Category Archives: Space

Spektr-R Update

The huge space radio telescope Spektr-R, or Radioastron, operated by the Astro Space Centre of the Lebedev Physical Institute, has been operating successfully since July of 2011, performing very long baseline inferometry (VLBI) with suitably equipped sites on the Earth.  Since its orbit goes between 10,000 and 350,000 kilometers, this gives a fantastically long baseline.  But its not been without its problems.  The perigee of its highly eccentric orbit had slipped down to about 7,500 km by last year, low enough to start being affected by lumpiness in Earth’s gravity field, making it difficult to predict the observatory’s orbit over time.  It was no longer certain that it would remain in orbit past 2018, and worse, it looked like a series of passes through Earth’s shadow (eclipse season) would be of unsurvivable duration.  So the team devised a series of engine burns that will raise the probe enough to survive well into the next decade — and possibly even improve its position through a series of lunar gravity assists.  The spacecraft flies out past the orbit of the Moon, so this isn’t outlandish.  But fears of error due to the Moon’s notoriously fickle gravitation field led this to be cancelled.  A more modest orbital change is now planned, but one which will only consume about 10% of the remaining propellant (and it has about 85% left from its original supply).  The primary maneuver under this new plan was completed on July 16 and took 290.3 seconds.  Additional burns will be performed after the resulting trajectory is carefully analyzed, and Radioastron will remain in service for years to come.

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Soyuz seizes second place in the “most payloads” race

Not that it’s exactly a race anymore; the game has clearly changed massively with satellite operators such as Planet Labs, the company also largely responsible for PSLV seizing first place in this category.  Planet Labs placed 88 of its “Dove” CubeSats into orbit on a PSLV last February, and another 48 aboard Soyuz last Friday.  These are imagery spacecraft, designed to completely rewrite the rules of satellite image procurement — instead of building massive, expensive, highly sophisticated spacecraft akin to spy satellites, they’re building CubeSat with relatively inexpensive cameras — but lots of them.  Their resolution is less, but the availability is much greater, and although the satellites are so small and light that they don’t stay in orbit for more than a few years, this also means they’re self-cleaning and easily replenished because they are so cheap.  It also partially compensates for their small size — they’re dwarfed by the big commercial imaging sats (to say nothing of spy satellites) but they fly much, much lower.

The primary payload aboard this flight was Kanopus-V-IK, a Russian civilian imaging satellite operated by Roscosmos for the purpose of emergency response.  It carries multispectral imagers particularly useful for tracking wildfires.  Kanopus-V-IK is a traditional spacecraft, large and equipped with propulsion.  The Doves were not its only smallsat neighbors for the flight; other payloads included eight Lemurs from Spire Global (to provide weather forecasting information), three CICERO cubesates from GeoOptics (Spire’s closest competitor), two LandMapper-BC cubesats from Astro Digital, Tyvak’s experimental NanoACE (to test propulsion for nanosatellites; Tyvak is a launch broker), the Flying Laptop (a smallsat capable of searching for NEOs while testing a new type of On Board Computer) from the University of Stuttgart, Technosat from the Technical University of Berlin, Norsat 1 & 2 (Norway’s first scientific satellites, to improve merchant marine tracking and communications, and originally scheduled to fly on a Soyuz out of French Guiana), the Japanese WNISAT 1R small weather satellite, the crowd-funded Mayak solar sail from Moscow Polytechnic University (which could become brighter than the ISS when deployed), and four other Russian CubeSats.

FYI, third place is 37 satellites.  It was set in 2014 by a Ukrainian-built Dnepr rocket out of Dombarovsky Air Base in Russia.  The fact that the three records have all been set in the last five years — and with such a huge gap — is indicative of a major trend in spaceflight.  Things are changing.

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The first Great Red Spot images are available!

The images and data from Perijove 7 have started coming down to Earth, and as they become available, the team is posting them in their gallery and inviting the public to process them — and the public, as always, is responding quickly.  This one, processed by Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran, is quite a striking view of the giant anticyclone, processed to bring a gloriously rich depth of color to it (the color is much paler in the unprocessed images).  This is closer than anyone has ever come before to the Great Red Spot, and the level of detail is breathtaking.  Go on, click to view it in full scale — you know you want to!

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Tomorrow: the Great Red Spot

The Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter for a year now (well, a year and four days — its anniversary was last Wednesday), making long, looping orbits with brief dives within a few thousand kilometers of Jupiter’s cloud tops, slipping through gaps in the intense radiation belts around the giant planet.  Its mission is to peer beneath the cloudy veils of Jupiter to better understand the processes that drive Jupiter.  So far, its data has been a treasure trove, revealing how little we really know about this planet.  We now know that the polar regions look completely different from the equatorial and mid-latitudes that we can see from terrestrial telescopes, and that its magnetic field is far more complex than we’d ever suspected, and that the atmosphere is not uniformly mixed like ours is; there is a band of ammonia in the equatorial cloud belts that extends at least as far into Jupiter as Juno’s instruments can reach — hundreds of kilometers.  It’s also studied Jupiter’s strange aurorae, which don’t behave in a manner consistent with the processes that drive aurorae on other worlds, and carry weird footprints of some of the Galilean satellites.

But there is one notable feature of Jupiter that has so far been completely untouched by Juno: the Great Red Spot.

The Great Red Spot, seen by Voyager 2 in 1979

Jupiter is famous for long-lived storms, but none is longer-lived (as far as we know) than the Great Red Spot.  It was first recorded in 1665, by Giovanni Cassini.  He observed it for the duration of his career, noting fluctuations in its visibility, and there are sporadic reports in the literature between then and the 19th Cnetury.  It has been systematically observed continuously since 1830, proving that it is stable for a remarkably long time, longer than any other known meteorological phenomenon, although that is not to say it is unchanging.  The color varies dramatically over time, usually in parallel with color shifts in its confining atmospheric band, and it has been seen to change particularly rapidly upon gobbling up a smaller storm.  Another oddity is that it doesn’t traverse the planet at the same rate as everything else — it moves around slightly more quickly, resulting it lapping the planet ten times since the start of continuous systematic observation in the nineteenth century.

There are so many questions about the Great Red Spot it’s hard to know where to begin.  There are as many theories as there are questions, and so far, very little means of testing most of them.  But tomorrow, that may change.  Until now, the only data we’ve had on the Great Red Spot has been photographic and spectroscopic, revealing only the very surface details.  Tomorrow, Juno’s periapsis will have precessed just enough around Jupiter to put it directly over the Great Red Spot.  What will it learn?

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20 Years at Mars!

One more post today, because this is an important one.  😉  Yesterday was Independence Day here in America, and for space geeks, it was important for another reason — it was the twentieth anniversary of the Pathfinder landing on Mars, and marked twenty years of continuous exploration of the Red Planet.

It’s amazing to think about.  I remember exactly where I was on July 4, 1997.  I was at an Independence Day party at my uncle’s house, and he had a TV on for the nerdier among us to watch and see when Pathfinder landed.  It was very exciting.  Pathfinder was the first lander to operate on Mars since November of 1982, when Viking 1 lost contact with Earth, a very long gap.

Mars had developed a powerful reputation as the Bermuda Triangle of the Solar System.  Before Viking, there had been 21 attempted missions to Mars, but only six had been successful.  After Viking, there were no further attempts until 1988, when the Soviet Union sent the ill-fated Phobos missions, both of which failed.  In 1992, NASA made another attempt with Mars Observer, which is believed to have exploded just before orbital insertion due to a fault in its propulsion system.  It seemed like Mars was off limits.  The next Mars transfer window came and went.

In 1996, another Mars window opened, and this time both NASA and the Russian Federation’s Rosaviacosmos were prepared to send spacecraft.  It would be one of the last ambitious deep space efforts by Roscosmos for some time.  Rosaviacosmos sent Mars 96, a highly ambitious spacecraft built collaboratively with European nations and carrying an orbiter, landers, and ground penetrators.  It failed to leave Earth orbit, and eventually reentered Earth’s atmosphere.  (The same fate would later befall Fobos-Grunt.)    NASA sent Mars Pathfinder, its hitchhiking Sojourner rover, and Mars Global Surveyor.

On July 4, 1997, Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars with an innovative tetrahedral lander studded with airbags, which allowed it to hit the surface in any configuration and still end up upright at the end.  Although Pathfinder had a brief scare due to an undetected race condition in its computer software, it was recovered and went on to a very full mission, deploying the breadbox-sized Sojourner rover to become the first wheels on Mars.  Pathfinder continued operating until October 7, 1997, beating its design specs by about two and a half months.

But before it failed, another spacecraft arrived: Mars Global Surveyor, the first fully successful Mars orbiter since the Viking Orbiters in the 1970s.  Mars Global Surveyor set a record (since beaten) for total operating time at Mars, lasting nearly a decade (well past its one-year primary mission), going on to conduct joint observations with later spacecraft and serving as the first Mars communications relay station, transmitting data from landers back to Earth.

After Pathfinder and MGS arrived, many more followed, although Mars continued to earn its reputation as the Eater of Space Probes.  The 1998 launch window was fraught with failures, from the Japanese Nozomi probe (ran out of propellant prematurely due to a fault), to NASA’s Mars Climate Observer (killed by an unknown unit conversion error resulting in deorbit rather than orbit capture), to Mars Polar Lander (lost due to premature shutdown of the landing engine) and its piggybacked Deep Space 2 penetrator (MPL crashed before it could be deployed).  But the 2001 window showed a reversal of fortunes.  MGS, the lone operational spacecraft at Mars, would be joined by NASA’s Mars Odyssey 2001, which remains in operation today.  In 2003, MGS and Odyssey would be joined by ESA’s Mars Express, which continues to operate today, although Mars Express’s piggybacked Beagle 2 lander (provided by the United Kingdom) never called home.  Orbital photography eventually revealed that it had landed in a very unfortunate posture among a boulder field, and was likely unable to open itself properly — this is a risk for any robotic lander, and one that is nearly impossible to prevent.    But also in 2003 launched two of the most phenomenal overachievers in the history of Mars exploration: NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.  Both operated far past their original three-month mission.  Spirit was eventually killed when it became mired in a posture which did not give its solar powers enough light during the long Martian winter, but Opportunity remains in operation today, having set both endurance and mileage records.

The 2005 launch window saw the most powerful camera ever sent to Mars, aboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  This spacecraft has enabled exquisitely detailed imagery over time, tracking changes in the surface features of the Red Planet beyond the capabilities of its predecessors, and even photographing many of the landers and rovers. MRO remains in operation today.  In 2007, Mars Phoenix Lander was sent, partially reflying some of the experiments planned for Mars Polar Lander, as well as following new plans, adhering to the overall NASA strategy of “follow the water”.  Phoenix operated for 157 sols (Martian days), nearly double the planned mission duration, when the polar darkness of winter arrived and claimed it.  Among its many discoveries was the first observation of liquid water on the surface of Mars, likely water melted from the icepack by its landing rockets and then briefly recondensed on the spacecraft’s landing legs before boiling away in the low atmospheric pressure.

The 2011 window saw both tragedy and triumph — first, the loss of Roscosmos’ Fobos-Grunt and its piggybacked Yinghu0-1 lander from China, and then the brilliant success of Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity”.  Curiosity is by far the largest rover ever sent to another world, so large that the tetrahedral airbag lander of Mars Pathfinder and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers would not suffice.  Instead, a “Skycrane” vehicle was devised to bring it in like a helicopter.  The system worked perfectly, and Curiosity remains in operation today, although the perils of exploring the unknown have been driven home by the shocking amount of damage in its aluminum wheels; the rocks of Gale Crater seem to be much harder and sharper than those encountered anywhere else that landers have visited.

In 2013, NASA’s MAVEN was launched; it is still operating in Mars orbit today.  And another nation joined the elite club of deep space explorers, as India’s ISRO placed the Mangalyaan (Mars Orbiter Mission) spacecraft into Mars orbit.  It, too, remains in operation today.  2016, the latest Mars window, saw the launch of ExoMars, a collaboration between ESA and Russia, and its piggybacked Schiaparelli lander.  ExoMars remains in operation today, while Schiaparelli unfortunately was lost on landing.

So, that makes 20 continuous years of spacecraft operating on Mars or in orbit around it, and today there are six functioning orbiters and two functioning rovers on the surface.  It makes a wonderful change from the long drought of Mars exploration before that!  It is quite likely that there will never again be a gap in Mars exploration, not now that there are so many different space agencies at work on it.

The next window opens in May.  NASA plans to launch its InSight spacecraft (delayed from the 2016 window). In 2020, things get really busy. NASA has another mission in the planning stages, and Europe and Russia will be collaborating on the second ExoMars spacecraft.  China and Japan both are planning to make their second attempts for Mars, and the United Arab Emirates is planning their first deep space mission, and India might manage their second Mangalyaan in that window (if not, they’ll likely make the following window).  And perhaps most intriguingly of all, in 2020 SpaceX is planning their Red Dragon mission, the first crewed mission to Mars (unless someone manages to beat them to it).  We’ll have to wait and see if they can actually make that date; it seems a tad ambitious to me!  But wouldn’t it be exciting?


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Catching up on launches and landings!

I’ve been remiss in blogging, so here’s a pile of videos to try to make it up.  😉

First off, last Saturday China carried out the second launch of their new heavy-lift rocket, the CZ-5 (Long March 5), from their newest launch site on Hainan Island.  CZ-5 is intended to support their deep space exploration aspirations, including eventual manned missions to the Moon, so a successful launch was very important.  Unfortunately, it does not appear to have been successful.  Initial indications suggest the first stage burned considerably longer than expected, which would suggest a possible engine failure resulting in the stage burning much longer in attempt to compensate, perhaps to propellant depletion.  The second stage appears to have carried out a normal burn, but was clearly unable to make up the velocity shortfall.  The upper stage and its seven-ton experimental commsat payload (Shijan-18) both reentered, most likely impacting in the Pacific Ocean.  The strap-on stages of the CZ-5 operate on kerosene and LOX, while the core and upper stages burn LH2/LOX.  The booster engines use a design licensed from NPO Energomash in Russia, the world’s undisputed leader in staged-combustion kerolox engines (it really is amazing how many vehicles around the world use their designs), while the cryogenic engines are domestically designed and produced.

Meanwhile, the first recycled SpaceX Dragon capsule completed its mission to the ISS.  One of its payloads was the Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA), an experiment to test a new type of solar array that is more robust than earlier roll-out designs (remember Hubble’s original arrays, which usually looked a bit twisted and wonky when deployed?) but more compact than rigid arrays.  The experiment was almost a complete success, with the array generating lots of power.  Unfortunately, retraction was unsuccessful, so the array had to be jettisoned in its deployed state.

The ROSA’s ride up also left the ISS, but in a more controlled fashion, and returned to Earth.

The CRS-11 spacecraft then made the first Dragon reentry at night.  Astronaut Jack Fisher photographed the plasma trail from orbit:

Rounding out the launches of the last few days is today’s launch of the tenth Falcon 9 of the year, placing Intelsat 35E into geosynchronous transfer orbit.  Due to the size of the payload, this was flown as a fully expendable launch vehicle, with no grid fins and no excess propellant margin to carry out a reentry burn:

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Ariane V launch of HellasSat 3 & GSAT 17

Ariane V has added to an already busy launch week with a successful liftoff, placing two geosynchronous commsats onto the geosynchronous transfer orbit.  HellasSat 3/Inmarsat -S-EAN, a spacecraft jointly owned by Hellas Sat and Inmarsat, will provide S-band and Ku-band services to customers in Europe, the Mideast, and Africa.  GSAT 17, a civilian commsat operated by the Indian Space Research Organization, will provide C-band services to customers in India, mainly television services.  This was the 80th successful consecutive Ariane V launch.

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