Archive for the ‘Planetary science’ Category

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Down to Earth

It was a busy two weeks since my last post, but the most important event for those of us in the ISS program was the safe return of two crew members from the ISS on June 2nd. France’s Thomas Pesquet and Russia’s Oleg Novitskiy undocked and landed on the same day, leaving Fyodor Yurchikhin, Peggy Whitson, and Jack Fischer aboard ISS.

Speaking of astronauts, NASA announced a new class of 12 astronaut candidates last week at an event at Johnson Space Center. Here is a link to their short bios, and the complete video of the event is below. Notably, the United States Vice President came to JSC for the event. Also, 3 of the candidates under thirty (the first time anyone of my generation has been selected) and one of the candidates is a former SpaceX employee.

Also speaking of astronauts, the astronaut office has a new chief astronaut. Patrick Forrester has replaced Chris Cassidy in the role. The change was made so that Cassidy can go back into flight rotation.

The enormous Stratolaunch aircraft – designed to air launch large orbital rockets – made a debut in Mojave, California when it was rolled out for a fueling test.

Also in Mojave, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted another glide test flight.

LEGO has released a $120 model kit of the Saturn V.

In Orbit

Five orbital rocket launches so far in June:

Up at the International Space Station, the station crew was busy with cargo transfer. First, the Cygnus vehicle, which had been docked for a month, departed and then two days later the SpaceX Dragon capsule was successfully captured by the robotic arm.

Around the Solar System

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was struck by a meteor. Remarkably, the results were captured in an image.

NASA has announced a solar investigation probe that will launch next year.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic completed a successful glide flight of their latest SpaceShipTwo. The test included a test of the “feathering” system. The feathering system is what resulted in the loss of the first SpaceShipTwo during a powered ascent in 2014. This flight was an unpowered glide descent.

The air force’s secret space plane, the X-37B built by Boeing, landed after its 4th flight in space. The plane is small and unmanned, but is still impressive, flying and landing a lot like the Space Shuttle. This fourth mission spent an amazing 718 days in space.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – scheduled for launch next year – has been shipped from Goddard Spaceflight Center to Johnson Spaceflight Center for thermal vacuum testing.

In Orbit

Three successful orbital rocket launches since my last post (with another SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Florida planned for tomorrow):

The video coverage of the SpaceX launch was some of their best ever, with video tracking of the rocket all the way from launch through stage separation and back to the recovery of the first stage booster on land. See below.

NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer completed a 4-hour spacewalk on Friday, May 12th, to do various ISS maintenance and upgrade tasks. The spacewalk was the 200th in support of ISS assembly and maintenance and put Whitson at 5th all time for spacewalking hours.

Around the Solar System

After Cassini’s first “deep dive” between Saturn and its rings (the first in a series as the mission ends), results show that this part of the area near Saturn is more dust-free than expected.

The Mars rover Curiosity is investigating sand dunes on Mars to learn more about local wind patterns in Gale Crater.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

JAXA has included a replacement for their lost Hitomi X-Ray astronomy satellite in next year’s budget.

A new documentary about the early days of NASA Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control was released last week.

Marine, astronaut, and Senator John Glenn was laid to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery last week.

In Orbit

There have been only two orbital rocket launches since my last post on March 28th:

The first launch was a much-anticipated flight from SpaceX. The launch on March 30th was a relatively routine launch of a communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit. What made it unique was the the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket had previously been flown before on a NASA cargo launch last spring. The launch was flawless, including recovery of the first stage booster on the droneship at sea, marking the first operational reuse of a rocket by a commercial company (components of the Space Shuttle system, such as the Orbiter and the SRBs, were frequently reflown).

The second launch was a Chinese Long March 3B rocket with a communications satellite aboard. This launch was mostly notable for this incredible video of the launch filmed from a dangerously close range:

Meanwhile, things have been very busy at the International Space Station. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson conducted another spacewalk (designated US EVA 41) on March 30th. The pair of experienced spacewalkers managed to complete all planned tasks, including hooking up a new docking port at the front of the space station. However, the EVA was not without some excitement: one of four special thermal “shields” was accidentally dropped overboard and mission control teams had to come up with a plan to replace the shield in order to keep components of the ISS thermally protected.

Shortly after the spacewalk, Commander Shane Kimbrough handed the space station over the Whitson and then returned to Earth with the rest of his Soyuz crew, completing Expedition 50.

It was then announced that Peggy Whitson has agreed to stay onboard the ISS an extra 3 months and use a bonus empty seat on next week’s Soyuz mission to come home in September. Peggy will be the most experienced non-Russian astronaut in history when she comes home.

Around the Solar System

New results from the Cassini spacecraft, which orbits Saturn, have shown that the “plumes” coming from the ocean moon Enceladus’ subsurface seas contain molecular hydrogen, which could be used by microbial life to conduct methanogenesis (like the life living near Earth’s deep sea hydrothermal vents).

Measurements of elemental argon in Mars’ atmosphere by the MAVEN spacecraft have revealed that most of the planet’s atmosphere has been lost to space.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this new video of Blue Origin’s orbital rocket concept, New Glenn.

If you like planetary science and are excited by the idea of future missions to Europa, you should read this detailed post at Ars Technica about how Congressman John Culbertson is working to make it happen.

SpaceX successfully conducted the static fire test for their next rocket launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. A Falcon 9 carrying a commercial satellite will liftoff very early Tuesday morning, March 14th.

In Orbit

Only one orbital rocket launch since my last post. A European Space Agency Vega rocket launched the Earth-observing Sentinel-2B satellite from French Guiana on March 7th.

As usual, there are lots of good pictures from the crew on the ISS to share. Here’s a selection.

https://twitter.com/Thom_astro/status/839769655971627008

https://twitter.com/Thom_astro/status/839831200780988418

Around the Solar System

New data from the Dawn probe in orbit of Ceres indicates that the “bright spots” are much younger than the craters they inhabit. This is evidence of relatively recent cryovulcanism.

Check out these incredible images of Saturn’s tiny moon Pan. It has a unique shape no one has ever seen before.

This is a pretty cool series of images showing a global dust storm moving across Mars.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Funeral services were held for Gemini and Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan in Houston on January 24th.

The Russian workhorse heavy-lift rocket, the Proton, is currently grounded due to a new hardware recall. The rocket may be grounded through the spring, delaying a backlog of commercial flights.

The new US presidential administration and Congress are starting to have an impact on NASA’s plans. A few notable things happened in the beltway over the past few months.

  1. Acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot is looking into whether the first SLS flight could be crewed by astronauts rather than unmanned. This would potentially move up the timeline for NASA’s exploration plans by several years.
  2. An authorization bill in Congress could direct NASA back to having Orion capable of supporting ISS crew flights as a backup to the Commercial Crew plan.
  3. The Sierra Nevada Corporation is proposing that their Dreamchaser spacecraft could be used for a sixth Hubble servicing mission.

Severe weather in Louisiana on February 7th included a tornado which struck NASA’s Michoud facility near New Orleans. NASA facilities sustained damage but all employees are safe with no major injuries.

In Orbit

There have been five successful orbital rocket launches since my last update on January 23rd:

  1. On January 24th, Japan launched a military communications satellite on an H-IIA rocket.
  2. On January 28th, Arianespace launched a spanish communications satellite from French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket.
  3. On February 14th, Arianespace launch telecommunications satellites for Indonesia and Brasil from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket.
  4. On February 15th, India launched a wide array of small satellites (104 in all) on their PSLV rocket.
  5. On February 19th, SpaceX launched an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to the ISS on a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida.

And of course, here’s the awesome video of the Falcon 9’s first stage booster returning to Landing Zone 1 at CCAFS.

Up on the ISS, two cargo spacecraft departed. First, the Japanese HTV left ISS in late January. It stayed in orbit for another week with plans to conduct a tether experiment. However, the tether failed to deploy. HTV was followed quickly by the departure of Progress MS-03 from a nadir facing port of the space station.

Around the Solar System

NASA has decided to leave the Juno probe in it’s longer 56-day orbit around Jupiter instead of the planned closer 14-day orbit. This decision is based on anomalies seen with the probe’s main engine and worries that another burn will not go per plan.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Legendary astronaut Gene Cernan has died at the age of 82. Captain Cernan had an incredible career in the Navy and then at NASA, where he flew on three important missions: Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17. Gemini 9 had Cernan’s harrowing spacewalk (the second for an American); Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal for the moon landing, in which Cernan and Stafford got to within just miles of the lunar surface before a planned abort; Apollo 17 is of course known as the final mission to the surface of the moon. If you haven’t read Cernan’s autobiography or seen the recent biography about him (both called The Last Man on the Moon) you should put them both on your list.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden resigned last Thursday – as is tradition for most presidential appointees – the day before inauguration of president Donald J. Trump. NASA is currently being run by acting administrator Robert Lightfoot.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian, announced on social medial that he will be working with CBS on a new show set in Houston’s mission control.

In Orbit

A small Japanese rocket, which would have been the smallest ever to make orbit, failed during a launch attempt last Saturday, January 14th. The rocket was carrying a single small cubesat.

However, two rockets did make successful launches within the last week. First, SpaceX had a spectacular return to flight on Saturday, January 14th, placing 10 satellites into orbit for Iridium after a flawless launch of a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg in California. They even stuck the landing on the first stage recovery.

Lastly, on January 20th, United Launch Alliance launched an Atlas V carrying a USAF satellite, GEO 3.

Meanwhile, a failure investigation has narrowed down the loss of a Russian Soyuz rocket last month to an oxidizer pump, leading the Russian space agency to make some part replacements on both the next manned and unmanned flights. Hopefully we will see Soyuz rockets flying to the ISS again soon!

Around the Solar System

The Japanese probe in orbit of Venus, Akatsuki, has made observations of a massive standing wave in the planet’s atmosphere.

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

Astronauts Mike Fossum and Mike Baker announced their retirement from NASA last week.

NASA announced that it will be funding two new robotic missions to study distant asteroids. The Lucy probe will take many years to go all the way out to study the Trojan asteroids, which share Jupiter’s orbit. The Psyche probe will travel to an asteroid named Psyche which is a solid iron asteroid. It will be the first large iron asteroid visited by a spacecraft.

In Orbit

The one and only orbital launch since my last post on January 5th was yet another Chinese rocket. This launch on the 9th carried several small Earth observation satellites into orbit.

Up on the ISS, the Expedition 50 crew completed two successful spacewalks to upgrade a portion of the space station’s power systems to use new lithium-ion batteries. Last Friday, January 6th, Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough completed the first spacewalk and yesterday, Friday, January 13th, Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet completed the second. Whitson’s 46 hours over 7 spacewalks puts her in an elite class at 14th on the list of most spacewalking hours ever by a human. Shane also has an impressive 25 hours over only 4 EVAs, but it keeps him off this list of top 30 humans on Wikipedia (30th place is just over 38 cumulative hours. Also note that Whitson would only need one more spacewalk on her current mission to pass Sunita Williams’ 50 hours in 7th place for most hours for a woman). Here are some video summaries from NASA and pictures from the spacewalks:

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this incredible image of the Earth and moon from Mars orbit.

Fascinating analysis of some odd terrain on Pluto.

JPL has put together a new compilation of images from the Huygens probe descent to Saturn’s moon Titan, 12 years after the event. The mothership, Cassini, will end its mission later this year.

Out There

Astronomers observing a distant binary star have concluded that they will collide and merge in roughly 5 years, creating a bright nova that will be visible with the naked eye from Earth. Mark your calendars for 2022!

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!