New Horizons to reach Ultima Thule on New Year’s Eve

The New Horizons Science Team gives an update on the final approach to Ultima Thule, 28 Dec 2018. (JHUAPL/YouTube)

New Horizons is ready for its close-up – again. The pioneering space probe has reached halfways through the Kuiper Belt to reach 2014 MU69, nicknamed “Ultima Thule” (rhymes with “Goonie”). On Friday 1700 UT, in the absence of any online presence for NASA Television, the New Horizons team moved to the JHUAPL YouTube channel to air its half-hour science brief, featuring Allan Stern, Alice Bowman, and Kelsi Singer from the New Horizons research team.

In these last days of the year, New Horizons will make its final course corrections to ensure that the mission reaches its destination at the exact moment designated for the encounter time. All of the New Horizons instruments will come to life for the first time since the encounter at Pluto, taking thousands of measurements of the most distant object ever explored by humankind. Continue reading

Rocket Lab brings NASA to orbit in a whole new way

Wairoa, New Zealand – Rocket Lab delivered 13 student and research CubeSats into sun-synchronous orbit on 16 Dec 2018. Liftoff was just after 0633 UT as the summer afternoon sun pierced through scattered clouds at Māhia LC-1. The two-stage Electron rocket with Curie kickstage carried the payloads to a circular 500 km × 85° orbit.

This mission is Rocket Lab’s fourth orbital launch, the third in 2018, and the second in a little over a month. Rocket Lab has set an ambitious goal of reaching one launch per week in 2019. In November, Electron was proven for commercial flight, and now, Rocket Lab has proven Electron for NASA’s non-commercial payloads.

For NASA, the launch is the intersection of two initiatives, the Venture Class Launch Systems (VCLS) program, which provides opportunities for the new generation of smaller rockets, and the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program, which expands access to space for CubeSat payloads from schools and universities. The most important aspect of a mission like ELaNa 19 is the sheer amount of talent it generates. Every ELaNa mission represents a team of students and researchers that gain top-to-bottom space development skills.

History, old and new

Electron 4 was named “This one’s for Pickering” in honour of William Pickering – a New Zealander who lead the Jet Propulsion Laboratory between 1954 and 1976. Under Pickering, JPL became part of NASA, and developed a series of legendary spacecraft, from Explorer 1 through Voyager 2.

In such a busy month for spaceflight, it is easy to lose track of all the firsts. On 3 December, ELaNa payloads participated in the SSO-A mission, where a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg AFB deployed an all micro/nanosat payload to a similar sun-synchronous orbit. On Thursday 13 Dec, in the first NASA VCLS mission, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity flew 8 ELaNa payloads past the McDowell Line to the edge of space. With this mission, Electron is the first orbital launcher from the VCLS program to reach orbit.

Launch manifest

ALBUS3Power, Alloy HingesNASA Glenn
CeREs3Energetic ParticlesNASA Goddard
CHOMPTT3Gravimetry, SatNavU of Florida
CubeSail3Solar SailUIUC
DaVinci3Comm / TrainingSchool (Rathdrum, ID)
ISX CP113Radio / IonosphereCalPoly
NMTSat3Space WeatherNew Mexico Tech
RSat3Robot ArmsNaval Academy
Shields-13Radiation ProtectionNASA Langley
STF-13Space WeatherWVU
TOMSat AC11A EagleScout3Earth ObservationAerospace Corporation
TOMSat AC11B R33Earth ObservationAerospace Corporation
SHFT 13Radio / Ionosphere

What’s next in smallsat?

The next Electron launch will be from Māhia in early 2019. Rocket Lab will also complete its Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia during the new year. The race is on for the next great small satellite launcher! Virgin Orbit may well be the next to put a payload in orbit, though Vector-R, Astra Rocket 1, or EOS Firefly Alpha are all still in the running.

Update: Added SHFT 1 to manifest

Despite Falcon 9 setback, CRS-16 caps off incredible week for spaceflight

Falcon 9 with CRS-16 Dragon (SpaceX)

A launch success and an anomalous but mostly successful booster landing has set the stage for the US return to manned spaceflight. A Falcon 9 rocket carrying 3 tons of scientific experiments and supplies for the International Space Station launched from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral at 1816 UT on Wednesday, 5 December 2018 – a brilliant point of light over the Atlantic sky just as the honour guard carried President Bush out of Washington National Cathedral.

The launch was notable not for the complete success of the launch, which had a momentary launch window planned down to the last second, but for the near miss of the Falcon 9 first stage as it returned to Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX has already managed to make booster recovery routine, which left engineering teams scratching their heads as the hydraulic system that moves the booster’s titanium grid fins failed, causing the massive cylinder of aluminium-lithium to spin nearly out of control during entry and descent. Dramatically, in the final moment before splashdown, the booster’s landing legs popped out as in a normal landing, which seemed to stabilize the erratic motion just as the booster splashed sideways into the waves.

SpaceX emphasized that the flight provided an important validation of its autonomous landing system. Without human intervention, the booster flight computer determined that it did not have sufficient flight control to safely land at the Kennedy Space Center recovery pad, and instead ditched at low speed into the Atlantic about 3 km offshore. Conventional wisdom on the water landing of the Falcon 9 first stage is that the rocket is a writeoff. But because the booster landed intact, and despite the many unresolved questions which remain to be investigated, it is not unrealistic to suggest that the booster can still be refurbished. If nothing else, it can be repaired for static display or flight tests. What is certain is that the water landing is not a failure – but rather, a partial success with significant anomalies.

Today’s CRS-16 launch is just another triumph of engineering observed during an incredible week of achievement in spaceflight. Last Monday, the InSight geology probe landed on the surface of Mars; On Wednesday, the HySIS earth observing satellite and various small payloads entered polar orbit. This Monday, a Soyuz rocket carried US, Russian, and Canadian astronauts to the International Space Station, while hours later SpaceX delivered their first mission entirely composed of small commercially booked satellites to orbit. Just yesterday, a pair of new geostationary satellites serving India and Korea were lofted by ArianeSpace.

The rate of space development has reached a new and hectic pace, even for the individual players. SpaceX was fully prepared to launch both SSO-A from Vandenberg and CRS-16 from Kennedy within 24 hours of each other, which would have tested the very limits of SpaceX’s mission control and personnel management capabilities. Even with the CRS-16 launch delay, there was a significant amount of overnight work due to last-minute integration problems with the food for live rats in the RR-8 experiment.

The success of CRS-16 sets the stage for the return of US manned spaceflight. In just a few weeks, the next evolution of the Dragon capsule, the Dragon 2, will launch to the ISS and prove all key systems for a human-rated launch and recovery system. Later in 2019, the first US astronauts from a US spaceport since the end of the Space Shuttle program will arrive at the ISS, almost certainly in a SpaceX Dragon 2 – though NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program also includes the first US-based second source for manned spaceflight. Boeing’s Starliner will also be ready to fly people before the end of 2019.

GSLV-III puts Elon Musk on notice


GSAT-29 launches on a GSLV-III , 14 November 2018 (ISRO /

ISRO’s largest rocket has made it to orbit again! The second operational flight of the GSLV-III took off from Sriharikota just after 0915 UTC with a new commsat that will operate at 55° East in the Clarke Belt.

GSAT-29 will serve the Indian subcontinent with four fixed Ka/Ku spot beams, two of which will focus on India’s relatively remote northeast and northwest regions. GSAT-29 also has laser and high-band microwave test payloads, plus a steerable Ka spot beam for focus coverage wherever needed.

Though competition is tough in the medium-lift GTO market, GSLV-III can now be considered flight proven. The new expendable launcher is already price competitive with the reusable Falcon 9, and is well ahead of Soyuz-2. The GSLV-III will also power ISRO’s manned space program, slated for liftoff in 2022.

A bumper crop of science for the ISS!

A great month for space science will be capped off 15 November with the launch of a new batch of supplies to the International Space StationAn Antares rocket will launch from Mid-America Regional Spaceport LP-0A at 0949 GMT, early in the Virginia Tidewater morning.

The 3000 kg cargo includes 12 science experiments, such as a 3D printer that recycles its own plastic, and breakthrough Parkinson’s Disease research – the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s CASIS payload is an improved version of an experiment flown aboard the ISS last year. If space-grown protein crystals can be grown large enough, and in sufficient quality to be imaged at 0.6 nm resolution – that may enough to find attack sites for drugs that could slow or stop the disease.

There are also studies about making concrete in space, making nanostructures to filter out carbon dioxide from industrial sources, and an ambitious German experiment that probes the very formation of the solar system using not much more than dust, electricity, and a 100 x 150 mm box!  Rounding this out is a Canadian VR experiment that tests how astronauts’ brains influence the sense of orientation, even without any gravity acting on the inner ear.

Payload Purpose
Refabricator Plastic manufacture / recycle
VECTION VR / flight effect on the vestibular system
EXCISS Solar system accretion / condroids
MVP-Cell 05 Concrete manufacture
CASIS PCG-16 Parkinson’s Disease / crystallography
CEMSICA Carbon dioxide filter nanostructures
6 more payloads Not yet highlighted

Aiming for 43 AU

For this Leif Erikson Day, another reminder that the frontiers of exploration are still being pushed outward!

If you aren’t caught up, the Planetary Society keeps very good track of active missions and key upcoming dates. Wikipedia also has pages for almost all active space probes.

One of the most exciting recent developments have been the number of space probes from China and India. Compared to NASA and European missions, they have tended to be smaller in scale but more frequent, though perhaps th epace is not as frenetic as a Second Space Race as some had forseen.

ISRO even has a Mars mission – though oddly, the Mangalyaan Mars mission doesn’t seem to have the Electra radio relay found on most other Mars orbiters – the key part that lets the various Mars landers talk with Earth more easily.

At any rate, it’s a good time to pay attention! JAXA’s Hayabusa2 landed 3 landers on 162173 Ryugu just over the past few weeks. Plus, a look ahead at the calendar shows the planetary science crowd that the rest of 2018 is going to be more exciting than a fair bit of next year:

The BepiColombo mission to Mercury is set to launch this month!

The death watch for the Opportunity Mars rover will end soon. The rover was caught in a sandstorm in June and hasn’t been heard from since. While it’s possible that NASA will hear back from it, it seems more likely that its power systems have totally failed.

The Parker Solar Probe will reach its first close approach to the Sun on 6 November!

InSight will land on Elysium Planitia on 26 November 2018, supported by two 6U MarCO communications relays, in another first for CubeSats!

In December, OSIRIS-REx will reach its target, asteroid 101955 Bennu. Also two Moon missions, SpaceIL and Chang’e 4, are scheduled to launch by the end of the year.

Then, at just about the crack of New Year’s Day 2019, NASA’s New Horizons (of Pluto fame) will fly by 486958 Ultima Thule, the farthest celestial body ever to be visited so far!