Archive for the ‘SpaceX’ Category
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.
It is 8 PM on Monday night, March 25, but if you asked me what day it was when I woke up this morning I don’t know how accurate the answer would be – I have been awake on odd hours since Friday. I am headed into work in 2 hours to work a night shift – 10 PM to 8 AM. Usually the night shifts start at 11 PM in ISS mission operations, but tonight the ISS crew is getting up early – at about 4 AM on their clock – so we have to get there early as well. Usually on a night shift in the ISS Flight Control Room you would expect to see 5 to 10 people, but tonight there will be well over 10 for the unberth and departure of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, the 3rd to visit ISS.
As far as NASA TV is concerned, the action happens tonight (or tomorrow morning, if you prefer). They will cover the departure and landing of the capsule tomorrow intermittently – just the exciting bits. But as with most things in this job, the successful execution of an event is really just the last step. Last Thursday morning there was a big ISS management meeting (the IMMT, or ISS Mission Management Team) wherein the Monday morning departure of Dragon was approved. Just 24 hours later I found myself in another ISS operations meeting listening to SpaceX explain why they had to delay departure and de-orbit due to bad weather forecasts for the Pacific landing zone. Suddenly instead of comfortably heading into the weekend with a great Monday morning plan, we were trying to get a one day slip plan together before close of business. We had a working meeting with everyone from the planning team, from systems specialists to flight surgeons, to discuss how to easily do the replan. A replan is more complicated than just saying “we’ll do it the same time tomorrow” because of the multiple space agencies and scientific institutions with a stake in day-to-day operations aboard ISS.
So, long story short, I put a few extra hours in and worked until 6 on Friday – not bad – while I know some other people put in more hours over the weekend working on the plan. Up in space, the astronauts got an extra day to pack cargo that is supposed to be sent back home on Dragon. The hatch was closed today, and the crew should be asleep now, with a long day ahead tomorrow. The crew is closely involved with both the unberthing process (taking out the bolts holding Dragon to ISS) and then the procedures to let go of Dragon with the station robotic arm.
This will be my first time supporting a “free-flyer*” docking or undocking – I will be in the MPSR (or Multi-Purpose Support Room) while a more experienced ADCO sits in the main Flight Control Room. The motion control system is a key part in free-flyer release, so I will be excited to monitor the system and even get to send some important commands tonight. If you want to follow along on NASA TV, release is planned at about 7 AM (Eastern) on Tuesday (maybe a few minutes early or late). And for the real geeks, I would suggest pulling up ISS Live, which lets you monitor live ISS telemetry. You can use my post from HTV-3 rendezvous to get a sense of what events will be happening (release is basically just a rendezvous in reverse).
*Free-flyer refers to all visiting vehicles to ISS for which rendezvous involves capture with the SSRMS (Space Station Remote Manipulator System). This inclues SpaceX Dragon, JAXA’s HTV, and Orbital Cygnus.
It has been a while since I have posted one of my weekly space news links posts. Part of the reason has been a whirlwind move that we (my girlfriend and I) made from our apartment into a new house. We currently don’t have internet, which hampers my blogging a bit. But also, I have been busy at work, including having the privilege of working rather closely on the current SpaceX mission to ISS, which has been exciting. I even attended a joint planning meeting for the mission today to talk about unberth and departure of the Dragon capsule on March 25th, which I will get to support from the Mission Control Center.
Down to Earth
It’s official. As of late last month, the US House of Representatives finally passed a bill to rename the Dryden Flight Research Center in California the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center. The proposal still needs to be approved by the Senate.
An international research team working in Antarctica has found an 18 kg meteorite on the ice surface of that barren continent. This is the largest meteorite find in Antarctica since 1988.
Millionaire and former space tourist, Dennis Tito, announced last month that he intends to create a new space “adventure” (not venture) known as Inspiration Mars. The intent of the project is to send humans (ostensibly a single married couple) on a circum-Martian flight that would take about 500 days. The mission would not involve a landing on the planet, due to cost and complexity, but would seek to inspire a generation and possibly lead to greater adventures (and ventures) in the future. Color me skeptical, but I hope they can do it! Fundraising will be a challenge.
Here are some helpful ideas of how Inspiration Mars might be able to generate revenue to make their mission a success.
SpaceX did another hover test of their huge Grasshopper vertical landing test rocket. Cool stuff.
On March 1, SpaceX successfully launched another Dragon cargo craft to ISS on the first attempt.
SpaceX had some issues with their propellant system that delayed their spacecraft’s arrival at ISS by a day. Dragon arrived with no problems on Sunday, March 3, after many meetings to discuss the issues and agree to a replan. I was working in the Houston Mission control Center that weekend and was impressed to see the machine of mission operations chugging away to produce such a quick turnaround of the timeline!
I enjoyed watching the ISS crew open the Dragon hatch and begin unloading on Sunday evening, which I already wrote about in a previous post.
Around the Solar System
On Mars, the Curiosity rover is having some unknown computer memory issues. On February 28th, ground controllers intentionally commanded the rover to use the backup computer, which put the rover into safe mode (coincidentally, on the same day that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule was having issues). The rover is currently functioning while teams back on Earth prepare to send software “patches” to the rover later this week.
NASA’s Van Allen Probe mission has discovered a third distinct radiation belt around Earth.
This week, the comet panSTARRS is making an appearance in the Northern hemisphere’s skies. This is one of the two comets (the other being comet Lemmon) that were supposed to make a splash this year. PanSTARRS has not turned out to be dimmer than hoped, but still worth looking for. The comet just passed the sun and is coming around the other side, which is why it is fading out of peak brightness while also creeping higher above the horizon after sunset. I was able to find panSTARRS with my binoculars this evening and she is definitely pretty, if small.
Speaking of comets, a newly discovered comet, named Siding Spring, is predicted to have a very close approach of Mars (not us, phew!) in late 2014. The uncertainty in the orbit leaves the possibility open that the comet make actually impact Mars. This would be a bad day for Mars and our spacecraft stationed there. Phil Plait explores the possibility of destruction, while Emily Lakdawalla considers the more benign possibility of a nice meteor shower.
Last weekend, the six-man crew onboard the ISS got a special delivery from Earth. The third in what we hope will be a long line of SpaceX Dragon capsules was grabbed by the space station robot arm on Sunday morning. It didn’t take very long after the Dragon was firmly attached for the crew to start working diligently to get the hatches open and get to the cargo inside, even though it was supposed to be partly their day off.
Why the rush? Well if you had only eaten fresh food a few times in the last four months you would be excited too! About 2-4 cargo deliveries will happen during an astronaut’s stay on ISS – so that means you only get to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet for a few weeks of your stay.
I was on shift in ISS mission control on Sunday when the crew got the hatch open and you bet they wanted to know where the bags of apples were stored away. Not only did they find the expected NASA manifested bag of apples, tomatoes, and other items, but SpaceX had hidden away a special care package of extra apples and oranges. Their excitement was clear and I’m sure they had a good dinner that night.
What I think comes to light in this case is the interesting economics of supplying a space station, or I suppose any remote operating base. An orange is cheap – your neighbor’s tree might drop some over the fence into your yard and they would never know they were missing nor probably care. But the cost of launching those oranges to ISS makes them worth a lot – not quite equivalent to gold by weight, but getting close. Imagine if the trip to the grocery store cost you 10,000 times more than the groceries themselves? That’s a cost of living that would make even San Franciscans cringe.
This is obviously one important reason that spaceflight is so expensive. By having companies like SpaceX to run supply missions, launch costs can be reduced through efficiency and frequency. But even so, launch costs can only drop by so much. Thus, we will never truly be a spacefaring species unless we learn to be self-sufficient. The European colonies in America only prospered when they learned to live off of the local resources. As long as oranges are worth $2,000, we will be stuck in low earth orbit like some colonists in a coastal fort waiting for the next ship from England.
Someday the lessons we are slowly learning about self-sufficiency on ISS and elsewhere (like bases in Antarctica) will take us outward – but until then I would hate to be the astronauts up there stuck with the guilt of eating a $2,000 orange. What does it feel like to know that so much effort went into getting you just a few bites of fruit?
Wow, it’s been a busy week and a half! Ten days is the longest I’ve gone without posting some links since I started my blog over a year ago. Not only has space news been busy, with asteroids galore, but I have been busy too, with a weekend getaway last weekend and then 3 nights of ISS mission ops this week. Hopefully the news I share below will get us all back up to speed!
Down to Earth
The first thing I have to talk about is the asteroid impact in the Chelyabinsk area of Russia in the Ural mountains. The short story is that just hours before the much anticipated fly-by of large asteroid 2012 DA14 last Friday, February 15, an asteroid about 15 meters across entered the Earth’s atmosphere above Russia and exploded without warning over a relatively large city in Russia. The airburst was the equivalent of may kilotons of TNT and it managed to cause widespread injury and property damage (no reports of deaths that I am aware of).
Here is a pretty good video of the meteor.
And this one has the sound of the meteor exploding. Scary.
Experts are sure, based on tracing the Chelyabinsk meteor’s orbit back the way it came, that 2012 DA14 and Chelyabinsk are unrelated. It is what you might call a “cosmic coincidince”. Phil Plait talks about the chances of such a coincidence and also the sober reality that we need to take asteroid threats more seriously.
The more interesting coincidence to me is that asteroid impacts of this size are only expected to happen about once a century. The last large impact (that is known) happened in 1908, also in Russia.
Maybe not surprisingly, a weather satellite got some brief images of the smoke trail from the Chelyabinsk meteor. I don’t want to leave poor 2012 DA14 out to dry, so here’s a timelapse of its flyby of Earth.
In some non-asteroid news, the new Space Shuttle display at KSC in Florida is officially opening on June 29. This date was announced at an unveiling of the facility’s new logo.
The test firing of Orbital Science’s Antares rocket was completed successfully earlier this evening. This is good news for their program, which needs to catch up with SpaceX. SpaceX is getting ready for their third cargo flight to ISS next week.
The mayor of Brownsville, Texas met with Elon Musk of SpaceX last week to discuss further the possibility of SpaceX building their next launch site on Boca Chica Beach in South Texas.
NASA astronauts aboard ISS had their first public Google+ hangout. Cool!
There was a bit of excitement in ISS mission ops earlier this week when the first day of ISS computer software upgrades did not go as planned. A computer restart did not execute properly and it resulted in a temporary loss of communications between ISS and mission control. You may have heard about it, since it was all over the news when it happened on Tuesday. Fortunately, flight controllers, with the help of the crew, were able to resolve the problem and the software upgrades were completed. All is well in space!
Around the Solar System
Mercury had its longest “Eastern elongation” last week – meaning it was at its highest point above the horizon at sunset, as seen from Eearth.
The new company “Inspiration Mars Foundation” – founded by space tourist Dennis Tito – claims to be planning a 500 day Mars trip to be launched in 2018. I wish them luck.
This week it was announced that the smallest exoplanet ever discovered was found 200 light years away. The planet is Kepler-37b (meaning it was found by the Kepler mission) and is only 2,400 miles in diameter, which makes it smaller than Mercury. As usual, the planet is far too close to its parent star to be habitable in any way.
Down to Earth
NASA administrator Charles Bolden and Buzz Aldrin laying a wreath at Arlington.
You thought it was all over last month didn’t you? Well think again. The deal that the 112th Congress agreed to early in January only delayed the “sequestration” of the federal budget. Sequestration is a returning threat if a more permanent deal can’t be reached by March. This will of course have far-reaching impacts in this country, including in space exploration. Here’s a summary from the Planetary Society about what sequestration would mean for NASA’s planetary science programs. The bottom line though is that NASA leadership has not publicly indicated how drastic budget cuts would be dolled out within the administration.
Ron McNair died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. His brother remembers him in a story that was turned into this cartoon by StoryCorps.
Later this morning – at 10:30 AM eastern – famed actor William Shatner will have a public video conference with ISS astronaut Chris Hadfield. As I understand it, some of America’s major news networks plan to cover the brief event.
The large asteroid 2012 DA14 will fly within just 17,200 miles of the Earth next week, on the 15th. That distance is below the roughly 22,400 mile altitude of geosynchronous orbit. The asteroid is about 50 meters or so across so it will be too small to see with the naked eye. I have not read anything that indicates we should be worried about a gravitational “keyhole” for 2012 DA14. It does not seem to be at a high risk for impact in the near future.
In less serious asteroid news, there is one out there with the newly minted official name “Wikipedia”.
There was some speculation earlier this week that the Iranian space monkey launch was faked. The accusation was based on the before and after pictures of the monkey, which appeared to be of a different animal, to experts. Iran has said they simply used the wrong photos, but they did really send their monkey on a successful suborbital flight.
Bigelow Aerospace has posted pricing information for trips to their planned Earth orbit space station. Visitors would fly up on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule or Boeing’s CST-100. The flights are noticeably cheaper than what tourists have paid in the past to travel to ISS. This is all well and good, but I want to know why Bigelow is calling their station “Alpha Station” when some NASA astronauts still refer to ISS as “Space Station Alpha”. Could get confusing.
Around the Solar System
Mercury and Mars are having a very close conjunction in the sky (as seen from Earth). At dusk today, February 7th, you should look West if you have a clear view to the horizon, and you may be lucky enough to spot this unlikely pair. You probably need binoculars to easily see the planets.
Down to Earth
Monday night had a stunning Moon and Jupiter conjunction in the sky that I hope you saw if you had clear skies! I was able to view the Moon and Jupiter together on a clear night here in Texas through my binoculars. In case you missed it, here is a collection of images from the conjunction.
Another company that claims it will make billions mining asteroids in a few short years? Yes. Enter, Deep Space Industries.
The ten year anniversary of the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia is coming up. On January 31, a documentary about Israeli Columbia astronaut Ilan Ramon will air on PBS.
In the realm of space law (yes, I know, exciting!) a compromise has been reached regarding liability for space tourism flights out of New Mexico. The new law is intended to appease Virgin Galactic so that they don’t consider leaving the New Mexico spaceport as their home base.
Kazakhstan has not approved all of Russia’s launches from their Baikonaur spaceport for this year (if you need a history refresher – Kazakhstan used to be part of the USSR and that is where the Soviets built their launch facility. Russia continues to use the existing infrastructure in Kazakhstan even now, long after the fall of the USSR). This is unfortunate for the Russian program and a good reason not to have such an important facility in a foreign country. Fortunately for Russia, they are already building a new native facility in the far Eastern reaches of the nation. NASA should pay attention and make sure Texas and Florida don’t secede!
As I wrote about last week, the European planet hunting space telescope CoRoT may be a lost mission. Well, it seems luck is not with astronomers this month; NASA’s Kepler space telescope has had an issue with one of its momentum wheels (excess friction) and is spending a week or so in safe mode, suspending all science, in hopes the situation will improve. Kepler is already down one of 4 reaction wheels, which failed in July. It needs at least 3 to be able to control attitude precisely to do science.
To lighten the mood, here’s a quick NASA bit from The Onion (you have to watch a commercial for their fake Joe Biden book first).
Here is an official statement from NASA about the new Bigelow inflatable module that will be tested on ISS. It seems the module will be scheduled to launch on a SpaceX cargo mission in 2015.
More on future NASA plans: here’s an update on the four companies that are developing vehicles for NASA’s commercial crew program.
And here’s a quick update on Orbital Sciences’ launch schedule for ISS commercial cargo resupply missions.
The Robotic Refueling Mission has continued in earnest this week. I have had the pleasure of working the day shifts in ISS mission control this week, being tangentially involved in these operations by disabling thruster firings to protect the robotics hardware.
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 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.
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:
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