Archive for the ‘Orbital Sciences’ Category

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.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The crew of three Chinese taikonauts finished their 30-day stay aboard the Tiangong-2 space staion and returned to Earth last month.

A planned cargo resupply flight (with no astronauts aboard) launched from Kazakhstan on December 1 on its way to the ISS, but did not make orbit and crashed somewhere in a remote part of Asia. The next ISS resupply is a Japanese HTV vehicle launching next week.

Virgin Galactic continued their flight test program for the new SpaceShipTwo vehicle (named VSS Unity) with a captive carry flight on November 30 and then a glide drop test on December 3. Powered flights should be happening soon, but no specific dates are public. Here’s a photo gallery of the flight test.

In Orbit

Four other rockets launched since my last post on November 16, all successfully placing their payloads in orbit:

The ISS has had a very busy month, notwithstanding the loss of Progress 65. After the last three members of Expedition 50 arrived, they got quickly to work with last-minute packing of the Cygnus freighter, which they released two days later.

Since the Cygnus departure, the crew has been furiously working on their long list of on-orbit experiments. Thomas has someone found the time to tweet every day. Some of his best are below:

Around the Solar System

Radar measurements on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have discovered a vast deposit of frozen water under the Northern mid-latitudes of Mars.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX posted an update to their accident investigation regarding the rocket that was lost on a launch pad in September. Here’s a direct link to their anomaly updates page. They hope to return to flight this year.

In Orbit

In launches, it has been a slow couple of weeks, with only two orbital launches since my last post on October 16th. It was quality over quantity though, as both launches were important and anticipated missions for ISS operations.

First, Orbital ATK was able to finally launch their upgraded Antares rocket with a Cygnus cargo craft on its way to ISS. The rocket launched on Monday October 17th and was captured at the ISS almost a week later on Sunday the 23rd. The delay was necessary due a higher priority launch and docking of three crew aboard a Soyuz (see below).

On Wednesday, October 19, the Soyuz rocket carrying the second half of Expedition 50 finally launched (after a spacecraft problem delayed them several weeks). The launch, rendezvous, and docking were flawless. The new crew of Shane Kimbrough Andrei Borisenko, and Sergey Ryzhikov arrived at ISS on the 21st.

There were 8 people in space only briefly (recall that two Chinese taikonauts are hanging out on their own space station right now). Expedition 49 had to hand over command to new Expedition 50 commander Kimbrough on the 28th before Anatoli Ivanishin, Kate Rubins, and Takuya Onishi undocked on Saturday night and landed safely a few hours later.

Speaking of the Chinese taikonauts, they docked successfully to the Tiangong-2 space station on October 20th and plan to stay for several weeks.

Around the Solar System

The ExoMars mission arrived at Mars on October 19th. The orbiter (known as TGO – Trace Gas Orbiter) made a successful orbital insertion burn but unfortunately, contact with the Schiaparelli lander was lost at the planned time of touchdown. The lander is suspected to be lost, but NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was able to image the lander’s crash site, which should help with investigations. Below is an animated GIF showing the recent appearance of the lander in MRO imagery:

And here’s a closeup from the MRO’s HiRise camera.

In other bad news, the Juno spacecraft went into safe mode during its closest approach to Jupiter on October 18 and was not able to obtain scientific data. This came only a few days after an engine burn had been cancelled. Fortunately, mission controllers were able to command Juno out of safe mode on October 24 and perform at least one “trim” maneuver. The mission timeline will be impacted by the problem but there are still dozens of orbits left in the primary mission to gather data.

Here is a nice post with images about the preliminary results from Juno so far.

Speaking of spacecraft beaming data back to Earth, the data downlink from the New Horizons probe of its Pluto flyby last July has finally completed, 15 months later!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

An opinion piece by Barack Obama appeared in CNN last week discussing his vision for America’s future in space and particularly, future missions to Mars.

Amid talk of a schedule slip of the first Starliner missions, Boeing announced they will need to add an aeroskirt for their launch configuration atop the Atlas V rocket (follow the link for an illustration).

In Orbit

Astronauts on the ISS opened up the BEAM module for another round of inspections (that’s the “expandable” module that was added back in May). Meanwhile, NASA announced that it is seeking commercial partners to build new functional modules for the ISS. Of course, the supplier of BEAM, Bigelow Aerospace, is one of the companies seeking the contract.

The launch of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket (returning to flight almost 2 years after the last one failed after launch) was delayed until tomorrow evening due to a technical issue.

Earlier this evening, China launched a manned Shenzhou capsule with two crew aboard. They are heading to the new Tiangong-2 space station for an extended mission. When the latest ISS Soyuz crew launches in a couple of days, there will be 8 people in space! It has been very rare for the number to grow above 6 since the last Space Shuttle mission five years ago.

Around the Solar System

Due to some sticky valves in the Juno spacecraft’s propulsion system, the probe will not be making a scheduled burn to reduce its orbital period from over 50 days to just 14 days. NASA is waiting another orbit (so, until December) to investigate and then try again.

Astronomers have discovered a new distant unnamed object (2014 UZ224) which may be large enough to qualify as a “dwarf planet”. The object is smaller than Pluto and orbits about 5 times farther from the sun.

The ExoMars/Schiaparelli mission – a joint mission between ESA and Roscosmos – had some critical mission events today, including separation of the Schiaparelli lander and a critical orbital maneuver to setup for orbital insertion next week.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jack Garman, who worked a support console for Apollo guidance and navigation, passed away on September 20th, at 72 years old. Garman is best known as being instrumental in the calls to proceed with landing on Apollo 11 when some guidance computer program alarms showed up at just 3,000 feet above the surface. Here’s the raw audio from that part of the landing which is always worth listening to again. Great example of flight control in action.

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast StarTalk had a special episode hosted by astronaut Mike Massimino with guest interviewees, flight directors Royce Renfrew and Emily Nelson. Check it out here!

Musician and singer Grace Potter collaborated with NASA on a music video for her song Look What We’ve Become. It was filmed completely at NASA’s Johnson Space Center! Check it out below.

One of the biggest national stories of the last week was Hurricane Matthew, which came close to dolling out a devastating blow to the East coast of Florida. Fortunately, the most dangerous winds stayed offshore as it passed the Kennedy Space Center, resulting in some damage but nothing too serious.

In the battle of the New Space giants, there were two big stories in recent weeks. First, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had his much anticipated presentation at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico. the speech presented a high level framework of his plans to visit Mars. Most of the details were focused on the rocket design and less on how humans would survive and thrive on Mars. Below is the full length video, but Ars Technica had a good analysis if you don’t want to watch all of it. Another good take on it from Phil Plait here.

If you are interested in just the 4-minute animation from SpaceX showing their imagined Mars mission architecture, jump to the second video below.

The other big story was Blue Origin’s successful in-flight abort test of their New Shepard rocket (personally, I am not sure if they have a separate name for the capsule or if New Shepard refers to the whole system. It was a pretty exciting launch and test. Jump to 51 minutes in the webcast replay below to watch!

In Orbit

Lots of good news regarding the ISS flight manifest. The next Cygnus cargo freighter, launching from Virginia for the first time in 2 years on Orbital ATK’s redesigned Antares rocket, should fly next Thursday, the 13th.

The following week, the next crew should launch on their repaired Soyuz craft. That launch is scheduled for Wednesday, the 19th.

There were two rocket launches since my last post. First, an Indian GSLV rocket launched a slew of satellites into orbit, including some from Algeria, USA, Canada, and India. Second, an ESA Ariane 5 rocket launched two communications satellites to a geosynchronous orbit on the 5th.

Around the Solar System

Check out this “video” (really an animated gif made from stills) of the Curiosity rover drilling on Mars! The rover has just officially entered its next two-year mission extension.

NASA announced new findings from the Hubble Space Telescope that reinforce the conclusion that not only does Europa have a subsurface ocean of liquid water, but that the water regularly exits the moon in powerful plumes (which could be theoretically sampled by a visiting probe).

In even more exciting planetary science news, NASA announced new analysis of data from the MESSENGER spacecraft (which finished its Mercury orbital mission last year). By analyzing imagery from the last part of MESSENGER’s mission, when it was at a lower altitude, scientists have concluded that the surface shows signs of recent contraction, meaning that Mercury is tectonically active.

ESA’s Rosetta mission ended on September 30th with a controlled descent into comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In late June, Orbital ATK test fired the second quality test solid rocket booster for SLS development:

Mike Suffredini, former ISS Program Manager, is now working for contractor SGT, Inc. and announced at a recent NewSpace conference his intentions to develop a commercial space station.

NASA and Apple announced a collaboration to create music inspired by the Juno mission.

A team of astronauts from five different nations completed a multi-night caving expedition in the Sardinia region of Italy. The project is run by ESA and is an spaceflight analog but also has real exploration objectives.

In Orbit

Here are all the rocket launches since the last post on June 24th:

  • June 25 – A Chinese Long March 7 rocket debuted from a new launch pad on Hainan Island. The rocket was carrying a demonstration for a future manned capsule design.
  • June 29 – Another Chinese rocket launched, this one with less information available about the payload.
  • July 7 – A Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan carrying three crew members to the ISS.

The Soyuz crew successfully docked to the ISS on Friday night after 2 days in orbit.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Juno probe arrived in Jupiter orbit last Monday, July 4th.

Several NASA missions received their official mission extensions. New Horizons was officially approved to continue its mission to the 2019 rendezvous with 2014 MU69 in the Kuiper Belt (we have 3 years to come up with a better name). The Dawn mission at Ceres was extended but it will stay in orbit there instead of moving on to another asteroid.

The Curiosity rover on Mars briefly went into safe mode but has since been recovered.

Weekly Links

Here’s your busy June update!

Down to Earth

Blue Origin launched their reusable New Shepard rocket for the fourth time, with a hosted webcast this time. Here is a video of the flight:

A Saturn V first stage, meant to be used on the Apollo 19 flight, was moved to the Stennis Space Center’s visitor center for display, along Interstate 10 in Mississippi.

During a congressional hearing last week, the issue of astronaut post-mission health care was discussed.

This is not strictly space news, but the deep winter rescue mission from the South Pole is just as harrowing and difficult as spaceflight in some ways.

A team of astronauts are going on a multi-night spelunking trip this month as a spaceflight analog training mission.

In Orbit

The new 3D printer aboard ISS by Made In Space has printed its first functional tool.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vessel was released from the ISS on June 14th and re-entered the atmosphere on June 22nd. In the meantime, NASA conducted the SAFFIRE in-flight fire experiment. Here’s some of the video they recorded:

Also returning to Earth this month, but in a more controlled fashion, was there astronauts aboard Soyuz TMA-19M: Tim Peake, Tim Kopra, and Yuri Malenchenko.

Here are all the orbital launches since my last post on June 6th:

  • A Russian Proton rocket carrying a communications satellite (June 9).
  • A ULA Delta IV rocket launch from Florida carrying a spy satellite (June 11).
  • A Chinese launch of one of their navigation satellite (June 12).
  • A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with two communications satellites (June 15).
  • A European Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communication satellites (June 18).
  • An Indian PSLV rocket carrying a slew of satellites including a flock of PlanetLabs Doves (June 22).
  • A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying a US military communications satellite (June 24).

The SpaceX launch, as usual, was the most exciting, with another ASDS landing attempt. They missed the landing this time. Here are some pictures of the wreckage returning to port.

Around the Solar System

New analysis of Pluto has led to the hypothesis that the dwarf planet may have a subsurface ocean… really!

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) got a new shot of the rover Curiosity on the slopes of Mount Sharp.

You’ve got to love this trailer for Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI) of the Juno probe, coming up on July 4th.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ohio’s Port Columbus International Airport has been renamed for astronaut John Glenn.

Orbital ATK says it is working on a new rocket, simply called the Next-Generation Launcher, to compete with ULA and SpaceX.

In Orbit

SpaceX continues their very successful year with a commsat launch (Thaicomm-8) to geostationary orbit and another successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage at sea. Here is a timelapse from an onboard camera showing the landing.

Three other successful rocket launches in the last week included a Soyuz launch by ESA carrying new Galileo navigation satellites, a Soyuz launch by Russia carrying a single GLONASS navigation satellite, and a Chinese rocket carrying Earth-observing satellites.

Up on the ISS, NASA successfully completed deployment of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is the first expandable structure to be launched as part of a manned spaceflight program. Astronauts are expected to egress BEAM in the near future.

Not much else happened in space news this week (but really, that’s a lot), so here are some pretty pictures from the ISS:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Buzz Aldrin has published a new book titled “No Dream is Too High.”

United Launch Alliance and Bigelow Aerospace have announced a new partnership. Bigelow will launch their enormous BA-330 expandable module on a ULA Atlas rocket.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 recovered first stage returned to port last week after landing on a droneship the week before. Check out the pictures.

An online auction for a camera lens used on the moon during Apollo 15 is now open.

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who was in the news last year for pledging millions of dollars to SETI, has announced his plan for a robotic interestellar mission called Breakthrough Starshot.

The last external tank from the Space Shuttle program left Michoud in Louisiana last week on an ocean voyage to California, where it will become a part of the display with Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Orbital ATK and Intelsat have struck a deal that may lead to the first commercial use of “robotic satellite servicing”.

In Orbit

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope unexpected entered emergency mode last week, but has since been successfully recovered. The cause of the event is still being investigated.

The new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was installed on the Node 3 module of ISS on Saturday. Here is a time-lapse of it being moved from the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft via the robotic arm.

It’s been a while since I have shared links to some of my favorite tweets from ISS here. The three US astronauts onboard have been furiously posting beautiful pictures of Earth pretty much every day. Here are just a few recent ones from just the past couple of days.

And here is a quick video from Jeff Williams showing us around the cupola and their cameras.

Around the Solar System

This is pretty cool. An amateur astronomer captured a video of a fireball in Jupiter’s atmosphere, as a large asteroid or some other object slammed into the planet.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former Space Shuttle astronaut and commander Don Williams passed away on February 23rd at 74. Read about his impressive career at CollectSpace.

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Deke Slayton departed the ISS on February 20 after a successful two-month mission.

NASA received a record number of applicants to the astronaut class of 2017.

Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut, has been named the chief pilot at World View, which aims to launch tourists to the edge of space in a balloon.

Virgin Galactic unveiled their latest spaceship, the second version of their SpaceShipTwo. They hope to start their flight test campaign soon, but no new target date for commercial flights was announced.

China has announced that they plan to launch their next space station later this year.

In Orbit

Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned safely from his 340 day mission aboard ISS. Before he left, he had a little fun with a costume his brother sent up to him:

You can see all the pictures that Scott took while onboard the ISS here (and there a lot!).

SpaceX finally had another successful launch, after several scrubs over the past week or two. On Friday, March 4th, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-9 payload launched from Florida. It was their first launch since January and second of the year. The first stage attempted a landing on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) but had a hard landing.