A Star Is About To Go 2.5% The Speed Of Light Past A Black Hole

Since it was first discovered in 1974, astronomers have been dying to get a better look at the Supermassive Black Hole (SBH) at the center of our galaxy. Known as Sagittarius A*, scientists have only been able to gauge the position and mass of this SBH by measuring the effect it has on the stars that orbit it. But so far, more detailed observations have eluded them, thanks in part to all the gas and dust that obscures it.

Luckily, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) recently began work with the GRAVITY interferometer, the latest component in their Very Large Telescope (VLT). Using this instrument, which combines near-infrared imaging, adaptive-optics, and vastly improved resolution and accuracy, they have managed to capture images of the stars orbiting Sagittarius A*. And what they have observed was quite fascinating.

One of the primary purposes of GRAVITY is to study the gravitational field around Sagittarius A* in order to make precise measurements of the stars that orbit it. In so doing, the GRAVITY team – which consists of astronomers from the ESO, the Max Planck Institute, and multiple European research institutes – will be able to test Einstein’s theory of General Relativity like never before.

The core of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)
Spitzer image of the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech)

In what was the first observation conducted using the new instrument, the GRAVITY team used its powerful interferometric imaging capabilities to study S2, a faint star which orbits Sagittarius A* with a period of only 16 years. This test demonstrated the effectiveness of the GRAVITY instrument – which is 15 times more sensitive than the individual 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes the VLT currently relies on.

This was an historic accomplishment, as a clear view of the center of our galaxy is something that has eluded astronomers in the past. As GRAVITY’s lead scientist, Frank Eisenhauer – from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany – explained to Universe Today via email:

“First, the Galactic Center is hidden behind a huge amount of interstellar dust, and it is practically invisible at optical wavelengths. The stars are only observable in the infrared, so we first had to develop the necessary technology and instruments for that. Second, there are so many stars concentrated in the Galactic Center that a normal telescope is not sharp enough to resolve them. It was only in the late 1990′ and in the beginning of this century when we learned to sharpen the images with the help of speckle interferometry and adaptive optics to see the stars and observe their dance around the central black hole.”

But more than that, the observation of S2 was very well timed. In 2018, the star will be at the closest point in its orbit to the Sagittarius A*  – just 17 light-hours from it. As you can see from the video below, it is at this point that S2 will be moving much faster than at any other point in its orbit (the orbit of S2 is highlighted in red and the position of the central black hole is marked with a red cross).

When it makes its closest approach, S2 will accelerate to speeds of almost 30 million km per hour, which is 2.5% the speed of light. Another opportunity to view this star reach such high speeds will not come again for another 16 years – in 2034. And having shown just how sensitive the instrument is already, the GRAVITY team expects to be able make very precise measurements of the star’s position.

In fact, they anticipate that the level of accuracy will be comparable to that of measuring the positions of objects on the surface of the Moon, right down to the centimeter-scale. As such, they will be able to determine whether the motion of the star as it orbits the black hole are consistent with Einstein’s theories of general relativity.

“[I]t is not the speed itself to cause the general relativistic effects,” explained Eisenhauer, “but the strong gravitation around the black hole. But the very  high orbital speed is a direct consequence and measure of the gravitation, so we refer to it in the press release because the comparison with the speed of light and the ISS illustrates so nicely the extreme conditions.

Artist's impression of the influence gravity has on space time. Credit: space.com
Artist’s impression of the influence gravity has on space-time. Credit: space.com

As recent simulations of the expansion of galaxies in the Universe have shown, Einstein’s theories are still holding up after many decades. However, these tests will offer hard evidence, obtained through direct observation. A star traveling at a portion of the speed of light around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy will certainly prove to be a fitting test.

And Eisenhauer and his colleagues expect to see some very interesting things. “We hope to see a “kick” in the orbit.” he said. “The general relativistic effects increase very strongly when you approach the black hole, and when the star swings by, these effects will slightly change the direction of the
orbit.”

While those of us here at Earth will not be able to “star gaze” on this occasion and see R2 whipping past Sagittarius A*, we will still be privy to all the results. And then, we just might see if Einstein really was correct when he proposed what is still the predominant theory of gravitation in physics, over a century later.

Further Reading: eso.org

What are the Different Masses of the Planets?

It is a well known fact that the planets of the Solar System vary considerably in terms of size. For instance, the planets of the inner Solar System are smaller and denser than the gas/ice giants of the outer Solar System. And in some cases, planets can actually be smaller than the largest moons. But a planet’s size is not necessarily proportional to its mass. In the end, how massive a planet is has more to do with its composition and density.

So while a planet like Mercury may be smaller in size than Jupiter’s moon Ganymede or Saturn’s moon Titan, it is more than twice as massive than they are. And while Jupiter is 318 times as massive as Earth, its composition and density mean that it is only 11.21 times Earth’s size. Let’s go over the planet’s one by one and see just how massive they are, shall we?

Mercury:

Mercury is the Solar System’s smallest planet, with an average diameter of 4879 km (3031.67 mi). It is also one of its densest at 5.427 g/cm3, which is second only to Earth. As a terrestrial planet, it is composed of silicate rock and minerals and is differentiated between an iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. But unlike its peers (Venus, Earth and Mars), it has an abnormally large metallic core relative to its crust and mantle.

All told, Mercury’s mass is approximately 0.330 x 1024 kg, which works out to 330,000,000 trillion metric tons (or the equivalent of 0.055 Earths). Combined with its density and size, Mercury has a surface gravity of 3.7 m/s² (or 0.38 g).

Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL
Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL

Venus:

Venus, otherwise known as “Earth’s Sister Planet”, is so-named because of its similarities in composition, size, and mass to our own. Like Earth, Mercury and Mars, it is a terrestrial planet, and hence quite dense. In fact, with a density of 5.243 g/cm³, it is the third densest planet in the Solar System (behind Earth and Mercury). Its average radius is roughly 6,050 km (3759.3 mi), which is the equivalent of 0.95 Earths.

And when it comes to mass, the planet weighs in at a hefty 4.87 x 1024 kg, or 4,870,000,000 trillion metric tons. Not surprisingly, this is the equivalent of 0.815 Earths, making it the second most massive terrestrial planet in the Solar System. Combined with its density and size, this means that Venus also has comparable gravity to Earth – roughly 8.87 m/s², or 0.9 g.

Earth:

Like the other planets of the inner Solar System, Earth is also a terrestrial planet, composed of metals and silicate rocks differentiated between an iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. Of the terrestrial planets, it is the largest and densest, with an average radius of 6,371.0 km (3,958.8 mi) and a mean of density of 5.514 g/cm3.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

And at 5.97 x 1024 kg (which works out to 5,970,000,000,000 trillion metric tons) Earth is the most massive of all the terrestrial planets. Combined with its size and density, Earth experiences the surface gravity that we are all familiar with – 9.8 m/s², or 1 g.

Mars:

Mars is the third largest terrestrial planet, and the second smallest planet in our Solar System. Like the others, it is composed of metals and silicate rocks that are differentiated between a iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. But while it is roughly half the size of Earth (with a mean diameter of 6792 km, or 4220.35 mi), it is only one-tenth as massive.

In short, Mars has a mass of 0.642 x1024 kg, which works out to 642,000,000 trillion metric tons, or roughly 0.11 the mass of Earth. Combined with its size and density – 3.9335 g/cm³ (which is roughly 0.71 times that of Earth’s) – Mars has a surface gravity of 3.711 m/s² (or 0.376 g).

Jupiter:

Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System. With a mean diameter of 142,984 km, it is big enough to fit all the other planets (except Saturn) inside itself, and big enough to fit Earth 11.8 times over. But with a mass of 1898 x 1024 kg (or 1,898,000,000,000 trillion metric tons), Jupiter is more massive than all the other planets in the Solar System combined – 2.5 times more massive, to be exact.

upiter's structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)
Jupiter’s structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)

However, as a gas giant, it has a lower overall density than the terrestrial planets. It’s mean density is 1.326 g/cm, but this increases considerably the further one ventures towards the core. And though Jupiter does not have a true surface, if one were to position themselves within its atmosphere where the pressure is the same as Earth’s at sea level (1 bar), they would experience a gravitational pull of 24.79 m/s2 (2.528 g).

Saturn:

Saturn is the second largest of the gas giants; with a mean diameter of 120,536 km, it is just slightly smaller than Jupiter. However, it is significantly less massive than its Jovian cousin, with a mass of 569 x 1024 kg (or 569,000,000,000 trillion metric tons). Still, this makes Saturn the second most-massive planet in the Solar System, with 95 times the mass of Earth.

Much like Jupiter, Saturn has a low mean density due to its composition. In fact, with an average density of 0.687 g/cm³, Saturn is the only planet in the Solar System that is less dense than water (1 g/cm³).  But of course, like all gas giants, its density increases considerably the further one ventures towards the core. Combined with its size and mass, Saturn has a “surface” gravity that is just slightly higher than Earth’s – 10.44 m/s², or 1.065 g.

Diagram of Saturn's interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons
Diagram of Saturn’s interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons

Uranus:

With a mean diameter of 51,118 km, Uranus is the third largest planet in the Solar System. But with a mass of 86.8 x 1024 kg (86,800,000,000 trillion metric tons) it is the fourth most massive – which is 14.5 times the mass of Earth. This is due to its mean density of 1.271 g/cm3, which is about three quarters of what Neptune’s is. Between its size, mass, and density, Uranus’ gravity works out to 8.69 m/s2, which is 0.886 g.

Neptune:

Neptune is significantly larger than Earth; at 49,528 km, it is about four times Earth’s size. And with a mass of 102 x 1024 kg (or 102,000,000,000 trillion metric tons) it is also more massive – about 17 times more to be exact. This makes Neptune the third most massive planet in the Solar System; while its density is the greatest of any gas giant (1.638 g/cm3). Combined, this works out to a “surface” gravity of 11.15 m/s2 (1.14 g).

As you can see, the planets of the Solar System range considerably in terms of mass. But when you factor in their variations in density, you can see how a planets mass is not always proportionate to its size. In short, while some planets may be a few times larger than others, they are can have many, many times more mass.

We have written many interesting articles about the planets here at Universe. For instance, here’s Interesting Facts About the Solar System, What are the Colors of the Planets?, What are the Signs of the Planets?, How Dense are the Planets?, and What are the Diameters of the Planets?.

For more information, check out Nine Planets overview of the Solar System, NASA’s Solar System Exploration, and use this site to find out what you would weigh on other planets.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all of the planets. Here’s Episode 49: Mercury to start!

Spectacular Launch of Most Powerful Atlas Completes Constellation of Navy’s Advanced Tactical Comsats – Gallery

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5  mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 10:30 a.m. EDT.  Credit:  United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 10:30 a.m. EDT on June 24, 2016. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Today’s (June 24) spectacular launch of the most powerful version of the venerable Atlas V rocket from the sunshine state completes the orbital deployment of a constellation of advanced tactical communications satellites for the U.S. Navy.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the massive MUOS-5 satellite into clear blue skies from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 10:30 a.m. EDT – on its way to a geosynchronous orbit location approximately 22,000 miles (37,586 km) above the Earth.

Note: Check back again for an expanding gallery of launch photos and videos

The Mobile User Objective System-5 (MUOS-5) satellite is the last in a five-satellite constellation that will provide military forces with significantly improved and assured communications worldwide. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the MUOS system.

As launch time neared the weather odds improved to 100% GO and Atlas rumbled off the pad for on time launch that took place at the opening of a 44 minute window.

The launch was broadcast live on a ULA webcast.

The 206 foot tall Atlas rocket roared to space on an expanding plume of smoke and crackling fire from the first stage liquid and solid fueled engines generating over 2.5 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

Their contribution complete, all 5 solid rocket motors were jettisoned with seconds about 2 minutes after liftoff as the liquid fueled first stage continued firing.

The spent first stage separated about 5 minutes after liftoff, as the Centaur second stage fires up for the first of three times over almost three hours to deliver the hefty payload to orbit.

Blastoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on MUOS-5  mission from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Blastoff of United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on MUOS-5 mission from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016. Credit: Lane Hermann

“We are honored to deliver the final satellite in the MUOS constellation for the U.S. Navy,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president, Custom Services, in a statement.

“Congratulations to our navy, air force and Lockheed Martin mission partners on yet another successful launch that provides our warfighters with enhanced communications capabilities to safely and effectively conduct their missions around the globe.”

This is the fifth satellite in the MUOS series and will provide military users up to 16 times more communications capability over existing systems, including simultaneous voice, video and data, leveraging 3G mobile communications technology.

Long plume from MUOS-5 Atlas V Launch by United Launch Alliance from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016.  Credit: Michael Seeley
Long plume from MUOS-5 Atlas V Launch by United Launch Alliance from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016. Credit: Michael Seeley

With MUOS-5 in orbit the system’s constellation is completed.

MUOS-5 will serve as an on orbit spare. It provides the MUOS network with near-global coverage. Communications coverage for military forces now extends further toward the North and South poles than ever before, according to Lockheed Martin officials.

“Like its predecessors, the MUOS-5 satellite has two payloads to support both new Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA) waveform capabilities, as well as the legacy Ultra High Frequency (UHF) satellite system. On orbit, MUOS-5 will augment the constellation as a WCDMA spare, while actively supporting the legacy UHF system, currently used by many mobile forces today.”

The prior MUOS-4 satellite was launched on Sept. 2, 2015 – as I reported here.

The 20 story tall Atlas V launched in its most powerful 551 configuration and performed flawlessly.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying MUOS-5 military comsat streaks to orbit atop a vast exhaust plume after liftoff from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016.  Credit: Jillian Laudick
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying MUOS-5 military comsat streaks to orbit atop a vast exhaust plume after liftoff from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016. Credit: Jillian Laudick

The vehicle includes a 5-meter diameter payload fairing and five solid rocket boosters that augment the first stage. The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The RD-180 burns RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of thrust at sea level.

And the rocket needed all that thrust because the huge MUOS-5 was among the heftiest payloads ever lofted by an Atlas V booster, weighing in at some 15,000 pounds.
The Centaur upper stage was fired a total of three times.

For this mission the payload fairing was outfitted with an upgraded and advanced acoustic system to beet shield the satellite from the intense vibrations during the launch sequence.

This Atlas launch had been delayed several months to rectify a shortfall in the first stage thrust that occurred during the prior mission launching the Orbital ATK OA-6 cargo freighter in March 2016 on a contract mission for NASA to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch comes just two weeks after blastoff of the ULA Delta IV Heavy, the worlds most powerful rocket, on a mission to deliver a top secret spy satellite to orbit – as I witnessed and reported on here.

“I am so proud of the team for all their hard work and commitment to 100 percent mission success,” Maginnis added.

“It is amazing to deliver our second national security payload from the Cape in just two weeks. I know this success is due to our amazing people who make the remarkable look routine.”

The 15,000 pound MUOS payload is a next-generation narrowband tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve ground communications for U.S. forces on the move.

Here’s a detailed mission profile video describing the launch events:

Video caption: Atlas V MUOS-5 Mission Profile launched on June 24, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air force Station. Credit: ULA

The launch was supported by the 45th Space Wing.

“Today’s successful launch is the culmination of the 45th Space Wing, Space and Missile Systems Center, Navy and ULA’s close partnership and dedicated teamwork,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander and mission Launch Decision Authority, in a statement.

“We continue our unwavering focus on mission success and guaranteeing assured access to space for our nation, while showcasing why the 45th Space Wing is the ‘World’s Premiere Gateway to Space.”

Watch this exciting launch highlights video reel from ULA – including deployment of MUOS-5!

The MUOS-5 launch marked the 63rd Atlas V mission since the vehicle’s inaugural launch in August 2002. To date seven flights have launched in the 551 configuration. These include all four prior MUOS missions as well as NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Juno mission to Jupiter.

Watch my up close remote launch video from the pad with hurling rocks:

Video caption: The sounds and fury of a ULA Atlas V 551 rocket blast off carrying Lockheed Martin built MUOS-5 tactical communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit for US Navy on June 24, 2016 at 10:30 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen in this up close video from remote camera positioned at pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this compilation of dramatic launch videos from Jeff Seibert.

Video Caption: MUOS-5 launch compilation on ULA Atlas 5 rocket on 6/24/2016 from Pad 41 of CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The Navy's fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) is encapsulated inside an Atlas V five-meter diameter payload fairing.  Credit: ULA
The Navy’s fifth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) is encapsulated inside an Atlas V five-meter diameter payload fairing. Credit: ULA

The next Atlas V launch is slated for July 28 with the NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Blastoff of MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of MUOS-4 US Navy communications satellite on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket poised for launch on MUOS-5  mission from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016.  Credit: Lane Hermann
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket poised for launch on MUOS-5 mission from Space Launch Complex-41 on June 24, 2016. Credit: Lane Hermann
Artist’s concept of a MUOS satellite in orbit. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Artist’s concept of a MUOS satellite in orbit. Credit: Lockheed Martin
MUOS-5 mission logo. Credit: ULA
MUOS-5 mission logo. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5  mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 10:30 a.m. EDT on June 24, 2016.  Credit:  United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 at 10:30 a.m. EDT on June 24, 2016. Credit: United Launch Alliance

HiRISE Captures Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau

MSL Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau on the Martian surface. This image was captured by HiRise on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Viewing orbital images of the rovers as they go about their business on the surface of Mars is pretty cool. Besides being of great interest to anyone keen on space in general, they have scientific value as well. New images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Equipment (HiRise) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) help scientists in a number of ways.

Recent images from HiRise show the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity on a feature called the Naukluft Plateau. The Plateau is named after a mountain range in Namibia, and is the site of Curiosity’s 10th and 11th drill targets.

Orbital imagery of the rovers is used to track the activity of sand dunes in the areas the rovers are working in. In this case, the dune field is called the Bagnold Dunes. HiRise imagery allows a detailed look at how dunes change over time, and how any tracks left by the rover are filled in with sand over time. Knowledge of this type of activity is a piece of the puzzle in understanding the Martian surface.

Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau as captured by HiRise. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Curiosity on the Naukluft Plateau as captured by HiRise. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

But the ability to take such detailed images of the Martian surface has other benefits, as well. Especially as we get nearer to a human presence on Mars.

Orbital imaging is turning exploration on its ear. Throughout human history, exploration required explorers travelling by land and sea to reconnoiter an area, and to draw maps and charts later. We literally had no idea what was around the corner, over the mountain, or across the sea until someone went there. There was no way to choose a location for a settlement until we had walked the ground.

From the serious (SpaceX, NASA) to the fanciful (MarsOne), a human mission to Mars, and an eventual established presence on Mars, is a coming fact. The how and the where are all connected in this venture, and orbital images will be a huge part of choosing where.

Tracking the changes in dunes over time will help inform the choice for human landing sites on Mars. The types and density of sand particles may be determined by monitoring rover tracks as they fill with sand. This may be invaluable information when it comes to designing the types of facilities used on Mars. Critical infrastructure in the form of greenhouses or solar arrays will need to be placed very carefully.

Sci-Fi writers have exaggerated the strength of sand storms on Mars to great effect, but they are real. We know from orbital monitoring, and from rovers, that Martian sandstorms can be very powerful phenomena. Of course, a 100 km/h wind on Earth is much more dangerous than on Mars because of the density of the atmosphere. Martian air is 1% the density of Earth’s, so on Mars the 100 km/h wind wouldn’t do much.

But it can pick up dust, and that dust can foul important equipment. With all this in mind, we can see how these orbital images give us an important understanding of how sand behaves on Mars.

This Martian sandstorm was captured by the MRO's Mars Color Imager instrument. Scientists were monitoring such storms prior to Curiosity's arrival on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This Martian sandstorm was captured by the MRO’s Mars Color Imager instrument. Scientists were monitoring such storms prior to Curiosity’s arrival on Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

There’s an unpredictability factor to all this too. We can’t always know in advance how important or valuable orbital imagery will be in the future. That’s part of doing science.

But back to the cool factor.

For the rest of us, who aren’t scientists, it’s just plain cool to be able to watch the rovers from above.

And, look at all the Martian eye candy!

These sand dunes in the southern hemisphere of Mars are just starting their seasonal defrost of carbon dioxide. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
These sand dunes in the southern hemisphere of Mars are just starting their seasonal defrost of carbon dioxide. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Weekly Space Hangout – June 24, 2016: Dr. James Green

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Dr. James Green is the NASA Director of Planetary Science.

Guests:

Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )

Their stories this week:

Evidence for volcanic history on Mars

Impact of Brexit on UK science uncertain

FRIPON: A New All-Sky Meteor Network

A Solstice Full Moon

Water on (under) Pluto???

Blue Origin conducts fourth launch, test

We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

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.

You can also join in the discussion between episodes over at our Weekly Space Hangout Crew group in G+!

Centaurs Keep Their Rings From Greedy Gas Giants

When we think of ring systems, what naturally comes to mind are planets like Saturn. It’s beautiful rings are certainly the most well known, but they are not the only planet in our Solar System to have them. As the Voyager missions demonstrated, every planet in the outer Solar System – from Jupiter to Neptune – has its own system of rings. And in recent years, astronomers have discovered that even certain minor planets – like the Centaur asteroids 10199 Chariklo and 2006 Chiron – have them too.

This was a rather surprising find, since these objects have such chaotic orbits. Given that their paths through the Solar System are frequently altered by the powerful gravity of gas giants, astronomers have naturally wondered how a minor planet could retain a system of rings. But thanks to a team of researchers from the Sao Paulo State University in Brazil, we may be close to answering that question.

In a study titled “The Rings of Chariklo Under Close Encounters With The Giant Planets“, which appeared recently in The Astrophysical Journal, they explained how they constructed a model of the Solar System that incorporated 729 simulated objects. All of these objects were the same size as Chariklo and had their own system of rings. They then went about the process of examining how interacting with gas giant effected them.

Artist's impression of rings around the asteroid Chariklo. This was the first asteroid where rings were discovered. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)
Artist’s impression of rings around the Centaur Chariklo, the first asteroid where rings were discovered. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

To break it down, Centaurs are a population of objects within our Solar System that behave as both comets and asteroids (hence why they are named after the hybrid beasts of Greek mythology). 10199 Chariklo is the largest known member of the Centaur population, a possible former Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) which currently orbits between Saturn and Uranus.

The rings around this asteroid were first noticed in 2013 when the asteroid underwent a stellar occultation. This revealed a system of two rings, with a radius of 391 and 405 km and widths of about 7 km 3 km, respectively. The absorption features of the rings showed that they were partially composed of water ice. In this respect, they were much like the rings of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and the other gas giants, which are composed largely of water ice and dust.

This was followed by findings made in 2015 that indicated that 2006 Chiron – another major Centaur – could have a ring of its own. This led to further speculation that there might be many minor planets in our Solar System that have a system of rings. Naturally, this was a bit perplexing to astronomers, since rings are fragile structures that were thought to be exclusive to the gas giants of our System.

As Professor Othon Winter, the lead researcher of the Sao Paulo team, told Universe Today via email:

“At first it was a surprise to find a Centaur with rings, since the Centaurs have chaotic orbits wandering between the giant planets and having frequent close encounters with them. However, we have shown that in most of the cases the ring system can survive all the close encounters with the giant planets. Therefore,  Centaurs with rings might be much more common than we thought before.”

Arist's impression of Chiron and its possible ring. Credit: dailygalaxy.com
Artist’s impression of Chiron, showing a possible ring system. Credit: dailygalaxy.com

For the sake of their study, Winter and his colleagues considered the orbits of 729 simulated clones of Chariklo as they orbited the Sun over the course of 100 million years. From this, Winter and his colleagues found that each Centaur averaged about 150 close encounters with a gas giant, within one Hill radius of the planet in question. As Winter described it:

“The study was made in two steps. First we considered a set of more than 700 clones of Chariklo. The clones had initial trajectories that were slightly different from Chariklo for statistical purposes (since we are dealing with chaotic trajectories) and computationally simulated their orbital evolution forward in time (to see their future) and also backward in time (to see their past). During these simulations we archived the information of all the close encounters (many thousands) they had with each of the giant planets.”

“In the second step, we performed simulations of each one of the close encounters found in the first step, but now including a disk of particles around Chariklo  (representing the ring particles). Then, at the end of each simulation we analyzed what happened to the particles. Which ones were removed from Chariklo  (escaping its gravitational field)? Which ones were strongly disturbed (still orbiting around Chariklo)? Which ones did not suffer any significant effect?”

In the end, the simulations showed that in 90 percent of the cases, the rings of the Centaurs survived their close encounters with gas giants, whereas they were disturbed in 4 percent of cases, and were stripped away only 3 percent of the time. Thus, they concluded that if there is an efficient mechanism that creates the rings, then it is strong enough to let Centaurs keep them.

Due to their dual nature, astronomers refer to asteroids that behave as both comets and asteroids as Centaurs. Credit: jpl.nasa.gov
Due to their dual nature, the name Centaur has stuck when referring to objects that act as both comets and asteroids. Credit: jpl.nasa.gov

More than that, their research would seem to indicate that what was considered unique to certain planetary bodies may actually be more commonplace. “It reveals that our Solar System is complex not just as whole or for large bodies,” said Winter, “but even small bodies may show complex structures and even more complex temporal evolution.”

The next step for the research team is to study ring formation, which could show that they in fact picking them up from the gas giants themselves. But regardless of where they come from, its becoming increasingly clear that Centaurs like 10199 Chariklo are not alone. What’s more, they aren’t giving up their rings anytime soon!

Further Reading: iopscience.iop.org

Antares Return to Flight Launch Likely Slips to August, Cygnus Completes Atmospheric Reentry

Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before the first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before the first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The long awaited maiden launch of Orbital ATK’s revamped Antares commercial rocket utilizing new first stage engines, from its Virginia launch base, will likely slip from July to August a company spokesperson confirmed to Universe Today.

The target date for the ‘Return to Flight’ launch of Antares on a cargo resupply mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) is “likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe,” Orbital ATK spokeswoman Sean Wilson told Universe Today.

The company had most recently been aiming towards an Antares launch date around July 6 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility – for its next NASA contracted mission to stock the ISS via the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter on a flight known as OA-5.

Meanwhile the firms most recently launched Cygnus OA-6 cargo ship departed the space station and completed its planned destructive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday, June 22.

But before Orbital ATK can resume Antares/Cygnus cargo flights to the ISS, it had to successfully hurdle through a critically important milestone on the path to orbit – namely a static hot fire test of the significantly modified first stage to confirm that its qualified for launch.

Orbital ATK conducted a full-power test of the upgraded first stage propulsion system of its Antares rocket on May 31, 2016 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A.  Credit: NASA/Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK conducted a full-power test of the upgraded first stage propulsion system of its Antares rocket on May 31, 2016 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A. Credit: NASA/Orbital ATK

To that end the aerospace firm recently completed a successful 30 second long test firing of the re-engined first stage on May 31 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Launch Pad 0A – as I reported here earlier.

A thorough analysis of the hot fire test results and its implications is underway.

“Our Antares team recently completed a successful stage test and is wrapping up the test data analysis,” Wilson said.

“Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe.”

In the meantime, company engineers continue to ready the rocket and payload.

“We are continuing to prepare for the upcoming launch of the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft for the OA-5 cargo logistics mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility,” Wilson noted.

It’s also clear that a decision on a launch date target is some weeks away and depends on the busy upcoming manifest of other ISS missions coming and going.

“A final decision on the mission schedule, which takes into account the space station traffic schedule and cargo requirements, will be made in conjunction with NASA in the next several weeks.”

And it also must take into account the launch of the intervening SpaceX ISS cargo flight that was just postponed two days to no earlier than July 18.

Another factor is the delayed launch of the next manned crew on a Russian Soyuz capsule from late June into July. Blastoff of the three person crew from Russia, the US and Japan is set for July 7. OA-5 will deliver some 3 tons of science experiments and crew supplies.

First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the upcoming May 31 hot fire engine test. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
First stage of Orbital ATK Antares rocket outfitted with new RD-181 engines stands erect at Launch Pad-0A on NASA Wallops Flight Facility on May 24, 2016 in preparation for the May 31 hot fire engine test. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Antares launches had immediately ground to a halt following a devastating launch failure 20 months ago which destroyed the rocket and its critical payload of space station science and supplies for NASA in a huge fireball just seconds after blastoff – as witnessed by this author.

As a direct result consequence of the catastrophic launch disaster, Orbital STK managers decided to outfit the Antares medium-class rocket with new first stage RD-181 engines built in Russia.

Base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The RD-181 replaces the previously used AJ26 engines which failed moments after liftoff during the last launch on Oct. 28, 2014 resulting in a catastrophic loss of the rocket and Cygnus cargo freighter.

The RD-181 flight engines are built by Energomash in Russia and had to be successfully tested via the static hot fire test to ensure their readiness.

As a result of switching to the new RD-181 engines, the first stage also had to be modified to incorporate new thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines between the engines and core stage structure, Mike Pinkston, Orbital ATK General Manager and Vice President, Antares Program told me in a prior interview.

The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016.  New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016. New thrust adapter structures, actuators, and propellant feed lines are incorporated between the engines and core stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So the primary goal of the stage test was to confirm the effectiveness of the new engines and all the changes in the integrated rocket stage.

It’s not entirely clear at this time whether the Antares launch delay to August is due to changes in the ISS manifest scheduling or any lingering questions from the hot fire test or both.

“A final decision on the mission schedule definitely takes into account the completion of data analysis combined with the busy space station traffic schedule and NASA’s cargo requirements,” Wilson told me in a response requesting clarification.

Following a quick look immediately following the May 31 test, Orbital ATK officials initially reported that all seemed well, with the caveat that further data review is needed.

“Early indications show the upgraded propulsion system, core stage and launch complex all worked together as planned,” said Mike Pinkston, Orbital ATK General Manager and Vice President, Antares Program.

“Congratulations to the combined NASA, Orbital ATK and Virginia Space team on a successful test.”

Orbital ATK engineers will now “review test data over the next several days to confirm that all test parameters were met. ”

The test used the first stage core planned to launch the OA-7 mission from Wallops late this year.

The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The new RD-181 engines are installed on the Orbital ATK Antares first stage core ready to support a full power hot fire test at the NASA Wallops Island launch pad in March 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

With the engine test completed, the OA-7 stage will be rolled back to the HIF processing hanger at Wallops and a new stage fully integrated with the Cygnus cargo freighter will be rolled out to the pad for the OA-5 ‘Return to Flight’ mission in August.

The mission of the OA-6 Cygnus ended on Wednesday, with a planned destructive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere at 9:29 a.m. EDT.

Also known as the SS Rick Husband, it had spent 3 months in orbit since launching in March on a ULA Atlas V.

It departed the ISS on June 14 and continued several science experiments. Most notable was to successfully create the largest fire in space via the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire-I).

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

Ken Kremer

Can Boeing Launch A Crewed Starliner By February 2018?

Boeing is competing with SpaceX to be the first American company to provide commercial crew capabilities to NASA. Image: Boeing

Boeing thinks it can have its Starliner spacecraft ready to fly crewed missions by February, 2018. This is 4 months later than the previous date of October 2017. It isn’t yet clear what this will mean in Boeing’s race against SpaceX to relieve NASA’s dependence on Russian transportation to the ISS.

Currently, astronauts travel to the ISS aboard the Russian workhorse Soyuz capsule. Ever since the end of the Space Shuttle program, NASA has relied on Russia to transport astronauts to the station. Both Boeing and SpaceX have received funds to develop a crewed capsule, and both companies are working at a feverish pace to be the first to do so.

Boeing has a long history of involvement with NASA. It’s the prime contractor for ISS operations, and is also the prime contractor for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will power NASA’s exploration of deep space. So Boeing is no stranger to complex development cycles and the types of delays that can crop up.

In a recent interview, Boeing’s Chris Ferguson acknowledged that everything has to go well for the Starliner to meet its schedule. But things don’t always go well in such a complex engineering program, and that’s just the way things are.

The Starliner, and every other spacecraft, has to undergo extensive testing of each component before any flight can be attempted. Various suppliers are responsible for over 200 pieces of equipment, just in avionics alone, and each one of those pieces has to assembled, integrated, and tested. Not just by Boeing, but by NASA as well. This takes an enormous amount of time, and requires great rigor to carry out. In some cases, a problem with one piece of equipment can delay testing of other pieces. It’s the nature of complex systems.

Another challenge that Boeing engineers face is limiting the mass of the spacecraft. Recent wind-tunnel testing of a Starliner model produced aero-acoustic issues when mated to a model of the Atlas 5, the rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) which will carry the Starliner into space. Now Boeing is modifying the exterior lines of the vehicle to get the airflow just right.

The spacecraft also has to be tested for emergencies. Though the Starliner is designed to land on solid ground, it’s also being tested for emergency landings on water.

NASA blames the delays in the development of the Starliner, and the SpaceX Dragon, on funding cuts from Congress. Administrator Charles Bolden has criticized Congress for consistent under-funding since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011. According to NASA, this has caused a 2 year delay in development of the Dragon and the Starliner. This delay, in turn, has meant that NASA has had to keep paying Russia for trips to the ISS. And like everything else, that cost keeps rising.

But it looks like the end, or maybe the beginning, is in sight for the Starliner. Boeing has paid deposits to ULA for four flights with the Atlas 5. A 2017 un-crewed test flight, a 2018 crewed test flight, and two crewed flights to the ISS.

Beyond that, the future looks a little hard to predict for Boeing and the Starliner. With both SpaceX and Blue Origin developing re-usable rockets, the future viability of the Atlas 5 might be in jeopardy. Compounding the uncertainty is NASA’s stated plan to stop funding the ISS by 2024 or 2028.
By that time, NASA should be focused on establishing a presence in cislunar space, which would require different spacecraft.

But you can’t wait forever to develop spacecraft. The only way to stay in the game is for Boeing to develop the spacecraft that are required right now, and let the knowledge and experience from that feed the development of the next spacecraft, whether for cislunar space or beyond.

In the big scheme of things, a four month delay for the first flight of the Starliner is not that big of a deal. If the Starliner is successful, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be, considering Boeing’s track record, the four month delay in the initial flight won’t even be remembered.

Whether its SpaceX or Boeing who get America back into space first, that moment will be celebrated, and all the delays and funding cuts will be left in the dust-bin of history.

Port Canaveral Considers Charging SpaceX 14 Times Normal Fee For Booster Return

A recovered Falcon 9 first stage arriving in port on-board the drone ship. Image: SpaceX

A dispute may be brewing between SpaceX and the Canaveral Port Authority, where the private space company brings its recovered boosters back to land. Citing concerns over wear and tear on the port’s facilities, the Authority is considering raising SpaceX’s fees by 14 times, to a total of $15,000 for each booster passing through.

Port Canaveral is the facility that SpaceX relies on in its operations. Spent boosters are recovered aboard their drone ship, which docks at the Port. They are then offloaded from the drone ship with SpaceX’s special crane, loaded onto a truck and delivered to Kennedy Space Center.

All of this activity puts a special strain on the Port’s facilities, according to Rodger Rees, the port’s deputy executive director and chief financial officer. In a memo to port commissioners, he said “Due to the heavy weight and the effect of this weight on the port’s berths, staff is recommending that the tariff be expanded to include a wharfage charges category for aerospace/aircraft items.”

So far, SpaceX has transported 3 recovered boosters through Port Canaveral. The rationalization for the fee increase is based on some minor damage caused to the Port, and on the increased wear and tear that 30 ton boosters will have on the Port and its structures. SpaceX’s special crane also takes up space at the Port.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable first stage lands on the drone ship before being transported to Port Canaveral. Image: SpaceX
A SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable first stage lands on the drone ship before being transported to Port Canaveral. Image: SpaceX

But SpaceX isn’t being singled out. The Port is trying to develop a fee structure for private space companies, who are expected to proliferate in the future and require port facilities the same way SpaceX does.

“As new aerospace companies relocate to the Space Coast, it is anticipated that the port will need to accommodate items of a similar nature in the future, and will retain the right to negotiate these future charges, if needed,” said Rees in the same memo.

The fees themselves are a result of research into what other ports charge for oversized items. Staff at Port Canaveral have recommended charging $500 a ton or $15,000 per item, whichever amount is greater. In his memo to the port’s commissioners, Rees also said “Staff understands that the current Falcon first stage weighs approximately 30 tons when it arrives in the port on the drone ship. Under this weight, it is anticipated that each time the rocket stage is transported over the berth, a charge of $15,000 will be assessed and collected from the owner of the item.”

Rees made note of the cool factor that having SpaceX recover boosters at their facility gives the Port. SpaceX’s use of the Port attracts a lot of public interest, which also creates additional security and logistical considerations for the Port.

SpaceX has indicated that it is concerned with the raise in fees. Representatives from Port Canaveral and SpaceX are due to discuss the issue at a meeting on Wednesday, June 22nd.

Pancaked SpaceX Falcon Pulls into Port After Trio of Spectacular Landings; Photos/Videos

Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch to orbit.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch to orbit. Credit: Julian Leek

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — The pancaked leftovers of a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage from last week’s successful commercial launch but hard landing at sea, pulled silently and without fanfare into its home port over the weekend – thereby ending a string of three straight spectacular and upright soft ocean landings over the past two months.

The residue of the Falcon sailed into home port at Port Canaveral, Fl under cover of darkness and covered by a big blue tarp late Saturday night, June 18, at around 9 p.m. EDT.

It arrived atop SpaceX’s ASDS drone ship landing platform known as “Of Course I Still Love You” or “OCISLY” – that had already been dispatched several days prior to the June 15 morning launch from the Florida space coast.

Pancaked SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at night into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship on June 18 after hard landing at sea following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch to orbit.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Pancaked SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at night into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship on June 18 after hard landing at sea following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch to orbit. Credit: Lane Hermann

And check out this exquisite hi res aerial video of the tarp ‘Blowing in the Wind’ – showing an even more revealing view of the remains of the Falcon 9 after much of the tarp was blown away by whipping sunshine state winds.

Video Caption: SpaceX booster remains from Eutelsat-ABS launch seen in Port Canaveral on 06-19-2016 the day after arrival. The wind blew off part of the tarps covering what is left of Eutelsat-ABS booster. Credit: USLaunchReport

Recovering and eventually reusing the 156 foot tall Falcon 9 first stage to loft new payloads for new paying customers lies at the heart of the visionary SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s strategy of radically slashing future launch costs and enabling a space faring civilization.

The latest attempt to launch and propulsively land the Falcon booster on a platform a sea took place on Wednesday, June 15 after the on time liftoff at 10:29 a.m. EDT (2:29 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of ABS/Eutelsat-2 launch on June 15, 2016, at 10:29 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of ABS/Eutelsat-2 launch on June 15, 2016, at 10:29 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 229 foot-tall (70 meter) Falcon 9 successfully accomplished its primary goal of delivering a pair of roughly 5000 pound commercial telecommunications satellites to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) for Eutelsat based in Paris and Asia Broadcast Satellite of Bermuda and Hong Kong.

The Falcon 9 delivered the Boeing-built EUTELSAT 117 West B and ABS-2A telecommunications satellites to orbits for Latin American and Asian customers.

“Ascent phase & satellites look good,” SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk tweeted.

After first stage separation, SpaceX engineers attempted the secondary and experimental goal of soft landing the 15 story tall first stage booster nine minutes after liftoff, on an ocean going ‘droneship’ platform for later reuse.

OCISLY was stationed approximately 420 miles (680 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.

However, for the first time in four tries SpaceX was not successful in safely landing and recovering the booster intact and upright.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL,  atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The booster basically crashed on the drone ship because it descended too quickly due to insufficient thrust from the descent engines.

The rocket apparently ran out of fuel in the final moments before droneship touchdown.

“Looks like early liquid oxygen depletion caused engine shutdown just above the deck,” Musk explained via a twitter post.

The first stage is fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellant.

Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch to orbit. Credit: Julian Leek

A SpaceX video shows a huge cloud of black smoke enveloping the booster in the final moments before the planned touchdown – perhaps soot from the burning RP-1 propellant.

In the final moments the booster is seen tipping over and crashing with unrestrained force onto the droneship deck – crushing and flattening the boosters long round core and probably the nine Merlin 1D first stage engines as well.

“But booster rocket had a RUD on droneship,” Musk noted. RUD stands for rapid unscheduled disassembly which usually means it was destroyed on impact. Although in this case it may be more a case of being crushed by the fall instead of a fuel related explosion.

“Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High g landings v sensitive to all engines operating at max,” Musk elaborated.

SpaceX Falocn 9 streaks to orbit across the Florida skies after Eutelsat/ABS 2A comsat  launch  on June 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falocn 9 streaks to orbit across the Florida skies after Eutelsat/ABS 2A comsat launch on June 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The June 15 crash follows three straight landing successes at sea – on April 8, May 6 and mostly recently on May 27 after the Thaicom-8 launch. See my onsite coverage here of the Thaicom-8 boosters return to Port Canaveral on the OCISLY droneship.

Yet this outcome was also not unexpected due to the high energy of the rocket required to deliver the primary payload to the GTO orbit.

“As mentioned at the beginning of the year, I’m expecting ~70% success rate on landings for the year,” Musk explains.

And keep in mind that the rocket recovery and recycling effort is truly a science experiment on a grand scale financed by SpaceX – and its aiming for huge dividends down the road.

“2016 is the year of experimentation.”

It’s a road that Musk hopes will one day lead to a human “City on Mars.”

Pancaked SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at night into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship on June 18 after hard landing at sea following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch to orbit.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Pancaked SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived at night into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship on June 18 after hard landing at sea following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch to orbit. Credit: Lane Hermann

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

Ken Kremer

Watch these incredible launch videos showing many different vantage points:

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch video compilation – Eutelsat and ABS satellites launched on 06/15/2016 from Pad 40 CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off with Eutelsat 117W/ABS-2A electric propulsion comsats on June 15, 2016 at 10:29 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen in this up close video from Mobius remote camera positioned at pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com