Cubesats say ‘Polo’

Cubesats over Mars
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The successful InSight launch from last weekend has pointed the new NASA Mars lander on the way to Mars, with a scheduled touch-down of November 26 2018. The launch also lofted two little Cubesats into space which are accompanying the main mission, forming a delightful caravan to the red planet. The mission for the Cubesats (MarCO-A and MarCO-B) is to observe the lander as it plummets to the surface of Mars in late November. But more importantly and in a broader sense, the briefcase-sized satellites will help refine our understanding of how to use these compact, affordable and increasingly high-performing devices to further explore our solar system.

Saturday afternoon, 5/5/2018 the first radio signals from the two little Sats were received by NASA, confirming that they are alive and well and in the midst of their new mission. The mission data which is collected during the flight of these two little pioneers should help usher in yet another new era of exploration and discovery of our solar system.

Mark your calendars now – more great Mars data coming soon this December!

Reference:
Space.com and their article on the aspects of the mission.

Mars InSight Mission to Launch Saturday Morning 4:05am PST

Mars InSight
(ASA/JPL-Caltech)

After the negativity of yesterday, this seems like a great time to revisit some positive and exciting scheduled launches for later this week! NASA’s Mars InSight mission is still on schedule to launch at 4:05am Pacific Time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This will make it the first launch to another planet from the West Coast. The fact that we are keeping baseball-like stats on that sort of thing now should make us all very happy.

Here is a NASA page with lots of good info, including links to watch the launch live for anyone who wants to set an alarm. The good news for us night-owls is that the time difference puts this launch at 7:05am Eastern which is downright reasonable!

This launch will come only hours after the first flight of SpaceX’s new Falcon 9 Block 5 model, in theory still scheduled for this Friday at 4pm Eastern from pad 39A at Cape Canaveral. What another great week for space!

(Update) The SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 launch has been pushed to Monday, 5/7/2018 for an afternoon launch window between 4pm and 6:25pm.

Boeing’s Unhelpful Statement

Falcon Heavy
(Thom Baur / Reuters)

Boeing, angered over the impending and inevitable demise of the SLS before it is even complete, issued a petulant and misleading statement disparaging the Falcon Heavy accomplishment by SpaceX. Forgetting for a moment that their SLS is $billions over budget, and still years away from even a phase 1 test flight. Forgetting that the reality behind their claim of “most powerful rocket ever” is that the NASA’s Saturn V from the Apollo era was able to lift 118 metric tons to low Earth orbit while their still incomplete SLS booster is only rated for 70 tons, with hopes and dreams to somehow edge that higher with subsequent designs requiring even more money and time. And forgetting that SpaceX is already actively building the BFR at the Port of LA which will handily eclipse their SLS.

Forgetting all that, I think that Rep John Culberson, R-Texas said it best while recently touring aerospace contractor Oceaneering Space Systems (which is heavily involved in SLS construction) in Houston:
  “What about reusability?”

Yeah, sorry Boeing. Maybe start putting your efforts into a redesign instead of defensive press releases. The fact you are missing is that Elon Musk simply wants us to get to Mars and save mankind. He’s not interested in his stock price. He’s not interested in hollow arguments. If you were able to do it first or do it better, that would probably be a relief to him. Let’s make that next press release something positive, and something that will help move the needle in the right direction instead of distracting from a design that the shifting market has left behind.

Zero Soil, Zero Daylight Veggies for Mars

Eden-ISS Greenhouse
(Image Credit: Eden-ISS)

A current and ongoing experiment at the Eden-ISS lab of Germany’s Neumayer Station III in Antarctica has successfully grown vegetables without dirt, daylight or pesticides. Certainly hydroponics have been a thing for many years, and this work borrows heavily from that discipline as a starting point, but they purposefully pushed the restrictions even further in order to simulate the harsh conditions which will need to be overcome when we first start trying to produce our food off-world.

These sorts of groundbreaking experiments and investigations, which are critical to our success as a space-faring people but not as ‘high profile’ as a rocket launch, are sure to be accelerating in the coming weeks and months. It is a testament to the focus and excitement again associated with the exploration of space, and making humanity multi-planetary, that institutions around the world are spinning up programs to facilitate our next steps into our larger destiny.

(Thanks to InterestingEngineering.com for the lead)

SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 First Launch! May 4th 4pm EDT

Falcon 9 Block 5 Under Construction
(Image Credit: NasaSpaceFlight.com)

SpaceX has been hard at work, collecting the lessons of rocket reusability and how to always improve. Those lessons are incorporated into the new Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 booster, the first of which is named B1046. The maiden voyage of the first Block 5 is scheduled for next week, May 4th at 4pm EDT from the hallowed pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Block 5 includes over 100 improvements, both large and small, according to SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell, many of which are targeted towards making its reusability and rapid turn-around even more efficient than current models.

The pace of innovation keeps rolling with good speed, and it will be very important and exciting to see how the new version of what has become quite a workhorse and reliable rocket platform will be further improved.

NASA’s InSight Mars Lander Launch Preparations

NASA InSight Lander attaches to Atlas 5 Rocket

The InSight Mars Lander has been connected to the Atlas 5 rocket at Space Launch Complex 3-East Vandenberg Air Force Base, with a projected launch window of May 5th – June 8th. Regardless of when during that window the rocket flies, the lander is scheduled to arrive at Mars on November 26th. This close alignment of Earth and Mars which allows for a direct trip, only happens for this window of time once every 26 months.

The mission of the InSight lander (aka Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is to study the crust, mantle and core of the red planet to learn more about the early formation of planets in our solar system. This launch will also send two ‘CubeSat’s to space, where they will follow InSight to Mars and provide essential communication services.

Now that human spaceflight to Mars is seeming more and more realistic, it’s fun to closely observe a new launch like this, and to realize that while it’s still a long trip, it is not a year of travel. Before you even have a chance to get through your collected works of Shakespeare on your tablet or re-calibrate the hydroponics systems to optimize lettuce production, it will be time to buckle up for landing!

(Thanks to spaceflightnow.com for the excellent discussion of this new NASA lander)

Mars – Trace Gas Orbiter

Trace Gas Orbiter
(Paris Air Show, 2015)

The Trace Gas Orbiter, which is part of a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has been orbiting Mars for over a year and is now in position to begin its research. These readings and results started to be gathered on April 21st and are now flowing back home for analysis and review.

Specifically, this probe is investigating the methane which is present in the Martian atmosphere, because it is very often associated with the former (or current!) presence of life. On Earth, an overwhelming percentage of the available methane is the result of biological processes. To add stakes to the game, current scientific understanding of the Martian atmosphere says that what is there should be destroyed by ongoing chemical reactions in several hundred years, though there it remains.

The orbiter has 2 main scientific instruments through which it will make this survey:
* the main spectrometer, NOMAD, operates in the infrared, ultraviolet and visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
* the color camera, CaSSIS, will build detailed 3D maps of the planet’s terrain.

The craft will eventually serve in a new capacity as a communications depot once the ExoMars Rover arrives in 2021, relaying signals from the ground based explorer back to mission control.

Falcon 9 Success – TESS Is Safely Deployed

TESS Orbits
(Image: NASA)

This week’s launch of the NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite was a smashing success, and we should be getting early results from the device this summer. On May 17th it will fly by the moon on it’s way to the intended highly elliptical orbit, and should reach that destination in mid-June. Then shortly there after we should expect to start getting initial data and results from this small but mighty craft!

With mankind finally taking bolder steps into the cosmos, this hunt for Earth-like neighbors couldn’t come at a better or more exciting time. Now if we can get Elon working on the faster-than-light drive we’ll be all set.

SpaceX – TESS Mission Rescheduled to Wednesday 4/18/2018

TESS Satellite
(Image Courtesy inverse.com)

The planned launch of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was scrubbed on Monday due to some last-minute rocket checks, and I for one am always happy to hear that they only will fly with every confidence of success. Fortunately there is another launch window available in a short time, and the launch has been rescheduled for Wednesday, April 18th, 2018 at 6:51pm Eastern time from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Remember, this is an exciting launch because they will attempt to land the Falcon 9 booster on a drone ship! Be sure to tune in to the live feed over at SpaceX, and enjoy the commentary and hopefully uninterrupted views of the entire launch.

SpaceX Falcon 9 TESS Mission Launch April 16, 6:32 PM EST

NASA TESS Mission
(Image Credit NASA)

Another SpaceX Falcon 9 launch is coming up soon, and this time they are again going to attempt a droneship landing of the Falcon booster. Something great to look forward to! The last two launches have seen them opt to expend that equipment into the briny deep because it had reached end-of-life, but this time around we will hopefully all see it make a perfect landing on the ‘Of Course I Still Love You’.

The mission is to deploy NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which will greatly expand our ability to detect Earth-similar planets in orbit around distant stars. With a scope of over 200,000 stars as an initial aim of the mission, we can expect some truly exciting discoveries! If the comments of SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell today at the TED conference in Vancouver regarding the SpaceX ambition to not only reach Mars but to continue beyond our solar system hold merit, then such discoveries will be of great interest.

To learn more about the TESS mission, be sure to check out the informative NASA website dedicated to this new satellite and all of the discoveries it can enable!