Archive for the ‘Planetary science’ Category
In my first post looking back on 2014 in space, I discussed how the year in spaceflight might be remembered. A few major events happened that may stick in the public’s mind – Rosetta/Philae’s comet encounter and the first Orion capsule launch. For the average person, that may be all they remember from last year. Definitely not a banner year for space, although the world rightly celebrated the triumph of landing on a comet for the first time. So not a bad year either. Overall, as I concluded in that earlier post, 2014 was a building year. For those of us who pay closer attention to space news, 2014 was also a year to worry about policy, budgets, and the future of the launch sector, as I wrote about in my second post.
While 2014 was a building year, 2015 looks to be a year of action. Action that goes beyond just NASA and extends to the “New Space” sector, as SpaceX plows forward aggressively, Virgin Galactic attempts to regroup from last year’s tragedy, and some lesser-knowns like XCOR might have their first flights.
2015 looks to be an exciting year. The question is not whether it will be an exciting or busy year, but rather, what will grab the public’s attention more? Will the old childlike excitement over new discoveries be stirred up by NASA’s ambitious missions arriving at Pluto and the asteroid Ceres? Or will the sexy sleek SpaceX rockets – launching ever more frequently – grab the most headlines?
The Year of the Dwarf Planet?
This will be a big year for NASA’s planetary science program. 2014 had a lot of great action at Mars. Unfortunately, Mars has a “been there, done that” tone for the general public (perhaps the 2015 release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian will help turn that around?). Mars makes headlines if there is a daring rover landing or a manned mission, or of course if we discovered life. Otherwise, Mars is cool, but not front page cool. ESA’s Philae landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko proved that robotic exploration is still front page cool, but that it takes a new destination these days. That’s exactly why 2015 is exciting. Two robotic missions launched almost a decade ago will rendezvous with their destinations: two unexplored worlds, both newly classified as “dwarf planets” back in 2006. There’s a whole new category of world out there which we will get to see for the first time this year.
As I write this, the Dawn spacecraft is mere days away from the March 6th rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres, king of the asteroid belt. Dawn will go into orbit around the asteroid, where it will stay for the rest of its mission. The popular space blogs have already been getting pretty excited about the high(er) resolution images coming back from the probe, including mysterious bright spots in a crater. Could they be ice geysers? Or something else unexpected?
Much farther from home, the New Horizons probe is now only months away from a July flyby of distant dwarf planet Pluto. New Horizons was launched in 2006; so long ago that the probe was actually launched before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) made its controversial decision to change the definition of “planet.” Of course, this sets up for the pithy quip that the probe took so long to get there that when it left, Pluto was a planet! I suppose we will be hearing that line a lot more, come July.
The public loves Pluto. So much so that it make front page news back in 2006 just due to a classification debate. I have no doubt that the public will get pretty excited over the upcoming encounter. The mission has all the drama a good space rendezvous needs: the promise of views of a new world and new discoveries with the very real danger of the probe being destroyed by some rogue undiscovered moon. Success or failure, it’s a win-win for the media. People love the tension.
If rendezvous goes well for both Dawn and New Horizons, the American public will be reminded how exciting it is to discover new worlds. That excitement can likely be funneled by NASA and organizations like The Planetary Society into support for future missions like the Europa Clipper. 2015 is a chance for NASA’s crown jewel, planetary science, to take center stage.
The Year of SpaceX?
Unfortunately for NASA, Dawn and New Horizons may get overshadowed by the new kid on the block. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) stands poised to have their busiest year yet. Their manifest calls for somewhere between 12 and 18 launches in 2015. SpaceX only launched 3 rockets in 2013 and doubled that to 6 in 2014. With 3 launches already this year as of March 2nd, I am starting to believe they can double their launch rate again this year.
Of course, a bunch of rocket launches isn’t by definition more exciting than the first flyby of Pluto or Ceres. The reason NASA stands to get overshadowed is the story of SpaceX. SpaceX isn’t just another rocket company out for profit – they are a product of one billionaire’s crazy vision of the future. And 13 years after their founding, with thousands of employees and billion dollar government contracts, the company has somehow stayed focused on their longterm goals. Other startups with dreams of Mars have been called “scams”. Meanwhile, SpaceX has proven their technical expertise with the reliability of their Falcon 9 rocket and has become a major player in the industry, continuing to snap up government and private launch contracts. Sexy rockets, an eccentric billionaire, and dreams of Mars. Usually the news is full of negative stories – airplane crashes, war, corrupt politicians, police brutality, racial tensions – but SpaceX is exactly the kind of positive story people love. And SpaceX has manages to hook us in by being just transparent enough to make us take them seriously, but also keep us guessing. For instance, the SpaceX twitter feed was fairly silent through much of December as they tried to launched their fifth resupply flight to ISS. Then 6 days after this launch they posted this incredible Vine of their failure to land the first stage safely on their autonomous drone ship. I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched it about a thousand times.
Close, but no cigar. This time. https://t.co/JowUE6a1D7
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 16, 2015
Besides a record number of launches, here are a few of the things SpaceX is planning to do this year:
- four missions to resupply the International Space Station
- build a new hangar and launch tower for crew launches in Florida
- build a new spaceport near South Padre Island in Texas
- pad abort tests for new Dragon V2
- land a rocket on an autonomous drone ship (minus the explosion)
- the first demo launch of the new Falcon Heavy rocket
New Space has been on a slow crawl for years, full of promise but few results. With Virgin Galactic likely out of commission for at least many more months and no planned launches in the Google Lunar X Prize competition until 2016, SpaceX is seemingly alone in the New Space business – at least as far as going to space is concerned. All the buzz about mining asteroids, billionaire funded flybys of Mars, and crowd-sourced space missions seems to have faded into the background noise. A lot of people seem to have the attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” myself included. But even the cynics and naysayers have to be impressed by SpaceX’s continued progress. If they can achieve most of their goals for this year while continuing to fly safely and reliably, it just might be the year of SpaceX.
The Year of ISS?
As if dwarf planets and SpaceX aren’t enough, I think there is a third possibility for the biggest story of 2015. In fact, it made front page news before 2015 even started. In case you missed it, here was the cover of Time for their “2015: the year ahead” issue.
What’s the big deal? Astronauts have been living and working on the ISS non-stop since November 2000. The following major world events have all happened with a continuous human presence in space (from Futuretimeline.net and Wikipedia): George Bush sworn in, terrorist attack on 9/11/01, iPod launched, iPhone launched, Space Shuttle Columbia lost, invasion of Iraq, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, three summer Olympic Games, four FIFA World Cup Finals, the Great Recession, Barack Obama sworn in, Burj Khalifa constructed, two new Popes, and all 7 Harry Potter films released.
Ok, maybe I got a little carried away. The point is, astronauts living and working on the ISS is nothing new. Even the story of the Kelly twins – a major focus of the Time issue – is not new. Scott Kelly already commanded the ISS once during Expedition 26 and Mark Kelly, husband of Gabby Giffords, commanded STS-134. But just like the two NASA probes visiting new worlds this year, Scott Kelly’s missions is new territory for NASA. His stay aboard the ISS of almost a year will beat the next longest flight by an American by over four months. America loves a hero figures and pioneers. So when Commander Kelly got a personal invitation to the State of the Union Address, he got the biggest ovation of the night.
Having a single human face to connect with the space program this year may bring more attention to NASA than we have seen in a while. Only half a decade ago, the ISS was thought of by a good segment of the space community as a “white elephant” that sucked up money and the public largely didn’t know it existed (or would be reminded and then promptly forget). Now the ISS is featured in major motion pictures like Gravity and video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. NASA public affairs has embraced social media and at least one member of every space station crew regularly tweets stunning views and thoughts from space. When school kids or the morning news shows get to interview the astronauts on ISS, no one ever asks “is the space station a waste of money?” Instead they ask, “what is it like?”
Scott Kelly won’t be the only famous face people will connect with the ISS this year. In September 2015 the next space tourist, Sarah Brightman, will launch to the ISS as part of a “ferry crew”. She will spend less than 2 weeks in space while crews and Soyuz capsules are shuffled on the ISS – Scott Kelly’s long stay will mess up the regular and predictable 4 month cycle of 3-person crews. Brightman will be the first tourist on the ISS since Guy Laliberte in 2009. While she is not exactly a household name, people love to talk about rich people and the expensive things they buy. What is more glamorous than paying your way into space? A human story is just what NASA needs to bring attention to the ISS, and NASA has two of those stories this year. If Mark Kelly is open to media interviews while he goes through the same experiments as his brother, it may even make an interesting recurring story in the media, if it gets picked up. It could be a big story – or maybe the ISS was only front page news for one week at the beginning of the year? We will have to wait and see!
Of course, there is a lot more that might happen this year. The XCOR Lynx spaceplane may take flight finally; Virgin Galactic may return to flight; Curiosity may continue to build a case for organics on Mars; the Philae lander may wake up as comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko approaches the sun. Going in to 2014, it was predictable that the Rosetta mission and Philae lander would be a big story. But nobody predicted that 2014 would be largely remembered for two major spaceflight accidents, nor that a lot of sweat would be spent on the impacts to the launch sector from deteriorating international relations in Eastern Europe.
Although the unexpected may happen, I’m kind of hoping for a predictable year with lots of success and increasing media and public attention. I want to learn some new and surprising things about Ceres and Pluto while also checking Twitter every day for some stunning Earth views posted by Commander Kelly. I want to see thousands of people flock to the Space Coast for an on time launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
Space exploration of all kinds is a great positive endeavor for us to share as a society, especially as a seemingly improving economy opens up space in our culture to look outward. I think a good year in all sectors of spaceflight could lead to even more bipartisan support of manned and robotic exploration alike in the NASA budget, and we can start to see a way out of the woods towards a clear space policy. Or I could be wrong, and distractions like the upcoming 2016 US presidential election could keep us in limbo for a while longer. What I like about the future is that anything is possible. Either way, I get to find out what those bright spots on Ceres are in just 4 days. Are you excited too?
Down to Earth
Hungary is the newest member of the European Space Agency (ESA). With the addition of Hungary and Estonia, ESA will need to revise their astronauts’ flag-covered shoulder patch (seen below on Andre Kuipers’ flight suit).
Since I mentioned ESA, it is always nice to share their Week in Images post.
The Intelsat 603 satellite, which was rescued to a higher orbit on the first 3-person EVA on STS-49 in 1992, has been disposed of in a “graveyard orbit”.
Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for best actor last weekend, is a NASA supporter.
It’s a rare week that goes by without some news related to SpaceX worth mentioning. A few things this week. First, SpaceX has a new contract with SES for the launch of two communications satellites which may be the first to launch from the new facility in the Southernmost part of Texas. Secondly, SpaceX has started construction of their hangar near launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. 39A is one of the two historic launchpads built for the Apollo program and also used during the Space Shuttle program. Lastly, SpaceX will be launching their next Falcon 9 rocket in a few days. The current date is listed by Spaceflight Now with an uncertain “March 1/2″. This launch is of commercial payloads and will liftoff from Florida.
No notable rocket launches this week, except for a Russian military satellite on a Soyuz rocket, which launched this morning. Instead, there was another spacewalk up on the ISS. Terry Virts and ISS Commander Butch Wilmore have one more spacewalk this coming weekend to finish out their tasks laying cable for future commercial crew dockings.
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) February 25, 2015
Speaking of the ISS, the Russian Federal Space Agency (I’m not sure what to call it, as they are in the middle of a re-organization) announced this week that they now intend to continue ISS operations through 2024. Previously, Russia had only committed through 2020, so this is good news.
The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, launched by NASA on a Delta II rocket earlier this year, deployed its impressive sensing array this week and is getting ready to start its science campaign. Here’s an animation of what it would have looked like.
Around the Solar System
NASA’s Curiosity rover took an impressive self-portrait (or “selfie”, if you must) of its current location on the foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars. Curiosity is currently at a site called Pahrump Hills where it has been drilling various rocks.
Meanwhile, out in the asteroid belt, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is just a week away from entering orbit around Ceres, the largest asteroid. The pictures coming down are already remarkable and include a strange pair of bright spots in a crater.
Down to Earth
Last week the European Space Agency welcomed Estonia as their newest member.
Last Monday, February 2, was “Budget day” with the President of the United States announcing his budget proposal for 2016, which includes an $18.5 billion request for NASA. The 2015 budget is at just over $18 billion – so this would be a welcome increase, if approved. Some of the highlights were the apparent canceling or shutting down of the Mars rover Opportunity, the continued commitment to a mission to Europa, and a request for a significant increase to “commercial crew” funding. Here’s the detailed dollar-by-dollar breakdown from NASA if you are interested.
While waiting for the commercial crew program to bear fruit, NASA has purchased additional Soyuz seats to the ISS for 2018, just in case.
Today is shaping up to be “SpaceX day“. SpaceX’s Dragon is still in orbit at the International Space Station for a few more hours. Later today it will be leaving the ISS and splashing down in the Pacific near a waiting recovery ship. Less than two hours earlier a Falcon 9 rocket will launch from Florida putting NOAA’s DSCOVER mission on its way to the Earth-Sun L1 point. Another recovery team will be waiting in the Atlantic for the rocket’s first stage to hopefully touch down on their “autonomous spaceport drone ship”.
Back on February 2nd, Iran successfully launched a test satellite to orbit, marking the 6th successful launch of 2015 and Iran’s second orbital launch (the first was in 2009).
And of course the busy astronauts on the ISS have continued to share their perspective with us:
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) February 10, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) February 9, 2015
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) February 9, 2015
The white dots in the blue water are a group of South Atlantic icebergs pic.twitter.com/HPmk0W6qNi
— Anton Shkaplerov (@AntonAstrey) February 9, 2015
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) February 8, 2015
Around the Solar System
The New Horizons probe sent back some awesome new photos of Pluto and its moon Charon.
Down to Earth
February 2nd is “budget day”: when NASA will announce the preliminary 2016 budget request for the agency as proposed by the White House.
Rookie European astronaut Andreas Mogensen has been posting video blogs of his training for launch. The latest entry is posted from Moscow and focuses on the Sokol spacesuit which is worn in the Soyuz.
The European Space Agency has a new unmanned spaceplane they plan to launch on a technology demonstration on February 11th. The IXV, or Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, has been undergoing launch preparations at the launch site in French Guinea.
Speaking of ESA, here’s their Week In Images, which is always a good click.
SpaceX has announced in a statement on their website that they are essentially dropping their lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force over the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract which awarded 36 rocket launches to United Launch Alliance (ULA). SpaceX and USAF have apparently made a deal which allows USAF to honor current contracts with ULA but also work to certify SpaceX’s rockets soon and open competition to them for future payloads.
SpaceX also released a new animation to stir up excitement for the first test flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket later this year.
The Planetary Society has secured a launch aboard an Atlas V rocket this May for their LightSail solar sailing prototype. I am super excited for this mission! Check out this great video explaining the spacecraft.
Last week Wednesday, the ISS did a “deboost”, or an orbital correction maneuver to slow/lower the orbit. Usually we do reboosts to keep the orbit higher as the ISS is slowly degraded due to drag. In this particular case, the trajectory officers found a deboost the best solution for upcoming trajectory needs, and we had the extra propellant that we could afford it. I was lucky enough to be assigned the early morning shift on Wednesday to command the OPM (Optimized Propellant Maneuver) to spin the ISS around in preparation for the burn – which went well later in the day.
ISS astronauts got some nice photography of the blizzard that hit the US east coast last week:
And here is a selection of a few other great shots from ISS over the last week. If you want to follow Twitter posts from the ISS, follow my list, “people in space,” which I will always have updated with any astronauts who are tweeting from ISS.
I wish I could bring all of you up to see this! pic.twitter.com/V1AizkRjqj
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 31, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) January 30, 2015
The beginning of the outback- central Australia looking west pic.twitter.com/dw8UGbeB92
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 29, 2015
Three little atolls in a row – jewels of the ocean! / (IT) Tre piccoli atolli in riga come gioielli nell'oceano! pic.twitter.com/szhL45QGVm
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) January 28, 2015
The ISS over Mauritania. Eye of the Sahara (The Richat Structure) is easy to see even from the space. pic.twitter.com/cpxZU6VrmW
— Anton Shkaplerov (@AntonAstrey) January 27, 2015
Three launches occurred in the last week, bringing this year’s total up to 5 launches. NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) Earth-observing satellite was the third launch of the year – and third from the US – but almost didn’t beat a Japanese launch and then a Russian launch due to a scrub first for weather and then for technical issues. They finally got off the ground from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Saturday morning. Here’s a video.
The other two launches were this morning, Sunday, February 1st. Japan launches a spy satellite on an H-2A rocket (the same rocket that sends the HTV cargo vehicle to ISS) and Russia launched a communications satellite on a Proton rocket from Kazakhstan. This was the 5th successful Proton flight since their most recent failure last May.
Around the Solar System
Newly released high resolution images from the Rosetta spacecraft reveal a rather large crack in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Could the comet split in two when it gets closer to the sun? Exciting!
The image release also included some new shots of the Philae lander descending to the comet from the perspective of the orbiter.
Last Monday a rather large asteroid named 2004 BL86 flew by the Earth at about 3 lunar distances (750,000 miles). The asteroid is 325 meters (1,066 feet) in diameter and has a tiny moon! Check out this radar imagery from NASA’s Goldstone antenna:
As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft gets closer and closer to the solar system’s largest asteroid, Ceres, it is now returning images of the world that are better than what Hubble has shown us in the past.
Adidas is releasing a spacesuit-inspired shoe.
Phil Plait’s Crash Course Astronomy Episode 3 is up:
Down to Earth
Elon Musk released photos on his Twitter feed of the moment that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket first stage hit their “autonomous spaceport drone ship” (see, barge) and blew up. This occurred a few minutes after the launch of the latest Dragon resupply craft last Saturday. It seems like they hit their target but came in too hard. Maybe better luck on their next flight in a couple of weeks.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 16, 2015
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 16, 2015
Update: Just a little while after I wrote this post, the SpaceX twitter account posted this amazing Vine video.
Close, but no cigar. This time. https://t.co/JowUE6a1D7
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 16, 2015
NASA completed a “hot fire” test of the new RS-25 liquid fueled engine at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The RS-25 is a modified Space Shuttle main engine which will power the SLS.
Much noise has been made about Ted Cruz (R-TX) being assigned to a US Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of NASA. The main concern is that Cruz is considered anti-science. At the very least, he is anti-science when it comes to climate research, which NASA supports with a fleet of Earth-observering satellites. Houston Chronicle has the best analysis I have seen of what impact Cruz may actually have on the NASA budget. If you are concerned about this topic, you should read Eric Berger’s post. Here’s a longer more technical analysis at Space Policy Online.
Virgin Galactic is teaming up with a small satellite company known as OneWeb to launch a large constellation of satellites to bring broadband internet to the entire world. Replacement satellites will be launched by the LauncherOne rocket dropped from Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.
There is an idea floating of a new reality show which would be a competition between inventors and scientists to get their research flown to ISS. Sounds cool!
Two big things happened on the ISS this week. on Monday, the latest SpaceX Dragon resupply craft arrived. This was the first cargo delivery to ISS from the US since the loss of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket in October. There was one Russian Progress resupply flight back in November.
Opening the Dragon hatch for the first time- it has that "new spaceship smell"- very nice! pic.twitter.com/OSe66Ygzsu
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 13, 2015
The SpaceX flight was quickly overshadowed by an emergency alarm onboard the ISS on Wednesday morning. The alarm was for a toxic leak of ammonia, which cools the space station avionics hardware in fluid loops on the outside of ISS. In certain failure cases (for which there is multiple layers of redundancy to prevent) the ammonia can break into the internal fluid lines (which carry water) and endanger the astronauts.
Ground teams and the astronauts took immediate safety actions, as we train for hours and hours for, and evacuated to the Russian side of the space station, which does not have ammonia coolant lines. The emergency alarm was eventually determined to be false, caused by a computer glitch, and the astronauts were allowed to open the hatch to the rest of the station late in the day on Wednesday.
While the astronauts are safe, cleanup from such a major (potential) failure takes some time because of all of the automatic safing software that shut down ISS systems on Wednesday. The Flight Control Team will still be diligently working towards bringing the ISS back to “nominal” during my evening shifts this weekend.
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 16, 2015
Around the Solar System
NASA’s New Horizons probe has technically begun science operations for its Pluto encounter, although it is still more than 100 million miles from Pluto.
The long-lost Beagle 2 lander has been found on Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The lander was lost during EDL phase (Entry, Descent, and Landing) back in 2003, which was a huge disappointment to the United Kingdom’s space agency. Incredibly, although the world had assumed that Beagle 2 crashed into the surface – hence the loss of communication – the MRO images show the lander safely on the surface, partially deployed. In honor of deceased mission designer John Pillinger, I think this image deserves an update to show that Beagle 2 made it to the surface.
Check out this colorized view from Opportunity on the summit of Cape Tribulation. Image processing done by @mars_stu at his blog The Road to Endeavour (click to embiggen, of course).
Down to Earth
As of Friday night, the next SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to send a Dragon capsule to the ISS is still on the ground. But the issue that caused launch abort on Tuesday has been dealt with, and the SpaceX launch team is busy prepping for another attempt in just a few hours. Launch is scheduled for 4:47 AM Eastern, Saturday, January 10th. I will be getting up to watch mostly because of the crazy attempt to land the first stage on a barge… I mean autonomous drone ship.
At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit just opened called Outside the Spacecraft. The exhibit celebrates 50 years of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) which started with Russian Alexei Leonov’s first spacewalk in 1965.
Space Adventures has announced they have signed on another ISS “spaceflight participant” (or, tourist, if you prefer) – Japanese advertising mogul Satoshi Takamatsu. It is likely that he is the “backup” for Sarah Brightman, who will be flying to ISS later in 2015.
The week in images, from ESA.
Have to include some obligatory tweets from space.
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 8, 2015
Port au Prince, Haiti pic.twitter.com/oRHiKrURF7
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 8, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) January 9, 2015
Around the Solar System
NASA’s amazing Mars rover Opportunity finally summited Cape Tribulation this week, the highest point Opportunity will see during her mission. She is now over 400 feet above the vast plains that she drove across for years to reach Endeavour Crater. Here is the view.
2015 is 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which is still returning amazing astronomical results. The Hubble team knows how to celebrate right, and this week released two amazing images: first a new view of the Pillars of Creation and second an amazingly huge view of the Andromeda galaxy.
Because it’s cool
Randall Munroe of XKCD does some fun calculations about building a swimming pool on the moon.
I love these exoplanet “travel posters“.
This response, which injects a dose of realism, is even better:
— Olly Moss (@ollymoss) January 8, 2015
Down to Earth
The Chinese rocket that launched on December 31st was only carrying a Chinese weather satellite – not super exciting. But check out these incredible images of the first stage of that rocket, which appears to have landed in the middle of a road in a rural Chinese town. I am glad that in the US we have more concern about where our spent rocket stages end up…
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that was supposed to launch to ISS Tuesday is still stuck on the ground. A problem with a hydraulic actuator for the second stage’s Merlin 1D engine lead to a launch scrub. They will try again on Friday, January 9th. Here are some shots of the rocket on the pad.
In a pretty awesome outreach move, Elon Musk did an “Ask Me Anything” hour on the website Reddit on Monday night (on the eve of their launch attempt). Here is the link to the whole thread, or you can read some highlights at Parabolic Arc.
The new SpaceX launch site at the extreme southern coast of Texas is likely going to seem more and more real throughout 2015. Just this week, SpaceX has begun posting job openings for the new location near Brownsville, Texas.
Richard Branson wrote a blog post about his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo accident, and his continued resolve to move forward with Virgin Galactic. As always, Doug Messier has some excellent commentary and dissects Branson’s writing.
The US Government Accountability Office has denied Sierra Nevada’s protest regarding the awarding of the CCtCap contract for commercial crew flights to ISS. That means that NASA’s decision to fund only SpaceX and Boeing will stand.
The Atlantic had an extensive feature article about the ISS titled “5,200 days in space: an exploration of life aboard the International Space Station, and the surprising reasons the mission is still worthwhile.” It is one of the most compelling stories covering the ISS that I have ever read.
Surprisingly, at about the same time, Time ran a cover article about Scott Kelly, who will be launching in March for his one-year stay aboard the ISS. It is also a very good story that touches on the human side of life in space.
And of course, our friends in orbit continue to dazzle us on Twitter with views from orbit. Here is a sampling.
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 3, 2015
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 3, 2015
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) January 2, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) January 7, 2015
— Sam Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) January 6, 2015
Around the Solar System
The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is getting very close to the summit of Cape Tribulation on the rim of Endeavour crater. It amazes me every time I read an update on Opportunity that the mission is still going and still so successful 11 years later! (Edit: and here is a more detailed MER update from the Planetary Society blog)
On the other side of the planet (Mars that is) Curiosity has made some exciting discoveries. The rover has proven the existence of organics in the rocks of Gale crater and also that there is detectable concentrations of methane in Mars’ atmosphere. The methane is important because, due to chemical reactions that must necessarily occur, the methane is transient – meaning something is producing it. A very detailed discussion of this new finding is at the Planetary Society blog. The research was also published in the journal Science.
The Kepler team announced yesterday that a number of newly confirmed planets (based on old Kepler data) brings the total exoplanets discovered by the space telescope to 1,000. 8 of these new worlds can reasonably be considered “Earth-sized” and even in their stars’ habitable zones. Because we don’t have details on their composition or atmosphere, we can’t actually know how likely it is that life could live on these planets. But, as Phil Plait writes, this is further confirmation that the universe is full of small planets. Eventually, we will find Earth’s twin.
Because it’s cool
This creative short film titled “Shoot for the Moon”:
New footage from the Marianas Trench documents the deepest known fish. An alien world in its own way.
Part I – NASA
When trying to summarize a year for any topic, be it world events, politics, or some niche area, like spaceflight, it is tempting to try to pick out one or two big events that were the highlight of the year. I expect the people at NASA headquarters will want to focus especially on the successful first mission of the new Orion capsule. That unmanned mission, called EFT-1, went off without a hitch in early December and was promoted by NASA as a “first step” on our new journey to Mars. Certainly, the Orion (and the SLS rocket to fly it) is a significant enough portion of NASA’s budget ($3.1 out of $17.6 billion for FY 2014) to make some noise about. But it is obviously not the only thing the agency is doing.
NASA lives in a tough public relations environment in which its greatest area of success and stability – robotic planetary exploration – doesn’t receive the same level of attention as its manned exploration programs, which are more often in flux. In 2013, NASA launched a very expensive new Mars orbiter, MAVEN, which entered Mars orbit right on schedule. MAVEN is an interesting science mission, but it is hard to explain to the public in an easy sound bite why the “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” mission is exciting. MAVEN also serves a very important secondary role of being a replacement relay satellite for the active Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. In fact, the solar system is full of continuing stories of NASA’s success in planetary exploration – sometimes referred to as NASA’s “crown jewel”: three Mars orbiters, two rovers on Mars, New Horizons on the way to Pluto, Cassini at Saturn, Dawn on the way to Vesta, Juno on the way to Jupiter, and I’ve certainly left something out.
The problem with ongoing planetary missions is that they move slowly. They don’t have the sex appeal that news channels can include on the morning edition. It seems to me that there are only a few distinct things that get a space story coverage on the national news, and none of them are “Mars rover continues to rove”. The hooks as I see them are: rocket launch, astronauts, political relevance, failure, or the specter of failure (like a daring Mars landing). So which planetary missions had a hook this year? Well, none, really. No major missions launched, no major missions failed in a newsworthy way, and no NASA missions had a daring EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) sequence to capture the public’s attention. The European Space Agency’s landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko got widespread media coverage specifically because of that hook about the specter of failure. Google even featured Philae in at least one of their “doodles” and in a national TV ad run on New Year’s Eve.
The story of the year was clearly ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission. Robotic planetary exploration, NASA’s crown jewel, did not shine in 2014, and was in fact overshadowed by the plucky yet doomed Philae lander. So, although NASA had a lucky 13 planetary missions in operation during 2014, the biggest success of the year for the agency really did come late in the year with the EFT-1 flight of Orion. Thus, you would expect that NASA’s own PR would focus on this hugely expensive and visible part of their plans. But looking at their own year-end summaries, like the “This Year At NASA” video, Orion, SLS, and the future of manned spaceflight are not given the importance we would expect.
In fact, the video opens by mentioning “…the next giant leap in space exploration: sending astronauts to Mars” but only mentions development of certain “game-changing technologies” in that context, and briefly mentions that NASA’s plans “…could include a human mission in the 2020s to an asteroid…” SLS and Orion are mentioned in a different part of the video. Here in this short 6-minute 2014 summary video, we can see why coverage of the EFT-1 mission was by-and-large fleeting. NASA PR material does not make it clear what the long-term plan is. Astronauts could visit an asteroid? Why don’t we know where we are going yet? These are reasonable questions for the public to be asking. Americans probably wouldn’t mind if the first mission to Mars is 15 to 20 years away if you tell them specifically what needs to be done to reach that goal. Imagine a series of milestones like we had for Apollo – the Gemini program missions and then the early Apollo missions each had a purpose, a technology or technique to test out, that had to be done before a landing could be attempted. 2014 was a year of opportunity for NASA to lay out that plan for people as EFT-1 approached. Instead, we get two rather vague graphics (one released in April, and the other in December), which do not do much to outline specific milestones.
With vagueness, very long timelines, and no second Orion mission for 3 years, it is understandable that the public did not latch on to the EFT-1 story in 2014. Before we blame “kids these days”, the state of education, or America’s preoccupation with reality TV and celebrities, I think in some ways 2014 also proved that people do in fact care about space exploration.
Perhaps I need to convince you. Go watch that Google TV spot again. It ends with a rather long sequence highlighting the success of Philae, voiced over by Bill Nye. The movie Interstellar was a financial success this year, hot on the heels of 2013’s Gravity. Most tellingly, in my opinion, is how the public responds to real stories and images of spaceflight from the astronauts onboard the ISS.
The ISS was home to many prolific tweeters in 2014, including Mike Hopkins, Richard Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata, Reid Wiseman, Alex Gerst, Terry Virts, and Samantha Cristoforetti (Virts and Cristoforetti are in space at the time of this writing). Commander Steve Swanson didn’t tweet, but posted lots of pictures on the ISS Instagram feed – more recent crews have kept up the postings there. And then during Expedition 40, the ISS crew joined Vine, with accounts from Reid Wiseman, Terry Virts, and “InsideISS” popping up. Most posts from astronauts average several hundred retweets, favorites, or comments per post, but often they reach several thousand. A tweet of a few shots of a moonset from ISS on Virts’ twitter feed from December 22nd has been retweeted 3,571 times.
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) December 22, 2014
The average person loves space exploration and the idea of living in space. What people don’t love is talking about space policy. The average person doesn’t want to know the political or technical nuances of this or that NASA budget or plan. I know this from personal experience talking about my job. What people want to know is where we are going, that we have a solid plan to get there, and that there’s a chance that their kid who wants to be an astronaut could be involved in those awesome plans. Americans expect NASA and its employees to be brilliant, driven, motivated, and no nonsense – the qualities of all of the characters in the movie Apollo 13. The “failure is not an option” mythos translates directly to an expectation that NASA knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. When NASA’s own PR says things like we could be going to an asteroid in a few years, not that we will, most people would understandably be thinking that they’ll check back in when NASA has its plans figured out.
I don’t know what the most common answer would be if you asked people on the street what important things happened for NASA in 2014, but I have some guesses. A lot of people may think that Rosetta/Philae was a NASA mission and mention that. Others will remember the “NASA rocket” that blew up, by which they would be referring to the Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that failed shortly after launch (technically not a NASA failure, but it’s unfair to expect the layman to understand the difference). What would not likely be on the list is the official PR line about EFT-1: that NASA launched the first in a series of missions to take the human race to Mars. The general feeling towards NASA at the end of 2014 is likely more along the lines of “has plans to do some awesome stuff in 10 or 20 years that I’ll get excited about then.”
What answers would you get if you asked the same question of congress people and staffers on Capitol Hill? They are well aware of the SLS/Orion program because of its large cost – in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget that was approved in December, a big part of the $500 million increase over last year’s budget went to that project. A total of about $2 billion will be spent on SLS/Orion in 2015. Unfortunately, the willingness to increase NASA’s budget likely has more factors than a commitment to a long-term Path to Mars. More immediate issues, like the ripple effects of growing geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia, were likely on politicians minds when they approved the Cromnibus spending bill last month. The Crimea crisis in February set the tone for most discussion about NASA inside the Beltway during 2014: NASA can’t launch its own astronauts to space. Most of all, 2014 was a reminder of that fact. The good news is that with the award of the CCtCAP contract to Boeing and SpaceX and the launch of EFT-1, 2014 had a lot of bright points; it showed concrete evidence that NASA is working on closing the gap.
So how will 2014 be remembered? With an increased budget, an almost flawless Orion test flight, and lots of “rovers continuing to rove”, NASA has reasons to be optimistic going into 2015. However, 2014 was the middle year in the gap that hopefully will end in 2017 with a crewed test flight of an American spacecraft. The explosion of an ISS resupply rocket in October combined with mostly vague plans for future human spaceflight has left the public unconvinced that NASA is where their love of space should be focused right now. NASA faces a real chance of being further marginalized and replaced in the public’s psyche by “New Space”, but it all depends on what certain key players, such as SpaceX and Bigelow can achieve in the coming year.
In part 2 of my year in review, I will recap how the US sanctions on Russia related to Ukraine affected various aspects of the US space sector, a perfect opportunity for Elon Musk to steal the public’s focus away from NASA.
The past year was one of ups and downs in the space sector. The year started with a lot of successes that are lost in the shadows of the bigger stories late in the year, including successful launches for Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, China’s Yutu rover on the moon, NASA’s LADEE ending a successful mission, and the debut of new live streaming HD camera views from the ISS, among other stories.
The space sector’s focus quickly shifted when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in February, which kicked off a ripple effect involving the Russian RD-180 engines, used to launch American Department of Defense assets. The question of whether the US launch sector is too reliant on Russian rocket engines is still playing a huge role in space policy almost a year later. I would go so far as to say the RD-180 story was the start of a year dominated by a focus on launch vehicles, rather than actual ongoing missions.
That dominance came to a head at the end of 2014 with the loss of an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, just days apart. In fact, all 2014 summaries seem to be dominated by the last 10 weeks of the year. There were several triumphs late in the year, such as ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission and NASA’s EFT-1 demonstration. However, the vehicle losses were bigger stories (as negative stories often are) and likely have bigger implications for the future. The contrast of the positive and negative events towards the end of the year are a microcosm of how the year feels to me: great ambitions underscored by sobering reality.
I have a series of posts planned to sum up the year in space with a bit of commentary. In particular, it is interesting to put 2014 into context by following the themes that I used when summing up 2013 – they seem to have continued about the same for the last 12 months; the mood continues to be one of cautious anticipation. I’m sure you are waiting for my commentary with bated breath (yeah, right). While you wait, enjoy some high level summaries and top lists from around the internet.
Happy New Year!
The “2014 in Spaceflight” article is fairly comprehensive at capturing all of the launches of the year. 2014 saw 92 launches (with one from China earlier today), outdoing the last few years by at least several launches.
2014 is the only year I am aware of to hit the 90s as far as number of launches. Update: According to Spaceflight Now, the last time more than 90 launches occurred in a year was in 1992, with 93.
On the ISS, several cosmonauts on the list of most total time in space added to their totals this year, such as Tyurin at 13 and Kotov at 14. Japan’s Koichi Wakata commanded Expedition 39 to solidify his spot as one of the few non-Russian or Americans on the list at 35. Richard Mastracchio snuck into the last spot at number 50 on the Wikipedia list during Expedition 39 (but he is going to get bumped next year by Scott Kelly and possibly others).
Speaking of Mastracchio, he did 3 spacewalks while on ISS at the end of 2013 and early 2014. The EVAs totaled 14 hours, bringing his lifetime total above 53 hours and bringing him way up to number 5 on the list of most total EVA time. There were 7 total spacewalks on ISS in 2014. However, none of the other spacewalkers from this year made the Wikipedia list of top 30 for time.
Top Space Stories of 2014
The following outlets have a rundown of the biggest things that happened this year. Usually with a paragraph or two of detail on each topic.
Here are some video summaries from the eyes of the space agencies themselves. First, NASA’s “this year @NASA” video.
The European Space Agency also produced a short summary video.
Update: and here is SpaceX’s own summary of their year.
Other Top Lists
Universe Today’s top space photos of 2014.
Space.com’s top astronomy stories of 2014.
EarthSky has the top 10 new species of 2014.
Top 25 images of Earth from space (all DigitalGlobe).
Down to Earth
I am continually puzzled by large-scale aerospace projects using crowdfunding sites. In the latest installment, a company called Bristol Spaceplane (who have apparently been around at least since the Ansari X Prize days) is looking for 10,000 GBP (that’s about 15,500 USD) to build a remote controlled scale model of their spaceplane concept (via Parabolic Arc). How they intend to turn $15,000 of crowdfunding into a multi-billion dollar spaceplane project is not mentioned on their fundraising page.
SpaceX has picked up a Qatari telecommunications launch for 2016, adding to their already packed manifest. The Falcon 9 launch rate will be one of the big stories to follow in 2015. SpaceX is still on track for a January 6th launch to resupply the ISS.
In some continued minor fallout from the Virgin Galactic accident earlier this year, a company called Virool (I hadn’t heard of them) has changed up the prize in a previous contest: instead of winning a SpaceShipTwo ticket, the prize is now just a ride on a “vomit comet” style airplane.
In a quick flurry of launches, the Russian space program lofted 3 successful missions to end 2014 on a very positive note last week. The launches were all unmanned and unrelated to the ISS program. First, on December 23rd, the first flight of the new Angara rocket put a “dummy payload” into geosynchronous orbit.
Next, on December 26th, a Soyuz rocket put the Resurs P2 Earth observing satellite into orbit.
Lastly, on December 28th, a Proton rocket launched a European communication satellite to geosynchronous orbit. This was the 4th successful Proton launch since the failure in May. Proton is notorious for failures (one failure a year since 2010), and is intended to be replaced by the new Angara rocket.
Up on the ISS, the crew celebrated Christmas last week by putting out cookies for Santa Claus and exchanging presents. Astronaut Terry Virts shared their celebration with a few pictures on Twitter.
No chimney up here- so I left powdered milk and freeze dried cookies in the airlock. Fingers crossed… pic.twitter.com/zr5MzGbaPe
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) December 24, 2014
opening presents – I got a harmonica frome Elena Serova. Now I need to learn how to play! pic.twitter.com/rT0E9ZqynO
— Terry W. Virts (@AstroTerry) December 25, 2014
A new study with the Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a previously unknown “dwarf spheroidal” galaxy only 10 million light years from our galaxy. These types of small galaxies filled with older stars are expected to help astronomers improve models of star formation. The new galaxy is in our “Local Group” and is called KKs3. Hopefully someone at the IAU can come up with something more catchy.
Back in 2013, when Kepler’s second of four reaction wheels failed, it looked like the space telescopes science days were over. However, earlier this year the mission was relaunched as “K2″. The new mission uses the two remaining reaction wheels and solar wind pressure to keep the spacecraft pointed accurately enough to do science. The pointing is not as accurate as the original mission, but the first exoplanet discovery of the new mission proves that Kepler is not dead! Kepler found HIP 116454b, which is a small planet 2.5 Earth diameters in size.