Category Archives: Planetary Science

Planets, planetoids, moons, asteroids. Things which have geological processes.

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.

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.

2015

  • 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.”)

2016-2017

  • 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.

Asteroids and “blind luck”

[This article is taken from the April 28 issue of the RocketSciRick Update.]

Evidence has been increasing that the Earth has been pelted by asteroids more frequently that originally thought. In February 2013, an asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, injurying over 1,000 people – an event thought to happen roughly every 100 to 200 years. Then in November, scientists raised the estimate to once every decade or so. Finally, a few days ago, evidence from the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization was presented of major detonations in the atmosphere. Except they weren’t from nuclear explosions; the network had detected airbursts of asteroids in the atmosphere.

According to the B612 Foundation 26 asteroid explosions have been detected since 2001. These ranged from 1 to 600 kilotons of TNT equivalent. For comparison, the explosion on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons. The 2013 explosion over Chelyabinsk was rated at 500 kilotons. The 1908 explosion of Tunguska, in Siberia, was in the range of megatons.

Ed Lu, a former astronaut and CEO of the B612 Foundation, said that “while most large asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire country or continent have been detected, less than 10,000 of the more than a million dangerous asteroids with the potential to destroy an entire major metropolitan area have been found by all existing space or terrestrially-operated observatories.”

“Because we don’t know where or when the next major impact will occur,” he said, “the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid has been blind luck.”

The B612 Foundation has embarked on the Sentinel space telescope project to improve the detection of asteroids. Scheduled for launch in 2018, it expected to uncover 90 percent of asteroids larger than 140 meters across entering the Earth’s region of the solar system. It will also detect many as small as 30 meters across. The Chelyabinsk asteroid was 20 meters across and weighed 13,000 metric tons.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been building a catalog of asteroid impacts that may occur during the next century. Known as the Sentry Risk Table, it classifies asteroids by impact probabilities and likely size of the explosion, and provides possible impact dates. At the moment, no major explosions with any significant probability are on the list of 460+ objects. Then again, Chelyabinsk was not on the list. (But that was only 20 meters across.)

More info:
* B612 Foundation: https://b612foundation.org/
* Impacts since 2001 visualization: http://vimeo.com/92478179
* JPL Sentry Risk Table: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/risks/

An ocean inside Enceladus

Enceladus-PIA18071Since geysers of water vapor and ice were spotted on Saturn’s moon Enceladus by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005, an undersurface reservoir of water has been theorized. On April 4, results of gravity measurements were released in the journal Science, which help characterize the size of the reservoir. Below an ice shell that is 30 to 40 km (19-25 miles) thick, there is an ocean 10 km (6 miles) deep. Enceladus itself is 504 km (313 miles) in diameter.

The jets of water from the south pole of Enceladus contain salty water and organic molecules. Thus, Enceladus is potentially favorable to microbial lift. Linda Spilker, Cassini’s project scientist at JPL, noted that the jets’ discovery “expanded our view of the ‘habitable zone’ within our solar system and in planetary systems of other stars. This new validation that an ocean of water underlies the jets furthers understanding about this intriguing environment.”

The water ice covering Enceladus makes it one of the brightest objects in the solar system.  But because it reflects almost 100 percent of the sunlight striking it, it is also one of the coldest (-201° C  or -330° F).  At least, on the surface. [ More info from JPL ]

2013 in review

This has been an amazing year for space exploration and development.

Below is the start of a random list.  Hopefully, it will get more organized in the next week.

  • Asteroids.  On Feb 15, while asteroid watchers were monitoring the close approach of 2012 DA14, a surprise asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia.
  • Comet ISON. It was supposed to be the comet of the century.  (Of course, the century is still young.)  It appeared to have died, yet showed signs of life before dying again.
  • Solar max.  This was to be the year of a solar maximum.  It has turned out to be one of the quietest solar maxima on record.
  • Voyager 1. The spacecraft this time has reportedly crossed over to interstellar space, and is still transmitting.
  • EuropaHubble seems to have spotted geysers taller than Mt. Everest on Europa.
  • Opportunity.  The twin rover of Spirit has been operating on Mars for 10 years now.  The original plan was 90 days.
  • Curiosity found signs of an ancient fresh water lake in December.  So far, all other lakes found have been acidic.
  • MAVEN. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN was launched on its way to Mars in November.
  • Saturn’s hexagon, a cloud pattern around its north pole, began to show more detail as the pole tilted toward the Sun, allowing Cassini to capture it.  On July 19, Cassini took a family portrait of Saturn, Earth, Venus, and Mars (aka “The Day the Earth Smiled”).
  • Kepler grew its catalog of planet candidates to 2,740 as of January, with 199 planets confirmed.
  • South Korea used its homegrown Naro-1 rocket to launch a satellite into orbit for the first time in January.
  • Iran put monkeys into suborbital space flights in January and December.
  • MOM.  The Indian Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also known as Mangalyaan, was launched on its way to Mars in November.
  • Chang’e 3 and Yutu. China launched its first lander and rover to the Moon.
  • CubeSats from the ISS.  CubeSats were flown to the ISS on several occasions, and released behind it into orbit. At least one was funded by a KickStarter campaign.
  • CubeSats mass launches.  On Nov 19, a Minotaur I rocket launched 28 CubeSats into orbit. Two days later, on Nov 21, a Russian Dnepr launched 32 satellites (mostly CubeSats, but a few larger ones), into orbit.
  • SES-8.  SpaceX completed its first launch of a satellite to geosynchronous orbit in December.
  • ISS Commercial Resupply. Orbital Sciences completed demonstration flights, qualifying it as a resupply provider; SpaceX qualified the previous year, and flew two flights under contract.
  • SpaceShipTwo (Virgin Galacic) completed its first powered test flight in April.
  • Grasshopper v1.0 (SpaceX) completed its final (8th) flight.  Grasshopper v1.1 is in development.
  • Dream Chaser (Sierra Nevada) completed an unmanned free flight test; landing was damaged, but otherwise the flight went well.

Updated: 2014 Jan 3 – CubeSats mass launches (Dnepr not just CubeSats), Saturn’s hexagon and Cassini, Kepler lists, ISS Commercial Resupply. 2014 Jan 1 – Happy New Year.