Chandrayaan-1: the Lost and Found Lunar Orbiter

This is pretty cool. ¬†ūüėČ

On October 22, 2008, India joined the elite group of nations which have successfully sent spacecraft to orbit the Moon. ¬†The mission was successful, conducting joint operations with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS impactor, deploying an impactor of its own to help search for lunar ice (and making India only the fourth country to place its flag upon the Moon), and providing the first definitive proof of water ice in the lunar soil. ¬†The mission was cut short, however, when the spacecraft abruptly stopped responding to ground commands on August 29, 2009. ¬†The cause of the failure was never determined, but it had been experiencing issues in several systems, including the star tracker that keeps its antenna aligned with Earth.

Like other deep space spacecraft, the moment it stopped transmitting it became impossible to track from Earth — the Moon is much too far away to track such small objects (in Chandrayaan-1’s case, about 1.5 meters by 1.5 meters) by radar.

Or is it?

As international governmental and private space programs grow at an astonishing rate, it has become clear that space traffic will increasingly become a problem not just in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and in the immensely valuable Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO, the province of most communications satellites) but in deep space as well. ¬†The recent move of the MAVEN spacecraft to dodge Mars’ innermost moon, Phobos, also underscores the hazards. ¬†So JPL conducted a study to see whether lunar spacecraft actually¬†could be tracked from Earth. And guess what — they can!

JPL’s first target was LRO, because it’s an active spacecraft and therefore its real position is known with exquisite precision. ¬†Having located it with ground-based radar, the team moved on to something trickier: the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft. ¬†Lunar spacecraft are difficult, because the Moon is so lumpy that a) dead spacecraft don’t stay long unless their orbits are fairly high, and b) orbits can be difficult to predict over long timescales. ¬†Nevertheless, they found it. ¬†Chandrayaan-1 is dead, but not gone, and certainly not forgotten.

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Pan, the Space Ravioli

Seriously, that’s what Saturn’s moon Pan looks¬†

Cassini has just made the closest ever pass to Pan, one of Saturn’s shepherd moons. ¬†It orbits within (and basically creates) the Encke Gap in Saturn’s rings. ¬†The wide flat band of material around its equator is material accreted from the rings themselves. ¬†The best part, though, is that the Cassini imaging team at JPL put together this neat animated GIF collecting all of the raw images from this particular imaging sequence, and its glorious:


It’s bittersweet, knowing that these close orbits are dooming Cassini to eventually fall into the giant planet, but we’d never get these incredible images otherwise, images of the greatest natural lab we’ve ever found for studying the way a planetary system can form.

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Space news catchup! Vega, Blue Origin, GOES-16’s lightning mapper, and more!

It’s been really busy lately, so I haven’t has as much time to post as I’d like. ¬†So today I will make up for it with a bunch of space news updates!

First off, a rocket launch is always fun. ¬†Arianespace’s Vega launcher placed the Sentinel 2B environmental monitoring satellite into orbit from Kourou, French Guiana:

Meanwhile, GOES-16 continues its commissioning phase. ¬†As part of that, it has returned its first view of lightning from 22,000 miles away, a demonstration of its incredible capacity at this range. ¬†The green lines represent the coast of Texas. ¬†The lightning is all in real time, and is overlaid over an image taken at the same time by GOES-16’s revolutionary Advanced Baseline Imager.

This full-disk image was created from data from the same instrument, and shows total lightning energy recorded over a one-hour period (an hour which included the image above; that really bright spot in this image is the same storm system over Texas):

And then let’s go back to rockets! ¬†Blue Origin unveiled their New Glenn rocket today with an animation¬†depicting its flight profile. ¬†It is definitely similar to the strategy SpaceX is using, but one difference is that the engine, BE-4, will also by flying on another rocket,¬†ULA’s¬†Vulcan. ¬†Another difference is the strakes. ¬†It looks quite lovely, and I hope we’ll get to see it fly soon. ¬†They do already have a customer for it: the first flight customer will be Eutelsat.

And then, how about some good news on the political front? ¬†Cutting NASA has long been a bipartisan pasttime, but the tides seem to be changing. ¬†A strong bipartisan¬†majority in the House of Representatives voted to pass the NASA Authorization Bill, the first time they’ve managed to do so despite annual attempts in the past six years. ¬†(NASA has been operating under continuing resolutions instead.) ¬†This bill budgets $19.5 billion for NASA in 2017. ¬†Of course, now we have to see what actually gets appropriated; that’s a separate battle, and will start with the White House federal budget request. ¬†So cross your fingers, space geeks!

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NOAA satellite program will take a big budget cut

As NASA works towards launch the JPSS satellite on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration next September (delayed from this March), initiating the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites to replace the aging DMSP constellation, some bad news has come out of the White House: as the administration prepares its first budget request, NOAA is getting a 17% overall budget cut.

It hits some parts of NOAA harder than others. ¬†The lion’s share comes from a 22% cut to the highly successful satellite program, which could make it impossible to complete the JPSS constellation (although NOAA has obviously made no decisions at this point). ¬†Oceanic and Atmospheric Research will lose 26% of its budget. ¬†Research programs looking into coastal management and estuary reserves will be shuttered entirely, as will the Sea Grant program which sponsored university oceanic and coastal research. ¬†Only the fisheries department and the National Weather Service emerge relatively unscathed, with just a 5% cut each.

These numbers are not final, and should not be considered such until the budget is actually submitted. ¬†Even then, it’s really only a request; Congress will make their own modifications before approving it. ¬†But it is concerning. ¬†JPSS is coming much later than it should have, thanks to the collapse of the NPOESS program that was meant to succeed the POES constellation, but which died and was replaced by JPSS and DWSS. ¬†NPOESS was a NASA/NOAA-USAF collaboration; the successors were split, with the USAF taking DWSS. ¬†DWSS has now also been cancelled, so JPSS is now our only hope of retaining any decent low-altitude weather satellite coverage without relying entirely on foreign powers. ¬†The White House is urging NOAA (and others in the Commerce Department) to leverage commercial satellites, but the reality is that there are no commercial satellites that can do this mission to the level we have all come to expect, nor are there likely to be in the near future.

These cuts would come along with massive layoffs and closure of entire NOAA offices; therefore, it is quite possible that Congress will tweak the plan so it impacts their constituencies less, but we shall have to see. ¬†The bottom line, though, is that weather and climate are important, and having as much up-to-date data as possible is¬†vital to¬†our economic and physical well-being, so that we can respond to changing weather conditions before they become catastrophes. ¬†No matter how you feel about science or spaceflight, knowing when there’s a hurricane bearing down on you is a big deal. ¬†We need these satellites.

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China’s got a brand-new booster

The Kaitouzhe-2 (KT-2, or sometimes TK-2)¬†solid-fuel rocket made its maiden flight (unannounced, as is typical for Chinese government flights) from Jiuquan Space Center, placing a small payload into a polar orbit. ¬†Given the tendency to use liquid rockets for satellite launch services (they’re more versatile and more efficient), it’s been speculated¬†that the rocket is really intended as a ballistic missile. ¬†(Solids are more practical for this purpose, as they can be stored indefinitely in a fueled state and require much less infrastructure to launch.) ¬†However, officially it’s a low-cost commercial satellite launch vehicle. ¬†That would¬†also¬†be plausible, since¬†this vehicle appears to be suitable for the suddenly burgeoning small satellite business. ¬†They’re less fuel efficient than liquids, but they’re mechanically a lot simpler, which means they can usually be manufactured more quickly and in greater volume.

Anyway,¬†if you’re like me, what you really want is to see a rocket. ¬†So here it is!

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SpaceX could be the next to send humans to the Moon???

Yes, you heard that right. ¬†They have yet to launch their crewed spacecraft as far as the ISS, but this week they announced that two undisclosed wealthy individuals have approached them about riding a Dragon capsule, boosted by their soon-to-fly Falcon Heavy, in a trip around the Moon. ¬†(I’m betting they’re talking a lunar swingby mission, not an orbital mission.) ¬†They plan on conducting this mission by the end of 2018.

For perspective, there are only two flights of Falcon Heavy currently on the manifest (the demo launch and a USAF experimental mission, one this year and one the next), and the crewed Dragon isn’t set to fly to the ISS until the fourth quarter of 2018 as it is. ¬†(And the GAO recently expressed serious doubt about that even happening.) ¬†So this is pretty ambitious. ¬†Exciting, and very very cool, but certainly a stretch goal.

Who are the two individuals? ¬†SpaceX isn’t saying. ¬†They did, however, say they’d be happy to give NASA dibs on flying to the Moon aboard Dragon first — an announcement which came as a great shock to NASA, since they found out about all of this the same time the rest of us did.

This is sure to shake things up, and I’d not put odds on whether or not they’ll manage this. ¬†I do have to wonder whether they’re overextending themselves. ¬†They have put a lot of very ambitious challenges in front of themselves. ¬†From a program risk perspective, this doesn’t seem like a good idea. ¬†But if they pull it off . . . hoo boy. ¬†There’s quite a payoff in terms of bragging rights, and it’s definitely a strong step towards their ultimate goal: Mars.

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Atlas V successfully delivers NROL-79

Atlas V has put another¬†notch in their impressive belt of successful missions. ¬†It’s not a cheap rocket, but it is certainly reliable. ¬†It’s an interesting launch to watch; the rocket seems to practically crawl out of Vandenberg. ¬†This is the lightest variant of Atlas V, and from the performance I’d guess the payload/orbit is right at the limits of its capacity without boosters. ¬†Makes it kind of fun to watch. ¬†ūüėČ

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