Another Successful SpaceX Launch and Landing

Early this morning, SpaceX launched a rocket from space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The payload was 10 Iridium satellites. The video below is set to begin seconds before launch.

Shortly after 7 minutes after launch (29:12 on the video below), the Falcon 9 first stage made a perfect landing on the “Just Read The Instructions” droneship in the Pacific Ocean.

The first Iridium satellite deployed at just over 57 minutes following take-off (skip to 1:19:00 in the video to watch), with the following nine being deployed every 100 seconds after.

I really appreciate the embedded timeline in the SpaceX launch videos. They’re very convenient to navigate to important points of interest during the mission.

Akatsuki Update

Back in 2010, we were sad to hear that JAXA’s Akatsuki orbiter experienced a malfunction during its attempt to insert itself into orbit around Venus. A planned twelve minute engine burn ended prematurely after about only three minutes, the result of salt formation causing a fault in a check valve. You might expect that that would have spelled the end to the mission, and Akatsuki would have spent eternity orbiting the Sun. Fortunately, JAXA would get a second chance to try their insertion effort again, but they’d have to wait nearly five years for both the craft and Venus to be in the right places for the attempt.

Akatsuki - Planet-C

Planet-C Akatsuki

Orbit control test and maneuvers were conducted in 2011, and then again in 2015, setting the stage for an orbit insertion attempt. Tests showed that Akatsuki’s Orbital Maneuver Engine (OME), its main engine, couldn’t provide the thrust needed for the second insertion attempt. Hope fell to the craft’s attitude-adjustment engines.

65 kg of oxidizer fuel that would have been used by the no-longer-functional main engine was dumped to lighten the craft and allow it to be more maneuverable. In December, 2015, exactly five years after the first attempt to make orbit, four of the spacecraft’s secondary attitude control thrusters burned for 20 minutes and 33 seconds, slowing the spacecraft enough to be captured by Venus’s gravitational hold. The attempt was a success. Akatsuki entered Venusian orbit and began to conduct its mission objectives.

The final orbit is much further (between 4,000 km and 370,000 km versus the planned 300 km to 80,00 km) from our sister planet than originally planned. Instead of orbiting Venus once every 30 hours, Akatsuki orbits once every 9 days.

Diagram showing Akatuski's planned and actual orbits

Diagram showing Akatuski’s planned and actual orbits – Credit: JAXA/Nature

So, while not exactly as planned, Akatsuki is still able to conduct great science. Akatsuki has already observed an interesting atmospheric gravity wave, peered through the clouds in infrared to reveal an equatorial jet, and sent back stunning images of our closest planetary neighbor.

False color image of cloud patterns on the night side of Venus taken by the Akatsuki's IR2 camera. Thicker clouds are expressed as darker because thick clouds hamper infrared lights coming from the lower layer of the atmosphere.

False color image of cloud patterns on the night side of Venus taken by the Akatsuki’s IR2 camera. Thicker clouds are expressed as darker because thick clouds hamper infrared lights coming from the lower layer of the atmosphere.  – Source: JAXA/PLANET-C Project Team

You can stay up-to-date with Akatsuki at JAXA’s English language version of their project page.

Meet Int-Ball: The Japanese Robot Floating Around the International Space Station

This is Int-Ball.

JAXA's Int-Ball

JAXA’s Int-Ball – Source: JAXA/NASA

No, it isn’t a flying BB-8. Int-Ball is the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) grapefruit-sized camera drone deployed in the Japanese Experiment Module1 attached to the International Space Station. Its full name is JEM Internal Ball Camera. Int-Ball functions autonomously under the direction of ground crews at the JAXA Tsukuba Space Center. Its function is to record images and video for real-time viewing back on Earth. The device uses existing drone technology and its structure is made from 3D printed components.

JAXA estimates that 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) Int-Ball can replace nearly all of the onboard crew’s time spent recording images and video, which is approximately 10% of their total working time. It utilizes ultrasonic and inertial sensors, as well as image-based navigation to make its way between tasks. An array of twelve small fans allow the drone to maneuver in any direction, as well as to hold completely steady in the weightless environment.

A planned future version of the drone will perform additional monitoring tasks to free up even more astronaut working time.

Check out this video for some footage of Int-Ball in action.

  1. nicknamed Kibo (which in English, means ‘hope’

Video: Explorer 1

Check out this video that tells the abridged story of Explorer 1: the first satellite put into orbit by the United States.

These videos are something new that I’m going to try and produce regularly If you like the video, please share. I welcome your feedback.

After you watch the video, you can read the full story here: Explorer 1 – America’s First Space Satellite.

From the Outback to Outer Space 

The Australian government has just announced the formation of their nation’s first space agency. 

press release posted to the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science webpage, begins: “The [Prime Minister] Turnbull Government has committed to establishing a national space agency to ensure Australia has a long-term plan to grow its domestic space industry.” 

More details are expected soon, with a charter for the agency expected by the end of March 2018. 

Any suggestions for their motto? 

I’m going with: The Down Under Goes Up Above. 

Happy September Equinox: An Explanation

 

September EquinoxToday is the September Equinox. You’ve probably already heard it a few times today; people running around proclaiming with utmost exuberance how today is the first day of Fall. In the Northern Hemisphere, the announcement is the harbinger of shorter days and dropping temperatures. But what is really going on today?

When someone says today is the first day of Fall, what they really mean (whether they know it or not) is that today represents an equinox; specifically, the September Equinox.1 On Earth, an equinox is the point in its orbit around the Sun when both hemispheres are equally illuminated; our tilted Earth lines up to a point in which the Sun passes directly over the equator. This happens twice a year, on the March and September equinoctes (that’s the plural form of equinox, use this information smugly).

Contrary to popular belief, the day of the equinox does not represent the day where daylight and darkness are equal. You can thank geometry, the atmosphere, and the Sun’s angular diameter to cause that equality to happen at different times geographically. What today does mean though, is that the equinoctes are the only two days in which the Sun rises due-East and sets due-West, and which the Sun would pass directly overhead from an observer on the equator.

One other very important thing that you must know if you don’t learn anything else today: Way too many people believe that the equinoctes are the only day of the year that an egg can be balanced on its end. While it is true that on the equinox an egg can be balanced, it’s also true of every other day of the year; it makes no difference!

There are other times during the year (read: our orbit around the Sun) that we recognize Earth residing at a special place.  There’s Perihelion and Aphelion, and then the widely-celebrated solstices, but I’ll save those for another time.

Happy September Equinox!

  1. What about them being called the Spring  and Fall (or their Latin names, Vernal and Autumnal) equinoctes? Well, that wasn’t exactly fair to those in the Southern Hemisphere, whose seasons are opposite those in the Northern Hemisphere.

Space Tweets: @AstroKomrade’s ISS Pets

Chinese Space Station Expected To Crash In Early 2018

Artist's rendition of a Shenzou spacecraft preparing to dock with Tiangong-1

Artist’s rendition of a Shenzou spacecraft preparing to dock with Tiangong-1 – Credit: China Manned Space Engineering

In September of 2011, China launched its first prototype space station. Tiangong-1 (translated into English: “Heavenly Palace 1”), was in operation until March 2016. During its operational history, it received three of visits by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). The unmanned Shenzou 8 docked with Tiangong-1 in November 2011, followed by two crewed missions: Shenzou 9 docked in June 2012, and Shenzou 10 in June 2013. China’s first two female astronauts participated in the crewed Shenzou missions to the space station: Liu Yang, China’s first woman in space, went up with Shnenzou 9, and Wang Yaping hitched a ride on Shenzou 10.

In March of 2016, CNSA announced that they had retired the station and included a vague comment about losing communications with Tiangong-1. Amateur astronomers observing the station began to suspect that CNSA had lost any ability to control the station; it had gone rogue. In September of 2016, CNSA admitted that they had no control over the space station and that they expected it to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere by the end of 2017.

Previous and calculated future altitude of Tiangong-1

Previous and calculated future altitude of Tiangong-1 – Source: Aerospace.org

The Aerospace Corporation, a California nonprofit corporation that provides technical guidance and advice on space missions, predicts that Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere between December 2017 and March 2018. In an interview with Newsweek, senior member of the technical staff for The Aerospace Corporation, Andrew Abraham stated that they track the “data closely and perform re-entry calculations on a regular basis to monitor any changes in the space station’s orbit or decay rate.”

The Aerospace Corporation has a webpage devoted to the Tiangong-1 re-entry, with a wealth of information, including a very informative FAQ.

Cosmic Paparazzi: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

Approximate true-color image of Jupiter's great red spot

Approximate true-color image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Björn Jónsson

An approximately true color/contrast image processed from the image 61 raw framelets. This image should give a fairly good idea of what the Great Red Spot and surrounding areas would look like to human eyes from Juno’s position.

The data used to create the above image come from the Juno spacecraft’s JunoCam. After the recent end to Cassini’s mission, Juno is currently the only orbiter exploring a planet in our outer solar system.

Cassini Week: Goodbye Cassini

On September 15, 2017, Cassini’s extraordinary, decades-long mission ended. The discovery machine sent back its final transmissions before vaporizing within Saturn’s atmosphere. Its atoms now a part of the planet that it put into such sharp focus for us. It marked the end of an era.

The past week has been bittersweet. I’ve spent many hours remembering and sharing some of my favorite Cassini images. I’ve only posted a small fraction of my favorites, and every time I hit the publish button I’d remember another image that I wish I had included. I could devote this entire blog to sharing images and discoveries that we owe to Cassini and never run out of content. The robot was truly remarkable.

I’ve saved my favorite image for today’s post, as I wrap up Cassini Week.

The ringed beauty, Saturn.

The ringed beauty, Saturn – Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This image blew me away the first time I saw it. It’s an image seared into my mind and one I’ll never forget. But there’s more to it than just what you see at first glance. There’s a deeper meaning to be uncovered upon closer inspection.

Look closer at the image above. Click on it; look at it in full screen. On the left side, between Saturn’s brighter main rings and the G ring is a pale blue dot. It’s the same pale blue dot that Carl Sagan waxed poetically about nearly 30 years ago, when we first saw our home planet from a similar perspective.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there…

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

Sagan’s words have never rang more true.

Cassini, along with all of the other instruments of science, do more than just teach us about the subjects of their attention. They teach us about ourselves. They put our infinitesimally small corner of the Universe in perspective. Cassini showed us worlds we could have hardly imagined. Each discovery making the Universe a little larger, a little more dynamic.

For some, that might make you feel small. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It puts our more minor inconveniences and frustrations in perspective. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come as a species, how fortunate we are to live our lives at such an exciting time.

And, it gives us the tiniest glimpse of the potential of our future.