NASA and SpaceX Make History with Successful Crew Dragon Launch!

Today, on Saturday, May 30th, NASA and SpaceX successfully launched the Crew Dragon to space with two astronauts for the first time. Far from just a demonstration, this launch signaled the restoration of domestic launch capability to US soil! From this day forward, NASA astronauts will no longer be dependent on foreign launch providers (like Roscosmos) to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

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SN4, We Hardly Knew You. Another Starship Prototype Lost!

Earlier today (Friday, May 29th), at 01:49 p.m. local time (02:49 p.m. EDT; 11:49 PDT), SpaceX Starship prototype (SN4) exploded on the company’s test pad near Boca Chica, Texas. The explosion occurred two minutes after ground crews commenced a static fire test of its Raptor engine. This test was intended to test the Raptor and the Starship design once more in preparation for a major milestone – a 150 m (500 ft) hop test – this summer.

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Now This is Progress! Starship Passes its Cryogenic Test and Doesn’t Explode

This weekend, SpaceX’s fourth Starship prototype (SN4) achieved a major milestone by passing the crucial cryogenic load test. This consisted of the prototype’s liquid oxygen and liquid methane tanks being filled with liquid nitrogen to see how they hold up when fully-pressurized. This test was vital since the three previous prototypes suffered structural failures and were lost during this exact same procedure.

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SpaceX’s Third Starship Prototype Collapsed Last Night

Top Image Credit: LabPadre w/ Maria Pointer

SpaceX just cannot catch a break! Last night, during the same cryogenic proof test that killed the previous two prototypes, SpaceX’s SN3 prototype experienced a structural failure. On-site video footage provided by famed NASASpaceFlight member BocaChicaGal shows the SN3 experiencing what appears to be a leak, followed by the fuselage collapsing.

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First Free Flight of SpaceX’s Starhopper Aborted After Engine Fire

Yesterday, on Wednesday, July 24th, the prototype test vehicle for the Starship (the Starhopper) commenced its first untethered “hop test” at the company’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas. This test is an important milestone for SpaceX, intended to validate the Raptor engine in free flight and bring the company one step closer to creating the super-heavy launch system that will allow for trips to the Moon and Mars.

Unfortunately, the ground team was forced to abort the test due to a fire that began shortly after engine ignition. This comes shortly after a static fire test that took place last Tuesday, July 16th where the newly-installed Raptor engine erupted in a sudden and unexpected fireball. Though no damage appears to have been caused (again, thankfully!), this latest flare-up represents another technical glitch and another delay for the Starship.

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Stare Down from Space into the Churning Maw of Hurricane Florence

Even if you know nothing about hurricanes, an unavoidable sense of doom and destruction overtakes you when you look at this image of Hurricane Florence as it moves inexorably toward North and South Carolina.

Even if you didn’t know that the powerful storm is forecast to gain strength as it hits the coast on Friday, or that it will dump several months of rain onto the region in a mere few days, or that the storm surge could reach as high as 9 to 13 ft. If you didn’t know all those things, the picture of Florence taken from space would still fill you with foreboding.

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Rogue NASA, EPA, NPS Twitter Accounts Launched to Protest Trump Directives

Twitter page of Rogue NASA. Credit: Twitter

Three federal agencies — the National Park Service, the EPA and now NASA — have allegedly launched unofficial “protest” accounts on Twitter in defiance of the Trump team’s directives to not blog, tweet or talk to the news media about climate changes issues. While it’s not unusual for a new administration to want to control the message, many bristle at what they see as an administration that wants to redefine and control scientific fact.

That brings us to these accounts. Are they really created by NASA and other government employees or are they the work of ticked off science advocates not connected to the agencies? In at least one case earlier this week in Badlands National Park, a former employee posted this unauthorized tweet:

“Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.” The tweet was later removed.

The @RogueNASA Twitter account uses NASA’s logo — a no-no unless you have specific permission. The site describes itself as “the unofficial “Resistance” team of NASA. Not an official NASA account. Follow for science and climate news and facts. REAL NEWS, REAL FACTS.”

NASA’s very strict about how it’s logo is used. Under Media Usage Guidelines, here’s what the agency has to say:

“The NASA insignia logo (the blue “meatball” insignia), the retired NASA logotype (the red “worm” logo) and the NASA seal may not be used for any purpose without explicit permission. These images may not be used by persons who are not NASA employees or on products, publications or web pages that are not NASA-sponsored. These images may not be used to imply endorsement or support of any external organization, program, effort, or persons.”

AltEPA Twitter page. Credit: Twitter

Moreover, NASA reported that it had not given permission for another group or person to use its logo on the new account. While the sites may be legit and you and I sympathetic to the cause, exercise skepticism when poking around these accounts. Be cautious of opening up or downloading files the same way you’re careful with e-mail attachments. Take a look, participate, but be wary.

For your perusal, the current “alt science” sites I’m aware of are listed below. My hunch after looking at them is that it’s possible they may have been created by the same group of people. Whatever their origin, they’re quickly becoming very popular. As of Wednesday evening (Jan. 25), Rogue NASA has 209,000 followers; AltEPA 41,600 and 883,000 at AltUSNatParkService.

* AltUSNatParkService
* AltEPA
* Rogue NASA
* AltNASA

For more on the new administration and NASA, check out Nancy Atkinson’s story “Could NASA Be Muzzled Under Trump Administration?”

Schiaparelli is Gone. Smashed on the surface of Mars

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view of Schiaparelli landing site before and after the lander arrived. The images have a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May this year. The black dot appears to be the lander impact site and the smaller white dot below the paw-shaped cluster of craters, the parachute. Credit: NASA
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter view of Schiaparelli landing site before and after the lander arrived. The images have a resolution of 6 meters per pixel and shows two new features on the surface when compared to an image from the same camera taken in May this year. The black dot appears to be the lander impact site and the smaller white dot below the paw-shaped cluster of craters, the parachute. Credit: NASA

Instead of a controlled descent to the surface using its thrusters, ESA’s Schiaparelli lander hit the ground hard and may very well have exploded on impact.  NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter then-and-now photos of the landing site have identified new markings on the surface of the Red Planet that are believed connected to the ill-fated lander.

Schiaparelli entered the martian atmosphere at 10:42 a.m. EDT (14:42 GMT) on October 19 and began a 6-minute descent to the surface, but contact was lost shortly before expected touchdown seconds after the parachute and back cover were discarded. One day later, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took photos of the expected touchdown site as part of a planned imaging run.

The landing site is shown within the Schiaparelli landing ellipse (top) along with before and after images below. Copyright Main image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Arizona State University; inserts: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The landing site is shown within the Schiaparelli landing ellipse (top) along with before and after images below. Copyright Main image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, Arizona State University; inserts: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

One of the features is bright and can be associated with the 39-foot-wide (12-meter) diameter parachute used in the second stage of Schiaparelli’s descent. The parachute and the associated back shield were released from Schiaparelli prior to the final phase, during which its nine thrusters should have slowed it to a standstill just above the surface.

The other new feature is a fuzzy dark patch or crater roughly 50 x 130 feet (15 x 40 meters) across and about 0.6 miles (1 km) north of the parachute. It’s believed to be the impact crater created by the Schiaparelli module following a much longer free fall than planned after the thrusters were switched off prematurely.

Artist's concept of Schiaparelli deploying its parachute. The parachute may also have played a role in the crash. It may have deployed too soon, causing the thrusters to fire up too soon and run out of fuel. Or the thrusters may have simply cut out after firing. Credit: ESA
Artist’s concept of Schiaparelli deploying its parachute. The parachute may also have played a role in the crash. It may have deployed too soon, causing the thrusters to fire too soon. The thrusters may also have simply cut out too soon after firing. Credit: ESA

Mission control estimates that Schiaparelli dropped from between 1.2 and 2.5 miles (2 and 4 km) altitude, striking the Martian surface at more than 186 miles an hour (300 km/h). The dark spot is either disturbed surface material or it could also be due to the lander exploding on impact, since its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full. ESA cautions that these findings are still preliminary.

Something went wrong with Schiaparelli's one or more sets of thrusters during the descent. Credit: ESA
Something went wrong with Schiaparelli’s one or more sets of thrusters during the descent, causing the lander to crash on the surface at high speed. Credit: ESA

Since the module’s descent trajectory was observed from three different locations, the teams are confident that they will be able to reconstruct the chain of events with great accuracy. Exactly what happened to cause the thrusters to shut down prematurely isn’t yet known.

Europe’s Orbiter is Safely at Mars, but No Word from the Lander

Schiaparelli on Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
This artist’s view shows the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander on Mars. It’s unclear whether the landing was successful. Signals were received during its descent but then suddenly cut off. Mission control is working on the data now and will have an update on the status of the probe tomorrow morning Oct. 20. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Good news and bad news.  First the good. After a seven-month and 300 million mile (483 million km) journey, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) successfully achieved orbit around Mars today. A signal spike appeared out of the noise about 12:35 p.m. EDT to great applause and high-fives at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.

Hugs in the control room when the signal from the Trace Gas Orbiter was received this morning, signaling that the spacecraft had achieved orbit around Mars. Credit: ESA Livestream
Joy in the control room when the signal from the Trace Gas Orbiter was received this morning, signaling that the spacecraft had achieved orbit around Mars. Credit: ESA Livestream

Two hours later, news of the lander arrived. Not so good but to be fair, it’s still too early to tell. Schiaparelli broadcast a signal during its descent to the Red Planet that was received here on Earth and by the orbiting Mars Express. All well and good. But then mid-transmission, the signal cut out.

Paolo Ferri, head of ESA’s mission operations department, called the news “not good signs” but promised that his team would be analyzing the data through the night to determine the status of the lander. Their findings will be shared around mid-morning Friday Central European Time (around 5 a.m. EDT).

Three days ago, Schiaparelli separated from the orbiter and began a three-day coast to Mars. It entered the atmosphere today at an altitude of 76 miles (122 km) and speed of 13,049 mph (21,000 km/hr), protected from the hellish heat of re-entry by an aerodynamic heat shield.

Simulated sequence of the 15 images that the descent camera Schiaparelli module should have taken during its descent to Mars this morning. In the simulated images shown here, the first was made from 3 km up. The camera took images every 1.5 seconds with the final image in this at ~1.5 km. Depending on Schiaparelli’s actual descent speed, the final image may have been snapped closer to the surface. The views were generated from images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the center of Schiaparelli's landing ellipse, and represent the views expected at each altitude. Copyright spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; simulated views based on NASA MRO/CTX images (credit: NASA/JPL/MRO); landing ellipse background image: Mars Odyssey; simulation: ESA
Simulated sequence of the 15 images that the descent camera Schiaparelli module should have taken during its descent to Mars this morning. In the simulated images shown here, the first was made from 3 km up. The camera had planned to take images every 1.5 seconds with the final image in this at ~1.5 km. Depending on Schiaparelli’s actual descent speed, the final image may have been snapped closer to the surface. The views were generated from images taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the center of Schiaparelli’s landing ellipse, and represent the views expected at each altitude. Copyright spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; simulated views from NASA images (credit: NASA/JPL/MRO); landing ellipse background image: Mars Odyssey; simulation: ESA

If all went well, at 6.8 miles (11 km) altitude, it would have deployed its parachute and moments later, dropped the heat shield. At 0.7 miles (1.2 km) above the surface, the lander would have jettisoned the chute and rear protective cover and fired its nine retrorockets while plummeting to the surface at 155 mph (255 mph). 29 seconds later, the thrusters would have shut off with Schiaparelli dropping the remaining 6.5 feet (2 meters) to the ground. Total elapsed time: just under 6 minutes.

For now, have hope. Given that Schiaparelli was primarily a test of landing technologies for future Mars missions, whatever happened, everything we learn from this unexpected turn of events will be invaluable. You can continue to follow updates on ESA’s Livestream.

** Update Oct. 20: It appears that the thrusters on Schiaparelli may have cut out too soon, causing the lander to drop from a higher altitude. In addition, the ejection of the parachute and back heat shield may have happened earlier than expected.

This from ESA:

“The data have been partially analyzed and confirm that the entry and descent stages occurred as expected, with events diverging from what was expected after the ejection of the back heat shield and parachute. This ejection itself appears to have occurred earlier than expected, but analysis is not yet complete.

The thrusters were confirmed to have been briefly activated although it seems likely that they switched off sooner than expected, at an altitude that is still to be determined.”