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

S.S Gene Cernan Honoring Last Moonwalker Arrives at International Space Station Carrying Tons of Research Gear and Supplies

The Canadarm2 robotic arm is seen grappling the Orbital ATK S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus resupply ship on Nov. 14, 2017 for berthing to the the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

The S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus spacecraft named in honor of the Apollo 17 lunar landing commander and launched by Orbital ATK from the eastern shore of Virgina at breakfast time Sunday, Nov. 12, arrived at the International Space Station early Tuesday morning, Nov 14, carrying over 3.7 tons of research equipment and supplies for the six person resident crew.

Soon thereafter at 5:04 a.m., Expedition 53 Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency) assisted by NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik successfully captured Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo freighter using the International Space Station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadarm2 robotic arm.

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.

Nespoli and Bresnik were working at a robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed Cupola module that offers astronauts the most expansive view outside to snare Cygnus with the robotic arms end effector.

The Cygnus cargo freighter – named after the last man to walk on the Moon – reached its preliminary orbit nine minutes after blasting off early Sunday atop the upgraded 230 version of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

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

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

Sunday’s spectacular Antares launch delighted spectators – but came a day late due to a last moment scrub on the originally planned Veteran’s Day liftoff, Saturday, Nov. 11, when a completely reckless pilot flew below radar into restricted airspace just 5 miles away from the launch pad – forcing a sudden and unexpected halt to the countdown under absolutely perfect weather conditions.

After a carefully choreographed series of intricate thruster firings to raise its orbit 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.

With Cygnus firmly in the grip of the robots hand, ground controllers at NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, maneuvered the arm towards the exterior hull and berth the cargo ship at the Earth-facing port of the stations Unity module.

1st stage capture was completed at 7:08 a. EST Nov 14.

After driving in the second stage gang of bolts, hard mate and capture were completed at 7:15 a.m.

The station was flying 252 miles over the North Pacific in orbital night at the time of berthing.

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.

NASA TV provided live coverage of the rendezvous and grappling.

Including Cygnus there are now five visiting vehicle spaceships parked at the space station including also the Russian Progress 67 and 68 resupply ships and the Russian Soyuz MS-05 and MS-06 crew ships.

International Space Station Configuration. Five spaceships are parked at the space station including the Orbital ATK Cygnus after Nov. 14, 2017 arrival, the Progress 67 and 68 resupply ships and the Soyuz MS-05 and MS-06 crew ships. Credit: NASA

Cygnus will remain at the space station until Dec. 4, when the spacecraft will depart the station and deploy several CubeSats before its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere as it disposes of several tons of trash.

On this flight, the Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft is jam packed with its heaviest cargo load to date!

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.

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.

Cernan was commander of Apollo 17, NASA’s last lunar landing mission and passed away in January at age 82. He set records for both lunar surface extravehicular activities and the longest time in lunar orbit on Apollo 10 and Apollo 17.

The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission are: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt (left). They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt used an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken during October 1972 at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

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.

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.

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.

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

Ken Kremer

Launch of Apollo17, NASA’s final lunar landing mission, on December 7, 1972, as seen from the KSC press site. Credit: Mark and Tom Usciak

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Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch on Nov 16, 2017, upcoming Falcon Heavy and CRS-13 resupply launches, NASA missions, ULA Atlas & Delta launches, SpySats and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Nov 15, 17: “SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch, ULA Atlas NRO NROL-52 spysat launch, SpaceX SES-11, CRS-13 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Portrait of NASA astronaut Gene Cernan and floral wreath displayed during the Jan. 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring his life as the last Man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The next Orbital ATK Cygnus supply ship was christened the SS John Glenn in honor of Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts as it stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. 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

Antares Rocket Blasts Off from Virginia Bound for Space Station with Cygnus Cargo Ship and Tons of Vital Science Supplies

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

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – An Orbital ATK Antares rocket successfully blasted off this morning, Sunday, Nov. 12, from the eastern shore of Virginia on a NASA contracted mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS) carrying a Cygnus cargo ship loaded with nearly 4 tons of vital science and supplies.

The two stage Antares rocket launched flawlessly shortly sunrise Sunday at 7:19 a.m. EST, Nov. 12 on an upgraded version of the Antares rocket from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia carrying the Cygnus resupply spacecraft named in honor of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon.

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

The launch came a day late due to a last moment scrub on the originally planned Veteran’s Day liftoff, Saturday, Nov. 11, when a reckless pilot flew below radar into restricted airspace just 5 miles away from the launch pad – forcing a sudden and unexpected halt to the countdown under absolutely perfect weather conditions.

Finally the rocket roared off the pad Sunday under cloudy skies – to the delight of a spectators, with a brilliant flash of light. Slowly at first and then accelerating almost straight up before arcing over just slightly in a southeasterly direction and soon disappearing into the thick clouds. In fact it was so load that local residents told me their windows and houses shook and rattled.

Saturday’s sudden scrub disappointed tens of thousands of spectators who had gathered around the East coast launch region and beyond for a rare chance to see the launch of a powerful rocket on a critical cargo delivery mission for NASA conducted the benefit of the six person crew serving on the station to advance science for all of humanity.

The pilot may have intentionally flown the plane low enough to avoid detection so he could take photos for profit.

As a result of this extremely serious violation of flight rules which raises significant safety and base security issues the FAA and NASA are now undertaking an intense review of rules after the repeated serious incursions by planes and boats into exclusion zones during launches, and what penalties and fines should be applied.

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 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.

“Today’s successful launch of the OA-8 Cygnus on our Antares launch vehicle once again demonstrates the reliability of Orbital ATK’s hardware along with our commitment to deliver critical cargo to astronauts on the International Space Station,” said Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group.

“Soon, Cygnus will rendezvous with the space station to deliver valuable scientific experiments, hardware and crew supplies to the orbiting platform. On this mission, Cygnus will again display its flexibility as an in-orbit science platform by supporting experiments to be performed inside the cargo module while attached to the space station. We are proud to dedicate this mission to Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan and his family and look forward to celebrating the OA-8 contributions to science in his name.”

After a two day orbital chase the S.S. Gene Cernan will arrive in the vicinity of the space station early Tuesday, Nov. 14. Cygnus will be grappled by Expedition 53 astronaut Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency) of Italy at approximately 4:50 a.m. EST on November 14 using the space station’s robotic arm. He will be assisted by NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik.

NASA TV will provide live coverage of the rendezvous and grappling.

Cygnus will remain at the space station until Dec. 4, when the spacecraft will depart the station and deploy several CubeSats before its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere as it disposes of several tons of trash.

The 14 story tall commercial Antares rocket launched for only the second time in the upgraded 230 configuration – powered by a pair of the new Russian-built RD-181 first stage engines.

The rocket performed flawlessly said Kurt Eberly, Orbital ATK deputy program manager for Antares, during the post launch briefing at NASA Wallops.

There was only a slight over performance of the Castor XL solid fueled second stage, which was all to the good – as occurred during the first launch of the upgraded Antares a year ago in October 2016 on the OA-5 resupply mission.

Indeed the overperformance of the second stage may allow Orbital ATK to load the Cygnus with an even heavier cargo load than previously foreseen.

On this flight,the Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft is jam packed with its heaviest cargo load to date!

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.

Cernan was commander of the Apollo 17, NASA’s last lunar landing mission and passed away in January at age 82. He set records for both lunar surface extravehicular activities and the longest time in lunar orbit on Apollo 10 and Apollo 17.

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

The 139-foot-tall (42.5-meter) Antares rocket had been rolled out to the launch pad around 1 a.m. EST Thursday morning, Nov. 9, and erected as planned into the vertical position, Kurt Eberly, Orbital ATK deputy program manager for Antares, told Universe Today.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA’s Exploration Roadmap to Mars Starts with Flawless Orion Launch and Landing

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s exploration roadmap aimed at sending Humans to Mars in the 2030s got off the ground magnificently with the flawless launch and landing of the agency’s new Orion deep space capsule on its maiden voyage to space on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.

“The first look looks really good from a data standpoint and will help us as we go forward,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, at the post Orion landing media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

“We, as a species, are meant to press humanity further into the solar system and this is a first step. What a tremendous team effort.”

Orion roared to orbit atop the fiery fury of a 242 foot tall United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket – the world’s most powerful booster – at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The unpiloted test flight of Orion on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission carried the capsule farther away from Earth than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has traveled in more than four decades.

Humans have not ventured beyond low Earth orbit since the launch of Apollo 17 on NASA’s final moon landing mission on Dec. 7, 1972.

Orion’s inaugural launch on Dec. 5, 2014 atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 7:05 a.m.  Credit: Alex Polimeni/Zero-G News/AmericaSpace
Orion’s inaugural launch on Dec. 5, 2014, atop United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 7:05 a.m. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Zero-G News/AmericaSpace

The first stage of the mammoth, triple barreled Delta IV Heavy generates some two million pounds of liftoff thrust and was the only rocket powerful enough to launch Orion and achieve its intended goals.

During the two orbit, 4.5 hour flight, Orion reached an altitude of 3,604 miles above Earth, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS).

The Delta rocket’s main stage and upper stage performed so well that Orion was injected into orbit within an accuracy of about 1 foot of the planned orbit, said Larry Price, Lockheed Martin Deputy Orion Program Manager in an interview with Universe Today.

“It’s phenomenal,” Price told me. NASA selected Lockheed Martin a decade ago as the prime contractor to design and build Orion.

A camera in the window of NASA's Orion spacecraft looks back at Earth during its unpiloted flight test in orbit. Credit: NASA Television
A camera in the window of NASA’s Orion spacecraft looks back at Earth during its unpiloted flight test in orbit. Credit: NASA Television

Orion was assembled, integrated, and tested inside the Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Facility at KSC.

“Lockheed Martin did a tremendous job of getting Orion ready,” noted Gerstenmaier.

“Thanks to everyone for getting us to be the leader in space.”

The EFT-1 mission concluded with a successful parachute-assisted splashdown of the Orion crew module in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles southwest of San Diego.

Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV
Orion Service Module fairing separation. Credit: NASA TV

“It was a difficult mission,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager at the KSC briefing. It appears to have been nearly flawless.”

“It is hard to have a better day than today, The upper stage put us right where we needed to be.”

“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

“The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

The spacecraft was loaded with over 1200 sensors to collect critical performance data on numerous systems throughout the mission for evaluation by engineers.

EFT-1 tested the rocket, second stage, and jettison mechanisms, as well as avionics, attitude control, computers, environmental controls, and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft and ocean recovery operations.

It also tested the effects of intense radiation by traveling twice through the Van Allen radiation belt.

Approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes into the mission, the spacecraft separated and soon experienced the highest radiation levels of the mission.

At about 4 hours and 15 minutes, the capsule began its high speed re-entry through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph, thereby testing the 16.5-foot-wide heat shield at speeds approximating 85% of the reentry velocity for astronauts returning from voyages to the Red Planet.

The capsule survived scorching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a successful test of the heat shield and thermal protection tiles, before splashing down on a trio of parachutes in the Pacific Ocean at 11:29 a.m. EST.

The Orion crew module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of San Diego.  Credit: NASA TV
The Orion crew module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of San Diego. Credit: NASA TV

The purpose was to check out many, but not all, of the systems critical to the safety of astronauts who will eventually travel to deep space in Orion.

“When Orion started there were still a lot of Apollo veterans. Now we have finally done something for our generation,” said Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager.

Onboard cameras captured stunning views during many stages of the EFT-1 mission, including the fairing jettison and views out the window.

“Some of those pictures where you could see the frame of the window, you don’t feel like you’re watching like a satellite, you feel like an astronaut yourself,” Geyer said.

In the Kennedy Space Center’s Press Site auditorium, agency leaders received prolonged applause on entering the room and spoke to members of the news media about the successful Orion Flight Test on Dec. 5, 2014. From left are: Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Mark Geyer, Orion program manager, Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager, and NASA astronaut Rex Walheim.  Credit:  Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
In the Kennedy Space Center’s Press Site auditorium, agency leaders received prolonged applause on entering the room and spoke to members of the news media about the successful Orion Flight Test on Dec. 5, 2014. From left are: Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations; Mark Geyer, Orion program manager; Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin Orion Program manager; and NASA astronaut Rex Walheim. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“That picture really meant something to me,” said astronaut Rex Walheim, who flew on the final space shuttle mission on STS-135.

A drone captured stunning images of Orion during the final plummet to Earth and parachute deployment.

The pace of the Orion program is constrained by budgets and is slower than anyone wishes.

The next Orion launch on the EM-1 mission is slated for the second half of 2018 and will also be unmanned during the debut launch of NASA’s powerful new SLS rocket.

America’s astronauts flying aboard Orion will venture farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars, and other destinations in our Solar System starting around 2020 or 2021 on Orion’s first crewed flight atop NASA’s new monster rocket – the SLS – concurrently under development.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center about the historic launch on Dec. 5.

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

Ken Kremer

The Dawn of Orion and the Path Beyond Earth: Spectacular Launch Gallery

Orion’s inaugural launch on Dec. 5, 2014 atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 7:05 a.m. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Zero-G News/AmericaSpace
Expanded with a growing gallery![/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – After four decades of waiting, the dawn of a new era in space exploration finally began with the dawn liftoff of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.

The picture perfect liftoff of Orion on its inaugural unmanned test flight relit the path to send humans beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the launch of Apollo 17 on NASA’s final moon landing mission on Dec. 7, 1972.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion soared to space atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Enjoy the spectacular launch photo gallery from my fellow space journalists and photographers captured from various up close locations ringing the Delta launch complex.

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Tens of thousands of spectators descended upon the Kennedy Space Center to be an eyewitness to history and the new space era – and they were universally thrilled.

Orion is the first human rated spacecraft to fly beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 and was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

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The EFT-1 mission was a complete success.

The Orion program began about a decade ago.

America’s astronauts flying aboard Orion will venture farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System starting around 2020 or 2021 on Orion’s first crewed flight atop NASA’s new monster rocket – the SLS – concurrently under development.

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Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center about the historic launch on Dec. 5.

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

Ken Kremer

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Apollo 17 launch on Dec. 7, 1972. Credit: Julian Leek
Apollo 17 launch on Dec. 7, 1972. Credit: Julian Leek

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NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orion at dawn moments before liftoff on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orion at dawn moments before liftoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Engineers Start Stacking Operations for Maiden Launch of NASA’s Orion Deep Space Test Capsule

The Orion crew module for Exploration Flight Test-1 is shown in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell, positioned over the service module just prior to mating the two sections together. Credit: NASA/Rad Sinyak
Story updated[/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL- Engineers have begun stacking operations for NASA’s maiden Orion deep space test capsule at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) achieving a major milestone leading to its first blastoff from the Florida Space Coast less than six months from today.

The excitement is mounting as final assembly of NASA’s Orion crew vehicle into its launch configuration started on Monday, June 9, inside the Operations and Checkout (O&C) Facility at Kennedy.

Orion will eventually carry humans to destinations far beyond low Earth orbit on new voyages of scientific discovery in our solar system.

“Orion is the next step in our journey of exploration,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot at a recent KSC media briefing.

“This mission is a stepping stone on NASA’s journey to Mars. The EFT-1 mission is so important to NASA.”

Orion is slated to launch on its inaugural unmanned test flight in December 2014 atop the mammoth, triple barreled United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The main elements of the Orion spacecraft stack include the crew module (CM), service module (SM) and the launch abort system (LAS).

On Monday, technicians from Orion’s prime contractor Lockheed Martin began aligning and stacking the crew module on top of the already completed service module in the Final Assembly and System Testing (FAST) Cell in the O & C facility at KSC.

“Ballast weights were added to ensure that the crew module’s center of gravity can achieve the appropriate entry and descent performance and also ensure that the vehicle lands in the correct orientation to reduce structural impact loads,” according to Lockheed Martin.

Engineers will remain busy throughout this week continuing to work at a 24/7 pace to get Orion ready for the December liftoff.

Orion heat shield attached to the bottom of the capsule by engineers during assembly work inside the  Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC.  Credit: NASA
Orion heat shield attached to the bottom of the capsule by engineers during assembly work inside the Operations and Checkout High Bay facility at KSC. Credit: NASA

The next steps involve completing the power and fluid umbilical connections between the CM and SM and firmly bolting the two modules together inside the FAST cell.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.  Service module at bottom.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Service module at bottom. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

An exhaustive series of electrical, avionic and radio frequency tests will follow. The team will then conduct final systems checks to confirm readiness for flight.

The LAS will then be stacked on top. The entire stack will then be rolled out to the launch pad for integration with the Delta IV Heavy rocket.

The CM/SM stacking operation was able to move forward following the successful attachment of the world’s largest heat shield onto the bottom of the CM in late May. Read my prior story – here.

“Now that we’re getting so close to launch, the spacecraft completion work is visible every day,” said Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion Program manager in a statement.

“Orion’s flight test will provide us with important data that will help us test out systems and further refine the design so we can safely send humans far into the solar system to uncover new scientific discoveries on future missions.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orion is NASA’s next generation human rated vehicle now under development to replace the now retired space shuttle. The state-of-the-art spacecraft will carry America’s astronauts on voyages venturing farther into deep space than ever before – past the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and Beyond!

No humans have flown beyond low Earth orbit in more than four decades since Apollo 17, NASA’s final moon landing mission launched in December 1972.

The two-orbit, four- hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 3,600 miles, about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years.

One of the primary goals of NASA’s eagerly anticipated Orion EFT-1 uncrewed test flight is to test the efficacy of the heat shield in protecting the vehicle – and future human astronauts – from excruciating temperatures reaching 4000 degrees Fahrenheit (2200 C) during scorching re-entry heating.

At the conclusion of the EFT-1 flight, the detached Orion capsule plunges back and re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at 20,000 MPH (32,000 kilometers per hour).

“That’s about 80% of the reentry speed experienced by the Apollo capsule after returning from the Apollo moon landing missions,” Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion Manager of Production Operations at KSC, told me during an interview at KSC.

A trio of parachutes will then unfurl to slow Orion down for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

The EFT-1 mission will provide engineers with critical data about Orion’s heat shield, flight systems and capabilities to validate designs of the spacecraft, inform design decisions, validate existing computer models and guide new approaches to space systems development. All these measurements will aid in reducing the risks and costs of subsequent Orion flights before it begins carrying humans to new destinations in the solar system.

“We will test the heat shield, the separation of the fairing and exercise over 50% of the eventual software and electronic systems inside the Orion spacecraft. We will also test the recovery systems coming back into the Pacific Ocean,” said Lightfoot.

“Orion EFT-1 is really exciting as the first step on the path of humans to Mars,” said Lightfoot. “It’s a stepping stone to get to Mars.”

“We will test the capsule with a reentry velocity of about 85% of what to expect on returning [astronauts] from Mars.”

Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 17, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Two of the three United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV heavy boosters for NASA’s upcoming Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission were unveiled during a media event inside the Horizontal Integration Facility at Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 17, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Concurrently, new American-made private crewed spaceships are under development by SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada – with funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) – to restore US capability to ferry US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and back to Earth by late 2017.

Read my exclusive new interview with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden explaining the importance of getting Commercial Crew online to expand our reach into space- here.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, Curiosity, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Orion schematic. Credit: NASA
Orion schematic. Credit: NASA

Stunning Chang’e-3 Lunar Landing Video gives Astronauts Eye View of Descent & Touchdown

This screen shot from one photo of many of the moons surface snapped by the on-board descent imaging camera of the Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013 shows the probe approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge and approximate location of the landing site in Mare Imbrium. This marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body. Image and video rotated 180 degrees.
Credit: Xinhua/CCTV/post processing and annotations Marco Di Lorenzo /Ken Kremer
See the entire stunning Chang’e-3 lunar landing video – below
Story updated

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China accomplished a major technological and scientific feat when the country’s ambitious Chang’e-3 robotic spacecraft successfully soft landed on the Moon on Dec. 14 – on their very first attempt to conduct a landing on an extraterrestrial body.

Along the way the descent imaging camera aboard the Chang’e-3 lander was furiously snapping photos during the last minutes of the computer guided descent.

For a firsthand look at all the thrilling action, be sure to check out the stunning landing video, below, which gives an astronauts eye view of the dramatic descent and touchdown by China’s inaugural lunar lander and rover mission.

The video was produced from a compilation of descent camera imagery. The version here has been rotated 180 degrees – so you don’t have to flip yourself over to enjoy the ride.

And it truly harkens back to the glory days of NASA’s manned Apollo lunar landing program of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows a picture of the moon surface taken by the on-board camera of lunar probe Chang'e-3 on the screen of the Beijing Aer Control Center in Beijing.   This marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.  Credit: Xinhua/CCTV
This is one photo from many of the moons surface snapped by the on-board descent imaging camera of the Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013. This marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body. Credit: Xinhua/CCTV
See the entire stunning Chang’e-3 lunar landing video – herein

The dramatic Chang’e-3 soft landing took place at Mare Imbrium at 8:11 am EST, 9:11 p.m. Beijing local time, 1311 GMT, which is to the east of the announced landing site on the lava filled plains of the Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum region.

The precise landing coordinates were 44.1260°N and 19.5014°W -located below the Montes Recti mountain ridge and about 40 kilometers south of the 6 kilometer diameter crater known as Laplace F – see image below.

Landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang'e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013.
Landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013.

The video begins as Chang’e-3 is approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge which is about 90 km in length. Its peaks rise to nearly 2 km.

Chang’e-3 carried out the rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area in Mare Imbrium.

The vehicles thrusters then fire to pivot the lander towards the surface at about the 2:40 minute mark when it’s at an altitude of roughly 3 km.

Infographic shows the process of the soft-landing on the moon of China's lunar probe Chang'e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013. Credit: SASTIND/Xinhua /Zheng Yue
Infographic shows the process of the soft-landing on the moon of China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013. Credit: SASTIND/Xinhua /Zheng Yue

The powered descent was autonomous and preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not by mission controllers on Earth stationed at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) in Beijing.

Altogether it took about 12 minutes using the variable thrust engine which can continuously vary its thrust power between 1,500 to 7,500 newtons.

The variable thrust engine enabled Chang’e-3 to reduce its deceleration as it approached the moons rugged surface.

Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows the landing spot of lunar probe Chang'e-3  indicated on the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing, capital of China. Credit: Xinhua/Li
Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows the landing spot of lunar probe Chang’e-3 indicated on the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing, capital of China. Credit: Xinhua/Li

The 1200 kg lander was equipped with unprecedented terrain recognition equipment and software to hover above the landing site and confirm it was safe before proceeding.

This enabled the craft to avoid hazardous rock and boulder fields as well as craters in the pockmarked terrain that could spell catastrophe even in the final seconds before touchdown, if the vehicle were to land directly on top of them.

The descent engine continued firing to lower the lander until it was hovering some 100 meters above the lunar surface – at about the 5:10 minute mark.

Chang'e-3 hovered 100m high for 20 seconds before committing to land. This allows the on-board computer to make sure it doesn't land in a crater or an uneven place.  Credit: China Space
Chang’e-3 hovered 100m high for 20 seconds before committing to land. This allows the on-board computer to make sure it doesn’t land in a crater or an uneven place. Credit: China Space

After hovering for about 20 seconds and determining it was safe to proceed, the lander descended further to about 3 meters. The engine then cut off and the lander free fell the remaining distance. The impact was cushioned by shock absorbers.

There is a noticeable dust cloud visible on impact as the Chang’e-3 mothership touched down atop the plains of Mare Imbrium.

Chang'e-3 lander imaged by the rover Yutu on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013.  Note landing ramp at bottom. Credit: CCTV
Chang’e-3 lander imaged by the rover Yutu on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013. Note landing ramp at bottom. Credit: CCTV

Barely 7 hours later, China’s first ever lunar rover ‘Yutu’ rolled majestically down a pair of ramps and onto the Moon’s soil on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time.

The six wheeled ‘Yutu’, or Jade Rabbit, rover drove straight off the ramps and sped right into the history books as it left a noticeably deep pair of tire tracks behind in the loose lunar dirt.

China's first lunar rover separates from Chang'e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua/post processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
China’s first lunar rover separates from Chang’e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua/post processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The stunning feat was broadcast on China’s state run CCTV.

China thus became only the 3rd country in the world to successfully soft land a spacecraft on Earth’s nearest neighbor after the United States and the Soviet Union.

It’s been nearly four decades since the prior lunar landing was accomplished by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 sample return spacecraft back in 1976.

America’s last visit to the Moon’s surface occurred with the manned Apollo 17 landing mission – crewed by astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt , who coincidentally ascended from the lunar soil on Dec. 14, 1972 – exactly 41 years ago.

China’s Chang’e-3 probe joins NASA’s newly arrived LADEE lunar probe which entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6 following a spectacular night time blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rover and more news.

Ken KremerMoon map showing landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang'e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013 below Montes Recti in Mare Imbrium beside Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows .  Credit: China Space Moon map showing landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013 below Montes Recti in Mare Imbrium beside Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows . Credit: China Space[/caption]

Image shows the trajectory of the lunar probe Chang'e-3 approaching the landing site  on Dec. 14.
Image shows the trajectory of the lunar probe Chang’e-3 approaching the landing site on Dec. 14.

Opportunity Mars Rover Blazes Past 40 Year Old Space Driving Record

Now more than 9 years and counting into her planned mere 90 day mission to Mars, NASA’s legendary Opportunity rover has smashed past another space milestone and established a new distance driving record for an American vehicle on another world this week.

On Thursday, May 16, the long-lived Opportunity drove another 263 feet (80 meters) on Mars – bringing her total odometry since landing on 24 January 2004 to 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers) – and broke through the 40 year old driving record set back in December 1972 by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

See below our complete map of the 9 Year Journey of Opportunity on Mars.

Cernan and Schmitt visited Earth’s moon on America’s final lunar landing mission and drove their mission’s Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV-3) 22.210 miles (35.744 kilometers) over the course of three days on the moon’s surface at Taurus-Littrow.

Apollo 17 lunar rover at final resting place. Credit: NASA
Apollo 17 lunar rover at final resting place on the Moon. Lunar module in the background. Credit: NASA

Cernan was ecstatic at the prospect of the Apollo 17 record finally being surpassed.

“The record we established with a roving vehicle was made to be broken, and I’m excited and proud to be able to pass the torch to Opportunity, ” said Cernan to team member Jim Rice of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, in a NASA statement.

And Opportunity still has plenty of juice left!

So, although there are no guarantees, one can reasonably expect the phenomenal Opportunity robot to easily eclipse the ‘Solar System World Record’ for driving distance on another world that is currently held by the Soviet Union’s remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover. See detailed graphic below.

In 1973, Lunokhod 2 traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Why could Opportunity continue farther into record setting territory ?

Because Opportunity’s handlers back on Earth have dispatched the Martian robot on an epic trek to continue blazing a path forward around the eroded rim of the huge crater named ‘Endeavour’ – where she has been conducting ground breaking science since arriving at the “Cape York” rim segment in mid 2011.

Out-of-this-World Records. This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth's moon and Mars. Of the vehicles shown, the NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are still active and the totals for those two are distances driven as of May 15, 2013. Opportunity set the new NASA driving record on May 15, 2013 by traveling 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers).  The international record for driving distance on another world is still held by the Soviet Union's remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover, which traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth's moon in 1973. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech
Out-of-this-World Records. This chart illustrates comparisons among the distances driven by various wheeled vehicles on the surface of Earth’s moon and Mars. Of the vehicles shown, the NASA Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are still active and the totals for those two are distances driven as of May 15, 2013. Opportunity set the new NASA driving record on May 15, 2013 by traveling 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers). The international record for driving distance on another world is still held by the Soviet Union’s remote-controlled Lunokhod 2 rover, which traveled 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the surface of Earth’s moon in 1973. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Opportunity has just now set sail for her next crater rim destination named “Solander Point”, an area about 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) away – due south from “Cape York.”

Endeavour Crater is 14 miles (22 km) wide, featuring terrain with older rocks than previously inspected and unlike anything studied before. It’s a place no one ever dared dream of reaching prior to Opportunity’s launch in the summer of 2003 and landing on the Meridiani Planum region in 2004.

Opportunity will blast through the world record milestone held by the Lunokhod 2 rover somewhere along the path to “Solander Point.”

Thereafter Opportunity will rack up ever more miles as the rover continues driving further south to a spot called “Cape Tribulation”, that is believed to hold caches of clay minerals that formed eons ego when liquid water flowed across this region of the Red Planet.

It’s a miracle that Opportunity has lasted so far beyond her design lifetime – 37 times longer than the 3 month “warranty.”

“Regarding achieving nine years, I never thought we’d achieve nine months!” Principal Investigator Prof. Steve Squyres of Cornell University told me recently on the occasion of the rovers 9th anniversary on Mars in January 2013.

“Our next destination will be Solander Point,” said Squyres.

Opportunity was joined on Mars by her younger sister Curiosity, currently exploring the crater floor inside Gale Crater since landing on Aug. 6, 2012.

Curiosity is likewise embarked on a epic trek – towards 3 mile high (5.5 km) Mount Sharp some 6 miles away.

Both rovers Opportunity & Curiosity have discovered phyllosilicates, hydrated calcium sulfate mineral veins and vast evidence for flowing liquid water on Mars. All this data enhances the prospects that Mars could have once supported microbial life forms.

The Quest for Life beyond Earth continues ably with NASA’s Martian sister rovers.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about NASA missions, Opportunity, Curiosity and more at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentation:

June 12: “Send your Name to Mars” and “Antares Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Franklin Institute and Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Philadelphia, PA, 8 PM.

Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3309 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south from  Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater.  On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward - achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) - and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Traverse Map for NASA’s Opportunity rover from 2004 to 2013 to Record Setting Drive on May 15. This map shows the entire path the rover has driven during more than 9 years and over 3309 Sols, or Martian days, since landing inside Eagle Crater on Jan 24, 2004 to current location heading south from Cape York ridge at the western rim of Endeavour Crater. On May 15, 2013 Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward – achieving a total traverse distance on Mars of 22.22 miles (35.76 kilometers) – and broke the driving record by any NASA vehicle that was previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972.
Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/ASU/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
View Back at Record-Setting Drive by Opportunity. On the 3,309th Martian day, or sol, of its mission on Mars (May 15, 2013) NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. That drive put the total distance driven by Opportunity since the rover's January 2004 landing on Mars at 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers. This exceeded the distance record by any NASA vehicle, previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
View Back at Record-Setting Drive by Opportunity. On the 3,309th Martian day, or sol, of its mission on Mars (May 15, 2013) NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity drove 263 feet (80 meters) southward along the western rim of Endeavour Crater. That drive put the total distance driven by Opportunity since the rover’s January 2004 landing on Mars at 22.220 miles (35.760 kilometers. This exceeded the distance record by any NASA vehicle, previously held by the astronaut-driven Apollo 17 Lunar Rover in 1972. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Soviet Lunokhod-2 lunar rover.  Credit: Ria Novosti
Soviet Lunokhod-2 lunar rover. Credit: Ria Novosti