Opportunity — can you hear us?

The Mars Exploration Rover B “Opportunity” has been such an amazing success story.  From a remarkable “hole-in-one” landing in January of 2004….

…to record-shattering traverses of Meridiani Planum for over 14 years, currently taking it to a location aptly named Perseverance Valley, Opportunity has far outlived all of the expectations for it.  It has outlived its sister vehicle, Spirit, which became mired and unable to orient its solar panels for optimal illumination in the long Martian winter, and seen remarkably fortuitous weather events — dust devils that cleared the pernicious accumulation of dust from its solar panels.

But now, the rover’s been going on so long it almost seems unstoppable.  XKCD’s Randall Munroe took this its logical extreme:

We all remember those famous first words spoken by an astronaut on the surface of Mars: It really has seemed as if Opportunity is unstoppable.

The Martian Terminator of rovers, if you will.

But it’s possible it’s now met its match in the form of what is shaping up to be the biggest dust storm on Mars in a long time, possibly since the staggering dust storm that enveloped Mars just before Mariner 9 arrived in 1971, lasting months before the probe was able to begin usefully photographing the red planet.  If this storm also lasts months, it will surely kill Opportunity; it’s summer in Meridiani Planum, which helps a lot, but this storm is likely blotting out the sun almost completely.  A few days ago, NASA lost the signal from Opportunity.  Over the previous few days, the probe’s telemetry had reported plummeting power output from the solar panels, so at present, it is certainly subsisting on battery power, running only its mission clock so it can periodically wake up and check to see if there is light again.  If the storm lifts soon, we may hear from Opportunity again.  But if not . . . .

Well.  Cross your fingers.  😉  This plucky little robot has surprised us before.

PS If you’re wondering about Curiosity, well, that probe is on the other side of the planet, in Gale Crater.  But the storm is so massive that Curiosity is beginning to see the effects as well.  Unlike Opportunity, though, Curiosity runs off of a Pu-238 radioisotope thermoelectric generator; it can run just as well in the dark as in daylight.  (Well, except for the fact that it doesn’t have headlights so can’t see where it’s going.)  Curiosity may eventually find its science operations impeded by the weather, but at least it won’t have to worry about power for a good long while.

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Spectacular launch footage on Soyuz MS-09 launch

It’s been positively ages since I’ve last posted, but here’s something to get me to come back out: an absolutely stunning video of the Soyuz MS-09 launch.  Soyuz launches are always fun, trying to spot things like the Korolev Cross, but this one’s extra special, because it’s got some brand new rocketcam images taken from the exterior of the Soyuz spacecraft during ascent.  You get to see launch events that previously have been invisible to the public.  Around 3:30, watch for the launch shroud falling away; from there on out, the footage is entirely Soyuz exterior.  Around 9:40, watch for the upper stage drifting away, firing a cold gas thruster to ensure a safe separation.  The quality isn’t spectacular, but it’s a view we’ve not been allowed to see before.  Crew on board are Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos, Soyuz commander and spaceflight rookie), flight engineer Alexander Gerst (ESA), and flight surgeon Serena Auñón-Chancellor (NASA, also a spaceflight rookie).

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SpaceX has launched a space telescope!

In their first launch of a scientific satellite for NASA, SpaceX has placed the Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Surveyor (TESS) into Earth orbit and successfully recovered the first stage.  TESS is a follow-on to the massively successful Kepler space observatory.  Like Kepler, it will use the transit observation method to detect exoplanets, but unlike Kepler, it will be an all-sky survey, reliant upon an unusual orbit in a 2:1 resonance with the Moon (to avoid ever coming too close to the Moon and having the orbit disrupted).  The orbit is completely outside the Van Allen Belts, with a period of 13.7 days.  TESS will be able to downlink to ground stations during its perigees, at a distance of 108,000 km (about three times further away than the geosynchronous ring).  Although TESS has a nominal primary mission duration of two years, this orbit is expected to remain stable for decades, and the spacecraft will almost certainly be used to destruction like so many other NASA spacecraft, finding mission extension after extension until there is nothing more that it can do.

Falcon 9’s upper stage performed two burns, and then released TESS in a supersynchronous transfer orbit; the satellite itself will finish refining the orbit.  The upper stage has by now disposed of itself over the Pacific Ocean, and the payload fairing conducted a water landing as part of SpaceX’s effort to reuse the fairings.  (The company only has one fairing-catcher ship, Mr Steve, which is currently in California, unavailable for this mission.  So far, the closest a returning fairing has gotten to Mr Steve is a few hundred yards, so there is still some refinement needed.)

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Virgin Galactic returns to powered flight!

It was three years ago that Virgin Galactic lost a vehicle and pilot in a tragic mishap caused by human error and poor human factors engineering.  But the defects have been changed so that the same mistake cannot be made again, and after an incremental test campaign with the newer version of SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, they were able to light the engine for the first time:

It was only a thirty second burn, but it went off flawlessly, and it puts them a step closer to operational flights!

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The Dragon Flies Again: CRS-14 Launches to the ISS

A reused Dragon capsule launched by a reused Falcon 9 first stage is now en route to the ISS.  The first stage was not recovered; it’s one of the older model stages, and SpaceX sacrificed it in order to conduct engineering tests during a water landing.  There was no attempted fairing recovery, as the Dragon capsule does not require a fairing.  But the launch was 100% successful:

Dragon is expected to rendezvous with the station on Wednesday, where it will go free-floating and be captured by the station’s SSRMS, which will pull it in to berth.

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Tiangong-1 is no more

It came down at 00:16 UTC April 12, 2018, in the Pacific Ocean, as confirmed by USSTRATCOM:

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Tiangong-1 is incoming this weekend

Well, incoming somewhere, anyway.  I can be assured of it not hitting my house, as I’m just a bit too far north, but it’s still impossible to predict where under its orbital path it will actually fall.  With luck, it will fall somewhere where it can be observed but not actually threaten anything or anyone on the ground.  😉  I’m hopeful it will fall within the gaze of the newest GOES spacecraft, which take multi-spectral images of the hemisphere containing North America approximately every fifteen seconds.  It would be a remarkably helpful bit of science.

Where will it come down?  Well, that mostly depends on *when* it will come down.  And that in turn depends on the atmosphere.  The lack of solar activity has kept our atmosphere relatively settled, which has allowed Tiangong-1 to survive in orbit a bit longer than originally predicted.  (For comparison, Skylab crashed considerably earlier than predicted, because solar maximum greatly puffed out the atmosphere, an effect which was not adequately understood at the time.)  Predicting deorbit for something with a very circular orbit is tricky; it could fall almost anywhere under its orbital path, with the extremes of the orbit being slightly more likely simply because it spends more time at those latitudes.  Here are the current predictions from the major authorities on the subject:

SatFlare: 1 Apr 2018, 06:56 (±36 hours)

Aerospace.org: 1 Apr 2018 (±2 days)

Satview.org: 2 Apr 2018, 03:09 (±8 hours)

ESA: the morning of 31 March to the early morning of 2 April (in UTC time)

So these are all circling around Easter, more or less.  What’s your bet?  😉

 

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