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.

Continue reading “Stare Down from Space into the Churning Maw of Hurricane Florence”

Look at all the Aerosols Pushed into the Atmosphere, from Fires, Volcanoes and Pollution. Even Sea Salt Thrown into the Air from Hurricanes

Stand outside and take deep breath. Do you know what you’re breathing? For most people, the answer is simple – air. And air, which is essential to life as we know it, is composed of roughly twenty-percent oxygen gas (O²) and seventy-eight percent nitrogen gas (N²). However, within the remaining one-percent and change are several other trace gases, as well as few other ingredients that are not always healthy.

Continue reading “Look at all the Aerosols Pushed into the Atmosphere, from Fires, Volcanoes and Pollution. Even Sea Salt Thrown into the Air from Hurricanes”

Wow, Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung is Making a Mess. Here’s the View From Space!

NASA’s Earth Observatory is a vital part of the space agency’s mission to advance our understanding of Earth, its climate, and the ways in which it is similar and different from the other Solar Planets. For decades, the EO has been monitoring Earth from space in order to map it’s surface, track it’s weather patterns, measure changes in our environment, and monitor major geological events.

For instance, Mount Sinabung – a stratovolcano located on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia – became sporadically active in 2010 after centuries of being dormant. But on February 19th, 2018, it erupted violently, spewing ash at least 5 to 7 kilometers (16,000 to 23,000 feet) into the air over Indonesia. Just a few hours later, Terra and other NASA Earth Observatory satellites captured the eruption from orbit.

The images were taken with Terra’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), which recorded a natural-color image of the eruption at 11:10 am local time (04:10 Universal Time). This was just hours after the eruption began and managed to illustrate what was being reported by sources on the ground. According to multiple reports from the Associated Press, the scene was one of carnage.

Mount Sinabung on September 13th, 2010, after it became sporatically-active again. Credit: Kenrick95/Wikipedia Commons

According to eye-witness accounts, the erupting lava dome obliterated a chunk of the peak as it erupted. This was followed by plumes of hot gas and ash riding down the volcano’s summit and spreading out in a 5-kilometer (3 mile) diameter. Ash falls were widespread, covering entire villages in the area and leading to airline pilots being issued the highest of alerts for the region.

In fact, ash falls were recorded as far as away as the town of Lhokseumawe – located some 260 km (160 mi) to the north. To address the threat to public health, the Indonesian government advised people to stay indoors due to poor air quality, and officials were dispatched to Sumatra to hand out face masks. Due to its composition and its particulate nature, volcanic ash is a severe health hazard.

On the one hand, it contains sulfur dioxide (SO²), which can irritate the human nose and throat when inhaled. The gas also reacts with water vapor in the atmosphere to produce acid rain, causing damage to vegetation and drinking water. It can also react with other gases in the atmosphere to form aerosol particles that can create thick hazes and even lead to global cooling.

These levels were recorded by the Suomi-NPP satellite using its Ozone Mapper Profiler Suite (OMPS). The image below shows what SO² concentrations were like at 1:20 p.m. local time (06:20 Universal Time) on February 19th, several hours after the eruption. The maximum concentrations of SO² reached 140 Dobson Units in the immediate vicinity of the mountain.

Map showing concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO²) due to the eruption of Mount Sinabung on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit: NASA/EO

Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist, was on hand to witness the event. As he explained in an article for Discovery Magazine:

“On February 19, 2018, the volcano decided to change its tune and unleashed a massive explosion that potentially reached at least 23,000 and possibly to up 55,000 feet (~16.5 kilometers), making it the largest eruption since the volcano became active again in 2013.”

Klemetti also cited a report that was recently filed by the Darwin Volcanic Ash Advisory Center – part of the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology. According to this report, the ash will drift to the west and fall into the Indian Ocean, rather than continuing to rain down on Sumatra. Other sensors on NASA satellites have also been monitoring Mount Sinabung since its erupted.

This includes the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO), an environmental satellite operated jointly by NASA and France’s Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES). Data from this satellite indicated that some debris and gas released by the eruption has risen as high as 15 to 18 km (mi) into the atmosphere.

In addition, data from the Aura satellite‘s Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) recently indicated rising levels of SO² around Sinabung, which could mean that fresh magma is approaching the surface. As Erik Klemetti concluded:

“This could just be a one-off blast from the volcano and it will return to its previous level of activity, but it is startling to say the least. Sinabung is still a massive humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands of people unable to return to their homes for years. Some towns have even been rebuilt further from the volcano as it has shown no signs of ending this eruptive period.”

Be sure to check out this video of the eruption, courtesy of New Zealand Volcanologist Dr. Janine Krippner:

Further Reading: NASA Earth Observatory

Some of The Last Glaciers in The Tropics. They’ll be Gone in About a Decade

One of the most visible signs of Climate Change are the ways in which glaciers and ice sheets have been disappearing all over the world. This trend is not reserved to the Arctic ice cap or the Antarctic Basin, of course. On every part of the planet, scientists have been monitoring glaciers that have been shrinking in the past few decades to determine their rate of loss.

These activities are overseen by NASA’s Earth Observatory, which relies on instruments like the Landsat satellites to monitor seasonal ice losses from orbit. As these satellites demonstrated with a series of recently released images, the Puncak Jaya ice sheets on the south pacific island of Papua/New Guinea have been receding in the past three decades, and are at risk of disappearing in just a decade.

The Papau province of New Guinea has a very rugged landscape that consists of the mountains that make up Sudirman Range. The tallest peaks in this range are Puncak Jaya and Ngga Pulu, which stand 4,884 meters (16,020 feet) and 4,862 meters (15,950 feet) above sea level, respectively. Despite being located in the tropics, the natural elevation of these peaks allows them to sustain small fields of “permanent” ice.

Image of the Puncak Jaya icefields, taken on Nov 3, 1988. Credit: NASA/EO

Given the geography, these ice fields are incredibly rare. In fact, within the tropics, the closest glacial ice is found 11,200 km (6,900 mi) away on Mount Kenya in Africa. Otherwise, one has to venture north for about 4,500 km (2,800 mi) to Mount Tate in central Japan, where glacial ice is more common since it is much farther away from the equator.

Sadly, these rare glaciers are becoming more threatened with every passing year. Like all tropical glaciers in the world today, the glaciers on the slopes around Puncak Jaya have been shrinking at a such a rate that scientists estimate that they could be gone within a decade. This was illustrated by a pair of Landsat images that show how the ice fields have shrunk over the past thirty years.

The first of these images (shown above) was acquired on November 3rd, 1988, by the Thematic Mapper instrument aboard the Landsat 5 satellite. The second image (shown below) was acquired on December 5th, 2017, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite. These false-color images are a combination of shortwave infrared, infrared, near-infrared, and red light.

The extent of the ice fields are shown in light blue, whereas rocky areas are represented in brown, vegetation in green, and clouds in white. The gray circular area near the center of the 2017 image is the Grasberg mine, the largest gold and second-largest copper mine in the world. This mine expanded considerably between the 1980s and 2000s are a result of a boom in copper prices.

Image of the Puncak Jaya icefields in New Guinea, taken on December 5, 2017. Credit: NASA/EO

As the images show, in 1988, there were five masses of ice resting on the mountain slopes – the Meren, Southwall, Carstensz, East Northwall Firn and West Northwall Firn glaciers. However, by 2017, only the Carstensz and a small portion of the East Northwall Firn glaciers remained. As Christopher Shuman, a research professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained:

“The ice area losses since the 1980s here are quite striking, visible in the contrast of the blue ice with the reddish bedrock. Even though the area still gets snowfalls, it is clearly not sustaining these glacial remnants.”

Similarly, in 2009, images taken by Landsat 5 of these same glaciers (see below) indicated that the Meren and Southwall glaciers had disappeared. Meanwhile, the Carstensz, East Northwall Firn and West Northwall Firn glaciers had retreated dramatically. Based on the rate of loss, scientists estimated at the time that all of Puncak Jaya’s glaciers would be gone within 20 years.

As these latest images demonstrate, their estimates were right on the money. At their current rate, what remains of the Carstensz and East Northwall Firn glaciers will be gone by the late 2020s. The primary cause of the ice loss is rising air temperatures, which leads to rapid sublimation. However, changes in humidity levels, precipitation patterns and cloudiness can also have an impact.

Image of the Puncak Jaya icefields in New Guinea, October 9, 2009. Credit: NASA/EO

Humidity is also important, since it affects how readily glaciers can lose mass directly to the atmosphere. Where the air is more moist, ice is able to make the transition to water more easily, and can be returned to the glacier in the form of precipitation. Where the air is predominately dry, ice makes the transition directly from a solid form to a gaseous form (aka. sublimation).

Temperature and precipitation are also closely linked to ice loss. Where temperatures are low enough, precipitation takes the form of snow, which can sustain glaciers and cause them to grow. Rainfall, on the other hand, will cause ice sheets to melt and recede. And of course, clouds affect how much sunlight reaches the glacier’s surface, which results in warming and sublimation.

For many tropical glaciers, scientists are still working out the relative importance of these factors and attempting to determine to what extent anthropogenic factors plays a role. In the meantime, tracking how these changes are leading to ice loss in the tropical regions provides scientists with a means of comparison when studying ice loss in other parts of the world.

As Andrew Klein, a geography professor at Texas A & M University who has studied the region, explained:

“Glacier recession continues in the tropics—these happen to be the last glaciers in the eastern tropics. Fortunately, the impact will be limited given their small size and the fact that they do not represent a significant water resource.”

Satellites continue to play an important role in the monitoring process, giving scientist the ability to map glacier ice loss, map seasonal changes, and draw comparisons between different parts on the planet. They also allow scientists to monitor remote and inaccessible areas of the planet to see how they too are being affected. Last, but not least, they allow scientists to estimate the timing of a glacier’s disappearance.

Click on the posted images to enlarge the ice fields, or follow these link to see image comparisons.

Further Reading: NASA Earth Observatory

Now That NASA’s Missing IMAGE Satellite Has Been Found, Talking To It Is Going To Be Difficult

It’s easy to imagine the excitement NASA personnel must have felt when an amateur astronomer contacted NASA to tell them that he might have found their missing IMAGE satellite. After all, the satellite had been missing for 10 years.

IMAGE, which stands for Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration, was launched on March 25th, 2000. In Dec. 2005 the satellite failed to make routine contact, and in 2007 it failed to reboot. After that, the mission was declared over.

NASA’s IMAGE satellite. Credit: NASA

It’s astonishing that after 10 years, the satellite has been found. It’s even more astonishing that it was an amateur who found it. As if the story couldn’t get any more interesting, the amateur astronomer who found it—Scott Tilly of British Columbia, Canada—was actually looking for a different missing satellite: the secret ZUMA spy satellite launched by the US government on January 7, 2018. (If you’re prone to wearing a tin foil hat, now might be a good time to reach for one.)

NASA’s half-ton IMAGE satellite being launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on March 25th, 2000. IMAGE was the first satellite designed to actually “see” most of the major charged particle systems in the space surrounding Earth. Image: NASA

After Tilly contacted NASA, they hurried to confirm that it was indeed IMAGE that had been found. To do that, NASA employed 5 separate antennae to seek out any radio signals from the satellite. As of Monday, Jan. 29, signals received from all five sites were consistent with the radio frequency characteristics expected of IMAGE.

In a press release, NASA said, “Specifically, the radio frequency showed a spike at the expected center frequency, as well as side bands where they should be for IMAGE. Oscillation of the signal was also consistent with the last known spin rate for IMAGE.”

“…the radio frequency showed a spike at the expected center frequency…” – NASA Press Release confirming the discovery of IMAGE

Then, on January 30, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL) reported that they had successfully collected telemetry data from the satellite. In that signal was the ID code 166, the code for IMAGE. There were probably some pretty happy people at NASA.

So, now what?

A diagram of NASA’s IMAGE satellite. Image: NASA

NASA’s next step is to confirm without a doubt that this is indeed IMAGE. That means capturing and analyzing the data in the signal. That will be a technical challenge, because the types of hardware and operating systems used in the IMAGE Mission Operations Center no longer exist. According to NASA, “other systems have been updated several versions beyond what they were at the time, requiring significant reverse-engineering.” But that should be no problem for NASA. After all, they got Apollo 13 home safely, didn’t they?

If NASA is successful at decoding the data in the signal, the next step is to attempt to turn on IMAGE’s science payload. NASA has yet to decide how to proceed if they’re successful.

IMAGE was the first spacecraft designed to “see the invisible,” as they put it back then. Prior to IMAGE, spacecraft examined Earth’s magnetosphere by detecting particles and fields they encountered as they passed through them. But this method had limited success. The magnetosphere is enormous, and simply sampling a small path—while better than nothing—did not give us an accurate understanding of it.

During its mission, IMAGE did a lot of great science. In July 2000, a spectacular solar storm caused auroras as far south as Mexico. IMAGE captured these images of those poweful auroras. Credit: NASA

IMAGE was going to do things differently. It used 3-dimensional imaging techniques to measure simultaneously the densities, energies and masses of charged particles throughout the inner magnetosphere. To do this, IMAGE carried a payload of 7 instruments:

  • High Energy Neutral Atom (HENA) imager
  • Medium Energy Neutral Atom (MENA) imager
  • Low Energy Neutral Atom (LENA) imager
  • Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) imager
  • Far Ultraviolet (FUV) imager
  • Radio Plasma Imager (RPI)
  • Central Instrument Data Processor (CIDP)

These instruments allowed IMAGE to not only do great science, and to capture great images, but also to create some stunning never-seen-before movies of auroral activity.

This is a fascinating story, and it’ll be interesting to see if NASA can establish meaningful contact with IMAGE. Will it have a treasure trove of unexplored data on-board? Can it be re-booted and brought back into service? We’ll have to wait and see.

This story is also interesting culturally. IMAGE was in service at a time when the internet wasn’t as refined as it is currently. NASA has mastered the internet and public communications now, but back then? Not so much. For example, to build up interest around the mission, NASA gave IMAGE its own theme song, titled “To See The Invisible.” Yes, seriously.

But that’s just a side-note. IMAGE was all about great science, and it accomplished a lot. You can read all about IMAGE’s science achievements here.

NASA’s Aqua Satellite Watches Ships Crossing the Atlantic Ocean

Earth, when viewed from space, is a pretty spectacular thing to behold. From orbit, one can see every continent, landmass, and major feature. Weather patterns are also eerily clear from space, with everything from hurricanes to auroras appearing as a single system. On top of that, it is only from orbit that the full extent of human activity can be truly appreciated.

For instance, when one hemisphere of Earth passes from day into night, one can see the patchwork of urban development by picking out the filamentary structure of lights. And as NASA’s Aqua satellite recently demonstrated with a high-resolution image it captured over the Atlantic Ocean, ships criss-crossing the ocean can also create some beautiful patterns.

As part of the NASA-centered international Earth Observing System (EOS), the Aqua satellite was launched on May 4th, 2002, to collect information on Earth’s water cycle. Using a suite of six Earth-observing instruments, this satellite has gathered global data on ocean evaporation, water vapor in the atmosphere, clouds, precipitation, soil moisture, sea ice, land ice, and snow cover.

NASA’s Aqua Earth-observing satellite. Credit: NASA

The image was acquired on January 16th, 2018, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). Pictured in this image are ships off the coast of Portugal and Spain producing cloud trails known as ship tracks. Some of these tracks stretch for hundreds of kilometers and grow broader with distance – i.e. the narrow ends are the youngest while the broader, wavier ends are older.

These clouds form when water vapor condenses around tiny particles of pollution emitted by the ship’s exhaust. This is due to the fact that some particles generated by ships (like sulfates) are soluble in water and seeds clouds. This also causes light hitting these clouds to scatter in many directions, making them appear brighter and thicker than unpolluted maritime clouds (which are seeded by larger particles like sea salt).

As always, seeing things from space provides an incredible sense of perspective. This is especially helpful when attempting to monitor and model something as complex as Earth’s environment and humanity’s impact on it. And of course, it also allows for some breathtaking photos!

Further Reading: NASA

This is Ice in Antarctica, Flowing in Slow Motion Like Water Going Through River Rapids

One of the benefits of the Space Age is the way it has allowed human beings to see Earth in all of its complexity and splendor. In addition, it has allowed us to conduct studies of Earth’s surface and atmosphere from orbit, which helps us to see the impact we have on our the planet. It is with this purpose in mind that NASA’s Earth Observation Program has been monitoring the Arctic and Antarctic for many years.

For instance, Operation IceBridge has spent much of the past decade monitoring the Antarctic ice sheet for signs of cracks and flows. The purpose of this is to determine how and at what rate the ice sheet is changing due to Climate Change. Recently, NASA crews conducted a flight over the southern Antarctic Peninsula as part of Operation IceBridge ninth year, which resulted in some stunning pictures of the icy landscape.

The flight took place on November 4th, 2017, as part of IceBridge’s “Endurance West” mission to study sea ice. The path they chose follows the ground track of NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), an ice-mapping satellite that is scheduled for launch in late 2018. This path began at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and then moved southward across the Weddell Sea.

Semi-permanent cracks on the Antarctic Peninsula. Credit: NASA/Digital Mapping System.

The images the crew took aboard their P3 research plane were captured by a Digital Mapping System, a downward-pointing camera that collects thousands of high-resolution photographs during a single flight. While traveling over the southern Antarctic Peninsula, they imaged a landscape that resembled rapids, where the motion of rivers becomes amplified as the water flows through steeper, narrower terrain.

In a similar fashion, as ice flows through narrower canyons and down steeper bedrock, more fractures appear at the surface. But of course, the rate at which this takes place is much slower, which can make discerning movement in the ice sheet rather difficult. The first image (shown above) shows ice flowing into the southern part of the George VI ice shelf, which is located in Palmer Land south of the Seward Mountains.

In this location, cracks are likely to be a regular feature that form as the ice flows over the bedrock. However, since the ice flow is relatively slow (even on the steeper part of the bedrock), the surface cracks are not as dramatic as in other regions. For example, the second image (shown below), which shows a heavily crevassed glacier that measures about 21 km (13 mi) long and 11 km (7 mi) wide.

The glacier appears to be flowing west from the Dyer Plateau to George VI Sound while the north side merges with the Meiklejohn Glacier. The third image (bottom) shows a heavily crevassed glacier north of Creswick Peaks that also flows west into George VI Sound. In short, the pictures confirm that ice on the southern end of the Antarctic Peninsula is flowing towards the ocean.

A heavily crevassed glacier flows west from the Dyer Plateau. Credit: NASA/Digital Mapping System

The purpose of IceBridge, which has been conducting regular measurements in the Antarctic Peninsula since 2009, has been to study just how fast and to what extent Climate Change has been impacting the region. While ice sheet loss is a well-documented phenomenon, scientists have known for some time that the most dramatic losses in Antarctica occur along its western side.

In addition, research has shown that the southern part of the peninsula is particularly vulnerable, as the glaciers and ice shelves there have become destabilized and are slowly feeding into the sea. And unlike sea ice, the land ice in this region has the potential to raise sea levels around the world. As Michael Studinger, the project manager for IceBridge, describes the operation:

“IceBridge exists because we need to understand how much ice the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise over the next couple of decades. In order to do this, we need to measure how much the ice surface elevation is changing from year to year.”

Knowing how significant the impact of Climate Change will be is the first step in developing countermeasures. It also serves as a stark reminder that the problem exists, and that solutions need to be found before it is too late.

Further Reading: NASA Earth Observatory

Station Astronauts Unload Cygnus Science; Antares Launch Gallery

Orbital ATK Antares rocket lifts off on Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 cargo spacecraft from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are now busily unloading nearly four tons of science experiments, research gear, station equipment and crew supplies – following the spectacular launch of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket earlier this week on Sunday Nov. 12 from Virginia’s eastern shore that propelled the Cygnus cargo freighter to an on time arrival two days later on Tuesday Nov. 14.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft was christened the S.S. Gene Cernan and named in honor of NASA’s Apollo 17 lunar landing commander; Gene Cernan.

Among the goodies delivered by the newly arrived S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 supply run to resident the crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts from the US, Russia and Italy are ice cream, pizza and presents for the holidays. They are enjoying the fruits of the earthy labor of thousands of space workers celebrating the mission’s success.

The six-member Expedition 53 crew poses for a portrait inside the Japanese Kibo laboratory module with the VICTORY art spacesuit that was hand-painted by cancer patients in Russia and the United States. On the left (from top to bottom) are NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Mark Vande Hei with cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin of Roscosmos. On the right (from top to bottom) are European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli, cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy of Roscosmos and Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik of NASA. Credit: NASA/ESA/Roscosmos

The journey began with the flawless liftoff of the two stage Antares rocket shortly after sunrise Sunday at 7:19 a.m. EST, Nov. 12, rocket from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Check out the expanding gallery of launch imagery and videos captured by this author and several space colleagues of Antares prelaunch activities around the launch pad and through Sunday’s stunningly beautiful sunrise blastoff.

After a carefully choreographed series of intricate thruster firings to raise its orbit in an orbital pursuit over the next two days, the Cygnus spacecraft on the OA-8 resupply mission for NASA arrived in the vicinity of the orbiting research laboratory.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft is pictured after it had been grappled with the Canadarm2 robotic arm by astronauts Paolo Nespoli and Randy Bresnik on Nov. 14, 2017. Credit: NASA

Expedition 53 Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency) assisted by NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik then deftly maneuvered the International Space Station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadarm2 robotic arm to grapple and successfully capture the Cygnus cargo freighter at 5:04 a.m., Tuesday Nov. 14.

The station was orbiting 260 statute miles over the South Indian Ocean at the moment Nespoli grappled the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus spacecraft with the Canadian-built robotic arm.

Ground controllers at NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, then maneuvered the arm and robotic hand grappling Cygnus towards the exterior hull and berthed the cargo ship at the Earth-facing port of the stations Unity module.

The berthing operation was completed at 7:15 a.m. after all 16 bolts were driven home for hard mating as the station was flying 252 miles over the North Pacific in orbital night.

Orbital ATK Antares rocket lifts off on Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 cargo spacecraft from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Cygnus spacecraft dubbed OA-8 is Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station under the unmanned Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program to stock the station with supplies on a continuing and reliable basis.

Launch of Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus resupply ship on Nov. 12, 2017 from NASA Wallops in Virginia to the International Space Station. Credit: Trevor Mahlmann

Altogether over 7,400 pounds of science and research, crew supplies and vehicle hardware launched to the orbital laboratory and its crew of six for investigations that will occur during Expeditions 53 and 54.

The S.S. Gene Cernan manifest includes equipment and samples for dozens of scientific investigations including those that will study communication and navigation, microbiology, animal biology and plant biology. The ISS science program supports over 300 ongoing research investigations.

Apollo 17 was NASA’s final lunar landing mission. Gere Cernan was the last man to walk on the Moon.

A portrait of Gene Cernan greets the astronauts as they open the hatch to the Cygnus cargo spacecraft named in his honor. Credit: NASA

Among the experiments flying aboard Cygnus are the coli AntiMicrobial Satellite (EcAMSat) mission, which will investigate the effect of microgravity on the antibiotic resistance of E. coli, the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) project, which will study high-speed optical transmission of data and small spacecraft proximity operations, the Rodent Research 6 habitat for mousetronauts who will fly on a future SpaceX cargo Dragon.

Cygnus will remain at the space station until Dec. 4, when the spacecraft will depart the station and release 14 CubeSats using a NanoRacks deployer, a record number for the spacecraft.

It will then be commanded to fire its main engine to lower its orbit and carry out a fiery and destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean as it disposes of several tons of trash.

Orbital ATK Antares rocket blasts off from the ‘On-Ramp’ to the International Space Station on Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 cargo spacecraft from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Cygnus OA-8 manifest includes:

Crew Supplies 2,734.1 lbs. / 1,240 kg
Science Investigations 1631.42 lbs. / 740 kg
Spacewalk Equipment 291.0 lbs. / 132 kg
Vehicle Hardware 1,875.2 lbs. / 851 kg
Computer Resources 75.0 lbs. / 34 kg

Total Cargo: 7,359.0 lbs. / 3,338 kg
Total Pressurized Cargo with Packaging: 7,118.7 lbs. / 3,229 kg
Unpressurized Cargo (NanoRacks Deployer): 240.3 lbs. / 109 kg

Under the Commercial Resupply Services-1 (CRS-1) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 66,000 pounds (30,000 kilograms) of cargo to the space station. OA-8 is the eighth of these missions.

The Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft is Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station under the unmanned Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program to stock the station with supplies on a continuing basis.

Orbital ATK Antares rocket lifts off on Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 cargo spacecraft from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Beginning in 2019, the company will carry out a minimum of six cargo missions under NASA’s CRS-2 contract using a more advanced version of Cygnus.

Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on the launch pad prior to blastoff for International Space Station on Nov. 12, 2017 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Peter Kremer

Watch for Ken’s continuing Antares/Cygnus mission and launch reporting from on site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA during the launch campaign.

Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket and S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 resupply ship pierce the oceanside clouds over NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, after sunrise liftoff on Nov. 12, 2017 bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus resupply ship on Nov. 12, 2017 from NASA Wallops in Virginia to the International Space Station. Credit: Trevor Mahlmann
Orbital ATK Antares rocket lifts off on Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 cargo spacecraft from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station successfully launched at 7:19 a.m. EST on an Antares rocket from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the Cygnus OA-8 resupply spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station successfully launched at 7:19 a.m. EST on an Antares rocket from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the Cygnus OA-8 resupply spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Sunset launchpad view of Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus OA-8 resupply spaceship the evening before blastoff to the International Space Station on Nov. 11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on the launch pad prior to blastoff for International Space Station on Nov. 12, 2017 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Peter Kremer
Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on the launch pad prior to blastoff for International Space Station on Nov. 12, 2017 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Peter Kremer
Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on the launch pad prior to blastoff for International Space Station on Nov. 12, 2017 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Peter Kremer
The Orbital ATK Antares rocket topped with the Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft creates a beautiful water reflection in this prelaunch nighttime view across the inland waterways. Launch is targeted for Nov. 11, 2017, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hardware for the Orbital ATK Antares rocket launching the Cygnus OA-8 resupply mission to the International Space Station on Nov. 11, 2017 – as it was being assembled for flight inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-8 mission patch. Credit: Orbital ATK

Covert NRO Satellite Fades into Capes Cloudy Night Skies Shrouded in Liftoff Secrecy: Gallery – As ULA Atlas Wins Landsat Launch

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — As one Atlas rocket carrying a covert spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to monitor Earth for national security purposes faded into cloudy nighttime skies over the Cape in the dead of night shrouded in liftoff secrecy, rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA) won another significant Atlas launch contract for NASA’s Landsat 9 satellite to monitor the health of Earth’s environment.

Capping two launches from two different rocket companies in four days by ULA and SpaceX followed by the arrival back in port of SpaceX’s ocean landed recovered booster, last week provided all the proof that’s needed to demonstrate that the revitalization of Florida’s Spaceport is well underway and America’s rocket makers are capturing lucrative launch contracts ensuring an upswing nationwide in rocket and spacecraft manufacturing – for critical military surveillance, government, civilian and science needs.

Check out the exciting gallery of Atlas launch imagery and videos including the thrilling droneship return of SpaceX’s 156 foot tall first stage booster back into Port Canaveral less than 4 hours after ULA delivered the classified NROL-52 surveillance satellite to a secret orbit – from this author and several space media colleagues. And check back here as the gallery grows!

A ULA Atlas V launch carrying the covert NROL-52 mission in support of U.S. national security blasted off overnight Sunday, Oct. 15 at 3:28 a.m. EDT (0728 GMT) from seaside Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Congratulations to the team who helped make #NROL52 a success! United Launch Alliance, 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., Air Force Space Command, and the Space and Missile Systems Center,” the NRO announced post launch on social media.

It was a case of ‘Going, Going, Gone’ as seemingly endless stormy weather plagued the space coast and the Atlas soon disappeared behind clouds from many but not all vantage points, as the two stage rocket was finally cleared to launch on its fifth try. Postponed three times by poor weather and once due to a technical glitch to fix a faulty second stage transmitter.

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launches were postponed by the downstream impact of Hurricane Irma which forced the base closings of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and significantly impacted the Florida Space Coast region by causing over $100 million in damage to buildings, homes, businesses, hotels, restaurants, infrastructure and more due to flooding and hurricane force winds.

“We’ve had an incredible month,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne R. Monteith, Commander, 45th Space Wing.

“Not only did we restore our base to full mission capable status just a few hours after Hurricane Irma impacted our coast, but we’ve successfully launched two rockets in less than four days just weeks later.”

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The 45th Space Wing supported ULA’s Atlas V launch of the NROL-52 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office early morning on Oct. 15!”

“The men and women of the 45th Space Wing continue to make the impossible possible.”

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

More than a quarter of all the world’s rocket launches take place from Florida’s burgeoning spaceports.

Covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office fades into cloudy nighttime skies shrouded in secrecy after liftoff on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Our team’s resiliency and tireless efforts in launching over 25% of all world-wide launches this year proves why we are the ‘World’s Premier Gateway to Space,’” Montieth gushed in pride.

Meanwhile, NASA selected ULA to provide launch services for the Landsat 9 mission with another Atlas V rocket as soon as late 2020.

“The mission is currently targeted for a contract launch date of June 2021, while protecting for the ability to launch as early as December 2020, on an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 3E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California,” said NASA.

The Landsat 9 launch contract is worth $153.8 million.

Landsat 9 is a joint mission between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

“Landsat 9 will continue the Landsat program’s critical role in monitoring, understanding, and managing the land resources needed to sustain human life.”

“We are honored that NASA has entrusted ULA with launching this critical land imaging satellite,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, in a statement.

“ULA’s world-leading performance and reliability, paired with the tremendous heritage of 74 consecutive successful Atlas V launches, provides the optimal value for our customer. We look forward to working together again with our mission partners at NASA’s Launch Services Program, Goddard Space Flight Center and the U.S. Geological Survey in the integration and launch of this significant mission, contributing to the international strategy for examining the health and state of the Earth.”

ULA Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the NRO after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

NROL-52 is the fourth of five launches slated for the NRO in 2017 by both ULA and SpaceX.

“Never before has innovation been more important for keeping us ahead of the game. As the eagle soars, so will the advanced capabilities this payload provides to our national security,” said Colonel Matthew Skeen, USAF, Director, NRO Office of Space Launch, in a statement. “Kudos to the entire team for a job well done.”

Check out this exciting video compilation from remote cameras circling the Atlas pad 41.

Video Caption: Launch of the NROL-52 satellite on an Atlas 5 booster from Pad 41. A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 421 rocket launches the NROL-52 payload on Oct. 15, 2017 at 328 a.m. EDT on the 5th launch attempt. Previous launch attempts were halted by weather issues 3 times, and a faulty telemetry radio that needed to be replaced after the rocket was rolled back to the Pad 41 Vertical Integration Facility. Credit Jeff Seibert

The venerable two stage Atlas V stands 194 feet tall and sports a 100% success record. The first stage generates approx. 1.6 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

This Atlas Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission launched in the 421 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter payload fairing (PLF) encapsulating the payload and two strap on solid rocket first stage boosters.

The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the Russian-built RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The dual chamber, dual-nozzle RD-180 is fueled by a mixture of RP-1 kerosene and LOX (liquid oxygen).

The ULA Atlas V first stage powers NROL-52 spy satellite to orbit for the NRO firing the dual chamber, dual-nozzle RD-180 engines after blastoff at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The next NRO launch is scheduled on a ULA Delta IV in December from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Reflecting in a pond a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket blasts off with the covert NROL-52 spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office at 3:28 a.m. EDT on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NROL-52, SpaceX SES-11 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Liftoff of ULA Atlas V rocket carrying classified NROL-52 payload for the NRO on Oct. 15, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit in this long duration exposure carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office after lift off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflecting in a pond a ULA Atlas V rocket stands poised for launch with the NROL-52 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office prior to blastoff on Oct. 15, 2017 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Reflown SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster arrives at sunrise atop OCISLY droneship being towed into the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on Oct. 15, 2017 after successfully launch SES-11 UHDTV comsat to orbit on Oct. 11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket blasts off carrying covert NROL-52 payload for the NRO from Space Launch Complex-41 on Oct. 15, 2017 at 3:28 a.m. EDT at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Jeff Seibert

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Captures Lovely Blue Marble during Gravity Assist Swing-by to Asteroid Bennu

A color composite image of Earth taken on Sept. 22, 2017 by the MapCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft just hours after the spacecraft completed its Earth Gravity Assist at a range of approximately 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission captured a lovely ‘Blue Marble’ image of our Home Planet during last Fridays (Sept. 22) successful gravity assist swing-by sending the probe hurtling towards asteroid Bennu for a rendezvous next August on a round trip journey to snatch pristine soil samples.

The newly released color composite image of Earth was taken on Sept. 22 by the spacecrafts MapCam camera.

It was taken at a range of approximately 106,000 miles (170,000 kilometers), just a few hours after OSIRIS-REx completed its critical Earth Gravity Assist (EGA) maneuver.

“NASA’s asteroid sample return spacecraft successfully used Earth’s gravity on Friday, Sept. 22 to slingshot itself on a path toward the asteroid Bennu, for a rendezvous next August,” the agency confirmed after receiving the eagerly awaited telemetry.

OSIRIS-Rex, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer, is NASA’s first ever asteroid sample return mission.

As it swung by Earth at 12:52 p.m. EDT on Sept. 22, OSIRIS-REx passed only 10,711 miles (17,237 km) above Antarctica, just south of Cape Horn, Chile.

The probe departed Earth by following a flight path that continued north over the Pacific Ocean and has already travelled 600 million miles (1 billion kilometers) since launching on Sept. 8, 2016.

OSIRIS-REx flight path over Earth’s surface during the Sept. 22, 2017 slingshot over Antarctica at 12:52 a.m. EDT targeting the probe to Asteroid Bennu in August 2018. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

The preplanned EGA maneuver provided the absolutely essential gravity assisted speed boost required for OSIRIS-Rex to gain enough velocity to complete its journey to the carbon rich asteroid Bennu and back.

The mission was only made possible by the slingshot which provided a velocity change to the spacecraft of 8,451 miles per hour (3.778 kilometers per second).

“The encounter with Earth is fundamental to our rendezvous with Bennu,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“The total velocity change from Earth’s gravity far exceeds the total fuel load of the OSIRIS-REx propulsion system, so we are really leveraging our Earth flyby to make a massive change to the OSIRIS-REx trajectory, specifically changing the tilt of the orbit to match Bennu.”

The spacecraft conducted a post flyby science campaign by collecting images and science observations of Earth and the Moon that began four hours after closest approach in order to test and calibrate its onboard suite of five science instruments and help prepare them for OSIRIS-REx’s arrival at Bennu in late 2018.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft OTES spectrometer captured these infrared spectral curves during Earth Gravity Assist on Sept. 22 2017, hours after the spacecraft’s closest approach. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Arizona State University

The MapCam camera Blue Marble image is the first one to be released by NASA and the science team.

The image is centered on the Pacific Ocean and shows several familiar landmasses, including Australia in the lower left, and Baja California and the southwestern United States in the upper right.

“The dark vertical streaks at the top of the image are caused by short exposure times (less than three milliseconds),” said the team.

“Short exposure times are required for imaging an object as bright as Earth, but are not anticipated for an object as dark as the asteroid Bennu, which the camera was designed to image.”

The instrument will gather additional data and measurements scanning the Earth and the Moon for three more days over the next two weeks.

“The opportunity to collect science data over the next two weeks provides the OSIRIS-REx mission team with an excellent opportunity to practice for operations at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

“During the Earth flyby, the science and operations teams are co-located, performing daily activities together as they will during the asteroid encounter.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft originally departed Earth atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket under crystal clear skies on September 8, 2016 at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Everything with the launch and flyby went exactly according to plan for the daring mission boldly seeking to gather rocks and soil from carbon rich Bennu.

OSIRIS-Rex is equipped with an ingenious robotic arm named TAGSAM designed to collect at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample and bring it back to Earth in 2023 for study by scientists using the world’s most advanced research instruments.

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission and launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft OVIRS spectrometer captured this visible and infrared spectral curve, which shows the amount of sunlight reflected from the Earth, after the spacecraft’s Earth Gravity Assist on Sept. 22, 2017. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona