2015: NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet

Together, the space probes Dawn and New Horizons have been in flight for a collective 17 years. One remained close to home and the other departed to parts of the Solar System of which little is known. They now share a common destination in the same year: dwarf planets.

At the time of these NASA probes’ departures, Ceres had just lost its designation as the largest asteroid in our Solar System. Pluto was the ninth planet. Both probes now stand to deliver measures of new data and insight that could spearhead yet another revision of the definition of planet.

A comparison of the trajectories of New Horizon (left) and the Dawn missions (right). (Credit: NASA/JPL, SWRI, Composite- T.Reyes)
A comparison of the trajectories of New Horizons (left) and the Dawn missions (right). (Credit: NASA/JPL, SWRI, Composite- T.Reyes)

Certainly, NASA’s Year of the Dwarf Planet is an unofficial designation and NASA representatives would be quick to emphasize another dozen or more missions that are of importance during the year 2015. However, these two missions could determine the fate of billions or more small bodies just within our galaxy, the Milky Way.

If Ceres and Pluto are studied up close – mission success is never a sure thing – then what is observed could lead to a new, more certain and accepted definition of planet, dwarf planet, and possibly other new definitions.

The New Horizons mission became the first mission of NASA’s New Frontiers program, beginning development in 2001. The probe was launched on January 19, 2006, atop an Atlas V 551 (5 solid rocket boosters plus a third stage). Utilizing more compact and lightweight electronics than its predecessors to the outer planets – Pioneer 10 & 11, and Voyager 1 & 2 – the combination of reduced weight, a powerful launch vehicle, plus a gravity assist from Jupiter has lead to a nine year journey. On December 6, 2014, New Horizons was taken out of hibernation for the last time and now remains powered on until the Pluto encounter.

This "movie" of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon b yNASA's New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter -center of mass of the two bodies - resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto's surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This “movie” of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter – the center of mass of the two bodies – resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The arrival date of New Horizon is July 14, 2015. A telescope called the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) has permitted the commencement of observations while still over 240 million kilometers (150 million miles) from Pluto. The first stellar-like images were taken while still in the Asteroid belt in 2006.

Pluto was once the ninth planet of the Solar System. From its discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh until 2006, it maintained this status. In that latter year, the International Astronomical Union undertook a debate and then a membership vote that redefined what a planet is. The change occurred 8 months after New Horizons’ launch. There were some upset mission scientists, foremost of which was the principal investigator, Dr. Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. In a sense, the rug had been pulled from under them.

A gentleman’s battle ensued between opposing protagonists Dr. Stern and Dr. Michael Brown from Caltech. In 2001, Dr. Brown’s research team began to discover Kuiper belt objects (Trans-Neptunian objects) that rivaled the size of Pluto. Pluto suddenly appeared to be one of many small bodies that could likely number in the trillions within just one galaxy – ours. According to Dr. Brown, there could be as many as 200 objects in our Solar System similar to Pluto that, under the old definition, could be defined as planets. Dr. Brown’s work was the straw that broke the camel’s back – that is, it led to the redefinition of planet, and the native of Huntsville, Alabama, went on to write a popular book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

Dr. Stern’s story involving Pluto and planetary research is a longer and more circuitous one. Stern was the Executive Director of the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division and then accepted the position of Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in 2007. Clearly, after a nine year journey, Stern is now fully committed to New Horizons’ close encounter. More descriptions of the two protagonists of the Pluto debate will be included in a follow on story.

Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)
Artist’s concept depicting the Dawn spacecraft thrusting with its ion propulsion system as it travels from Vesta (lower right) to Ceres (upper left). The galaxies in the background are part of the Virgo supercluster. Dawn, Vesta, and Ceres are currently in the constellation Virgo from the perspective of viewers on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

The JPL and Orbital Science Corporation developed Dawn space probe began its journey to the main asteroid belt on September 27, 2007. It has used gravity assists and flew by the planet Mars. Dawn spent 14 months surveying Vesta, the 4th largest asteroid of the main belt (assuming Ceres is still considered the largest). While New Horizons has traveled over 30 Astronomical Units (A.U.) – 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun – Dawn has remained closer and required reaching a little over 2 A.U. to reach Vesta and now 3 A.U. to reach Ceres.

The Dawn mission had the clear objective of rendezvous and achieving orbit with two asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn was also sent packing the next generation of Ion Propulsion. It has proven its effectiveness very well, having used ion propulsion for the first time to achieve an orbit. Pretty simple, right? Not so fast.

As Dawn was passing critical design reviews during development, the redefinition of planet lofted its second objective – the asteroid 1 Ceres – to a new status. While Pluto was demoted, Ceres was promoted from its scrappy status of biggest of the asteroids – the debris, the leftovers of our solar system’s development – to dwarf planet. Even 4 Vesta is now designated a proto-planet.

Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist rendition of Dawn spacecraft orbiting Vesta. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

So now the stage is set. Dawn will arrive first at a dwarf planet – Ceres – in April. With a small, low gravity body and ion propulsion, the arrival is slow and cautious. If the two missions fair well and achieve their goals, 2015 is likely to become a pivotal year in the debate over the classification of non-stellar objects throughout the universe.

Just days ago, at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco, Dr. Stern and team described the status and more details of the goals of New Horizons. Since arriving, more moons of Pluto have been discovered. There is the potential that faint rings exist and Pluto may even harbor an interior ocean due to the tidal forces from its largest moon, Charon. And Dawn mission scientists have seen the prospects for Ceres’ change. Not just the status, the latest Hubble images of Ceres is showing bright spots which could be water ice deposits and could also harbor an internal ocean.

The Solar System is becoming a more crowded place. This picture shows the sizes of dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake as compared to Earth and Earth's Moon, here called "Luna." None of the distances between objects are to scale. (Credit: NASA)
The Solar System is becoming a more crowded place. This picture shows the sizes of dwarf planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Makemake as compared to Earth and Earth’s Moon, here called “Luna.” None of the distances between objects are to scale. (Credit: NASA)

So other NASA missions notwithstanding, this is the year of the dwarf planet. NASA will provide Humanity with its first close encounters with the most numerous of small round – by their self-gravity – bodies in the Universe. They are now called dwarf planets but ask Dr. Stern and company, the public, and many other planetary scientists and you will discover that the jury is still out.

References:

JHU/APL New Horizons Mission Home Page

NASA Dawn Mission Home Page

Related Universe Today articles:

NASA’s New Horizons

NASA’s Dawn Mission

Antares Explosion Investigation Focuses on First Stage Propulsion Failure

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – Investigators probing the Antares launch disaster are focusing on clues pointing to a failure in the first stage propulsion system that resulted in a loss of thrust and explosive mid-air destruction of the commercial rocket moments after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, at 6:22 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, October 28.

The highly anticipated first night launch of the Orbital Sciences Corp. privately developed Antares rocket blasted off nominally and ascended for about 15 seconds until a rapid fire series of sudden and totally unexpected loud explosions sent shock waves reverberating all around the launch site and surroundings for miles and the rocket was quickly consumed in a raging fireball.

Antares was carrying the unmanned Cygnus cargo freighter on a mission dubbed Orb-3 to resupply the six person crew living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with science experiments and needed equipment.

The 14 story Antares rocket is a two stage vehicle. The liquid fueled first stage is filled with about 550,000 pounds (250,000 kg) of Liquid Oxygen and Refined Petroleum (LOX/RP) and powered by a pair of AJ26 engines originally manufactured some 40 years ago in the then Soviet Union and designated as the NK-33.

Earlier this year an AJ26 engine failed and exploded during acceptance testing on May 22, 2014, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. An extensive analysis and recheck by Orbital Sciences was conducted to clear this pair for flight.

I was an eyewitness to the awful devastation suffered by the Orb-3 mission from the press viewing site at NASA Wallops located at a distance of about 1.8 miles away from the launch complex.

Numerous photos and videos from myself (see herein) and many others clearly show a violent explosion emanating from the base of the two stage rocket. The remainder of the first stage and the entire upper stage was clearly intact at that point.

Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallops. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014, at NASA Wallops, Virginia, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA announced that Orbital Sciences is leading the investigation into the rocket failure and quickly appointed an Accident Investigation Board (AIB) chaired by David Steffy, Chief Engineer of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group.

The AIB is working under the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“Evidence suggests the failure initiated in the first stage after which the vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground impacting near, but not on, the launch pad,” Orbital said in a statement.

At the post launch disaster briefing at NASA Wallops, I asked Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Group, to provide any specifics of the sequence of events and failure, a timeline of events, and whether the engines failed.

“The ascent stopped, there was disassembly of the first stage, and then it fell to Earth. The way the accident investigation proceeds is we lock down all the data [after the accident]. Then we go through a very methodical process to recreate the data and evaluate it. We need time to look at what failed from both a video and telemetry standpoint,” Culbertson told Universe Today.

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
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 rocket telemetry has now been released to the accident investigation board.

“Our engineers presented a very quick look assessment to the Accident Investigation Board at the end of the day. It appears the Antares vehicle had a nominal pre-launch and launch sequence with no issues noted,” Orbital said in a statement.

“All systems appeared to be performing nominally until approximately T+15 seconds at which point the failure occurred.”

Blastoff of the 14 story Antares rocket took place from the beachside Launch Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops situated on the eastern shore of Virginia.

After the failure occurred the rocket fell back to the ground near, but not on top of, the launch pad.

“Prior to impacting the ground, the rocket’s Flight Termination System was engaged by the designated official in the Wallops Range Control Center,” said Orbital.

Technicians processing Antares rocket on Oct 26 to prepare for first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 27 at 6:45 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Technicians processing Antares rocket on Oct 26 to prepare for first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Since the rocket impacted just north of the pad, that damage was not as bad as initially feared.

From a public viewing area about two miles away, I captured some side views of the pad complex and damage it sustained.

Check out the details of my assessment in my prior article and exclusive photos showing some clearly discernible damage to the Antares rocket launch pad – here.

Damage is visible to Launch Pad 0A following catastrophic failure of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket moments after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Damage is visible to Launch Pad 0A following catastrophic failure of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket moments after liftoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The doomed mission was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on a flight to bring up some 5000 pounds of (2200 kg) of science experiments, research instruments, crew provisions, spare parts, and spacewalk and computer equipment and gear on a critical resupply mission in the Cygnus resupply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Among the top tasks of the AIB are “developing a ‘fault tree’ and a timeline of the important events during the launch sequence,” using the large volume of data available.

“We will analyze the telemetry. We have reams of data and telemetry that come down during launch and we will be analyzing that carefully to see if we can determine exactly the sequence of events, what went wrong, and then what we can do to fix it,” said Culbertson.

The accident team is also gathering and evaluating launch site debris.

“Over the weekend, Orbital’s Wallops-based Antares personnel continued to identify, catalogue, secure, and geolocate debris found at the launch site in order to preserve physical evidence and provide a record of the launch site following the mishap that will be useful for the AIB’s analysis and determination of what caused the Antares launch failure,” said Orbital.

Culberston expressed Orbital’s regret for the launch failure.

“We are disappointed we could not fulfill our obligation to the International Space Station program and deliver this load of cargo. And especially to the researchers who had science on board as well as to the people who had hardware and components on board for going to the station.”

“It’s a tough time to lose a launch vehicle and payload like this. Our team worked very hard to prepare it, with a lot of testing and analysis to get ready for this mission.”

Culbertson emphasized that Orbital will fix the problem and move forward.

“Something went wrong and we will find out what that is. We will determine the root cause and we will correct that. And we will come back and fly here at Wallops again. We will do all the things that are necessary to make sure it is as safe as we can make it, and that we solve the immediate problem of this particular mission.”

Cygnus pressurized cargo module - side view - during prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Cygnus pressurized cargo module – side view – during prelaunch processing by Orbital Sciences at NASA Wallops, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Culbertson noted that the public should not touch any rocket debris found.

“The investigation will include evaluating the debris around the launch pad. The rocket had a lot of hazardous equipment and materials on board that people should not be looking for or wanting to collect souvenirs. If you find anything that washes ashore or landed you should call the local authorities and definitely not touch it.”

The Orbital-3, or Orb-3, mission was to be the third of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS through 2016 under the NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract award valued at $1.9 Billion.

Orbital Sciences is under contract to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts, and hardware for the eight ISS flights.

At this point the future is unclear.

Watch here for Ken’s onsite reporting direct from NASA Wallops.

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

Ken Kremer

Watch A ‘Swan’ Fly Free From Its Trap In A Space Robotic Arm

What does it look like when a cargo ship goes flying away from the International Space Station? This timelapse gives you a sense of what to expect. Here, you can see the handiwork of the (off-camera) Expedition 40 crew as they use the robotic Canadarm2 to let go of the Cygnus spacecraft.

“Great feeling to release a captured swan back into the wild last week,” wrote Alexander Gerst, an astronaut with the European Space Agency, on Twitter with the video.

Cygnus (Latin for “swan”, and a northern constellation) is a commercial spacecraft manufactured by Orbital Sciences Corp., and is one of two regular private visitors to the space station. The other one is Dragon, which is manufactured by SpaceX. Both companies have agreements with NASA to run periodic cargo flights to the station so that the astronauts can receive fresh equipment, food and personal items.

Both spacecraft are designed to be captured and released by Canadarm2, which the astronauts operate. When the Canadarm2 captures the spacecraft, it is referred to as a “berthing” (as opposed to a docking, when a spacecraft directly latches on to the station.)

Cygnus made a (planned) fiery re-entry Sunday that the astronauts captured on camera from their orbiting perch. Besides the inherent spectacular value of looking at the pictures, they could also be useful to help plan the eventual de-orbiting of the space station.