Archive for the ‘Virgin Galactic’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The crew of three Chinese taikonauts finished their 30-day stay aboard the Tiangong-2 space staion and returned to Earth last month.

A planned cargo resupply flight (with no astronauts aboard) launched from Kazakhstan on December 1 on its way to the ISS, but did not make orbit and crashed somewhere in a remote part of Asia. The next ISS resupply is a Japanese HTV vehicle launching next week.

Virgin Galactic continued their flight test program for the new SpaceShipTwo vehicle (named VSS Unity) with a captive carry flight on November 30 and then a glide drop test on December 3. Powered flights should be happening soon, but no specific dates are public. Here’s a photo gallery of the flight test.

In Orbit

Four other rockets launched since my last post on November 16, all successfully placing their payloads in orbit:

The ISS has had a very busy month, notwithstanding the loss of Progress 65. After the last three members of Expedition 50 arrived, they got quickly to work with last-minute packing of the Cygnus freighter, which they released two days later.

Since the Cygnus departure, the crew has been furiously working on their long list of on-orbit experiments. Thomas has someone found the time to tweet every day. Some of his best are below:

Around the Solar System

Radar measurements on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have discovered a vast deposit of frozen water under the Northern mid-latitudes of Mars.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Easily the top story of the past couple of weeks (sorry, OSIRIS-REx) was the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket with its commercial satellite payload on the pad during a pre-launch static fire test (video below). The pad, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) was damaged in the fire (pictures here) and SpaceX is currently still investigating the cause. It is impossible to speculate on what kind of setback this will cause in their launch manifest until some notion of the cause is determined. SpaceX still has one operational launch pad in California.

Just 3 days before the SpaceX pad fire, the Chinese space program suffered a failure in what is apparently the first launch failure of the year. The Long March 4C rocket was expected to put a reconnaissance satellite in orbit.

As for positive news, NASA’s troubled Mars lander InSight has been greenlit for a launch sometime in 2018.

Another goodie was Virgin Galactic conducting the first test flight of the new SpaceShipTwo (although just a captive carry flight).

Check out this blog post from one of the recent crew members of NASA’s asteroid mission simulation, HERA. Tess was on the crew of HERA 11.

The most important thing to come “down to Earth” last week was the crew of Expedition 48. Jeff Williams, Oleg Skripochka, and Aleksey Ovchinin landed in Kazakhstan last Wednesday after a flawless undocking and re-entry.

In Orbit

Before Expedition 48 ended, Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins conducted their second spacewalk in as many weeks, repairing and upgrading a slew of items outside the ISS.

Fortunately, there were at least two successful launches to offset the failures in early September. First, an Indian GSLV Mark II rocket lofted a weather satellite. Secondly, a ULA Atlas V rocket launched NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe on its 7-year journey to visit an asteroid and return to Earth with samples.

Around the Solar System

On Mars, the Curiosity rover is currently trundling through some incredible landscapes, snapping photos of beautiful buttes and rock layers.

Juno continues to return data from Jupiter, including a stunning image of the north pole.

And last but not least, one of the coolest stories of the last week, the European Space Agency finally located the lost comet lander, Philae, just weeks before the orbiter Rosetta is due to end its own mission. Check out the pictures!

Weekly Links

Lots to catch up on since my last post on July 23rd. The great summer for spaceflight continues.

Down to Earth

After Eileen Collins spoke at the RNC, another Space Shuttle commander, Mark Kelly, spoke at the DNC.

Sierra Nevada is getting ready to start test flights of their Dream Chaser spaceplane in California, once their full-scale vehicle is shipped their from Colorado.

Virgin Galactic was awarded an operations license from the FAA as they are preparing to resume flight tests with their new SpaceShipTwo vehicle.

A small sample bag from the Apollo 11 mission is at the center of two lawsuits. I’m sure Dr. Jones would agree that it belongs in a museum.

One of the Orbiter Access Arm’s from the Space Shuttle program is now on display at Houston’s Space Center Houston.

Meanwhile, the next generation of crew access arms, for Boeing’ Starliner capsule, was delivered to the Atlas V pad in Florida.

SpaceX conducted a full duration test fire of one of their recovered first stage boosters. Here’s the video:

Google Lunar X Prize competitor, Moon Express, has received approval from the United States government for their private mission to land a rover on the moon.

Vector Space Systems completed their first successful sub-orbital launch.

In Orbit

Speaking of launches, there were four successful orbital flights since my last post. This brings the year’s total to 50 for 50 on orbital launches. For comparison, 2015 had 87 total with 5 failures.

First was an Atlas V launch from Cape Canaveral carrying a secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

Second and third were two chinese launches carrying a new communications satellite and a radar imaging satellite.

Lastly was the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch early in the morning ofAugust 14. The rocket successfully delivered the Japanese JCSAT communications satellite to orbit and recovered the first stage booster on the ASDS at sea. Very impressive. This brings SpaceX’s year up to 8 successful launches for 8 attempts – a yearly record already in August – and 5 for 8 on booster recovery.

Coming up next week is a spacewalk on ISS by NASA astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins to install the new International Docking Adapter.

Around the Solar System

The Chinese Yutu rover is still communicating with the ground from the lunar surface, although it has long since stopped roving. Despite some reports that it is “dead” it is still expected to wake up from hibernation after the current lunar night.

Follow this link for an update on the Curiosity rover mission on Mars, including some nice pictures.

Here is a full year of observations of the Earth NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite. The cyclones in the Pacific are quite obvious.

Out There

Apparently claims of a discover of an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri (our nearest neighboring star) are exciting, but it is worth waiting for more reputable news sources to pick it up than just a small German newspaper… or a peer-reviewed journal paper?

My recent trip to LA

I love that the world can be both so small and so large. I don’t mean that you find yourself on vacation in Rome surrounded by millions of strangers and happen to bump into an old college friend (although those kinds of coincidences can feel quite odd). I’m referring instead to expecting to run into an old friend in a strange city because over time you seem to know someone everywhere. Family and friends move around for so many reasons – career, cost of living, or whim – and the older you get the more likely it is that you can fly to a particular city and have a friend to call on.

Now that I’ve been out of college for a number of years, I’ve realized that the same thing happens in any given field or interest area. Stay in an industry long enough and people you went to college with, worked with, interned with, or whatever, will tend to move around until you can find an acquaintance at all the important companies or institutions.

This made itself apparent this past weekend on a quick trip to the Los Angeles area to visit some friends and family. My wife and I weren’t in town at all for geeky reasons – we just wanted to see some old friends who deserved a visit – but space follows me these days. It’s not exactly amazing that we know some folks that work at Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They are old engineering friends from high school and college, after all. But just because I know someone from SpaceX – who very, very graciously offered us a quick tour of the main factory – doesn’t mean I am somehow an insider. It just means I know someone. This is a hard concept for a lot of people in this world to realize and is why you end up with groupies and name-droppers and people like that. A person needs a good dose of humility to avoid the slippery slope that leads to vanity.

This was one of those "seeing a friend in Rome" coincidences

The last Space Shuttle External Tank also happened to be in town

I received my needed dose of humility when I was led down the hall from the visitor entrance at 1 Rocket Road, around the corner past mission control, out under a flown Dragon capsule, and saw the assembly lines of tanks, engines, and spacecraft in SpaceX’s flashiest factory. After a lifetime of being a space geek, 4 years in college, a couple of internships, and 7 years working at JSC, somehow I hadn’t realized that I’d actually never visited a facility where rockets are being built.

My mind had somehow glossed over this with the illusion that I had. After all, I have been to all the famous NASA rocket parks at JSC, KSC, and MSFC, not to mention each of National Air and Space Museum’s locations a number of times. I’ve seen rockets; I’ve seen a space shuttle launch; I’ve seen a Falcon 9 launch; I’ve been inside the VAB on a tour. But seeing those places is quite different from walking into a facility where photography is not allowed (another concept foreign to me from my years at JSC) and seeing an assembly line of Merlin 1 rocket engines getting ready for integration into the famous Falcon 9 “octaweb.” The images of massive tanks being welded, payload fairings being laid up, and Dragon capsules being integrated, are burned into my mind. I have no illusions that the factory is deliberately designed to leave me in awe. But it doesn’t matter. The point probably would have been made just as well at the ULA or Orbital ATK factories: it’s a big damn world.

Flight hardware! (Photo via Steve Jurvetson’s Flickr)

 

I felt absolutely ignorant walking around that factory. I have a degree in aerospace engineering and yet many of the details of what I saw on Saturday escape me. The world is big in both these gulfs of knowledge, but also the gulfs of time and experience. I last saw my high school classmate at least many years ago, if not a decade. His experience at SpaceX, watching it grow from a struggling startup in 2008 to a dominant industry force today, is vastly different from my experience in a steady job at NASA, surrounded by the always present glory of manned spaceflight but also at the whims of politics, and the morale roller coaster that provides. He has hands on knowledge of spacecraft design, while I am one of some hundreds of people in the world who know what it is like to operate a modern manned spacecraft. This is the largeness of the world that hit home for me last Saturday.

And yet, sitting and chatting over a meal with several Virgin Galactic employees gave me a feeling of smallness, like we are all in this together regardless of badge or funding source. It occurs to me now that networking is not important just for selfish reasons of career growth. It is also important to stay out of the trap of living in a bubble, of thinking that your little slice of the world is the most important. I can’t feel good about what I do without the context of how it fits into the bigger picture of what everyone is doing, not just in Houston and Los Angeles but around the world.

It is all too easy to let the size of the world become overwhelming. How can I have an influence among 5 million people in my city? A hundred million in my country? Seven billion in my world? How can I have an original idea? Surely I am not the only one to have thoughts like these from time to time. One way to make the world small again is to create and preserve relationships with other people doing the things you care about. They might show you some “flight hardware” and then you will be hard pressed not to feel motivated.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former Space Shuttle astronaut and commander Don Williams passed away on February 23rd at 74. Read about his impressive career at CollectSpace.

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Deke Slayton departed the ISS on February 20 after a successful two-month mission.

NASA received a record number of applicants to the astronaut class of 2017.

Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut, has been named the chief pilot at World View, which aims to launch tourists to the edge of space in a balloon.

Virgin Galactic unveiled their latest spaceship, the second version of their SpaceShipTwo. They hope to start their flight test campaign soon, but no new target date for commercial flights was announced.

China has announced that they plan to launch their next space station later this year.

In Orbit

Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned safely from his 340 day mission aboard ISS. Before he left, he had a little fun with a costume his brother sent up to him:

You can see all the pictures that Scott took while onboard the ISS here (and there a lot!).

SpaceX finally had another successful launch, after several scrubs over the past week or two. On Friday, March 4th, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-9 payload launched from Florida. It was their first launch since January and second of the year. The first stage attempted a landing on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) but had a hard landing.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former NASA mathematician Katharine Johnson was recently awarded the presidential medal of freedom. She is currently 97 years old.

Hungary is a new full member of the European Space Agency.

Virgin Galactic announced that they now plan to launch their LauncherOne rocket from a modified 747 instead of from the belly of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. WhiteKnightTwo will then be free to fly more dedicated flights of SpaceShipOne for paying tourist-o-nauts.

The Apollo Saturn V rockets that Jeff Bezos pulled up from the seafloor in the Atlantic are headed to museums. Some of them have already been delivered to the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The first of 18 primary mirror segments for the James Webb Space Telescope was installed into the spacecraft last month.

Blue Origin had a suborbital flight of their New Shepard vehicle. The unmanned capsule landed back on Earth under parachute and the rocket itself landed under its own power on two legs. Here’s the video.

And here’s an awesome video of Blue Origin employees celebrating the flight. Almost as good as JPL celebrating a rover landing on Mars. Way to go guys!

In Orbit

Lots of rocket launches since my last post. Here’s a quick run down. I use the Wikipedia page 2015 in spaceflight as a general source (with other references):

Three launches by China of various reconnaissance or communications payloads.

Two launches by Russia, seemingly military in nature. However, the recent launch last night may have had a mishap and part of the payload did not make orbit.

 And then Japan, ESA, and America round out the crowd with one more launch each. Japan launched a commercial telecommunications satellite, ESA launched the LISA Pathfinder gravity wave physics probe, and United Launch Alliance sent a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on the way to the ISS for Orbital ATK.

Meanwhile on the ISS, the crew has been posting awesome pictures in whatever free they have. Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui will be coming home this week, on December 11th. I will miss their Twitter posts! You really should be following them on Twitter yourself, but here are some of their best (it may look like a lot but this is really a small selection from just the last three weeks):

Around the Solar System

The Japanese probe Akatsuki has entered orbit around Venus, several years after it missed its original orbit insertion due ot a thruster failure. Way to go JAXA!

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Last week the US Senate passed a bill named the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act”.  One of the most talked about provisions in the bill allows private citizens or companies to lay claim to asteroid resources.

Virgin Galactic announced that they have hired their first female test pilot: Kelly Latimer, who has flown for the USAF and NASA.

An object known as WT1190F re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up over the Indian Ocean on November 13th. The object was thought to be a rocket stage from an Apollo mission. Astronomers onboard an airplane caught some pictures of the event.

This is pretty cool:

In Orbit

In the past week, only one rocket blasted into orbit: an ESA Ariane 5 rocket with communications satellites for India and Saudi Arabia. The next launch in support of the ISS is still a few weeks away: an Atlas V carrying a Cygnus freighter for Orbital ATK.

Around the Solar System

I love this animated mission update on the Rosetta/Philae mission from ESA.

New analysis indicates that Mars’ small moon Phobos may only have millions of years to live. Due to its low orbit, it is getting torn apart by tidal forces, which cause the strange “grooves” on its surface.

New images of large mountains on Pluto may be evidence for “ice volcanoes” (or “cryovolcanoes”).

Check out this animation which shows the different spin rates of Pluto’s 5 moons.

Astronomers have discovered a new distant solar system object which may be the most distant rocky body known. V774104 is about half the size of Pluto and orbits several times further away.

Out There

Newly discovered planet , GJ 1132b, is the closest planet of about Earth’s size yet discovered, at only 39 light years distant. Unfortunately, the planet is tidally locked and very close to its star, making it not a fun place.

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!

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

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)