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 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.

Pale Blue Dot

This week during the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society a number of announcements were made about recent discoveries, today we will take a looks at some of these.

One of the most significant is the announcement that almost every star in the galaxy has at least one planet orbiting it. Recently we discussed the results of the Kepler data that had been released to date that estimated that there could be as many as 7 sextillion planets in the universe. However with this new announcement this would increase to 300 sextillion planets at least and we know for certain that there are multi-planetary systems out there, including the one we live in. One estimate suggested there are 1.6 planets for every star; therefore we are looking at potentially 480 sextillion planets in the universe.

Based on this information we can speculate that there are 1500 planets within a 50 light-year radius of earth. While we still don’t have the technology to get to these any time soon we do have instruments powerful enough to start investigate these in a lot more detail. The next few years in planetary hunting are going to be very exciting as more and more of the Kepler candidates are confirmed and as more and more powerful telescope come online.

The Kepler team recently announced that they are finding that smaller planets are actually more common than the larger gas giant planets. Combined with the above announcements the possibility of finding other habitable worlds has increased significantly.

In another announcement astronomers at the California Institute of Technology announced the discovery of the smallest Explanets so far. Measuring 0.57 to 0.78 times the size of earth the three planets orbit the star KOI-961, which is 130 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation. The team used the Kepler data combined with additional observations of the star, due to the star’s similarity to Barnard’s star they were also able to use information gathered from previous observations of this year which is much closer at only 6 light-years from Earth.

Following the previous announcement of a circumbinary planet, one that orbit’s two stars. The Kepler team announced two additional circumbinary systems. It would seem that these systems are not rare exceptions, and one day we could well see a double sun-set just like Luke did in Star Wars. Again we don’t have the technology to visit these systems today but I believe one day humans will.

The final announcement we will look at today is the discovery of a ring like system similar to Saturn’s transiting a distant star. Unlike a planetary transit these are harder to detect because the light dip will be different depending on the structure of the rings. The team studied light curve data from SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) and All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS).

So why the reference to The Pale Blue Dot, I am reminded as we discover more and more planets in the Universe that we live on a tiny island in the vast sea of the Universe.  As a christian I believe that we are the only intelligent species out there, however I also believe that there are many habitable worlds and one day we will go out from our tiny place and visit them.  I don’t know what the future holds for the discovery of planets but I believe within the next 5 years we will directly image planets orbiting other stars and be able to read their chemical signatures.

NASA Discovers First Earth-size Planets

Two weeks ago NASA announced the first planet is the habitable zone of another star.  Yesterday they announced the discovery of the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system.

The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun.

The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth. The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is a bit larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius. Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra.

Kepler-20e orbits its parent star every 6.1 days and Kepler-20f every 19.6 days. These short orbital periods mean very hot, inhospitable worlds. Kepler-20f, at 800 degrees Fahrenheit, is similar to an average day on the planet Mercury. The surface temperature of Kepler-20e, at more than 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, would melt glass.

Kepler Planet Lineup

On a separate note, NASA announced that the Kepler spacecraft experienced a processor reset on 12/7 most likely due to a galactic cosmic-ray burst.  They were able to quickly recover the spacecraft which is now operating as expected.  This again highlights the extreme dangers of working in space and some of the factors that must be taking into consideration when designing space missions especially when talking about human deep space missions.