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! 

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.