Friday, May 22, 2015

Dragon Cargo Ship Returns to Earth

From the ocean of Space to the ocean of Earth. Credit SpaceX.

After a month at the ISS, the Dragon cargo spaceship undocked and shortly afterwards plunged through the Earth's atmosphere to safely splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Tucked securely in its spacious cabin, over 3000 pounds of equipment, samples, and experiments were returned from space.
The robotic arm holds tight on Dragon while maneuvering before release. Credit NASA.

With the problems encountered this spring with the Progress capsules, all cargo flights by SpaceX and Russia have been rescheduled and cargo transport rearranged. The next Dragon flight is scheduled for June 26. The astronauts on ISS have plenty of supplies for now.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

X-37B Launches on Atlas 5

Atlas 5 on the pad at Launch Complex 41.

On Wednesday May 20, United Launch Alliance services launched the Air Force's X-37B re-useable robotic shuttle into Earth orbit. There are two spaceplanes in the X-37B fleet, and this was the second flight for the second spacecraft. There have been four X-37B flights so far. On these classified missions, it's not made known to the general public what experiments are being conducted, nor when the spaceplanes will glide back to Earth.

Previous Atlas 5 with X-37 shroud.

Th flight marks the 54th Atlas 5 flight. The rocket has been chosen for use with Boeing's CST-100 manned space capsule, which is undergoing testing in preparation for use as a low-orbit ferry in years to come.

X-37 being fitted with protective shroud.

The last X-37B fllight lasted for more than two years, so this could also be a long flight. Some of the tests the Air Force has been making are materials exposure tests which require long periods in open vacuum. On this flight, the craft is also carrying 10 small deployable satellites for various other institutions.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

50 Years Ago: Soviet Luna 5 crashes into the Moon

Soviet Union's Luna 5 Moon probe.

Back in May 1965, the Russians were also trying their hand at lunar reconnaissance before sending humans to the Moon. The Luna program was a huge program of launches to send robotic explorers to the Moons orbit or to land on the surface. More than 24 missions were successful. Failures were kept in secrecy or relabeled. Luna 2 became the first man-made object to reach the surface of the Moon when it impacted on the surface in September 1959. Luna 3 sent the first pictures to Earth of the Moon's far side. Luna 5 was supposed to be the first probe to safely land on the surface.

Soviet illustration of how the lander would have been deployed. This did not succeed until Luna 9.

On May 12, 1965 the Soviet propaganda arm declared to the world that Luna 5 had successfully impacted the lunar surface in the area of the Sea of Clouds and that many important pictures had been taken. Western space experts correctly guessed that the mission had failed, and that the Soviets had been attempting to make a soft landing.  On May 13, The Soviet leadership must have decided that honesty was a preferred course to take. They announced that the mission failure may have occurred because of the late firing of landing thrusters, pointing out that the 2.5 second radio delay in that distance would have prevented ground controllers from taking corrective action.

Today we know that the craft had suffered from uncontrolled spinning after a mid-course correction on the way to the Moon. The main landing engine failed to fire because of a ground-control error.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

SpaceX Dragon Capsule Abort Test WIN!

Dragon 2 blasts off from the rocket simulator on the pad. Credit: NASA/Space News.

Another milestone has been reached by SpaceX as they prepare a new crewed spacecraft to take American astronauts into orbit. The Dragon 2 space capsule abort test was designed to see if the craft's unique rocket system could safely remove the capsule from a dangerous rocket launchpad. And it did.  Eight SuperDraco thruster engines swiftly propelled the Dragon 2 test capsule from the rocket pad and out over the Atlantic shore.

The test occurred at Launch Complex SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Wednesday this week. The SuperDraco engines are integrated into the capsule itself, which is different than the escape tower designs of the 20th Century space systems.  Their power is so good that one of the engines could fail and the craft would still be able to lift astronaut crewmembers to safety. Once launched, the simulated service module fell away, and after coasting a bit, the capsule deployed parachutes for a watery landing down the coast.

Splashdown near the shore.

You can read more about the test and the test dummy occupant, at NASA

Blue Origin Launches Test Rocket and Capsule

The BE-3 engine powers the New Shepherd system into the clear Texas skies. Credit:Blue Origin.

Amazon founder Jeff  Bezos must have been very proud last week to see a successful launch of his New Shepherd space system from a Texas launch site. Although space media have known of Blue Origin, Bezos' private space company, the company leadership has kept their development somewhat under wraps. The test launch took some space enthusiasts by surprise. NASA had not included Blue Origin in their grants of Commercial Crew Development money. Blue Origin went ahead with their project anyway, and Thursday April 30 saw the first public test of the new capsule on the rocket.

Touchdown! The capsule lands safely downrange slowed by three main parachutes.

The company's BE-3 engine sent the rocket up swiftly and the capsule separated as planned, reaching an altitude over 300,000 feet. After reaching apogee, the New Shepherd capsule oriented so that the descent parachutes could deploy.  The capsule is designed for short sub-orbital flights, taking paying passengers into zero-gravity for a 15-minute mission. With the recent delays in the Virgin Galactic space tourism project, it's possible that Blue Origins could end up being first in space tourism operations.

New Shepherd capsule. Credit: Blue Origin.

Progress M-27M Burns Up

The re-entry of Progress M-27M would have appeared similar to this re-entry of one of Europe's ATV cargo ships.

After a troubled launch when Russian flight controllers determined that the robotic cargo spacecraft Progress M-27M was spinning out of control, the decision was made to try to safely de-orbit the craft and let it burn up in the atmosphere. There was just enough communication left working to get the ship to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and self-destruct. Any pieces of the craft that survived the breakup and fire would have splashed down in an empty Pacific area.

Previous Progress in orbit near ISS.

It's a sad ending for the 150th Progress mission to the International Space Station. Now Russian mission planners are preparing a revised schedule of launches and landings for other spacecraft.

Friday, May 1, 2015


Last image sent by the Messenger space probe.

A new crater is detected on Mercury! Er - rather, a new crater was created on Mercury, as the Messenger space probe crashed into the far side of the little planet. After 4 years and 250,000 images, the NASA Messenger spacecraft program came to a close, and the satellite was allowed to smack into the surface at about 8,700 miles per hour. The are no images of the crash itself, as it occurred on the side of Mercury facing away from Earth telescopes, and space telescopes were unable to face the crashpoint as the planet was too close to the glare of the Sun.

NASA infographic of the success of Messenger.

Messenger completed its mission in 2012, but it was in good enough shape to continue experiments and reconnaissance. It successfully discovered Mercury's off-set internal magnetic field, imaged water ice deposits at the poles, and helped scientists unravel the geological history of the planet.