllers are putting the Robotic Refueling Mission through its paces on the ISS. You can read about the project here or just watch the video below.

It seems the French planet-hunting spacecraft, CoRoT, may truly be lost – and just shortly after receiving a mission extension as well.

Around the Solar System

Check out this video of low altitude imagery from the GRAIL missions shortly before impact on the moon last month.

The scary asteroid Apophis will definitely not hit us for at least 20 years, according to observations during the latest close-ish pass to Earth (still a long way away). Check out this nice simple web tool to see the real-time position of Apophis relative to Earth.

A pretty picture of Mercury.

Out There

Even more observations of the star Fomalhaut reveal that it may in fact have a planet after all. The new observations clearly show something moving in the orbit that was thought to belong to the planet. These observations are new since the last time I linked to Phil Plait discussing Fomalhaut, back in October.

Speaking of exoplanets, I recently registered at after reading about the 15 new planet candidates they have found. This is the first “citizen science” project I have tried that has held my attention.

Because it’s cool

A pretty shot of a C-17 parked in Samoa.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Before we proceed, let’s get one thing out of the way: please don’t expect anything to change this Friday.

In some less than cheery news that is actually based in reality, some estimates indicate that Johnson Space Center (where I work) would not do well if the pending “sequestration” of US federal spending were to occur.

Yet another lost moon rock display has been located – this one belonging to the State of Alaska. This CollectSpace account of the finding is rather long, but well worth a read if you like shady intrigue…

In Orbit

Early Wednesday morning, a Soyuz launched from Kazakhstan that will bring the Expedition 34 crew on ISS to its full complement of six. The latest flight includes Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, American Tom Marshburn, and first time Soyuz commander Roman Romanenko. The Soyuz mission is numbered TMA-07M, which I point out because their patch is so creative. See if you can spot the cleverness below.

The trick is in the fire

Soyuz TMA-07M patch

The crew will dock to ISS on Friday.

In anticipation of the launch, Universe Today ran a feature about the legacy of the Soyuz launch vehicle, which has been flying since 1966. I found this discussion of the Soyuz from Chris Hadfield’s perspective more interesting still. Hadfield has done a great job sharing his pre-flight activity via social media and there are some videos worth watching in that last article.

Hadfield’s son, Evan,  wrote an article about growing up as an astronaut’s son that is pretty sobering and worth a read. Surely he and his family are happy that Commander Hadfield made it to orbit, but I suspect their fear and stress does not end until he returns to Earth.

The Russian satellite that was launched on a faulty Proton rocket upper stage earlier this month was able to reach its intended geostationary orbit under its own power.

NASA is planning to test color-changing lights on ISS that should help with astronauts sleep cycles.

Even the mainstream news media was talking about this bit of space news: the North Korean rocket launch that supposedly put a satellite in orbit. According to Hyperbola Blog, independent experts claim to be tracking the object but it appears to be tumbling in its 100 km orbit and not operating. Unfortunately, Hyperbola does not often cite sources so I’m not sure about the veracity of their post…

Around the Solar System

As planned, China’s Chang’E 2 probe was able to make a close fly-by of NEA Toutatis. Very impressive.

China’s first deep space planetary fly-by

Here’s a sequence of radar observations of Toutatis (via Universe Today).

Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society updated her nifty graphic showing all asteroids and comets visited by humanity’s spacecraft – it now included Toutatis. Toutatis is near the upper right. Emily does not included Vesta, which was visited by the Dawn spacecraft, because it is so much more massive than the others. You can buy a poster print of the graphic at the Planetary Society’s store.

The two lunar gravity probes that make up NASA’s GRAIL mission were deliberately slammed into a mountain on the Moon this past Monday. The impact site was named for Sally Ride, who died this year. Sally Ride helped get the probes to carry the MoonKAMs which were designed only for educational outreach.

If you’re wondering why NASA would blow up a space mission that had only been in operation for about a year, there is a reason! Ebb and Flow orbited the moon at the extremely low 50 km. This required significant amounts of propellant to maintain, but allowed extremely detailed gravity mapping of the moon. This fall, the fuel had all but run out and the science was all but done. Thus, end of GRAIL. You can read more about it on the NASA mission page or on Wikipedia (which has many more source links).

Out There

An “international team of astronomers” (the A team?) announced this week (with a published paper and a press release) that they believe they have found a five-planet system around the Sun-like star Tau Ceti. Tau Ceti is only 12 light years from us and initial data indicates one or more of the planets is in the habitable zone of the star. All of the stars are between 2 and 6 Earth-mass. The discovery used new techniques looking at existing data. Thus, sober voices are saying that additional follow-up is needed before the planet(s) can be confirmed. Surely, that followup will come quickly for such an important discovery.

Late Links

First off, congratulations to SpaceX on the launch of their second mission to ISS (first official commercial flight) which started off last night with a great launch – despite the engine malfunction that resulted in a shutdown and a ruptured fairing. Loss of an engine is not good, but they designed the rocket appropriately to deal with the failure.

Here’s a slow motion video of the fairing rupture event (via Parabolic Arc). Jump to about 00:30.

I was in the ISS Flight Control Room here in Houston and had a great view of the launch.

What a view!

I thankfully had today off after working the last 7 days, but I will be back in mission control on Tuesday evening to work the last planning shift before Dragon arrives at ISS early Wednesday (~6:00 AM CDT).

Down to Earth

If you live in LA, remember to go watch Endeavour get rolled down the street this week Friday! And just for fun, how hard would it be to steal Endeavour off of the streets of LA? Here’s a Bond villian style attempt to hatch a plan… (via Universe Today)

Virgin Galactic has purchased full ownership of The Spaceship Company (formerly owned partially by Scaled Composites to make the spaceships for VG).

Meanwhile in New Mexico, the new hanger for Stratolaunch’s enormous airplane is under construction. I love the nickname “space goose” and intend to use it from here forward.

The Red Bull-funded record setting sky dive is set for tomorrow morning.

In Orbit

It seems the Expedition 33 crew on ISS captured an image of the smoke trail from ATV-3 burning up in the atmosphere last week. Unfortunately they were too far away from ATV to actually see the re-entry it self, but this is pretty good!

A new way to launch satellites from ISS was demonstrated last week. A spring-loaded “gun” was attached to the end of the Japanese module’s robotic arm and fired off 6 cubesats. Here is a description from NASA PR and some great high res photos of the deploy (with video).

NASA has officially announced that future astronauts will stay for an entire year on the ISS.

NASA satellites catch a new eruption in Kamchatka.

The twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes recorded the “sound” of the Van Allen belts.

Around the Solar System

Have a relatively large telescope at home (~6 inch)? Then you should check out Comet Hergenrother.

The long-flying mission Deep Impact has made a course correction that will allow it to perform another asteroid fly-by in 2020. Let’s hope funding for a mission extension is granted. It would be a shame to not utilize a spacecraft that’s already on its way! The targetted object – asteroid 163249 – is what is known as a “potentially hazardous asteroid”, or PHA, so it is well worth the visit.

Curiosity scooped up her first hand full of martian dirt. I wasn’t impressed by the video of MSL “shaking” the dirt in the scoop, but the potential science is very exciting. Go MSL!

Out There

NASA’s Swift has detected a black hole – the first such detection using this instrument. Very cool!

Because it’s Cool

Penguins and the aurora.

Friday Links

Down to Earth

NASA’s “super guppy” aircraft is taking part of the shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer to Seattle this week. This is one of the mock-ups that sat in JSC building 9 for crew training for decades. Only the front part of the mock-up – the nose and crew cabin – was in the guppy for this flight.

XKCD makes a solid argument for why the Apollo program wasn’t faked.

The B-612 Foundation intends to design and launch an infrared telescope for finding more NEOs. They want to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and this would represent the first privately funded mission of its kind… assuming they design and launch their observatory before the also recently announced Planetary Resources.

In Orbit

Shenzhou 9’s crew of 3 left the Tiangong-1 space station last night and should be landing tonight in a few hours. Spaceflight Now has a status center you can follow.

Expedition 31 will also be coming to an end this weekend with the crew of 29S leaving ISS on June 30 and landing on Kazakhstan on July 1. The internet will miss Andre Kuipers’ photos and Don Pettit’s blog, surely.

Beautiful mesospheric clouds photographed by ISS crew.

The ISS flew right over Colorado and got some video imagery of the wildfires there.

Don Pettit explains the current state of ISS dining etiquette.

Update: forgot to include this excellent post from Don showing the Moon waning over several orbits from ISS.

Out There

There’s a star possibly going nova near Sagittarius, as reported by Sky and Telescope. This is different than a supernova. It’s a dim star that gets less dim. Interesting for people with amateur telescopes but nothing spectacular.

Some scientists have figured out how to observe the atmospheres of exoplanets, even if they do not transit in front of their star. The study was done at the VLT in Chile in the infrared range.