ULA launches NASA’s Solar Parker Probe

Delta IV Heavy launching

United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched NASA’s Solar Parker Probe on their Delta IV Heavy rocket.  Today was the second attempt to liftoff proceeded smoothly for an on-time lifted off at 3:31 am EDT.

The first attempt yesterday was delayed twice before a scrub was called when a new issue occurred at T-1:55m and counting with no time left in the window to try again.

Due to the extremely high energy required for this mission, the Delta IV Heavy’s capability was augmented by a powerful third stage provided by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.  This allowed the vehicle to get up to 45,000 mph by the time the Solar Parker Probe separated.

Confirmation of the 3rd stage events was delayed due to a signal dropout issue, however, the information was received at one of the ground stations and was relayed manually.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe will be the first-ever mission to “touch” the Sun. The spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the Sun’s atmosphere about 4 million miles from our star’s surface.   

More details can be found here.

This was the 6th launch for ULA this year

ULA launches Mars InSight

United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched NASA’s Mars InSight lander today aboard their Atlas V rocket in the 401 configuration from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Following a smooth countdown, the rocket lifted off at 7:05 AM EDT and approximately 94 minutes later the spacecraft separated from the upper stage to begin its six-month journey to the red planet.

After separation of the main payload, two CubeSats MarCO-A and MarCO-B were also successfully deployed and will accompany InSight on its journey.  They will be used to relay information from InSight during it’s landing on Mars in November.

This was the first time that a spacecraft destined for another planet had been launched from the west coast.

Buzz Aldrin

DSC_0057Today I had the opportunity to meet with Astronaut Buzz Aldrin as part of my role with The Mars Foundation.

Buzz is truly a unique character during out time together he had to do a phone interview with a South Dakota radio station which was interesting to listen to.  He discussed many of his ideas for Mars transportation including the Aldrin Mars Cycler plan, utilizing the moon Phobos before landing on Mars, how to utilize a Mars Lander even for Earth return, and many other ideas.

We had the opportunity to talk about In-situ Resource Utilization and how that could be utilized to produce fuel, oxygen and materials that could be used in 3D Printing applications.  He also shared with us a plan to develop a series of modules that would initially be used as a moon base but longer term would also be usable on Mars.

During the four plus hours we spent with Buzz it was clear that he is very passionate about sending Humans beyond Low Earth Orbit and is very active in trying to involve as many nations as possible working together and including commercial entities where possible to build the various components that would be needed to achieve this vision.

It was truly an honor to spend time with a man who has really gone where no-one had been before and even all these years later very few have been.

The Little Rover that Could continues to impress

Opportunity Rover's Full Marathon-Length Traverse
Opportunity Rover’s Full Marathon-Length Traverse

Eleven years ago the Mars Opportunity Rover landed on the surface of the planet for a planned 90 sol (Mars day) mission, nearly 4000 sols later the rover is still operating.  This week it achieved a another significant milestone becoming the first rover to complete the equivalent of a marathon driving across the surface of the planet.  A milestone that may be hard to beat until Humans are working on the surface of the planet.

Unfortunately the future for the rover is unknown for a couple of reasons, the primary being we just don’t know how much longer it can last it has already operated for 44 times as long as designed and has recently had a software patch to get around a problem with the flash memory.

The other reason the future is in doubt is the 2016 NASA budget doesn’t include funding to continue the operations of the rover. While this was also the case in the 2015 budget congress added funding back so we can be hopeful that they will do the same again, however there is no guarantee.

So how has it lasted this long? There are a couple of answers to this, the first being that it is solar powered so as long as the hardware survives and the solar panels can receive sunlight it should be able to operate. Here is where Mars itself has helped the rover, over the 11 years of operation the power from the solar panels has dropped as dust accumulated on them and then been boosted again when a dust devil (add link) cleans the panels.

Another obverse answer is the rover was well designed, while the initial mission was for 90 sols the designers ensured the rover was capable of operating longer, personally I don’t know if they ever expected it to operate this long but it is a testament to good design and engineering that it has.

Why continue to fund it? Again there are a couple of answers to this, first it is still returning valuable data, there is no other vehicle in that region of Mars and everything it finds helps us to better understand the planet.

Second the longer it operates the more we learn about long distance remote operations of vehicles, unfortunately the older it gets the more issues are likely to occur, as these happen we will learn to adapt the vehicle to handle these issues until the time comes when it is not possible to do that any longer. When that happens the Rover will have completed an extraordinary mission and set some records that will be hard to beat.

To learn more about this amazing vehicle and see the numerous images it has returned on Mars check out the mission page.

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.

2015 The Year of the Dwarf Planets

It is hard to believe that 2015 is already here, we would like to wish all of you a Happy New Year and look forward to continuing to serve you with fantastic Space News throughout the year.

This year promises to be an exciting year as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft races towards Pluto, Dawn moves closer to Ceres, Boeing and SpaceX are scheduled to meet more milestones on the Commercial Crew program, the International Space Station hosts it’s first year long mission, and lots more.

As well as reporting on US and ISS launches, we also plan to bring you some new content including looking Beyond ISS, a Trip to Mars, more Future Now articles and plenty more.

As you read this article the New Horizons spacecraft will be closing in on the Pluto system for a July flyby for our first close encounter with the planet and it’s moons, in addition the Dawn spacecraft which has been in space since 2007 and spent 14 months at Vesta is scheduled to arrive at Ceres in April.  For this reason we would like to declare this as the year of the Dwarf Planets to support the teams who have worked on and continue to work on these amazing missions.

Humans vs Robots for Space Exploration

Last week the European Space Agency achieved an important milestone in the history of Space Exploration with the first landing on a Comet. The lander named Philae was released from it’s parent spacecraft Rosetta and seven hours later touched down in the surface. Due to some complications the spaecraft ended up bouncing and landed two additional times coming to rest in a location that resulted in it not getting nearly enough sunlight to recharge the batteries.

There is a possibility that as the Comet travels around the Sun there may be more sunlight available that would allow the lander to have enough power to start up again but there is no guarantee of that.

Since this happened there has been quite a debate about the advantages of robotic vs human exploration.

In this post we will explore the advantages and dis-advantages of each and why we believe there is an important place for each.

Robotic Missions

(A) The first and biggest advantage is the reduced overhead of providing for a human crew from Life Support, Food, Water, Waste Management, etc.

(A) Due to the lack of advanced space propulsion systems travel within our own Solar System takes a long time. Robotic missions to deeper into the Solar System handle this by designing the necessary protections and in the case of recent missions long hibernation periods.

(A) Can visit places that are either too extreme for human’s or we don’t know enough about yet to risk human visitors.

(D) Can only adapted to scenarios that have been pre-programmed and then only depending on the abilities given to the robotic mission. Take for example the Philae lander, it ended up in a location that wasn’t ideal for the vehicle and doesn’t have the capabilities to address that itself.

(D) If something breaks it may be impossible to repair it depending what capabilities where built into the spacecraft.

Human Missions

(A) Can perform a much wider range of experiments and make decisions on what to sample.

(A) Can quickly adapt to situations as they happened rather than having to communicate back to Earth and waiting for new commands. For example on the way to Mars come across a Comet or Asteroid they could adapt the mission to observe it or even visit it depending no impact to overall mission.

(A) Can make repairs and upgrades during the mission if something goes wrong which is inevitable with anything and with the advances in 3D printing new parts could be created by the crew and replaced as they are travelling.

(D) Require a lot of resources, need to have enough for the whole mission plus some contingencies for emergencies. Getting all these resources into space either from Earth or in the future from in-space mining etc will cost money and add risk for each launch needed.

(D) We know the effects weightlessness has on the body from research done so far on the ISS and other space stations. For longer duration missions we would need to ensure this is handled, and depending on the mission, and it’s length there could be different ways to handle this.

(D) If something catastrophic happens there may not be abort scenarios that would allow the crew to survive or even get back to Earth. A mission to Mars takes many months of travel when the alignment is optimal and could be significantly longer if not.

Conclusion

There are clearly advantages and dis-advantages to each, we believe that there are important places for both in the future.

Until such time as we have much faster transportation in space deep space missions are just too long for humans to do without spending vast amounts of money, therefore robotic missions are needed.

We also need manned missions to help us continue to learn about surviving in space.

Even in the future shown in Star Trek or other movies it is clear that a combination of Manned and Robotics is used for exploration.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the Human vs Robot discussion below in the comments.

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission successfully insert into Orbit

Image: Indian Space Research Organization
Image: Indian Space Research Organization

Today India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft arrived at Mars and was successfully placed into orbit.  Launched 5th November, 13 days before NASA’s Maven the spacecraft, it took a slightly different route to Mars resulting in it arriving three days after MAVEN.  This is the first spacecraft from India to travel this far from Earth and it performed it’s orbit insertion as planned and is now in orbit of Mars.

India are only the fourth entity to place an craft into orbit of Mars following NASA, ESA and Soviet Union.  To add to the achieve they are the only one two achieve orbit on the very first attempt.

Image: Indian Space Research Organization
Spacecraft Layout – Image: Indian Space Research Organization

The MOM spacecraft is carrying the following instruments: –

  • Lyman Alpha Photometer – LAP
  • Martian Exospheric Neutral Composition Analyzer – MENCA
  • Mars Color Camera – MCC
  • Methane Sensor for Mars – MSM
  • Thermal Infrared Imaging System – TIS

For more information on MOM check out its mission page here.