LightSail is back

Following a week of silence caused by a software fault on the LightSail spacecraft it started communicating with Earth earlier today.

As the tweet above shows something caused the spacecraft to reboot, at present they don’t know exactly why the reboot happened. The next priority is to attempt two way communication, and also refine it’s orbit to allow better communications.

They will now prioritize the deployment of the Solar Sails in case another issue happens.

NASA awards first Commercial Crew Flight Contract

This week NASA announced that it had awarded Boeing the first Commercial Crew flight contract under the CCtCap program. However it is important to realize that while the contract has been awarded, as NASA started in the press release.

Determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time.

So why were Boeing selected first?  This is a matter of scheduling, the Boeing CST-100 module will be launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket to ensure that they are able to launch by late 2017 they need to book the flight now to enter the processing flow.  SpaceX has a shorter lead time for their rockets as they manufacture the whole system internally.

There is no denying that this is a significant step both for NASA and Boeing but as they stated there is not guarantee that just because they were awarded the first contract means they will actual fly the first contracted flight.  This will be determined once future milestones in the CCtCap program have been completed and NASA can be confident that they can complete the flight when needed.

Is ULA’s new rocket doomed?

With great fanfare United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced their new Vulcan Rocket last month. However since then the news has not been quite so rosy for the company.

Almost immediately after the announcement Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace informed ULA that the name was trademarked, at present we have not heard anything further on this but it could result in a name change.

Last week ULA themselves stated that if the RD-180 engine ban wasn’t altered to allow them to purchase additional engines then the Next-Gen rocket may be impacted.  While this seems a little extreme the logic makes sense, if they cannot generate revenue from additional launches then funding a new rocket is going to impact the bottom line more severely.  At present ULA board has not fully committed to investing in the new rocket, and while they have approved the milestones for this year they are only committing funds on a quarterly basis.

Add to that the recent SpaceX certification to fly national security space missions thereby removing the monopoly ULA had on the segment.  Not only do ULA risk losing launches to SpaceX but even if they win it seems likely that they will have to lower their costs to compete thereby generating lower profits.

While ULA does have the Delta rocket family they could fall back on, they have made it very clear that it costs too much to produce and they are only keeping the Delta Heavy option for as long as customers are willing to pay for it.

So in summary it is very unlikely that the Vulcan rocket will be cancelled however the fact that it may take until 2022 before it can fly national security space missions and given the potential shortage of RD-180 engines ULA could be facing some hard times over the coming years as they attempt to fund the new rocket and also deal with the changing market that they once dominated.

It should also be noted that because the Air Force requires at least two launch options for it’s hardware it is very likely that something will be done to ensure ULA or another vendor other than SpaceX is available for future launches.

The information regarding the potential impact of the RD-180 engines was taken from the linked SpaceNews article.

PMM relocated on ISS

This morning the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 moved the Permanent Multipurpose Module from the Unity module to the Tranquility module. The module which was previously flown as a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) aboard the Space Shuttle was left at the station in February 2011 to provide additional storage space.

The was moved to continue the re-configuration of the station for the new Commercial Crew Vehicles expected to fly starting late next year.

Below are screen grabs of the move operation from NASA TV.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

NASA announces Europa Mission Instrument Selection

This afternoon NASA announced the Instruments that will be flown to Europa in 2020s.

The NASA selectees are:

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) — principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) — principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.

Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) — principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

Europa Imaging System (EIS) — principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) — principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) — principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) — principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) — principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) — principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.

Separate from the selectees listed above, the SPace Environmental and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface (SPECIES) instrument has been chosen for further technology development. Led by principal investigator Dr. Mehdi Benna at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, this combined neutral mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph will be developed for other mission opportunities.

Further information on Europa can be found here.

Below are some images from the press conference

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

UPDATE – LightSail falls silent

Last week the Planetary Society launched the first privately funded Solar Sail spacecraft as a secondary payload on a Atlas V rocket.

During the first couple of days the spacecraft was transmitting data back to Earth during various passes over the ground stations. However the teams have not heard from the spacecraft since, they are now troubleshooting the issue and will either attempt to reboot the spacecraft from the ground or wait for it to automatically reboot.

Once we have further news on the status of the vehicle we will post a further updates.

Latest update from Planetary Society, they believe that the spacecraft has suffered a software glitch and is currently frozen, they have sent multiple reboot commands to the vehicle without success and may need to wait for the spacecraft to reboot itself, unfortunately they don’t know when that will happen because it is triggered by a charged particle hitting the vehicle.

If they are able to re-establish contact they will most likely deploy the sail manually.


LightSail in orbit

LS-spacecraftThe first privately built Solar Sail spacecraft LightSail is now in orbit.  Built by the Planetary Society the spacecraft was launched as a secondary payload on the Atlas V that launched earlier today.

The successful deployment of the CubeSat was confirmed by the Societies Jason Davies via Twitter.

Once the antenna’s have deployed they expect contact later today, sometime over the next 2-4 weeks the spacecraft will deploy it’s Mylar Solar Sail which measures 32m², once deployed the light from the Sun will propel it. UPDATE – Confirmation that the antenna’s have deployed

They are already working on the second test spacecraft will is scheduled to deploy from a SpaceX Falcon Heavy in 2016, a Kickstarter is currently running to fund the second mission and is already 300% funded with at least 36 days left.

Below is an artist concept of the fully deployed Sail planned to fly in 2016.


Atlas V launches military’s X-37B space plane

Following a smooth countdown today United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V launched the military’s X-37B space plane.  The rocket lifted off from SLC-41 and carried the space plane to orbit before deploying it, the rocket also carried a secondary payload of Cubesat’s including The Planetary Societies LightSail test.  The Planetary Society is currently raising money for the next test spacecraft due to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy next year.

While most of the X-37B’s mission is secret we do have some information on what will be done during the mission

1) Continuation of NASA’s advanced materials investigation – This was flown on the International Space Station a number of times and allowed NASA to test different materials in the vacuum of space to see the impact on those materials.

2) An experimental propulsion system – This ION engine called a Hall thruster will be tested while the vehicle is on orbit.

The last X-37B mission spent 675 days in space before returning to Earth, there is no details on how long this mission will last.

We will publish another article on the LightSail later when we hear news on it’s status and progress.

Below are images of the launch

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


And it gets worse – Progress ISS Re-boost also failed

Just as we thought things couldn’t get worse for Russia we were wrong.  The planned International Space Station re-boost by the Progress M-26M failed when the engines on the spacecraft failed to start.

The spacecraft which has been docked at the station since 17th February 2015 was supposed to raise the orbit of the station to compensate for drag as it flies around the Earth.  Without these occasional re-boosts the station will eventually fall back to Earth, although there is no danger of this happening any time soon, however with the lose of the Progress M-27M does complicate the issue.

The crew are not in any danger and were not involved in the process to re-boost the station which is controlled from Mission Control in Russia.  They will now investigate what happened and determine if another attempt can be done next week.

We will post another update once we have more news on the investigation and plan to try again.

UPDATE – Mission control attempted another re-boost this morning Monday 18th which was successful.  Below is a quote from the Russian news source.

The orbit correction was made with the Progress M-26M spacecraft engines.


“The manoeuvre has been completed,” the source said.

According to him, the spacecraft’s engines worked for 23 minutes. During this time the ISS orbit was lifted by 2.8 km to reach 405 km on the average.

Russia suffers second launch failure in 2 weeks

An International Launch Services (ILS) Proton-M rocket lifted off from Pad 39 in Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan early this morning carrying a Mexican communications satellite (MexSat-1). The initial part of the flight appeared to be nominally however at approximately 500 seconds something went wrong on the rocket’s third stage resulting in the loss of the satellite.

The state-owned Tass news agency reported the preliminary cause of the accident was in the steering engine on the Proton’s third stage. A Russian space industry source quoted by Tass said the rocket likely fell back to the ground from an altitude of 160 kilometers — about 100 miles — and burned up in the atmosphere, any debris that survived re-entry is believed to have crashed near the Siberian City of Chita.

This is the second Russian launch failure in the last three weeks with the loss of the Progress 59 spacecraft following an anomaly during launch. Progress has had a spotty history recently with three satellites lost last year due to failures as well.

There are five other Proton launches scheduled for this year, these are now likely to be delayed while an investigation is performed into this failure and any changes needed to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

What impact does this have for the future? On it’s own this failure would not have any impact on the International Space Station as Proton is not used for those launches, however with the two failures together this could have a bigger impact. Russia will, as they have in past failures, get to the bottom of this and make the necessary changes to address it.

The bigger impact for them, with competition from SpaceX and other companies, may be the lost of future business as customers look for alternate solutions which have proven to be more reliable.