The seven rocky worlds of TRAPPIST-1

NASA had a big announcement today: the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 has at least seven terrestrial planets, and at least three of them are in the star’s “goldilocks zone”, where liquid water could exist on the surface (assuming sufficient atmospheric pressure).

TRAPPIST-1 got its name from a Belgian telescope called the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, situated at La Silla Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert.  TRAPPIST found that the star (catalogue number 2MASS J23062928-0502285) had at least three exoplanets orbiting it by observing the star’s lightcurve change as the planets transited.

Subsequently, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was called in to confirm the discovery, in a marathon 500-hour focused study of the TRAPPIST-1 system.  And it did!  Today, NASA announced that not only are the three worlds real, there are at least four more.  And at least three but possibly all of them are in the habitable zone.  This is the largest collection of terrestrial worlds ever found.  Since they orbit quite near their dim parent, astronomers were able to calculate their densities, and they’re pretty close in size to Earth — some are actually smaller.

The Hubble Space Telescope is now being called in to study the planets in more detail, and hopefully to determine whether or not any of them has a substantial atmosphere, preferably one with an unusual concentration of hydrogen, which would imply water vapor.  So far, it hasn’t found evidence of an atmosphere (and has largely ruled out the kind of atmosphere we’re all hoping for on TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c), but they’re still looking, and the search is expected to continue into the James Webb Space Telescope.  The hobbled Kepler Space Telescope (now “K2”) has also been studying this system.

Here’s an artist’s concept, to show you the relative sizes (note that color is completely imaginary at this point):


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The Rockets of LC-39A


Yesterday, LC-39A moved into a new chapter by launching a Falcon 9, but it’s just the latest of many chapters.  Originally constructed in the 1960s for the giant Saturn V rocket, and consequently one of the biggest and toughest pads in the world, it has hosted four different rockets in its history (five if you count a different configuration of Saturn V).  I thought I’d share clips of each of them taking off.  😉

Here’s the first launch from LC-39A, of the uncrewed Apollo 4 test flight:

The pad would host many more Apollo launches, including Apollo 11.  After the Apollo mission was over, NASA got funding to expend the surplus hardware mounting the Skylab program.  The last launch of a Saturn V came from LC-39A and placed the Skylab space station into orbit, easily the most massive single payload of any mission in history:

Following this, the crewed missions to Skylab were launched using the much smaller Saturn 1B (itself an impressive rocket, but most things look small next to Saturn V).  However, the pad originally used for Saturn 1B Apollo flights out of Cape Canaveral Air Station was no longer configured for it, so NASA modified one of the Mobile Launchers to basically adapt Saturn 1B to a Saturn V launch tower — by adding a structure nicknamed “the milkstool”.  Here’s the final Apollo mission, for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

After that, LC-39A would not see another flight for nearly six years.  During that time, it received substantial modifications for the Space Shuttle program.  The Mobile Launchers were stripped of their towers, in favor of a Fixed Service Structure that would remain permanently at the pad.  The Apollo-era Mobile Service Structure, which normally sat parked about a mile from the pad, was scrapped as well, in favor of a Rotating Service Structure that would sit attached to the FSS at the pad.  And in April of 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia baptized the modified pad with her own fire (notice the white External Tank, and Columbia’s distinctive black chines):

And then, thirty years later, the Shuttle era came to an end with the final flight of Atlantis, also from LC-39A:

After that mission, LC-39A was mothballed.  39B was earmarked for the Space Launch System, the next monster rocket, and has been converted back to a “clean pad” configuration, a la Apollo.  But 39A had no immediate mission and was offered up to civilian use.  It took a while, but eventually SpaceX made a case for adapting it to the massive Falcon Heavy rocket.  SpaceX has left much of the original Shuttle-era hardware present, including the FSS and RSS (although both were long since stripped of salvageable and historic gear by NASA); I’m not sure whether they plan to keep them all there.  Their eventual crew-access arm could be added to the FSS, but the RSS has little value for them.  But in the meantime, it is good to see the pad back in use, and slightly quicker this time.  😉

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The Falcon has landed — after lifting off from the same pad as Apollo 11!

This morning, a Falcon 9 rocket roared into space from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A, the first commercial launch to lift off from this NASA launch facility.  (Previous Florida launches of the Falcon 9 were from the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Station, operated by the USAF.)  Fittingly, this was still a NASA mission; the payload is the CRS-10 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station.  But the next flight won’t be; the next flight will deliver the EchoStar 23 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

LC-39A was originally built to support launches of the gigantic Saturn V for the Apollo mission, and so everything is proportionately gigantic on this pad.  Falcon 9 is the smallest rocket ever to fly from it, but later it is planned to support the massive Falcon Heavy, a triple-core variant that will be the most powerful rocket in the world when it flies, and that is the real reason for using this pad.

Today’s mission was completely successful, including the first daylight shore landing of a Falcon 9 first stage.  That stage landed on the existing SpaceX landing pad at Cape Canaveral.  And there’s some great footage.  😉

Full newscast:

And here is spectacular drone photography of the landing:


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LC-39A return to flight with SpaceX Falcon 9: SCRUB, reset for Sunday

The historic return to flight for LC39A, last used for STS-135 and still sporting most of the Shuttle-era Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure, has been delayed at least a day, after a scrub at T-15 seconds. The launch was set to take off this morning, but was scrubbed due to “slightly odd” behavior in the upper stage — a routine preflight hydraulics check revealed something off-nominal in the behavior of an upper stage steering hydraulic piston (presumably part of the engine gimbaling system).  The Falcon 9 with Dragon attached has been lowered back to the horizontal position, but SpaceX is pressing ahead towards the second opportunity, tomorrow at 9:38:59 a.m. EST.  This will be the first commercial spaceflight from Kennedy Space Center.  (Prior Falcon 9’s launched from Air Force pads.)

Meanwhile, in other KSC news, a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen) was issued earlier this week which strongly suggested the X-37 that has been orbiting the Earth for nearly two years might be coming down again.  The NOTAM expired the same time the range opened up for Falcon 9.  It seems plausible, then, that X-37 may make a landing attempt once the Eastern Range becomes available again.

Stuff going up, and stuff coming back down . . . it’s gotta be exciting at the Cape and on Merritt Island!

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Rocketcam footage of PSLV C37’s 104 spacecraft deployment!

This edited rocketcam footage from the C37 PSLV mission is pretty awesome, because it shows all 104 spacecraft making it safely away into their designated orbits.  It gives me amazing joy to see all these little spacecraft just being spat out into orbit; it’s amazing this can be done, and flawlessly at that!

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India’s PSLV breaks a record!!!

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which has become quite the commercial workhorse in the last few years, just obliterated the record for most satellites placed into orbit with a single launch, placing an incredible 104 satellites into orbit.  The primary payload was Cartosat 2D, a large environmental mapping satellite.  After it was released, two Indian nanosatellites were ejected to test out new sensors.  And then came the real marathon — 101 satellites being deployed from 25 Dutch-built “QuadPack” launchers, while the PSLV’s upper stage maintained a very precise and stable orientation as the remaining satellites were ejected two at a time.  If that’s not amazing enough, here’s another tidbit for you: the QuadPacks were only added to the launch manifest in the past six months!  They’re built by a company called Innovative Solutions in Space, which aims to reduce the time and other barriers to getting a payload into orbit by arranging “rideshare” deals on other spacecraft.  This was most definitely the biggest rideshare they’ve arranged so far.  Among the 101 were eight Lemur weather nanosats from Spire Global of San Francisco, BGUSat from Ben Gurion University and Israel Aerospace Industries, the experimental Piezo Electric Assisted Smart Satellite Structure (PEASS) from the Netherlands, DIDO from SpacePharma in Switzerland, Al-Farabi 1 from students in Kazakhstan, Nayif 1 from students in the United Arab Emirates, and a whopping 88 Dove satellites for Planet, a San Fransisco satellite imaging company that has been arranging various “flocks” of its Dove satellites.  This is by far the largest flock yet.

So, what does a launch of 104 satellites look like?  Well, disappointingly, from the ground it looks like any other, since all the interesting stuff happens after its above the atmosphere.  But that still means it looks pretty cool.  😉

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Another successful Ariane V mission: Sky Brasil-1 and Telkom-3S

Just a few hours ago, Arianespace racked up their first heavy launch of the year, sending a dual-payload Ariane V with two geosynchronous commsats aboard from Kourou, French Guiana.  The payloads are Sky Brasil-1, to serve customers in Brazil, and Telkom 3S, to serve customers in Indonesia.  This was the ninety-first Ariane V mission overall.  The rocket has enjoyed a strong record, with only two failures and two partial failures out of 91 flights, and it has had no failures of any kind in the last seventy-six missions.

Next flight of 2017 will be a PSLV from India, to launch in just a few hours with a big mapping satellite and a veritable horde of 103 smallsats.  I will write about it tomorrow.  😉

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