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: Boeings Snazzy Blue Spacesuits and Future Plans for the Space Station

Over the past week there have been a couple of news items that give us a glimpse into the future of manned spaceflight in both the near and long term.

The first item is Boeing’s unveiling of their new design for the spacesuit that astronauts will wear as they rocket into space onboard the company’s CTS-100 Starliner capsule starting hopefully next year. The new suits are half the weight of current NASA spacesuits and more flexible. The helmet is directly incorporated into the suit rather than being detachable and the gloves are sensitive enough to allow the astronauts to use touchscreens even while wearing them. Despite these and other improvements however the thing that everybody keeps talking about is that the suits are blue.

Boeing’s New Spacesuit Design

Now as it happens blue is my favourite colour but still, American is about to start putting people back into space again and the news media is trying to turn this into a fashion show. Hey Elon Musk, what kind of spacesuits are astronauts going to wear on your Dragon capsule, and will they be pink?

Actually there is a lot of progress being made and within a year or so we should see the maiden flights of not only Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule but the first flight of NASA’s Orion capsule designed to take astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the end of the Apollo program. Think about it, America will have three different space vehicles, Russia is developing a new capsule called the Federation spacecraft to replace the Soyuz capsule, and the Chinese have their Shenzhou. Low Earth Orbit will be getting crowded.

Another story that deals with more long term developments in space was the announcement by Axiom Space Corp. of their plans for the “Axiom International Commercial Space Station” which they hope to have assembled in orbit by 2024. The plan, which has been approved by NASA, is to begin by attaching a commercial module to the existing International Space Station (ISS) in 2020 and to detach that module in 2024 as a new, independent station. See the picture below for what the Axiom Space Station will initially look like.

Proposed configuration of the Axiom Space Station

Again, with the Chinese working on the development of their Space Station, the Russian’s plans for a station of their own along with other commercial companies Low Earth Orbit could soon become quite busy. For more information on Axiom’s plans click on the link below.

Of course there’s always new things happening out there on the “Final Frontier” and I’ll keep you posted.

Speaking of which here’s a quick update on the Cassini  Mission now orbiting Saturn. NASA has released some new images of the planet’s Rings, the closest and most detailed ever seen. Check out the image below.

Detailed Image of Saturn’s Rings by Cassini Spacecraft

For more on Cassini click on the link below to go to NASA’s Cassini site.


NASA Selects two new deep space missions to Asteroids. Meet Lucy and Psyche

Two days ago on January the 4th, NASA selected two new missions as a part of their discovery program for the exploration of deep space, away from Earth orbit that is. The new missions are named Lucy and Psyche and will carry out detailed examinations of a range of asteroids not yet studied. To read NASA’s announcement of the missions click the link below.

NASA Deep Space Missions. Lucy (Left) and Psyche

Since I’m more interested in the Lucy mission I’ll talk about Psyche first. The Psyche spacecraft will travel to the unusual asteroid 16Psyche. The thing that makes 16Psyche so different, from measurements made here on Earth, is that it has a much higher content of Iron and Nickel than the asteroids we visited so far. In fact it looks a great deal like what we believe the core of our own planet is.

Astronomers have for over a hundred years speculated that the asteroid belt is actually another planet that failed to form because of the gravitational effects of massive Jupiter next door. If so then 16Psyche may be the core of that failed planet and by studying it we may learn something about how planets form as well as something about the core of our Earth.

On the other hand the Lucy mission intends to visit no less than seven different asteroids in the areas of space know as the Jupiter Trojan positions. The Trojan positions have always fascinated me; they are in fact the only stable three body solutions to Newton’s equations of planetary motion Solutions that were discovered by the French mathematician Joseph-Louis LaGrange in his search for a general solution to the “Three Body Problem”.

You see, although when Newton’s laws are applied to a star and a single planet they quickly lead to a nice simple function as a solution, when you add in the gravitational effect of a second planet, a third body, there is in general analytic no solution. After Newton’s death LaGrange and other mathematicians searched for solutions to the three body problem and even today there is work being done on the problem.

So, if there is no general solution how do astronomers calculate when an eclipse will occur, or when a comet will appear in the sky or how did they calculate the trajectory of the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it went past four planets. Well you do it a tiny bit at a time, over and over again.

This was an assignment I had to do in Graduate school. You see, if you know the positions and momentum of the planets today you can calculate what their positions will be, let’s say tomorrow. Then, using Newton’s laws of Gravity, you calculate how their new positions change their momentum. Then you just repeat the whole process over and over again.

This is the sort of calculations that computers are good at, that’s how I did it in Grad school. But back in LaGrange’s day a person had to do all that arithmetic and it would take years! My hat is off to those gentlemen.

Monsieur LaGrange was able to find five particular solutions to the problem (See Picture Below) and these are know as LaGrangian points in his honor. But only two of these positions are stable, L4 and L5 and these have become known as the Trojan positions because Jupiter has acquired a number of asteroids at it’s L4 and L5 positions. Asteroids which have been named for characters in Homer’s Iliad with L4 being the Greek camp and L5 being the Trojan camp.

LaGrange Points

Getting back to the Lucy mission. Expected to launch in 2021 Lucy will flyby the main asteroid belt member 1981EQ5 in 2025 on it’s way to the Greek camp (L4) where it will encounter four different asteroids in 2027 and 2028. Lucy will then loop back around Earth before headed back to the Trojan camp (L5) for a final encounter with the dual asteroid Patroclus/Menoetius in 2033. This is going to make Lucy one of the longest and certainly most complex missions ever attempted. A lot to look forward to in the years ahead.



Welcome to 2017. What to look forward to in Science in the coming Year

Well it’s 2017 and I thought it might be nice to take some time to see what scientific discoveries and achievements we can expect in 2017.

Science in 2017

For me the most exciting event may be the upcoming TOTAL ECLIPSE of the SUN going across the USA on August the 17th. The path of totality is pretty narrow but it goes from sea to shining sea so if you really want to see it you only need to drive a day or two to get there. Here’s a link to a site giving all the details.

Other Space events we can look forward to include the Cassini’s spacecraft’s final orbits through Saturn’s rings and it’s final plunge into the planet itself. Cassini has already given us so many discoveries but I’m sure there will be a few more to come.

Also coming up this year will be a Chinese unmanned Lunar mission which will hopefully bring back some samples making China only the third nation to bring back pieces of the Moon. China also plans on continuing their missions to their new Tiangong-2 space station including their first unmanned resupply vehicle the Tianzhou-1.

Meanwhile NASA is continuing development of their Space Launch System (SLS) which will eventually be the biggest rocket ever built, a bit bigger than the Saturn 5. The actual first launch of the SLS is scheduled for early in 2018.

Commercial development of space will continue as Space X and Orbital Science continue to resupply the International Space Station. Additionally Space X and Boeing will continue development of their manned spacecraft including unmanned test launches. The first manned missions for both Space X and Boeing are scheduled for early 2018 under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program. Space X also intends to perform the first re-launch of one of their previously used Falcon 9 rockets in the first half of 2017 along with the first flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket.

In Physics of course there’s the possibility of new discoveries coming from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. As the world’s largest and most power scientific instrument the LHC in well into it’s second full scale run after completing an upgrade in 2015. The LHC’s initial run only gave us the confirmed detection of the Higgs Boson and with its increased power maybe this year the LHC will finally provide firm evidence for, or against Supersymmetry.

Another series of experiments going on at CERN is the Alpha experiment to study anti-hydrogen. The Alpha team have made great progress in containing and cooling anti-protons and positrons, allowing them to form actual atoms of anti-hydrogen. Anti-matter, just like in Star Trek! The researchers are looking for some tiny difference between anti-hydrogen and normal hydrogen, a difference that could help to explain why our Universe appears to be made almost entirely of matter only.

There will surely be great discoveries in the fields of Paleontology and Archeology as well but it’s hard to predict just which team of researchers will make the big finds. There’s a element of luck in finding fossils and relics as you can imagine.

So we should have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. Scientific progress can sometimes be expected, but just as often you cannot predict what amazing new discoveries will be made. Of course that’s a big part of the fun. I’ll keep you informed of anything interesting I hear about.


This Week in Space

Several news stories dealing with space exploration came out this week but didn’t receive much attention so I decided to take a moment to highlight them.

The first item on my list is the beginning of the final, and perhaps most exciting phase of the Cassini spacecraft’s mission to the planet Saturn. The Cassini mission is expected to end in September of next year with Cassini plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere but starting this week the spacecraft has begun a series of ring grazing orbits that will be followed by orbits closer to the giant planet than anything ever attempted.

In the picture below the gray lines indicate the ring grazing orbits while the blue lines are the planet grazing orbits. These orbits are dangerous, a collision with debris from the rings could easily destroy the spacecraft which is why NASA has waited till the end of the mission to attempt them. The possibility of close up observations of the ring system is too great a chance to miss however.

Cassini Spacecraft Ring grazing Orbits

Hopefully in the next several weeks NASA will be able to release spectacular images of Saturn’s Rings. If you’d like to know more about the Cassini mission here’s a link to the official NASA website.

Another interesting NASA story is the awarding of a contact to the California based company Space Systems/LORAL. I used to work for them back in the 1980s designing antennas for geostationary communications satellites. The contact is for the development of a satellite refueling spacecraft called the Restore-L spacecraft bus.

Refueling satellites in space is an idea that’s been talked about since the 80’s and I’m glad to see they are finally getting around to doing it. You see, all the satellites we put into space to sent you your direct TV signal or complete your overseas telephone call or keep an eye on the hurricane brewing in the Atlantic have only a limited amount of fuel to keep them in the proper orbit and, just as importantly pointing in the right direction. Once their fuel is gone these technological miracles costing hundreds of millions of dollars are just trash.

Having an unmanned spacecraft that could go to these satellites and refuel them is another step on the road to building the infrastructure of space, turning low Earth orbit (LEO) into a work environment of benefit to everyone here on Earth. If you’d like to read more about Restore-L here’s a link to the story.

A closely related story is the selection by INTELLSAT, the international consortium managing most of the world’s communications satellites, of Orbital ATK as the provider for a Mission Extension Vehicle-1, MEV-1. The objective of the MEV-1 will be very similar to NASA’s Restore-L spacecraft in that the MEV-1 will go to satellites already in orbit and either refuel or repair them, thereby extending their useful life.

These twin spacecraft, are scheduled to be developed over the next three to four years and together they will provide a new capability for mankind in space. To read the original story from Spacecraft Insider click on the link below.





These are a few of My Favourite Things

I assume anyone who visits this blog, or at least anyone who comes back, has an interest in science, space and astronomy. With that in mind I thought I’d take a moment to tell you all about some of the web sites I like to visit, these are a few of my favourite things.

I guess the best place to start would be NASA’s main page. Now this page is pretty general, intended for students and the general public but it does allow you to access to information on every mission NASA has ever undertaken. Seriously, there’s a lot of good stuff to be found here.

Another NASA site, which actually isn’t easy to get to from their main site, is “How to spot the Station” which allows you to get detailed sighting information to find the International Space Station as it flies over your head. I’ve seen that station now over thirty times and it’s always pretty cool

And if you like NASA you’ll love the Jet Propulsion Labouratory (JPL) in California. Their main page is also general interest but again, if you look around there’s a lot to see.

JPL also has a really cool site that’s hard to get to from their main page. This is the small body database. Orbital and physical parameters for thousands (it’s growing all the time) of small asteroids and other objects in our solar system. It takes a little bit of figuring out but I really love the orbital diagrams, especially for Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Caution, the orbital applet is JAVA enabled so you need JAVA on your computer.

There are now several commercial sites that are also worth checking out on occasion. The best known is which is a news site dedicated to the latest happenings in space.

A new one, as far as I know, is Spaceflight insider. This site also has space news but it also has a launch calendar of upcoming launches from around the world.

One last cool space site is Yes there is a web site dedicated to giving you the latest weather report from our solar system. A couple of interesting things to see here are the latest sun spot report, the solar wind and cosmic ray intensities and near Earth asteroid approaches during the next month.

Now let’s change course a little bit and look at some astronomy sites. I guess a nice segue would be the main web site for the Hubble space telescope. You can spend days just going through the beautiful images.

One of my favourite sites is the SEDs Messier data. Charles Messier was a French astronomer about the time of our revolution who was studying comets. Well he made up a list of fuzzy objects that weren’t comets. The objects on that list turned out to be galaxies and nebula and star clusters and supernova remnants. The SEDs site has tons of beautiful images of these objects.

A daily astronomical note of interest can be found at by  the McDonald Observatory in Texas. They often have information on things to see in the sky tonight.

Another observatory with a cool web site is Keck in Hawaii. Again plenty of beautiful images.

A great commercial site is Sky and Telescope magazine. The best part of their site, as far as I’m concerned, is the interactive sky chart which can show you what the sky will look like anywhere in the world not just for tonight but for any night for the next hundred years. Oh, and the last hundred years as well. Lemme tell ya, I’ve planned many nights of stargazing using that site. This is also a great place to look for telescope and accessories to buy.

This getting to be a bit of a long post so I think I’ll save Physics and Paleontology and Archeology for a later date. I have one more site for today and it’s possibly the most interesting. Back in the 1960s Jodrell Bank Radio observatory in Manchester England discovered the astronomical objects know a Pulsars. Well Jodrell Bank has a web page where you can hear, that’s right hear the sound of collapsed stars only a couple of kilometers across that are spinning so fast that they generate a magnetic field so huge it shoots out a radio beam like a searchlight and every time that beam passes Earth Jodrell Bank hears a click. So go to this site and listen to the sound of a dead star.

You may have noticed I haven’t even mentioned Science Fiction. Don’t worry, I get ’round to it.

Good week in Space

Last night I got to watch the occultation of Aldebaran where the Moon slides in front of the 1st order magnitude star. It took place at 1:41 AM, so I’m kinda sleepy right now. I’ve always wanted to see an occultation. These events have been very important in the history of astronomy with such discoveries as the first measurement of a star’s radius and the first identification of a Quasar taking place during an occultation.

But last night’s occultation was just one of a number of important space events that have occurred in the last several days. On Monday there were two events. First, there was the launch of two Chinese astronauts to their country’s new space station, they have since docked and entered the Tiangong II space module.

Also on Monday there was the launch of the Orbital ATK unmanned Antares resupply capsule to the ISS. I got to watch a minute or so of the launch from a distance of three hundred kilometers away in Philadelphia. It was my second launch but I still want to see one close up.

We’re not done either. Just this morning there was the launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft toward the ISS with three astronauts. So right now we have the six astronauts already on the ISS, the two Chinese astronauts and three astronauts on the Soyuz. A total of eleven humans in space at the same time! I wonder if that’s the record.

Last but not least, there’s Europe’s Exo-Mars orbiter and lander are due to go into orbit and land respectively this morning. The Exo-Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) should be firing it rocket at this very moment to insert itself in Mars orbit. The Schiaparelli lander is scheduled to touch down on the Martial surface in just an hour. Let’s hope both spacecraft are successful.

So it’s been a interesting couple of days in space, and that’s just space. There are also hundreds of discoveries being made everyday in other fields of Science and engineering from Archeology to chemistry to electronics to physics, and I could go on and on. That we have difficulty getting young people interested in STEM careers is something I just cannot understand.

P.S. The eleven humans in space at this moment is not the record. In March of 1995 there were three astronauts on the Russian Mir station, another three on a Soyuz on it’s way to Mir and seven on the space shuttle on a separate mission.

Update: Although the Exo-Mars orbiter has successfully entered orbit around Mars the European space agency lost contact with the lander when it was approximately one kilometer above the surface and nothing further has been heard from it.

The Commercialization of Low Earth Orbit

In a little more than a year from now, late 2017 or early 2018, the first commercial manned space flight will take place as either Boeing or Space-X launch their first manned missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

There’s much more to come. Last week in a news conference NASA’s deputy associate administrator Bill Hill discussed NASA’s goal of turning over control of the ISS to a commercial firm(s) on or around 2024.

NASA’s plan is to support private investment in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), private development of the infrastructure of Space between Earth’s surface and LEO while NASA concentrates on it’s program of exploration to Mars, Asteroids and back to the Moon.

Other corporations are also investing in the colonization of LOE, that’s what it is really. Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada are developing manned spacecraft while Bigelow has already launched an inflatable habitation module which is currently undergoing testing at the ISS.

The question of course is whether these companies can make a profit in space? For the next decade or so these Space-X and the others will be heavily if not exclusively dependent on NASA for orders. There’s been a lot of talk about space tourism or mining asteroids but it’s hard to see those industries providing the billions of dollars the commercialization of LEO will require.

The next decade will see a lot of hard work, a lot of plans that won’t fulfill their promise but by 2025 or so we should see the beginnings of the real colonization of Space.