Sunday, December 28, 2014

Earth Photos From The ISS Are Full of Surprises

One reason I love twitter, tweeting and tweeps is that I learn so much simply by doing something I enjoy. Hardly a day goes by that I don't learn something new. Here is today's discovery.

This morning, Sam Cristoforetti @AstroSamantha, who is currently aboard the International Space Station, tweeted a picture of the Hawaiian Island O'ahu with Honolulu clearly visible.

I retweeted this to my own timeline without noticing the odd coloration of the ocean at the top and at the left side of the picture, most likely because I initially saw a small version of it on my phone. 

Shortly thereafter, Frank Benson @mfbenson1 brought up this excellent question:

I took a second look at the picture and suggested we might be looking at some very thin, low cloud cover, since mud or sediment don't make much sense, given local geography. Clouds were my best guess, but since I didn't know for sure I included Peter Caltner @PC0101 in the conversation, who is a veritable fount of useful and factual information about pictures of Earth taken from the International Space Station. Turns out Frank and I had both guessed wrong:

Peter then tweeted a photo taken from the ISS that shows an example of extreme sun glint, so much so that the brightness 'wipes out' the colors of the land.

He added that glint pictures can be extremely useful, since they show coastal inlets and river courses better than aerial views. The ISS orbits at ca. 220 mi (350 km) above Earth.

Thanks, Peter, for this really cool lesson in orbital photography effects!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Season's Greetings From Rosetta and Philae!

I had planned to publish this article tomorrow. Alas, @ESA_Rosetta tweeted an adorable Rosetta / Philae Christmas cartoon today that convinced me this article should have a December 25 publication date:

The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (aka 67P) launched in 2004 and arrived at its destination earlier this year. One of the mission's first surprise findings came when Comet 67P - assumed to be potato-shaped - resolved to look more like a... rubber duck! Comet 67P is two-lobed, with one lobe distinctly smaller, giving it a familiar shape in human terms. Certainly, "the rubber duck comet" is a less challenging name to pronounce than "comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko!

On November 12, 2014, the Philae lander detached from the Rosetta spacecraft to perform the first comet landing in history. The maneuver was far from perfect - Philae's harpoons meant to anchor it to the comet surface did not fire, nor could the screws in Philae's feet deploy to secure the probe to the comet. As the lander touched down, it actually bounced back into space - not once, but twice, before landing on its side. Regardless, for the first time ever, human eyes are able to get a close-up look at an ancient celestial object in our solar system! 


Above is a full color image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that Rosetta took last August through red, blue and green filters. This is how the comet would appear to human eyes, revealing that it is... gray. When this picture was taken, Rosetta was about 120 km (75 mi) distant from Comet 67P, before Philae was deployed. The comet's uniformly gray appearance suggests that any water ice it contains is distributed more or less evenly throughout the comet's two lobes. If there were alternate patches of all-water ice or all-rock we would expect some areas of the comet surface to be brighter than others. The black areas are shadows caused by sunlight streaming across a surface full of steep cliffs and boulders.

Photo credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Most recent image of Comet 67P taken December 16 by Rosetta, orbiting the comet, with Philae on the surface.

Photo credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CNES/FD 

Simulation of Philae on the surface of Comet 67P - Philae is wedged sideways between the base of a cliff and a large rock outcropping, with one of its legs stuck between rocks. After its initial comet touchdown, Philae bounced twice before coming to rest in its current position. Philae was meant to fire harpoons upon landing to anchor itself to the comet and deploy screws in its feet to secure itself in place during its trip around the sun.

Photo credit: ESA/Rosetta

These are Philae's 10 science instruments. It is currently unknown to which extent some or all of them can be used during the primary science mission. Philae is now in hibernation mode, as it is stuck in an area of the comet surface that gets only a few hours of sunlight per day - not enough to wake the probe from hibernation. This may change as the comet approaches the sun in coming months. If Philae can be roused from its deep sleep, we may yet obtain a treasure trove of data about what happens when comet 67P approaches perihelion.

For now, let's keep in mind that Philae has been functioning at only a fraction of its intended capacity and yet was already able to return an incredible set of never-before-seen comet data.

Photo credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA 

Philae's very first picture is a bit of a blur since the lander was bouncing at the time.

Photo credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA 

Comet close-up: Photo of the cliff right in front of Philae that is blocking its sunlight. The image reveals a number of fissures and fractures. The reflective glare on the rock is caused by the lander.

Credit: Rosetta/ESA

In addition to data that Philae may yet collect on the comet surface, the Rosetta spacecraft continues to accompany 67P and Philae as they journey towards the inner solar system. Rosetta will orbit the two-lobed comet at altitudes of as little as 6.5 km (4 mi). Already Rosetta has returned spectacular images such as the above - cometary cliff faces that are more than half a mile high (ca.1 km). The whole comet is about 4.5 km (2.8 mi) wide, measured duck head to duck tail.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

SpaceX's Jan. 10 CRS-5 Launch Includes Precision-Landing Upper Rocket Stage On Barge

Update - January 8: SpaceX's CRS-5 resupply mission to the ISS has been postponed to Saturday, January 10, 1:47 a.m. PST (10:47 CET) - a weekend night launch. I'm sure other West Coast night owls like myself will stay awake to watch and live tweet the launch, given the historic nature of this mission. NASA TV will provide live coverage, starting at 12:30 a.m. PST (9:30 CET). Details about this mission are below the Update sections.

Update - January 6: Today's launch attempt was scrubbed at the last minute due to a problem with an actuator assembly, a part of the rocket's second stage engine steering system. The next launch attempt is scheduled for Friday, January 9, at 2:09 a.m. PST (11:09 CET) - an almost reasonable time for us West Coast night owls. SpaceX is characteristically stingy with details; Elon Musk posted this tweet today:

Update - December 18: Due to issues with a static fire test this week, SpaceX has moved the launch date to January 6, 2015, at 3:18 a.m. PST (12:18 CET).

Delayed multiple times since September, SpaceX's cargo delivery to the International Space Station is scheduled for January 10, 1:47 a.m. PST (10:47 CET), launching a Dragon cargo capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket from pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral. This mission will be the private space company's fifth cargo delivery to the ISS under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract. 

The mission is named CRS-5 and here is its patch. I like how the launch state of Florida is marked in a lighter blue color. Naturally, the traditional SpaceX clover leaf is there as well. What I like most about it is that Falcon 9 is practically bursting out of the confines of this beautiful patch, conveying anticipation, excitement and confidence in what's ahead. The Dragon capsule on the right has already found a way to escape its patch boundaries, but, hey, that lucky capsule is going to the International Space Station, so Dragon's impatience is quite understandable!


For SpaceX, CRS-5 is quite a bit more than another supply run to the ISS, as the company will further test re-usability functions and performance of its flagship Falcon 9 rocket. From its inception, SpaceX has aimed to make spaceflight more affordable and accessible. Reusable rocket stages are a crucial factor in the quest to develop rockets that are significantly cheaper to fly than their single-use counterparts. Notice the upside down V-shaped structures on the rocket in the patch - or, from a Trekkie's perspective, the Star Trek emblem-shaped structures affixed to this Falcon 9 stage. These are Falcon 9's landing legs for attempting a soft landing on a spaceport barge.

On a mission earlier this year, SpaceX began post-launch re-usability testing by guiding the Falcon 9's rocket stage to hover upright above the ocean for a few seconds before it tipped over sideways into the water. SpaceX uses a combination of landing legs, grid fins, retro rockets and stabilizing technologies, enabling Falcon 9's upper stage to perform a precision soft landing on water and eventually on land.

This time, Falcon 9's upper stage is expected to land on an autonomous spaceport drone ship. On twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave us a glimpse of what to expect on January 10 - a historic milestone never before achieved: precisely land and recover a rocket that is intact and reusable, without the need to fish it out of the water.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Year of the Dwarf Planets: Ceres 2015

In 2015, Pluto won't be the only dwarf planet that will receive a visit from an electronic ambassador. NASA's Dawn mission is currently on its way to Ceres.

Dawn was launched in 2007 to study the two largest celestial objects in our solar system's asteroid belt: asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres. Dawn studied Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012 and is now headed for Ceres. The dwarf planet is of particular interest since it is the asteroid belt's largest object, accounting for 25% of its total mass. In addition, Ceres is differentiated, with a rocky core, like Earth and Mars, and a water ice layer below a thin outer crust, like some of the moons of the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter. 

In January 2014, using observations from the Herschel Space Observatory, astronomers discovered that Ceres was releasing water vapor into space from two points near its equator, at a rate of about 5 kg (11 lbs) / second. At the time these observations were made, the 950-km-wide (590 mi) dwarf planet was closest to the sun (perihelion) during its 4.5-year-orbit around the sun. This was an unexpected and exciting finding. The presence of water on Ceres raises the possibility of alien life. In addition, water vapor plumes have never been observed escaping from an asteroid belt object. 

Ceres thus poses a number of intriguing questions. In coming months, scientists will likely be able to answer many of them.

Image credit: NASA

Artist's impression of dwarf planet Ceres outgassing water vapor into space from two sources near its equator. This suggests the presence of water and the possibility of alien life.

Image credit: William K. Hartmann Courtesy of UCLA

Artist's rendition of Dawn in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, marking the boundary between our solar system's inner and outer planets. Vesta is the largest, potato-shaped asteroid on the left, and the dwarf planet Ceres - almost shperical in shape - is at the right.

Image credit: NASA

Ceres is a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt with a rocky inner core, a trait it shares with inner planets like Mars and Earth, and a sub-surface water-ice layer, a feature it has in common with some of the moons of the outer planet gas giants Saturn and Jupiter.

This is the highest resolution image we have of Ceres to date, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Dawn will arrive at Ceres in late March / early April 2015 and start to return images with a higher resolution than the above in about six weeks. That event will mark the first time humans will get a close-up look at a dwarf planet. New Horizons will arrive at Pluto several months later. The differences and similarities between the two dwarf planets will provide a wealth of information about the formation of our solar system. 

Dawn will initially orbit Ceres at an altitude of 13,500 km (8,400 mi), and descend to about 1,500 km (950 mi) in August 2015 to resolve Ceres' surface in 3D. Dawn's closest passes to the surface will be at an altitude of 375 km (230 mi) in November 2015, where the craft will remain for three months.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

New Horizons: All Eyes On Pluto in 2015

On December 6, New Horizons awoke from hibernation for the final time. This amazing outer solar system probe was launched in 2006 and has traversed 3 billion miles. New Horizons is going further than any planetary probe has gone before; only the two Voyagers - designed to leave the solar system - have traveled further from our home planet. The spacecraft is also zooming fast through space - at a clip that equals traveling from Los Angeles to New York every five minutes, since 2006.

Yesterday New Horizons woke up for the 18th and final time. The probe spent most of its journey in hibernation mode, only waking up periodically for instrument and status checks. Now that New Horizons is closing in on the Plutonian system, we can expect to see the dwarf planet and its moons with ever increasing resolution. New Horizons will have its closest encounter with Pluto in July 2015. 

Data sent from Pluto won't arrive at Earth instantaneously. It takes 4.5 hours for the signal to traverse 3 billion miles through the vacuum of space to be received on Earth.

 Image credit: The Planetary Society

Below is an artist's rendering of New Horizons approaching Pluto and its moons. The dwarf planet at the outer edges of our solar system is still the least well known to us here on Earth. Having lost its status as a full planet not too long ago, Pluto is now likely to present us with spectacular images of its surface and a wealth of knowledge. In a way, going to Pluto is like discovering what an exo-planet looks like. We can't see its surface directly, and, until now, we could only guess what its surface may look like. New Horizons will also be able to discern the presence of subsurface oceans similar to those on icy moons further inside the solar system, volcanic activity like we found on Io, or plumes that vent into space as we see it on Enceladus.

One of the questions mission scientists are eager to answer is whether or not Pluto and its current features are primitive - unchanged since the dawn of our solar system - or the result of activity over time, such us tidal heating or subsurface oceans. 

New Horizons' science instruments will also explore Pluto's night side, search for rings, study the atmosphere, look for dust, plasma and hazes, and collect data that will tell us if Pluto has mountains, fault lines, chasms and other geological features. 

 Image credit: NASA

This is a Hubble telescope image of Pluto and its five moons. Charon is the largest and was discovered in 1978. Two of Pluto's smaller moons, Kerberos and Styx weren't discovered until 2011 and 2012, respectively. This poses a unique challenge for New Horizons scientists: Completing science missions at Pluto and Charon while taking into account two moons that were not known to exist when New Horizons launched in 2006.                     

 Image credit: NASA / Hubble

Below is a Hubble telescope image of Pluto and three of its moons. This is the highest resolution image of Pluto and its moons that we have to date. As New Horizons approaches Pluto in coming months, the spacecraft will start to return images that will be better than this in early May 2015. New Horizons scientists have named this threshold "BTH" - Better Than Hubble. After that point, the craft will return images with increasingly finer resolution until its closest encounter with the dwarf planet in July 2015. At its closest approach, New Horizons' camera will resolve Pluto's surface at about 70-80 m / pixel.

 Image credit: NASA / Hubble

New Horizons' mission may not end after visiting Pluto and Charon. NASA scientists are working to secure funding for extending the spacecraft's mission. It can use Pluto's gravity to slingshot out into the Kuiper Belt and examine a Kuiper Belt Object up close. Two possible target objects have already been selected. A close-up look at a KBO is particularly interesting because it will help us understand the nature and state of the very early solar system, long before planets had time to form. KBOs are thought to have changed very little in the billions of years since the formation of the solar system as we know it.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

This Holiday Season..... Don't Miss These Launches!

Even though it's practically December that doesn't mean the year is winding down for spaceflight. On the contrary, it's going to be a busy month: Fourteen launches are scheduled for the month of December, roughly one every other day, and there are some you don't want to miss!

(No earlier than) December 2/3

Hayabusa 2 will launch on an asteroid sample return mission atop an H-2A rocket from Tanegashima Space Center, Japan. Hayabusa 2 is slated to rendezvous with asteroid 1999 JU3 in 2018 and tasked with returning a sample to Earth in 2020. This is JAXA's second asteroid sample retrieval mission. The first Hayabusa craft returned an asteroid sample to Earth in 2010. "Hayabusa" is Japanese for peregrine falcon.

If Hayabusa 2 launches on December 3, the launch time in the U.S. fill fall on December 2: 11:22 p.m. EST / 8:22 p.m. PST. Hayabusa 2 has been delayed twice due to weather. I will post updates here if the launch slips again. 

Image credit: JAXA

December 4

NASA is scheduled to launch its new Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle on its first uncrewed mission to space: Exploration Flight Test One (EFT-1). Orion marks NASA's return to human spaceflight and is widely expected to pave the space agency's path to crewed Mars landings and other deep space missions. 

A United Launch Alliance's Delta 4-Heavy rocket will carry the Orion craft to orbit. This is a heavy lift vehicle with a triple-body rocket that brings the power of the Saturn V from the Apollo era Moon landings back to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Orion will reach an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth. For comparison, the International Space Station orbit is ca. 220 miles above Earth. The Space Shuttle, retired in 2011, was not capable of traveling beyond low Earth orbit.

Exploration Flight Test One will test many of Orion's critical systems, such as its heat shield that must withstand temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as re-entry speed reaches 20,000 miles per hour. Other Orion components to be tested during EFT-1 include the launch abort system and the parachute system that will help land Orion off the coast of California after completing two orbits.

The launch window for EFT-1 on December 4 is 7:05-9:44 a.m. EST / 4:05-6:44 a.m. PST. This is going to be rough on us West Coasters.

 Image credit: NASA

Update 2 - December 18: SpaceX CRS-5 launch moved up into the first week of January 2015. Click here for current updates and more info about the new launch date and time.  

Update 1 - December 16: Launch re-scheduled for December 19, 10:22 a.m. PST (19:22 CET)

December 16 (original date before re-schedules)

Delayed multiple times since September 12, SpaceX's cargo delivery to the International Space Station is now scheduled for December 16, launching a Dragon cargo capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket from pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral. This mission will be the private space company's fifth cargo delivery to the ISS under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract. The mission is named CRS-5 and has a brief launch window: 2:31 p.m. EST / 11:31 a.m. PST.

For SpaceX, CRS-5 is quite a bit more than another supply run to the ISS, as the company will further test the re-usability of its flagship Falcon 9 rocket. From its inception, SpaceX has aimed to make spaceflight more affordable and accessible. Reusable rocket stages are a crucial factor in the quest to develop rockets that are significantly cheaper to fly than single-use rockets. 

On a mission earlier this year, SpaceX began post-launch re-usability testing by guiding the Falcon 9's upper stage (the rocket stage to be recovered) to hoever upright above the ocean for a few seconds before it tipped over sideways into the water. SpaceX uses a combination of landing legs, grid fins, retro rockets and stabilizing technologies to enable Falcon 9's upper stage to perform a precision soft landing on water and eventually on land.

This time, Falcon 9's upper stage is expected to land on an autonomous spaceport drone ship. Last week on twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave us a glimpse of what to expect on December 16 - a historic milestone never before achieved: precisely land and recover a rocket that is intact and reusable, without the need to fish it out of the water.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dear Vultures: Go Away, Nothing To See Here

Yesterday's crash of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle in California's Mojave Desert is a painful blow to the spaceflight community, especially to those supporting the fledgling commercial space and space tourism industries. It's always more tragic when lives are lost, including Michael Alsbury, one of the SpaceShipTwo pilots.

                                    Michael Alsbury, 39, perished in the crash

At this time, the primary focus should be on the pilot's family and on the surviving pilot's needs. Pretty much everything else can wait, including publicizing the second pilot's name and condition. Yes, I've actually seen the mainstream press and social media rip into Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites for being "slow to disclose" all the details on the pilots and so far nothing on the cause of the crash.

Maybe this apparent entitlement to being in the loop is a holdover from the days when NASA was the only space-faring outfit in the land. The government agency really had no choice but to deal with the public. As a result, NASA is an expert at responsive public relations, holding news conferences, sharing information and generally keeping reporters and the public in the know. Private companies, by contrast, have no such obligation to share their business, their successes and failures with the press or the general public. In reality, of course, they do, since they'd hardly thrive otherwise. That does not give Mr and Ms Reporter the right to call into question Virgin Galactic's general competence because the company called a press conference in the middle of the Mojave Desert during a rainstorm and then dared to withhold the pilots' names.

The initial Virgin Galactic / Scaled Composites press conference after the crash was telling. Unlike NASA officials under similar circumstances, it was clear that those finding themselves in the spotlight didn't plan on being on TV that day, shaken, pressed to explain their company's first failure to a global audience. VG and SC reps seemed devastated during that press conference. It really doesn't help if all reporters and editors do is kick them when they're down and write articles about everything else they think is wrong with Virgin Galactic, or why the entire space tourism and commercial space industry is doomed for all time.

But then again, I'm not sure the mainstream press wants to help. From Time to National Geographic to Wired, writers and editors are proclaiming this the end of space tourism, the end of all of commercial space, and the end of billionaires daring to develop revolutionary technologies that benefit only the rich, initially. 

I'm not linking to these articles on purpose. Spaceflight naysayers are bad enough at the best of times. When it comes to covering the Virgin Galactic story, they are acting like nothing so much as a pack of starved vultures on a 3-day-old carcass. I needed hip boots just to read that stuff and brain bleach afterwards.

SpaceShipTwo disintegrating over the Mojave Desert on October 31, 2014

We're not exactly talking about well-thought out scientific or engineering arguments here. There are those who gleefully deliver "I told you so!"s for a 1,000 words only to reveal opposition to Virgin Galactic rooted in a personal dislike for billionaires finding ways to sell leisure trips to the edge of space to the wealthy elite. That's too bad, Mr Reporter, it's not your money. Go forth and make a few billion dollars from scratch like Richard Branson did, and maybe then you have something useful, or - think about it! -  supportive to say about a pioneering entrepreneur. But I doubt it.

Then there are those in the mainstream media peanut gallery who are offering up various - equally unhelpful and unsupportive - versions of "It's just too dangerous!", "This has always been a bad idea!" and "What is wrong with you people? Going into space is frivolous, dangerous and serves no purpose!" 

I've seen and heard this so many times in so many different incarnations that I haven't a facepalm left. Maybe those who think going into space serves no purpose have descendants that will agree, otherwise they'll find themselves obstructionists of their children's future. I've frequently come up against this seemingly irreconcilable divide: Those committed to our human future in space and those adamant that we must stay right here on Earth, where we belong.

While the latter choice is one that endangers survival of the human species in the long run
, in the here and now it is also an argument that is downright Luddite at its anti-technology core. It is a resistance to developing tech that will unlock whole new ways for human beings to live, thrive and form communities, even as some of us die to make these advances accessible not just to a wealthy elite, but to everybody. There is precedent in human history. Opposition to technology and science out of fear or misinformation is not uncommon. The calls I'm seeing in the mainstream media to end the dangerous madness of space tourism reminds me of those denizens of the 19th century who vocally opposed railroad technology because they believed that it wasn't possible for people to survive traveling at speeds over 30 mph. They were insistent. They were obnoxious. And they were dead wrong.

To me the path is clear. Commercial space and space tourism will recover from failure. We will pick up the pieces, literally, and move forward. It is what we do as a species, it is how we learn and evolve. Most of all, I firmly believe that moving onward, forward and upward is a crucial way to honor the lives of those who have died - and who will die - as they refine the technologies that will make humans a true space-faring species.

Thank you, Michael Alsbury for your courage and for your sacrifice. They will not be forgotten and they will not be in vain ~

Ad Astra!


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Swan Dive: Antares With Cygnus Payload Explodes

The launch date for Orbital Sciences' third cargo delivery to the International Space Station was set originally for October 27 from NASA Wallops in Virginia. When the launch was scrubbed at the last minute due to a boat that had strayed into the restricted zone, the twittersphere was not amused. Jokes were cracked, serious questions were asked and much debate went on over whether or not a launch should be scrubbed because one fishing boat had gotten a little bit closer to the launch pad than was deemed safe. The launch date was rescheduled to October 28, at 6:22 pm.

Due to the delay I was able to watch the launch live, including the jaw-dropping explosion, after the rocket appeared to sustain a first-stage engine failure a few seconds after liftoff, plunging back to the pad with almost all of its fuel. Twitter users have commented widely on the first video below, saying that the pieces seen flying away from the blast are most likely chunks of solid fuel from the rocket's upper stages. 

Interestingly, during the live coverage (not in the above video), I spotted someone running, crouched down low, between the camera and the launch pad, about 60 seconds before liftoff. It startled me enough to say to my screen: "What are you still doing there? Get out of there!" Later, Orbital Sciences announced that all personnel was accounted for. Still, other twitter users saw the person in the live stream, too. Speculation continues on who that was and if the person was in danger.

 Below is a video of the explosion taken from an airplane:    


A view of the blast from across the water appeared on twitter soon after the launch failure:
Antares carried a Cygnus ("the swan") capsule with supplies, science and satellite payloads destined for the ISS. Given the space station's planning cycles that include stockpiling supplies for astronauts 4-6 months in advance, neither the astronauts nor the station are at risk due to this launch failure. Moreover, another scheduled ISS cargo delivery on a Proton rocket smoothly launched from Baikonur to the ISS later in the day. It will be weeks, if not months, before we know the exact cause for yesterday's failure. 

It seems certain, though, that the investigation will focus on the two Russian-built NK-33 engines that power Antares' first stage. These are engines built and stockpiled in Russia during the space race decades, and acquired by Aerojet for use in launches from the U.S.    

A summary on the NK-33 engine is here, with a more detailed and technical article here A quote from the first article: "If you want to get an engine like this, you can't find it in the United States." Originally made to express confidence in the NK-33, it's a statement that may come back to haunt Orbital Sciences and the company's decision to use Russian engines built decades ago.  

Comparisons to SpaceX are inevitable: The company is another private supplier of ISS cargo launches. It uses modern American-built engines and rockets assembled all in one place. True, SpaceX has less than 15 launches total to its name. Yet the company also saw an engine failure on one of its initial deliveries to the ISS. After the "anomaly", Falcon 9 continued on its way and made the delivery as planned. Falcon 9s are built with multiple redundant systems, including nine first-stage Merlin engines designed to save the mission, or at least the rocket and payload, should a launch fail. In addition, SpaceX is flying its next ISS cargo delivery mission on December 9 from Cape Canaveral. Part of that mission includes an attempted water landing on a floating platform in the ocean, paving the way towards making re-usability a reality. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ocean Blue Hair = Everyday Space Outreach

Most of us working in space outreach think of it as organized activities, events, blogs, presentations or a social media endeavor. Yet it doesn't stop there - space outreach can be done anytime, anywhere, by design or by serendipity. I can attest to that:

I have naturally silver hair. Not premature greying, but actual shiny silver - similar to the kind of naturally blonde hair color that just *shines*. If you've spent some time in Northern Europe, where I was born, you'll know both colors aren't uncommon there. In my family it's a maternal genetic trait. My grandmother had it, my mom had it and they both hated it, coloring their hair religiously, lest someone suspect they are "going old and grey" too soon. When the silver started taking over my brown-ish childhood tresses by age 20, I, of course, felt the same way. I went brown all my life - until last year, when I got seriously tired of it and wanted a new look. 

The currently fashionable non-standard colors - blue, red, purple and more - require bleaching out one's natural color if it is dark, often multiple times, before the new color shows up blue, red or purple. Plus application of products to minimize the bleaching damage and add that shine. I quickly realized - Hey! I have the *perfect* natural hair to apply those non-traditional colors, with no bleaching mess or damage at all. All I need to do is let my hair keep growing out for a partial electric blue look. One that can be easily changed back to boring brown should professional responsibilities require it. 

I chose electric/sky blue because it represents the heavens, ascent to space and the color of Earth's oceans as seen from space. So I named my color "Earth-from-Space-Blue". 

This is my current color:

I've been getting a lot of comments, compliments and questions about this look, yet none as awesome as what happened at my local post office the other day. A kid of about 9 or 10 was selling candy by the entrance; I saw him checking me out as I locked up my bike. I made eye contact, and he said:

"Wow, I really love your hair. What's the color?"

"It's called "Splat Blue Envy" and you can buy it at any pharmacy."

"Yes, but how do you do it?"

"Well, I can do it without bleaching because I have naturally silver hair. As it grows out, I just paint it blue. I named the color Earth-from-Space Blue, because it's so cool."

Kid gives me a quizzical look: "What does *that* mean?"

I reply: "Do you know that there is a Space Station circling the Earth every 90 minutes? Astronauts have been living on it for 10 years now, taking 1000s of photos of our planet, whenever they are not busy doing amazing science in zero gravity. The cool thing is that many astronauts are on twitter and tweet their photos from space, showing different parts of Earth in real time. That's how I know what oceans from space look like."

Kid now gives me major side-eye, probably thinking I'm messing with him. I'm guessing he had never heard anything about the ISS, nor seen any of the photos. I could guess what he was thinking: "Oh yeah? I'm gonna go google that shyt, you know!"

I smiled at him and thanked him for the compliment. Biking away, I thought: "I hope you do, kid. I hope you do."

Monday, July 28, 2014

AGU13 - NASA Social in San Fransciso

In December 2013, I was honored to be one of 20 applicants selected to attend the NASA Social hosted at the American Geophysicist's Union Annual Fall Meeting - a week-long international conference in San Francisco that that attracts 20,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students and policy makers from around the world. 

In the process, I received possibly the most interesting scientific conference badge I've ever been issued. Apparently I was grouped as a member of the "NASA Council", which was totally news to me. Not to mention I had no clue what the NASA Council is or its role at AGU 2013, nor did anyone else I asked at the conference. Google revealed no clues either, since I'm pretty sure the badge did not mean to refer to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC).

Could someone fill me in on the back story, if any?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

We Called Out The World ~

We won't get to Mars by committee or consolidation. War metaphors and battle rhetoric won’t help us escape our planet’s formidable gravity well. Taking an adversarial stance against SpaceX is energy not spent on solving the myriad challenges involved in colonizing Mars. How about getting in on the adventure, instead of framing SpaceX as a threat?

Elon Musk has been quite clear about his goals: He would like to die on Mars, just not on impact.

A friend of mine, who right now is helping build the rockets that will take humans to Mars, provided this succinct summary:

The part that gets me is people forget Elon isn’t doing this for the money. He's doing it to colonize Mars. We need the EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) scale of money simply to pay for Mars. We called out the world saying: “Your rockets aren’t good enough, and they have hardly evolved. Here is our rocket. It is better”. And people started hoarding all of their money because that’s what rockets are to them, an ATM. A demand that only a few can supply. Others fall short because they realize there is no money to be made in upgrading rockets once they’ve been proven to work. Since ULA is obviously in this to make money, the only plays they have left is to tear down SpaceX, or spend the least amount of money possible to make people think they are securing new engines, and then scramble to make sure everybody has a chair before the music stops. The last thing ULA will ever be able to provide are the means to colonize Mars simply because somewhere, someone in that company uttered the phrase "return on investment".

Friday, May 2, 2014

Crimea River: Love Letter To SpaceX ~ Part 2

This article in Popular Mechanics is the third one I've seen that refers to SpaceX as "scrappy" in the aftermath of ULA having to face their business model's clash with ugly geopolitical realities. This time I'm not letting it go.

Sure, ULA has enough Russian-built engines in stock that current sanctions against Russia won't affect ULA launch capability for a couple of years. But then what? It will cost ULA about a billion bucks and a couple of years to develop their own engine to replace the Russian imports - while SpaceX has already developed their own models and is using them successfully, right now. 

Since September 2013, SpaceX has launched payloads into orbit four times, including the recent Dragon CRS-3 delivery to the ISS. More launches are planned this year. In the process, the company has hit several major milestones in the development of reusable upper stages that will return to the pad after launch. This technological leap alone is enough to leave ULA in the dust. ULA's business model doesn't even include re-usability. With $70-billion contracts at stake, it's no wonder that the Air Force and Congress are taking notice when SpaceX can offer significantly cheaper launch services without a limit of 10 per year that ULA works with.

While I was writing this post, SpaceX performed a 1,000-meter-reusability test flight in McGregor, TX, today, quadrupling the height of the previous test. Watch this video and get a glimpse of the future of space flight:

I wonder why the media reaction is so much one of surprise, even shock that this could happen. "But ULA worked so well and kept U.S. unmanned launch capability intact after the shuttle retirement in 2011!" Yes and yes, all that is true and a significant accomplishment, but also irrelevant in 2014. It's not like SpaceX just showed up on the scene yesterday. The company was founded in 2002 and has been on the fast track to reaching all of its goals and then some, ever since.    

So why did it take a federal injunction for ULA and Congress - along with most of the country's space writers, it seems - to take notice that SpaceX is not only successful but completely redefining the bars for cost, reliability, technological innovation and launch frequency? When space writers start talking about how only a SpaceX launch failure can save ULA, it's time for a reality check!    

That sort of thing is childish, offensive and it's a slap in the face of Elon Musk and all the people at SpaceX whose hard work and dedication came before all the recent successes. Outside of academia and the self-employed, I have never met people who work as hard and hours as long as SpaceX employees do - while loving their work and their employer! This is part of the formula behind SpaceX's success and it's time to acknowledge it!   SpaceX really is making it cheaper and easier to get into space more often! The company is targeting its first manned flight within three years, restoring U.S. manned launch capability. This is fantastic news and a huge cause for celebration!   How can you call a company like that "scrappy"?    

Part of the resistance to acknowledging SpaceX's success is likely rooted in the fact that from the outset, the private company deliberately did everything the way NASA most definitely did not. Love for the government space agency in this country runs deep and it is deserved. A business plan based on not doing things the NASA way, deliberately and consistently, is probably not the best way to win over NASA enthusiasts. Not that that is necessary for SpaceX's success. But it really would be nice, not to mention gracious, after 12 years of innovative technological and engineering feats.    

One of the things that SpaceX definitely does not handle the way NASA does is access. While I had been aware of SpaceX's local HQ for years, I never considered the possibility that I can get a tour just for the asking. Nicely, of course, and it helps to know an employee who offers. But really, if you want to go behind the scenes at SpaceX, all you need to do is ask.     

I visited a year ago and anyone who ever has would never put "scrappy" in the same sentence as "SpaceX". There are some rules, of course, (no photos) and some areas are off-limits but you can get up close and personal with rows of gleaming Merlin engines in different stages of assembly, Dragon capsules being assembled and prepped for launch, the first Dragon that's been to space on display, and the rocket assembly areas, which is exactly what it sounds like: Falcon 9 stages completed and under assembly.   And, of course, SpaceX's in-house 3D printer. It was the first time I'd ever been near one. Since then, the company has added tech that allows engineers to use hand gestures to design in 3D, and then immediately print the pieces in materials of their choice.     

A few 3D-printed pieces of titanium were on display. Most looked impressively intricate with impossibly tiny detail. The piece that drove home for me what I really was looking at, the true power inherent in this tech, came in the form of an innocuous-looking cylinder about 5 inches long and 3 inches in diameter. "What's this?", I asked, as it looked like an unremarkable piece of metal. "Hold it up to the light and look through the cylinder length-wise." I did. That was the third or fourth time I picked my jaw off the floor that day. I had lost count. The cylinder appeared semi-permeable: it had hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny shafts running the length of it, evenly spaced, fractions of a millimeter in diameter. Almost impossible to see with the naked eye until you hold the piece up to the light. 

I will never forget the moment when I realized what I was holding - a piece so finely machined that no machine could actually have done the job, except a 3D printer.   I call that impressive, awesome, inspirational - any number of adjectives nowhere near the meaning of "scrappy". So the next space or science writer I catch using the word in reference to SpaceX, or who invokes a SpaceX launch failure as a way to "save" ULA, is going to receive this tweet. It's not one of mine, but it does say it all:


Read my first Love Letter To Space X from May 2012.  I have a feeling this one won't be the last.   


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tribute to Carl Sagan and The Planetary Society

I recently had occasion [read: I really need the space] to clean out one of my closets whose contents hadn’t seen the light of day in years. In addition to a lot of printed material I had held on to only because “google” hadn’t evolved into a verb yet, I realized that, over the years, I had kept two things: Anything Star Trek and anything by or about Carl Sagan, including an issue of “The Planetary Report” from 1993 and the first English-language book I ever read, 20 years earlier: “The Cosmic Connection – An Extra-Terrestrial Perspective”. I was 11 at the time in West Germany, with two years of English under my belt.

Contemplating my collection of Carl Sagan’s writings, I realized that no other scientist or author has had the same overarching impact on my life and career choices as Carl Sagan did. For this I am most grateful, because it has led me to where I am today.

Carl’s great gift was his ability to reach so many people – to show the wonders of the cosmos to anyone who wanted to learn, listen, watch and imagine. He certainly reached an 11-year-old girl who had caught the space bug only a few years earlier. I don’t remember where my copy of “Cosmic Connection” came from in 1973. I probably saw a German translation in a bookstore and asked my parents for the original (my love of the English language and U.S. culture runs deep). It took me months to finish the book, looking up many words per page in a paper dictionary, puzzling out the meaning of Carl’s words as I went along.

At some point, it stopped being tedious and started to feel like an adventure – a glorious, wonderful journey into realms whose existence I was just learning to comprehend. Carl took complicated topics and presented them in accessible, engaging ways. He also tapped into that which is universal, that which we all share as a species, as a planet, a solar system, a galaxy. That which transcends languages, cultures and national boundaries, that which makes us uniquely human and defines our role in the cosmos. We are star stuff; we are life figuring itself out, at the most exciting time in human history!

Carl’s words not only resonated with me as a child, they helped me develop intellectual confidence and the courage to speak up when adults around me misrepresented science or denied scientific achievements. I eagerly anticipated Carl’s latest books and interviews. Soon, I began to challenge moon landing deniers, creationists, Sunday school teachers and geo-centrists. I found my way towards atheism at age 14 and passionately defended it to anyone who challenged me.

I became conscious of the signs of the Cold War raging in full view all around me, ignored, unspoken of, discussed only in hushed tones. I was furious when I figured out that the divided Germanies were being served up as a possible Ground Zero in a nuclear confrontation scenario between the superpowers. When I first saw a procession of ICBMs being transported on a West German highway at age 13 and began to question everybody I could think of, Carl was one of the few people in a position of authority who confirmed my perceptions were true and who echoed what I thought: Insanity!

Years later, in graduate school at UCLA, I would turn down a job offer from a major defense contractor who wanted to hire me as a human factors engineer. Financially, this was difficult for me. Yet I just could not go to work for a company that was devoted to everything I opposed in the 1980's: Nuclear proliferation, the Cold War and the Strategic Defense Initiative. I don’t think I could have made this decision as cleanly as I did without Carl’s words, wisdom and dire warnings in my mind.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in Los Angeles, I attended every possible event featuring Carl Sagan and The Planetary Society. I became a first-time Society member in 1993. For the second time in my career, I started to dream about a space-related job. With the Cold War over, the terrible specter of mutually assured destruction was fading into the background. I became hopeful that under Carl’s leadership, humans could now focus on space exploration without the distraction of chilling Cold War geopolitics.

Carl’s passing in 1996 was a terrible loss: To his family, to The Planetary Society, to me, to everyone who looked to the stars and dared to dream. I started to doubt my optimistic assessment of our human future in space. When Columbia was lost in 2003, it was as if I had no more tears left to shed. Professionally, I threw myself into a career as a translator and linguist.

It wasn’t until almost 10 years later that I would leave a prestigious employment situation to work full-time in space outreach, my First Love - this time for good. Twitter, NASA Tweetups and NASA Socials had a lot to do with my decision, but so did my personal experience with a reinvigorated Planetary Society and Bill Nye in the most visible position as its CEO. Planet Fest 2012 showed me that I had, in fact, come full circle. Carl’s loss had not weakened The Planetary Society, it had made it stronger! Now, 40 years after picking up my first book by Carl Sagan that forever shaped my understanding of the cosmos, I find myself applying for a position with The Planetary Society that would give me an opportunity to do something extraordinary: Follow in Carl’s footsteps, carry on his legacy and show people just how amazing and rewarding it is to Change The Worlds!

How cool is that?