Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Astronauts Mike Fossum and Mike Baker announced their retirement from NASA last week.

NASA announced that it will be funding two new robotic missions to study distant asteroids. The Lucy probe will take many years to go all the way out to study the Trojan asteroids, which share Jupiter’s orbit. The Psyche probe will travel to an asteroid named Psyche which is a solid iron asteroid. It will be the first large iron asteroid visited by a spacecraft.

In Orbit

The one and only orbital launch since my last post on January 5th was yet another Chinese rocket. This launch on the 9th carried several small Earth observation satellites into orbit.

Up on the ISS, the Expedition 50 crew completed two successful spacewalks to upgrade a portion of the space station’s power systems to use new lithium-ion batteries. Last Friday, January 6th, Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough completed the first spacewalk and yesterday, Friday, January 13th, Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet completed the second. Whitson’s 46 hours over 7 spacewalks puts her in an elite class at 14th on the list of most spacewalking hours ever by a human. Shane also has an impressive 25 hours over only 4 EVAs, but it keeps him off this list of top 30 humans on Wikipedia (30th place is just over 38 cumulative hours. Also note that Whitson would only need one more spacewalk on her current mission to pass Sunita Williams’ 50 hours in 7th place for most hours for a woman). Here are some video summaries from NASA and pictures from the spacewalks:

Around the Solar System

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took this incredible image of the Earth and moon from Mars orbit.

Fascinating analysis of some odd terrain on Pluto.

JPL has put together a new compilation of images from the Huygens probe descent to Saturn’s moon Titan, 12 years after the event. The mothership, Cassini, will end its mission later this year.

Out There

Astronomers observing a distant binary star have concluded that they will collide and merge in roughly 5 years, creating a bright nova that will be visible with the naked eye from Earth. Mark your calendars for 2022!

January 14, 2017 9:40 am

2016 Link Dump

NASA exploration year in review (press release)

NASA space technology year in review (press release)

NASA commercial crew year in review (press release)

Best NASA photos of 2016 (via Universe Today)

100 best space photos of 2016 (by Space.Com)

ESA’s 2016 year in review video

ESA’s 2017 preview video

Space industry in 2016 (by Spaceflight Insider)

ISS ops in 2016 (by Spaceflight Insider)

The year in rocket launches, part 1 (by Parabolic Arc)

The year in rocket launches, part 2 (by parabolic Arc)

January 8, 2017 9:41 pm

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

American hero and original Mercury astronaut John Glenn died on December 8th.

Former space shuttle astronaut, climate scientist, and director at Goddard Space Flight Center, died on December 23rd. He was a fierce advocate of climate science. This open letter he wrote after his cancer diagnosis is worth a read.

Virgin Galactic conducted another SpaceShipTwo glide flight on December 22, the second of the month.

Actor Ryan Gosling is to play Neil Armstrong in a new biopic to be filmed next year.

In Orbit

It’s been a busy month since my last post on December 4th, with 12 more successful orbital rocket launches (check out this post from Parabolic Arc for 2016 launch statistics).

The Japanese HTV cargo craft which launched in early December was successfully captured by the on-orbit ISS crew on December 12th.

Around the Solar System

There are some problems at Mars:

The Curiosity rover has a problem with its scientific drill. Flight controllers are troubleshooting.

The Mars Odyssey orbiter went into safe mode last week. It is expected that it will be recovered.

January 5, 2017 6:04 pm

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.

December 4, 2016 9:41 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Check out this super-informative video with astronaut Reid Wiseman explaining “everything about living in space” in 5 minutes:

Wondering what the US Presidential election means for NASA and the space industry? Here are a few opinion pieces:

Spaceflight Insider

Space.com

SpaceNews

The German space agency is deploying a large greenhouse to the South Pole research station in Antarctica. The technology, if it works, should be transferable to spaceflight.

In Orbit

Five orbital launches since my last post on October 30th (see this Wikipedia page for a nice list of all launches this year, with dates, etc.):

Japan launched the Himawari 9 meteorological satellite on an H-II rocket.

China had three launches: the debut of their new Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket on carrying an electric propulsion demonstration payload; a small Long March 11 rocket carrying an X-ray navigation demonstration satellite (read up on pulsar navigation here); a medium-lift Long March 2D rocket carrying a weather satellite.

The fifth launch was a ULA Atlas V rocket carrying a satellite for Earth-observation company WorldView. The launch was from Vandenberg in California.

Around the Solar System

The Mars rover Curiosity spent some time studying an iron meteorite that it found on the surface of the red planet.

November 14, 2016 8:12 am

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

SpaceX posted an update to their accident investigation regarding the rocket that was lost on a launch pad in September. Here’s a direct link to their anomaly updates page. They hope to return to flight this year.

In Orbit

In launches, it has been a slow couple of weeks, with only two orbital launches since my last post on October 16th. It was quality over quantity though, as both launches were important and anticipated missions for ISS operations.

First, Orbital ATK was able to finally launch their upgraded Antares rocket with a Cygnus cargo craft on its way to ISS. The rocket launched on Monday October 17th and was captured at the ISS almost a week later on Sunday the 23rd. The delay was necessary due a higher priority launch and docking of three crew aboard a Soyuz (see below).

On Wednesday, October 19, the Soyuz rocket carrying the second half of Expedition 50 finally launched (after a spacecraft problem delayed them several weeks). The launch, rendezvous, and docking were flawless. The new crew of Shane Kimbrough Andrei Borisenko, and Sergey Ryzhikov arrived at ISS on the 21st.

There were 8 people in space only briefly (recall that two Chinese taikonauts are hanging out on their own space station right now). Expedition 49 had to hand over command to new Expedition 50 commander Kimbrough on the 28th before Anatoli Ivanishin, Kate Rubins, and Takuya Onishi undocked on Saturday night and landed safely a few hours later.

Speaking of the Chinese taikonauts, they docked successfully to the Tiangong-2 space station on October 20th and plan to stay for several weeks.

Around the Solar System

The ExoMars mission arrived at Mars on October 19th. The orbiter (known as TGO – Trace Gas Orbiter) made a successful orbital insertion burn but unfortunately, contact with the Schiaparelli lander was lost at the planned time of touchdown. The lander is suspected to be lost, but NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was able to image the lander’s crash site, which should help with investigations. Below is an animated GIF showing the recent appearance of the lander in MRO imagery:

And here’s a closeup from the MRO’s HiRise camera.

In other bad news, the Juno spacecraft went into safe mode during its closest approach to Jupiter on October 18 and was not able to obtain scientific data. This came only a few days after an engine burn had been cancelled. Fortunately, mission controllers were able to command Juno out of safe mode on October 24 and perform at least one “trim” maneuver. The mission timeline will be impacted by the problem but there are still dozens of orbits left in the primary mission to gather data.

Here is a nice post with images about the preliminary results from Juno so far.

Speaking of spacecraft beaming data back to Earth, the data downlink from the New Horizons probe of its Pluto flyby last July has finally completed, 15 months later!

October 30, 2016 1:45 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

An opinion piece by Barack Obama appeared in CNN last week discussing his vision for America’s future in space and particularly, future missions to Mars.

Amid talk of a schedule slip of the first Starliner missions, Boeing announced they will need to add an aeroskirt for their launch configuration atop the Atlas V rocket (follow the link for an illustration).

In Orbit

Astronauts on the ISS opened up the BEAM module for another round of inspections (that’s the “expandable” module that was added back in May). Meanwhile, NASA announced that it is seeking commercial partners to build new functional modules for the ISS. Of course, the supplier of BEAM, Bigelow Aerospace, is one of the companies seeking the contract.

The launch of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket (returning to flight almost 2 years after the last one failed after launch) was delayed until tomorrow evening due to a technical issue.

Earlier this evening, China launched a manned Shenzhou capsule with two crew aboard. They are heading to the new Tiangong-2 space station for an extended mission. When the latest ISS Soyuz crew launches in a couple of days, there will be 8 people in space! It has been very rare for the number to grow above 6 since the last Space Shuttle mission five years ago.

Around the Solar System

Due to some sticky valves in the Juno spacecraft’s propulsion system, the probe will not be making a scheduled burn to reduce its orbital period from over 50 days to just 14 days. NASA is waiting another orbit (so, until December) to investigate and then try again.

Astronomers have discovered a new distant unnamed object (2014 UZ224) which may be large enough to qualify as a “dwarf planet”. The object is smaller than Pluto and orbits about 5 times farther from the sun.

The ExoMars/Schiaparelli mission – a joint mission between ESA and Roscosmos – had some critical mission events today, including separation of the Schiaparelli lander and a critical orbital maneuver to setup for orbital insertion next week.

October 16, 2016 9:51 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jack Garman, who worked a support console for Apollo guidance and navigation, passed away on September 20th, at 72 years old. Garman is best known as being instrumental in the calls to proceed with landing on Apollo 11 when some guidance computer program alarms showed up at just 3,000 feet above the surface. Here’s the raw audio from that part of the landing which is always worth listening to again. Great example of flight control in action.

Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast StarTalk had a special episode hosted by astronaut Mike Massimino with guest interviewees, flight directors Royce Renfrew and Emily Nelson. Check it out here!

Musician and singer Grace Potter collaborated with NASA on a music video for her song Look What We’ve Become. It was filmed completely at NASA’s Johnson Space Center! Check it out below.

One of the biggest national stories of the last week was Hurricane Matthew, which came close to dolling out a devastating blow to the East coast of Florida. Fortunately, the most dangerous winds stayed offshore as it passed the Kennedy Space Center, resulting in some damage but nothing too serious.

In the battle of the New Space giants, there were two big stories in recent weeks. First, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had his much anticipated presentation at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico. the speech presented a high level framework of his plans to visit Mars. Most of the details were focused on the rocket design and less on how humans would survive and thrive on Mars. Below is the full length video, but Ars Technica had a good analysis if you don’t want to watch all of it. Another good take on it from Phil Plait here.

If you are interested in just the 4-minute animation from SpaceX showing their imagined Mars mission architecture, jump to the second video below.

The other big story was Blue Origin’s successful in-flight abort test of their New Shepard rocket (personally, I am not sure if they have a separate name for the capsule or if New Shepard refers to the whole system. It was a pretty exciting launch and test. Jump to 51 minutes in the webcast replay below to watch!

In Orbit

Lots of good news regarding the ISS flight manifest. The next Cygnus cargo freighter, launching from Virginia for the first time in 2 years on Orbital ATK’s redesigned Antares rocket, should fly next Thursday, the 13th.

The following week, the next crew should launch on their repaired Soyuz craft. That launch is scheduled for Wednesday, the 19th.

There were two rocket launches since my last post. First, an Indian GSLV rocket launched a slew of satellites into orbit, including some from Algeria, USA, Canada, and India. Second, an ESA Ariane 5 rocket launched two communications satellites to a geosynchronous orbit on the 5th.

Around the Solar System

Check out this “video” (really an animated gif made from stills) of the Curiosity rover drilling on Mars! The rover has just officially entered its next two-year mission extension.

NASA announced new findings from the Hubble Space Telescope that reinforce the conclusion that not only does Europa have a subsurface ocean of liquid water, but that the water regularly exits the moon in powerful plumes (which could be theoretically sampled by a visiting probe).

In even more exciting planetary science news, NASA announced new analysis of data from the MESSENGER spacecraft (which finished its Mercury orbital mission last year). By analyzing imagery from the last part of MESSENGER’s mission, when it was at a lower altitude, scientists have concluded that the surface shows signs of recent contraction, meaning that Mercury is tectonically active.

ESA’s Rosetta mission ended on September 30th with a controlled descent into comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko.

October 9, 2016 4:53 pm

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

The next manned Soyuz launch has been delayed. The second half of the Expedition 49 crew was due to launch to ISS on September 23rd but technical issues have pushed the launch back.

In another delay, a wildfire in California has pushed back a launch of an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Legendary cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, who has flown to space 6 times and is only second to Gennady Padalka for time in space at 827 days, has reportedly retired. He was most recently on ISS for Expedition 47 earlier this year.

A ridiculously large meteorite fragment was extracted from the ground in Argentina.

In Orbit

Three successful rocket launches in the past week: Israel launched a spy satellite on the 13th; China launched their new space station, Tiangong-2, on the 15th; Arianespace launched a Vega rocket with two commercial payloads on the 16th.

Up on the ISS, Kate Rubins donned a special flight suit painted by pediatric patients from MD Anderson’s Cancer Center. Kate was wearing the suit for a special event arranged by the “Space Suit Art Project” championed by retired astronaut Nicole Stott. The video of the event is below.

Around the Solar System

Pluto’s moon Charon has an odd red polar cap, first seen when the New Horizons probe visited the planet last year. A new analysis shows that the source may be methane from Pluto converted to organics by the sun’s radiation.

The Hubble Space Telescope caught images of a distant comet breaking apart (GIF courtesy NASA, of course).

September 18, 2016 10:15 pm

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!

September 11, 2016 10:56 pm