Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

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Down to Earth

The big news this week was the aborted ascent of Soyuz MS-10, planned to take Nick Hague and Aleksey Ovchinin to the International Space Station. The abort occurred 2 minutes into the flight, at about the time that the first stage boosters separated from the core stage. The crew survived via the successful activation of the abort system and they were rescued after a safe landing downrange in Kazakhstan. NASA and Roscosmos will be investigating the incident in order to safely return to flight. In the meantime, three crew members of the Expedition 57 mission remain safely aboard the ISS.

Former space shuttle astronaut Rick Searfoss died last week at 62.

The US Mint has announced the design for an Apollo 11 commemorative coin.

The new Neil Armstrong biopic First Man was released this weekend, to largely positive reviews.

The US Air Force announced major funding contracts for three rocket companies to develop new boosters: Northrop Grumman, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin.

In Orbit

The only orbital launch since my last post a week ago was a Chinese Long March 2C carrying two reconnaissance satellites.

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory is now also in safe mode, following an anomaly last week. Hubble, which went into safe mode on October 5th, is yet to resume scientific observations.

Around the Solar System

A new study finds that there are likely blades of ice – or penitentes – around the equator of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

JAXA has delayed sample return operations at asteroid Ryugu with the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, citing a need to study the terrain further.

Out There

Astronomers have discovered a star in our galaxy with almost no “metal” content (meaning elements other than hydrogen and helium). This likely means the star is from the very first age of the universe.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In late July, Virgin Galactic conducted a third powered test flight of their new SpaceShipTwo spaceplane.

In a ceremony at Johnson Space Center, NASA announced the names of the astronauts who will fly the first flights of the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon, the first crewed missions from US soil since 2011.

SpaceX installed a shiny new crew access arm to launch complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Russia has selected a new class of 8 cosmonauts.

United States Vice President Mike Pence visited the Johnson Space Center and gave a speech on future plans for exploration.

Rocket Lab’s next Electron launch has been delayed further.

In Orbit

Operations at the ISS over the past month have included two visiting vehicle departures and one spacewalk. On August 3rd, the latest SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle undocked from ISS and splashed down in the Pacific. On August 22nd, a Russian unmanned Progress freighter undocked from the ISS. On august 15th, two Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev and Sergey Propokyev, conducted a lengthy spacewalk to complete maintenance and science tasks.

There were 8 orbital rocket launches since my last post on July 23rd:

  • July 25 – ESA Ariane 5 rocket launched carrying Galileo navigation satellites.
  • July 25 – SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from California carrying communications satellites for Iridium.
  • July 29 – Chinese Long March 3B rocket launched carrying BeiDou navigation satellites.
  • July 31 – Chinese Long March 4B rocket launched carrying an Earth-observing satellite.
  • August 7 – SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida carrying an Indonesian communications satellite.
  • August 12 – ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket launched from Florida carrying NASA’s Parker Solar Probe.
  • August 22 – ESA Vega rocket launched carrying an Earth-observing mission.
  • August 24 – Chinese Long March 3B rocket launched carrying more BeiDou navigation satellites.

 

Around the Solar System

The Martian dust storm is waning but NASA mission teams have yet to hear from the Opportunity rover.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA announced a new class of 6 flight directors for human spaceflight at Johnson Space Center.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) performed a pad abort test of their launch escape tower for future crewed spaceflights.

Launch towers at Launch Complex 17 at Cape Canaveral were demolished last week. These launch towers were built for the now retired Delta II rocket. Instead, Moon Express will use the site.

Launch industry newcomer Rocket Lab plans to open a second launch site somewhere in the USA.

James Morhard has been nominated to the open position of NASA deputy administrator.

Astronaut Dan Burbank has retired from NASA.

In Orbit

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has entered a hibernation mode as it nears the end of its long mission.

There were three orbital rocket launches since my last post on July 1st:

Operations have been busy on the International Space Station. The Dragon resupply ship that launched at the end of June arrived at ISS on July 2nd. Then the above mentioned Progress resupply arrived.

On Sunday morning, the latest Cygnus cargo spacecraft departed the ISS packed full of trash. Before it left, it performed a demonstration maneuver to reboost the ISS.

Upcoming notable launches include a SpaceX launch from Florida on July 20th and a SpaceX launch from California on July 22nd. Still no firm launch date on the rescheduled Rocket Lab launch.

Around the Solar System

Still no update from NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been socked in by a dust storm on Mars.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Russia will stop building the Proton rocket.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been officially delayed to 2021.

Virgin Orbit has been granted an FAA launch license for its first launch from California.

In Orbit

There were two orbital rocket launches during the last week. On June 27th, China launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying two satellites into orbit. On July 29th, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida, carrying a Dragon cargo craft scheduled for arrival at ISS on Monday morning.

Meanwhile, Rocket Lab was not able to launch last week and has delayed their first commercial flight.

Around the Solar System

Out at Mars, there were no updates on the dust storm of the status of the dormant rover Opportunity.

After weeks of a slow approach, Japan’s probe Hayabusa-2 has arrived at asteroid Ryugu, with gorgeous views of the never before explored rock.

Astronomers have new evidence that the interstellar visitor ‘Omuamua was actually a comet, not an asteroid.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Peggy Whitson, the American astronaut with the most day’s in space, has retired from NASA.

Orbital ATK is no officially a division of Northrop Grumman.

An interesting Pew Research Center poll was getting some media coverage last week, after it showed that the American public’s priorities for NASA do not line up with its official priorities (at least when you measure “priorities” by funding levels).

Check out the trailer for the upcoming film First Man.

The new NASA Johnson Space Center director, Mark Geyer, now has a twitter account.

The soccer ball used to kickoff the 2018 FIFA World Cup was previously flown to the ISS.

In Orbit

There were four orbital rocket launches since my last post on June 5th:

  • June 5 – China launched a Long March 3A rocket carrying a weather satellite.
  • June 6 – Russia launched a Soyuz rocket carrying three new crew members to the ISS.
  • June 12 – Japan launched an HII-A rocket carrying a reconnaissance satellite.
  • June 16 – Russian launched a Soyuz rocket carrying a GLONASS navigation satellite.

In upcoming launches, Rocket Lab will launch its first commercial flight from New Zealand on June 23rd.

The Soyuz crew arrived at the ISS a couple of days after launch, bringing the onboard crew to six withSergey Prokopyev, Serena Auñón-Chancellor, and Alex Gerst now onboard.

Astronauts Drew Feustel and Ricky Arnold completed a nearly 7-hour spacewalk at the ISS last Thursday, in order to complete maintenance activities and install new cameras.

Around the Solar System

A major dust storm on Mars has caused NASA to lose contact with the solar-powered Mars rover Opportunity. The rover is in low power mode waiting out the storm. Mission controllers are waiting for sufficient battery charge to allow the rover to restore communications.

Fortunately, the nuclear powered rover Curiosity can keep on roaming through the dust storm. It captured this image of the hazy sky from Gale Crater.

Scientists with the Curiosity mission published two new papers detailing discoveries related to season methane concentrations in the atmosphere and ancient organic molecules in rock samples.

An extension to NASA’s Juno mission, currently in orbit of Jupiter, has been approved.

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft is now close enough to asteroid Ryugu that it has been able to image the small rock.

Out There

Astronomers have made observation of a “tidal event” in which a star is seen falling into a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Blue Origin flew another test flight of their New Shepard vehicle today.

An issue with the Mars 2020 rover’s heat shield will require a replacement to be build before the upcoming launch.

NASA cancelled a robotic moon mission called the Resource Prospector.

In Orbit

Two orbital rocket launches since my last post (making 40 for the year):

Upcoming launches this week include the launch of NASA’s Mars InSight lander (not a rover) as well as the undocking, re-entry, and splashdown of the latest SpaceX Dragon capsule from the ISS.

Around the Solar System

Check out this incredible animated set of images from comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Ground-based observations of Uranus’ cloud tops have revealed a composition that includes hydrogen sulfide.

The Planetary Society has a lengthy blog post up on the latest status of NASA’s Opportunity rover, which is still trundling on Mars, 14 years after landing.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

After much delay over the last year, the US Senate has finally confirmed former Congressman Jim Bridenstine as the new NASA administrator.

Orbital ATK is designing a new rocket for the Air Force, to be named OmegA.

A new Netflix film, Mercury 13, covers the participation (or lack thereof) of women pilots in America’s early space program.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) received over 4,000 applicants to be astronauts in their budding space program.

Former cosmonaut Vladimir Lykakhov, who spent 333 days in space, has died.

Scott Altman and Thomas Jones have been inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame.

In Orbit

Two orbital rocket launches since my last post:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A new Kickstarter campaign seeks to build replicas of the Apollo guidance computer DSKY (Display and Keyboard) interface.

NASA’s 15th Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mission started last week at Johnson Space Center. Four crew members will spend 45 days isolated on a simulated deep space mission.

The much anticipated Falcon Heavy launch is now less than 48 hours away. Eric Berger of Ars Technica has an excellent discussion about the new rocket and what it could mean for the industry (if successful).

In Orbit

Four successful orbital rocket launches since my last post

A spacewalk conducted by Alexander Misurkin and Anton Shkaplerov on the International Space Station broke the Russian record for longest spacewalk, at 8 hours and 13 minutes.

An amateur astronomy discovered a NASA satellite that had been missing for over 10 years.

Around the Solar System

NASA published a beautiful composite panorama from the Curiosity rover looking back down the slopes of Mt. Sharp.

Curiosity also took a new selfie, looking the other direction.

Out There

Astronomers have announced that using gravitational microlensing they have discovered evidence of planets in another galaxy for the firs time.

2017 in Review

The year of 2017 will be remembered by most of my readers for reasons totally unrelated to spaceflight. It was a tumultuous year with political turmoil, social strife, acts of violence, and devastating natural disasters. Unfortunately, it is these negative stories that tend to embed themselves in our memories as we witness the arc of history unfold. Even when we zoom out to a wide angle view of decades or centuries, it is violence and conflict we remember. What were the biggest events of the 20th century? Wars, economic collapse, threats of annihilation, and social strife. I don’t have to remind you though, as a space fan, that most of the world shares at least one bright memory of the difficult last century: Apollo 11.

In a similar way, I’m hoping that through all the difficult times we face as a society in the 21st century, that spaceflight can be one of those bright spots that is a source of optimism and hope (although, surely not the only source). As Bill Nye is fond of saying “space brings out the best in us.” Spaceflight is an outlet for positive creative energy. Spaceflight applies technology in new ways, often leading to new inventions and sometimes entire industries. Spaceflight allows us to conduct important research that applies directly to the interests and concerns of everyone on Earth – from medical studies onboard the ISS to weather and climate satellites to space telescopes looking out for Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

Spaceflight is a bipartisan endeavor universally loved by young and old alike because it taps into something innate in us. Whether it’s the love of exploration and discovery or just the appeal of astronauts as wholesome hometown heroes, space has always been an easy sell to the public. Very few other uses of time and money are as generally noncontroversial (although we like to argue over specifics). There was a chance for space to get swallowed up in the political turmoil in Washington, DC this past year. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, the space industry had another great year with very few setbacks.

Some readers may take issue with that statement and want to argue that it was not a great year for space. After all, NASA still has no confirmed administrator, XCOR went out of business, several programs slipped their launch dates (JWST, SLS, Orion), and Cassini ended its mission at Saturn (leaving us with a dearth of outer solar system probes). But if we look at those space programs or missions that are active and flying, we see lots of success in 2017 with few failures. The loss of Cassini should probably be spun as a positive story anyway – the planned retirement of a historic program of exploration – 13 years in Saturn orbit.

Other than the few things I listed above, the only other major setbacks of 2017 would be the five complete launch failures shown below (there were one or two other partial failures). Both Japan and New Zealand (Rocket Lab) lost rockets on their maiden launch. India, China, and Russia all lost one rocket each. The two remaining major space powers – ESA and USA – did not have any launch failures.

Country Vehicle Payload Maiden launch?
Japan SS-520 nanosat Yes
New Zealand Electron none Yes
China Long March 5 Comm sat No
India PSLV Nav sat No
Russia Soyuz Various No

2017 actually had the lowest launch success rate since 2011 and yet overall it felt like a very successful year (launch success was about 93% instead of the usual 95%). A few things contribute to this being a good year for rockets. First of course, is that 2 of the failures were test launches. If you remove them from the accounting, we are back at 95%. The second big reason is that none of the other failures led to an interruption in logistical support for the ISS. From 2014 to 2016, ISS operations lost four uncrewed logistical support rockets. After a string that bad, the last 13 months of successful flights (ten missions in all) feels positively blissful.

The third, and maybe most important reason this was a great year for rockets, was that SpaceX had no failures this year. In 2015 they lost an ISS resupply mission on ascent. In 2016 their year was cut short at 8 missions when a rocket blew up on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. The backlog of customers was looming for a long 6 months while SpaceX worked on recovering from that latest failure. Then, last January they returned to flight with a launch for Iridium and haven’t let up since. Their accomplishments include: no launch failures, a record 18 launches, a record 15 first stage recoveries, and first reuse of a first stage. The other American providers, ULA and Orbital ATK, also had good years with 8 and 3 successful launches each with no failures.

As long as we get to space with chemically propelled rockets, everything hinges on how well our rockets are flying. We can’t really do a retrospective on the year without looking at these numbers. This has always been true, but what is particularly poignant from 2017 are those 18 launches from SpaceX. That’s fully 20% of all launches. Not only that, but they flew a lot of important missions. In 2017 alone they launched four times to the ISS and at least twice for the US military. In 2018 they plan to launch several times for NASA, including to the ISS as well as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). At this point, it’s pretty clear that when SpaceX has a good year, the space industry has a good year.

In addition to the 10 successful cargo launches to the ISS this year, there were also 4 flawless crew launches to keep the record of 17 straight years of crewed operations going. NASA stepped up to 4 full-time USOS crew (which includes Japanese, Canadian, and European flyers), enabling even more research. NASA is now in full utilization mode of the ISS. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted each year – from physical science to medicine to biology to botany to astronomy – and each SpaceX Dragon brings up more externally mounted autonomous payloads such as last year’s aerosol monitoring payload (SAGE III) and a neutron star telescope (NICER), among others. The ISS has become an important platform for efficiently deploying small satellites, with dozens launched from the Japanese robotic arm last year.

The ISS looks well positioned for the future, with a healthy manifest of crew and payloads coming up as well as the exciting prospect of even larger crews, once Boeing and SpaceX successfully demonstrate flight of their new crew transportation systems. In the meantime, important maintenance has been ongoing to ensure that ISS can operate well into the 2020s. Early in the year a Japanese cargo vehicle, an HTV, brought up a new set of lithium ion batteries, the first in a series of battery replacements over the next few years that will keep the solar power flowing. The batteries were replaced in a series of 3 spacewalks last January. Ultimately, ISS astronauts would complete 10 successful spacewalks last year with no major issues.

The year in ISS was underscored by Peggy Whitson’s amazing flight. At 57 years old, Whitson now holds the record for most days in space of any American astronaut in history (665) as well as an impressive 60 hours of EVA time that puts her number 3 all time behind Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria. Peggy’s 289 day mission was almost entirely unprecedented. Not only was Whitson praised as a “space ninja” by her crew mates for her work onboard the ISS, but even made a wide impression outside of NASA and received a Woman of the Year award from Glamour Magazine. The crews aboard the ISS continue to bring the wonder of spaceflight home to us through their social media engagement and excellent educational outreach events. If you aren’t checking this link for the latest pictures from space every morning, you are missing out on a little bit of daily wonder.

The ISS is of course not the only game in town. NASA has very active planetary science and astronomy programs, not to mention similar missions from ESA, JAXA, and other agencies. 2017 saw no new launches of solar system probes (that’s right, zero) but many active missions made progress and the only “failure” being the end of Cassini. Mars is incredibly active with 8 missions. Two NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are providing a wealth of insights into the wet history of Mars. The most exciting discoveries from those robots are likely yet to come. Two asteroid sample return missions, OSIRIS-Rex from NASA and Hayabusa 2 from JAXA, remain in interplanetary cruise phase. New Horizons is on its way to visit a Kuiper Belt Object next year, Juno remains in orbit at Jupiter, and Dawn continues to explore the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Some of these missions we heard big news from this year, such as Cassini’s analysis of the ocean plumes from icy Enceladus. We also gained a new understanding of the winds and storms of Jupiter from Juno. Not to mention the absolutely stunning images we have been treated to from JunoCam.

But overall, space exploration, especially planetary exploration, is a long game. Spacecraft take years to reach their targets and then spend sometimes months or years (at least for orbiters and rovers) slowly collecting the data they need to learn something new from our mysterious solar system neighbors. So there were no splashy launches or touchdowns in 2017. Instead, the hard work from years past continued to pay off with well built spacecraft going about their daily business. 2017 was a great year in this respect. Years like this lay the foundation for big discoveries to come; it’s just that we have to wait a bit for the papers to be published. The only real downer this year is probably that Curiosity’s drill is still out of commission.

There is of course, a lot more to cover. Spaceflight is a big industry that goes far beyond just the ISS or big planetary exploration missions. New Space, for instance, had a lot of interesting updates this year. In addition to Rocket Lab making their first launch attempt, Blue Origin demonstrated further progress on their New Shepard vehicle as well as their BE-4 engine, Virgin Orbit moved a few steps closer to their first test launch with several engine tests, and Sierra Nevada conducted their first free glide flight in several years.

Then there’s astronomy. So much is happening in astronomy these days that it deserves a lengthy retrospective all its own. Here are some highlights of last year in a quick paragraph. Many interesting exoplanets were discovered, such as the fascinating Trappist-1 system with three potentially habitable planets. But Ross 128b is my favorite potentially habitable planet, because it is less than 11 light years from Earth. Let’s go! Other exciting developments in astronomy included more neutron star collisions discovered via gravitational waves and also the fascinating cigar shaped something known as ‘Omuamua which flew through our solar system from somewhere this past October (more to come on this we hope).

As we look to the future, we can see that there is a lot to learn. The ISS has years of science to conduct – managers are furiously looking for more ways to maximize timelines and target the most likely breakthroughs. Meanwhile there are dozens of worlds here at home in our solar system yet to explore, not just with probes already launched but many to come (launches to Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in 2018). And most intriguing of all, there are thousands upon thousands of worlds to explore out there, beyond our own star.

The more we look, the more we find. And the more we find, the more questions we think to ask. This is the optimistic and worldview expanding impact of science. We are losing the explorers of the last century – Apollo legends Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, and John Young all passed away in their 80s in the past year. But it’s hard not to see the vast opportunity available to the current generation of explorers in this century. Perhaps some day we will look back at this time period as a changing of the guard. It is hard to say without the benefit of hindsight. If nothing else, for those of us that are inspired by scientific discovery and exploration, 2017 showed us that spaceflight can be – and probably always will be – a candle in the dark.

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former astronaut Bruce McCandless II died at 80 years old. McCandless was selected as an astronaut in 1966 but didn’t fly until 1984 on STS-41-B. McCandless is probably best known as the first astronaut to do an untethered EVA using the MMU on that first flight. He flew again on STS-31 in 1990.

SpaceX released photos of the first Falcon Heavy rocket being readied for flight, as well as its payload.

The Falcon Heavy rocket was temporarily vertical on the launch pad for fit checks ahead of its January launch.

NASA completed a parachute drop test of the Orion spacecraft in Arizona. The test used only 2 of the 3 parachutes, to validate a parachute failure case.

NASA conducted a water suppression system test at launch pad 39B at KSC in preparation for SLS flights. Check out the video below:

NASA has selected two finalists for a new robotic planetary mission. The mission will either be a comet sample return or a Titan quadcopter.

The new American Girl doll will be an aspiring astronaut, with space suit and all.

In Orbit

There were five orbital rocket launches since my last post, two weeks ago:

  • Dec 23 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg in California, carrying communications satellites for Iridium.
  • Dec 23 – JAXA launched an H-IIA rocket carrying two scientific satellites.
  • Dec 23 – The Chinese space agency launched a Long March 2D rocket carrying an Earth-observing payload.
  • Dec 25 – The Chinese space agency launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying payloads for the Chinese military.
  • Dec 26 – Roscosmos launched a Zenit rocket carrying a communications satellite for Angola.

The Anogosat-1 payload initially had a problem and lost comm with ground control. However, reports in the past day or two indicate that communications have been restored.

The SpaceX launch was their 18th and last of the year – in 2016 they launched only 6 rockets. The launch was just after sunset and created spectacular views from the LA metro area. The video below from a drone is one of the best examples:

Meanwhile, the Soyuz rocket that launched on December 17th arrived at ISS successfully on Wednesday. The ISS crew has now returned to a full complement of 6. One of their Christmas treats was an onboard screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Also aboard the space station, the Progress 67P freighter undocked from the ISS this week and re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, carrying trash. The freighter will be replaced by 69P in February.

Here are some more pictures from the astronauts aboard the ISS the enjoy on your holiday weekend (as always, follow them on Twitter here).