Week in Space 12/31-1/5

As we start 2019 we are launching a new weekly summary of the activities that happened or relate to space.

New Horizons flies by Ultima Thule

On New Years eve the New Horizons spacecraft flew past the asteroid 2014-MU69 which is being referred to as Ultima Thule. The asteroid which is 4+ billion miles away is the the area of the Solar System known as the Kuiper Belt and is the further ever object a spacecraft has visited to date.

Travelling at more than 32,000 mph the spacecraft began flyby operations a couple of days before closest flyby which occured on 1st Jan. Due to the distant it took 6 plus hours for the first data to be received on Earth which included the first images and also spacecraft health data that indicates that the data recorders are full indicating a successful flyby.

For images and more data visit the spacecraft web site here.

OSIRIS-REx Orbit’s Asteroid Bennu

While most of the focus on New Years eve was on celebrating and New Horizons another spacecraft was also performing maneuvers in space as it fired it’s engine to go into orbit of Asteroid Bennu.

The spacecraft OSIRIS-REx which was launched in September 2016 traveled to the Asteroid arriving in early December, since then it has been flying in formation with the Asteroid performing surveys.

For images and more data visit the spacecraft web site here.

China Lands on the Moon

China successfully landed a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon making them the first nation to do so. Coming off their busiest year in rocket launches China has started 2019 with the successful landing on the far side of the moon with there lander Chang’e 4, aboard the lander is a rover Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit-2.

Once on the surface the rover is successful deployed and has already started to explore the environment.

For images and more data check out this following site.

SpaceX rolls Crewed Dragon to Launch Pad

This week SpaceX rolled the first Crewed Dragon to Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center for a dry-run rehearsal and fit check. This was the first time since the last shuttle STS-135 in 2011 a crewed vehicle has been vertical at LC-39A.

While the launch date for the first demo flight (DM-1) is currently in flux due to the government shutdown it is expected to happen late Jan or early Feb this year.

Images of the vehicle on the pad can be found here.

SpaceX building Star Ship hopper in Texas

Meanwhile at their new launch complex in Boca Chica Village, Texas SpaceX are busy building the first of their Star Ship hopper vehicles which will be used to test the technology they are planning to use for missions eventually to Mars and beyond.

The design of these vehicles has changed several times over the time it was originally announced however now it seems we are closer to the final version with actual hardware appearing.

According to Elon Musk we can expect to see flights in 4-8 weeks, however, as with most estimates from Elon it may be longer. It looks like spring/summer is going to be very exciting.

For images check our these twitter accounts Cowboy Dan and Austin Barnard

New Horizons Phones Home

Following this mornings flyby of Pluto the New Horizons spacecraft has phoned home. And tomorrow morning it will starting returning the high priority data from its numerous observations.

Atlas_V_551_roars_into_blue_skyThe spacecraft which was launched in Jan, 2006 has traveled more than 3.2 billion miles to reach the Pluto system, during the 9.5 years of travel most of it was spent alone in deep space in hibernation, occasionally the mission team would wake it up to check out the systems.

At the end of last year the spacecraft woke up to begin checkouts in preparation for the flyby operations which begun in Jan this year. As the spacecraft approached the Pluto system the LORRI instrument took images to allow the navigation team to check its approach and make any corrections needed so that they could arrive in the target window just 90 x 60 miles in size. To put that in perspective, that is like hitting a golf ball on the east coast of the USA with the intention of getting a hole in one on the west coast.

During the flyby the spacecraft operated in autonomous mode where it focused solely on the completion of the observations that had been pre-programmed once those were complete it turned its main antenna back to Earth and started to transmit its data.

It may be many years before all the data that is returned by New Horizons is fully analyzed and the text books written on the planet.

And now we wait #PlutoFlyby

Latest image of Pluto released during the Flyby
Latest image of Pluto released during the Flyby

New Horizons has completed its closest approach to Pluto with a historic flyby at 7:50am EDT today, however we will not hear back from the spacecraft for another 12 hours as it will now turn around and continue observations as it moves away from the system, this time with our Sun in the background.

The spacecraft has been operating autonomously and until we hear back later today we will not really know how successful it was, did it complete all the planned observations? Did it encounter something during flyby that we had not previously seen?

Now all we can do is wait until this evening to see just how successful the spacecraft was and begin to receive the reams of data that was collected.  Due to the distance from Earth it will take almost 16 months for everything to be returned.  Now the patience of the team will be tested more than during the 9.5 years it took to get to Pluto as they know the data is on the spacecraft and they can’t do anything to speed up the return of it.

Check back this evening for updates on the success of the mission.

T-1 days until #PlutoFlyby

By this time tomorrow NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will be zooming past the Dwarf Plant Pluto capturing details of the planet from just 12,500 km (7,800 mi) away closer than any spacecraft has ever been.

New Horizons team members react to latest images from spacecraft
New Horizons team members react to latest images from spacecraft

The spacecraft is now deep in the encounter mode of operation, this means that if anything goes wrong it will automatically repair itself and continue operating.  Previously the vehicle, as it did last week, would have failed over to the backup computer, re-orient itself towards Earth and then wait for commands to be sent back.  However due to the limited time of the flyby valuable data would be lost if the computer couldn’t automatically recover.

Due to the distance from Earth it will take more than a year to send all the data that is capture back to Earth.  While the spacecraft will be more then 600m miles away from Pluto by the time all the data is returned to Earth new revelations about the Pluto system will still be discovered during that time.

Below are some of the latest images returned by the spacecraft

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T-7 days and counting to New Horizons Pluto Flyby

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is just 7 days away from its closest approach to Pluto, and this week we are going to look at the amazing images that have already been returned.  As the spacecraft gets closer and closer we are going to learn much more about the Planet and its moons.

Before we take a look at the images however a quick update on the health of the vehicle.  As most of you probably now 4th July a Safe-Mode event occurred which resulted in a period of lost communications.  The vehicle quickly recovered from this by switching to the backup computer and re-establishing communications.  The Mission control team reported on Sunday that the fault was caused by a timing issue in the command sequencing planned for the final flyby and because this is the only time this sequence will be used they have resumed normal science operations already.

As the spacecraft has been closing in on the Pluto/Charon system the images it has returned have been getting better and better.  Initially the images were captured by the LORRI instrument as that was the only one capable of capturing images at distance.  However the Ralph and Alice instruments are now online and have enhanced our view.  Over the next week we can expected to see even more detailed images appear, below are a sampling of the images publicly available.

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More images are available on the New Horizons Web Site

 

New Horizons Suffers Safe-Mode event

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

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

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

Status updates will be issued as new information is available.

T-14 days and counting to New Horizons Pluto Flyby

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

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

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

The following instruments are on board the spacecraft :-

The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (“LORRI”) is a long focal length imager designed for high resolution and responsivity at visible wavelengths. The instrument is equipped with a high-resolution 1024×1024 monochromatic CCD imager with a 208.3 mm (8.20 in) aperture giving a resolution of 5 μrad (~1 asec). The CCD is chilled far below freezing by a passive radiator on the antisolar face of the spacecraft. This temperature differential requires insulation, and isolation from the rest of the structure. The Ritchey–Chretien mirrors and metering structure are made of silicon carbide, to boost stiffness, reduce weight, and prevent warping at low temperatures. The optical elements sit in a composite light shield, and mount with titanium and fibreglass for thermal isolation. Overall mass is 8.6 kg (19 lb), with the Optical tube assembly (OTA) weighing about 5.6 kg (12 lb),[29] for one of the largest silicon-carbide telescopes flown at the time (now superseded by Herschel).
Principal investigator: Andy Cheng, Applied Physics Laboratory, Data: LORRI image search at jhuapl.edu

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

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

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

The Ralph telescope, 6 cm (2.4 in) in aperture, is one of two photographic instruments that make up New Horizons‍ ’​ Pluto Exploration Remote Sensing Investigation (PERSI), with the other being the Alice instrument. Ralph has two separate channels: a visible-light CCD imager (MVIC- Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera) with broadband and color channels, and a near-infrared imaging spectrometer, LEISA (Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array). LEISA is derived from a similar instrument on the EO-1 mission. Ralph was named after Alice’s husband on The Honeymooners, and was designed after Alice.
Principal investigator: Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute

The Student Dust Counter (SDC), built by students at the University of Colorado Boulder, will operate continuously through the trajectory to make dust measurements. It consists of a detector panel, about 460 mm × 300 mm (18 in × 12 in), mounted on the antisolar face of the spacecraft (the ram direction), and an electronics box within the spacecraft. The detector contains fourteen polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF) panels, twelve science and two reference, which generate voltage when impacted. Effective collecting area is 0.125 m2 (1.35 sq ft). No dust counter has operated past the orbit of Uranus; models of dust in the outer Solar System, especially the Kuiper belt, are speculative. VBSDC is always turned on measuring the masses of the interplanetary and interstellar dust particles (in the range of nano- and picograms) as they collide with the PVDF panels mounted on the New Horizons spacecraft. The measured data is expected to greatly contribute to the understanding of the dust spectra of the Solar System. The dust spectra can then be compared with those observed via telescope of other stars, giving new clues as to where Earth-like planets can be found in the universe. The dust counter is named for Venetia Burney, who first suggested the name “Pluto” at the age of 11. A thirteen-minute short film about VBSDC garnered an Emmy award for student achievement in 2006.
Principal investigator: Mihaly Horanyi, University of Colorado Boulder

The Radio Science Experiment (REX) will use an ultrastable crystal oscillator (essentially a calibrated crystal in a miniature oven) and some additional electronics to conduct radio science investigations using the communications channels. These are small enough to fit on a single card. Since there are two redundant communications subsystems, there are two, identical REX circuit boards.
Principal investigators: Len Tyler and Ivan Linscott, Stanford University

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

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.

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.

New Horizons Mission to Pluto/Charon

Today NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed the Orbit of Neptune exactly 25 years after Voyager 2 passed the same planet. At the time it passed the orbit Neptune was 4 million kilometers away as it proceeded on it’s orbit around the sun.

2014-08-25_131908To celebrate this milestone NASA talked about the mission of New Horizons as it quickly approaches the Pluto/Charon system. New Horizons is already taking images of the Pluto/Charon system as it approaches and will continue to as it gets closer.

Due to the distance from the Sun the New Horizons spacecraft is powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) which will give it the ability to perform science for many years with the hope of travelling to a secondary object in the Kuiper Belt after the Pluto/Charon flyby.

2014-08-25_132256The New Horizons spacecraft has the following scientific instruments that will be used during the Pluto/Charon flyby next year.

  • 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.

This is the first spacecraft to visit the Pluto/Charon system and will give us an amazing amount of information that we have only been able to guess at until now. The image below shows Pluto taken by Hubble and Earth taken from the same resolution, as you can see from the image it is very difficult to determine anything from that distance.

Pluto_Earth