Hard Landings and more

By Benjamin Vermette

SpaceX CRS-5: “Kind of” Success

In my last article, I neglected to mention that SpaceX delayed its CRS-5 mission for a third time and finally launched on January 10.

SpaceX is a private company that helps to resupply the ISS (International Space Station) with basic necessities and science-related equipment. It is also known for delaying its missions to ensure successful launches, and as the title above may indicate, even postponing a rocket launch may result in nothing more than a “kind of” success.

CRS-5 was the fifth launch of the Dragon cargo spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket to resupply the ISS. SpaceX wanted to try something new on the CRS-5 mission: Land the 1st stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a barge-like drone ship. The Dragon cargo spacecraft is on top of the rocket, with the cargo attached to the two other stages. The first stage is the bottom, powered by nine SpaceX Merlin engines.

At launch, everything went according to plan. About three minutes after launch, the 1st stage separated as expected and began to fall back towards the Earth, toward the landing platform. Normally, after such a landing, the 1st stage of a Falcon 9 rocket should be nicely standing on the barge, but check out this impressive video of what really happened to the 1st stage of SpaceX’s rocket:

Unlike most people, I am not calling this a failure, but rather “a near-success.” It’s very impressive that the booster could find — and actually hit — the barge. And yes, the barge was fine after the collision, needing only minor repairs. There is no doubt in my mind that this event was taken seriously inside SpaceX, but Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX did find some humour in the mishap. “Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event. Ship is fine minor repairs. Exciting day!,” he tweeted immediately after the mishap.

Barring the big explosion, everything went great. The Dragon spacecraft carrying science-related equipment docked at the ISS on January 12th.

Maybe next time SpaceX will delay its launch long enough to be able to land the 1st stage of their Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship. Delaying a mission however, may have nothing to do with success…

Hubble: 100 million stars in one picture

Two-and-a-half million light-years from Earth, the Andromeda Galaxy is slowly moving towards us, preparing to merge with our galaxy, the Milky Way, billions of years from now. The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest galactic neighbour, and the Hubble Space Telescope, a NASA telescope in orbit around the Earth, enjoys taking pictures of it.

But recently, it took an extraordinary picture. This panorama, regrouping over 100 million stars, stretches across about 48 thousand light-years of the galaxy’s disk. “Hubble traces densely packed stars extending from the innermost hub of the galaxy, seen at left,” reads the caption. “Moving out from this central galactic bulge, the panorama sweeps from the galaxy’s central bulge across lanes of stars and dust to the sparser outer disk.”

The picture was revealed at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, held from January 4-8, 2015, in Seattle. We can’t say exactly when Hubble took this picture, because its images are mostly kept in secret for up a year after they’re taken. One thing I am sure of, however, is that it was made into a mosaic: the image had many exposures and got assembled in this way due to 411 pointings of the telescope.

Scientists can use this image to help them understand other spiral-like alien galaxies that might have light distinctions similar to those of the Andromeda Galaxy, but are farther away.


ISS One-Year Expedition

On March 27, 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly (NASA) and cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka (Russian Federal Space Agency) will get onboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft due to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, to the International Space Station (ISS).

With Roscosmos’ astronaut Gennady Padalka returning to Earth, Kelly and Kornienko will stay on the ISS until March 2016, completing a one-year space mission. There is however, a third astronaut participating in the ISS One-Year Expedition, even if he’s not on the International Space Station. It’s Mark Kelly, former Naval aviator, just like his twin brother: Scott Kelly. Mark is a retired astronaut, engineer and U.S. Navy Captain. NASA wanted him to participate in science experiments with his twin brother, Scott, who will spend one year on the ISS, while Mark will spend that same year in Houston, Texas, performing experiments that will answer a very interesting question: Identical twins, one on Earth and one in space. After a year, are they still… identical?

“Having Mark as the control subject is really very fortunate. Not only because we’re twins, but he’s also a former astronaut and NASA has data on him going back to 1995,” Scott Kelly said.

The human body was made to live in gravity. Strange things happen to the body in space: bones get fragile, the heart weakens, eyes lose their shape, etc. The brothers will undergo 10 medical and psychological tests each day, measuring bone density, taking sonograms of their eyes, counting the bacteria in their gut, etc. Tests like these will help NASA understand the function of the human body in space and will prove invaluable in preparing and protecting astronauts during lengthy trips in space.

“I’ll probably feel a little bit older than I am right now [when Scott returns to Earth]. But no, I don’t think I’ll feel older than [Mark]. I think according to Einstein’s theories I’ll be a little bit younger,” said Scott while laughing.

Scott was right. According to Einstein’s General Relativity theory, the faster you’re going, the slower time passes. So, with the ISS going at 27,600 km/h, in one year, Scott will gain microseconds. Scott will therefore be a tiny-bit younger than Mark when he comes back to Earth, in March 2016.

Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will perform many other experiments on the ISS, but most of the experiments will be on the human body and how it adapts during long-term spaceflight.

This mission is a key step towards assuring that the health of astronauts is not compromised, as NASA prepares its next giant leap for humanity (on Mars!).


Two Planets Beyond Neptune?

“The analysis of several possible scenarios strongly suggests that at least two trans-Plutonian planets must exist.”

Maybe you’ve heard about this, but a team of astronomers announced recently that they have indirect evidence that there could be two massive planets beyond Neptune.

I’ve read their journal where they give all their arguments, and it is undoubtedly very interesting. But do not forget, they did not see two planets beyond Neptune, but rather they analysed the weird orbits of trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) and arrived at that conclusion. Note that the NASA infrared survey explorer (WISE) has shown that no planets bigger than Saturn can exist in our solar system, even way out there.

Beyond Neptune, there are a lot of objects similar to asteroids, but they look like comets too. These are called trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs).

The team of astronomers studied in particular what they call “Extreme TNOs,” which are described as TNOs that have really weird orbits and are pushed to the most outer regions of our solar system. They speculate that there may be an explanation for the TNO’s weird orbits: planets at distances of about 40 to 100 billion km out (10 times farther away from the Sun than Neptune is from us).

If you want more detailed explanation of their arguments you can read their journal article (http://arxiv.org/pdf/1410.6307v3.pdf). But again, their evidence is indirect and I am very sceptical about having new planets in our solar system. On the other hand, it is possible and astronomers see planets orbiting other stars at great distances — so why not?


11.2 billion years old: Dang! That’s old...

Using data from NASA Kepler’s mission, a group of astronomers have discovered a solar system in the Milky Way galaxy that they named Kepler-444.

Kepler-444 is a very, very old solar system created when our galaxy was only two billion years old. That makes Kepler-444 11.2 billion years old (the Universe itself is 13.8 billion years old). At two and a half times older than the Earth, Kepler-444 becomes the oldest known system of terrestrial-size planets.

This system is home to five small planets, the biggest one the size of Venus, the smallest close to the size of Mercury. All five planets revolve around their sun in about 10 days, and their orbits are very close to their sun-like star (in comparison, Mercury revolves around our Sun in 88 days and is the closest planet to it) making them very hot, despite the fact that their sun is relatively small (about 25% smaller than ours).

But how do astronomers know the age of a solar system 117 light-years away from us? This was calculated using a method called astroseismology. The surface of the star vibrates constantly, and the type of vibrations depend on the physical properties of the star — mass, gravity, density, size and age. Over many weeks, careful observation delivered the astroseismological results to the astronomers, and that result was: 11.2 billion years old.

Unfortunately, the planets of Kepler-444 are too hot to harbour life. “While this star formed a long time ago, in fact before most of the stars in the Milky Way, we have no indication that any of these planets have now or ever had life on them,” said Steve Howell, Kepler/K2 project scientist for NASA in California. “At their current orbital distances, life as we know it could not exist on these ancient worlds.”


In Memory

“Today we remember and give thanks for the lives and contributions of those who gave all trying to push the boundaries of human achievement.” – Charles F. Bolden. Jr., NASA administrator.

NASA Day of Remembrance, on January 28, remembered the loss of the Apollo 1 crew, STS-51L Challenger crew, STS-107 Columbia crew, and many others who lost their lives in test flights and aeronautic research throughout history.

On January 27, 1967, veteran astronaut Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White, and rookie astronaut Roger Chaffee were killed in their capsule on the launch pad for a pre-launch test. NASA thought putting pure oxygen in the capsule was easier than putting a mixture of air just like we breathe outside. A fire broke out in their Apollo capsule.

January 28, 1986: 73 seconds after launch, Space Shuttle Challenger with STS-51L crew breaks apart, leading to the death of all seven crewmembers. The day before launch the temperature was below freezing, which caused an O-ring to break in a Solid Rocket Booster (SRB). That same SRB exploded in the air causing the explosion of the whole Space Shuttle Challenger.

On February 1, 2003, 16 minutes before the planned landing, Space Shuttle Columbia breaks up in the American sky, carrying STS-107 crew. At launch, a piece of foam, falling from the external tank, opened a hole in the shuttle’s wing, breaking the heat shield, causing the break-up of Columbia upon re-entry, and the death of all seven astronauts onboard.

“Let us join together as one NASA Family, along with the entire world, in paying our respects, and honouring the memories of our dear friends. They will never be forgotten. Godspeed to every one of them.”


Launch Schedule

SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) is a satellite designed to measure and map Earth’s soil moisture and freeze/thaw state. It will help NASA to better understand water, carbon and energy cycles. SMAP launched January 31 atop a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada as well as five Canadians universities were participants in the mission, knowing this satellite will have great benefits for Canadian farmers.

Excluding SMAP, 19 launches are scheduled for February and March 2015: Passing by DSCOVR (NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory), a satellite that will observe and monitor real-time solar wind. It will launch onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

February 17 will host a Soyuz launch that will resupply the ISS

On March 12, MMS (Magnetospheric Multiscale), a satellite that will study the mystery of how magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect, as well as all the energy phenomena related to this, will launch onboard an Atlas V rocket, from Florida.

On Match 27, the launch of the ISS One Year Crew will (hopefully) go on-schedule.

Remember that every (or almost every) launch is streamed live on the Internet or on NASA’s website. Always impressive!