NASA’s Lucy spacecraft is on its way. The spacecraft was launched into space on Saturday, October 16th on an Atlas 5 rocket. Its primary target is Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids.Continue reading “Lucy is off to Visit Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids”
70 days from now, the next launch window to Mars opens. That’s when NASA will launch their Perseverance Rover. New images from NASA show the advanced rover being put into the fairing, readying it for its long journey.Continue reading “Perseverance Rover is Getting Tucked Into its Launch Fairing”
I look forward to all the future missions that NASA is going to be sending out in the Solar System. Here, check this out. You can use NASA’s website to show you all the future missions. Here’s everything planned for the future, here’s everything going to Mars.
Now, let’s look and see what missions are planned for the outer planets of the Solar System, especially Uranus and Neptune. Oh, that’s so sad… there’s nothing.
It’s been decades since humanity had an up close look at Uranus and Neptune. For Uranus, it was Voyager 2, which swept through the system in 1986. We got just a few tantalizing photographs of the ice giant planet and it’s moons.
What’s going on there?
What are those strange features? Sorry, insufficient data.
And then Voyager 2 did the same, zipping past Neptune in 1989.
Check this out.
What’s going here on Triton? Wouldn’t you like to know more? Well, too bad! You can’t it’s done, that’s all you get.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’ve studied all these other worlds. I’m glad we’ve had orbiters at Mercury, Venus, everything at Mars, Jupiter, and especially Saturn. We’ve seen Ceres and Vesta, and the Moon up close. We even got a flyby of Pluto and Charon.
It’s time to go back to Uranus and Neptune, this time to stay.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Scientists at NASA recently published a report called the Ice Giant Mission Study, and it’s all about various missions that could be sent to explore Uranus, Neptune and their fascinating moons.
The team of scientists who worked on the study considered a range of potential missions to the ice giants, and in the end settled on four potential missions; three that could go to Uranus, and one headed for Neptune. Each of them would cost roughly $2 billion.
Uranus is closer, easier to get to, and the obvious first destination of a targeted mission. For Uranus, NASA considered three probes.
The first idea is a flyby mission, which will sweep past Uranus gathering as much science as it can. This is what Voyager 2 did, and more recently what NASA’s New Horizons did at Pluto. In addition, it would have a separate probe, like the Cassini and Galileo missions, that would detach and go into the atmosphere to sample the composition below the cloudtops. The mission would be heavy and require an Atlas V rocket with the same configuration that sent Curiosity to Mars. The flight time would take 10 years.
The main science goal of this mission would be to study the composition of Uranus. It would make some other measurements of the system as it passed through, but it would just be a glimpse. Better than Voyager, but nothing like Cassini’s decade plus observations of Saturn.
I like where this is going, but I’m going to hold out for something better.
The next idea is an orbiter. Now we’re talking! It would have all the same instruments as the flyby and the detachable probe. But because it would be an orbiter, it would require much more propellant. It would have triple the launch mass of the flyby mission, which means a heavier Atlas V rocket. And a slightly longer flight time; 12 years instead of 10 for the flyby.
Because it would remain at Uranus for at least 3 years, it would be able to do an extensive analysis of the planet and its rings and moons. But because of the atmospheric probe, it wouldn’t have enough mass for more instruments. It would have more time at Uranus, but not a much better set of tools to study it with.
Okay, let’s keep going. The next idea is an orbiter, but without the detachable probe. Instead, it’ll have the full suite of 15 scientific instruments, to study Uranus from every angle. We’re talking visible, doppler, infrared, ultraviolet, thermal, dust, and a fancy wide angle camera to give us those sweet planetary pictures we like to see.
Study Uranus? Yes please. But while we’re at it, let’s also sent a spacecraft to Neptune.
As part of the Ice Giants Study, the researchers looked at what kind of missions would be possible. In this case, they settled on a single recommended mission. A huge orbiter with an additional atmospheric probe. This mission would be almost twice as massive as the heaviest Uranus mission, so it would need a Delta IV Heavy rocket to even get out to Neptune.
As it approached Neptune, the mission would release an atmospheric probe to descend beneath the cloudtops and sample what’s down there. The orbiter would then spend an additional 2 years in the environment of Neptune, studying the planet and its moons and rings. It would give us a chance to see its fascinating moon Triton up close, which seems to be a captured Kuiper Belt Object.
Unfortunately there’s no perfect grand tour trajectory available to us any more, where a single spacecraft could visit all the large planets in the Solar System. Missions to Uranus and Neptune will have to be separate, however, if NASA’s Space Launch System gets going, it could carry probes for both destinations and launch them together.
The goal of these missions is the science. We want to understand the ice giants of the outer Solar System, which are quite different from both the inner terrestrial planets and the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.
The gas giants are mostly hydrogen and helium, like the Sun. But the ice giants are 65% water and other ices made from methane and ammonia. But it’s not like they’re big blobs of water, or even frozen water. Because of their huge gravity, the ice giants crush this material with enormous pressure and temperature.
What happens when you crush water under this much pressure? It would all depend on the temperature and pressure. There could be different types of ice down there. At one level, it could be an electrically conductive soup of hydrogen and oxygen, and then further down, you might get crystallized oxygen with hydrogen ions running through it.
Hailstones made of diamond could form out of the carbon-rich methane and fall down through the layers of the planets, settling within a molten carbon core. What I’m saying is, it could be pretty strange down there.
We know that ice giants are common in the galaxy, in fact, they’ve made up the majority of the extrasolar planets discovered so far. By better understanding the ones we have right here in our own Solar System, we can get a sense of the distant extrasolar planets turning up. We’ll be better able to distinguish between the super earths and mini-neptunes.
Another big question is how these planets formed in the first place. In their current models, most planetary astronomers think these planets had very short time windows to form. They needed to have massive enough cores to scoop up all that material before the newly forming Sun’s solar wind blasted it all out into space. And yet, why are these kinds of planets so common in the Universe?
The NASA mission planners developed a total of 12 science objectives for these missions, focusing on the composition of the planets and their atmospheres. And if there’s time, they’d like to know about how heat moves around, their constellations of rings and moons. They’d especially like to investigate Neptune’s moons Triton, which looks like a captured Kuiper Belt Object, as it orbits in the reverse direction from all the other moons in the Solar System.
In terms of science, the two worlds are very similar. But because Neptune has Triton. If I had to choose, I’d go with a Neptune mission.
Are you excited? I’m excited. Here’s the bad news. According to NASA, the best launch windows for these missions would be 2029 or 2034. And that’s just the launch time, the flight time is an additional decade or more on top of that. In other words, the first photos from a Uranus flyby could happen in 2039 or 2035, while orbiters could arrive at either planet in the 2040s. I’m sure my future grandchildren will enjoy watching these missions arrive.
But then, we have to keep everything in perspective. NASA’s Cassini mission was under development in the 1980s. It didn’t launch until 1997, and it didn’t get to Saturn until 2004. It’s been almost 20 years since that launch, and almost 40 years since they started working on it.
I guess we need to be more patient. I can be patient.
10 years of Astronomy Cast… wow. It’s been a long, fun journey. What are some of our favorite episodes and adventures over the decade we’ve been doing this show.
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On Saturday, September 17th, the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) stated that it would be delaying the launch of the crewed spacecraft Soyuz MS-02. The rocket was scheduled to launch on Friday, September 23rd, and would be carrying a crew of three astronauts – two Russia and one American – to the ISS.
After testing revealed technical flaws in the mission (which were apparently due to a short circuit), Rocosmos decided to postpone the launch indefinitely. But after after days of looking over the glitch, the Russians space agency has announced that it is prepared for a renewed launch on Nov. 1st.
The mission crew consists of mission commander Sergey Ryzhikov, flight engineer Andrey Borisenko and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough. Originally scheduled to launch on Sept. 23rd, the mission would spend the next two days conducting a rendezvous operation before docking with the International Space Station on Sept. 25th.
The station is currently being staffed by three crew members – MS-01 commander Anatoly Ivanishin, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Japanese astronaut Takuya Onish. These astronauts arrived on the station on Sept.6th, and all three were originally scheduled to return to Earth on October 30th.
Meanwhile, three more astronauts – commander Oleg Novitskiy, ESA flight engineer Thomas Pesquet and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson – were supposed to replace them as part of mission MS-03, which was scheduled to launch on Nov. 15th. But thanks to the technical issue that grounded the MS-02 flight, this schedule appeared to be in question.
However, the news quickly began to improve after it seemed that the mission might be delayed indefinitely. On Sept.18th, a day after the announcement of the delay, the Russian International News Agency (RIA Novosti) cited a source that indicated that the spacecraft could be replaced and the mission could be rescheduled for next month:
“RIA Novosti’s source noted that the mission was postponed indefinitely because of an identified short circuit during the pre-launch checks. It is possible that the faulty ship “MS – 02 Alliance” can be quickly replaced on the existing same rocket, and then the launch to the ISS will be held in late October.”
Then, on Monday, Sept.19th, another source cited by RIA Novosti said that the State Commission responsible for the approval of a new launch date would be reaching a decision no sooner than Tuesday, Sept. 20th. And as of Tuesday morning, a new launch date appears to have been set.
According to news agency, Roscomos notified NASA this morning that the mission will launch on Nov.1st. Sputnik International confirmed this story, claiming that the source was none other than Alexander Koptev – a NASA representative with the Russian Mission Control Center.
“The Russian side has informed the NASA central office of the preliminary plans to launch the manned Soyuz MS-02 on November 1,” he said.
It still not clear where the technical malfunction took place. Since this past Saturday, Russian engineers have been trying to ascertain if the short circuit occurred in the descent module or the instrument module. However, the Russians are already prepared to substitute the Soyuz spacecraft for the next launch, so there will be plenty of time to locate the source of the problem.
The Soyuz MS is the latest in a long line of revisions to the venerable Soyuz spacecraft, which has been in service with the Russians since the 1960s. It is perhaps the last revision as well, as Roscosmos plans to develop new crewed spacecraft in the coming decades.
The MS is an evolution of the Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft, another modernized version of the old spacecraft. Compared to its predecessor, the MS model’s comes with updated communications and navigation subsystems, but also boasts some thruster replacements.
The first launch of the new spacecraft – Soyuz MS-01 – took place on July 7th, 2016, aboard a Soyuz-FG launch vehicle, which is itself an improvement on the traditional R-7 rockets. Like the MS-02 mission, MS-01 spent two days undergoing a checkout phase in space before rendezvousing with the ISS.
As such, it is understandable why the Russians would like to get this mission underway and ensure that the latest iteration of the Soyuz MS performs well in space. Until such time as the Russians have a new crewed module to deliver astronauts to the ISS, all foreseeable missions will come down to craft like this one.
Rockets are the perfect way to get around in space. But how do they work?
Space travel and rockets, it’s like ice cream and apple pie, or ice cream and apple pie and my face. They just go together. They belong together.
But what if I’m allergic to rockets, or have some kind of cylindrical intolerance, or flaming column sensitivity that makes me hive out? Why can’t I fly to space in balloons or airplanes or helicopters? Why do we need these pointy cubist eggplant flame tubes?
The space age followed the development of powerful V2 rockets in WW II. They could hit targets 320 km away and reach an altitude of 200 km. They were a new kind of war machine, a terrifying weapon that could hurl payloads of destruction from the skies. But this terrifying development is what brought us our modern rockets as their propulsion system can work up where there’s no air, in the vacuum of space.
How do they actually work? It all comes down to that “every action, equal and opposite reaction” thing that Newton was always going on about.
If you take a balloon, fill it with air, and then let it go. All that air rushing out propels the balloon around. This kind of balloon rocket would work perfectly well in space too although it might be a little too fragile and unpredictable to want to strap yourself to.
If we take that idea and scale it up, add some fuel tanks and fins, attitude control and optionally: astronauts. We’ve got ourselves a rocket. It works by pushing “stuff” out one end of a tube at the highest possible velocity. The faster you can blow stuff out the end, the faster the tube itself is going to go.
This means rocket science is really all about how to get the exhaust gases hurling out the backside of the rocket as quickly and forcefully as possible. The fuel can be solid, like the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. Or the fuel can be liquid, like the shuttle’s main fuel tank filled with liquid oxygen and hydrogen.
This fuel is ignited and completely converted into exhaust gases which blast out of the rocket’s nozzles at high velocity. Really, really high velocity.
The scary part for passengers is that modern rockets are mostly made of fuel. In fact, the weight of the space shuttle’s fuel was 20 times more than the weight of the shuttle itself. Which I believe really puts a fine point on the bravery of any astronaut. Think of a rocket as a beer can, filled with explosives, that you strap yourself to the outside of. To make a rocket go faster and shorten the travel time, you want to kick material out at a higher velocity.
NASA has experimented with ion drives for some of its missions. These highly efficient engines use electric fields to accelerate particles of xenon at much higher velocities. Even though they use a fraction of the amount of fuel, ion engines can reach much higher speeds because of the high exhaust velocity.
And even higher velocity rockets have been tabled, such as the VASIMIR engine and even antimatter engines. So how do rockets work? Just like deflating balloons, only bigger. Much much bigger. And full of explosives and modeled on a horrible and terrifying weapon from the second world war. Really, not much like a balloon at all…
Have you ever made a rocket? What’s your favorite rocketry experiment. Tell us in the comments below.
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Over the 50-plus years since President John F. Kennedy’s Rice University speech, spaceflight has proven to be hard. It doesn’t take much to wreck a good day to fly.
Befitting a Halloween story, rocket launches, orbital insertions, and landings are what make for sleepless nights. These make-or-break events of space missions can be things that go bump in the night: sometimes you get second chances and sometimes not. Here’s a look at some of the past mission failures that occurred at launch. Consider this a first installment in an ongoing series of articles – “Not Because They Are Easy.”
The evening of October 28, 2014, was another of those hard moments in the quest to explore and expand humanity’s presence in space. Ten years ago, Orbital Sciences Corporation sought an engine to fit performance requirements for a new launch vehicle. Their choice was a Soviet-era liquid fuel engine, one considered cost-effective, meeting requirements, and proving good margins for performance and safety. The failure of the Antares rocket this week could be due to a flaw in the AJ-26 or it could be from a myriad of other rocket parts. Was it decisions inside NASA that cancelled or delayed engine development programs and led OSC and Lockheed-Martin to choose “made in Russia” rather than America?
Here are other unmanned launch failures of the past 25 years:
Falcon 1, Flight 2, March 21, 2007. Fairings are hard. There are fairings that surround the upper stage engines and a fairing covering payloads. Fairings must not only separate but also not cause collateral damage. The second flight of the Falcon 1 is an example of a 1st stage separation and fairing that swiped the second stage nozzle. Later, overcompensation by the control system traceable to the staging led to loss of attitude control; however, the launch achieved most of its goals and the mission was considered a success. (View: 3:35)
Proton M Launch, Baikonur Aerodrome, July 2, 2013. The Proton M is the Russian Space program’s workhorse for unmanned payloads. On this day, the Navigation, Guidance, and Control System failed moments after launch. Angular velocity sensors of the guidance control system were installed backwards. Fortunately, the Proton M veered away from its launch pad sparing it damage.
Ariane V Maiden Flight, June 4, 1996. The Ariane V was carrying an ambitious ESA mission called Cluster – a set of four satellites to fly in tetrahedral formation to study dynamic phenomena in the Earth’s magnetosphere. The ESA launch vehicle reused flight software from the successful Ariane IV. Due to differences in the flight path of the Ariane V, data processing led to a data overflow – a 64 floating point variable overflowing a 16 bit integer. The fault remained undetected and flight control reacted in error. The vehicle veered off-course, the structure was stressed and disintegrated 37 seconds into flight. Fallout from the explosion caused scientists and engineers to don protective gas masks. (View: 0:50)
Delta II, January 17, 1997. The Delta II is one of the most successful rockets in the history of space flight, but not on this day. Varied configurations change up the number of solid rocket motors strapped to the first stage. The US Air Force satellite GPS IIR-1 was to be lifted to Earth orbit, but a Castor 4A solid rocket booster failed seconds after launch. A hairline fracture in the rocket casing was the fault. Both unspent liquid and solid fuel rained down on the Cape, destroying launch equipment, buildings, and even parked automobiles. This is one of the most well documented launch failures in history.
Compilation of Early Launch Failures. Beginning with several of the early failures of Von Braun’s V2, this video compiles many failures over a 70 year period. The early US space program endured multiple launch failures as they worked at a breakneck speed to catch up with the Soviets after Sputnik. NASA did not yet exist. The Air Force and Army had competing designs, and it was the Army with the German rocket scientists, including Von Braun, that launched the Juno 1 rocket carrying Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958.
One must always realize that while spectacular to launch viewers, a rocket launch has involved years of development, lessons learned, and multiple revisions. The payloads carried involve many hundreds of thousands of work-hours. Launch vehicle and payloads become quite personal. NASA and ESA have offered grief counseling to their engineers after failures.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Clearly, the sky is not the limit for balloon launcher Zero2Infinity. Based in Barcelona, Spain, the company announced this week their plans to launch payloads to orbit using a balloon launch system. The Rockoon is a portmanteau, as Lewis Carroll would have said: the blend of the words rocket and balloon.
The launch system announced by the company is called Bloostar. The Rockoon system begins with a balloon launch to stratospheric altitudes followed by the igniting of a 3 stage rocket to achieve orbit. The Rockoon concept is not new. Dr. James Van Allen with support from the US Navy developed and launched the first Rockoons in 1949. Those were just sounding rockets, Bloostar will take payloads to low-earth orbit and potentially beyond.
The advantage of rocket launch from a balloon is that it takes the Earth’s atmosphere out as a factor in design and as a impediment to reaching orbit. The first phase of the Bloostar system takes out 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere by reaching an altitude of over 20 km (>65,000 feet). Aerodynamics is not a factor so the stages are built out rather than up. The stages of the Bloostar design are a set of concentric rings which are sequentially expended as it ascends to orbit.
Zero2Infinity is developing a liquid fuel engine that they emphasize is environmentally friendly. The first stage firing of Bloostar will last 160 seconds, reach 250 km of altitude and an inertial speed of 3.7 km/s. This is about half the velocity necessary for reach a stable low earth orbit. The second stage will fire for 230 seconds and achieve an altitude of 530 km with velocity of 5.4 km/s. The 3rd and final stage motor will fire at least twice with a coast period to achieve the final orbit. Zero2Infinity states that their Bloostar system will be capable of placing a 75kg (165 lbs) payload into a 600 km (372 mi) sun-synchronous orbit. In contrast, the International Space Station orbits at 420 km (260 mi) altitude.
For the developing cubesat space industry, a 75 kg payload to orbit is huge. A single cubesat 10x10x10 cm (1U) will typically weigh about 1 kg so Bloostar would be capable of launching literally a constellation of cubesats or in the other extreme, a single micro-satellite with potentially its own propulsion system to go beyond low-earth orbit.
The Rockoon concept is not unlike what Scaled Composites undertakes with a plane and rocket. Their Whiteknight planes lift the SpaceShips to 50,000 feet for takeoff whereas the Zero2Infinity balloon will loft Bloostar to 65,000 feet or higher. The increased altitude of the balloon launch reduces the atmospheric density to half of what it is at 50,000 feet and altogether about 8% of the density at sea level.
The act of building and launching a stratospheric balloon to 30 km (100,000 feet) altitude with >100 kg instrument payloads is a considerable accomplishment. This is just not the releasing of a balloon but involves plenty of logistics and telecommunications with instrumentation and also the returning of payloads safely to Earth. This is clearly half of what is necessary to reach orbit.
Bloostar is blazing new ground in Spain. The ground tests of their liquid fuel rocket engine are the first of its kinds in the country. Zero2Infinity began launching balloons in 2009. The founder and CEO, Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales is an aeronautical engineer educated in Spain with R&D experience involving ESA, MIT and Boeing. He has speerheaded organizations and activities in his native Spain. In 2002 he presented to the World Space Congress in Houston, the paper “The Role of Balloons in the Future Development of Space Tourism”.
In 1964 the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) were founded, on February 29 and March 20 respectively, marking the beginning of Europe as a major space power and player in the new international venture to explore beyond our planet. A decade later these two entities merged to become ESA, and the rest, as it’s said, is history.
The video above commemorates ESA’s service to the cooperation and innovation of European nations in space, and indeed the entire world with many of the far-reaching exploration missions its member states have developed, launched and maintained. From advanced communications and observational satellites to its many missions exploring the worlds of the Solar System to capturing the light from the beginning of the Universe, ELDO, ESRO, and ESA have pushed the boundaries of science and technology in space for half a century… and are inspiring the next generation to continue exploring into the decades ahead. So happy anniversary, ESA — I can only imagine what we might be looking back on in another 50 years!