Sunday, March 26, 2017

NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover Suffers Wheel Damage

The aluminum wheels on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover are showing signs of wear and tear as the rover continues its exploration of the Red Planet.

Two small breaks were discovered on the rover’s left middle wheel in the raised treads, called grousers. Testing showed that at the point when three grousers on a wheel have broken, that wheel has reached about 60 percent of its useful life. Curiosity already has driven well over that fraction of the total distance needed for reaching the key regions of scientific interest on Mars' Mount Sharp.

Each of Curiosity's six wheels is about 20 inches (50 centimeters) in diameter and 16 inches (40 centimeters) wide, milled out of solid aluminum. The wheels contact ground with a skin that's about half as thick as a U.S. dime, except at thicker treads. The grousers are 19 zigzag-shaped treads that extend about a quarter inch (three-fourths of a centimeter) outward from the skin of each wheel. The grousers bear much of the rover's weight and provide most of the traction and ability to traverse over uneven terrain.

"All six wheels have more than enough working lifespan remaining to get the vehicle to all destinations planned for the mission," said Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "While not unexpected, this damage is the first sign that the left middle wheel is nearing a wheel-wear milestone."

The monitoring of wheel damage on Curiosity, plus a program of wheel-longevity testing on Earth, was initiated after dents and holes in the wheels were seen to be accumulating faster than anticipated in 2013.

Through March 20, 2017, Curiosity has driven 9.9 miles (16.0 kilometers) since the mission's August 2012 landing on Mars. For the past four years, rover drive planners have used enhanced methods of mapping potentially hazardous terrains to reduce the pace of damage from sharp, embedded rocks along the rover's route.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

U.S. Air Force's Secretive X-37B Space Plane Breaks Orbital Record

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The fourth mission (OTV-4) of the U.S. Air Force's secretive X-37B 'mini-shuttle' broke the record for the most time the space plane has spent in space on Saturday, March 25, 2017. 

The previous X-37B record of 674 days in space was set by the third mission (OTV-3) which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 12, 2012 and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 17, 2014. The X-37B was originally designed for orbital missions lasting 270 days.

X-37B Mission Durations

Mission  Days
OTV-1     224
OTV-2     468
OTV-3     674
OTV-4     675+

X-37B May Land In Florida For The First Time

The U.S. Air Force left open the possibility of landing the X-37B on the space shuttle landing strip at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In 2014, Boeing began consolidation of its X-37B operations at Kennedy Space Center by converting the former space shuttle facility, OPF-1, to a facility that would enable the U.S. Air Force to land, recover, refurbish, and re-launch the reusable unmanned space plane.  

Prior to consolidation, the 29-foot-long X-37B had launched from both Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida - but the space plane only landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

What Is Aboard This X-37B?

While most payloads are classified, the U.S. Air Force made an unusual disclosure that OTV-4 has a Hall thruster experiment aboard.

A Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon. While producing comparatively low thrust relative to conventional rocket engines, Hall thrusters provide significantly greater specific impulse, or fuel economy. This results in increased payload carrying capacity and a greater number of on-orbit maneuvers for a spacecraft using Hall thrusters rather than traditional rocket engines.

Another unclassified payload that is aboard the X-37B is an experiment for NASA that will expose almost 100 different materials samples to a space environment for more than 200 days. 

Image and video credit: USAF

Friday, March 24, 2017

SpaceX To Make History With Launch Of First Re-Used Rocket

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- SpaceX may once again make space history with the first launch of a refurbished Falcon 9 rocket that is set for Wednesday, March 29, 2017 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The two-and-a-half hour launch window opens at 4:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

The refurbished first stage rocket that will make this historic launch was initially launched with a Dragon capsule from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 8, 2016 for a resupply mission to the International Space Station. After launch, the first stage landed on SpaceX's autonomous drone ship Of Course I Still Love You where it was ferried back to Port Canaveral, Florida.

The first stage was then shipped to MacGregor, Texas to undergo refurbishment and testing before returning to Florida for its historic flight.

SpaceX Uses First Commercial Launch Customer For Historic Launch

Fittingly, SpaceX will make the historic launch with an SES-10 communications satellite - the same company which risked its payload aboard SpaceX's first commercial launch in December 2013.

“Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX's first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket. We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management,” Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES said.

The SES-10 satellite will provide  television broadcast and telecommunication services to Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

SpaceX to attempt second landing on drone ship

If all goes as planned, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will deliver the communications satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit. 

Following stage separation, the first stage of the Falcon 9 will attempt a historic landing of a reused rocket on Of Course I Still Love You.  However, a successful landing could be more challenging with this mission. That's because the Geo Stationary Transfer Orbit requires the first stage rocket to reach a significantly higher altitude than other low earth orbit missions. This means that Falcon 9's first stage rocket will becoming down faster with less fuel to slow its descent.

Top photo: An SES-9 satellite sits atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

Gravitational Waves Push Supermassive Black Hole Out Of Galaxy's Center

An international team of astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have uncovered a supermassive black hole that has been propelled out of the center of the distant galaxy 3C186 by what could be the awesome power of gravitational waves.

Though several other suspected runaway black holes have been seen elsewhere, none has been confirmed so far. Astronomers think this object, detected by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, is a very strong case. Weighing more than 1 billion suns, the rogue black hole is the most massive black hole ever detected to have been kicked out of its central home.

Researchers estimate that it took the equivalent energy of 100 million supernovas exploding simultaneously to jettison the black hole. The most plausible explanation for this propulsive energy is that the monster object was given a kick by gravitational waves unleashed by the merger of two hefty black holes at the center of the host galaxy.

First predicted by Albert Einstein, gravitational waves are ripples in space that are created when two massive objects collide. The ripples are similar to the concentric circles produced when a hefty rock is thrown into a pond. Last year, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) helped astronomers prove that gravitational waves exist by detecting them emanating from the union of two stellar-mass black holes, which are several times more massive than the sun.

Hubble's observations of the wayward black hole surprised the research team. "When I first saw this, I thought we were seeing something very peculiar," said team leader Marco Chiaberge of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland.

"When we combined observations from Hubble, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, it all pointed towards the same scenario. The amount of data we collected, from X-rays to ultraviolet to near-infrared light, is definitely larger than for any of the other candidate rogue black holes."

ABOVE IMAGE: The illustration shows how gravitational waves can propel a black hole from the center of a galaxy. 

1. The scenario begins in the first panel with the merger of two galaxies, each with a central black hole. 

2. In the second panel, the two black holes in the newly merged galaxy settle into the center and begin whirling around each other. This energetic action produces gravitational waves. 

3, As the two hefty objects continue to radiate away gravitational energy, they move closer to each other over time, as seen in the third panel. If the black holes do not have the same mass and rotation rate, they emit gravitational waves more strongly in one direction, as shown by the bright area at upper left. 

4. The black holes finally merge in the fourth panel, forming one giant black hole. The energy emitted by the merger propels the black hole away from the center in the opposite direction of the strongest gravitational waves.

Image Credit and article source: NASA/ESA

Thursday, March 23, 2017

United Launch Alliance Atlas V Rocket Launch Pushed Back Again

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - The launch date of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket carrying Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida has been pushed back again due to second hydraulic issue discovered on the ground support equipment. No new launch date has been set.

Orbital ATK Mission

This mission marks the third launch of a Cygnus spacecraft aboard an Atlas V rocket and will be Orbital ATK’s seventh operational mission (OA-7) to the International Space Station for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services contract. The mission also marks the debut of the enhanced Cygnus, which will carry approximately 7,225 kilogram (15,928 pounds) of cargo to the International Space Station.

The Atlas V rocket will place the spacecraft on a precise path to reach the space station about four days after launch. Cygnus will then approach close enough for the station's 55-foot-long robotic arm to grapple the supply craft and connect it to one of the ports on the orbiting laboratory.

The spacecraft, powered by its own set of solar arrays, will remain connected to the station until June. During that time, astronauts will unload the Cygnus, including research dedicated to range of fields such as astronomy, biology, crystal growth and technology development. The spacecraft also will carry an advanced plant habitat for growing vegetables in orbit.

ABOVE IMAGE: An Atlas V rocket carrying an Orbital ATK Cynus spacecraft lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA TV

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Delta IV Rocket Launch Of WGS-9

The Delta IV rocket successfully launched from Florida at 8:18 p.m. EDT and has deployed the WGS satellite into orbit.

UPDATE: A new launch time of  8:18 p.m. has been set.

7:51 PM UPDATE: A T-4 min hold is being extended because of an alarm connected to the swing arm system.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) configuration rocket carrying a U.S. military communications satellite is scheduled to lift off on Saturday, March 18, 2017, from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The 65-minute launch window opens at 7:44 p.m Eastern Standard Time.

Launch Weather 80% 'GO'

According to the latest weather forecast from the United States Air Force 45th Weather Squadron, there is an 80% percent chance overall of acceptable weather conditions for for the Delta IV launch. The primary weather concern for launch is liftoff winds.

Mission Payload

Dubbed WGS-9, the Delta IV's payload is the ninth Wideband Global SATCOM mission for the U.S. Air Force. WGS-8 was recently launched in December 2016.

WGS satellites are part of a high-capacity satellite communications system which provides enhanced communications capabilities to U.S. troops in the field.  With powerful anti-jamming capablilities, WGS enables more robust and flexible execution of Command and Control, Communications Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, as well as battle management and combat support information functions. The WGS constellation augments the existing service available through the UHF Follow-on satellite by providing enhanced information broadcast capabilities.

Image and Video Credit: United Launch Alliance 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

OneWeb Breaks Ground On Faclility Near Kennedy Space Center

MERRITT ISLAND, Florida - OneWeb held a ground-breaking ceremony on Thursday to mark the beginning of construction on its 100,000 square foot satellite manufacturing facility on Florida’s Space Coast at Exploration Park, just south of Kennedy Space Center.

OneWeb Satellites is a joint venture between OneWeb, a satellite-based internet provider, and Airbus, the world’s second largest space company, with its first order to include the production of 900 communications satellites for OneWeb’s low Earth orbit constellation. Once the satellites are in orbit, OneWeb's ground terminals will act as small cells with the ability to provide access to a surrounding local area via a WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connection.

During the ceremony with Florida Governor Rick Scott, OneWeb Satellites CEO Brian Holz and Airbus Defense and Space Inc., President Mike Cosentino, announced that the factory is set to begin its full series, autonomous assembly line production, integration and satellite testing later in 2017.

The $85 million high-volume satellite factory is anticipated to create nearly 250 direct, highly skilled manufacturing and engineering jobs in Brevard County, Florida.

The first 900 production satellites will weigh only 150 kg and are expected to have better performance than much larger, more costly communications satellites today. The satellites will be used primarily by OneWeb for its global internet services, but the new low-cost, ultra-high performance satellites will be available for other commercial satellite operators and government customers globally as early as 2018. The satellites are designed with modularity for multiple mission configurations.

The factory will include state-of-the-art automation, test equipment, and data acquisition capabilities to shorten assembly times and provide a means to analyze factory performance and process improvements. The company stated in a release that up to three satellites per day can be produced at the new factory on short schedules, at significant cost savings and without affecting the high levels of quality and technology.

Local contractors in Florida will support the project, and additional capability is expected to move into the region. This will be the first satellite manufacturing facility in Florida and the first in the U.S. located in close proximity to a launch site.

“Today’s groundbreaking for OneWeb Satellites’ new manufacturing facility here at Exploration Park is yet another milestone in the not-so-distant future of the commercial space industry at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport,” said Frank DiBello, President of Space Florida. “It is remarkable that the state of Florida will be home to OneWeb Satellites’ first-of-its-kind manufacturing capability. Space Florida looks forward to watching OneWeb Satellites’ facility change the landscape of aerospace manufacturing and welcomes the company to Exploration Park.”

Photo credit: Enterprise Florida

SpaceX Successfully Launches EchoStar 23 Satellite

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying an EchoStar-23 television broadcast satellite at 2:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thursday, March 16, 2017, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Approximately 30 minutes after launch, the satellite was deployed in its intended orbit.

This was SpaceX's second launch from the historic Space Shuttle and Apollo launch site. There was not an attempted landing of the Falcon 9 first stage after the launch.


EchoStar XXIII is a highly flexible, Ku-band broadcast satellite services (BSS) satellite with four main reflectors and multiple sub-reflectors supporting multiple mission profiles. Initial commercial deployment of EchoStar XXIII will be at 45° West which will provide direct-to-home television broadcast services to Brazil for the next 15 years. Colorado-based EchoStar operates the world’s fourth-largest commercial geosynchronous fleet with 25 satellites.

Watch The Launch Replay

Photo credit: SpaceX

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Full Moon Tonight: Sunday, March 12, 2017

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- A Full Moon can be seen on Sunday, March 12, 2017, beginning with a moonrise over the Atlantic Ocean at 7:45 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (with a few minutes of variation depending on your exact location).

The Full Moon will be 99.8% full that night before it sets the following Monday morning at 8:16 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.  A Full Moon in March has seasonal names such as a "Worm's Moon" or "Lenten Moon."

This is the last Full Moon of the astronomical Winter before the Spring Equinox occurs on Monday, March 20, 2017.

For those planning a moonlit stroll along the beach on Florida's East Coast, this Full Moon brings along with it a 3'9" Atlantic Ocean high tide that will occur around 8:46 p.m. EDT (with a slight time and height variation depending on your exact location).  A very low tide will occur at 2:55 a.m. Monday morning.

Image Credit: NASA

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Vernal Equinox 2017: First Day Of Spring On March 20

The Vernal Equinox, marking the changing of the astronomical Seasons from the last day of Winter to the first day of Spring, occurs on March 20, 2017 at 6:29 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (10:29 a.m. Universal Time), according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.

The Vernal Equinox can occur on March 19, 20, or 21, depending on whether the year is a Leap Year and other calendar calculations.

Equinox means "equal night" in Latin, capturing the idea that daytime and nighttime are equal lengths everywhere on the planet. That is true of the Sun's presence above the horizon, though it does not account for twilight, when the Sun's rays extend from beyond the horizon to illuminate our gas-filled atmosphere. 

It is the equal amount of day and night in the northern hemisphere for locations like Melbourne, Florida, but also in the southern hemisphere for locations like Melbourne, Australia.  The apparent change in location of the sun and moon marks important dates for hunting, fishing, and farming.

Of course, it is not the Sun that is moving north or south through the seasons, but a change in the orientation and angles between the Earth and its nearest star. As pictured in the NASA Earth Observatory photo above, the Spring Equinox is caused by the tilt of the earth's rotating axis. The axis of the Earth is tilted 23.5 degrees relative to the Sun and the ecliptic plane.  The axis is tilted away from the Sun at the Winter Solstice and toward the Sun at the Summer Solstice, spreading more and less light on each hemisphere.  At the equinoxes, the tilt is at a right angle to the Sun and the light is spread evenly.

How can it be Spring if it is still snowing in parts of the United States? 

Blame the oceans, which heat up and cool down only slowly. By March 20 they are still cool from the winter time, and that delays the peak heat by about a month and a half.  Similarly, on the first day of Fall in September, the ocean water still holds warmth from the Summer, and the hottest days are still (on the average, but not always) a month-and-a-half ahead.