Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Caltech has announced that Michael Watkins will replace Charles Elachi as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

New legislation in the US Senate, if passed, would put fallen astronaut Christa McAuliffe on a dollar coin for the 30th anniversary of the loss of Challenger.

Don’t miss today’s (Monday, May 9) transit of the sun by Mercury. If you don’t have the skill, equipment, or location to view it yourself, you can follow online with a live feed from various sources.

The joint European-Russian Mars rover project ExoMars has been delayed from the 2018 to 2020 launch window.

NASA’s Langley Research Center has named a new building for Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

In Orbit

Early on the morning of May 6, SpaceX launched a commercial communications satellite on a Geostationary Transfer Orbit. The launch was a beautiful and nominal night launch. After Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) the Falcon 9 first stage flew back to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) for another successful landing at sea. Are you not entertained?

Speaking of SpaceX, don’t forget to tune into NASA TV on May 11 for coverage of their Dragon spacecraft departing the International Space Station.

And as usual, the ISS crew has been busy sharing their view on high with us. Here are some stunning recent posts from their Twitter accounts:

In Orbit

Cassini did some recent observations of Enceladus by watching a the moon transit in front of a star, revealing new clues about the ice world’s geology.

Out There

The TRAPPIST observatory in Chile has discovered a solar system of three small planets about 40 light years from Earth.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

United Launch Alliance has narrowed down the anomaly in their last Atlas V flight – which resulted in an early shutdown of the main stage – to a particular valve.

Check out this 360-degree view of the SpaceX ASDS landing (best viewed on mobile for easy panning).

The next Falcon 9 launch and attempted ASDS landing on May 5th at about 1:22 AM. They are launching a Japanese commercial satellite.

The James Webb Space Telescope had the protective covers removed from its primary mirror last week. Here’s a link to the webcam at Goddard where the multi-billion dollar observatory is being assembled: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/webcam.html

The next spaceflight analog crew to spend 30 days inside a mockup spacecraft at NASA’s Johnson Space Center will start their mission tomorrow. You can follow along on Twitter:

In Orbit

The first launch of Russia’s new Vostochny spaceport took place on April 28th. Here are some great pictures via Spaceflight Now. The rocket was carrying two “technology” satellites and one gamma-ray observatory.

In other launch news, India launched a big rocket carrying one navigation satellite, to complete their domestic navigation constellation. And thirdly, ESA was finally able to launch their Sentinel-1B Earth-observing satellite, which was delayed last weekend.

Up on ISS, the Soyuz TMA-19M crew has learned that they will get about an extra two weeks in orbit, as Expedition 47 has been extended to June 18th.

In sad news, JAXA has given up their attempts to recover the stricken Hitomi x-ray observatory which has been out of contact for some weeks. They now suspect that the spacecraft spun out of control due to an attitude control malfunction and lost its solar arrays.

Tim Peake got to do a unique experiment from the ISS last week when he controlled an ESA rover on the ground via remote control.

Around the Solar System

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has discovered a small moon orbiting the distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as Makemake.

Weekly Links

Obviously the huge news this week is the successful launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the return to flight of the Dragon capsule and a successful landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS). See the “In Orbit” section for more details!

Down to Earth

Blue Origin achieved an impressive feat last week, flying the same suborbital New Shepard rocket for the third time since November.

Following a rocket anomaly in the launch of a Cygnus resupply craft last month the ULA Atlas V rocket is grounded.

Accomplished NASA astronaut, and current NASA science chief, John Grunsfeld, will be retiring.

Roscosmos is selling the perennially financially troubled venture Sea Launch.

In Orbit

There have been 4 orbital launches since my last blog update on March 27. Here they are in chronological order: China launched a single Beidou navigation satellite on March 29, Russia launched a Progress resupply craft from Baikonaur on March 31, China launched a microgravity science payload on April 6, and of course SpaceX launched a Dragon resupply capsule on April 8.

The flawless Falcon 9 ascent and capsule deploy was overshadowed by SpaceX achieving the impressive feat of recovering the rocket’s first stage on the ASDS, out in the Atlantic Ocean. This video says it all.

This delivery of cargo aboard Dragon will wrap up a very busy time period aboard ISS. Starting with the Soyuz undocking at the beginning of March, which brought Scott Kelly home and started Expedition 47, there have been 6 different visiting vehicle events, with Dragon being the third cargo resupply in 2 weeks.

One of the payloads aboard Dragon that everyone is excited about is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM. Here is a simple infographic about BEAM (via Parabolic Arc).

Around the Solar System

Meanwhile, on Mars, NASA’s rovers are quietly doing science. Check out this panorama from Curiosity. On the other side of the planet, Opportunity has been exploring Marathon Valley and braving slopes above 30 degrees tilt in the name of science.

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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.

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.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The joint Russian-European Mars mission, ExoMars, has been prepped for launch and is on the pad in Kazakhstan. Launch is Monday, March 14.

Speaking of Mars, NASA’s delayed InSight lander has been granted a mission extension for a new launch date in 2018.

Blue Origin invited several journalists to tour their headquarters near Seattle, Washington last week. Some new details about their future spaceflight plans were revealed.

In Orbit

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:

Meanwhile, Scott Kelly has been video blogging his return to Earth:

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

A solar eclipse thrilled people in Oceania last week. For those of us who don’t live on an island in the Pacific, we can still enjoy these views from NASA’s DSCOVR satellite.

NASA’s New Horizons probe has discovered “methane snow” on Pluto’s mountain peaks.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Two space shuttle astronauts, Brian Duffy and Scott Parazynski, were recently inducted into the astronaut hall of fame.

Apollo astronaut and moonwalker, Edgar Mitchell, died at the age of 85.

Former President George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) visited Johnson Space Center and talked to the ISS astronauts from the Mission Control Center.

All of the segments of the primary mirror to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have been assembled!

The Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected “gravitational waves”, which is what it was designed to do. This is a basically a new way to see the universe – like the first time an X-Ray observatory was put into space and returned data. Not only that, it validates parts of Einstein’s theories. Here are some brief articles from Phil Plait and Sean Carroll, who explain it well.

Check out this amazing zero-gravity music video by Ok Go, which doesn’t use any digital effects. Wow!

Curators at the Smithsonian recently did a 3D scan of the inside of the Apollo 11 Command ModuleColumbia, and found previously unknown handwritten notes on the walls.

Astronaut Kevin Ford has retired from NASA.

The new SpaceX “transporter erector” at pad 39A in Florida is pretty cool looking.

In Orbit

A number of rocket launches since my last post in late January: a Chinese rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (Beidou), a ULA Atlas V launched a GPS satellite, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (GLONASS), a ULA Delta IV launched a secret USA reconnaissance office payload, and lastly North Korea launched something.

This brings the worldwide launch cadence for the year up to 10 so far, or almost 2 per week. We are still waiting for the first SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the year, which should be before March.

Veteran cosmonauts Sergey Volkov and Yuri Malenchenko conducted a successful spacewalk on the Russian Segment of the ISS.

Around the Solar System

The European Space Agency has announced that they are no longer attempting to send commands to the lost Philae lander, which has not transmitted from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in months.

China has released some new photos of the moon from it’s Yutu rover mission (the rover died some time ago).

2015 in Review – Part II

Honestly, at the beginning of 2015, I did not think the year could possibly be as interesting as 2014 when it came to the launch sector. I thought there was a possibility SpaceX would achieve some major milestones from its list of goals for the year – maybe recover a first stage, maybe launch a Falcon 9 Heavy, maybe double their flight rate – but probably only one or two of them. I never would have guessed that 2015 could have the same roller coaster ride of ups and downs of 2014, which had rocket launches, rocket explosions, and political tension. Surprisingly, not only did 2015 have me on the edge of my seat like 2014, it surprised me and almost everyone else with some crazy twists and turns.

Part II – Rockets

Let’s recap where we were at the end of 2014: SpaceX had just wrapped up a reasonably successful year with 6 flights and no failures, which was twice the number of flights they had in 2013. The debate over the RD-180 engine was still ongoing but had calmed down somewhat with a congressional budget provision for the US to start working on a homegrown replacement. In the meantime, ULA would be allowed to continue using RD-180s to a limited extent. The biggest event of course was the spectacular explosion of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on its way to the ISS. Really the story had all eyes on – and are we really surprised? – SpaceX. With Orbital Sciences grounded and ULA under heat for using imported Russian engines, SpaceX was here to save the day.

And SpaceX certainly got off to a roaring start in 2015. They launched the first rocket of the year, which certainly served to make a point, and from there on averaged one Falcon 9 launch per month through June. During two of those launches in January and April they thrilled everybody with their so close rocket landing attempts. I have to repost the videos again below because they are so awesome.

Meanwhile, while all that fun was going on, the US Air Force granted SpaceX certification for military payloads and SpaceX conducted a launchpad abort test with their Dragon V2 capsule. Things were looking pretty good for the (not so) New Space company. But then this happened during their CRS-7 launch to ISS, their 6th of the year:

Suddenly, things completely changed. Adding another layer to the story, a Russian Progress resupply flight to the ISS had also been lost in late May, after which some people had been saying “good thing we have a SpaceX flight coming up.” Not only was the future of SpaceX’s manifest and Falcon 9 rocket in question, there were serious questions about the logistics chain to the ISS. Three of the vital cargo rockets were grounded, with only the Japanese HTV unaffected.

Thankfully, one of the things the Russians are really good at is rebounding from launch failures, and they flew a successful Progress mission to ISS only a few days after the SpaceX explosion. Regardless, 3 of the last 8 unmanned flights to ISS had been lost, an unprecedented statistic.

Orbital ATK (the new name of Orbital Sciences after a merger early in the year) had already announced plans for their return to flight way back in January. Surprisingly, their strategy would be to purchase launch vehicles from their competitors to fly their Cygnus freighter while they worked on a redesign of the Antares first stage. The return to flight would be on a ULA Atlas 5 sometime late in the year. The good news for all involved is that that launch went off without a hitch (after some weather delays) in mid-December. The Cygnus freighter known as “SS Deke Slayton” is happily berthed to the ISS as I write this.

As for SpaceX, all plans for a Falcon Heavy launch, a rocket landing, or a new record flight rate, were taking backseat to the job of figuring out why their rocket had disintegrated on them. Second priority was getting a return to flight scheduled ASAP to pick up their deep manifest (which was already stacked pretty deep coming into 2015). It came out very quickly that the mishap was caused by the failure of a strut, or a structural beam, holding a high pressure helium tank in place. Unfortunately, just because you know the cause of a failure doesn’t mean you know how long it will take to sort out the problem and get back to regular launches. For the next few months it was unclear to the public outside SpaceX if they could even return to flight within the calendar year.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world kept launching rockets. ULA in particular had a pretty good year with 12 launches and no failures. Even though ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets are extremely successful and don’t really need replacing, they responded to pressures both from the government (which was saying stop using Russian engines) and SpaceX (who is threatening to change the launch industry entirely with reusability) and revealed plans for their new Vulcan rocket. The Vulcan is an ambitious new project which will take at least 5 years to complete. It will use a new American built liquid stage engine and aim to save money by recovering those engines after every launch. Their plan is kind of crazy, as it involves a helicopter. Here it is graphically:

Then in November ULA made space news headlines by not bidding on a GPS satellite contract from the DoD, essentially ceding the launch to SpaceX. ULA listed a couple of reasons they felt that it was not really worth their time to bid, including the Congressional mandate against them to not buy any more RD-180s from Russia. ULA was basically saying, we don’t have enough engines. John McCain in particular was not amused. McCain, who is strongly against the import of Russian rocket engines, feels that ULA has more than enough RD-180 engines already in stock without buying new ones from Russia. They simply need to allocate less engines for commercial and NASA launches and more to DoD payloads. The move was basically a bluff from ULA to get people talking, and it has yet to be seen if it will work.

Which brings us to the tail end of the year, with two of the biggest surprises still left. While everyone was busy talking about SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and ULA, Blue Origin came out of nowhere with a pretty spectacular flight demonstration of their New Shepard rocket. The secret launch occurred in their West Texas facility, reaching the edge of space before the capsule safely came back to Earth under parachute and the first stage touched down vertically under power.

On the face of it, it appears Blue Origin had swooped in and accomplished the first real first stage recovery after a functional rocket launch, right from under SpaceX’s nose. In reality, the technical challenge involved with Blue Origin’s feat is somewhat different than what SpaceX had been trying to do, as the below graphic illustrates. Blue Origin’s launch – while impressive – was suborbital. Meanwhile, SpaceX had been trying to bring back a first stage from a rocket that was actually putting payloads into orbit, which requires much higher velocity.

Regardless, Blue Origin is clearly the quiet dark horse in this story. They almost stole the limelight this year, at least that’s the way it looked before SpaceX stole it back just 9 days before the end of the year. Less than 6 months after their failure, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 on December 22nd, placing a fleet of Orbcomm satellites into orbit and, to everyone’s amazement, successfully landing the first stage back at “Landing Zone 1″ at Cape Canaveral.

This made the mishap back in June look like small potatoes. SpaceX had just achieved one of those three big goals for the year. While there is still a lot of work for them to do to checkout the rocket and determine how much refurbishment would be needed for reflight, this was a major step towards their goal of reuse. Not only that, but being back on flight status puts them in a great posture going into 2016 ready to fly out a big part of their deep manifest. They also likely now have the focus and resources to get that first Falcon Heavy in the air this year.

2016 looks good for Orbital ATK too – with a second Cygnus flight on an Atlas 5 coming up quickly in March and then the maiden flight of their upgraded Antares rocket in May. Overall, the year ended on a high note for the launch industry, with many space fans pretty optimistic. Given how things were looking back in the summer, this year could have turned out quite differently. Losing a Progress cargo craft, which is the only source of fuel resupply and propulsive support for ISS, is always a big deal at NASA and it spins up contingency planning. Fortunately, we ended the year with not just Russia but everyone having returned to flight. Not only do we have a solid reliable supply chain re-established to ISS, lots to look forward to from SpaceX, and resumed orbital flights from Virginia, we are also getting tantalizingly close to the first test flights of the Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 manned spacecraft.

I had my heart in my throat for a bit this year, but ended up jumping up and down and cheering with everyone else on December 22nd. It was exciting and all, but after the last two years I’m ready for less drama, and more launches. Ad astra.

2015 Summary Link Dump

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!

Wikipedia Stats

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.

Summary Posts

AmericaSpace

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:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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).

ESA year in pictures.

ESA highlights video.

Top Space Stories of 2015

Space.com’s list.

Phil Plait’s list.

Huffington Post.

US News and World Report.

Other Lists

Best pictures from the Curiosity rover.

Top science stories from NYT.

Top science stories from Science Magazine.

Google’s “a year in search” video.

Ars Technica top science images.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Here are some new high resolution images from the SpaceX booster flyback landing last week.

And here is a nice shot of the booster being returned to the SpaceX launch complex.

United Launch Alliance has ordered more of the RD-180 engines that power its Atlas rockets. This is the Russian-built engine that has been causing political controversy since early 2014, since American politicians understandably don’t want our military satellites dependent on a geopolitical adversary’s technology. The new engines are only planned to be used for civil and commercial launches.

Meanwhile, the USAF awarded a bunch of money to several companies for propulsion development so that RD-180s won’t have to be purchased in the future.

Components of ESA’s ExoMars mission have arrived at the launch site in Kazakhstan. Launch is coming up quick in March!

Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, was dissolved by law this week under the ongoing reorganization of the space industry going on in that country.

Oak Ridge in Tennessee has produced the first Plutonium-238 in decades. This non-weapons grade nuclear fuel is needed for the RTG power sources of deep space missions.

In Orbit

Only two launches since my last post on December 22nd: a Russian Proton rocket* with a communications satellite and a Chinese rocket with an Earth observation satellite. With no apparent planned launches for the rest of the year (according to my favorite Wikipedia page), that leaves the yearly totals as seen below, with Russia at 25 successful launches and China and the US tied at 18. If SpaceX had launched as many Falcon 9s as they had hoped this year, then the US may have matched or surpassed Russia’s numbers for the first time since probably 2003*. Comments from Musk at a recent press conference indicate he hopes for 12 launches in 2016. We will see.

Screen shot 2015-12-28 at 10.45.06 PM

*The Proton is the rocket that seemed to blow up every other launch a couple of years ago. Although there has been only been one failure every year since 2012, the failure rate has remained about the same since 2010, with 4 out of 32 launches failed 2010 to 2012 and 3 out of 26 from 2013 to 2015.

**In 2003, Orbital Sciences was operating the Pegasus rocket (four launches), ILS was launching out of both Florida and Kazakhstan (I counted based on launch site) and Boeing and Lockheed had yet to merge as ULA. USA outscored Russia by 23 to 21 that year by  my count.

Around the Solar System

Here’s a cool new “self-portrait” panorama from the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Here are some new images from Dawn’s new low mapping orbit at Ceres.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The US federal budget bill for 2016 (referred to as the “omnibus bill”), which has been signed into law by the President, is good news for NASA, with over a $1 billion budget increase for next year.

NASA has confirmed with ESA that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will launch to space aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in 2018. Basically, they signed the contract to pay for the launch. Meanwhile, the JWST mirror installation has been ongoing at Goddard Spaceflight Center (GSFC) in Maryland.

NASA’s next mission to Mars, the InSight lander (not a rover), was delivered to the launch site in California. However, the launch will be delayed, probably about two years, due to an issue with the spacecraft. Here’s the press release from NASA.

NASA ordered a second Boeing CST-100 Starliner flight to ISS. The first crewed mission is expected sometime in 2017.

In Orbit

Other than the InSight delay, the year is wrapping up nicely with some successes. Since my last post on the 13th, there were 6 orbital launches, all successful. The launches included the arrival of the rest of the Expedition 46 crew on ISS, with Malenchenko, Kopra, and Peake aboard. Also an Indian commercial launch, a Chinese dark matter telescope, and a European launch of two Galileo satellites, which is their equivalent to the GPS system.

December 21st was a big day with the last two of those six launches as well as an emergency ISS spacewalk to fix the stuck Mobile Transporter. The spacewalk went fine. Meanwhile, Russia launched a Progress resupply mission to the ISS, which docks on the 23rd, and SpaceX made their return to flight launch of the Falcon 9 rocket with a commercial launch for Orbcomm. In addition to successfully returning to flight and launching the first of their upgraded version 1.2 Falcon 9, the first stage was successfully landed back at the landing site for the first time. Here’s a video:

And here’s some photos of the booster on the landing pad the morning after.