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?