On 17 January 2021, Virgin Orbit conducted an airborne launch from their modified Boeing 747-400 “mothership,” Cosmic Girl, and their LauncherOne rocket boosted a payload of 10 small CubeSats into low Earth orbit. This marks the first commercial orbital mission for Virgin Orbit.
LauncherOne is a 70 foot long (21.34 meter), liquid fueled, two stage booster rocket that can deliver a 300 to 500 kg (661 to 1,102 lb) satellite payload to orbit. Due to the flexibility of using an airborne launch platform, the satellite can be placed into an orbit at any inclination between 0° (equatorial) to 120° (30° retrograde).
NASA sponsored the 10 CubeSats launched on 17 January under their Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. NASA also funded the launch under its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program.
This was Virgin Orbit’s second attempt to launch satellites into orbit with LauncherOne. The first flight on 25 May 2020 failed due to a break in a propellant line for the first stage engine.
After Paul Allen’s death on 15 October 2018, the focus of Stratolaunch changed dramatically and Roc has remained grounded at the Mojave Air and Space Port since its first flight.
It appears that, on 11 October 2019, Stratolaunch Systems was sold by its original holding company, Vulcan Inc., to an undisclosed new owner. Since then, Stratolaunch has put increased emphasis on using the Roc as an airborne launch platform for testing hypersonic vehicles. On 10 November 2020, Alan Boyle, writing for GeekWire , reported, “Today, Stratolaunch announced that it’s partnering with an aerospace research and development company called Calspan to build and test models of its Talon-A hypersonic vehicle, a reusable prototype rocket plane.”
Since 1990, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK and before that Orbital Sciences Corporation) has offered airborne launch services with their converted Stargazer L-1011 mothership and Pegasus booster rocket. From a launch altitude of about 40,000 ft (12,192 m), a three-stage Pegasus XL can carry satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds (453.59 kg) into low-Earth orbit.
On 16 December 2020, the Return Vehicle from China’s unmanned Chang’e 5 lunar spacecraft returned to Earth with the first new lunar samples since the Soviet Union’s (now Russia) Luna 24 mission returned about 6 ounces (170 grams) of lunar material on 22 August 1976. The last US lunar samples were obtained during the manned Apollo 17 mission, which returned to Earth on 14 December 1972.
The Chang’e 5 Spacecraft
The basic architecture of the robotic Chang’e 5 spacecraft resembles the US Apollo manned lunar mission spacecraft in having four basic parts: a Service Module, a Return Vehicle (analog to the Apollo Command Module), and a two-stage lunar lander with a Lander stage and an Ascent stage.
The lander has two tools for acquiring samples: a drill for coring samples and a mechanical claw for grabbing surface samples.
The basic elements of the Chang’e 5 mission are shown in the following graphic.
The robotic Chang’e 5 spacecraft is named after the Chinese Moon goddess. The lunar mission began on 24 November 2020 when a Long March-5 rocket lifted off from China’s Wenchang launch site and placed the Chang’e 5 spacecraft, still mated to an upper stage rocket, into a temporary low Earth orbit. The upper stage rocket accomplished the “trans-lunar injection” and then separated from the spacecraft, which continued on toward the Moon. A rocket motor on the Service Module slowed the spacecraft for lunar orbit insertion followed by orbital adjustments in preparation for landing. From lunar orbit, the combined Lander / Ascent Unit descended and landed in the Sea of Storms region on 1 December 2020. The Service Module / Return Vehicle remained in lunar orbit.
The Lander / Ascent Unit was designed to collect about 2 kg (4.4 lb) of lunar samples. After the samples were collected, the Ascent Unit launched from the lunar surface on 3 December 2020 and rendezvoused and docked with the orbiting Service Module / Return Vehicle. After the lunar samples were transferred to the Return Vehicle, the Ascent Unit was released. The rocket motor on the Service Module accomplished the trans-Earth injection and the spacecraft departed lunar orbit for the journey back to Earth. As the spacecraft approached Earth, the Service Module separated and the Return Vehicle, which reentered the Earth’s atmosphere to complete the mission with a safe landing on 17 December 2020. The Ascent Unit was de-orbited and crashed into the lunar surface on 7 December 2020.
This lunar mission profile is quite similar to that used by the US on the manned Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Meanwhile, the Chang’e 5 Service Module flew past Earth and continued toward the Sun-Earth Lagrange point known as L1, which is a gravitationally stable point in space between the Earth and the Sun, about 900,000 miles (1,500,000 km) from Earth. The spacecraft still has more than 440 pounds (200 kg) of propellant remaining and can make scientific measurements at L1 (and beyond?).
Japan’s Hayabusa2 (Japanese for Peregrine falcon 2) spacecraft returned from its six-year mission to asteroid 162173 Ryugu for a high-speed fly-by of Earth on 5 December 2020, during which it released a reentry capsule containing the material collected during two separate sampling visits to the asteroid’s surface. The capsule successfully reentered Earth’s atmosphere, landed in the planned target area in Australia’s Woomera Range and was recovered intact. The sample return capsule is known as the “tamatebako” (treasure box).
The first asteroid sample return mission was Japan’s Hayabusa1, which was launched on 9 May 2003 and rendezvoused with S-type asteroid 25143 Itokawa in mid-September 2005. A small sample was retrieved from the surface on 25 November 2005. The sample, comprised of tiny grains of asteroidal material, was returned to Earth on 13 June 2010, with a landing in the Woomera Range.
Japan’s Hayabusa2 and the US OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return missions overlap, with Hayabusa2 launching about two years earlier and returning its surface samples almost three years earlier. Both spacecraft were orbiting their respective asteroids from 31 December 2018 to 12 November 2019.
You’ll find a great deal of information and current news on the Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return missions on their respective project website:
An extended mission to explore additional asteroids was made possible by the excellent health of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft and the economic use of fuel during the basic mission. Hayabusa2 still has 30 kg (66 lb) of xenon propellant for its ion engines, about half of its initial load of 66 kg (146 lb).
As of September 2020, JAXA’s plans are is to target the Hayabusa2 spacecraft for the following two asteroid encounters:
Conduct a high-speed fly-by of L-type asteroid (98943) 2001 CC21 in July 2026. This asteroid has a diameter between 3.47 to 15.52 kilometers (2.2 to 9.6 miles).
Continue on a rendezvous with asteroid 1998 KY26 in July 2031. This is a 30-meter (98-foot) diameter asteroid, potentially X-type (metallic), and rotating rapidly with a period of only 10.7 minutes.
On 20 April 2020, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released the first-ever comprehensive digital geologic map of the Moon. The USGS described this high-resolution map as follows:
“The lunar map, called the ‘Unified Geologic Map of the Moon,’ will serve as the definitive blueprint of the moon’s surface geology for future human missions and will be invaluable for the international scientific community, educators and the public-at-large.”
This remarkable mapping product is the culmination of a decades-long project that started with the synthesis of six Apollo-era (late 1960s – 1970s) regional geologic maps that had been individually digitized and released in 2013 but not integrated into a single, consistent lunar map.
This intermediate mapping product was updated based on data from the following more recent lunar satellite missions:
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) is a system of three cameras that capture high resolution black and white images and moderate resolution multi-spectral images of the lunar surface: http://lroc.sese.asu.edu
Topography for the north and south poles was supplemented with Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) data: https://lola.gsfc.nasa.gov
The final product is a seamless, globally consistent map that is available in several formats: geographic information system (GIS) format at 1:5,000,000-scale, PDF format at 1:10,000,000-scale, and jpeg format.
At the following link, you can download a large zip file (310 Mb) that contains a jpeg file (>24 Mb) with a Mercator projection of the lunar surface between 57°N and 57°S latitude, two polar stereographic projections of the polar regions from 55°N and 55°S latitudes to the poles, and a description of the symbols and color coding used in the maps.
These high-resolution maps are great for exploring the lunar surface in detail. A low-resolution copy (not suitable for browsing) is reproduced below.
For more information on the Unified Geologic Map of the Moon, refer to the paper by C. M. Fortezzo, et al., “Release of the digital Unified Global Geologic Map of the Moon at 1:5,000,000-scale,” which is available here: https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2020/pdf/2760.pdf
On July 16th, 1969, 13:32:00 UTC, the Saturn V launch vehicle, SA-506, lifted off from Launch Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on the Apollo 11 mission with astronauts Neil Armstrong (Mission commander), Michael Collins (Command Module pilot) and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin (Lunar Module pilot).
The Apollo spacecraft consisted of three modules:
The three-person Command Module (CM), named Columbia, was the living quarters for the three-person crew during most of the lunar landing mission.
The Service Module (SM) contained the propulsion system, electrical fuel cells, consumables storage tanks (oxygen, hydrogen) and various service / support systems.
The two-person, two-stage Lunar Module (LM), named Eagle, would make the Moon landing with two astronauts and return them to the CM.
The LM’s descent stage (bottom part of the LM with the landing legs) remained on the lunar surface and served as the launch pad for the ascent stage (upper part of the LM with the crew compartment). Only the 4.9 ton CM was designed to withstand Earth reentry conditions and return the astronauts safely to Earth.
From its initial low Earth parking orbit, Apollo 11 flew a direct trans-lunar trajectory to the Moon, inserting into lunar orbit about 76 hours after liftoff. The Apollo 11 mission profile to and from the Moon is shown in the following diagram, and is described in detail here: https://www.mpoweruk.com/Apollo_Moon_Shot.htm
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle LM in the Sea of Tranquility on 20 July 1969, at 20:17 UTC (about 103 hours elapsed time since launch), while Michael Collins remained in a near-circular lunar orbit aboard the CSM. Neil Armstrong characterized the lunar surface at the Tranquility Base landing site with the observation, “it has a stark beauty all its own.”
In the two and a half hours they spent on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin collected 21.55 kg (47.51 lb) of rock samples, took photographs and set up the Passive Seismic Experiment Package (PSEP) and the Laser Ranging RetroReflector (LRRR), which would be left behind on the Moon. The PSEP provided the first lunar seismic data, returning data for three weeks after the astronauts left, and the LRRR allows precise distance measurements to be collected to this day. Neil Armstrong made an unscheduled jaunt to Little West crater, about 50 m (164 feet) east of the LM, and provided the first view into a lunar crater.
Armstrong and Aldrin departed the Moon on 21 July 1969 at 17:54 UTC in the ascent stage of the Eagle LM and then rendezvoused and docked with Collins in the CSM about 3-1/2 hours later.
After discarding the ascent stage, the CSM main engine was fired and Apollo 11 left lunar orbit on 22 July 1969 at 04:55:42 UTC and began its trans-Earth trajectory. As the Apollo spacecraft approached Earth, the SM was jettisoned.
The CM reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the North Pacific on 24 July 1969 at 16:50:35 UTC. The astronauts and the Apollo 11 spacecraft were recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. President Nixon personally visited and congratulated the astronauts while they were still in quarantine aboard the USS Hornet. You can watch a video of this meeting here:
Mankind’s first lunar landing mission was a great success.
Postscript to the first Moon landing
A month after returning to Earth, the Apollo 11 astronauts were given a ticker tape parade in New York City, then termed as the largest such parade in the city’s history.
There were a total of six Apollo lunar landings (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17), with the last mission, Apollo 17, returning to Earth on 19 December 1972. Their landing sites are shown in the following graphic.
In the past 46+ years since Apollo 17, there have been no manned missions to the Moon by the U.S. or any other nation.
Along with astronaut John Glenn, the first American to fly in Earth orbit, the three Apollo 11 astronauts were awarded the New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda on 16 November 2011. This is the Congress’ highest civilian award and expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
Neil Armstrong died on 25 August 2012 at the age of 82.
The Apollo 11 command module Columbia was physically transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1971 and has been on display for decades at the National Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington D.C. For the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Columbia will be on display at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, as the star of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition, “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.” You can get a look at this exhibit at the following link: http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-041319a-destination-moon-seattle-apollo.html
After years of changing priorities under the Bush and Obama administrations, NASA’s current vision for the next U.S. manned lunar landing mission is named Artemis, after the Greek goddess of hunting and twin sister of Apollo. NASA currently is developing the following spaceflight systems for the Artemis mission:
The Space Launch System (SLS) heavy launch vehicle.
A manned “Gateway” station that will be placed in lunar orbit, where it will serve as a transportation node for lunar landing vehicles and manned spacecraft for deep space missions.
The Orion multi-purpose manned spacecraft, which will deliver astronauts from Earth to the Gateway, and also can be configured for deep space missions.
Lunar landing vehicles, which will shuttle between the Gateway and destinations on the lunar surface.
While NASA has a tentative goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024, the development schedules for the necessary Artemis systems may not be able to meet this ambitious schedule. The landing site for the Artemis mission will be in the Moon’s south polar region. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has stated that Artemis will deliver the first woman to the Moon.
After the failure of Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft to execute a soft landing on the Moon in April 2019, India is the next new contender for lunar soft landing honors with their Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft. We’ll take a look at the Chandrayaan-2 mission in this post.
1. Background: India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon
India’s first mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan-1, was a mapping mission designed to operate in a circular (selenocentric) polar orbit at an altitude of 100 km (62 mi). The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which had an initial mass of 1,380 kg (3,040 lb), consisted of two modules, an orbiter and a Moon Impact Probe (MIP). Chandrayaan-1 carried 11 scientific instruments for chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the Moon. The spacecraft was built in India by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and included instruments from the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria.
Chandrayaan-1 was launched on 22 October 2008 from the Satish Dhawan Space Center (SDSC) in Sriharikota on an “extended” version of the indigenous Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle designated PSLV-XL. Initially, the spacecraft was placed into a highly elliptical geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), and was sent to the Moon in a series of orbit-increasing maneuvers around the Earth over a period of 21 days. A lunar transfer maneuver enabled the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft to be captured by lunar gravity and then maneuvered to the intended lunar mapping orbit. This is similar to the five-week orbital transfer process used by Israel’s Bersheet lunar spacecraft to move from an initial GTO to a lunar circular orbit.
The goal of MIP was to make detailed measurements during descent using three instruments: a radar altimeter, a visible imaging camera, and a mass spectrometer known as Chandra’s Altitudinal Composition Explorer (CHACE), which directly sampled the Moon’s tenuous gaseous atmosphere throughout the descent. On 14 November 2008, the 34 kg (75 lb) MIP separated from the orbiter and descended for 25 minutes while transmitting data back to the orbiter. MIP’s mission ended with the expected hard landing in the South Pole region near Shackelton crater at 85 degrees south latitude.
In May 2009, controllers raised the orbit to 200 km (124 miles) and the orbiter mission continued until 28 August 2009, when communications with Earth ground stations were lost. The spacecraft was “found” in 2017 by NASA ground-based radar, still in its 200 km orbit.
Numerous reports have been published describing the detection by the Chandrayaan-1 mission of water in the top layers of the lunar regolith. The data from CHACE produced a lunar atmosphere profile from orbit down to the surface, and may have detected trace quantities of water in the atmosphere. You’ll find more information on the Chandrayaan-1 mission at the following links:
2. India’s upcoming Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon
Chandrayaan-2 was launched on 22 July 2019. After achieving a 100 km (62 mile) circular polar orbit around the Moon, a lander module will separate from the orbiting spacecraft and descend to the lunar surface for a soft landing, which currently is expected to occur in September 2019, after a seven-week journey to the Moon. The target landing area is in the Moon’s southern polar region, where no lunar lander has operated before. A small rover vehicle will be deployed from the lander to conduct a 14-day mission on the lunar surface. The orbiting spacecraft is designed to conduct a one-year mapping mission.
The launch vehicle
India will launch Chandrayaan-2 using the medium-lift Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk III) developed and manufactured by ISRO. As its name implies, GSLV Mk III was developed primarily to launch communication satellites into geostationary orbit. Variants of this launch vehicle also are used for science missions and a human-rated version is being developed to serve as the launch vehicle for the Indian Human Spaceflight Program.
The GSLV III launch vehicle will place the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft into an elliptical parking orbit (EPO) from which the spacecraft will execute orbital transfer maneuvers comparable to those successfully executed by Chandrayaan-1 on its way to lunar orbit in 2008. The Chandrayaan-2 mission profile is shown in the following graphic. You’ll find more information on the GSLV Mk III on the ISRO website at the following link: https://www.isro.gov.in/launchers/gslv-mk-iii
Chandrayaan-2 builds on the design and operating experience from the previous Chandrayaan-1 mission. The new spacecraft developed by ISRO has an initial mass of 3,877 kg (8,547 lb). It consists of three modules: an Orbiter Craft (OC) module, the Vikram Lander Craft (LC) module, and the small Pragyan rover vehicle, which is carried by the LC. The three modules are shown in the following diagram.
Chandrayaan-2 carries 13 Indian payloads — eight on the orbiter, three on the lander and two on the rover. In addition, the lander carries a passive Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) provided by NASA.
The OC and the LC are stacked together within the payload fairing of the launch vehicle and remain stacked until the LC separates in lunar orbit and starts its descent to the lunar surface.
The solar-powered orbiter is designed for a one-year mission to map lunar surface characteristics (chemical, mineralogical, topographical), probe the lunar surface for water ice, and map the lunar exosphere using the CHACE-2 mass spectrometer. The orbiter also will relay communication between Earth and Vikram lander.
The solar-powered Vikram lander weighs 1,471 kg (3,243 lb). The scientific instruments on the lander will measure lunar seismicity, measure thermal properties of the lunar regolith in the polar region, and measure near-surface plasma density and its changes with time.
The 27 kg (59.5 lb) six-wheeled Pragyan rover, whose name means “wisdom” in Sanskrit, is solar-powered and capable of traveling up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) on the lunar surface. The rover can communicate only with the Vikram lander. It is designed for a 14-day mission on the lunar surface. It is equipped with cameras and two spectroscopes to study the elemental composition of lunar soil.
You’ll find more information on the spacecraft in the 2018 article by V. Sundararajan, “Overview and Technical Architecture of India’s Chandrayaan-2 Mission to the Moon,” at the following link:
1. Overview of US military optical reconnaissance satellite programs
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is responsible for developing and operating space reconnaissance systems and conducting intelligence-related activities for US national security. NRO developed several generations of classified Keyhole (KH) military optical reconnaissance satellites that have been the primary sources of Earth imagery for the US Department of Defense (DoD) and intelligence agencies. NRO’s website is here:
NRO’s early generations of Keyhole satellites were placed in low Earth orbits, acquired the desired photographic images on film during relatively short-duration missions, and then returned the film to Earth in small reentry capsules for airborne recovery. After recovery, the film was processed and analyzed. The first US military optical reconnaissance satellite program, code named CORONA, pioneered the development and refinement of the technologies, equipment and systems needed to deploy an operational orbital optical reconnaissance capability. The first successful CORONA film recovery occurred on 19 August 1960.
Keyhole satellites are identified by a code word and a “KH” designator, as summarized in the following table.
In 1976, NRO deployed its first electronic imaging optical reconnaissance satellite known as KENNEN KH-11 (renamed CRYSTAL in 1982), which eventually replaced the KH-9, and brought an end to reconnaissance satellite missions requiring film return. The KH-11 flies long-duration missions and returns its digital images in near real time to ground stations for processing and analysis. The KH-11, or an advanced version sometimes referred to as the KH-12, is operational today.
Geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT, is the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth. GEOINT consists of imagery, imagery intelligence and geospatial information. Satellite imagery from Keyhole reconnaissance satellites is an important information source for national security-related GEOINT activities.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which was formed in 2003, has the primary mission of collecting, analyzing, and distributing GEOINT in support of national security. NGA’s predecessor agencies, with comparable missions, were:
National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), 1996 – 2003
National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), a joint project of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and DoD, 1961 – 1996
2. The advent of the US civilian Earth observation programs
Collecting Earth imagery from orbit became an operational US military capability more than a decade before the start of the joint National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) / US Geological Survey (USGS) civilian Landsat Earth observation program. The first Landsat satellite was launched on 23 July 1972 with two electronic observing systems, both of which had a spatial resolution of about 80 meters (262 feet).
Since 1972, Landsat satellites have continuously acquired low-to-moderate resolution digital images of the Earth’s land surface, providing long-term data about the status of natural resources and the environment. Resolution of the current generation multi-spectral scanner on Landsat 9 is 30 meters (98 feet) in visible light bands.
3. Declassification of certain military reconnaissance satellite imagery
All military reconnaissance satellite imagery was highly classified until 1995, when some imagery from early defense reconnaissance satellite programs was declassified. The USGS explains:
“The images were originally used for reconnaissance and to produce maps for U.S. intelligence agencies. In 1992, an Environmental Task Force evaluated the application of early satellite data for environmental studies. Since the CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD data were no longer critical to national security and could be of historical value for global change research, the images were declassified by Executive Order 12951 in 1995”
Additional sets of military reconnaissance satellite imagery were declassified in 2002 and 2011 based on extensions of Executive Order 12951.
The declassified imagery is held by the following two organizations:
The original film is held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Duplicate film held in the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center archive is used to produce digital copies of the imagery for distribution to users.
The declassified military satellite imagery available in the EROS archive is summarized below:
USGS EROS Archive – Declassified Satellite Imagery – 1 (1960 to 1972)
This set of photos, declassified in 1995, consists of more than 860,000 images of the Earth’s surface from the CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD satellite systems.
CORONA image resolution improved from 40 feet (12.2 meters) for the KH-1 to about 6 feet (1.8 meters) for the KH-4B.
KH-5 ARGON image resolution was about 460 feet (140 meters).
KH-6 LANYARD image resolution was about 6 feet (1.8 meters).
USGS EROS Archive – Declassified Satellite Imagery – 2 (1963 to 1980)
This set of photos, declassified in 2002, consists of photographs from the KH-7 GAMBIT surveillance system and KH-9 HEXAGON mapping program.
KH-7 image resolution is 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters). About 18,000 black-and-white images and 230 color images are available.
The KH-9 mapping camera was designed to support mapping requirements and exact positioning of geographical points. Not all KH-9 satellite missions included a mapping camera. Image resolution is 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters); significantly better than the 98 feet (30 meter) resolution of LANDSAT imagery. About 29,000 mapping images are available.
USGS EROS Archive – Declassified Satellite Imagery – 3 (1971 to 1984)
This set of photos, declassified in 2011, consists of more photographs from the KH-9 HEXAGON mapping program. Image resolution is 20 to 30 feet (6 to 9 meters).
4. Example applications of declassified military reconnaissance satellite imagery
The declassified military reconnaissance satellite imagery provides views of the Earth starting in the early 1960s, more than a decade before civilian Earth observation satellites became operational. The military reconnaissance satellite imagery, except from ARGON KH-5, is higher resolution than is available today from Landsat civilian earth observation satellites. The declassified imagery is an important supplement to other Earth imagery sources. Several examples applications of the declassified imagery are described below.
Assessing Aral Sea depletion:
USGS reports: “The Aral Sea once covered about 68,000 square kilometers, a little bigger than the U.S. state of West Virginia. It was the 4th largest lake in the world. It is now only about 10% of the size it was in 1960…..In the 1990s, a dam was built to prevent North Aral water from flowing into the South Aral. It was rebuilt in 2005 and named the Kok-Aral Dam…..The North Aral has stabilized but the South Aral has continued to shrink and become saltier. Up until the 1960s, Aral Sea salinity was around 10 grams per liter, less than one-third the salinity of the ocean. The salinity level now exceeds 100 grams per liter in the South Aral, which is about three times saltier than the ocean.”
On the USGS website, the “Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change” webpages show the visible changes at many locations on Earth over a 50+ year time period. The table of contents to the Earthshots webpages is shown below and is at the following link: http:// https://earthshots.usgs.gov/earthshots/
For the Aral Sea region, the Earthshots photo sequences start with ARGON KH-5 photos taken in 1964. Below are three screenshots of the USGS Earthshots pages showing the KH-5 images for the whole the Aral Sea, the North Aral Sea region and the South Aral Sea region. You can explore the Aral Sea Earthshots photo sequences at the following link: https://earthshots.usgs.gov/earthshots/node/91#ad-image-0-0
Assessing Antarctic ice shelf condition:
In a 7 June 2016 article entitled, ”Spy satellites reveal early start to Antarctic ice shelf collapse,” Thomas Sumner reported:
“Analyzing declassified images from spy satellites, researchers discovered that the downhill flow of ice on Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf was already accelerating as early as the 1960s and ’70s. By the late 1980s, the average ice velocity at the front of the shelf was around 20 percent faster than in the preceding decades,….”
In a 19 June 2019 paper “Acceleration of ice loss across the Himalayas over the past 40 years,” the authors, reported on the use of HEXAGON KH-9 mapping camera imagery to improve their understanding of trends affecting the Himalayan glaciers from 1975 to 2016:
“Himalayan glaciers supply meltwater to densely populated catchments in South Asia, and regional observations of glacier change over multiple decades are needed to understand climate drivers and assess resulting impacts on glacier-fed rivers. Here, we quantify changes in ice thickness during the intervals 1975–2000 and 2000–2016 across the Himalayas, using a set of digital elevation models derived from cold war–era spy satellite film and modern stereo satellite imagery.”
“The majority of the KH-9 images here were acquired within a 3-year interval (1973–1976), and we processed a total of 42 images to provide sufficient spatial coverage.”
“We observe consistent ice loss along the entire 2000-km transect for both intervals and find a doubling of the average loss rate during 2000–2016.”
“Our compilation includes glaciers comprising approximately 34% of the total glacierized area in the region, which represents roughly 55% of the total ice volume based on recent ice thickness estimates.”
The Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, a University of Arkansas / U.S. Geological Survey collaboration, has undertaken the CORONA Atlas Project using military reconnaissance satellite imagery to create the “CORONA Atlas & Referencing System”. The current Atlas focuses on the Middle East and a small area of Peru, and is derived from 1,024 CORONA images taken on 50 missions. The Atlas contains 833 archaeological sites.
“In regions like the Middle East, CORONA imagery is particularly important for archaeology because urban development, agricultural intensification, and reservoir construction over the past several decades have obscured or destroyed countless archaeological sites and other ancient features such as roads and canals. These sites are often clearly visible on CORONA imagery, enabling researchers to map sites that have been lost and to discover many that have never before been documented. However, the unique imaging geometry of the CORONA satellite cameras, which produced long, narrow film strips, makes correcting spatial distortions in the images very challenging and has therefore limited their use by researchers.”
CAST reports that they have “developed methods for efficient
orthorectification of CORONA imagery and now provides free public access to our imagery database for non-commercial use. Images can be viewed online and full resolution images can be downloaded in NITF format.”
Conducting commercial geospatial analytics over a broader period of time:
The firm Orbital Insight, founded in 2013, is an example of commercial firms that are mining geospatial data and developing valuable information products for a wide range of customers. Orbital Insight reports:
“Orbital Insight turns millions of images into a big-picture understanding of Earth. Not only does this create unprecedented transparency, but it also empowers business and policy decision makers with new insights and unbiased knowledge of socio-economic trends. As the number of Earth-observing devices grows and their data output expands, Orbital Insight’s geospatial analytics platform finds observational truth in an interconnected world. We map out and quantify the world’s complexities so that organizations can make more informed decisions.”
“By applying artificial intelligence to satellite, UAV, and other geospatial data sources, we seek to discover and quantify societal and economic trends on Earth that are indistinguishable to the human eye. Combining this information with terrestrial data, such as mobile and location-based data, unlocks new sources of intelligence.”
The firm Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK, and before that, Orbital Sciences Corporation) was the first to develop a commercial, air-launched rocket capable of placing payloads into Earth orbit. Initial tests of their modest-size Pegasus launch vehicle were made in 1990 from the NASA B-52 that previously had been used as the “mothership” for the X-15 experimental manned space plane and many other experimental vehicles.
Since 1994, Orbital ATK has been using a specially modified civilian Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, a former airliner renamed Stargazer, as a mothership to carry a Pegasus launch vehicle to high altitude, where the rocket is released to fly a variety of missions, including carrying satellites into orbit. With a Pegasus XL as its payload (launch vehicle + satellite), Stargazer is lifting up to 23,130 kg (50,990 pounds) to a launch point at an altitude of about 12.2 km (40,000 feet).
Paul Allen’s firm Stratolaunch Systems Corporation (https://www.stratolaunch.com) was founded in 2011 to take this air-launch concept to a new level with their giant, twin-fuselage, six-engine Stratolaunch carrier aircraft. The aircraft has a wingspan of 385 feet (117 m), which is the greatest of any aircraft ever built, a length of 238 feet (72.5 m), and a height of 50 feet (15.2 m) to the top of the vertical tails. The empty weight of the aircraft is about 500,000 pounds (226,796 kg). It is designed for a maximum takeoff weight of 1,300,000 pounds (589,670 kg), leaving about 550,000 pounds (249,486 kg) for its payload and the balance for fuel and crew. It will be able to carry multiple launch vehicles on a single mission to a launch point at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10,700 m). A mission profile for the Stratolaunch aircraft is shown in the following diagram.
Stratolaunch rollout – 2017
Built by Scaled Composites, the Stratolaunch aircraft was unveiled on 31 May 2017 when it was rolled out at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA. Following is a series of photos from Stratolaunch Systems showing the rollout.
Stratolaunch ground tests – 2017 to 2019
Ground testing of the aircraft systems started after rollout. By mid-September 2017, the first phase of engine testing was completed, with all six Pratt & Whitney PW4000 turbofan engines operating for the first time. The first low-speed ground tests conducted in December 2017 reached a modest speed of 25 knot (46 kph). By January 2019, the high-speed taxi tests had reached a speed of about 119 knots (220 kph) with the nose wheel was off the runway, almost ready for lift off. Following is a series of photos from Stratolaunch Systems showing the taxi tests.
Stratolaunch first flight
The Stratolaunch aircraft, named Roc, made an unannounced first flight from the Mojave Air & Space Port on 13 April 2019. The aircraft stayed aloft for 2.5 hours, reached a peak altitude of 17,000 feet (5,180 m) and a top speed of 189 mph (304 kph). The following series of photos show the Stratolaunch aircraft during its first flight.
Stratolaunch posted an impressive short video of the first flight, which you can view here:
Stratolaunch family of launch vehicles: ambitious plans, but subject to change
In August 2018, Stratolaunch announced its ambitious launch vehicle development plans, which included the family of launch vehicles shown in the following graphic:
Up to three Pegasus XL launch vehicles from Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK) can be carried on a single Stratolaunch flight. Each Pegasus XL is capable of placing up to 370 kg (816 lb) into a low Earth orbit (LEO, 400 km / 249 mile circular orbit).
Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) capable of placing up to 3,400 kg (7,496 lb) into LEO and intended for short satellite integration timelines, affordable launch and flexible launch profiles. MLV was under development and first flight was planned for 2022.
Medium Launch Vehicle – Heavy, which uses three MLV cores in its first stage. That vehicle would be able to place 6,000 kg (13,228 lb) into LEO. MLV-Heavy was in the early development stage.
A fully reusable space plane named Black Ice, initially intended for orbital cargo delivery and return, with a possible follow-on variant for transporting astronauts to and from orbit. The space plane was a design study.
Stratolaunch was developing a 200,000 pound thrust, high-performance, liquid fuel hydrogen-oxygen rocket engine, known as the “PGA engine”, for use in their family of launch vehicles. Additive manufacturing was being widely used to enable rapid prototyping, development and manufacturing. Successful tests of a 100% additive manufactured major subsystem called the hydrogen preburner were conducted in November 2018.
After Paul Allen’s death on 15 October 2018, the focus of Stratolaunch Corp was greatly revised. On 18 January 2019, the company announced that it was ending work on its own family of launch vehicles and the PGA rocket engine. The firm announced, “We are streamlining operations, focusing on the aircraft and our ability to support a demonstration launch of the Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL air-launch vehicle.”
You’ll find an article describing Stratolaunch Systems’ frequently changing launch vehicle plans in an article on the SpaceNews website here:
Air launch offers a great deal of flexibility for launching a range of small-to-medium sized satellites and other aerospace vehicles. With only the Pegasus XL as a launch vehicle, and with Northrop Grumman having their own Stargazer carrier aircraft for launching the Pegasus XL, the business case for the Stratolaunch aircraft has been greatly weakened.
Additional competition in the airborne launch services business will come in 2020 from Richard Branson’s firm Virgin Orbit, with its airborne launch platform Cosmic Girl, a highly-modified Boeing 747, and its own launch vehicle, known as LauncherOne. Successful drop tests of LauncherOne were conducted in 2019. The first launch to orbit is expected to occur in 2020. You’ll find more information on the Virgin Orbit website here: https://virginorbit.com
Additional competition for small satellite launch services comes from the newest generation of small orbital launch vehicles, like Electron (Rocket Lab, New Zealand) and Prime (Orbix, UK), which are expected to offer low price launch services from fixed land-based launch sites. Electron is operational now, and achieved six successful launches in six attempts in 2019. Prime is expected to enter service in 2021.
In the cost competitive launch services market, Stratolaunch does not seem to have an advantage with only the Pegasus XL in its launch vehicle inventory. Hopefully, they have something else up their sleeve that will take advantage of the remarkable capabilities of the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft.
19 March 2020 Update: Stratolaunch change of ownership
Several sources reported on 11 October 2019 that Stratolaunch Systems had been sold by its original holding company, Vulcan Inc., to an undisclosed new owner. Two months later, Mark Harris, writing for GeekWire, broke the news that the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management was the new owner. It appears that Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch’s president and CEO since 2015, remains in his roles for now. Michael Palmer, Cerberus’ managing director, was named Stratolaunch’s executive vice president. You can read Mark Harris’ report here: https://www.geekwire.com/2019/exclusive-buyer-paul-allens-stratolaunch-space-venture-secretive-trump-ally/
It will be interesting to watch as the new owners reinvent Stratolaunch Systems for the increasingly competitive market for airborne launch services.
In my 6 August 2016 post, “Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE and Lunar XPrize are Paving the way for Commercial Lunar Missions,” I reported on the status of the Google Lunar XPrize, which was created in 2007 to “incentivize space entrepreneurs to create a new era of affordable access to the Moon and beyond,” and actually deliver payloads to the Moon. In addition, the lunar payloads were tasked with moving 500 meters (1,640 feet) after landing and transmitting high-definition photos and video back to Earth. Any additional science data would be a plus. In January 2018, after concluding that none of the remaining competitors could meet the extended 31 March 2018 deadline for landing on the Moon, the Google Lunar XPrize competition was cancelled, with the $30M in prizes remaining unclaimed. You can read this post here:
One of the competing Lunar XPrize teams was SpaceIL from Israel, which was developing a small lunar spacecraft named Beresheet (originally named Sparrow), that was designed to hitch a ride into an elliptical Earth orbit as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 commercial launch vehicle and then transfer itself to a lunar orbit and finally land on the Moon.
The SpaceIL lunar landing program continued after cancellation of the Lunar XPrize competition. You’ll find details on the SpaceIL lunar program here:
As completed by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the Beresheet spacecraft has a launch mass of 600 kg (1,323 pounds) and a landing mass of about 180 kg (397 pounds). The lander carries imagers, a magnetometer, a laser retro-reflector array (LRA) provided by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and a time capsule of cultural and historical Israeli artifacts.
After landing on the Moon, the Beresheet spacecraft electronic systems are expected to remain operational only for a few days. The original Lunar XPrize plan to demonstrate mobility and move the spacecraft after landing on the Moon has been dropped. The laser retro-reflectors will enable the spacecraft to serve as a fixed geographic reference point on the lunar surface long after the mission ends.While not designed for a long lunar surface mission, Beresheet is intended to demonstrate advances in technology that enable low-cost, privately-funded missions to another body in the solar system. Beresheet was developed and constructed for about $100 million. You’ll find more information on the Beresheet spacecraft here:
Beresheet was launched from Cape Canaveral, FL on 21 Feb 2019 into an initial elliptical Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) that was dictated by the requirements for the Falcon 9 booster’s primary payload. Once in GTO, Beresheet used its small rocket engine to gradually raise its orbit to a 400,000 km (248,548 mile) apogee to intersect the Moon’s circular orbit, and phase its orbit so the spacecraft passed close to the Moon and could maneuver into a transfer orbit and be captured by the Moon’s gravity. This mission profile is illustrated below.
You can watch a short video with an animation of this mission profile here:
On 4 April, SpaceIL tweeted: “Critical lunar orbit capture took place successfully. #Beresheet is now entering an elliptical course around the #moon, as we get closer to the historical landing #11.4″
After circularizing its lunar orbit, Beresheet is scheduled to land on the Moon on 11 April 2019. NASA is providing communications support during the mission.
On 28 March, the X Prize founder and Executive Chairman Peter Diamand announced that, if the lunar landing is successful, the Foundation would award a $1 million “Moonshot Award” to Beresheet’s builders. Peter Diamand noted, “SpaceIL’s mission represents the democratization of space exploration.”
Best wishes to the SpaceIL team for a successful lunar landing. If successful, Israel will become the 4thnation, after Russia (Soviet Union), USA and China to land spacecraft on the Moon.
Update 12 April 2019: Beresheet spacecraft crashed during Moon landing attempt
The Beresheet spacecraft successfully initiated its descent from lunar orbit on 11 April 2019. Initial telemetry indicated that the landing profile was proceeding as planned.
Communications with the spacecraft was lost when Beresheet was about 489 feet (149 meters) above the moon’s surface. Opher Doron, the general manager of IAI, reported during the live broadcast, “We had a failure in the spacecraft; we unfortunately have not managed to land successfully.”
X Prize founder and Executive Chairman Peter Diamandis announced that SpaceIL and IAI will receive the $1 million Moonshot Award despite failing to make the planned soft landing on the Moon.
Update 14 May 2019: Preliminary failure analysis
On 17 April 2019, SpaceIL announced that its preliminary failure analysis indicated that a software command uploaded to restart a failed inertial measuring unit (IMU) may have started a sequence of events that ultimately shut down the main engines prematurely during the landing attempt, resulting in the crash of the Beresheet spacecraft.
Morris Kahn, SpaceIL’s primary source of funding, pledged that the team will try again for a Moon landing with a new spacecraft dubbed “Beresheet 2.0,” which will incorporate lessons learned from the first lunar landing attempt.
For more information on the Beresheet mission, see The Planetary Society mission report at the following link:
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) durable New Horizon spacecraft made its close flyby of Pluto on 14 July 2015, passing 7,800 mi (12,500 km) above the surface of that dwarf planet and returning a remarkable trove of photos and data. Since then, the spacecraft has been continuing its journey out of our solar system and now is flying through the Kuiper Belt, which is a very large, diffuse region beyond the orbit of Neptune containing millions of small bodies in distant orbits around the Sun. These Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) are believed to be “leftovers” (i.e., they never coalesced into planets) from the formation of the early solar system. You can read more about the Kuiper Belt on the NASA website here:
On 28 August 2015, NASA announced that it had selected the next destination for New Horizons after the Pluto flyby: a small KBO designated 2014 MU69, originally named Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto. The spacecraft’s trajectory from Earth to Ultima Thule is shown in the following NASA diagram.
On 1 January 2019, the New Horizons spacecraft made a close flyby of 2014 MU69, at a range of 2,200 miles (3,500 km) and a relative speed of 14 kilometers per second (31,317 mph). At a distance of 4.1 billion miles (6.6 billion km) from the Earth, radio signals took 6 hours and 6 minutes traveling at the speed of light to traverse the distance between the spacecraft and Earth during the encounter. On 1 January 2019, NASA released the following blurry image, which was taken at long range.
NASA reported: “At left is a composite of two images taken by New Horizons’ high-resolution Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which provides the best indication of Ultima Thule’s size and shape so far. Preliminary measurements of this Kuiper Belt object suggest it is approximately 20 miles long by 10 miles wide (32 kilometers by 16 kilometers). An artist’s impression at right illustrates one possible appearance of Ultima Thule, based on the actual image at left. The direction of Ultima’s spin axis is indicated by the arrows. “
In the weeks following the flyby, New Horizons will be downloading all of the higher-resolution photos and data acquired during its close encounter with 2014 MU69 and we’ll be getting a much more detailed understanding of this KBO.
It appears that NASA has the opportunity to target one or more additional KBOs for future New Horizons flybys in the 2020s. The spacecraft’s electric power source, a plutonium (Pu-238)-fueled radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), is capable of providing power well into the 2030s, albeit at gradually reducing power levels. In addition, the spacecraft has significant hydrazine fuel remaining for course correction and attitude control en route to a future KBO flyby.
On 2 January 2019, NASA released the following photo taken on the inbound leg of the flyby, still 18,000 miles (28,000 km) from 2014 MU69.
You’ll find more information on NASA’s New Horizons mission here:
24 January 2019 Update: Latest photo shows 2014 MU69 surface to be unusually smooth
Today, NASA released the following photo of 2014 MU69, taken at a distance of 4,200 miles (6,700 kilometers) on 1 January 2019, just seven minutes before closest approach. Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, reported, “Over the next month there will be better color and better resolution images that we hope will help unravel the many mysteries of Ultima Thule.”
12 November 2019: 2014 MU69 renamed
NASA announced that 2014 MU69 was formally renamed “Arrokoth”, which NASA says “means ‘sky’ in the language of the Powhatan people, a Native American tribe indigenous to Maryland. The state is home to New Horizons mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.” Here’s a colorized view of Arrokoth.