Google Lunar XPRIZE Update

Earlier this year, I reported on the Google Lunar XPRIZE, the $20 million challenge to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel at least 500 meters, and transmit HD images and video back to Earth. The original deadline required launch before the end of 2017. Now, Google has stated that the mission needs to be completed by March 31, 2018.

XPRIZE logoWhether this new deadline is an extension or a clarification is open to interpretation. Previous language required teams to launch by December 31, 2017. Some propulsion systems are slow enough that even if the spacecraft was launched in 2017, it could take years to make it to the lunar surface. By requiring mission completion no later than March 31, 2018 a clear end date to the challenge has been set. The good news is that this might buy the teams some more time, with the phrase, “regardless of initiation date” being included. Launches could be conducted into March and still potentially take the prize, so long as they complete the other objectives (land, travel a minimum of 500 meters, and transmit HD images and video back to Earth) before April.

According to the latest info, the five teams competing are still: TeamIndus (India), SpaceIL (Israel), Moon Express (USA), Synergy Moon (International) and HAKUTO (Japan).

The amount of information each team is revealing about their progress varies. TeamIndus appears to be one of the most promotional about their progress with regular updates to their social media pages, YouTube channel and their Medium blog. They even created an anthem for their mission.

The Lunar XPRIZE panel was recently invited to take a tour of the TeamIndus facilities and check their progress. John Zernecki, one of the XPRIZE judges, had the following to say about what the panel saw from TeamIndus:

“They’ve created this very vibrant, dynamic and now very professional organization that really has a chance of doing something really crazy…. Now they are, I would say, within striking distance… They have a very believable, credible mission.

Good luck to TeamIndus and the rest of the teams.

Personally, I’ll be excited if any team wins but I do have a bit of a soft spot for TeamIndus solely because their rover is the most adorable:

Team Indus's ECA rover

Team Indus’s ECA rover – Source: Team Indus

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.