Categories
GeekWire

NASA astronauts splash down in SpaceX Dragon capsule

The first mission to send NASA astronauts into orbit on a commercially owned spaceship came back down to Earth today with the splashdown of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Mike Heiman, a lead member of SpaceX’s operations team, told astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

The splashdown closed out a 64-day mission to the International Space Station, aimed at testing the first SpaceX Dragon to carry crew. The reusable spacecraft, which put 27.1 million miles on its orbital odometer, was dubbed Endeavour as a tribute to earlier spaceships.

In May, Endeavour’s launch atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made history, and today’s return to Earth did as well: It was the first time since 1975 that a crewed NASA spacecraft returned to Earth at sea, and the first-ever space landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The splashdown marked the completion of the first mission to launch astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since NASA’s final space shuttle flight in 2011.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Amazon commits $10B to satellites after FCC’s OK

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized Amazon’s plans for a Project Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites that would provide broadband internet access across a wide swath of the globe — but on the condition that it doesn’t unduly interfere with previously authorized satellite ventures.

In response, Amazon said it would invest more than $10 billion in the project. “We’re off to the races,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, said in a statement.

The FCC’s non-interference requirements and other conditions are laid out in a 24-page order that was adopted on July 29 and released today. The ruling addresses objections registered by Amazon’s rivals — including SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat.

Project Kuiper’s satellites are to be launched in five phases, and service would begin once Amazon launched the first 578 satellites. Under the terms of the FCC’s order, Amazon will have to launch half of its satellites by mid-2026, and the rest of them by mid-2029.

Amazon had sought to vie on an equal footing with constellation operators whose plans had been previously authorized by the FCC, but the commission said that in fairness, Project Kuiper would have to give deference to those plans. The FCC said that it expected Amazon’s mega-constellation rivals to act in good faith to resolve radio interference concerns.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Perseverance rover begins trek to seek life on Mars

With the fiery flash of a rocket launch, NASA’s Perseverance rover headed out today for what’s expected to be a decade-long campaign to store up and bring back Martian samples that may hold evidence of alien life.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:50 a.m. ET (4:50 a.m. PT), sending the rover into space for a seven-month cruise to Mars.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the area surrounding the launch pad was restricted, but hundreds of thousands of people watched the liftoff via streaming video. And as if the pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge, in the minutes before launch, a magnitude-4.2 earthquake rattled through NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the rover mission is managed.

Mission managers said the complications had no effect on the countdown.

“This is all about perseverance,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the buildup to liftoff. “Going to Mars is all about persevering in general. Doing it now is more persevering than ever before.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Mars mission puts working from home to the ultimate test

The launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover marks the start of a seven-month-long journey involving tens of millions of miles of travel — but it also marks the end of an eight-year-long journey involving millions of miles of travel on the part of scientists and engineers across the country.

And perhaps the biggest marvel is that, in the end, most of them got the rover and its scientific instruments ready for launch while working from home.

Working from home has been a tough thing to manage for many of the businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions. It’s been tough for NASA as well.

“Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder,” Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a pre-launch briefing.

Fortunately, NASA and its partners could draw upon decades’ worth of experience in remote operations. “When the pandemic came along, it didn’t make that much difference in the way I operate, because I was already used to working remotely with JPL,” said the University of Washington’s Tim Elam, who’s part of the science team for the rover’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

Once the rover is on its way, working remotely will become even more routine. “Pasadena is about the same distance away from Mars that Seattle is,” Elam joked.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Virgin Galactic offers a VR peek inside SpaceShipTwo

More than a decade after Virgin Galactic unveiled a swoopy, spacey look for the passenger cabin of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the company took the wraps off a more down-to-Earth design that reflects what spacefliers will actually see when they climb into their seats.

And in a move befitting this era of social distancing, the big reveal was done with the aid of virtual reality.

Virgin Galactic went so far as to lend out Oculus Quest headsets to journalists, including yours truly, so we could get an advance peek at a computer-generated interior with an eye-filling view of Earth and space out the window.

The VR experience let me do something I could never do during a real-life rocket ride: walk through the walls of the spaceship, stand on the wing … and step off into space. The thought experiment was a cosmic version of the classic VR game where you walk on a plank sticking out from the ledge of a virtual skyscraper and dare yourself to jump off. I couldn’t do it from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s wing unless I kept my eyes closed.

Get the full story (and video) from GeekWire.

Categories
Cosmic Space

China launches Mars probe amid big questions

China’s most advanced space probe — Tianwen-1, whose name means “Heavenly Questions” — is on its way to Mars, beginning a quest that will be riddled with questions.

Some of those questions are definitely heavenly in nature: How are reservoirs of potentially precious water ice distributed beneath the Martian surface? Where are the best places to find traces of past life, or to shelter future explorers?

But the biggest question about Tianwen-1 is more down to Earth: Can the Chinese actually pull this off?

“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter. No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way,” mission team leaders wrote last week in Nature Astronomy. “If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”

The mission’s start looked auspicious, although it lacked the level of official reportage that Western space enthusiasts are used to.

A video stream from Douyu.com showed China’s Long March 5 rocket sending the 5-ton probe skyward from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island at 12:41 p.m. local time July 23 (9:41 p.m. PT July 22). China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed the launch in a bulletin issued a couple of minutes later.

The plan calls for Tianwen-1 to make a seven-month cruise to Mars and enter a polar elliptical orbit next February.

Tianwen-1 is one of three Mars probes being launched this summer to take advantage of a favorable celestial alignment that comes around only every 26 months. The other two spacecraft are the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which was launched earlier this week; and NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due for liftoff next week.

NASA’s recent Mars missions may make the interplanetary trip look easy. But over the past five decades, trips to the Red Planet have been so fraught with risks that mission managers used to joke darkly about a “Great Galactic Ghoul” who gobbled spacecraft bound for Mars.

Only NASA and the Soviet Union have successfully landed probes on Mars, and the Soviet Mars 3 lander lasted just 110 seconds on the ground before giving up the ghost in 1971.

Several NASA probes have gone astray, including Mars Observer in 1993 as well as Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. China has fallen victim to the ghoul’s grip as well: Its first Mars probe, a piggyback orbiter known as Yinghuo-1, was lost when the Russian spacecraft it was riding on, Phobos-Grunt, failed to get out of Earth orbit after its launch in 2011 and eventually fell into the Pacific.

Since that failure, China’s robotic space program has had much more success: The Chang’e-3 mission put a rover on the lunar surface in 2013, and a little more than five years later, Chang’e-4 became the world’s first mission to explore the moon’s far side at ground level.

Tianwen-1’s agenda is similarly ambitious: The orbiter is meant to conduct a global high-resolution survey of Mars over the course of a full Martian year, or nearly two Earth years. Two or three months after entering Martian orbit, a lander will unhook from the orbiter, descend through the atmosphere and make a soft landing in Utopia Planitia with the aid of a parachute, retrorockets and airbags.

If that touchdown is successful, the lander will disgorge a 500-pound rover that’s bristling with six scientific instruments — including two cameras, a meteorology station, a magnetometer, a surface composition analyzer and a ground-penetrating radar that could map those hidden concentrations of subsurface water ice.

Mars’ reservoirs of water ice would be crucial for sustaining human exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. In the past, Chinese experts have talked about sending astronauts there sometime after 2040. But that’s an issue for another day. In the meantime, China — and the rest of the world’s spacefaring nations — will have to deal with lots of slightly less lofty heavenly questions.

Update for 1:25 a.m. PT July 23: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wished Tianwen-1 safe travels in a tweet:

Categories
GeekWire

BlackSky will track COVID-19 impact for Air Force

BlackSky, a satellite data venture with offices in Seattle, says it’s won a U.S. Air Force contract to track the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on military interests worldwide.

The contract calls for BlackSky to monitor U.S. military bases overseas and assess the status of supply chains, using its AI-enabled Spectra geospatial data analysis platform.

Spectra can analyze satellite data as well as news feeds and social media postings to identify anomalies worth following up on with additional imagery or investigation. The data inputs include imagery from BlackSky’s own satellite constellation as well as from other sources.

BlackSky has benefited from Pentagon contracts for years, but this latest project focuses on impacts related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The approach was demonstrated for GeekWire back in May, when BlackSky executives showed how satellite images could be compared to detect an unusual rise or fall in, say, the number of cars parked in a lot outside a given installation. That could point to places where social distancing is decreasing or increasing.

Spectra can also analyze activity at airports, loading docks, maintenance facilities, fuel storage depots and other key installations to assess how supply chains might be affected by pandemic-related bottlenecks.

Such analyses can be compared with reported infection numbers coming from local governments, and integrated into computer models to predict the risk to deployed Air Force personnel and the surrounding communities.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Spaceflight and Tethers team up on deorbiting system

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’ll use a notebook-sized deorbiting system developed by another Seattle-area company to deal with the disposal of its Sherpa-FX orbital transfer vehicle.

The NanoSat Terminator Tape Deorbit System, built by Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited, is designed to take advantage of orbital drag on a 230-foot-long strip of conductive tape to hasten the fiery descent of a spacecraft through Earth’s atmosphere. The system has been tested successfully on nanosatellites over the past year, and another experiment is planned for later this year.

Tethers Unlimited’s system provides an affordable path to reducing space debris, which is becoming a problem of greater concern as more small satellites go into orbit. Statistical models suggest that there are nearly a million bits of debris bigger than half an inch (1 centimeter) whizzing in Earth orbit.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Hope rises: Emirates’ first Mars probe lifts off from Japan

The United Arab Emirates’ first-ever mission to Mars got off to a fiery start today with the launch of the Hope orbiter from Japan.

A two-stage Mitsubishi H-2A rocket sent the car-sized probe into space from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center at 2:58 p.m. PT today (6:58 a.m. local time July 20). Two previous launch attempts had to be called off due to unacceptable weather.

An Emirati team based at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai is in charge of the $200 million mission. The probe itself was built in the U.S. with help from research institutions including Berkeley, Arizona State University and the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or LASP.

Learning the tools of the space exploration trade is one of the Hope mission’s on-the-ground objectives. The United Arab Emirates has had several satellites launched into Earth orbit, but this is the nation’s first interplanetary probe.

“Collaboration and knowledge transfer have been key to the development of the Emirates Mars Mission,” project director Omran Sharaf said in a pre-launch news release.

About an hour after launch, the probe was deployed from the H-2A’s second stage and sent out of Earth orbit to start the seven-month, 306 million-mile cruise to Mars. Emirati mission controllers will track Hope’s progress with an assist from NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Hope’s three instruments — a high-resolution imager, an infrared spectrometer and an ultraviolet spectrometer — are aimed at providing data about Mars’ atmosphere on a par with what Earth-observing weather satellites provide.

That should help flesh out the global picture of Martian weather provided by other nations’ orbiters, including NASA’s MAVEN and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

One of the key scientific questions has to do with how hydrogen and oxygen are escaping from the upper atmosphere — a phenomenon that, over the course of billions of years, is thought to have turned Mars from a hospitable home for life to the cold, dry planet it is today.

“Hope will capture the ebbs and flows of weather on Mars to a degree that wasn’t possible before,” said LASP’s director, Daniel Baker. “It’s a showcase for how space exploration has become an increasingly international endeavor.”

The primary phase of the mission is meant to last a full Martian year, or a little less than two Earth years, but if all goes well that mission is likely to be extended.

Hope was the first of three Mars probes scheduled for launch during this summer’s rapid-transit opportunity. (Such opportunities come only every 26 months.)

China is expected to launch its Tianwen-1 spacecraft — including an orbiter, a lander and a rover — sometime in the next week or so. And NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is due for liftoff from its Florida launch pad no earlier than July 30.

Less than an hour before launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that the UAE’s space program was a “shining example” of international space cooperation — and that last year’s flight of the Emirates’ first astronaut gave NASA “another partner” in human spaceflight during the ramp-up to Artemis moon missions.

Bridenstine said both the Hope orbiter and the Perseverance rover were aptly named.

“All of us believe that this is critical for our nation: to inspire the next generation, to provide hope and demonstrate perseverance,” he said. “The naming of these two robots, if you will, is absolutely perfect. … This is a very serious mission that is going to give us a lot of data and information on how we might one day, together even, explore Mars with humans.”

Categories
Cosmic Space

5 years after flyby, the case for Pluto still holds up

It was exactly five years ago today that NASA’s New Horizons probe made a history-making flyby past Pluto — and since then, the mission’s scientific discoveries and newly raised mysteries continue to pile up.

“I think the solar system literally saved the best for last with Pluto,” New Horizons’ principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, said in his anniversary blog post. “Of course, I’m a little biased — as we all are on New Horizons — but I can’t think of a more beautiful and scientifically richer way to have completed the first era of the reconnaissance of the planets.”

This year marks another, more personal anniversary: It’s been 10 years since the publication of “The Case for Pluto,” my book about the put-upon planet. Back then, the big question was whether Pluto deserved the planet label — and although I argued the case that it does, the clash over classification really isn’t that big of a deal anymore.

You can call Pluto a dwarf planet (my preferred term), a Kuiper Belt object or a “bloog.” (That last term is the one Caltech astronomer and self-described Pluto-killer Mike Brown came up with to make fun of the tiff over terminology.)

But in light of New Horizons’ discoveries, you can never call Pluto uninteresting.

It’s interesting to leaf through the pages of “The Case for Pluto” and size up how the speculation from 2010 matches up with the science as we know it in 2020. In honor of the fifth anniversary of the flyby and the 10th anniversary of the book, here are updates on five of the big questions about Pluto:

Is there liquid water on Pluto? Looks like it. New Horizons’ pictures of tectonic structures and mountains made of water ice, plus an analysis of the dwarf planet’s mass distribution, suggest that there are bodies of liquid water hidden beneath the surface layer of nitrogen ice. What’s more, shifts in the state of that water due to freezing may be what’s driving the creation of new faults in the surface ice.

“If Pluto is an active ocean world, that suggests that the Kuiper Belt may be filled with other ocean worlds among its dwarf planets, dramatically expanding the number of potentially habitable places in the solar system,” New Horizons team member James Tuttle Keane, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said today in a mission recap.

Does Pluto have plains of methane? Sort of. One of Pluto’s best-known features, a light-colored, heart-shaped zone that was named Tombaugh Regio in honor of the dwarf planet’s discoverer, is dominated by a plain known as Sputnik Planitia. The plain is made up of patchy nitrogen-ice glaciers, but New Horizons also detected the presence of frozen methane, carbon monoxide and water (in the form of icebergs).

A close analysis of the imagery led scientists to conclude that grains of methane sand have risen to the surface of Sputnik Planitia and are being blown around into icy dunes, probably by gentle winds in Pluto’s ultra-thin, nitrogen-rich atmosphere.

Will Pluto’s atmosphere freeze out? The latest evidence suggests a freezing trend. Pluto cycles through seasons in the course of its 248-Earth-year orbit, the dwarf planet’s elliptical orbit is currently taking it farther away from the sun. That means the already-chilly planet and its atmosphere will be getting even colder.

At the time of the New Horizons flyby, scientists saw signs that the atmosphere was still holding steady rather than freezing into flecks of ice, probably due to thermal inertia. But this year, a Japanese team reported that the pressure has apparently dropped by more than 20% since 2016. That’s a much more dramatic collapse than expected, and will need to be confirmed (or discounted) by follow-up observations.

Are there ice volcanoes? You bet … not only on Pluto but on its largest moon, Charon. The pictures from New Horizons suggest that slushy “cryolava” has blurped out onto the surfaces of the two worlds through fissures in the surface ice.

Although the flyby went by too quickly to see the actual blurping, scientists spotted large central pits on two Plutonian mountains known as Wright Mons and Piccard Mons that they believe serve as the mouths of ice volcanoes. And in a region on Charon called Vulcan Planitia, the New Horizons team saw signs of a huge flow of ammonia-rich water ice.

Is there another Planet X out there? Ask again later. Even when “The Case for Pluto” was written, there was plenty of speculation over whether an undetected planet much bigger than Pluto lurked on the solar system’s edge. Caltech’s Mike Brown and other researchers said anomalies in the orbits of objects in the Kuiper Belt hinted at the presence of what they called Planet Nine.

Years of searching through telescope data haven’t yet turned up hard evidence for Planet Nine’s presence, and some astronomers now speculate that the anomalies associated with the hypothetical planet are due instead to the gravitational influence of a grapefruit-sized black hole. Others suggest it’s just a glitch in the data.

Even if Planet X is crossed out. there’s much more to be discovered on the solar system’s last frontier.

The New Horizons team is still sorting through the data sent back from the last year’s follow-up flyby of a double-lobed Kuiper Belt object known as Arrokoth. A huge compendium of Pluto research, running to more than 1,000 pages in length, is being prepared for publication.

Stern and his colleagues are already working to identify a potential target for New Horizons’ third Kuiper Belt flyby. And they’re talking about sending out an orbiter with powerful sensors to conduct a longer-lasting survey of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

“By the time we mark the 10th anniversary of the Pluto flyby in July 2025, such a mission could even be under construction,” Stern wrote today.

Who knows? Maybe a 15th-anniversary edition of “The Case for Pluto” will be in the works as well.