This is pretty cool. 😉
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.
This edited rocketcam footage from the C37 PSLV mission is pretty awesome, because it shows all 104 spacecraft making it safely away into their designated orbits. It gives me amazing joy to see all these little spacecraft just being spat out into orbit; it’s amazing this can be done, and flawlessly at that!
India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which has become quite the commercial workhorse in the last few years, just obliterated the record for most satellites placed into orbit with a single launch, placing an incredible 104 satellites into orbit. The primary payload was Cartosat 2D, a large environmental mapping satellite. After it was released, two Indian nanosatellites were ejected to test out new sensors. And then came the real marathon — 101 satellites being deployed from 25 Dutch-built “QuadPack” launchers, while the PSLV’s upper stage maintained a very precise and stable orientation as the remaining satellites were ejected two at a time. If that’s not amazing enough, here’s another tidbit for you: the QuadPacks were only added to the launch manifest in the past six months! They’re built by a company called Innovative Solutions in Space, which aims to reduce the time and other barriers to getting a payload into orbit by arranging “rideshare” deals on other spacecraft. This was most definitely the biggest rideshare they’ve arranged so far. Among the 101 were eight Lemur weather nanosats from Spire Global of San Francisco, BGUSat from Ben Gurion University and Israel Aerospace Industries, the experimental Piezo Electric Assisted Smart Satellite Structure (PEASS) from the Netherlands, DIDO from SpacePharma in Switzerland, Al-Farabi 1 from students in Kazakhstan, Nayif 1 from students in the United Arab Emirates, and a whopping 88 Dove satellites for Planet, a San Fransisco satellite imaging company that has been arranging various “flocks” of its Dove satellites. This is by far the largest flock yet.
So, what does a launch of 104 satellites look like? Well, disappointingly, from the ground it looks like any other, since all the interesting stuff happens after its above the atmosphere. But that still means it looks pretty cool. 😉
Two more successful launches this week! First off, yesterday India placed the Resourcesat 2A spacecraft into orbit aboard a PSLV XL rocket from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island. The satellite will fly on a polar orbit (inclination 98.7 degrees) to study resource utilization, soil contamination, water usage, and so forth across the Indian subcontinent.
Then this evening, a rare Delta IV Medium rocket (the “stick” configuration of the Delta IV, seldom used because although it is highly reliable, it is also highly *expensive*) placed the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) 8 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-8 will serve military customers, providing both targeted and full-disk communications beams in variety of frequency bands. It is the most capable military commsat launched by the USAF, capable of serving multiple bands simultaneously and even switching between them on the fly.
And here’s a rather different perspective on the launch — a deceptively peaceful one, shot by a drone over nearby Cocoa Beach. The audio is from the operator’s cellphone, so mostly records the sound of the ocean waves rolling in. You have to listen carefully to hear the distant warbling roar of the rocket.
India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, a remarkably reliable rocket, has just completed its most technically challenging launch to date, placing ScatSat 1 (an Indian weather satellite), Pathfinder 1 (a prototype commercial imaging satellite from American company BlackSky), AlSat 1B and AlSat 2B (a pair of Algerian Earth imaging satellites), an Algerian CubeSat, a Canadian CubeSat called CanX-7, and a pair of Indian student-built satellites called PRATHAM and PISAT. The complex deployment pattern required the PSLV’s fourth stage to relight twice, a first for the vehicle and a major step in positioning it to continue competing in the international launch market. This capability is critical for multi-payload deployments, an increasingly popular method of getting one’s payload into orbit more cheaply, especially as small satellites become far more capable.
This was a busy week for spaceflight. In addition to the ongoing SpaceX investigation and the OSIRIS-REx launch, there was also a launch from India and a landing in Kazakhastan.
First off, the successful return of Aleksey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka, and Jeffrey Williams aboard Soyuz TMA-20M earlier this week:
You may remember them as the crew that had this awesome mission patch:
And then from Sriharikota, India’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre, an all-domestic GSLV rocket blasted off, delivering the Insat 3DR weather satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The GSLV has had a difficult path, as various components are replaced or added or removed or changed and with an unfortunately high rate of failures. So this launch was particularly important for ISRO, which seeks to become a viable international competitor in the commercial launch market. Their rockets are cheaper even than Falcon 9, and GSLV’s increased performance over the highly reliable PSLV is critical in order to capture valuable geosynchronous business. (GSLV actually stands for Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle.) What’s more, ISRO will be depending on GLSV to place their next Chandrayaan moon probe into lunar transfer orbit — and that one will be their most ambitious deep space probe yet, featuring orbiter, lander, and rover in one mission. But until then, check out the Insat 3DR launch. Notice one unique feature: the core stage is solid, while the strap-ons are hypergolic, so the plume is inverted from what you’d expect on an Atlas or Long March launch. It’s an intriguing hybrid of a rocket — solid core, hypergolic strap-on boosters, and a cryogenic upper stage. And perhaps it is finally coming into its own.
First off, India’s PSLV made another successful flight, racking up its quota of successful low-cost launches to Earth orbit! In fact, it set a domestic record, carrying 20 satellites to orbit on this mission, easily a record for India, for customers in Indonesia, Canada, Germany, and the United States, including a Google payload.
Secondly, the Cygnus spacecraft from Orbital Sciences has completed its mission at the ISS and its post-ISS mission to conduct a fire experiment called SAFIRE. There will be more SAFIRE tests on future Cygnus flights, to better understand how fire propagates (or doesn’t) in weightlessness at scales not possible inside of crewed spacecraft for safety reasons.
Here’s raw video of the actual flames observed inside of Cygnus’ SAFIRE experiment module:
Then, yesterday, Cygnus fired its engines one last time to auger itself in over the South Pacific, carrying one last experiment: REBR, a Re-Entry Breakup Recorder, a device that has been flown on a few other returning disposable spacecraft such as ATV and HTV, to better understand how the breakup happens during reentry, with an eye to improving safety for the vehicles we want to actually survive the process. Waste not, want not. 😉
This particular Cygnus was named the SS Rick Husband, in honor of the late commander of STS-107, the final flight of Columbia.