Two SpaceX Launches Incoming!

Falcon 9 Upcoming Launches
(Image Credit: SpaceX)

After a handful of weeks without a launch, SpaceX comes roaring back (as they are wont to do!) with a pair of launches in quick succession, from opposite sides of our fair country. The first of the series is slated for Thursday, November 15th at 3:46pm from the historic pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The payload of this first launch is Qatar’s Es’hail 2 satellite, which is designed to improve television service across the Middle East as well as supply amateur radio capabilities for Brazil and India. The block 5 booster B1047 which is powering this launch is slated for landing on the Autonomous Drone Ship Of Course I Still Love You, which is in the Atlantic poised and ready for action.

Not to be outdone by themselves, SpaceX has another launch scheduled on November 19th from Vandenberg at their new SLC-4E pad. This launch, dubbed the SSO-A mission, will be remarkable, as it will be the first time in history that a rocket has been reused three times! The booster B1046 will carry what is being called a ‘rideshare mission’ into orbit, deploying more than 50 satellites from at least 17 countries. Included in the pile of technology are two SkySat high-resolution Earth Imaging devices, a middle school science project, the German Eu:CROPIS satellite designed to investigate crop growth in alternate gravity situations, ITASAT-1 from Brazilian Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica and plenty more! While SpaceX was recently certified to re-land rockets at Vandenberg, a range conflict this time around means that they will likely rely on Just Read the Instructions, which is being made ready to depart port and get into position for another flawless booster recovery at sea.

Check out the exhaustive and impressive list of rideshare equipment over at NASA Spaceflight.com! And enjoy these upcoming two launches!

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NASA Mars InSight Lander Almost There

Insight Landing
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It’s sometimes difficult to wrap the mind around what it would really be like to leave the Earth and voyage to Mars. Well, back on May 5th the Gazette reported on the launch of the NASA Mars InSight Lander, and now that lander is several weeks away from landing on the red planet! The landing is projected to be on November 26th, with touchdown taking place at 11:47am Pacific Time, so set your watches.

The lander will utilize a supersonic parachute once it enters the martian atmosphere, and according NASA Chief Engineer Rob Manning, will decelerate from 12,300mph to 5mph at which point retro rockets will bring it to a soft landing on Elysium Planitia.

Remember that the intended mission of this lander is to study the interior of Mars, including gaining insight into Marsquakes. Through this research, additional knowledge about planetary formation and interiors will be gained, allowing us to better understand our very own homeworld.

For all of the additional information you can possibly want on the landing, be sure to check out the official Press Kit.

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Farming Mars

Farming Mars
(Image Credit: NASA)
The culmination of excitement and tech know-how has finally appeared to produce the perfect storm to get us on our way to Mars in the next decade or so. This is great news, and brings with it so many exciting challenges. You thought getting Tang from the original NASA space program was a boon? Just imagine the technologies and techniques we will have to invent and refine in order for the first hearty souls to live off-world.

As such, research is being done on how we can produce food to keep those early settlers alive and fed. Hydroponics is of course a strong area of study, as well as how to coax food from the martian surface. Turns out that poisonous regolith is not the most advantageous or friendly material in which to try to grow potatoes. However, as humans often do, we are finding ways to make it work, or at least some possibilities. At the Florida Institute of Technology as well as Villanova (both excellent links – follow those), students are running experiments with core crops including lettuce, peas, peppers and hops (Mars Bars!) in a variety of soil types simulating martian conditions.

While it is widely accepted that some sort of treatment will need to be done to the martian soil before it is able to produce crops, or frankly not kill us outright, the methods to speed up that remediation and align the hostile environment with human-supporting conditions as quickly as possible seem to get a little better every day.

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SpaceX SAOCOM-1A Launch – October 6th 10:22pm EST

SpaceX SAOCOM-1A
(Image Credit: CONAE)

The SpaceX launch schedule has been a real thing of mystery this year, setting re-usability and turn-around records earlier this summer, and having a bit of a dry spell lately. Well never fear, because you can be sure that Shotwell and the whole crew at everyone’s favorite commercial launch megagiant is busy planning and prepping for the rest of the domination of that 60 year old industry, in short order!

Coming up next we have the launch of the relatively light weight SAOCOM-1A (about 1600 kg) from the West coast at Vandenberg. The device name is an acronym of Satélite Argentino de Observación Con Microondas, and is managed by the Argentine Space Agency CONAE. The device has a L-band (about 1.275 GHz) full polarimetric Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and it’s main mission, in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency, is to assist with emergency management of natural disasters.

There’s usually something cool or special about a SpaceX launch, and this time around it is the planned RTLS (Return To Launch Site) landing of the booster at the newly completed California Landing Zone, a pad only 1400 feet from the SLC-4 launch area. This will be a reused Block 5 booster, which we hope goes 2-for-2 with hardly a second thought. Onward to double digits!

So get excited for an on-shore landing – next time the drone ship Just Read the Instructions may get some more use!

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Opportunity Rover – Come On Back – Over

Opportunity Rover
(Image Credit: NASA)

It’s such a wonderful thing when electronics intended to last for months end up lasting years. One of my personal favorite examples of this is arcade equipment from the 1980s, which was cycled into and out of arcades extremely rapidly owing to their massive popularity at the time. These machines were not really “built to last”, but since it was the 1980s, they were built. As a result, we can still experience the joy of an original arcade or pinball machine, which requires surprisingly little TLC to get it back to prime.

Fast forward to 2003, when the Mars Exploration Rover – Opportunity was launched, and subsequently landed on Mars in 2004. This was a mission intended to last for 90 days, and by all accounts the rover was designed for that time scale as well. However, 14.5 years into the mission it has surpassed all expectations and certainly paid for itself many times over with the science it has enabled. Sadly, the massive Martian dust storm of the last month may have finally brought that mission to an end, by covering the solar panels on the rover and effectively putting it to sleep. NASA and outposts around the world are anxiously listening for any slight signal from the rover, but as days drag on this seems less and less likely.

Steven Squyres (Ph.D Cornell 1981) who has been the principal investigator of the Mars missions for all this time, explains the situation in clear terms in a new article fittingly published in Cornell’s campus paper The Daily Sun. What is most likely to kill the rover will be the bitter cold it will be subjected to without power to stay warm. The -80 degree Celsius nights on Mars will subject the stalwart rover to component expansion and contraction – stresses which will be increasingly difficult to endure.

Overall, everyone is more than satisfied with the mission outcome, it’s just that after a piece of science equipment is nearly old enough to get a drivers license, you get a little attached.

So – we wish the rover the best. And we also look forward to a time when it has a place of honor in the first Natural Science museum to be built on the red planet.

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NASA ADEPT Folding Heat Shield for Mars

NASA ADEPT Folding Heat Shield for Mars
(Image Credit: NASA)

The good folks at NASA have conducted the first flight test of a new foldable heat shield on September 12th, with great success. This new concept is touted as a transformative technology that will enable larger and lighter ships to perform more advanced missions, not the least of which will be both cargo and crew missions to Mars with an enhanced ability to survive the rigors of reentry using a vastly slimmed down system. Any time you can save weight on a spacecraft, that savings can be redistributed to more critical areas, namely additional cargo and scientific apparatus (and pizza ovens).

Called the Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT), a backronym worthy of Gary Busey, it consists of a 3D-woven carbon fibers arranged in a thick layer, formed on top of a structure which can flex and deploy the shield. This is in contrast to the traditional rigid, heavy, difficult to construct plastic shielding which has been used for decades. It’s this sort of novel and creative thinking which will allow us to accomplish more important and ambitious flight objectives, and is another great sign that key decision makers are aligned correctly to move us forward.

You can check out a video of the heat shield here!

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SpaceX – Telstar 18 VANTAGE Mission – Launching 9/10/2018 12:30AM EST

Telstar 18 VANTAGE Mission Patch
(Image Credit: SpaceX)

A quick reminder, to anyone still looking tonight, that the next SpaceX launch is still on for 12:30AM EST, after a few time shifts backwards.

This is the Telstar 18 VANTAGE mission, which you can learn more about via the official press release from SpaceX.

Be sure to tune in to the always-entertaining SpaceX webcast at least 10 minutes before the scheduled launch, for updates and commentary directly from their team!

NASA CO2 Conversion Challenge

NASA CO2 Conversion Challenge
(Image Credit: NASA)

The good folks at NASA, ever managing to be on the leading edge, have just launched a competition encouraging teams to develop a system to convert carbon dioxide into glucose. Why is this important? Well, sugar-based biomaterials are plentiful on this planet thanks to our helpful plant life. That will not be the case as we set out among the stars! Developing bioengineering methods to create base materials that will be in short supply (such as easy to metabolize sugars like glucose) from materials that are in great abundance (carbon dioxide) will be a crucial step towards facilitating our successful advancement.

This competition is broken into two phases:

  • Phase 1: Teams submit a design and description of a method to perform the stipulated conversion. Up to 5 teams will be awared $50,000 each, as will be announced in April 2019.
  • Phase 2: Actually building a working system to perform the conversion. The successful team will walk away with $750,000.

This new contest is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, which was initiated in 2005, intended to directly engage the public in advanced technology development. Basically, NASA is being very observant and starting to crowd-source ideas and research, which makes a great deal of sense in our current world.

To register for the competition, check out the official website!

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Mars Dust Storm Finally Slowing

Mars Surface - Rover Tracks
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/Arizona State Univ.)

A planet-wide dust storm, which was first seen on May 30, 2018, is finally winding down on the windy red planet. NASA’s rover Opportunity, which is solar powered, has suffered a shutdown as a result of this storm – going into what amounts to hibernation to ride out the storm. However, that dormant period has been longer and more intense than originally designed to handle, so everyone is on edge waiting to see if we can get the rover back on line.

Signals are being sent to the 15 year old rover, which is tucked away in Perseverance Valley, in the hope that once the batteries are recharged even a little, the unit will initiate recovery procedures.

We’ll keep you posted on the status of this fan-favorite rover; and hopefully some readers of this site will one day visit it in a science museum with 38% the surface gravity of Earth.

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SpaceX to launch Telstar 18 VANTAGE September 9th

Telstar 18 VANTAGE
(Image Credit: Telesat)

Initially scheduled for a late-August launch, the Telstar 18 mission has been pushed back to No Earlier Than (NET) September 9th. This is a follow-up mission to the July 22nd launch of the higher-numbered Telstar 19, allowing Telesat to further expand their coverage of the Asia Pacific region.

Gunter tells us that the Telstar 18V is a communications satellite with two high throughput payloads, one in Ku-band and the other in C-band. It will be based on the SSL-1300 bus with an electrical output of approximately 14 kW. Perhaps my favorite spec is that it will have 4 × SPT-100 plasma thrusters.

As for launch details, it is anticipated that the launch will utilize the new Block 5 B1049 first stage booster, which will take off from pad LC-40 at Cape Canaveral and then land on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship “Of Course I Still Love You” at a position approximately 650 km to the East.

As we get closer to this new launch time, we will continue to bring you updates and most importantly a link and a reminder of how to watch live!

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