Archive for the ‘Planetary science’ Category
Wow! What a year so far! There has been a lot of radio silence here on this blog since I was busy with my flight lead assignments at work (lead ADCO for SpaceX-3 cargo flight to ISS and then Expedition 40). Also, I am still very busy planning my wedding next month. I’m not going to try to catch you up on all the amazing and interesting things that have been going on in spaceflight year, for which I apologize. To partially fill the gap, here is a list of spaceflight industry news items that happened in August, helpfully compiled by Doug Messier of Parabolic Arc. Now on to more recent news.
Down to Earth
The crew of Soyuz TMA-12M returned to Earth on Wednesday, bringing to a close the long and eventful Expedition 40 onboard the ISS. I wonder if Swanny was happy to be home? Below is a video summary of their farewell, undocking, and landing.
Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman got this shot of the Soyuz re-entering.
Unfortunately, SpaceShipTwo will likely not have its first flight to space with Richard Branson aboard until at least early next year, according to Branson during an appearance on The Late Show. In just a few weeks it will be the 10 year anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s final flight which won the Ansari X Prize. Ten years later, the burgeoning “NewSpace” industry has not sent a single person to space. Let’s hope they are finally close.
On Thursday this week the first Orion crew module, which will fly an unmanned test flight in December, was moved from the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility where it will be fueled. Perhaps “the gap” is slowly coming to a close?
With Expedition 40 complete on the ISS, Expedition 41 will start off with just a three-man crew of Alex Gerst, Reid Wiseman, and Maxim Suraev. They will be joined later this month by the crew of Soyuz TMA-14M, which includes the first female cosmonaut, Elena Serova, since Yelena Kondakova flew on STS-84 in 1997. So far, Alex and Reid are kicking off Expedition 41 by continuing to constantly post amazing pictures on Twitter as @astro_reid and @astro_alex. Why aren’t you following them?!
Last weekend on September 7, SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the commercial communications satellite Asiasat-6. The next Falcon 9 rocket on deck will hopefully launch on September 19 carrying a Dragon spacecraft full of cargo to the ISS.
Around the Solar System
The Rosetta spacecraft is in orbit around the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, arriving earlier this summer, 10 years after launch. This “selfie” is an amazing picture that shows both part of the spacecraft and the comet in the background. Rosetta will deploy the Philae probe to land on the comet later this year. ESA is expected to announce the landing site on the comet next week.
Not wanting to be left out, Opportunity also sent home a cool summer vacation photo from the rim of Endeavour crater on Mars. Yes, this is the same Opportunity rover that landed on January 25, 2004. That would be BEFORE the last flight to space by the NewSpace industry over 10 years ago, but who is counting?
China is getting in on the party too. It seems the Yutu rover is still alive on the moon and has sent back a recent panorama.
Down to Earth
In early January, Boeing announced that it will be leasing Orbiter Processing Facility 1 (or OPF-1 to NASA) near the VAB at KSC for launch processing of their X-37B spaceplane, which flies secret missions for the United States military. There are three OPFs at Kennedy Space Center. OPF-3 is already under a lease contract by Boeing for processing of their CST-100 crewed space capsule. CST-100 is one of three spacecraft (along with SpaceX’s DragonRider and Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser) competing for commercial ISS crew transport contracts with NASA.
Speaking of the commercial crew contract, Sierra Nevada announced in January that they will be purchasing a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket for an unmanned test flight of the DreamChaser in 2016. The launch would be from existing ULA launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Also launching in 2016 is the first part of the European ExoMars mission. The core module of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was delivered in Germany last month. ExoMars is a flagship ESA mission to explore Mars, which will consist of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.
A LEGO model of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity was launched in early January.
Since operations at KSC are ramping up for new spacecraft (like the Orion flight this fall) the VAB will be closing for tours on February 23rd. I am very happy to have seen space shuttle Endeavour in the VAB back in 2011.
The small town of Webster, adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center here in the Clear Lake area of Houston, is planning an ambitious visitor center that will pay tribute to America’s space program and feature an 80-foot tall astronaut statue.
Former astronauts Jerry Ross and Shannon Lucid will be inducted into the astronaut hall of fame this year.
Up on the ISS, the first official Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo mission arrived on January 12th. The private spacecraft is expected to stay another week or two before departing and burning up in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, SpaceX had another successful Falcon 9 version 1.1 launch, putting a commercial payload into geosynchronous orbit. Their next launch is a Dragon cargo spacecraft on its way to the ISS, with a plethora of other launches on the manifest for this year. The ISS flight was recently moved to a March 16 launch.
Around the Solar System
On Mars, a big anniversary happened last month. January 4th was the 10-year anniversary of Spirit landing at Columbia Memorial Station and just a few weeks later Opportunity landed at Eagle Crater on January 28, 2004. Today, Opportunity is still trucking along at Endeavour crater, after driving over 35 kilometers since landing. Pretty good for a rover expected to live 90 days and drive maybe a kilometer or two.
There were a lot of NASA media events and discussions of the missions online. Universe Today put together a list of the top 10 discoveries made by the MER rovers. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is running an exhibition on the MER rovers through September.
For some nice retro entertainment, here’s the landing video from 2004. Most of the exciting stuff is in the first minute or two, so you don’t have to watch all 8 minutes.
Opportunity is currently on the rim of Endeavour Crater – where she has been exploring since 2011. She has had some mild winter weather and is expected to make it through the solstice coming up in February. While exploring some rock outcrops at her winter stop point, Opportunity did a bit of a piroute and noticed something strange. In an area that had already been imaged by the rover, sat a new mysterious rock.
Leading theories initially were that it could be a fallen meteorite or ejecta from a meteorite impact somewhere nearby. Other theories are that it was simply dislodged by Opportunity’s wheels and simply “kicked” or dropped into the new location. An interesting mystery for the 10 year anniversary. Rove on, Opportunity!
Meanwhile on the other side of Mars, the younger but much larger Curiosity rover is navigating the “Dingo Gap” on its way to Mount Sharp and was currently parked atop a sand dune when I started to draft this post early last week. Nice view. Since then, Curiosity has successfully made it over the dune into the “valley” beyond. Curiosity is getting closer and closer to Mount Sharp, but spending lots of time stopping to do science along the way.
While waiting to cross the dune last week, the rover team released a stunning image of Earth in the Martian sky, as photographed by Curiosity on a clear twilit day. Beautiful.
Speaking of rovers, on the moon, the Chinese rover Yutu headed into its second lunar night in late January. Unfortunately, reports from the Chinese space program are that the rover suffered some kind of mechanical anomaly and is in danger of not surviving the two week “night”. It seems that some of the mechanical systems that are supposed to fold up the solar panels to provide thermal protection for sensitive components did not work properly. There has been no new news since the first reports more than a week ago. We will likely have to wait until “morning” on the moon (sometime next week) to know the rover’s fate.
Farther out in the solar system, the European comet-chasing spacecraft, Rosetta, has been woken up from hibernation. The spacecraft will be approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko later this year and in an exciting and challenging mission will drop a lander onto the comet’s surface.
A new sensitive camera on the Gemini telescope in Hawaii took an impressive infrared light image of the distant planet Beta Pictoris b. This kind of direct imaging is certainly the future of exoplanet astronomy.
The NEOWISE mission (a re-purposing on the WISE infrared orbital observatory) has found its first near-Earth asteroid.
Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory were following up on an interesting binary star system, two brown dwarfs only a few lightyears from Earth, when data suggested that the star system contains a third companion, a jupiter-mass planet. More study is expected to confirm the planet’s existence.
Hello, and Happy New Year! Thanks for stopping by while you are hopefully enjoying a New Year’s break with friends or family. Last year, my 2012 in Review post was a link style post of discoveries made, missions launched, and heroes lost throughout the year. Reading that post again, it doesn’t give a real feel for the lay of the land, or the lay of space, if you will. Therefore, in the spirit of New Year Resolutions, this year I resolve to spend some extra effort and write a more op-ed style summary of 2013. So read on to get my impression of the triumphs, losses, and curiosities of 2013 as I see them.
Part I – NASA’s present and future
I have never liked the phrase “mixed bag”, but that’s really what the world of spaceflight has been over the past 12 months, especially if you have a balanced interest, as I do, in Earth science, planetary science, manned spaceflight, and commercial development. Space exploration is dominated by NASA and its government-given budget. Therefore, it is hard to ignore the impact of the American government’s indecision and disagreement when it comes to NASA funding, and the impact that has on our industry as a whole. NASA continues to get a relatively flat budget, which stagnates growth. But you can’t begrudge the American government too much for this – most people agree that our federal government should do something about the deficit; all agencies are being asked to do with less. The story of 2013 isn’t that NASA is getting a flat budget, it is specifically how NASA has chosen to distribute that money.
NASA continues to generously fund the growth of commercial resupply missions to ISS as well as the development of a new exploration system consisting of the Orion crew capsule and the SLS rocket. When combined with the annual operating budget of ISS, this exploration funding amounted to around 44% in both 2013 and 2012. We can see the results of this spending in a very successful year for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (one successful ISS resupply flight each and 3 other combined test flights and no major failures) and the steady progress that the Orion capsule is making towards the first flight next fall. However, on the other side of the agency, Planetary Science has slid from 8.5% to 6.7% of the budget (here is my source for budget numbers). This doesn’t sound like much, but the dollar amount is nearly $300 million less than the planetary science community is used to. What this led to in 2013 is the beginning of the budget squeeze; it looks as though the coming decade will have far less new planetary science missions than the American public has gotten used to from the golden ages of funding in the 1990s and 2000s. I know you probably like pictures, because I do too, so here’s a chart from the Planetary Society that can help put it into perspective.
As you can see, less money means fewer missions. The reason 2013 was full of great science results and pictures, despite budget woes, is because of the funding that launched so many great spacecraft over the past 10 years – MER rovers, Curosity rover, MESSENGER, Cassini, Juno, New Horizons, all of the Mars orbiters, Dawn, MAVEN, LADEE, LRO. All of these spacecraft were built and launched under an earlier year’s budgets. This highlights the core contradiction of where we found ourselves in 2013 in planetary science. Stunning pictures from Saturn and Mars come in daily from Opportunity, Curiosity, and Cassini, while planetary scientists are very concerned about the future. As NASA funding is funneled into the James Webb Space Telescope and the 2020 Mars rover (both missions I hope to see launched!), the American expertise when it comes to solar system exploration may, for a time, be funneled through the camera lenses of just a few spacecraft.
My intent is not to express an opinion about how much money NASA should get – or even what percentage should be given to planetary science versus other programs – but merely to paint a picture of the internal conflict (and conflict with the public perception of NASA) that started with the budget cuts in 2012 and will continue as long as NASA’s budget remains flat. Just look at this amazing view of Mount Sharp on Mars, from the Curiosity rover, a marvel of science and engineering…
The Curiosity rover (and her older sometimes forgotten sister Opportunity) continues to inspire the enthusiast and layman alike. Budget or not, NASA has a mastery of robotic exploration, and demonstrated it in 2013 by continuing to operate missions successfully. NASA did lose two missions in 2013 – Kepler and Deep Impact/EPOXI – but both had technically fulfilled their primary missions.
While planetary science missions are usually the “best foot forward” for NASA, 2013 showed us that the public still loves our astronauts and finds manned spaceflight worthwhile. As I wrote last year, 2012 was the year that NASA’s astronaut office realized the importance and potential of online social media. The active ISS crews in 2013 took this to heart and turned Expeditions 34 and 35 during the first half of the year into an internet sensation, mainly due to the charismatic presence of Commander Chris Hadfield on Youtube and Twitter (here’s a Flickr stream of Hadfield’s mission).
Hadfield was special in that he combined the constant joy of being in space (which is not unique to him at all) with an open and emotional personality, a desire to share, and artistic talent. That last one locked in the “sensation” part. All impressive for someone who is first – professionally – a fighter pilot.
If NASA is crafty, it will take advantage of the enthusiasm for Hadfield and the ISS program before it has time to fade (which I hope it won’t!) and direct it into support for future programs like SLS and Orion and the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization mission. In case you missed it, the ARU is the plan to send a spacecraft to a Near Earth Asteroid, capture that asteroid, and return it to Earth, all with human astronauts aboard. The ARU was announced by NASA leadership in the spring of 2013. As I wrote about in late April, the plan got somewhat less excitement from the public than was probably hoped.
The problem with ARU, and NASA’s current approach to manned spaceflight overall, is context and an end goal. When asked to explain the initiative this spring, NASA stated that the mission will integrate the best of our science and technology, while utlizing the new Orion and SLS systems, while at the same time keeping “…NASA on target to reach the President’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.” The question is, is NASA’s focus on planetary defense and asteroid deflection or is it just an excuse to test technology for going to Mars? NASA leadership is quoted as saying that Mars is a priority and that the moon is not even being considered. Yet, no clear internal roadmap or guiding set of priorities outlines the timeline and rationale for future exploration missions. Instead it often feels to the public like NASA is searching for missions to justify new hardware, rather than the other way around.
It may very well be that NASA knows where it is going, but is simply in the necessary doldrums. Stuck in between manned launch vehicles (the dreaded “gap”) there is a lack of inspiration for the public. NASA may just need some results, some action, when it comes to these grand future plans, and the public will jump onboard. Orion’s first (unmanned) flight is less than a year away. The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) will send Orion up to almost 4,000 miles to test out the heat shield on a blazing fast re-entry. Will this mission inspire and excite? It is possible. It could be that more results and less talk will cause the roadmap to also become more clear. For now, talk is cheap, and that is essentially NASA’s problem – lots of talk, and a cheap government.
Talk is also cheap in the continuously emerging private sector, and yet somehow they seem to inspire somewhat more excitement. I will explore the new private initiatives of 2013, and their impact on the spaceflight industry, in part II of my 2013 year in review.
National Geographics list of best Space Photos of 2013 (you may have to create a free account to view).
Phil Plait’s best space photos of 2013 (much better than Nat Geo.s and no login required).
NASA 2013 highlights video:
Smithsonian Magazine’s “coolest science GIFs of 2013“.
Univers Today’s list of top space stories of 2013.
Top weather videos of 2013 (some of these videos are especially intense eyewitness videos of tornadoes and hurricanes).
It’s been a busy of December since my last post. A hectic week at work, following the thermal pump malfunction on December 11th, kept me very busy right up until my vacation to visit family around Christmas for a week. I am back in Houston now and working on catching up on what’s been happening outside of my little world for the past few weeks. This post will be followed shortly by a 2013 year in review post, so stay tuned!
Down to Earth
On December 10th, NASA JSC’s Morpheus vertical take-off and landing test vehicle conducted its first free flight since the previous model was destroyed in August 2012. Very cool to watch.
Edit: and they flew another flight just a few days later on December 17th, which I missed when I first wrote this post.
On December 11th, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted a glide test in Mojave. More test are always good, but the frequency of glide tests without powered flights over the past few months was pretty much the nail in the coffin for Richard Branson’s prediction that he and his family would fly into space on the first suborbital flight on Christmas of this year. Clearly that didn’t happen. It seems likely however that Virgin will conduct another powered flight soon, possibly in the first week of January.
Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc is calling the first few days of 2014 “Launch Week”. Details on the various launches can be found over at his blog, but the quick summary is: SpaceX Falcon 9 commercial launch on Jan 3, Indian comm sat launch on Jan 5, Orbital Sciences ISS resupply flight on Jan 7, and a possible SpaceShipTwo flight.
Did you enjoy the movie Gravity? I liked it so much I saw it twice. Too bad the DVD wasn’t available for Christmas. Anyway, if you liked the movie, then take the time to watch this short behind-the-scenes clip that gives a glimpse at how some of the complex special effects were done.
The Las Vegas based company Bigelow Aerospace has put out a call for applicants to their “astronaut in-space simulations”. Basically the company wants to do their own independent look at how astronauts interact in closed quarters and also use the opportunity to improve their “crew systems” (in other words, the interior details of their inflatable space stations). Why not apply? Can’t hurt.
Be sure to go outside on January 3rd to look for the Quadrantid Meteors. They are supposed to be one of the best showers of the year, and this year the peak occurs on a new moon.
Astronaut Kevin Ford reminisced about spending Christmas in space during expedition 34 one year ago.
Folks are talking about Beyonce’s new song XO which opens with a sampling from the NASA broadcast of STS-51-L launch on January 28, 1986. The audio used is of the Public Affairs Officer reacting shortly after the shuttle Challenger was lost. The choice seems pretty tasteless and disrespectful, even if one can construe an ambiguous connection between the lyrics and the idea of a lost loved one. I personally can’t figure out if it is just a simple love song that has nothing to do with Challenger, or if it is intended to be something deeper. Listen for yourself.
The big news in orbit over the past couple of weeks was the malfunction onboard the International Space Station that led to two contingency EVAs that were prepared and executed right before Christmas. The issue also caused NASA to have to delay the launch and rendezvous of the second Orbital Sciences cargo flight to ISS, planned for a December 18th launch. The launch is now to occur in early January.
The summary of what happened is that on December 11th flight controllers started seeing anomalies in the ISS thermal cooling system. The problem was narrowed down to a faulty Flow Control Valve in one of the two pumps that flows ammonia to cool components on the outside of the station. Over the ensuing days, a few different teams were convened – one team was planning contingency EVAs to replace the pump, another was doing troubleshooting and thinking of ways to try to make the system work with the faulty valve, and another team was preparing a procedure to be executed in case the second pump failed (I was part of this team). After these teams worked night and day for over a week, it was determined that the pump should be replaced, and the first EVA was conducted on December 21st. The spacewalk was very successful; the pump removal went much better than a similar operation that replaced the same pump after a failure in 2010 during Expedition 24.
The second spacewalk was conducted on December 24th and left the station with a brand new pump and no more concerns about the thermal system for the time being. A potential third EVA was cancelled and the space station crew (and ground teams!) got a much needed break for Christmas.
The quick repair even allowed the Russian space agency to conduct their spacewalk that had already been scheduled for December 27th. One of the key objectives of the Russian EVA was to install some commercial cameras on the outside of the station. The purpose of the cameras is to make a live feed of Earth images, in fairly good resolution, available to the public. The cosmonauts got the cameras installed but they would not boot up, so they unfortately had to be brought back inside for troubleshooting.
Christmas 2013 is the 45th anniversary of an iconic photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8 while in orbit around the moon: Earthrise.
A team from NASA Goddard (with Andrew Chaikin for narration) put together a very cool (in an extremely nerdy way) recreation of how the image was captured that day (via Bad Astronomy).
Around the Solar System
On December 14th, the Chinese Chang’e 3 spacecraft came to a soft landing in the Bay of Rainbows on the Moon and quickly deployed the Yutu rover. Chang’e 3 is the first soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976. Since that was over 37 years ago, almost 60% of the world’s population was not alive the last time there was an active rover on the moon. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society has been doing an excellent job, as usual, gathering information and compiling the best photos and video clips of the Chang’e 3 mission. Here is an update from December 14th and from December 23rd, but I recommend just following her blog directly for the best stuff!
Very cool news from the Hubble Space Telescope; recent data in ultraviolet wavelengths reveals strong evidence of liquid water geysers coming from Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter. Previously, water geysers have been imaged in visible light coming from Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. The images are stunning. Water geysers imply an ample supply of subsurface water (either in a vast ocean or just pockets or lakes in the ice) as well as the possibility for a medium for life, and a way for our spacecraft to sample that water without needing to drill deep into the ice. More science needs to be done to confirm the Europa geysers but the current data seems very compelling. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Juno spacecraft, currently on its way to Jupiter, will be able to confirm the geysers. This is because Juno’s missions objectives are related to the planet Jupiter itself, not its moons, and the visible light camera on Juno is more of an outreach tool than a primary instrument.
Lastly in planetary science news, the European orbiter Mars Express should have completed its very close flyby of the Mars moon Phobos by now. As Phil Plait writes, we don’t expect to get any close up pictures from the 27 mile flyby, but the data should help scientists nail down the exact mass of Phobos.
Down to Earth
Many space enthusiasts and planetary scientists were unsettled by a NASA announcement on December 3rd about a restructuring of the planetary science budget. In particular, the money allocated for planetary science grants is being reorganized into new programs – and half of that money will not be used for new grants in 2014. In short, this means there is less money available to scientists writing new proposals.
In other disappointing news, some vandals in Houston spray-painted graffiti on the side of the Space Shuttle mock-up Independence. Independence lived for almost 20 years at KSC where it was known as Explorer. The mock-up is displayed outside near the Space Center Houston parking lot, with no significant security at night (in contrast to the nearby Rocket Park which is behind a locked fence at night).
On December 3rd, NASA scientist and former JPL director Ed Stone was on Stephen Colbert to talk about Voyager entering interstellar space. At the end of the episode, Stephen Colbert surprised Dr. Stone with the NASA distinguished service medal. You can watch the interview here and the award presentation here (both links to the Colbert Report’s website and the clips come with ads).
On December 6, 1957 (56 years ago today), the Vanguard TV3 was the first attempted launch of a satellite by the United States – which ended in a spectacular explosion on the launch pad.
41 years later, December 4, 1998, the Space Shuttle mission STS-88 attached the “Unity” Node to Russia’s “Zarya” – the first step in what would be over 10 years of ISS assembly.
Around the Solar System
According to Chinese media, the Chang’e 3 probe has reached lunar orbit. The lander is expected to make it to the surface on December 14th.
While we have seen imagery of Saturn’s mysterious North Pole hexagon before, the newly released images (and movie!) from Cassini is the highest resolution view yet, through multiple color filters. Pretty.
Astronomers using the Keck II telescope in Hawaii have taken images of 3 large (bigger than Jupiter) exoplanets. So few planets from other systems have been directly imaged that each new one is notable, even if the planets are unlikely to be habitable or otherwise remarkable. Phil Plait provides the images at the top of his post on the results.
Down to Earth
SpaceX has purchased more land on the coast near Brownsville and South Padre Island in Texas, making their intentions fairly clear.
The United States Congressional Budget Office issued a report with options for reducing the national deficit. One option outlined includes completely eliminating all NASA spending on manned spaceflight. Oh dear.
The big news in the past two weeks, in my opinion, was the launch of Chang’e 3, a Chinese lunar lander. Chang’e 1 and 2 were successful moon orbiters, and the third mission, launched December 2nd, is scheduled to land a large rover on the lunar surface – the first to do so in 37 years – on December 14th. So far, China is putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their spaceflight program.
Today, December 3rd, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 version 1.1 with a commercial telecommunications satellite onboard. The SES-8 satellite was successfully sent on the planned geostationary transfer orbit – proving that SpaceX had sussed out and fixed the problem that marred an earlier test launch back in September. The failure of the upper stage to relight back on September 29 was traced back to frozen igniter fluid lines. As SpaceX points out in their press release, this mission is a big step towards fulfilling their long launch manifest, which includes many commercial launches, some requiring a geostationary orbit insertion. One more successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launch is needed for DOD certification. Also, the first ISS resupply flight aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 is planned for early next year.
On November 19th, the robotic arm on the Kibo module of the ISS (the Japanese lab) was used to deploy several small “cubesats” into orbit. This is the second time the ISS has been used as a launching platform (last time was in December 2012 also using Kibo).
On November 20th, the International Space Station program celebrated the 15th anniversary of the first module launch – the Russian “Functional Cargo Block”, or more poetically “Zarya” (Sunrise)*. Here’s a short but amazing ISS timelapse to celebrate (via Universe Today).
*Nobody in Mission Operations at NASA JSC calls it Zarya.
Around the Solar System
The big story this past month (apart from recent Chinese success) has been comet ISON – the comet-of-the-century that wasn’t. ISON was a fun story to follow because the steep-diving comet (which grazed by the Sun at less than one solar diameter on Thanksgiving Day) was so dynamic that astronomers were having a hard time predicting how and when the comet might brighten, dim, or die. I had spent a week prior to perihelion (the name for closest approach to the sun) hoping I could get up in the morning and spot ISON before dawn, but the Houston weather would not cooperate. As evidenced by this amateur photographer, the comet was naked-eye in the right conditions. Anyway, ISON’s story ended shortly after perihelion, where the nucleus seemingly broke up in the extreme heat. The disintegrating rubble pile that emerged from the far side of the sun brightened very briefly, and is now dispersing and dimming, currently at 8th magnitude. As the writers at “Sky and Telescope” joke in their summary: “ISON now ISOFF”.
On December 1st, the Indian Mars orbiter Mangalyaan (now being referred to as “MOM” in all the english language media I follow) completed a successful rocket firing to leave high Earth orbit and go into solar orbit, on its way to Mars in September 2014. MOM is now cruising through interplanetary space behind NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which successfully launched towards Mars on November 18th. Here’s a shot of MAVEN back in August when it was being readied for launch.
The European Exomars project – which consists of two missions in 2016 and 2018 – has chosen the name “Schiaparelli” for the 2016 lander. Schiaparelli was the Italian astronomer in the late 19th century who mapped Mars (and incorrectly deduced that Mars was covered in canals).
The Mars rover Opportunity (still roving almost 10 years after landing!) has found a winter post. Opportunity will hang out for the next 6 months on a north-facing slope called “Murray Ridge”. Murray Ridge is named after Bruce Murray, an influential planetary scientist from JPL who died earlier this year.
Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to detect water in the atmosphere of 5 “hot Jupiters” orbiting nearby (in galactic terms) stars. Since the planets are Jupiter-like rather than Earth-like, there is nothing Earth-shattering (or Jupiter-shattering) about the finding. However, future studies should be able to analyze the atmospheres of smaller and smaller worlds, leading us closer to finding a true Earth twin.
There is a new naked-eye nova in the sky. Don’t go running outside expecting to see something as bright as Venus – it is only magnitude ~5 and is not visible from Northern latitudes.
Down to Earth
As most everyone is very aware, the US Congress did not come to a budget agreement for Fiscal Year 2014 before the calendar rolled over last week, so all parts of the US federal government that are affected by annual congressional discretionary spending have been shut down. This includes NASA. Some critical mission operations are continuing, including ISS operations and most active planetary exploration missions still have their control rooms staffed. The theme however is that anything not directly related to “real-time” operations has been halted. For the first few days this included work on missions in the pre-launch phase of the mission. Luckily for the MAVEN Mars orbiter, the next probe to launch to the red planet, they were able to get a special exemption so that they won’t miss their launch date this coming December.
The local government near Brownsville, Texas has agreed on how to handle temporary beach closures to allow for rocket launches, if SpaceX was to build a new commercial launch site near the Texas-Mexico border. The new legislation is not technically an approval of beach closures for this purpose, but is one step closer and should continue to drive SpaceX to pick Texas for their new launch site.
Ten year’s after China’s first manned spaceflight the CNSA is talking publicly about training astronauts from other nations. So if you got rejected from NASA’s class of 2012 last year, maybe you will have better luck through this alternate means.
Or if you cannot get a passport to one of the nation’s that may partner with China, perhaps you should audition for NBC’s planned show “Space Race”, a reality show in which contestants can win a free ride to space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Neat – but not for me.
Last Thursday, the critically acclaimed film Gravity was released worldwide, and broke the October opening weekend box office record. I saw it with some friends at the first show at the nearest theater to NASA JSC, and was thoroughly entertained. The film is visually stunning and emotionally thrilling – go see it. It keeps an intense tempo with only a 90-minute run time (interestingly, the length of the orbit of the ISS, and an important time in the plot of the film). I am not going to post a bunch of links to reviews about the film because they are likely to be spoiler-ridden. You will enjoy this movie. Go. The trailers even give too much away. Just Go.
The anticipated test launch of SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket took place on September 29th and delivered the Canadian payload CASSIOPE to its intended orbit. This is exciting and important news for the future of the company and their cargo contract with NASA. Unfortunately, one mission objective – to relight the second stage after shutdown – was unsuccessful. The company believes they can fix the anomaly before the next flight.
On the same day as the Falcon 9 rocket launch, the Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital Sciences finally rendezvoused successfully with the ISS, marking a big milestone for that company as well. Their next mission is tentatively scheduled for December, and would be the first official cargo mission of their contract.
Around the Solar System
Late in September, NASA finally declared the Deep Impact/EPOXI mission officially dead. After many weeks this summer of trying to regain communication.
NASA officially announced some scientific results from the Mars rover Curiosity which indicate there is little to no methane in the Martian atmosphere. The data seems robust, given that it comes from a sophisticated laboratory directly sampling the atmosphere for several months, but it contradicts previous intriguing science that pointed to an unexplained high level of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. This previous data had led some discussion about whether it could be a by-product of currently active Martian life. The press release from NASA offers no explanation of why the Curiosity data and the previous data (from powerful Earth-based telescopes and Mars orbiters) do not agree. I am not convinced that there isn’t something else going on here besides “Mars has no methane”…
NASA’s new lunar probe, LADEE, achieved lunar orbit yesterday, October 6. Let the science begin!
Down to Earth
One of the three original founders of the Planetary Society, Bruce Murray, passed away on August 29th. Murray was director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the Viking and Voyager era. He started The Planetary Society with Lou Friedman and Carl Sagan in 1980. If you are a space enthusiast and you are not yet a member of the Planetary Society, you are missing out. Check out their website and weekly radio show.
Last week three ISS crew members returned to Earth, ending Expedition 36. Chris Cassidy, Pavel Vinogradov, and Alexander Misurkin landed on September 11 in Kazakhstan. Next week a new crew will launch and dock on Wednesday, September 26.
Not Quite in Orbit
It seems cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov – who was in space on Expedition 18 when I started working at JSC – has decided to retire from the space business. He had been in training to fly as commander of Expedition 44 in two years, which is what makes the departure somewhat confusing. However, as NASA Watch points out, he has been in the corps for a long time, with his first flight over a decade ago on STS-100. Everyone has to move on some time.
Last post I wrote about the second powered flight of SpaceShipTwo on September 5, and included some cool footage of the flight from the ground. Well, since then, Virgin Galactic released this view from onboard the spaceplane. Very cool (via Ubergizmo).
Last week on the 12th, SpaceX did a “static firing” (which means the rocket didn’t go anywhere) of the new Falcon 9 rocket on the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (here’s a Google Maps link). Unfortunately, they saw some anomalies and the test launch was delayed from the planned date of the 15th. According to Elon Musk, they hope to launch at the end of the month.There was a problem connecting to Twitter.
The new rocket is the Falcon 9 version 1.1. As you can see in the graphic below (from Wikipedia), version 1.1 is a significant visual upgrade from the existing Falcon 9. In addition to the payload faring and longer fuel tanks – making it taller – they are upgrading the Merlin engines that power the first stage. All future Falcon flights are supposed to transition to this rocket after the tests, including NASA cargo flights to ISS. So here’s hoping for a good launch in a week or two!
This morning at 10:50 AM Eastern, the Antares rocket carrying the first Cygnus cargo craft launched from Wallops Island, Virginia on the way to ISS.
The flight will bring Cygnus up to ISS for rendezvous this coming Sunday, September 22nd. My favorite part of the launch is this clever sign near the launch pad that made for a good photo op. Or maybe this bald eagle who had a front row seat is cooler?
As of this writing, the spacecraft has already done initial checkouts, with more ongoing.
In a nice double-whammy, there was also a big rocket launch from Florida early this morning. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched an Air Force satellite before dawn at Cape Canaveral.
I was intrigued by this article at the Huffington Post about NASA’s radiation limits on active astronauts. Because of differing risks for cancer between genders, women have lower allowed limits of radiation, meaning they can’t fly as many days in space.
Around the Solar System
In somber news, mission managers of the Deep Impact/EPOXI mission announced earlier this month that they have been out of contact with the spacecraft for about a month. Flight controllers have indications that the onboard computer had a glitch and is now likely spinning out of control, which is why they can’t get commands uplinked to correct the problem – the communications antenna is not pointing towards home. The worry is that if it spins out of control for too long, the batteries won’t get charged from the solar arrays and the spacecraft will die.
EPOXI was launched as Deep Impact in 2005 and has had a very successful mission so far, with the rendezvous and impact of comet Tempel 1 and then years later the dramatic flyby of comet Hartley 2.
The biggest space news so far this month, at least that the public has noticed, was the official announcement by NASA that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has entered interstellar space. Some people were incorrectly reporting the announcement as “Voyager 1 has left the solar system” which makes me roll my eyes (see below). Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy covers this topic well.
It’s been a whole month since I last posted, so there is some catching up to do. I’m going to try to just hit the highlights.
Down to Earth
A few quick news items from the “NewSpace” sector:
Most exciting and most recently, today Virgin Galactic flew the second powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo space plane. This test involved “feathering” the spaceship’s wings after the engine is shut down to help with a controlled “re-entry”. With this only being the second test flight of the year – the first was back in April – it seems unlikely Virgin will start flights to space by the end of the year. Still, it is awesome to see progress. Here’s a video of the flight.
ATK has partnered with Orbital Sciences to build the rocket for Stratolaunch. Orbital is designing the rocket and ATK will provide the first and second stages. For those that need a refresher, Stratolaunch is the Paul Allen project to have a 747-sized plane be the launch platform for a massive rocket that can deliver as much as 13,500 pounds to Earth orbit.
Last month Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” space plane went through some taxi tests out in California. Basically, it was just towed down the runway to test the landing gear. But if you think that’s exciting, there’s a video! Interestingly, the nose landing gear is a skid, not a wheel.
SpaceX had another test flight of their “Grasshopper” vertical take off and landing rocket. This time it was a “divert” test where it flew sideways and came back. Here’s the video.
In the NASA world there are a few updates also:
First of all, deputy NASA administrator Lori Garver has announced she will be leaving NASA for a job in the private sector (specifically as president of the American Airline Pilots Association).
Astronaut Mike Foale is also leaving NASA after a 26 year career.
A recent paper was published identifying 12 EROs (easily-retrievable objects) to add to a list of possible destinations for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission. Unfortunately, Lori Garver (see above) was a chief proponent of this new controversial mission. Check out this article in the Washington Post outlining some of the technical and political issues that may hinder this mission.
Tomorrow night at 11:27 PM Eastern time, NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) will launch from the Wallops Island facility in Virginia. The launch should be visible to much of the East coast, so stay up to watch if you can! The spacecraft will not have any cameras. Instead, it has spectrometers and dust scoops for studying the tenuous lunar atmosphere. Once LADEE has launched it will clear the Wallops Island launch range for the Orbital Sciences launch of their first Cygnus flight to ISS on September 17th.
A link I should have posted weeks ago is a first hand account from ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano of the EVA which was aborted in July when his helmet started filling up with water. This was probably the scariest thing to happen in spaceflight since the loss of Columbia a decade ago. Great job by flight controllers and especially Luca in staying calm under pressure.
NASA is officially no longer attempting to fully recover the Kepler Space Telescope. Fortunately, lots of people are thinking of ways Kepler can still do exciting science without the stability of three gyroscopes. One of the most publicized white papers from this past week was the idea to look for planets in the very close habitable zones of white dwarf stars.
Similarly, the WISE spacecraft (wide-field infrared survey explorer) is getting a new mission. WISE is being reactivated on a 3-year mission to look for NEOs (Near-Earth Object). As Phil Plait points out, this mission may be directly related to NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission, and the effort to find a candidate rock to go grab.
To round out the space telescope news, the Spitzer Space Telescope celebrated its 10th year in space this summer. Spitzer ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 but is still going strong with its “warm mission”.
In what is a startling development, the United States Air Force’s “Space Fence” will be shut down after the end of this fiscal year. The Space Fence is a key part of our orbital surveillance program. Without the space fence program there will be a gap in capability until if and when the new system comes on line in a few years. It’s very possible that without this system the risk of debris striking any given spacecraft without warning – including the ISS – goes up.
Around the Solar System
Mars rover Curiosity got an awesome set of images of the moon Phobos passing in front of Deimos. Not just a rover!
Because it’s cool
Speaking of Virgin Galactic, the term “space tourism” has been officially added to the OED.
The great XKCD comic recently did a great job describing the basics of orbital mechanics.
Somebody recreated the famous shot of a bike flying in front of the moon from the movie E.T.
In a post in July I wrote about how Hubble had determined the color of a far-flung exoplanet. What I failed to mention that they had also discovered that on this planet it probably “rains glass sideways”, which is a bit of a let down if you are wanting to visit this nifty blue world someday. The web comic Sci-Ence is apparently annoyed at how often the planets we discover are unlivable, and has created a handy guide.