Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The Russian space agency and their cosmonauts successfully completed their Olympics PR stunt last week. On Saturday, November 9th, cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy took the 2014 Olympic Torch outside the space station and took some pictures.

After the symbolic handoff in space, the Expedition 37 crew from the Soyuz TMA-09M donned their Sokol spacesuits, climbed aboard their Soyuz, and returned to Earth early on Monday, November 11. Congratulations to Nyberg, Parmitano, and Yurchikhin on a great mission, and congratulations to the Russians on a successful orbital Olympic relay. Hopefully our space programs will get a bit of a PR boost as a result.

Expedition 37 with Olympic torch safely home

In heavier news, two space industry workers at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia died earlier this month in a propellant tank accident.

Two veterans of the Soviet space program died in the last month. First, Dmitri Zaikin, selected in the first class of Cosmonauts in 1960, died at 81. Zaikin never flew in space desite a long career in the program and being assigned as backup Voshkoh 2 commander. Second, Alexander Serebrov, from the second generation of cosmonauts, died at 69. Serebrov logged over a year in space on three separate missions, including flights to Salyut and MIR space stations.

The European Space Agency’s GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) satellite recently ran out of fuel and crashed back to Earth, after a reportedly successful 4 year mission. Here is a cool picture of its re-entry over a remote part of the Atlantic OCean near the Falkland Islands.

In Orbit

On November 12th, Russia launched a satellite aboard a Proton Breeze-M rocket – the same type of rocket that crashed spectacularly back in July. This marks 3 launches since the crash, which is good news for the ISS program, which is supposed to receive a large new module called MLM aboard a Proton rocket.

In other launch news, SpaceX is scheduled to launch another one of their upgraded Falcon 9 version 1.1 rockets on November 25th, this time from Florida.

Around the Solar System

Continuing the launch news, NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter is set to launch on Monday, November 18th.

Mars rover Curiosity spent a bit of time in Safe Mode recently, but is back in full working order.

Comet ISON recently had an outburst and is now as bright as 5.5 magnitude. This should be visible with naked eye for people in dark sites (like my hometown Waikoloa, Hawaii) or keen observers with binoculars or telescopes in less dark areas. Keep in mind that there is a full moon late this week, however. Here are some helpful charts from EarthSky on how to find the comet. The comet is up in the early morning, as it is heading towards perihelion (closest point to the sun) in November 28. Most people are hoping the comet will be even brighter when it emerges from around the sun in December.

Because it’s Cool

XKCD takes a new tact on an old saying about space and perseverance.

Retired ISS Commander Chris Hadfield is now charging full into his book tour to promote his memoir-slash-self-help book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I have been thoroughly enjoying his short videos promoting himself and his book. I think he is fitting into his post-space career very well. Check it out.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Two astronauts announced their departure from the NASA astronaut corps at the end of September – Ron Garan and Greg Chamitoff. Greg Chamitoff actually worked in my office as an ISS guidance officer, almost 20 years ago (although the ISS had not been launched yet at the time).

The J-2X upper stage engine, in development under NASA contract for about 6 years for use first in the Ares program and then on SLS, will apparently be “mothballed” next year. In other words, NASA has decided J-2X won’t work for SLS so it is going on hold until they find a future use for it. Bummer.

The European Space Agency is doing rover field tests in the Atacama Desert in Chile in preparation for their 2018 launch of the ExoMars rover.

Roscosmos – the Russian federal space agency – has once again replaced their head administrator in an effort to end the string of launch failures that has plagued the program over the past few years. Good luck with the new guy.

Speaking of Roscosmos; Russian media reports that they intend to try a new Phobos sample return mission (following their failed Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011). The new mission would not occur until 2020 or later. It bears repeating: good luck.

The SpaceX grasshopper test vehicle had one more test flight earlier this month – video below – which will apparently be the last. I have to admit that I am disappointed. I hope SpaceX has something more exciting up their sleeve; the Falcon 9-R might fit the bill.

The new company out of Tucson, Arizona known as “World View” intends to send paying customers to 30 km altitude in a balloon lifted capsule. The flights wouldn’t technically take tourists to space, but would give them a high altitude view of the Earth for far longer than flights in suborbital vehicles like SpaceShipTwo. Tickets are planned to only be $75,000.

In Orbit

Luca Parmitano wrote a nice blog post about what it was like to capture the Orbital Cygnus spacecraft last month.

A relatively large Near Earth Asteroid, 2013 TV135, was discovered on October 8th. TV135 has a diameter of about 400 feet and came within 4.2 million miles of Earth last month. The asteroid has another close approach in 2032 for which the probability of an Earth impact is 1-in-63,000.

Speaking of asteroids, on October 15 a Russian dive team found a half-ton chunk of the Chelyabinsk impact at the bottom of a lake near Chelyabinsk, Russia. Awesome.

Around the Solar System

On October 9, the NASA Jupiter probe Juno had a close flyby of the Earth to get a gravity assist and start heading to the outer solar system. Here is a view of Earth from Juno near closest approach. And here is a diagram of the spacecraft’s trajectory showing the affect of the Earth flyby.

The 2013 Mars launch window is coming up fast. First up is India’s Mars orbiter, currently scheduled to launch November 5. Then NASA’s MAVEN mission will launch on November 18.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Parabolic Arc has a quick summary of the history of NewSpace suborbital launches, based on some tabulated data from the FAA. It is interesting to see the number of (or lack of) launches for some companies. You can really see how SpaceX is the only reall success story so far.

On the almost success story front, there is Virgin Galactic who did another SpaceShipTwo flight on July 25. Disappointingly, it was only a glide test for pilot training. Everyone is hoping SpaceShipTwp will make its first trip to space before the end of the year.

And then at the bottom is Armadillo Aerospace, which is one step away from being simply a failure story of NewSpace. Armadillo blew up a rocket early this year and hasn’t flown since. Recently John Carmack (owner and investor) announced at a conference that the company is “going into hibernation” because it is out of money and he doesn’t want to sink any more cash in it.

NewSpace aside, there is a bit more drama going on – like the mess that is the Russian space program and its politics. The prime minister publicly called out Roscosmos head Popovkin for the recent Proton rocket failure (the spectacular crash you can see in an earlier post here). Popovkin was hired just a couple of years ago to take over the space program after several other high profile failures. Surprisingly, the Proton rocket is expected to fly 4 to 5 more times this year, with the return to flight coming as soon as next month.

In Orbit

In what is perhaps a revealing indication of where the Russian space program’s priorities really come from, the plan to fly an Olympic torch to the ISS for a spacewalk in time for the winter games in Sochi, Russia, is coming together. The crew of Soyuz flight TMA-11M even have a mission patch design that includes an Olympic flame element.

On Saturday, August 3rd, the fourth Japanese cargo resupply craft, HTV-4, launched from Japan on the way to ISS. The mission will arrive for rendezvous on early Friday morning.

I am assigned to the day shift (7-4) in Mission Control every day this week, so I am lucky enough to have the first shift after rendezvous, where the team will maneuver HTV on the end of the Space Station’s robotic arm to “berth” or attach to the ISS to deliver its cargo.

Look at ISS tracker websites like www.heavens-above.com over the rest of the week for upcoming ISS passes overhead – as you might also catch sight of a much fainter HTV in chase. There is a bright pass over North America tomorrow morning at around 4-5 AM. ISS will be visible in Houston at exactly 5 AM.

In what might be a pretty good PR move, NASA is advertising an upcoming research opportunity… to use twins to study the affect of long duration spaceflight. How? Well when Scott Kelly flies to ISS for a year in 2015, he will come home with 10 times more days in space than his twin brother, Mark Kelly. I’m no biologist or geneticist, but I imagine that being twins, there are some variables this can isolate to better understand what will be happening to Scott during his long flight. Its a very cool offer for the Kellys to make, considering Mark is retired.

I put this news item under the “In Orbit” as a show of hope: NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS (worst name for a rocket I’ve ever seen) , completed Preliminary Design Review at the end of July. Here’s hoping this project can stay near budget and get American back to space soon.

Around the Solar System

Happy Birthday to the Mars rover Curiosity, who has spent one year on the Martian surface as of today! Check out Phil Plait’s post for a cool timelapse of the last 365 days on Mars. It’s a great video, but a bit disappointing because of how little Curiosity has actually roved so far. Here’s to more roving in the next year! Really we shouldn’t celebrate for another 322 days, since the Martian year is about 687 days long… and let’s face it, Curiosity is a Martian.

Because it’s Cool

Check out this picture of 4 funnel spouts at once in the ocean off of Italy.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Chris Hadfield, recently returned ISS commander and now retired astronaut, has announced he will be releasing a book titled “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. It’s not clear yet if the format will be that of a memoir or something else.

John Anthony Llewellyn, who was selected as an astronaut in 1967, died earlier in July. He was 80 years old. Mr. Llewellyn was one of the scientist-astronauts of the 6th NASA group, and resigned from NASA before flying to space.

Its time for the NASA budget battle. Congress has been working on the authorization acts for the 2014 federal budget. The proposal from the Senate has NASA being funded at $18.1 billion, or even higher than the executive branch requested ($17.7 billion). However, the House of Representatives has something different in mind, and is proposing a budget as low as $16.6 billion, which is less than the White House requested. It would take a miracle for this to get resolved before the fiscal year starts.

The Apollo rocket parts being recovered from the Atlantic by Jeff Bezos have been identified as originating from the rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the moon.

In Orbit

Lots of news from ISS and the world’s active space programs in the past few weeks.

First, NASA conducted two spacewalks from the US airlock on the ISS. The first, on July 9th, was successful. Luca Parmitano and Chris Cassidy did maintenance outside for a solid 6 hours. However, if you google “July 2013 spacewalk” you won’t get any results for the July 9th EVA, because just a week later the two astronauts went out the door again, and were not as successful. The Tuesday, July 16 spacewalk ended after only 92 minutes because of water collecting in Parmitano’s helmet. It seems his spacesuit, or EMU, had some kind of cooling system leak.  NASA is still investigating to figure out what exactly is broken. There are 3 NASA spacesuits on ISS, so they have a backup if an emergency spacewalk is needed.

In Kazakhstan on July 2, a Russian Proton rocket crashed spectacularly just seconds after launch.

The rocket is the same kind that sometimes takes large ISS components into orbit – such as the MLM, or Nauka, module that is manifested to launch later this year. The rocket was carrying several Russian GPS satellites (known as Glonass). Obviously all the payload was lost.

Check out the shockwave hitting the cameraman in this amateur footage of the crash.

The official investigation commission in Russia has publicly announced their preliminary findings. It appears some sensors were improperly installed. Oops.

Meanwhile, the Kepler Space Telescope team is working towards attempting recovery of one of her failed reaction wheels – which are currently preventing the telescope from doing any more science.

Around the Solar System

The International Astronomical Union has given names to P4 and P5, the new moons of Pluto discovered by Hubble just over a year or so ago. The new moons will be named Kerberos and Styx, staying with the god of the underworld theme (the other 3 known moons are Charon, Nix, and Hydra).

The IAU named the Pluto moons just in time, because another astronomer looking through old Hubble data of Neptune, found a new Neptunian moon! It will need a name now also…

Curiosity has now roved more than 1 kilometer at Gale Crater on Mars. I wish she would rove faster!

Out There

Data from the Hubble Space Telescope (yes, more Hubble!) has identified the color of an alien world. By watching a distant planet “transit” in front of its parent star, the instrument called Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph was able to figure out that the Jupiter-sized planet is blue. Read Phil Plait’s explanation if you want the details. The color tells us more about the planet – like the fact that the atmosphere is probably full of methane.

Spacewalk Tomorrow

Tomorrow morning I will be getting up at 4 AM to go in early for my day shift at ISS mission control. I am assigned to the regular day shift from 7 AM to 4 PM all week. It just so happens that the first shift is the same day as a Russian ISS spacewalk. Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Aleksandr Misurkin will perform the 33rd Russian spacewalk onboard ISS. You can read all about what they will be working on over at Spaceflight101.com.

While I will be working a long 11 hour shift starting early in the morning, I am definitely still looking forward to it. This will be my first time in the Flight Control Room for a spacewalk. I previously supported from the Multi-Purpose Support Room for US EVA 20 last fall, with a more experienced flight controller in the ADCO seat. Being assigned a shift as ADCO for an important event like a spacewalk is definitely a lot of responsibility to take on. But ADCO has relatively little to do for most spacewalks when compared to many other flight controllers and support personnel who have a direct responsibility to the safety of the crew and the tasks being performed. If my ADCO team does our job well tomorrow, we will actually do and say very little for all 11 hours we are there.

One important task we have is to send commands related to disabling the Russian Segment thrusters late in the EVA. There are some maintenance tasks that will take the cosmonauts close enough to the back end of the Russian Service Module that flight rules dictate all thruster valves closed for safety reasons. We will be monitoring the spacewalk progress closely to make sure we are ready for disabling thrusters as needed.

Other than that, it will be an exercise in listening and patience. I would say it is an exercise in bladder management also, but at least I am allowed to leave the room briefly for breaks during the spacewalk. The cosmonauts will have to go probably close to 8 hours without food and bathroom breaks. And that’s why I’m not complaining about my 4 AM alarm. Bring on the shift!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Earlier this month, the White House released their proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2014. Which includes an allocation of $17.7 billion for NASA. Much has been said about the budget already – but the focuses seem to be on the $200 million cut from planetary science and the proposal to start planning an asteroid retrieval mission. Yes, you read that right, the idea is that NASA will send a robotic mission to find a worthy asteroid to drag back to cislunar space (that’s fancy space talk for bringing it as close to Earth as the moon). This may be the direction, focus, and “mission” that many have been saying was lacking from NASA’s portfolio since the cancellation of Constellation and the Space Shuttle. It is far too early to know what will come of it, at least until the mission starts being paid for in 2014. Personally, I think the idea makes sense and is exciting… more thoughts on this in a later post.

In truly down to Earth news, the ambitious Thirty Meter Telescope project received a permit to begin construction atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. They project plans to begin construction in early 2014. the Thirty Meter Telescope (or TMT) will have almost 10 times the light gathering area of the Keck telescopes, also on Mauna Kea. TMT is going to be an amazing tool for astronomers. It should be able to look “further back in time” and see aspects of the beginning of the universe as well as be an awesome exoplanet finding tool, among many other science applications.

The Navy has announced they will be naming a new research vessel after Sally Ride (first American woman in space).

Virgin Galactic has been busy doing glide flights of SpaceShipTwo, getting ready for their first powered flight this year. In their most recent flight last week, the engine had a “cold flow” test – they flowed some propellant through the engine but did not ignite it.

Boston.com’s “The Big Picture” blog has a nice photo essay of two different Mars analog missions going on here on Earth.

In Orbit

After a planned launch this past Tuesday was delayed, today Orbital Sciences is going to attempt the maiden flight of the Antares rocket, which is planned to take the Cygnus freighter on resupply flights to the ISS. The launch is planned for 5 PM Eastern today (Saturday, April 20). If you read this in time, you can follow along at Spaceflight Now’s mission status center.

Around the Solar System

The Mars rover Curiosity went into hibernation starting on April 4 for the “solar conjunction”. This is the period when Mars is behind the sun as seen from Earth, making it difficult to communicate with probes at the red planet.

Going off the grid (temporarily). Stationed here for solar conjunction (@ Yellowknife Bay) http://t.co/UfyBUk3CQ0
@MarsCuriosity
Curiosity Rover

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was able to spot the fresh craters left by the GRAIL missions two probes that crashed into the moon last year (on purpose).

Some Mars enthusiasts from Russia have been scouring Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter images to look for the lost Mars 3 lander that the USSR sent to Mars in 1971. They seem to have found it!

Mars 3 components found on Mars

Out There

NASA has announced two new missions in the agencies Astrophysics Explorer Program. Two space telescopes, TESS and NICER, are being developed for launch later this decade. TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Sattelite) is somewhat of a successor to Kepler, and will be an Earth-orbiting satellite that hunts for exoplanets. NICER (Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer) will be attached to the International Space Station and will look at x-ray wavelengths from neutron stars.

Weekly Links

As I wrote about in my last post a week ago, ISS ops have been very busy lately. We were able to unberth and release the SpaceX Dragon capsule last Tuesday morning, as planned. It splashed down a few orbits later in the Pacific, while I was asleep, and was successfully picked up by SpaceX’s contracted recovery ship. I only got a bit of a rest after the Tuesday morning night shift as I had to work the day shift back in the control room Wednesday through Friday. More on what I got to do and see those days in the “In Orbit” section below. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the delay in posts lately. But you don’t really care – on with the space news!

Down to Earth

In a bit of grim space politics news – unless you are all about commercial only, I suppose – last week NASA’s 2013 budget finally became clear after the US Congress passed a big spending bill. The bill is better than the continuing resolutions* that a lot of the US government has been dealing with for a while – but it does nothing about the “sequestration” cuts across all Federal departments. This means that NASA ends up with greater than a 7% cut on the 2011 and 2012 funding levels. Ouch.

*A continuing resolution is simply an agreement to fund agencies or programs at the previous years levels because no agreement can be made on a new budget.

Masten Space Systems’ Xombie vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicle recently made its longest and highest flight to date, soaring over 500 meters according to their press release (no video yet available that I can find). Masten is using a guidance system developed by Draper Labs (of MIT) in order to build a testbed type craft on which NASA or other customer’s can test planetary landing instruments “without leaving home”, so to speak. I wrote about a similar test of the Xombie systems over a year ago, so this project has been in development for a while. This flight was ten times higher than the test last year.

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has started a crowdfunding project at IndieGoGo to try to pay for NASA’s video “We Are the Explorers” to be run in American theaters before the movie Star Trek Into Darkness this spring (no, I don’t want to discuss if I capitalized that title correctly).

This is a clever, and apparently legal, way to get around the advertising ban that NASA is under. I donated!

Speaking of space cinema, a new IMAX movie was announced that will feature Earth photography from space. The film is being co-produced by Disney, and no release date or title has been announced.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com – who seems to be trying to compete – sponsored an expedition that has raised an F-1 rocket engine straight off the sea floor in the Atlantic. They do not know for sure which rocket the engine(s) came from, but they do intend to restore and display them. It seems they would likely be displayed at the Smithsonian; partly because the engines are still technically NASA’s property.

In Orbit

After Dragon left, the biggest event aboard ISS in the past two weeks was the docking of Soyuz 34 (or 34S to us) last Thursday only 5 hours and 45 minutes after launch. This was a new quick rendezvous profile that had previously only been used on flights of the unmanned Progress resupply spacecraft.

Chris Cassidy just launched from Baikonaur on a Soyuz rocket and will dock with ISS 6 hours later, and he doesn't even have Amazon Prime!

The Soyuz brought two cosmonauts – Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin – and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. The speed of the launch-to-docking timeline was impressive even to those of us tied into ISS operations. As I was on the day shift Thursday, I had the privilege of giving a “Go” for launch at the end of my shift – and the colleague who I handed over to started prepping ISS systems for Soyuz arrival right after I left! I heard that the Soyuz reached ISS before the NASA personnel who were in Kazakhstan for the launch made it back to Moscow…

Amazingly, ISS Commander Chris Hadfield got this shot of Baikonaur at the moment of Soyuz ignition (by the laws of orbital mechanics, ISS often passes right over the location of launch for many ISS supply missions).

Tonight's Finale: Soyuz Rocket Launch - the moment of ignition, as-seen from their target, the Space Station. http://t.co/MEr9yP1D36
@Cmdr_Hadfield
Chris Hadfield

Speaking of which, if you haven’t been following ISS Commander Chris Hadfield (@cmdr_hadfield) on Twitter, you are seriously missing out on some stunning high resolution Earth photography posted nearly in real-time.

Tonight's Finale: Our Earth is mostly liquid rock. We live on a thin crust, with occasional hot spots, like Mt. Etna. http://t.co/3mWjyQTXNt
@Cmdr_Hadfield
Chris Hadfield

Also, the epic timelapse photography from the ISS Cupola… (via APOD).

Or if you want the more practical, here’s how to brush your teeth (I wasn’t originally going to share this until I heard the music kick in halfway through and started laughing).

Around the Solar System

Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon (or just Lemmon for short) is set to start being a target for skywatchers this week (depending on your latitude). From the finder charts, it looks like Lemmon will still be too close to the sun at sunrise for most observers to have a chance at. Later in the month, Lemmon will move higher in the sky at dawn and may turn out to be as bright or better than Comet PanSTARRS which some of us enjoyed last month. Of course, the catch is that Lemmon will be a morning object rather than an evening object, so is likely to attract fewer hunters. You can bet I will try to see it!

The European Space Agency and Roscosmos (of Russia) formally signed an agreement last month to move forward with their Exomars mission, which will consist of orbiters and a rover to be flown to Mars later this decade. This is the big mission that NASA had to pull out of due to budget reasons.

New research using the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii has revealed compelling evidence for the nature and composition of undersea ocean’s on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Read a great summary of the research at Phil Plait’s blog.

Weekly Links

Wow, it’s been a busy week and a half! Ten days is the longest I’ve gone without posting some links since I started my blog over a year ago. Not only has space news been busy, with asteroids galore, but I have been busy too, with a weekend getaway last weekend and then 3 nights of ISS mission ops this week. Hopefully the news I share below will get us all back up to speed!

Down to Earth

The first thing I have to talk about is the asteroid impact in the Chelyabinsk area of Russia in the Ural mountains. The short story is that just hours before the much anticipated fly-by of large asteroid 2012 DA14 last Friday, February 15, an asteroid about 15 meters across entered the Earth’s atmosphere above Russia and exploded without warning over a relatively large city in Russia. The airburst was the equivalent of may kilotons of TNT and it managed to cause widespread injury and property damage (no reports of deaths that I am aware of).

Here is a pretty good video of the meteor.

And this one has the sound of the meteor exploding. Scary.

Experts are sure, based on tracing the Chelyabinsk meteor’s orbit back the way it came, that 2012 DA14 and Chelyabinsk are unrelated. It is what you might call a “cosmic coincidince”. Phil Plait talks about the chances of such a coincidence and also the sober reality that we need to take asteroid threats more seriously.

The more interesting coincidence to me is that asteroid impacts of this size are only expected to happen about once a century. The last large impact (that is known) happened in 1908, also in Russia.

Maybe not surprisingly, a weather satellite got some brief images of the smoke trail from the Chelyabinsk meteor. I don’t want to leave poor 2012 DA14 out to dry, so here’s a timelapse of its flyby of Earth.

In some non-asteroid news, the new Space Shuttle display at KSC in Florida is officially opening on June 29. This date was announced at an unveiling of the facility’s new logo.

The test firing of Orbital Science’s Antares rocket was completed successfully earlier this evening. This is good news for their program, which needs to catch up with SpaceX. SpaceX is getting ready for their third cargo flight to ISS next week.

The mayor of Brownsville, Texas met with Elon Musk of SpaceX last week to discuss further the possibility of SpaceX building their next launch site on Boca Chica Beach in South Texas.

In Orbit

NASA astronauts aboard ISS had their first public Google+ hangout. Cool!

There was a bit of excitement in ISS mission ops earlier this week when the first day of ISS computer software upgrades did not go as planned. A computer restart did not execute properly and it resulted in a temporary loss of communications between ISS and mission control. You may have heard about it, since it was all over the news when it happened on Tuesday. Fortunately, flight controllers, with the help of the crew, were able to resolve the problem and the software upgrades were completed. All is well in space!

Around the Solar System

Mercury had its longest “Eastern elongation” last week – meaning it was at its highest point above the horizon at sunset, as seen from Eearth.

Out There

The new company “Inspiration Mars Foundation” – founded by space tourist Dennis Tito – claims to be planning a 500 day Mars trip to be launched in 2018. I wish them luck.

This week it was announced that the smallest exoplanet ever discovered was found 200 light years away. The planet is Kepler-37b (meaning it was found by the Kepler mission) and is only 2,400 miles in diameter, which makes it smaller than Mercury. As usual, the planet is far too close to its parent star to be habitable in any way.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Monday night had a stunning Moon and Jupiter conjunction in the sky that I hope you saw if you had clear skies! I was able to view the Moon and Jupiter together on a clear night here in Texas through my binoculars. In case you missed it, here is a collection of images from the conjunction.

Another company that claims it will make billions mining asteroids in a few short years? Yes. Enter, Deep Space Industries.

The ten year anniversary of the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia is coming up. On January 31, a documentary about Israeli Columbia astronaut Ilan Ramon will air on PBS.

In the realm of space law (yes, I know, exciting!) a compromise has been reached regarding liability for space tourism flights out of New Mexico. The new law is intended to appease Virgin Galactic so that they don’t consider leaving the New Mexico spaceport as their home base.

Kazakhstan has not approved all of Russia’s launches from their Baikonaur spaceport for this year (if you need a history refresher – Kazakhstan used to be part of the USSR and that is where the Soviets built their launch facility. Russia continues to use the existing infrastructure in Kazakhstan even now, long after the fall of the USSR). This is unfortunate for the Russian program and a good reason not to have such an important facility in a foreign country. Fortunately for Russia, they are already building a new native facility in the far Eastern reaches of the nation. NASA should pay attention and make sure Texas and Florida don’t secede!

In Orbit

As I wrote about last week, the European planet hunting space telescope CoRoT may be a lost mission. Well, it seems luck is not with astronomers this month; NASA’s Kepler space telescope has had an issue with one of its momentum wheels (excess friction) and is spending a week or so in safe mode, suspending all science, in hopes the situation will improve. Kepler is already down one of 4 reaction wheels, which failed in July. It needs at least 3 to be able to control attitude precisely to do science.

To lighten the mood, here’s a quick NASA bit from The Onion (you have to watch a commercial for their fake Joe Biden book first).

Here is an official statement from NASA about the new Bigelow inflatable module that will be tested on ISS. It seems the module will be scheduled to launch on a SpaceX cargo mission in 2015.

More on future NASA plans: here’s an update on the four companies that are developing vehicles for NASA’s commercial crew program.

And here’s a quick update on Orbital Sciences’ launch schedule for ISS commercial cargo resupply missions.

The Robotic Refueling Mission has continued in earnest this week. I have had the pleasure of working the day shifts in ISS mission control this week, being tangentially involved in these operations by disabling thruster firings to protect the robotics hardware.

2012 In Review

I wouldn’t say that 2012 either came in or went out with a bang (unless the last minute federal budget politiking* strikes you as “a bang”). Nevertheless, 2012 was a busy year for space enthusiasts. The last twelve months held much to wonder, celebrate, contemplate, mourn, debate, and of course explore. Here I will try to sum up the space related events, deaths, discoveries, and anniversaries that I find interesting. If you are interested in a full recap of worldwide events in 2012, I’d suggest starting with the “Year in Pictures” at Boston.com’s “Big Picture” blog – Part I, Part II, and Part III.

In Memoriam

In order to try to honor some fallen heroes, I will start out with the saddest part of my recap.

In 2012 we lost three American astronauts – Alan Poindexter, Sally Ride, and Neil Armstrong.

Captain Poindexter was 50 years old when he died in July 2012. He was a veteran of 2 space shuttle flights, having been selected in the 1998 group of astronauts. Coming from a Navy test pilot background, he was the pilot for STS-122 and then Commander of STS-131. 131 was the last night launch of the shuttle program and helped set the record for most women in space at one time – with 3 women on the crew of Discovery plus one on the space station. During his military career Poindexter flew F-14s on carriers – very cool.

Sally Ride needs no explanation. More important people than me provided lots of memories about Sally Ride after her death back in July. She certainly left us too soon – but she left a legacy. Sally Ride Science will continue to do great things, and you should consider supporting them if you can.

And of course, everyone heard when Neil Armstrong died in August at the age of 82. Like Sally Ride, I can provide no words here better than what has already been written. Armstrong was in many ways the model of a public hero and should not have left us so soon.

~~

There would be no astronauts without first someone to inspire us to dream. Thus, we should also remember legendary author Ray Bradbury who died aged 91.

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Lastly, engineer Roger Boisjoly died at the age of 73. Mr. Boisjoly is known for being the SRB (Solid Rocket Booster) project manager at Thiokol who warned not to launch mission STS-51L during a meeting the day before the flight. His warnings were ignored and the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost.

Major Events or Discoveries

Whether your interest lies more in planetary exploration, new technology, or manned spaceflight, there were many milestones and missions in 2012.

NASA achieved what I will subjectively dub their triumph of the decade (so far) when the Mars rover Curiosity touched down at Bradbury landing in Gale Crater on August 6th. You have got to love this video…

Curiosity could easily explore Mars for a decade, with its RTG that should keep it powered long enough that something else will wear out first. The vistas we have seen of Gale crater from MSL are stunning and I think she will be a huge source of inspiration – and of course science – for many years ahead.

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Curiosity isn’t alone on Mars. Another huge milestone of 2012 is the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity continuing to quietly do its job at Endeavour Crater on the other side of the planet. In fact, Opportunity and Curiosity are now racing each other to find clay minerals known as “phylosillicates”.

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SpaceX impressed the world with their first successful (test) flight to the International Space Station in May which was followed up by the first official contracted resupply mission in October.

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The Chinese performed their first in orbital rendezvous of a manned spacecraft when Shenzhou 9 docked with the Tiangong 1 space station on June 18.

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NASA’s Dawn spacecraft continued to explore asteroid Vesta (where it arrived in 2011) and finally departed in September 2012 to start the long interplanetary flight to larger asteroid Ceres, where it will arrive in 2015.

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NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft found evidence of water ice in polar craters of Mercury.

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NASA’s Cassini spacecraft continued to to perform well at Saturn, more than 8 years after arriving (15 years since launch) and discovered a vast river system of methane and ethane on the moon Titan. Time to send the riverboat robots to explore.

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Anniversaries: 50 years since Kennedy’s famous “Moon speech” in Texas, 50 years since John Glenn’s orbital flight, and 40 years since the last flight to the moon – Apollo 17.

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Back in June many people around the world – including those who are not even space geeks – enjoyed the rare passing of Venus across the face of the sun. The next Venus transit will not be until 2117.

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One of my absolute favorite events of 2012 was the discovery of a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B, the nearest star system to Earth. And only a few weeks later, a “super earth” was found in the habitable zone of HD 40307 only 40 light years away. The discovery of exoplanets is turning into the science story of the 21st century…

Unless you are a physics geek. Then the science story of the 21st century will be the ongoing unlocking of secrets of the quantum world, which continued in 2012 with the announcement that the Large Hadron Collider in Europe has discovered the “Higgs Boson”.

But in any case, the idea of people living on a planet at Alpha Centauri is the inspiration for my blog’s name, so I have a bias for the planets.

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This year was nostalgic for us Millenials – who grew up watching space shuttle launches – as the three remaining space shuttle orbiters reached their final homes in California, Virginia, and Florida.

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NASA and the astronaut office finally caught on to 21st century communications and media in earnest. More astronauts than ever are actively interacting with the general public on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Reddit, and elsewhere on the ‘net. NASA astronauts have made this communication a part of their mission while on ISS, with many of them writing blogs or maintaining exciting Twitter and Flickr streams from space. This will certainly continue in 2013 as the “Net Generation” begins to come of age and will have real influence on the personality of America, and whether we stay committed to space exploration. My guess is that this video helped.

Looking forward

What will 2013 bring? Well, probably most importantly – but least excitingly – are the pending federal budget decisions in Washington, DC. Congress still needs to decide on a 2013 budget and then a 2014 budget. Some of their choices will shape the future of space exploration, especially for planetary science missions.

Here is my list of the more cheery things to look for in 2013:

  • Finally the first powered flight tests of tourist space vehicles. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo should be hopping into space this year.
  • SpaceX should continue to demonstrate reliability of their rockets as they fly two more missions to the ISS as well as a fairly packed launch schedule for other customers.
  • SpaceX’s competitor for ISS commercial flights, Orbital Sciences**, will attempt to make good on their contract with NASA.
  • Russia will fly the 50th Progress resupply mission to ISS, this being the 15th year since the launch of the first ISS module.
  • Late in 2013, the next Mars launch window will see two missions: NASA’s MAVEN orbiter and India’s first interplanetary mission.
  • NASA will launch the LADEE lunar probe.
  • Continued excellence in the field of extrasolar planet astronomy – smaller and more numerous rocky planets will be discovered further out from main sequence stars.

Round ups from other blogs

For some other summaries of 2012 in space and science see:

Universe Today’s list of best space images

Bad Astronomy’s list of best astronomy pictures

EarthSky’s top 5 weather stories

Hyperbola’s summary of all of humanity’s rocket launches in 2012

Houston Chronicle’s top 10 skywatching events of 2013 (one is the Quadrantic meteor shower tonight!)

Parabolic Arc’s “NewSpace” year in review (that one’s a quick read)

*yes, Congress did pass a bill to avert the “fiscal cliff” at the very last minute on Tuesday, January 1, 2013

**the author has a small shareholding in Orbital Sciences