The incomparable Thierry Legault, spacecraft photographer extraordinary, has captured this astounding video of the Dragon spacecraft passing overhead, as seen near Paris, France. (Just seeing anything in the sky near Paris is impressive, but to make out detail on the spacecraft is something else.)
Actually, it went down late last night. But RIP LADEE, NASA’s latest lunar mission. LADEE’s mission was always meant to end this way, a consequence of the low orbit it required to conduct its mission passing through the moon’s lumpy gravitational field and extremely tenuous atmosphere, and gradually easing lower to get ever more sensitive measurements. NASA does not yet know exactly where it came down, but have a general idea, and expect they’ll find the impact site by searching through LRO imagery over the next few weeks. LADEE survived the eclipse last Tuesday, but ultimately succumbed to the inexorable pull of gravity. It was actually predicted to impact Sunday or MOnday, so it actually came down a little ahead of schedule. But the Moon’s mascons make lunar navigation difficult, especially as you get close, so a precise date was never possible.
Now comes the next part of the mission: analyzing the data it returned!
SpaceX has successfully launched the CRS-3 Dragon capsule towards the ISS! High seas prevented recovery of the flyback stage, but they got good telemetry during its descent showing that not only were the landing legs not a problem, the stage was able to halt its spinning, which is what had destroyed the first stage on the last attempt at a flyback test. SpaceX will continue to analyze the data on the flyback. But one thing is for sure: the launch was fully successful, putting Dragon on course to meet the ISS on Easter.
SpaceflightNow also has a lovely set of launch photos by Walter Scriptunas.
After deployment of Dragon, the rocket was scheduled to deploy a cubesat called KickSat loaded with 104 postage-stamp sized satellites called “sprites” that are little more than a microprocessor, some tiny solar cells, and two wires to act as antennas. They transmit messages, with the idea being to substitute size with quantity. At 104, this sets a record for quantity of subsatellites deployed.
Scientists working with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope program are continuing to pore over the mountain of data the spacecraft, and probably will for years to come. And now they’ve announced a major result: the first confirmed Earthlike planet that is close to Earth’s size and in the habitable zone of its parent star.
The new planet is Kepler 186f, less than 10% larger than Earth, and it orbits a small star about half the size of our own Sun. Since its star (Kepler 186) is so much smaller than the Sun, the habitable zone is also smaller; Kepler 186f orbits in just 180 days. There are also at least four planets inwards from Kepler 186f, but they are too close to the star to be habitable.
This system is much too far away to colonize in the near future; it’s 500 light years away, in the constellation Cygnus. But it’s a tantalizing taste for what awaits as the search for extrasolar planets continues. ;-)
Astronomers working at Queen Mary University of London were going through the treasure trove of data returned by the Cassini mission when they spotted something strange: a lump in one of the rings. Well, lumps in the rings aren’t all that unusual, but this one looked more like a newly discovered moonlet. So they computed an orbit for it and looked for it in other images. And they found it — but in a way that suggests it may actually be very young (in astronomical terms) and still in the process of formation, accreting from the icy debris in Saturn’s rings. The moon has been provisionally nicknamed Peggy, but if confirmed and recognized by the IAU will likely get a mythological name in line with the existing sorts of names around Saturn.
The Cassini team, meanwhile, is hoping to get a better look at “Peggy” when the next phase of the mission brings the spacecraft closer to the rings.
Cassini Mission: NASA Cassini Images May Reveal Birth of a Saturn Moon
Bad Astronomy: Cassini May Have Witnessed the Birth of a New Saturn Moon!
SpaceX’s ambitious plans for testing landing legs and active return of the first stage encountered yet another delay yesterday. After being delayed twice for Cygnus and then due to the range fire that shut down the Eastern Range, yesterday’s launch was aborted at the last second due to a helium leak on the pad. Helium is not flammable, but it’s important to spin up the turbopumps and to pressurize the tanks as the propellant drains out. If it’s leaking, they can’t assure adequate pressure in the system later. So the flight is delayed to NET than Friday.
In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, we’ll be treated to a total lunar eclipse. But the spacecraft at the Moon will get a solar eclipse instead, as the Earth crosses in front of the Moon. The ringside observers at present consist of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (which has already observed others, but spent its efforts looking at the Moon instead of the Earth, to see how the sunlight was changed by its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere), the Change’e 3 lander and rover Yutu*, and NASA’s LADEE spacecraft. This last is the one that scientists and engineers are most nervous about. LADEE is already near the end of its mission, due to declining hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide reserves to maintain its orbit through the Moon’s lumpy gravity field. But unlike Change’e 3, which is built to survive two weeks of total darkness, LADEE is only built to survive very brief trips through the Moon’s shadow. Tuesday morning, it will be spending four hours transiting the various portions of the Earth’s shadow — penumbra, umbra, and then the other side of the penumbra. Its batteries will probably endure this, though it’s outside design parameters, but the hydrazine fuel has a fairly good chance of freezing. If it does, the mission will be effectively over as it will have no means of orienting itself. And if so, it is not a big loss, for the spacecraft has already completed its mission. Any science it uncovers during the eclipse is pure gravy, though gravy the team is anxiously awaiting all the same, like proud parents watching their child’s team strive to defeat the star team, ready to proud of whatever they achieve, but hoping against hope they do better than anyone had expected.
The various spacecraft at the Moon will attempt to observe the eclipse, or to observe the Moon during the eclipse. What will it look like? Well, here’s what the Japanese Kaguya probe saw during a penumbral eclipse (a relatively gentle occurance compared to a total lunar eclipse, as it’s over more quickly) in 2009, watching as the Earth rose over the lunar horizon due to the spacecraft’s orbital motion:
*Yutu has survived the long lunar night after all, but is now stationary. I have no information on how much science it is currently able to perform.