Tag Archives: spaceflight

LightSail 2 released from cubesat; establishes contact

The Planetary Society’s LightSail-2 technology demonstration satellite was released from its carrier vehicle today and successfully established communications with the ground.

The CubeSat, about the size of a loaf of bread, was scheduled to leave Prox-1 precisely 7 days after both spacecraft successfully flew to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Following deployment from its spring-loaded enclosure known as a P-POD, LightSail 2 deployed its radio antenna and began transmitting health and status data, as well as a morse code beacon indicating its call sign. The mission team received LightSail 2’s first signals on 2 July at 01:34 PDT (08:34 UTC), as the spacecraft passed over Cal Poly.

…The team will spend about a week checking out LightSail 2’s systems, exercising the spacecraft’s momentum wheel, and taking camera test images before and after deployment of the CubeSat’s dual-sided solar panels. Following the successful completion of these tests, the team will deploy the 32-square-meter solar sail, about the size of a boxing ring. A time for the solar sail deployment attempt will be announced later.

If they successfully deploy the solar sail and use it to maneuver in space, it will the second time the Planetary Society has done it, having deployed LightSail-1 in 2015. That mission has some communications problems, but eventually succeeded in its main engineering mission by testing the sail deployment system.

LightSail-2 will also be the third time a light sail has been flown in space, with the first, Ikaros, deployed by the Japanese in 2010 and flown in solar orbit through 2012. That mission was successful in using sunlight to accelerate the sail.

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The Martian seabed?

Cones and strange blobs
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Above is an image taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in November 2018 of an area in the vast relatively featureless northern lowlands of Mars. I have rotated, cropped, and reduced it to post here.

I have also indicated two sections, indicated by the white boxes, that I have cropped out of the full resolution image to highlight some interesting features. Both images can be seen in full resolution below.

While the northern lowlands seem featureless from a distance, with few craters, a closer look always reveals many things that are both baffling and fascinating. In this case the region is called Galaxias Colles, a region of mesas and knobby hills. This particular image was dubbed “Cones in Galaxias Colles,” and was clearly taken to get a better look at these strange blobby features.
» Read more

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India hires Russia to train its astronauts

The new colonial movement: India’s space agency ISRO has hired the Russians to train its astronauts for its first home-built manned mission, Gaganyaan, presently scheduled to fly in 2022.

This decision makes a lot of sense. First, the space programs of Russia and India have cooperated a lot in the past, with Russia launch India’s first astronaut on a Soyuz in 1984. Second, Russia has a great deal of experience training new astronauts from other countries, including tourists. Third, neither of the other countries with manned programs, the U.S. and China, have established systems for this kind of training. China has never training any outsiders, and NASA’s systems for this are not designed for efficiency. Moreover, it has been eight years since the U.S. put anyone in space. If I was India I would prefer using someone with recent experience.

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SLS abort test for Orion successful

The second launch abort test of NASA’s SLS/Orion rocket/capsule was successfully completed today.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. The goal was to test the system that will safely separate the capsule from a failing rocket, which is why no parachutes released to gently bring the capsule back to Earth.

Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) intentionally runs that emergency abort sequence. Three motors in the LAS fired in that short sequence of a few seconds and then the test was essentially over before the three minutes was up while the hardware was airborne.

NASA and its Orion contractor team recorded test data from real-time telemetry and in onboard data recorders, but the major hardware for the test fell into the ocean. A set of a dozen data recorders were ejected from the Crew Module test article for recovery before it hit the water and sunk.

Why they couldn’t also test the parachutes the same time illustrates the wasteful manner in which SLS/Orion is managed. Moreover, this test was the second for this rocket/capsule, with the first occurring nine years ago, in May 2010. As I have noted,

We fought and won World War II in about a third of that amount of time. The Civil War took about half that time. In fact, it took SpaceX less time to conceive, design, and launch the Falcon Heavy.

Any project that takes this long to accomplish anything is a fraud. It indicates that the goal of SLS/Orion is not to build and fly a manned capsule, but to suck money from the taxpayer for as long as possible.

» Read more

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Comparing today’s modern rocket engines

For the geeks among us, below the fold is a really really good video describing the engineering designs and considerations that have gone into the launch industry’s most important rocket engines, both now and in the future, with the goal of understanding the design choices SpaceX made for its Raptor engine.

The video is almost 50 minutes long, but if you set the speed at 1.25 you can still understand it and save some time.

Hat tip reader Michael Nelson.
» Read more

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Astronomers declare: Oumuamua was not an alien spacecraft!

The uncertainty of science: An international team of astronomers have announced that after much consultation and discussion it is their conclusion that the interstellar object Oumuamua that zipped through the solar system in 2017 was a natural object, not an alien spacecraft.

[A] review of all the available evidence by an international team of 14 experts strongly suggests that ʻOumuamua has a purely natural origin. The research team reported their findings in the July 1, 2019, issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

“We have never seen anything like ʻOumuamua in our solar system,” said Dr. Matthew Knight, the team leader from the University of Maryland “but our preference is to stick with analogs we know, unless or until we find something unique. The alien spacecraft hypothesis is a fun idea, but our analysis suggests there is a whole host of natural phenomena that could explain it.”

It is perfectly reasonable for these scientists to choose the simplest and most likely explanation for Oumuamua, which would be a natural object. Moreover, their conclusion does fit the data we have reasonable well.

At the same time, for anyone to assume there is any certainty to this conclusion would be a grave mistake. It is merely the best guess, based on the available but somewhat limited data. The data however does not preclude more exotic explanations. Nothing is certain.

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Where are the caves on Mars?

Overview map of pits near Arsia Mons

Each month I go through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). And each month since November I have found a bunch of newly discovered pits photographed in the region around the volcano Arsia Mons (see: November 12, 2018, January 30, 2019, February 22, 2019, April 2, 2019, and May 7, 2019). The map on the right has been updated to include all those previous pits, indicated by the black boxes, with the new pits from June shown by the numbered white boxes.

To the right are the first three pits in the June archive, with the link to each image site found here (#1), here (#2), and here (#3).

Pits 1 through 3
For full images: Number 1, Number 2, Number 3.

All three are what the scientists doing this research call Atypical Pit Craters:

These Atypical Pit Craters (APCs) generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios that are usually greater than 0.3 (which is an upper range value for impacts and bowl-shaped pit craters) and can exceed values of 1.8. Observations by the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) show that APC floor temperatures are warmer at night and fluctuate with much lower diurnal amplitudes than nearby surfaces or adjacent bowl-shaped pit craters.

The fourth pit, shown in the reduced and cropped image below, might actually be the most interesting of the June lot.
» Read more

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Exos suborbital reusable rocket aborts prematurely during third launch

Capitalism in space: The third flight of Exos Aerospace’s reusable suborbital rocket SARGE was cut short today shortly after launch when the rocket had attitude control problems.

A reusable suborbital rocket developed by Exos Aerospace suffered a loss of attitude control seconds after liftoff on a test flight June 29, but the rocket was still able to glide safely back to Earth.

Exos’ Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with GuidancE, or SARGE, rocket lifted off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at about 2 p.m. Eastern. In the company’s webcast, the rocket started gyrating seconds after liftoff before disappearing from view.

Controllers were able to reestablish some control of the rocket, aborting the flight. The rocket deployed a drogue parachute and parafoil while venting unused propellant. The rocket slowly descended under that parafoil, landing within view of the launch pad 14 minutes after liftoff.

That it appears they were able to safely recover the rocket and its payloads is significant, even though this failure is a setback for the company.

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Insight engineers get first look at hole

InSight Mole hole
Click for full image.

The Insight engineering team has successfully lifted the mole structure allowing them to see the hole the mole was pounding into the Martian ground in their effort to diagnose why the mole has been unable to drill more than a foot or so down.

The image to the right shows the mole, the white tubelike structure, inside the hole. As noted by Instrument Lead Tilman Spohn,

I along with others from the team were a bit shocked when we saw how large the pit actually is. Its diameter is about two times the diameter of the mole. The bottom of the pit is difficult to see (we expect better images once the lift is complete) but it seems that it is about 2-2.5 mole diameters deep. A mole diameter is 27mm. So the mole must have compacted the regolith quite a bit. In addition to its own volume it must have displaced about half of its buried volume.

There seems to be a little rim surrounding the pit but most of the displacement likely was compaction. We cannot see the inclination of the wall very well but it at least seems to me that the mole was “precessing” (like a spinning top) and carved a conical hole. This is consistent with the recordings of our tiltmeter STATIL during the hammering in March. We will have to wait for better images to confirm or disprove that. In any case, the apparent compaction seems to be compatible with a large porosity, relatively low density.

What they do next is unknown. From what I understand, they do not have the option of lifting the mole out and trying a different location. Moreover, the images and data suggest it wouldn’t matter anyway. The mole is apparently not designed to drill a shaft in this kind of ground.

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The travels of China’s Yutu-2 rover on the Moon

Yutu-2 and Chang'e-4
Click for full image.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team today released images that track the travels of China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 from its landing on January 30, 2019 through June 3, covering the rover’s first six lunar days on the Moon.

The image to the right, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, shows the relative positions of both spacecraft as of June 3, 2019. In the release they also included a gif movie showing the progression of Yutu-2’s movements since landing.

Once a month, LRO passes over the Chang’e 4 landing site, allowing LROC to capture a new image. LROC has now imaged the site five times (since the landing) and observed Yutu-2 to have traveled a total of 186 meters (distance measured using the rover tracks). If you squint, portions of the rover tracks are visible as a dark path in the images from April, May, and possibly June.

table of Yutu-2's movements through June 2019

The LRO release also included a table showing the distance Yutu-2 has traveled with each lunar day, shown on the right. The table does not include the 23 meters (75 feet) the rover traveled on its sixth lunar day. My estimate yesterday that Yutu-2 was traveling an average of about a 100 feet per day, with the distances per day shrinking with time, seems largely correct. During the rover’s fourth and fifth lunar days it moved very little, either because they had found something very interesting they wanted to inspect more closely, or they were moving more cautiously as the rover’s life extended past its planned lifespan of three lunar days.

On the sixth day however they increased their travels again, suggesting that either they had finished the observations at the previous location, or they had gained more confidence in the rover’s staying power.

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SpaceX seeking more investment capital

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun its third round of private fund-raising this year, this time seeking more than $300 million.

The latest round, filed on Monday, seeks to raise $314.2 million at a price of $214 a share, according to a document seen by CNBC. The new equity would bring SpaceX’s total 2019 fundraising to $1.33 billion once completed.

The block of this new round appears to already be funded from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

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Chaos on Mars

Aurorae Chaos in Margaritifer Terra
Click for full image.

The Mars Express science team today released a digital perspective view of the chaos terrain located in the outlet region for the vast drainages, which include Marineris Valles, coming down from the Tharsis Bulge volcanic region that holds Mars’ largest volcanos.

The view, reduced to post here on the right, was created from a image taken by Mars Express on October 31, 2018. This chaos terrain is south of the various examples of chaos terrain previously highlighted here on Behind the Black (May 14, 2018, June 26, 2018, March 11, 2019, March 14, 2019). As they note,

The division between the chaotic terrain and plains can also be seen clearly in these images. The left (south) side of the image is notably smoother and more featureless than the jumbled right (north) side, and the two regions are split by a prominent line carving diagonally across the frame. The transition area around this scarp is especially broken and fractured; this is thought to be caused as the martian crust stretched and moved.


The ancient chaotic terrain we see on Mars holds information about how water once permeated and interacted with the planetary surface, including how it was transported, stored, and released.

Chaotic terrain is thought to have formed as chunks of the martian surface collapsed in dramatic events triggered by the heating of material containing ice or water-bearing minerals – possibly due to climatic or volcanic heat sources, or an impact from an asteroid or comet. This released large amounts of water, causing the terrain above to subside. The water then drained away quickly, leaving behind the messy, broken patterns seen in regions such as Aurorae Chaos, which is thought to have formed some 3.5 billion years ago.

Mars Express images don’t quite have the resolution of the high resolution images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but they cover a wider area, so that the spacecraft has now photographed almost the entire Martian surface since its arrival in Mars orbit in December 2003.

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TESS finds exoplanet smaller than Earth

Worlds without end: TESS has now found an exoplanet somewhere between Mars and the Earth in size, and is part of a solar system with two other Earth-sized planets.

L 98-59b is around 80% Earth’s size and about 10% smaller than the previous record holder discovered by TESS. Its host star, L 98-59, is an M dwarf about one-third the mass of the Sun and lies about 35 light-years away in the southern constellation Volans. While L 98-59b is a record for TESS, even smaller planets have been discovered in data collected by NASA’s Kepler satellite, including Kepler-37b, which is only 20% larger than the Moon.

The two other worlds in the system, L 98-59c and L 98-59d, are respectively around 1.4 and 1.6 times Earth’s size. All three were discovered by TESS using transits, periodic dips in the star’s brightness caused when each planet passes in front of it.

None of these planets is considered in the habitable zone however. Instead, they experience solar energies comparable to Venus.

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NASA announces mission to Titan

NASA today announced that it has approved a new mission to Titan, called Dragonfly, that will be a rotorcraft able to fly from place to place.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and is expected to arrive at Titan in 2034. ‘Dragonfly is a bold, game-changing way to explore the solar system,’ said APL Director Ralph Semmel. ‘This mission is a visionary combination of creativity and technical risk-taking that will help us unravel some of the most critical mysteries of the universe — including, possibly, the keys to our origins.’

Initially, Dragonfly will carry out a 2.7-year mission to explore different sites across Titan, including dunes and impact craters. Observations from the Cassini mission indicate these areas once held liquid water and complex organic materials. The dual quadcopter will sample these organic surface materials and measure their composition in effort to characterize the large moon’s habitability.

Dragonfly will first touchdown in an equatorial area known as the ‘Shangri-La’ dune fields, which have been compared to the Namibian dunes in southern Africa.

It will then complete ‘leapfrog’ flights of around 5 miles (8km) each to hop to other areas, stopping to take samples from each site.

I hate to throw cold water on this magnificent and ambitious mission, but I will not be at all surprised if it ends up costing more than expected and ends up getting delayed. NASA’s track record in the past decade with big projects on the cutting edge, as this appears to be, has been abysmal. Worse, I have seen little at NASA to make me thing any of this has changed enough to ease my mind for the next decade.

I hope I am wrong, because the concept is wonderful, and the target, Titan, is a critical solar system location that must be explored.

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The expanding range for Martian ice scarps

Another ice scarp
Click for full image.
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The discovery in January 2018 of a number of Martian cliff faces, or scarps as the scientists dubbed them, with a visible and apparently very accessible underground layer of ice, had significant ramifications.

First, it proved that, in at least one area south of Hellas Basin and one spot in the northern hemisphere, an underground ice table existed on Mars at latitudes as far south as 55 degrees. Scientists had theorized that this ice table, comparable to the water table on Earth, existed, but here was visible proof.

Second, the discovery showed places where water could be accessed relatively easily by future colonists. There are plenty of indications from orbiter images and lander/rover data that water is present in many places on Mars, but here the water appeared almost pure and could be obtained without major digging or processing. Whether that ice table extends even farther south, making it even more accessible, remains as yet a scientific question.

In the next few months the scientists involved in this research located more ice scarps in areas beyond the range of those initial discoveries. Since then however even more scarps have been found, including the scarp in the image above and to the right, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here.

This particular scarp is located inside a crater. The uncaptioned release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), described it as a “Scarp in mantling material.” According to Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
» Read more

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Mold in space can tolerate very high doses of radiation

New research has discovered that the mold found on the International Space Station is able to tolerate very high doses of radiation.

Spores of the two most common types of mold on the ISS, Aspergillus and Pennicillium, survive X-ray exposure at 200 times the dose that would kill a human, according to Marta Cortesão, a microbiologist at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, who will present the new research Friday at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon 2019).

Pennicillium and Aspergillus species are not usually harmful, but inhaling their spores in large amounts can sicken people with weakened immune systems. Mold spores can withstand extreme temperatures, ultraviolet light, chemicals and dry conditions. This resiliency makes them hard to kill.

“We now know that [fungal spores] resist radiation much more than we thought they would, to the point where we need to take them into consideration when we are cleaning spacecraft, inside and outside,” Cortesao said. “If we’re planning a long duration mission, we can plan on having these mold spores with us because probably they will survive the space travel.”

While these findings likely mean an increase in the cost for sterilizing future planetary probes, they also mean that fungi will be available for future space travelers for the production of antibiotics, food, and other useful items.

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Vostochny contractor charged with embezzlement avoids jail

The new colonial movement: The contractor who embezzled almost $6.5 million from the Vostochny spaceport project in Russia has avoided jail time, getting merely a suspended sentence and and a $3,000 fine.

Viktor Grebnev, who headed the TMK contractor until it was declared bankrupt 2015, was accused of knowingly signing loss-making contracts and using company money to buy yachts and a mansion.

A district court in Far East Russia handed Grebnev a five-year suspended sentence and fined him 200,000 rubles ($3,000) for large-scale embezzlement, Interfax cited the court as saying.

It appears from this story that the corruption in Russia remains as strong as ever, which bodes poorly for its future in space. Space engineering is hard. If you allow any dishonesty to linger around it you are guaranteed to have something go wrong.

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Hayabusa-2 to attempt 2nd sample grab

The new colonial movement: The Hayabusa-2 science team has decided to attempt a second touch-and-go sample grab from the man-made crater they created on the surface of the rubble-pile asteroid Ryugu.

JAXA engineers confirmed that the probe’s camera and other equipment that were slightly damaged by the first landing are usable, and that there are no big rocks at the candidate site. They gave the go-ahead for a landing on July 11.

Hayabusa2 is scheduled to begin its descent from an altitude of 20,000 meters at around 10 a.m. on July 10 Japan time, and touch down on the asteroid’s surface about 25 hours later.

This is the first time I have heard of any damage to the spacecraft from the first touch-and-go landing. Regardless, they have decided they can risk another sample grab and still have the ability to return the samples to Earth.

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Europe finally admits it must build reusable rockets

The new colonial movement: Europe has finally admitted that its refusal with Ariane 6 to make it reusable was a mistake, and has begun a major engineering research project to design and fly two different types of reusable rockets.

This month, the European Commission revealed a new three-year project to develop technologies needed for two proposed reusable launch vehicles. The commission provided €3 million to the German space agency, DLR, and five companies to, in the words of a news release about the project, “tackle the shortcoming of know-how in reusable rockets in Europe.”

This new RETALT project’s goals are pretty explicit about copying the retro-propulsive engine firing technique used by SpaceX to land its Falcon 9 rocket first stages back on land and on autonomous drone ships. The Falcon 9 rocket’s ability to land and fly again is “currently dominating the global market,” the European project states. “We are convinced that it is absolutely necessary to investigate Retro Propulsion Assisted Landing Technologies to make re-usability state-of-the-art in Europe.”

What is interesting to me is what appears to be some internal politics within Europe surrounding this effort. France is generally the most dominate member of the European Space Agency. Yet, according to the press release for this announcement, France is not involved in these new reusable rocket projects. Instead, Germany dominates, with companies from Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain participating.

It could be that the failure of Ariane 6 to garner customers, due to its higher costs, has forced these ESA partners to push for their own reusable rocket projects.

Either way, the competition in rocket technology is heating up, more evidence that the 2020s will be the most exciting decade in space since the 1960s.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awake for 7th lunar day

The new colonial movement: Chinese engineers have awakened both the Chang’e-4 lander and the Yutu-2 rover to begin work on their seventh lunar day on the Moon’s far side.

The text of this Chinese news report is almost identical to the text in the news report a month ago, when both spacecraft were awakened for the sixth lunar day. And as before, it tells us little.

What today’s story reveals is that Yutu-2 traveled only about 75 feet during the sixth lunar day. With an overall odometer reading of 695 feet, it appears it is averaging about 100 feet per lunar day, with the per day number dropping with time. Either the science team is becoming cautious, or they have had unstated issues that have slowed them down.

Still, the rover’s nominal mission was only three lunar days, so it is survived more than twice as long as designed.

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The Whirlpool Galaxy across many wavelengths

The Whirlpool Galaxy
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The sequence of images above, reduced to post here, were taken in multiple wavelengths by the 2.1 meter Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and the Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit.

The Whirlpool galaxy, also known as Messier 51 and NGC 5194/5195, is actually a pair of galaxies that are tugging and distorting each other through their mutual gravitational attraction. Located approximately 23 million light-years away, it resides in the constellation Canes Venatici.

The leftmost panel shows the Whirlpool in visible light, much as our eye might see it through a powerful telescope. In fact, this image comes from the Kitt Peak National Observatory 2.1-meter (6.8-foot) telescope. The spiraling arms are laced with dark threads of dust that radiate little visible light and obscure stars positioned within or behind them.

The second panel from the left includes two visible-light wavelengths (in blue and green) from Kitt Peak but adds Spitzer’s infrared data in red. This emphasizes how the dark dust veins that block our view in visible light begin to light up at these longer, infrared wavelengths.

Spitzer’s full infrared view can be seen in the right two panels, which cover slightly different ranges of infrared light.

The infrared views of the Whirlpool galaxy also show how dramatically different its two component parts are: The smaller companion galaxy at the top of the image has been stripped nearly clean of dust features that stand out so brilliantly in the lower spiral galaxy. The faint bluish haze seen around the upper galaxy is likely the blended light from stars thrown out of the galaxies as these two objects pull at each other during their close approach.

The Spitzer images above are likely among the last we shall see from that telescope, which has been in orbit since 2003 with a planned mission of only 2.5 years. As its cryogenic coolant became depleted in 2009, it has been functioning in a somewhat limited phase since. NASA will officially end the mission on January 30, 2020, more than thirteen years beyond that initial lifespan.

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Another odd crater on Mars

Odd shaped crater
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In a sense, to announce that scientists have found an oddly shaped crater on Mars is to state the obvious. In the years since the first Martian fly-by by Mariner 4 in 1965, scientists have been discovering numerous odd-shaped craters on Mars, every single of which has challenged our assumptions about the planet’s geology. I myself have posted a half dozen such posts since January (January 7, January 10, January 14, March 26, March 27, June 12).

Yet, it is always worth looking when another one crops up, because of the fact that they challenge our assumptions about Martian geology. They are also always cool to look at! On the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 19, 2019 of what the scientists have dubbed an “Odd Shaped Crater in Arabia Terra.”

Overview map

Arabia Terra is one of the largest regions of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands. This crater is located, as shown by the red cross in the overview map to the right, near its northern edge, in an area where the descent into the northern lowlands is somewhat abrupt and broken up by large craters and chaos terrain.

The crater itself holds numerous geological mysteries. Its shape suggests two impacts of different sizes overlapping each other, but without any remnant of the inner rim of the second impact. Where did that remnant go? Or maybe this wasn’t caused by two impacts, but by one impact that reshaped the surface in this odd and inexplicable way.

Then there is the three teardrop-shaped patterns in the crater’s floor. They look like the brushstrokes of a giant-sized painter. Were they caused by the wind? And if so, why in this pattern?

Planetary geologists could probably come up with a dozen more questions. The number tells us how little we know about Mars.

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SpaceIL decides Beresheet-2 will not be lunar mission

The new colonial movement: The Israeli nonprofit company SpaceIL has decided that its second Beresheet spacecraft will not go to the Moon.

The association’s board of directors decided to involve the public in the process of choosing the challenge that Beresheet 2 will lead, as was done in the national mission to the moon. At the same time, the association will continue to focus on establishing the values ​​of the “Beresheet effect” among the younger generation in Israel.

What I think is really going on is that they have realized that they cannot raise the necessary cash to fly another lunar lander, and are therefore setting their sights lower in order to find a mission they can fund.

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Elementary students to compete to name 2020 Mars rover

NASA has initiated a project to have the nation’s K-12 elementary school children compete to name the 2020 Mars rover.

NASA has selected two partner organizations to run a nationwide contest giving K-12 students in U.S. schools a chance to make history by naming the Mars 2020 rover. An application to become contest judge also is now available online.

Battelle Education, of Columbus, Ohio, and Future Engineers, of Burbank, California, will collaborate with NASA on the Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest, which will be open to students in the fall of 2019. The student contest is part of NASA’s efforts to engage the public in its missions to the Moon and Mars.

They are also looking for people to judge the contest.

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Hacker steals JPL data

A hacker last year was successfully able to hack into the computer system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and steal 500MB of data.

Who did the hacking is not revealed in the inspector general report [pdf], but the report lists six different hacks of JPL’s computers going back to 2009, two of which were linked to China. It is therefore reasonable to assume that China, which routinely steals new ground-breaking technology rather than develop it itself, was the likely culprit. In addition, the timing of these hacks, from 2009 to 2017, fits well with the steady growth of China’s lunar program. If you wanted to find out how to build an unmanned probe to go to the Moon, JPL would be the ideal facility to steal the technology from.

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Soyuz has problem during return to Earth

In returning three astronauts safely to Earth yesterday from ISS the Soyuz spacecraft experienced a technical problem immediately after its engines had fired, causing it to go to a backup system.

Moments after the completion of the braking maneuver, the emergency signal was heard inside the Descent Module and the communications between the crew and mission control discussed a failure of the first manifold in the integrated propulsion system of the Soyuz spacecraft and the switch to the second manifold. Kononenko first reported K1B (Manifold DPO-B) emergency at 05:02:54 Moscow Time and subsequently confirmed a switch to the second manifold. NASA later confirmed the problem, but did not provide any details.

There is no explanation what the “first manifold” is, though I suspect it is a direct translation from Russian for their term for a primary system. That the system automatically switched to its back-up is a good thing. That there was a failure of the primary system is not.

Once again, this raises more questions about the quality control throughout Russia’s aerospace industry. While so far none of the recent Soyuz problems, which have also included a launch abort and a still-unexplained drilled hole, have caused a loss of life. I fear that soon or later they will.

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China successfully launches GPS-type satellite

Using its Long March 3B rocket, China yesterday successfully placed into orbit another satellite for its GPS-type constellation.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

9 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

China has now narrowed the U.S. lead in the national rankings, 13 to 9.

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SpaceX catches a fairing

Capitalism in space: During last night’s Falcon Heavy launch SpaceX was for the first time able to catch one of the rocket’s fairings using its ship, GO Ms. Tree (formerly called Mr. Steven).

As noted at the link, SpaceX now has in its hands a fairing untouched by salt water that it can analyze for future reuse, something no other rocket company has been able to do. Moreover, that the ship was able to make the net catch at night bodes well for future fairing recoveries.

Hat tip commenter geoffc.

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Falcon Heavy launches successfully

Capitalism in space: The Falcon Heavy successfully launched tonight, and is presently deploying the 24 satellites on board.

They successfully landed the two first stage side boosters, but the core stage apparently just missed hitting the drone ship in the Atlantic. You could see it come down, but not on the pad. While SpaceX has now successfully recovered all six side boosters on all three Falcon Heavy launches, they have not yet succeeded in recovering the core stage.

The mission’s full success will not be known for several hours, as the satellite deployments unfold. So far the first two satellites have been deployed successfully.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

8 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. has now widened its lead over China in the national rankings, 13 to 8.

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Falcon Heavy launch a go for 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch is now a go for launch at 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight.

You can watch it live at SpaceX’s website here or at the embedded video below the fold.

This launch should be especially spectacular, as it will be at night, and the sky is clear. Moreover, they will once again be trying to land all three first stage boosters, with the side boosters flying for the second time only two months after their first flight on the last Falcon Heavy launch.
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