Dawn On Ceres, By Dawn

Since Dawn’s initial orbit is a huge weeks-long thing starting on the dark side of the dwarf planet, it’s only now able to see a crescent of Ceres.  But dawn is here — orbital sunrise is past and now Dawn can watch the crescent Ceres spinning below it.

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OUCH! Full high-quality video of Falcon 9 first stage landing attempt

This is taken from an aircraft watching the landing from a safe distance.  It goes all the way to where the rocket tips over and goes splat.  It disappears into the clouds of steam it has kicked up, and then KABOOM!  Certainly a dramatic way to end a mission.  Hopefully the next one is better.  ;-)  They seem to be learning from each flight — this one appears to be better targeted than the last one was.  In a few days, the barge will return to port with whatever debris is still on it and they’ll be able to recover video from there.  Should be interesting.

Meanwhile, the CRS-6 Dragon is in good health and on track for capture and berthing at the ISS on Friday.

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Dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres — In Color!

I’ll start with Pluto, because this is very exciting to me.  ;-)  New Horizons has been steadily approaching distant Pluto, and now it has returned its first color image of Pluto and Charon.  New Horizons is unusual in that it carries a bona-fide color camera; other spacecraft usually carry black-and-white cameras with color wheels instead.  The Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera in the Ralph instrument suite doesn’t have as great a resolution as the monochromatic LORRI camera, which has a telescope attached to it, but it natively produces color images.  This is vital due to how extremely fast the Pluto encounter will be; taking multiple images through different filters will not be possible on encounter day.  So you may find the fuzziness of this picture a bit disappointing, as it doesn’t yield any better detail than the last LORRI image released, even though they’re much closer now.  But it’s a preliminary release; the team is going to clean it up and rerelease it after a while, and of course we’ll get much better pictures as Pluto gets closer.

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And then, while we wait for the first orbital images of Ceres to be released, we can enjoy this false-color global map, produced during the approach phase in a combination of visible and infrared light.  It’s got some surprises in it.  For one thing, Ceres’ surface is highly varied in composition.  For another, it’s not as extensively craterered as other asteroids, suggesting a younger surface.  Lastly, those weird lights don’t look the same in non-visible light; some are warmer than the background, some are colder, and in infrared, some vanish altogether.  Dawn mission scientists at present have no explanation, and are keenly awaiting more data as Dawn slowly works it way down into the desired orbit for science operations to begin.

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And then there’s this sequence, comparing visible and infrared images taken with LORRI (left) and the Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (center, visible, and right, infrared).  The top row shows a bright spot designated Region 1 and the bottom row shows the really bright double spot designated Region 5.  Region 1 appears to be much cooler than its surroundings, while Region 5 must be the same temperature since it completely vanishes.  This, of course, only makes it more interesting.  ;-)

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Drawing with HEAT!!!!

Now that’s some hot art.  ;-)  This is Erik Beall, physicist and president of Hema Imaging LLC, demonstrating a prototype of their new product, the HemaVision by drawing on a wall with a heat gun.  Talk about a hot product!  (C’mon, the pun was inevitable!)

You can still contribute to his Kickstarter to reserve yourself one or more of these devices!  They’re already 200% funded, but they’ve got stretch goals too — the next level, if they raise $175,000, will be to get formal six-foot drop testing to confirm the device will tolerate the abuse you’d expect in normal consumer use.  With 20 days to go, it’s very possible they’ll reach that — especially with your help, so hop on over there if you’re not already a backer and check them out!

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CRS-6 Dragon is on its way to the ISS! Falcon 9 launch fully successful, landing less so (UPDATED)

EDIT: Scroll to the bottom of this post for landing pics!

The sixth operational Dragon flight to the ISS is on its way!  This video goes all the way through solar array deployment.  Watch closely after stage separation around 3:30; you can see the first stage attitude control thrusters firing to control its orientation in preparation for turning it around to return to the ground.  The ground video briefly follows the spent first stage before coverage returns to the ascending second stage and payload. The launch was a complete success, but the landing was reportedly not; I don’t have details yet, but it sounds like the first stage hit too hard and possibly fell over.  To be honest, just hitting the barge is pretty impressive, but they have work still to do.  That’s all built into their incremental design approach.  Once I have more (hopefully video!) I will post it.

EDIT: There’s more!  SpaceX has released stills from the landing:

Falcon 9 first stage descending towards the barge

Falcon 9 first stage descending towards the barge

About to touch down, Falcon 9's first stage appears to be on track for a successful landing!

About to touch down, Falcon 9’s first stage appears to be on track for a successful landing!

And then things seem to go south; it's tipping over.  Still, it's an improvement over the last landing, definitely.

And then things seem to go south; it’s tipping over. Still, it’s an improvement over the last landing, definitely.

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Introducing Vulcan: America’s next rocket

United Launch Alliance has released the name for their new launch vehicle to follow on from the legacies of Atlas and Delta: Vulcan.  It’s a good name, and I’m sort of pleased they’ve gone with another name drawn from mythology — right up there with Titan, Juno, Thor (Delta’s ancestor), Jupiter, Nike, and of course the mighty Saturn.  The first stage will be powered with methane, and ultimately ULA hopes to recover the engines (though not the entire first stage), perhaps via helicopter recovery — I would expect that design to evolve considerably before actual reuse begins, just as happened with SpaceX’s reusable flyback concept has evolved.  Blue Origin, the engine manufacturer, has confirmed the BA-4 engine is designed with reuse in mine.  Today, ULA released this sneak peek at the vehicle:

Incidentally, SpaceX was due to launch CRS-6 to the ISS today, but the weather was not cooperative.  Too many thunderheads near the Cape.  They will try again tomorrow.

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54 years ago, humanity entered space: Happy Cosmonauts Day!

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to not only rise above the Kármán Line* but to complete a full orbit of the Earth.  His spacecraft landed without him; as a precaution, all Vostok crews ejected during the parachute descent so as to avoid being injured upon impact with the ground.  Only with Voskhod did the Soviets change this practice (since increasing crew size for Voskhod eliminated the payload margin for an ejection seat apparatus).  This fact was concealed for many years out of concern it would invalidate the record — traditionally, a pilot must land with his/her craft for a record to be counted.  The truth did not come out until long after the record was established, and repeatedly broken on both sides.  In any case, it was very much an historic event.  The R-7-derived missile that boosted Vostok was adapted from the Soviet ICBM program; it was more-or-less the Soviet counterpart to the Atlas missile (which shortly would be boosting American crewed spacecraft as well).  R-7 is still a workhorse today; its modern variant is the much larger and more reliable Soyuz rocket.  Vostok, meanwhile, was adapted in part from designs for Soviet spy satellites, which is part of the reason so few details were released initially — the reentry capsule had been designed to contain an expensive camera and its film apparatus, to return autonomously gathered photographs of enemy territory.  Obviously, it worked very well, as it enabled Gagarin to survive reentry unscathed.

Gagarin would never fly in space again; his bosses forbade it on the basis that he was much too valuable a national asset to risk in any way.  He ultimately managed to fight his way back onto the roster, and was designated backup pilot for Soyuz 1.  But the cosmonaut corps was well aware with problems in the system, and knew the engineers both wanted and needed more time, but were not getting it.  Gagarin tried to pull rank to get Vladimir Komarov bumped so that he’d be prime, reasoning that they would’t risk blowing *him* up.  It didn’t work — Komarov remained the prime, and did indeed perish on the maiden flight of Soyuz, following a staggering series of failures that culminated in the fatal failure of the parachutes to deploy properly.  Gagarin died a year later in a training accident aboard a MiG-15, along with his instructor.  The details of the crash remain mysterious; it was officially ruled an accident, but as with many other famous accidents, the cause of the accident remains unclear — bird strike, attempt to avoid another aircraft flying at the incorrect altitude, disruption by the wake of a Su-15 that had gotten lost in the area due to poor weather conditions, mechanical faults, oxygen starvation to a valve possibly having been left open . . . no one will ever really know, most likely.

Famed for his cheerful disposition, broad smile, and passionate dedication to his work (sort of a more outgoing version of Neil Armstrong), Gagarin is one of those people who will be remembered long into the future, for his are two of the shoulders that future space travelers must stand upon.

 

*100 km in altitude, approximately the altitude where wings become largely useless, because you’d need to fly forward faster than orbital velocity in order to gain lift, and if you’re in orbit, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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