Space News for February 2018

Quite a few items of interest have happened in space in past month. I think I’ll save the big news for last and start with two stories that deal with the International Space Station (ISS).

The International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

The Trump administration has released a draft memo of a policy decision to instruct NASA to end its funding of the ISS no later than the year 2025. The reason for the decision is that the White House wants NASA to concentrate to sending astronauts on deep space missions back to the Moon or on to Mars and with all of the budget woes in Washington NASA can’t afford to pay for the ISS as well.

The hope is that commercial corporations such as Space X or Boeing or Bigelow will step in and take over the US commitment to the ISS but there is considerable doubt that the commercial aerospace sector can be ready by 2025.

One participant in the current ISS consortium who might be willing to take over some of NASA’s commitment is Russia. The Russian Space Agency has recently announced plans to use the ISS as the basis for a space hotel / vacation resort.

The plan is to attach a 20 ton, 15 meter long luxury sleeping module to the existing ISS. The module will house four tourists and even provide then with a lounge area, exercise equipment along with hygiene and medical facilities, the guests will even get ‘free Wi-Fi’. The expected cost for the design, fabrication and launch of the module is around $300 million US dollars and the expected cost for a one to two week stay will be around $40 million per person. See image of possible design below.

Possible Design of Russian Space Hotel (Credit: Anatoly Zak, Russian Space Web)

So it looks as if the ISS might be just another dead end on the road into space. The Apollo program got us to the Moon but when it ended there was nothing to be the next step. The space shuttle flew for twenty years before it had anyplace to go and once the ISS was completed the shuttle was canceled. And now the ISS will be abandoned without any replacement.

We need a long term strategy, a step by step plan for developing the infrastructure of space instead of ‘Let’s try this’, ‘O’k now let’s try this’, ‘Now let’s try something else.”

Earlier I mentioned a few of the commercial corporations that are hoping to play an expanding role in future space development well now there are two newcomers also trying to find a slice of the market. The first of these companies calls itself Rocket Lab, which has recently had a successful second test flight of its Electron launch vehicle. As a part of the test Rocket Lab succeeded in placing three small satellites into orbit.

Launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron Rocket into Orbit (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Now the Electron rocket is a small rocket. Its payload of 150-250Kg is much smaller than Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket but that’s Rocket Lab’s whole plan, to provide a low cost alternative for launching small satellites for companies and countries that can’t afford a bigger rocket.

Another new company trying to find a role to play is Effective Space, a UK company that is planning to develop a technique to extend the usable lifespan of the most expensive satellites that are already in orbit.

These satellites, communications, weather and space imaging to name a few, can only operate so long as their antennas and cameras are pointing in the right direction. Each of these satellites has small ‘station keeping’ engines that keep oriented the way they belong and those engines need fuel. In general the satellites carry enough fuel for a usable life of 15 years, once that is gone your multi-million dollar satellite is just space debris.

What Effective Space is planning is to develop a drone spacecraft that will rendezvous with and attach itself to a satellite that is about to run out of fuel. The drone will then use its station keeping engines to extend the life of the expensive satellite. The drones will be designed to provide another 15 years of useful life and as the drone itself begins to run out of fuel it will send the satellite into an orbit that will plunge it into Earth’s atmosphere so that it doesn’t interfere with the operation of other satellites. The image below shows how this will work.

Effective Space Drone attached to Communications Satellite (Credit: Effective Space)

Effective Space has signed a contract with an unnamed satellite operator to launch it’s first two drones in 2020 so we’re going to have to wait a few years to see how well this scheme works.

Which brings us finally to the big news; the Space X Falcon Heavy has successfully completed its first test launch from Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy. The news is big because the Space X Falcon Heavy rocket is now the most powerful space launch system since the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Capable of delivering 54 metric tons of payload into low Earth orbit the Falcon Heavy basically consists of three Falcon 9 first stage rockets strapped together, see image below.

Falcon Heavy on launch pad (Credit: Space X)

Like the Falcon 9 rocket, which has now been successfully recovered over twenty times, the trio of first stages of the Falcon Heavy are also designed to be recovered and reused. In this first test flight the two outer first stages were recovered at the land based landing pad but unfortunately the central first stage failed to make its recovery on Space X’s oceangoing recovery barge. This was the only setback in what was an otherwise flawless first test. The image below shows the Falcon Heavy taking off.

Launch of the Falcon Heavy (Credit: Space X)

As a bit of frivolous fun, the payload of this first test launch was Space X CEO Elon Musk’s own red Tesla electric car, Musk is also CEO of Tesla motors. The car has now left Earth orbit on a trajectory that will take it as far out as the asteroid belt.

There will be plenty of opportunity for more useful payloads in the coming years. Large communications satellites, spy satellites and even manned flights. Musk has even suggested that a manned flight to orbit the Moon could be carried out this year although right before the Falcon Heavy test he indicated that the schedule for such a flight was being pushing back.

Nevertheless the success of Falcon Heavy’s first flight is certainly good news for Space X and by extension a significant mark of progress in man’s exploration of space.




The Coming Year in Space: New launch Vehicles, New Inter-Planetary Probes and maybe America’s return to Manned Spaceflight.

A new year always brings in with it the hope for a year full of new and exciting advances and in space the year 2018 could very well fulfill much of that promise. Not only do NASA and America’s commercial space companies have a long to-do list but also the European Space Agency (ESA), the Chinese, Japanese and India all plan ambitious space ventures.

Let’s begin with the possibility of manned space flight returning to American soil as the private companies Space X and Boeing are scheduled to make unmanned test launches of their new crew capable space capsules. Space X is currently scheduled to test launch their Dragon capsule around March while Boeing’s Starliner capsule is scheduled to launch around July. Depending on the success of these unmanned test flights, manned flights could begin before the end on the year. The images below show the Dragon and Starliner capsules.

Dragon (right) and Starliner Capsules (Credit: Robert Fisher, America Space)

Meanwhile Space X also intends to perform the first test launch of its new Falcon Heavy launch vehicle this very month. When successfully launched the Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful rocket in operation anywhere in the World. Also, since the Falcon Heavy is designed to be reusable like its little brother the Falcon 9 it will also help to bring down the cost of getting into space. The image below shows the Falcon Heavy on its launch pad being prepared for its test flight.

Falcon Heavy on the Launch Pad (Credit: Derrick Stamos)

As far as NASA itself is concerned its main emphasis in 2018 will be on inter-planetary probes like the InSight Mars lander (short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), which will be launched in May and is expected to reveal many of the details of the interior structure of Mars. Another probe scheduled for a July launch will be the Parker Solar Probe which will come closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft and actually become the first to enter and study the Sun’s atmosphere or Corona. Also in August of this year the OSIRIS-Rex space probe (which was launched on 8Sept2016) will reach its destination of the asteroid Bennu to begin a three-year mission that will include collecting a sample of the asteroid for return to Earth. The images below show the InSight, Parker Solar and OSIRIS-Rex space probes.

InSight Mars Lander (Credit: NASA, JPL)
Parker Solar Probe (Credit: NASA)

The space agencies of the rest of the World have an equally busy schedule with the ESA launching its BepiColombo spacecraft on a seven-year voyage to the planet Mercury, arriving in 2024, see image below. Meanwhile Japan’s JAXA space agency is anticipating the rendezvous of its Hayabusa 2 probe with the asteroid Ryugu in June. This mission also includes a sample return with the sample arriving on Earth in 2020.

Bepi-Colombo Mercury Probe (Credit: ESA, Airbus)

On the other hand China and India have both set their sights on exploring the Moon with China’s Chang’e 5 attempting the first ever landing on our satellite’s dark side. The Chang’e 5 is also a sample return mission so we may learn a great deal about that relatively little know side of our nearest neighbor.

India’s Chandrayaan 2 vehicle, scheduled for a March launch, is a combination of an orbiter and lander with a lander also carrying a small rover down to the lunar surface. Once on the surface the rover’s instruments will study the lunar soil.

Now remember, these are the scheduled space events. You never know, there could be important discoveries by the Juno spacecraft now orbiting Jupiter or the Kepler exo-planet hunting telescope. All in all 2018 looks to be an exciting year.

Space New for October 2017.

Space X is once again heading our space news for the month. On October 11th the privately owned space corporation successfully reused one of its Falcon 9 first stage booster rockets for the third time . The rocket that put the Echo Star 105/SES-11 satellite into orbit had been used previously back on February the 19th to launch Space X’s Dragon resupply capsule on a mission to the International Space Station.

That launch back in February had been Space X’s first launch from NASA’s historic pad 39A, the same pad that had seen so many of the Apollo and Space Shuttle take offs. This was also Space X’s second successful launch in three days demonstrating the company’s increasing skill and competence in the task of launching payloads into space. The image below shows the liftoff of Space X’s Falcon 9.

Launch of Space X’s Falcon 9 (Credit: Space X)

Both of the first stages used in this week’s missions landed intact on Space X’s recovery barge. In fact Space X has now recovered their first stage boosters 18 times making the feat seem almost routine. By making both the recovery and reuse of their boosters routine Space X hopes to reduce the cost of getting into space, dollars per kilo to orbit, enough to greatly increase the amount of cargo going into space. This is something business types call ‘Economies of Scale’ which will help to drive down the cost of space travel even further.

One last word about Space X. Next year the company, along with their rival Boeing, is scheduled to begin test flights of their manned orbital capsules. According to NASA’s commercial crew program each company will perform one unmanned test flight to be followed by a manned flight late next year. Those flights will be the first time in seven years that astronauts will fly into orbit from American soil.

Another space event that got a bit of news play involved the close approach by the asteroid 2012 TC4. The asteroid, which is estimated to be about 30 meters across, came within 43,000 kilometers of Earth on the night of 12 October. Now 43,000 km may sound like a long way off but in terms of the solar system it’s a near miss. It is in fact only a little more than a tenth of the distance to the Moon. The image below shows a NASA illustration of what 2012 TC4 looked like as it passed by Earth.

Illustration of Asteroid 2012TC4 passing Earth (Credit: NASA)

In fact since 2012 TC4 was coming so close NASA decided to use the encounter as the first test of their ‘Planetary Defense System’. A system which one day may be used to deflect, or if necessary destroy, an asteroid on a collision course with our planet.

This initial test simply used NASA’s network of observatories to keep a closer watch on the asteroid’s trajectory as it went by. In 2024 however, NASA hopes to arrange a mission to actually alter the course of an asteroid. Not one on a collision course but another close encounter like 2012 TC4.

The mission is being called DART and the target is actually a pair of asteroids called Didymos that are bound together by their mutual gravity. The test will involve slamming a space probe into the smaller (~150m) asteroid in order to see how its orbit around its larger (800m) companion is effected. From the results of the experiment NASA hopes to learn just how much push would be needed to alter an asteroid’s course enough to prevent a collision in the future. The long term goal would be protect the Earth from disasters such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs.

One final item before I leave. Last month (13Sept17) I wrote a post about the final days of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft before it plunged into the atmosphere of the planet Saturn. Now the Jet Propulsion Labouratory (JPL) and NASA have released some of the details of the doomed space probe’s final minutes. According to JPL Cassini ‘put up a fight’ and fired it thrusters for 91 seconds trying desperately to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth and transmitted data until the last second.

By greatly exceeding its designer’s expectations it’s as if Cassini had acquired something of a personality, a determination to carry out its mission to the end. And it’s not just Cassini. The Voyager probes are still sending us information on interstellar space after more than 40 years and the Lost Horizon spacecraft is now preparing for a flyby of a Kuiper belt object. It’s almost as if these interplanetary explorers are becoming the first mechanical heroes.

Oh I know that’s kind of silly. Or is it, after all who knows what our space probes will be like a hundred years from now. Cassini’s final image, transmitted to Earth even as the probe was falling into Saturn’s atmosphere is below.

Cassini’s Final image (Credit: NASA-JPL)





Space News for May 2017

I guess the big news in space for this month is NASA’s decision that the Exploratory Mission 1 (EM1) will be unmanned as was originally planned. NASA had been asked by President Trump to consider the possibility of adding a crew to the first launch of the long awaited Space Launch System (SLS) along with the Orion spacecraft.

Space Launch System (Credit NASA)

In the end NASA decided to stick to the original mission plan in part because of the added costs in preparing the spacecraft for a crew (Estimated at between 600 and 900 million). Just as importantly however, was NASA’s desire to push the spacecraft to its limits on this first mission, something they did not feel comfortable doing with a live crew. In announcing their decision NASA also stated that the schedule for the EM1 mission will slip into early 2019!

This delay means that the scheduled first manned launch of the SLS/Orion will now take place no earlier that mid 2021 and you can expect that date to slip as well. If you’d like to read NASA’s official announcement click on the link below.

This decision by NASA means that the return of manned launches to Kennedy Space Center will now undoubtedly be by a commercial space company, either Space X’s Dragon capsule of Boeing’s Starliner. Both of these two companies hope to begin manned missions to the International Space Station  (ISS) late next year but you can expect one or both to slip into 2019.

Speaking of Space X just a couple of days ago Elon Musk’s company successfully launched the fourth satellite in the Inmarsat series. Inmarsat is a network of satellites built by Boeing to provide broadband connections for aircraft, ships at sea and mobile land users. This was Space X’s second successful launch in as many weeks but the notable fact about this launch was that Space X did not try to recover the rocket’s first stage! The Inmarsat satellite is so massive that the Falcon 9 rocket needed every bit of fuel to put it into orbit leaving nothing left for a recovery.

Inmarsat Satellite (Credit Boeing)

This says something of the sophistication of Space X’s technology that a mission where they do not recover the rocket is newsworthy.

In other news the Cassini spacecraft has continued to send back breathtaking images of the planet Saturn and it’s rings. Nothing really dramatic has happened to Cassini I just love those pictures!

Saturn-Mosaic (Credit NASA)

Also there was a bit of amusing news coming from the ISS as astronauts got to enjoy eating some fresh vegetables courtesy of crew member Peggy Whitson. Astronaut Whitson has harvested the first crop of Chinese Cabbage grown in the microgravity of space. This is the fifth vegetable to be grown aboard the ISS and more are planned in the future.

Cabbage in Space (Credit NASA)

These first attempts at farming in space may just be experiments to see what is and what isn’t possible but in the long run our ability to produce food on the Moon or Mars or wherever will determine if humanity actually has a future in space.





Space News for April

There was big news in the space community two days ago as SpaceX corporation succeeded in re-using a first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket. This is the breakthrough that SpaceX has been working toward ever since Elon Musk founded the company. The huge expense of space travel today comes primarily from the fact that launch systems costing tens of millions of dollars are allowed to simply crash into the ocean after one use.

Launch of SpaceX reused Falcon-9 Rocket

SpaceX’s plan to change that and reduce the cost of traveling into space achieved it’s first great success two years ago with the first recovery of one of it’s Falcon 9. Before Thursday’s launch SpaceX had succeeded in recovering eight of their 14 story tall first stages and now they have demonstrated their ability to completely reuse and recover their rocket for yet another launch. SpaceX plans on another 6 launches this year that will employ rockets that have already flown once and been recovered.

To watch a video of the launch from Youtube click on the link below:

To watch the landing click on the link below:

SpaceX hopes that they can reduce the cost of getting into space (dollars per kilo to orbit) by a third and that the increased traffic that results will allow what are called ‘economies of scale’ to come into effect.

Thursday’s launch may have been historic but in reality it will only be important if the recovery and reuse of rockets becomes a routine business.

Another important news story this week came from the International Space Station (ISS) and dealt with a rearranging of one of the station’s docking adapters as a preparation for future missions by commercial spacecraft. NASA’s commercial crew program is scheduled to begin ferrying astronauts to the ISS next year with either the launch of Boeing’s Starliner or SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.

During the long six and a half hour spacewalk astronauts Thomas Pesquet of the EU and NASA’s Shane Kimbrough succeeded in disconnecting the Pressurized Mating Adapter-3 (PMA-3) so that the station’s robotic arm could move it from the station’s Tranquility module to it’s Harmony module. A second spacewalk is planned to reconnect PMA-3. Once this is accomplished the ISS will be ready for docking either the Starliner or Dragon spacecraft.

To read more about NASA’s Commercial Crew Program click on the link below.

In a somewhat more amusing piece of news. Astrobiologist Julio Valdivia of Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology has been working with NASA’s Ames research center in Sunnyvale California to study the ability of Earth plants to survive in the environmental conditions existing on Mars and has had a major success, Potatoes. That’s right Professor Valdivia has found that the lowly Potato can both live and grow on Mars. But of course everyone who saw ‘The Martian’ already knew that.



Space News for March2017

The past couple of weeks have seen several interesting news items related to manned space flight so I thought today would be a good day to catch up on Space News.

First off last week both Space X corp and the Russians succeeded in launching resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) with Space X also successfully landing the first stage of their Falcon rocket after it had placed the Dragon capsule into orbit. These resupply missions are becoming routine and that’s a good thing! It means we are finally building the infrastructure the space which will enable us to concentrate on new missions going further into space.

Speaking of going further into space, Space X announced last week that they are preparing a mission to take two paying customers out to, but not landing on, the Moon. This mission has tentatively scheduled for late next year (2018). Along with NASA’s announcement last month that the first mission of their Space Launch System / Orion spacecraft might now be manned (see my post of 22Feb for that news) this means that there could be two independent missions to Lunar orbit next year (actually I bet they’ll both end up in 2019 but still that’s progress!) If you’d like to read Space X’s official announcement click on the link below.

Now, for the fashion conscious among us (certainly not me) there was a press release for a company called StemRad based in Israel. StemRad already has a reputation for designing and manufacturing radiation protective gear for workers in nuclear power plants now they’re working on gear for astronauts. StemRad called the press release to show off the new radiation vest that they had developed and which they called the AstroRad. The vest is intended to protect human tissue from the effects of the radiation encountered on deep space missions such as to the Moon or Mars. NASA will be testing the vest on their planned Lunar missions.

The vests are form fitting and tailor made for each astronaut. The picture below shows the vests being worn by two of StemRad’s employees.

StemRad’s Radiation Vests

If you’d like to read more about the AstroRad vest click on the link below.

Finally the space company Blue Origen released an animation of how their soon to be completed Glenn rocket will be recovered after launching a payload into orbit. The critics are all saying that it looks awfully familiar and that Space X doesn’t need animations since they have actual footage of them landing one of their rockets! Still, more companies competing against each other should help bring down the cost of space travel. If you’d like to see the animation click on the link below.

Before I go I have an announcement of my own to make! If you look over at the right hand side of the page you’ll see that I have now started a bookmarks section where I will be providing links to other web sites devoted to Science and Science Fiction. Even better you’ll see that this blog has been chosen by Feedspot Blog Directory as one of their Top 100 science blogs. In fact Science and Science Fiction debuted at #73 on their list which includes such well known sites as Scientific American, Discover Magazine, National Geographic and Popular Science. O’k they’re all in the single digits while I’m 73 but still it’s cool just being on the same list! And remember, this blog is only 6 months old!