Tag Archives: NASA

EVA-3 of Expedition 50 is complete

Today, Shane Kimbrough (USA) and Thomas Pesquet (France) ventured outside the ISS to complete the 40th spacewalk from the US segment of the International Space Station, and the 198th overall.  (Note: most of the ISS spacewalks were conducted not from Station at all but from Shuttle, which is why the total spacewalk number appears so inflated by comparison.)  Today’s activities revolved mostly around prepping PMA-3 for its upcoming move to the Harmony node, where it will become available for future commercial crew operations.  This mostly consisted of unplugging things.  They also installed a new multiplexer/demultiplexer (MDM), did some work on the external cameras, lubricated the SSRMS, and completed some inspection work.  This video covers the entire spacewalk, not just the highlights, so maybe flip around through it to find interesting bits.  😉  This includes egress; you have to go up to about 45 minutes before they’re even emerging from the airlock.  (Spacewalks are complex; it’s not like going for a casual stroll.)

 

 

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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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The seven rocky worlds of TRAPPIST-1

NASA had a big announcement today: the dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 has at least seven terrestrial planets, and at least three of them are in the star’s “goldilocks zone”, where liquid water could exist on the surface (assuming sufficient atmospheric pressure).

TRAPPIST-1 got its name from a Belgian telescope called the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, situated at La Silla Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert.  TRAPPIST found that the star (catalogue number 2MASS J23062928-0502285) had at least three exoplanets orbiting it by observing the star’s lightcurve change as the planets transited.

Subsequently, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope was called in to confirm the discovery, in a marathon 500-hour focused study of the TRAPPIST-1 system.  And it did!  Today, NASA announced that not only are the three worlds real, there are at least four more.  And at least three but possibly all of them are in the habitable zone.  This is the largest collection of terrestrial worlds ever found.  Since they orbit quite near their dim parent, astronomers were able to calculate their densities, and they’re pretty close in size to Earth — some are actually smaller.

The Hubble Space Telescope is now being called in to study the planets in more detail, and hopefully to determine whether or not any of them has a substantial atmosphere, preferably one with an unusual concentration of hydrogen, which would imply water vapor.  So far, it hasn’t found evidence of an atmosphere (and has largely ruled out the kind of atmosphere we’re all hoping for on TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c), but they’re still looking, and the search is expected to continue into the James Webb Space Telescope.  The hobbled Kepler Space Telescope (now “K2”) has also been studying this system.

Here’s an artist’s concept, to show you the relative sizes (note that color is completely imaginary at this point):

pia21428_-_trappist-1_comparison_to_solar_system_and_jovian_moons

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The Rockets of LC-39A

 

Yesterday, LC-39A moved into a new chapter by launching a Falcon 9, but it’s just the latest of many chapters.  Originally constructed in the 1960s for the giant Saturn V rocket, and consequently one of the biggest and toughest pads in the world, it has hosted four different rockets in its history (five if you count a different configuration of Saturn V).  I thought I’d share clips of each of them taking off.  😉

Here’s the first launch from LC-39A, of the uncrewed Apollo 4 test flight:

The pad would host many more Apollo launches, including Apollo 11.  After the Apollo mission was over, NASA got funding to expend the surplus hardware mounting the Skylab program.  The last launch of a Saturn V came from LC-39A and placed the Skylab space station into orbit, easily the most massive single payload of any mission in history:

Following this, the crewed missions to Skylab were launched using the much smaller Saturn 1B (itself an impressive rocket, but most things look small next to Saturn V).  However, the pad originally used for Saturn 1B Apollo flights out of Cape Canaveral Air Station was no longer configured for it, so NASA modified one of the Mobile Launchers to basically adapt Saturn 1B to a Saturn V launch tower — by adding a structure nicknamed “the milkstool”.  Here’s the final Apollo mission, for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

After that, LC-39A would not see another flight for nearly six years.  During that time, it received substantial modifications for the Space Shuttle program.  The Mobile Launchers were stripped of their towers, in favor of a Fixed Service Structure that would remain permanently at the pad.  The Apollo-era Mobile Service Structure, which normally sat parked about a mile from the pad, was scrapped as well, in favor of a Rotating Service Structure that would sit attached to the FSS at the pad.  And in April of 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia baptized the modified pad with her own fire (notice the white External Tank, and Columbia’s distinctive black chines):

And then, thirty years later, the Shuttle era came to an end with the final flight of Atlantis, also from LC-39A:

After that mission, LC-39A was mothballed.  39B was earmarked for the Space Launch System, the next monster rocket, and has been converted back to a “clean pad” configuration, a la Apollo.  But 39A had no immediate mission and was offered up to civilian use.  It took a while, but eventually SpaceX made a case for adapting it to the massive Falcon Heavy rocket.  SpaceX has left much of the original Shuttle-era hardware present, including the FSS and RSS (although both were long since stripped of salvageable and historic gear by NASA); I’m not sure whether they plan to keep them all there.  Their eventual crew-access arm could be added to the FSS, but the RSS has little value for them.  But in the meantime, it is good to see the pad back in use, and slightly quicker this time.  😉

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GOES-16 catches the Moon

I have a particular fondness for pictures of the Earth and Moon together.  NOAA’s latest weather satellite, the ground-breaking GOES-16, produced this particularly stunning example.  It’s currently in its commissioning phase, so it isn’t yet contributing to weather forecasting.  But it will, and when it does, it will be spectacular.  This image was taken from geosynchronous orbit — 22,000 miles away.  Earth and Moon are natural color, and this is not a composite — this is the image it actually took.  It can be surprising to see the Moon look so dark; we’re used to seeing it so bright in our night sky.  But it’s really because the Earth is so much brighter.  The Moon is of course not a usual target for a GOES satellite; but it still will take pictures of the Moon every now and again for calibration purposes, since unlike the Earth, the Moon looks very much the same from one orbit to the next.  For now, though, this image exists mostly to be beautiful.  Enjoy it!

ab_moon_from_geo_orbit_med_res_jan_15_2017

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Daphnis, the ring-sculptor

Strictly speaking, Daphnis is one of many ring-sculptors — the shepherd moons that maintain some of the notable visual features of the rings of Saturn.  In the case of Daphnis, that’s the Keeler Gap, a narrow gap carved out the A ring by the gentle gravitational tug of war between Saturn and the tiny moon.

Daphnis was actually discovered by the Cassini probe in 2005, but its existence was suspected long before, when the Keeler Gap was itself discovered in images taken by the twin Voyager probes.  Voyager had already discovered the moons Prometheus and Pandora, which the Voyager team dubbed “shepherd moons” for the way their push and tug confined a group of particles to the very narrow F-ring.  So it was surmised that the other gaps would turn out to have moons creating them as well. Mimas seems to be responsible, at least in part, for both the Cassini Division and the Huygens Gap, and of course Prometheus and Pandora constrain the F ring.  Pan, discovered in 1990 from old Voyager data, is likely responsible for the Encke Gap.  And Daphnis is the sculptor of the Keeler Gap.

Or, at least, the main sculptor.  Saturn’s rings are very complex, and serve as a fascinating natural laboratory for studying gravitational interactions, and particularly the sort hypothesized to have created the solar system as we know it.  And Daphnis, like other shepherd moons, does not orbit perfectly neatly.  Its orbit is slightly inclined relative to the ringplane, and slightly elliptical as well.  Thus, it doesn’t produce a nice tidy circle, but carves out waves as it passes — waves both ahead and behind, and, as this recent Cassini image shows, sometimes it pulls off delicate tendrils of ring particles (look verrrrry closely, or just click to enlarge – you’ll see a thin wisp of material echoing the shape of the nearby wave in the ring):

That’s the closest image ever taken of Daphnis, a tiny moon roughly the same size as Mount Everest.  It appears to have striations running down its length, probably the result of accumulated ring particles — sometimes, even a tiny moon like this will manage to capture something and pull it down.  But if you want a more dramatic image of this effect, you will have to look at Daphnis near Saturn’s equinox, when the shadows are at their longest.  Then you can see what is hidden in this image: the waves aren’t just flat features.  They stand surprisingly tall.

By studying this process, scientists hope to better understand planetary formation.  Indeed, they’ve even found a few spots in Saturn’s rings where it appears that moonlets may be in the process of forming, clumping together at random until eventually one clump reaches a critical mass and begins to dominate the particles around it, gradually growing until it exhausts its immediate surroundings, carving out another gap.  Daphis itself shows signs that it may be accumulating material.  Saturn’s rings are an astonishingly and fascinatingly dynamic place.

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