ULA Delta 2 launches SMAP

Following a 48 hour delay due to higher than allowed upper level winds and an issue with debonding of insulation on the first stage the United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg today carrying NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite.

The water cycle is illustrated here. Water is constantly moving on Earth.  The water cycle consists of all the processes involved in the transfer and storage of water in Earth’s atmosphere, on its surface, underground, and by organisms living on our planet.
The water cycle is illustrated here. Water is constantly moving on Earth. The water cycle consists of all the processes involved in the transfer and storage of water in Earth’s atmosphere, on its surface, underground, and by organisms living on our planet.

SMAP will provide a capability for global mapping of soil moisture and freeze/thaw state with unprecedented accuracy, resolution, and coverage. SMAP science objectives are to acquire space-based hydrosphere state measurements over a three-year period to:

  • Understand processes that link the terrestrial water, energy and carbon cycles
  • Estimate global water and energy fluxes at the land surface
  • Quantify net carbon flux in boreal landscapes
  • Enhance weather and climate forecast skill
  • Develop improved flood prediction and drought monitoring capabilities

For more information on the SMAP mission check out it’s main page here.

The images below were captured from the NASA Live Stream of the launch.

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ULA launches MUOS 3 Satellite

United Launch Alliance started it’s 2015 launch schedule with a beautiful launch from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 41 last night.  The most powerful version of there Atlas V family this rocket had a single core and five solid boasters.  The launch was delayed several times due to weather violations but was able to launch within the available window concluding in a successful deployment of the U.S. Navy’s third Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite.

The images below were capture from the ULA web cast.

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Musk Releases images of attempted BargeX landing

Elon Musk released several images of the Falcon 9 first stage as it attempted to land on the floating landing platform in the Atlantic Ocean.  As was previously reported the attempt was close but ultimately failed, these images show just how close the vehicle was to landing on the Barge and according to Elon the Fins that helped control the decent ran out of fuel too early causing the rocket engines to attempt to compensate for the change.

The next test which could be as soon as 29th of Jan will carry additional fuel for the Fins.

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New Horizons Flyby Activity begins

640px-New_Horizons_-_Logo2_bigNASA’s New Horizons spacecraft which has been travelling towards Pluto since its launch in 2006 has now entered the flyby activity phase of the mission.  While closest approach will not be until July 14th the spacecraft will be performing plenty of different activities before then, as it races towards the dwarf planet.

Due to the extreme distance of the spacecraft it takes four hours for a signal to arrive back on Earth and will take almost a year for all the data captured to be returned.

The spacecraft carries seven scientific instruments. Total mass is 31 kg (68 lb) and rated power is 21 watts (though not all instruments operate simultaneously).

Fundamental physics-Pioneer Anomaly

New Horizons may be used to test the Pioneer Anomaly issue as it has an Ultrastable Oscillator subsystem.

Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI)

LORRI is a long focal length imager designed for high resolution and responsivity at visible wavelengths. The instrument is equipped with a high-resolution 1024×1024 monochromatic CCD imager with a 208.3 mm (8.20 in) aperture giving a resolution of 5 μrad (~1 asec). The CCD is chilled far below freezing by a passive radiator on the antisolar face of the spacecraft. This temperature differential requires insulation, and isolation from the rest of the structure. The Ritchey–Chretien mirrors and metering structure are made of silicon carbide, to boost stiffness, reduce weight, and prevent warping at low temperatures. The optical elements sit in a composite light shield, and mount with titanium and fiberglass for thermal isolation. Overall mass is 8.6 kg (19 lb), with the Optical tube assembly (OTA) weighing about 5.6 kg (12 lb), for one of the largest silicon-carbide telescopes flown at the time (now superseded by Herschel).

Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon.
Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon.

Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation (PERSI)

This consists of two instruments: The Ralph telescope, 6 cm (2.4 in) in aperture, with two separate channels: a visible-light CCD imager (MVIC- Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera) with broadband and color channels, and a near-infrared imaging spectrometer, LEISA (Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array). LEISA is derived from a similar instrument on the EO-1 mission. The second instrument is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer, Alice. Alice resolves 1,024 wavelength bands in the far and extreme ultraviolet (from 50–180 nm), over 32 view fields. Its goal is to view the atmospheric makeup of Pluto. This Alice is derived from an Alice on the Rosetta mission. Ralph, designed afterwards, was named after Alice’s husband on The Honeymooners. Ralph and Alice are names, not acronyms.

Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM)

PAM consists of two instruments: SWAP (Solar Wind At Pluto), a toroidal electrostatic analyzer and retarding potential analyzer, and PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation), a time of flight ion and electron sensor. SWAP measures particles of up to 6.5 keV, PEPSSI goes up to 1 MeV. Because of the tenuous solar wind at Pluto’s distance, the SWAP instrument has the largest aperture of any such instrument ever flown.

Radio Science Experiment (REX)

REX will use an ultrastable crystal oscillator (essentially a calibrated crystal in a miniature oven) and some additional electronics to conduct radio science investigations using the communications channels. These are small enough to fit on a single card. Since there are two redundant communications subsystems, there are two, identical REX circuit boards. There is an outstanding request for a series of Geophysical Telegrams to be issued so that the REX can avoid failures and obtain more scientifically useful information.

Built by students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Student Dust Counter will operate continuously through the trajectory to make dust measurements. It consists of a detector panel, about 460 mm × 300 mm (18 in × 12 in), mounted on the antisolar face of the spacecraft (the ram direction), and an electronics box within the spacecraft. The detector contains fourteen polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF) panels, twelve science and two reference, which generate voltage when impacted. Effective collecting area is 0.125 m2 (1.35 sq ft). No dust counter has operated past the orbit of Uranus; models of dust in the outer Solar System, especially the Kuiper belt, are speculative. VBSDC is always turned on measuring the masses of the interplanetary and interstellar dust particles (in the range of nano- and picograms) as they collide with the PVDF panels mounted on the New Horizons spacecraft. The measured data is expected to greatly contribute to the understanding of the dust spectra of the Solar System. The dust spectra can then be compared with those observed via telescope of other stars, giving new clues as to where earthlike planets can be found in our universe. The dust counter is named for Venetia Burney, who first suggested the name “Pluto” at the age of 11. A thirteen-minute short film about VBSDC garnered an Emmy award for student achievement in 2006.

The scientific instrument information was taken from Wikipedia

Dragon at the International Space Station

Following Saturday’s beautiful launch of the Falcon 9 and two days of rendezvous maneuvers the SpaceX Dragon vehicle arrived at the ISS early this morning. This is the sixth time that Dragon has visited the station, once under the COTS development program and five times under the cargo resupply contract (CRS) awarded to SpaceX.

The spacecraft was grappled by Astronaut Butch Wilmore at 5:54am EST using the station arm, mission control then maneuvered the spacecraft into position to allow the berthing process to be completed, the sixteen bolts were then fastened to create a hard link between the two.  The hatches may be opened later today and the spacecraft it due to stay at the station for the next 29 days before being leave to return critical items back to Earth on 2/10.

Among the 5000+ pounds of cargo delivered by Dragon are Christmas presents and fresh groceries for the crew to enjoy.

The images below were captured from the NASA TV broadcast of the events

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Is US Manned Space Program falling behind?

Since the Space Shuttle completed it’s last flight the US has had to rely on Russia to launch manned missions to the International Space Station, and this will continue for at least two more years.

There are currently two countries with the ability to launch manned missions Russia and China, there are five others US, ESA, India, Iran and Japan working on programs.

India recently launched their Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mk III vehicle, the most powerful so far, which carried the Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) vehicle which is the first stage of their manned program.

The status of the other programs is unknown at this point with the plans calling for delivery in the 2020’s.

So what does this mean for the US Manned program?

At present there are four active programs for Orbital Manned Spaceflight in the US those are Boeing’s CST-100, NASA’s Orion, SNC’s Dream Chaser and SpaceX’s Dragon V2. Of these three are being funded by NASA and the four has previously been funded and is currently disputing the award to the other competitors.

Before we decide if the US is falling behind lets take a look at each program.

Boeing’s CST-100
The CST-100 like the Dragon V2 and Orion spacecraft is based on a capsule design which will return to Earth and land under parachutes.

The CST-100 will be launched on an Atlas V rocket supplied by ULA.

NASA’s Orion
Orion is designed to travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), while it could operate in LEO there really isn’t much point as the commercial companies will have this ability before Orion’s next flight.  The first test flight of Orion was completed successfully earlier this month.

The Orion spacecraft will be launched on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket which is due to debut in 2018.

SNC’s Dream Chaser
Unlike the other’s Dream Chaser is a lifting body spacecraft designed to land automatically on conventional runways.

Dream Chaser will be launched by an Atlas V but a smaller version is also being designed that could launch on Stratolaunch.

SpaceX’s Dragon V2
The Dragon V2 spacecraft is the crewed version of the currently operating Dragon spacecraft that has supplied the space station five times. This vehicle will include the ability to automatically dock with the station and will use a propulsive landing to allow it to precisely control where it lands.

Dragon V2 will be launched on the Falcon 9 v1.1 as the current Dragon does.


Far from falling behind the rest of the world we truly believe that the US is in a far stronger position for the future. Having four active manned programs three of which are commercially owed will help to keep costs lower and will ensure that the US has access to space even if one system suffers a failure.

Was the landing attempt last week a failure?

If you go by the strict letter of the law then you have to answer that question with a Yes because one of the milestones was to land on the floating landing platform.

However if you look at what was achieved by this flight then we would say that there were a lot of positives to this test even if the result wasn’t what they hoped.

1 – According to Elon Musk the rocket crashed into the landing platform causing some damage to the support equipment.

The fact that the rocket which was traveling at more than two kilometers per second when it had completed it’s primary job was able to slow down, re-enter the atmosphere, locate a floating platform the size of a football field in the Atlantic ocean and get close enough to crash into it is a major achievement.

2 – Elon reported that they ran out of hydraulic fuel for the grid fins that were used for the first time on this flight, they had previously been used on a test. Before they ran out of fuel the fins had performed as designed and helped the control the return of the first stage to the floating platform.

He also confirmed that the next flight will have 50% more hydraulic fuel which should give them plenty of margin for that attempt, which looks to be the Eutelsat 115 West B & ABS 3A flight currently scheduled for 2/17.

3 – Elon stated in an earlier statement that he believe there was only a 50-50 chance that this would succeed this time. He later said he just guessed the number however it does show that what they are trying to do is difficult and we have to remember it has never been done before.

We believe that before the end of this year we will see a successful landing on the floating platform, when it happens the launch industry which has already taken note of what SpaceX are doing will really need to come up with similar designs or face losing out more and more to SpaceX as they continue to lower the cost of space launches.

SpaceX CRS-5 mission on it’s way to ISS

Following a smooth countdown this morning the Falcon 9’s engines roared to live to carry the Dragon spacecraft to orbit, Follow successful separation from the second stage the solar array’s deploy and the spacecraft is now heading to the International Space Station to deliver 1.8 metric tonnes of supplies.

Elon Musk tweeted two updates on the landing attempt.

Below are some screen grabs of the launch

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Future Now – Back to the Future – Where are we today?

I was recently watching the Back to the Future trilogy with my 10 and 8 year olds and thought it would be interesting to see where we are with the future that was predicted in the second film.

In 1989 the second of the Back to the Future trilogy was released, in this film Doc, Marty and Jennifer travel to 21st October 2015 to see what happens to their children. In that future we see a number of interesting technologies, in this article we are going to explore those technologies and see how close they are today.

We will explore each technology in the order they were first seen in the film.

Mr. Fusion

We first see this at the end of the first film just after the Doc arrives from the future. In the first film we learned that the power requirements for the Flux Capacity is 1.21 Gigawatts, therefore for this article we are going to assume that hasn’t changed. In the film the device is powered by trash and is small enough to fit on the back of the car.

A lot of research is going on today in to Fusion power generation, Lockheed Martin’s skunk works recently announced a “High Beta Fusion Reactor” that is expected to produce 100 Megawatts with the first prototype ready by 2017 which would “fit in the back of a truck”. They expect it to be ready for regular operation by 2022. The general reaction from other scientists to this news was negative with many doubting anything could be ready that soon or be that small.

While there is progress on this it is clear that we are no where near producing 1.21 Gigawatts today and it seems highly unlikely we will have that ability for a number of years to come.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 0%

Flying Car

Again we see this first at the end of the first film and then throughout the second film.

A lot of progress has been made towards flying cars however at present there are none that are commercially available, the companies that are working on them include Terrafugia, Moller International, Urban Aeronautics, MACRO Industries, Inc and French Government sponsored project called Xploriar.

Several of the designs make use of rotor’s to help elevate the car these would allow them to hover as well as perform Vertical Take Off and Landing.

There are a number of challenges that need to be addressed before commercial use of flying cars has a chance of succeeding, including Safety, FAA regulation, fuel efficiency etc. At the present time it is difficult to estimate when they will be available commercially.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 5%

Driving Glasses

Doc Brown wore these when flying the car, based on dialog during the film we can conclude that these provide camera views around the vehicle while driving.

We are going to assume of this article that the glasses also use other inputs to provide additional data.

Wearable devices are a big buzz word today with many vendors including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, etc coming out with new devices all the time. Google Glass is probably the closest we have today to the glasses that Doc wore, however at present there is no direct interface to camera’s on cars that can be projected on Google Glass.

A number of car companies already provide technology that can warn you if you are too close to a car, or if you are swerving out of your lane, or a car is in your blind spot, etc. Again none of these today are linked to any wearable devices.

It is possible that some of this information could be linked with a wearable device in the next year, however it seems highly unlikely that the government would approve the use of glasses as an alternate to using real vision for quite some time.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 5%

Weather Control

Just after arriving in 2015 it is raining heavily, after they land Doc looks at his watch and counts down to when the rain stops. He then comments “Too bad the post office isn’t as efficient as the weather service.”

There are ways to control the weather today, in recent times China has launched rockets and aircraft to ensure that clouds stayed away from big events, This is achieved by load the clouds with silver iodide or liquid nitrogen — dry ice — to induce precipitation above reservoirs and rivers. In addition they currently have 50,000 people working on rain creation infrastructure to alleviate droughts.

While the technology does exist it hasn’t been widely adopted and most of the world has to deal with whatever nature throws at us. Whether that will change in the next year is unknown, we suspect that there will some who will be against it and other who will welcome it.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 5%

Self-tying shoes, Self-Sizing and Auto Drying Clothes

After they arrive in 2015 Doc gives Marty clothes and shoes which are clearly too big, once he puts them on the automatically re-size to fit him.

It is rumored that Nike are scheduled to release a self-tying shoe next year, however there is very little detail or substance to this. One of the biggest challenges with any of these is power requirements, while self-tying or self-sizing may not need much power it will still be needed and therefore need to be re-charged. Auto drying is a bigger challenge as you would need fans or a heat source and more power.

It seems unlikely that these will be common in the near future, only time will tell.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 10%

Floating Robotic Waiters

Inside the 80’s diner the customers are served by a floating robotic waiter.

While robotic waiters are starting to appear (see Quantum of the Seas Bartender), and robots are becoming increasingly complex the combination of a flying drone and robot to server customers is not quite a practical just yet.

The challenge here is the fact that at present floating drones require some form of rotor blade to produce the down draft needed, this would make them impractical for indoor use on a large scale. With that being said we will see in the next section Hoverboards that the technology does exists today in special locations, a restaurant could well be setup to utilize this technology, however the cost would seem to be prohibitive at this time.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 15%


While escaping from Griff and his gang Marty commandeers a hoverboard.
Hendo Hover recently announced a working Hoverboard Kickerstarter campaign that can hold the average human, at present the technology only works over metal, however they are working to support other surfaces in the future. There are some skeptics to this project stating that it is all a publicity stunt, only time will tell, so far it has been fully funded and is still active on Kickstarter.

Others have tried to create similar technology but none have been successful or have been restricted by where they are able to operate.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 15%

Floating News Drones

After Griff and his gang crash into the courthouse we see a floating news drone watching the action. While drones are becoming more and more popular today and most are fitted with camera’s due to FAA regulations Is it doubtful that these will be common place this year.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 15%

Floating Robotic Pet Walkers

As Doc and Marty arrive on Hilldale, the future home of the McFly’s we see a dog being walked by a robotic flying drone.

This doesn’t seem to be too un-realistic given the current progress on Drone’s today, however we can see several challenges with this.

  1. Having a drone walking a pet would require software that could detected the environment around the drone to ensure that the pet wasn’t in danger from moving cars, dangerous terrain etc.
  2. Pets especially big dogs are strong, the drone would have to be very strong to be able to resists the pull of the dog if it wanted to chase something.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 15%

Fingerprint Entry to Property

When Jennifer is returned to her house by the police, they used her fingerprint to access the house.

This technology is available today on Cell phones, Laptop computers, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for it to be made available for access to properties.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 75%

Voice Activation

Once inside the house the police mention that the lights should be programmed to come on when entering the house. Jennifer says lights on and they turn on.

This technology is available today and can be seen in many different technologies from Cell phones, Microsoft Kinect, etc. Home automation is a growing business with multiple companies already providing or planning to provide products to allow this.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 100%

Flat Screen TV & Multiple Channel Viewing

When in the house Marty Jr tells the TV to show him multiple channels at the same time on a large flat screen TV.

Flat Screen TV’s are common place today and being able to show multiple channels at the same time is also possible on most devices.

Chance will be in common use by end of 2015: 100%

SpaceX CRS-5 delayed to 1/10

The launch of the Falcon 9 carrying Dragon to the International Space Station for the CRS-5 mission has been delayed until 4:47 am EST on Saturday 1/10.  The launch was scrubbed on Tuesday with just 90 seconds left in the countdown due to a faulty Z actuator on the second stage.  The actuator which is part of the system that helps control the direction of the stage during firing was drift more than expected.

The launch will be shown live on NASA TV and SpaceX Webcast.