Well, it’s not really a closeup. More like a paparazzi telephoto image. But one heck of a telephoto. This is the newest image of Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star about 640 lightyears away. It appears in the constellation of Orion, a visibly reddish star conspicuous at Orion’s shoulder, visible even in most large cities as it’s one of the brightest stars in the night sky. It’s a complicated and active star, varying in brightness and color over time (some ancient records describe it as yellowish, which may mean it evolved to the red supergiant phase during human history), and previous imaging efforts have revealed it to be surprisingly asymmetrical and surrounded by a vast cloud of its puffy outer atmosphere, making direct observation and measurement of its photosphere impossible. The latest image shows its still as lumpy as ever:
Taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), this is not a photograph in the normal sense. This image was produced using radio waves. It adds considerably to the body of knowledge about Betelgeuse however.
This was not the first time Betelgeuse had been imaged, nor will it be the last — this is not the closest star, but it’s so massive and luminous that it’s nevertheless the easiest one (other than our own sun) to photograph. Here’s its first image as anything other than a point of light, taken by Hubble just over twenty years ago:
Yesterday, less than 48 hours after the last Falcon 9 launch (from KSC’s LC-39A), a second Falcon 9 blasted off. This one launched from Vandenberg AFB’s SLC-4 and delivered the next ten Iridium Next satellites. Once enough Iridum Next spacecraft are delivered to orbit, they will begin to replace the famous initial constellation, which is nearing the end of its service life. Alas, the new spacecraft are much smaller than the original Iridiums and will not wow spotters with bright flares with each pass.
The Falcon 9 for this flight is a full thrust Falcon 9 equipped with a new, all-titanium set of grid fins. They’re heavier than the older ones, but can handle larger loads and provide more control authority. This will be critical when the Falcon Heavy’s three cores attempt to return later this year.
This spacecraft’s first stage was successfully recovered by the drone ship Just Read The Instructions, and will eventually be reflown.
First off, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle has completed its fortieth launch. It placed Cartosat 2E (an Earth observation spacecraft), NIUSAT (a student-designed agricultural mapping satellite), and 29 nanosatellites successfully into Earth orbit. One extra twist for this mission was a new function of the upper stage: it was restarted three times during the flight, demostrating the ability to place payloads into a variety of orbits. With the explosion of interest in smallsats, such a capability will have enormous competitive value. Underlining the competitive nature of this market, many of the smallsats flown on this mission were originally scheduled to fly on other rockets: some were meant to fly on a Falcon 9 that was delayed due to last year’s mishap and consequent flight reshuffling, and others were originally slated for the Dnepr rocket, which is now in limbo thanks to deteriorating relations between its Russian and Ukrainian partners. It speaks to the fact that the current market prizes flexibility and rapid flight availability, and India has been deliberately and shrewdly positioning themselves to capture this sort of business. The spaceflight game is changing.
Meanwhile, much farther north, Russia launched a Soyuz rocket from Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The payload is classified, and so is almost certainly a spy satellite. The high-latitude launch complex is primarily of interest for spacecraft going into mapping orbits. Outside observers speculate that the payload (designated Kosmos 2519) is the first of the 14F150 Napryazhenie satellite series, which are believed to be geodetic mapping satellites designed to carefully map the Earth’s gravitational field. From a military perspective, the primary value would be in more precise targeting of ballistic missiles, which are at the mercy of tiny fluctuations in the gravitational field as they coast to their targets, although it’s possible it could be used for other sorts of intelligence. The NASA-operated GRACE spacecraft have been used to measure the drawdown of aquifers, for instance, so there are probably other applications one can come up with which have a more specific military or reconnaissance function.
This was a very different looking Soyuz rocket, flying as a naked core stage, lacking the conical strap-on boosters that give the vehicle its distinctive appearance. And it had another interesting detail: the engines were NK-33s, surplus from the N-1 mega-rocket program in the 1960s and 1970s. NK-33 has a somewhat mixed track record; although the manufacturer denied fault, the engines were implicated in the loss of an Orbital Science Antares rocket and its Cygnus payload “Deke Slayton” from Wallops Island in Virginia a few years ago. But it performed fine for this mission.
SpaceX completed another successful launch today — and the first droneship recovery of a reused booster — placing BulgariaSat1 into geosynchronous transfer orbit. It was the hottest and hardest return yet, and not quite squarely on the droneship (“Of Course I Still Love You”), but it was successful.
SpaceX isn’t quite done yet — they’re planning another launch on Sunday with the second set of ten Iridium Next satellites from Vandenberg AFB. It’s a busy launch weekend; I’ll have more rocket launch videos tomorrow. 😉
In the rocket’s first anomaly since 2009, a Long March 3B failed to deliver a commercial Chinese television commsat to the correct geosynchronous transfer orbit. The first two stages of the flight were normal, but for reasons not yet clear, the third stage did not reach the desired target orbit before releasing the payload. The payload itself, Chinasat 9A, has deployed its solar arrays and is healthy, and controllers on the ground are assessing options for salvaging its mission. Depending on how far off they are from the target orbit, it may be possible to gradually raise the orbit using its maneuvering thrusters.
This has been done with other geosynchronous commsats whose launch vehicles suffered similar anomalies, most famously the first USAF AEHF satellite. In that case, the launch vehicle performed flawlessly, but AEHF-1 was equipped with an apogee kick motor to deliver it to geosynchronous transfer orbit; this failed to ignite, stranding it in the initial parking orbit. An agonizingly slow orbit raise was performed using the tiny Hall thrusters on the spacecraft, eventually successfully raising it to the proper orbit for its mission. It is unclear at this point whether a similar salvage will be possible for Chinasat 9A, but it’s definitely worth exploring. That said, preliminary radar data suggests the spacecraft is in an orbit inclined 25.7 degrees (instead of the 0 degrees that’s intended), with an apogee of 16, 360 km and a perigee of just 193 km — skimming the atmosphere, basically, which will rob it of precious energy each time it goes around, giving very little time to begin a recovery plan (if one is even possible). It’s very likely this spacecraft is lost, unfortunately, a reminder of how difficult spaceflight still is.
However, the initial part of the launch was as beautiful as one would expect of a rocket launch, although perhaps due to the third stage anomaly, I have been unable to find a longer video:
As China advances forward its position in the international communities of spaceflight and astrophysics, it has placed the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT) “Huiyan” (Insight) into orbit aboard a Long March 4B rocket from Jiuquan Space Center in the Gobi Desert. It’s a completely new type of x-ray telescope, devised because Chinese manufacturing presently does not have the capability to build the super-flat mirror surfaces required for building a traditional reflector-style x-ray telescope. Necessity *is* the mother of invention, after all. As implied by its name, the HXMT Huiyan uses a technique called demodulation that uses much simpler detectors. Chinese scientists particularly hope to use this new instrument to study gamma ray bursts, which have become even more valuable targets now that gravity waves are detectable, as both can be caused by the same events. The international astrophysics community will be able to use HXMT Huiyan’s data in conjunction with that from other X-ray detectors, such as the venerable Chandra X-ray Observatory, NuSTAR, Swift, Fermi, INTEGRAL, HETE-2, XMM Newton, and the upcoming Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, an instrument package that will be mounted on the exterior of the ISS later this year.
Yesterday’s Progress launch went smoothly, but unfortunately the recovery of the spent boosters did not. Russian rockets have always launched over land (the sole exception being the Soyuz rockets launched from Kourou in French Guiana, in partnership with Arianespace), and this means they drop their lower stages onto land. This has caused problems before, from property damage to at least one recorded incident of a cow being killed by falling debris, but for the most part, the spent stages are manna from heaven to the scrap dealers, as they contain valuable materials like titanium. Before the scavengers are allowed to access the stages, a team hired by Roscosmos goes in and removes any salvageable electronics and other components, and it was one of those teams that suffered a tragic loss.
The stage one drop site this week has been suffering unusually dry conditions (even for this semi-arid part of the world). This is where the distinctive conical strap-on boosters impact, and it is always cleared of personnel before the flight. But on this occasion, one of the boosters, still hot so soon after burnout, started a grass fire. The fire ultimately burned 15 km of grassland before being extinguished, but two contractors with NPO Mashinostroenia were driving along the road, heading to the scene to help fight the fire, when a sudden gust of wind blew fire right across their truck. One man was killed; the other was airlifted to a hospital with burns over 45% of his body.
It’s a sobering reminder that even when everything with the vehicle appears to go exactly right, spaceflight remains a dangerous endeavor.