Archive for the ‘SpaceX’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Another SpaceX Dragon capsule completed its mission with a splashdown in the Pacific on Thursday, May 21st. Their next ISS mission is scheduled for late June.

NASA has certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch “medium risk” science missions.

Speaking of SpaceX, it looks like I forgot to post videos from their successful pad abort test earlier in May. Here is the original video as well as a new video from onboard the capsule, which is a must watch!

Congress has been doing a lot of space and NASA related work in their current session. The House Appropriations Committee has a markup that includes some details for NASA. Parabolic Arc has the breakdown.

In Orbit

There were two launches in the past two weeks, one successful and one not so successful. First, on May 16th, a Russian Proton rocket launched from Baikonaur with a Mexican commercial satellite did not deliver the payload to orbit. The last time a Proton rocket failed was about a year ago. They had had 6 successful launches between these most recent two failures.

The good news is that on Wednesday, May 20th, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launched from Florida on a flawless flight that delivered the Air Force’s secret X-37B spaceplane and also a fleet of ride-along cubesats.

Among the cubesats on the launch was the awesome LightSail mission from the Planetary Society. The citizen-funded mission is a technology demonstration mission of solar sailing. The current mission is to demonstrate that the sail can be unfolded in orbit. A later mission in 2016 will actually go to a high enough orbit to use light from the sun to steer. You can follow the mission here and contribute to their funding here.

On May 15th, a glitch on the space station caused a reboost, or orbital trajectory correction burn, to be cancelled. Mission controllers were able to turn the plan around and get a good reboost a couple of days later though. Way to go team! (I was on vacation in Austin, so I was not involved)

Because of the changes to the ISS mission schedule (Soyuz TMA-15M crew not coming home for a few extra weeks), the mission control team had the opportunity to come up with some “get aheads” to take care of while there are still 6 people on ISS. The result is that later this week we will be executing the “PMM relocate”, or moving the large logistics module from one place on ISS to another, to free up a new docking port. This animation should help:

This is the first large module relocation like this since the end of the Space Shuttle program. The activities will be covered on NASA TV this Wednesday, May 27th.

Here’s the view through the Node 3 forward hatch where PMM will be berthed:

Around the Solar System

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft is still orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Recently they released some pictures showing some boulders that appear to be “balancing” on their ends, due to the strange gravity field. The direction of “down” is highly dependent on your location on this strangely shaped object, causing configurations that would not be possible on a round world.

Here’s a new higher resolution view of the “bright spots” on Ceres.

Here’s a video of the sun setting on Mars, in real-time, as recorded by the Curiosity rover on Mars (via the Planetary Society).

Weekly Links

This post will have to cover the last two weeks, as I missed last week’s update partly due to being on the evening shift at the ADCO console. I happened to be on duty in mission control when the lost Progress cargo ship re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific. Unfortunately, ISS was too far away for us to see anything from the onboard cameras.

Down to Earth

The crew of Expedition 43 will not be coming back down to Earth as planned this month. NASA and the other ISS partners announced this week that upcoming crew rotation dates will be delayed due to the ongoing investigation of the Progress resupply craft that failed to reach ISS. The next launch was also postponed by a couple of months.

Fortunately, the astronauts aboard ISS seem to be in high spirits and are making the best of it:

In a seemingly unrelated announcement, British singer and spaceflight hopeful, Sarah Brightman, has postponed her plans to fly on a Soyuz to the International Space Station, according to a press release on her website. No official word yet if her backup Satoshi Takamatsu will take her Soyuz seat on TMA-18M later this year.

A new astronaut movie called Pale Blue Dot will star Reese Witherspoon. Let’s hope it lives up to the pedigree of its namesake. Based on what little we know about it so far, I don’t know if I am convinced.

The company that designed the capillary flow coffee cups for serving espresso on the ISS wants to commercially produce the cups for sale on Earth. You can pledge to their Kickstarter here.

The UAE space agency has produced a pretty interesting promo video for their Martian orbiter mission plans:

In Orbit

Check out this awesome video blog from Smarter Every Day about the window shutters in the Cupola on ISS (via Bad Astronomy).

Here are some of my favorite posts from the astronauts in space from the last week or so:

Around the Solar System

The small Japanese probe Procyon was unable to recover its ion engine in time for a needed course correction and will miss its asteroid rendezvous. Procyon launched with Hayabusa 2 in December.

New Horizons is now close enough to Pluto to image all 5 of its known moons!

The “tiger stripes” on Europa could be “sea salt” from beneath the surface.

In other icy moon news, the geysers on Enceladus, seen by the Cassini probe, may actually be curtains rather than geysers.

Check out this awesome Vine from Saturn:

And How could I not share this sunset image taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Out There

Astronomers may have found the first volcanoes on a planet around another star.

Astronomers from Yale University discovered the most distant galaxy ever seen – a stunning 13 billion light years distant.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ok, politics out of the way first. A committee in the US House of Representatives recently marked up a version of a budget bill for NASA that funds the agency at healthy levels but takes a bunch of money from Earth science and gives it to the manned exploration programs. Here is Administrator Charlie Bolden’s official statement on the bill.

Dr. Dava Newman, of MIT, has been confirmed by the US Senate as the new deputy NASA administrator.

SpaceX will conduct their first Pad Abort Test of the manned version of their Dragon capsule on Wednesday. Details of the test can be found here. The unmanned test will be streamed live on NASA TV. Here are some pictures of the Dragon on the pad waiting for the test.

Also, here is a new awesome picture from the failed droneship landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster last month.

Blue Origin tested their New Shepard vehicle on April 29. The launch got them very close to space, only a few miles short of the Karman Line. Here is a video they released of the test.

Mark Kelly will appear on Celebrity Jeopardy! later this month.

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago is currently running a special exhibit about Apollo 13.

In Orbit

SpaceX successfully launched their 5th flight of the year, launching a comm satellite for Turkmenistan on April 27th.

On April 28, a Soyuz rocket carrying an unmanned Progress resupply craft launched from Kazakhstan, headed for the ISS. Unfortunately, a problem occurred at or near separation from the upper stage and the vehicle spun out of control. Mission controllers in Russia were not able to recover the spacecraft and it is expected to crash back to Earth this week. NASA and its partners have a plan for continued logistical support of the space station without the Progress (SpaceX is launching another resupply very soon) and Russia is conducting an internal investigation.

Meanwhile, up on the ISS, the crew has some distractions to keep them from thinking about the logistical challenges. They have installed their brand new espresso machine (or ISSpresso) and also setup a new projector movie screen.

Sam recorded a quick tour of her “hygiene corner” on the ISS.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s MESSENGER probe crashed into Mercury (deliberately) last week, after a successful 4 year orbital mission.

Check out these awesome new images of Pluto from the New Horizons probe… getting closer!

Because its Cool

You can always count on the Onion to make fun of NASA in the best way possible.

Weekly Links

It was a bit of a slow week in spaceflight, with only one rocket launch of note and a few bureaucratic developments. Meanwhile, the people of Nepal were hit hard by a major earthquake and over 3,000 are dead. USA Today has a list of charitable organizations (such as UNICEF, Red Cross, World Food Program, and more) that are mounting relief efforts. Here is the link. I gave to American Red Cross.

Down to Earth

NASA’s decision on the next set of contracts for ISS cargo resupply has been delayed until September. This is the re-bid of the contract currently being fulfilled by SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

The US House of Representatives has marked up their first draft of a spending bill for NASA which includes both 2016 and 2017. There is some good news is that the overall NASA budget is going up, pretty much matching the increase requested by the White House. However, the bill from Congress has a significant difference in funding levels for exploration systems and Earth science.

ESA could join NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, planned to launch in 2022, by providing a lander of some kind. Cool!

ABC released a trailer for “The Astronaut Wives Club”. Check it out.

In Orbit

An Ariane 5 rocket launched from French Guiana today with a pair of communications satellites. SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch is currently scheduled for tomorrow, from Florida.

Canada has budgeted support of the ISS through 2024 in their latest federal budget. Hooray!

This past week, many in the scientific community celebrated 25 years since the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit. In fact, many not in the scientific community were also celebrating!

With operations planned until at least 2020, Hubble will likely overlap in operations with its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.

Around the Solar System

The intriguing bright spots seen by the Dawn spacecraft on the asteroid Ceres have come back into view. Check out this imagery from the mission!

31st Space Symposium

I imagine that my time in Colorado Springs during the week of April 13th was a lot like what some first-time attendees at the Star Wars Celebration (also occurring that week, in LA) were going through. Surrounded by geeks and famous names in my own passion, attending the 31st Space Symposium was like something you might win in a sweepstakes. Except I wasn’t there just as a fan of space. Somehow, I had managed to impress someone enough to be invited as a speaker. What? Yes, I still don’t believe it either. I guess some background is required.

When I joined Twitter in late 2008, it was mostly because it seemed like something the cool kids were doing, and I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t hip. I didn’t think I would use it much. I definitely didn’t think I would find 2,000 people out there who wanted to hear about my job at NASA. It turns out that Twitter, or social media in general, is a great way to stay in touch with the things you care about in the world, and to connect with like-minded people, no matter where they live. This is how I ultimately ended up on stage at the 31st Space Symposium last week, talking about my job as an ISS flight controller. A fellow flight controller, half a world away in Germany, followed me on Twitter and recommended my name as a good representative of the Houston mission operations community for a panel she was helping to organize. It seems like a 21st century idea – to give a professional recommendation for someone you have never met face-to-face!

Our panel, called “Controlling the ISS: Global Collaboration and the Contribution of Young Professionals” was made up of four of us from ISS ops: one each from Houston, Huntsville, Germany, and Japan. Our moderator, retired astronaut Leroy Chiao, was commander of ISS during Expedition 10, his last of four flights to space. Getting ready for the conference was a bit like what we do daily in the ISS program; we had to find a good time for a Google Hangout video conference across 4 time zones in 3 countries. Our first “hangout” all together was at 6 AM in Houston, noon in Germany, and 8 PM in Japan! Our second hangout was at the Space Foundation’s Yuri’s Night party in Colorado Springs, two days before our panel!

It was a unique experience to find oneself with so much in common with people from literally all over the world. Culturally, we are from at least 3 totally different backgrounds (two of us being American) but we share a common language in ISS operations speak. I learned throughout the symposium that this is a theme of the space business these days, and is exactly why the Space Foundation put our panel together. There is a large industry of space and space-related companies and organizations out there, all trying to do similar things. Why allow the barriers of politics, geography, and culture to stand in the way of a shared passion? It was international collaboration that has made the ISS so successful, a success very visible to everyone else trying to do big things in space. Even the military panels had discussions about how cooperation and collaboration across international borders is the path to global space security, and the ISS is often referenced as a model for those efforts!

Our panel was just a one hour session in a full week of panels, speakers, and technical forums. We had a marginal audience of maybe a hundred people – there were concurrent sessions about satellite design, military space situation awareness, and of course the ever buzzing exhibit hall was open. So I feel content that we had a decent audience at all – not to mention Bill Nye came to listen. The pressure was on… one of my childhood heros was going to listen to me talk…

One hour of talking goes really fast when you have 5 people on stage, but we managed to cover some good ground: from what it takes to be a flight controller, to working with the Russians, to challenges of international collaboration, to the Chinese space program, and more. My co-panelists of course had some great things to say, but I thought I would recap a bit of what I covered, since it is what I remember the best!

When prompted by Chiao to address the impact of the Ukraine crisis and other geopolitical tensions on ISS, I noted that we don’t see the effect of politics at all at the working level. I explained that the mass media’s narrative of the program, with Russia holding all the cards, misses the big picture. The Russians can’t just stop flying NASA’s astronauts to the space station as a political tool if they want to keep the station running. Successful ISS operations is not one-sided, but involves contributions from all partners. Russia provides our launch vehicle but NASA brings much to the table also. I gave the example of how the Russian thrusters and American gyroscopes (CMGs) are both needed together if we intend to fly ISS for another decade. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The ISS needs both Russia and the US equally, in its current operational model.

When China was discussed, Chiao asked us “if the political issues were overcome, what would it take to add China to the program?” something I learned from Andrea (my co-panelist from Germany) is that ESA already has a relationship with the Chinese program and their astronauts learn Chinese. As for NASA, we currently don’t have a direct relationship with the Chinese program (it is tricky, since they do not have a clear delineation between civil and military space industry). I did note that adding any new player to ISS, no matter who they are, would present challenges, especially if they would be a new equal partner. Processes like mission management teams and flight rule boards would require additional coordination. I also pointed out that the current relationship NASA has with Russia did not start with ISS. Following the fall of the USSR, we built a relationship of trust through stages of operations such as flying astronauts on each others vehicles and then with the Shuttle-MIR program. A similar phased in approach would be needed with China or any new country that we have never worked with before.

I also fielded a question about debris avoidance on ISS which allowed me to give the example of the Pre-Determined Debris Avoidance Maneuver (PDAM), which is a triumph of international collaboration. The procedure allows the US mission control team to direct the crew to send the reboost command, using the russian segment computers and rocket engines, even if none of the Russian planning team is on duty in Moscow. This capability enables more rapid response to a debris threat but also requires a great level of trust on the part of our Russian friends. I think this is a great example of the successful partnership we have built with the ISS. When asked about the future of spaceflight, I remarked that it would be wise for any future programs, no matter where we go, to be an international endeavor. It would be a shame to waste the lessons we have learned since the concept of Shuttle-MIR was formed in the 1990s.

We even had time to field a few good questions from the audience, including the predictable “what would you tell someone who wants to be a flight controller?” Fortunately, we talk about this often at work, so I explained that even though our intent is to hire steely-eyed engineers with great technical knowledge and aptitude, we don’t put a huge emphasis on grades when hiring. More important is a proven ability to learn and adapt and especially to work with other people and communicate clearly. I spend infinitely more time in my job communicating in many ways (verbal, email, console logs, etc) than doing any math that looks anything like what I studied in college. Mission operations is all about working in a team environment.

The Space Symposium this year placed an emphasis on young professionals with an entire track for “New Generation Space Leaders”, featuring an evening reception with Bill Nye and a luncheon with Dr. Ellen Ochoa (astronaut and director of JSC) as keynote speaker. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of those “New Gen’ers” who came up to us after our panel and thanked us for sharing about working in the ISS program. Before the Symposium, I imagined my fellow young professional attendees to be made up primarily of young engineers excited about New Space – wanting to build rockets with SpaceX, Xcor and Virgin Galactic, and not interested in the slow bureaucracy of NASA. Fortunately, I was proven very wrong! It turns out most everyone still thinks NASA is cool, and wants to hear about working there. We even had a few people try to give us their resumes… of course I gave them some advice, but had to tell them to just check the job postings online!

One of my favorite things I noticed was that almost every booth in the exhibit hall, and all of the videos played at award dinners and luncheons, tended to utilize imagery of the ISS at some point. Even the FedEx booth had the ISS on their booth’s banner, with the phrase “mission control” prominently displayed. They very much want to help out with ISS – by transporting precious experiments and cargo to the launch site, or home from splashdown.

One lesson I have learned from this Symposium is that NASA and the ISS program should be very proud of the example we are setting, and should not be shy about telling our story, because it is a good one. At the same time, it is a wide world of spaceflight industry out there, with thousands of people working on their own projects, regardless of NASA. If we don’t keep up with them, they will leave us behind. That is why I am honored that my company and NASA trusted me to attend the conference based on an invite obtained through social media. It is also why it is great to see NASA embracing social media in the broader context – giving astronauts free reign to post to Twitter without a pre-screening (at least it looks like there is no pre-screening!) and allowing so many flight controllers, flight directors, and others to engage with the public online.

With the ISS program now solidly moved from “assembly” to “utilization” phase, and with social media now something most of the world understands and uses, I have a new confidence that the general public will learn about the ISS and the space program and will be supportive of further exploration. The days of meeting people on the street who don’t even know we have a permanent space station are coming to a close – at least that is my hope! I do realize that going to a conference full of other space geeks is like going into a bit of an echo chamber. But my confidence comes from the support across programs and companies for the future of space. No longer do you hear other space fans referring to the ISS as an expensive “boondoggle” – at least not at the Space Symposium.

And regardless, even if some do still feel that way about the ISS, the symposium showed me that the space industry is a big place. For instance, even if Sierra Nevada doesn’t get the ISS cargo contract for their Dream Chaser, they have agreements with Japan and Germany to use the vehicle – it will get built anyway. A lot of wheels are turning and there are a lot of people out there doing amazing things. The Symosium had panels about the new Europa clipper mission (and the advantages of flying it on an SLS), about constellations of satellites providing broadband internet to the world, about the United Arab Emirates’ new space agency. The list goes on. For me, a young engineer who has only had one job and has not really traveled abroad, going to the Space Symposium was like leaving home for the first time and seeing the size of the world. There is so much to do, so let’s work together and get it done!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ron Howard is working on a TV a miniseries based on Elon Musk and his plans to colonize Mars.

Bulgaria has joined ESA as a “cooperating state”.

Orbital ATK has been contracted by Lockheed Martin to provide the launch abort motor for Orion.

Blue Origin will reportedly resume test flights of their New Shepard rocket later this year.

Check out these very creative animations of NASA’s Apollo mission patches (via CollectSpace).

The members of the Made in Space ISS 3-D printer team received their shipment recently. In fact, you can watch them unboxing it on YouTube (via Parabolic Arc):

In Orbit

SpaceX will launch their next ISS resupply mission today, April 13, and will also be giving the barge landing another shot. The static fire test happened on Saturday, which is an important milestone before launch. I suspect they won’t stream imagery of the barge landing live (like last time) but hopefully they will have dramatic imagery of a success or failure to share afterwards! Among other cargo, food, and science that this CRS-6 mission is hauling to the ISS, there is also a cubesat known as Arkyd-3, which is a demonstration mission for the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

The forecast for the launch window is only 60% as of last night. There is another launch window on Tuesday. Here is Spaceflight Now’s live stream with “mission status center”.

And of course I need to share a few recent tweets and pictures from the ISS:

Around the Solar System

Curiosity has been very busy in Gusev Crater on Mars ever since the team resolved the issue with the instruments on the robotic arm earlier this year. They recently did a few good drives and got some great images. You can see them and follow along with the mission at The Martian Chronicles blog. I love this picture. Curiosity should be reaching the 10 kilometer mark soon.

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has completed 1,000 orbits of Mars.

Mission planners for ESA’s Rosetta are rethinking their future close flybys of the comet 67P due to the navigation hazard caused by dust. A flyby in March sent the spacecraft into safe mode.

And don’t forget Cassini, still orbiting Saturn taking amazing pictures and doing science!

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The California Senate has voted to replace one of their statues in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. with a likeness of late astronaut Sally Ride. Awesome! The bill still has a few legislative hurdles before it is law though.

The user-proposed LEGO model of the ISS has received enough votes for the company to move it to “production review”.

United Launch Alliance announced their plans for their Next Generation Launch System (NGLS) which will replace the Atlas family of rockets in a few short years (hopefully). The new rocket will be named Vulcan and will be ULA’s answer to the US Congress’s order to stop using the Russian built RD-180 engine to launch DoD assets. Not only does Vulcan solve the RD-180 problem by contracting with Blue Origin to develop a new liquid propellant first stage, the BE-4, but it answers SpaceX’s innovative attempts at reusability with their own system (see graphic below).

Sierra Nevada Corporation and the Germany space agency DLR signed an agreement to cooperate on future uses of the Dream Chaser space plane.

In Orbit

SpaceX launched CRS-6, another ISS resupply mission, last Tuesday. The cargo arrived safely on Friday when Samantha Cristoforetti captured the vehicle with the Canadarm-2.

The Dragon spacecraft has a new ISSpresso machine onboard, built by an Italian company to be delivered while Samantha Cristoforetti is on ISS.

SpaceX’s attempt to land their Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage on a barge (ahem, the Autonomous Spaceport Droneship) was not successful. Luckily, we got what we were all waiting for: awesome footage of the not-landing! Good job, SpaceX! They will likely stick it next time (YouTube link via Parabolic Arc).

Some SpaceX employees had some fun (honestly, I don’t know how they found the time) producing a music video parody of Uptown Funk entitled Launch You Up. Enjoy. (Update: I’ve been informed that these are not actually SpaceX employees. The video is by Cinesaurus which is in the business of producing parodies on YouTube. It is entertaining nevertheless)

Those guys better get back to work. The next Falcon 9 launch is scheduled for April 27, which would be the fastest time between two Falcon 9 launches, 10 days, beating the previous record of 13 days.

This Hyundai commercial entitled “A Message To Space” may be an ad, but it is still inspirational and I love seeing the ISS on TV. I hope to see more things like this in the future!

And here’s the obligatory list of best pictures taken from the ISS astronauts over the last week. They never fail to impress:

Around the Solar System

Measurements from the Curiosity rover indicate that liquid water could exist in the soil at night on Mars. In short, the speculated process requires two key factors: salts in the soil, and then humid air during the day that freezes into frost in the evening. This frost then combines with the salts to make a brine which has a higher freezing point, such that it might melt and exist as liquid. Exciting!

Curiosity also stopped to watch a sunset on Sol 956 last week in order to catch images of a Mercury transit. As far as I have found, the images have not been released yet.

Meanwhile, Dawn is getting closer to Ceres and New Horizons is getting closer to Pluto. Both probes returned some exciting new imagery over the last week, including the first color view of Pluto and Charon from New Horizons.

I just learned about the small probe PROCYON that is heading towards asteroid 2000 DP107. PROCYON was launched as a secondary payload with Japan’s Hayabusa-2. Unfortunately, PROCYON is having a bit of a problem with its ion propulsion. I hope they get it fixed soon!

Weekly Links

Sorry for the delayed post this week. It has been a busy month, as I prepare for my trip to the 31st Space Symposium in just over a week. Plus, I recently got a new Amazon Kindle and have been diving into the world of spaceflight historical fiction (I know, I was surprised too!). I recently finished reading both Zero Phase and Public Loneliness by Gerald Brennan. Check them out!

The most exciting space news since my last post on March 20th of course was the launch of Soyuz TMA-16M last Friday. Here’s a video of the launch. More on what’s been going on ISS under “In Orbit”, below.

Down to Earth

United Space Alliance is having a public contest to vote on the name of their new rocket, which they hope will replace their medium lift Atlas V and Delta IV rockets by the 2020s.

Speaking of naming contests, the SETI Institute has launched the “Our Pluto” campaign for the public to help suggest names for features on Pluto, which will soon be discovered by the New Horizons spacecraft. From what I can tell, NASA and the IAU are onboard, so the names may actually become official.

Ellington Airport, just a few miles from the Johnson Space Center, has a new agreement with Sierra Nevada Corporation to land unmanned Dream Chaser spaceplanes here in Houston. If Sierra Nevada is awarded the CRS-2 contract, this could provide a nice logistical advantage for the ISS program.

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 launch, which is another cargo resupply flight to ISS, has been delayed to April 13 (a 3-day slip).

NASA has selected “Option B” for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The mission will involve an unmanned robotic mission retrieving a small boulder from the surface of a Near Earth Object (NEO) which will be visited later by astronauts in lunar orbit.

In Orbit

Lots of rocket launches in late March, in addition to the Soyuz launch that sent Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko, and Gennady Padalka to ISS. The list of launches includes: an Atlas V with a new GPS satellite, A Japanese reconnaissance satellite on an H-II rocket, two European Galileo navigation satellites on a Soyuz rocket, and at least one other Indian, Russian, and Chinese rocket. The Chinese launch reportedly included a test flight of a new mini-space plane. The number of rocket launches this year now stands at 21 to orbit, with no failures.

As for that Soyuz flight to the ISS, it was a picture perfect launch, rendezvous, and docking, with Kelly and crewmates arriving at ISS only 6 hours after departing Kazakhstan. The number of humans off-world is now back up to 6, and the number of people tweeting from space is now at 4, with Kelly joining Cristoforetti, Virts, and Shkaplerov. Here’s a sample of their recent posts:

Around the Solar System

The annual Lunar and Planetary Science conference took place in March, which usually means interesting news from spacecraft exploring the solar system. Some of the best stories from this year’s LPSC are:

Out There

I was excited to learn that there are still astronomers diligently watching the Alpha Centauri system, with HST even, to try to confirm the potential worlds detected orbiting there several years ago. The latest data indicates that perhaps there are two worlds, not just one, orbiting Alpha Centauri B. Unfortunately, the data is not strong enough to say they are there for sure… yet.

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?