Hawking Supports Tiny Spacecraft To Alpha Centauri

Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO

We know that Earth will die.

Even if we beat global warming, and survive long enough to face and survive the next ice age, Earth will still die. Even if we build a peaceful civilization, protect the planet from asteroids, fight off mutant plagues and whatever else comes our way, life on Earth will die. No matter what we do, the Sun will reach the end of its life, and render Earth uninhabitable.

So reaching for the stars is imperative. What sounds unrealistic to a great many people is a matter of practicality for people knowledgeable about space. To survive, we must have more than Earth.

A project launched by billionaire Yuri Milner, and backed by Mark Zuckerberg, intends to send tiny spacecraft to our nearest stellar neighbour, the Alpha Centauri system. With an expert group assembled to gauge the feasibility, and with the support of eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking, this idea is gaining traction.

Stephen Hawking thinks reaching out to the stars is more than hyperbole: it's essential to the survival of the human species. He's smart. We should listen to him.
Stephen Hawking thinks reaching out to the stars is more than dreamy space talk: it’s essential to the survival of the human species. He’s smart. We should listen to him.

The distance to the Centauri system is enormous: 4.3 light years, or 1.34 parsecs. The project plans to use lasers to propel the craft, which should mean the travel time would be approximately 30 years, rather than the 30,000 year travel time that current technology restricts us to.

Of course, there are still many technological hurdles to overcome. The laser propulsion system itself is still only a nascent idea. But theoretically it’s pretty sound, and if it can be mastered, should be able to propel space vehicles at close to relativistic speeds.

There are other challenges, of course. The tiny craft will need robust solar sails as part of the propulsion system. And any instruments and cameras would have to be miniaturized, as would any communication equipment to send data back to Earth. But in case you haven’t been paying attention, humans have a pretty good track record of miniaturizing electronics.

Though the craft proposed are tiny, no larger than a microchip, getting them to the Alpha Centauri system is a huge step. Who knows what we’ll learn? But if we’re ever to explore another solar system, it has to start somewhere. And since astronomers think it’s possible that the Centauri system could have potentially habitable planets, it’s a great place to start.

April 12, 1961: The First Human in Space

Yuri Gagarin, the first human to break free of Earth's gravity and enter space. Credit: Russian Archives

On April 12th, 1961, the first human being broke free of the gravity bond with Earth, and orbited the planet.

Though most everyone is familiar with the American Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon, what it took to get there, and the “One small step…” of Neil Armstrong, fewer people are familiar with Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first human in space. He orbited Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft for 108 minutes.

Gagarin became an international celebrity at the time. He received the USSR’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union. Quite an honor, and quite an achievement for someone who, as a child, survived the Nazi occupation of Russia by living in a tiny mud hut with those members of his family who were not deported for slave labour by the Germans.

The Space Race between the USA and the USSR was in full swing at the time of Gagarin’s flight, and only one month after Gagarin’s historic journey, American astronaut Alan Shepard reached space. But Shepard’s journey was only a 15 minute sub-orbital flight.

Gagarin only has one space flight to his credit, aboard the Vostok 1 in 1961. He did serve as back-up crew for the Soyuz 1 mission though. Gagarin was a test pilot before becoming a cosmonaut, and he died while piloting a Mig-15 fighter jet in 1968.

Space travel in our age is full of ‘firsts.’ It’s the nature of our times. But there can only ever be one first person to leave Earth, and that accomplishment will echo down the ages. Scores of people have been into space now. Their accomplishments are impressive, and they deserve recognition.

But this day belongs to Yuri Gagarin.

The Laws Of Cosmology May Need A Re-Write

A map of the CMB as captured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Credit: WMAP team

Something’s up in cosmology that may force us to re-write a few textbooks. It’s all centred around the measurement of the expansion of the Universe, which is, obviously, a pretty key part of our understanding of the cosmos.

The expansion of the Universe is regulated by two things: Dark Energy and Dark Matter. They’re like the yin and yang of the cosmos. One drives expansion, while one puts the brakes on expansion. Dark Energy pushes the universe to continually expand, while Dark Matter provides the gravity that retards that expansion. And up until now, Dark Energy has appeared to be a constant force, never wavering.

How is this known? Well, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is one way the expansion is measured. The CMB is like an echo from the early days of the Universe. It’s the evidence left behind from the moment about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the rate of expansion of the Universe stabilized. The CMB is the source for most of what we know of Dark Energy and Dark Matter. (You can hear the CMB for yourself by turning on a household radio, and tuning into static. A small percentage of that static is from the CMB. It’s like listening to the echo of the Big Bang.)

The CMB has been measured and studied pretty thoroughly, most notably by the ESA’s Planck Observatory, and by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). The Planck, in particular, has given us a snapshot of the early Universe that has allowed cosmologists to predict the expansion of the Universe. But our understanding of the expansion of the Universe doesn’t just come from studying the CMB, but also from the Hubble Constant.

The Hubble Constant is named after Edwin Hubble, an American astronomer who observed that the expansion velocity of galaxies can be confirmed by their redshift. Hubble also observed Cepheid variable stars, a type of standard candle that gives us reliable measurements of distances between galaxies. Combining the two observations, the velocity and the distance, yielded a measurement for the expansion of the Universe.

So we’ve had two ways to measure the expansion of the Universe, and they mostly agree with each other. There’ve been discrepancies between the two of a few percentage points, but that has been within the realm of measurement errors.

But now something’s changed.

In a new paper, Dr. Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University, and his team, have reported a more stringent measurement of the expansion of the Universe. Riess and his team used the Hubble Space Telescope to observe 18 standard candles in their host galaxies, and have reduced some of the uncertainty inherent in past studies of standard candles.

The result of this more accurate measurement is that the Hubble constant has been refined. And that, in turn, has increased the difference between the two ways the expansion of the Universe is measured. The gap between what the Hubble constant tells us is the rate of expansion, and what the CMB, as measured by the Planck spacecraft, tells us is the rate of expansion, is now 8%. And 8% is too large a discrepancy to be explained away as measurement error.

The fallout from this is that we may need to revise our standard model of cosmology to account for this, somehow. And right now, we can only guess what might need to be changed. There are at least a couple candidates, though.

It might be centred around Dark Matter, and how it behaves. It’s possible that Dark Matter is affected by a force in the Universe that doesn’t act on anything else. Since so little is known about Dark Matter, and the name itself is little more than a placeholder for something we are almost completely ignorant about, that could be it.

Or, it could be something to do with Dark Energy. Its name, too, is really just a placeholder for something we know almost nothing about. Maybe Dark Energy is not constant, as we have thought, but changes over time to become stronger now than in the past. That could account for the discrepancy.

A third possibility is that standard candles are not the reliable indicators of distance that we thought they were. We’ve refined our measurements of standard candles before, maybe we will again.

Where this all leads is open to speculation at this point. The rate of expansion of the Universe has changed before; about 7.5 billion years ago it accelerated. Maybe it’s changing again, right now in our time. Since Dark Energy occupies so-called empty space, maybe more of it is being created as expansion continues. Maybe we’re reaching another tipping or balancing point.

The only thing certain is that it is a mystery. One that we are driven to understand.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Recovered 1st Stage Arrives Back in Port After Historic Upright Landing at Sea

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Julian Leek

The SpaceX Falcon 9 that triumphantly accomplished history’s first upright landing of the spent first stage of a rocket on a barge at sea – after launching a critical cargo payload to orbit for NASA – sailed back into port at Cape Canaveral overnight in the wee hours of this morning, April 12, standing tall.

The recovered 15 story tall Falcon 9 booster arrived back into Port Canaveral, Florida at about 130 a.m. early today, towed atop the ocean going platform that SpaceX dubs an ‘Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship’ or ASDS.

The ship is named “Of Course I Still Love You” after a starship from a novel written by Iain M. Banks. The landing platform measures only about 170 ft × 300 ft (52 m × 91 m).

A small crowd of excited onlookers and space photographers savored and cheered the incredible moment that is surely changing the face and future of space exploration and travel.

The two stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boasting over 1.5 million pounds of thrust originally launched on Friday, April 8 at 4:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The primary goal of the Falcon 9 launch was carrying the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter to low Earth orbit on a commercial resupply delivery mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS).

Before the launch, SpaceX managers rated the chances of a successful landing recovery rather high.

Three previous attempts by SpaceX to land on a barge at sea were partially successful, as the stage made a pinpoint flyback to the tiny ship but either hit too hard or tipped over in the final moments when a landing leg failed to fully deploy or lock in place.

“We were very optimistic of the chances of a successful landing on this mission,” Hans Koenigsmann told Universe Today in an exclusive post landing interview at the NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum (NEAF) held in Suffern, NY.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch from and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Julian Leek

Coincidentally, today marks two major anniversaries in the history of space flight; the 55th anniversary of the launch of Russia’s Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space on Vostok-1 on April 12, 1961; and the 35th anniversary of the launch of shuttle Columbia on America’s first space shuttle mission (STS-1) on April 12, 1981 with John Young and Bob Crippen.

The vision of SpaceX’s billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk is to dramatically slash the cost of access to space by recovering the firms rockets and recycling them for reuse – so that launching rockets will one day be nearly as routine and cost effective as flying on an airplane.

The stage will now be painstakingly inspected, tested and refurbished.

The essential next step after recovery is recycling. Musk said he hopes to re-launch the booster this year.

At liftoff, Dragon was loaded with over 3.5 tons of research experiments and essential supplies for the six man crew living aboard the orbiting science complex.
Watch this launch video from my video camera placed at the pad:

Video Caption: Spectacular blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL at 4:43 p.m. EST on April 8, 2016. Up close movie captured by Mobius remote video camera placed at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Dragon CRS-8 cargo ship successfully arrived at the station on Sunday, April 10 and was joined to the million pound station at the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module.

The secondary objective was to try and land the Falcon 9 first stage on the ASDS done ship located some 200 miles off shore in the Atlantic Ocean.

The action-packed and propulsive landing took place some 10 minutes after liftoff.

In the final moments of the descent to the drone ship, one of the first stage Merlin 1D engines was reignited to slow the boosters descent speed as the quartet of side-mounted landing legs at the boosters base were unfurled, deployed and locked into place.

The entire launch and landing sequence was webcast live on NASA TV and by SpaceX.

The recovered booster atop the “Of Course I Still Love You” barge was towed back to port by the Elsbeth III tug.

“Home sweet home”, said my friend and veteran space photographer Julian Leek, who witnessed the boosters arrival back in port overnight.

“It was really a sight to see. Pilots and tugs did a well coordinated job to bring her in.”

After daylight dawned, a crane lifted the recovered booster into a storage cradle where it will remain upright for a few days. Then it will be lowered and placed horizontally for transport a few miles north to a SpaceX processing hanger back at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moved by crane from drone ship to an upright storage cradle on land at Port Canaveral,  Florida on April 12, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moved by crane from drone ship to an upright storage cradle on land at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

The booster will be cleaned and defueled, SpaceX spokesman John Taylor told the media.

SpaceX engineers will conduct a series of 12 test firings to ensure all is well operationally and that the booster can be re-launched.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch from and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: SpaceX
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

When Will Earth Lock to the Moon?

We always see the same side of the Moon. It’s always up there, staring down at us with its terrifying visage. Or maybe it’s a creepy rabbit? Anyway, it’s always showing us the same face, and never any other part.

This is because the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth; the same fate that affects every single large moon orbiting a planet. The Moon is locked to the Earth, the Jovian moons are locked to Jupiter, Titan is locked to Saturn, etc.

As the Moon orbits the Earth, it slowly rotates to keep the same hemisphere facing us. Its day is as long as its year. And standing on the surface of the Moon, you’d see the Earth in roughly the same spot in the sky. Forever and ever.

Forever and ever and ever... unless we finally manage to destroy the Moon. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
Because of tidal locking, you’d see Earth in roughly the same spot from the Moon forever. For-eh-ver. For-EH-VER. Credit: NASA / Goddard / Arizona State University

We see this all across the Solar System.

But there’s one place where this tidal locking goes to the next level: the dwarf planet Pluto and its large moon Charon are tidally locked to each other. In other words, the same hemisphere of Pluto always faces Charon and vice versa.

It take Pluto about 6 and a half days for the Sun to return to the same point in the sky, which is the same time it takes Charon to complete an orbit, which is the same time it takes the Sun to pass through the sky on Charon.

Since Pluto eventually locked to its moon, can the same thing happen here on Earth. Will we eventually lock with the Moon?

Before we answer this question, let’s explain what’s going on here. Although the Earth and the Moon are spheres, they actually have a little variation. The gravity pulling on each world creates love handle tidal bulges on each world.

And these bulges act like a brake, slowing down the rotation of the world. Because the Earth has 81 times the mass of the Moon, it was the dominant force in this interaction.

In the early Solar System, both the Earth and the Moon rotated independently. But the Earth’s gravity grabbed onto those love handles and slowed down the rotation of the Moon. To compensate for the loss of momentum in the system, the Moon drifted away from the Earth to its current position, about 370,000 kilometers away.

But Moon has the same impact on the Earth. The same tidal forces that cause the tides on Earth are slowing down the Earth’s rotation bit by bit. And the Moon is continuing to drift away a few centimeters a year to compensate.

It’s hard to estimate exactly when, but over the course of tens of billions of years, the Earth will become locked to the Moon, just like Pluto and Charon.

Pluto and Charon are tidally locked to each other. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Pluto and Charon are tidally locked to each other. Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Of course, this will be long after the Sun has died as a red giant. And there’s no way to know what kind of mayhem that’ll cause to the Earth-Moon system. Other planets in the Solar System may shift around, and maybe even eject the Earth into space, taking the Moon with it.

What about the Sun? Is it possible for the Earth to eventually lock gravitationally to the Sun?

Astronomers have found extrasolar planets orbiting other stars which are tidally locked. But they’re extremely close, well within the orbit of Mercury.

Here in our Solar System, we’re just too far away from the Sun for the Earth to lock to it. The gravitational influence of the other planets like Venus, Mars and Jupiter perturb our orbit and keep us from ever locking. Without any other planets in the Solar System, though, and with a Sun that would last forever, it would be an inevitability.

It is theoretically possible that the Earth will tidally lock to the Moon in about 50 billion years or so. Assuming the Earth and Moon weren’t consumed during the Sun’s red giant phase. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

SpaceX Dragon Carrying New Inflatable Room Captured and Mated to Space Station

SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 over Africa coming in for the approach to the ISS.  Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra/@astro_tim
SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 over Africa coming in for the approach to the ISS. Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra/@astro_tim

A SpaceX commercial cargo freighter jam packed with more than three and a half tons of research experiments, essential crew supplies and a new experimental inflatable habitat reached the International Space Station (ISS) and the gleeful multinational crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts on Sunday, April 10.

The U.S. SpaceX Dragon cargo craft arrived at the ISS following a carefully choreographed orbital chase inaugurated by a spectacular launch atop an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on Friday, April 8.

As the massive Earth orbiting outpost was soaring some 250 miles (400 kilometers) over the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii, British astronaut Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency), with the able assistance of NASA’s Jeff Williams, successfully captured the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 resupply ship with the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm.

Peake painstakingly maneuvered and deftly grappled Dragon with the snares at the terminus of the 57 foot long (19 meter long) Canadarm2 at 7:23 a.m. EDT for installation on the million pound orbital lab complex.

“Looks like we’ve caught a Dragon,” Peake radioed back to Mission Control. The orbital operational was webcast live on NASA TV.

“Awesome capture by crewmate Tim Peake,” said fellow NASA crewmate Tim Kopra who snapped a series of breathtaking images of the approach and capture.

Final Approach for @SpaceXDragon before an awesome capture by crewmate @Astro_TimPeake! Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra/@astro_tim
Final Approach for @SpaceXDragon before an awesome capture by crewmate @Astro_TimPeake! Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra/@astro_tim

Ground controllers at Mission Control in Houston then issued commands to carefully guide the robotic arm holding the Dragon freighter to the Earth-facing port on the bottom side of the Harmony module for its month long stay at the space station.

The ship was finally bolted into place at 9:57 a.m. EDT as the station flew 250 miles (400 km) over southern Algeria.

Watch this NASA video compiling all the highlights of the arrival and mating of the SpaceX Dragon on April 10, 2016 carrying the BEAM habitat module and 3.5 tons of science and supplies. Credit: NASA

Expedition 47 crew members Jeff Williams and Tim Kopra of NASA, Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) and cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko, Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos are currently living aboard the orbiting laboratory.

In a historic first, the arrival of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft marks the first time that two American cargo ships are simultaneously docked to the ISS. The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 cargo freighter only just arrived on March 26 and is now installed at a neighboring docking port on the Unity module.

The SpaceX Dragon is seen shortly after it was mated to the Harmony module. The Cygnus cargo craft with its circular solar arrays and the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft (bottom right) are also seen in this view. Credit: NASA TV
The SpaceX Dragon is seen shortly after it was mated to the Harmony module. The Cygnus cargo craft with its circular solar arrays and the Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft (bottom right) are also seen in this view. Credit: NASA TV

Cygnus was launched to the ISS atop a ULA Atlas V barely two weeks earlier on March 22 – as I reported on and witnessed from the Kennedy Space Center press site.

“With the arrival of Dragon, the space station ties the record for most vehicles on station at one time – six,” say NASA officials.

The Dragon spacecraft is delivering almost 7,000 pounds of cargo, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to the orbital laboratory which was carried to orbit inside the Dragon’s unpressurized truck section.

BEAM is a prototype inflatable habitat that the crew will soon pluck from the Dragon’s truck with the robotic arm for installation on a side port of the Harmony module.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station.  Credits: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an experimental expandable capsule that attaches to the space station. Credits: Bigelow Aerospace, LLC

CRS-8 counts as the company’s eighth flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the ISS for the crews of Expeditions 47 and 48 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress.

Friday’s launch marks the first for a Dragon since the catastrophic failure of the SpaceX Falcon 9 last June.

Dragon will remain at the station until it returns for Earth on May 11 for a parachute assisted splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Baja California. It will be packed with almost 3,500 pounds off cargo and numerous science samples, including those biological samples collected by 1 year ISS crew member Scott Kelly, for return to investigators, hardware and spacewalking tools, some additional broken hardware for repair and some items of trash for disposal.

Video caption: 5 camera views of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the CRS-8 mission to the ISS on 04/08/2016. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

SpaceX Launches to ISS with BEAM Habitat Prototype and Lands First Stage At Sea

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo spacecraft launches on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station.   Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo spacecraft launches on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Julian Leek

All around, today, April 8, was a great day for the future of space exploration. SpaceX successfully restarted their critical cargo flights for NASA to stock the International Space Station (ISS) with essential supplies and groundbreaking science experiments, while the innovative firm also successfully landed the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket on a barge at sea.

The triumphant ‘Return to Flight’ launch of the upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 with the Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter was the primary goal of Friday’s launch and validated the hardware fixes put in place following the catastrophic failure of the previous Dragon CRS-7 cargo ship two minutes after liftoff on June 28, 2015 due to a faulty strut in the boosters second stage.

Landing the booster safely on a drone ship at sea was the secondary goal of the flight but is critical towards achieving the vision of rocket recovery and reusability at the heart of SpaceX Founder Elon Musk’s dream of slashing the cost of access to space and one day establishing a ‘City on Mars.”

The weather was fantastic in the sunshine state as the two stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boasting over 1.3 million pounds of thrust launched on time Friday at 4:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft launches on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station.   Credits: NASA
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft launches on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

The Dragon spacecraft is delivering almost 7,000 pounds of cargo, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to the orbital laboratory.

Friday’s launch marks the first for a Dragon since the catastrophic failure of the SpaceX Falcon 9 last June.

CRS-8 counts as the company’s eighth flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the ISS for the crews of Expeditions 47 and 48 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress.

Packed aboard the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk section is the experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) – an experimental expandable capsule that the crew will attach to the space station. The 3115 pound (1413 kg) BEAM will test the use of an expandable space habitat in microgravity. BEAM will expand to roughly 13-feet-long and 10.5 feet in diameter after it is installed.

Among the new experiments arriving to the station will be Veggie-3 to grow Chinese lettuce in microgravity as a followup to Zinnias recently grown, an investigation to study muscle atrophy and bone loss in space, using microgravity to seek insight into the interactions of particle flows at the nanoscale level and use protein crystal growth in microgravity to help in the design of new drugs to fight disease, as well as reflight of 25 student experiments from Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Odyssey II payload that were lost during the CRS-7 launch failure.

“The cargo will allow investigators to use microgravity conditions to test the viability of expandable space habitats, assess the impact of antibodies on muscle wasting, use protein crystal growth to aid the design of new disease-fighting drugs and investigate how microbes could affect the health of the crew and their equipment over a long duration mission,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft streak to orbit after launch on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station. Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft streak to orbit after launch on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Julian Leek

Dragon reached its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after launch and deployed its solar arrays as targeted and as seen on the live webcast. It now begins a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings to reach the space station.

After a 2 day orbital chase Dragon is set to arrive at the orbiting outpost on Sunday, April 10.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Tim Peake will then reach out with the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm to grapple and capture the Dragon spacecraft.

Ground commands will be sent from Houston to the station’s arm to install Dragon on the Earth-facing bottom side of the Harmony module for its stay at the space station. Live coverage of the rendezvous and capture will begin at 5:30 a.m. on NASA TV, with installation set to begin at 9:30 a.m.

In a historic first, the launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft sets the stage for the first time that two American cargo ships will be simultaneously attached to the ISS. The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter launched just launched on March 22 and arrived on March 26 at a neighboring docking port on the Unity module.

Dragon will remain at the station until it returns for Earth on May 11 for a parachute assisted splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Baja California. It will be packed with almost 3,500 pounds off cargo and numerous science samples, including those biological samples collected by 1 year ISS crew member Scott Kelly, for return to investigators, hardware and spacewalking tools, some additional broken hardware for repair and some items of trash for disposal.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft streaks to orbit after launch on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station. As seen from the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, Fl.  Credit: Ashley Crouch
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon spacecraft streaks to orbit after launch on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station. As seen from the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center, Titusville, Fl. Credit: Ashley Crouch

SpaceX CRS-8 is the eighth of up to 20 missions to the ISS that SpaceX will fly for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo spacecraft launches on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station.   Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo spacecraft launches on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Julian Leek

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SpaceX, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

A Star With A Disk Of Water Ice? Meet HD 100546

It might seem incongruous to find water ice in the disk of gas and dust surrounding a star. Fire and ice just don’t mix. We would never find ice near our Sun.

But our Sun is old. About 5 billion years old, with about 5 billion more to go. Some younger stars, of a type called Herbig Ae/Be stars (after American astronomer George Herbig,) are so young that they are surrounded by a circumstellar disk of gas and dust which hasn’t been used up by the formation of planets yet. For these types of stars, the presence of water ice is not necessarily unexpected.

Water ice plays an important role in a young solar system. Astronomers think that water ice helps large, gaseous, planets to form. The presence of ice makes the outer section of a planetary disk more dense. This increased density allows the cores of gas planets to coalesce and form.

Young solar systems have what is called a snowline. It is the boundary between terrestrial and gaseous planets. Beyond this snowline, ice in the protoplanetary disk encourages gas planets to form. Inside this snowline, the lack of water ice contributes to the formation of terrestrial planets. You can see this in our own Solar System, where the snowline must have been between Mars and Jupiter.

A team of astronomers using the Gemini telescope observed the presence of water ice in the protoplanetary disk surrounding the star HD 100546, a Herbig Ae/Be star about 320 light years from us. At only 10 million years old, this star is rather young, and it is a well-studied star. The Hubble has found complex, spiral patterns in the disk, and so far these patterns are unexplained.

HD 100546 is also notable because in 2013, research showed the probable ongoing formation of a planet in its disk. This presented a rare opportunity to study the early stages of planet formation. Finding ice in the disk, and discovering how deep it exists in the disk, is a key piece of information in understanding planet formation in young solar systems.

Finding this ice took some clever astro-sleuthing. The Gemini telescope was used, with its Near-Infrared Coronagraphic Imager (NICI), a tool used to study gas giants. The team installed H2O ice filters to help zero in on the presence of water ice. The protoplanetary disk around young stars, as in the case of HD 100546, is a mixed up combination of dusts and gases, and isolating types of materials in the disk is not easy.

Water ice has been found in disks around other Herbig Ae/Be stars, but the depth of distribution of that ice has not been easy to understand. This paper shows that the ice is present in the disk, but only shallowly, with UV photo desorption processes responsible for destroying water ice grains closer to the star.

It may seem trite so say that more study is needed, as the authors of the study say. But really, in science, isn’t more study always needed? Will we ever reach the end of understanding? Certainly not. And certainly not when it comes to the formation of planets, which is a pretty important thing to understand.