My two favorite things, Doctor Who and spaceflight, get to come together today. 😉
First, of course, a belated look at the teaser trailer that dropped last weekend during the World Cup:
It reveals basically nothing, but I’m still doing my happy dance. 😉
And then, there’s an exciting new announcement from the UK government, Lockheed Martin, and British rocketry startup Orbex: the first orbital launch site in the UK has been selected. On the A’Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland, on Scotland’s northern coast, the site will be well positioned for polar and sun-synchronous launches. In addition to the already agreed-upon use of Orbex’s still-in-development small launch vehicle, Lockheed is also talking with Rocket Labs about using their Electron launch vehicle. Here’s Lockheed’s own little teaser trailer on the subject:
And that’s not even it for Brit-Space! Virgin Orbit, which is aiming for their first orbital launch possibly as soon as next month out of the Mojave Air & Space Port, is now also developing plans to operate out of Cornwall as well. Being run by Brits, they have a very strong interest in bringing Cosmic Girl and her under-wing launch vehicle home. 😉 They hope to thereby appeal to European and British satellite manufacturers, by being able to skip a costly and time consuming transatlantic shipment of their spacecraft to a launch site. Here’s *their* teaser trailer, for Spaceport Cornwall:
It sure is an exciting time, isn’t it? 😉
Progress MS-09 launched to the ISS today and docked with the station just two revolutions later. This is the fastest ever ascent to the station. (It is not the fastest ever ascent to a target in Earth orbit; I believe that record may still be held by Gemini 11, which performed a direct ascent to its Agena target just 94 minutes into the flight. But is definitely the fastest to the ISS.)
When the Dawn spacecraft left Vesta and began its transit to Ceres, scientists already knew from Hubble and ground-based imagery that there was something odd about Ceres: there was a big bright area on one side. The imagery they had was nowhere near good enough resolution to tell what it was, or even how big it was, but even before Dawn could see Ceres, that bright spot was a major area of interest.
Then, as Dawn approached and entered orbit, it started to return pictures which showed the bright spot — and to everybody’s frustration (coupled with excitement for the unknown!), the pictures were only deepening the mystery. Whatever it was, this surface feature was so bright compared to the rest of Ceres that it was impossible to photograph; it was always massively overexposed, obliterating any details. As Dawn arrived and started moving into closer and closer orbits, the resolution improved, but all that was happening with the bright spot was that it kept getting smaller with each image — whatever it was was *still* so bright it was overwhelming detail immediately around it. It quickly became apparent that it was approximately in the middle of a crater, dubbed Occator Crater, and although planetary scientists were cautious about drawing a link, it was hard to imagine that being coincidence. But they would need to see more. As with Iapetus, they needed to know if this was light stuff on top of darkness, or a scraped out bit of darkness revealing light stuff underneath. As the orbits contracted and Dawn got better imagery, the point eventually split into two, then more, and finally there was enough detail to show that it’s a thin layer of brilliantly white material (which spectroscopic analysis has identified as sodium carbonate) clustered around the central uplift of Occator Crater, and a series of what look like splash points nearby. Perhaps whatever created Occator, or possibly a later impactor, broke through into a layer of briny water; there is evidence Ceres had significant subsurface water in the past and possibly still does. That water would’ve boiled away almost instantly, exposed to sunlight and the vacuum of space, leaving the white precipitate behind. Or maybe the surface was weakened, allowing hydrothermal activity — salty geysers, resulting in a sort of sodium carbonate snow. Other, much smaller white patches have also been found on Ceres, so it isn’t a unique occurrence. Perhaps it’s just the most recent.
Many questions remain about the white spots in Occator Crater. But now that Dawn is in its final orbit (roughly 20-22 miles above the surface of Ceres), it’s returning stunning new images and data that may allow scientists to puzzle out the whole story. In the meantime, here’s one of the closest images taken of Cerealia Facula, the brighter central region in Occator Crator:
USLaunchReport, a disabled veteran-run enterprise on Florida’s Space Coast, provides ground footage of launches, and they got some beautiful footage of this one. Skip ahead about four minutes to staging, where it’s up high, lit by the Sun, and the humid air near the ground is less of an obstacle to photography, and watch to the end when they start to cut in shots of the plume in the background and in the foreground you can see the impressive optical tracking system they got to use for this:
The last Block 4 Falcon 9 flew yesterday, boosting an unmanned Dragon capsule to the ISS for the CRS-15 mission (skip to about 18:50 for the launch):
Since this was the final Block 4 flight, SpaceX did not attempt to recover the booster. This was, however, its second flight; Core 1045 helped launch the TESS satellite on April 18, which is just a 72 day turnaround to its second flight, SpaceX’s fastest reflight to date.
Unpressurized cargo includes the ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) for JPL and a replacement latching end effector for the SSRMS. Pressurized cargo includes:
- Chemical Gardens (a crystal growth experiment)
- an experimental carbon fiber “factory” for the private company Made In Space (the third one flown to date)
- Crew Interactive Mobile (CIMON), a floating spherical robot trained to recognize and interact with European crewmember Alexander Gerst.
- Rodent Research 7, which will study microorganisms in the guts of a colony of “mouseonauts”
- BCAT-CS, a sediment research project
- Three Cubesats called Biarri-Squad for a multinational experiment to study potential military applications for smallsats (these will be experimenting with laser rangefinding and GPS to maintain relative position data)
- Three CubeSats from the Japanese-led multinational Birds-2 project performing a range of technology demonstrator experiments
- One of the Birds-2 CubeSats is Bhutan-1 (aka Bird BTN), the Kingdom of Bhutan’s first satellite
- Another is Bird PHL or Maya-1, the first Filipino CubeSat (not their first satellite
JAXA has confirmed the engine burn to allow Ryugu to capture Hayabusa 2. Up close, the asteroid doesn’t look quite as clearly octahedral, but it’s still showing a remarkable diamond silhouette. The surface is battered, but not in the manner we’re used to seeing with larger bodies. The craters have soft edges, and the surface in general looks more like a clump of fine particles with occasional rocks stuck in it, probably reflecting a relatively loose composition.
The spacecraft is expected to stay at Ryugu for 18 months, during which it will make a series of daring touch-and-go landings, deploy a series of landing vehicles, and even launch an impactor at the asteroid. It will also attempt to collect material using a feed horn device similar to that used on the original Hayabusa. At the end of its stay, Hayabusa 2 will fire its engines to leave orbit around Ryugu and head back to Earth, with arrival scheduled for 2020. The original mission returned only a tiny amount of material, but enough to make comparisons to what Hayabusa 2 will return. The exciting part of the mission is only just beginning!
The second Japanese asteroid sample return mission is underway, and it’s spotted its target, the Apollo-group asteroid 162173 Ryugu. And what do you know? Most asteroids so far have looked like potatoes, but this one makes me think of an eight-sided die:
These images, taken with the ONC-T (Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic) instrument at ranges from 330 to 240 km as the spacecraft approaches the asteroid, show that Ryugu is spinning like a top, completing one revolution every 7.6 hours.
Hayabusa 2 is expected to enter orbit around Ryugu next week, and will commence a lengthy period of orbital observations leading up to a series of daring landings in which it will sample material from the asteroid. It will also deploy a number of mini spacecraft, including an impactor (with an explosive charge) to excavate fresher material for sample, a German/French hopping lander named MASCOT and partially based on the design of Philae (the piggyback lander from the Rosetta mission), and three Japanese rovers. It’s an ambitious mission, and we’ll soon start to get into the interesting bit. 😉