Secret Mini Space Shuttle Could Launch April 19


It’s cute. It’s little. It’s also top secret. The X-37B orbital test vehicle is at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and the word is that it will be launched on board an Atlas V rocket on Monday April 19, 2010 at around 10 pm EDT. Other than that, the Air Force isn’t saying much about this mini-space shuttle look-alike. The reusable unmanned vehicle is capable of staying in orbit for 270 days, but the mission duration hasn’t been announced. Additionally, the ship has a payload bay for experiments and deployable satellites, but no word if any payloads will be included on the inaugural flight of this mini space plane.

X-37B. Credit: US Air Force

The X-37B is 9 meters long and 4.5 meter wide (29 X 15 ft) and its payload bay is 2.1 by 1.2 meters (7 by 4 feet). The vehicle was built at Boeing Phantom Works, based on an orbital and re-entry demonstrator design initially developed by NASA, then handed over to the Pentagon.

Rumors of an X-37B launch have been circulating since 2008.

Originally the vehicle was scheduled for launch in from the payload bay of the Space Shuttle, but that plan was axed following the Columbia accident.

The X-37A carried by WhiteKnightOne in 2005 (Alan Radecki)

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency completed a series of approach and landing drop tests in 2007 of an experimental X-37B vehicle using the White Knight airplane from Scaled Composites as a mothership.

It will land like the space shuttle, with the primary landing site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Edwards Air Force Base is the backup landing site.

The project is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The X-37B’s mission is to “demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force,” according to a fact sheet put out by the military. “Objectives of the OTV program include space experimentation, risk reduction and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

It will be interesting to ascertain the capabilities and uses for this vehicle.

Sources: Spaceflightnow, Wiki,

Successful Engine Test Firing for SpaceX Inaugural Falcon 9


SpaceX announced that today’s (Mar 13) test firing of all 9 Merlin first stage engines was successful at Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. This is a major milestone towards the planned inaugural first flight of the Falcon 9 rocket which SpaceX is building. This success follows an aborted test firing attempt on Thursday (Mar 11) and several other delays due to poor weather at the Cape this week.

The Falcon 9 will play a crucial role in resupplying cargo for the International Space Station after the scheduled retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program set for late this year or early 2011.

Falcon 9 static test at pad 40. Credit:Chris Thompson/SpaceX
The test occurred at 12:30 PM at Launch Complex 40 which is the next pad down the line from Atlas Launch Complex 41.

The first actual Falcon 9 blast-off is set for no earlier than April 12 between 11 AM and 3 PM

Falcon 9 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1) powered launch vehicle. It uses the same engines, structural architecture (with a wider diameter), avionics and launch system as the Falcon 1

Here is the official announcement I received from SpaceX this afternoon:

SpaceX Falcon 9 test at Pad 40. Credit: Florida Today
“Today, SpaceX successfully completed a test firing of the inaugural Falcon 9 launch vehicle at Space Launch Complex 40 located at Cape Canaveral. Following a nominal terminal countdown, the launch sequencer commanded ignition of all 9 Merlin first stage engines for a period of 3.5 seconds.”

“Just prior to engine ignition, the pad water deluge system was activated providing acoustic suppression to keep vibration levels within acceptable limits. The test validated the launch pad propellant and pneumatic systems as well as the ground and flight control software that controls pad and launch vehicle configurations. The completion of a successful static fire is the latest milestone on the path to first flight of the Falcon 9 which will carry a Dragon spacecraft qualification unit to orbit.”

Under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, SpaceX plans three launches of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft this year to demonstrate delivery of cargo to the ISS as well as returning cargo to Earth. The entire schedule moving forward is dependent on a successful inaugural launch.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to conduct a minimum of 12 flights and deliver at least 20,000 kg of cargo to the ISS. An option for additional missions could increase the cumulative total contract value to $3.1 billion.

The 180 ft tall Falcon 9 will be capable of lifting approximately 11 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) and in excess of 4.5 tons to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).

Update: SpaceX photos added

Falcon 9 erected at Launch Complex 40. Credit: SpaceX
All 9 Merlin 1C engines fired successfully today, March 13. This photo shows the fire generated from the flushing of fuel and LOX, but no engines actually started during this aborted test on March 11. Credit: SpaceX

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Home Made Quark-Gluon Soup

The most powerful operational heavy-ion collider in the world, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) recently recorded the highest ever temperature created in an Earth-based laboratory of 4 trillion Kelvin. Achieved at the almost speed of light collision of gold ions, this resulted in the temporary existence of quark-gluon soup – something first seen at about ten to the power of minus twelve of the first second after the big bang.

And sure, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may one day soon be the most powerful heavy-ion collider in the world (although it will spend most of its time investigating proton to proton collisions). And sure, maybe it’s going to generate a spectacular 574 TeV when it collides its first lead ions. But you have to win the game before you get the trophy.

To give credit where it’s due, the LHC is already the most powerful particle collider in the world – having achieved proton collision energies of 2.36 TeV in late 2009. And it should eventually achieve proton collision energies of 14 TeV, but that will come well after its scheduled maintenance shutdown in 2012, ahead of achieving its full design capabilities from 2013. It has already circulated a beam of lead ions – but we are yet to see an LHC heavy ion collision take place.

So, for the moment it’s still RHIC putting out all the fun stuff. In early March 2010, it produced the largest ever negatively charged nucleus – which is anti-matter, since you can only build matter nuclei from protons and/or neutrons which will only ever have a positive or a neutral charge.

This antimatter nucleus carried an anti-strange quark – which is crying out for a new name… mundane quark, conventional quark? And since the only matter nuclei containing strange quarks are hypernuclei, RHIC in fact created an antihypernucleus. Wonderful.

Then there’s the whole quark-gluon soup story. Early experiments at RHIC reveal that this superhot plasma behaves like a liquid with a very low viscosity— and may be what the universe was made of in its very early moments.  There was some expectation that melted protons and neutrons would be so hot that surely you would get a gas – but like the early universe, with everything condensed into a tiny volume, you get a super-heated liquid (i.e. soup).

An aerial view of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in Upton, NY. The Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS) built in the 1960s now works as a pre-accelerating injector for the larger RHIC.

The LHC hopes to deliver the Higgs, maybe a dark matter particle and certainly anti-matter and micro black holes by the nano-spoonful. And after that, there’s talk of building the Very Large Hadron Collider, which promises to be bigger, more powerful and more expensive.

But if that project doesn’t fly, we can still ramp up the existing colliders. Ramping up a particle collider is an issue of luminosity, where the desired outcome is a more concentrated and focused particle beam – with an increased energy density achieved by cramming more particles into a cross section of the beam you are sending around the particle accelerator. Both RHIC and the LHC have plans to undertake an upgrade to achieve an increase of their respective luminosities by up to a factor of 10. If successful, we can look forward to RHIC II and the Super Large Hadron Collider coming online sometime after 2020. Fun.

Gemini’s New Filters Reveal the Beauty of Star Birth

About 2,000 light-years away, in the constellation of Cygnus (the Swan), lies Sharpless 2-106 (after Stewart Sharpless who put the catalog together in 1959), the birth-place of a star cluster-to-be.

Two recent image releases – by Subaru and Gemini – showcase their new filter sets and image capabilities; they also reveal the stunning beauty of the million-year-long process of the birth of a star.

Sharpless 2-106 (Gemini Observatory/AURA)

The filter set is part of the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) toolkit, and includes ones centered on the nebular lines of doubly ionized oxygen ([OIII] 499 nm), singly ionized sulfur ([SII] 672 nm), singly ionized helium (HeII 468nm), and hydrogen alpha (Hα 656 nm). The filters are all narrowband, and are also used to study planetary nebulae and excited gas in other galaxies.

The hourglass-shaped (bipolar) nebula in the new Gemini image is a stellar nursery made up of glowing gas, plasma, and light-scattering dust. The material shrouds a natal high-mass star thought to be mostly responsible for the hourglass shape of the nebula due to high-speed winds (more than 200 kilometers/second) which eject material from the forming star deep within. Research also indicates that many sub-stellar objects are forming within the cloud and may someday result in a cluster of 50 to 150 stars in this region.

The nebula’s physical dimensions are about 2 light-years long by 1/2 light-year across. It is thought that its central star could be up to 15 times the mass of our Sun. The star’s formation likely began no more than 100,000 years ago and eventually its light will break free of the enveloping cloud as it begins the relatively short life of a massive star.

For this Gemini image four colors were combined as follows: Violet – HeII filter; Blue – [SII] filter; Green – [OIII] filter; and Red – Hα filter.

Sharpless 2-106 (Copyright Subaru Telescope, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. All rights reserved)

The Subaru Telescope image was made by combining images taken through three broadband near-infrared filters, J (1.25 micron), H (1.65 micron), and K’ (2.15 micron).

Sources: Gemini Observatory, NAOJ

R2 the Space Robot Does Detroit


Not sure if it speaks Bocce or understands the binary language of moisture evaporators, but the next generation of NASA’s Robonaut is about to move into the workforce in the automotive and aerospace industries. Engineers and scientists from NASA, General Motors and Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston have worked together to build a new humanoid robot capable of working side by side with people. Robonaut 2, or R2, is a faster, more dexterous and more technologically advanced robot than its predecessor, and this next generation robot can use its hands to do work beyond the scope of prior humanoid machines. R2 can work on Earth or in space.

“This cutting-edge robotics technology holds great promise, not only for NASA, but also for the nation,” said Doug Cooke, NASA’s associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. “I’m very excited about the new opportunities for human and robotic exploration these versatile robots provide across a wide range of applications.”

Using leading edge control, sensor and vision technologies, future robots could assist astronauts during hazardous space missions and help GM build safer cars and plants.

R2 reaches for the stars? Credit: NASA

“For GM, this is about safer cars and safer plants,” said Alan Taub, GM’s vice president for global research and development. “When it comes to future vehicles, the advancements in controls, sensors and vision technology can be used to develop advanced vehicle safety systems. The partnership’s vision is to explore advanced robots working together in harmony with people, building better, higher quality vehicles in a safer, more competitive manufacturing environment.”

The original Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed for space travel, was built about 10 years ago at Johnson Space Center. During the past decade, NASA gained significant expertise in building robotic technologies for space applications. Will these new robots go to galaxies far, far away and be grease monkeys? Only time will tell.

Source: NASA

ISS Now Has Live Access to the Internet

Talk about a truly ‘world-wide’ web! As the astronauts aboard the International Space Station orbit Earth at 28,000 kph (17,500 mph) they now have the ultimate wireless connection and direct, live access to the internet. The station received a special software upgrade this week, called Crew Support LAN, which gives astronauts the ability to browse and use the Web. Previously, emails, news, and Twitter messages were sent to and from the ISS in uplink and downlink packages, so for example, Twitter (which NASA has embraced wholeheartedly) messages from the astronauts were downlinked to mission control in Houston, and someone there posted them on the astronauts’ Twitter accounts. Now, it’s live. Expedition 22 Flight Engineer T.J. Creamer made first use of the new system today when he posted the first unassisted update to his Twitter account, @Astro_TJ, from the space station:

“Hello Twitterverse! We r now LIVE tweeting from the International Space Station — the 1st live tweet from Space! 🙂 More soon, send your ?s”

Astronauts will be subject to the same computer use guidelines as government employees on Earth. In addition to this new capability, the crew will continue to have official e-mail, Internet Protocol telephone and limited videoconferencing capabilities.

This personal Web access takes advantage of existing communication links to and from the station and gives astronauts the ability to browse and use the Web. The system will provide astronauts with direct private communications to enhance their quality of life during long-duration missions by helping to ease the isolation associated with life in a closed environment.

During periods when the station is actively communicating with the ground using high-speed Ku-band communications, the crew will have remote access to the Internet via a ground computer. The crew will view the desktop of the ground computer using an onboard laptop and interact remotely with their keyboard touchpad.

To follow Twitter updates from all the astronauts, there is one centralized Twitter account for all: NASA_Astronauts

You can also follow Universe Today and me (Nancy Atkinson) on Twitter.

NASA Unveils Personal Aircraft

Forget about jetpacks or flying cars. How about your own personal stealth aircraft? NASA has unveiled the Puffin, an experimental electrically propelled, super-quiet, tilt-rotor, hover-capable one-man aircraft. According to Scientific American, the 3.7-meter-long, 4.1-meter-wingspan craft is designed with lightweight carbon-fiber composites to weigh in at 135 kilograms (not including 45 kilograms of rechargeable lithium phosphate batteries.) The Puffin can cruise at 240 kilometers per hour, but for those high speed chases, can zoom at more than 480 kph. See video below.

Since it doesn’t have an air-breathing engine, the Puffin is not limited by thin air. So, basically, it doesn’t have a flight ceiling. The designers say it could go up to about 9,150 meters before its energy runs low enough to drive it to descend. With current state-of-the-art batteries, it has a range of just 80 kilometers if cruising, “but many researchers are proposing a tripling of current battery energy densities in the next five to seven years, so we could see a range of 240 to 320 kilometers by 2017,” says researcher Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He and his colleagues unveiled the Puffin design on January 20, 2010 at an American Helicopter Society meeting in San Francisco.

For takeoff and landing, the Puffin stands upright. But during flight the whole aircraft pitches forward, putting the the pilot in the prone position, like in a hang glider.

Of course, the original idea for this personal aircraft is for covert military operations. But if they can design them safe enough and cheap enough, everyone will want one. It could change our ideas about electric propulsion and personal aircraft.

By March, the researchers plan on finishing a one third–size, hover-capable Puffin demonstrator, and in the three months following that they will begin investigating how well it transitions from cruise to hover flight.

See SciAm for more info.

Hat tip to my sister Alice!

Hydrogen Gas Cannons Could Launch Payloads to Orbit (w/video)

To get something into space right now, you need a rocket. You also need a lot of money, as the current going rate for getting something into orbit is about $5,000 a pound ($11,000 per kg). But what if you could, instead, do away with the rocket and still get your payload to space, for under $1,000 a pound? Sounds like a deal, right.

According to Dr. John Hunter, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and president of the company Quicklaunch, Inc., using a hydrogen-powered cannon may be the ticket for cheap access to space. That’s right, a “space gun” platform for inserting satellites, fuel, and other supplies into space genuinely could be the next big thing in space technology.

You might say, “A gun to shoot stuff into space? That sounds like something out of Jules Verne!” And you’d be right: in Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” a giant cannon called the Columbiad was used to propel three of the characters in the story to the Moon.

“Jules Verne got it right, he just had to pick the correct fluid, ” Hunter said in a Google Techtalk, embedded below.

Rockets have been the workhorse of space-faring nations for decades, but there are a few newcomers to the game that are just getting started. Space elevators are starting to get “off the ground”,  so to speak – the Space Elevator Games turned out a winner just last year – as an alternative method of transporting materials into space.

“We do hear about space elevators a lot of the time, and people always ask, ‘Are you related to space elevators?’, but we don’t interact as far as technologies go.” Hunter said.

Light-gas cannons work almost like you’d expect a really, really big gun to work: at one end inside of a long tube a gas, hydrogen, helium or methane, is pressurized to an extreme pressure, 15,000 PSI in the largest cannon proposed by Hunter. The payload is at this end of the cannon, when the pressure is released, the bullet-shaped projectile that holds the payload is ejected out of the end. Hydrogen is used because of its lightness. Since a projectile can’t go faster than what’s pushing it along inside a cannon, the lighter gas – which can travel quicker – allows for a projectile to be accelerated to incredible speeds, in excess of 13,000 miles per hour (21,000 km/hr).

These cannons have been around since the 1960s, though they haven’t seen any use in space payload delivery technology. The record setting cannon for altitude of a projectile was the High-Altitude Research Project (HARP) cannon. It was built by the United States Department of Defense and Canada’s Department of National Defence, and placed in the Yuma proving grounds in Arizona. It successfully lobbed a Martlet-2C inert projectile to 180 km (112 miles) on November 12th, 1966, which still stands as the altitude record for this type of gun.

Another iteration, developed by Dr. Hunter himself, was the Super High-Altitude Research Project (SHARP, an homage to the original cannon) in the late 1980s by Lawrence Livermore University.

Hunter explained to Universe Today via phone interview, “So here’s what happens: I started back in 1985 at Livermore and I was fresh out of grad school and they hired me to build electric guns which I could have done pretty straightforwardly. But I ran into a guy at a cocktail party, believe it or not. He knew I was working on post-production coil guns and and he said, ‘John, those are great because you can get 12km/s where we can only get to like 9 km/s with these gas guns.’ I said, ‘What’s a gas gun?’ That’s what started this whole ball rolling. As it turns out, the electric guns only get to 5.5 km/s and gas guns get to 11km/s.”

SHARP was – and still is – owned by the United States Air Force. Hunter’s company has a five-year contract to utilize the gun for testing shots, but it’s not set up to do shots vertically. SHARP was originally designed as a testbed for hypersonic engines for scramjets – jets that are accelerated to high speeds, then use a specialized engine of their own to push up to 8 or 9 times the speed of sound.

“If we’re going to to a publicized shot, where there’s a lot of publicity and stuff, we’d have to go to a different system, which would not be a big deal to build one because I could dedicate it for that particular application. If we decide to do the shot with the Air Force, that’ll probably be a smaller subset of people who could watch the shot. The Air Force is sorta careful how they do things so we have to get approval. They actually own the gun.”

So Hunter has struck out on his own to develop a commercially viable cannon that can deliver payloads at a fraction of the cost of conventional rockets. He and two other scientists, Dr. Harry Cartland and Dr. Rick Twogood, formed Quicklaunch, Inc.

“We got out of the blocks the 30th of September when we had the Space Investment Summit. Then I made the talk at Google and then the Popular Science article and we have now briefed a venture capital group. We’re in the “hustle phase” and I expect us to be in this hustle phase for six months, where we have to go just shop our project around. But while we’re in this phase we still believe in hardware so I’m actually going to have a demonstrating submerged version late February. It basically will acquire the right inclination and do shots. It’s going to be a 10-foot prototype,” Hunter said.

Ultimately, Hunter envisions a large-scale cannon that will launch from the sea near the equator. In launching from the sea, the gun will be able to pivot and swing around to launch payloads to different orbits easily. Being near the equator is necessary because that’s where the Earth is spinning its fastest, so objects launched from equatorial latitude can obtain a higher orbit with less energy.

Critical to getting the payloads into orbit is the use of a single-stage rocket attached to the payload projectile. Since the largest gun is projected to get the package going at a little over 7km/s (4.3 miles/s), a booster is needed for that extra push to get it past the escape velocity of the Earth, which is 11.2 km/s (6.95 miles/s).

Don’t expect to see humans launching to the Moon or Mars aboard one of the projectiles, though, as the force of launch from the cannon could be up to 5,000 Gs.

The largest – and most expensive – cannon would be capable of launching 1,000-pound (454 kg) payloads into a Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The projected cost for this cannon is $500 million, but this is the last stage in a proposed series of cannons that would start out small and build on the lessons learned from each iteration.

After some initial testing with the SHARP gun and prototype models, a system that is capable of launching 2-pound (0.9 kg) payloads into space will be designed. The cost of this cannon, Hunter estimates, will be around $10 million and take two years to get rolling.

“[The 2lb capability launcher] is actually tailored to a small niche, which is the Cubesat community. It makes sense because we can “G-harden” cubesats. To me, that would make a nice niche to be able to work with academics. That’ll be a lot of fun because they’ll be orbiting Cubesats, obviously. In Phase one we’re just going to feed inert rounds, and we’re just going to do maybe 20 shots into low space and break the world record ten or twelve times. In phase two we’ll be orbiting things that will take data and will transmit,” Hunter said.

Cubesats – small satellites that are no larger than a liter volume (10cm cube) and weigh less than a kilogram – can be easily “G-hardened”, or made to withstand the impressive forces of being launched out of a huge cannon.

After this system has been tested, Hunter said, “The first commercial system is going to be a $50 million system for 100-pound [45 kg] capability. $50 million is less than the price of an F-15, basically. I think that’s quite within a lot of folks’ means, particularly if you’ve demonstrated phases one and two before that.”

Don’t get Hunter wrong: $50 million is not within the means of the average Joe, but for launching small satellites into space that’s a pretty small number. Each space shuttle mission, for example, costs $450 million, and to launch a communications satellite you’re talking $50 million to $400 million.

The largest gun – 1.1km in length – would run about $500 million and would be able to be constructed within seven years, optimally. Given that the gun itself is reusable, and that capturing the hydrogen from each firing of the gun could be done to save on fuel costs, the cost for somebody wishing to launch a payload would range between $250-$1000 per pound.

Hunter has already seen interest from various enterprises, he said.

“There has been one private company that will remain confidential. We’re going to keep them private until the smoke clears here. We’ve had serious interest from some people. We intend to increase that number of candidates substantially. We’re going to have more candidates than the last republican convention, that’s my goal!”

With regards to whether or not this type of system has had any interest from the R&D over at NASA, Hunter replied, “We have not approached NASA, and I think NASA is ultimately going to become a client of ours…I’m going to be approaching NASA in the next couple of weeks.”

For more about the specific details of the gun and payload deliver system, watch the Google Techtalk embedded above, or listen to the January 15th episode of The Space Show, on which Hunter appeared as a guest.

Source: Physorg, Google TechTalk, phone interview with John Hunter

Mars 2016 Methane Orbiter: Searching for Signs of Life


The new joint Mars exploration program of NASA and ESA is quickly pushing forward to implement an agreed upon framework to construct an ambitious new generation of red planet orbiters and landers starting with the 2016 and 2018 launch windows.

The European-led ExoMars Trace Gas Mission Orbiter (TGM) has been selected as the first spacecraft of the joint initiative and is set to launch in January 2016 aboard a NASA supplied Atlas 5 rocket for a 9 month cruise to Mars. The purpose is to study trace gases in the martian atmosphere, in particular the sources and concentration of methane which has significant biological implications. Variable amounts of methane have been detected by a martian orbiter and ground based telescopes on earth. The orbiter will likely be accompanied by a small static lander provided by ESA and dubbed the Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM).

The NASA Mars Program is shifting its science strategy to coincide with the new joint venture with ESA and also to build upon recent discoveries from the current international fleet of martian orbiters and surface explorers Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix (see my earlier mars mosaics). Doug McCuiston, NASA’s director of Mars Exploration at NASA HQ told me in an interview that, “NASA is progressing quickly from ‘Follow the Water’ through assessing habitability and on to a theme of ‘Seeking the Signs of Life’. Looking directly for life is probably a needle in the haystack, but the signatures of past or present life may be more wide spread through organics, methane sources, etc”.

NASA and ESA will issue an “Announcement of Opportunity for the orbiter in January 2010” soliciting proposals for a suite of science instruments according to McCuiston. “The science instruments will be competitively selected. They are open to participation by US scientists who can also serve as the Principal Investigators (PI’s)”. Proposals are due in 3 months and will be jointly evaluated by NASA and ESA. Instrument selections are targeted for announcement in July 2010 and the entire cost of the NASA funded instruments is cost capped at $100 million.

Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA
Mars Trace Gas Mission orbiter slated for 2016 launch is the first spacecraft in the new ESA & NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. Credit: NASA ESA

“The 2016 mission must still be formally approved by NASA after a Preliminary Design Review, which will occur either in late 2010 or early 2011. Funding until then is covered in the Mars Program’s Next Decade wedge, where all new-start missions reside until approved, or not, by the Agency”, McCuiston told me. ESA’s Council of Ministers just gave the “green light” and formally approved an initial budget of 850 million euros ($1.2 Billion) to start implementing their ExoMars program for the 2016 and 2018 missions on 17 December at ESA Headquarters in Paris, France. Another 150 million euros will be requested within two years to complete the funding requirement for both missions.

ESA has had to repeatedly delay its own ExoMars spacecraft program since it was announced several years ago due to growing complexity, insufficient budgets and technical challenges resulting in a de-scoping of the science objectives and a reduction in weight of the landed science payload. The ExoMars rover was originally scheduled to launch in 2009 and is now set for 2018 as part of the new architecture.

The Trace Gas orbiter combines elements of ESA’s earlier proposed ExoMars orbiter and NASA’s proposed Mars Science Orbiter. As currently envisioned the spacecraft will have a mass of about 1100 kg and carry a roughly 115 kg science payload, the minimum deemed necessary to accomplish its goals. The instruments must be highly sensitive in order to be capable of detecting the identity and extremely low concentration of atmospheric trace gases, characterizing the spatial and temporal variation of methane and other important species, locating the source origin of the trace gases and determining if they are caused by biologic or geologic processes. Current photochemical models cannot explain the presence of methane in the martain atmosphere nor its rapid appearance and destruction in space, time or quantity.

An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer
An Atlas rocket similar to this vehicle I observed at Cape Canaveral Pad 41 is projected to launch the 2016 Mars orbiter. Credit: Ken Kremer

Among the instruments planned are a trace gas detector and mapper, a thermal infrared imager and both a wide angle camera and a high resolution stereo color camera (1 – 2 meter resolution). “All the data will be jointly shared and will comply with NASA’s policies on fully open access and posting into the Planetary Data System”, said McCuiston.
Another key objective of the orbiter will be to establish a data relay capability for all surface missions up to 2022, starting with 2016 lander and two rovers slotted for 2018. This timeframe could potentially coincide with Mars Sample Return missions, a long sought goal of many scientists.

If the budget allows, ESA plans to piggyback a small companion lander (EDM) which would test critical technologies for future missions. McCuiston informed me that, “The objective of this ESA Technology Demonstrator is validating the ability to land moderate payloads, so the landing site selection will not be science-driven. So expect something like Meridiani or Gusev—large, flat and safe. NASA will assist ESA engineering as requested, and within ITAR constraints.” EDM will use parachutes, radar and clusters of pulsing liquid propulsion thrusters to land.

“ESA plans a competitive call for instruments on their 3-4 kg payload”, McCuiston explained. “The Announcement of Opportunity will be open to US proposers as well so there may be some US PI’s. ESA wants a camera to ‘prove’ they got to the ground. Otherwise there is no significant role planned for NASA in the EDM”.

The lander would likely function as a weather station and be relatively short lived, perhaps 8 Sols or martian days, depending on the capacity of the batteries. ESA is not including a long term power source, such as from solar arrays, so the surface science will thus be limited in duration.

The orbiter and lander would separate upon arrival at Mars. The orbiter will use a series of aerobraking maneuvers to eventually settle into a 400 km high circular science orbit inclined at about 74 degrees.

The joint Mars architecture was formally agreed upon last summer at a bilateral meeting between Ed Weiler (NASA) and David Southwood (ESA) in Plymouth, UK. Weiler is NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate and Southwood is ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. They signed an agreement creating the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative (MEJI) which essentially weds the Mars programs of NASA and ESA and delineates their respective program responsibilities and goals.

“The key to moving forward on Mars exploration is international collaboration with Europe”, Weiler said to me in an interview. “We don’t have enough money to do these missions separately. The easy things have been done and the new ones are more complex and expensive. Cost overruns on Mars Science Lab (MSL) have created budgetary problems for future mars missions”. To pay for the MSL overrun, funds have to be taken from future mars budget allocations from fiscal years 2010 to 2014.

“2016 is a logical starting point to work together. NASA can have a 2016 mission if we work with Europe but not if we work alone. We can do so much more by working together since we both have the same objectives scientifically and want to carry out the same types of mission”. Weiler and Southwood instructed their respective science teams to meet and lay out a realistic and scientifically justifiable approach. Weiler explained to me that his goal and hope was to reinstate an exciting Mars architecture with new spacecraft launching at every opportunity which occurs every 26 months and which advance the state of the art for science. “It’s very important to demonstrate a critical new technology on each succeeding mission”.

More on the 2018 mission plan and beyond in a follow up report.

Mars from orbit.  Valles Marineris and Volcanic region
Mars from orbit. Valles Marineris and Volcanic region

Dreamliner Makes First Flight

The next big thing for airliners made its maiden flight today. Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner jet took off at 10:27 am (1827 GMT) from Paine Field near Boeing’s plant in Washington state in the US. As Boeing’s first new design model in over a decade, it takes advantage of advances in aviation technology and is capable of flying long-haul routes using up to 20 percent less fuel. At two year overdue, the milestone is critical for Boeing at the key to the future of the US aerospace company.
Continue reading “Dreamliner Makes First Flight”