Tag Archives: JAXA

Soyuz MS-01 docking!

Earlier this week, the first Soyuz MS completed the first leg of its maiden voyage, arriving at the ISS right on time and docking smoothly.  The spacecraft’s enhancements include satellite communications to make use of the new Luch spacecraft communications constellation (an analog to NASA’s TDRSS), navigation via both GLONASS and GPS, a phased-array radar to reduce the number of antennas needed, and more efficient thrusters and power system.  The second Soyuz MS, due to fly in September, will also take a lengthy rendezvous to enable comprehensive testing, but after that they should be able to return to the six-hour ascent profile.

The crew have joined the ISS Expedition 48 crew, and will remain on the station into Expedition 49, to return home in November.


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Soyuz MS-01 is in orbit!

The newest model of the venerable Soyuz spacecraft has reached orbit!  As it’s a new model, it will not be taking the rapid ascent flight profile, and will instead spend the next couple of days gradually working its way towards the ISS while the crew performs testing to validate the new vehicle.

The crew are commander Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos, flight engineer Takuya Onishi of JAXA, and flight engineer Kate Rubins of NASA.  Ivanishin is making his second spaceflight; Onishi and Rubins are both rookies.

New features on the Soyuz MS include more efficient solar arrays, an improved Kurs rendezvous and docking system that does not require as many antennas (which has been an issue in the past; the additional antennas represented additional possible points of failure), digital video from the docking camera for the first time on Soyuz, a new navigational system, new sensors for guidance and attitude control, and the capability to use Russia’s tracking and data relay satellites.  Soyuz has in past been confined to communications with ground stations.  Unlike other countries, Russia has been able to get by with that, since it simply has so much ground to put stations on!  But this will allow communications during almost a complete orbit, as NASA has enjoyed with Shuttle and now Station for decades.

Although this is the first crewed flight of Soyuz MS, the new systems have been tested in space — the same upgrades were made on the Progress MS series, of which there have been two so far.  The third Progress MS is now scheduled to fly July 16.

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Akatsuki is in business!

The Japanese space probe that wouldn’t quit, Akatsuki, has completed its commissioning phase and is now beginning its primary mission around the planet Venus.  It arrived at Venus five months ago, and five years after it was originally scheduled to do so.  A faulty engine valve prevented its orbit insertion burn from happening, but JAXA mission controllers didn’t give up; they developed a plan using maneuvering thrusters that would give Akatsuki a second chance for orbital insertion.  And last December, it made it.  JAXA is very optimistic about the spacecraft; after completing the in-orbit checkout, they believe it will definitely last its two-year primary mission, and perhaps even make it to the next decade.  To commemorate the start of its operational phase, Akatsuki’s mission team released this infrared image of Venus, showing clouds on the nightside of the planet in unprecedented detail.  (Akatsuki is not the first spacecraft to reach Venus, but it has the best infrared camera ever sent there.)


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JAXA declares Hitomi a loss

The Hitomi x-ray observatory, aka Astro-H, aka NeXT, that Japan launched just a couple of months ago was in its commissioning period when it abruptly lost contact with Earth on March 26.  JAXA has been struggling to regain control of the spacecraft, but sadly have now resigned themselves to its fate.  It is a total loss.  Furthermore, the intermittent garbled signals they thought they’d detected from it seem actually to have been radio interference in other signals unrelated to Hitomi, and not a true signal after all.

Ground observations in by visual and radio telescopes show that both of the spacecraft’s solar arrays have separated, and it has been tumbling since March 26.  It is very difficult to determine what went wrong, since most of the evidence is silently orbiting the Earth, but JAXA will be poring over manufacturing data, flight spares, and configuration data stored on Earth to try to figure it out.  Tentatively, it appears to have been a problem with the attitude control system, possibly in the software that controlled its orientation while passing through a magnetic anomaly which temporarily crippled the star tracker, which may have allowed the reaction control wheels to become oversaturated, further compromising its ability to control its orientation.  They believe tentatively that it got itself into a spin so violent that the solar arrays were literally ripped from the spacecraft.

This of course a very disappointing result.  Hitomi was to be a flagship x-ray observatory, carrying an instrument originally intended for Chandra, observing in frequencies that no other x-ray observatories currently cover.  It would cost tens of millions just to replace one of the instruments aboard the spacecraft; there’s no telling when, if ever, this mission could be reflown.

Goodbye, Hitomi.


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DMSP & Hitomi are having bad days

Spaceflight is tough, and as the push continues to build cheaper spacecraft, we need to remember why spacecraft are usually so expensive.  It’s all about reliability, because there is often an incredibly narrow margin in which these vehicles operate, and sometimes it can take very little to end their missions.

DMSP-19 stopped communicating last February, and yesterday the USAF announced they were discontinuing efforts to contact it.  Less than half way through its primary mission, DMSP-19 is dead.  The problem is believed to be something in its power system, but there are very few clues to go on.  The spacecraft is still intact and tracked by radar, but it is derelict now.  What’s really frustrating is knowing how thin this leaves our margins for adequate weather forecasting.  DMSP and its civilian cousin POES was supposed to be followed by the NPOESS constellation, but that has been cancelled.  Just one element, the gapfiller NPP Suomi, was launched.  Today, NOAA and NASA are pressing forward with their part of NPOESS, now called JPSS, but the military side, DWSS, was cancelled and so they will be partnering with the Europeans instead to get adequate coverage.  The USAF still has one more DMSP spacecraft as a ground spare, but after that they will no new weather satellites of their own in the pipeline, and there is still no plan to change that state of affairs.

Meanwhile, in Japan, controllers are attempting to learn the fate of their latest x-ray space observatory, Hitomi.  It, too, stopped communicating.  It was still in its commissioning phase when communications stopped, and now the USAF has reported tracking at least five objects around it.  Satellite spotters report seeing its brightness vary in a very predictable way, which means it’s tumbling out of control.  This would account for the difficulty in communicating; Japanese controllers have been able to downlink a few snippets of telemetry, but they were very brief as it cannot maintain a lock on the ground with its dish antenna.  JAXA doesn’t give up easily, but this one is almost certainly a goner.  With debris around it, it’s probably suffered an explosion of some kind.  Not quite enough to kill it, but enough to adjust its orbit slightly and set it spinning.  Likely suspects include the propulsion system and the batteries.  The only thing ruled out at present is a collision with a tracked object; the USAF recorded no objects with a trajectory that could have intersected it.  It’s very sad, and I hope they got insurance.

On a more positive note, Progress M-29M, the last of its series, has departed the ISS (and will deorbit in a few weeks, after being used for a number of experiments involving spinning it to create artificial gravity), and its replacement, Progress MS-02, has launched towards the ISS.  It is the second of the latest generation of Progress spacecraft, the 63rd to fly to the ISS, and carries production number 432.  It launched today aboard a Soyuz-2-1a from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

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X-Ray Astronomy and Oceanography get boosts to space

Tuesday, the European Sentinel 3A oceanographic satellite was placed into orbit by a Rockot launcher operating out of Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the Russian Arctic.

Then today, Japan’s H-IIA rocket placed the ASTRO-H X-ray observatory into orbit from Tanegashima Space Center.

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Space Probe Catchup: Hayabusa 2, Curiosity, New Horizons, and Dawn – Occator Crater revealed!

I’ve been busy lately, so I have not had much time to write, so here’s the latest on three different deep space probes!

First off, Hayabusa 2 made a successful flyby of the Earth on December 3, flying about 3,090 km above Hawaii at closest approach.  The spacecraft was performing a gravity assist maneuver, and controllers now report the maneuver was performed flawlessly: Hayabusa 2 is right on target to encounter asteroid 162173 Ryugu in 2018.  Hayabusa 2 is a follow-on to the original Hayabusa mission, which encountered serious difficulties but still managed to return samples from asteroid 25143 Itokawa.  Hayabusa 2 builds on the lessons learned from that mission and should be able to return much larger samples, scheduled for 2018.  It will also deploy a set of landers, both Japanese and European.

Earth from Hayabusa 2, just after the gravity assist.  Summer has reached the South Pole.

Earth from Hayabusa 2, just after the gravity assist. Summer has reached the South Pole.

Here’s a fantastic animation showing its flight:

Next, Curiosity!

The Mars Science Lander “Curiosity” is now well into its mission exploring Mount Sharp in the center of Gale Crater.  Its latest object of interest is a field of sand dunes.  The going will be difficult, and the team will be very cautious, since it was sand dunes that irretrievably mired MER-A “Spirit”.  This is the rippled surface of “High Dune”, within a dune field named Bagnold Dunes.


The texture and particles are very intriguing, and Curiosity may learn a lot when it samples them.  They’ve already used the wheels to help get a peek below the surface:



And still New Horizons returns data!

The probe is continuing its long, slow plod through the enormous data set that it collected at Pluto.  Color data is now available for those high resolution images taken at closest approach, and it only looks wilder:


Click for the larger image.  It’s really quite weird looking.  The geology must involve some processes that simply don’t happen on Earth, although some of it looks distinctly familiar to our eyes.

Last but not least, Dawn!

Dawn has continued studying 1 Ceres, the closest of the dwarf planets, and there is new information on the mysterious lights in Occator Crater!   Occator Crater has by far the brightest spots on Ceres, but the small world is sprinkled with bright spots.  New spectrographic analysis is consistent with all of those spots being a salt called hexahydrite, which is a type of magnesium sulfate.  Furthermore, all of the spots are associated with impact craters.  This allows them to rule out ice volcanism.  They  believe the spots are salt left behind after water sublimated away following impacts which exposed a briny water layer just below Ceres’ crust.  They aren’t yet suggesting that layer to be liquid, by the way.  It could well be ice, which would rapidly boil away in the sunlight this close to the Sun.  (Ceres is near the limit of our Sun’s golidlocks zone.)  Occator Crater they think is brightest because of relative youth, and possibly also a more energetic impact digging deeper into this layer.  It appears that the water may not have finished sublimating away from Occator Crater, as there is evidence of water vapor accumulating in the crater from both Dawn and also the Herschel Space Observatory.

Another team was analyzing for evidence of ammonia compounds on Ceres, and came up with a lot of evidence, locked up in clays.  This is particularly interesting because surface ammonia is even more volatile than water; that Ceres has some suggests it formed further away from the Sun than its present position.  Perhaps interactions with the giant planets pushed it in.  Ceres is also unusually rich in water ice for a main belt asteroid, which would tend to suggest the same thing.

Here is a color-enhanced image of Ceres rotating.  The enhanced colors help to pick out subtle differences but should not be interpreted as what the human eye would see.

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