X-37 dodges Hurricane Irma aboard a Falcon 9

Today was the scheduled liftoff day for the fifth X-37 mission (OTV-5), and the first aboard a Falcon 9.  (X-37 was designed from the start to be compatible with almost any launch vehicle, including the Space Shuttle, but its first four launches were all aboard the Atlas V.)  As a bonus, since SpaceX is still unable to use their original Florida launchpad, Cape Canaveral Air Station’s SLC-40, this launch used the pad they’re adapting for Falcon Heavy, Kennedy Space Center’s venerable LC-39A.  So LC-39A got to launch another spaceplane after all.  😉  (LC-39A’s last spaceplane launch was STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, just over six years ago.)

Coverage of the ascent stops with first stage separation, as normal for classified flights*, but since this was Falcon 9, we got to see coverage of the first stage continue all the way to touchdown back at the Cape.  Now, SpaceX gets to scramble to safe it and stash it safely in a hangar in advance of Hurricane Irma.

*X-37 is not a classified spacecraft, but its missions are generally classified.  This one does carry one unclassified payload, the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, for the Air Force Research Laboratory.  It will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment”.  Satellites already use heat pipe technology to draw waste heat away from sensitive electronic components (since obviously fans don’t work for cooling a spacecraft computer), but this new technology will be lighter and cheaper.  All the other payloads, as well as their quantity and the target orbit and any planned maneuvers, remain classified.  But they are probably also experimental technologies, since X-37 offers a unique opportunity to test equipment for a long duration in space and recover it for extensive engineering analysis afterwards.


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Ariane V launch abort after main engine start

A rare post-ignition abort ended the launch of Intelsat 37e and BSAT 4a before it ever really started.  Like the Space Shuttle, Ariane V has a cryogenic main engine and a pair of solid rocket motors strapped to the sides.  The main engine requires a few seconds to get up to full thrust before the solids can be ignited.  Thus, it is entirely possible to abort after ignition but before departing the pad.  No word yet on the cause of the abort nor how soon launch can be attempted again, but while engineers review the data, the vehicle will be rolled back to its assembly building anyway.  This is necessary to reconnect the umbilicals that were jettisoned in the final seconds of the countdown.

The two payloads are commsats destined for geosynchronous transfer orbits.  Intelsat 37e, built by Boeing, will provide communication services to the Americas, Europe, and the Mideast.  BSAT 4A, built by Space Systems Loral, will provide television coverage in Japan for the Broadcasting Satellite System Corporation.

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Cassini’s Solar System Scrapbook

Cassini has completed its second-to-last ring plane crossing.  There’s only one more left before the final and fatal atmospheric entry.  But before it goes, Cassini completed a sort of family scrapbook of the solar system, by adding Neptune.  Here are some highlights of Cassini’s solar system scrapbook (which skips Mercury because it’s far too close to the Sun for Cassini to photograph):

Venus, Earth, and Mars

Venus, Earth and Mars, the only rocky planets easily observable from Saturn, as seen during the equivalent of a total solar eclipse around Saturn — Saturn is backlit by the Sun here. This was captured July 19, 2013.

Earth (and Moon), closeup from last image

This is a mega huge zoom in on the picture above.


Captured just before an Earth gravity assist maneuver, this is the Moon as seen on August 17, 1999. The spacecraft did not attempt to photograph the Earth during closest approach.

It’s worth also adding this. It’s the last image Cassini will ever take of Earth, captured April 12, 2017.


This was captured on December 29, 2000, while Cassini was grabbing a gravity assist boost from the giant planet.


There’s really no end of good Saturn pics, but I quite like this one, taken last year as Saturn approached the summer solstice in its northern hemisphere.


This blue planet against Saturn’s rings is not Earth. That little blue dot is the larger of the two “ice giants”, Uranus. I sincerely hope this is not the closest we’ll get to it in the 21st Century; it’s an astonishingly bizarre world that would seriously test a lot of basic science about planetary formation, magnetospheres, and so forth. This was captured April 11, 2014.


This is the most recent addition to the scrapbook, a zoom-in enhanced version of an image taken Aug. 10, 2017, commemorating Voyager 2’s flyby on August 25, 1989 and the 40th anniversary of the mission’s launch on August 20, 1977. This is Neptune and its largest moon, Triton.


Call it a consolation for not nabbing Mercury; Cassini captured this image of the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14, 2015, just as New Horizons was making its closest approach. (Naturally, New Horizons got much better pictures!)


It’s bittersweet, waiting for the end, but it helps to remember the amazing things Cassini has been doing.  Like Voyager 1 before it, Cassini is leaving behind portraits of our solar system.

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Peggy Whitson has set a new record!

With the return of Soyuz MS-04, Peggy Whitson has established a new record — at 665 days, the most cumulative spaceflight hours for any woman on Earth, and also for any American.  Globally, she stands at #8 for cumulative spaceflight time.  She is also the only woman to have commanded the ISS twice, and also holds the female record for number of EVAs (ten, with a cumulative time of 60 hours, 21 minutes — there are only two men ahead of her in the overall records, Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria, with the caveat that record-holder Solovyev’s 16 EVAs does include two internal spacewalks aboard Mir).

Whitson returned in good health, as did her two crewmates, Soyuz commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Jack Fischer.  There’s gorgeous video of the final descent:

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PSLV fails to reach proper orbit; IRNSS 1H a total loss

In its first failure of any kind in twenty years, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle suffered a mishap during the climb to orbit for the INRSS 1H navigation satellite yesterday.  INRSS 1H was meant to replace the first IRNSS satellite, which had lost the use of its super-precise clocks.  (Several Galileo satellites have suffered an identical failure, which has been traced to the Swiss-manufactured rubidium clocks that are common between the spacecraft.)  But it is a total loss now.

The launch appeared good at the start, but problems became apparent during second stage ascent, as it began to deviate from the programmed flight path, and the third stage performance was even further off.  Cameras inside the payload fairing showed the reason: the payload fairing, scheduled to jettison just after leaving the dense lower atmosphere, had remained intact.  The extra mass was responsible for the off-nominal performance, resulting in a orbit considerably lower than planned (and which probably cannot last more than a few days).  After third stage burnout, the payload was released on schedule, but with the fairing still in place, the satellite doubtless ricocheted around inside and was likely damaged beyond recovery, even if the fairing could now be jettisoned.

It’s a very disappointing day for what has otherwise been an astonishingly successful rocket.  It’s a keen reminder of the incredibly narrow margins for success in spaceflight.  This stuff is starting to feel almost routine, but it’s really not, and things will still go awry.  (This is the full broadcast; skip ahead about 14 minutes to get to the launch.  At about 18 minutes, they start expecting the payload fairing separation, but that callout is conspicuous by its absence.)

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The Eclipse – From SPACE!

The eclipse wasn’t just visible here on Earth — it was visible from above it as well!  Sometimes the view looked rather familiar, as here, from the ISS (shot by astronaut Randy Bresnik).  Why so familiar?  Well, the ISS isn’t actually that much higher than where we are on the ground.  Just 250 or so miles closer to a Moon that is a quarter of a million miles away.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory also got a view from its sun-synchronous orbit.  It’s view is a little bit different, because it actually orbits well above to geosynchronous altitude, and sometimes sees very different solar eclipses compared to what we see — from its perspective, the Moon can appear much smaller or much larger, depending on the specific orbital circumstances at the time of the eclipse.  Most of the eclipses seen by SDO are not visible at all from Earth.

But the coolest images of the eclipse from space are, in my opinion, those of the Earth.  From this perspective, what we see as a total solar eclipse is more like a lunar eclipse, because here you’re not seeing the Sun eclipsed.  Instead, you’re seeing the Moon’s shadow passing over the Earth.  Here it is, looking quite ominous in some clouds as seen by the ISS:

This one looks less ominous as it’s less zoomed in, but it has better context as you can see part of the ISS’s solar arrays, radiators, the tanks on the Quest airlock, the Rassvet module, and the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft which delivered the most recent ISS crewmates: Sergey Ryazanskiy, Randy Bresnik, and Paolo Nespoli.

And of course lastly, there’s the ultimate solar-eclipse-from-space view, courtesy of the DSCOVR spacecraft.  DSCOVR sits at the Sun-Earth L1 point, which means it gets an uninterrupted view of the Earth’s sunlit hemisphere at all times.  DSCOVR’s EPIC instrument takes full-color full-disk images every two hours and transmits them back to Earth.  This allows it to observe the full path of every total solar eclipse — and yes, it really does track the same way as the animations did.  You may notice, however, that the shadow is much messier than the computer animations you may have seen before the eclipse; the Moon has both a penumbra and an umbra, and that makes it fuzzy.  Only in the umbra (the darkest, tiny core of the shadow) do you experience totality.

All images are from NASA’s eclipse image collection, which you should really check out — it’s got more cool images that are well worth seeing!

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The Great American Eclipse

I haven’t posted in a while, because I’ve been traveling.  And I bet you can guess what I was going to see!  We loaded up the kids and my telescopes, met my in-laws, and took off on a road trip across South Dakota and into Wyoming, with the ultimate aim of basking briefly in the shadow of the Moon.  I’m finally back, so I’m gonna share my pictures with you!  Here’s sort of a filmstrip of the eclipse, as seen from the pleasant little town of Glenrock, Wyoming:

The Sun, before eclipse, as seen through my Orion SpaceProbe 130ST, and shot through the 25mm eyepiece with a cellphone.  Remember: if using a telescope to view the Sun, never look through it unless it has a full-aperture solar filter on.  That’s a filter that goes over the big open end, not the eyepiece.  Put a filter on the eyepiece, and you’ll just burn a hole right through it.

And here’s a similar shot by my husband’s cellphone, through the 25mm eyepiece of my Skywatcher 8 collapsible Dobsonian. (Yes, I know I brought a couple of Newtonians to look at the Sun — they’re not the best suited for the job. But they were great for looking at stars that evening, and they did do a pretty good job of working for us at the eclipse!)

First contact (well, shortly thereafter) through the SpaceProbe 130ST. 130 refers to the 130mm aperture (it’s a Newtonian) and ST refers to the fact that it’s got a short tube (which makes it more portable and improves the field of view — these pictures have all been cropped).

Same view through the 8 inch collapsible Dob. The filter on that one is a different type, so we get a yellower Sun.

Now, if you don’t have a filter but have an inexpensive refractor (or a pair of binoculars), you can use them for projection. I’m using a Galileoscope here — and as it happens, this is basically how Galileo used his telescope to discover sunspots. Many solar telescopes still use this method, including the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, because it removes none of the wavelengths of light that they may wish to study.

The Moon is advancing towards those nice sunspots in the middle….

The eclipse shades are pointing out something interesting we noticed. I hung a makeshift cardboard shade around the little refractor telescope so we’d be able to see the projected image more clearly, and there was a tiny hole in it, which was projecting a little crescent Sun of its own — but in the opposite direction to that produced by the refractor’s lenses.

By now, it was getting really easy to see the eclipsing Sun even with unaided (but properly filtered!) eyeballs.

Getting thinner — that last sunspot group won’t be visible for much longer!

Here I’m holding the box for my big telescope’s solar filter perhaps a bit too close to the telescope; it’s remarkable how bright the projected image gets as it gets closer. You wouldn’t want to put your eye there.

Another fun thing you can do with the projection method — hold the crescent Sun in the palm of your hand! Also, you might notice how the background is looking kind of odd. Washed out a bit, as if it were evening. But the shadows are short. By this time, it was considerably cooler and darker, and the insects were coming out to feed, thinking it was close to sunset.

That crescent is razor thin now! I’ve set the box on the ground to get the crescent stretched as far across it as I could. The ground is even darker now.

Meanwhile, I had my Nikon Coolpix mounted piggyback on my 130mm Newtonian. That one’s got an equatorial mount, making it much easier to track the Sun. It’s wearing its own little solar filter at this point, and zoomed in to the max. To avoid hand-shake, I took time-delay shots.

The horns of the crescent retreat surprisingly rapidly at this point.

I’ve cropped in a bit more here; the Sun’s photosphere is barely visible.

And, filters off!!!! My Nikon had the best field of view of all the magnified instruments, so this is the one that was able to catch the outermost parts of the corona. Down and to the left, that’s Regulus, a bright winter star that was plainly visible during the eclipse.

Here’s the view from the 130mm telescope; you can make out a bit more detail. It looked much better with the naked eye; it’s tough to get the cell phone cameras to get the right exposure for this.

And here’s with the 8 incher. There’s quite a bit of detail in the polar regions of the Sun, where you can make out streamers in the corona.

And the diamond ring appears! This heralds the end of totality, as the photosphere peeps over the Moon’s limb. At the right, you can just make out a solar prominence. We’d gotten a much better look earlier from another stargazer’s awesome h-alpha setup.

And with that, it’s time to put the filters back on.

About this time, excited eclipse viewers noticed an extra treat high above — the thin clouds that had started to gather were hosting a sun halo.

Little tip: never try to take eclipse pictures with a handheld camera, especially AFTER totality, when you’re still shaking from the adrenalin. 😉

And this is the last shot I got. Some folks stuck around for fourth contact, but my father-in-law had an excellent pot roast and a bottle of wine ready to celebrate by this time, so this was the end for me. End of a day I will never forget.

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