Archive for the ‘SpaceX’ Category

Weekly Links

Before I get into my recap of what has happened over the past week and a half, I want to make sure to note that tomorrow, Wednesday, March 11, there will be two big events covered on NASA TV. First, Orbital ATK will conduct a test firing of a solid rocket motor in support of SLS development. The coverage will start at 11 AM Eastern with the test firing at 11:30 AM. Secondly, Soyuz TMA-14M will undock from the ISS at 6:44 PM Eastern and land at around 10:07 PM in Kazakhstan. There is NASA TV coverage throughout the day, including at 3 PM for hatch closing. Here is the change of command ceremony from earlier today:

Down to Earth

Sci-fi icon Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock on Star Trek) died on February 27th.

Cast of Star Trek with NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise

One of Chris Hadfield’s old flight suits (not worn in space) was bought at a random Toronto thrift store. Seriously.

Although SpaceX’s lawsuit against the USAF seems to have been resolved, there has been another interesting piece of space legal work going on. SpaceX is suing over Blue Origin’s patent on landing a rocket stage on a platform at sea.

United Launch Alliance plans to retire the Delta IV launch vehicle (but not the Heavy variant).

China has made some of their future manned spaceflight plans public, including the launch of a new larger space station next year.

I don’t know what to call this other than a “trailer”. Check out this video about the LHC starting up again this year:

In Orbit

A USAF weather satellite known as DMSP-13 broke apart at a 500 mile altitude in early February.

On March 1st, SpaceX launched its third Falcon 9 launch of the year. Quite a good pace so far in 2015…

Also on March 1st, astronauts Terry Virts and Butch Wilmore completed the third of their trilogy of spacewalks outside the ISS to “wire up” the US segment for the new docking ports to be delivered starting later this year.

ISS Commander Butch has been posting some excellent Vine’s in his last few weeks aboard. Here is a sample (follow @space_station on Twitter or Vine):

Of course, Samantha Cristoforetti has been just as busy on social media. Here is a shot she got of some cubesats recently launched from the Japanese robotic arm on the ISS.

Around the Solar System

The Dawn spacecraft has reached Ceres! However, as you can see in the animation below, the spacecraft is in a bit of an odd “orbit” above the dark side of the asteroid until early April. That is why we won’t get better sunlit images of the asteroid for several weeks.

Check out this awesome shot of Mars’ moon Phobos in silhoutte, by India’s MOM.

via The Meridiana Journal. Photo Credit: Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

Check out this picture that the Rosetta spacecraft took of its own shadow.

Some scary news from Mars at the end of last month – a short circuit in the instruments at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm caused the missions’s flight control team to halt operations for troubleshooting. It sounds like as of this week, they have determined it is safe to continue operations. Excellent!

2015 in space: the year of ______

In my first post looking back on 2014 in space, I discussed how the year in spaceflight might be remembered. A few major events happened that may stick in the public’s mind – Rosetta/Philae’s comet encounter and the first Orion capsule launch. For the average person, that may be all they remember from last year. Definitely not a banner year for space, although the world rightly celebrated the triumph of landing on a comet for the first time. So not a bad year either. Overall, as I concluded in that earlier post, 2014 was a building year. For those of us who pay closer attention to space news, 2014 was also a year to worry about policy, budgets, and the future of the launch sector, as I wrote about in my second post.

While 2014 was a building year, 2015 looks to be a year of action. Action that goes beyond just NASA and extends to the “New Space” sector, as SpaceX plows forward aggressively, Virgin Galactic attempts to regroup from last year’s tragedy, and some lesser-knowns like XCOR might have their first flights.

2015 looks to be an exciting year. The question is not whether it will be an exciting or busy year, but rather, what will grab the public’s attention more? Will the old childlike excitement over new discoveries be stirred up by NASA’s ambitious missions arriving at Pluto and the asteroid Ceres? Or will the sexy sleek SpaceX rockets – launching ever more frequently – grab the most headlines?

The Year of the Dwarf Planet?

This will be a big year for NASA’s planetary science program. 2014 had a lot of great action at Mars. Unfortunately, Mars has a “been there, done that” tone for the general public (perhaps the 2015 release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian will help turn that around?). Mars makes headlines if there is a daring rover landing or a manned mission, or of course if we discovered life. Otherwise, Mars is cool, but not front page cool. ESA’s Philae landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko proved that robotic exploration is still front page cool, but that it takes a new destination these days. That’s exactly why 2015 is exciting. Two robotic missions launched almost a decade ago will rendezvous with their destinations: two unexplored worlds, both newly classified as “dwarf planets” back in 2006. There’s a whole new category of world out there which we will get to see for the first time this year.

As I write this, the Dawn spacecraft is mere days away from the March 6th rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres, king of the asteroid belt. Dawn will go into orbit around the asteroid, where it will stay for the rest of its mission. The popular space blogs have already been getting pretty excited about the high(er) resolution images coming back from the probe, including mysterious bright spots in a crater. Could they be ice geysers? Or something else unexpected?

Latest view of Ceres from Dawn (courtesy: NASA)

Much farther from home, the New Horizons probe is now only months away from a July flyby of distant dwarf planet Pluto. New Horizons was launched in 2006; so long ago that the probe was actually launched before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) made its controversial decision to change the definition of “planet.” Of course, this sets up for the pithy quip that the probe took so long to get there that when it left, Pluto was a planet! I suppose we will be hearing that line a lot more, come July.

The public loves Pluto. So much so that it make front page news back in 2006 just due to a classification debate. I have no doubt that the public will get pretty excited over the upcoming encounter. The mission has all the drama a good space rendezvous needs: the promise of views of a new world and new discoveries with the very real danger of the probe being destroyed by some rogue undiscovered moon. Success or failure, it’s a win-win for the media. People love the tension.

If rendezvous goes well for both Dawn and New Horizons, the American public will be reminded how exciting it is to discover new worlds. That excitement can likely be funneled by NASA and organizations like The Planetary Society into support for future missions like the Europa Clipper. 2015 is a chance for NASA’s crown jewel, planetary science, to take center stage.

The Year of SpaceX?

Unfortunately for NASA, Dawn and New Horizons may get overshadowed by the new kid on the block. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) stands poised to have their busiest year yet. Their manifest calls for somewhere between 12 and 18 launches in 2015. SpaceX only launched 3 rockets in 2013 and doubled that to 6 in 2014. With 3 launches already this year as of March 2nd, I am starting to believe they can double their launch rate again this year.

Of course, a bunch of rocket launches isn’t by definition more exciting than the first flyby of Pluto or Ceres. The reason NASA stands to get overshadowed is the story of SpaceX. SpaceX isn’t just another rocket company out for profit – they are a product of one billionaire’s crazy vision of the future. And 13 years after their founding, with thousands of employees and billion dollar government contracts, the company has somehow stayed focused on their longterm goals. Other startups with dreams of Mars have been called “scams”. Meanwhile, SpaceX has proven their technical expertise with the reliability of their Falcon 9 rocket and has become a major player in the industry, continuing to snap up government and private launch contracts. Sexy rockets, an eccentric billionaire, and dreams of Mars. Usually the news is full of negative stories – airplane crashes, war, corrupt politicians, police brutality, racial tensions – but SpaceX is exactly the kind of positive story people love. And SpaceX has manages to hook us in by being just transparent enough to make us take them seriously, but also keep us guessing. For instance, the SpaceX twitter feed was fairly silent through much of December as they tried to launched their fifth resupply flight to ISS. Then 6 days after this launch they posted this incredible Vine of their failure to land the first stage safely on their autonomous drone ship. I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched it about a thousand times.

Besides a record number of launches, here are a few of the things SpaceX is planning to do this year:

  • four missions to resupply the International Space Station
  • build a new hangar and launch tower for crew launches in Florida
  • build a new spaceport near South Padre Island in Texas
  • pad abort tests for new Dragon V2
  • land a rocket on an autonomous drone ship (minus the explosion)
  • the first demo launch of the new Falcon Heavy rocket

New Space has been on a slow crawl for years, full of promise but few results. With Virgin Galactic likely out of commission for at least many more months and no planned launches in the Google Lunar X Prize competition until 2016, SpaceX is seemingly alone in the New Space business – at least as far as going to space is concerned. All the buzz about mining asteroids, billionaire funded flybys of Mars, and crowd-sourced space missions seems to have faded into the background noise. A lot of people seem to have the attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” myself included. But even the cynics and naysayers have to be impressed by SpaceX’s continued progress. If they can achieve most of their goals for this year while continuing to fly safely and reliably, it just might be the year of SpaceX.

The Year of ISS?

As if dwarf planets and SpaceX aren’t enough, I think there is a third possibility for the biggest story of 2015. In fact, it made front page news before 2015 even started. In case you missed it, here was the cover of Time for their “2015: the year ahead” issue.

Scott Kelly Time cover

What’s the big deal? Astronauts have been living and working on the ISS non-stop since November 2000. The following major world events have all happened with a continuous human presence in space (from Futuretimeline.net and Wikipedia): George Bush sworn in, terrorist attack on 9/11/01, iPod launched, iPhone launched, Space Shuttle Columbia lost, invasion of Iraq, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, three summer Olympic Games, four FIFA World Cup Finals, the Great Recession, Barack Obama sworn in, Burj Khalifa constructed, two new Popes, and all 7 Harry Potter films released.

Ok, maybe I got a little carried away. The point is, astronauts living and working on the ISS is nothing new. Even the story of the Kelly twins – a major focus of the Time issue – is not new. Scott Kelly already commanded the ISS once during Expedition 26 and Mark Kelly, husband of Gabby Giffords, commanded STS-134. But just like the two NASA probes visiting new worlds this year, Scott Kelly’s missions is new territory for NASA. His stay aboard the ISS of almost a year will beat the next longest flight by an American by over four months. America loves a hero figures and pioneers. So when Commander Kelly got a personal invitation to the State of the Union Address, he got the biggest ovation of the night.

Having a single human face to connect with the space program this year may bring more attention to NASA than we have seen in a while. Only half a decade ago, the ISS was thought of by a good segment of the space community as a “white elephant” that sucked up money and the public largely didn’t know it existed (or would be reminded and then promptly forget). Now the ISS is featured in major motion pictures like Gravity and video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. NASA public affairs has embraced social media and at least one member of every space station crew regularly tweets stunning views and thoughts from space. When school kids or the morning news shows get to interview the astronauts on ISS, no one ever asks “is the space station a waste of money?” Instead they ask, “what is it like?”

Scott Kelly won’t be the only famous face people will connect with the ISS this year. In September 2015 the next space tourist, Sarah Brightman, will launch to the ISS as part of a “ferry crew”. She will spend less than 2 weeks in space while crews and Soyuz capsules are shuffled on the ISS – Scott Kelly’s long stay will mess up the regular and predictable 4 month cycle of 3-person crews. Brightman will be the first tourist on the ISS since Guy Laliberte in 2009. While she is not exactly a household name, people love to talk about rich people and the expensive things they buy. What is more glamorous than paying your way into space? A human story is just what NASA needs to bring attention to the ISS, and NASA has two of those stories this year. If Mark Kelly is open to media interviews while he goes through the same experiments as his brother, it may even make an interesting recurring story in the media, if it gets picked up. It could be a big story – or maybe the ISS was only front page news for one week at the beginning of the year? We will have to wait and see!

Conclusion

Of course, there is a lot more that might happen this year. The XCOR Lynx spaceplane may take flight finally; Virgin Galactic may return to flight; Curiosity may continue to build a case for organics on Mars; the Philae lander may wake up as comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko approaches the sun. Going in to 2014, it was predictable that the Rosetta mission and Philae lander would be a big story. But nobody predicted that 2014 would be largely remembered for two major spaceflight accidents, nor that a lot of sweat would be spent on the impacts to the launch sector from deteriorating international relations in Eastern Europe.

Although the unexpected may happen, I’m kind of hoping for a predictable year with lots of success and increasing media and public attention. I want to learn some new and surprising things about Ceres and Pluto while also checking Twitter every day for some stunning Earth views posted by Commander Kelly. I want to see thousands of people flock to the Space Coast for an on time launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Space exploration of all kinds is a great positive endeavor for us to share as a society, especially as a seemingly improving economy opens up space in our culture to look outward. I think a good year in all sectors of spaceflight could lead to even more bipartisan support of manned and robotic exploration alike in the NASA budget, and we can start to see a way out of the woods towards a clear space policy. Or I could be wrong, and distractions like the upcoming 2016 US presidential election could keep us in limbo for a while longer. What I like about the future is that anything is possible. Either way, I get to find out what those bright spots on Ceres are in just 4 days. Are you excited too?

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Hungary is the newest member of the European Space Agency (ESA). With the addition of Hungary and Estonia, ESA will need to revise their astronauts’ flag-covered shoulder patch (seen below on Andre Kuipers’ flight suit).

Since I mentioned ESA, it is always nice to share their Week in Images post.

The Intelsat 603 satellite, which was rescued to a higher orbit on the first 3-person EVA on STS-49 in 1992, has been disposed of in a “graveyard orbit”.

Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for best actor last weekend, is a NASA supporter.

It’s a rare week that goes by without some news related to SpaceX worth mentioning. A few things this week. First, SpaceX has a new contract with SES for the launch of two communications satellites which may be the first to launch from the new facility in the Southernmost part of Texas. Secondly, SpaceX has started construction of their hangar near launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. 39A is one of the two historic launchpads built for the Apollo program and also used during the Space Shuttle program. Lastly, SpaceX will be launching their next Falcon 9 rocket in a few days. The current date is listed by Spaceflight Now with an uncertain “March 1/2″. This launch is of commercial payloads and will liftoff from Florida.

In Orbit

No notable rocket launches this week, except for a Russian military satellite on a Soyuz rocket, which launched this morning. Instead, there was another spacewalk up on the ISS. Terry Virts and ISS Commander Butch Wilmore have one more spacewalk this coming weekend to finish out their tasks laying cable for future commercial crew dockings.

Speaking of the ISS, the Russian Federal Space Agency (I’m not sure what to call it, as they are in the middle of a re-organization) announced this week that they now intend to continue ISS operations through 2024. Previously, Russia had only committed through 2020, so this is good news.

The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, launched by NASA on a Delta II rocket earlier this year, deployed its impressive sensing array this week and is getting ready to start its science campaign. Here’s an animation of what it would have looked like.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Curiosity rover took an impressive self-portrait (or “selfie”, if you must) of its current location on the foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars. Curiosity is currently at a site called Pahrump Hills where it has been drilling various rocks.

Courtesy NASA (click image for annotated version)

Meanwhile, out in the asteroid belt, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is just a week away from entering orbit around Ceres, the largest asteroid. The pictures coming down are already remarkable and include a strange pair of bright spots in a crater.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

A ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony at Cape Canaveral signaled the start of construction on a new crew access tower for eventual manned launches of the Boeing CST-100 atop United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets. The tower is at Launch Complex 41, which is technically on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, not Kennedy Space Center.

Also at the Cape in Florida, SpaceX has signed a lease with the U.S. Air Force to land Falcon 9 rocket stages at Launch Complex 13, which is currently not used for anything else.

The Mars One project has reduced their list of candidates for the first one way trip to Mars down to 100 candidates. If you forgot who Mars One is, they are the company that will air the last rounds of astronaut selection as a reality TV show as a way to fund their mission. However, you can color me skeptical whether that is a sound financial plan to fund a multi-billion dollar mission. Here is the list of 100 candidates from the Mars One website.

A recent poll reveals that most Americans apparently would not take a free ride to space.

In Orbit

Some more action up on the ISS last week. A Russian Progress resupply spacecraft launched from Kazakhstan and docked just 6 hours later.

Then on Saturday the first of three spacewalks of Expedition 42 went off with out a hitch when Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts spent almost 7 hours reconfiguring the front docking port of the ISS. There is a great detailed summary at AmericaSpace. The next spacewalk will be this coming Wednesday.

Around the Solar System

If you have heard the strange news about an unexplained “plume” seen high in the Martian atmosphere, you heard right. Astronomers aren’t sure what it is… could it be a high altitude dust storm or auroral activity? I hope they can figure it out!

Check out this “trailer” for a mission concept from NASA for a submarine on Titan. Awesome.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Some good stuff from NASA’s astronaut office this week. First, the members of ISS Expeditions 48, 49, and 50 were announced. The crews have some veterans such as Jeffrey Williams and Peggy Whitson but also some rookies such as Katie Rubins and Takuya Onishi. Then, the Expedition 45 crew gave us this awesome mission promo poster.

Arianespace scooped some recent commercial launch contracts that SpaceX probably would have liked to win. Interestingly, the two companies each won 7 new contracts last year.

Items from a long-forgotten bag of odds and ends from the Apollo 11 mission are on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The bag was found in Neil Armstrong’s closet by his widow. You can’t make this stuff up!

In Orbit

It has been a busy week in space! On Tuesday, SpaceX brought home a Dragon capsule from the ISS and then a day later launched another Falcon 9 rocket, this time with NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft. The launch was at just about sunset making for some great pictures, which are all over the internet: Spaceflight Now has some good ones, or you can just browse Twitter.

Also on Wednesday, ESA launched a Vega rocket on a suborbital test mission of a small reusable spaceplane-like spacecraft (technically a “lifting body”). Watch how fast this rocket jumps off the pad!

The excitement extended into the weekend, with the departure of ESA’s last ATV cargo vehicle from ISS this morning. Here is the final status report from the ATV mission manager from prior to undocking. Unfortunately, the undocking was during orbital night so it is hard to find any good pictures. Here you can see ATV’s navigation lights shining in the darkness.

Next week a new Progress cargo vehicle will launch from Kazakhstan taking ATV’s place at the aft port of ISS. Then late in the week, Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts will step outside on the first of three upcoming spacewalks.

With such a busy and memorable week for ESA, it would be remiss of me not to share their Week in Images post!

And of course Terry and Samantha continue to take amazing photos of the Earth and post them quickly on Twitter for us to enjoy! Here is your weekly selection:

Around the Solar System

As always, the rover Opportunity is slowly trudging along on Mars. She is approaching “Marathon Valley,” the point where her odometer will reach 26.2 miles. At over 11 years, her time won’t break any records; but she sure is determined.

Because it’s Cool

Two new episodes of Phil Plait’s Crash Course Astronomy are up!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Last week the European Space Agency welcomed Estonia as their newest member.

Last Monday, February 2, was “Budget day” with the President of the United States announcing his budget proposal for 2016, which includes an $18.5 billion request for NASA. The 2015 budget is at just over $18 billion – so this would be a welcome increase, if approved. Some of the highlights were the apparent canceling or shutting down of the Mars rover Opportunity, the continued commitment to a mission to Europa, and a request for a significant increase to “commercial crew” funding. Here’s the detailed dollar-by-dollar breakdown from NASA if you are interested.

While waiting for the commercial crew program to bear fruit, NASA has purchased additional Soyuz seats to the ISS for 2018, just in case.

ESA’s IXV test vehicle is now atop the Vega rocket for launch later this week.

In Orbit

Today is shaping up to be “SpaceX day“. SpaceX’s Dragon is still in orbit at the International Space Station for a few more hours. Later today it will be leaving the ISS and splashing down in the Pacific near a waiting recovery ship. Less than two hours earlier a Falcon 9 rocket will launch from Florida putting NOAA’s DSCOVER mission on its way to the Earth-Sun L1 point. Another recovery team will be waiting in the Atlantic for the rocket’s first stage to hopefully touch down on their “autonomous spaceport drone ship”.

Back on February 2nd, Iran successfully launched a test satellite to orbit, marking the 6th successful launch of 2015 and Iran’s second orbital launch (the first was in 2009).

And of course the busy astronauts on the ISS have continued to share their perspective with us:

Around the Solar System

The New Horizons probe sent back some awesome new photos of Pluto and its moon Charon.

The always impressive Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took a picture of the Curiosity rover on Mars, busy at work at the Pahrump Hills. Here’s the ground-level view from the rover:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

February 2nd is “budget day”: when NASA will announce the preliminary 2016 budget request for the agency as proposed by the White House.

Rookie European astronaut Andreas Mogensen has been posting video blogs of his training for launch. The latest entry is posted from Moscow and focuses on the Sokol spacesuit which is worn in the Soyuz.

The European Space Agency has a new unmanned spaceplane they plan to launch on a technology demonstration on February 11th. The IXV, or Intermediate Experimental Vehicle, has been undergoing launch preparations at the launch site in French Guinea.

Speaking of ESA, here’s their Week In Images, which is always a good click.

SpaceX has announced in a statement on their website that they are essentially dropping their lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force over the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract which awarded 36 rocket launches to United Launch Alliance (ULA). SpaceX and USAF have apparently made a deal which allows USAF to honor current contracts with ULA but also work to certify SpaceX’s rockets soon and open competition to them for future payloads.

SpaceX also released a new animation to stir up excitement for the first test flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket later this year.

And in the last SpaceX news from last week, the company completed a static fire test on the launch pad in Florida in preparation for their next launch on February 8.

The Planetary Society has secured a launch aboard an Atlas V rocket this May for their LightSail solar sailing prototype. I am super excited for this mission! Check out this great video explaining the spacecraft.

In Orbit

Last week Wednesday, the ISS did a “deboost”, or an orbital correction maneuver to slow/lower the orbit. Usually we do reboosts to keep the orbit higher as the ISS is slowly degraded due to drag. In this particular case, the trajectory officers found a deboost the best solution for upcoming trajectory needs, and we had the extra propellant that we could afford it. I was lucky enough to be assigned the early morning shift on Wednesday to command the OPM (Optimized Propellant Maneuver) to spin the ISS around in preparation for the burn – which went well later in the day.

ISS astronauts got some nice photography of the blizzard that hit the US east coast last week:

And here is a selection of a few other great shots from ISS over the last week. If you want to follow Twitter posts from the ISS, follow my list, “people in space,” which I will always have updated with any astronauts who are tweeting from ISS.

Three launches occurred in the last week, bringing this year’s total up to 5 launches. NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) Earth-observing satellite was the third launch of the year – and third from the US – but almost didn’t beat a Japanese launch and then a Russian launch due to a scrub first for weather and then for technical issues. They finally got off the ground from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Saturday morning. Here’s a video.

The other two launches were this morning, Sunday, February 1st. Japan launches a spy satellite on an H-2A rocket (the same rocket that sends the HTV cargo vehicle to ISS) and Russia launched a communications satellite on a Proton rocket from Kazakhstan. This was the 5th successful Proton flight since their most recent failure last May.

Around the Solar System

Newly released high resolution images from the Rosetta spacecraft reveal a rather large crack in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Could the comet split in two when it gets closer to the sun? Exciting!

The image release also included some new shots of the Philae lander descending to the comet from the perspective of the orbiter.

Last Monday a rather large asteroid named 2004 BL86 flew by the Earth at about 3 lunar distances (750,000 miles). The asteroid is 325 meters (1,066 feet) in diameter and has a tiny moon! Check out this radar imagery from NASA’s Goldstone antenna:

As NASA’s Dawn spacecraft gets closer and closer to the solar system’s largest asteroid, Ceres, it is now returning images of the world that are better than what Hubble has shown us in the past.

Pop Space

Adidas is releasing a spacesuit-inspired shoe.

Phil Plait’s Crash Course Astronomy Episode 3 is up:

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Last week SpaceX secured a $1 billion dollar investment from Google and Fidelity. Google’s interest in the company is supposedly tied to their plans for an Earth-wide satellite internet system.

Orbital Sciences has signed a contract with RSC Energia (the Russian state-owned corporation which includes NPO Energomash) to purchase enough RD-181 rocket engines to power 10 Antares flights. The engine replacement is needed to replace the AJ-26 engines which are implicated in the loss of an ISS cargo resupply mission last October.

British singer Sarah Brightman has started her cosmonaut training in Russia. She will launch to ISS for ten days later this year.

In Orbit

If you aren’t on Google+, one reason to join is to follow Samantha Cristoforetti’s posts from the ISS. She posts almost-daily updates on how her mission is going, which is a pretty good read. Her most recent posts include a summary of the false emergency last week and a cool student robotics competition they hosted onboard.

These nighttime photos of cyclone Bansi are some of the most amazing pieces of Earth photography I have ever seen from the ISS.

Here is an interesting pair of photos from Terry Virts.

The Atlas V launch of a Navy communications satellite was successful on January 20th. This was the second orbital launch of the year, following SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch on January 10th.

Atlas V night launch (photo from Spaceflight Now)

Coming up this week, NASA’s Soil Moistive Active Passive (SMAP) satellite will launch on a Delta II rocket from Florida on Thursday, January 29th.

Pop Space

Phil Plait’s new web series, Crash Course Astronomy, kicked off. Here are links to episodes 1 and 2:

Patrick Stewart was announced as the narrator for the new Journey to Space film which is coming out next month. Here is the trailer, which was released last month (and does not feature Stewart). I am excited for this!

2014 in review – Part II

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing the year 2014 in spaceflight. Here is a link to Part I.

If you read my blog it’s because you are a lover of space, or you are my mom (hi mom!). So I assume you are not offended by the limited focus of this small slice of the internet. There are of course other things going on in the world besides rockets launching and people flying in space. And even I admit that in many cases those things are more important. For instance, the January 7th terrorist attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo commanded the world’s attention, and rightly so. Such a tragic and visible event is an important moment in the history of our culture – the way we choose to respond says something about how we value our free speech (or not).

The year of 2014 had its share of world events that command more attention than what I write about in this blog. From the threat of ISIS in the middle east, the winter olympics in Sochi, Russia, Ebola virus outbreaks in West Africa, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and the normalization of US-Cuba relations, it was a busy year (it’s nice to see the Rosetta comet mission on some lists of major world events).

In the same way that my space blog almost completely ignores these events to stay on point, I think the space community at large tends to insulate itself from the outside world. As you might imagine, this can have its downsides. The world is connected, and as much as we want, the fun things we do in space are affected by the rest of the world. Fans of NASA know this as they watch the yo-yo-ing of NASA’s slice of the federal budget over the years. I think 2014 drove this lesson home in a way fans of spaceflight hadn’t been expecting. When Russia invaded Crimea in late February, most space fans weren’t thinking of a connection. We were busy talking about Orbital Sciences’ successful cargo mission to ISS or looking at pictures of SpaceX’s new rocket with legs. It took until April for “reality” to catch up with us.

Part II – Of trampolines and rockets

In early April, the US state department instructed NASA to cut all contact with Russia. This would of course be very concerning – and hard for the space community to tune out – except for that the ISS program was exempted. The ISS of course being the one major ongoing collaboration between our two space programs. The only other example I can think of is that NASA and Roscosmos are both involved in the ESA-led ExoMars mission.

Things really got interesting when Dmitri Rogozin, Russian Deputy Prime Minister, tweeted “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.” Most Americans wouldn’t have even heard about it – after all, it was tweeted in Cyrillic – except it was too pithy a jab to go unnoticed by American media. In light of the geopolitcal tensions between our nations that had been brewing since February, it was a juicy new angle – Russia might not let American astronauts fly on their Soyuz. It didn’t matter that most Americans hadn’t heard of Rogozin before, if he was saying that he would cut America off from the ISS, it must mean he could. He said it on Twitter, after all.

It seemed that although the US had exempted the ISS program, Russian officials weren’t taking it off the table as a political chess piece. Rogozin’s anger stemmed from the fact that he was individually targeted in the recent sanctions from the US against Russia for their actions in Ukraine. As ABC News reported,

The sanctions freeze any assets under American jurisdiction and prevent American banks from doing business with the named individual, essentially freezing them out of the international banking system. The sanctions also impose a ban on their travel to the United States.

As Deputy Prime Minister, Rogozin is responsible for the entire Russian space program, including the state-owned corporation NPO Energomash, which produces the RD-180 rocket engine used by the American company United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch US Department of Defense satellites with the Atlas V rocket… see where this is going?

However, nowhere in the sanctions against Rogozin are the companies and agency’s he manages directly called out. Business was going on as usual in the space industry up to this point (the NASA ban on Russian cooperation doesn’t apply to a private company, ULA, buying rocket engines). So, the question still stands, what set off Rogozin to author the trampoline tweet?

Enter Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, whose lawyers filed a lawsuit against the government (specifically, the U.S. Air Force) challenging a 36-rocket “block buy” contract with ULA. The main premise of the suit was that the contract was unfair and lacked competition (meaning of course, that SpaceX did not have a chance to offer a bid). Among other statements at the press conference announcing the suit, Musk is quoted as saying (from SpacePolitics.com):

How is it that we’re sending hundreds of millions of US taxpayers’ money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading Ukraine? It would be hard to imagine that Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting personally from the dollars that are being sent there. On the surface of it, it appears that there’s a good probability of some kind of sanctions violation.

It seems that Elon Musk stoked the fire here, complaining that ULA’s use of the RD-180, a powerful engine built and sold by NPO Energomash, should not be allowed during this time of geopolitical tension with Russia. Hard to argue with his logic, isn’t it? A few days after the lawsuit was filed and Elon Musk’s press conference, Rogozin posted his famous tweet. The next day, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued an injunction saying that ULA could not purchase more RD-180 engines from NPO Energomash for Department of Defense rocket launches, citing the sanctions against Rogozin. Your move Dmitri.

How is it that Elon Musk, with his 12-year-old rocket company, had amassed enough influence to directly affect international relations between two of the biggest world powers? Granted, Musk is a billionaire, but his company is just a rocket company, not a media conglomerate or oil company, the traditional ways to have political influence as a rich guy. Founded in 2002, you wouldn’t think that SpaceX has a huge share of the world launch market. They have only 19 launches under their belt (a few of which were failures); compare that to the 14 successful launches from ULA just in 2014[1]. A big part of SpaceX’s quick rise surely comes from the intriguing personality of Elon Musk, whose vision and ideas capture the imagination of the young generation. His tenacity and commitment to his dreams make it hard to root against him – his three current big ventures (SpaceX, Tesla, and Solar City), if successful, seem to have a clear benefit for society. But this really only explains the cult of SpaceX, not its influence on a political level. To understand why SpaceX is in such a position of influence takes a revelation about the “launch services sector” (or, the rocket business), that I don’t think most people understand; I don’t think I got it until last year either.

Not to get too technical, but the revelation becomes clear with just a little bit of Wikipedia research. Forgive me for making you look at a data table, but I think it tells the story better than a bunch of links. Let’s say you work for Iridium, the satellite phone service company, and you need to buy a rocket to launch a new satellite. If your satellite weighs around 689 kg, then there are only 21 types of rockets in the world that have the power, and a lot of them aren’t for sale. Here’s the list:

Screen shot 2015-01-13 at 10.24.22 PM

Source: Wikipedia article “comparison of orbital launch systems”

The first thing that should jump out at you is that there are only three companies from the United States that can launch medium-sized satellites. Fortunately for the folks at Iridium, their satellites are not military, and the company has utilized American, Russian, and even Chinese rockets to build their global sat-phone network.

In another scenario, you work at the Pentagon and need to find a large rocket to launch a secret spy satellite that weighs between 2,000 and 3,000 kg. Not only do your options get more limited (the Indian GSLV and Orbital Minotaur fall off the list, among others) but you are going to have to use an American company. You won’t be allowed to ship a secret satellite out of the country for launch, obviously.

So now your options are down to the three American companies, all of which have rockets that can launch your big spy satellite. However, if our scenario occurs before 2008, before the first Falcon 9 or Antares flight, there was only one choice – ULA. This is the revelation that 2014 made clear to me. We are 50 years into the “space age” but our grasp on space is hanging on by one company’s monopoly and just a few rocket designs. Until the Falcon 9 and Antares rockets, every major government launch – NASA, Air Force, NOAA, or other military – was on either a ULA rocket (or predecessors), or a Space Shuttle. If space is the frontier, then ULA is Union Pacific at Promontory Point.

So, three choices is pretty good, right? It’s better than we get in our presidential elections here in the US. Well, the problem is that although 2008 is 7 iPhone versions ago, it is very recent in terms of the space industry. As of April 2014, Orbital Sciences was not pursuing military payloads and SpaceX had not yet received certification from the USAF for their Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket. ULA was the only game in town for the Pentagon, but SpaceX expected that to change soon, as they had successfully launched the CRS-3 mission to the ISS on April 18th, the all-important third flight needed as part of the certification process. The Russian sanctions and push back from Rogozin could not have been happening at a better time for SpaceX, who appeared to be on the verge of becoming a real direct competitor to ULA. SpaceX is an American company, using American-built rocket engines, seen to be on the verge of being able to fully replace America’s areas of dependence on Russia in space. Keep in mind that the Atlas V was also in the pipe to be the launch vehicle for both Boeing and Sierra Nevada if they were to be awarded commercial crew contracts to the ISS. It seemed everything about the US launch sector was wrapped up in this issue. You can bet Musk was going to take advantage of it.

The story didn’t end on April 30th with the injunction against he RD-180 engine. That should be obvious from the way Rogozin responded to Elon Musk’s comments days before. Unfortunately for SpaceX’s political goals, the injunction against the RD-180 engines was lifted by the court about a week later. Just as things were seeming to thaw out, Rogozin hit Twitter again.

Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the us only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.”

Roscosmos doesn’t plan to continue cooperation with the US on the ISS after 2020

It may be tempting to dismiss Rogozin’s comments as just posturing on Twitter. However, they came after the topics were discussed at more length at a Russian press conference, and led directly to debate in the U.S. Senate and a letter from Congressmen to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden questioning how he plans to deal with these threats. It just goes to show that what’s most important is who says something, not how. And although a National Reconnaissance Office payload launched on an Atlas V on May 19 with no apparent political repercussions, Rogozin’s inflammatory remarks had done their job. An “RD-180 Study Group” was busy investigating the impacts of a potential loss of the RD-180 engine, which recommended allocating funds to develop a new engine. This would turn into a funding debate for the rest of 2015. Ultimately, the 2015 budget passed in December included $220 million to start designing an RD-180 replacement.

In the meantime, over at NASA, things never got much more heated than they were back in April and May. In fact, in August there were reports out of Russia from Roscosmos officials that ISS would likely be operated past 2020. But the “trampoline tweet” was ingrained in the community’s mind. Fortunately, optimism was available later in the year when NASA announced that the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts would go to Boeing for the CST-100 and SpaceX for the Dragon V2. It’s no surprise that SpaceX was included as one of the remaining two options – if NASA had gone with both Boeing and Sierra Nevada then NASA astronauts would be flying atop Atlas V’s starting in 2017, powered by RD-180 engines. Sierra Nevada immediately protested the award, but the protest was recently thrown out in January 2015.

Optimism turned to shock when on October 28th an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, carrying cargo to the ISS, exploded spectacularly just seconds after liftoff.

First moments of Antares explosion (via Spaceflight Now, image courtesy NASA)

If you remember from our earlier chart, the Antares is the other large US rocket powered by foreign technology. The first stage engine for the Antares is the AJ-26, which is really just the Ukranian NK-33 imported by Aerojet Rocketdyne and refurbished. These imported engines were literally built decades ago, but are an affordable and well-built option. The seemingly excessive use of Russian or Ukranian engines in the US launch sector isn’t for nothing – the Soviets were darn good at building rocket engines, and that expertise has continued to today.

Earlier in the year an AJ-26 blew up on a test stand, but a successful launch of a mission to ISS in July eased everyone’s concerns. Things seemed to be going well for “commercial space” – SpaceX had recently launched their sixth and final Falcon 9 flight of the year – but everyone immediately thought of that old Soviet NK-33 engine the moment they saw the Antares rocket raining down in flames.

The loss of that Antares rocket unfortunately will be the lasting memory of 2014, a year of uncertainty and debate for rocket companies in the US. While Orbital Sciences has announced a path forward, it doesn’t help answer many of the questions raised by events of the past year. Orbital announced in December that it would fly at least its next ISS resupply mission on an Atlas V (yes, that Atlas V) while it works on a plan to replace the aging AJ-26 engines on its own Antares rocket. And finally, in January 2015, Orbital announced it had made a deal with NPO Energomash (yes, that NPO Energomash) to purchase RD-181 engines to power future versions of the Antares, hopefully with a first flight sometime in 2016.

So you can see the tricky spot the industry is left in at the beginning of 2015. Despite Russia not being a political ally of the United States, Russian rocket engines continue to be an important workhorse for American launches – both military and civil – and operations of the ISS cannot continue without Russian cooperation (by design). The good news is that the issues from 2014 are mostly reasons just to be cautious and concerned about the future, and to lay plans accordingly. No scary outcome, like an actual embargo against NASA astronauts flying on a Soyuz, seems at all likely. ISS operations continue as always, and those of us working on the program have not seen any real signs that that won’t continue for the life of the space station. Atlas V rocket launches – powered by Russian RD-180 engines – continue apace with no signs of stopping. In fact, an Atlas V will launch from Florida tomorrow night with the MUOS-3 reconnaissance payload.

In 2015, the Falcon 9 rocket is expected to achieve Air Force certification, and hopefully the ongoing lawsuit that SpaceX started in April of last year will be resolved. Will SpaceX win and break the monopoly held by ULA? Also, the next phase of the ISS commercial cargo contract will be awarded by NASA. Will the award go to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to maintain the status quo? Or will Orbital’s launch vehicle uncertainty open the door for a new player like Sierra Nevada? Either way that contract goes, the only fully domestic option available to NASA seems to be SpaceX. All of these questions involve SpaceX in one way or another and the answers will color the future of the rocket launching business in America.

Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 8.51.32 PM

[1] – ULA has actually only existed since 2006, but the parent companies – Lockheed Martin and Boeing – have a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Air Force. The current suite of ULA rockets are part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program (EELV) which was started in the mid 1990’s.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Elon Musk released photos on his Twitter feed of the moment that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket first stage hit their “autonomous spaceport drone ship” (see, barge) and blew up. This occurred a few minutes after the launch of the latest Dragon resupply craft last Saturday. It seems like they hit their target but came in too hard. Maybe better luck on their next flight in a couple of weeks.

Update: Just a little while after I wrote this post, the SpaceX twitter account posted this amazing Vine video.

NASA completed a “hot fire” test of the new RS-25 liquid fueled engine at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The RS-25 is a modified Space Shuttle main engine which will power the SLS.

Much noise has been made about Ted Cruz (R-TX) being assigned to a US Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of NASA. The main concern is that Cruz is considered anti-science. At the very least, he is anti-science when it comes to climate research, which NASA supports with a fleet of Earth-observering satellites. Houston Chronicle has the best analysis I have seen of what impact Cruz may actually have on the NASA budget. If you are concerned about this topic, you should read Eric Berger’s post. Here’s a longer more technical analysis at Space Policy Online.

Virgin Galactic is teaming up with a small satellite company known as OneWeb to launch a large constellation of satellites to bring broadband internet to the entire world. Replacement satellites will be launched by the LauncherOne rocket dropped from Virgin’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.

There is an idea floating of a new reality show which would be a competition between inventors and scientists to get their research flown to ISS. Sounds cool!

In Orbit

Two big things happened on the ISS this week. on Monday, the latest SpaceX Dragon resupply craft arrived. This was the first cargo delivery to ISS from the US since the loss of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket in October. There was one Russian Progress resupply flight back in November.

The SpaceX flight was quickly overshadowed by an emergency alarm onboard the ISS on Wednesday morning. The alarm was for a toxic leak of ammonia, which cools the space station avionics hardware in fluid loops on the outside of ISS. In certain failure cases (for which there is multiple layers of redundancy to prevent) the ammonia can break into the internal fluid lines (which carry water) and endanger the astronauts.

Ground teams and the astronauts took immediate safety actions, as we train for hours and hours for, and evacuated to the Russian side of the space station, which does not have ammonia coolant lines. The emergency alarm was eventually determined to be false, caused by a computer glitch, and the astronauts were allowed to open the hatch to the rest of the station late in the day on Wednesday.

While the astronauts are safe, cleanup from such a major (potential) failure takes some time because of all of the automatic safing software that shut down ISS systems on Wednesday. The Flight Control Team will still be diligently working towards bringing the ISS back to “nominal” during my evening shifts this weekend.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s New Horizons probe has technically begun science operations for its Pluto encounter, although it is still more than 100 million miles from Pluto.

The long-lost Beagle 2 lander has been found on Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The lander was lost during EDL phase (Entry, Descent, and Landing) back in 2003, which was a huge disappointment to the United Kingdom’s space agency. Incredibly, although the world had assumed that Beagle 2 crashed into the surface – hence the loss of communication – the MRO images show the lander safely on the surface, partially deployed. In honor of deceased mission designer John Pillinger, I think this image deserves an update to show that Beagle 2 made it to the surface.

Check out this colorized view from Opportunity on the summit of Cape Tribulation. Image processing done by @mars_stu at his blog The Road to Endeavour (click to embiggen, of course).

Opportunity at Cape Tribulation (credit: NASA/JPL processed by Stuart Atkinson)