Echoes of Chelyabinsk: Another Fireball Explodes Over Russia

Why does Russia seem to get so many bright meteors? Well at 6.6 million square miles it’s by far the largest country in the world plus, with dashboard-mounted cameras being so commonplace (partly to help combat insurance fraud) statistically it just makes sense that Russians would end up seeing more meteors, and then be able to share the experience with the rest of the world!

This is exactly what happened early this morning, April 19 (local time), when a bright fireball flashed in the skies over Murmansk, located on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia near the border of Finland. Luckily not nearly as large or powerful as the Chelyabinsk meteor event from February 2013, no sound or air blast from this fireball has been reported and nobody was injured. Details on the object aren’t yet known… it could be a meteor (most likely) or it could be re-entering space debris. The video above, some of which was captured by Alexandr Nesterov from his dashcam, shows the object dramatically lighting up the early morning sky.

One Russian astronomer suggests this bolide may have been part of the debris that results in the Lyrid meteor shower, which peaks on April 22-23. (Source: NBC)

Source: RT.com

ISS, NASA and US National Security dependent on Russian & Ukrainian Rocketry Amidst Crimean Crisis

The International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit
The sole way for every American and station partner astronaut to fly to space and the ISS is aboard the Russian Soyuz manned capsule since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in 2011. There are currently NO alternatives to Russia’s Soyuz. Credit: NASA[/caption]

Virtually every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program – including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace company’s and crucially important US national security payloads – are highly dependent on Russian & Ukrainian rocketry and are therefore potentially at risk amidst the current Crimea crisis as tensions flared up dangerously in recent days between Ukraine and Russia with global repercussions.

The International Space Station (ISS), astronaut rides to space and back, the Atlas V and Antares rockets and even critical U.S. spy satellites providing vital, real time intelligence gathering are among the examples of programs that may be in peril if events deteriorate or worse yet, spin out of control.

The Crimean confrontation and all the threats and counter threats of armed conflicts and economic sanctions shines a spotlight on US vulnerabilities regarding space exploration, private industry and US national security programs, missions, satellites and rockets.

The consequences of escalating tensions could be catastrophic for all sides.

Many Americans are likely unaware of the extent to which the US, Russian and Ukrainian space programs, assets and booster rockets are inextricably intertwined and interdependent.

First, let’s look at America’s dependency on Russia regarding the ISS.

The massive orbiting lab complex is a partnership of 15 nations and five space agencies worldwide – including Russia’s Roscosmos and the US NASA. The station is currently occupied by a six person crew of three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, America completely lost its own human spaceflight capability. So now the only ticket for astronauts to space and back is by way of the Russian Soyuz capsule.

Expedition 38 crew members proudly sport their national flags in this March 2014 picture from the International Space Station. Pictured (clockwise from top center) are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, all flight engineers. Credit: NASA
Expedition 38 crew members proudly sport their national flags in this March 2014 picture from the International Space Station. Pictured (clockwise from top center) are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, all flight engineers. Credit: NASA

American and station partner astronauts are 100% dependent on Russia’s three seat Soyuz capsule and rocket for rides to the ISS.

Russia has a monopoly on reaching the station because the shuttle was shut down by political ‘leaders’ in Washington, DC before a new U.S. manned space system was brought online.

And congressional budget cutters have repeatedly slashed NASA’s budget, thereby increasing the gap in US manned spaceflight launches from American soil by several years already.

Congress was repeatedly warned of the consequences by NASA and responded with further reductions to NASA’s budget.

In a continuation of the normal crew rotation routines, three current crew members are set to depart the ISS in a Soyuz and descend to Earth on Monday, March 10.

Coincidentally, one of those Russian crew members, Oleg Kotov, was actually born in Crimea when it was part of the former Soviet Union.

A new three man crew of two Russians and one American is set to blast off in their Soyuz capsule from Russia’s launch pad in Kazakhstan on March 25.

The U.S. pays Russia $70 million per Soyuz seat under the most recent contact, while American aerospace workers are unemployed.

The fastest and most cost effective path to restore America’s human spaceflight capability to low Earth orbit and the ISS is through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) seeking to develop private ‘space taxis’ with Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada.

Alas, Congress has sliced NASA’s CCP funding request by about 50% each year and the 1st commercial crew flight to orbit has consequently been postponed by more than three years.

So it won’t be until 2017 at the earliest that NASA can end its total dependence on Russia’s Soyuz.

A sensible policy to eliminate US dependence on Russia would be to accelerate CCP, not cut it to the bone, especially in view of the Crimean crisis which remains unresolved as of this writing.

If U.S. access to Soyuz seats were to be cut off, the implications would be dire and it could mean the end of the ISS.

When NASA Administrator Chales Bolden was asked about contingencies at a briefing yesterday, March 4, he responded that everything is OK for now.

“Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians,” said Bolden.

“Missions up and down are on target.”

“People lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises.”

“I don’t think it’s an insignificant fact that we are starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

But he urged Congress to fully fund CCP and avoid still more delays.

“Let me be clear about one thing,” Bolden said.

“The choice here is between fully funding the request to bring space launches back to the US or continuing millions in subsidies to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama administration chooses investing in America, and we believe Congress will choose this course as well.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Now let’s examine a few American rockets which include substantial Russian and Ukrainian components – without which they cannot lift one nanometer off the ground.

The Atlas V rocket developed by United Launch Alliance is the current workhorse of the US expendable rocket fleet.

Coincidentally the next Atlas V due to blastoff on March 25 will carry a top secret spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The Atlas V first stage however is powered by the Russian built and supplied RD-180 rocket engine.

Several Air Force – DOD satellites are launched on the Atlas V every year.

Many NASA probes also used the Atlas V including Curiosity, MAVEN, Juno and TDRS to name just a few.

NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars bound MAVEN spacecraft launches atop Atlas V booster at 1:28 p.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 18, 2013. Image taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

What will happen to shipments of the dual nozzle, dual chamber RD-180’s manufactured by Russia’s NPO Energomesh in the event of economic sanctions or worse? It’s anyone’s guess.

ULA also manufactures the Delta IV expendable rocket which is virtually all American made and has successfully launched numerous US national security payloads.

The Antares rocket and Cygnus resupply freighter developed by Orbital Sciences are essential to NASA’s plans to restore US cargo delivery runs to the ISS – another US capability lost by voluntarily stopping shuttle flights. .

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX are both under contract with NASA to deliver 20,000 kg of supplies to the station. And they both have now successfully docked their cargo vehicles – Cygnus and Dragon – to the ISS.

The first stage of Antares is built in Ukraine by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and Yuzhmash.

And the Ukrainian booster factory is located in the predominantly Russian speaking eastern region – making for an even more complicated situation.

Antares rocket raised at NASA Wallops launch pad 0A bound for the ISS on Sept 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)
Antares rocket raised at NASA Wallops launch pad 0A bound for the ISS on Sept 18, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

By contrast, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo vessel is virtually entirely American built and not subject to economic embargoes.

At a US Congressional hearing held today (March 5) dealing with national security issues, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk underscored the crucial differences in availability between the Falcon 9 and Atlas V in this excerpt from his testimony:

“In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission, said Space X CEO and founder Elon Musk, at the US Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on Defense.

Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Next Generation SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So, continuing operations of the ISS and US National Security are potentially held hostage to the whims of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia has threatened to retaliate with sanctions against the West, if the West institutes sanctions against Russia.

The Crimean crisis is without a doubt the most dangerous East-West conflict since the end of the Cold War.

Right now no one knows the future outcome of the crisis in Crimea. Diplomats are talking but some limited military assets on both sides are reportedly on the move today.

map_of_ukraine

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, Orion, commercial space, Chang’e-3, LADEE, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Atlantis thunders to life at Launch Pad 39 A at KSC on July 8.   Credit: Ken Kremer
Final Space Shuttle liftoff marks start of US dependency on Russia for human access to space.
Space Shuttle Atlantis thunders to life at Launch Pad 39 A at KSC on July 8, 2011. Credit: Ken Kremer

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.

Claims of Tunguska Meteorite Fragments “Ridiculous,” Scientist Says

Last week, Russian researcher Andrei Zlobin announced that stony fragments collected from a riverbed in 1988 are “probably Tunguska meteorites,” and are likely the remains of whatever cosmic object — thought to be either a comet or an asteroid — entered Earth’s atmosphere over the boggy region of Siberia on June 30, 1908, detonating with an estimated force of 5 megatons and leveling over 800 square miles of forest.

So far, definitive pieces of the original object have yet to be found despite numerous expeditions to the remote impact site. In a paper submitted on April 29, Zlobin cites the melted appearance of several stones found at the bottom of the Khushmo River as a good argument to “confirm the discovery” of Tunguska meteorite fragments.

According to Natalya Artemyeva of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Geosphere Dynamics Institute, however, Zlobin’s claim is “ridiculous.”

In an article published May 4 on RIA Novosti, Artemyeva stated “There are many meteorites on Earth. For 100 plus years since the fall of the Tunguska space body, the weight of meteoric dust and small meteorites that have fallen out in that region has exceeded the mass of Tunguska.”

Stones found by Andrei Zlobin in the Khushmo River (A. Zlobin)
Stones found by Andrei Zlobin in the Khushmo River (A. Zlobin)

An estimated 100 tons of space debris enters Earth’s atmosphere on a daily basis.

Although Zlobin admits in his submitted paper that “strict confirmation of discovered melted stones as Tunguska meteorites is possible only after attentive chemical analysis of substance,” it seems that he is making rather bold claims based on appearance alone — especially considering the enigmatic and iconic nature of this particular impact event.

Read more: Tunguska Mystery Solved?

“It’s ridiculous,” Artemyeva said. “You can’t say by the appearance of a stone that it’s a meteorite. I don’t think there is ground for scientific discussion here.”

And, according to Artemyeva, even if the stones are found to be actual meteorites, connecting them to the 1908 event will still be a challenge.

Zlobin’s samples, which were in storage until 2008, are still awaiting full chemical analysis.

Read more on RIA Novosti here and on the MIT Technology Review here.

Soviet Lander Spotted by Mars Orbiter

On May 28, 1971, the Soviet Union launched the Mars 3 mission which, like its previously-launched and ill-fated sibling Mars 2, consisted of an orbiter and lander destined for the Red Planet. Just over six months later on December 2, 1971, Mars 3 arrived at Mars — five days after Mars 2 crashed. The Mars 3 descent module separated from the orbiter and several hours later entered the Martian atmosphere, descending to the surface via a series of parachutes and retrorockets. (Sound familiar?) Once safely on the surface, the Mars 3 lander opened its four petal-shaped covers to release the 4.5-kg PROP-M rover contained inside… and after 20 seconds of transmission, fell silent. Due to unknown causes, the Mars 3 lander was never heard from or seen again.

Until now.

These images show what might be hardware from the Soviet Union's 1971 Mars 3 lander ( NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)
These images show what might be hardware from the Soviet Union’s 1971 Mars 3 lander (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

The set of images above shows what might be hardware from the 1971 Soviet Mars 3 lander, seen in a pair of images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While following news about Mars and NASA’s Curiosity rover, Russian citizen enthusiasts found four features in a five-year-old image from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that resemble four pieces of hardware from the Mars 3 mission: the parachute, heat shield, terminal retrorocket and lander. A follow-up image by the orbiter from last month shows the same features.

“Together, this set of features and their layout on the ground provide a remarkable match to what is expected from the Mars 3 landing, but alternative explanations for the features cannot be ruled out.”

– Alfred McEwen, HiRISE Principal Investigator

The Mars 3 lander (NSSDC)
The Mars 3 lander (NSSDC)

Vitali Egorov from St. Petersburg, Russia, heads the largest Russian Internet community about Curiosity. His subscribers did the preliminary search for Mars 3 via crowdsourcing. Egorov modeled what Mars 3 hardware pieces should look like in a HiRISE image, and the group carefully searched the many small features in this large image, finding what appear to be viable candidates in the southern part of the scene. Each candidate has a size and shape consistent with the expected hardware, and they are arranged on the surface as expected from the entry, descent and landing sequence.

“I wanted to attract people’s attention to the fact that Mars exploration today is available to practically anyone,” Egorov said. “At the same time we were able to connect with the history of our country, which we were reminded of after many years through the images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.”

The predicted Mars 3 landing site was at latitude 45 degrees south, longitude 202 degrees east, in Ptolemaeus Crater. HiRISE acquired a large image at this location in November 2007, and promising candidates for the hardware from Mars 3 were found on Dec. 31, 2012.

Candidate features of the Mars 3 retrorockets (top) and lander (bottom)
Candidate features of the Mars 3 retrorockets (top) and lander (bottom)

The candidate parachute is the most distinctive feature in the images (seen above at top.) It is an especially bright spot for this region, about 8.2 yards (7.5 meters) in diameter.

The parachute would have a diameter of 12 yards (11 meters) if fully spread out over the surface, so this is consistent.

“Together, this set of features and their layout on the ground provide a remarkable match to what is expected from the Mars 3 landing, but alternative explanations for the features cannot be ruled out,” said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “Further analysis of the data and future images to better understand the three-dimensional shapes may help to confirm this interpretation.”

Source: NASA/JPL

 

Weekly Space Hangout, Feb. 15, 2013: Space Rocks Edition

We interrupt your regular Weekly Space Hangout with this extra special edition to cover to the two asteroid-related events: the Russian meteor explosion and the close pass of Asteroid 2012 DA14.

Joining us for the space round table:
Dr. Ian O’Neill, Dr. Pamela Gay, Dr. Thad Szabo, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, Nancy Atkinson, and Scott Lewis

Host: Fraser Cain

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12 pm Pacific / 3 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Cosmoquest or listen after as part of the Astronomy Cast podcast feed (audio only).

Meteor Blast Rocks Russia

This just in: reports of bright meteors and loud explosions have been coming from Russia, with the incredible video above showing what appears to be a meteor exploding in the atmosphere on the morning of Friday, Feb. 15.

According to Reuters the objects were seen in the skies over the Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk regions.

“Preliminary indications are that it was a meteorite rain,” an emergency official told RIA-Novosti. “We have information about a blast at 10,000-meter (32,800-foot) altitude. It is being verified.” UPDATE: The Russian Academy of Sciences has estimated that the single 10-ton meteor entered the atmosphere at around 54,000 kph (33,000 mph) and disintegrated 30-50 kilometers (18-32 miles) up. Nearly 500 people have been injured, most by broken glass — at least 3 in serious condition. (AP)

Chelyabinsk is 930 miles (1,500 km) east of Moscow, in Russia’s Ural Mountains.

Preliminary reports on RT.com state that the meteorite “crashed into a wall near a zinc factory, disrupting the city’s internet and mobile service.” 150 minor injuries have also been reported from broken glass and debris created by the explosion’s shockwave.

ADDED: More videos below:

Contrails and explosions can be heard here, with breaking glass:

Over a city commercial district:

And yet another dash cam:

Watch the garage door get blown in at the 30-second mark:

Here’s a great summary from Russia Today

This event occurs on the same day that Earth is to be passed at a distance of 27,000 km by the 45-meter-wide asteroid 2012 DA14. Coincidence? Most likely. But – more info as it comes!

Read what Phil Plait has to say about this on his Bad Astronomy blog here.

News source: Reuters. H/T to Matt Arnold.

Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft: 46 Years and Still Soaring High


In just a couple of days a Soyuz rocket will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Roman Romanenko within the TMA-07M capsule on a two-day trip to the ISS. While many improvements have been made to the Soyuz rockets and spacecraft since the first launch in 1966, the bottom line is that the Soyuz have become the world’s most used launch vehicles due to their consistent performance and relatively low cost.

Here, CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield talks about the Soyuz, briefly describing the strengths of the Russian technology that will once again take him and fellow Expedition 34/35 crew members to the ISS, where in March of next year he will become the first Canadian to take command of the Station.

“This is a safe and reliable and proven way to leave the Earth, and each successive Soyuz is different; each one has small changes. The role of the astronaut is to learn those small changes… and learn to apply them.”

– Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield

The T version of the Soyuz craft began flying manned missions in 1980 and in 1986 the TM versions were transporting crews to Mir. The TMA upgrade addressed previous astronaut/cosmonaut height restrictions and permits the Soyuz to be used as a lifeboat for ISS crews, if necessary.

Find out more about the long history of the Soyuz spacecraft here, and read more about today’s Soyuz rollout here.

Video: CSA. Inset image: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Exploded Rocket Fragments Could Endanger ISS and Future Missions

The International Space Station will have to look out for new debris from an exploded Russian rocket (NASA image)

Traveling through low-Earth orbit just got a little more dangerous; a drifting Russian Breeze M (Briz-M) rocket stage that failed to execute its final burns back on August 6 has recently exploded, sending hundreds of shattered fragments out into orbit.

Russia and the U.S. Defense Department (JFCC-Space) have stated that they are currently tracking 500 pieces of debris from the disintegrated Breeze M, although some sources are saying there are likely much more than that.

After a successful liftoff via Proton rocket on August 6 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Breeze M upper stage’s engines shut off after only 7 seconds as opposed to the normal 18 minutes, leaving its fuel tanks filled with 10 to 15 tons of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants. Its payloads, the Indonesian Telkom 3 and the Russian Express-MD2 communications satellites, were subsequently deployed into the wrong orbits as the Breeze M computer continued functioning.

Although originally expected to remain intact for at least another year, the rocket stage “violently disintegrated” on October 16. Evidence of the explosion was first observed by astronomer Robert McNaught at Australia’s Siding Springs Observatory, who counted 70 fragments visible within the narrow field-of-view telescope he was using for near-Earth asteroid observations.

The exact cause of the explosion isn’t known — it may have been sparked by an impact with another piece of space junk or the result of stresses caused by the Breeze M’s eccentric orbit, which varied in altitude from 265 to 5,015 kilometers (165 miles to 3,118 miles) with an inclination of 49.9 degrees.

This was the third such breakup of a partially-full Breeze M upper stage in orbit, the previous events having occurred in 2007 and 2010, and yet another Breeze M still remains in orbit after a failed burn in August 2011.

Most of the latest fragments are still in orbit at altitudes ranging from 250 to 5,000 km (155 to 3,100 miles), where they are expected to remain.

“Although some of the pieces have begun to re-enter, most of the debris will remain in orbit for an extended period of time.”

– Jamie Mannina, US State Department spokesperson

According to NASA the debris currently poses no immediate threat to the Space Station although the cloud is “believed not to be insignificant.” Still, according to a post on Zarya.com the Station’s course will periodically take it within the Breeze M debris cloud, and “will sometimes spend several days at a time with a large part of its orbit within the cloud.”

Source: RT.com and SpaceflightNow.com.  Inset image: the Breeze M (Briz-M) upper stage which disintegrated on Oct. 16. (Khrunichev)