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Monday, July 13, 2015

Pluto Day!!!

Some of us have been waiting a really long time for the New Horizons flyby of Pluto (it launched almost a decade ago). However, what we are going to see today is basically NOTHING, other than an endless string of NASA press conferences about how they don't have anything to tell or show us.

New Horizons must first be aimed at Pluto (and it's companion planet Charon; apparently NASA has officially stopped calling it a "moon") in order to get photographs and other data during the flyby. Closest point of approach to Pluto will be at 4:49am pdt, but it will continue photographing and collecting data on Pluto for at least several hours after the flyby. Then New Horizons will realign itself to aim its antenna back toward earth. It will first send a short ping to tell the mission team that the spacecraft made it through the Pluto system without mishap, and that the data was collected and is safely in NH's memory banks. This ping will take about four and a half hours to travel from Pluto back to Earth at the speed of light.

Then New Horizons will begin transmitting its preliminary data package. These will include low resolution (about the quality of a JPEG) images of Pluto and Charon during the flyby. Due to the highly attenuated signal crossing some three billion kilometers of interplanetary space, the baud rate of the transmissions will be maddeningly slow. Once received on earth they must be processed and analyzed.

Wednesday (15 July) at noon pdt, NASA will hold a press conference and release the first series of low resolution photos. This is the first new NASA press conference for this mission that will have any real information in it. High resolution photos are forthcoming, but will take about nine months to arrive.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Childhood's End

There's a lot going on right now in the realm of space exploration. The Dawn mission to Ceres is getting very interesting, the New Horizons mission will reach Pluto and Charon in two weeks; this is all huge, and I haven't posted anything here at all about any of it for a couple of months, due mostly to simple writer's block. Sad about that, and hoping to do better.

So, this morning the SpaceX CRS-7 Dragon/Falcon 9 cargo mission to the International Space Station failed. Notably it was the third failure of a cargo vessel to the ISS in the past eight months, after the Orbital ATK Antares back in October and the Russian Progress 59 in April. In the scheme of such things, this really is not a big deal. The ISS crew have enough provisions until October, and there's another Progress flight scheduled for this Friday. Nobody was hurt, and out of nineteen total Falcon 9 launches since 2010, one catastrophic failure is right at the 5% failure rate which is the rough median for orbital launches.

So, why does this feel like such a monumental blow to the commercial space program, and to spaceflight in general? Rockets explode, it's one of the things they do. When the Antares exploded, spectacularly, last fall, it made the news of course, and people speculated about whether or not Orbital would survive. But nobody speculated about whether or not spaceflight itself would survive. That would have been crazy. But today I've seen that speculation in the media, in chat rooms and other online forums, in all kinds of places that are populated by people who actually understand spaceflight. In the NASA press briefing this morning you could feel that current as well, even though they did a very good job of presenting the rational analysis of this being just another rocket explosion. You could even see it in Charlie Bolden's demeanor this morning. I felt it too.

The difference is not in the scope or magnitude of the loss of the Falcon 9 rocket. We lose rockets. The difference is that this is SpaceX.

For several years now there has grown an idea that the brilliant Elon Musk was doing what no other entity had ever been able to do before. That the founder of Pay Pal was somehow smarter than all of the engineers at NASA, Roscosmos, ESA, Boeing or Lockheed, and had figured out how to make spaceflight safe and affordable when all of the others had failed. With each successful Falcon 9 flight this became easier to believe, largely because we really wanted to believe it. Even Musk's competitors watched him to see if they could emulate his success.

Underlying this was sometimes a sense that SpaceX didn't know what they didn't know, and that through trial and error they would eventually come to look more like Boeing, Lockheed and other "old space" companies. But, we wanted this to not be true. We wanted spaceflight to be as easy, safe and affordable as Musk believed it to be.

Today we learned that Tsiolkovsky doesn't play favorites. And in many ways, today SpaceX finally became a real, grown-up rocket company. And we who follow spaceflight have had to grow up a bit as well.

Ad astra.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


This is HAVOC, NASA's new proposal for utilizing lighter than air craft to explore and colonize Venus. This is an enormous paradigm shift for them. For years the common wisdom has been that Venus was utterly uninhabitable, with surface atmospheric pressures 92 times that of earth (about the equivalent of one kilometer under water on earth), and surface temperatures above 500° C. But of course, if we were to explore an earth-analog planet with oceans like ours, we would probably not begin exploring that at one kilometer down, either. By the simple physics of adiabatic lapse rate (the higher you go in the atmosphere, the colder and less dense it becomes), at some altitude above the surface of Venus the atmosphere is of terrestrial densities and temperatures. There are issues; sulfuric acid, for example, falls as rain there. But life support in this environment would be trivial compared to the Martian surface.

The transit times for a mission to the atmosphere of Venus and back to earth are much, much less than for trip to and from the surface of Mars. The Delta V budget to the Venusian atmosphere is higher than a landing on Mars (25 km/sec vs 19 km/sec), but this penalty may well be outweighed by the smaller amount of hardware needed to survive above Venus. This has very, very serious potential to be the first human exploration and colonization of another planet.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Orion Rising

Flawless launch, flight, re-entry and splash down. Nicely done, NASA. Welcome home. We've missed you.

And, a huge shout-out to United Launch Alliance as well. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Day late and a dollar short

Last week the ESA's Rosetta mission successfully landed the Philae probe onto the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Philae bounced several times before finally landing on the side of a cliff. A gentle reminder that for more critical missions which require landing, there is real virtue in having an actual human pilot at the controls.

The total number of bodies in the solar system we have successfully landed anything on intact now stands at seven; the Moon, Venus, Mars, Titan, the asteroids Eros and Itokawa, and comet Chury-Gery. We have returned samples only from the Moon, and asteroid Itokawa.

The next big robotic exploration destination will be when the Dawn spacecraft reaches Ceres next spring. I'm inclined to think that the Dawn Ceres data will be a game-changer in how we prioritize our upcoming human space exploration missions. As such, we'll be following it closely, here.