In their first launch of a scientific satellite for NASA, SpaceX has placed the Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Surveyor (TESS) into Earth orbit and successfully recovered the first stage. TESS is a follow-on to the massively successful Kepler space observatory. Like Kepler, it will use the transit observation method to detect exoplanets, but unlike Kepler, it will be an all-sky survey, reliant upon an unusual orbit in a 2:1 resonance with the Moon (to avoid ever coming too close to the Moon and having the orbit disrupted). The orbit is completely outside the Van Allen Belts, with a period of 13.7 days. TESS will be able to downlink to ground stations during its perigees, at a distance of 108,000 km (about three times further away than the geosynchronous ring). Although TESS has a nominal primary mission duration of two years, this orbit is expected to remain stable for decades, and the spacecraft will almost certainly be used to destruction like so many other NASA spacecraft, finding mission extension after extension until there is nothing more that it can do.
Falcon 9’s upper stage performed two burns, and then released TESS in a supersynchronous transfer orbit; the satellite itself will finish refining the orbit. The upper stage has by now disposed of itself over the Pacific Ocean, and the payload fairing conducted a water landing as part of SpaceX’s effort to reuse the fairings. (The company only has one fairing-catcher ship, Mr Steve, which is currently in California, unavailable for this mission. So far, the closest a returning fairing has gotten to Mr Steve is a few hundred yards, so there is still some refinement needed.)
A reused Dragon capsule launched by a reused Falcon 9 first stage is now en route to the ISS. The first stage was not recovered; it’s one of the older model stages, and SpaceX sacrificed it in order to conduct engineering tests during a water landing. There was no attempted fairing recovery, as the Dragon capsule does not require a fairing. But the launch was 100% successful:
Dragon is expected to rendezvous with the station on Wednesday, where it will go free-floating and be captured by the station’s SSRMS, which will pull it in to berth.
Mars Exploration Rover B “Opportunity” has blown away all predictions for longevity. I mean, NASA/JPL/APL always design their spacecraft to last as long as possible within budget constraints, but even by their own high standards, this thing has lasted a long, long time. And just a few days ago, it saw something nobody thought it ever would — it’s 5,000th Martian sunrise.
And it finally took its first selfie. 😉 Well, not exactly the first, since it has taken pictures from its mast before. But this was the first selfie taken using Opportunity’s robot art, similarly to how Curiosity regularly takes selfies. Opportunity’s arm doesn’t have as good of a camera; it’s really meant for up-close microscopic images. But it was a nice way of commemorating Sol 5,000:
This is an amazing story. An amateur satellite hunter, Scott Tilley, was looking for signs that the Zuma spacecraft might have actually survived the Falcon 9 launch that supposedly dumped it into the ocean. After all, the only word we have that it failed to separate was an unnamed congressional staffer; in these circles, that amounts to nothing more than rumor. So Tilley was looking for unaccounted for radio signals that might be consistent with the Falcon 9 launch. He didn’t find Zuma, but he did find something else: a NASA satellite named IMAGE that had lost contact years ago.
IMAGE was built as a highly capable space weather forecasting and research tool, but in 2005, it suddenly stopped communicating. NASA had hoped that an upcoming eclipse season (where the spacecraft would spend relatively long periods in the Earth’s shadow) would cause its batteries to drain, forcing it to reboot, but no signal was recovered. So eventually the project had to disband and move on.
Now, years later, it seems IMAGE has finally managed to reboot itself after all. NASA is calling on old engineers, pulling up old drawings and specs, and preparing to try and regain routine control of the spacecraft. If successful, it would be a huge benefit to space weather forecasting. So cross your fingers!
Long Dead NASA Spacecraft Wakes Up
This gave me enormous joy on a rather tense day.
The ISS is going into another busy period with upcoming cargo ship movements. First off, the latest Cygnus spacecraft, SS Gene Cernan, was unberthed and released to fly on its own. SS Gene Cernan now moves into the second part of its mission: deploying nanosatellites, conducting another fire test (Saffire-III, the third and final in the series), and then deorbiting itself safely over the ocean.
The next bit of news is SpaceX preparing for their next flight to the ISS. This will mark the return to flight of LC-40, the Cape Canaveral launchpad that was badly damaged in a Falcon 9/Dragon mishap last year. Liftoff is currently scheduled for December 12, and their traditional pre-flight test fire was conducted yesterday, reinaugurating LC-40’s flame trench (skip ahead two minutes for the fire):
The Voyager 1 spacecraft has been flying for over 40 years now, an incredible history. But recently, mission controllers at JPL have found that the attitude control thrusters appear to have degraded performance. Concerned they might not last out the last few years of expected performance, JPL decided to try something else — to use the trajectory correction maneuver thrusters. These thrusters were responsible for changes to the spacecraft’s actual trajectory, and are larger than the attitude control thrusters. More importantly, they have a lot fewer hours of operation. But there was a catch — the last time these thrusters fired, it was to set up the flyby of Saturn in 1980. Could they still find the documentation to write a program to fire the thrusters in tiny pulses for attitude control? And would the thrusters still work after being asleep for so long?
Well, the answer to both was “yes”, and JPL believes they’ve bought at least another 2-3 years for the spacecraft. With the expected end of mission (or, end of extended-extended-extended-n-times-extended-mission) in 2020 or so, that’s pretty significant; this means they are back to expecting that declining electrical power output will be what kills the spacecraft.
At any rate, these magnificently engineered engines are working like a champ, and they will continue to be used, possibly for the remainder of the mission, with the attitude control thrusters now relegated to a backup role. Meanwhile, they are exploring the same option for Voyager 2, although its attitude control thrusters still appear healthy.