Who Else Is Looking For Cool Worlds Around Proxima Centauri?

Finding exoplanets is hard work. In addition to requiring seriously sophisticated instruments, it also takes teams of committed scientists; people willing to pour over volumes of data to find the evidence of distant worlds. Professor Kipping, an astronomer based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is one such person.

Within the astronomical community, Kipping is best known for his work with exomoons. But his research also extends to the study and characterization of exoplanets, which he pursues with his colleagues at the Cool Worlds Laboratory at Columbia University. And what has interested him most in recent years is finding exoplanets around our Sun’s closest neighbor – Proxima Centauri.

Kipping describes himself as a “modeler”, combining novel theoretical modeling with modern statistical data analysis techniques applied to observations. He is also the Principal Investigator (PI) of The Hunt for Exomoons with Kepler (HEK) project and a fellow at the Harvard College Observatory. For the past few years, he and his team have been taking the hunt for exoplanets to the local stellar neighborhood.

The inspiration for this search goes back to 2012, when Kipping was at a conference and heard the news about a series of exoplanets being discovery around Kepler 42 (aka. KOI-961). Using data from the Kepler mission, a team from the California Institute of Technology discovered three exoplanets orbiting this red dwarf star, which is located about 126 light years from Earth.

At the time, Kipping recalled how the author of the study – Professor Philip Steven Muirhead, now an associate professor at the Institute for Astrophysical Research at Boston University – commented that this star system looked a lot like our nearest red dwarf stars – Barnard’s Star and Proxima Centauri.

In addition, Kepler 42’s planets were easy to spot, given that their proximity to the star meant that they completed an orbital period in about a day. Since they pass regularly in front of their star, the odds of catching sight of them using the Transit Method were good.

As Prof. Kipping told Universe Today via email, this was the “ah-ha moment” that would inspire him to look at Proxima Centauri to see if it too had a system of planets:

“We were inspired by the discovery of planets transiting KOI-961 by Phil Muirhead and his team using the Kepler data. The star is very similar to Proxima, a late M-dwarf harboring three sub-Earth sized planets very close to the star. It made me realize that if that system was around Proxima, the transit probability would be 10% and the star’s small size would lead to quite detectable signals.”

The MOST satellite, a Canadian built space telescope. Credit: Canadian Space Agency
The MOST satellite, a Canadian built space telescope. Credit: Canadian Space Agency

In essence, Kipping realized that if such a planetary system also existed around Proxima Centauri, a star with similar characteristics, then they would very easy to detect. After that, he and his team began attempting to book time with a space telescope. And by 2014-15, they had been given permission to use the Canadian Space Agency’s Microvariability and Oscillation of Stars (MOST) satellite.

Roughly the same size as a suitcase, the MOST satellite weighs only 54 kg and is equipped with an ultra-high definition telescope that measures just 15 cm in diameter. It is the first Canadian scientific satellite to be placed in orbit in 33 years, and was the first space telescope to be entirely designed and built in Canada.

Despite its size, MOST is ten times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, Kipping and his team knew that a mission to look for transiting exoplanets around Proxima Centauri would be too high-risk for something like Hubble. In fact, the CSA initially rejected their applications for this same reason.

“MOST initially denied us because they wanted to look at Alpha Centauri following the announcement by Dumusque et al. of a planet there,” said Kipping. “So understandably Proxima, for which no planets were known at the time, was not as high priority as Alpha Cen. We never even tried for Hubble time, it would be a huge ask to stare HST at a single star for months on end with just a a 10% chance for success.”

Artist's impression of the Earth-like exoplanet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B iby the European Southern Observatory on October 17, 2012. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the Earth-like exoplanet discovered orbiting Alpha Centauri B iby the European Southern Observatory on October 17, 2012. Credit: ESO

By 2014 and 2015, they secured permission to use MOST and observed Proxima Centauri twice – in May of both years. From this, they acquired a month and half’s-worth of space-based photometry, which they are currently processing to look for transits. As Kipping explained, this was rather challenging, since Proxima Centauri is a very active star – subject to star flares.

“The star flares very frequently and prominently in our data,” he said. “Correcting for this effect has been one the major obstacles in our analysis. On the plus side, the rotational activity is fairly subdued. The other issue we have is that MOST orbits the Earth once every 100 minutes, so we get data gaps every time MOST goes behind the Earth.”

Their efforts to find exoplanets around Proxima Centauri are especially significant in light of the European Southern Observatory’s recent announcement about the discovery of a terrestrial exoplanet within Proxima Centauri’s habitable zone (Proxima b). But compared to the ESO’s Pale Red Dot project, Kipping and his team were relying on different methods.

As Kipping explained, this came down to the difference between the Transit Method and the Radial Velocity Method:

“Essentially, we seek planets which have the right alignment to transit (or eclipse) across the face of the star, whereas radial velocities look for the wobbling motion of a star in response to the gravitational influence of an orbiting planet. Transits are always less likely to succeed for a given star, because we require the alignment to be just right. However, the payoff is that we can learn way more about the planet, including things like it’s size, density, atmosphere and presence of moons and rings.”

Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In the coming months and years, Kipping and his team may be called upon to follow up on the success of the ESO’s discovery. Having detected Proxima b using the Radial Velocity method, it now lies to astronomers to confirm the existence of this planet using another detection method.

In addition, much can be learned about a planet through the Transit Method, which would be helpful considering all the things we still don’t know about Proxima b. This includes information about its atmosphere, which the Transit Method is often able to reveal through spectroscopic measurements.

Suffice it to say, Kipping and his colleagues are quite excited by the announcement of Proxima b. As he put it:

“This is perhaps the most important exoplanet discovery in the last decade. It would be bitterly disappointing if Proxima b does not transit though, a planet which is paradoxically so close yet so far in terms of our ability to learn more about it. For us, transits would not just be the icing on the cake, serving merely as a confirmation signal – rather, transits open the door to learning the intimate secrets of Proxima, changing Proxima b from a single, anonymous data point to a rich world where each month we would hear about new discoveries of her nature and character.”

This coming September, Kipping will be joining the faculty at Columbia University, where he will continue in his hunt for exoplanets. One can only hope that those he and his colleagues find are also within reach!

Further Reading: Cool Worlds

Looking for Canada’s Next Generation of Space Explorers

For decades, Canada has made significant contributions to the field of space exploration. These include the development of sophisticated robotics, optics, participation in important research, and sending astronauts into space as part of NASA missions. And who can forget Chris Hadfield, Mr. “Space Oddity” himself? In addition to being the first Canadian to command the ISS, he is also known worldwide as the man who made space exploration fun and accessible through social media.

And in recent statement, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has announced that it is looking for new recruits to become the next generation of Canadian astronauts. With two positions available, they are looking for applicants who embody the best qualities of astronauts, which includes a background in science and technology, exceptional physical fitness, and a desire to advance the cause of space exploration.

Over the course of the past few decades, the Canadian Space Agency has established a reputation for the development of space-related technologies. In 1962, Canada deployed the Alouette satellite, which made it the third nation – after the US and USSR – to design and build its own artificial Earth satellite. And in 1972, Canada became the first country to deploy a domestic communications satellite, known as Anik 1 A1.

The "Canadarm", pictured here as part of Space Shuttle mission STS-2, Nov. 1981. Credit: NASA
The “Canadarm”, pictured here as part of Space Shuttle mission STS-2, it’s first deployment to space, in November of 1981. Credit: NASA

Perhaps the best-known example of Canada’s achievements comes in the field of robotics, and goes by the name of the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (aka. “the Canadarm“). This robotic arm was introduced in 1981, and quickly became a regular feature within the Space Shuttle Program.

“Canadarm is the best-known example of the key role of Canada’s space exploration program,” said Maya Eyssen, a spokeperson for the CSA, via email. “Our robotic contribution to the shuttle program secured a mission spot for our nation’s first astronaut to fly to space –Marc Garneau. It also paved the way for Canada’s participation in the International Space Station.”

It’s successor, the Canadarm2, was mounted on the International Space Station in 2001, and has since been augmented with the addition of the Dextre robotic hand – also of Canadian design and manufacture. This arm, like its predecessor, has become a mainstay of operations aboard the ISS.

Over the past 15 years, Canadarm2 has played a critical role in assembling and maintaining the Station,” said Eyssen. “It was used on almost every Station assembly mission. Canadarm2  and Dextre are used to capture commercial space ships, unload their cargo and operate with millimeter precision in space. They are both featured on our $5 bank notes. The technology behind these robots also benefits those on earth through technological spin-offs used for neurosurgery, pediatric surgery and breast-cancer detection.”

Backdropped against a cloudy portion of Earth, Canada’s Dextre robotic "handyman" and Canadarm2 dig out the trunk of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS after completing a task 225 miles above the home planet. Credit: NASA
Canada’s Dextre robotic “handyman” and Canadarm2 pictured digging out the trunk of a SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS. Credit: NASA

In terms of optics, the CSA is renowned for the creation of the Advanced Space Vision System (SVS) used aboard the ISS. This computer-vision system uses regular 2D cameras located in the Space Shuttle Bay, on the Canadarm, or on the hull of the ISS itself – along with cooperative targets – to calculate the 3D position of objects around of the station.

But arguably, Canada’s most enduring contribution to space exploration have come in the form of its astronauts. Long before Hadfield was garnering attention with his rousing rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, or performing “Is Someone Singing (ISS)” with The Barenaked Ladies and The Wexford Gleeks choir (via a video connection from the ISS), Canadians were venturing into space as part of several NASA missions.

Consider Marc Garneau, a retired military officer and engineer who became the first Canadian astronaut to go into space, taking part in three flights aboard NASA Space shuttles in 1984, 1996 and 2000. Garneau also served as the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2001 to 2006 before retiring for active service and beginning a career in politics.

And how about Roberta Bondar? As Canada’s first female astronaut, she had the additional honor of designated as the Payload Specialist for the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission (IML-1) in 1992. Bondar also flew on the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery during Mission STS-42 in 1992, during which she performed experiments in the Spacelab.

The Soyuz TMA-15 crew (from left to right), showing Thirsk, Roman Romanenko, Frank De Winne. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov
The Soyuz TMA-15 crew (from left to right), showing Robert Thirsk, Roman Romanenko, and Frank De Winne. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

And then there’s Robert Thirsk, an engineer and physician who holds the Canadian records for the longest space flight (187 days 20 hours) and the most time spent in space (204 days 18 hours). All three individuals embodied the unique combination of academic proficiency, advanced training, personal achievement, and dedication that make up an astronaut.

And just like Hadfield, Bonard, Garneau and Thirsk have all retired on gone on to have distinguished careers as chancellors of academic institutions, politicians, philanthropists, noted authors and keynote speakers. All told, eight Canadians astronauts have taken part in sixteen space missions and been deeply involved in research and experiments conducted aboard the ISS.

Alas, every generation has to retire sooner or later. And having made their contributions and moved onto other paths, the CSA is looking for two particularly bright, young, highly-motivated and highly-skilled people to step up and take their place.

The recruitment campaign was announced this past Sunday, July 17th, by the Honourable Navdeep Bains – the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Those who are selected will be based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where they will provide support for space missions in progress, and prepare for future missions.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to serve as commander of the ISS. Credit: CTV

Canadian astronauts also periodically return to Canada to participate in various activities and encourage young Canadians to pursue an education in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As Eyssen explained, the goals of the recruitment drive is to maintain the best traditions of the Canadian space program as we move into the 21st century:

“The recruitment of new astronauts will allow Canada to maintain a robust astronaut corps and be ready to play a meaningful role in future human exploration initiatives. Canada is currently entitled to two long-duration astronaut flights to the ISS between now and 2024. The first one, scheduled for November 2018, will see David Saint-Jacques launch to space for a six-month mission aboard the ISS. The second flight will launch before 2024. As nations work together to chart the next major international space exploration missions, our continued role in the ISS will ensure that Canada is well-positioned to be a trusted partner in humanity’s next steps in space.

“Canada is seeking astronauts to advance critical science and research aboard the International Space Station and pave the way for human missions beyond the Station. Our international partners are exploring options beyond the ISS. This new generation of astronauts will be part of Canada’s next chapter of space exploration. That may include future deep-space exploration missions.”

The recruitment drive will be open from June 17th to August 15th, 2016, and the selected candidates are expected to be announced by next summer. This next class of Canadian astronaut candidates will start their training in August 2017 at the Johnson Space Center. The details can be found at the Canadian Space Agency‘s website, and all potential applicants are advised to read the campaign information kit before applying.

Alongside their efforts to find the next generation of astronauts, the Canadian government’s 2016 annual budget has also provided the CSA with up to $379 million dollars over the next eight years to extend Canada’s participation in the International Space Station on through to 2024. Gotta’ keep reaching for those stars, eh?

Further Reading: asc-csa.gc.ca

Russian Space Station Extension? Don’t Count On It Yet, NASA Head Says

TORONTO, CANADA – NASA isn’t “reading too much” into a report that the Russians will spend $8 billion on the International Space Station through 2025, the head of the agency says. That date is five years past the international agreements to operate the space station.

The Russian announcement comes at a pivotal time for NASA, which is looking to extend operations on the station to at least 2024. Other space agency heads have not yet signed on. Russia is the major partner for NASA on the station, given it operates several modules and sends astronauts to and from Earth on Soyuz spacecraft.

When deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin made the funding announcement, said NASA administrator Charles Bolden, Rogozin was speaking of a budget request that is before the State Duma. The Duma is Russia’s lower house of government.

“I am told that’s why he said that,” Bolden said at a press conference yesterday (Sept. 29) for the International Astronomical Congress, citing a conversation he had with Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s human exploration associate administrator. “You shouldn’t read too much into that.”

Canadarm2, the huge robotic arm on the International Space Station holds astronaut Stephen Robinson during the STS-114 mission. Credit: NASA
Canadarm2, the huge robotic arm on the International Space Station, holds astronaut Stephen Robinson during the STS-114 mission. Credit: NASA

Other member agencies of the space station gave noncommittal responses when asked if they would sign on to an extension.

“The [European] member states will be invited to give their views on what [to do] after 2020,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, who heads the European Space Agency. He added that any extension would require a financial commitment, as an agreement without money is “only principles.”

Similarly, Canadian Space Agency chief Walter Natynczyk said the money allocated to his agency will bring them through to 2020, but “we will have a look at the entire value proposition when we put a case before the government of Canada.”

The Russian agreement with NASA came under scrutiny earlier this year as tensions erupted in Ukraine while Russian soldiers were in the country. This year, Ukrainian Crimea was annexed to Russia to the condemnation of several countries, including the United States.

While Bolden has said relations with the Russians for the space station are still healthy, NASA suspended most science ties with the country in April. In response, Rogozin wrote a frustrated tweet saying NASA should try to send its astronauts into space using a trampoline.

 

 

 

James Webb Space Telescope’s Pathfinder Mirror Backplane Arrives at NASA Goddard for Critical Assembly Testing

The central piece of the “pathfinder” backplane that will hold all the mirrors for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has arrived at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for critical assembly testing on vital parts of the mammoth telescope.

The pathfinder backplane arrived at Goddard in July and has now been hoisted in place onto a huge assembly stand inside Goddard’s giant cleanroom where many key elements of JWST are being assembled and tested ahead of the launch scheduled for October 2018.

The absolutely essential task of JWST’s backplane is to hold the telescopes 18 segment, 21-foot-diameter primary mirror nearly motionless while floating in the utterly frigid space environment, thereby enabling the telescope to peer out into deep space for precise science gathering measurements never before possible.

Over the next several months, engineers will practice installing two spare primary mirror segments and one spare secondary mirror onto the center part of the backplane.

JWST is being assembled here inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Primary mirror segments stored in silver colored containers at top left. Technicians practice mirror installation on test piece of backplane (known as the BSTA or Backplane Stability Test Article) at center, 3 hexagonals.  Telescope assembly bays at right.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
JWST pathfinder backplane has arrived here at NASA Goddard clean room.
JWST is being assembled here inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Primary mirror segments stored in silver colored containers at top left. Technicians practice mirror installation on test piece of backplane (known as the BSTA or Backplane Stability Test Article) at center, 3 hexagonals. Pathfinder backplane has been hoisted into telescope assembly bays at right. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The purpose is to gain invaluable experience practicing the delicate procedures required to precisely install the hexagonal shaped mirrors onto the actual flight backplane unit after it arrives.

The telescopes primary and secondary flight mirrors have already arrived at Goddard.

The mirrors must remained precisely aligned in space in order for JWST to successfully carry out science investigations. While operating at extraordinarily cold temperatures between -406 and -343 degrees Fahrenheit the backplane must not move more than 38 nanometers, approximately 1/1,000 the diameter of a human hair.

The backplane and every other component must function and unfold perfectly and to precise tolerances in space because JWST has not been designed for servicing or repairs by astronaut crews voyaging beyond low-Earth orbit into deep space, William Ochs, Associate Director for JWST at NASA Goddard told me in an interview during a visit to JWST at Goddard.

Watch this video showing movement of the pathfinder backplane into the Goddard cleanroom.

Video Caption: This is a time-lapse video of the center section of the ‘pathfinder’ backplane for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being moved into the clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The actual flight backplane is comprised of three segments – the main central segment and a pair of outer wing-like parts which will be folded over into launch configuration inside the payload fairing of the Ariane V ECA booster rocket. The telescope will launch from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

Both the backplane flight unit and the pathfinder unit, which consists only of the center part, are being assembled and tested by prime contractor Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California.

Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The test unit was then loaded into a C-5, flown to the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and unloaded for transport by trailer truck to NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland.

JWST is the successor to the 24 year old Hubble Space Telescope and will become the most powerful telescope ever sent to space.

Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming.

A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA
A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA

The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

NASA has overall responsibility and Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for JWST.

Read my story about the recent unfurling test of JWST’s sunshade – here.

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

Ken Kremer

The Webb telescope backplane "pathfinder" or practice-model was unloaded from a C-5 aircraft at the U.S. Air Force's Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.   Image Credit:   NASA/Desiree Stover
The Webb telescope backplane “pathfinder” or practice-model was unloaded from a C-5 aircraft at the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Image Credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom.  Credit: NASA/ESA
Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom. Credit: NASA/ESA

Space Robot Fixes Itself, Takes Selfie As Funny Livetweet Happens On The Ground

In a thrilling demonstration of space robotics, today the Dextre “hand” replaced a malfunctioning camera on the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. And the Canadian Space Agency gleefully tweeted every step of the way, throwing in jokes to describe what was happening above our heads on the International Space Station.

“Dextre’s job is to reduce the risk to astronauts by relieving them of routine chores, freeing their time for science,” the Canadian Space Agency tweeted today (May 27) .

“Spacewalks are thrilling, inspiring, but can potentially be dangerous. They also take a lot of resources and time. So Dextre is riding the end of Canadarm2 today instead of an astronaut. And our inner child is still yelling out ‘Weeeee…!’ ”

The complex maneuvers actually took a few days to accomplish, as the robot removed the broken camera last week and stowed it. Today’s work (performed by ground controllers) was focused on putting in the new camera and starting to test it. You can see some of the most memorable tweets of the day below.

The cookie you see in the first tweet is part of a tradition in Canada’s robotic mission control near Montreal, Que., where controllers have this snack on the day when they are doing robotic work in space.

Incidentally, the Canadian Space Agency bet NASA a box of maple cream cookies in February during a gold-medal Olympic hockey game between the two countries, which Canada won.

Dangling Dextre Digs out Docked Dragon Depot prior to Station Departure

To close out their final week aboard the International Space Station, three of the six Expedition 39 crew members are completing their unloading tasks inside the docked commercial SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter and other duties while teams at Mission Control in Houston conduct delicate robotics work outside with dazzling maneuvers of the Dextre robot to remove the last external experiment from the vessels storage truck.

See a dazzling gallery of photos of Dextre dangling outside the docked Dragon depot – above and below.

On Monday, May 5, the robotics team at NASA Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston carefully guided Canada’s Dextre robotic “handyman” attached to the end of the 57-foot long Canadarm2 to basically dig out the final payload item housed in the unpressurized trunk section at the rear of the SpaceX Dragon cargo vessel docked to the ISS.

Dextre stands for “Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator” and was contributed to the station by the Canadian Space Agency. It measures 12 feet tall and is outfitted with a pair of arms and an array of finely detailed tools to carry out intricate and complex tasks that would otherwise require spacewalking astronauts.

The Canadarm2 with Dextre in its grasp conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship.  Credit: NASA TV
The Canadarm2 with Dextre in its grasp conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship. Credit: NASA TV

The massive orbiting outpost was soaring some 225 miles above the home planet as Dextre’s work was in progress to remove the Optical PAyload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS, from the Dragon’s truck.

The next step is to install OPALS on the Express Logistics Carrier-1 (ELC-1) depot at the end of the station’s port truss on Wednesday.

Monday’s attempt was the second try at grappling OPALS. The initial attempt last Thursday “was unsuccessful due to a problem gripping the payload’s grapple fixture with the Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator, or Dextre,” NASA reported.

A software patch solved the problem.

Canada’s Dextre manipulator attached to Canadarm2 conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship.  Credit: NASA TV
Canada’s Dextre manipulator attached to Canadarm2 conducts external cargo transfers from the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship. Credit: NASA TV

Dragon thundered to orbit atop SpaceX’s powerful new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on April 18, from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

This unmanned Dragon delivered about 4600 pounds of cargo to the ISS including over 150 science experiments, a pair of hi tech legs for Robonaut 2, a high definition Earth observing imaging camera suite (HDEV), the laser optical communications experiment (OPALS), the VEGGIE lettuce growing experiment as well as essential gear, spare parts, crew provisions, food, clothing and supplies to the six person crews living and working aboard in low Earth orbit, under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

OPALS uses laser light instead of radio waves to beam back precisely guided data packages to ground stations. The use of lasers should greatly increase the amount of information transmitted over the same period of time, says NASA.

The science experiments carried aboard Dragon are intended for research to be conducted by the crews of ISS Expeditions 39 and 40.

Robotics teams had already pulled out the other payload item from the truck, namely the HDEV imaging suite. It is already transmitting back breathtaking real time video views of Earth from a quartet of video cameras pointing in different directions mounted on the stations exterior.

The SpaceX CRS-3 mission marks the company’s third resupply mission to the ISS under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 pounds) of cargo to the ISS during a dozen Dragon cargo spacecraft flights through 2016.

After spending six months in space, Station Commander Koichi Wakata from Japan as well as NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin will be departing the station in a week aboard their Soyuz TMA-11M spacecraft on May 13 at 6:33 p.m. EDT.

They are scheduled to land some 3.5 hours later in the steppes of Kazakhstan at 9:57 p.m. (7:57 a.m. Kazakh time on May 14). The events will be carried live on NASA TV.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014.   Credit:  Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply ship launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2014. Credit: Jeff Seibert/Wired4Space
To prepare for the journey home, the trio also completed fit checks on their Russian Sokol launch and entry suits on Monday.

Meanwhile Dragon is also set to depart the station soon on May 18 for a parachute assisted splashdown and recovery by boats in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California.

Dragon has been docked to the station since arriving on Easter Sunday morning, April 20.

It was grappled using Canadarm 2 and berthed at the Earth facing port of the Harmony module by Commander Wakata and flight engineer Mastracchio while working at the robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed Cupola module.

For the return trip, the Expedition 39 crew is also loading Dragon with precious science samples collected over many months from the crews research activities as well as trash and no longer needed items.

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

Ken Kremer

Astronaut’s Mission Is To Snatch A Dragon Without Crashing The Canadarm

When there’s a Dragon spacecraft coming your way at the International Space Station, you’d better be ready to grapple it with a robotic arm. For if there’s a crash, you will face “a very bad day”, as astronaut David Saint-Jacques points out in this new video (also embedded below the jump).

That’s why the Canadian (along with European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen) was doing robotics training this month at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters near Montreal. The most terrifying thing for astronauts must be the limited view as they do delicate maneuvers with the multi-million dollar Canadarm2.

“All you’ve got, really, while you’re working, is this workstation,” Saint-Jacques said. “You’ve got a couple of camera views to work from. You’ve got your hand controllers to move the arm, and you’ve got some computer displays, and a bunch of switches here on the left.”

“That’s all you’ve got,” he added. “You’ve really got to think ahead: how you’re going to maneuver this arm without crashing into anything.”

The video is the latest in a training series by Mogensen, who will go to the International Space Station in 2015. Saint-Jacques — a fellow 2009 astronaut class selectee — has not been assigned to a flight yet (at least publicly).

The first Canadarm, which cost about $100 million in late 1970s dollars, flew on the second shuttle flight in 1981. Canadarm2 was constructed for space station construction in the 2000s, and is still used today for spacewalks.

Berthing spacecraft is reportedly not what it was originally designed for, but the robotic arm has proved an able tool to pick up the Dragon spacecraft and other visitors to the station.

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques at the simulator used to train astronauts on Canadarm2, a robotic arm used on the International Space Station. The facility is located at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, Canada. Credit: Andreas Mogensen/YouTube (screenshot)
Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques at the simulator used to train astronauts on Canadarm2, a robotic arm used on the International Space Station. The facility is located at the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal, Canada. Credit: Andreas Mogensen/YouTube (screenshot)

Robots And Astronauts Feature In First Glimpse of Canada’s New Space Policy

About six years ago, the Canadarm — Canada’s iconic robotic arm used in space — was almost sold to a company in the United States, along with other space technology from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. The Canadian government blocked the sale and swiftly came out with a promise: a space policy to better support Canada’s industry.

That promise was made in September 2008. “Time is of the essence,” then-Industry Minister Jim Prentice told reporters upon announcing a space policy would be created. Today, 65 months later, the government released the high-level framework of that policy. Astronauts, telescopes and yes, the Canadarm are all prominently mentioned in there.

A lot has happened in six years. Policy-makers used to cite successor Canadarm2’s role in space station construction. Now the arm also does things that were barely imaginable in 2008 — namely, berthing commercial spacecraft such as SpaceX’s Dragon at the International Space Station. It shows how quickly space technology can change in half a decade.

At 13 pages, there isn’t a lot of information in Canada’s framework yet to talk about, but there are some statements about government priorities. Keep the astronaut program going (which is great news after the success of Chris Hadfield). A heavy emphasis on private sector collaboration. And a promise to keep funding Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next large observatory in space.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield prior to his world-famous Expedition 34/35 mission in 2013. Credit: NASA
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield prior to his world-famous Expedition 34/35 mission in 2013. Credit: NASA

These are the Top 5 priorities listed in the plan:

  • Canada First: Serving Canada’s interests of “sovereignty, security and prosperity.” As an example: The country has a huge land-mass that is sparsely populated, so satellites are regularly used to see what ship and other activity is going on in the territories. This is a big reason why the Radarsat Constellation of satellites is launching in 2018.
  • Working together globally: Canada has a tiny space budget ($488.7 million in 2013-14, $435.2 million in 2014-15 and $382.9 million in 2015-16), so it relies on other countries to get its payloads, astronauts and satellites into space. This section also refers to Canada’s commitment to the International Space Station, which (as with other nations) extends to at least 2024. That’s good news for astronauts Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, who are waiting for their first trip there.
  • Promoting Canadian innovation: The James Webb Telescope (to which Canada is contributing optics and a guidance system) is specifically cited here along with the Canadarm. Priority areas are Canada’s historic strengths of robotics, optics, satellite communications, and space-based radar, as well as “areas of emerging expertise.”
  • Inspiring Canadians: Basically a statement saying that the government will “recruit, and retain highly qualified personnel,” which in more real terms means that it will need to keep supporting Canadian space companies financially through contracts, for example, to make this happen.

That last point in particular seemed to resonate with at least one industry group.

James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL
James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL

“A long-term strategic plan for Canada’s space program is critical for our industry. In order to effectively invest in innovation, technology and product development, we rely heavily on knowing what the government’s priorities for the space program are,” stated Jim Quick, president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (a major group that represents the interests of private space companies.)

While we wait for more details to come out, here’s some valuable background reading. The space-based volume of the Emerson Report (the findings of a government-appointed aerospace review board listed in 2012) called for more money for and more stable funding of the Canadian Space Agency, among other recommendations.

And here’s the government’s point-by-point response in late 2013. In response to funding: “The CSA’s total funding will remain unchanged and at current levels. The government will also leverage existing programs to better support the space industry.” Additionally, the CSA’s space technologies development program will be doubled to $20 million annually by 2015-16, which is still below the Emerson report’s recommendation of adding $10 million for each of the next three years.

What are your thoughts on the policy? Let us know in the comments.

Chris Hadfield Launched Into Space One Year Ago Today

And we have liftoff … for a social media sensation! Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield rocketed into orbit a year ago today (Dec. 19, 2012) accompanied by NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut  Roman Romanenko.

Hadfield was a part of the Expedition 34 crew, then took command of the station during Expedition 35 in early 2013. While running an extremely productive science mission, he did tons of public outreach, ranging from singing to humorous space-y how-to videos to chatting with numerous celebrities before landing in May.

The Canadian Space Agency invited folks on Twitter to share their reflections under the hashtag #hadfield1yr, which is already producing a lot of thoughtful responses (a few of which you can see below the jump). What was your favorite part of the mission? Feel free to share in the comments.

While Hadfield is retired as an astronaut, he remains very busy. He’s in the middle of a multi-country book tour and will begin teaching at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada in fall 2014.

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‘You Cannot Press Pause While You’re Flying A Jet’: Why Planes Help Astronauts Prepare For Space

In between these sweet, sweet video shots of jets in the video above, you’ll find some wisdom about why it’s so important that astronauts climb into these planes for training. Turns out that flying has a lot to do with preparing for very quick-changing situations in spaceflight — whether it’s in a cockpit or in a spacesuit.

“Psychologically, being in an aircraft is very similar to being in a rocket because you are dependent on this machinery,” says astronaut David Saint-Jacques in this new Canadian Space Agency video.

“You are in an uncomfortable cockpit. You’re wearing a helmet, oxygen mask. There’s tens of dials in front of you. You have to monitor all that data; the radio, on many channels talking at the same time. You have to constantly filter out what is important and to make decisions that could have big impacts. You cannot press pause while you’re flying a jet.”

Saint-Jacques and fellow Canadian Jeremy Hansen took part in this video to mark the 110th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, which took place Dec. 17, 1903.

And there’s more to this video than jets — you can see astronauts participating in spacewalks and also the ongoing European Space Agency CAVES expedition series in Sardinia, Italy. There’s even a quick glimpse of the Snowbirds, a famous military flying demonstration team in Canada (which Hansen flew with earlier this year).

For more information on the T-38s used for astronaut training, check out this NASA link.

A T-38 plane parked in front of space shuttle Discovery in this undated photo taken by NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, who flew six times in space in the 1980s and 1990s.
A T-38 plane parked in front of space shuttle Discovery in this undated photo taken by NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, who flew six times in space in the 1980s and 1990s.