By Benjamin Vermette


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.



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.



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.

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 ( 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!