The longest-ever single spaceflight by a female astronaut is now 322 days long, and still counting! Today NASA astronaut Christina Koch moved past her colleague Suni Williams into seventh place for most time spent in space among all American astronauts. With less than a week to go, Koch recalls the biggest surprise of the mission and the most memorable item she received on a cargo flight.
** Down to Earth – Black Velvet of Space
In honor of the space station 20th anniversary, NASA Astronaut Bill McArthur shares his experience living and working in space aboard the International Space Station in this episode of “Down to Earth – Black Velvet of Space.” As he describes it, he experienced a shift in his worldview known as “the Overview Effect,” a term coined by space philosopher Frank White.
** Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo resupply vehicle departed from the ISS on Friday morning:
** Boeing Cancels Phantom Express Launch Vehicle 2 Years After Winning XS-1 Contract from DARPA – Scott Manley
The XS-1 program was a DARPA project to develop a rapidly reusable launch vehicle which could also be used for hypersonic research. Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Masten Space Systems were seen as the main contenders, but Boeing eventually won with a design based on the RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engine. After 2 years working on the project Boeing stopped, essentially killing the project and leaving another hypersonic aircraft project unfinished.
January 29, 2020, Seattle, Washington – Xplore Inc., a commercial space company providing Space As A Service™ today announced a partnership in which Nanoracks will provide commercial deep space flight opportunities for its customers and serve as a customer interface for payload design, preparation and integration on Xplore missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus, Lagrange Points and near-Earth asteroids.
Nanoracks has dramatically expanded the commercialization of space in low-Earth orbit by launching cubesats and microsatellites from the International Space Station, and launching hundreds of microgravity experiments, for customers since 2009. Xplore founder Lisa Rich said,
“Xplore and Nanoracks have joined forces to create higher-cadence, low-cost flight opportunities to the inner solar system via the Xplore Xcraft™.” She continued: “Xplore’s multi-mission spacecraft has a large payload bay, ample power, electric propulsion and precision pointing capability to perform advanced planetary science, heliophysics, astrophysics, planetary defense and national security missions for our customers. Scientists need more flight opportunities to the Moon, Mars, Venus and other interplanetary destinations. Together, Xplore and Nanoracks will deliver this access and enable scientists to focus on the science, not the spacecraft.”
Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber said,
“Commercial space no longer stops at low-Earth orbit. Xplore paves the way for commercial utilization and services to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. We are truly excited at Nanoracks to be working with Xplore to bring our commercial knowledge from low-Earth orbit into deep space exploration.”
Xplore will advance commercialization of deep space by promoting science, accelerating innovation and growing programmatic-level efforts with established and emerging space agencies around the world. Xplore’s Xcraft™ is a highly-capable ESPA-class spacecraft that can carry 30kg – 70kg of payload in 50U volume and provide customers with the opportunity to fly scheduled or custom orbital missions. Beginning with Moon Xpeditions™ targeted for late 2021, customers can fly instruments including optical instruments, space weather instruments, hyperspectral imagers, deployable cubesats, life science experiments, technology demonstrations and more from the Moon to Ceres. Lisa Rich said, “Nanoracks’ ability to prepare and integrate our customers’ instruments onto Xplore’s spacecraft platform allows Xplore to launch payloads faster and accelerate access to space.”
About Xplore: Established in 2017, Xplore is a Seattle-based commercial deep space company offering Space As A Service™. Xplore provides hosted payloads, communication relay services and exclusive datasets to its customers via a fleet of networked multi-mission spacecraft.
The mission of Xplore is to expand robotic
exploration beyond Earth via commercial missions to the Moon, Mars,
Venus, Lagrange Points and near-Earth asteroids in the inner solar
system. Xplore provides hosted payload services for scientific
instruments and technology demonstrations for national space
agencies, national security agencies, sovereign space agencies and
universities. Visit: https://www.xplore.com
About Nanoracks: Established in 2009, Nanoracks is the world’s first commercial space station company with an existing customer base. The company offers low-cost, high-quality solutions to the most pressing needs for satellite deployment, basic and educational research and both at home and in 30 nations world-wide for those new to the industry and aerospace veterans. Since 2009, Texas-based Nanoracks has truly created new markets, and ushered in a new era of in space-services.
February 2018, over 600 payloads have been launched to the
International Space Station via Nanoracks services, and our customer
base includes the European Space Agency (ESA) the German Space Agency
(DLR,) the American space agency (NASA,) US Government Agencies,
Planet Labs, Millennium Space Systems, Space Florida, NCESSE, Virgin
Galactic, pharmaceutical companies, and organizations in Vietnam, UK,
Romania and Israel. Visit: http://nanoracks.com
A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images from space-related science news items (find previous roundups here):
** What Does a Black Hole Look Like: How We Got Our First Picture – Dr. Eliot Quataert of the University of California, Berkeley gave this recent Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture:
Black holes are one of the most remarkable predictions of Einstein’s theory of gravity: so much material is compressed into such a small volume that nothing, not even light, can escape. In Spring 2019, the world-wide Event Horizon Telescope released the first real picture of gas around a massive black hole and the “shadow” it makes as the gas swirls into the black hole. Dr. Quataert describes how these pioneering observations were made and what they have taught us about black
NASA’s Kepler spacecraft was designed to find exoplanets by looking for stars that dim as a planet crosses the star’s face. Fortuitously, the same design makes it ideal for spotting other astronomical transients – objects that brighten or dim over time. A new search of Kepler archival data has uncovered an unusual super-outburst from a previously unknown dwarf nova. The system brightened by a factor of 1,600 over less than a day before slowly fading away.
The star system in question consists of a white dwarf star with a brown dwarf companion about one-tenth as massive as the white dwarf. A white dwarf is the leftover core of an aging Sun-like star and contains about a Sun’s worth of material in a globe the size of Earth. A brown dwarf is an object with a mass between 10 and 80 Jupiters that is too small to undergo nuclear fusion.
The brown dwarf circles the white dwarf star every 83 minutes at a distance of only 250,000 miles (400,000 km) – about the distance from Earth to the Moon. They are so close that the white dwarf’s strong gravity strips material from the brown dwarf, sucking its essence away like a vampire. The stripped material forms a disk as it spirals toward the white dwarf (known as an accretion disk).
It was sheer chance that Kepler was looking in the right direction when this system underwent a super-outburst, brightening by more than 1,000 times. In fact, Kepler was the only instrument that could have witnessed it, since the system was too close to the Sun from Earth’s point of view at the time. Kepler’s rapid cadence of observations, taking data every 30 minutes, was crucial for catching every detail of the outburst.
The event remained hidden in Kepler’s archive until identified by a team led by Ryan Ridden-Harper of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), Baltimore, Maryland, and the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. “In a sense, we discovered this system accidentally. We weren’t specifically looking for a super-outburst. We were looking for any sort of transient,” said Ridden-Harper.
Kepler captured the entire event, observing a slow rise in brightness followed by a rapid intensification. While the sudden brightening is predicted by theories, the cause of the slow start remains a mystery. Standard theories of accretion disk physics don’t predict this phenomenon, which has subsequently been observed in two other dwarf nova super-outbursts.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered its first Earth-size planet in its star’s habitable zone, the range of distances where conditions may be just right to allow the presence of liquid water on the surface. Scientists confirmed the find, called TOI 700 d, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and have modeled the planet’s potential environments to help inform future observations.
“TESS was designed and launched specifically to find Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Planets around nearby stars are easiest to follow-up with larger telescopes in space and on Earth. Discovering TOI 700 d is a key science finding for TESS. Confirming the planet’s size and habitable zone status with Spitzer is another win for Spitzer as it approaches the end of science operations this January.”
In 2019, when Wolf Cukier finished his junior year at Scarsdale High School in New York, he joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as a summer intern. His job was to examine variations in star brightness captured by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and uploaded to the Planet Hunters TESS citizen science project.
“I was looking through the data for everything the volunteers had flagged as an eclipsing binary, a system where two stars circle around each other and from our view eclipse each other every orbit,” Cukier said. “About three days into my internship, I saw a signal from a system called TOI 1338. At first I thought it was a stellar eclipse, but the timing was wrong. It turned out to be a planet.”
Engineers for NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft are working to return the mission to normal operating conditions after one of the spacecraft’s autonomous fault protection routines was triggered. Multiple fault protection routines were programmed into both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in order to allow the spacecraft to automatically take actions to protect themselves if potentially harmful circumstances arise. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers are still communicating with the spacecraft and receiving telemetry.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are both in interstellar space, making them the most distant human-made objects in the solar system. On Saturday, Jan. 25, Voyager 2 didn’t execute a scheduled maneuver in which the spacecraft rotates 360 degrees in order to calibrate its onboard magnetic field instrument. Analysis of the telemetry from the spacecraft indicated that an unexplained delay in the onboard execution of the maneuver commands inadvertently left two systems that consume relatively high levels of power operating at the same time. This caused the spacecraft to overdraw its available power supply.
It’s a long way to make a service call:
It has taken the team several days to assess the current situation primarily because of Voyager 2’s distance from Earth – about 11.5 billion miles (18.5 billion kilometers). Communications traveling at the speed of light take about 17 hours to reach the spacecraft, and it takes another 17 hours for a response from the spacecraft to return to Earth. As a result, mission engineers have to wait about 34 hours to find out if their commands have had the desired effect on the spacecraft.
In the month of December 2019 the Sun continued its longest stretch of overall sunspot inactivity ever recorded, reaching seven months in length. At no point since the last grand minimum in the 1600s have scientists ever seen so few sunspots over so long a time period.
December saw only two sunspots, both becoming active on the same day, December 24. Both also had a polarity belonging to the next solar cycle, providing evidence that we will have another sunspot maximum sometime in the next five years, and that we are not heading to another grand minimum where there are no sunspots for decades.
At 4:37 a.m. EST on Jan. 29, 2020, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe broke speed and distance records as it completed its fourth close approach of the Sun. The spacecraft traveled 11.6 million miles from the Sun’s surface at perihelion, reaching a speed of 244,225 miles per hour. These achievements topple Parker Solar Probe’s own previous records for closest spacecraft to the Sun — previously about 15 million miles from the Sun’s surface — and fastest human-made object, before roughly 213,200 miles per hour.
Parker Solar Probe will continue to fly ever closer to the Sun on its seven-year journey, exploring regions of space never visited before and providing scientists with key measurements to help unveil the mysteries of the solar corona and wind.
As with most of Parker Solar Probe’s close approaches, the spacecraft is out of contact with Earth for several days around perihelion.
There’s a wind that emanates from the Sun. It blows not like a soft whistle but like a hurricane’s scream. Made of electrons, protons and heavier ions, the solar wind courses through the solar system at roughly 1 million mph (1.6 million kph), barreling over everything in its path. Yet through the wind’s roar, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe hears the small chirps, squeaks and rustles that hint at the origin of this mysterious and ever-present wind. The spacecraft’s FIELDS instrument can eavesdrop on the electric and magnetic fluctuations caused by plasma waves. The Parker Solar Probe it can “hear” when the waves and particles interact with one another, recording frequency and amplitude information about these plasma waves that scientists could then play as sound waves. And it results in some striking sounds. Solar wind sounds playlist: https://soundcloud.com/jhu-apl/sets/s…
It’s more massive than all the other planets combined. In nearly four years at Jupiter the Juno spacecraft has returned science that is revolutionizing our understanding of this gigantic world. Principal investigator Scott Bolton shows us the mysterious cyclones at its poles and that famously persistent red spot. Casey Dreier says the United States House of Representatives has proposed legislation that is at odds with NASA’s current Moon and Mars plans. John Flamsteed almost discovered Uranus! Bruce Betts will tell us where he went wrong in this week’s What’s Up space trivia contest.
Chinese officials marked the one-year anniversary of the Chang’e 4 mission’s historic first soft landing on the far side of the moon [January 3rd] with the public release of data collected by scientific instruments and cameras on the lunar lander and rover.
The Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover landed together on the lunar surface Jan. 3, 2019, marking the first time a spacecraft has ever safely touched down on the far side of the moon.
Around 12 hours after touchdown, the Yutu 2 rover drove down a ramp to disembark from the Chang’e 4 mission’s stationary landing platform to begin exploring the barren lunar landscape.
Scientific instruments and cameras aboard the Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover have downlinked measurements and numerous images in the past year. The Chang’e 4 mission relays data through a dedicated Chinese communications satellite positioned beyond the far side of the moon, with a line of sight to both Chang’e 4 and Earth-based receiving stations.
On Friday, the one-year anniversary of the mission’s successful landing, China National Space Administration and the Chinese Academy of Sciences published scientific data collected by five instruments on the Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover.
After a year scoping out asteroid Bennu’s boulder-scattered surface, the team leading NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission has officially selected a sample collection site.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex) mission team concluded a site designated “Nightingale” – located in a crater high in Bennu’s northern hemisphere – is the best spot for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to snag its sample.
The OSIRIS-REx team spent the past several months evaluating close-range data from four candidate sites in order to identify the best option for the sample collection. The candidate sites – dubbed Sandpiper, Osprey, Kingfisher, and Nightingale – were chosen for investigation because, of all the potential sampling regions on Bennu, these areas pose the fewest hazards to the spacecraft’s safety while still providing the opportunity for great samples to be gathered.
Preliminary results indicate that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully executed a 0.4-mile (620-m) flyover of site Nightingale yesterday as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance B phase activities. Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx’s primary sample collection site, is located within a crater high in asteroid Bennu’s northern hemisphere.
To perform the pass, the spacecraft left its 0.75-mile (1.2-km) safe home orbit and flew an almost 11-hour transit over the asteroid, aiming its science instruments toward the 52-ft (16-m) wide sample site before returning to orbit. Science observations from this flyover are the closest taken of a sample site to date.
The primary goal of the Nightingale flyover was to collect the high-resolution imagery required to complete the spacecraft’s Natural Feature Tracking image catalog, which will document the sample collection site’s surface features – such as boulders and craters. During the sampling event, which is scheduled for late August, the spacecraft will use this catalog to navigate with respect to Bennu’s surface features, allowing it to autonomously predict where on the sample site it will make contact . Several of the spacecraft’s other instruments also took observations of the Nightingale site during the flyover event, including the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES), the OSIRIS-REx Visual and InfraRed Spectrometer (OVIRS), the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), and the MapCam color imager.
After making good progress in recent weeks, another day of digging on #Mars leads to the mole backing out by a couple of centimeters. My team keeps pushing forward and is exploring several options. pic.twitter.com/pe2eopDANi
The joint European/Russian ExoMars 2020 mission aims to launch on a Russian Proton rocket this summer and land on Mars on March 19, 2021. Problems with the parachutes need to be resolved else the mission will have to wait another two years for the next launch window: Promising progress for ExoMars parachutes – ESA
** SpaceX successfully launched a fourth batch of 60 Starlink satellites today from Cape Canaveral. The first stage booster landed safely and one of the two nosecone fairings was caught in a net on a ship as well. The other fairing had a soft landing near a second ship and will probably be recovered for possible reuse.
In SpinLaunch’s design, once a rocket is spinning at launch speeds, an exit port in the centrifuge will open for a fraction of a second, sending the rocket shooting out. According to patents filed by the company, a counterbalance spinning opposite the rocket gets released at the same time, preventing the tether from becoming unbalanced and vibrating into oblivion. The rocket coasts for about a minute and ignites its engines at roughly 200,000 feet. At that altitude, there’s hardly any atmosphere pushing against the rocket, so a minute-long engine burn is about all it takes to boost the vehicle to orbital speeds of around 17,500 miles an hour. Another burn, this one lasting just ten seconds, helps the rocket slide into orbit around Earth.
Or so [Spinlaunch founder and chief Jonathan] Yaney assures me. When I visited the company, the prototype centrifuge was still in pieces and Yaney wouldn’t show me any videos of it in action. Instead, he insisted the math of SpinLaunch engineers was solid. Major investors—including Airbus Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, and GV (part of Alphabet)—have given their blessing too, pumping $80 million into the company. And last year, the US Department of Defense awarded SpinLaunch a contract to help develop its centrifuge. Still, the scant public evidence that any of it works leaves much to the imagination.
** Blue Origin to use Air Force facility to test BE-7 lunar lander engine. Blue will fund major improvements to the site located on Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The Air Force Research Laboratory and Blue Origin are developing a new test facility for the Blue Origin BE-7 lunar lander engine at the AFRL rocket lab here.
Capital improvements, funded by Blue Origin, will allow BE-7 testing in a simulated space-like environment. Planned work includes adding liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant capabilities, along with other facility upgrades.
AFRL and Blue Origin signed a 15-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreement Dec. 11, 2019 to develop a test facility for the Blue Origin BE-7 Lunar Lander Engine here. The CRADA was signed by Dr. Shawn Phillips, chief of the Rocket Propulsion Division, and Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin.
The BE-7 engine is a new, high performance 10,000 pound-thrust dual-expander cycle engine for in-space applications, including Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander. The new AFRL test capabilities will support various development, qualification, and production acceptance tests of the BE-7 engine under future Commercial Test Agreements, also to be funded by Blue Origin.
Rocket Lab’s 11th Electron flight – Birds of a Feather – will launch a dedicated mission for the United States National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The launch window is scheduled to open on 31 January NZDT and the mission will lift off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1.
The NRO competitively awarded the contract under the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract vehicle. RASR allows the NRO to explore new launch opportunities that can provide a streamlined, commercial approach for getting small satellites into space.
Startup Exodus Space Corp. plans to build a space plane to ferry cargo around Earth. Eventually, that cargo could include people, if the spacecraft is deemed safe enough.
The spaceship — called AstroClipper — will take off from a runaway, make a flight into space and then land again, plane-style. A heft booster at the space plane’s back end will help it get into orbit by giving AstroClipper the speed it requires to break out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Exodus is new and still raising money, but its team includes deep experience across the space industry. Principals at the company have worked at SpaceX, Lockheed Martin and NASA, among others.
** A NASA KSC video highlights the Commercial Crew program:
NASA and Commercial Crew Program partners Boeing and SpaceX are preparing to launch astronauts from Florida’s Space Coast.
Data from the Jan. 19 in-flight launch escape demonstration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft indicate the performance of the capsule’s SuperDraco abort engines was “flawless” as the thrusters boosted the ship away from the top of a Falcon 9 rocket with a peak acceleration of about 3.3Gs, officials said Thursday.
The Jan. 19 test demonstrated the Crew Dragon’s ability to safely carry astronauts away from a launch emergency, such as a rocket failure, and return the crew to a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
****** SpaceX conducted multiple pressure tests on propellant tanks in the past several days at the Boca Chica Beach facility. These included tests on a prototype nosecone tank and on a second large main propulsion tank. (The nosecone header tank is used to keep the center of mass of the Starship positioned correctly as propellants are fed into the engines.) The tanks were each tested to the point of destruction so as to determine the margin of safety above their planned operating pressures. The latest large tank test used liquid nitrogen, whose cryogenic temperature strengthens the stainless steel structure. The tank did not burst until the pressure reached 8.5 bar, which Elon Musk said was the target level. The highest operating pressure will be 6 bar.
****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship Test Tank 2 Destructive Cryo Test – Jan.29.2020 – NASASpaceflight.com
The second Starship test tank is tested to overpressure (8.5 Bar) at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF. Edited by Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer)
****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship Nosecone Heads to Launch Site – Bulkhead Flip – Jan.23.2020 – NASASpaceflight.com
Ops are ramping up at SpaceX Boca Chica as the Test Tank bulkhead was flipped and the Starship Nosecone/Header Tank was transported to the launch site for its own proofing test. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.
****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship Header Tank Pressurization Test – Jan.25.2020 – NASASpaceflight.com
SpaceX conducted a pressurization test of a Starship header tank on Jan. 24 at their Boca Chica launch facility. NSF’s BocaChicaGal (Mary) filmed the test for several hours. The footage has been compiled into a timelapse of the test.