New Horizons Suffers Safe-Mode event

Just 10 days before New Horizons closest approach to Pluto it suffered a Safe-Mode event on Saturday causing a lost of communications when the spacecraft handled the event and switched to its backup computer system.

Thankfully the backup system took over and re-established communications and begun sending data back to Mission Control to allow them to determine what caused the Safe-Mode and come up with a plan to resolve it

A New Horizons Anomaly Review Board (ARB) was convened at 4 p.m. EDT on the 4th to gather information on the problem and initiate a recovery plan. The team is now working to return New Horizons to its original flight plan. Due to the 9-hour, round trip communication delay that results from operating a spacecraft almost 3 billion miles (4.9 billion kilometers) from Earth, full recovery is expected to take from one to several days; New Horizons will be temporarily unable to collect science data during that time.

Status updates will be issued as new information is available.

T-14 days and counting to New Horizons Pluto Flyby

180px-New_Horizons_LogoA journey that started 3451 days ago aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V is rapidly closing in on its primary destination Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft will be the first to visit the Pluto system and will bring the distant planet and its five moons to life.

In 14 days it will reach its closest approach to the planet before speeding on further into the Kuiper Belt and eventually another destination (to be decided later).

During the flyby a number of different instruments will be gathering data, it will take more than a year to return all the data to Earth due to how far away the spacecraft is.

The following instruments are on board the spacecraft :-

The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (“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 fibreglass for thermal isolation. Overall mass is 8.6 kg (19 lb), with the Optical tube assembly (OTA) weighing about 5.6 kg (12 lb),[29] for one of the largest silicon-carbide telescopes flown at the time (now superseded by Herschel).
Principal investigator: Andy Cheng, Applied Physics Laboratory, Data: LORRI image search at jhuapl.edu

Solar Wind At Pluto (SWAP) is a toroidal electrostatic analyzer and retarding potential analyzer (RPA), that makes up one of the two instruments comprising New Horizons‍ ’​ Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM), the other being PEPSSI. SWAP measures particles of up to 6.5 keV and, because of the tenuous solar wind at Pluto’s distance, the instrument has the largest aperture of any such instrument ever flown.
Principal investigator: David McComas, Southwest Research Institute

Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) is a time of flight ion and electron sensor that makes up one of the two instruments comprising New Horizons‍ ’​ Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM), the other being SWAP. Unlike SWAP, which measures particles of up to 6.5 keV, PEPSSI goes up to 1 MeV.
Principal investigator: Ralph McNutt Jr., Applied Physics Laboratory

Alice is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer that makes one (of two) photographic instruments comprising New Horizons‍ ’​ Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation (PERSI); the other being the Ralph telescope. It resolves 1,024 wavelength bands in the far and extreme ultraviolet (from 50–180 nm), over 32 view fields. Its goal is to determine the atmospheric composition of Pluto. This Alice instrument is derived from another Alice aboard the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft.
Principal investigator: Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute

The Ralph telescope, 6 cm (2.4 in) in aperture, is one of two photographic instruments that make up New Horizons‍ ’​ Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation (PERSI), with the other being the Alice instrument. Ralph has 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. Ralph was named after Alice’s husband on The Honeymooners, and was designed after Alice.
Principal investigator: Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute

The Student Dust Counter (SDC), built by students at the University of Colorado Boulder, 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 Earth-like planets can be found in the 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.
Principal investigator: Mihaly Horanyi, University of Colorado Boulder

The Radio Science Experiment (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.
Principal investigators: Len Tyler and Ivan Linscott, Stanford University

Next week we will take a look at some of the images that have already been returned as New Horizons approaches Pluto.

LightSail deployment planned for Wednesday

Following the successful resumption of communications with the LightSail spacecraft the mission team are planning to deploy the Solar Sails on Wednesday this week.

They were looking to deploy on Tuesday but to ensure everything is working as needed they added an extra day to the plan.

To ensure they don’t run into another issue with the spacecraft they are also planning a reboot event each day as highlighted by Jason Davis via Twitter

We will post an article once confirmation of Sail deployment which should also include images of the deployment.

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.

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.

LS-prox-1

NASA’s MMS mission launched

Following a smooth countdown this evening NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) satellites launched aboard a ULA Altas 5.  The MMS mission consists of four spacecraft, that will be deployed into orbit later this evening following the second burn of the centaur, and will then begin to deploy there various instruments to allow them to measure the interaction of the magnetic structures around the planet.  The four spacecraft once fully deployed will fly in a pyramid formation allowing them to produce a 3D map of the interactions.

28_Mechanical.pptEach spacecraft carries identical instrument suites of plasma analyzers, energetic particle detectors, magnetometers, and electric field instruments as well as a device to prevent spacecraft charging from interfering with the highly sensitive measurements required in and around the diffusion regions.

The plasma and fields instruments will measure the ion and electron distributions and the electric and magnetic fields with unprecedentedly high (millisecond) time resolution and accuracy. These measurements will enable to MMS to locate and identify the small (1-10 km) and rapidly moving (10-100 km/s) diffusion regions, to determine their size and structure, and to discover the mechanism(s) by which the frozen-in condition is broken, the ions and electrons become demagnetized, and the magnetic field is re-configured. MMS will make the first unambiguous measurements of plasma composition at reconnection sites, while energetic particle detectors will remotely sense the regions where reconnection occurs and determine how reconnection processes produce such large numbers of energetic particles.

NASA have confirmed that the four spacecraft deployed successfully following the second burn of the centaur upper stage.

Below are screen grabs of the launch

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NASA’s New Horizons within One AU of Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is now less than one AU from Pluto and moving closer by 873,000 miles per day. This week it made a slight course correction to ensure it is able to complete the scientific objectives as it flies past the planet in July.

Launched in Jan 2006 the spacecraft has traveled past Jupiter on its way to the dwarf planet and will be the second NASA spacecraft this year to explore one this year.  As it continues to get closer the quality of the images that are returned will improve as we for the first time get to see detailed images of the planet.

Due to its speed the spacecraft will not be able to orbit the planet so all the experiments must be performed as the vehicle passes at more then 33,000 mph.  Once it has completed its observations a second destination will then be targeted somewhere in the Kuiper belt, the region of surrounding our solar system far beyond the known planets.  However while it is traveling to that destination it will spend most of 2016 transmitting all the data that was gathered during the flyby.

137125main_instruments_lgThe science payload includes seven instruments:

Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.

Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).

REX: (Radio Science EXperiment) Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.

LORRI: (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s farside and provides high resolution geologic data.

SWAP: (Solar Wind Around Pluto) Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.

PEPSSI: (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.

SDC: (Student Dust Counter) Built and operated by students; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.

NASA’s Dawn Arrives at Dwarf Planet Ceres

Artist's rendering of Dawn with Vesta (left) and Ceres (right). Distances, scale and the number of asteroids in close proximity are greatly exaggerated.
Artist’s rendering of Dawn with Vesta (left) and Ceres (right). Distances, scale and the number of asteroids in close proximity are greatly exaggerated.

In the first of two NASA missions to arrive at a Dwarf Planet this year NASA’s Dawn Spacecraft, which previously visited the asteroid Vesta, successfully inserted itself into orbit.

First launched in 2007, the spacecraft uses three Xenon Ion Thrusters for propulsion.  After launch it traveled to the asteroid Vesta where is spent 14 months orbiting and studying it.  Once complete it then being it’s journey to Ceres which was successfully completed today with an orbital period of 15 days.  Dawn will gradually move closer over the coming months until it arrives at it primary science orbit.  Unfortunately we won’t be able to see any images just yet as the craft arrived on the side facing away from the sun.

The spacecraft is the first to orbit two extraterrestrial bodies and once the mission is complete will most likely become a perpetual satellite of Ceres due to its stable orbit.  There was a plan for Dawn to potentially perform a flyby of another asteroid Pallas however that is no longer possible because the remaining fuel on the vehicle will be used at Ceres due to hardware failures on the spacecraft.

For more news on Dawn check out the mission page here.

Below are some of the images that Dawn has already returned from Ceres, these will only get better over the coming months as the spacecraft moves closer to it’s final orbit.

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Is NASA out of the Space Business?

It is now 2015 and in July it would have been four years since an American Spacecraft launched a crew into space. I have heard many people say that NASA is no longer in the space business because of this.

In this article we will explore not only the missions that are currently operating in space, but also the activities that NASA and it’s partners are engaged in currently that will not only bring manned space flight back to US soil but will bring multiple options for launches to the table.

Current Missions in Space

International Space Station (ISS) – We will start with the biggest mission currently operating in space, the ISS which is located in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) has been permanently occupied for 5200+ days and counting (since 2nd November 2000).

For the majority of the time there are six crew members on board at the same time, when the space shuttle was flying this could increase to thirteen. At present the crews travel to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft which remains docked to the station while they are on board. Occasionally the crew will step outside the spacecraft to perform spacewalks to maintain the spacecraft and change out experiments etc.

The station is expected to operate until at least 2024 and may be longer depending on the hardware. In 2017/18 the crew complement is expected to increase to seven as new crew transportation options become available (see later).

At present NASA has two US commercial companies providing cargo services to the ISS, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX with another round of awards coming soon.

Earth Observation Missions – NASA currently has 18 satellites in space observing our own planet, plus two more systems on the ISS. The image below shows all the missions currently operating.

EarthSat_HD

Sun Observation Missions – NASA currently has XXX satellites either directly observing the Sun or observing the effects the Sun has on the solar system.

Mars Exploration Missions – NASA currently has three satellites and two rovers exploring Mars with another lander and rover in the works.

Mercury – The Messenger spacecraft has been exploring Mercury since 2011.

Jupiter – The Juno spacecraft is currently on route to Jupiter and is scheduled to arrive in 2016.

Saturn – The Cassini spacecraft which was launched in 1997 and has been in orbit of Saturn since 2004 continues to return a wealth of information about Saturn and it’s moons.

Pluto – The New Horizons spacecraft is currently racing to a July 2015 flyby of Pluto and will then continue onto another distance world even further away.  The primary science mission for the flyby has started and will continue throughout the flyby.  This will be the closest ever view of the planetary system.

And Beyond – The Dawn spacecraft is currently approaching Ceres and continues to return amazing views of the distance dwarf planet.  The Voyager spacecraft are the further human made objects and continue to move further away.  There is still some debate as to whether they have actually left our Solar System yet as the boundary isn’t fully known yet.  The Hubble Space Telescope has been taking amazing images since 1990 changes our view on the Universe.

NASA’s Future Plans

Commercial Crew Program – NASA has award Boeing and SpaceX contracts to develop the ability to launch crew to the ISS. With at least two actual flights for each company under the contract. The first missions are expected in 2017, once the two vehicles are online and able to deliver crew to the ISS NASA plans to increase the crew complement to seven to allow more experiments to be performed.

In addition to these there is also Sierra Nevada who despite losing out on a contract have been working on there Dream Chaser spacecraft and have vowed to continue development.

Space Launch System (SLS) – NASA is also busy building it’s own rocket and spacecraft which is designed to take crew further into space than ever before. The first launch of the spacecraft happened late last year without a crew to verify the design, the lessons learnt from this mission will be applied to future versions of the spacecraft. The first flight of the SLS is expected in 2018 although the date has slipped several times so only time will tell, this will also be an un-crewed mission with the first crewed mission expected some time in the early 2020’s.

NASA are also working on an Asteroid Redirect Mission which will allow a crew to explore the surface of an asteroid by capturing it and moving it into a Sis-Lunar orbit. This will be a two phase mission with a spacecraft tasked with moving the asteroid (or part of one), and then the second mission the crew travelling to the redirected asteroid to explore it.

As of this article a final decision on the first phase of the mission had not been announced.

Mars – NASA continues to explore Mars with a lander (InSight) planned for launch in 2016 and another Curiosity sized rover to launch in 2020.

Asteroid – The OSIRIS-REx mission will visit asteroid Bennu in 2018 to retrieve samples to be returned to Earth.

Europa – In the recently released NASA FY 2016 budget initial plans were including for a mission for Europa.

Beyond – The James Webb Space Telescope currently scheduled to launch in 2018 will significantly change our view on the Universe.

Summary

While at present the US doesn’t have the ability to launched crewed missions into space and have been reliant on the Russians it is clear that this will change reasonably soon with the potential of having three or more launch options.

In addition it is very clear that NASA is far from out of the Space Business and in fact is way ahead of any other nation in how far into the Solar System (and beyond) they have traveled.  We are still the only country to successfully land on Mars, although it does look like the Beagle 2 spacecraft did land but failed to deploy correctly.