Archive for the ‘SpaceX’ Category

“Always plan your vacation on launch day”

You may be wondering what happened to this blog. Then again, you may have forgotten it existed, since so many higher quality space news outlets already exist online. I will take the lack of complaints as a sign not too many were listening to begin with. In any case, to be fair to myself, I have an excuse for the silence: I was busy jinxing rocket launches.

I already explained in my previous post about taunting the space station that even the highly technical minded people of mission control – we who will say “negative” or “copy” in social conversation with friends – are as superstitious as everyone else. You simply don’t mention on a slow night that its been an easy shift. The space station will hear you and she will remind you that “space is hard” if she feels bored. This superstition goes beyond the walls of the flight control room and bleeds into our personal lives.

I had the great frustration and privilege this year of having to consider rocket launch manifests when planning my vacations. As a newly minted ADCO “specialist” flight controller, whether I am in town or not actually matters. But just to create some conflict, 2014 is a big year for me at home as well: my dad and I wanted to go on an epic 10 day road trip through California for his 60th birthday; my parents are meeting my fiance’s parents in Hawaii in June (a trial run for the wedding in October).

Staring at the ISS flight manifest last fall, the SpaceX cargo mission – my first lead assignment – looked like it would be all wrapped up by mid-January. No problem for the March road trip. But we all know space is hard; launches slip. I decided to wait another month or two to book the tickets…

Four months later it was early January and SpaceX was now to launch sometime in February, and I still had no confirmed reservations for the big trip. Launch day had already moved twice but the Dragon capsule was still scheduled to splashdown in the Pacific before my dad and I were to meet up in Sacramento. Do I book the non-refundable tickets? If the mission slips again into March do I go on the trip or not? Being a flight lead for such a big mission only 5 years into my career had been exciting and rewarding – with many hours of work put in since we became the “prime” team when SpaceX-2 splashed down in March 2013. I wasn’t going to miss rendezvous day. But with two launch slips already I was starting to learn a lesson: no one person can control or predict the manifest. During a lunch break of a joint simulation with SpaceX in January I made reservations for our trip. Time to cross my fingers.

I bet you can guess what happened next. Two weeks later the launch date had moved again, now only 5 days before I leave for California. Starting to get worried. Then in February, it slips to the day before I get back from the trip – Ack! – but if my flight is on time I will be home in time to be in the control center for rendezvous. Well, of course, I go on the trip and launch slips again into April. Guess I never had to worry.

All in all, the SpaceX cargo flight had 8 different official launch dates (see Wikipedia). I did ultimately get to fly the rendezvous I helped to plan, on April 20th. Just last week I was on console for Dragon’s departure from ISS – occurring late enough to fall in the “Increment”* for which I am also lead. This is not a knock on SpaceX; it is just the name of the game. Space Shuttle flights slipped for all kinds of reasons as well. I once drove all the way to Florida to watch STS-133 launch only for it to be cancelled 18 hours prior and launch about 5 months later.

If I had paid more attention as a rookie flight controller I wouldn’t have had to learn this lesson through experience. The folks that have been around at least a few years longer had the opportunity to be flight leads for Shuttle flights. That’s rock star stuff right there – especially now that we are in the gap years. Listening to them talk, you would realize that they aren’t joking when they talk about planning vacations on launch day. I have even heard of wedding dates being picked in this way.

It’s not a joke, but a true superstition just like “don’t taunt the space station”. If one wants to jinx a mission, don’t plan an important vacation right on top of it. Fate will slip that launch right into your family trip to Disneyland. As for me, I’m no longer worried about the in-laws trip next month. When I first asked for a 6-day leave in the middle of my lead increment last year I was worried about misplaced priorities. But the manifest looks nothing the same, and if something comes up, I have a backup lead to take my place. Even at such an awesome workplace, its probably not healthy to be married to the job. So in a way it’s just an affirmation of proper priorities and trust in the team to always plan to be somewhere on a beach on launch day.

*Increment is what we call the time period during a specific Expedition aboard ISS.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

In early January, Boeing announced that it will be leasing Orbiter Processing Facility 1 (or OPF-1 to NASA) near the VAB at KSC for launch processing of their X-37B spaceplane, which flies secret missions for the United States military. There are three OPFs at Kennedy Space Center. OPF-3 is already under a lease contract by Boeing for processing of their CST-100 crewed space capsule. CST-100 is one of three spacecraft (along with SpaceX’s DragonRider and Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser) competing for commercial ISS crew transport contracts with NASA.

Speaking of the commercial crew contract, Sierra Nevada announced in January that they will be purchasing a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket for an unmanned test flight of the DreamChaser in 2016. The launch would be from existing ULA launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Also launching in 2016 is the first part of the European ExoMars mission. The core module of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter was delivered in Germany last month. ExoMars is a flagship ESA mission to explore Mars, which will consist of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover.

A LEGO model of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity was launched in early January.

Since operations at KSC are ramping up for new spacecraft (like the Orion flight this fall) the VAB will be closing for tours on February 23rd. I am very happy to have seen space shuttle Endeavour in the VAB back in 2011.

The small town of Webster, adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center here in the Clear Lake area of Houston, is planning an ambitious visitor center that will pay tribute to America’s space program and feature an 80-foot tall astronaut statue.

Former astronauts Jerry Ross and Shannon Lucid will be inducted into the astronaut hall of fame this year.

In Orbit

Up on the ISS, the first official Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo mission arrived on January 12th. The private spacecraft is expected to stay another week or two before departing and burning up in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, SpaceX had another successful Falcon 9 version 1.1 launch, putting a commercial payload into geosynchronous orbit. Their next launch is a Dragon cargo spacecraft on its way to the ISS, with a plethora of other launches on the manifest for this year. The ISS flight was recently moved to a March 16 launch.

Around the Solar System

On Mars, a big anniversary happened last month. January 4th was the 10-year anniversary of Spirit landing at Columbia Memorial Station and just a few weeks later Opportunity landed at Eagle Crater on January 28, 2004. Today, Opportunity is still trucking along at Endeavour crater, after driving over 35 kilometers since landing. Pretty good for a rover expected to live 90 days and drive maybe a kilometer or two.

There were a lot of NASA media events and discussions of the missions online. Universe Today put together a list of the top 10 discoveries made by the MER rovers. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is running an exhibition on the MER rovers through September.

For some nice retro entertainment, here’s the landing video from 2004. Most of the exciting stuff is in the first minute or two, so you don’t have to watch all 8 minutes.

Opportunity is currently on the rim of Endeavour Crater – where she has been exploring since 2011. She has had some mild winter weather and is expected to make it through the solstice coming up in February. While exploring some rock outcrops at her winter stop point, Opportunity did a bit of a piroute and noticed something strange. In an area that had already been imaged by the rover, sat a new mysterious rock.

Leading theories initially were that it could be a fallen meteorite or ejecta from a meteorite impact somewhere nearby. Other theories are that it was simply dislodged by Opportunity’s wheels and simply “kicked” or dropped into the new location. An interesting mystery for the 10 year anniversary. Rove on, Opportunity!

Meanwhile on the other side of Mars, the younger but much larger Curiosity rover is navigating the “Dingo Gap” on its way to Mount Sharp and was currently parked atop a sand dune when I started to draft this post early last week. Nice view. Since then, Curiosity has successfully made it over the dune into the “valley” beyond. Curiosity is getting closer and closer to Mount Sharp, but spending lots of time stopping to do science along the way.

While waiting to cross the dune last week, the rover team released a stunning image of Earth in the Martian sky, as photographed by Curiosity on a clear twilit day. Beautiful.

Speaking of rovers, on the moon, the Chinese rover Yutu headed into its second lunar night in late January. Unfortunately, reports from the Chinese space program are that the rover suffered some kind of mechanical anomaly and is in danger of not surviving the two week “night”. It seems that some of the mechanical systems that are supposed to fold up the solar panels to provide thermal protection for sensitive components did not work properly. There has been no new news since the first reports more than a week ago. We will likely have to wait until “morning” on the moon (sometime next week) to know the rover’s fate.

Farther out in the solar system, the European comet-chasing spacecraft, Rosetta, has been woken up from hibernation. The spacecraft will be approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko later this year and in an exciting and challenging mission will drop a lander onto the comet’s surface.

Out There

A new sensitive camera on the Gemini telescope in Hawaii took an impressive infrared light image of the distant planet Beta Pictoris b. This kind of direct imaging is certainly the future of exoplanet astronomy.

The NEOWISE mission (a re-purposing on the WISE infrared orbital observatory) has found its first near-Earth asteroid.

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory were following up on an interesting binary star system, two brown dwarfs only a few lightyears from Earth, when data suggested that the star system contains a third companion, a jupiter-mass planet.  More study is expected to confirm the planet’s existence.

2013 In Review – Part II

In Part I of my 2013 year in review I discussed NASA policy and budget changes in 2013. The year for NASA can be summarized as continued excellence, with reason to be concerned for the future. Concern stems from the lack of funding or long-term policy. NASA always dominates space news, but much is also said of the emerging “private” or “New” space sector – as has been the case for the past decade – ever since SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize in 2004. In part II of my review I will discuss the developments in New Space in 2013 and whether I think New Space is finally about to deliver the revolution that we have been promised.

Part II – The Idea Frontier

The 2000s brought New Space to our attention, but the 2010s will be the decade that the dream is realized, fizzles out, or is replaced by New New Space. While Virgin Galactic is making powered flights (two short flights in 2013, none to space) a horde of other bold new companies are showing up, whose ideas make the idea of a blossoming  suborbital space tourism sector seem mundane.

The crazy ideas (and I say that in the most respectful way possible) started in 2012 with the announcement of Planetary Resources: The Asteroid Mining Company. Planetary Resources got attention for putting money where its mouth is; with big name and big money backers like Larry Page, James Cameron, Eric Shcmidt, and Ross Perot. Planetary Resources was followed by Deep Space Industries, another independent asteroid mining company announced in January 2013. By that same time in 2013, Planetary Resources was already working on hardware, with a ground test article of their Arkyd spacecraft. One would think that with all the backing that Planetary Resources has, the development and launch of some small space telescopes wouldn’t be too much of a stretch – SpaceX is doing it with only one billionaire – but apparently they don’t have enough billionaires. In May 2013 Planetary Resources unveiled a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million towards the first step in their mission: the launch of space telescopes (which they call their Arkyd model) to discover the asteroids they will later mine. Planetary Resources may have single-handedly proved the concept of crowdfunding a space mission by raising to date $1.5 million towards their goal.

But then again, after about 8 months Planetary Resources has received less than half a cent in donations from each American. Contrasted with the taxed $48 or so per American that NASA received last year, it’s not much. Numbers like that shows why the billionaires are necessary, and they are all getting in on the game. In January 2013, billionaire Dennis Tito (who paid for a trip to ISS in 2001) announced his new space project, Inspiration Mars. The extremely ambitious mission hopes to launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in 2018. The trip would be for only two people – preferably a middle-aged married couple, according to the company – but would aim to inspire the world. Hence the slogan “Send Two People, Take Everyone.” I personally think Inspiration Mars is a great idea. It does not seem to have any false or unreasonable pretenses – like intending to start a brand new multi-billion dollar industry of mining asteroids from scratch. Instead the goal is in the name: inspiration.

If achieved, the Inspiration Mars mission likely would change humanity’s perspective and focus – imagine the real life image of someone staring out through a spacecraft window at the globe of Mars? But Tito’s ambition is clearly bigger than his checkbook. A mission to Mars, even a flyby, is expected to cost billions of dollars, and no launch vehicle exists that would be able to send a manned vehicle on its way to Mars (the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy is expected to eventually be able to do the trick). So who pays for it? That’s what everyone was asking back in early 2013. Tito answered that question by appearing before a congressional subcommittee in November and proposing that Inspiration Mars be a joint venture with NASA. Who will pay for it? The American taxpayer? It was worth a shot, but NASA and Congress did not seem impressed or swayed by the proposal. Whether funded philanthropically or federally, Inspiration Mars would be an amazing feat. But for now the US Government won’t be helping out.

So Inspiration Mars started off as an interesting and exciting kind of New Space that quickly morphed into a grasp at money to make it an Old Space style venture, which Congress shot down. To qualify as “New Space,” generally a venture needs to avoid NASA and come up with new, novel, cheaper ways to grow the space sector on their own. Well, that’s where Mars One came in, announcing in 2012 plans to send the first manned mission to Mars as part of a reality show.  Probably seeing the success of Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter campaign, the Mars One project started an IndieGoGo campaign in December 2013 to fund their orbiter and lander precursor mission in 2018. As of January 18th they have raised just short of half of their goal of $400,000.

So where does this put us? We have a lot of people with a lot of new crazy ideas. When Deep Space Industries was announced early last year, its chairman Rick Tumlison was quoted as saying “One company is an anomaly. Two companies is an industry.” But that is yet to be seen. A lot of excitement and press briefings and a few crowdfunding campaigns is enough to get made fun of by Jon Stewart (as in this April 2012 episode), but in my book, results are what matter. As far as the frontier of crazy new ideas goes, 2013 was mostly a year of announcements with results yet to come.

But that doesn’t mean that we are not seeing the glimmer of the results first foreshadowed by SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize ten years ago. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo succeeded on 3 different powered flights in the last year: April 29th and September 5th of last year, and then recently on January 10th. They have yet to reach space, but they are clearly very close to being “operational”. Also in the suborbital sector, XCOR’s Lynx is still under development and is expected to make a flight test soon. However, on the other side of the coin, some of the promising young companies that were kicked off by the X Prize Cup and the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge last decade have fizzled out. Armadillo Aerospace has officially been put on hold by John Carmack and Masten Space Systems never grew out of the tiny mom-and-pop operation they started as. They are doing interesting work, but are more like an R&D outfit than a company in a new industry. I don’t believe they had any flights in 2013 either.

The real results are clearly coming from the companies that are challenging the definition of “New Space” by not being afraid to work with the government to get their feet off of the ground. SpaceX is the most obvious success, with 3 flights of their Falcon 9 rocket last year, one earlier this month, and no major failures. They have demonstrated technical excellence with their low failure rate, by following through on their contract to resupply the International Space Station, and by their impressive efforts to develop a reusable rocket with their “Grasshopper” rocket. SpaceX is joined by other companies that are using NASA contracts as a funding source such as Sierra Nevada who are developing the Dreamchaser reusable space plan and Bigelow Aerospace, which may deliver an inflatable hab module to the ISS in the future.

SpaceX has even purchased nearly 100 acres near the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas with the intent to launch commercial and military payloads – leaving operations for NASA cargo and crew missions in Florida. SpaceX is quickly morphing into something much more Old Space, with NASA, Department of Defense contracts (if their Falcon 9 rocket is certified by the DoD), and comm sat companies as their main source of revenue. Perhaps 2013 was the year that New Space gave its last gasp before it faded away as a false dichotomy. After all, you can’t fund a high tech company off of Kickstarter and dreams. But you can fund it off of NASA and the DoD. Perhaps the distinction between New and Old space isn’t whether you are funded by the government or not, but rather what your motivations are, and whether you keep the dream alive. So far SpaceX is still run by an eccentric billionaire with dreams of Mars. Meantime, no one at United Launch Alliance, Boeing, ATK, or Lockheed is publicly saying the goal of their company is to send the human species to the stars. And if SpaceX can keep that dream alive, maybe there is something to New Space after all. We will have to wait and see.

2013 in Review – Part I

Hello, and Happy New Year! Thanks for stopping by while you are hopefully enjoying a New Year’s break with friends or family. Last year, my 2012 in Review post was a link style post of discoveries made, missions launched, and heroes lost throughout the year. Reading that post again, it doesn’t give a real feel for the lay of the land, or the lay of space, if you will. Therefore, in the spirit of New Year Resolutions, this year I resolve to spend some extra effort and write a more op-ed style summary of 2013. So read on to get my impression of the triumphs, losses, and curiosities of 2013 as I see them.

Part I – NASA’s present and future

I have never liked the phrase “mixed bag”, but that’s really what the world of spaceflight has been over the past 12 months, especially if you have a balanced interest, as I do, in Earth science, planetary science, manned spaceflight, and commercial development. Space exploration is dominated by NASA and its government-given budget. Therefore, it is hard to ignore the impact of the American government’s indecision and disagreement when it comes to NASA funding, and the impact that has on our industry as a whole. NASA continues to get a relatively flat budget, which stagnates growth. But you can’t begrudge the American government too much for this – most people agree that our federal government should do something about the deficit; all agencies are being asked to do with less. The story of 2013 isn’t that NASA is getting a flat budget, it is specifically how NASA has chosen to distribute that money.

NASA continues to generously fund the growth of commercial resupply missions to ISS as well as the development of a new exploration system consisting of the Orion crew capsule and the SLS rocket. When combined with the annual operating budget of ISS, this exploration funding amounted to around 44% in both 2013 and 2012. We can see the results of this spending in a very successful year for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (one successful ISS resupply flight each and 3 other combined test flights and no major failures) and the steady progress that the Orion capsule is making towards the first flight next fall. However, on the other side of the agency, Planetary Science has slid from 8.5% to 6.7% of the budget (here is my source for budget numbers). This doesn’t sound like much, but the dollar amount is nearly $300 million less than the planetary science community is used to. What this led to in 2013 is the beginning of the budget squeeze;  it looks as though the coming decade will have far less new planetary science missions than the American public has gotten used to from the golden ages of funding in the 1990s and 2000s. I know you probably like pictures, because I do too, so here’s a chart from the Planetary Society that can help put it into perspective.

NASA planetary science funding over time

As you can see, less money means fewer missions. The reason 2013 was full of great science results and pictures, despite budget woes, is because of the funding that launched so many great spacecraft over the past 10 years – MER rovers, Curosity rover, MESSENGER, Cassini, Juno, New Horizons, all of the Mars orbiters, Dawn, MAVEN, LADEE, LRO. All of these spacecraft were built and launched under an earlier year’s budgets. This highlights the core contradiction of where we found ourselves in 2013 in planetary science. Stunning pictures from Saturn and Mars come in daily from Opportunity, Curiosity, and Cassini, while planetary scientists are very concerned about the future. As NASA funding is funneled into the James Webb Space Telescope and the 2020 Mars rover (both missions I hope to see launched!), the American expertise when it comes to solar system exploration may, for a time, be funneled through the camera lenses of just a few spacecraft.

My intent is not to express an opinion about how much money NASA should get – or even what percentage should be given to planetary science versus other programs – but merely to paint a picture of the internal conflict (and conflict with the public perception of NASA) that started with the budget cuts in 2012 and will continue as long as NASA’s budget remains flat. Just look at this amazing view of Mount Sharp on Mars, from the Curiosity rover, a marvel of science and engineering…

The foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars

The Curiosity rover (and her older sometimes forgotten sister Opportunity) continues to inspire the enthusiast and layman alike. Budget or not, NASA has a mastery of robotic exploration, and demonstrated it in 2013 by continuing to operate missions successfully. NASA did lose two missions in 2013 – Kepler and Deep Impact/EPOXI – but both had technically fulfilled their primary missions.

While planetary science missions are usually the “best foot forward” for NASA, 2013 showed us that the public still loves our astronauts and finds manned spaceflight worthwhile. As I wrote last year, 2012 was the year that NASA’s astronaut office realized the importance and potential of online social media. The active ISS crews in 2013 took this to heart and turned Expeditions 34 and 35 during the first half of the year into an internet sensation, mainly due to the charismatic presence of Commander Chris Hadfield on Youtube and Twitter (here’s a Flickr stream of Hadfield’s mission).

Hadfield was special in that he combined the constant joy of being in space (which is not unique to him at all) with an open and emotional personality, a desire to share, and artistic talent. That last one locked in the “sensation” part. All impressive for someone who is first – professionally – a fighter pilot.

If NASA is crafty, it will take advantage of the enthusiasm for Hadfield and the ISS program before it has time to fade (which I hope it won’t!) and direct it into support for future programs like SLS and Orion and the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization mission. In case you missed it, the ARU is the plan to send a spacecraft to a Near Earth Asteroid, capture that asteroid, and return it to Earth, all with human astronauts aboard. The ARU was announced by NASA leadership in the spring of 2013. As I wrote about in late April, the plan got somewhat less excitement from the public than was probably hoped.

The problem with ARU, and NASA’s current approach to manned spaceflight overall, is context and an end goal. When asked to explain the initiative this spring, NASA stated that the mission will integrate the best of our science and technology, while utlizing the new Orion and SLS systems, while at the same time keeping “…NASA on target to reach the President’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.” The question is, is NASA’s focus on planetary defense and asteroid deflection or is it just an excuse to test technology for going to Mars? NASA leadership is quoted as saying that Mars is a priority and that the moon is not even being considered. Yet, no clear internal roadmap or guiding set of priorities outlines the timeline and rationale for future exploration missions. Instead it often feels to the public like NASA is searching for missions to justify new hardware, rather than the other way around.

It may very well be that NASA knows where it is going, but is simply in the necessary doldrums. Stuck in between manned launch vehicles (the dreaded “gap”) there is a lack of inspiration for the public. NASA may just need some results, some action, when it comes to these grand future plans, and the public will jump onboard. Orion’s first (unmanned) flight is less than a year away. The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) will send Orion up to almost 4,000 miles to test out the heat shield on a blazing fast re-entry. Will this mission inspire and excite? It is possible. It could be that more results and less talk will cause the roadmap to also become more clear. For now, talk is cheap, and that is essentially NASA’s problem – lots of talk, and a cheap government.

Talk is also cheap in the continuously emerging private sector, and yet somehow they seem to inspire somewhat more excitement. I will explore the new private initiatives of 2013, and their impact on the spaceflight industry, in part II of my 2013 year in review.

Weekly Links

It’s been a busy of December since my last post. A hectic week at work, following the thermal pump malfunction on December 11th, kept me very busy right up until my vacation to visit family around Christmas for a week. I am back in Houston now and working on catching up on what’s been happening outside of my little world for the past few weeks. This post will be followed shortly by a 2013 year in review post, so stay tuned!

Down to Earth

On December 10th, NASA JSC’s Morpheus vertical take-off and landing test vehicle conducted its first free flight since the previous model was destroyed in August 2012. Very cool to watch.

Edit: and they flew another flight just a few days later on December 17th, which I missed when I first wrote this post.

On December 11th, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo conducted a glide test in Mojave. More test are always good, but the frequency of glide tests without powered flights over the past few months was pretty much the nail in the coffin for Richard Branson’s prediction that he and his family would fly into space on the first suborbital flight on Christmas of this year. Clearly that didn’t happen. It seems likely however that Virgin will conduct another powered flight soon, possibly in the first week of January.

Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc is calling the first few days of 2014 “Launch Week”. Details on the various launches can be found over at his blog, but the quick summary is: SpaceX Falcon 9 commercial launch on Jan 3, Indian comm sat launch on Jan 5, Orbital Sciences ISS resupply flight on Jan 7, and a possible SpaceShipTwo flight.

Did you enjoy the movie Gravity? I liked it so much I saw it twice. Too bad the DVD wasn’t available for Christmas. Anyway, if you liked the movie, then take the time to watch this short behind-the-scenes clip that gives a glimpse at how some of the complex special effects were done.

The Las Vegas based company Bigelow Aerospace has put out a call for applicants to their “astronaut in-space simulations”. Basically the company wants to do their own independent look at how astronauts interact in closed quarters and also use the opportunity to improve their “crew systems” (in other words, the interior details of their inflatable space stations). Why not apply? Can’t hurt.

Be sure to go outside on January 3rd to look for the Quadrantid Meteors. They are supposed to be one of the best showers of the year, and this year the peak occurs on a new moon.

Astronaut Kevin Ford reminisced about spending Christmas in space during expedition 34 one year ago.

Folks are talking about Beyonce’s new song XO which opens with a sampling from the NASA broadcast of STS-51-L launch on January 28, 1986. The audio used is of the Public Affairs Officer reacting shortly after the shuttle Challenger was lost. The choice seems pretty tasteless and disrespectful, even if one can construe an ambiguous connection between the lyrics and the idea of a lost loved one. I personally can’t figure out if it is just a simple love song that has nothing to do with Challenger, or if it is intended to be something deeper. Listen for yourself.

In Orbit

The big news in orbit over the past couple of weeks was the malfunction onboard the International Space Station that led to two contingency EVAs that were prepared and executed right before Christmas. The issue also caused NASA to have to delay the launch and rendezvous of the second Orbital Sciences cargo flight to ISS, planned for a December 18th launch. The launch is now to occur in early January.

The summary of what happened is that on December 11th flight controllers started seeing anomalies in the ISS thermal cooling system. The problem was narrowed down to a faulty Flow Control Valve in one of the two pumps that flows ammonia to cool components on the outside of the station. Over the ensuing days, a few different teams were convened – one team was planning contingency EVAs to replace the pump, another was doing troubleshooting and thinking of ways to try to make the system work with the faulty valve, and another team was preparing a procedure to be executed in case the second pump failed (I was part of this team). After these teams worked night and day for over a week, it was determined that the pump should be replaced, and the first EVA was conducted on December 21st. The spacewalk was very successful; the pump removal went much better than a similar operation that replaced the same pump after a failure in 2010 during Expedition 24.

The second spacewalk was conducted on December 24th and left the station with a brand new pump and no more concerns about the thermal system for the time being. A potential third EVA was cancelled and the space station crew (and ground teams!) got a much needed break for Christmas.

The quick repair even allowed the Russian space agency to conduct their spacewalk that had already been scheduled for December 27th. One of the key objectives of the Russian EVA was to install some commercial cameras on the outside of the station. The purpose of the cameras is to make a live feed of Earth images, in fairly good resolution, available to the public. The cosmonauts got the cameras installed but they would not boot up, so they unfortately had to be brought back inside for troubleshooting.

Christmas 2013 is the 45th anniversary of an iconic photo taken by the crew of Apollo 8 while in orbit around the moon: Earthrise.


A team from NASA Goddard (with Andrew Chaikin for narration) put together a very cool (in an extremely nerdy way) recreation of how the image was captured that day (via Bad Astronomy).

Around the Solar System

On December 14th, the Chinese Chang’e 3 spacecraft came to a soft landing in the Bay of Rainbows on the Moon and quickly deployed the Yutu rover. Chang’e 3 is the first soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Luna 24 in 1976. Since that was over 37 years ago, almost 60% of the world’s population was not alive the last time there was an active rover on the moon. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society has been doing an excellent job, as usual, gathering information and compiling the best photos and video clips of the Chang’e 3 mission. Here is an update from December 14th and  from December 23rd, but I recommend just following her blog directly for the best stuff!

Very cool news from the Hubble Space Telescope; recent data in ultraviolet wavelengths reveals strong evidence of liquid water geysers coming from Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter. Previously, water geysers have been imaged in visible light coming from Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. The images are stunning. Water geysers imply an ample supply of subsurface water (either in a vast ocean or just pockets or lakes in the ice) as well as the possibility for a medium for life, and a way for our spacecraft to sample that water without needing to drill deep into the ice. More science needs to be done to confirm the Europa geysers but the current data seems very compelling. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Juno spacecraft, currently on its way to Jupiter, will be able to confirm the geysers. This is because Juno’s missions objectives are related to the planet Jupiter itself, not its moons, and the visible light camera on Juno is more of an outreach tool than a primary instrument.

Lastly in planetary science news, the European orbiter Mars Express should have completed its very close flyby of the Mars moon Phobos by now. As Phil Plait writes, we don’t expect to get any close up pictures from the 27 mile flyby, but the data should help scientists nail down the exact mass of Phobos.

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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.

Maven spacecraft (Source: NASA)

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.

Out There

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.

Weekly Links

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.

Expedition 37 with Olympic torch safely home

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.

In Orbit

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.

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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.

The 2013 Mars launch window is coming up fast. First up is India’s Mars orbiter, currently scheduled to launch November 5. Then NASA’s MAVEN mission will launch on November 18.

Weekly Links

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.

In Orbit

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!

Weekly Links

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.

From Wikipedia

Friedman, Murray, Sagan, and journalist Harry Ashmore

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!

from Wikipedia

Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon 9 v1.1, and Falcon Heavy

In Orbit

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.

from XKCD