SpaceX Falcon Heavy Milestone Launch 6/24/2019

Falcon Heavy Launch 6/24/2019
(Image Credit: SpaceX )

Set your kronoforms folks, because the next SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch is on the books for Monday, the 24th of June at 11:30pm Eastern. As always, there is no such thing as a ‘regular’ launch that doesn’t also have a lot of side-stories and goals to accomplish. Even though SpaceX has started to make this all look easy, they are accomplishing so much with every single launch it’s important to keep that in mind always!

This time around, they will be lofting 24 small government and academic satellites into orbit during what is codenamed the STP-2 mission, for the US Air Force. The launch, however, is more about certifying the use of previously-flown boosters for USAF missions which is a big deal. Those brand new to the spaceflight field may already take booster reuse as a given, but the idea that we are now far enough along with that technology that it is getting certified by the biggest of big government shows how important and recognized it has become. In many ways, this will further solidify that any launch system which is not reusable is simply not to be considered viable in the near future.

The upper stage, which houses and deploys the satellites, will itself be performing a grueling set of maneuvers requiring “four separate upper-stage engine burns, three separate deployment orbits, a final propulsive passivation maneuver, and a total mission duration of over six hours.” (teslarati). This will serve to further validate the capabilities of the launch system in the eyes of the USAF.

Because SpaceX is never content to just accomplish one extraordinary goal with their launch, they have also just announced that the center core booster will now be landing on Of Course I Still Love You at a distance of over 1240km out in the Atlantic ocean, instead of a modest 40km from shore which is more typical. OCISLY is being towed out there even now by tugboat Hollywood (Current Position Report), given the extreme distance. This will be an extremely risky and challenging recovery, and this distance breaks the previous SpaceX record for drone ship landing by over 30%.

This is such an important mission for SpaceX, they have a whole website all about it! Be sure to go there for more incredible info on the launch, the various items in the payload, and the hardware we all love. Of course watch the webcast if you can. A Falcon Heavy launch should be appreciated as the incredible breakthrough it is, every time.

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Mars Rover Confirms Clay Samples

Mars Curiosity Rover Selfie May 12, 2019
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The Curiosity Mars Rover, run by NASA, has been having great success with its primary mission objectives of late. The little rover has been exploring Gale Crater, around the base of a minor Mars mountain, named Mount Sharp, a site which appears to have been an ancient Martian lake. The discovery of high concentrations of clay minerals in two new drill samples taken in the region appear to confirm those suspicions, and lend further strength to the image of Mars once having been a watery planet, capable of harboring forms of life we might recognize.

The rover took a pretty excellent ‘selfie’ on May 12, 2019, in which the two recent drill sites are included so as to give a notion of place to all of this abstracted science that is taking place up there. While this pretty much confirms that Gale Crater once contained a ‘significant’ amount of water, and that the rocks in the nearby area likely formed through a familiar process of sedimentation in those ancient lakes, it still doesn’t get us closer to actual proof of any life forms. The search continues!

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Insight Lander Detects Potential Marsquake

Marsquake
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CNES/IPGP/Imperial College London)

The NASA Insights Lander, a new resident of Mars, has as one of it’s primary missions the monitoring of potential seismic events which can provide additional detail about the Martian interior. Insight’s seismometer was placed on the planet’s surface on December 19th, 2018, since which time it has registered three other signals, on March 14 (Sol 105), April 10 (Sol 132) and April 11 (Sol 133). The exciting event took place on Sol 128, and was the largest of all signals so far detected, making it likely to be connected to a real Marsquake.

While the idea of earthquakes is all too familiar to residents of Earth, those are caused by faults created through the movement of tectonic plates. On Mars, which does not have tectonic plates, the quakes are thought to be caused by an ongoing cooling and contraction process which results in stress and similar quake phenomenon. Learning more about that process will help us to better understand our neighbor planet. And, I like to speculate, the more we learn about the interior of Mars, the better chance we may have of restarting the core some day, and re-inducing a magnetic field to contribute to terraforming efforts. But that’s a little way down the road!

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Partial Solar Eclipses on Mars

Partial Solar Eclipse from Mars
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

What do you get when you have two little moons, and the sun is in just the right spot? Why, a pair of partial solar eclipses of course! The Curiosity rover on Mars has done a fantastic job of capturing the path of each of the moons of Mars, Phobos (March 26) and Deimos (March 17), passing in front of the sun. The mighty little rover used it’s “Mastcam” and a solar filter to be able to stare directly at the sun and record the fantastic footage.

This observation is important for several reasons. From a scientific point of view, the precise orbit of the moons of Mars had been a little tricky for astronomers to work out prior to having so much hardware over at the red planet. Observations such as this continue to shore up our understanding of the behavior of these bodies.

But what is of more immediate importance is the societal impact that observations such as this can have on the growing understanding and awareness of Mars among the general population. The ability to tie regular events that we experience here on Earth to those same events that are being experienced on another planet helps to make that distant place feel more familiar, and hopefully one day, like home.

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Copters on Mars

Mars Copter
(Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

NASA is hard at work on their new Mars 2020 rover, which is intended to make planet-fall in early 2021. Bundled with this rover is an extra added bonus, of a small exploration-ready helicopter! The Mars Helicopter Scout (MHS) will mark the first time a human craft has flown on another planet. The potential for exploration is hard to overstate – while the rover programs have been tremendously successful, they are hampered by careful and deliberate navigation of difficult terrain, one inch at a time. An airborne solution suddenly releases scientists from that 2-dimensional constraint, and will open new avenues of research and discovery.

Of course – it also presents technical and AI-related challenges, because the copter must be able to maneuver autonomously in large part, due to the communication delay with the red planet.

What, you may ask, of the atmosphere? Well, that’s a great point! Mars has an atmosphere which is only 1% as dense as that of Earth, but it turns out that is still sufficient for the proposed little copter to take flight. It simply requires blades which are larger, more rigid, and which rotate quite a bit faster than an Earthly counterpart. For more excellent detail, see NASA’s 10 things article all about the copter!

As a summary of the engineering required for the craft, the body of which will be about the size of a softball:
* The Mars Helicopter’s rotors measure 4 feet wide (about 1.2 meters) long, tip to tip.
* At 2,800 rotations per minute, it will spin about 10 times faster than an Earth helicopter.
* The blades are much stiffer than any terrestrial helicopter’s would need to be.
* The helicopter will weigh just under 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms).

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SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-1 Mission! Saturday March 2, 2:49am Eastern

Ripley, aboard the Dragon
(Image Credit: Elon Musk)

The time has finally come for SpaceX to fly their crew-ready Dragon capsule on the first Demo mission for their client, NASA! This tremendously important milestone marks start of the next important phase in the effort to return American capacity for human spaceflight, which has been lost since the end of the shuttle program in 2011.

It was several years after the end of the famous shuttle missions that NASA realized the way forward would very likely be with private enterprise, and wisely awarded two contracts, to Boeing and SpaceX, for them to develop crew-rated craft and systems to safely bring astronauts to the ISS and return them safely to Earth. Of course, NASA has a long history of human space travel, and some very reasonable associated rules, regulations and certifications that must be achieved in order to qualify a vehicle for that task. Saturday’s flight will be a critical next step in that certification process, and if all goes well, it may result in a crew mission taking place in July of this year (though more likely closer to December).

While this mission will not have any humans aboard the craft, it will feature a mannequin in the stylish SpaceX flight suit, bristling with sensors to capture as much information as possible about the experience of the flight. The name of this figure? Ripley. Nice.

Flight Time: Liftoff is set for 2:49 a.m. EST (0749 GMT)
Flight Location: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, from historic Pad 39A (Apollo missions, and final Shuttle flight were launched from this pad as well)
Booster Recovery: on the autonomous robotic droneship Of Course I Still Love You

Webcast!

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SpaceX Launch Feb 21, 8:45pm Eastern, Featuring Lunar Lander

Beresheet Lunar Lander
(Image Credit: SpaceIL)

Affordable spaceflight is enabling a new golden age of mankind going to the stars. This has been possible in tremendous part due to the extremely important innovation by SpaceX of reusable boosters which can land after launch, as we all know. As if this was not enough, a newly emerging trend in the launches we have been seeing is that of rideshare, where multiple companies launch their projects on a single flight, thereby further reducing the cost to each organization.

Tonight, SpaceX has a launch planned on of one of their workhorse Falcon 9 boosters, and this will be the third flight for this proven craft. Previously it flew the Iridium-7 mission in July 2018 and the SAOCOM 1A mission in October. This mission will feature three payloads, arguably the most exciting of which being an Israeli lunar lander! The Beresheet robotic lunar lander is a joint project between SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, and if successful will make Israel only the 4th country ever to land on the moon – ranking them among China, Russia and the United States. After the successful launch today, the craft will undergo an 8 week journey before landing on the lunar surface. In Hebrew, ‘beresheet’ means ‘in the beginning’.

The other payload on this ride share launch consists of the PSN-6 communication satellite from the Indonesian company PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara as well as a U.S. Air Force satellite code named S5, intended to assist with identifying orbital debris which is an increasing problem.

The launch is scheduled for 8:45pm Eastern time, February 21st, from Cape Canaveral Air Force station (SLC-40), with a planned booster recovery on everyone’s favorite autonomous robotic droneship, Of Course I Still Love You!

You will be able to watch the launch live via the regular SpaceX production (embedded below) or on the SpaceIL Facebook page!

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Curiosity Makes Mountain out of Dusthill

Curiosity Rover on Vera Rubin Ridge
(Image Credit: MSSS/ NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The NASA Mars rover Curiosity is still out there, day in and day out, doing Science for us all! The latest discovery to come from this hard working and vastly in-extra-innings ‘bot centers around the 3 mile tall Mount Sharp, located in Gale crater on the Martian surface. Using an improvised gravimeter, rigged from the existing accelerometers on board the vehicle, they have found strong evidence that the towering mountain was created through a long process of stacking wind blown material as it was driven into the crater. This is the far less likely result, geologically speaking, but thanks to the new ability to measure the surprisingly low density of the material comprising Mount Sharp, the stacking model looks more likely than one of erosion over time.

The best takeaway here, is of course that it’ll still make a great ski slope in a few years, but may need a little firming up in places. Also, that Curiosity is still working hard, along with the Earth-side engineers who continue to wring valuable Science from our future spare home planet, every hour of the day!

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The Mars Anthropocene


(Image Credit: NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates)

In a paper just published on January 4th, Alberto Fairén of Cornell University and the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid discusses the impact that human exploration of Mars is likely to have on that planet. The Anthropocene is a term used to describe the massive changes that have taken place to the Earth resulting from human interaction and activities, and for a similar effect to take place on Mars in a few decades would make it the first multiplanetary geological period.

The changes to be expected on Mars range from unavoidable microbial contamination of the environment to wholesale geographical changes necessitated by habitats and eventual pizza joints (per Musk) that will spring up over time.

One hopes that lessons we can take from the treatment of our own planet, which in many ways hastens the need to find a spare one, could help inform how we should treat our potential new home. How that plays out, and with what wisdom, we will know in the fullness of time, or at least our Grandchildren will.

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Mars – In the Wind

InSight Lander
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A lot of Mars news has been coming out over the past few weeks, fellow red planet enthusiasts, and we are certainly behind in discussing it! Suffice to say, the successful touchdown of NASA’s InSight Lander on November 26th has opened up a new era of science on our brother world. Along with a ton of cool pictures, what really is exciting is the first even audio recording of the martin wind. Behold!

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