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.