Tag Archives: spaceflight

Did Viking discover life on Mars?

Link here. The article provides a very detailed review of the conflicting results from the various 1970s Viking lander experiments, one of which strongly suggested the presence of microorganisms.

Overall, these life-detection experiments produced surprising and contradictory results. One experiment, the Labeled Release (LR) experiment, showed that the Martian soil tested positive for metabolism—a sign that, on Earth, would almost certainly suggest the presence of life. However, a related experiment found no trace of organic material, suggesting the absence of life. With no organic substances, what could be, or seem to be, metabolizing?

In the forty years since these experiments, scientists have been unable to reconcile the conflicting results, and the general consensus is that the Viking landers found no conclusive evidence of life on Mars. However, a small minority of scientists argues that the Viking results were positive for life on Mars.

The contradictory Viking results have never been fully explained. Many theories have been proposed, ranging from the chemical to the biological, but none have satisfied anyone.

Virgin Galactic lawsuit against Firefly moves forward

Virgin Galactic last week moved forward aggressively in its lawsuit against Firefly Space Systems, its officers, and its business partners for using stealing trade secrets.

According to the Complaint, Galactic hired Markusic in 2011 as its VP of Propulsion. Markusic’s role gave him intimate knowledge of the Company’s research into liquid rocket propulsion, space vehicle architecture, “aerospike” technology, and other confidential projects. While still employed at Galactic, Markusic allegedly solicited business partners and founded Firefly based on concepts and data he obtained in the course of his work. Galactic maintains that Markusic and Firefly relied on and continues to use the Company’s technical and marketing information, as well as Markusic’s engineering notes from his tenure at Galactic, to develop products such as a recently announced small launch vehicle.

The worst thing about this court battle to me is that if Virgin Galactic has developed worthwhile technology in connection with the aerospike engine, they have done nothing to develop it, and are now acting to squelch someone else’s effort.

Two Trump advisers push for National Space Council

In a somewhat vague op-ed today, two Trump space policy advisers, former Congressman Robert Walker and University of California-Irvine professor Peter Navarro, recommend the re-establishment of the National Space Council to coordinate the U.S.’s civilian space effort.

Despite its importance in our economic and security calculations, space policy is uncoordinated within the federal government. A Trump administration would end the lack of proper coordination by reinstituting a national space policy council headed by the vice president. The mission of this council would be to assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests. Key goals would be to would create lower costs through greater efficiencies. As just one example, a Trump administration will insist that space products developed for one sector, but applicable to another, be fully shared.

Here, it makes little sense for numerous launch vehicles to be developed at taxpayer cost, all with essentially the same technology and payload capacity. Coordinated policy would end such duplication of effort and quickly determine where there are private sector solutions that do not necessarily require government investment. [emphasis mine]

This analysis of the op-ed at SpacePolicyOnline.com gives some history of the National Space Council, as well as range of opinions about its usefulness.

Opinions in the space policy community about the value of such a Council run the gamut. Opponents argue it is just one more White House entity that can say “no” to any idea, but without the clout to say “yes” and make something happen. Supporters insist that a top-level mechanism is needed not only to effectively coordinate government civil and national security space programs, but to bring in the commercial sector and develop a holistic approach to space.

Walker and Navarro clearly share the latter opinion. They say the Council would “end the lack of proper coordination” and “assure that each space sector is playing its proper role in advancing U.S. interests.”

I however want to focus on the highlighted text above from the op-ed. This language appears to suggest that these advisers do not think it efficient for NASA to buy rockets and spacecraft from competing private companies, as it is doing with its cargo and crew ferries to ISS. If so, their advice will mean that a Trump administration will eliminate the competition that has been so successful in the past decade in lowering NASA’S costs and getting so much more done.

Yet, in the very next paragraphs Walker and Navarro say this:
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Did Opportunity see Schiaparelli?

Opportunity image of Schiaparelli?

Because Schiaparelli was aimed at a landing site somewhat close to the Mars rover Opportunity, the science team aimed the rover’s panoramic camera at the sky yesterday, taking fourteen pictures in the hope of capturing the lander as it came down. Of those fourteen images, the image on the right, reduced in resolution, is the only one that shows that bright streak in the upper right.

close-up of streak

Though this streak might be an artifact, I do not think so. To the left is a close-up from the full resolution image, showing the streak in detail. That doesn’t look like an artifact. It still could be a meteorite, but I also think that doubtful. The coincidence of a meteorite flashing across the sky at the same exact moment Opportunity is looking to photograph Schiaparelli’s landing is too unlikely.

If this is Schiaparelli, expect a press release from NASA in the next few days.

Schiaparelli landing apparently a failure

This report from russianspaceweb.com provides some details about the apparent landing failure of the European Mars probe Schiaparelli on Wednesday.

The very preliminary analysis of the data revealed a number of serious problems in the final phase of the parachute descent. The telemetry showed that the back heat shield holding the parachute had been ejected earlier than scheduled — 50 seconds instead of 30 seconds before the touchdown. Also, the lander was apparently descending at a speed higher than planned. There were also indications that the soft-landing engines had fired for only three or four seconds and all communications from the lander were cut 19 seconds later, or shortly before touchdown. By that time, Schiaparelli’s landing radar had been activated.

It appears the parachutes were released too soon so that they did not function properly and slow the spacecraft down enough. When the retro-rockets fired the spacecraft was probably also closer to the ground than planned and falling too fast, so they failed to stop it from impacting the surface hard and prematurely.

Fate of Schiaparelli remains unknown

While Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter has successfully gone into orbit around Mars, it remains unknown whether the lander Schiaparelli was able today to land successfully on the surface.

The carrier signal from Schiaparelli recorded by Mars Express abruptly ended shortly before landing, just as the beacon tone received by a ground-based radio telescope in India stopped in real-time earlier today.

Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations department, just gave an update on the situation. “We saw the signal through the atmospheric phase — the descent phase. At a certain point, it stopped,” Ferri said. “This was unexpected, but we couldn’t conclude anything from that because this very weak signal picked up on the ground was coming from an experimental tool.

“We (waited) for the Mars Express measurement, which was taken in parallel, and it was of the same kind. It was only recording the radio signal. The Mars Express measurement came at 1830 (CEST) and confirmed exactly the same: the signal went through the majority of the descent phase, and it stopped at a certain point that we reckon was before the landing.

“There could be many many reasons for that,” Ferri said. “It’s clear these are not good signs, but we will need more information.”

Juno enters safe mode prior to Jupiter close approach

Because Juno entered safe mode prior to its close approach of Jupiter today, no science data was gathered.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered safe mode Tuesday, Oct. 18 at about 10:47 p.m. PDT (Oct. 19 at 1:47 a.m. EDT). Early indications are a software performance monitor induced a reboot of the spacecraft’s onboard computer. The spacecraft acted as expected during the transition into safe mode, restarted successfully and is healthy. High-rate data has been restored, and the spacecraft is conducting flight software diagnostics. All instruments are off, and the planned science data collection for today’s close flyby of Jupiter (perijove 2), did not occur. “At the time safe mode was entered, the spacecraft was more than 13 hours from its closest approach to Jupiter,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We were still quite a ways from the planet’s more intense radiation belts and magnetic fields. The spacecraft is healthy and we are working our standard recovery procedure.”

This problem, combined with the thruster valve problem that prevented engineers from putting the spacecraft into its proper 14-day science orbit today, is significantly delaying science operations. They will not be able to adjust the orbit again until its next close approach December 11 (assuming the thruster problem has been solved by then), and until then it will also not be able to do much science.

Landslides on Charon

Landslide on Charon

Images from New Horizons have detected evidence of past avalanches on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. The image on the right is a reduced version of a perspective view created using data from various instruments.

This perspective view of Charon’s informally named “Serenity Chasm” consists of topography generated from stereo reconstruction of images taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), supplemented by a “shape-from-shading” algorithm. The topography is then overlain with the PIA21128 image mosaic and the perspective view is rendered. The MVIC image was taken from a distance of 45,458 miles (73,159 kilometers) while the LORRI picture was taken from 19,511 miles (31,401 kilometers) away, both on July 14, 2015.

close-up of landslide

To the left is a close-up taken from the annotated image. You can see the slump materials at the base of the mountain left behind after the material slide down the mountain. It is not clear whether it is Charon’s lower gravity and alien composition and environment (very very very cold) that makes this look more muddy than one would expect, or whether it is because of the limited resolution of the original image and the modeling to create the oblique version.

Comet 67P/C-G slowly breaking apart

A comparison of Rosetta images before and after Comet 67P/C-G’s close approach to the sun last year found new fractures and an enlargement of older fractures.

The fractures appear to be developing as forces subtly bend the comet to and fro, Stubbe Hviid, a planetary scientist at the German Aerospace Center Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, reported October 17 in a press conference at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences. Hviid and colleagues combined maps from Rosetta with computer simulations of all the forces at work within the comet to determine how the cracks develop. They found that the two bulbous ends rock in opposite directions as the comet spins, flexing the neck and creating severe stress. Because the comet isn’t held together strongly — it’s a conglomeration of dust and ice not much stickier than snow, Hviid said — the neck is starting to break. After a few hundred more years, he said, the comet could fold itself in half as the two lobes snap apart and smoosh together.

Active volcano on Venus?

The uncertainty of science: A new analysis of past data from a variety of Venus orbiters suggests that at least one volcano is active there.

The review of old data from the Magellan and Venus Express orbiters suggests that some lava flows on the volcano’s slopes are fresh, though how fresh remains unknown. However, computer models and the detection of excess heat by Venus Express on the mountain’s eastern slopes adds weight to the theory that the volcano is spewing out lava.

Mars rover update

Emily Lakdawalla at Sky & Telescope today provides an update of the two Mars rovers, but takes a different approach than I have. While I have been focusing on tracking where the rovers are going and what they are doing, she gives a very nice overview of each rovers’ condition, what instruments continue to work and what have failed.

I myself have not done a new rover update since October 6 for several reasons. First and foremost, neither rover has gone anywhere since my last report. Opportunity is still sitting on Spirit Mound, studying the rocks there. Curiosity is still in the flats south of Murray Buttes, preparing to drill another hole.

Secondly, there was a delay this past weekend in downloading data, especially from Curiosity. I strongly suspect that the delay was simply because the Deep Space Network was being used to help with communications between Europe and its ExoMars probes, now set to arrive at Mars tomorrow. When the lander Schiaparelli separated from the orbiter on Sunday they had had some initial communications problems, and it is likely that though ESA was using its own deep space network, they also enlisted ours to help.

Thirdly, I have been very tied up trying to finish my cave project monograph. This is done now, so I finally have more time to work on Behind the Black.

New comments by Musk on Sept 1 launchpad explosion

Unconfirmed and leaked statements made by Elon Musk at a National Reconnaissance Office presentation on October 13 suggest that the investigation is getting close to identifying the cause of the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

“It might have been formation of solid oxygen in the carbon over-wrap of one of the [helium] bottles in the upper stage tanks,” according to an excerpt of Musk’s remarks. “If it was liquid, it would have been squeezed out. But under pressure it could have ignited with the carbon. This is the leading theory right now, but it is subject to confirmation.”

Musk’s is also reported to have said that they found they could “…exactly replicate what happened on the launch pad if someone shoots the rocket.” He also dismissed this as a likely cause, though it has forced them to review their future launch security measures.

The article provides some very good additional analysis of the solid oxygen theory above. It suggests that though much of this technology has been used somewhat routinely in the launch industry for years, the specific environment used by SpaceX in its Falcon 9 rocket might have produced a new situation that caused the failure.

Mars in ultraviolet

Data from the Mars orbiter MAVEN have given scientists their first detailed look at the red planet in ultraviolet wavelengths.

New global images of Mars from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission being led by CU Boulder show the ultraviolet glow from the Martian atmosphere in unprecedented detail, revealing dynamic, previously invisible behavior.

They include the first images of “nightglow” that can be used to show how winds circulate at high altitudes. Additionally, dayside ultraviolet imagery from the spacecraft shows how ozone amounts change over the seasons and how afternoon clouds form over giant Martian volcanoes. The images were taken by the Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph (IUVS) on MAVEN.

The build-up of clouds over Mars’ four big volcanoes is especially interesting, since it is thought this water vapor likely comes from underground ice left over from glaciers that were once on the mountains’ slopes. A very short video of that build up can be seen, below the fold.
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Vector Space Systems signs $60 million contract

The competition heats up: Vector Space Systems, which recently began work on a rocket factory in Tucson, today announced the signing of a new $60 million launch contract.

Vector Space Systems, a micro satellite space launch company comprised of new-space industry veterans from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, McDonnell Douglas and Sea Launch, today finalized an agreement with York Space Systems, an aerospace company specializing in small and medium class spacecraft, to conduct six satellite launches from 2019 through 2022 with the option for 14 additional launches. The first launch through the agreement will also be the inaugural launch of the Vector-H vehicle, which is capable of launching 100 kg into orbit, and will provide an integrated spacecraft to customers through a standardized platform.

York Space Systems will use the launches with Vector Space Systems to place their standardized S-Class satellite platform into orbit for commercial and government customers. York Space Systems’ satellites will also employ the unique Electric Upper Stage which uses Vector Space Systems’ propriety electric propulsion technology as the final insertion stage of the Vector-H to place the satellites into orbital altitudes up to 1000 km with zero loss of launch throw mass capability.

It seems that there are now a lot of competing space races going on in the private aerospace industry. SpaceX and Boeing are racing to launch astronauts to ISS. SpaceX and Blue Origin are racing to reuse rockets. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are racing to launch the first suborbital tourists. A handful of private companies are racing to win the Google Lunar X-Prize. Arianespace, ULA, and Russia are racing with SpaceX for big payload launch contracts.

And a new group of small rocket companies are racing to capture a new burgeoning small satellite industry. Based on the most recent reports, it looks to me that Vector Space Systems and Rocket Lab are in the lead, though who will be first remains unclear. Hopefully, both will win by launching successfully and competing against each other.

Antares successfully launches Cygnus

After two years of redesign, Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket tonight successfully put a Cygnus cargo capsule into orbit.

Considering that every single one of the vehicles that fly to ISS (Soyuz, Dragon/Falcon 9, Cygnus/Antares, HTV) has been experiencing some issue that has delayed each of their launches, this success tonight must be a relief to managers and engineers in both Russia and the U.S.

Next comes a manned Soyuz launch on Wednesday.

ExoMars 2016 in detail

This Nature article provides a nice summary of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission that on Wednesday will try to place a lander on Mars as well as put an orbiter in orbit.

Neither probe is going to provide many exciting photos. The orbiter, dubbed boringly the Trace Gas Orbiter, is designed to study Mars’ atmosphere, while the lander, Schiaparelli, is essentially a technology test mission for planning and designing what Europe and Russia hope will be a more ambitious lander/orbiter mission in 2020.

Anyone expecting spectacular pictures from Schiaparelli itself might be disappointed — photos will be limited to 15 black-and-white shots of the Martian surface from the air, intended to help piece together the craft’s trajectory. No photos will be taken on the surface, because the lander lacks a surface camera.

Schiaparelli’s instruments will study the Martian atmosphere, including the possible global dust storm that might happen this month but so far has not yet appeared. The instruments will also be able to detect lightning, should it exist on Mars.

Used Dragon to fly in 2017

The competition heats up: SpaceX has confirmed that they will reuse a Dragon capsule to bring cargo to ISS in the spring of 2017.

This plan had already been revealed earlier. The news here is simply that NASA and SpaceX have finalized the decision and picked the actual schedule cargo mission that will use a Dragon capsule. What is more significant is this:

SpaceX plans to reuse Dragon spacecraft through the remainder of its current CRS contract, which runs through SpX-20. [Benjamin Reed, SpaceX director of commercial crew mission management] did not discuss how many Dragon spacecraft are available to be reused, or how many times SpaceX believes a Dragon capsule can be flown.

If successful, Reed said it would allow SpaceX to end production of the cargo Dragon spacecraft. “We’ll be reflying Dragons going forward, and be able to close down the Dragon 1 line and move all the way into Dragon 2,” he said, referring to the next-generation version of the Dragon being developed for commercial crew missions.

In other words, their goal is to transition very quickly from disposable capsules to a fleet of capsules that they fly over and over again.

Schiaparelli lander successfully separates from orbiter

In preparation for its Mars landing on October 19, Schiaparelli has successfully separated from the Trace Gas Orbiter of the European/Russian ExoMars 2016 mission.

They had some initial communications issues soon after separation, all of which have now been resolved.

Problems with Juno’s main engine

Valve problems detected during Juno’s orbital insert around Jupiter has caused engineers to delay the October 19 engine burn that would have lowered the probe’s orbit around Jupiter.

Mission managers for NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter have decided to postpone the upcoming burn of its main rocket motor originally scheduled for Oct. 19. This burn, called the period reduction maneuver (PRM), was to reduce Juno’s orbital period around Jupiter from 53.4 to 14 days. The decision was made in order to further study the performance of a set of valves that are part of the spacecraft’s fuel pressurization system. The period reduction maneuver was the final scheduled burn of Juno’s main engine. “Telemetry indicates that two helium check valves that play an important role in the firing of the spacecraft’s main engine did not operate as expected during a command sequence that was initiated yesterday,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The valves should have opened in a few seconds, but it took several minutes. We need to better understand this issue before moving forward with a burn of the main engine.”

Because of this, they will instead use this next close approach to Jupiter to do pure science, something that they would not have done during the engine burn. Though this is a good example of turning lemons into lemonade, it will not be a good thing if Juno can never reduce its orbit to 14 days. A 53 day orbit will mean that they can only do good research every two months, and will seriously limit what they can learn over the long run.

Kaguya data released at last

Seven years after the mission ended Japan has finally released the full catalog of images and videos taken by its lunar orbiter Kaguya.

No explanation for the long delay has been provided. Overall, this is just another example of what to me appears to be a bloated, bureaucratic, and slow to move Japanese space program. Their rockets are expensive, their planetary probes have had repeated problems, and they seem to be very uninterested in stepping up their game to compete in the increasingly competitive international race to explore and settle the solar system. That it took them more than seven years to release this data is quite shameful.

ExoMars 2016 bearing down on Mars

This article provides a detailed look at Sunday’s arrival of ExoMars 2016 at Mars.

If all goes right the Schiaparelli lander will soft land on the surface while the Trace Gas Orbiter will enter an initial 185 by 60,000 mile orbit, which will slowly be adjusted so that by January it can begin its atmospheric research.

Though the Russian contribution to this mission was only the rocket that sent it to Mars, if the mission succeeds it will be the first time any Mars mission with major Russian participation has succeeded. The failure rate for any Russian effort to go to Mars has been 100%. And it hasn’t been because the missions have been particularly difficult. The majority of their failures occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, even as they were very successfully completing much harder lander missions to Venus.

It has almost as if there is a curse against any Russian attempt to visit the Red Planet. Hopefully, that curse will finally be broken on Sunday.

No more manned Soyuz purchased by NASA after 2019

The competition heats up: Both Boeing and SpaceX better get their manned capsules working by 2019, because NASA at this point has no plans to buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules after the present contract runs out.

Even as the commercial crew schedules move later into 2018, NASA officials say they are not considering extending the contract with Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — for more launches in 2019. The last Soyuz launch seats reserved for U.S. astronauts are at the end of 2018.

It takes more than two years to procure components and assemble new Soyuz capsules, so Russia needed to receive new Soyuz orders from NASA by some time this fall to ensure the spacecraft would be ready for liftoff in early 2019.

The second paragraph above notes that even if NASA decided it needed more Soyuz launches, it is probably too late to buy them and have them available by 2019.

New power source for planetary missions?

Research at JPL has developed new materials called skutterudites that have the potential of increasing the efficiency and power output of the radioisotope electric generators used on deep space missions where solar power will not work.

The new eMMRTG would provide 25 percent more power than Curiosity’s generator at the start of a mission, according to current analyses. Additionally, since skutterudites naturally degrade more slowly that the current materials in the MMRTG, a spacecraft outfitted with an eMMRTG would have at least 50 percent more power at the end of a 17-year design life than it does today.

“Having a more efficient thermoelectric system means we’d need to use less plutonium. We could go farther, for longer and do more,” Bux said.

This being NASA research, they are moving somewhat slowly in testing and confirming whether these new materials will work. They hope that after passing further reviews in 2017 and 2018 the agency might finally approve their use in subsequent missions.

The Moon gets pounded more than expected

The uncertainty of science: A close review of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) images now suggests that asteroid impacts occur 33% more than previously estimated.

The research also suggests that the lunar surface gets rechurned faster than previously thought, which could force planetary scientists to adjust their solar system aging system that is based on crater counts.

The article makes the entirely false claim that this increased rate of impacts poses a threat to lunar colonies, probably in an effort by these scientists to lobby for funds for a combined lunar orbiter-lander mission. The first lunar colonies will likely be placed below ground, partly to protect them from the harsh lunar environment as well as from radiation, and partly because that will be the easiest way to build those colonies. The impacts being measured here are all relatively small, and would not threaten these underground colonies.

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