Beginnings and ends and approaching horizons

I’ll do these in reverse order.  😉  It’s been a busy day in spaceflight!  First off, the approaching horizon: New Horizons is getting inexorably nearer to Pluto, and can now faintly make out surface details.  Check out this animated GIF the team just released, covering almost a week of time earlier this month.  What I love is how clearly you can see what we’ve known for a long time: that Charon and Pluto are mutually synchronous.  OK, you can’t see Charon’s rotation here, but Pluto’s is unmistakably the same duration as Charon’s orbital period.  And that’s amazing to actually *see*.  The other amazing thing to see in this picture is the proper motion of Pluto and Charon.  This is really a double planet; the barycenter of the system is in open space between the two.

OpNav3_barycen_v7_lowres

And now, some endings.  First off, an update on the ill-fated Progress M-27M: it’s bad.  They have been unable to restore communications, and at its current rate of sink, it’ll likely deorbit in the next week or so; Roscosmos is predicting a range from May 5-May-7, USSTRATCOM is predicting May 9 +/- six days, ESA is predicting May 9 +/- two days, and Spaceflight101 is predicting May 10 +/- three days.  None of these are near enough to predict the impact zone, so stay tuned.

Second, the mission of MESSENGER has finally come to an end.  Long after the end of its primary mission, and extended past the end of propellant depletion through the cunning use of helium pressurant gasses, MESSENGER has finally succumbed to the tidal influences of the Sun and Mercury.  It impacted Mercury earlier today.  It is expected to have created a small crater, which will be inspected by ESA’s BepiColumbo probe when it becomes the second Mercury orbiter in 2024.  On its way down, it took this picture:

Last_Image

At 2.1 meters per pixel, this is by far the highest resolution image ever taken of the innermost planet, within the crater Jokai.  MESSENGER then smashed down somewhere north of the Shakespeare Basin.

And finally, a new beginning: the relatively secretive Blue Origins company has conducted a successful test-launch of their New Shepherd suborbital spacecraft.  The rocket, boosted by a BE-3 hydrogen/LOX engine, failed to complete the flyback return they were planning, due to a loss of hydralulic pressure.  But the launch was smooth and the payload’s performance was flawless, right up through soft landing.  There is another commercial spaceflight contender coming up, and it is clearly not dependent on getting NASA funding.  Interesting….

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