Archive for the ‘SpaceX’ Category
Down to Earth
SpaceX has purchased more land on the coast near Brownsville and South Padre Island in Texas, making their intentions fairly clear.
The United States Congressional Budget Office issued a report with options for reducing the national deficit. One option outlined includes completely eliminating all NASA spending on manned spaceflight. Oh dear.
The big news in the past two weeks, in my opinion, was the launch of Chang’e 3, a Chinese lunar lander. Chang’e 1 and 2 were successful moon orbiters, and the third mission, launched December 2nd, is scheduled to land a large rover on the lunar surface – the first to do so in 37 years – on December 14th. So far, China is putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to their spaceflight program.
Today, December 3rd, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 version 1.1 with a commercial telecommunications satellite onboard. The SES-8 satellite was successfully sent on the planned geostationary transfer orbit – proving that SpaceX had sussed out and fixed the problem that marred an earlier test launch back in September. The failure of the upper stage to relight back on September 29 was traced back to frozen igniter fluid lines. As SpaceX points out in their press release, this mission is a big step towards fulfilling their long launch manifest, which includes many commercial launches, some requiring a geostationary orbit insertion. One more successful Falcon 9 v1.1 launch is needed for DOD certification. Also, the first ISS resupply flight aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 is planned for early next year.
On November 19th, the robotic arm on the Kibo module of the ISS (the Japanese lab) was used to deploy several small “cubesats” into orbit. This is the second time the ISS has been used as a launching platform (last time was in December 2012 also using Kibo).
On November 20th, the International Space Station program celebrated the 15th anniversary of the first module launch – the Russian “Functional Cargo Block”, or more poetically “Zarya” (Sunrise)*. Here’s a short but amazing ISS timelapse to celebrate (via Universe Today).
*Nobody in Mission Operations at NASA JSC calls it Zarya.
Around the Solar System
The big story this past month (apart from recent Chinese success) has been comet ISON – the comet-of-the-century that wasn’t. ISON was a fun story to follow because the steep-diving comet (which grazed by the Sun at less than one solar diameter on Thanksgiving Day) was so dynamic that astronomers were having a hard time predicting how and when the comet might brighten, dim, or die. I had spent a week prior to perihelion (the name for closest approach to the sun) hoping I could get up in the morning and spot ISON before dawn, but the Houston weather would not cooperate. As evidenced by this amateur photographer, the comet was naked-eye in the right conditions. Anyway, ISON’s story ended shortly after perihelion, where the nucleus seemingly broke up in the extreme heat. The disintegrating rubble pile that emerged from the far side of the sun brightened very briefly, and is now dispersing and dimming, currently at 8th magnitude. As the writers at “Sky and Telescope” joke in their summary: “ISON now ISOFF”.
On December 1st, the Indian Mars orbiter Mangalyaan (now being referred to as “MOM” in all the english language media I follow) completed a successful rocket firing to leave high Earth orbit and go into solar orbit, on its way to Mars in September 2014. MOM is now cruising through interplanetary space behind NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, which successfully launched towards Mars on November 18th. Here’s a shot of MAVEN back in August when it was being readied for launch.
The European Exomars project – which consists of two missions in 2016 and 2018 – has chosen the name “Schiaparelli” for the 2016 lander. Schiaparelli was the Italian astronomer in the late 19th century who mapped Mars (and incorrectly deduced that Mars was covered in canals).
The Mars rover Opportunity (still roving almost 10 years after landing!) has found a winter post. Opportunity will hang out for the next 6 months on a north-facing slope called “Murray Ridge”. Murray Ridge is named after Bruce Murray, an influential planetary scientist from JPL who died earlier this year.
Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope to detect water in the atmosphere of 5 “hot Jupiters” orbiting nearby (in galactic terms) stars. Since the planets are Jupiter-like rather than Earth-like, there is nothing Earth-shattering (or Jupiter-shattering) about the finding. However, future studies should be able to analyze the atmospheres of smaller and smaller worlds, leading us closer to finding a true Earth twin.
There is a new naked-eye nova in the sky. Don’t go running outside expecting to see something as bright as Venus – it is only magnitude ~5 and is not visible from Northern latitudes.
Down to Earth
The Russian space agency and their cosmonauts successfully completed their Olympics PR stunt last week. On Saturday, November 9th, cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy took the 2014 Olympic Torch outside the space station and took some pictures.
After the symbolic handoff in space, the Expedition 37 crew from the Soyuz TMA-09M donned their Sokol spacesuits, climbed aboard their Soyuz, and returned to Earth early on Monday, November 11. Congratulations to Nyberg, Parmitano, and Yurchikhin on a great mission, and congratulations to the Russians on a successful orbital Olympic relay. Hopefully our space programs will get a bit of a PR boost as a result.
In heavier news, two space industry workers at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia died earlier this month in a propellant tank accident.
Two veterans of the Soviet space program died in the last month. First, Dmitri Zaikin, selected in the first class of Cosmonauts in 1960, died at 81. Zaikin never flew in space desite a long career in the program and being assigned as backup Voshkoh 2 commander. Second, Alexander Serebrov, from the second generation of cosmonauts, died at 69. Serebrov logged over a year in space on three separate missions, including flights to Salyut and MIR space stations.
The European Space Agency’s GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) satellite recently ran out of fuel and crashed back to Earth, after a reportedly successful 4 year mission. Here is a cool picture of its re-entry over a remote part of the Atlantic OCean near the Falkland Islands.
On November 12th, Russia launched a satellite aboard a Proton Breeze-M rocket – the same type of rocket that crashed spectacularly back in July. This marks 3 launches since the crash, which is good news for the ISS program, which is supposed to receive a large new module called MLM aboard a Proton rocket.
In other launch news, SpaceX is scheduled to launch another one of their upgraded Falcon 9 version 1.1 rockets on November 25th, this time from Florida.
Around the Solar System
Continuing the launch news, NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter is set to launch on Monday, November 18th.
Mars rover Curiosity spent a bit of time in Safe Mode recently, but is back in full working order.
Comet ISON recently had an outburst and is now as bright as 5.5 magnitude. This should be visible with naked eye for people in dark sites (like my hometown Waikoloa, Hawaii) or keen observers with binoculars or telescopes in less dark areas. Keep in mind that there is a full moon late this week, however. Here are some helpful charts from EarthSky on how to find the comet. The comet is up in the early morning, as it is heading towards perihelion (closest point to the sun) in November 28. Most people are hoping the comet will be even brighter when it emerges from around the sun in December.
Because it’s Cool
XKCD takes a new tact on an old saying about space and perseverance.
Retired ISS Commander Chris Hadfield is now charging full into his book tour to promote his memoir-slash-self-help book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I have been thoroughly enjoying his short videos promoting himself and his book. I think he is fitting into his post-space career very well. Check it out.
Down to Earth
Two astronauts announced their departure from the NASA astronaut corps at the end of September – Ron Garan and Greg Chamitoff. Greg Chamitoff actually worked in my office as an ISS guidance officer, almost 20 years ago (although the ISS had not been launched yet at the time).
The J-2X upper stage engine, in development under NASA contract for about 6 years for use first in the Ares program and then on SLS, will apparently be “mothballed” next year. In other words, NASA has decided J-2X won’t work for SLS so it is going on hold until they find a future use for it. Bummer.
The European Space Agency is doing rover field tests in the Atacama Desert in Chile in preparation for their 2018 launch of the ExoMars rover.
Roscosmos – the Russian federal space agency – has once again replaced their head administrator in an effort to end the string of launch failures that has plagued the program over the past few years. Good luck with the new guy.
Speaking of Roscosmos; Russian media reports that they intend to try a new Phobos sample return mission (following their failed Phobos-Grunt mission in 2011). The new mission would not occur until 2020 or later. It bears repeating: good luck.
The SpaceX grasshopper test vehicle had one more test flight earlier this month – video below – which will apparently be the last. I have to admit that I am disappointed. I hope SpaceX has something more exciting up their sleeve; the Falcon 9-R might fit the bill.
The new company out of Tucson, Arizona known as “World View” intends to send paying customers to 30 km altitude in a balloon lifted capsule. The flights wouldn’t technically take tourists to space, but would give them a high altitude view of the Earth for far longer than flights in suborbital vehicles like SpaceShipTwo. Tickets are planned to only be $75,000.
Luca Parmitano wrote a nice blog post about what it was like to capture the Orbital Cygnus spacecraft last month.
A relatively large Near Earth Asteroid, 2013 TV135, was discovered on October 8th. TV135 has a diameter of about 400 feet and came within 4.2 million miles of Earth last month. The asteroid has another close approach in 2032 for which the probability of an Earth impact is 1-in-63,000.
Speaking of asteroids, on October 15 a Russian dive team found a half-ton chunk of the Chelyabinsk impact at the bottom of a lake near Chelyabinsk, Russia. Awesome.
Around the Solar System
On October 9, the NASA Jupiter probe Juno had a close flyby of the Earth to get a gravity assist and start heading to the outer solar system. Here is a view of Earth from Juno near closest approach. And here is a diagram of the spacecraft’s trajectory showing the affect of the Earth flyby.
Down to Earth
As most everyone is very aware, the US Congress did not come to a budget agreement for Fiscal Year 2014 before the calendar rolled over last week, so all parts of the US federal government that are affected by annual congressional discretionary spending have been shut down. This includes NASA. Some critical mission operations are continuing, including ISS operations and most active planetary exploration missions still have their control rooms staffed. The theme however is that anything not directly related to “real-time” operations has been halted. For the first few days this included work on missions in the pre-launch phase of the mission. Luckily for the MAVEN Mars orbiter, the next probe to launch to the red planet, they were able to get a special exemption so that they won’t miss their launch date this coming December.
The local government near Brownsville, Texas has agreed on how to handle temporary beach closures to allow for rocket launches, if SpaceX was to build a new commercial launch site near the Texas-Mexico border. The new legislation is not technically an approval of beach closures for this purpose, but is one step closer and should continue to drive SpaceX to pick Texas for their new launch site.
Ten year’s after China’s first manned spaceflight the CNSA is talking publicly about training astronauts from other nations. So if you got rejected from NASA’s class of 2012 last year, maybe you will have better luck through this alternate means.
Or if you cannot get a passport to one of the nation’s that may partner with China, perhaps you should audition for NBC’s planned show “Space Race”, a reality show in which contestants can win a free ride to space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Neat – but not for me.
Last Thursday, the critically acclaimed film Gravity was released worldwide, and broke the October opening weekend box office record. I saw it with some friends at the first show at the nearest theater to NASA JSC, and was thoroughly entertained. The film is visually stunning and emotionally thrilling – go see it. It keeps an intense tempo with only a 90-minute run time (interestingly, the length of the orbit of the ISS, and an important time in the plot of the film). I am not going to post a bunch of links to reviews about the film because they are likely to be spoiler-ridden. You will enjoy this movie. Go. The trailers even give too much away. Just Go.
The anticipated test launch of SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket took place on September 29th and delivered the Canadian payload CASSIOPE to its intended orbit. This is exciting and important news for the future of the company and their cargo contract with NASA. Unfortunately, one mission objective – to relight the second stage after shutdown – was unsuccessful. The company believes they can fix the anomaly before the next flight.
On the same day as the Falcon 9 rocket launch, the Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital Sciences finally rendezvoused successfully with the ISS, marking a big milestone for that company as well. Their next mission is tentatively scheduled for December, and would be the first official cargo mission of their contract.
Around the Solar System
Late in September, NASA finally declared the Deep Impact/EPOXI mission officially dead. After many weeks this summer of trying to regain communication.
NASA officially announced some scientific results from the Mars rover Curiosity which indicate there is little to no methane in the Martian atmosphere. The data seems robust, given that it comes from a sophisticated laboratory directly sampling the atmosphere for several months, but it contradicts previous intriguing science that pointed to an unexplained high level of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. This previous data had led some discussion about whether it could be a by-product of currently active Martian life. The press release from NASA offers no explanation of why the Curiosity data and the previous data (from powerful Earth-based telescopes and Mars orbiters) do not agree. I am not convinced that there isn’t something else going on here besides “Mars has no methane”…
NASA’s new lunar probe, LADEE, achieved lunar orbit yesterday, October 6. Let the science begin!
Down to Earth
One of the three original founders of the Planetary Society, Bruce Murray, passed away on August 29th. Murray was director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during the Viking and Voyager era. He started The Planetary Society with Lou Friedman and Carl Sagan in 1980. If you are a space enthusiast and you are not yet a member of the Planetary Society, you are missing out. Check out their website and weekly radio show.
Last week three ISS crew members returned to Earth, ending Expedition 36. Chris Cassidy, Pavel Vinogradov, and Alexander Misurkin landed on September 11 in Kazakhstan. Next week a new crew will launch and dock on Wednesday, September 26.
Not Quite in Orbit
It seems cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov – who was in space on Expedition 18 when I started working at JSC – has decided to retire from the space business. He had been in training to fly as commander of Expedition 44 in two years, which is what makes the departure somewhat confusing. However, as NASA Watch points out, he has been in the corps for a long time, with his first flight over a decade ago on STS-100. Everyone has to move on some time.
Last post I wrote about the second powered flight of SpaceShipTwo on September 5, and included some cool footage of the flight from the ground. Well, since then, Virgin Galactic released this view from onboard the spaceplane. Very cool (via Ubergizmo).
Last week on the 12th, SpaceX did a “static firing” (which means the rocket didn’t go anywhere) of the new Falcon 9 rocket on the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (here’s a Google Maps link). Unfortunately, they saw some anomalies and the test launch was delayed from the planned date of the 15th. According to Elon Musk, they hope to launch at the end of the month.There was a problem connecting to Twitter.
The new rocket is the Falcon 9 version 1.1. As you can see in the graphic below (from Wikipedia), version 1.1 is a significant visual upgrade from the existing Falcon 9. In addition to the payload faring and longer fuel tanks – making it taller – they are upgrading the Merlin engines that power the first stage. All future Falcon flights are supposed to transition to this rocket after the tests, including NASA cargo flights to ISS. So here’s hoping for a good launch in a week or two!
This morning at 10:50 AM Eastern, the Antares rocket carrying the first Cygnus cargo craft launched from Wallops Island, Virginia on the way to ISS.
The flight will bring Cygnus up to ISS for rendezvous this coming Sunday, September 22nd. My favorite part of the launch is this clever sign near the launch pad that made for a good photo op. Or maybe this bald eagle who had a front row seat is cooler?
As of this writing, the spacecraft has already done initial checkouts, with more ongoing.
In a nice double-whammy, there was also a big rocket launch from Florida early this morning. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched an Air Force satellite before dawn at Cape Canaveral.
I was intrigued by this article at the Huffington Post about NASA’s radiation limits on active astronauts. Because of differing risks for cancer between genders, women have lower allowed limits of radiation, meaning they can’t fly as many days in space.
Around the Solar System
In somber news, mission managers of the Deep Impact/EPOXI mission announced earlier this month that they have been out of contact with the spacecraft for about a month. Flight controllers have indications that the onboard computer had a glitch and is now likely spinning out of control, which is why they can’t get commands uplinked to correct the problem – the communications antenna is not pointing towards home. The worry is that if it spins out of control for too long, the batteries won’t get charged from the solar arrays and the spacecraft will die.
EPOXI was launched as Deep Impact in 2005 and has had a very successful mission so far, with the rendezvous and impact of comet Tempel 1 and then years later the dramatic flyby of comet Hartley 2.
The biggest space news so far this month, at least that the public has noticed, was the official announcement by NASA that the Voyager 1 spacecraft has entered interstellar space. Some people were incorrectly reporting the announcement as “Voyager 1 has left the solar system” which makes me roll my eyes (see below). Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy covers this topic well.
It’s been a whole month since I last posted, so there is some catching up to do. I’m going to try to just hit the highlights.
Down to Earth
A few quick news items from the “NewSpace” sector:
Most exciting and most recently, today Virgin Galactic flew the second powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo space plane. This test involved “feathering” the spaceship’s wings after the engine is shut down to help with a controlled “re-entry”. With this only being the second test flight of the year – the first was back in April – it seems unlikely Virgin will start flights to space by the end of the year. Still, it is awesome to see progress. Here’s a video of the flight.
ATK has partnered with Orbital Sciences to build the rocket for Stratolaunch. Orbital is designing the rocket and ATK will provide the first and second stages. For those that need a refresher, Stratolaunch is the Paul Allen project to have a 747-sized plane be the launch platform for a massive rocket that can deliver as much as 13,500 pounds to Earth orbit.
Last month Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” space plane went through some taxi tests out in California. Basically, it was just towed down the runway to test the landing gear. But if you think that’s exciting, there’s a video! Interestingly, the nose landing gear is a skid, not a wheel.
SpaceX had another test flight of their “Grasshopper” vertical take off and landing rocket. This time it was a “divert” test where it flew sideways and came back. Here’s the video.
In the NASA world there are a few updates also:
First of all, deputy NASA administrator Lori Garver has announced she will be leaving NASA for a job in the private sector (specifically as president of the American Airline Pilots Association).
Astronaut Mike Foale is also leaving NASA after a 26 year career.
A recent paper was published identifying 12 EROs (easily-retrievable objects) to add to a list of possible destinations for NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission. Unfortunately, Lori Garver (see above) was a chief proponent of this new controversial mission. Check out this article in the Washington Post outlining some of the technical and political issues that may hinder this mission.
Tomorrow night at 11:27 PM Eastern time, NASA’s LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) will launch from the Wallops Island facility in Virginia. The launch should be visible to much of the East coast, so stay up to watch if you can! The spacecraft will not have any cameras. Instead, it has spectrometers and dust scoops for studying the tenuous lunar atmosphere. Once LADEE has launched it will clear the Wallops Island launch range for the Orbital Sciences launch of their first Cygnus flight to ISS on September 17th.
A link I should have posted weeks ago is a first hand account from ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano of the EVA which was aborted in July when his helmet started filling up with water. This was probably the scariest thing to happen in spaceflight since the loss of Columbia a decade ago. Great job by flight controllers and especially Luca in staying calm under pressure.
NASA is officially no longer attempting to fully recover the Kepler Space Telescope. Fortunately, lots of people are thinking of ways Kepler can still do exciting science without the stability of three gyroscopes. One of the most publicized white papers from this past week was the idea to look for planets in the very close habitable zones of white dwarf stars.
Similarly, the WISE spacecraft (wide-field infrared survey explorer) is getting a new mission. WISE is being reactivated on a 3-year mission to look for NEOs (Near-Earth Object). As Phil Plait points out, this mission may be directly related to NASA’s asteroid retrieval mission, and the effort to find a candidate rock to go grab.
To round out the space telescope news, the Spitzer Space Telescope celebrated its 10th year in space this summer. Spitzer ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 but is still going strong with its “warm mission”.
In what is a startling development, the United States Air Force’s “Space Fence” will be shut down after the end of this fiscal year. The Space Fence is a key part of our orbital surveillance program. Without the space fence program there will be a gap in capability until if and when the new system comes on line in a few years. It’s very possible that without this system the risk of debris striking any given spacecraft without warning – including the ISS – goes up.
Around the Solar System
Mars rover Curiosity got an awesome set of images of the moon Phobos passing in front of Deimos. Not just a rover!
Because it’s cool
Speaking of Virgin Galactic, the term “space tourism” has been officially added to the OED.
The great XKCD comic recently did a great job describing the basics of orbital mechanics.
Somebody recreated the famous shot of a bike flying in front of the moon from the movie E.T.
In a post in July I wrote about how Hubble had determined the color of a far-flung exoplanet. What I failed to mention that they had also discovered that on this planet it probably “rains glass sideways”, which is a bit of a let down if you are wanting to visit this nifty blue world someday. The web comic Sci-Ence is apparently annoyed at how often the planets we discover are unlivable, and has created a handy guide.
Down to Earth
Parabolic Arc has a quick summary of the history of NewSpace suborbital launches, based on some tabulated data from the FAA. It is interesting to see the number of (or lack of) launches for some companies. You can really see how SpaceX is the only reall success story so far.
On the almost success story front, there is Virgin Galactic who did another SpaceShipTwo flight on July 25. Disappointingly, it was only a glide test for pilot training. Everyone is hoping SpaceShipTwp will make its first trip to space before the end of the year.
And then at the bottom is Armadillo Aerospace, which is one step away from being simply a failure story of NewSpace. Armadillo blew up a rocket early this year and hasn’t flown since. Recently John Carmack (owner and investor) announced at a conference that the company is “going into hibernation” because it is out of money and he doesn’t want to sink any more cash in it.
NewSpace aside, there is a bit more drama going on – like the mess that is the Russian space program and its politics. The prime minister publicly called out Roscosmos head Popovkin for the recent Proton rocket failure (the spectacular crash you can see in an earlier post here). Popovkin was hired just a couple of years ago to take over the space program after several other high profile failures. Surprisingly, the Proton rocket is expected to fly 4 to 5 more times this year, with the return to flight coming as soon as next month.
In what is perhaps a revealing indication of where the Russian space program’s priorities really come from, the plan to fly an Olympic torch to the ISS for a spacewalk in time for the winter games in Sochi, Russia, is coming together. The crew of Soyuz flight TMA-11M even have a mission patch design that includes an Olympic flame element.
On Saturday, August 3rd, the fourth Japanese cargo resupply craft, HTV-4, launched from Japan on the way to ISS. The mission will arrive for rendezvous on early Friday morning.
I am assigned to the day shift (7-4) in Mission Control every day this week, so I am lucky enough to have the first shift after rendezvous, where the team will maneuver HTV on the end of the Space Station’s robotic arm to “berth” or attach to the ISS to deliver its cargo.
Look at ISS tracker websites like www.heavens-above.com over the rest of the week for upcoming ISS passes overhead – as you might also catch sight of a much fainter HTV in chase. There is a bright pass over North America tomorrow morning at around 4-5 AM. ISS will be visible in Houston at exactly 5 AM.
In what might be a pretty good PR move, NASA is advertising an upcoming research opportunity… to use twins to study the affect of long duration spaceflight. How? Well when Scott Kelly flies to ISS for a year in 2015, he will come home with 10 times more days in space than his twin brother, Mark Kelly. I’m no biologist or geneticist, but I imagine that being twins, there are some variables this can isolate to better understand what will be happening to Scott during his long flight. Its a very cool offer for the Kellys to make, considering Mark is retired.
I put this news item under the “In Orbit” as a show of hope: NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS (worst name for a rocket I’ve ever seen) , completed Preliminary Design Review at the end of July. Here’s hoping this project can stay near budget and get American back to space soon.
Around the Solar System
Happy Birthday to the Mars rover Curiosity, who has spent one year on the Martian surface as of today! Check out Phil Plait’s post for a cool timelapse of the last 365 days on Mars. It’s a great video, but a bit disappointing because of how little Curiosity has actually roved so far. Here’s to more roving in the next year! Really we shouldn’t celebrate for another 322 days, since the Martian year is about 687 days long… and let’s face it, Curiosity is a Martian.
Because it’s Cool
Check out this picture of 4 funnel spouts at once in the ocean off of Italy.
Earlier today, Virgin Galactic flew the first powered flight of their SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft.
In case you are out of the loop, Virgin Galactic is the company that intends to fly paying tourists to suborbital space on their 8 passenger spacecraft. The company was founded after Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 for being the first private company to reach space with their SpaceShipOne. Virgin Galactic was formed when Sir Richard Branson saw dollar signs after the X Prize was won and decided to partner with Scaled Composites to design an upgrade to SpaceShipOne that could make a profit off of tourism. Virgin Galactic has around 500 customers already with down payments ready for a quick suborbital hop – for a mere several hundred thousand dollars – as soon as the SpaceShipTwo flight test program ends later this year.
From my view here at Johnson Space Center, as a member of the International Space Station flight control team, SpaceShipTwo should look like small potatoes. The max altitude of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo each is a meager 110-120km – barely past the Karman Line, or the official border of space. And yet, this morning I found myself waiting for news of Virgin Galactic’s flight in eager anticipation, like a typical fan boy.
Let’s look at some other space news to see if maybe I’m just a big fan boy all the time?
Earlier this month, the White House released their federal budget proposal for 2014, which includes the exciting prospect of funding “for a robotic mission to rendezvous with a small asteroid—one that would be harmless to Earth—and move it to a stable location outside the Moon’s orbit”. This is classic stuff. Exactly what most space advocates would say we should be spending our NASA tax dollars on. This idea combines robotic planetary exploration with human spaceflight (astronauts will visit the rock once it is in Earth orbit) with the practical application of planetary defense. Awesome. This is the kind of stuff I would be happy to spend my career working on. So why am I underwhelmed by this and excited by Virgin Galactic?
The likelihood of either of these missions failing is reasonably high. Both are high risk. But, I think the key difference is in the type of risk we are talking about. Virgin Galactic has a high risk of failure due to the challenges of spaceflight, and the reaction from their shareholders and customers if and when they have a major failure. Rockets fail. Accidents happen. People die. The company already lost three employees in 2007 in a rocket test stand explosion, which surprisingly did not slow down development much. Virgin is facing the same kind of risk that aerospace pioneers have always had when operating at “the edge of the envelope.” This is understood and accepted in the industry. But since they are trying to send rich comedians like Russell Brand to space and not trained test pilots, I’m not sure the program could sustain itself after a fatal accident.
By contrast, I think the risk that NASA’s new asteroid mission faces has largely to do with politics and little to do with the risks of high performance spaceflight.
In the same year that SpaceShipOne successfully earned Scaled Composites the Ansari X Prize, US President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which evolved into the Constellation Program. Over the next 6 years, Constellation progressed as most government aerospace projects due – with steady progress, but a growing budget. Eventually, in 2010, the new Obama Administration cancelled Constellation, taking NASA back to square one with the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program also on the horizon. In the meantime, Virgin continued steady development of their space plane – admittedly, with their own budget growing past expectations – and here we are less than ten years later looking at paying customers flying to space by the end of the year.
So, to answer to my rhetorical question…
The reality is that the chances of the political winds in Washington cancelling or underfunding an exciting Near-Earth Asteroid mission seems higher than the chances of SpaceShipTwo failing in flight, based on historical evidence. Thus, I am watching the skies for successful suborbital tourism with eager anticipation, while I also read about political progress in NASA exploration missions with cautious optimism.
In the meantime, you should support organizations like The Planetary Society, who hope to show lawmakers the benefits of space exploration of all kinds. This kind of lobbying seeks to secure steady funding for NASA to prevent the kind of stop-and-go programs that has most of us jaded to taxpayer funded exploration. With more excited enthusiasts showing support and private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX posting more successes, the future may be brighter. But in the end a rocket’s flame is more convincing than a balance sheet, and that’s really what has me cheering for Virgin Galactic. Results.
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?
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.
As I wrote about in my last post a week ago, ISS ops have been very busy lately. We were able to unberth and release the SpaceX Dragon capsule last Tuesday morning, as planned. It splashed down a few orbits later in the Pacific, while I was asleep, and was successfully picked up by SpaceX’s contracted recovery ship. I only got a bit of a rest after the Tuesday morning night shift as I had to work the day shift back in the control room Wednesday through Friday. More on what I got to do and see those days in the “In Orbit” section below. Anyway, that’s my excuse for the delay in posts lately. But you don’t really care – on with the space news!
Down to Earth
In a bit of grim space politics news – unless you are all about commercial only, I suppose – last week NASA’s 2013 budget finally became clear after the US Congress passed a big spending bill. The bill is better than the continuing resolutions* that a lot of the US government has been dealing with for a while – but it does nothing about the “sequestration” cuts across all Federal departments. This means that NASA ends up with greater than a 7% cut on the 2011 and 2012 funding levels. Ouch.
*A continuing resolution is simply an agreement to fund agencies or programs at the previous years levels because no agreement can be made on a new budget.
Masten Space Systems’ Xombie vertical-take-off-and-landing vehicle recently made its longest and highest flight to date, soaring over 500 meters according to their press release (no video yet available that I can find). Masten is using a guidance system developed by Draper Labs (of MIT) in order to build a testbed type craft on which NASA or other customer’s can test planetary landing instruments “without leaving home”, so to speak. I wrote about a similar test of the Xombie systems over a year ago, so this project has been in development for a while. This flight was ten times higher than the test last year.
The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has started a crowdfunding project at IndieGoGo to try to pay for NASA’s video “We Are the Explorers” to be run in American theaters before the movie Star Trek Into Darkness this spring (no, I don’t want to discuss if I capitalized that title correctly).
This is a clever, and apparently legal, way to get around the advertising ban that NASA is under. I donated!
Speaking of space cinema, a new IMAX movie was announced that will feature Earth photography from space. The film is being co-produced by Disney, and no release date or title has been announced.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com – who seems to be trying to compete – sponsored an expedition that has raised an F-1 rocket engine straight off the sea floor in the Atlantic. They do not know for sure which rocket the engine(s) came from, but they do intend to restore and display them. It seems they would likely be displayed at the Smithsonian; partly because the engines are still technically NASA’s property.
After Dragon left, the biggest event aboard ISS in the past two weeks was the docking of Soyuz 34 (or 34S to us) last Thursday only 5 hours and 45 minutes after launch. This was a new quick rendezvous profile that had previously only been used on flights of the unmanned Progress resupply spacecraft.
The Soyuz brought two cosmonauts – Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin – and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. The speed of the launch-to-docking timeline was impressive even to those of us tied into ISS operations. As I was on the day shift Thursday, I had the privilege of giving a “Go” for launch at the end of my shift – and the colleague who I handed over to started prepping ISS systems for Soyuz arrival right after I left! I heard that the Soyuz reached ISS before the NASA personnel who were in Kazakhstan for the launch made it back to Moscow…
Amazingly, ISS Commander Chris Hadfield got this shot of Baikonaur at the moment of Soyuz ignition (by the laws of orbital mechanics, ISS often passes right over the location of launch for many ISS supply missions).
Speaking of which, if you haven’t been following ISS Commander Chris Hadfield (@cmdr_hadfield) on Twitter, you are seriously missing out on some stunning high resolution Earth photography posted nearly in real-time.
Also, the epic timelapse photography from the ISS Cupola… (via APOD).
Or if you want the more practical, here’s how to brush your teeth (I wasn’t originally going to share this until I heard the music kick in halfway through and started laughing).
Around the Solar System
Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon (or just Lemmon for short) is set to start being a target for skywatchers this week (depending on your latitude). From the finder charts, it looks like Lemmon will still be too close to the sun at sunrise for most observers to have a chance at. Later in the month, Lemmon will move higher in the sky at dawn and may turn out to be as bright or better than Comet PanSTARRS which some of us enjoyed last month. Of course, the catch is that Lemmon will be a morning object rather than an evening object, so is likely to attract fewer hunters. You can bet I will try to see it!
The European Space Agency and Roscosmos (of Russia) formally signed an agreement last month to move forward with their Exomars mission, which will consist of orbiters and a rover to be flown to Mars later this decade. This is the big mission that NASA had to pull out of due to budget reasons.
New research using the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii has revealed compelling evidence for the nature and composition of undersea ocean’s on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Read a great summary of the research at Phil Plait’s blog.