Space Sunday: rocket power and space stations

Dude, why’s my car in orbit? Musk’s cherry-red Tesla photographed from its payload mounting on the Falcon Heavy upper stage. Credit: SpaceX

On Tuesday, February 6th, SpaceX launched one of the world’s most powerful launch vehicles – in fact, currently, the most powerful launcher in operation since NASA’s massive Saturn V rocket by a factor of 2 in terms of lift capability.

I’m of course talking about the Falcon Heavy, which after years of development and launch delays, finally took the to skies at 15:45 EST (20:45 UTC) on the 6th, after upper altitude wind shear delayed the launch from its planned 13:30 EST lift-off time – which would have been at the start of the four-hour launch window required to send its payload on a trans-Mars injection heliocentric orbit.

Three cores, 27 Merlin engines, 5 million pounds of thrust. A remarkable shot of the lower part of the Falcon Heavy at lift-off, captured by Ryan Chylinski. Credit: R. Chylinski / SpaceFlight Insider

The run-up to the launch was handled fairly conservatively by SpaceX: Falcon Heavy is a complex system – effectively three individual Falcon 9 rockets which have to operate in unison. So much might go wrong that even Elon Musk was stating he’d be happy if the vehicle was lost after it had cleared the launch pad. This was not a joke: in September 2016, a pre-flight test of a Falcon 9 lead to the loss of the vehicle, its payload and massive damage to its Cape Canaveral launch pad, putting a dent in SpaceX’s launch capabilities at the time. A similar event at Kennedy Space Centre’s pad 39-A, the only launch facility capable of handling the Falcon Heavy, would be a massive setback for the company’s 2018 aspirations.

However, and as we all know, the launch proved to be flawless. All 27 engines fired as required, generating the same thrust as 18 747 running all their engines at full throttle, and the vehicle took to the air. Two minutes later, the “stack” reached the point of “max-Q”, the point at which aerodynamic stress on a vehicle in atmospheric flight is maximised (symbolised in a formula as “q” – hence “max Q”). At this point, were the rocket’s engines to continue to run at full thrust, the combined stresses could literally shake the vehicle apart; so instead the motors are throttled back, easing the strain on the vehicle, prior to them returning to full thrust as “max-Q” has passed.

The Falcon Heavy flight path. Credit: SpaceX

After passing through “max-Q”, the vehicle completed perhaps the most spectacular part of its flight. Their job done, the two outer Falcon 9 stages shut down their engines and separated from the core rocket. Then then re-lit their engines to boost them vertically to where both could perform a back-flip and then return for a landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, just south of Kennedy Space Centre. So perfect was this aerial ballet that the two boosters landed almost simultaneously.

The central first stage should have also made a return to Earth after separating from the upper stage, landing aboard one of the company’s two autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) – necessary because the stage had flown too far and too high to make a return to dry land. This was the only point of failure for the flight. Unfortunately, it over-burnt its propellants, leaving it without enough fuel to land on the floating platform. Instead, it slammed into the sea at an estimated 480 km/h (300 mph), some 100 metres (300ft) from the ASDS – the only notable failure in the launch.

Two from one: the moment at which two Falcon 9 cores are about to touch-down at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station following the February 6th, 2018 launch of Falcon Heavy. Credit: SpaceX

The second stage, however, performed perfectly, the payload fairings jettisoned, and the world got its first look at a car in space: Musk’s own Tesla Roadster, complete with a spacesuited mannequin (“Starman”) at the wheel, Don’t Panic – a reference to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – displayed on the dashboard. During the ascent, he was apparently listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity played on the car’s stereo.

Right now, “Starman” and the car are en-route to a point out just beyond the orbit of Mars. It is is on a heliocentric (Sun-centred)  orbit, travelling between 147 million and 260 million km (91.3 million and 161.5 million mi) from the Sun, and passing across both the orbits of Mars and Earth in the process – but without actually coming close to either. It will continue in this orbit for millions of years. Continue reading “Space Sunday: rocket power and space stations”


Space Sunday: satellites, spacewalks and galaxies far, far away

IMAGE on its payload adaptor and being enclosed by its Delta II payload fairings, early 2000. Credit: NASA

In March 2000 a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket lifted-off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It was carrying NASA’s Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE), built by the South-west Research Institute (SwRI) Arizona, which was placed in a highly elliptical 1,000×46,000 km (625 x  28,750 mi) polar orbit, passing around the Earth once every 14.2 hours.

This orbit allowed the satellite to carry out its mission – to study the global response of the Earth’s magnetosphere to changes in the solar wind, the first ever such mission to be fully dedicated to an in-depth study of the magnetosphere – with great success. In fact, the mission was so successful, it was twice extended, from 2002 to 2005, and from 2005 through until 2010.

Or that was the plan. Unfortunately, on December 18th, 2005, the vehicle fell silent, missing a scheduled data transfer – which took place one average between once and twice a day. An earlier transfer the same day had passed without any indication the satellite was experiencing any problems. Despite numerous attempts to re-establish contact, IMAGE failed to resume contact with NASA’s Goddard Applied Physics Laboratory, responsible for managing the mission.

The mission was officially declared lost in September 2006. However, fault analysis suggested the satellite may have shut itself down as a result of a false indication of an short-circuit in part of its own power supply as the result of a ionised particle impact with it solid state power converter. This would cause the spacecraft to place many of its system in a “safe” mode. Engineers calculated that the vehicle could be recovered if the power converter could be tricked into resetting itself. Unfortunately, there was no means to manually trigger such a reset – but there was a potential for a reset to occur naturally.

Diagram of the IMAGE vehicle. The “tiling” on the visible sides and on the top of the craft are solar cells for generating power. Credit: NASA

As a result of its highly elliptical orbit, coupled with the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, IMAGE would spend an extended period in Earth shadow early in October 2007. If sufficient enough, the drop could trigger the desired reset.

Sadly, following the period of eclipse, no signal was received from the craft, and it was again considered lost. And it remained so, right up until January 2018, and the USA-280 spy satellite mystery.

In January 2018, the super-secret spy satellite no-one in the US government will admit to owning and code-named “Zuma”, was reported lost not long after launch. The nature of the mission and the mystery of its loss – which has still not been publicly confirmed – led radio hams and satellite trackers to scan the skies in attempts to locate the satellite’s transmissions.

On January 20th, 2018, one of these radio hams, Canadian Scott Tilley, detected S-band transmissions which he thought were from “Zuma”, and forwarded his findings to NASA. A  team from Goddard, using five separate antennae were able to confirm they were receiving transmissions consistent with expected frequency fluctuations in s-band broadcasts from IMAGE, on January 24th. Further, the signal had an oscillation consistent with the last known spin rate for IMAGE. Following this, on January 30th, analysis of further received data, the Goddard team were able to obtain an identification number from the craft: 166 – IMAGE’s “call sign”.

The challenge now is determining the spacecraft’s overall condition. This is a problem because the hardware and operating systems used to manage IMAGE no longer exist, so engineers are having to reverse-engineer current systems to analyse the received IMAGE signals. So far, this has allowed them to read some basic housekeeping data from the spacecraft, suggesting that at least the main control system is operational. The hope is that over the next several weeks, it will be possible to analyse IMAGE’s overall condition, and possibly even re-activate its on-board science systems. In the meantime, re-examination of old data recorded by Tilley and fellow satellite tracker Cees Bassa shows they picked-up transmissions from IMAGE in May 2017 and October 2016 without realising they had.

Discovering Planets in Another Galaxy

Exoplanets – planets orbiting stars other than our own – have been a subject of many of my Space Sunday reports. As of February 1st, 2018, 3,728 planets have been confirmed in 2,794 star systems, 622 of which have more than one planet. However, a study published on February 2nd, 2018 points to the first discovery of a planet in another galaxy.

Probing Planets in Extragalactic Galaxies Using Quasar Microlensing, by Xinyu Dai and Eduardo Guerras, a post-doctoral researcher and professor from at the University of Oklahoma’s Physics and Astronomy department, appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. It outlines how the two used  Gravitational Microlensing to make their discovery, combining it with data on  a distant quasar known as RX J1131–1231, gathered by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory

RXJ1131-1231 is among the five best lensed quasars discovered to date. The foreground galaxy smears the image of the background quasar into a bright arc (left) and creates a total of four images — three of which can be seen within the arc. Image credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble / S.H. Suyu et al.

Gravitational Microlensing uses the gravitational force of distant objects to bend and focus light coming from a star. As a planet passes in front of the star relative to the observer (i.e. makes a transit), the light dips measurably, which can then be used to determine its presence. So far, 53 planets have been discovered within the Milky Way galaxy using the technique.

RX J1131–1231 is located 3.8 billion light years away and at its heart it has a super-massive black hole (SMBH). This has made it an ideal subject for a number of microlensing studies, including measuring the Hubble Constant – a fundamental quantity that describes the rate at which the Universe is expanding.

In this case, the team were able to use the microlensing properties of this black hole to observe line energy shifts among the quasar’s stars and study fluctuations within them which could only logically be explained by the presence of unbound – or rogue – planetary bodies between the quasar’s stars.

While none of the planets can be directly imaged, the team used the super computer facilities at the University of Oklahoma to analyse the high frequency of the microlensing signature. This provided them with some determination of the broad mass range of the planets, indicating they likely range in size from bodies roughly the size of the Moon up to planets at least the same size as Jupiter.

Prior to this study, the presence of planets in other galaxies had been hotly debated, with some doubting any such bodies could exist. Xinyu Dai and Eduardo Guerras have now opened the door for the discovery of planets far beyond our reach – abeit worlds beyond our ability to study them directly. Their work may also help refine our ability to detect planetary bodies much further afield in our own galaxy. What’s more, with the range of extremely large telescopes (ELT) currently under construction, such as the European Southern Observatory’s OWL (that’s “OverWhelmingly Large”) telescope, as well as new orbital facilities such as the James Webb Telescope, we’re bound to make more discoveries of planets within – and beyond – the Milky Way.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: satellites, spacewalks and galaxies far, far away”

Space Sunday: rockets, exoplanets landers and asteroids

Fire in the hole! the Falcon Heavy’s 27 Merlin engines are test-fired on Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, January 24th, 2018. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX faces a busy couple of weeks for the end of January and the start of February 2018. On Tuesday, January 30th, the company is set to launch Luxembourg’s SES-16/GovSat 1 mission on a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 40 at Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s coast. As is frequently the case with SpaceX missions, an attempt will be made to return the booster’s first stage to a safe landing  – this time at sea, aboard the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean.

Then, if all goes according to plan, on Tuesday, February 6th, SpaceX will conduct the first launch of the Falcon Heavy booster which should be a spectacular event. As I’ve previously noted in these updates, Falcon Heavy is set – for a time at least – to be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle by a factor of around 2, and capable of lifting up to 54 tonnes to low Earth orbit, and of sending payloads to the Moon or Mars. The core of the rocket comprises three Falcon 9 first stages strapped side-by-side, two of which have previously flown missions.

For its first flight, the Falcon Heavy is set to send an unusual payload into space: a Tesla Roadster owned by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. It’s part of a tradition with SpaceX: mark a maiden flight with an unusual payload; the first launch of a Dragon capsule, for example, featured a giant wheel of cheese. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX hope to recover all three of the core stages by flying them back for touch downs; two of them on land, and one at sea using an Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship.

The Falcon Heavy is raised to a vertical position on December 28th, 2017 in a launch pad “fit test”. Credit: SpaceX

As part of the preparations for any Falcon launch, SpaceX conduct a static fire test of the rocket’s main engines.For the Falcon Heavy, this took place on January 27th, 2018. These tests have come in for criticism from some quarters as a high-rick operation. However, to date, SpaceX has not suffered a single loss as part of such a test, although in September 2016, a Falcon 9 and its payload were lost while the vehicle was being fuelled in preparation for such a test. For the Falcon 9, the test involves firing the 9 Merlin main engines for between 3 and 7 seconds; with the Falcon Heavy test, and possibly to obtain additional vibration and stress data ahead of the launch, all 27 engines were fired for a total of 12 seconds – almost twice as long as the longest test of a Falcon 9.

Assuming the launch is successful, it will pave the wave for Falcon Heavy being declared operational. The second launch will most likely carried a Saudi Arabian communications satellite into orbit, and the third flight of the Heavy undertake the launch of multiple satellites. All three launches will be watched closely by the US Air Force, who are considering using the Falcon Heavy as a potential launch vehicle alongside the Falcon 9, which was added to the military launch manifest in 2016.

TRAPPIST-1: Further Look At Habitability

Since the confirmation of its discovery in February 2017 (read more here), the 7-exoplanet system of TRAPPIST-1 one has been the subject of much debate as to whether or not anyone of the planets might be habitable – as in, have suitable conditions in which life might arise.

As I’ve previously reported, while some of the seven planets sit within their parent star’s habitable zone where liquid water might exist, there are some negative aspects to any of the Earth-sized worlds harbouring life or having the right conditions for life. In particular, their parent star is a super cool red dwarf with all internal action entirely convective in nature. Such stars tend to have violent outbursts, so all seven planets are likely subject to sufficient irradiation in the X-ray and extreme ultraviolet wavelengths to significantly alter their atmospheres and rendering them unsuitable for life. Further, all seven are tidally locked, meaning they always keep the same face towards their parent star. This will inevitably give rise to extreme conditions, with one side of each world bathed in perpetual daylight and the other in perpetual, freezing darkness, resulting in atmospheric convection currents moving air and weather systems / storms between the two.

Artist’s concept showing what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like. A new study suggests TRAPPIST-1d and 1e might be the most potentially habitable. Credit: NASA

However, on the positive side, TRAPPIST-1 is sufficiently small and cool that, despite their proximity to it, the sunward faces of the planets won’t be as super-heated as might otherwise be the case. This also means that the extremes of temperature between the lit and dark sides of the planets aren’t so broad, reducing the severity of any storms some of them might experience. Now a team of researchers have identified the more likely planets within the seven which might have conditions conducive for life.

This involved certain assumptions being made, such as all the planets being composed of water ice, rock, and iron, and – given some of the data concerning the planets, such as their radii and masses, are not well-known – a range of computer models having to be built.

In putting everything together, the team concluded that TRAPPIST -1d and TRAPPIST-1e might prove to be the most habitable, with TRAPPIST 1d potentially being covered by a global ocean of water. The study also suggests that TRAPPIST-1b and 1c have have partially molten rock mantles, and are likely to be heavily volcanic in nature.

In publishing their work, the team are reasonably confident of their findings, but note that improved estimates of the masses of each planet can help determine whether each of the planets has a significant amount of water, allowing better overall estimates of their compositions to be made.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: rockets, exoplanets landers and asteroids”

Space Sunday: lava tubes and politics

Lava tubes could provide ready-made tunnels for bases on the Moon and Mars – and tubes in the Canary Islands are already being used for ESA astronaut training. Credit: ESA/L. Ricci

One of the major issues in sending humans to the Moon – as the United States, China, Russia and Europe want to do (either individually or in some sort of joint venture among some of them) – is where, exactly, to send them. The Moon is an uncompromising place: without any discernible atmosphere or magnetosphere, the lunar surface is open to the full fury of both solar and cosmic radiation. This makes living there without adequate protection somewhat hazardous. Then there is the question of consumables – notably water.

Protection can be found in one of two possible ways: by covering a base under a substantial layer of lunar “soil” – more correctly called regolith – or by placing it underground. While the former is feasible, and could even be achieved via 3D printing, excavating the space needed for a base would be a hefty undertaking, requiring heavy equipment.

However, things could be eased if advantage could be taken of lunar lava tubes. These are natural conduits formed by flowing lava moving beneath the hardened surface of a previous lava flow,  draining lava from a volcano during an eruption. When the lava flow has ceased and the rock has cooled, they can form a long cave, or network of tunnels – some of which can break the lunar surface in what are called “skylights”, resembling  distinctive pits in a landscape. In recent years, over 200 of these pits have been discovered on the Moon’s near side, notably in the great lava plains around the equatorial regions, many of which have been confirmed as entrances to underground lava tubes.

Water is also present on Mars in the form of subsurface ice located around the polar regions – the only parts of the Moon where there is little or no sunlight. If it can be extracted, it could be invaluable to a human presence on the Moon: it could be purified and used for drinking; through electrolysis it could be broken down into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, with the latter used to help maintain the air within a base, the former used alongside carbon dioxide in processes for creating fuel stock space vehicles or surface craft. The difficulty is in accessing the water ice in volume. One way of doing so might be through drilling – although this would again be costly and slow. Another way might be through finding lava tubes which may have become repositories for water ice deposits. The problem is, until now, little evidence for polar region lava tubes has been found.

Philolaus Crater, roughly 70 km (40 mi) in diameter, close to the lunar North Pole, may house lava tubes that could hold the key to both the location of a future lunar base and to accessing subsurface water ice. Credit: NASA

Pascal Lee, the co-founder and chairman of the Mars Institute, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute, and the Principal Investigator of the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) at NASA’s Ames Research Centre – and, totally coincidentally, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of times – reports he’s now discovered pits in the north polar region which could be indicative of lava tube skylights.

He found the pits while studying images gathered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of the north-eastern floor of Philolaus Crater, about 550 km (340 mi) from the North Pole, on the lunar near side. They appear as small rimless depressions between 15 to 30 metres (50 to 100 ft) across, with completely shadowed interiors. Most particularly, the pits are located along sections of winding channels criss-crossing the crater floor. Called “sinuous rilles”, these are generally associated with collapsed, or partially collapsed, lava tubes, increasing the possibility they might be skylights leading to intact lava tubes.

“The highest resolution images available for Philolaus Crater do not allow the pits to be identified as lava tube skylights with 100 percent certainty,” Lee states, “but we are looking at good candidates considering simultaneously their size, shape, lighting conditions and geologic setting.”

Should they prove to be entrances to lava tubes, the pits offer an exciting prospect for lunar explorers. They could present a means to access sub-surface water ice – particularly if some of the tubes contain frozen water – which is not yet certain. They might also provide the necessary protection from radiation, making them an ideal location for a subsurface base. If there is water ice in the tunnels, solar collectors ranged on the crater floor could be used to channel heat into the tunnels to melt it, allowing it to be stored and used. A further benefit with Philolaus Crater is that it is one of the Moon’s younger craters, one of the few large craters formed during the Copernican Era formed within the last 1.1 billion years. Scientists located there would be able to study the Moon’s more recent evolution.

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image showing some of the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater. Credit: NASA/LRO/SETI Institute/Mars Institute/Pascal Lee

In terms of a location for a base, the crater has two additional benefits. The first is that as it is on the lunar near side, it will be in direct line of communication with Earth. The second is more poetic, as Lee himself notes:

We would also have a beautiful view of Earth. The Apollo landing sites were all near the Moon’s equator, such that the Earth was almost directly overhead for the astronauts. But from the Philolaus skylights, Earth would loom just over the crater’s mountainous rim, near the horizon to the south-east.

He continued, “Our next step should be further exploration, to verify whether these pits are truly lava tube skylights, and if they are, whether the lava tubes actually contain ice. This is an exciting possibility that a new generation of caving astronauts or robotic spelunkers could help address” says Lee. “Exploring lava tubes on the Moon will also prepare us for the exploration of lava tubes on Mars. There, we will face the prospect of expanding our search for life into the deeper underground of Mars where we might find environments that are warmer, wetter, and more sheltered than at the surface.”

Continue reading “Space Sunday: lava tubes and politics”

Space Sunday: a view of Earth, a look at China, and 5 exoplanets

The Earth and Moon as seen from OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA/OSIRIS-REx team and the University of Arizona

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), launched in September 2016 is on a mission to gather samples from the surface of asteroid Bennu and return them to Earth (see my previous reports here and here). It’s a huge undertaking, one which will take the vehicle on a journey of some 7.2 billion kilometres (4.5 billion miles).

Part of this journey involved OSIRIS-REx looping past the Earth in September 2017, in a gravity assist manoeuvre design to increase its velocity by some  13,400 km/h (8,400 mph) to almost 44,000 km/h (27,500 mph), and swing it on to an intercept with the asteroid, which it will reach in October 2018. During this Earth flyby, scientists carried out an extensive science campaign, allowing them to check and calibrate the probe’s suite of science instruments.

A part of this campaign involved testing the probe’s camera system, using it to take pictures of the Earth and Moon during September and early October. Several of these images, captured on October 2nd, 2017, were used by NASA used to create a to-scale composite image of the Earth-Moon system, which was released into the public domain on January 3rd, 2018 (seen above).

At time the images were taken, the spacecraft was approximately  5 million km (3 million mi) from Earth – or about 13 times the distance between the Earth and Moon. It was created by combining pictures captured using blue, green and red filters, allowing it to present a true colour view of the Earth and Moon as they reflect sunlight. Looking at it, one cannot help by be reminded of just how small and fragile our place in the universe really is.

China’s Space Ambitions

In reporting on China’s space programme, I’ve frequently noted the growing ambitious nature of their endeavours.  A mark of this is that in 2017, China mounted more than 20 successful launches – including some for foreign nations such as Venezuela, as a part of China’s desire to expand their commercial launch operations – matching Russia’s launch efforts, and sitting not that far behind the USA.

At the start of January 2018, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) upped the ante, indicating that in 2018, they plan to carry out 35 launches through the year. At the same time, CASC’s sister organisation,  China Aerospace Science Industry Corporation (CASIC) indicated it would be carrying out at least 5 launches during the year – four of them in the span of a week – while the Chinese private sector corporation, Landspace Technology, indicated it would commence launch operations during the year. Like America’s SpaceX, Landspace plan to become a major force in commercial sector launch operations, initially with satellite payloads, but ramping to flying people into space in around 2025.

One of the more notable missions China plans to launch in 2018 is the Chang’e 4 mission to the Moon’s far side. This is a two-phase mission, commencing in June 2018 with the launch of a communications relay satellite to the Earth-Moon Lagrange point. It will be followed in December by a lander / rover combination which will land on the lunar far side to commence science studies. It will mark the first attempt to carry out long-term studies on the side of the Moon permanently facing away from Earth – not to mention the first far side lunar landing.

The Chang’e 3 lander (top) and Yutu rover share similar designs with the upcoming Chang’e 4 lunar surface mission. Credit: National Astronomical Observatories of China

The CE-4 Relay satellite is required in order for communications to take place between Earth and the Chang’e 4 lander and rover.

As the Moon is tidally locked with Earth, and always keep the same side pointed towards us, there is no way to have direct communications with any vehicle on the lunar far side. This is overcome by placing a satellite in the Earth-Moon L2 position, where it can maintain a steady position relative to the Earth and the Moon’s far side, enabling communications between the two, and keeping scientists and engineers on Earth in contact with the lander and rover.

The lander / rover combination will explore part of the 180 km (112.5 mi) diameter Von Kármán crater, believed to be the oldest impact crater on the Moon. It lies within the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a vast basin in the southern hemisphere of the far side which extends from the South Pole to Aitken crater.

The crater is of general interest because it contains about 10% by weight iron oxide (FeO) and 4-5 parts per million of thorium, which can be used as a replacement for uranium in nuclear reactors. In addition, the South Pole-Aitken Basin – one of the largest impact basins in the solar system (about 2,500 km / 1,600 mi across and some 13 km / 8.1 mi deep) – also contains vast amounts of water ice. These deposits are believed to be the result of impacts by meteors and asteroids over the aeons, which deposited ice within the basin, which lies in almost permanent shadow.

The water deposits will be part of Chang’e 4’s studies – China has already announced its intent to establish a human mission on the lunar surface, and relatively easy access to water ice could be a critical part of sustaining a human presence there. To carry out their studies, both the rover and the lander will carry a range of science instruments and experiments, including systems supplied by Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

In addition, the lander will include a container with potato and rockcress seeds, together with silkworm eggs to see if plants and insects can survive in the lunar environment. It is hoped that if the eggs hatch, the larvae would produce carbon dioxide, while the germinated plants would release oxygen through photosynthesis, allowing both to establish a simple life-sustaining synergy within the container. If successful, it might allow larger biotic systems to be developed and used to augment the life support systems in a lunar base while providing additional foodstuffs.

2018 should also mark the return to flight of the Long March 5, China’s most powerful launch vehicle. This entered service in November 2016, but flights were suspended in 2017 following the failure of the vehicle’s second launch in July of that year. Long March 5 is critical to China’s ambitions, as it will be the launch platform for the Chang’e 5 (2019) and Chang’e 6 (2020) lunar sample return missions, the modules to be used in a planned space station, due to start in 2019 with the launch of Tianhe unit, and boost the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover mission to the red planet in 2020.

A slight fuzzy TV image of the Long March 5 launch on July 2nd, 2017. The vehicle suffered “an anomaly” shortly after lift-off and eventually crashed into the Pacific Ocean. 2018 should see the Long March 5 resume operations. Credit: CCTV

The 2018 return-to-flight of the Long March 5 will likely involve placing a Dongfanghong-5 (“The East is Red”) communications satellite, which will be placed in low Earth orbit.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a view of Earth, a look at China, and 5 exoplanets”

Space Sunday: in memory of John Young

John Young: Gemini (l), Apollo, shuttle and in 2002, two years prior to his retirement from NASA after 42 years with the agency (r). Credit: NASA / Getty Images

On Saturday, January 6th, 2018, NASA announced the passing of astronaut John Watts Young. The US space agency’s longest-serving astronaut during his career, Young passed away on January 5th at the age of 87. He flew in space six times across three different space programmes: Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle.

Young was born in San Francisco, California, on September 24th, 1930, and earned a Bachelor of Science degree with highest honours in Aeronautical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1952. He served in the US Navy from 1952 through 1962, serving as a seaborne officer prior to entering flight training , qualifying as a jet fighter pilot in 1953. After flying front-line fighters for 5 years, he joined the US Navy Air Test Centre in 1959, evaluating fighter aircraft and weapons systems.

In 1962, Young joined NASA and was part of Astronaut Group 2 alongside Neil Armstrong first man on the Moon, Charles “Pete” Conrad, commander of the first crewed Skylab mission,  Frank Borman, commander of the first Apollo flight to the Moon (Apollo 8), James “Jim” Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, Thomas Stafford, commander of the US part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission, and Edward “Ed” White, who was to be killed in the Apollo 1 pad fire. He was the first of that group to fly in space as a part of the Gemini programme, the second of America’s manned spaceflight programmes, and the precursor to Apollo and the lunar effort.

John Young (r) with Gemini 3 commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom, standing in front of the Gemini simulator. Credit: NASA

He first flight into space was aboard Gemini 3 on March 23rd, 1965, sitting alongside Virgil “Gus” Grissom, the mission commander. The primary goal of the mission was to put the Gemini capsule through its paces during a 3-orbit flight – America’s seventh crewed spaceflight (or ninth, if you count two X-15 flights). It was also the final mission  controlled from Cape Kennedy Air Force Station in Florida (Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today), before mission control functions were shifted to the newly opened Manned Spacecraft Centre, known today as the Johnson Space Centre.

The mission was noted for the “contraband” corned beef sandwich Young smuggled onto the flight in his spacesuit. Grissom knew nothing of the sandwich until Young produced it, and both men took a couple of bites each before Young stowed it again to avoid crumbs getting into the capsule’s electronics. Post-mission, Grissom commented, “After the flight our superiors at NASA let us know in no uncertain terms that non-man-rated corned beef sandwiches were out for future space missions. But John’s deadpan offer of this strictly non-regulation goodie remains one of the highlights of our flight for me.”

The sandwich incident seemed to leave Young sidelined; rather than being pencilled for a command slot, he was relegated to the role of back-up. However, with the Apollo programme starting to ramp-up, Ed White was rotated over to the Apollo 1 crew, and this opened a slot in the Gemini programme for Young to take the command of Gemini 10 in 1966. The 8th manned Gemini flight and with Michael Collins flying alongside Young, Gemini 10 was the first to perform a rendezvous with two Agena target vehicles.

The spacecraft launched on July 18th, 1966, 100 minutes after its dedicated Agena target vehicle. After a successful rendezous and docking, they re-ignited the Agena’s motor, the first time this had been done, and used it to raise their orbit from an average altitude of 265 km (145 nautical mile) to a 294 by 763 km (159-by-412-nautical-mile) orbit, ready for a rendezvous with the Agena target vehicle intended to be used by Gemini 8, which was unable to complete its mission. Collins then completed the first of two EVAs after the crew had rested, and then Gemini 10 detached from its own Agena to make a successful docking with the passive Gemini 8 target vehicle – the first such docking without any assistance in handling the target vehicle from Earth. After a further rest period, Collins performed a second spacewalk. With a double doubling, two EVAs and 10 science experiments, Gemini 10 was one of the most comprehensive space missions completed up to that time, with the capsule splashing down on July 21st, 1966.

John Young and Michael Collins, the crew of Gemini 10, 1966. Credit: NASA

For the Apollo programme, Young was initially assigned to back-up crews. However, following the Apollo 1 fire which killed Grissom, White and Roger Chaffee, the flight roster was reshuffled, and Young was placed on the Apollo 10 crew as Command Module Pilot. This mission, which also included Thomas Stafford and Commander and Eugene Cernan as the Lunar Module Pilot, was the final Apollo mission prior to the missions to the surface of the Moon, and was the second – after Apollo 8 –  to actually fly to the Moon.

Launched on May 18th, 1969, the only Apollo Saturn V mission to lift-off from Launch Complex 39B, and only one of two Apollo missions to feature crews who had all previously flown in space (the other being Apollo 11). Reaching the Moon on May 21st, 2969, the Apollo 10 crew became – and remain – the humans  who have travelled the farthest from their homes. This is because the Moon is in an elliptical orbit around the Earth, which varies by some 43,000 km (23,000 nmi) between perigree (the point closest to the Earth) and apogee (the point farthest from the Earth), and Apollo 10 was the only Apollo mission to take place as the Moon was approaching apogee, meaning the crew were some 408,950 km (220,820 nmi) from their homes and families in Houston.

On reaching the Moon, Young was left aboard the Command and Service Module (CSM), code-named Charlie Brown, while Stafford  and Cernan took the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) Snoopy to some 14.4 km (8 nmi) of the lunar surface, allowing them to overfly and survey the Apollo 11 landing area in the Sea of Tranquillity. To avoid the risk of Stafford and Cernan actually landing on the Moon, the LEM had been short-fuelled, forcing them to fire the descent unit motor to start an ascent back up to orbit. However, this initially did not go smoothly.

Due to a small series of input errors by Stafford and Cernan, Snoopy’s guidance system had the craft pointing in the wrong direction, and on engine firing, the LEM went into a violent spin. It took both men several seconds to recover control – time enough for the LEM to crash on the Moon. In the event, control was regain, the decent unit was jettisoned as its feul was expended, and the ascent stage motor carried Cernan and Stafford safely to a rendezvous with the CSM. Following the excitement of the initial ascent, Stafford reported the successful rendezvous and docking by radioing Earth with the message, “Snoopy and Charlie Brown are hugging each other.”

After Apollo 10’s return to Earth on May 26th, 1969, Young started training as back-up commander for Apollo 13. When disaster stuck that mission he played a central role in the team that developed procedures to stretch the Lunar Module consumables and reactivate the Command Module systems prior to re-entry, saving the Apollo 13 crew. Young then rotated into the Command slot for Apollo 16, with LEM Pilot Charles Duke and CSM Pilot Ken Mattingly.

Apollo 16 lifted-off on April 16th, 1972, and Young and Duke arrived in the Descartes Highlands on April 21st, 1972, at the start of the second-longest lunar surface mission (Apollo 17 being the longest). In 71 hours on the Moon, conducting three extra-vehicular activities or moonwalks, totalling 20 hours and 14 minutes, driving Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) 26.7 km (16.6 mi) and collecting 95.8 kilograms (211 lb) of lunar samples for return to Earth. Young was the ninth man to walk on the surface of the Moon, and in typical style, was exuberant throughout: jumping clear of the surface while saluting the US flag, and setting a speed record driving the LRV.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: in memory of John Young”