ESA’s Gaia Mission Launches to Map the Milky Way

Early this morning, at 09:12 UTC, the cloudy pre-dawn sky above the coastal town of Kourou, French Guiana was brilliantly sliced by the fiery exhaust of a Soyuz VS06, which ferried ESA’s “billion-star surveyor” Gaia into space to begin its five-year mission to map the Milky Way.

Ten minutes after launch, after separation of the first three stages, the Fregat upper stage ignited, successfully delivering Gaia into a temporary parking orbit at an altitude of 175 km (108 miles). A second firing of the Fregat 11 minutes later took Gaia into its transfer orbit, followed by separation from the upper stage 42 minutes after liftoff. 46 minutes later Gaia’s sunshield was deployed, and the spacecraft is now cruising towards its target orbit around L2, a gravitationally-stable point in space located 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) away in the “shadow” of the Earth.

The launch itself was really quite beautiful, due in no small part to the large puffy clouds over the launch site. Watch the video below:

A global space astrometry mission, Gaia will make the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our galaxy by surveying more than a billion stars over a five-year period.

“Gaia promises to build on the legacy of ESA’s first star-mapping mission, Hipparcos, launched in 1989, to reveal the history of the galaxy in which we live,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.

Soyuz VS06, with Gaia, lifted off from French Guiana, 19 December 2013. (ESA - S. Corvaja)
Soyuz VS06 with Gaia (ESA – S. Corvaja, 2013)

Repeatedly scanning the sky, Gaia will observe each of the billion stars an average of 70 times each over the five years. (That’s 40 million observations every day!) It will measure the position and key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition.

By taking advantage of the slight change in perspective that occurs as Gaia orbits the Sun during a year, it will measure the stars’ distances and, by watching them patiently over the whole mission, their motions across the sky.

The motions of the stars can be put into “rewind” to learn more about where they came from and how the Milky Way was assembled over billions of years from the merging of smaller galaxies, and into “fast forward” to learn more about its ultimate fate.

“Gaia represents a dream of astronomers throughout history, right back to the pioneering observations of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who catalogued the relative positions of around a thousand stars with only naked-eye observations and simple geometry. Over 2,000 years later, Gaia will not only produce an unrivaled stellar census, but along the way has the potential to uncover new asteroids, planets and dying stars.”

– Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration

Gaia will make an accurate map of the stars within the Milky Way from its location at L2 (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)
Gaia will make an accurate map of a billion stars within the Milky Way from its location at L2 (ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)

Of the one billion stars Gaia will observe, 99% have never had their distances measured accurately. The mission will also study 500,000 distant quasars, search for exoplanets and brown dwarfs, and will conduct tests of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

“Along with tens of thousands of other celestial and planetary objects,” said ESA’s Gaia project scientist Timo Prusti, “this vast treasure trove will give us a new view of our cosmic neighbourhood and its history, allowing us to explore the fundamental properties of our Solar System and the Milky Way, and our place in the wider Universe.”

Follow the status of Gaia on the mission blog here.

Source: ESA press release and Gaia fact sheet

Gaia's launch aboard an Arianespace-operated Soyuz on Dec. 19, 2013 from ESA's facility in French Guiana (ESA)
Gaia’s launch aboard an Arianespace-operated Soyuz on Dec. 19, 2013 from ESA’s facility in French Guiana (ESA)

Rocket Frog, Space Bat, and Now… a Launch Armadillo?


At 4:10 a.m. EDT this morning an Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral carrying the U.S. Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-3) communications satellite into orbit. The early morning launch may have gone unwatched except by the most determined space fans (like this guy) but it definitely didn’t go unnoticed by one particular creature: an armadillo, spooked out of hiding by the thundering Atlas V engines and caught on GoPro camera by Matthew Travis.

Watch the video above — or better yet, go to YouTube and watch in fullscreen HD — and pay attention to the foreground field around the 2-minute mark… you’ll see something running across the grass toward the exhaust cloud. Sure looks like an armadillo to me!* (And yes, they’re that quick!)

Armadillos are ubiquitous across much of the southern U.S. and it’s not unusual to spot one on the Space Coast — but they’re not normally included in launch videos!

This little guy joins the ranks of unlucky critters caught in the way of rocket launches, the most recent being an amphibian sent airborne by the launch of NASA’s LADEE mission from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Prior to that, a freetail bat was spotted clinging to the STS-119 external fuel tank during countdown on March 15, 2009 (and then there was the turkey vulture struck by a rising shuttle stack… ugh.)

The fates of those last animals most likely weren’t good, but who knows… maybe this armadillo had better luck. They’re pretty tough.

Google+ HT and video credit: Matthew Travis. Check out Matthew’s site Zero-G News here and follow him on Twitter @spacearium.

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ALSO: the Antares/Cygnus launch at 10:58 a.m. EDT from Wallops today also had an animal visitor: a bald eagle, which had happened to be perched atop one of the four lightning towers. See photos here. (Tip of the feather to Tom Wolf.)

*Update 9/19: Some (like launch photographer Ben Cooper) have suggested that this might be a hog rather than an armadillo. Both can be found in the area and can run pretty fast, and considering its apparent size in a wide-angle lens that may be the case. Hard to tell exactly, but it’s certainly got a close-up view of the launch!

Russian Rocket Fails During Launch, Explodes After Liftoff

At 2:38 UTC Tuesday morning (local time) a Russian Proton-M heavy lift rocket carrying three GLONASS navigation/positioning satellites exploded shortly after lifting off from the pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome. The event was captured on a live Russian news feed, seen above.

No word yet on whether there were any injuries or not according to NASASpaceflight.com, no casualties have been reported but the Proton rocket debris may have landed near another pad used by ILS (International Launch Services) — a U.S./Russian joint venture for commercial launches.

According to Anatoly Zak at  RussianSpaceWeb.com, “since the emergency cutoff of the first stage engines is blocked during the first 42 seconds of the flight to ensure that the rocket clears the launch complex, the vehicle continued flying with its propulsion system firing practically until the impact on the ground.”

Reminder: space travel is (still) hard.

Update: Watch another view of the failed launch below:

The shockwave at 1:01… yikes.

First-Ever Video of an ATV Vehicle Into Orbit!

Yesterday, June 5, the European Space Agency launched their ATV-4 Albert Einstein cargo vessel from their spaceport in French Guiana. Liftoff occurred at 5:52 p.m. EDT (2152 GMT), and in addition to over 7 tons of supplies for the ISS a special payload was also included: the DLR-developed STEREX experiment, which has four cameras attached to the Ariane 5ES rocket providing a continuous 3D view of the mission, from liftoff to separation to orbit and, eventually, docking to the Station on June 15.

The dramatic video above is the first-ever of an ATV vehicle going into free-flight orbit — check it out!

“The highlight of the STEREX deployment will be observing the settling of ATV-4 in orbit. STEREX for this event will include three-dimensional video sequences to study the dynamic behavior of the spacecraft during the separation phase. This opens up for the ATV project engineers an entirely new way to monitor the success of their work and also to gain important new experiences for the future.”DLR blog (translated)

If you look along the horizon at around 5:20, you can make out the plume from the launch.

At 20,190 kg (44, 511 lbs) ATV Albert Einstein is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by Ariane. Read more here.

(HT to Daniel Scuka at ESA.)

NASA’s Colossal Crawler Gets Souped-Up for SLS

Shuttle Discovery riding one of KSC’s crawler-transporters to Launch Pad 39B in June 2005 (NASA)

One of NASA’s two iconic crawler-transporters — the 2,750-ton monster vehicles that have delivered rockets from Saturns to Shuttles to launch pads at Kennedy Space Center for nearly half a century — is getting an upgrade in preparation for NASA’s new future in space flight.

131 feet long, 113 feet wide and with a breakneck top speed of 2 mph (they’re strong, not fast!) NASA’s colossal crawler-transporters are the only machines capable of hauling fully-fueled rockets the size of office buildings safely between the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. Each 3.5-mile one-way trip takes around 6 hours.

Now that the shuttles are retired and each in or destined for its permanent occupation as a relic of human spaceflight, the crawler-transporters have not been doing much crawling or transporting down the 130-foot-wide, Tennessee river-rock-coated lanes at KSC… but that’s soon to change.

According to an article posted Sept. 5 on TransportationNation.org, crawler 2 (CT-2) is getting a 6-million-pound upgrade, bringing its carrying capacity from 12 million pounds to 18 million. This will allow the vehicle to bear the weight of a new generation of heavy-lift rockets, including NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

Read: SLS: NASA’s Next Big Thing

In addition to carrying capacity CT-2 will also be getting new brakes, exhausts, hydraulics and computer systems.

Part of a $2 billion plan to upgrade Kennedy Space Center for a future with both NASA and commercial spaceflight partners, the crawler will have two of its onboard power engines replaced — but the original generators that power its eight enormous tread belts will remain, having been thoroughly inspected and deemed to be “in pristine condition” according to the article by Matthew Peddie.

When constructed in the early 1960s, the crawler-transporters were the largest tracked vehicles ever made and cost $14 million — that’s about $100 million today. But were they to be built from scratch now they’d likely cost even more, as the US “is no longer the industrial powerhouse it was in the 1960s.”

Still, it’s good to know that these hardworking behemoths will keep bringing rockets to the pad, even after the shuttles have been permanently parked.

“When they built the crawler, they overbuilt it, and that’s a great thing because it’s able to last all these years. I think it’s a great machine that could last another 50 years if it needed to,” said Bob Myers, systems engineer for the crawler.

You can see some really great full panoramas of the CT-2 at the NASATech website, where photographer John O’Connor took three different panoramic views while the transporter was inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC in Highbay 1. There’s even a pan close-up of the giant cleats that move the transporter.

Read the full article on TransportationNation.org here, and find out more about the crawler-transporters here and here.

Since the Apollo years the transporters have traveled an accumulated 2,526 miles, about the same distance as a one-way highway trip from KSC to Los Angeles.

Inset image: the Apollo 11 Saturn V, tower and mobile launch platform atop the crawler-transporter during rollout on May 20, 1969. (NASA) Bottom image: NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the site of the CT-2 upgrade in August 2012. Each of the crawler’s 456 tread shoes weighs about one ton. (NASA)

What Are The Radiation Belts?

NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) satellites, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Friday, August 24* at 4:08 a.m. ET, will enter into an eccentric orbit around our planet, repeatedly passing through both of the Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth like enormous high-intensity particle filled inner tubes. The plasma contained within these belts can affect satellites, spacecraft and communication here on Earth, and are affected in turn by outbursts of solar energy from the Sun — especially during periods of solar maximum. But how do these invisible yet powerful radiation belts actually work, and how will two six-foot-wide satellites help us learn more about them? Watch the video.

(And then read more here.)

Video: NASA

*UPDATE: After several delays due to weather and technical issues, the RBSP mission successfully launched on Thursday, August 30.

New Satellites Will Tighten Knowledge of Earth’s Radiation Belts


Surrounding our planet like vast invisible donuts (the ones with the hole, not the jelly-filled kind) are the Van Allen radiation belts, regions where various charged subatomic particles get trapped by Earth’s magnetic fields, forming rings of plasma. We know that the particles that make up this plasma can have nasty effects on spacecraft electronics as well as human physiology, but there’s a lot that isn’t known about the belts. Two new satellites scheduled to launch on August 23 August 24 will help change that.

“Particles from the radiation belts can penetrate into spacecraft and disrupt electronics, short circuits or upset memory on computers. The particles are also dangerous to astronauts traveling through the region. We need models to help predict hazardous events in the belts and right now we are aren’t very good at that. RBSP will help solve that problem.”
– David Sibeck, RBSP project scientist, Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission will put a pair of identical satellites into eccentric orbits that take them from as low as 375 miles (603 km) to as far out as 20,000 miles (32,186 km). During their orbits the satellites will pass through both the stable inner and more variable outer Van Allen belts, one trailing the other. Along the way they’ll investigate the many particles that make up the belts and identify what sort of activity occurs in isolated locations and across larger areas.

“Definitely the biggest challenge that we face is the radiation environment that the probes are going to be flying through,” said Mission Systems Engineer Jim Stratton at APL. “Most spacecraft try to avoid the radiation belts — and we’re going to be flying right through the heart of them.”

Read: The Van Allen Belts and the Great Electron Escape

Each 8-sided RBSP satellite is approximately 6 feet (1.8 meters) across and weighs 1,475 pounds (669 kg).

The goal is to find out where the particles in the belts originate from — do they come from the solar wind? Or Earth’s own ionosphere? — as well as to find out what powers the belts’ variations in size and gives the particles their extreme speed and energy. Increased knowledge about Earth’s radiation belts will also help in the understanding of the plasma environment that pervades the entire Universe.

Read: What Are The Radiation Belts?

Ultimately the information gathered by the RBSP mission will help in the design of future science and communications satellites as well as safer spacecraft for human explorers.

The satellites are slated to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station no earlier than 4:08 a.m. EDT on August 24.

Find out more about the RBSP mission here.

Video/rendering: NASA/GSFC.

Brazilian Band Soars to New Heights with a NASA-Inspired Video


Popular Brazilian rock band Fresno recently released a new video for their new song, “Infinito”, and it really rises above the rest — literally!

It’s a story of four guys who take their childhood dream of launching a package up into space and, after years apart, come back together to make it a reality. Along the way we get to see some great views from a camera that the band members actually sent up to the edge of space via weather balloon — an accomplishment that came with its fair share of challenges.

Fresno lead member Lucas Silveira shared some behind-the-scenes info with Universe Today. “We wasted two cameras. One of them landed on a military base — exactly in the middle of a mine field — and the other simply disappeared… completely lost due to the lack of cellular signal on the landing spot.”

And even on a successful third try there were some technical difficulties.

“In our third attempt we used a different balloon, with more capacity, and it managed to fly for over 3.5 hours… but our camera only survived for around 2.5 hours. So we had to send a smaller balloon just to capture the ‘popping up’ moment, and added it to the ‘main balloon ride’ on post production.”

Still, the results — a dizzying view of Earth from 35 km up — are well worth it, and the story is an inspiring one… inspired, in fact, by NASA.

“I wrote this song after watching a video by NASA in which they zoom out from the Himalayas to the edge of the universe, showing the areas that still yet to be mapped. We are so infinitely small in the middle of all this greatness, and suddenly our problems get as tiny in our heads as our lucky existence here. It’s about searching for better days, creating a better future through proactivity and not letting others letting you down.”

When you soar that high it’s hard to feel let down.

Video courtesy of Fresno. Technical and launch assistance provided by ACRUX Aerospace Technologies. Band photo by Gustavo Vara.

Expedition 32 Crew Lifts Off

At 9:40 p.m. CDT a Soyuz TMA-05M rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying Expedition 32 Commander Yuri Malenchenko, NASA Flight Engineer Sunita “Suni” Williams and JAXA Flight Engineer Akihiko Hoshide to the International Space Station. It was a beautiful launch on a hot summer day at the Cosmodrome — watch the video after the jump:

(My favorite part was when the Soyuz punched a hole in the clouds!)

Exact time of the launch was 9:40:3.91 CDT, docking with the ISS will occur on Monday at 11:52 p.m. CDT. Read more about the crew of Expedition 32 here.

Of historical note, the Expedition 32 launch occurred on the same day that the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project launched in 1975. Designed to test the compatibility of rendezvous and docking systems and the possibility of an international space rescue, the nine-day Apollo-Soyuz mission brought together two former spaceflight rivals: the United States and the Soviet Union. Without the success of that project, we might not have had an International Space Station in orbit today.


Images: NASA/Carla Cioffi. Video: NASA HD TV/Ustream

NASA To Launch The Finest Mirrors Ever Made

This Wednesday NASA will launch its High Resolution Coronal Imager (HI-C) mission from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, sending a sounding rocket above the atmosphere with some of the best mirrors ever made to capture incredibly-detailed ultraviolet images of our Sun.

HI-C will use a state-of-the-art imaging system to focus on a region near the center of the Sun about 135,000 miles (271,000 km) across. During its brief flight — only ten minutes long — HI-C will return some of the most detailed images of the Sun’s corona ever acquired, with a resolution five times that of previous telescopes… including NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

While SDO collects images in ten wavelengths, however, HI-C will focus on just one: 193 Angstroms, a wavelength of ultraviolet radiation that best reveals the structures of the Sun’s corona present in temperatures of 1.5 million kelvin. And although HI-C’s mirrors aren’t any larger than SDO’s — about 9.5 inches in diameter — they are “some of the finest ever made.” In addition, an interior “maze” between mirrors effectively increases HI-C’s focal length.

Researchers expect HI-C’s super-smooth mirrors to resolve coronal structures as small as 100 miles (160 km) across (0.1 arcsec/pixel).

“Other instruments in space can’t resolve things that small, but they do suggest – after detailed computer analysis of the amount of light in any given pixel – that structures in the sun’s atmosphere are about 100 miles across,” said Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for HI-C at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “And we also have theories about the shapes of structures in the atmosphere, or corona, that expect that size. HI-C will be the first chance we have to see them.”

One of the main goals of HI-C will be to place significant new constraints on theories of coronal heating and structuring, by observing the small-scale processes that exist everywhere in hot magnetized coronal plasma and establishing whether or not there are additional structures below what can currently be seen.

“This instrument could push the limits on theories of coronal heating, answering questions such as why the temperature of the sun’s corona is millions of degrees higher than that of the surface,” said Marshall’s Dr. Jonathan Cirtain, heliophysicist and principle investigator on the mission.

Read more on the NASA news release here.

Top image: A Black Brant sounding rocket containing NASA’s HI-C mission will launch on July 11, 2012 to observe the sun’s corona. (NASA) Bottom image: TRACE image of the Sun at a resolution of 0.5 arcsec/pixel. HI-C will have a resolution 5 times finer.