Archive for the ‘Space Shuttle’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A new exhibit called ‘Forever Remembered’ at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center has opened, featuring artifacts from the fateful STS-51L and STS-107 missions.

NASA is offering to lease parts of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Mobile Launch Platforms (MLP) at the Kennedy Space Center to commercial users. I guess NASA doesn’t need both high bays all the time due to the low launch rate expected for the new SLS rocket.

Famous composer James Horner died in a plane crash this week. Here are some excerpts from my favorite work of his, the Apollo 13 soundtrack:

In Orbit

In orbital launch news, the Russian military launch I wrote about last week was successful on June 23rd. The rocket was a Soyuz-2.1b, which has a different third stage than the Soyuz rockets used to launch missions to ISS. Here is a good discussion of the Soyuz rocket family from Russian Space Web.

There was also a Chinese Earth-observing satellite launch on June 26 (was early in the day, so June 25 in the US).

And of course, another much-anticipated SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is still scheduled for tomorrow. The pre-launch static fire test was successful on Friday, June 26, so they are ready for launch on June 27 at around 10:20 AM Eastern.

This Falcon 9 launch is supposed to have another barge landing attempt. SpaceX recently launched this new tracking cam footage of the almost-made-it attempt in April. This should get you excited for tomorrow!

As always, here are some more great photos from ISS, posted by @StationCDRKelly

Around the Solar System

The European Space Agency has extended the Rosetta mission, in orbit of comet 67P, until late 2016. Good thing too, because Rosetta keeps finding new things about comet 67P, like the recent announcement that they have found exposed water ice on the surface.

This song about the New Horizons mission to Pluto is rather fun. If you don’t like sentimentality or kitsch, you might want to skip it.

Out There

Some cool astronomy news worth sharing this week. First, the V404 Cygni system, which is a black hole orbited by a companion star, has recently become very active and is flaring into the brightest X-ray object in the sky (so you can’t see it).

Second, astronomers have discovered that exoplanet GJ436b (which is about the size of Neptune) has a giant cloud of hydrogen following it in its orbit, like a comet tail.

Book Review: Launch On Need

NASA’s Foundations of Mission Operations is meant to be a reminder to all working in the manned spaceflight program of the responsibility we hold to the taxpayer and to the astronauts we train and protect. Among other core values, the foundations state:

To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.

As part of that goal, certified flight controllers must complete annual proficiency training, which includes reading key chapters of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report (the report is often simply referred to as “the CAIB”). We are not required to read the entire report annually – both because it is very long at over 200 pages and because many chapters are irrelevant now that the Shuttle program has retired. However, we read chapters that have a direct relation to how we continue to do our job as flight controllers, such as chapter 7: “The Accident’s Organizational Causes”. These parts of the report drive home the importance of good leadership, speaking up when you see a problem, and technical rigor, among other skills. For instance, page 191 has a very relevant discussion of the danger of trying to present a precise technical topic on a brief PowerPoint slide.

The most important part of the CAIB ultimately is the list of recommendations found in chapter 11, especially those that are organizational and apply still today. Nevertheless, it is human nature to ask “what if?” about the Columbia accident. A 2-page section of chapter 6, titled “Possibility of Rescue or Repair”, seeks to answer this question, however briefly. Chapter 6 (and the longer associated appendix) explain that, had NASA managers understood Columbia’s plight early in the flight, resources could have been conserved onboard to extend STS-107 to a mission length of several weeks and Atlantis – already being prepped for STS-114 in the Orbiter Processing Facility – could have been rushed for a possible bid at rescue. This section of the CAIB, almost a footnote, is the premise of the fictional novel Launch on Need by Daniel Guiteras.

Launch on Need takes the “what ifs?” about as far as they can go, exploring both the how the world would react to the drama of a stranded space shuttle as well as detailing NASA’s mobilization efforts for rescue. Surprisingly, the most central character to the novel is fictional CNN reporter John Stangley, rather than a NASA flight controller or astronaut. It is actually the novel’s biggest failing that Stangley is the only character who is truly explored with depth or appreciable character arc. At 350 pages, this means that a lot of time is spent with characters of little emotional interest to the reader. The fact that all of the characters are fictional – including STS-107 astronauts, rescue astronauts, and mission managers – definitely slowed down my ability to connect with them. However, to be fair to Guiteras, the book likely would not have faced problems getting published if he had assigned invented dialogue and motivations to real people, especially the crew of Columbia.

Fortunately, the reason I read Launch on Need was not really for complex characters. The book intrigued me probably for the same reasons Guiteras wrote it. NASA has not had to publically “save” a crew since the successful failure of Apollo 13, a generation ago. Both accidents during the space shuttle program were tragedies, not crises. By the time the public knew of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the astronauts were already dead. What would a modern day Apollo 13 look like? How would the public react? Could NASA really pull it off? Of course, without a time machine, we will never really know the answers to these questions. But Launch on Need makes a compelling case for how things may have turned out differently. Despite the weak characters, and often weak dialogue, Guiteras’ loving attention to technical detail creates a drama that carries the reader all the way to the finish.

Guiteras sets up the structure of the novel in a clever way, with three parts titled The Discovery, The Challenge, and The Endeavour, using the names of three of NASA’s fleet of space shuttles. The Discovery starts at launch of STS-107 and ends with the wing inspection EVA, The Challenge covers the rescue flight’s prep for launch, and The Endeavour is the rescue mission itself. This means that, rather surprisingly, the rescue mission launches well over half way through the novel. If this story were ever to be made into a movie (unlikely) this would not fly. The big screen eye candy comes from action in space. The excitement of launch day and the drama of the rendezvous and tense rescue EVA would certainly be the focus, and launch would occur, at latest, halfway through the film. But this imagined big-screen version would steal the soul of Guiteras’ story. The real drama of the story occurs during part 2, as NASA prepares Atlantis for launch. Guiteras does a great job of building up the conflict of man versus schedule in this part of the book, which is hard to do, since the antagonist is not a person but is time itself.

One of my favorite chapters in the book comes in the middle of part 2, while Atlantis is still in the OPF, and NASA is working 3 shifts and struggling to shave precious hours of the launch prep timeline so that Atlantis can reach orbit before Columbia runs out of CO2 scrubbers. In the middle of this chaos, a careless worker drops a large bucket from an upper level of the OPF onto Atlantis’ wings, potentially putting the entire mission in danger, if the damage is bad enough. Not only did I fear for Atlantis herself but I really felt for Wally Jensen, the OPF manager you meet only for the brief 5 pages of this chapter. The accident’s impact on Jensen really painted an accurate picture of how the stress of something like a real rescue mission might take its toll on NASA’s employees.

In contrast to the parts of the novel about Atlantis being readied for launch are the chapters following the rescue crew, which I felt really missed the mark. For instance, during one chapter, we join two of the rescue mission astronauts who are selected to do the spacewalk to ferry all 7 astronauts from Columbia to Atlantis. They are training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) the week before the flight. Actually, it is the day after they were assigned to the mission and they are already on their first NBL run. As they alone in the locker room getting ready for prebrief, one astronaut begins to confide in the other that he is worried and scared, that he has lost confidence in himself. While astronauts are just humans like you and me, and surely feel the pressure leading up to a big mission, the timing of the confession and the dialogue was rather contrived. Keep in mind that these two characters were introduced as NASA’s best spacewalkers. Unfortunately, this was a theme throughout and I felt that the astronauts were the weakest characters in the story. Similarly, a lot of the scenes that occur in mission control itself felt off to me, based on my experience in mission operations for the ISS. The most jarring scene for me was when a “tiger team” of 4 members is formed in the middle of the climactic rescue EVA to figure out how to open a stuck hatch, or else the last two crew of Columbia will die aboard. The entire logistics of this episode do not match how we do things at mission control: the IMMT chair, who was at the back of the control room at the management console, grabs 3 flight controllers who are currently on shift in the front room during an EVA and leave the room to come up with options. This would never happen. Instead, the army of back room flight controllers and engineering support rooms would be working together on the comm loops to come up with a plan.

Despite Guiteras lack of ability to provide believable astronaut or flight controller characters, the story has another strength in its exploration of the space program in the American psyche. One of the most interesting scenes to me (regardless of its realism) comes near the beginning of Part II, shortly after NASA has committed to rescue as the only option for Columbia. The NASA administrator is holding a meeting with the heads of his public affairs and communications divisions and outlines an innovative approach to media relations during preparations for the rescue mission: hide nothing, let the media in everywhere. The administrator realizes that this is an “Apollo 13 moment” and seizes on the opportunity to get everyone talking about NASA again.

As NASA starts to let reporters into the VAB and OPF, just inches from Atlantis as she is prepared for her rescue mission, the American public begins to become fixated on the mission. The 24-hour news channels essentially have a launch countdown ticker on the screen at all times and they do daily status updates. STS-300 is on the front page of the New York Times. This is my favorite part of Launch on Need. I think Guiteras has a great sense of how Americans really feel about space. Sometimes it seems NASA is ignored, often even forgotten, but that is not because people don’t love space. Spaceflight is in the background fabric of our culture, the way we expect to have a football game on TV on Sunday night or that we get 100 options of breakfast cereal at the grocery store. You don’t notice something so ingrained in our culture until they are gone. Everyone wants to talk about space when something goes wrong; we see this every time a cargo launch doesn’t make it to ISS – you see a headline in every news media outlet, even if they just use the AP brief. Often those launches aren’t covered when they are successful.

Guiteras seems to understand all of this about American culture, which makes his fictional tale about how STS-107 could have ended in triumph an optimistic but cautionary tale that I think leaders within NASA should read and learn from. Launch On Need is an interesting thought experiment about NASA public affairs. It points out that people love space (which I think is true of the majority), but that NASA needs to actively share its mission in an exciting and emotional way if we want people’s love of space to be active and conscious, and not just like their love of the breakfast cereal aisle.

We will never know if Atlantis really could have made it to orbit to save the Columbia crew before Flight Day 30. All we can say is that if NASA hadn’t made the errors in management, communication, and decision making which are outlined in the CAIB, there could have at least been a chance to try. Even if a rescue mission had been attempted and failed, the way we remember the Columbia disaster would be very different. The idea of following the Foundations of Mission Operations – of being ever vigilant – is not because we believe we can prevent all disasters from happening, but instead is to at least give ourselves the chance to turn something like Columbia from a tragedy that no one saw coming into a crisis that we can put forth our best effort to recover from. This is the point of the last line of the Foundations of Mission Operations:

To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

I would recommend Launch On Need to fans of space history and flight controllers alike. In fact, with some good editing and improved character development in another edition, I think it could be quite good. I hope that if and when NASA has another crisis in manned spaceflight, we will have improved our blind spots that led to disaster for Challenger and Columbia and will instead give ourselves the chance for redemption shown by Guiteras in Launch on Need.

You can read Launch on Need for free if you have Kindle Unlimited or order it for $11.60 in paperback. Here is the Amazon link.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Many space enthusiasts and planetary scientists were unsettled by a NASA announcement on December 3rd about a restructuring of the planetary science budget. In particular, the money allocated for planetary science grants is being reorganized into new programs – and half of that money will not be used for new grants in 2014. In short, this means there is less money available to scientists writing new proposals.

In other disappointing news, some vandals in Houston spray-painted graffiti on the side of the Space Shuttle mock-up Independence. Independence lived for almost 20 years at KSC where it was known as Explorer. The mock-up is displayed outside near the Space Center Houston parking lot, with no significant security at night (in contrast to the nearby Rocket Park which is behind a locked fence at night).

On December 3rd, NASA scientist and former JPL director Ed Stone was on Stephen Colbert to talk about Voyager entering interstellar space. At the end of the episode, Stephen Colbert surprised Dr. Stone with the NASA distinguished service medal. You can watch the interview here and the award presentation here (both links to the Colbert Report’s website and the clips come with ads).

On December 6, 1957 (56 years ago today), the Vanguard TV3 was the first attempted launch of a satellite by the United States – which ended in a spectacular explosion on the launch pad.

41 years later, December 4, 1998, the Space Shuttle mission STS-88 attached the “Unity” Node to Russia’s “Zarya” – the first step in what would be over 10 years of ISS assembly.

Endeavour prepares Unity for docking (Source: NASA)

Thanks to a post from Parabolic Arc, I have bookmarked this interactive map from SpaceWorks Software that maps all planned, active, and former spaceports around the world.

Around the Solar System

According to Chinese media, the Chang’e 3 probe has reached lunar orbit. The lander is expected to make it to the surface on December 14th.

While we have seen imagery of Saturn’s mysterious North Pole hexagon before, the newly released images (and movie!) from Cassini is the highest resolution view yet, through multiple color filters. Pretty.

Out There

Astronomers using the Keck II telescope in Hawaii have taken images of 3 large (bigger than Jupiter) exoplanets. So few planets from other systems have been directly imaged that each new one is notable, even if the planets are unlikely to be habitable or otherwise remarkable. Phil Plait provides the images at the top of his post on the results.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Virgin Galactic has hired two new pilots, including former Space Shuttle Commander and Navy TOPGUN pilot, Frederick “CJ” Sturckow. Awesome!

At the Kennedy Space Center’s new visitor center, the payload bay doors were opened on Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is slated to go on display this summer.

In honor of the new Star Trek movie, here’s something that has nothing to do with space at all. But it’s funny.

In Orbit

A lot has happened at the space station in the past week and a half! Apart from Soyuz TMA-07M returning to Earth on Monday, May 13…

…on Thursday, May 9, in the morning, (while I was working in the Flight Control Room) the astronauts noticed some mysterious debris floating outside the space station…

…which led to an emergency spacewalk to fix a leaky coolant pump only two days later.

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/spaceguy87/status/335245616697466880″]

For more information, check out my friend and colleague, Anthony, talking about the space station quick fix.

Chris Hadfield’s return to Earth marks the end of a very successful mission that was more than just a typical ISS expedition. Commander Hadfield reached out to people through social media more than any astronaut before. Here is a small “greatest hits” list of some of his photography. But for me, even better than all the pictures from his mission, was the way Hadfield seamlessly connected his love of music to space. Check out this music video he released just hours before coming home last week.

In less successful orbital news, the Kepler Space Telescope – NASA’s planet-finding spacecraft – seems to be in trouble. On May 15, NASA announced that a second of Kepler’s four reaction wheels may be failed. Kepler needs 3 reaction wheels to accurately point the telescope for precision science measurements. If they cannot recover the lost reaction wheel, Kepler’s mission is effectively done. Kepler has been able to discover thousands of planets in our galaxy (most still being officially “confirmed”) but it easily has thousands more left to discover. Save Kepler!

Around the Solar System

In only one day last week, the sun emitted three X-class solar flares (X-class is the biggest class of solar flare, but just like the earthquake scale, an X10 is significantly bigger than an X2, so it’s all relative). Welcome to solar maximum! If you live somewhere where you can see it, there should be some good aurora to see this year.

Remember that rover on Mars? No, not the bigger shiny new one, that one on the other side of the planet – Opportunity. The plucky rover that could just hit a distance record for NASA set by the Apollo 17 moon rover in 1972. Back in 1972, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt drove their lunar rover 35.74 km in just a few days. After almost 10 years on Mars, Opportunity just broke that record this week. Also, there’s still the Russian moon rover Lunokhod 2 which drove 37 km in 1973. Opportunity still has a ways to go. But it is amazing that she is still going at all!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

I wrote last week about a few updates to Space Shuttle artifact exhibits coming online around the country. And there is yet more news to tell this week.

The exhibit of the Space Shuttle (not) Orbiter Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum is coming together after recovering from hurricane Sandy. The new upgraded “pavilion” is being built over Enterprise now and will open on July 10.

The last pieces of wrapping paper were taken off of Space Shuttle Atlantis at KSC.

The first Canadarm, or Space Shuttle robotic arm, was put on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum last week. ISS Commander Chris Hadfield was linked to the museum live from space for the unveiling.

Speaking of the Canadian Space Agency, Canada also revealed this past week that the new Canadian $5 bill will feature space images, including a picture of the Space Station Robitc arm and an astronaut on a spacewalk.

NASA resigned the contract with the Russian space agency to provide transport for American astronauts to ISS on Soyuz launch vehicles. The renewal paid for seats through 2017 – which is only 3 years before the official end of ISS in 2020 (but everyone expects the program to extend into the late 2020s).

Boeing successfully completed a flight test of the X-51A scramjet known as “Waverider”. This was the longest airbreathing scramjet flight to date (that’s unclassified…).

Not Quite in Orbit

As I wrote about in a separate post, Virgin Galactic had their first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo last week on April 29. The video is too good not to repost.

In the wake of all the excitement surrounding that flight, Virgin Galactic has confirmed that ticket prices are about to go up 25% from $200,000 to $250,000 to account for inflation.

In Orbit

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory ran out of helium coolant last week and officially ended its mission.

A 3-D printer will fly to the ISS next year. This is a good idea in how to test ways to make spacecraft more self-sufficient, which will be necessary if humanity ever takes true deep space missions.

Chris Hadfield explains in a little over a minute my job as an Attitude Determination and Control Officer for ISS. Thanks, Chris!

The Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope did a debris avoidance maneuver in early April to avoid a nasty collision with an old Soviet Satellite. This was apparently the first time in Fermi’s mission (launched in 2008) that they had to use the thruster system for such a maneuver. This is a common problem for low Earth orbit spacecraft and the ISS has close calls with debris – and performs maneuvers – more than we would like to.

Around the Solar System

I enjoyed this story of unexpected scientific discovery. The team searching the outer solar system for an object for New Horizons to visit after it reaches Pluto happened to discover a new Trojan asteroid of Neptune (he explains what a Trojan asteroid is).

The Mars probes and rovers have woken up from solar conjunction. Opportunity and Curiosity should be off and roving again. Opportunity actually had a minor glitch when NASA initially resumed contact but she recovered no problem.

The asteroid that NASA’s Osiris-Rex sample return mission will visit in a few years has officially be named Bennu.

Friday Links

Down to Earth

A couple of updates on Space Shuttle artifacts being displayed. First, the original external fuel tank test article was shipped from KSC to the “Wings of Dreams Aviation Museum” in Starke, Florida. Second, the space shuttle Atlantis was “unwrapped” at its new display at the KSC visitor center.

Rumor has it that Virgin Galactic might have their first powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo next week.

The Texas state legislature is a few steps away from approving key measures that would enable SpaceX to build a launch site near the Mexico border outside of Brownsville. This week the Texas House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow closure of state beaches during launches. The bill still needs to go to the State Senate before passing.

Mars One, the… company? … that plans to colonize Mars, has opened up their astronaut application process. What the heck, why not apply?

In Orbit

Orbital Sciences successfully launched their first Antares rocket on April 21st. It was a beautiful launch into a clear blue sky. We look forward to seeing them on ISS in a few months.

Up on the Space Station, two cosmonauts – Pavel Vinogradov and Roman Romanenko – went on a six-and-a-half hour spacewalk to work on some external experiments and also some various maintenance.

On Wednesday, the latest Russian Progress resupply craft launched on its way to ISS. The docking is planned for just a few moments from now, on Friday morning (coverage is live on NASA TV if you catch this post right after it goes up). The Progress will be docking to ISS despite a rendezvous antenna that was unable to fully deploy after launch. The retracted antenna is physically in the way of the docking mechanism, so flight controllers will have to come up with a plan to get the antenna out of the way… or something else. Otherwise the cargo inside will not be accessible. One possibility is to plan another spacewalk after docking to move the antenna.

And on a lighter note, Commander Hadfield talks about barf bags in space.

Around the Solar System

At Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft has been observing meteors impacting the planet’s rings. Awesome.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

This week is the time every year for somber reflection at NASA, as it sees the anniversaries of all three of NASA’s spaceflight fatalities: Apollo 1 on January 27, Challenger on January 28, and Columbia on February 1. This coming  February marks 10 years since the space shuttle Columbia was lost on mission STS-107. It’s not fun to watch, but I do re-watch this video* from time to time to remind myself that things can and will go wrong in this dangerous business.

*It amazes me the number of cameras that were on hand in Mission Control for Space Shuttle re-entry. In routine ISS operations, I’ve never had to deal with a camera in my face the way these ascent/entry flight controllers did.

The makers of a small budget documentary about Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, lost on Columbia, will air on PBS this Thursday night. I saw an early cut of the film a few years ago and it is well worth watching – I suggest you tune in! Here is their trailer.

In Orbit

Well, he didn’t quite make it to orbit, but an Iranian monkey did fly to space, according to reports out of that country.

The United States government says the monkey’s flight is (officially) unconfirmed.

The Robotic Refueling Mission aboard the ISS wrapped up successfully. The several weeks of operations completed with a successfully simulated refueling, using ethanol, early Monday morning.

And if you need to relax, here’s what it’s like to orbit the Earth from a couple hundred miles up.

Or if you prefer, here is a nice event from last week in which two NASA astronauts on ISS answered student questions live on TV. I enjoyed it live from the Flight Control Room!

Around the Solar System

This month is the 9th anniversary of the Mars Exploration Rovers landing on Mars and the start of Opportunity’s tenth year exploring that planet. Curiosity has a long way to go to match the legacy of Oppy, who landed on January 25, 2004. I can’t wait for her ten year anniversary next year, which I believe she will easily surpass. As Stu, from The Road to Endeavour, points out, Opportunity has spent far more of her life on Mars than she ever did on Earth. She is truly a Martian.

On the other side of Mars from Opportunity, Curiosity has taken her first nighttime pictures! Curiosity can take pictures with white LEDs or ultraviolet light. this can reveal some specific properties of the local geography that are trickier to pinpoint when you have the complex wavelengths of light coming from the sun. In particular, UV light can help Curiosity find fluorescent minerals, which could indicate organics.

Also, Curiosity has discovered lots of evidence of a water-rich past in Gale Crater, including calcium deposits. Curiosity should be doing her first rock drilling very soon!

Because it’s Cool

Stunning exposure of the ISS and the night sky.

NASA TV has been playing this video… awesome.

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.

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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

Christmas Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX’s reusable vertical take-off and landing rocket, Grasshopper, had another successful flight. This one longer and higher than the last two.

This is a big rocket. There was a six-foot mannequin riding the side and you wouldn’t see it unless you knew it was there.

SpaceShipTwo, the long awaited tourist space plane, had a first drop test in flight configuration – meaning with the full rocket engine strapped in the back (but not turned on). They are expected to do the first powered flights before the end of 2013.

The Intrepid Air & Space Museum in New York reopened on Friday, Dec 21, but the Space Shuttle Enterprise is still being repaired from damage from Sandy.

NASA has been talking about their next gen space suit, the Z-1, which uses a bright green color scheme that reminds us of Buzz Lightyear.

In Orbit

The rest of the Expedition 34 crew arrived at ISS with no problems on Friday, Dec 21. Jump to 2:15 to see the new guys come through the hatch.

Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford has finally updated his blog since arriving at ISS in the Fall and has shared a few stories.

Around the Solar System

On Friday, Dec 21, the Cassini spacecraft (in orbit around Saturn) observed a transit of Venus across the sun. You may remember that we had a transit of Venus visible from the Earth back in June.

Go outside on Christmas night and take a look at Jupiter and the moon hanging out together. The moon will be almost full for the conjunction.

Merry Christmas!

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Atlantis was raised into her final position at the new visitor center at KSC. She also looks rather silly in full shrink wrap. Reading the description of the new museum, I am really excited to check it out next year!

The NASA Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that was used for Endeavour’s final flight to California has been given to Houston as a display piece. This is the same airplane that was used for the Approach and Landing Tests of Enterprise in 1977.

SpaceX will no longer be a participant in the Stratolaunch project. Originally, SpaceX was going to be the provider/manufacturer of the project’s rockets, but the company cites design changes that have forced them to quit.

Some congresspeople are seeking to rename NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center after Neil Armstrong.

Speaking of Apollo 11, Minnesota has discovered the gift of moon rocks they received from NASA. They seem to have been stored in some warehouse for far too long. I’m glad to see these will be going on display.

Some enterprising Romanians launched a balloon in Australia during the November solar eclipse. They got some awesome views of the shadowed Earth.

In Orbit

The ISS program partners have agreed that NASA’s Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko will be the crew members to spend an entire year on ISS in 2016. Scott Kelly is of course the brother of astronaut Mark Kelly, who is married to Gabrielle Giffords. Kelly has already been on 3 spaceflights and was Commander of ISS during Expedition 26 two years ago. Kornienko has been to space once during Expedition 23/24.

On Friday, November 30th, the ISS was maneuvered by several degrees to give the European solar observatory on the ISS a better view of the sun. this is the first ISS maneuver for scientific objectives alone. Usually we only plan maneuvers for logistics.

Around the Solar System

Scientists with NASA’s MESSENGER have announced a high confidence discovery of water ice in polar craters on Mercury. Very cool.

If you heard about the “super moon” earlier this year, here is a nice graphic that shows the size difference between the biggest and smallest moon of 2012. The smallest happened just last week on November 28.

This animation of Saturn’s north pole is an abyss that stares back, as Nietzsche said.

Jupiter is at opposition tonight (Sunday, December 2nd). Jupter just had a close encounter with the Moon in the sky last week . Here is a collection of photos if you missed it.

Out There

Astronomers doing research with the MacDonald Observatory here in Texas have announced the discovery of a 17 billion solar mass black hole. The supermassive black hole may be the largest ever found and sits at the center of galaxy NGC 1277, 250 million light years away.