Tag Archives: spaceflight

Russian to fly on Orion?

In negotiations between NASA and Roscosmos on their hoped-for partnership to build the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), it has been proposed that when SLS carries Orion and the platform’s Russian airlock to lunar orbit a Russian will go as well.

“Within the framework of talks, draft plans of future manned missions to the lunar stations have been made. Among other issues, the possibility to send one Russian cosmonaut as part of the crew of the Orion spacecraft that will drag the Russian airlock module to the moon is on the agenda. The Russian cosmonaut will have to ensure the integration of the module with the station,” the source said.

A source in Russia’s Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) that would produce the module confirmed this information to Sputnik, saying that four manned missions were expected to be sent to the station and the Russian cosmonaut should accompany the Russian-made module during its transportation to the Earth satellite.

This all sounds so wonderful. Too bad it is so unconnected with reality. Congress has yet to provide any funds for LOP-G. At the moment, SLS/Orion is only funded through its first manned mission.

At the same time, I am getting the feeling that both NASA and Congress expect SLS/Orion’s $4 billion-plus annual budget that it has gotten since the program started in the late 2000s will simply continue, giving them the money to build this Potemkin Village in orbit around the Moon while funding the Russian contributions.

That’s what happened with ISS. The U.S. footed most of the bills for the Russian portion of ISS, and the Russians are now hoping we will do the same for LOP-G. Sadly, I also expect our corrupt Congress will go along, focused as they are in only distributing pork to local districts while encouraging a global international village having nothing to do with American interests. They see LOP-G not as exploring space, but as a jobs program, both here in the U.S. and in Russia.

And a jobs program is exactly what it is. Just like it will take SLS/Orion almost two decades to complete its first manned launch, LOP-G will likely not get anything built in orbit around the Moon for more than a decade. Don’t expect anything substantial assembled in lunar orbit before the mid-2030s, at the earliest.

Share

Serious fire at ISRO facility

An extensive fire at one of India’s main satellite testing facilities caused extension damage yesterday.

Top sources at SAC said the fire has caused serious damage to the “antenna test facility” as some specialised equipment have been damaged. The hi-tech “antenna test facility” of Isro is of paramount importance as antennas are the most crucial communication component in satellites. Moreover, the testing is also critical to space operations and requires very expensive and hi-tech equipment.

A top official said, “Space programmes are expensive but the silver line is that no satellite payload was damaged in the fire inside the antenna test facility.”

While an inquest will be held to probe what caused the fire, the fire service department said that it could be due to a short circuit. However, the SAC sources say, “The police will probe the cause of the fire. The facility has a strong protocol to battle fire caused due to short circuits. That is why the probe will cover the possibility of foul play and even sabotage.”

This is a serious. Space facilities and their operations have to be far strongly protected against fire than ordinary facilities due to the presence of volatile fuels. For a space facility to experience such an extensive fire suggests either someone was getting very sloppy, or (as suggested above) there was sabotage.

Share

More problems uncovered during testing of the James Webb Space Telescope

During ground tests of the James Webb Space Telescope engineers have discovered an additional quite astonishing problem that will certainly delay the project again.

In a presentation at a meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board here May 3, Greg Robinson, the JWST program director at NASA Headquarters, said some “screws and washers” appear to have come off the spacecraft during recent environmental testing at a Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California.

Technicians found the items after the spacecraft element of JWST, which includes the bus and sunshield but not its optics and instruments, was moved last weekend from one chamber for acoustics tests to another to prepare for vibration testing.

“Right now we believe that all of this hardware — we’re talking screws and washers here — come from the sunshield cover,” he said. “We’re looking at what this really means and what is the recovery plan.” The problem, he said, was only a couple of days old, and he had few additional details about the problem. “It’s not terrible news, but it’s not good news, either,” he said. [emphasis mine]

The absurd spin expressed by the program director above is garbage. This is unbelievable and entirely unacceptable. On spacecraft, especially those that are not planned for in-space maintenance like Webb, screws are routinely sealed with some form of glue so that they will not unscrew themselves during the vibrations of launch. This is standard space engineering and has been for more than a half century.

That some screws came off Webb during testing suggests a quality control problem at Northrop Grumman that is beyond comprehension.

Share

China’s Long March 3B rocket puts communications satellite in orbit

China successfully placed a communications satellite into orbit yesterday using its Long March 3B rocket, that country’s second most powerful rocket.

The article says that the Long March 3B is China’s most powerful rocket, but I think this is based on the assumption that the Long March 5 is not yet operational. Since the 5 has had one successful launch, I am counting it as the most powerful, with the 3B second.

The updated leader list for the 2018 launch standings:

13 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
4 ULA.

China now leads the U.S. 13 to 12 in the national rankings. I expect these numbers to change a lot in May.

Share

GAO predicts more delays and cost increases in NASA’s big projects

The Government Accountability Office is predicting more delays and cost increases for most of NASA’s big projects in its tenth annual report.

The cost and schedule performance” of NASA’s major projects “has deteriorated, but the extent of cost deterioration is unknown” because NASA does not have a cost estimate for Orion. Orion is “one of the largest projects in the portfolio” and NASA “expects cost growth.”

As for schedule, “the average launch delay for the portfolio was 12 months, the highest delay GAO has reported in its 10 years” of making these assessments. GAO said the 12-month average delay is up from 7 months in last year’s assessment.

Further, NASA faces the risk of more cost and schedule growth because of “new, large, complex projects that will enter the portfolio and expensive projects remaining the portfolio longer than expected.” Europa Clipper, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and Europa Lander are cited as examples of those future large, complex projects. GAO did give NASA credit for putting processes in place to control the costs of Europa Clipper and WFIRST.

GAO identified nine existing projects as the biggest contributors to the poor cost and schedule performance: SLS, Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS) cited in the 2017 report, Mars 2020, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), ICESat-2, NISAR, ICON, and GRACE-FO (GRACE-Follow On).

Orion has cost already cost the taxpayer about $15 billion, all of which will only buy the taxpayer three capsules (two unmanned test flights and a single manned flight). And yet they don’t have enough money yet, and NASA can’t provide a total cost estimate? To me, this appears to be outright theft. Building three capsules simply shouldn’t cost that much. (Note: the report claims Orion has cost about $6.6 billion. My number above comes from actual appropriations by Congress specifically for Orion. I think my number is a far more accurate reflection of the project’s true cost.)

Though the report expresses concerns about schedule delays in the commercial crew program, it is with the NASA-run projects that the report finds the worst cost overruns and delays. All of the usual suspects above come in for criticism: Webb, WFIRST, SLS (and its associated ground facilities), Orion, LOP-G.

I will make a prediction: All these NASA projects will be cited for further cost overruns and further delays in next year’s GAO report. By that time, we shall have also seen the first test flights of the commercial crew capsules by Boeing and SpaceX.

Share

Musk releases image of Falcon 9 fairing floating back to Earth

On Tuesday Elon Musk released an image of a Falcon 9 fairing as its parafoil opened to slow and guide the fairing back to Earth.

The image is pretty, but doesn’t really provide any information about SpaceX’s effort to recover its rocket fairings. The next attempt should come during their next Vandenberg launch in mid-May.

Share

NASA tests new small fission power plant for future space missions

NASA has successfully completed a full test of a new small fission power plant that it hopes to use in future space missions.

The prototype power system uses a solid, cast uranium-235 reactor core, about the size of a paper towel roll. Passive sodium heat pipes transfer reactor heat to high-efficiency Stirling engines, which convert the heat to electricity.

According to David Poston, the chief reactor designer at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, the purpose of the recent experiment in Nevada was two-fold: to demonstrate that the system can create electricity with fission power, and to show the system is stable and safe no matter what environment it encounters. “We threw everything we could at this reactor, in terms of nominal and off-normal operating scenarios and KRUSTY passed with flying colors,” said Poston.

The Kilopower team conducted the experiment in four phases. The first two phases, conducted without power, confirmed that each component of the system behaved as expected. During the third phase, the team increased power to heat the core incrementally before moving on to the final phase. The experiment culminated with a 28-hour, full-power test that simulated a mission, including reactor startup, ramp to full power, steady operation and shutdown.

Throughout the experiment, the team simulated power reduction, failed engines and failed heat pipes, showing that the system could continue to operate and successfully handle multiple failures.

This power plant appears similar in concept to the fission RTG nuclear fuel systems that have been used routinely for decades on unmanned planetary probes such as the two Voyager spacecraft, New Horizons, and on Curiosity. This new system however provides significantly more power, as much as ten kilowatts compared to the approximate two hundred watts provided by RTGs.

Such a system will be essential for future bases on both Mars and the Moon, where solar power is not the best option. I should also add that such a system might possibly have applications here on Earth. Developed properly, it could provide a practical power source for out-of-the-way locations not on the grid. If made cheap enough, it might also provide electrical customers a cheaper and competitive alternative that will allow them to remove themselves from the grid entirely.

Share

Australian government to create space agency

The new colonial movement: A news report in Australia today revealed that the Australian government plans to include $50 million in its next budget to create that country’s first space agency.

Next Tuesday, the Government will unveil “seed funding” to finally establish a dedicated Australian space agency to coordinate existing efforts in the aeronautical industry, with the aim of generating thousands of future jobs. Most developed nations, including New Zealand, already have a space agency and there are concerns Australia may be not be capitalising on a global industry believed to be worth $420 billion a year.

The Turnbull Government is yet to decide where the new space agency will be located, but the ABC understands Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT have all expressed interest in hosting the headquarters.

A senior Coalition source said the Government expected the private sector would contribute “the lion’s share” of funding for Australia’s space industry.

This desire of governments to create their own NASAs is not really the best way to garner new space business. All it really does is create bureaucracy and pork for politicians. Better they liberalize their laws and regulatory systems, as Luxembourg is doing, to encourage companies to come and establish their operations there.

What Australia plans to do, however, is somewhat unclear. The article suggests that they want to minimize government spending and leave most of the cost for their government space agency to the private sector. How they will do that I have no idea.

Share

Japan’s space agency to build reusable rocket

Japan’s space agency JAXA revealed today that it plans to build a reusable rocket capable of launching twice in two days, with the first test launch now scheduled for 2019.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, plans to build a rocket that can carry observation equipment into space, return to Earth, and be ready for launch again the next day. JAXA aims to start test-launching and landing the roughly 7-meter rocket as early as the spring of 2019, and introduce it for regular operations in the 2020s.

JAXA has already confirmed that the rocket’s key components, including its engine, can endure more than 100 launches, significantly reducing costs compared with single-use models.

I hate to be such a spoilsport, but I have little faith they will do this on the schedule claimed. This story reads like the dozens I’ve read over the past three decades from Russia and NASA, where they repeatedly announce the coming development of some new rocket or manned space project, none of which ever happens.

In other words, this story is nothing more than a bit of government propaganda, trying to convince the Japanese public that JAXA is cutting edge, that they too are going to build reusable rockets, and that they can do it quickly. In reality, I doubt we shall see this government-built reusable rocket anytime soon.

The fact that they have issued this claim however is a good sign. Japan’s lumbering and expensive government space agency is now finding itself under pressure to deliver, and the competition that is causing that pressure might very well force them to streamline their operations and actually accomplish something.

Share

Alien world

Meridiani Planum
So what is it we are looking at in the image above? I have reduced the resolution slightly to fit it here, but you can see the full resolution image by clicking on the picture.

Is it a marble or granite kitchen counter? Nah, the surface is too rough.

Maybe it’s a modern abstract painting that we can find hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Nah, it has too much style and depth. Abstract art is much more shallow and empty of content.

Could it be a close-up of a just-opened container of berry-vanilla ice cream, the different flavors swirling and intertwined to enhance the eating experience? No, somehow it looks too gritty for ice cream.
» Read more

Share

Successful test flight of New Shepard

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today successful flew its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft on its second test flight.

You can watch the video of the full flight here. Try not to cringe listening to the announcer, who I think sometimes overdoes it.

They were aiming for a maximum altitude of 350,000 feet, which would place the capsule more than 100 kilometers or 66 miles above the Earth, the generally accepted altitude for the start of space. The live stream showed an maximum altitude of about 347,000, but the article says that later recalculations estimated a top altitude of 351,000.

Either way, they have now successfully achieved a safe suborbital spaceflight twice with this spacecraft, and both times carried science payloads. Meanwhile, their direct competitor, Virgin Galactic, has come no where close, even after fourteen years of development.

Share

Blue Origin to test fly New Shepard tomorrow

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos announced yesterday that Blue Origin plans to test fly New Shepard tomorrow on its first flight for 2018.

“Launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT. Livestream info to come. @BlueOrigin #GradatimFerociter,” Bezos said via Twitter.

I am glad to hear this. The lack of flights has been puzzling. That they are moving forward again is good news.

Share

Heat shield for 2020 Mars rover cracks during testing

The heat shield to be used during landing by the U.S.’s 2020 Mars rover cracked during recent testing.

The heat shield’s structural damage, located near the shield’s outer edge, happened during a weeklong test at the Denver facility of contractor Lockheed Martin Space, according to a NASA statement released Thursday (April 26). The test was intended to subject the heat shield to forces about 20 percent greater than those it will experience when it hits the Martian atmosphere for entry, descent and landing operations.

The Mars 2020 team found the fracture on April 12. Mission management at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, will work with Lockheed Martin to lead an examination of the cause of the crack and to decide if any design changes should be made, NASA officials said in the statement.

They do not expect this issue to cause them to miss the 2020 launch window. However, it is astonishing that the heat shield should fail in this manner. First, to save development costs this rover was essentially a rebuild of Curiosity. The new heat shield should have been the same design, and thus should have already been proven capable of surviving this test. Second, Lockheed Martin has been making heat shields of all kinds for decades. This is not cutting edge technology.

Third, note that Lockheed Martin is building Orion, and it also experienced cracks in the capsule’s structure (not its heat shield) during manufacture and testing.

Overall, these facts suggest that some fundamental manufacturing error has occurred, and that there might also be a quality control problem at Lockheed Martin.

Share

The thin dense crust of Mercury

Using data gathered by the MESSENGER spacecraft while it was in orbit around Mercury, scientists now estimate that the planet’s crust is thinner than previously believed, 16 miles thick rather than 22 miles.

The crust is also as dense as aluminum. It is also the thinnest crust, relative to the planet’s core, of any rocky planet in the solar system.

Mercury’s core is believed to occupy 60 percent of the planet’s entire volume. For comparison, Earth’s core takes up roughly 15 percent of its volume. Why is Mercury’s core so large?

“Maybe it formed closer to a normal planet and maybe a lot of the crust and mantle got stripped away by giant impacts,” Sori said. “Another idea is that maybe, when you’re forming so close to the sun, the solar winds blow away a lot of the rock and you get a large core size very early on. There’s not an answer that everyone agrees to yet.”

There appears to be a great deal of uncertainty to these conclusions, and I would not be surprised if these conclusions change with the arrival of more data.

Share

Mars rover update: April 27, 2018

Summary: Curiosity’s exploration of Vera Rubin Ridge is extended, while an attempt by Opportunity to climb back up Perseverance Valley to reach an interesting rock outcrop fails.

For a list of past updates beginning in July 2016, see my February 8, 2018 update.

Curiosity

Curiosity's traverse map, Sol 2030

For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater.

Since my March 21, 2018 update, it has become apparent that the Curiosity science team has decided to extend the rover’s research on Vera Rubin Ridge far beyond their original plans. They have continued their travels to the northeast well past the original nominal route off the ridge, as indicated by the dotted red line on the traverse map above. Along the way they stopped to inspect a wide variety of geology, and have now moved to the north and have actually begun descending off the ridge, but in a direction that takes the rover away from Mount Sharp and its original route. As noted in their April 25 update,
» Read more

Share

China aims to reuse vertically-landed first stages by 2020

One of China’s top space engineers said this week at a conference that they are aiming to reuse vertically-landed first stages by 2020 on a new Long March 8 rocket.

At an aerospace industry seminar on Tuesday, leading Chinese carrier rocket designer Long Lehao said that China is expected to realize vertical recycling – similar to the technology employed by US-based firm SpaceX – by 2020 at the earliest on its CZ-8 rockets. This will further lower the price tag of a launch and boost China’s chances of getting international commercial satellite launch orders, the CCTV report said.

Lan Tianyi, founder of Beijing-based Ultimate Blue Nebula Co, a space industry consultancy, said China will become the second rocket power to have this capacity, putting the country ahead of Russia and the EU. However, Lan said that while the aim of recycling rockets is to reduce costs for launch operators, whether this can be achieved remains to be seen.

The recycled rockets developed by SpaceX are reported to have helped the company reduce launch costs by as much as 30 percent, according to media reports.

“There is no way to verify SpaceX’s claim, as it is the only company that owns the technology, and China has to wait for the moment when it has successfully recycled a rocket to see whether the costs can be lowered,” Lan told the Global Times on Thursday.

Right now, the politics in China are extremely favorable for space development, with so many top posts occupied by former space managers. Thus, it seems reasonable to believe that the country is investing the cash necessary to develop rocket stages that can land vertically. If they do it, they will put themselves in a strong position for future space colonization, because such technology is essential for landing spacecraft on other worlds. Right now, only the U.S. has done this repeatedly and successfully.

Share

Short movie from Rosetta of Comet 67P/C-G

A search by a Twitter user of the Rosetta archive from its visit to Comet 67P/C-G has produced a very short movie of the comet’s surface.

The bright dots travelling from the top of the frame to the bottom, which look something like snow, are in fact background stars. They have that apparent motion as the spacecraft moves and the comet rotates. The more rapidly moving streaks are thought to be dust particles illuminated by the Sun. There also appear to be a few streaking cosmic rays.

Take a look. The twelve second movie gives a flavor of what it would be like to walk that comet’s surface.

Share

China’s Long March 11 rocket launches five Earth observation satellites

China’s Long March 11 rocket today launched five Earth observation satellites.

The rocket appears designed to compete with some of the smallsat rockets being developed by private companies in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The Long March-11 (Chang Zheng-11) is a small solid-fueled quick-reaction launch vehicle developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) with the goal to provide an easy to operate quick-reaction launch vehicle, that can remain in storage for long period and to provide a reliable launch on short notice.

LM-11 is a four stage solid-fueled launch vehicle equipped with a reaction control system on the fourth stage. The vehicle has a length of 20.8 meters, 2.0 meters in diameter and a liftoff mass of 58,000 kg. At launch it develops 120.000 kg/f, launching a 350 kg cargo into a 700 km SSO. The CZ-11 can use two types of fairing with 1.6 meters or 2.0 meters.

LM-11’s first launch took place on September 25, 2015, when successfully orbited the Pujiang-1 and the three Tianwang small sats from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Update: I had initially left off Russia’s Rokot launch of a new European Earth observation satellite late yesterday. The standings below have therefore been updated.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

12 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
4 ULA

Europe, India, and Japan are all tied at 3. The U.S. and China are now tied at 12 in the national standings.

Share

Trace Gas Orbiter releases its first image

Trace Gas Orbiter's first released image of Korolev Crater

Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter has released its first image after reaching its planned science orbit.

The image is posted above, reduced in resolution to show here. It shows a portion of the rim of Korolev Crater, a rare large crater located in the vast northern plains of Mars. Because it is so far north, it has ice on the rim which looks almost like glacial flows in this image.

Share

Source of yellow water in Russian section of ISS identified

The yellow water found in Russian section of ISS earlier this week was caused by the ordinary crust deposits that formed on the inside of a water-heating unit, what the Russians have labeled a “samovar” and we would probably call a teapot.

Limescale crust inside a ‘samovar’ whose service life had expired was the cause for the appearance of yellow water admixtures in the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS), First Deputy CEO for Space Systems’ Flight Operation and Tests at Energia Rocket and Space Corporation Vladimir Solovyov told TASS on Tuesday. “A household cause is behind the emergence of the yellow admixtures in the water. Routine limescale crust had formed in the water-heating unit, which had reached the end of its service life. There is nothing terrible in that as we are regularly confronted with such things on Earth. The problem is solved quite easily, we will just promptly replace this unit, which cosmonauts normally call ‘samovar’ with a reserve one,” Solovyov explained.

Anyone who has used a teapot to boil water for years will eventually have to replace it because of the development of a crust on its inside surface. This is what has happened here. It appears the Russian article today was in response to panicked news reports earlier in the week about the appearance of the yellow water and the need for the Russians to use water from the American segment while they pinned down the cause, a procedure that is quite routine.

Share

Trump administration considering reinstating fees to purchase Landsat images

The Trump administration is considering reinstating the fee system to purchase Landsat images that existed prior to 2008.

Not surprisingly, the Nature article is completely hostile to this idea. The quote below gives a flavor.

Since the USGS made the data freely available, the rate at which users download it has jumped 100-fold. The images have enabled groundbreaking studies of changes in forests, surface water, and cities, among other topics. Searching Google Scholar for “Landsat” turns up nearly 100,000 papers published since 2008.

A USGS survey of Landsat users released in 2013 found that the free distribution of Landsat imagery generates more than US$2 billion of economic benefit annually — dwarfing the programme’s current annual budget of roughly $80 million. More than half of the nearly 13,500 survey respondents were academics, and the majority lived outside the United States. [emphasis mine]

Why should scientists, a majority of which are not even Americans, have a free ride?

Share

Russian lawmakers introduce legislation to ban rocket engine sales to U.S.

Link here. The article provides practically no information about the legislation or its chances of passing. Instead, it focuses on the past history behind ULA’s use of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine in its Atlas 5 rocket as well as the recent efforts to replace it.

Thus, I have no idea if this legislation signals a real threat to future ULA launches or not. Moreover, the article tries to make it sound that the U.S. is entirely reliant on this rocket engine, something that is simply not true.

Nonetheless, this story underscores again the need for ULA to find a different engine to power its rockets. They shouldn’t be dependent on a rocket engiine built by a foreign power that has political motives that sometimes conflict with those of the United States.

Share

India recalls communications satellite, postponing launch indefinitely

India’s space agency ISRO yesterday recalled its largest ever communications satellite, GSAT-11, from French Guiana, where it was being prepared for a May Ariane 5 launch, citing a need to check the satellite’s systems.

Though no specific reason was given for the recall, which will postpone the satellite’s launch indefinitely, it likely is related to the March failure in orbit of India’s GSAT-6A satellite.

ISRO lost communication contact with its GSAT-6A communication satellite soon after it was put into orbit on March 29.

ISRO suspects the failure of the power systems in the satellite for the loss of communication link. “The satellites are powered by solar panels that charge the onboard batteries. The batteries are fully charged when the satellite is loaded on to the rocket. Even if there is a problem with the solar panel, then the battery power should have kicked in. Here the entire power system of the satellite seems to have failed,” one space expert told IANS earlier.

According to experts, the power system could have failed due to some short circuiting or arcing resulting in what is known in the space terminology ‘loss of lock’ or loss of contact with the ground station.

The head of ISRO is a well-trained engineer who has worked in the trenches. I suspect he decided the problems with GSAT-6A demanded a more detailed systems check on GSAT-11 prior to launch. And even if it wasn’t his specific decision, the willingness to make such a decision I think indicates a great deal of maturity in the present culture at ISRO. It might be embarrassing to make such a recall, but it is far better to do so beforehand than after an unrecoverable failure in space. That they are willing to face this embarrassment to avoid a future failure is something laudable.

Share

Gaia releases 3D map of galaxy

The science team for the space telescope Gaia, designed to map the positions of billions of stars, have released the probe’s second catalog, producing a 3D map of 1.7 billion stars in the Milky Way

The new data release, which covers the period between 25 July 2014 and 23 May 2016, pins down the positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars, and with a much greater precision. For some of the brightest stars in the survey, the level of precision equates to Earth-bound observers being able to spot a Euro coin lying on the surface of the Moon.

With these accurate measurements it is possible to separate the parallax of stars – an apparent shift on the sky caused by Earth’s yearly orbit around the Sun – from their true movements through the Galaxy. The new catalogue lists the parallax and velocity across the sky, or proper motion, for more than 1.3 billion stars. From the most accurate parallax measurements, about ten per cent of the total, astronomers can directly estimate distances to individual stars.

The catalog provides much more information than this. For example:

As well as positions, the data include brightness information of all surveyed stars and colour measurements of nearly all, plus information on how the brightness and colour of half a million variable stars change over time. It also contains the velocities along the line of sight of a subset of seven million stars, the surface temperatures of about a hundred million and the effect of interstellar dust on 87 million.

Gaia also observes objects in our Solar System: the second data release comprises the positions of more than 14 000 known asteroids, which allows precise determination of their orbits. A much larger asteroid sample will be compiled in Gaia’s future releases.

Further afield, Gaia closed in on the positions of half a million distant quasars, bright galaxies powered by the activity of the supermassive black holes at their cores. These sources are used to define a reference frame for the celestial coordinates of all objects in the Gaia catalogue, something that is routinely done in radio waves but now for the first time is also available at optical wavelengths.

I guarantee that many theories about specific strange stars, such as the plethora of different types of variable stars, are going to change drastically with this new and precise information. At the article they describe just one example relating to white dwarf stars.

Share

Russia agrees to replace Angola’s first satellite, lost shortly after launch

Russia has agreed to replace Angola’s first satellite, lost shortly after launch, and have the replacement paid for by both insurance and Russia.

The minister confirmed that payment for the production of the second satellite would come from the insurance reimbursement for the lost AngoSat-1 satellite worth 121 million US dollars. The rest of the cost will be paid by the Russian side. The overall sum of the project amounts to 320 million US dollars.

The AngoSat-1 telecommunications satellite was launched by a Zenit-2SB carried rocket with a Fregat booster on December 26, 2017 from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. Contact with the satellite was lost on the following day after the separation from the upper stage.

Essentially, this is another example of a Russian launch failure, as it appears the Russians have accepted blame for the failure.

Share

Blue Origin’s CEO gives an update on the company’s rockets

Link here. According to the CEO, Bob Smith, they are making good progress on developing their BE-4 rocket engine, and also expect to test fly New Shepard again in a few weeks.

In both cases, he admits that development has taken longer than expected. For example, in discussing New Shepard, he said the following:

Smith said Blue Origin is still planning to start flying people on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship by the end of the year, after further uncrewed tests. “We would have loved to have flown more, earlier, but the design incorporation didn’t go as quickly as we’d like it to,” Smith said.

I have no idea what he means by “design incorporation.” The bottom line however is that they have had issues that slowed things down.

The article provides a lot more details. Overall, while he says nothing that contradicts earlier reports, he provides a good summary of the company’s status.

Share

Zooming in on a Martian surprise

Global map of Mars

Let’s take a journey. Above is a global map of Mars, showing its largest and well known geological features. While far smaller than Earth, its lack of oceans means that Mars’ actual dry surface has about the same square footage as the continents of Earth. It is a vast place. Getting a close look at every spot is going to take many decades of work, and probably won’t be finished until humans are actually walking its surface.

Let’s pick a spot, zoom in and find out what’s there.
» Read more

Share

Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross puts his foot down

In a speech at a space conference this week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross outlined the Trump administration’s plans to streamline the commercial space regulatory bureaucracy, noting that the absurd interference with normal operations by bureaucrats must stop.

He made specific reference to NOAA’s demand that it have the right to license all photography in space.

“This is silly and it will stop,” Ross told an audience of space industry executives, policymakers and military officers at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, backing the view of SpaceX and other rocket companies that the cameras on its rockets aren’t the equivalent of satellites dedicated to Earth views.

He then noted that the regulatory framework is going to be consolidated into an “Office of Space Commerce” under his direct supervision, though the FCC (licensing radio spectrum) and the FAA (licensing rocket launches) will retain their responsibilities.

Will this streamline anything or save the taxpayer any money? Doesn’t look that way to me, as it seems to be adding a new layer of bureaucrats to the process without eliminating any existing departments. And then there is this additional quote from the article:

The question for space executives, who have clamored for more responsive government when it comes to licenses for launches and satellite operation, is whether increased funding will accompany the shifting responsibilities.

Speeding up bureaucracy means hiring more people, and projects like space traffic management demand investment in the technology to detect and track objects in orbit. While the Trump administration had adopted lofty rhetoric around its support for space business, it’s not yet clear that the White House has the needed clout to win congressional support—and federal dollars—for its proposals.

While it is a good thing that the Trump administration has apparently told the NOAA bureaucrats to take a flying leap, it appears they have also decided that building a new layer of bureaucracy to regulate space is a good thing. This is most unfortunate.

Share

China’s mysterious SJ-17 satellite

The extensive maneuvers in space of China’s SJ-17 satellite, launched in December 2016 on the maiden flight of China’s Long March 5 rocket, have satellite trackers and defense officials intrigued and concerned.

Now China, as far as we know, hasn’t done anything nefarious with this satellite. But it has approached to within “a couple of hundred meters” to an apparently dead Chinese communications satellite recently parked in the so-called graveyard orbit. That is incredibly close by space standards. (Also, that comsat may or may not actually be a dead satellite.) And, as space geeks can tell from the above chart, it has executed “proximity operations” with at least four Chinese satellites.

What does all this mean? Are the Chinese testing space war maneuvers to allow them to get close an enemy satellite to move it or disable it? Since the maneuvers to service a satellite — giving it new fuel or trying tor repair it, for example — are virtually indistinguishable from an offensive maneuver, we don’t know. We do know that Strategic Command’s Gen. John Hyten has made it clear China and Russia are building weapons that include satellites, lasers and other ground-to-space weapons. Russia has deployed three Kosmos satellites that appear designed to approach other nations satellites and destroy them. China has launched Shiyan satellites, reportedly able to use a grappling arm to move satellites.

SJ-17 could be testing anti-satellite capabilities, where either it approaches close enough to a target so that when it explodes it takes the target with it, or it grabs that satellite to take it over. Or it could be testing robot orbital maneuvering for the purpose of future satellite servicing missions.

In either case, China is demonstrating that its future satellites will have very sophisticated maneuvering systems, capable of doing any number of things in orbit.

Share

Sierra Nevada opens all rockets to launching Dream Chaser

In a status update for its Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle cargo ship to ISS, Sierra Nevada officials also revealed that they are considering a wide range of launch companies for future launches.

SNC announced a contract with ULA in July 2017 that covered two Dream Chaser launches, in 2020 and 2021. Both would use the Atlas 5 552, the largest version of the Atlas 5 with a five-meter payload fairing, five solid rocket boosters and a dual-engine Centaur upper stage.

However, Sirangelo said the company was looking at other options for launching the second and later Dream Chaser ISS cargo missions. “It’s a quite interesting time in the launch business, where we see all the major launch companies coming out with a new launch system,” he said. “We are looking at all of the launch systems.” Sirangelo said later that the company issued a request for proposals for multiple Dream Chaser launches. “We’ll probably be making a decision by the end of this year,” he said. “We’re gotten tremendous response for it.” He declined to discuss specific vehicles under consideration but said SNC received “really great response from all the major providers.”

Their willingness to open up the launch bidding is merely a recognition that they can save money by encouraging competition for their business. The vehicle itself has not yet completed its design review, though they hope to begin its assembly within a month, with a planned launch date in late 2020.

The company was awarded its cargo contract in January 2016, more than two years ago. It seems to me that it has taken far too long to get to this point. I wonder if NASA has thrown up roadblocks, as it has with SpaceX.

Share
1 2 3 4 191