Tag Archives: spaceflight

The flowing formations of Lethe Vallis

Cool image time! The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team yesterday released several new images. Below is just one, cropped and reduced in resolution to post here. It shows a large flow channel called Lethe Vallis, formed first by lava, then hit by an impact which created a walled crater in its middle. Flood waters then followed, creating the tear-shaped dune surrounding the crater. In addition, erosion exposed the dark lava basalt below the surface on the edge of that tear-shaped dune. Within the crater itself can be seen ripple dunes formed by wind. As the scientists note,

This single image thus contains features formed by periglacial, volcanic, fluvial, impact, aeolian and mass wasting processes, all in one place.

Be sure to check out the full image.

Lethe Vallis

Rosetta’s final descent to Comet 67P/C-G

The Rosetta science team today posted two stories, describing details about the planned final descent of the spacecraft to the surface of Comet 67P/C-G on September 30, ending the mission.

The spacecraft will land in a region dubbed Ma’at that contains several active pits more than 300 feet across and 150 feet deep. This is also where several of the comets dust jets originate.

September 8, 2016 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

Embedded below the fold. Beyond the normal science and space stuff, we also talked aboutStar Trek’s 50th anniversary. Batchelor also played audio of Jupiter’s magnetic field from Juno, and then compared the sound with the soundtrack from the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet. Trust me, if you know that move’s sound track, you will be amazed.
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Update on the Falcon 9 launchpad explosion investigation

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today describing the investigation into last week’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, noting especially how — despite participation by the FAA, NASA, and the Air Force — SpaceX will be entirely in charge of the investigation, in accordance with present law.

The article is clearly lobbying for a change, whereby the government would have more power in these investigations. I personally think a change would be a mistake, that the law as it is now is how it should be. It was their rocket that exploded. Their business model depends on their rockets not exploding. Thus, they have the greatest self-interest in fixing the problem. The other outside players might be helpful, but their presence can only in the long run make things more difficult and slow things down, without making anything better.

Arianespace offers to pick up SpaceX business

The competition heats up: In an effort to gain more business, Arianespace is offering to add an additional launch to its 2017 schedule for any satellite companies whose payload launch is being delayed by both SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion as well as a delay in Russian Proton launches due to its own technical issues.

In his remarks it seemed to me that the CEO of Arianespace was almost gloating.

In a Sept. 7 interview with France Info radio, Israel reiterated his confidence in what he portrayed as Arianespace’s more plodding, deliberative — and higher-cost — approach to launches when compared to SpaceX.

Arianespace does not want a reusable rocket for the moment, he said, because it’s not certain that reusability can reduce costs and maintain reliability. The Ariane 6 rocket, to operate starting in 2020, will not be reusable. The company also is wary of the Silicon Valley ethos that champions constant iteration, which he said has been a feature of Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX as well. “We think that the more a launch resembles the preceding launch, the better we are for our customers because we remain in the ‘explored domain’ where everything is understood,” Israel said.

In the short run he and Arianespace might benefit by this situation, but in the long run they will face a shrinking market share if they cannot lower the price of their rockets.

Blue Origin to do New Shepard launch abort test

The competition heats up: For the next test flight of New Shepard, tentatively scheduled for early October, Blue Origin plans to test the capsule’s launch abort system, separating the capsule prematurely from its propulsion module during launch.

“We’ll be doing our in-flight escape test with the same reusable New Shepard booster that we’ve already flown four times,” Bezos wrote. “About 45 seconds after liftoff at about 16,000 feet, we’ll intentionally command escape. Redundant separation systems will sever the crew capsule from the booster at the same time we ignite the escape motor. The escape motor will vector thrust to steer the capsule to the side, out of the booster’s path. The high acceleration portion of the escape lasts less than two seconds, but by then the capsule will be hundreds of feet away and diverging quickly. It will traverse twice through transonic velocities—the most difficult control region—during the acceleration burn and subsequent deceleration. The capsule will then coast, stabilized by reaction control thrusters, until it starts descending.”

If all goes well, the capsule will make a normal descent under three drogue parachutes, and then its main parachutes, to the ground. And the booster? It may not fare so well. It was not designed to survive an in-flight escape, Bezos noted, as it will be slammed with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force and hot exhaust. At Max-Q it is not clear whether the propulsion module will survive—in some Monte Carlo simulations it does, but in others it does not.

I suspect they already have at least one new propulsion module ready to go, and plan to use it with the reused capsule in future tests.

First test captive carry flight for Unity

The competition heats up: Virgin Galactic today completed its first test flight of its new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, flying it mated to WhiteKnightTwo for almost four hours.

Congratulations to Virgin Galactic! Still, it remains to be seen whether they can get this ship tested and capable of commercial flights fast enough to beat their competition, competition that did not exist when they started their business more than a decade ago.

Blue Origin to use two launchpads at Cape Canaveral

The competition heats up: Even though it is years away from flying its first orbital rocket, Blue Origin has expanded its plans at Cape Canaveral and now plans to remodel and use two different launchpads there for orbital flights.

The Kent, Wash.-based company filed a permit Sept. 6 to build and operate two orbital launch sites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, taking up launch complexes 11 and 36. The company originally announced its plans to blast off its rockets at launch complex 36 last year at the same time revealing its decision to build a rocket manufacturing facility near Space Florida’s Exploration Park in Merritt Island. Taking up launch complex 11 (LC-11) is a new development.

This means that when the company starts testing its orbital rocket it will likely be doing it in public, from the Cape, rather than in the secretive manner in which it developed its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft out in Texas.

India’s GSLV rocket successfully launches again

The competition heats up: India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) successfully placed a commercial communications satellite in orbit today.

This is the third successful GSLV launch in a row, indicating that India’s space agency ISRO has finally worked out the kinks of their home-built upper stage and are ready to begin regular and more frequent commercial launches, in direct competition with the world’s big players in the launch industry.

The technology of Star Trek

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of the first Star Trek episode, here is a fascinating look at the fictional technology of the series.

I remember that Thursday evening fifty years ago very well. As a teenager I had been suffering for years watching very bad and stupid television science fiction, like Lost in Space, written as if its audiences were five year old children and thus insulting them. Still, as an avid reader of science fiction that knew the genre was sophisticated and intelligent, I held onto the hope that some new science fiction show might finally do something akin to this.

Star Trek did this and more. That first episode had all the best elements of good drama and great science fiction: a mystery, an alien, a tragic figure, and an ancient lost civilization. From that moment until the series was cancelled, I would be glued to my television set when it aired.

You can watch that first episode if you wish, though with commercials. Click on the first link above to do so. In watching it recently when Diane and I decided to rent the original series from Netflix and watch them again, I was surprised how well this episode, as well as the entire first series, has stood up over time. It is not dated. Its drama remains as good. And you know, the writing is sometimes quite stellar, to coin a phrase.

Rosetta finds carbon molecules in comet dust

The Rosetta science team has announced that they have detected very complex carbon molecules in solid dust particles that were released from Comet 67P/C-G.

“Our analysis reveals carbon in a far more complex form than expected,” remarked Hervé Cottin, one of the authors of the paper reporting the result that is published in Nature today. “It is so complex, we can’t give it a proper formula or a name!” The organic signatures of seven particles are presented in the paper, which the COSIMA team say are representative of the two hundred plus grains analysed so far.

The carbon is found to be mixed with other previously reported elements such as sodium, magnesium, aluminium, silicon, calcium and iron. It is bound in very large macromolecular compounds similar to the insoluble organic matter found in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that have fallen to Earth, but with a major difference: there is much more hydrogen found in the comet’s samples than in meteorites.

But as this kind of meteorite is associated with reasonably well-processed parent bodies such as asteroids, it is reasonable to assume that they lost their hydrogen due to heating. By contrast, comets must have avoided such significant heating to retain their hydrogen, and therefore must contain more primitive material.

Because of the use of the term organics here for these carbon-based molecules, expect a lot of news reports to misreport this discovery and incorrectly announce with great excitement that Rosetta has “discovered life” on Comet 67P/C-G! Among scientists, any carbon molecule is referred to as organic, even if it is entirely inanimate. In this case these molecules are not the result of life, but of carbon’s atomic structure, allowing it to form an infinite variety of molecules with almost any other element.

Orion faces more budget and schedule delays

A new inspector general report of NASA’s Orion has found that the program still faces significant budget and technical problems in meeting the planned August 2021 launch date for its first manned mission.

The report makes it clear that this launch will almost certainly be delayed until 2023, meaning that from the date President George Bush proposed Orion in 2004, it will have taken NASA a full two decades to launch the first manned Orion capsule.

Let me repeat that: Two decades to build and launch a single manned mission. Does anyone see something wrong here?

As for what will happen after that first flight, the report itself [pdf] makes it pretty clear that not much is likely. From page 11:

For Orion missions after 2023, NASA has adopted an incremental development approach. According to the Program Plan, the approach is cost-driven and will provide a core vehicle the Agency can upgrade to provide additional capabilities for missions beyond cis-lunar space. Each incremental upgrade will build on flight experience to ensure the vehicle’s design is based on viable technology and capabilities. Consistent with this incremental approach, NASA has not committed to specific missions after 2023 and therefore has not developed detailed plans, requirements, or costs for such missions. According to NASA officials, the Agency will instead focus on building capabilities through defined roadmaps that identify technology development paths and capability requirements for deep space exploration missions. Officials explained the Agency will fund basic research, pursue development of the technologies that appear most viable, and build capabilities based on available funding. Missions will be selected based on the progress and maturity of the developed technology.

A translation of this gobbly-gook into plain English can be summed up as follows: Congress has given us no money for future missions, so we can’t plan anything.

Considering the cost and the ungodly amount of time it took NASA to get to this one flight, and considering how badly this record compares with the numerous flights that private commercial space will achieve prior to this single flight, don’t expect Congress to fork up more money after 2023. SLS and Orion are going to die. Unfortunately, their slow death will have cost the American taxpayer billions of wasted dollars that NASA could have been better spent on other things.

More budget cuts to Russia’s space program

The head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, revealed today that there will be significant additional cuts to the country’s space program in the coming months.

These cuts come on top of the almost one-third cuts imposed from the time the budget for the ten-year plan was first proposed in 2015 and its adoption early this year.

Mars rover update

It is time for an update on the journeys of Curiosity and Opportunity on Mars!

First, Curiosity. Though the science team has not yet updated the rover’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter traverse map showing its travels, it appears from Curiosity’s most recent navigation camera images that the rover has moved passed the first butte that had been ahead and directly to the south in the traverse map shown in the last image of my post here. The image below the fold, cropped and reduced to show here, looks ahead to the second butte and the gap to the south. Beyond Mt Sharp can be seen rising up on the right, with the upcoming ground open and relatively smooth. The only issue will be the steepness of that terrain. Based on my previous overall look at the rover’s journey, I suspect they will contour to the left.
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North Korea fires three more test missiles

What, me worry? North Korea today fired three test ballistic missiles into an area of the Sea of Japan considered part of the Japanese defense zone, repeating their previous test.

Unlike the previous test, these were ground-based missiles. Either way, the Obama administration was immediately on the case!

In a statement, the US said it “strongly condemns” the multiple launches. The move came at a potentially embarrassing time for North Korea’s only real ally, China, which is currently hosting the G20 summit in Hangzhou. “Today’s reckless launches by North Korea threaten civil aviation and maritime commerce in the region,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday. “We will raise our concerns at the UN about the threat posed to international security by these programs,” he continued. “We will also do so in other fora — including the upcoming East Asia Summit — to bolster international resolve to hold the DPRK accountable for its provocative actions. Our commitment to the defense of our allies in the face of these threats remains ironclad.”

I especially like this State Department spokeman’s use of “fora”, the Latin plural of “forum.” That’s telling ’em! We aren’t going only raise this issue in one forum, we’re going to raise it in many forums!

UAE adopts a national space policy

The competition heats up: The cabinet of the United Arab Emirates has adopted a national space policy for the Arab nation.

This push by the UAE to become a major player in space is being entirely led by, to quote the story at the link, the “Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.” His effort is a good thing, but in many ways a hollow gesture. The UAE does not yet have the people or the infrastructure for its own space program. What they have is a lot of oil money, which will allow them to buy those skills from others. This is what they are doing for their Mars probe that they hope to launch in 2020.

Whether the skills will then remain within the UAE remains questionable.

Russia completes preliminary design for Progress replacement

The competition heats up: Russian engineers have completed their preliminary design for a proposed Progress replacement, first revealed August 22.

The main rationale for the development of the new cargo ship was the urgent need to reduce the number of cargo launches to the ISS from four to three annually, while still supporting three crew members on the Russian segment of the station.

The preliminary design for the new cargo ship was originally to be completed in December 2016, but the work was apparently sped up to be completed in August of the same year. Still, even if the go ahead for the full-scale development of the project was given immediately, the new cargo ship was not expected to fly before 2020. In the meantime, the Russian crew onboard the ISS could be reduced from three to two people beginning in March 2017 onward, with the exception of a time period in 2018, when Russian cosmonauts would have to conduct spacewalks to outfit the newly arrived MLM module.

The new design, radically different from Russia’s present Soyuz and Progress capsules, would be able to place 8.2 tons in orbit, one ton more than Progress. That the Russians accelerated the design process suggests to me that they are putting a high priority on this project, and that they will build it.

Head of Swiss Space Systems attacked

Horror: The CEO of Swiss SpaceSystems (S3) was attacked and badly injured last week in an attack that was appears to be connected to a series of threats he had reported in the last several months.

Pascal Jaussi, 40, who heads Swiss Space Systems (S3), was beaten up and set on fire by two unknown perpetrators on August 26th in a forest in the canton of Fribourg, reported the Tribune de Genève on Monday. News of the attack was not released until his condition improved, said the paper. The CEO’s life is now out of danger but he remains in a serious condition in hospital, it said.

The entrepreneur was found near his vehicle and transported to Lausanne’s CHUV hospital with burns on 25 percent of his body. According to the paper’s sources, Jaussi was forced to drive his car into a forest, where he was doused in petrol and set on fire. He managed to get himself out of the vehicle and call a friend, who alerted emergency services.

This does not sound like a random attack, but something planned by someone who was trying to make a point. In that context, the threat and attack could be related to some personal issue of Jaussi’s that we are unaware, or it could be connected to his company, which if successful will challenge many other big aerospace players.

Philae found!


Less than a month before Rosetta’s mission ends the spacecraft’s high resolution camera has finally located Philae in its final resting spot on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G.

The images were taken on 2 September by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera as the orbiter came within 2.7 km of the surface and clearly show the main body of the lander, along with two of its three legs. The images also provide proof of Philae’s orientation, making it clear why establishing communications was so difficult following its landing on 12 November 2014.

The image on the right clearly shows the lander on its side with one leg sticking up, as theorized by the Rosetta engineers based on the small amount of data they had received before Philae went dead. Furthermore, the wide image at the link above shows that the lander landed exactly as predicted by data, up against a wall — in this case a large boulder — which placed it in shadow most of the time.

Update on Falcon 9 explosion

NASA and SpaceX have released detailed statements about Thursday’s Falcon 9 launchpad explosion, summarizing what is known at the moment as well as the state of the investigation.

Not surprisingly, the failure will cause delays in SpaceX’s upcoming plans as well as force the company to shift launches to a different launchpad that will not be ready until November.

China to launch next space station September 15

Despite the launch failure this week of a different rocket, China is moving forward with the launch of its second space station test module, Tiangong-2, now set for September 15.

Original built as a back up to Tiangong-1, TG-2 is expected to be identical in size to the previous Chinese station launched in 2011. Having an increased payload capacity, the new station will use its improved living conditions to verify key technologies, such as on-orbit propellant resupply using the new Tianzhou logistics vehicle. TG-2 will also be used to conduct space science experiments on a relatively large scale compared to China’s previous efforts. Tiangong-2 will also be equipped with a new robotic arm and will be accompanied by the small Banxing-2 satellite for technology demonstrations. It will also capture images of the new station in orbit.

Once in orbit China will then follow quickly with a 30 day manned mission.

Want to buy a used NASA robot? You can!

Link here. The robot was developed in the 1960s to test spacesuits, though because it leaked oil it was never used.

In fact, this particular 1960s NASA project appears to be a perfect example of “engineers gone wild!” The website explains that the robot was an attempt to replace human test volunteers.

Unfortunately, pressure suits aren’t like coveralls. They’re complex pieces of engineering. A human can provide qualitative information about how (un)comfortable a suit is, but cannot gauge the forces involved with the precision and accuracy that an an engineer needs. In addition, testing pressure suits with volunteers can be grueling, unpleasant and even painful.

In the end, however, the robot didn’t work and the testing was done by humans, probably for a lot less than the $175,000 they spent (in 1960s dollars) to build two of these robots. One however is now being auctioned off, and could serve wonderfully as a great piece of interesting artwork in someone’s home.

New delays for Angara

Because of budget constraints Russia has been forced to delay by at least a year the construction of the launchpad facilities at Vostochny for their new Angara family of rockets.

Angara’s first test flights from Vostochny will now not happen before 2021. It seems to me that by the time they get this rocket off the ground it will already be obsolete.

Opportunity’s steep downhill path

An update on Opportunity: The panorama I have created below from two images taken by its navigation camera and transmitted from Opportunity today, shows the steepness of the slope in Lewis and Clark Gap down which engineers are thinking of sending Opportunity. It appears also that Opportunity has moved closer to the gap since my post on Friday outlining the rover’s future travels.

I have not followed Opportunity’s entire journey on Mars close enough to say whether this will be the steepest downhill slope the rover has ever attempted. If not I suspect it is close to the steepest. I also suspect that they are still unsure whether they are going to attempt it, and are creeping slowly towards it to assess the situation.

Lewis and Clark Gap within Endeavour Crater's rim

Opportunity’s future travels on Mars

Opportunity's future path

Approaching the gap

Having spent a lot of time recently analyzing the travels of Curiosity in Gale Crater and in the foothills to Mount Sharp, I decided this week that I also needed to do the same with Opportunity at Endeavour Crater.

The image above is a panorama that I have assembled from images taken by Opportunity’s navigation camera on Sol 4477 (sometime last week). To the right is a panorama assembled from images taken by the navigation camera several days later, on Sol 4481, after Opportunity had moved closer to the gap shown in the first picture above. The inset in the image above shows the location of the image on the right. The X shows Opportunity’s approximate position.

Below the fold is the most recent orbital mosiac showing Opportunity’s recent travels near Endearvour Crater and in Marathon Valley, cropped and annotated by me to indicate the areas seen by the two panoramas above. The red dot shows Opportunity’s present position.
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