Weekly Space Blog 11/16

Beyond Earth: Removing the Barriers to Deep Space Exploration round table
This week NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier moderated a panel discussion to consider the challenges facing the U.S. space exploration program.

Panelists include:
• Julie Van Kleeck, Vice President, Space Programs, Aerojet Rocketdyne
• Charlie Precourt, Vice President & General Manager, ATK Space Launch Division
• John Elbon, Vice President & General Manager, Boeing Space Exploration
• Jim Crocker, Vice President & General Manager, Civil Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company

The discussion started with talk about the current progress on various aspects of Human Exploration including the importance of the International Space Station as a proving ground for technologies that will be needed for missions into deeper space.

The discussion then turned to talking about the environment between the Earth and Mars, at present we are Earth Dependent and stuck in Low Earth Orbit, between us and Mars is a proving ground that will enable us to improve upon the technologies that are already in development. Beyond that we enter into the Earth Independent zone where we need to be able to survive without a quick escape route back to Earth. Julie Van Kleeck talked about the importance of taking small steps as we expand out to Mars, “We can’t just strap it all on a single rocket and go to Mars, we need to be sure that when we get there we can land and explore.” She went to explain that the goal was to become a space-faring race.

They then talked about the progress of the SLS/Orion systems and the various missions that are coming up for the system. The first flight of Orion is less than a year away now and progressing well, the test vehicle has now been powered on and tests have started, the heat shield is in final testing and will be shipped from Boston soon. Boeing’s John Elbon also stated that SLS is currently 5 months ahead of schedule and below budget. Current estimates show that the expected $ per pound for SLS is the same as the current CRS contracts with SpaceX and Orbital*.

During the discussion it became clear that current manufacturing techniques were definitely making a big difference in the construction of both Orion and SLS and were speeding up the process while reducing the costs.

A video of the panel is available here.

* Would need to see further data to validate this statement.

MAVEN – Next Mission to Mars
MAVEN Mission LogoNext week the NASA’s next Mars Orbiter will begin it’s ten month journey to the red planet aboard an Atlas 5 rocket, the vehicle is expected to enter orbit in late September 2014.

So what is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission and what will we learn?
The orbiter has two primary functions, firstly it will perform scientific investigations of the Martian atmosphere and it’s interactions with the Sun. Secondly it will act as another relay for the rovers currently operating on the surface of the planet, this function is currently handled by the existing orbiters Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter both of which have been in orbit for at least seven years.

What science will MAVEN do?
The spacecraft has been designed to explore the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind. Scientists will use MAVEN data to determine the role that loss of volatile compounds—such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and water—from the Mars atmosphere to space has played through time, giving insight into the history of Mars atmosphere and climate, liquid water, and planetary habitability.

For further information on MAVEN check out the mission page here.

Station crew return safely to Earth
Following a busy four days on the International Space Station which included the arrival of three new crew members, a spacewalk and the departure of three crew members the TMA-09M spacecraft landed safely in Kazakhstan, returning Fyodor Yurchikhin, Luca Parmitano and Karen Nyberg to conclude their six month mission on-board the station.

Unlike previous missions where the departing crew would have landed before the next crew members launched the roles were reversed so that the Olympic Torch could be carried to the space station and returned in a timely manner.

India Mars Mission glitch
The Indian Mars Missions failed to change it’s orbit as expected this week due to a shutdown of the main engine sooner than expected. Following a review of the data mission controllers were able to perform an additional engine firing place the craft back in the correct orbit to allow it’s journey to the red planet to proceed.

Why is Commercial Crew Important?
During the Beyond Space (check name) panel discussion earlier this week one of the speakers mention that he had recently been to the Baikonur Cosmodrome to watch a Soyuz launch and commented on the fact that at present there are only two options for getting crew into space, neither of which was American.

While the main discussion at this panel was around the SLS and Orion vehicles being created by NASA I think that we need to take a different approach and consider why Commercial Crew is just as if not more important than the government owed option.

If we look at the airline, car, train industries there are multiple manufacturers of vehicles that are used to transport people, having multiple companies creates competition which has the result of lowering costs but also with the correct regulation improves safety. Take for instance the car industry the manufacturers pride themselves on the safety ratings their cars achieve.

The same would eventually apply to Commercial Crew, with more companies involved in the manufacturer and launch of crewed missions there will be more options available to both government and commercial companies to launch into orbit. As Julie Van Kleeck said during the panel discussion we need to take the steps necessary to becoming a space-faring people, this will not happen if we only have government launchers and crewed vehicles.

At present there are three clear leaders on the commercial crew field Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX each of who are operating under Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreements with NASA to build commercial crewed vehicles.

There are other companies working on crewed options including Virgin Galactic, XCor and Blue Origin most of these are currently focused on sub-orbital craft.

The future for crewed missions is looking brighter each day, especially when you consider that SpaceX has made it very clear there long term goals are to land crewed missions on Mars.

SpaceX CRS-3 to carry Spacesuits
The next SpaceX mission to the station will be utilized to carry a new Spacesuit to the station as well as return a broken suit. Originally the plan was to return the suit that Luca wore during his aborted spacewalk, however after careful troubleshooting the astronauts on the station were able to repair that suit using parts that were delivered to the station with recent cargo and crew arrivals.

At present there are four suits on the station only three are usable, the other is the one that will be returned allowing engineer’s on the ground to diagnose and resolve the problem.

At present the launch of CRS-3 is tentatively scheduled for 2/11/14, however that date may change depending on the actual launch of two other SpaceX missions scheduled for the end of this year, the next of which has just been delayed from 22nd Nov to 25th.

NASA Celebrates Successful end of COTS
This week NASA celebrated the completion of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), the program that helped fund Orbital Sciences and SpaceX in the development of the Cygnus and Dragon spacecraft was successfully concluded following a successful demonstration mission by the Cygnus spacecraft last month. Check out a video from NASA here.

NASA also announced that on Nov 19th they will be issuing a final Request for Proposals for the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract. This contract is to ensure competing companies can meet NASA safety requirements for Crewed Missions and is expected to conclude with actual manned flights to the International Space Station before 2017.

Weekly Space Blog 11/9

India’s first Mars Orbiter Mangalyaan launched successfully
This week India successfully launched their first Mars Orbiter called Mangalyaan, the spacecraft was launched by a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket (PSLV) from India’s launch site, Satish Dhawan Space Center.  If all goes well the spacecraft is due to arrive in Sept 2014 and will make India only the fourth nation to explore the red planet.  There are five instruments on board to study the atmosphere and surface.

8+ Billion Goldilocks Planet’s in Milky Way
Astronomers using data from NASA have estimated that within just the Milky Way there are potentially 8.8 Billion planets within the Goldilocks zone of their star and also about the right size for life to survive.  For more information check out the full article here.

The “Goldilocks” zone around a star is where a planet is neither too hot nor too cold to support liquid water. Illustration by Petigura/UC Berkeley, Howard/UH-Manoa, Marcy/UC Berkeley.
The “Goldilocks” zone around a star is where a planet is neither too hot nor too cold to support liquid water. Illustration by Petigura/UC Berkeley, Howard/UH-Manoa, Marcy/UC Berkeley.

Station Crew increases to Nine
For the first time since the last Shuttle Mission to the station there are currently more than six crew members on the station, with the arrival of Mikhail Tyurin, Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata, aboard there Soyuz TMA-11M a busy week of activities has begun, which will include a spacewalk and three crew members departing the station.

As well as bringing the new crew to the station the Soyuz also carried a replica of the Olympic torch which will be taken outside today during a spacewalk. Upon completion of the spacewalk the torch will then return to earth with Fyodor Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano who are scheduled to depart tomorrow on their TMA-09M spacecraft..

Olympic Torch Relay on ISS
The nine crew members currently aboard the space station representing four different countries America, Russia, Japan and Italy performed an improvised Olympic Torch relay on the station this week. They each took turns to float through the station before passing the torch to the next crew member.

MAVEN spacecraft attached to Launch Rocket
Getting a step closer to it’s November 18th launch the MAVEN spacecraft has now been attached to it’s launch rocket. Assembly of the Atlas 5 rocket was completed with the attachment of the spacecraft and will now undergo final checkouts and testing in preparation for the launch. Next week we will be focusing primarily on the MAVEN mission.

ESA Satellite to re-enter earth’s atmosphere
The European GOCE satellite which has been in orbit since March 2009 is due to re-enter sometime on Sunday evening and while most of the craft will burn up harmlessly as it enters there is the possibility that some smaller pieces will fall down to the surface. As the spacecraft doesn’t have re-enter engines it is not possible for the scientists to determine exactly where any pieces may fall.

NBC to broadcast first Virgin Spaceflight
This week Virgin Galactic announced that NBC would be broadcasting the first commercial flight of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle which will be carrying Richard and his two adult children Sam and Holly. There will be a prime-time special the day before the flight as well as a live three hour show during the actual launch.

And finally
One of my roles is to help maintain the web site for the Mars Foundation, this week we launched a new version of our site. Check it out here.

Weekly Space Blog 11/2

We are back after a rather long delay due to upgrading to Windows 8.1 and losing everything that was installed on the machine :(…

Cygnus completes COTS demo mission
The Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft completed it’s final test mission under the C.O.T.S program with a fiery end during re-entry to earth’s atmosphere.  Following a week delay because of an issue during the initial attempt to dock the rest of the mission was very successful with all the cargo being offloaded and trash that was no longer needed being placed in the vehicle.  Orbital are now gearing up for the first of eight Commercial Resupply mission’s under the $1.9 billion contract awarded by NASA, currently scheduled for the end of the year.

ATV-4 completes mission
The fourth Automated Transfer Vehicle Albert Einstein completed it’s mission to the ISS this week, having delivered seven tonnes of cargo to the complex and having been docked for four months the vehicle un-docked from the Russian Zvezda module and like the Cygnus vehicle will meet a fiery end when it re-enters the atmosphere later today.

Soyuz TMA-09M relocated
In preparation for the next manned crew to arrive at ISS the Soyuz TMA-09M which brought Fyodor Yurchikhin, Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano was moved from the Rassvet mini-research module to the port freed up on Zvezda following the ATV un-docking.

Typically three members of the current crew leave the station and land before the next three members of the crew launch, however because of the Olympic torch event coming up next week this will be the first time since the last Shuttle mission where more than six people will be on the station at the same time.

Next Station Crew arrive in Kazakhstan
In preparation for their launch to the ISS the next crew consisting of Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, American astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome for their flight on Nov 7.  They will spent the next week preparing for their mission, and following a six hour flight will dock to the station.

The crew will be carrying a replica of the Olympic Torch which will be handed off to Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky who will then take it outside the space station during a space walk on Nov 9.  The torch will then return with Yurchikhin, Nyberg  and Parmitano when they depart the station Nov 10 and will then be used during the opening ceremonies at the Sochi games in Feb 2014.

Dream Chaser crash lands
During it’s first free flight test the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser performed perfectly right up to the point where the landing gear deployed, for some reason the left landing gear did not deploy, which caused the vehicle to skid off the runway.

However during the flight Sierra Nevada were able to gather a load of very valuable data from the instrumentation on the craft and verify that it could fly autonomously.  During the landing the craft detected the problem with the landing gear and was able to keep the left wing in the air as long as possible before it finally dropped causing the craft to to skid off the runway.  Sierra announced after the accident the the internal structures in the vehicle had not been damaged during the accident and they were confident it could fly again if need to further validate the design.

Orion spacecraft powered up
The first Orion spacecraft that will fly in space was powered up for the first time this week.  The vehicle which is currently scheduled to fly some time between Sept 18 and Oct 18 2014 was activated to allow testing on the main control computers to begin.

MAVEN readied for launch
NASA’s next mission to Mars the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft is just 16 days away from launch, NASA held a press conference this week to discuss the mission and it’s goals.  Check out the conference here, we will have more news next week.

First Earth-sized Rocky Exoplanet Found
This week astronomers announced the discovery of Kepler-78b a earth sized rocky planet orbiting Kepler-78, however the planet orbits every 8.5 hours making it far too hot to support life.  For more information on the new discovery check out the full article here.

ooKepler-78b

Most Distant Galaxy Discovered
This week astronomers announced the discovery of the most distant galaxy found so far.  The galaxy is seen as it was just 700 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only about 5 percent of its current age of 13.8 billion years.

Artist's Rendition: Galaxy z8-GND-5296
Artist’s Rendition: Galaxy z8-GND-5296 (©UC RIVERSIDE)

NASA sets Data Transmission record
One of the payloads on the LADEE spacecraft is a Laser Based communication system, during testing NASA set a record of 622 megabits per second. Laser based communications will significantly increase the amount of data that can be transmitted between spacecraft and the ground.

Weekly Space Blog 10/12

With the  shutdown continuing there isn’t much news from NASA this week

LADEE enters lunar orbit
Dispite the government shutdown the recently launched LADEE spacecraft entered into orbit around the moon this week. The spacecraft launched last month has been traveling to the moon since it launch and after a series of burns to refine its orbit will begin it’s scientific endeavors.

Next Falcon 9 payload shipped
The payload scheduled to be launched on the next Falcon 9 launch from the Cape was shipped from manufacturer Orbital Sciences this week dispite the government shutdown. Although the craft is a privately developed vehicle because the Cape is a government facility government personnel have to be available when it arrives. Alternate arrangenents have been made for the vehicle initial arrival in Florida, however there is uncertainity as to when the launch will be as it depends on the length of the shutdown.

Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter dies
Scott Carpenter one of the original seven Mercury astronauts died this week at the age of 88. Scott was the second American to orbit the Earth.

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft News
This week the Juno spacecraft used the Earth to perform a gravity assist to accelerate towards Jupiter. During the process the spacecraft entered into safe mode, however the projects lead scientist said that the flyby was successful and the spacecraft is now on course for Jupiter. Data returned from the spacecraft indicates that all the instruments are operating correctly. Late Friday NASA reported that the craft had resumed full operations.

Cygnus unloaded
Orbital Sciences reported this week that the astronauts on the station had completed unloading of their Cygnus spacecraft and are now loading disposable item that are no longer needed. Unlike the Dragon spacecraft Cygnus cannot return to the surface so any cargo loaded inside when it returns into Earths atmosphere will be destroyed when the craft burns up.

SpaceX updates flight manifest
To allow time to fully resolve the relight issue with the Falcon 9 upper stage SpaceX has delayed the next two flights. The SES-8 launch is now scheduled for November 12, with the next mission a month later.

Weekly Space Blog 8/24

WISE approved for asteroid survey
NASA announced this week that the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft will be taken out of hibernation to start a three year mission to search for Near Earth Objects.  While the primary instruments on the vehicle required frozen hydrogen to operate which ran out in 2011 the other instruments do not and these will be used for the new mission named NEOWISE.  The science team will be contacting the vehicle in September to begin operations again.

Dream Chaser Captive Carry Test

Credit: NASA / Ken Ulbrich
Credit: NASA / Ken Ulbrich

This week the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser spacecraft completed a two hour captive carry test over Edwards Airforce base.  This was the first time that a fully operation version of the vehicle had flown and gave engineers the chance to review all systems before a series of approach and landing tests will be performed.  Initial tests will be fully automated before crewed tests are performed.

The Dream Chaser vehicle is one of three competing for the chance to launch US crews to the International Space Station.  Personally I hope there is a way to fund all three vehicles to give the US unprecedented access to space for the future.

 

Gaia spacecraft at launch site
The European Galaxy Explorer spacecraft Gaia has arrived in French Guiana to begin three months of flight preparations before a November launch aboard a Soyuz Rocket.  Once launched the vehicle will be placed a million miles from Earth and will use dual telescopes to map the precise locations of stars.  For more information on the vehicle and missions check out it’s page here.

Hubble Time-lapse Movie
This week Astronomers released a movie showing 13 years of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope of super-heated gas 5,000 light years long.  The gas is being ejected from a super-massive black hole for more information and to see the movie check out the press release here.

Starbirth as seen by ALMA
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have released the image below showing material streaming away from a newborn star.  For more information on the observations check out the full article here.

Starbirth as seen by ALMA © ESO
Starbirth as seen by ALMA
© ESO

Curiosity Movie of Mars Moons
This week NASA released a video capture by the Mars Curiosity Rover of the Mars moons Phobos passing in front of Deimos.  This is the first time any vehicle on the surface of Mars has captured one of the moons passing in front of the other.  For information and to see the movie check out the article here.

Another successful Russian Spacewalk concludes
Once again Russian Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Alexander Misurkin ventured outside the International Space Station for a spacewalk.  Unlike the walk last week that broke the record for longest by a Russian team this walked came in just short of 6 hours.  The pair were able to successfully complete the objectives set out for them including one that didn’t look possible during to misalignment of the parts.

The spacewalk was the 173rd in support of space station assembly and maintenance, the eighth of Yurchikhin’s career and the third for Misurkin.

Spitzer Space Telescope celebrates ten anniversary
The Infrared Space Telescope was launched into space ten years ago this week, the fourth of the four Great Observatories launched by NASA it continues to show us the dark side of the cosmos with it’s infrared vision.  For more information on it’s mission and to see the images it has returned check out the mission page here.

Fermi Space Telescope enters extended mission
Meanwhile the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope celebrated it’s five year in space by entering into an extended mission to perform a deeper study of the high-energy cosmos.  The vehicle has already provided Astronomers with a detailed potrait of gaint black holes in distance galaxies and even details of thunderstorms on Earth.  For more information on Fermi check out it’s mission page here.

And Finally
The Astronaut Class of 2013 met with the media this week for the final time before they embark on their two year training program.  Check out the release here including video’s and interviews with the eight.

Weekly Space Blog 7/13

Another week has come and gone and the stories continue to flow in, this week we have a number of exciting stories plus four Kickstarter projects related to space.

Bold New Plan for first SLS/Orion Launch
This week NASA managers announced the new plan which would see the first uncrewed mission named EM-1 travel to 40,000 miles beyond the moon.  Due to the change in the mission it will not take approximately 25 days to complete, with 18 of those used for the travel time and the rest performing tests at the destination point.  For more information check out the full article here.

Curiosity on the Move
The Mars Rover Curiosity has begun it’s epic drive to Mt. Sharp, expected to take the next year to complete the rover is making a 5 mile journey to a spot which will allow it access Mt. Sharp’s lower reaches.  Check out the latest new on the rover here.

Mars Rover 2020 Plans announced
This week a NASA Science Team outlined the goals for the next Rover to head to Mars, based on the same design as Curiosity the rover will look for signs of past life on Mars as well as collect samples for a possible future Sample Return mission.  Check out the press release here and more information is available here.

Ariane 6 News
This week European Ministers approved the start of preparatory activities for Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 launch vehicle.  For more information on the rocket design and goals check out the press release here.

NASA’s Polar Robotic Ranger
Rover succeeds in the harsh environment of Greenland a new NASA Rover passed a series of tests.  Known as GROVER for Greenland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research, it was designed by a team of students attending boot camps at Goddard.  Despite the harsh weather the rover performed well during the 5 weeks of testing.  For addition information check out the article here.

ISS Space Walk
This week Astronauts Christopher Cassidy and Luca Parmitano completed the 170th Space Walk devoted to station assembly and maintenance.  Chris was performing his four space walk while this was Luca’s first.  They were able to perform all the originally planned tasks for the walk as well as several get-ahead tasks.  Both will be suiting up again on Tuesday for another spacewalk.

Astronomer’s witness birth of Star
Scientists using the new ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array) telescope in Chile witness the birth of a massive star approximately 10,000 light years from earth in a dark cloud core.  The star is 500 times the mass of our Sun and brighter making it one of the largest stars in our galaxy.  For more information check out the full article here.

Solar System Tail Viewed
Using the IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) spacecraft scientists have been able to map out the structure of the tail that our solar system produces.  We have seen similar tails around other stars but until now have not been able to determine if our own star actually had one.  For more information check out the article here.

Future ISS Crew Members Announced
This week NASA and it’s International Partners in the space station announced three new crew members who will launch in June 2015 and make up part of the Expedition 44/45 crews aboard the station.  The three are NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Japanese Exploration Aerospace Agency (JAXA) astronaut Kimiya Yui and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko.  For more information and the full bio’s for the crew members check out the article here.

Hubble Spots Blue Planet
Astronomers using the Hubble telescope have for the first time been able to determine the color of a planet orbiting an distance star.  The planet called HD 189733b if viewed up close would be a cobalt blue color similar to Earth when viewed from space.  However unlike Earth this is a Gas Giant that is orbiting very close to its star.  Check out the full article here.

Solar Tsunami used to measure Sun’s Magnetic Field
The NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Japanese Hinode spacecraft have been used to provide the first accurate estimates of the Sun’s magnetic field.  The Tsunami’s are created by massive explosions in the Sun’s atmosphere and by observing the effects of these they were able to determine that the Sun’s magnetic field is ten times weaker than a fridge magnet.  For more information check out the article here.

Dream Chaser News
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) have completed the initial tow tests of their Dream Chaser spacecraft which is in the running for Commercial Crew missions to the ISS.  The initial tests are designed to validate the performance of the craft and it’s equipment.  For futher information check out the article here.

Kickstarter Projects
It would seem that following the success of the ARKYD project on Kickstarter a number of others have started new projects for Space related missions.

VASIMR – Create Video of VASIMR missions
CAT – A Thruster for CubeSats
LunarSail – World First Lunar Sail Mission
Moon Spacecraft – Send your own Spacecraft to the Moon
And Finally
Here are some additional articles I found but haven’t summarized in the blog.

Weekly Space Blog 7/6

Another busy week in space

Cassini captures picture of Saturn Moon Janus
This week Cassini returned a picture of one of Saturn’s small lumpy moon’s named Janus, the moon doesn’t have sufficient gravity to pull itself into a round shape as seen with most other moons.  For more pictures of the moon check out the web page here.

Ad Astra VF-200 Reaches important review milestone
This week Ad Astra Rocket Company announced that they had completed the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for their 200kW engine design for testing in space.  After more than a year of planning the Ad Astra Engineers and Physicists as well as NASA engineers completed the review.  The PDR incorporates the knowledge gained over several years from the VX-200 test engine as well as multiple conceptual designs carried out by Ad Astra.  This is an important step towards the flight of the VF-200 engine on the International Space Station in the future.  For further information check out the press release here.

ExoPlanet News
Three articles appeared this week regarding ExoPlanets.  The first reported the findings of a study by the University of Chicago suggests that the habitable zone of ExoPlanets can be extended by cloud behavior on the planet.  The results show that the influence of cloud cover could double the number of habitable planets found around Red Dwarf starts meaning that in our galaxy alone there could be 60+ billion planets.  For more information check out the press release here.

The second report Astronomers have uncovered the hidden identity of an ExoPlanet orbiting the star HD 97658.  Based on there observations they estimate the planet HD 97658b is between 2 and 8 times the size of Earth, while the planet itself is not new the size and mass of the planet is.  For more information check out the article here.

The third article to appear relates not to actual ExoPlanet’s but instead to their moons, the search for ExoMoons.  A team led by Dr. David Kipping at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has jumped at this challenge.  For further information check out the paper here.

World Premiere of IMAX 3D Hidden Universe
This week saw the World Premiere of the new IMAX 3D movie Hidden Universe.  Check out the official web site for more information and current locations to see it.

ARKYD Funded
Following a frantic finish including a four hour live presentation and $100,000 donation from Richard Branson the Planetary Resources team raised over $1.6m for the telescope.  They are currently planning to launch an grace period to allow those who weren’t able to contribute to still be involved.  Check out the page here.

Indian PSLV Launch
This week a Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) carrier the first of the Indian Regional Satellite Navigation System spacecraft into orbit.  Following a successful launch the spacecraft was placed into the expected transfer orbit.  The system will eventually consist of four spacecraft and will provide navigation accuracy to India to about 20 meters.

Proton Launch Failure
The Russian space program suffered a major setback this week when one of their unmanned Proton rockets failed 20 seconds into it’s mission.  The rocket launched as expected but very soon it was clear something was very wrong when the craft veered to the left and then right before breaking apart and exploding.  Future flights of the Proton have been suspending pending the outcome of a review to determine what caused the failure.

ISS Changes position for Solar Science
This week the International Space Station changed it’s position to accommodate Solar Science research being performed by European Scientists into what the solar activities mean for our planet.  Check out the full article here.

SpaceX completed two more milestones
SpaceX announced this week that they had completed two more milestones in their CCiCap plan towards manned spaceflight using the Dragon vehicle.  In the first milestone SpaceX outlined the steps they will take towards certifying there system for human spaceflight.  In the second they outlined the plan for their Pad Abort test which will demonstrate the ability for the Dragon Spacecraft to fly away from the Falcon Rocket should something go wrong during launch.  For more information check out the press release here and while you are there check out NASA new web site layout.

NASA lays out plans for Commercial Crew Test Flights
This week NASA announced their plans for the actual test flights utilizing Commercial Vehicles to the International Space Station.  These flights will include NASA astronauts onboard and result in a visit to the ISS.  The new test phase called CCtCap is expected to kick off next summer and will include at least one crewed test flight.  For further information check out the press release here.

Two new Pluto Moon names revealed
This week the two newest of Pluto’s five known moon were named Kerberos and Styx.  The names were actually placed second and third in an international competition to name the moons, however the winning entry Vulcan was vetoed by the International Astronomy Union.

Cluster detects elusive Solar Wind
The Cluster spacecraft has provided conclusive evidence of a space wind proposed 20 years ago.  Analysis of the data returned by the spacecraft showed a slow but steady wind releasing about 1kg of plasma from the plasmasphere around our planet.  For more information check out he article here.

Gemini Observatory New Optics
2013_saaa_legacy_med_945Astronomers recently got their hands on Gemini Observatory’s revolutionary new adaptive optics system, called GeMS, “and the data are truly spectacular!” says Robert Blum, Deputy Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory with funding by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

For further information check out the full article here.

Opportunity just keeps going
The Mars Rover Opportunity has reached the half way mark of it’s journey to “Solander Point.” where mission control plans for it to spend the next Martian Winter.  The rover which touched down on the red planet Jan 24, 2004 to begin a 90 sol (Martian Day) mission is rapidly approaching 10 years on the planet.

NASA readies rescue plan for Kepler
The team behind the successful Kepler mission announced this week that they will being trying to revive the spacecraft mid to late July.

And Finally
I have decided to change this section to list some of the great video(s) that I find during the week.  Enjoy

The Next-Generation Canadarn 
Karen Nyberg chat 
Next Space Station Spacewalk Brief

Weekly Space Blog 6/29

Another busy week in space, here is this weeks blog.

Saturn News
Saturn was in the news twice this week, researches have discovered the mystery of the gigantic storm circling Saturn and a image capture by Cassini shows a propeller like structure in the rings.  The researchers announced there findings based on analysis of images returned by Cassini in combination with computer models, for further information check out the fall article here.  The image below shows one of the propeller structures that have been observed several times in the rings, small moon-lets in the rings cause the material to clump together causing this effect.  For further information on these check out the NASA page here.
PIA12789

Russian Spacewalk
This week Expedition 36 Flight Engineers Fyodor Yurchikhin and Alexander Misurkin performed a 6h 34m spacewalk to prepare the station for a new Russian science module due to be delivered later this year.  During the walk they replaced a fluid flow control panel on the Zarya module, installed clamps to route power cables from the US segment and retrieved several experiment from the outside of the station.  This was the third spacewalk this year at the station and the 169th overall, the next planned spacewalk from the station will be conducted in July by Chris Cassidy of NASA and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency.

IRIS Mission Launch
Following a one day delay due to a power outage at Vanderburg the IRIS mission was successfully launched on Thursday this week.  The spacecraft will now undergo a period of tedting before the science operations begin.  For more information on the IRIS mission check out it’s mission page here.

NASA Thruster Achieves World Record
This week NASA announced that their Advanced Ion Propulsion engine had successfully operated for more than 48,000 hours.  During the testing the engine consumed 1,918 pounds of Xenon propellant and provided an amount of total impulse that would require more than 22,000 pounds of conventional propellant.  With today’s estimated launch costs this alone offers a saving in excess of $10m USD for future missions.
You can view the NEXT ion engine in operation here.

Chinese Astronaut News
This week the three person crew completed a manual undocking and docking of there spacecraft before heading back to earth for a successful landing on Tuesday in Inner Mongolia to complete a 15 day mission in space.  At the moment the Chinese and Russian’s are the only nations with the capability to launch crews into orbit, this mission further demonstrates that the Chinese are progressing with there research as they plan a large presence in space in the future.  During the mission there were a total of nine people in orbit of the earth.  For further information check out these stories of the Undocking and Landing.

Gliese 667 planets
This week astronomers announced that after further analysis they believe there could be as many as three habitat planets in the Gliese 667 system.  They have found at least 6 planets within the system and the three that fall in the habitat zone of the star are all super-earths.  The image below shows the potential Sunset from each of the planets compared with our own sunset.
sunset_gliese667c
For further information check out the teams paper here.

Ten thousandth NEO found
This week the ten thousandth Near Earth Object was announced, asteroid 2013 MZ5 was first detected by the Pan-STARRS-1 telescope on June 18.  NASA’s Lindley Johnson, program executive for NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program at NASA Headquarters, said that finding the 10,000 object was a significant milestone, however there are at least 10 times as many objects out there still to be discovered.  For more information on the Pan-STARRS-1 telescope check out it’s page here, and for more information on the NEO programs at NASA here.

Two Soyuz Launches
This week there were two separate Soyuz launches one from Baikonur Cosmodrome and the other from Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana.  Both launches successfully placed there payloads into orbit and increased the number of satellites by five.  The first launch from Baikonur carried the Resurs-P Earth imaging satellite, the second from Kourou carried four 03b satellites, further information on both launches can be found here.

Next JAXA HTV
The next Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) “Kounotori” could pave the way to manned flights by JAXA, each flight gives the agency additional information about the dynamics of spaceflight, with the last one and this vehicle being fitted with an observation system called “i-Ball” to record its re-entry.  The data provided by the i-Ball system will help engineers better understand the dynamics of re-entry and help design future spacecraft to survive the re-entry process.  Further details can be found here.

New Type of Matter Found
A recent publication in the journal Nature Physics announced a new type of matter found only in Neutron star’s.  Called “Nuclear Pasta” because of how the nuclei of atom’s arrange themselves due to the density of the stars.  It is believed that these patterns are also responsible for limiting the rotation speed of the star’s, of the ones observed so far they haven’t found one that has a rotation period longer than 12 seconds.  Further information can be found here.

CoRoT satellite shutdown
Further bad news this week for planet hunters around the world, the french satellite CoRoT (Convection, Rotation and Planetary Transits) has been officially shutdown following a computer failure last November.  The mission lasted twice as long as originally planned and so far has found 32 confirmed planets and another 100 waiting to be confirmed.  The mission also allowed astronomers to study the stellar physics and the interior of stars.

More Surprises from Voyager One
Despite having been in space for 36 years and being 11.6 billion miles from Earth the Voyager One spacecraft is still sending back data and surprising us.  In papers published this week in the journal Science the Voyager One team provided more clarity on the region they have named the Magnetic Highway.  For more information check out the full article here.

GALEX decommissioned
This week NASA decommissioned it Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) after ten years of operation.  The spacecraft used it’s ultraviolet vision to explore hundreds of millions of galaxies.
Highlights from the mission’s decade of sky scans include:
— Discovering a gargantuan, comet-like tail behind a speeding star called Mira.
— Catching a black hole “red-handed” as it munched on a star.
— Finding giant rings of new stars around old, dead galaxies.
— Independently confirming the nature of dark energy.
— Discovering a missing link in galaxy evolution
— the teenage galaxies transitioning from young to old.
For the full details of GALEX check out the article here.

Shuttle Atlantis exhibit opens

The new Space Shuttle Atlantus exhibit opened this week at Kennedy Space Centre and offers a view of the shuttle only seen by a few astronauts when in space.  For more on the new exhibit check out it’s psge here.  http://www.kennedyspacecenter.com

space-shuttle-atlantis-bay-doors

And Finally
There is only one day left on the ARKYD Kickstarter campaign if you haven’t contributed to this yet now is your last change to be involved in this ground breaking project.  Check out the project here.

Active NASA missions

As we close out another year we are going to take a look at some of the other NASA missions that are active in the Solar System exploring other planets.  While the future looks a little uncertain at the moment due to the growing budget crisis there are plenty of spacecraft still in operation.

Voyager 1 & 2

Artist concept of NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

We start our journey with two of the longest serving craft in the NASA fleet, Voyager 1 & 2 launched in 1977 have been traveling away from earth ever since and continue to function.  Their primary mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn after making a number of discoveries at each their missions where extended.  Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune.  They are now traveling at the very edge of our solar system in the region called the Heliosheath where the influence of the solar wind from the sun is almost complete diminished.  We don’t currently know when the craft will actually exit the solar system however it is expected to be close.  At the time of writing Voyager 1 was 17 billion km from the sun and Voyager 2 was 14 billion km away.  At this distance it takes more than  a day for a signal to travel to the craft and back at the speed of light.  The craft are expected to operate until ~ 2020 when they will no longer have enough power for their instruments.  Follow the progress of the Voyager’s at there website.

Cassini-Huygens Mission

Next we take a look at the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft which is currently in orbit around Saturn.  Launched in 1997 the craft spent almost 7 years travelling to the Saturn system before entering into orbit.  Cassini-Huygens is actually two physical spacecraft and Orbiter which is named Cassini and is still in orbit today and a lander named Huygens which descendant into the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan shortly after the combined craft arrived at Saturn.  Initially designed for a four year mission in orbit around Saturn the mission has been extended several times with the current plan to crash the orbiter into Saturn in 2017.  Follow the progress of Cassini at it’s website.

Diagram of the Cassini Spacecraft

Dawn

Artist's concept of Dawn with Vesta and Ceres. Image credit: William K. Hartmann Courtesy of UCLA

Next we visit a spacecraft that will be the first two orbit two different objects in the Solar System, currently in orbit around the asteroid Vesta providing a wealth of information about the rocky object, once it’s mission is complete it will then travel onto the dwarf planet Ceres and again go into orbit.  Both objects are found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and are believed to have been created when the Solar System was created.  The decade long mission including travel time will allow scientists to learn more about the creation processes.  Follow Dawn’s progress at it’s website.

Messenger

The Messenger spacecraft is the first to orbit Mercury after spending more than 6 years traveling to the planet and covering more than 7.9 billion kilometers.  Unlike most of the other planets traveling to Mercury was a lot more complex due to how close it is to the Sun instead of a direct approach which would have constant accelerated the craft Messenger had to flyby Earth, Venus and Mercury several times before finally inserting into orbit.

Follow Messenger’s progress at it’s website.

New Horizons

The New Horizon’s spacecraft will be the first to fly-by Pluto, launched in 2006 the craft is rapidly approaching Pluto but still has just under 1300 days until closest approach.  New Horizons is often erroneously given the title of Fastest Spacecraft Ever Launched, when in fact the Helios probes are the holders of that title. To be more specific New Horizons achieved the highest launch velocity and thus left Earth faster than any other spacecraft to date. It is also the first spacecraft launched directly into a solar escape trajectory, which requires an approximate velocity of 16.5 km/s (36,900 mph), plus losses, all to be provided by the launcher. In January 2007 New Horizon’s speed was increased by a gravity assist from Jupiter sending it hurtling towards Pluto at 8,900 mph faster.  However due to the gravitation influence of the Sun even at that distance the craft has slowed as it progresses towards Pluto.  New Horizon’s is now closer to Pluto than any previous spacecraft has been, the next significant event in the journey won’t occur until August 2014 when it will cross Neptune’s orbit. Flyby of Pluto will occur in July 2015 when all the science instruments will be pointed at the planet to gather as much information as possible.

After the successful completion of the primary mission to Pluto the craft may approach other Kuiper belt objects before leaving the Solar System in 2029.

Follow New Horizon’s progress at it’s website.

Juno

The last spacecraft we will look at today is the newest craft Juno, launched in August 2011 the craft began a five year journey to Jupiter to explore the origin and evolution of Jupiter.  Expected to arrive in July 2018 the craft will then orbit Jupiter 33 times gathering information about the amount of water in it’s atmosphere, measure the composition, temperature, cloud motions of the giant planet.  Map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields and explore the magnetosphere near the the planet’s poles.

Follow Juno’s progress at it’s website.

Kepler – A Search for Habitable Planets

This week the Kepler mission confirmed its First Planet in Habitable Zone of a Sun-like Star, they increased the number of planet candidates to 2365, they celebrated 1000 days in space and finally held their first science conference.  Today we take a look at the Kepler mission and what it has discovered so far.

The Kepler mission was launched on 6th March 2009, once in orbit and after complete a series of validation tests began scientific observations.  Unlike other missions, which look at different regions of the sky based on requests, the Kepler mission is pointing at a single region of sky observing the light from 100,000 stars.  Kepler is looking for signs of transiting planets which cause the brightness of the star to change very minutely.  Once detected it is possible to determine the orbital size of the planet based on how long the change is observed.  To be sure that the observations are correct Kepler needs to see at least three transit which is why it is pointing at the same point most of the time.

Why most of the time? Kepler has to point back to earth once a month to transmit the data it has capture, during this time it cannot observe the stars.  Personally I think this is a design flaw and I hope a successor to Kepler will address this.

Why are they Planet Candidates?  Kepler can only detect the changes in light from a star, therefore once a change has been detected and verified it needs to be confirmed.  Working with different teams around the work they are able to use the other telescopes to actually observe the stars to determine what is really there.

What has Kepler found so far?  Of the 2365 candidates announced so far 31 planets have been confirmed orbiting in 22 systems.  Included in these is the first known planet to orbit around a binary star system (Kepler 16b), the first near earth sized planet detected in habitual zone of the star (Kepler 22b).  Kepler is now starting to see planets that have longer orbital periods, most of the early candidates all have very short periods but the recently annouced Kepler 22b has a 290 day orbit.

What does the future hold?  Kepler has been designed to operate for at least 3.5 years, assuming there are no problems the craft will hopefully continue to operate long after that and provide further lots more candidates with longer orbital periods.

Is that all the planets? No Kepler is only observing one region of the sky and focused on 100,000 stars, it is only able to detect the change in brightness caused by a planet transiting the star.

First this is a very very very small percentage of the known stars in the universe, estimated to be 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 300 sextillion.  So far in 1,000 days of obervation we have detected 2365 candidates from the 100,000 stars (0.02365%).  If we use the same percentage of the estimate there could be as many as 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 7 sextillion planets in the universe.

Second Kepler can only see the planets that move directly in front of the star from our line of sight.  We know for a fact from other observations using other methods that there are exoplanets that Kepler cannot see, therefore we could conclude from this that each known method could have the same number of candidates in the universe.  This continue to increase as Kepler finds more candidates.

What’s next? The next big observatory that is planned to be launched is the James Webb Space Telescope which will have the power to see some of these planet candidates and allow us to really see the finer details of these planets.  At present there is no details of a planned follow up to Kepler but hopefully the number of candidates already returned will encourage NASA to look into one.