SpaceX is going to Mars!

SpaceX is going to Mars!

“A million humans could live on Mars by the 2060s.”

That’s insane and it probably won’t happen, some say. What they don’t know is that Elon Musk is the one who said it, and we all know how ambitiously crazy he is. Before detailing and analyzing his plan, let me tell you how I admire his motivation to do such a thing. Musk wants to make humans “an interplanetary species” — that’s it. Considering it’s a very risky mission, commercially speaking, the least we can say is that this successful visionary is pursuing a common goal for all of us, and whether he succeeds in reaching it or not, we all owe him, at a minimum, some regard.

 

“It’s probably anywhere from 40 to 100 years to fully achieve a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.” – Elon Musk

 

It’s pretty – dare I say crazy? – to even suggest Elon Musk is able to put 1,000,000 humans on Mars 40 years from now by launching 1,000 rockets sheltering 100 people each. However – and this is what I remind myself every time I think about his goal – the world said the same thing about Musk’s ambitions to create SpaceX in the first place, and the same happened subsequently when he said he was to vertically land a rocket on a barge. One rational conclusion we may come to, based on past experience, is: Take this man seriously.

 

Elon Musk unveils SpaceX’s future Mars vehicle and discusses the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars. The presentation focuses on potential architectures for sustaining humans on the Red Planet that industry, government and the scientific community can collaborate on in the years ahead.

 

At the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Mexico on September 27, Musk exposed for the first time a proposal to colonize Mars. Briefly, it goes like this: The rocket — the biggest and most powerful model ever made — would launch from Earth with 100 humans (or Martians if you prefer). The booster then releases the habitable module (or spaceship) near Earth’s orbit and comes back for a vertical landing on Earth. (The booster is the bottom part of the whole structure — it carries nothing but engines and fuel; the habitable module is the upper part, carrying humans, cargo and engines of its own.)

But the booster’s job isn’t over! Back on Earth, it is attached to a fuel tank. Next, the booster would launch the tank into orbit for it to refuel the spaceship, thus providing the necessary fuel for a 60-million-kilometre trip. After doing this a couple times, the habitable module — still with 100 humans if everything went as planned — would be fuelled and ready to leave for a trip in the unknown, as the booster would fall back to Earth for the last time.

The Earth–Mars trip in itself should last a bit more than seven months. Imagine 80 days in a confined space, flying through the darkness with people you barely know, living with the thought that you may never come back. A priori, it may not be the most pleasant thing — except for the view, because the view from the module would — will — be awe-inspiring. But SpaceX has a solution to customize the spaceship in such way as to render boringness impossible. There will be reading polls, places to watch a movie, and even a restaurant. However, if you like to have a drink on the weekend, the trip might present a disadvantage. Although Musk mentioned nothing about it, he did receive a lot of advice from human-relations experts saying there should be no drugs nor alcohol on the trip. Still worth it, remember: You’re going to Mars!

 

About 1000 Viking Orbiter red- and violet-filter images have been processed to provide global color coverage of Mars at a scale of 1 km/pixel. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

About 1000 Viking Orbiter red- and violet-filter images have been processed to provide global color coverage of Mars at a scale of 1 km/pixel. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

Once arriving at Mars, the spaceship will lose a large amount of its speed thanks to the drag that will be generated as it goes through the planet’s atmosphere. Note that no parachutes will be used to slow down the spaceship: deploying parachutes at that speed may not be a good idea (as they would simply disintegrate). Now that the spaceship is considerably slowed down, it will land on the red planet’s surface — vertically, of course — and open its hatch to let all hundred humans walk out so they can get the cargo out to install the material necessary for Martin colonization.

About one hundred humans are now installed on Mars, doing what they have been instructed to. But what about the spaceship that brought them there? In order to make the spaceship fully reusable, SpaceX thought they could make fuel on Mars so the spaceship could be sent back to Earth and eventually be reused by another crew of a hundred.

Yes, you read correctly: They could make fuel on Mars. The spaceship is powered — just like the booster — by the currently-in-development Raptor engines. These engines are much more powerful than the Merlin engines SpaceX currently uses on its Falcon 9 rocket, in part because cold liquid methane is used as fuel. Methane is made of hydrogen and carbon, and you can find both on Mars! Carbon is in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, and hydrogen is there in the form of ice. Through methods far beyond the reach of this article, you can make methane using these two substances.

Of course, to do all this, you need one heck of a booster! In fact, you need at least the biggest and most powerful rocket ever made. SpaceX calls it the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). It will be 122 metres tall and weighing at launch 10,500 tons. That’s really heavy! For comparison, the Saturn V, the rocket that carried men to the moon, weighed less than 4,000 tons at lift-off.

 

A video of the Saturn V launching. The expendable rocket system was used 13 times by NASA between 1966 and 1973, primarily on the Apollo missions to the Moon. The proposed Raptor engines would be 3.5 times more powerful than the Saturn V.

 

For the ITS to actually lift, it will need to provide 13,000 tons of thrust, hence the required 42 Raptor engines. In total, ITS will be 3.5 times more powerful than the Saturn V. It goes without saying that the ITS will be super expensive: a single one may be worth almost $700-million just to manufacture. Plus, you need money to launch it. And you probably want at least a couple of modules, especially considering SpaceX’s ambitions.

This is why Musk is currently looking at alternative sources of funding, such as NASA or other private companies. He is even paying a part of the project out of his own pocket: “I really don’t have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets, except to be able to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary,” he said.

As for the cost per person — that’s if you want to be onboard one of SpaceX’s firsts flights to Mars — it’s about the cost of “an average American household,” he said. So, we’re talking between $200,000 and $300,000 CAD per person. However, don’t let the price take your dream away: Musk said he’s constantly working on reducing the cost in order to render it accessible to everyone.

Let’s recap. SpaceX wants to colonize Mars. To do this, they will need to build the biggest rocket ever made, log a series of vertical landings in a row, take care of a spaceship carrying one hundred people, deal with outer-space radiation, make fuel on Mars, ration resources, and find a ton of money.

That’s no big deal for Elon Musk and SpaceX’s engineers. In fact, they are planning to launch ITS for the first time in late 2024. I think that by hard work and dedication, SpaceX will be able to reach such a goal. And this is what Musk has been doing: he’s been working fulltime on the project since … Wait. He’s not working fulltime on it, right? No, he is not. On October 28, he released Tesla’s newest product: a solar roof. That means he is working on several world-changing projects all at once!

Making cleaner energy and contributing in making humans multi-planetary. Not bad.

 

Other organizations, such as NASA and Boeing, are proposing on-orbit assembly of a Mars craft using multiple super-heavy lift launch vehicles. However, SpaceX’s system will require Earth-orbit rendezvous for the refueling of the second stage spaceship. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Other organizations, such as NASA and Boeing, are proposing on-orbit assembly of a Mars craft using multiple super-heavy lift launch vehicles. However, SpaceX’s system will require Earth-orbit rendezvous for the refueling of the second stage spaceship. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

WHAT HAPPENED IN SPACE LAST MONTH

Aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins checks a sample for air bubbles prior to loading it in the biomolecule sequencer. When Rubins’ expedition began, zero base pairs of DNA had been sequenced in space. Within just a few weeks, she and the Biomolecule Sequencer team had sequenced their one billionth base of DNA on the orbiting laboratory.

Aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins checks a sample for air bubbles prior to loading it in the biomolecule sequencer. When Rubins’ expedition began, zero base pairs of DNA had been sequenced in space. Within just a few weeks, she and the Biomolecule Sequencer team had sequenced their one billionth base of DNA on the orbiting laboratory.

 By Benjamin Vermette

DNA sequenced in space for the first time!

Just as architects design buildings, DNA makes you.

Genes are made up of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which contains the necessary genetic information for your cells to accomplish all their life-depending functions, such as reproducing, growing hair, digesting food, reading this sentence, etc. But just as architects are made of smaller entities themselves, so is DNA.

First, DNA is a molecule, so it’s of course made of smaller atoms. But let’s say it’s an organized molecule, so it contains a special set of atoms that repeat themselves over and over again. These sets of atoms are also molecules, so we can say DNA is a molecule made of smaller molecules (which we call nucleotides). Nucleotides are then made of even smaller molecules, which we call nitrogenous bases, which are the ’characterizing’ element of the DNA segment.

There are only four different nitrogenous bases for DNA, and they are represented by the letters A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine) and T (thymine).

Let’s recap. Genes are made of DNA (a single molecule of DNA may contain hundreds of genes). But DNA itself is made of a series of nucleotides, which are in their turn made up of four different types of nitrogenous bases (A, C, G, T) that ‘characterizes’ the DNA, and thus the gene. In the end, atoms (mostly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphate) make up all of this.

  NA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person's body has the same DNA.

 

NA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person's body has the same DNA.

But then, how can only four different types of nitrogenous bases account for the extreme diversity of life? Mind you, it’s not the number of different types that counts, but rather the sequence in which they are arranged. Just like the architect’s job was decided by the sequence of events he experienced earlier in his life, the gene’s ‘job’ is decided and made possible by the sequence of nitrogenous base it contains.

So a gene responsible for accomplishing a specific function, say, keeping your hair colour brown, has a different nitrogenous base sequence than another gene that is responsible for dealing with a specific type of virus.

I think you get it. Now, enough biology, let’s get to the cooler stuff, the space stuff!

On August 29, astronaut and molecular biologist Dr. Kate Rubins did just that: she sequenced DNA, meaning she, using a machine, determined the particular order of the nitrogenous bases in a DNA molecule. For the first time, the experience was done in space! In itself, it’s not a new thing as scientists have been sequencing DNA since the 1970s.

The experiment hardware flew on SpaceX’s cargo resupply mission on July 20, along with the International Docking Adapter. (For more on Kate Rubins’s mission check out the August 22/16 entry) The hardware included the sequencing device called MinION, which was developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

The MinION works by sending a positive current through pores embedded in membranes inside the device, called nanopores,” wrote Melissa Gaskill from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “At the same time, fluid containing a DNA sample passes through the device. Individual DNA molecules partially block the nanopores and change the current in a way that is unique to that particular DNA sequence. By looking at these changes, researchers can identify the specific DNA sequence.”

To reduce the variables to only one, namely, microgravity, researchers did the same experiment on the ground while Dr. Rubins was doing it at an altitude of 400 km and at a speed of 27,000 km/h. Although testing pre-made samples, Rubins’ results matched the ones the teams had on the ground.

Sequencing DNA in microgravity engages a lot of unknowns, such as air bubbles. On earth, air bubbles rise to the top, but not in space. A concern that they might block the nanopores was investigated. To make sure microgravity hides the least amount of potential threats to the investigation as possible, NASA tested the whole experiment underwater, where gravity, pressure and humidity were less controllable variables.

What does this mean for space exploration?

Sequencing DNA in space means a lot, especially considering the long-duration spaceflights NASA is anticipating. Astronauts will be able to identify microbes in their spacecraft in real time! Knowing what’s in their environment at any time, the astronauts will be aware if a virus is around and, not only that, they’ll also be aware of what kind of virus there is so they can treat it more effectively.

Bad microbes-hunter and a science experiment tool, but what else can sequencing DNA in space be?

You guessed it. No need to extract a sample from Mars’ soil, bring it back to Earth and wait for the results of the analysis to know if the sample contained life. You can do just the same thing, but on Mars!

Therefore, sequencing DNA in space will allow humans to know the answer to “Is there life on Mars?” more rapidly.

Essential for crew safety and helpful for science experiments in space, the new milestone of sequencing DNA in space for the first time was achieved, making us even closer to Mars than before.

“Welcome to systems biology in space,” said Kate Rubins, space milestone-achiever.

 

Have we found intelligent extra-terrestrial life?

Maybe you’ve seen articles on the Internet congratulating humankind for its discovery of an intelligent civilization not so long ago. Yes, a mysterious signal coming from space was measured by a group of Russian astronomers, but going from this to saying we found life is skipping steps.

Ninety-four light-years away from Earth, a solar system dubbed HD 164595 is believed to be the source of a mysterious radio signal. The solar system in question contains a star of comparable size and brightness to our Sun, and is thought of as a 6-billion-year-old system (slightly older than ours, the Sun being about 4.5 billion years old).

It seems to be the home of a planet about the size of Neptune, which revolves around its sun in a very tight orbit (taking 40 Earth-days to complete one revolution), thus “making it unattractive for life,” said Seth Shostak, astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute.

But this isn’t enough to suggest the signal can’t come from aliens, because the quote needs to be taken as “making it unattractive for life [as we know it]”. So let’s dig deeper to see why the signal was probably not emitted by an intelligent civilization.

First off, the signal was detected using the RATAN-600 telescope in southern Russia. The RATAN-600 is sensitive to a relatively large part of the sky, so many stars are located where the sound seemed to come from, meaning astronomers are just assuming, based on estimations, that it originated from HD 164595. We’re not sure the signal came from where they say it came from, thereupon we can’t be sure of the identity of its sender either.

Second, the beep was measured by a Russian group of astronomers in May 2015. Protocol in the SETI business requires that if a received signal is thought to be emitted by extra-terrestrial intelligence, then the first to receive it needs to warn everyone else so they can turn on their telescopes as well, just to make sure they hear what the first one hears. For some reason, the Russian group didn’t go public after their discovery, so the signal was heard only once. In fact, the group said they were able to detect the sound only once (in 39 attempts), and SETI telescopes turned on as you read this still can’t hear the beep. Isn’t that a strange behaviour for aliens? 

Third, the answer to our question — Did the signal came from E.T.? —  may lie in the signal itself. With a strength of 0.75 Janskys, it was relatively weak. But if it did come from the star, which is, I recall, 94 light-years away, then it needed to be so darn powerful to reach us with this impact! Astronomer Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute did the math, and found that the energy required to emit the beacon was at best the total energy consumption of humankind, and, at worst, 1013 gigawatts. If you remember correctly, in Back to The Future Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown is terrified when he learns he needs 1.21 gigawatts to send Marty back – to the future!

 So imagine how powerful 10,000,000,000,000 gigawatts is!

Okay. Now that we have reasonable arguments to think the signal didn’t come from aliens, we must then ask ourselves, where did it come from?

Maybe it had natural causes, like a radio burst from a star or a galaxy. Or maybe it indeed came from an intelligent civilization: “The signal is real, and may very well be from an intelligent civilization. That civilization, however, is us,” wrote Phil Plait, American astronomer. In fact, the origin of the mysterious signal may be any military satellite, because the wavelength they emit strangely matches the one measured by the Russian astronomers (2.7 cm).

I get it, we’re all (or most of us are) very excited when we look for extra-terrestrial intelligence. But sometimes, especially in science, we need to put our emotions aside in order to have a clear vision of what is really happening.

 

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 explodes on launch pad

On September 1, SpaceX was supposed to perform a static fire test. Indeed, they conducted a fire test, but let’s say it was not very static, unfortunately.

The first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was powered by nine Merlin engines, which can be very powerful if fired correctly. However, one thing than can be even more powerful is when there’s an anomaly concerning the rocket’s kerosene and liquid oxygen tanks.

So, on September 3, SpaceX had a contract to launch an Israeli communications satellite to space; not a big deal, they do things like this all the time. But as you might have guessed, something explosively bad happened two days before during a maintenance test at Cape Canaveral.

A fire static test consists of igniting the rocket’s nine Merlin engines for a brief moment, thus giving teams on the ground time to see if everything is fine and good to go for launch. This time, however, it was obvious to anyone that something was undoubtedly wrong.

(Advance to 1:05)

Both the Falcon 9 and the Israeli satellite, valued at more than CAD $250 million, were lost. Reassuringly, no one was injured on the day of the incident, and hopefully it might warn SpaceX — which is about to send NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) — that a destroyed satellite may eventually lead to dead astronauts if SpaceX’s engineers don’t do their jobs, which I’m sure they’re doing.

Comprehensively, many on the day of the incident doubted SpaceX’s reliability as NASA’s commercial partner to eventually ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. Imagine if, instead of the satellite, there were NASA astronauts in there — which, if I recall, is still not possible yet.

If you remember, SpaceX had a similar mishap back in June of 2015, when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded two minutes after liftoff over the Cape. It contained cargo for the astronauts on board the ISS at the time.

Since then, the Falcon 9 had logged nine successful launches in a row, before obviously failing again, this September.

However, NASA seems not to be of the same opinion. “We remain confident in our commercial partners and firmly stand behind the successful 21st century launch complex that NASA, other federal agencies, and U.S. commercial companies are building on Florida’s Space Coast,” the agency said in a statement, while acknowledging that its partners must learn from their mistakes.

You judge if the statement was honest, or only made diplomatically.

But one thing is sure: we’ll always hear from SpaceX, whether it’s good news or bad news. Let’s hope it’s good news, considering the task they’ll face in a couple of years.

 

Launch of NASA’s ambitious OSIRIS-REx mission

On September 8, a rocket launched to space. But it wasn’t any rocket; it was an Atlas V rocket containing the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft!

Note that the launch was a success. Even though this Atlas V was near SpaceX’s Falcon 9 when the latter exploded on September 1, no damage was found on the former, hence the on-time launch.

The OSIRIS-REx mission is NASA’s first asteroid-sampling mission. You heard it. They’re going to sample an asteroid. Indeed, that’s a big deal.

In two years, the spacecraft will enter asteroid Bennu’s orbit and prepare to extract samples.

“We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden.

In fact, the mission is playing a big part in our understanding of our solar system. As asteroids are thought to be sources of water and organic molecules, Bennu may have a rich environment from which to sample and consequently perform experiments on.

Canada is playing a major role in the OSIRIS-REx mission, having built the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), a major science instrument onboard the spacecraft.

Using its lasers, OLA will be able to create a three-dimensional map of the surface of Bennu. This will be very useful, as the spacecraft will analyze the soil before selecting a sample site.

In total, the Canadian Space Agency is investing $61 million over 15 years on the mission.

So let’s hope it’s a success! Let’s hope it brings back answers in its samples when it comes back to Earth on September 24, 2023!  

 

Astronaut Terry Virts retires

With more than 213 days in space including three spacewalks, astronaut Terry Virts decided to leave NASA.

Virts is an accomplished astronaut: he was the pilot on STS-130, a space shuttle mission, and last flew in space from December 2014 to June 2015, where he commanded Expedition 43 on board the ISS.

He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and of Harvard Business School. As a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, he logged more than 4,300 hours on 40 different aircraft, notably on the F-16, on which he served as experimental test pilot as well.

He was selected to be an astronaut in 2000, and since then he served in many functions, including lead astronaut for the T-38 jet training program, chief of the astronaut office’s robotic branch, and lead astronaut for the Space Launch System program.

After circling the Earth more than 3,600 times, Virts said he was ready to start a new chapter of his life. “After serving 16 wonderful years at NASA, it is time to close one chapter of life and open another. Ad Astra,” he tweeted.

Buzz Aldrin, second man on the Moon and also a test pilot, reassured his colleague: “Don't worry [Terry]. Life can be pretty exciting on Earth too. Your next adventure is just beginning.”

NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrives at Jupiter!

From Sky to Space

 

Flashback to July 14, 2015, when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft performs historic Pluto flyby after a nine-year voyage in the dark and cold territory of outer space. Then fast forward to July 4, 2016 when NASA’s Juno spacecraft enters gas giant Jupiter’s orbit after a five-year trip in the solar system’s neighbourhood. These sort of galactic milestones are years in the making.

But unlike its colleague New Horizons, Juno wasn’t the first space probe to successfully reach and explore mighty Jupiter.

Both Pioneer spacecrafts flew past the gas giant in 1973 and 1974 as well as Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 in 1979, as did New Horizons when it used a gravity assist from the planet in 2007, en route to Pluto. By borrowing Jupiter’s gravity, New Horizons increased its speed by 23 km/s (83,000 km/h), which in turn shaved three years of travel time off the spacecrafts’ trip to Pluto.

But don’t think that Jupiter’s quasi routine to welcome visitors undermines the importance or scientific value of Juno’s mission. Being the second spacecraft ever to enter Jupiter’s orbit, – the first one being Galileo, which navigated around Jupiter’s surroundings from 1995 to 2003 – there will be plenty of untapped data for it gather and a significant study to maintain.

Launched on August 5, 2011, from an Atlas V rocket at the Cape, Juno inherited a seemingly particular flight trajectory to get to the fifth planet from the Sun. 

 

In October 2013, two years after takeoff, Juno travelled back to mother Earth for agravity assist, increasing speed by 3.9 km/s (more than 14,000 km/h). The Earth-flyby was also a good opportunity for the maintenance teams on the ground to test some of Juno’s systems before the do-or-die manoeuvres of Jovian orbital insertion.

And then came the American Independence Day of 2016. As I tweeted that day, were I American, I would have had trouble prioritizing between celebrating my country’s birthday and Juno’s entrance into Jupiter’s orbit (which happened that day at 11:53 p.m. ET). But again, as my tweet said, Independence Day happens every year.  

To get into orbit, Juno needed to slow down – a lot. That’s why it fired its thrusters for more than 35 minutes. Thirty-five minutes is a very long time for a spacecraft to  burn; the ground teams where getting increasingly excited as they waited to know whether the burn worked or not – and they needed to wait a relatively long time, because a signal from Juno to Earth, traveling at the speed of light, takes 48 minutes to complete. A 20-minute burn would have been enough to get the spacecraft into orbit, but not into the correct one, hence the additional 15-minute burn. In total, the slow-down burn lasted 2,102 seconds and was only one second off the predicted value, which is too small to have a disturbing effect on anything.

And that’s how you get a spacecraft into Jupiter’s orbit!

There’s something a bit special about Juno’s systems. As an interplanetary probe, it needs a stable source of power to be able to function in the arid and unfriendly conditions of space. Normally, a spacecraft of that kind uses nuclear power to maintain its instruments and to keep warm.

But Juno is not like that. It uses the old school, but still effective method of solar power, which is normally never used for interplanetary missions but just for Earth-orbiting satellites or similar spacecrafts.

Using its three 10-meter long solar panels, for a huge total of 18,000 solar cells, it can produce the 405 watts needed for keeping the instruments and avionics working. Mind you, 405 watts is not a lot of power; not even enough to run your hair dryer.

This is why, once in stable Jovian orbit, Juno’s number one task was to turn and face the sun to recharge its 750-pound solar arrays. Then Juno had to turn its antenna towards Earth before it was able to send new data home.

Juno is equipped with fantastic systems, notably the JunoCam. However, the JunoCam is not considered a scientific instrument; it’s more for the public. As a high-resolution, visible-light and colour camera, it is considered to be Juno’s eyes. It provides the public with the opportunity to see the work that Juno is doing.

 

The first image of Jupiter from Juno in orbit took by the JunoCam and sent to Earth on July 12.

But Juno’s mission, which will start for real on October 19, isn’t just space photography. On October 19, Juno will use an engine burn to pass from the 54-day orbit it is currently in, to a shorter 14-day orbit. That’s when the real science will begin.

By recording data from Jupiter’s internal composition, Juno will help scientists answer critical and lasting questions about the gas giant, such as: “Does it have a rocky core?”, or “how does it have so much water?”, and even, “how was Jupiter formed?”.

Because Jupiter plays a major role in the gravitational features of our solar system, this data could literally be a critical key to answering the broader existential question (at least, for me): “How was the solar system formed?”

This is awe-inspiring! We humans often look at the sky and wonder how it all happened. But wondering isn’t enough to get real and rigorous answers. So what do we do? We build probes, launch them on a rocket, and send them into space to do the science for us. And not only that, but we also build it to takes pictures of what we used to see as only a little point of light in the night sky. Maybe all this could make a person feel smaller. But for me it has the opposite affect – it makes me feel bigger. We are actually able to build something, and to make it take pictures – which I remind you was completely impossible to even do on Earth a couple decades ago – of something nearly 900 million km from home! How can someone not be inspired, or at least impressed by that?

It’s also worth remembering that our big brother planet, the mighty Jupiter, is constantly protecting us from asteroids that would otherwise wipe Earth out. Personally, I think understanding more about Jupiter is a good way to show thanks for that.  

 

From Sky to Space: Canadian Astronauts wanted!

From Sky to Space

 

Hate your job? Canadian astronauts wanted!

 

 

Actually, it’s kind of hard to hate your job if you work in a science field. But anyway, I think you’ll like that astronaut thing as well.

If you have a science degree with at least three years of relevant professional experience (a master’s degree is equivalent to one year of professional experience, a PhD to three years) this is your chance: the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced on June 17 its intention to recruit two new astronauts! If you are Canadian and in excellent medical shape, please fill this online form (https://emploisfp-psjobs.cfp-psc.gc.ca/psrs-srfp/applicant/page1800?poster=908307&toggleLanguage=en) and who knows, you’ll perhaps be the next Chris Hadfield. But don’t miss out: you have until August 15!

After this the CSA will invite those who meet the basic requirements to do the online public service entrance exam (from August 23 to September 6). Those who will “pass” the exam will then be invited to be interviewed and to pass medical examinations. The CSA will then gradually restrain the number of candidates based on the interviews and medical tests results. Finally, in the summer of 2017, after one year of tests, interviews, exams and intensive physical challenges, the two new Canadian astronauts will be announced. These two lucky Canadians will be relocated to Houston, Texas, in August 2017, to begin NASA’s basic astronaut training.

Do you have chances? Let’s look at the statistics. Canada has had three astronaut recruitment campaigns. On the first one in 1983, six astronauts, including Marc Garneau, current federal Minister, were selected from more than 4,000 applicants. On the second campaign in 1992, four new Canadians were selected to be part of the astronaut corps, including Chris Hadfield and Julie Payette. That year, more than 5,000 candidates applied for the job. On the third recruitment campaign, this time in 2009, only two candidates on more than 5,000 survived the tests and finally became astronauts; they are Jeremy Hansen and David St-Jacques.

The chances are thin, indeed. They are even thinner if you consider that this time the number of applicants might be well over 5,000 because of the constantly growing communication network (notably social media). For instance, NASA’s latest astronaut recruitment campaign in December 2015 (http://espritdecorps.ca/from-sky-to-space/2016/1/13/qkditqbsl5b0wi2u15ri3xhmkib7zv) received 18,300 applications, far surpassing the previous 1978 record of 8,000! 

But don’t worry. If you have the right stuff you’ll get selected, if not you won’t. But that’s OK. It will still be an incredible experience. After all, I don’t know of any other jobs with all-expenses paid voyages to space.

Gravitational waves discovered again

Remember that thing physicist discovered in September 2015, which revolutionized the whole astronomy field and solidified Einstein’s General Relativity theory? (http://espritdecorps.ca/from-sky-to-space/2016/3/23/from-sky-to-space)

Yup. Gravitational waves. Well, they’ve been discovered again!

On December 26, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facility detected for a second time the sounds of space. A paper in Physical Review Letters, published on June 15, officialize the discovery (http://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.241103).

How were these gravitational waves formed? First, you need to understand what are gravitational waves. 

In a way, it’s not true that two objects attract each other; the objects bend the space around them, causing a change in their paths. What you need to understand is that empty space is something, like a fabric. Envision it like a bowling ball on a mattress, the bowling ball being a massive celestial object like the Sun or a black hole, and the mattress being the fabric of space (and time). Of course the bowling ball bends the mattress, causing any object, for instance a golf ball, to curve when it passes near the bowling ball.

Is there a special and mysterious force of attraction between the golf ball and the bowling ball? No!

The same happens when the moon orbits the Earth, or the Earth goes around the Sun, or the International Space Station revolves around us. They are like the golf ball going around the bowling ball: they follow their natural motion, or what is called in science their ‘geodesic’, because of the curved space-time.

So, empty space shares qualities with a fabric; it is able to bend, compress and dilate, giving birth to all kinds of physical events, such as gravitational waves.

So, empty space being a fabric and flexible enough to bend, it ought to be flexible enough to undulate and to vibrate, predicted Albert Einstein in 1915.

Well he was right (surprise!).  When, for instance, two black holes collide, it is such a massive event that some of the energy from the collapse transforms into ripples of empty space, which we call gravitational waves. 

As David St-Jacques puts it, it’s similar to people in North America asking: “Hm. Could we sense it if a cliff were to collapse on a European coast? Would the waves reach us?”

Waves obtained due to the energy liberated from the cliff collapse move through both water and air (the sound that is generated in the air by this energy occurs in the form of sound waves).

The same goes for when two black holes collide; the energy liberated from this event transforms into waves, which interact with the fabric of space, spreading beyond the point of the collision.

It’s just like the waves of a cliff collapse, but in the emptiness of space.

This time, the two black holes that merged were 1.4 billion light-years away, and each had a mass of about 14.2 and 7.5 solar masses (mass of the Sun). The final black hole (the one formed of the two that merged) had a mass of about 20.8 solar masses. As you can see, the masses don’t add up right. The missing 0.9 solar masses were converted into energy, into the form of gravitational waves!  But how can one possibly measure such tiny amounts of energy spread on such huge distances? Just ask LIGO! 

The LIGO facilities were arranged in such a way that two long cylinders, each measuring precisely the same length (4 km), are perpendicular to each other. 

In those long tubes, two lasers are shining, being reflected at both ends and those being of the same length; it makes the lasers “come back” at exactly the same time, cancelling each other out.

The only way for the lasers to not come back at the same time is if the tubes change in length. But how can you do that? Just ask… gravitational waves!

If a gravitational wave passes through Earth, and subsequently through a LIGO facility, the tubes will change in length by a fraction of an atom(!), one being longer and the other being shorter. This way, the lasers won’t come back at the same time, and won’t cancel each other out!

It’s incredible what the human mind can accomplish, from the engineer that designed LIGO to the physicist that predicted gravitational waves.

It will open up a whole new field of astronomy!

Rocket landing gone wrong for SpaceX

  On June 15, the ambitious company SpaceX, owned by Tesla Motors and PayPal CEO Elon Musk, launched its Falcon 9 rocket to deploy two communication satellites from Cape Canaveral.

As usual, after succeeding its primary mission (deploying both Eutelsat 117 West B and ABS 2A communications satellites), it tried to land the first stage of its rocket… on a ship navigating in the ocean. Up till now, nothing abnormal.

However, as the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket came down to find its landing-target (the drone-like barge-ship), it mysteriously failed and therefore didn’t succeed in landing safely on the ship. Unfortunately, this ended a recent streak of flawless rocket landings.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5H1FcVeV_II this video shows the June 15 failed rocket landing attempt as well as the three previous successful ones

So what went wrong? According to SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk, it “looks like early liquid oxygen depletion caused engine shutdown just above the deck”. What a sad way to end a three successful landing-streak. But that’s not how Musk sees it. “As mentioned at the beginning of the year, I'm expecting ~70% success rate on landings for the year. 2016 is the year of experimentation,” he tweeted.

We still don’t have a lot of details of what went wrong that day, but we can be sure SpaceX is working on it. After all, 2016 is the year of experimentation. 4th test rocket launch and landing for Blue Origin

Surprisingly, SpaceX isn’t the only private aerospace company to perform vertical rocket landings. Blue Origin, society owned by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, also attempts the feat.  In fact, it was the first company to do so! However, we need to understand the difference.

SpaceX sends its rocket into orbit, which means you need a lot of thrust and power to get there. After the first stage of the rocket sends the payload into orbit, it starts to fall, with a very high velocity, to land on a barge or on the ground.  But Blue Origin’s payload/rocket doesn’t go into orbit. It sends its New Shepherd rocket out to an altitude of about 100 km (the frontier of space) and then makes it land on the ground. This is what we call a suborbital flight. Blue Origin’s version of a rocket landing is simpler than SpaceX’s, because the rocket comes down from a lower altitude, without a high lateral velocity, etc.   

But it’s still a vertical rocket landing!

On June 19, New Shepherd flew again. It was the fourth flight with the booster, and the sixth flight with the capsule (designed to carry astronauts). This time, the mission was to send the capsule to about 100 km, and then land it with one of the three parachutes intentionally failing, all this while successfully landing the booster.  And it worked! The capsule landed safely with only two functioning parachutes, while the booster landed vertically on the ground back in Texas, where it was launched.

Launch 0:12 rocket landing 1:50 capsule landing with one failed parachute 2:45. This is a huge step towards commercializing space, as Blue Origins intends to send tourists in space on suborbital flights and to land them and their booster on the ground safely. However, space tickets might be a little more expensive than an intrastate flight.   

 

From sky to space: DAVID ST-JACQUES WILL FLY IN SPACE!

 

The first Canadian in space since Chris Hadfield

In November 2018, roughly six years after Chris Hadfield blasted off to space, Canadian astronaut David St-Jacques will launch using a Russian Soyuz rocket to spend six months onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The Hon. Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science, and economic development, made the announcement on May 16 at the Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. Dr. Saint-Jacques said he knew he was selected as the next Canadian in space well before the announcement rendered him even more famous.

Engineer, doctor, Cambridge astrophysicist and astronaut, David St-Jacques is now 46 years old, and plans to train hard for the next two years before fulfilling a demanding and emancipating task, which is representing Canada on a floating laboratory that is the product of international cooperation.

"The doctor in me is eager to conduct experiments and experience first-hand the effects of microgravity on my body, the engineer in me is eager to operate Canadarm2, the astrophysicist in me is eager to look at the stars while floating in my space suit, and of course, the adventurer in me, he's just eager," he said at the announcement on May 16.

David St-Jacques will be part of a crew of six astronauts – mostly American and Russian – for most of his time on the ISS. He’ll be conducting scientific research, perhaps performing a spacewalk, and above all he’ll be talking to his family on the phone.

I had the opportunity to meet him at the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute’s ASTRO 2016 conference held in Ottawa from May 17 to May 19. At first, you may think one will be impressed because of all his degrees and his extraordinary career. But it’s not because of that. Dr. Saint-Jacques is a humble, down to earth human with an incredible job. He says he’s just like everyone else, but he just goes to space sometimes. 

The Canadian Space Agency’s president Sylvain Laporte, David St-Jacques and me in Ottawa on May 18.

 

Best of luck to him, not only for the mission, but also for the next two years of intensive training in Russia and Japan!

After two tries, the expendable BEAM module is now inflated.

Arrived on the International Space Station (ISS) on April 10 using a SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply mission (http://espritdecorps.ca/from-sky-to-space/2016/4/22/from-sky-to-space-spacex-landed-its-rocket-on-a-barge), the Bigelow Expendable Activity Module (BEAM) began a two-year journey as the first of its kind.

Developed in Las Vegas, BEAM is an inflatable module that can be attached to the ISS. It’s only a prototype (for now) but the long-term goal for Bigelow Aerospace (BEAM’s contractor) is to use similar inflatable spacecrafts for long-duration mission such as NASA’s journey to Mars. So as you may have guessed, Bigelow Aerospace really wants its prototype to work as planned…

But it didn’t! At least on May 26, when the astronauts onboard the station tried for the first time to inflate BEAM. Jeff Williams, a flight engineer on the station (this is one position you can be on the station if you’re not commander), realized that the module wasn’t expanding anymore despite the fact that they were still pumping air into it.

So they stopped the inflation process for a complete day and tried again on May 28. After being precisely guided by Houston as to which step to follow, Williams finally succeeded to flawlessly inflate the module, expanding it from its original 2.1-meter length to an impressing 7-meter.

https://twitter.com/astro_tim/status/736738454793392132 BEAM’s expansion on the second try

Bigelow aerospace fully understood the decision of NASA to stop the inflation on the first try. “We recognize that BEAM is a first of-its-kind spacecraft, and we are in full support of safety being the number one priority,” Bigelow Aerospace said in a statement.

BEAM is an original and innovative idea. It can launch in a tight space on a rocket, and then expand to shelter astronauts on a multiple-day voyage. It can be useful, and NASA knows it! Perhaps as a tool to get to Mars…?

India successfully tests its first reusable spacecraft

On May 23, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) – the Indian equivalent of NASA – launched its first reusable spacecraft to test its resistance to high temperatures during re-entry as well as other navigation systems.

The spacecraft, a 22-foot winged ‘mini’ Space Shuttle, was subject to an investment of $14 million since it was approved for development in 2012.

Known as the Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstrator (RLV-TD), the craft launched to an altitude of 65 kilometers while reaching Mach 5 for a total mission time of about 13 minutes.

 

 

 

RLV-TD will undergo four experimental flights: the first one, which was completed on May 23; the hypersonic flight experiment and the landing experiment (both are on the same flight); the return flight experiment and the scramjet propulsion experiment.

With its $1.2 billion annual budget, ISRO is far from NASA’s $18.5 billion’s. And it’s probably years away before the RLV-TD gets on the market. But it makes India part of a short, elite and select group of countries that invests in the space industry and develops reusable spacecrafts. 

It’s interesting to see how emerging markets increasingly invest in space exploration (think of India, China, Brazil, Ukraine, etc.).

Human emancipation and exploration should have less financial restrictions.  

 

SpaceX update

As an anniversary for the 25th SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch, the private company owned by successful entrepreneur Elon Musk launched THAICOM 8 on May 27, before landing its rocket on a barge-like drone-ship… again.

THAICOM 8 is a 3100kg Thai communication satellite that will provide better services for Southeast Asia.

After successfully placing the satellite in orbit, the first stage of the Falcon 9 was coming down smoothly for an attempt to land on a barge in the Atlantic. And it succeeded! The rocket-landing process is starting to become routine!

 

 30-second, accelerated video of May 27’s rocket landing

SpaceX’s next launch is scheduled for June 16, where it will launch the Eutelsat 117 West B and ABS 2A communications satellites from Cape Canaveral. This sounds like another barge-ship rocket landing!

SpaceX landed its rocket… on a barge!

By Benjamin Vermette

SpaceX launched its ninth unmanned cargo resupply mission to the ISS on April 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com)

SpaceX launched its ninth unmanned cargo resupply mission to the ISS on April 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Alan Walters / awaltersphoto.com)

 

The ambitious company SpaceX launched its ninth unmanned cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 8 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission, dubbed CRS-8, will be forever written about in history books.

CEO of Tesla Motors, PayPal, Solar City and SpaceX, young billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk proved his earnest intention of installing a permanent rocket-reusability strategy by landing, for the first time in human history, the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone-like barge-ship.

Note that it’s not the first time they succeeded in landing the Falcon 9 on something; they did it on steady ground in Cape Canaveral in December 2015 (click here to read more about this mission).

The following youtube video posted by SpaceX captures their most recent feat. 

Following a perfect launch on Friday afternoon by the Falcon 9 rocket, everyone was becoming excited for another ‘experimental’ rocket landing on a barge. After deploying its Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit and towards the ISS, the first stage flipped over, found the right trajectory, slowed down from 20,000 km/h, and succeeded in landing on the barge in a non-explosive fashion.

It wasn’t SpaceX’s first try to complete this feat; they’ve already dedicated other rockets to this. In other words, the rockets blew up trying to land on the barge (read more about these attempts in my previous articles: Hubble, SpaceX, Falcon, Messenger and More... and SpaceX Failed to Land Their Rocket on a Barge-ship).Elon Musk called them RUDs (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly).


But now, it’s a different story. Launching a rocket, deploying gear into space intended for some humans on the ISS, then landing the remaining part of the rocket, all inside 9 minutes, how can this even be physically possible? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Elon Musk.

“It's another step toward the stars,” he said during a press conference.

It is indeed, but what does it mean for the future of space exploration?

Landing the rocket on steady ground, as they did in December 2015, is great. However, landing it at sea is essential for SpaceX’s reusability strategy. After launch, the rocket is hundreds of kilometers east of the Cape. Landing it on an autonomous drone-ship not only saves fuel but when mastered, will also diminish risks.

Adding extra fuel to a rocket for landing may not seem cost-effective, but building a rocket from scratch is way more expensive. As a matter of fact, building a Falcon 9 costs $60 million, while refueling it is only about $250,000.

Musk predicts his reusability strategy to contribute cutting the spending “100-fold”. According to his predictions, SpaceX’s launches’ fees could shrink from $61.2 million (compared to $225 million for its competitor ULA) down to $600 000. This 44 year-old visionary hopes that one rocket will be able to support up to 20 spaceflights.

Even if the space industry-leading company SpaceX performed an out-of-this-world accomplishment, its main mission was of course to respect its contract with NASA, which is to deliver goods to the ISS when needed.

As you may have guessed, this is exactly what they did, the Dragon cargo spacecraft that successfully launched on April 8th was flawlessly delivered to the ISS, where it arrived and docked on April 10th.

But what exactly was on the Dragon spacecraft?

First, there was equipment for an interesting science investigation, which is called the Rodent Research-3-Eli Lilly Investigation.

When humans reside in space, gravity no longer affects their body. This results in decreases in bone density, muscle strength and heart-pumping efficiency. This is why astronauts need to exercise so much in space!

This investigation will use mice to better understand the effects of a particular antibody known for its capability “To prevent muscle wasting in mice on Earth”.

Another science experiment, called Micro-10, “will study fungi in space for the purpose of potentially developing new medicine for use both in space and on Earth”. A couple similar science experiments, generally concerning the study of the human body in space, are now possible due to the arrival of the required equipment on the ISS.

But the major experiment that the Dragon spacecraft carried, was not typical. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is an inflatable module that attaches to the station. It is only a prototype (for now), but the long-term goal is for BEAM to be used in NASA’s future missions to Mars.

After installation on April 16, the inflatable structure grew to attain almost 13 feet in length while having a 10.5-feet diameter.

It is scheduled to stay on the space station for a period of two years, during which the astronauts of the ISS will enter the module three-to-four times a year to retrieve data from the sensors onboard.

If everything goes as planned, Bigelow Aerospace, BEAM’s contractor, might launch another of their prototypes into space by 2020. But this time, it won’t be BEAM, but what they call the autonomous B330 expanding habitat. 

A depiction of how the B330 prototype is expected to look like in 2020. (Bigelow Aerospace)

A depiction of how the B330 prototype is expected to look like in 2020. (Bigelow Aerospace)

As a matter of fact, Bigelow Aerospace announced, on April 11, that they have discussed a partnership with the private rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch their B330 prototype in 2020.

The idea of an inflatable space module is promising: it takes less room on a rocket, but once in space, it provides a place for astronauts to live and work. NASA may even consider these modules when the time comes to plan a journey to Mars!

While the ISS is studying medicine in microgravity, hence its motto “Off the Earth for the Earth”, it is also considering prototypes for long-duration spaceflights and studying the effects it would have on a human.

The journey to Mars is happening!

 

 

 

GRAVITATIONAL WAVES DISCOVERED!!!

By Benjamin Vermette

An artist`s depiction of the destruction of a binary system of dwarf stars where the dwarf stars produce gravitational waves by orbiting each other. (DANA BERRY/NASA)

An artist`s depiction of the destruction of a binary system of dwarf stars where the dwarf stars produce gravitational waves by orbiting each other. (DANA BERRY/NASA)

OMG.

Gravitational waves were discovered! On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) turned up the volume on their detector to hear the sounds of deep space.

It is a major breakthrough – it was even called a “revolution in physics”. Einstein predicted these waves in his general relativity theory a century ago.

To officialise the discovery, an announcement was made on February 11 through a press conference in Washington DC as well as a published paper in Physical Review Letters. It was followed worldwide by scientists and media.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves,” said David Reitze, the executive director at the LIGO laboratory, at the press conference. “We did it!”

But what exactly are gravitational waves?

In 1915, brilliant physicist Albert Einstein published a paper on general relativity.

As I explained in one of my previous articles, the theory of general relativity describes gravity.

In a way, it’s not true that two objects attract each other; the objects bend the space around them, causing a change in their paths. What you need to understand is that empty space is something, like a fabric. Envision it like a bowling ball on a mattress, the bowling ball being a massive celestial object like the Sun or a black hole, and the mattress being the fabric of space (and time). Of course the bowling ball bends the mattress, causing any object, for instance a golf ball, to curve when it passes near the bowling ball.

Is there a special and mysterious force of attraction between the golf ball and the bowling ball? No!

The same happens when the moon orbits the Earth, or the Earth goes around the Sun, or the International Space Station revolves around us. They are like the golf ball going around the bowling ball: they follow their natural motion, or what is called in science their ‘geodesic’, because of the curved space-time.

So, empty space shares qualities with a fabric; it is able to bend, compress and dilate, giving birth to all kinds of physical events.

As David St-Jacques, Canadian astronaut puts it: “If things like massive black holes on the other edge of the Universe were to collide with each other, that would be such a dramatic and massive event that it would send ripples through space-time itself.”

As he explained, it was similar to people in North America asking: “Hm. Could we sense it if a cliff were to collapse on a European coast? Would the waves reach us?”

Waves obtained due to the energy liberated from the cliff collapse move through both water and air (the sound that is generated in the air by this energy occurs in the form of sound waves).

The same goes for when two black holes collide; the energy liberated from this event transforms into waves, which interact with the fabric of space, spreading beyond the point of the collision.

It’s just like the waves of a cliff collapse, but in the emptiness of space (kind of).

“[Albert Einstein] realized that if space is flexible enough to warp, then it should also be able to ripple, to vibrate, to undulate. “And it’s these ripples we call gravitational waves,” said physicist Brian Greene.

So how did LIGO discover those?

1.3 billion light-years away from Earth, two enormous black holes collided, and they caused observable gravitational waves.

The two black holes originally had masses of 29 and 36 solar masses (the mass of the Sun). “After they merged they created a single black hole with a mass of 62 times that of the Sun. You may notice those masses don’t add up right; there’s 3 solar masses missing. That mass didn’t just disappear! It was converted into energy: the energy of the gravitational waves themselves,” wrote Phil Plait, American astronomer, for Slate.

And that’s a lot of energy, enough to distort and bend your body when it passes through you. Only by a tiny, little-bitty amount, but still!

The video above demonstrates the effect (exaggerated) of gravitational waves passing through Earth. 

The LIGO facilities were arranged in such a way that two long cylinders, each measuring precisely the same length, are perpendicular to each other.

 Aerial view of one the LIGO facilities. (NASA)

 Aerial view of one the LIGO facilities. (NASA)

In those long tubes two lasers are shining, being reflected at both ends and those being of the same length, it makes the lasers “come back” at exactly the same time, cancelling each other out.

The only way for the lasers to not come back at the same time, is if the tubes change in length. But how can you do that? Just ask… gravitational waves!

If a gravitational wave passes through Earth, and subsequently through a LIGO facility, the tubes will change in length by a fraction of an atom (!), one being longer and the other being shorter. This way, the lasers won’t come back at the same time, and won’t cancel each other out!

This video will teach you about this in more detail. 

But what does it means, anyway?

In the end, this is what gravitational waves are to the human ear: faint little chirps. This linked soundcloud account features this subtle noise. 

So, how do these faint little chirps influence us, and the future of physics?

The detection of gravitational waves opens up a whole new sphere of astronomy.

Gravitational waves have always been passing through Earth. In the past, physicists have been deaf concerning gravity waves, but now, being able to detect and measure them opens up a whole new way of seeing (or hearing, if you prefer) the universe.

But physicists, astronomers and scientists are not the only group to which the detection of gravitational waves is relevant.

Imagine a world where findings in physics had not been applied, so no more cell phones, computers, and GPSs would exist.

In such a world, physics wouldn’t be irrelevant. I think humankind would still try to develop physics, to understand the universe, and to feed our sense of wonder, because curiosity and imagination is part of us. This is what we have been exploiting since our ancestors started walking on two feet, exploring Africa.

We want to know, we ask questions, we try to understand the world we live in, not only physically, but socially and economically too. Wonder is built into us, just like curiosity.

This is exactly what physics provides to humans. They nourish wonder and satisfy curiosity. We know the universe has more complexity than we can currently comprehend, so what better way to dream, wonder and imagine than to understand it?

If theoretical physics such as cosmology seem irrelevant to you and you have no motivation for understanding your environment or learning something, just do it for the sake of it; the grave will provide plenty of time for not-knowing.

If this doesn’t satisfy you, just think that the dinosaurs didn’t have the right resources to predict and prevent their own extinction. But we do. Thanks to science.

By Benjamin Vermette

The above is an artist's depiction of the view from "Planet Nine". Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The above is an artist's depiction of the view from "Planet Nine". Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

Is there a 9th planet in our solar system?

Caltech researchers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown have found evidence of a ninth planet in our solar system. 

The planet, dubbed Planet Nine, would have a mass 10 times that of Earth and take 10,000 to 20,000 years to make a single revolution around the Sun, hence its late discovery (which shouldn’t be called a discovery yet). Planet Nine would be orbiting the Sun 20 times further out than does Neptune – the outermost planet –, if it exists, and on a highly-elliptical orbit.

Note that the planet was not observed directly: strange behaviours of some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) lead to the conclusion that a ninth planet might be required. "Although we were initially quite skeptical that this planet could exist, as we continued to investigate its orbit and what it would mean for the outer solar system, we become increasingly convinced that it is out there," says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science. "For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the solar system's planetary census is incomplete."

Evidence and a mathematical model was enough to get some astronomers – amateurs and professionals – started on a quest for the observation of Planet Nine.

The whole story started in 2014, when a student of Mike Brown found out that orbital features of some KBOs (small celestial objects beyond Pluto) were similar and thus suggested the presence of a small planet to explain this phenomenon.

Brown, an observer, took the problem to Batygin, who is a theorist, and for a year and a half they worked the problem out. Brown observed the sky as well as the KBOs while Batygin worked out what was possible on the physical standpoint using math and physics. “I would bring in some of these observational aspects; he would come back with arguments from theory, and we would push each other. I don't think the discovery would have happened without that back and forth," says Brown.

Shown here is the possible orbit of Planet Nine along with other distant bodies of our solar system with highly-eccentric elliptical orbits. Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) 

Shown here is the possible orbit of Planet Nine along with other distant bodies of our solar system with highly-eccentric elliptical orbits. Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC) 

Note the irony: Mike Brown, potential discoverer of Planet Nine (if it gets officially discovered), was one of the active astronomers who led to Pluto losing its ‘planet’ status, hence his Twitter handle @plutokiller.

Even if the scientific community isn’t sure the planet exists yet, Brown showed a little confidence on his Twitter profile: “OK, OK, I am now willing to admit: I DO believe that the solar system has nine planets,” he wrote.

Evidence is evidence. Astronomers worldwide are on it: stay tuned for facts.


New Canadian vision system for the ISS

On January 7 the Government of Canada awarded a $1.7-million contract to Neptec Design Group Ltd. of Ottawa, Ontario, to design and build a new high-technology space vision system for the International Space Station (ISS).

Mounted on Dextre, the vision system will be used to support the inspection and maintenance of the ageing structure of the ISS, as small meteorites and space debris regularly hit the Station. It’s not the first time that Neptec’s vision systems are used in space: it previously designed a laser camera system that, mounted on Canadarm2, was used to inspect the tiles of the retired US Space Shuttle while it was in space.

Using a combination of three sensors – an infrared and a high-definition camera, as well as a 3D laser – the vision system will also assist spacecrafts as they dock with the ISS.

Showing Dextre on the right held by Canadarm2 and holding the vision system (www.asc-csa.gc.ca). 

Showing Dextre on the right held by Canadarm2 and holding the vision system (www.asc-csa.gc.ca). 

As the system will launch to the ISS in 2020, its imagery will be available to the public, offering a new view of the station no one ever saw before.

“The Government of Canada is pleased to contribute this new technology that combines these strengths, while giving the world a new vantage point on the International Space Station," said the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

This investment enforces Canada’s role as a reliable space-technology innovator and as a driving force of the world’s space activities.


SpaceX failed to land their rocket on a barge-ship

The promising private company SpaceX, owned by ambitious billionaire Elon Musk, succeeded in landing its rocket on a steady landing platform in Cape Canaveral on December 21st (Refer to my previous post on January 15 for details on this.)

But that was ‘easy’, they wanted a more challenging test: landing their rocket on a drone-like barge-ship, sailing freely on the sea, for example. 

On January 17, after flawlessly launching and deploying the Jason-3 ocean-mapping satellite, the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket called the ball. Hovering through 3- to 4-meter waves, the football-field-sized landing platform waited patiently for the booster to perform the final ‘touchdown’. 

The booster found the platform, deployed its landing legs and landed for a couple seconds, and then this happened. The linked video, posted on Elon Musk's instagram page, shows footage of Falcon 9's landing attempt.

This was the third time SpaceX tried to land the Falcon on a ship, and it was almost a charm.


As Musk said on his Instagram and Twitter accounts, a defective collet might have been the mishap’s cause. Collets are intended to secure the locking of the landing legs. As the leg was not locked tightly enough, it could not support the aircraft's weight, and down it went. The root cause may be that condensation from heavy fog at launch got in there and then froze when it got colder in the upper atmosphere, perhaps cracking the collet.

This is a hypothesis, but one thing is for sure: “Definitely harder to land on a ship. Similar to [land on] an aircraft carrier [versus on the ground]: much smaller target area [on the ship], [which is] also translating & rotating,” Musk tweeted.

It’s still a success to me. Launching a rocket at high speeds and making it deploy a satellite takes some innovation, especially when it’s a private company. But making the rocket flip-over in space and come back to Earth from more than 100 km of altitude, making it slow down and find the barge using its fins to control itself and deploy its landing legs is indeed a success to me.

“It’s a freakin’ technological triumph that they can get anywhere near a landing,” wrote Phil Plait, blogger for Slate.


The Dream Chaser has won the ISS resupply contract award!

On January 14, after delaying the announcement multiple times, NASA finally awarded the second round contract of resupplying the International Space Station (ISS) to three commercial cargo companies. The first round contract was awarded to SpaceX and Orbital ATK in 2008.

The Dream Chaser, previously designed to be a human-carrying spacecraft, was adapted to be unmanned for the possible future cargo missions to the ISS, in case it won the second round contract. And it did!

This amazingly designed spaceship, owned by Sierra Nevada Corporation, will join SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the two other recipients, in 2019, date when the contract will begin service.

Designed by a 50-year-old soviet space shuttle mockup, the Dream Chaser will deliver up to 5500 kg of cargo to the ISS per trip. It will launch on top of a rocket, dock with the station, and when it’s ready it will detach from the orbiting lab and perform a runway landing, just like the American Space Shuttle did.

Image of the cargo version of the Dream Chaser docked to the ISS. (SNC)

Image of the cargo version of the Dream Chaser docked to the ISS. (SNC)

Since the Dream Chaser has never flown into orbit, Sierra Nevada said they would drop the spacecraft from a helicopter for it to perform a landing demonstration in the coming months.

Originally, the contract was intended to only have two recipients, but having three is more advantageous. “One of the considerations from an operational standpoint with ISS is it’s really important to have more than one supply chain, and multiple offerers means that at any given time, the sequence of flights could be one Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, Orbital ATK, so if you lose one, you have the ability for another one being right after it from a dissimilar redundancy, or a different supplier, so that’s a big help to us,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The contract provides a minimum of six flights per selectee, from 2019 to 2024, but “it is likely we will buy more than 18 flights, so we have three winners, and if we need more than 18 flights, then we’ll talk about what happens on those flights,” said Shireman.

The exact value of each recipient’s contract is not precisely known, but Orbital ATK said in a press conference that its six original flights are valued at $1.2 to $1.5 billion USD.

 

 

By Benjamin Vermette 

Landing of first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 on December 21, 2015. (spacex.com)

Landing of first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 on December 21, 2015. (spacex.com)

Third time’s a charm: SpaceX landed their rocket! 

After two failed attempts in January and April 2015, the private company SpaceX finally succeeded in landing their… rocket!

Owned by young billionaire Elon Musk, SpaceX rewrote history books on December 21st as they performed a vertical landing of the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket back at Cape Canaveral, about 10 minutes after it launched.

The second stage of the rocket (the upper part) carried 11 small communication satellites while the first stage (the bottom part) had 9 SpaceX Merlin engines to power them into orbit.

Once the first stage burn was over, the two stages cleanly separated while the bottom one turned around and started an engine burn to slow down as it was headed to the landing zone in Florida.

As it was trying to steady itself, the first stage deployed four landing struts and touched down safely at precisely 9 minutes 44 seconds after it departed: 

It may seem an easy thing to do, but don’t fool yourself: nothing in space is easy. As Miles O’Brien, science reporter, pointed out in an interview with CNN, “this is like balancing a broom pole on your nose, and only harder, lots harder.”

Still not convinced? Look at this video Musk took after the landing, it shows how huge the rocket is!

Minutes after the rocket landing, the second stage completed the mission: it successfully deployed the 11 communication satellites. What a wonderful comeback for SpaceX as their last mission on June 28 was a complete disaster: the rocket blew up in the sky and all the cargo was lost (Read my previous column for more details on this). 

Such a performance is a major breakthrough: it reduces launch cost while creating a 100% reusable rocket!

"Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral." Musk said on Instagram on January 1st. "No damage found, ready to fire again."

We need private companies like SpaceX to lead the way in attempting risky and futuristic feats such as a vertical rocket landing: only then will modern spaceflight evolve.

Congrats SpaceX on such a milestone!


Einstein’s theory of General Relativity turns 100… Relative to Earth

“Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein's General theory of Relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out.” - Professor Stephen Hawking

Basically everything you know about gravity is wrong – unless you’re a physicist, in which case I’m sorry for the offense.

In 1905, shortly after working as a patent clerk, the young Albert Einstein proposed a new theory: the Special theory of Relativity, or STR (not to confound with the General theory of Relativity).

Briefly, it proposes a connection between space and time, which translates into a breathtaking phenomenon. For instance, according to STR, the faster you go, the slower time passes (note that this was tested multiple times, and turns out to be true). Imagine: you’re in a spaceship, going 50% the speed of light (about 150 000 km/s) and you decide to go around our solar system for a while. After a certain amount of time (relative to you) you decide to come back on Earth for a drink (because you’re feeling it). However, when you come back, it is possible, depending on the amount of time you just spent at high speeds, that humanity is gone, or that the Earth is gone, or just that your grandkids are older than you. That’s simple STR fun facts.

However, gravity didn’t seem to apply to Einstein’s STR, so he decided to create a whole new theory which completely changed the world’s way of seeing space and time. 10 years later, on November 25th, 1915, Einstein published his final paper on his theory of General Relativity, just before lecturing his colleagues at the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin.

The major breakthrough of General Relativity from a popular standpoint is that it defines gravity. We know Isaac Newton discovered, in the XVIIth century, a mysterious force: gravity. He wrote a couple mathematical laws describing this force (which is still used today) without further knowing what it was.

Einstein showed – I recall, 100 years ago – that space is something, like a fabric, and it can get bent, distorted, ripped apart, or compressed, by matter. And the bending of space is what causes gravity.

So forget everything you heard in high school (maybe not): two masses don’t attract each other. Masses bend space around them; think of it like a bowling ball on a mattress. What happens if you slide a golf ball next to the bowling ball on your mattress? It curves. Its path will change, like the Moon around the Earth, like the Earth around the Sun, and so on. Did its path bend because of a force of attraction between the two? No! It followed its natural motion.

You don’t stand on the Earth because you are attracted by it, you are just falling, and following your natural motion.  The Earth merely stops you from falling.

Anyway, just try to generally see it that way: matter tells space how to bend, and space tells matter how to move.

In sum, Einstein showed space can warp, causing gravity, and he also showed time can warp. So, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity just turned 100 relative to Earth. At another place in space, in may only be 1 year old!

Everything is… relative!


1st mirror now installed on promising James Webb Space Telescope

With a primary mirror 6 times larger in area than Hubble’s, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the biggest and most powerful astronomical observation-object of all times. With its full structure as big as a tennis court, it will be placed between the Earth and the Sun at a Lagrange point, 1.5 million km from Earth, as Hubble orbits at about 250 km of altitude. Currently in the process of construction, it has a ticket to launch in 2018. 

A full scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space telescope to ever be built, was on display in Austin, Texas in the Southwest Interactive Festival. (wikipedia)

A full scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space telescope to ever be built, was on display in Austin, Texas in the Southwest Interactive Festival. (wikipedia)

Recently, towards the end of November, NASA successfully installed the first of 18 mirrors on the JWST, initiating a major construction breakthrough.

The engineers of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland strategically used a robot arm to install a 1.3-meter hexagonal-shaped gold-plated mirror. Along with another 17 of its kind, this mirror will form what is called the primary mirror, which is 6.5-meter long (for comparison, this is 2.7 times larger than Hubble’s one). The full assembly of these mirrors should be completed towards the beginning of 2016. 

Assembly of the telescope's mirror in NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. (nasa.gov)

Assembly of the telescope's mirror in NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. (nasa.gov)

“After a tremendous amount of work by an incredibly dedicated team across the country, it is very exciting to start the primary mirror segment installation process," said Lee Feinberg, JWST optical telescope element manager at Goddard. "This starts the final assembly phase of the telescope."

The gold coating on the mirrors were chosen for its capacities to reflect infrared light, as the mirrors are primarily made of lightweight beryllium, chosen for its usefulness in extremely low temperatures.

The JWST is a major technological achievement, and will surely answer big cosmological questions, such as: how did the universe begin and evolve, how will it end (or will it end?), how did our solar system form and will help astronomers and scientists on the search for extraterrestrial life.

We, Canadians, can be proud: the Canadian Space Agency works with NASA and the international science community to make this project reality! 


Japanese spacecraft finally enters Venus’ orbit 5 years after its 1st try

What a show of interplanetary mechanics-application and perseverance.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) finally succeeded – after a first try five years ago to the day, in December 2010 – to place its Akatsuki spacecraft in Venus’ orbit.

Back then, on its initial try on December 6 2010, Akatsuki – which means “Dawn” – brushed past Venus at high speeds on what was supposed to be a lovely orbital catch. JAXA’s engineers later determined that this failure was due to the probe’s main engine incapacity to generate power in reason of a cracked valve in the propulsion system.

The following five years was for Akatsuki somehow a bright “dark” period. In orbit around the Sun, it was depressively waiting for the mission’s officials to make a decision about its fate. But as you may have guessed, the team didn’t give up: they gave Akatsuki a second opportunity to complete its tasks.

On December 6, 2015 this time, the spacecraft relied on the firing of its minor thrusters to escape the Sun’s orbit and head towards the cloud-covered planet. And it worked! Even if the probe isn’t as close as previously planned to Earth’s sister, it will still be able to fulfill its scientific objectives – as long as it stays in good shape – such as studying the planet’s greenhouse gas-filled and toxic atmosphere.

It’s like being on a commercial flight and trying to land a second time 5 years after the first attempt! 

(Published December 4, 2015)

by Benjamin Vermette

 

Mars atmosphere mystery solved

Strong evidence suggests that there was a time when Mars was a nice little cozy planet, where rivers streamed next to a sea as large as Earth’s Arctic ocean. Temperatures were relatively warm and the atmosphere was dense enough to keep the water on its surface.  Mars seemed to have had suitable conditions for biological evolution to take place.

But how did the atmosphere go away? Why did Mars transition, from a planet with the capacity to harbour life, to the Mars we know today, which is cold and dry?

According to new results from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which has been studying the planet’s atmosphere since it started orbiting in September 2014, everything started about 3.7 billion years ago. It was during this time that Mars’ magnetic field “switched off”.

Solar wind, a stream of charged particles (mainly protons and electrons) coming from the Sun at speeds of millions of kilometres per hour, were no longer shielded when it passed the red planet due to the absence of a magnetic field. The wind thus gave the carbon dioxide and oxygen ions in the air sufficient energy to leave the atmosphere by generating an electric field in the upper atmosphere, perhaps causing auroras.

Solar winds displacing ions of Martian atmosphere. (NASA Scientific Visualization Studio) 

Solar winds displacing ions of Martian atmosphere. (NASA Scientific Visualization Studio) 

This video demonstrates this phenomenon more clearly. (ObservingSpace.com)

The current escape rate of the planet’s atmosphere is about 100 grams per second. However, during intense solar storms such as coronal mass ejection, which happened to Mars in March 2015, the escape rate can be amplified by a factor of 10 or 20, according to MAVEN principal investigator Bruce Jakosky, of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Emissions of ultraviolet light from the Sun also played a role in stripping off our neighbour planet’s atmosphere.

So the question remains: Is it true that less than 4 billion years ago, before this entire chaotic saga started, Mars had an environment suitable for life? The lack of evidence makes scientists struggle on this question, but at least it’s a reasonable question to ask, considering a recent study showed that Earth sheltered life as early as 4.1 billion years ago.

"Mars appears to have had a more clement environment for just as long as it took life to form on Earth," Jakosky said. "That doesn't tell us that life did form on Mars, but it says it's very plausible. It's at least not a stupid idea to ask whether it did."

The question now is whether the same can happen to Earth. Yes, indeed. And it is happening right now. Earth is actually losing atmospheric pressure, but don’t worry, it’s insignificant. What protects us from what happened on Mars is Earth’s strong magnetic field, which, due to our planet being bigger, is not inclined to disappear as it did on the red planet.

Thanks again, $671-million MAVEN, for answering our questions and doubts!

JOB ALERT: NASA is currently recruiting astronaut

Looking for a job? Are you American? Do you have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, mathematics or are you a medical doctor? NASA will be accepting astronaut-applications from December 14 through mid-February. Applications will be accepted at www.usajobs.gov

It is preferable to possess an advanced degree in such fields, along with at least three years of related professional experience, or at least 1000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft.

The chosen astronauts will be announced in mid-2017 after a complex selection process, which goes from intense physical challenges to IQ tests. They will need perfect vision (applicants with corrected vision through laser surgery are now accepted) and an extremely good blood pressure.

The selected astronaut class will possibly be the first one to step on Mars, but one thing is for sure: they will contribute to NASA’s journey to the red planet. “This next group of American space explorers will inspire the Mars generation to reach for new heights, and help us realize the goal of putting boot prints on the Red Planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

The new astronauts will be the first generation of space pioneers to fly in the Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and in the SpaceX Crew Dragon, both currently in the design and construction process.

But wait. Don’t ditch your job too quickly. According to WIRED, your chance of being selected, considering the projected number of applications, is less than 0.17%. It seems practically impossible, however, I don’t know any other jobs that come with an all-expenses paid voyage to space. 

Astronaut Scott Kelly’s recent activities during his “year in space”

Launched to the International Space Station (ISS) for an almost-year-long mission in space, American astronaut Scott Kelly has been busy in the past few weeks.  He, and his American colleague Kjell Lindgren who was also onboard the ISS, performed two seven-hour spacewalks recently.

On October 28, after gearing up their spacesuits, they: installed cables for a new docking mechanism, mounted a physics experiment and lubricated the station’s Canadarm2. One week later, on November 5, reconfiguring one of the ammonia cooling systems was their task.

Previously, towards the middle of October, Scott Kelly became the American with the most days passed in space, surpassing Mike Fincke at 382 days. By the time he comes back, he will have logged 500 days. That is pretty impressive, but not if he were Russian: cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 400 consecutive days on Mir in 1994; and Gennedy Padalka, who launched alongside Kelly in March, lived in orbit for 879 days – and he said he wanted to break the thousand mark.

To celebrate, NASA made this amazing video:

Female-only moon mission experiment in Russia

In Russia, on October 28, a simulated flight to the moon started onboard an isolated mock spacecraft. Six Russian women, aged 22 to 34, began an eight-day experiment to study females’ behaviour in high-stress environments – such as during a spaceflight – as well as their ability to handle pressure. 

After more than a week under constant observation, on November 9, the girls were “unleashed” and set free to review the mission.

The ladies – Yelena Luchitskaya, Darya Komissarova, Polina Kuznetsova, Anna Kussmaul, Inna Nosikova, and Tatyana Shiguyeva – all had experiences and expertise in medicine, biomedical sciences or psychology. Their main mission checklist, excluding simulating a landing on the Moon, consisted of 10 scientific experiments which left them with about 1 hour and a half of free time per day to read, socialize, etc.

Experiment supervisor Sergei Ponomaryov explained one of the mission’s goals: “There’s never been an all-female crew on the ISS. We consider the future of space belongs equally to men and women and unfortunately we need to catch up a bit after a period when unfortunately there haven’t been too many women in space.”

Unfortunately, the women were asked sexist questions during the press conference prior to the start of the mission, such as “How will you deal without makeup for eight days?”.

58 female astronauts have flown in space – 49 come from NASA, 4 come from the Soviet/Russian space program.

NASA postpones second round of ISS commercial resupply contract

NASA has postponed for a third time its selection of two commercial cargo companies to be awarded the second round contract of resupplying the International Space Station (ISS). The first round contract, which will end in 2018, was awarded to SpaceX and Orbital ATK in 2008.

On November 5, the day when the agency was supposed to announce the victors, NASA assured the selection will be made before January 30, 2016. This delay is partly due to SpaceX CRS-7’s mishap on June 28, where the company and the whole resupply system were perturbed. Specific details about this mishap are expanded on in my previous article

The contract, dubbed CRS-2, is valued between $1 billion and $1.4 billion and is intended to begin service in 2018 and end in 2024.

Two companies will be selected between Orbital ATK, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Lockheed Martin to deliver about 20,000 kg of cargo to the ISS per year. Note that Boeing, one of the original contenders, will no longer be running. NASA didn’t specify its choice of ignoring Boeing, but the company will now put its main focus on the commercial crew contract. Unofficial sources state that Lockheed Martin is out too, but this was not confirmed either by Lockheed or NASA.

SNC and its Dream Chaser spacecraft, which were bypassed by NASA for the first round of the ISS commercial resupply contract as well as for last year’s commercial crew contract, are still in the race and hope to be successful.

“We are still in the competition, but cannot make any statements beyond that yet as we are still in a open competition.” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems.

The Dream Chaser spacecraft, first designed to be a human-carrying spaceship, is now being adapted to be unmanned for the possible future cargo missions to the ISS.

Sierra Nevada Corporation`s Dream Chaser spacecraft undergoing ground testing at NASA`s Edwards Air Force Base in California. (wikipedia)

Sierra Nevada Corporation`s Dream Chaser spacecraft undergoing ground testing at NASA`s Edwards Air Force Base in California. (wikipedia)

5 companies originally battled ferociously for this contract. 4 remain. 2 will survive.

(Published on October 27, 2015)

By Benjamin Vermette

 

NASA Confirmed the Presence of Liquid Water on Mars’ Surface

On September 28, NASA called a major press conference to announce “a major science finding concerning Mars”.  

What it was in reality was that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera showed spectrum evidence of, to make long story short, salty water flowing on the red planet. Be aware that this flowing water is temporary, not persistent liquid water. But why?

It is thought that water from Mars’ atmosphere is “absorbed” by Mars’ surface, where it stocks until it is dense enough for it to flow. This process would be made possible because of the presence of a chemical called perchlorate in the Martian soil, substance with the capacities to hold water. But the thing is, Mars’ atmosphere is really thin – 1% the density of Earth’s – and it’s not filled with water either. Even this seems unlikely. However, it is the preferred hypothesis of the scientists, which admits the actual source is still a mystery.

And how about life on Mars? Does water mean life? Well scientists know that microbial life can survive similar conditions here on Earth, but as they say, knowledge of the conditions on Mars is still too limited to apply a reasonable comparison. We also know Mars hitherto had vast amounts of flowing water on its surface which was comparable to the size of the Arctic Ocean here on Earth. It seems to me that Mars had a better chance of harbouring life millions of years ago.

The question of life in Mars’ salty liquid surface water is a mystery, and it may still be for a while because NASA and other space agencies are not allowed to investigate it. "The problem [of exploring habitable regions of Mars] is not exploding rockets, shrinking budgets, political gamesmanship or fickle public support," Lee Billings writes for Scientific American. "Rather, the problem is life itself – specifically, the tenacity of Earthly microbes, and the potential fragility of Martian ones."

We wouldn’t want to kill microscopic Martians. Let them evolve. 

Stephen Hawking May Just Have Solved a Huge Black-hole Mystery

A black hole is a zone in space that has so much gravitational attraction that nothing – not even light – can escape, hence their names ‘black holes’.

However, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who already changed our way of seeing black holes, recently explained a new radical theory that might have solved the so-called ‘information paradox’. This would mean that there actually is a method to escape those cosmic giants.

When an object enters a black hole, it gets destroyed. Everybody agrees on that. However, what scientists have been arguing about is what the black hole does with the object’s information. That information could be, for instance, the number, arrangement and order of the object’s atoms, the object’s energy level, trajectory, etc. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity states that all information must be destroyed as it enters the cosmic hole but the modern theory of quantum mechanics claims it can’t.

The key to Hawking’s new theory dates way back to the 1970s, when Stephen Hawking said that black holes could actually emit something, which is information-less photons (think of photons as tiny “particles” of light). This emission is called ‘Hawking radiation’, and the physicist recently posed that Hawking radiation could “pick-up” information and move it beyond the black hole. But why hasn’t he thought of this before?

“I propose that the information is not stored in the interior of the black hole as one might expect, but on its boundary, the event horizon,” he said at the end of August at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. The event horizon acts as a point of no return: once you pass this point, you are doomed to die in the black hole. He said that information of a 3D object that was destroyed is stored as a 2D hologram on the event horizon, phenomenon known as ‘super translation’. Thus the information gets carried by Hawking radiation: but it’s not all good news since the information is basically useless. "The information about ingoing particles is returned, but in a chaotic and useless form," he said. "For all practical purposes, the information is lost."

"The message of this lecture is that black holes aren’t as black as they are painted," Hawking said. "They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly come out in another universe."

Yep, you heard. The Professor said “the hole would need to be large, and if it was rotating, it might have a passage to another universe. But you couldn't come back to our universe.”

"So, although I'm keen on spaceflight, I'm not going to try that."

NASA SLS Completes Critical Design Review

“We’re building a rocket that’s going to take humans out further than we’ve ever been, deeper into the solar system than we’ve ever been, that’s a really exciting thing,” said Todd May, Deputy Center Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Officially, NASA has finished the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will hopefully carry astronauts to asteroids, maybe back to the Moon, and eventually to Mars. This milestone is seen as approval for the engineers to begin full-scale construction of the rocket, even though some parts are still being built.

The major change this design review brought to the initial SLS is that the 20-story core stage of the rocket will not be painted in white as previously thought, but orange, the natural color of the core stage foam insulation – the same rusty orange as the Space Shuttle’s external tank.

In consequence, this removes a lot of weight: “Not applying the paint will reduce the vehicle mass by potentially as much as 1,000 pounds, resulting in an increase in payload capacity,” said Shannon Ridinger, a NASA spokesperson. “This is similar to what was done for the external tank for the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle was originally painted white for the first two flights and later a technical study found painting to be unnecessary.”

SLS before design review. (Wikipedia)

SLS before design review. (Wikipedia)

SLS after design review. (NASA)

SLS after design review. (NASA)

Note that the grey and orange stripes we can see on the solid rocket boosters may or may not be painted on the boosters for the first SLS test flight in 2018, NASA officials said. 

Powered by four liquid-hydrogen-fuelled RS-25 engines (which are basically former Space Shuttle engines) and two solid rocket boosters, SLS is expected to produce as much as 8.4 million pounds of thrust.

Its first test flight will be in 2018, as it will perform an uncrewed spaceflight to lunar orbit. A crewed mission is expected to launch in 2023, if everything goes well, on another flight to lunar orbit. 

Successful Heat Shield Test for Future Mars Exploration Vehicles

NASA is still testing and developing new technologies for future Mars’ crewed missions, and building a functional heat shield is one of them.

A heat shield is what keeps the capsule – carrying cargo or humans – from bursting into flames. In fact, when the capsule enters an atmosphere at high speeds (in this case Mars’ thin atmosphere), air in front of the speeding spacecraft gets compressed and thus creates heat, and eventually fire. Let me clear one misconception here—it’s not friction that creates fire—it’s compressed air. This is exactly what happens when you see a shooting star which, unfortunately, is not a star but rather air that gets compressed in front of the meteoroid coming at high speeds in our atmosphere. This compression creates heat and fire and thus the “shooting star” illusion. So, to protect the capsule from catching fire, a heat shield is required to insulate it and to deflect fire.

Modern rockets are designed with limited space to carry the spacecraft and its heat shield. However, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, employs engineers that have a solution to counter this limitation: the Adaptive Deployable Entry and Placement Technology (ADEPT) heat shield. Deployed mechanically, ADEPT is made out of carbon fabric, which expands and opens like an umbrella.

At the beginning of October, Ames’s engineers successfully completed a heating simulation of an ADEPT model using temperatures similar to those it will face during a Mars’ re-entry. Reaching 3100 degrees Fahrenheit, the extremely hot airflow was deflected by the 21-inch diameter nozzle of the shield. The blue streaks you see are due to the decomposition of a resin installed on the surface of the shield to prevent degradation of the fabric joints.

Heating simulation testing ADEPT heat shield. (NASA)

Heating simulation testing ADEPT heat shield. (NASA)

Provided a couple of more years of development, ADEPT will probably protect astronauts as they enter Mars’ atmosphere for the first time. This is a key step toward NASA’s journey to the red planet.

Crewed Orion Capsule Launch Delayed to 2023

On September 14, NASA announced a two-year delay of its first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carrying a crewed Orion spacecraft.

Actually, this is not NASA’s fault. The blame is on the American Congress, which decides where to direct the required funding.

The Space Launch System is the new rocket that NASA is trying to develop to send astronauts back to the Moon and eventually to Mars. However, had the Congress primarily funded the Commercial Crew program instead, which promotes private companies like SpaceX to send Americans in space, a test crewed launch would have been possible in 2015. However, this time Congress funded SLS and Orion – which will receive an additional $7 billion USD – so its first crewed mission is scheduled in 2023.

SLS and Orion are big and powerful, but expensive. Commercial crew is cheaper, but say, less controllable? They could both send humans to Mars, but in different time frames.

Congress must fairly fund what is best for NASA, and NASA must present a clear vision of its plan to go to Mars.

You don’t want ads getting on rockets or on spacesuits to maintain a wealthy space business.

In Video: NASA Crashes Plane for Test

Towards the end of August, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia was the home of a third and last simulated crash of a Cessna 172 for safety’s sake.

Scientists and engineers at Langley dropped a 1974 airplane from a 30-meter height, which was carrying multiple cameras and sensors, as well as five Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs). ELTs are used to send signals to satellite in case of an emergency, to allow rescue teams to know the position of the crashed plane.

The test was conducted to improve ELTs, which have “to work in extreme circumstances of an airplane mishap,” NASA officials wrote in a statement. "Included in those extreme circumstances are the possibilities of excessive vibration, fire and impact damage. NASA research is designed to find practical ways to improve ELT system performance and robustness, giving rescue workers the best chance of saving lives."

The Search and Rescue Mission Office at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland financed this simulated drop on cement as well as the whole ELT research.

(Published on October 6, 2015)

By Benjamin Vermette

 

300-Year-Old Science Mystery Solved

Why is Iapetus half-light, half-dark? This question has been in the minds of scientists since 1671, the year when astronomer Giovanni Cassini discovered a new, faint moon orbiting along Saturn’s western side.

Cassini tried to follow this newly discovered satellite in its orbit, but the moon was completely invisible when it was on Saturn’s eastern side. The following year, the same happened. Cassini saw Iapetus on Saturn’s western side, but not on the eastern side. It was only in 1705, after more than three decades of telescope evolution and improvement, that Cassini was able to see the moon on both sides of Saturn, even though it was six times fainter on the eastern side than on the western side.

Why? In 2007, more than 300 years after Giovanni Cassini saw his first glance of Iapetus, the Cassini space probe arrived at Saturn and started to observe the mysterious moon from up close.  What it found there was spectacular. Iapetus was in fact two-toned, with one hemisphere about fifteen times more reflective than the other.

But again, why? Iapetus is not like Saturn’s other moons, as it orbits the gas planet twice as far out. 

Iapetus's orbit around Saturn. (wikipedia)

Iapetus's orbit around Saturn. (wikipedia)

Even further from Saturn than Iapetus is Phoebe, a failed comet that was captured by Saturn’s gravity long ago. Phoebe has been emitting a stream of particles for a long time, and this stream has even formed a ring of particles around Saturn. This dust and ice ring has been found to be very large — in fact, large enough so that it ‘touches’ Iapetus’s orbit — and less dense than any other ring discovered so far. Phoebe and its ring particles circle Saturn clockwise, however, Iapetus revolves counter-clockwise. What this means is that Iapetus gets hit by some of the particles emanating from Phoebe’s ring, like bugs on a windshield. So one side of Iapetus is darkened by those black particles from Phoebe’s ring, while the other hemisphere stays clean.

In other words, the darkened side of Iapetus is hotter (because it’s black), than the bright side (which is colder). When ice hits the ‘black’ side, it boils down from its solid phase and evaporates back into outer space, which is why the dark side stays black. The ice can only survive on the ‘white’ side of Iapetus because no ice can stay and take shelter on the ‘black,’ hot hemisphere. And this is why there’s a bright side and a dark side.

If science wants an answer, it will get it, even 300 years later.

Evidence Of Alien Life Found On Comet 67P

On November 12, 2014, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Philae lander accomplished a first in humanity’s history: it performed a soft landing on the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a celestial body about 500 million kilometres from Earth. 

Photograph of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by Rosetta's Philae Lander. (wikipedia) 

Photograph of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by Rosetta's Philae Lander. (wikipedia) 

And in late August 2015, scientists claimed that the Philae lander had made contact with alien life — at least in the view of two leading scientists in charge of this mission.

In fact, according to The Guardian, astronomer and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe of the University of Cardiff and his colleague Max Willis believe that features on comet 67P are best explained by the hypothesis of alien life living under the crust. Calm down, it’s not an intelligent civilization with an evil plan to destroy humankind; it would just be microbial life.

Upon landing, the Philae lander confirmed the presence of an organic-laden black crust on 67P. Since all organic matter originates from once-living organisms, Wickramasinghe and Willis maintain that the matter in the crust came from some sort of alien microbial life.

To strengthen their arguments, Willis and Wickramasinghe declared that the presence of frozen lakes on the comet means that water — a prerequisite key for life — exists on 67P.

Unfortunately, the Philae lander is not equipped with special instruments to confirm the presence of microbes on its home comet; it was originally planned to do so, but this aspect got cancelled during the project’s approval phase.

At best, if these claims are right, they prove that we are not alone in the universe. However, if they are (and they are likely to be) wrong, they prove that there is organic matter on a random comet, and that it must have come from somewhere …

A Twice-In-A-Lifetime Event Occurred On September 27

A total lunar eclipse happens a couple of times per year. But a lunar eclipse combined with a supermoon is much more unique, and this is what we call a Super Blood Moon.

First of all, what is a lunar eclipse?

As you may know, the Earth revolves around the Sun while the moon revolves around the Earth. A total lunar eclipse is when the Earth gets between the Sun and the Moon, thereby creating a shadow over the Moon and giving the Moon a little red tint. This happens two or three times a year.

What’s the difference with a solar eclipse? This is when the Moon gets between the Earth and the Sun, causing a shadow to move over the Sun in daytime here on Earth. These are much more unusual.

And what is a supermoon?

The Moon goes around the Earth in an elliptical orbit. Logically, this causes the Moon to sometimes be at its most distant point from the Earth (apogee) and sometimes at its closest point (perigee). A supermoon occurs when the Moon is at its perigee (closest to us) so it appears to us up to 14% larger in diameter. Surprisingly, the difference in size is barely noticeable to the naked eye.

However, when you see a very large moon on the horizon, it’s probably not a supermoon as it only appears larger due to an optical illusion.

On September 27, a total lunar eclipse occurred when the Moon was a supermoon. Combined, these two phenomena are so rare they only took place 5 times since 1900, the last time being in 1982.  

Super Blood Moon captured from Upton, Merseyside. (wikipedia)

Super Blood Moon captured from Upton, Merseyside. (wikipedia)

I hope you didn’t miss the show, because the next time a Super Blood Moon will happen will be in 2033.

September Was The Month When The World Didn’t End

Brace yourselves brave humans, because between September 22, 2015, and September 28, 2015, a massive asteroid will violently hit our home planet and destroy life as we know it! But wait … I’m still alive! We’re still alive! We survived!  

Once again, an online community of biblical conspiracy theorists claimed our end. But this time people went so crazy that NASA needed to call a press conference to clarify everything.

In fact, the self-proclaimed prophet Reverend Efrain Rodriguez had, since 2010, constantly warned NASA about an upcoming deadly asteroid. Rodriguez said that a message from God revealed to him the imminent apocalypse where an asteroid would have hit the ocean near Puerto Rico and cause a massive earthquake and tsunami, killing everyone in North and South Americas.

Rodriguez also claimed that President Obama was briefed on the subject and that a major intervention to protect the "rich and powerful" had been made.

A meeting between the French foreign minister and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in May 2014 would also have been a proof of the September 2015 disaster: "We have 500 days to avoid climate chaos. And I know that President Obama and John Kerry himself are committed on this subject and I’m sure that with them, with a lot of other friends, we shall be able to reach success on this very important matter," said the French foreign minister.

And of course, conspiracy theorists exploited this statement as far as they could; especially on the online blog called Coercian Code – Dark Times Upon Us, which declared: “This was the public announcement to the world of what is coming on September 24 2015, the end of the 500 day count, when the Abyss will open and the days of darkness will begin.”

Without surprise, we "survived" this prophetic announcement, as we did in 2000 and in 2012.

Fools are everywhere. Fortunately, science is too, to set things right from wrong.

New Horizons’ Historic Flyby

(Published on September 18, 2016)

By Benjamin Vermette

 

History has been made on July 14, 2015. For the first time ever in humanity’s history, a man-made spacecraft flew through the dark and cold territory of the only major celestial object at the very edge of our solar system, the dwarf planet Pluto. At their farthest points, Pluto is 7.5 billion kilometers from Earth which means light, which travels at roughly 300 000 kilometers per second, needs about seven hours to make a single Earth-Pluto trip, a trip that took the NASA’s New Horizons probe more than nine years (and this is still the fastest space-probe ever built).

An artist's depiction of the New Horizons' proximity to Pluto and Charon. (wikipedia)

An artist's depiction of the New Horizons' proximity to Pluto and Charon. (wikipedia)

New Horizons: An Engineering Beauty

Launched on January 19, 2006, the New Horizons probe took off with one main objective in mind: rewriting history books. Mapping the surface and composition of Pluto and Charon (Pluto’s biggest moon), looking for rings and additional moons around Pluto, searching for an atmosphere on Charon and characterizing the neutral atmosphere of Pluto and its escape rate were only secondary objectives. About nine hours after launch, it reached the Moon’s orbit, a feature that took the Apollo modules more than three and a half days. It was just beginning its journey to the dwarf-planet Pluto.

To get to the edge of the solar system, New Horizons gathered unique systems designed by renowned engineers:

·         This grand-piano-sized probe uses 16 small hydrazine-fuel thrusters mounted around the spacecraft. The thrusters were designed in different sizes so the Pluto-explorer craft could perform major manoeuvres just as well as small ones;

·         X-band communications system was equipped on New Horizons so it could relay science data and status reports to Earth in exchange of commands based on precise radiometric tracking;

·         A single radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) is enough to provide, on average, the 230 watts needed for the electrical systems onboard the space-probe to get power. The RTG gets power through the natural process of radioactive decay of plutonium dioxide. As a matter of fact, the U.S. Department of Energy provided New Horizons 24 pounds of plutonium dioxide just before launch.

The NASA New Horizons spacecraft is literally a combination of the most high-end technologies for every system needed. That’s why it’s surprising when you learn the total cost was only $700 million. It’s the most cost-effective space machine ever built. New Horizons is the future.

New Horizons’ Journey, From A To Z

On September 21, 2006, only about seven months after a Mars flyby, New Horizons took the first images of Pluto at a distance of roughly 4,200,000,000 km, or 28.07 Astronomical Units, which means 28.07 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun. The pictures were taken using the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), a (very) long-distance camera critical for tracking distant targets to help specialists manoeuvre the probe through the Kuiper belt objects.

LORRI also took a picture of Jupiter on September 6, 2006, before the whole New Horizons spacecraft received a gravity assist from the gas giant, with its closest approach being on February 28, 2007. Using Jupiter’s gravity, New Horizons saw its speed increased by 23 km/s (83,000 km/h). That meant the probe would arrive three years earlier to Pluto.

This wonderful technological achievement, otherwise called New Horizons, spent most of the rest of its journey in hibernation mode, waiting for the big day, July 14, 2015.

At 11:49:57 a.m. UTC on a Tuesday, July 14 2015, a gold-coloured space-exploring machine built by man brushed past the frontier of our solar system, more precisely at 12,500 kilometers above Pluto’s surface. After nine and a half years of hard work and patience, New Horizons was there!

This historical flyby gathered a lot of scientific data; some of which is still classified by NASA (no, there are no aliens on Pluto), other data that is still being processed by New Horizons and will be sent home soon, and breathtaking close-up Pluto pictures.  

Close up photo of Pluto's surface captured by the New Horizons spacecraft. (nasa.gov)

Close up photo of Pluto's surface captured by the New Horizons spacecraft. (nasa.gov)

This is one of the close-up pictures of Pluto’s surface, and guess what this image brought? Questions! 11,000-foot icy mountains on Pluto: How? According to NASA geologists, they formed 100 million years ago. This makes them the youngest mountains in the solar system! Ah, science! Numerous pictures were taken, of Pluto, Charon and its other moons. You can find them on the NASA website. (nasa.gov) 

Cool. So, New Horizons flew by Pluto. Where is it going next?

On August 28, 2015, the NASA’s New Horizons’ team announced their jewel’s next destination. Nearly a billion and a half kilometers beyond Pluto lies a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) dubbed 2014 MU. It’s kind of an ancient KBO that is believed to have formed where it orbits right now. New Horizons is expected to reach its new target on January 1, 2019.

Is Pluto A Planet?

The good old debate persists, after its first apparition on September 13, 2006, when Pluto was demoted to a ‘dwarf-planet’. There are three basic criteria given by the International Astronomical Union that a celestial object, mainly from our solar system, must meet to earn the official title of ‘planet’:

1.     The object must be in orbit around the Sun. Pluto is, no doubt;

2.     The object’s gravity must be massive enough to put it in a shape of hydrostatic equilibrium. Basically, this means the object is symmetrically rounded into a spheroid shape, which means, obviously, Pluto meets the second criterion as well;

3.     The object must have cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. That means the planet must be gravitationally dominant of its orbital zone. Pluto fails that third criterion. It isn’t gravitationally dominant. Pluto is only 0.07 times more massive than the mass of the objects in its orbit (Earth is 1.7 million times the mass of the objects in its orbit, which includes the Moon, the Space Station, etc.).This is why it was demoted.

However, a lot of definitions of planet exists, and a lot of people think Pluto should be given back its status of a planet because it meets all of the criteria of their favourite planet definition. Since the Pluto flyby on July 14, the debate is more intense than ever. As a matter of fact, the debate became so explosively acute that a petition is out to declare Pluto a planet again:

Wait! Before signing the petition, remember: if Pluto falls out of its orbit and falls towards the Sun, its ice will melt and it will form a tail which is strange behaviour for a planet. (Friendly reminder: it’s a comet’s behaviour.)

Our solar system is like any other solar system in the galaxy, and our galaxy is like any other galaxy in the Universe. But for us, it’s special. Our solar system is a vast and convoluted cosmic ocean, the only one which, as far as we know, has the right capacities to harbour life, and humanity has relatively just started to sail on it. Yet, we have discovered so many astonishing facts about it that our only motivation to keep navigating its interplanetary vacuum is our quest for knowledge; nothing about patriotic pride and nothing about a certain ‘space race’. Only since July 14, can we declare, as an intelligent civilization in being, that every major island of our own cosmic ocean has been explored, and this is something to be proud of. 

Fake photos and a problematic parachute: This month in space

By Benjamin Vermette

Space pictures aren’t always real

A lot of well-established and popular accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr recently posted this picture, claiming to be taken from Mars, and asserting that the three vertically-aligned lights in the sky were Earth, Venus and Jupiter. If you conducted a search for ‘mars skyline’ you’ll immediately see the image.

The problem with this photo is that it isn’t real.

Phil Plait is an American astronomer and he loves debunking ‘bad’ astronomy. He analyzed this image and maintains that the landscape color is too saturated. Compare the landscape of the photo to real ones taken by the Curiosity rover, and the difference is immediately clear.

Also the sky is the wrong color; Mars’ sky is a blue/grey.

The picture contains too many clouds and they also look like they’ve been digitally designed by software.

If that isn’t enough to prove the image wrong, well, let’s look deeper!

If you look very carefully, at the bottom left of the picture, you can see the letters ‘NE’, which stands for ‘northeast’. This acronym is what you see when you use software programs like SkySafari or Starry Night to display the sky. It points out the cardinal directions.

This means the picture is an image generated by a computer as a representation of a real scene.

However, if you want to see a real picture of Earth taken from Mars, the Spirit rover took one in 2004 (and, unsurprisingly, the real thing is much less visually dramatic).

A real photo depicting how Earth appears from Mars. (NASA photo). 

A real photo depicting how Earth appears from Mars. (NASA photo). 

RS-25 engine test

The fledgling NASA Space Launch System (SLS) is a new-generation rocket that will carry astronauts to asteroids and eventually to Mars in the 2030s.

Four RS-25 engines and two solid rocket boosters will carry SLS in the vacuum of interplanetary space, where no human has yet ventured.

The RS-25 engines are simply former space shuttle main engines operating at higher power levels to provide the additional thrust needed to power the SLS. “While we are using proven space shuttle hardware with these engines, SLS will have different performance requirements,” said Steve Wofford, manager of the SLS Liquid Engines Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

On June 11 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, a third static RS-25 fire test was performed, the previous ones being in January and at the end of May. For 500 seconds, the engine successfully burned and therefore completed a step towards the SLS first test launch, scheduled for 2017.

The next test was on June 25, also at Stennis Space Center — but this time the engine burned for 625 seconds.

Three additional tests were scheduled to occur sometime in July and August before the initial series is completed.

These tests are critical towards sending men to Mars and perhaps back on the moon, so let’s hope everything goes as planned.

Pluto’s pockmarks

Pluto is a mysterious world.

The NASA New Horizons probe was launched in 2006 and performed its Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015, becoming the first ever human-made object to visit the dwarf-planet.

As New Horizons got closer, a more detailed view of the small world was made available — and it surprised everyone.

(NASA photo). 

(NASA photo). 

The spots you see (picture on the right) originally appeared blurred together due to low resolution (picture on the left), however, as the Pluto-explorer probe got closer and took higher-resolution pictures, it was able to show four distinct spots.

On June 27, when the spots were discovered, some speculated they were impact sites, where meteorites would have impacted. But they look a bit too evenly spaced. And after all, they’re all over the same hemisphere of Pluto.

Some think the spots are geysers or other phenomenon arising from the idea that Pluto might be geologically active. 

However, the pictures are too poor in details to really identify the spots.

Watch out ISS, there’s rocket debris!

The International Space Station. (NASA photo). 

The International Space Station. (NASA photo). 

Carried into orbit by a space shuttle in 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) keeps supporting high-end scientific research. This $150-billion laboratory is the product of more than 17 years of nation-collaboration, and this is why it needs to be protected.

On June 8, the ISS conducted a pre-determined debris avoidance manoeuvre, to get out of the way of a used Minotaur rocket part. The debris was tracked the morning before, allowing ISS’ teams a day to gather additional data.

On Monday, tracking data showed that the path of the ISS was not sufficiently changed, so the rocket debris still presented a menace. Therefore, the ISS’ teams decided to use the thrusters of Progress M-26M, a capsule docked at the station, to clear the debris from entering the imaginary safety zone around the ISS, where no debris are ‘allowed’ to enter.

Progress’ engines burned for about 5 minutes, putting the ISS in a slightly higher orbit and increasing its velocity by 0.3 metres per second. 

A good team effort resulted in a successful debris avoidance manoeuvre, avoiding a collision with a part of a used Minotaur rocket, launched from NASA Wallops, Virginia, in November 2013.

Lately, a great number of debris and satellites are dropping from their original orbit and may present a danger to the ISS.

NASA’s new Mars lander test: Parachute failure

The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) program is projected to cost about $290 million (CAD).

LDSD is a 3.4-ton lander designed to allow NASA carrying more massive payloads on the surface of Mars. LDSD will carry heavy rovers and payload at supersonic speed in Mars’ atmosphere, decelerate it and perform a soft landing on the red planet’s surface.

On June 8, NASA tested for the second time its ‘flying saucer’, as they like to call LDSD. High above Hawaii, at 180,000 feet of altitude to be more precise, LDSD fired solid-fuelled Star 48 retro-rockets, designed by Orbital ATK, to slow the lander from Mach 4 to Mach 2.35, which is a safe speed to deploy a giant 100-foot-wide supersonic parachute.

The thing is, the parachute did not deploy as expected. Okay, yes it did, however, one second after deployment, the chute ripped apart in the supersonic airflow. “A preliminary look at our loads data indicate that the parachute developed full, or nearly full, drag up to the point where that damage can be observed,” said Ian Clark, the experiment’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A camera onboard the lander “shows what looks to be a largely, if not fully, intact parachute at full inflation,” Clark added.

The lander, being retrieved from the Pacific Ocean. (NASA photo).

The lander, being retrieved from the Pacific Ocean. (NASA photo).

The splashdown in the Pacific Ocean damaged the 20-foot-wide lander, which has gained a speed higher than expected, due to the ripped chute.

Despite the parachute failure, NASA is confident in finding a solution to its problem. “We very much want to have these failures occur here in our testing on Earth rather than at Mars,” said Mark Adler, program manager for NASA’s LDSD project. “So it’s a success in that we’re able to understand and learn more about the parachutes, so we can get confidence and have highly reliable parachute for when we have a large mission going to Mars, where we can’t do anything about it.”

LDSD’s high-end technology is just an example of how NASA has an ambitious future on Mars.

It's been a surprise-filled summer in space

By Benjamin Vermette

SpaceX CRS-7: Explosion In The Cape’s Sky

SpaceX, owned by start-up genius Elon Musk, is a private ‘space’ company helping resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with basic necessities, such as food, fuel and other equipment.

On June 28, it launched its seventh unmanned Dragon cargo spacecraft from Cape Canaveral to resupply the ISS. The mission, dubbed SpaceX CRS-7, had been postponed four times before being fixed on June 28.

On Tuesday, April 14, 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lifted off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The SpaceX CRS-7 was not so lucky, exploding during liftoff on June 28. (SpaceX photo). 

On Tuesday, April 14, 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lifted off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The SpaceX CRS-7 was not so lucky, exploding during liftoff on June 28. (SpaceX photo). 

On both CRS-5 and CRS-6 missions, it tried to land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone-like barge-ship, in vain. The Falcon 9 rocket requires two stages: the first stage, also the bottom and the biggest one, is powered by nine SpaceX Merlin engines; the second stage carries the Dragon cargo spacecraft and is powered by only one Merlin engine. The stages separate in flight. Landing a rocket vertically has never been attempted before, however, SpaceX is determined to succeed at this challenge.

On June 28, the autonomous spaceport drone ship (the ‘landing’ platform) was sailing steadily in the Atlantic Ocean, waiting for the first stage of the Falcon 9.

T-0 seconds: Liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket on its CRS-7 mission. Everything seemed normal, until T+2 minutes and 20 seconds

(Advance to 2:25)

 

The cause of this misadventure has yet to be identified, but if you look closely, you can see the explosion doesn’t release flames, but rather vaporous white clouds. Elon Musk suggested on Twitter that an overpressure in a second-stage oxygen tank could be the culprit.

“We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a press conference following the mishap.

Despite waiting for the 5,200 pounds of food and equipment (such as a spacesuit) that the Dragon cargo spacecraft would have brought them, the astronauts onboard the station are reportedly doing fine. “The astronauts are safe aboard the station and have sufficient supplies for the next several months,” stated Charles Bolden.

There was also the loss of Progress M-27M, another resupply mission which attempted to launch at the end of April and instead combusted over the Pacific. Now, with the demise of CRS-7, the astronauts count on the support of Progress M-28M. This mission is designed to deliver more than three tons of food, fuel and science-related equipment to the ISS. Its launch on July 3 was, fortunately, a success.  

SpaceX failed to rewrite history on its third attempt. However, both successes and failures shape space history. Hang on SpaceX, it will happen.

The next rocket-landing attempt may take place in August or September.

Canadian Astronauts Will Fly In Space

David St-Jacques 

David St-Jacques 

The 2015 Canadian Federal Budget, presented at the House of Commons on April 21, extended Canada’s support for the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024. Canada was the third country to extend its participation until 2024, after the United States and Russia.

Jeremy Hansen 

Jeremy Hansen 

On June 2, Industry Minister James Moore, along with retired ISS commander Chris Hadfield, officially confirmed Canada’s commitment to the station through 2024. As a consequence, this commitment ensures both active Canadian astronauts — Jeremy Hansen and David St-Jacques — a flight slot to serve onboard the ISS. “Our government is committed to ensuring two more Canadians fly to space within the next decade,” Moore said. “More importantly, it confirms a great future for Canada in space for years to come.”

One astronaut is guaranteed to fly to space by 2019, the other by 2024. During a CTV interview, the astronauts were asked who would fly first. As any polite Canadian would do, they looked at each other and begged the other one to go first. Of course, the astronauts have no influence on who will go up first; the selection is based on specific mission requirements and tasks. 

Way to go, Hansen and St-Jacques! Make us proud again, as Chris Hadfield and all past Canadian astronauts have!

Philae Lander Is Alive!

More than 10 years after its launch in March 2004, Philae lander made the headlines in November 2014 after performing a landing on a comet nucleus.

Philae was sent by its mothership, Rosetta, on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. While Rosetta was orbiting the comet, Philae landed on it, reaching a milestone by being the first spacecraft to ever land on such a celestial object. However, the landing wasn’t as soft as planned; the lander bounced multiple times before steadying into an heavily-shadowed area — an area where the solar panels of Philae can’t catch light. As a result, the lander lost power, and ‘went to sleep’ about 60 hours after touchdown.

On June 14, after seven months of hibernation, the European Space Agency (ESA)’s officials received a signal from the Philae lander. They received more than 300 data packets in an 85-seconds burst. The data consisted mostly of information the lander had recorded in the past and saved onboard, meaning Philae was awake at least once during its long hibernation.

ESA officials received another signal on June 19. This time, the contact was not unexpected.

“Philae is doing very well,” Rosetta-mission manager Stephan Ulamec said. “It has an operating temperature of -35 [degrees Celsius] and has 24 watts available. The lander is ready for operations.”

Good morning, Philae! Now, get back to work.

An artist's portrayal of the Philae lander. 

An artist's portrayal of the Philae lander. 

Crew Of ISS Expedition 43 Is Back Home

Astronauts Terry Virts, Samantha Cristoforetti and Anton Shkaplerov safely touched down in the steppe of Kazakhstan on June 11.

After a successful 200-day mission on the International Space Station, and more than 200 scientific studies performed, the trio finally closed the hatch of their Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft — also known as their ride back home.

It was both Virts’ and Shkaplerov’s second trip to space, but Virts’ first long-duration spaceflight.

For Samantha Cristoforetti, it’s a different story. Expedition 43 was only her first flight in orbit, and she managed to do so much:

Samantha Cristoforetti 

Samantha Cristoforetti 

First, while she was in space, there were issues with the Russian Soyuz rocket and capsules which delayed her return to Earth (the trio was originally scheduled to come back in May). Because of that, she spent 200 consecutive days in space — a marathon which broke a number of records. She now holds the longest uninterrupted spaceflight for a European Space Agency astronaut, and she also holds the longest single spaceflight by a woman. Sunita Williams is now second, with 195 days.

Samantha also did a lot of public outreach during her stay on the station; she was part of a Smarter Every Day video, she gave a great tour of the ISS’ toilet, and, taking advantage of her Italian nationality, she inaugurated the first espresso maker in space.

The trio had a textbook mission, and they shared their stay with others through gorgeous pictures of Earth from space, which they posted on their Twitter accounts. I urge you to take a look — It’s pure art. 

MDA Awarded A Contract To Repair Cameras On ISS

Canada is known in the ‘science-o-sphere’ for its extraordinary skills in robotics.

The Canadarm2. 

The Canadarm2. 

Onboard the International Space Station (ISS), multiple robots and technological tools, such as Canadarm2 and Dextre, were manufactured by Canadian companies alongside the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

On June 19, the Honourable Bal Gosal, Minister of Sport and Member of Parliament for Bramalea-Gore-Malton, officially recognized MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA)’s support for Canada’s robotic system on the ISS. The whole contract is worth more than $11 million.

MDA, based in Brampton, will design and restore specialized camera technology for Canadarm2, Dextre and the Mobile Base System, all aboard the ISS. Astronauts on the station rely on the cameras to support spacewalks, help capture and dock spacecraft, inspect and repair some modules, etc.

“Canada is a proud partner in the International Space Station,” said Bal Gosal. “By supporting these important innovations, we allow our space sector to develop new expertise, supporting high-skilled jobs in Brampton.”

This investment is further proof of Canada’s contribution to the space program. It helps ensure  Canada’s bright future in space exploration.

Great Pyramids Of… Ceres?

Ceres keeps surprising scientists.

Ceres is a dwarf-planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, in the asteroid belt. Since March 2015, the NASA Dawn spacecraft entered Ceres’ gravitational field, becoming the first spacecraft ever to visit two extraterrestrial objects, after visiting asteroid Vesta in July 2011.

In April 2015, Dawn saw two mysterious bright spots on the surface of Ceres. The spots still baffle scientists, who are struggling to define what they are.

A photo of the bright spots found on the surface of Ceres. Scientists are still trying to determine what they could be. (NASA photo). 

A photo of the bright spots found on the surface of Ceres. Scientists are still trying to determine what they could be. (NASA photo). 

On June 5, 2015, Dawn took a picture of Ceres from an altitude of 4,400 km, and the photo portrayed a shocking discovery: a pyramid-shaped mountain sitting, like a pimple, in the middle of a relatively flat part of the dwarf-planet.

The real question is, how did it get there? Of course, some theorists believe aliens built this huge 5km tall mountain in the middle of Ceres, and used campfires to stay warm during construction (even if there is no air). This would explain the bright spots, too.

Equally mysterious is how the mountain, top right, formed on the relatively flat surface of Ceres. (NASA photo). 

Equally mysterious is how the mountain, top right, formed on the relatively flat surface of Ceres. (NASA photo). 

But in all seriousness; on Earth, mountains form due to the movement and collision of plate tectonics. However, Ceres doesn’t have plate tectonics.

Giant-impact areas that have mountain ranges around their rim can make mountains on airless bodies, but this pyramid is alone. And again, there’s no obvious crater around it.

Ceres, with its spots and now its pyramid-shaped mountain, is odd. Planetary scientists and the NASA Dawn team are working on this case, hoping to get a convincing answer soon. The volcano-theory is not rejected as for both mysteries. 

A month of successes and setbacks in Space

By Benjamin Vermette

Progress M-27M Gone Wrong

On April 28, 2015, an uncrewed Progress capsule was launched from Kazakhstan by the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos). The mission, dubbed Progress M-27M, was meant to deliver 2,357 kg of food and about 800 kg of other material to the International Space Station. However, as the title indicates, the capsule did not manage to deliver the expected shipment.

Following lift-off on a Soyuz rocket, the capsule started spinning out of control as it entered orbit.

 

(You can see the Earth and the sun about once every 3 seconds)

At launch, every system was nominal. Shortly after, when separation from the third stage occurred, ground controllers immediately knew something was wrong: only two of the five communication antennas had deployed. Only moments after that, the Russian Progress capsule started spinning out.  

  M-27m Progress burning up in Earth's atmosphere

  M-27m Progress burning up in Earth's atmosphere

On April 28, the problem didn’t seem lethal; Roscosmos’ officials delayed Progress’ rendezvous with the ISS by about five days (it was originally planned to dock about six hours after launch). Afterwards, they learned the spacecraft was spinning; as a consequence the docking was delayed indefinitely until the problems could be fixed.

The Russian Space Agency tried to find a solution, in vain. A few days later the mission was declared a failure, and the spacecraft was condemned to a fiery death (a fall and combustion in Earth’s atmosphere).

On May 8, the Progress spacecraft re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule was big, so not all the material was burned up.

“Given the fact that material inside is somewhat protected during the early parts of re-entry, maybe somewhere [between] 2,500 to 3,500 pounds (on a total of more than 7000 pounds) of material may have survived,” said Bill Ailor, an expert on spacecraft re-entries. However, “much of this material had itself been broken into smaller pieces and spread along a footprint several hundred miles long,” he added.

What caused the capsule’s demise? Roscosmos doesn’t know for certain, but believes it was a small explosion or a tank rupture.

In Video: SpaceX Abort Test

SpaceX is a private ‘space’ company helping resupply the International Space Station (ISS), and its success is growing. At the end of May, it gained the rights to launch US government satellites into space. On May 21, its Dragon capsule returned safely to Earth after a month-long stay on the ISS.

However, the most impressive and decisive thing it accomplished last month, was its ‘pad-abort’ test on May 6. This test was to determine whether SpaceX could carry astronauts into space in the future (it can’t right now because of regulations, just like any other private company).

The experiment consisted of testing its pad-abort.

Imagine you’re an astronaut and you’re on the launch pad in a SpaceX rocket about to be sent in orbit. Suddenly, everything goes wrong. Let’s say the rocket is on fire and it’s about to explode. You don’t have time to get out of it and run away, so you push a button – okay, it may be a little more complicated than that – to activate the pad-abort. Pushing that button will activate small rockets on your capsule, which will launch you into the air, far away from the rest of the about-to-explode rocket. 

Included is a video of the May 6 SpaceX pad-abort test. Tip: try not to blink, because the capsule goes incredibly fast. The water dump you see at the beginning is to suppress fire and to ‘absorb’ the vibrations, in a way.

Note: had astronauts been onboard, accelerating from 0-160 km/h in 1.2 seconds, they would have felt 6Gs (that’s six times their weight) crushing them into their seats.

The test was impressive, but above all, it was a critical milestone for SpaceX in its journey to being able to send commercial crew in space alongside NASA. Congrats SpaceX and Elon Musk for a successful flight!  

No, A Particular Planetary Alignment Won’t Cause An Earthquake

On May 28, a huge 9.8 magnitude earthquake shook California.

Okay, no it didn’t. But according to one YouTube personality, it was supposed to — all because of a potential ‘planetary alignment’ (which also didn’t come to pass). But it did cause some speculation as to whether or not a planetary alignment could actually cause an earthquake here on earth.

This whole story comes from one somewhat famous YouTube account, Ditrianum Media. I would have included the video where the host explains, in a sincere way, the famous natural catastrophe that would have occurred on May 28, 2015, in California. However, on May 29 – the day after the prophesized earthquake – this video was deleted from the Internet.

Phil Plait, an American astronomer, has done the math and discovered that all of the planets in our solar system combined have a gravitational influence on Earth about 50 times weaker than the moon does. The moon, it should be noted, doesn’t trigger earthquakes.

In the video, the speaker claims the planets will “energize” Earth. However he gives no precise information on what that means. And in astronomy, there is no such thing as planets ‘energizing’ each other.

The YouTube host even implied Nostradamus being part of the magic recipe causing the seism.

In conclusion, rest assured that planetary alignments can’t cause earthquakes, they don’t make you float, and neither can the supermoon. And astrology is baloney, to be polite.

X-37B And LightSail

On May 20, an Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, carrying the mysterious and top-secret Boeing X-37B space plane for its fourth spaceflight, as well as the promising LightSail satellite.

The X-37B is an US Air Force classified spacecraft that resembles the Space Shuttle. Here is everything we know about it (source: Space Shuttle Almanac).

fo0523_boeing_x_37b_940_ab5.jpg

 

However, we know a lot more about LightSail, a technology developed by the Planetary Society, of which Bill Nye (The Science Guy) is the CEO. Packed in a sandwich-sized CubeSat in Atlas V’s payload, the prototype LightSail carries no fuel. Literally, sunlight propels this technological achievement.  

Actually, light pushes on objects — this is call radiation pressure — you weigh more during daytime than at night (don’t worry, it’s not even close to a pound). It turns out, in space, where there is no atmosphere to counteract light, the pressure is enough to push a sail 20 times thinner than a human hair. Of course, the sail is attached to a small satellite.  There you have it; a space probe powered by sunlight. The mission is just to test the sail (and as of today, everything is going as planned) and to “empower the world’s citizens to advance space science and exploration,” according to the Planetary Society.

Let’s hope everything goes well and perhaps the prototype will show humanity a new way of exploring space. High five, scientists!

How NASA Helps Nepal Disaster’s Victims

On April 25, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake occurred in Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people.

Even though NASA is often thought of as just a ‘space’ agency, its technologies can help disaster victims, and it did in Nepal.

A NASA device called FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response) uses microwave radars to detect heartbeats of animals (usually humans) trapped in the aftermath of a seism and other natural catastrophes.

FINDER helped find and rescue four men trapped under 10 feet of bricks, mud and other debris in Nepal.

“Of course, no one wants disasters to occur, but tools like this are designed to help when our worst nightmares do happen.” said Dr. Reginald Brothers, under-secretary for Science and Technology at the US Department of Homeland Security. “I am proud that we were able to provide the tools to help rescue these four men.”

The four rescued had been trapped under these bricks for days in the shaken town of Chautara. Using the life-saving gadget, rescuers were able to detect two heartbeats under two different structures and in that way were able to save the men.

FINDER has proven its capabilities to detect heartbeat from people hidden under 30 feet of light debris, 20 feet of concrete and at a distance of 100 feet in open space.

“FINDER exemplifies how technology designed for space exploration has profound impacts to life on Earth,” said Dr. David Miller, NASA’s chief technologist.

As a matter of fact, this NASA-gadget has solidly supported its contractor’s slogan: ‘Off the Earth for the Earth.’  

Does earth need another space race?

By Benjamin Vermette

Mars: Why We Need To Go There

In 1969, humanity set foot on the moon for the first time. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two of 12 lucky and optimistic Apollo astronauts to walk on the moon.

The iconic image of Buzz Aldrin's visor reflecting Neil Armstrong during their milestone walk as the first humans on the moon. 

The iconic image of Buzz Aldrin's visor reflecting Neil Armstrong during their milestone walk as the first humans on the moon. 

Back then, the majority of NASA’s fans and even NASA officials thought we would set foot on Mars before the end of the century. However, we didn’t. Why? What was Apollo really about? Since 1972, no man has ventured further than Low Earth Orbit. Is it a sign of maturity? No. The United States made exploring the moon a priority because of the space race against the Russians during the Cold War. It was not a curious character that pushed NASA to send men to the moon —  it was patriotic pride.

For now, no space race pushes NASA to send a man to Mars, so we’ll have to wait longer. The only people that can carry humanity further than Low Earth Orbit are ambitious explorers, like Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, the first private company to send liquid-fuel rockets into orbit and to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). He is hell-bent on sending a man to the Red Planet, and he is capable of great things: when SpaceX started in the business, it had more than a few sceptics. To be more realistic, everybody thought SpaceX would fail miserably. Today, as it turns out, the company has a contract with NASA to resupply the ISS, and launches their Falcon9 rocket. They are even trying to land the first-stage of the Falcon9 on a ship.  

But why is Elon Musk so obsessed with going to Mars? In a conversation with Phil Plait, an American astronomer, he simply said, “Humans need to be a multi-planet species.” Behind this statement is perhaps the fear of staying on Earth; a single catastrophe could wipe humanity out. But Musk isn’t doing this for himself — we won’t have time to colonize Mars before he dies, unless he finds a way to live longer (then again, he is capable of many things) — he is doing this for his sons, and for the future of the human species. Maybe Musk was inspired by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of modern rocketry, who thought “the Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.”

It may seem like science fiction to you, but for Elon Musk, it isn’t. The problem is not getting to Mars itself — it’s hard, but not impossible — it’s to convince the human that this goal is realistic and achievable.

Many people believe Musk will get to Mars. NASA, however, doesn’t think the same way. It believes nobody will get to Mars without its help, as it plans to visit the planet in the 2030s. “No commercial company without the support of NASA and government is going to get to Mars,” said Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator. 

 NASA’s New Horizons: Phase-2 Started For July Pluto Encounter

Launched in January 2006, New Horizons is now at Pluto’s doorstep. Actually, it’s so close to it that it took the first ever coloured image of Pluto and its giant moon Charon. It will be the first spacecraft ever to reach this mysterious dwarf-planet.

The unmanned space probe will perform Pluto’s closest approach in July 2015, and the scientists who make up New Horizons’ mission group are starting to get excited.

That excitement likely surged at the beginning of April, when the time to start Approach Phase 2 arrived. Phase 2 will last until June 23 — just before the anticipated encounter.

Approach Phase 2 consists of the spacecraft making use of four optical navigation campaigns, with the help of the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), and the Multi-spectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).  

Each of these systems will provide information about Pluto’s icy environment and help scientists find the best and safest path for New Horizons to take as it comes into contact with Pluto.

“We are going to be starting taking long exposure images of the whole region around Pluto, so that we can see if there are any new moons that might be producing any debris that could be dangerous to the spacecraft, or if we actually see rings of debris themselves orbiting Pluto in regions that might be dangerous to us,” explains John Spencer, a member of the mission’s science team.

A large community of scientists and amateur astronomers have been waiting patiently for almost a decade for New Horizons to provide astounding answers to some of Pluto’s mysteries, as the space probe carries out its final approach (traveling 1.2 million km each day). 

Coloured Images Of Pluto And Ceres

As New Horizons approaches Pluto, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft entered Ceres’ orbit on March 6, 2015, becoming the first space probe to do so.

For a few weeks after having entered orbit, Dawn couldn’t take pictures of Ceres, because it was orbiting the far side (away from the sun) meaning the surface was too dark. It was only in the middle of April that Dawn sent the first coloured image of Ceres, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.  

Further away, 115 million km from Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons did the same and sent back the first colour photo of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, taken on April 9.

An illustration of NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft 

An illustration of NASA's New Horizons Spacecraft 

 

NASA Will Capture An Asteroid Rock

On March 25, 2015, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced in more details its plan for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).

The ARM is necessary to test new capabilities and elements needed to take humans beyond Low Earth Orbit, including Mars. “ARM is an important part of the overall mission of taking humans further into space,” said Robert Lightfoot Jr., NASA associate administrator.

When the mission was first proposed in 2013, the plan was to move a small asteroid into a stable orbit around the moon. However, the plan has changed a little bit to attempt a mission that has increased applicability for future missions and has better potential for planetary protection techniques.

If all goes to plan, the ARM un-crewed spacecraft will launch in 2020 on a two-year journey to land on a pre-targeted asteroid. Once on the surface of the asteroid, it will capture a boulder up to 4 meters in diameter using its robotic arms.

It would then be placed in the asteroid’s orbit with the captive boulder in tow, during a period that may last up to a year. This technique will help NASA understand and develop techniques for moving an asteroid off a course towards the Earth, if the necessity should ever arise.

By 2025, the ARM spacecraft will, with the asteroid rock in its bag, place itself and the rock in an orbit around the moon. Next, a crew of two astronauts will fly in an Orion spacecraft on an approximately 25-day mission to rendezvous with the un-crewed ARM spacecraft and to collect samples of the boulder. “The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight,” said Lightfoot Jr.

 Russia & US To Build New Space Station After ISS

After the end of the International Space Station’s current operation, which is scheduled to culminate in 2024, NASA and the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) are planning to build a new space station.

“We have agreed that Roscosmos and NASA will be working together on the program of a future space station,” Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov said during a news conference. However, many rumours circulate in the space-o-sphere suggesting this may not be entirely true. 

The discussions were held in Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 27, during the launch of the One-Year ISS Mission.

Not only would the Russians and Americans build a new station, but they would also co-operate on a joint Mars project. This is extremely ironic, as they fought in a space race during the Cold War less than 40 years ago.

“Our area of cooperation will be Mars,” said Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator. “We are discussing how best to use the resources, the finance, we are setting time frames and distributing efforts in order to avoid duplication.”

Again, this is not confirmed. However, how fun would it be to see two opposing nations co-operate in a sector they’ve always fought over? 

HUBBLE, SPACEX FALCON, MESSENGER and MORE...

By Benjamin Vermette

CANADA’S CONTRIBUTION TO SPACE TELESCOPES

April 24, 1990 saw Space Shuttle Discovery launch from Kennedy Space Center with the school-bus-sized Hubble Space Telescope in its payload. More than five years after the last of five shuttle servicing missions, the NASA community (and the whole scientific community around the world) celebrated Hubble’s 25th anniversary on April 24, 2015.

One hundred and fifty-six thousand gigabytes of scientific data transmitted to Earth later, Hubble’s officials are starting to think about its future, and it’s not a straightforward question.

NASA: Hubble alongside Discovery

NASA: Hubble alongside Discovery

Hubble’s lifespan “is the biggest question we keep getting from people, because everybody is used to something on Hubble breaking every five years,” explained Jason Kalirai, a researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Even though it’s getting old, Kalirai said NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center engineers are doing a wonderful job managing the telescope’s systems. For now, they estimate that Hubble will keep orbiting in Low Earth Orbit, exploring the mysteries of the universe until, at least, its 30th anniversary.

When Hubble eventually does break down, does NASA actually have a plan to replace it? Of course! The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was first scheduled to launch in 2011, but its launch was put off until October 2018. Unfortunately, the project isn’t just delayed, it’s also vastly over budget.

The JWST is a much bigger and more powerful space telescope than Hubble; it’s as big as a tennis court with a 6.5-meter-diameter primary mirror, compared to the 2.4 meter diameter mirror on the Hubble. Overall, the increased the JWST’s collecting area up to seven times more than Hubble.

When finally launched, the JWST will be placed 1.5 million km from the surface of the Earth, “The JWST … isn’t going to look back towards Earth, it’s going to look out into space and take these brilliant pictures and send them back,” explained Industry Minister James Moore. “So we’ll have a view into space that no other human-beings have ever seen before, and that’s incredibly exciting.”

NASA: Outside the enormous mouth of NASA's giant thermal vacuum chamber, called Chamber A, at Johnson Space Center in Houston, engineers and technicians prepare the chamber for testing the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA: Outside the enormous mouth of NASA's giant thermal vacuum chamber, called Chamber A, at Johnson Space Center in Houston, engineers and technicians prepare the chamber for testing the James Webb Space Telescope.

Canada is part of the three major contributors to get the JWST into orbit: NASA and the European Space Agency make up the other two. “What if I told you we were going to build a new space telescope? What if I told you Canada was helping to build that telescope?” asked Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen.

The Canadian Space Agency is providing JWST a Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) as well as the Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), one of the Webb’s four science instruments. Both were designed, built and tested by the Canadian Space Agency.

What is an NIRISS? The light we can see is composed of what is called visible light. There are, however, many other kinds of light, such as infrared light. For instance, infrared light can offer astronomers different sources of information. Many celestial objects, like brown dwarfs and enormous red giant stars, emit mostly infrared light.

NIRISS will also have unique capabilities to find the earliest and most distant object of the Universe, such as the first galaxies ever formed.

The integration of FGS and NIRISS required CSA to add $2.6 million to its contract with COM DEV International Ltd., where the FGS and NIRISS are built and tested.

The Canadian contribution guarantees Canadian astronomers a slice of the action where the observations of space and time by the Webb telescope are concerned. “It’s going to open up a whole new world of scientific discoveries and new ways of looking at the future … It’s going to be a fantastic time of discovery for all Canadians,” said Industry Minister James Moore.

 

Federal Budget 2015: ISS Commitment Extended to 2024

On April 21, 2015, Minister of Finance Joe Olivier presented the 2015 Canadian federal budget to the Canadian House of Commons.

The budget assumed Canada’s implication in the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024. After previous commitments by NASA and the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), both the primary contractors of the station, Canada’s decision to extend its participation in the ISS until 2024 was confirmed.

NASA

NASA

As a consequence of this, Canada is responsible for 2.3% of the operating costs of the United States-led segment. That means Canada has the rights to use 2.3% of these module’s resources. For comparison, Japan holds 12.8% of the segments’ rights; European Space Agency (ESA) 8.3%; and NASA pays the remaining 76.6%. The Russians finance their own segments.

Japan and ESA officials said they are thinking of reducing their station’s holding rights. Also, neither has yet confirmed their commitment to the ISS beyond 2020. Does that mean Canada will take greater responsibilities within the space station?

 

SpaceX CRS-6: Still No Cigars

SpaceX is a private company that helps to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with basic necessities and science-related equipment.

On April 14, 2015, they launched their 6th unmanned Dragon cargo spacecraft to resupply the ISS, something that needs to be done each 90 days or so. This mission, named SpaceX CRS-6, was postponed multiple times. To be honest, I can’t remember one time when a SpaceX launch wasn’t delayed.

SpaceX likes to try risky and out-of-the-ordinary things. For a second time, they tried to land the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket on a drone barge, a feat that nobody has ever accomplished.

The first attempt was almost successful, but the first stage ran out of hydraulic fluid causing it to explode. The Falcon 9 rocket has two stages: the first one, also the biggest one, is on the bottom and powered by nine SpaceX Merlin engines. The second stage carries the Dragon spacecraft and is powered by one Merlin engine.

The launch was a success, and then the first stage separated from the second stage about three minutes after launch, as expected, and began falling back toward the landing platform.

After the considerable challenge that is landing a rocket, SpaceX wants the first stage to stand up on the barge.

Take a look at what happened after the second attempt.

Close, huh? The 14-story booster steadied for a brief moment on the “autonomous spaceport drone ship,” as SpaceX likes to call it, before toppling over and causing an impressive explosion caused by an issue with an engine throttle valve.

Everything else went perfectly. Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, onboard the ISS, grappled the Dragon spacecraft with Canadarm2 on April 17. The payload, carrying more than 4,300 pounds of supplies and other material to support multiple scientific experiments, was delivered successfully to the ISS.

SpaceX’s next attempt to land the first stage of another Falcon 9 rocket will be in June.

R.I.P.: NASA’s MESSENGER Spacecraft

Since March 2011 NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft has been cruising in Mercury’s orbit. It became the second mission to reach Mercury, the first planet starting from the Sun, after Mariner 10’s 1975 flyby.

NASA

NASA

MESSENGER, acronym for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging, helped a lot in characterizing the chemical composition of Mercury’s surface, studying the nature of Mercury’s magnetic field, determining the size and state of the core, and solved many other unprecedented scientific mysteries about the smallest of the four rocky planets. In four years of orbit, it has sent over a quarter of a million images of Mercury back to Earth.

Launched on August 3, 2004, MESSENGER conducted its final orbital manoeuvre on April 6, 2015. It ran out of fuel quickly as the Sun was close by and constantly changing MESSENGER’s orbit.

This lack of propellant lead to the death of the spacecraft: MESSENGER was expected to crash into the planet’s surface in late April or early May. “The sun is pulling on it. The planet is pulling on it. It’s just physics. It has to crash,” said Thomas Zurbuchen of Michigan’s University.

This was inevitable, and the scientists who were part of the MESSENGER group understood it even at the dawn of the mission’s planning. They even took advantage of it! During its hard-to-control orbit, the Mercury-exploring spacecraft went as low as 5km from the surface of the planet, sending back incredibly high-resolution pictures.

MESSENGER successfully completed its mission: to unmask the secrets of Mercury. “We’re at the end of a really successful mission, and we can’t do anything anymore to stop it from doing what it naturally wants to do,” continued Thomas Zurbuchen.

On April 30, 2015, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft crashed into Mercury’s surface at 3.91 km/second, after traveling 7.8 billion kilometres over 11 years.