Archive for the ‘Planetary science’ Category

Weekly Links

I am back from a little “fall break”. This post should catch you up on the big things that have happened since my last post in September.

Down to Earth

George Mueller, head of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight in the 60s, died at an age of 97. There is at least one book about his contributions to the space program available on Amazon.

Estonia is now a full member of the European Space Agency.

A watch worn by Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott on the surface of the moon recently sold at auction for over one million US dollars. This is not one of the Omega Speedmasters which were given to all the crews (all of which are now owned by the Smithsonian). Instead this was a backup Scott wore when his Speedmaster broke.

An Israeli team called SpaceIL has secured a launch contract on a Falcon 9 rocket for their entry in the Google Lunar X Prize.

Blue Origin announced that it will center its launch operations at Cape Canaveral.

NASA dropped a large archive of photos from Project Apollo to Flickr.

In Orbit

It’s been a busy month of rocket launches. Since my last post on September 26th there have been nine successful launches to orbit: one by India, three by China, one by the European Space Agency, two by Russia, and two by America. Only one of those launches was in support of International Space Station operations: an unmanned Progress resupply mission from Russia. You can see a great list of all launches at “2015 in Spaceflight” on Wikipedia.

In addition to the launches, the Japanese HTV-5 cargo vehicle was successfully undocked and deorbited from the ISS during the last week of September.

Other happenings on the ISS included a debris avoidance maneuver on September 27th, some cubesat deploys, the Progress docking, Scott Kelly breaking the record for most days in space by an American, and some great imagery of Hurricane Patricia.

Around the Solar System

Science data from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto continue to come in, including this awesome picture showing the blue glow of the planetoids thin atmosphere.


NASA made a big announcement at the end of September about Mars research, revealing that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had imaged evidence of water flowing (intermittently) on the surface of Mars. While previous NASA missions had confirmed that water is present and had flowed in streams and rivers in the ancient past, this is the first evidence of a modern water cycle. As usual, Emily Lakdawalla has excellent coverage.

NASA is posting daily images of the Earth from the DSCOVR satellite to an interactive website.

A rather large Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) at 500 meters across will buzz the Earth-Moon system on October 31st, but is not in danger of impacting our planet.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin announced they will be manufacturing and launching from Cape Canaveral at Launch Complex 36.

Check out this Kickstarter for a planetary exploration based board game called Xtronaut.

A new exhibit about the early Russian space program, with some awesome artifacts, has opened at the Science Museum of London.

Check out this unique scale model of our solar system in the Nevada desert (via Universe Today).

In Orbit

There were several rocket launches to orbit in the past week, all from Russia and China carrying communications or Earth-observing spacecraft. China launched three rockets of various sizes from their Long March series, ending with a maiden flight of the new Long March 6 rocket. Russia’s single launch was a Proton rocket lofting a communications satellites.

Up on the ISS, Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly reached the halfway mark of their one-year stay on the ISS. One of the ways they celebrated was by watching an advance copy of the new movie The Martian.

Some of the cast from The Martian visited the Johnson Space Center last week and got to talk to Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren aboard the ISS.

Speaking of “live from space”, there was a special event at the National Press Club last week with Mark Kelly, Terry Virts, and Scott Kelly.

Around the Solar System

You have to check out the latest batch of images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft.

New analysis from the Cassini mission around Saturn has revealed that the liquid water under the ice on Enceladus may in fact be a global ocean, not just an isolated pocket or sea. This makes the prospect of a “life-hunting” mission to Enceladus all the more tantalizing.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

I love this new “hedgehog” rover concept, designed for low gravity environments like asteroids.

SpaceX released new imagery of the redesigned interior of their crewed Dragon capsule.

In Orbit

Tonight, the Expedition 44 crew of Gennady Padalka, Andreas Mogensen, and Aidyn Aimbetov will undock from the International Space Station and land in Kazakhstan. Follow along on NASA TV, with undocking at 5:29 PM Eastern.

During his short stay on ISS, Mogensen has been very busy trying to get as much science and engineering done for the European Space Agency as he can, including remotely operating a robot on the ground from space! Very cool.

Here’s a quick video from Mogensen about living in ESA’s Columbus module on ISS.

Early Friday morning, the European Space Agency launched a Soyuz rocket with two Galileo satellites into orbit. Galileo is ESA’s analog to the American launched GPS navigation system. Galileo is up to 10 satellites in orbit, but it will take many more to have a complete system (GPS has 31 active satellites).

Check out this shot of the ISS passing in front of the sun.

And you have to love this timelapse of aurora as seen from the ISS.

Around the Solar System

Check out the new high resolution imagery from the New Horizons Pluto probe, just downlinked this week.

There is also new higher resolution imagery of the bright spots on dwarf planet Ceres.

Out There

Astronomers have found the most distant galaxy ever detected, at 13.2 billion light years away.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

At the “grand opening” of Boeing’s new spacecraft processing facility, the new name for their space capsule was announced. Boeing CST-100 is now called Starliner. In addition, the former Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) at Kennedy Space Center will now be known as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF). Check out the new mural on the side of the building!

via CollectSPACE

A couple of “design nerds” are running a Kickstarter campaign to reproduce the “NASA design manual” from 1976 which introduced the NASA worm logo, which the agency used until 1992. Given that I was born in 1987, I actually have such mixed memories of NASA imagery from my childhood that I didn’t realize that ” themeatball” (currently used logo) and “the worm” were mutually exclusive, and never used by NASA at the same time.

In Orbit

The big news in orbit this past week was the launch and docking of Soyuz 44, or TMA-18M, with crew of Sergey Volkov, Andreas Mogensen, and Aydyn Aimbetov. They docked this past Friday, September 4th. There will be 9 people on the ISS until Soyuz 42 (TMA-16M) undocks on September 11th. Mogensen and Aimbetov will be flying home with Gennady Padalka on the 11th.

In preparation for the crew rotation next week, Gennady Padalka handed command of the ISS over to Scott Kelly, who will command two consecutive missions, Expedition 45 and 46, until he ends his one-year mission next year.

In other launch news, a Navy communications satellite launched from Florida on an Atlas V rocket last Wednesday (actually, only a few hours after the Soyuz launch!).

Unfortunately, the big radar on NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) spacecraft (launched on a Delta II rocket earlier this year) has failed. The probe has one other science instrument so it will continue operations.

An old Soviet satellite called Kosmos 1315 re-entered the atmosphere over Hawaii on August 31st, which many locals caught on film.

Around the Solar System

The Curiosity rover spotted some really interesting wind-eroded rock formations on Mars.

I know I shared one of these before but this new Pluto flyby animation is even better than the last one.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this innovative moving ISS tracker someone built.

Chris Hadfield is releasing an album of songs he recorded while on ISS. Here’s a music video of Feet Up off the album.

In Orbit

All of the big events last week up at the ISS went fine. First, on Monday, HTV5 rendezvoused with the station on time and was captured with Canadarm-2. Later in the week, the crew of Soyuz TMA-16M strapped into their re-entry couches for a quick 30 minute fly around to change docking ports. Here’s an awesome time lapse of the “relocate”.

A few orbital rocket launches this past week, but none related to the ISS program. Here’s a rundown of the three launches from three different nations: India launched a communications satellite on a GSLV rocket, China launched a military satellite on a Long March 4C rocket, and Russia launched a commercial communications satellite on a Proton rocket. An Atlas V was supposed to launch from Florida with a military satellite but was delayed due to tropical storm Erika.

Here’s a nice animation by ESA about astronaut Andreas Mogensen’s flight to ISS next week. Soyuz TMA-18M is slated to launch with the next ISS crew on Wednesday, September 2.

As usual, lots of good photos from the ISS were posted to Twitter by the current crew, including some great shots of active tropical storms and hurricanes. Here’s a selection.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s New Horizons probe will flyby a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 in 2019. The final selection of the Pluto probes next target was announced last week.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

The Smithsonian Institution met their funding goal for their Kickstarter project to raise money to restore both Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 suit and Alan Shepard’s Mercury suit.

Last week, water tanks were “harvested” from the Space Shuttle Endeavour (on display in California), for use on the ISS.

China recently had a successful engine test of the propulsion system for their new Long March 5 rocket.

The pop band One Direction released a music video filmed almost entirely at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The video for Drag Me Down has reached over one million views on YouTube.

While we’re talking about space in popular culture, here is the latest full length trailer for The Martian.

In Orbit

The latest ISS resupply mission successfully launched from Japan on August 19th and is on track for a Monday, August 24th, arrival at the space station. Here is NASA TV’s schedule of live coverage.

The European Space Agency also launched a rocket last week. The Ariane 5 rocket launched from the Kourou launch site on August 20th with two communication satellites.

ISS Commander Scott Kelly got a great shot of tropical cyclone Danny last week that got a lot of media attention.

Another amazing picture from the ISS was this picture of lightning which also captured a rare red “sprite” in the upper atmosphere.

Around The Solar System

New analysis from the LADEE spacecraft (which has already been crashed into the moon) confirm the presence of neon in the moon’s tenuous exosphere.

I failed to link to this awesome imagery of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko outgassing just after passing perihelion earlier this month.

Imagery via ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft

The Cassini spacecraft had its last close flyby of Saturn’s small but interesting moon Dione and sent back some of its own awesome imagery.

This awesome Curiosity rover “selfie” from Mars got a lot of press last week. Curiosity recently “celebrated” 3 years on Mars and is still going strong.

If you’re into that sort of thing, you can send your name (and your cat’s) to Mars with the Insight probe, launching next year.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Veteran astronaut Steve Swanson, who flew on the space shuttle and commanded the ISS last year, is retiring from NASA. According to his Wikipedia page, he has spent an impressive 195 days in space with almost 28 hours of spacewalk time across 5 EVAs. This leaves NASA with 45 active astronauts (which doesn’t count ESA and JAXA astronauts who are qualified to fly to ISS).

Last week an important engine test in the development of the new SLS rocket was conducted at Stennis Space Center. The RS-25 engine was run for almost a full ten minuets. Here’s a video (test starts at 31:15).

In Orbit

Last Monday, August 10th, two Russian Cosmonauts went outside the ISS for a spacewalk. Padalka and Kornienko spent about five and a half hours outside. It was Padalka’s tenth spacewalk, which should put him nicely on this list once it is updated.

Later in the week, on Friday morning, a Russian Progress cargo craft undocked from the aft port of the ISS. That port will be empty until Soyuz 42S does a “relocate” from the Poisk port later this fall. The relocate is needed to free up Poisk for the docking of the next Soyuz. There will be three Soyuz onboard for a direct handover this fall.

Some cool stuff happened inside the ISS this past week as well. The astronauts were able to eat some red romaine lettuce grown on the space station in the “VEGGIE” experiment.

Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui did some remote robotics experiments.

The launch of the next ISS resupply flight from Japan has been delayed to Monday, due to bad weather.

Also in ISS cargo news, Orbital Sciences announced they will launch not just one but two or more of their Cygnus cargo resupply missions on someone else’s rocket. Orbital is working hard to recertify their Antares rocket with new Russian engines, following the loss of one of their rockets last October. In the meantime, they are buying Atlas V rockets from United Launch Alliance in order to fulfill their NASA contract.

Around the Solar System

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has reached perihelion (closest point to the sun), which has made the comet rather “active”. Check out these images from Rosetta, in orbit about the comet.

How cool is this? There is evidence of cryovolcanism (ice volcanoes) on Pluto.

Speaking of Pluto, here’s an awesome simulation of the New Horizons flyby in real-time, based on actually imagery from the spacecraft.

If you love the ins and outs of Martian rover exploration, here’s a comprehensive update on what the Curiosity rover has been up to.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Last Monday, SpaceX announced preliminary findings related to the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon cargo mission last month. Here’s the companies official statement on their investigation so far. They have found that a structural support (or “strut”) holding up a pressurant tank in the second stage failed. Elon Musk hopes a delay of only a few months to their manifest.

Tony Antonelli, who piloted two space shuttle missions, has retired from the astronaut office.

The Smithsonian Institution has started a new Kickstarter campaign called “Reboot the Suit” to raise money to restore Neil Armstrong’s moonsuit. The restoration is planned to be completed in time for a new exhibit for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019. I pledged!

In Orbit

Three launches from the Earth’s three spacefaring nation’s this past week: first, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan on July 22nd, followed a few hours later by a successful docking to ISS. The crew is now back up to full strength of 6, with the addition of Oleg Kononenko, Kimiya Yui, and Kjell Lindgren. Lindgren and Yui are on Twitter, so you should follow my “people in space” Twitter list.

Second, a Delta IV rocket launched from Florida on July 23rd. The mission delivered a new military communications satellite to orbit.

China also had a successful orbital launch last week. A Long March 3B delivered two navigation satellites to orbit on July 25th.

Around the Solar System

New pictures from the New Horizons’ Pluto flyby! Check out the new views of small moons Nix and Hydra.

Also, check out this view of the dark side of Pluto, with the sun lighting up its thin nitrogen atmosphere!

via Universe Today

Not to mention they discovered nitrogen glaciers!

via Universe Today

Closer to home, at Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft has discovered evidence of a “haze” in Occator crater. This is the large crater with several “bright spots” in its center.

JAXA is accepting applications to choose a name for asteroid 1999 JU3 which will be visited by their Hayabusa-2 spacecraft.

Out There

NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-452b, a small planet around a Sun-like star about 1,400 light years distant. This is the most similar planet in size and circumstance to Earth that we have yet found, but it still has 1.6 times Earth’s diameter (mass, and thus surface gravity, unknown). However, the fact that it is so small and in the habitable zone, makes it an awesome discovery.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Claudia Alexander, a successful planetary scientist who has been a project manager for NASA, died Saturday, July 11th.

William Borucki, Principal Investigator of the Kepler Space Telescope, has retired from NASA after over 50 years with the agency.

A few announcements out of NASA’s astronaut office this week: Chris Cassidy is the new chief of the astronaut office, replacing Bob Behnken, who will be busy training as one of the four astronauts chosen for the first commercial crew flights in 2017. The other three are Sunita Williams, Eric Boe, and Doug Hurley. Also, the class of 2013 has officially graduated from ASCANs (astronaut candidates) to astronauts, after finishing what is basically their “basic training”.

Nicole Stott, who recently retired from the astronaut office, is taking up space-themed art as her new mission. Very cool!

In Orbit

Follow-up to the launch news from last week: the Progress resupply vehicle launched on July 3rd made it to ISS on the 5th, keeping the supply chains flowing. The next ISS cargo mission is a Japanese HTV flight in August.

Also in rocket news, there was one orbital launch last week from India, carrying several commercial and technology demonstration satellites. Upcoming launches include an Ariane 5 launch from Kourou and an Atlas V launch from Florida, both on the 15th (I use this Wiki page to track launch schedules).

You’ve got to love a good ISS transit photo. Here’s one of the station passing in front of the moon.

Around the Solar System

It’s time! New Horizons will fly past Pluto on Tuesday! Here is a summary of NASA TV’s coverage of the flyby. The probe gave us a scare last weekend when it went into safe mode briefly, but it is back up and running now and sending home new pictures every day.

One of the latest looks at Pluto

The Dawn spacecraft, in orbit around dwarf planet Ceres, also went into safe mode recently, but was also recovered. Dawn was planning to spiral down to a lower mapping orbit but the issue has delayed that next step in the flight plan.

Mission controllers for the Curiosity rover are dealing with some troubles of their own on Mars. The rovers wheels are continuing to show signs of worsening wheel damage. However, the JPL guys know what they are doing, and they don’t seem too worried yet. Here are some good details from

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Unfortunately, putting Sally Ride in the US Capitol Statuary Hall is on hold. The issue is that Father Junipero Serra’s statue would be removed and he is expected to be canonized soon. The bill was on the docket in the California state legislature (I linked to the original proposal back in April).

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, as of July 1, is the new the ESA Director General. Previously, he was the head of the German space agency.

My favorite news of the week, other than all the goings-on with the ISS below, is that Houston’s Ellington field has been granted a Launch Site License by the FAA. This means it could be a “spaceport” in the future. It would be pretty cool to see takeoffs and landings of space vehicles from just down the road here!

In Orbit

As of June 29th, Gennady Padalka, current commander of Expedition 44 onboard ISS, became the most-flown astronaut or cosmonaut. The previous record of 803 cumulative days in space, held by Sergei Krikalev ,was broken by Padalka on Tuesday. He will get to almost 900 days before he comes home in September. Krikalev’s flew in space six times, while this is Padalka’s fifth.

Of course, the biggest news of the week was the loss of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on June 28th. The rocket was launched to send another Dragon capsule to the ISS for their 7th resupply flight (8th if you count the demo mission). The rocket came apart just a couple of minutes into the flight. Here’s the video:

SpaceX will of course have to do an investigation of the failure, and possibly make some design changes, before their next flight. Some important but not critical ISS cargo was lost on the mission, like a new docking adapter and spacesuit parts. There’s a good cargo list on Wikipedia, or check out this post from Parabolic Arc.

Fortunately, given that the ISS has many partners, including four redundant rockets used for resupply, the loss of one SpaceX mission hopefully won’t pose a longterm problem for the program. Just last night, Russia launched a Progress resupply spacecraft, which will dock to ISS tomorrow. The Progress brings all kinds of cargo, including propellant, food, water, and other supplies.

It is interesting to look at some numbers with SpaceX. The launch failure was their first with the Falcon 9 rocket, which had previously had 18 successful flights. Also, before the failure, they had launched five Falcon 9 flights successfully in 2015. Their previous record flight rate was 6 flights in 2014. They could still fly more this year depending on how the failure investigation goes. Parabolic Arc has a nice breakdown of what their upcoming manifest looked like before the failure.

As usual, ISS commander Scott Kelly posted some great photos of Earth from space over the last week:

Around the Solar System

Update from comet 67PP/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: mission controllers are still trying to establish consistent contact with the Philae lander. Meanwhile, the Rosetta orbiter is doing awesome science, like discovering lots of surface ice and sinkholes (I think I’d rather call them “air pockets”).

Check out the obvious red color (probably caused by hydrocarbons, not rust) in recent images of Pluto from New Horizons. Only 2 weeks until rendezvous, and NASA has given the all-clear for the close encounter on the current orbit. No new hazards (moons or rings) have been spotted in Pluto orbit.