Weekly Space Blog 6/13

Orbital ISS Launched Delayed again

The ORB-2 Cygnus cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) has been delayed again due to the on-going investigation into an AJ26 engine failure last month during testing.  The Antares rocket which launches the Cygnus spacecraft uses two of the AJ26 engines on the first stage to orbit.

The new No Earlier Than (NET) date is July 1st, we will prove additional news when available on the launch date/time.

SLS design change could delay first crewed mission

NASA has decided to change the version of the second stage that will be used on the EM-2 crewed mission.  Originally slated to be the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) stage that will be used on EM-1 they have now elected to use the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) stage that was originally scheduled to debut on EM-3.  Due to this and the NASA Safety Office and Astronaut Office’s requirement that the upper stage complete at least one mission before any crew and be carried on it could mean that EM-3 becomes the first crewed mission for SLS in 2023.

An alternate option may be to add an additional flight between EM-1 and EM-2 which would be used to prove the EUS therefore allowing EM-2 to be the first crewed flight, however additional funding would be needed to achieve that.  At present there are no future details as to the overall impact of the SLS schedule with primary focus on the EM-1 flight in 2017.

Progress M-21M undocks

This week the Progress M-21M spacecraft completed it’s mission to the ISS with a successful undocking and later burn up in the atmosphere.  The cargo vehicle spent 144 days at the station having delivered almost 2,400 pounds of supplies it was then loaded with trash that was no longer needed.  European Astronaut Alexander Gerst tweeted the picture below of the Progress burning up in the atmosphere to conclude it’s orbital mission.

ProgressM21M

Rosetta Update

The ESA Rosetta spacecraft completed two big burns this week as it entered the final phase of its approach to the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after almost a decade journey.  Unlike when it a spacecraft approaches a planet Rosetta will not be able to use the gravity of the comet to get into orbit but instead will need to execute a series of burns to precisely match the orbit.

It is currently approaching at a speed of 17,000 kpd (kilometers per day) and is currently less than 300,000 kilometers away. Over the next month and half it will continue to refine the orbit.

For more information in the Rosetta mission check out the page here.

Two new exo-planets found around Kapteyn

A team of Astronomers have discovered two new planets around a nearby red dwarf star Kapteyn, which is about 13 light years away in the southern constellation of Pictor.  One of the planets Kapteyn c is considered to be too cold for life because of it’s distance from the star.  However Kapteyn b is within the habitable zone and therefore could have liquid water on the surface.  The planet is estimated to be 5 times the mass of earth, and has an orbital period of 48 days.

Boeing CST-100 News

This week Boeing showcased their CST-100 spacecraft which is one of the spacecraft that is competing for the Commercial Crew contract to deliver astronauts to the ISS.

The spacecraft will be launched by an Atlas 5 rocket and once in orbit will dock to the space station to deliver up to seven people to the station.  During the return the spacecraft will utilize airbags when it lands.

Boeing also indicated that further progress on the CST-100 would depend on them getting a contract from NASA in the CCtCap process which is currently on-going.

AAA Needed on Mars for Curiosity Rover

Rover Wheel DamageThe Mars Curiosity Rover which has been roaming around on Mars for almost a year is starting show ware and tare from the journey so far.

Originally expected to take a year to get to the base of Mt. Sharp the rover is currently half way there and clearly showing signs of damage from the un-yielding rocks as it moves over the surface.

Hmm wonder what the call out charge would be for AAA to replace the wheel, sign me up for that trip.

Russia plans Biggest Rocket since 1960s

The chief of the Federal Space Agency in Russia, Oleg Ostapenko said this week, while visiting Crimea, that they would need to build a super-heavy rocket capable of lifting between 80 to 85 tons to earth orbit in order to realize it’s lunar ambitions.

100 Million Planets may Harbor Complex Life in Milky Way

Scientists from the University of Texas have released findings based on the “first plausible assessment of complex life in the universe using empirical data.”  The findings estimate that there could be as many as 100 million planets in our galaxy that may harbor some form of complex alien life.  The article also says that our galaxy is one of approximately 500 billion in the universe.

The full article can be found here.

Author Note: The estimate of galaxies in this article seems to be very high a factor of 2.5-5 times higher than most other articles or current estimates.

Trillion Dollar Market

This week Planetary Resources released a video, explaining why they believe fuel from asteroids will create a Trillion Dollar market in the future.  Currently satellite operators have to pay for total weight of the spacecraft, including any fuel needed for the life of vehicle.

Check out the video here.

Smoke detected on ISS Tuesday, crew were not in danger

This week smoke was detected on the ISS, in the Zvezda Service Module, requiring flight controllers to initiate emergency procedures to isolate the modules ventilation system while the source of the some was identified.   The crew were never in any danger and the problem was quickly determined to be a heater that was used for water reclamation.  The heater was deactivated, a fan and filter was then setup to clear the smoke.

Kepler Candidate List updated

The NASA Kepler project updated the number of Kepler candidates and confirmed planets from 3,845 to 4,254. There are now up to one hundred potentially habitable worlds in the Kepler candidates, 30 matching the conservative definition of a potentially habitable.

HEC_All_Distance

Pluto and Charon news

Pluto has often been considered a binary planet with its largest moon Charon, it now seems that they may both also share a thin atmosphere.  While it is impossible to detect the atmosphere using ground based technology the New Horizon’s spacecraft that is current racing towards Pluto will have the ability to detect it.

We will know more in 2015 after the flyby has been completed and the data is back on earth.

Check out the fall article here.

In a separate article researchers suggest that if cracks are found in the surface of Pluto that could indicate that the interior was once warm enough to sustain an underground ocean.

Check out the full article here.

Dream Chaser News

Sierra Nevada Corporation who are building the Dream Chaser spacecraft that is competing for the contract to fly astronauts to the ISS this week announced a new partnership with Craig Technologies, a Cape Canaveral based company.  The company will be responsible for the design engineering and manufacture of Dream Chaser.

The full press release can be found here.

3D Printer heading to ISS on next SpaceX mission

The 3D Printer developed by Made In Space has passed the final certification by NASA and will now be launched to the ISS on the next SpaceX mission in August.  The printer was originally planned to launch on the SpaceX 5 mission but having completed all the milestones needed ahead of schedule they will now only need to wait until then to see the printer in action.

Once on the station a series of tests will be run to verify the ability to created printed parts in a micro-gravity environment.

The full press release can be found here.

Rumor: Google and Virgin Galactic in talks

England’s Sky News has reported that Google and Virgin Galactic have been in talks for months regarding a potential investment by Google.  While no deal has been finalized it is believe to be a part of Google plans to launch a fleet of satellites to provide Internet access to the whole planet.

The full article can be found here.

SpaceX’s Orbcomm Launch delayed again

The launch of six Orbcomm satellites on a Falcon 9 has been delayed again, originally scheduled for Thursday this week after previous delays the date was changed to Sunday after a problem was found with one of the satellites.

While the problem with the satellite appears to have been resolved Orbcomm have decided to perform additional testing to verify the issue has been fully addressed.  In order to complete the analysis the June 15 launch date is no longer achievable and they are working with SpaceX to identify a new launch date.

NASA’s Maven spacecraft is 100 days away from Mars

The NASA Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft which launched last November is now 100 days away from arriving at Mars.

Check out the mission here.

Weekly Space Blog 6/6

Kepler back online

The Kepler spacecraft that was sidelined last year after two of it’s gyroscopes failed has been re-purposed to the K2 mission.

The original mission of Kepler was to continuously observe the same patch of the sky looking for slight dips in the brightness of the star.  This indicated that a planet or object transitioned across the star.  To determine if there truly was a planet there and it’s orbital period they needed to observe the same dip at least three times.  The initial results from Kepler showed planets that were very close to their parent star and yielded a lot of results, as the mission continued they started to see planets that were further out and had much longer orbit periods.  Over the four years Kepler was observing they found 962 confirmed exoplanets in more than 76 stellar systems, along with a further 2,903 unconfirmed planet candidates.

NASA-KeplerSecondLight-K2-Explained-20131211K2 will use approximately 80-day’s of observations per campaign allow it to perform a unique exoplanet survey which fills the gaps in duration and sensitivity of other missions and much better precision than is possible on the ground.

For more information on K2 and how targets will be selected check out the full mission page here.

Orion’s first launch progress

The first test flight of the Orion capsule moved a step closer this week with the attachment of the heat shield.  The heat shield which protects the vehicle from the intense heat of re-entry is the largest ever flown.

The test flight which is scheduled for later this year will demonstrate the ability of the vehicle to survive a high speed re-entry similar to those experienced by the Apollo missions that went to the moon.

The mission is tentatively scheduled for December 4th on-board a Delta 4 heavy but that may change depending on progress of the test vehicle.

SpaceX News

This week SpaceX’s COO Gwynne Shotwell gave a talk at the Atlantic Council, during which she gave more details about the success of the company both in there launch successes so far with 9 for 9 in Falcon 9 launches.  They currently have 42 missions on the books worth about $4.2 billion, approximately $100 million per mission.  She also explained that SpaceX captured 100% of the launch contracts in the Falcon 9 class market during 2011/12.

They are currently producing one Falcon 9 a month and are moving towards increasing this to two. She also talked about the Falcon Heavy test launch and that they are current building the tanks for that flight which is expected early next year.

She also talked more about the up-coming manifest, and addressed the concerns regarding their ability to meet the commitments. She believes that they will prove that they can over the coming months.  She then went on to talk about the re-usability of rockets and the change that will bring to the market in the long run.

In other related news Dr. Garrett Reisman of SpaceX indicated that the Dragon V2 vehicle will look to use the 6 hour accelerated approach to the station as the Soyuz does today.

First Laser communications from ISS

This week the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) experiment on the station this week transmitted it’s first video via Laser.  The video can be seen here.

These experiments will eventually lead to higher capacity communications between vehicles in space and the ground.  OPALS was delivered to the station on the last SpaceX Dragon mission in the un-pressurized trunk and placed on the outside of the station by the CanadaArm 2.

European Extremely Large Telescope

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope built to far, with a 39 metre main mirror it will gather 15 times more light than any other telescope currently in operation today and will take images that are 15 times sharper than anything Hubble has taken.  It will be able to image Earth like planets around other stars and study Jupiter like planets in great detail.

To be built on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile the telescope first light is planned for 2022.

See a trailer video here.

See a brochure of the E-ELT here.

ISS HD Earth Viewing Experiment

The HDev experiment is attached to the outside of the International Space Station and provides high definition views of the earth via a UStream channel.  Below is a slide show of some of the images from this week.

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Weekly Space Blog 8/17

We are back after a two week break to enjoy the New England summer, this week we have lots of great news.

Russian Cosmonauts set new Space Walk Record
The week two Russian Cosmonauts broke the space walk endurance record by complete a 7h 29m excursion outside the International Space Station.  Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Alexander Misurkin were originally scheduled for a 6h 30m walk but Russian officials elected to extend the walk to allow them time to complete a task originally planned for a later walk.  The previous record was set in 1990 by two Cosmonauts working outside the Mir Space Station.

NASA looks at new mission for Kepler
After several attempts to restore the failed Gyroscopes on the Kepler spacecraft Mission planners have determined that the primary mission of the spacecraft cannot be restored and are instead looking at way to utilize the craft in it’s current configuration.  They are looking at several options but haven’t selected one yet.  In the mean time there are still plenty of planet candidates left to analyze from the data collected by Kepler.

Proton Rocket launches to resume
Following a review of the launch failure in July Proton Rocket launches are scheduled to resume in September.  The review concluded that key yaw angular sensors were forcible installed upside down causing the rocket to fail so quickly after launch, several recommendations have been made to the component manufacture that will not allow this to happen again.

SpaceX completed Orbit and Entry review for Dragon
SpaceX recently completed a preliminary design review of the systems that would be used to keep crews safe while in space and during re-entry to earth’s atmosphere.  During the review company engineers present NASA and industry experts with details of all the systems which were dissected to ensure nothing was missed.  This was the seventh milestone in the CCiCap initiative and SpaceX are marching towards a summer 2014 completion of all the milestones.

SpaceX Grasshopper News
This week SpaceX’s reusable test platform Grasshopper completed the first lateral divert test demonstrating that it has the ability to correct the dissent even if the vehicle is not directly above the landing pad and land in the correct spot.  These tests are all steps towards Elon Musk’s dream of having fully re-usable rockets in the future.

Commercial Launch Schedule Changes
Mission planners have switched the Orbital and SpaceX Commercial Crew launches scheduled for December 2013 and January 2014.  The original plan called for SpaceX launch three SpX-3 to go in December but due to scheduling conflicts they have elected to switch the missions.  This assumes of course that the Orbital Demo mission scheduled for late September is successful.  For SpaceX this will be the first Dragon launch using the new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket which allows a greater cargo capacity on the vehicle.

NASA Astronaut Michael Foale retires
British born Astronaut Michael Foale has retired from NASA following a 25 year career which included a US record 374 days in space and saw him fly on Space Shuttle, Soyuz and two Space Stations.  For more info on Michael check out his profile here.

And finally
Well that is all for this week, there are plenty of stories out there and I will have plenty more for next week.  In meantime here are some of the sites I visit daily to get space news.

www.spaceref.com
www.spaceflightnow.com
www.nasaspaceflight.com
www.space.com
www.spacedaily.com
www.nasa.gov

Weekly Space Blog 6/15

This week SpaceX sign military agreement, Chinese Astronauts, Chris Hadfield, Opportunity and Kepler keep giving, and much more.

SpaceX

This week SpaceX signed a framework agreement for potential Military launches in the future.  Under the agreement the air force will evaluate the Falcon v1.1 rocket over at least three launches as well as all the processes, procedures etc involved in create the vehicles.  Once the evaluation period is complete SpaceX may have the chance to compete for future launches.

Chinese Launch and Docking

On Tuesday this week three Chinese Astronauts successfully launched to Orbit aboard a Long March 2F rocket, once in orbit the spacecraft made it’s way to the Tiangong 1 space station arriving on Thursday.  Following a successful automated docking the three Astronauts made there way into the station to begin 15 days of work.  During their stay at the station they will perform a manual undock and redock as well as numerous scientific experiments before heading back to earth.

Opportunity News

This week the Mars Opportunity Rover team announced that they believe they have found clay minerals in a rock recently examined by the rover.  The team explained that their presence is an indication that the rock had been altered by long term exposure to water.  Although they have found indications of water since arriving on the planet they explained that this was different because it indicated a neutral pH balance where as previous examples had higher pH balances.

The Rover has been operating on Mars for 9+ years, over 35 times longer than originally designed and recently broke the US distance record on another planetary object.

Image

In this panorama, Solander Point is the near peak on the left of the horizon. It is more than a kilometre away from Opportunity’s current position and the rover would hope to arrive by August

More Kepler planet candidate announced

The Kepler team announced another 503 planet candidates this week, some which may be the right size and distance from their star to support life.

The Kepler team continue to analyze the vast amounts of data they have already received from the four+ years of operations.

The Kepler spacecraft is currently operating in a Point Rest State due to the failure of a second gyroscope that is used to stabilize the craft, and a team has been formed to determine what course of action can be taken to restore some if not all the scientific operations of the Vehicle.

Chris Hadfield announces resignation

This week Chris Hadfield announced his resignation from the Canadian Space Agency after 21 years at the agency.  Chris who recently returned from a six month mission to the space station the last part which was served as Commander, became well known for the amazing pictures that he tweeted from space.

Chris and his family have spent many years in Houston working with NASA and will be returning to his native Canada to enjoy his retirement.

Planetary Resources announce stretch goal

Planetary Resources announced via their Kickstarter ARKYD page an ambitious stretch goal for the campaign.  If they are able to raise $2 million by the 30th June they then will add ExoPlanet detection capabilities to the spacecraft.  Check out the project here.

And Finally

That’s all for this week, will be plenty more next week.

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.

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.