SpaceX Continues To Make History

SpaceX is no stranger to making commercial spaceflight history. They were the first private corporation to launch a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit, send a re-supply spacecraft to the International Space Station, and to land their first-stage rockets back on Earth (for potential re-use), among other milestones. They’re also on the cusp of providing transportation services for International Space Station crew members.

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017 – Source: SpaceX

On February 19, 2017, SpaceX accomplished another major feat: They became the first private company to launch from the historic Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Launch Pad 39A

SpaceX became the first commercial corporation to lease space and operate out of Kennedy Space Center when, in 2014, they signed a 20-year lease for the historic Launch Pad 39A. It was from this launch pad that Apollo 11 blasted off for the Moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on our lunar neighbor. It also hosted the first Space Shuttle mission, as well as some 90 others. Now, and for at least the next two decades, it’s in the hands of SpaceX, further cementing the foothold that the private sector has made in the space program.

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches – Source: Public Domain and SpaceX

Launch and Landing

At 9:39am EST, on February 19, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited and thundered into the clouds. The rocket was topped with the Dragon capsule, carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,267 kg) worth of cargo destined for the International Space Station. Dragon arrived and successfully docked with the ISS a couple of days following launch.

Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA astrophysicist and contributor to myriad space documentary programs, was at Sunday’s launch and graciously shared her experience with me. “Launches are always wonderfully, viscerally exciting,” she said. “The Falcon 9 has a wonderful, big, booming sound, similar to an Atlas, and it puts on a great fireworks show.”

But that wasn’t the only show in store for the lucky spectators in Florida that day. After shoving Dragon into orbit, the Falcon first stage began its 100-kilometer return trip back to Earth. In fewer than 10 minutes following lift-off, the first stage rocket re-emerged through the clouds and landed at Landing Zone 1, just a few miles away from the launch pad. Thaller described the period of suspense in between the launch and the Falcon landing, and said that in some ways there was more anticipation for the landing than there was for the launch.

[N]othing quite prepares you for what happens 7 minutes later, just as the adrenaline is wearing off. Silently, at first, this 230-foot first stage turns around and comes down out of the sky. Smoothly, surreally, a tower the size of a 15 story building just comes and sets itself down. Only once it’s down do you hear the double pop of a sonic boom. It sort of turns your stomach. Things that big are not supposed to just come out of the sky and land. It’s awesome.

Awesome, indeed. See for yourself:

As a kid, I remember watching cartoons that showed rockets landing on various planets. The rockets would turn themselves around and gently land engine-side down. I would always exclaim, “That’s not how rockets work! They burn up, or have parachutes attached and they land in the ocean! How silly.”

Yet, here we are.

I’ve often been jealous about being born too late to experience the race to the Moon. I’ve been somewhat depressed since watching the last Shuttle mission touch down in 2011. But when I take a step back and look at what is occurring today and what we have to look forward to, I can’t help but recognize what a wonderful time it is to be alive.

You can watch the full webcast of the launch on SpaceX’s YouTube channel.

7 Earth-Sized Worlds Discovered Orbiting Nearby Star

Artist's concept of the surface of TRAPPIST1-f.

Artist’s concept of the surface of TRAPPIST1-f. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA held a press conference today, announcing an exciting new discovery: A record-breaking seven Earth-sized planets have been discovered orbiting a star located about 40 light years from Earth. Three of these planets are firmly located within what’s called the habitable zone–the area around a star that is likely to have rocky planets with liquid water.

The star is named TRAPPIST-1 (also known as 2MASS J23062928-0502285). It’s an ‘ultra-cool dwarf’ star, with approximately 8% of the mass and 11% of the radius of our Sun. Size-wise, this is approximately the difference between a basketball and a golfball.

The seven plants surrounding TRAPPIST-1 orbit much closer to their star than Earth does to the Sun. As well, these exoplanets are much closer to each other than the planets in our own system. You could stand on one of these planets and see the next closest one with a similar type of view that we have with the Moon here on Earth, and you could clearly make out the disc-shape of many of the other planets rather than mere points of light.

The discoveries were made using data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched in 2003. Although Spitzer wasn’t specifically designed to observe exoplanets, the suite of instruments it carries allows it to discover exoplanets in the same manner that the Kepler spacecraft uses. These observatories can discover exoplanets by precisely measuring dips in the light emitted from a star that coincides with a planet orbiting in-between that star and our vantage point and blocking a portion of the light that we can measure. Continued observations can determine orbital periods, distance from the star, and the number of exoplanets in a system. This data can be used to plot habitable zones.

During the press conference, the team stated that they had preliminary mass measurements for six of the planets, and they believe that one is likely to have a water-rich composition.

Artist's concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances.

Artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like, based on available data about their sizes, masses and orbital distances. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

There currently isn’t a system for naming exoplanets in the way that bodies like asteroids are named, so they’re simply provided with alphabetic designations appended to their host stars’ name, with the designation ‘b’ being the closest to the star.

These planets orbit so close to their star that they’re likely tidally-locked in the same manner that the Moon is to the Earth. These planets would have permanent day and night sides.

One of the planets, Trappist-1c, is very similar in size to Earth and receives about the same amount of light as Earth receives from the Sun. It could very well have temperatures similar to those we have on Earth. Trappist-1f has a 9-day orbit and receives about as much light as Mars does. Trappist-1g is the largest planet in the system with an estimated radius 13% larger than Earth.

All of the planets are within a few times the distance between the Earth and the Moon of each other, and being so close to their star their orbits (their years) are about 1.5 Earth days for the closest planet and 20 days for the furthest.

Concept art for TRAPPIST-1 and its seven Earth-sized exoplanets.

Concept art for TRAPPIST-1 and its seven Earth-sized exoplanets. – Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next step, which is already ongoing, is to study their atmospheres and to look for water. This can be accomplished using a technique called transmission spectroscopy. We have observatories that can do this now, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and the future James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to push these capabilities even further. JWST will be able to look for greenhouse gas content and determine the surface temperatures of these planets, as well as detect gases that are produced by life. It’s expected that the first cycle of observations of the JWST will include the TRAPPIST-1 system.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, referred to our moment in time as “the gold rush phase of exoplanet discovery.”  It was just in 1995 that the first exoplanet was discovered, he explained, and that thousands have been discovered since.

Following the announcement, the panel held a Q&A session. During the course of their answers, they explained that there was no indication of these planets having moons, but that if water was present there would be tidal activity resulting from the other planets. They said they expect substantial progress in determining the atmospheric composition of these exoplanets within the next 5 years, utilizing the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope after it begins operations in 2018. JWST’s transmission spectroscopy will cover the range needed to determine the potential for life.

One member asked if any attempts have been made to listen to the system with SETI-style instruments, to which there was a reply that SETI itself had listened to the system but hadn’t picked-up any signals.

One of the most interesting answers came from Zurbuchen, when he was asked when we could expect to construct a craft that could journey to this system. Rather than give an estimate in the number of years in the future we could expect such capabilities, he answered with the estimated “number of miracles” that are required before we get there. He explained that the JWST required 10 miracles to become possible. He likened the construction of a craft that could explore TRAPPIST-1 as requiring “100 miracles”, but that we shouldn’t be dissuaded, that to get there you have to “start inventing your way forward.” Some of the “miracles” require advancements in propulsion systems and radiation-protection, and that the good news was that substantial work is already being accomplished towards about 5-10 of these miracles. He said it’s about “leaning forward” and “not backing up”.

Discoveries like these are constant reminders of just how big and amazing our Universe is. We’re reminded that the night sky isn’t just full of points of light, but worlds, perhaps some of which might be very similar to our own.

A poster advertising a hypothetical planet-hopping trip in the Trappist-1 system

A poster advertising a hypothetical planet-hopping trip in the Trappist-1 system – Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

Soyuz Spacecraft Returns to Earth: Year-In-Space Mission Ends

The image below shows the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft’s return to Earth, on March 2nd, 2016. Inside are NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov. Both Kelly and Kornienko spent almost an entire year in space aboard the International Space Station, in a research effort to understand the health impacts of long-term spaceflight.

Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft, floating back to Earth

Soyuz TMA-18M, floating back to Earth – Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Click the image for an even gorgeous-er huge version.

Isn’t that image simply amazing?

Favorite Space Images of 2011

With so many wondrous space-related images being captured on a daily basis, it is difficult to single any out as “the best”. That said, there are those that just stick in your mind… the images that run through your head when you’re trying to go to sleep, that make you ask questions, that inspire you to spend hours doing research, and those that make your jaw drop to the floor. Here are a small handful of the ones that have done that to me this year.

[imagebrowser id=2]

I hope you enjoyed these as I have, and I look forward to what 2012 has in store for us!


Space Science in 2010

It’s time to start a new year (possibly a new decade, depending on how you want to look at it), but before we do that, let’s take a look back at what 2010 meant for the space sciences.

Let’s talk launches.
As far as lobbing the most things up into space this year, Russia takes the cake. There were 74 space launches in 2010, and close to half of those (31) were undertaken by Russia. The USA and China each had about half as many as Russia; 15. The European Space Agency sent up 6 rockets. Rounding out the remainder were India with 3, Japan with 2, and Israel and South Korea each with 1. Four launches in the world were unsuccessful.

ESA:
The European Space Agency had a successful year. Their Cryosat-2 Earth explorer launched in April (following the failed launch of Cryosat-1 in 2005) is live and collecting data on how Earth’s ice fields are responding to global climate change.

The Planck orbiting observatory released its first all-sky scan data, and the produced image definitely ranks among the top for 2010 and beyond:

Planck all-sky survey

Click for full size. - Source: ESA - Planck

(For the above image labeled with reference points, check this link.)
You’re seeing the microwave sky as seen by Planck, which will continue in 2011 to map out the Cosmic Microwave Background.

ESA’s comet-chaser, Rosetta, performed a fly-by of the asteroid 21 Lutetia.

Closest fly-by of 21 Lutetia

Click for large version - Source: ESA / Rosetta

One of my favorite Rosetta images so far is of 21 Lutetia, but from a bit further away; however, from that distance a special treat comes into view:

21 Lutetia with Saturn in background.

Click to biggify - Source ESA / Rosetta

Saturn! And I can’t help to notice that this is just about what Saturn looks like on Earth through a Galileoscope.

I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of ESA’s contributions to space science in 2010, but we’ll have a chance to get to know what they’re up to over the next year, as we continue to cover Rosetta, Planck, Cryosat, and more!

NASA:
NASA had a big year in 2010. President Obama laid out a new direction for NASA in February, and in April, detailed plans for future space exploration.

“Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” the president said. “And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

I certainly hope to see it too!

NASA launched a new set of eyes to observe the Sun, in the SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory). Of course I have a pretty image to share from SDO:

Solar Eclipse Seen From SDO

Click for large version - Souce: NASA / SDO

This October 2010 image shows a solar eclipse from SDO’s vantage point.

Following last year’s bombing of the Moon (okay, not bombing, but they did punch a pretty nice dent into it with their Centaur impactor, sending a plume of debris 12 miles high after a 5,600 mph impact), NASA’s LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite) released some new and promising data:

Scientists determined the soil in the moon’s shadowy craters is rich in useful materials, including water in the form of mostly pure ice crystals. Researchers also found the moon is chemically active and has a water cycle. By understanding the processes and environments that determine the delivery of water to the moon, where water ice is, and the active water cycle, future mission planners may be able to better determine which locations will have easily-accessible water. – NASA

Finally, NASA brought us the science (and unncessary hooplah) around some arsenic-munching bacteria. With rampant and irresponsible speculation following NASA’s pre-announcement teaser — “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” — release, many of us anxiously awaited the release of the actual report. Unfortunately, NASA didn’t announce the discovery of alien life. It also didn’t announce that it found life on Earth actively consuming arsenic — although many media reports said otherwise. These bacteria were collected from a lake and brought to a lab where biologists replaced some of its phosphorus with arsenic, to which it apparently managed to continue growing. Simply, all life as we know it uses phosphorus as a backbone of its DNA, so knowing that something could survive and grow with arsenic in place of phosphorus would re-write what we know about how life exists in the universe. However, at the time of this writing, there’s some serious criticism of the findings. Hopefully, it will be ironed out in 2011.

News also came from the Voyager mission, which has been unfolding our understanding of our solar system for more than 30 years. The Voyager 1 spacecraft reached a point on the edge of the solar system, where the solar wind no longer has any outward motion. The wind is no longer in Voyager 1’s sails, yet it continues on. (Expect more on the Voyager mission from this blog, as it’s probably deserves the most credit for getting me interested in space science.)

And that’s just a tiny sampling of what NASA is continuously kicking out.

JAXA
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had a bittersweet year.

Bitter: Their third planetary explorer Planet-C (Akatsuki) failed to insert itself into Venus’ orbit. The mission isn’t lost though, as they’ll get a re-do in six years when the craft re-approaches Venus. I’m sure JAXA will find ways to conduct science with Akatsuki in the meantime.

Sweet: They launched the first space-kite! IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) is the first project to demonstrate interplanetary travel using solar-sail technology. So far, IKAROS is working beautifully and may form as the basis for alternative means of getting around in the galaxy.

Sweet+: JAXA’s Hayabusa craft also completed the legwork on a mission that launched in 2003. The mission was to approach an asteroid, touch-down to collect particle samples, and then return them to Earth for analysis. While the mission ran into a number of complications, ultimately it was a very remarkable feat of engineering and technology. The spacecraft, and samples capsule, returned to Earth in June of 2010; with the spacecraft burning up on re-entry (as planned). In November, JAXA confirmed that most of the particles collected were in fact from the target asteroid, Itokawa. Further analysis is ongoing. The mission is an exciting example of what JAXA is capable of, and I recommend reading a full account of the entire mission.

Roscosmos:
The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), as mentioned before, took the lead on putting things into orbit. Roscosmos had 31 launches, more than the US and China combined. Here’s an explanatory image (a picture is worth a thousand words, ya’know), showing Russia’s space plans in 2010, and reality:

Russian Space Plans and Reality 2010

You'll want to click the image for the large version - RussianSpaceWeb.com

The private sector also began to get involved with spaceflight in a big way in 2010.
SpaceX conducted the first successful launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in early December 2010; the first time this has been accomplished by a private company.
Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital SpaceShipTwo completed a number of manned glide tests, paving the way for SpaceShipThree, which will be an orbital craft.

While we’ve covered a number of major events in 2010, I’ve actually only scratched the surface. A single blog, let alone a single blog post, simply can’t cover everything that multi-billion dollar budgets, devoted to space sciences from dozens of countries around the globe, accomplish in a given year — and 2010 was a great one!

So to 2010, “Well done!”, and now on to 2011!