Archive for the ‘Pluto’ Category
Part I – Exploration
Spaceflight, as a many-hundred billion-dollar sector, is a broad and complex industry. Even if we focus in on “exploration” – which is the primary focus of this blog – so that we can ignore military and commercial uses of Earth orbit, we are still left with a global list of activities, studies, missions, and companies. This means there is a lot of stuff going on. 2016 was a busy year with many exciting missions from several different countries. This diversity is great, but makes it hard to boil down the events of last year into a coherent story. Even within NASA, we have the ISS program, with its own highs and lows, and the totally separate and just as successful planetary science portfolio of missions. Those missions keep on going, regardless of whether the most recent cargo delivery has made it to our astronauts in orbit, for instance. Meanwhile, in China, the CNSA is continuing to grow as a nascent space power with new rockets, new launch sites, and a brand new space station. Then there’s Russia, Japan, Europe, India, and more. If any theme can be found at all in the events of last year it is that space exploration continues to be a diverse and global endeavor. Putting any nationalism aside, this should give us hope that despite the ups and downs of the economies or space budgets in any given country, that exciting times lie ahead.
It’s hard to start a summary of 2016 in spaceflight without acknowledging that the United States had a major election, with a new President to be inaugurated this week. Any presidential transition leads to uncertainty in the future of government programs, including NASA. Often election years leave the federal government in a continuing resolution. A continuing resolution means that Congress has yet to pass a budget for the year. This leaves NASA and other agencies working under last year’s budget levels, with no increase for inflation or otherwise. The election was a big story for the country in a lot of ways, but NASA and its programs are most likely to feel the effects in 2017, as it tries to continue with business as usual as it waits for new priorities and a new budget.
While 2017 may bring about change (or not), 2016 was another good year for NASA’s flagship space exploration missions. NASA had no major failures last year, just the usual hiccups and challenges (space is hard, after all) and even launched a new planetary exploration mission: OSIRIS-REX, which is on its way to visit an asteroid in 2023. In fact, last year showed that NASA is still a clear leader in planetary exploration, with probes in action all over the solar system. The NASA fleet at Mars remains strong, with two rovers on the surface and two probes in orbit. New Horizons received a mission extension and is on its way to a Kuiper Belt Object rendezvous in a few years. Meanwhile, the probe Juno made orbit at Jupiter and started scientific observations. Unfortunately, Juno has some sticky propellant valves and missed some of its early science orbits when it entered “safe mode.” Fortunately, the probe was brought out of safe mode and completed a Jupiter flyby in December. Most of the probe’s 20-month mission is ahead. Hopefully Juno’s worst days are in the past! Out at Saturn, NASA is still operating the Cassini probe, which has been in orbit since 2004. Sadly, 2017 will see the end of Cassini, as it destroys itself in dramatic fashion, with a dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.
Two other planetary missions of note from other countries had some action last year. ExoMars (a joint mission between ESA and Russia) launched and made it to Mars. However, its companion lander, Schiaparelli, was unable to make it safely to the Martian surface and crash-landed. Thus, NASA remains the sole space agency to have safely brought a spacecraft to the surface of Mars… having done so seven times. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that the Soviet Union is the only country to have ever landed a probe on Venus! A feat which has not been repeated since 1982, and does not appear to be repeated any time soon, as most space agencies focus on asteroids and the outer solar system in their planetary science missions. Venus is not forgotten though, as Japan was able to begin doing science with their Akatsuki orbiter at Venus last year.
Following the theme of “space is hard,” Japan had a pretty devastating failure when their new X-ray telescope Astro-H, or Hitomi, went out of contact after reaching orbit. Fortunately, Japan already has a strong space program and seems mature and professional enough to learn from their mistakes – they released a failure report very quickly after the accident. They currently have an asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2, en route to its target in 2018, which we should all be very excited about. NASA has a strong relationship with JAXA, and will be curating the Hayabusa samples here at the Johnson Space Center when they return.
In human space exploration, the story continues to be the International Space Station. The ISS had an exciting year, partly because NASA and ESA continue to send charismatic astronauts who manage to make the mission feel very personal to all of us following back on Earth. It was a great year for following astronauts on Twitter, including Jeff Williams, Kate Rubins, Tim Kopra, Tim Peake, Scott Kelly, Shane Kimbrough, Thomas Pesquet, and Peggy Whitson. It’s hard to see how this trend will do anything but accelerate, as it’s a cheap and easy way for NASA to connect with the American public and share its mission. Scott Kelly of course returned from space early in the year and retired from NASA on a high note. Since the “year in space” was such a success, both operationally and as a public affairs bonanza, it seems likely NASA will want to try more longer duration expeditions in the future.
On the more nuts and bolts side of things for the ISS, all major mission events went well last year, with both the arrival and installation of the new IDA2 docking adapter and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). BEAM is an exciting demonstration of where human habitability in Earth orbit may be able to go in the future with inflatable structures. It is exciting to think that the technology may spinoff a private-public partnership with either or both of the companies Bigelow and Axiom to expand the ISS with new large inflatable modules in the future.
The ISS did face some minor setbacks of its own, although not quite as dramatic as in more recent years. Two rocket failures impacted ISS logistics: the SpaceX explosion on the pad in Florida in September and the loss of a Russian Progress resupply mission in December. The good news for NASA was that the SpaceX failure was not an ISS mission, but it meant a delay to the next planned resupply flight of a Dragon capsule, now scheduled for February. ISS is well stocked on supplies thanks to a Japanese resupply mission that also flew in December and the Orbital ATK Antares rocket returning to flight status in October. Even with both Japanese and American rockets able to keep ISS supplied, having the Russian Soyuz rocket family grounded must always make mission managers uneasy. After all, it is the same rocket family that failed in December that also delivers crews to the station. We are not in uncharted territory, as expedition schedules were in limbo after similar accidents in 2011 and 2015. But the ups and downs of the launch vehicle sector are a continual challenge not only for NASA’s ISS program but for dreamers who envision hundreds of people at a time into deep space for colonization. ISS truly is the foothold where we must learn first, and is a great proving ground for those dreamers.
The ISS accounts for over 2,000 person days of space experience a year. The day-in and day-out slog of operating an aging orbital laboratory and learning to live there is slowly but surely preparing us for what comes next. This experience is shared by a partnership of 15 nations (USA, Canada, Russia, Japan, and 11 countries from ESA). However, the rising nation of China finds itself on the outside. Just like in many other sectors, China is finding its own way in space. Last year was a good one for the China National Space Agency (CNSA). Not only did they launch a brand new space station, Tiangong-2 and send a crew of 2 on a 30-day mission to the outpost, they also debuted a brand new Long March 5 heavy lift launcher while matching the US in successful launches on the year – twenty-two. A new medium-lift rocket, Long March 7, also debuted from a new coastal spaceport on Hainan Island, which should give CNSA more flexibility. CNSA’s recent white paper publically published outlining their five-year plan shows ambition but also should be a douse of cold water on people expecting a space race between China and the USA. China certainly has a lot to be proud of as only the third independent nation to place humans in space. But they have a long way to go to put themselves on par with the modern space programs in America and elsewhere. I look forward to their planned lunar sample return mission in 2017, which will give them a lot of “street cred” if they pull it off!
Obviously these are not the only happenings in space exploration and related science areas. I could go on about the exciting developments in exoplanet astronomy, a field that may provide worlds to explore decades or centuries from now, for example. We continue to live in a golden age of space exploration that started with the Galileo probe to Jupiter in the early 90s. For me, 2016 was a testament to the true diversity of the state of space exploration and should serve as a reminder to avoid tunnel vision. There are many facets to how we explore. It’s not just about shiny new rockets and capsules and astronauts, but its also not just about gathering science through a space telescope or a distant robotic probe. All these pieces fit together to move forward the state of our knowledge about the universe together. One of my favorite examples of this from last year was astronaut Kate Rubins’ work on gene sequencing while aboard the ISS. Talk about two sectors that do not traditionally intersect, at least not in the minds of the general public. Diversity – both in the space agencies doing the exploration as well as the type of exploration – will keep the dream alive. I can’t wait to see what we do on ISS this year but I also look forward to news out of China and India as they learn what it takes to fly in space.
The biggest problem with keeping up this steady cadence of exploration is how all these space agencies will pay for it, as the world faces challenging fiscal and security issues. Space is exciting – and important – but it is far from the first priority when it comes to setting budgets in most parts of the world. Fortunately, we have disruptive new players in the launch sector that can help us keep costs down. More on that in my next post.
Down to Earth
Astronauts Mike Fossum and Mike Baker announced their retirement from NASA last week.
NASA announced that it will be funding two new robotic missions to study distant asteroids. The Lucy probe will take many years to go all the way out to study the Trojan asteroids, which share Jupiter’s orbit. The Psyche probe will travel to an asteroid named Psyche which is a solid iron asteroid. It will be the first large iron asteroid visited by a spacecraft.
The one and only orbital launch since my last post on January 5th was yet another Chinese rocket. This launch on the 9th carried several small Earth observation satellites into orbit.
Up on the ISS, the Expedition 50 crew completed two successful spacewalks to upgrade a portion of the space station’s power systems to use new lithium-ion batteries. Last Friday, January 6th, Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough completed the first spacewalk and yesterday, Friday, January 13th, Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet completed the second. Whitson’s 46 hours over 7 spacewalks puts her in an elite class at 14th on the list of most spacewalking hours ever by a human. Shane also has an impressive 25 hours over only 4 EVAs, but it keeps him off this list of top 30 humans on Wikipedia (30th place is just over 38 cumulative hours. Also note that Whitson would only need one more spacewalk on her current mission to pass Sunita Williams’ 50 hours in 7th place for most hours for a woman). Here are some video summaries from NASA and pictures from the spacewalks:
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) January 6, 2017
— Shane Kimbrough (@astro_kimbrough) January 6, 2017
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) January 7, 2017
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) January 9, 2017
— Shane Kimbrough (@astro_kimbrough) January 13, 2017
— Thomas Pesquet (@Thom_astro) January 14, 2017
Around the Solar System
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this incredible image of the Earth and moon from Mars orbit.
Fascinating analysis of some odd terrain on Pluto.
JPL has put together a new compilation of images from the Huygens probe descent to Saturn’s moon Titan, 12 years after the event. The mothership, Cassini, will end its mission later this year.
Astronomers observing a distant binary star have concluded that they will collide and merge in roughly 5 years, creating a bright nova that will be visible with the naked eye from Earth. Mark your calendars for 2022!
Down to Earth
SpaceX posted an update to their accident investigation regarding the rocket that was lost on a launch pad in September. Here’s a direct link to their anomaly updates page. They hope to return to flight this year.
In launches, it has been a slow couple of weeks, with only two orbital launches since my last post on October 16th. It was quality over quantity though, as both launches were important and anticipated missions for ISS operations.
First, Orbital ATK was able to finally launch their upgraded Antares rocket with a Cygnus cargo craft on its way to ISS. The rocket launched on Monday October 17th and was captured at the ISS almost a week later on Sunday the 23rd. The delay was necessary due a higher priority launch and docking of three crew aboard a Soyuz (see below).
On Wednesday, October 19, the Soyuz rocket carrying the second half of Expedition 50 finally launched (after a spacecraft problem delayed them several weeks). The launch, rendezvous, and docking were flawless. The new crew of Shane Kimbrough Andrei Borisenko, and Sergey Ryzhikov arrived at ISS on the 21st.
There were 8 people in space only briefly (recall that two Chinese taikonauts are hanging out on their own space station right now). Expedition 49 had to hand over command to new Expedition 50 commander Kimbrough on the 28th before Anatoli Ivanishin, Kate Rubins, and Takuya Onishi undocked on Saturday night and landed safely a few hours later.
Speaking of the Chinese taikonauts, they docked successfully to the Tiangong-2 space station on October 20th and plan to stay for several weeks.
Around the Solar System
The ExoMars mission arrived at Mars on October 19th. The orbiter (known as TGO – Trace Gas Orbiter) made a successful orbital insertion burn but unfortunately, contact with the Schiaparelli lander was lost at the planned time of touchdown. The lander is suspected to be lost, but NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was able to image the lander’s crash site, which should help with investigations. Below is an animated GIF showing the recent appearance of the lander in MRO imagery:
And here’s a closeup from the MRO’s HiRise camera.
In other bad news, the Juno spacecraft went into safe mode during its closest approach to Jupiter on October 18 and was not able to obtain scientific data. This came only a few days after an engine burn had been cancelled. Fortunately, mission controllers were able to command Juno out of safe mode on October 24 and perform at least one “trim” maneuver. The mission timeline will be impacted by the problem but there are still dozens of orbits left in the primary mission to gather data.
Here is a nice post with images about the preliminary results from Juno so far.
Speaking of spacecraft beaming data back to Earth, the data downlink from the New Horizons probe of its Pluto flyby last July has finally completed, 15 months later!
Down to Earth
The next manned Soyuz launch has been delayed. The second half of the Expedition 49 crew was due to launch to ISS on September 23rd but technical issues have pushed the launch back.
In another delay, a wildfire in California has pushed back a launch of an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Legendary cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who has flown to space 6 times and is only second to Gennady Padalka for time in space at 827 days, has reportedly retired. He was most recently on ISS for Expedition 47 earlier this year.
A ridiculously large meteorite fragment was extracted from the ground in Argentina.
Three successful rocket launches in the past week: Israel launched a spy satellite on the 13th; China launched their new space station, Tiangong-2, on the 15th; Arianespace launched a Vega rocket with two commercial payloads on the 16th.
Up on the ISS, Kate Rubins donned a special flight suit painted by pediatric patients from MD Anderson’s Cancer Center. Kate was wearing the suit for a special event arranged by the “Space Suit Art Project” championed by retired astronaut Nicole Stott. The video of the event is below.
Around the Solar System
Pluto’s moon Charon has an odd red polar cap, first seen when the New Horizons probe visited the planet last year. A new analysis shows that the source may be methane from Pluto converted to organics by the sun’s radiation.
The Hubble Space Telescope caught images of a distant comet breaking apart (GIF courtesy NASA, of course).
Down to Earth
Former astronaut and Space Shuttle commander, Eileen Collins, spoke at the Republican National Convention:
Aboard the New Horizons probe that visited Pluto was a US postage stamp with a picture of Pluto and the phrase “not yet explored”. Last week the Guinness Book of World Records recognized this stamp as the farthest traveled postage stamp in history.
CASIS has partnered with Marvel to create this Guardians of the Galaxy inspired ISS National Lab emblem.
The 21st of NASA’s undersea NEEMO missions has started off the coast of Florida. The crew, made up of astronauts and other explorers, will spend 16 days in a habitat under the ocean simulating a deep space mission.
The only two rocket launches since my last post on July 7th were two cargo launches to the International Space Station. First, a Progress resupply freighter launched from Kazakhstan last Saturday and was docked on Monday evening.
Second, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched on Monday morning, arriving at the ISS early Wednesday morning. In addition, SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage of their booster at their landing facility in Florida. Here’s what that looked like to fans watching from miles away:
Around the Solar System
A new distant Kuiper Belt Object has been discovered. 2015 RR245 is on a 700-year eccentric orbit.
The Curiosity rover on Mars has been back in “full operations” following the safe mode event earlier this month.
The K2 space telescope has discovered another 100 extrasolar planets.
Here’s your busy June update!
Down to Earth
Blue Origin launched their reusable New Shepard rocket for the fourth time, with a hosted webcast this time. Here is a video of the flight:
A Saturn V first stage, meant to be used on the Apollo 19 flight, was moved to the Stennis Space Center’s visitor center for display, along Interstate 10 in Mississippi.
During a congressional hearing last week, the issue of astronaut post-mission health care was discussed.
This is not strictly space news, but the deep winter rescue mission from the South Pole is just as harrowing and difficult as spaceflight in some ways.
A team of astronauts are going on a multi-night spelunking trip this month as a spaceflight analog training mission.
The new 3D printer aboard ISS by Made In Space has printed its first functional tool.
The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vessel was released from the ISS on June 14th and re-entered the atmosphere on June 22nd. In the meantime, NASA conducted the SAFFIRE in-flight fire experiment. Here’s some of the video they recorded:
Also returning to Earth this month, but in a more controlled fashion, was there astronauts aboard Soyuz TMA-19M: Tim Peake, Tim Kopra, and Yuri Malenchenko.
Here are all the orbital launches since my last post on June 6th:
- A Russian Proton rocket carrying a communications satellite (June 9).
- A ULA Delta IV rocket launch from Florida carrying a spy satellite (June 11).
- A Chinese launch of one of their navigation satellite (June 12).
- A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with two communications satellites (June 15).
- A European Ariane 5 rocket carrying two communication satellites (June 18).
- An Indian PSLV rocket carrying a slew of satellites including a flock of PlanetLabs Doves (June 22).
- A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying a US military communications satellite (June 24).
The SpaceX launch, as usual, was the most exciting, with another ASDS landing attempt. They missed the landing this time. Here are some pictures of the wreckage returning to port.
Around the Solar System
New analysis of Pluto has led to the hypothesis that the dwarf planet may have a subsurface ocean… really!
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) got a new shot of the rover Curiosity on the slopes of Mount Sharp.
You’ve got to love this trailer for Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI) of the Juno probe, coming up on July 4th.
Down to Earth
NASA’s Dawn mission was awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy.
Former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi is the new director of Glenn Research Center in Ohio.
WIRED sent a guy to spend a day at JSC learning what it’s like to be an astronaut. The short video is fun and probably fairly informative for non-space geeks.
Lots of launch activity in the past two weeks. Of the five total launches, I’ll get the two less interesting ones out of the way first: on March 13, a Russian Earth observation mission launched from Baikonaur and then on March 24, a Russian military mission launched from Plesetsk. Both were on Soyuz rockets.
The other three launches are much more interesting. First, on March 14 the much anticipated ExoMars mission launched on a Proton rocket from Baikonaur. The Mars exploration mission is currently safely in solar orbit on its way to an October rendezvous.
On March 18, another Soyuz rocket launched from Baikonaur, but this time carrying 3 people. Aleksey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka, and Jeff Williams had an uneventful launch, rendezvous, and docking with the ISS. Or at least, as uneventful as those sorts of things go!
Lastly, an Atlas V rocket launched from Florida on March 23 carrying a Cygnus cargo freighter. Cygnus, named the S.S. Rick Husband by Orbital ATK, arrived (also uneventfully) at ISS on Saturday morning.
— Tim Kopra (@astro_tim) March 26, 2016
— Tim Kopra (@astro_tim) March 27, 2016
Unfortunately, it sounds like Japan’s Astro-H X-ray observatory may have been lost only weeks after it launched in February.
Around the Solar System
Check out this picture of the tallest mountains on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Here’s some awesome new close-up imagery of the “bright spots” on Ceres.
Newly released analysis of New Horizons data indicates that Pluto may have had periods of high atmospheric pressure in the past, which allowed liquid nitrogen to flow in rivers on its surface.
Down to Earth
Speaking of Mars, NASA’s delayed InSight lander has been granted a mission extension for a new launch date in 2018.
Two successful orbital launches this past week: a communications satellite launched by ESA from Korou and a navigation satellite launched by ISRO from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India.
Next week, on March 18, three ISS astronauts will launch aboard Soyuz TMA-20M from Kazakhstan to join Expedition 47. Here’s the NASA TV schedule for the launch. NASA astronaut Jeff Williams has been active on Twitter during flight preparations, posting short “video blogs” like this one:
— Jeff Williams (@Astro_Jeff) March 3, 2016
Meanwhile, Scott Kelly has been video blogging his return to Earth:
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) March 8, 2016
Be sure to always follow all of NASA’s astronauts on Twitter – but especially those in space – because they are always sharing something exciting!
Around the Solar System
NASA’s New Horizons probe has discovered “methane snow” on Pluto’s mountain peaks.
The last year was full of spacey goodness. Some things were expected – even long anticipated – like space probes Dawn and New Horizons arriving at their targets. Other things were a complete surprise, like the loss of SpaceX’s seventh commercial flight to ISS and the discovery of flowing water on the surface of Mars. All-in-all, there was a lot to follow and talk about. Thus, I am putting together one or more “year in review” blog posts to give my perspective on what has happened and what’s to come. In the meantime, you can enjoy other people’s thoughts of 2015 in spaceflight through the links I have gathered below. Happy new year!
As usual, I love to lean on the “year in spaceflight” pages on Wikipedia. The folks that put these together do a thorough job. If we look at the 2015 in spaceflight page, we see that the human race is maintaining our high flight rate, with 82 successful orbital launches out of 87 attempts. These numbers have been steadily growing for years. Here is the last decade’s successful launches numbers, starting with 2005: 52, 62, 63, 66, 73, 70, 78, 72, 77, 88, 82. As I wrote in last week’s Weekly Links post, Russia had the most launches with 26 and their Soyuz rocket is by far the most dominant, at 17 launches. However, their two failures this year make it hard to call Soyuz both the most dominant and most reliable. China launches 19 of their Long March family of rockets with no failures.
Using the “list of spaceflight records” we can see some changes in the list for total time in space. Most notably, Gennady Padalka spent 167 days on ISS during Expedition 43/44, his 5th spaceflight, to put him at the top spot for most spaceflown human ever. He has spent 879 days of his life in space. Also notable is Anton Shkaplerov, who returned to Earth during Expedition 43 and is at the 32 spot, Oleg Kononenko, who returned during Expedition 45 and holds the 13 spot with 533 days, and Yuri Malenchenko and Sergey Volkov who are currently in space and hold the 7 and 31 spots respectively.
The other notable record that was broken this year is “longest single flight by a woman” (which is on the list of spaceflight records page), broken this year by Samantha Cristoforetti, partly because her crew got stuck on ISS a little bit longer after the loss of a Progress resupply flight in May.
AmericaSpace, but on planetary science.
AmericaSpace’s compilation video of launches:
And here’s a series of four year in review posts from NASA Spaceflight:
Government Agency PR
NASA’s summary of 2015. With video below.
NASA’s top 15 images of Earth from ISS (if you are a real photography or geography nut, you will want to click “read more” on each picture).
Top Space Stories of 2015
Down To Earth
Last week the US Senate passed a bill named the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act”. One of the most talked about provisions in the bill allows private citizens or companies to lay claim to asteroid resources.
Virgin Galactic announced that they have hired their first female test pilot: Kelly Latimer, who has flown for the USAF and NASA.
An object known as WT1190F re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up over the Indian Ocean on November 13th. The object was thought to be a rocket stage from an Apollo mission. Astronomers onboard an airplane caught some pictures of the event.
This is pretty cool:
Slow-mo footage of our pad abort test in May, a critical test in preparation for our first human missions. pic.twitter.com/vvZTlf5sH1
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 30, 2015
In the past week, only one rocket blasted into orbit: an ESA Ariane 5 rocket with communications satellites for India and Saudi Arabia. The next launch in support of the ISS is still a few weeks away: an Atlas V carrying a Cygnus freighter for Orbital ATK.
Around the Solar System
I love this animated mission update on the Rosetta/Philae mission from ESA.
New analysis indicates that Mars’ small moon Phobos may only have millions of years to live. Due to its low orbit, it is getting torn apart by tidal forces, which cause the strange “grooves” on its surface.
New images of large mountains on Pluto may be evidence for “ice volcanoes” (or “cryovolcanoes”).
Check out this animation which shows the different spin rates of Pluto’s 5 moons.
Astronomers have discovered a new distant solar system object which may be the most distant rocky body known. V774104 is about half the size of Pluto and orbits several times further away.
Newly discovered planet , GJ 1132b, is the closest planet of about Earth’s size yet discovered, at only 39 light years distant. Unfortunately, the planet is tidally locked and very close to its star, making it not a fun place.