Tag Archives: NASA

50th Anniversary of the First Manned Moon Landing and a Very Long Time Since the Last Manned Moon Landing

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).

L to R:  Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins & Buzz Aldrin.  
Source: NASA
Apollo 11 insignia: Eagle with wings outstretched holding 
an olive branch above the Moon with Earth in the background. Source: NASA via Wikipedia

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.

General configuration of the Apollo spacecraft.  The “CSM” is the combined Command Module and Service Module.  Source:  NASA

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

Source:  NASA

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.

Apollo 11 PSEP in the foreground with astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the LRRR behind it, then the Eagle LM, the American flag, and the TV camera on the left horizon
beyond the American flag.  Source: NASA
Neil Armstrong’s photo showing the Eagle LM from Little West crater
(33 meters in diameter). Source: NASA
Apollo 11 landing site captured from 24 km (15 miles) above the surface
by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
Source: adapted from NASA Goddard/Arizona State University
Apollo 11 “traverse” map.  
Source: NASA via Smithsonian https://airandspace.si.edu/

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. 

LM Eagle ascent stage with Armstrong and Aldrin approaching the CSM Columbia piloted by Collins.  Source: NASA

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.

New York City ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts.  
Source: NASA / Bill Taub

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.

The Apollo landing sites.  Source: NASA

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.

You’ll find extensive Apollo historical resources on the NASA website starting from the following link to the Apollo program webpage: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/index.html

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

The Apollo 11 command module Columbia at 
The Museum of Flight in Seattle. Source: collectSPACE

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.
The Orion spacecraft is functionally comparable to the Apollo command and
service modules.  Source:  NASA

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.

NASA reported the Artemis moon program status in May 2019 at the following link: https://www.nasa.gov/artemis-moon-program-advances

Additional reading on Project Apollo and the first Moon landing mission:

  • Roger D. Launis, “Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings,” Smithsonian Books, 14 May 2019, ISBN-13: 978-1588346490
  • Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins & Edwin Aldrin, “First on the Moon,” William Konecky Assoc., 15 October 2002, ISBN-13: 978-1568523989
  • Michael Collins, “Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR); 3 edition, 28 May 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0374312022
  • Michael Collins, “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys: 50th Anniversary Edition Anniversary Edition,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 16 April 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0374537760
  • Edwin Aldrin, “Return to Earth,” Random House; 1st edition, 1973, ISBN-13: 978-0394488325

India Poised to Become the 4th Nation to Land a Spacecraft on the Moon

This post was updated on 31 July 2019

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.

If you’re not familiar with the Israel’s Beresheet lunar mission, see my 4 April 2019 post at the following link:  https://lynceans.org/all-posts/israel-is-poised-to-become-the-4th-nation-to-land-a-spacecraft-on-the-moon/

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.

Artist’s illustration of India’s lunar lander and the small rover vehicle
on the surface of the moon. Source: ISRO

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

Source:  ISRO
GSLV Mk III D2 on the launch pad at SDSC for the launch of the GSAT-29 communications satellite
in 2018. Source:  ISRO via Wikipedia
GSLV Mk III D1 lifting off from the SDSC with the GSAT-19 communications satellite
in 2017. Source:  ISRO via Wikipedia
Transporting the partially integrated GSLV MkIII M1 launch vehicle
 for the Chandrayaan-2 mission on the Mobile Launch Pedestal.  
Source: ISRO

The spacecraft

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.

Three spacecraft modules (not to scale).  Source: ISRO

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. 

Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA). Source: ISRO

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.

Orbiter (bottom) & lander (top) in stacked configuration.  Source: ISRO

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 orbiter.  Source: ISRO

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 Vikram lander with the Pragyan rover on the ramp. Source: ISRO

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.

Rover during testing. Source: ISRO
Rover details.  Source: ISRO

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:

http://epizodsspace.airbase.ru/bibl/inostr-yazyki/Chandrayaan-2.pdf

Also see the ISRO webpage for the GSLV-Mk III – M1 / Chandrayaan-2 mission at the following link:

https://www.isro.gov.in/launcher/gslv-mk-iii-m1-chandrayaan-2-mission

Best wishes to the Chandrayaan-2 mission team for a successful soft lunar landing and long-term lunar mapping mission.

Declassified Military Satellite Imagery has Applications in a Wide Variety of Civilian Geospatial Studies

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:

https://www.nro.gov

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.

Specially modified US Air Force C-119J aircraft recovers a
CORONA film canister in flight.  Source: US Air Force
First reconnaissance picture taken in orbit and successfully recovered on Earth;  taken on 18 August 1960 by a CORONA KH-1 satellite dubbed Discoverer 14.  Image shows the Mys Shmidta airfield in the Chukotka region of the Russian Arctic, with a resolution of about 40 feet (12.2 meters).  Source: Wikipedia

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.

US film-return reconnaissance satellites from KH-1 to KH-9 shown to scale
with the KH-11 electronic imaging reconaissance satellite.  
Credit: Giuseppe De Chiara and The Space Review.

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

The NGA’s web homepage, at the following link: https://www.nga.mil/Pages/Default.aspx

The NGA’s webpage for declassified satellite imagery is here: https://www.nga.mil/ProductsServices/Pages/Imagery.aspx

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. 

You’ll find more information on the Landsat program on the USGS website here: https://www.usgs.gov/land-resources/nli/landsat

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”

You can read Executive Order 12951 here: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/WCPD-1995-02-27/pdf/WCPD-1995-02-27-Pg304.pdf

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).

More information on the declassified imagery resources is available from the USGS EROS Archive – Products Overview webpage at the following link (see heading “Declassified Data”): https://www.usgs.gov/centers/eros/science/usgs-eros-archive-products-overview?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects

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/

USGS Earthshots Table of Contents

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,….”

You can read the complete article on the ScienceNews website here: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/spy-satellites-reveal-early-start-antarctic-ice-shelf-collapse

Satellite images taken by the ARGON KH-5 satellite have revealed how the accelerated movement that triggered the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula began in the 1960s. The declassified images taken by the satellite on 29 August 1963 and 1 September 1963 are pictured right.  
Source: Daily Mail, 10 June 2016

Assessing Himalayan glacier condition:  

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.”

You can read the complete paper by J. M. Maurer, et al., on the Science Advances website here: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/6/eaav7266

3-D image of the Himalayas derived from HEXAGON KH-9 satellite mapping photographs taken on December 20, 1975. Source:  J. M. Maurer/LDEO

Discovering archaeological sites:

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.”

Screenshot of the CORONA Atlas showing regions in the Middle East
with data available.

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.”  

The can explore the CORONA Atlas & Referencing System here: https://corona.cast.uark.edu

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 Orbital Insight website is here: https://orbitalinsight.com/company/

5. Additional reading related to US optical reconnaissance satellites

You’ll find more information on the NRO’s film-return, optical reconnaissance satellites (KH-1 to KH-9) at the following links:

  • Robert Perry, “A History of Satellite Reconnaissance,” Volumes I to V, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), various dates 1973 – 1974; released under FOIA and available for download on the NASA Spaceflight.com website, here: https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=20232.0

You’ll find details on NRO’s electronic optical reconnaissance satellites (KH-11, KH-12) at the following links:

6. Additional reading related to civilian use of declassified spy satellite imagery

General:

Assessing Aral Sea depletion:

Assessing Antarctic ice sheet condition:

Assessing Himalayan glacier condition:

Discovering archaeological sites:

Ultima Thule – The First Visit to a Kuiper Belt Object at the Fringe of Our Solar System

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:

https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/solar-system/kuiper-belt/overview/

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, now commonly known as 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.

Source: NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Southwest Research Institute

On 1 January 2019, the New Horizons spacecraft made a close flyby of Ultima Thule, 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.

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI; sketch courtesy of James Tuttle Keane

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 Ultima Thule 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.

You’ll find more information on NASA’s New Horizons mission here:

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

2 January 2019 Update: NASA released a new photo taken on the inbound leg of the flyby, still 18,000 miles (28,000 km) from Ultima Thule

Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

NASA reported: “This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers)…”

24 January 2019 Update:  Latest photo shows Ultima Thule surface to be unusually smooth

Today, NASA released the following photo of Ultima Thule, 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.”

Source: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Near-Earth Object (NEO) Sky Surveys and Data Analysis are Refining our Understanding of the Risk of NEO Collisions with Earth

It seems that every week or two there is a news article about another small asteroid that soon will pass relatively close to the Earth. Most were detected while they were still approaching Earth. Some were first detected very shortly before or after their closest approach to Earth. That must have made the U.S. Planetary Defense Officer a bit nervous, but then, what could he do about it? (See my 21 January 2016 post, “Relax, the Planetary Defense Officer has the watch”).

While we currently can’t do anything to defend against NEOs, extensive worldwide programs are in place to identify and track NEOs and predict which NEOs may present a future hazard to the Earth. Here’s a brief overview of the following programs.

  • NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE)
  • International Astronomical Union’s (IAU’s) Minor Planet Center (MPC)
  • NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS)
  • National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) NEO sky survey
  • University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE)

WISE was an Earth orbiting infrared-wavelength astronomical space telescope with a 40 cm (16 in) diameter primary mirror. WISE operated from December 2009 to February 2011 and performed an “all-sky” astronomical imaging survey in the 3.4, 4.6, 12.0 and 22.0 μm wavelength bands. NASA’s home page for the WISE / NEOWISE mission is at the following link:

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/neowise/mission/index.html

NEOWISE is the continuing NASA project to mine the WISE data set. An important data mining tool is the WISE Moving Object Processing System (WMOPS), which has been optimized to enable extraction of moving objects at lower signal-to-noise levels. A comet detection is shown in the following multiple images that have been combined to show the comet in four different positions relative to the fixed background stars.

Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To date, the NEOWISE data mining effort has resulted in the following:

  • Detection of ~158,000 asteroids at thermal infrared wavelengths, including ~700 near-Earth objects (NEOs) and ~34,000 new asteroids, 135 of which are NEOs.
  • Detection of more than 155 comets, including 21 new discoveries.
  • Determination of preliminary physical properties such as diameter and visible albedo for nearly all of these objects.
  • Estimation of the numbers, sizes, and orbital elements of NEOs, including potentially hazardous asteroids
  • Results have been published, enabling a range of other studies of the origins and evolution of the small bodies in our solar system.

The output from NEOWISE is delivered to NASA’s Planetary Data System (PDS), which NASA describes as follows:

“The PDS archives and distributes scientific data from NASA planetary missions, astronomical observations, and laboratory measurements. The PDS is sponsored by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Its purpose is to ensure the long-term usability of NASA data and to stimulate advanced research. All PDS data are publicly available and may be exported outside of United States under ‘Technology and Software Publicly Available’ (TSPA) classification.”

The link to the NASA Planetary Data System is here:

https://pds.nasa.gov

International Astronomical Union’s (IAU’s) Minor Planet Center (MPC)

The MPC describes itself as the “single worldwide location for receipt and distribution of positional measurements of minor planets, comets and other irregular natural satellites of the major planets. The MPC is responsible for the identification, designation and orbit computation for all of these objects.”

The MPC home page is here:

http://www.minorplanetcenter.net/iau/mpc.html

On this website, MPC lists the following 2017 summary statistics:

Source: MPC

The MPC website offers several short videos that explain the NEO hazard and the challenges of detecting these small objects and determining their orbital parameters with high precision. Key points made in the MPC videos include:

  • The Earth’s cross-section represents only 1/10,000th of the area of the near-Earth region. Earth is a relatively small target area for a NEO.
  • To determine if a NEO is a potential hazard, its orbital parameters must be established with a precision of greater than 1/100th of 1%.
  • There is a “zone of discoverability” (green area in the following diagram) that varies primarily by the size of the object and the aspect of its lighted side to observers on Earth. If an object is outside this rather small zone, then current sky survey instruments cannot detect the object. An example is the 15 February 2013 atmospheric blast that occurred near Chelyabinsk, Russia. This event was caused by a previously undetected NEO that approached Earth at a high relative velocity from the direction of the Sun and vaporized in the Earth’s atmosphere.

            Zone of discoverability (green area). Source: screenshot from MPC video “Asteroid Hazards, Part 2: The Challenge of Detection”

 NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS)

CNEOS is NASA’s center for computing asteroid and comet orbits with high precision and estimating the probability of a future Earth impact. CNEOS is operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and supports NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.

The CNEOS home page is here:

http://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/about/cneos.html

CNEOS is the home of JPL’s Sentry and Scout programs:

  • The Sentryimpact monitoring system performs long-term analyses of possible future orbits of hazardous asteroids, searching for impact possibilities over the next century.
  • TheScout system monitors the IAU’s MPC database for new potential asteroid discoveries and computes the possible range of future motions even before these objects have been confirmed as discoveries.

The average distance between the Earth and the moon is about 238,855 miles (384,400 km), which equals 1 LD. On the CNEOS website, you can view data on NEO close approaches to Earth at the following link:

https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/neo_ca_intro.html

By adjusting the table settings and sorting by a specific column heading, you can create customized views of the close approach data. Just looking at data from the past year for NEOs that passed Earth within 1 LD yielded the following results:

  • 48 NEOs passed within 1 LD of Earth.
  • For these NEOs, object diameters were in the range from 1.8 to 83 meters (5.9 to 272 feet). The NEO that caused the 2013 Chelyabinsk blast was estimated to have a diameter of 10 to 20 meters (32.8 to 65.6 feet).
  • Their relative velocities were in the range from 4.02 to 23.97 km/s (8,992 to 53,620 mph). The NEO that caused the 2013 Chelyabinsk blast was estimated to have a relative velocity of 19.16 km/s (45,860 mph).
  • In the past year, the closest approach was by object 2017 GM, which had a “CA Distance Minimum” (3-signa estimate, measured from Earth center to NEO center) of 0.04 LD, or 15,376 km (9,554 miles). After subtracting Earth’s radius of 6,371 km (3,959 miles), object 2017 GM cleared the Earth’s surface by 9,005 km (5,595 miles).

Looking into the future, the CNEOS close approach data shows two objects that currently have values of “CA Distance Minimum” that are less than the radius of the Earth, indicating that impact is possible:

  • Object 2012 HG2: close approach date on 13 February 2047; modest size of 11 – 24 meters (36 – 79 feet); low relative velocity of 4.36 km/sec (9,753 mph)
  • Object 2010 RF12: close approach date of 6 September 2095; modest size of 6.4 – 14 meters (21 to 46 feet); modest relative velocity of 7.65 km/sec (17,112 mph)

So it looks like we have less than 30 years to refine the orbital data on object 2012 HG2, determine if it will impact Earth, and, if so, determine where the impact will occur and what mitigating actions can be taken. Hopefully, the U.S. Planetary Defense Officer is on top of this matter.

National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) NEO sky survey

On 30 August 2017, NOAO issued a press release summarizing the results of a survey of NEOs conducted using the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) on the 4 meter (157.5 inch) Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile.

“Lori Allen, Director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the lead investigator on the study, explained, ‘There are around 3.5 million NEOs larger than 10 meters, a population ten times smaller than inferred in previous studies. About 90% of these NEOs are in the Chelyabinsk size range of 10-20 meters.’”

“David Trilling, the first author of the study,…explained…..‘If house-sized NEOs are responsible for Chelyabinsk-like events, our results seem to say that the average impact probability of a house-sized NEO is actually ten times greater than the average impact probability of a large NEO.’”

You can read the NOAO press release here:

https://www.noao.edu/news/2017/pr1704.php

You can read the draft paper, “The size distribution of Near Earth Objects larger than 10 meters,” (to be published in Astronomical Journal) here.

https://arxiv.org/pdf/1707.04066.pdf

University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

In October 2017, astronomer Vishnu Reddy presented data on an intriguing NEO known as 2016 HO3, that is a “quasi-satellite” of Earth. The announcement is here:

https://lbtonews.blogspot.com/2017/10/earths-new-traveling-buddy-is.html

As a “quasi-satellite,” 2016 HO3 is not gravitationally bound to Earth, but its solar orbit keeps 2016 HO3 in relatively close proximity to Earth, but in a slightly different orbital plane. As both bodies orbit the Sun, the motion of 2016 HO3 relative to the Earth gives the appearance that 2016 HO3 is in a distant halo orbit around Earth. The approximate geometry of this three body system is shown in the following diagram, with 2016 HO3’s solar orbit represented in red and the halo orbit as seen from Earth represented in yellow.

Source: www.EarthSky.org

You’ll find a video showing the dynamics of 2016 HO3’s halo orbit on the EarthSky website at the following link:

http://earthsky.org/space/near-earth-quasi-satellite-2016-ho3-confirmation?mc_cid=4d2056208e&mc_eid=19a1fde155

Observations of 2016 HO3 were made from the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory (LBTO), which is located on Mt. Graham in Arizona. You’ll find details on LBTO at the following link:

http://www.lbto.org/overview.html

Key parameters for 2016 HO3 are: diameter: 100 meters (330 feet); distance from Earth: 38 to 100 LD; composition appears to be the same material as other asteroid NEOs. With its stable halo orbit, there is no risk that 2016 HO3 will collide with Earth.

For additional reading on NEO discovery:

Myhrvold, “Comparing NEO Search Telescopes,” Astronomical Society of the Pacific, April 2016

Abstract:

“I use simple physical principles to estimate basic performance metrics for the ground-based Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and three space-based instruments— Sentinel, NEOCam, and a Cubesat constellation.”

http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1538-3873/128/962/045004/pdf

S.R. Chesley & P. Vereš, “Projected Near-Earth Object Discovery Performance of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope,” JPL Publication 16-11, CNEOS, April 2017

Abstract:

“LSST is designed for rapid, wide-field, faint surveying of the night sky ….The baseline LSST survey approach is designed to make two visits to a given field in a given night, leading to two possible NEO detections per night. These nightly pairs must be linked across nights to derive orbits of moving objects…… Our simulations revealed that in 10 years LSST would catalog 60% of NEOs with absolute magnitude H < 22, which is a proxy for 140 m and larger objects.”

https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/doc/JPL_Pub_16-11_LSST_NEO.pdf

 

56 Years Ago: Yuri Gagarin Became the First Person in Space

On 12 April 1961, the Soviet Union launched the Vostok 1 (“East” 1) spacecraft and astronaut Major Yuri Gagarin from a launch site in Kazakhstan on the first ever manned space mission. Gagarin became the first person to fly above the Karman line that marks the beginning of space, at 62 miles (330,000 feet, 100 km) above the Earth. He also became the first person to achieve Earth orbit.

Yuri Gagarin. Source: Daily Mail

Basic orbital parameters for Vostok 1 were: apogee: 203 miles (327 km), perigee: 117 miles (189 km), and orbital period: 89.1 minutes. Gagarin completed one orbit. After re-entry, Gagarin ejected from the Vostok capsule at an altitude of about 4.3 miles (7 km) and parachuted to the ground. The capsule descended under its own parachute and was recovered near Engels, Russia. Gagarin’s total flight time was 1 hour, 48 minutes.

The path of Gagarin’s historic flight, including important flight milestones, is shown on the following map:

Source: http://space.stackexchange.com/

The configuration of the Vostok spacecraft is shown in the following diagram. The reentry vehicle is the spherical capsule, which on the left is shown attached to the instrument module.

Vostok 1 configuration.  Source: Pinterest

The complete spacecraft had a mass of 4.73 tons (4,300 kg) and measured 14.4 feet (4.4 meters) in length and 8 feet (2.43 meters) in diameter. The placement of the spacecraft inside the nose shroud of the launch vehicle is shown in the following diagram.

Source: http://www.rocketryforum.com/showthread.php?49802-Dr-Zooch-Vostok-build-thread

Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok I capsule is on display at the RKK Energiya museum, which is on the grounds of the RKK Energiya factory in Korolyov, near Moscow. Gagarin died in a jet training flight on 27 March 1968.

Vostok 1 capsule. Source: SiefkinDR – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12403404

The Soviet’s Vostok launch vehicle was unveiled to the public at the June 1967 Paris Air Show. This was a big launch vehicle for the time, with a length of 126 feet (38.4 m) and a diameter of about 35 feet (10.7 m).

Soviet Vostok launcher mockup at 1976 Paris Air Show. Source: http://www.theaviationhistorian.com

The Vostok launcher, designed by Sergei Korolov, was based on the Soviet R-7 (Semyorka) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Earlier versions of the R-7 were used to put the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, in Earth orbit on 4 October 1957 and to launch the early Luna spacecraft that, in 1959, achieved the milestones of first spacecraft to escape Earth’s gravity and enter a solar orbit (Luna 1) and first spacecraft to impact the Moon (Luna 2).

About one month after Gagarin’s milestone orbital flight, U.S. Project Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard was launched on 5 May 1961 by a Mercury-Redstone booster on a 15-minute suborbital flight. In the Freedom 7 capsule, Shepard reached a maximum altitude of 116.5 miles (187.5 km) and was recovered about 302 miles (487 km) downrange from Cape Canaveral after landing in the Atlantic Ocean. The Freedom 7 capsule is on display in the museum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library on Columbia Point in Boston, on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Alan Shepard died on 21 July 1998.

On 20 February 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to reach Earth orbit. The Mercury-Atlas booster placed the Friendship 7 capsule and Glenn into a low Earth orbit with the following basic parameters: apogee: 154 miles (248 km), perigee: 87 miles (140 km), and orbital period: 88.5 minutes. Glenn completed three orbits in a flight lasting 4 hours and 55 minutes, with recovery in the Atlantic Ocean. The Friendship 7 capsule is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. John Glenn died on 8 December 2016.

A comparison of the Mercury and Vostok reentry capsules is shown in the following scale diagram.

Source: http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/space/lectures/lec08.html

So here we are, 56 years later and some things haven’t changed. Just as in 1961, the U.S. has no means of its own to send astronauts into Earth orbit. The first orbital test of an unmanned SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft, launched by a SpaceX Falcon booster, is scheduled for November 2017, with the first crewed mission occurring in 2018. When it occurs, this manned Dragon 2 mission will be the first U.S. manned spacecraft to reach orbit since the last Space Shuttle flight in 2011. Dragon 2 will provide regular service to replace International Space Station (ISS) crews and to perform other orbital missions requiring a crew. In the meantime, the U.S. depends on Russia and their Soyuz spacecraft to deliver and return crews from the ISS. Soyuz is a larger, more modern version of the basic Vostok spacecraft and spherical reentry capsule. You can find out more about the Soyuz spacecraft currently serving the ISS on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) website at the following link:

https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/what-is-the-soyuz-spacecraft-k-4

NASA’s manned space program will take even longer to resume manned spaceflight missions. The first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) with the new Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle currently is expected to occur in 2018. As currently planned, the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) will be an unmanned mission. NASA is considering making EM-1 a manned mission and launching in 2019.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Vision for Manned Exploration and Colonization of Mars is Alive Again

On 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy made an important speech to a joint session of Congress in which he stated:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

This was a very bold statement considering the state-of-the-art of U.S. aerospace technology in mid-1961. Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth on 12 April 1961 in a Soviet Vostok spacecraft and Alan Shepard completed the first Project Mercury suborbital flight on 5 May 1961. No American had yet flown in orbit. It wasn’t until 20 February 1962 that the first Project Mercury capsule flew into Earth orbit with astronaut John Glenn. The Soviets had hit the Moon with Luna 2 and returned photos from the backside of the moon with Luna 3. The U.S had only made one distant lunar flyby with the tiny Pioneer 4 spacecraft. The Apollo manned lunar program was underway, but still in the concept definition phase. The first U.S. heavy booster rocket designed to support the Apollo program, the Saturn 1, didn’t fly until 27 October 1961.

President Kennedy concluded this part of his 25 May 1961 speech with the following admonition:

“This decision (to proceed with the manned lunar program) demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline, which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further–unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”

This was the spirit that lead to the great success of the Apollo program, which landed the first men on the Moon, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Ed Aldrin, on 20 July 1969; a little more than 8 years after President Kennedy’s speech.

NASA’s plans for manned Mars exploration

By 1964, exciting concepts for manned Mars exploration vehicles were being developed under National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contract by several firms. One example is a Mars lander design shown below from Aeronutronic (then a division of Philco Corp). A Mars Excursion Module (MEM) would descend to the surface of Mars from a larger Mars Mission Module (MMM) that remained in orbit. The MEM was designed for landing a crew of three on Mars, spending 40 days on the Martian surface, and then returning the crew back to Mars orbit and rendezvousing with the MMM for the journey back to Earth.

1963 Aeronutronic Mars lander conceptSource: NASA / Aviation Week 24Feb64

This and other concepts developed in the 1960s are described in detail in Chapters 3 – 5 of NASA’s Monograph in Aerospace History #21, “Humans to Mars – Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950 – 2000,” which you can download at the following link:

http://www.nss.org/settlement/mars/2001-HumansToMars-FiftyYearsOfMissionPlanning.pdf

In the 1960’s the U.S. nuclear thermal rocket development program led to the development of the very promising NERVA nuclear engine for use in an upper stage or an interplanetary spacecraft. NASA and the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office (SNPO) felt that tests had “confirmed that a nuclear rocket engine was suitable for space flight application.”

In 1969, Marshall Space Flight Director Wernher von Braun propose sending 12 men to Mars aboard two rockets, each propelled by three NERVA engines. This spacecraft would have measured 270 feet long and 100 feet wide across the three nuclear engine modules, with a mass of 800 tons, including 600 tons of liquid hydrogen propellant for the NERVA engines. The two outboard nuclear engine modules only would be used to inject the spacecraft onto its trans-Mars trajectory, after which they would separate from the spacecraft. The central nuclear engine module would continue with the manned spacecraft and be used to enter and leave Mars orbit and enter Earth orbit at the end of the mission. The mission would launch in November 1981 and land on Mars in August 1982.

Marshall 1969 NERVA mars missionNERVA-powered Mars spacecraft. Source: NASA / Monograph #21

NASA’s momentum for conducting a manned Mars mission by the 1980s was short-lived. Development of the super heavy lift Nova booster, which was intended to place about 250 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), was never funded. Congress reduced NASA’s funding in the FY-69 budget, resulting in NASA ending production of the Saturn 5 heavy-lift booster rocket (about 100 tons to LEO) and cancelling Apollo missions after Apollo 17. This left NASA without the heavy-lift booster rocket needed to carry NERVA and/or assembled interplanetary spacecraft into orbit.

NASA persevered with chemical rocket powered Mars mission concepts until 1971. The final NASA concept vehicle from that era, looking much like von Braun’s 1969 nuclear-powered spacecraft, is shown below.

NASA 1971 mars concept

Source: NASA / Monograph #21

The 24-foot diameter modules would have required six Shuttle-derived launch vehicles (essentially the large center tank and the strap-in solid boosters, without the Space Shuttle itself) to deliver the various modules for assembly in orbit.

While no longer a factor in Mars mission planning, the nuclear rocket program was canceled in 1972. You can read a history of the U.S. nuclear thermal rocket program at the following links:

http://www.lanl.gov/science/NSS/issue1_2011/story4full.shtml

and,

http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19910017902.pdf

NASA budget realities in subsequent years, dictated largely by the cost of Space Shuttle and International Space Station development and operation, reduced NASA’s manned Mars efforts to a series of design studies, as described in the Monograph #21.

Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) conducted manned Mars mission studies for NASA in 1984 and 1987. The latter mission design study was conducted in collaboration with astronaut Sally Ride’s August 1987 report, Leadership and America’s Future in Space. You can read this report at the following link.

http://history.nasa.gov/riderep/cover.htm

Details on the 1987 SAIC mission study are included in Chapter 8 of the Monograph #21. SAIC’s mission concept employed two chemically-fueled Mars spacecraft in “split/sprint” roles. An automated cargo-carrying spacecraft would be first to depart Earth. It would fly an energy-saving trajectory and enter Mars orbit carrying the fuel needed by the future manned spacecraft for its return to Earth. After the cargo spacecraft was in Mars orbit, the manned spacecraft would be launched on a faster “sprint” trajectory, taking about six months to get to Mars. With one month allocated for exploration of the Martian surface, total mission time would be on the order of 12 – 14 months.

President Obama’s FY-11 budget redirected NASA’s focus away from manned missions to the Moon and Mars. The result is that there are no current programs with near-term goals to establish a continuous U.S. presence on the Moon or conduct the first manned mission to Mars. Instead, NASA is engaged in developing hardware that will be used initially for a relatively near-Earth (but further out than astronauts have gone before) “asteroid re-direct mission.” NASA’s current vision for getting to Mars is summarized below.

  • In the 2020s, NASA will send astronauts on a year-long mission into (relatively near-Earth) deep space, verifying spacecraft habitation and testing our readiness for a Mars mission.
  • In the 2030s, NASA will send astronauts first to low-Mars orbit. This phase will test the entry, descent and landing techniques needed to get to the Martian surface and study what’s needed for in-situ resource utilization.
  • Eventually, NASA will land humans on Mars.

You can read NASA’s Journey to Mars Overview at the following link:

https://www.nasa.gov/content/journey-to-mars-overview

NASA’s current plans for getting to Mars don’t really sound like much of a plan to me. Think back to President Kennedy’s speech that outlined the national commitment needed to accomplish a lunar landing within the decade of the 1960s. There is no real sense of timeliness in NASA plans for getting to Mars.

Thinking back to the title of NASA’s Monograph #21, “Humans to Mars – Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950 – 2000,” I’d say that NASA is quite good at manned Mars mission planning, but woefully short on execution. I recognize that NASA’s ability to execute anything is driven by its budget. However, in 1969, Wernher von Braun thought the U.S. was about 12 years from being able to launch a nuclear-powered manned Mars mission in 1981. Now it seems we’re almost 20 years away, with no real concept for the spacecraft that will get our astronauts there and back.

Commercial plans for manned Mars exploration

Fortunately, the U.S. commercial aerospace sector seems more committed to conducting manned Mars missions than NASA. The leading U.S. contenders are Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX. Let’s look at their plans.

Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow is developing expandable structures that can be used to house various types of occupied spaces on manned Earth orbital platforms or on spacecraft destined for lunar orbital missions or long interplanetary missions. Versions of these expandable structures also can be used for habitats on the surface of the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere.

The first operational use of this type of expandable structure in space occurred on 26 May 2016, when the BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) was deployed to its full size on the International Space Station (ISS). BEAM was expanded by air pressure from the ISS.

Bigelow BEAMBEAM installed in the ISS. Source: Bigelow Aerospace

You can view a NASA time-lapse video of BEAM deployment at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxzCCrj5ssE

A large, complex space vehicle can be built with a combination of relatively conventional structures and Bigelow inflatable modules, as shown in the following concept drawing.

Bigelow spacecraft conceptSource: Bigelow Aerospace

A 2011 NASA concept named Nautilus-X, also making extensive use of inflatable structures, is shown in the following concept drawing. Nautilus is an acronym for Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States Exploration.

NASA Nautilus-X-space-exploration-vehicle-concept-1

Source: NASA / NASA Technology Applications Assessment Team

SpaceX

SpaceX announced that it plans to send its first Red Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018 to demonstrate the ability to land heavy loads using a combination of aero braking with the capsule’s ablative heat shield and propulsive braking using rocket engines for the final phase of landing.

Red Dragon landing on MarsSource: SpaceX

More details on the Red Dragon spacecraft are in a 2012 paper by Karcs, J. et al., entitled, “Red Dragon: Low-cost Access to the Surface of Mars Using Commercial Capabilities,” which you’ll find at the following link:

https://www.nas.nasa.gov/assets/pdf/staff/Aftosmis_M_RED_DRAGON_Low-Cost_Access_to_the_Surface_of_Mars_Using_Commercial_Capabilities.pdf

NASA is collaborating with SpaceX to gain experience with this landing technique, which NASA expects to employ in its own future Mars missions.

On 27 September 2016, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled his grand vision for colonizing Mars at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. You’ll find an excellent summary in the 29 September 2016 article by Dave Mosher entitled, “Elon Musk’s complete, sweeping vision on colonizing Mars to save humanity,” which you can read on the Business Insider website at the following link:

http://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-mars-speech-transcript-2016-9

The system architecture for the SpaceX colonizing flights is shown in the following diagram. Significant features include:

  • 100 passengers on a one-way trip to Mars
  • Booster and spacecraft are reusable
  • No spacecraft assembly in orbit required.
  • The manned interplanetary vehicle is fueled with methane in Earth orbit from a tanker spacecraft.
  • The entire manned interplanetary vehicle lands on Mars. There is no part of the vehicle left orbiting Mars.
  • The 100 passengers disembark to colonize Mars
  • Methane fuel for the return voyage to Earth is manufactured on the surface of Mars.
  • The spacecraft returns to Earth for reuse on another mission.
  • Price per person for Mars colonists could be in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

The Mars launcher for this mission would have a gross lift-off mass of 10,500 tons; 3.5 times the mass of NASA’s Saturn 5 booster for the Apollo Moon landing program.

SpaceX colonist architectureSource: SpaceX

 Terraforming Mars

Colonizing Mars will require terraforming to transform the planet so it can sustain human life. Terraforming the hostile environment of another planet has never been done before. While there are theories about how to accomplish Martian terraforming, there currently is no clear roadmap. However, there is a new board game named, “Terraforming Mars,” that will test your skills at using limited resources wisely to terraform Mars.

Nate Anderson provides a detailed introduction to this board game in his 1 October 2016 article entitled, “Terraforming Mars review: Turn the ‘Red Planet’ green with this amazing board game,” which you can read at the following link:

http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/10/terraforming-mars-review/?utm_source=howtogeek&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter

71RW5ZM0bBL._SL1000_Source: Stronghold GamesTerraforming Mars gameboardSource: Nate Anderson / arsTECHNICA

Nate Anderson described the game as follows:

“In Terraforming Mars, you play one of several competing corporations seeking to terraform the Red Planet into a livable—indeed, hospitable—place filled with cows, dogs, fish, lichen, bacteria, grasslands, atmosphere, and oceans. That goal is achieved when three things happen: atmospheric oxygen rises to 14 percent, planetary temperature rises to 8°C, and all nine of the game’s ocean tiles are placed.

Real science rests behind each of these numbers. The ocean tiles each represent one percent coverage of the Martian surface; once nine percent of the planet is covered with water, Mars should develop its own sustainable hydrologic cycle. An atmosphere of 14 percent oxygen is breathable by humans (though it feels like a 3,000 m elevation on Earth). And at 8°C, water will remain liquid in the Martian equatorial zone.

Once all three milestones have been achieved, Mars has been successfully terraformed, the game ends, and scores are calculated.”

The players are competing corporations, each with limited resources. The game play evolves based how each player (corporation) chooses to spend their resources to build their terraforming engines (constrained by some rules of precedence), and the opportunities dealt to them in each round.

You can buy the game Terraforming Mars on Amazon.

So, before you sign up with SpaceX to become a Martian colonist, practice your skills at terraforming Mars. You’ll be in high demand as an expert terraformer when you get to Mars on a SpaceX colonist ship in the late 2020s.