Cygnus Commercial Space Freighter Arrives at Space Station with 3.5 Tons of Supplies

Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT.  Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following a perfectly executed three day orbital rendezvous, NASA astronaut and Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra successfully reached out with the International Space Station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, grabbed hold and captured Orbital ATK’s commercial Cygnus cargo freighter at 6:51 a.m. EDT, this morning, Saturday, March 26, 2016.

The ISS and Cygnus were soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) over the Indian Ocean at the time of capture following the cargo crafts blastoff atop a two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V at 11:05 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

Robotics officers on the ground in Houston working with the station crew high above then maneuvered Cygnus – holding over 3.5 tons of critical cargo supplies and science – into position for final installation and berthing to the orbiting laboratory’s Earth-facing port on the Unity module a few hours later. It was finally bolted fully into place at approximately 10:52 a.m. EDT.

Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV
Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6/OA-6 space freighter arrives for capture and berthing at the International Space Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 6:51 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV

This Cygnus is named the S.S. Rick Husband in honor of Col. Rick Husband, the late commander of Space Shuttle Columbia, which was tragically lost with its crew of seven NASA astronauts during re-entry on its final flight on Feb. 1, 2003.

The crew plans to open the hatch to the SS Rick Husband tomorrow morning on Easter Sunday, March 26.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 space freighter is loaded with 3513 kg (7700 pounds) of science experiments and hardware, crew supplies, spare parts, gear and station hardware for the orbital laboratory in support of over 250 research experiments being conducted on board by the Expedition 47 and 48 crews.

A computer overlay with engineering data provides video of the Canadarm2 robotic arm maneuvering to capture the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 space freighter on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 651 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV
A computer overlay with engineering data provides video of the Canadarm2 robotic arm maneuvering to capture the Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-6 space freighter on Saturday, March 26, 2016 at 651 a.m. EDT. Credit: NASA TV

All of Cygnus maneuvers were “executed to perfection for a flawless approach and rendezvous” after the three day trip from Florida to the ISS, as the vehicle closed in to within a few meters for grappling, said NASA commentator Rob Navius.

NASA TV showed spectacular HD views of Cygnus and its UltraFlex solar arrays – deployed 2 hours after launch – from station and robotic arm cameras during the final approach operation, as flight controllers closely monitored all spacecraft systems.

“The crew is ready for Cygnus approach to the capture point,” radioed Kopra.

“Station you are go for capture,” Mission Control radioed back.

Cygnus was placed into free drift mode before capture to prevent any accidental perturbations in the final seconds.

From his robotics work station in the Cupola, Kopra then put the arm in motion by about 6:40 a.m. EDT, during the final phase of the final approach. He extended the 57 foot long (19 meter long) arm to reach out and grab the aft end of Cygnus cargo craft at its grappling pin by closing the snares on the end effector.

ESA astronaut Tim Peake served as backup for arm operations while NASA astronaut Jeff Williams monitored Cygnus systems.

The SS Rick Husband was rock steady during its capture as the station was flying over South Africa and the Indian Ocean.

“Capture confirmed,” reported Navius just moments before the video downlink was temporarily lost as the station communications moved between satellites.

“Excellent work gentleman. Much appreciated. Made that look easy,” radioed Jeremy Hansen, a Canadian Space Agency astronaut from Houston mission control.

“We’d also like to say we are really honored to bring aboard the SS Rick Husband to the International Space Station,” radioed Kopra. “He was a personal hero to many of us. This will be the first Cygnus honoree who was directly involved with the construction of this great station.”

A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband  is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A Cygnus cargo spacecraft named the SS Rick Husband is being prepared inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for upcoming Orbital ATK CRS-6/OA-6 mission to deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. The Cygnus is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It took about 9 minutes to complete the approach from the 30 meter distant hold point to the final capture point where the SS Rick Husband Cygnus arrived at about 6:37 am EDT. NASA TV showed the grapple fixture gradually coming into view.

Cygnus approached precisely within the center of the approach corridor, said Peake, during continuing updates as the ship moved closer to the targeted berthing port. It was perfectly aligned for its capture point.

Cygnus grapple fixture is located at the bottom end of the vehicles service module, beside the thruster.

Kopra and Peake are spending their 103rd day on the station today. While Williams arrived just 8 days ago.

All burns to get to the initial rendezvous point in the keep out sphere 250 meters away were “right on the money. Every burn has been on course and on target, said NASA JSC commentator Navius in Houston, as Cygnus soared some 400 km over the Pacific.

“Everything has gone off without a hitch. A rock solid approach.”

Flight controllers in Houston and Orbital ATK’s Dulles control headquarters then gave the go ahead to resume moving and approach closer to the 30 meter hold point.

The actual berthing operation took place about an hour later than expected to double check that everything was precisely aligned and communications were fully established.

Controllers used the arm to move Cygnus in for capture. They commanded four gangs of four bolts to latch Cygnus to the common berthing mechanism (CBM) on the internally positioned Unity modules nadir or Earth-facing port.

The first and second stage captures were successfully completed by 10:52 a.m. EDT this morning, marking the official hard mating of Cygnus and the station.

When the ISS Expedition 47 crew members open the hatch, they will be greeted with a sign noting the spacecraft was named SS Rick Husband in honor of the STS-107 mission commander.

Orbital ATK #Cygnus mated to Unity module at 10:52 a.m.  EDT (2:52 p.m. UTC). Graphic shows location of five spacecraft at station now.  Credit: NASA
Orbital ATK #Cygnus mated to Unity module at 10:52 a.m. EDT (2:52 p.m. UTC). Graphic shows location of five spacecraft at station now. Credit: NASA

The SS Rick Husband Cygnus is actually at the vanguard of a “constellation” of three resupply ships arriving at the station over a three week period of three weekends.

Next comes the Russian Progress 63 which will dock at Russia’s Zvezda module next weekend after launching this Thursday from site 31 at Kaszakhstan carrying another three tons of supplies.

Following Progress is the SpaceX Return To Flight (RTF) mission dubbed SpaceX CRS-8.

It is slated to launch on April 8 and arrive at the ISS on April 10 for berthing to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module – at the end of the station where NASA space shuttles formerly docked. It carries another 3.5 tons of supplies.

So altogether the trio of international cargo ships will supply over 12 tons of station supplies in rapid succession over the next 3 weeks.

This choreography will set up America’s Cygnus and Dragon resupply craft to simultaneously be present and reside attached at adjacent ports on the ISS for the first time in history.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016.  The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft on the Orbital ATK CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 11:05 p.m. EDT on March 22, 2016. The spacecraft will deliver 7,500 pounds of supplies, science payloads and experiments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Plans currently call for Cygnus to stay at station for approximately two months until May 20th, when it will be unbolted and unberthed for eventual deorbiting and reentry.

But first it will stay on orbit for about another eight days, said Orbital ATK’s Cygnus program manager Frank DeMauro in an interview with Universe Today.

After unberthing, Cygnus will be used to conduct several experiments including the Saffire-1 experiment, it will deploy nanosats from an externally mounted carrier, and the REBR experiment will monitor the burn-up of Cygnus during the fiery reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, said DeMauro.

Orbital ATK’s attention then shifts to the next Cygnus launch on the Return to Flight, or RTF, mission of the firms Antares rocket from NASA Wallops on the eastern shore of Virginia.

OA-6 is only the second Cygnus to be launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, following the OA-4 mission last December.

The CRS-6/OA-6 flight is also the second flight of the enhanced Cygnus variant, that is over 1 meter longer and sports 50% more volume capability.

Thus it is capable of carrying a much heavier payload of some 3500 kg (7700 lbs) vs. a maximum of 2300 kg (5070 lbs) for the standard version.

Watch for Ken’s onsite launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and continuing mission reports.

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

Ken Kremer

Video caption: Mobius video camera placed at Florida launch pad captures blastoff up close of Orbital ATK OA-6 (CRS-6) mission riding to orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 22, 2016 at 11:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

InSight Mars Lander Saved from Termination, Reset to 2018 Blastoff

Back shell of NASA's InSight spacecraft is being lowered onto the mission's lander, which is folded into its stowed configuration.  The back shell and a heat shield form the aeroshell, which will protect the lander as the spacecraft plunges into the upper atmosphere of Mars.  Launch now rescheduled to May 2018 to fix French-built seismometer.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin
Back shell of NASA’s InSight spacecraft is being lowered onto the mission’s lander, which is folded into its stowed configuration. The back shell and a heat shield form the aeroshell, which will protect the lander as the spacecraft plunges into the upper atmosphere of Mars. Launch now rescheduled to May 2018 to fix French-built seismometer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

The Insight Mars lander has been saved from mission termination and will live to launch another day two years from now, NASA managers just announced following a thorough three month investigation into the causes of the last moment snafu involving the failure of its French-built seismometer science instrument that last December forced the agency to cancel its planned liftoff this month.

NASA is now targeting a new launch window that begins May 5, 2018, for the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission aimed at studying the deep interior of Mars.

The May 2018 launch amounts to an unavoidable 26 month launch delay from the originally planned launch on March 4, 2016. Because of the immutable laws of orbital mechanics, launch opportunities to the Red Planet only occur every 26 months.

Since InSight would not have been able to carry out and fulfill its intended research objectives because of a vacuum leak in its defective seismometer instrument, NASA managers had no choice but to scrub this year’s launch and its outlook for a future revival seemed potentially uncertain at best in today’s constrained budget environment.

“The spacecraft had been on track to launch this month until a vacuum leak in its prime science instrument prompted NASA in December to suspend preparations for launch,” said NASA officials.

The leak, if left uncorrected, would have rendered the flawed probe useless to carry out the unprecedented scientific research foreseen to measure the planets seismic activity and sense for “Marsquakes” to determine the nature of the Red Planet’s deep interior.

“The science goals of InSight are compelling, and the NASA and CNES plans to overcome the technical challenges are sound,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“The quest to understand the interior of Mars has been a longstanding goal of planetary scientists for decades. We’re excited to be back on the path for a launch, now in 2018.”

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA

InSight is now slated for a Mars landing on Nov. 26, 2018.

The seismometer instrument is named Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and was provided by the Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) – the French national space agency equivalent to NASA. SEIS is one of the two primary science instruments aboard InSight. The other instrument measuring heat flow from the Martian interior is provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and is named Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3).

“InSight project managers recently briefed officials at NASA and France’s space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), on a path forward; the proposed plan to redesign the science instrument was accepted in support of a 2018 launch,” said NASA.

JPL will assume lead responsibility for insuring that the SEIS instrument operates properly with no leak.

The cost of the 2 year delay is still being assessed but expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars, likely over $100 million. How that will be payed for has yet to be determined.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for InSight and will place the spacecraft in storage while SEIS is fixed and until the 2018 launch date nears.

“We’re delighted that NASA has approved the launch of the InSight mission in May 2018,” Stu Spath, Lockhhed Martin spacecraft program manager told Universe Today.

“Currently, we are preparing the spacecraft to go into storage at our Space Systems facility near Denver.”

“Our team worked hard to get the InSight spacecraft built and tested, and although InSight didn’t launch this year as planned, we know ultimately the scientific knowledge it will bring us is crucial to our understanding of how Mars and other rocky planets formed.”

NASA's InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.
NASA’s InSight Mars lander spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin clean room near Denver. As part of a series of deployment tests, the spacecraft was commanded to deploy its solar arrays in the clean room to test and verify the exact process that it will use on the surface of Mars.

InSight is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program of low cost, focused science missions along with the science instrument funding contributions from France and Germany.

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

Ken Kremer

Last, Best Look at Pluto’s Far Side and Four Perplexing Spots: 2 Days Out from Flyby

New Horizons’ last look at Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere reveals the highest resolution view of four intriguing darks spots for decades to come. This image, taken early the morning of July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Story updated[/caption]

Today (July 11) we got our last, best and clearest look at a quartet of perplexing dark spots on Pluto’s far side from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – now just two days and two million miles (4 million km) out from history’s first ever up close flyby of the Pluto system on Tuesday, July 14.

The four puzzling spots (see above) are located on the hemisphere of Pluto which always faces its largest moon, Charon, and have captivated the scientists and public alike. Pluto and Charon are gravitationally locked with an orbital period of 6.4 days.

Over only the past few days, we are finally witnessing an amazing assortment of geological wonders emerge into focus from these never before seen worlds – as promised by the New Horizons team over a decade ago.

Be sure to take a good hard look at the image, because these spots and Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere will not be visible to New Horizons cameras and spectrometers during the historic July 14 encounter as the spacecraft whizzes by the binary worlds at speeds of some 30,800 miles per hour (more than 48,600 kilometers per hour) for their first up close reconnaissance.

And it’s likely to be many decades before the next visitor from Earth arrives at the frigid worlds at the far flung reaches of our solar system for a longer look, hopefully from orbit.

“The [July 11] image is the last, best look that anyone will have of Pluto’s far side for decades to come,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

The image of the mysterious spots was taken earlier today (July 11) by New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a distance of 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto, and just released by NASA. The image resolution is 10 miles per pixel. One week ago it was only 40 miles per pixel.

They were first seen only in very recent LORRI images as Pluto’s disk finally was resolved and are located in a Missouri sized area about 300 miles (480 kilometers) across and above the equatorial region.

But until today they were still rather fuzzy – see image below from July 3! What a difference a few million miles (km) makes!

Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015. Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015. Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

“The Pluto system is totally unknown territory,” said Dr. John Spencer, New Horizons co-investigator at today’s (July 11) daily live briefing from NASA and the New Horizons team.

“Pluto is like nowhere we’ve even been before. It is unlike anything we’ve visited before.”

Now, with the $700 million NASA planetary probe millions of miles closer to the double planet, the picture resolution has increased dramatically and the team can at least speculate.

Researchers say the quartet of “equally spaced” dark splotches are “suggestive of polygonal shapes” and the “boundaries between the dark and bright terrains are irregular and sharply defined.”

“It’s weird that they’re spaced so regularly,” says New Horizons program scientist Curt Niebur at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

However their nature remains “intriguing” and truly “unknown.”

“We can’t tell whether they’re plateaus or plains, or whether they’re brightness variations on a completely smooth surface,” added Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California.

“It’s amazing what we are seeing now in the images, showing us things we’ve never seen before,” said Spencer.

“Every day we see things we never knew before. We see these crazy black and white patterns. And we have no idea what these mean.”

Answering these questions and more is what the encounter is all about.

Pluto is just chock full of mysteries, with new ones emerging every day as New Horizons at last homes in on its quarry, and the planet grows from a spot to an enlarging disk with never before seen surface features, three billion miles from Earth after an interplanetary journey of some nine and a half years.

“We see circular things and wonder are those craters? Or are they something else,” Spencer elaborated.

“We saw circular features on Neptune’s moon Triton that are not craters. So we should know in a few days . But right now we are just having an awful lot of fun just speculating. It’s just amazing.”

Until a few days ago, we didn’t know that “the other Red Planet” had a big bright heart and a dark ‘whale-shaped’ feature – see my earlier articles; here and here.

Pluto’s “Heart” is seen in this new image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) received on July 8, 2015 after normal science operations resumed following the scary July 4 safe mode anomaly that briefing shut down all science operations.   The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument.   Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
Pluto’s “Heart” is seen in this new image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) received on July 8, 2015 after normal science operations resumed following the scary July 4 safe mode anomaly that briefing shut down all science operations. The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

“When we combine images like this of the far side with composition and color data the spacecraft has already acquired but not yet sent to Earth, we expect to be able to read the history of this face of Pluto,” Moore explained.

New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,750 miles) of Pluto’s surface and about 17,900 miles (28,800 kilometers) from Charon during closest approach at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14.

The probe was launched back on Jan. 19, 2006 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on a 9 year voyage of over 3.6 billion miles (5.7 billion km).

Pluto is the last of the nine classical planets to be explored up close and completes the initial the initial reconnaissance of the solar system nearly six decades after the dawn of the space age. It represents a whole new class of objects.

“Pluto is a member of a whole new family of objects,” said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, in today’s live Pluto update.

“We call that the Kuiper Belt. And it is the outer solar system.”

New Horizons is equipped with a suite of seven science instruments gathering data during the approach and encounter phases with the Pluto system.

Graphic shows data gathered by New Horizons particle and plasma science instruments from 2 million miles out on July 11, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Graphic shows data gathered by New Horizons particle and plasma science instruments from 2 million miles out on July 11, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.

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

Ken Kremer

Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million km) away. This annotated version shows the large dark feature nicknamed "the whale" that straddles Pluto's equator, a swirly band and a curious polygonal outline. At lower is a reference globe showing Pluto’s orientation in the image, with the equator and central meridian in bold. Credit:  NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million km) away. This annotated version shows the large dark feature nicknamed “the whale” that straddles Pluto’s equator, a swirly band and a curious polygonal outline. At lower is a reference globe showing Pluto’s orientation in the image, with the equator and central meridian in bold. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

New Horizons Exits Safe Mode, Operating Flawlessly for Upcoming Pluto Encounter

Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015 shows 4 mysterious dark spots.
Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Story updated[/caption]

Despite some hair-raising and unplanned 4th of July fireworks of sorts in deep space which caused NASA’s Pluto bound New Horizons spacecraft to enter “safe mode” due to a computer glitch and temporarily halt all science operations over the weekend, the spacecraft is now fully back on track, “healthy” and working “flawlessly” and set to resume all planned research investigations on Tuesday, July 7, NASA and top mission managers announced at a media briefing held this afternoon, Monday, July 6.

It’s now just exactly one week before the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fast flyby encounter of the ever intriguing binary planet, at the far flung reaches of the solar system. And the great news could not come soon enough given the proximity of the flyby.

“The spacecraft is in excellent health and back in operation. New Horizons is barreling towards the Pluto system,” stated Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, at the start of today’s news media briefing.

The $700 million mission remains on track to conduct the complex close flyby science sequence in its entirety, as planned over the next week, including the July 14 flyby of Pluto, despite the scary safe mode episode.

“The New Horizons spacecraft and science payload are now operating flawlessly,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, announced at the media briefing.

NASA unexpectedly lost contact with the New Horizons spacecraft on Saturday, July 4, at about 1:30 p.m. EDT after it suffered a memory related software anomaly and executed a protective operation known as “safe mode.” An anomaly investigation team was formed immediately.

“It’s really a historic time, but also fraught with many decisions and challenges on the way to the July 14 Pluto system encounter,” Green said.

The mission team quickly worked to reestablish contact with the piano shaped spacecraft about 90 minutes after the signal was lost.

“On Saturday we lost contact with the spacecraft. The New Horizons team immediately went into action. Within 90 minutes the signal was reacquired by the team, with the spacecraft in safe mode. They soon found the root cause and corrective actions were immediately taken to get the spacecraft back in business.”

The team worked tirelessly and diligently day and night over the holiday weekend to recover New Horizons back to full operation quickly and in time for the flyby encounter of Pluto on July 14, set for approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14, said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland.

There are no second chances.

This trio of images are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This trio of images are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The software glitch occurred a day after new operating software was uploaded to New Horizons last Friday.

The spacecraft was trying to do two things at once on Saturday, compressing science data and writing command sequences while using up too much flash memory, explained Fountain.

“The computer was trying to do these two things at the same time, and the two were more than the processor could handle,” Fountain said.

“So the processor said ‘I’m overloaded.’ Then the spacecraft did exactly what it was supposed to do. It then switched to the backup computer and went into safe mode. At that point, we lost the downlink from the primary computer. We realized quickly what happened and put a recovery plan in place and recovered.”

Artist view of New Horizons passing Pluto and three of its moons. The ship is about the size of a grand piano and kept warm in the cold of the outer Solar System by  heat release from the radioactive decay of plutonium within the probe's RTGs (Radioisotope  Thermoelectric Generator). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Artist view of New Horizons passing Pluto and three of its moons. The ship is about the size of a grand piano and kept warm in the cold of the outer Solar System by heat release from the radioactive decay of plutonium within the probe’s RTGs (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

At this moment New Horizons is about 3 billion miles (4.9 billion km) from Earth and less than 6 million miles (9 million km) away from unmasking the secrets of tantalizing Pluto, Charon, its largest moon with which it forms a double planet system, and its four tiny and recently discovered moons. Charon is half the size of Pluto.

The round trip time for signals traveling at the speed of light is 8.5 hours. So it’s a very long time before commands from Earth can reach the spacecraft and for the team to determine their outcome. So the probe has to be able to operate on its own without direction from Earth during the intense and brief flyby period.

Pluto is the most distant and last unexplored planet in our Solar System, and therefore presents enormous complexities to those bold enough to dare the mightiest things.

“We expect a nominal flyby of Pluto from every indication now,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, announced at the media briefing.

“This object is unlike any other that we have observed,” Stern said. “Both Pluto and Charon are already surprising us.”

Less than 1 percent of the planned data was lost in the three days that the science instruments were shut off.

“It’s more important to focus on the later science during the flyby,” Stern elaborated.

“There is zero impact to the primary Group 1 highest-priority science objectives. And a minor impact to Group 2 and Group 3 objectives,” Stern elaborated.

“This is a speed bump in terms of the total return that we expect from this flyby.”

“I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft,” noted Green. “Now, with Pluto in our sights, we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
New Horizons trajectory map to Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The team said this type of software update will not be repeated and a similar type safe mode event should not recur.

Fountain said that during the encounter period, the probe can switch itself to exit safe mode event within about 7 minutes, depending on the situation, and minimize any science data losses.

New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,800 miles) of Pluto’s surface.

It will zoom past Pluto at speeds of some 30,000 miles per hour (more than 48,000 kilometers per hour).

Today the team also released the best yet images of Pluto that were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The trio of images were between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode.

The images show varying and enigmatic surface features on the different hemispheres of Pluto.

They also show the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the scientists and the world.

Their nature remains unknown at this time.

The probe was launched back in 2006 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

“We are on our way to Pluto!” Green exclaimed.

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

Ken Kremer

Animation of Pluto rotating from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. Credit:
Animation of Pluto rotating from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. Credit:

U.S. Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches, Ending Monopoly

SpaceX Falcon 9 is now certified for USAF launches. SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

The U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that they have certified SpaceX to launch the nations critical and highly valuable national security satellites on the firms Falcon 9 rocket, thereby breaking the decade old launch monopoly held by launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a joint venture owned by aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force’s goal in approving the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster is aimed at drastically cutting the high cost of access to space by introducing competition in the awarding of military mission launch contacts. The prior contract involved a sole source $11 Billion “block buy” bid for 36 rocket cores from ULA in December 2013 which was legally challenged by SpaceX in April 2014, but eventually settled by SpaceX in an agreement with the USAF earlier this year.

Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), announced the long awaited decision on Tuesday, May 26.

The certification milestone came after a grueling two year review process in which the Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people to thoroughly review all aspects of the Falcon 9 booster. The review was based on three successful flights by the Falcon 9 v1.1 which first launched in late 2013.

The purpose of certification is to assure that qualified launch providers could meet the challenge of safely, securely and reliably lofting expensive U.S. national security military missions to space and into their intended orbits with full mission capability that are critical for maintaining national defense.

“The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification,” said Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, in a statement.

“And we’re also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible.”

And the competitive launch races “for award of qualified national security space launch missions” between SpaceX and ULA start very soon, within the next month says the USAF.

In June, the Air Force will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS III launch services. ULA has three GPS launches in its manifest for 2015.

Of course SpaceX was overjoyed on hearing the certification news.

“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch, said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer.

‘We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”

Until today, ULA has held a launch monopoly over military missions since the company was founded in 2006. ULA also launches many NASA science missions, but very few commercial satellites.

Thus the U.S. military and NASA provide the core of ULA’s business and the source of much of its income and profits.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is now certified by the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, in a statement.

“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”

Other military spacecraft in the future could involve vehicles such as the X-37B space plane which recently launched on an Atlas V, as well as weather satellites, signals intelligence and missile warning satellites and a range of top secret missions for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that have been routinely launched by ULA with a 100% success rate to date.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Atlas V and Delta IV families of vehicles. ULA is phasing out the Delta IV due to its high costs. Only the Delta IV Heavy will remain in service as required to launch the very heaviest satellites that cannot be accommodated by less powerful rockets.

ULA is also replacing the Atlas V with the partly reusable new Vulcan rocket, that will be phased in starting in 2019 using American-made engines from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The Atlas V uses Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s use has become highly contentious since the deadly crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014.

The ensuing threats of RD-180 engine embargoes and imposition of sanctions and counter sanctions imposed by the US and Russia have thus placed US national security at risk by being dependent on a rocket with foreign made engines whose future supply chain was uncertain.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been highly critical of the ULA dependence on the Russian RD-180 engines and issued this statement in response to the Air Force announcement.

“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition, said McCain.

“Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Overall the Air Force “invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discreet tasks, 3 certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.”

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

You Can Vote to Name America’s New Rocket from ULA

Help ULA name America’s next rocket to space. Credit: ULA
Voting Details below
Watch ULA’s March 25 Delta Launch Live – details below
Update 3/26: 2 new names have been added to the voting list – Zeus and Vulcan !
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United Launch Alliance (ULA) is asking the public for your help in naming their new American made rocket, now under development that “represents the future of space”- and will replace the firms current historic lines of Atlas and Delta rocket families that began launching back near the dawn of the space age.

Eagle, Freedom or GalaxyOne – those are the names to choose from for the next two weeks, from now until April 6.

UPDATE 3/26: 2 new names have been added to the voting list – Zeus and Vulcan !

ULA says the names were selected from a list of over 400 names submitted earlier this year by ULA’s 3400 employees and many space enthusiasts.

ULA has set up a simple voting system whereby you can vote for your favorite name via text or an online webpage.

Currently dubbed the “Next Generation Launch System,” or NGLS, ULA’s new president and CEO Tory Bruno is set to unveil the next generation rockets design and name at the National Space Symposium on April 13 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“ULA’s new rocket represents the future of space – innovative, affordable and reliable,” said Bruno, in a statement.

“More possibilities in space means more possibilities here on earth. This is such a critical time for space travel and exploration and we’re excited to bring all of America with us on this journey into the future.”

The NGLS is ULA’s response to what’s shaping up as a no holds barred competition with SpaceX for future launch contracts where only the innovative and those who dramatically cut the cost of access to space will survive.

The first flight of the NGLS is slated for 2019.

Here’s how you can cast your vote for America’s next rocket to April 6, 2015:

Visit the website: http://bit.ly/rocketvote

OR

Voters can text 22333 to submit a vote for their favorite name. The following key can be used to text a vote:

• ULA1 for “Eagle”
• ULA2 for “Freedom”
• ULA3 for “GalaxyOne”

3/26 Update: Zeus and Vulcan have been added to the voting list

One small step for ULA, one giant leap for space exploration. Vote to name America’s next ride to space: Eagle, Freedom, or GalaxyOne? #rocketvote http://bit.ly/rocketvote
One small step for ULA, one giant leap for space exploration. Vote to name America’s next ride to space: Eagle, Freedom, or GalaxyOne? #rocketvote http://bit.ly/rocketvote

“Name America’s next ride to space. Vote early, vote often … ” says Bruno.

I have already voted – early and often.

Over 11,000 votes were tallied in just the first day.

Currently ULA is the nation’s premier launch provider, launching at a rate of about once per month. 13 launches are planned for 2015- as outlined in my earlier article here.

But ULA faces stiff and relentless pricing and innovative competition from NewSpace upstart SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

NGLS is ULA’s answer to SpaceX – they must compete in order to survive.

To date ULA has accomplished a 100 percent mission success for 94 launches since the firms founding in 2006 as a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. They have successfully launched numerous NASA, national security and commercial payloads into orbit and beyond.

Planetary missions launched for NASA include the Mars rovers and landers Phoenix and Curiosity, Pluto/New Horizons, Juno, GRAIL, LRO and LCROSS.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ULA’s new rocket will launch from this pad in 2019
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft onboard launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, March 12, 2015, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

ULA’s most recent launch for NASA involved the $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission comprised of four formation flying satellites which blasted to Earth orbit atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, during a spectacular nighttime blastoff on March 12, 2015. Read my onsite reports – here and here.

“Space launch affects everyone, every day, and our goal in letting America name its next rocket is to help all Americans imagine the future of endless possibilities created by affordable space launch,” Bruno added.

NGLS will include some heritage design from the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but will feature many new systems and potentially some reusable systems – to be outlined by Bruno on April 13.

ULA plans to phase out the Delta IV around 2019 when the current contracts are concluded. The Atlas V will continue for a transitional period.

The Atlas V is also the launcher for Boeing’s CST-100 manned space taxi due to first launch in 2017.

NGLS will launch from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the same pad as for the Atlas V, as well as from Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

ULA’s next Delta IV launch with GPS IIF-9 is scheduled shortly for Wednesday, March 25, with liftoff at 2:36 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral.

Live webcast begins at 2:06 p.m. Live link here – http://www.ulalaunch.com/webcast.aspx

Vote now!

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

Ken Kremer

Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO, speaks about the ULA launch of NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission on Delta IV Heavy rocket in the background at the Delta IV launch complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO, speaks about the ULA launch of NASA’s Orion EFT-1 mission on Delta IV Heavy rocket in the background at the Delta IV launch complex 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) Spacecraft Set for March Blastoff to study Earth’s Magnetic Reconnection Events

NASA’s first mission dedicated to study the process in nature known as magnetic reconnection undergoing final preparation for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida in just under two weeks time.

The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of a quartet of identically instrumented observatories aimed at providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is the process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

“Magnetic reconnection is one of the most important drivers of space weather events,” said Jeff Newmark, interim director of the Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Eruptive solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and geomagnetic storms all involve the release, through reconnection, of energy stored in magnetic fields. Space weather events can affect modern technological systems such as communications networks, GPS navigation, and electrical power grids.”

The four MMS have been stacked on top of one another like pancakes, encapsulated in the payload fairing, transported to the launch pad, hoisted and mated to the top of the 195-foot-tall rocket.

NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are shown here in the clean room being processed for a March 12, 2015 launch from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky
NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) observatories are shown here in the clean room being processed for a March 12, 2015 launch from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The nighttime launch of MMS on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket should put on a spectacular sky show for local spectators along the Florida space coast as well as more distant located arcing out in all directions.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes.

Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA
Artist rendition of the four MMS spacecraft in orbit in Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: NASA

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where is visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division.

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

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

Ken Kremer
………….
Learn more about MMS, Mars rovers, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 6: “MMS Update, Future of NASA Human Spaceflight, Curiosity on Mars,” Delaware Valley Astronomers Assoc (DVAA), Radnor, PA, 7 PM.

Mar 10-12: “MMS, Orion, SpaceX, Antares, Curiosity Explores Mars,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

2015: NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet

Together, the space probes Dawn and New Horizons have been in flight for a collective 17 years. One remained close to home and the other departed to parts of the Solar System of which little is known. They now share a common destination in the same year: dwarf planets.

At the time of these NASA probes’ departures, Ceres had just lost its designation as the largest asteroid in our Solar System. Pluto was the ninth planet. Both probes now stand to deliver measures of new data and insight that could spearhead yet another revision of the definition of planet.

A comparison of the trajectories of New Horizon (left) and the Dawn missions (right). (Credit: NASA/JPL, SWRI, Composite- T.Reyes)
A comparison of the trajectories of New Horizons (left) and the Dawn missions (right). (Credit: NASA/JPL, SWRI, Composite- T.Reyes)

Certainly, NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet is an unofficial designation and NASA representatives would be quick to emphasize another dozen or more missions that are of importance during the year 2015. However, these two missions could determine the fate of billions or more small bodies just within our galaxy, the Milky Way.

If Ceres and Pluto are studied up close – mission success is never a sure thing – then what is observed could lead to a new, more certain and accepted definition of planet, dwarf planet, and possibly other new definitions.

The New Horizons mission became the first mission of NASA’s New Frontiers program, beginning development in 2001. The probe was launched on January 19, 2006, atop an Atlas V 551 (5 solid rocket boosters plus a third stage). Utilizing more compact and lightweight electronics than its predecessors to the outer planets – Pioneer 10 & 11, and Voyager 1 & 2 – the combination of reduced weight, a powerful launch vehicle, plus a gravity assist from Jupiter has lead to a nine year journey. On December 6, 2014, New Horizons was taken out of hibernation for the last time and now remains powered on until the Pluto encounter.

This "movie" of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon b yNASA's New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter -center of mass of the two bodies - resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto's surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This “movie” of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter – the center of mass of the two bodies – resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The arrival date of New Horizon is July 14, 2015. A telescope called the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has permitted the commencement of observations while still over 240 million kilometers (150 million miles) from Pluto. The first stellar-like images were taken while still in the Asteroid belt in 2006.

Pluto was once the ninth planet of the Solar System. From its discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh until 2006, it maintained this status. In that latter year, the International Astronomical Union undertook a debate and then a membership vote that redefined what a planet is. The change occurred 8 months after New Horizons’ launch. There were some upset mission scientists, foremost of which was the principal investigator, Dr. Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. In a sense, the rug had been pulled from under them.

A gentleman’s battle ensued between opposing protagonists Dr. Stern and Dr. Michael Brown from Caltech. In 2001, Dr. Brown’s research team began to discover Kuiper belt objects (Trans-Neptunian objects) that rivaled the size of Pluto. Pluto suddenly appeared to be one of many small bodies that could likely number in the trillions within just one galaxy – ours. According to Dr. Brown, there could be as many as 200 objects in our Solar System similar to Pluto that, under the old definition, could be defined as planets. Dr. Brown’s work was the straw that broke the camel’s back – that is, it led to the redefinition of planet, and the native of Huntsville, Alabama, went on to write a popular book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

Dr. Stern’s story involving Pluto and planetary research is a longer and more circuitous one. Stern was the Executive Director of the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division and then accepted the position of Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in 2007. Clearly, after a nine year journey, Stern is now fully committed to New Horizons’ close encounter. More descriptions of the two protagonists of the Pluto debate will be included in a follow on story.

Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)
Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta, and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

The JPL and Orbital Science Corporation developed Dawn space probe began its journey to the main asteroid belt on September 27, 2007. It has used gravity assists and flew by the planet Mars. Dawn spent 14 months surveying Vesta, the 4th largest asteroid of the main belt (assuming Ceres is still considered the largest). While New Horizons has traveled over 30 Astronomical Units (A.U.) – 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun – Dawn has remained closer and required reaching a little over 2 A.U. to reach Vesta and now 3 A.U. to reach Ceres.

The Dawn mission had the clear objective of rendezvous and achieving orbit with two asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn was also sent packing the next generation of Ion Propulsion. It has proven its effectiveness very well, having used ion propulsion for the first time to achieve an orbit. Pretty simple, right? Not so fast.

As Dawn was passing critical design reviews during development, the redefinition of planet lofted its second objective – the asteroid 1 Ceres – to a new status. While Pluto was demoted, Ceres was promoted from its scrappy status of biggest of the asteroids – the debris, the leftovers of our solar system’s development – to dwarf planet. Even 4 Vesta is now designated a proto-planet.

Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So now the stage is set. Dawn will arrive first at a dwarf planet – Ceres – in April. With a small, low gravity body and ion propulsion, the arrival is slow and cautious. If the two missions fair well and achieve their goals, 2015 is likely to become a pivotal year in the debate over the classification of non-stellar objects throughout the universe.

Just days ago, at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco, Dr. Stern and team described the status and more details of the goals of New Horizons. Since arriving, more moons of Pluto have been discovered. There is the potential that faint rings exist and Pluto may even harbor an interior ocean due to the tidal forces from its largest moon, Charon. And Dawn mission scientists have seen the prospects for Ceres’ change. Not just the status, the latest Hubble images of Ceres is showing bright spots which could be water ice deposits and could also harbor an internal ocean.

The Solar System is becoming a more crowded place. This picture shows the sizes of dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake as compared to Earth and Earth's Moon, here called "Luna." None of the distances between objects are to scale. (Credit: NASA)
The Solar System is becoming a more crowded place. This picture shows the sizes of dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake as compared to Earth and Earth’s Moon, here called “Luna.” None of the distances between objects are to scale. (Credit: NASA)

So other NASA missions notwithstanding, this is the year of the dwarf planet. NASA will provide Humanity with its first close encounters with the most numerous of small round – by their self-gravity – bodies in the Universe. They are now called dwarf planets but ask Dr. Stern and company, the public, and many other planetary scientists and you will discover that the jury is still out.

References:

JHU/APL New Horizons Mission Home Page

NASA Dawn Mission Home Page

Related Universe Today articles:

NASA’s New Horizons

NASA’s Dawn Mission

Weekly Space Hangout – May 23, 2014: How Do You Say “Camelopardalids?”

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Guests: David Dickinson (@astroguyz, www.astroguyz.com), Alessondra Springmann (@sondy), Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter) & Mike Simmons (Astronomers without Borders)

This Week’s Stories:
Possible Meteor Storm
Starlight Festival
ISEE-3 space act/reboot/amp arrived
Dream Chaser wind tunnel tests
Mars crater discovered
Atlas Launch
Mars Crater Seen Before/After

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Sues Government to Break US Air Force’s National Security Launch Monopoly

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014
Story updated[/caption]

Elon Musk, CEO and founder of the upstart commercial launch venture SpaceX, announced at a press conference today, Friday, April 25, that SpaceX is filing suit against the Federal Government to protest and break the US Air Force’s awarding of lucrative launch contracts for high priority national security satellites to a sole rocket provider – United Launch Alliance (ULA) – on a non competitive basis.

The gloves are officially off in the intensely mounting duel over multibillion dollar Air Force military launch contracts between SpaceX and ULA.

“The official protest document will be available Monday, April 28th at www.freedomtolaunch.com and will be filed with the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.,” said SpaceX in an official statement.

Musk said the Air Force launch contract with ULA amounted to a continuing monopoly, was unfair by blocking SpaceX from competing for launches of surveillance satellites and would cost taxpayers billions of extra dollars in coming years.

“What we feel is that this is not right – that the national security launches should be put up for competition and they should not be awarded on a sole source, uncompeted basis,” said Musk at the briefing called on short notice and held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The latest Air Force launch contract dated to December 2013 guarantees the “block buy” purchase of 36 rocket cores from ULA for national security launches for the DOD, NRO and other government agencies, at a significantly reduced cost compared to earlier contracts.

A further 14 cores were to be awarded on a competitive basis, including bids from SpaceX and others who seek to gain Air Force certification. Several of those launch awards have now been deferred indefinitely.

ULA is a joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, formed in 2006, that has launched over 80 satellites to orbit and beyond including many NASA science and mission probes like Orion EFT-1, Curiosity, MAVEN, TDRS and more.

It manufactures the Delta IV and Atlas V unmanned, expendable rocket families that are currently the only boosters certified to launch the high value military payloads at issue in the lawsuit announced on Friday by Musk.

The newest versions of the Delta and Atlas rockets – known as EELV’s (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles) have had nearly flawless records of success since being introduced some dozen years ago by the companies individually, before the ULA merger.

Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Musk wants his company’s newer and he says much cheaper Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to be certified by the Air Force and included in the competition for launch contracts.

To date the Falcon 9 has launched only 9 times. Only four of those were in the new and more powerful configuration needed by the Air Force.

Musk is not asking that the launches be awarded outright to SpaceX. But he does want the Air Force contract cancelled and re-competed.

“We’re just protesting and saying that the launches should be competed,” Musk said.

“If we compete and lose that’s fine. But why were they not even competed? That just doesn’t make sense.”

“So far we are most of the way through the certification process. And so far there have been zero changes to the rocket. Mostly it’s just been a paperwork exercise.”

“Since this is a large multiyear contract, why not wait a few months for the certification process to complete. And then do the competition. That seems very reasonable to me.”

Musk said it costs four times more to launch ULA’s Delta or Atlas rocket vs. a SpaceX Falcon rocket.

“The ULA rockets are basically four times more expensive than ours. So this contract is costing US taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason.”

“Each launch by ULA costs American taxpayers roughly $400 million per launch. They are insanely expensive. I don’t know why they are so expensive.”

The Falcon 9 lists for about $60 Million per launch, but rises to about $100 million after the certification costs are included, Musk explained.

“So yes the certification does make our Falcon 9 rocket more expensive. But not 400% more expensive.”

“Our rockets are 21st century design,” said Musk to obtain the most efficiency. He said ULA’s designs date back to the 90s and earlier with heritage hardware.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters including Universe Today in Cocoa Beach, FL prior to SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec 3, 2013 from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date the Falcon 9 has already been used three times under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to launch the private SpaceX Dragon resupply vessel to the International Space Station (ISS) – most recently a week ago during the April 18 blastoff of the SpaceX CRS-3 mission from Cape Canaveral.

It is also being used to launch highly expensive communications satellites like SES-8 and Thaicom-6 for private companies to geostationary orbits.

“It just seems odd that if our vehicle is good enough for NASA and supporting a $100 billion space station, and it’s good enough for launching NASA science satellites, for launching complex commercial geostationary satellites, then there’s no reasonable basis for it not being capable of launching something quite simple like a GPS satellite,” said Musk.

“Our only option is to file a protest.”

Furthermore as I wrote here in a prior article, US National Security launches are now potentially at risk due to the ongoing crisis between Russian, Ukraine and Crimea because the RD-180 first stage engines powering the Atlas V are designed and manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash, majority owned by the Russian Federation.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announces lawsuit protesting Air Force launch contracts while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on April 25, 2014

“The head of the Russian space sector, Dmitry Rogozin, was sanctioned by the White House in March 2014 in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” says SpaceX.

The RD-180 engine supply could be cut off in a worst case scenario if economic sanctions against Russia are increased by the Western allies.

ULA has a two year contingency supply of the RD-180’s and blueprints to begin production, if needed.

However in the event of a cutoff, it would take at least three to five years to start and certify RD-180 engine production somewhere in the US, a ULA spokesperson told me recently at Cape Canaveral.

This possibly leaves a 1 to 3 year gap with no Atlas V 1st stage engine supply.

The Delta IV rockets and engines by contrast are manufactured in the US.

“In light of international events, this seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin,” said Musk.

“Yet, this is what the Air Force’s arrangement with ULA does, despite the fact that there are domestic alternatives available that do not rely on components from countries that pose a national security risk.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer