Tag Archives: European Space Agency

Gravitational Waves Come in Colors

On 14 September 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) ushered in a new era in astronomy and astrophysics by opening a part of the gravitational wave spectrum to direct observation. In my 17 February 2017 post,“Perspective on the Detection of Gravitational Waves,” I included the following graphic from an interview of Kip Thorne by Walter Issacson.

Source: screenshot from Kip Thorne / Walter Issacson interview at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDFF27Nr-EU

The key point of this graphic is to illustrate how the LIGO detector is able to “see” only a part of the gravitational wave spectrum.  The LIGO team reported that the Advanced LIGO detector is optimized for “a range of frequencies from 30 Hz to several kHz, which covers the frequencies of gravitational waves emitted during the late inspiral, merger, and ringdown of stellar-mass binary black holes.”  This is the type of event associated with the first several gravitational wave detections. The European Advanced VIRGO detector, which came on line in 2017, operates on the same principle as LIGO, precisely measuring differences in the times-of-flight of laser beams in the two legs of a long baseline interferometer. VIRGO is optimized to view a range of gravitational wave frequencies from about 10 Hz to 10 kHz.

On 17 August 2017, LIGO and VIRGO detected gravitational waves from a different source: the collision of two neutron stars. Unlike the previous gravitational wave detections from black hole coalescence, the neutron star collision that produced GW180817 also produced other observable phenomena in multiple wavelength bands. LIGO and VIRGO triangulated the source of this gravitational wave event, which also was observed by dozens of telescopes on the ground and in space, as shown in the following diagram.

Source: LIGO – VIRGO, https://www.ligo.org/detections/GW170817/images-GW170817/GW+EM_Observatories.jpg

The ability to cue a worldwide array of multi-spectral observatories on short notice greatly added to the depth of understanding of the GW170817 event.  The international collaboration on this event was a great example of the benefits of “multi-messenger” astronomy. For more information, see my 25 October 2017 post, “Linking Gravitational Wave Detection to the Rest of the Observable Spectrum.”

At the 11 April 2018 Lyncean Group meeting, Dr. Rana Adhikari, Professor of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at Caltech, provided an update on LIGO in his presentation, “The Dirty Details of Detecting Gravitational Waves from Black Holes.” You can view Dr. Adhikari’s presentation slides at the following link:

https://lynceans.org/talk-119-4-11-18/

As we have seen, the LIGO class of gravitational wave detector is capable of seeing large amplitude, relatively high frequency gravitational waves from very powerful, discrete events: stellar-mass binary black hole coalescence and neutron star collisions.

As shown in the above graphic, viewing lower frequency (longer wavelength) gravitational waves requires different types of detectors, which are discussed below.

LISA –  Laser Interferometer Space Antenna

This will be a very long baseline, equilateral triangular laser interferometer in space, established of three spacecraft flying in formation in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit.  Each leg of the space interferometer will measure 2.5 million kilometers (1.55 million miles), about 625,000 times the length of the LIGO baseline (4 km, 2.49 miles). Each spacecraft will contain a gravitational wave detector sensitive at frequencies from about 10-4 Hz to 10-1 Hz, well below the frequency range of LIGO and VIRGO.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) LISA Pathfinder spacecraft, which was launched in 2015 and ended its mission in July 2017, validated the technology for the LISA space interferometer.

Source: ESA, https://www.elisascience.org/

ESA reported:

“Analysis of the LISA Pathfinder mission results towards the end of the mission (red line) compared with the first results published shortly after the spacecraft began science operations (blue line). The initial requirements (top, wedge-shaped area) and that of the future gravitational-wave observatory LISA (middle, striped area) are included for comparison, and show that LISA Pathfinder far exceeded expectations.”

The ESA is planning to launch LISA in the 2029 – 2032 timeframe.  See my 27 September 2016 post, “Space-based Gravity Wave Detection System to be Deployed by ESA,” for additional information on LISA.  The LISA mission website is at the following link:

https://www.elisascience.org

PTA – Pulsar Timing Array

A pulsar is a highly magnetized rotating neutron star or white dwarf that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation can be observed only when the beam is pointing toward Earth.

PTA gravitational wave detection is based on correlated radio-telescope observations of an array of many pulsars known as “millisecond pulsars” (MSPs).  The signal from an MSP has a very predictable time-of-arrival (TOA), thereby allowing each MSP to function as a galactic “clock.”  Small disturbances in each “clock” are measurable with high precision on Earth.  In essence, the distance between an MSP and the observing radio-telescope forms one leg of a gravitational wave detector, with the leg length being measured in light-years.  A disturbance from a passing gravitational wave would to have a measurable signature across the many MSPs in the pulsar timing array.

A PTA is intended to observe in a different range in gravitational wave frequencies than LIGO and VIRGO, and is expected to see a different category of gravitational wave sources. Whereas LIGO and VIRGO can detect gravitational waves in the tens to thousands of Hz (audio) range, radio-telescope observatories currently are using PTAs to search for gravitational waves in the tens to hundreds of microHertz (10-6Hz) range with prospects of getting down to the 10-8Hz range. The primary source of gravitational waves in this frequency range is expected to be super-massive black hole binaries (billions of solar masses), which are believed to exist throughout the universe at the center of galaxies.

The International Pulsar Timing Array (IPTA) is an international collaboration among the following radio-telescope consortia: European Pulsar Timing Array (EPTA), the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), and the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array (PPTA).  The goal of the IPTA is to detect gravitational waves using an array of about 30 MSPs. IPTA reports:

“Using telescopes located around the world is important, because any single telescope can see (a particular) pulsar … for much less than twelve hours, depending on the observing site’s latitude. Thus, the telescopes “trade off” between one another – as the pulsar sets from the perspective of, say, the Parkes telescope in Australia, it rises from the perspective of the Lovell telescope in the UK.”

You’ll find more information on IPTA on their website at the following link:

http://www.ipta4gw.org

You can visit the NANOGrav website here:

http://nanograv.org

Continuous gravitational waves

On 10 April 2018, the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics announced the formation of a permanent Max Planck Independent Research Group under the leadership of Dr. M. Alessandra Papa to search for continuous gravitational waves.  The primary goal of this research group is to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves from rapidly rotating neutron stars. You can read this announcement here:

http://www.aei.mpg.de/2236875/searchingcontinuouswaves

Generation of the weak, continuous gravitational waves depends on the neutron star having an asymmetry that would perturb the stars gravitational field as it rapidly rotates. The method for detecting these weak, continuous gravitational waves was not described in the Planck Institute announcement.

CMB – Cosmic microwave background

The CBM is believed to be an artifact of the Big Bang and could carry evidence of the primordial gravitational waves from that era.  Such evidence would be expected to stretch across broad areas of the observable universe.

The European Space Agency (ESA) developed the Planck space observatory to map the CMB in microwave and infrared frequencies at unprecedented levels of detail. The Planck spacecraft was launched on 14 May 2009 and operated until 23 October 2013.  In 2016, the ESA released the results of the Planck all-sky survey of the CBM, which revealed that the universe appears to be isotropic, at least at the resolution of the Planck space observatory.  Researchers found that the actual CMB shows only random noise and no signs of patterns.

Planck all-sky survey. Source; ESA / Planck Collaboration

You’ll find more information on the Planck mission in my 28 September 2016 post, “The Universe is Isotropic.”

You can access ESA’s Planck science team home page here:

https://www.cosmos.esa.int/web/planck/home

In summary

The North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) website contains the following summary chart, which is an alternate view of the chart at the start of this article (from the Kip Thorne / Walter Issacson interview).  The NANOGrav chart provides a good perspective on the observational technologies that are opening windows into the broad spectrum of gravitational waves and their varied sources.

So, in an analogy to the optical spectrum and the range of colors we see every day, the primordial gravitational waves in the CBM would be at the “red” end of the gravitational wave spectrum. The much higher frequency gravitational waves seen by LIGO and VIRGO, from stellar-mass binary black hole coalescence and neutron star collisions, would be at the “violet” end of the gravitational wave spectrum. The LISA space-based interferometer will be looking in the “blue-green” range, while PTA observatories are looking in the “yellow-orange” range.

For more information on the current state of gravitational wave technology, you’ll find a good survey article by Davide Castelvecchia, entitled “Here Come the Waves,” in the 12 April 2018 issue of Nature, which you can read here:

https://www.nature.com/magazine-assets/d41586-018-04157-6/d41586-018-04157-6.pdf

 

 

Reusable Space Launch Vehicles are Becoming a Reality

In my 12 April 2016 post, “Landing a Reusable Booster Rocket on a Dime,” I discussed the first successful flights and recoveries of the SpaceX Falcon 9 orbital booster rocket and Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital booster rocket. In the past year, both SpaceX and Blue Origin have successfully launched and recovered several rockets. In addition, SpaceX and Blue Origin both have reused one or more booster rockets that were flown on previous missions.

Here’s a quick look at the SpaceX and Blue Origin track records and their future plans for even more ambitious recoverable launch vehicles. We’ll also take a brief look at what competitors are doing with their existing and planned launch vehicles.

SpaceX reusable booster rockets: Falcon 9 v1.2, Falcon Heavy, and Interplanetary Transport System

The Falcon 9 v1.2 is the current, operational version of this commercial, medium-lift, two-stage family of launch vehicles. This booster has a length of 230 ft (70 m) with the payload fairing and a booster diameter of 12 ft (3.66 m). The first stage generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust from seven Merlin engines burning liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene. The second stage uses a single Merlin engine optimized for vacuum conditions. The Falcon 9 v1.2 specified payload mass is:

  • 50,265 pounds (22.8 metric tons, 22,800 kg) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO),
  • 18,298 pounds (8.3 metric tons, 8,300 kg) to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO), or
  • 8,862 pounds (4.02 metric tons, 4,020 kg) to escape velocity.

Falcon Heavy is an advanced heavy-lift, two-stage launch vehicle with a first stage comprised of three Falcon 9 booster rockets. The first stage generates 5.1 million pounds of thrust from 21 Merlin engines. The Falcon Heavy specified payload mass is:

  • 119,931 pounds (54.4 metric tons, 54,400 kg) to LEO,
  • 48,942 pounds (22.2 metric tons, 22,200 kg) to GTO, or
  • 29,983 pounds (13.6 metric tons, 13,600) kg to escape velocity.

The first Falcon Heavy is expected to be launched in late 2017.

The Falcon 9 v1.2 family and the Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are shown in the following diagram. The scale-up from Falcon 9 V1.2 to Falcon Heavy is relatively straightforward. Versions designed for recovering the first stage include four extendable landing legs near the base of the rocket. In the diagram below, you can see that one version of the Falcon 9 does not include the landing legs, sacrificing booster recovery for greater booster performance.

  Source: SpaceX   

SpaceX describes their Falcon 9 booster recovery process as follows:

“After being jettisoned, the first stage (autonomously) initiates a flip maneuver and begins a powered return back to Earth. Using a combination of reaction control thrusters, forward-mounted grid fins, and thrust from one to three of the main engines, the first stage flies either to a remotely-operated ship in the Atlantic (or Pacific) Ocean, or to land. Upon arrival, the vehicle deploys a set of landing legs and sets itself down upright.”

In practice, SpaceX expects to recover about 1/3 of its boosters on land, back near the launch site. Boosters for most of the remaining missions (primarily the higher-energy missions) will be recovered on a downrange drone ship. You can watch a short video explaining these two mission profiles at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEr9cPpuAx8

A recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster rocket is very large:

  • overall length of about 151 ft (46 m) in landing configuration,
  • dry mass is about 50,706 pounds (23,000 kg), and
  • estimated total mass is 94,578 pounds (42,900 kg) with 5% residual fuel after landing.

The large scale of the Falcon 9 booster is apparent in the following photo taken after a landing on the stationary drone ship.

Source: SpaceXSource: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

You can see a video of the January 2017 Falcon 9 v1.2 launch and booster recovery at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8wy5sQ2JDE

The SpaceX mission on 30 March 2017 marked two important milestones:

  • The first reuse of a Falcon 9 booster stage, which was recovered on the drone barge and will be available again for reuse.
  • The first recovery of the costly (about $6 million) payload fairing, which was jettisoned during ascent and returned under parachute for an ocean splashdown.  The payload fairing will be reused.

As of 3 April 2017, the SpaceX Falcon 9 scorecard is:

  • Thirteen booster recoveries attempted
  • Three successful recoveries on land; first in December 2015
  • Six successful recoveries on a drone ship at sea, first in April 2016
  • Four drone ship recovery failures
  • One booster stage reused

The number of times a Falcon 9 first stage can be re-flown is not clearly specified. However, Elon Musk placed that number at 10 – 20 additional missions, and, with minor refurbishment, up to 100 missions.

Falcon Heavy missions will involve considerably more complex, simultaneous, autonomous booster recovery operations. The port and starboard Falcon 9 boosters will separate first and fly to designated recovery points, likely on land. The core booster will burn longer before separating from the second stage, which will take the payload into orbit. After separation, the core Falcon 9 booster also will fly to a designated recovery point, likely on a downrange drone ship. After a Falcon Heavy launch, it literally will be raining Falcon 9 boosters. This will be a spectacular demonstration of autonomous flight control and range safety.

You’ll find a list of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, booster recovery status, and future missions at the following link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Falcon_9_and_Falcon_Heavy_launches

SpaceX has been developing the recoverable Dragon space capsule as a family of spacecraft to be launched by the Falcon booster to conduct a variety of orbital and interplanetary missions. Like the recoverable Falcon booster, the Dragon capsule uses aerodynamic forces to slow its descent into the atmosphere and rocket propulsion for the final landing phase.

  • Dragon CRS: Since October 2012, this unmanned cargo version of the Dragon space capsule has been conducting Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and returning cargo to Earth.
  • Dragon CRS “free-flyer”: The Dragon capsule also can operate independently in Earth orbit carrying a variety of payloads and returning them to Earth.
  • Dragon 2: This is a human-rated version of the Dragon space capsule. The first manned orbital flight in expected 2018.
  • Red Dragon: This is an unmanned version of Dragon 2 adapted for a mission to Mars and launched by a Falcon Heavy. Red Dragon is designed to make a propulsive landing on Mars’ surface with a 2,200 pound (1,000 kg) payload. The first launch of a Red Dragon mission could occur as early as 2018. Thereafter, SpaceX plans to conduct “regular “ (as suitable launch windows occur) Red Dragon missions to Mars.

The SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) is a concept for an enormous launch vehicle, a manned interplanetary spacecraft, and a tanker spacecraft for refueling the interplanetary spacecraft in Earth orbit before starting the interplanetary phase of the mission. ITS will enable transportation of a large crew and equipment to Mars starting in the late 2020s. Later, when propellant plants have been established on distant bodies in the solar system, the ITS interplanetary spacecraft will be able to refuel in deep space and journey beyond Mars. The ITS is “conceptualized to be fully reusable with 1,000 uses per booster, 100 uses per tanker and 12 round trips to Mars with one spacecraft over a period of over 25 years.”

As shown in the following diagram, the ITS booster rocket carrying the interplanetary spacecraft is much larger than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Saturn V used in the 1960s and 1970s on the Apollo lunar missions. At launch, the ITS will be 400 ft (122 m) tall and 39.4 ft (12 m) in diameter.

  ITS & Saturn V. Source: SpaceX

 With 42 Raptor sub-cooled liquid methane / liquid oxygen engines, the first stage will have a liftoff thrust of about 26 million pounds, which is more than three times the thrust of Saturn V. This engine configuration is reminiscent of the Soviet N-1 moon rocket, (circa late 1960s), which clustered 30 engines in a similar configuration.

  ITS 1st stage Raptor engines. Source: SpaceX

The ITS specified payload mass is:

  • 1 million pounds (500 metric tons, 500,000 kg) to LEO with a fully expendable booster, or
  • 661,000 pounds (300 metric tons, 300,000 kg) to LEO with a reusable booster

ITS can lift ten times the payload of the Falcon Heavy booster.

The first stage of the ITS launch vehicle will be designed to fly back to the launch site for rapid servicing and reuse (i.e., to launch the refueling tanker spacecraft). In landing configuration, the ITS booster stage will be about 254 ft (77.5 m) long with a dry mass of about 275 tons (25 metric tons, 250,000 kg).

You can watch Elon Musk’s briefing on the ITS concept, including a short video of the ITS launch and interplanetary mission profile, at the following link.

http://www.spacex.com/mars

Can you spell A M B I T I O U S? The SpaceX ITS concept certainly is ambitious, but it offers a much more compelling vision of future manned spaceflight than anything NASA has offered over the past decade.

Blue Origin reusable booster rockets: New Shepard and New Glenn

New Shepard is a small, single stage, suborbital rocket intended for research and commercial passenger service to the fringe of space, above the Karman line at 62 miles (330,000 ft, 100 km) above the Earth. New Shepard is named for Project Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, who, on 5 May 1961, made the first U.S. suborbital flight in the Freedom 7 capsule launched from Cape Canaveral by a Redstone rocket. The New Shepard, in launch and recovery configurations, is shown in the following figure.

Source: https://www.stlfinder.com/3dmodels/Besos

You can see a short video showing the June 2016 fourth launch and recovery of the New Shepard booster and capsule at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNRs2gMyLLk

As of 3 April 2017, the New Shepard scorecard is:

  • Six booster recoveries attempted
  • Five successful recoveries on land; first in November 2015
  • One booster recovery failure
  • One booster stage recovered and used five times

In all of these New Shepard unmanned test flights, the passenger capsule was recovered.

Blue Origin expects to conduct the first manned tests of New Shepard in late 2017. Commercial passenger flights, with up to six people in the space capsule, could begin in 2018.  Blue Origin has stated that they may be able to conduct as many as 50 New Shepard flights per year.

You’ll find a list of New Shepard launches and booster recovery status, at the following link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Origin

On 29 March 2017, the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) announced that it selected Blue Origin New Shepard to receive the prestigious 2016 Robert J. Collier Trophy. The award reads:

“… for successfully demonstrating rocket booster reusability with the New Shepard human spaceflight vehicle through five successful test flights of a single booster and engine, all of which performed powered vertical landings on Earth.”

You can read the complete NAA press release at the following link:

https://naa.aero/userfiles/files/documents/Press%20Releases/Collier%20Trophy%202016.pdf

On 12 September 2016, Jeff Bezos announced Blue Origin’s plans to develop New Glenn, which is a very large, heavy-lift, 2- or 3-stage reusable launch vehicle. New Glenn is named for Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who, on 20 February 1962, became the first U.S. astronaut to reach orbit. John Glenn flew in the Friendship 7 capsule launched from Cape Canaveral by an Atlas rocket.

The size of New Glenn is apparent n the following diagram. The two-stage version will be 270 ft (82 m) tall, and the three-stage version will be 313 ft (95 m) tall, approaching the size of NASA’s Saturn V.

Source: Blue Origin

 The New Glenn first stage is powered by seven BE-4 methane / LOX engines rated at a combined 3.85 million pounds of thrust (about ½ of the Saturn V), the second stage is powered by a single BE-4 engine optimized for vacuum conditions and rated at 550,000 pounds of thrust, and the third stage is powered by one BE-3 liquid hydrogen / LOX engine rated at 110,000 pounds thrust. The BE-4 engines in the reusable first stage are designed with a 100-flight lifetime.

A more detailed size comparison between New Shepard, Falcon 9 and New Glenn is shown in the following diagram.

  Source: zisadesign I /u/zisa

The scale-up from New Shepard, which is not yet operational, to New Glenn is tremendous. The specified payload mass for the two-stage version of New Glenn is:

  • 99,000 pounds (45 metric tons, 45,000 kg) to LEO,
  • 29,000 pounds (13 metric tons, 13,000 kg) to GTO

The three-stage New Glenn will carry heavier payloads.

The first stage of the New Glenn booster is being designed to fly to a designated landing site to be recovered. Aerodynamic surfaces on the first stage will give New Glenn more aerodynamic maneuvering capability than the SpaceX Falcon during the descent to landing. On 7 March 2017, Jeff Bezos gave the following details on the recovery of the first stage.

“Those aerodynamic surfaces allow us to operate with very high availability in very high wind conditions……..We don’t want to constrain the availability of launch based on the availability of the landing of the reusable booster. We put a lot of effort into letting the vehicle fly back with aerodynamic surface control instead of with propulsion.”

Of course, rocket propulsion is needed for the final phase of landing on a large, moving platform at sea. The first stage has six extendable landing legs, and can land safely if only five deploy.

New Glenn landing. Source: Blue Origin

You’ll find a short animated video showing the launch and recovery process for New Glenn at the following link:

https://www.blueorigin.com/#youtubeBTEhohh6eYk

New Glenn flights are expected to start in 2020, about three years after the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy flight.

What are other launch vehicle competitors doing?

No other operational or planned launch vehicles offer the extent of reusability found in the SpaceX Falcon and ITS and the Blue Origin New Shepard and New Glenn. The following launch vehicles will offer only partial reusability.

NASA: partially-reusable Space Launch System (SLS)

 NASA is developing the SLS to launch heavy payloads into Earth orbit and to launch the Orion manned spacecraft on a variety of near-Earth and deep space missions. As shown in the following diagram,  the SLS booster rocket has a large, liquid-fueled, two-stage core flanked by two large solid rocket boosters manufactured by Orbital ATK.

SLS is designed to put 150,000 to 290,000 pounds (70,000 to 130,000 kg) into LEO.

SLS launch vehicle: Source: NASA

As with the NASA Space Shuttle, the solid rocket boosters are designed to be recovered and reused. However, the liquid-fueled first stage booster is expendable; not designed for reuse.

United Launch Alliance (ULA): partially-reusable Vulcan

ULA currently provides medium- and heavy-lift launch with the expendable Atlas V, Delta III and Delta IV boosters. In April 2015, ULA announced that they were developing Vulcan as their Next-Generation Launch System (NGLS) to support a wide variety of Earth-orbital and interplanetary missions. In August 2016, ULA announced plans to qualify Vulcan for manned space missions.

As shown in the following diagram, Vulcan is comprised of a liquid-fueled, two-stage core rocket that can be augmented with up to six solid rocket boosters as needed for the specific mission. This basic architecture is quite similar to ULA’s current Delta III booster, but on a larger scale.

Vulcan launch vehicle. Source: ULA

Vulcan’s maximum payload capacity is expected to fall between ULA’s current Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. ULA expects that “bare bones” Vulcan launch services will sell for half the price of an Atlas V, which is less costly to fly than the Delta IV.

The Vulcan first stage is not designed to be recovered as a unit and reused like the SpaceX Falcon. Instead, ULA is planning a future version that will be partially reusable. In this version, the engines will be designed to detach from the booster after engine cutoff, descend through the atmosphere inside a heat shield, and deploy a parachute for final descent and recovery.

European Space Agency (ESA): expendable Ariane 5 & partially-reusable Ariane 6

ESA’s current Ariane 5 medium- to heavy-lift booster has a two-stage, liquid-fueled core rocket flanked by two large solid rocket boosters. The basic configuration of Ariane 5 is shown in the following diagram. Ariane V is an expendable booster, not designed for reuse.

Ariane 5. Source: Arianespace

Ariane 5 first flew in June 1996 and has been employed on a wide variety of Earth orbital and interplanetary missions. Versions of Ariane 5 can deliver a payload of more than 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) to LEO or 23,100 pounds (10,735 kg) to GTO.

In 2014, ESA announced the basic configuration of the Ariane 6 launch vehicle. Like Ariane 5, Arian 6 will have a two-stage, liquid-fueled core rocket flanked by solid rocket boosters.

Ariane 6.  Source: adapted from BBC

Two versions are being developed:

  • Ariane 62, with two solid rocket boosters capable of launching about 11,000 pounds (5,000 kg) to GTO
  • Ariane 64, with four solid rocket boosters capable of launching about 24,000 pounds (11,000 kg) to GTO

Ariane 62 and 64 are expendable boosters, not designed for reuse.

In 2015, Airbus Defense and Space announced plans to develop a partially reusable first stage named Adeline that could enter service on a future version of Ariane 6 in the 2025 – 2030 time frame. Like ULA’s plans for Vulcan, only the Ariane 6 first stage high-value parts (i.e., the engine) would be recovered for reuse.

Stratolaunch Systems: giant aircraft plus potentially reusable, air-launched rocket booster

Paul Allen’s firm Stratolaunch Systems is building what will become the world’s largest aircraft, for use as an airborne launch platform for a variety of booster rockets that will take small-to-medium payloads into Earth orbit. The Stratolaunch Carrier will have two fuselages, six jet engines, a length of 238 feet (72 m), and a wingspan of 385 feet (117 m). The giant plane is designed to carry a rocket and payload with a combined weight of up to 550,000 pounds (250,000 kg) to a launch altitude of about 30,000 ft (9,144 m). Payloads up to 13,500 pounds (6,136 kg) can be delivered to LEO. The Stratolaunch Carrier can fly more than 1,000 miles to reach the launch point, giving it unprecedented operational flexibility for delivering payloads to orbit. An example mission profile is shown in the following figure.

Source: Stratolaunch

In 2014, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that it planned to use Stratolaunch as the launch platform for a scaled version of its Dream Chaser reusable spacecraft, initially for unmanned missions and later for manned missions with up to three astronauts. As shown in the following concept drawing, Dream Chaser appears to mounted on a winged, recoverable booster rocket.  For more information on the Dream Chaser reusable spacecraft, visit the SNC website at the following link:

https://www.sncorp.com

Stratolauncher Carrier with Dream Chaser. Source: Sierra Nevada

In 2014, a planned partnership between Stratolaunch Systems and SpaceX for an air-dropped version of the Falcon booster failed to materialize. In October 2016, Stratolaunch announced a partnership with Orbital ATK, which will provide Pegasus XL expendable boosters for use in launching small satellites into Earth orbit from the Stratolaunch aircraft.

The Stratolaunch Carrier was reported to be 76% complete in 2016. Stratolaunch Systems expects the aircraft to be operational by the end of this decade. You’ll find more information on Stratolaunch here:

http://www.stratolaunch.com

Other launch systems

You’ll find a list of worldwide orbital launch systems at the following link.  Most of these are expendable launch systems.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_orbital_launch_systems

A comparison of these orbital launch systems is available here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_orbital_launch_systems

Not included in the above list is the new Next Generation Launch (NGL) System announced by Orbital ATK on 6 April 2017. Two versions of this new, expendable, three-stage booster will be developed to handle medium-to-large payloads, roughly comparable to the payload capability of the SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable booster. The first two stages of the NGL System will be solid fueled.   First flight is planned for 2021. You’ll find a fact sheet on the NGL system at the following link:

http://www.orbitalatk.com/flight-systems/space-launch-vehicles/NGL/docs/BR17001_3862%20NGL_Final%20and%20Approved.pdf

In conclusion

In the highly competitive launch vehicle market, booster reusability should yield a significant economic advantage. In the long run, demonstrating better launch service economies will determine the success or failure of reusable launch vehicles.

While SpaceX and Blue Origin have demonstrated the technical ability to recover and reuse the first stage of a launch vehicle, they have not yet demonstrated the long-term economic value of that capability. In 2017, SpaceX plans to re-fly about six Falcon 9 v1.2 boosters, with even more recycled boosters to be launched in 2018. Blue Origin will likely start New Shepard passenger flights in 2018.

I’m betting that SpaceX and Blue Origin will be successful and reusable boosters will find a permanent role in reducing the price for delivering cargo and people into space.

 

 

 

Grand Finale of the Cassini Mission to Saturn

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Cassini spacecraft was launched on 15 October 1997 and cruised through interplanetary space for seven years before arriving at Saturn on 30 June 2004. The Cassini spacecraft carried the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Huygens probe, which landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, on 14 January 2005. Since then, Cassini has been performing a series of missions in orbit around Saturn, returning spectacular images and collecting scientific data on the ringed planet and its many moons.

In 2017, Cassini is performing its Grand Finale in a highly elliptical polar orbit around Saturn. The geometry for this orbital flight path is shown in the following diagram.

Cassini_20161205cSource: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the first phase of the Grand Finale (grey orbits in the above diagram), which is underway now, Cassini’s orbit crosses the plane of Saturn’s equatorial ring system just outside the F-ring (there are just two rings outside of the F-ring: G and E). Later in 2017, Cassini’s polar orbit will be adjusted to cross the plane of the ring system insider the innermost D-ring (blue orbits). From there the spacecraft will gradually descend toward Saturn in a region that has never before been explored. The mission will end when Cassini is destroyed somewhere in Saturn’s atmosphere (orange orbit). This is scheduled to occur on September 15, 2017 at 5:07 a.m. PDT.

NASA’s Cassini mission website is at the following link:

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/main/index.html

You’ll find a NASA fact sheet on the Grand Finale here:

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/legacy/files/Cassini_Grand_Finale_Fact_Sheet_508.pdf

You can follow the countdown to the final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere and also review the entire mission timeline and other resources here:

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/the-journey/timeline/#the-grand-finale

A few Grand Finale images taken during recent ring-grazing orbits past the F-ring are shown below.  The source of these three images and captions are: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Cassini_pia21056_deblurred cropThe above image, taken 16 January 2017, shows Saturn’s moon Daphnis (5 miles, 8 kilometers across), which orbits within the 26 mile (42 km) wide Keeler Gap (between the F and A rings). The gap appears foreshortened because of the viewing angle. The little moon’s gravity raises waves in the edges of the gap in both the horizontal and vertical directions.

Cassini_pia20511-1041Waves created by Daphnis are visible in this wider-angle view of the ring system. The F-ring is the bright, narrow ring crossing the center of the image. Since the moon moves in and out of the ring-plane, and closer to and farther from the rings’ edges as it orbits, the waves it makes change over time.

Cassini_pia21055-1041This image, taken on 18 December 2016, is one of the highest-resolution views ever taken of Saturn’s moon Pandora (52 miles, 84 kilometers across), which orbits just outside the F-ring.

13 April 2017 Update – Cassini’s close-up view of Saturn’s moon Pan

In early March, Cassini imaged Pan, which is one of Saturn’s innermost moons. As you can see in the following photos, this small moon (diameter of 221.7 miles, 35 km) has a most unusual shape. It isn’t known if the ridge circling the moon is solid, or a loose aggregation of particles with a very steep slope enabled by the moons weak gravity.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The NASA announcement and more photos of Pan are at the following link:

https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/jpl/cassini-reveals-strange-shape-of-saturns-moon-pan

 

NuSTAR Provides a High-Resolution X-ray View of our Universe

In my 6 March 2016 post, “Remarkable Multispectral View of Our Milky Way Galaxy,” I briefly discussed several of the space-based observatories that are helping to develop a deeper understanding of our galaxy and the universe. One space-based observatory not mentioned in that post is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) X-Ray observatory, which was launched on 13 June 2012 into a near equatorial, low Earth orbit. NASA describes the NuSTAR mission as follows:

“The NuSTAR mission has deployed the first orbiting telescopes to focus light in the high energy X-ray (6 – 79 keV) region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Our view of the universe in this spectral window has been limited because previous orbiting telescopes have not employed true focusing optics, but rather have used coded apertures that have intrinsically high backgrounds and limited sensitivity.

During a two-year primary mission phase, NuSTAR will map selected regions of the sky in order to:

1.  Take a census of collapsed stars and black holes of different sizes by surveying regions surrounding the center of own Milky Way Galaxy and performing deep observations of the extragalactic sky;

2.  Map recently-synthesized material in young supernova remnants to understand how stars explode and how elements are created; and

3.  Understand what powers relativistic jets of particles from the most extreme active galaxies hosting supermassive black holes.”

 The NuSTAR spacecraft is relatively small, with a payload mass of only 171 kg (377 lb). In it’s stowed configuration, this compact satellite was launched by an Orbital ATK Pegasus XL booster, which was carried aloft by the Stargazer L-1011 aircraft to approximately 40,000 feet over open ocean, where the booster was released and carried the small payload into orbit.

Orbital ATK L-1011 StargazerStargazer L-1011 dropping a Pegasus XL booster. Source: Orbital ATK

In orbit, the solar-powered NuSTAR extended to a total length of 10.9 meters (35.8 feet) in the orbital configuration shown below. The extended spacecraft gives the X-ray telescope a 10 meter (32.8 foot) focal length.

NuSTAR satelliteNuSTAR orbital configuration. Source: NASA / JPL – Caltech

NASA describes the NuSTAR X-Ray telescope as follows:

“The NuSTAR instrument consists of two co-aligned grazing incidence X-Ray telescopes (Wolter type I) with specially coated optics and newly developed detectors that extend sensitivity to higher energies as compared to previous missions such as NASA’a Chandra X-Ray Observatory launched in 1999 and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) XMM-Newton (aka High-throughput X-Ray Spectrometry Mission), also launched in 1999…….. The observatory will provide a combination of sensitivity, spatial, and spectral resolution factors of 10 to 100 improved over previous missions that have operated at these X-ray energies.”

The NASA NuSTAR mission website is at the following link:

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/nustar/main/index.html

Some examples of NuSTAR findings posted on this website are summarized below.

X-ray emitting structures of galaxies identified

In the following composite image of Galaxy 1068, high-energy X-rays (shown in magenta) captured by NuSTAR are overlaid on visible-light images from both NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Galaxy 1068Galaxy 1068. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roma Tre Univ

Below is a more detailed X-ray view of portion of the Andromeda galaxy (aka M31), which is the galaxy nearest to our Milky Way. On 5 January 2017, NASA reported:

“The space mission has observed 40 ‘X-ray binaries’ — intense sources of X-rays comprised of a black hole or neutron star that feeds off a stellar companion.

Andromeda is the only large spiral galaxy where we can see individual X-ray binaries and study them in detail in an environment like our own.”

In the following image, the portion of the Andromeda galaxy surveyed by NuSTAR is in the smaller outlined area. The larger outlined area toward the top of this image is the corresponding X-ray view of the surveyed area.

Andromeda galaxyAndromeda galaxy.  Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

NASA describes the following mechanism for X-ray binaries to generate the observed intense X-ray emissions:

“In X-ray binaries, one member is always a dead star or remnant formed from the explosion of what was once a star much more massive than the sun. Depending on the mass and other properties of the original giant star, the explosion may produce either a black hole or neutron star. Under the right circumstances, material from the companion star can “spill over” its outermost edges and then be caught by the gravity of the black hole or neutron star. As the material falls in, it is heated to blazingly high temperatures, releasing a huge amount of X-rays.”

You can read more on this NuStar discovery at the following link:

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/Andromeda-Galaxy-Scanned-with-High-Energy-X-ray-Vision

Composition of supernova remnants determined

Cassiopeia A is within our Milky Way, about 11,000 light-years from Earth. The following NASA three-panel chart shows Cassiopeia A originally as an iron-core star. After going supernova, Cassiopeia A scattered its outer layers, which have distributed into the diffuse structure we see today, known as the supernova remnant. The image in the right-hand panel is a composite X-ray image of the supernova remnant from both the Chandra X-ray Observatory and NuStar.

Cassiopeia ASource: NASA/CXC/SAO/JPL-Caltech

In the following three-panel chart, the composite image (above, right) is unfolded into its components. Red shows iron and green shows both silicon and magnesium, as seen by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Blue shows radioactive titanium-44, as mapped by NuSTAR.

 Cassiopeia A componentsSource: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO

Supernova 1987A is about 168,000 light-years from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud. As shown below, NuSTAR also observed titanium in this supernova remnant.

SN 1987A titaniumSource: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UC Berkeley

These observations are providing new insights into how massive stars explode into supernovae.

 

There’s Increased Worldwide Interest in Asteroid and Moon Mining Missions

In my 31 December 2015 post, “Legal Basis Established for U.S. Commercial Space Launch Industry Self-regulation and Commercial Asteroid Mining,” I commented on the likely impact of the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” (2015 Space Act) which was signed into law on 25 November 2016. A lot has happened since then.

Planetary Resources building technology base for commercial asteroid prospecting

The firm Planetary Resources (Redmond, Washington) has a roadmap for developing a working space-based prospecting system built on the following technologies:

  • Space-based observation systems: miniaturization of hyperspectral sensors and mid-wavelength infrared sensors.
  • Low-cost avionics software: tiered and modular spacecraft avionics with a distributed set of commercially-available, low-level hardened elements each handling local control of a specific spacecraft function.
  • Attitude determination and control systems: distributed system, as above
  • Space communications: laser communications
  • High delta V small satellite propulsion systems: “Oberth maneuver” (powered flyby) provides most efficient use of fuel to escape Earth’s gravity well

Check out their short video, “Why Asteroids Fuel Human Expansion,” at the following link:

http://www.planetaryresources.com/asteroids/#asteroids-intro

 Planetary Resources videoSource: Planetary Resources

For more information, visit the Planetary Resources home page at the following link:

http://www.planetaryresources.com/#home-intro

Luxembourg SpaceResources.lu Initiative and collaboration with Planetary Resources

On 3 November 2016, Planetary Resources announced funding and a target date for their first asteroid mining mission:

“Planetary Resources, Inc. …. announced today that it has finalized a 25 million euro agreement that includes direct capital investment of 12 million euros and grants of 13 million euros from the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the banking institution Société Nationale de Crédit et d’Investissement (SNCI). The funding will accelerate the company’s technical advancements with the aim of launching the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission by 2020. This milestone fulfilled the intent of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Grand Duchy and its SpaceResources.lu initiative that was agreed upon this past June.”

The homepage for Luxembourg’s SpaceResources.lu Initiative is at the following link:

http://www.spaceresources.public.lu/en/index.html

Here the Grand-Duchy announced its intent to position Luxembourg as a European hub in the exploration and use of space resources.

“Luxembourg is the first European country to set out a formal legal framework which ensures that private operators working in space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract, i.e. valuable resources from asteroids. Such a legal framework will be worked out in full consideration of international law. The Grand-Duchy aims to participate with other nations in all relevant fora in order to agree on a mutually beneficial international framework.”

Remember the book, “The Mouse that Roared?” Well, here’s Luxembourg leading the European Union (EU) into the business of asteroid mining.

European Space Agency (ESA) cancels Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM)

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) was planning to send a small spacecraft to a pair of co-orbital asteroids, Didymoon and Didymos, in 2022. Among other goals, this ESA mission was intended to observe the NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test when it impacts Didymoon at high speed. ESA mission profile for AIM is described at the following link:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering_Technology/Asteroid_Impact_Mission/Mission_profile

On 2 Dec 2016, ESA announced that AIM did not win enough support from member governments and will be cancelled. Perhaps the plans for an earlier commercial asteroid mission marginalized the value of the ESA investment in AIM.

Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announces collaboration for lunar resource prospecting, production and delivery

On 16 December 2016, JAXA announced that it will collaborate with the private lunar exploration firm, ispace, Inc. to prospect for lunar resources and then eventually build production and resource delivery facilities on the Moon.

ispace is a member of Japan’s Team Hakuto, which is competing for the Google Lunar XPrize. Team Hakuto describes their mission as follows:

“In addition to the Grand Prize, Hakuto will be attempting to win the Range Bonus. Furthermore, Hakuto’s ultimate target is to explore holes that are thought to be caves or “skylights” into underlying lava tubes, for the first time in human history.  These lava tubes could prove to be very important scientifically, as they could help explain the moon’s volcanic past. They could also become candidate sites for long-term habitats, able to shield humans from the moon’s hostile environment.”

Hakuto is facing the challenges of the Google Lunar XPRIZE and skylight exploration with its unique ‘Dual Rover’ system, consisting of two-wheeled ‘Tetris’ and four-wheeled ‘Moonraker.’ The two rovers are linked by a tether, so that Tetris can be lowered into a suspected skylight.”

Hakuto rover-with-tail

Team Hakuto dual rover. Source: ispace, Inc.

So far, the team has won one Milestone Prize worth $500,000 and must complete its lunar mission by the end of 2017 in order to be eligible for the final prizes. You can read more about Team Hakuto and their rover on the Google Lunar XPrize website at the following link:

http://lunar.xprize.org/teams/hakuto

Building on this experience, and apparently using the XPrize rover, ispace has proposed the following roadmap to the moon (click on the graphic to enlarge).

ispace lunar roadmapSource: ispace, Inc.

This ambitious roadmap offers an initial lunar resource utilization capability by 2030. Ice will be the primary resource sought on the Moon. Ispace reports:

“According to recent studies, the Moon houses an abundance of precious minerals on its surface, and an estimated 6 billion tons of water ice at its poles. In particular, water can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen to produce efficient rocket fuel. With a fuel station established in space, the world will witness a revolution in the space transportation system.”

The ispace website is at the following link:

http://ispace-inc.com

 

 

Strange Things are Happening Underground

In the last month, there have been reports of some very unexpected things happening under the surface of the earth. I’m talking about subduction plates that maintain their structure as they dive toward the Earth’s core and “jet streams” in the Earth’s core itself. Let’s take a look at these interesting phenomena.

What happens to subduction plates?

Oceanic tectonic plates are formed as magma wells up along mid-ocean ridges, forming new lithospheric rock that spread away from both sides of the ridge, building two different tectonic plates. This is known as a divergent plate boundary.

As tectonic plates move slowly across the Earth’s surface, each one moves differently than the adjacent plates. In simple terms, this relative motion at the plate interfaces is either a slipping, side-by-side (transform) motion, or a head-to-head (convergent) motion.

A map of the Earth showing the tectonic plates and the nature of the relative motion at the plate interfaces is shown below (click on the image to enlarge).

ESRT Page5

Source: http://www.regentsearth.com/

When two tectonic plate converge, one will sink under (subduct) the other. In the case of an oceanic plate converging with a continental plate, the heavier oceanic plate always sinks under the continental plate and may cause mountain building along the edge of the continental plate. When two oceanic plates converge, one will subduct the other, creating a deep mid-ocean trench (i.e., Mariana trench) and possibly forming an arc of islands on the overriding plate (i.e., Aleutian Islands and south Pacific island chains). In the diagram above, you can see that some subduction zones are quite long.

subd_zoneSource: http://www.columbia.edu/~vjd1/subd_zone_basic.htm

The above diagram shows the subducting material from an oceanic plate descending deep into the Earth beneath the overriding continental plate.  New research indicates that the subducting plates maintain their structure to a considerable depth below the surface of the Earth.

On 22 November 2016, an article by Paul Voosen, “’Atlas of the Underworld’ reveals oceans and mountains lost to Earth’s history,” was posted on the sciencemag.org website. The author reports:

“A team of Dutch scientists will announce a catalog of 100 subducted plates, with information about their age, size, and related surface rock records, based on their own tomographic model and cross-checks with other published studies.”

“…geoscientists have begun ….peering into the mantel itself, using earthquake waves that pass through Earth’s interior to generate images resembling computerized tomography (CT) scans. In the past few years, improvements in these tomographic techniques have revealed many of these cold, thick slabs as they free fall in slow motion to their ultimate graveyard—heaps of rock sitting just above Earth’s molten core, 2900 kilometers below.”

The following concept drawing illustrates how a CT scan of the whole Earth might look, with curtains of subducting material surrounding the molten core.

Atlas_1121_1280x720Source: Science / Fabio Crameri

The author notes that research teams around the world are using more than 20 different models to interpret similar tomographic data. As you might expect, results differ. However, a few points are consistent:

  • The subducting slabs in the upper mantle appear to be stiff, straight curtains of lithospheric rock
  • These slabs may flex but they don’t crumble.
  • These two features make it possible to “unwind” the geologic history of individual tectonic slabs and develop a better understanding of the route each slab took to its present location.
  • The geologic history in subducting slabs only stretches back about 250 million years, which is the time it takes for subducting material to fall from the surface to the bottom of the mantle and be fully recycled.

You can read the fill article by Paul Voosen at the following link:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/11/atlas-underworld-reveals-oceans-and-mountains-lost-earths-history

Hopefully, the “Atlas of the Underworld” will help focus the dialogue among international research teams toward collaborative efforts to improve and standardize the processes and models for building an integrated CT model of our Earth.

A “jet stream” in the Earth’s core

The European Space Agency (ESA) developed the Swarm satellites to make highly accurate and frequent measurements of Earth’s continuously changing magnetic field, with the goal of developing new insights into our planet’s formation, dynamics and environment. The three-satellite Swarm mission was launched on 22 November 2013.

3 satellite SWARMSwarm satellites separating from Russian booster. Source: ESA

ESA’s website for the Swarm mission is at the following link:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/Swarm/From_core_to_crust

Here ESA explains the value of the measurements made by the Swarm satellites.

“One of the very few ways of probing Earth’s liquid core is to measure the magnetic field it creates and how it changes over time. Since variations in the field directly reflect the flow of fluid in the outermost core, new information from Swarm will further our understanding of the physics and dynamics of Earth’s stormy heart.

The continuous changes in the core field that result in motion of the magnetic poles and reversals are important for the study of Earth’s lithosphere, also known as the ‘crustal’ field, which has induced and remnant magnetized parts. The latter depend on the magnetic properties of the sub-surface rock and the history of Earth’s core field.

We can therefore learn more about the history of the magnetic field and geological activity by studying magnetism in Earth’s crust. As new oceanic crust is created through volcanic activity, iron-rich minerals in the upwelling magma are oriented to magnetic north at the time.

These magnetic stripes are evidence of pole reversals so analyzing the magnetic imprints of the ocean floor allows past core field changes to be reconstructed and also helps to investigate tectonic plate motion.”

Data from the Swarm satellites indicates that the liquid iron part of the Earth’s core has an internal, 420 km (261 miles) wide “jet stream” circling the core at high latitude at a current speed of about 40 km/year (25 miles/year) and accelerating. In geologic terms, this “jet stream” is significantly faster than typical large scale flows in the core. The basic geometry of this “jet stream” is shown in the following diagram.

jet-stream-earth-core-ESA-e1482190909115Source: ESA

These results were published on 19 December 2016 in the article, An accelerating high-latitude jet in Earth’s core,” on the Nature Geoscience website at the following link:

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ngeo2859.html

A subscription is required for access to the full paper.

The Swarm mission is ongoing. Watch the ESA’s mission website for more news.

Rosetta Spacecraft Lands on Comet 67P, Completing its 12-Year Mission

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Rosetta mission in 2004. After its long journey from Earth, followed by 786 days in orbit around comet 67P / Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the Rosetta spacecraft managers maneuvered the spacecraft out of its orbit and directed it to a “hard” landing on the “head” (the smaller lobe) of the comet.

Comet_67P_15_April_2015Comet 67P. Source: ESA – European Space Agency

The descent path, which started from an altitude of 19 km (11.8 miles), was designed to bring Rosetta down in the vicinity of active pits that had been observed from higher altitude earlier in the mission. ESA noted:

  • The descent gave Rosetta the opportunity to study the comet’s gas, dust and plasma environment very close to its surface, as well as take very high-resolution images.
  • Pits are of particular interest because they play an important role in the comet’s activity (i.e., venting gases to space).

The spacecraft impacted at a speed of about 90 cm/sec (about 2 mph) at 11:19 AM GMT (4:19 AM PDT) on 30 September 2016. I stayed up in California to watch the ESA’s live stream of the end of this important mission. I have to say that the live stream was not designed as a media event. As the landing approached, only a few close-up photos of the surface were shown, including the following photo taken from an altitude of about 5.7 km (3.5 miles).

Comet 67P 30Sep2016Source: ESA – European Space Agency

At the appointed moment, touchdown was marked by the loss of the telemetry signal from Rosetta. ESA said that the Rosetta spacecraft contained a message in many languages for some future visitor to 67P to find.

You can read the ESA’s press release on the end of the Rosetta mission at the following link:

http://www.esa.int/For_Media/Press_Releases/Mission_complete_Rosetta_s_journey_ends_in_daring_descent_to_comet

Some of the key Rosetta mission findings reported by ESA include:

  • Comet 67P likely was “born” in a very cold region of the protoplanetary nebula when the Solar System was still forming more than 4.5 billion years ago.
  • The comet’s two lobes probably formed independently, joining in a low-speed collision in the early days of the Solar System.
  • The comet’s shape influences its “seasons,” which are characterized by variations in dust moving across its surface and variations in the density and composition of the coma, the comet’s ‘atmosphere’.
  • Gases streaming from the comet’s nucleus include molecular oxygen and nitrogen, and water with a different ‘flavor’ than water in Earth’s oceans.
    • 67P’s water contains about three times more deuterium (a heavy form of hydrogen) than water on Earth.
    • This suggests that comets like Rosetta’s may not have delivered as much of Earth’s water as previously believed.
  • Numerous inorganic chemicals and organic compounds were detected by Rosetta (from orbit) and the Philae lander (on the surface). These include the amino acid glycine, which is commonly found in proteins, and phosphorus, a key component of DNA and cell membranes.

Analysis of data from the Rosetta mission will continue for several years. It will be interesting to see how our understanding of comet 67P and similar comets evolve in the years ahead.

For more information on the Rosetta mission, visit the ESA’s Rosetta website at the following link:

http://sci.esa.int/rosetta/

Also see my following postings: 24 August 2016, “Exploring Microgravity Worlds,” and 6 September 2016, “Philae Found in a Rocky Ditch on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.”

 

The Universe is Isotropic

The concepts of up and down appear to be relatively local conventions that can be applied at the levels of subatomic particles, planets and galaxies. However, the universe as a whole apparently does not have a preferred direction that would allow the concepts of up and down to be applied at such a grand scale.

A 7 September 2016 article entitled, “It’s official: You’re lost in a directionless universe,” by Adrian Cho, provides an overview of research that demonstrates, with a high level of confidence, that the universe is isotropic. The research was based on data from the Planck space observatory. In this article, Cho notes:

“Now, one team of cosmologists has used the oldest radiation there is, the afterglow of the big bang, or the cosmic microwave background (CMB), to show that the universe is “isotropic,” or the same no matter which way you look: There is no spin axis or any other special direction in space. In fact, they estimate that there is only a one-in-121,000 chance of a preferred direction—the best evidence yet for an isotropic universe. That finding should provide some comfort for cosmologists, whose standard model of the evolution of the universe rests on an assumption of such uniformity.”

The European Space Agency (ESA) developed the Planck space observatory to map the CMB in microwave and infrared frequencies at unprecedented levels of detail. Planck was launched on 14 May 2009 and was placed in a Lissajous orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, which is 1,500,000 km (930,000 miles) directly behind the Earth. L2 is a quiet place, with the Earth shielding Planck from noise from the Sun. The approximate geometry of the Earth-Moon-Sun system and a representative spacecraft trajectory (not Planck, specifically) to the L2 Lagrange point is shown in the following figure.

Lissajous orbit L2Source: Abestrobi / Wikimedia Commons

The Planck space observatory entered service on 3 July 2009. At the end of its service life, Planck departed its valuable position at L2, was placed in a heliocentric orbit, and was deactivated on 23 October 2013. During more than four years in service, Planck performed its CBM mapping mission with much greater resolution than NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, which operated from 2001 to 2010.

One key result of the Planck mission is the all-sky survey shown below.

Planck_CMB_black_background_fullwidthPlanck all-sky survey. Source; ESA / Planck Collaboration

ESA characterizes this map as follows:

“The CMB is a snapshot of the oldest light in our Universe, imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 380,000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today.”

The researchers who reported that the universe was isotropic noted that an anisotropic universe would leave telltale patterns in the CMB. However, these researchers found that the actual CMB shows only random noise and no signs of such patterns.

You’ll find more details on the Planck mission and scientific results on the ESA’s website at the following link:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Planck

You can read Adrian Cho’s article on the Science magazine website at the following link:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/09/it-s-official-you-re-lost-directionless-universe?utm_source=howtogeek&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter

The original research paper, “How Isotropic is the Universe?” by Saadeh, D., et al., was published on 21 September 2016. It is available on the Physical Review Letters website, if you have a subscription, at the following link:

https://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.117.131302

 

 

Space-based Gravity Wave Detection System to be Deployed by ESA

The first detection of gravitational waves occurred on 14 September 2015 at the land-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Using optical folding techniques, LIGO has an effective baseline of 1,600 km (994 miles). See my 16 December 2015 and 11 February 2016 posts for more information on LIGO and other land-based gravitational wave detectors.

Significantly longer baselines, and theoretically greater sensitivity can be achieved with gravitational wave detectors in space. Generically, such a space-based detector has become known as a Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA). Three projects associated with space-based gravitational wave detection are:

  • LISA (the project name predated the current generic usage of LISA)
  • LISA Pathfinder (a space-based gravitational wave detection technology demonstrator, not a detector)
  • Evolved LISA (eLISA)

These projects are discussed below.

The science being addressed by space-based gravitational wave detectors is discussed in the eLISA white paper, “The Gravitational Universe.” You can download this whitepaper, a 1-page summary, and related gravitational wave science material at the following link:

https://www.elisascience.org/whitepaper/

LISA

The LISA project originally was planned as a joint European Space Agency (ESA) and National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) project to detect gravitational waves using a very long baseline, triangular interferometric array of three spacecraft.

Each spacecraft was to contain a gravitational wave detector sensitive at frequencies between 0.03 mHz and 0.1 Hz and have the capability to precisely measure its distances to the other two spacecraft forming the array. The equilateral triangular array, which was to measure about 5 million km (3.1 million miles) on a side, was expected to be capable of measuring gravitational-wave induced strains in space-time by precisely measuring changes of the separation distance between pairs of test masses in the three spacecraft. In 2011, NASA dropped out of this project because of funding constraints.

LISA Pathfinder

The LISA Pathfinder (LPF) is a single spacecraft intended to validate key technologies for space-based gravitational wave detection. It does not have the capability to detect gravity waves.

This mission was launched by ESA on 3 December 2015 and the spacecraft took station in a Lissajous orbit around the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point on 22 January 2016. L1 is directly between the Earth and the Sun, about 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) from Earth. An important characteristic of a Lissajous orbit is that the spacecraft will follow the L1 point without requiring any propulsion. This is important for minimizing external forces on the LISA Pathfinder experiment package. The approximate geometry of the Earth-Moon-Sun system and a representative spacecraft (not LPF, specifically) stationed at the L1 Lagrange point is shown in the following figure.

L1 Lagrange pointSource: Wikimedia Commons

The LISA Pathfinder’s mission is to validate the technologies used to shield two free-floating metal cubes (test masses), which form the core of the experiment package, from all internal and external forces that could contribute to noise in the gravitational wave measurement instruments. The on-board measurement instruments (inertial sensors and a laser interferometer) are designed to measure the relative position and orientation of the test masses, which are 38 cm (15 inches) apart, to an accuracy of less than 0.01 nanometers (10e-11 meters). This measurement accuracy is believed to be adequate for detecting gravitational waves using this technology on ESA’s follow-on mission, eLISA.

The first diagram below is an artist’s impression of the LISA Pathfinder technology package, showing the inertial sensors housing the test masses (gold) and the laser interferometer (middle platform). The second diagram provides a clearer view of the test masses and the laser interferometer.

LPF technology package 1

Source: ESA/ATG medialab, August 2015LPF technology package 2Source: ESA LISA Pathfinder briefing, 7 June 2016

You’ll find more general information in an ESA LISA Pathfinder overview, which you can download from NASA’s LISA website at the following link:

http://lisa.nasa.gov/Documentation/LISA-LPF-RP-0001_v1.1.pdf

LISA Pathfinder was commissioned and ready for scientific work on 1 March 2016. In a 7 June 2016 briefing, ESA reported very favorable performance results from LISA Pathfinder:

  • LPF successfully validated the technologies used in the local (in-spacecraft) instrument package (test masses, inertial sensors and interferometer).
  • LPF interferometer noise was a factor of 100 less than on the ground.
  • The measurement instruments can see femtometer motion of the test masses (LPF goal was picometer).
  • Performance is essentially at the level needed for the follow-on eLISA mission

You can watch this full (1+ hour) ESA briefing at the following link:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Watch_LISA_Pathfinder_briefing

eLISA

Evolved LISA, or eLISA, is ESA’s modern incarnation of the original LISA program described previously. ESA’s eLISA website home page is at the following link:

https://www.elisascience.org

As shown in the following diagrams, three eLISA spacecraft will form a very long baseline interferometric array that is expected to directly observe gravitational waves from sources anywhere in the universe. In essence, this array will be a low frequency microphone listening for the sounds of gravitational waves as they pass through the array.

eLISA constellation 1Source: ESAeLISA constellation 2Source: ESA

As discussed previously, gravity wave detection depends on the ability to very precisely measure the distance between test masses that are isolated from their environment but subject to the influence of passing gravitational waves. Measuring the relative motion of a pair of test masses is considerably more complex for eLISA than it was for LPF. The relative motion measurements needed for a single leg of the eLISA triangular array are:

  • Test mass 1 to Spacecraft 1
  • Spacecraft 1 to Spacecraft 2
  • Spacecraft 2 to Test Mass 2

This needs to be done for each of the three legs of the array.

LPF validated the technology for making the test mass to spacecraft measurement. Significant development work remains to be done on the spacecraft-to-spacecraft laser system that must take precise measurements at very long distances (5 million km, 3.1 million miles) of the relative motion between each pair of spacecraft.

In the 6 June 2016 LISA Pathfinder briefing, LPF and ESA officials indicated that an eLisa launch date is expected in the 2029 – 2032 time frame. Then it reaches its assigned position in a trailing heliocentric orbit, eLISA will be a remarkable collaborative technical achievement and a new window to our universe.

Philae Found in a Rocky Ditch on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

In my 24 August 2016 post, “Exploring Microgravity Worlds,” I described the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Rosetta mission to comet 67P and the Philae lander, which was intended to make a soft landing on 67P and attach itself to the surface. However, the securing devices (a pair of harpoons and screws on each leg) failed to work upon touching the surface the first time. In the microgravity environment of 67P, Philae rebounded and eventually came to rest adjacent to a rocky outcropping seen in a post-landing photo.

Rosetta_Auto52Main components of the Philae lander. Source: Philae teamPhilae as it was intended to land.Philae as it was intended to look after landing. Source: MEDIALAB/AFP/Getty ImagesPhilae landing photoView from Philae’s actual landing site. Source: ESA

On 2 September 2016, the ESA team managing the Rosetta mission found Philae in photographs taken from the Rosetta spacecraft at an altitude of about 2.7 km (1.7 miles) above the surface of 67P. The photos show that Philae, which is about the size of a washing machine, is lying on its side, wedged among large rocks. Knowing Philae’s actual orientation and environment is expected to help ESA reevaluate the data Philae transmitted from its resting place.

Philae is the “poster child” for the hazards of landing on microgravity worlds.

Philae_close-up_node_full_image_2Philae’s final resting place on comet 67P. Source: ESAPhilae_close-up_labelled_node_full_image_2Annotated Philae photo. Source: ESA

Meanwhile, Rosetta is being maneuvered into ever-closer orbits around 67P, with the goal be taking measurements of the comet’s “atmosphere” very close to the surface. The Rosetta mission is expected to come to an end in September 2016 with the spacecraft colliding with 67P.