All posts by Rick

Crazy Times

Some on your are wondering, where’s Rick? Is he gone? Does he still do aerospace stuff?

I’m still around. In fact, I’m involved with too many initiatives.

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret. I have a day job, but it’s not in the aerospace industry. I work with embedded computing, the Linux operating system, and toolchains that generate machine code. If you understood that last sentence, then you probably have a good idea of the domain that I work in. I do these because these are important building blocks for future work in flight vehicle telemetry and control, autonomous systems, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

In my case, I’m not primarily in the developer role, but rather building up and maintaining the test automation. I configure boards and storage devices, build new kernels, install Linux distributions, look for platform aberrations, etc. Often these are used as build slaves to someone’s build master.

Beyond the day job, I have too many after-hours initiatives. I’m going try to briefly list them here without divulging prorietary information. (What possessed me? How in the world do I do all those things?)

  • Nanoelectronics start-up—I’m on the ground floor of a technology start-up for a different kind of transistor. If it works, it will have a major impact on future space avionics systems, and instrumentation that goes into high radiation environments.
  • Small UAV (drone) development—I’m a strategist/contributor for a small aerospace technology company in developing drones for special applications. Part of my role is reality checking the compute workload for certain types of missions. I examine the computing elements of existing drones.
  • CubeCab—This is a company that wants to launch individual CubeSats into Earth orbit. In 2014, we won the NewSpace Business Plan Competition. My focus is on the avionics side. I’ve had the good fortune to work alongside very smart propulsion people. Getting a vehicle from design to bending metal to actual commercial launch is a hard road to travel. But we’re still on that road.
  • Silicon Valley Space Center—I’m the Communications and DevOps Director. This is really two different roles merged into one. Communications involves getting the message out to SVSC friends and members. This goes into e-mail, onto the SVSC website, and into Facebook. DevOps is a contraction for “development operations”. This is a cross between IT operations, installing new versions of software, and developing a new platform for emerging needs. I also host a series of “TechTalks” by small space startups who have built satellites, propulsion systems, communication and tracking networks, etc. These have mostly taken place at the Hacker Dojo.
  • Experimental Rocket Propulsion Society—ERPS is involved in developing liquid propellant rockets. Like many other rocket groups formed in the 1990s, their vision is cheap access to space. Their first rocket was launched in 2003; some of the people involved in that launch have gone on to important industry roles. My original role was simply to host monthly meetings over at the Hacker Dojo. In May 2017, to my shock, I was elected to be President of ERPS. I decided that if they were going to do this to me, I was going to introduce some of my own initiatives. :-) So far, reception has been reasonably positive.
  • ASTRA—I might as well confess to it. ASTRA was conceived with the notion of enabling rapid incremental development of technologies to reduce the cost of access to space. This means flight platforms which help to mature a technology by flying it at relatively high frequencies and low cost. Shortening development cycles reduces the overall cost of a product. It is also important to give new technologies “flight heritage”. Without this, it is very difficult to get a new part or technology accepted into missions where the stakes are higher.

So if you were wondering why you haven’t seen posts from me for many, many months, that’s why.

Clearly, this is a bit too crazy. Some people believe that in doing all this, I am managing “controlled chaos”, an essential skill for managing a successful start-up. Believe me, it is not by design, and some consolidation or re-prioritization is clearly in order.

As I sort through this, I will probably share a bit more about these initiatives. In most cases, there is very little published about them, and some could use more exposure while they get their own publishing platforms under control.

Things to come: 2016 and beyond

Below are lists of “important” trends and events that are expected for space development and exploration over the next few years.

  • The expected events of 2016 and a few years beyond are presented. Many of them are based on current missions which are close to completion.
  • A more open-ended set of major development efforts are then presented for: spacecraft, human space flight, launch vehicles and propulsion, and exploration mission concepts.

It is impossible for these lists to be comprehensive; some of it is a matter of opinion as to importance. A myriad of things could be added, but the lists would then be of no use for focusing reader attention. There are a lot of other concepts that I believe have considerable technical and economic merit. But they currently lack the critical mass of technical and financial support to make them viable. As a result, I have not included them in the lists below. There are also a lot of good efforts which are operating “below the radar”. Depending on how they mature, they may show up on a future annual list.

Upcoming calendar

These are events which are scheduled, funded, and thus have a fairly high level of probability of happening.

[Updates: Jan 3 – add ISS one-year mission to 2016.]


  • Jan 17 – Jason-3, a NOAA satellite to study the Earth’s oceans, is set to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg AFB.
  • Jan – LISA Pathfinder, a technology demonstrator for gravitational wave detection, is expected to reach its destination, Sun-Earth L1.
  • Mar 14 – The ExoMars-1  spacecraft is expected to launch from Baikonur, and reach Mars in October. The spacecraft includes an orbiter looking for trace gases and lander demonstrating new entry, descent, and landing technology. ExoMars is a joint ESA/Roscosmos program. The prime contractor for the spacecraft is Thales Alenia Space Italia, but involves 134 companies from ESA countries.
  • Mar -Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will complete their one-year mission on the ISS and return to Earth.
  • Q2 – The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) is expected to launch to the ISS. Built by Made In Space, it was originally target for a Q4 launch on a Falcon 9, but preempted by the rocket’s return-to-flight activities.
  • Q2 – The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is expected to make its maiden flight. (Possibly Apr-May.)
  • Jul 4 – The NASA Juno spacecraft arrives at Jupiter. It will go into polar orbit, and study the planet’s gravitational and magnetic fields. As opposed to earlier missions to Jupiter, Juno uses solar arrays for power.
  • Oct – ExoMars-1 arrives at Mars.
  • Dec – OCO-3 (Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3) will be built from spare parts for the currently operating OCO-2, but will be installed on the Japanese module of the ISS.
  • 2016 – Irish technologists hope to launch Cumar (Irish word for “confluence”).  It would be the first Irish space mission.
  • 2016 – The Antares launch vehicle is expected to return to flight. Built by Orbital-ATK, it will use Energomash RD-181 engines rather than the original Aerojet AJ26 (Kuznetsov NK33) engines.


  • Sep 15 – Cassini will complete its mission by plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere.
  • 2017 – The ISRO Chandrayaan-2 lunar mission is expected to launch.
  • 2017 – GLXP team Moon Express will use an Electron rocket, developed by Rocket Lab USA, for its bid to land its MX-1E lander on the Moon in 2017.
  • 2017 – GLXP team SpaceIL will launch it lunar lander on a Falcon 9.


  • Jul 30 – NASA’s Solar Probe Plus spacecraft will launch. It will fly into the Sun’s corona, as close as 95 solar radii.
  • Sep 30 – Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) is the first planned flight of the Space Launch System (SLS). It will carry an uncrewed Orion on a circumlunar seven-day flight.
  • Oct – Solar Orbiter will launch, and investigate now the Sun creates and controls its heliosphere, getting as close as 0.28 AU.
  • 2018 – ESA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on an Ariane 5. A joint NASA/ESA/CSA project (C for Canadian), it will be located near Sun-Earth L2, 1.5 million km behind the Earth. It utilizes a sunshield to keep the temperature below 50 K, thus enhancing infrared observations.
  • 2018 – ExoMars-2 rover mission is launched to Mars, carrying an autonomous rover. It uses the orbiter from the ExoMars-1 2016 mission as its data relay.
  • 2018 – The InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission should be ready to launch to study the deep interior of Mars. It was originally scheduled for March 2016, but has delayed the launch due to a leak in a primary instrument.


  • Jan – New Horizons will arrive at 2014 MU69.
  • 2019 – The ULA Vulcan launch vehicle should make its maiden flight.


  • 2020 – The Mars 2020 mission, using the same chassis as Curiosity, is expected to launch. Among the planned components is a sample return element.
  • 2020 – Ariane 6 should make its first flight.


  • 2022 – The Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission (formerly Europa Clipper) mission is expected to launch.

In development

Some projects/efforts have significant popular or political backing, or committed funding; but development projects rarely proceed on the schedule adopted at project kick-off. Nevertheless, this is where the next set of technology and missions come from.


  • Internet satellite constellations: More than half the world’s population does not have Internet access.  A couple of competing efforts are planning constellations for global coverage. OneWeb, which has investments from Virgin Group and Qualcomm, expects to put up 700 satellites. SpaceX, with investments form Google and Fidelity, expects to put up 4000.
  • Skybox Imaging, now owned by Google, has launched Skysat-1 and SkySat-2. It has contracted to SSL to build a constellation of satellites for them.
  • Planet Labs continues to build, launch, and deploy its Dove CubeSats. It now has over 100 in orbit.

Human space flight

  • NASA is accepting new applications for astronauts between Dec 14, 2015, and Feb 18, 2016. Final selection will be announced in mid-2017. To apply, see the posting on USAJobs. In 2012, NASA received over 6,000 applications, from which 8 were chosen in 2013. (The usual application number is over 2,000.)
  • Anticipating a need for commercial astronauts on both orbital and suborbital vehicles, Astronauts4Hire now has about 170 members who pursue professional disciplines and build skills for vehicles and missions in development. [ A4H site ]

Launch vehicles and propulsion

Multiple classes of launch vehicles have come into demand.

  • The Space Launch System (SLS), which evolved in part out of the cancelled Ares vehicles, which in turn evolved Space Shuttle technology, occupies the heavy lift class of launch vehicles. The Block 1 and 2 configurations will carry 70 and 130 metric tons to LEO respectively.
  • SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which is expected to fly in Q2, will carry 54 metric tons. It is composed of a Falcon 9 core, and a couple of Falcon 9-derived strap-on boosters. The
  • Falcon 9 recently completed its first successful landing while delivering a payload to orbit. An expendable vehicle, the  F9 v1.1 can lift 13,150 kg to LEO. A reusable vehicle would carry less.
  • Orbital ATK Antares is expected to return to flight in 2016, with a LEO payload capacity of 6,120 kg (6.12 metric tons).
  • The ULA Vulcan rocket is the planned successor to the Atlas and Delta rockets.  Its features a pair of Blue Origin BE-4 engines, which should be recoverable, and a Centaur upper stage. A single core Vulcan would send 15.1 metric tons to GTO, and a triple core, 23.0 metric tones.
  • Ariane 6 is being designed to places satellites on GTO trajectories. Two configurations are proposed: Ariane 62 carrying 5,000 kg, and Ariane 64 carrying 11,000 kg. First flight is scheduled for 2020. A partially reusable version, utilizing the Adeline rocket, is being worked out, with possible first flight in 2025-2030.
  • Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS): To deal with the growing backlog and massive rise of interest in very small satellites such as CubeSats to LEO, in October 2015, NASA awarded VCLS contracts to three companies: Firefly Space Systems for their Alpha rocket, Rocket Lab USA for Electron, and Virgin Galactic for LauncherOne.
  • Stratolaunch Systems is building a large carrier vehicle out of two used 747-400 aircraft. It would air-launch a rocket capable of sending 6,100 kg to LEO. The rocket was to be built by SpaceX, later by Orbital ATK; it is currently undefined.

A couple of protoype systems for CubeSat high specific impulse propulsion have arisen in recent years, and bear watching.

  • Accion Systems, a spin-off of MIT, has developed an ionic electrospray liquid propulsion system.
  • Phase Four, a spin-off of U. Mich., has developed the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT) plasma engine.

Exploration mission concepts

  • Mars 2020 builds on vehicle technology proven by Curiosity, and address key questions about the potential for life on Mars.
  • Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission (formerly Europa Clipper) will orbit Jupiter, but make many flybys of Europa.
  • ARM (Asteroid Redirect Mission) will collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid, and redirect it to orbit around the Moon. In the mid-2020s, astronauts would visit it and return with samples.
  • Journey to Mars” is the name of a NASA vision and report for creating the building blocks that would lead to humans exploring Mars.

There and back again

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware of the SpaceX Falcon 9 return-to-flight and landing-on-land that happened on December 21.  But if not, here’s what you missed.

In general, SpaceX webcasts can be fairly educational. But here we’ve jumped immediately into the action. Here are some associated timestamps (mm:ss):

  • 22:00 – T minus 1 minute to launch
  • 30:20 – Coming up on first stage entry burn
  • 31:30 – Some cool math on return of the first stage, crowd at SpaceX starts to  go crazy
  • 32:45 – Landing happens, crowd is really crazy, with views of SpaceX mission control and Gwynne Shotwell (CEO) in the center

You can take your pick of watching a lighted ball descend on Times Square to mark the new year,  or a Falcon 9 first stage landing.

I was visiting a space start-up holiday party at Moffett Field, CA, when it happened. We made sure to project the launch and landing on the wall as we celebrated the holidays, solstice, etc. Nothing like being in a crowd of space entrepreneurs when you think history is being made.

2015 in review

Below are notable space developments that took place during 2015. Like last year, this list is broken down into quarters.

The list largely focuses on milestones in space flight and space science. A few other developmental milestones are sprinkled in so that future flights can be put into context. In addition, some general undercurrents of space science that permeated the year are listed at the bottom. A few space-related events with deep impressions in popular culture as also added this time.

[Updates: Dec 31 – Q4 add DAMPE.]

2015 Q1

  • Jan 6 – Kepler-438b was announced as a confirmed exoplanet. It is about 470 light-years away, in the constellation Lyra, and the most Earth-like exoplanet known to date.
  • Jan 10 – After doing its part in the CRS-5 mission to the ISS, a Falcon 9 first stage made an unsuccessful landing attempt. Its target was an autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS), known as “Just Read the Instructions”, but cut too close on its open loop hydraulic fluid. [ More at Parabolic Arc ]
  • Jan 16 – Elon Musk announced in Seattle that SpaceX would launch a new satellite Internet initiative.
  • Jan 25 – Milestone prizes for the Google Lunar X Prize were awarded to: Astrobotic, Moon Express, Team Indus, Part Time Scientists, and Hakuto.
  • Jan 31 – The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite was launched by a Delta 2 rocket. SMAP measures moisture in the top layer of soil around the world, which is where the food we eat grows.
  • Feb 11 – The DSCOVR spacecraft was launched.  It will monitor solar wind from Sun-Earth L1, about 1.5 million km above Earth.
  • Feb 27 – Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the original Star Trek series, died at age 83. His last tweet: “”A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP” (The last four letters stand for “live long and prosper”.)
  • Mar 1 – A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched a pair of all-electric communication satellites to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). Built by Boeing, the ABS 3A and EUTELSAT 115 West B satellites have no liquid propellants.
  • Mar 3 – An electrical short caused Curiosity’s robotic arm to stop working. The likely cause several days later was an intermittent short in the percussion mechanism of the drill. It was working again on Mar 12.
  • Mar 6 – The Dawn spacecraft began orbiting Ceres. Among the mysteries is a series of unusual bright spots on its surface.
  • Mar 27 – Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko began a one-year trip in low Earth orbit to study the effects of prolonged zero-G space flight on the human body. As a bonus, Scott’s twin, Mark Kelly, will be studied concurrently on the ground.

2015 Q2

  • Apr 13 – ULA introduced its new Vulcan rocket. It will recover the first stage Blue Origin BE-4 main engines by using hypersonic decelerator, then parachute, then parafoil, then helicopter. [ More at Parabolic Arc ]
  • Apr 14 – SpaceX flew its CRS-6 mission to the ISS, and attempted to land the first stage on the autonomous drone ship “Just Read the Instructions”. The stage touched down almost vertically, but had too much rotation to overcome, and ultimately fell over. [ YouTube video ]
  • Apr 24 – Hubble celebrated its 25th anniversary in space.  Launched in 1990, it was found to have blurry vision, which was corrected on the first astronaut serving mission in 1993. Four subsequent missions (1997, 1999, 2002, 2009) have improved instruments or replaced defective ones.  The telescope continues to be in high demand.  [ More at Hubble 25th ]
  • Apr 29 – Blue Origin conducted its first developmental flight of its New Shepard spacecraft. The uncrewed went up to 93.5 km and reached Mach 3. [ YouTube video ]
  • Apr 29 – A Russian Progress cargo ship bound for the ISS started to spin after separating from the third stage of a Soyuz launch vehicle. In spite of attempts to regain control, the ship was lost, and re-entered many days later. The next re-supply mission would be the SpaceX Falcon9 CRS-7 mission in June.
  • Apr 30 – MESSENGER ended its mission by crashing into the surface of Mercury. It arrive at Mercury on Mar 18, 2011.
  • May 6 – A SpaceX Crew Dragon successfully completed its pad abort test. The SuperDraco engines of the capsule yanked it and the Dragon trunk off the launch pad before jettisoning the trunk and deploying its chute. [ YouTube video ]
  • May 14 – Singer Sarah Brighten postponed her trip to the ISS for “personal family reasons.”
  • May 20 – An Atlas V launched the X-37B space plane and 10 CubeSats into orbit. One of the CubeSats was LightSail-A.
  • May 26 – The Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) of the ISS was moved from the Unity node to the Tranquilly node’s forward port. The PMM has a mass of about 10,000 kg (22,000 lbm).
  • Jun 7 – The Planetary Society’s LightSail-A successfully unfurled its solar sail. Measuring 32 m2 in area, the sail was packed into a 3U CubeSat, along with electronics and deployment mechanisms.  [ More at Planetary Society ]
  • Jun 8 – DSCOVR reached its intended orbit, a Lissajous orbit at Sun-Earth L1.
  • Jun 8 – NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LSDS) completed its second flight test when in splashed down off the coast of Hawaii. It was lofted by balloon  to 120,000 feet, then rocketed to 180,000 feet, before descending and braking at Mach 3.
  • Jun 10 – A thruster on a Soyuz spacecraft unexpectedly fired during a test, causing the ISS to move. It was quickly brought under control by other thrusters on the Russian section of the ISS.
  • Jun 14 – Contact was re-established with the Philae lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as its solar panels got enough sunlight to power it again. Philae used Rosetta as a relay to transmit its data to Earth.
  • Jun 17 – UrtheCast released samples of live HD video of the Earth, including traffic in Boston and a moving vessels on the Thames.
  • Jun 28 – A SpaceX Falcon 9 failed during CRS-7 mission launch. While first stage was still firing, 139 seconds into flight, the second stage LOX tank ruptured. A failed strut letting loose a helium tank was the likely cause. The first stage continued to fire for several seconds. The Dragon capsule continued to transmit telemetry, but was not programmed to deploy chutes in this sort of emergency. Planet Labs lost another 8 Dove satellites; it has lost 28 in the Orbital Antares failed launch of Oct 2014.

2015 Q3

  • Jul 9 – The last communication from the Philae lander was received. Attempts to give it new instructions were unsuccessful.
  • Jul 14 – New Horizons made its closest approach of Pluto, which showed itself to be geologically active.[ APOD photo; taken on approach ]
  • Jul 16 – DSCOVR, in the Sun-Earth L1 neighborhood, captured the Moon transiting in front of the Earth, with a clear view of the lunar “far side”. NASA released the collected images on Aug 5. [ YouTube video ]
  • Jul 23 – NASA announced discovery of Kepler-452b, the first potentially rocky super-Earth in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star, and the six-most Earth-like exoplanet known to date.
  • Aug 8 – Astronauts ate food grown on the ISS for the first time.
  • Aug 12 – Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has now spent 10 years in orbit around Mars.
  • Aug 12 – Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko reached perihelion as the Rosetta spacecraft orbiting it collected new data.
  • Aug 19 – The Japanese resupply mission Kounotori 5 (aka HTV-5) was launched to the ISS. It carried 6,000 kg of cargo, including CubeSats (14 Planet Labs “Doves” of Flock-2b, SERPENS, S-CUBE, AAUSAT5, and GOMX-3).
  • Sep 9 – Five teams passed the first “ground tournament” of the NASA Cube Quest challenge; 13 teams presented initial spacecraft designs in August. There will be three more increasingly difficult tournaments, leading to selection as secondary payloads on the SLS EM-1 mission in 2018.
  • Sep 13 – The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint project of NASA and ESA, imaged its 3,000th comet.
  • Sep 28 – NASA announced evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars.

2015 Q4

  • Oct 2 – The movie The Martian was officially released to theaters. Engineer and botanist Mark Watney has to use his wits to survive being stranded on Mars. NASA mostly gave thumbs up to the movie, but also took to it as a teachable moment about Martain dust storms.
  • Oct 7 – SpaceIL said it has signed a contract with SpaceX to launch its lunar lander on a Falcon 9 in the second half of 2017 from Vandenberg AFB.
  • Oct 14 – NASA awarded Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) contracts to three companies to launch microsatellites and nanosatellites (including CubeSats) into orbit. The three companies are: Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic.
  • Oct 21 – The NASA Kepler spacecraft, repurposed for the K2 mission, has discovered a miniature planet being ripped apart as it spirals around a dying star. The planetesimal is the size of a large asteroid, and orbits white dwarf WD 1145+017 once every 4.5 hours.
  • Oct 28 – Cassini flew 49 km above the surface of Enceladus, the closest fly-by of the mission. It is choreographed to sample the plumes of the geysers near the moon’s south pole.
  • Oct 28 – NOAA officially took control of the DSCOVR spacecraft from NASA.
  • Nov 4 – The experimental Super Strypi (formerly LEONIDAS) failed its first launch. It was intended to put 12 CubeSats and Hawaii’s HiakaSat into orbit.
  • Nov 5 – New Horizons completed the last of four engine burns to direct it at 2014 MU69, a small body more than 1 billion miles beyond Pluto. It will arrive in Jan 2019.
  • Nov 12 – NASA announced the first discovery of a gamma-ray pulsar in another galaxy. The NASA Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope found the pulsar on the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 163,000 light-years away.
  • Nov 23 – New Shepard reached 100 km. Both capsule and rocket achieved soft landing. Named for astronaut Alan Shepard, the capsule landed using parachutes 11 minutes later. The rocket fired its engines, setting down on its launch pad at about 2.0 meters/sec. [ YouTube video ]
  • Dec 3 – NASA reported that the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have spotted a galaxy from 13.8 billion years ago, 400 million years after the Big Bang.  The galaxy, nicknamed “Tayna” (first-born) This was only possible because of gravitational lensing by the galactic cluster MACS0416.1-2403.
  • Dec 3 – A pair 2 kg cubes – one gold, one platinum – were part of the LISA Pathfinder spacecraft, launched by a Vega rocket from French Guiana. It should reach its destination, a halo orbit around Sun-Earth L1, around the end of Jan 2016. It is testing technologies for an eventual Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA), which would be the first space-based gravitational wave detector, to be launched in 2034. It was 100 years earlier, in December 1915, that Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity.
  • Dec 6 – An Orbital-ATK Cygnus capsule was launched by a ULA Atlas V, and docked with the ISS on Dec 9. It was carrying over 3,000 kg of supplies, experiments, station hardware.
  • Dec 9 – The JAXA Akasuki probe entered orbit around Venus, at an altitude of 440,000 km, five years after main engine failure on Dec 6, 2010. This time, it used four small thrusters.  The spacecraft is imaging from a equatorial orbit, in contrast to ESA Venus Express, which was in a polar orbit, and ended its mission in Dec 2014.
  • Dec 16 – India launched six Singaporean satellites on its PSLV-CA vehicle. The launch also tested the rocket’s fourth state restart capability, 17 minutes after cut-off.
  • Dec 16 – China launched its DArk Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE), also known as Wukong (Monkey King), after a character from ancient Chinese literature. The spacecraft also carries instruments from Switzerland and Italy.
  • Dec 21 – The Falcon 9 returned to flight. This time, it launched 11 ORBCOMM satellites. The propellants were densified fuels by supercooling. Following an engine relight to reverse direction and hypersonic reentry, the first stage returned to land at Cape Canaveral. [ YouTube video ]
  • Dec 30 – Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has produced 50 grams of plutonium-238 (Pu-238), the first demonstration of the capability in the US since the late 1980s. The NASA Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) requires 4.8 kg of Pu-238 to produce about 120 watts of power.

Space science undercurrents

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the year was that the solar system is potentially a very wet place. Water seems to be pervasive, whether it be in liquid or solid form.

  • The Moon: New results are still coming from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). The Earth’s gravitational pull is opening up faults in the lunar crust. While tidal forces have been known for a while, but it was a surprise to find that the Earth is still helping to shape the Moon. China reported that instruments on Yutu (“Jade Rabbit“) rover were still functioning, although the rover itself has long been stationary. In March, data from Yutu pointed to a new type of mare basalt that differs from samples found on the US Apollo and Soviet Luna missions of 40 years ago.
  • Mercury: MESSENGER ended its mission around Mercury in April. During its time there, it mapped the entire planet and found water ice at Mercury’s north pole. After the mission ended, it was reported that Mercury once had a magnetic field that may have been as strong as Earth’s.
  • Mars: An armada of orbiters and rovers continues to study Mars. In April, it was reported that Curiosity detected perchlorates, which dramatically decrease the freezing point of water. In fact, during winter and spring on Mars, the water could be liquid. In September, NASA announced that evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars. The first evidence goes back to 2010, using data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), which is on-board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. In November, NASA announced that solar storm likely stripped away the atmosphere of Mars. This finding comes from the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission.
  • Ceres: With Dawn at Ceres, the biggest mystery is perhaps a bright spot, which at closer resolution is a series of bright spots. The otherwise flat dwarf planet also showed a conical mountain that is 6 km high.
  • Europa: The geysers that Hubble saw in 2013 have not been seen since. In May this year, NASA reported that dark material on Europa’s surface might be sea salt exposed to radiation.  Lab experiments on Earth show similar spectra.
  • Ganymede: Jupiter’s largest moon may have more water beneath its surface than Earth has on its surface. This latest finding, announced in March, is based on Hubble data, but was hinted at by the Galileo spacecraft in the 1990s.
  • Enceladus: Based on data from Cassini, a global ocean below the surface is now thought to feed the geysers.
  • Pluto: New Horizons surprised everyone with a geologically active Pluto that also has a multi-layered hazy atmosphere. Because of its distance from Earth data continues from the encounter continues to stream back to Earth is it heads for its next destination, 2014 MU69. Pluto has a surprising range of subtle colors, with many landforms having their own distinct colors. In November, researchers studying New Horizons data reported on “what appear to be ice-spewing volcanoes on the surface of Pluto.”
  • Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko: Rosetta and Philae studied the comet as it reached perihelion. In its bumping landing, Philae picked up more samples of organics than it would otherwise. It picked up 16 organic compounds, of which 4 had never been seen in a comet before.

Project Spartan Spear

I’m an advisor to a team of aerospace engineering students at San Jose State University. For their senior design project, they are designing a launch vehicle to take nanosatellites (specifically, 1U and 3U CubeSats) to orbit.  Project Spartan Spear now has a Kickstarter campaign which runs to Feb. 27.

My role as mentor/advisor is in computing and avionics. We have others who cover propulsion and structures, and manufacturing. During the first semester, the team of 7 students did preliminary design of the vehicle, including aerodynamic estimates, projected trajectory, and some early CAD and experiments dealing with components of the engine.  Frankly, a launch vehicle project is so overwhelming that the entire team is now focused on just getting the engine designed, built, and tested.  The bulk of it needs to be done by May 2015, when they graduate.  Experience with other senior design projects shows that they have a life of their own, and testing continues into the summer and fall. There website shows progress in CAD models and preliminary experiments.

This is one of three projects in the aerospace senior design class. In my biased opinion, this is the most intriguing and exciting.  (We actually had to turn students away at the beginning of the fall semester in order to balance the teams; the other two are nanosatellites.)

The difference between this and large launch vehicles like Falcon 9 or Atlas V is that on the large vehicles, CubeSats are treated as secondary payloads, subject to the rules of the primary that is funding the bulk of the launch costs.  This new concept allows CubeSats to be primary payloads, and effectively lets users/developers deploy them on their own schedule to their own selected orbits. Furthermore, this is an air-launch design, which reduces the environmental impact normally associated with launch pads; the impact is primarily as an airport user.

In effect, availability of this sort of launch vehicle allows businesses that understand space benefits and spin-offs to pursue iterative development. Rather than waiting 1 or 2 years between flight bookings, this allows a business to plan a cycle of weeks or months.  The ultimate hope is to service many customers, allowing for several launches per week.

The obvious applications of having such a launch vehicle are iterative development involving: small biologicals, materials, small electronics, etc.  Spartan Spear is a step toward getting regular access to  low Earth orbit , with the intent of jumpstarting product development cycles for these types of innovations, which ultimately will find their way into new terrestrial projects and manned space systems.

New year’s space resolutions and wish list

Dr. David Livingston, host of The Space Show, invited listeners to call in or e-mail in their space-related new year’s resolutions and wish lists on the January 18 show.  In my case, having just written up a 2014 year-in-review and looked at the spill-over into 2015 and beyond, it seemed like an interesting exercise.

So, being a big fan of the show, and being far more organized about what I write than what I say, I decided to e-mail in my list. This is what I sent him:

My personal resolutions:

  • Learn bi-propellant liquid propulsion.
    I am a trajectories and embedded computing person. I’ve been relying on others to develop better propulsion, but very little exists for small launch vehicles that can get a 3U to 6U CubeSat into LEO.  I am now working closely with students at San Jose State University with another senior propulsion engineer. (“Spartan Spear”; .)  I am finally starting to understand the detailed engineering of a H2O2/kerosene engine. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we’ll see a static test fire.

Wish list:

  • Reuse of Falcon 9 first stage (Probability this year: 5%; next year: 50%; year after 90%)
  • Falcon Heavy launch to LEO this year (Probability: 90%)
  • Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) is replaced by a two-step program of (1) sustained human presence on the Moon, and (2) human exploration of Mars and its moons. (Probability: 20%)
  • NASA/congressional commitment to Europa program (Probability: %50)
  • The space advocacy community finds traction with the majority of Americans on the value of space exploration and commerce.  (Probability: 10%)
  • NASA get its annual budget increased to $22-23 billion per year. (Probability: %3)
  • Nuclear fusion with net power out. (Probability 2015: 10%, 2016: 20%, 2017: 50%)

The last wish (nuclear fusion) was in response to caller Tim from Huntsville. Excellent suggestion.

The personal resolution is hopefully not too hard to keep since I am in the midst of a launch vehicle project now, and have a close up view of the propulsion. The challenge will be to understand the materials and chemistry aspects of the system, and incorporate them into computational models.

The wish list is comprised of a few important things I’d like to see happen during 2015; but for most of them, my level of confidence for them happening during the year is pretty low.

Note that I did not include “landing of a Falcon 9 first stage“; I specified “reuse“. That is the goal. Given the nearly successful landing on a barge in the Atlantic, I have no doubt that the landing will happen this year. However, the real goal is reuse of a stage. It’s on my wish list, but I do not expect to see it in 2015. (However, I’d love to be pleasantly surprised.)

It should also be abundantly clear that I really want to see a Falcon Heavy launch this year. It’s been slipping for a while; I hope that this time it transitions from wish to reality.

At the end of the year, David’s current plan is to replay this particular show and hold us accountable for our resolutions (and wishes?). It will be an interesting retrospective.

Things to come: 2015 and beyond

[Updates: Jan 5 – 2015 add Venus Express.]

What are the important developments of space development and exploration to expect over the next few years?

The lists below are roughly divided into the expected and the possible/probable.

The expected events of 2015 and a few for 2016-2017 are presented in vaguely chronological order. Many of them are based on current missions which are close to completion.

A more open-ended set of lists are then provided for: spacecraft development, human space flight, launch vehicle development, and exploration mission concepts. It is impossible for these lists to be comprehensive; some of it is a matter of opinion as to importance. There is certainly a myriad of things that could be added, but the lists would then be of no use for focusing reader attention.

Furthermore, there are a lot of concepts that I would like to see pursued. In my opinion, many of them have considerable technical and economic merit. But they currently lack the critical mass of techincal and financial support to make them viable. As a result, I have not included them in the lists below. There are also a lot of good efforts which are operating “below the radar”. Depending on how they mature, they may show up on a future annual list.


  • SpaceX mission CRS-5 to the ISS is currently planned for Jan 6. Following initial main engine cut-off of the first stage, the stage will maneuver itself to a controlled landing on a floating platform.
  • The Deep Space Climate Observer (DSCOVR) will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 NET (no earlier than) Jan 29.
  • The ESA Venus Express is expected to fall into the Venusian atmosphere in January or February after 8 years of science data.
  • The Dawn spacecraft will arrive at asteroid Ceres on Mar 6, after a voyage from Vesta, which it visited from Jul 2011 to Sep 2012.
  • The Messenger spacecraft, has been in space for over 10 years, and conducted three flybys of Mercury before entering into orbit around it in March 2011. With its maneuvering propellant nearly exhausted, it is expected to impact the planet’s surface in March 2015.
  • As comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko rounds the Sun this spring, there are hopes that the Philae lander’s solar panels will re-charge, and bring it back to life.
  • LightSail-A, a test version of LightSail-1, is expected to launch in May 2015 as a NASA ELaNa CubeSat payload on an Atlas V. The spacecraft is built by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and funded by the Planetary Society.
  • Scott Kelly will spend a year on the International Space Station starting in Spring 2015 while his identical twin brother Mark Kelly remains on Earth. The pair gives scientists the opportunity to evaluate the effects of extended microgravity and space flight on the human body.
  • New Horizons is expected to perform a flyby of Pluto and its moons on Jul 14, 2015. Following the flyby, it will be on its way to other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs); a few candidate KBOs have been identified.
  • The Cygnus missions to the ISS in 2015 will be launched on a ULA Atlas V, while Orbital Science re-outfits its Antares rocket with a new engine.
  • A Falcon Heavy may see a demo flight in 2015. (See more under “Launch Vehicle Development.”)


  • Cassini is almost out of maneuvering propellant. It has been in space since October 1997, and arrived at Saturn on Jun 30, 2004. In Jan 2005, it dropped the Huygens lander onto the surface of Titan. Cassini will start its Grand Finale in late 2016, with several orbits between the planet and the innermost ring; in Sep 2017, it will dive into the planet’s atmosphere, probing the last secrets that the gas giant can offer it.
  • The Google Lunar XPRIZE plans to award $30 million in prizes for private teams that manage to land a robotic probe on the Moon and perform a series of specified tasks. The deadline was the end of calendar year 2015. On Dec 16, the XPRIZE organization extended the deadline to the end of 2016.

Spacecraft Development

  • A massive satellite constellation is being planned by WorldVu, a company with ties to either Google or SpaceX. (It seems to be in transition between the two.) In November, it asked manufactures to bid on 640 satellites of 125 kg each. The targeted use is global Internet coverage.
  • In pursuing its model of “agile aerospace”, Planet Labs will launch more flocks of Dove spacecraft, rapidly evolving the design to improved capabilities. Several were lost on the Antares launch failure in Oct 2014; however, Planet Labs has been able to rapidly fabricate additional spacecraft for an alternate launch.
  • Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are both working on spacecraft designs to scout near Earth asteroids, and eventually mine them. A Planetary Resources Arkyd spacecraft was manifested on the failed Antares launch in Oct 2014.

Human space flight

  • Contracts for the NASA Commercial Crew program were awarded to SpaceX and Boeing on Sep 16, 2014; both were capsule designs. The Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser was not selected; nevertheless, it has interest from U.S. private and European parties. The SpaceX design is its Dragon Version 2, unveiled on May 29, 2014, and is based on experience with the first Dragon design. The Boeing CST-100 is being developed in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace.
  • The Mars One candidate pool has been reduced to 663, down from 1,058 at the beginning of 2014, and from 202,586 when the program first opened. A final round in 2015 is expected to select six teams of four people each. These teams will then spend a few months a year training together. Mars One currently has a Mars lander mission planned for 2018. In Dec 2014, ten university payloads for selected for the lander.

Launch vehicle development

  • Orbital Sciences will replace Antares rocket’s Aerojet AJ-26 engines (which are refubished Soviet NK-33 engines) with more powerful Russian Energomash RD-181 engines.
  • Falcon Heavy is essentially a Falcon 9 core vehicle with a couple of Falcon 9 first stages strapped to its sides. In doing this design, SpaceX has dramatically reduced the amount of launch vehicle development needed to bring it to launch. Whereas Falcon 9 can lift 13 metric tons to low Earth orbit, Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 53. A demo launch is expected sometime in 2015.
  • Firefly Space Systems, a launch start-up based on Texas, hopes to lift payloads up to 400 kg on its Alpha rocket in 2017.
  • The Blue Origin BE-4, a LOX/liquified natural gas (LNG) rocket engine still under development, has been selected to succeed the current RD-180 LOX/kerosene engines used on the ULA Atlas V.
  • Ariane 6 is expected to be a smaller rocket than Ariane 5, but more efficient and less costly to operate. It is now under pressure to streamline its development and manufacturing even further so that it can compete with SpaceX. The design is being done by a newly formed joint venture of Airbus and Safran, which develops solid rocket motors for Ariane.
  • Stratolaunch Systems, which is building the world’s largest airplane by wingspan, expects it can air-launch its three-stage rocket in 2018.
  • The British company Reaction Engines Ltd has been developing its SABRE engine technology, to be integrated into its Skylon single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane, with possible visits to the ISS by 2022.

Exploration mission concepts

  • NASA is interested in a Europa mission. It wants to select instruments in April 2015, for development by 2016. Meanwhile, the mission needs to pass Congressional funding hurdles.
  • The Asteroid Redirect Mission is the NASA mission of record to redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the Moon, where humans will study it, and return samples. The mission is targeted for the 2020s. NASA is using it as a means to develop new technologies and gain spaceflight experience so that it can send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

2014 in review

Below are notable space developments that took place during 2014. Because of the length of the list, it has been broken into quarters.  In addition, some general undercurrents of space science that permeated the year are listed at the bottom.

If you recall the list for 2013, this one is a lot longer.

[Updates: Jan 1 – minor editing, but no new content. Jan 3 – fixes in Q3 for MAVEN and MOM. Jan 5 – Q4 add Venus Express.]

2014 Q1

  • The new year started with a small asteroid 2014 AA entering the Earth’s atmosphere on Jan 1 over the mid-Atlantic. With a diameter of 2-3 meters, it was discovered 21 hours before  atmospheric entry.
  • Thaicom 6, a GEO communications satellite, was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 on Jan 6. The Falcon 9 first put it into a 90,000 km high super-synchronous elliptical transfer orbit, from which the satellite then did a plane change and later altitude adjustment back down to 36,000 km.
  • Orbital Sciences Cygnus made its first supply run to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch had initially been delayed by a solar storm. Launched on Jan 9, it arrived at the station on Jan 12.
  • The ESA Gaia telescope arrived at Earth-Moon L2 on Jan 16, beginning its 5-year mission to chart a 3-D map of the Milky Way galaxy.
  • The ESA Rosetta spacecraft woke up from two years of hibernation on Jan 20.
  • After 10 years of operation, Opportunity is still roving the surface of Mars. The rover landed on Jan 25, 2004. Its twin rover Spirit landed on Jan 4, 2004, and continued to operate until getting stuck in late 2009; its last communication with Earth was on Mar 22, 2010. By the end of 2014, Opportunity had traveled over 40 km (25 mi).
  • Cosmonauts re-installed UrtheCast ultra HD cameras on the ISS on Jan 27, overcoming earlier telemetry problems. The cameras are on steerable platforms and part of a joint venture with Roscosmos.
  • On Feb 3, NASA released an image of a hexagonal jet stream swirling around the north pole of Saturn. This newest view was taken by Cassini on Nov 23, 2013. The spacecraft is seeing it with improved clarity because of Saturn’s tilt as it enters its summer season.
  • The first four Dove spacecraft of Flock1 were deployed from the ISS on Feb 11. In total, 28 members of the flock were deployed during the month.
  • The Chinese Yutu lunar rover, while unable to move, came out of sleep mode on Feb 11. Over the coming months, Chinese scientists would find that certain instruments, such as ground penetrating radar and infrared imaging systems, were functioning normally.
  • NASA’s NEOWISE, the resurrected WISE spacecraft sans liquid coolant, discovered its first comet, on Feb 14. Comet C/2014 C3 was found about 230 million km from Earth, unexpectedly in a retrograde orbit.
  • Silicon Valley start-up Skybox released a video taken by its SkySat-1 satellite, showing its ability to transmit real-time HD streams. The video shows aircraft and ground vehicles moving at a major airport.

2014 Q2

  • Enceladus, a geologically active moon of Saturn, may have a large liquid water sea under its south pole. The report published in the Apr 4 issue of Science, is based on hemispheric asymmetry data from Cassini.
  • In March, Titan Aerospace was in negotiations with Facebook to be acquired as a step toward world-wide Internet access. But by Apr 14, the New Mexico high altitude UAV maker had been acquired by Google.
  • Falcon 9R, the three-engine successor to Grasshopper, made its first free flight on Apr 17, reaching 250 meters. The F9R has legs similar to those to designed for Falcon 9 v1.1.
  • A Falcon 9 first stage soft splashdown was completed in rough Atlantic waves on Apr 18, while the upper stage carried a Dragon capsule to the ISS. The video stream from the first stage was corrupted, and in late April, SpaceX asked for help from MPEG video enthusiasts to restore the image stream. Months later, a partially restored video showed the engine retro-burn near the water creating waves, and deployment of landing legs before the stage hits the water.
  • Kepler 186f is the first Earth-size planet found in the habitable zone of another star. Described on Apr 17, it orbits a red dwarf every 130 days, but probably has iron, rock, ice, and liquid water as Earth does.
  • LADEE, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, came to a crashing end on the far side of the Moon. It used its last propellant to swoop down closer than ever before, to sample gas and dust near the lunar surface, and then brought its six-month mission to a close.
  • The B612 Foundation released a study on Apr 22 that found asteroids hit Earth much more frequently than previously thought, with city-destroying ability possibly once every 100 years.
  • The NASA High Definition Earth View (HDEV) experiment became operational on Apr 30. Cameras on the ISS allow real-time viewing of the Earth over the Internet (at least on the day side of the planet). A private venture UrtheCast also has cameras installed on the ISS, but for more targeted audiences.
  • KickSat, a CubeSat containing hundreds of small sprite spacecraft, failed to deploy them on May 4 after the KickSat master clock reset itself to deploy on May 16, about the time of re-entry. Probable cause is radiation.
  • NASA Dryden Flight Research Center was renamed to NASA Armstrong on May 13 in honor of Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon. Armstrong spent many years as a test pilot at the facility, including as an X-15 pilot. The center was originally named for Hugh Dryden, an aerodynamicist who had been NACA director and shepherded its transformation into NASA.
  • Google agreed to acquire Skybox on Jun 10 for $500 million, giving it the ability to keep Google Maps up-to-date and help with Internet access and disaster relief, areas in which it has keen interest.
  • A Russian Dnepr rocket launched 37 satellites from 17 countries on Jun 19. Most were CubeSats, including 11 from Planet Labs.
  • NASA tested a Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) on Jun 28. The test helped evaluate an atmospheric entry to Mars for payloads larger than the 2,000-pound Curiosity.

2014 Q3

  • Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-2) launched Jul 2 on a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg AFB to study atmospheric carbon-dioxide. It replaces the original OCO which was lost when the payload fairing failed to separate on a Taurus-XL vehicle in February 2009.
  • Frederick I. Ordway III, a rocketry pioneer, author, and adviser on the movie 2001, passed away on Jul 7 in Huntsville at age 87.
  • Angara, the first launch vehicle developed entirely in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, made its first launch, a suborbital test flight, on Jul 9.
  • A second Orbital Sciences Cygnus, headed to ISS on Jul 13. Named Janice for the late Shuttle astronaut and Orbital employee Janice Voss, it arrived at the ISS on Jul 16, carrying food, supplies, and experiments.
  • SpaceX launched a cluster of six Orbcomm satellites on Jul 14.
  • The DARPA Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program is intended to fly suborbital space flights to Mach 10 many times a day at less than $5 million per flight. On July 15, DARPA announce Phase 1 contracts to: Boeing with Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems with XCOR Aerospace, and Northrop Grumman with Virgin Galactic.
  • The final ESA Automated Transfer Vehicle ATV-5, named Georges Lemaître after Belgian astronomer, was launched on Jul 29, and docked with the ISS on Aug 12. It was the heaviest payload ever launched by an Ariane rocket.
  • AsiaSat 8 was launched by a Falcon 9 v1.1 on Aug 5 to a super-synchronous orbit, from which it performed plane-change and settled into GEO. This was followed almost a month later by AsiaSat 6.
  • The ESA Rosetta spacecraft reached its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, on Aug 6, and conducted a series of small engine burns so that it was traveling with the comet rather than chasing it. Shortly before arrival, it found that the comet may be two objects joined together. Since then, it has snapped images of gas jets and dust arising from the comet, and deployed the Philae lander. Rosetta was launched 10 years earlier, on Mar 2, 2004.
  • The Stardust spacecraft may have collected specks of dust from interstellar space, NASA acknowledged in August. Launched in February 1999, a sample return capsule re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on Jan 16, 2006. The spacecraft itself continued to an encounter with Comet Tempel 1 in 2011.
  • Chasqui I, a Peruvian nanosatellite, was launched from the ISS by two Russian cosmonauts on their spacewalk on Aug 18. The 1U CubeSat is designed for Earth observation.
  • The Space Falcon 9R reusable test rocket detonated itself when its control systems failed to keep it with its test area on Aug 22. It had previously made several controlled lift-offs and landings at the SpaceX site in McGregor, TX.
  • Flock 1b, composed of 28 Planet Labs Dove imaging nanosatellites, were deployed from the ISS, starting in August, joining the 20 of Flock 1a, which were deployed earlier in the year. As opposed to other imaging satellites, the Flocks aim at providing daily update of the entire Earth, but at a lower resolution that more expensive satellites.
  • Two ESA Galileo global navigation satellites were placed into incorrect orbits, following launch by an Arianespace Soyuz rocket from French Guinea on Aug 22. One was later nudged back to a useful position by its thrusters over a period of days.
  • A 3D printed rocket injector was tested in at 20,000 lbf thrust engine at NASA Marshall on Aug 22. Instead of assembling 115 parts, the printed injector required only two.
  • While outside the ISS cleaning its windows in August, cosmonauts apparently discovered sea plankton on its surface, in spite of extreme temperature swings and harsh radiation. The current working theory is that the plankton floated up on air currents.
  • Several Planet Labs Dove CubeSats unexpectedly launched themselves from the ISS on Sep 5 while the crew was not looking. This was the second such incident. NanoRacks the provider of the CubeSat deployer believes it has identified the source of the problem.
  • AsiaSat 6 was launched by a Falcon 9 v1.1 on Sep 7 into a super-synchronous orbit, from which it performed plane-change and settled into GEO.
  • Mars rover Curiosity finally reached the base of Mount Sharp on Sep 11.
  • The SpaceX CRS-4 mission began with launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. Among the payloads were crew supplies; ISS-RapidScat, a microwave scatterometer to support weather forecasting; SPINSAT, a technology demonstrator for electrically ignited solid propellant thrusters; a 3D printer; and 20 mice, dubbed the “Mousetronauts”, for studying the long-term effects of microgravity. The Dragon spacecraft arrived at the ISS on Sep 23.
  • The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft entered Mars orbit on Sep 21 to study the planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere, and interactions with the Sun and solar wind. The data from MAVEN will help answer what happened to gasses such as CO2 N2, and H2O as they escaped to space.
  • The ISRO Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft entered Mars orbit on Sep 24. While largely a technology demonstrator, MOM carries instruments to detect methane, and measure the relative abundance of deuterium and hydrogen in the upper atmosphere. Total cost to the time of launch was about US$73 million.

2014 Q4

  • Communication was lost with the STEREO-B spacecraft on Oct 1, after a planned reset as it drifted to the far side of the Sun. It is one of a pair of probes in the Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory mission.  STEREO-A, proceeds around the Sun slighter faster than the Earth; STEREO-B proceeds a bit more slowly. Launched in October 2006, the two spacecraft, plus Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) provide different perspectives of the Sun. Attempts are still being made to reconnect with STEREO-B.
  • Scientists reported in October that Cassini received in electric shock from Saturn’s moon Hyperion on Sep 26, 2005. A large potential difference between the moon and the spacecraft, coupled with Saturn’s magnetic field and a solar wind led to a 200-volt electric shock over 2,000 km.
  • The X37-B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-3), a robotic winged spacecraft, landed at Vandenberg AFB on Oct 18, after being in space for 674 days. Launch was from Cape Canaveral in December 2012.
  • Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) swept past Mars on Oct 19, with a relative speed of about 56 km/sec, and enveloped the planet in its tail. Trajectories of orbiters around Mars were adjusted so that the planet would shield them from direct exposure, but they would later be able to take measurements. The comet nucleus was estimated between 400 and 700 meters in diameter.
  • The largest sunspot of the current solar cycle (which started in 2008) occurred in October, and measured almost 125,000 km across.
  • Along with Chang’e 4, a probe referred to as Chang’e 5-T1 was launched by a Chinese Long March 3C rocket on a lunar flyby mission on Oct 23; it included a return capsule to test atmospheric skip reentry technology. It also carried privately built German and Spanish experiments and instruments.
  • An Antares rocket destined for the ISS suddenly lost thrust on Oct 28, a few seconds after lift-off. This led a range safety officer to detonate the self-destruct mechanism on the rocket. The AJ-26 engines (Russian-built, Aerojet-refurbished) are at the center of investigations.
  • SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space tourism vehicle, broke up in flight on Oct 31. The cause seems linked to premature activation of the vehicle’s unique feathering system, and perhaps crew error; but the NTSB investigation is not yet complete. The break-up seems unrelated to the new nylon/nitrous oxide engine.
  • A 3D printer built by Silicon Valley start-up Made in Space was finally installed on Nov. 17, and then started preliminary tests, including making a sample replacement part for itself. The printer was flown to the ISS on the SpaceX CRS-4 mission on Sep 21.
  • The ESA Philae lander separated from Rosetta, and landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov 12, but unfortunately settled in shadow. It found that the surface of the comet was covered in dust, and detected organics in the comet’s atmosphere.
  • The Beam Me to Mars project sent 90,000 messages to Mars on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Mariner 4. Sponsored by space-funding company Uwingu, copies of the messages were also delivered to Congress, to NASA, and to UN.
  • Spikes of methane on Mars were observed by Curiosity over the past year, and reported by JPL in December. So far, it is unclear if they are biologic, geologic, or of other origin.
  • Orion, NASA’s multi-purpose crew vehicle (MPCV) flew its unmanned Experimental Flight Test-1 on Dec 5, orbiting the Earth once before it was pushed to 3,600 miles altitude so that it could re-enter at nearly 2200 degrees C.
  • Venus Express, after 8 years of studying the Venusian atmosphere, finally exhausted its propellant in late November. The ESA probe began a slow fall into the atmosphere.
  • CARE, the Crew module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) made a suborbital test flight on Dec 18. It was launched by a new ISRO GSLV Mk.III, also making its first test flight.

Space Science Undercurrents

In addition to the events above…

  • Several solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) occurred during the year, and included some X-class flares. A few glanced off the Earth’s magnetic field, creating spectacular auroras. From space, these phenomena were studied by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory, SDO; and the pair of Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatories, STEREO-A and STEREO-B.
  • Several asteroids of varying size came within one Lunar Distance (1 LD) of the Earth. Because they are coming toward the Earth, they often are not noticed against the background of the sky until they are only a few days away.

When things go wrong

Orbital Science Antares launch failure on 2014-10-31. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
Orbital Science Antares launch failure on 2014-10-31. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“Space is hard, and today was a tough day.”

George T. Whitesides, CEO, Virgin Galactic October 31, 2014

[Note added 2014-11-05.]

This week was a terrible reminder that complex engineering projects that harness immense energies can go terribly wrong. No enterprise illustrates this like rocket propulsion.

  • On Tuesday, October 28, an Antares rocket was bound for the International Space Station. A few seconds after lift-off, there was clear trouble, leading a range safety officer to destroy to rocket.
  • On Friday, October 31, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was making its first powered flight using a new rocket engine. There was apparently an engine explosion a few seconds after it was dropped from WhiteKnightTwo mothership. One pilot was killed; another was able to deploy a parachute, but was seriously injured.

[11/5 – Note: “apparently” was not a strong enough word to express doubt about an engine explosion. Many news reports assumed this was what happened. However, certain credible witnesses (e.g., Stu Witt) reported that they did not detect such an event. Given the fourth NTSB briefing, the root cause is almost certainly not related to the engine.  When I wrote this, I did not want to take lots of time to explain why an “explosion” was in doubt. That was not the point of this article. But at the time, there seemed no simple way to say, “ignore that for now because it might not be correct”; at times like this, you know your writing skills are still lacking.]

And earlier this year,

  • On Friday, August 22, a SpaceX Falcon 9R rocket was testing improvements aimed at reliable pinpoint landing and reusability. A sensor failure provided faulty guidance information, tilting the rocket. An automated flight termination system detected that it was about to leave the test area, and cut the engine. Up to that point, the engine itself had performed without incident.

A rocket engine is a sustained chemical explosion which is shaped to lift objects or people to defy the gravity well of the Earth. From the moment of ignition, it provides an instantaneous kick which doesn’t let up until the propellant burns out, or in some cases, the engine is throttled and shut down. (By comparison, a nuclear fission reactor starts up slowly, heating its core, before it is brought on-line to provide electricity.)

As a result, starting a rocket engine is always dangerous. The bigger the engine, the greater the danger. The challenge to the rocket designer is to keep the propellants away from the ignition source until needed, only ignite within the engine chamber, and never let the sustained explosion spread to anywhere else. By the time the exploded propellants are converted into gas and pushed through to an expanding nozzle, they have accelerated from a virtual standstill to a few thousand meters/second in roughly the blink of an eye.

Thus, when failure happens, it is dramatic. Sometimes failure may not start with the rocket engine itself; it could start somewhere else. A weak structure may buckle, skewing stresses placed on the engine, leading to compromise of the containment of the controlled explosion. A control actuator may fail, causing the engine’s thrust to be off-center of the vehicle, and taking it off course; at that point, an automatic thrust termination system may take over, shutting off the engine or detonating the propellant.

Accident investigation boards are then convened to find out what went wrong. When loss of life is involved, it has a chilling effect on the entire space industry. The sobering truth is: failures are to be expected of any rocket test program. The trick is to catch them before they become catastrophic events.

The sooner failures are caught, the better. Given today’s computer aided design tools, design and simulation is intended to catch failure conditions before any manufacturing takes place. From there, component testing prior to assembly may weed out bad parts and build subsystem confidence. Some components require special tests, such as individual rocket engines, which are subjected to live fire static tests. This is followed by full vehicle or system integration and test.

Assuming nothing catastrophic happens, each subsequent test phase is more expensive than the previous one. If catastrophe strikes, not only do you lose the vehicle; you may lose the test facility.

Friday saw the loss of Scaled Composites pilot Michael Alsbury, who was helping pioneer private commercial space flight. In the past, NASA has had its share tragedy:

  • Shuttle Columbia crew / STS-107 (February 2003) – Husband, McCool, Anderson, Brown, Chawla, Clark, Ramon
  • Shuttle Challenger crew / STS-51-L (Jaunary 1986) – Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Smith, Scobee
  • X-15 pilot (November 1967) – Adams
  • Apollo 1 crew (January 1967) – Grissom, White, Chaffee

Space is hard. Rocket engine failures are hard lessons. Human physiology in space is hard as well, as are logistics for deep space flight.

Given the difficulty, when one endeavors on a program leading to space, it is important to understand why. Otherwise, it can easily not be worth the cost.

Apollo 11 — when tech needed innovation and a bit of piloting

By today’s standards, the landing by humans on the Moon was technologically primitive.

Keep in mind, the Apollo 11 mission happened before the Internet; in fact, the first two nodes of the ARPAnet, from which the Internet sprung, wouldn’t be connected until several months later. Apollo is credited with pushing micro-miniaturization of electronics. Without it, the Apollo Guidance Computer would not have been possible, or at least weighed many times more than it did. This machine, which aided the landing of the Eagle lunar module on the Moon, had 2048 words of memory, each word being 16 bits long. It had a clock speed at 2.048 MHz, about 1/500th to 1/1000th of current smartphones, which may have multiple processors at 1 to 2 GHz.

In the end, the computer was overloaded, and pilot Neil Armstrong took over to make a landing under manual control with read-out assistance from astrodynamicist Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. (The computer did not die; it was over-saturated with computation tasks, but continued to function.)

The landers that preceded Apollo to the Moon did not have digital computers.  The Surveyor series of landers had servos, which fed back to various spacecraft systems, resulting in soft landings.

Apollo Guidance Computer and display/keypad
Apollo Guidance Computer and display/keypad

Engineering design was dominated by drafting boards; computer graphics was in its primitive developmental stages, and along with it, interactive CAD of mechanical parts was barely beginning. The NASA STRuctual ANalysis program (NASTRAN) was under development during this time, finally being released to NASA in 1968, after the Saturn V was designed.

On the other hand, some things haven’t changed much. There is no miniaturization of a human crew. They need a certain amount of consumables, which must be stored for the trip. Rocket engines still use chemical propulsion. LOX/RP-1 (liquid oxygen and refined kerosene), the propellant combination used by the Saturn V first stage, is still a mainstay of launch vehicle design. The efficiency of translating chemicals into F=MA (or really F=v*dm/dt) has not appreciably changed.

And yet, with all the technology constraints and unchanging laws of physics, American primitive technology and ingenuity got humans to the surface of the Moon, and brought them safely back to Earth.  … And yet, 45 years later …..

That first landing did not go completely according to plan. Armstrong had to take over, with Aldrin’s assistance. Armstrong was under pressure to pick a safe spot quickly (which the automatic systems had not done), and put the craft down. By the time it landed, the Eagle had about 15-20 seconds of fuel left. Mission Control in Houston very likely had a sinking feeling that this could end badly; hence the comment about “a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

A re-enactment of the landing, based on radio transmissions, transcripts, and video, shows just how close they were to ending in disaster. (Kudos to Thamtech, LLC, for assembling the site together a couple of years ago.)