Archive for the ‘Orbital Sciences’ Category

2017 in Review

The year of 2017 will be remembered by most of my readers for reasons totally unrelated to spaceflight. It was a tumultuous year with political turmoil, social strife, acts of violence, and devastating natural disasters. Unfortunately, it is these negative stories that tend to embed themselves in our memories as we witness the arc of history unfold. Even when we zoom out to a wide angle view of decades or centuries, it is violence and conflict we remember. What were the biggest events of the 20th century? Wars, economic collapse, threats of annihilation, and social strife. I don’t have to remind you though, as a space fan, that most of the world shares at least one bright memory of the difficult last century: Apollo 11.

In a similar way, I’m hoping that through all the difficult times we face as a society in the 21st century, that spaceflight can be one of those bright spots that is a source of optimism and hope (although, surely not the only source). As Bill Nye is fond of saying “space brings out the best in us.” Spaceflight is an outlet for positive creative energy. Spaceflight applies technology in new ways, often leading to new inventions and sometimes entire industries. Spaceflight allows us to conduct important research that applies directly to the interests and concerns of everyone on Earth – from medical studies onboard the ISS to weather and climate satellites to space telescopes looking out for Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

Spaceflight is a bipartisan endeavor universally loved by young and old alike because it taps into something innate in us. Whether it’s the love of exploration and discovery or just the appeal of astronauts as wholesome hometown heroes, space has always been an easy sell to the public. Very few other uses of time and money are as generally noncontroversial (although we like to argue over specifics). There was a chance for space to get swallowed up in the political turmoil in Washington, DC this past year. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, the space industry had another great year with very few setbacks.

Some readers may take issue with that statement and want to argue that it was not a great year for space. After all, NASA still has no confirmed administrator, XCOR went out of business, several programs slipped their launch dates (JWST, SLS, Orion), and Cassini ended its mission at Saturn (leaving us with a dearth of outer solar system probes). But if we look at those space programs or missions that are active and flying, we see lots of success in 2017 with few failures. The loss of Cassini should probably be spun as a positive story anyway – the planned retirement of a historic program of exploration – 13 years in Saturn orbit.

Other than the few things I listed above, the only other major setbacks of 2017 would be the five complete launch failures shown below (there were one or two other partial failures). Both Japan and New Zealand (Rocket Lab) lost rockets on their maiden launch. India, China, and Russia all lost one rocket each. The two remaining major space powers – ESA and USA – did not have any launch failures.

Country Vehicle Payload Maiden launch?
Japan SS-520 nanosat Yes
New Zealand Electron none Yes
China Long March 5 Comm sat No
India PSLV Nav sat No
Russia Soyuz Various No

2017 actually had the lowest launch success rate since 2011 and yet overall it felt like a very successful year (launch success was about 93% instead of the usual 95%). A few things contribute to this being a good year for rockets. First of course, is that 2 of the failures were test launches. If you remove them from the accounting, we are back at 95%. The second big reason is that none of the other failures led to an interruption in logistical support for the ISS. From 2014 to 2016, ISS operations lost four uncrewed logistical support rockets. After a string that bad, the last 13 months of successful flights (ten missions in all) feels positively blissful.

The third, and maybe most important reason this was a great year for rockets, was that SpaceX had no failures this year. In 2015 they lost an ISS resupply mission on ascent. In 2016 their year was cut short at 8 missions when a rocket blew up on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. The backlog of customers was looming for a long 6 months while SpaceX worked on recovering from that latest failure. Then, last January they returned to flight with a launch for Iridium and haven’t let up since. Their accomplishments include: no launch failures, a record 18 launches, a record 15 first stage recoveries, and first reuse of a first stage. The other American providers, ULA and Orbital ATK, also had good years with 8 and 3 successful launches each with no failures.

As long as we get to space with chemically propelled rockets, everything hinges on how well our rockets are flying. We can’t really do a retrospective on the year without looking at these numbers. This has always been true, but what is particularly poignant from 2017 are those 18 launches from SpaceX. That’s fully 20% of all launches. Not only that, but they flew a lot of important missions. In 2017 alone they launched four times to the ISS and at least twice for the US military. In 2018 they plan to launch several times for NASA, including to the ISS as well as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). At this point, it’s pretty clear that when SpaceX has a good year, the space industry has a good year.

In addition to the 10 successful cargo launches to the ISS this year, there were also 4 flawless crew launches to keep the record of 17 straight years of crewed operations going. NASA stepped up to 4 full-time USOS crew (which includes Japanese, Canadian, and European flyers), enabling even more research. NASA is now in full utilization mode of the ISS. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted each year – from physical science to medicine to biology to botany to astronomy – and each SpaceX Dragon brings up more externally mounted autonomous payloads such as last year’s aerosol monitoring payload (SAGE III) and a neutron star telescope (NICER), among others. The ISS has become an important platform for efficiently deploying small satellites, with dozens launched from the Japanese robotic arm last year.

The ISS looks well positioned for the future, with a healthy manifest of crew and payloads coming up as well as the exciting prospect of even larger crews, once Boeing and SpaceX successfully demonstrate flight of their new crew transportation systems. In the meantime, important maintenance has been ongoing to ensure that ISS can operate well into the 2020s. Early in the year a Japanese cargo vehicle, an HTV, brought up a new set of lithium ion batteries, the first in a series of battery replacements over the next few years that will keep the solar power flowing. The batteries were replaced in a series of 3 spacewalks last January. Ultimately, ISS astronauts would complete 10 successful spacewalks last year with no major issues.

The year in ISS was underscored by Peggy Whitson’s amazing flight. At 57 years old, Whitson now holds the record for most days in space of any American astronaut in history (665) as well as an impressive 60 hours of EVA time that puts her number 3 all time behind Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria. Peggy’s 289 day mission was almost entirely unprecedented. Not only was Whitson praised as a “space ninja” by her crew mates for her work onboard the ISS, but even made a wide impression outside of NASA and received a Woman of the Year award from Glamour Magazine. The crews aboard the ISS continue to bring the wonder of spaceflight home to us through their social media engagement and excellent educational outreach events. If you aren’t checking this link for the latest pictures from space every morning, you are missing out on a little bit of daily wonder.

The ISS is of course not the only game in town. NASA has very active planetary science and astronomy programs, not to mention similar missions from ESA, JAXA, and other agencies. 2017 saw no new launches of solar system probes (that’s right, zero) but many active missions made progress and the only “failure” being the end of Cassini. Mars is incredibly active with 8 missions. Two NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are providing a wealth of insights into the wet history of Mars. The most exciting discoveries from those robots are likely yet to come. Two asteroid sample return missions, OSIRIS-Rex from NASA and Hayabusa 2 from JAXA, remain in interplanetary cruise phase. New Horizons is on its way to visit a Kuiper Belt Object next year, Juno remains in orbit at Jupiter, and Dawn continues to explore the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Some of these missions we heard big news from this year, such as Cassini’s analysis of the ocean plumes from icy Enceladus. We also gained a new understanding of the winds and storms of Jupiter from Juno. Not to mention the absolutely stunning images we have been treated to from JunoCam.

But overall, space exploration, especially planetary exploration, is a long game. Spacecraft take years to reach their targets and then spend sometimes months or years (at least for orbiters and rovers) slowly collecting the data they need to learn something new from our mysterious solar system neighbors. So there were no splashy launches or touchdowns in 2017. Instead, the hard work from years past continued to pay off with well built spacecraft going about their daily business. 2017 was a great year in this respect. Years like this lay the foundation for big discoveries to come; it’s just that we have to wait a bit for the papers to be published. The only real downer this year is probably that Curiosity’s drill is still out of commission.

There is of course, a lot more to cover. Spaceflight is a big industry that goes far beyond just the ISS or big planetary exploration missions. New Space, for instance, had a lot of interesting updates this year. In addition to Rocket Lab making their first launch attempt, Blue Origin demonstrated further progress on their New Shepard vehicle as well as their BE-4 engine, Virgin Orbit moved a few steps closer to their first test launch with several engine tests, and Sierra Nevada conducted their first free glide flight in several years.

Then there’s astronomy. So much is happening in astronomy these days that it deserves a lengthy retrospective all its own. Here are some highlights of last year in a quick paragraph. Many interesting exoplanets were discovered, such as the fascinating Trappist-1 system with three potentially habitable planets. But Ross 128b is my favorite potentially habitable planet, because it is less than 11 light years from Earth. Let’s go! Other exciting developments in astronomy included more neutron star collisions discovered via gravitational waves and also the fascinating cigar shaped something known as ‘Omuamua which flew through our solar system from somewhere this past October (more to come on this we hope).

As we look to the future, we can see that there is a lot to learn. The ISS has years of science to conduct – managers are furiously looking for more ways to maximize timelines and target the most likely breakthroughs. Meanwhile there are dozens of worlds here at home in our solar system yet to explore, not just with probes already launched but many to come (launches to Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in 2018). And most intriguing of all, there are thousands upon thousands of worlds to explore out there, beyond our own star.

The more we look, the more we find. And the more we find, the more questions we think to ask. This is the optimistic and worldview expanding impact of science. We are losing the explorers of the last century – Apollo legends Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, and John Young all passed away in their 80s in the past year. But it’s hard not to see the vast opportunity available to the current generation of explorers in this century. Perhaps some day we will look back at this time period as a changing of the guard. It is hard to say without the benefit of hindsight. If nothing else, for those of us that are inspired by scientific discovery and exploration, 2017 showed us that spaceflight can be – and probably always will be – a candle in the dark.

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2017 Link Dump

Here’s my roundup of all of the year-end summaries posted by various space agencies and space reporters.

NASA’s year in review video:

ESA’s year in review video:

NASA headquarters photographers’ best images of 2017.

Space.com’s top space science stories of 2017.

Space.com’s top spaceflight stories of 2017.

Mashable’s top 5 space stories of 2017.

Parabolic Arc’s analysis of worldwide rocket launches for 2017.

Top planetary science stories of 2017, from The Planetary Society.

Or if you prefer audio, here’s The Planetary Radio’s year-end wrap-up show.

Top stargazing images of the year from EarthSky.

And for non-space context, here’s the year in pictures from around the world:

Boston Globe Year in Pictures: Part I

Boston Globe Year in Pictures: Part II

Washington Post’s year in photos

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

Out There

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

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Andy Weir, author of the smash hit The Martian released his second novel, Artemis.

Sierra Nevada released video of last week’s successful glide flight of their Dream Chaser space plan:

A long-lost Omega astronaut watch from the Apollo era has been recovered and returned to the Smithsonian.

In Orbit

The Cygnus cargo freighter that launched last week, arrived at the ISS successfully on November 14.

Two rocket launches last week:

Around the Solar System

A new study in Nature analyzes Pluto’s hazy atmosphere and offers an explanation for the planet being colder than expected ( minus 300 deg F instead of minus 280 deg F).

Out There

A newly discovered exoplanet, Ross 128 b, is only 11 light years away and could be in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star it orbits.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Sierra Nevada Corporation completed a successful free-flight landing test of their Dream Chase space plane. The test was the first free-flight since 2013, when they had a landing gear issue during their first test.

XCOR Aerospace, a company that spent over a decade trying to develop their own space plane, has filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy (i.e., their assets will be auctioned off).

Another veteran astronaut of the Apollo era has passed away. Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon died last week at 88 years old. In addition to orbiting the moon, Gordon flew on the Gemini 11 mission with Pete Conrad and later worked on the Space Shuttle program.

During an engine test last week, SpaceX had an incident with a qualification unit of their new Merlin engine design. The engine basically blew up but no one was injured.

If you get up before dawn tomorrow, you will have a chance to see a conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter. They will rise very close together in the East.

In Orbit

Three orbital rocket launches since my last post:

  • November 5 – China launched two new Beidou navigation satellites.
  • November 8 – ESA launched a Vega rocket carrying an earth-observing satellite for Morocco.
  • November 12 – Orbital ATK launched an Antares rocket from Virginia carrying a Cygnus cargo freighter to the International Space Station. It will arrive on station Tuesday morning.

Around the Solar system

You can vote on a name for the small object 2014 MU69, which will be visited by the New Horizons probe in early 2019.

A study gives new explanation to why Saturn’s watery moon Enceladus is so geologically active.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Skylab and Space Shuttle astronaut Paul Weitz has died at 85 years old.

The 2018 US Olympic Snowboard team will wear uniforms inspired by NASA spacesuits.

Saudi Arabia has agreed to invest $1 billion dollars in Virgin Galactic.

In Orbit

In rocket news, there were only two orbital launches since my last post on October 21:

Around the Solar Systems

NASA’s robotic probe Dawn has received an official mission extension to stay in orbit around the asteroid Ceres.

Out There

Astronomers at an observatory in Chile have discovered an unusual exoplanet orbiting a dwarf star. The planet is larger than Jupiter and is 25% the size of its host star, the highest known planet-to-star ratio yet discovered.

The Pan-STARRS-1 observatory in Hawaii detected a small rocky body hurtling into our solar system from interstellar space. The asteroid (or should it be called something else?) poses no risk to Earth. Follow the link for a cool animation of its orbit.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

LEGO is releasing a “women of NASA” set.

The Apollo 11 capsule Columbia has started its around the country tour with a new exhibit at Space Center Houston: Destination Moon.

This Lyft commercial referencing the Apollo program is cute, but is missing a shout out to Michael Collins.

Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, conducted the first test fire of their new BE-4 rocket engine.

In Orbit

The ISS Expedition 53 crew completed the second and third spacewalks in their October series. All planned tasks were completed successfully, leaving the space station with some new cameras and a repaired robotic arm. The rest of the year on ISS will be focused on science research, with some critical deliveries onboard a Cygnus resupply and SpaceX Dragon resupply.

Since my last post on October 9th, there have been four orbital rocket launches:

  • October 11 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying two geostationary communication satellites. The first stage was a previously flown booster and was recovered on a droneship.
  • October 13 – A Russian Rokot launched carrying an Earth obesrvation payload for ESA.
  • October 14 – A Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonaur carrying an unmanned Progress resupply bound for the ISS.
  • October 15 – ULA launched an Atlas V rocket carrying a national security payload for the NRO.

The Progress freighter docked successfully two days after launch.

Below are a few of the best pictures taken onboard the ISS from the past two weeks. If you want to help maintain the amazing archive of millions of pictures of Earth taken from ISS, now there’s a way! Check out Cosmo Quest’s new Image Detective project.

https://twitter.com/astro_paolo/status/920369795111051264

ISS astronauts tried to capitalize on a cultural craze down here on Earth with this recent video:

Out There

Hot on the heels of the Nobel Prize in Physics announcement, LIGO made another big discovery using gravitational waves: the first signal from the collision of two neutron stars was detected and confirmed. Phil Plait has a wonderful poetic post explaining what this means for our understanding of the universe.

Weekly Links

Not as much news as usual this week. To tide you over, don’t forget to check out all the tweets from the crew of the ISS from time to time! Here is a direct link to a feed of all of their tweets.

Down to Earth

Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman has purchased Orbital ATK in an enormous $9.2 billion deal.

Australia announced at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide that they will be establishing their  space agency.

https://twitter.com/exploreplanets/status/912108822663020544

In Orbit

Two orbital rocket launches since last week:

On September 22nd, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched carrying a new GLONASS navigation satellite.

On September 24th, a ULA Atlas V rocket launched from California carrying a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Around the Solar System

Check out this amazing image of Jupiter from NASA’s Juno probe.

NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid explorer conducted a close flyby of Earth to set up its orbital transit out to the asteroid belt, where it should reach its target next year.

Weekly Links

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

Down to Earth

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

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Orbital ATK performed a qualification test firing of the abort motor for the Orion spacecraft.

A recent study at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas (UNLV) found that the cancer risk for a journey to Mars may be higher than previously thought. Spaceflight Insider published a response opinion piece by Robert Zubrin (author of The Case for Mars).

Jeffrey Kluger (science editor at time and coauthor with Jim Lovell of Apollo 13) has published a new book Apollo 8 about humanity’s first mission to orbit the moon. I am currently listening to the book on Audible and will publish a review next week.

A private company based in Europe called Bake In Space has announced plans to fly an experimental zero-gravity oven and dough recipe to the space station.

In Orbit

There have been two orbital rocket launches in the last week:

The Progress freighter arrived at ISS this past Friday and docked successfully, delivering supplies from station propellant to food, water, and science experiments.

Tragically, an employee of the Russian space program died after he was deployed to the cleanup zone after the Soyuz launch and a fire engulfed his truck.

The Chinese space agency has tested robotic refueling with their uncrewed Tianzhou freighter at the Tiangong-2 space station.

Ever since the SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the ISS last week, robotics engineers have been busy at work unloading new science experiments, including the NICER neutron star observatory and the Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA).

Out There

Astronomers continue to search for habitable, Earth-like planets around other stars. However, other oddball planets also continue to pop up, like KELT-9b, which is the hottest planet ever discovered.