Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The current head of JPL for 15 years, Charles Elachi, is retiring. Here’s a brief but good interview with him from Pasadena Star News.

NASA has delayed its decision to award ISS cargo flight contracts starting in 2018 until next year. The current contracts being fulfilled by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences run out in a few years and 5 companies have submitted proposals for the new award (SpaceX, Orbital, Sierra Nevada, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin).

NASA will be accepting applications for a new class of astronauts starting December 14th.

In Orbit

Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren completed their second of two planned spacewalks during their ISS mission this past Friday.

In orbital rocket news, China had two launches last week: first, a communication satellite on November 3rd and a military reconnaissance satellite on November 8th, bringing their total on the year to 14 with no failures. For comparison, the USA is 16 for 18, Russia is 19 for 21, and ESA is 7 for 7.

A new US Air Force rocket, intended for small payloads, was supposed to reach orbit from the Hawaiian Island of Kauai last week, but had an anomaly on ascent and was lost.

Speaking of rockets, a submarine-launched missile test was seen by many residents on the US west coast on Saturday evening, November 7th.

Around the Solar System

Newly-announced findings from NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft are helping scientists determine what happened to Mars’ atmosphere. Mars has no powerful magnetic field like Earth, so it is suspected that the solar wind has been blasting Mars’ atmosphere away into space over the eons.

The New Horizons spacecraft has now completed all four course correction burns needed (assuming they are all on target) to get to object 2014 MU69 in 2019.

Weekly Links

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

Down to Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

Around the Solar System

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


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

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

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

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA has selected five new flight directors for manned spaceflight programs.

Last week in Houston a new opera titled ‘O Columbia’ premiered for just two nights at the Houston Grand Opera. The production incorporated the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in the second act. I didn’t get to see the show, but according to The Houston Chronicle a preview at the Johnson Space Center received a standing ovation.

Don’t forget to go out Sunday evening, September 27th, and see the lunar eclipse!

In Orbit

Two more orbital rocket launches last week. The first was a Rokot launch vehicle from Russia with several military communications satellites. China seems to be on a roll this month and launched another new rocket, the Long March 11, with several cubesats.

On Monday, September 28th, the Japanese HTV5 cargo vehicle will leave the ISS. You can follow along on NASA TV.

Since it’s a bit of a slow week for spaceflight news, here are some cool pictures from ISS as filler!

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Opportunity rover is preparing for the Martian winter by positioning itself on a North-facing slope in Marathon Valley.

Out There

Check out this actual imagery loop of the planet Beta Pictoris b as it moves through its orbit 63 light-years away.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this innovative moving ISS tracker someone built.

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

What will be the legacy of ISS?

What will be the legacy of the International Space Station? It seems ridiculous to ask at this early stage, with probably a decade of operations remaining. But when you ask the man who was ISS program manager since August 2005, you get a pretty convincing answer. Michael Suffredini, who retired from NASA earlier in August, recently sat down and gave a refreshingly frank interview with Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle. Simply put, this is a must read if you care enough to have a strong opinion of the ISS and the future of NASA. By the end of the article, not only did Suffredini have me fairly convinced that ISS will have a lasting legacy – leaving in the dust all that talk of station as a “white elephant” – but he had me feeling somewhat optimistic.

Over the past ten years, through all the ups and downs of the ISS, NASA, and this country, Suffredini was the guy who had to deal face-to-face with US politicians, heads of foreign space programs, and CEOs of major contractors. You’d think there’d be a lot of frustration and head-banging involved with those kinds of dealings, and yet Suffredini provides optimistic statements about the two most important players today in the space business other than NASA.

First, when Berger asks if there is any question about the safety of SpaceX’s rockets following their accident earlier this year, Suffredini expresses some pretty strong confidence in the corporation:

And I can tell you, my involvement with what they’ve been doing, they’re taking it very seriously. They’ll do far more mods than are mandatory to fix the problem that occurred. It’s that kind of mindset that’ll allow you to be able to fly crew safely.

Things have come a long way from even just five years ago when the public perception was that NASA didn’t trust SpaceX and SpaceX didn’t want NASA’s help. Such a strong statement as Suffredini’s makes the vision of an affordable and more adaptive future for NASA and the space industry seem very likely.

However, that vision has been thwarted somewhat by shifting federal funding in the area of the ISS commercial crew program. My favorite quote from the interview came from Suffredini’s thoughts on commercial crew funding:

Even our Russian partners would tell you, to have a single crew vehicle to ISS, is not the right way to operate in low-Earth orbit.

I don’t believe this quote is just rhetoric. Suffredini probably had to deal with the heads of the Russian space program on the regular to do his job successfully, so he knows what they think. In fact, if I had to guess, they’ve probably had conversations behind closed doors about this very topic and they probably told Suffredini directly they wished there was more redundancy for crew transportation.

This cuts right to something I have been trying to tell people when the “relying on the Russians” angle of the ISS program comes up. The folks working ISS over in Moscow just want to explore space, same as us. If something unfortunate grounded the Soyuz fleet, everyone would be disappointed – obviously – and I’m sure the Russians would be grateful if NASA had a SpaceX or Boeing capsule ready to go to keep the program on its feet.

So what is the legacy of station? In Suffredini’s answer to that particular question, he only discussed contributions to furthering exploration and learning lessons to get us to Mars. However, in his answers throughout the rest of the interview, he implied much more: international collaboration, catalyzing a commercial space market beyond just satellite manufacturing, and the early success of SpaceX.

Sign me up… oh wait.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Russia recently made it official that they are willing to fund joint operations of ISS through 2024. Meanwhile, NASA sent Russia almost half of a billion dollars to renew the contract for sending astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz spacecraft. The new contract is to protect against further slips in the commercial crew program schedule, as insufficient funds are being allocated by Congress, according to administrator Charlie Bolden.

NASA’s ISS program manager, Mike Suffredini, is retiring from NASA. His replacement will be Kirk Shireman.

Buzz Aldrin has taken a faculty position at Florida Tech.

Don’t forget that the Perseid Meteor Shower is this week!

In Orbit

Two cosmonauts on the ISS will go for a spacewalk Monday morning (August 10). You can watch live on NASA TV.

NASA has named the astronauts that will make up Expeditions 51 and 52 in 2017.

Check out this view of the moon passing in front of the Earth from the DISCOVR satellite.

As usual, lots of great tweets from the crew on the ISS this week, including stunning shots of Super Typhoon Soudelor.

Around the Solar System

Check out this animation of our current map of the asteroid Ceres, from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft.

Comet 67P, Where ESA’s Rosetta probe is in orbit, will reach perihelion this week. ESA is hosting a Google Hangout on August 13th.

Comet orbit diagram from ESA

The number of potential landing sites for NASA’s “Mars 2020″ rover has been reduced to 8 candidates.

Meanwhile, Curiosity just celebrated its third anniversary on Mars.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Astronauts Stephen Frick and Michael Foreman announced their retirement from NASA this week. If you are interested, NASA maintains an updated list of active astronauts here, which can be easily copied into a spreadsheet. With the addition of the class of 2013 as active astronauts, the number is currently at 46 after recent retirements. Interestingly, the oldest class still represented is the class of 1996, of which Scott Kelly (currently in space) and Peggy Whitson and Jeff Williams (upcoming ISS commanders), are all members.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their findings regarding the accident last fall that destroyed the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo spacecraft and one of its pilots. Their findings are summarized nicely at Parabolic Arc or you can read the longer executive summary of the report. In short, it was indeed the “early unlocking” of the spaceplanes “feather system” that doomed the craft. the NTSB’s analysis found that the risk of human error was not properly taken into account during development.

Rumors out of Russia is that a new “Manned Spaceflight Center”, analogous to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is in the planning stages, and would be headed by former cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.

In Orbit

Last weekend, on Saturday, July 25th, ISS flight controllers had to command a debris avoidance maneuver to dodge orbital debris that was headed to the ISS.

Check out this absolutely awesome virtual ISS tour published by ESA and narrated by Samantha Cristoforetti. Some people are calling it “Google Street View on ISS” but it’s really just an old school click-through VR tour. It’s very well done!

ESA is exposing the bacteria found in kombucha to space on the ISS to see how it fares in the harsh environment.

Another cool experiment I learned about while at an ISS payloads meeting in Huntsville, Alabama last week is a small genetic sequencer called minION, which will launch next year.

Peggy Whitson, who will command ISS Expedition 51 in 2017, has joined Twitter!

Speaking of Twitter, here are some good posts from the three tweeters in space right now:

Around the Solar System

The Cassini spacecraft has discovered strange red stripes or streaks on the surface of Saturn’s moon, Tethys. Check it out.

The Curiosity rover is busy investigating some interesting new rocks it has found on the slopes of Mount Sharp on Mars.

Out There

A combination of observations from the HARPS-North ground telescope and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have confirmed the existence of a rocky exoplanet just about 21 light-years away.

While studying another star that is about 20 light-years away, NASA astronomers from JPL have discovered aurora in the atmosphere of a brown dwarf star.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

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

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

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

In Orbit

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

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

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

Around the Solar System

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

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

via Universe Today

Not to mention they discovered nitrogen glaciers!

via Universe Today

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

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

Out There

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

Lean on me

Last Thursday night, I stayed up late like many space fans to watch a “routine” Russian Progress cargo launch to the ISS. This was the 60th flight of a Progress to ISS, clearly a very reliable way to get cargo up there, given that only two previous missions had failed in their objective. But, one of those failures came only about 9 weeks prior, and just 6 days prior a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket also failed to reach orbit. So despite the apparently reliability of both the Progress vehicle and the Soyuz rocket family, the spaceflight world was on “pins and needles” as Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle put it.

There seemed to be a theme in the general mood last Thursday about being glad that Russia was able to have a successful launch, but regret that Russia is the country that had to save the day.

This mood is not surprising. Since the last Space Shuttle mission 4 years ago, America’s astronauts have only flown to space on Russian Soyuz capsules. And of course, there are political reasons – unrelated to spaceflight and ISS – that makes people wary to have close ties with the Russian government right now. The loss of two American unmanned flights to ISS in the last year highlights what is an apparently lopsidedness between NASA and Roscosmos when it comes to flying to space.

This whole situation causes the patriot to come out in a lot of people, which is also understandable. Americans have grown accustomed over the last 50 years to NASA being top dog in space. We want our astronauts launching from Florida, not Asia (much harder road trip) and we don’t want our tax dollars going to Russia either. This all makes sense, and I agree. We should all be excited for American space companies being successful, and the commercial crew flights from Boeing and SpaceX can’t come soon enough. Nevertheless, the narrative that somehow Russia has the upper hand is misplaced and frankly doesn’t make sense to me.

This is the narrative that has been a great political point in Washington ever since the end of the Shuttle program but has been used even more over the last year. The phrases people use are that we are “hitching rides” with the Russians or that we are “dependent on” the Russians. Some people are implying that this means the Russians have some sort of power over us. That they are somehow in control of the ISS program politically, and could use it as a bargaining chip if they wanted. In fact, last year Russian Deputy Prime Minister seemed to think that as well when he said that the US should “use a trampoline” to get to space and I even saw a blog article titled “No, Russia did not just kick the US out of the Space Station.”

What I would like to propose is an alternate perspective based up on a more nuanced consideration of what goes on in a partnership. Perhaps the politicians, including Rogozin, do not understand the nuances of what each member country really contributes to the ISS. Yes, right now we are “dependent” upon the Russians Soyuz launch vehicle to get to the ISS. But there is more to operating a giant space station than just getting up there.

Consider my wife (no seriously, stay with me here). Two weeks ago she fractured her right leg playing soccer and has been in a cast. She hasn’t been able to drive, so has been “dependent” on me to get around. I am her only way to work (kind of like the Russian Soyuz is the astronaut’s only way to work). Does this mean I have some kind of power over my wife? Yes, temporarily, but it wouldn’t make sense to exploit that power for a few reasons. The obvious one being that she is my wife and I’m not a jerk, but for the purposes of my analogy, let’s consider the others: while she is dependent on me for transportation and some chores around the house, I am dependent on her for companionship, love, conversation, and wardrobe ideas, not to mention she helps us pay the bills with her equally cool job at NASA! Like any balanced partnership, there is much more going on than just who can drive the car to work. And of course, the cast will come off in about another week and my period of apparent power will be over. What would it gain for our marriage in the longterm for me to somehow use the fact that I have to drive her around to get something I want?

The more I think about it, the more I think this is exactly like the relationship of NASA and Roscosmos in the ISS program right now. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2011, it happened and cannot be undone, leaving us in a period of a few years during which astronauts will not be launching from American soil. But we are not in this space business alone anymore. The open-mindedness of the politicians and NASA management who went ahead with the ISS program over 20 years ago has put us in the unique situation of being able to keep our astronauts flying during our period of weakness, if you want to call it that.

But we are not weak. We invented the modern concept of Mission Control and continue to operate the ISS – and the odd Orion flight – from the Johnson Space Center, day in and day out. America has fully seven manned spacecraft* of some type or another in development right now. We operate the critical US Orbital Segment of the ISS without which the ISS could not function. Anyone who thinks it would be a technically simple thing to do for the Russians to “kick us out” and keep the ISS functioning without us (even if such a political move was likely, which I doubt) either doesn’t understand the International Space Station, or is oversimplifying the situation in favor of their politics.

Russia provides critical access to the ISS right now via the Soyuz spacecraft, as well as propulsive support and propellant resupply with the Progress spacecraft. However, just as critical, the USOS provides non-propulsive attitude control with the CMGs, so that the propellant doesn’t get used up so fast that it would be impossible to resupply in time. Also, over half an acre of solar panels on the US segment are needed to power those CMGs – not to mention we ship some of those kilowatts to the Russian Segment, since it has grown too big for its own solar panels over the years.

I could go on. Much of the redundancy of the ISS is built specifically around the concept that the backup system is on the other segment. Sometimes the cosmonauts are even assigned to sleeping quarters in Node 2, on the USOS. The ISS was designed as a partnership from the beginning and our joint interest in continuing our own individual legacies in spaceflight, which has now become a joint legacy, would prevent pretty much anything short of a complete diplomatic breakdown from causing either party to pull out of the program, because it would likely mean doom for the station itself.

So, before you go off on a rant about how its too bad that America is “dependent” on the Russians to get to space, think about whether we should be grateful we are willing to work together despite geopolitical tensions. Perhaps we should be grateful that twice in our time of need, after the loss of an Orbital rocket last year and a SpaceX rocket last month, they quickly launched a Progress resupply vehicle to restock the International Space Station. Perhaps we should be grateful that instead of our astronaut corps being grounded, like it was for 6 years between Apollo-Soyuz and STS-1, that our astronauts continue to fly in space and that our teams on the ground continue to hone their skills as we wait for the big adventures to come with Orion and beyond.

I don’t think we should let the politics and the nationalism overshadow what is really going on here. The International Space Station is just that, international. So to get bent out of shape over sharing rides is kind of counter to the whole point of the thing. Our access to space, to the ISS, is assured specifically because of the redundancy of the partnerships we have built. We have supply lines from America, Russia, and Japan on 4 different rockets. Very soon, our crew access will be from both America and Russia via 3 different rockets. It will be very hard to stop humanity’s access to space at that point. And who knows where we will go from there, together?

Thank you Russia, for letting us lean on you for a little while, as we journey onward.

*Orion, Dragon V2, CST-100, Dreamchaser, SpaceShipTwo, Lynx, New Shepard

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The next SpaceX resupply flight to ISS will now be on June 28.

NASA’s “Europa Clipper” mission, which will explore the icy moon of Jupiter, has moved on to development phase.

US Senator from Texas John Cornyn visited mission control last week.

In Orbit

For the rocket junkies, the first launch since June 5th occurred today. The ESA Earth-observing satellite Sentinel-2 launched from French Guiana just a little while ago as I write this. There are no press releases up about the successful launch yet, so here is the Wikipedia page about the mission. Russia is launching a reconnaissance mission on a Soyuz rocket tomorrow, and then there is the SpaceX launch next Monday (see Wikipedia page 2015 in spaceflight for launch schedule).

On Thursday, ISS flight control teams commanded a reboost burn in order to slightly changing the station’s orbit. This is done to make sure that upcoming rendezvous events, like the next Soyuz launch and docking in July, happen when and where they are planned.

Robonaut 2, which lives aboard the ISS, was named the 2014 Government Invention of the Year (US).

New high definition videos of cities, filmed from the ISS, were released by UrtheCast. From 200+ miles up, you can see cars moving on streets and boats on rivers. More than that though, I think I like watching the buildings “move” as the perspective shifts at 17,500 mph.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail solar sailing test re-entered Earth’s atmosphere last Sunday, June 13th. Their next test launch will be late in 2016.

Roscosmos has announced that Sarah Brightman’s empty seat on Soyuz TMA-18M later this year will be filled by a cosmonaut from Kazakhstan.

Scott Kelly is doing a great job still posting a great variety of beautiful images from ISS on Twitter all by himself. Here is a sampling:

Around the Solar System

ESA’s Philae lander, which has been hibernating on comet 67P since November, has woken up! Data was received by the Rosetta orbiter on June 13 and 14, prompting the mission team to start making plans for when they gain a more solid link with the probe.

Scientists have discovered methane in Martian meteorites (pieces of Mars that came to Earth as a meteorite), thus confirming and deepening the mystery around the methane that has been detected at Mars by various spacecraft.

Check out this epic trailer for the upcoming rendezvous of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto: