Archive for the ‘New Space’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) have struck a deal to end a 13-day strike.

Astronaut Drew Feustel received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Purdue University, from space.

In Orbit

Last Wednesday, Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold completed a planned 6-hour and 31-minute spacewalk aboard the International Space Station.

The only orbital rocket launch since my last post on May 15th was a Chinese Long March 4C rocket carrying the Queqiao satellite. Queqiao will be a a communications relay satellite for the upcoming Chang’e 4 lunar rover mission.

China also launched a notable suborbital rocket this past week. A private Chinese company OneSpace Technology, performed the first launch of their OS-X suborbital rocket.

Next week there are some interesting launches planned. On Monday, May 21, Orbital ATK will launch a Cygnus on its way to the ISS from Wallops Island Virginia. On Tuesday, May 22, SpaceX will launch a Falcon 9 rocket form Vandenberg in California.

Around the Solar System

This is a nice composite of images from Juno’s first 11 orbits of Jupiter.

NASA is planning to send a small helicopter to Mars along with the 2020 rover mission.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX’s second Falcon Heavy launch has been delayed until October.

Two New Space rocket companies, Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab, have both been awarded contracts to fly NASA cubesat missions.

Mark Geyer will replace Ellen Ochoa as director of the Johnson Space Center at the end of May.

Tom Wolfe, the author of The Right Stuff, has died at 88-years old.

In Orbit

There were two orbital rocket launches since my last post:

  • May 8 – China launched a Long March 4C rocket carrying an Earth-observing satellite.
  • May 11 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a communications satellite for Bangladesh.

The Falcon 9 rocket was the first “Block 5” version, which is the final upgrade of the design.

A collaboration between JAXA, the University of Nairobi, and the UN deployed the first Kenyan cubesat from the ISS last week.

Tomorrow morning, at roughly 8 AM Eastern, ISS astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel will be venturing out the airlock on a scheduled EVA to perform maintenance and upgrades.

Check out this picture of the erupting Hawaiian volcano, Kilauea, taken by the astronauts on ISS:

Around the Solar System

The Mars Cube One cubesats, on their way to Mars as part of the InSight mission, turned around and took this image of home this week.

A new paper in the journal Nature Astronomy includes a re-analysis of data from the Galileo spacecraft which orbiter Jupiter in the 90s. The magnetic anomalies seen during close fly-bys of the moon Europa seem to confirm the existence of water plumes, which could be sampled by the upcoming Europa Clipper mission.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Dr. Stephen Hawking died on March 14th, at age 76. The New York Times published a thorough review of his life and accomplishments.

NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot is retiring.

The startup rocket company Rocket Lab plans to launch their first commercial flight this spring. The rocket will be named It’s Business Time which follows in the naming tradition of their first two test rockets: It’s a Test and Still Testing.

Speaking of small rocket startups, Firefly Aerospace used the popular South by Southwest conference to publicly demonstrate an engine test (video below). The engine would power the upper stage of their planned Firefly Alpha rocket.

If you like rocket engine tests, then watch this new video of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, posted by Jeff Bezos last week.

The US federal government passed a new funding bill for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2018 last week. The large omnibus bill includes $20.7 for NASA. If you’d like a comparison of NASA’s budget over the years, check out this Wikipdia page.

In Orbit

Over the past two weeks there have been only two orbital rocket launches. The first was a Chinese Long March 2D rocket carrying an Earth-observing satellite. The second was a Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying 3 crew members on their way to the International Space Station.

Oleg Artemyev, Drew Feustel, and Ricky Arnold docked to the ISS successfully this past Friday, two days after launch. They join Anton Shkaplerov, Norishige Kanai, and Scott Tingle for the ongoing Expedition 55 mission.

Swarm Technologies launched four very small satellites in January without license from the FCC. In fact, the FCC had specifically asked them not to launch because they were too small to track. Now Swarm may not be able to receive future licenses.

Around the Solar System

Mission managers on the New Horizons project have chosen the name Ultima Thule for the small Kuiper Belt object which will be visited by the probe next year. The name would not become official until the International Astronomical Union (IAU) can weigh in.

Recent observations from the Dawn spacecraft reveal that the surface of the asteroid Ceres is dynamic, with changing amounts of visible ice and other materials.

The Kepler space telescope, launched in 2009, will likely run out of fuel this year.

Out There

A couple of interesting new exoplanet systems were announced recently:

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

The US federal government was shutdown briefly over the past weekend, and had some impacts to NASA, but ended by Tuesday morning. The federal budget decision has been moved by Congress to February 8th.

SpaceX completed the long-awaited “hot fire” test of their Falcon Heavy rocket on the launch pad in Florida. The company has reportedly set their launch date February 6th.

The flight controller consoles in NASA’s Historic Mission Control at Johnson Space Center began being removed this week as part of a longterm restoration effort.

NASA’s InSight lander, the next mission to Mars, launching this year, had its solar arrays tested at Lockheed Martin.

During the “Year of Education” onboard the ISS, astronauts will record lessons originally planned for Christa McAuliffe’s teacher-in-space flight on Challenger in 1986.

Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa plans to retire this year.

The Google Lunar X Prize will end this March with no team winning the $20 million prize for sending a private rover mission to teh moon.

In Orbit

There were two rocket launches last week:

The Ariane 5 rocket had some kind of anomaly with the upper stage and placed the payloads in the wrong orbit.

ISS astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Scott Tingle completed a spacewalk last Tuesday to service to Canadarm-2. Unfortunately, an issue discovered after the spacewalk has caused a change of plans, and a second excusion planned for this coming Monday will be used to enact some repairs.

Around the Solar System

Some news from Mars:

  • Researchers hope to observe a global dust storm on Mars in the near future to validate a theory that dust storms contribute to the loss of the planet’s atmosphere.
  • Data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has found potential ice sheets at mid-latitudes on the red planet.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Some recent crew assignment changes for the ISS have been receiving a lot of press, including the replacement of Jeanette Epps with Serena Aunon-Chancellor for a launch this summer. NASA has not provided specific details on the reason for the change.

As of Saturday morning, the US federal government has no official funding and must shutdown many services. This shutdown affects NASA and its field centers. The specific impacts to NASA operations will become more clear if the shutdown extends into the work week on Monday morning. In the meantime, NASA will press forward with the ISS spacewalk on Tuesday.

There was a lot of talk last week about an update on the schedule for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has slipped according to a report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). There was also a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the same topic.. The reports outline a few issues that the commercial providers – SpaceX and Boeing – both need to work through before their rockets and capsules can be certified to flight NASA astronauts to the ISS. Both companies answered questions at a congressional hearing following the report on Wednesday.

SpaceX still has not conducted a static fire of the Falcon Heavy rocket on Pad 39A. They are expected to try again this coming week with a potential launch before the end of the month.

In Orbit

The following rocket launches occurred last week:

Out There

A detailed study of Fast Radio Burst (FRB) 121102, one of the few repeating signals, has yielded a new hypothesis that these highly energetic events are caused by massive black holes.

NASA has demonstrated the concept of deep space navigation using neutron stars with the NICER payload onboard the ISS.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic conducted their first glide flight of SpaceShipTwo since last August.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has been attempting to conduct a static fire test ahead of launch, but has scrubbed three days in a row. It has been rescheduled for Monday.

In Orbit

Launches this past week included:

In the case of the SpaceX launch, there have been many reports from reliable journalists over the past week that the classified Zuma payload perhaps did not reach orbit. However, no official statement has yet been forthcoming.

Upcoming launches of interest include a ULA Atlas V from Florida on Jan 19, the next Rocket Lab Electron launch attempt on Jan 20, and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy test flight (possibly on Jan 25?).

On the ISS, the 13th SpaceX Dragon mission ended successfully with release and splashdown. SpaceX ships are currently retrieving the capsule to return its science samples.

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:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former astronaut Bruce McCandless II died at 80 years old. McCandless was selected as an astronaut in 1966 but didn’t fly until 1984 on STS-41-B. McCandless is probably best known as the first astronaut to do an untethered EVA using the MMU on that first flight. He flew again on STS-31 in 1990.

SpaceX released photos of the first Falcon Heavy rocket being readied for flight, as well as its payload.

The Falcon Heavy rocket was temporarily vertical on the launch pad for fit checks ahead of its January launch.

NASA completed a parachute drop test of the Orion spacecraft in Arizona. The test used only 2 of the 3 parachutes, to validate a parachute failure case.

NASA conducted a water suppression system test at launch pad 39B at KSC in preparation for SLS flights. Check out the video below:

NASA has selected two finalists for a new robotic planetary mission. The mission will either be a comet sample return or a Titan quadcopter.

The new American Girl doll will be an aspiring astronaut, with space suit and all.

In Orbit

There were five orbital rocket launches since my last post, two weeks ago:

  • Dec 23 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg in California, carrying communications satellites for Iridium.
  • Dec 23 – JAXA launched an H-IIA rocket carrying two scientific satellites.
  • Dec 23 – The Chinese space agency launched a Long March 2D rocket carrying an Earth-observing payload.
  • Dec 25 – The Chinese space agency launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying payloads for the Chinese military.
  • Dec 26 – Roscosmos launched a Zenit rocket carrying a communications satellite for Angola.

The Anogosat-1 payload initially had a problem and lost comm with ground control. However, reports in the past day or two indicate that communications have been restored.

The SpaceX launch was their 18th and last of the year – in 2016 they launched only 6 rockets. The launch was just after sunset and created spectacular views from the LA metro area. The video below from a drone is one of the best examples:

Meanwhile, the Soyuz rocket that launched on December 17th arrived at ISS successfully on Wednesday. The ISS crew has now returned to a full complement of 6. One of their Christmas treats was an onboard screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Also aboard the space station, the Progress 67P freighter undocked from the ISS this week and re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, carrying trash. The freighter will be replaced by 69P in February.

Here are some more pictures from the astronauts aboard the ISS the enjoy on your holiday weekend (as always, follow them on Twitter here).