Archive for the ‘Space Shuttle’ Category

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’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.


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.


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”.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

The woman who drew the spacecraft names on to several of the Mercury capsules died last week.

NASA’s VAB at Kennedy Space Center is being renovated to support the next era of launch vehicles. Many scaffolds and platforms that were built for the Space Shuttle are being removed.

Earthlings down under got a chance to see a total solar eclipse last Tuesday, November 13th. And of course some orbiting spacecraft got some nice pictures of the Moon’s shadow.

In Orbit

Up on ISS this past Saturday, Sunita Williams handed command over to fellow NASA astronaut Kevin Ford.

The Soyuz TMA-05M crew then undocked on Sunday evening and returned to a cold and snowy Earth (Jump to 05:40 to see crew exiting Soyuz).

The aerial photos of the rescue crew and capsule on the snowy ground are pretty cool.

The Kepler spacecraft is officially ending its primary mission of 3.5 years. Of course, it is still going strong and is being granted an extended mission. It feels like just yesterday we watched her launch and eagerly anticipated the discoveries to come. Now we have more than the 3 years needed to confirm the existence of planets in Earth-sized orbits around other stars… of which they have discovered several. You can see an interactive list of exoplanet stats at the Kepler website here.

Passing your “primary mission” is mostly just going through puberty for NASA spacecraft. After all, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity passed her 3 month primary mission over 8 years ago. So, happy adulthood Kepler! Here’s to many more years.

Around the Solar System

The Mars Odyssey Orbiter is on its backup Inertial Measurement Unit. The mission has been at Mars for over 10 years, so failures are not surprising. This is of course another example of an exceptional NASA spacecraft long past “puberty”. Odyssey’s primary mission also ended in 2004. Keep it up Odyssey!

Speaking of Mars, the first data from Curiosity’s radiation detection equipment was publiclly released. Based on the data, the level of radiation on the Martian surface is actually reasonable – the real trick is managing radiation on humans on their trip through interplanetary space to get there.

Out There

Speaking of exoplanets, astronomers at the Subaru telescope in Hawaii have taken a new direct image of a planet orbiting a star only 170 light years away.

NASA announced a recent discovery – using orbital observatories Spitzer and Hubble – of the most distant/ancient galaxy ever found. Go to Phil Plait’s blog for the picture and a good discussion.

Friday Links

Down to Earth

A couple election results that impact the space world:

Former astronaut Jose Hernandez did not win his race in California to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

A significant number of the representatives on the House committee on Science, Space, and Technology lost their seats. Also, the former chairman, Ralph Hall, was term limited on the committee and many are seeking to take his chairmanship.

A NASA study of climate data shows that models that project more global warming tend to be more accurate on certain markers – the conclusion being that warmer is more likely.

The Seattle Museum of Flight opened their new space hall this weekend, which includes the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer. You can now visit full-sized space shuttles (real or mockup) in the following major cities: New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, D.C., and eventually Florida.

Summer has arrived in Antarctica, bringing the first supply plane to the research base Concordia in months. Not much different than a space outpost, really.

In Orbit

Any IT geek readers out there might enjoy reading about this NASA test of their new “interplanetary internet”.

Expedition 33 Commander Sunita Williams and the rest of the Soyuz TMA-05M crew will be returning to Earth next weekend.

Around the Solar System

Check out this strange moon of Saturn – Methone.

Cool picture from LRO of a rock that bounced down a hill on the moon.

A happy crater on Mercury.

Mars rover Curiosity made it to 90 Martian days last week!

Out There

A new planet discovered about 40 light years away is at the right distance from its start to support liquid water.

Have to share this APOD just for its sheer beauty.

Last Week’s Links

Down to Earth

Atlantis was rolled from the VAB to the KSC visitor center last week. NASA no longer has the “title” to the last orbiter to fly in space.

Roscosmos has announched their latest Cosmonaut candidates. NASA’s class of 2013 still pending.

SpaceX had another test flight of their Grasshopper rocket (via Parabolic Arc).

Interesting stat: China launches more rockets to space in 2011 than the United States.

In Orbit

Expedition 33 astronauts Sunita Williams and Akihiko Hoshide completed an EVA to help save the thermal control system for a crucial power channel. You can read about the work they did here (via Space Cadet Gets Moving). The fun part of the spacewalk was the deployment of a radiator that had been stowed for about 6 years. Here are my action shots of the radiator partially and then fully deployed.

It was a busy week on ISS. The day before the spacewalk we also docked a new Progress freighter.

Here’s a NASA TV weekly recap of all that went on at ISS last week, if you are interested.

Around the Solar System

You’ve got to love this full self-shot by the Curiosity rover.

Speaking of Curiosity, results are coming back from the first in situ soil analysis of the mission. They are finding the soil to be similar to Hawaiian volcanic basalt (which is not unexpected).

The fragmentation of Comet Hergenrother was discovered last week.

Out There

I blogged back in February that the planet imaged around Fomalhaut is probably not a planet after all. But it looks like further study of the system has led some astronomers to change their conclusions yet again. Fomalhaut b may yet get to hold the title of first imaged exoplanet.

Speaking of exoplanets, this shirt is cool but likely to become outdated quickly.

A computer model of the Orion Nebula has led some scientists to conclude that there is a moderately sized black hole at the heart of the nebula, in the Trapezium. They will need to redo the Orion fly-through sequence from Hubble 3D.

Friday Links

The huge news this week was the announcement of a small rocky planet discovered in orbit around the star Alpha Centauri B, which is only 4 light years away. This is huge news – I nearly freaked out when I heard! I intend to write another post just about that topic, but for now just enjoy these links I found about it: here is Ryan Anderson’s take on it, a statement from NASA, and also from The Planetary Society.

Down to Earth

Lucky skywatchers in the Bay Area last week saw a large “bolide” or fireball meteor. There is little evidence that this particular meteor was an Orionid meteor, a shower that comes from the Earth passing through debris from Halley’s comet every year. you probably won’t see a fireball like this, but if you go out tonight or tomorrow morning when the Orionids peak, you should definitely see some meteors! Late night will be better, as the moon will have set.

The launch schedule for Orbital Sciences’ commercial resupply missions for ISS has officially slipped. They still hope to do a test launch this year but no missions to ISS will occur for at least several months.

A space shuttle left an OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility) at KSC in Florida for the last time this week. Atlantis is now on the floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) waiting to be delivered to the KSC visitor’s center. If you go on their pricier tours you will be allowed inside the VAB to see Atlantis there. I recommend it!

In Orbit

SpaceX has a neat panorama showing what the inside of a Dragon cargo vessel is like.

While I was working the day shift in ISS mission control this past week, Commander Sunita Williams did an interview with that is posted here.

Around the Solar System

Curiosity has been seeing lots of shiny things in the Martian dirt. Some have been attributed to debris from the rover itself while others have been labelled as probably indigenous. Very interesting for the geologists.

Another exciting development with Curiosity is that the JPL team did finally pick a good scoop of dirt and delivery it to the various analysis tools in the guts of the rover. Let the science begin!

Observations using the Keck II telescope in Hawai’i have revealed new insights about the weather of distant Uranus.


Late Links

Once again, my weekly link post is several days late. Maybe this week I get back in track?

Down to Earth

Space Shuttle Endeavour completed her cross town road trip in LA in what was apparently an exciting extended weekend journey. I can’t wait to go visit her at California Science Center! (here is a photo gallery of the trip)

In Orbit

The latest Dragon capsule made it to ISS as planned last week. There will be an investigation into the Falcon 9 engine failure during ascent (which I wrote about last week).

Parabolic Arc provides a detailed explanation of the why the “downmass” capability of Dragon is so important to ISS science.

The Russian rocket Proton M, which had a failure earlier this year, had a successful launch. This is good for the ISS program because some large Russian additions to ISS must be launched on a Proton family rocket.

Around the Solar System

Meanwhile on Mars, Curiosity is being very picky about what dirt it will eat.

The WISE spacecraft has been studying the “Trojan” asteroids of Jupiter (those that travel ahead or behind at the Lagrange Points) and has confirmed that there are more leading asteroids and that most Trojans are red.

Out There

The citizen science project Planet Hunters, which uses Kepler data, has discovered a planet in a quaternary system (yes that means four stars).

Because its Cool

I love the composition of this night sky exposure.

Photos of the moon when it was just a sliver before sunrise on October 14. I tried to see it myself but was fouled by clouds.